Monday, December 30, 2013

Things That Are Beautiful

The year is waning and as I prepare for the new year, Iv'e packed most of my library in boxes (labeled this time by categories literary journals, Calvin and Hobbes, Do-it-Yourself, fiction) in preparation for our next move, which is an intention more than a reality at this moment. If I want to read more, I'll need to write more. We have also disconnected our cable TV, but with so many other ways to deliver programming, I doubt I'll notice.

Anyway, I'll be too engrossed to find out how to watch Top Chef online. For the next nine days I am hosting my soul sister Tarah, a painter (her painting Black Over Fire will grace the cover of my new book) and campus interfaith director in Florida. Together we will visit the local art museum, and the Olympic Mountains, and drink tea and have long conversations. I will read her my poetry, and we will welcome in 2014, riding the ferry at midnight and watching fireworks explode above Seattle's Space Needle.

In the hour she's been here we've already been celebrating the many ways life is good and the growth that comes from the hard work of letting go of expectations, of embracing the unknown, of living out of the gifts we have been given to share with the world, and of noticing the beauty that is poured out upon us if we turn from our busy-ness and look with love on our surroundings.

In that spirit, I share with you another poem in my Metaphor Monday series written in the tradition of Sei Shonagan, an eleventh century Japanese writer whose Pillow Book contained many lists. Here is mine: "Things That Are Beautiful."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Becoming Blackfish

As I am becoming acquainted with this region I now call home, I'm learning about unique communities of mammals other than humans, in particular Orcas, also known as killer whales.

I had seen them twice whale watching off the San Juan Islands, once in the late 1990s with my young daughters, and again in 2007 on a weekend cruise with my husband aboard the David B (see his photos on YouTube), and those experiences were breathtaking, even though I knew little to nothing about the orcas. Watching these majestic creatures swim and hearing them breathe moves something in me––and thousands of others who venture to the seas and shores to look for whales––connecting us to our animal nature, instilling wonder and awe, gratitude and recognition.

Three orcas came to me in a dream just weeks after we moved to our new home with it's peek-a-boo view of the water. In my dream, they swam in the bay near my house (too shallow for them to come in waking life), they breached and waved their pectoral fins, welcoming me to their home, and beckoned me to join them.

A year ago my husband and I saw them on a ferry crossing from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, and I recalled the dream and began to learn about the whales in earnest. This is some of what I now know:

The Salish Sea extends from the Puget Sound into Canada and is home to two distinct communities of Orcas. The Northern whales' home is in Canada, while Puget Sound is home to the Southern Resident killer whales. The Northern whales are threatened, the Southern whales are endangered, due to pollution and overfishing and other human created troubles. There are fewer than 200 total resident orcas in the Salish Sea. Both communities of whales leave their residence and swim great distances to locate chinook salmon, their sole food source.

Within the larger communities, there are smaller families called pods, and even smaller family groups, with unique dialects that have been studied and recorded using underwater hydrophones. The families live together their entire lives. "Granny," the matriarch of the Southern Residents is believed to be 102 years old. Many whales live into their 80s, but no babies were born into the pods this year.

The area is also regularly visited by Transient killer whales also known as Bigg's whales, that eat mammals like seals and sea lions. My dear friend had the privilege of watching them two days ago for hours just yards from shore. Here is her photo:

Male transient orca off President Point, Kingston WA Dec. 13.

I learned all of this from The Orca Network  a nonprofit based on Whidbey Island that is devoted to education about and preservation of the whales. The Orca Network posts whale sightings from people all over the region, who spot them from parks, ferries, public roads, and private boats. I've been able to drop what I was doing and head to viewing spots on Bainbridge island, once to watch dozens of resident whales swim by at a fast pace and a great distance, the other to watch transients feed and play within half a mile of shore.

Through the Orca Network I also discovered the nonfiction book Death at Seaworld by David Kirby published last summer and the documentary Blackfish which came out this summer and has also aired on CNN. To borrow a biblical cliche, the scales have fallen from my eyes. Like millions of people, I have seen whales perform at MarineWorld (in Palos Verdes, Redwood City, and Vallejo) and SeaWorld (in San Diego and Orlando). I believed what I was told: that "fin flop" was normal, that the whales were happy and healthy, like trained dogs.

Even with well-intentioned trainers, they truly are prisoners, ripped from their families in the wild (in sad fact, the Russians have just captured wild whales to put on display for the winter Olympics), or bred and raised in unnatural and unhealthy circumstances in captivity. No wild whale spends most of its life at the surface of a tiny concrete pool. No wild whale mother refuses to nurse her baby, or attacks her offspring. No wild whale's fin rests on it's back, it slices out of the water erect.

It is heartbreaking to read and watch what humans have done physically and spiritually to these intelligent, social, apex animals.

I feel called to repent: I will not patronize any marine facility that keeps captive orcas. And I also must help, somehow.

Right now, I'm short on cash, but long on good will. What I can give are my words and my intentions: this blog post, a poem–Becoming Blackfish–that you can read here and download and listen to on my website.  I also pledge 10% of my author royalties from my forthcoming book Burnt Offerings to the Orca Network.

Perhaps this is what the whales meant when they invited me to join them.

Monday, December 9, 2013

It's Only Time. It's Only Money.

Greetings from an Arctic air mass.

It has been below freezing in Puget Sound this week, in the teens and twenties, so I have been inside culling books, videos, clothes, vases, and coffee mugs, because we're swinging back into remodeling mode at our house after an unanticipated delay of six to eight weeks on our project house.

My mantra as each delay and additional expense has come: It's only time. It's only money.

Which is completely expected with remodeling.

This setback however is different, and disappointing. We were given bad advice by an architect we hired early on in the process that has lost us months and cost us thousands of dollars. It's not insurmountable, and we're certainly learning just about everything we'll need to know for future projects. Waterfront homes are highly regulated, and the regulations for remodels on existing waterfront properties keep changing. We were caught in the changes.

My husband was bummed and a little angry for a few minutes. I felt like crying for half an hour, but I started downsizing instead. We simply had to let go of our timeline and our plans, while still holding to our intentions and vision, our good will and each other.

I think there's wisdom in the Wicked Witch of the West's sky-scrawled message Surrender Dorothy.
At least for me and my expectations.

I know our project house will be beautiful. And more than the result, the process is already a blessing. Each landscaper, laborer, electrician, excavator, and estimator who sets foot on the property comments on its beauty and unique features, and these are folks who've lived and worked in the area for years. On their lunch breaks they sit in plastic chairs overlooking the Sound, eating sandwiches while seagulls and cormorants and the occasional eagle circle overhead.

The gift encircles all of us who give our time and skills to improving the land and the house, regardless of delays. It's a privilege to offer this stunning and peaceful work environment to others, a rare  opportunity appreciated by my husband and me and so many others contributing to our welfare.

But, in more ways than we'd like, time is money, so you won't find us hibernating this winter, knitting (well I am doing some knitting) and watching Breaking Bad (which we've never seen) and counting our many blessings. We'll be busy with those blessings: we'll finish remodeling the home we live in while we're waiting for our building permits on our project house. And then we will leave it.

Love it and/or leave it isn't such bad advice either.

My days of hosting writers on retreat are numbered. I have four more guests between now and the beginning of March, and I've stopped taking  reservations. We will put our house on the market before Spring arrives. Then we will find another place to live in the West Sound region. We will finish our project house, sell it, find and renovate and sell another after it and...

I'm looking forward to all of it. It took me nearly fifty years to stop avoiding change and shed my fear of the unknown, and I like the freedom and happiness that's taken root in its place. Why not continue to stay open to new experience after new experience after new experience? Why not lean into the unknown and see if we stand or fall?

So this Advent I embrace abundance where I find it: in giving away my possessions to appreciative Islanders, in clicking through Redfin listings and picturing myself in tiny waterfront cabins or manufactured homes on acreage, wondering if there will be eagles or whales in my next view.

I know I've gone overboard posting on the online giveaway site Buy Nothing Bainbridge and clicking through real estate listings marking favorites. But it sure beats worrying.

There are times when the past is best left unexhumed. In that vein, I invite you to my website to listen to "Zeke and the Dry Bones" the second poem from my upcoming book Burnt Offerings that I've recorded for my Metaphor Monday series.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Metaphor Monday

I enjoyed the timing of Thanksgiving this year, late enough that when the collective we waddled into church yesterday stuffed with turkey leftovers it felt right and good that Advent, the season of waiting and expectation for Christ's birth, began in December instead of November, which is often the case.

Two years ago my Advent was not quiet or contemplative, packing up our household and moving 900 miles, perhaps a modern day version of Mary and Joseph's census trip. Last Advent I had surgery, so I wasn't in worship that season at all. I was stiller, but drowsy with pain meds, rather than thoughtful.

This Advent I am joyfully anticipating one aspect of God being revealed in my life: the release of my first book, a poetry collection titled Burnt Offerings. It won't arrive until after Christmas, but I am waiting expectantly for this labor of love to push it's way into the world on January 14 thanks to eLectio Publishing (in case you click through and don't see my book, it won't be listed on their website until then).
"Black Over Fire" the cover art for "Burnt Offerings" painted by Tarah Trueblood of Trueblood Art Studio.
Most of the poems in the book were born over ten years in the cradle-crucible of my experiences with the United Methodist Church, particularly the Academy for Spiritual Formation, Companions in Ministry, and Boulder Creek UMC, which I pastored. A few of the poems are new, one dates back to 1999.

My "discipline" this season is to record and share (which did involve me learning new software) one poem a week until the book's publication. In the Facebook spirit of "Wordless Wednesday" and "Throwback Thursday" I chose Monday. So here is my first Metaphor Monday post, the first poem in my book, titled "I Want a Voice Like Billy Collins."

You can listen on my website.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


No problem. That’s what most people seem to say instead of you’re welcome when they’re thanked these days. I don’t think it comes from bad manners of from being disrespectful. I think it comes from our changing culture.

I remember taking Spanish in high school, learning de nada as the response to gracias. It seemed odd to me then, and it still does.

No problem? For nothing? These common replies are meant to be polite, but they can feel like a brush off for something too trivial to be of any importance to the person who extended the kindness. In which case it shouldn’t matter to me, either.

No problem and de nada, those phrases keep our interactions at the surface and at arms’ length from each other. I know because I participated in my own versions of them.

When I was a teenager, my mother’s cousin told me I had beautiful teeth. I didn’t say thank you, instead I replied, “they’re too yellow.” I was typical for my age, perceiving every physical flaw as through a 10x magnified mirror.

It took me years to learn to accept compliments, to recognize that saying thank you honored the person offering the compliment. Saying thank you meant she was allowed her opinion and perception (she didn’t have to argue for it, like my cousin) and that I both heard and acknowledged it. It didn’t mean I agreed, and it didn’t mean I was in danger of becoming vain.

In the same vein, it took me years to answer thank you with you’re welcome. I was an adult for decades before no problem came in vogue, but I had my own ways to brush aside thank yous for things like driving a friend’s child to a party or sports practice or making a neighbor a casserole. I replied with statements like, “I had to drive there anyway,” or “I was already cooking.”

My answers reflected being female in a culture where it was (is?) expected and natural to do for others without asking for, and hence, without knowing how to receive thanks. But there was something else underneath my I was already… something I bristle against when I hear no problem that has nothing to do with humility.

That something is fear. If my actions matter and make a difference in your life, If I do something that is not no problem—something that might have actually been a problem—and I open myself up to see your gratitude, that scares me because I get a glimpse inside your life, maybe even at your raw need, and I’m afraid.

I don’t want you to need me. And, I’m afraid of having my own great need exposed.  
I am afraid you will want more of me, more from me, things I can’t give. And, I’m afraid that I too, like the dog under the table, will beg and whimper, asking for crumbs from someone who can’t feed me, when I could be satisfied with the food only God can give me. Thanks and no problem seem safer, but they’re not enough.

It was through ministry that I learned to say you’re welcome when people thanked me. Sometimes it felt de nada since I was as (if not more) nourished by preparing and delivering a sermon as they were receiving it. But other times, what I had done felt like difficult work, pushing me beyond my own comfort zone and my usual limits. Then it was for something and the thank you came with other words about the impact and meaning of my action and my reply needed to be on par with that expression.

As we approach Thanksgiving and extend our thanks and gratitude to the people in our lives as well as to our God, may we also practice Thanksreceiving, accepting the gratitude offered to us, knowing that the good we do flows from us and through us and to us but originates elsewhere. You are welcome.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Introvert Onstage

I’d much rather stand in front of a crowd of strangers, project my voice, and talk about something I believe in deeply, than pick my way through a party looking for a friendly face to engage in casual conversation.

I’m not an actor onstage under spotlight, audience invisible in the glare, so for me, the crowd (and I’ll call twelve a crowd) is never faceless. It is all faces. And those faces matter.

When I had the privilege and responsibility of pastoring a church, I knew most of the faces on a Sunday morning, many of them quite intimately—ours might be considered a micro-church—and after a few years in that role, unless I was reading from a book, or a story I’d written, I stopped preaching from notes and relied on looking at those dear faces to bring forth the words.

I tried to expand the view for others. We rearranged our sanctuary, so the pews were slanted not straight, and the choir came out of it’s elevated box, but even then, I was the only person who could and did see into the faces of every person present.

It was a privileged position and I miss it.

When I found myself in the pew instead of the pulpit (although we got rid of that, too), what I thought I missed was being in control, knowing what was going to happen and when, structuring content and flow of the service, so that it was beautiful and meaningful (according to my definitions) and met all my (and by extension the congregation’s) needs.

As a parishioner and participant, I found myself sitting back and judging the pastor and the church: what felt authentic, what felt contrived, picking and choosing what I liked and didn’t (most often thinking I wouldn’t do it that way), filing mental ratings, deciding whether or not I’d go back as I hopped from church to church.

It was disconcerting to find myself the consumer that other church leaders and I bemoaned. We wanted committed, not cafeteria, Christians in our congregations. Eventually even I grew tired of the buffet, and selected a church without worshipping at every single one on the Island (which had been my odd-as-it-seems goal).

It’s not all ego and as an introvert I don’t much like attention, but something happens when I’m “in charge.” An alchemy of intention and attention, desire and creativity, a welling up from my own heart, my own soul, that is split open, held out, offered up. It demands humility and vulnerability and my full participation. I must show up completely, in a way I often don’t when I’m not the designated leader.

Bless those who come to the pews and theaters and bleachers with open hearts and sympathetic attention, who step into the container and fully contribute their own energy: the eyes closed in deep listening, the nods of affirmation, the smiles of understanding, the twitches of recognition. As the one standing up front, I recognize the great gift of looking into those faces while speaking, the way we are held in a holy container, sparking with an electric charge, connected to something deeper that is plugged in and turned on, especially when afterward, someone shares what sparked for them—it’s not about me, but what I’ve been a conduit for.

I had the opportunity to speak about spiritual writing at my local library last week. The first time in my new home that I’ve been “up front,” and I was buzzing with it, a metal rod in the energy field we created, absorbing all of it, from the holy force fueling me, from the faces in the room, from inside myself.

Without the role of pastor or presenter, I am usually sending out pieces of my writing into the ether, to be selected by anonymous editors, and read (if they’re selected) by unknown readers. Connection is missing in that equation.

There is something about this physical exchange, this call and response to and from the listener/reader and the great permission and trust she offers to the speaker/writer in return that is integral to our human story and our storytelling, our naming what is powerful, moving, and true.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have shaped such a container last week, for the embrace of generous listeners as Presence dwelt among us.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dead Man's Float

I have a short essay/memoir titled "Dead Man's Float"up at a new online literary arts magazine called "Deltona Howl," run by high school students.

I feel very honored to have work selected by people who are younger than my own children. It's nice to know that teenagers can still relate to my childhood, and it's also very cool to see them undertake a project like this.

I hope you'll take a few minutes to read my work and browse their site.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Flying Words

I woke up early this morning after too little sleep, ate breakfast, and scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed. Two posts caught my attention: The first was a short essay written by Leslie Leyland Fields, one of my faculty mentors in my Creative Writing MFA program, and the second was a video from Elite Daily shared by Derek, who graduated with me in the same program.

Leslie wrote about the fragmentation of writing into excerpts, snippets, and quotes that we consume plugged-in, as opposed to reading all of what an author has written, the “silent sustained reading” in elementary classrooms that many of us experienced as children. She urges us to pay attention to language, to read entire books, and to steep in their richness.

The video Derek shared posits that social media is increasing our loneliness, rather than fostering connection, not only because we “friend” more people than we can actually know well, but because we edit and finely craft our online images, and our resulting interactions are not authentic­­—they don’t allow for the mistakes and rambling and contradictions we make in face-to-face conversations.

I found these links thought provoking; especially at 8 am after 5 hours sleep.

What I know from my experience is that the snippets, excerpts, and quotes allow me to have some familiarity with classic literature that I was never exposed to in high school and college where I took non-traditional English courses like “Protest Literature” that synced with my political science and history courses, keeping me well away from the books most English and writing students read.

I also know that after years of encountering quotes from writers like Rilke and Hemingway, I sought out Letters to a Young Poet and A Moveable Feast (thin as they might be). And, as far as social media goes, it has kept me familiar, if not intimate with, the lives of friends and family I already knew and moved 900 miles away from. It has also allowed me to peak into the lives of elementary school friends I’d never encounter at a high school reunion, because I moved from my hometown just as I started high school.

I’m considered a baby boomer (barely) and I remember when letters sent through the USPS were my primary source of communicating with my father and grandparents and friends when I moved 500 miles away from my hometown as a teen, in an age when long distance phone calls were a rarity and short…and I know that those letters, just like a social media post, could not communicate the totality of who I was and the loneliness I experienced in my new town. I never expected them to.

And that’s what I wonder about now, for the people, like my children, who have had computers and the Internet in their lives for as long as they can remember—do they really expect and believe that cyber connections can fulfill all their needs for community? Do they only have the attention span for texts, tweets, and status updates, and find books archaic?

If my children are any indication, the answer is no. I remember back to their junior high school days, when my husband and I gave them their first cell phones (so we could track them after school): they were so afraid of missing any contact from a friend, they set their phones on the ledge of the bathtub between the shower curtain and shower liner. But, they always kept books next to their beds, and read a few pages before falling asleep each night.

These days, I’m on Facebook more than both of them combined. I blog and have a website and conduct business via email. They sit in offices and classrooms, have live conversations with other students and coworkers, and hang out with friends. They miss most of my calls because they’re busy doing something else.

I took a nap this morning after reading those Facebook links and had the most cinematic dream: I was flying down the middle of a residential street about six feet off the ground, and the sky all around me was filled with words, thousands of words, swirling like a small tornado of autumn leaves through the air.

As I travelled further, one side of the street was lined with UPS trucks, parked bumper-to-bumper, headed the direction I was traveling. The other side of the street was lined with Waste Management trucks, also parked bumper-to-bumper, facing the opposite direction. As fast as the words were delivered, they were being hauled away, and the sky was empty.

I travelled further along the street: the words disappeared, the trucks were gone, the sky a blank, everything silent. This was not a silence borne of plenty, a silence of gratitude, a silence we create in community out of abundance. It was a Simon and Garfunkel silence, a world devoid of meaning, a world without human connection.

I awoke thinking about Leslie’s essay and Derek’s video. Maybe the sound bytes we toss into the electronic air, condensed and prettified, are ultimately unsatisfying, but perhaps like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, they are simply markers meant to lead us to something more. Perhaps their meager fare is better than starving.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wind and Weather and Whether We Stay or Go

Last Saturday was one of those days when the wind sounds like waterfall, even through the windows, and the trees dance, trunks swaying, limbs bowing, needles and small branches snowing to the ground. A day when the power blinks and the house is filled with beeps as appliances turn on and off and on, and I worry about whether I’ll need to start the generator, if I can start the generator, and where I put the directions.

It was the sort of day when clouds blow through fast in great gray swaths until they hit an atmospheric wall somewhere and pile thick enough to (finally) rain. The cats and I were edgy with wait. I at least, would be soothed by water pelting against the windows, something to dampen and temper all the swirling energy.

Mostly that kind of autumn day is familiar, the rush of sound and dusky smell of forest on the edge of this island calling back my twenty-five years in the Santa Cruz mountains, redwoods and cedars so similar in scent, stature, and structure.

There is more color here from deciduous trees, and of course, the Sound close by—gray chopped with whitecaps Saturday—but in both environments when they’re alive with movement, I feel small, humbled, at nature’s mercy, not entirely sure I’m safe inside my glass and wood.

Storm moving through from our dining room.

On those days I pay closer attention to my surroundings, and the recognition that I’m not in control—something I often ignore or try to—rises to the foreground. It’s a bit uncomfortable, as our cat who could not get comfortable will verify, yet the shift in consciousness from me and my will out to the wider world is important and necessary.

It’s easy to get trapped inside my head, and my head for the past several weeks had been preoccupied with Redfin real estate listings. Why? My husband and I are thinking that the house we live in now will most likely be our next “flip” this spring, since we already own it and have already done the majority of the remodeling.

I’m the one who broached the subject (as I remember it) and the idea can seem rash or genius depending on my mood. In many ways it would be easier to stay, to finish the remodel, unpack our things, settle into church and community life, and live here ten or twenty years until the island is as familiar to us as the Santa Cruz Mountains was.

I think back on how my husband and I landed here. There was some research and deliberation, but mostly it was intuition and nudging, a step into the unknown trusting God, and we were held so graciously in that change.

Some manifestation was purely practical: our neighborhood’s power lines are underground, meaning even though limbs littered the streets all around us last Saturday and the work of chainsaws clearing downed trees from roads was evident, our power stayed on. Other graces are aesthetic: our garden is packed with Japanese maples and tree-sized rhododendrons and perennial bulbs; bald eagles frequent our neighborhood, and on clear days we can see peaks of the Olympic range (Constance and Zion).

Mt. Zion peaks below the clouds at sunset.

We thought we were preparing for much of our same life in a different location. But that hasn’t been the case. Not only did Kevin not find a corporate job, I have been hosting mostly vacationers not writers in our retreat, and I haven't been able to implement my ideas for leading writing workshops. Venues were too expensive, the need not pressing, or someone else was already offering them.

It came to me one day in September that perhaps Bainbridge Island is, to use United Methodist lingo, “an interim appointment” for Kevin and me.

Perhaps we’re needed off the island and on the Kitsap Peninsula. There is much we don’t know about Kitsap County, but we do know there are great pockets of need; neighborhoods wiped out by foreclosures, military families still reeling from the government shutdown. Perhaps those are the homes we are meant to bring into repair. Perhaps those are the people who need the construction jobs our small business could offer, and the people who have a need to write their stories.

Saturday I whittled my Redfin “favorites” down to a realistic number and Sunday my husband and I took our second driving trip around the county to locations we have never been, looking at neighborhoods to see if we could picture ourselves fixing up and selling homes, or living there ourselves.

There is one home calling to us to live in, a small high-bank waterfront cottage with a bald eagle’s nest three lots away. It needs so much work, but we like the neighborhood and the view. It’s been for sale almost two years, and we have no idea if it will be waiting for us next year once both our project house and our own home sell, and so we wait and wonder.
"Charming waterfront cottage" says the listing. "Major fixer" says us.
Remodeling and writing are transformative acts, and for now, those are the gifts and talents we have to share. We remain open to continued transformation (and change and downsizing), trusting that God will again (and always) lead us to the next right place.

The view at our next home?