March 31, 2010

In the mailbox

When the little neighbor kids came over, I got out the crayons and paper, so that they could draw at the table while I cleaned the kitchen. I can’t write or grade papers amidst their noisy chatter, but I’m very used to doing housework with small kids around. Our bulletin board is filled with pictures they’ve drawn.

“I’m drawing you a picture,” Little Biker Boy announced. “But you can’t see it yet.” He stapled two pieces of paper together so that it looked like an envelope and put the drawing inside. “I’m going to send you this in the mail.”

He’d never sent anything in the mail before. So I showed him how to write my name and address on the outside. His big printed letters took up the whole page. We got a stamp from my desk drawer. Ponytail, who was watching with interest, begged for a stamp to stick on her arm.

Our plan was to walk into town and mail the envelope from a post office box. But when we got to the end of the driveway, Ponytail wanted to go the other way, down to the traintracks for our walk.

“But I have to mail my picture!” Little Biker Boy wailed. "It's your present!" He was still clutching the envelope.

“That’s okay, you can mail it from the mailbox,” I told him, “And you can put up the little red flag as a signal.” Our mailbox lists sideways, the usual after-effect of being swiped by a snowplow, but the little red flag still works.

A few days later, when my husband brought in the mail, he handed me the envelope. “You’re getting mail from Little Biker Boy? Where did he mail it from?”

“From here,” I said, “He put it in our mailbox.”

Boy in Black looked up from his computer and grinned. “He put it in the mailbox here so that it could go the post office, and then get brought back here to the same mailbox? That's efficient.”


March 29, 2010

Back in my day, phones were communal

When Blue-eyed Ultimate Player called my cell phone one day, it was because none of my sons were answering their cell phones. I didn’t know where my sons were — probably throwing a disc around somewhere — but I chatted with Blue-eyed Ultimate Player for a few minutes.

After I hung up, I thought about how I miss having one landline for the whole family. I used to chat with my kids’ friends or my husband’s friends when they called. I wonder if, with the proliferation of cell phones, that kind of small talk is a lost art.

I can remember the first phone call I ever made, back in first grade. I stood on a wooden chair in the kitchen, reaching up to the black phone that hung on the wall, and carefully dialed the number that Kindergarten Friend had written down. I was painfully shy, so calling anyone on the phone was a very big deal.

I called, and the phone made this weird noise. “That means no one is home,” Red-haired Sister said. I hung up the phone.

Then I called again. I got the weird noise again I called again, and got the weird noise again. I called again, and hung up again. I was frustrated because I knew that she was home; it didn’t make sense.

“Their phone must be broken,” I said to my sister. I dialed again, just to show her. I held out the phone to let her hear the weird noise.

Just then a man’s voice said, “Hello?”

I answered shyly, “Hello?”

Then I said the line I’d practiced. “May I speak to Kindergarten Friend?”

“I’m her Dad,” he said. “Was that you calling before?"

I was terrified — his asking me a question was not in the script! But his voice seemed gentle.

“Yes,” I managed to squeak out that one syllable.

“See, you need to let it ring awhile to give people time to get to the phone,” he said. “When you hear the ringing noise, count until you hear it ring ten times before you hang up.”

What he said made sense. For the rest of my life, I always counted until I heard the dial tone ten times before I hung up. That is, until people started getting cell phones and answering on the first ring.

For a shy child, chatting with the parents of friends I called was often terrifying, but it forced me to learn the skill of making small talk. I had to identify myself, say something polite, and then ask for my friend. That was the formula.

I miss the days of the landline, the way that sharing a phone helped integrate a community. Sure, the cell phone is convenient, but I’m sad that we’ve lost those conversations between generations. I guess I have to look instead for messages from my kids’ friends on my facebook wall.

March 27, 2010

Searching for signs of spring

Searching for spring

After spending a week in a southern climate where flowers were already blooming, I came home to Snowstorm Region to find that the snowbanks had melted away. The next evening, I heard the welcome sound of the spring peepers singing into the dusk. When the little neighbor kids and I went for a walk to look for signs of spring, we found puddles to poke sticks into, mosses growing as they absorb the snowmelt, and the faintest hint of green covering bushes as buds begin to swell.

The cats have been going outside again — thank goodness — now that the snow is gone. The territorial fights of the housebound cats are over for another season, and I can put away the bottle of Urine-off. Yes, we’ve made it through another winter without me killing a feline. That is cause for celebration.

This morning I decided to gather up all the mittens and winter clothes and pack them away. It’s too early, I know, since we always get some snow in April, but I don’t care. I’m tired of the clutter, the piles of mittens spilling out of the shelves in the laundry room and falling into the cats’ water bowl. When it snows, I’ll use my technique of clearing off my car windows with my elbow and forearm, keeping my bare hands tucked inside my sleeves. I refuse to wear mittens any more this season: I’ve decided that spring is here.

March 25, 2010

Day is done

Evening sun

At Southern Retreat Center, I loved all the little decks and gazebos scattered along the trails and hillside, places where I could sit in a wooden chair and write in my journal, or lie down on the wood to take a nap. Each evening, on a deck perched high above the river, I sat and absorbed the very last of the spring warmth before the sun disappeared behind the woods on the other side of the river.

Time for reflection

Time for reflection

March 24, 2010

Through the ivy

Through the ivy

When I was visiting the history center in City That Uses Pine Straw as Mulch, I read about how English Ivy is a problem because it’s not a native plant, and it crowds out native species. Then at the Southern Retreat Center, I found a trail that wound through an area that had been completely taken over by the ivy: it covered the ground, the trees, pretty much everything. I tried not to like it. But I couldn’t help thinking that it made the trail kind of cool and mysterious.

March 23, 2010



Visiting a Southern City in March meant that I saw flowers blooming everywhere: pots of flowers on street corners, flowers blooming in historical gardents near old mansions, and whole hillsides of yellow daffodils. One path that I walked each day at the retreat center followed stone steps up past bushes filled with flowers; some had even passed their prime and fallen already. It seemed extravagant, somehow, after a winter of white and grey, to see pink and red scattered across the ground.

March 22, 2010

Listening to water

Listening to water

I spent five days of my spring break in silence.

Southern Retreat Center sits at the edge of a hill above Polluted But Scenic River in the City That Burned During the Civil War. The 20 acres of land once belonged to a rich woman who donated her summer home to a religious order, who began holding retreats there in 1961, the year I was born. The chapel has two walls of glass overlooking the river, and hiking trails lead down to the river and then through the woods to a waterfall.

Silence can be very restful. I’d pass other retreatants in the halls of the guesthouse and I’d sit with them at meals, but we never talked. We’d smile at each, hold doors open for each other, or pass silverware, but we didn’t exchange words. I was writing every day, working on my manuscript, and I loved that my train of thought was never interrupted.

That’s not to say I find silence easy. I don’t. I’m an extrovert, the kind of person who talks to everyone, and I’m used to a noisy household. All that introspection, all that time inside my head could easily drive me crazy. What saved me were all the water noises at this retreat place.

In the morning, when the sun warmed up the flagstones near the fountain outside my window, I’d go lie on the stones to feel their warmth and listen to the splash of the water. Several times each day, I walked down to the river and sat on a bench, listening to it rush past. My favorite spot was near the waterfall, where I could lie in the sun and hear water cascading down rock. If I looked in the other direction, I could see cars moving along a road, far away, people rushing past in their busy lives while I spent hours and hours just listening to water.

Swirling water

March 11, 2010

Spring break

We’ve had sunshine this week, and temperatures that have risen above freezing. The snow banks are melting, sending streams of water across grass and pavement. The igloo that students built on the quad has shrunk, and snow figures have toppled to the ground. The warmth has pushed students into spring break mode. “I’ve got three exams this week,” one student said in class. “But how can I study when it’s so nice outside?”

Break is almost here. I’ve got just one meeting in the morning, two classes to teach, and then I’m off. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy leave tomorrow with the Ultimate team, driving hundreds of miles to play Ultimate in a warmer climate. Beautiful Smart Daughter had her spring break this week: she’s been on a vacation in the southwest with my husband. They return today, and I’ll have a little time to spend with them before I leave for my spring break.

My break plans include traveling to a warmer climate, working on my book, going on a silent retreat, writing in my journal, and exploring a part of the country I don’t know very well. I’ll take photos, of course, but I’ll be offline for the next ten days. I’m looking forward to some sunshine and quiet.

March 09, 2010



Today, amidst the form letters and junk mail and bills in my mailbox, I found a letter from a friend. Even as I walked up the driveway, opening the envelope in my eagerness, the excitement of getting a real letter stirred memories. I remembered making necklaces from dandelions, doing a jigsaw puzzle in front of the picture window in my parents’ house, ice skating on a blue-white winter afternoon, reading a paperback book in the bathtub. For just a moment, I retreated into a slower, more leisurely world in which words took days to travel the sixty miles from a friend’s house to mine.

March 08, 2010

Faire du piano

So yeah, I play the piano now.

I’ve been taking lessons every week, from the same wonderful woman who teaches my two youngest kids, and I can play real songs even. My repertoire is pretty small: I can take requests so long as you ask for Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” or Heinrich Wohlfahrt’s “Little Romance.”

I thought playing the piano would be an adjustment after 48 years of not playing any musical instrument, after a lifetime of not even knowing how to read music. I thought maybe I’d have to overcome some mental or emotional block. But really, the transition has felt completely natural.

Partly, this comes from living in a house full of musicians. If I want to know how a piece sounds, I just yell, “Someone come play this for me,” and one of the kids will come over and play the song for me. It helps to know what I’m aiming for. Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why are good role models for anyone learning to play the piano: they have the attitude that you can learn anything you want so long as you practice it enough.

And of course, I already knew Piano Teacher, since she’s been teaching my kids for years. She takes the simple songs I can play just as seriously as the complex classical pieces that my sons play. “You did it!” she’ll say, after I’ve struggled through a couple of measures. Since most of her students are little kids, she always has stickers with her, and I’ll ask her to put a star on my page of music when I’ve accomplished something.

“Show that to your kids,” she’ll say, and we both laugh like crazy. I had wondered if it would bother me being so far behind my kids that I have no chance of ever catching up (if you could watch With-a-Why’s hands as he plays “Maple Leaf Rag,” or listen to Shaggy Hair Boy improvise on jazz numbers, you’d know what I mean), but playing the piano myself just makes me appreciate even more the talent of my kids. Even if I have to fight them sometimes to get practice time at the piano.

March 07, 2010


Maybe you have to live in Snowstorm Region and drive every day on icy, snow-covered roads to appreciate how exciting it is in March when the snow begins to melt.

When I ran errands today, I left my mittens on the front seat of the car. I didn’t need them. When a friend called on my cell phone, I decided to return her call from the parking lot outside the store where I’d been buying pajamas for my mother-in-law. The sun struck the windshield, filling my car with warmth while we talked. I drove from the town where I live now to the town where my husband grew up, ten miles or so, without once worrying that my car would skid on ice or go spinning into a guard rail. Dry pavement is a wonderful thing.

I’ve still got banks of snow along my driveway, and I can’t see the grass on my front lawn, but the snow drifted against my front porch has the soft, tired look of spring snow, and the stones in my driveway are visible.

It’s not just the dry pavement, but the light that’s different this time of year. The dried grasses, the cattails, and the phragmites turn gold as the sun shines through trees that don’t yet have any foliage. Sun bounces off the metal mailboxes that have been tilted by snowplows, the pebbles that have been coated with salt and pushed to the shoulders, and the bare limbs of trees that are patiently waiting for spring.

Dry pavement

March 06, 2010

Track twenty-nine

Saturday night is usually date night, a tradition that my husband and I have kept for years. But tonight our date was a short phone call, since he’s out of town and in a different time zone.

The boys and I ate dinner at my parents’ house: ziti with homemade sauce and meatballs, homemade bread, salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. When we started talking about Frank Lloyd Wright’s House of Falling Waters, my father said, “I’ve got a program on it. In my collection.”

My father has hours and hours of programs that he’s recorded from the television set and then carefully entered into a spiral bound notebook, with numbers that match the labels on the VCR tapes. He selected the tape with the program that showed Falling Waters, and after we finished a dessert of apple cake and hot tea, we settled in the living room to see images of the famous house.

When it was time to leave, Shaggy Hair Boy went out to start the car, but With-a-Why and I lingered in the doorway for a moment, chatting with my parents. I’d been telling my parents that With-a-Why is always singing the song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (yes, a song from 1941), and my mother asked to hear it. So With-a-why, wearing a band t-shirt and zip-off pants, his long hair dangling, stood in the dark doorway and sang both verses of the song.

We’ve still got snow on the ground, but each day the sun melts the snow just a bit more, which means when the temperatures go down in the evening, an icy crust forms on top of the snow. March snow crunches and squeaks underfoot, not at all like the soft snow of February.

When we got home, Boy in Black took a shower and headed up to campus to meet some friends. I practiced piano for a while, but now I’m settled down by the fire with a book and a cup of hot tea. Shaggy Hair Boy, With-a-Why, and Quick (home on his spring break) are playing some kind of computer game upstairs. Their voices drift down, with varying levels of urgency. In the distance, I can hear a rumbling as a train goes rushing past, along the tracks at the end of our road.



March 05, 2010

Makes my day

In the foyer of the big brick building at Little Green, students often set up bake sales, t-shirt sales, and all kinds of fund-raising efforts. When I walked through after my classes, I could see that the table had been covered with a green sheet and plastic bins of cookies.

"Anything vegan?" I asked the sleepy student with the cash box.

He waved his arm at the sign on the table. "We're an animal rights' group. It's all vegan."

Score. For a couple of dollars, I walked away with a brownie, a chocolate chip muffin, and a handful of cookies. I have to stay on campus late today to chair a candidacy exam, but at least now I've got a late afternoon snack.

March 02, 2010


At the beginning of February, I said to my students, “It’s February. The month that lasts forever.”

Some of the students looked puzzled, but I have former students in the class, and they knew immediately what I was talking about. “It’s 94 days long,” said Photographer Student, smiling.

“It’s going to be February for months and months,” said Woman with Bright Scarf.

On bitterly cold days, students came into the classroom, tossed down their books, and said, “Can you believe it? It’s STILL February.” On overcast mornings, when the world outside was grey and white, sleep-deprived students sighed and said, “Yeah, it’s still February.” Our discussions in class kept leading to depressing environmental issues, which didn’t do much to brighten the bleak February mood.

Yesterday felt like a holiday on campus. The sun was shining, warm enough that I almost didn’t need mittens. Students outside the library started a snowball fight, grabbing handfuls of white from the melting snowbanks and chunking them at anyone going by. Monday mornings are not usually a high energy day, but students came to class excited and happy, brushing bits of snow off their clothes. “FEBRUARY IS FINALLY OVER!” Flannel Shirt announced as he slid into a desk.

“It’s March! The month of spring break! And Saint Patrick’s Day!” said Fancy Glasses.

Everyone chattered excitedly as they moved the desks into a circle and rummaged through their bookbags. We were scheduled to discuss a story by one of my favourite authors, Rick Bass. Slam Poet Student had brought a poem to read aloud to us. We had only two weeks left until spring break. Suddenly, everything seemed right with the world.

March 01, 2010


Spring snow

The endlessly long, excruciatingly painful month of February is finally over. It's March. Sure, we've still got drifts of snow, piles of slush, and icicles hanging from the roofs. In fact, we often get major snowstorms in March. But somehow, it's different. In March, there's at least the hope that spring will come.