March 30, 2006

Spring Nap

I had all kinds of plans for this morning. Papers to grade, an assessment report to write, emails to answer. I got up early, ate a good breakfast, and got dressed right away. I planned to get to work just as soon as my husband and the boys left.

But then sunshine came flooding into the house, transforming my living room into a luxurious den of light and warmth. When I opened the back door to let out one of the cats, the softness of the air lured me outside to inspect the gardens that have been buried under snow and ice. I put away the snow shovels, the plastic toboggans, and picked up the odd remnants that remain where the kids’ snow ramp was during the winter months. Soon I was wandering about picking up branches that had fallen over the winter. My lilac bushes have buds on them, a sure sign of spring.

Spring sunshine is too valuable to waste. Forgetting the stack of stuff in my office, I curled up on the back step to soak in the heat. What a gloriously warm day. I pulled off my sweatshirt to use as a pillow and then pulled my t-shirt off so that my belly could tan. (Now that snowboarding is over, I return to belly dancing classes.) How wonderful it felt to feel the sun on my bare skin. The spring birds were calling to each other in the woods behind my house. The tree frogs kept up their singing and trilling, especially from the area by the pond. Above my head, the wind chime sounded its lovely nautical music.

Napping in spring sunshine, I decided, might be a valuable way to spend my morning.

March 29, 2006

Conversation with my daughter

None of my sons got excited when I pointed out that the spring peepers were singing, so tonight I called my Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter. She didn't answer her cell phone, so I left a message, holding the phone out the open window to record the singing and trilling of the peepers, that wonderful mysterious sound of spring. When she called me back, she was laughing.

"Mom, that was the weirdest phone call I’ve ever gotten."

"The spring peepers!" I said, "Could you hear them? I held the phone out the window."

"Yeah, I knew about them already, though."

"What?" I asked, surprised. "Can you hear them where you are?"

"No," she said, "I read about them on your blog."

Tree frogs and frisbee

This afternoon, when I picked Shaggy Hair and Boy in Black up from school, I noticed that they had abandoned their heavy winter coats, the ones with the ski slope tags dangling from the pockets, in favor of black hoodies. The afternoon sun was so strong, warming up the whole inside of the car, that I rolled my window down. As we pulled into the driveway, I heard the noise that means spring in this part of the world: the trilling and singing of the peepers.

"Hey! The spring peepers!" I said excitedly.

"I already knew it was spring," Shaggy Hair Boy said, opening the car door. "We switched from snowboarding to basketball. And frisbee."

"But listen! The spring peepers! Isn’t that exciting?"

Boy in Black tossed his hair out of his eyes and gave me a look. "Not really, Mom."

He picked up his backpack and headed for the door, "But you can put it on your blog."

March 28, 2006

For real

I've been going to academic conferences for twelve years now, and I think that there is an interesting dynamic with conference friendships. My conference friends are people I see only once each year. For five days, we eat long meals together, stay up late talking, and explore whatever city the conference is held in. We sit together at sessions, gather to hear speakers, or amble through museums, talking. We spend hours walking around aimlessly before choosing what a restaurant for our evening meal. The rest of the year, our contact is limited to phone calls and emails, the occasional real letter written on paper.

The conference context of these friendships sometimes gives me the odd sort of illusion that my conference friends live in hotels, spend their days talking about books and idea, eat all their meals in restaurants, and spend every evening in a bar somewhere, with their name tags dangling permanently from their necks. So it's cool when I get to visit a conference friend's hometown, and see that he does indeed have some kind of normal life that involves more than grading papers.

Last week, I got to visit the home of Chicago Friend, a colleague I've been friends with for years. Chicago Friend, as you might imagine, lives somewhere in the vicinity of the Big Midwestern City with the Baseball Team that Always Loses. After three days of being trapped in a hotel with a bunch of academics, I was eager to spend the afternoon hanging out with Chicago Friend and his family. I got to see his home, his neighborhood, and his very cute four-year-old daughter, Tiger Lily, who was not the least bit shy. I met his wife for the first time ever – and we hit it off right away, both of us talking non-stop so that Chicago Friend never got a word in edgewise. He was basically reduced to the role of sandwich-making, serving us food as we chatted about everything from Barbie dolls to pet possums. Chicago Friend has told me for years that his wife and I would like each other, and we did.

One of the things Chicago Friend and I have in common is that we are both academics who actually live in our hometowns, which is relatively rare. He gave me a tour of French Explorer City, showing me both the prison and the high school, which looked eerily similar, the house where he grew up, the house where his parents live now, and the house where his grandmother lives. I even met the mailman! Earlier in the week, he had taken me to the upscale restaurant where his brother worked as a chef, so I got to meet his brother. His brother looked and sounded so much like him – him, but not him – and had such great energy, that I laughed every time he came out to talk to us.

Perhaps it is because I myself am so hopelessly connected to the landscape where I was born -- but I really love getting a glimpse of all these parts of a friend’s life: his family, his neighborhood, his home. I like seeing his bookshelves, his kitchen, the computer where he works. All of these things help that email correspondence feel that much more grounded and real.

March 27, 2006

Home from the conference

Usually by mid-March, I am tired of the snow and cold, and my writing projects have been buried under stacks of papers to grade. March is the perfect time to get away from the classroom, the office, the campus, and spend time with colleagues. Perhaps the best part of any conference is talking to friends and hearing their stories: successful classroom strategies, frustrations with job searches, publishing triumphs, or new ideas that they are exploring.

I come home with new books to read, new teaching strategies to test out, new ideas to think about, and new enthusiasm for writing projects. Best of all, we are nearing the end of March. That means spring weather will be here soon.

March 26, 2006

More conference blogging

By Friday night, there were rumors going around that I was blogging the conference, and not necessarily the academic parts. "Do you have your digital camera with you?" one blogger asked suspiciously before consenting to join me on the dance floor.

By then, I was getting used to introductions that went something like this: "Hey, do you know who this is? This is jo(e). Turn around so we can see the back of your head. See, it really is jo(e)."

But if you are all getting the impression that the Fourseas Conference is filled with frivolity – and really, I don't know where anyone would get that impression -- let me assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. I can vouch for my blogging friends when I say that they all seemed engaged in serious academic endeavors. And I get credit for intellectual effort because I went to see Clancy do a presentation about blogging, a presentation that raised all kinds of important questions about the implications of blogging for academia. Clancy is as smart and articulate in real life as she is on the blog. So just going to her session probably raised my IQ several points.

Of course, I was so worn out from attending sessions that I took a coffee break with another blogger, Krista from Thinkery. I don't recall anything deeply intellectual that I said, and it's highly possible that I said nothing of substance, but she mentioned both Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. I mean, you don't get much more intellectual than that. And we analyzed the rhetoric and images surrounded the stereotype of redhead. And because Krista is friendly and fun, we ended up talking about some non-academic stuff as well. Perhaps the most curious thing about that coffee date is that it did not actually include coffee. See, even when two bloggers get together without their computers, some elements still remain virtual.

Some of the bloggers were so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge that they stayed up past midnight to study the effects of music and alcohol on the discourse and rhetoric of conference participants. Deb, Marcia, Timna, and Collin get credit for interdisciplinary work since it was really a sort of scientific experiment. My deeply intellectual conversation with one blogger went something like this:

"How come you aren't joining us out on the dance floor?"
"I have to finish my beer first."

It was terrific to meet so many bloggers in person. How funny to step onto an elevator and have someone say, "Oh, I like the photo you posted yesterday." I am not used to anyone talking about my blog aloud. What a bond blogging seems to be – every time I’d run into a blogger at a session or in the lobby, it was like saying hello to a cousin or neighbor. How wonderful to hear the accents, see the faces, get the hugs.

March 24, 2006

Yeah, all my friends pose naked for the blog

Most of the time when I begin reading a blog, I start with the most recent post and read forward as new things get posted. It's sort of like reading a novel by opening to a random page, which is exactly how I do read novels when I am standing in the middle of a bookstore. The cool part about a blogger meet-up is getting to hear the backstory, all the narrative that came before the blog.

At this conference, I am rooming with Timna, a blogging friend. We were talking one day over at Pilgrim’s virtual bar, and she mentioned she was coming to the CCCC, and I was looking for a roommate, and next thing you know, we had plans to spend five days together. The first thing we did when she arrived at the hotel is go out somewhere for lunch, so we could eat sandwiches, let my dramamine wear off, and talk non-stop. How great to see her in person and ask her all the questions I'd been dying to ask. She's got a fascinating history. By the second day of the conference, we were acting like friends who had known each other since childhood. And she is just as warm and friendly in person as she is on her blog.

We had a third roommate, Ecowoman, who is a friend of mine from the Green Conference that Scrivener and I went to last June. Ecowoman is a high-energy, funny woman with all kinds of stories to tell, like the time she took out the plastic mouthguard she wears to prevent her teeth from grinding, left it on a sink in a hotel, and the cleaning woman threw it away because she thought it was a used sex toy. There is a longer explanation to that story that I simply cannot repeat because this is NOT that kind of blog. Ecowoman is older than me and full of cheerful advice about how the body and mind just completely fall apart after the age of 45, which for me is in about another month. Since Ecowoman is still smart and beautiful herself, I know that she is lying about this.

The three of us were not together in the room long before Ecowoman noticed that Timna and I kept lapsing into Blog Speak. I mean, no two bloggers can get together without talking about Bitch Ph.D. or Profgrrrrl or Phantom. It's just inevitable. So we found ourselves explaining to Ecowoman that we knew each other through blogging, and that led Ecowoman to a startling confession: she is a blog virgin.

There was only one thing we could do. We sat her down in front of my laptop and ... how can I put this delicately? I showed her my blog.

We convinced her that to be one of the cool kids, to truly fit in with us hip and happening bloggers, she should pose naked and let me post the photo on my blog. I assured her that anyone who is anyone in the blogging world has appeared naked on my blog. I explained to her that since she is over 45, time is running out, and she needed to do this right away. As a bribe, I told her I would let her choose her own pseudonym, a privilege I have never given anyone else.

The photo shoot took a while because for some reason she wanted to pose naked in a small private bathtub instead of the public hot tub filled with professors. People can be sooo inhibited in front of their colleagues. And her call to the front desk to ask for bubble bath got confusing because there were unidentified bloggers in the room talking and laughing while she made the phone call. And we kept offering her pseudonyms that she didn't like. Bathtub Woman? Naked Woman? Biker Broad?

"You call me that," she said, "and I will hunt you down."

It is hard to make a small bathtub look like a big luxurious hot tub. I kept saying, "Try to look relaxed" and she kept saying, "Don’t get my boobs in the shot." But I took the photo, cropped it appropriately, and here it is. Ecowoman is a blog virgin no more.

nude photo

March 23, 2006

Blogger Breakfast

This morning, I stopped at the concierge’s desk for duct tape, taped my "I BLOG" sign to the only rigid object I had handy, which was a comb, and then stood in the hotel lobby holding the sign in the air. (I realize this was not the best way to keep my blog a secret, but I thought the 8:30 am time slot made it safe. One colleague did come wandering through to ask curiously, "Uh, what are you doing?" But then she shrugged and went on her way. See, having the reputation for being weird does have its advantages.)

The sign worked, and soon I was surrounded by a group of women, who had never met each other before but who nonetheless all tried to politely introduce each other each time a new person arrived. That simple act of etiquette, of course, is way more difficult than it sounds. It’s not just a matter of matching the right name to the right face. You have to match the real name to the right pseudonym, which is often different than the name of the blog, and then match that to the right person. It can all get silly quickly. One woman said to me, "Oh, I think I saw you last night. I recognized the back of your head as you got off the elevator."

The cool part is that every blogger I met was what I expected. How satisfying it was to eat a long breakfast with a group of warm, friendly, smart, beautiful, articulate women. Timna. Susan. Marcia. Deb. Angela. Starfish and Coffee. I had been hoping, actually, that at least one person would do something rude or bizarre so that I would have something funny to write about, but no such luck. We were too busy laughing and talking, and finding out the stories behind the blogs.

Who are these women?

blogger breakfast



1) Random women I stopped on the street and paid five bucks to pose for this photo.
2) Seven sisters who meet in Chicago every year for a reunion, who spend hours at breakfast, all talking at once.
3) Women protesting outside a hotel in Chicago, who did not want their faces to appear anywhere on the internet, because several of them are wanted by the FBI.
4) Seven friends who have known each other since high school and take a trip together each spring.
5) Seven bloggers in the same place at the same time.

March 22, 2006

My Dad’s airport story

When my father was growing up, he lived within bike-riding distance of this airport. He says he can remember one of his friends saying, "Hey, I found a great field where we can play football." So a group of them climbed a fence and found themselves in a big nicely mowed field, part of the airstrip. They played many an exciting game there, calling timeout and ducking back into the woods whenever a plane came skimming over their heads. Since WWII was going on, these were military planes.

Some of the pilots would wave at them, but eventually, a man in a military uniform came to ask the kids not to climb the fence and play there any more. New security precautions meant that kids playing football near the runway was no longer allowed. "I think he felt bad about it," my father said, "These military guys were young, and I think they liked watching us play."

Airport memories

This is my hometown airport. The first time I ever came here to get on an airplane was 1981. Twenty years old, I was going to London for the semester. It would be my first plane ride, my first time to Europe, my first time living away from home for four whole months. I was the same age as Princess Diana, and she had just gotten married. I can remember thinking what different lives we led: I was heading to London to be independent, to learn all kinds of new things, to travel, to have rooms opening in all parts of my life. My life was expanding while hers was shutting down as she tried to wedge herself into the narrow role of princess, her life controlled in so many ways by her husband’s family. I felt sorry for her, the beautiful princess with the sadness in her eyes.

The semester in London was wonderful in every way: I saw over thirty plays in the London theatre district, I traveled to Paris, I hung out in pubs with British neighbors, and I walked all over the historic parts of the city. My building was filled with families from Saudi Arabia, business men who treated me like I was invisible and quiet veiled women who acted invisible. I made friends with the crowds of giggling children who roamed the halls, talking in Arabic. The Saudi women and children, none of whom spoke English, adopted me, inviting me into their flats to dance and talk in gestures and eat delicious spicy food. Inside their own rooms, with their veils off and no men around, the women were lively and fun, warm and friendly. To this day, when I overhear someone say something in that harsh, guttural language, the Arabic words bring back warm memories of my semester in London.

Just like Profgrrrrl

I'm blogging from the airport.

Well, not exactly. I'm not online and will probably have to post this when I get to my hotel, but my readers will have to deal with the time lag. THIS COUNTS AS AIRPORT BLOGGING. I am sitting in the airport trying to look bored and casual while typing on my laptop. Really, I feel so sophisticated. I wonder if anyone will look at me and mistake me for Profgrrrrl.

Probably not. I don't look like Profgrrrrl. Or dress like her. And I bet she types faster. I bet she doesn't spill crumbs all over the place while she eats. (In a little while, maybe I'll just move to another seat casually, and leave these crumbs behind.) Of course, the big problem with airport blogging is that it's early in the morning, and the dramamine is kicking in, and I am too zoned out to say anything articulate. But still, now I can say I've done it. I’ve blogged from the airport. One more milestone in my life as a blogger.

March 21, 2006

Weather forecast

Usually, going to a conference in late March gives me a chance to escape the winter weather here. I remember a conference in Phoenix that included swimming in the hotel pool, soaking in the hot sun on the hotel patio, and hiking in the desert in a t-shirt and shorts. I can remember sitting at an outside restaurant in San Antonio a few years ago, savoring the sun on my bare arms. I can remember walking to the botanical gardens in Atlanta, enjoying the feel of a warm wind. March is a nice time to travel to someplace warm and get a taste of spring.

Today, before packing my suitcase, I hopefully checked the weather forecast in the Big Midwestern City Where The Four Seas Conference is Being Held This Week. What did I find? It's snowing there. With temperatures in the 20s.

Oh, well. At least I will feel right at home.

March 20, 2006

Breakfast with Bloggers

Later this week I am heading to the FourSeas Conference in the Big Midwestern City with the Baseball Team that Always Loses. In a fit of technological confidence, I am bringing my laptop computer so that blog readers can hear the wildly exciting things that happen when composition teachers get together to talk about pedagogy. I bet you can hardly wait.

We are planning a blogger meet-up: Thursday morning at 8:30 am in the lobby of the Hotel that Kind of Reminds me of the Titanic. So if you are reading this, and are planning to be in Big Midwestern City with at Least One Very Tall Building, come meet me for breakfast.

I promise to tell stories about other FourSeas Conference. I can tell you about the time I danced with Peter Elbow. Or the time I showed naked photographs of myself at a session. Or the time I made everyone in the audience at my session put on blindfolds. Or the time I got lost wandering around a conference city and ended up at a heavy metal concert. Or the time a bunch of us at a workshop duct-taped ourselves together. Or the time my colleague Poet Friend danced on a table with a red rose between his teeth singing, "I want to have text with you."

Or we can complain about how much we hate grading papers and talk about blogging. Anyhow, here are all the details:

CCCC blogger meet-up
8:30 am Thursday
Lobby of Palmer House

And here is what I look like, so you can find me. I will be wearing jeans and some kind of plain shirt. Maybe a brown blazer if I am seized by a sudden desire to look academic. Send me an email if you need any more details.

backofhead

March 19, 2006

Modern Day Salon

We gathered in the living room, pulling the antique chairs into a circle so that we could hear each other clearly, balancing plates of food in our laps, warming our hands on thick china mugs of hot coffee and tea. Twenty of us altogether, gathering to discuss the Earth Charter, to talk about ways to live responsibly on this earth.

The group included people with all kinds of backgrounds: scientists, writers, activists, artists. A religion professor. A philosophy professor. A plant ecologist. A native elder, chief or spokesperson of the beaver clan. A bereavement counselor. A professional lacrosse player. Members of the local peace movement. Feminists. A woman heavily involved in educating the public about paganism. The director of the community choir. A performance artist.

The gathering included older women wearing long skirts and flowing shirts, a woman in hiking boots and a parka, a young woman in a tight skirt and heels, a woman in a professional-looking suit, women in jeans and sneakers. The outfits the men wore covered a range as well, from the full suit to the casual jeans with a t-shirt.

We spoke one at a time, going around the circle counter-clockwise, as is the native tradition in this area. Each person listened carefully to the words, the discussion, the tangents. We introduced ourselves by talking about our own connection to the landscape.

I said that I had lived here for 44 years – that is, my whole life – and that my family had been here for four generations. I laughed even as I said it because in the scheme of things, that is such a small amount of time. The man sitting next to me, a native elder, said that his family can be traced back 900 years, but he is not sure how how long they have really been here. Anthropologists say that the songs he sings to his grandchildren are over a thousand years old. He told again a story we have heard before, the day in 1989 that wampum belts were returned to his people after a couple of hundred years.

We talked for hours, turning on lamps as it grew dark outside, turning up the heat as the winter chill crept into the old house, re-filling our plates with food again and again. We wrote down names of books and email addresses, tucking bits of information into planners and notebooks. As I gave PlantsWoman a hug goodbye, each of us heading home to daughters home on spring break, we talked about how these conversations need to happen more often. How much we learn from gathering like this, sitting in a respectful circle, sharing food, listening to each other’s stories.

March 17, 2006

Friday Poetry Process Blogging

Every Thursday this semester, I've been taking one poem from my manuscript and revising it. A couple of times, I've posted poems on my blog on Friday to get some feedback, which has been helpful.

So last night, I pulled from my manuscript a poem that needed just a little work, figuring I could put it on my blog today, get some feedback, and then rewrite. I looked at the poem, which I haven't read in a year, and immediately saw some things I wanted to change – really, just a word or two. So I sat on couch with my laptop and began changing a few things. I started picturing what things my blog readers might say, and figured I might as well revise the poem before I even put it up. Soon I was in full revision mode, cutting out lines, moving things around, adding details. And then deleting details. And then adding more.

The poem was written from an experience in Gare Saint Lazare, a train station in Paris. I was traveling with my parents and sister, and we were taking a train to Giverny. As we walked to the station, my sister and I wandered down a side alley. A prostitute was standing in the alley, her make-up way too strong for the early morning sun. She was leaning against a parked cab, smoking a cigarette, and raising her legs up to pull her dark stockings tighter. Something about her pose, the dark legs silhouetted against these old stone arches – such easy grace – and the way she scoffed at us, obvious tourists with cameras around our necks, caught my attention.

The other image comes from inside the train station. For some reason, the station was filled with military men, who all seemed very excited, jabbering in French that I could not follow. Almost everyone was ignoring them, including the herds of school children climbing onto trains. One young man, dressed in camouflage and carrying a weapon, was guarding an empty platform. My parents and sister went off to buy our tickets, and I found myself talking to the young man. I don't speak French very well, but he was obviously flirting with me, and flirting takes little fluency, as most of the meaning is conveyed through body language, eye contact, tone of voice. He flashed white teeth as he smiled, and I smiled back. When my parents returned, we climbed onto the train, and my father, who seemed kind of freaked out, said to me, "Did you see the weapon he was holding? It was a semi-automatic. And his finger was on the trigger, the whole time he was talking to you."

So those are the details in the poem. With some figurative language thrown in. But as I read it over, I began to wonder what the poem was really about – what it says about sexual attraction, about flirting, about the body. And pretty soon I was questioning what the poem was really about anyhow, and why it was in the manuscript. I was looking at the two central images in the poem, two images that resonate with me because they come from my experience, and wondering what the images might mean to anyone else. How do you put a prostitute in a poem and avoid all the cliches? What does it mean to flirt with someone holding a weapon that could kill you instantly? I began to think that the original poem I had put in the manuscript was not at all the poem I wanted it to be, that I had something else to learn from the poem.

I love this process.

I love working with words, moving phrases around, sifting through my memories for other details, reading bits aloud to see how the words work together, playing with language and line breaks. I like freewriting to brainstorm more details, to see what else I have to say that I didn’t even know I wanted to say.

It is a slow, messy process. I didn't get the poem together in time to put it on my blog today. It's all ripped apart, details strewn about the page in untidy heaps. It lies inside my computer, waiting for my return. I love that.

March 16, 2006

Spring break lunch

My daughter, my niece, and I all have the same spring break so yesterday we had a spring break lunch with my parents, who are retired and have all the time in the world for lunches out. With the thought of spring in mind, we had intended to drive out to the lake to a restaurant that has big windows overlooking waves and wildflowers. But since it was cold, windy, and snowing like crazy, we opted instead for lunch at a restaurant in the next town over, a cosy place with a fireplace and big comfy booths.

My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter talked about her classes and her plans to spend a semester in London next year. Schoolteacher Niece, who is in graduate school in the Big City Unlike Any Other City, talked about how much she loves living in the city. We drilled her with questions about her new boyfriend, whom none of us have met yet. My parents reminisced about their experiences in the Big City. We talked about family members not at the table: Boy in Black was just awarded a full merit scholarship for college (apparently going to an interview dressed as Johnny Cash did not hurt him at all), and of course we had to talk about how smart he is, and how handsome, and how wonderful. I come from a family who believe in bragging about other family members, to each other and to anyone who will listen.

We talked about plans for the summer, we talked about what gorgeous hair Shaggy Hair Boy has, we talked about the trip my boys took with my husband in February, we talked about Blonde Niece and how well she has adjusted to school. We ate salads, sandwiches, and french fries, then lingered over coffee and herbal tea. My parents joked about how cheap it is to take three vegetarians to lunch. In the parking lot, I hugged Schoolteacher Niece goodbye, and she promised that I would get to meet the new boyfriend in May. My parents drove my daughter home, while I left for an appointment in another part of town. I knew my mother would call this morning to say how much she enjoyed the lunch and to tell me again how wonderful my daughter is – so poised, so confident, so articulate. Some things I never get tired of hearing.

March 15, 2006

Room for friendship

Although I often refer to my retreats as time alone, I don’t actually go alone. Spending time with my friends is part of the experience. What is funny is that so many of my women friends are introverts, often kind of quiet and shy. I guess opposites attract.

Monking Friend comes with me to the monastery every fall and every spring. What’s nice is that she knows my family and I know hers. When our kids were younger, we both had summers off, and our husbands didn't, so we would leave the husbands home and take the kids camping. Camping together worked out great: Monking Friend, who grew up in the city, always wanted quiet time to be by herself, and she would stay back at the campsite and cook the meals and stuff like that, while I would take off with the eight kids, hiking or swimming. Having eight kids to play with is ideal for an extrovert like me. Our husbands are close friends as well, and they sometimes take a trip to the monastery together for their own retreat.

Nurse Friend, whom I've also known for years, comes with us on retreat every fall. She and I always take the long hike down to the river, just the two of us, to talk about our marriages, to confide in each other about all kinds of things. She is quieter than I am, far more reserved, and she would be horrified if she knew that Brother Joking teases me about the time she and I went skinny dipping last fall. (He saw us hiking up the path with wet hair and figured it out. "I mean, you weren't carrying swimsuits. Just because I'm a monk doesn't mean I don't know how it is.")

Library Woman comes every spring. Like many of my friends, she has children, and we have many conversations about raising teenagers. Her kids are adopted, and last summer, she and her husband took an overseas trip with them so that they could see the country wherer they were born. Generous Woman sometimes comes on retreat with us, if she can break away from her five kids and large extended family, and she is another extrovert like me. On her first trip to the monastery, she made us stop the car so that she could pick up a rock she had found. She said she had asked the monks if she could bring it home. As she got out of the car, I turned to Monking Friend and said incredulously, "She wants to bring that rock home?"

Monking Friend shrugged and said, "She’s no crazier than you are."

Even though a retreat means time alone for early morning hikes, journal writing, and prayer, my days at the monastery also include long and intimate conversations with my friends. It's a time to confide in each other and laugh at ourselves. It's wonderful to have the time for talking, talking without interruption. No children, no telephones, no doorbells. These are the friends I talk to about my marriage and my children, and about my struggles to find a balance in life. I think that is one of my favorite things about the monastery: the peace and quiet creates a safe place for nurturing friendship.

walking

March 14, 2006

The monastery on the hill

monastery

The monastery I go to twice each year for retreat and reflection is a sheep farm. Benedictine monasteries are self-supporting, and this monastery supports itself through a farm, a bookstore, and donations from guests. I took this photo while I was hiking across a sheep pasture. To the left, you can see the huge old barn, more than a century old. In the distance you can see the spire of the chapel, which is built in an octagon shape. Inside is a simple stone altar, rows of high, plain windows, and doors that face in the four directions.

Seven times each day, a monk will untie the rope in the chapel and ring the bell in the steep, calling the monks to prayer. In the early morning and in the evening, the monks wear long black robes, but in the middle of the day, they will arrive in the chapel wearing their work clothes. Brother Tractor will come covered with mud or grease; Brother Joking will have wax all over his arms from candlemaking. Most days, I can hear the bell even out in the sheep pasture. Beyond the chapel are low dark buildings, where the monks work and live.

The white buildings in the middle of the photo are guesthouses. A Benedictine monastery can exist without a chapel, but it cannot exist without a guest room because Benedictines take a vow of hospitality. Although you can’t see them, tucked behind the big barn are two more small guest cottages. Up that hill, if you follow the curving road, you will come to yet another guesthouse, an old farm cottage where guests meet for meals. Many intimate conversations take place at the table in that guest cottage.

Townspeople and guests, some Christian and some not, come to the monastery for rest, reflection, and retreat. Some buy the monastery wool, the honey or the beeswax candles, the apples or the cider. Many will attend services to listen to the monks chant or will descend into the crypt below the chapel to light a candle. Some come for the bookstore, which has a really terrific selection of books. I used to be surprised that a Benedictine monastery would be so willing to stock so many books that are feminist, progressive, and critical of the Catholic Church -- until I met the women from town who run the bookstore and select the books.

For many people in the area, the big barn on the hill is a local landmark, a feature they have known their whole lives. They have grown up with the monastery up on the hill. They’ve come to sheep sheerings on Memorial Day weekend, an event that many townspeople participate in, and they’ve hiked some of the trails around the monastery. Some townspeople will adopt a flower garden on the monastery grounds and care for it from spring until fall. When the wind is right, and they hear the bells toll from the chapel steeple, they know the monks are praying, as they have for decades, gathered in the same place, every day, every week, every year, no matter what the season.

barn

March 13, 2006

Spring cleaning at the monastery

When Monking Friend and I arrived at the monastery on Thursday, the sheep pastures were still covered with snow, with ripples of dried grasses showing gold above the white. But warm winds that night melted much of the snow, and a steady rain the next day released the smell of spring mud. We woke to twittering of spring birds.

A rainy day at the monastery is a good day for spring cleaning. Whether I am hiking across the sheep pastures in a light rain or sitting inside by the fire in the guest cottage, I turn inwards, thinking over the past year, uncovering warm memories, old resentments, and all kinds of things I thought I had forgotten. I put away disappointments and catalog growth. Like any kind of cleaning project, a retreat brings some discoveries, like an old box of childhood memories I thought I had packed away long ago.

Spring cleaning makes creates new spaces inside me, spaces for new experiences, new friendships, new growth. Sometimes it is time to let go of clutter, those old CDs with their negative messages. When I come across a hurtful memory, I analyze it, take it apart, and then sweep the pieces into the fire. I linger over the warm, wonderful memories – I pack them carefully and keep them near the surface for times when I need them to sustain me.

During this retreat, I wrote pages and pages in my journal, pages that I will never show anyone. Writing just for me. Somehow it is always healing to write my feelings out, even if no one will ever read them. The peace of the monastery quiets the chaos of my mind. I walk into the chapel, breathing in the musty smell of incense and descend down the old stone stairs to my favorite spot. Alone down in the crypt, I sit cross-legged on the stone floor in front of the candles and let feelings rise to the surface.

candles

March 09, 2006

On retreat

Anyone who has been reading my blog for more than a year is probably starting to get this sense of dejavu. Because yes, I do the same things in the same way in the same places every year. And anyone who read my blog last March knows that one of my yearly March rituals is a trip to the monastery.

It’s a Benedictine monastery, a cluster of buildings that includes an old stone farmhouse where we will gather with other guests for meals, an octagonal chapel where the monks meet for prayer seven times each day, a big barn full of hay and sheep, and several separate little guest cottages, including the one where Monking Friend and I will stay. The monastery is high in the hills, with a splendid view of sheep pastures and woods.

It is still winter in this part of the country, and the sheep pastures will be drifted in white. I’ll build a fire in the guest cottage, and pull the comfy chair up to the big window that faces south, and take a nap in the sun. The most wonderful part of being at the monastery is the relaxation of doing nothing in particular. I might go for a hike with Brother Beekeeper, or wander through the sheep barns, or take a walk with Monking Friend. I might take some pictures with my digital camera. I might write in my journal or read a book. I might visit the bookstore that smells of beeswax candles. I might walk into the chapel, breathing in the musty smell of incense, and climb down the long stone staircase to the crypt, a room lit by the glow of hundreds of votive candles. I will have five days to myself, to do whatever I feel like doing at that particular moment. I can pray or read or meditate. I can sit in the comfy chair for hours and watch snow fall.

I will think of you, my blogging friends, during these quiet hours of peace.

March 08, 2006

Women's history

Whenever we talk about sexism, my students want to leap quickly to the feel-good stories about how far we've come. That is the kind of stuff you hear so often during March, women's history month. We've come a long way, baby. I suppose if you are thinking back just a few generations, the narrative about how much better things are for women is perfectly true.

The white women who lived in this area about 150 years ago, women who were descendents of European immigrants, had virtually no political power: they could not vote, they could not sue anyone, they could not testify in court. A married woman could not own property. The church, the state, and the social order dictated that a married woman be submissive to her husband, who was within his rights to beat her if she disobeyed him. And as much as I complain now about the ways that high heels cause women today permanent damage to their feet, legs, and lower backs, the socially mandated corset was far worse, a garment that meant that women could not even take a deep breath, a garment that contributed to a woman's chances of dying in childbirth. A man had all rights to his children: a dying man could choose that his children be taken from their mother upon his death and given to another woman to raise.

Of course, these white women were not the only women who lived in this area. Native women lived here too at that time. And when those white women looked at the lives of the native women who lived here, they were no doubt surprised at what they saw.

The native women participated fully in the decision-making in their community. They spoke up at meetings, they took full part in the spiritual ceremonies of the clan, and they had leadership roles. Property was held in common by all, women and men alike. Clan mothers and chiefs worked together to share the responsibility of keeping the community in balance, in harmony. Power was shared: the concept of power-over was not part of the social structure. Women could be healers, using the traditional ecological knowledge passed down over generations. Midwives attended births, used herbs for abortions, taught women to know and care for their bodies. Even the clothing the women wore – comfortable leggings that enabled them to run, to garden, or to do all kinds of physical tasks – was enviable.

Many male missionaries were horrified at the autonomy of native women. Certainly, their freedom and independence indicated that the native community was unnatural, heretical, blasphemous. Just plain wrong.

Some of the missionary’s wives, no doubt, looked at the way the native women lived – and were envious.

Some historians have said that for some of these white women, contact with native women helped spark that realization, that vision, that women did not have to live beneath men. And these white women did begin to organize, to assert themselves, to change the political and social structures that kept them in subordination to men.

So yeah, if I look back at the white women who lived here 150 years ago, I can feel good about how far we've come, how much more freedom and independence my daughter will have compared to them. But if I look at the lives of native women in this area, how they lived hundreds of years ago, a way of living that of course was attacked fiercely by the powers of patriarchy, I can see that we are still just playing catch up, still trying to throw off the legacy and the myth of white male supremacy.

Our daughters are taught this myth repeatedly: we’ve come a long way, baby. But I think we need to be suspicious of a slogan used successfully to convince women that they, too, could ruin their lungs with cigarettes. The view of history as a linear progression in which things are always getting better for women is a dangerous one.

The longer view shows a different story. We still have a long ways to go just to gain back what we've lost. There is nothing here to feel good about.

This will sort of give away my geographic location, but I am too much of an academic not to cite at least one of my sources for the facts I've include in this blog post: a book called Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee Influence on Early American Feminists by Sally Roesch Wagner.

March 07, 2006

Man in Black

The house seems quiet today. Boy in Black is gone for three days, off at a college that invited him to campus to compete for a scholarship.

He was not nervous about the high-pressure interviews. His shyness is curiously specific. Talking to a girl his own age can make him stammer, blush, and lapse into complete silence. But being grilled by a handful of college professors does not frighten him in the least. No, the most difficult part of the process for Boy in Black was the realization he would have to dress up for the interviews.

For awards ceremonies and interviews, most kids here wear khaki pants with a white or light blue shirt. That seems to be the standard dress code. But Boy in Black has always chosen to wear black -- black dress pants, a black dress shirt, and a red-and-black tie. Since he has shaggy dark hair, dark eyes with long black lashes, and skin that always looks tan, black is a good choice for him.

He keeps growing, though, so we had to go buy a pair of new black pants. Yes, that sounds simple. But it was not. There is one person in this world who hates shopping more than me, and it's Boy in Black. The worst part is that because he is very tall and thin, he is hard to fit and that means he actually has to try on the pants. Yes, that's right. His evil mother actually insists that he go into the dressing room and put the pants on. Worst, she makes him walk out of the dressing room and show her the pants. Clearly, she just likes to torture him. What mother would do such a thing to her son?

Boy in Black's shopping strategy is to buy the very first pair of pants he tries on, so that he won't have to try on any more. So here is the kind of conversation we have.

Me: (yelling into the dressing room) Do they fit?
Him: Yeah, they're good.
Me: Come out so I can see them on you.
Him: (deep sigh)
Me: Let me see.
Him: See? They're fine. Let's go.
Me: Fine? They are several inches too short. I can see your socks!
Him: They're good enough. Let's go.
Me: Take your hands out of the pockets.
Him: But this is how I normally stand.
Me: The waist is too big. This is not the right size at all.
Him: They're okay.
Me: Not. even. close. Let me get you a different size.
Him: How long is this going to take?
Me: THOSE PANTS DON'T FIT YOU AT ALL.
Him: You wanted me to try a pair on and I did.
Me: Here, try this pair.
Him: But I already tried a pair on.

Eventually, we did find a pair that fit him perfectly. At home, after much prodding, I convinced him to try on the interview outfit. Since he wears the same clothes every day – black band t-shirt, black hoodie, and black zip-off pants – it was a shock to see him dressed up, so tall and thin, looking like a man instead of a teenage boy. But he looked terrific. I felt relieved that he had a decent outfit to wear to the interviews.

Then I saw the movie Walk the Line, and that is when I realized what I had done.

I sent my kid off to an important interview dressed like Johnny Cash.

March 05, 2006

Snowboarding drunk

Every Saturday night during snowboard season, I try to convince the gang of teenagers at my house that they should go to bed at a decent hour since we get up very early to get to the ski slopes. They are always horrified at this kind of talk. "But it’s not a school night!"

"Remember," I always say to them, "snowboarding tired is like snowboarding drunk."

None of my children worry much about snowboard injuries, but I do. When I look down from the chairlift and see the ski patrol in their bright red outfits go by with an injured person on the red toboggan, I strain to see what colour coat the injured person is wearing, to make sure nothing has happened to one of my gang. I don't want my fears to prevent my children from enjoying sports like snowboarding, but I make them take precautions. They wear helmets, they take lessons for the first few years, and I try to make sure they don't snowboard when they are overtired.

I tell them that more snowboarding injuries happen when you are tired. And I have statistics to back that up. Most injuries happen on the last run of the day. The kids scoff at this information. Boy in Black explained to me patiently, "Of course, the injury happens on the last run of the day. Because once you've got a broken wrist, you aren't likely to take another run."

Boy in Black has seen injuries – as one of the more expert boarders in the terrain park, he will race down to call ski patrol when something happens. And he is a good role model who makes the younger kids wear their helmets and obey safety rules. But he also led the gang in teasing me about my fears. They are obligated to tease me because they are teenagers, and teasing Mom is what teenagers do best. During every lunch at the ski lodge, I heard my words repeated back to me, with all of them chiming in at the end. "Snowboarding tired is like ... SNOWBOARDING DRUNK."

Sweet Funny Extra, a high school senior who sometimes joined us for lunch, mocked the comparison. "Yeah, being overtired is just exactly like being drunk. I didn't get much sleep the other night, and I was overtired, and next thing I knew I was waking up on the floor in a pool of vomit, with some naked girl next to me, wondering where I was."

Then he shook his head, "All because I was overtired."

March 04, 2006

Photo of my mother

My parents, who are in their mid-seventies, do some kind of outside activity every single day. In the winter, they cross-country ski or snowshoe, sometimes in the woods behind their house but often in any of the beautiful parks in this area. In the fall, they have a bicycle-built-for-two that they ride along the flat path that runs along the Famous Canal here in Snowstorm region. People who are at the canal walking their dogs or jogging will often stop to talk to them and ask them about the tandem bike. Up at camp in the summer, they canoe and sail and swim in the river. In any season, they like to hike, often walking trails they have walked many times. Since my father has lived here his whole life, he knows the natural areas by heart.

Now that he has a digital camera, my father has started taking the camera with him on their hikes. He will email me a photo and ask, "Can you tell where this shot was taken?" And of course, I do always know. I've lived here for almost 45 years, and I've hiked these same places many times, sometimes with my parents.

When I look at the photo below, I recognize the landscape immediately. I know just where my Dad was standing as he took the shot. The walk they took goes up high above the canal, up the hill of dirt created by the digging of the canal years ago, up to a spot where you can look across the landscape at the woods and meadows and big sections of houses that have mostly been built in my lifetime. And of course, even if the photo hadn't come from my father, I would know immediately that the person walking down the hill back to the car, enjoying the cold winter air and thinking about the cup of hot tea she will be having when she gets home, is my mother.

hillwalk

March 03, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging

Here is a Mary TallMountain poem that my students usually love.

Matmiya

for my grandmother

I see you sitting
Implanted by roots
Coiled deep from your thighs
Roots, flesh red, centuries pale.
Hairsprings wound tight
Through fertile earthscapes
Where each layer feeds the next
Into depths immutable.
Though you must rise, must
Move large and slow
When it is time, O my
Gnarled mother-vine, ancient
As varnished ages,
Your spirit remains
Nourished,
Nourishing me.

I see your figure wrapped in skins
Curved into a mound of earth
Holding your rich dark roots.
Matmiya,
I see you sitting.

Mary TallMountain

And this is the way I grade the papers

Yesterday, I devoted my whole morning to grading papers. And I am still puzzled as to why I did not get them done. I did not procrastinate at all. I did nothing but grade papers all morning. Well, nothing except:

1. Took a photo of my son walking out to the school bus. But that does not count as procrastination because I took it before I even got dressed. I snapped it from the bedroom window.
2. Wrote a blog post. But that hardly counts because it was short.
3. Sent a few emails. But some were to students, which means that they count as work. See, that was me being productive.
4. Cleaned the kitchen. Because I can grade faster in a clean house.
5. Made a lettuce and peanut butter sandwich. Because I cannot grade on an empty stomach.
6. Talked to my mother on the telephone. Not my fault, she called me. I can’t not talk to my mother, can I?
7. Read just a few blogs. Hardly any at all. But knowing that other bloggers are grading papers too helps me to grade. Misery loves grading!
8. Watered the plants. Because how can I grade papers when my plants look thirsty and pathetic? They are living things that must be taken care of.
9. Built a fire in the fireplace. Because I can’t grade papers if my fingers are cold.
10. Lured my husband home for sex. I mean, lunch. Yeah, he came home for lunch. Besides, I can grade faster if I have just had sex. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that.
11. Made popcorn. Because Pilgrim says popcorn helps her grade papers, and I believe her.
12. Made lemonade. Frozen. To go with the popcorn. It does not take much time to make frozen lemonade. It's not like I was cutting up lemons and making it from scratch.
13. Took just a few minutes to delete the hundreds of emails that pile up in my inbox. Because I can't grade papers with all those emails hanging over my head.
14. Answered some emails when I realized that I had friends who were probably waiting to hear from me. I can't grade papers when I am feeling guilty.
15. Took a very short nap on the couch. Our couch is a comfy place to nap, and I can’t grade papers when I am sleepy.
16. Stared out the window at the snow. Because soon spring will be gone, and it's important to appreciate the snow while we have it, right?
17. Listened to some music. To get me in the mood for grading papers.
18. Danced a little. To get my circulation going. Oh, I could have used this same reasoning for number 10, couldn't I have? Good circulation is very important when grading papers. Poor circulation leads to snarky comments that are not very professor-like.
19. Read comments that popped up on my blog, which led to me surfing a few blogs. Just to see what was going on in the blog community. No different than saying hello to a neighbor who might walk by. I can’t ignore the people who comment on my blog, can I?
20. Took the papers out of my backpack and found the right pen to use. It's very important to have just the right pen when I grade papers.

So like I said, I got right to the task immediately. And this left me about thirty minutes to grade papers before the school bus arrived with With-a-Why and Neighbor Girl. I still don't know where my time went.

March 02, 2006

Early light

One of the most difficult things about winter is the way that darkness begins early in the evening and then lingers past the ringing of our alarm clock. It is hard to climb out of a warm bed into the cold dark, the window panes acting like mirrors that show a grouchy woman tripping over cats who swarm about her ankles, demanding to be fed. During the middle of the winter, we eat breakfast in the dark, and it is still dark when With-a-Why walks out to the school bus.

When I was a kid, I hated waiting for the school bus in the dark and cold, my legs getting numb as the wind hurled snow at legs protected only by green kneesocks. I didn’t like the rush of cars going past in the slush, the glare of their headlights making it impossible to see if the people in them were neighbors I knew or strangers who might stop and say something weird to me.

My children do not walk very far to get the school bus, and they have reflective strips on their coats and backpacks so that the stray car that comes down this country road can see them. But still, it is a relief when the days get longer. Today I noticed that when With-a-Why walked out to wait for the school bus, the front yard was filled with blue light, sunshine highlighting snow on the tree branches, morning sunshine just ready to pour into the yard and melt the snow. Another sign that we are moving toward spring.

waitingforbus

March 01, 2006

March, at last

All month I kept saying to my students, "Can you believe it is STILL February?"

I think they were getting sick of me saying it.

So today they kept saying things like, "Hey, February is over! See, we told you it wouldn't last forever!"

March is a wonderful month. March will include spring break, a whole week when I can stay home by the fire with my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter. March will include a four-day trip to the monastery, a long weekend of peace and quiet. March will include a conference trip to the Big Midwestern City that has a Great Art Institute and Two Baseball Teams, One of Which is Famous for Always Losing. Conferences are always great for meeting up with old friends, making new friends, learning new things, and exploring a city. March includes Saint Patrick’s Day, a day much celebrated in my part of the country, a day that brings back many happy childhood memories. March includes the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is positioned over the equator, a time when balance seems possible.

We will get snow in March, of course. Some of our biggest blizzards come this time of year. In March of 1993, we got four feet of snow in a 24-hour period. But in March, we will also start getting some warm weather, sunshine that will melt the snow pretty quickly.

And on an evening near the end of March, probably around the 26th or so, we will get a warm evening when I will walk outside my front door and hear the sound of spring peepers. And that's the sure sign of spring.