Sunday, August 17, 2014

One of the Lucky Humans

Nine of us sat in the front row of seats at the Coupeville Performing Arts Center last Saturday. We wore wrinkled black robes.  Tassels draped over the left side of the black mortarboards perched on our heads. On the stage, faculty, staff, and board members of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts wore similar regalia. Behind us, family and friends held cameras ready for photo opportunities. We were all there that warm, August afternoon to mark the milestone of completion of a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing.

Nearly a year ago, the Class of 2014 began the process of selecting a graduation speaker. We were delighted when former guest faculty member Elizabeth Austen accepted our invitation. We had no idea that by the time the ceremony rolled around, Elizabeth would be Washington State Poet Laureate. 

Lucky us.

Elizabeth’s address, “The Hour of Fulfillment,” is posted at the Washington State Poet Laureate website.  Elizabeth reflected on some of what she’s learned in the dozen or so years since she completed her own MFA.  She began with this advice:

… stay focused on what really nourishes you as a writer, as one of the
lucky humans for whom language is a form of freedom, an instrument
of transformation rather than mere transaction.

On this day of celebration of our accomplishment, Elizabeth urged us to define “success” for ourselves:

Don’t calculate where you should be based on your age or where your classmates are or some other external measure.  Don’t discount, or let others discount, the things that you have decided constitute “success.”

Tune inward. Find and defend your quiet places.

Iris & Elizabeth Austen
in full regalia
I felt as though Elizabeth was reading my mind as she talked about her struggles with another element of the writing life—self-doubt:

  When I finally turn to confront the doubt, to engage with it and     dig underneath it, sure, there’s fear there. Fear that my best efforts will be inadequate or, worse, boring and foolish. But when I confront my doubt I’m also faced with the depth of my desire to make something astonishing, a poem that will startle me into new awareness, a poem with the capacity to provoke or nourish, to help someone grieve, or maybe even begin healing. Self-doubt is intimately connected to the desire to go further, risk more…At its best, self-doubt keeps us from becoming glib and complacent. Just don’t let it have the last word. Don’t let it silence you.

Fortunately, Elizabeth hasn’t let self-doubt silence her. She shared this poem from her book, Every Dress a Decision, that again seemed to speak directly to all of us.

 The Permanent Fragility of Meaning

Why persist, scratching across the white field
row after row? Why repeat the ritual
every morning, emptying my hands
asking for a new prayer to fold
and unfold?

                    Nothing changes, no one is saved.

I walk into the day, hands still
empty and beg
to be of use to someone. I lie down
in the dark and beg to believe
when the voice comes again with its commands,
its promises—
                                Unfold your hands. Revelation
is not a fruit you pluck from trees. This is the work,
cultivating the smallest shoot, readying your tongue
to shape the sacred names, your mouth already filling—

I lie down in the dark.

I rise up and begin again.

After our thesis advisors draped velvet hoods over our shoulders, we each walked across the stage to receive a hand-carved walking stick.   
One of the lucky humans

Once we returned to our seats, we switched the tassel to the right side of the mortarboards while the President of NILA, Allan Ament, waved a glittered star wand.

That day, I had no doubt that I’m “one of the lucky humans.” My thesaurus lists these synonyms for “lucky”—blessed, fortunate—even better words for how I feel about being a writer.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Afterthought #30 - NOT Like the Oatmeal

Worldwide, approximately 359,000 adults are members of the Religious Society of Friends. There are fewer than 100,000 of us Quakers in the United States—about a third of the number of Missouri Synod Lutherans in Illinois  (where I sang in the choir all through high school).

So. It’s no wonder people don’t know much about Quakerism or what Quakers are like today.

The weekly QuakerSpeak videos are trying to correct that with short conversations with contemporary Friends.  A recent one features Guilford College professor Max Carter responding to the frequent question: Are Quakers Amish? In less than five minutes, Max clearly describes the major differences between the two religions and in the process tells a lot about what Quakerism is.

Friends General Conference answers Frequently Asked Questions About Quakers, too, to help clear up some of the confusion about our small community. 

One of my favorite responses, though, is this 
t-shirt that a Friend from Seattle recently made. 

Cool, huh?

“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fear and Writing About Faith

In just a few days I’ll make the trek to Whidbey Island for my final residency at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. This time, I’ll try my hand at teaching as well, collaborating with classmate Cynthia Beach on a workshop— Writing About Faith, Spirituality, and Religion.

Philip Zaleski, editor of The Best American Spiritual Writing series, defines this genre as,

“…poetry or prose that deals with the bedrock of human existence­—why we are here, where we are going, how we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way.”

I carry some fear about writing about faith (see my Feb. 27, 2013 post), and it turns out my co-presenter Cynthia does, too. As we explored ideas about how to discuss these worries, she told me she looked into her box of fears. 

“You keep yours in a box?” I asked.  “What a good idea.”

Next week, we’ll literally pull our fears out of a box to initiate a conversation about what gets in the way of writing about those bedrock issues.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, tells her writing students, “…the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again. By which I mean the reader should feel the ground shift, if even only a bit, when he or she comes to the end of the essay.  Also there should be something at stake in the writing of it. Or, better yet, everything.”
Scary stuff.  And yet…

I Know No Other Way

Everything I write
is in service
of making sense,
of shining light
on fears, hopes,
beliefs, questions.

I know of no other way
to map my search
than with a pen
on blank pages.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Knowing the Farms That Feed Us

When Summer Moon Scriver and I collaborated on the book Hands at Work, we talked with and photographed a number of farmers. One of them, Henning Sehmsdorf, offered this vision:

Our dream is the community will feed itself. The only question people will ask about their food is which of their neighbors’ farms it came from. We believe we’re the future.

Photo courtesy
Hands at Work - Portraits & Profiles
of People Who Work with Their Hands

Two Lopez Island organizations—Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) and Lopez Locavores —have embarked on a three-year project to help Henning’s dream (and that of many of his neighbors) become a reality. BOUNTY - Lopez Island Farms, Food, and Community will tell the Lopez food story through photographs and profiles of twenty-seven Lopez Island farms (including S & S Homestead Farm, home to Henning and his wife, Elizabeth Simpson).
Sue Roundy, a past member of the board of the LCLT and current secretary of the Lopez Locavores, conceived of the project. “It’s time to celebrate our farmers and thank them for their hard work and delicious food,” Sue says. As Artistic Project Manager for Bounty, Sue has put together a team of photographers, interviewers, advisors, a graphic designer, and a writer for this effort.   In the project’s first year, photographers Steve Horn, Robert Harrison, and Summer Moon Scriver will develop a color slide show of the farmers, their land, and the food they produce.  The show will premier October 25, 2014 to celebrate the LCLT’s 25th anniversary at the organization’s Harvest Dinner.  The slide show also will be presented at the San Juan County Agricultural Summit in March 2015.

In Fall 2015, framed black-and-white portraits of farmers will be exhibited, first at Lopez Center in conjunction with the LCLT Harvest Dinner, then at Lopez Library and the Lopez Post Office. I'm honored to be involved in the project’s third phase, publication of a book including the photographs, stories and recipes. Bounty - Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community is scheduled for release in 2016.

The photographers and interviewers are documenting the process of telling the Lopez food story at the BOUNTY website.  Notes and images from farms such as Sunnyfield Farm Goat Dairy,

Julie, from Helen’s Farm, at the
Lopez Farmers’ Market

Sweet Grass Farm Beef, and Helen’s Farm  are filled with the same kind of passion that Summer and I found when we talked to people for Hands at Work. I look forward to discovering what themes will emerge from those whose hands are in the soil, those who witness cycles of birth and death of their animals, and those for whom their work is a way of life in which it really matters if it rains or not. 

BOUNTY is just the next phase in the LCLT’s history of supporting local agriculture  through its Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) program. It also joins the international movement to promote local, sustainable, seasonal foods and eating, ideas brought to public awareness by authors such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon (The 100-Mile Diet). Most recently, Vicki Robin chronicles the experience of local eating even closer to home with her latest book, Blessing the Hands That Feed Us. She committed to a month of eating only food grown within ten miles of her home on nearby Whidbey Island, WA and then wrote about it. During a visit last month to Lopez, Vicki talked about how she was “…surprised, peeved, moved, deprived, curious and empowered…” by her month of hyper-local eating and how she fell in love with the hands and lands that fed her. 

As so often happens, one person’s experience inspires others, and now the LCLT and the Lopez Locavores are organizing the “Lopez Bounty Food Experiment.” Beginning this September, participants will choose a month, or part of a month, to dedicate themselves to eating locally and blogging about it.  They’ll share what they miss most, what they’re most grateful for, and what new local foods they discover.  Interested? Contact the LCLT at

Whether you participate in the Lopez Bounty Food Experiment or not, you can be part of the community-funded effort to celebrate local farms and farmers. Contributions to BOUNTY will support the creation of the slide show, photography exhibit, and book that all will help tell the Lopez food story. I hope you’ll join us.

What questions do you ask about the food you eat? What do you know about the farms that feed you?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Afterthought #29 - The Case for Hope in Writing

Early in June I heard the writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. I left Town Hall Seattle with three of her books and have just finished her essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me.

While the essays focus on some of the ways we continue to wrestle with gender inequality, Solnit also makes a case for hope in writing; I turned over the page corner and underlined this:

“…you don’t know if your actions are futile…you don’t have the memory of the future…the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be…in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate the most.”

On those dark days—so many of them—when I wonder if my work as a writer is of any help in the world, I’ll return to Solnit’s words.

“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.