A fig. A failure. A long wait.

Figs

Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and usually walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.

Kneading

I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,
Catherine

I’ll be sharing some of my favorite bread makers over on my new website, CatherineKeefe.com Come for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.

This is so meta

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_6b9
Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

rgWgg8EvTxWo7W4D8LWLYQ_thumb_6bd

Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, check out the details on my new website: Catherine Keefe.

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
P9ZxEwdiTg+dLB6kfRyMZQ_thumb_6bc

~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_6b8

This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe

 

 

 

Looking (it) up

By Catherine Keefe.

pretty books

A dinner around my childhood home wasn’t complete with at least one round of this fun conversation:

Me: What does _______ mean?
Fill in the blank with words like inertia, relegate, codicil, potable.

Dad: Look it up.

Me: Can’t you just tell me?

Dad: I could, but then you’d forget.

The family dictionary was a frequent guest at the table.

These days, my students, and truthfully even I mostly, use an online dictionary. It’s swift, easy, and direct. Sometimes though I miss the old bound paper word book. There’s something humbling and exhilarating about holding the heft of Webster’s Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, a volume that weighs in at five pounds and has a spine wider than open palm. When I pull that book down from the shelf to “look it up,” I realize there really is a wealth of words at my fingertips. How few I use. When I look up a word online, I learn one new term, but I can forget that there are thousands more to explore.

inside books

It’s funny, when I finally went off to college, I didn’t realize the simple things I’d miss from. But my dad made sure I wouldn’t forget one of the best habits he taught me.

look it up

My parent’s going-away gift was my own bright red Random House College Dictionary.

Can you learn one new word today?
~Catherine

For more “Looking up” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

 

Where to begin?

By Catherine Keefe
January is a new romance, a second date with someone you will fall in love with. It’s you on your best behavior as the very most outstanding human being possible. It’s Brahms’ Op. 22, Num. 8 before the wedding; the predawn temple ball’s call to prayer; the first line of the first page of the first book you ever wrote or read.

DSC_0444

                                                                                          Photo Credit: James Keefe

“Then there was the bad weather.”

Ernest Hemingway’s first line from A Moveable Feast cuts to the quick of great beginnings. He starts in media res, or “in the midst of things,” talking about the weather. His 1921-1926 Paris was so dreary “…the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.”  But what makes this simple sentence such a classic book beginning is that it creates an immediate intimacy between the reader and writer with that word “then.” We can almost imagine a “before” without knowing what it was.  And even though Hemingway’s collection of “Paris Sketches” is about his experiences as a writer in the European expatriate community, it’s as much about the golden moments before the unraveling of his first marriage to Hadley.  Weather is both literal and metaphor although it isn’t until we finish the book, and reread the first line that we can make the connection.

As you begin this year and set your intentions for it, will your end – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets –  be found in your beginning?

For writers, each new project is a January. But unlike the calendar which rolls forward ready or not, a writing project can become balky as a skittish pound puppy facing the first open gate. How do you move forward?  The answer is so simple. Where do you wish to end?

DSC_0391

Alhambra, Granada, Spain                                                      Photo Credit: James Keefe

The superlative beginnings – of a novel, memoir, essay, short story, poem, or screenplay – portend a shadow of the end the same way the foyer of a building establishes possibility for its inside architecture or a chef’s amuse bouche introduces first flavors to a restaurant visitor. Surprises can be expected, but organic.

As Richard Goodman clarifies in, “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful, and Compelling Openings”:

The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work.  This is simply beause it is the beginning…Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You are looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.

I often think of writing beginnings much like fishing. Can I catch a reader with one cast? Will the fish follow my bait for a few more feet?  Sometimes when I’m stuck I randomly open some favorite books to remind me what a great beginning can do. Then I write a stumbling forward of dozens or even hundreds of words that do nothing more than become cast-off scaffolding by the final edit. It’s not until I’m amidst the construction that I discover what I most want to say and I feel like the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s Company. “A voice comes to one in the dark.”

Take advantage of the energy of January and its superlative nature as a time to begin something new.

And may all your kisses this year begin a hug,
~Catherine

For more ideas on how to begin your new year check out “Through the open window.”

 

How many words in a world?

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”

Steven Wright’s quip isn’t too far off from the way this poet thinks. I look at the dictionary, all the words right there at my fingertips. If only they’d arrange themselves to perfection.

photo-48This is the corner of my office where, day by day in July, a new poem literally got hung on the line. Writing a poem a day has been a rigorous creative exercise, but the toil is completely offset by the thrill of sharing space with 8 other poets, discovering their new-to-me voices and fresh perspectives on the world each day.  To honor my fellow July poets, Risa Denenberg, Jennifer Faylor, Janet Ruth Heller, David Koehn, Richard O’Brien, Claudia Rodriguez, Mobi Warren, and Nicholas YB Wong, I created a cento using some of my favorite lines from their July poetry. A cento is a “patchwork” or collage of lines from other poets.

Highlight Reel: Homage For the July Poetry Crew      

Is a poem everything?

What I am trying to say here is my wild wiry hair suddenly has aphasia.
Fire knows no diva can sing god’s linked tongue.
Delta Force of the written word
orange swoon of monarchs

(breathe deep):   the stairway is not
red tulips.

Frogs sing in the pond, purple martins maneuver in squadrons;
orchestra of nerve endings
slows to a steady beat.

If I’m lucky, hummingbirds or deer pass through my yard, and I write a poem.
Two door hinges,
a latch, a handle from the old shed.
God’s voice
rustling toward you.
The way
most of the body is water, yet manages not to seem so.

We knew that being in love 
in saltwater is always a mistake.
The moon blue
shy at first to know you,
frenulum that binds the tongue to the mouth-cave, arresting language.

Circuit—

We hack our way through rough brush, thorns, vines that
strangle the forest—the agony of vaulting the temple wall
only to discover the gods have moved away.

The radio is a comfort–
to be on the same frequency, possibly, as you are.
Words can’t be arrested,
Go at you — rock’ em sock’ em robots.

No doom descends on Michigan.
A dull
Eye translates what
You see.

Break me a sunrise 
in a cup.

In and out of time,
the stars remain the same;
in the marrow of limestone caves,
silent albinos⎯rare blind beetles,
eyeless spiders, lived.

Alarm
the jays clamor
hidden in the pleated grass—
a warrior heart on her sleeve—

Into the air on a dare, the arrow was meant to strike a concrete
Blue whale.

A woman opens a book and finds her mother’s handwriting in the margins,
gets up to sharpen pencils.

Everything is a poem.

________________________________________________________________
To read more from the July poets, including their bios and links to their author websites, take a leap over to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project site. It’s a rather remarkable repository of extraordinary poetic lines.

On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday I was surprised by a sudden influx of dragon flies in my garden. Maybe they want their own Sacred Garden tanka?

I wish you some sort of beautiful bewilderment today.
~Catherine

Sacred Garden

Air. Earth. Water. Fire. Find the four elements of nature within life, love, work, garden, and art and you’ll create a sense of balance without boredom, surprise without chaos.

These elements have long been subjects for poets.

The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,

wrote Anne Bradstreet, “the first woman to be recognized as an accomplished New World poet,” in her poem, “Four Elements [Fire, Earth, Air and Water].”

DSCN3354

In the spirit of Sunday as a day of rest, and with an invitation to you, dear reader, to find sacred places within your own garden, patio, or apartment, I give you Day 28 poetry for the 30/30 Project.  I composed four tanka: 5 line poems with  5,7,5,7,7 syllables per line, for a complete 31 syllable poem.

Sacred Garden: Four Tanka
Air
Canyon breathes, trembles
manzanilla olive leaves.
Starlings flush. Startle
golden garden bells. Birthday
gift erupts in temple song.

Earth
Angel’s apple tree
holds his palm imprint above
rootline his hands once
grasped, now both deeply buried —
roots and hands at rest in ground.

angels-apple-tree

Water
Patter on copper
rain chain drips a water chant.
Peace Rose bends toward war
veteran’s gate. I watch him stand
in open storm, hands clutch rain.

Fire
Votives lit on rocks
every night an evening prayer.
Dinosaur bones once
found here, two fossils. We too
press lantern path, watch light rise.

_______________________________________________________________

While I’m happy enough with these poems – written in a day – they’re not finished, in a true poetic sense yet. Complete tanka needs a turn between lines 3 and 4, “a pivotal image, which marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response.” Poems, like gardens, need constant pruning, rearranging, and feeding.  What inspires you?  Why don’t you try your hand at writing tanka today while your feet are resting on a ledge.  You’ll find a complete discussion of the form on the Academy of American Poets website here.

To balance,
~Catherine

p.s. In the spirit of small things, did you know that a donation of $10 to the 30/30 Project as a gesture of support and love for poetry and its publication, is as beautiful as the tiny blossoms on Angel’s apple tree?

May I direct your attention over here?

In the last deep blue February day, I followed my heart’s compass to the true north of another backyard.

true north

Today I spent my creative time on dirtcakes, the literary magazine I founded to “offer space for international writers and artists to illuminate a shared global humanity.”

There’s dirt under my fingernails.  Like any backyard task, it was difficult but satisfying work. What was it? Here’s a hint: I invented a new form of literature!

Maybe you remember “Five Lines to Challenge Chaos” when I dared myself to try each poetic form, “so that by spring, I’ll have a larder of poems that adhere to formal patterns found in nature, the sunflower, for example, or the whorl of a seashell, the number of legs on a spider for instance, or the swoop of an orb found glistening in early morning.”

I failed at that, but succeeded in invention.

The Contributor Voices Chorus is  based on a very old form of poetry – the cento. The cento is a collage, or mashup of lines from other writers, arranged in a fresh way, sort of like taking one flower from every blooming bush in your garden and creating a bouquet that looks nothing like your backyard.

For one sample of a cento, you can read “Wolf Cento” by Simone Muench.

You’ll have to wander over to dirtcakes to see my invention, the all new Contributor Voices Chorus.

It’s also time to give props. One of our readers took the poetic form challenge. In honor of The Simple Life of the Country Man’s Wife’s diligence, I’m linking to her cinquain here. I wonder how her spring larder of poems is looking? How about yours?

Adieu January, when we focused.
Goodbye February, when we explored leading lines.
See you in March when, in honor of the month’s disparate weather days, we play with contrast.

~Catherine