Pictures of Churches

I’m not in a terribly good mood this morning. Too much noise. Yesterday I started working in my daughter’s 5th grade classroom as a writing teacher, assisting with writing conferences. Revising, editing, etc. One young girl’s autobiography started with “My name is … and I am a 10 year old feminist.” I love this girl to pieces, but she’s already been programmed to enter her community on the hunt for enemies. You can’t be an activist and also ask for harmony. Your identity depends on the lack of it.

Anyway, everything is that sort of thing nowadays. And it’s 9/11. I can’t even bear to go around reading what anyone has to say about it. I’ll go back and read what I’ve written over the years and probably be really disappointed in myself, seeing that I too, was simply out there trying to solidify my place along some ideological line. Trying to signal. Shameful. Unavoidable.

The church to which (against which?) my kids’ school abuts is a subtle gem in a commercial district.

fullsizeoutput_525

I don’t often come from that direction so I don’t often see it at all. But when I told my chiropractor (hush now) where the kids go to school he said “I live right over there. That church is amazing.” He’s right. It is.

Pictures of Churches

I just want to take pictures of churches
and say nice things.
To listen to autumn.
To listen to wind.
To stop saying “sorry I
didn’t mean to offend.”

I just want to take pictures of churches
but not with my phone.
With a childish foresight.
With a childish need.
With a long-lonely longing
to be whispered to sleep.

I just want to take pictures of churches
and say nice things.
I want father to hear them.
I want mother with me.
I want these thin thirty years
to fall into the sea.

Out There

Thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore.

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.

Amotivational Wish

I don’t have to say it just because you want me to.

Not a typo. I wrote amotivational on purpose. That’s how this works.

College. Where I find unique challenges every day. I was able to say the same for the Army, but in the Army, motivation was either easy to come by, or all-too-readily available from any number of willing… mentors. In any case, you were simply going to do whatever was to do, and that was that. Rather parental, when parenting works.

In college, motivation can be more elusive. You are truly on your own here, and if the material presented does nothing to move you intellectually or emotionally, it can be hell to get started on a project. I suspect this is why so many students just do what they’re told and buy whatever narrative is sent their way. It eases the difficulty. There’s no real way, from the impotence of the student’s disposition, to ensure that the wheels get greased. So the student’s best bet is to become a wheel and catch as catch can whatever lube is dripped her way.  To wit: an hour in a literature class is plenty of time to know exactly what the professor professes in public and private, and there’s a real narcotic allure to the idea of getting ideologically on board. Your assignments will conform to your conformity, and the sad coitus between two beings of diminished creative ambition will spurt along at a potentially Dean’s-list-level of coursework.

I see it, as best I can, from a distance. I call myself a writer with some confidence now, having produced some papers for school that I am perfectly proud of, as well as having one poem published and another take honors in a competition. I am a writer. There is power there, that I don’t think my fellow majors understand. I can sit in these classes, listen to these teachers, read the little post-modern litanies of a liberal arts education, take in the constantly present sense that “seriously, just do it like us, it’ll be so much easier for both of us” – and still write what I want. All it takes is evidence, and if you read regularly, you become so stocked with the stuff that you could be the 163rd CSI incarnation. I could read a piece of feminist literature and write a 5-page paper that never mentions feminism. And as long as I find the evidence for my points in the paper itself, I am in the clear. That’s the real power of liberal arts, as it is supposed to be understood. The power of being a writer with a little actual resistance in her. The power of turning post-modernism against itself and recognizing how easy it is to be right, within the framework of today’s vacated artistry and dissipated standards.

One of the first things anyone should be able to recognize from inside of the vapid collegiate gestalt is that the last thing anyone should be giving it is what it asks for. Maybe I am uniquely capable of seeing this because I am a parent: I know that you can’t raise a damn thing – child or idea or machine – by giving it what it wants. You have to give it what it needs. The university doesn’t need feminist papers or anti-feminist papers. It wants them both, though, because in either case the student is still just a wheel, safely hubbed onto the framework. What the university does need is true papers, real papers that are disinterested in social propulsion or the narrowing effects of thought-building. The university does not need to be saved by noble conservative infiltrators and their stout anti-political messaging. That’s more of the same, anyway, and absurd. It needs, like a protest needs a mute button, apolitical messaging. It needs, in short, to be made to forget about itself for a while. Again, exactly the same way that a parent knows that a child in a tantrum is best served by a distraction. The university is child to the student, and the student needs to start distracting its disobedient charge from its own illogic. You don’t do that by shouting “NO!” or by presenting oppositional logic. That just keeps the focus on the locus. Distract, distract, distract. You do it with ice cream and tickle bugs, wisdom and wit. You make it get up off the ground by showing it the sky.

But as nice as all that is to wail about for a minute, it’s only a small part of motivation. For instance, I am about to read “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” It’s a challenge that I am simply not sure that I am the master of. It’s ok, though, because again, there is a distance I can keep. A professionalism, and an artistry, even. Sometimes all it takes is is to talk to myself for a moment, and pencil up a poem to buoy me through the surf:

Every Wish has a Rider“Your wish has been granted”
said the Genie to the girl at the protest march.
She rose,
stiffened,
held her sign erect and raised
a single finger for the patriarchy
(forgetting her father)
in permanent letters
on the tip of a
long wooden shaft.
She heard herself say
“Thank you, sir.”

 

In Which We Get What We Ask For

Yesterday’s poems, today!*

*Revised

On the draft of air displaced
over the heads of billioned minions
History whispers:

– out –

and is the only thing that leaves
the still dark office of morning.
Having hissed a warning and gone
to meet more of itself:

– rising –

and having got out,
is forgotten.

Much the way we advance
into a cubist’s missed perspective –
Everything in profile:

– sinking –

and having got in,
are forgotten.

Dawn Seeks Her Mother

Did I just write a sonnet?

Aurora chains anchors to fear-wedded birds
and waits for us, for men, to cut them free.
To hack, with reactions! with acetylene words!
til the broken links are piled on the cast metal scree.
Those traditional limiters now lay piled beneath
among remnants of anciently crafted submission
and the new soaring daughters have been bequeathed
a future of dear, long-sought admission.
But the birds simply rest upon their dropped fetters,
having seen all their sisters fly off and alight
on prison bars set by their corporate betters
where they’ve left their false chains for pilloried heights.
They’ve rushed to what’s promised but can’t find the grace
in a barren, uncertain, un-mothered place.

 

Grand Bellwethers

A Poetry Day Late and a Poem Short.

Nobody told me that yesterday was National Poetry Day. (I learned through Gerard) It’s fitting, I suppose, that I found out yesterday which poem won the competition for which I received an honorable mention. Which poem beat me, to put it plainly. There was also a little bit of a letdown, as  my poem was not a national honorable mention, just local. Three schools. I’m still really happy about it, especially because I know now that my poem is much better than the winning one. The winner is not, as I suspected, about oppression or THE ELECTION, but of course it’s hard to tell just what it really is about. It did lack what two other honorable mentions had, which are sex and rape, two of the Grand Bellwethers of the current, vacuous artistic gestalt. The winner is one of those poems that makes people not like poetry.  Probably so personal that only the writer can really get it, and it reads like a bunch of the author’s favorite lines from her notes stitched together in what, frankly, isn’t really a very coherent presentation. No capital letters, no periods, a few commas here and there. Line breaks just because. The post modern era likes its works to be as ambiguous and incongruous as possible, because it’s easier to point vapidly at the existence of deeper meaning when there is none on the surface (Spoiler alert: that’s a very good indication that there’s none beneath, either). I’ve never heard an attempt to legitimize the narrative transience of post modern art that sounded like anything more than an excuse for laziness. You start to want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them a bit, tell them that the artist’s very first responsibility is to be understood, because it’s the only evidence he can provide that his work means something. I will never, ever believe that blatant obscurity is a signpost on the road to the inner divinity of mankind. Full. Effing. Stop. It is unfortunately the way of things, and on my little march to the New Sincerity, I’ll be fighting the momentum of poetic esoterica until I can make enough of my own steam to stand apart from it.

I’m writing a poem today. All day and a day late for National Poetry Day. It started in a headache at Starbucks and will end, for now, at the desk in my basement when 2:50 rolls around and I have to pick up the kids. I don’t know what sort of a poem it will be. I do know that the sort of poem that wins a writing competition has lines like this:

“even the bottom looks like the top in this hamster wheel
so far behind, we’re in first
champs when everyone else will forever lose”

Ugh. Two pages worth. It’s almost reassuring to lose to a poem like that. Like losing a footrace because your blind, one-legged opponent is crossing the finish line while you’re still asking the starter if you’re at the right track.

I’ll keep mine, and keep doing mine. With lines like this:

“But if we can stand upon that ice
and bear those fissures at our feet,
the crackling threat of cold advice”

I don’t mind mentioning, honorably, that it means something.

Publication, Compensation

I was probably making PB&Js and playing Connect 4 right before I wrote it.

I drive the two miles or so across town to come to the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble, passing at least five other Starbucks on the way. It’s not because of the books, not because of Betsy, who’s been serving my coffee for at least three years here, and not for the increased likelihood of having my car window smashed for the nickels in the cupholder while I quaff an americano. It’s because it’s quiet. My goal – and I’ve been succeeding – is to be more comfortable with proximity. Sharing a table with a stranger at a coffee shop, for instance. Still, my preference is for peace. I am the sole customer here this morning, 9:36, March 20, 2017. Over my headphones is the oddly comfortable cadence of Betsy moving chairs around while she wipes them down. The scoot on the floor, the light knock against the big disc on the floor at the base of the table’s central mast. It’s domestic and expansive. The sound of things having been done since there were things to do. The peace of nothing new.

Things that are new:

  1. A Kindle Voyage. It’s nice. I’ve had the Paperwhite for years and love it, but I want to bequeath it to my daughter for her birthday. The Voyage is an upgrade, and there’s only so much you can do to an e-reader without making it too much more than an e-reader, so it’s hard to get excited about it. But like I said, it’s nice. A little sharper in the contrast, nice page turning buttons to make one-handed reading work better. Nice.
  2. Sunshine. I think we’re done with it for a while, but yesterday was epiphanous. If you never knew anything about Spring or that it even existed, yesterday would have taught you everything you need to know. I mowed, I fertilized, I took down a huge shrub that had been damaged in our one big snow this winter. Using Spring to clean up what winter broke. I’m working on a poem about things like that. Which brings us to…
  3. Poetry competitions. Specifically, doing well in them. I looked at my phone yesterday to see a missed call, a voicemail, an email, and a Facebook message. All from my South Seattle College Creative Writing teacher, Michael G. Hickey. “I have some news you might be interested in hearing.” (A moment of silence, please, for the official death of understatements) He submitted two of my poems to a competition held by The League for Innovation in the Community College. It’s a National literary competition among all of the community colleges in various cities – Dallas, Phoenix, Miami. He even mentioned Canada, so I guess it’s technically international. Obviously all of the Seattle Community Colleges – South, Central, and North. One of my poems earned an honorable mention.

The upshot is that I’ll get a plaque, and…wait for it…wait for it…a check. I wrote a poem that’s good enough to get paid for it. That, friends and neighbors, is new. Published at Seattle U, and now earning cheddar in a competition. Time to frame those letters I wrote you. They liked the other poem, too, but evidently got a little freaked out by it. Thought it was too creepy or too dark or something. Which is funny, because I was anything but dark when I wrote it. It was this one, The White Noise of Prophecy. That’s a pretty awesome poem, and while there is a dead girl buried in the woods, I was probably making PB&Js and playing Connect 4 right before I wrote it. As for the other, the honorable mention, I don’t know what to do. There are odd rules for publication, and I don’t know if it is being published at all. I also realized that I have two versions of the winning poem, and I’m not sure which one I submitted. I guess that doesn’t matter much, though. Heck why not – it’s this one. I think. Might be the other version, but they’re not very different at all.

Who won, and with what poem? I don’t know. I have a hunch that it will be someone from a protected class – person of color, etc – who wrote a poem about oppression or THE ELECTION. In a way I hope I’m right. I’ll have a clear understanding of why it beat me out, instead of worrying that someone might have actually written a better poem. Which of course is as likely as anything else, but I’m too fragile and petty to handle that.