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, September 30, 2008
Turn my back, and it gets dark.
I don't quite love the fact that I haven't had a good long photo walk in a couple of weeks, and that I haven't even gone out for a good short photo walk in the past few days. Days keep blowing past me here, the way I know they did before I went away for the year. I realized how bad things were starting to look--not agonizing, just crowded and tiring--when I had to make a list of times when I was not available to schedule a meeting with a colleague this week. And there was Thursday, blotted right off the computer screen, with several conflicting events and then a pile-up of things packed so tightly that they're overlapping each other by 30 minutes at a stretch. Friday wasn't much better.
I have fewer workable hours in my day in part because I sleep, sometimes twice as much as I did when I first started teaching (at 22, to be sure). Sometimes, I guess, if I do the math, I'm actually sleeping three times as much per night as I did back then--when on a startlingly regular basis, I ended up working until 3 a.m. and then teaching at 8:40 a.m. And though I am pretty resolute about insisting that I'm not under stress, the very fact that I'm insisting is perhaps its own sign that I'm wrong--as is the fact that while I'm doing all that sleeping, I'm also dreaming about things like being late for important events, not knowing my lines for important performances, simply failing to do my work for important people, &c. &c. You get the gist of it: Important Things are supposed to happen, and I somehow don't do them, certainly not on time.
And so I keep going. In one week, my various crews and colleagues and I will be on the eve of our fall break, which I'm going to need for the piles of tasks that I can't plow through while I teach.
These kinds of calculations are among the things I'd forgotten. They are the trade-offs for the excellence that is my relationship with my students and with my work as a whole.
Yesterday, I didn't touch the news of Paul Newman's death here, at least partly because it seemed too strange to mourn a celebrity stranger, even at a distance. But he was a student in this beloved place where I was a student and where I am now a teacher; he has always been one of the people of whom I've said proudly, "You know where he went to school, right?" And in watching an interview with him in one of my institution's tributes to him this evening, I've found him giving voice to something I believe deeply. As a kind of memorial to him, I will tell you what he's just put into my arsenal:
In my experience, the people who acknowledge luck are more generous and more charitable. The people who attribute their success to rugged individualism usually are penurious and cheap.
He doesn't mean stop working. He means never stop working--and never stop acknowledging that you're lucky to have landed where the work is, and to have been gifted what you need to do it. We could use more of that kind of humility, and more such reminders of the fact that we can choose to keep on becoming our best selves.
If you want to see him as a very young man, peruse the tributes. Some of them are sweeter than sweet (including this excellent photo of a version of him that makes my heart throb--the booted, bearded pedagogue, conducting the archetypal outdoor seminar meeting right here in my academic home? yes, please).
Maybe it's possible, in some other place, to find oneself, while on the way to the grocery store for tea and chicken soup to treat an incipient cold, behind a trailer advertising therapy as one reason to love llamas. But I'm betting that it's not particularly common.
When I left the officehouse tonight, I discovered that the western sky--which I can no longer see from inside the building, since I'm now in a different office--was shot through with the widest spectrum of reds and oranges and roses I've seen in months. There's no great vantage point from the western edge of campus, which didn't stop me from looking for one yet again. And so I went for my first rural wander in the car since returning home.
Almost as soon as I'd started driving down the hill from campus, I realized I was making a mistake: the lower one descends, the more the horizon rises (or appears to rise, anyway), obscuring the best colors at each edge of the day. I drove on, hoping to find a good vista to the west where I could stop safely for a photograph. The one I found wasn't exactly a vista--or a safe stopping point, for that matter--but this curve of corn hinted to me that what I was seeing was about as good as it was going to get for this particular quest.
What remains of the corn is blanching out in these early days of fall. I am coming to reoccupy my old place as a good ear in my department, meaning that I am starting to have the kinds of conversations that involve dispensing pieces of whatever wisdom I've managed to gain over all these years. I'm also coming to trace what I know is different about the way I handle conversations now: I'm more inclined to ask a key question or two of students when I meet with them, and then to sit back and listen to them so that I can repeat them to themselves, getting them to make contact with their gut responses, the things that creep out at the seams and interstices. Here's what I've just heard you say, I'll say. Is that what you mean? Is that how you feel? And what's a comfort to me now is that I feel so much less as though I'm responsible for fixing what I hear. Sometimes hearing what's been heard is enough to get someone started in a good direction.
What I'm saying, then, is that this week brought me one step closer to reinhabiting my life here to the fullest, getting completely reintegrated--and yet also being able to feel how different my integration into this place is now than it was even two years ago. Each is a welcome shift.
Yesterday's face traced in dust is, today, sealed in behind a new wall of poured cement. And our elevator shaft has risen another floor. I head to work every day and wonder how long it will be before I finally muster the nerve to go say thank you, in advance, to the team of men who put a new piece of my work life's architecture into place with every hour they spend on the job.
Sometimes I don't know why I decide to walk home instead of waiting to catch a ride with someone going my way. And then sometimes I find out, almost immediately. Tonight, it was Marvin, just down the hill from the new building taking shape near the officehouse, who showed me why. Had I not walked, I might have missed him.
I had a pile of short papers to grade today, and I made myself grade them. By the time I was nearly done, this evening, I was in the process of deciding not to continue--until I saw the evening shadows flickering on my red desk, which somehow impressed upon me the possibility that I might even embrace grading if I stopped regarding it as something standing between me and the rest of my life. "So this is what my life is for this little time," I thought. And I sat in the flickers and penned comments until it was time for dinner, and then I went outside and sat with my flaming-sworded friend and her excellent husband until I had finished. And that, I have to say, has occasioned no small amount of pleasure in me, as those of you who know my tortured relationship with grading will fully appreciate.
My neighbors all have their power back. Now everyone can be more calm.
Some high-quality things have happened today: a particular student of mine has become another year older; I have discovered the true gorgeousness of Google Books if one is, say, a Victorianist getting ready to teach a particular course for her department and does not want to make her students pay billions of dollars for bad editions of Victorian ephemera; I have launched back into Wilkie Collins for the first time in ages; I had my first chance to make long-distance kissy faces at a very small person of whose spiritual life I have sworn to take care. In all, a darned good day.
To basically none of us does this seem like a satisfactory situation, and yet there's little to nothing anyone can do about it. I cross under this hanging post twice a day--hurriedly. The light is low enough to touch. The people served by this set of wires have been told that Sunday is the earliest they'll have power.
"What are you doing?" the jumping boy called from the trampoline this evening as I was walking home. "I'm going home!" I replied. "I thought you lived on the corner?" he said. Not any more, I told him, not adding that one of the pleasures of having moved down the road is getting to be greeted by him and his siblings when they're out in their yard. It can take a blissfully long time to get home from school these gorgeous days.
From thing to thing to thing today, and yet somehow I didn't emerge at the end of it feeling as though I'd been kicked around. I credit this to a long night's sleep and to a dinner of high-protein vegetarian chili with some of my dear and disempowered ones.
On the way home, my excellent friend said, "Have you seen the tree on Brooklyn? Do you have your camera?" My answers: no, and yes, of course. And indeed that tree did rip out the whole side of the road when it toppled into our neighborhood ravine on Sunday. The noise of that storm, I tell you, was like nothing I've ever heard. It's as though we were trapped in a slow-moving, slow-blowing tornado for six hours or so.
Some things here are back to normal, others not. On my way to dinner tonight, riding shotgun in my flaming-sworded friend's car, I saw that the windstorm had stripped most of the yellow leaves from the soybean field. Buzzsaws and chippers run all over town. My students seemed somewhat relieved to be in the classroom, back at their discussing and their brainstorming, just as though they hadn't been without electricity twelve hours earlier, just as though a massive fallen tree weren't being chunked and ground mere yards away.
Around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, our power went out--blew out, more precisely--in the northward-pushing remnants of Hurricane Ike. I sat near my picture windows and read, knowing that sitting beside a window in the midst of winds gusting to 65 mph is never a good idea--and yet also knowing that without window light, I was nowhere. I found that I didn't have the photographic skill to capture for you in still images exactly what was happening outside, but this image comes closest:
What it doesn't quite tell you is what it sounded like to have huge limbs (some more than 10' long) falling from trees on both sides of the apartment building--or what it looked like to see these tall, thin oaks pitching and tossing for hours on end.
The hours since the outage have been a surreal blend of darkness and light, work and stoppage, festivity and futility: trees came down all over town, taking out houses and power lines, and no one I knew came out of this windstorm with all utilities intact. 73% of my county was without electricity this afternoon--that's about 14,500 people; something like 600000 customers of my electric company alone lost power; about 1.6 million people were without in this region. (All of which, I realize, pales in comparison to what this same storm did in Texas.)
I, as was the case in our ice storm four years ago, emerged the least scathed of anyone I know--the only utility to cut out with any duration was the electricity. We camped at each other's houses, following the utilities: where there's a gas stove, we gathered for coffee; where there's a barbecue grill, we gathered for supper.
My power came back on while I was away at the office (where there was also no power), but by the time I came out of a faculty meeting, it had gone out again. A couple of buildings ran on generators. Students could check their e-mail and charge their cell phones in the core of one floor of the campus library--which, by the time I entered it to do an errand for someone else this afternoon, had come to feel and smell like a locker room of sweaty desperation and hot machines.
Even when things went right today, it was hard to shake the mood of utter distraction everywhere on campus. I kept forgetting that everything hadn't been officially, fully cancelled.
And now I keep thinking that any second, my power could cut out again, which puts a special urgency on every task I'm undertaking: washing the denim rugs that got soaked and a little stained when the refrigerator and freezer drained, drip by drip, earlier today; charging my mobile phone; putting up a post here so that you'll know where I was yesterday.
Even preparing for class by incandescent light will be a precious novelty tonight.
We fly towards fall, and the weather gets more unpredictable by the moment. A cool day leads to a rainy day leads to a day so heavy with unrained moisture that by the end of an hour-long photoshoot with a new friend, I find myself collapsing out of my t-shirt into something without sleeves, then lying very still in the shade-dark living room. The forecast throws us up a little higher, then casts us down, and I look forward to the drop: the nights when I've had to bundle up against the cold have been my best sleeps yet.
On the way from the car to the farmers' market in the square, my flaming-sworded friend and I discovered a gorgeous all-white cocaktoo in an enormous cage. I struck up a conversation with it and was reminded yet again of how smart birds are. This one nodded and clucked to us a bit, kept my eye while we stayed there, started calling out after we'd crossed the street (though whether she was calling for us, I wasn't sure). When we walked past again, we paused to talk to her some more, and she began climbing around in circles in her cage, sometimes pausing to hang from the roof of the cage and look at us.
Once again, I find myself thinking that I should have a bird. I wanted a parakeet, back in the day, but didn't get one for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that I was nervous, and including the fact that I couldn't shake the feeling that I actually wanted a much bigger bird than a parakeet (though parakeets are also surprisingly smart: the one I cared for many summers ago would actually sing along to an opera CD and also liked to have Victorian poetry read aloud to her). A couple of years ago, when I was reconsidering my decision not to get a bird, a friend said, "I just want to remind you of how happy you were while you were taking care of that parakeet." It's true: I was besotted with having the bird. I was in love with having something waiting to see me when I came downstairs in the mornings. I enjoyed having company at the end of the night. And more than anything, I was startled by the fact that a bird could supply so many of these things.
Having a bird might require some things of me, in a way that would be healthy.
I still haven't quite gotten my timing right this term, and here's a little bit of what it feels like: tonight, after dinner with my beloved former-Lexingtonian and her daughter, I was helping get the household ready for their evening walk before heading home myself. I needed to put the baby's jacket on, and it's easier for me to do things like that if I'm sitting down and holding her in front of me. I backed up to a chair at the dining room table, but just about the time I should have been sitting on the chair, I found myself having fallen to the floor, still in sitting position, somehow having missed the chair altogether. I'm still not quite sure how that happened--I think I grazed its edge, because I also knocked the chair over. Neither baby nor I came away from the experience scarred (or even, in her case, all that very scared). But it was not unlike the kinds of weird jerks and stumbles I feel as though I keep walking into these days as I keep settling back in to routines I don't really remember anymore.
When the day was mostly over, I finally made my way back to my prairie, and there under the arching switchgrass, the tall bluestem, the curling leaves and the insectsong and the ends of the compass flowers, I found myself home once again.
As I was setting my schedule for this semester, I thought, "Right. Mondays will be the days I'll use for research, or for getting my week squared away enough that it won't be beastly from Tuesday through Friday." Instead, so far it seems that Mondays will be the days when I scramble a lot, paying myself back for having taken a bit too much time to rest over the weekend. These are the things I find I have forgotten.
But oh: the soybean fields turning yellow, on the way to a morning appointment. And oh: the stalky sunflower I can't photograph for you because I haven't yet figured out where to pull over and shoot it. Some things I did manage to see today. And some people, including my beloved classicist friend, whose birthday it has been all day. And so, though I have hours of work left to do before I can sleep, I can't fool myself into thinking that it's been a day of only work.
Apparently, Mondays may be becoming the day when I try to have two days' worth of being, all packed into one.
One might say that home is the place where your flaming-sworded friend will invite you to go with her to the mall in the city and will even do the driving, thereby allowing you to take pictures of the landscape that you've missed so much more than you even knew. In the aftermath of yesterday's rain, the world has been wiped free of its haze for the next little while.
I have come back to the village with shoes the color of these barns.
The ground's innards are exposed all around us: excavations, trenches, ditches, holes, cuts in the pavement, holes in the ground. The inside is out, and until the rain started today, that inside-out was so very dry.
I'm entering a schlepping phase again: I carried large stacks of books to school with me, then carried large stacks home. Some books were in both of those stacks--the going and then the returning. Others went to school and stayed there; still others came home for the first time in more than a year. It's clear to me that I must be gearing up, or wanting to gear up, for some kind of concerted effort. In some direction. Or something.
It would also seem that my sleep cycles have now shifted: at 11 p.m., I find myself dozing over my reading. By 7:30 a.m., I'm up and running again.
And then a whole week is nearly gone, and there is always so much more to say.
Not a thing I saw or heard or read or learned today moved me as much as getting to look at my excellent poet friend's very new copy of the very new Library of Dust. Rather than sum up its story here, I'm going to send you to a better (and more thoroughly illustrated) source: the blog of the person who wrote one of this book's essays. I'm haunted by the sure knowledge that I'd read about this project, or heard about it somehow, before now--even though I have no idea where, or how, or when. It's an extraordinary piece of work, one very much worth your while.
Around the time that I was returning from England, my family hatched a plan to come see me over Labor Day weekend, since I wasn't in any shape to go visiting anyone, what with the revised article being due and classes beginning three weeks after my return. I think that it must have been just after my return that my brother called me and revealed the plan to bring our dog along to Ohio. You know a fair amount about this dog, if you've been reading here for a long time: she's fifteen, has had one ear removed, is totally deaf in the remaining ear, barks and howls when she sees people she loves showing each other affection (or when someone leaves without saying goodbye), and goes by many nicknames, including Stinkpot, Rodrigo, and Big Dummy. However, she no longer answers to these nicknames--because of the deafness, see. Now she only answers to hand gestures and physical contact.
In order to make nearly four hours of car travel with her bearable, my mother told the vet that she needed a couple of sedatives. "Just enough to knock her out for the ride there and then the ride back," she said. And so the vet dispensed a few pills, and on Saturday morning, my parents gave the dog one of them.
By the time they got halfway here, the dog's bones had dissolved, leaving my mother to have to drag her across a gas station parking lot during a pit stop for fuel and toilet breaks. When I went out to meet them upon their arrival here, they said, "We think we broke the dog." She was a big floppy periodically urinating mess; we arranged her on her dog bed and dragged said bed from the kitchen to the living room when we needed to change rooms.
Saturday evening, she was largely back to herself, wagging her tail, frisking around, cadging food from anyone and everyone, even barking at a small child; Sunday morning, after a night of collapsed sleep on my bed (cf. today's image, another from that night's series), she was entirely herself again.
Why put the dog through all this? Well: she's old, and she's so tightly bonded to my parents (even more than to my brother and me, since she doesn't see us daily) that she has started to get a bit despondent when they board her. In July, she lost something like ten pounds while at the kennel. Unless it's absolutely necessary, then, my parents don't want to leave her behind when they travel.
But my mother also knows that there's a chance I won't get home before Thanksgiving, and she knew that when I left for England, one of my sorrows was that the dog might not live to see my return. "What if she dies before Thanksgiving?" she thought to herself. And since I couldn't come to the dog, she set it up so that the dog would come to me--despite the difficulty of traveling with that good old goofball.
Nothing I've needed from her has ever proven too complicated or difficult for my mother to sort through and make possible. The dog is only the latest example, and so it's the one I'm using to tell her thank you, and happy birthday--because today is the anniversary of her arrival in the world, surely one of the luckiest days in my then-not-yet-existent little life. I love you, Mama. Welcome to your new year.
It's so excellent when they're all here that it becomes extra difficult when they're all gone. I move through it by losing myself in those ongoing adventures called Research, Advising, and Class Preparation. I fight a losing battle with a video projector; my class watches a movie on only 1/3 of a screen. At the end of the day, I am too over-involved to have any contemplative part of myself left, and I remember: this is what it was like. This is what I swore wouldn't happen again.
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.