Saturday, February 27, 2010

Poetic License

I want to be a poet when I grow up.

I wrote my first poem when I was in sixth grade. My teacher played the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel, and I was inspired by the power of the words and the way Joel expressed them. So, when my class had some free time in the computer lab later that afternoon, I spent those moments writing my own poem. The rhyme scheme was cheesy and the content somewhat overblown and stilted (I, like Billy Joel, wrote about the experience of a soldier at war. Nevermind that I was ten and had no person knowledge on the subject...) But I was both proud of what I wrote and embarrassed. I wanted desperately to share my work with someone, but I didn't know how to do it. So, I printed a copy of the poem and put it on the teacher's desk surreptitiously. The next day, the teacher asked the class who had put the poem on her desk, and I didn't want to say anything. I couldn't tell from her tone whether she was impressed or concerned. It took several hours before I got up the courage to take credit for my work.

That's so often how I feel about my poetry. I want to share it with people, to use it as a form of expression, but I'm also really insecure about whether or not it's any good. While I've gained enough confidence about my other writings to feel comfortable sharing them, to be able to preach my own words in front of a congregation, I've never developed that sort of confidence about my poetry. I get nervous anytime people read my poetry, and I become totally tongue-tied when I try to share my poetry aloud.

When I lived in South Africa, I went to weekly poetry readings at a coffee shop with another American student. We would go, order hot chocolate, and listen to the words the others shared. Each week a similar crowd gathered: the blind man who wrote his poems in braille and shared them from memory while his guide dog sat on the floor, the sixty-something white male English professor, the thirty-something black female graduate student, the black teens who spoke of racism and transformation, the fifty-something wealthy white man who funded studio time so that the whole group could record a CD together, to share their work and get feedback and encouragement. Listening to their words inspired me to write my own poems, to expand my imagery and start the search for my own poetic voice. Finally, during my last week in Cape Town, I shared a poem that I had written with the group. With courage born of knowing I'd be going 9,000 miles away and likely wouldn't see them again, I shared my words. But that remains the only time I have had the courage to share my work aloud.

One of the friends I made in seminary, R, is a spoken word artist. He would write poems and share them at open mic nights. When he wanted to express himself in less formal situations, he'd find a song on the radio with a good backbeat, turn the bass up and the treble down, and freestyle over it. His talent never failed to amaze me. As I listened to him, I always wished I could craft words that quickly and beautifully, and share them with others so bravely.

The pastor of my home church is a poet. Every few months he even preaches a poem, somehow weaving together the Scriptures for the day, world events, and the comings and goings of a small community. That is now what I aspire to do. I want to find a way to meld together what I learned from the poetry readings in Cape Town, the rhythm and creativity of freestyle from R, and the wisdom and liturgical touch of my home pastor to develop my own poetic voice, and I want to share it from the pulpit. The Psalmist spoke poetry into his community to bring their stories and the stories of God together. I want to do that, too.

I want to be a poet when I grow up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

This was my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor. It was a long day, as I went to church early this morning to work on the details of a memorial service for tomorrow. It seemed fitting, though, to be pondering death on this day when we are called to be mindful of our own mortality. As I tried to put together words to remember a woman who lived a long, ordinary life, I wondered about the sorts of words people use to remember one another. We remember stories and images, interactions more than accomplishments, yet we work so hard all our lives toward accomplishments, often to the detriment of relationships.

My office overlooks the church's memorial garden, and as I thought about death and ashes today, I remembered a service of scattering ashes there a few months ago. The ashes were a paler shade of gray than I had expected, and they stood out starkly against the dark soil on which they were sprinkled. For days I looked out my office window and could see the scatter pattern of the pale ashes against the dark earth. It reminded me of the erasure patterns that used to show up on the blackboards at school, where chalk dust remained on the slate, just faded and moved around by the felt erasers. But, after a few weeks, some windy days and rain showers, the patterns faded; all that was left of the deceased were the memories stored away in loved ones' minds, while the bits of dust and ash faded into the peat to give life to the next spring's flowers.

That is, I suppose, what will happen to all of us. Whether we are cremated and disappear quickly into the soil, or embalmed and boxed, whereupon our return to the carbon cycle is slowed for decades and centuries by chemicals and material barriers, eventually we end up back where we started: as a-dam, creatures molded of mud. What matters in this rapidly-disappearing life where all that is physical is temporary is what we have done, the legacy we leave behind in relationships with one another and with God.

I'm not much good at theology around resurrection and eternity. The idea of bodily resurrection is a mystery to me. As I see the ashes disappearing in the garden, as I remember that the physical is temporary, I wonder what that means for eternal life. Will we be made new, shaped again from the earth, a-dam once more? Will all of our dust particles, carbon molecules, scattered all over the world, reassembled in plants and animals and soil around the globe, be somehow knit together once more as they originally were? I do not know. I'm not sure I could handle the truth, whatever it is.

From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. We are just small parts in a much larger picture of life; words, maybe just letters or punctuation marks, in the larger narrative God is writing in the world. The ashes mixed with oil that we placed on people's foreheads this evening reminded me of potting soil in their color and consistency. As I dug my fingertips into the bowl, I felt as though I was digging in the earth, planting something. And perhaps I was. I was planting a reminder, no matter how small, that we are temporary. A reminder that we are tiny specks in an enormous picture of the universe throughout time, that all that we have is a gift, time and love and relationships-not to be taken lightly.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

New Roommate

For years (I mean YEARS... Decades, even) I've wanted a dog. I begged my parents to let me get one as a kid. When they informed me that we couldn't have a dog because my dad was allergic, eight-year-old me considered trading in my father for a puppy. In retrospect, I am sure that I made the right choice in keeping my father. But now that I'm living alone, in an apartment complex that allows them, I have FINALLY gotten my dream: my own dog.

Meet Charlie (Charles W., officially) my new roommate/furry friend. He's a two-month-old Goldendoodle, which is a mix of a golden retriever and a poodle. He's less allergenic than most dogs because of the poodle blood, and he's absolutely adorable. Definitely a cuddle bug. He follows me around the apartment and cuddles up next to me when I hold still. When I don't hold still, he just sits on my feet. I'm sure there will be more stories later, but for now I'm going to bed. I hope his whining in the crate doesn't keep me up all night!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

And Silence Reigned

I have been adjusting, for nearly nine months now, to living alone. For the first 24 years of my life, I lived with family members, or in dorms, or in apartments with roommates, and suddenly, at age 25, I found myself in solo housing. Most of the time I like it. I like getting home at the end of the day and not having to be "on", ready to support people and handle crises. The only crises I have to deal with when I get home in the evening are those I created and left in the morning--and there aren't many of those. I don't have to worry about unknowingly being out of milk or TP, no one complains when I leave books cluttering the living room, and I have sole custody of the remote control (and we all know that's important).

There are only two problems with this scenario: Loneliness and silence. The loneliness I'm learning how to handle. I'm beginning to make friends here, I'm doing a better job of keeping up with friends who are farther away, and I'm working on getting a dog. But the silence is more of a problem.

When you live alone, the only sounds are those you create yourself. As an extrovert and an aural learner, I can drown in that kind of silence. Henri Nouwen critiqued our modern society for being unable to handle silence, and he was absolutely right. We have the ability with technology to never be in the silence. Since we can record and play music easily, we have surrounded ourselves with sound. We walk in malls and there's music. We stand in elevators or walk in stairwells and there's music. Stores, restaurants, sporting events, gatherings of friends... there's always background music or sound effects.

I'm not trained to deal with silence. Without any sort of sound to stimulate my brain, I find my mind going in a thousand different directions at once. I'll start out focused on writing and end up cleaning the apartment. Or I'll start meditating and end up mentally creating my to-do list for the next day. Based on my inability to do only one thing at once it has been suggested that I might have ADD. As much as I hate to admit it, that's a plausible explanation.

But if you live alone and want to have white noise, you have to turn on the dishwasher or the dryer or the television. And I'm not very good at turning off the television once it is on. I get sucked into shows that I don't even like, and I'll watch them (while doing other non-productive things like playing on facebook or doing sudoku) for HOURS. I've probably watched more television in the last nine months than I have since junior high. It isn't so bad when I'm working every day and only have a few hours after I get home from a 12-hour day to watch. Then I can justify it as needing to rest my mind after a long work day. However, in the last two weeks when snow and ice storms have cancelled things and left me stuck at home much more than usual, I've wasted entirely too much time in front of the television. I watched eight consecutive episodes of America's Next Top Model, and I don't even like that show.

I want to read more. I want to work out more. I want to watch less TV. But in order to do that, I must learn to deal with the silence. This revelation has come at a good time, I suppose. Lent begins in just over a week, and watching less TV in order to spend more time on reading and genuine self-care will be a good Lenten discipline. I just need to work on embracing the silence. Maybe if I keep reminding myself of all the people who long for silence and can't get it (people who live in Manhattan, people like my sister who have infants that cry at least every three hours, etc.) and take up singing to myself (like my grandmother) this will work out.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Writing Process

I tried to start writing my sermon in my office yesterday afternoon. But my office simply isn't conducive to liturgical writing. So I gave up, finished my work for the day, and went home to try there. Then my writing process looked like this:

Day 1:
Cook dinner
Eat dinner while watching NCIS
Clean up while watching a second episode of NCIS
Write about a page
Get stuck on next idea
Call Dad and spend an hour trying to figure out where the sermon is going. While talking to him, realize that this sermon strongly resembles a smushing together of two sermons I've already preached. Come to conclusion that I only really have three sermons and I riff on those same three themes in every sermon I write. Lament that conclusion aloud while Dad attempts to reassure me. Have a brilliant idea for the sermon. Hang up with Dad.
Try to put brilliant idea on paper and decide that it's not brilliant after all.
Get frustrated.
Have glass of ice water to calm down.
Watch Coach Carter in hopes of giving brain a "rest" that will enable better writing.
Get tired and decide to go to bed and face the sermon in the morning.

Day 2:
Get onto computer to start sermon
Spend half an hour looking at weather sites and determining whether I can travel for my evening plans.
Call sister to discuss driving conditions. Decide to cancel evening plans.
Call partner for evening plans, apologize for canceling. Further lament sermon problems to her.
Re-read page of sermon written yesterday. Hate it.
Decide to re-fuel before attempting re-write. Have breakfast.
While putting breakfast dishes away, remember that there are loads of laundry in the washer and dryer.
Move loads, fold laundry.
Shower and dress.
Sit down to computer to re-write sermon.
Get distracted by facebook and e-mail, spend 30 minutes keeping up with every person I've ever met.
Notice that weather is worsening, decide to get groceries in case I get snowed in
Go to store. Realize I left wallet at home.
Go home. Get wallet. Return to store. Buy groceries.
Put groceries away.
Re-read half-sermon again. Still dislike it, but after 30 minutes of staring at document still can't figure out how to fix it.
Decide that I need to get into writing mode coffee-shop-style.
Go to Starbucks to get coffee.
Relocate laptop to dining room, arrange books and coffee.
Drink coffee while checking e-mail and facebook again.
Write three alternate thesis statements for the sermon.
Decide to return to slightly-altered original thesis.
Move loads of laundry again.
Stare at screen impotently for another fifteen minutes
Decide to read a chapter of the Cloister Walk for inspiration
Instead of getting inspired, I get further discouraged by the comparison between Norris' brilliance and my own inability to write.
Receive phone call from county school system (which seems to think I have a child in school here...?) informing me that all weekend activities are cancelled.
Figure the odds that worship will be cancelled on Sunday. Conclude that it is unlikely and that I must actually write this sermon.
Try "warm-up" writing on blog. End up listing useless activities instead.
After 36 hours, still no sermon.

This month I start preaching every week instead of once a month. It could be much more challenging than I originally thought...