Archive for the 'creative practice' Category

I am Not Rome

amywink June 26th, 2018

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. John 14: 27

A friend of mine, with whom I engage in deeply satisfying theological talk, declared recently during a discussion of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, “I am Rome” as a way of illustrating his sense of his own privilege and personal history growing up in Dallas. I laughed. I continue to be amused by this description, partly because “I am Rome” is so brilliantly appropriate and while I do not think of him as Rome, that is often now exactly the thing I need to remember when we talk. But the idea of Rome–as the culture of social and economic privilege, the culture of what is “right”, the correct dream for everyone, the key to “success”–can be deeply seductive because Rome looks like a good life, a powerful life. It looks “right”. Claiming Roman citizenship, as the Apostle Paul did, protected a person from persecution (until it didn’t). One might be protected from being different even as one searches for a way to change Rome; one might even eventually use Rome to change Rome.

In recent weeks, I have been trying to comprehend the new direction my life is heading. Now that my immediate grief has subsided, now that I am rested and awake again to discovery and to understanding my own sense of who I am, I am deciding what I want to do with my time and my life now, what joys I will follow, what I am now being asked to do in the world. I did not have an idea about this part of my life, much less any plan for it, partly because it seemed like I wouldn’t ever get here and partly because I am still astonished that I am here. I am not a person who enjoys change but I have learned to change because that is what my life has been–that is what life is–even though I would prefer it remain stable, my life is changing. As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently explained, “There is no fixed point in the Cosmos. All of nature is in motion.” Last spring, I noticed I was getting a little bored with my restful life, not unhappily bored, just enough to notice and I asked myself “Is this it? If this is it, I am okay, but I am not sure this is all for me to do.” I decided to let myself be bored because it had been so long since I had the luxury of boredom. I left the question hanging in the air, waited, and eventually forgot I’d wondered so dangerously out loud and honestly. Until an answer arrived “No, there’s more and you are only now half awake.”

I did not understand how true that was until I started writing again in the fall after I decided to take a risk (I had learned not to take risks) and accept the invitation to join the Disciple Fast-Track class forming at First. The invitation came at a moment when I had just decided not to follow an old idea of my future (and to leave behind most of the baggage that came with that old idea) but I had no idea where I was going and I really never would have thought, when I was taking that first step, that I’d actually be heading in the completely correct direction toward the life I had always wanted, one I thought I would never get. Inspired by our theological talk and Biblical reading, I started writing. Suddenly, I was a writer again and I was writing nearly every day, after not writing anything creative for a long time, almost a decade. Kathleen Norris described a similar experience when she described how the regular devotional pace of monastic life lead to an extremely creative period in her life; how the poetry just poured out of her during that time.

It was the same for me. I started writing poetry, and though I had written a few poems at the beginning of 2017, I can also describe this experience as poetry pouring out of me. And I let it. I didn’t even ask any questions about what was happening. I just wrote. By the end of the fall, and the close of the Old Testament Disciple study, I had written more poems in the 12 weeks than I had written in all my previous years combined. I wrote more essays, which I had also stopped writing, partly because I had not been able to think deeply. Suddenly, writing was no longer difficult, no longer a struggle, partly because I had the time and I was no longer completely exhausted, but mostly because some thing in me had opened and I was felt compelled to speak. I never expected (or even thought to expect) that the members of my Disciple class would be the most brilliant writing group I had ever had, though I did say at the start that maybe the class might make me a better writer. I never expected that First United Methodist Church would be the creative partner I needed for the return to my creating life (I do think Stacey would be amused and think it only right that the role she filled could only be refilled by an entire congregation of people). While I was surprised, I didn’t think that any of this was wrong. I felt a lot more like “Oh. I had no idea. Oh. ” I paid attention and I put together an entire book.

It was unsettling. Lovely, but unsettling, as if I was swept up in some thing much larger than myself that had moved me into the creative life I had wanted, the creative life I was meant to have. There was nothing between myself and the person I was meant to be any longer. I was reminded again how unconventional my life was. Can a poet ever be Rome?

I paid attention. I kept writing. I became a writer, finally, because all of me came together to write. All of me was suddenly present. It was an experience I recognized but one that had been extraordinarily rare. Suddenly and wondrously, I was completely present and writing. Someone asked me, when I tried to explain, “but you’ve written before?” and while that’s true, all I could reply was “Not like this, not at all like this.”

I paid attention. I tried to explain to those who had no idea why I was astonished or so happy.

I was open and I was the self I had always wanted to be, the person I had been working toward, the person I had set aside because I had other things I had to do, the person I thought I’d never get to be again. What had been in the way was no longer there. And I understood, with some horror, how very bored I had been. There is nothing quite like being fully engaged to reveal how very dulled I had become.

I paid attention, and almost without noticing, I was much further down the path into my next life than I expected, and I was surprised by where I was heading because in all the yes I was feeling, there was abruptly a new ask, a very different kind of “yes”, a quiet but arresting “oh, by the way, and also this.”

And. Also. This.

I stop.

And Rome catches me, whispering old fears I still carry deep within me, and those fears erase the “and”, cloak the “yes” in convention because I am asked to be something I haven’t the vaguest notion of how to be, except that it seems also a thing that I have always been, just newly defined. I am limited by my conventional understanding and doubt floods me even as I try to reconcile what I know to be true with what I am being asked to recognize is true. The safety of conventional understanding is also the danger of it and while I know this, I also suddenly lose that understanding in my confusion. While I have tried to live conventionally before, that life has never been mine, even if I hoped for convention (because that would seem safe) at some moments. My recurring nightmare of being offered a conventional life that I cannot afford to turn down speaks to my deeper understanding of who I am. I am not Rome.

But the voice of Rome, the voice of culture, the voice of convention, is seductive in ways that are confusing. The voice that encourages us to be who we really are is slowly drowned out by the voices that say “here is the one way.” Even as I am being asked to expand who I understand myself to be, (the “And. Also. This.“) I am faced with pressure to narrow “and” to “only” some of which is my own making and some of which is well-intended advice from friends, advice I have sought but which I find myself (annoyingly to myself and I’m sure to them as well) only able to answer at this time, “no, not that.” or “I don’t know” or “all I know is this” in very very vague terms as this writer loses her language, her means of being in and understanding the world. In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Emerson wrote there are “voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one if its members . . . It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

At this moment right now, I am without a name for what I am supposed to do, the customary understanding seems not exactly right and every time I press against those conventional ideas, I know it isn’t right even though I would love to know the end point toward which I am currently headed. All I know now is the direction I move will open if it’s right, and it may only open one step at a time because I can only take one step at a time. As a wise friend recently counseled, “You will know.” When I am quiet, I know this and I remind myself “follow what you love” to learn my newest direction. I remember I am a writer and what I do next must also support that. But, it is so easy to forget, so easy to want everything to be clear before it can be clear. So easy to want to be Rome, even though I am not Rome.

When I learned to drive, I started with no experience, not even riding experience. I learned from the very beginning and I learned how to have good hands, soft hands. For those who do not work with horses, it seems that we use our hands to steer by force, as if the strength in our arms might actually move a horse’s entire body. But what we are doing is counter-intuitive, softening the hands so the horse seeks contact with his mouth through the bit and reins. It is not the goal of a good driver to force a horse by pressure into moving, but to ask a horse to respond to the soft pressure guiding him where to go. This was very hard to learn and it is possible to use a severe bit and hard hands to move a horse but that is not good driving. Luckily, Will was forgiving and easy to drive. When I started driving my mare Blessing, I had to learn how to lighten my hands even more, so soft was her mouth, so sensitive to the slightest movement of my fingers. Sensitive to a fault, my trainer said, and slowly brought us both along. I don’t think she was speaking only of the mare. Blessing refused to listen to hard pressure so becoming stronger, using a heavier bit only made for arguments I would never win. We frustrated each other even as we wanted to work together.

I wanted to drive her. I wanted to be good enough. And I pressed myself hard to be good enough, yet I didn’t exactly know what we needed until I stopped pushing against what I thought I needed to do. I waited and thought instead about a different way to connect. I knew my limitations and I knew her needs, so I looked for the softest bit I could find. If I could not lighten my hands enough, I needed a bit that helped us communicate. I ended up with a riding bit, a French Link snaffle, a bit designed for horses with a low palate, with a large copper lozenge in the middle. It wasn’t a driving bit and it was entirely non-traditional, but with that light bit and my soft-enough hands, Blessing and I could drive together. Eventually, I also learned that if I took off my leather gloves (as is not allowed in competition or advised at home), we could drive even better. She listens and responds to the softest hands I can muster, the lightest squeeze of the fingers. She is a challenge to drive because I must always be mindful of our light connection but when we are together on our drives, we are present to each other and moving together with only the slight pressure of my hands. She is always looking for me and I am always reaching for her.

I was once asked why I drive her in a snaffle, by someone one who thought she needed stronger handling and a more severe bit to be made to obey, someone who seemed to think of horses as machines. I only explained that this was the bit that she liked, that I liked. I knew my mare. She wasn’t going to obey my hands if they were heavy. I looked for the way for us to work together because I wanted to work with her, not against her. We simply needed to listen for each other. She wanted to work with me, not against me. My wise trainer knew all of this. She also knew I would figure it out.

Right now, I am thinking of this lesson with Blessing as I think about the yoke I am accepting, the light burden I am being asked to carry. I am asked to understand “and also this” not as a limitation, but an additional understanding to the self that I am, an additional element in the creation of my fully human self that will enable me to do the work that I am meant to do in the world, even if I do not yet have a name for what that is. I am being asked to explore, to be curious, to learn, to keep going, not as a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but as a growing experience of who I am continually becoming. And I am being asked, not Rome, to bring everything that I am to this call because the work I am meant to do is also seeking me.

Eucharist

amywink June 15th, 2018

In the feather snowfall
of her sudden kill,
I am interrupted
by this hawk of my
morning’s contemplation,
who appearing, to my surprise
and wonder, arrived to share
this communion from the trees,
as remnants of
beautiful death drift
on the air,
down sinking
in the light

Her gaze holds mine
and we see each other,
perhaps she daring
me to move,
or just contemplating
my presence
before deciding
I am of no consequence
or danger she turns
her attention
and together we rest,
feasting in each other’s company.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

amywink May 31st, 2018

In this place of presence,
I stand remembering,
church to the right
cemetery to the left,
thinking of the walk
between the two,
and I, instead, looking across
and into the memory
of wide fields and the horizon
east, when the sky filled
with billowing storms
and trains passed
north and south.

Standing here
in this thin, quiet place
between now and then
where once the favorite home
of my memory stood,
I returned to the porch
and steps and swing,
returned to when
I sat listening, at six or seven,
slowly opening to the way
I would learn to tell
the beauty of this
difficult world,
a gift arriving
on a whisper

“See? Here it is.

Here. . . here. . . here.

Tell it.”

and I began.

Sent to Chairs

amywink May 29th, 2018

Several weeks ago, I signed up for FUMC’s Saturday Work Day because I had the time and I enjoy the company of the people I knew would also be serving. I have also fallen hard for the beautiful, stately old church and wanted to show my care for the building that has offered me sanctuary and the creative spirit that has opened me again since I walked in after a 40+ year absence from church. I had no ambitions or designs for the day, I just showed up to serve. And when I arrived, I had no assignment so, as with all other unassigned, I was “Sent to Chairs.”

It sounded more like a sentence than a task: “Those found wanting will be Sent to Chairs.” I laughed.

Because I’m also am recovering academic, it also made me think of Chairs of committees, Chairs of departments and the deifying honors: “Holder of The Famous Name Endowed Chair of . . . ” and again, I was amused that I was “Sent to Chairs”, which actually meant I was sent to clean the chairs in the Great Hall of Family Life Center —which serves also as a basketball court, music venue, meeting room, and the Feed my People Breakfast for the Homeless. A Great Hall indeed, which serves in many different ways, great and humble.

I accepted my modest assignment, cleaning the chairs with the very loud carpet/upholstery cleaner, of which there were 4 in employment. Since chatting with people was impossible in the cacophony of the machines, I put in my ear buds and listened to music and began to practice the presence of God that Brother Lawrence so highly recommends (also recommended by the book Sweeping Changes as a meditative Buddhist practice of mindfulness).

Here I was, Dr. Wink, contemplating the humble task of cleaning our chairs, which also humbly served so many experiencing homelessness who come to eat breakfast each Tuesday and Thursday morning. I smiled because I knew some would find the task beneath me and I knew people who would definitely think it was beneath them!

I contemplated this idea of rank and hierarchy, pondering what it meant that Dr. Wink, Full Professor (Adjunct), Published Author of 2 Books and Presenter of Papers at Professional Conferences might also be Amy, cleaner of chairs, teacher, writer, poet, gardener, friend, carriage driver, and the countless other human things I am that people forget when they see the title.

My title sometimes precedes me and more than once, people say “but you’re a professor!” having set me up in a pretty small box of their making, as if I cannot also be a human being. Yes, I am a professor, which in the simplest terms means “I profess” a particular thing, in my case, I profess literature and writing. I love literature and writing. I have become a professional because of my love for words. It is not a love that is financially rewarded in our culture. My diploma declares that I have been “admitted to that Degree with all the honors, rights, and privileges belonging thereto.” Some days, those are many; some days, they are all quite elusive.

But the image of The Professor is also one that limits me and I don’t always like to announce my degree because it divides me from people in a way that I did not imagine when I pursued it. Sometimes people announce me before I have a chance to say “Wait! Don’t!” And suddenly I am Dr. Wink when I’d rather just be Amy.

People often assume that because I earned a PhD (and I earned it with blood, sweat, toil, tears and blinding panic attacks so I also own it when it’s important) that I look down on people who do not have this terminal degree (and it is *terminal* in more ways than one). I don’t. I didn’t pursue my degree thinking of what others might think. Those who start the degree with this idea will soon find that this will never get you through the lion’s den that is graduate school or the fiery furnace of the dissertation, or the forty years in the desert of the job search and tenure process —and most never reach the promised land (if you don’t think the Biblical metaphors are appropriate, ask an academic).

You have to do it because you love it, because you can’t not do it, because you are compelled to do it, as if it were a calling you cannot refuse. And you have to love the work, not the rewards of the work and the work is the joyous pursuit and sharing of knowledge, something that is more and more elusive in higher education today. And I know people who very wisely chose mental health over the degree, who may have felt the calling and said “you know, no thanks.” I respect that. Part of me wishes I could have done that, but the degree has brought me here and here I am, despite my complicated relationship to the doctorate.

So as I sat cleaning chairs, I thought of my “academic” work, teaching students as an adjunct at a community college, which is worthy but financially unrewarded work. I am a working-class academic with the highest professional title and experience that “should” warrant a different position. It “should” and yet it didn’t. I “should” and yet, I can’t because I am entirely broken because of my experiences. I was reminded how broken this week, when I attended a reading by an academic and found myself collapsing inward and looking for the door by the time the reading was over. This was not the reaction I anticipated but it was a very important warning about the new directions I am considering and the broken self I will need to tend while I travel them.

This is an interesting place to be, this new place where experience and education do not lead to profession “success” in the way that professional success has been defined. I also have to remind people that “adjunct” does not mean unqualified and categorizing those of us who remain in these positions, are not the “great unwashed” or unqualified to do the work. I have, in my long journey, gratefully set aside ambition and chosen to value the work I have because I value learning and love teaching. I want my students, who often come with terrible educational experiences, to know that I value them and they deserve a professor who has earned the highest degree and still happily serves those entering college at this humble point of entry.

And as I sat cleaning chairs, thinking of our homeless guests who come to eat breakfast every week, thinking of how devalued and demeaned they are in our culture, how we do not know the stories of how they arrived at this place because of what happened to them, whether because of their own mistakes or the mistakes of others, or simply the things that happened over which they had no control. We do not like to think of them not only as our neighbors because that would mean they are also ourselves and that is terrifying. What if all the work we do to “be successful” means nothing in the end? What if everything we work to “achieve” does not keep us from being afraid? What if no matter what we’ve tried to do, we are suddenly homeless? What if we are no longer seen?

It doesn’t seem like much to give, a clean chair on which to sit while eating a warm breakfast. And yet, here is a chair on which someone may rest for a short time. A clean chair of which we believe any one is worthy and also food we think everyone deserves because they are human beings. We, also human beings, are here to help, no matter how ranked we are by the worldly ideas of culture. Here is a chair that I, Dr. Wink, cleaned so someone I do not know may sit for breakfast. Here is the chair that I, Amy, cleaned so someone might rest. I think of my no-longer homeless friend returned now to her home in another state, who sat in these chairs for breakfast, who attended the First Steps class with me when I decided to join First, who I made sure to see and always made sure to remind that she was brave.

Because we are all one in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

What Would Stacey Think?

amywink May 16th, 2018

The Sunday after my birthday, I told the story of my faith journey with the Creating Spirit to my Sunday school class at First. I was nervous but some people knew I could do it and I felt their support as I talked. It was the first time I’d narrated my experience this way, but I had thought about it for a long time. I closed my talk by saying that I had come to church in March the year after Stacey’s and my mother’s deaths to grieve and I spent a lot of time crying in the balcony until by September I started laughing again.

Though I am still in such deep grief some days, I am laughing so much more than I ever expected to be, just 2 years into this new life, and every time I laugh, I know Stacey is with me. She worked so hard to make me laugh sometimes, and she usually succeeded because she was very funny. And we had laughed a lot together in our last months, when we knew the end was coming. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we fell back on our sense of humor after our initial shock. She had spent a lot of time worrying about having an old age like her mother, who had several major health issues and had been on the brink of death many times, and also, ironically, outliving her money because her grandmother had lived to be 92. When Stacey was diagnosed, it was clear she wasn’t going to make 92, or even 52, so she could start spending the carefully gathered hoard of money she had meant to use to get to her old age. As we talked about the 3-year-deadline she’d been given, she said, “I guess I’m not going to have to worry about being old either.” I replied “yeah, I guess you should have been more specific when you said you didn’t want to be old like your mother.” And we laughed. All the times we laughed are what I hold dear now, and what I remember most fondly. I can make myself laugh by thinking of those moments, even the ones when we joked about death, because what else is there to do?

When it became clear that the experimental drug (the one that worked for Jimmy Carter) was not working (Why not Stacey, Lord?) and she felt she had been betrayed by her doctor who had not really informed her of rules of the study she’d agreed to enter, she sat in her own darkness but I could not leave her there, just like she never left me. I texted her “your mind is a dangerous neighborhood right now, and you know how I feel about leaving people alone in bad neighborhoods” and we sat together, via our phones, in that dangerous neighborhood until I said the right thing and she laughed. Then she thanked me for making her laugh and we walked out of that bad neighborhood together. I am grateful I was able to do that. Thank you, God, for a sense of humor.

Recently, BFF Caroline asked what I thought Stacey would think about my return to the Methodist church, (and becoming so religious) and I have thought about that for a long time. My answer at that moment was she would be ecstatic about my writing, having walked with me through my long darkness as well as some of my most creative times. But I imagine she’d have been taken aback by the startling depth of my faith, something we never talked about specifically–preferring the “spiritual” not “religious” discussion. She had been similarly surprised when I mentioned a desire for chickens, a hereditary craving that I wrote about for our City Ancestor/Country Ancestor project, and just like she had been floored when I decided to buy a horse, something she never knew because she’d come into my life in the middle, when I had almost put that dream away for good.

But early in our friendship, I had mentioned that I didn’t think I was very good at being Christian (given public perceptions of what is deemed Christian, re: Baptist, and I was a free-range, unchurched person-of-faith), to which she, my Jewish-turned-atheist friend who had read the entire Bible on her own, had replied, “Oh, no, I think you are exactly what a Christian is supposed to be. You do all the right things, you just don’t talk about them.” Once, much later, after a moment in which I ranted against some public idiocy I can’t recall and wrote a rather fiery response in an email about how we are saved by grace, she had carefully asked “so, what is your religion?” (after 20 years, she asked!) and I replied “ecumenical Zen-influenced Christian” and she said “well, I thought so.” I should have just said Methodist.

So, what would Stacey think? I don’t think she’d be surprised for long, having known I had a deep but private faith– though an equally deep lack of faith in myself– and I know she’d be very happy that I am so deeply happy and creative again. And I have made myself laugh by thinking about her arrival in Heaven, because I know that after her surprise wore off, she’d have marched right up to Jesus and threatened to break his arm if he didn’t help me after all I had done for her and everyone else in my life. I imagine He said “It will be all right. Don’t worry. I have my best people working on it.” And He would laugh.

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