November 30, 2007

On vacation

No, not me.

It's my computer that has decided that it needs a little rest, some relaxation, and a replacement part that won't get here until Monday.

I'll be back as soon as my faithful companion is up and running again.

November 29, 2007

Inside my head


Me: Hey, what do you think of this photo?
Shaggy Hair Boy: Uh ... what's it supposed to be?
Me: The inside of my head, when I have a migraine.
Boy in Black: How does that make sense?
With-A-Why: You can't take a picture inside your head.
Me: My readers asked for a photograph.
Shaggy Hair Boy: Uh, it looks like hair.
Boy in Black: More like the outside of your head.

(Just then my husband comes home. I shove the laptop in front of him before he even takes off his coat.)

Me: What does this look like to you?
Spouse: Frayed twine? Nerve endings?
Me: Nerve endings? Oh, that's on the right track.

(I look smugly over to the boys.)

Boy in Black: It looks like dog hair.
Me: Dog hair? How did you figure that out?
Boy in Black: Because it looks like dog hair.
Me: But we don't have a dog.

(He shrugs.)

Me: (after a moment) So what kind of dog do you think it is?
Boy in Black: The kind of dog your blogger friend has.
Me: Hey, I thought you didn't read my blog.
Boy in Black: I was bored. And had a lot of work to do.

The photo would be much cooler if I had photoshop. But it is pretty close to what I see when I close my eyes during a migraine: darkness with swirling lines of flashing colour and brightness.

November 28, 2007


An alien slug creeps into my head, slithering through the ear, spreads its slimy grey body across the inside of my head, then twists all the parts behind my eyeballs, expanding and contracting so that my thoughts bang against the inside of my skull and the room around me spins and spins, shoving me into some alternate universe.

November 27, 2007

Lake in November

Lake in November

I spent most of last weekend sitting by the fire, listening to music, eating all kinds of food, and just hanging out with my family. I did not grade a single paper. But my husband and I did sneak out one afternoon for a walk at Pretty Colour Lake. Breathing in all that fresh cold air felt wonderful after a whole morning nestled in the comfy couch.

The ground was frozen, to our relief. The muddy paths had become nicely solid trails. Temperature rose into the 40s this weekend, but snow still lay in the shadows beneath the cedar trees. On sunny summer days, the lake is a brilliant green-blue colour, but on a grey November day, the water sometimes turns a deep blue. That's the wonderful thing about living in a climate with four seasons: no matter how many times you walk through the same landscape, the scenery is different.

Spouse and I walked the familiar paths, talking about our kids, our extended families, and our plans for the holiday season. For the first time in 22 years, we didn't take a holiday photo of the kids to send to friends and relatives: it seemed time to give that tradition up, since even our youngest child is now a teenager. And we didn't talk at all about buying gifts, since we don't have little kids any more. I'm not much into buying gifts for grown-ups. But many of the other traditions will continue, some deepening with meaning over the years.

The wooden Christmas village with the British theme that my parents built for me many years ago will be relevant now to more members of my family, now that my daughter and husband have both been to the European City With the Famous Clocktower. I feel a little sad that Mama Cat will not be guarding the village this year. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and With-a-Why are continuing the tradition of making a Christmas chain to tack up on the walls: it's become a sister-brother bonding ritual. We'll continue to host the first of the family holiday get-togethers on the Saturday before Christmas, and I think just about everyone in the extended family will be able to come this year. (The closer the Saturday is to Christmas, the bigger the crowd we get.) We've already blocked off nights on the calendar for Christmas parties hosted by friends, but most importantly, I am looking forward to the end of the semester, when my two oldest kids will be moving home for a month. We've planned which day we will be going to get our tree, which is always one of my favorite parts of the season.

We planned the month ahead as we walked around a quiet lake that had just the thinnest layer of ice in some places. I could remember walking this same trail 22 years ago, pregnant with my first child, and excited about the new year coming because it would be the year during which I became a parent.

A group of geese in the middle of the lake rose at once, as we watched, and went flapping and honking to the far shore.

November 26, 2007

It's a tradition

Last week, when I had lunch with Woman Who Writes Poetry (Often Erotic) and Sometimes Blogs, we began talking about the Creative Writing Conference I attended last winter. The 2008 conference will be held in Big City Like No Other, an easy train ride away, so she said she is going to attend.

"Hey, let's be roommates, " I said. "I've already reserved a room in the hotel."

She agreed, and we happily chatted about the conference, both of us coming up with names of friends or famous writers who might be there. As we stuffed ourselves full of pita bread, baba ganoush, and warm falafels, we talked about how much fun it will be to room together.

Suddenly, Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me suspiciously.

"Wait a minute. Does this mean I have to pose naked for your blog?"

Well, duh.

November 25, 2007


Guitar solo

All Thanksgiving week, the house was filled with music. With the college kids home and the younger kids off from school, the musicians of the household (that is, everyone under the age of thirty) had all kinds of time to jam. Skater Boy was here, as was Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy. And of course, they brought guitars and amps with them.

One musician was missing: the extra we call Quick. He's amazing on the drums and piano, just incredibly talented; his father is a band teacher so he's been playing since he was a little kid. He's smart and polite, a kid who fits right in with my own kids, and although he's in Shaggy Hair Boy's grade at school, he's comfortable talking to the college kids or playing chess with With-a-Why. But he wasn't here this weekend. The day before Thanksgiving, his lung collapsed, and he was rushed into surgery. He spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, drugged and mostly sleeping. But he's recovering now, able to sit up and play computer games, and hopefully, he will be back here to play in no time.

I'm the token non-musician in the household, but I love to sit by the fire and listen while the kids play. A jam session has an interesting dynamic. The musicians are so intent on the music that they pay attention to nothing around them. They communicate with body language, short sentences full of music jargon, and mostly, through the music itself. Boy in Black, on the drums, will suddenly pick up the tempo. Shaggy Hair Boy, on the piano, will give him a quick glance, just an instant of eye contact, and then pick up the tempo. The jazz improv numbers are performed without words although once in awhile I'll hear Boy in Black say, "Niiiice."

The musicians switch places all the time, moving from drums to piano to guitar in a smooth choreography. Older Neighbor Boy is most likely to take the microphone. (Yeah, we have microphones. And very tolerant neighbors.) In between numbers, they will discuss what they are going to do, with the more experienced musicians teaching the less experienced ones. It's not a whole lot of talking — just quick sentences and nods of the head — but mostly, they play the same songs over and over, they experiment and try things out, and they laugh like crazy if it sounds awful. I've often thought the jam session could well serve as a model for learning of all kinds: most writers I know, for instance, learn from hanging out with other writers and playing around with words.

Last night, all the extras had gone home, and my husband and I were lounging on the comfy couch with our youngest child when the older kids started playing. Shaggy Hair began on the piano, playing chords and a bass line, and tapping a tambourine with his foot. "Come on," Boy in Black said to his sister, "You should solo." My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter usually plays classical piano rather than jazz improv, but she obligingly sat down on the piano bench next to her brother and began picking out notes in the upper register. Boy in Black grabbed his guitar. With-a-Why, too sleepy to join in, snuggled against me, warm and happy to have all his siblings home.


That's Shaggy Hair Boy in the top photo.

November 24, 2007

Made for walking

"Hey, your shoes are untied!"

I hear this constantly, from friends, students, and perfect strangers. It's not my fault. The great minds who run the shoelace industry have conspired over the last decade to create shoelaces that don't stay tied, a matter I find incredibly frustrating. I wear sneakers or hiking boots every day, including the days I teach, and my shoelaces are always dangling and flapping as I walk. These modern shoelaces are pretty, I admit, and they are strong, but the damned things do not stay tied. Yes, I've tried the doubleloop technique that seems to work for my friends. It does not work for me.

My students are always yelling at me to tie my shoes. But what's the point? They just come untied again. I refuse to keep tying them every five minutes, just on principle. The entire purpose of the shoelace to tie the shoe. Why would anyone start making shoelaces that untie as you walk? It's like making a clock that doesn't tell the correct time or a microwave that doesn't cook food or a jack-in-the-box that doesn't pop out of the box.

Back in the day, I told my students, we had shoelaces that stayed tied. They were flat and cotton and sometimes they broke, but at least they did the job.

Of course, I've sort of regarded the warning, "you are going to trip," as some kind of urban myth. No one, I thought, really trips on shoelaces. I mean, it's annoying to have them flopping around my sneakers, but I never thought that the untied shoes were dangerous.

But then last week, I was on an outing with my students. I was walking along a sidewalk, talking happily, gesturing with my hands the way I do when I talk. My left foot stepped down, and my right foot, trapped by a shoelace, stayed tethered to the ground when I tried to pick it up, and in an instant, I went crashing to the ground, falling headfirst onto the sidewalk. My knees, palms, and ego scraped against the asphalt.

My students could have said, "I told you so," but they didn't. They checked my cuts to make sure they were clean, and then one student said, "You know, they still make the old kind of shoelaces. You need to buy some and replace these laces that won't stay tied."

As usual, my students were right. I found flat, cotton shoelaces at the grocery store. I was so eager to buy them that I didn't even stop to see if they had any color but white. I'm thinking black would have been a better choice. But of course, I am not out to make a fashion statement. I'm just happy to have laces that do the job.

New shoelaces!

November 23, 2007

Bearing fruit

An orange!

Long-time readers know that I have an orange tree in my living room, a tree planted by Shaggy Hair Boy about twelve years ago at Blonde Sister's house. The tree belongs to Shaggy Hair, but I'm the one who waters it. And I have to prune it pretty often because the branches brush against the ceiling. The tree has lots of glossy green leaves and sharp thorns, but it has never actually produced fruit. Until now.

The other day, the boys were jamming in the living room, and I was in the midst of my annual pre-holiday cleaning binge, which involves pulling out stuff piled in corners of the house and yelling at the kids to choose what crap they want to keep because I'm going to get rid of it all right now, this very instant. Usually, the kids avoid me when I'm doing projects like that, but instead, Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy began yelling for me to come and look at the orange tree.

I figured it was some kind of a joke. I came and stared at the branch they were pointing at. I couldn't see anything.

"Right there, Mom," said Boy in Black. "Look closer!"

Then I saw it: a little green fruit, the size of a golf ball, hanging precariously from the tip of a branch. Fruit! On our orange tree!

Everyone in the house came running to look at it. Then I looked into the branches near the ceiling, the ones that get pushed up against the window when the musicians shove the tree out of their way. There I saw another small, misshapen piece of fruit. And this one was even orange!

Since Blonde Sister was in Big City Like No Other, we made a video on my daughter's cell phone and sent it to her. Yes, we made a video of an orange that was just hanging on a tree, doing absolutely nothing. We do lead exciting lives.

Of course, family members who haven't seen the fruit yet are skeptical. One sister came up with the theory that someone sneaked into the house at night, ignored the four laptop computers in the living room, and quietly super-glued fruit to the tree. "You need to start locking your doors," she said.

When we talked over the phone yesterday to the family gathered in the city, Blonde Sister insisted on talking to With-a-Why, to hear the story from him. I don't think she's really going to believe it until she sees the orange with her own eyes. Or reads about it on my blog.

November 22, 2007


Refrigerator music

Any family members who live in town usually gather at my mother's house for Thanksgiving. This year the crowd was smaller than usual. Blonde Sister and her family decided to go to Big City Like No Other to have dinner with Red-haired Niece and Urban Sophisticate Sister. They were watching the parade from the place where Urban Sophisticate works and, judging from their text messages and cell phone pictures, had quite the view. When I talked to Urban Sophisticate on the phone later in the day, they had just eaten a big meal and were ready for naps. Red-haired Sister and her family, who usually don't come for Thanksgiving because they come for Christmas, were vacationing in a Warm Country Where Thanksgiving is not Even a Holiday. My brother and his new wife stayed in Camera City to spend the day with assorted family and friends there.

So only nine of us gathered at my mother's house, a group small enough to fit around one table. My mother cooked the traditional turkey dinner, and several apple pies, and the house smelled like good food as we came in from the cold. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy brought their guitars, so we had music while we talked. We called Urban Sophisticate on a cell phone to sing happy birthday to her, and that somehow led to a long phone conversation between With-a-Why and Blonde Sister about the orange tree in our living room. Boy in Black got out his laptop out to set up my parents' new wireless router. (Yes, they've gone wireless! I can blog from their house now, although since they only live five miles away, I'm not sure why I ever would.) At one point, I walked into the living room to see all four of my kids and my father crowded onto the couch to watch clips of Laurel and Hardy on Boy in Black's laptop. I'm not sure, but I think he was teaching his grandfather how to download stuff illegally.

Snow was falling as we drove home, and Christmas music was playing on the radio. It feels like the holiday season has begun.

The photo shows Boy in Black in my parents' kitchen.

November 21, 2007



Today, people are traveling. My students are heading home: jouncing half-asleep on a bus seat, or listening to an iPod on the train, or crowded into the backseat of a car with backpacks and laptops. Friends are driving miles and miles to be with family, some of them with small children strapped into car seats or homemade goodies balanced on the back seat. For other friends, the beginning of the holiday season is not a physical journey, but an emotional journey, at time to remember who they are, who they are becoming, who they want to be.

I am cuddled in a big chair by my own fire, surrounded by family and cats. My kids are home; in fact, all four are piled on the couch right now, talking and joking with each other. This afternoon, I took my mother-in-law shopping; tomorrow, we go to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. As I doze sleepily by the warm fire, listening to the affectionate chatter of my children as they tease each other, I think of those friends who are on difficult journeys, who are driving into a storm and then going straight through, and I try to send them some energy, some warmth from my hearth.

November 20, 2007


I haven't had a snake dream in a long time. Until Sunday night.

The dream began innocently enough. I was with a group of strangers in a room full of tables and chairs, at an event that had kind of an American Idol feel to it: we were competing for some kind of job. We were raising our hands and answering questions, and I was sort of feeling desperate to show that I was not like anyone else.

A man in a furry vest took me into this side room and told me I needed to do a snake demonstration. The room had cement block walls, and metal tables and cages. The man handed me thick leather gloves and two sticks and pointed me to a glass cage that held two snakes. The snakes were colorful, bright orange and red and black, and both were curled up in sort of figure eight shapes, more like ropes than snakes really. I felt petrified, but I can remember thinking to myself, "I have to do this. I have to show him that I can do this." (In real life, I am not particularly afraid of snakes, especially the harmless snakes we have in this part of the country, but in dreams, I am terrified of them. They seem to be much more than just snakes.)

I figured that as long as I had the gloves and sticks, I could manage to handle the snakes without touching them. But then, somehow, I lost the gloves and the sticks. They were gone. I searched desperately, and couldn't find them. I knew then I would have to pick the snakes up with my hands. I felt so anxious about this that I couldn't talk, could barely breathe. I went back to the glass cage, and noticed that the snakes were outside the cage. They were loose! One of them was beginning to move toward the crack in the wall.

I panicked. The snakes were getting loose! And it was my fault! And I didn't have gloves or the stick! I felt paralyzed. The snake slithered into the crack and disappeared. I made my legs move. I ran out of the building, a big stone, castle-like structure. And there on the green lawn, I saw one of the snakes, curled up. A man was lying on the grass, and I went over to ask him for help. He turned over, and under him was the other snake. I screamed ... and woke myself up screaming.

I hate these dreams. Afterwards, I couldn't sleep. I looked around the dark room and wondered if snakes were creeping out of the cracks in the walls. (Perhaps it's because I'm such a sound sleeper, but I don't think very logically in the middle of the night. I can sort of function in a sleep state.) My husband, who woke up when I screamed, said comforting things and pointed out that we have never had a snake in our bedroom. I told him that I was fine, and he went back to sleep.

I went downstairs to my office to put on a light, to wake myself up and get myself out of this dream world in which snakes come rolling out of cracks in the walls. As I looked at my computer, an email chimed in. The email was from Artist Friend, who happened to be up late working on his computer. I sent him a quick email, to have some kind of contact with another awake human being, and that made me feel better.

My friend Poet Woman has told me that I should embrace the snakes in my dreams. Snakes can represent change, growth, and transformation. And it's true that snakes, both real snakes and dream snakes, appear at times of positive change in my life. But still, the dream was so frightening that I was still shaking as I read the email from Artist Friend.

In the email, Artist Friend talked about going to an observatory with his son to see the Holmes Comet. And I remembered that when I'd had breakfast with Poet Woman and her husband on Friday, they'd both told me to look for the comet too. Poet Woman, had explained exactly how to find it.

So I put on my winter coat and boots, grabbed the binoculars, and stepped out my front door. A bit of moonlight was glittering off the patches of snow drifted on the frozen ground. I took a few deep breaths of the icy night air. Snakes do not live in these kind of temperatures. I could feel myself calming down.

Above my head, stars hung in the darkness, filling the space from the top of the woods to my own roof. Immediately, I saw something different, a blurry shape that isn't usually there. The comet! It seemed to be pulsing, but perhaps that was simply my eyes adjusting to the darkness.

I stood for a few minutes in the darkness, feeling tiny and insignificant. I looked carefully at the comet and then at my own home, with just the light from my office spilling out onto the snow. I came back into the warm house, kicking off the boots and hanging my coat on the back of my chair. Another email chimed in: Artist Friend telling me to go back to bed. I climbed back up the stairs, back to my warm bed, sleepy and calm now, but still wondering why the snakes have appeared to me again.

November 19, 2007

That's where it's at

Apple pie

The apple pie had been made that morning, by the community at Beautiful Hair's church. As we relaxed by the fire with cups of hot tea, eating the delicious pie, Beautiful Hair talked about the apple pie fundraiser she runs. Whole families get involved. Kids peel apples, another group cuts them up. One group of adults and teenagers roll out the crusts. Crimping the crusts is the most important job, given to a group of old women who have been doing it for years. At the very end, a small child has the job of sprinkling "love" or a bit of sugar on the crust to make it glitter. And in just a weekend, the community produces and sells 500 apple pies. Beautiful Hair had supervised the whole process, and she brought Apple Pie #500 to her friends.

We, that is, the group of friends who call themselves Wild Women, were gathered at the home of Gorgeous Eyes, a lovely old house in Town by the Lake. We spent the first part of the evening eating and chatting, catching up on our lives. We haven't shared a meal together since our retreat in the mountains more than a month ago. Since two of the women present hadn't been on the retreat, we felt obligated to re-tell some of our adventures. Of course, by now the stories have been exaggerated wildly.

For instance, my friends are now claiming that when we took a walk late at night to an ice cream parlor, I was flashing my breasts at the cars that drove by. The real story is that I used the white bra I was wearing to SAVE OUR LIVES. Really. Nights are dark in the woods, and we were following a narrow road. When headlights approached in the distance, it suddenly occurred to me that we were all wearing dark clothes: Gorgeous Eyes, for example, was wearing black pants and a black shirt. All those junior high school safety videos about wearing white or reflective material at night raced through my mind. And at the moment, I realized the only white clothing I had on was my white bra. In a flash, I had pulled up my sweatshirt, just in time to catch the headlights of the car and alert the driver that he need to swerve and avoid the gang of women on the road. My action was, in other words, just short of heroic.

Of course, on that same weekend, you may recall that my friends did pose nude for my blog. When I announced that my blog is now the number four yahoo hit for "photos of middle-aged naked women," Signing Woman laughed, but Gorgeous Eyes reacted in horror. "What? We aren't number one?" Junk Food Woman complained that she didn't like her pseudonym, but then she couldn't come up with anything better, which means she is now in danger of becoming The Wild Woman Who Doesn't Like Her Pseudonym.

One of my friends brought a karaoke machine that belonged to her daughter, complete with several CDs of Popular Party Music Mostly From the 70s. Despite the many jokes and sarcastic remarks made as we looked over our music choices, it took only moments for everyone to start singing and dancing to the music. I am not a musician so I won't comment on the music itself, but I will say that seeing the lyrics on the television screen was pretty painful. Does all 70s music have such lame lyrics? And yet, the corny lyrics just made the singing more fun, because mostly we were laughing so hard we could barely sing. We didn't take turns, but all sang at the same time, dancing in unison like the Jackson Five, except with less precision. We ended the night with our arms around each other, swaying back and forth, singing, "That's What Friends Are For."

November 18, 2007


Yesterday morning, I had to get up early to drive With-a-Why to a piano competition. Well, I don't know if competition is the right word. He had to go in to the piano studio and play a couple of songs in front of a judge. He had the early morning time slot, which meant he was half-asleep as we drove over. When we walked in the studio, only one kid was ahead of him, a little boy dressed smartly in dress pants and a dress shirt. The kid's mother seemed all nervous, "This is his first time, " she said to me. I think the sight of With-a-Why, dressed in an old black band t-shirt, his uncombed hair hanging in his face, calmed her down.

The first little boy went into the other room, picked his way laborously through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and came out looked pleased with himself. The mother and I congratulated him, and then they stayed to listen to With-a-Why. One of the songs he was playing was the "Flight of the Bumblebee." It's a fast song, and his fingers fly across the keys as he plays.

The mother turned to me. "Wow."
Then she asked, in an undertone, "How often do you make him practice?"

That question always surprises me, although it shouldn't because I get it from other parents all the time.

"I don't make him practice," I said. "He plays all the time — someone in my house is always playing the piano — but it's completely up to him whether or not he chooses to play."

It's a weird thing amongst parents in my area. They have the idea that a "good parent" tells their kids when to do homework, when to practice music, what to eat. I never do any of those things. I never tell my kids to do their homework, I never tell them when to practice their music, and I let them eat whatever they want whenever they want, although they are limited by the fact that we keep only healthy food in the house. What shocks parents is not how casual my parenting is (because after all, they all know I'm the crazy liberal feminist), but the fact that my kids have turned out so well: healthy, smart, and musical. Despite their slacker parents! The idea of empowering their kids to take charge of their lives is simply an idea that has not occurred to many parents in this community.

The piano teacher came over to talk to me, while With-a-Why was talking shyly to the judges, and she asked whether or not Shaggy Hair Boy liked the piece she had sent home with him the week before.

"Your kids can be hard to teach, " she said. I looked at her in surprise.

"See, most kids take lessons because their parents want them to," she explained. "So we just go through the songs in the book. But your kids play because they want to. So I have to find songs they will like, or work with songs they bring in. It's more of a challenge."

I laughed. Then With-a-Why came out, and she hugged him. We looked at the judge's sheet. He always gets high numbers but I can never understand the comments, hand-written and full of musical jargon : "Your something-or-other is excellent. Something-or-other dynamic shaping. Your left hand something-or-other. Great something-or-other and musical control!"

But I loved the last sentence on the sheet: "Your playing is full of sparkle!" That, I understood. As we drove home, I looked over at With-a-Why. "That sentence sums it up. Your playing is full of sparkle!"

He looked at me sideways, "Mom! That was the one sentence that didn't say anything."

"No, it was the one sentence that said everything."

He was muttering about something he could have done differently -- he sets very high standards for himself -- but as we drove home through the snowy world, he gave me one of his rare smiles. He shook his long, unwashed hair back into his face, and snuggled back against the seat, this quiet child who knows how to make the music sparkle.

Self-portrait at the music studio

Above the keys

November 17, 2007

Answer key

Winter begins

Last February, the snow was so deep in my backyard that I couldn't find one of the picnic tables. This morning, I took a photo of the two picnic tables so that later this winter, I'll know just where to find them.

November 16, 2007

Despite the cold

Last night, I drove to a small community art gallery to meet some friends and look at the art that had just been hung. The gathering included several pseudonymous bloggers, but I've gotten so lax about staying anonymous that I am not going to link to any of them. My friend Poet Woman, who is an artist as well as a writer, scientist, photographer, healer, and all-around amazing person, had traveled all day to be at the opening, which featured some of her work. A group of us claimed a clump of chairs, hanging out and talking, catching up on news. Poet Woman's grown daughters, who both live in Snowstorm Region, encouraged her to tell all kinds of stories, including the one about the leech she once kept as a pet. The leech, I think, was before all the white mice that once lived in her bedroom.

This morning, the story-telling continued in the diner where I met Poet Woman and her husband for breakfast. Snow was falling, big flakes carried by a strong wind, and we all kept talking about how pretty snow seems this early in the season, when we are still excited to see it. After filling ourselves with breakfast food, we drove to a park to take a walk amidst all the new whiteness.

Even though I was wearing wool hiking boots and a winter coat, I felt ill-prepared for the sudden burst of winter weather. The three of us kept laughing at how cold we were, shivering and huddling together for warmth, all of us risking frostbite to our fingers to take out our cameras. As we trudged along a trail, Poet Woman and I caught up on all that has happened in our lives over the last few weeks while her husband ran ahead and took pictures of us, dropping back now and then to join the conversation. Poet Woman and I often talk to each other over email, typing words on our computers in warm houses hundreds of miles apart, but how much easier it was to talk in person, to look at each other's eyes and give each other hugs, our heads bent against the fierce wind, taking turns to walk in front and shield each other from the cold.

Wind and snow

November 15, 2007

Words, always

Words, always

I've kept a journal for as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, I'd take the notebooks we had leftover at the end of the school year and gleefully rip out pages covered with math problems or definitions. When I was done, I'd have a stack of thin notebooks, with bent spirals but lots of clean pages left. As I got older, I began being fussier. I like a journal to be spiral-bound, lined, and small enough to carry with me wherever I go. But not too small.

I keep my most recent journals on a shelf in my home office, with the idea that I can thumb through them for inspiration, although to be honest, I mostly just look at the most recent one. The pages of my journals are messy, filled with all kinds of rambling scribbling. Ideas for poems or blog posts. Lists of goals. Names of books I want to read. Angry venting. Random descriptions. Memories written down. Lists of things I want to do. I write down thoughts to get them out of my head so I have room to think.

I have a separate monastery journal, and that one is different from the rest. I write in it only twice each year. This journal is about me, my personal goals, my spiritual journey, the ways I am trying to become the person I want to be. Every time I go to the monastery on retreat, I have time to think about those goals, about the issues I am working on. I write down my feelings. I write down all that has happened over the last half-year: the painful moments, the joyous moments, the revelations, the mistakes, the insight.

Each time, I reread the whole journal to see what progress I've made, to make sure I am climbing in the right direction, that I haven't wandered too far off the path. The journal forces me to be honest with myself. Always, as I sit in the crypt or on a bench at the edge of a sheep pasture, I look at the contents of my monastery journal and am thankful for the richness of my life, the many moments of grace.

November 14, 2007


At the very end of January of this year, I injured my knee. Anyone who was reading my blog at that time probably remembers the injury because I think I mentioned it in every single blog post all winter long. You might recall that it was a snowboarding injury. It was, in fact, quite possibly the most embarrassing sports injury in the history of sports. I got injured getting off the chair lift on the very first run of the season.

Anyhow, the doctor I saw, after my family and friends and a whole posse of bloggers hounded me to seek medical assistance, declared that I had stretched the medial collateral ligament and pinched the cartilage. He said that I might recover fully, but maybe not.

All February, the knee injury kept me awake at night, with the kind of throbbing pain that just encouraged me to lie awake and relive the tapes of all the worst moments of my life. This is not an activity I would recommend to anyone who values their sanity. In the daytime, I couldn't hike or snowshoe or ski or snowboard: I was reduced to walking like a very old person on the paths shoveled through the snowdrifts, hobbling along the icy sidewalks as carefully as I could.

At the beginning of March, I traveled with my injured knee to City in the South Where Pine Straw is Used as Mulch. Despite the limp, I walked one day in the spring sunshine all the way from my hotel to the botanical gardens, a journey that turned out to be much longer than I had expected. As I sat in the sunshine, looking at plants and a water fountain and scenes familiar because I'd seen them on a blog, I could feel the sun warming that stiff leg, healing it.

Later in March, I walked with my husband and daughter through two European Cities, climbing spiral staircases with difficulty and limping down quaint cobblestone streets, slipping past heavy wooden doors into cathedrals to light candles for a friend back in the states who was going through a difficult time. By May, the injury had healed enough for me to shovel dirt, push a wheelbarrow, and take on a landscaping project that included my planting a river birch on my front lawn. By late summer, I had decided that the injury had healed: I was kneeling in canoes, hiking with no difficulty, and walking everywhere I wanted to go. The injury I thought was over, a chapter in my life gone forever.

But in early October, on a weekend in the mountains with my women friends, I entered a labyrinth made of bricks and mulch. The labyrinth is a walking meditation; I was striding through all kinds of emotions, stepping through them, letting them go. When I reached the very middle of the labyrinth, feeling safe and calm and peaceful, I tried to sit down, cross-legged on the mulch. And that motion caused me a terrible jolt of pain. My right leg, the one I thought was completely healed, simply couldn't relax into the position. The muscles were too tight.

The injury had healed but I guess the pain had gotten me into the bad habit of not using my leg, of dragging it about like a phantom limb. The healing, I realized, was not finished. So every morning now, I sit on the floor and put the bottoms of my feet together and start stretching out those leg muscles.

I know it is going to take time. I am still relearning how to use the leg, how to shift the patterns of my life, how to work through the pain, how to stretch myself.


November 13, 2007

Security folder

At the beginning of the semester, I gave each of my first year students a manilla folder. "It's your portfolio," I said. "Guard it with your life. " I told them that no student of mine has ever lost a folder, and I didn't want one of them to be the first. They nodded seriously. Most of the students bring the manilla folder to every class, and many doodle on the outside cover during class discussions.

By the time I collected the folders last week, they were no long clean and new looking. They were worn on the edges, heavily decorated, and filled with papers. I could recognize which folder belonged to which student without even looking at the name on the tab. Each portfolio contained a dozen short response papers, a stack of freewrites, two formal papers, some rough drafts, some creative writing, and a reflection paper. I carried the stack of folders home and kept them for several days, taking my time to reread some of the papers before assigning each student a midterm grade.

In class, one student announced that she had woken up that morning, looked for her folder, and couldn't find it. "I totally panicked," she said, "I was going crazy." She was ripping apart the whole room, searching desperately for it when her roommate woke up and reminded her that I had it. "I felt so relieved," she said. I laughed at the story, but other students nodded in sympathy.

When I returned the folders, the students seemed eager to get them back. One student sighed in relief; another hugged hers possessively, tucking it under her arm like a security blanket. One young man smiled fondly at his folder before sliding it into his backpack. "Some of my best writing is in here."

November 12, 2007

Listening to clouds


Sometimes, even on a busy day, when I've got papers to grade and groceries to buy and a long list of things to do, I have to stop the car and step into cold air to listen to clouds moving toward me.

November 11, 2007

A is for Amazing Woman!

A recent conversation with my sixteen-year-old son made me realize, once again, how often the efforts of high school English teachers go unrewarded.

Me: Hey, did anyone at your school dress up for Halloween this year?
Shaggy Hair: Lots of kids did. And some of the teachers.
Me: Any good costumes?
Shaggy Hair: They were lame.
Shaggy Hair: Ms. English Teacher dressed as Hester Prynne.
Me: Oh, that's clever. Since you all had to read The Scarlet Letter over the summer.
Shaggy Hair: Kids didn't really get it.
Me: What did she wear?
Shaggy Hair: An old-fashioned dress and the letter A pinned to her chest.
Me: Well, that should have been a dead give-away.
Shaggy Hair: Not really. Kids were saying, "Why does Ms. English Teacher have a letter pinned to her chest? Is she supposed to be some kind of superhero?"

November 10, 2007

Spreading roots


It wasn't the best weather for tree planting: temperatures near freezing and a cold rain. But the community service project had been planned months ago. When we — that is, me and thirty college students — arrived at the site, the other volunteers were already gathered in circles, drinking coffee and waiting for instructions from the group leaders. We'd come to an old neighborhood in a hilly section of Snowstorm City, the Irish section of town. On this hill, the green light on the traffic signal is on the top and not the bottom, thanks to a local tradition started by the Irish immigrants who settled here years ago.

The volunteers seemed mostly to be retired people who lived in the neighborhood, probably about the right age to be grandparents to my college students. As the students picked up shovels, pick axes, and rakes, eager to get started, an elderly man with a headful of white hair and a red fleece vest turned to me and said with a smile, "It's nice to have this infusion of young energy."

Long Island Student had brought the bag of gloves that Cheery Administrator at Little Green always sends with us on community service projects. They are apparently, all-purpose gloves. No matter what project we are doing — painting a shelter, clearing brush, taking water samples, planting trees, working at a soup kitchen — we're given this same bag of brown cloth gloves. None of us have ever quite figured out what exactly the gloves are for, but today we decided that we'd wear them for warmth.

The trees had already been delivered to spots in the neighborhood, most of them to planted in the bit of lawn between the sidewalks and the road. Soon every group was hard at work, digging holes, spreading the roots, backfilling with dirt, tapping dirt down, and staking the newly planted trees with wire. Even though it was early, the cold air had woken everyone up, and all kinds of joking accompanied the work. The students worked quickly to plant the trees they'd been assigned, finishing way ahead of schedule, and then began checking to see what other groups needed help.

I heard the lead organizer say into her cell phone, "Okay, we've got this roving band of forestry students with shovels and pickaxes. Do you need any help over there?"

The sun came out as we walked back, admiring all the new trees that were standing sturdily now, with guy wires in place to protect them from the fierce winter winds. We passed lovely old homes and several Irish pubs. At one house, two little kids who pressed their faces against the glasses and waved at us were rewarded with all kinds of silly antics from the college students.

As we climbed back onto the bus, our work done, students called goodbyes to the other volunteers. One student said, as she settled into her seat, "We'll have to come back in the spring to see if these trees flower."

November 08, 2007

First snow

First snow

It came late this year. Usually we get snow before Halloween. And all we got yesterday was a dusting, just enough to stick to car windshields and fence posts. The ground isn't frozen yet so anything that landed on the grass just melted away. But still, it's a warning, a signal to get out the winter coats and mittens, the long underwear and wool socks. It's time to sign up for those ski passes, check to see if everyone's snowboard boots fit. Time to put snow tires on the car, get the snow shovels out. Winter is coming.

November 07, 2007

Beneath the pier

Last Saturday, on a dark and rainy afternoon, I escaped from the conference I was attending to walk with Artist Friend to the waterfront of City By the Sea. Some kind of storm was hitting the coast, with high winds and a drenching rain. But we both like walking in the rain, and we had an hour to spare before the evening plenary session. Big puddles were already forming in the narrow, brick-lined streets, and the bright yellow leaves on the sidewalks seemed to glow as we made our way to the waterfront. The little shops were filled with corny tourist gifts, cool model sailboats, and warm light that spilled out the windows and doors.

Sailboats and motorboats were covered and tied to the docks, the masts rocking in the wind. The tide was low, so as we walked down along the floating dock, we could look right under the pier. The big pilings looked spooky in the dimness of late afternoon, and water came rushing down through the planks, dripping, trickling, splashing, like a waterfall run through a sieve. Even though my sneakers were soaked, we walked several blocks down to see a big cruise ship, a most gigantic ship, that was trapped in the harbor by the storm. We could see the lit rooms of the ship, with passengers moving about, probably talking excitedly about the events of the day. We walked back through gale force winds, too cold even to talk, before retreating to the warm art museum where food and colleagues awaited us.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, having slept soundly even though I was in a strange hotel, I looked at the clock on my bedside table and wondered why it didn't match the time on my cell phone. That's when I realized that thanks to Daylight Savings Time, I had a whole bonus hour! I knew immediately how I wanted to spend that hour.

The storm from the night before had disappeared, and the docks were striped with shadows and sunshine. I could hear seagulls calling, and the air smelled of salt and fish. In the morning brightness, I walked up and down the docks, stopping to examine the boats and deciding which one I'd choose for myself, settling at last on a sailboat with a bright red hull. It was bigger than the sailboats I'm used to, but I just loved the lines and the brilliant color. I found a spot where I could sit quietly in the morning sun, breathing in the blue sky and seaweed smell, a few moments to myself before returning to the conference.

Beneath the pier

That's me in the brown coat. Photo taken by Artist Friend.

November 06, 2007

Conference by the sea

By the sea

Although I love going to panels and hearing speakers, my favorite part of an academic conference is seeing old friends and meeting new people. I'm an extrovert who just thrives on the endless opportunities to socialize. Some of my colleagues are close friends whom I only get to see once or twice each year, so I try to make the most of my conference time, even if that means subjecting myself to sleep deprivation.

It's great to hug friends after months limited to emails or phone calls. Artist Friend had grown a beard since I'd seen him in June, a fact that he had not mentioned in any of his emails. A beard! I kept rubbing it to see if it was real. Of course, my big worry was that the sea captain look would cause him to sing sea chanties, a worry that has more grounding in reality than you might think, but luckily, no opportunity for macho singing arose. Philadelphia Guy, who had long hair when I first met him but who has since cut it short, keeps assuring me that he will grow his hair long again as soon as he moves to his next job. It's the main reason I am rooting for him to be successful in his job search.

Songbird and her Amazing Blogging Dog weren't the only bloggers I met while I was in City With Sailboats and Seafood Restaurants; several bloggers attended the conference. Because I've gotten so loose about pseudonymity (and by "loose" I mean that I announced the name of my top-secret pseudonymous blog at my session), I am not going to give even the pseudonyms of the bloggers I met. At least one of them is on the job market, which is when bloggers are most paranoid about being outed. But I will say that it was fun to lapse into blogspeak with colleagues in the know. And I had a most wonderful time getting to know a blogger whom I've known since the my earliest days of blogger, who was as smart and fun as I thought she'd be. She reminded me of my daughter, which is the highest compliment I can give.

The double identity of the blogging world brought me the usual confusion. One of the bloggers was named Joe in real life, and every time someone said his name, I would turn and answer, thinking that we were using pseudonyms. At one session I attended, the panel included Smart Friendly Blogger, a blogger I've known for years, and Artist Friend, who is, of course, a character on my blog. At my own session, I mentioned that the most of the pieces I was reading had begun as blog posts, and that led to a lively discussion of blogging. It felt very much like the late hours of a Halloween party when people start throwing down their masks and taking off parts of their costumes.

The reputation of my posting nude photos on my blog seems to follow me from conference to conference. I was eating with a bunch of my male colleagues one night when Philadelphia Guy nudged me, "Hey, you could probably get one of them to pose nude for your blog."

I made the offer. The man to my left, Polish Accent and Ponytail, laughed and shrugged, "Sure. Just buy me a few drinks first." He stripped off his shirt right then and there to show me his tattoos, which prompted colleagues all around me to pull off items of clothing to show THEIR tattoos. Who would have expected so many tattoos amongst a bunch of academics? Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, I didn't have my camera with me, because the owner of the place was already giving us suspicious looks.

Of course, the jokes about nude photos led to all kinds of bizarre discussions. Sharp Guy, who works in West Coast City Famous for a Proliferation of Movie Stars talked about how the biggest industry in his area is porn; in every class he teaches, at least one student will have a some kind of connection to the porn industry. Somehow, we jumped from porn to sports, everyone chiming in about the influence sports teams have at their school. I had no sports anecdotes to offer, since Little Green doesn't have any sports teams, but I did brag to them that I work at the forestry college that has the best Woodsmen's team in the country. (And we do -- our students know how to use chainsaws and axes.)

Sharp Guy gave me a startled look. "You know what a Woodsman is, right? It's a porn term."

Apparently, everyone knew that except me. He explained that a Woodsman is sort of a stunt double, hired usually for his ability to keep a certain body part rigid.

These are the things that I learn at conferences.

November 05, 2007

Naked blogger


The one thing I regret about my stay in City That Smells Like French Fries and Seafood and Salt Air was that I didn't have a chance to meet Songbird's sometimes-blogging husband, Pure Luck. I think he and I would get along quite well since we both like hiking and deep philosophical conversations, two pastimes that go together beautifully. I know my readers are disappointed that he wasn't in town because my not-so-secret plan was to convince him to pose naked. Those of us who have seen photos of Pure Luck know that he has great legs, and I think a nude photo of him would have brought this blog all kinds of traffic.

But luckily, another blogger from the Songbird household stepped up to the plate. Big Friendly Dog, it turns out, runs around naked on the beach all the time, and she was willing to pose for any number of photos. Most of them turned out blurry because she was a bit too enthusiastic about rolling about for the camera or giving the photographer kisses, but still, this is a milestone for this blog. Naked dog photos.




I had intended to go to every session of the academic conference, even though the panels were held in hotel rooms without windows or natural light. The sessions went from 8 a.m. until about 10 p.m. at night, and the conference program included things to do every moment of the day, even going so far as to instruct us to be awake at 2 a.m. to change our clocks. I had intended to follow that rigorous schedule for three days. I had intended to spend every break in the lobby of the hotel, mingling with suit-wearing coffee-drinking academic folks. I had even brought a blazer.

I was going to behave this time like a serious academic.

But on Friday morning, a station wagon pulled up in front of the hotel. I had stepped outside for just a moment, just to long enough to notice that the sun was shining and the sky was the kind of deep blue that happens only in the fall. I fully intended to go right back to yet another session on the Critique of the Ambiguity of the Convergence of Cybernetics as Cultural Symbols and the Subversion of Self in the Spatial Reframing of the Embodied Notion of the Pathological Immanence or Operative Aftereffects of the Ways in Which Mice Code Reality.

But I was no match for the occupants of the station wagon, a tiny woman and her two huge furry attack dogs, who smothered me with hugs and forced me to spend the afternoon playing along the shore in the bright sun and salty air.

I've long wanted to meet Songbird; it seems like we've been blogging friends forever. She's just what I imagined; warm, soft-spoken, quick to laugh, full of interesting stories and compassionate responses. We had a most wonderful afternoon, beginning with lunch in a cute cafe that served vegetarian sandwiches. She gave me a tour of City by the Sea, telling me all kinds of historical tidbits and anecdotes about the landmarks we were passing. We walked along a promenade and played with the dogs on a beach that smelled wonderfully of seaweed and salt water.

And of course, we talked pretty much non-stop, chatting happily about our kids, our husbands, our blogs, and all of the kinds of things old friends discuss. Songbird kept patting me, as if to see if I was real, which is exactly what I do when I meet a blogger. We'd hug each other and say ridiculous things like, "Oh, your hair smells nice." There's just something about finally meeting a friend in person! I was quite jealous of how thick and curly her hair was; I think if she grew it long, she would look very much like my Shaggy Hair Boy.

The only real surprise about the meetup were the two dogs. I'd seen photos of them, and I thought I knew what they looked like. But they were both way bigger than I thought. They are seriously huge dogs and just unbelievably furry and friendly.

The time went by quickly. I kept saying things like, "I really should get back to the conf— oh, stop here! Let's take photos! Can you take me to a lighthouse?"

By the time we drove back to my hotel, the two big furry dogs were flopped down in the back of the vehicle, exhausted from running about in the sunshine and salty air. I myself felt saturated with sunshine and talk. The November wind on the shore had swept the stale hotel air out of my brain. As Songbird and I hugged goodbye, we were both already planning what kinds of things we might do the next time we get together.

November 01, 2007

On the road again

I've been home only for a couple days, and I've spend most of that time trying frantically to catch up with the long to-do lists on my desk. It's advising week on campus, and I've been trying to see as many students as possible. Because early this morning, I leave again, this time for a conference.

I am looking forward to meeting new people, seeing old friends, exploring a city. I'll be going to concurrent sessions and listening to plenary speakers. And it's possible I may run into a blogger or two ....