Monday, August 25, 2014

Vacation Time

At this time of the year, I have lots of opportunity to interact with visitors to my community on Lopez Island, WA.  Many of them are on vacation, and our local economy relies heavily on them. Those of us who live here year-round aren’t on vacation, and for most of us, this is the busiest, least vacation-like time of the year.  This week, my husband and I took some time off, though, to visit our daughter in California.  Here’s a glimpse of our visit; since I’m on vacation, I’ll let the photos tell the story.

Our daughter works for Belcampo, a farm-to-fork organic meat production company. She spends most of her time at the company’s headquarters in Oakland, but during our visit we were to stop in at the farm near Mt. Shasta. 

We flew into Medford, OR and were delighted to be greeted with this mural by Betty LaDuke. 

The explanation of the project reminds me of what we hope to accomplish with BOUNTY - Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community.

Belcampo’s commitment to act as good stewards of the land is the foundation of all of their operations. We were happy to see this sign where cattle, sheep, and goats were grazing.

They seemed pretty happy about it, too.

We were able to do a bit of sightseeing on the weekend, starting with a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Festival in Ashland, OR has been on my list for a long time, and I wasn’t disappointed - that one show whetted my appetite, and I hope we can take in more next year.

Did I mention that my daughter is a fantastic
cook?  She treated us to delicious meals, including hearty breakfasts like this one before we set off on a hike.

Fires in the area blocked views of Mt. Shasta most of the days of our visit, but the skies cleared a bit for our hike up from Castle Lake (that’s Mt. Shasta in the distance - at 14,179 feet it’s the second highest peak - after Rainier - in the Cascade Range). Don’t think I’ll be trying to reach that summit; this viewpoint was reward enough.

We head home tomorrow, returning to another beautiful spot and carrying that feeling of Vacation Time in my suitcase.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One of the Lucky Humans

Nine of us sat in the front row of seats at the Coupeville Performing Arts Center last Saturday. We wore wrinkled black robes.  Tassels draped over the left side of the black mortarboards perched on our heads. On the stage, faculty, staff, and board members of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts wore similar regalia. Behind us, family and friends held cameras ready for photo opportunities. We were all there that warm, August afternoon to mark the milestone of completion of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing.

Nearly a year ago, the Class of 2014 began the process of selecting a graduation speaker. We were delighted when former guest faculty member Elizabeth Austen accepted our invitation. We had no idea that by the time the ceremony rolled around, Elizabeth would be Washington State Poet Laureate. 

Lucky us.

Elizabeth’s address, “The Hour of Fulfillment,” is posted at the Washington State Poet Laureate website.  Elizabeth reflected on some of what she’s learned in the dozen or so years since she completed her own MFA.  She began with this advice:

… stay focused on what really nourishes you as a writer, as one of the
lucky humans for whom language is a form of freedom, an instrument
of transformation rather than mere transaction.

On this day of celebration of our accomplishment, Elizabeth urged us to define “success” for ourselves:

Don’t calculate where you should be based on your age or where your classmates are or some other external measure.  Don’t discount, or let others discount, the things that you have decided constitute “success.”

Tune inward. Find and defend your quiet places.

Iris & Elizabeth Austen
in full regalia
I felt as though Elizabeth was reading my mind as she talked about her struggles with another element of the writing life—self-doubt:

  When I finally turn to confront the doubt, to engage with it and     dig underneath it, sure, there’s fear there. Fear that my best efforts will be inadequate or, worse, boring and foolish. But when I confront my doubt I’m also faced with the depth of my desire to make something astonishing, a poem that will startle me into new awareness, a poem with the capacity to provoke or nourish, to help someone grieve, or maybe even begin healing. Self-doubt is intimately connected to the desire to go further, risk more…At its best, self-doubt keeps us from becoming glib and complacent. Just don’t let it have the last word. Don’t let it silence you.

Fortunately, Elizabeth hasn’t let self-doubt silence her. She shared this poem from her book, Every Dress a Decision, that again seemed to speak directly to all of us.

 The Permanent Fragility of Meaning

Why persist, scratching across the white field
row after row? Why repeat the ritual
every morning, emptying my hands
asking for a new prayer to fold
and unfold?

                    Nothing changes, no one is saved.

I walk into the day, hands still
empty and beg
to be of use to someone. I lie down
in the dark and beg to believe
when the voice comes again with its commands,
its promises—
                                Unfold your hands. Revelation
is not a fruit you pluck from trees. This is the work,
cultivating the smallest shoot, readying your tongue
to shape the sacred names, your mouth already filling—

I lie down in the dark.

I rise up and begin again.

After our thesis advisors draped velvet hoods over our shoulders, we each walked across the stage to receive a hand-carved walking stick.   
One of the lucky humans

Once we returned to our seats, we switched the tassel to the right side of the mortarboards while the President of NILA, Allan Ament, waved a glittered star wand.

That day, I had no doubt that I’m “one of the lucky humans.” My thesaurus lists these synonyms for “lucky”—blessed, fortunate—even better words for how I feel about being a writer.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Afterthought #30 - NOT Like the Oatmeal

Worldwide, approximately 359,000 adults are members of the Religious Society of Friends. There are fewer than 100,000 of us Quakers in the United States—about a third of the number of Missouri Synod Lutherans in Illinois  (where I sang in the choir all through high school).

So. It’s no wonder people don’t know much about Quakerism or what Quakers are like today.

The weekly QuakerSpeak videos are trying to correct that with short conversations with contemporary Friends.  A recent one features Guilford College professor Max Carter responding to the frequent question: Are Quakers Amish? In less than five minutes, Max clearly describes the major differences between the two religions and in the process tells a lot about what Quakerism is.

Friends General Conference answers Frequently Asked Questions About Quakers, too, to help clear up some of the confusion about our small community. 

One of my favorite responses, though, is this 
t-shirt that a Friend from Seattle recently made. 

Cool, huh?

“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fear and Writing About Faith

In just a few days I’ll make the trek to Whidbey Island for my final residency at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. This time, I’ll try my hand at teaching as well, collaborating with classmate Cynthia Beach on a workshop— Writing About Faith, Spirituality, and Religion.

Philip Zaleski, editor of The Best American Spiritual Writing series, defines this genre as,

“…poetry or prose that deals with the bedrock of human existence­—why we are here, where we are going, how we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way.”

I carry some fear about writing about faith (see my Feb. 27, 2013 post), and it turns out my co-presenter Cynthia does, too. As we explored ideas about how to discuss these worries, she told me she looked into her box of fears. 

“You keep yours in a box?” I asked.  “What a good idea.”

Next week, we’ll literally pull our fears out of a box to initiate a conversation about what gets in the way of writing about those bedrock issues.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, tells her writing students, “…the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again. By which I mean the reader should feel the ground shift, if even only a bit, when he or she comes to the end of the essay.  Also there should be something at stake in the writing of it. Or, better yet, everything.”
Scary stuff.  And yet…

I Know No Other Way

Everything I write
is in service
of making sense,
of shining light
on fears, hopes,
beliefs, questions.

I know of no other way
to map my search
than with a pen
on blank pages.