Where does inspiration lie? Everywhere!

This is my attempt to pounce on and then shape the words I breathe.

Please join me with your comments and make this a dialogue . . . and visit Susan's Poetry!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Imagining Abundance

Thursday night I left the Pendle Hill Quaker Study, Retreat and Conference Center campus to attend an event in Germantown that relates to every aspect of my "work" and "calling"performance, interaction, dialogue and stimulus for writing that will lead to more interaction that I believe is our only hope for creating meaningful changes in society.  Here is part of the flyer for Just Act Ensemble's People's State of the Union, a Lisa Jo Epstein production:

 A theatre-based catalyst for community activism and personal change.

Do you have a story about something awry in our union that the next President must absolutely hear?  A story about a moment you felt true belonging--or the opposite--in this country?

Do you want to take action and do something about it?

Just Act's mission is to ignite public dialogue and action planning using theatre-based tools with collaborating partners invested in making meaningful social and civic change. 

As a multi-dimensional resource across sectors, Just Act is a distinctive, innovative hybrid of artistic and community engagement.
What will happen at Just Act's "People's State of the Union" Community Gathering?
  • People will gather in circles to share stories about things they have experienced that gave them insight into the true state of the American "union." 

And then, through theatrical improvisations, led by the amazing Just Act Ensemble, we will collectively try out solutions for changing the state of the union towards making it the more just and equitable one that we all deserve.

We all know that once a year, the President delivers the State of the Union address to highlight important national issues and suggest priorities for the year to come.
It's a broadcast from one to many.
But we need to speak and listen to each other, and so stories about the state of our union are being exchanged and collected across the country to form a "People's State of the Union" poetic address.

     Please join Just Act at our People's State of the Union tonight

Take action to change the status quo. 

Collectively, let's name our country's challenges, make the invisible visible, identify actions to change what has become 'normal' today so tomorrow's state of the union is more equitable and just for all.

This event moved me mightily, and I want to thank the entire assembly with a "nearly poem" that chronicles the stages of the event:   

Cornucopia (PSF) bg.png
Imagining Abundance

Every circle is full of folks eager
to talk.  At first a word, a sticky note
of love, of want, of obstacle to life.

Images rise embodied and fair
when next actors’ imaginations flair
in loud then soft and fast then slow machines.

We laugh, applaud, and story on exper-
ience to tell the president the state
of our union, our belonging, or not.

Then actors’ embody story for spect-
actors to hold in theatre labs of change,
forums of joined expertise that will heal.

Heal?  Yes! Trial and error win in time
when every circle full of folks donate
its bodies and instincts and space to try.

We are the union, don’t forget!  We are
the solutions and not the problems.  Our
dialogue proves we can and will succeed

where corporations fail.  Imagining
abundance, after all, restores the truth
that we, informed and gathered, elders and youth

can touch and heal if we but take the chance
to listen to each others’ stories and care
to see and weave our varied strands as one.

Abundance, skill, and strength are visible!
Once we see beloved society
on stage, we know we kind can make it be.

Imagining Abundance
From the vision of Augusto Boal and Lisa Jo Epstein
After the Just Act State of the Union

Copyright © 2016  Susan L. Chast

          Stories people told were about fearful encounters with violence, about betrayal by justice and education systems that were supposed to help, about disparities in raising children in conditions of poverty and wealth, about people wanting to vote for Trump because they were ignorant of how Trump was against themthere were so many stories! But what moved me is that the one we all chose to enact and find interventions and alternatives to was the one in which a camp counselor/teacher cried in front of his mostly black students while telling them the statistics that 1/3 of them would die before the age of 40.*  
          Several students told the teacher that he shouldn't have shown his emotions in front of them. Administrators and parents agreed that students should hear the reality but not be subject to the teacher's emotions. One child (or maybe two?) wrote a note to the teacher thanking him for crying because they didn't know anyone cared.  The community in dialogue this night felt that crying was a human reaction to a horrible reality based in white supremacy, that education should allow it.  That human emotions are needed as groundwork for change.  
          I  nearly cried to see this agreement among the multiple nationalities and ethnicity represented in the room.  We examined the possibilities if it was a man or woman who cried and whether it was a person of color or white.  We dialogued and "spect-acted" about how different approaches to the situation allowed change among the human beings engaged in the interactions.  
          In short, we all walked out thinking and talking, no longer strangers.  I sensed that the Just Act Ensemble changed many of us present from feeling dis-empowered to feeling empowered.  Our voices matter, and our voices carry more weight when we "just act" together.  I hope to attend many more events like this.

          The Dialogues/Conversations I've attended by Just Act and Cranalith and NewCORE have convinced me that we can create positive change from the ground up by listening to each other's stories.  Someone asked at the last NewCORE event at the Art Museum of PhiladelphiaWhat if we could fill rooms as large as Trump fills with his misleading speeches?  I say, yes, yes! And what if so many of those occurred thatno matter where we were and what crowd we were inwe could look around and always see people we've been in conversation with.  What a network of people with positive values, people who have experienced feeling empowered!  Maybe when that happens we can make a living democracy and keep social programs and education alive.

So, does what I am doing as Artist-in-residence at Pendle Hill have anything to do with this?   I hope so.  I am one human, and the Susan that God leads to partake of these conversations and the Susan that God leads to write this Alice in Wonder novel, these blogs, and so many poems is one and the same.  I expect to find the intersection. Maybe it is in the performance incubating in my heart, maybe in the writing workshops and tutoring I want to do.  All of this feels God-filled though I can not name it yet nor see where the path leads.  I will keep on taking action, praying and being mindful, caring about and participating in community, and perhaps live into the answer.  This is what Jesse reminded me of on Thursday morning during our Arts and Spirituality consultation, a quote from Rainer Marie Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 
I will write more as way opens.

*I am not sure if the  exact statistics, but the teacher and several participants knew them well and agreed on them.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Do it, do it, just do it!

Christ Hagia Sofia.jpg
Christ Hagia Sofia

What are my beliefs about my ability?  This is the prompt from Tanya on her Day 8 of a 365-day prompt cycle.

I don’t think others can write what I write better than I can (though they can surely help me revise).  I know I have a unique topic.  However, I believe that it won’t matter—those that disregard me will still disregard me and leave me whining on the stairwell, always shorter than them, of course, saying "What about me?  Look at me.  Listen to me!”  I will never be good or original enough as a writer.  God should have kept me on as a teacher able to bring out other people’s voices.
The image seems funny to me now, me as "The Incredible Shrinking Woman."  In the movie of that name, Lily Tomlin’s character shrinks due to household chemicals.  I don’t remember what brings her back.  I’ll have to watch the movie again.  But not now.  That would be procrastination.

Susan, is anyone as hard on you as you are?  I have a list of people I would like to please, but I won’t put it here because those on the list might be reading.  Actually, I know better.  Some of them are dead.

And I have to grieve the time I spent/spend still internalizing these voices.  I’d like to laugh with them instead, which may mean to mature a whole lot.  But here’s the trick:  Anyone can work on getting stolid and stoic and moving on.  I’d like to face them and talk with them and not squelch them but find out how to work with and use them.  If being ignored was the biggest hurt, I won’t do the same to them.

I wonder if I could love this enemy in a different way: Instead of using the enemy for whining material, I’d like to use it as writing material.  I could read to it or write with it, like I did in today’s poem Courage,” maybe.
Sweet Jesus, my buddy, collaborate, OK?  Sit right here by me or on my lap or in the big chair and let me read to you.  As you listen, help me notice what is past and what is present and what would—ground down a little—make good ink. 
I remember being angry about a God that would sacrifice his only son on a cross even only symbolically.  It was just recently a member of my Buddies of Jesus group said to me (acting all innocent like), but Jesus is God.  God wasn’t sacrificing his son, he was experiencing being sacrificed.  You see?  That’s the mystery of any life, the Alices' lives surely, and maybe even my own.  It is God carrying these crosses and surely it is the Great Mystery that needs to experience what we’re going to do about it. 

I will write more as way opens.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Artist in Residence: some facts

Pendle Hill

I am Artist-in-residence at Pendle Hill (PH) for the 8 weeks between the 21st of January and the 17th of March 2016, thanks to a Minnie Jane Arts Scholarship to work on a self-directed project in creative writing and performance.  What an honor and opportunity! I brought a half-finished novel and poems and blog entries and an idea for a performance, planning to temper all of these with daily worship, prayer and readings in Quakerism and spirituality.

I met Minnie Jane once years ago.  She was the Quaker artist who founded the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts:
"to nurture and showcase the literary, visual, musical, and performing arts within the Religious Society of Friends, for purposes of Quaker expression, ministry, witness, and outreach. To these ends, we will offer spiritual, practical, and financial support as way opens."
The Fellowship has been meaningful in my life, giving me a place to gather with other artists through years of gallery openings including the great Lemonade gallery at the gatherings of Friends General Conference.  The visual art has been a backdrop for poetry readings I took part in and once, many years ago, for my solo performance.  In addition, Types and Shadows, the publication of the Fellowship of Quakers in the arts has featured my poems and--way back in Issue #17, Spring 2000--my essay on directing Angels in America, "Blessed with More Life."   And now, the founder of the Fellowship has made a residency possible at PH.

This journey I am on now started almost a week ago with the previous two blog posts where I reveal my questions and examine my choices. The first step in was a new poem which is with others at the blog Susan's Poetry.  A sample of the autobiographical novel I have been writing is in three blog posts from 2012: Alice in Wonder, Ch One Part 1; Alice in Wonder, Ch One continued; and Alice in Wonder, Chapter Two. Though the book is veering in a slightly new direction, my writing style and main character are the same. I think of my protagonist, Dr. Alice N. Deeds, as a conglomerate of Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Alice Paul, Alice B. Toklas, cat women I have known and me.

I am catless at present, but a picture of my dear Miracle Kitty is in the side bar of this blog.  She died in 2015 at the age of 21, but I keep her alive as a character in my book.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Where I Want to Go

I am a prayer.

I put a mindfulness bell application on my smart phone to resound every four hours.  I stop, center, listen, breathe.

A poet friend wrote in an interview:   I actually love the idea of a mysterious ending that leaves the reader wondering. I suspect that, as this theme continues, at some point [your character] will take over and begin leading you where he wants to go.  This is what the impresario Ellen Stewart used to say about the performing artists she invited into La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club!  I used to know my Mama Ellen well.  Well, at least I knew her.

I am off the rocker I brought with me to hold me on the path of my character Dr. Alice N. Deed, who always performs from a rocker.  She pretends it is a fully lit stage with all sorts of props and movements.  Perhaps it was once, but she is off her rocker.

     Is that dangerous? 
     To be a prayer.  And to be off one’s rocker.
     Why bother exit-ing a life to retreat or to vacate for any other reason?  Reasons. 
     Even if it feels like the way is lost?   
     Even if the ground is no longer under my feet and I panic just like the time when I slipped and fell.  At least I thought leaving was what I wanted.  Once.   If only I knew how long it would take. 
     Can awakening be scheduled?   
     If only I knew if it were better to use this time to grow spiritually and miss the opportunity to finish my novel—or to finish my novel and miss the time to grow spiritually.

In other words:  “Who am I?  What am I doing now?  How does it connect to my spirituality?  IE: How can I best use my time at Pendle Hill?”  (This is a slight variation of my spirituality and art mentor’s questions.)

Today I wrote a lot on this question, trying to practice the “Wisdom Writing” of Tanya Taylor Rubenstein—which is Natalie Goldberg’s free writing plus a question to answer—remembering that at the bottom of all the questions is me, and I am God’s work of art (Ephesians 2:8). 

Can I lose my awe of all the activists, healers, artists and scholars who have come through here and all they have said and finally ask “What can I say and do as a continuum of God’s guidance in all of my teaching?”

I am sitting in the old parlor of Main House where I read poetry on a program with Chuck Fager reading amusing documents from his research on Progressive Quakers and Blair Seitz reading from his memoir of being a military photographer during the Vietnam War.  I remember that I read my 5-part poem “Portraits of Peace” and it was good.  I knew it was good then and now to ask shopkeepers to close down for peace just as they would for war.  I know, too, that my writing in “Alice in Wonder” is good.  Here is someone teaching another generation, someone who has the skill and the courage to to overcome her introvert nature in STORY because story transforms.  She talks to her cat.  She talks to her remote friend and grumbles because her friend doesn’t agree with her assessment of their mutual past in theatre and performance.  It embarrasses her friend that Alice still performs, that Alice pretends to perform. 

In what  way is my character Alice a Quaker?  Because she is, I know.  Or she was.  I’m not sure one can be a Quaker in isolation.  In what way am I a Quaker? 

I have yearned for a place to let go, and—well—this is it! Let go of what?  Schedules?  Shoulds?  Haven’t I come to grips with much of that after three years of retirement?  How to best use this time?  I need not cook nor shop nor feed cats nor attend meetings.  Two layers of busyness are gone!  I need not use the internet nor Facebook—despite having brought three electronic devices with me.  I need not use them.  I can just be here.  No “just” about it.  I can fully be here: Be present at meals with people and otherwise be present with the world and me. 

I need not fill time.  I can let time fill me.  Or empty me.

What may I best do at Pendle Hill?  Everything but the “should.”  I can give myself permission to “waste” time, to “spend” time, to walk and wander and “lose track of” time and wear dirty clothes or PJs.  And I can sit and listen.  To nothing or to sounds and nature and “clouds of unknowing.”  I can have my conversations with God deliberately.

I feel tears in my eyes, so that’s a clue that I am on the right track.

I can just sit here or there and listen.  I hear the clock ticking behind me.  Apropos!  Hahaha!  O My!

What did you do today?  Nothing.
What did you do today?  I listened.
What did you do today?  I waited.  I waited.
For what did you wait?  For nothing.  For nothingness.  Maybe I waited to get bored.  Maybe.

In three years of retirement I’ve accomplished very little though I’ve approached the time as if I were still a workaholic.  But what if I did nothing?  And had no expectations?  Who would be more disappointed in me?  those who keep expecting great things from me?  or me?  And one more thing has been worrying me.  This writing exemplifies it!  This is all I, I, I!  Me, Me, Me!  When others write brilliant blogs they bring in their own experience only as it illuminates the points they are making about social issues.

And what is Alice’s mission?  She rarely speaks of herself, maybe never speaks of herself.  Her mission is to assist children in finding their voices, to surprise them by taking them to new places or asking new questions of stories that seem to be set in stone as if the stories say something without people.  Is it fun she’s after?  Creativity?   Is this activism?  Or did her civic engagement stop in the 1980s?  I should ask that question about myself.

I am hung up on the idea that I must produce something here and that what I produce  must be useful to Quakers.  But which Quakers?  New ones?  Old ones?  Seeking ones?  Those looking for hooks to open themselves up?  Me?  Did Virginia Woolf think “What does “To the Lighthouse” have to offer?”  Was “A Room of One’s Own” an effort to create something useful?  Hahaha!  They are both about the same thing!  And her Mrs. Dalloway needs a room.  And so do I.  And I have one.  And so does Alice. 

But then, let me not hesitate to ask why God brought me here with this book at this time in my life.  Let’s pray on that.  Do I need a conflict?  Does my novel?  Is there a way to eliminate conflict from our lives?   if we “live in the world but are not of it?”  My character Alice addresses conflict in story, in little parables (or not).  She doesn’t direct anyone to God above, but in her way she heals.

Tanya Taylor Rubenstein says in her Day 6 prompt on completion, “When you abandon your creative projects, you are in essence abandoning yourself.”  I don’t want to abandon either.  And so I will pray and become the prayer.

I will write more as way opens.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Leaving the Comfort Zone

The Barn on the Pendle Hill campus

Earlier, on the morning of my day to arrive at Pendle Hill for an eight-week stay as Writer-in-Residence--my carefully made plans were fraught with obstacles. Everything I needed to do resisted being done: cleaning, packing, lugging boxes and bags downstairs to the car, road work, traffic and ... I could go on, but what stands out for me is that the never-ending prep--three hours instead of one--is a great allegory of the 30 years it took me to take up the leading to spend time at a Quaker study and retreat center. I had the urge and the leading and the advice of Friends to go, but I could never spare the time or money for more than a weekend here and there. My yearning was for the luxury of resting my busy mind/body and opening my heart/spirit to find the depth I can go with God as a Quaker "in the world, but not of it." Would this be comfort? I didn't know. I only knew I had run away from feeling full-throttle spiritual power in my youth, and I know--or suspect--that the power is still there, here, waiting for me to leave my comfort zone and enter the Whole of Life.

This afternoon, my arts and spirituality adviser Jesse took out my Bio for a rewrite. She was quite gentle, but urged me to consider the audience who want to know who I am and what I'm doing. How do my work and spirituality intersect? I had written a rather dull list of facts and paired them with a poem. She looked at the recent interview of me accompanying three of my poems at Poets United, and pointed out language that reveals more of me. She asked me where I'm feeling the HEAT now, regardless of what I said I'd be doing here. And she suggested I spend some time journaling on these question:

  1. Who am I? 
  2. What do I want to do at Pendle Hill? 
  3. How does this connect to my spirituality? 
Simple, huh? Where's the heat right now? I am sooo excited about my novel "Alice in Wonder" and the possibility of finishing it. I'm excited about my protagonist Alice and how she connects with both Alice Paul and Alice B. Toklas as well as Alice in Wonderland. I want my readers to notice Alice's spiritual unfolding, her ministry of story-telling which is love and curiosity mixed. In some ways she's a Christ-figure though a recluse when not in her story telling rocker.

But what if I put this aside? Who am I, then? A poet, for sure, if not a prose writer. I don't enjoy revising and polishing, something that most writers like to do. I have a lot of starts but no finishes-- except in the short forms of poetry. I actually have two books of poetry. And it's been ages since I performed solo. I am a stage director, really, not an actor, but solo performance is different. It is more an improvisational thing--even the words are never the same twice.

Who am I? Ahhh! I have answered that by saying what I do: teach, write, cook, sew, pray ... But who I am really is part of God who is part of me--just as Jesus shows me is possible. I witness the presence of God in the world.

What do I want to do at Pendle Hill? To Open. At dinner Steve Chase asked me what my hopes were for my time at Pendle Hill, and I said to open all the way and see how deep I can go. I said that without hesitation. I didn't list the novel, poems, performance, blog, letters, etc. I said I expect to be surprised.

How does this connect to my spirituality? Do I know the answer to this? Creativity is demanded of me even as I live the testimonies. It doesn't SEEM spiritual to write about a feminist theatre company and performance and lesbianism, but it is. It's a story that hasn't been told. It doesn't seem spiritual to write poetry that doesn't all sing and zing--but some of it does. If I shift my emphasis to finding God-given power and then, if I succeed, these questions won't be asked anymore. It will be apparent. I don't need to use the buzz words to buzz. The language is a surface veneer, and I want to break it like a mirror that is bad luck when NOT broken. And so I pray to God to take me and break me out of platitude. Then, if the burning bush says write, I will write. What to write I do not know. I am still excited about the novel and the poetry and the potential performance and the blogging (including this post), but there may be less and there may be more in any one of these than I have yet imagined.

I'll write more as way opens.

Friday, January 8, 2016

New meditations from JusTime and Tara Brach

JusTime's son confirms the enjoyment of taking even just a minute or three for relaxing mindful self-appreciation!  I love JusTime's voice, which can pull me in even  when I am the most scattered.

As Tara says about her meditation:  
"This meditation invites the shift from thinking into open awareness. Our practice is to awaken the senses – feeling aliveness, listening to sound – and then rest as the awareness that wakefully receives moment to moment experience." 
She includes these words from Tilopa:  
Let go of what has passed.Let go of what may come.Let go of what is happening now.Don’t try to figure anything out.Don’t try to make anything happen.Relax, right now, and rest."

What most matters?  O!  To be here now.  Rested.  Whole.  Ready and ripe to nurture and to be nourished.  Ahhhhh!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What Really Matters

To get up from sleep
To get dressed (or not)
To be kind to someone
To give and receive inspiration and affection
To make love
To witness
To be 

Copyright © 2016  Susan L. Chast

Posted for Poets United 

Poetry Pantry #284

Friday, January 1, 2016

Dear Gabe, Beautiful Young Black Man

 (still a very rough draft)

You rise up defiant, refusing to
be victim and rejecting too the rage
that joins human with animal: our fight
or flight response so instinctual that
observing and expressing it is art,
is miracle.  You are a star, closer
than I deserve, necessary as food
if change is possible, if white can hear
and alter the experience of black
in America, the united states
of oppression. A Friend tells me we are
problem solvers, tells me to ask about
the problem I am here to solve.  It’s fear—
my fear opposes love and spreads more fear.
You talk about your pain and I say tell
me more, please, never stop opening doors
you dare open in youth and certainty.
You solve the silence, trust where you could fear,
gift all with eloquence. You are a star
rising up.  Guide me by continuing.

Let me pledge your safety and keep my word.

Susan Chast