April 29, 2011

Sprigs of crushed cedar

Under the cedars

When I woke up to sunshine, I grabbed my camera and left the house early, not even stopping to comb my hair. I’d been promising myself a morning walk at Pretty Colour Lakes. When I pulled into the parking lot, mine was the only car.

It’s never lonely to walk at a park I’ve been coming to all my life: every spot along the trail holds memories. When I reached the bank where the maidenhair fern were uncurling, I could remember Artist Friend kneeling down to touch the fronds gently with his fingers. When I reached the second lake, I remembered the time a gang of my students painted their faces with mud while they stood in the water on a sunny October day. When I passed the fallen tree near the wooden bridge, I could remember a friend’s two daughters walking back and forth on it as if it were a balance beam.

This week’s stormy weather had flooded parts of the park, knocked down some trees, and left trails pretty eroded. “I’m surprised the park isn’t closed,” I thought to myself as I walked along. The crushed branches of the cedar trees made the muddy trail fragrant. I found my favourite spot on Round Lake and sat for a few minutes in the sun, enjoying the idea that everyone else was rushing off to work while I had this lovely lake to myself.

I saw only one other person: a man fishing on the edge of the bigger lake. He put his fingers to his lips and motioned to something near his feet. When I got close, I could see a snake stretched out on the rock next to him. The snake slithered farther down the rock and the slipped away into a crack.

“I’ve never seen a snake here before,” the man said. We smiled at each other. He took another cast, and I continued around the lake.

The lake is nestled into a hill: it’s the plunge pool from a glacier. So as I walked, the green-blue water of the lake shone on my left, and a steep slope of trees hugged me from the right. I was far away from any traffic: I could hear spring birds as they called to each other.

It did seem surprising that on such a perfect day, even one during the week, that I’d see so few people. But when I came to the end of the trail, I saw orange tape stretched across. A couple of trucks were parked near the beach, and I heard the whine of a chainsaw starting up. It turns out the trail that I’d been on was closed because of the flood. I’m glad I arrived early enough to have missed the warning.

In the lake

April 27, 2011

Storm etching

Storm Etching

Yesterday's storm

During class yesterday afternoon, the room suddenly grew dark. “Must be a storm rolling in,” said Mountain Climber as he peered out the window. As we walked out, a rising wind whipped my hair into my face.

A gang of students were standing on the edge of the quad, near the top of the stairs. “Turn and look!” one woman said to me. “It’s incredible.”

I turned to look across at the city skyline. Bolts of lightning kept coming, one after another, breaking open the sky above the buildings. The sky to the south was green-blue; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sky that colour.

“I just love storms,” Mountain Climber said. “They put things in perspective.”

“The sky is so huge, and we are so small,” said Purple Hairband.

We watched until the rain began — a pounding, drenching rain. By the time I drove home, streets were flooded and closed: sirens were going off all around me. My windshield was so fogged up that I rolled down my windows: the air was warm, despite the rain, and I noticed that other drivers had done the same. As our cars inched along, drivers talked to each other, exclaiming over the storm and comparing notes about what streets were still open.

The thunderstorms continued for another 6 hours, with short and sometimes even sunny breaks in between. A tornado touched down about 30 miles away from me, with winds up over 100 miles per hour.

Low pressure systems are a migraine trigger for me, and my head had been aching for a couple of days, making me miserable and sleepy. During the storms, I could feel the pressure inside my skull, but the full-blown migraine held off. And when I woke up this morning, the rain had finally stopped and my headache was gone for the first time in days.

April 25, 2011

Alpaca farm


Whenever Red-haired Sister and her family were in town, they wanted to visit the alpacas that live across the road from me. We walked over, carefully skirting the puddles in the yard, and my neighbor came out to give us feed for the animals, who came right up to the fence to eat out of our hands. This time of year, the alpaca coats are wonderfully thick, and the fiber is way softer than wool.

Baby alpaca

April 24, 2011

In that kitchen

Dyeing eggs

When I picked Little Biker Boy up, he had a plastic bag of clothes with him. “Can you wash these while we do the Easter eggs?” he asked. I tossed his shirts and pants into the washer while Shaggy Hair Boy cleared the kitchen table. Dandelion Niece and Taekwondo Nephew had joined us to dye eggs: they’re teenagers now, and not little kids, but they knew it would be no fun for Little Biker Boy to dye eggs alone.

As I poured tablespoons of vinegar into mugs of water and dye, I couldn’t help but think of Ponytail Girl. Her mother had offered little explanation as to where she was; I hoped that wherever she was for Easter, she was safe.

“I quite like this colour,” Taekwondo Nephew said as he pulled a purple egg from the dye. For some reason, he’d decided to talk in a British accent, which seemed to both puzzle and entertain Little Biker Boy.

Shaggy Hair Boy had index cards spread out on the table in front of him: notes for a short story he was working on. He decided he’d contribute to the egg dyeing effort by starting a sing-a-along, and soon he and his cousins were belting out, “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

“Do you know any rap songs?” Little Biker Boy asked.

The gang switched the beat immediately. “All the live-long day, yo!”

When I drove Little Biker Boy home, he had with him a dozen coloured eggs, which he said he was going to eat all by himself, and some little packages of candy that Tie-dye Brother-in-law had brought for him. He reached to the dashboard of my car and held up the jacket of the Mountain Goats CD that I’d been listening to.

“This your music?” he asked.

The CD Sunset Tree is an album about child abuse, written by a man who survived the kind of childhood that Little Biker Boy is currently living.

“It’s your music too,” I said. “Someday, when you’re older, I’ll buy a copy for you.”

He looked at the CD cover again and shrugged. Then he began talking, like he always does in the car, sharing with me the details of a difficult ten-year-old life.


April 22, 2011

Some day we won't remember this

When my kids come home from concerts or musical festivals, they are often still wearing the concert wristbands that gave them admission to the event. Boy in Black will sometimes wear a paper wristband for months. I think nine months is his record although that was during a stage in his life when he rarely took showers. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter used to thumbtack ticket stubs and wristbands to a bulletin board. Or sometimes I’d find the shiny metallic wristbands from a musical festival on her windowsill.

When I came home from the Mountain Goats concert, I didn’t feel like I could just rip the wristband off and toss it aside. It was my first concert wristband. I left the light grey paper band on my right wrist, where it was mostly hidden by long sleeves anyhow. I’m wearing it still.

None of my students have questioned the wristband. They know what it is. College students understand the tradition.

But yesterday morning, I had breakfast with some friends — women my own age or older. As I pulled off my fleece to sit down at the table, one friend said in concern, as she looked at the grey paper band. “What’s that? Have you been in the hospital?”

Yes. That’s what a wristband means at my age.

I think I’m getting old.

April 20, 2011

The obvious solution


So let's say you're a teen-age boy. Your parents are out of town, and you're in charge of the house. A sibling accidentally breaks a glass in the bathroom, and pieces are scattered all over the floor. Do you

a) carefully clean the glass up with a vacuum cleaner?
b) find the whisk broom and sweep the glass up?
c) pick the pieces up with your hands and use a wet cloth for the rest?


d) tape a note to the door explaining that the bathroom is out of order?

April 18, 2011

Birthing season


Cold wind and rain greeted us when we arrived at the monastery Friday evening. Retreat Friend and I had stopped on our way through town to buy Chinese food, so after we carried out things into the old stone farmhouse, we sat down at the wooden table for hot soup, hot rice, and steaming vegetables. It was still raining when we were done with our supper, so instead of my usual walk around the sheep farm, I went over to the chapel.

I love the musky scent of candle wax and incense that greets me when I pull open the heavy wooden door to the chapel. I descended the long stone staircase into the crypt, which is lit a hundred or so votive candles set on a low stone altar. I’d promised a friend I’d light a candle for his 40th birthday, so I lit the candle and set it amidst all the other glass jars. I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the candles: it’s my favourite spot at the monastery. I can spend hours in that spot, praying or meditating or just thinking.

It wasn’t until morning that I made my way over to the sheep barn. Lambing season had just begun, and several of the ewes had already given birth. The wind whipping through the open barn was cold, so I didn’t linger, just stopped long enough to admire the newest lambs. The weather didn’t seem to bother the sheep: I guess that’s the advantage of a wool coat.

A cold rainy weekend is good for reading, for writing, for afternoon naps, and long conversations. Retreat Friend, Nurse Friend, and I talked a bunch, and each took some quiet time too. Brother Beekeeper caught me after Mass on Sunday to say hello, and we went out to the sheep barn together. He just celebrated a milestone birthday – his 70th – and he said he’d light a candle for me next week to celebrate my 50th birthday. He came to the monastery the fall before I was born, so he’s lived on that land my entire life. We talked about our lives, our mortality, and our plans for the next decade as we stood in the sheep barn and watched ewes giving birth.


April 15, 2011

Gone monking

Since the first of the year, I’ve taken six trips out of town. My semester fell into a pattern: I’d come home from a trip to unpack, work like crazy, catch up on stuff, cram in meetings, teach my classes, grade papers, and then just as my office began to look clean — I’d pack for the next trip. Despite the craziness, it’s been fun. When my kids were small, I stayed pretty close to home, so I had many years of being a homebody. I’m just discovering now how much I love to travel. It’s bittersweet to realize that my youngest child is 16 years old and I’m not needed at home every minute of the day, but I’m loving this freedom to explore the world and go places I’ve never gone before.

This afternoon I’m leaving on a shorter trip — my annual spring retreat at the Benedictine monastery. It’s lambing season, so I’ll be spending time in the sheep barn, watching the ewes give birth. Two close friends are coming on retreat with me, so we’ll have a chance to catch up on our busy lives. My time at the monastery – walking the trails, wandering through the sheep barns, chatting with Brother Beekeeper, reading in the sun, meditating in the chapel, lighting candles at the stone altar in the crypt — are what I need to keep my hectic life in balance.

April 14, 2011

Beautiful Naked Women


It’s tradition. When I go to a conference, I asked friends to pose naked for my blog.

It makes perfect sense, really. Most academic conferences are held in the basement of a huge hotel, with concurrent sessions held in carpeted box-like rooms. The air is stale, the walls are beige, and the lights are fluorescent and weird. Conference attendees race about with styrofoam cups of coffee, satchels of books, and laptop computers dangling in black cases.

I escape this scene by retreating to a hotel room with a friend. I adjust the settings on my camera while she strips off her clothes. We talk about the way the natural light falls on her body. Often I snapped the photo quickly, while she’s just standing, looking out the window. We don’t have time, usually, for elaborate poses, and often the best pictures are unposed.

Sometimes the woman might be someone I’ve known for years. Sometimes it’s a woman I’ve just met.

She takes off her clothes, shows me her scars. We talk.

“I could use to feel beautiful this week,” one woman said to me as she posed. And that, of course, the secret to these photos. Every woman, once she removes her clothes, is beautiful.

I am not, actually, a photographer. I’m someone who likes to listen to stories. And it’s a privilege, an amazing honor, to listen to the stories women tell me as they pose. I’ll hear stories about their childhood and about their relationships. I’ll hear the narratives hidden beneath folds of skin, words tucked into laugh wrinkles or stretch marks, words hidden beneath swirling hair. Sometimes, we’ll be in a hurry, ready to dash off to another conference session. Sometimes we talk for hours.

I get a glimpse, in these sessions, of their complex lives, their emotions and dreams, and all that makes these women so beautiful.

Just a minute

Both my models are bloggers I've known for years, but I'm going to preserve their anonymity by not even revealing their pseudonyms.

(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 and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )

April 12, 2011

A ghost at the back of your closet

The best part of my conference trip last week had nothing to do with the conference. Oh, sure, I enjoyed going to sessions, talking with old friends, meeting new people, and getting folks to strip naked for my camera. My own session was well-attended, and people kept coming up to me later to tell me how much they liked what I’d said. That’s always nice.

But the most amazing, transformational experience of the conference was a Mountain Goats concert I went to with a couple of friends on Thursday night. In fact, I loved the show so much that I changed my plane ticket so that on Sunday night, Scrivener and I could drive a couple hundred miles north to see the Mountain Goats perform again.

The group is called the Mountain Goats, but the front man, John Darnielle, is the genius, the personality, that we went to see. It’s been six years since I first listened to his music, and for six years, Scrivener has been telling me how important the songs were to him. It’s taken me six years to completely understand what he was talking about.

John Darnielle is smart, articulate, and talented. He gives terrific interviews. His lyrics are poetry, really, poems that happened to be set to music. But he’s more than a musician, a writer, and a performer. He’s a healer.

In the middle of the concert, he did a solo section – just him and a guitar. His album The Sunset Tree is filled with autobiographical songs about the way that his stepfather abused him, and those are the kind of songs he chooses for the solo section. As he sang, I look around at the faces in the crowd, and I could see how his words resonated. I’m not one to cry in public, but it was impossible not to. I could feel sadness swirling through the room as people around me sang the lyrics with him.

A few songs later, and everyone in the room was jumping up and down, pumping fists in the air, and singing as loud as they can, loud and triumphant. His music celebrates his survival. We were in the very front, my legs touching the edge of the wooden platform he was performing on, and it was amazing to be inside that energy. At one point, John Darnielle leaned out across the crowd, singing to people, reaching out to shake hands – and then he reached down to run his hand through Scrivener’s curly hair, grabbing his head the way you might a child’s, a public gesture that seemed incredibly intimate.

No matter what he sang, even when it was brand new material, everyone in the crowd seemed to know all the words. In one of his most popular songs, everyone repeats the line “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” and I could just tell, looking at the faces in the crowd, that they’d lived that song. John Darnielle kept leaping around the stage, laughing and looking out at the crowd, and you could tell he was thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

I stood there, amidst the swirl of healing energy, the sweaty bodies all swaying to his words, and thought to myself, “Yeah, he’s right. He’s absolutely right.”

April 09, 2011

Between concurrent sessions

I’ve returned, once again, to a city in the south, where yellow pollen makes patterns on the car hoods and trees drop flowers onto the sidewalks. My days have been filled with conference sessions, restaurant meals, conversations with new friends and lots of catching up with old friends. I haven’t had internet access so I haven’t been blogging, but I have carefully observed my conference blogging tradition: I’ll post some naked photos when I return home.

April 04, 2011


Dream catcher

Every time I see Ponytail, the little girl who used to live near me, she seems taller and more grown-up. She'll wear earrings, often, and the kind of clothes that teenagers might wear. But she still acts like a little girl, hugging me and sitting on my lap.

Yesterday, I picked Ponytail and Little Biker Boy up in the middle of the afternoon. Even though it's still cold here, the sun was shining.

"Can we go to Chuck E. Cheese?" Ponytail asked as soon as she got into the car. I haven't been to a place like that since my kids were little, but I remembered it being loud and dark, with lots of plastic and little natural light.

"I've got a better idea," I said. "Let's go to Pretty Colour Lakes."

The parking lot at the state park was nearly full. Folks were walking dogs, playing on the sandy beach, running, eating picnic lunches, and hiking the trails. A few patches of snow remained in the woods, and the green hasn't come out on the trees yest, but the sunshine felt like spring.

Ponytail and Little Biker Boy ditched their winter coats, their socks and sneakers, and began running through the water, despite how icy cold it was. "I haven't splashed in a LONG TIME," Ponytail yelled as she kicked up enough water to soak her skirt and shirt.

We played until a cold wind rose, and then we returned the car, which was warm from sitting in the sun, and drove to the pizza place for supper.

April 02, 2011

• • • — — — • • •

“Enlightenment Days,” With-a-Why said. “That’s what we need. We’re not using our brains and our senses to their full capacity.”

I looked at my youngest son. He was serious.

“We’ll spend our first Enlightenment Day communicating only in Morse code,” he said. “That would be a handy skill to have.”

“I guess,” I said. He's my fourth kid, so I know better than to resist these kind of schemes, even when they seem just a little bit crazy. Resistance is futile.

“Then we could have one day where we only speak French. Nothing but French,” he said. “And I know a program that could teach us perfect pitch. That would be another Enlightenment Day.”

Since I've never been able to carry a tune, the chance of me learning perfect pitch in merely 24 hours seemed just a bit optimistic, but I nodded as if he'd proposed something completely reasonable.

“We could wear blindfolds for a day,” I offered.

“Maybe this Sunday we could begin with the Morse code day," he said.

“I’ve got an Ultimate tournament Sunday," said Shaggy Hair Boy. He was playing the piano as we talked. "I don’t know how the rest of the team is going to feel about me communicating only in Morse code.”

“And I need some time to brush up on Morse code,” I said.

“You can use music to remember some of them,” With-a-Why said. “Like the letter V. Just think of Beethoven’s 5th. Dot dot dot DASH.” He hummed it first, then played it on the piano.

With-a-Why is a very focused kid. By the end of the day, he had printed out charts of Morse code and taped them to the front door, the back door, the kitchen window, and the bathroom mirrors. Enlightenment Day clearly includes the apartment where my two older kids live: they began posting facebook messages in Morse code. By the time I went to my piano lesson on Friday, Beautiful Piano Teacher was asking for a Morse code chart so that she could join in.

Both With-a-Why and I have been delighted to find out how different words sound and look in Morse code. Mom is all dashes: -- --- -- My personal favorite is the word shit which translates into a serious of dots followed by a single dash: • • • • • • •  • • –  Well, maybe you have to say that aloud to get how perfect that is.

My students, who noticed me studying Morse code before class, offered suggestions of their own. “How about an Enlightenment Day where you tape your thumbs to your palms?” one student said.

The woman next to him tried picking up her pen with just her fingers. “Look, without thumbs, I can’t even get my pen cap off.”

I walked over, picked up her pen with two fingers, and pulled the pen top off with my teeth. See, that’s the kind of skill you can learn on Enlightenment Day.