Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The call of the wild (in the middle of work)

Not an oriole.
I get a little irritated when non-academics enviously ask about my summer 'vacation,' as if I plan to lounge in a hammock for three months instead of working diligently on important projects, but I have to admit that summer work is different from academic-year work in one significant way: if I'm in my living room writing an article or planning a syllabus or whatever and I hear an oriole calling, I put down my books, close up my computer, grab the camera, and go outside.

This ability to walk away from my work at will is a terrific luxury, perhaps the best part of the summer. I know that interrupting my train of thought might mean I'll have to work harder or longer later to pull it back together, but on the other hand, how often do I get invited to follow the calls of orioles?

I may not even get a glimpse of them, and if I do, I rarely get a decent photo: they perch at the tops of the highest trees, often hidden amongst the leaves, and then if the sun is at the wrong angle, I'll get nothing more than a black silhouette. But their calls are so clear and musical, their colors so vibrant that I'm willing to follow whenever they call. And if I don't see an oriole, maybe I'll see something else--a bluebird or tanager or indigo bunting, or some green growing thing that soothes my tired eyes.

The work will always be there when I go back inside, but the orioles are here for only a short time. I hope the one I've been stalking today finds a mate and stays a while, if only to give me more good reasons to step outside and answer the call of the wild.

Also not an oriole.

Not even close.

a female scarlet tanager, I think


Hearing the silence behind the words

This week while waiting for my slow internet connection to download scholarly articles, I'm memorizing "How to Be a Poet" by Wendell Berry. I recognize the irony inherent in using my computer to study a poem that urges readers to "Shun electric wire" and "stay away from screens," and I am fully aware that Berry's agrarian philosophy elides the uncompensated contributions of marginalized and voiceless people, but the poem gives good advice for anyone seriously interested in writing.

It begins with discipline--"Make a place to sit down. / Sit down. Be quiet" -- and buries "inspiration" deep in a list of more essential elements: "affection, reading, knowledge, / skill" alongside "work, growing older, patience." 

The poem urges writers to "Live / a three-dimensioned life" connected to real rather than virtual places, but this connection to place should also be portable, since "there are no unsacred places." Finally, the poem promotes a slow pace and attentiveness to the silence that lies behind the world and the words, encouraging writers to  "make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came."

I'm not trying to be a poet this summer, but listening to poetry and learning it by heart is helping me find the silence where meaning resides. The only way to hear it, though, is to first sit down and be quiet.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Breaking up the soil to make writing grow

A week or so ago our neighbor brought over his big tractor to till up our garden plots, tearing through the matted roots to turn over big lumps of soil that has sat fallow all winter, and last night he came back to disk it up, breaking up the lumps and smoothing the soil to make it ready to receive all those seedlings eager to stretch their roots out. He does this every year and he will accept no payment except a few loaves of fresh homemade bread, but without his work, our garden would resist planting.

My current academic writing project has also been lying fallow all winter, so it's not easy at first to make any real progress. I'm moving through the text slowly, turning over big chunks and wondering where to put them, how to make them fit with other chunks or whether to toss them out entirely. Later when the big pieces have been rearranged, I'll rake through the text on a more granular level, smoothing it all out so the argument can take firm root and grow.

Years ago when we first turned over our big garden plots, we found rusted horseshoes and other detritus from a barn that had burned, and even all these years later we still bring up the occasional rusty nail or bit of broken glass. In long-neglected writing I sometimes find treasures--a sparkling turn of phrase, an original idea I'd forgotten entirely--but more often I see flaws that somehow escaped earlier detection: infelicitous phrases, wobbly arguments, sentences that wander off into the wilderness and never return.

We work our garden patiently and diligently, inspired by visions of red ripe tomatoes that delight the eye and satisfy our hunger, but the rewards of academic writing are far less tangible. Earlier in my career publication brought the promise of tenure and promotion, but with no more promotions available and no financial rewards for continued scholarship, motivation has to come from within, from a desire to examine ideas and share them with others, from the faint hope that someday someone out there will care.

I'd like to say I write for the joy of turning over the text, handling the language, playing with the words, and some days that's enough. But it's hard to motivate myself on days like today, when the writing feels like a hard, lonely slog through lumpy clods of mud.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Body at rest, mind in motion

Eight easy hours on the road Tuesday, five or six hours in a Faculty Council meeting Wednesday, and now my summer break truly begins. Today I did a mess of weed-whacking in the cool of the morning, worked on two fall syllabi, and then spent the afternoon reading the latest issue of Granta. Peace!

But if I devote the entire summer to such luxury, I'll miss out on things I really need to do. Time to set some summer goals! Aside from neverending feats of weed-whacking, planting, weeding, and cleaning, several summer projects demand attention. In no particular order:

1. Memorize some poetry--on purpose. In my youth I was pretty good at memorizing poetry; I can still bring out long passages from Shakespeare and the Psalms and even "Jabberwocky," and I've learned a few others accidentally just by teaching them so frequently. (I mean, can't everyone recite "Fire and Ice" on demand?) But recently I read W.S. Merwin's "Thanks" and thought I'd like to carry it with me always. I'm not as good at memorizing as I once was, and this poem lacks the tricks of rhyme and rhythm that aid memorization, but I've resolved to learn it--and after that, why not more?

2. Finish fall syllabi, all four of 'em.

3. Evaluate texts and ruminate on assignments for the Literary Theory class I'll teach for the first time next spring.

4. Write a proposal for a spring 2019 sabbatical. I'll have to submit the proposal this fall, which means I need to figure out fairly quickly what kind of research I expect to be doing 18 months from now. (Where's that crystal ball?)

5. Speaking of research...well I don't know just exactly what I need to do to beat that unfinished article into submittable condition (because I haven't looked at it in eons), but that's pretty high on my list of priorities. And after that, I can take a look at expanding that conference paper into a full journal article.

6. Paint the smaller spare room and hang some new pictures on the walls. And while I'm at it, I should print some new photos to hang in the living room, where my new bird painting has brightened the place up and made the old photos look dated and dingy. Time for a face-lift!

7. Wow, how long has it been since the canoe touched water? At some point this summer I hope to find myself paddling on a peaceful body of water while reciting "Thanks." 

But none of this will ever happen if I don't get to work. Work: what summer is for. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Eyes on the road

"How can you drive all that distance by yourself," my friends ask, but I want to tell them: the driving doesn't bother me. I can drive and drive and drive and as long as I take regular breaks to get out and walk around, I'm fine--until my eyes start failing me.

I wear prescription sunglasses, use soothing eye drops, keep the visors down when the sun is in my face, but at the end of a long driving day my eyes feel dry and gritty and burned and battered, as if they've been dragged behind the car hundreds of miles up I-95.

Which is why I'm taking a day to relax at my brother's house in North Carolina before making the final push back home. I'll visit a garden, meet a former colleague for lunch, and hang out with family after they get off work, but mostly I'm just resting my eyes, pointing them at soothing green things so they can recover a bit before I put them back to work again tomorrow.

This has been a good trip, mostly smooth and without incident. I even had time for a relaxing walk in the middle of my drive north yesterday, stopping at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge for some timely R&R before taking myself out to lunch. (Not that you asked, but: the new pico guacamole chicken sandwich at McDonald's is great, but don't try to eat it while driving unless guacamole complements your wardrobe.)

My calendar reminded me this morning to water the plants in my office, just one of the many tasks I'll have awaiting me when I get home. I'm eager to get going on a writing project, paint a room, hang some new pictures, and help put plants into the garden. But first, I've got a long road ahead and a full day to get my eyes ready to make the trip.  

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Of grief and gratitude

A year after my mother's death, I took Dad to the cemetery to visit her grave. The flowers are lovely and the epitaph perfectly describes her character, but I didn't feel her presence--didn't feel anything, really. The whole place felt empty and quiet--dead quiet.

Later I sat in a park she loved and read a little book and there I saw her smile in the azalea blossoms, heard her gentle voice in the breeze from the lake, and if I let my imagination run wild I could almost see her puttering amongst the rose bushes. She taught me long ago to pause and appreciate beauty, to cherish growing things, so that's where I go to remember the Mom I knew before illness stilled her busy hands.

I was reading  Gratitude, a little book comprising four essays Oliver Sacks wrote when he knew he was dying. "I cannot pretend I am without fear," he wrote, "But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved, I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Sacks writes gently and poetically of his coming death, but the new Terence Davies film A Quiet Passion looks without flinching at its horrors. Cynthia Nixon portrays Emily Dickinson as first playful and witty and, later, bitter, angry, caustic in her contempt for foolishness. Her tenderness emerges full force in scenes on her mother's deathbed, when Emily and her sister Lavinia pour body and soul into easing their mother's passing, but the film does not sugarcoat the ugliness of fleshly decay or turn away from the painful final breaths. Emily's death is even more brutal, but her flailing and desperate gasping for breath lead seamlessly into quiet moments of peace and poetry, reminding us that "Parting is all we know of heaven / and all we need of hell."

The film, the visit to the park, the book all felt cathartic, opening a  place where pain and beauty could coexist peacefully. I keep coming back to the final essay in Gratitude, "Sabbath," in which Oliver Sacks muses on his on-and-off relationship with religion over his long life. The final words were written just weeks before this death:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
For my mother's final rest, I give thanks. For her life that touched so many people, that taught me to see beauty and cherish growth, that allowed me to hear her wisdom even after her voice has been stilled, I have nothing but gratitude.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A hot hike in a wet place

Glossy ibis--my favorite photo of the day.
The first thing I saw when I got out of the car was a swallow-tailed kite flying overhead--but of course it disappeared before I'd opened my camera bag. 

The middle of a very hot afternoon is the wrong time to take a hike around a wetland, but that's the way my trip went yesterday. The temperature was over 90 with not a cloud in the sky and no shade along the trail, but I had remembered my hat, sunscreen, and water bottle and I was not planning to let the heat deter me.

I've wanted to visit Orlando Wetlands Park for years, but it kept being closed for hunting season or otherwise inaccessible. I spent only an hour there yesterday but that was long enough in the heat; I saw egrets, herons, whistling ducks, ibises, anhingas, limpkins, moorhens, and a great big hawk, plus a pair of turtles and a whole lot of peace and beauty.  Later I went to a local park with an old friend to gawk at anhingas and watch a fish go airborne--involuntarily. 

My wetlands walk left me sweaty and sunburned with blisters on my feet (because I wore the wrong shoes), but it made me want to go back. (Preferably when it's not so hot.)

Limpkin and ducks

juvenile ibis


a very surprised fish

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Rest stops on a trip down memory lane

That's me on the left.
Last year at this time I was driving desperately down I-95 trying to get to Florida for my mother's last days; this year I'm making the same trip minus the desperation. I left early Monday and so far I've spent time with an old friend in North Carolina and another in Savannah, along with some interesting birds and dragonflies. Now I'm having a restful lunch near Port Orange, Florida, before making the final push to my Dad's house near Orlando. Eventually I'll be turning around to make the drive back--when I feel like it. Well, next week sometime, but no rush.

In the past two days I've spent time on Frog Level Road and marveled once again over Horse Stamp Church Road, names that make me wonder about origins. (A church named after a postage stamp portraying a horse? A church where a horse once tromped on some important person? And what is a "frog level"? The mind boggles.)

The friends I've visited are the oldest kind--I've known them both since sixth or seventh grade, and while we don't see each other often, we always pick up right where we left off. One brought out a stack of old photos and letters from our youth when we were thin and full of smiles and energy; I read a note I scribbled to complain about my hated driver's ed class, and I saw a young person driven even then to transform anguish into comedy. (For the record, the only B I received in high school was in driver's ed, primarily because I flunked parallel parking. Today I totally rock at parallel parking--and I taught both of my kids to drive a manual transmission car--so yes, I kind of resent that B.)

Both of these friends inspire me with the good work they do, in their jobs and in their communities, and they know how to ask the kinds of questions that cut to the heart of what we care about. Old friends remind me who I was and who I am, but they also fill me with curiosity about who we will all be further down the road. 

The only way to find out, though, is to get back in the car. 

Brown-headed  nuthatch

Little blue heron

It was so hot the mud looked appealing...almost.

Cattle egret, breeding plumage

I love the pastel colors on this guy's head.