April 30, 2005

Rain

I woke to a dark and rainy Saturday morning. My husband had gotten up early to go into work. Except for the cats, who paced around the kitchen area, waiting to be fed, the house was quiet. As I sat at the big oak table, eating cereal and watching the rain slide down the glass doors, I looked about to see who was still here. About ten bodies, mostly teen-age boys, were strewn about the room, each wrapped in a blanket.

Boy in Black and his friends had been up late, playing cards, joking and teasing each other, talking constantly. Their conversation covered all kinds of topics: the bomb scare at school, the Hitchhiker movie, the fistfight at school that had gotten CoolKid suspended, the latest science fiction book they were all reading, the fighting in Iraq, and the possibility of a draft. The frenzied energy of the night before had worn away, and they were sleeping peacefully. Most of the boys sleep with the blanket right over their heads, so I couldn't even tell which ones were my own sons, although the long blonde hair beneath the blue blanket told me which one was BlondeNiece. And I could tell CoolKid as well, because he likes to sleep with a beach towel and he always takes the couch.

A perfect day for a walk in the woods. I cleaned the kitchen and then talked to a friend who lives far away. We talked about books and kids, and about what happens to young men when they go to war. Then I pulled on my big green boots and purple raincoat.

The air tastes good on a rainy day. As I tramped through puddles, splashing water onto mounds of moss and leaving muddy footprints, I breathed in all that wonderful moisture. The sound of raindrops pattering against the hood of my raincoat reminded me of the many afternoons I've spent in a tent on a rainy day, cosily tucked into a sleeping bag with a book or journal. I love the sound of rain.

Big shallow puddles filled my woods, dark puddles stretching over dead leaves. Staring across the woods, I could see raindrops falling everywhere, filling the puddles with circles and circles, circles that kept arriving and disappearing. When the rain came down harder, little white splashes would spark up, almost as if something in the puddle was choosing to dance, like little spirit beings. I stood and stared at the puddles, huge puddles stretching like shallow ponds, filled with trunks of trees and dead branches.

All around me, on tree branches and shrubs and all along the forest floor, bits of green, just little bits of light green, seemed to be unfolding almost as I watched. The more I looked, the closer I looked, I began to see green everywhere, tiny new leaves clinging to wood and stem.

Walking back to the house, I went through my own gardens, looking to see which plants showed signs of returning and which had been killed by the winter. The lilacs, that loyal bush, were covered with green. I shook my boots off on the porch - I always remove my boots without touching them because of the poison ivy - and stepped back into the still quiet house, almost tripping over my oldest son, who was still wrapped in a black blanket, sound asleep on the floor. I thought of waking him up, but then didn't. He is almost seventeen. I don't know how much longer he will have this carefree life of hanging out with friends all night, talking and laughing. He knows as well as I do the grim realities of the world he is growing up into. He cannot stay cocooned in that blanket much longer. But for now, I will let him sleep.

April 29, 2005

Just Before Dark

Yesterday evening, I walked through my own woods with three of my students, all hunters who have grown up in the northern woods and who are getting degrees in wildlife biology. I love walks with students who really know the woods, who can tell me the names of every plant and tree, who can read the narrative of creatures through tracks and skat and rubbings. Our foliage is not yet out, so evening sun was filtering through the trees as we tramped across puddles and new patches of green.

We followed an old logging road through the pine forest to the more open area where oaks and beeches grow. I showed them the cluster of hemlocks where the deer gather. We stood and talked in the cool evening air, enjoying the peaceful quiet of a woods in which the bugs have not yet hatched. They wanted to stay until after dark to see if they could hear the wild turkeys. So I hiked back to the house alone, to return to my desk and get With-a-Why to bed.

Long after dark, the three guys knocked on my door to say good night. They were wet and muddy, but exhilarated from their observations, from all they had seen and heard while sitting quietly in the woods for a couple of hours. Yeah, they agreed, I was right about the flock of wild turkeys: they had heard and seen them. We stood on the front porch, talking quietly, since the kids in my house were settling down to sleep on a school night.

"Don't you all have final exams and papers?" I asked teasingly. "How are you all going to graduate if you spend all your time hanging out in the woods when you are supposed to be doing work?"

Two of the men laughed, but MilitaryGuy shrugged. "I have papers due, but I'll just write something the night before to get it done. Your class is the only one I've really bothered with this semester."

He looked at me. "What do academic papers matter? I figure I'll be dead in eleven months."

I knew he was serious. The army will commission him the day after graduation. He'll be in training for the summer and then he goes to the desert. All the knowledge he has of the flora and fauna of the northern forests is not going to help him over there.

I asked if he was afraid. He spoke seriously, "I don't care about what happens to me. But the thing is - I'll be a lieutenant. I'm going to be in charge of all these guys. Mostly young, some nineteen or twenty, with parents worrying about them. Some with wives and kids back at home. I have to do whatever I can to get them home alive."

He and I just looked at each other, while the other two guys shifted uncomfortably and looked away. MilitaryGuy has expressive blue eyes. He's 22 but looks even younger. I wanted to reach out and touch him, put my hand on his shoulder or the sleeve of his shirt, but I knew if I did that, we would both start crying.

April 28, 2005

A feather of hope

We thought the ivory-billed woodpecker was extinct.

But it has been sighted in Central Arkansas.

So wonderful to get a bit of good news for a change.

April 27, 2005

Yes, I am one of those people who thinks television is evil

I don't remember much about my wedding vows, but I do remember the one important thing my husband and I agreed on before we got married: we would not have a television in the house. I came from a family of people who watched television maybe once a week for about an hour. My husband, on the other hand, came from a household in which the television was always on. Always. A television set right in the middle of the living room, always turned on.

I knew that the constant sound of a television in a small apartment would drive me crazy. And Spouse said he wanted to kick the habit anyhow, since it was merely a habit from a life of television watching, and not an activity that he valued.

For the first six or seven years of our marriage, we had no television set. I didn't miss it. My husband missed watching sports, I think, but when the Snowstorm University basketball team did well one season, friends and family would invite us to their houses to watch games. Sometimes Spouse would meet friends at a bar to watch a baseball game. So television watching was a social event. When my daughter went to kindergarten, she had been exposed to almost no television at all. She'd seen Sesame Street at her grandmother's house, but not much else.

Once my older kids were in school, we decided to have a television in the house to expose them to it. My thinking was that television, like it or not, is part of the culture they would be living in, and I wanted to give them small occasional doses, sort of like a vaccination shot to build up their resistance. So we got a hand-me-down television set from my in-laws and kept it in the closet, pulling it out on occasion.

Somewhere along the line, someone clued us into the idea that VCRs had been invented and we decided we could use the television set as a way to watch movies on Saturday night. At that time, I was nursing the colicky baby from hell whom no one in the family ever wanted to babysit so our Saturday date nights were limited to what fun we could have at home after the four kids were asleep. Well, I bet we could have thought of something fun if the kids were ever asleep, but unfortunately the very cute baby had the habit of waking up and screaming about every twenty minutes. So we set the television up in our bedroom with a VCR so that we could watch a movie on Saturday night while I tried to nurse the colicky baby to sleep. (Films, I might add, are in a different category than television shows in my mind.)

We have never had a television set in the living room. I just don't like the idea of a television set in the center of our house. In the house we live in now, the fireplace is the gathering spot - or perhaps the round wooden table. Not the television set.

Exposed to television through her cousins and friends at school, my daughter eventually wanted to watch a fairly generic show called Full House. The kids and I would pile on the king-size bed and watch the show together. One other year, we watched a show called Power Rangers. Those are the only two I really remember. But some television watching did creep into our lives. I always watched television with the kids, but I mainly just remember the theme songs.

I saw no reason for television over the summer, though. So on the last day of school, we would have a pillowcase ceremony. With all kinds of speeches and grand gestures, I would drape a pillowcase over the television, covering it up. The pillowcase would stay in place until Labor Day Weekend. Or sometimes later, if we forgot about it.

As my kids progressed from being little kids to being teenagers, I continued strategies to severely limit the amount of television in their lives. In our new house, we would unplug the television and stick it out in the garage over the summer. Then inevitably, my mother would call to say that someone in the family was going to be on the local news. (Nothing much happens in Snowstorm City; I often know people on the news.) So I would lug the television back in the house and set it on the kitchen counter to watch one show, which would include five seconds of someone we know saying something stupid, and then lug it back out to the garage. This kind of thing is very hard on the television set. Yeah, I've dropped the television several times. For people who watch very little television, you would be amazed at how much money we have had to spend replacing television sets.

In our current life, we have little time for television. Boy in the Black is taking a bunch of college level courses and has no time on weeknights to watch television. Shaggy Hair, too, is busy with homework and such during the week. In this case such means talking to his friends on instant messenger. With-a-Why is the only person in the house who would have time to watch television, but I don't think there is anything on television appropriate for a ten-year-old. He has never watched the little kids' shows because he was born a teenager. On weekends, the house is filled with kids and activity, so really, there is no need for television. Sometimes Boy in Black will watch the Tonight Show or Saturday Night Live, because he is a night owl and likes humor. Sometimes we watch the Simpsons. But for the most part, the television stays silent.

My main concern about television has nothing to do with the content of the shows that are on. I just think television is a waste of time. And time is precious. Kids grow up so fast. I want them to spend their time doing stuff that has value. Reading books. Playing the piano. Having snowball fights. Catching tadpoles or fireflies. Writing in their journals. Practicing the drums. Talking to their friends. Building snow ramps. Arguing about where to go on vacation. Making up alternative lyrics to well-known songs. Duct-taping items to the ceiling fan. Dancing to oldies music. Jamming. Whipping pennies at each other. Putting margerine on the linoleum floor to make it slippery so that they can skate in bare feet. Tacking blankets up over the windows to make the house dark for a game of Monster. Freezing strange items into ice cube trays. Knocking out the window screens to shoot paper airplanes out the window. Getting muddy playing frisbee golf in the rain. Shoving each other into the pond. Making prank phone calls. Using a big slingshot to throw rotten fruit over the house. Setting things on fire.

On August days when the house is so unbearably hot that no one can move, the kids lie on the floor and complain: "We're bored." And even that activity, I think, is more valuable than watching television. I remind them that boredom is a wonderful thing. From boredom comes creativity. And they are lucky to live such privileged lives, that they have the luxury of boredom.

April 26, 2005

Celebrating the Full Moon

We gathered at QuiltArtist's home in the city, an old house jammed between gardens of daffodils and hyacinths blooming on a cold spring night. As I came in through the open kitchen door, warm air rushed at me with the smell of burning sage and sweetgrass, melting candle wax, and the simmering of essential oils. Ylang Ylang. Bergamot. Mandarin. Rosewood.

A fire was burning already, sending crackling noises into the room and wisps of light across the hardwood floors. The walls in the living room were hung with quilts that vibrate with colour. The table held oddly curving mugs made by local artists, handmade platters filled with cookies, an assortment of herbal teas.

We gathered in a circle, a group of women who have known each other for years. My kids tease me about this group of friends, referring to them as The FM Women. Spouse claims that there is a Saturday Night Live skit about us. One of the husbands started calling us The Wild Women because we go on a weekend together every fall to the mountains, and -- well, I guess he heard stories.

Tonight we were ready to be peaceful, rather than wild. ReikiWoman led a meditation. My body sunk slowly into the soft pillows of the couch, lulled into relaxation. We talked about children, partners, gardens. About spirit, body, food. We drank hot tea that gave off the scent of lemon.

We wrote our worries on scraps of paper and burned them in the fire. We laughed at mistakes and talked about letting go of regrets. We ended up gathered in the kitchen, clumped around the sink as we drank the last cup of hot tea before returning to our own homes and families. We were all talking faster by then, returning to our normal pace. We talked about men, about haircuts, about sex.

Driving home, the sky was cloud-covered, threatening rain, or perhaps even snow. But towards morning, the full moon moved across the sky, over my roof, and into the patch of night just outside my bedroom window, waking me up to talk in the early hours of the morning.

April 25, 2005

Age of Reason

When With-a-Why came home from school today, he dropped his backpack on the floor, went straight to the piano, and played furiously for about half an hour. I could tell that he was thinking about something, working it out in his head.

Finally, he came over to the couch. He is still young enough and small enough to sprawl all over my lap, cuddling into the big pillows.

"Know what animal I don't like the most?" he asked.

I tried to think. He's not afraid of dogs; he likes them. He likes snakes, turtles, frogs, and other marsh creatures. He likes cats. He is fascinated with horses. I tried to think of an animal he had had a negative encounter with, and I couldn't think of anything. I ended up taking some wild guesses. Wasps? Mice? Slime mold?

He shook his head and gave me the answer.

"Humans," he said.

It turns out he and Philosophical Boy were talking on the bus. About war. About people they knew in the military. Philosophical Boy has a cousin who has been to Iraq and back.

"Humans kill each other," said With-a-Why. He seemed astonished to discover this about his own species.

With-a-Why and Philosophical Boy both have logical minds, and I guess they could not find a reason for war. "Well, if two countries wanted a war," With-a-Why said, "they could just use a computer game. You could put in your weapons, the number of people you have, and all that, and even play the game if you wanted. And see who won."

He paused. "That would be pretty easy to do. There really isn't any reason why anyone needs to get killed."

Can't argue with that logic.

Not that I'm jealous

I just heard from a former student. I met her during an orientation class I teach for at-risk students. She was considered at-risk because she grew up in a remote area of the mountains, far from any school that would have such things as Advanced Placement courses. MountainGirl took four courses from me, and she stayed on to get a Master's degree. She used to work at a table in the library right near my office so for six years, I talked to her every day. Whenever we would read a book like Rick Bass' Book of Yaak, she'd say, "Oh, we can't let these places be destroyed. How do we get people to understand that?"

She is now working for Famous Environmental Organization. Her job is to travel with politicians to beautiful endangered places and get them to care about these places. Every couple of weeks, she travels to a new forest, marsh, coast, mountain, or island. She loves that part of her job. The difficult part, she says, is the disillusionment when she sees more clearly how politics work. She'd rather live in a world in which her job wasn't necessary. If that day ever comes, she plans to return to the mountains where she was born.

April 24, 2005

Breastfeeding and poetry month

Here is a breastfeeding poem for Phantom. For .

CHRYSALIS

Hungry crying
stirs me out of dreams
into a dawn
of musty canvas, damp
pillows, ribs that ache.
I crawl over the breath
of a sleeping husband, stumble
out of the tent into a thick
morning

to sit on the ledge, legs curled
against the moss, feeding a warm
baby who nestles
his cheek against my breast,
milk dripping
from the sides of his mouth
as he drifts into sleep.

In the marsh that stretches before me, cattails touch
the mist. Jewelweed opens to warmth. And I wonder

what other woman in what other time sat here
like this, her sleeping son cradled
in the crook of her leg,
watching the great blue heron rise
from her nest, weaving herself
into the pattern of dead leaves and new ferns,
eyelids closed, chin raised

touched by the sunrise, drenched
with the morning,

waiting

awakening

April 23, 2005

Let it rain

We've just had a couple of weeks of really incredible weather. Sunny, cool, gorgeous weather. Since I live in a climate that is often cloudy, in a place that gets a whole lot of precipitation, this kind of weather is unusual. And it's made me a little uncomfortable.

When I get a sunny day, I feel like I have to take advantage of it. A perfect day is accompanied by this sense of urgency. We don't get that many sunny days; I can't afford to miss a single one. My students, who are mostly from this state since we are a state school, feel the same way. It seems wrong to stay indoors and do work when the sun is shining. I had class outside on the quad all last week, something that normally only happens once or twice in the semester. And everyone knows that you can't get as much done outside, but it just seemed wrong to be indoors when the weather was so terrific.

By Friday, my students were beginning to feel a little desperate. "How are we going to get all of our work done if the weather stays like this?" Even KayakMan, who heads up north every weekend to run the rivers, which are flowing fast this time of year, and FishingStudent, who loves those early mornings on the river, and TurkeyHunter, who is awaiting the May 1 opening of the season, were beginning to worry about the consequences of all this playing in the sun. "What do people do who live in climates where the weather is always like this?" one student asked. We all just looked at each other. How do they ever get anything done?

But today I woke up to a grey, rainy day. Perfect for staying in and writing that book review that is due next week. Perfect for e-mailing my colleagues about that fall conference and rewriting that abstract. The temperatures have dropped; my mother said they are even predicting some snow.

And it's a relief. I am used to these cloudy skies. Now, my students will get their work done; they will get to graduate after all. Maybe I'll meet those May 1 deadlines. Maybe I'll even get caught up grading papers.

Let the sunny weather come in July, when I'm camping with the family. Right now, we need the rain.

April 22, 2005

Photo for Earth Day


Marsh Sunset, originally uploaded by jo(e).

In the early nineties, I had a chance to meet David Brower, the famous environmentalist. I remember asking him: how do we get people to care about what we are doing to the earth? What motivates people to become environmental activists?

His theory was that caring for the earth began with love of place, that caring for a landscape led to caring for other landscapes, other creatures, and something larger than ourselves.

Here is a place I love, the marsh I've known since childhood. For me, the photo is no generic sunset but a familiar scene I know intimately. I recognize the line of cattails, the oak tree to the left, the island in the distance. My parents own land at the edge of this marsh, and we all bring tents and camp here whenever we can, all summer long. No matter how many times I watch the sun set over this bay, the calm water turning first silvery, then dark, then smeared in big joyful smudges all over with red, I still feel overwhelmed and humbled.

Some members of the family will scurry about, getting wood for the campfire and sticks for roasting marshmellows, but I tend to just stand at the end of the dock and stare. Sometimes some of us will take out the canoes -- or the sailboat perhaps -- and paddle out into all that brilliant colour.

April 21, 2005

Breastfeeding anecdote

Reading Bitch's post about breastfeeding in church made me remember this incident:

When my youngest son was a newborn, my daughter's friend, SqueakyVoice, came over to play. SqueakyVoice was delighted with the new baby and kept saying things like: "Can I feed him? Can I give him a bottle?"

"He doesn't get a bottle," I explained. "He's breastfed."

"What does that mean?" she asked.

"I'll show you next time he's hungry."

So a few minutes later, when the baby woke up, I called SqueakyVoice over so that she could watch me nurse. She stared, fascinated.

"So he gets milk out of your boobs?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes," I said.

"Like a kitten does with a momma cat?"

"Exactly."

She stared some more, and then looked into my face seriously.

"Are you part cat?"

Poem for suburbia

Dr. H asked for a suburban poem for

So in class yesterday, I put my students in groups and asked each group to choose a poem in our anthology that they thought made some kind of comment about suburban life. (At this point in the semester, my class is all about meeting my blogging needs.) The following poem has always seemed like a city poem to me, but my students argued that the emphasis on cars and roads illustrates the poor design of suburbia: communities are designed for automobiles instead of humans, discouraging community and encouraging our reliance on fossil fuels. In other poems they talked about the prevailing values of suburbia, which include this need to tame and prune anything wild, keeping everything under control, leading to such monocultures as the American lawn, sprayed with toxins. They talked about the media's role in perpetuating an American dream that has nothing to do with sustainable living, and the role of consumerism in creating a need for large, detached single-family dwellings. When it comes right down to it, architect and science students have nothing good to say about suburban life.

Potholes

The streets we live by fall away.
Even the asphalt is tired
of this going and coming to work,
the chatter in cars,
and passengers crying on bad days.

Trucks with frail drivers
carry dangerous loads. Have care,
these holes are not just holes
but a million years of history
opening up, all our beautiful failures
and gains. The earth is breathing
through the streets.

Rain falls.
The lamps of earth switch on.
The potholes are full
of light and stars, the moon's many faces.

Mice drink there in the streets.
The skunks of night drift by.
They swallow the moon.
When morning comes,
workers pass this way again,
cars with lovely merchandise. Drivers,
take care, a hundred suns look out of earth
beneath circling tires.

Linda Hogan

April 20, 2005

Dislocated

My kids have this week off from school. My husband and Shaggy Hair Boy have left town; it's Shaggy Hair's turn for a father/son bonding trip. Daughter is at college. So while I am at work, Boy in Black is in charge of the household. Since he is the one person to whom all the younger kids listen, I figured that this would be a good arrangement.

Eveyone likes Boy in Black because he's such a nice kid. But his easy-going personality is a bit deceptive. He always gets what he wants. Always. He has these big brown eyes, and he knows how to use them. When he was little, I would pass the candy section in the grocery store, pushing him and his siblings in the grocery cart, muttering to myself, "Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact."

I came home from class today at 2 pm, expecting to do a little work at home. I have a nice home office right off the living area of the house, and I imagined this happy scenario in which I worked on the computer while all the kids played some kind of quiet board game in the living room.

But I could hear the drum beats as I walked up the driveway. Not a hopeful sign. And the singing. Have I mentioned that we have a microphone? Yes, a microphone is JUST what my household needs. Plus several amps. Skater Boy greeted me as I came in the door, and Boy in Black set down his guitar long enough to say, "Uh, Mom, don't go into your office."

"What?" I asked. Going into my office was exactly my plan.

"You can't," he said. "We are recording." He moved toward me -- and I tried to turn fast, but oh, no! Eye contact. Those big brown eyes. I was doomed.

"See, we need your computer," he gestured. Then he started talking rapidly, staring into my eyes the whole time.

"I know what you are thinking. But believe me, I don't feel entitled to use your office. No. Never. I realize that I am the beneficiary of male white privilege, and I would never kick a woman out of her space. I will always work to empower women."

Here there was a pause while he gave me a sincere look, the kind that a puppy will give when someone walks by with food that smells good.

"See, I also know that any quiet game we might play -- mindless computer games, for instance, are just passive forms of entertainment and will turn our brains to mush. And that will make you feel like a bad parent. So this is all about you feeling like a good parent. Look! Your kids using their math skills, their musical talents -- song lyrics that are really poetry, after all, we are here singing poetry -- working on our social skills. This is all about me making you feel good. It practically makes me a feminist."

Yes, really, that is how Boy in Black talks. He knows all my lectures my heart, and he takes a pre-emptive strike by throwing my pet phrases back at me. And of course, he is right. I do want him and his friends hanging out here, in my living room, where I can keep an eye on them.

So before I knew it, I had agreed to leave the whole downstairs to Boy in Black and his friends, since the room was not really my living room but the sound studio for the next up and coming boy band. And that means I'm up here in the boys' bedroom, using a computer that doesn't have any of my stuff on it. But at least I know where my teenagers are. I can hear them. Quite clearly, in fact. Radiohead. White Stripes. Weezer. REM. In case you were wondering.

Litmus test: what does the word ho(e) mean to you?

Many of my students come from rural areas: they've spent their lives working on the family farm or with their Dad's construction company, and they are the first generation to come to college. Some of my other students come from the New York City. Often they are sons and daughters of immigrants, also the first generation to go to college.

The urban students talk about Snowstorm City as if it is a small town. They complain about having to live in a place that doesn't have a subway system, a place where you can't buy a decent bagel or cup of coffee. They miss the bodega on the corner. To the rural kids, Snowstorm is a big city. They complain about the streetlights, the sirens at night, and the traffic. They miss the stars, the spring peepers, the fresh air.

My students are always teasing each other about the difference in their backgrounds. When an urban student used the word ho the other day, a rural student laughed and said, "In my world, a hoe is a gardening tool."

Yesterday, they were reminiscing about a bus trip their first year here. Someone started shooting at the bus. (Three shots - no one got hurt - and no one ever found out why or who did it.) The urban kids on the bus dropped to the floor immediately, shielding themselves as best they could. The rural kids started looking out the windows, asking stuff like "Who is that hunter? Doesn't he know he can't shoot within 100 yards of a road?"

My one suburban student said, in recounting the story: "I just stood there, looking like a fool. I had no idea what was going on. I didn't even know it was gunshot. I had never heard a gun go off before."

April 19, 2005

Never touching ashore

Yesterday, I posted a poem that my rural students especially like. Here's a poem that my urban students especially like. For , of course.

A Trip on the Staten Island Ferry

Dear Jonno
there are pigeons who nest
on the Staten Island Ferry
and raise their young
between the moving decks
and never touch
ashore.

Every voyage is a journey.

Cherish this city
left you by default
include it in your daydreams
there are still
secrets
in the streets
even I have not discovered
who knows
if the old men
who shine shoes on the Staten Island Ferry
carry their world
in a box slung across their shoulders
if they share their lunch
with birds
flying back and forth
upon an endless journey
if they ever find their way
back home.

Audre Lorde

April 18, 2005

Student protest

Last Friday on campus, I began my morning the way I always do: buying a bagel and orange juice at the student snack bar. The weather was too beautiful for me to stay inside, though, so I headed out to the quad where students were beginning to congregate.

A group of students had set up tents on our quad - and on the quad of Snowstorm University next door to us. The students had protest signs and petitions to be signed. They'd been there all week. You can usually tell our students from the Snowstorm University students. Ours are the ones wearing tie-dye shirts. Many of the woman wear long colorful skirts, often with Birkenstocks, hemp jewelry, and maybe a hoodie. Many of the men have long hair, often with bright headbands or bandanas. I could spot almost every color of hair too, from bright pink to vivid blue, as well as white kids with dreds.

Several students had guitars and were just gathering to sit on the grass and play. I joined them. It felt wonderful to sit in the sun; our Aprils are usually rainy so the weather felt like a miracle. I ate my bagel, listened to folk music, and chatted with students. The music was waking up the people in the tents, and they emerged sleepily, with disheveled hair and blankets draped over their shoulders, stumbling into the library to use the bathrooms.

It was in the 40s when I began eating breakfast but closer to 60 by the time I was done. The day was heating up fast. Months of work that had led to this weeklong protest were over, and the students were feeling triumphant. In response to their demands, Snowstorm University had agreed that by July 1, at least 20 percent of its electrical energy would come from renewable resources. It's a start.

Tonight at dusk

Another poem for . My students from rural areas especially love this one. You will have to imagine that some of the lines are indented. I don't know how to make them so.

Cattail Wind

Go to the meadow behind Braim's pond
when the day moves slow into night

Let the laughter of those
who live by comparisons
lift from you like the mist
now rising from the alders

The cattail wind feathers the evening
shadows coalesce in the sky
beyond Orion's slanted belt
cold fireflies for time
old messages for your eyes

If you wait long enough
two things will come

the deer, eyes glowing
with the valleys of the moon

the dawn, uneven as
the edge of wind-brushed feathers

They will touch your face
leave you
changed

This is no warning
it is a map

Joseph Bruchac

April 17, 2005

Somehow I missed this

Last night was Spouse's turn to choose the movie for Saturday date night. So we ended up seeing Fever Pitch. The love plot in the movie was pretty predictable, but I kept wondering what was going to happen with the baseball team.

At the end of the movie, I turned to him and said, "So the Boston Red Sox ended up winning the World Series? After all those years?"

He rolled his eyes and said, "You know, for most people, this was not a surprise ending."

April 16, 2005

Thursday night's poetry reading

Thursday night I drove into the city to an art gallery housed in an old brick building that used to be a warehouse. A small gallery filled with white walls, some turned at odd angles, paintings hung carefully, and evening sunlight filtered through high glass windows. When I arrived, an old man was setting up chairs on the polished wood floor.

I'd spent about an hour choosing poems to read, arranging the order, then changing my mind, re-arranging again. The event was sponsored by a feminist group, and I was trying to imagine the audience, decide what they would want to hear. Like always, I ended up bringing way more than I needed. I knew that once the audience arrived and I'd gotten a feel for them, I would change my mind again. I was reading with two other poets, and they agreed to let me go first. Most poets don't like to go first, but I love the challenge of warming up the crowd.

My strategy for choosing poems comes from the advice given to me by MentorPoet. His formula: "Start funny, end serious. And always use the word fuck." He and I used to do readings together often, our poems playing off each other, and I hear his voice in my head whenever I am choosing poems.

By 7 pm, the room was full. Someone introduced me. At the podium, I took a breath and looked out at the crowd. About 60 people stared back at me, clustered on folding chairs, watching expectantly. I saw a few familiar faces, a handful of local poets, but mostly strangers, some of whom looked like they had no idea what to expect.

I began with a poem I've done many times before, one I know by heart. But it was new to this audience, and they laughed in all the right places. At the end of this first poem, they broke into spontaneous applause. I could feel the energy rising. I love a responsive crowd. That's the secret about this kind of reading: the energy, the warmth, the magic does not come from the poet. It comes from the audience. The poet is merely a moon who catches the light and reflects it back.

After the first poem, I walked out from behind the podium to get closer to the audience. Yeah, some people think that looks unprofessional, but I couldn't stay tied to the podium with this kind of group. I'm such a klutz that I knew I would eventually trip on the cord of the microphone, but I also knew from experience that the audience would forgive me for that.

After the first poem, I relaxed. What a terrific crowd. I moved to a serious poem, a poem about rape. By the third line, the room was silent. No noise at all, not even the shuffle of a foot or the shifting of a body in a seat, just my voice alone. Every face turned toward me, eyes watching intently. I could feel the tension, an undercurrent moving through the room.

A poetry reading has a certain rhythm to it, a cycle. I moved up and down the emotional scale. A funny political poem. A serious evocative one. A sad poem. Then funny again. This audience followed me closely, laughing at my jokes, listening intently when I was serious, their mood changing with mine, their energy moving in waves toward me.

It was an audience new to contemporary poetry, so I talked between some of the poems. I could not resist adlibbing: a responsive audience does that to me. I tried out a new poem, one that I worked on this week. All the time, I sneaked glances at the clock in the back of the room, keeping track of the time. I wanted to end with a serious poem, something thought-provoking. The goal was to be profound and not sentimental, but I sometimes mix the two up. I knew this audience would forgive me.

I read for only thirty minutes, and yet by the end I felt close to the audience. I was grateful for their willingness to listen, to trust, to follow my mood changes. The applause at the end made me feel a little uncomfortable; it felt good to sit down and become part of the audience for the rest of the evening. I could relax and listen to the other two poets.

Afterwards, I got to meet some of the crowd. People came up to buy my chapbook. I hate signing books. I never know what to write and I am so afraid of getting a name wrong. And I print rather than write in cursive which makes what I write look like something a school kid would put in a yearbook. That whole book signing thing is a tradition I'd like to see abandoned.

But I love meeting people. One woman came up and said, "Hey, I googled you." She went on to talk about stuff of mine she'd read on the internet, and I admit it seemed a little weird. I know that two of the discussion lists I participate on are archived and I'm fairly impulsive about what I post. But she mainly talked about poems, stuff I expect to be public, and she said only nice things.

Bearded Poet came over to give me a thumbs up, a snarky comment about an odd painting, and a kiss. NursePoet gave me a hug and said she liked my newest work. But the best part is that strangers came up to tell me their stories. A white-haired woman told me she was raped as at teenager and is just now going to therapy to deal with it. A young woman told me she struggles with bulimia. A well-dressed woman wearing purple glasses told me funny things she used to do with Barbie dolls.

I love this connection, the way that poetry can get people in a community to share their stories, themselves. Driving home, I was so full of adrenaline, the energy from all these people, that I could not sleep for hours.

April 15, 2005

Bittersweet

I had about two hours of sleep last night. And when I got to class, I realized that most of my students were in the same shape. Some had their heads down on the desk, just resting until class started. Others straggled in, looking completely beat.

When I am deprived of sleep, I get silly and giggly. I blush easily. I am full of energy and adrenaline. When I'm overtired, I act the way most people do when they are drunk. My students have seen me like this before - often, when I've just returned from a conference. And for some reason, they love it. So when I walked in and announced that I had had very little sleep, they all immediately sat up and looked happy.

We have these big tables in the room, and I insisted that we move them into a circle. The students started to sit down in the chairs on the outside of the circle, but I made them climb over the tables and stand inside the circle, either leaning against or sitting on the tables.

"So tell me," I said, "What was the point of this course anyhow? Why read this stuff?"

We had a great discussion that covered some of the main issues we'd been talking about, and students did a good job bringing up all kinds of things we'd read, even the poem we read on the first day of class. They talked about the role literature would play in their lives after they graduated. It was a fast-moving discussion, filled with jokes and affectionate insults. The students were as punchy as I was, winging one-liners across the room even as they discussed serious issues. It was a strangely intimate circle; we were all standing so close that in most cases everyone was touching. Any student who felt uncomfortable could have moved to one of the weird angles where the tables met but no one did. My intent had been to get them to pull together everything we had read and hit some of the core issues we'd been discussing, but about halfway through, I realized that beneath all the joking, there was an undercurrent of emotion moving through the room.

Most of these students are seniors. We've all known each other for four years. And we have only two weeks left.

April 14, 2005

What to look for in a man

So what do you look for in a man? This topic came from a late night discussion over at Pilgrim's Bar and Grill. It's a little funny for me to be thinking about this since I've been in a monogamous relationship more than 25 years, but I would argue that the same things I used to look for in a date are the things I look for in a friend. And the fact that I've been with the same man since 1978 could be considered proof that I am quite good at picking out men.

Besides, I just love to give dating advice. I would love to run an advice column blog. (Oooh, maybe I should make that a feature of my blog. I suppose I'd have to get an e-mail address.) One of my favorite things to do with my sisters is read advice columns and rip apart the advice. Always, we know we could do better than Abby or Ann.


Today's advice for anyone (CoughProfgrrrrlCough) looking for a man. Here are the three things to look for:

1) Hands. So much you can tell about a man by watching his hands. That's why women so often fall for musicians. Watch the way those hands move across the piano keys or strum the guitar. Is he gentle? Confident? Sit next to a man who is reading a book, underlining as he goes and you can judge his intellectual and emotional engagement with the text. Does he use a pencil, making neat faint marks? Or does he scribble in the margin in pen? Watch the way his hands move on a computer keyboard. Do his fingers show passion for what he does? Even when it looks like a man is sitting still, often his hands are doing something. Perhaps he's rubbing his thumb against his forefinger or making his two thumbs dance. Restless energy often seeps from the fingers. The first time I met Artist Friend, he reached over to brush my hair off my shoulder. He was simply moving the hair off my nametag to see where I was from, but that simple gesture, made completely unconsciously, let me know that he was someone I could trust.

2)Voice.Voices can be incredibly revealing, all kinds of rhythms and undercurrents that wash over you. His accent will reveal his roots, his background, the landscape that nurtured his childhood years. Southern accents, British accents, French accents .... don't they just make you shiver? Creative writing types almost always have great voices, especially on a night when they are reading their work and have got all kinds of adrenaline going through their veins.

I should put a warning note on this one. My husband is very good at impersonations, can do just about any kind of accent. Before we were married, I thought that this talent had all kinds of romantic possibilities. What I didn't realize is that someone who loves to be sarcastic would spend most of his time imitating evil politicians. And once he gets on a roll with a voice, he has a hard time stopping the voice. You try to get into bed with someone who is talking like dubya. Not romantic. At all.

3)Eyes. Yep, this one is a cliche, but damn it, cliches become cliches for a reason. And you can tell an awful lot by someone's eyes. Too much eye contact can be intimidating. I myself like the shy guy, who glances away when he feels embarrassed. The man who makes quick eye contact when something is funny? Yes, he's a keeper. Expressive eyes, the ones that get all shiny when he's feeling emotional, well, those mean a sensitive guy, someone with whom you will want to stay up all night talking. The best eyes are usually on the guy who claims he was a geek in high school, who is a bit awkward, who blushes, who looks away at first because he is unsure what to do. But then when he warms up, gets talking about something he cares about, and suddenly he looks you directly in the eyes. And you get pulled into the blueness or grey green or the dark brown depths. Like jumping into a lake of icy cold water. Yes. Exactly like that.

April 13, 2005

Google searches that led to my blog

First some that make me look all cultural:

monet's drawing method
malheureusement
scholarly article on Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde
Nikki Giovanni poem luxury analysis
Monet's palette
horrible rhymes
most popular poems on crushes
Whitman on Keats
I hate Heathcliff

Then the ones that make me look all spiritual and shit:

papal edict women lay
monastic guesthouses
leaving monastery
monastery conyers
Benedictine monastery
papal edict
Conyers GA Monastery
monte olivetti florence

The ones that make me look like a fashion designer:

bullfighter costume
magician's assistant costume boots
parachute hoopskirt
trendy ski lodge outfit
benedict arnold costume ideas
what to wear to funerals
debutante slouch
eveyone loves an italian boy pillowcase

The lonely late night searches:

blog spot skinny dipping
jess dive naked
skinny dipping clothes stolen
sex wirth breastfeed
aunt's lingerie stripped pics
hot tub
nude swim clothes stolen
skinny dipping
Dr who assistant Jo nude

My personal favorites:

"Michael Stipe" popsicle
I have breasts

April 12, 2005

Another kind of open

Another poem for :

Coal

I
is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open like a diamond
on glass windows
singing out within the passing crash of sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
in a perforated book,--buy and sign and tear apart—
and come whatever wills all chances
the stub remains
an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
breeding like adders. Others know sun
seeking like gypsies over my tongue
to explode through my lips
like young sparrows bursting from shell
Some words
bedevil me.

Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am Black because I come from the earth's inside
now take my word for jewel in the open light.


Audre Lorde


Every year in my urban environmental literature course, I assign a bunch of Audre Lorde poems. And it always makes me think of RapperGuy. He was one of my favorite students. He was beyond cool, with his baggy clothes, gold tooth, and long dreds. He told me the first day of classs that he did not care much for poetry; he preferred rap music. I can remember the first time he read all the Audre Lorde poems I had assigned. He was sitting in the library, bent over the book, and he seemed to be mesmerized. He came to the door of my office soon after that. He was almost crying. "These poems," he said, "I didn't know poetry could do this. How come ... how come I have never read anything like this before?"


April 11, 2005

Food meme

Favorite food to crunch: Carrots.
Favorite comfort food: Vegan chocolate cake. With hot tea.
Food that makes the best noise: Meat dripping and sizzling on a campfire.
Favorite picnic lunch: Cheese, green apples, and a baguette. In Paris. On a green bench. At a park. On the first warm day of spring.
Favorite food scene in movie: Spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp
Favorite food lyrics: There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too/And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses (Joni Mitchell, Chelsea Morning).
Least favorite food lyrics: On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed.
Best food smell memory: The smell of vinegar on French Fries makes me remember buying fish and chips wrapped in newspaper in London.
Favorite summer snack: Watermelon. You dump it out of the bilge of the boat and into a spot between two rocks, where the river water will keep it cold until it's time to slice it up.
Food that reminds me of the ocean: Noodle soup and peanut butter crackers. When we camp in sand dunes, that is what we eat for lunch every day.
Favorite winter snack: Dark chocolate and hot herbal tea.
Most likely to eat for lunch: Broccoli in garlic sauce.
Least likely to eat for lunch: Snickers Energy Bar.
Makes me gag: Clams.
Food tradition I hate: When a bride and groom at a wedding smash cake into each other's faces. Makes me want to scream.
Saturday night food: Popcorn and lemonade at the movies.
Favorite wild foods: Strawberries.
Favorite food for sex play: Chocolate syrup.
Favorite medicinal food: Cranberry juice. For urinary infections.
Food that reflects my heritage: The potato. And spaghetti sauce.
Food most like me: The pretzel.
Favorite raw food smell: Fresh basil. Chopped.

Someone told me that memes are supposed to have rules. But I'm not so good with the rules. Do whatever the hell you want.

April 10, 2005

Bones, snake, and closure

Locals call it Crystal Canyon but it's not really a canyon. It's the hillside where gravel and stones got dumped years ago when the canal was dug. When I was a kid, I went there to search for gypsum, shining clear rocks that look like they should be valuable. Unlike my own woods, which is crowded with trees and underbrush, the steep slopes in Crystal Canyon are barren and rocky, reminiscent of the west except on a much smaller scale. I took the younger kids on a walk there today.

Temperatures had soared to the 60s, with bright sun and no wind, so we were in t-shirts, enjoying the summer-like weather. The kids raced about, filling their pockets with bits of gypsum, examining ant hills, and climbing over the occasional fallen tree. I wandered about, tagging after the kids, lost in my own thoughts. I decided not to look for any gypsum. I was thinking about all the times in my life I've gone hunting for things -- not things, exactly, but feelings sometimes. Closure, perhaps, or a bit of joy. I have chased down fiercely the things that I thought I needed. Cheyenne elders say that the way to find something is not to look for it, but to wait patiently until it comes to you. I've never been good at the patiently waiting technique.

I climbed down into one of the little valleys, my sneakers skidding on the steep slope of loose rock. At the bottom I came to a stop. There in front of me, stretched out on the ground above a thick mat of hair, was a skeleton, the bones of a deer, bleached and white, every bit of meat picked off. A deer that escaped a hunter last November, no doubt. A hunter must be patient after he's shot a deer, must wait thirty minutes or more before following the blood trail, must wait quietly to allow the deer to die. If he gives chase too soon, her adrenaline will kick in. Even a mortally wounded deer, spurred on by deadly urgency, will run farther than any hunter could track.

I was startled to come across this carcass of bone and hair, right out in the open, in this space of gravel and dead grass and hot sun. And yet, somehow, I felt relieved. I find dead deer every spring. Last May when I was canoeing with my Mom in the marsh, we found a game bag filled with a bloated dead deer, a rotting body with an unbelievable stench. A deer that been hidden beneath the water. Death here in the open, cleansed by the sun and rain, seemed preferable. I always feel better after something that has been buried deep inside me gets dragged out into the open, exposed to other creatures, cleansed by rain, snow, all kinds of weather.

I sat cross-legged on the warmed rock, just staring at the curved bones - the ribs, the jaws, the long bones of the legs. Around me, the kids ran up and down the slopes, whooping and shouting, plotting a trip to the ice cream stand on the way home. I tried to sit still and absorb the peacefulness of the moment, graceful closure presented to me in the image of the skeleton. As I watched, a thin garter snake emerged from beneath the bones. It wriggled its way through the dried grasses and disappeared from my sight.

April 09, 2005

Today I felt the sun on my skin

The younger kids were playing some kind of game, my oldest son was at school taking a standardized test, my daughter was at college writing a paper, my husband has been out of town for three days, and my parents were headed to the Farmers' Market downtown. No one needed me; I was free to take a leisurely walk. I left the house, with its kitchen full of unwashed dishes, office piled with stacks of papers, living room full of kids, and walked across newly unfurling clover past the shallow muddy pond that shrilled with the songs of spring peepers.

Wearing my tall green boots, I sloshed through the wonderful mud and dark puddles of the woods. In another month, the woods will be deeply shaded, but in April the sun slides down past bare branches, shining onto mossy stumps and wet brown leaves. I tramped along my trails, pausing only to toss aside dead branches that had fallen, worked my way to a dry spot covered with pine needles and moss.

The sun touched my face, my forearms. I flopped to the ground and turned upward to meet the warmth that slid toward me. Perhaps you need to live in a place with snowy winters to understand how this felt. Perhaps you need to experience a winter of wearing multiple layers of bulky clothing, double socks that itch, clunky hiking boots, and long underwear that soaks up sweat and leaves you chilled. A winter of sweeping snow off the car several times each day, scraping ice off the windshield, trying to drive with mittens on while the car heats up. A winter of wet winter clothes always hanging in the kitchen, drafts that make your feet cold no matter where you are.

I pulled off my t-shirt, my boots, my jeans, and stretched out to feel that wonderful touch. On the ground, the spring air moved slowly. I could hear birdsong and the scampering of small creatures. The creak of pine limbs. I could smell dead leaves, old pine needles, new mud. But mostly, my senses were overwhelmed by sun trickling, tickling, kissing my skin. Something I dreamed about all winter long.

Sex, blood, and poetry

Another poem for . When I brought this one to class, students talked about the dominant culture's negative attitudes towards menstruation, sex, and the body, especially the female body. Both women and men came up with all kinds of slang about menstruation, most of which -- when we analyzed it -- implies that a menstruating woman is defective, unclean, or sexless. We talked about how many women in our culture have internalized negative attitudes towards their own bodies. There was a tangent about eating disorders. Students talked about how native women used moss instead of tampons, and how women living in community cycle together. We talked about native cultures in which women who are menstruating are considered to be at the height of their spiritual powers. One student said, "I like how poetry gets us talking about all sorts of taboo topics." Me too.

Love in Blood Time

When I saw my blood on your leg, the drops so
dark and clear, that real arterial red,
I could not even think about death, you
stood there smiling at me,
you squatted in the tub on your long haunches
and washed it away.
The large hard bud of your sex in my mouth,
the dark petals of my sex in your mouth,
I could feel death going farther and farther away,
forgetting me, losing my address, his
palm forgetting the curve of my cheek in his hand.
Then when we lay in the small glow of the
lamp and I saw your lower lip
glazed with light like liquid fire
I looked at you and I tell you I knew you were God
and I was God and we lay in our bed
on the dark cloud, and somewhere down there
was the earth, and somehow all we did, the
blood, the pink stippling of the head, the
peal fluid out of the slit, the
goodness of all we did would somehow get
down there, it would find its flowering in the world.

Sharon Olds

April 08, 2005

What I think about when we talk about rats

The other night I was talking to David about the homing instincts of baby rats. And how, if baby rats are raised in bedding that smells of citrus, they will after the tenth day be drawn to things that smell of citrus. At least, I think that is what he said. I liked the idea of a homing instinct as a learned adaptation. It made me think about the four mammals I've raised and wonder whether or not the same window of learning -- the first ten days after birth -- would apply to them.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter was born in the summer, right before a big camping vacation with my extended family. Since we had no crib in the tent, she spent those early days being passed from person to person, held in the shade of big oak trees at the edge of a marsh that stretches to meet the river. I can remember changing her diaper at the end of the dock, splashing river water to clean her wrinkled newborn skin, and noticing that her umbilical cord stump had dried up and fallen off. Without a thought, I tossed it casually into the marsh. Only later did I wonder: did that moment bond her forever to the marsh that I love? And perhaps spending her earliest days being held by aunts, uncles, and grandparents imprinted on her forever the value of community. Most certainly, it seems to have made her affectionate, compassionate, and able to manipulate family members at will.

Boy-in-Black was born in springtime, just as the lilacs were blooming. His earliest days were filled with the heavy scent of purple blossoms, and he too made a trip to camp before his umbilical cord had fallen off. Perhaps the early imprint of spring flowers has made him the gentle, good-natured kid that he is. Certainly the intensity of that lilac smell is mirrored in the intensity with which he approaches life. I wonder if he will always return in spring to a place where lilacs bloom.

Shaggy Hair Boy was born in winter during a snowstorm. Perhaps early exposure to raging winds gave him his temper. I wondered if his homing instinct will keep him here in the north, tie him to a landscape that boasts sparkling drifts of snow. Maybe it's why he has already chosen to grow his hair long, a thick curly mane of hair that certainly does keep his ears warm. No wonder he has taken so quickly to snowboarding.

With-a-Why was born in the fall at peak foliage. He spent his first week under maple trees that glowed red-orange, birch trees all yellow, even the ground covered with crackling brilliant color. Perhaps this explains his silence, his awe of the world, his own shining brilliance. Perhaps this is why he is so drawn to beauty: why he will stay up late to practice the piano, why he begged for saxophone lessons.

I like the baby rat theory because I understand that teenagers must separate from their mother, make their own way, figure out who they are. I guess I am hoping that this landscape -- with its oak leaves, lilacs, snowdrifts, and flaming color -- will hold them here, give them the stability and grounding they need, no matter what the season.

April 07, 2005

Poem for national poetry month

Since it is :

I am a Dangerous Woman

the sharp edges of clear blue windows
motion to me
from the airport's second floor
edges dance in the foothills of the sandias
behind security guards
who wave me into their guncatcher machine

i am a dangerous woman

when the machine buzzes
they say to take off my belt
and i remove it so easy
that it catches the glance
of a man standing nearby
(maybe that is the deadly weapon
that has the machine singing)

i am a dangerous woman
but the weapon is not visible
security will never find it
they can't hear the clicking
of the gun
inside my head

by Joy Harjo

When we discussed this poem in class on Wednesday, several of the women spoke up and said things like, "Oh, I really loved this poem" or "This poem was my favorite in this section." The men in the class said nothing. Not. A. Single. Word.

April 06, 2005

Recurring nightmare: the dead body

Someone is about to dig up a body. A dead body is going to be discovered. Somehow, I know this. A hand will be uncovered from the sand or beneath the dead leaves. Perhaps the body was stuffed into a garbage bin or underneath the seat cushions in the basement of the church.

I remember that I killed someone and buried the body. I don't remember the exact circumstances. Was it an accident? How did it happen that I could kill someone and forget about it until now?

But now I am panicking because someone is going to discover the body. I'm not sure exactly who, but I know that the dead body will be uncovered, that everyone will see it. I can't hide it any longer.

When I wake up, I am terrified, shaking. Someone is going to find out.

I'll put on the bedroom light, look around the familiar room - the books, the pillows, the plants. It takes several minutes before I realize that it was just a dream. I never did kill anyone.

This year, I have gotten closer to the body in the dream. And sometimes I recognize the clothing - the red t-shirt, the jeans, the sneakers.

It is my body.

April 05, 2005

Mud and green moss

I felt miserable yesterday. All day, I was on the edge of a migraine, my vision blurring in and out, my brain fuzzy, my body just wanting to sleep. Two days of rain had caused flooding, closing the main road to town, and it took me an hour to get to work. My students were tired, jetlagged from the time change, and everything felt out of sync. I had a meeting with the chair of the most powerful department on campus, a meeting during which I had to tell him nicely that his faculty were not getting the concept of writing across the curriculum. All this was followed by a dentist appointment. Yes, lying in a chair with bright lights shining into your eyes and a cheerful woman doing painful things to my teeth was just what I needed.

When I came home, I decided to cancel an evening meeting. Spouse was off teaching a class, and I told the boys that they could make their own supper. I did some migraine prevention stuff, like heating up a bag of cracked corn in the microwave and putting it on my feet. I wanted to take a nap but the problem with headaches is that lying in bed with a headache makes me think about things I don't like about myself. Headaches have this weird way of making me feel bad about myself. And about the world. Everything is grey when I have a headache.

Instead of sleeping, I took the time to talk to a friend, telling him a long story about myself that I had been wanting to tell him. Not a happy story. A story, in fact, that makes me look somewhat like a selfish jerk. But somehow it felt good to tell the story to someone who would listen and understand. One of my students said this in class: "Sometimes I think we are just stories. And what we need in life is to tell our stories to someone who will listen." So I ignored my family, talked to my friend, then ate a bowl of cereal, got another hot thing for my feet, and went to bed at a decent hour. Because I was all talked out, I fell asleep right away.

This morning, I woke up without a headache to a morning of sunshine and bird song. The roads were open so my kids went off to school, my husband off to work. I pulled on my big rubber boots and headed to the woods behind my house.

How wonderful it felt to walk without snowshoes on! And without mittens. Or a hat. I could feel the spring air against my hands and face; I could breathe in that moist cool smell of new mud. The woods are brown and grey this time of year, the ground plastered with muddy wet leaves, puddles of water everywhere, dark and mysterious. But the most glorious sight in the woods, the hidden treasure of April, is all the moss. The white snow is gone, and in its place, atop every old stump or broken branch, are gorgeous bright green mosses. Everywhere I walk, I notice them, sometimes whole beds of bright green in a raised curving mound. Later in the year, tree foliage, bushes, undergrowth of all kinds will hide the moss, but this time of year, I can see brillian mosses everywhere I turn.

My friend Plantswoman is a bryologist and she has taught me to look closely at the mosses, because up close they are all different. So sometimes I do stoop to look at the way this moss looks like minature little ferns, while this one has shapes that remind me of stars. But mostly, I just keep striding along, splashing through puddles, tramping happily through mud, rejoicing at all the green, the pattern of lovely, lovely green, woven throughout my woods.

April 04, 2005

Migraine

Lie down on a grassy slope and roll down the hill, over and over, until when you stand up, the whole landscape is spinning around you. Imagine what it would feel like if that spinning sensation lasted for hours.

Take that split second of movement on a very fast amusement park ride when your body goes one way and your head goes the other, your skull knocking against reality - and stretch it out to last four or five hours.

Imagine a world in which every sound, every vibration has been amplified so that your entire self is overwhelmed with noise, confused by a kaleidoscope of sound and you cannot stand the high-pitched sound of your own child's voice.

Imagine a piercing light shining into your eyes, stinging, probing, cruel until you beg fate to put you in a dark room where you can close them. But when you close them, you keep seeing patterns, red on black, strange twisting patterns that rub against the inside of your brain.

An alien slug crawls into your ear and oozes its grey self across the inside of your head, turning and twisting all the pieces until you have to vomit.

And it's actually a relief to vomit because that feels better than anything else.

April 03, 2005

Drum beat

The classes are held in a three-sided room on the second floor of a corner building. The walls are painted a soft purple. Two sides of the room are mostly glass. The windows, hung with gauzy cloths, look out over a lake that is considered sacred by the native people in this region. The floor is hardwood, clean and shining. Always the air smells fragrant, the simmering of essential oils: lavender, sometimes, ylang ylang or tangerine.

Middle Eastern music plays quietly as women enter, one by one, or sometimes in pairs, each picking up a mat and finding her spot on the floor. The women chat quietly or exchange smiles, each settling into a cross-legged position on the her mat. BellyDancer, the instructor, takes her spot in the front of the room, smiling shyly at the students as she does so. She is a young woman, neither skinny nor fat, who wears some kind of bra and skin tight pants so that we can see all the muscles of her body. The room is warm and most of us are wearing minimal clothing; at the very least we have our bellies bare.

The class begins with the quiet stretching, each woman letting go of her busy life, her hectic schedule. Muscle memory, the repetition of those same movements, calms me. It always feels good to return to this room, this safe place, with other women who are doing the same. The women in the class are mostly younger than me, mainly women in their twenties, women who are beautiful in that unself-conscious way of women who don't know that they are beautiful.

The energy level begins to rise as the music changes. Middle Eastern music has a drum beat my body cannot resist. We practice dance moves, one set of muscles at a time. The very hardest to practice is snake arms. Always a belly dancer keeps her arms above her head, moving fluidly, like a snake. The move looks graceful but hurts like hell: ten minutes and my shoulders are burning.

By the end of the classes, we've put zills on, those shiny little finger cymbols, and we are dancing in a circle. BellyDancer teaches us the subtle cues, and we follow her, a group of women all turning in the same direction, hips moving in and out to the same rhythm. We start slowly and gradually pick up the pace, all dancing, shimmying, concentrating fiercely, until BellyDancer throws in a move that is just way too hard and we all collapse laughing. BellyDancer laughs, too, and then does a few show-off moves so that we can all see what it is we are working towards.

At the end of the hour, we return to our mats, muscles warm, bodies engaged. As I lie quietly for the last minute of meditation, I can feel each muscle, my whole body present to me. I am awake, alive, thankful for the moment.

April 02, 2005

Legacy

I wanted to be an altar girl.

I was eleven years old. I loved my church. The big grey stone building with its stained glass windows. The long wooden pews I played in during Mass, hiding beneath all the grown-up feet. The rituals, the ceremony, the priestly vestments that changed color with the seasons. The puffs of incense and flickering candles that made prayer physical, sensual. I had a rosary that seemed to me a string of jewels, sparkling and slipping through my fingers.

When our little Catholic school put on a nativity play, we sometimes got a real baby to act the part of Jesus. I liked the idea of a God who would appear to humans as a infant, choosing to come to earth through the body of a woman.

My brother, a year younger, got to be an altar boy. I watched enviously as he put on the robes, learned the responses. He got to light candles on the altar, snuff them out at the end of Mass. He got to sit in the red velvet chair, up near the altar. He got to spend an hour in that sacred place, that mysterious place on the other side of the altar rail.

I was not allowed to be an altar server. Because I was a girl. The priest who came to our classroom explained, in response to our questions, that it would not be right. Only men could be priests. Because God said so. And that meant it would not be right for girls to be at the altar.

The priest talked about the leaders of the church being men. I did not understand how he thought that to be true. I know it was a group of women who came in on Saturdays to take care of the church, bringing in flowers, snipping off dead buds. Women who got their children out of bed and brought them to church on Sunday mornings. Women made the food for the big gatherings that took place after funerals or baptisms. Women who chose the clothes we children wore to church. Women who stood in groups out in the parking lot after Mass, chatting, making the weekly event into a community gathering.

The most spiritual women I knew were the Franciscan sisters at my school. They were young women, and many of them had been raised in Hawaii. My second grade teacher used to push back our desks every afternoon and teach us to dance. Another sister taught us to sing. When the boys were at gym class, the sisters talked to us girls about our bodies, telling us how unique and wonderful and special the female body was. One sister told us stories about her childhood in Hawaii; her spirituality was tied to the muddy hills, the ocean waves, the island she grew up on.

When the old priest came to our classroom and explained that only men could be leaders in the church, that women were so different from men that they could not be priests, I listened and wondered if he understood just how absurd he was being.

As I got older, I realized I was not alone in my thinking. Catholic women and men across the country, the world even, were talking about women's ordination, about the need for the misogynist patriarchy of the church to change. I can remember feeling hopeful about the church that I wanted to belong to. After all, I had seen all the changes that had happened as a result of the second Vatican Council. The church I knew growing up in the sixties was a church full of hope and change. John XXIII had tried to fling open the doors of the Vatican, allowing the winds of the Holy Spirit to change the church.

In 1978, Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II. And those doors slammed shut. For women, at least.

In 1994 the pope came out with a definitive statement against the ordination of women to the priesthood. If fact, John Paul II was so sure that he knew the mind of Christ, that he was making this teaching a central tenet of the Catholic faith: women may not ever represent God at the altar. In 1998 this papal edict was placed within canon law as a teaching that cannot be denied or opposed, and one subject to the ultimate penalty of excommunication from the Catholic Church. The edict that women should never be priests has become an article of faith for Catholics, one that will continue even after the death of the pope.

During John Paul II's reign as pope, the conversation about women becoming spiritual leaders in the Catholic Church was shut down. For eternity.

April 01, 2005

Why the grass is long

Most of our snow disappeared this week. We'll have a few more snowstorms in April, but that snow will melt quickly. It always seems funny this time of year to have no walls around the driveway, no snowbanks along the road. With any luck, I can put the snow shovels away until October.

This morning when I walked out to pick up a few odds and ends left over from the winter - a plastic toboggan hidden in the side woods, a roll of duct tape hanging on a tree branch - I noticed how long the deadish grass on the lawn is. (I use the word lawn kind of loosely here - it's the land nearest the house that I mow to keep down the poison ivy.) Then I remembered that there was a reason I stopped using the lawn mower last fall.

I remember mowing the lawn on a gorgeous day last September. I must have had papers to grade or something because I remember that being outside in the sunshine was some kind of guilty pleasure. As I mowed the lawn, I could smell the scent of burning. How nice, I thought, here I am in the country, surrounded by the beauty of nature, with the great autumn smell of burning leaves. As I mowed, I was noticing the blue of the sky, the leaves on the birch trees turning yellow, the feel of the sun on my forearms, and it was all so wonderful that I felt like a character in a cliche.

Then I thought to myself: Why does that burning smell seem to be so close by? And what neighbor would be home during the day on a Tuesday?

Then it occurred to me to look down. Flames were shooting from lawn mower. Damned lawn mower was on fire.

Tree frogs singing

We have just two patches of snow left in the front yard, remnants of the snow ramps my kids built. And when I went to bed last night, temperatures were in the 50s, so I left the window bedroom open. I love getting fresh air at night. It was so quiet that I could hear the wind chimes on the front porch.

But then I woke up at 4 am to the loveliest noise you can hear in this part of the country: the spring peepers. I am listening to their music now, pouring though the front window. The silence of the winter is over.