Sunday, April 30, 2006

An embodiment of the phrase "populous solitude."

One of my least favorite facets of this spring has been falling far out of contact with so many people I love. Among these, perhaps the most surprising has been my beloved Brooklynite, to whom I wrote daily for many years, and for whom I now seem not to be able to make more than a message a week happen. (There are others; many of you are among my readers, and I hope you know the depth of my regret and the strength of my resolve that the second I slam out the other side of the long tunnel called second semester, I will start being a better correspondent--or, let's not fool ourselves, any kind of correspondent--again.)

Today I am thinking about my dearth of writing to darling ER (giggle, blush) because it is her birthday. I don't know how she's celebrating, but I hope that this message will help bring a beautiful day to a close. I hope, that is, that her birthday has been a beautiful one, the only kind she deserves.

I met ER (and no, those of you who know who she is, those aren't her real initials--they're her nickname's initials, silly) in summer 2001, when we were both doing research in England, I in London and she at Oxford's Lincoln College. Her brother, whom I knew through friends in Ithaca, said, "You and my sister would get along. She's in England, too. You should contact her." I remember nodding but thinking it probably wouldn't happen. But then ER e-mailed me, just after I touched down in South Kensington, and said, "You should come to visit." And so I did. And thank goodness I did.

We hit it off immediately, immediately enough that when I had concluded the second part of my research (in Edinburgh's National Library of Scotland) I stopped back through Oxford on my way to Gatwick to catch my flight home. By that time, ER's husband was visiting, and the three of us went out on the town for pizza in a restaurant housed in a medieval building, then tripped around the strange ancient alleyways of Oxford, in the half-dusk of a July evening. Almost immediately upon both of our returns to the U.S., we were writing daily, and she became my mainstay, my anchor, so smart and so funny and so wickedly hip and so devoted to literature and to teaching and so understanding of my ever-increasing weirdnesses (because my dissertation was just starting to heat up, and I still haven't worked out all the strange kinks that project got into my system).

On 9/11, she was the second person I thought of when the students from the class after mine started filing in, as I was erasing the chalkboard from my 8:40 a.m. Frankenstein lesson, and said, "Did you hear what happened?" (The first person I thought of: my father, who was in Mexico on business.) I remember writing to her the next day, "I realize that I don't even know enough about your social life to know whom you were able to call and be with." (Her husband, on his way to work when everything happened, didn't make it home from Manhattan until the next day.) A couple of days later, the packet of Frankenstein cartoons she had mailed that Monday arrived, Gary Larson's humor seeming even blacker than usual, the fat envelope feeling like a dispatch from a different universe.

By October, she was helping me develop my skills with making pie crusts and apple pie fillings. She was there when I had my first and only (touch wood) fender bender. She stuck by me, tough and bolstering and indignant and worried, when I sank and sank that fall, sank until things started to look very dire indeed. She was there to be overjoyed when I made some inexplicable turn for the better that winter.

I visited her in Brooklyn for the first time the next spring. I remember the excitement of the Manhattan Bridge crossing, the excitement of seeing her again after months and months, the excitement of exchanging gifts. I remember sitting across from her at the dining room table in the old apartment, facing the front door, the low bookshelf/divider behind me, and thinking, "It's like I just stepped out yesterday and then came back today; it's like I've been seeing her every day for months."

I then remember taking the Q back to Manhattan and going to the Stage Deli for dinner with her in-laws and her husband, and then I remember sitting on the sidewalk outside the Ziegfield waiting for three hours to see the second Star Wars movie. She and her sister-in-law were choosing color palettes from a book. I remember this so clearly: I sat facing 54th Street, hardly suspecting that in six months I would be staring down disconsolately at that stretch of sidewalk, watching from my hotel room as the Academic Mayhem utterly passed me by.

During that wretched few days in December, she helped keep me up. By that time, we had had not only the funny joys of the spring and summer (that was the year we acquired our matched set of pewter tadpoles, signs of so much transition ongoing, so much to come) but also the detonations of unexpected small tragedies in our lives--curious, careless neglect by people meant to be careful and thoughtful with us; inexplicably ambiguous treatment by people we thought were well-suited to us; unutterably swift onsets of ill pet health, followed by stealthy, sudden death and most poignant burial. We had held each other up with, among other things, a late-November photo-ramble through the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (where I hope she went this weekend for the cherry blossom festival to which she introduced me). In my pictures from that trip, she is elfin, with a penumbra of sunlight. I can see how everything I looked at through the camera looked different because she was there, because we were happy and together. I took extreme close-ups of the roses that, strangely, were still blooming in November; she told me later that they were obscene, because we had read about someone's castigation of obscene flowers. We marveled at the truly bizarre sculptural scrapyard (replete with a scaled-down replica of the Statue of Liberty) lying at the edge of the parking lot. We kept wandering and looking until the daylight faded altogether, and then we wandered and looked our way home to the apartment they'd bought that summer, around the corner from the old place. We cooked dinner, as always. We watched the Sopranos, as usual. The three of us sat on the couch and read together, as ever.

During the Academic Mayhem, things were rockier again, and it was ER who showed up in her black cashmere turtleneck ("I got it on sale," she said. "It was ridiculously cheap") and said to me, you're allowed to be angry. You can swear if you need to. I swore and cried and swore, and then we strolled out onto the Avenue of the Americas and wove through the tourists and eventually caught up with her husband and ate Cuban food and watched The Hours. And it didn't make the Mayhem go away, but it reminded me that there was more to life than the Mayhem, and that there was more to me than the Mayhem.

By the next fall, so much had changed again: the dissertation finished and filed, the first job accepted and moved into, the second round of job applications coming together and heading out to try to win my fortune. A love stammeringly begun and ridiculously terminated. A career of sharpening and honing into muscle and bone, into an interviewing and teaching machine, begun. By this point, my pewter tadpole was paired with a blue-green glass frog, the gift she'd handed me the morning I braced myself for one final two-hour push on the dissertation, having sat up with it all through the night, trying to comb out all the typos and rough spots. The frog fits perfectly in my closed fist, in a way that comforts and calms beyond explanation, its nose presenting itself for meditative rubbing. The frog is in all of the pictures from my Ph.D. ceremony that next spring, because by then ER couldn't travel.

Just as I started toughening and hardening, she started softening and expanding. "I am, as you would say, growing a person," she e-mailed me one Sunday evening, and I yelped and whooped and exclaimed, finally knowing what it would feel like to find out that someone my own age was going to make a small child the luckiest, most loved person who'd ever lived. When I visited her that fall, carrying a red business suit smaller than anything I'd ever worn before, she was starting to wonder whether people could tell yet that she was expecting. Her weight was just shifting, her bustline expanding, her hips getting ready to widen. She couldn't walk very quickly, and I was embarrassed to have to be reminded, aloud, of how quickly she started feeling fatigue. At our favorite breakfast place, she needed -- needed -- oatmeal immediately -- immediately! -- and ate it, and ate half a waffle, and then barely made it home before the baby started snarfing and she needed to sleep. She kept sleeping and eating, eating and sleeping, and I kept marvelling at how much her body had just started doing its own thing, working on growing the baby without any apparent control on her part.

Her son was the first person who actually looked to me like a person in ultrasound pictures. My mother said, "Does that make you think differently about being pro-choice?" I said, "No. It makes it incredibly more sad to me to think of how impossible that decision must be when people need to make it, and how cruel it is to believe that people go into that choice thoughtlessly." I thought of the arrow pointing to the baby's head. "He already has such a big brain," they said. "We're very excited." (I have not yet mentioned that ER and her husband have the driest, best wit.)

By February, we knew he was a boy. Their plan had always been to have two kids, a boy and a girl. The boy would be named Thumbs. The girl would be named Kinky. I knew she wouldn't tell me the baby's real name. I bestowed a different name on him every day until he was born. My first suggestion was Samuel.

When I saw her again in April, for our birthdays, Thumbs was big enough that I could feel him kick, big enough that he bounced along as we laughed watching Mean Girls, big enough that going to the cherry blossom festival and then having ice cream in the sun knocked her down for hours, so that the apartment was a den of hot, crashed people (plus one hot, crashed cat). We cooked dinner, as always. We watched the Sopranos and, now, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as usual. We read together on the couch, as ever.

Samuel was born in mid-June, just as I was preparing to move back to Gambier. It turned out they had already decided on the name even before I started gifting him monikers in the late winter. Because of him I learned the suffix of endearment -eleh; we call him Sameleh. He has been a wondrous, splendiferous child since birth, and I hate that I am only a legendary auntie for him, a literary-godmother-in-waiting, a giver of tiny striped socks he doesn't remember (though also of The Foot Book, which I hope he still loves). His parents posted pictures of him once a month for the first year of his life, and so I could fantasize a sense that I knew how he was developing--what stages he'd reached, what foods he liked, what he thought about, whom he favored. I watched his face molding into his father's and his mother's at the same time. I found myself startled by the strength of my feeling for him and by the fierceness of my admiration for his mother. I find myself startled now, as I type, by the fact that in this paragraph she has become his mother; even at the level of my prose, she is no longer simply herself. She is always Sameleh's mother.

And yet--and this is why he is an incredibly lucky child--she is also, and always, a reader, a thinker, a teacher, a baker, a meditative quick spirit, a slow steady conscience, a creator, an instigator, a beauty, a scholar. One of my favorite pictures from the last time I was able to make the trip to Brooklyn, in October, is of her walking away from me with Sameleh, who'd just started walking, on her hip. She's exactly the same friend of mine she's been since that first moment in July 2001, and I, behind the camera, am exactly the same friend of hers I've been since that same moment. But now there's a small person balanced on her hip, holding in his hand the strange seed-pod he's picked up from the ground, and we're all three heading over to play on the slide, and then we'll watch the geese, and then we'll go home. And, a day's career of stacking blocks and running down the hall to slam doors brought to an end, the baby will go to bed with his nighttime rituals--the bath, the massage, the song from his mother and father, all a reassurance that the same love will be there when he opens his eyes again in the dark. And, the baby safely asleep, we will cook dinner, as always. We will watch a tiny bit of TV, as usual. We will read together, as ever. And I'll know, when I really ask myself for the truth--even when I worry or doubt that it might not be true, that my silence might alienate her or that her life might be too busy for me--that the next time I push the buzzer at their Brooklyn building and make my way to their floor, I'll hear the bolts slipping back and see the cat coming to greet me and hear my elfin friend's voice, all the same as if it hadn't been eight months since our last visit, saying, "You made it!"

Happy birthday, darling. Don't let that baby forget me altogether. Don't you forget me altogether, either, please.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Goose goose goose.

In my kindergarten, we had a linoleum floor with the alphabet printed on it in a twenty-six-person circle. This circle was where we sat when we did certain class activities, including something related to the Pilgrim and Indian costumes we wore for Thanksgiving, and including playing Duck Duck Goose. I always did like Duck Duck Goose. I can't tell you why. I did also love it when the chicks and ducklings we'd been incubating in the deep red incubator by the classroom door hatched. We sat on the letters in the circle and passed the duckling hand to hand around the circle, occasionally putting it down and letting it toddle along on its awkward legs and too-big feet. Just as it was coming to me, the duckling shat on the floor. I don't have a memory of holding the duckling, and it's possible that my kindergarten teacher and/or the aide put it back into its pen right then.

I think I would remember holding the duckling, because I remember holding other tiny animals--a black and white kitten named Winston, whom we almost adopted when I was about nine, for instance, but whom our older, tougher cat couldn't stand, particularly since Winston was the one who copped an attitude with Blackjack. I remember holding Winston, and other kittens, and feeling how near the surface of the skin their fine bones were, how soft and small their ears and nose and eyes were.

On my way to the grocery store Thursday night, I passed the Canada geese who live near my doctor's office, on and near a subdivision's pond. The geese were all sitting side by side along the edge of the pond, and sitting there with them were their goslings, still small and yellowy-fluffy. This afternoon, as I returned from getting ingredients to make pie for my department, I saw the geese and goslings yet again: the parents were waddling along, bending their long black necks and beaking the grass around them, while the goslings teeter-tottered along nearby.

Tonight we had a departmental dinner, which reminded me, as if I needed reminding, of how fortunate I am to have the colleagues I do. (And how blessed to have parents who kept their eyes out until they found a pie basket with which I could replace my old cardboard "Pie [Pah] Box.") And what a feast. Now, for some reason, the village coffee shop's counter instructed me this morning that

I suspect that this message may have had something to do with Kenyon's big semester-end festival (which just ended about fifteen minutes ago), or something to do with Tuesday's primary elections. Mainly, I suspect that I need to get a labeler of my own. It certainly did not slow down my inclinations to party with my friends and colleagues this evening.

Home again, I finished making the other pie that I hadn't had time to complete before we left for dinner. That first one was cherry. This late-night project: mixed berry. It has just come out of the oven and is continuing to bubble and cook its innards, there on my stovetop. I have yet to decide what to do with this pie, but I'm leaning toward taking it in tomorrow to feed people during the continuation of our weekend's departmental activities. Just when we were all maybe about to tire too much, here we are getting to talk to and eat with each other like full-on adult people, and it is a pleasure and a sustenance.

Friday, April 28, 2006

I too am not a bit tamed.

All the rest of you can just go on and feel envious, because I have a houseguest and he is très magnifique, as many of you know first-hand. Already tonight we have caused some more-than-sidelong, more-than-passing stares from students of mine we've passed on the street, for whom the sight of me walking with (!) a man (!) is not only unprecedented but also, I suspect, entirely unexpected. One student actually looked him over from head to toe, moving her head as she did so. Unsubtle in their friendly surprise they sometimes are not.

Today saw me completing one of my least favorite of tasks, lawn-mowing. But mowing the lawn enabled me to get a different perspective on my yard's flowers, on a day that began with another of those shock-sightings of feeding deer (in this season, munching on daffodil greens under the backyard cherry tree's hot pink). And somehow that different perspective helped me overlook the fact that my hands tingled for an hour after I finished the job. So:

The best part of mowing the lawn, though, was the smell. Wild chives have been growing in the yard all through the spring; I recognize their tall, straight spears, like grass but more so, and as I ran over one clump after another, an oniony scent filled the air, filled up the backyard like a deep light pool, swept over the red mower plowing through the green grass, swept over the woman in the green shorts and the red shirt, kept sweeping and filling as the sun hung high, hours before it was time to gild and fall.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

What I'm working toward.

As I suggested yesterday, now is the time in an academic year when thoughts seem to behave like crazed starlings: when they're quiet, all billion of them in the same tree, it's not because they're really quiet. It's because they're saving energy for the next mad uprush from branch after branch beside branch, into the steeling expanse of evening sky. They'll cry their manic cries as they dip and swerve as a flickering flashing body, and then they'll land again and seem to be quiet. But they won't really be quiet. They'll be saving energy for the next mad uprush.

My crazed starlings are tiring, though, and so their mad uprushes don't go as far as I'd like, don't make as much noise as I'd have them do. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that some of them have left the flock and are genuinely resting quietly somewhere, waiting to be the birds I saw last night slipping and soaring singly through the evening air, wing-curve here, tail-flip there, motion and the near-silence of small sound, the joy of flight, the extravagance of simplicity.

I am down to seven class meetings. Of course, one of those meetings is three hours long. But down to seven nonetheless. At this time of the academic year, I also start to fantasize fervently about all that will start getting done once we're past graduation and reunion weekend--once we're firmly in the summer, the sun so high all the time, the front porch my favorite office. In the summers, I head to the post office shortly after noon, when the mail's in boxes; in the springs, at the point where we are now, I realize some evenings that I've simply not made it to the post office at all. In the summers, it is my job to read and write all day long. In the summers, I sleep enough.

This morning, my alarm woke me up from a dream in which someone stole my car while I watched.

Further proof that my father is cooler than cool: a mysterious package arrived on my front porch this morning. Inside? A Manfrotto car window mount for my camera. It is small and sturdy, metal and reliable-seeming. I feel a little bit of trepidation about putting my camera too close to the wind. But I am very excited at the idea of getting to do more vehicular photography without endangering myself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rematerializing at dusk.

I continue to be pretty tapped out, as far as writing goes. I'm not particularly happy about this situation. However, today, for the first time in a long time, I walked to class and got there early. In the evening, I walked to town and hung about reading there for awhile. These walks were little restoratives, at a time of year when I and everyone around me could use one or two restoratives. (Today was the day when we all acknowledged, out loud, over and over, that we're near the end: suddenly, everyone I talked to was talking about counting down, wearing out, struggling through, crawling along on all fours if necessary--about doing anything and everything necessary to keep all eyes on the page, on the prize, on the end that is near.) Another restorative: sitting in the sun, writing class-related e-mails, at 6:30 p.m. In the sun, I tell you. How warm it was, and how bright.

But now I'm simply tired, probably even too tired to indulge in another bath. One of my coping mechanisms for the semester's end has, somewhat inexplicably, become the late-night bath. Raise the body's temperature, climb into pajamas, fall fast asleep and dead to the world: not a bad way to end a busy day.

Also not a bad way to end a busy day: surveying the day's gallery of things my eyes have loved. May said surveying be not a bad way for you to start your day, you early-sleepers and early-risers.

And finally: I had a request earlier today for more dragon pictures, so when I set out from home before my morning class, I carried my camera in hand and at the ready. And lo, the dragon was gone again. I felt some degree of disbelief but no amount of peering and standing on tiptoe revealed his telltale purple horns. On my way back from class, I found a black and white cat where the dragon should have been. The cat was silky and friendly, and she squeaked instead of meowing. I used petting her as a subterfuge so that I could go up the driveway a little and see whether the dragon was hiding somewhere. But no--so it was good that petting the squeaking, serpentine-skeletoned cat was its own pleasure, really.

On my way home from the officehouse this evening, after the dogwood pictures, I looked to my left as I passed the dragon's home, and there he was, back in all his glory. Back in a new glory, in fact--one so good it made me guffaw there behind the wheel of my car (for while I was on foot most of the day, at this point I was not). When I walked to town only a few minutes later, I paused for this latest installment, which is not my finest photographic hour because the light was lowering but which I like nonetheless.

For those of you keeping score at home, he's sitting on the same stone circle on which he spent most of the winter--he's just further around the side of it, not front and center as in earlier materializations. Now, I'd say there are small mysteries to plumb here. Obviously someone else is carrying on a relationship with the dragon, and obviously it's someone who cares at least marginally for him, given that now he has his own captured castle, an arch of ceremony, if you will. What can it mean?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Quieting, tiring.

The term's almost through.
I count classes on fingers:
Only nine are left.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sounds like a personal problem to me.

Behold (and click each image for a larger version):

The London Review of Books (20 April 2006)

The Other Paper: Columbus's News & Entertainment Weekly (20-26 April 2006)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Her vagrant mind must be reduced to order.

It's been a long time since I felt really in control of and steady about much of anything, which is one of the reasons I am so faithful about these writings and images: they are a thing that happens daily, period. I know that the first couple of years on an academic job are challenging, and I do love the challenge. But I'm also pretty fatigued a lot of the time, and taking a bit of time to catch my breath always seems to leave me having to run even faster once I start up again. And so I look back over my day and see that I've read a book of Middlemarch for seminar (and found my evening's title therein), watched a film for my Tuesday class, had an essay conference with a student, finished reading an honors thesis, started reading Return of the Native for seminar, and responded to the first few of a batch of reading response papers. And yet I have a pile of things left to accomplish, and a pile-up of meetings and classes and even a college-related road trip to take tomorrow, all before my evening seminar meets.

All of which makes me smile to myself wearily and think, at least this work matters intensely to me. At least nothing I'm doing feels purposeless. At least I get to talk to my young ones more about cultural memory tomorrow; at least I get to discuss the ambivalent-making ending of my favorite novel with the seminarians. At least I get to listen to them prod and pull each other through Hardy's strange visuals of a region whose weirdness they'll be able to grasp, almost, because of where they're studying (and none of them have ever read Hardy, so they're learning a new narrative language even as I type). For example:

At dusk, a man has been watching from afar as a figure stands atop a barrow on a heath in the south of England, when suddenly the figure comes to life and runs down the hill "with the glide of a water-drop down a bud, and then vanishe[s]," justs as a troup of other people ascend the side of the hill:
The only intelligible meaning in this sky-backed pantomime of silhouettes was that the woman had no relation to the party which had taken her place, was sedulously avoiding these, and had come thither for another object than theirs. The imagination of the observer clung by preference to that vanished, solitary figure, as to something more interesting, more important, more likely to have a history worth knowing than these new-comers, and unconsciously regarded them as intruders. But they remained, and established themselves; and the lonely person who hitherto had been queen of the solitude did not at present seem likely to return.
And things only get more interesting when you know--as you do, once you reach this passage at the end of Hardy's second chapter--that this observing figure is none other than a man colored all red. His skin, his hair, his clothing--everything, all "a lurid red." He is a reddleman, a seller of redding, red dye with which to mark one's rams' breasts so that the ewes most likely to bear lambs will be marked. See how that works? "He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex," Hardy tells us, "filling at present in the rural world the place which, during the last century, the dodo occupied in the world of animals."

I do not hesitate when people ask me what my favorite Victorian novel is. It's Middlemarch. I don't know when Middlemarch became my favorite novel; it certainly wasn't the first time I read it, when I was forced (through its coexistence in my semester with Richardson's Clarissa) to read more than half the novel in one night. It might have been when I reread it for a teaching assistantship I held at one point. It may simply have grown on me reading after reading. Now I feel it like a revelation every time I pick it up.

But if you were to ask me who my favorite Victorian novelist is, I might have to say Thomas Hardy. There's a quality and intensity of vision in his novels that simply goes unmatched by anyone else, in my experience. George Eliot inspires and bolsters me, showing me how to live; Thomas Hardy enthralls and entrances me, seducing me with the peculiarity of the stern sights and psyches, of the whole and particular world he describes.

All of this is to say that if you read one Hardy novel in high school or in college and you remember him simply as "the pessimistic one," you should give him another try--not least because you might be surprised to find him also to be "the modern one," the one whose works feel psychologically recognizable. I suspect I will have more to say on this point as the week wears on and I continue pushing forward with this strange novel and its strange protagonists. For now, there's all that work to be done.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Drive-by shootings.

To understand my day, and maybe (for good or ill) a lot about how my life works, picture this scene: me, at the wheel of my trusty car, speeding into Columbus for a swift shearing, then dawdling my way back to Gambier, camera in hand, snapping haphazard images of rural quirks and decays that I wish I could frame better but can't, for lack of shoulders (and thus opportunities for stopping for a better look) anywhere on US-62. And yet all the while I'm rejoicing at the calves and the birds and the barns and the sun (so much sun!), things that one might think would encourage me toward quiet musing and reflection and austere serenity, I'm blaring the New Pornographers, my music find of the week. I'm not sure how I missed them all these years, but I'm missing them no longer. (If you want a starting point, I'd suggest Twin Cinema [2005].)

I just can't imagine that it's a very good idea for me to continue trying to shoot and drive at the same time, but I'm not sure how else to get the pictures I want. I'm going to let the back of my head work on this problem over the next few weeks, as I finish out my semester. Meanwhile, when I got home today and moved all of my pictures over to the computer so that I could get a better look at them, I cracked myself up with my crooked horizons and my missed barns. The missed barns are the funniest: I have no idea, when I'm shooting over my left arm, whether I'm aiming at the right thing, whether I'll even get the purported object of my image into the image at all. And so my barns tend to be to one side or another of the frame, or motion-blurred. And sometimes they're crooked as well, to particularly good effect when the barns themselves are already in the process of falling down in some way or another.

By the time I was halfway home from Columbus, I'd decided that I wanted to revisit a part of Knox County where I (silly) had driven last weekend without my camera. I made a quick but fruitful stop in Mount Vernon, the next town over from where I live, where I discovered a staggeringly named organization's headquarters:

As the Beastie Boys might say, "Don't ask me 'cause I just don't know." The only appropriate response seemed to be to buy a David Malouf novel and head out into the hills northeast of Gambier, where aesthetic intent seemed to be more under my control, given that I was actually able to park my car at the side of the road and deliberately aim my camera at things I wanted to capture.

Things got even more interesting when I took a short but adventurous road trip with one of my excellent friends, out to a colleague's house in the countryside. Because I wasn't driving, I was able to shoot everything as we moved. By the time all was said and done today, I had about 200 pictures--and a far richer visual impression of my home landscape. One of the day's pleasures was seeing so many young animals--calves and lambs--doing their best childish impersonations of loping along, or feeding. And the great thing about cows is that they'll actually notice when you drive by, if they're at all close to the road. I suddenly have a plethora of cow stories to tell you--including the one about the time my fourth grade teacher brought a cow's eye to class (they're not so hard to come by in a farming area), or the time twenty-eight cows ambled over to a fence where I was standing and watching them from afar, and lined up side by side, three feet away from me, staring and snuffling and elbowing each other in the ribs and rolling their eyes and chewing. But I can't tell those stories now, in part because it's time for you to look at some pictures of cows. Note the ones staring at us as we drive by, in the second shot.

We also did some high quality gravel road travel today.

Overall, if you were to ask me what I learned today, I'd have to respond "Green, and hills, and feeding calves." Not to mention Dorothea's wisdom: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?"

Things were looking good in Gambier, as well.

And look, look. I admit that every time he vanishes, my heart aches a little. So far, though, he keeps turning up again. Does he not look pleased with himself, there beside the new hosta?

Lightning is flashing every once in a long while now, thunder following the light only after I've lost count of the seconds: storms are still far away but are clearly drawing nearer, a sure sign--as if my eyelid-dropping fatigue weren't enough--that it's time to read myself down for the night with Dorothea's impetuously generous heroics. If only I could stay awake long enough to read Middlemarch's climactic thunderstorm tonight, during our own storm--the rain for which is picking up, now that the rumble comes only three seconds after the flash.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Some falling, some rising.

When the ends of my weeks are occupied by grading (with all the actual grading and profuse not-grading that process involves), I find myself just plain tired. But today the dogwood bloomed in full force (and it's red--somehow I'd forgotten), and we had a low-rumbling spring thunderstorm, locatable enough by its sound that I could point to the clouds that were making all the fuss. And rain: first, drizzle; then, a torrent, a spraying, water water everywhere, bringing in its train a continued shower of fat, souring pink and white petals. On the ground, they grow thin and slippery, treacherous, their smell unplaceable. But today the dogwood bloomed in full force, as if in consolation.

Someone has moved the dragon yet again; he disappeared last night, but today he rematerialized, leaning up against a newly sprouted hosta, at a jaunty angle (which suits him).

We're on to our final book in one course, getting ready to start the final book in another, careening toward the home stretch in all. This morning, as we prepared to plunge into discussing the exhuming of mass graves in eastern Bosnia, ca. 1996, one of my students registered aloud the strangeness of having hit the end of the semester as swiftly as we suddenly have. Later, I realized that it's been a couple of semesters since I've been able to articulate for my students the nostalgia that I used to feel (and tell them about) well in advance of a semester's end. I still feel it to some degree, but that proleptic feeling of missing them is far less pronounced than is my elemental desire to make it through the all the work still before me, and to make it through in one reasonably rested piece.

I continue to marvel quietly at how much disintegration spring requires.

And dissolution, too. I forgot to tell you that two nights ago, I dreamed: a colleague (from another department) and I found ourselves the only two survivors of a sunken ship, some kind of exploratory vessel. We wore large diving masks and wetsuits. "Don't breathe through your nose," he told me. "That oxygen's all we've got left." Somehow, we were breathing through our mouths, and the air we were taking in was coming from our masks and was thus finite, but somehow we weren't dying (and I don't think we were even very scared; I seem to recall that we had tasks to complete and were going about completing them). And then we were taken in by people who weren't rescuers but were our friends. But we knew that we were going to be put back into the wreck, in our masks, to await a proper, foretold rescue. "Can't we just stay?" I kept asking him. He (and others) kept insisting that we had to play out the predetermined narrative.

This wet night, as I washed my face, getting ready for bed, the burble of the water from the bathroom faucet made a sound like the rained-upon red cardinal singing my afternoon at the top of the maple tree while I graded.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

At the risk of belaboring a point:

Really, I hope you haven't yet had enough of these flowers, because (miracle!) they just keep showing up, turning out.

Last night, I was flipping through something--who even knows what, now--and saw the line "Poetry should show, not tell." I went through this phase a couple of years ago in which, inexplicably, I misread lots of things, as though my brain was having a good laugh at my expense. I misread most absurdly. I can't even give you an example, because they were all such strange and hilarious things, and they always flicked in for just a second, just long enough for me to register the misreading before comprehending what was actually in front of me. Those were funny days.

So, when I saw "Poetry should show, not tell," I was too too pleased with the fact that my brain went, "Ooo! I know what that should read! It should say, 'Poetry should know, not smell.'" Leaving aside the fact that good poetry should both know and smell (just as it should probably both show and tell), I have to say I'm kind of proud of that one, as a new general rule.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The fragility of growth.

Walking home in the near-silent cool night, after two hours of reading at the bookstore, I realized--right about the time I espied the dragon in his newest haunt, the center of a small stand of daffodils, and right about the time I realized that I was seeing leaves in the lamplight, not just branches, not just buds--that I have become a chronicler of growth. Perhaps I have always chronicled growth; perhaps that is how I became a teacher in the first place. One of my favorite pictures of my younger brother and me shows us, at nearly one and nearly four, bending our heads together intently over some thing I seem to be showing him how to do. In my weird fantasy world, I'm up to some mischief. In reality, I was probably doing something just as earnest as usual.

When my brother was starting to read, I set out to make him some little readers that would interest him in learning more words and getting basic sentence patterns and grammar under his belt. I sat with my mother's old avocado green electric Smith Corona, the same humming typewriter on which I'd clack and smack out my grad school applications not much more than a decade later, and I tried to type up stories that I could then staple into hot pink construction paper covers. I don't remember whether I ever finished even one of those little books. I know that I had expansive plans, plans to create a whole series, plans to win him over to words. I'm quite, quite good at expansive plans.

Given that today was a major day for students' registering for next fall's courses--our next semester breathing down the back of the rapidly departing current one, everyone fantasizing about what will be different next time, how invigorating it will be to have the summer to get everything back under control, how much more well rested everyone will be when these courses actually begin in four months--and given that the cherry trees bloomed even more today, it's no surprise that I'm meditating on growth. The lingering surprise for me this spring, though, has been the meditation on decay that's followed so fast on the heels of its familiar. I'm watching the tree in front of my house lose more and more petals; I watch from the windows of my kitchen while the petals fall like freakish overgrown flakes of some awful precipitation, and where the flowers' smell last week was heady, this week the browning petals simply smell of inevitable wrong.

One of my friends (who has four feet) is slipping into a struggle that, for now anyway, seems not to be overly painful but is occasioning varying levels of suppressed and not-so-suppressed anxiety and sorrow among those of us who love him--most of all, of course, in those among us who own him. It seems perverse that life should be getting so difficult for him just as it's becoming so profuse all over my daily landscape: everything hard-bitten and monochromatic has suddenly gained a softening coat of green; the leaves are making themselves visible more and more, replacing those tiny eccentric glories of seed pods and flowers I showed you all weekend. And just when the weather has warmed enough to make walking the paths at the local park his owners renamed for him last summer, his breathing has become too unpredictable for much more than the shortest strolls down the street. He might improve. He might not. I know it's a perennially human moment of suspension before an inevitability, but I find myself both solemn and hopeful, all at once. I want to believe that if I hope hard enough, and tell him that I love him enough times, and scratch the insides of his ears with my index finger enough times, a few years will fall away from his frame and we'll have him around longer.

When my parents got married, my grandfather gave my mother two pieces of advice. "Don't go to bed angry," he told her, "and in a fight remember that one of you will eventually need to be quiet." I've mistold this second part a bit, I think. But the first part is the one that's most important for me anyhow, because hearing that piece of advice helped make me receptive to a lesson my parents taught me: that it's essential to tell others how you feel about them whenever you can, lest something should happen to them without their having known how you felt.

Now that I write that lesson out, I realize how complicated and full of somewhat displaced sentiment it is. It seems clear to me now, looking at it in front of me, that the worry about things we never tell those we never see again couldn't ever really be about those other people. That worry must be about the ache left by our not knowing whether those other people knew something we needed to know they knew. In other words, our conception of them needed to include among its multitudinous facets the belief that they held a particular understanding of our feelings about them. And in fact, in recent years I think I've moved toward a similarly complicated way of thinking about why it matters to attempt the impossible process of communicating the ineffable: if something were to happen to me and others didn't know how I felt about them, it might be terrible in some greater or lesser way (depending on the person, depending on the feeling gone unconveyed).

These ideas have worked upon me in different ways over the course of my life. I've already told you the story about how I bade farewell to my classmates when I (always logocentered) left kindergarten for reading classes, and how I wanted to know that they were glad to see me return and had missed me while I was gone. I have a shadowy memory of an occasion sometime in my teens when one of my parents forgot to say good night to me, or (more likely) thought that good night had already been said, leaving me abject, unable to decide whether to knock on their bedroom door or simply to hope against hope that nothing bad would happen overnight. Long processes of saying good night are important to me: when I'm visiting my parents, I have a multi-stage semi-ritual to do, involving going back and forth from my room to theirs with the dog, who's game for pretty much any weird thing we ask of her, and getting many embraces from both parents. It's never really enough. I can never fully shake a lurking worry that four bodies will go to sleep in the house and only three will wake up. It's mostly quiet, brooding to itself in some far corner, not getting in the way of anything much. But it does stay there, quiet and brooding.

I'm feeling a similarly lurking, brooding fear these days about my four-legged friend, my favorite Ohio dog, the one who has thrown his head back in worried jubilation (for he is as big a worrier as I) at my arrivals for a decade now. And so it was with some degree of uncanny self-meeting--a feeling that's getting pretty familiar, these days--that I found this poem at the end of my excellent poet friend's gesture when I stopped by her office for a quick hello before I left the officehouse for the night, gave it over to the evening seminar students, the quiet readers and questing writers, filing in with their coffees and juices after dinner, slipping out into the half-dark for cigarettes at their breaks, working earnestly on the other side of illuminated windows for their three hours (I saw them when I went back later for the book I'd forgotten).


Body my house
my horse my hound

what will I do

when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount

all eager and quick

How will I know

in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure

when Body my good

bright dog is dead

How will it be

to lie in the sky

without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift

how will I hide?

-- May Swenson

I'm extraordinarily lucky in that my mournings have mostly been small and bounded thus far. My emotional limbs are all still present; I have not yet had to wonder how the world could possibly, conceivably be so utterly careless. But I feel as though I'm grieving in advance this time, sensing the textures of absence yet to be woven out of events yet to be lived through, and I grieve less for the furry one himself than for those of us who will still be here in the morning, after not all the bodies that went to sleep wake up.