Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Another reason to admire spiders

I was weed-whacking the other day when a flurry of activity in the grass caught my attention--something fleeing the carnage! A mouse? A snake? No: just a spider.

And what a spider! I've seen spiders that size in nightmares and behind glass at the zoo; if I saw one like that inside my house, I'd be frantically trying to smash it while dreading the thought of that big globular body going splat.

Outside, though, I was happy to let the spider scurry away. I can live happily with spiders and snakes and other creepy-crawlies as long as they respect my boundaries.

I admire the artistry of spiders' webs and the myriad ways they've developed to feed themselves--and now I've just read about another reason to admire them. An article on The Atlantic's website (click here) introduces a spider species that traps insects by sucking waxy substances from the insect's own body until "The victim literally becomes a part of the web, inadvertently strengthening the instrument of its own capture." 


This week I'm memorizing Walt Whitman's poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider,"  wherein Whitman marvels as the isolated spider launches forth "filament, filament, filament, out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them." Whitman transforms the spider's effortless striving into a metaphor for the work of his own soul: "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, / Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, oh my soul."

It's a striking image and an admirable goal: would that we would all send forth filaments into the world until we connect with something that can feed our hungers. This is Whitman's modus operandi: marvel at something in the natural world because it mirrors some admirable quality in himself, praise the horses that seem so majestic because they bring him "tokens" of himself. And it's not just Whitman: much nineteenth-century poetry utilizes elements of nature didactically, to provide lessons for human behavior.

But spiders don't have to be transformed into metaphors to be admired. Their webs are wonders of delicate beauty linked with strength, which the spiders create entirely by instinct, lacking any aesthetic sense. And as the Atlantic article reminds us, they do far more amazing things that we'll never see--unless we have access to an electron microscope.

I don't know anything about the spider that fled my weed-whacker except that it was huge and it was moving really quickly to avoid destruction. How does it feed and reproduce? Does it build an aerial web or burrow underground? It's a mystery. All I know is that it survives, despite my powerfully disturbing its environment.     

I could have stomped him right there, but I was happy to let the spider go on its noiseless, patient way--as long as it stays out of my house.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

Immersed in memories (and dust)

Kerry Wood, feeling neglected
The best part about cleaning out the closet in my son's old bedroom was what I didn't find: mouse holes, mouse droppings, or piles of dead bugs, all of which have turned up in other neglected closets in our house. The worst part was fighting through a blanket of dust that hasn't been disturbed in years, but it's all for a good cause: getting ready to paint that room and make it more welcoming to the grandkids.

Excavating a jam-packed closet was not how I had planned to spend Memorial Day, but the garden is too wet to allow more planting and it looks like more rain is on the way, so I decided to stick to an indoor activity. What better day to immerse myself in forgotten strata of childhood detritus?

Here's my son's old stuffed panda bear, growing a heavy coat of dust. Here's his Millennium Falcon model showing signs of use alongside three or four model airplane kits still in the unopened boxes. And oh hey, here's a very nice bicycle pump! Surely that could be put to good use, and if my son doesn't want his old rollerblades anymore, there must be some kid out there somewhere who will treasure them.

I make one big pile of toys the grandkids can use--Legos! Beanie Babies! Marble tower!--and another of things no one will ever need, like a box of broken crayons and a pile of corroded batteries. The most surprising item is a headrest that belonged in a car that went to the junkyard years ago. Why is it still here?

Most of the stuff, though, falls somewhere in that gray zone between total junk and valuable only to a limited audience: flimsy plastic Little League trophies, band competition medals, a pinewood derby car with part of an old tie clasp glued on (for ballast and style). Who wants a Kerry Wood bobble-head? Who even remembers that Kerry Wood played long enough for the Cleveland Indians to earn his own bobble-head? 

I've left a pile of such items for my son to sort through, and after that I'll get to work on painting. I haven't picked a color yet, but right now I'm content to leave the closet the color of clean.    

Why is this here?


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.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Rendering tiny Puritans tskless

With grading done and Commencement commencing tomorrow afternoon, I'll spend today doing household tasks and packing for my trip to Florida, which commences early Monday morning. But throughout the day I'll glance with pleasure at this marvelous painting of birds that now brightens up my living room.

The artist is Beth Nash, a colleague of mine whose work I've coveted for years. I can't begin to afford her oil paintings but she had a pretty good price on some acrylic pieces at the Brick Street Arts Bash two weeks ago and I could not resist. The tiny Puritans who live inside my head tsk tsk and tell me it's frivolous to spend money on something that does nothing but bring me pleasure, but if I amortize the price over the number of smiles this painting is destined to provide, it comes out to just pennies per day.

And if that won't make the tiny Puritans shut up, I'll force them to look at the painting. Before long they'll be too busy smiling to issue any tsks.

Friday, May 05, 2017

End-of-semester questions (possibly unanswerable)

I've been asking students questions all semester--on exams, on essay prompts, in class discussions--but grading all those final exams and papers raises some questions I have to ask myself:

If 10 students turn in fun, creative, coherent, polished papers that make me want to pat myself on the back for inspiring them but one student turns in a steaming pile of poo, why do I obsess about the one instead of celebrating the rest? 

And why do I agonize over the fate of that one student who underperformed this semester when other students earned an F without registering so much as a blip on my emotional radar?

If the majority of students in a class make A's and B's, am I guilty of grade inflation or is it a result of the peculiar makeup of the class? And on the other hand, if a significant number of my composition students made grades low enough to require them to repeat the course, how much of their failure is a result of my teaching?

And how silly is it to tell myself "This assignment produced lousy papers" when the assignment itself produces nothing? I've used that assignment before and the results were fine. What changed this time?

What can I do to improve? This is the question that will haunt me as I prepare for next fall's classes, but I won't try answering it today or my little gray cells will go on strike. Besides, I've got all summer. (Starting right now.)


Thursday, May 04, 2017

When defenestration feels like a reasonable option

I get to a point during every finals week when I can't reliably distinguish between coherent prose and gibberish. I see stnzs in a student paper and I pause to search my memory, wondering whether it's an acronym I ought to know or an esoteric term I've long forgotten. Maybe stnzs is the name for how my brain feels during finals week, like an elastic waistband stretched to encase the entire world and unwilling to bounce back: Watch out for that one--she's suffering from stnzs.

Or maybe stnzs is supposed to be stanzas, which would certainly make sense in the context. My inability to immediately recognize stnzs as a non-word is certainly a symptom of something--but it's not the only symptom.

Today I'm suffering from repeatitis, an increase in blood pressure caused by the necessity of repeating the same inane comments over and over again. I don't know how many times today I've reminded students (in writing) that conscious and conscience are very different words or that one criterion multiplies into many criteria or that rhyme and rhythm aren't alternate  ways of spelling the same concept.

And at the same time the exhaustion that accompanies end-of-the-semester demands leads to a bad case of atrophy of the emotional cushion, when the thick layer of patience and good will that once kept anger in check has worn to a thin, fragile membrane easily pierced by the least effort. Yesterday afternoon it took every ounce of self-control I possess to refrain from yelling at a student simply because she had mistaken me for a phone book. 

But then I'd been proctoring exams for five hours, which takes a little something out of me. The students are the ones doing all the hard work, so why does exam-proctoring make me feel as if I've run across the Sahara without a water bottle? In the last half hour of a final exam, when only two or three students remain at work meticulously crafting their responses to the prompt, I have to fight off attacks of the finals fidgets that make me want to grab all their papers and toss them out the window.

But that would be bad. So I sit on my hands and hum silently to myself, or I go back to grading student papers that present me with stnzs and other evidence that someone isn't thinking straight. I just hope it isn't me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A noisy house is a happy house

Six a.m. on a day when I don't have to give any finals and I haven't ingested my quota of caffeine yet so I'm still feeling my way around trying to figure out what's going on in the world. The only sounds come from the earliest birds tuning up their morning songs--their warbles and whistles and tweets--plus a fluty little warbling from the spare room: my granddaughter singing "Amazing Grace." Like her mother, she wakes up singing.

And that's not the only wonderful sound we've heard in the past couple of days. Yesterday we heard her laughter and her brother's when we went down the meadow to fly an octopus-shaped kite, her joy at finding puddles to jump in, his delight in searching for treasure inside Grampa's mouth. 

She tells me that she's big enough now to enjoy spicy foods, and when she spills a little something on the kitchen floor, she runs for a dish towel and says "Water on wood is not good!" He finds a little thing to put inside a big thing and shakes the whole thing around to hear it clatter and then flings it across the floor.

It's true that we've had to hear some less pleasant noises in the past couple of days. Someone had a nightmare and started screaming in the wee hours. Someone woke up cranky and needing to be fed. Someone got a boo-boo and shrieked her pain until Grampa applied some soothing ointment. Those are the sounds we expect when we suddenly have little people in the house.

But nothing is better than hearing my grandchildren shriek with laughter, or hearing that tiny voice waking up singing. What did I ever do to deserve such grace?

Gathering up the kite tail

I know there's something in there!

Beware the flying octopus