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.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
I believe that it was yesterday's arrival of the autumn Boden catalog that finally brought it home to me: I'm going Somewhere Else for the year. There, no one knows me. And I won't be flitting in and then flitting away again: I'll actually be living there. I'll actually have a chance to become a real person for the people I meet, and they'll have a chance to become real people for me. Not transient cartoons. Not strange ideals. Not caricatures of ourselves. Every move opens more new vistas than we anticipate, for good and ill. The closer my next one comes, the more my interest is getting piqued.
So part of what I've been thinking about today is, shall we say, self-presentation. I wouldn't put it at the top of the list of things I've been thinking about. But because today was one of those inevitable slightly-lower-down days, turning sartorial possibilities over and over in my mind wasn't such a bad way to fill some gaps and ward off some doldrums. And since I won't be dressing for the classroom or for gravel paths as primary means of transport, a whole world of sartorial possibilities is opening up.
I think it's time to take my winter coat to the dry cleaners. There's more than one way to redefine archival scholarship.
I was half-fearful that it would be no good at all, but I'm pleased to report that No Reservations is a movie eminently worth your moviegoing time, especially since it's summer, and especially if you like looking at food and/or Aaron Eckhart. If you can get ice cream with someone you like beforehand and then root for the heroine with her through the whole film, you'll like it even more. At least, you will if you're like me.
Earlier this week, a good friend referred to me as The Best Girl Ever in the History of Ever. When was the last time someone spontaneously called you something like that? Did you stop and recognize how fantastic that kind of remark is? I grinned and am still grinning just to think of it.
This time last weekend, I was crouched on a sandy shore, playing with a river lake. This time two weeks ago, I was prowling the edge of a cornfield. I'd say it looks as though I'm scouting edges these days.
As of course I am, given that nearly every week this summer has brought another departure, another arrival, another trade-in, another trade-up. In just over a month (deo volante), I'll have packed my bags, schlepped them through the bomb-checking machines, and made my way over an ocean in the dark. Between now and then, I'm gathering steam for the change.
Tonight that has meant moving large files from one external hard drive to another (and finally figuring out how to make my power-sharing cable do its job with one of my drives), a process of gathering like things together, setting them to copy, and then puttering around with some other task that has long been languishing--like corresponding with people who have sent me e-mails this summer, and returning overdue library books.
The officehouse is quiet and changeful these days; my poet colleagues have moved out of their spaces, and their nameplates came down this week. Soon my nameplate will come down and be replaced by that of the colleague who will occupy this space within weeks. Everything is teetering on the edge of last departures and first arrivals: with special dispensation, students can begin moving into their dorm rooms on Wednesday, and first requests for coffee dates have started to appear in my e-mail. Colleagues who have been away for the summer, or for longer, are (I'm guessing) beginning their treks homeward, or have returned but not yet reappeared here.
My shorts and trousers begin to ride lower, loosen out; it would seem that last weekend's canoeing and cycling (on miniature, folding bicycles, up and around the campground, mostly to the bathrooms but also to the lake's shore for photographs, for skipping stones, for wishing that lake were my own, sorely missed one) have jumpstarted my interest in actually using my body for something. This week found me careening all over Gambier on the bicycle I, for no apparent reason, neglected to the point of rustiness while I lived in the old house. Now it is my best way of getting from the dog's house to my apartment to the post office to the officehouse. My helmet is so old that the pads are disintegrating, sometimes right into my hair. I want so badly to go without it, and yet I remember the feeling of my headlong flight over a pair of curved handlebars almost twenty years ago, and I know how damned lucky I am to have come back up off the gravel where I'd fallen and to have sustained only tiny, scraping injuries. And so I strap on my old helmet before I head off over the lawn and down the street. Tomorrow, perhaps I will visit the prairie, or search for barns I have not yet seen, on the bicycle.
At this very moment, a languorous dog is lying somewhere in his living room, wondering whether I'm ever going to come home. He is, perhaps, hoping that we will take a walk as long as last night's, when neither of us seemed ready to turn back for home and thus ended up all the way down at the officehouse. It's easier to go for miles when the sun has slipped beyond the trees.
Tonight, my tiny fantasy is about markers. I ran out of cash for the coffee- and olive-colored ones at the bookstore tonight, what with buying the Sunday Times. But now it turns out that I can get twenty, and all in their handy case. (Handy cases, of all kinds, form my other tiny fantasy this weekend, as I start planning my return to the Container Store.) I already have the ten-pack; finding out that there's a twenty-pack made me coo aloud at the computer. It is a tiny fantasy; it's not the one around which I've built my day. But that doesn't make it nothing, not in the History of Ever.
First, you have to know that I am (and have pretty much always been) enamored of books about writing and creativity. And so it is that this week, as part of my attempt to re-center and prepare for eleven months of expatriate writing, I've been reading a couple of writing guides: Ted Kooser's and Steve Cox's Writing Brave and Freeand Victoria Nelson's On Writer's Block. Today, in large part because of a recommendation somewhere on Andrea Scher's Superhero site, I'm also reading some of Danny Gregory's work--Everyday Matters and The Creative License (which latter makes me nervous because it makes drawing sound so doable, and so appealing, and yet I am so not excited to try drawing freehand, and I am so pleased with taking photographs, and so I have to remind myself that my way of being creative is acceptable even though it's not his way).
By the time I went to bed Thursday night, after having read large sections of the Kooser/Cox and Nelson books, I was feeling as though yesterday could be a good, solid day of writing. I sketched a schedule, based around the patterns I'm falling into with the dog, and climbed into bed.
Two hours later, a massive stormfront rolled into Knox County. Those of you keeping score at home may recall that I am virtually unshakeable in my sleep; we had rough storms two weeks ago that utterly failed to move me, much less wake me up. And so when this one whipcracked me awake at 2:45 a.m., I knew it was a big deal. Indeed, the power was out within a few minutes, though it came back on soon enough. The dog and I stumbled up and out of the bedroom, not sure of what we should do. He ambled into the other bedroom and lay back down on the floor; I turned on the television to see how worried I should really be. Since there were no tornado warnings or even watches afoot, I idly flipped channels for nearly an hour, ending up on mid-night reruns of Top Chef, while the storm pushed through my county.
And then I slept until 11:30, so that my day began four hours later than I'd planned.
It was only about an hour later that the dog and I encountered the hidden toad in the yard, though--again, fortunately--only two of the three of us realized that the encounter was happening. Where the dog and I had thought there were only weeds, I suddenly saw a living creature, and that living creature suddenly saw a huge dog snout coming his way.
Our mutual startle left me thinking about the manifold and divergent ways one might read a surprise appearance like this one. Victoria Nelson, in particular, warns would-be writers about their unsuspected negative influences, the internalized voices and selves that cause writers to shut themselves down peremptorily. In a way, I thought, the toad's sudden materialization corresponds to one of those agonizing moments when--sometimes without our knowing it--we find ourselves blocked and beaten by an antagonistic force we may have forgotten, or one that we may not even have recognized and grappled with yet. I've been thinking a great deal about forces like these, given that I've been dragging my heels like a spoiled child every time I get anywhere near the article I'm writing right now--even though it's about a unit that I loved teaching within a course that made my whole academic year, and even though I actually like it once I get started. I've even found myself relapsing into my old "I don't even like writing all that much..." whinging, in the past few weeks, and such halfhearted claims tend to signal that something is happening that requires my notice and my care.
In another sense, though, the toad represents those insights (some of them well-nigh miraculous) that sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere--but actually appear because we're finally paying the right kind of attention, in part because we've finally been able to shut off those antagonistic forces, those self-defeating voices, or personae, or whatever, that threaten to obstruct us. (In this scenario, the dog figures forth those amassed and avoided forces, under whose nose the idea-toad stays quiet lest he should attract disastrous attention.) That is to say, the toad is precisely that thing that I can't see unless I'm fully and creatively engaged.
And in some third, somewhat more literal sense, the toad stands as a reminder of those actual toads in our midst--the idiots and naysayers who lie in wait for us in ways that have not a single thing to do with our artistic capabilities or aspirations but that still threaten to disrupt those capabilities and aspirations. (I've got one of these in my life right now, a pure shot of poison that, all on its own, makes me glad to be getting away from the village for the year.)
It's not a fable, in the end, though I still half-want it to be, not least because (in conjunction with the bookstore's Employee Appreciation Day) I picked up a discounted copy of W.S. Merwin's The Book of Fables yesterday. It seems entirely likely to me that this one will join my list of Things to Be Expanded Upon--a list that has grown and grown with the week's progress. There are so very many things to be Written and Expanded. It's just a matter of making sure that the ones that need to get finished for work actually do.
Today, Danny Gregory's books inspired me to buy the latest in my long line of blank books, but this one is different: it's a full-on 11x14 sketchbook that has already started functioning like an off-line version of the Cabinet. Now, you see, I'm dreaming bigger.
As I brought the dog home from his morning walk today, he nosed around a little bit in front of his house. Somehow, he nosed right over this creature without seeing it, and thank goodness: the last thing I needed this morning was to have my dog gleefully wrangle a toad:
Instead, I quietly took him into the house and crept back out with my camera. Tomorrow--unless something even more exciting develops--I may well give you a fable to go with these images.
It's true. Not even 24 hours after finishing Harry Potter, this afternoon found me sucked into another distraction: the third season of Bravo's Top Chef, a show I'd never seen before I watched it with my excellent friend last week. There's been a lot of coming and going in the past week. I think I'm in need of some hard-core settling down, the kind that television shows and pop fiction phenoms don't really provide. And so tonight is one of those nights when you just have to listen to me talk to myself, talk at myself, talk myself back down, back into orbit. But by now, I suspect that's why most of you are here.
My father canoes. He bought his current canoe many years ago while on a multiweek trip with my mother. In 2000, they brought the canoe to Ithaca, and we took turns going out into the middle of Cayuga Lake in it. In the mornings, my parents would paddle across the lake and back, even before my then-somebody and I made it out of bed and up to the state park where they were staying.
This year, my father decided that he was tired of his and my mother's having to carry the canoe from campsite to lakeshore, and so he designed and commissioned a two-wheel canoe dolly. It's a small white platform with a space in its middle; the canoe rests on it and can, once properly placed and strapped down, be smoothly steered over level ground by one person using one hand.
On the weekend, I paddled in the canoe's bow twice. The lake where my parents camp (are camping, still) was once a river. Then, it was dammed. Now, it is placid, greeny-blue the way lakes often are not. The canoe cuts through the water quietly; paddlers who know what they are doing (I do not profess to be one of these) can make almost an absence of noise as they propel themselves along. Such maneuvers are important in shallow water where birds might lurk, ready to take wing at any provocation. On Saturday, my brother in the stern, we couldn't do much of anything besides make way. Which is not to complain. Which is to say we did better than I'd have thought we would, entirely because my brother actually knew what he was doing and, watching my back, could tell me what I needed to do differently. On Sunday, my father in the stern, we slipped into a cove, bellied over a sunken tree, spied a heron, traced the rock ledges that bespeak nearby caves.
The severing of water. Its silent resealing behind us. The curls around my paddle when I tried to learn a new stroke, one that does not remove the paddle from the water.
The ripple of each shoulder: you might not believe it: I am only brain here.
The short shock of the tiny dragonfly's body, painted in the blue of my dreams.
Memory is why I don't have cable in my own home. Memory is better than television.
(I can't give you pictures tonight; the picture-maker is at the other house. But tomorrow, an update. A picture postscript.) (And now, the postscript is there!)
In the end, she would know almost instantly how perfect a parting she'd won from that long, strange year: the swift acknowledgment; the silent bearing of her friends past the person who'd hoped not to see any of them; the freighted minutes spent only feet apart, at tables beside one another, her conversation kept as low as her companions' hearing would allow so as not to disturb his reading; the last wave; the exit. The lingering of the paid bill on the other table for the rest of the night.
And then, her voice rising back to normal in the darkening restaurant. The heaping, steaming plates of rice and meats and cheeses and vegetables and breads. The leisurely drive through their shared hills, the proud display of her new home, the earnest bending-together over a computer past its prime. And over and around it all--over and around the red walls, the orange woodwork, the recalcitrant computer, the piles of books, the consulted dictionaries, the praised artworks, the glasses of wine, the talking before fatigue's low summons--the steadfast, lightening joy. Of being with those who were always there. Of resting in the love of those who knew her, and cared, and stayed.
Yes, much of my day has gone over to reading the last Harry Potter book, through which I'm about halfway. Not a single spoiler or detail here, just a reduced ability to write much about the rest of my day: moving back to take care of the dog, eating dinner with my beloved classicist and artist friends, researching and then writing an e-mail message asserting my legal right to money I am owed. And now I'm going back to sitting with the quietly disconsolate dog and reading until I fall asleep. Stories of camping in Kentucky will come, I suspect, just not tonight.
(This picture shows you what is either Webb Mart's chief competition or its cross-road bait annex. I did not find out.)
The sky was full of painters' clouds as I left town this afternoon and headed south to my beloved Lexingtonians' home. The newest Lexingtonian has gained four pounds in her first eight weeks of life. Tomorrow I may show her a Beck video, because she is starting to work her legs.
At a rest stop north of Cincinnati, a man's shirt said, "Hell yeah it's fast." Then, in northern Kentucky, a BMW 2002 from Ontario and I passed one another again and again and again: I'd zip by and be a half-mile ahead until a patch of road construction, when I'd slow down to the reduced speed limit. Then they'd pass me until we all resumed legal speed. By the third change, I was tempted to wave and smile at the young people in the car, but I didn't.
A soundly sleeping baby is an engrossing sight. And fireworks in the distance are a wonder.
Less than an hour after I rolled (flipped, really) out of bed this morning (flipped up and out like my old Fortune Fish, which I rediscovered and then reburied during the move), my excellent friend and I were on our second trip to Columbus this week, heading to retrieve my framed Wendell Berry poem (huzzah), to choose some fabric for a project of hers (not so much huzzah), and to get her a haircut and sprucing up (huzzah huzzah).
Because I was in need of no beautifying procedures this morning, I had carried with me Kay Redfield Jamison's Exuberance: The Passion for Life (2004), which I'd picked up as bedtime reading last night. And because my excellent friend's salon is my salon too, and because I've spent a fair amount of time and money there over the past few years, I made myself at home on the purple velvet divan in one corner of the lounge: silver Birks placed neatly on the floor, legs curled up under, pillow on lap, book on pillow, coffee in hand. I read and read, engrossed and even able to block out the background music, most of the time.
An hour into my reading, a woman in a smart black and white checked suit clicked into the waiting area in her high, high heels and said to me, "Well, don't you look comfortable?" Indeed I was comfortable, and I did my best to turn back to my book without offending this talkative stranger, who wanted to discuss our dearth of rain (since it was threatening rain this afternoon, everyone was talking about how much we needed it) and what it's been doing to her flowers and her lawn and her lawn fountain. The book is such a celebratory one, and it was such a lovely luxury to rest there without reason to run off, that I didn't want to have to pretend to participate in a world of which I don't even want a part--the suburbs, the lawns, the lawn decorations, the forced cheer.
Instead: a day of real cheer, from thinking about the neural implications of childhood play, right on through experimenting my way to a new salad dressing (a blueberry vinaigrette) and resuscitating my pesto for a long midsummer dinner with my excellent friend and my poet friend. Right on through cavorting with the excellent dog. Right on through watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dance their way through the ship-and-shore comedy Follow the Fleet (1936). Right on through strolling home down the middle of the street, my empty picnic basket over one arm. And now all of my people are, I hope, where they're meant to be, and all is safe, and all is as well as we can hope it to be.
And at midday, a message of real cheer, from my flaming-sworded friend (thoughtful enough to get it on its way before leaving for island climes): a card asserting, "Your life is much more important than you can imagine." There's the comfort, there the grounding for the exuberant life.
You see this peach. Before it can slip into a bowl, it must lose its skin, must come out of its whole. Two minutes in boiling water will do the trick. Balance the hot fruit on the wide wooden spoon. Bear it to the cutting board. Slip the knife's tip under the piping skin and it will exhale. Slide the knife into the fruit, carve it to hemispheres, and the skin will loosen off in your fingers: hollow membrane, empty cup. The skin pile will grow and grow. Your fingers will wet and stick with juice. Will sometimes push into the flesh. Will pull flesh from flesh in chunks, in halves. Will find the reddened center, pluck it out, cast it away. Will stroke sharp steel through what is left, back and back.
Slices will be where spheres were. These cuts will be, will not undo, will startle your own flesh with their cold and silent ease. You will not cry, not while you boil, peel, pit, cut. Only, and only maybe, when you recall the warm, reddened gold of those rounds, there where you first saw them, so many, in rows and rows and piles. Only, and only maybe, when you remember that soft sweet of your fullness, your shy hope there might be something there for you to choose.
One would think that out of a day spent being pulled and stretched and kneaded and unkinked on a massage table, and then being rubbed and clipped and trimmed and polished in a pedicure throne, and eating beautiful sandwiches with my excellent friend, and sipping spiced tea with my flaming-sworded friend while our excellent friend was massaged--one would think that one piece of all of this excellence would take the cake as most notable of the day. And yet: when we decided to stop in at Columbus's majestic Whole Foods store at the end of the day, since we were within ten minutes' drive of it and could instantly conjure up twenty things we either needed or wanted (or both) there, I was in for a surprise.
To be sure, the fact that a massage and pedicure had undone much of my shoulder tension and pretty thoroughly blissed me out had something to do with my appreciation of said surprise.
Whole Foods sells its eggs in the produce section, in a display wherein they're arranged not in styrofoam cartons labeled by size but rather in straw-lined wicker baskets organized by type of bird. (All of this Whole Foods store's eggs come from a farm in Mt. Gilead, Ohio.) One chooses one's eggs one by one from the wicker baskets, placing them into a wire basket to carry them through the store to checkout. Presumably, at checkout they get placed in some sort of protective container for the ride home, but I didn't find that out.
Above the egg display, I noticed much larger egg-shaped objects. Assuming they were, oh, white eggplant or something, I said to my excellent friend, "What are those?" "They're ostrich eggs," she replied. I refused to believe it. But when I approached, I saw that they were indeed ostrich eggs, for sale in the grocery store. Having decided that if people are going to walk around the grocery store talking on their phones, I'm going to walk around taking pictures, I pulled out my little camera.
Ostrich eggs are, apparently, the equivalent of roughly 20-24 regular chicken eggs. Whole Foods claims that they're generally purchased as novelty items but can be cooked up into enormous egg dishes. Mt. Gilead does not supply the ostrich eggs; they come from California.
I'm not saying that seeing (and touching) the ostrich eggs was the best part of the day. It might not even be the most noteworthy. But given that most of what was best and most beautiful about my day isn't the kind of thing I'm up for writing down now, at this moment I'll give most notable to those massive eggs.
This weekend, I've been feeling a need to get back to the details of my world; in some paradoxical way, it seems that even in the process of hauling and handling every single thing I own during my move, I managed to get frustratingly abstracted. Ungrounded might be a better thing to call it, given that what I fell away from was watching and documenting what's happening to all my places.
And so tonight I went out for a walk with one of my students. Though we went out seeking cows, we were soon thwarted: no doubt partly because I was carrying my camera, the cows turned out not to be on their hillside. We listened and looked, but they were nowhere to be heard or seen. And so we simply walked and saw what there was to see, eventually ending up at the prairie, where the grasses are exquisite in their variation and a few flowers showed through before the sunset.
The day passed in a steadiness of breeze, a constancy of windrush and glittered light behind the full greens of midyear. I continue to learn how to use my space: in the late afternoon, the desk is alight and a-flicker, the shadows of my ink bottles cast huge from the windowsill by a slow sun. In the evening, I went in search of food and photographs. My pictures have fallen away since just before the move, though I keep finding space and time for most of the other things I need to do. But tonight, I wanted pictures of our corn, that curly speary green. It's long enough now to ripple and wave like water: that's what I went out to find, that more than the milk and cheese and good bread I needed from the store.
And it's hard to find the views I need when I'm behind the wheel of the car, and it seems well-nigh impossible to find them without getting behind the wheel of the car. I'm approaching the day when I shorten the camera bag's strap and hop on my bicycle, in the hopes of being able to get farther into the county than I can manage on foot.
"This is how you know I'm from Indiana," I said to two students last week on the way to dinner. "I'm this excited about the corn." To eat it, yes, and as simply as possible. And, oh, to see it, to gaze at its stretch and sweep. To find half my roads now at the bottoms of green canyons. I will not see the end of this year's crop; the stalks will still be standing in the fields when I fly away. And I will not see the beginning of next year's crop, in its different fields, the fields where beans grow a thicker green this year, or where only scraps and weeds interrupt a fallowing.
Right now, most pleasures have that sudden edge of homesickness. I surfeit: this is my first packing.
Tonight, in the aftermath of a long, harder-than-I-expected day (which, fortunately, concluded with some homemade ice cream cooked up the old-fashioned way--with liquid nitrogen--in a chemistry professor's front yard, and then with delicious fish, and then with my favorite Dracula adaptation), I am sorting through old e-mail, and I have found the following, which my father sent me (in the middle of the night, with no provocation) last summer.
Only as I grew older did I realize what good faces could be made from large, thin pepperoni.
It's pretty simple, really: I don't know anyone as cool as my father.
I reminded myself of the dog last night, pacing and pacing, unable to settle down, needing to go pick up one more thing or settle one other pile. Task piled onto task so that a dash to the living room for a box of tissues became a beeline into the study (tissues in hand) to clean off the desk for the morning. Back in bed and attempting to read, the realization came: where were those tissues? still on the desk? But they were the reason I got up ten minutes ago! After about an hour of this kind of rising and settling, rising and settling, I finally lay down for my first night's sleep here.
After milky strong coffee in bed this morning, after a two-hour phone conversation with my beloved Lexingtonian, after the end of the book I hadn't realized I was about to finish, I received yet another revelation about why it's good that I'm here now: my Japanese rubber ducky works in my bathtub.
My father's company had him working long stretches of weeks in Japan several years ago, and at the end of each of his sojourns there, he would send me a package of things he had acquired for me in various Hiroshima department stores. Striped socks anchored these packages--he would send ten pairs of socks at a time--but the packages also contained a wide array of the unexpected (though generally not the unthinkable). In one package, I found a little rubber ducky, attached by a long white chain to a bathtub stopper. But my drain in the tub in Ithaca was the wrong sort, so I left the ducky in his white mesh bag and moved him around with me year after year. I've had him since 1998 or 1999.
And early this afternoon, I put him to work for the first time.
According to the illustration included with the ducky in his mesh bag, I'm supposed to cut his chain before using the plug or the ducky. But that seems to me to take away the terrific fun of having a tethered rubber ducky drifting about at one end of the tub.
And the fun of having a rubber ducky in the tub at all? Worth the years of wait. I'm thrilled that he wasn't the victim of a previous move.
Coming back from dinner tonight in Wooster, we passed an inflatable swimming toy, an inner tube with a ducky head, lying abandoned at the side of the road. A strange bookend for the day.
(For those keeping score at home: I did indeed write today, at the studio, and it was an almost entirely pain-free experience. Invigorating, even! And so I will go back to the keyboard tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow again.)
In this dream, I have gone to Cambridge, only while I'm there, I'll be living in a tall, narrow house with many people, some of them undergraduates, none of them my undergraduates. I have somehow packed and/or shipped whole rooms' worth of books, so many books that, by the time I arrive (late, somehow), the others have begun unpacking my books and stacking them wherever they'll go: on shelves, on other books on shelves, on the floor, everywhere. Dismay begins its cold rise in me, and just then a person I dated for a couple of months walks in, and I realize (icing over altogether) that he too will be living in this tall, narrow house. We acknowledge each other, if only a little, but do not talk again. My room will apparently be on the third floor. Somehow, I never make it to my room because of miscellaneous things that must be accomplished--like fretting about why I brought all these books, and about how much it's going to cost me to ship all of them, plus all of what I'm no doubt about to buy, home again. Meanwhile, the person who never even achieved boyfriend status seems to be relishing his superior standing with the others who have all been settling in for days. Somewhere, someone does a chemistry experiment, but nothing explodes.
Upon waking, I find the excellent dog sound asleep on the floor in the living room, being patient until I wake up again and take him out walking. When he sees me, he rolls over on his back, balances on his long spine, greets me with his massive white belly. When I drag the wire brush through his thick fur, his lips part into a smile. By evening, his excellent parents will be home; by nightfall, someone we don't know will have mistaken us for a biological family, out walking the dog who will not be just in the other room if I wake up tomorrow from another strange and grim dream.
But rather than dwell on this short-term goodbye, I go home--really go to it as home, for the first time. And I set a mousetrap. And I rewire a lamp, and it is just as simple as my father promised it would be. And now I'm ready for a first night's sleep in this new place.
My horoscope for today arrives when the day is almost over. It tells me that today will be a turning point and that I will need to manage it well if it's to be a good one. I know what the horoscope means. I'm not sure I've managed it well. But I know that tomorrow I will manage it splendidly.
About a month before my twenty-first birthday--which was near the end of my senior year in college--my parents started telling me about the fantastic gift they'd found for me. "You've wanted one of these for so long that you don't even remember wanting it," my mother said on the phone about two weeks after they started teasing me about how I'd never guess what they'd gotten.
My friends and I talked this mystery gift over at dinner nearly every night. I only wish I could remember the things we guessed it might be. "Should I be scared?" I asked them. They knew my parents. They said, "Maybe."
My whole family came to Gambier for Honors Day that year; it fell very near my birthday, and so they brought my presents with them. I drove to their hotel, equal parts nervous and excited to know, at long last, what they'd been hiding all this time.
When I walked into the room, there was nothing out of the ordinary within sight. Knowing me as well as they do, they said, "It's in the bathroom." There were some dramatics involving my having to go into the darkened bathroom to retrieve the gift, and then suddenly having something whisked into my hands--it happened so quickly that I barely remember how it all went--
--and then I was left holding the bag. A black garbage bag, wrapped over a large wooden frame. I pulled back the garbage bag, and there was my very own velvet Elvis.
Now, I don't remember ever having wanted a velvet Elvis. But it's the kind of thing that, once you have it, you can't quite imagine not having acquired. And the story that came with it was its own brand of priceless.
On his way home from work, my father used to turn right at an intersection of two state highways, on one corner of which vendors would sometimes set up stalls in a gravel parking lot. One evening in early 1997, he was getting ready to turn when he noticed that a person was selling velvet paintings--including a couple of Elvises. He rushed the rest of the way home and picked up my mother, telling her that she had to come with him, that it was really important. They dashed back to the intersection, where the vendor was still selling his velvet paintings.
My mother stayed in the car. My father went to the vendor and started talking with him about his Elvises, deciding which one he was going to buy for my birthday. But while he decided, he spun another narrative, this one about my mother. "My wife's so emotional she couldn't even get out of the car," he told the seller. "She's just so choked up about the King. She thinks this one is just so beautiful." He gestured to the tear running down the face of the Elvis he had decided he was about to buy. "Good God almighty," the man replied. By this point, my mother was probably covering some part of her face because she was laughing, or feeling embarrassed, or both. My father paid the man and got back into the car with the painting.
Elvis has a prominent place in many of my photos from the week leading up to graduation. He had pride of place in the kitchen in Ithaca. In 2002, he acquired a red feather boa. We hung him--boa and all--over the formal dining room fireplace in the house I rented in Rochester. He rode in the backseat with me when I moved to Gambier. And he's been living at the top of my stairs for three years.
Today, I reached the moment in settling in to the apartment where I had to decide where he's going to go now. Because I'm trying out a somewhat new aesthetic--one based around frames and invisble hangers rather than thumbtacks, for instance--I've decided to downplay him a bit. And so it is that I've given him a spot on the back of my bedroom door, a resting place from which he can come out for fuller view but where, in the meantime, he'll be safe.
Sometime in the last three years, the feather boa rotted in some crucial way, so that as we emptied my house onto my front lawn a couple of weeks ago, red feathers fell everywhere. By the time we got the boa near the apartment, I'd made up my mind that it shouldn't come through the front door, not into a relatively clean space. (One of my Clevelander students promptly claimed it, rather than see it go in the garbage.) But this morning I noticed just how much damage the boa had done to Elvis: little red featherwisps stuck everywhere on the frame and on the velvet. And Elvis was far dustier than I'd remembered--which is not so surprising, given the length of time I've had him and the relatively small amount of cleaning him that I've done.
And that's when the Dirt Devil got involved.
I bought a new vacuum cleaner a few weeks ago, because the one I already had was a little floor-sweeper--something that worked just fine when I had only hardwood floors and area rugs but that wasn't going to cut it in a carpeted apartment. It's the first time I've ever picked out a vacuum for myself. All I really needed, I decided, was something with a HEPA filter and with some basic attachments. I went with a middle-of-the-road Dirt Devil that has turned out to be a small miracle. (My flaming-sworded friend liked it so much when she was cleaning my house as I was moving out that she actually bought herself one the next day and proceeded to vacuum her house from top to bottom, too.)
I hadn't yet used the PowerBrush attachment when I launched the Hang Elvis project this morning, but I decided to give it a whirl. And, lo and behold, it whisked all the dust of the ages--and all the red boa feathers--right off that soulful man and his incredible sideburns and his mammoth collar.
And so it is that the Dirt Devil saved my velvet Elvis. Now he's hanging once more, and clean to boot.
(For the rest of the day, I worked at the officehouse with my furry beastie, who's been taking the heat pretty hard these past few days. Last year when my excellent friends were out of town, he and I tried going to the officehouse, but he was too agitated, and so we went home again. This year, for some reason, he was able to calm himself down more swiftly; within about fifteen minutes, he was as sound asleep as he's been in days.
When we returned home in the evening, he crashed out again. I was in the middle of reading when I heard a quiet yelp behind me. Turning, I realized that he was dreaming. That sound I heard was the obscure barking of sleeping dogs.)
I understand now how it is that I've moved the same semi-unpacked stuff three different times. None of it is stuff I need, but none of what remains lacks in sentimental value. And so I don't unpack it first, because I don't need it in my daily life. And when I reach it at the end of unpacking, I'm too done with moving to sort it for real. And so it stays in a box, in a closet, until the next move, when I open the box, throw a few more things out, put some more things in, and take it to the next place.
Yes: this is my way of telling you that I've now unpacked all of the boxes I'm going to unpack, and I've consolidated and closeted the others. Now the decorating begins: photographs here, the whiteboard (on a wall at last!) there, my sunny Calder print over there. Tomorrow, perhaps my Norval Morrisseau poster. But the study now looks like a place where a writer might work; the bedroom is pretty much ready to be a place where a writer sleeps; the living room looks like the place where many film versions of Dracula could, at any moment, be rewatched in conjunction with an essay's getting done; the kitchen looks like a place where someone might eat if it weren't a hunger-devouring 97˚ outside. And if a restless dog weren't waiting for her at his house. To which she is now departing.
The haze has been so heavy today that it's fogged out the world's colors, whitened them all.
One of the new apartment's tricks is that, as the sun starts to set, the mirrorball--hanging, as it does, in the middle of the living room window--sows diamonds of light on the floor and every wall. We noticed this effect in the old house, as the day wore on and the light moved around the dining room, where the mirrorball had landed when it came out of the living room. Now it is a tiny nightly glory.
A lightning bug outside my window glints frantically. Another blinks its way up the glass.
Near the bottom of the second box labeled Files and Papers, I found my father's blueprints for the adult-sized Sit 'N Spin he built in 2001. I put them in the file called "Lovely Notes." Not everyone's valentine arrives in words.
The cows moo their chorus, and I am down to my last four boxes--one of which I cannot unpack, seeing as how it's at least half-full of printed-out e-mails and archived hand-written notes from a long-ago somebody. These are papers with which I do not want to part, a "Lovely Notes" file all unto themselves.
Wherein I make many discoveries, am duly enthralled.
Before I kick things off tonight, I have to give a shout-out to my blogfriend Modfab for naming the Cabinet one of five blogs that make him think. It is, of course, my life's work to make people think, and so I am probably more pleased about this surprise than he had any idea I might be. Thanks, guy!
Now: it was an action-packed day here in mid-Ohio. At about 10, the harnessed dog--who by this point has pretty much given up on the fight against said harness--and I headed out for our morning walk. At the end of my excellent friends' street is a mansion known as the Bishop's Palace, which has a sweeping lawn bordered by a footpath open to the public. If the dog and I follow that path, we eventually end up on one of the village's streets and can make our way back home in a long loop. Today, though, as we were about to turn the last bend toward the street, I noticed a footpath heading off into the woods to our right. Because the path started with stone steps and was dramatically clear, I asked the dog if he wanted to take a different route. He assented, and off we flew into the woods. Eventually, we reached a sign that confirmed what I'd thought about the path we were hiking: it's a relatively new footpath cut by the college's environmental center, and it leads (kind of) to the college observatory. We coursed on through the woods until we reached a place where the path broke out to an asphalt drive (which also goes up to the observatory), and lo and behold, there in the field before us were the cows that I can hear from my new apartment.
Upon seeing the cows, the dog was 75 pounds of attention and strain. I'm not sure whether he's seen or interacted with cows before; he certainly acted as though this were his first encounter--and as though he firmly believed that these were very large, potentially very hostile dogs against which he might want to launch a campaign of aggression.
If you've ever walked near pastures of cows, you may have experienced the funny phenomenon of their turning to regard you and then ambling toward you, en masse, to regard you more closely. As soon as these cows saw me with my over-alert, edgily eager dog, they were on the move. The young cows were especially curious about the dog. I said hello to them a number of times, and we proceeded up the hill, on the asphalt road, I ruing the fact that once again I was having an excellent cow encounter without my camera.
On the other hand, how I would have managed a camera and a straining and jumping dog, I'm not quite sure. In a kind of mixed blessing, the dog tired himself out the more we went up the hill, in the full sun; by the time we neared the observatory (where I had hoped to find some path on which we could trespass our way back to campus without going back to the wooded footpath), we were both pretty winded, and I hadn't realized we'd need water for this walk. (Have I mentioned that this dog will drink from a water bottle? Have I mentioned, for that matter, how lovely and well-behaved a walker he is--when he's not confronting a pasture full of cows?)
And so we headed back down the road, toward the cows once more. There must be sixty cows pasturing on that land, and their basso chorus and the green of the near pasture against the lay of the hills in the distance combined to remind me of hiking public footpaths in England--and then to remind me of how, on my first trip to England, I loved the fact that Devon looks so much like Knox County, Ohio.
Within a few hours, I had left the panting dog behind in his house with huge bowls of fresh water, done a bit of unpacking and filing in the new apartment, and then made my way past fields of towering, green-spearing corn to Columbus for my first haircut in ages--since, in fact, the day I met Granville Jim. I make the drive to Columbus for haircuts because the woman who cuts my hair is fantastic. (For instance, she currently has one of her relatives scouting London salons for me so that I will experience no slackening of style upon arriving in the UK. "He's a total connoisseur," she says.) While she brought me back from the edge of the overgrowth abyss with which I've been flirting for weeks, we talked about where I might want to settle down for the long term. "You strike me as such a city girl," she said, "that the thought of you being up there [meaning my county] always seems strange." But I've never really lived in a city, I pointed out to her. Not a real one. And while I miss being able to walk to good cinemas, and while I love the subway and cheap take-out food (not even to mention cheap delivery food), I also can't quite imagine not being able to, say, discover a pasture of cows during my morning walk.
The day kept me ricocheting between the poles of rural love and (sub)urban desire. At its high-point of incoherence, I found myself at a frame shop, forking over an unexpectedly large quantity of money to have my broadside of Wendell Berry's "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" (which, I know, I may seem to link you to all the time) finally readied for hanging. And then I found myself in the "town centre" mall that has helped suck commercial activity out of downtown Columbus and relocate it to the suburbs. There, I somehow resisted the siren song of Anthropologie's glassware and dishes--reminding myself that even $16 spent on new coffee mugs is a silly purchase right now, given that I'm about to leave the country for a year.
Then, there was the Container Store, a place I've never entered. At Ye Olde Towne Centre, the Container Store is off to one side, not on my usual beaten track. But tonight, I decided that I would check to see whether said Container Store sold over-the-door ironing board holders.
And do they ever.
When I showed up at the cash register, glassy-eyed and clutching my five items (the ironing board holder, three steel strips that hang on the wall to become bulletin boards, a tube of Krazy Glue for my Cuba Cheese-Cutter, which has lost its feet again), I told the cashier that I'd never been in a Container Store before but that I think it's an amazing place. "You're getting out of here in record time," he replied. "Would you like to take some literature with you?" "What, like Container Store philosophy?" I asked him. He explained that he had a number of things that look like catalogs but really aren't, and he sent me home with all of them.
I think that they will be my bedtime reading. I think that tonight I will dream of cabinets with innumerable drawers, full of unexpected paths and tiny cows facing off against tinier dogs, and tables of students eating oversized meals, and tiny spotted fawns dead at the side of the sunset-lit highway.
Or perhaps I will dream of this strange building in Bangs. Having glimpsed it from the state highway for years, I finally detoured to see it on my way home tonight and think I may have to present it at greater length later. At heart, I am no trespasser, and I have too much respect for principles of structural soundness (or lack thereof) to mess around with an abandoned building--even one that, tantalizingly, still has curtains hanging in some of its windows. But I do have far better lenses for scrutinizing this kind of structure than the one I was carrying tonight, and now I have plans.
All week I've heard fireworks, even though the holiday was at midweek. On Tuesday and again on Wednesday, they rattled off for an hour. Yesterday and this afternoon, they appeared in my poet colleague's stories of (and new poem about) trying to get to a good vantage point down near the railroad south of the next town over, along with a throng of other watchers. Tonight, they sound off again and again, growing fewer and farther between, but nearer, louder, somehow more desperate.
I keep settling in.
When I moved to Ithaca, my parents came along with me, driving the Ryder truck containing all my stuff. They stayed for a few days to help me move in, and so they were the ones making trips to the local hardware store and to KMart, picking up all the little things one suddenly discovers one doesn't have when one sets up house in a new place. At the end of the trip, they gave me their sheaf of receipts so that I would know how much it costs to make oneself at home. This afternoon, I started passing the lesson on to my students, just before heading to various stores for things this apartment requires that my house did not: magnetic hooks (so elusive!) for potholders, because the drawers are in weird places; hanging shoe bags because the closets are different; hooks for bathrobes because I'm sick of throwing them on the floor. Hanging file folders. Kitchen garbage bags.
And zinnias, my first of the season. How many can I get for $10? I asked the man on the path. They're $3 a bunch, he replied. I took the three, and my dollar, and cherished them all home, all to the new home, to the kitchen space I feared would be too small, and they are over there and bright and I am over here and bright too.
The new apartment has a picture window in every room. In the living room, I sit in a corner and type, and a massive thump stops my fingers, makes my heart stutter. My eyes go left just in time to catch a dark shape falling; when I stand and peer, I find a stunned female cardinal huddled and trembling under the window. She has black eyes. They glitter hard. I start to fear that she's broken a wing, or a rib, or her spine. But she gets to her feet, stumbles, flies off awkwardly, finds her grace again as she angles into the woods.
I continue to work on making the apartment livable; though I had planned to tackle the study last, I plunged into it this afternoon, knowing that it's going to take multiple days (given that at least two of my boxes are labeled "Piles of Paper"; packing each one literally involved putting a small moving box up on end and stacking paper inside until it was full, and now these papers are going to have to get sorted into files). And I continue to be thankful that I don't have to be here around the clock while this work is ongoing.
The main reason my writing here continues to be sparse is that I'm caring for this furry beastie (who, in this picture, is watching out for his excellent parents to return--about ten minutes after their departure)
and his household is not Internetted.
This evening, he and I had our sixth stand-off in two days--that's one for each of his thrice-daily outings--over whether or not he would allow himself to be hooked into the harness he wears when he walks. So far, the score stands at 6-0, in favor of Dr. S, but he will protest tomorrow morning anyway. I know this dog. Today I have figured out that putting the leash in plain view and leaving the front door open (so that he can see how lovely it is outdoors and can thus have even more incentive to let himself be readied for strolling) speed things up. What's getting me out on top each time, though, is the fact that I have more patience than he does. Eventually he just lies down and gives in, which occasions its own sadness; a large dog's surrender rends the heart.
After I won the sixth standoff, we headed out into the late evening, our destination Dr. S's new house. My old house, formerly known as Dr. S's house, was a landmark on his walks. My excellent friends and I have been working since Sunday to retrain him, and so it is that he can lead us right to the door of the apartment. On Monday, we even brought one of his old beds here so that he could hang about with me while I work. But if this evening is any indication, that plan might be futile.
Because the apartment is about half-unpacked, there are still boxes and miscellaneous objects cluttering pathways and floorspaces. Add those obstacles to the considerable challenge of figuring out a whole world of new smells, and you end up with a dog who won't stop moving--who sniffs every crevice, every corner, every open box, every piece of furniture, every dot of styrofoam on the floor. I don't know what he's seeking, but I'm going to guess it has something to do with my flaming-sworded friend's dogs, who lived here with her during the summer writing course.
On the other hand, perhaps the dog just needs to be eased into this invitation a little more gradually. After all, he hasn't spent much time in Gambier homes not his own; for the most part, his daily round takes him from his home to the other officehouse to his home again.
Tonight's visit turned out to be a short one, and the dog seemed mighty relieved to be back on the road, heading homeward. He also seemed mighty perplexed at my prompt re-departure, but I'm nearly certain that when I rejoin him at his house, I'll find him striking a pose not unlike this one.
A short narrative involving two of my favorite neighborhood denizens.
Yesterday on my way home from the officehouse, I was finally able to stop and photograph the dragon, who joined these hydrangeas last week but for whom I could not pause.
While I sprawled on the dragon's lawn, one of the other denizens of his house wandered out to the porch to see what I was up to.
She watched me from the top of the porch for a few seconds before coming down the steps, looking behind the dragon all the while--presumably trying to see whatever it was that I was seeing.
But though she looked, she couldn't figure it out. She mewed a bit, perhaps to distract me from my photography long enough to scratch her head (which I try not to do because of allergies, to my sorrow).
Eventually, she started looking beyond the porch steps.
When the search yielded nothing but more of my camera's clicking and snapping, she moved on to the lawn and I gathered my things and headed home.
In a completely unrelated development, when I walked into the bookstore this afternoon after lunch, a former student--one of last Saturday's intrepid furniture-haulers--walked up to me holding a dried cornstalk. One of his pantlegs was rolled up to the knee. "I have to show this to someone," he said, extending the stalk toward me. "Would you like me to take its picture?" I said. "Yes," he replied. And so I did.
Neither of us knew what it was. I wonder how long he carried it around.
In my dream this morning, in second sleep, I lay down for a nap after a full night's sleep and slept for nine hours. I have gotten so tired in the past week that it's the second time I've dreamt about sleeping, sleeping a second time in my sleep.
Small insects find their ways into the apartment through tiny holes. Fireworks erupt miles away. A lonely dog waits for me in another house, and so I will leave this half-finished home once again and tend to his worry.
Just a little longer, I promise, and then I'm back on and offering you pictures and words. This evening, Project Exodus officially became Project Excavation, as I discover the inventive and amazing ways my crack team of excellent friends and students liberated me from the house down the road. Tonight, I sit at my trusty desktop computer, back on my trusty high-speed internet, hooked back to (though not currently using) my super router.
Unpleasantnesses happened today. But then: hours of phone conversation with my excellent parents. And then: key lime pie, a spontaneous gift from a student in the middle of last night. And then: dinner with my excellent friends and an after-dinner walk with their furry beastie. And then: mugs back in place, and a first cup of chamomile in the place that is now my Gambier home.
So: tomorrow, more unpacking. And then it will be time to rock out.
Overwhelmingly, this weekend has left me feeling that I should have made this move (or similar) at least a year ago.
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.