Sunday, January 6, 2019

Nine Years Since Publishing "Bare Ruined Choirs"

It's been nine years since I published my poetry book Bare Ruined Choirs, and I'm still proud of those poems.

Writing poetry is certainly different than prose--more than usual meaning and manner, to paraphrase the Romantics. Writing those poems took time, often years. I was in no hurry to "finish" a poem; the process of revising and refining itself was fulfilling. The poems in the book suggest the life cycle of a relationship, from first meeting to last good-bye.

Autobiographical? Of course . . . but not exactly. Beginning with personal experience or emotion, the process of refinement was a movement from personal and specific to universal. I think this is true of all art, discovering the ocean in a drop of water.

So in celebration of how those poems resonate with the universal ocean of life, of which my poems and I are but a drop, I post today these words and cover photo of my book.

Here is a link to two poems from the book, audio recordings by me of "Sleeping Magnolia" and "I Forgive Your Death."

Saturday, December 22, 2018

What Is the Purpose of My Life?

As I sit to write at early, early Friday morning on the winter solstice, a north wind blows outside and the sun has not yet risen. Sunrise is two hours away, and as I walked in the darkness this morning to the garage for a galvanized metal bucket so that I could empty the ashes from the woodstove, it was not excessively cold but rather just under freezing. Even the north wind with its bite was not ravenous.

The fire is busy now warming, my wife sits beside the stove drinking tea and enjoying the dancing light of the fire, and I type out words to explore: What Is the Purpose of My Life? I write these words without heaviness. This is no dark night of the soul. Purpose reminds me of Archibald MacLeish's poem "Ars Poetica," which ends with “A poem should not mean / But be.” The Poetry Foundation tells us that this poem is just one of a long series of poetic meditations on the art of poetry, and provides a number of references.

If art mirrors life, then it can be said that our lives are not meant to mean but be, that who we are is more important than what we do, that who we are is the foundation of what we do. Being precedes becoming. I think of my life: I am a man, a teacher, a husband, a father, a writer. "I am" is the foundation and the continuity. "Man, teacher, husband, father, writer"--the list could continue forever, for howsoever many words or concepts exist, and then simply flip the polarity and define oneself by what one is not: I am not a woman, a monk, a surgeon, a danseur, a diamond. That which remains steady is that continuity of consciousness, that "I am."

I remember--one of my earliest memories at four or five years of age--when my family lived "out in the sticks," as my father said, in Northern California, near the Feather River in the black oaks of the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I was out by myself, walking our long gravel-and-red-dirt driveway, and I stopped before a tangle of brush beside a gnarled digger pine tree. It was as if I were passing a neighbor and stopping for a hello. My awareness recognized another awareness, yet "my" and "other" are misleading words--more that I looked into a mirror and saw myself looking back: my eyes looking into my eyes looking into my eyes, an infinite loop of awareness. I said my greetings and moved on, but I have always had a special fondness for digger pines, a conifer with long, gray needles, the seeds from its large cones eaten by the Maidu Indians, who were the indigenous to that area.

When I grew up and moved away to college, there was a tree on the UC Davis campus that I would sit beneath and rest and read, a digger pine. Although I never hugged those trees, they connected me. I find my "retired" self now remembering that digger pine as it leaned toward the sun and so silent yet so alive, its roots reaching deep into the subsoil to find moisture; find myself remembering the rough bark of that pine on the college campus, my back pressing to its rough surface. It's as if my roots reach back through the years of experiences and memories to those early beginnings of an awareness of silence, a commonality of consciousness, as if those silent trees taught me how to dig deep into the soil of my being. Awareness curves back upon itself and perceives the continuity, sun warm upon a young face and woodstove warmth upon an elder. First we are; then we grow, expand, and take joy in our expansion. First the stillness, then the myriad bustle of the world.

I published in 2009 a book of poetry, Bare Ruined Choirs, and one of the poems in the book is "Winter Solstice," first published in 1993 in the Hiram Poetry Review. It's about reaching back, reaching deep, about our infinite depths and the roots of our lives.

Winter Solstice

Clouds like branches heavy with fruit
sag in the sky above the orchard,
raindrops leaning toward their long fall.
Day greys, moss blurs the being of stones,
horizons erode, ravines ruin the sky.

If I could gather enough silence,
I would root myself to this moment,
turn the inedible rind of the seasons
to rhymes ringed in the flesh,
to plum leaves drifting from the branch.

The worm breaches the red flesh of the plum;
leaves burst green from our scars.
The storm works in wet rhythms above me,
air fringed with beads, dark with cloud.
Rain drops from eaves, craters the stillness.

Beyond branches, tendrils of cloud
twine the seams of trellised sunlight,
break through this least of days.
Cloud, rain, this thicket of the sky.
Leaves burst green from our scars.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: Wild--from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

I came to this book via the back door, a little over fifteen years after Wild--from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published. The book's author, Cheryl Strayed, had authored an article for Vogue magazine on glamping, the angle being the Queen of the PCT taking on glamourous camping. I wrote up a response to the article after some research on Strayed, published it on my tiny trailer camping blog ("How Does Vogue Magazine View Glamping?"), and then ordered Wild for a read. I was not disappointed, Strayed displaying a strong ability to vividly describe both her experience of the Pacific Crest Trail and also the mental landscape of her gruelling challenge, not to mention her early-life challenges that brought her to the trailhead.
"At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her." (web page blurb)
The book reminded me of Miles from Nowhere, Barbara Savage's chronicle of a bicycle tour around the world. Both Savage and Strayed begin without experience, endure hardships, and prevail. Strayed's story, though, is much more wild, at least her life prior to the journey. The lost-to-found subtitle is appropriate for the book, for the first section describes Strayed's descent into her wilderness of despair. Both books won awards, and Strayed's Wild was the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0. The book was also adapted to cinema in the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. The book strikes a balance between Strayed's struggle and her indomitable desire to persevere. I'm not sure if the visual adaptation can as successfully maintain that balance. Reading Strayed's recollection and reflection on family abuse and heroin addiction is a different experience than watching its cinematographic representation.

Thank goodness the pre-journey set-up is not too long, and thank goodness that there is a years-after objectivity to Strayed's description of  her travail, a knowingness by the reader that she did make it through. This, at least for me, increased my attention on the author's fortitude and just plain stubbornness as she struggles her way to the PCT's trailhead and then plunges into her wild adventure--unprepared, ignorant, out of shape, and with a knowingness that she had nothing to lose. A great deal of the pleasure of reading this narrative was to witness the slow (and painful) progression of the author to both inner and outer strength. As the story progressed and the author grew more trail savvy, the story developed its own momentum, its own increasingly headlong dash to self-actualization.

I bicycle camp, tucking my living not into my backpack but into my bike's panniers. Wild made me want to hit the trail, and not just because of the author's turnaround of her lifestream. Her ability to describe the beauty of the trail, even with its many challenges, was revelatory: sun and sky, earth and stone, the green world and the clouds and rain.

Over fifteen years later, Strayed glamps for Vogue, and even with tent-cabins and massages and gourmet meals at the lodge, she still narrows the experience of the wild to being outside, blue sky above and mountain smells as the feet hit the trail. The unbounded immensity of nature, whether inside us or outside, is there really a difference? There need not be. Beneath the grime of the toil of the trail lies the bare bones of the earth--or the bare bones of the soul, beautiful in their austerity, in their sharp, hard lines. One reviewer praised the narrative because of the power of the author's voice, and I can concur. The author in this book has found her voice, a voice speaking with authenticity from the wilderness. If we step onto the trail, we can hear its haunting song.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Never Too Old (or Young) to Learn a New Word

Today I've just remembered an old vocabulary-building trick that I used years ago--using a 3x5 index card as a bookmark, and writing vocabulary words from the book on the card as I come across them. That's the gist of it.

I have several steps to choosing, recording, researching, and memorizing a word.
  1. Choosing: Words can be either words that I simply do not know, or they can be words that I know but want a clearer definition for. As an example, in my current reading I have chosen the verb "cohere." I know the meaning but usually see the adjective or adverb derivative, not the verb form. Therefore, I have chosen the word in order to deepen my understanding, not to introduce myself to a new word.
  2. Recording: On a 3x5 index card, I draw a line parallel to the left edge, about 1.5 inches to the right of the edge. In this space, I write words I choose and the page number where each word is used. That way, I can return to the author's usage of the word, both to increase my understanding of the text and to increase my familiarity of how the word is used.
  3. Researching: I reference a dictionary, either an online source or my Webster's hard-bound, unabridged dictionary. All the familiar information is available: meaning, examples, variations, to name just a few. I write the definition to the right of the word in the remaining four inches of the index card.
  4. Memorizing: Repetition over time is key to memorizing, so I refer to my list as I return to reading the book, looking over the words and definitions. Another powerful memorization tool is to use the word, so sometimes I'll create sentences that use the word. "The facts suddenly cohered into an understanding of what had taken place."
I'm glad I remembered this technique. When I taught, I used this as a means of vocabulary development for my students. It was more meaningful for them since their words were self-chosen and came from books and stories they had selected themselves. Words the students chose were a part of their lives, and this increased motivation. It was a bear to evaluate, though, because every student required individual evaluation time.

I've also just realized (or remembered) that I included this technique in my book about writing, I Write: Being and Writing. The book is divided into three sections on the writer, the process of writing, and the written word. I placed this little vocabulary building technique in the second section. I believe that the path to being a good writer includes being a good reader.

Right now, I'm reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, and I can't wait to find my next word.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Joy of Maintaining a Blog

Somehow, I've ended up with three blogs.

The sentence above was the rough draft beginning of this post. I should have cut it because it was just a beginning, a means of initiating the flow of ideas and words, but then I realized it was a good hook, actually, the old strategy of beginning with an opposite point of view. The word somehow implies that I'm not sure how I've ended up with three (or perhaps four) blogs, but that implication is inaccurate. I like to write about what I'm doing; I like to write about my passions, or as Joe (Campbell) said, about my bliss. There is a very real joy in maintaining a blog.

Three blogs: writing, tiny trailer camping, and bicycling (the fourth a specialized bicycle journaling web community). This blog, Tom Kepler Writing, was my first blog. I started it when I began to independently publish my writing. Over nine years I've posted almost six hundred times.

Then I began this bicycle riding thing, and I decided to write about my experiences and to also see how well I could structure a blog, having had some experience with my writing blog. I've been writing about bicycles at Tom Kepler Bicycling for six years now. That blog was a joy to write and develop, but what I found was that another website, Crazy Guy on a Bike, is a community of thousands of touring bicyclists from all around the world. It's a pool of readers that I can tap into that isn't accessible with Tom Kepler Bicycling. I began posting to both sites, sometimes the same article. Right now, I still keep up TKB but feel that eventually more writing will be posting at CGOAB just because the site is so lively and interactive.

My most recent blog is Green Goddess Glamping, began with the acquisition of a tiny, "tall," teardrop trailer. Bicycle camping, I found, was an activity I pursued alone. I wanted to share the camping experience with my wife; however, with her business, bicycle touring as not an option. What was an option was a mobile office, our tiny trailer, that allowed us to camp and for my wife to still work. As a consultant, almost all her work is carried out by phone or computer. We focus on campgrounds with good phone signal strength so we can utilize the phone's hotspot for internet.

The interesting marketing connection for GGG is that I belong to three Facebook tiny trailer groups, so I have an instant distribution network for blog posts of around 15,000 members. Posting on this network is not passive, though, because by interacting with member FB posts, I increase my presence and also find subjects for stories that interest the groups' members. For instance, my most-read post on GGG is about tiny trailers and toilets! Of the top five posts in terms of readership, the first four are idea pieces; not until the fifth does one of my narratives of a camping trip make the list, the story about a camping trip to Lake Rathbun in SE Iowa, "A Camping Trip as Sweet as Honey."

I could create more blogs--one about gardening. I've been a dedicated organic gardener for almost forty years. I could have created a blog about education--I am a retired, career educator. I could specialize the subjects of this writing blog--separate the subjects of reading and reviews from writing. However, I feel pretty saturated right now. Enough is enough, and enough is a joy. I don't want that joy to become a burden!

The title of this blog, though, specifies maintaining a blog, not just writing blog posts. Writing about my passions is the main joy of these blogs, but there are other joys, such as selecting blog layout, adding gadgets, learning a little html, and polishing photography and photoshopping techniques. The blogs are platforms that allow active participation in these areas. The blogs are really the "labs" for applying self-taught skills. I was a career educator, but I am a lifelong learner.

Cropping, adding text, adjusting color and exposure, and sizing this photo demonstrates fun skills acquired
Here is a quick list of some of the joys of maintaining a blog:

  • Writing articles about my interests. I'm able to delve deeply into subjects, researching and then organizing my new-found knowledge around concepts that provide meaning for me (and, hopefully, my readers).
  • Actively marketing my writing. Over time, I've learned a few of the basic techniques of marketing, although I have to admit my engagement has been desultory. The bicycling and camping blogs, though, provide me with marketing opportunities and practice in marketing online, even though there is no monetary advantage for me. It's just expanding a circle of readers for the pure fun of it. Good practice, though. I'm learning a lot that I can use with my published writing.
  • Interacting with like-minded individuals regarding my favorite activities. These online interactions, especially with my bicycle and trailer camping pursuits, are really the best internet social interactions I've ever had, just good, innocent sharing and enjoyment of an interest.
  • Designing my blog. I enjoy adding new header photos to my trailer blog. I have a lot of photos, and it's fun to compose the photo with a header in mind (keeping a good space for the title). It's fun to add gadgets so that my top-read articles are displayed on a sidebar. I use a Chromebook app for some simple work with photos and find that a real motivator. The "Stats" diagnostic page for my blog provides me with interesting and useful information. These are just a few of the ways that I enjoy managing my blogs.
  • Finally, the relationship between my blogs and social media platforms is a continuing learning experience, a mystery, and an acquired art--something that I don't truly understand much of the time, but something that I'm learning and becoming better at. Again, especially my trailer camping blog has provided me with insights, both as to the potential and also to the limitations of social networks. So far, I'm just involved with Facebook tiny trailer camping groups and the bicycle touring site Crazy Guy on a Bike. I haven't jumped onto Instagram, for instance, and for Twitter I just have automatic posts for this blog. 
All said, I guess you can just call me an amateur, since the root of that word is love and I'm just doing all this writing for the love of it. I don't need the money (although I wouldn't mind more). I don't need the fame (although I want my writing to be appreciated). I'm not particularly interested in the whirlwind lifestyle that sometimes comes with fame. It would be interesting to hit a few late night talk shows, but that's quite a distance from a quiet campground in a tiny trailer, not to mention from humping down a country road on a touring bicycle!

Following my bliss, 1970
"Following my bliss," though, to reference Joseph Campbell again, is a means of continuing my fiction writing. I have three older short stories that it occurs to me I could publish as a free ebook as a lead for my other writing. I've been doing some short story writing. Maintaining my blogs and regularly writing is an oil on the hinges of a door I want to keep open. I like writing, and if you like reading what I've been writing, just follow the links for more!