September 30, 2009

Misty morning

Monking Friend and I have been going to the monastery together for more than twelve years. Sometimes another friend will join us, but often it is just the two of us. Her friendship is part of my monastery experience. We know each other's husbands and kids, we read many of the same books, and we can talk for hours about our lives. Monking Friend and I are opposites in many ways: she's an introvert, and I'm an extrovert. She's never posed naked for my blog. She's always giving me a perspective that I wouldn't have thought of.

Usually, we spend the whole car ride talking — and most of the first evening as well. But we are good at giving each space as well. We read a lot while we're on retreat, and we know how to give a respectful silence to someone who is engrossed in a book. In fact, the first thing we do when we arrive at the monastery is dump out our books (we each bring about a dozen) to see what the other person brought. Monking Friend will say, "Hey, I thought you'd like this." By the next day, I'll have read one of her books, and soon we'll be deep in conversation about it. Monking Friend introduced me to authors like Sue Monk Kidd and Kathleen Norris, and to concepts like the Enneagram.

We had rainy weather for our fall retreat this year, but we spent it cozily in the living room of our guesthouse, reading books and writing in our journals, drinking hot tea and talking.

But the misty rain is great weather for walking too. One morning, I left the warmth of the old stone farmhouse, and hiked up along the sheep pastures. Billowing fog drifted back and forth along the hills. When I looked back at the little clump of buildings, I could just make out the barns, the guesthouses, the bookstore, and the spire of the chapel. I kept on going, following the fence line. The damp, soft world seemed peaceful as I hiked along, my jeans getting soaked as I climbed through pasture grasses towards a treeline that was just beginning to change colour.

Misty morning walk

For dappled things

For dappled things

Afternoon sunlight on the side of the sheep barn. Yes, the monks have window boxes on the barn.

September 29, 2009

In the crypt


On a rainy day at the monastery, I go down into the crypt to meditate. A long stone staircase with a simple wooden railing leads the way down. Stained glass widows let multi-coloured light, but the crypt is mostly dim. Votive candles cast a flickering light on a fourteenth century stone statue of Mary as a young woman.

Most of the time, I’m alone in the crypt. I’ll take a few minutes to check the votive candles. If any have burned out, I’ll take the empty glass jars into the storage room, putting them back into the brown cardboard boxes. If the table near the entrance doesn’t have many new candles on it, I’ll carry out a box and arrange them neatly. I like doing simple tasks at the monastery: that way, I feel part of the community.

Then I sit cross-legged on the stone floor, close enough to feel the warmth from the candles. That’s my favourite place to just relax and think. I light candles sometimes, and move around the candles that are already there, just to feel the warmth in my hands and to hear the sound glass makes as it rubs against stone.

When it’s time to meditate, I close my eyes. I do what some call a surrender meditation. If I catch myself thinking, I let the thought go. That’s pretty much it. It sounds simple, but twenty minutes of meditation can be fairly intense. Afterwards, I warm my hands on a candle again, and just sit with the fire, allowing all the familiar thoughts to crowd back into my brain.

September 28, 2009



After a full day of teaching classes and a tense department meeting that went overtime, I grabbed my bags and jumped into a car with Monking Friend. We talked as we drove through miles of farmland, high up into the hills where the trees are just beginning to turn yellow. We caught up on news, vented stress, and told each other, “I really need this retreat.”

It was getting dark when we pulled up to the stone farmhouse where we’d be staying. I could barely see the white cross on the old barn near the sheep pasture. The bell at the top of the chapel was ringing for compline, the last service of the day.

As I pulled open the heavy wooden door to the chapel, I could smell that familiar musty scent, a mix of incense and melting wax. The monks were already gathered, wearing their dark robes, standing quietly in the candlelight. I slid into my usual spot, a simple wooden bench. Brother Beekeeper caught my eye across the stone altar and smiled. As the monks began to chant, I could feel the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax. It was good to be back.

September 23, 2009

Gone monking

It's been a busy month. I've been teaching classes, taking my students on outdoor adventures, and making apples pies here at home. But this weekend, I get some time to myself. Tomorrow, after a long day of classes and meetings, I'm heading to the monastery for my fall retreat. I'll return next week with photos and stories and hopefully, some peace.

September 21, 2009

Won't you choo-choo me home?

Friday night, I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard a knock at the door. It was Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter! She’d met another grad student whose family lives near Snowstorm City, and she’d gotten a ride home with him. Apparently her brothers knew about the visit (she’s in constant communication with them via text messages), but she wanted to surprise my husband and me. We hadn’t seen her in almost two weeks so it felt wonderful to hug her.

The next morning, I baked an apple pie so we could eat pie and drink tea together. (I have been on a real pie-baking streak lately.) She had work to do — she brought her laptop home and a whole stack of pages to read — so she settled down on the couch to work, with With-a-Why snuggled up next to her. We all kept thinking of stuff we had forgotten to ask her the night before. I’m not sure how much work she got done since we all kept interrupting her constantly, and With-a-Why kept playing the song Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Of course, the two older boys came home that night, after an Ultimate tournament in Camera City. Film Guy came over. And Skater Boy. And Blue-eyed Ultimate Player. When my daughter’s home, the house fills up quickly. She’s got that celebrity status.

September 20, 2009

On fire

My favourite classroom

Before pulling out of my driveway early this morning, I had to scrape the frost off my windows. When I arrived at pine forest where I’d be spending the day with students, the sun had risen but the air temperature was still just in the 40s. Luckily, Chemistry Professor remembered to bring matches. “Of course we have to build a fire,” she said. “It’s a chemical reaction.”

A campfire enhances any discussion. The crackling sound of the fire fills the spaces between words so that pauses never feel awkward. Shy students feel more comfortable because no one is looking at them: everyone stares into the flames, almost as if they’re mesmerized. And we all sit close together, drawn together by the heat.

A campfire can make a group of random students feel like family, as we sit by the flames and share stories and talk about the landscape around us. Before dark, we gathered at the fire once again to make S’mores. Any day that ends with melted chocolate is a good day.

By the campfire

September 18, 2009

Surprise visit

Last Saturday night, Ultimate tournaments hadn’t started yet, so Shaggy Hair Boy and Boy in Black had decided to hang out at home with their little brother. Boy in Black has been having the kind of angst any senior in college has when he looks at the future. He needs to figure out what he wants to do: get a PhD in Physics? Get a PhD in Math? Which one? Skip grad school and get a job? Boy in Black is passionate about Ultimate — right now he’s playing every night of the week — but he hasn’t figured out yet how to make a living at that.

Last year, when Boy in Black was injured, we spent many Saturday evenings by the fire talking about his groin. Now we sit around and talk about grad school — whether or not he wants to devote the next five years of his life to getting another degree. You’d think the topic would be an improvement, but you’d be wrong.

In the midst of this discussion, we heard knocking at the door. Not random knocking, but a rhythmic beat that kept getting faster and faster. I opened the door, and in walked Quick — our drumming, piano-playing, chess-playing extra.

He’d come home from the college for the weekend to spend time with his grandmother, and he’d decided to surprise us. He’d been texting Shaggy Hair Boy from his cell phone, but never mentioned he was in town.

The boys gathered around the table with a deck of cards and poker chips, happily exchanging stories about their first weeks of school. Quick joined the Ultimate team at University of Camera City, of course, and he’ll see my sons at some of the tournaments this fall. When my husband and I went to bed, the four boys were still at the table, eating random food and telling funny stories.

September 17, 2009

And I'm making pie

And I'm making pie

I don’t make pie very often – but when I do make pie, it’s apple. Most fruits seem too sweet to me, but just-ripened apples, with some cinnamon and just a little sugar, make a wonderful pie filling. I use my mother’s recipe because her pie can’t be beat. She makes apple pie often in the fall: when she mentions to me that she’s been making pie, I always make sure to stop and visit, knowing that she’ll put the tea kettle on as soon as I pull in the driveway.

I’ve been making apple pie pretty often this fall, which is unusual for me. Normally, I just wait for mother to send over one of hers.

I’m not sure what started this surge of domesticity. My daughter blames Artist Friend, who made a blueberry pie when he visited this summer. (It’s true that every time I serve one of my kids a piece of pie, I say, “So my pie is better than Artist Friend’s, isn’t it?” Not that I’m competitive.) But a bigger factor is that Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy are living up at Snowstorm University. When they stop home, I like to have homemade pie to serve them.

When my daughter came home for Labor Day, I picked her up at the train station, brought her home, and immediately put on the tea kettle. As she talked, telling me about her first week of grad school, I poured cups of tea and cut slices of pie. As I sat down at the kitchen table to chat, I had a sudden realization.

“Oh, god. I’ve turned into my mother.”

She laughed and took a bite of pie. “Yeah, a little bit.”

Then she added, as she continued to eat the pie. “But that’s a good thing.”

September 16, 2009

Next time, I'll say Calvin and Hobbes

I was vacuuming the living room. With-a-Why, my ninth grader, was doing his homework and talking to me at the same time.

“What’s your favorite comic strip?” he asked.

“Peanuts!” I yelled over the sound of the vacuum cleaner.

“What?” he said. His voice sounded horrified.

“Peanuts!” I yelled even louder.

I turned the vacuum cleaner off and looked at him. He looked, hurriedly, down at his paper with kind of an embarrassed expression.

“Are you too young to remember Charles Schulz?”
“Oh, that's what you meant.”
“What did you think I said?”
“Uh, never mind.”

September 15, 2009


On the first day of class, I warned my students, “Wear jeans when you come to this class – or some kind of pants you don’t mind getting dirty. And bring a textbook that you can use as a writing surface.”

These sunny days of September could be the last sun we see until April. So I try to hold class outside as much as possible.

My students are hugely in favor of this plan, and they cooperate fully. We sneak out of the back of the building to find a quiet place on the grass that’s half shade, half sun. (I say sneak, because I use a swipe card key that’s given only to faculty, and an alarm on the door will go off if it’s held open for longer than 15 seconds. So we gather in the hall outside the door, I open the door, and they all race out quickly to beat the clock. So far, we haven’t set off the alarm yet.)

I tell them that they have to sit very close together so that we can hear each other – and they do. Sometimes they work in groups, each gathered around a textbook they’re using as desk surface, but often we’re sitting in a a circle, cross-legged, getting into intense discussions about the essays we’ve read and sharing bits of our own writing aloud.

We’ve been talking about environmental issues – I’m using an anthology called The Future of Nature, which is a collection of articles from the magazine Orion. It just doesn’t seem right to talk about our connection to the earth while we’re sitting in a windowless classroom with harsh overhead lights. So instead, we sit outside on the ground, in the sun and the wind, listening to the wind rush through the trees while we talk.

September 14, 2009

The tickle of many little feet

High ropes

Last weekend, we gave students the opportunity to dangle on ropes high in the trees. But we gave them, too, a chance to investigate the earth under their feet: to look at moss, to stare at fish in a pond, to examine seed pods, and to hold a millipede in their hands.

The students were given handheld GPS units and sent off in small groups to find faculty members hidden at stations scattered throughout the woods and fields of our retreat site. One station was in the old overgrown apple orchard, for instance, another by the pond, another in the pine woods. At a rock ampitheater in the woods, I spent the afternoon with Science Guy, a colleague who teaches animal behavior, and Entomologist, who studies bugs.

We had each group of students for twenty minutes; mostly we spent the time getting to know each other. Science Guy and I had both planned to talk about required summer reading book. But Entomologist couldn’t resist looking under rocks and finding millipedes, and teaching us fun facts about millipedes. As we talked, we passed the millipedes from person to person. Our discussion kept getting interrupted by squeals as the many feet of the millipedes tickled the bare arms of the students.

Only one student protested at the sight of the millipede. Gray Sweatshirt Student said, “Oh, no, I can’t.” Red-haired Student said right away, “Yes, you can. I’ll hold my arm next to yours and we can let it crawl back and forth. It’ll be okay.”

We all stopped talking and watched as they put their arms together, and the millipede crawled onto the bare arm of Gray Sweatshirt. She squealed and pulled her arm away, but the millipede clung. She looked away, and then down, fascinated. “Look! I’m holding it!”

Science Guy has been working with students in the field for decades. He looked at me and smiled. “This part never gets old.”


September 13, 2009

Getting high. With my students.

Getting high

I did not look down. I sat on the curve of the tree branch, holding on with both hands, and listened as students below me yelled encouraging words. I did not look down. Then the ropes instructor yelled, “Okay, get your left foot to the top, and stand up!”

I’m always asking my students to move out of their comfort zone, to allow themselves to be vulnerable. I ask them to write short papers for every class, and I expect them to share their writing with each other. I push them away from safe, formulaic ways of writing and encourage them to experiment, to play with language, to be ambitious. Students come to Little Green thinking that they might have to write a few lab reports, and I tell them that they have to write poetry too.

On a ropes course, our roles are reversed.

Many of my students have worked as camp counselors. They’ve hiked, wilderness camped, and rock-climbed. Some have been working for years with construction companies or landscape firms. Because Little Green is a college that focuses on environmental studies, we get the kind of student who is quite comfortable climbing tall trees or dangling far above the ground in a rock-climbing harness.

And these are the kind of students who are quite willing to challenge me. It was a student taught me to use an ax, making sure I bought steel-toed boots first. Little Green students have changed my eating habits, turning me into a vegan. A group from my literature class took me winter camping in the mountains. Other students, after discovering that I was claustrophobic, took me to a cave.

So when we brought our first year students on an outdoor retreat this weekend, I knew that if I was going to ask the students to move outside their comfort zone that I would have to allow myself to be vulnerable as well. And for me, that’s always the high ropes course.

I’m terrified of heights.

The adrenaline began surging though my veins as soon as I was more than ten feet off the ground. “Don’t look down,” I kept muttering to myself. The students below shouted encouragement, “Okay, now climb to the right. Just a little higher! You can do it!” The ropes instructor kept saying things like, “Okay, now relax and enjoy the view.” Yeah, right. He’s got an odd sense of humor.

What I was climbing was a dead tree, a forked tree with two branches that had been sawed off at the top. The plan was to stand and balance on the stumps that the two dead branches made. Smiley Student was my climbing partner, and we were wearing harnesses, of course. The climbers who had tried the element before us had both fallen and had been lowered safely to the ground, something that didn’t give me confidence.

Strangely, standing up, balancing myself on the wooden stump that barely held room for both my feet, wasn’t that difficult. I think I was so focused on the challenge of balancing that I didn’t even have time to think about how high up I was. After a lifetime of walking along the tops of fences, I had no trouble balancing, even on one foot. Smiley Student held my hand. She was laughing as we posed for the students below.

The tough part was when the instructor said, “Okay, you’re done! Now step off.”

That’s when I allowed myself to look. The view across the treetops was beautiful, but the ground looked very far away. It was far away. I checked the rope, looked at the cable. I called down to the young man on the other end of the rope. Stepping straight off into all that air seemed like a crazy thing to do.

“We can do it together,” said Smiley Student.

“Okay, on three,” I said. “One, two, three.”

And then we jumped.

That's me on the right, in the red shirt and helmet. I handed my camera to one of my students before I went up, and she took the photo.

September 11, 2009

In memory

In memory

When I was visiting my youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, in Big City Like No Other last spring, I noticed a black-and-white photo that dangled from a ribbon in the tiny apartment.

“That’s my 9/11 memorial,” Urban Sophisticate explained.

I looked back at the wall, confused. The frame held a picture she had taken in 1998 of the Eiffel Tower. A lovely photo, but clearly, the wrong building. Not even the right continent.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “The thing is — I had taken that photo, and I didn’t think it was very good, and then I decided that if I got it enlarged, it would be a nice photo. So I got it blown up at the photo shop in the World Trade Center, but then I never got around to hanging it up.”

On September 11, 2001, she was still uptown when the first plane hit the building. Her then-husband, Hockey Player Turned Stock Trader, was already at work: he was caught in the chaos and flying debris and black smoke when the buildings imploded, and he was missing for hours during a terrifying, confusing day, but he survived.

In the days after the terrorist attack, Urban Sophisticate said, photos were blowing around Ground Zero, mixed in with debris and thick, horrible fumes. Photos from the photo shop, I guess, or photos that people had had in their offices. Photos that had been taken in happier times. “People were picking up photos, trying to identify the people in them and send them to the families.”

And of course, everywhere, people were hanging up photos. They were searching morgues and hospitals, with photos in hands. Photos of loved ones, missing daughters and husbands and cousins, were being taped up to fences, to makeshift memorials.

It was months later that Urban Sophisticate found the photo that had been developed at the World Trade Center. It was still in the original bag, with the name of the shop on the side. She’d tucked it in her purse, probably, as she walked through the World Trade Center, hurrying as usual through a building that she’d strode through many times before, on a normal day when she was just thinking about the story she was reporting — and where she might stop to eat on the way home.

My sister took out the photo and – thinking about where she was the day she picked it up – put the picture in a frame, and hung it on her wall.

September 09, 2009

Summer's end

As I sat at the campfire, I could hear acorns dropping all around me, and squirrels scurrying from branch to branch. It felt like September.

Ten of us gathered at my parents’ camp for Labor Day weekend. The sunset came early, and with the dark came the cold. We’re not the type of family who buys sleeping bags for each person: instead we have a communal pile of old blankets and quilts, which we supplement by bringing blankets and pillows from home. Fighting over the blankets on the first cold night of September is a tradition.

My husband and I managed to snag enough blankets to keep us warm in our little tent, but my daughter reported that sharing an old sleeping bag with her little brother didn’t work so well. “We were warm enough, but I couldn’t move.”

Despite the cold nights, the river water was warm, the way it always is in early September, and the sun shone brightly. On the island, we left our usual spot, high up in the wind, and retreated to the lee side of the island where we could spread our towels on the rock and absorb the heat. I swam with my daughter and Schoolteacher Niece out to the little shoal, where we lay like seals in the shallow water. “So long as you keep your body in the water, you can’t feel the wind,” said my niece.

Sunny cool days are great for lying on the ground and doing absolutely nothing. That’s always the best part about being at camp.

Last sun of the summer

That's my daughter and two of my nieces in the photo.

September 08, 2009

"Over thar! Yonder the storm breaks!"

My family complain that I sneak around and take photos without warning. But really, when your extended family is kind of crazy, that's the only way to get some kind of normal shot. Here's what happens when I say to my daughter and my father, "Hey, those storm clouds look cool. Do you two want to pose for a picture?"

September 04, 2009

Gone sailing


We're heading up to camp for Labor Day weekend. My daughter came home by train this morning so she can join us. The weather forecast looks great so we're hoping to have one more weekend of swimming, sailing, canoeing, and playing bocce. And then -- on Tuesday, With-a-Why goes back to school, and summer is truly over.

September 03, 2009



Four years ago, With-a-Why made me a lanyard with red and blue boondoggle. I’ve had it on my keychain ever since. Every time I pick up my keys, I glance at the bright colours and think of my youngest son.

This morning, a friend put a link on facebook to a youtube clip of poet Billy Collins reading his poem “The Lanyard.” (Go ahead, click on the link and listen to the poem. Then come back and read the rest of the post.)

Tonight when I was watching the clip, With-a-Why came into my room to see what I was listening to. He’s got one evening in which to do an entire summer’s worth of homework so of course he was looking for ways to procrastinate. He’d already asked for my help, and I’d refused.

“Yeah, I read Huck Finn in grad school,” I told him. “But I’ve got nothing to say about it.” (Lest this makes me sound mean, I should add that if he was the kind of kid who honestly needed some help, I would have helped him. But he’s completely capable of doing the work on his own.)

With-a-Why climbed onto the bed, snuggling up against me. I shifted my laptop to make room for him, and we watched the video clip together. He smiled during the poem, but said nothing.

I asked, “Did you like the poem?”

He said, “I think you should help me with this stupid writing assignment.”

He put an arm around me, his head rubbing against my shoulder affectionately.
“After all, I did give you a lanyard.”

September 02, 2009

Late night visit

Last night was cool enough for a fire. I usually don’t make fires this early in the season, but a crackling fire adds another presence to the living room that feels strangely empty with so many of my kids and extra kids off at college and grad school.

My husband sat on the floor near the fireplace with his laptop, checking the stock market and baseball scores in between typing emails. I settled down on the couch next to With-a-Why. He’d begun reading the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of his required reading texts, but after about 25 pages, he’d abandoned that book in favor of one that his cousin had recommended. Procrastinating reading one book by choosing to read another is a time-honored tradition in this family.

I worked on my laptop, interrupted every few minutes by With-a-Why, who kept showing me cool passages in the book he was reading. (Embracing the Wide Sky by Daniel Tammet.) It was late when we heard a car pull in the driveway.

Boy in Black pushed his way through the front door with a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. “I’ve come to do some wash.” Shaggy Hair Boy grinned as he walked into the kitchen area. “I’ve been gone SUCH a long time.”

“Look how clean the house is,” I said to them. “It’s kind of creepy, isn’t it?”

Yeah, it’s been less than a week since the older kids moved out, but still, it was great to see them. Shaggy Hair Boy took his usual spot on the couch and began telling me about his classes: a philosophy professor who is way cool, a literature class where he’ll be doing a presentation on T.S. Eliot, a psychology course that promised to be interesting.

I let the fire burn down – it was getting late – while Boy in Black talked about his plans for the future. He’s looking at graduate schools with the idea of getting a PhD in physics or math, but really, what he’s passionate about is Ultimate Frisbee. He’s trying to figure out a lifestyle that would let him play Ultimate, set up Ultimate tournaments, coach Ultimate, promote Ultimate, and basically continue his obsession with the sport.

Philosophical Boy came over, and With-a-Why moved onto the floor to start dealing out cards. Shaggy Hair Boy sat down at the piano, and Boy in Black joined him. It was well past midnight before my husband and I went up to bed. I fell asleep to the sound of jazz drifting up the stairs.