Sunday, June 20, 2010

festival reflections from a copious note taker....

After the Festival weekend I posted an entry on my personal blog ("little house on the circle") about the experience, so after seeing Ray's "diary" I thought it made sense to add mine here. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all ... and it's neat to see what stands out and makes an impression on different people. What I'm most amazed by is that Ray didn't take any notes and still remembers so many little details. (SMRT, I guess.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every 2nd year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I went with four other Kingstonians: Irwin (who has gone many times in the past), Lori & Ray (who attended with Irwin in 2008), and Sue. We had a wonderful, inspiring weekend listening to well-known and lesser-known writers share their insights and experiences.

One of the writers Sue and I were particularly eager to hear was Avi, who has written many short stories and novels for kids (e.g. the Poppy series about a feisty mouse, and the Crispin series about an orphan boy in 13th-c. England). The conference started on Thursday, but that was our travelling day and we realized Avi was speaking only on Thursday, so we were quite disappointed. But as we got closer to Grand Rapids we realized that if we didn't register or check in to our hotel until later, we might be able to make Avi's 4:30 p.m. talk -- and that's exactly what happened. At 4:35 p.m. Irwin dropped us off right at the chapel where Avi was speaking, and we heard all but 5 minutes of his address. It was very interesting because Avi is not a religious person in spite of having many overtly religious themes in some of his books; in fact, he considers himself an atheist. Yet he talked about how a writer can always express truth regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof -- and how his child readers never ask about his religious beliefs; only the adults do. He also told us why he goes by "Avi": it's how his sister mispronounced his real name, Edward, when she was a baby.

On Thursday night we attended the plenary address by Wally Lamb, who wrote She's Come Undone, I Know This Much is True, and The Hour I First Believed. I love all of those books so it was great to hear him speak; he talked a lot about his work teaching creative writing to female inmates, and read one of their stories. It was also a pleasure to meet him during his book-signing: Irwin graciously waited around on campus until 10 p.m. so that Sue and I could get our books signed.

We also got to hear Kate di Camillo, who wrote The Tale of Despereaux (about a brave mouse who saves a princess), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Because of Winn-Dixie, among other children's books. Allison and I love Despereaux (in both the book and movie versions) so I was again glad to be able to meet the author at her signing and have her address 2 books to Allison. She is a very modest, humorous speaker and (in my opinion) actually looks a bit like a mouse with her silvery-blonde hair and tiny face.

Another speaker all five of us had on our must-hear list was Parker Palmer, who has written books about finding one's vocation, about education and teaching, etc. (I discovered his little book Let Your Life Speak in the library a few years ago and it became a 'classic' in our book study group.) Palmer is 71 years old and a funny, kind, wise person who has so much experience and wisdom to share. One of the most striking things he said was how the concept of "earthen vessels" includes our religious institutions, and if the vessel starts to hide or corrupt or distort the treasure within, it must be smashed and a new vessel created. He also spoke about the importance of listening to one's inner voice as well as to others, and how that might play out within his own faith tradition, Quakerism.

Lori & Ray & I attended a talk by Hugh Cook, a writer and writing teacher from Hamilton who has edited some of both Lori's and my work, and who spoke on the importance of concrete detail in writing. His talk was entitled "All Good Writers are From Missouri" -- the idea being that Missouri is the show-me state and that good writers try to show, not tell.

Hugh Cook's excellent presentation was a contrast to what was maybe my least satisfying experience at the Festival: the 2-hour fiction workshop by Laurence Dorr. Prospective participants had to submit a writing sample for this workshop so when I sent mine in and got accepted I was quite excited. But it didn't meet my expectations at all. Mr. Dorr did not ask the 20 of us sitting around the table to introduce ourselves or tell anything about why we were there etc. He started by reading a short story of his own; then he went around the table and got each person to read 2-3 paragraphs of their work and then he made somewhat random comments about them. He told me to remove the phrase "oh well" from my piece. That was it. So I didn't really get much from it -- although I enjoyed hearing what little others read of their work and I sensed that there were some excellent writers in the room. But really? I should've gone to hear Eugene Peterson instead. REALLY.

One especially wonderful moment at the Festival was a concert entitled Poetry Spoken and Sung, held in the college chapel. Various people came up and read poems, some of which were also presented in musical form by Capella, one of the Calvin College choirs. The first song was an arrangement of a short poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

The choir stood in a circle around the outside of the chapel, and when the song began they were just whispering the words "silence my soul" so that it was like a soft breeze through leaves. It was incredibly beautiful. I don't always find myself spiritually moved by nature, but the combination of words and musical arrangement was really like a taste of heaven on earth.

Besides all the wonderful things we saw and heard at the Festival itself, it was just a great weekend trip. The five of us had a great time doing things together and separately; we would drive to the college and then go to whatever talks we felt like attending, then rendezvous later for meals or for a presentation all five of us wanted to go to. On the Friday night, Irwin was going out with a friend and Ray & Lori were visiting Ray's sister, so Sue and I went out to dinner and enjoyed a delicious seafood meal, a bottle of wine, and a good conversation.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend. I was glad to get back and see Rich and the kids, but I will treasure the memories of this trip and hope maybe to go to another Festival in the future.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ray's Festival diary

Since all of the best quotes are taken, I thought I'd take another tack and offer up some of my impressions of our trip to Calvin College's Faith and Writing Conference.

Getting up a little bit earlier than I would like to, I join the as yet unnamed "Lightning Bug Club" which leaves Kingston at 7:30 soon to be refueled with good Canadian Tim Horton's coffee (and some gasoline too).

Since I have been appointed DJ for the trip, I come fully prepared with road trip music. Alas, no one remembers any of the Cars music, so the moment is lost. I share some more of my music mix which includes Donovan, Cat Stevens, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other nostalgia fit for us old timers whose average age is over 50 (without naming any specific individuals).

We break for lunch and get our monthly fastfoodfix (well maybe just me--the others have salads) from one of our more ubiquitous restaurants (thanks Irwin for introducing that big word into my vocabulary).

The border guard is chatty (he finds out our predilection (my word) toward teaching English (four out of five of us) and goes on and on about how English ain't never been his favourite subject...

More great music by DJ Ray passes the time almost as well as great conversations. I've always thought that road trips are a great way to really get to know someone, provided that bathroom breaks are allowed when required.

Sue Caldwell checks the new schedule of speakers and realizes that one of her favourite children's authors is speaking at 4:30 only. Should we break all speeding laws and push to arrive on time? What would Buddha do? Fortunately everyone else is speeding and we make it exactly on time without bothering to register. Because we don't get caught, we briefly wonder about attending the conference anyway and getting a refund. These Dutch people are always thinking about money.
Speaking of Dutch people (I'm mostly proud of my heritage), I find myself saying (and because I'm Dutch, I can): the Dutch tend to be extremely thrifty and yet when something is important, they can be incredibly generous. I know this personally, and the campus reflects this value. I am surrounded by a beautiful, well-kept campus that speaks of care and stability. The sense of space is not lost, but rather emphasized with the well-manicured lawns and gardens. In contrast with Kingston's Queen's University, which is full of old limestone heritage buildings, Calvin feels modern and warm. The inviting orange (what's with the Dutch and the colour orange?) brick buildings contrast with Queen's coldly beautiful grey limestone edifaces. I feel at home here in spite of attending Calvin more than 33 years ago. My impression of the last conference was that the healthy balance of head and heart is maintained here. It has been something I have sought after in my own faith journey. This feels like home.

So Avi is wonderful. Although I haven't read any of his children's literature, I am impressed by the man himself. He tells us that often he will be approached by someone after his talks and be asked "are you a Baptist" or "are you Jewish"? He maintains that even though he is of Jewish extraction, he considers himself an Atheist. However, he loves truth and this is what audiences are responding to.

Dinner is on the run since we (actually do) register and are off early to get good seats to hear the evening speaker Wally Lamb. He's the author of "She's Come Undone," "I Know This Much Is True", and "The Hour I first Believed"-- the book we are planning to study next in our book study group (of which we are all members--even our "interloper" Irwin). As expected, Wally is humble, gracious and compassionate. Several years ago, he left full-time teaching in order to write. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to give a writing workshop in a women's prison. That was a few years ago and he still gives classes there every two weeks. Recently he published two books of short stories by female inmates. Wally says that he needs to be in the classroom to keep his own stories authentic.

What a first day! We all go off on our separate ways. Some return to the hotel to R&R, or off to visit friends and relatives for late night rendezvous.

I am up earlier than I would choose. I think that having kids changes (or wrecks) one's internal alarm clock by setting it several hours earlier than absolutely necessary. We all go to the speaker of our choice. Except me -- I bump into writer Hugh Cook and have a nice "get to know you" chat. Then I have breakfast with a friend I haven't seen for over thirty years. Visiting Grand Rapids is a bit like a homecoming for me, as I spent my first four years here, and another three years after high school. Visiting the people I lived with in Christian Community is another reason for my time here. I balance speakers' workshops with visits to old friends and family.

Most of go to Kate DiCamillo's talk on the craft of writing. She's the author of "The Tale of Despereaux" (which we also read for the book study) and find her an absolute delight. Listening to her is one of the highlights of my time. She tests the microphone by saying "nothing of consequence, nothing of consequence, nothing of consequence" which is so completely far from the truth. She has an astonishing sense of humour--mostly self-deprecating. We are struck by her quest for truth in story-telling that transcends any personal religious belief. "We find the ability to walk through pain through story," she says. She graciously signs a book for Sue who is giving it as a present to one of her students. We are enriched.

I have lunch with the former assistant pastor of Logos Community, who is a kind of father figure to me, and am reminded that anything worth doing involves our relationship with God.

Part Two: And now we go to hear Parker Palmer. This is the highlight of the trip for most of us. I am listening to a podcast of his talk as I write this. The wisdom and humility of this man feeds our souls and spirits like few speakers can. His motto (and bumper sticker) is "Born Baffled," which indicates to all of us his awareness of his dependence on God in matters of faith and wisdom. He often "writes himself into a corner" in his search for truth. This comes from a man with astute intelligence and ability. His self-deprecating humour is illustrated in how he describes the lunch his wife has made and how she labels all of his clothing. "It's like all of life is summer camp!"

Next we go to a performance by Capella--Calvin's concert choir. In the round auditorium they stand in a circle behind us and we hear music that seems to come from a different sphere. It is a transcendent experience. They sing:
silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

Lori and I then meet my sister for the evening. We meet her new partner who is completely enthralled with her. Her son, Austin, is mercilessly punished by all of the (some people say bad) jokes in my repertoire. Ahh, so much fun. We all bond well and the evening is over far too quickly.

The next morning I am so emotionally exhausted that I stare into space for almost an hour, occasionally taking sips of my coffee. I am replenished and go hear Parker Palmer for a second time in the main auditorium. He begins by saying "One of my marks of being at a really good conference is that I have to sit and look at the program and decide if I want to come to my own session: that was a really hard call this morning." Then he proceeds to share hard-won insights by reading from his new book: "The Politics of the Brokenhearted" and talking about his writing experience. He says there really is a connection between faith and writing--writing is like prayer....we are challenged...

"Show, don't tell" is Hugh Cook's maxim at the next session. Jeannie and Lori have used his talents as an editor for their own writing. It is good to meet this man they have correspondence with. He is full of practical writing knowledge. I had just finished his first collection of short stories "Cracked Wheat" that tell many stories about the Dutch immigration experience. I relate powerfully and emotionally to his tales.

Most of us need a break from all of the stimulating imput of the sessions. I, however, meet with another friend I haven't seen in over 30 years. He drives me to the "Teerling Compound" where his Mother, brothers and sisters live. I am embraced warmly and feel part of the family immediately. We share our common experience living at "Logos Christian Community Farm" in the 1970's. I brought a cd with old photos that I took from that time and we enjoy the images projected onto the tv that bring back fond memories.

Hours later, David brings me back to Calvin for another appointment with Jim Lucas, a former Pastor from Christ's Community--the other community I lived in. He shows me Newberry House--a new concept of community living. I think people are still craving intimacy through community. These committed people are making it happen. My cousin and her family live there and soon my uncle and aunt will, too.

The last time we were in G.R. we found this magical Italian restaurant and poured copious stories, laughter and wine into our last evening. Alas, as we search for this wonderful place, it eludes us. We settle for appetizers until after the final session. Mary Karr shares from her past about being a "Black Belt Sinner". Our mixed reactions to her talk question whether the experience was primarily for her or our benefit. It is still good, though, that she feels embraced by our community.

Disappointment renews our quest for the holy grail of Italian restaurants. But soon it is found and we are reminiscing about a conference that has gone by far too quickly. Great food, and even better vino help bond us together as we make plans for the next conference. "Maybe we should go in two cars next time and ask so and so and so". The time at Calvin's Faith and Writing Festival 2010 has added a positive experience to our collective memories. We are all feeling "full" as we make our way home the next morning...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

silence my soul

The Poetry Spoken and Sung concert was a highlight of the Festival that I forgot to put in my list. I was particularly moved by the opening song based on Rabindranath Tagore's poem:

silence my soul
these trees are prayers
I asked a tree tell me about God
then it blossomed

I don't consider myself a person who is deeply touched by nature or the idea of "trees as prayers" -- but when these words were combined with the music and the arrangement of singers whispering all around us like the wind through leaves, I really felt that this was a taste of heaven on earth.


from Lori

Hi, fellow lightning bugs,

Here are some of the flashes of light I managed to capture during the talks.

On poetry:

Luci Shaw, in her talk "Harvesting Fog," spoke about the importance of wonder, of our longing for moments that connect us to the beyond. She said that poetry "enlivens our sense of the unseen," that there is revelation in the concrete details of life, and that poetry translates the spiritual into word pictures -- it sends a "whiff of heaven into earth."

Mary Karr spoke of the importance of being guided in her writing. She writes to discover or recover. For her, poetry conveys, with little information and great intensity, an experience or image. She disparaged the trend of the last fifty years toward hyper-intellectual poetry. Scott Cairns disagreed; he thinks that puzzlement engages the reader. Mary responded that it isn't puzzlement but the feeling in poems that engages the reader.

Parker Palmer:
In speaking about Quakerism, he encouraged listening to "that of God" within ourselves and each other. He said that our outer and inner lives keep co-creating each other; in Quakerism, the dialectic between inner and outer tensions are held constructively. In dealing with these tensions, we all have a longing to "come down in a place just right."

We need to live in community and learn how to deal with our differences, to "let the heart break open but not apart."

We also need to remember that our conceptions, forms of worship, and religions are simply earthen vessels that carry the treasure of the spirit of God. "If the earthen vessels are too small, obscure, or defile the treasure, they must be smashed."

I, too, appreciated his description of the quest for truth: "pursuing things of great importance with passion and discipline."

Poetry Spoken and Sung
The last lines in a poem by Kazim Ali: "Should I pray that my thirst be quenched or should I pray for an unquenchable thirst?"

A few verses from the song "palm" by Joel Navarro:

you hold me in the palm
of your hand
and I nestle
in a crease

you catch me in the palm
of your hands
joined to pray
and I drink
sweat and blood

I hold that palm open
and I strike
with my palm
as a hammer
on a nail

and you seize me with the palm
of your hands
as a nail holds
and will
not let go