life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

“God Wanted You to be a Poet:” Conversations with my Mother

 

pen writing gold ink
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.

Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”

Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.

These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.

However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.

Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.

 

 

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life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

How Catholicism has Impacted My Life — Even Though I’m not Catholic

crucifix on top of bible
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s been a lot of bad press about Catholicism lately, but then, there’s been bad press about pretty much anything having to do with God, religion, or faith, so that stands to reason. Anytime the media get a whiff of something potentially salacious or scandalous, it becomes a headline (I should know; I started out as a newspaper reporter many years ago). And this isn’t to excuse the egregious behaviors of offenders; victims deserve to be heard and justice deserves to be rendered in cases where horrors occurred. But I’d like to take a moment to take a look at the redeeming side of a denomination not my own.

I was born in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida the day after America’s Bicentennial. Forty-one years and three months prior to that event, my stepdad (who recently passed away) was also born there.  The lovely Catholic hospital had crucifixes in every room, and the presence of nuns was a silent reassurance to patients including my mother, who was and is a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. So, my life began as a consequence of Catholic benevolence, among other factors.

Fast-forward 10 years. I am sitting in my fifth grade class, and it is the last time school will appeal to me until I hit age 30. The reason I still semi-like school in 1986 is mostly because of my teacher, a phenomenal educator/second-mom who happened to be Catholic. Even with all my issues (and there were many), I was still treated by her as though I had rich potential for great things — musically, creatively, and academically. In her fair but compassionate eyes, she saw a student who desired attention, so she made me the “leader” of class songs. She saw a boy who was drawn to more sensitive endeavors like story writing, so she gave me time to pursue them. My school life was made more tolerable, even enjoyable, because of a Catholic educator who chose to work in a rural public school as her mission field.

Jump now to my adulthood: While attaining two graduate level degrees in subjects I actually like (education and creative writing), I attend the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a city populated by statues of St. Francis on numerous corners and where the famed Loretto Staircase is found. The workshop is run by IMAGE Journal, whose editor at that time was (and still is?) Catholic. I am attending the workshop on a scholarship, donated generously by a local Catholic family. Without their assistance, I would have been sitting at home, twiddling a number two pencil, and wishing I could be among like-minded poets.

While I’m at The Glen, I meet a charming woman who is in the process of becoming a Franciscan Sister. We chat over matters ranging from theology to literature, and we participate in workshops that refine our writing while celebrating faith. I attend a homily given by a Benedictine monk, and it makes me think deeply, reflect upon my own beliefs, and inquire further.

Another year passes, and the woman I met at The Glen is now a full-fledged Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She messages me online to tell me that America magazine (a Catholic publication) is holding a poetry contest. She thinks my work might be a good fit. I submit a little something. My poem “Skeletal Prayer” takes runner-up, and I’m elated. The news of the win comes at a time when I’m thinking about abandoning poetry altogether, so I keep going. What’s more, my financial adviser sees the poem and sends me hearty congratulations. Life is good and getting better.

And now, to the present: In 10 days, I will be presenting poetry workshops and craft talks at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Retreat Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. This invitation to teach and write is the result of meeting the aforementioned Franciscan Sister some years ago. It should be an interesting time; I’m learning what a Taize service is (since I’ll be playing a little guitar for it), and again I find myself standing at the intersection of Faith, Art, and Mystery. I can hardly wait to try my hand at this new experience.

My life has been repeatedly and favorably influenced by Catholic forces well beyond my control. As I teach my college students Flannery O’Connor short stories and draw inspiration from minds like G.K. Chesterton, I’m reminded that, even though my Protestantism may be firmly intact, it is only because of Catholicism that my birth, my education, and my literary life have been what they are. And for that truth, I am continually grateful.

poetry, Uncategorized

Lessons from Santa Fe

Now that some time has passed since my scholarship-funded trip to the Glen West Workshop, I feel that I can reflect on the experience with greater objectivity, and extract some of the bigger ideas from it. Held on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the workshop included writers and artists from all walks of life, and from all over the world.

A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John's College in Santa Fe.
A shot from one of the sloping hills of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

The scenery was beautiful, the discussions and seminars were engaging, and the faith-based component made me take a much harder look at my own personal theology. Almost nightly, I found myself returning to scripture to examine my own beliefs in response to the claims of others beyond my denomination. What I found was this: The pastors and leaders I have known allow God’s Word to speak to them to inform their perspectives. Their hermeneutics and apologetics are without error when scrutinized from a logical, etymological, and spiritual standpoint. I became grateful for my solid foundation in the greatest of all literature.

 

Aside from the religious component of the workshop, however, the time spent working out my own poetry was invaluable. Critiques during workshop allowed me to hear from a community that represented a broad cross-section of society, from amateur dabblers, avid readers, and experts who are highly respected in their field. In addition, the artful environment of Santa Fe provided a much-needed break from the summertime doldrums I was previously facing. The art galleries, public displays of sculpture, and a fantastic rendering of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters on stage at the Lensic Theatre allowed me the cognitive space I needed to regenerate creativity.

While the accommodations were sparse, the company, the climate, and the conversation made up for any lacking luxuries. I made a few new good friends who are very different from me, and by so doing, received bigger understandings and broader interpretations of life itself. I would recommend The Glen West Workshop to those seeking something different than the typical writing conference. Its effect on your mind and your soul will be worth it.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Quick Thank-you and A Longer Thought

notebook2red To those of you who have eagerly taken advantage of my free book weekend offer, I offer my deep gratitude. Your acceptance of my work shows that you believe it has potential. For this vote of faith, I thank you. Other followers who have not yet seized the opportunity to get your free Kindle copy of Growing Moon, Growing Soil: please do so! I’d hate to tell my writer friends that I couldn’t even GIVE AWAY my poems…how embarrassing.

On a separate note, I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers who encourage others  to “write about those things that you would never want to write about.” This near-cliche is usually followed by an admonition to confess fears, secrets, undisclosed parts of one’s past, etc. in the name of soul-cleansing and “honest art.”

Here’s where I disagree with these well-meaning pseudo-sages: Writing poetry is supposed to make the world a little better, a little more beautiful, or a little more meaningful. Some things simply don’t need exploration in poetry, however. Remember how, in junior high writing classes, they taught us to “consider our purpose and our audience?” That rule hasn’t changed. What audience is going to want to read about how you wouldn’t wear sandals to the beach because of toenail fungus? More broadly, why write about the baser matters of life when there’s so much beauty, so much history, so much grander inspiration to seize?

Maybe my gripe here comes from a biblical background: Philippians 4:8 comes regularly to my mind while writing. I use it as a test to see if my poetry bears relevance and worth. That verse reads,  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” I feel an obligation as a poet to produce work that causes people to contemplate life using these criteria. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that my poetry always is autobiographical or just about the “warm fuzzies.” But, if I can get people to think in a way that this verse speaks of, even if it’s using something made up (like Christ’s parables), I’ve done my job.

Often, contemporary poetry elicits thoughts that meet some of these qualifications, but certainly not all. Keats’s Grecian Urn aside, truth is not always beauty. I know that’s unpopular talk in our culture today, with Facebook and other social media serving as conduits of over-sharing and gross uber-transparency. Where, however, is the beauty in rape? In murder? In cannibalism? This series of questions beckons back to undergraduate courses in ethics and philosophy, but no matter what school of thought you follow, you must confess: Some factual things do not pass the test for beauty, even if “beauty” is subjective (or, to quote an old aphorism, “in the eye of the beholder.”) If beauty is a matter of perspective, then certainly some twisted minds will find reasons to admire all forms of ugliness. Still, “Truth is beauty, beauty, truth” might make good verse, but too many great minds, both in and out of the humanities, have discredited it over the centuries.

Likewise (on the reverse side of this same coin), something can be lovely without necessarily being pure — think about those intricate bacteria you viewed beneath a microscope during high school science labs. Beautiful? You bet. Pure? Not in the least. My theological friends will tear apart this argument, no doubt, noting that human or scientific truth, beauty, nobility, etc. are not the issues about which Paul was writing. His aims were higher than enlightening our temporary mortal existence. I get that, but his words make a pretty great checklist for poets to strive toward also. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt for artists of every genre to contemplate the audience effect achieved in Paul’s terms. Imagine the renaissance we could ignite if painters, sculptors, dancers, writers, photographers, and other creatives used Philippians 4:8 as their common assessment rubric. What bright, radiant, vibrant works could result!

I’ll step down off my soapbox now. Some things just need airing, and tonight, this little rant happened to be one of them. I hope, once again, I haven’t distanced too many of my fans or followers with this post. I would love to hear opposing or coinciding viewpoints in comments below, and PLEASE remember to take advantage of FREE BOOK WEEKEND (details below). Good night, dear readers.

poetry, Uncategorized

Faith, Cognition, and Creativity

It’s always dangerous to start blogging about potentially divisive issues like religion, especially on Sunday. But this post really isn’t about religion; it’s about faith and its role in the creative process. It’s also about how others within the creative and academic community perceive writers of faith. This post will probably cost me some readers, and I’m okay with that. I respect your views, and I’d like for you to respect mine as well. If you don’t, so be it. This is America, after all.

I have a lot of friends within the writing and arts realm who generally frown upon Christianity. They’ve had bad experiences with churches, pastors, congregation members, or other entities (choir directors, for instance). They’ve been fatigued by petty squabbles over methodology or order of worship. Their doors have been knocked on by cult members who say the path to prosperity and eternity is “my way or the hell-way.” It’s too bad, really.

In workshops and in seminars, there always seems to be a faction of holy-haters, and inevitably, they flock together to build the fire of their ire with the fuel of others’ guile. I happen to be a Christian, and I’m saddened by their disdain. Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clarify: I am not what certain popular media portray as “Christian:” Quran-burning, hate-filled, condemnation spewers who bomb abortion clinics and wave “God Hates F*gs” posters. My Jesus wouldn’t do that.

My position is just this: In order to be “whole” people, individuals must engage not only their minds, but also the other aspects of their humanity– the physical, the emotional, and yes, the spiritual. My soul happened to be spoken to at an early age. I felt a sincere and innate desire to choose Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and since that time, my Faith has given me “life more abundantly:” My highs have been the highest, my lows have been the lowest, but in every circumstance, my God has seen me through in a way that secular logic never could. Whether it’s been near-death experiences (I’ve been on life support twice), experimental brain surgery in my early thirties, or the thousands of smaller instances along the way, I feel certain that my life would have been much worse and less significant without Christ.

My personal faith isn’t the way some choose to engage their soul, and I get that. For some of my writer friends, Yoga is their spiritual exercise of choice. For others, they lean toward a different set of traditions. These same friends have sent me their “happy thoughts” or their “positive vibrations” when they’ve been doing their religious practices. I am not offended. We agree to disagree, and they acknowledge my prayers and practices just as I acknowledge theirs. Call it the spiritual equivalent of the “two-finger wave” off the steering wheels of our separate supernatural vehicles.

But herein lies the key to this matter: Faith, you see, is exactly that — metaphysical belief. It’s not a scientific theory to be diagnosed and dissected by the mind, and that element of mystery disturbs some of my colleagues. You cannot solve a spiritual question with a cognitive answer any more than you can use your heart as your brain. The two (in both cases) carry specific demands and capabilities that cannot be met or found in other ways.

Likewise, having a science-based argument about religion is like trying to apply duct tape to a rainbow. It ain’t-a gonna happen, friend. I know that my writing is stronger and my life is better when both most closely reflect and exhibit the tenets of my beliefs. When I’ve tried to “be someone else”  or write like someone I’m not, the product was passionless, synthetic, and ugly. I cannot “write like a Buddhist” any more than Richard Gere can act like he’s me (trust me, he can’t).

My faith has given me inspiration many times over the years. Granted, my poems have not become evangelical daggers that stab scripture into people; that wouldn’t help anyone, and it’s not my style. However, chances are good that if you’ve had a strong emotional (even spiritual) response or connection while reading my work, that’s probably not accidental, either. I’ll let the reader decide that little detail.

The purpose of this post, I hope, has been clearly conveyed. My intent here is not alienation or division, but explication and perhaps some provision of understanding. The closer we can come to being real with each other about all the diverse facets of our lives as writers, artists, and whole human beings, the better our world will be. If this transparency offends you, reader, I apologize. I would offer my warmest regards and highest hopes for all of us in the week ahead. And if you’d like, I’ll say a little prayer for you, too.