Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hey all none of you:

I've moved this blog to Wordpress. It's not as pretty as this one, but I like the user-end better, and I have a bunch of accounts there already. So if you'd like to continue reading all about the dumb stuff I say every once in awhile, drop by http://nortonthom.wordpress.com.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fifteen minutes before I need to be fully engaged with ten different things

I really suck at this blogging thing, at least this one. But since WHYB is still ostensibly on hiatus, a few observations.

I don't want an iPad.

I do want the new iPhone.

What I want is silly.

The populations of the Festival of Faith and Writing and of AWP are vastly different.

I could happily start a new press or journal every year. But for now I'll stick with the ones I have.

I'm the new editor-in-chief of Rock & Sling, a journal of literature, art, and faith. That seems weird to me, but I'm getting used to it. Writers reading this, please send me some work.

Some days my happiness depends on the success of the Seattle Mariners. Some days that doesn't work out so well.

My reliance on a baseball team for happiness is clearly a lack of faith. That happens. Old habits.

I hate grading papers, and am very good at avoiding them.

I steal an "In case of emergency landing" card from every airplane I fly on. I have quite a collection.

I like flying less and less. On the way home from Grand Rapids, I envisioned the wing ripping off the plane at various elevations, and my odds of surviving, which were almost always nil.

It's too nice out for me to be sitting here doing this.

Blogs are ridiculous.

I wrote a few small poems in the last few weeks. I blame the boredom of sitting at bookfair tables and being next door to Inch at AWP. Here's one:


I've never been,
but I'd like to.

Missouri. Missouri.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finding Something

I've generally made this distinction about myself (especially since starting at Whitworth): I am spiritual, but not Christian. Christianity has many negative connotations for me. Corrupt churches fomenting and preying on fear, perpetuating a system of inequality, committing and justifying genocides (manifest destiny, et al), and generally practicing hypocritical intolerance. One of Lani's favorite quotes is from Gandhi, and I like it too: "I admire your Christ, but I do not like your Christians" (or something to that effect). I admit that my view has been one justifying my dislike of Christianity, justifying my agnosticism, which have always been inseparable, but it isn't hard (for me) to see why. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and manifest destiny (colonialism in general?) to name the obvious ones, all serve as examples of the general intolerance and persecution practiced by the church (seen in the Christian Right, and the persecution of GLBTs today (I know this isn't all Christians, but it's there)). The idea that one group of people is privileged with the one correct answer sets my teeth on edge. It defies the ethics of argumentation (as discourse) and logic that only certain naming principles and rituals would be privileged with eternal salvation. It would seem to violate any concept of a benevolent construct of a divine being that that being would need to be called "God" in order to be "saved." Why not "Allah," or "Yhwh," or "Enlightenment," or "flying spaghetti monster"? Why would that matter more than deeds, or a more general sort of faith? The sort of spiritual elitism that Christianity (and perhaps other religions as well, certainly Islam) engenders has been part of my barrier. I have students who believe devoutly that their Hindi friends are going to burn eternally in hell because they don't call it "god." This saddens me. How could a creating divinity want us to be close-minded? To be exclusivist? I refuse to accept that.

I had a two hour chat with a former student today. He was in my Core (for non-Whitworthians, Core is the "western civ" class required of all WU students which serves to codify/regularize the worldviews of the student population to a reformed Christian point of view. I "teach" in the program. Perhaps the subject of a post later on) discussion group, was generally agnostic, and kind of flunked out the semester I had him. But I continued to meet with him through that year, and then today saw him for the first time since last spring. Sprinkled in with the other good news in his life in the first fifteen minutes of catching up was this: "Oh, and I believe in God now."

He's a smart guy, very intuitive and perceptive, and while I have worked very hard (**I'm-about-to-offend-some-of-you Alert**) to overcome my (obviously absurd) idea that Christians were uniformly lazy thinkers, and generally not as smart as me (I don't think that any more, fo rizzle), my initial reaction was, "Oh great, we lost another one to the void." Thankfully, the conversation moved into how this happened, and he started asking me questions about my faith (when I say "faith" I don't mean "Christianity." I mean faith in something bigger than me, something less definite or absolute) and doubt. I said I don't think there can be faith without doubt. Blind faith should have another term, but for me doubt is the essence of faith. For many years, I've had (and I described this to him) this image in my head when I think about religion, or about faith, of a dark wall, which is sometimes a little translucent, and on the other side of that wall is light and sound. The purest light and sound, and I cannot see what the light reveals, nor hear the sounds distinctly enough to identify. But I know they are good. Good. They could be absolutes.

He said, smiling, "That's God. Behind your wall. That's God."

I'm not sure I believe that. But maybe.

My student said he prayed regularly, but he always felt like he wasn't talking to anyone. He was in Starbuck's one day, and prayed, and looked up and saw a sign in front of him that said, "I hear you." And he took it for a sign. I think there is something about being open to things which allows those things to transpire, and perhaps he was at a place in his life that allowed him to be open. I've always hoped that a sign would be obvious, something I couldn't possibly mistake or write off to coincidence. But I'm wrong about a lot of things.

The conversation progressed. I believe in Love, and I believe in Beauty as the embodiment of love. We talked about the naming of things. I raised my question about exclusivism. This wasn't, I should point out, a conversation in which either of us was trying to convince the other. We were just asking each other questions. He said, "This is what church should be like." (He has similar hangups to my own regarding the institution of "church.") I've often heard, and he repeated this: God is love. So I asked, "Then why do we need to call it God? Why can't we call it Love, and still be 'saved'?" Why does there have to be a club that only certain people get into? Why does someone have to be right? There's an arrogance there that I don't like. It also assumes that we humans have figured "it" out, which given the general assumptions about the omni-everything of God (or whatever) seems a bit presumptuous, to the point of being ridiculous.

He asked, "What about Christ? Did he die for us?" I think that Christ existed. I think he was a great man and teacher, an example of virtue and compassion. I also believe that he was a man, mortal and capable of "sin." And that he did "sin." He was human, and humans err. But I don't believe his death provides me with salvation, at least not the way Christianity describes it. I came to this line of reasoning, with my student's input: Christ was an example, a way. The same way Mohammed was, or Siddhartha (thanks Herman Hesse, for getting all that jumbled in my head), and that the culture they were in glommed onto them and ascribed religious properties to them, codified/distorted their teachings for their own human ends (which in the beginning of the various "ministries" was probably altruistic), and after centuries of getting it wrong (and sometimes right, maybe), we ended up with the religious system we have today.

But if I take "Church" out of it, and focus on some things, I can see a way to get there. My student asked me about the Big Bang, saying he believed in evolution, but that the Big Bang seemed a bit ridiculous. I've always thought that the Big Bang and physics were actually the best proof of a supreme creator. If energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then eternity exists. If everything comes from something, than the energy that created the Big Bang already existed. So where did it come from? God (or whatever) provides a convincing, but also convenient answer. (I am aware of the problem that we have much more to learn about the makeup of the universe, and that physics is a developing science, and that answers today can be proven wrong tomorrow, but it gives me somewhere rational to go for an answer, or a way to an answer.) The next step in that logic though is where did God come from? Well, if God is energy, then it always existed and always will. Eventually, I think this leads to the traditional soul/body problem. Okay.

On the way back to campus (we met off campus, which was nice, he said that if we'd had the same conversation on campus it would've seemed like trying too hard to have a "Whitworth conversation") I thought of this (realizing that it obviously wasn't the first time it had been thought, but it was for me): Humans weren't created in God (or whatever)'s image. But maybe our souls were, and are a manifestation of that original, primordial and eternal energy. I'm still trying to think through this, and will now be a well-conditioned academic and read lots of books about it. But if that is true, then the body, humanity, is what is fallible and mortal. It is material which houses our "divine spark," if you will (knowing how old/archaic that phraseology is). At this point, decisions about intentionality might need to be made. Is this original energy conscious? I don't know how to answer that yet. If the body is what makes us human, is the body what makes us...I don't want to say evil, but that idea certainly has a long tradition. This is one of the central questions/issues of Gnosticism. I know Deism also explores this idea to some extent (though perhaps moreso the intentionality question. Research, research).

But why does it need a system? Is the Christian heaven just a return to the original source of energy? How can anyone assume they have the answers to all of these questions, and that they are the right answers?

After I'd had my (to me) possible-epiphany about the nature of the soul, I parked, got out of my truck, and headed towards my office. I heard music. Bagpipes (among my three favorite instruments) somewhere in the distance. Of course I thought of my student and his sign at Starbuck's (what a weird place for a "conversion" experience, or maybe not), and the idea of being open to things. I went inside, wondering about it. The bagpipes weren't playing any tune I could recognize, just kind of the general bagpipe melody (Scotland Forever? Go Highlanders!). I wondered about it for a few minutes (had to pee), then decided I wanted to see if I could find the source of the music (craving as always, obviousness and confirmation). As I was walking toward the sound, it became "Amazing Grace." And it was gorgeous. Now, this wouldn't necessarily be unusual for Whitworth, where most music is somehow tied to religion. I could rationalize it away. Pretty easily. About a block later I could see the piper off in the distance, near one of the dorms, with their back to me. The tune changed. It was still lovely, and I walked back to my office. But it was just about my favorite kind of music. And I've never heard bagpipes being played on campus in 14 months here. I don't know what it means, but at the very least, I am open to it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And then summer ended

I remember May, remember sitting here typing out the last post on here. A few minutes ago, a few months ago. Where'd it go? Into the garden, swim lessons, a couple of camping trips, BBQs, twenty or so books read, time spent with family and friends. One couple I know had a baby, another friend had a baby, got married, bought a house. Another couple is trying to get pregnant and bought a dog. I feel almost like I hibernated over the summer. I grew some vegetables, some herbs. I cooked and cleaned, took my kids places, kissed my wife. I had things I needed to get done that I didn't, I did things I wanted, some I didn't, did some things just to do them. And now it's almost fall. I'm stockpiling firewood to keep warm this winter. Canning vegetables, putting things up. It's nice. Having a pantry full of food that I grew is nice. A woodshed stacked neatly. Smell of pine and pitch, a winter's worth of heat. It's 80 degrees and I'm thinking of snow. This is how years pass, Emma a kindergartner, Sam a new breed of child, naming things, claiming what is his, yelling when it isn't, Sam an old breed of child. Sam himself, I suppose. Why do we care so much about measurement and progress? The geese fly south. They'll fly north again when the time comes. I'll head out into the woods looking for deer, for elk. These old remembrances of things we used to have to do to survive. It doesn't seem frivolous, but maybe it is. I like the ritual as much as the act (having never shot an animal in my four or five years of hunting, I'd better like the ritual more), and I know it has a familial weight to it, something to pass on, "This is how things once were. They had value and still do."

So back to all kinds of work, it's time for that.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The End of the Semester

It's almost over. My first year as a professional teacher, and not a grad student. That took some getting used to. This semester, I taught five classes at two schools. It got a little crazy, but now it's over. I'm still breathing. I am finishing up comments on second stories of my intro to creative writing students, and reading some work by students I had last semester. Last semester, they were a mess. Great kids, but a mess. But now, five months later, they are up to stuff. Experimenting with form, non-linear narratives, a story in second person that is readable and interesting. My current students aren't a mess, entirely. They are trying stuff too. But mostly, they are learning what the stuff is. Next semester, I have an intermediate fiction workshop, and I get to see five of my intro students a year removed. I can't wait. To get ready for that (I'm planning five months ahead? Who is this person?), I'm looking at my fiction. Man, I love stories! How do I forget that? I love writing them, I love reading them. I love my NW lit students reading James Welch, the look in their eyes as the scope of the story expands and they realize where they live, and how deeply connected to it they are. I teach them little, what to call things. They learn how to read. They learn how to write. They learn though, and they love it. And I love them for it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not Being There

I'm not sure how I didn't see this coming. Or maybe I did, and it was another good reason to leave. After all, the best thing about leaving sometimes, is missing the thing that you left. With all the madness of the flooding, the flurry of Facebook status updates regarding flood efforts, the Herald webcam I've been glued to for over a week now, the Grand Forks sandbag central being blocks from where I lived...with all that, I admit now that I miss Grand Forks. I miss North Dakota. Or at least, I miss the idea of Grand Forks and North Dakota. The idea of Grand Forks is really the people though. I miss the people. The willingness to survive. To do things that need done. The intense effort and the beer afterwards. The full-body press from Rae Ann. Well, maybe I don't really miss that.

Here's the thing: Absence creates presence. The absence of the things I loved about the northwest, mountains, forests, trails, rugged landscape, fast rivers, overwhelmed me. Those were what created my imagination. For me, mountains are aspiration, mountains take us into the sky, they provide scope and perspective. They are a crossable boundary, a struggle. The absence of those things was terrifying. But North Dakota trains you to cope, if nothing else. It is good to redefine things, to retrain your imagination. And my last two years there, maybe just the last year, I allowed myself to do that. I became, I think, present in North Dakota, and paid attention. Beauty is something else there, not absent, just different. And it has a lot to do with the people. They, you, are the mountains there, the aspiration, the boundaries, the context. When the Red rises up once more, you build walls. When you need two more feet, or else, you build two more feet. Just enough to survive it, just enough to cope. And having come to understand that, it was painful not to be there, worrying, filling sand bags, laughing at nothing, laughing because it's about the best alternative to despair, that and the work. I wanted to do the work, throw my weight against the river, to protect what really shouldn't even be there in the first place.

I'm there with you, suffering and working and nervous. Though the best I can do is wish I was.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Voices and Who They are Talking to

I am teaching two classes that I really care about right now, intro to creative writing, and intro to lit. The two classes are at two different universities, so the student base is not identical, but both are private Christian schools, one Jesuit and one Presby. Most of the kids are upper-middle class, white, entitled, and ambitious (in capitalist terms). The lit class is for non-lit majors. And all was well. We spent eight weeks on short fiction and novels, during which time the students made complex analyses, struggled with Vonnegut (and didn't entirely like him, which should've been my first clue), but did okay overall. Spring break, come back, turn the page to poetry. I have twenty eight students in that class, some of them pretty smart. The first day of actual discussion, in a fifty minute class, there was probably a total of ten minutes of dead air. Twenty percent of class time was spent in silence, me looking at them for answers, them looking at me for answers. We weren't reading difficult stuff, and I wasn't asking much. At the end of the grossly unproductive class, I began to ask, "What is the problem here? Why are you so unresponsive?" For the most part, the answer was, "Because we don't care, we aren't the audience," and "It's too hard. Poems make us feel dumb." Okay.

We'd read, among other things, a graphic novel set in post-Revolution Iran. Read two stories dealing with the Vietnam war. They knew nothing about those things, beyond Iran is evil, and we won Vietnam. We started with Yeats' "Second Coming" (okay, not that accessible, but certainly not Wallace Stevens), and then looked at Hayden, Li-Young Lee, and Bukowski. All three poems about the speakers' relationship with their fathers. A broad variety of images, tone, diction.
"We don't get it," they said.
"You enjoyed books about Iran, stories about Vietnam, about which you know nothing."
"You all have fathers?"
"What don't you get?"
Dead air.

Okay. In case of emergency, the next day of class, this past Monday, I had printed out copies of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" of the "would not take the garbage out" fame. I was even ready to say to the class, "This seems more your speed."
But I thought I'd try lecturing first, which I rarely do, preferring a discussion-based model for class. But I talked about World War I, the flu epidemic, and how it wiped out much of a generation in Europe, how Modernism was responding to all of this instability, and how that led to the destabilization of form, meter and rhyme. Heads were nodding, notes were taken. Vaguely encouraged, and knowing that I would never get them back if I passed out the Silverstein in anger, I dove into Wilfred Owens' "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem that I've liked before, but not considered too important. A half hour later though, I had them and myself convinced that this was the quintessential bridge between 19th and 20th century sensibilities. It had rhyme, but no meter. The imagery was sharp, the diction Wordsworthian. The use of pronouns is compelling, and a choice made in revision (to drop the dedication to a specific person), which expanded the poem's scope to include the reader. Summing up a soldier's experience of war first-hand, I said, "Now what does this remind you of?"
"The Things They Carried."
"Still think poetry doesn't apply to you?"
Shuffle, shuffle.

To anyone who has struggled with being a poet, none of this is surprising. While this might be the sort of story a teacher would read and nod at, clucking their tongue, it got me to thinking about a question form both classes. My creative writing class, when talking about revision, and responding to my comment to have some voices in their heads telling them how to revise, asked, "What are the voices in your head?"

Later that week, when introducing poetry to my lit class, I told them how excited I was about poetry, being that I was a poet myself. This ellicted the question, "Why?" I didn't answer that question.

I did answer the other question, a day or two later, when I had thought about it. The voices in my head, when writing or revising:

~My mom, who loves me, but doesn't get poetry. I want her to get poetry, and her motherly love allows me to be an asshole sometimes, knowing I will be forgiven.

~My father, who loves me but isn't easily impressed by words. Its love I have to earn, and hopefully the right combination of words will impress him.

~A woman I am trying to seduce, usually Lani, because that's the only time it ever worked.

~A friend who likes the way I write, but wants it always to be doing a little more, in a number of different ways, pushing at boundaries, and never thinks I have it exactly right.

~Another friend, who doesn't seem to like the way I write, and is often concerned with compressing language down to essentials. This keeps my urge to wordiness in check sometimes. And gives me someone else to try and impress.

Whitman said great poetry will always find an audience. I don't want this to be yet another discussion about the diminishing poetry audience. But. I'm writing for five people, and I can't put into words for non-lit majors why I write poetry. I just do. So I'm considering a sixth voice for the revision gallery. One of my lit students, who is smart as hell, doesn't really like me, and just isn't interested by poetry. Yet. I want him to be. And I'm not sure what it will take at this point, what he will add to the discussion in my head about how to phrase something, about what images to include, of how to use pronouns. Maybe this is the first time I've honestly admitted to myself that maybe the audience isn't the problem, the poets are.

When we read "The Red Wheelbarrow," my smart student said, "This is why we hate poetry." Most poets will have one of two responses to this: "Fuck 'em." Or, "Hm." So. Hm.