February 27, 2013

Limping towards March

Usually when I come home from a weekend trip, I'm eager to post photographs and tell stories. But this week has been a bit crazy. I think I have the plague.

I came home to a couple of busy days on campus, filled with meetings and classes, and the first time I was able to sit down with my computer was last night. That's when I noticed that my head was throbbing, my back ached, and I just couldn't shake the overwhelming nausea. I spent the night vomiting.

By this morning, I was so dehydrated that I was fantasizing about ginger ale. My husband went out obligingly when the corner gas station opened at 6 am and brought home ginger ale, crackers, and gatorade. The gatorade seemed like a good idea — all those electrolytes and whatnot -- but all it really accomplished was to turn my vomit bright purple.

I've been limping along today, trying answer emails and grade student portfolios, but mostly, I want to just throw myself off a cliff. Perhaps I bragged too soon about how February was almost over. These last couple days have been excruciating.

February 24, 2013


Blue skies in February February can be a dreadful month, filled with the anxiety of driving on icy roads and the disappointment of weather cancellations. But this year, the month has gone by quickly. My weekdays have been so busy I haven’t had time to be melancholy. My weekends have been packed with good things: a potluck with my women friends to begin the month, music events with my youngest son, date nights with my husband, and a retreat at the monastery. This weekend, I flew to the southwest to join my husband after his conference, and we spent a couple of days hiking in the desert sun. March will be here before we know it.

February 22, 2013

When it's cold outside

That familiar barn

When I visit the monastery in the summer, I spend most of my time outside, hiking the trails or walking through the sheep pastures, or wandering through the barnyard. The monks encourage their guests to enjoy the outdoors: they’ve placed benches under trees and at the tops of hills, and they provide a trail map right next to the list of services in the chapel.

On an icy winter day, guests are more likely to spend time indoors — sitting quietly in the crypt that’s lit by dozens of votive candles, browsing through the books in the gift shop, or reading by the window in a guest cottage. Up at the Women’s Guesthouse, seven women lingered over meals, sitting comfortably in the enclosed porch that fills with sunshine every afternoon.

“We’re quite an international group this weekend,” Retreat Friend said as we talked. The woman who runs the guesthouse has a lovely British accent. The youngest woman in the group, a musician who had come to work on her dissertation, was from Switzerland, and the writer sitting next to her was German. Piano Teacher grew up in Russia. 

“Such a fascinating group of women,” Piano Teacher said to me. The monastery is set on a remote hill in snow-covered farmland, but the conversations at the dinner table are usually intellectually stimulating and emotionally intimate. Saturday night, we sat by the fireplace, bringing out books and journals, and talked for hours, while outside icy winds blew snow across the sheep pastures.

  Monastery road in winter

February 18, 2013

Sheep, of course!

In the sheep barns

Saturday afternoon, I gave Piano Teacher a tour of the monastery. It was an icy winter day, but inside the chapel, with its plain stone floor and wooden benches, the air was warm. We breathed the scent of incense and melting wax while I showed her the harp that Brother Tractor plays and the stone statue in the crypt lit by flickering votive candles.

Then of course, we walked through the sheep barns. I love the huge stacks of hay, which smell wonderful up close, and the way the sheep turn to watch when I walk through the yard. One sheep kept trying to climb out of its pen to see us. Even though it was cold, we lingered to take pictures. “I have to bring home photos of sheep,” I explained to Piano Teacher. “My readers expect it.”

Saying hello

February 15, 2013

Monastery in winter

Monastery in winter

If you look closely at this photo, you can see the white steeple of the monastery chapel, the long buildings where the monks live, and on the right edge, the sheep barn with the cross on it. It's a Benedictine monastery, with monks who come to the chapel seven times each day for prayer. It's also a working sheep farm, with big flocks of sheep that get sheered every spring, plus several donkeys who are there to help keep the coyotes away from the sheep.

I'm leaving after work today for a weekend retreat at the monastery. Six of us women will be staying at the women's guesthouse, an old farm house that sits on a hill just above the monastery. We'll make time to talk to each other, of course, especially over meals, but this will also be a weekend for quiet and reflection. I'm bringing portfolios that I need to grade (ah, there's no escaping the endless grading this time of year), but I'm also bringing my journal. February is a good time to meditate and take stock. 

Retreat Friend will be driving up with a friend this afternoon, and I'll be driving with Piano Teacher, who has never been to the monastery before. I'm looking forward to showing her sheep barns, the bookstore, the guesthouse, and the chapel, with the crypt below where dozens of candles burn in front of an old stone statue. I know she'll love the evening service: Brother Tractor plays the harp while monks in dark robes chant in the candle-lit chapel.

Sunday, I'll be thinking of friends and students in Washington DC, at a huge rally to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. It will be a gathering of activists who want to stop climate change before it gets any worse. I'll light a candle for all of them. I hope that all the events go safely and that their message gets heard.

February 13, 2013

Nifkin lives on

Eustace B. Nifkin

Eustace B. Nifkin first appeared on our campus back in the 1940s. No one ever actually saw the mysterious, unofficial student but the name kept appearing on class rosters and other official documents. Nifkin got around: the college received postcards from all over the world signed with the name. Other students were so fond of Nifkin that this shadowy figure usually appeared in the yearbook and got mentioned during commencement speeches.

People made assumptions about what Nifkin looked like. He was probably a young white male and definitely the outdoorsy type. He studied forestry, of course — that’s before the college began focusing on environmental issues. Nifkin probably hunted and fished, and surely he owned a chainsaw.

By the time I began teaching on the campus in the 1990s, the profile of Nifkin had changed. Students assured me that they’d caught glimpses of Nifkin: a tree-hugging hippie who wore a tie-dye shirt and birkenstocks while protesting environmental injustices. Nifkin, everyone said, didn't know the 60s were over.

Today, you can still find Nifkin hiking or skiing, fishing or hunting, but you might also find Nifkin working in an urban community garden or poring over environmental regulations on a laptop. No one knows any more whether Nifkin is a man or a woman. Nifkin has diversified, you might say.

The student lounge on our campus is a big room that has a stained glass window at the back of a low stage, comfortable chairs that get yanked into all kinds of configuration, a piano that usually needs to be tuned, and tables to accommodate anyone who had just gotten food at the snack bar. Student go there to meet friends, to study, to nap on the couches, and for evening events of every type. It's the room where student life happens. The administration named the room “Alumni Lounge” but students always call it Nifkin.

When my students and I were trying to figure out how to build a network amongst ourselves, amongst alumni, and amongst allies all over the world, we began using the hashtag #nifkin on twitter, sort of as an inside joke. But then, when we least expected it, Eustace B. Nifkin appeared on the scene. Yes, Nifkin has a twitter account and that loyal, unofficial student has been nicely collecting our tweets, retweeting them out into the world.

 The twitter handle is pretty easy to remember: @FollowNifkin 

February 10, 2013


Winter morning

Sometimes the snow we get here is wet and heavy, good for making into snowballs, snowmen, and snow forts with tunnels that lead into cave-like rooms. Sometimes we get snow as fine as talcum power: when a strong wind comes through, the snow rises and dances through the trees the way dust will swirl after a fast-moving truck on an old dirt road. On a windless day, fluffy snow will pile up on the branches of trees, on steps and stumps and lawn chairs left outside by accident. Sometimes snow mixes with rain and freezes onto tree branches until the river birches in my yard shimmer with ice.


February 08, 2013

Running from the zombies


It’s been a busy week. I’ve had classes, meetings, and deadlines to meet. And on top of that, I’ve been fighting zombies. I’ve dodged their attacks, watched as some of my students turned into zombies, and used icicles to defend myself.

I’ve been playing Twitter vs Zombies 2.0, a game first developed last November by Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh. My students and Pete’s students hijacked the game and have been running it for two days, a New York-Georgia collaboration that ended up pulling in about 130 players.

For many of my students, it’s their first time using twitter, and the game has taught them how. We’ve also learned something about collaboration: we’ve had to hash out rules with students in another state, mostly by typing at each other inside a google document, and we’ve held meetings through Google Hangout, a video chat that allows multiple people to chat at the same time.

The best part of the game for me, though, is the story-telling, the bits of narrative that players are constructing with their 140-character tweets. On twitter, you only get to write a sentence really, and your sentences get automatically mixed in with everyone else’s in the rolling stream of tweets. It’s very much like the campfire game where you go around the circle telling a story, each person adding a line. You never know what crazy twist the story might take.

The newest rule in the Twitter vs Zombies 2.0 game is that humans can create safezones by linking to a blog post. That’s why I began this post with a photo of a train. In my narrative, I’m on a train with some other humans, attempting to escape the zombies. Wish me luck.

February 04, 2013

Twitter, poetry, and zombies -- it's all good

Last week my students and I decided to try a collaborative writing experiment on twitter. We asked our twitter followers to go outside, notice sensory details, and then write a single line of poetry, which they could then tweet, using our class hashtag #nifkin and the hashtag #poem.

Everyone in the class participated, of course, but since we were doing this writing exercise publicly on the internet, other folks joined in. A bunch of former students – most off working jobs or in grad school now -- chimed in with lines of poetry. Colleagues from other parts of the country took the time to write a line of poetry. My students’ friends wrote lines. At the end of the day, when I went onto twitter and searched #nifkin #poem, more than 60 lines of poetry rolled past.

The next step was to create the poems. Most of my students used Storify to gather tweets and put them in whatever order they wanted. (You can see all their poems here.) A former student I haven't seen in years chimed in with a poem she'd written from some of our lines. I tried to write a poem using every single line, although it’s possible I missed a few.

“That was fun,” one student said when we talked about the exercise in class. None of them had used Storify before, but they’d all caught on really quickly. I’d expected the exercise to be fun – but also a bit silly. I had expected mostly nonsense poems. Instead, it seems like the participants took the creative writing part seriously. The lines of poetry were lyrical, profound, evocative.

For this week’s twitter activity, we’re collaborating with students from Georgia to run a game of Twitter vs Zombies. I spent yesterday evening in a video chat that included a colleague in Georgia, three students from Georgia, and three of my students. We planned strategy, figured out technology, and joked about zombies.

Join us on twitter on Wednesday – just search for our class hashtag #nifkin or the game hashtag #TvsZ – if you want to play. Or register at the official site, which our students just launched: Twitter vs Zombies 2.0.  Everyone’s welcome.