Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A poem for St. Brigid's Day 2016

Every year at this time I post a poem in honor of St. Brigid, whose feast day is today. She is the saint (goddess) of poetry, midwifery, and blacksmithing. (How's that for an unexpected trio of life skills?)

This morning I read an email from my Mom about my great-grandmother, Leokadya Goralski (born Muczynski), whose birthday is today, and who was my Busia. She came to the U.S. from Poland and raised her family of eight kids in a tiny row house in Baltimore--no electricity, no indoor plumbing. She worked in a factory at some point. Her husband Anthony died following an accident in the factory where he worked. She must have had a hard life; in addition to losing her husband, she also endured the death of several children.

When I was little, every weekend that my sister and I spent at my Dad's, we went to visit Busia. I only remember her as an old woman who was ill and had to be taken care of by my (Great) Uncle Jim, but I see her now as an example of strength, determination, and kindness. She had welcomed my mother (not Polish) into the family; my Mom says Busia made the best chrusciki and paczski. Every weekend that we went to visit, my sister and I were given cookies and a little spending money, and she let us play with her ceramic figurines as long as we were careful and didn't hurt them. I remember a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the corner, presiding over Busia's home space, the mother's foot on a serpent, her veil a beautiful blue.

Since I'm thinking about Busia today, I thought I would share a poem by a Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1996. This poem comes from the book Here, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanslaw Baranczak. It reminds me of a time when my then-boss, Sherry Levy-Reiner, told me she had seen another me on her trip to Poland, a young woman crossing the street toward her, so very like me that she almost called my name.



"Thoughts that Visit Me on Busy Streets"

Faces.
Billions of faces on the earth's surface.
Each different, so we're told,
from those that have been and will be.
But Nature--since who really understands her?--
may grow tired of her ceaseless labors
and so repeats earlier ideas
by supplying us
with preworn faces.

Those passersby might be Archimedes in jeans,
Catherine the Great draped in resale,
some pharaoh with briefcase and glasses.

An unshod shoemaker's widow
from a still pint-sized Warsaw,
the master from the cave at Altamira
taking his grandkids to the zoo,
a shaggy Vandal en route to the museum
to gasp at past masters.

The fallen from two hundred centuries ago,
five centuries ago,
half a century ago.

One brought here in a golden carriage,
Another conveyed by extermination transport,
Montezuma, Confucius, Nebuchadnezzar,
their nannies, their laundresses, and Semiramida
who only speaks English.

Billions of faces on the earth's surface.
My face, yours, whose--
you'll never know.
Maybe Nature has to shortchange us,
and to keep up, meet demand,
she fishes up what's been sunk
in the mirror of oblivion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Wait, what?

This is what it feels like to start a long-awaited sabbatical with being sick:

*sigh*

I'm spending my days mostly on the couch. This is week two of the festivities. I'm watching Netflix, reading (exclusively stuff I will most likely never teach). Not doing a lot of knitting--it feels too effortful. (That's how I know I'm really sick.) Cancelling plans a day at a time. Even stuff I really want/wanted to do.

Maximum cat snuggles potential is nice.
Even if they do give me looks like this.

I had already planned to start sabbatical with REST--desperately needed. And I was going to add into the early weeks some fun things to do--go to a museum, take my camera for a walk around the neighborhood, go pray by the river. My spirit needs some fluffing up, some nurturing. It needs space to expand into and beauty to look at. But the body makes its demands first, and this smart woman is going to listen (for a change).

We also have occasional five-minute bursts of David Bowie Dance Party
(including singing and sometimes crying, but that's getting better, at last).

On the good side: being on sabbatical means I can actually take sick days, time to recover and heal. Also on the good side: I am excited about my writing and research projects even though I don't know exactly the shape the final product will take and even though this not knowing is slightly terrifying.

For now, that's not up to me. For now, my job is to rest and heal. So that's what I'm doing.

May you feel well and whole.
Karen

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Off the couch (sometimes)

Dec. 28, 2015: a momentous run!

Dexter and I celebrated our "runniversary" just after Christmas, marking the date we started the "Couch to 5k" program a year ago. Woohoo!

Back in December 2014, I had seen a couple friends posting their C25k progress on FB, and Dexter and I both needed some exercise, so I thought: what the heck, let's give this a try. I downloaded the app onto my phone, and off we went. I wasn't sure we would stick to it. We even waited a few weeks before investing in good running shoes. (We eventually got them at Fleet Feet, which I loved. They watched our feet while we ran and had us try on different brands. We ended up with really great shoes.)

Brand new shoes on their first run.

When we started, just running for a minute and a half was a challenge. The brilliant thing about the C25k app is that it starts you off s-l-o-w, working up gradually to longer and longer intervals of running in between lots of walking. There were a couple of times when we repeated a particular week's training because we didn't feel like we'd really mastered it yet. And there were a couple of times where we took a week or so off for illness, then went back a couple weeks in the program. We made it work for us, and it worked great.

We ran outside a lot--even when it was snowing!

Though I definitely enjoyed the "getting fit" aspect of the program, even better was the fact that I was spending time with Dexter three times a week, talking about whatever for a half hour or so while we worked our way through the program. There was no agenda, and our topics ranged from silly to thoughtful. He put up with my penchant for post-run selfies, and I put up with his gaming stories. Ha!

Cheese!
Mwah!


We ran our first 5k in April (the Westerville Bunny Hop, on Easter weekend), and a couple more since then (the Music in Motion 5k in October, and the Delaware Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving). I'm hoping we'll do a few more in 2016.

After our first 5k: we were ecstatic about the fact that
a) we finished, and b) we ran the whole time!
He pulled way ahead of me after the first k. I was proud of both of us.


After our October 5k
In the summer months, Dexter and I started to run together less frequently--probably in part because he's less "into it" than I am, but also because our pace is so different. Being OLD and creaky, I like to go slow for a longer distance; being a teenager who is noticeably taller than me (with longer, younger legs), he likes to run the first mile pretty fast, and then he's done.

Our running shadows


These days, I am still doing my 2.5 miles three times a week, but he's back in school, taking p.e. class every day, and only running occasionally. Every once in a while we'll hit the road together, and spend at least the first mile keeping pace with each other, chatting. I miss this.

For the special occasion of our runniversary, we ran together again. It was not the best run... It had been raining incessantly for weeks (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but only slight). We waited until the rain stopped to venture out only to have the clouds dump buckets on us when we were about a half mile from home. Not a great run, but we made it.

Post runniversary run: soaking wet and fogged glasses, but done!


Here are our stats for Dec. 28, 2014 through Dec. 28, 2015:
Miles run: 232.5 (about 374 kilometers)
Time: 53:13:06
Workouts: 27

Not bad, if I do say so myself. Here's hoping I--and we--have some good runs in 2016!

Cheers,
Karen

Being... mysterious?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Garden harbingers

I mostly neglect my garden. A victim of my schedule and feelings of overwhelm, it sits and waits for some hand more loving than mine; I tried for a while, but couldn’t keep up.

Some of the neighbors remember Fred, the former owner of our house, who was out there every day, pruning, weeding, planting, clipping, mulching, and weeding again, always weeding. The weeds grow better than anything else, of course, even though Fred was a master of this space, making everything produce. His beds were so plentiful that he took plants from them and would sneak them into neighbors’ gardens.

Fred planted perennials, so our yard still echoes his labor every year: first, the crocuses that come just in time to remind us that the snow and ice won’t last forever; then the daffodils (jonquils) and tulips, hundreds of them, so astonishing that strangers have stopped to admire them, and I always tell them to take some home; then the lilies, of every size and color, the tall spiky ones blooming every year around my nephew’s birthday, the others just in time one year to take to a friend whose mother died; the hostas leaf out striped, with spikes of purple flowers, and the little shrub of something-or-other bursts into little yellow flowers that litter the driveway when it sheds in the early fall.

For the first few years we lived here, I took care of Fred’s garden, maintaining his flowers, pulling the weeds that grew incessantly. When our campus hosted Michael Pollan, whose book Botany of Desire claimed plants shape human behavior through making us desire certain things in them, I thought I could write a book about my garden called Botany of You’re Pissing Me Off. All I ever did was weed. I even had my picture in the paper one summer, the photographer driving down our street as I pulled the pests out of the ground. As I bent over, the lilies were up to my eyebrows, occasionally leaving rust-colored dirt on me that wouldn’t wash off.

But it’s been years since I spent a whole day out there, or even an afternoon. When a whim strikes, I will pull the deadheads after the daffodils are done, or clear the front bed of the dandelions that are a constant. We won’t use poison. And we don't have the man-hours it takes to pull everything out by hand. I imagine that our neighbors look at our yard and shake their heads: what is wrong with these people? I once cared carefully for a balloon plant in the front, and a bleeding heart in another bed, and the poppies near that, but they are gone now, all of them. I have repeatedly planted rosemary, but it doesn’t winter over here. We go away every summer; during the school year we're working too much. The garden has taken the furthest-back back seat in the station wagon for a long time now.

Probably the garden’s death knell was the grass. (How is it that I love the grass on the prairie, but hate it on lawns here in the woodlands?) We took out the black rubber guards along the edge of the garden that weren’t working very well and seemed to be wandering out of the ground on their own; we meant to replace them with a rock wall, or a brick wall, or something, until we found out how much it would cost. I turned my face away and tried to ignore it, finally giving Patrick permission to mow most of the beds in the front yard, more grass than flower anyway. Then he pulled up all the Echinacea in the other part, the still-flowered part, because he thought it was a weed. My heart stopped when I saw the emptied beds, the deed over and done, too late to try to show him the difference between the real weeds and the ones I wanted to keep. But I wasn’t taking care of the garden anymore, after all; what right did I have to complain?

The ornamental grass that sends up tassels when school starts...
Despite my neglect, I do look to a few plants this time of year for certain signs. In late summer, the ornamental grass by the driveway entrance puts out blooms when school starts, feathery tassels that lean as the stems wane from green to golden. There’s a large shrub by the front of the house; most of the year it is the most boring-looking thing, and we wonder if we should get rid of it—if it should be chopped down and dug out, like the boxwoods. This shrub is tall and rangy, and probably we should be trimming it. But the spectacle it becomes in the fall convinces me to keep it, and wish it taller, bigger. When the light fades in the evenings and the dry weather arrives, the leaves turn a red so bright you cannot stand to look at it for too long, a cranberry glow by the front window. I always wish it would hold onto those leaves a little longer, hold back the grey of winter.

It looks even brighter than this in person, like it's vibrating...
The tree out back—a magnolia, but small compared to the ones we saw in Atlanta—is our back yard’s drama queen. In early spring, we pet the fuzz that will turn into blooms, and when they arrive, you can catch their scent from the back stairs. But this time of year, I have to watch it carefully or I will miss its autumn transition. It’s just starting today: first, the leaves fade to yellow and brown; unlike the neighborhood maples, it will go all at once, the whole tree turning a pale gold. It's an achy beauty that is so fleeting. Within a day or maybe two, all of the leaves fall to the ground. The tree’s branches are naked, bereft, and the gold lies below, turning brown and decomposing.

The little magnolia, green-gold today...

I look to those two guardians, one by the front window, and one taking up the view out the back window, to show me the coming winter. I listen for what they’re telling me, trying to discern: is it something about decay, about the nearness of death? About what to do in the face of that fact? Am I to learn how to conduct myself as hardship approaches? Do I send out a flag, send up a flare, even as the energy in my roots returns to the earth, heading underground as ice hints its arrival? Is it something to know about singing as the end comes?

I don’t know. How could I know? So I listen.

Love,
Karen

P.S. It’s that time of year when I listen for my ancestors—the ones of blood and the ones of spirit, the formerly human kind and other kinds as well, the ones whose work sustains me and brings me art to try to learn and understand some things about being a being on the planet. I hope you get to talk to your ancestors, too. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Writing Fridays ROCK!

Look what I got in the mail! The latest copy of my favorite journal...

My favorite journal...
 And look what's inside, RIGHT THERE in the table of contents:

Hey, that's MY name!

Yup, that's my work. Written by me. Researched by me. Revised by me. Sent to people who gave me awesome feedback. Revised again by me. Rethought by me. Revised some more by me. Agonized over by me. It was a long and arduous process, but I am so excited to have a published article in my favorite journal, among writers and scholars whose work I admire. I couldn't be more pleased.

And I have to put in a plug here for Writing Fridays because y'all: THEY WORK.

A couple years ago, I manipulated my class schedule so that instead of teaching five days a week, I started teaching four days a week and working at home on writing projects on Fridays. 

This was not a thing I was supposed to do. I invented a time slot in the class schedule that didn't exist so that I could make my MWF classes MW classes instead (for longer time slots). I was kind of breaking the rules, and going against what I'd been told when I was hired (that I needed to be on campus five days a week). I definitely felt like a few people on campus disapproved, particularly when I let people know I would not be available on Fridays for meetings, either. 

I have a really hard time doing things that people--especially peers and mentors--disapprove of. (Understatement Alert!) But in order to be productive--to do the hard work of thinking, writing, revising--I needed a big block of quiet time, and a place where I could dive in and go deep. I still do, actually, and post my Writing Friday updates on FB as part of keeping myself accountable for putting in the time and effort during the school year, when I'm exhausted and overscheduled and everything is urgent and needs my attention. Writing Friday is a way of making space in that whirling vortex of crazy to listen for my own voice.

Revising with tea in a most excellent mug.

Of course, it isn't all about me. Even as I find the space to work in quiet, I am part of a network of people whose talent and generosity makes my work possible. I need to take a moment here to say:

-- thank you to Heid E. Erdrich, whose poetry is so compelling that I wanted to write about it, to find a way to express why I think it's so important. (Go read her work, y'all, and don't forget to click on the links for the video poems.)
-- thank you to SAIL editor Chad Allen, plus the anonymous readers who read my submission and who challenged me to do some revisions that made the resulting work so much stronger.
-- thank you to Nancy Comorau, who is my writing buddy and is always encouraging and full of smart ideas, no matter how messy my drafts are.
-- thank you to Amber Nabers, a student whose paper helped to spark mine; teaching really does lead to learning when you have thoughtful, engaged students like Amber.
-- thank you to Dee Peterson, who shared her resources about museum history with me.
-- thank you to the clan mothers and brothers of the Native American Literature Symposium, where in March 2012 I presented the germ of the idea that led to this article. 

I will always be grateful that these beautiful people, most of whom I count as friends now, encouraged me and challenged me and welcomed me and held my feet to the fire. They helped me find my voice again after a long silence, and I can never fully express my gratitude for that. They helped me find the courage to sing again. I think they kind of saved my life a little bit. Yes, I'm sure of it.

May you find something that helps you sing!

Cheers,
Karen

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An explanation of sorts

I came to D.C. this past weekend for the Hawai'i Cultural Festival at the NMAI, and my goodness, it was wonderful! It was kind of crazy to take off and drive for hours and hours just after 3 days of post-grading school work (2.5 days of meetings and a half day of other chores). But I really wanted to see the events planned around the theme: The Journey of Pele and Hi'iaka.

This is the epic tale of the Indigenous people of Hawai'i, around which so much of their culture revolves. I enjoyed everything the museum presented--craft demonstrations, children's stories, food, and of course music and chant and hula. My goddess, the hula was healing. Within a few hours I was remembering what it felt like to be in Hawai'i, and able to recall words I learned last year. Much of what I saw was very moving and inspiring.

I also decided to stay a few days extra but not really tell anyone (except Mom, of course, and brother Tom, whose place I've been staying at, and Patrick and Dexter back home). I felt like I needed a few days to myself--alone in the city, retracing some of the steps of my old life here, walking places, noticing and observing, looking for beautiful things. But not meeting with friends.

I felt like I would not be good company. I've been feeling a little crispy around the edges after this year of teaching, and I'm in need of some quiet time. As much as I love my friends, I did not feel up to interacting. It kind of hurts me to admit this, as if it is a kind of weakness. And I don't want people to think I'm being cold. But I felt I had to go with what my gut has been telling me.

Part of all of this, too, is facing some questions that have come up in mid life (right on schedule, or maybe even a few years late). Nothing surprising: what does the next chapter look like, after retirement? Where will we live? What will I do? My job, which I love, also takes so much out of me, to the point where I wonder if I can do it for another 15 years. But what would I do if I didn't teach? How could I not do the job it took me so many years and so much hard work and a lot of luck to get? How could I live without that feeling I get when I know I have helped someone grow and learn and see things in a new way?

Today is my last day here. After two days of sweltering heat and humidity, it's beautiful. I will go to the National Gallery of Art; my goal is to sit in front of some of the landscape paintings and... just sit. And look. And try not to worry. And give in to my not knowing.

Wishing you beauty and love,
Karen

P.S. Later on I will update this post with some pictures. It looks kind of bare without them, but I wanted to get this here in a hurry before I head out the door.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Silent poetry reading for the Feast of Saint Brigid, 2015

Dear friends,

As I have noted in past years, Feb. 2nd is the Feast of Saint Brigid, goddess of the forge, patron saint of midwives, and lover of poetry. I am participating in the "Silent Poetry Reading" in her honor by posting a poem on my blog.

For this year, I've chosen a poem by Margaret Noodin, reprinted here with her permission. (Thanks, Meg!) You'll notice that the poem is in Ojibwe and English; Meg writes in both. She does amazing and inspiring work on the study, preservation, and revival of Ojibwe language and culture. Check out the videos and sound recordings at ojibwe.net for beautiful and fun stories.

Even though it's icy cold today, and winter feels endless, pretty soon it will be time to tap the maple trees (at least here in Ohio) and harvest spring's sweetness.

"Dibiki-Ziigwaagaame (Night Syrup)"

Ziigwaagame n'daagwaagominaan
I stir syrup into

Makademashkikiabo miinwaa
coffee                          and

kwejimdizo, "Wenesh e-naagamig
I ask myself      "What

dibikiziigwaagame?"
does night syrup taste like?"

Gete-misaabe-zekwekik ina?
The ancient iron kettle?
Giiwedinong giizhik ina?
Northern cedar?
Zagaswans ina?
A bit of smoke?
maage
or
Enangwiiganing aandeg ina?
The wing of a crow?
Moozo akiianzo shkijigan ina?
The brown eye of a moose?
Shki miikans-maamad tigwaking ina?
A new path in the woods?
Ode noondan abita-dibikong ina?
Hearing a heart beat at midnight?

Miidash nsostooyaanh
And then I understand

wiishkobii-kade-aagamide
sweet    dark syrup

bimaadiziwin e-naagamig.
tastes like life.


I hope you enjoy more poetry today, and the returning of the light.

Cheers,
Karen

P.S. This poem can be found in the excellent collection Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, ed. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (U of Arizona Press, 2011), which is available at Birchbark Books.