Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Essential Parts: Systems Thinking

Blog post in the early hours of the morning today. This is not my habit. My habit is to write in a journal and think onto the page with a pen in my hand at this hour. Sort my thoughts. Question myself. Call myself to task and ask myself the harder questions. But I cannot do this today because I left my journal - together with a pair of reading glasses and a pen - at the library last night, after teaching a Teens Write Here class. (Only those classes aren't so much "teaching" as experiments in pyromania. More on that in a moment.) First thought: maybe a blog post should be a morning habit, even if it comes after all the pen-to-paper work.

Second thought: what needs to come out of my head on this morning is Systems Thinking. Every one of my current systems is arranged in my brain this morning. They look like the various choirs from the olden days of "Musicale," when all the area's little Christian high schools would gather near one of them each year, and the adjudicators would come, and we'd take our turns impressing them, and then there'd be the night of the big performance, when all the choirs would sing a few pieces together. We'd have each been practicing them back at home for the whole school year. At Musicale, we'd sing them together. Hundreds of teenagers, each concentrating on their individual participation in the art. One year we'd learned a piece that had eight parts - two bass lines, two tenor lines, two alto lines, and two soprano lines. The choirs were split for the performance, so that four parts were one one side of that gymnasium and four on the other side, and we sang that piece back and forth across the space. It was incredible. Glorious. It was, perhaps, the most unified compound complex systems I've ever participated in, and almost forty years later I do not remember the title of the piece, but I remember that moment of glory.

This morning, I wonder if I remember it not only for its glorious art, or its focusing of all of that young energy into one laser sharp edge (was it that sharp? would a recording back up my memory of that?) ... not only for the choir-ness of it, but also for the system of it. This morning I realize how much the system matters to me. The systems. Plural. Lots of them.

There's the generally useful CAPER system I've been experimenting with.
  • Collect everything you need for the coming task
  • Arrange it in a useful, logical, and/or experimental way
  • Perform the task
  • Evaluate what happened
  • Rest
This is the system for shelving books at the library, cooking dinner in the kitchen, studying for a class, or going for a walk. Mostly, people tend to blitz through the C and the A, and revisit those steps in the midst of P, and never do the E or the R in any kind of conscious way. Mostly, in our era at least, people spell their days C A P A C A P A PPPPPP (now P is for Panic) C P - and life sounds like a sputter. I got tired of the sputter and started watching people who have articulated what they're doing or who are very good at what they're doing, and I saw that they CAPER. (And I do like a word that can be a food or a story.)

Then there's the Health and Well-being system. I'm working on that one right now. Trying to locate the pieces for the C part of it, and to Arrange what I do have and experiment with it to see if it hangs together in a sustainable way. For this system, so far, I've got:
  • Foundation Training to underlie a bit of Pilates and a lot of walking (which I don't Perform nearly as often or as consistently as I need to be). Foundation Training unifies what I've learned about "core" and aging and physicality and embodiment. 
  • Real Food Fermentation, and The Art of Fermentation - the beginnings of a library of reference material about getting the right systems of interactions restored in the gut. Plus, fermented foods taste good and if I can figure this out, I think I'll be able to get a healthful and delicious genuine honest to goodness local to my very house and home sourdough starter going and make some bread.
  • Practical Paleo, Mark Sisson's work and books, and the other "paleo," "primal," and whole foods resources which minimize carbs in the diet. This is not because the current craze is a bandwagon and I just loooooove me a bandwagon ride (she said sarcastically, being a habitual bandwagon avoider), but because ever since I first got solid health help, back when I saw my first natural medicine sort of doctor in the seventh grade (I was in the seventh grade - the doctor was a grown up), I've been told and I've known from experience that too many carbs cause illness for me. And too little protein is always my first preference and major obstacle. Pregnancies, arthritis style illnesses, mono, stress . . . all of the health problems or challenges I've ever had say the same thing to me: fewer carbs, more whole foods, more protein. This is the way I need to eat, and these recent comers to the party are being very helpful at the moment. 
  • And the newest addition to this choir, Michael Mosley and company. Fasting (restricting calories to 500 in women and 600 in men) two days a week (we're only doing one here so far) has a lot of current scientific backing, and it also has my favorite systems analysis already done on it. There have been millennia of people who fast, for a variety of reasons. The data's in. Longevity and health are enhanced by a body's not being too heavy and overloaded, and fasting is a way to give the body a break and a change to repair, and it's also good for the soul.
My whole life is made of systems like the Health and Well-being System. I try to remember to put all of the letters into my CAPER in the practice of any of my systems, and writing in the morning is one way to do the Evaluation for all the systems. Figure out which parts were only thought to be essential. Ask myself about my habits of thought, of words, of deeds. First thing in the morning, when it's still dark outside and my unconscious, dreaming brain is ready to synthesize its work of the night season, I get up and write. (Sun's up! Husband's up! Gotta go now.)

This bit of writing brought to you by Jazzed by the Kids: the state of mind that follows a good fire. Last night's Teens Write Here session for the Imagined Ink contest at the library was ... WOW. If there's one thing I love, it's a good blaze that fills the fireplace, and last night, on the second session of TWH, there were four girls, aged 12-14. Three had been at the first session, one was new to the group. We've got a poet, a sci-fi writer, a creative nonfiction writer, and a graphic novelist! By the end of our 90 minutes, all four of those kids were completely wrapped up in enthusiasm for each other's projects, and I was barely able to keep from doing a happy dance all over the library. That's why I forgot to bring home my notebook. It took about a session and a half for the thing to catch, but when it did ... what a blaze! Go, teen writers, go!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September, 2013

Other years, in some other times, I've heard a snap. She has a handbag, and the closure clicks. She has some glasses that she keeps at the ready, and they're in a case that makes a sudden, sharp thwack when she closes it. Or, the door closes with a particular click. Usually there's something. Some little sound, done in just her way, and we know the autumn is about to begin this year's course. It's almost time.

Usually, she gets into our room ahead of the scheduled season, and she makes herself comfortable and waits for the heat of the summer to subside. She doesn't interrupt the heyday. She has composure, this woman. Dignity. Calm. She knows how to wait in readiness.

But this year? This year I've been listening just like I always do. I'm the student at one of the corners, with a view of the room, and probably not in a conversation. People don't talk to me when I'm waiting. Not usually, anyway. Sometimes I say something engaging. Inviting. It's okay. You can talk to me. I sympathize with your nervousness or your lethargy. (Only I don't -- not with lethargy.) Anyway, I'm already here when she comes in. I love that moment, when the small sound happens and a flash of electricity goes through the room and gets forgotten in the next moment. I love the anticipation of the beginning of another term. I hold my breath. I wait. Autumn signals her arrival sometime near the end of August - or even earlier - and I love the delicious intake of breath when I hear her.

But not this year. The heat has come back on for the next little while, and all my wooly clothes are too warm to wear in full sun, and my sweaters and I must wait a little longer ... but ... wait a tick. Is that her? There's a teacher sitting down, right in the middle of the room, in an ordinary place, just like everyone else. She's ready to start. But I did not hear her come in.

This could be a very interesting year.

Friday, September 6, 2013

September Morning

Her window was open - that's why she caught it. The scraps of summer had begun to blow away, but she had not closed the windows yet. On this morning she sat at her desk in her little office, half listening to the familiar sounds of her husband's morning kitchen routine below, and found a slow smile relaxing her face and releasing something - something that had been waiting, unknown, unseen. The scent of wood smoke wafted through her window. The pellet stove was on. He must have turned up the thermostat. Salt of beach air on summer nights past. Comfort of the cotton sweatshirts slightly gritty with the sand, scratching against sun-tendered skin. But also the promise of early evenings and of candles lit in the dusky winter. Both the summer and the winter rode into her office, carried on that smell. She knew that there would be another sputtering blast of summer heat before she could settle into the damp and cool of her home in the rain forest - before the pellets would heat the house every day - but on that September morning, she woke again. The air carried the scent of her heart.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

Searching for information, and came across a few personal blogs -- those people talked about what they were doing in their search for an MFA program, and because of them I found a program I think I like, and besides -- this blog is very neglected, and it's still not even 6:00 in the morning, and I need to write some of this stuff OUT. OF. MY. HEAD. or it's going to drive me insane, so here it is.

The Low-Residency MFA and Me

I'm trying to remember why I started looking in the first place. For the last couple of years, my advisers, and most respected and admired instructors, and even my fellow students on some occasions, have spoken in some kind of huge, strong, clear theme of Grad School. It's come with a "duh - are you joking here?" face, and it's come with an "I hate to be the one to break it to you" face, and it's come with the "you'll see it when you're ready" face, and it's come with the "no, this is the truth" face ... but it's always come with the same message - the same answer to my constant whining worry, What Am I Supposed To Do With This Degree? Answer: go to grad school. (Or, go to grad school, silly. Or -- go to grad school, and it's obvious, so stop pretending you don't know the answer.) 

And yet, until this month, on the first weekend of the month, I couldn't see it. I couldn't see it until I found out, at dinner, in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sitting across from instructors, and near instructors, and in conversation with instructors, that the MFA in Creative Writing is a "terminal degree." (cue: semi-hysterical laughter -- really? We call it "terminal"? Perfect.) "What does that mean, 'terminal degree'?" I asked. "It means," she said, "that in that discipline, it's the highest degree people achieve. There isn't a PhD in Creative Writing -- so you could teach." 


So ... grad school? There's an idea.

Come home from Shakespeare in Performance (taken for credit), and write performance analyses. Write Graphic Novel analysis of Chris Ware's Building Stories (see below). Do an Improv on Twitter of Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, as a final project (freak out at the homework assignment that goes with it because formatting stuff out of Twitter and putting it into a document is horrid). Write final for the other Shakespeare course, and bash brains against the stones trying to make a coherent argument about Othello's fragmented self being his downfall. And then ... in a haze of brain mush and a stupor of wonder, notice that the three letters - M F A - are floating in the air around my head, like cartoon birds when the person's been clobbered. There it is. MFA. Terminal Degree. Teach. Teach. MFA. Google.

Find #1: Already considering Goddard, because a lot of people to go Goddard from Marylhurst, and because back in the day (a few months ago), their Transformative Language Arts degree looked -- purposeful. It looked purposeful. It looked like a Reason To Go to Grad School. It looked like a way to be of some use in the world. It looked like what it is -- brilliant. And it's the only domestic version of the cutting edge work happening in the UK, Australia, and Canada (all of which are a bit too far away for me to go for grad school) But it's not - right. I've been trying it on for a while, and it simply doesn't fit me.

Find #1a: Goddard's MFA in Creative Writing, out of their Port Townsend campus. Okay. Put that one into the Definite Possibilities pile. It's still Goddard, and it fits better.

Find #2: Bennington. This is, in fact, what I believe about a real Liberal Arts education. I believe this in my bones and cells and breath and pulse. The (retiring) president of Bennington said this at the close of a TED conference a few years ago, and it makes me want to follow her into battle.

And besides ...the motto of their MFA program is: Read 100 books; write one. ALSO exactly what I believe and how I want to do this.

Find #3: The ratings lists. In the past little while, the top schools emerging include Bennington, Goddard, and a few others, and so I looked at them all, and I started a bookmarks tab for keeping track, and I went back over and over (because on the Saturday after finals week I felt unable to do anything else) and one of them is a lot closer to home than Vermont. I live in the Pacific Northwest. Pacific University is only a couple of hours away from here. A low-residency at Pacific makes all kinds of sense. My teachers have suggested it. Top rated. On all the lists. This should be a good fit.

Except . . .  I need some cross-pollination, and it needs to be from a part of the country where sincerity and truth are not assessed by our cultural habit of earnest self-referential, self-conscious, self-amazed, and self-validated ways of knowing. I need someone to tell me something besides Find Your Own Truth. I don't want to be enabled. I want to be workshopped.

Find 3a: Now, whoever heard of this? "The Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) Program is the first in the country - and perhaps in the world - to be offered not by a college or university but by an organization of writers." Well, that's interesting. Info sent for. Local, but not, apparently, all about the self-reference, and there's a strongly pedagogical vein in this one. That's good. Available online writing samples, though ... not so good. Hm.

Find #4: The east coast is better at being sharp. Pointed. Rigorous. A couple of years of externally imposed rigor. Yes. That's what I want. Okay ... so what's there? So far, it's Bennington (crazy expensive), Goddard (weirdly west coast in the enabling department - but that might be a false impression - info packet sent for), and ... wait. What's this? Stonecoast. I've seen those ads. University of Southern Maine has a low residency MFA called Stonecoast. "A Top 6 ranked low residency program offering courses in Creative Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, and Popular Fiction." Okay, that sounds good. "Monthly packets encompass original writing, revision, and critical essays and annotations as well as optional interdisciplinary research and internships in teaching, publishing, and community service/social justice." Oh. Yeah. That sounds very good. More info please.

So there it is so far. At the end of the month, I have appointments with advisers because next year at this time, I'll have graduated from college for the second time. This time, my degree will be accredited, and I will be prepared for grad school, and I want to go, so now I only have one more question.

Can a woman of my age who lives where I do become an employed MFA? Because - well - grad school's all fine and good on its own merits, but if I'm going to borrow all this money, I need a job when I'm done so I can pay it back.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Love's not Time's fool

On May 23, 2012,

artists of all kinds came together at the Royal Academy

 for a party with Queen Elizabeth II

to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. 

 The gathering of artists was assembled to mark the contribution

 of the creative arts in Britain in the last 60 years.

The pictures presented here,

taken from the UK's MailOnline,

span the 65 years of the Queen's marriage

to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.


 At the event Dame Judi remarked

to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme's presenter, James Naughtie,

that she liked to read a Shakespeare sonnet every day,

so he asked her to recite just one.


 She obliged with Shakespeare's sonnet 116

which she recited from memory.


Press play. Listen.

And scroll again through the images

while you hear Shakespeare's words of faithful love

and see it photographed

across 65 years of one of the most well-known

marriages in the world. 



Sonnet 116
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.