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.


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!


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,

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 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

does night syrup taste like?"

Gete-misaabe-zekwekik ina?
The ancient iron kettle?
Giiwedinong giizhik ina?
Northern cedar?
Zagaswans ina?
A bit of smoke?
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

sweet    dark syrup

bimaadiziwin e-naagamig.
tastes like life.

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


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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy new year!

It's January 1, 2015. We made it through another year, woohoo!

In years past, I've thought about and wanted to do some of the traditional things a person does on December 31st and January 1st, but this year is the first time I've had the energy to do them. In this post I'll focus on the cleaning, which you're supposed to do on December 31st to get the old year out of the house.

We did indeed sweep last year's worries out of all the rooms and out the back door. (One room needed vacuuming, too, but we're counting that as sweeping.) It felt good. As I swept, I kept thinking: I can let it go, let the worries of yesterday go out the door with these dust bunnies.

But there was something else, too, something kind of unexpected.

A couple of days before the 31st, I suddenly had the urge to go through some of the stuff in my study, a room that used to be our den. (Last year we moved the teevee out, got a big teevee for the front room for Christmas, and converted our little-used living room into a place where we actually hang out--for reading as well as teevee-watching). It was a big change! And my office went from a corner of the living room to the den--a whole room in the house just for me, with a door that shuts and a couple places to sit and work on writing or reading. I'd been wanting that for years, and it feels wonderful to have it, finally.

The problem was that we moved stuff in kind of a hurry, and then there was a cat peeing issue (which might be resolved now, I hope I hope), and it still looked like a mess, a year after the original shift.

I did not put "clean my study" on my to-do list for the winter break, though I thought about it. In fact, I ended up not even making a list; it felt too confining. I survive the semester by making week-by-week lists of all the things that have to get done. I live in fear of forgetting deadlines and such, so the list is necessary. It's even pleasurable to check things off the list, during the semester. But I just couldn't bring myself to make a list for this week.

Instead, I just asked myself, each day: what do I want to do today? What do I feel like doing? What will make me feel happy with this day?

And one day the answer was: clean up some of this mess.

At first I just limited myself to a couple areas; no way was I tackling the whole dang room. Good thing, too, because of course the next thing that happened was that it looked like a worse disaster than it already was. I started to sort through things and make piles and gather things to be given away, things to be recycled, things to be put somewhere else in the house... and it looked like all that stuff had exploded.

(Too bad I didn't take any "during" photos! But really, I could hardly bear to look at the mess, it was so disheartening.)

But I kept at it, and things started to look better, at least to me.

Here are before & after photos of the corner built-in shelf. It probably only looks better to me; the stuff I had crammed on three shelves is now on four.

Before: a bit more crammed and crowded.
After: now I can see stuff!

Before: the cardboard boxes may be practical, but they're depressing.
And then the next day, I thought: okay, I'd like to tackle one more area--a couple shelves, a corner, a box. On the last day I tackled my desk and the bookshelf next to it. There is actually empty space on my desk now, where before there were piles of stuff, some of it stacked precariously.

After: okay, still not exactly beautiful, but sorted, at least. I'll get some nice organizational thingies next time we go to Ikea...
With all those bits of time added up, I now have a study where I've gone through everything, sorted it all out, kept what I want in here, and moved or tossed what should not be here.

It almost feels as if I were carrying that unwanted stuff around with me and I've now dumped it. I feel lighter, somehow, when I sit and work on something in my office. It's really lovely.

I think if I had made a to-do list and put "clean my study" on it, and tried to do it all in one day so I could cross it off the list, it would not have gone as well. I would have ended up resenting the task, and not enjoying the result nearly as much. I'm so glad I let myself enjoy the process, and the result.

Oh, and one other thing. Here's a really good way to feel loved as you turn into a new year: find a pile of notes and cards people have sent you over the years, and read them as you sort the piles, and wonder if your sniffles are from the dust you've started up, or the tears that inevitably come.

Happy new year, everybody!