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.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Life in color.
With my family here this weekend, I am getting a last (and in some sense a first) gasp of summer break even though we've already begun classes. I have a dog on my bed in Gambier for the first time; our dog does not usually travel such distances. This morning, I woke up happy despite the fact that the dog's body clock gets her (and her human) up at exactly 6:00 a.m. We went for a walk around the apartment complex at dawn. I saw the sun come up as I heated the milk for my morning coffee. The dog finished her dog food. I counted the morning lights: lavender, apricot, buttery yellow. I locked the screen door but left the kitchen door open to let in the morning air, and the dog and I went back to bed. (She has to be hefted up onto the bed now.) She curled up while I read, and then when I fell asleep, I curled up around her, and we slept like that for hours.
Now the college clock tolls the late night hours. The dog sleeps already, and I am off to join her.
A dear one left this evening, which put something of a damper on this first day of school--even more of a damper than the last remnants of our long, hard rain. She'll be back, of course, but in the meantime, her whole world here is missing her already.
I walked into my classroom five minutes early, started chatting with the students already there, and before I knew it, I'd offered them some knowledge, made them give me back some thinking, told them some things they'll soon know, found out from them some things they want to know. It was happy alchemy all around. Tomorrow I do it all over again. And then we'll be fully in swing.
Trees tip out in color all down the campus; I find myself wondering whether they're always so early.
It was raining when I awoke this morning, and it is raining as I put my books aside and get ready to get ready to rest up for my first class. It's the fourth iteration of a class I love dearly; it is a constant in my teaching career here. I feel joyful about teaching it again, but I'm also, perhaps inevitably, restless about whether everything will go smoothly tomorrow.
Today, that restlessness came bounding out of me as irritability and frustration with a whole host of small things gone wrong: mistakes, noises, breakages, injuries. After dinner, I put one of my favorite mugs into the microwave to heat up water for tea (because, remember, my electric kettle blew up two weeks ago). I went off to the bathroom. A minute later, I heard what sounded like the mug's breaking. Returning to the kitchen, I found that the mug was empty. What had happened to the water? ... Had there been water? No indeed. Later, showing my Clevelander student (who is about to depart for Adventures Elsewhere) what had happened to the mug, I ran my index finger over the main crack inside the mug--which, as it turns out, didn't break and fall apart but instead had its glaze shattered in the microwave. Suddenly, I cried out: a splinter of the glaze, or of the ceramic, or something, had lodged itself under the pad of my index finger. It's still there, poking me. I'm hopeful that it will grow out of my skin (unlike the piece of graphite that's still in there, higher up on my fingerprint, a full five years after I accidentally lodged it there after someone's job talk at my old job).
At some point, I decided that I should retreat to my red chair and stop touching anything besides my books and papers, and that decision yielded some good things for tomorrow--as well as a reduced number of breakages for tonight.
I didn't do so much in the way of photography today: the press of time is just so great right now. Everything happens right now, for good and ill.
This week, I have been back on the job--on my job, here, in this place, which is not like any other academic place that I know about. I realized this evening that I've been thinking of my work as though it's taking place in some abstract academic universe, and so I've been worrying over things that I don't need to worry about. Some of that is going away as I remember where I am and get reabsorbed in how my life here goes. Great fermentation is happening as the semester's beginning approaches.
Tonight found me standing on my brand spanking new red Kik-Step stool, searching through the books on my theory shelf, finding what I've got on gender. My own spaces are becoming the libraries I have always loved: I climb on stools, I thumb through books, I make piles and move them from table to table, from building to building.
I have given up on the possibility of a celebratory post keyed to a number. For now, it has to be enough that I'm making it here at all. I'm keeping the lifeline spooling. But for now, I'm needed elsewhere; for now, that is, I need myself elsewhere most of the time.
In twenty-four hours, it will be the night before classes.
Which means that #1001 will have to be the celebratory one. Mostly, my brain is full to overflowing: new young people, returned colleagues, the new (oh, so fast!) computer, the ongoing process of trying to resettle myself materially, the insanity of a calendar that's already overcrowded. The backhoe outside my office window.
No zooming necessary there. Strangely, I find myself more easily able to deal with construction sounds than with the voices of nearby people.
I fantasize that the beginning of classes on Thursday will make things feel a bit more calm.
This time tomorrow, I will have met my newest young people, and I will have given them and all (yes, all) of their classmates some kind of rousing talk about making this little place home, and about accumulating homes. I think that I am collecting homes. I will thread them like beads, finger them on a stoop somewhere.
And this time tomorrow, I will be writing (or will have written) my one thousandth post here, my favorite stoop.
When I saw this message writ large on the departmental chalkboard this morning, I knew that none of my colleagues had written it, because we are not liars.
This evening, I re-learned the joys of SPLASHING. Splashing in the sink! Splashing with the faucet! Splashing while holding a toothbrush! Splashing whilst someone stealthily washes your entire body without removing your clothing! (That last part was just me: the little one kept on pishposhsplishsploshing in the water at her feet; I sang her a song about how I was washing her ankles! and her toes! and her neck! and her ears!) This evening, she learned an ON/OFF game with hats. She also learned that flowered shorts make excellent floppy hats and can even prompt one's parents to don a towel-bandanna and a colander, just so everyone can wear a hat before dinner.
See how it is that I know that we do rule, in and out of school? Yeah. I thought you did.
I didn't forget about him: first it took some time to see him, and then it took some time to photograph him, and then I wanted the right moment, which is tonight, following yet another fest of welcome: the first all-faculty dinner of the year. Which means that the year is now underway. Which means, even more now, that I really am home--even if I did slip and say today, of my $8.50 lunch, "I could never have gotten this for £4.25 at home!" "At home, eh?" my badass compatriot said.
Tonight, on the first night of the rest of my life, my newly Ohioan partner in badassery and I sped off into the countryside, heading to my favorite Loudonville eatery--only to find that it's moved on up the road to Wooster. I suppose that when you haven't been to a place in a year, you should call to make sure it's still there before you leave your own town. Fortunately, its place has been taken by a café that's also quite nice, if not quite the old Broken Rocks. Sated with our happy dinners, we sped homeward once again: she had the small girl to care for; I had an impending plumbing disaster (though I didn't know it yet).
When I saw how excellent the sunset was getting, she said, "Do you want me to pull over?" Because she knew: what I wanted, more than anything, was to shoot it, even if I couldn't quite make the perfect foreground register, even if the pastels in the sky weren't quite going to come right. She just knew, and that was just what I needed.
I felt a little insulted when my old neighbor, having returned to the U.S., wrote to say that Clare Hall felt like another era. And yet, not even two weeks after having left, I find that I might feel the same way. Even my pictures look strange to me now--as if only a distant dream of water.
These crabapple trees in front of the library are profuse with little fruit. I have continued, for one more day, trying my best to show up for the work I need to finish. I have not been entirely unsuccessful, but I have also not finished quite as much as I'd have liked. Such is generally my way. But the needful things get done--do get done, have gotten done, will get done.
Oh, it's no joke. This morning, on my way to an early meeting, I stopped to take pictures of last night's raindrops, still hanging on a tree near where I used to live. After a few shots, my auto-focus seemed to stop working. Fortunately, it turns out that my camera is fine; it's the lens that's unresponsive. And I can still use it. I just have to focus it myself, which means that I have to rely on my own vision, which isn't the best out there, frankly.
Tomorrow, I stay in the house all morning. This breaking stint has to stop.
The resurrection lilies are out again, just in time.
People keep asking me how my culture shock is. I keep trying to explain that it's not quite culture shock, per se, but something more like life shock. Now that I'm back in my own home, with my own things, I'm having to remember what it's like to have all this stuff. The books are the greatest joy: who knew that I had this great a library? I'd gotten so used to not having it that I'd forgotten what's here. Now I fight the urge to go book-shopping from my own shelves, to select a couple of volumes and carry them into the next room and curl up--because what I'm still doing, have been doing since mid-July, is reworking that article that I began back in February, as an experiment. And getting down to it, since I've been home, has been more difficult than I'd been able to admit to myself that it might be. Today, at last, I remembered the remedy for a piece that seems to have lost its structure: outline it in reverse. See what kind of structure you've already made. Then change that structure and/or make it stronger and more visible, depending on what's necessary at any given moment. A few hours of this kind of work this afternoon made the current piece feel possible again.
Partly in celebration, I took a walk around the village (and down one hill away from the village, and back up again) this evening, just to see how things are as we lull here in this last calm before students start returning en masse. It was as quiet out there as these lilies were light.
I'm starting to feel apprehensive about even touching mechanical things that did not make the trip to England with me: first there was yesterday's flat tire; now the modem seems to have decided not to work; and this afternoon my electric tea kettle smouldered out, leaving a scorch mark on my countertop. When it looked as though the mobile phone wasn't going to work, either, things felt just plain silly, as though the machines were somehow conspiring against me. Fortunately, the mobile phone issue was a matter of operator error. The tea kettle, on the other hand...was perhaps an intervention designed to keep me from drinking leached carcinogens mixed in with my morning coffee.
Of course I thought re-entry would be simpler.
Fortunately I have excellent light in the morning and the evening.
Today, I learned what it looks like when one's tire goes flat while one is washing the car. And then I learned (by watching the dear friend who came to my rescue) how to change a flat.
This is to say that some parts of the day were not really so good.
I learned, once again, what a deep joy it is to have this face squinch into a toothy smile when I walk into a room. After months of Skyping, I wasn't really sure how she would respond to seeing me in the flesh every day. So far, so good: today we had lessons in eating blueberries, riding the adult-sized Sit 'n Spin in tandem, using the mailbox on a play house, doing downward-facing dog together, and allowing one's parents quiet time for unpacking the wardrobe boxes. I continue to harbor hopes that I will somehow be able to help teach her to be restful, even as I re-learn that myself, in this new old place.
In two weeks, I will have met my new advisees, and the new school year will be fully in swing. Time goes fast when you spend most of your summer away from home.
This evening I discovered that only one of my checked bags was opened on the way home. Which one? The one full of books and underwear, of course. When I started to unpack it, I couldn't see that anything had been moved at all. My guess is that the security people immediately knew that I didn't have what they were looking for.
A lot of stuff makes a big carapace for this life. I spend the day standing on desks and chairs, ripping open cardboard boxes, shelving books that have been in storage, rediscovering things I'd forgotten I had. That other country, the one where I lived for the year? It becomes so very foreign a place.
When the pilot of our already much-delayed Columbus-bound Embraer 175 came on the p.a. to tell us we were number 18 in line for take-off, and that said take-off would happen in about 25 minutes, we all waited for the punchline. But that was the punchline.
It was a 24.5 hour trip, door to door, and everything went absolutely as well as could have been expected--coach breakdown on the M25, excess baggage charge, and kicking-over-of-first-20-oz.-coffee-in-my-own-country notwithstanding. Kicking the coffee over was no good--but remembering that I'd only paid $1.50 for it and being able to replace it with coffee and a Boston Cream donut for only $2.39 at Dunkin' Donuts were, to put it plainly, nothing short of awesome. ("Coffee and a donut for £1.20? Incroyable!") There at Philadelphia's gate B2, I had a little welcome-home party for myself. You probably would have laughed to see me love that custard the way I did.
Today, after the writing, and after the mailing, but before the dining, I haunted Cambridge: little ghost, about to go. Now a fly buzzes round and round my room. I don't want to hear it. I don't, I don't.
In the middle of a day so rainy and drear that it nearly made me rethink my ambivalence about returning home, I climbed to the top of a Park & Ride bus and headed to the next town south of Cambridge to visit a friend and her small daughter. Two boys, probably ten or eleven years old, followed me up the steps. Perhaps there's some adult protocol about letting kids sit in the front seats of the top of the bus, in order to get the best version of the illusion that you're about to crash into walls and oncoming traffic and pedestrians, but if there is, I disregard it. So, while I claimed the far right of the front row of seats, the two boys claimed the left two seats.
One boy was from the U.S., the other from the U.K.
Conversation snippet #1: UK: America makes things up to prove you're right US: No, we have more nukes, and that makes us right, so you'd better listen to us. UK: That's not fair. That's bullying. That's blackmail. ... Anyway, no one's ever actually seen these nukes, have they. You're just making them up.
Conversation snippet #2: US: I live near Camden, Pennsylvania, where like five people a day get killed. UK: Yeah, what's up with that? US: America is a terrible place. UK: See! You just said America's a terrible place! US: But we do a lot of things right. UK: Name one. US: We've got more nukes. UK: But how do we know nukes even exist? US: We used them. UK: Right. You got lucky one time. US: No, there were two. UK: Right. You got lucky twice.
US Boy proceeded to deliver to UK Boy a lecture about history and current affairs--ranging from the reasons the U.S. used the atomic bomb, to the idea that what's really wrong with the world is that Mexican families are too big. To his credit, UK Boy said, "So you're blaming China's huge population on Mexicans?" UK Boy also rejoindered, later, by explaining that America is only what it is because English people came and colonized. "If it weren't for us," he said, "you'd all still be living in tribes."
That one slowed US Boy down, but not for long.
I found myself repeatedly on the brink of breaking in to correct these two young militarists, but I confess that I was dumbfounded enough not to know how or where to begin--especially since I also kept imagining how my friends-who-are-parents would feel if a stranger began berating their children, even in a constructive and non-belligerent way. Overall, no one came off well in this scenario: not them, in their cheery ignorance; not me, in my angered silence.
Tonight, my friends, I'd just like to say: Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
In 48 hours, if all goes well, my luggage and I will be on board a just-departed connecting flight back to my home state.
Tonight we had the weirdest sky I've seen in an age. I slipped out to the side street, in the rain, to get you a picture.
Tonight, I'm sitting down for the second half of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival's production of The Winter's Tale, and suddenly I realize that Stephen Hawking is in the audience.
And, while I'm being epigrammatic, can I just say that this innovation strikes me as very strange indeed--and yet so unsurprising, really. They've even gone so far as to suggest situations in which you might use it.
Today I learned that the name "Matilda" means "one who is fierce in battle." I like to believe that this newest small girl of my (near) acquaintance will indeed find herself able to be fierce when she wants and needs to be, and that she will triumph in all her battles.
This time last year, I was beginning to figure out that I was really coming here; now, I'm figuring out that I'm really leaving. Strangely, the autumn Boden catalog is playing a role once again: my Wisconsinian's friend's copy came in the post yesterday, and over our breakfast coffee, we played about with imagining how we'll clothe our lives once we return to the U.S. "You've changed," everyone here says. "Your life is going to be different when you go back." I find myself wondering whether they're right. When they're not here, I walk back into the fields and find my favorite shots again: there is the dusk, there is the nonsensically overgrown weed, there are the fringey grasses. But there are also the library tower, the tips of King's College Chapel, the hills in the distance, the deep green pastures. The scurrying bunnies. The squawking pheasant. The things that distinguish this landscape from that one, mark this one a second home, mark that one with absences I know I will feel for at least a little while, even amidst the glee of homecoming.
Look, if Philippe Petit could take that walk, and if James Marsh could make that film about it, and (very best of all) if my friend could, with fourteen hours of work, bring a truly beautiful and healthy new little woman into the world, then there's hope.
Fittingly, we were gifted a pretty great sunset tonight. "Did you pack your cameras away?" my Wisconsinian friend asked me. "Nope," I said. "I've got one right here."
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.