Thursday, June 13, 2024

If these desks could talk

That's my last desk standing against the wall, a simple but elegant chunk of sturdy hardwood destined to hold my yet-to-be-purchased home computer, with a keyboard drawer and ample space to support a large-screen monitor (because nothing fatigues my eyes more than staring at my tiny laptop screen). I hope this will be the last desk I'll ever buy.

The first desk I ever bought sits in the foyer, where it serves as a catch-all for all manner of transient stuff: mail and recyclables, weed-whacker line and earplugs, a whole drawer full of retired camera equipment and another full of CDs and cassette tapes. I bought that desk more than 40 years ago for $20 at a yard sale. It was yellow, but not for long. Our first computer, a clunky beige cube, sat on that desk--we pulled out the center drawer and flipped it upside-down to hold the keyboard. I wrote my Master's thesis at that desk and my husband wrote dozens of seminary papers and early sermons.

When our kids needed desks for their schoolwork and projects, we bought small used desks for their rooms--rudimentary but useful, bought with pocket change at yard sales. Those desks are long gone, as is the big computer desk that sat downstairs. It was a Christmas gift from my in-laws in the early 1990s, arriving as a flat box full of parts that required careful assembly. I wrote my dissertation at that desk and my husband wrote hundreds more sermons, and it followed us on every move until we finally gave it away a few years ago. Too big for the available space and battered after years of heavy use, it was easily the ugliest piece of furniture I've ever owned. But maybe someone else is getting some use out of it now.

At one point we had six desks at home and more in our offices but now we're down to four at home and three at our workplaces, which still seems excessive--but what can I say? I love a good desk. In the early 1990s we bought two desks at once when a local furniture store was going out of business. One of those desks now sits in an awkward space between the living room and kitchen, where it holds note cards, envelopes, gift bags, ribbons, tape, and writing supplies; for a few years the bottom drawer has been stuffed with coloring books, crayons, and markers for the grandkids' use. 

The other desk is my favorite to look at but not to sit at, with a cramped and uncomfortable desktop and handy nooks providing display space for our collection of chicken tchotchkes (harking back to the era when my husband's family ran a hatchery). Its upper shelves hold my cookbook collection, and the drawers store more CD's and miscellaneous junk than two people could ever possibly need.

I love the two desks I use on campus, but they're not really mine; at some point I'll clear them out and they'll pass to other people. My new desk will serve my post-retirement needs--as soon as I buy a home computer. More than forty years after my desk-buying journey began, I think I'm finally done.  

My first desk, formerly yellow.

My last desk.

Desk full of writing supplies.

The tall desk, attractive but uncomfortable.

One junk drawer is not enough.

Coloring books, crayons, markers.

Just a few of the chicken tchotchkes.

Another desk, another junk drawer.

So many cookbooks!


Monday, June 10, 2024

A knack for naming

My oldest grandkid would like to be an astronaut but I think she could pursue an alternate career in naming space vehicles. Move over, Spirit, Opportunity, Apollo, and Voyager; Miss E would like to introduce you to Hope, Possibility, Bigs, Apple, Creativity, Shadow Storm, and--Smurf?

Except those are not names of space vehicles. No: they're cauliflower plants. Because if a kid loves cauliflower and is determined to grow some in her family garden plot, then of course she's going to give those coddled cauliflower plants names.

My granddaughter introduced me to her cauliflower patch when we went to water the garden Saturday morning. It was my grandson's birthday so he was enjoying his Yes Day, which gave him the power to determine how the family spent its Saturday. First things first: we all went out to a you-pick orchard to gather buckets of cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. Gardening came next, with the birthday boy filling watering cans so the girls could water the cauliflower and carrots and tomatoes and squash and whatever else they've got growing out there. 

Time speeds up when we're with the grandkids so I'm not sure how we packed so much into a brief visit. Grampa gave the youngest her first unicycle lessons and helped our daughter spread mulch in her gorgeous flower garden, and we all enjoyed a sushi-tastic dinner followed by ice cream cake and "Happy birthday." 

I dream sometimes about living closer to my grandkids so I could enjoy their hijinks more frequently, but in the meantime I get an energy boost every time they introduce me to their latest project.

Especially if it's a cauliflower named Smurf.

Free unicycle lessons, courtesy of Grampa

Introducing the cauliflowers

Watering the garden

Thursday, June 06, 2024

News too good not to share

First, the tiny wrens in the nest in my weed-whacker's battery compartment seem to be thriving. I angled the camera just right to get a lousy photo, but I can confirm that there are at least three wrens in there dividing their time between sleeping and eating. An adult swooped in to shoo me away and then stood guard nearby giving me the evil eye, but I can accept that. Always good to see a parent diligently protecting the youngsters.

Second, the grant we applied for earlier this spring has been approved, woo-hoo! So now I'll be in charge of planning a series of campus events over the next two months to engage faculty and staff in an interesting project; I'll have to work hard but this could be the start of something really exciting and I'm delighted to be in the middle of it. Plus there's money. Not a ton of money, but it's always a nice thing to have. 

Third, I finally watched American Fiction, the film adapted from Percival Everett's novel Erasure. It fits perfectly into the themes of my African American Literature class this fall--and the ending made me laugh so hard I nearly fell off my chair. A little thought-provoking satire to celebrate the end of the semester--win-win! 

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Limbering up the writing muscles

Stiff is how I feel today, in mind and body. The other day I did a bit of house-cleaning that taxed my abilities, and by house-cleaning I mean cleaning the accumulated dirt, algae, and glunk off the siding on three sides of my house. (I can't reach the fourth side without a ladder, and I'm enough of a klutz to know that carrying a long-handled sponge mop and bucket up a ladder will only end in disaster.)

I don't remember when I last cleaned the siding, but it's been long enough to allow my light-gray house to appear to be growing a green beard on the shady spots. I don't want to use the power-washer because the siding was installed by a previous owner who did every home-improvement task in the cheapest and sloppiest possible way, so there are many spaces where a pressure-washer could force lots of water under the siding, which is not optimal. In the past I've used a bucket of cleanser and rags, but this time I repurposed an old sponge mop so I could reach higher with less strain on my shoulders and arms. 

I know no one really wants to do such an annoying task much less read about it, but if my entire upper body hurts today, maybe you'll understand why. Also, I found a nest of hornets. Also, I broke the mop. BUT: it's now possible to sit on the back deck without wondering when the fuzzy green beard on the siding is going to develop sentience and take over the planet.

I'd love to be sitting out there right now thinking deep thoughts and writing them down, but the stiffness that suffuses my body seems to have also crippled my mind. I've been writing steadily for nearly three hours at Writing Wednesday but I don't see a single sentence that makes me light up with pride or want to share it with a reader. 

I'm still at the getting-it-down stage of this writing project, writing as quickly as possible without concern for details, and I see lots of sentences studded with little parenthetical notes like add example or get quote or what year? It's still not clear to me exactly what shape this thing (essay? analysis? pile of dangling insights?) will take, but I've settled on a controlling metaphor that gives me hope that it will all cohere in the end. Yellowjackets are involved. In fact, one of my parenthetical notes asks are yellowjackets cooperative? Guess I need to look some stuff up before my next writing session.

Despite my stiffness, I'm pleased to see that I've produced close to 9,000 words, which is kind of a lot for a piece that doesn't really fit into any preconceived categories. Progress is being made, one chunk of verbiage at a time, and if that progress looks a little sloppy and unpolished, it coordinates nicely with the whole rest of my life right now. 

I think I'll have one more week in the getting-it-down stage before I turn toward the cleaning-it-up stage, at which point I'll need answers to all those parenthetical questions. I won't need ladders or mops or buckets, just a supple mind and some swiftly-moving fingers. I wake up every morning with fingers so stiff I can barely grab my glasses, but a long bout of typing limbers them up nicely. I only hope it's limbering up my brain cells at the same time. 

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Return of the wrens, with bonus beauty

Kinda glad I was wrong about the wrens. 

A week or so ago I went out to fetch the weed-whacker from the recycling shed but found that Carolina wrens had built a nest in the battery compartment and tucked into the nest were five tiny eggs. So I left it alone. Weed-whacking could wait. 

Around mid-week when I checked on the nest, the eggs were gone and I didn't see any baby wrens--just a smear of dark fuzz. I wondered whether wrens would relocate eggs if a nest felt unsafe, but I feared that predators had found the eggs. Either way, I was resolved to catch up on the weed-whacking on the first dry morning.

That was today. Once again I went out to the recycling shed all kitted out in my weed-whacking gear--earplugs, eye protection, water bottle, battery, extra spools of weed-whacker line--but when I looked in the nest, that little smear of fuzz started wiggling.

I don't know how many nestlings survived but I saw at least two. Again, I left them alone and went to get the resident strongman to start up the gas-powered weed-whacker, which is heavier than mine and much more unwieldy and eventually made my upper arms feel like wet spaghetti, but never mind that: the whole time I was weed-whacking, I kept thinking about those baby wrens.

We've heard the adult wrens calling nearby and seen them perched on deck railings near the recycling shed, so I resolved to sit out there with the camera until I could catch a photo of the wrens tending their young. It's not possible to get photos of the nest itself because it's tucked too far back into the dark shed, but I sat for a very long time in the quiet afternoon trying to catch a glimpse of the adults wrens.

I don't know how long I was out there sitting as still as possible on the deck. I heard buzzes and chirps from many birds and a wood thrush calling invisibly in the woods, and from down near the creek came the sound of a deer huffing and snorting. Maybe my presence spooked the wrens because they didn't show up for a long while, but then I saw one calling from a pine bough and then scavenging for bugs in the tulip poplar right next to the deck and then calling and calling and calling from trees along the edge of the yard. When a wren finally approached the nest, it swooped in low so that I barely saw it--but I heard the faint cheeping of the nestlings in response.

The photos are from too far away to be sharp, but I know the wrens will be more comfortable tending to their young if I'm not around, so I went inside.  And now I look out my front window and see a flash of color in the dogwood tree just outside the window--an oriole! Some days I'm so surrounded by beauty I don't even know where to look.




Thursday, May 30, 2024

Three cheers for volunteers

I have to admire the hardy catalpa sapling growing alongside our driveway, even though I wish it would just give up already. It's in a bad place for a catalpa tree--way too close to the driveway. Who knows how it arrived there? Some bird or woodland creature may have brought the seed, and it keeps leafing out and growing more branches, even though my husband cuts it down every summer.

Catalapa trees are lovely and I wouldn't object to having one somewhere, but just not there. If the branches grow any longer, they'll be scraping against our cars. But how do you get rid of a volunteer that just doesn't want to go away?

From the moment we moved in here 20 years ago, we've had to deal with a host of volunteers, some more welcome than others. In early spring the redbud trees along the edge of the woods provide a burst of color, and even now the heart-shaped leaves look lovely. We've tried in the past to dig up and relocate some saplings, but they do a much better job of spreading themselves. 

The pawpaw trees bring tiny attractive blooms in spring and, if we're lucky, a healthy harvest of fruit in the fall. The fruit gives us seeds that we've planted in hopes of producing new saplings to plant in other parts the property, but only this year have we finally managed to grow pawpaw saplings in pots. 

Other volunteers also benefit by encouragement. Years ago I dug up a clump of daisies and moved them near my driveway, and they've seeded themselves each year until they've formed a swath of cheery blossoms next to where I park. Likewise the wild columbines I dug up from a ditch and transplanted to my front garden: they reseed themselves and invade every available spot, bringing flowers and beautiful foliage and interesting seed pods nodding on their  stems.

Behind the house near the shed we're watching two mullein plants, one much bigger than the other. Mullein blossoms in its second year and only if winter gets sufficiently cold, so this year I'm carefully avoiding mowing them down in hopes that next summer we'll see tall stalks covered in blooms--plus the pollinators they attract.

In the past few years we've had to cut down two massive tulip poplars, but tulip poplar saplings keep popping up to replace their elders. The tiny ones growing amid clumps of volunteer jewelweed close to the driveway won't last, but several others show signs of stepping up to the challenge of survival.

And then there are the hollyhocks. I don't remember how long ago my daughter planted hollyhocks in my front garden, but they eventually died out there--but not before reseeding themselves all over the place. I never know where they're going to pop up, but this year they're blooming beautifully down near the wood pile.

A more diligent gardener would take these wildly unpredictable plants and make them conform to some master plan, but I prefer to stand back and see what they can do on their own or with a little encouragement. And even while that persistent catalpa threatens to invade my space, I have to admire its ability to keep coming back and sprouting leaves despite all our efforts to curtail its growth. Life finds a way! (But we need to prevent it from clawing at our cars.)


Brand-new catalpa leaves


Stubborn catalpa sapling

Pawpaws growing in pots


Tiny tulip poplar sapling



Sunday, May 26, 2024

That's what I like about life in the slow lane

Summer break: when time loses all meaning and the days blur together in an amorphous blob. I get up in the morning and don't know what day it is; I have things to do (probably) and I know I'll get to them (eventually), but the sense of urgency disappears as soon as the semester is over. My husband helpfully asks what time I need to get out the door, and the answer, usually, is I don't really need to be anywhere.

Except on Sundays (church). And on days when I have meetings concerning a grant proposal that's eating up a bunch of my time (and will eat up more if it's approved, not that I'm complaining). And on Wednesdays, when I get out of the house bright and early to join a group of colleagues in a room in the library where we sit silently and write all morning. The first Writing Wednesday of summer break attracted seven people, including a few newbies, and I made significant progress on my new writing project. 

An article that originated in Writing Wednesdays a few years ago finally saw the light of day in the journal Pedagogy. "Ink, Blood, Bones" may well be my final foray into academic publishing, as I'm currently working on something more like a personal essay immersed in literature, or a literary analysis immersed in personal narrative. I don't quite know how long it will be or where it will end up but I'm having tons of fun writing right now.

Otherwise the days stretch before me without design. Maybe I'll mow, if weather permits. Maybe I'll clean the bathrooms or go for a hike or watch a mystery on Britbox. And if a curious groundhog comes knocking at the door while I'm doing my own thing, I'll pause for a photo shoot and then carry on.

Because that's what summer break is all about: no sense of time, no urgency, just a gentle plodding forward in the faith that eventually I'll do what needs to be done. 

She's been fascinated with my house all week. Why?