Once upon a time, this blog was going to be all about my pet bird, when I got one. But I never did get that bird. So, now this blog is about the beautiful, curious things that keep me in a near-constant state of happy distraction. Ironically, many people find these writings when they wonder what "peristerophobia" means. It's a fear of pigeons. I've made a bird blog after all.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
At the end of June, I will have moved out of my current home, and my things will have gone into basements, others' closets, the officehouse's various nooks. Thus, remembering well how awful it was (even with the more than capable help of many friends) to pack everything in only a couple of days, I've begun Project Exodus already. I sort through books and papers, box up what's ready now, try to consolidate what won't be ready for a little while. It's a process that manages to stir up a lot, both physically and emotionally; it's been taking it out on me every night this week. I'm not planning to pull this perpetual deferral trick on you for much longer. I promise.
I have more to say on the topic my title lays out, but I am tired out from having been on the road half the day so that I could spend the other half with my families, biological and otherwise. See, it hit me again, on my way up I-71 by the light of a sun that was setting fat and red over my left shoulder, on my way to spend the night at my flaming-sworded friend's house, how much my life has grown to incorporate an enormous extended family that has replaced the extended biological family to whom we don't speak. I thought about this on mother's day, when I called my mother (who will always be my only mother) first, then called my excellent friend and e-mailed my dissertation director--two women who did immense amounts to help me grow into myself. I thought about it when my Lexingtonian friend called me Auntie S. while introducing me to the Newest Lexingtonian (whose fingers and toes you can espy above). I'm thinking about it much more now and will undoubtedly be writing about it much more, as well, but not yet--not until I'm awake enough to do it justice.
Just over thirteen years ago, a professor I hadn't met yet posted a course description that sounded wonderful to me. It was for a course in late-eighteenth-century literature, with particular attention to travel. I was just learning Elizabeth Bishop's poems "The Map" and "Questions of Travel," and I remember clearly the evening I sat down at a vax terminal and wrote an e-mail message requesting permission to join her course. I know that I talked about having read Bishop; I may even have quoted a line or two--"Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today?" Fortunately, she e-mailed right back and welcomed me to take the course. It was a second semester course, about which I was writing to her in April, a good nine months before it was due to begin. And that e-mail exchange launched a friendship that is one of the longest and most consistent in my life.
You know this professor as my excellent friend, the person who feeds me excellent Indian food on Friday nights and then only teases me a little bit when I fall asleep on her couch (which I haven't done in quite awhile, I might add). I know her as the person who helped me learn to like dogs, because of her ferocious attachment to her furry boys. I know her as the person who always has a completely hip book or music or clothing recommendation; I have tried so hard, sometimes without even knowing it, to become as cool as she is, and yet she still almost always has the coolest new things first--not least because she kindles such affection and loyalty in her students that they scavenge for coolness and bring it to her, and I'll admit that they're generally more cutting-edge than I am, these days. In some ways, anyhow.
My excellent friend let me sleep in her guest room whenever I needed it while I was slogging through grad school and my dissertation. In fact, she helped me figure out where I was going to go to grad school; the place I ultimately ended up going was her idea, back when we were discussing where I should apply. She has weathered all kinds of crap with me. She is consistently level-headed and generous and honest with me--and with everyone who's lucky enough to come into her orbit. And we are in her orbit: she anchors more people than any of us knows, I think, because she is so stalwart and strong and self-sacrificing in ways that she may not even realize.
The year we all lived in England, while she directed my college's study-abroad program, she used to take us on trips in the little Ford Fiesta she and her husband bought. It had a rusty bottom; just before one trip, it tried to refuse to start. She called AA and got it up and running, and we puttered off into the countryside. She drove us to Wales; she drove us to the south coast in search of an image we'd seen in a book; she drove us to a wonderful inn unreachable without a car. Last week, my mother was remembering another favor she did for me that year: telling me, when I teetered on the brink of massive whinging about being fatigued and worried about work, "Go buy yourself a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar and get back to work. You can rest next week." It was that simple. She can see her way to the core of things like that, and she knows how to tell people--especially touchy smart young people--to stop making simple things more complicated than they need to be. And thus she's the professor students make mix CDs for, hoping that she'll ratify the ways they hope they're cool. She's the professor students end up coming back to town to visit, year after year. My excellent friend has just finished having a birthday today, and I hope she did something that made her happy. (For my part, I have acquired Props that we will use to celebrate when I return to Gambier.) I hope this because she deserves to be happy. She has helped so many people grow up healthy and strange and creative and productive and able to investigate and reshape their lives as necessary.
And none of this gives you a sense of how much fun she is, especially when dancing in her kitchen, especially when growling at her dog, especially when shopping for shoes and capes, especially when playing ping pong. And none of this gives you a sense of how much I love and value her. She is truly excellent.
What better way to tell you about today than with a recipe? Only 3/5 of my family (counting the dog and me) will eat the end product. [Though my beautiful mother said to me on Sunday morning: you know, you could put a picture of the pie up, even though you've started eating it. So I know she likes looking at it, even if she doesn't like to eat it.] But oh is it worth the work.
Did I mention that I'm Back Home Again in Indiana, though not particularly because of tomorrow's race? We only eat the best snack foods here: homemade sangria, homemade guacamole, homemade key lime pie, and homemade...
crust: 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 2 sticks butter, about 1/3 cup water
Mix together the dry ingredients in a large-ish bowl. Cut the butter into 1/4" thick pieces and break into dry mixture. Using a pastry blender (looks like this, if you don't own one already), cut the fat into the flour. Basically, what this means is that you should just keep pushing the pastry blender straight down into the bowl, using its little arms to cut the butter into smaller and smaller pieces and mix it with the dry ingredients. Eventually, the lumps will be mostly gone, but not all gone. When you get to that point, drizzle about 1/3 c. of water over this mixture and then toss it through the flour/butter mixture with your fingers. Don't knead the dough, and don't push it very hard. Just try to get the water worked all the way into the flour/butter mixture. If the dough starts to come together with only that much water, great. If not, add a little bit more water and toss it together some more. The dough doesn't have to be perfectly smooth at this point. But it should hang together when you split it into two evenly sized balls and wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.
Then you can turn to your filling. If you're trying to save time, as I was doing today, you can mix the filling first, and by the time you're done putting the crust together, the oven will be warmed up and the filling will have sat for the proper amount of time.
filling: 2 lbs. rhubarb (try for the slimmest stalks--the ones about the size of your finger), 1 1/4 cups sugar, 4 tbsp. cornstarch, zest of one orange (zesters are wonderful tools; turns out I've been using mine upside-down all these years), tiny dash of salt
Cut the ends off of the rhubarb (and wash it). Cut the rhubarb into 1" chunks. Put them in a bowl and mix in all the other ingredients. Let stand for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
(See how easy that is? It's so easy that while you're doing it, you can be telling your companions stories about people they've met but haven't seen for awhile.)
Your oven should be preheating to 425 F while this is all going on.
Rolling dough? It's not that hard. Make sure you have a large surface you can clean off and cover with flour. Flour your rolling pin. Shape the dough into a fat disk. Here's the fun part: each time you roll the pin over the dough going in one direction, be sure to roll it over the dough in the opposite direction, too. (Here's a diagram that shows you vaguely what I mean.) You don't need to be overly finicky about alternating directions, and sometimes the dough will seem to have a mind of its own. Just be sure you're rolling the dough evenly in all directions--rather than thinning it out in one way but leaving it thick in another.
If something goes wrong, ball the dough up and try again. You can also repair tears in the dough: dab a little water on the dough and stick its torn self back together. Be patient and feel your way with the dough. This is one of the very good parts, even when it goes wrong.
Once you have a bottom crust rolled out, fold it in half and transfer it to a 9" pie dish, where you'll unfold it. Put the rhubarb filling into the bottom crust. Roll out the top crust. Using a pastry brush or your fingers, wet the top of the bottom crust so that you can seal the top crust to it. Now, it's a little hard to explain to someone in words how to finish a crust--and not just because there are so many ways one can choose to finish a crust off. For instance, you can trim both the top and bottom crusts pretty close to the pie pan and then crimp them with a fork. Or you can trim them but then put a fancy crust braid all along the edge of the pie. Or you can do what I do, which is basically to gather up all the dough that's inevitably hanging over the edge of a pie--and make a bit, fat, rolled-over-onto-itself crust. Whatever you do, it will be fine as long as you've remembered to wet the bottom crust with water and seal the top crust to it by pressing them together before starting your finishing work.
Lightly beat an egg white with a fork and brush it over the top of the pie. Sprinkle about 2 tsp. of sugar over the pie. Poke the pie with a fork to create steam vents.
Now, bake that pie for about 30 minutes at 425 F. Then, reduce the temperature to 350 F, and consider getting some foil or a baking sheet under that pie dish in case the pie decides to let loose. Bake the pie at 350 F for about 30 minutes.
And that's your pie. This one is mighty tasty with vanilla ice cream. It also makes a fabulous breakfast once it's a leftover, which my pie now is.
Source of tonight's pie-rolling diagram: Gramma's Pie Recipes. The Joy of Cooking has an even better one.
Think of your life as a good book. Sometimes there are twists and turns you didn't see coming, but when you think about it, you realize they were pretty much inevitable. All your hard work has prepared you for this.
And yet yesterday's, for her actual birthday, is hilariously strange:
Why not ask someone else what they would do in your position? It's even more helpful if your reaction to their comments is, "Why on earth would you do that?" Now you know exactly what you wouldn't do. That's a start.
And my (Taurian) Lexingtonian friend's horoscope for yesterday:
A change of setting could be just the thing to give you new inspiration that spills over into other areas of your life. Even a small step in that direction could spark a major sense of renewal. What have you got to lose?
When you love something or someone, you have to give them a little leeway -- or they'll eventually take it. As much as you'd like to keep them close at hand at all times, it's just not possible or healthy. Lighten up.
She has indeed lightened up, considerably, for the benefit of all parties. Everyone is healthy and happy. Such, such grace.
All day today, these buds were tight and sunsoaked, as ready as they'd ever be. And now? Welcome. Welcome.
[A follow-up for Friday morning: by the time I wrote last night, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep over the computer for quite some time. But of course what happened is that the baby was born swiftly and healthily in Kentucky. She is lovely, and her mother and father look lovelier holding her than they did before--something I wouldn't have thought possible.]
This afternoon, outside the officehouse, a goldfinch burst out of nowhere, detached itself from all the other brightness bursts happening all around us, pushing us into the 90s for the first time this year. It burst out of the blue, as they say, only today our blue was turning white, on its way to haze. The goldfinch burst out and lit upon a branch outside the office, and I knew that the only thing for it--for it all, really--was to put the rest of the afternoon aside and visit my beloved classicist and his brilliant artist-wife, who is experimenting with methods of making monotypes. Monotypes? I said. Let's see them. And so we three trooped out to her studio and I re-learned her system of figuring out what combinations of inks will make what colors, even before she makes prints. And I relearned why these two people are so crucial in my life. Think forward: this is what everyone has counseled, and I hear them and have started, slowly but surely, to redistribute my things.
And let's just say that once I've taken up my visiting fellow post (which is only a temporary relocation), I'm looking forward to being able to borrow this item when I want, as they say, "to get away from it all." Perhaps in a year I will be able to write O punter of my heart--and have it be a positive thing for a change. I suspect that stranger things have happened.
Soon, deo volante, a baby will be born in Lexington. Please think some extra strength in that direction--if, you know, you do that kind of thing.
Tonight I have made myself a cup of ginger tea and brought it to bed with me. Two floors below me, my laundry spins and spins in the dryer.
Tonight my bedside lamp has decided that its switch will no longer work. Thank goodness for the lamp on the other side of the bed.
Tonight part of me wants to write about rancor and frustration. But the better part of me wants to write about settling down, about quieting. My passport wings its way toward Chicago, along with my old passport (issued just before my nineteenth birthday) and bank statements and pay stubs--all documentation of the fact that I can support myself during a year in England and thus should be issued an Academic Visitor for More Than Six Months visa. Completing and mailing my application was one of the day's highlights, though not nearly as high as dining with my flaming-sworded friend and her excellent mother.
Some nights are just harder than others. Tonight I talked out my anger about a mid-evening confrontation, talked it out until it started to become energy, took that energy out to the garage and got the garbage to the curb, brought that energy back in to handle the laundry. Tonight I might have gone walking to the prairie again, had I not been waylaid.
But even later tonight, I am calming, calming, thinking of the prairie last night: the new grass, the old thorns, the interwoven rise of green covering the burnt-over soil. Tonight I am suddenly so drowsy that to write about calming brings on sleep itself.
The river will at first look brown, smell brackish. It will be a thing of summer itself, though the temperatures are low. The surface will pucker where kissed, shiver out ripple after ripple into the silvered spaces between the imaged banks. Then, in the branches of the reflected trees, a fat flip of silver, and another. And the river, though still brown, will turn to a sky of flickering fish, evening-slow and late-spring-gleeful. Even the brown will come to life: a catfish will skulk out of camouflage, lurk over the sand and shadow, show himself the leader of others, fat and grey-brown, bellying over the bottom, pushing against the current in a long strange line.
It will be there at the edge of a bridge that is hanging over an inverted world. It will be living where least expected. It will be the weary eye's evening meal, the cynic's flat rebuke.
The bright fish will flash their sides until no light is left.
"What do professors do during vacations?" a classroom of my students once asked me. "We get put back on our hangers and hung up in our closets," I told them. They waited patiently for the bad joke to end and the truth to be doled out. "We do pretty much the same things you do," I finally said.
On the day after graduation, that means: sleeping late. Talking on the phone. Driving to the city. Picking up friends at the dance studio. Eating too much at the Italian restaurant. Seeing a great new movie. Eating unusually flavored wonderful ice cream. Laughing hard over said ice cream at a sidewalk table. Driving home in the dark.
From my front lawn, I could see tonight's commencement-eve fireworks. A tree was in the way, but I didn't mind.
At the end of my review process this year, I was reminded gently that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Commencement weekend: same thing. Three formal events today, three more tomorrow, and then the village will suddenly be largely vacant once more. Ka-boom indeed. I'm ready for sleep, and it's well before my usual bedtime.
Graduation weekend is upon us here in Gambier, and so my thoughts have turned in yet another way to beginnings, to the great pleasures of nurture that works, to the joys of small things' growing. Coming home from a reception, I started chasing a lovely view through the backroads near the village. I wanted the biggest sky possible for you, wanted to get the most variegated clouds in all their harmless drama. By the time I reached vistas, though, I was distracted by new plants: the corn started shooting up this week, curving and cutting green rows through our fields.
(Evenings like this, I wish you were here to drive the car while I photograph. Had I not been driving, I might have thought to change to my good lens. Or you might even have reminded me, and I might not even have bristled at the suggestion, because you would be gracious about it.)
But suddenly there were cows. And not just cows, but also frolicsome calves. And who can think about lenses when one is watching calves scamper and lope? And double back to pounce and ram each other in their play?
If you've never driven or walked in farming country, you may not know how attentive cows are to passersby. They will stare right at you:
Sometimes they will even get up and walk away simply because you're staring at them:
Sometimes they will stare and then turn away, acting like relatives who are vaguely embarrassed that you've turned up again despite their best efforts to freeze you out. (But when they look straight at you, oh, their hairdos. You will be so taken with them that you will compose only clumsy images that barely document what kept you in the road trying to greet the cows, what made you bid them farewell as you turned to drive away. The loose, over-wide roll of the eyes. The sideways movings of the jaws. The swatting tails.)
In the north of England one summer, I lived for two weeks at a university that bordered a farm. In the evenings, I would walk out across the university grounds and stand by the fence between the cricket lawn and the pasture where cows and sheep grazed together. On my penultimate night at the university, I wandered down to the fence without my camera. All the cows were far away in the field, feeding. One looked up and saw me standing by the fence, and soon they were all wandering my way. They jostled each other for position on the other side of the fence, one by one, until twenty-eight were facing me, pushing each other, sometimes trying to step up over one another, all staring with their great fluid eyes. There were no sounds but the hard grind of their teeth and their fast, steaming snorts. I could barely tear myself away. I could barely keep from reaching out to stroke their noses. They shifted and stared, pushed at one another without taking their eyes at me. They lined up one nose after another, two eyes at a time, stamped the ground. We all stared for a long, long time before I could pull myself away.
Days earlier, a cow had played a game with me for half an hour, approaching when I turned my back, then scampering away as soon as I turned toward her and took even two steps her way with my camera. I would turn and pretend to be watching birds; turning around again, I'd find her ten feet nearer to me than she'd been when last I looked. At one of these turns, I managed to photograph her breaking into a gallop away from me. I hadn't known full-grown cows could move so lightly.
Tonight, the cows I could not see mooed and mooed, while the cows staring at me just stared.
What I love about watching cows before they figure out I'm watching--cows in their off-hours, as it were--is the way they tend to one another. They are not delicate animals, in either their movements or their affections. Nor are they harsh. They're just direct: they will nose one another in the flanks, hit heads about the ears, push each other where and when pushing is required. They are solidly companionable, and that is its own great grace.
Dear Prestigious Institution, I wrote. Shall I come, or would you rather I stayed home? If you don't know now, will you know soon? Sincerely, Dr. S.
Nine minutes later--I kid you not: nine--Thunderbird made its hollow thunk of a new e-mail alert sound. Dear Dr. S, the new message read. Attached please find your election letter from our college president. The original is in the mail. By the way, what do you specialize in, in twelve words or less? [I kid you not: twelve.] We keep a list of fellows and their specialties. Sincerely, Prestigious Institution.
Now they have my twelve words. Soon they will have (almost) all of me. Fortunately for the part of me that gets homesick, much of England looks like the parts of Ohio I love best. Plus there are trains that take you places. Like London. And the ocean. And the airport where there are planes to Greece.
That's right, gang: in September, we're going international.
Tonight I look into my shoulderbag of books and papers as though its mouth is a gaping maw with a mind of its own. I turn away. A tiny insect circles the dining room lamp. When it no longer thinks I'm paying attention, it will become my shoulderbag again, and I will go back to work.
Tonight I have been thinking of the year we made kites, the year the store-bought nylon one got away from us in the park and lodged in the trees. I started calling back kites on my walk home from the store with a bag of garbage bags; I pulled one out early just to hear it flap in the wind. The wind caught it, made it a lonely girl's sail on a landlocked street. I remembered the plywood frame, the black and neon paints, the strange propeller and enormous rubberbands that should have sent the kite flying until a breeze could catch it. But didn't. (I did not remember the dual-propeller airplane kite given to me the day of my dissertation defense, the one that never flew, the one I disassembled when its giver left town, the one that still lives in my trunk four years later. Though it must be said that I am remembering it now.) (Who flies a kite at night? If I knew a man with a stock of luminescent pastes, I would ring him up and we could find a field of new grass, fingerpaint that kite, and set it alight.)
Tonight that flapping bag lofted me all the way home.
(Look: the shoulderbag is dozing off, falling back to being just itself. Nothing to fear now: pull out a book: get back to it.)
"Are you two in love?" says the six-year-old boy who's nose-high to our booth. The soon-to-graduate student and I laugh out loud. "No," I say, calling the boy by name. "Then why are you sitting together?" he retorts.
Suddenly, it's a conversation that's picked up speed. We are working the logic of children. And this child is a quick one.
Both our bodies bear his handiwork this afternoon, for instance. When I arrived outside the coffeeshop to meet my former student for lunch, he held out his left hand, the back of which bore a green markered flower. "Like my tattoo?" he said. "Where'd that come from?" I replied. He gestured toward the village's six-year-old friend, son of the coffeeshop's owners, where he stood nearby wielding a green marker. This child and his family live around the corner from me. Two falls ago, he and I waded through my raked leaves, back and forth across the front of my yard; last week, he and his brother tackled me repeatedly on the coffeeshop's couch, and he tried to bite my new Superhero necklace, a move which garnered him a mighty and merciless tickling. This child is, in short, one of the best fixtures in my village life.
When he saw me admiring my student's flower tattoo, the child asked whether I wanted one, as well. I assented. "Where do you want it?" he asked. I held out both hands. "Do you want to put it on the hand with the silver ring or the hand wtih the iron ring?" I replied. He paused, then reached for my right arm. The weather was just cool enough today for me to be wearing bracelet-length sleeves, leaving my forearms exposed. That expanse of skin was just the canvas he needed. Taking my right wrist in his left hand, he made a first stroke, putting a point--the tip of an arrow, perhaps?--near the bottom of my sleeve. I pushed my sleeve up, but he pulled it back down: "I'm not going to put anything up there." "I'm just keeping my sleeve out of your way," I said. He proceeded with total, confident absorption. Soon a tall building with a ground-floor door was taking shape. "Is it a house?" I said. "No." "Is it an apartment building?" "No." I guessed as many more tall buildings as I could imagine. As he drew horizontal lines down the front of the pointy-topped structure on my forearm, someone made him laugh and left a bobble partway down.
"Do you know what it is?" he said. "No," I answered.
"It's a lighthouse."
One of my students from the first women's writing course I taught here showed up just then. I showed her my forearm and its six-inch green tattoo. "He has had his vision," I told her. My other student and I went in to order lunch.
And now, ten mintues later, my own personal tattoo artist wants to know whether the boy who wears his flower and the woman who wears his lighthouse are in love.
"We might be in love," I tell him, "but we're not in love with each other."
"I think that you are in love!" he crows.
His mother appears behind me. "He thinks that we're in love because we're sitting together," I say, looking over my shoulder at her; my student is laughing so hard that he can't say anything at all.
She laughs and looks down at her son. "What about you and E.?" she asks him. "You sit together. Are you in love?"
Suddenly things start coming clear: he turns redder and redder; my student regains his voice and says, "Look at that color! Look at him blushing!"; I chime in to say, "Are you in love??" He blushes and blushes and laughs and calls out, "Whatever!" and is ushered away by his laughing mother.
It's one of the day's high points.
For the rest of the day, a six-inch green lighthouse beacons up my arm. It has never occurred to me to get a tattoo on the outside of my forearm, but I find myself enjoying this one's presence immensely. When the time comes, all the green marker sloughs easily off, all but the dark rectangle of the lighthouse's door, which holds fast in the skin stretched over my wristbone.
* * *
It's not the first time this month that someone has spoken to me about love in a coffee shop. I mentioned Granville Jim last week. A couple of days into May, I drove to Granville, a town about 30 minutes away, to run a discussion on Austen's Emma. All my duties over by 9 a.m., I decided to stop into the village's coffee shop for a coffee and some reading. By 9:15, I had noticed the old man at the table one over and one up from me; it was hard not to notice him because he was staring. I smiled and went back to reading. When I glanced up, he was still staring. I smiled again. A few minutes later, he called over to me, "I hope you get an A in that class!" I laughed and told him that I was teaching that class, and he took the opportunity to ask whether he could join me.
"I'm blind," he explained as he sat down, "and so I have to get really close to a girl to see whether she's pretty." As the conversation moved ahead, it didn't take him long to proclaim me not only pretty but also gorgeous--because of my smarts. (I think it was my getting his joke about the radio announcer who mispronounced "Prokoviev" as "Prokofeef" that did it. "Do you know who Prokofeef is?" he asked. "Sure," I said. "Who was he?" "A Russian composer." "Right! But it wasn't pronounced Prokofeef," he replied. "But I can't teach you anything; you're outsmarting me already!") "Do you know what makes a girl gorgeous?" he asked. "What's that?" I said. "Being smart. Having brains."
Jim and I talked for a good ninety minutes. I stayed around so long, in part, because so many of the stories he told were of his killingly unhappy marriage--and because I could imagine (having just taught a class on Austen, after all) that his wife would have her own lacerating tales to tell. By the time we parted, I knew the makes of all four of his children's cars and where they all live. I knew about his imminent relocation to Granville's retirement community, and his college days, and the time he was supposed to meet up with the woman who might have been the love of his life but then didn't talk to her because she was talking to another guy on the street corner where they were supposed to meet. I knew that he didn't like "this rock and roll music." I knew that he thought any young woman should avoid having a boyfriend with long hair and an earring: "I tell you, look out. He's gender confused." I will admit that he got some points from me for having used the phrase "gender confused."
"What's your maiden name?" he asked me at one point. "Oh, I'm not married," I told him. I don't quite remember how the conversation went from there--nowhere where he had to understand my singular life, though, since he remained convinced to the end that I had a boyfriend somewhere. (He was sure that I am not "gender confused.") Perhaps he offered yet another iteration of his warning against hasty marriage. "Getting married to my wife was the biggest mistake of my life," he told me several times, at one point claiming that he should have had the marriage annulled after three weeks.
Toward the end of our encounter, Jim clarified for himself that I am a teacher. "I would never have thought that I'd fall in love with a teacher," he said. I laughed. In fact, I deliberately let my laugh run its fullest octave. By that point, it had long been clear to me that I was some moment of joy dropped into this sad-seeming stranger's morning. What harm was there in letting it go on? It was difficult to extricate myself, anyhow; ultimately, I had to use the out he offered me when he suggested that my boyfriend was undoubtedly waiting for me to return. "I do actually have to go," I replied. He grasped my right hand in his and held my right wrist in his left hand. "You've made my day," he said.
Had my young friend seen it--this eighty-year-old hand enveloping the wrist and forearm that would come to bear a beacon, on the body of a thirty-one-year-old woman no one else has called gorgeous in years--he would have thought he was looking at love.
[I'm so silly that it took me twelve hours to figure out the right title for a mother's day post. Reportedly, my first word was "Boort," an infantization of "Bart," our wire-haired fox terrier. But my second and third words were "Pretty Mama." For good reason. No picture I have could show you how beautiful my mother is. She is a tongue of flame, a red-headed streak of wonder. She is the elucidation of my life. She's pretty like this--and then some.]
I'm trying to think of my favorite story about my mother, but I keep coming back to some basic facts. When I go to visit her, she's always glad to see me. When I hug her, she's always happy to hold me for a long time. And when it's time for me to leave for my own home, a big part of me always wants to stay with her. She is the best of mothers. I love a lot of others' mothers. But I have never once wanted to trade my mother for any of those other mothers. I love my mother, but I'm glad to say that I like her immensely, too, and I'm so glad she likes me back.
All of which is to say, happy mother's day, Mama. I love you.
[My mother is nothing if not a pillar of truth. She has written to let me know that those basic facts I keep coming back to are not facts at all--alas!
I have to tell you that your memory is not totally accurate--although it's a much better read emotionally than the actual facts. "Boort" was your first word followed rapidly by "ogoo" (yogurt), "ookie" (cookie), "Papa," and "Pat, pat, pat" (pat a cake). After we moved to New York you came out with "Pretty Mama." You were almost fourteen months old. Of course, your wonderful father taught you that. You said, "Pretty baby," when we looked into a mirror a few months before then. I taught you that. Aren't we a pretty pair?
I have a new space, an auxiliary to and detour from my usual round. It is piped for water and wired for power but nothing else: no phone, no cable, no web. I am, as a friend once put it, not cellular. And thus this new space is an almost total disconnect. (Ironically, then, it's the first of all my spaces of which I've shown you a picture--perhaps because my plan is to keep it entirely to myself in all other ways.) (And no, those arms don't belong to me. If only!)
There is something crucial about a desk at a window: what I want is not just a room of my own but a window of my own. The year I lived in England, a friend and I would race each other each day to claim the two popped-out window seats in our university's Old Library. At those desks, one sat with one's back to the library's stacks and tables. The desks themselves sat in floor-to-ceiling windowed alcoves, with windows on three sides, so that we could actually spy on each other while we did our work, there in our protrusions from the building. On the clearest days, I could see all the way to the estuary that led down to and up from the sea.
This new space does not have such a protrusion, and there's no water to see, but it does have an immense amount of room for me to perch at a small desk beside any of four large windows--and the view is arguably better than the last time I took up residence behind a desk facing out a window, the summer I spent two weeks in Lancaster, England and rearranged my whole room's furniture so as to create a window desk. (That July, I looked out at a postwar dormitory complex.) Moreover, I am sharing the space with the fabulous woman who has helped me see--just for instance--the similarities among these shapes:
When she invited me to share the space, she promised that sometimes it feels like New York City--a selling point she didn't really need. But what struck me when I went in this afternoon is how much it feels like southern Indiana up there (because you know that I wouldn't have said yes to sharing a first-floor space). Southern Indiana is where I first encountered tin ceilings and weird dilapidations, the strangeness of nineteenth-century architectural detail atop the most gravely banal of everyday endeavors. And the little town above which I will now perch is not entirely unlike the little town that was my introduction to the Hoosier state. And really, that makes it just enough different from my home village. Just enough different to jostle me toward what I'm after.
When I walked out two nights ago--the night I saw the luciérnagas in the ravine--I could feel the village brewing, the season changing over from order to ferment. I had forgotten what this blooming feels like; somehow, it got lost in the press of the autumn and winter. It's about time for something to get made, or born: I can feel it coming. Now I just need to show up and greet it.
I'm not asking for much from this new space. I'm asking for everything. Enough of halfways and almosts.
There are some things I want to do tomorrow. Such as. Acquire tiny jade plants, little sprigs of green, and plant them in small brightly colored pots. Arrange them on a windowsill. Arrange them on a particular set of windowsills in a space I have not yet occupied. Water them gently but surely and arrange them with my Lake Ontario stones, my poet-colleague-given shells, the ones that reminded her of me because they are all insides and outsides all at once. Put my glass frog into the mix.
Make my life over in the fashion of people whose thoughts manifest themselves in words on paper, not just in more thoughts.
Put a red flower in a clear vase and write by its emanation until I need to get up and take a walk.
Sit still in sunlight until I've filled pages and pages.
Piecemeal: a meal in components, in contributions, beans and salads in pots, burgers and dogs in buns. All the assembled stuffs, all my assembled people. And after dinner, after porch-sitting, after the packing up and sending everyone home, a first walk out into the near-dark with only a sleeveless dress on: the walking low and long, hard to the ground at my heels, frogs whirbling in the woods.
Then a blink, a prick of greeny yellow, another, another. Enough to stop me cold at the side of the road to be sure I was actually seeing what I was seeing: the summer's second sky, not-stars flicking again again again in the trees: the year's first fireflies, so soon.
Not far from the art barn, a wire angel has been hanging for days, suspended between two trees. The first two times I saw her, I didn't have my camera. This afternoon I went back and looked at her some more. It's a startling piece, vaguely sinister but also startlingly lovely, angry, forbidding, helpless. Harsh. She's an angel who would grate rather than gentle. She's cold and removed but also so fully human a figure. She's alighting or removing herself--one hand reaches to clutch; the other withdraws, falls away.
One foot is out for landing or for pushing off. The other curls behind, pointless for the time being.
It's the hair that hits me hardest, that somehow says to me: this is a vulnerability. This is how we are now, how we do now. This is what it will be like when we pay.
So many days begin promisingly and then tank in the least expected ways. This morning there was milky espresso and toast and jam. And there were deer in the yard. (Can you see them both? One is a bit tricky. Click on the picture to see )
You may recall that I had reclining deer in the yard last May, as well. I love the idea of their using my yard for siesta.
And then things were fine for awhile, and then they were quite lovely, and then they were simply noisy and confused. I did what I could, said things I needed to say, read more of the Brownings' love letters, cooked dinner for someone beside myself for a change, patted a dog, talked to my excellent mother. Read some poems on the stairwell of poetry at the officehouse (we covered a stairwell in poetry during April, National Poetry Month). Came home again in the dark with my computer and my stack of photographs.
Tomorrow, I will start again. Some days are like this, and at least it wasn't raining.
In the art barn, all the rooms have gone silent and clean, all the young artmakers vanishing for the summer. I sat in the empty and shining photo lab, in the evening sun, waiting for the mounting press to heat up. I thought about missing that space. I thought about being missed. I went back to my reading.
With nearly forty mounted photographs stacked neatly in the backseat, I drove to the grocery store in the middle of the night. A deer stood still at the side of the road and flashed its eyes my way, then let me pass unscathed. I saw three other cars before I pulled into a parking lot holding six.
At night the grocery store is a sleeping linoleum palace. At night there are foodstuffs, canisters, crates of bottles stacked everywhere, leaving tiny narrow aisles. At night there are few women in the store.
Back in my car, with the photographs still neatly stacked in the backseat, and with Italian bread, a quart of milk, and some yogurt riding shotgun, I drove home again over the cresting hills. Turning back onto the state highway, I suddenly had a good long look at the sky, at all its stars, at all its small-making sweep. Its severalness. I thought about counting them, as I drove past the sheep pasture that now feeds llamas as well, as I coasted back to Gambier past another deer on the other side of the road.
Something about a photograph spotted, mounted, and signed makes it look more serious. I took this time, it says. I measured and marked and pulled the arm on the mounting press down, and I made sure that every edge stuck. And I have to say: I'm pretty pleased with this semester's fruit. The images play nice with one another. Part of me wants to figure out a way to hang them all over my life.
Tomorrow I reemerge from my photolab cocoon. Tomorrow my nose goes back to my words.
I spent something like ten hours standing on the darkroom's concrete floors, striding back and forth from enlarger to developer, stop, and fix trays, then out to the light, then back to the photo wash, then back to the enlarger. The long repetition of a tight round, and now my legs are sore.
For part of the day, I had one of my students with me, observing the printing process (frequently offering aesthetic advice, occasionally taking part in the printing). Again and again we watched shards of Ohio and Kentucky swim out of the papers' chemical coatings: water beading on grass here, the long shadow of a fire escape there, the dead droop of a freeze-shocked magnolia branch here, the short sweep of the burnt prairie there.
Later, on my own, I felt my stack of blank paper shrinking and started printing the things I'd like to take with me if I leave the country in the fall. What will put home on my walls? What will take the place of walking the prairie in the evenings next spring? And so I have printed half a barn, the curl of field grass, the silhouette of thorns. And so I have what might look like weeds, like decay, like desolation. And so I have my county. But they are all on paper, not on disk, and so I can't show you what I was up to.
This morning, after I read the Brownings' autumn 1845 revelations to one another that (yes!) their love was mutual (yes yes!), I turned back to James Wright, whose collected poems have been on one of my bedroom's auxiliary nightstand stacks since late last year. I would like to have written this poem. I would like to have been the first to realize that "if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom." That's a masterful line break. Look at what it does to your understanding of his realization. (Read the whole poem, too.)
Suddenly I realize That if I stepped out of my body I would break Into blossom.
See how he leaves you to teeter momentarily on that idea of breaking, that idea that he might step out and simply shatter, before he takes you into the joy of his final two words? See how he creates that teetering with a line break after the very word "break"? It is a beautiful thing, in idea and in execution. It is the kind of thing to which I aspire.
It's true: I started cleaning this afternoon. Now I can see my bedroom floor, and many more of the dishes are clean. I can't remember exactly when I just gave up on housekeeping. Most days, I care not even a little bit. Days like today, on the other hand, I want something different. Now it's a matter of racing the clock before I switch back over to the not-caring.
The combination of quippy and peckish and downright sarcastic that I'm feeling right now signals to me in flashing lights: It's time to go to sleep. Nothing else will come of this day. Tomorrow you can go back to your eyrie, your enlarger, your excitements. For now, rest.
Yes, yes. Indeed.
I have yet to tell you about Jim, the octogenarian I met Wednesday morning at the Village Coffee Company in Granville. I've been in the process of processing what happened there since the moment he and I parted: it was such a strange glimpse into another person's life. But that's going to have to happen tomorrow, or later. I want to do him justice.
It's astounding to me that, despite my having been out of the classroom this semester, I still seem to have risen and fallen according to the semester's pacing--which means that today, the last day of classes, had me as giddy and distracted as my colleagues who ticked off their last sessions and meetings, one by one by one. The day's glorious weather helped, as did my having tricked myself into mowing most of the yard. What I was good for today was staying in motion, walking from one end of the village to the other, then walking its other axis, heading down to my beloved classicist friend's house for tea and Greek delight and reading about the Graces. Then walking more, back to my clean-shorn yard and my not-yet-clean-swept porch. Then off again, this time with my excellent friends to acquire Chinese food.
But now I'm back at home and uncertain of what it was I'd planned to write about today--uncertain, in fact, about whether I ever figured out any topic for the day. It was one of those good early-season days: walking for long periods of time, trying to go long distances, helped settle my heavy stomach and get some new air into this torso.
Everything has felt like a massive holding pattern for a long time now, as I've waited and waited to hear about what will happen next year. Where I'll be will, in part, determine what I'll be doing with my research work. And though I have many tasks I could take on here in the meantime, I perversely keep waiting to have the overall picture in view before tackling any small corner. It is perverse. I know better. But what's funny is that last year at this time, I was watching the chestnut candles bloom and the ferns unfurl and I was wishing my Lexingtonian friend (whose birthday it was today!) the grace and patience to let her life unfold as it was meant to. But I, like so many of us, am far better at hoping for grace and patience for others than I am at asking it for myself.
Tomorrow is the twice-yearly Gambier tradition called Dumpster Day. Anything any Gambier resident wants to throw out, s/he can throw out. No questions. Makes me want to find some things to discard. One summer when I still lived in Ithaca, we had a week during which people could put anything they wanted to get rid of out by the curb, and it would get picked up--no questions. But people were always putting things out at the curb, and other people were always scavenging those things. So I was surprised that so many houses actually had lots of things outside: couches, refrigerators, tables and lamps, rugs. Those things were the rejects of the rejected. They were third-class garbage, maybe even fourth-class: stained, broken, torn, irredeemable. So much stuff ended up on the curb that the city couldn't clean it all up in the allotted time. I think, now that I'm remembering this more deliberately, that it was all billed as a Garbage Amnesty Week or something equally strange.
Tonight, my fortune cookie told me a hopeful thing: "You are a traveler at heart. There will be many journeys." No wonder it's so discomfiting to be on pause this way.
Such strange things happened to me today, but the press is still on for the week, forcing me to defer telling my day's best story until tomorrow. As a placeholder, I offer you ducks. Mall ducks. A mall duck with ducklings, to be more accurate. One advantage of a weird outdoor "town centre" mall is that it makes mall ducklings possible.
And seriously? I don't think that the full picture does justice to how preternaturally cute ducklings are. It's ridiculous: I see ducklings, and I want to take care of them. And so, a detail of that shot--click to see it bigger.
Annie Dillard could have been writing about me when she said (of herself), "I like the slants of light; I'm a collector." Or Willem de Kooning: "I'm like a slipping glimpser." And don't forget Brenda Ueland: "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten--happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another." But the Beastie Boys might have said it best: "When it comes to panache, I can't be beat." There's a reason I wear a ring that says Badass.