April 30, 2006

Napping

On Sunday afternoons, the teenagers and kids in the house, already tired from playing music into the early hours of the morning, will play a few hours of ultimate frisbee or basketball in the fresh air, and then come back into the house for food and drink. By late afternoon, I’ll find sleeping bodies all over the place – often on the floor, looking like they were attacked by aliens and just fell limp. The lucky ones get the comfy couch. Skater Boy and Shaggy Hair Boy will burrow into the cushions, putting pillows over their heads to shut out the bright sunlight and sleep there, oblivious, even while people around them are making food, playing the piano, or running the vacuum cleaner. The ability to sleep anywhere any time is a skill that we value in this household.

naps

April 29, 2006

When my youngest is sick

My youngest child, With-a-Why, has been home for the last few days with a bad cold and cough. He’s been droopy and lethargic and feverish. With-a-Why normally acts like a teen-ager, eager to hang out with his older brothers and their friends, but when he is sick, he reverts to his little boy self and clings to me. With his cheeks flushed red and his big eyes dark, he will snuggle next to me in bed and beg for me to read him a book.

The end of the week brought the usually shuffle of childcare arrangements, the kind of juggling of schedules that we’ve done for twenty years now. We couldn’t send a sick child to school. Thursday, I stayed home and Spouse came home on his lunch hour to spell me so that I could go to a meeting. And Boy-in-Black stayed home from school on Friday to take care of his little brother. Yes, it’s true, that when a younger child is sick, we will use an older sibling as a babysitter. I suspect the school frowns on this – well, I more than suspect since they send home stern notes reminding parents that it is illegal – but I have always admired the way the my Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy-in-Black have been willing to shoulder the responsibility of younger siblings. And it’s pretty clear from their academic successes that an occasional day off to nurture a younger brother has not hurt either of them.

Today, though, I’ve been able to give my youngest my full attention. I’ve spent the day up in our bedroom, cozily under the down quilt, propped up with many pillows, reading to With-a-Why and getting him fresh glasses of ginger ale whenever he asked. We finished The Golden Compass and am now almost to the end of The Subtle Knife. Sometimes between chapters, With-a-Why will sleep a little, and then I open up my laptop and do a little work. Or in this case, write a blog post.

It’s nice to have one child who is still a little kid. As I am writing this, he is curled up next to me, half asleep, his long black eyelashes shut against his pale skin. When he wakes up, we will read the next chapter, and maybe talk a little about our favorite characters. He’s already read the book on his own, so I will tease him to tell me how it ends, but he will never reveal anything.

So that’s pretty much all I’ve done today – cuddle my youngest child and read a book. But it’s been a good day.

April 28, 2006

Buckets of Mud

You could call it a beauty ritual or a bonding experience. Or perhaps it is an ancient rite that comes with no explanation. It happens usually when my extended family are gathered at camp for Memorial Day Weekend, when the river water is still icy cold.

My daughter and her cousins gather at the dock, stripped down to bathing suits and sandals, sprawled out on the wooden planks to feel spring sunshine on bare skin. They talk, and laugh, and very rarely lie still. Schoolteacher Niece will stretch her body out against a beach towel to bathe in the sun, but within minutes, she will sit up to join the conversation, her voice rising excitedly over her gesturing arms, her corn silk hair swishing as she talks. Our dock is a private place, surrounded by acres and acres of green gold cattails.

Blonde Niece and my Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter grab a bucket from one of the boats and begin filling it with muck from the marsh, scooping up handfuls of decayed organic material, that rich compost of cattails and water lilies and marsh weeds. They dump handfuls on their heads, rubbing it into their long hair, the streaks of mud running down their bare skin. They giggle and squirm as they put the mud on each other. "It’s cold!"

Blonde Niece, her long hair covered with dark mud, sits cross-legged on the dock, facing the sun, letting the mud dry against her scalp and neck. For a few moments, everyone is silent, bathed in mud, soaking the marsh sun into their skin and hair. Cattails ripple, a snake swims quietly under the floating weeds, and bird song mixes with the soft thuds the sailboat makes as it bumps against the tires that hang from the dock post. Marsh mud smells wonderful, like dried grasses or rich compost.

Later they wash the mud from their hair. Daughter kneels on the dock, dumping buckets of marsh water over her heads. Blonde Niece swims in the shallow water, ignoring the cold, splashing through the layers of silty mud, and emerging covered in muck. My method is lie down on the dock on my stomach and lean far enough to plunge my whole head into the water, swishing my hair around in the clear water near the surface. It’s cool to stare upside down at the underside of the dock, but when I stand up, cold water trickles down my neck.

What does the mud do to hair? Who knows? But unlike commercial beauty products, it remains out of the cycle of consumerism. It comes with no wasteful packaging, no expensive transportation costs, no dangerous toxins. After the mud treatment, the teenagers brush their hair in the sun, their arms curved over their heads, the silky strands swishing blonde or red or brown in the sunlight, everyone talking lazily in the spring sunshine.

April 27, 2006

And the word is MUDDY

My students, who ironically don’t even know I have a blog, are the ones who came up with the idea of Poetry Fridays in my classroom, which led to Friday Poetry Blogging. And then Mona expanded the idea into an orgy of creativity. Each week she has been inviting a blogger to hand out a word on Thursday, just one word that can stimulate creativity, and then anyone who wants to join the orgy by posting poetry, freewrites, photographs, songs, prose, or anything that can fit into a blog post on Friday. This week, she asked me to choose the word.

So, if you would like to join in, the word this week is MUDDY.

Go ahead. Do with it what you want. And the post it tomorrow.

April 26, 2006

Wednesday Extra Kid Blogging

pink toenails

Sweet Funny Extra and Boy-in-Black became friends on the first day of seventh grade.

That was the year that Boy-in-Black began setting things on fire. It was a year of record snowfall, and all winter long, we had at least a foot of snow on the ground and a foot of snow on the roof. So I felt comfortable letting the gang of seventh graders head out into the back yard at night armed with structures made of paper bags, newspaper, and duct tape. They would have a contest to see who could make the structure that would burn the faster. Later they advanced to candles, bug spray, action figures, lighter fluid, model rocket engines, and gasoline.

The indoor fire game involved the kind of white socks all the boys wear. If the socks are old and worn, with threads hanging off them, you can light a match to the sock and watch flame dance all over your foot.

Sweet Funny Extra was always an enthusiastic participant in these scientific experiments. He used to love playing with the boxes of dress-up clothes we had in the garage; in seventh grade, he was small enough to wear all the prom dresses. His Friday night tradition used to be to put on a dark blue dress, crank up Shania Twain’s I feel Like a Woman, and dance.

A senior in high school now, Sweet Funny Extra is a snowboarder who joins us at our table in the ski lodge on snowboarding Sundays. He hits the jumps pretty aggressively – I only catch glimpses of him as he flies past, doing all kinds of tricks. On the school soccer team since seventh grade, he is a fiercely competitive soccer player. And as you can see from this photo, he wears pink nail polish on his toes.

April 25, 2006

Next time won't you sing with me

ABC meme

I would link to the dozens of blogs I’ve seen this on, but I don’t have the energy to trace this one to its origin. That is the cool thing about memes, I guess. Someone writes them originally, but eventually, they take on a life on their own.

Accent: Yes, I have a Snowstorm Region accent. When I travel, people are always asking me to repeat myself.

Booze: Southern Comfort. Or Scotch. But I have not had a drink in over twenty years. Unless you count all the virtual ones over at Pilgrim’s bar.

Chore I Hate: Laundry. Because it never gets done. Unless you make everyone in the household get naked and stay naked until all the laundry is put away, there is always more. I especially hate trying to sort out all the white stuff – white socks in six different sizes and none of them ever match. I never minded washing diapers actually, because that at least that was a whole load of stuff that did not need to be sorted. All the items were exactly the same. Anyhow, I hate this chore so I never choose it. Spouse does the laundry.

Dog or Cat: Cat. I like dogs but I don’t respect them. They obey humans, a dreadfully stupid trait. Cats, on the other hand, are independent. They obey no one. And if they don’t like something, they hiss and let you know it.

Essential Electronics: None are essential. When I go camping in the summer, I realize this.

Favorite Cologne: I hate most colognes and perfumes. Strong ones, like the Chanel perfumes, actually make me feel kind of sick. When I was a little kid, we would sometimes sit in church behind these older women who would wear strong perfume and I would sometimes end up fainting. I do use essential oils for reiki – these are pure extracts from such things as lavender or ginger – and I love those scents.

Gold or Silver: Gold. The colour of leaves in the fall.

Hometown: Traintrack Village, just outside Snowstorm City. Yes, I live just a few miles from the house I grew up in. My parents live there still.

Insomnia: Rarely. Unless I end up drinking caffeine by mistake.

Job Title: Mom. Well, that’s my main job. I also have this college professor gig on the side.

Kids: Four. Plus a whole bunch of extras.

Living arrangements: I live with my husband and kids and seven cats in a house on a deadend street in a rural area just outside Traintrack Village.

Most admirable traits: Smart, self-confident, persistent.

Number of sexual partners: One

Overnight hospital stays: None. Well, not when I was a patient. I have spent nights in the hospital sitting in a chair next to someone else who was sick or dying. My grandmother. My aunt. An elderly neighbor. My husband when he had a kidney stone.

Phobias: None, I guess. I mean, phobias are irrational fears, and my fears are completely rational. I am afraid of heights, for instance, but that makes sense. People get hurt when they fall from heights! The funny thing is that I have no fear of heights when I hike in the northeast because I am comforted when I look down from a cliff and see the tops of trees. I am scared to death of heights when I am in the southwest because there are no trees. My fear of heights has not prevented me from doing cool things like rock climbing. I am fine jumping off a cliff as long as I have a rope.

Quote: "Naturally the common people don't want war . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or parliament or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” -Hermann Goering, (1893-1946) Nazi Reichsmarschall, at the Nuremberg Trials, 4/18/46. From *Nuremberg Diary* by Gustave Gilbert

Religion: Grew up Roman Catholic. Am still sorting out what I am now. If you’ve read Kathleen Norris or Sue Monk Kidd, you might have some idea about my spiritual leanings.

Siblings: Three sisters and one brother.

Time I wake up: 6 am. Or sometimes earlier. Even on weekends.

Unusual talent or skill: I can wash my hair with just one bucket of water. (This skill was taught to me by Blonde Sister, who perfected the technique over many years of camping.)

Vegetable I love: Broccoli. Cooked in garlic sauce and served over rice.

Worst habit: Picking fights over trivial things and avoiding what is really bothering me.

X-rays: Of my teeth! When I was a kid and went to the orthodontist. But then in my later years, I can remember that I was always turning down x-rays because it seems like I was always pregnant.

Yummy foods I make: Lentil stew. Vegetable soup. Vegan chocolate cake.

Zodiac sign: Taurus. People who know stuff about astrology always guess right away that I am a Taurus. Something about me being stubborn and bull-headed.

April 23, 2006

First Green

somegreen

After a few days of warm sunshine and a full day of cold rain, I pulled on my boots and tramped through the puddles in my woods to see what changes the spring-like weather had brought. A misty green has crept across the landscape – wild grasses pushing their way up through mud, tiny leaves unfolding on bushes, whole patches of mayflower leaves bright against dead brown leaves. The mosses, which soak in rain the way my teenagers soak in music, are lush and soft, brilliantly green.

Most of the trees are still bare, the lines of their branches and trunks reflecting in the dark puddles, but the woods is filled with an adolescent energy, an expectancy. I can feel the currents as I walk through puddles and climb over fallen logs. Leaves and stems are just waiting to burst open, burst forth. I love the edge of spring, that moment balanced in time just before lush foliage fills the sky.

firstgreen

April 22, 2006

Cold and Rain for Earth Day

On our campus, we don’t just celebrate Earth Day, we have an Earth Week; students plan seven days of events designed to raise awareness about environmental issues. And today, on Earth Day itself, a student club I advise gathered for their annual meeting.

The weather was not ideal: a cold rain that kept turning to snow, and gale force winds. But despite the icy wetness, the day began with students heading outside to pick up trash.

cleanup

The afternoon included writing letters of protests to our representatives.

letterwriting

And a collaborative art project.

artproject

We had food, of course, and music – mostly guitars and singing. We built bird houses.

The students held a serious discussion in which the outgoing seniors talked with the younger students about the history of the group and their vision for the future. They talked about different types of activism, and which types they felt comfortable with. Many kept saying that they want to figure out ways to avoid debates because the debate format just gets people more entrenched in the ideas they already hold. One young woman said she sees no purpose to arguments in which neither side is listening to the other, and students nodded in agreement. They talked about ways to make connections between campus and community, and to connect peace issues to environmental issues.

Despite the howling wind and the rain that kept pouring down outside, the students were upbeat and confident, and the room was filled with warm energy as they made plans for the future.

April 21, 2006

Mourning Poem

My father-in-law died on a sunny April day very much like today, eight years ago. So for Friday poetry blogging, I am posting this poem for him.

PETALS

I wanted to erase the smell
of rubber sheets, the hiss of leaking

oxygen. The gasps of a man
who could no longer breathe.

So on the morning of his father’s funeral,
I seduced my husband.

His father was a broken man. I remember the way
his eyes looked at me as if he saw inside of me.

Strange how invisible people
are able to see each other.

My mother-in-law made him
watch weepy television shows.

At every saccharine line
he would wink at me.

"These shows," he said once, "are a good argument
for sex and violence on television."

My mother-in-law didn’t hear him.
She was never listening.

When my sister-in-law watched her soap opera,
he and I were banished to the kitchen.

I sometimes forget he’s not there still
hunched on a kitchen chair, cigarette in hand.

My husband kept talking about the church service,
the limo, the coffin, the flowers.

But the waves of grief had washed
my body clean. My wet hair hung

in musky strands. I wanted to celebrate
his father’s love for flowers.

The red matador tulips he had
given me, pushing their way through earth.

The blue forget-me-nots his garden had seeded.
The silky smell of rose petals.

I knew his widow was saying the rosary,
his daughter searching for the blackest dress.

My husband asked: do you think we should
be doing this? I mean, on our way to a funeral?

I rubbed my hair across his chest
touched his thighs lightly.

Yes, I said. Yes.
I know your father would approve.

Joni Mitchell for Friday Poetry Blogging

Well, Jeremiah said the word was Carousel this week, but when I tried to write something, a Joni Mitchell song came into my head. And it seemed especially appropriate this week, so I am posting the lyrics here.

The Circle Game
Joni Mitchell

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

April 20, 2006

Peaceful death

On Easter morning, I woke up early and, for some reason, kept thinking about the Benedictine monastery where I go for retreat. I looked through the photos I had taken there, and put one up on my blog. Always, I feel peaceful when I think about the monastery, and my monk friends who gather for prayer seven times each day, seven days each week, all year around.

This morning I found out that one of the monks, Brother Clarence, died in his sleep on Easter morning. Clarence is both a pseudonym and a nickname – my friends and I called him Clarence because he looked and talked just exactly like guardian angel character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. This death was not expected. When I was at the monastery in March, he was in good health, giving a sermon at Mass and talking to guests in the gift shop. He was 75 years old, the same age as my father. And even though he looked like the bumbling Clarence character, he was one of the intellectual and well-travelled monks. When he gave sermons, he would often talk about his travels in the Middle East and ancient philosophies he studied.

Today I am thinking of the handful of monks who live in community at the monastery, and what it must mean to them to lose someone they’ve known for so many years. I am thinking of my friend Brother Beekeeper, who entered the monastery the fall of 1960. He and Brother Clarence lived together in that small community all of my life. The community of monks are getting pretty elderly, and this is of course not the first death in recent years. I was at the monastery one fall weekend a few years ago when Brother Eyepatch died. I can remember that Brother Beekeeper knocked on the door of the guest cottage I was staying at, and we went for a long hike together.

When I put photos of the monastery grounds on my blog, I usually post a photo of the barn, or the sheep fields, or the candles in the crypt. Those are the things that I am connected to spiritually – the hills, the farm, the muddy fields, the flames. But Brother Clarence was a priest, and the chapel was the center of his life. He entered the monastery in 1951 and he prayed in this chapel seven times a day for 55 years.

The chapel at Mount Saviour is beautifully simple: it’s built in the shape of an octogon, with stone floors, a simple stone altar, and four doorways that face in the four directions. Sunlight comes in through the rows of windows high up, and a rope hangs down from the bell. Wooden pews circle around the stone altar. Brother Clarence was buried yesterday in the little cemetery just outside the chapel. Here is a photo of that chapel, the place where he worshipped, and the sky above it.

chapel

April 19, 2006

Reading Aloud

When my children were little, I read to them pretty often, sometimes during quiet afternoons but more often at night, while snuggled in their beds just before it was time for them to sleep. Of course, I chose all my favorite childhood books. As my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter got older, she would take turns reading sometimes, especially when we were camping, all of us lying together on the floor of the tent while she bent over a book with a flashlight.

As my children have gotten older, they've developed their own taste in books, moving away from all the books I've bought and choosing ones of their own. I've never read much science fiction or fantasy, but my kids have read quite a bit. And it’s cool that my kids are old enough to recommend books to me.

Recently, With-a-Why has been choosing books he loves and reading them to me at night before he goes to sleep. We read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster as his insistence. He loves that book. He is also convinced that I need to read some Phillip Pullman, because he loved the whole His Dark Materials trilogy. So this week, we have been reading a few chapters of The Golden Compass aloud. Sometimes I read, while he snuggles up to me with his special pillow and stuffed dog, and sometimes I relax against the pillows and let him read to me. It's not a book I would have read on my own, but I have to admit that I am enjoying it.

That's one of the coolest things about parenting – how quickly the learning becomes reciprocal.

April 18, 2006

Forty years

The new leaves have not unfolded yet, which means on a sunny day like this, my house fills with sunshine. How wonderful to have spring here at last. I did what work I had to do early and then spent the rest of the morning turning over the soil in one of my vegetable gardens, enjoying the feel of sun on my bare forearms. But it seemed too nice of a day to spend alone, so when I sat to rest on the back step, I grabbed the cordless telephone from inside the house.

For an hour, I relaxed in the sun and talked to Kindergarten Friend, someone I have been friends with for forty years. We met in kindergarten and went to school together all the way through until twelfth grade. For years, we spent every Friday night at her house or my house, doing all kinds of silly projects. One time we made bird nests out of dried grasses and mud, dozens of them, and then put them carefully up in the branches of the willow tree on my parents’ front lawn. We also knitted a scarf together, each of us knitting on one end, and sometimes when we went rollerskating on the streets of Railroad Village, the scarf would dangle between us as we tried to knit and rollerskate at the same time. These were the old metal rollerskates that attached to your sneaker: roller blades had not been invented yet. On smooth pavement, they worked well but on rougher pavement, they would vibrate like crazy, until you could feel your teeth knocking together.

We were always making forts. Whole houses from piles of leaves in the fall, snow forts in the winter, and sometimes an indoor fort created by emptying everything out of my parents’ coat closet. In the basement at her house, we created huge forts from old bedsheets and clothes pins, pinning the sheets to furniture and to each other, to create tent-like rooms. We used a complicated system of yarn and duct tape to control everything in the room – we could sit in one place and turn lights on and off, open and shut doors. All of this long before remote controls had been invented.

These memories always come flooding back when I talk to Kindergarten Friend. We catch each other up on family news, since we know each other’s siblings and parents. We talk about our kids. Her husband is someone who went to school with us, so I’ve known him since about kindergarten too – although there were long stretches of time in elementary school when I was too shy talk to boys so naturally I don’t know him as well. Her mother used to teach in the school that With-a-Why goes to – and had both my older kids for fourth grade.

The nice thing about this friendship is that when I talk to Kindergarten Friend, things are always still the same. Oh, we get older, and our siblings do crazy stuff, and her father died, and the world around us changes, but our friendship stays the same. When we talk about her camp in the mountains, a place on a gorgeous lake, she tells me that they have added a new building. I can’t wait to go see this new fort she’s building.

April 17, 2006

Family traditions

Yesterday’s Easter celebration included dinner at my mother’s house. When the family gets together, we spend most of our time eating and talking. A new tradition this year was sending cell phone photos to my niece in the City, who is in grad school and couldn't make it home for the holiday. For some reason this tradition also included family members in the living room making cell phone calls to family members in the kitchen, about ten feet away. I think we have way too many college students in the family.

Other older traditions include:

Looking through my mother’s photo albums, to laugh at pictures of cousins as babies and toddlers.

Looking at photos

Music entertainment. Here we have Boy in Black on the guitar. His imitations included Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' and Johnny Cash doing Hurt, which is a Nine Inch Nails song. Perhaps that is why he is wearing dark glasses.

Music on Easter

A walk. It was sunny and cool, and always this time of year, it takes effort not to get your sneakers wet. Here, With-a-Why and his aunt balance on a stepping stone.

Balancing

Quiet moments. Here I am near the end of the afternoon, looking out over the lake, on a walk at a nearby state park.

Staring into the lake

April 16, 2006

Peace

I wake up early, before anyone else, and take a moment to sit on the comfy couch with my laptop computer. Plastic eggs filled with candy are hidden all over the house, bits of bright color winking at me under lamp shades and behind curtains. My children are getting pretty old for the traditional Easter egg hunt, but when I suggested abandoning it this year, With-a-Why turned his big brown eyes on me, and next thing I knew, I was on my way to the store to buy candy. Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why are both sticklers for tradition; they feel comforted by the familiar rituals done every year, the same way, the same time.

When my kids were little, early mornings meant breastfeeding and changing diapers and sleepily trying to entertain active toddlers. Now that my kids are older – most of them teenagers who willingly sleep late – early mornings have become a quiet time to myself, time to walk in the woods, write in my journal, or just stare out the window with a cup of herbal tea.

Later this morning, I will wash lettuce and chop vegetables to make a big salad to bring to my mother’s house. When we get together for holiday meals, I always bring the salad. Right now, I take a few minutes to relax and write a blog post. I click through photos on my laptop, looking for one that will fit for Easter morning, and find an early morning photo taken at the monastery, the place where I go for retreat every spring and every fall.


monasterybarn


I love dawn mornings at the monastery, wandering by myself through the barns and the sheep fields, listening to the bird song, sometimes climbing down the stone steps of the chapel to sit quietly and listen to the monks in their dark robes chanting. I watch the sun rise on the hills, early light touching the white fleece of the sheep and colour glowing around the edges of the clouds. I hope on this Easter morning that my blog readers, no matter what their faith, can have some early morning peace.

April 14, 2006

Word play for Poetry Friday

The warm, wonderful, and sexy Mona has challenged us all to do some creative writing on Poetry Fridays. Her topic this week? Hidden. So the rules are – so far as I can figure – that you can take her topic and do whatever the hell you want with it. Experiment. Play around with words. An orgy of language. It doesn’t have to make sense. It most certainly does not have to rhyme. Take ten minutes and write something and see what happens. Go ahead, try it out. Here's mine:


Hidden

Sunsplash drips through pores of winter-numbed skin, a sudden thawing. They rise. Tingling to the surface. The heavy scent of purple. The slippery warmth of marsh weeds. Snakes coiled in secret spaces. Memories hidden beneath muck richness. Bottle flies gather, jeweled and singing. Water lilies wave petals open, white against white. Jewelweed curves brilliant colour atop serpentine banks. Turtles struggle through murk. Water edge unfolds, a silver glimmer. Legs struggle against great swirls of mud. Cattails thirst for summer storms, sweet rain and low rumble and blue cracking wide against dark. Swallows swirl dusk, wings swooping all at once for evening bugs, the dark choreography of their hunger. Winds brush against cattail, yellow green gold, shifting their undersides, the hidden secret and sweet uncoiling uncurling rising opening the petals the muck the dark rich warmth. The snake flicks its tongue. The great blue heron climbs into sky. The low song of frogs croaks from wet green throats.

April 12, 2006

Sheltered

Yesterday my nineteen-year-old daughter told me that she plans spend May and June doing volunteer work for the Women's Shelter, a place that provides a refuge for battered women, counseling for rape victims, and help for women who need it. At her interview, the coordinator said that she will spend most of her time at the main shelter, where women take refuge from abusive partners. Since my daughter grew up in a loving home, protected from so much of what happens in the world, I suspect she may be surprised at some of the things she learns this summer. I myself am still often shocked when faced with the harsh realities of the world, no matter how many times I hear the sad stories.

I hate that my children have to learn about the violence in the world. I felt the same way when my daughter travelled to a military base this semester for her journalism class to interview soldiers – that is, young people her own age – who were being sent to Iraq. As my children get older and turn into adults, I can no longer protect them from the culture they must live in.

I know parents whose daughters have had to flee to shelters, running from an abusive partner, looking for sanctuary. I have had friends in that situation. I have heard their anger, their sadness, their desperation. I am grateful, hugely and wonderously grateful, that when my daughter goes to the Women’s Shelter this summer, it will be in the role of volunteer.

White ribbons

The white ribbon campaign began shortly after a horrific incident in 1989 when a man murdered 14 women at the University of Montreal. A group of concerned men began encouraging other men and boys to pin on white ribbons to acknowledge the role men need to play to help stop violence against women. The Women's Shelter in Snowstorm City holds a white ribbon campaign each spring. Our church usually hands out white ribbons, and I've always made sure my boys, no matter how young they were, understood what the white ribbons meant.

"You promise never to abuse a woman?"
"Mom! Of course."
"But more importantly, you know that you are also agreeing that you won’t remain silent if you know abuse is happening? That it's your responsibility to do something about it?"
"Yes, I know."

Even when he was a tiny kid, Boy in Black always took these pledges very seriously. He would look at me with the big serious eyes of a skinny ten-year-old, agreeing to stop abuse any time he could. I always believed him. I still do. Now almost eighteen, Boy in Black is a full-grown man, taller and stronger and smarter than most people, and his pledge to help end violence against women seems that much more important.

April 11, 2006

Potluck on campus

We gathered in a room off the library, an intimate space with comfy chairs and movable tables. Sixteen of us altogether: faculty members from the hard sciences and from the humanities, some grad students, a librarian, a staff member, and four of my undergraduate students whom I had invited to be part of the discussion. Two of the women brought small children, who went outside to play on the quad while we talked. We brought food of course, mostly in casserole dishes and plastic containers. I never have time to make anything for potlucks (and I knew my students would not have time either) but I did my usual run to the Chinese take-out place for broccoli with garlic sauce.

PlantsWoman told her story, how she gave up some of her emotional and spiritual connection to plants during the academic process of getting a science degree, and how she went back years later, after many peer-reviewed publications, after tenure, after acceptance by the academy, she went back to claim what she had given up – and began again to learn plants not with just her mind but with her heart and spirit and body. She stayed a scientist, she never gave up her love of botany, but she began to reclaim the idea she could be a poet as well. And she took back the parts of her native heritage she had given up to be accepted by the academy. We talked about how narrow the academy can be, especially a male-dominated institution like science, and how difficult it can be for someone who is other to enter that space.

So often diversity efforts focus on helping our incoming students to change to fit the field of science. We talked about ways that science might change to be more accepting of different ideas and cultures and ways of thinking. And how that sort of diversity would benefit science. One at a time, people around the table began to speak up, adding their voice, and together we talked about ways to make room, make space, for students who are from different backgrounds.

We did not come up with any vision statement or bold proclamation, no rules to be written down in white and black. We simply talked -- sharing ideas, forming relationships with each other. I have faith in this process, the way that change can begin when we connect with other people, talking about what we think is important, telling our stories. These kind of meetings, potlucks usually, in someone’s home or a public space, help shape who I am and what I do with my students. Parts of me get shifted and turned by these conversations, helping me to figure out how I can change the institution that I have – albeit reluctantly – become part of.

April 10, 2006

Office cleaning

We are shuffling around campus offices in my department. A work crew has been here all week, putting up drywall, creating another new office space. Bookcases and file cabinets are piled everywhere, along with cardboard boxes of stuff that I am sure was very important at one time. I am moving from an office I've been in for the last ten years to another office just down the hall.

Moving is healthy. That's what I always say. It will give me time to sort through files, toss out stuff I don’t need any more, organize my books, and find things I've been missing for years. It's always good to have to look at my office and think of how I want to arrange it to accommodate changing needs. Now that I have a laptop computer, I am thinking that my desk is not as important as it used to be. I want a comfy chair instead.

So, yes, this process should be healthy and good for me and all that.

But like so many things that are healthy in the long run, I hesitate to even begin. I am a pack rat, and my office shelves are filled with not just the usual books and papers, but all kinds of interesting things: a set of rusty leghold traps, a bag of Barbie dolls, several plastic snakes, military action figures, stones and feathers, gendered party favors from kids' parties, mugs with clever sayings on them, maps, a round slice of wood from a Woodsmen’s demonstration, a log from the sycamore tree that used to be out in front of the building, crayons and markers, boxes of words, wooden lizards, shells and pine cones, a little statue of a monk, a piece of wood from an old barn, bottles of sand art, video tapes and slides and postcards from students. My file cabinets are stuffed full, with fascinating stuff that I might use some day if I ever get around to it.

Yeah, I am sure it will be healthy to go sort through it all, throw things out, dust things off. Maybe I'll start tomorrow.

April 09, 2006

Pseudonymous Boy Band

It's pretty standard for bloggers to go to cool concerts and then post write-ups about the concerts, complete with dark blurry photos of the musicians. (By standard, I mean that Scrivener does it.) I of course have no need to go to concerts because I can listen to live music for free in my living room every Friday and Saturday night. This weekend, my husband was out of town and my daughter at college, so I got to hang with the Pseudonymous Boy Band, who played everything from the White Stripes and R.E.M. to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

When you listen to musicians jam, you get to hear the same songs played over and over again, complete with long discussions about what needs to be done differently. The audience at this venue seemed fine with this. Blonde Niece and Pirate Boy, settled on the comfy couch, and Shaggy Hair and First Extra, hanging out in the kitchen area, seemed hardly to notice that Older Neighbor Boy was singing “Steady as She Goes” by the Raconteurs for the fourth time.

Like many famous musicians before them, the members of the Pseudonymous Boy Band have little patience with paparazzi. ("The camera makes noise! And we’re recording!)" For some reason, the idea of appearing on their mom's blog does not thrill them at all. But I took a few anyhow so that my blog readers can get a sense of what my weekend was like.

The leader of the band on drums and vocals. Well, I don't know if he is the leader, technically, but he owns the drums and most of the musical equipment so that counts for something.

drummer

Skater Boy on guitar.

ROCKINGOUT

Sweet Funny Extra and Boy in Black doing a duet. They were cleaning up the lyrics of the song as they went along, a task that proved so difficult that the song made no sense. (It was a Ben Folds' cover of a rap song.)

SweetFunnyExtra

Boy in Black on piano and vocals. Trying not to laugh while he is singing.

piano  and vocals

Philosophical Boy on guitar.

philosphicalboy

Oldest Neighbor Boy. He ran here in the rain and needed to borrow dry pants. For some reason, he chose to borrow a pair of pink pajama pants from Victoria Secret that Daughter had left here. So his outfit was in contrast to the dark clothes that the other members of the band usually wear.

OlderNeighborBoy

The youngest member of the band, With-a-Why, on the piano. He often plays some classical pieces between sets, something much appreciated by the oldest member of the audience, which is me.

youngestpianoplayer

April 08, 2006

In Case of Fire

Every parent has particular fears when it comes to what might harm their children. My husband, because he learned to swim as an adult, used to have nightmares in which one of the children was drowning. I have no fear of water at all – although I admit it was a relief when my kids are learned to swim. My nightmares usually have to do with fire. When my kids were little, a reporter friend did an investigative piece on a fire in Camera City in which four children died, and the parents both survived. That story haunted me for years. I cannot imagine being on the outside of a burning building, knowing that my children were inside.

When my kids were very young, we lived in a small house with two first floor bedrooms. I knew that getting the kids out in a fire would be pretty easy. Seven years ago, when we moved to our current house, a colonial in which the bedrooms are upstairs, my fear of fire returned. Even smoke detectors in every room did not make me feel completely safe. The bedroom I share with my husband is on the north side of the house, and the kids sleep on the south. If the house were on fire, I figured that the flames would come roaring up the center staircase, separating me from my children, who at the time were still pretty young.

My way of facing my fears is to look at the worst case scenario and deal with it. When I saw a metal chain ladder at a garage sale, I knew I had found my solution. I would train my children to rescue themselves if the worst ever happened and the house caught on fire one night while we were all sleeping.

So one week that summer I began doing fire drills with the kids, including of course, the extra kids who sleep at my house. They would all lie down and pretend they were sleeping, and then I would press the smoke detector button. Then I would yell to indicate the situation: “Fire coming up the stairs! Smoke! Flames! You cannot use the hallway!” I’d change the situation, moving the fire to different parts of the house, just for variety.

The kids learned how to pull the ladder out from under the bed, kick out the window screen, and attach the ladder. Their plan was systematic. My daughter, the oldest, would be the first down the ladder. She learned how to climb down the ladder when the bottom part was loose and dangling. Once at the bottom, she could hold it steady, which made it easy for even the youngest kids to climb down. Boy-in-Black stayed at the top of the ladder: the rule was that he would not come down until all the other kids had been safely sent down.

“You realize that this means you are the most likely to die in a fire,” I told him. He nodded his eleven-year-old head seriously.

Shaggy Hair Boy, who was about eight at the time, was to run to a neighbor’s house and ask them to call the fire department. And we arranged a meeting place out near the road.

Once the kids got past the awkwardness of climbing out a window onto a shaky metal ladder, the fire drills started to be fun. We made up some rules as we went along, trying to think of every possible situation. Boy-in-Black is such a sound sleeper that we decided that a smoke alarm would never wake him up. Shaggy Hair was assigned to shake him and wake him up. We practiced with other scenarios – what if With-a-Why had gone in with Mom and Dad during the night? When my daughter got to the ground, she was to check for him on the garage roof, and then yell up to Boy in Black that he was accounted for.

We started timing the fire drills – beginning the moment I pressed the fire alarm button and not ending until all the children had safely gathered in the meeting spot. I kept thinking of different situations and offering new challenges. We found we could do the whole drill in under three minutes, which was pretty impressive when you consider that this included the time it took to set up the ladder. The whole game started to be really fun, as we sliced more and more seconds off the time.

Then at some point in the afternoon, I paused to watch what was happening. Some kind of competitive streak runs in the family, and we were desperate to keep beating our record. I watched my kids flinging themselves out of upper story windows as fast as they could, running to make it to the meeting place. At that point it occurred to me that the danger of one of the kids getting hurt during a fire drill was far greater than the chance of my house ever even catching on fire.

So we ended the fire drills. But I felt confident that the kids had learned important skills and would not be helpless if a fire ever happened. And our record? Two minutes and seventeen seconds. Something we still brag about.

April 07, 2006

Friday Naked Poetry Blogging

Rolling Naked in the Morning Dew
by Pattiann Rogers

Out among the wet grasses and wild barley-covered
Meadows, backside, frontside, through the white clover
And feather peabush, over spongy tussocks
And shaggy-mane mushrooms, the abandoned nests
Of larks and bobolinks, face to face
With vole trails, snail niches, jelly
Slug eggs; or in a stone-walled garden, level
With the stemmed bulbs of orange and scarlet tulips,
Cricket carcasses, the bent blossoms of sweet william,
Shoulder over shoulder, leg over leg, clear
To the ferny edge of the goldfish pond--some people
Believe in the rejuvenating powers of this act--naked
As a toad in the forest, belly and hips, thighs
And ankles drenched in the dew-filled gulches
Of oak leaves, in the soft fall beneath yellow birches,
All of the skin exposed directly to the killy cry
Of the kingbird, the buzzing of grasshopper sparrows,
Those calls merging with the dawn-red mists
Of crimson steeplebush, entering the bare body then
Not merely through the ears but through the skin
Of every naked person willing every event and potentiality
Of a damp transforming dawn to enter.

Lillie Langtry practiced it, when weather permitted,
Lying down naked every morning in the dew,
With all of her beauty believing the single petal
Of her white skin could absorb and assume
That radiating purity of liquid and light.
And I admit to believing myself, without question,
In the magical powers of dew on the cheeks
And breasts of Lillie Langtry believing devotedly
In the magical powers of early morning dew on the skin
Of her body lolling in purple beds of bird's-foot violets,
Pink prairie mimosa. And I believe, without doubt,
In the mystery of the healing energy coming
From that wholehearted belief in the beneficent results
Of the good delights of the naked body rolling
And rolling through all the silked and sun-filled,
Dusky-winged, sheathed and sparkled, looped
And dizzied effluences of each dawn
Of the rolling earth.

Just consider how the mere idea of it alone
Has already caused me to sing and sing
This whole morning long.

April 06, 2006

Calling Club Libby Lu

I'm the kind of teacher who always gets to my class ten minutes early, taking possession of the room as soon as I can. And I love that ten minutes before class begins. As students trickle into the room, we talk about all kinds of things – current events, speakers who come to campus, field research, weekend plans. I used to bring the newspaper with me, but nowadays, more often than not, I come to class saying, "Hey, check out what I just read on a blog."

Last week, after reading posts by Phantom and Angry Pregnant Lawyer about Club Libby Lu, a place that puts on expensive birthday parties that include make-up, nail polish, hair spray, and sexy clothing for little girls, I couldn’t wait to find out what my students thought about the place. After all, they are a whole generation younger than me so I cannot always predict their reaction. Maybe they would not be disgusted at the ways that these places encourage little girls to accept their roles as sex objects or princesses. Maybe they would not be horrified at the way these places feed consumerism. Perhaps they are so used to this kind of thing that they would be calm about the fact that such a place not only exists, but opens this month in Snowstorm City.

They were not calm.

Within minutes, almost every woman in the room was voicing her opinion, her disgust and horror. And they jumped to other topics too. “What about beauty pageants for little girls?” one woman said, “How horrible is that?”

Later we would be able to discuss the topic calmly, analyzing the ways in which rigid gender roles are taught to children, discussing the ways in which girls are especially targeted by corporations to be good little consumers. And a chemistry student would talk about the toxins involved with such things as cosmetics and nail polish, saying that it would be especially important for pregnant women and children to stay away from such a place. But for that first ten minutes, the women in the room were so filled with horror and disgust that we could not get much past ranting and raving.

The men in the room were mostly quiet, looking sort of surprised. "Yeah, I was disgusted by the concept," one man told me, "but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I was just surprised at how emotional the women in the room got. Like this really, really bothers them."

And we keep returning to the topic. It keeps popping up in class discussions – well, we are reading poems about the body so the topic is applicable -- or during the chats we have during those ten minutes before class. Some of the students keep saying, no, no, this can’t be for real. No sane parents would let their kids go to birthday parties like that, no less pay money for them.

That I think, is when we entered the denial phase. Maybe what we'd read was exaggerated. Perhaps the reporter was just focusing on the princess costumes and hottie celebrity outfits. Perhaps other costumes were available: firefighter, pilot, scientist, doctor, all kinds of choices. Most of the students agreed that playing dress-up is a healthy thing for a child do, so long as she is offered a whole variety of costumes and choices. And we know that the media often does get things wrong. Maybe we were just all overreacting. So yesterday morning, my students decided to call the place to see if it was for real.

KayakMan volunteered to make the call – he was the only person in the room who thought he could make the call without reacting in any way. He used a speaker phone so that we could all hear.

The call was answered by a peppy female voice. KayakMan said that he had a five-year-old and was looking for birthday party options.

"Our parties involve makeovers," the cheery voice said. She went on to explain that the makeover included hair, make-up, fingernails, lips, and then something to do with goody bags that we didn’t quite catch. Lip gloss. Hair spray. Accessories. Lotion. Pretty Lotion, she called it. (KayakMan was starting to zone out.)

"What about costumes?" KayakMan asked, after being nudged by a classmate.

She said yes, they had costumes. There were five makeover choices: Rocker. Priceless Princess. Tween Idol. Super Star. Royal Heiress. The girls will just love it. And the counselors work with the girls, whatever that means.

Then KayakMan mentioned that his five-year-old was a boy.

There was a pause.

"I will have to check with the manager," the voice on the other end said. The cheery enthusiasm disappeared. And that became her stock reply for everything he asked after that. "I will have to check with the manager and get back to you." The manager, she said, would be in later in the day.

When KayakMan hung up, everyone in the room started screaming at once. Makeovers for a five-year-old?

And that was all before class even began.

April 04, 2006

Competing for the prize of approval

This post was inspired by posts here and here and here although I went off in a different direction.

Whenever I read about the Mommy Wars, I feel confused. Because I never know which side I am supposed to be on.

I've been a mother who was home full-time. With an infant. I've been a mother who didn’t have a paying job but spent many hours doing volunteer and activist work. With an infant. I've been a mother who worked a part-time job. With an infant. I've been a mother who worked a full-time job. With an infant.

I've got four kids, and the only way I could believe that one style of parenting was the right way, the perfect choice, would be if one of my kids had somehow turned out better than the rest. So far that has not happened. In fact, two of my kids – Boy in Black and With-a-Why, who are six years apart and raised in different situations, are so alike in personality that they often mistaken as clones. My oldest two kids, two years apart and raised in different situations, have gotten almost identical grades all through high school, have performed the same on standardized tests, and have been awarded the exact same college scholarship. If one type of parenting is superior to the others, it would be hard to tell from my kids.

Of course, I could judge these situations by figuring which was best for me, which situation made me feel most empowered as a woman. But really, that doesn't work so well either. I'd like to point to the time in my life when I was all self-actualized and empowered and confident, but I am not sure that has ever happened. Whether I was home full-time or working full-time or something in between, my personality was the same: stubborn, impatient, easily distracted, warm and loving one minute and losing my temper the next.

I suppose the strangest part about the Mommy Wars, to whatever extent they exist, is that women end up fighting each other. Or is that so strange? The rules and values of patriarchy say that women should be competing with each other. The dominant culture says that women are valued not for what we do or say, not for our intelligence or strength of character, but for what we look like or how we best perform our gendered roles as wives and mothers.

I was in college when I first grasped the concept that women in our culture are supposed to compete with each other. I think I first noticed this in conversations we would have about beauty rituals. Many of the women I knew used to spend hours getting ready to go to parties, putting on make-up, curling their hair, etc. (Big hair was in style.) I was never one to do any of that stuff. I don’t wear high heels because it makes no sense to me to wear shoes that will cause physical damage to my feet. I don’t wear make-up either. It never seemed logical to smear gunk on my face, since I have lots of colour in my skin and long black eyelashes. I don't use a hair dryer or a curling iron or do anything else weird to my hair because that always seemed a waste of time. I like the natural wave in my hair and blowing hot air at it just damages it anyhow. And I like the silky feel of my hair so I don’t put gunk in it.

I never criticized my friends for putting on cosmetics or spending money on expensive haircuts or whatever. I actually sort of enjoyed watching them go through their rituals as we hung out in the dorm, listening to music and talking about what parties we were going to. I could understand the importance of ritual, of taking some kind of time to emotionally prepare for the transition from classes and books to weekend parties. I could see that my friends who were introverts especially needed this time. (In a case it's not obvious to anyone reading my blog – I am an extrovert.) I liked watching them brush their hair and try on clothes, giggling and crowding around the mirror. These rituals were beautiful and sensual. I could totally understand how some of my friends would enjoy the aesthetics of clothing choices – trying out textures and colors, holding silk blouses up to their skin, admiring the lines of a dress.

But the strange part was how often women would get upset at my refusal to put gunk on my face or wear shoes that hurt my lower back, like somehow I was betraying all women by refusing to do this stuff. That I was cheating somehow.

"It’s not fair," women would say to me back in these days of dating and parties. "You do nothing to improve your appearance. And yet men always find you attractive."

It took me a long time to get what these women were saying. Then I understood the rules, the mode of thinking. A woman who sacrifices time, money, and health for her appearance deserves male attention. Because male attention is the thing we are supposed to fight over. Something we are supposed to work hard to earn.

And even the Mommy Wars can be that sort of competition. If I am valued as a mother and a wife, shouldn't I get credit for sacrifices I make? If I stay home with my children, I should get points for sacrificing my career for my children. If I work full-time while raising children, I should get points for doing all that extra work in juggling both. No matter what I do, I need to compete with other women for some kind of external approval for the choices I make. That seems to be what the dominant culture is saying.

Even the compliments I get make me cringe sometimes. Women will say to me, "Oh, that's great that you take belly dancing classes and snowboard and stay in such great shape for your husband." For your husband. Because yeah, that is the only reason I should dance and snowboard and feel good about my body. The assumption is that I do these things not for me, but for my husband. Ugh.

I hope things are different for the next generation.

I want my daughter to realize that she is smart and beautiful and wonderful. I want her to know that, to internalize it, to appreciate herself on a gut level so that she does not ever need external male approval. Whether she chooses to wear tattered jeans or fancy dresses, whether she chooses to have children or not, whether she chooses to be in a relationship or stay single, whether she cuts her hair herself or spends money at some fancy place, whether she pursues a higher degree or some other vocation – no matter what choices she makes for herself, I hope she understands that she does not need anyone’s approval. Even mine.

April 03, 2006

On stage

I love going to school plays, concerts, and recitals -- which is a good thing because I have so many kids and extra kids that I go to lots of them. Sometimes I will drive to Camera City to see Drama Niece in a play, but all of my other extras go to schools nearby, which makes going to their events easy. Last Friday night we went to the play at the private school that Older Neighbor Boy goes to.

This play had all kinds of stuff worth seeing. Colorful costumes! Hand-painted sets! A cleverly choreographed scene in a train performed by teenage boys who took their parts very seriously. A dance scene performed by four girls have had ballet lessons and three girls who were trying very hard. The male lead was a bit young for the part but he had this terrific catlike way of moving across the stage. One of the actresses had a beautiful voice, and the others get credit for enthusiasm. The director had clearly taken liberties with the play itself because I could see older people in the audience looking puzzled. It is very hard to follow the plot of any school play when you haven’t seen the original so I was a little fuzzy on what was happening myself. Anyhow, the play did have a happy although somewhat strange ending that included herds of young people marching through the audience and playing musical instruments.

We sat in a big group, those of us who had come to see Older Neighbor Boy. His Mom and Dad were there, of course, and both his siblings. All four grandparents showed up, and an aunt, and an older cousin, who is home now from Iraq. I came with Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair, With-a-Why, Skater Boy, and Blonde Niece. And his brother, Philosophical Boy, had a friend with him. We made a pretty good cheering section.

How big of a part did Older Neighbor Boy have? Well, he walked onto the stage twice. And he spoke one line.

April 02, 2006

On the court

The gang of teenagers and children at my house move from one activity to another, depending on the season. During December when we had all kinds of snow, they were obsessive about building a snow ramp and snow jump out on the front lawn. They spent every evening working on the snowpark and perfecting daredevil tricks performed with snowboards and inner tubes. Boy in Black lashed floodlights to a couple of the trees and ran orange extension cords out to them so that they could work and play late at night.

But the snow has melted now, and basketball is the newest obsession. April is the right month for playing ball here. The temperatures are above freezing, and the bugs won’t hatch until about the beginning of May.

Our long sloping driveway is gravel, of course, since we live in the country. When we were building our house, my suburban-raised husband was nervous at the idea of living in a place without streetlights or paved driveways. "Where are the kids going to play basketball?" he kept asking. From what I can gather, his life during junior high consisted mostly of playing basketball, although he assures me things would have been different if Unrequited Crush Girl had even so much as glanced his way.

In one of many compromises, we had a square of pavement installed on a flat area in the side yard so that my husband and kids could have a basketball court. That's where you can find them during April, all racing around and bouncing balls and arguing about stuff. To be honest, I am not sure whether or not they are playing the actual game of basketball or some kind of made-up game with Boy in Black rules that is merely similar to basketball. Knowing this household, it is mostly likely the latter.

FirstExtra is one of the most enthusiastic of the basketball players, since he comes from a household where people even watch the game on television. He knows the jargon, the rules of the game, the names of teams, the names of players. Here is a blurry shot of him in action on our basketball court. (Photo taken by Blonde Niece with her cell phone.)

Basketball

April 01, 2006

Thoughts turn to gardening

We've lived in our house for six years now. Even though we are surrounded by woods, the area around the newly built house was bare at first, and each spring, I plant more trees and bushes, more perennial plants. I love to add new things. Yesterday, I roamed about my yards counting all that I've planted: 21 trees altogether and 38 bushes. The river birches that I planted the first year are higher than the house now, providing shade on the southwest corner of the house. The lilac bushes are taller than me now, and should be covered with flowers in May. I've got seven flower gardens tucked into spots all around and two 12' by 12' raised bed vegetable gardens.

Most of my plantings came from friends or relatives. The first year we lived here, Red-haired Sister brought me forsythia bushes, clumps of perennials, and baby pine trees from her own yard 250 miles away. The day lilies and the peonies came from Blonde Sister, from the yard of the house that once belonged to my grandmother. The coreopsis, the daffodils, and the lily of the valley come from my parents’ house, the home of my childhood. The white pines are transplanted from the woods at camp. The lilac bushes come from a place up near camp too, a site where about an acre of lilacs grow around an abandoned house. The rhubarb plants come from a neighbor, who taught my kids to dip rhubarb stalks into sugar and eat them raw. The chocolate mint that grows wild near the edge of my vegetable garden, with a scent that makes me hungry when I work in the garden, came from Red-haired Sister.

The vegetable gardens are beds raised above the heavy clay soil, filled with the free mulch that I can get from the DPW. My brother-in-law, who drives a truck, helped me fill the beds with mulch one Easter. I make many trips to the DPW every May, filling the back of my station wagon with mulch to add organic material to my garden. The shade garden at the north side of the house, filled with hostas and all sorts of deep purple flowers, are plants that I dug from Reiki Woman’s garden when she divorced her husband and had to move from her house quickly. I am holding them here for her until she has a place for them. Two of the river birches in my back yard make me think of Jedi Knight, a student from Brooklyn who stayed with me one May because he was taking an EMT course and needed somewhere to live after the dorms closed. He lived with us for a couple of weeks, and it was great to have someone help me with the back-breaking work of digging deep holes in a clay soil.

I don't buy many plants at nurseries, even though I do love to visit the local nursery and walk through the aisles of flowers. One exception is the river birches. When I first moved into the house, I consulted Dendrologist Friend about what kind of trees I should plant near the house. "River birches," he said immediately. "They are native and will thrive even in this heavy clay soil. They grow fast and will be beautiful, but they will remain flexible enough to survive in a storm so they won’t threaten your house."

So each year, I call the local nursery and harrass them until they get me a couple clumps of river birches. ("No, I don’t want white birches or paper birches! They are too prone to disease! They have to be river birches, betula nigra. ") The owner of the nursery has heard my little speech about river birches so many times now that he does order some each year.

The other thing I've bought at the local nursery are coneflowers. Well, that is what the nursery calls them but they look like a version of what I call black-eyed suzies. These were my Aunt Mae’s favorite flowers. Even though Aunt Mae died thirty years ago, I think of her whenever I see all these yellow daisy-like flowers with the brown eyes in the middle. And they grow in such big tall clumps, so colorful and striking, that no one ever notices that I have not bothered to weed the garden.

When it comes to gardening, my philosophy is simple. I dig up stuff I can get free from family and friends. I will take trees that grow wild when the seedlings spring up under power lines and places where they cannot survive. I plant stuff that will grow well in this climate and soil, so that I won't have to do any work after it's planted. Lilac bushes are wonderful, for example. Stick them in the ground, do nothing else, and they will reward you with fragrant blooms every spring for the rest of your life. With flowers, I go for big and colorful, so that they hide all the weeds that I never bother to pull. (I love to garden in May, but I lose interest when the weather turns hot.) With vegetables, I go for the stuff that tastes especially good homegrown – like tomatoes.

In this climate, I can't really start my gardens until May. We are sure to get some snow in April. And it makes no sense to plant anything until the soil is warm. The danger of a hard frost is not past until about Memorial Day. But that doesn't mean I can't walk around my gardens on the first day of April, remembering what I have and planning what I want, looking forward to those lovely spring days in May when I can have my hands in the earth again.