Following the Thread of Thought

I recently wrote a review for Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies on an AWP panel I attended.

Here is a description of the panel:

Following the Thread of Thought

How do writers follow the thread of a thought through the maze of events in an essay or memoir? What is the art of reflection? Writers of nonfiction may have more latitude than poets or fiction writers to tell as well as show in their work, but the challenge is to keep these ruminations from becoming dull, simplistic, or moralistic. Panelists examine the way writers keep ideas lively and offer techniques for effectively weaving the thread of thought into the fabric of nonfiction.

Panelists: Steven Harvey, Phillip Lopate, Ana Maria Spagna, Sarah Einstein

It was an amazing panel, chuck full of great insights, ideas, and inspiration not just for writers of nonfiction, but pastors who write sermons would benefit from this as well.  Click here to read my review!

Ten Reasons I am Grateful for AWP

This week I attended my second AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference in Washington, D.C.  Here are ten reasons why I am grateful for this experience:

  1. Meeting writers and editors in person who I only knew through blogging and social media such as, Allison K Williams (read my post about her amazing book, Get Published in Literary Magazines) and Kim Brown, aka The Confident Writer, who is also the Founder and Editor of Minerva Rising Press and Donna Talarico, the founder and editor of Hippocampus Magazine that will be publishing an essay of mine in March.
  2. Getting great advice. Like, if you get a personal rejection, be grateful. A personal rejection means your work was read and considered. Don’t follow up on that personal rejection, though, by asking for more feedback. Editors are too busy for that. (Whoops.) Also, wait three days before emailing the editor you met at the bar. I got this piece of advice just in time. Otherwise overeager, stalker-Teri would have emailed the editor seconds after returning to my hotel room. SO GREAT TO MEET YOU!!!! #willyoupublishme?
  3. Learning about amazing women in literature you should know but whose words simply haven’t graced your path like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. Read Lorde’s poem “Power” and Rich’s poem “What Kind of Times Are These.”
  4. The chance to get to know editors, strike up conversation, and realize they are not just critics who reject your work, but real people who have hopes and dreams too. One editor I met invests her own money to keep the dream of her independent journal alive (which, I realize, is probably not uncommon.)
  5. The chance to pass out the super cute cards you made on MOO.com with your contact info and blog address.
  6. AWP discounts that help you subscribe to new journals such as Under the Gum Tree, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review, and Rock & Sling. I also subscribed to the Journal of the Month to familiarize myself with new journals.
  7. Inspiring readings that give you the itch to write.
  8. A few hours to write in a quiet hotel room.
  9. The chance to be a good literary citizen and blog about an AWP panel for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. I’ll be blogging about the panel “Following the Thread of Thought” moderated by Steven Harvey (The Humble Essayist). It was an excellent panel about reflective essay writing that included wise words from Phillip Lopate, author of “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
  10. The chance to get your picture taken with Phillip Lopate.

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

    Teri (excited fan girl) with Phillip Lopate

What can the church learn from a Starbucks barista?

image

Evans serves up joy one cup of coffee at a time.

Feeling crappy about the state of the world and our nation in particular? Well, let me introduce you to Evans. Evans will make you feel better. His job—or calling, I might say—is to make you feel better.

I met Evans this morning standing in line at an airport Starbucks. It was a long line. It was early. I needed caffeine. But they had the tunes cranking, James Brown was playing, and Evans—the barista—was dancing and singing out loud as he worked. “I’m sorry people, I’m sorry,” he shouted to the growing coffee-thirsty crowd. “But I just love this song! I love it! So I’ve just got to sing and dance.” After the song was over, though, he didn’t stop. He kept dancing, coordinating his barista moves of pouring our dark brews, mixing our caramel macchiatos and whipping our cappuccinos into his choreography. When the cashier took our order she wrote our name on our cup before handing it to Evans. This was his point of entry. “Hey, Teri! How are you doing, Teri? Are you having a good day?” How could the answer be “No” in the face of such exuberance? Evans spoke like this to each customer. He greeted the man in front of me, Alec, so warmly that, having not yet caught on, I thought they were old friends. “Hey, Alec.” Evans said. “Great to see you, man. I’m going to take care of you today. Don’t you worry. I got you covered.” Alec didn’t seem to be having a good morning, but he managed a smile when Evans handed him his iced coffee with cream.

Evans’ effect on the people gathered for their ritual morning coffee dazzled me. In the friendliest of ways, he broke down our stoic, I’m-in-public inhibitions, giving us permission to show a little joy ourselves, turn to our neighbor to share an appreciative laugh, or help her with the pot of creamer that was extra dribbly today. He single-handedly transformed that Starbucks into a space where community was fostered, where joy and kindness were collectively shared. When Evans handed me my coffee, I asked him if I could take his picture because, as I told him, “You’re awesome, and I want to remember you.” The five or six customers gathered around smiled and laughed appreciatively at my desire to acknowledge our favorite barista. They cheered for Evans as he posed, proudly, for my picture.

Evans’ effect on me didn’t stop, though, once I left the coffee shop. Afterwards, I found myself smiling more at the strangers around me. I offered a napkin to a man who spilled his coffee. I wasn’t irritated with the woman who took the clean sink I wanted in the restroom. Generally, I found myself to be a more outgoing, positive, caring person after my time at Starbucks. The whole experience felt like church—if church could be defined as a place where community is created and people are transformed into new and better versions of themselves.

Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I was recently asked to lead a workshop on how to attract young people to the church. If it works out that I can do the workshop, I think I might begin by introducing those gathered to Evans and his style of service. Not everyone can be Evans—he certainly is someone special. But we, in the church, can learn from him if we pause to ask some relevant questions. How did Evans create community in that Starbucks? What was he offering, besides coffee, that was attractive? How did he inspire positive change in the people he served? And how might we provide a similar experience?

 

Contributing to the Cause

https-cdn-evbuc-com-images-26658337-197060628551-1-original-jpgOn this day of national activism, I appreciated this post by The Poetry Foundation.  It  shares a selection of poems that,

“call out and talk back to the inhumane forces that threaten from above. They expose grim truths, raise consciousness, and build united fronts. Some insist, as Langston Hughes writes, “That all these walls oppression builds / Will have to go!” Others seek ways to actively “make peace,” as Denise Levertov implores, suggesting that “each act of living” might cultivate collective resistance.”

On a morning when I was regretting not being able to go to a march myself, this post reminded me that there are many ways to speak truth to power, to promote justice, to work for change in our society. Each of us has been given different gifts and different ways to contribute to the common good. For reasons I sometimes find hard to fathom, God has gifted me with a pulpit and a platform and opportunities to share my words. The responsibility that comes with such a public platform overwhelms me at times. But I recognize my position as a privilege, as an opportunity to serve, and, hopefully, an opportunity to influence for good. On this day, January 21st, 2017, I am more aware than ever of the need for articulate, wise, respectful and well-informed voices in the public sphere.  As I watch the events of this weekend unfold, I am praying today for all those adding their voice to our national conversation as we collectively seek a way forward in this liminal, or ‘threshold’, time of political and social action.

Searching

2483710127_771d90b5f0_oIf I just sit here, God, and
try to feel you,
or know You,
in a way I cannot
doubt or explain,
will you come, and
be with me?
Or will my foot that
falls asleep, and
my mind that
begins to write, and
the washer that beeps, because
my laundry is done and ready
for me to dry and fold and put away,
distract me from
all that is You
with me, here
as I sit
and search?

[Feature Image: Via Tsuji]

Addicted to Hating Trump

A few nights ago I dreamed about a man I love to hate—a man whose conservative, self-righteous, Jesus-talk drives me crazy. In my dream I publicly embarrassed this man. I called out all the ways he was wrong in a room full of people. He was humiliated. I even made him cry. I woke up from this dream feeling so…satisfied.

Karen Armstrong, a British author known for her books on comparative religion, wrote “12 Steps to Compassion” which she based off the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In an interview on the Ted Radio Hour, Armstrong explained, “We are addicted to our pet hatreds. We don’t know what we would do without the people we dislike. We meditate on their bad qualities. They become our alter egos. They are everything we are not. When we say something negative about these people we get a buzz of pleasure almost like the first drink of the evening.”

I immediately thought of the man in my dream as I listened to Armstrong speak. Her words rang so true. My dream reflected my ego’s desire to win, to be right, to defeat this man with whom I disagree. “People don’t want to be compassionate,” Armstrong said, “they want to be right.” Our egos drive us to these conflicts, even in our dreams.

We would be well served to pay attention to Armstrong. My Facebook feed has been full of articles about Donald Trump—negative articles, because that’s what my friends are posting. At first, I read these articles eagerly, looking for more reasons to support why I was right about our new President-elect. But I have started to question this national addiction to hate, to oppose, to prove ourselves right. It seems like we are enjoying ourselves a little too much.

Over dinner the other night, my husband, Dan, cut our 9-year-old son off as he was making fun of President-elect Trump. Our son was just mimicking what he had heard others do. But Dan corrected him, saying that we will not make President Trump the butt of our jokes. We will critique what he does when we believe his actions are wrong. We will work to hold him accountable to what we believe is just. But we will not disparage him or make fun of him for the sake of our own pleasure.

I appreciated Dan’s words to our son and realized I needed to hear them myself. It’s easy to hate, criticize, and meditate on the bad qualities of others. But putting another down is a terrible way to win. It does nothing but produce more conflict and rancor—ugliness just breeds more ugliness. Armstrong suggests, then, that we wean ourselves off of our addictions, our pet grudges, our hatreds. It’s a project for a lifetime, she warns. But it will be a lifetime that prioritizes compassion—all day, every day.

 

[Feature Image: Tony Webster]

Connected to Something Bigger

This past week I visited my friend, Melissa Earley, at her home in the suburbs of Chicago for a writing retreat. We spent most of our time sitting at her dining room table, laptops and notebooks open, books strewn about, favorite pens in hand, while we offered each other writing prompts and read each other our work.

On Thursday evening I tagged along with Melissa to the Methodist Church she serves as pastor. They were having a Taizé service, which, Melissa explained in an apologetic tone, she expected only about six people to attend. “You don’t have to come,” she offered. And it was a bitter cold night. But we’d been sipping glasses of whiskey before a dinner of fresh mushroom ravioli. I was warm and happy and in the mood for community. “No, I want to go!” I told her.

Taizé services have grown in popularity in both Catholic and Protestant churches. This unique, meditative style of worship originated in the 1940’s in Taizé, France where Brother Roger felt called to form a monastic community. Today the community is made up of over 100 brothers, Catholics and Protestants, from around thirty nations. The ecumenism, worship and hospitality they offer to pilgrims who arrive at their doorstep from all over the world, reflects their mission: To be a “parable of community” that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separate peoples. You can read more about this beautiful monastic community at their website here.

I have incorporated Taizé style worship into my ministry at the college where I serve as Chaplain. Those who are new to it are oftentimes puzzled by its simplicity and use of repetition. People catch on quickly, though, as my college students have, and appreciate the way Taizé worship is designed to move you deeper and deeper inwards, to a place where you can connect more easily to God and Spirit.  You can listen to a common Taize song by clicking the Youtube link below.

At Melissa’s church, seven of us gathered in a semi-circle of chairs placed on the sanctuary’s chancel. We sang some Taizé songs that were familiar to me and some that were new. The verses repeated over and over. A soloist sang it the first time through, then the rest of us joined in. Later, a violin was added, and the more musical among our group started to harmonize. By the time we had sung through the verse four or five times, I knew the words well enough to close my eyes, focus on the liturgy of praise and prayer I was singing as well as the blending of voices and instruments around me. It was a pure musical meditation.

On the Taizé website I read: “Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.” This sentiment was abundantly clear to me as I sang with Melissa’s small band of six. Afterwards, my friend wondered out loud about whether or not her church should continue to offer this service. So few come, she lamented. I couldn’t answer that question for her or her church. All I could tell her was that it was worth going out into a dark, brutally cold, Chicago winter night for me.

Oftentimes, in the academic community I serve, I am asked why I am so committed to the church. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Especially the morning of church, when I ask my children to get themselves ready, put on a clean pair of pants, and, at the very least, wipe the frosting from our Sunday morning Pillsbury rolls off their face. When they don’t respond, or they do, with whines and complaints, about our Sunday morning routine, I lose my cool quickly. I start to shout, and keep shouting, until they do what I ask, and my daughter starts to cry, and my son goes sullen, his eyes flashing angry, and we all arrive at church in this mood. Why do I do this, I ask myself?

A sign of welcome posted by the door of Melissa's church.

A sign of welcome posted by the door of Melissa’s church.

My answer, though, always rises up and out and beyond me—because my commitment to the church really isn’t about me. It’s bigger than me. What I receive, though, is the reminder that, through the church, I am connected to that which is bigger. When I stop into a friend’s Methodist church where I am welcomed warmly and I know the scripture story and I know some of the songs, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger than the small, rural, Presbyterian church my family attends. When I realize that I can go pretty much anywhere in the world and find these same Christian connections, traditions, songs and story, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger. And when I am carried away from the smallness of this world, the pettiness and the pain that we humans often promote, by music composed by French monks working for peace, I am connected to something bigger, something Divine, and Good, and God. And that makes it all worth it.