September 30, 2008

Fence post

Fence post

At the edge of the sheep pasture on a misty morning.

Over lunch

Even though a weekend at the monastery means spending time alone — sitting cross-legged on the stone floor in the crypt near hundreds of lit candles, going for walks through the woods and sheep pasture, writing in my journal and reading books from my spiritual library, or even just sitting in a comfy chair to stare out the window — mealtimes at the Women's Guesthouse are also part of my monastery experience. Mostly, the guests are pairs or small groups of women who come on retreat with their friends, and gathering around the lunch or dinner table plunges us almost immediately into intimate conversations.

This weekend, we had a fairly big crowd, a dozen of us altogether. We filled both tables in the enclosed porch where we eat. One woman recognized me and Monking Friend immediately. We've met before. She had come with her sister-in-law and two close friends. Friendly Woman was introduced to the monastery when she was in college, more than 20 years ago, and she's returned every year since. "I can't imagine anyone coming here and NOT returning," said her friend, Fashion Glasses.

Since I've only been coming to the monastery for 11 years, I asked Friendly Woman if she had seen many changes. She laughed. "No! That's what I love about this place. It never changes."

Because the weather was rainy and overcast, no one was in a hurry to head back outside even after we were done eating. The elderly woman next to me began a discussion about women's ordination, something she supports strongly. We talked about movies we'd seen and books we'd read. We talked about the difficulties of relationships and the challenges of raising children. We lingered over cups of coffee and tea, eating homemade pie and talking some more, comparing our lives, our thoughts, our dreams.

September 29, 2008

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Llama in the mist

The barns at the monastery are filled with hay, so much hay that the barns can't hold it all. Out in the sheep pastures, haystacks rise like a row of little houses. In the monastery orchard, monks and guests have been picking apples. Wooden ladders lean against a tree near a pile of wooden crates.

Inside the bookstore, bags of apples crowd together on folding tables. The monks sell apples they've raised, cider they've made, honey from their beehives, beeswax candles, wool from their sheep. Brother Beekeeper explained to me that they don't have as much honey to sell this year: a black bear came through and took his share. Beekeeper has since moved the beehives to the rams' pasture, which is protected by an electric fence.

The state recently made it illegal to sell unpasteurized cider: in response, the monks put up a sign explaining that they are no longer selling the cider. They are giving the cider away for free, and guests are welcome to make a donation.

It's a misty, rainy weekend. In the little guest cottage, Monking Friend, QuickSmile, and I drink hot tea and eat chocolate. My two friends settle down with books in the two chairs by the window, while I pull on my raincoat.

The trees on the hill are turning rapidly — red, yellow, orange — but I only catch glimpses because fog keeps obscuring the view. Whiteness piles up in the valleys between the hills like clouds that God yanked down and set aside for later. I tramp through a barnyard that smells of hay and manure.

My sneakers are soon soaked from the wet grass as I cross the high sheep pasture, walking over to take a photo of the monastery's lone llama. The donkeys, in a field near the barn, butt each other and bray as I go past. The sheep turn to look at me as I approach, and then — as if on signal — they all turn at the same time and trot farther away.

Once I'm thoroughly wet, I return to West Cottage, where I strip off my wet clothes and join my friends by the fire. Through the big picture window, we watch the sheep wandering through the mist while we talk and catch up on the details of our lives.

Sheep pasture

September 26, 2008

Off to the monastery


I'm leaving behind the computer, the television set, the radio, the telephone, the mailbox, the newspaper. For four days, I am not going to hear about presidential politics or the impending financial crisis or budget cuts on campus. I am not going to grade any papers or look at any reports or send any emails. I am not going to update my blog or facebook or twitter or flickr.

I will be spending a long weekend at the monastery.

It's a Benedictine monastery, with a chapel where the monks meet seven times each day for prayer. It's a working sheep farm as well, with big barns and pastures that roll down hills edged with old growth hardwoods. It's a cluster of old building built high in the hills above a sleepy river, with great hiking trails and views in every direction.

I'll talk with the two friends I'm traveling with and with Brother Beekeeper. I'll climb down the stone staircase into the dimly lit crypt to light votive candles. I'll pray and meditate and write in my journal. I'll take a long walk down to the river, and I'll wander through the sheep pastures. I'll think of my friends and family, and hope that their weekends are as peaceful.

At the gate

September 25, 2008

Just a few days ago

I've had a busy week so far — teaching my classes, grading papers, sending emails, writing up a grant proposal, making travel plans, attending a lecture, and going to meeting after meeting. It's hard to remember that less than a week ago, I was lying peacefully on a dock in the mountains, with nothing to do but soak in the sun.


September 24, 2008

Fashion Statement

Last night, while waiting for an event at a local university to begin, I scanned the crowd of faculty, staff, and grad students. I noticed that many of the older women were dressed in ways that were striking, but eclectic. I saw colorful sashes, flowing material, all kinds of bright accessories. I felt startled when I realized that I was probably as old as some of these women, even though I dress more like a student, in jeans and a t-shirt. It made me wonder what people saw when they were sitting somewhere watching me go by.

I figured I'd ask my daughter. "Hey," I said to her without preamble,"How would you describe the way I dress?"

She said, without hesitation, "Goopy."

September 22, 2008


My afternoon wasn't entirely unpleasant. Flowered Smock is a woman I've known for years. She's known my kids since they were little, and she always asks about them. I enjoy looking at the artwork she puts up on the wall, pictures drawn in the waiting room by her young patients. And I look forward to chatting with Dressed in White, who is my age. We always compare notes about our kids. Since we see each other just about every six months, there's always some catching up to do.

It was in some ways, a peaceful afternoon. All I had to do was lie back in a comfy chair and chat with these two pleasant women I've known for a couple of decades. The problem was that, in between the pleasantries, they insisted on scraping at my sensitive gums, putting things in my mouth that made me gag, and poking at my teeth with sharp instruments. "So what's your daughter doing now?" White Lab Coat would ask nicely, as if she didn't have a metal instrument in my mouth and as if there was some way I could possible answer her without first spitting out a gallon of saliva. Both women always act like I'm there for a cup of coffee, but I find it kind of hard to ignore the fact that they are poking at my teeth and staring inside my mouth.

I hate the sterile white room, the light glaring in my eyes, and the sound of a drill, even if it's being used several rooms away. Even though I try to act cheerful as I leave, muttering how nice it feels to have my teeth clean, the reality is that I always breathe a sigh of relief as I pull open the heavy door and walk out into the afternoon sunshine. It feels good to know I don't have to return until March.

September 21, 2008

Along a mountain lake

View from the bridge

Saturday morning was cool and sunny, the kind of fall day that's too good to waste, even if you're recovering from a bad cold. The older boys were off at an Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, and With-a-Why was at my parents' house. Just after breakfast, my husband and I drove to the mountains, north to where autumn had already begun.

Yes, the leaves, as we reached the higher altitudes, were already edged with gold and yellow and red. We didn't take a strenuous hikes, since I was still coughing and sneezing, but instead walked the trail around Bryophyte Lake. Halfway around the lake, a wooden bridge crosses a creek that goes into the lake. We both took off our shoes and socks to dangle our feet into the cold water. Then we stretched out on the wooden slats to spend the morning talking lazily. The sun was warm enough that I could take my fleece off and use it as a pillow.

An older couple came paddling up on kayaks and stopped to chat for a few minutes. Later, three women — obviously friends — came down the trail and over the bridge, chattering busily. But otherwise, our only company were birds and chipmunks, the wind that kept making ripples on the lake and two dragonflies that kept landing right on my shirt.

My mother always says that the hot sun can bake a cold right out of you; I could feel the heat working on my head and chest. I felt much better as we hiked out of the woods. I could actually smell for the first time all week: pine needles and dead leaves and mud. We took other lazy walks — some on trails we'd never been on before — and spent an evening in front of a cozy fire. As we returned home today, I couldn't help but think that the leaves on the trees were changing even as I watched. We passed farm stands selling pumpkins and summer places were closed for the season. Fall has begun.

September 19, 2008

Big yellow bus

Go round and round

The little kids sat near the front, two or three to a seat, while the big kids, those swaggering eighth graders, took over the back of the bus where they'd fool around and make noise until the bus driver would yell at them. When I was very small, I sat shyly in a seat with my sister, too scared to say a word. I'd just stare out the window, watching trees go by and listening to the radio the bus driver always played. As I got older, I moved from the front of the bus towards the back, until finally my friends and I were the eighth graders, loud and confident and in charge of that small world of green bench seats and windows that needed two hands to open.

In ninth grade, I rode the afternoon bus with Outdoor Girl, whom I'd known since second grade. We didn't have any classes together, so the bus ride was our time to chat about kids we'd met at school and what funny things had happened. I never liked carrying books on the bus, I thought it made me look like a nerd, so I always tried hard to get my homework done in school, even if it meant working math problems during Social Studies class.

I can remember one bus driver who would get angry at how noisy we were, and she'd pull over to the side of the road and just wait until the bus went silent. Another bus driver made us all pumpkin cookies one year and handed out candy on holidays. One time Blond Awkward Kid vomited on the bus — he was sitting in the emergency exit, I remember it so clearly — and the bus driver stopped to sprinkle on that weird pink stuff that teachers and bus drivers seemed to always have on hand when a kid vomited. Bus rides always made me a bit queasy myself, although I had learned that staring out the window helped and that I should never ever turn around to talk to someone in a seat behind me.

The bus crowd was its own community, a group of kids thrown together by geography and the logistics of a route. I traveled with pretty much the same kids, twice each day, for thirteen years, the community changing just a bit each year as the older kids moved on and the younger kids moved up. Years later, when I see a school bus go by, I look at the kids inside, jouncing about and talking to each other, and I remember the smell of those green fake leather seats and the exhaust that came up through the floorboards melting the slush we brought in on our boots. I remember that bumping, soothing sensation, and the swirl of voices around me, and the warm drowsy feel of rattling as the yellow bus took me along home.

September 18, 2008

Despite the hacking cough

I'm always at class ten minutes early, and I usually spend that ten minutes talking to students as they come in. Sometimes we talk about stuff happening on campus or current events or national news.

Today, we mostly commiserated.

We have bad colds, most of us. My students live together on one floor, and we spent the weekend together on retreat, doing teamwork exercises that involved climbing around on cables while holding hands and leaning against each other for support. All that bonding means that the one bad cold that Smart Serious Student had last week has now spread through the whole community. It's more of a flu, really, because it comes with aches and pains and stomach upsets and a sore throat.

I took all kinds of drugs just to be able to function, to get to campus and teach my classes. My students were pretty drugged as well. It's a busy week for them — big tests in chemistry, biology, and calculus — and in my class, they are working on ambitious essays that will collectively attempt to solve the environmental crisis. Many of them were coughing, and most have had very little sleep, and one young woman summed up the spirit of the day by saying, "My god, how is it only Thursday?"

And yet, still, I had 100 percent attendance in each of my three sections. All sixty students came to class.

I like this generation of students. They are serious and hardworking, and they don't let sickness stop them. We were going around the room, with the students presenting their ideas for their essays, and I couldn't help but be impressed at the solutions they were offering. One student presented reasons why green roofs can save energy. Another talked about how to design a whole city to be eco-efficient. Another talked about how we need literature — books and blogs and other texts — to help change attitudes and lifestyles. Another talked about designing after-school playgrounds that would encourage kids to be more in touch with nature. Another described his plans to design a home that would be sustainable. Another wants to install a light rail system for any city the size of Snowstorm City. Student after student, they presented their ideas, and the rest of the class would jump in with comments and suggestions.

Despite the red noses and hacking coughs and the fact that most of us felt miserably sick, the mood in the room was hopeful. "These solutions are all possible," said Pink Glasses. "If we could just combine all our ideas and implement them ...."

September 17, 2008


A snake had crept in through my nose and wrapped tight coils around my skull. Or maybe it was a sinus headache. As I stumbled through the day, I kept looking forward to late afternoon, when I could enjoy a bowl of hot soup at my favorite vegetarian diner, the Sucrose Mollusk Stone.

Finally, the moment came. I dropped Shaggy Hair Boy off at his guitar lesson and drove straight to the cafe. I felt some of the tension slip away as I walked through the narrow front door that opens on an angle to the street corner. Always, I enjoy this hour to myself, this time to sit quietly and write at the little table near the bay window of the old house.

"What soup do you have?" I asked the young man behind the counter. "Is it vegan?"

He looked up from the glass he was drying with a dish cloth. "Cream of — wait, I guess it's not vegan."

What? The soup of the day wasn't vegan? This seemed a tragedy of epic proportions. The snake wrapped around my skull pulled tightly, until the counter in front of me started to blur. I looked up at the board above the counter, which listed all kinds of vegan food. But I felt incapable of making a decision. I wanted to cry. My plan had been to eat a bowl of hot soup.

"I'm vegan, and I have a sinus headache," I said. I felt about eight years old. "I need something hot. Something spicy."

"We can make anything spicy, " he said. He set down the dishcloth and opened a menu.

"And maybe some hot tea," I said. You'd think I'd be familiar with the menu, but usually I just have whatever the soup of the day is. I wondered if he was going to start asking me a million questions about which kind of tea I wanted and what I wanted in it. I figured I might die if I had to answer all those questions.

He didn't ask any questions. "Go sit down," he said. "I'll bring you food."

Gratefully, I found my way to my usual table and took off my fleece. I dropped my book bag, took out my journal, and just sat there, quietly, willing the headache to calm down. The day was overcast and a dim grey light came through the bay window.

Helpful Young Man carried over some hot tea, in a cup the size of a soup bowl. As I lifted the cup to my lips, a fruity steam rose to my face. I breathed in the raspberry scent and drank the hot tea, sip after sip, feeling the muscles in my body loosening with each sip.

I'd just opened my journal when Helpful Young Man appeared with a plate of food. "Wasabi Tubers," he said. They were potatoes, coated in something green. I took a bite and chewed through delicious spiciness. The heat traveled up into my sinuses. I could feel the snake inside my head melting, releasing its grip. I kept eating, until my tongue and lips were burning. I could feel fluid dripping down my throat. My nose began running.

I kept eating, through the potatoes, the spicy vegetarian burger, the heaping of noodles. I kept drinking hot tea.

And suddenly the pressure was gone. I could breathe again.



September 15, 2008

How my kids spent Saturday night

Sunday morning, I woke early and stumbled down the stairs to get a bowl of cereal. I couldn't help but notice a swirl of sticky notes, in the shape of a snake on the wall below the stairs. The notes spelled out a very long word: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. As I looked around blearily, I noticed sticky notes everywhere, stuck to walls and furniture and pretty much every object in the house. On my laptop, I saw a note that said, "Don't panic," and two others that said, "You may need to purchase some new sticky notes for some reason."

Yes, during the night, the boys had decided to play with sticky notes. They'd written on them —adding song lyrics, lame jokes, quotes from books, corny puns, lines from movies, scientific formulas, or random facts — and posted them all over the house. They'd used 500 of them. Yes, FIVE HUNDRED sticky notes.

The note on the water jug near the door, the one Shaggy Hair Boy takes to Ultimate Frisbee games, read, "Dihydrogen Monoxide." A pink note on the vacuum cleaner said, "I suck." Attached to the fern plant was a note that said, "Fact: Fern Gully is one of the best movies ever made." The note on the piano said, "Play me. Harder. Better. Stronger. Faster." The metronome had a pink sticky that said, "My beat is correct." Two books on the shelf were labeled, "Impossible Germany" and "Unlikely Japan, " which shows that my kids have been listening to the Wilco CD I've had in my car all summer.

The note on the refrigerator said, "Put food in me," a line from the Simpsons. Even the photos on the refrigerator received captions. I've always liked the photo of my niece, with her pale skin, flyaway hair, and mysterious smile, but now it seemed creepy when accompanied by a note that said, "I will eat your soul." The grocery list, which itself is sort of a post-it note, hangs on the refrigerator. Under the list of food items, Boy in Black had added another item: sticky notes. And then he attached another sticky note with an arrow and the words, "Now that is irony."

The more I looked, the more sticky notes I found. They were inside the cupboards, inside the refrigerator, inside the freezer. I pulled a china plate from the bottom of the stack, and found a note that said, "Eat me." The note on the revolving corner cupboard said, "You spin me right around, baby. Right around. Like a record player." The fortune cookie that had been left on the table had a note that said, "Often wrong." Inside the dishwasher, I found a note that read, "This is not dishwasher safe." I stepped on a note that was just lying on the floor. I pulled it from my sock. It read, "Don't tread on me."

All yesterday and all today, I kept finding notes. Some made me roll my eyes, some made me laugh. It was like an Easter egg hunt, except with paper and words. Shaggy Hair Boy assures me I haven't found them all yet, that they will be popping up for months to come.

One note said, "500 sticky notes + nothing to do = fun time."

September 14, 2008

Dangling from the trees

Through the trees

The Ropes Course facilitators wore t-shirts that said, "Get high."

And that's exactly what happened. We put on rock-climbing harnesses and helmets, and we climbed up into the trees, where we were challenged to do such things as cross a slippery plank or stand on a cable wire high above the ground.

That's how I spend my day yesterday, hanging out with my first year students in the canopy of the forest.

We've had so much rain lately that everything we touched was slick and wet and muddy, and soon our t-shirts were decorated with patterns of mud. The students have known each other for only a few weeks, but it's amazing how bonded you can feel when you're dangling fifty feet above the ground and need to rely on each other to get across a cable or climb a hanging ladder. Students on the ground, helping the belay team, shouted encouraging words, "You're almost there! You can do it! Don't look down!"

Even though I do a high ropes course with students every fall, I was still terrified. Adrenaline surged through my bloodstream as I tried to balance on a slippery plank hung between two trees. I was standing between two students, all of us holding hands, and we had just achieved our goal, the three of us balanced precariously on the plank. I took a deep breath and looked out over the valley, at treetops mostly green, but just beginning to turn gold with autumn.

Then the student to my right squeezed my hand. "Come on. We've got another level." It was time to climb higher ....

Time to climb even higher ...

September 12, 2008

Sparking ideas

Sparking ideas

Over the summer, we require our first year students to read a book, something we've chosen with an environmental theme, something current and thought-provoking. Then during the third week of classes, we gather the students on campus, invite faculty and staff to join us, and split into small groups to talk about the book. Small Green College is a research institution, and most of my colleagues are scientists. Even as they volunteer to facilitate the discussion groups, they tease me about the event. "We're not a liberal arts college," they remind me.

Since I'm in charge of the event, I don't facilitate a small group, but walk around to make sure everything's okay. Once each group seems to be going fine and all late-coming students have been assimilated, I'll choose a group and nudge my way between two students sitting on the grass. It's interesting for me, as someone who has spend a whole lot of time listening to literature professors talk about books, to listen instead to a chemist or a biologist or an architect lead a book discussion. Often a colleague will bring up a point I overlooked completely. Landscape architects will talk about design while the chemists analyze the science in the book.

And of course, the personalities of my colleagues come into play. Ornithology Guy always likes to veer off into tangents that include talking to these first year students about what different scientists on campus study. He's passionate about his work, and that shows. Animal Behavior Guy likes to argue, so he'll play devil's advocate, making statements that get more and more outrageous until finally the students will speak up and disagree with him.

"Books spark ideas," Ornithologist Guy said during his group's conversation. "That's their value." The students in the group began talking about the books that had led them to pursue an education at an environmental school. I looked around me, at the circles of students, sprawled out on the grass, books and backpacks next to them, engaged in conversation. It seemed a good way for these students to begin their college careers.

September 11, 2008

An ordinary day


The sky this morning was the blue that September often brings. I woke up to the sound of my husband making breakfast for Shaggy Hair and With-a-Why. My day began as it usually does, snuggling with my youngest son after he eats his breakfast, with Shaggy Hair's piano music in the background. As soon as they'd all left for work and school, I took a hot shower to soothe my sinuses and sat down to answer some emails.

It was just an ordinary September day. I fed the cats, talked to a friend on the phone, and cleared some paperwork off my desk. I sat in my sunny living room and read a book while I ate breakfast. I drove to campus to teach my classes and attend a campus-wide event that I'd organized. I ate my lunch in my office — a veggie wrap and apple juice — while talking to a colleague about an upcoming conference. Late afternoon, I sat on the grassy lawn of our quad with a group of first year students, talking about books and ideas and ways to save the earth. As the shadows grew longer, I lingered in front of the library with some colleagues, talking about our students and our weekends while the sun warmed our faces.

My husband brought Chinese take-out home for supper. Broccoli with garlic sauce over rice is one of my favorite meals. Shaggy Hair talked about the Ultimate Frisbee team he's starting at his high school. With-a-Why showed me his newest drawing: a creature rising out of the sea. For the twentieth time, he reminded me that the book Brisingr will be coming out soon, and we need to buy it the very minute it hits the bookstores. He advised me to reread the other books in the series before this big event.

Boy in Black came home for a few hours to do Air Alert, some exercise program he and Shaggy do to increase their vertical leap. It's a strenuous program that involves lots of jumping up and down accompanied by dramatic complaints about how difficult it is. I talked to my friend Healer Plumber Guy about my headaches, and he reminded me to do reiki every morning. I called Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter to find out how her day had gone: she's been putting in nine-hour days in Big City Like No Other, and she sounded tired.

Today was a typical September day, filled with nothing extraordinary.

But I felt a little jolt, a moment of loss, every time I wrote the date or said the date aloud or saw a flagpole. And I felt grateful all over again for those very ordinary details of my life.

September 10, 2008

Bring on the drill

Here's my rule of thumb for telling the difference between a sinus headache and migraine-type headache: take a hot shower. If it's a sinus headache, you'll feel better as the hot water runs over your forehead. If it's a migraine, the heat will make it feel worse. If it's a full-blown classic migraine, of course, you'll be so busy vomiting and trying to make the room stop spinning that you will never make it into the shower.

When I get a sinus headache, I use moist heat and reiki and hot tea and salt water nasal spray. I'll take a hot shower or heat a wet washcloth in the microwave to use as a compress. The heat doesn't cure the headache, but it can make if feel a whole lot better.

When I get a migraine, I use an ice pack on the back of my neck. The coldness helps. I run hot water over my hands and feet, but not the rest of me. I take a blanket and pillow into a closet so that I can be in total darkness and silence. If I'm at a conference or in class and I need to function, I'll use caffeine as a last resort to make it tolerable.

During the last couple of weeks, my headaches have been alternating — from the pulsing sinus headache to the sickly disoriented feel of a migraine. I keep losing track of how to treat them. I can remember seeing once, in a museum somewhere, ancient skulls with holes drilled in them. Right now, I'm about ready to try that method, and let the headache out.

Sushi blues

Sushi blues

Self-portrait in the bathroom of the sushi restaurant.

September 09, 2008

Season of yimmer-yammer

I go away so often in the summer that I don't see my hometown friends much. Well, it's not totally my fault. They take vacations too. During July and August, people are off camping or visiting friends or lolling about on beaches. Summer time means spending time with family, which includes both extended family and extra kids.

The return of the big yellow school buses driving through neighborhoods means that most people are back to their normal routines. And that means I have time to spend with my friends, even if it's just for a walk or a quick lunch.

Sunday afternoon, Long Beautiful Hair called to tell me she was having a lazy afternoon in her own backyard. I drove to her side of town to join her. Her carefully tended gardens were filled with pinks and yellows and reds, and we took time to admire them before sitting down in lawn chairs to talk. And talk. We walked around her neighborhood, past the brick elementary school that her kids attended when they were little, past the church where she helps organize an apple pie sale every fall, and past the old reservoir with its steep grassy hills. As the afternoon grew cooler, she put the kettle and sat in the yard with hot mugs in our hands, the spicy aroma of tea rising through our conversation.

Last night, I drove with several friends to a poetry reading in another town. "It's a long drive, but we can yimmer-yammer all the way there," Cheerful Poet said as she climbed into the back seat. And of course, we did. As we drove past cornfields with their curving lines and whole fields of goldenrod and neighborhoods of long stone walls, we caught up on the news of our lives. The talking continued as we walked into the sushi bar, where we ordered food and drank big glasses of water and quieted down to listen to poetry.

The featured poet was Fire Ant. Those of you who have seen naked photos of her on my blog will not be surprised to hear that she's often naked in her poems, which included lovely lyrical lines, sensual images, and a whole lot of outdoor sex. "Yeah, here's another kissing poem," she'd say as she moved from one poem to the next. After melting into her poems for half an hour, we recovered enough to each take a turn at the microphone, reading in a colorful room filled with artwork and people gathered around little tables and big sashes of fabric hanging on the ceiling. Then we left the way we came, driving through the night countryside, yimmer-yammering all the way home.

September 08, 2008

We'll never know

Mismatched eyes

Ten days ago, one of our cats disappeared.

Emmy is a grey striped cat with a distinctive appearance. She has triple the body weight of any of our other cats, even though she has a small frame. One of her eyes is always dilated, while the other is not. With her small head and large body, she looks like a cat in a Far Side cartoon.

She's lived with us for nine years, and she is Film Guy's favorite. Not an active cat, she could almost always be found on the couch, sitting comfortably with family members, rolling over and purring as someone would pet her. She has this strange reaction: if you pet her in a certain spot, she will always turn and lick herself. She does this on cue, like a wind-up toy.

She disappeared, and we searched the house and garage and yard, and found her nowhere. She likes to be indoors, and she's not a wanderer, so her disappearance made no sense. We thought she was dead. We figured maybe she'd gone into the woods to die, like cats often do. Or perhaps a predator had picked her off. After about a week, I put away one of the cat bowls, figuring we only had five cats now.

Then today, at the back door, I saw a grey head. It was Emmy, waiting to come in. She rushed to a cat bowl and began eating ravenously. I opened a can of food, and she ate the whole thing. She had lost weight, and she had a big bare spot on her side, with some scratch marks, almost as if she'd been trapped and had been rubbing against something to get free. But otherwise, she looked okay. She purred as I brushed the matted fur and mud off the top of her, the spots where she can't reach.

I sent a text message to Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, and she told Film Guy and Red-haired Niece. I called Boy in Black on his cell phone, and he told First Extra. I called my mother. Shaggy Hair Boy called Skater Boy and Quick. With-a-Why sat next to Emmy on the couch and petted her while the rest of us spread the news.

The cat we thought was dead has turned up alive.

Where was she all that time? We'll probably never know.

September 07, 2008

Meet the faculty ... after you find them

Yesterday, the first year students from Little Green College, divided into small groups of eight students, wandered throughout several hundred acres of forest and fields, armed with handheld GPS units. The hidden treasures they were looking for? Members of our faculty and staff, waiting to meet each group and talk to them.

I'd been assigned a spot in what everyone was calling the deep, dark woods — a grove of mature spruce trees. I sat alone, writing in my journal and listening to the trees. All around me was brown, the lower trunks of the trees covered with knots and branches, straight and tall, while in the distance, I could see the glowing green leaves of hardwood trees. A squirrel ran through the canopy above, leaping from branch to branch. Every once in a while, pine cones came thudding down as if some invisible person was throwing them.

I checked in by cell phone with Botanist Guy, who was hidden in an orchard. He had already seen three groups of students, and he said that one group was heading my way. During the lag time between groups, he was eating ripe fruit: apples, cherries, and grapes. Since I'd eaten my granola bars within minutes of arrival, I was envious. Biology Instructor, who was hiding in the hardwood forest, had seen just one group of students. She was reading a book while she waited. Chemistry Lab Instructor came walking through the woods to check in with me and reported that Soils Scientist, hidden down by the sinkhole, had already seen several groups of students and apologized for keeping them so long.

I spread my rain jacket out on the forest floor so that I could lie down and look up at treetops and bits of sky while I waited for students to find me. It felt strange to be tethered to one place; my inclination was to wander around and explore. I kept hoping the sun would come out so I could take some cool photos, but the day remained dark. When a wind came up, rain splattered down from the branches of the trees. I could hear an airplane overhead, and some wild turkeys moving through the woods behind me. The tree frogs began singing as the day got later, and red-wing blackbirds chattered above me.

Finally, I heard voices. A group of students! They saw me right away: both my fleece and my raincoat are bright red. I hadn't thought about camouflage when I dressed for the day; usually when I'm in the woods, I want hunters to know I'm there.

The students sat in a circle on the pine needles, happy to take a rest. "You're the first group to find me," I told them. Red Baseball Cap said, "Have you been sitting here all by yourself all this time? Want us to stay and play cards with you?"

We talked about place, the way landscapes can affect our mood, inspire us, change us. "It's been great to spend the day outdoors," Ponytail said. "Even with the rain." Freckles nodded: "It's been hard, these first weeks, living in a city." We talked about books we'd read and the role of literature in the environmental movement. They told me about the other professors they'd met so far: they'd planted seedlings with a forestry professor and gotten water samples from the pond to analyze in chemistry lab.

I love talking to students, but I had been instructed to send them on their way after 15 minutes. They had three more professors to find. And already, I could hear another group of students crashing through the undergrowth. We'd planned the GPS routes so that the groups would come at intervals, but I knew from experience that these things never work out exactly as planned, and that I'd probably be getting a bunch of groups in a row.

By the time I'd seen the last group, the deep dark woods were getting dark indeed. As I emerged from the woods into the field below, I could hear the voices of students: hundreds of them gathered in the clearing, where tents had been set up, and makeshift benches made of planks and recycling bins. On long tables, men and women in green t-shirts were setting out pans of hot food. Time for supper.

September 05, 2008

Another naked brother-in-law

Toward the sun

It was probably the last swimming we'd do for the summer, the last hot day at camp that the extended family piled into boats to go out to an island and jump off the rocks into the water. I'd brought my camera and was wandering around the small island taking photos when it suddenly occurred to me that this might be the last chance all summer to get a naked photo for my blog. The same people who willingly strip for my blog on a summer day aren't quite as eager once the cold fall air moves in.

Blond Brother-in-law was draped on the wooden chair that sits on top of the highest rock on the island, looking as relaxed as only he can, his face turned toward the sun.

"Hey, Blond Brother-in-law," I called, as I snapped a photo, "When you wake up from your nap, will you pose naked for my blog?"

"Sure," he murmured sleepily. I don't know if he was even awake enough to know what I was saying, but I took that as consent. As a promise, really.

A few minutes later, when the heat from the sun had driven us all into the water again, I reminded him of his promise. Blond Brother-in-law loves to swim, whether the water is warm or cold, and he was diving through the waves like a creature at Seaworld. I swear, I could almost see flippers on him.

"How about an action shot?" I called. "Naked swimming?"

He yanked off his bathing suit and continued his splashing and flipping and kicking. Then he laughed and yelled over to his wife, Blonde Sister, who was hanging out with With-a-Why in the shallow area on the other side of the rock. "Hey! I'm posing naked for the blog!"

Fortunately, the noise of a passing motorboat drowned out Blonde Sister's reply because what I heard didn't sound all that supportive. In fact, it almost sounded like a note of disapproval, although perhaps that was my imagination. I mean, surely I must have heard something wrong. Naked blogging is a tradition, and everyone in my family LOVES traditions.

I snapped the photo quickly, and Blond Brother-in-law dove under to find the bathing suit he'd left at the bottom of the river.

Another blogging tradition upheld.

Another naked brother-in-law

September 04, 2008


Island's edge

That's the word that my family uses to describe the temperature of the water in the River That Runs Between Two Countries. In this case, the word refreshing means "pretty fucking cold." People who step off the rock and jump right in (which is really the best way to get wet when the water is "refreshing") usually scream involuntarily when they come up to the surface. My father, who has swum in the river since he was a boy, will always say that the water temperature is perfect, no matter how icy it is. He'll even talk about the time he visited someone in a southern state and how he just couldn't enjoy the water because it was too warm. Everyone rolls their eyes when he says that.

Of course, several months of hot summer sunshine will eventually warm up the river. At the very end of August, just as the season is about to end, the water in the big, deep river is finally comfortably warm. The water level has usually dropped by then, too, so that the seaweed-covered rocks are exposed to the air, providing a slippery green surface to play on.

Last weekend when we all went out to an island to swim, Blonde Sister and With-a-Why spent all kinds of time in the water practicing their "Michael Phelps" moves. They pretended the rocky edge of the island was the wall of an Olympic pool as they worked on their kicks and their flips. Blonde Sister babysat With-a-Why when he was an infant, and they've always been close. When he was little, he'd often sit on her lap and pinch her arms (which is his sleeping ritual) when he was tired. As I watched them swimming together and playing in the water, it was shock to realize that With-a-Why is now almost as tall as his aunt.

Photo finish

September 03, 2008

Treats! Treats!

We were returning from an errand that looked like a drug deal. My brother had left earlier to put his sailboat on a trailer and drive to a lake south of us, where he was already late to meet his wife and some of her family. He'd forgotten a black bag that included his glasses and contact stuff, and we'd jumped into my sister's rental car to drive to a gas station near the highway, hoping to catch him as he came from the launch site with his sailboat so we could hand the bag off to him in the parking lot. Urban Sophisticate Sister was driving, I was in the front seat with a cell phone arranging the hand-off, and my daughter had come along for a nugget of entertainment. All went as planned. My brother rolled down his window as he pulled into the parking lot, I tossed the bag into his car, and he spend off down the highway.

Then we turned to more pressing issues. It was almost lunch time, and we were out of pickles.

Since we were still in fugitive mode, Urban Sophisticate pulled into the back parking lot of the grocery store. "I'll leave the keys in the ignition," she said. I supposed she was anticipating the need for a fast get-away. As she ducked into the shadowy doorway, I felt like I was witnessing a bank heist.

I knew that my sister's Big City Like No Other pace would slow down as soon as she hit the local people at the cash register, none of whom find anything urgent about buying pickles. So, leaving my daughter to listen to music in the car, I walked down to the store dock.

Yes, the grocery store has a dock. It's a sturdy dock, too, high and stable, and long enough for a dozen boats. Just a single boat was there that day, an open motorboat filled with small children and two women. On the other side of the creek, cattails and purple loosestrife were gathered in the shade of a rock cliff, but the boat was in the full noon-time sun.

I could see that the kids were getting restless. The little boy was climbing over the seats and tugging at the straps of his life jacket. The youngest toddler was tugging on the younger woman's shirt and saying something incoherent in a high-pitched whine. The little girl was leaning so far out of the boat that the older woman kept grabbing the back of her life jacket to keep her in.

"Just a few more minutes," the younger woman said to the kids. She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than them.

I sat down on the hot boards of the dock, letting my feet dangle towards the water. I could remember being a little kid myself, waiting in a hot boat for adults to do whatever it is that adults are always doing. I remember the smell of those orange life jackets we always wore, and the queasy feeling of a boat bobbing when it's anchored or tied to a dock. The kids' voices drifted lazily over the still water in the creek, over the weeds that were floating near the surface.

Just then, I heard the pounding of sneakers on dock planks. The kids looked up, and squealed with excitement. I turned to see a young man in a baseball cap running down the dock, a brown grocery bag in each arm.

"Daddy! Daddy!" the kids yelled.

He grinned at them and hefted the bags higher.

"And I bought treats too!" he called excitedly.

The kids began jumping up and down now, with big smiles on their faces, crowding near the side of the boat and bumping each other with their bulky life jackets. The younger woman was laughing and holding the toddler up so she could see over the edge of the dock. The older woman was already untying the boat and shifting into the driver's seat.

The man handed the bags down and jumped into the boat. The little boy fell against him, laughing. The little girl hugged his leg, and the younger woman leaned over to look into the bags. The older woman smiled at them all. Then she turned the wheel, maneuvered the boat away from the dock, and they sped off down the creek.

September 02, 2008


Marsh in early morning

I woke yesterday to the low sound of a foghorn. In the grey light, the tent walls were covered with droplets of moisture. As I snuggled under the quilt to go back to sleep, I heard the low notes again. And then again. In a dense fog, the ocean-going vessels that travel through the seaway will sound their horns every couple of minutes.

It's hard to resist a thick fog. I climbed out of the tent onto the wet grass and stumbled sleepily to my parents' cabin. They're early risers, and I knew they'd be up already, making a little fire in their stove and drinking coffee. As I came into grab a glass of juice, my mother announced that my father and youngest sister had already left in the car, deciding to drive through the nearby farmland to take photos in the thick mist. "I can't believe they didn't wake me up," I muttered darkly.

The white on our bay was so thick that I couldn't see the island across the way, even though it's only half of a mile away. I walked down to the dock with my camera, figuring that boats in the mist would have to be as exciting a photographic opportunity as cows in the mist. I was just looking for a rock to put in the bow of a canoe (which is what I do to balance myself when I canoe alone) when my husband came looking for me and offered to take the place of the rock.

The familiar bay looked different as we paddled through weeds and lily pads, and then out onto the dark still water. White surrounded us on all sides, as if we were lost at sea. As we moved closer to shore, I could see shapes, rocks and trees, and islands that I could name from their silhouettes, much the way I can pick out my own kids in a crowd of teenagers. I took photos, and we talked quietly, the canoe gliding through the hushed, misty world of grey and white.

Through the mist