Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shrinking Women No More? Mennonite Women in Leadership

"Shrinking Women" by Lily Meyers

Some things that continually surprise me:
1) just how many women's stories I carry within me-- stories I've been told or read from women I love/know/admire, stories that have not been told in public, that may never be told. 
2) how most of my college students in their early 20s--women included--use the word "feminist" like Americans might once have used the word "communist": a dirtied, failed term, a word that they wouldn't want to be caught embracing as part of their current American identity, a movement they've been taught to mistrust and keep rigid and stagnant by whom? The media? Each other? Their own mothers and sisters and female friends?
3) how I continually wrestle with being called to leadership and mentorship as an adult woman. This wasn't the case when I was younger. Those who knew me growing up would be surprised at my struggle, but I've continuously questioned the consistent inner push to raise my voice, to ask to be seen. This is a reaction I've been taught through watching women around me, but also a reaction I choose to sometimes live out, despite the consequences. As the poet says in her performance (see video above), "As she shrinks, the space around her seems increasingly vast."  

In pulling back and settling into silence at various times in my adult life, I've sometimes literally made myself ill. The first two years of my marriage felt like I was disappearing, and it scared me more than anything ever has. It wasn't my husband's doing, it was mostly my own. Some of the stories I carried inside me about "good wife," "good (Mennonite) woman" haunted me, even though I'd never fully acknowledged their power before. Formally a H.S. class/student council president, Rotary Scholar, and performing arts enthusiast, I suddenly felt like I didn't have a worthy voice or body to house it--and if I did and followed the call to lead (in various circles), I'd be letting someone down. I still haven't figured out who that "someone" might be, but "someone" still has a firm place in my psyche more times than I'd like to admit. 

So how did I get here, and why might other women who embraced leadership roles growing up hesitate to be leaders when they become adults? For me, I think one answer is that absence is a powerful teacher. And for someone who sees a church family as one of the most important, life-shaping communities, I didn't witness women in leadership very often. When I did, there seemed to be chaos and drama attached to it. This female pastor had this happen to her, this woman went to seminary and no one hired her, this woman writer left the church/community/denomination in order to write what she wanted, this woman spoke up and was socially shunned, this woman--well, you get the idea. Looking back, I'm also very aware that women who felt called to leadership, specifically within Mennonite circles in the area where I grew up, carried a weight and anxiety that often wasn't named but was always surfacing. This constant upset seemed part of being a woman in leadership inside a Mennonite church or our greater denomination...But I'm glad to say I feel/hope that this weight is shifting, maybe even being flung by the women who have carried it into the rural fields and city streets where we find ourselves. 

In "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," a recent online article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors name my ongoing story (and no doubt, others') by describing how "[p]eople become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose ... A person asserts leadership by taking purposeful action... Others affirm or resist the action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions. These interactions inform the person’s sense of self as a leader and communicate how others view his or her fitness for the role." Mennonite women need to feel heard and be seen, starting by one another. 

Two major reasons I've started to call myself Anabaptist again and to rejoin a Mennonite congregation are 1) because I'm seeing more women from diverse backgrounds, races, and experiences--specifically in their 20s and 30s--who are raising their voices and asking to be seen as leaders. It thrills me that many Mennonite-affiliated women are raising their voices through the act of writing and storytelling, two things that inform both my own identity and faith walk. Through blogs, books, plays, conferences, sermons, and magazine articles, we are redefining and reclaiming our public connection to God and the roles we are called to play within a greater Anabaptist family. Secondly, I'm getting to know more and more Mennonite men in leadership voicing the value and necessity of women's stories and leadership (though I still haven't heard the word "feminism" in a Mennonite pulpit). Perhaps I can be one of the women to change this, speak up. And maybe it will be this Sunday, even. 

Below is an excerpt from my (male) pastor's most recent email letter, in which he reflects on themes in sermons past and forthcoming. May I sleep well the night before this service. May I feel God's voice welling up in me, too, a woman also made in God's image, according to one version of the Creation Story that I didn't hear until my early 30s. May we as Mennonite women leaders claim this creation story with faith and energy and and joy. May we tell our stories in public because it's one of the hardest and most self-healing and empowering acts we can do
     "On the last Sunday of October congregations are invited to observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, each year having a different theme related to the Anabaptist/Mennonite story. This year’s theme is The Gifts of Women.     Needless to say, the church historically has not done such a good job of treating women and men as equal partners in the mission of God.  Neither has it done such a good job of using language and imagery for God that celebrates both the feminine and the masculine.  The dual effect here is that men have too often seen themselves as god, and women have too seldom seen themselves as god.      We’ve not done this well, and we are all the poorer for it.I see Columbus Mennonite as a community committed to learning and growing and nurturing the gifts of all who are present, regardless of gender identity.  That’s a beautiful thing and an important witness. I thought it would be a little strange if I, in my maleness, would deliver the sermon on this theme, so instead I’ll be interviewing three CMC women about their experiences with church – Joyce Wyse, JoAnn Knapke, and Becca Lachman.  We’ll talk about the churches of their youth, how their gifts have or haven’t been welcomed, their evolving relationship with the predominantly male populated Bible and masculine God imagery, what they are observing presently, and their best hopes for what the church can be. I, for one, am looking forward to it. This Sunday we will celebrate the gifts of women, we will lament the ways those gifts have been ignored and repressed, we will sing to the Divine who is the Source of the feminine and the masculine, and we will hear from women who will give voice to their own journey with God and church. And whatever ways the conversation needs to continue after Sunday, may it be so."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Keeping the Faith: Spiritual Memoir Examines Life Of Emily Dickinson

What writers have asked the questions that help you live out your faith practice, or perhaps a way of seeing the world? Have you used poems as psalms and prayers when you could not find words yourself?  

Doing this local NPR radio interview with Emily Dickinson sage Kristin LeMay and Ohio poet Wendy McVicker was such a treat--l
isten to our radio conversation at the link below:


My review of Kristin's book:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Outside the Box: Alternative Forms of "Church" and "Community"

Most Sundays at my house, "church" means some quiet reflection, maybe--if I'm lucky-- some poetry writing and a long walk, then listening to a sermon via podcast while cooking. Living 80 miles from the congregation where I'm a member, I've learned to look for spiritual mentorship and community in alternative forms; I can't always take the half-day to be with my church family in person.

Looking at the last few years of Jesus' life, I'm inspired at how he "made church" wherever he went, and with whomever happened to be drawn to him--even with groups and individuals the church leaders might call unworthy or unclean.

Last weekend, I drove the three hours to NE Ohio to visit both sides of my family. The kicker was that my central Ohio Mennonite church family was there, too (at a fall camp retreat just minutes from my parents' place). During that Sunday service, we even baptized two high schoolers in the camp lake, walking from the chapel while singing "Down to the River to Pray." All week, I've been thinking back on my own baptism at age 15, and how when I invited the Holy Spirit into my life, she said "OK, but I've gotta warn ya: I'll turn up in the most unexpected places and ask you to listen." And she has.

What feeds your faith walk outside of church walls? How do you build your definition of "church" and "community" in today's world? 

An Amish barn raising near my hometown. 

I happen to think that different layers of church can happen just about anywhere. If you're interested in reading more about my musings on this subject, visit and check out the "Additional Notes" section to see just some of the sources that inspire and challenge me as a stumbling Anabaptist.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What the Mennonite Church Can Learn from Chelsea Manning

One of my biggest, living peacemaking heroes sits in a prison cell tonight. And she identifies as transgender. What she does not identify as is "pacifist." But her bravery (on many levels) and her story could be--and I hope will be--a powerful catalyst for many more conversations and actions within broader peace communities, including my own, Mennonite Church USA. 

“As I transition into this new phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley) stated through a letter released on the Today show. She is just beginning what could be up to a 35-year jail sentence for leaking classified military documents to the public. She has already been tortured in a U.S. prison. Her trial was a military one, where reporters were harassed and ignored. Well, you might be thinking, this is a theft, a crime. And we're facing terrorists. 

But I wonder how much more Chelsea Manning has done for today's peace movement compared to many Mennonite pastors I've known. For starters, she's made me think more about the Mennonite motto and calling "Pray for Peace, Act for Peace" than I have in a long time. 

As a soldier, Manning released documents revealing U.S. military torture and abuse--including a chilling video of our soldiers' reactions as they kill civilians-- in the hopes that the American public would realize only some of the true costs of the wars we've been fighting for over a decade--costs that are physical, psychological, cultural, financial. The list goes on. 

 “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?” --Chelsea Manning

She wanted us to know. She wanted us to react.  And this is where the opportunity for the Mennonite church comes in. 

Manning broadly represents three groups Mennonites have generally struggled to relate to and fully welcome: 1) members of the military, 2) non-heterosexual identities, and 3) unconventional peacekeepers who truly rock the boat, making many of us uncomfortable.

Even as an historic peace church, today's American Mennonites have, on the whole, remained at a safe distance from calling attention to ourselves as Anabaptists within a nation that revolves around its military industrial complex. If this weren't the case, many more of us would be arrested for acts of nonviolent resistance, serving Christian Peacemaker Teams, or at least protesting how much of our annual taxes fund military action. And perhaps more young people would be drawn to our churches, seeking an alternative Christian community that believes God blesses everyone. (It's telling that we've recently developed a Peace and Justice Support Network to rile up a peace church about....well, peace.)

So: As members of an historic peace church, how will Mennonites react to whistleblowers such as Manning? How many of us have already spoken to friends, family, youth groups, small groups, or congregations about Manning's actions and sentencing in relation to our own peace traditions? And how will we respond now, knowing more of her sexual identity? 

As far as I'm concerned, we have a genuine peace heroine on our hands, and she happens to be a soldier. And she happens to be embracing a transgender identity. How Mennonites publicly respond to her evolving story will tell the world a lot about who we aim to be in today's international and national communities. "I want everyone to know the real me," Manning said. When it comes down to living out and teaching nonviolence during the ongoing War on Terror, what does "the real" Mennonite Church USA look like? Does our commitment to nonviolence encompass our daily interactions and relationships with everyone, even our fellow LGBTQ Mennonites? Or is it easier to pretend they don't exist or will go away, hoping no one blows the whistle on the various limits to peacemaking in our own faith communities? 

I admit that talking about LGBTQ issues still makes me feel like a fish out of water--I don't want to offend or seem awkward in that "Hi, I grew up in a rural, homogenous, religious town of a 1000 people" kind of way. I've been hurt in the past when dating gay or bi-sexual men trying their best to live out a heterosexual identity because they thought they had to. But I am here, saying I want to listen. To borrow an idea from trans activist and minister Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, "You can't say the word transgender and people really know what you're talking about. But anybody who says the word transgender means something different by it anyway, so it really is a story and not just a label."  I'm willing to admit that "This is where I am in my story, Chelsea. I'm a stumbling Anabaptist and a straight, married woman-- and I want to know you as you."  

If we let her, Chelsea Manning has quite a sermon to give Mennonite Church USA. It's not an easy everything-is-OK kind of message, and its complexity will leave many of us with more questions than answers. But we can decide to actively listen--perhaps next discussing how this important story impacts our own. 

In all things, love. In all people--Mennonite, Muslim, soldier, CPT-er, transgender prisoner--love. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Balancing the News with the Good News

"Open to Light." Bennington College, VT. Photo by Becca.

Over the last year, I've been working a lot from home (I'm an online teacher of college writing and a freelance writer/editor/tutor). This work-from-home experience has reminded me how unnerving and powerful silence can be. After breakfast, I begin to crave others' voices, music, some kind of controllable community while I brainstorm, grade or proofread. 

So I've often climbed down my writing loft ladder to switch on the radio at the top of the hour. Each time I hear that familiar NPR theme music (daa-daa-daa-daa, daa-daa-daa-daa, you know the one), I feel like An Adult-- I'm about to tune in to something important!  I want to know what's going on in the world. I will be "an informed citizen" so that I can work towards more lasting good, know what to pray for, work for. Maybe that's why I open my Facebook account daily, too. I don't want to be left in the dark. I long, instead, to be a part of a caring, awake, and aware community. And that's why by lunchtime, I'll have 4-5 links to articles and essays waiting to be read on my computer. 

But here's the reality: most days I've let the mainstream media pull me out to an anxious sea. My work day grows longer--4 p.m., 8 p.m., 11 p.m.--because I stew and get distracted, because I just have to listen to that podcast on fracking in Ohio or read the piece on Monsanto NOW. Or because I'm so depressed and disheartened about the state of my nation and world that I'll stay in bed till well past my alarm.

I've learned to depend on timers and small rewards to keep me productive (and sane). I grade ten essays? I get to eat that piece of raspberry pie in the fridge, or read that snail-mail letter from a friend. Or, every hour I have to do something off-screen, away from technology--fold the laundry, weed the driveway, walk to the post office. I take breaks or else my wrist and elbow, neck and shoulders will pay--but so will my inner peace. And as much as I write and talk about the responsibilities and gifts of being part of an historic peace church, I often have to remind myself that peace starts within--a mantra that greets my eyes now every time I turn on my cell phone.

What small acts of online and off-line kindness
am I nudged to take, and do they matter?
So how to really reach towards a lasting inner peace, even as someone who wants to "speak up for those who can't speak for themselves" (Proverbs 31:8)?

I don't think I need a personal technology monitoring assistant (a job that now exists, by the way): For starters, I could practice the discipline of thankfulness. The Good News can shape my day if I let it, and I need its theme music more than any other if I want to keep hoping and working for a different world. "New earth, heavens new, Spirit of God moving..."

For me, the Good News sings out that lives--including mine--have been and will be transformed through a mysterious Love and a creative Holy Spirit. I am not in charge of this transformation--but I can put Spirit-fueled love into actions. Listening for a still, small voice might be my revolutionary act each day, especially in a social media-driven sense of community. And retelling stories of solution and justice can help remind me that small acts of kindness are happening more than our media will ever let on.

Here are some of my short-term goals: 
1) Name three things for which I'm grateful at the beginning and end of each day, and with someone I love.
2) Do small acts of kindness outside of any screen--put aside a weekly time for this.
3) Downsize to one cell phone and one laptop between my husband and myself.
3) Instead of daily doses of news on NPR or the Internet, seek out more stories/newsletters from people I know who are working towards peace & justice on a larger scale--and speak openly with those who are working for other (sides of) issues.
4) When I do take in the news (perhaps only on Diane Rehm's news roundup?), listen with ears tuned in to some Good News headlines, first spoken by a Good Shepherd, and away from the crowds:

Blesséd is the begging spirit—heaven shall be harvest.
And blessed are they who cry out—I will give them peace.

Loved is he whose heart is gentle—the earth is his to hold.
Adored is she who thirsts for justice—I will go where she goes.

Blesséd are the tender, blesséd is the heart unclouded.
Blessed are those who give their days to peace:
You are my songs and daughters—
You are my daughters and sons.

Be salt—Be light—Be water
and pour out, pour down, my love.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I Am George Zimmerman: How I've Helped to Keep America "Safe"

A photo snapped by a fellow writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center this past fall. 
One of my favorite mindfulness meditations asks me to close my eyes and envision my life as a lake. While there's commotion, change, and a city's worth of tiny movements below it, a lake's surface often appears calm, beautiful. Even safe. When we look out across this surface, we are calmed too. We can almost forget all that's happening under it. While this lake meditation's meant to help us in dealing with the realistic difficulties and change in adult life, there are times when we need to look deeper, dwell with what's hidden, dive into unfamiliar waters.

I grew up in a tiny, rural, wealthy community where if you weren't Mennonite or Amish and white, you were a minority. For most of my 32 years, I've been lucky and privileged--some would no doubt use the word blessed-- to not have to say that my life's been negatively affected by


And yet, of course, my life has been affected by these words--even if I'm blind or busy living in a relatively calm surface society around me, simply because I can. As I've been listening and reacting to the recent verdict of George Zimmerman, I've also felt a renewed call to repentance and reconciliation. You see, as a middle-class, non-minority, tax-paying U.S. citizen, and Christian, I played--and play--a big part in the America of today. I've actually been wondering why more of us--regardless of race--aren't posting our pictures online with homemade signs that read "I am George Zimmerman"-- not to support his actions or verdict, but to confess that we are part of creating and supporting the violence-driven realities of today.

The "Support for George Zimmerman" Facebook group page, created as a rebuttal to the "I am Trayvon Martin" movement, includes links to firearms websites, racially charged and hate-filled language, photos of guns, and many "God Bless George Zimmerman" and "I'm not a racist, but..." comments.  I might claim that these things make me sick to my stomach (and they do), but I am, in fact, more like George Zimmerman than the boy he killed because Zimmerman was trying to keep his own world "safe."

Americans of many belief systems continue to support a culture that believes in might, and often that our peace-throughviolence is justified by God. We support this by paying taxes without questioning what we are funding (drones, overflowing prisons, and decades of war, for instance), but also by smaller actions under the surface of our country and economy.

As a humanist, an artist, and as a 21st-century Anabaptist, what more can I do to show the world a third way, the way of nonviolence?

And as a member of an historic peace church, I'm often flabbergasted at my denomination's near- assimilation into society's militaristic and violent-ready identity, even with the chance to publicly support efforts like the Peace Tax Fund today (Imagine: every Mennonite household withholding the percentage of taxes that would otherwise go toward military spending!) Heck, asking Mennonite congregations to support nonviolence by buying only fair trade coffee seems impossible on some days... And yet, we, too, are shocked at violence met by injustice. But should we be?


We can repent today for our part in American violence. We can use this act as a new starting point, no matter how it might interrupt or ripple our familiar assumptions, lifestyle, or identity as a U.S. citizen. Will you join me?

Forgive me, O God, on most days
-for letting news outlets shape my idea and mental image of a "bad person"
-for being surprised that the man on drugs who murdered my great-aunt was white
-for forgetting that my tax dollars help to make more violence possible
-for avoiding any man speaking Spanish on the street, on campus, on a bus years after being mugged in New Mexico
-for being scared in many ways of what the Upside-down Kingdom might do to my comfort level as a white American
-for posting my thoughts, concerns, and beliefs on Facebook more than in prayer and everyday action
-for not writing letters to the editor, to someone hurting, to someone alone--and for not raising my voice in the face of injustice in other everyday ways
-for taking it for granted that when I step into an airport, a car, a classroom, I will not be profiled
-for catching myself leaving a little more distance between me and the young black men walking in front of me

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Mennonite Monologue: Choosing the Story to Tell Today

"Remember your audience:" One of many mantras repeated by this college teacher-writer-writing tutor. Some days I think it would save me a lot of energy just to get it tattooed on my palm.

For me, today, this mantra means choosing to focus on one story that has changed me as a member of a Mennonite Church USA congregation. This story's goal is to introduce who I am and where I am in my faith walk. Talk about freakin' difficult-- especially since it will hopefully (hopefully!) jumpstart another safe place where Mennonite women are invited to share stories related to their leadership in the church.

As a member of the Women and Leadership focus group behind the web site Mennonite Monologues, I was able to offer one final suggestion that enabled me (and hopefully many, many more women) to actually sit down and write: let's invite women to share more than one story--the more, the better, in fact. The weight of having space for only one story to tell is not only intimidating, it's a form of silencing, too. We change, we forgive, we get fired up, we reach towards justice, we get fed up, etc. And so our stories transform along with us...

I'll admit that this first story of mine is not the one I originally wanted--want--to tell. But that story, at least right now, is being told in other ways.

Telling our stories is just another way of being in community with one another. I hope other Mennonite women feel this way, too.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"You Must Revise Your Life"

"I think you create a good poem by revising your life . . . by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about. It’s much more productive, much more healthful, to feel you are embarked on a writing career in which the way you live your life has something to do with the kind of poems you write . . . Your life is a trajectory. A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed."  ~Wm. Stafford

I've been fairly busy lately suggesting how others might change something they've made to make it the best it can be. This is what poetry editors do, after all, and hopefully with as much humility and mindfulness as they can muster. (For all editors out there? You are my heroes.)

I am new at suggesting revisions for a stranger's words, for lines of poetry that I only meet on the page, in emails, and not attached to a face, a friendship, or even to a speaking voice in a workshop or writing class. I'm newer still at actually letting the big projects in my life (the "BPs," as some writer-friends call them) steer me. Take this anthology: The more I think I have my finger on the pulse of what to expect from it, the more it tends to surprise me. I can't turn the wheel on my own anymore.

This kind of loss of control feels unacceptable to me about 90% of the time, and in more areas than just my writing life. For a mostly Type-A--Enneagram Artist Prototype--INFJ-er, "going with the flow" is not my most natural state. Instead, I plan. I stew. I go for a long walk to sort things out and plan some more. I make color-coded lists. And as my patient husband will tell you, I feel the need to talk through all the what-ifs.

I'm also someone who needs to feel like her life is planting some bulbs of lasting good. So I tend to take on projects that have to be bigger than myself to succeed. To me, more risk equals more worth, more possibility of amazement. Not surprisingly, I expect a lot from others--but the most from myself. This is my nature. This is also--sometimes--my downfall, the reason I "give up" on humanity at least once a month, throwing the covers up over my head and swearing off NPR.

But then, the world calls me out again. There is hope, there is worth, there is dark chocolate and a friend's rich laughter. And there's a new book or new line waiting for my eyes and fingers.

One of the writing/teaching books that's influenced me gently commands in it's title that You Must Revise Your Life. The voice narrating that line is like a whisper coming from a mountain--that's how I imagine it. And up until recently, I carried its zen-like command with me like a shiny worry stone in my pocket. But I mostly applied it to my writing life only--what I needed to clear out or make room for so that I could keep doing what made me me.

Only recently have I learned to see revision--both in writing and in other areas--as something I'm not entirely in charge of (Again, there's that scary loss of control inhale, making my heart beat faster.) In writing workshops, there's often the old mantra hanging in the air that concludes, "Well, it's really up to the author in the end," meaning, this piece of writing doesn't belong to us, not really. And I get that. It certainly is important to learn to trust one's own instincts and vision.

But for me, revision has come to mean holding something I'm learning to love up to the life (ha--there's a beautiful typo!)--up to the LIGHT, then asking more folks to gather with me around it, experiencing through the eyes of others just what it is that I've made. Tell me, friends--what do you see? Tell me, today's version of Becca, what did you hope to make? I don't write just for me in the end, and I hope that I don't live just for me, either. My writing--and life--can only grow with this in mind.

But I'm a slow and stubborn learner. In writing, I'm grateful to have reached a place where I feel like I'm never alone when I revise--the words of creative writing mentors and friends are there, too, circling the poem or essay as it comes into clearer focus, offering up hard and encouraging and very wise advice. I am, more than anything, grateful for this trusted choir that keeps me accountable to my best work and keeps track of my best and worst impulses.

But outside of my writing life, I can convince myself that mine is the only voice and vision that matters.   And it usually takes an event that forces me to change, slow down, take stock of what the Universe is repeating. Then I say, "OK. I give up. I'm not in control anymore." And what I re-learn (and re-learn again) every time is this: life goes on when I have to lower my standards, take a break from the striving, even for good-- and the world does not split down the middle.

I'v been living/breathing/sleeping/eating the words and mantras of William Stafford these days for one of my "BPs," and I'm realizing more and more that although I mostly view him as a teacher-- have claimed him as one of my own "Mr. Miyagis," if you will--I imagine that Stafford was writing out these smooth-stoned mantras--You must revise your life; If you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going--firstly, as reminders to himself.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My friend & poet Jeff Tigchelaar recently asked me to participate in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, where writers describe the projects they're working on.  I’ll answer his questions below, then send them on to five more writers...and the happy dance continues. This may seem like a strange chain-letter of sorts, but ask any artist how it feels when someone (other than our spouses) takes the time to ask, "How's your work going?" It's pretty wonderful. 
Jeff’s responses are here at his blog, and a list of the writers who've taken part in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop can be found here
I'm ruminating on three book ideas--one nearing completion (poetry), one partly done (also poems), and one in the brainstorming stages (personal essays). But the project I'm sleeping/eating/breathing right now is a book full of others' work... See below.
What is the working title of the book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
In 2010, I stumbled across the fact that American poet William Stafford served as a WWII conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service (CPS) during the same time as my maternal Grandpa, Ivan C. Amstutz. To be honest, during most of my MA/MFA in poetry, Stafford wasn't even on my radar. In my mind, he was just another white American poet-patriarch. I was much more interested in international poetry and poetry by women. But when I began reading about Stafford's life example, starting with his master's thesis Down in My Heart (a creative nonfiction account of his CPS days), I was hooked and inspired and-- ultimately -- rejuvenated as a writer. At the time, I was questioning whether I wanted to be part of academia and what "success" would look like post-MFA. Stafford challenged me to do some real soul-searching.
And then, the Universe seemed to be tapping me on the shoulder wherever I went. Every poet I was befriending had a Stafford-related memory, poem--even dreams! When I looked on Amazon for an anthology of these Stafford-inspired poems/experiences, I found...nothing. 
With Stafford's 100th b-day coming up in 2014, I decided that editing an anthology of poems inspired by the life and work of Wm. Stafford would 1) be the closest thing to meeting him and thanking him, and 2) would hopefully encourage more discussions around his  ideas and teaching methods, some of which still get people all riled up (Just watch the trailer to this Stafford-inspired film Every War Has Two Losers, and you'll see what I mean.)
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Wow. It's impossible for me to imagine anyone else but the actual living poets in a movie version of this book, all sitting around a great table and talking about life. Wouldn't that make a great reality TV series? Let's get all these poets together (preferably in a beach house) and discuss all those unanswered questions Stafford posed! We could bring in some "Amish" people, just to get more viewers! Haha.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
How might we honor/grapple with/challenge/respond to William Stafford today?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This is my first big editing project, so I'm learning as I go... Some days it feels like Christmas. Some days, I'm so moved by the letters and submissions, I sit at my computer all misty-eyed. Other days I ask myself, "How did I get myself into this?" 

I'm in month #8 of the editing process. Since last summer, I've been querying presses about the idea, writing up proposals, and tapping possible contributors on the shoulder. I think it's pretty amazing that the press who said yes (Woodley P) was #13, just as 2013 started up. A good sign!

As for the book's content: One poet said he'd written his submission 25 years ago and never assumed it would be published; another said she wrote hers last week, getting up every morning to write, just as Stafford did. Some of the poems have been previously published, but so far, more than half are new or never-before-published.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Honestly, I wanted to connect with other writers and readers of poetry who believe in a better world. I needed to know they exist, and that poetry can still inspire conversations that change us, not just entertain us. I love a good challenge, and I want this anthology to be a real dialogue--no "sainting" Stafford. 
Stafford was a poet-teacher who never stopped believing in "the greater good," even in the worst of times. But he knew it would take a lot of work and transformation. I want to be like that/live like that, too.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
So far, poets like Ted Kooser, Susan Kinsolving, Kim Stafford, and Dan Gerber have contributed NEW poems for the anthology. It's very exciting. I've been using the phrase "humbling bliss" a lot. 
Look for the book--complete with a study section for use in classrooms/writing groups--this November! 
A few of my favorite writers who will (or have been asked to) answer these questions next week:
Carrie Oeding, Kent Shaw, Robert V. Hansmann, James Dickson, Sarah Green
Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors writing at Ohio University. Her 1st poetry collection The Apple Speaks (Cascadia House, 2012) is dedicated "to humanitarian workers around the globe, but more for the families who love them."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Blank (Heart)Slate

My good friends who know how I feel about the interconnectedness of big identity issues in America today (feminism, activism, materialism, etc.) tend to cock an eyebrow at my unshakable respect for Valentine's Day. But once I tell them my story--how one of my grandmothers doesn't give gifts for Christmas but sends out letters and gifties to her grandkids for Feb 14 instead, and how female mentors have literally saved my life, one belly laugh and snail-mail letter and girls' night out at a time--they start to get it.

This time of year, I often hear, "Why do we need a day to remind us to love?" or some form of that question in the air. And here's my answer: "How can we not need a day to remind us to love in today's world?" Now, my V-Day isn't filled with chocolates or flowers (though I ADORE the local chocolate and florists in my town, along with the amazing women behind them). My Valentine's Day is fueled by mindful connection.

I generally send out about 30-40 handwritten Valentines/year, and mostly to either the most important women in my life, or the friends I don't often get to see in person. It's a time to be intentional about actually reaching out to people who have made me stronger/wiser/grateful in the last year. We live in a society that now tells us that if we want to "know" someone, to feel connected with their lives, we only need a texting plan, or just need to show them we care by "liking their posts" (I sometimes wonder what American pioneers would say to this odd phrase/action!) But friends (Self, are you listening too?): I'm writing to say this is not enough! There's more than this.

When I send off a Valentine or call someone up on Feb 14, I'm thanking the Universe that this woman is here--here now--in my life and the life of others. And to be completely honest, it's also one week of the year when I can celebrate the fact that I am still here, too, that I am a woman with many privileges and blessings, and that I have the opportunity to reach out to my best self--with the help of friends, and with the help of self-compassion. I can, as a local nonprofit signs its emails, "make love a verb," starting with learning to love my present self.

I deliberately plan activities in my week that make me--yes, make me--acknowledge my strength and beauty as an individual. Yoga, writing, and morning devotions (usually a prayer or poem or song) makes me slow down and nod to who I've been in the past--and who I want to become before the day blasts into any to-do list.

So if I was handing out candy hearts today, at age 32, they might offer, "Forgive yourself," "Let it go," "Renew," "See the beauty in the next stranger you meet," and "You're here now."

I remember putting candy hearts on the desks of boys I liked in 2nd grade, when I was literally about a head taller than all of them. It was before recess ended, and I recall the fiery rush of adrenaline and hope as I carefully chose which hearts went on what desks--before the bell!

And friends, I've been repeating this action ever since, decades later. I'm still that girl asking to be noticed for her worth, and I'm still the person wanting to exclaim to those around her, "I see you. You're lovely. You're OK." It just took me about 25 years to figure out that the person I needed to love in public--more than any man, or partner, or friend--was myself. And what a challenging Valentine invitation that's become every year..."Self, I accept you. Self, how will you define beauty today?"

May you eat something sweet today, whether it's chocolate or a true compliment someone gives you. May you smile at the college boys selling roses. And may you take a deep breath and walk out into the world with greater self-compassion. Our hearts are blank slates. Let's be mindful of what we've written there.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Insurance and "Wordles"

This morning, I sat down with our State Farm insurance agent to go over existing policies--one of the many things on my "being grown up is surreal" list, mostly because I'd made an appointment to listen to a stranger describe all the things I was supposed to be afraid of.

As a Mennonite, this kind of meeting also makes me uncomfortable.  And sad. There was a time when more Mennonites and other Anabaptists didn't buy into most insurance plans.  If something happened--fires, sickness, theft, injury--the church would step in to see you through. We made our own commitments to each other, unspoken and spoken.

I calmly reminded the agent that no, I wouldn't take anyone to court if they wrecked into my car and didn't have insurance. No, I didn't want life insurance at this time, and that my husband and I had talked it through. No, I don't want my home owner's insurance policy to cover any jewels or furs or firearms, and no, I don't have an iPhone, can you believe it? Will not be getting one, no. I don't want to be "connected" all the time. And yes, I've heard the statistics about how many people use tablet computers these days. No,  I don't have a texting plan for my phone, and I don't really want to know what app may "change my life forever." And every time Diane Rehm says "Send us a Tweet," I want to die a little inside.

I'm more interested in poems inside us, I wanted to tell her, the ones that sometimes also change our lives forever. What poem keeps your mind and body humming? What poet visits you in dreams? And do you have special insurance for poets--you know, to cover submission mailings, contest fees, residency application fees, especially when a poem gets rejected, or isn't even read by an editing staff who sends you a rejection email that could've been written by my cat in a bad mood? Or how about those visits to the shrink, the life planner, or those extra vacations taken because (most of) the world thinks you're  [ fill in the blank ] for wanting to write poems and read poems and talk about poems like some people talk about the latest features of their newest gadget?

I kept quiet, of course. Smiled and signed/dated next to my signature that looks like my Grandma Ruth's cursive. She was a 3rd grade teacher and taught me how to lean my R's just so.

After walking home from my visit with the insurance agent, I sat down at my writing desk and saw the "Wordle" I'd printed out, a word cloud generated from all the text in my first book of poetry. Up until this week, I didn't know the word or the "Wordle" itself existed. The largest words in a Wordle are those that appear most often in the collection, then the middle-sized words, and so on. I started to think about how long it took me to shape this book--10 years--and how my next collection will house different words that swim to the surface most often.

I'm not completely naive. I know that life sometimes changes with the blink of an eye, and having insurance can be important in an individualistic world. But what do I want to leave behind? I'm grateful to write--it helps me build up a world I want to live in, need to live in. And it insures my current self--I hope--in a unique and lasting way on the page.

What words do you use most often, whether you're a writer or not? And what do these words hold up/protect or illuminate about what you hold most dear? Some things to think about.

Here's the "Wordle" from The Apple Speaks

          title="Wordle: The Apple Speaks ">Wordle: The Apple Speaks