Sunday, January 25, 2009

One Single Impression -- If Only I Had Time

If only I had time, I would write a poem.

Time is not ours to have,
cannot be stilled;
grasping to hold,
clasping the past,
the moment is lost.

Our molecules flow
moment by moment,
bodies changing,
while the mind
steeped in illusion,
makes lists.

Instead, remember
how not to plan,
and find that place
where time is marked
by naught but tides.

January 25, 2009

Photograph of the Pacific Ocean off San Mateo County, March 1993, taken by me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I suspect that all humans experience their lives as balancing acts. The only difference lies in what it is that they are balancing. For most of human existence, as foragers, horticulturalists, pastoralists and the majority of peasant folk in agricultural societies that balancing act was between the demands of nature and the needs of the human body and spirit, and losing ones balance meant death. Many humans still live that kind of balancing act in today's world. Even more, have to balance the demands of hostile, repressive, and destructive human forces, against their human needs; where again, the consequence of losing ones balance may be death -- or imprisonment.

Even in modern, industrial societies like our own, the balancing acts of some involve intense struggles against economic tides that threaten to swamp their lives; threatening the loss of homes, jobs, income and all depends upon those things.

So I count myself extraordinarily lucky, and a bit abashed that my own balancing act concerns merely trying to carve out time, space and energy for creative and social life amidst the demands of work. To spur my efforts in this area, I taken up the "Creative Every Day 2009" challenge, and enrolled in a creative writing class.

Balance, I think, depends upon accepting limitations, celebrating what can be accomplished and not becoming discouraged by what cannot be. It has become clear to me, that aside from certain creative elements that are inherent in teaching itself*, I will not be able to be "creative every day." However, by continuing to hold the challenge in front of myself, encourages me to improve the balance in my life, and engage in more creative acts.

I made time this week to continue the work on an traditional granny square afghan, piling up new squares, and thinking through how to complete the project, as the left over yarns available are not quite enough.

Creative writing class continues to provide lots of opportunities for creative growth with our free writing exercises at the beginning of each class session. This week's reading assignment introduced us to the "short short story;" and I was inspired by that to turn a fragment of a dream into my very first ever complete short story. I've started stories before, I've even gotten to the middle of stories before, but I've never completed a story before. It's a first draft, and will need many revisions and much polishing but for the first time in my life I have a whole story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's fairly trite -- the plot lifted by my dreaming subconscious out of your typical, mundane TV cop show. But, this is more than I've ever accomplished before.


*like trying to figure out new ways to answer the same old questions!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

One Single Impression -- Fading Memories

This prompt immediately made me think of my mother who suffers from mild to moderate dementia, and whose memory (and memories) are indeed fading rapidly. A few months ago, just after the election, she expressed mystification as to why my father who normally heads for bed by 8 or 9 PM wanted to stay up and watch every minute of the coverage on election night, and was only satisfied to go to bed after Obama had come out to make his acceptance speech. I was astounded to discover that she had no memory at all of my father's interest in and involvement with civil rights issues. Indeed one of my most profound memories is of the Sunday after M. L. King was assassinated -- marching with thousands through our city streets holding my father's hand, singing "We shall overcome" as tears flowed down his face. Although I started out to write a poem about my mother's fading memories, this is what emerged instead:

election night 2008

he sat in his wheelchair all night
transfixed by the flickering screen light
in the magic of the moment
with millions of others,
his heart beating for the tall man
whose smiling wife
and pretty daughters
stood with him.

he had dreamed of this day.
his heroes had fallen
for this day,
when young
he’d marched
for this day.

his body fading
but not his memories,
not the feeling of pride
for a country
making right.

January 18, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

Week 1 of the semster -- survived!

No matter how much I prepare (and I must admit that this year I didn't prepare as much as usual) the first week of the semester is always exhausting.

Two new things on my plate have raised the level of hectic-ness a notch above normal.

First is that I am teaching a course that is totally new to me -- HUM203 Survey of Appalachian Studies II. My whole research and teaching career has in some way been connected to study of the Appalachian region, but this is the first time I've ever undertaken and entire course. For at least ten years this course has been taught by a colleague of mine along with HUM202 - the part I. Recently, however, the course descriptions of the two classes were rewritten, and HUM202 was recast as more of a humanities course focusing on cultural elements, while HUM203 was recast to focus on the economy, politics, geography and the environment. Since topics fit my expertise more than hers, we've decided to split responsibility, with Madeline taking the fall HUM202 and me taking the spring HUM203. Madeline is (deservedly) the most popular professor at our campus, so I have big shoes to fill.

So far I'm learning a lot preparing for the class. I hope the students found yesterday's (Thursday's) class as interesting as I did. I spent time researching and gathering fascinating graphics and diagrams to tell the 450 million year history of the Appalachian mountains and the origins of the coal that shapes the economy and politics of our area. The "tactonic" mountains in the graphic to the right, are created by volcanic action generated by the "European" plate bumping into the "North American" plate. These are the earliest backbone of the northern section of the Appalachian mountain system.

The second graphic to the left, shows the Arcadian range that developed from those tactonic mountains, and how the area that is currently the heart of the Appalachian coal region was (385 million years ago) a low lying basin frequently covered by water. This is of course, where the coal comes from -- the flourishing of verdant swamps, whose plant matter was repeatedly buried by flooding, and covered by sand and soil, compressing it over the millions of years into carbon rich coal.

Research, pulling together huge amounts of material and organizing it into a coherent 45 minute lecture/presentation has to count as a "creative" activity, I think!

The second "new thing" this semester is conventionally creative. I enrolled in a creative writing class (taught by my friend Madeline). When I was in school, I took lots of art and painting class that provided lots of creative freedom, but this is not only the first time I've taken a course for creative writing, its my first college level writing course -- period.

From the very first day, Madeline engaged us in "free writing" which for a moment caused me to freeze like a deer in the headlights. But by day two I was loving it. She asks each student to take a turn throughout the semester providing some "prompts" (similar to how One Single Impression works), and then we are turned lose for 5 to 10 minutes of writing. Which we then share and comment upon each other's work. I am bowled over by the quality of creativity among the students in the class.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

One Single Impression -- A Summer's Day

I grew up in California. My mother grew roses, and they bloomed year round. Then I went to college in Ohio where snow blanketed the ground most of the time from November through March and nothing bloomed except in florists shops. My freshman year a young man seeking my favor gave me two yellow roses for my February birthday. I loved the roses (yellow roses were my favorites), but (unfortunately for him) not the young man. Those yellow roses were the one tiny spot of color in the first, very long, cold winter of my life. Their fragrance and color lasted in memory long after their petals were dust.

A year or two later, I was visiting my parents and had stopped in at the San Mateo Public Library. I was thumbing through various books, when a small slip of paper fell out. On the slip of paper scrawled in blue pen were the words "memory gathers roses in winter." The words burned themselves into my own memory. I've tried to incorporate them into poems at least a half-dozen times in the past 35 years. Here's one more try:

memory gathers roses in winter
filling rooms with fragrance
of summers long buried
in stark chill white,
as skin recalls
the imprint of fingers
and echos past passions.

January 11, 2009

I have searched for decades to see if that phrase was a quote, but never found those precise words. J. M. Barrie once wrote "God gave us memories that we might have roses in December." An oft used variant of "my" phrase found in thousands of places on the Internet is "Memories give you the power to collect roses in the winter." I've never found an attribution for that one. So presumably the anonymous person in San Mateo who scribbled those words nearly forty years ago also composed them.

There is a folk song that was sung by Girl Scouts and around campfires in the sixties and early seventies, the first verse of which is "Bring me a rose in the winter time, when they're hard to find..." I've also never found an attribution for that either.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

creative every day 2009

I've decided to make 2009 my year for creativity, of all kinds. I found the Creative Every Day 2009 challenge to help keep me keep focused.

So far this week, I've written three poems. I also began a granny square afghan to finally use all that yarn my mother sent me nearly a decade ago. It's been fun trying to figure out what colors should go together, and think about an overall design.

I've been writing poetry since 1965 -- with a few lengthy hiatuses (hiati?)in the past 15 years -- but recently I've tried to start writing short stories, with little success (three started, none finished). I decided to get some supportive assistance, and yesterday I signed up for a friend and colleague's course in creative writing which will focus on both poetry and short stories. Madeline was showing me the syllabus as she was crafting it, and it looks like it will be such fun. She tends to run the course more like a semester long workshop, with lots of sharing and exchanging of ideas.

driving through the pass

The rain has been relentless; everyone feels soggy of body and spirit. Even the tiniest glimpse of sunlight sparks celebration.

a rent in the clouds,
sparkling sheen liquid gold
dances on rock cliffs.

January 7, 2009

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

after the rain

Wish I'd brought the camera with me today.

snagged in bare branches
remnants of rain clouds pack hills
in cotton batting.

January 6, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nino and the powers of the universe

It is astounding to me how resilient living beings can be. After yesterday's trauma of seizures and coma, Nino has rebounded, and although a tiny bit shaky and tired, he ate a huge breakfast. He is spending the day with our vet, who says that his blood sugar has stabilized in the normal range (he was diagnosed as diabetic this past summer).

I now feel certain that the powers of the universe (however one understands them)were working in our and Nino's behalf, for had our vet not been out of town yesterday afternoon, we almost certainly would have wanted to euthanize him. It did not seem at all likely in the midst of the coma that he could ever revive and be healthy again.

Here was a concrete situation where I wanted something desperately (to reach my vet and put an end to what I perceived as Nino's suffering), and I did not get what I wanted. Today, it is easy to see that my understanding of the situation was limited, that what I wanted so desperately was misguided, and that not getting what I wanted was the best outcome. This is not the first time that this has happened to me -- realizing later (sometimes days, sometimes years) that not getting something I thought was necessary and desirable made possible other, different, extraordinary and wonderful things to happen in my life.

These experiences have led me to believe that on a grander, historical and even cosmic scale there are reasons for things that seem tragic and horrific to us today; reasons that we may never be able to comprehend because they will always be beyond our finite, limited human understanding, but which exist nonetheless.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

One Single Impression -- Skin

This wasn't the poem I planned to write; this wasn't the day I expected to have. For the past four hours (it seems like twice that long), I have held and stroked Nino the cat, as he as progressed through violent seizures, unconsciousness, and now, semi-conscious pain but reviving; desperately, helplessly waiting for a call back from our vet, knowing that the nearest alternative for 24/7 veterinary care is many hard driving hours away.

skin, universal
mode of connectivity
--can transcend species.

January 4, 2009