Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sundown on the year.

A warm morning of cold rain, a drear end to a strange, changeful year. But then, near the end of the afternoon, the sun came out, just to sink through the scudding clouds and into our flooded fields with great beauty and extravagant austerity. The unwinding, the unspiraling, the repairing of this fatigue's fractures, will all take more time, and I fully anticipate some year-end inventorying to come. But for now, we sit with the fire and wait for the ball to drop. The deaf dog tries to sleep behind my right shoulder but keeps being awakened by people scratching her toes and pulling her ears, and by her sense that some smell somewhere (her nose twitches) portends something good still to eat--more cherry pie, perhaps? Emmylou Harris sings songs in silver cowboy boots. I look over the year's lists and wonder whether it's possible that I only read about 80 books this year. Surely that's too small a number. My father gets out the Asti, pours glasses for us all.

The pictures I'm giving you to close out 2006 come from a huge batch my father and I took during an drive out this evening to catch the year's last slants of light.

And now the ball. And now the new year.

Welcome to 2007, everyone.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

And then? And then? And then: day four.

And now I am on leave.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pigs and pictures: day three.

Reading Terminal Market, 12:02 p.m.:

Dr. S's camera:

Man behind meat counter: "Don't take a picture of my little brother! He's camera shy!"

Dr. S: "You're selling your little brother for $15.00?"

Dr. S's camera: (click)

Man behind meat counter: "Don't take a picture of my little brother! He's camera shy!"

Now, I'm wondering how much longer we could have traveled in that circle.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Armies of sweetness and light: day two.

This afternoon, I started thinking about gardens, fantasizing havens and green safeties and careful quiets. I am doing my best to carry calm and openness around me like stature, like a field, like an envelopment, to make easier what can be made easier, to make more pleasant what strains others. The market, the flowers, the honey, the chocolates and orchids and mangoes and neon proclamations all in rows and piles. Abandoned walls signed in cryptic images. Shades of blue on broken brick. My lunch hour behind a camera. My devouring the scent of voices, the silhouette of wings. All goes well, and yet it will be two more days before you hear anything substantial from me: I am swimming; I am anchoring the relay; I am closing the distance in an event that is almost over. In another distance, another train passes, echoing. And echoing.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

No step, no step, no step: day one.

When the first half of your day's work runs you into unforeseen obstacles (which keep you from the Market you crave, no less), you have to be pretty grateful for the morning's sunlight. But when you can't upload your pictures of said sunlight, come evening, you might feel a little grumpy. But then when you remember the happy ending to what could have been a small crisis, you might feel that, on the balance, the day has gone pretty well, especially seeing as how you and all your loved ones still (as far as you know) have all limbs and digits and sensory organs in good working order.

And you might resolve to write more interesting things tomorrow, and you might hope that you will actually be able to follow through on that resolution, but you might also fear that this afternoon's taste of just how unexpectedly crazy things can be here is only that: a taste, of a killingly overheavy smorgasbord yet to come.

And yet you might still say, bring it on.

(I did have such swell pictures for you tonight. Who even knows why I can't present them.)

(And when the pictures go up, late late late in the night, you might feel even more rejoiceful in your sleepiness than you did before.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Better homes and landscapes.

It's the earliest I've been ready for bed in weeks. I have a flight to catch at 9:49 a.m.; one last professional duty, though one of particular magnitude, stands between me and the end of my year. This time tomorrow, I will be fast asleep in a hotel room in Philadelphia. I will have reunited with some friends. I will still be trying to find others. I will have spent some time worrying about what might happen on Thursday and Friday. I will be wondering whether those still making their ways to the city are safe and happy and well.

You may recall my dispatches from last year's Academic Mayhem. This year will be a bit different, both because I have been doing these writings for so much longer and because my professional obligations are longer in duration and greater in importance than they were last year--but also because the city in which the A.M. happens this year is a particularly congenial one for the event. You may get an entire post devoted only to the Reading Terminal Market, so close to the Mayhem's hotels that in 2004 I spent hours there, going back every moment I could. This year, I imagine snatching pictures of fleshy fruits and shelves of oil, of olives and cheeses, of braided breads and wide-eyed fish. I worry that the pictures will not turn out. I curse the Mayhem for the way it turns me against myself almost every time. They're digital pictures: they are still my practice round: everything need not be perfection: things are in fact often much better when they're marked by my imperfect, roiling humanity. And today it has been on the roil, in a deep down quiet way.
It may have begun with the fact that I slept for something like fourteen hours last night. I have not slept quite this way since my return from England after my year abroad, ten years ago, when I went to bed at 10 or 11 p.m. and awoke at 2 p.m. the next day. Today, my body overrode every suggestion to the contrary, and I stayed well asleep until well into the afternoon. It may have to do with my inability to choose a book for the trip. I circle the stacks and boxes I've carried with me this far, and everything turns its face to the wall, remains mute, reminds me that I do not know where my mind wants to be right now.

But it also has to do with the fact that all day today, I heard the trains passing west of here, going north and south and north and south. They have me thinking of what it is to leave home again and again. They have me thinking of what it is to have one's life unrooted, unsettled. They have me refraining, as I have refrained in response to so many things this autumn, how a train in the distance sings the low song of longing. Everything these days seems to sing me a low song of longing.

Two years ago, I was sure that the Philadelphia A.M. would run me right into an old somebody, with whom I'd had a tempestuous half-year that had been long over by that winter but that was still working its slow, sad way out of my system. This year, I don't anticipate anything at the level of quite that much drama. But I find myself girding up anyway, and doing it with landscape. When I heard the first train pass, midway through the afternoon, I thought of landscapes that have calmed and settled me, even in my roving refusal to settle just yet, my skittering difficulties with calming.

I thought of the cold flats of northern Indiana Octobers, when Amtrak would inevitably strand the Lake Shore Limited east of South Bend late in the morning on our way to Chicago. I thought of the stubbled fields ranging out from my home in Ohio. I thought of the wide stretches of golds and greys above which I will drive to Indianapolis early tomorrow morning, and the finger-traced accordion pleats of hills over which I'll fly as we pass over Pennsylvania. What pulls me to, again and again, are the barenesses of wintered fields, their palettes of golds and blues and browns. Who can say what this might mean. Perhaps it's nothing more complicated than that I am a midwesterner, through and through, strange though that still sounds, even to me.

But I long, again I find myself longing, for extravagance, such outlandishness. A field of sunflowers in the south of France. Any clear, impossible sea we could find. Any rocky promontory. Any space, wide or narrow, capacious and simple enough to render the elemental finally visible, palpable. Any stony shore. Any cornfield. Any city block. Any hillock. Any hollow. Any copse.

Monday, December 25, 2006

I have always been finding out my religion.

Today I'll let Dorothea Brooke speak for me, as she speaks to Will Ladislaw:
I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me.... That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil--widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.... It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl.
-- George Eliot, Middlemarch (chapter 39)

Be well and loved, everyone. And peaceful.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Say yes to all that life is offering.

On my way out of Knox County this evening, driving through the soft aftermath of the sun's setting, I realized that I'm not just starting to imagine myself wearing birds' colors. I'm imagining myself in the shades of winter dusk, as well: the deep, abiding roses, the yellows of soft sustenance, the deepening blues fringed in black branch. And suddenly it hit me, so strangely, like someone pulling a realization around my shoulders and up over my brow, right there on OH-661: my palette just changed, softened, quieted. Why this should feel startling, coming at the end of a year that has shifted so much of my mental landscape--but in an almost subtle way, as though someone sneaked into my house while I was sleeping and turned the sofa to face out the window and finally put all my books in some kind of order--I'm not sure. But my delight in that deepening sky, and at the mercurial behavior of barns in its late glow, kept me thinking for the rest of the dark drive, while Gillian Welch sang, again and again, "Oh, me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio..."

(Tonight's title comes from my day's horoscope. Usually I just laugh at my horoscopes, because they tend to be diametrically opposed to everything going on in my life--much like the strange weather reports earlier this week that told me it was 60 and sunny outside, when it was actually 43 and raining. But today's is one of the offerings to which I'll say yes.)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Making spirits bright.

Here's how things feel today:

So, I'm grateful for this

and this

Yes, it's the dragon, in a wreath (a far less subversive holiday combination, I might add, than the one a particular Saturday night show unleashed on the world a week ago...).


So, to elaborate. On my way to a breakfast this morning, I remembered what had been going on in my sleeping head only a few hours earlier.

In my dream, I was teaching a class that had a number of prospective student visitors. The visitors overwhelmed my regular students, in fact. Everyone was keyed up and not so vaguely uncontrollable. I began trying to teach them all about deep breathing exercises and how useful they are for calming oneself down. My students were starting to be contaminated by the visitors; everyone was getting more and more unruly and overstressed. I grew more and more agitated myself, until I finally started threatening to take down their names and alert the admissions office about their disruptive behavior. Some yelling was involved.

What disturbed me most, when it returned to me as I scudded over the soft hills, was realizing that I'd yelled at students--even if they were someone else's immaturely behaved high school students, even if they were only in a dream--in the process of trying to teach them relaxation techniques. Good thing it's nearly time for a break. Soon comes the sleep. Not to mention the deep breathing.

And the self-berating? That stays here when I drive away tomorrow. I've got enough other baggage (and two soon-to-be-fresh soon-to-be-pies) to carry.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Still too much to crack.

I'm deferring the story yet again. Things are proceeding more or less apace here, but the list of things that must be done is long, so long, and the story I want to tell is one that I want to do with care.

Those of you who know academics know how wacky our end-of-semester schedules can get. I can tell you that my semester ends at about 8 p.m. on December 30, when I reach my family's house after coming back from the Academic Mayhem.

All nine candles are burning tonight, and I have a little mountain of used candle-ends. What does one do with the ends of all these candles?

And though the day was bleary and dispiriting, the clouds dissipated sometime after dark and Orion made his appearance over my house. "I'm ready for my close-up," I heard the sly sky say. I didn't catch a marvelous picture, but the conditions were also less than ideal. From a dark field and with more knowledge (and, I'd bet, a better lens) things would have come clearer. And so, since my starting point wasn't amazing, I decided to let the computer play with it a bit: hence the wacky blowout (courtesy of my streetlamp) in the bottom left. Experimentation: yes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Tonight I foresee chaos where I would write calm, and so I will put my four flat stones into the breach.

What I have been dreaming all day, and searching fruitlessly for in my Color-aid box, is blue--a clear, silvery-grey blue, a lucid pale blue, a blue not unlike the color that I named palingenesian (an otherworldly blue constantly replenishing itself) for a friend this fall. All day I have dreamt a blue shirt.

(You see that you will hear my story, my longer story that might turn out to be a song, tomorrow. There are so many duties pressing here right now that I can take no time for narrative.)

I started dreaming the shirt as I watched a tufted titmouse swaying her body back and forth on the grapevine outside my kitchen door. I would, I thought, dress myself in shades of bird, lissome greys and suppled yellows and rosy hints and lightening blues. It is a self I might want to bring into being, though not one I recognize at the moment. Today I would have donned a shirt colored in the blue tint of a bird's wing.

Tonight I play with the idea of a word on the skin at the base of my thumb, there in that hollow I can make when I protrude my tendon. I ink it there to see how it looks, decide the ephemeral will suit.

Here on this longest night, all but one of the candles burning now, I dream again, as so often, of the desk and the window and the breeze and the wide sky: the place to which I would flutter and hover and, once there, settle and stay: the place where solitude's sturdy beauty would manifest in every corner, for every crook of thought. It is not a place I have found yet, though I've come close a couple of times.

It is possible that the place I'm dreaming is a Cornell box; I suspect I'd find my blue there, as well.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Austerity most beautiful.

Tonight, a study in blues and branches, product of my getting reacquainted with a silenced campus. At dusk the blues were beautiful, and all the trees behind my windows cast their black traces into our darkening. I'm going easy on my words tonight, because tomorrow I want to tell you a story. Or maybe sing you a song. I haven't quite figured out yet how I want to crack into this particular star.

My crabapples are tiny now, wintering.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Two days until the turn.

A couple of weeks ago, when I had occasion to go over to the art building, I suggested that I would get you a picture of this piece of graffiti. And so I have.

Gambier is emptying out; those left now are the unfortunate souls who had the last exam slot (tonight from 6:30-9:30) or those who simply haven't had time to clear out already. The work is largely in our hands now: I spent the bulk of my day grading in one place or another, and I watch as all of these people I have come to know and love become a series of numbers and then a single letter in the registrar's online system, and all the while, I wonder how the people I know and love will respond to that letter, when it reaches them. It's a strange and fraught experience, to be sure, but one that is going awfully nicely this semester, prompting vast pride in me at all the inventive things my students did with their final projects. It's too early to say that everything has gone smoothly; there's still much to be done. But so far, so good. And everyone starts to uncoil just a bit at the end of a semester, which is lovely indeed.

And we are only two days from the solstice. At 7:22 p.m. Thursday--or so I am told--we'll have hit the bottom of the year. For me, that pivot point of the year is a time of great rejoicing, just as the pivot in June is a time of small sorrow, something that always feels a bit strange, given that it comes in the first third of the academic year's summer. Through the warmest part of the year, I watch the light diminish a bit more each day; through the coldest part of the year, I welcome it back, day by day.

The weather turns colder and colder, so that tonight the stars are as bright as I've seen them this season. Orion hangs over my house in the southern sky, massive and silent. I tried to photograph him, and he showed up after the long exposure time, but I have a ways to go before I get a starshot with which I'm happy. (My inability to get the picture I wanted was a perplexity to me until I woke up Wednesday morning realizing that--yes, indeed--I did not focus the camera while taking pictures last night. The perils of having become dependent on automation! So: I stumble, I fall, I learn: it's an old, old process. If the skies allow it tonight, I'll try again. My father's classic explanation for "mechanical" failure comes to mind: "Sounds like operator error to me.")

Here's a place I would visit tomorrow, if I could, I think. I am always careful what I wish for, lest it come true in ways I don't expect. But this one place, I miss more than most places. And I don't think I even have a picture of it that's my own; I've had to borrow this one from Gabriel Gudding's Conchology.

Somehow, posting this picture has reminded me of what I wanted to tell you earlier, before I forgot, before I remembered again. Last night, as I stood on the college president's lawn, photographing Christmas tree lights by the side of the state highway, I heard a Canada goose honking its rough way through the darkness. I think of this, in connection with this picture of Ithaca Falls, because of a particular walk I took nearly four years ago, through the streets of Ithaca in the dark, to the bridge over Fall Creek where I could look toward the falls, almost visible despite the night's depth and the heft of the water's own sound. It was mid-March; the war was about to start; my heart was enormous and full of everything but fear; the wind was blowing vaporous exhalations all the way along from the falls so that my face dampened as I leaned over the bridge to listen. On the way there, an enormous vee of geese passed high overhead, chorusing. I wanted to believe, still want to believe, that last night's goose was not flying alone, that there were at least two.

Tonight, a fifth candle. For the turn about to take place. For those among us who are worried and fearful. For those among us who rejoice. For last night's goose and an end to loneliness. For still thinking that life is beautiful.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Santa in a shed.

Tonight, faced with a dearth of many things, I drove to Kroger to acquire a dinner. After a lunch of sushi at the athletic center (one of the peculiarities of this place), I must have been in a living-in-Rochester mood, because my dinner turned out to be much like what I subsisted on during that strange, liminal year.

In the Kroger parking lot was a small red shed, inside which a Santa Claus waited behind plexiglass to greet all comers. The scene's presence made me think of the places where I have visited Santas: in malls, certainly, but also in a train caboose. I was ashamed, at first, to think that it was silly to have a Santa in a shed at a grocery store. There is no mall near here. Of course it makes sense for there to be a Santa at the grocery.

Just before dinner, I prowled again, trying to get night shots. I came up with these lights for you. Things are only going to get more interesting from here. (I realize that I write some variation of that statement most nights; you may know as well as I do that it's partly a goad to myself to get through the rest of the semester.)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The dark and the damp.

I am in the fast process of losing all my temporal moorings. Today has been one of those days: grading and writing almost exclusively, passing crazed e-mails back and forth but feeling, in the end, as though I've been talking to people all day long. The poems I'm producing are strange, and some are sad. The papers I'm grading are, fortunately, neither strange nor sad.

A friend of mine lost his grandfather just over a year ago, and my grandfather's birthday would have been today, and so I will tell you a tiny story about sweet grandfathers, before I plunge back into my work.

My grandfather kept a honey bear in my grandparents' yellow kitchen on Cadieux Avenue. My favorite food to eat on Cadieux Avenue--even more than fresh apple pie, maybe even more than fresh raspberries--was toasted bakery bread with sesame seeds on top, buttered and honeyed. I sat in the kitchen with my back to the giant world-band radio, facing the windows to the driveway and the street. My grandfather sat across the table. He put the bread in the chrome toaster. I ate slab after slab of buttered and honeyed bread. Now, I would slug back cup after cup of freshly percolated coffee, too, but I didn't acquire that taste until after we were no longer dining in that kitchen. He knocked the seeds and crumbs into the trash and saved the paper plates for the next day's breakfast. The honey bear had a coneheaded hat. There was always a honey bear. He made sure that I had a honey bear. And now I always have a honey bear. This weekend, the honey bear came to school with me because I have come down with an end-of-semester cold and honey in my tea is ideal. Doesn't the bear look as though he knows things you should know?

After days of warmth and sun, tonight the rain began, making me even more glad of the honey bear and all associated warm things. Like that bed I will reach soon, but probably not soon enough.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Illuminations beyond me.

When I left home for the officehouse this afternoon, I looked around at our early wintery light, and at everything in it, and thought, I'm starting to run out of things to see along this half-mile walk.

When I sat in the officehouse well into the night, I thought, well, I guess I won't be lighting that second candle tonight.

When I checked the auroral activity page my poet friend put me onto yesterday (so that I too could keep track of whether or not the aurora would be visible here this weekend) and saw that the chances were nil for us, I thought, I guess that's another illumination not to be.

When I left the officehouse and decided to stop by the library to pick up a book, then emerged and realized I hadn't walked through our white-lit downtown trees anytime lately, I remembered: sometimes the lights come from unexpected quarters.

I'm still learning to use my new eyes, and the grading I'm doing these days hasn't allowed much time for exploration. But one of the things I learned tonight is how to determine proper exposure when I've eschewed all things automatic (which is the goal). Everything will be a little rocky at first, I fear: I'm not unlike a student who doesn't yet know how to write a sentence, much less compose a coherent paragraph or line of argumentation. It doesn't help that, like many beginning students, I'm setting myself impossible tasks: do something interesting with depth of field out on a Gambier street in the middle of the night! Now, do it while trying to hold other things, not just the camera!

But oh am I eager, and oh am I lit up. And oh may this be one way I am, as Paisley Rekdal writes, coming towards my greatness.

I came home and lit that second candle after all.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Bonne anniversaire.

In the middle of the night one year ago, something possessed me to start building a site for this bizarre URL I had claimed the summer before. I had no grand plans for writing or for images. Within days I had a clear read on just how much I'd been wanting to write.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, and it's the first night that, though I am not (as far as I know) Jewish, I've lit candles in recognition and in celebration. This year, it will take me right up to the solstice; if you look back to last year, you'll recall how much the solstice means to me. The next seven days, then, are about illumination, both retrospective and prospective.

Sometimes, when I think I want a party, what I really want is time for quiet meditation. Tonight is one of those times. Starting to build this Cabinet has arguably been the most important thing I've done for myself all year. I hope your peeks in have been even a fraction as edifying.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Things that shine, things that hold.

In my dream, I held a catalog of brooches, and of drawer pulls. Page after page, image after image: rows of images on every page. Everything had rhinestones. Everything sparkled and enticed. "That was a good dream," my poet friend said to me today. He was right. It was a good dream. I know this even though I don't remember anything but the catalog's presence and what was in it. And what was in it: things that connect, things that gather together, things that open other things out to one or that pull them together and hold them loosely. I have a grey cape that this week's warm weather has allowed me to wear as a coat, and in it I feel like swooping along roads and hallways with greater alacrity than usual, just to feel this expanse of grey wool swing out behind me. Late this afternoon I realized that I wanted one of the brooches from my dream, to hold the cape together as I swept through town.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Line-dancing on Esto Road.

Today was already likely to go well.

Classes ended yesterday, and through one thing and another, I ended up with eight women in my living room yesterday evening, watching the six-hour Pride and Prejudice. By the time they left and I rounded up the things I'd strewn around campus over the course of the day, I was ready to drop--and then did, for nine hours.

Nine hours of sleep will change one's perspective on nearly anything, as will waking up to brilliant sun where at midnight there was only spitty rain. Add to that my realization, just after waking, that I now have only my final grading, and the Academic Mayhem, left to go before months of dedicated research time, and you have a person already contented, even before an excellent day got itself underway.

The summer students and I headed to the next county over for lunch and pie this afternoon, followed by a trip to a semi-secret Knox County location known as Aqua Farm. I think that I'm not supposed to say much about Aqua Farm. I had never been there before this afternoon; the woman riding shotgun directed me, and one of the three students in the backseat documented the trip using my camera. Car photography was new to her, but within a few shots, she was shooting away and, I found out later, getting good stuff, including reclining cows, and the only shot I'm going to give of Aqua Farm, and many other lovely red barns.

We made it back to campus at about 2 p.m., which was the time I'd told my department's wonderwoman of an administrative assistant that I would be coming to the officehouse this afternoon. She'd asked about this yesterday, and I hadn't thought much of it, though it did turn out to be the reason that I actually hauled myself (and my small arsenal of grading goads) back out of the house. But the weather was gorgeous, and there is all this grading to be done, so I thought: yes. Work. I will do work, and then I will walk out with my new set of eyes and see what I can see.

Only, when I arrived at the office, there were gifts abounding. My beloved Brooklynite's holiday presents arrived, and I (impatient thing that I am) opened them and showed them off. My textbook for next semester's photography class arrived, and I opened it and paged through it a bit. I was in the process of showing off pictures of the Aqua Farm (before I remembered having been semi-sworn to semi-secrecy while still in the car) when the first strange thing happened: one of my poet friends, who normally might have manifested at least some interest in what I was showing two other people, instead shot us a quick glance and then abruptly left the building, as if leaving for good, without saying a word. A little while later--after I'd received two more holiday gifts! what a day!--a cry went up through the officehouse: my excellent friend, in our other officehouse, had something funny to show us, and we had to come over immediately.

When we got to the other building, a door that is usually open was closed. Because it's a reading day, leading up to exams, I wondered whether we should take a different route, lest we disturb anyone. I opened the door gingerly and found that, indeed, the room behind the door was full of people. But then they all yelled "Surprise!"--which only made things more confusing. I turned to my companions and said, "Who's the surprise for?" Everyone laughed at me. I understood better when the assembled revelers began wishing me a happy research leave. It turns out that my seniors decided that they wanted to throw a party because I won't be teaching next semester. "You're such an easy mark," said my poet friend, who had (of course) been on his way to the surprise when he swept out of the officehouse so abruptly. He had predicted that I would walk in and ask whose party it was. I am indeed easy that way: for me? a party?

Incredible amounts of eating ensued--on top of all the eating I'd done at lunch. I have not been this consistently un-hungry in a good long while; leftovers are mounting in the house, and now I have piles of baked goods in my office. But even better was the enormity of my students' and friends' generosity and good will. It is such a thing, this kind of wholly unanticipated love-gift. One student presented me with a piece of her art that I had offered to buy from her. One colleague baked me my favorite kind of pie. I continue to reel in gratitude, especially having learned that this fest had been in the works for nearly a month (no small feat in tiny Gambier). I fear that I was not able to eat enough to show my gratitude fully.

When everyone had begun to clear out, after an hour of hanging about and consuming mass quantities of food and drink, I mentioned Aqua Farm yet again--still marvelling at its strangeness, and at the fact that I had no knowledge of its proximity to Gambier before today. Four of the women who organized and/or participated in the surprise were still around and said, "Aqua Farm?" Inspiration struck: as a thank you to them for having given me one kind of Kenyon moment, I gave them one in return.

On my second trip to Aqua Farm in one day, I actually parked the car, and we wandered a little ways up and down Esto Road, which turns to gravel not long after one turns onto it from OH-229. We all had cameras of one sort or another. I broke with my usual procedure and tried for some portraits of these women, all so beautiful and strong and thoughtful in their own ways. At some point, one of them began to dance a little, and suddenly they all teetered on the edge of dancing together in their loose and lovely semi-circle, in the cooling Ohio dusk.

"What did you do today?" I said, ventriloquizing those to whom we would return when we made our gravelly way back to campus.

"Oh, we were line-dancing on Esto Road," came my own reply.

And there was the sunset, and there we drove into it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This seeding season.

Here at the end of a day that just kept going, I feel myself husked out. In this shell are seeds curled but feathered for flight. The wind of swift days keeps easing the mouth of those pointed petals open and open, and I am crouched and waiting, my tongue at the ready.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Such an evanescence.

Sometimes the presence of another's stress steers me into calm. A student showed up this afternoon and said, "What do you do when you're stressed out?" I showed her the pose with which we began the two yoga classes I attended (six years ago) before bailing out: back on the floor, thighs at right angle to torso, calves at right angle to thighs and propped on a chair: the body a series of right angles. Flatten spine to the floor. Breathe in and steer the air down into the bottoms of the lungs, inflating the abdomen little by little. Breathe out with a little hiss through the teeth. Do this until calm comes.

(I did this pose for thirty minutes one night during my first attempt at the job market: after having worked fiendishly for hours straight, having missed at least one meal, having raced the clock to get to FedEx, I was empty and acidified and all a-quiver. My brother was visiting. We had dinner plans. We put them on hold for thirty minutes so that I could bring myself down.)

My student got into this pose on the floor of my office and stayed there for the next 45 minutes, talking to me while I searched for a paper. And while she lay there and we talked intermittently, I realized that I haven't been doing such a bang-up job of breathing calmly and deeply myself. And so we both calmed, bit by bit.

Three hours later, I happened to look up from grading just in time to see part of our ten minutes of sunsetting brilliance. I coursed through the building and alerted my colleagues who were staying late. Look out your window. Oh, look at that. On our floor we are up in the trees.
Ten minutes after I returned to my desk, after trying to capture a picture for you, all reds had fled, bled away to a band of limpid yellow skirting the hilltops under a sky of massed blue. So fast: so fast an evening I have not seen for some time.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Holidays and generosity.

It's not so often that I weigh in with an explicit commentary on politics and current events, and there's a reason for that. But since very early yesterday morning, as I drove through the mid-Ohio sunrise, I've been thinking about something I saw outside one of the area churches that often has interesting signage. This particular church is somewhere in Licking County, just over halfway to Columbus from Gambier. In keeping with the holiday season (I probably passed twenty people with freshly cut Christmas trees bagged and bundled on top of their vehicles yesterday; they were awfully reminiscent of big game kills, for the first time in my life), this church has posted a new message, which I didn't have time to photograph for you. "STILL MERRY CHRISTMAS," the sign proclaims. "NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS."

The "War on Christmas" nonsense bothered me so much last year, even though I have taken steps to insulate myself from the obstructions and noise that television and talk radio represent in my consciousness. I get my news and my commentary almost exclusively from the internet, which allows me to take it in on my own time and to keep it out most of the rest of the time. (I am growing more and more strident in this regard.)

Here's why I was (and still am) bothered; you will be unsurprised to know that it's based in etymology. To say "Happy Holidays" in a secular country is not to deny that this time of year is rich with religious practice, sacred tradition, and deeply held personal beliefs. The moment you let "holidays" out of your mouth at this time of year, you're invoking a long linguistic history--one that does dip into the secular, to be sure (in the sense that "holidays" are not just religious in nature but can be cultural or political as well--witness "bank holidays" in the UK, for instance, or our own series of national holidays) but that is rooted, literally, in the sacred. "Holiday" comes into English back before the last millennium, and it comes in by way of
haligdæg, a compound of halig and dæg, the Old English words for "holy" and "day." Halig, in turn, derives from hal, for "whole." The idea that "holiness" relates to "wholeness" is a provocative one, to my mind, and it speaks to my own faith commitments that I believe so fully that this etymological linking is itself a reason that "Happy Holidays" is a significant greeting this time of year.

To denigrate "Happy Holidays" by caricaturing it as a denigration of a Christian holiday is to deny a human wholeness that manifests itself at this point each winter, as a plethora of religious traditions and festivals converge on the calendar. (It's also to miss the point that using the word "holiday" is already going to marginalize atheists--something I'm still trying to work out in my attempts to be linguistically sensitive and careful, something I care about not out of a need for some [caricaturish] idea of "political correctness," perhaps my least favorite of the vacuous concepts that have debuted in my lifetime, but out of a deeply held belief that no human being can know, with certainty [much less belligerent certainty], the right way to approach the divine--or even the way to know whether there is a divine. We do and know the best we can. If we're not hurting other people in our attempts to do and know the best we can, who has a right to judge?)

In short, I'm suggesting that to reassert "Merry Christmas" as the thing most needful to be said to anyone and everyone this time of year is to refuse, fairly ungenerously, to admit that any other sacred practice happening this time of year--lighting the menorah, say, or celebrating Eid ul Adha with a special feast--could be culturally significant enough to acknowledge. I refuse that refusal. "Happy Holidays" is the best I can do toward an omnibus recognition at this time of year: when I say it, I'm trying to say "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," "Eid Mubarak," and all the other greetings I don't know, in all the other languages I don't know. I refuse to
assume that I know the traditions and beliefs to which those around me cleave. I refuse to assume that I should have any say in those traditions and beliefs--even the implicit, apparently innocuous say involved in wishing someone the happiness of a holiday that s/he does not celebrate. But what I'm also trying to say, somehow, is that all days should be holy, in the sense of being venerated and significant and whole, whoever we are. We're all in the dark time of the year together (at least here in the northern hemisphere). We don't need to do a single thing to make the world and its goings on any darker than they already are. Why not affirm as expansively as we can? Why not use these confluences to think and believe as generously as possible?

I'm thinking about these things today not least because it's Human Rights Day, the 58th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I believe that this, too, should be one of our holidays, one of our pauses to think about something bigger than ourselves, some greater whole to which we ought generously to acknowledge our belonging.

And so it is that I'm saying to all of you, my dear ones and my unknowns: happy holidays, and peace to all of you.

(Oh, and here's my totally frivolous postscript: it's entirely possible that someone reading today will be this site's 9000th officially logged visitor.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Another way I learned.

In the mid-1980s, I was a 4-H kid (I quit Girl Scouts because it was rumored that we would have to eat baby food in order to earn the childcare merit badge). 4-H was a big deal in my small southern Indiana town; my friends and I lived in a variety of non-urban areas--I on my family's wooded property (which, when I think back on it, seems so improbable for us to have owned, and yet so perfect); my best friend on her family's farm; another friend of ours on a wildlife preserve that her parents managed. That last friend was how I got into 4-H. Twenty years later, I have had to look up what the four Hs were: I thought that one was "home," but it turns out that they're all personally located: head, heart, hands, and health. I was pretty much unqualified when it came to the agricultural activities that are a mainstay of 4-H (and, in turn, of county fairs all over the place, particularly in the midwest): I did not do animal husbandry; I blew it when it came to growing vegetables and flowers (the wooded property, remember, coupled with my tendencies toward procrastination and impulsiveness, meant that I ended up backing out of vegetable exhibition and taking in some houseplant or another as a "flower"). I did slightly better with some of the homemaking projects: I made a skirt one year and participated in the pre-county-fair fashion show at the local high school. And we rocked the talent show one year, in part because I wrote our skit's script. But for the most part, a lot of 4-H projects I undertook became a big pain for my ever-patient mother.

When I turned to the non-domestic things, though, I shone. One year, I received some kind of really good ribbon for my project on computers. I have little memory of what that entailed. But I loved the photography project I did with my father one year. And that one earned me some kind of champion ribbon--not a grand champion of the whole fair, as I recall, but a champion in my class.
My father, as I suggested in yesterday's post, is a photographer (in addition to all his other talents, virtues, and professions). He's also the person who did more than anyone to invest me with a scatalogical sense of humor. My 4-H photography project became a great moment of confluence for these aspects of his personality and of our relationship: we decided to drive through southern Indiana photographing outhouses.

One Sunday, my father woke me up early, so that we could catch the early morning light. All these decades later, it sticks with me, his telling me that pre- and immediately post-dawn light is the best of the day. (Part of the reason I'm thinking about the outhouse project, in fact, is that I had to rise much, much earlier than usual today, in order to get to Columbus for an appointment, and so I did my favorite mid-Ohio drive just before, during, and just after sunrise--which was something of a revelation for this resolutely nocturnal person; I'm almost convinced that I should make some stringent efforts to rise before the sun, at least occasionally, if I want to see my world at its loveliest.)
We packed the big camera bag with the old Nikon F2, with the flash, the light meter, and all the lenses, into the Oldsmobile and drove south, heading toward the Ohio River.

That Sunday morning was my first experience with taking a drive that was all about the drive, not about pushing swiftly and efficiently to some destination. We meandered, and when we saw something for which we wanted to stop, we stopped. We did all manner of trespassing, my father and I; presumably, he was ready to do the defending and explaining if anyone confronted us about why we were walking around his or her abandoned and dilapidated outhouse at 6:45 a.m.
Can you picture the scene? A man in his mid-30s walks around with a ten-year-old not-yet-Dr. S, showing her how to use a light meter, showing her how to hold the camera, showing her how to focus in more senses than one. How to look for architectural details. How to find the best color combinations. How to see why a ruin might matter. How to see.

I've just had to take a break from writing in order to retrieve this computer's power source, and all the way from one floor of the house to the other, all the way through my little retrieval sweep and return to my perch here in the upstairs, I fell into wave after wave of realization. Through their artistic practice--my mother's quilting, about which you know; my father's photography and mechanical designs and inventions--I learned about how to learn to see, how to see needful things, how to watch patterns and workings quietly, waiting to see what they'll reveal about themselves. How to know that there is a life in objects, and a story. How to see that story does not require words. How to see that seeing does not always require story, though it may lead to implying it.

I don't remember how many rolls of film we shot on our outhouse gathering drive. And we did not develop the film ourselves; by the time we were in Indiana, my father no longer had his basement darkroom (one of the many wretched things about having moved to Indiana, I believe, was the loss of that darkroom--which, in the Buffalo house, had also been the site of my mother's experiments with silk-screening and my father's adventures with mounting and framing all manner of things). But when we got the film back from the developer, there were some startlingly good shots. I have a clear memory of my favorite sequence, a group we did of a blue outhouse with white details. Many of those images went into my final poster presentation of our work. For (if I may) cheeky effect, we mounted the pictures on brown matboard before affixing them to the regulation foam-core board required for posters. (And what a pain that was to find--we had to drive to a hobby store near Seymour, a good 30 miles away, to find foam-core board every year. Seriously, my mother is a saint for the things she, who doesn't even like to drive, subjected herself to in my youth.) And the judges liked the project, which was an excitement indeed.

I'm thinking about this stuff so much this weekend because of an intellectual and aesthetic move I'm making for myself this spring. After a year of having told you all that something big was on its way, I finally have a sense of another part of what I mean, and it's not at all what I expected. A year ago--and you can just get yourself ready for this project's first birthday, because it's going to be a party, come December 15--I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and when I started taking and posting photographs, I thought of them as, in most ways, simply illustrations of what I was writing. I have long thought of photography as that thing that I accidentally do well every once in awhile but that is actually my brother's province, while my province is the written word. And our provinces lie next door to one another, and we visit freely, but we don't really mess with one another's turf.

But in the past year, my brother has been writing more and more (and getting better and better at it), while I've been shooting more and more, and suddenly it feels as though we might be living in different parts of the same province of creativity after all. This realization is one that I love, because taking pictures together (or talking about how we take pictures) has become another way to relate to yet another member of my family. One of the best things about
last month's mystery trip was my getting to take pictures all day. I'm certain my brother knew this, going into it; I suspect that that might even have been part of the reason that he was shooting only with his camera phone. It's a neat revision (if you will) of that outhouse drive twenty years ago, really: someone else at the wheel, carrying me through our rural landscape and giving me ways to see those surroundings anew.

It's in part because I keep receiving that gift that I've finally decided to take a hint and learn something about what it is I'm doing. I know how to intuit things visually, and with a smart piece of equipment helping me out, I can, every once in awhile, feel that I have had my vision, as Lily Briscoe thinks to herself. But I've never gotten training in how to use photographic equipment, how to handle film, how to make and mount my own prints, how to experiment. That all changes, starting in just over a month.

I'm going to learn how to see all over again.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Part of how I learned to see.

I'm meditating a semi-big decision right now, and tonight it's got me thinking back on the things that have shaped my aesthetics, my approach to the world through image and word and my ways of trying to give the world back to itself through image and word. I'm not sure what put Brad Iverson's name back in my head just now, as I sit here (uncamouflaged) in my red and white flannel sheets, but I googled him just to see whether there was anything about him to be found--and lo and behold, he has his own website.

Brad and his wife Ellen are friends of my parents; Ellen taught with my mother in Detroit. When I was little, I loved visiting them because they were simply, wonderfully cool people. And they had a massive coffee table book about Walt Disney that had Mickey Mouse on the cover. When I was young, such things meant a lot. The last time I saw Brad and Ellen was when I had just finished my first year of high school and had just gone to my first concert, a B-52's show (for which Ziggy Marley opened). The Iversons had Mesopotamia on vinyl and made me a tape while we hung around their house. That's how cool they were. Also, Ellen had just started painting and showed us how she was exploring her new medium; she still sticks in my head as one example of how it's possible to decide that it's time to pick up a new art. She learned piano because she wanted to play Rachmaninoff. She learned painting because she wanted to. The narrative can always change, see?

Brad has had his greatest presence in my life through his photography; one of the reasons he and my father were such good friends, I think, is that they're both extraordinary photographers. Brad has done some beautiful work documenting Detroit. Several of the images on his website have hung in my parents' family room (and thus been the subjects and the locales of my imagination's many narratives) my whole life. I can't tell you much about what those narratives were: they passed as swiftly as they came, as swiftly as neglect eats some of the things these pictures represent.

This chair and this door, for instance, have been in any number of imagined houses over the course of my life, even as a print of this image has been hanging in my parents' house. These things have been on farms in northern Michigan, to which I imagined he must have traveled in order to get to a door and a chair that no one would mind his photographing. At one point, I know that I thought Brad had taken this picture in one of my parents' houses, while they still lived in Detroit. What I assumed, I know, is that no one ever goes into a house without permission--that all houses are occupied, that all objects are owned.

I can't remember any of the specific narratives I spun around this conservatory and these statues at Detroit's Belle Isle. The pictures still hang side by side just outside my parents' kitchen. The conservatory one moves me more and more, the older I get and the more I try to do with my own images.

Brad's most controversal piece is a photograph called "Belle Isle Men's Room." It provoked a lawsuit, along with all manner of other debate, when Brad exhibited it at the Detroit Institute of Arts back in the early 1970s. It's possible that I'll tell you more about it, and its maker, tomorrow, when I'm refreshed.

source for all of tonight's images: Brad Iverson's website.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Oh, grounding constellations. Oh, cold sparks.

Tonight, after a concert, a world gone smeared and stinging with snowfall. You know me well enough to know what I did the moment I finished crossing our poor substitute for a tundra. If you look closely you can find the moon amidst these fallings.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Winter greening.

I don't feel that I have adequate words to caption this image for you tonight, and so I'm just going to offer it for what it is: eternally springing, utterly reckless hope. How and why? Who knows. For now, take it in.

We're nearing the end of things here; one always knows the end is near when, just as everything seems to come into some kind of focus, under some kind of control, the least expected explosion happens and threatens all the equilibrium in sight. And so I'm brandishing this little outseason spear of spring, holding it out in defiance of that which would throw us off, right at this crucial moment.

Soon (you have no idea), such new concatenation.

And, oh, alas: it turns out that my scheme of pajamouflage isn't going to work after all, given that the patterned pajamas are sold out. Perhaps for the best. (Unless everyone else had this same idea and is now enjoying it without me.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Varieties of affective experience, including self-camouflage.

Here's a tiny taste of what it feels like to come home to a phone message telling you that you're loved and admired.

8:25 p.m.
Dr. S and her excellent friend are on the phone (in a call not unrelated to the abovementioned message though also not the precipitator of that message).

Dr. S: So, I bought new sheets for my bed, and now all I want to do is go home and be in them.
EF: Are they flannel?

Dr. S: Yeah, and today I discovered that the company's selling pajamas made from the same fabric. I could actually make myself disappear in my own bed, all but my hands and head. Only, no one would be there to not-see me.

EF: Can we get you the pajamas for Christmas?
Dr. S: [surprised silence, then laughing] I think it might be pretty weird to have pajamas that match my sheets!
[long pause]
EF: I think that it would be delightful, actually.
Dr. S: Yeah, actually, you might be right. And I could make myself disappear in my own bed, which might be pretty fun. And I'm planning to spend a lot of time working in my pajamas next semester. So maybe this is a good idea. I'll think about it.

And think I will. The bed is now such a cheery pattern on which to dream of checklists whose numbers dance free circles for a moment before turning in (or out?) for the night. As will I, now. What if I blended right in with that pattern?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Some hot descriptors.

igneous, a.
[f. L. igne-us of fire, fiery (f. igni-s fire) + -ous. (F. has igné, It. igneo.)]
1. Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of fire; fiery.
2. Resulting from, or produced by, the action of fire; esp. in Geol. Produced by volcanic agency.

[f. late L. ignivom-us (Lactantius), f. igni-s fire + vom-ere to vomit: see -ous.]
Vomiting fire.

, a.
Of or pertaining to the magma (sense 3).
magma, n.
[a. L. magma (sense 1), Gr. [magma] (from [massein]: to knead).]
3. Geol. a. One of two or more supposed strata of fluid or semi-fluid matter lying beneath the solid crust of the earth. In mod. use: A hot, fluid or semi-fluid material beneath the earth's crust from which igneous rocks are believed to be formed by cooling and solidification and which erupts as lava. b. The amorphous basis of certain porphyritic rocks.
volcanicity, n.
Volcanic action, activity, or phenomena.
See also: volcanized, volcanian, volcanization, volcanist.
illuminate, n. and a.
[In use as past participle and participial adjective before the introduction of
illuminate v., of which it subsequently served as past participle, but was gradually displaced by illuminated.]
A. pa. pple. and adj.
1. Lighted up; made bright by light.
2. Enlightened spiritually; divinely taught or inspired; in technical use, converted, baptized. Sometimes contemptuous = professing to have the inner light.
3. Enlightened intellectually; well-informed, learned.
4. = illuminated.

n. A spiritually or intellectually enlightened person, or one claiming to be so; one initiated into ‘the mysteries’. archaic.

That's right: some hotness is going on here tonight. Sparks from fingertips. Scorched earth keyboards. Such pages of fire, such catchy phrases. But so much more to light up your eyes tomorrow: tonight I'm burning in another direction.

source for tonight's images: the U.S. Geological Survey's Volcano Hazards Program. It has a photo glossary. You should go explore it, not least because it's awesome. The top image here is a strombolian eruption; the bottom one is basalt.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

To earn my Tolstoy.

I may or may not have revealed by now that my dissertation director back at Cornell was a genius. Barely a day goes by when I don't use some piece of wisdom she bestowed on me in her inimitably wry way. One spring, when I was flushed with love and barely able to breathe, she looked me in the eye as I prepared to zip out her office door and said, "Work while you're hot." "Oh yes," I said. "Oh yes."

Today, I am invigoration itself. Not for the same reasons, to be sure. But I am going to follow her advice--after I tip out some of the excess things rattling around in this brain of mine.

The paperback edition of the newest translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace hit the bookstore sometime this week. Somehow, finding it this afternoon reminded me of what's waiting at the other end of this long month: time. Time to fathom what can be fathomed in the first reading of a 1400-page Russian masterpiece I haven't even allowed myself to think about for four years, lest it overwhelm my days. Which it will, if it's anything like Anna Karenina--and by many accounts, it's even better. The long masterpiece novel--the panoramic novel--is, for me, a genre of meditation, in a vastly different way than the lyric poem. It's entirely possible that my next book is going to be a meditation on this kind of meditation. Probably even with illustrations. "Do you have a teacher's manual that tells you how to read?" one of my first-year students asked me, when I was a first-year teacher. First-year incredulity met first-year incredulity. "No," I said. "Then how do you know what to do?" he replied. This question was an excellent one, precisely the kind of thing that only a student could show me I needed to consider. "I sit with the words," I told him. "I sit and I read them and I listen to what they're doing and I listen for echoes of things I've heard before and I watch for structures that eventually start to appear to my eye. It takes time. And patience. But this is beauty, right here: this paragraph is a beautifully structured paragraph." I don't know whether I convinced him. I know that I didn't get many "aren't you reading too much into that?" questions for the rest of the semester.

So now I have this new fat/phat copy of War and Peace, with its crazy chandelier, sitting to my left, and my just-arrived copy of Bechdel's Fun Home, sitting to my right on my office desk. And I have a belly full of omelet and ears full of music, just for the moment. And the sky is steely and open, dramatic in the very absence of drama it holds. And what I have between me and these books to my left and to my right: about three weeks. Though I'll tell you right now that I'll finish Fun Home before the day is through, on the principle of small rewards.

My dissertation director is not the person who taught me the principle of small rewards. This principle might be one that my friends and I developed collaboratively. It's also known as the small presents principle. When one has little money, little structure for one's time, and large tasks (like master's exams or a dissertation) to complete, it's important to break the time somehow. My friends and I decided that we could be compassionate to ourselves if we punctuated our work and recognized our accomplishments with small presents to ourselves. From where I sit--even though I'm not at home--I can see innumerable small presents I've gotten myself for one reason or another over the years: my pewter tadpole, my tiny geodes from the Children's Museum, my silver rings, my Ithaca Wisdom Snake, my steel bird. I can see the things that I've acquired with no money: the slips of blue and white china I found on the lakeshore in England two years ago, the rocks from Lake Ontario, the birds' nests, my photographs. I can see the things that have been given to me: the glass frog, the goose mug, the silvery new music machine, the bright quilt, the shiny teakettle, the poems, the student cards and notes. I am physically surrounded here. This afternoon, in front of the fiction shelves in the bookstore, with another friend's gift (a recording of Elliott Smith's "Angeles") in my ears, I realized that today I am columnar, grounded, pillared into focus in all the right ways for the things that need to come to fruition now.

And so, I flex my fingers, wait out a repeat of Smith's song, draw a breath for some completions. Some days are for finishing things. Today is one of them. And one of my small rewards for finishing the big things will be to read to the end of Fun Home--about which more soon, possibly tomorrow, possibly later (when I'll also tell you about 49 Up, which is just as good as, if not better than, I hoped it would be).

source for today's image:, bien sur.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Serenity dreamt.

A day of rest, of quiet, of stopping, curling, staying still, pausing. Pause. Pause. What started out a comma in the long sentence of this month has, by this late time, become a semi-colon. Far to go before the full stop. For now: the next breath's drawing, gathering in soft dusk of this small silence, this short sojourn of tongue behind teeth. Gentle animals fold in the warm fields beyond my ears, nuzzling nose to soft-felted nose, closing their improbable eyes in unthinkably sweet rest. Even the migrations have quieted for the night, all but that one I can still hear resolving itself out of the blankness of the night, slipping in through my half-sleep at the distance of three years.