Thursday, April 20, 2017

This to-do list is for the birds

When I saw the item on my to-do list saying "id sparrows," I thought, great name for a garage band. But what kind of music would The Id Sparrows sing?

Of course the "id sparrows" note was reminding me to try to identify the various sparrows I saw on my morning bird walk today, but it's not easy. For most of my life, all sparrows looked pretty much alike to me, but I've slowly learned to recognize the ones that hang around our feeders: chipping sparrows are wren-sized and have little rusty caps and say "chip." House sparrows have a black bib. White-crowned sparrows' heads are crowned with elegant white stripes. 

But sparrow identification is more difficult in the woods, where the birds insist on sitting in trees where their distinguishing marks are obscured by little bits of leaf or twig. I look at my photos and look in my bird book and look back at my photos and wish I could backtrack and persuade that bird to turn around.

I'd probably have better luck getting The Id Sparrows to sing the Can't Name That Birdie Blues.

Make way for goslings

Tell me your name, sparrow!


Eastern Bluebird


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Further evidence that I'm an old softie

1. I took my class outside today--without being asked.

My creative nonfiction class is small (11 students) and it's a gorgeous morning--and besides, I've just about run out of things to teach them, so why not relax a little? We discussed a reading assignment and examined how comedy can be used to soften up readers and then smuggle in a serious point, and then they took turns reading their own short comic pieces aloud and laughing at each others' cleverness. We weren't even too terribly distracted by the noise of men working on a roof across the way or of the guy who cranked up a weed-whacker nearby.

(This is true: years ago I took a freshman comp class outside, first checking to make sure the coast was clear, and we were all sitting there on the lawn doing good work very diligently for about 20 minutes. Then the mowers showed up and started circling us like vultures. It is impossible to continue blithely conducting a class whilst being circled by ravenous lawnmowers.)

2. I've given that class Thursday as a research day, wink wink. All across campus, Friday classes are cancelled for our annual All Scholars Day, when students present the results of their research projects, but Thursday classes are supposed to meet as scheduled. However, many of the students in that class are giving presentations on Friday and they're all working on their final major project for my class (due next Monday), so no one's going to be paying any attention to anything I have to say on Thursday, even if I hadn't already run out of things to teach them. So they get a research day (may they use it wisely).

3. I'm offering small bits of extra credit in all my other classes. They have to work for those little bundles of bonus points (by attending All Scholars Day presentations and writing about what they've learned and how it relates to our class content, or by doing an extra assignment analyzing the films we'll be watching in class next week in particular ways), but for the desperate, any little bit helps and they're not particularly onerous to grade. It's even possible that they could (gasp!) learn something. Which, I think, is kind of the point.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spring, surprising

pawpaw blossoms
I went out looking for jack-in-the-pulpit this morning in a patch of woods where I saw it a few years ago. Okay, maybe more than a few. Frankly, I don't remember how long it's been since I saw jack-in-the-pulpit growing in our woods, but I still go out there around this time every spring hoping to see it, and the trip is never wasted, even if I don't find what I'm looking for.

This morning I saw mayapples just beginning to poke out of the ground and unfurl their little green umbrellas. I saw tiny forests of stonecrop cropping up along the cliff face, delicate green fronds of solomon's seal dangling tiny buds beneath the stems, and more trilliums and trout lilies and bloodroot (done blooming) than I could have imagined.

Trees are blooming too, the maples and redbud putting on a show while velvety red-brown pawpaw blossoms hide inconspicuously along bare branches. And back there on the slope where the pawpaws grow, where I went in vain to look for jack-in-the-pulpit, I saw something I've never seen before: tiny twinleaf buds just barely emerged from the ground.

Later in the season, after the delicate white flowers have faded, the twinleaf will grow tall and spread showy leaves in clumps along that slope, where they're easy to see from the driveway. Now, though, they're barely visible unless you're right on top of 'em, tiny purply twin leaves folded tight alongside an insignificant white bud. If I go back tomorrow or Monday, I may see a blossom, but I'd better not delay too long because they don't last.

I saw poison ivy too, the first of the season, and garlic mustard and a well-hidden critter hole that tripped me up and nearly sent me sprawling down the hill. Spring is a double-edge sword, bringing threat alongside the beauty. This time it didn't bring me jack-in-the-pulpit, but there's still time to hope and search and stumble. And if I don't find what I'm looking for, I know I'll find something worth finding.

mayapple unfurling


twinleaf bud



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dispatches from Death Week

Half of my students were missing this morning, and I can't say that I blame them--who wants to sit in a stuffy classroom and discuss two essays about death on such a gorgeous spring day? I'd rather be outdoors too, but I'm the one who assigned these essays and I'm going to have to lead my students through them, even if some of them would prefer not to. 

I'm not sure how this turned out to be Death Week in all my classes; I planned the syllabi separately and certainly did not intend to pile up all the morbidity in one big decaying lump. Yesterday's reading in Concepts of Nature stumbled over a rotting carcass and tomorrow's considers an entire landscape of decay, while in American Lit Survey we're reading Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," a poem I last taught at this time last year while my mother lay dying.

Now I'm awaiting word from my dad on some recent health problems while trying to plan a trip to Florida that has been delayed twice by forces outside my control (and while Hurricane Matthew may have been more powerful, I'd rather weather a dozen hurricanes than ever again have to deal with customer service at Spirit Airlines), so naturally my Creative Nonfiction class today was all about death and its rituals.

We read the remarkable "Pyre" by Amitava Kumar alongside Thomas Lynch's incomparable essay "The Undertaking," in which he breathes new life into the cliche about one hand washing the other. I knew I would get weepy if I lingered too long in the final pages of that essay so I'd hoped to set the students loose to talk about it, but half of them were missing. It was just me and a few brave souls talking about how we make sense of death, how rituals help us translate trauma into narrative. 

My students wrote beautifully about rituals they've observed, mostly not morbid: the pre-game rituals of softball players, the orderly steps we take in getting our faces ready to meet the world, the delicate choreography involved in deciding when and whether to greet someone we sort-of know who is about to enter within "interaction distance." 

And I talked about the ad-hoc rituals that arise spontaneously when disaster strikes--the piles of flowers outside the dead celebrity's mansion, the teddy bears piled near the shooting scene, and the roadside memorials marking sites of tragic accidents. I showed my students pictures of the memorial marking the space where the woman died in our creek a few years ago (read it here), a sturdy sign her family erected just up the road from my driveway. The bobble-head whale, sparkly dolphins, and angels that glow in the dark remind me every time I see them that we all grieve in our own ways, some more colorfully than others.

And now I steel myself to teach "One Art" tomorrow. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," insists Elizabeth Bishop, but I'm not sure I agree. Just thinking about teaching that poem makes me tear up, suggesting that I haven't yet mastered the art of losing my mother. Then again, how can we possibly know how we'll handle the losses we have not yet faced? Maybe we won't know whether we've mastered the art of losing until we face our final loss, the last loss that erases all the rest. Maybe, as Bishop suggests, all the other losses are just practice.

But who wants to talk about such morbid stuff on a beautiful spring day? Let's go outside and look at the birds and the flowers and bubbling creek. There'll be time tomorrow to think about death. Today, I'm going to gaze in wonder upon a bright blue bobble-head whale.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On the benefits of being known (a little bit)

This morning (early) I walked into a local coffee shop and the counter person recited my order exactly before I had a chance to open my mouth--medium chai latte with the house chai and skim milk in a mug--even though I haven't set foot in the place for the past three weeks.

It's true that I ordered that same drink roughly once a week for the first six weeks of the semester, but (a) I didn't always order it from the same person and (b) I haven't been in there, as I've mentioned, for three weeks.

This, I think, is one of the great things about being connected to a community: there's always someone who knows me, or at least a little bit of me. If I fail to enter that coffee shop ever again, that knowledge will eventually fade away, but for now I've established enough of a habit that the counter girl knows me as the woman who comes in early on Tuesday mornings, orders a medium chai latte with house chai and skim milk in a mug, and then sits in a comfy chair reading poetry for a half hour or so before going on her way.

Being known for a particular habit feels like having a place in the world. At 7:00 on a Tuesday morning, that's my arm chair, and I can greet the regulars and make some random chit-chat and feel that I belong.

Likewise when I walked the dog up the big horrible hill (in sudden heat) yesterday, I waved to every car that went by and I would have chatted with any neighbors if they'd been out and about. They know me as the woman who walks with the black mutt (although the mutt is walking a little more slowly these days), and if I'm out there without the mutt, I can count on someone to stop and ask if she's okay. 

It's different when I visit my dad's neighborhood in Florida. Traffic can be heavy even in the quiet neighborhoods so there's no point in waving at every car, but I do make a point of saying hello or good morning to anyone I happen to pass on foot--but the only people who ever respond have accents indicating they're not natives. They're outsiders in the neighborhood where I grew up--and at this point, so am I.

If I settled in and stayed a while they'd get to know me as the woman who always says good morning, but a two-week visit isn't long enough to make me real to anyone in that neighborhood. Here, however, I can miss my usual Tuesday morning ritual of chai latte and poetry in the local coffee shop for three whole weeks without fading entirely from local memory, which suggests that if you sit in the same spot often enough, it will eventually become your spot. (At least on Tuesday mornings.)  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Keep the fires burning

A student wrote on a reading quiz that "this poem set my soul on fire--in a good way," and let's not even think about what it would mean to set one's soul on fire in a bad way. Let's instead focus on the fact that this student gets it.

She gets the poem--her answer to the quiz question was thorough, specific, and illuminating--but she also gets it, the elusive quality that sends me pacing back and forth in front of a classroom reading long lines aloud and trying to make students hear--really hear--the truth and beauty bundled up within the poems and their ability to speak to the deepest part of our being. I tell them that poetry allows poets to say the unsayable and they look at me as if I'm speaking gibberish; I try to get them to see what Allen Ginsberg called "the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years" and my students look at me as if I've just asked them to bite into a chunk of rotting meat.

I always hope that the literature I teach will spark a fire in someone's soul, but it's an outcome I can't put on the syllabus and don't know how to assess. If only I could hold a thermometer up to students' souls at the beginning of the semester and again at the end and compare the measurements, I'd have solid evidence of the importance of exposing students to great literature. Lacking an accurate soul-fire thermometer, I have to go by what I see: that spark in a student's eyes as we discuss the poem, the sudden surge of interest in a particular author, or the occasional comment on a course evaluation or a quiz.

But even if I could provide objective evidence of measurable impacts on students' souls, I fear that the assessment people would pooh-pooh the data or that the general education task force would remind me that we're not in the business of setting students' souls on fire. What good will a fired-up soul do in the World of Work? Why, possessing a functioning soul might even impede students' career opportunities! Souls demand care and maintenance, which could distract from career goals, so maybe we would better serve our students by stomping out their soul-fires and sending them forth soulless, free of the need to nurture the interior life.

So it's good to know that once in a while a student gets it, that the experience of reading a poem that some find unintelligible or annoying or offensive or maybe not even very poetic can spark a fire deep inside that will burn long after the student has left my class. The poet spoke and the student heard and now our world will share a little more heat, a little more light. 

Friday, April 07, 2017

For the sake of a weed

Field horsetail, cone open to release spores
What kind of man is willing to lie down on a hard, bumpy road just to get a good angle for a photo of an easily overlooked weed?

My husband is that kind of man. Fortunately, our road is not well-traveled, and I was standing guard in case any cars disrupted the photo session.

We'd been out looking for spring wildflowers, taking advantage of a break in the rains to climb the slick hill across the way and get up close to dutchman's breeches, trilliums, and bloodroot. We found trout lilies blooming alongside the ramps next to our creek, and on the way back from the neighbor's hillside we kept our eyes open for field horsetail.

It's not a particularly photogenic plant in its early stages, looking like a bunch of little brown buds perched on slender, pale stalks only a few inches tall. They grow in the least likely place: the disturbed ground on the edge of the road, where loose gravel and tar mix with the thinnest topsoil. Up close they look like tiny forests of prehistoric trees, opening their cones to release spores that will later produce green summer shoots resembling miniature bamboo--until the county road crew comes along and mows it all down.

It's difficult, though, to get close enough for a good photo without kneeling or sitting or even lying down on that rough road-edge, and I suppose I could have done it myself, but my husband offered to lie down in the road and I didn't try to dissuade him. I'm perfectly willing to risk my life to take a photo of a weed, but if someone else wants an opportunity to do so, who am I to refuse the offer?

trout lily
trout lily

buckeyes sending out new growth


dutchman's breeches


dutchman's breeches



Tiny forest of field horsetail



Thursday, April 06, 2017

April: still cruel after all these years

Bloodroot, blooming!
If April is the cruellest month, it's doubly cruel in the academic world.

No one wants to sit inside grading papers when baseball season has started, when spring wildflowers are blooming and the warbler migration is heading our way. The skies clear and the sun shines and I'm stuck inside with a pile of exams scribbled frantically in handwriting I can't read.

April is when faculty committees and task forces suddenly realize that they have only a few weeks left to complete their tasks, so they panic and plan extra meetings and pile up reports and proposals that everyone has to read and respond to or complain about or protest or ignore, making all our hard work feel futile.

In April we pay taxes, coming face-to-face with the fact that our income hasn't improved for the past five lean years, and the Chronicle publishes its annual report on faculty salaries so that we can see just how far we've fallen behind our peers elsewhere. In April we count the years until retirement and wonder whether we'll ever be paid what we think we're worth, or else we fear that we're not worth any more than what we're getting paid. 

April is when we reward our illustrious students with prizes and banquets and scholarships and massive pats on the back, but it's also when the less illustrious students suddenly realize that they have only a few weeks to pull up those grades and finish those projects. Seniors who have succumbed to senioritis frantically pull themselves together so they can finish well, or at least finish.

In April, desperation gnaws at the edges of just about everything: If I can only get through this project, this proposal, this pile of papers, then maybe things will settle down and I'll start feeling human again. For some students, desperation inspires cheating or lying or obvious plagiarism, while others try to excel at absolutely everything and suffer meltdowns after weeks of little sleep.

If April is the busiest month, it's also the month that requires frequent mental-health breaks. I don't have time to go out and look at wildflowers with this big pile of grading on my desk, but if I don't go outside and let the fresh air blow away the frustration, I'll never get through the pile of grading. 

But April is also the month that makes me squirrel away little notes to myself about how I can make things better next year: Move that assignment a week earlier so it doesn't overlap with the one in that other class; add a catch-up day to the syllabus; take the class outside as soon as the weather allows. One of these days I'll figure out the formula to make April less gruelling. Today, though, I'll just have to put my head down and charge forward. 


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

On the care and feeding of writers, part eleventy-seven

The chief difference between writers and other people, says Lia Purpura, is that "writers write things down." The poet and essayist visited campus last Friday for a public reading and a Q&A with my creative nonfiction students, and today another writer shared her dynamic story with my class--Joy Frank-Collins, an alumna who parlayed her English major and some journalism experience into a career in public relations with a sideline in writing about baseball. As a writer, I could not resist writing some things down during those visits:

When Lia Purpura reads her work, the whole room leans forward, listening. Her essays sound like poetry and her poems carry massive backpacks full of meaning; she admits that the genres seem to be merging and wonders aloud whether "the tributaries will meet at some point in the future." 

Her poems are tributaries with tactile impact; she urges my students to pay attention to anything that makes them sit up and feel on fire, or that scratches an itch or tickles some obscure fancy. Later she talks about the time it takes for a piece of writing to "cure," as if it were a side of bacon or Virginia ham, and she urges them to learn to "build in enough time to let the thing sit and simmer." 

To overcome writer's block, she says, go for a walk--without a phone or iPad or earbuds or other devices. (I can't count the number of times I've urged students to do this, but somehow it means more coming from a "real" writer.) Take a note pad and pen, though, and write stuff down, says Purpura, because like any other craftsman, writers "have to pick stuff up to make things with."

I feel the rhythm of a southern waltz when she reads "Crape Myrtle": "in the morning / between us was nothing / but moments, magenta, / majestic." Now I want to plant a crape myrtle and watch it waltz in the breeze.

As we age, she says, we must find "strategies of remaining curious and remaining young" along with the willingness to take risks, to walk into situations or subjects in which know nothing but persist and make something of it. "The quest is to ask better questions," insists Purpura, "and the essay is the place where you can do that."

Like Lia Purpura, my former student Joy has mastered the art of marching into unfamiliar territory and asking great questions. She says her first job as an entry-level news reporter taught her three essential skills that have served her well throughout her career: writing concisely, writing quickly to meet deadlines, and learning how to learn enough about any topic to be able to explain it clearly to others. When she moved to public relations, the key to success lay in "having good ideas, being bold enough to bring them up to people, and hustling to get ideas noticed."

When students ask why she'd returned to college to complete her degree even though she had constructed a successful career without it, she takes us back to the time when she came to understand that her job wasn't exercising all of her creativity: "I realize that I need to revisit the writer in me--I need to feed my writer."

Which, I guess, is why we're here: bringing in "real" writers, urging students to listen and ask questions, giving them time to let ideas cure or simmer or tickle or hustle. We feed the writer, and then we wait to watch it grow.

Monday, April 03, 2017

A backward writing process

You're writing your essay backward, I tell my student, but I'm not sure she understands so I try to explain:

You're coming up with the points you want to make in your literary analysis and then going to the text to find a few quotes to toss in to support your points, which makes your essay vague and bland and superficial. 

Instead of starting with your ideas, start in the text--the poem, the play, the story you want to illuminate. Don't try to write about the whole thing. Choose a passage--a stanza, a scene, a bit of dialogue--or several passages linked by a common image or character or conflict or some other thread. 

And then before you write a thing, dig into that passage as if you're mining for gold. Look at the words, hear the rhythms and sounds, examine the metaphors and structural elements and every little thing about the passage until it speaks to you, I mean really speaks to you--not in the kinds of shallow cliches easily found in online summaries but in wordless meaning piercing deep into your soul. Only then should you start to write. 

If it's easy, you're doing it wrong. 

If every single sentence in your essay sounds like a clumsy paraphrase of an online summary, you're doing it wrong.

If I can't hear the text in your essay, you're doing it wrong.

If you're trying to write about a literary text before you have immersed yourself so deeply in the text that you feel as if you're drowning, you're doing it wrong.

She nods and smiles--she's getting it! And then she says, "Does this mean I should put in more quotes?"

And all I can think is Maybe this time I'm the one who's doing it wrong.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Everyone needs a friend like that

It's kind of ridiculous how excited I can get about finding a brand-new bloodroot blossom just emerging from the forest floor. They were so tiny we could easily have overlooked them beside the verdant foliage of dutchman's breeches and emerging trilliums, but once we spotted one bloodroot bud, others quickly came into view.

We'd clambered up a steep hillside into the wet woods, my birding-and-botanizing buddy and I. Climbing conditions were not great after an all-day rain and a cold, wet night, but this is our last chance to look for spring wildflowers locally before she moves to Minnesota on Monday. It's been a few years since my B&B buddy introduced me to bloodroot and trout lilies and taught me to distinguish between dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn, and if I tried to count up all the birds and flowers she's helped me see and know, we'd be here all day.

I can't count the number of times we've been out hiking somewhere and she's stopped suddenly and said, "Hear that?" It happened again this morning as we were walking down the driveway, and as usual, I had no idea what she was hearing. "There it is again--zee-zee-zee--could be a kinglet." But it was singing so softly and so high up in a tree that I couldn't see a thing except a brief stir of motion.

But I saw the bloodroot buds barely three inches above the forest floor, and I saw field horsetail and coltsfoot and dutchman's breeches and hepatica--and, of course, trilliums, just on the verge of blooming. We slipped and slid in the mud, trying not to trample tender spring shoots, and we came back feeling cold and wet but encouraged by the renewed emergence of beauty--a beauty I might have missed if I hadn't had a faithful friend to open my eyes.