Category Archives: Creativity

What the little cat wants

The kitten I’m holding watches
the pen move across the page,
nose tracking the same pace as my writing.
She would rather my right hand
spend its time some other way,
petting her, for example.
She’s so small, a runt
(not a kitten any more) and I can
hold her with one arm, steady,
and feel her purring over my heart.
But she keeps wiggling, wanting
all my attention, both of my arms.

Tuuli, the little kitten.

(I was thinking of this Phil Levine poem, “A Theory of Prosody,” as I wrote, as I stopped writing.)

NOTE: she got down by choice after the selfie. I’d have waited to post it online otherwise. NOTE: she’s back. So it’s time to hit publish.

Answering America (pandemic poem #9)

We are an unserious country. We are a joke.
We say “thank you for your service” to police lined up before
we scream in their faces. This has to be funny. This can’t be real
because if it’s real, Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
is, like, the mildest imprecation possible. And maybe we already did.
Some weapons-grade sperm implanted strong, healthy, blond eggs,
implanted in the rivers lining the Midwest, somewhere between
the Mississippi and the Missouri, we were so pregnant we waddled
and gave birth so many times to nuclear idiots, venal and mean, and so white.
So many of them. So loud. So sure. So heavily armed. So angry. So white.

I don’t feel good don’t bother me. It’s not corona virus. I don’t think.
But how would I know? There are tests everywhere. Everyone who wants one gets one.
But not me. So I don’t know. It might be some other dread disease.
I have symptoms. But I veer so whiplashingly from hyper aware to oblivious
about my body, I don’t even know when I’m hungry. Everything hurts. Then nothing does.

I don’t need more books but I’m buying them. And buying them.
Support a local business, I tell myself. I don’t drink beer anymore. I don’t miss bars.
I miss someone else making my coffee. I miss someone else making me cookies.
I miss browsing the shelves. America why are your libraries full of tears?
The books miss being handled. They miss the browsing. Even curbside service
leaves them lonely. When you order the very book you want and someone pulls it
for you, there’s another book just three books down, a bright red spine
you’ll never see, a font that catches your eye, an author photograph you develop
an instant, serious, intense crush on, but not now, not when we’re quarantined,
not when we’re not sure where we can go or how to go when we go where we have to go.

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
You and me both, buddy. When? Here’s the thing—when can I go shopping
and not think about washing every single thing I’ve bought? You and your
mid-century modern concerns. No wasted space on those worries. No flourishes.
You had no idea how lucky you had it. You stewed over the atom bomb
but one never went boom by you. That’s not why your hair fell out.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
We need a haircut. We need a massage. We need to go bowling. For the love of God,
we need to park in a row of SUVs and wear our Sunday best business casual khaki
soul suits and raise holy hands together, repeating structurally plain refrains,
daydreaming under architecture designed by industrial archangels bent on compliance
and ease. There is nothing sublime where all of us on stage wear a mic
designed to blend with our faces, making our projected voices seem miraculous.

America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.

The more things change, the more they
change. The more things stay the same.
The more, the more, the more.
Nothing is ever good or bad but America makes it so.
The tiny little campus where I’ve taught for half my life has always had
a lot of international students and I’ve loved them, 93% of them, for sure,
but now we have a sphincter in Arkansas mouthing they can come here to study
Shakespeare or the Federalist papers but not quantum computing. I don’t know but
I’m guessing the mouth-sphincter from Arkansas did not study Shakespeare. Or math.
One time I had a Russian student tell me he missed the Soviet Union.
He missed being in charge of half the world. I guess I should’ve warned someone.

Curvy hips on a girl and six-pack abs on a boy will take us wherever
we want to go if we also have good teeth, good hair, a willingness
to be provocative, to be deeply, deeply offended, to be filmed taking a shit.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
Until the world collapsed, we had no unedited experience, no authentic
way of being in the world, everything styled, just so product placement, curated.
However now our roots are showing. Our nails have fallen off. Perfect lips droop.
The blush is off the rosé colored glasses. The blush was broken capillaries all along.

It’s going to get worse in the city on the hill before it gets better.
We flattened the curve to prove we could and now we’re whipping it
like a cowboy on a tacky tv show because we can. I don’t mean Hee Haw.
That’s where I first learned about re-runs. String Bean died, I knew he did,
but there he was on Channel 12 KFVS Cape Girardeau, as I lived and breathed,
as he did not. Someone explained it to me. Probably my brother who
always loved giving me bad news. Now we say of people who are dead
“at least they don’t have to go through this.” Of people so far gone in Alzheimer’s,
“at least he doesn’t know we’re not there.” This moment nothing seems possible except more
disaster. More terror. More sadness. More cycles of hot takes and outrage and bounce-backs
and war and corruption and always, always, another novel virus waiting in somebird’s wings.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.

_____

(Italicized lines, if it’s not obvious to everyone, are from Allen Ginsberg’s amazing poem, “America.”)

_____

And if you’re super-lucky, the bookstore in your town just drops the books you bought right on your front porch.

Dream Song #7, Pandemic Poem #8

O it was a zappy, snappy kind of play,
a gum-chewing-broad kind of play,
little bit of a farce, little shedding of tears,
one of those whodunnit/I-did-it! plays.
And right at the end they did a little two-step,
a shuffle-tap, heel-step, second buffalo,
curtain call. And they were gone.
But as we all stood up to leave,
a guy we’d never seen before
came onstage. What had been pink
and aqua, very 1950s Miami style,
was all gray now. Lighting design
or point of view? Or both?
Everyone saw, everyone knew, all at once,
as he felt his way across the stage,
saying “canopy bed” instead of what it was,
a ratty mattress on the floor, saying
“four course dinner” and not “paper bag,”
that he’d made the whole thing up
in his head, all of it, the repartee, the chemistry,
the happy dance, the stolen kiss,
the mystery, the denouement,
and we stood and looked at each other,
not sure if the play was ended or how
indeed it could end, because
who made this part up? Did he? Did we?
Should we leave? Are we real?

_____
I’m not the only one having weird dreams lately: even the National Geographic says so.

QUARANTINE ABECDARIAN THAT AMAZINGLY DOESN’T USE “QUARANTINE” FOR THE “Q”

Aline is a poet
Bob likes to fish
Chuck likes to throw things
Doug plays in the dirt
Ed likes to teach
Fanny likes to WHAT? WHAT DID YOU THINK I WAS GOING TO SAY?
Gale is a blowhard
Hi says hello
I spend so much time
Just amusing myself. I wonder if I can
Keep it up when we start
Losing people we know to the virus.
Mom and Dad are in lockdown
Now, we can’t hug them
Or even visit except online.
Prayers seem distasteful when the religious
Quacks sound them the loudest.
Really trying to focus, to be there for my
Students, but I feel stunned a lot of the
Time. But I keep trying. Which of
Us will turn out to have the right
Vision for how this all will
Work? Imagining the future takes e-
Xtreme optimism, which I don’t have. Do
You? Let’s talk about it more on
Zoom.

_____

I’m not much of an optimist, but in a few weeks, my azaleas will be blooming.

Dream Song #2

I almost never want to leave the street
where my dream is taking place, but things
move fast so I can’t linger. The other night
I was in Butte (I think) and everything
was Irish, St. Patrick this and Brigid that,
mint green signs and throbbing drums and drunk guys
and a sense that things were turning dangerous
and I was walking, not driving, down a very narrow street.
That’s it. That was the end. I wasn’t afraid.
A man I know who lost a tooth in Butte
(for real) has cancer. I dreamed about him last night.
A gallery show, collages of himself, most naked,
which he called “The Ravager_________.” Next to the cheese tray,
he was selling tiny brown cloverleafs he’d crocheted.

_____

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Big Drummer Man

What if the Little Drummer Boy grew up
to be Big Drummer Man, a butcher perhaps,
with skins aplenty to manhandle across the tops
of barrels and pots and one precious little cup
that someone drank some special wine out of,
(Jesus maybe, yes, that’s who it was),
so that all along the Via Dolorosa,
every single, sorrowful step, there rose a
tattoo (the skin kind is the second definition,
thank you very much), a pummeled out
percussion code, spelling with every beat
not “inadequacy,” but “indignation,
causing Mary to nod to the beat and from
up high the grown-up baby smiled at him?

I know the little drummer boy did his thing in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, but hear me out–any kid who plays a drum for a baby isn’t going to just GO AWAY, especially not after mother and child both encouraged him. I figure he stuck around and made a nuisance of himself, kept in touch, essentially stalked the holy family, drumming the whole time, and I picture them feeling about him the way I feel about the song–partly charmed, partly annoyed.

Not happy yet with the title. I considered these:

OK WHAT WISE GUY PUT A CROWN OF THORNS IN THE MANGER

WE CAN’T HELP SEEING A CROWN OF THORNS IN THE MANGER

ON THE HEAD OF THE BABY IN THE MANGER LIES A CROWN OF THORNS

HEY DRUMMER BOY I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE

CHRISTMAS IS SALT, EASTER IS PEPPER

Is a sonnet also an algorithm?

1
An algorithm’s just a recipe
Computers follow. Machines are very good
At sorting ones from zeroes. I wish I could
Go as wantonly through everything,
This here, that there, no this, now switch, stay there,
But all my categories are too fluid.
In bubble sort you tackle pair by pair
Comparing each thing to the thing next to it.
Merge sort means you cluster first and then
Arrange your groups then group your groups again.
I didn’t know it had a name, the way
I’ve always tackled stacks that needed to be alphabetized.
Shouldn’t we see more order every day?
If algorithms truly run our lives.

2
An algorithm’s just a recipe
Computers follow. Machines are very good

Go as wantonly through everything,
At sorting ones from zeroes. I wish I could

But all my categories are too fluid.
This here, that there, no this, now switch, stay there,

In bubble sort you tackle pair by pair
Comparing each thing to the thing next to it.

Merge sort means you cluster first and then
Arrange your groups then group your groups again.

I didn’t know it had a name, the way
I’ve always tackled stacks that needed to be alphabetized.

If algorithms truly run our lives.
Shouldn’t we see more order every day?

3
An algorithm’s just a recipe
But all my categories are too fluid.
Go as wantonly through everything,
At sorting ones from zeroes. I wish I could
Computers follow. Machines are very good
This here, that there, no this, now switch, stay there,

If algorithms truly run our lives.
I didn’t know it had a name, the way
In bubble sort you tackle pair by pair
Shouldn’t we see more order every day?
Merge sort means you cluster first and then
Comparing each thing to the thing next to it.
Arrange your groups then group your groups again.
I’ve always tackled stacks that needed to be alphabetized.

4
An algorithm’s just a recipe
If algorithms truly run our lives.
But all my categories are too fluid.
Go as wantonly through everything,
I didn’t know it had a name, the way
In bubble sort you tackle pair by pair
Shouldn’t we see more order every day?
At sorting ones from zeroes. I wish I could
Computers follow. Machines are very good
Merge sort means you cluster first and then
Comparing each thing to the thing next to it.
Arrange your groups then group your groups again.
This here, that there, no this, now switch, stay there,
I’ve always tackled stacks that needed to be alphabetized.

_____

Lately when my son gets stuck on math(s), we’ve taken to watching various BBC specials on maths on Netflix. The latest we’re watching is on algorithms, with Marcus du Sautoy (pictured below, with a box symbolizing facial recognition algorithms).

NOTE: Part 2 is Bubble sort, but I didn’t take it through each step. It seemed boring and conveyed to me more clearly than ever why Bubble Sort takes longer than merge sort.

There are videos that show the different sorting algorithms. I find them hypnotic.

screen shot 2019-01-25 at 9.55.05 am

Rotten Apple Yoga

Apple, apple, mother-fucking apple.
I tried counting, the way counting
can be meditative. I got to five.
Listing colors worked a little better:
yellow, red, green, brown, black,
beige, rust, orange, peach, pink,
dark red, dark brown, white, off-white.
I modified some poses to enable
picking rotten apples simultaneous to
breathing, just breathing, well, mostly breathing.
Cat pose, cow pose, quad stretch—those worked best.
I talked to my right wrist as it began to hurt
and then my left when I shifted.
My knees both hurt but not at once.
“Hello tightness, my old friend”
I’ve begun saying to my lower back and hips,
but not tonight when I was gleaning
from below the apple tree I loved
when we bought the house but which now I hate.
Somehow my familiar pains were simply not
there tonight. It’s standing and sitting that hurt me
most, not crawling on my hands and knees,
putting all those apples into one broad, galvanized bucket,
one five-gallon cat litter bucket, and then aiming
so many more apples onto an old bed sheet.
I started saying apple, apple, apple, in my head,
apple, apple, apple, two apples, three apples,
another apple, apple, apple, apple.

This task I loathe is loathsome largely
on account of the symbolic baggage that grows
prolific with the apples:

I waste resources.
I am a woman from whom things get away.
I don’t keep up. My ambitions don’t match my energy.
I am lazy. The person I thought I was 20 years ago
when we bought the house is not the person I am.
I have a million mason jars I don’t fill
with anything
but dust.
The mother-fucking tree isn’t even on our property.
Why am I the only one who worries about attracting
yellow-jackets? Why haven’t I hired someone to prune it?
Why haven’t I sabotaged it so that, dead,
it would have to be cut down? Why won’t my husband
prune it back the way the orchard pictures show?
Why won’t he cut it down?

Why don’t I remember to put out the organic fly traps
in time? Why don’t I make applesauce every year?
Why don’t I pick up the few apples that drop
every day and add them to my compost pile?
Why don’t I have a compost pile at all?

I am an awful person. I must be.

I thought all those thoughts. I tried not to.
But I thought them anyway.
And when I thought those thoughts, I also thought,
my t-shirt’s riding up. I’m not going to pull it down.
What if someone sees the white expanse of belly
and hip laid bare right at this very moment?
And then I thought so what if someone sees?
None of what they see should be a surprise.

Each time I thought those thoughts I also thought
apple, apple, apple. Red. Blood. Brown. Apple.
Rabbit carcass. Or possibly excrement.
Apple, apple, apple, apple, apple, apple.
Then I was breathing deep in my big belly,
the belly this shirt’s too small for,
breathing in and also out, a little longer out,
and in again, the rotten smell, the cider smell,
the smell of apple after apple, apple, apple.

______
IMG_3654
_____

I’ve written about this tree before, a poem called “On Conscientiousness,” which I see myself lacking.

But there really were moments tonight when all that was in my head was “apple” and my body was just a body that existed to move rotten apples from one place to another.

I’m not going to say nirvana, but it was not loathsome or even particularly unpleasant. Interesting.

 

 

I Choose to Be Here

It’s the middle of Finals Week. Other semesters, I’d be thick in the muck of a grading backlog, trying to get caught up so I could start grading finals. This time, I came soooooo close to having the backlog done before finals started coming in.   Didn’t quite make it, but I’m still in a good place, on track to have grades turned in on December 23.  Which is before Christmas. Which is fantastic.  (I hear from my family I’m not very pleasant when I’m still grading over Christmas.)

Because I am a master procrastinator, and because over the years I’ve been slower than I’d like to in terms of returning graded work to students, I have a spreadsheet going back more than ten years with precise records–when students turned things in & when I returned them.  This semester wasn’t my best ever, but it’s the best in a while.

Why? Was it because it was a lovely, unencumbered semester in which my family life was smooth as pudding and my work life was also smooth and lovely? NO.  We’ve found 7th grade challenging in my house. We’ve been virus magnets this fall. And at work? Well , my campus administrator is moving on. In a couple weeks. And there’s work to be done.

And, oh, what else? Let’s see. My campus is in the process of merging (though we’re not supposed to say “merging” any more, I don’t know why) with a larger campus. All over Wisconsin, fine, little campuses are merging (not-merging) with fine, larger campuses. This has resulted in many, many more meetings and phone calls and emails. None of which are my favorite things about my job.

And yet.  And yet.  I’m feeling as genuinely copacetic as I have felt in a very long time.

Here’s one reason. In September, I listened to Episode 057 ,”How to Stop Fighting Against Your Life & Fall in Love With It Instead,” of the Courage and Clarity podcast. It’s a great podcast–each interview has two episodes. One is the “courage” episode, in which a woman entrepreneur explains how she broke away from her regular life and had the courage to do something risky.  The “clarity” episode explains some specific process or task.

On Episode 057, Steph Crowder (the host, and part of the triumvirate at Fizzle.co, which I love, seriously, ♥, and which I’m sure I’ll write about more at some point) interviewed Catherine Rains, the Hotel Artist.  I was hooked early on, because they were talking about “resistance toward the day job.”

Even before the merger-not-merger was announced, I was finding my job challenging. Maybe everyone does?  But I’m working with Fizzle because I’m trying to develop a side hustle in creativity consulting, and part of the motive for that is being able to retire from my day job, which I’ve been doing since 1991. So even though I wouldn’t say I was miserable in September, was I loving my job? Happy to be there every day? Giving it my best? Prolly not.

A lot of this episode resonated with me, but this especially:

Catherine says that at some point she was in an academic job that wasn’t thrilling her, but she was captivated by a phrase she thought of, “What you resist persists.”  So she started doing what she called a game, of saying, “This moment is my destiny” any time she was in an unpleasant moment at work.  She also said, “I have lived my entire life to be sitting here at this moment doing this thing.” She said these things “over and over again for three months, and at the end of three months, I realized I had fallen in love with my job.” Catherine also talks about:

  • “learning new ways to surrender to what’s in front of me, as opposed to resisting it.  Because resisting it is what keeps you stuck where you are.”
  • “I think that what makes people think that they haven’t gotten far enough is because they’re resisting where they already are.”
  • “When I stopped trying to get somewhere else, and fully sunk into where I was, that’s when the next step revealed itself, without me doing anything.”

There was just level after level of resonating for me. Somehow I decided to go for it.  I tried saying “This moment is my destiny” and that phrasing just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it felt too whoo-whoo. But then I tried, “I choose to be here” instead, and snap!  Every moment when things at work seemed tense, when I was feeling tired of any particular task, when I just wasn’t feeling the love for what I was doing, I said to myself, “I choose to be here.”

It wasn’t as if everything was suddenly rainbows and sunshine, but there was a subtle transformation. Work just felt good. Within a week or two (which seemed sudden), I wasn’t working on my side-hustle to escape my job. I was working on my side-hustle because it was an important thing I wanted to develop to spend some time on now and more time on later.

Work just felt good.

So then when the seismic announcement of the merger-not-merger happened (about which I have many thoughts and feelings), my response wasn’t doom and gloom or terror. My gut-level response was positive. And still is.  And as we move through the muck of making a massive transition for this merger-not-merger (about which I have multiple thoughts and feelings), I’m still saying “I choose to be here.” It makes a huge difference.

It’s a huge part of why I’m feeling so mellow during finals week, looking forward to a full day of grading tomorrow, a Solstice bonfire tomorrow night, more grading on Friday, then an email to students asking them to check my data entry one more time, and then turning in grades on Saturday. Then celebrating Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. And actually taking a week between Christmas and New Years where I don’t check work email. At all.

So right now, at the end of a tumultuous semester, I’m sitting in front of my Christmas tree feeling copacetic even before I take a single sip of the brandy I’ve poured myself. This whole method isn’t just for tense moments at work. It’s also for moments like this. I choose to be here.

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Purgatory, Kentucky (5/7)

I like to have a quiet place to pray,
and sitting, waiting, in my truck, well that’s
about as quiet as it ever gets
because the radio died in ’88.
When a radio dies where does its music go?
They say sound waves never really go away.
I don’t understand what all I know
about that. I guess I believe that sound’s a wave.
I guess I believe there are tiny bones in my ear,
a hammer and an anvil and a horseshoe? Is that right?
I wonder if they’ll be taking questions there.
I wonder if it’s always kind of twilight.
There’s the ferry now—I guess it’s time
I got myself in gear and got in line.

5136696196_ac865bc1da

Ferry on Highway 169 somewhere in Kentucky (a Creative Commons shot from Edlitmus on Flickr)