April 30, 2010

Classroom chemistry

I’ve spend almost four months with my spring semester students. We’ve gathered three times each week. We’ve talked about books; we’ve shared food and poetry and personal reflections. We’ve become a community who encourage and support each other. We’ve bonded.

One of my favorite moments of the semester was the first time we wrote a poem together. I’d warned the students that I wanted to try writing a collaborative poem, and some of them had given me scared looks. Slam Poet, who had wowed us all with a poem the week before, grinned and said, “Oh, yeah.”

During the class, we were talking about environmental issues and body image, and the connection between the two. Then suddenly, I felt that the energy in the room was right. I said, “Wait! I think it’s time.” I handed each student an index card and told them to write a line of poetry.

It took only a few minutes – each student wrote a line or two, and then we shuffled the cards together and read them aloud. It took only a few minutes — but the result was amazing. Somehow, during the discussion, our minds had all gotten into sync and the poem was both coherent and meaningful.

“We totally rock,” said Slam Poet. And everyone in the room agreed with her.

That chemistry is one of the things I love about teaching, the magic that happens when you take a random group of humans and put them together in a room with the common goal of learning from each other. That chemistry is also what makes me a little sad every time a semester ends.

April 29, 2010

Simple question

I was standing at the sink, washing my hands, in a public restroom. In the mirror, behind my own reflection, I noticed woman wearing a bright red jacket and a nametag that indicated that she was at the same conference as me. She was in a wheelchair.

What caught my attention was that she had paused at the open door to the large stall on the end. I could tell she was having some sort of difficulty, but I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. As I dried my hands, I tried to figure out how I could help. But I was seized with uncharacteristic shyness. I wanted to see what the problem was, but I didn’t want to stare at her. I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to assume that she needed my help. I had good intentions but was seized by the worry that I might do something offensive out of my own ignorance.

Just then a young woman, about the age of my daughter, stepped away from the same set of sinks. She walked over to the woman in the wheelchair, looked at her without hesitation, and said, “What can I do to help?”

“This stall is the only one I can get into, and there’s no toilet paper left,” the woman in the red jacket said. “Can you get me some?”

The young woman ducked into a stall, handed out the toilet paper, smiled again, and went on her way.

April 28, 2010

Time for a nap

Time for a nap

The end of April is a busy time, with the semester ending, deadlines for conference proposals and reports approaching. Perhaps the most valuable part of spending the weekend at the monastery is that I had time for an afternoon nap.

April 27, 2010

Visiting the baby sheep


April is a busy time at the monastery. In addition to praying seven times each day, the monks work the farm, and they've got a pretty large herd of sheep, who were giving birth like crazy when I was there. Benedictine monks take an oath of hospitality, though, and no matter how busy the farm work gets, they make time for guests.

I was helping out in the sheep barn, when a woman from town arrived with her daughter. The little girl ran over to the sheep pens, squealing with delight. "Look! They're so cute!" She peered into each pen to see the babies.

Brother Tractor stopped in the midst of what he was doing to patiently answer her questions. "Nope, the tags on the ears don't hurt. We put a tag on the left ear if it's a boy, the right ear if it's a girl."

Then he climbed into a pen and lifted up a newborn lamb for the little girl to pet. She'd been chattering away like crazy, but she went completely silent as he approached with the baby sheep, and then she reached out one finger, very gently, and rubbed the lamb's head.

Brother Tractor

April 26, 2010



During my weekend at the monastery, I spent hours just hanging out in the barn, standing near the makeshift sheep pens that Brother Tractor sets up every year during lambing season. The barn smells of hay and sheep, and every once in a while, a newborn will begin bleating, which sets off other lambs. Sixteen ewes gave birth on Saturday, most to twins, and Brother Tractor was busy, shifting the mothers and babies out to the pasture to make room for the pregnant sheep that were still patiently waiting in the farmyard. Mostly, the sheep give me curious looks as I walk through, but occasionally, one will stamp her foot in warning. The newborns are wet and coated with yellow when they are born, but within hours, their wool dries off, and they begin looking like the lambs in children's books, wobbling about on all four legs and butting each other in their eagerness to nurse.

Spring at the monastery

Spring at the monastery

Flowers were blooming at the monastery, especially in sheltered corners. The breeze was chilly, and the air cold in the shadows, but on Saturday afternoon, I found a corner of stone where I could sit on the ground with my back against an old stone building, out of the wind. The stones radiated heat. I coiled myself into the spot and sat absolutely still, sinking into the silence. The heat soaked into my cold feet, my hands, the bare skin of my arms until my entire body was warmed through and through.

April 22, 2010

Gone monking


As soon as my classes are over for the week, I'm driving to the monastery, where I'll catch the end of lambing season. I'm going to stay until Sunday, so that I can celebrate my 49th birthday by watching baby sheep being born.


Through the woods

During the winter months, the little neighbor kids came over every day to play. They're both very physical kids, with deep pockets of anger and sadness, and it's been very difficult at times to spend time with them in a household that's filled with computers and musical instruments, a household where people are often reading, writing, studying, or practicing music.

I have toys here for the kids, including some that generous blog friends have sent me, but still it's a relief to move into the season of warm weather, when the little neighbor kids can play on our front step, run through the backyard, or walk with me into the woods, where they can yell as loud as they want, knock down dead trees, and splash through mud puddles.

April 21, 2010

Old school activism

The smell of pizza lured me into the room near the front of our campus library. Some students were standing around, eating and talking, while others sat at the tables, writing furiously on sheets of paper.

“What’s going on?” I asked the student with the bright purple shirt.

“It’s a letter writing party,” he said. “Come join us.”

The students had set up a computer to a web page that gave the addresses of various elected officials. They had a whole table of information about environmental issues, particularly a couple of local issues that have been discussed in depth at campus forums. Purple Shirt handed me a pen, a piece of paper, and a stamped envelope.

So often, when I’m asked to write a letter, it becomes yet another item on my to-do list, one more thing I “ought to do,” one more tedious task to take care of when I’m sitting in front of the computer. The letter writing party was a better way. I sat down at a sunny table, wrote the letter, put it in the envelope, and added it to the growing pile on the table. This simple task was done in ten minutes — and I ate lunch at the same time.

“At least I feel like I’ve accomplished SOMETHING today,” I said to PlantsWoman as I walked out into the sunshine. “I should get away from my computer and handwrite letters more often.”

“Yep, I feel the same way,” she said. “And besides, a handwritten letter is the gold standard. It makes politicians take notice.”

April 19, 2010

Three generations

It was a roadtrip. And officially, I guess it was a college roadtrip since we had two college students with us, Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece. Of course, the other two passengers in my car were my parents, who are in their late 70s. The best road trips include at least three generations.

Shaggy Hair Boy took the wheel, driving us through miles of farmland and talking to his grandfather about the jazz CD he was playing. They may be 60 years apart in age, but they love the same music.

When we passed a herd of cows, I expected my mother to look out the window and say, “Hello, girls.” That’s what she always says to a herd of cows. But Blonde Niece beat her to it. She turned towards the cattle and said, “Hello, girls” in a perfect imitation of her grandmother. My mother and I both laughed.

When we went through the tollbooth, Shaggy Hair Boy chatted with the toll booth attendant as she handed him the ticket.

“You always talk to the attendant?” I asked in surprise. I always just grab the ticket and keep driving.

“I always try to say at least seven words,” he explained. He gave us this theory he had heard: toll booth attendents have a boring job, very isolated from the rest of the world. So if each driver who passes through says at least seven words, that human contact could prevent the toll booth attendant from getting depressed and committing suicide.

Our trip took us to Camera City, where we ate lunch at my brother’s house, played a game of Scrabble, and attended Drama Niece’s last high school performance. My wonderfully talented niece has starred in many plays and musicals over the last six years, and I’d be a little sad to see them end if it weren’t for the exciting news that next year, she’ll be living in Snowstorm City while she attends Snowstorm University.

April 18, 2010

That elusive bowl of potato salad

Fire Ant is a local friend who once, when we were rooming together at a conference in Big City Like No Other, helped me achieve the accomplishment I’d like engraved on my tombstone: my blog is the number one hit on google search for “photos of naked middle-aged women.” In the process of taking her photo, we kicked over furniture in the hotel room, ripped down a curtain rod, and laughed so hard that the people in the next room called and complained about us to the front desk, but the photo shoot was a great success, setting the bar high for more naked photo shoots in hotel rooms across the country.

We do have our disagreements: she thinks, for instance, that Raggedy Ann is creepy. But despite that major philosophical difference, we share a love of poetry, a fascination with human relationships, and a willingness to exaggerate like crazy for the sake of a good story. I’ve given her several different pseudonyms over the years, but Fire Ant is what she calls herself on her blog.

One fall when we went on a picnic, I discovered that Fire Ant makes potato salad that is almost as delicious as her poetry. She used olive oil instead of mayonnaise, and lots of dill, with bits of cut-up onions and carrots and peppers, with black-eyed peas and fresh parsley, and I'm not even sure what else. All the ingredients soaked in the olive oil while it was still hot so the flavors blended together, coating each chunk of potato, which were still slightly warm as we began eating. I didn’t ask for her recipe because I was too busy eating. Besides, food tastes better when someone else makes it. I figured since she lives in town, I could just get her to make me the potato salad every once in a while.

She and I work on adjoining campuses, our offices only a five-minute walk apart, and she’s been known to bring containers of homemade potato salad to work. I decided that if I could just figure out when she’s bringing potato salad, I could stalk her.

But it turns out, getting her to strip her clothes off in a hotel room was way easier than getting some of that potato salad.

The first potato salad incident happened when I took a day to stay home and grade papers, knowing that I would never get the stacks marked and ready to hand back if I went to campus. My office is in the library, filled with students who love to procrastinate as much as I do; staying home to grade is the only way to avoid the students who will obligingly entertain me with stories of the things that went wrong on last week’s camping trip. Of course, the one day that I stayed home to work, I got an email from Fire Ant: “I brought potato salad to work today. Want some?” I was tired and hungry, and miles away from said potato salad; the message felt like a taunt.

The next week, I got a phone message from her just as I was about to leave for class: “I made potato salad. Do you have time for lunch?”

I didn’t have time for lunch. I was teaching three classes in a row and then going straight to a godawful meeting that lasted past 5 pm, past the time when Fire Ant would go home for the day. All through class that day, while trying to talk to my students about literature and writing and deep profound ideas, one thought kept going through my mind, “I want some potato salad.” I was so hungry that it was hard to concentrate.

That was just the beginning of a series of potato salad incidents. The circumstances got more and more ridiculous, involving phone calls, emails, and even a paid political announcement, but never once did I end up with a bowl of potato salad.

So when Fire Ant emailed me this week, telling me that the tree on her street was blossoming and that I should come take some photos for my blog, I thought immediately of the Potato Salad Episode. With my luck, a strong wind would knock the blossoms off the tree before I even got there. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to drive all the way to her house unless potato salad was involved.

“Let’s just pretend I visited you,” I emailed back. “It can be an imaginary blogger meet-up.” Then I took the photo she’d taken of the tree and put it on my blog.

April 16, 2010


After his piano lesson, With-a-Why and I stopped at the pizza place so he could run in and grab a slice of pizza. He’s growing fast, rapidly catching up to his tall father and older brothers, and he’s at the age when he’s always hungry.

The parking lot is small, so I pulled up in front and waited in the car while he took a few dollars and went in. The breeze caught his waist-length hair as he walked. It’s fine, silky hair, black against his pale skin.

When he came out, he looked kind of puzzled. He shook his hair back so that he could devour the pizza slice.

“The guy in there called me sir,” he said. “That’s weird. People usually think I’m a girl.”

“Not any more,” I said. “You’re getting too tall. And your features are changing.”

“I don’t know how I feel about being called sir,” he said. “I was almost offended.”

April 15, 2010

On the street

Street music

Too much time in a convention center, even when it’s got lots of windows and a big stature of a bear hovering over it, can make me feel a little crazy. One afternoon in Mile High City, overwhelmed by all the books and readings and overstimulation of the conference, I took an afternoon stroll on 16th Street, a pedestrian mall filled with food vendors, street performers, and people milling about.

I walked down the middle of the street, my face turned toward the sunshine, listening to the trumpet player on the corner whose music made me feel like I was a little kid again, back in my parents’ living room, playing on the floor with my brother while my father and his friends jammed. Although it was still pretty cool out, I’d taken off my fleece so that I could feel the sun on my bare arms.

As I wandered about, kind of oblivious, I could hear a young man shout something at me. His words didn’t register; usually when I’m in a city, I block out anything men shout at me. But then he shouted again, breaking my zen mood. I glanced his way and noticed him pointing. A bus was coming straight toward me.

I jumped out of the way, and the bus went rolling past.

Apparently the pedestrian mall isn’t totally free of traffic: buses shuttle people up and down the street. That’s a handy thing to know.

April 13, 2010

In her birthday suit

Observant readers will note that in the photo I posted yesterday, Artist Friend is wearing clothes. Disappointing, I know. The man claims to be all about getting in touch with nature and exploding gender stereotypes and exploring the wild — and he’s got artistic sensibilities to boot. I even had a lovely spot picked out for a photo shoot: his naked body would have been framed in the brass-edged revolving door on 16th street, which is so filled with tourists and street performers and determined young activists that no one would have even noticed him stripping off his clothes. Well, hardly anyone except possibly a few passing colleagues. But he refused to get naked for me.

So I gave up on him and began badgering editors at the bookfair. They were an easy mark: obligated to stand by their tables, they couldn’t escape my advances.

I approached the cluster of thirty-something men at the table of an online journal, figuring that they would love to be part of a blog photo project. They were in fact, all in favor of the project. Up until I asked them to pose. Then suddenly, they started volunteering other men at the conference.

“Men hardly ever pose for me,” I said. “It’s funny, because stereotypes would suggest that women would be the ones to hesitate. But it seems to be men who have issues with their bodies.”

One obliging young man took the bait. “Not me. I’d pose.”

“Okay,” I said. “Right now. It’ll just take a few minutes.”

He looked startled. “Um, no.”

See, that’s what happens. I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern with many of the men who offer to pose. They like to be asked, they like to joke about the photos, they love to tease me about the project, but when it comes right down to it, they aren’t so eager to take off their clothes.

Editor of Environmental Magazine suggested a group photo with a theme: men over six feet tall. He is 5’11”. Of course. Nature Writer Who Plays Ultimate assured me he’d pose if I came to his session, but added he’d need several drinks first. That's another problem: people want to pose naked after a late night of drinking. If I took my camera to some of the late night conference parties, I bet I could get all kinds of great naked shots — and some wild stories as well. But I’m a photographer who likes natural light. I’ve got my standards.

So I asked Ocean Breeze, a woman I’ve known for years. We roomed together at a conference once years before I had a blog, but I decided to invoke the roommate clause retroactively.

Besides, it was appropriate. It was her birthday. “I get to be 54!” she said happily that morning. She and her husband had come to the conference as a birthday present. “Yes, that makes me a nerd,” she admitted. “But I was so excited when I saw the line-up of readings.”

And she is adventuresome. Just a few month ago, she went swimming with elephants. She visited her daughter, who lives in faraway country, and they rode elephants in the water. The pregnant elephant she was riding liked to duck her big grey head under the water, but before she did, she wrapped her beautiful ears tight around the legs of her rider so she wouldn’t fall off. “I felt so safe and loved,” Ocean Breeze said.

We met for breakfast on the morning of her birthday to sit at a metal table in the sunshine outside a bakery, eating bagels and oatmeal. We talked about issues with our aging bodies, about books and writing and plans for a summer get-together. Just before that, back in my hotel room, she stripped off her clothes and posed for the blog.

In her birthday suit

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

April 12, 2010

Photo of a Friend Fully Clothed

We gathered in an upstairs room of an old brewery, a building more than 100 years old. The room still held big copper kettles, which some of us could not resist drumming on. Between the old walls, a huge window gave us a night view of Mile High City while we listened to both poetry and prose. The event was Wild Lives, Raucous Pens, a reading sponsored by Hawk & Handsaw and Terrain.org.

That was only one of many amazing events at Big Creative Writing Conference. I heard readings by some of my favorite writers, and I attended panels that raised thought-provoking ideas. At the bookfair, I wandered from table to table, talking to editors and writers, buying books, and eating free chocolate.

I love readings and panels and the intellectual stimulation of a conference, but the best part is always getting a chance to spend time with my conference friends. At this huge conference, I found myself mostly seeking out Friendly Green Folks, whom I know from the much smaller Friendly Green Conference. Conversation and laughter accompanied every meal -- whether it was a veggie wrap ripped in two pieces and shared with my roommate, a dinner with friends on the sunny rooftop of a Mexican restaurant, or breakfast on a metal table warmed by the sun. On the very last morning of the conference, I walked to breakfast with Artist Friend, who kept stopping to admire buildings and point out interesting details; I snapped our photo in a revolving door.

Self-portrait with Artist Friend

April 06, 2010

Into the sunset

Into the sunset

I'm disappearing again for a week or so, flying off to Mile High City for Big Creative Writing Conference. I'm looking forward to seeing friends, going to readings, attending sessions, and exploring a city far from home. I'll return with stories -- and perhaps a naked photo.

April 05, 2010

Sunshine in Traintrack Village


Friday evening was so warm that my husband and I took a long walk in the dark. I wore jeans and a t-shirt, and my arms were bare. It felt like summer.

As we walked through Traintrack Village, we saw a couple of familiar figures moving along the sidewalk. It was Quiet Woman and her daughter, out walking their dog. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas time, so we stopped to chat. “We’re taking Philosophical Boy to visit colleges,” Quiet Woman said. It seems hard to believe that he’s that old already.

We’d gone another 100 yards when I heard a voice called, “Hey, don’t think you can come by without saying hello.” It was Retired Principal, an old friend of mine. He stepped off his front porch so I could give him a hug. He and his wife had just returned from Southern State of Palm Trees and Alligators, where they spend the month of March. My husband and I told them about our trip to the same state, and the four of us stood on the sidewalk comparing notes.

We chatted until another neighbor wandered by, and then my husband and I went over to the old elementary school to sit on the swings in the playground and talk. We could hear the tree frogs singing behind the school, and the night breeze against my bare arms didn’t even make me shiver.

I took the same walk the next day with Red-haired Sister and her family, as well as With-a-Why. In the daylight, we kept admiring the flowers that were starting to bloom. Little Biker Boy kept zooming around us impatiently on his bike. When we reached the bridge over the creek, we climbed down to look at the graffiti under the bridge and watch the muddy water rush past.

Some kids in the village had set up a cardtable and were selling lemonade, but they had run out of lemonade by the time our thirsty group approached. Since none of us were carrying any money with us, it was probably just as well.

In the Traintrack Village Cemetery, I showed my sister the place where Opera Singer and Hyper Generous Woman had been buried. We stood for a moment near the tombstone and then walked over to the place where I’d seen daffodils blooming the day before.

An old car pulled up to us, and an old woman stepped out. She had to be in her eighties at least, maybe nineties. She was dressed in a purple and blue blouse with pants that matched exactly, and purple clip-on earrings. “Do you know when the church service is?” she asked. “I thought it was a 4 pm, but no one is here.”

“I can find out,” I said to her. I turned to the cluster of family members. “Who’s got a cell phone?”

Once we had figured out the church times, the woman thanked us and said, “I guess I’ll go to the 9 am tomorrow morning.” She got back into her car, and we watched the vehicle creep away slowly.

On our way back to my house, we passed a man raking his lawn and some kids playing ball. We stopped to admire a front yard flower garden. Dandelion Niece loved the little sign that said, “Weeds are free. Please pick some.”

These first sunny days of spring in Snowstorm Region always get everyone out of their houses. The snowbanks and icy temperatures that isolate us in the winter are finally gone. Even on a short walk, I end up talking to neighbors, seeing people I haven’t seen all winter long. For an extrovert like me, it's the best part of spring.

Under the bridge

That's Tie-dye Brother-in-law, under the bridge.

April 04, 2010

Swimming weather

Swimming weather

Well, for dogs anyhow.

An Easter celebration with my extended family usually includes a walk, often in the mud or snow, and usually with several dogs. Red-haired Sister always brings at least three dogs with her when she comes into town.

This year, Easter weekend brought three days of sunshiny weather. As I watched the dogs splashing in the pond, I couldn't help looking forward to summer. We have only a month of classes left.

April 02, 2010


First warmth

We're having a surge of warm weather, a sudden bit of summer. The sun feels especially hot because the trees have no foliage yet. This morning, I sat outside in the backyard on a blanket, talking to Artist Friend on the telephone and watching the buds on my lilac bushes open.