Sunday, June 27, 2010

What I Learned from Mark Twain: Day 1

Last Friday, I completed a three week intensive Creative Writing Seminar at UMKC entitled “The Mark Twain Writer’s Workshop”. The course could be taken for undergraduate credit, graduate credit, or as a non-credit workshop, which created a very diverse student body. I learned a great deal, but nothing what so ever about Mark Twain. In an effort to compensate for the deficit in advertised curriculum, I’ve been mulling over rather lengthy lists of Mr. Twain’s quotes. Until I tire of the exercise, my blog will be dedicated to reinserting “Twainisms” back into my class notes and observations.

Day 1:

“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
Mark Twain

            Two women, dressed in coordinating, expensive exercise gear sit front and center. They choose these seats because they have taken the seminar several times before and enjoy their familiar banter with the professors. They choose these seats because they are grandmothers and have earned their position; life experience has propelled them to the head of the class. They choose these seats because they’re extremely well read and have time to devour literary journals and the works of obscure authors the rest of us have never heard of. They choose these seats because unlike me, they are no longer interested or curious about their peers: they can see no one but each other and the professor from where they sit, and that’s the way they like it. They choose these seats because for as many years as they can remember they’ve walked into the Mark Twain Writer’s Workshop on the Monday of the first full week of June and sat right there, in the center of the front row. These are their seats. They choose these seats because in the back row, they can’t hear a blessed thing.

“People who are not open don’t learn – I should think about how little I know.”
Prof. Stewart

We spend a good deal of time listening to the faculty introduce one another and clapping for their many literary accomplishments. It is inspirational. Obliviously, we are in the presence of great literary minds. The applause is genuine and heartfelt. We are glad we’ve scraped together the tuition and coerced our relatives to babysit or our bosses to allow us to work half day shifts for the next three weeks. We are convinced we too will leave here better writers, secretly sure that these local literary giants will take one look at our manuscripts and instantly recognize the pure genius and almost magical ability our mother’s have seen in our stories all along. Day One is a good day at the workshop.

“Spend time developing what my dominant feeling is towards the piece I’m writing. Why am I writing this? The plot should be filtered through that dominant feeling.”
Prof. Pritchett

I spend the remainder of the class trying to ascertain how I feel about my latest short story and why I’m writing about that topic. I don’t come up with any gut wrenching revelation, but I am really motivated to “being open” – I love to learn. Day One the weather in the workshop is commensurate with the climate. The two women in the front row leave knowing exactly the same number of people they did when they entered, and all was right in the world.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What I Learned from Mark Twain: Day 15

"When we are too young to understand tragedy, we revel in the gore."

Marian Wade

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Impractical Place for a Nest

For all practical purposes, most of my major nesting endeavors are behind me. Multiple times a year I do however assist, or even prod my children into temporary nest relocation; moving in and out of dorm rooms and packing for camps and summer trips. Returning debris is an inherent element in the eventual dissolution of these temporary nests – nothing says summer like a garage full of my daughter’s dorm room contents and muddy hiking boots from the boys last camp out.

Nests seem to be a recurring theme in my life this summer. A small flower pot on my front porch was invaded last month by a pair of Mourning Doves. I was initially unimpressed with their choice of nest location. It is a really small pot, six inches in diameter, hung at eye level. Watching those birds attempt to maneuver in that small space while they built the nest was comical. It took about four days, and the birds tolerated my constant interruptions to take pictures. Posing was the least they could do, considering I was sacrificing a perfectly good pot of violets for their new home.

Once the nest was finished, they were stuck with me. We discovered another nest directly outside the family room window, and watching the birds became a family past time. My daughter Allie did a bit a research. Mourning Doves like to nest in pine trees, and we had to have a large one in our front yard removed last fall, which explains the abundance of nests near my house. Mourning Doves mate for life. The mother and father take turns sitting on the nest, so Momma bird didn’t really get testy in the afternoon – it was Dad’s watch and he did not appreciate our company.

The spring storms descended and I watched my little doves sit calm and dry on their nest. I guess it wasn’t such a bad location after all. After each storm we’ve had many causalities dislodged from nests around the house, but my little front porch family remained in tact. After several weeks, our little Patrick was hatched. Yes, I named him. We also had two doves born the same day that we could watch from the back window, but Patrick is my favorite. He is a few weeks old now and still sits on the porch and in the trees in the garden. He usually lets me get close – I like to think he remembers my voice. It’s a long shot, but it makes me happy to believe it.

Obliviously Patrick’s parents knew something the other doves didn’t. I like to think they had a little divine intervention; my front porch was their own designated promised land. I’ve never seen a bird put a nest that low and exposed before. Ironically their offspring were safer than the birds high in the trees, because the storms have been so violent.

What does that mean for me? How do I know I’ve chosen the optimal, safest location for a nest? Am I like the Israelites – too afraid to enter into the Promised Land because it really looks unsafe from my vantage point? My children are almost grown. The nest I’ve loved manning for the past two decades is going the way of the pine tree in my front yard, yet I’m not really sure where God is directing me. Maybe, like the doves, God is asking me to seek shelter and put down roots in a new vocation, to focus my nesting instincts in a new direction. Nothing looks very safe from where I’m standing, but one thing is for sure – that pine tree is going whether I move or not.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Plate Runneth Over

When we moved our family here from Casper, Wyoming in 1990, Aunt Harriet and Uncle Marv were our only relatives in town and for all practical purposes, the only people we knew. They put up swings from the big tree in their back yard for the girls and we often enjoyed family dinners at their house. Aunt Harriet made incredible birthday cakes in any likeness, even one that looked like our cat. She made the kids hamburgers shaped like dogs and let them eat with toothpicks instead of forks. Need I say more?

Family dinners around Aunt Harriet’s and Uncle Marv’s table started for me when I was a little girl. My parents were divorced, so my Uncle Marv was always there to be a father figure when I needed one. One Easter dinner, in particular, stands out in my memory. I was about ten, and unfortunately, someone let Uncle Marv know I was not capable of swallowing a pill. We were sitting around the table just about to enjoy dinner when out of the blue someone in my family spilled the beans.

“Now Annie, you mean to tell me that you are ten years old and can’t swallow a pill? Uncle Marv never pulled any punches. I decided to respond in kind. I shook my head and muttered an affirmative response into my plate.
“Well, it’s just like swallowing one of those peas. Now, you can swallow one of those peas can’t you?” I was and always will be his favorite niece, (give up on it Martha, no contest), so I carefully surveyed the mound of peas on my plate and then gazed up at my favorite Uncle with the most pitiful look I could muster.
“Nope” Thinking this would be the end of it, I started in on my ham.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Put one on your tongue and let’s get after it.”

Even taking into consideration all of the millions of children who’ve spent countless hours shoving their peas around their plates, mounding them under mashed potatoes, and wading them up in napkins, I still think I may hold some sort of record for slowest ingestion of peas during a single meal. It took almost the entire serving and several glasses of water before I finally swallowed one. From there, I moved on the Children’s Aspirin and the rest is history. I’ve become the vitamin and herbal supplement fanatic you see today.

Uncle Marv was right, I could do it. He just had his 85th birthday and we still tell that story at dinner whenever we have peas. My prayer life has had similar progression. It seems to grow in fits and starts. Often it takes the encouragement of a friend to getting it moving forward. Unlike swallowing peas, I’m generally eager to try new things, like meditations, structured prayer times, and joining prayer groups. It’s praying for God’s will to be done in my life that I often choke on. I’m easily discouraged when the obstacle before me appears overwhelming, like that huge mound of peas.

Prayers, in order to go down smoothly, must be wrought by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they are ineffective, not because we aren’t praying the ‘right’ way. They are ineffective because we aren’t praying in accordance with God’s will, so we only measure the “success” of the prayer by our desired outcome. When things don’t turn out as we had hoped, it’s like that pea that just won’t go down. If we don’t open ourselves to the possibilities God has chosen for us, we can pray our hearts out, but we’ll just keep sputtering, no matter how many cups of watery words we try to flush them down with.

Sometimes the potential for change implied in asking for God’s will to be done is so intimidating, we gag on the thought of it. We may want a better relationship, but not if it means we are being asked to accept a person just the way they are or to forgive an injustice. We may be truly miserable in a situation, but too afraid to leave. God may even be leading us to change the very things we want so dearly, to let go of things we hold on to. It’s a small phrase, but a huge sentiment: “God, please show me your will”. I have often been guilty of shoving it around my prayer plate for long stretches of time before attempting to swallow it.

Prayer takes discipline. It helps to have an Uncle Marv nudging you along. It takes courage and a willingness to change or leave our comfort zones to truly embrace the new creations in Christ God wants us to become. Prayer implies trust. St. James tells us in his epistle that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much”. Fruitful prayer lives don’t so much hinge on the methods we employ, but on the intent with which we pursue them. I’m grateful to my friends and family who continually inspire me to desire God’s will in my life, even when my plate appears overwhelmingly full of peas.