March 31, 2005
March 30, 2005
So UrbanKid came over last night, and I helped the two boys build a windmill. We used popsicle sticks, tacks, a cut-up manila folder, spools that we took the thread off, yarn, the green stuff that came on the bottom of a floral arrangement, and a variety of other household items. It did occur to me later that we could probably have looked up plans on the internet instead of re-inventing the windmill, but I didn't think of that until later. Helping them with the project was fun, but the boys did not seem all that interested in the windmill or each other, and I was kind of questioning why they wanted to work together.
Once the project was done, however, the boys took off on what seemed to be a tour of the house. I could hear UrbanKid upstairs questioning Boy in Black, asking him all about some kind of video game. I could hear Shaggy Hair talking to UrbanKid, teasing him about something in school. Down in the living room, With-a-Why went to the piano and started playing a jazz arrangement. UrbanKid grabbed a pair of drumsticks from the windowsill, sat down at the drum set with great confidence, and began laying down a beat. That's when it occurred to me. With-a-Why wasn't looking for someone to work on the science project with; he was adding an Extra to the household.
By the time I drove him home, UrbanKid was quite chatty, telling me all about his life. He lives with his great aunt and great uncle. More recently, his great grandmother moved into the household. I asked him how the household was adjusting to the addition of another person. "Well," he said, "I had to give up my room."
"That sucks," I said, "But I am sure there are some advantages to having her there."
"Yes," he said, in the completely unself-conscious manner of a fourth grader, "It's always nice to have one more person who loves you in the house."
March 29, 2005
So I should have known better, but when Boy in Black suggested a game of Scrabble the other day, I willingly agreed. Phantom Scribbler has been talking having Family Time every evening, and I thought to myself, oh this will be some nice bonding time with my son.
And the game Scrabble? I mean, really. I used to play Scrabble as a child. Long before this sixteen-year-old brat was born. I felt confident. I knew I could beat this modern computer geek boy at an old-fashioned game. Boy in Black might be freakishly smart at math, but Scrabble is all about words. I am good with words.
Here's how our tender mother-son bonding time went:
Boy in Black: Want me to give you some kind of handicap?
Boy in Black: I could spot you 50 points.
Me: Don't insult me, you little brat.
Boy in Black: You aren't afraid of losing?
Me: Of course not.
Boy in Black: Oh, that's right. You should be good at this.
Boy in Black: I mean, you are an English teacher and all that.
Silence as we arrange the board, me positioning it so that I can see it right side up and Boy in Black gets the upside down view.
Boy in Black: So what kind of stakes are we playing for?
Boy in Black: I mean, if you think there is any chance of you winning.
Me: Any chance? OF COURSE I AM GOING TO WIN.
Me: I am good at Scrabble, you little brat.
Boy in Black: Well, if you win, I will clean the garage for you.
Me: Really? Okay, then, let's get this game going.
Shaggy Hair: What if Boy in Black wins?
Me: He isn't going to win.
Boy in Black: Well, just in case I do ... I ought to get a prize
Boy in Black: How about a deluxe Scrabble game?
Me: We ALREADY have a Scrabble game.
Boy in Black: But we could get the one with the turntable so I don't always have to play upside down. And it's got those ridges so the letters don't move when I drum on the table.
Me: How about maybe you learn not to drum on the table when we are playing a game?
Shaggy Hair: And a cloth bag to put the letters in.
Me: Why would we need more than one Scrabble game?
Me: You materialistic little brats.
Boy in Black: Only four people can play at a time. And we are having a tournament.
Me: A tournament?
Boy in Black: Yeah, on Friday night. Here. I already invited people over.
Shaggy Hair: It's educational.
Me: Fine, Shaggy Hair, you play too.
Me: If either one of you wins, I buy the Scrabble game.
Me: But if I win, you both clean the garage for me. Thoroughly.
We start drawing tiles to see who goes first
Boy in Black: I am so going to kick your butt.
Me: Is that any way to talk to your mother?
Boy in Black: When I am playing Scrabble, it is.
The game begins. Soon Boy in Black is in the lead. The phone rings.
Me (into the phone): Hello
Me: Hey, Daughter
Me: (whispering) Can you look something up in the dictionary for me?
Me: I am playing Scrabble with the boys.
Daughter: Ha! No one can beat Boy in Black.
Daughter: I hope you weren't stupid enough to take a bet.
Me: If he wins, he has to clean the garage.
Daughter: Oooo. High stakes.
Shaggy Hair: Mom, stop trying to cheat.
Me: (into the phone) I'll call you back later.
The game continues.
Me: Oh, come on. You can't fool me.
Me: That is not a word.
Me: That cannot possibly be a word.
Me: You are making that up.
Boy in Black: It's a word.
Me: Tell me what it means.
Boy in Black: A qadi is a judge in a Muslim community whose decisions are based on Islamic law.
Me: Oh, come on. YOU CAN'T FOOL ME.
Me: You made up a word and then made up a definition.
Me: You expect me to fall for that?
Me: You've stolen that method of cheating from me.
Me: I perfected it.
Me: I can remember the time I convinced everyone that zeit was short for zeitgeist.
Boy in Black: It's a word. Look it up.
Me: What? Just because you say it in an authoritative voice, you think everyone is going to believe you?
Me: You think everyone is going to believe you because you've got a deep voice now?
Boy in Black: Look. It. Up.
Me: So now you are trying to pull that "I've got a deep voice and sound like a man so no one is going to question my authority" thing?
Shaggy Hair Boy: Uh, Mom .... look at this.
Shaggy Hair Boy: In the dictionary.
Me: Oh. My. God.
Me: Word. For. Word.
Me: (accusingly) You looked up q words ahead of time!
Me: I think that's cheating.
Boy in Black: Prior. Knowledge. Is. Not. Cheating.
Boy in Black: I thought the game was supposed to be educational.
Shaggy Hair: You don't want us to learn new words?
Me: YOU COMPETITIVE LITTLE BRATS!
Me: What did you do, memorize the whole q section of the dictionary?
Boy in Black: No, just the ones that don't need a u.
Me: Where did you get this competitive streak from?
Boy in Black: Gee, Mom, I don't know. It's not like you are competitive or anything.
For the record, Boy in Black did not win the game. Shaggy Hair did. Boy in Black came in second. And me a dismal third. Even with help from With-a-Why, who finished his homework and came over to join in. I think family time was more fun when I used to get to win the games.
March 28, 2005
I tend to surf blogs whenever I have a few minutes free. For instance, if I put something in the oven and I've got ten minutes before it comes out, I will go to my computer for ten minutes. If I've got ten minutes before the school bus gets here, and I have the choice between blogging or grading one more paper, I will usually surf blogs.
The whole blogging issue came up again yesterday because I took a shower when I was getting ready to go over to my parents' house for Easter dinner. I usually leave my wet hair wrapped in a towel for ten minutes or so before getting dressed because otherwise, my long hair will drip water on whatever clean shirt I've just put on. These big wet spots right on my breasts would work well if I were going for the wet t-shirt look, but just didn't seem appropriate for Easter dinner.
So anyhow, since I had a few minutes to wait before the towel had absorbed all the water from my hair, I decided to slip into my office and surf blogs. My husband came to the door of the office, saw me typing away (wearing only a towel), and said, "Oh, wow. This is getting serious. Now you are blogging naked."
And on Easter Sunday, no less.
March 27, 2005
Most of the hiking I've done has been here at home, through hardwood stands, wildflower meadows, groves of aspen or birch, forests of pine. Whenever I go out west, I feel overwhelmed by the landscape: stark cliffs, deep canyons, gorgeous red rocks, long views that make me tremble. This photo, taken last May, is of me hiking down into the canyon at Bryce. I felt tiny in that landscape, humbled by the strange and beautiful red cliffs that surrounded me, towered over me, held me.
March 26, 2005
Choose a band/artist and answer in song titles written or performed by that artist.
Are you female or male?: In France They Kiss on the Main Street
A line to describe yourself: The Jungle Line
Your current mood: Blue
How you feel about yourself: The Circle Game
A crush you've had: Free Man in Paris
Favorite fantasy: The Pirate of Penance
An imaginary ex-boyfriend: I Had a King
An ex-friend: I Don't Know Where I Stand
Favorite Pick-up Line: You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio
Least successful pick-up line: (You're so Square) Baby I Don't Care
Your current partner: Not to Blame
Your marriage: Solid Love
Your children: Raised on Robbery
Your home: Refuge of the Roads
Your friends: Ladies of the Canyon
Your Philosophy: Dog Eat Dog
Your Religion: God Must Be a Boogie Man
Person you got this meme from: A Strange Boy
Other blogging friends: Wild Things Run Fast
Why you spend so much time blogging: People's Parties
Where you were born: Big Yellow Taxi
Childhood nickname: Trouble Child
Where you want to be: Blue Motel Room
What you want to be: Twisted
Worst nightmare: You Dream Flat Tires
Your copy machine strategy: Both Sides Now
Favorite vacation spot: River
Favorite state: California
Favorite drink: A Case of You
How you live: Shadows and Light
How you love: Silky Veils of Ardor
Are you crazy? Borderline
What keeps you sane? Moon in the Window
Two words of wisdom: Sex Kills
Anyone want to guess the artist?
March 25, 2005
If the last scene in Fahrenheit 451 happens, and all books have been burned, and people have to recite stuff they know, which book are you?
Listen, I am not going to go out and memorize a new book for this meme. So when western civilization falls (and I think we are heading in that direction, ask Prof Goose), I will be the Book of Random Mostly Rhyming Poems by Dead People. Frost, Tennyson, Hopkins, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Kipling, etc. When I was a kid, we spent most of the summer camping. Whenever we hit a rainy week, the family game was to memorize poems from the two books my mother had with her and recite them. Today, I read mostly contemporary literature, but I still have all those poems in my head. Oh, I could be Mother Goose and Lots of Cool Kids' Books as well. And about forty lines or so from Chaucer.
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Of course. Almanzo Wilder from the Little House books. The cool earthy farmer type. (Yeah, I know technically he's not a fictional character, but he's dead so I think that counts.) Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. I mean, Anne lost her temper, cracked her slate over his head, and he still liked her. Gotta love a man who can deal with the hot-tempered woman. Rush Melendy from the Elizabeth Enright books. He played the piano, was passionate about classical music, and once sneaked out of the house by climbing out the window and down a tree. Joe Willard from the Betsy-Tacy books. Orphaned kid with no money who was smarter than everyone else. He even walked with an attitude. Laurie from Little Women, of course. Why didn't Jo marry him instead of that old German professor guy? I'll never understand that. Max in Where the Wild Things Are; now, he would be a cool boyfriend. He had a great imagination and a lot of sass. This list could go on forever because I have even been known to get crushes on Dr. Seuss characters. (Horton the Elephant? Now there's a real man.) In fact most of my fictional crushes are from kids' books because once I hit puberty, I looked around and discovered non-fictional guys to get crushes on. But there was one fictional crush from my teenage years: Heathcliff. The original untamed, bad boy type. Oh, yeah.
Famous author you've had a crush on?
Fiction writer Rick Bass. Terrific writer and an environmental activist. With a charming accent. And my lesbian crush is poet Joy Harjo.
The last book you bought?
The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape by Lisa Couturier. It just came out in February and I could have been one of the first people in the country to read it if I didn't spend so damn much time blogging. Anyhow, it's a book about urban nature. Lisa has a piece in the anthology City Wilds that I really love so I am looking forward to reading this.
The last book you read?
This week I just reread two books I am teaching. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. You would think a book about mosses written by a scientist might be boring, but this one is not. It's fascinating. She connects the study of mosses to all kinds of bigger cultural issues. The book is lyrical, spiritual, moving, profound. And the other book is Blanche Cleans Up by Barbara Neely. A funny, fast-moving mystery by an author who raises every taboo topic I can think of: politics, religion, sex, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism. The main character is an African American woman named Blanche White who is outspoken and funny.
What book are you currently reading?
This is a weird question. I am rarely in the middle of reading anything. I like to read books in one gulp. I start reading, ignore everything around me, and keep going until I hit the last page. I am not so good at the bookmark thing. When I read a book, I might stop to go in the kitchen and get a snack but I would not stop in the middle to do something like a meme. But I do reread books in bits and pieces. I'll pick up any book that happens to be lying around and read a random chunk. Let's see, today I read a bit of the second Harry Potter book, a bit of Ursula LeGuinn's Always Coming Home, and a several poems in the book Blue Window by Ann Fisher-Wirth.
Five books you would take to a deserted island?
Actually, I spend lots of time on deserted islands in the summer. It's where we go to swim. I am always hesitant to bring a book on a sailboat or canoe because a book gets ruined so quickly if it gets wet. And reading in the sun gives me a headache. So the books stay back in the tent for rainy days. But I do bring my journal in a dry bag so that I can do some writing.
My favorite deserted island isn't a place for reading: it's a place for jumping into icy water, for splashing family members, for snuggling against grey rock to warm yourself up, for listening to waves, for swimming out to shoals, for playing strange games like toss the watermelon, for sharing a picnic lunch with a bunch of hungry kids. If I could bring a fictional character with me, my choice would be Pippi Longstocking, of course. She would fit in perfectly with my family.
If I could bring five writers to my favorite island, I would choose: David Quammen, of course, because he knows everything about island biogeography. Rick Bass, for the erotic thrill. Sandra Cisneros, because she is smart and funny, and I think she'd get along great with my family. Joni Mitchell, because a good voice and a guitar are the most important things to bring on a family camping trip. And Joy Harjo, because I think she would understand what it is I love about grey rock islands.
Who are you going to pass this stick to?
When we do relay races up at camp in the summer, we use a pine cone as a stick and I drop it every single time. Really. Not so good at passing the stick.
March 24, 2005
Our house is on a hill and in the winter, the front yard becomes a snow park. The teenagers shovel snow into huge piles, creating jumps so that they can practice their snowboarding tricks. (This explains why the barberry bushes in the front of the house always look sort of odd-shaped and crushed.) The driveway, with solid ice on the bottom and snow banks along the sides, functions as a toboggan run. Two floodlights lashed to pine trees with rope, much the way pirates might be lashed to the mast of a sailing ship, completes the park. On a winter night, the light illuminates falling snow and the whole scene looks quite pretty.
In the harsh light of spring, however, with snow melting fast, the yard looks like the kind of place you might go to to buy an old car part. Everything the kids used to augment the piles of snow - warped boards, some plastic crates, an old ice chest, logs taken from the woodpile, an entire picnic table turned sideways - has reappeared. Orange extension cords snake across the lawn, which is littered with plastic toboggans in faded colours. Some old golf clubs are scattered about as well, although I have yet to figure out just what the kids were doing with those golf clubs.
When the snow melts this time of year, we discover things we've been missing since December - a couple of snow shovels, for instance. I always tell the kids to lean the shovels against the house instead of leaving them in snow banks, where they can fall and be lost, but no one listens. I've been wondering what that weird lump in the backyard is, and now I realize that it's our Christmas tree. The kids must have been using it as part of some kind of fort.
As I walk around with the kids, picking up trash on the re-emerging ground, I am reminded of all the events of the winter. Here is a song sheet from our Christmas carolling party. One of our singers must have dropped it near the driveway. Here is a movie stub from a Saturday date night. This juice box must have fallen from the car when Boy in Black was getting his snowboard out one Sunday. The wood pile is almost gone, depleted from the many cozy evenings by the fire.
In the backyard, pieces of oddly folded paper puzzle me until I recall the night the kids sent paper airplanes out the boys' bedroom window. Lots of decaying fruit lies along the far edge of the yard near the woods. The boys have this big sling shot for shooting snowballs, and they decided one night that it would be fun to go through the compost pile and fling stuff like grapefruit rinds.
I find a few broken CDs as well. My kids and extras like to collect the promotional CDs that AOL sends to every household. Then they have these big battles, whipping the CDs like frisbees. Well, the way you would throw a frisbee if you were if you were attacking someone with it. And in the vegetable garden, I see some ashes and scorch marks. That's where the kids were experimenting with fire. My rule about playing with fire is that it's okay as long as there is at least a foot of snow on the roof.
We clean up the yard by piling everything we can into the garage. The garage is, of course, a complete mess because my way of cleaning the house all winter long is to throw everything into the garage. I close the garage door, leaving that project for another day. I walk around the house, looking longingly at gardens still edged with snow. I am already thinking about May, when the soil will finally get warm and I can spend my daylight hours gardening, my hands in the earth.
March 23, 2005
Ten Things I can do
1. Sail a sailboat or paddle a canoe
2. French braid hair (but not my own, that's too difficult)
3. Get school kids to write poetry
4. Breastfeed while hiking up a trail
5. Light a match from a matchbook with only one hand (an amazing cool party trick that was popular when I was in junior high).
6. Cook for big numbers of people (but they all have to like vegan food.)
7. Fall asleep within seconds of my head touching the pillow
8. Walk into a roomful of strangers and make friends
9. Use an ax (although not without steel-toed boots because I have terrible aim.)
10. Sit quietly in the woods for hours
March 22, 2005
In one class, we've been talking about attitudes towards nature, how underlying attitudes can inform politics, and how literature can be used to get people thinking and questioning those attitudes. So I divided the students into groups and told them to take a children's story, analyze the attitudes towards nature in the story, rewrite the story, and then perform it as a skit. They had to make reference to at least two texts we've read this semester.
The skits went pretty well. Actually, most of them were hysterically funny. And serious at the same time. The Three Little Pigs became three privileged white people fleeing the city to build a gated community in a pastoral setting. The wolf, who had lived on the land for generations, gave an impassioned speech against the evils of rampant development and the need for urban growth limits. The Oldest Little Pig, when asked whether or not she cared at all about ecology, replied, "Oh, but I do. I use recycled coffee filters."
The Little Mermaid became the Powerful Mermaid, who decided that the Prince needed therapy because he was caught in the web of consumerism and cracking under the pressures of corporate life. She made all kinds of sarcastic comments about how she could not imagine why any mermaid would choose to become human like the prince, since humans are the most evil of species. Eventually the Prince, who had damn few lines in the whole skit, decided to change his ways and become a sea creature. I think there was going to be more about how he ended up with SpongeBob SquarePants instead of the Mermaid but we ran out of time.
My favorite class yesterday, though, was my last class of the day. The students, who saw "Creativity Day" on the assignment schedule and who know me pretty well, took matters into their own hands. One woman brought a guitar and sang us folk songs. Another student took my supply of index cards and passed them out. While we listened to the music, each of us wrote a couple lines of poetry on the index cards. At the end, a student shuffled the cards and read them aloud as a collaborative poem. What was amazing was how well this worked: class discussions all semester, the most recent awful news about the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the background of music got us all thinking on the same track.
In my book, any class that features Joni Mitchell songs is a worthwhile class.
March 21, 2005
2. I saw a bare patch of ground.
3. Three of our cats went outside.
4. I left my mittens in the car.
5. Daughter and I got haircuts.
6. I did not wear long underwear to work.
7. The stores are selling Easter candy.
8. My kids wanted to stop for ice cream.
9. I didn’t wear snowshoes when I took my walk.
10. The snow that fell yesterday looked like spring snow.
March 20, 2005
When Spouse and I both woke early, we decided to sneak into the bathroom to have sex while the kids were still sleeping. The bathroom at this particular cheap motel was tiny, so we congratulated ourselves on the acrobatic feat, which we had pulled off without waking the children.
Imagine our surprise, when we emerged from the bathroom and found Daughter, who must have been ten or eleven, sitting up in bed, wide awake, reading a book. She looked over at both of us, gave a smug smile, and said, "I am going to need therapy for THAT some day."
March 19, 2005
So today we decided to do something special tonight for our Saturday date night. We are going to leave Daughter in charge of her brothers and all the extra kids. And we are going to a hotel with a pool, a hot tub, and no kids. We will pretend that we are someplace exotic. And actually it will feel exotic, because we usually stay in a tent when we travel on vacations. Spouse is running a quick errand to buy enough junk food to ensure that the teenagers will not starve to death while we are gone. And I am off to pack.
March 18, 2005
I think it was Profgrrrrl who said that she had never been to a funeral. I go to many of them. Mostly this is because Spouse and I both live in our hometown. When you've known someone since high school, and his parent dies, and you live in town, you go to the funeral. Many of my high school friends moved far away and they have to fly in when a parent dies. I always go to those funerals. Because often an old friend's current friends can't be at the funeral because they live in some other town far away. But those of us who stayed in town, those of us who mostly now communicate with a holiday card once a year, we show up at the funeral to share stories about the old friend's parents, to reminisce about high school days. And it's nice to renew the friendship, even if it's just for a day or two.
No matter how urban and sophisticated one of my old friends has become, I know that once she is surrounded by old high school friends, comforting her because a parent has died, she will in a flash revert to her adolescent self - talking, giggling, crying, vulnerable. No one ever really leaves their hometown.
March 17, 2005
2. I prefer to be naked. I like my body.
3. I don't buy CDs. I wait for friends to send me them in the mail. The last two I got were a Beach Boys CD from Artist Friend and a Billy Bragg and Wilco CD from David. (See, Scrivener, I said something nice about you. And putting you in the same sentence with Artist Friend is a huge compliment because he is one of my favorite people.)
4. No tattoos, but lots of way cool stretch marks that turn all silvery in sunlight. Does that count?
5. I have four children, a full-time job, a million extra kids, lots of community involvement, and several elderly relatives to care for. Does that count as juggling? Or do I have to do some kind of trick with oranges to prove myself?
6. I met him at casino night at a local high school. He was dealing black jack. I was 16 and he was 17.
7. Yes, of course. Even on physical level, my body would make good compost. Or food for the coyotes in my woods.
8. Saturdays. Always. Duh. Did anyone pick Monday morning? I have to say that this one was an easy question.
9. A wooden spoon. Or perhaps a sharp knife. I'm pretty low-tech. I don't have many kitchen appliances.
10. I don't really want a super power. I already have enough trouble with that whole humility thing as it is.
March 16, 2005
Always, before even going to the chapel, I take a walk though the barn. I love the smell of a barn, the straw and manure, all those rich animal smells that bring back wonderful memories. About a hundred lambs have been born already. They've come a bit early, all blamed on a renegade ram who apparently got in with the ewes last fall. So they have been born early into a snowy March world, and they prance about the barnyard in the snow, bleating and butting up against their mothers to nurse.
The west guest cottage is tiny, one living room, a galley kitchen, and a bedroom. But the living room has a fireplace and a floor-to-ceiling window that faces south. I have spent many hours sitting in the big chair by that window, savoring the sunshine that covers me from head to toe, writing in my journal or watching the snow fall. The hills outside the window are interwoven. The nearest hill is a sheep pasture, curving with glittery snow; on the next hill, pine trees are sprinkled with white. The farthest hill is a mix of farmland and a hardwood forest. Steep hills do so much for a view.
I watch cars coming up the narrow monastery road. Cars coming here travel fast, eager, impatient. I imagine drivers all jangly and frazzled, frustrated that their cell phones no longer work, their minds racing faster than their cars. Cars leaving the monastery amble down the hill, sometimes stopping to watch a donkey near the fence or to gaze at the apple orchard all piled in fluffy snow. Even when they reach the point in the road that is crowded with trees, they move slowly, reluctant to leave. Perhaps if they travel quietly, carefully, they can bring home some of this peace.
To get to my favorite spot in the monastery, I climb down the stone steps inside the chapel and into the crypt. More than a hundred candles burn on the low stone altar. I sit cross-legged on the floor to gaze into the flames. Each flame burns in a little pool of clear liquid wax, held within a glass jar. All around me is darkness. I love the darkness at the monastery. It's a darkness that does not make me feel invisible. Everything around me fades into the darkness, even the stairs and entrance way, and I am left staring into, illuminated by, light.
Friday evening, after Compline, I walk Another Guest up the hill to the women's guesthouse, where she is staying. It's dark, with clouds covering even the thin sliver of moon, and I can tell she is afraid to walk up by herself. The road, which winds up a steep hill and across a sheep pasture, has not been plowed, and more snow is falling. Wet flakes of thick spring snow stick to my hair, my eyelashes. With the wind blowing white across the field, it's hard to tell where the road is but I look at the dark outlines of the trees and try to guess. At the top of the hill, we turn to look back at the cluster of buildings below: the chapel, with its steeple blending into the night sky, the old stone farmhouse with its porch lights brightly lit, the cosy yellow windows of the two small guest cottages huddled beneath the huge old barn.
We are walking through about a foot of snow (Brother Tractor is a bit relaxed about plowing). Our footsteps are muffled in this quiet snowy world. Once we have passed the crest of the hill, the darkness surrounds us. "Do you know where we are?" Another Guest asks, looking around nervously. City girl.
Just around another bend, and the women's guesthouse comes into view. It's an old farm cottage, painted white with a stone chimney. Little white lights are strung inside the enclosed porch, candle lights glow in the kitchen windows. Here, near all the light that spills from the house, you can see the snowflakes falling against the black sky. Even though it's March and I am tired of shoveling the driveway, tired of putting on layers of clothes, tired of brushing snow off my car - moments like this remind me again how much I love winter and the way it transforms the places I love.
Prayer is sensual at the monastery: the spicy smell of incense, the flickering of candles, the low chanting of psalms, the long dark robes, the slow music of the harp. I always sit in the same spot in the octogonal chapel, front row, along the southeast curve, so that I am staring right at the two curving lines of monks. I watch their faces while they sing. Brother Beekeeper told me once that some of the monks find this unnerving: "How come she doesn't look at the book like everyone else?" But they are used to me now, and I get smiles as I take my place.
Brother Joking is one of the newest monks. He won't make his Solemn Profession until 2007. The process of becoming a monk is not unlike the tenure process.
"Hey," I say when I see Brother Joking in the bookstore, "They haven't kicked you out yet?" He and I exchange insults until we both start laughing.
"I saw you talking to Brother Beekeeper inside the chapel," he says to me, "You are always getting him into trouble. Breaking the rules. Maybe we should throw YOU out."
I shrug, unafraid. "You can't. I'm a guest. And you've taken that whole hospitality oath. No matter how obnoxious I am, you have to be nice to me. Or you go to hell .... isn't that how it works?"
Brother Joking is the gardener at the monastery, and he is eager to see all the bulbs he planted last fall come to life. Since there's more than a foot of snow on his gardens, I don't think that's happening any time soon.
Friday afternoon, I sit behind the desk in the monastery bookstore and put labels on pamphlets. Always, at a monastery, there are tasks to be done. I like to help out because it makes me part of the community. While I work, I talk to Older Woman From Town, who tells me about her twelve children, all of whom are grown up. Later, I take a shift with Brother Silence, an older monk with a long white beard who works with me for over an hour -- and never says a word. Not a single word. That is the way that Brother Silence is. When I work with him, we are both quiet, but it is not an uncomfortable silence. He'll smile and look up on occasion but he has not the need for words.
I wake up early Saturday morning and build a fire in the fireplace of the little cottage I am sharing with Monking Friend. Always, I am the person in charge of the fire. It has always been this way. Yesterday I roamed the barns until I found the spot where the monks keep the firewood and I carried in an armful. Now I drink my morning tea by the crackling flames, listening for the chapel bells that will call the monks to prayer.
Saturday afternoon, I am still putting labels on pamphlets. It's peaceful to sit quietly in the bookstore, a public lobby of sorts, filled with paintings, books, plants, and beeswax candles.
"I see you are doing penance," says Brother Joking when he comes through.
"Yes," I say, "I figure I can do a bunch of these pamphlets and then go out and commit some cool sins."
"Ah," he says, "That's being pro-active."
He turns, "Maybe I ought to do some of those pamphlets."
Benedictine monks pledge themselves not to the order but to a particular house. These monks have vowed to stay here, on this hill, this farm, for their entire lives. They will be buried here on the hill above the chapel near the west sheep pasture. Brother Beekeeper entered this monastery in the fall of 1960. He has lived here my entire life.
Sunday morning, we join the townspeople for coffee, tea, and baked goods after Mass. I discuss my plans with Monking Friend. I am going to do reiki on LovelyAccentWoman after lunch, and I am meeting Brother Beekeeper at 3 pm for a hike. Monking Friend rolls her eyes: "You are the only person I know who can come to a monastery and have a busy social calendar."
Late that afternoon, Brother Beekeeper and I hike across the east sheep pasture. It's snow-covered so the sheep are huddled mostly around a huge stack of hay. Some of the sheep move away as I approach, running skittishly, all in a line, but some crowd up to me, butting their warm heads against me, running their mouths over me to see if any part of my clothing is edible.
Up against the haystack, we are sheltered from the cold March wind. We lean against the hay and talk, breathing in the fragrance until I notice a ladder lying on the ground. Beekeeper obligingly holds the ladder while I climb to the top of the haystack. Because the sheep pasture is on a hill, I feel amazingly high - higher than the barn, the cottages, even the chapel with its steeple. I stretch my arms to the sky and jump up and down, remembering a scene from one of the Little House on the Prairie Books: "I'm flying!"
When Brother Beekeeper finally convinces me to come down from the haystack, we hike into the woods, where the snow is sometimes past my knees. It's slow going but we are busy talking so we don't care. When my feet start getting cold, we tramp back into the barnyard to look at the ewes and play with the newborn lambs. Even though the wind has turn cold, bitterly cold for March, we linger. It's the last afternoon of this retreat and I want to make it last.
You may notice that I'm not using a pseudonym for Jason. That's because I am hoping he will not become part of my life.
I think my blogging friends must have succeeded in intimidating the tech support people at the computer store, because I did get my computer back in record time. I was very happy until I realized that most of my applications did not work. This discovery was what led to the whole series of phone calls to Jason, the first of which began with him saying, "Oh, yeah, didn't I tell you? You have to re-install everything."
One of the saddest things about this whole computer crisis is that I have a houseful of teenagers, many of whom are computer geeks, one of whom is supposedly the smartest kid in the county, and none of them will even look at my computer because it's a Mac. My whole reason for having children was so that I would have my own tech support team, and then I went and bought the wrong kind of computer. Oh, well.
Anyhow, I think that my computer is working again. But I don't want to say it too loudly. I think maybe all that screaming and yelling upset the poor thing. So I am going to go ahead and start writing about my monastery trip, in hopes that the some peaceful thoughts will soothe the hard drive.
March 15, 2005
I thought for sure she was wrong. I figured the new peaceful me would last until May at least, maybe even September.
But I did not count on the fact that while I was gone, the kids would build a big snow ramp in the front yard out of all the melting piles of snow, and that the little kids, their fingers cold, would decide to get inside my car, which was nice and warm because it was parked in the sun, and that they would decide the car was really a spaceship, which required them pushing all kinds of buttons, including the one that puts the headlights on. The result was that I came home to a long list of errands that absolutely had to be done and a dead battery. The dead battery alone was not enough to shake me out of my peaceful monking mood. I called my husband at work and asked him to come home and jump me. (His response was so eager and willing, no annoyance at all, that it surprised me until it occurred to me that he had perhaps misinterpreted my request.)
No, the dead battery alone was not enough to push me over the edge, especially since it had the side advantage of luring my husband home from the office. No, the thing that made me crazy yesterday was sitting down at my desk, looking at my computer, and seeing the blank screen of death staring back at me. MY COMPUTER WAS NOT WORKING! Frantic calls to tech support did nothing except give me a headache. In the end, I had to pile my computer in the car and bring it to the computer store, handing it over to a tech guy who assured me he could have it fixed in a few day. A FEW DAYS? Few things in life are as frustrating as handing over my computer to someone who looks like he is not old enough to have a driver's license and who clearly does not understand that he should drop everything, everything, and work on it.
I tried to explain to this young man the significance of my computer: "ALL OF MY WRITING is on this hard drive. ALL OF MY SCHOOL STUFF. All of my e-mail correspondence. This computer is my only access to the outside world."
He shrugged. "You ought to back it up more often."
I watched him lug the computer to a table, where it will probably sit untouched for days. "ALL OF MY BLOGGING FRIENDS ARE IN THERE!"
I think at that point I may have been getting a little hysterical. I think it's safe to say that the new peaceful me that had come home from the monastery just hours before had slipped far beneath the surface of psycho woman. At that point I was imagining all my blogging friends, their heads and gravatars on popsicle sticks, popping up and taunting this young man until he fixed my computer. I began to wish for meaner and more intimidating friends. David hugging a baby? THAT'S NOT GOING TO SCARE ANYONE!
So here I am, without a computer, isolated from the world. I am using the kids' computer right now, but that hardly counts because I don't like their computer. The keyboard is weird, it's got none of my stuff on it, and it's in a room that is littered with the dirty laundry of three boys. I cannot write or even think in this atmosphere. And I am still panicky about losing everything on my hard drive. So please, I am begging all my blogging friends who live inside my computer, to please pop out at that tech support guy and remind him (nicely, of course) that he needs to fix my computer IMMEDIATELY. Because otherwise you are never going to get to see the peaceful monastic me. It may be too late already ....
March 09, 2005
Two little guest houses are snuggled up to the barn. I will sleep in the first of these cabins, sharing it with two friends. For five days, we will talk and read and write in our journals. No television. No computer. No radio. No telephone. No housework. No children. No teenagers. No husbands. No students.
The chapel bells will ring six days times each day, calling us to prayer, if we choose. We will eat meals at the guest house, joining in that intimate chatter that happens whenever a small group of women share a meal. I'll take a hike, perhaps, down into the woods or head out on a snowy trail with my cross-country skis. Sunday afternoon, Brother Beekeeper will likely join me, and we will wander through the barns, with him telling me funny stories that go back fifty years or more.
When I want to be by myself, I will climb down the stone stairs to the crypt, descending into a dark, quiet octogan-shaped room, where a hundred or more candles, flames in pools of liquid, burn on a stone altar. I'll sit on the floor of the crypt, cross-legged, staring into all that fire, and I'll stay there for hours, thinking of all the things in my life I am grateful for.
I know what to expect from my trip to the monastery because it is a place that does not change much. Day in and day out, year after year, the rhythm stays the same. The monks, dark robes pulled over farm clothes, gather to pray at the same times every single day. The lovely woman with the British accent who makes the meals at the guesthouse is sure to complain about the winter and all the snow they've had. The chapel will have that same musky smell, filled with incense and candle wax. The sheep will be gathered in the same places in the west pasture.
After we arrive Thursday evening, my friends and I will go to Compline, the last service of the day. The chapel with be dark, lit only by candles. Brother Tractor will play the harp, the same songs he has played every night for thirty years. Brother Beekeeper will wink at me from across the room, smiling to show that he's happy I'm there. I'll breathe in the spicy, musky smell of the chapel and feel my muscles begin to relax.
A simple quiet life with no interruptions. So peaceful that I will be able to hear myself breathing.
March 08, 2005
Later when I checked her Away Message (this is what happens when you have children in college, you become an obsessive checker of away messages), the message read:
Showing your Mom porn on the internet is really not such a good idea.
March 07, 2005
Topics this semester have included: Ward Churchill, biotechnology, the Vagina Monologues, Lawrence Summers, thong underwear, Jane Goodall, mountain climbing, the Beach Boys, Michael Crichton, roadkill, body piercings, DNA testing, contra dancing, public education, underage drinking, the Moosewood Cookbook, cell phones, whitewater rafting, and winter camping.
These informal discussions are often the best part of my day, and often whatever we talk about spills over into my classroom. I learn all kinds of new things from these students. Today, one student at the table was cutting up strips of paper and taping them together. When I asked him what he was doing, he took the time to show me how to make a Moebius Strip. Oh, it was the coolest thing.
The group at the table told me I was a nerd for getting so excited by the Moebius Strip. But I say that if I was REALLY a nerd, I would have seen it before ....
March 06, 2005
When we are done with a chapter, I turn out the light. With-a-Why snuggles up to me, sometimes sleepily talking about his day. For some reason, he always chooses this late hour for confidences. Eventually, he puts his arms around me, leans his head against me, and falls asleep, his long black eyelashes curving but still.
Once I can tell he's sound asleep, I slip out of the bed into the harsh bright light of the hallway. Unfortunately, thirty minutes of snuggling a warm child underneath a down quilt on a night when I'm overtired, which is just about every night, leaves me in a hazy fog, half-asleep and unable to grade papers or do any kind of work that requires any sort of intellectual focus.
I've been a parent for almost nineteen years now, and I know there were times in the past when I resented the bedtime ritual, the way that it sapped me of any energy to accomplish anything past 8 pm in the evening. When I had several little kids, I can remember feeling just desperate for time to myself.
But With-a-Why is my last child, my youngest. I know how soon he will turn into a junior high student with shaggy hair who will want to stay up and send instant messages to girls in his class. I know how soon he will turn into a six-foot tall teenager who will want to stay up to practice his guitar. I know how quickly a baby of mine can turn into a poised, confident young person who will leave for college.
So I've found that my attitude has changed. I get no work done in the evening, and I don't care. I have only two or three years left, at the most, before With-a-Why will hit that growth spurt that will make him bigger than I am. So I am savoring the bedtime ritual. I know some day I will miss it.
My brother took this photo. But I get the credit because I was holding the canoe steady. This water lily lives in the marsh where I have camped for weeks every summer since I was seven. This marsh is the place where I feel most at home, the place I dream about during February when the winter seems endless. At the edge of this marsh, around a campfire on summer nights, my extended family gathers to tell stories, tell jokes, tease each other. It's where I learned the art of bantering.
Sometimes in the early morning when mist still clings to the cattails, I'll sneak out early with a canoe, a rock in the bow to balance me, and paddle out into the marsh all by myself. It's where I go to be myself, to think and to cry.
When I was little, my mother taught me not to pick water lilies. She said that they were rare and beautiful, and it's better to leave them where they are, letting them live, nestled in amongst the curling green pads, the stirred up muck, touched by snakes and frogs and green bottle flies. When I canoe through the marsh, I glide carefully around the water lilies. I admire the way a water lily grows up in those layers of decayed plant material, roots sometimes floating to the surface.
So somehow this image of the water lily seems the appropriate gift for David, who stayed up with me the other night to write poetry, even though he was ridiculously tired, because it was the middle of the night and I needed to talk. I can't pick the water lily and hand it to him, because he lives too far away and the marsh is frozen. And I don't pick water lilies. And I don't give out awards on my blog. And I'm not even usually nice to David because I think he's more comfortable when I insult him. But sometimes, every once in a while, I have this need to be nice. And say thank you.
March 05, 2005
I've known SmilingStudent since her first year in college, when she took a writing class with me. During her senior year, she organized a student group whose ambitious goals included everything from setting up Midnight Runs to feed local homeless people to doing everything they could in their power to remove Bush from office. Like many of us, she was devastated last November when the election swung to the right. She's taking a summer now to hike from Georgia to Maine, getting her body and her soul into shape to tackle all the difficult years of activism ahead of her. She's going to do some soul-searching and figure out what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She's promised me that she will keep a journal.
I am thinking of her today, as she hikes through the woods in Georgia, moving fast to keep ahead of the warm weather as spring creeps northward. Right now, she's just getting into the rhythm of her journey, and she has many miles to go before she passes through the state where I live.
Just as the train track at the end of my road connects me to friends west and east, from Chicago to Manhattan, I like the idea of a footpath that stretches along the eastern seaboard, connecting me to friends as far north as Maine and south all the way to Georgia.
About 2,000 people each year attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Ninety percent of them do not succeed. I bet SmilingStudent will. If she passes through your state, give her a hug from me.
March 04, 2005
HAVE THESE PEOPLE LOST THEIR MINDS? Is anyone out there thinking about fall right now? Is there a faculty member in the country, the universe, or even the whole galaxy who is all caught up with grading papers, who has the whole rest of the semester planned out, and who is now leisurely planning out fall semester?
Yeah, if any of you out there in the land of blog are in that position, please do not comment. I do not want to hear from you. I would prefer to hear whining and ranting.
Swwccckkrrunvch. That is the sound you hear when fall semester zooms backwards and crashes into spring semester. Better cover your ears because it's not a pretty sound.
March 03, 2005
Teachers Who Suck the Creativity out of Students
In college I had this creative writing teacher who didn't like the stories I wrote. He thought my techniques were fine, but he didn't like my subject matter. I wrote a short story in which the main character was a pregnant woman who was thinking about getting an abortion. This was the early 1980s and abortion was still a hot topic in the media, in the circle of feminists and environmentalists who were my friends, and in the circle of conservative Roman Catholics who were my home community. I didn't know what I thought about the topic myself - I was only eighteen years old and still felt pulled in all kinds of ways by the people around me. So writing a short story from the perspective of a pregnant woman was one way for me to try to work my own way through my conflicting thoughts and emotions.
The character in the story didn't come to any conclusions. That's one of my favorite things about writing fiction, incidentally. You can just end the story and not come to any conclusions.
My teacher hated the story. He said that writing about abortion was "opening a can of worms." (This was right after he told us not to use cliches.) He said that no one would want to read about a pregnant woman because pregnancy was not a universal experience. Universal, in this case, meant white middle-class male.
He said that I couldn't possibly write a story from the perspective of a pregnant woman because I had never been pregnant. He on the other hand seemed to be an absolute authority on pregnancy because his wife had one time had a baby, and he went through the story circling paragraphs in which I had described the way the woman's body felt, telling me that the details were wrong.
Years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I got out the old story and realized that my descriptions were, in fact, right on target. I suspect that this accuracy came about because I was socialized as a woman: even before college, I had attended many women-only gatherings such as baby showers and had heard women talking about how their bodies felt. I had been exposed to a wealth of information about pregnancy. It's likely that I knew far more than my arrogant male professor.
Of course, sitting in the classroom, listening while the professor ripped my story apart, there was nothing I could do. That was the rule. The professor handed out copies of the story, which were supposed to be anonymous, and everyone was encouraged to jump in with criticism. The writer was supposed to remain silent. The students in the classroom for the most part just followed along with whatever harsh criticism the professor was dealing out. I'm not sure what these workshops were supposed to accomplish, but what they did for me was to kill any desire to write.
The only piece of encouragement that I got was from another student in the class. He was two years older than me, a senior, and an incredible artist as well as writer. What I admired most about him is that he just wrote whatever he wanted and ignored the teacher altogether. He never said anything aloud in class. Anyhow, one day in class, while the teacher was again ripping apart one of my stories, this time about a pregnant woman who lives in a futuristic culture in which she is being forced to have an abortion because of the government's population control mandate, I notice him quietly circling phrases and starring paragraphs. After class, he handed me his copy of my story. "I know it's supposed to be anonymous," he said, "but I knew it was yours. I went through and circled all the stuff that told me it was yours. You have a very recognizable writing style. I think you are the best writer in the class."
Looking back, I am grateful for that older student and his intuitive way of encouraging me. And I wonder how much of the writing I've done over the last ten years was fueled by a stubborn desire to prove that teacher wrong. That teacher, by the way, never did get anything of his own published. In the meantime, I've published poetry about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, breastfeeding - well, just about any bodily experience you could have. All of it written from the perspective of a woman. Because I am a woman. And I think being a writer means I should not be silent.
March 02, 2005
Funding! Resources! Blah. Blah. Blah. Budget! Budget Cuts! Blah. Blah. Blah. Option K undermines our program. Blah. Blah. Blah. No one likes Option Q. Blah. Blah. Blah. The provost likes Option X. Blah. Blah. Blah. No one likes the provost anyhow. Blah. Blah. Blah. What is the charge to the committee? (silence)
Blah. Blah. Blah. We need to stake a claim! Blah. Blah. Blah. What were the recommendations? Blah. Blah. Blah. Science is important! Blah. Blah. Blah. No one cares about literature. Blah. Blah. Blah. Humanities people are warm and fluffy. Blah. Blah. Blah. No one cares what they think. Blah. Blah. Blah. The right people are not on the committee! Blah. Blah. Blah. What about the students? Blah. Blah. Blah. No one cares about the students. Blah. Blah. Blah. Everything the committee has done is wrong. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Then CommitteeGuy, who was getting defensive about this committee that has done almost nothing, was asked to explain why he felt the committee should continue, rather than be disbanded and re-formed in the fall. He fumbled for words and said finally, "I think we need to keep going. I don't want to lose the inertia."
March 01, 2005
So this is the scene that happens about twelve times a day. I am running around doing three things at once, folding laundry, making sandwiches, and in my head writing a stern lecture about plagiarism, and then suddenly, I turn, and there is Michael Stipe staring at me. I'm not sure where Shaggy Hair Boy got this photo of him, but the look on his face is a bit creepy. His head is tilted in the way that indicates he might be a villain of sorts.
So I jump and scream. And the boys all laugh.
"What is Michael Stipe doing in the cupboard? Get him out of there!" I yell. Boy-in-Black rolls his eyes.
"How is it that you get scared every single time?" he asks. "Do you really think that Michael Stipe would be in our cupboard or in the refrigerator or inside the washing machine? That's not even logical."
Boy-in-Black is right, of course. There is no logical reason why I should scream when I see Michael Stipe's face staring at me from the bathroom mirror or the edge of the bookcase or from inside the fireplace. The boys are convinced that my continually screaming - and this has been happening multiple times every day - is a sign that their Mom has seriously lost touch with reality.
My point to this post was going to be something about education. About how, when it comes right down to it, playing with cut-outs of Michael Stipe's head is far more valuable than learning how to take standardized tests. Because playing with Michael Stipe's head teaches important lessons about reality, which clearly cannot be learned by filling in little bubbles with a number two pencil. And about how doing well on standardized tests is a useless skill that becomes obsolete as soon as you leave school; I mean, it's not even a fun party skill. Fun party skills involve such things as knowing how to light a match from a match book with only one hand, and I'm pretty sure that's not on the new standardized test. But I lost the thread of argument before it even started, when I turned and saw Michael Stipe's head taped to my office window.
I don't care what anyone thinks; those eyes are creepy.
So I will end this post with gratitude for the educational value of parenting. Thank goodness, I have children to teach me things. As Boy-in-Black has so patiently explained to me, over and over again, Michael Stipe would not fit into my refrigerator. This is information worth knowing.