Rivendell Writers’ Colony: Cultivating Creativity

Rivendell’s Third Floor Studio with fog threatening to invade
“Rivendell seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something pulled up from within it.”

Just outside Sewanee, Tennessee, a large, beautiful stone house called Rivendell sits just off the lip of the aptly named Lost Cove, an enclosed cove where all the water that falls within its boundary drains into a sink hole. Lost Cove lives in the imagination of all who have visited it and seen its landmarks: Natural Bridge, Buggy Top Cave, or Big Sink. Rivendell, a name drawn from the vast imagination of JRR Tolkein, seems to stand less as something built on the Cumberland Plateau than something, with its local Warren Point Sandstone exterior, pulled up from within it. The gift of the place to writers is inspiration; its danger is nostalgia, particularly for someone like me who has known it since I was eighteen years old, several days into my freshman year at Sewanee in 1983 when I found myself out there shooting skeet off the bluff as the coming evening dark climbed the eastern slope across from us. 

Screen Shot of Lost Cove detail from USGS Sewanee Quad Topographic Map (Rivendell is toward the middle on the left side. Big Sink is at the bottom middle).

Rivendell is now the home of the Rivendell Writers’ Colony, and I spent Spring Break there working on revisions to poems, while sharing the house with three novelists (Heather Jones, Nathaniel Popkin,and Jackie Zakrewsky), a short story writer (K.K. Fox), an artist and screen-writer (Rachel Kice), and a poet (Adam Vines). It was an extraordinary experience during which I was hugely productive in my work and deeply inspired by the the writers who were there. [I tried to spot the best link for each writer with varying success]

I am pretty good at keeping the different parts of my life separate. Interestingly, this blog, Ross All Over the Map, gives me a space where the different corners of my life–from education to photography, from poetry to folk art, and from music to travel–can mix, or at minimum share the same platform. Since my arrival at St. George’s in the summer of 2015, virtually all my posts have had relevance to my work as Head of St. George’s Independent School; however, when the blog began several years ago when I was Upper School Head at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, I tended to let it go wherever my thinking led me. Today’s entry is reminiscent of that original generalist edge.

View out the third floor window

While I was in Atlanta, Westminster and the Poetry @Tech Program at Georgia Tech worked together bring poets, Richard Blanco and Ron Smith, to Atlanta.  Because of that effort, I met Travis Denton and Thomas Lux who together led Poetry@Tech (Travis remains in that role, while Thomas passed away early in February after battling cancer. You can find his obituary in the New York Times HERE). I have been fortunate to stay connected to Travis. A dedicated teacher and a fine poet, Travis has helped me work through my own collection of poems, tentatively titled, The Kiln. He is generous and kind, and he is a scrupulous and demanding reader–perfect. In fact, the challenging nature of his comments regarding my work led me to recognize the need to head to Rivendell in order to provide the sustained attention for which the poems were starved over the last couple of years as I started a new job.

My time at Rivendell reminded me of the vital importance of quiet time, as well as attending to my interests beyond school. Interestingly, a March 17 piece in the Harvard Business Review titled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time” echoes this idea. That piece ends with this thought: “The world is getting louder.  But silence is still accessible—it just takes commitment and creativity to cultivate it.” I find that in order to be my best for my work, I must allow for this sort of “cultivation.”

So I will continue to work on poems, and I will finish this collection, and I will move onto something new (I have a couple of ideas…). For now I am looking forward to my next conversation with Travis to discuss the current state of The Kiln. I am also looking forward to school today.

[One unexpected and exciting outcome of my time at Rivendell was that on our last night all together, each of the writers read some things that we had either written or revised while there. To have the opportunity to hear such fantastically creative work still in process from such talented writers was a particular treat. Adam Vines, a fine poet (see “Lures”) and the editor of the Birmingham Poetry Review, generously asked that I send him a few poems after I read. As a result, one of the longest poems in The Kiln will be included in the Spring 2018 BPW issue.]

St. Paul’s Thanksgiving Message: A Chapel Reflection on Humility

St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael

[I gave the following talk in our 6 – 12 Chapel service this morning]

Happy Thanksgiving!

The excerpt from Chapter Twelve of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, today’s scripture, is just as much a message to us as it was to the members of the early church in Rome. Sent to us almost two thousand years ago, Paul’s letter has landed in our mailbox just in time. We find it there right when we need it most. Listen to this morning’s scripture again:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

To my ear Paul provides a perfect Thanksgiving message. To live toward the expectation he delineates would be to live one’s life as a form of thanksgiving.

I struggled to write my comments for today’s chapel service. I started and stopped. I postponed and delayed. I thumbed through quotations from Mahatma Gandhi to Ernest Hemingway, and from Abraham Lincoln to Elie Wiesel. I stared at my shoes, and stared at a blank computer screen. Sometimes in the days leading to one of my talks I have found a kind of easy inspiration from events beyond our school. Not so this time. Actually I have found much in the news this Fall to quash inspiration. Nationally, we often seem to be pulling apart, straining against each other at a moment when ideally we should be coming together. It is like we are forgetting something, something really important, amidst the din of fake news stories, shallow, angry debates, and the self-righteous commentary of talking heads. What is it we are forgetting?

Too often recently we have forgotten ourselves and lost sight of each other. We have been so focused on what divides us that we have missed what ties us together. Lost in our certainty that whatever position we hold is correct, we have become dismissive not only of opposing views, but far more dangerously, of the people who hold them. This is not a place we can or should stay as a nation. It is fortuitous that HUMILITY is our Chapel theme for the month of November because it is humility that should guide us in exactly the same moment that the world around us seems consumed by its opposites: narcissism and pride. If Pride is the sin of forgetting God, Humility is the virtue of remembering him. Thus Paul’s words call us to be counter-cultural, to resist what he calls the “pattern of the world” in order to be transformed through faith.

C.S. Lewis offers an informative and concise perspective on humility, saying in his significant work called Mere Christianity that: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Lewis in only fourteen words—“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”—elevates humility to its proper place among human virtues. He pushes back against an inaccurate definition of humility—that it is a low view of one’s own worth—and instead asserts that humility is a recognition that we exist in connection and in relationship and that we should seek communion with others. Rather than diminishing us, being humble allows us to see that we are created by God to be part of God’s creation. Therefor, humility, perhaps ironically, allows us to see that we are a part of the eternal.

Fascinatingly, in Paul’s letter to us, he does the same thing. Hear it one more time:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

 Like C.S. Lewis, Paul is defining humility. He is also offering an approach to life where our actions can be the embodiment of thanksgiving. He is giving us the ground rules for living a good life. We need to listen to him.

In an essay called, “A Native Hill” Wendell Berry layers a challenge on top of all this talk of humility and of thanksgiving. He says:

“We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Like St. Paul, and like C.S. Lewis, Berry is providing perspective on humility and, I believe, through his use of the word “reverence”, perspective on thanksgiving as well. He points us away from believing that we can know everything when he calls us to “acknowledge” “mystery”, to “stand in awe”, and to “recover the sense of majesty of creation.” He also challenges us to live by the idea that “what is good for the world will be good for us” instead of the more self-centered idea that what is good for me is good for the world.

St. Paul, C.S. Lewis, and Wendell Berry each share something valuable with us. They call us to see the essential role of humility, and they challenge us not simply to see Thanksgiving as a date on a calendar, but as the reverent condition within which we should live our lives.

Earlier in my remarks this morning, I said, “Too often recently we have forgotten ourselves and lost sight of each other. We have been so focused on what divides us that we have missed what ties us together.” Imagine a world where humility and thanksgiving are central. In that world we could say, “We acknowledge we are each part of God’s creation, so we recognize the value of each other. Thus what divides us never overtakes our commitment to what ties us together.”

I, for one, would like to live in such a place, and it is my hope, and my humble prayer for this Thanksgiving that, beginning in this place, we can make it so.

Amen.

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A note on the selection from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: As I was looking for a reading that would work with my thoughts about humility, I read a message to the University of the South: Sewanee Community (my alma mater) from both its Vice Chancellor and its student leadership. Paul’s letter arrived in my mailbox at the perfect moment. I have copied the message below:

TO THE UNIVERSITY COMMUNITY

As citizens, we have been dismayed by events following last week’s election results. As members of the University community, which ever strives to be a place where brothers and sisters dwell together in unity, we recognize that, although we may be at some remove from what is taking place, we are inevitably affected by it. At such a time as this, it is more important than ever for us not simply to state the words of our University motto but to live and to model those words, so that everyone at this University knows that the values we share, and for which this University stands, will not in any way be compromised.

St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.”

In this spirit, and as University leaders, we commit ourselves to living out this admonition. And we urge all members of this community – faculty, staff, students – to consider how you might do the same. Let us make a special effort to greet one another as we pass on campus; to sit with someone we don’t know in McClurg; to engage in the hard task of learning by broadening the limited reach of our own individual understanding and discussing our differences with civility; and thus to make this place, at least, one where liberty and wholesome restraint are kept in balance and the dignity of every human being continues to be respected.

Ecce Quam Bonum,

John M. McCardell, Jr., Vice-Chancellor and President

David Harkins, President, Student Government Association

Mark McAlister, Chair, Honor Council

Molly Payne-Hardin, President, St. Luke’s Community

Sarah Tillman Reeves, President, Order of Gownsmen

The Never Ending and Remarkably Slow Barbecue Tour

In Front of “Sam’s BBQ 1”

Eating barbecue during a heat wave makes sense. Pulled pork sandwiches somehow taste even better when you are already sweaty, perhaps even smelling of wood smoke. This apparently means we should eat a lot of barbecue over the course of the extended forecast (in brief…hot, followed by hotter, followed by Christmas).  So the timing was right for the next stop on The Never-Ending and Remarkably Slow Barbecue Tour with my old friend, Richard.

(I have written about barbecue before…here and here).

Richard and I have been crossing paths for almost thirty-five years though we didn’t met face to face until we were suite-mates during our freshman year at Sewanee in the fall of 1983. He reminded me today of that first meeting. He walked into my dorm room to introduce himself, and I said I knew he had gone to Camp Maxwelton because I had seen his name written on the cabin wall each morning where he had scrawled it in a ten–year old hand right next to where I had slept several years later. So even though we were never there at the same time, that camp was the first place we crossed paths. Apparently cabin graffiti has its purposes.

Sam’s BBQ 1

Today we went to “Sam’s BBQ 1” in Cobb County, Georgia. It was a great choice. The barbecue was excellent, if a little dry (my common complaint), and the sides–fried okra and beans for me, collards and brunswick stew for Richard–were tremendous. While I prefer places that don’t even bother with tomato-based “Kansas City-Style” sauce, they had a good vinegar-based sauce though it was not as “sharp and tangy” as the bottle promised.

Just say “no” to the tomato-based sauce and grab the vinegar-based.

The food was excellent as was catching up with Richard. If we average about four BBQ stops a year (our number since I moved to Atlanta last June), I figure we will be busy on our tour for another thirty-five years or so, and then maybe we’ll start over.

This light will guide you… | Sewanee: The University of the South

Morgan Steep (Photograph by Stephen Alvarez, used with permission)

This light will guide you… | Sewanee: The University of the South.

This link above is to a film compiled from various timelapses, and it came today with an Annual Fund ask from Sewanee, my alma mater.  I love this sort of photography.  The care and precision required to create time lapse photography is remarkable, and to have this particular example is particularly meaningful given its subject.

The creator of the piece is Stephen Alvarez, a classmate of mine from Sewanee. I mentioned him before on this blog way back in August 2011 in a post entitled, “A Way of Seeing: Learning to Make Photographs.”

There is great power in this form of media to impact the way we see the world around us. Please take a look–you may also link it here .

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/40746825″>The Light</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/picturestoryblog”>Stephen Alvarez</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>