September 29, 2005

Let the weekend begin ....

It's Thursday night, and the mood in the house is shifting into weekend mode. Boy in Black is happy because he finished the paper he was writing for AP English, an essay comparing Annie Dillard to Henry David Thoreau. Now he's figuring out which friends will be coming over tomorrow night and which ones need rides. Daughter, calling to confirm our Friday lunch plans, is happy that she has no classes tomorrow. She and her friends were heading out for a night on the town. She was wearing, she informed me, pearls with an AC/DC shirt. Shaggy Hair Boy just got off the telephone with PrettySingingCrushGirl; they are going to a dance together tomorrow night and the anticipation of that event certainly seems to be making Shaggy Hair smile. Beneath the mop of long curls, his freckles are dancing. With-a-Why has been working on a secret project -- boondoggle key chains for everyone in the family. He needs to make 20 of them, and he has three done already. He loves secret projects. Spouse is packing for a trip: he leaves in the morning for Staten Island to spend the weekend with a friend he's known since college. She's a close friend with a great sense of humor, and he is really looking forward to a couple days of talking and joking around.

And of course, the big news for me is that I finished grading my papers. What a wonderful feeling.

Don't even try to distract me

It is Thursday and I am grading papers.

I am not going to wander out to the kitchen to open the refrigerator and gaze inside with the hope that the contents will be different than they were five minutes ago. I am not going to surf blogs to read enviously about the lives of people who do not have papers to grade. I am not going to sit near my computer so that I can hear the little chime that sounds when a new email appears.

I am going to grade papers.

I am not going to put on music and dance around the living room. I am not going to take just a short walk out into the woods to see whether or not the poison ivy has all turned yellow. I am not going to start pulling a few weeds from my garden. I am not going to chop wood or stack wood or check the woodpile to see if I can find a snake sleeping in the sun.

I am going to grade papers.

I am not going to write an email to ArtistFriend, even though I am tempted because I know that he too has papers to grade and nothing brings the creativity to the surface like procrastination. I am not going to reread the dozen emails he sent me on Tuesday when he was supposed to be grading papers. I am not going to get out my pastels and smear big swirls of colour onto pale thick paper. I am not going to call Mirror Friend so that he can listen to me ramble on and on about childhood issues. I am not going to read the books piled about my office. I am not going to thumb through the newest L.L. Bean catalogue.

I am going to grade papers.

I am not going to wash dishes or vacuum the living room, even though I would love to remember how nice my home looks when it is clean. I am not going to mow the lawn, even though it needs to be done one last time before winter. I am not going to wash the sheets from our bed and hang them on the clothesline in the sun so that they smell like fall. I am not going to call my husband and lure him home for lunch and a nap.

I am going to grade papers.

I am not going to write a blog post or comment on blogs or read blogs. I am not going to write any of the emails I owe to people. I am not going to write in my journal. I am not going to call my mother, although she will probably call me. I am not going to check the away messages of my children, my nieces, and my extras. I am not going to spend long minutes starting into the tree outside my window, daydreaming about summer.

I am going to grade papers.

Deer will wander into my yard, and wild turkeys too. Maybe a fox. I will not see them. Emails will fill my inbox, marked as unread for hours. The letter carrier might bring some new magazines, a journal, maybe even a letter. The phone will ring, but I will not answer it. All kinds of conversations will fill the comment boxes on the blogs, but I will not read them. Chocolate syrup will stay hidden inside its container, tofutti nestled into its spot in the freezer. The newspaper will stay folded in the box out by the road. Daydreams will stay curled up inside the spaces of my body.

I will be grading papers.

September 28, 2005


When my students asked me a few weeks ago to participate in a fundraiser, of course I said yes. I almost always say yes to my students. I get sucked into student activities more than just about any faculty member I know.

But of course, when they asked me to be in a dunking booth, I did think the weather would cooperate. I pictured a warm sunny day with no breeze at all.

Instead, we got a cool overcast day for the event. And of course, we had a breeze. We always have a breeze. What was I thinking? And the water was cold! For a very long half of an hour, I shivered on a small platform, watching my students hurl balls at a target, getting plunged into the water whenever their aim was perfect.

The dunking booth is very popular amongst my rural students, many of whom spend many summer evenings playing softball. But they seemed more interested in showing off their skills than in actually getting me wet. They kept apologizing to me, and I kept saying, "It's okay. I won't take it personally." The student who was helping to run the booth kept laughing and saying to me, "No, you aren't supposed to be nice to the crowd. You are supposed to taunt them."

Another student explained to me later: "In the dunking booth, you are supposed to trash talk the crowd, get them angry so they want to throw balls and dunk you." He rolled his eyes: "What happens when we put an English teacher in the booth? She's all nurturing and supportive, saying things like - oh, that was close, just throw that ball a little higher."

One of my male colleagues explained to me why I was the only female professor on the list of faculty who volunteered to go in the dunk booth. "I don't know any other female professors willing to appear in front of a group of college guys in a wet t-shirt." Uh, yeah. I never even thought about that.

Anything for a cause.

September 27, 2005

On the table

My family has always played cards.

Up at camp, we play pitch, a card game that my Dad has played since he was a kid. Because it's a card game that both adults and children can play, a team will often feature three generations. On retreat with my students, I usually play spoons, a card game which unfortunately brings out my competitive side. Every hand of that game ends with people grabbing desperately to get a spoon, sometimes knocking people out of the way in their haste. Nice people have no chance with a game like that. (I am quite good at it.) On Friday nights at home, my kids have been having friends over for poker, long games that last sometimes until morning.

Even when I am not playing, I like the social aspect of cards: people gathered around a table, talking, laughing, eating. Often I'll sit on the couch with my journal and just listen to the teenagers as they play, smiling to myself at the banter. At camp, it's fun to listen to the interaction between grandparents and grandchildren, or between cousins who like to tease each other. This photo is from camping this summer: my son With-a-Why at the picnic table, contemplating his next move.

September 26, 2005

Skinny dipping at the monastery

On the Saturday afternoon of my long weekend at the monastery, NurseFriend and I grabbed water bottles and headed for the trail that leads down to the river. We had perfect weather for a walk: cool and sunny. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn yellow, some edged with gold and orange. A gorgeous fall day.

The first part of the trail is steep, dropping about 800 feet in less than half a mile. We hiked down through a hardwood forest into a valley created by glaciers, a gorge older than ourselves, older than the monastery, older than Christianity. I love the services at the monastery - the incense, the chanting, the music of the harp, the row of monks in their dark robes - but my spiritual life needs this kind of prayer too, a descent into a landscape that can make me feel small and humble.

At the bottom of the trail, we walked from the cool shade of the woods onto piles of flat rocks, a river bank in the sun. The monastery river is a quiet, sleepy river with a gentle current that moves a leaf slowly down stream. Parts were so calm that I could see the reflection of the sky, the trees. Using my fleece as a pillow, I curled up in the sun, nestled onto warm rocks, and took a nap. I couldn't help but think of the two weeks I spent this summer on the Colorado River, listening to the river day and night, living on its banks. Few things in life are more relaxing than napping on a river bank in the sun of a fall day.

When shade from the woods moved across me, I woke up and moved over to the sunny spot where NurseFriend was sitting with her feet in the water. "I'm thinking of taking a swim," she said.

The cool green water was tempting. I find a river hard to resist. Quickly, I kicked off my shoes, then pulled off my pants, my shirt, my underwear. NurseFriend hesitated for just a moment and then started taking her clothes off too.

The water was cool at first, but once my whole body was in, it felt wonderful. After the icy, churning Colorado River and the deep cold Saint Lawrence River, it felt soothing to surrender my body to this sleepy sun-warmed river that pulled me along with only the gentlest of motions. We swum to the middle, and let the current pull our floating bodies along. I tried to keep my limbs stretched out in the warm top layer of water. We talked as we floated along lazily, swimming upstream once in a while, keeping even with the pile of clothes on the river bank.

NurseFriend joked about how she was going to react if a monk or one of the monastery guests suddenly appeared on the path. I argued that what we were doing was a spiritual practice: stripping off layers, all the petty annoyances and obsessions, the temptations and jealousies, the zippers that get stuck, the buttons that cause me to fumble. I like myself best naked -- the river touching my bare skin, warm water soothing sore spots, the landscape of shale and trees rising about me, my limbs drifting across the reflection of sky.

September 23, 2005

Gone monking

After the frantic beginning of fall semester, a busy month of classes and meetings, and an exhausting week of staying up every night to write letters that I will never send to my brother, I am taking a break, a long weekend that I've been looking forward to. I am heading to the monastery.

It's a Benedictine monastery, high up in the hills, a cluster of buildings that includes both a chapel and a sheep farm. Two close friends and I will stay in the old stone cottage, talking, relaxing, reading, and napping. On Saturday afternoon, NurseFriend and I will hike down through the woods to the river, to sit on flat stones in the sun and talk. Saturday night, Monking Friend and I will stay up talking, taking a walk in the moonlight. I will go to some of the services, gathering with the other guests when the bell above the chapel rings. Brother Joking and I will exchange insults. Sunday afternoon, Brother Beekeeper and I will hike through the fields and woods, rambling through the barns, stopping to talk to the sheep and the donkeys.

When I want time by myself, I will walk down the long stone staircase into the crypt, to sit cross-legged in front of the candles. Most people just light one candle, but I will light lots of them, praying for all the people I love as well as people I have never met. I love to stare at all the flames, flickering and dancing in the darkness.

I'll be offline, of course, with my journal and a pen to record my thoughts, taking time to think about that has happened in my life since my last visit, six months ago. Always, a visit to the monastery is a time for sorting through my life, filing memories, thinking over my choices, and getting my life back into balance.

September 22, 2005

Seven Surprising Things About Me

People are surprised when they find out that

1) I live within ten miles of where I grew up. Well, no one in my hometown acts surprised about this, but colleagues at academic conferences think it is unusual.

2) I don't drink. They often will say, "What about that time at that party when you ....?" But no, I just act crazy when I'm perfectly sober.

3) I love to go on pub crawls. They say, "But you don't drink. You just told me you don't drink." But I still like to hang out in bars and get into deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life.

4) I like the movie Dirty Dancing. I don't get why I am not supposed to like this movie. I think Jennifer Grey does a wonderful job portraying the range of emotions experienced by a teenage girl. And I like any movie that has dancing in it.

5) I hate the movie Casablanca. I am a feminist. Why would I like that dreadful sexist movie?

6) I am a feminist. Okay, it's mostly students who act surprised. They will say things like, "You can't be a feminist. You like men." Or this summer, a man said to me, "But you just talked about how much you loved pregnancy and childbirth and breastfeeding. You can't possibly be a feminist." Or often I get, "But you seem too feminine to be a feminist." These kind of comments leave me wondering where people get their ideas about feminism.

7) I can't sing. Because everyone else in my family can. I come from a family full of musicians, I live in a houseful of musicians, every one of my kids has sung in a choir .... and I cannot carry a tune. I am living proof that musical talent can skip a generation.

September 21, 2005

Choose a quote from the book and write about it

I've been reading short informal papers in which my students respond to the early chapters of the book Bone Black by bell hooks, which is the memoir of a girl growing up in a poor family in Kentucky in the 1950s. I read 60 of these short papers three times each week -- and I have been known to complain (just a little, of course) about the amount of time I spend reading student papers during a semester. Sometimes, though, what a student says will really hit home with me.

In one paper today, a young woman talked about how she grew up poor, and how she can remember feeling bad for not having the kind of clothes or toys other kids had. She said she thought she grew up poor until she read this book. Then she gave a quote from Bone Black: "We do not understand that our playmates who are eating laundry starch do so not because the white powder tastes so good but because they are sometimes without necessary food." The student wrote that that one sentence really struck her. "That is when I realized," she wrote, "that I have never been poor. I do not know what it is like to be poor."

September 19, 2005

Not in the mood

Ten Things More Appealing Right Now Than Grading Papers

1. Mopping the kitchen floor.
2. Testing smoke detectors.
3. Filing rejection letters.
4. Reading depressing stories in the newspaper.
5. Cleaning the garage.
6. Picking the lint off my fleece jacket.
7. Talking to telemarketers.
8. Emptying the pencil sharpener.
9. Trying to straighten out a tangled slinky.
10. Changing the cat litter.

September 18, 2005

Weekend with my students: ropes, fire, and poetry

We left Saturday morning, all piling onto two big buses. It was raining, but that did not deter us. I have 60 first year students (three sections of 20), and they all live together on one floor of a residence hall. They were a sleepy group as they climbed on the bus, but an hour later, the bus was filled with chatter and song.

It was an overnight retreat at a lodge in the middle of the woods, in an area famous for cliffs, gorges, and waterfalls. We spent the afternoon doing a Ropes or Challenge Course. I love how the teamwork of the low ropes elements helps set a supportive atmosphere that will extend into the classroom as we do such things as peer review. I know that some faculty are hesitant to participate in a Ropes Course because it is so physical: yes, you have to touch students, sometimes holding hands, balancing on a small platform clinging to each other in what is basically a group hug, letting them pick you up and lift you through an opening in a rope spider web, or doing a trust fall into their arms. But I've done ropes courses with my students for years, and I am comfortable with the physical closeness. The high ropes elements fill me with adrenaline - I am afraid of heights - but I love the feeling when I actually do leap from a platform high up in the trees. I love how supportive the students are, cheering on each person who attempts a high ropes element.

After dinner (pasta and salad, of course), I split the students into small groups and sent them off for a nature walk. They disappeared in all directions, some climbing down the steep sides of the gorge and others taking manicured trails. When they all returned an hour and a half later, we gathered in the main room of the lodge to write about the experience. The room was perfectly quietly as they sat, most of them cross-legged on the floor, heads bent over their notebooks, and wrote furiously.

In the evening, we had a coffeehouse. Students read poetry and journal entries. They pulled out musical instruments: a viola, a clarinet, a trumpet, and any number of guitars. One young woman sang a Joni Mitchell song, and everyone joined in on the chorus. A bunch of students teamed up for a funny skit that included all kinds of jokes about our campus. Always we have students reading sappy poems about high school love - and angry activist poems. Always, someone plays Stairway to Heaven on the electric guitar. Every performance, no matter how lame, received wild applause from the other fifty-nine students in the room.

After the coffeehouse, we built a campfire outside the lodge, talking, singing, and roasting marshmellows. One student who grew up in another country had never tasted a S'More before, so we all watched his face while he ate his very first one. As the fire burned down, many of lingered near the coals to talk. Topics included politics, racism, religion, and marriage.

The full moon rose in the sky behind us as we talked, and as the light shone over the meadow, I looked around to see that I was surrounded by sleeping bodies: students who had gotten their sleeping bags and were curled up in various spots near the fire. Others had disappeared into the woods. A few slept in the lodge.

In the morning, we ate breakfast together, and then my unwashed, half-asleep students set to work cleaning the lodge, filling bags with trash, mopping out bathrooms, sweeping the main room, scrubbing pots in the kitchen. Despite the early hour, everyone seemed cheerful, happy that we had come.

"I slept in a field last night," announced a student from Brooklyn. "I still cannot believe that." He kept talking even as he was busy piling cans into the recycling bin. "I never knew before that the moon rises and sets. It traverses the sky. I had never seen that before. I don't notice the night sky where I live."

Travelling back to Snowstorm City, students slept and chatted quietly on the bus, many leaning against each other to get comfortable, a few asking me questions about a paper due tomorrow. In the parking lot of their residence hall, I waved goodbye to them and headed home.

September 17, 2005

Full moon friendship

Yesterday evening I left my noisy household, where Boy in Black was practicing the drums and the younger kids were playing some kind of game, drove to a Chinese restaurant to pick up some food, and went to the quiet house of a close friend, Quilt Artist. I had had a difficult week, writing and thinking about my issues with my brother, and I knew that talking to a friend would help.

We sat in her living room, surrounded by gorgeous artwork, mostly quilts full of colour and movement, and talked quietly for hours. We've known each other for years, long enough to joke with each other about our faults and weaknesses, long enough to be honest and direct. So we talked, we analyzed relationships, we told stories, and by the end of the evening, we were laughing at ourselves.

We both have a tendency to indulge in melodrama, making a big deal out of little things that most people would brush aside. But Quilt Artist commented that we both also have a tendency to brush aside the really big issues in our lives. "It is not just that we make mountains out of molehills," she said, "But we also make molehills out of mountains."

We did not solve any of the problems of the world, or even any of the problems in our relationships. But talking to a close friend works like nothing else in helping to ground me and keep my life in balance. I need that outside perspective that forces me to turn off the CDs spinning inside my head and makes me notice the sounds of the world around me. As I drove home, through city streets speckled with moonlit puddles and through country roads that wove their way through a misty fog, I felt relaxed and peaceful.

September 16, 2005

In my day, we dyed our legs blue, not our hair

Whenever I buy a pair of jeans, I am still shocked at how comfortable they feel and how well they fit -- the first time I try them on! Buying jeans has not always been this easy. I still remember the days when jeans were not prewashed.

When I was young, breaking in a new pair of jeans took a whole day. My friend Outdoor Girl and I used to buy jeans at the same time so that we could go through the process together. And Outdoor Girl took this kind of things very seriously.

First, we would go to the little store on the main street of TrainTrack Village to buy the jeans. The store was owned four very old people who were related in some way, although I never did figure out how. Because so many men in town at that time worked on the railroad, the store was filled with workboots, bandanas, wool socks, leather work gloves, and stiff men's jeans. Jeans were not sold at fashionable boutiques. Jeans were what working men wore.

The jeans were not pre-washed. They were stiff, as stiff as the canvas on a suitcase. Outdoor Girl and I always insisted on trying them on, much to the dismay of the Very Old Woman, who would shuffle us back to the storeroom, where we could stand amidst all the boxes of workboots and pull these stiff pants on. We would be very serious and polite to the Very Old Woman, but as soon as she left the room, giving one last glare, we would both start giggling. Even in the dim lit of the one hanging light bulb, the jeans looked ridiculous - way too big, and stiff enough to be able to stand on their own. They were men's jeans, not made for the bodies of teen-age girls. Always, we would have to cuff them up before attempting to even walk.

Once we had purchased the jeans, carefully handing over the wrinkled bills our parents had given us, Outdoor Girl would outline her plan for breaking them in. The first rule, of course, was that we had to keep them on all day. The second rule was to see how many times we could get them wet and let them dry, shrinking the cotton until it fit our bodies.

Swimming in a pond was always our first choice. How heavy new jeans feel when they are soaking wet! We'd roll around on the ground to get them dirty, then jump back into the pond. Sometimes we would volunteer to wash a family car, spraying the hose on each other. Always, and this was important, we let the jeans dry while still on our body. Outdoor Girl had this theory that we had to move around a lot, so often we would blare a radio and dance -- yes, to seventies music because this was the seventies. Sometimes we went horseback riding. Sometimes we would find a playground and go on swings. Our wet jeans would stick stubbornly as we tried to go down the hot metal slide. Outdoor Girl came up with all kinds of ideas and I always played along. Breaking in jeans was great fun.

At the end of the day, when we finally stripped off the jeans, ready now to toss them into the hamper so they would be washed, our lower bodies would be dyed blue, a streaky navy blue that looked especially funny on Outdoor Girl because she has very white skin. But our work would be done. The jeans would be ready to wear: softer, more comfortable, and fitted to our bodies. Buying prewashed jeans is just not the same.

September 15, 2005

To swing on a star

Yesterday, some of my students were telling me about a controlled experiment in which people were tested to determine whether or not eating different types of cheese influenced their dreams. I have no idea where my students were getting their information from, but I loved the concept.

What if you could choose your dreams simply by choosing your bedtime snack?

A bowl of milk, perhaps, if you want the kind of contented dreams that cats seem to have when they are curled on a window sill in the sun.

Pomegranate seeds if you want to carry out that fantasy about illicit sex with the glamorous badboy type.

Watermelon for dreams of sunny days on a wide front porch with your grandmother, still alive, sitting on the porch swing and telling you stories about her childhood.

Peaches, ripe and sliced, for dreams about that nice guy, the one with the great hands and expressive eyes, the man who makes it safe for you to love.

Tea brewed from pine needles for a night of envisioning the countries of this world making peace with each other.

Wild strawberries, dripping with juice, for dreams of outdoor sex, arms and legs tangled in meadow grasses.

Honey for dreams of a safe place, a sanctuary, a retreat, a monastery, a garden that you can keep within yourself.

Dark chocolate for a dream in which the brother who did not talk to you for eight years gives you a hug and says he is sorry.

Perhaps ripe blackberries for dreams in which you put on a pair of scarlet-feathered wings, leap from a bluff, and fly.

September 14, 2005

Fall Meme

Here's a fall meme, in anticipation of the season. Since it is my meme, there are no rules. Do whatever you want.

Favorite fall dessert: Apple pie made by my mother.
Holiday: Halloween, of course. Any holiday that involves vast quantities of chocolate goes right to the top of my list.
Best fall memory: The birth of With-a-Why, my youngest child.
Worst fall memory: September 11, 2001. The day after the national election last fall comes second.
Most puzzling fall memory: In elementary school, back-to-school pencil cases always contained a protractor. I never could figure out why. We never used them until high school.
Best thing about fall walks: The mosquitoes are gone!
Favorite fall chore: Splitting wood. A wonderful way to work off anger. Of course, I have to wear steel-toed boots because my aim is terrible.
Least favorite fall chore: Throwing away food that went bad during those hot humid August weeks when I was not here.
Best change in the home: A fire in the fireplace again!
Favorite flower: Dark red chrysanthemums.
Best tree in the fall: Sugar maple.
Fall ritual: Taking a walk to gather handfuls of pretty leaves. Except then we never know what to do with the leaves so they get tossed.
Most frustrating thing about fall: Having to grade stacks of papers when the world outside my window is so ridiculously beautiful and inviting.
Favorite childhood game: Making houses out of leaf piles.
Favorite childhood memory: Sailing with my Dad on BigLake on gorgeous autumn days.
Favorite decorations: Pumpkins on doorsteps.
Favorite clothing: Jeans and a red sweatshirt. After a hot, humid summer, it feels great to wear clothes again.
Best scenery: Pretty Colour Lake, on a sunny day, with gold-red-yellow leaves crunching underfoot, brilliant red maples, yellow aspen, and green pines all reflected in the calm lake. Or a drive to the mountains on curving roads that wind through color so vivid it seems unreal.
Best fall travel tip: Bring ginger to prevent motion sickness on the drive through the mountains.
Favorite drink: Apple cider.
Best method of transportation: Horseback.
Traditional fall candy: Candy corns.
Favorite sound: Geese flying over head. Although I have to admit that the whining sound of a chainsaw always makes me think of fall too.
Best for fall sex: Percale sheets that have been dried on the clothesline. And cool air coming through the window makes cuddling a warm naked body feel great. Suddenly, warmth is a good thing.
Fall Song: Autumn in New York.
Reliable Prediction: We will get snow at least once before Halloween.
Best fall television show: The Charlie Brown Halloween special, of course. I still believe in the Great Pumpkin.

September 13, 2005

Modern Compliment

I've spent the day reading through my student’s reading journals. The first book they read was bell hooks' Bone Black. One student wrote that she loved the book so much that she has been using quotes from it as her Away Messages on Instant Messenger.

I guess nowadays that is the highest compliment an author can get.

Anger, fear, and healing

The crowd gathered around 8 pm, mostly women, some talking to each other, some milling about to look at artwork for sale, and some picking up pamphlets that explained the function of a women's shelter and a rape crisis center. I arrived early to talk to the other poet so we could coordinate our poems and to doublecheck with the organizer about how long we should read. EveningPoet, a survivor of incest and abuse, planned to read poems about her childhood. Then women from the crowd would be invited to the microphone to tell their stories. And I would finish with poems about healing.

The event was a fundraiser for the Women's Shelter in Snowstorm City. But more importantly, it was a gathering of survivors, a place where women felt safe telling their stories, a place where women felt supported by each other. Many of the women cried as they read or listened. Because the room was crowded, we ended up sitting jampacked together, elbow to elbow. The physical intimacy of all these people crammed onto benches and arms of chairs mirrored the emotional intimacy in the room as women spoke into the microphone, sharing anger, fear, rage, and sometimes triumph.

I had expected to feel drained but the energy in the room, by the time I took the microphone, was hopeful, relieved. Always it is better to break a silence. I read poems about healing, poems about the body, poems about meditation, massage, and reiki. When I introduced one poem, I talked about a friend who had had to leave her marriage and her home, leaving behind - among other things - her garden. I told the story of how a group of us women descended upon the yard when the ex-husband was at work, digging up all the plants and moving them to gardens where we could keep them safe for the friend.

Driving home, I thought about the courage of all the women in that room, what difficult paths so many of them have had to walk. I thought about the people who volunteer at the Women's Shelter, making sure we have a safe haven for women escaping abuse. I admire the work they do, day after day. So often, I think, when a national disaster strikes, we want to help in some way and are frustrated if we live too far away to help. Sometimes I think the best solution is to turn to the people in your own community who need food or shelter, a safe haven or a helping hand.

September 12, 2005

First excuse of the semester

A student emailed to let me know that she would be missing class on Friday: "I have to go home for a family weeding."

On any other campus, it would most definitely be a typo. But I have many students who come from family farms, and I can't help but think there is some chance that she is going home for a fall gardening ritual.

September 11, 2005


I met Manhattan Man on a day late in August. I was in my office on campus, getting my syllabi ready for the new semester, when a young man walked into my office.

"Hey, I'm new on campus," he said. "And everyone keeps saying I have to meet you."

He was in his early thirties, a transfer student. He'd been in the military since he was seventeen years old, and was coming back to college with medical school as his goal. "I want to start healing people for a change."

We hit it off right away. He'd come hang out in my office between classes and tell me funny stories. His sense of humor was sarcastic but he was so self-deprecating that the things he said were hilariously funny rather than offensive. And his years of military service had given him some amazing experiences and insights that were both deeply profound and desperately sad.

As his accent indicated, he was from lower Manhattan, part of a big extended family. His base of operations, he always said, was the World Trade Center because so many of his friends and family worked there. "It's not really a building," he would explain, with the patience of an urban man talking to a rural woman, "It's more like a small city of its own."

In the fall of 2001, Manhattan Man was doing an independent study with me, writing up some of his life experiences. His terrific political analysis, coupled with the kinds of inside experiences he had during his military career, made his essays fascinating to read.

When he came to my office on the morning of September 12, we just stood and looked at each other. Outside my window, the scene was still kind of unreal: clumps of students hugging each other and crying. I had thought I was all cried out but I had just read an email from a longtime friend and colleague. Her only daughter, a young woman expecting her first child, worked on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. She was still missing.

Neither of us had slept at all. We were both exhausted, emotionally drained. Manhattan Man was so tense that I could tell he did not want to be hugged or touched. Then we both spoke at the same time, asking the same question, the question that now served as a ritual greeting on campus: "Is everyone in your family accounted for?"

My family was safe. Urban Sophisticate Sister was still uptown when the buildings came down. She got a phone call through to us pretty early in the day. A nephew had been trapped in a smoke-filled train underground near the World Trade Center, but had gotten out and managed to get a phone call through by late afternoon. My brother-in-law, a stock trader, was caught in the panic and flying debris when the buildings came down, but somehow survived the day although he didn't remember all of it. He had made it back to his apartment by late evening, injured but alive. Many of his friends were not that lucky.

Manhattan Man was still missing some cousins, some friends. "And I'm part of the Rescue Operation. I'm headed to Manhattan to pick through the rubble." he said, "That's what I came to tell you. I will be leaving in a few minutes. I'll be back next week."

We both tried to talk. He was shaking. He started pacing. "What if I find a body, and it's someone I know?" he asked.

It was difficult to say goodbye. "Write about this," I told him. I suppose it was just an automatic thing for me to say.

When he came back the next week, he gave me a sheaf of papers, a long journal entry written on looseleaf paper. He'd spent the weekend at Ground Zero, searching for survivors. They found no survivors. What they found instead were body parts, fragments of humans, which they bagged, one by one, working in silence. He made a list to give me an idea of what he saw now whenever he closed his eyes: a leg with a sock still on, part of a scalp with blonde hair, a wrist, a shoulder, a hand with a wedding ring.

When one of the rescue workers pulled a stuffed animal from the rubble, they all kind of gasped. That moment, he said, is when they remembered that there were children in the building.

Driving back here, he was exhausted and filthy. (He brought me back a piece of rubble to show me the smell. It was unlike anything I had ever smelled before.) Still in uniform, he stopped to get gasoline. He noticed someone in the car next to him looking at him curiously as he pumped the gas, and wondered if they were angry that he was moving so slowly, but he felt sort of like he was in some kind of weird nightmare where everything moved slowly. When he finally went in to pay for the gas, the guy behind the counter said, "You don't owe anything. That guy in the other car paid for you."

He'd managed, the whole time, as he was directing his crew and bagging body parts, not to cry. But now, on his way out of the city, exhausted and drained, that simple gesture from a stranger put him over the edge. He pulled into the next rest area, sat on a picnic table, put his head down, and cried. Then he got paper and pencil from the car, and wrote pages and pages, all the horrific things he had just witnessed.

I still have the pages he wrote. He's tried a couple times to read them, but cannot make it past the first few pages without crying. He always hands it back to me and says, "Here, you hang onto it."

So I hang onto his words. Sheets of looseleaf paper, tucked into a folder, hidden inside my filing cabinet. Tonight I will take them out and read them once again.

September 10, 2005

Firewood delivery

Just recently, we watched the price of gasoline go up more than one dollar in less than 24 hours. The price of heating oil has gone up too, a big concern in this part of the country, since we get cold, windy winters. This week, I got a call from Firewood Guy, a neighbor I've known since high school. He and his Dad sell firewood as a side business.

Firewood Guy: Hey, Jo(e), I'm calling to see when you want your firewood.
Me: Firewood? I hadn't even thought about that yet.
Firewood Guy: Weather's nice now, but winter will be coming. You'll want to get it split and stacked while we've got still got some dry weather.
Me: Yeah, you're right. Good thing I got you to remind me every year.
Firewood Guy: How much you need? Two cords?
Me: Yeah, that's about right. I still have some left from last year.
Firewood Guy: I can load up the truck tomorrow and bring it over after supper.
Me: I should be home but if not, I can leave a check in the mailbox. How much you charging this year?
Firewood Guy: Same as last year. $45 a cord.
Me: What? You've charged the same price for years. I figured you would raise it this year, with the price of gas and heating oil and all that getting so high.
Firewood Guy: Yeah, some folks are going to have trouble heating their houses this winter. But that's no reason for us to charge you more for firewood.
Me: Yeah, but people will be buying more firewood this year. I figured the price would go up.
Firewood Guy: What? I don't think my Dad has raised the price. Let me ask him.

(I hear him talking to his father in the background.)

Firewood Guy: (returning to the phone) Dad says he's not raising his price. He said that if you lived far away maybe he'd charge a delivery fee to cover the price of gas, but you live just around the corner so that don't make no sense.
Me: Well, okay.
Firewood Guy: Hell, you think we are going to gouge our neighbors? The wood's been sitting in our lot for months now. So just write the check already.
Me: (laughing) Okay.
Firewood Guy: If you aren't home when I come, where you want me to dump it?
Me: In front of the basketball hoop.
Firewood Guy: But then your kids can't play ball until the wood is split and stacked.
Me: Exactly.
Firewood Guy: (laughing) Well, that's one way to get the job done.

September 09, 2005

Playing in the Dark

My entire house is as dark as the inside of a cave far below the earth.

That's right. It's Friday night, and the kids are playing Monster. They've tacked up blankets over every window and duct taped anything that glows. I told them I'd play the second round but for now I have retreated to my office, the one room that is off limits, where the only light I have on is the computer screen. My door is closed, with a towel stuffed under it so that even the light from the computer cannot creep into the playing area.

We've got all boys tonight. Daughter is at college, and Blonde Niece went to the mall. Spouse slipped away to go to the movies with a friend, leaving me to mind the cloud of testosterone. It's the first Monster game of the new school year, and it was a shock to me, as Boy in Black's friends arrived, to realize that these kids I have known for years are all seniors now, with just one more year before they graduate.

For the most part, Boy in Black's friends are like him: smart and serious. They are young men who talk openly about racism and sexism, who are able to rant about the atrocities of the Bush administration in a pretty articulate way. They talk seriously about the possibility of a draft -- they all turn eighteen this year -- and their worries about the future.

They are also funny. The same brightness that puts these high school kids into college courses is used to come up with ways to tease each other and joke about everything imaginable. They insult each other constantly, and the comebacks are quick.

They are young men now, old enough to take a serious look at the state our country is in, and worry about what that means for them. But they are also able to play. While waiting for friends to arrive, they had a battle in the living room with a light sabers, most of them willing to take a dramatic fall to the carpet when With-a-Why flashed his bright red saber.

Right now, I can hear them chasing each other through the house, tripping over stuff in the absolute darkness. I can hear laughter and screaming, all kinds of exclamations as the monster finds his prey. With-a-Why is the hardest to find, because he is so small, and my three boys have a huge advantage in the darkness: they live here and can walk around without seeing.

I love the energy of teenage boys, the older ones including the younger ones in their game, all of them willing to talk seriously to me, all of them willing to be silly and playful. As this round of Monster ends, I am turning off my computer to go join the group and play the next round. I've spent too much time this week reading news that is sad and frightening. I want to play.

September 08, 2005

A book by its cover

Our school district requires that students cover all their books with book covers. In most households, that means ripping up brown paper grocery bags to cover the books. In theory, my kids are all old enough to do this task themselves. To be honest, it is kind of surprising that they don't. All four of my kids are pretty independent. For instance, they all learned to make food for themselves and manage their own time well before getting into school. Yet, somehow, every year, they plead that I am the only person with the necessary skill to cover a book with brown paper.

This year, I decided, was going to be different. This year, I resolved to make them do the book covers themselves. Then Boy in Black appeared in the doorway of my office, interrupting my few minutes of snatched time to surf blogs.

Boy in Black: Hey, Mom ....

Noticing the books in his hand, I tried to protect myself by not looking a those big brown eyes. Once I've made eye contact with Boy in Black, I have a tendency to give into anything he wants. Legend has it that there are snakes in India who have that same effect on people.

Boy in Black: Could you cover these for me?
Me: Boy in Black, you are seventeen years old!
Boy in Black: What does age have to do with it?
Me: You are the smartest kid in the school, and you can't figure out how to cover a book?
Boy in Black: I know how to .... I just want you to do it.
Me: It would be irresponsible of me. What is going to happen when you have kids and they want you to cover their books? You won't know how.
Boy in Black: I know how to cover books. When my kids ask, I will cover their books for them.
Me: If you know how, then why should I do it?
Boy in Black: It's a family tradition. In this family, parents cover books for their kids. To show them that they love them.

Before I knew it, I had made eye contact. And next thing you know, I was busy ripping up paper bags and covering his books. Part of me is wondering if I'll be doing the same thing for my grandchildren some day.

I am hoping so.

First Day of School: Cat Pee and Phone Calls

Yesterday was the first day of the new school year for all the kids in the household. We'd spent some time getting ready for this important day: buying school supplies, getting haircuts for the two boys who are willing to get haircuts, figuring out schedules for various music lessons, carefully orchestrating an after school plan that involves With-a-Why and a neighbor girl, and coming up with new household rules about bedtimes and such. Things seemed more chaotic than usual because the most efficient and organized person in the household, my Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, had already gone back to college.

Everyone started the year tired and cranky because all three boys spent a couple late nights doing the homework they had had all summer to do. "It's a tradition not to start the summer homework until Labor Day," Boy in Black explained. And Shaggy Hair Boy missed the high school orientation he was supposed to go to. Skater Boy, PrettySingingCrushGirl, and Blonde Niece somehow all knew about it and attended, but he found out after the fact. Boy in Black assured me that he would give his brother the necessary tour of the high school.

The new bedtimes did not work out so great because none of my boys were tired. We have had such a hot humid summer that they've become nocturnal. After a summer of staying up late most nights to play poker or monster, no one was able to fall asleep at a decent hour, and the alarm clock was not a welcome sound.

Spouse, who is in charge of the morning routine, managed to get all the inert bodies moving and feed everyone breakfast. Shaggy Hair Boy was just about to head out the door with his backpack, carefully filled with new school supplies, when he noticed that one of our aging cats had peed on the backpack. Yes, that is what every fourteen-year-old boy wants to bring to school on the first day: a backpack that reeks of cat urine. Shaggy Hair's response was to scream in disgust, toss the backpack into the backyard, and head to school empty-handed.

It turns out that the elementary school that With-a-Why goes to did not have a full day yesterday, as we had thought. Instead, school was dismissed at 10:30 am. The new principal, who is apparently crazy, thought this would be a good idea. Apparently something had come home in the mail announcing this, but mail gets lost easily in our busy household. I was in class when With-a-Why called but luckily he was able to reach my husband, who picked him up and dropped him off at his grandmother's house, where he spent the day beating his grandparents at Scrabble.

When we gathered for supper at the end of the day, everyone seemed satisfied with how the day had gone. Shaggy Hair Boy is in several classes with PrettySingingCrushGirl. Boy in Black will get to take both Physics and Calculus this year, two classes he will love. And With-a-Why had an unexpected treat: instead of school, a fun day with his grandparents.

The only thing that wasn't perfect is that we all missed Daughter. She wasn't here to make lists of all the school supplies we need and to organize the necessary trip to the store. She wasn't here to tell funny stories of schedule changes or fill us in on which kids were in her classes. Mostly, we missed her personality, all that positive energy that rubs off on all of us. So we had to settle for phone calls to her cell phone instead.

September 07, 2005

Miles from home

Students from Tulane are already on campus, and evacuated families began arriving today. Snowstorm City is nowhere near New Orleans so the reality that the evacuees have traveled this far north made me realize just how many humans have been displaced by this disaster. When I was talking about this on campus with some students, I expected some deep, philosophical thoughts, but instead the reaction was practical. "We need to get them some winter clothes. Has anyone warned these families yet that we get snow before Halloween?"

September 05, 2005

My favorite fall poem

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

September 03, 2005

Packing the tent again

We are leaving in moments for camp, driving to the marsh I love, to the river I know best, to that peninsula of oak trees and grey rock set amongst acres of cattails. After my trip to the Southwest, I know that camp will seem lush and green. The mosquitoes should be gone for the season, so we will be able to sit around a campfire, telling stories. Boy in Black and my brother will bring guitars, and my Dad, his clarinet.

We'll be missing some of the grandchildren: Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter and Red-haired Niece are in college. Schoolteacher Niece is on her way to Big City Like No Other to begin her grad work.

The nights will begin to be chilly, temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Acorns will begin falling from the oak trees. My Mom and I already have plans for an early morning canoe trip: the mist on the bay this time of year is always wonderful.

I have spent every Labor Day weekend at camp since 1968, and I know what I will find there. Peace and quiet. Time to think and reflect. Time away from media coverage of tragic events that make me both sad and angry. Time to pray for all those who can't spend the weekend in such a tranquil place.

September 02, 2005

Student reactions

Usually during the first week of classes, the campus is filled with high spirits and lots of energy, but this week has been pretty somber. Here in the northeast, few of my students have any connection to New Orleans, but the media images have for many of them stirred up memories of September 11th. Many of them remember what it was like to have missing family, to lose contact with friends, to wait and hope desperately for a phone call that would tell them that someone they loved was still alive.

Many of my scientist students keep shaking their heads in disbelief, their logical minds trying to comprehend what is happening. "But everyone knew that this was coming, that a storm like this was inevitable. How is that the government had no plan to evacuate the poor, the elderly, the children? How could this happen? We had all the data we needed years ahead of time."

Even as my New York City students make the comparison to the World Trade Center coming down, the rural students express their frustration at how helpless they feel. "In a small town, you can help out when something happens. You let people sleep on your couch, you cook them up some good food, you let them chill at your house," said one of my small town students. "But all this is so far away. There is so little we can do."

And as the week went on, the anger was building - anger at the Bush administration. "Last November was so depressing," said one student, "but now .... this is even worse. Maybe it's because he is no longer running for election, but he is not even pretending to care. I am so angry I could puke."

Several times I heard: "I cannot believe this is happening here, in this country." Other students are not surprised. They seem resigned.

In one class, I had a student who said something like, "Well, people were stupid not to evacuate." I didn't even say anything; classmates were quick to question his statement. "How would you evacuate if you didn't own a car? What if you couldn't afford a hotel? What if you were elderly or sick? Yeah, you say just walk, but where would you walk to? And who can afford to evacuate every single time a storm comes?" Students were pretty quick to point out the privileges that come with race and class in this country, privileges that could mean life or death in a hurricane.

These conversations were the undercurrent of the week, during slow times in my office, during the sunny weather out on the quad, in the snack bar where I have breakfast, or during the ten minutes before class when I chat with the students as they arrive. Sadness, anger, disbelief. That is how this semester is beginning.

September 01, 2005

High above the river

I am afraid of heights.

I rarely confront that fear unless I go to the Southwest, where hiking trails often include spectacular vistas that absolutely terrify me. Climbing mountains in the northeast never scares me because always we have trees and bushes. When I look down from a cliff and see treetops, I always feel reassured. Perhaps it is the admittedly irrational thought that somehow the trees would rescue me. Or perhaps it is just that trees and snow are what I'm used to.

On the first hike of this Grand Canyon trip, I announced my fear of heights to the other fourteen people and explained to them (a bit defensively) that the fear was not irrational in the least. Being afraid of heights makes sense! Without it, humans would be falling from cliffs and buildings all the time. Fear is a good thing. They all laughed at me and then assured me that they would get me through the difficult hikes.

And I did manage every hike that I wanted to do, even climbing along scary narrow ledges where there is nothing, NOTHING at all, to hold onto. Every time, someone was ahead of me to show me where to step or behind me offering encouragement, even if the encouragement sometimes came in the form of teasing.

"Why are you always touching the cliff walls?" one hiker asked as we walked along ledge so narrow that I had to stop and think where to put my feet. "Without a real handhold, those rocks are not going to help you. And for god's sake, don't try to hang onto a cactus."

But still, I continued touching the rock whenever I could, needing the reassurance of something solid. When the ledges got so narrow and high that I stopped walking altogether, Storyteller Boatman would stop and offer me his hand. "Here's the fun part!" he would say, "I know how much you love narrow ledges."

On one long hike with Naturalist Boatman, I lingered too long in a waterfall and found myself at the end of our little line of hikers. I felt terrified as they tramped cheerfully and quickly up the side of a cliff high where it would be very easy to fall to your death. I didn't want them to get too far ahead of me. If I was going to die, I wanted an audience at least. Way Cool Older Woman saw the look on my face and came back to let me go ahead of her. "I think it's easier to not be the very last one," she said nicely, and waited patiently as I inched along, hardly breathing.

Teenage Boy, who at fourteen was the youngest member of our little group, often positioned himself ahead of me so I could follow his footsteps because he was just about the same height as I was. He knew how I hated to be following someone really tall, especially when that long-legged person took steps that I could not possible manage. I could see Teenage Boy turning back to make sure I was okay and slowing down so that he wouldn't get too far ahead of me. Whenever I got scared, he would smile and touch my shoulder.

As much as I have thought of this trip as a trip I was doing alone, I was of course, not alone at all. The fourteen people I traveled with, none of whom I had ever met before, quickly became a community of people who were willing to lend me a hand, give me encouragement, duct tape my blisters, or even check my scalp for ticks.

And always, I had the river. No matter where we hiked, how long or high, through desert cacti or long thin slot canyons, always we returned to the river. No matter how hot and dry the weather, I could always get my hair wet, my shirt wet, plunge my whole body into the current. And when I fell asleep at night, feeling safe on a beach inhabited by fifteen humans and various other creatures, the sound of the river kept dancing and churning through my dreams.

Another waterfall quiz

Well, Scrivener thought the last waterfall quiz was too easy, and Rob said I needed to stand blurrilier. So here's another waterfall photo, this one with five people and two waterfalls. Notice that the waterfall on the right is almost horizontal, water shooting straight out at us with all kinds of energy. Isn't that cool?

Now guess which person is me.