December 29, 2010

Maybe tomorrow

One morning, soon after my oldest two kids had moved back home for the month-long winter break, my daughter and I settled by the fire to do work. Since the boys were asleep, the house was quiet.

Then I heard a thumping noise coming from upstairs. It sounded like someone jumping rope. I set down my laptop to go upstairs and investigate when my daughter offered an explanation.

“Oh, that’s Boy in Black. He must be planning to take a shower,” she said, barely glancing up from the stack of papers she was grading.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s his rule,” she said. “He doesn’t get a shower unless he’s done a bunch of exercises.”

That’s right. Boy in Black won’t shower unless he first does push-ups, planks, and leg lifts. The jump roping comes last: I know after I hear the thumping noises that I’ll hear the shower run.

“Yeah, I keep to the rule even when I'm at a tournament,” Boy in Black told me when I asked him about it. “Even if I've played a 100 points and I'm exhausted, I won’t take a shower until I've done my exercises.”

I like the common-sense idea of incorporating exercise into my life by tying it to something routine. Last night, I resolved that I would do 50 stomach crunches before taking a shower. My abdominal muscles could use a little tightening.

This morning, I got up, thought about exercising, and then decided that since I was staying home today, I didn’t need a shower anyhow.

Clearly, I am not as self-disciplined as my oldest son.

December 27, 2010

Christmas music

This year we broke with more than 50 years of tradition. We didn’t gather at my mother’s house for Christmas dinner. Instead, everyone came to my house.

When we discussed the change, my mother said, “You’re going to have to move Christmas dinner to your house after I cork off. We might as well do it now and not wait for a funeral. I don’t want my death to cast a pall over Christmas festivities.” (For the record, she and my father are still in good health.)

So Christmas morning, I coerced my sons into cleaning the downstairs of the house. My husband set up several card tables in the living room. My daughter covered them with white tablecloths and added beeswax candles. They searched through the kitchen cupboard and managed to come up with 20 china plates and 20 sets of silverware. I made an apple cinnamon version of squash soup, barbecue baked beans, oven-roasted potatoes, tortellini salad with artichoke hearts, chickpea salad with cucumber and red onion, green peas, and dinner rolls. Blond Brother-in-law arrived carrying a fully-cooked ham, while Schoolteacher Niece made macaroni and cheese. Urban Sophisticate brought wine.

We did the same things we always do at my mother’s: we talked and ate, and then played games. One group gathered in front of the fire to play Clue, while another group played Boggle at the kitchen table. The rest of us just sat around talking, with mugs of hot tea.

The nicest part about having everyone at our house is that we could all play the piano. I played the Christmas song I’ve been practicing over and over again (“Away in the Manager”), and With-a-Why played some of the classical pieces he does so beautifully. Then my father pulled out his clarinet, and he and Shaggy Hair Boy settled down to jam while the rest of us drank more tea and ate more chocolate cupcakes.

60 years between them

December 26, 2010

Candlelight

Candle ceremony

On Christmas Eve, we gathered in my parents’ living room: on the couch, on chairs dragged in from the kitchen, on the floor. Since the little kids who used to fit nicely on laps have become adults, it was a tight fit. I brought the box of candles we’ve used for years and began handing them out. Some of the candles are burned down to stubs, and I supplemented this year by buying some new long candles, which led to inappropriate jokes from the males in the family.

Our tradition is to turn out all the lights, and then begin by lighting one candle. We pass the flame from person to person, each of us saying something we’re thankful for as we light our candles, until everyone’s candle is lit. Then we sing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I think we settled on that song because it’s the one that the cartoon characters sing a the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. (We didn’t watch much television as kids so I think we were disproportionately influenced by the shows we did watch.) I always try to sit next to Tie-Dye Brother-in-law during the song since he’s the only one in the family who hasn’t noticed yet that I can’t carry a tune.

One of my nieces said, as she lit her candle, “This week at work, so many people were complaining about having to spend time with their families over the holidays. I’m thankful I’ve got a family I like spending time with.”

December 23, 2010

Home for the holidays

Queen of the hill

Last night I drove downtown with my parents and Urban Sophisticate Sister to see the Christmas lights. We parked near the skating rink, which was filled with bundled-up teenagers, skating round and round. The little side streets of bars, restaurants, and shops twinkled with white lights that had been strung on tree branches. We walked into a shop filled with pottery and artwork; my sister bought a ring made by a local artist. Because Urban Sophisticate lives in Big City Like No Other, I don’t think the big Christmas tree in Snowstorm City impressed her; she was more interested in the piles of snow. She climbed up one so that I could snap a blurry photo with her phone.

When I returned to my own house, the young people were gathering by the fire. I’d declared the evening a “no-computer” night, so the laptops were piled upstairs on my daughter’s bed. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter made vegetarian chili in the crockpot. Boy in Black added a leaf to the table, which was soon filled with food. With-a-Why and Quick played a game of chess, sitting on the floor amidst the noise and confusion. Film Guy and his girlfriend, Sparkly Eyes, arrived with cookies and chatter. Skater Boy sat on the piano bench and played his guitar. Shaggy Hair Boy made punch, while Sailor Boy got out bottles of champagne.

Boy in Black said it felt odd, after being so busy as a grad student during the semester, to have time on his hands. He’d even gone shopping with his sister and Film Guy. “I got up, and had nothing to do, so I went to the mall,” he said. “It’s like I’m a thirteen-year-old girl.”

“I’ve still got work to do,” said my daughter. “Research. I’m going to do some work later tonight.” Her words weren’t very convincing. She was cuddled on the couch next to Sailor Boy, with a glass of champagne in her hand.

Quick looked up from the chessboard. “In which Xmen movie did Professor Xavier beat Magneto in chess?”

“Couldn’t be the first one,” said Sailor Boy. “Because he went to prison at the end of that.”

“Right,” said my husband. “The game took place in prison so it must have been the second.”

“This is a pretty dude-heavy party,” said Sparkly Eyes, looking over at me with a smile.

The nights are long this time of year, but somehow the time goes by fast while we’re cooking, eating, talking, and just hanging out by the fire. It was well past midnight before my husband and I went up to bed. It felt good to know that we didn’t need to set an alarm. All of the kids were safely home, and the house was filled with food and music.

December 22, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

Our house has been filled with Christmas music this month: I love hearing With-a-Why or Shaggy Hair Boy play Vince Guaraldi’s score from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And of course, December is the month for holiday recitals.

Now that I’ve been playing piano for almost a year, I have new appreciation for these kids who go up to the piano and play songs in front of a crowd. I pay special attention to little kids near the beginning of the program. I find myself nodding sympathetically as a seven-year-old misses a note. “Yeah, it’s hard when your hands are doing two different things,” I think to myself. It helps for me to hear beginning students struggle to play the piano, because my own children are way past that stage.

With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair Boy played a couple of duets at this year’s recitals, and as always, the crowd loved them. It’s not just that they are talented musicians (they are), but there’s something about seeing two brothers, sitting side by side, their four hands moving confidently over the keys. Shaggy Hair Boy, with his wild curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, has an expressive face that’s fun to watch while he’s playing, while With-a-Why is a shy and serious kid who lets his dark silky hair hide his face while he’s playing. They both love music, and it shows in the way they play. Afterward every piano recital, other parents always come up to me and say, “You must be so proud of those boys!” Their piano teacher, whom we all adore, said to me, “Your boys are the reason I love what I do.”

This week, the two brothers took their piano playing skills to the assisted-living home where my mother-in-law lives. They had to make do with a small keyboard instead of the grand piano they get to use at the music studio, and they mostly played simple Christmas songs that the crowd could sing. My husband grabbed a microphone and led the singing. Someone in a wheelchair would yell out the name of a Christmas song. Shaggy Hair Boy would page through the book until he found the song, and then he and With-a-Why would just start playing it.

The program officially ended at 4 pm, but hardly anyone left the room. My husband, goaded by a crowd of elderly women, sang some Elvis songs complete with corny dance moves. (He loves to impersonate Elvis, and he’s got the right kind of voice.) The boys did a jazzy duet of “Go, Tell it on a Mountain.” Then they did several of the songs from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. With-a-Why played some of his classical pieces, and then he and Shaggy Hair Boy just both started fooling around at the piano, the way they always do, talking and laughing as they play. Even though With-a-Why is incredibly shy, he’s completely unself-conscious when he’s focused on music.

The elderly women in the room kept motioning me to come over to them, and then they’d say things like, “You have a wonderful family.” That’s something I never get tired of hearing.

Auld Lang Syne

December 20, 2010

Knocking at icicles

Sled run

On Saturday, Little Biker Boy called to see if we could babysit him all day. “Ponytail is here too,” he said. We hadn’t seen her since the kids moved.

We had some nice moments: the kids were excited to see the Christmas tree all decorated, and Little Biker Boy bragged about how he had picked it out. We unpacked the Christmas village that goes under the tree: they loved playing with the houses and trains and little figures. They sat at the kitchen table and colored Christmas pictures for the front door. “Just like last year,” Little Biker Boy said. He loves traditions even more than I do.

But it was also a long day. The two kids acted out in the ways that they always have when they are under stress: Little Biker Boy had fits of rage, while Ponytail kept bursting into tears. The two kids kept yelling at each other. My own kids were out doing errands, so I was thankful my husband was here to help out. At one point, we just had to separate the kids: he took Little Biker Boy upstairs to read comic books while I stayed at the table with Ponytail.

It was pretty clear that Ponytail has had a tough few weeks. She cried and clung to me. She avoided my eyes when I asked questions. She kept saying, “I’m not used to living with my Dad.” Later she said that he’s mean, and that he yells at her and hits her. At her new school, there are four girls who are mean to her. She misses her mother. She wishes she still lived down the street.

My husband came up with a project: he needed the icicles knocked off the building he works in. So we climbed into the car and drove to his workplace. Little Biker Boy threw himself into the project with gusto and spent a happy half an hour whacking at the ice with a shovel. Ponytail didn’t want to help but she stood in a snowbank with me and cheered as ice came clattering down. She kept picking up icicles to suck on.

Back at home, Little Biker Boy helped me build a fire. The kids went outside to sled on our front hill, but kept fighting so much that I wanted to toss them both into the snowbank. Finally, Ponytail came in to sit with me, while Little Biker Boy grabbed the shovel and cleared the edges of the driveway. When he came in, he said, “I feel better when I shovel.”

By suppertime, we were all tired. We stopped at a pizza place. “Can we call you Mom?” Little Biker Boy asked. They love that game. They took my hands as we walked in, and kept calling me “Mom” the whole time. They managed to fight over the pizza: I can’t even remember what that argument was about. Little Biker Boy told me about the fight he’d had with his mother that morning: she’d slapped him in the face.

As difficult as the kids were, it was even more difficult to take them home, to drop them off and return them to what can’t possible be a good situation.

I wish I had a different story to tell.

December 19, 2010

In the icy parking lot

When we pulled into the grocery store parking lot tonight, everyone began arguing about who was going to run in and grab the stuff we needed. There were seven of us in the warm car, the whole family plus Sailor Boy. No one was volunteering to venture out into the cold.

Our discussion was cut short when Shaggy Hair Boy looked out the window and said, “Hey, why are there so many cops here?”

Two patrol cars had just pulled in, and six cops were walking purposefully toward the front doors. Boy in Black and Sailor Boy got out of the car immediately. Nothing exciting ever happens at this small town grocery store. Shaggy Hair Boy joined them, and they disappeared into the store.

“Of course, now we’ll going to have to wait forever,” said my daughter. She’s right. We hadn’t exactly sent in the most efficient shoppers.

My husband, impatient to know what was happening, went in and came back minutes later, carrying a small bag of chips. “I felt obligated to buy something,” he explained.

What he’d seen was a female cop sitting on the floor behind the service desk, talking to a small child, about two or three years old. Apparently, she’d been found out in the parking lot, alone.

I rolled down the window to look out across the parking lot. That explained why the cops were walking around the lot, looking under cars, going up and down the rows. The speakers that hung above the front door of the store were blasting cheerful Christmas music, which seemed eerie as the cops searched and we looked around, wondering if we’d see a frantic parent, a dead body, or perhaps another abandoned child.

When I went into the store 15 minutes later to hurry the boys along, a man about my age arrived to pick up the child. Someone told me he was the grandfather. The little girl hung onto his jacket while he talked to the cops and filled out paperwork. We never found out the rest of the story.

December 18, 2010

Pass the cough drops

It seems to happen every fall semester. At Thanksgiving time, my students go home to see their families and exchange viruses. Then, during the last week of classes, during their final presentations, the classroom is filled with sniffling and coughing. As I’m grading their portfolios, I start to feel my sinuses filling, and I need a box of tissues at my side. By the time I submit their final grades, I’ve come down with a miserable cold.

December 17, 2010

Wind chimes

Wind chimes

The day after a storm, a layer of snow muffles the outdoor world. In the stillness, the only sound I hear is an occasional tinkling of the chimes that hang from the house. The music makes me think of sailboats in a harbor, anchored on a sunny day.

December 15, 2010

Snowflakes in the air

Snow is falling outside, but it’s warm by the fire. Boy in Black is in the red chair; he put the wooden leaf from our kitchen table on top of the ottoman, and he’s got his laptop balanced there. Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why are using the other two little tables in the room. My husband’s laptop is on the kitchen table. When it comes right down to it, none of us really like to balance our computers in our laps.

With-a-Why is writing a paper about John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick: he’s arguing that what humans consider justice is often injustice for other animals and how humans treat non-human animals is a violation of the kinds of justices proposed by the three philosophers. He’s staring at his laptop screen, but he’s got a printed out copy of the paper that his sister has written all over. Shaggy Hair Boy, sitting on the couch amidst a pile of crumpled math papers, is studying for a final exam.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is sitting at the hearth, grading psychology exams. She’s incredibly focused, but she’ll look up from time to time to read a snippet to Film Guy, who is also getting a graduate degree in psychology. Film Guy is standing at the kitchen counter, making brownies. For some reason, he’s been making brownies a lot these days. We never have eggs so he keeps substituting other stuff: the cornstarch substitute failed miserably, so tonight he’s trying mashed up banana.

Because everyone has work to do, no one is at the piano. I can hear fingers clicking on computer keyboards, the flip of paper as my daughter turns the pages of the psychology exams, and the crackle of the fire. Every once in a while, Shaggy Hair Boy looks up and asks Boy in Black a question about calculus. Boy Black shakes his hair out of his face and answers with some kind of math formula. My husband looks up from his computer to announce something about the stock market.

Four of the cats have joined us. Rogue has taken a spot under the Christmas tree, so the reddish lights are making her fur look strange. (The tree is decorated, but I haven’t set up the village yet: I’m saving that for Little Biker Boy and Ponytail.) Emmy is stretched out under the piano bench. Trouble is on the back of Boy in Black’s chair. Gretel is curled up next to the pile of psychology exams. When With-a-Why gets tired of the paper he’s writing, he stands up, stretches, and goes to the piano.

River birches in December

River birches in December

Here's the scene out the window as I sit in my warm kitchen and eat lunch.

December 14, 2010

Tannenbaum

When our kids were little, we always took a whole afternoon to get the Christmas tree. We’d dress warm and spend hours tramping around a farmer's field, knocking the snow off branches of trees and arguing about whether or not the tree we’d picked was big enough before finally choosing one to cut down.

Last year, when we realized that the kids were really too old to get excited about choosing the Christmas tree, my husband and I went by ourselves to look for a tree. We found a local farmer who sets up a Christmas tree stand in a parking lot in the middle of a nearby village. He and his teenage sons were so cheerful and nice about helping us choose a tree that we agreed to go back to the same place this year.

“But still, it’s not as much fun without the kids,” I said to my husband last week. “I miss the kids being little.”

He looked up from his laptop. “I know a kid who would love to come with us.”

When we picked up Little Biker Boy Saturday evening, he was wearing new fingerless gloves. “Look!” he yelled. “I look like Boy in Black now!”

“Yep,” I said. “You look just like one of my sons.”

“They gave me new clothes at school,” he said. “And toys. And some wrestling magazines.”

I looked at him as he climbed into the car.

“It was my last day,” he said. “I hafta go to a new school on Monday.”

He’d never been to a Christmas tree stand before. The cut trees were leaning against wooden stands, rows and rows of them, with leftover trees piled in the snow banks. Strings of white lights looped above our heads.

“I’m taking a picture in my head,” Little Biker Boy announced. “I’ve got 31 pictures of you in my head.” He stood still for a minute, as if he was memorizing the scene.

That was the last time he stood still.

He ran up and down the rows, touching the trees and putting his face up to smell them. Every time we almost chose a tree, he’d change his mind and run over to look at a different tree. He picked up a cut branch lying in the snow, and swooshed it through the air as if it was a light saber. He barged into the little trailer, and then yelled to the farmer, “Is this where you live?”

He was fascinated by the baling machine. When a couple bought a tree, the farmer lifted the tree and pushed it through the machine, and the tree came out the other side all bound with twine. Little Biker Boy climbed up onto the back of the machine and would have dived into it headfirst if I hadn’t grabbed the back of his jacket.

The teenage boy who was helping us was endlessly patient. Every time Little Biker Boy would point to a tree, he’d pull it out and hold it up so we could see how tall it was, and how full. Then Little Biker Boy would say, “I see a better one over there,” and he’d point to the other end of the lot.

When I figured we’d all had enough, I said quietly to Little Biker Boy, “If we have enough time, we can get pizza and bring it home.”

Little Biker Boy pointed to the tree that my husband was looking at. “Okay, that one.”

Within minutes, we had the tree tied to the roof of the car. My own kids were home by the fire when we arrived. Boy in Black was working on his laptop, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter was grading psychology exams, Shaggy Hair Boy was playing the piano, and With-a-Why was reading a book. “We have pizza!” Little Biker Boy announced. “And chicken wings! And I picked the tree! And I look just like Boy in Black now.”

My daughter smiled and gave him a hug. Boy in Black held up his own fingerless gloves. With-a-Why looked up and said, “I’m hungry.” Shaggy Hair Boy began playing “O Tannenbaum.”

We put the tree in the corner of the room, and I filled the stand with water. Little Biker Boy got down on the floor to sneak behind the tree, and then kept crawling around and around, like a wind-up toy.
Around and around

December 11, 2010

What I learned this semester

At the end of the fall semester, I ask my first year students to each write on an index card one thing they learned their first semester in college. I tell them that they can include things they learned in the residence halls or from their friends or in any class. Then I shuffle the cards and read them aloud. Here's what they wrote this year.

I learned that taking care of my mental health is most important … and sledding down a hill on a table can end very badly.

You really can build a house out of straw.

You can use the internet to find out which animals have sex.

Vinyl is evil.

Sleep is not overrated.

I learned that sometimes you just have to take a risk and have fun.

I love to write just to write. I don’t like science. I have no idea what to do with my life.

I would not survive an avalanche.

I learned that I really love people and everyone has something to offer.

Driving in the snow can be dangerous.

I have learned how to tune out drunk kids coming home at 3:30 am.

Freewriting is awesome. Sleep is amazing. Facebook is the enemy.

Opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternate forgone.

The safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million.

Nerf basketball and small dorm rooms don’t mix.

Drunk people are very fun to mess with.

It’s possible to live mostly off Ramen noodles.

Calculus is hard.

It’s really necessary to make good friends.

I learned that not everyone dedicates Sundays to watching football.

Seventy percent of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. Only about 7 percent comes from hydro power.

Rubix cubes can be used as weapons.

It’s worth it to bring the map.

Belarus is the country most contaminated by Chernobyl.

How important it is to keep an open mind.

The value of going to the bathroom without people walking in and out is something you never consider until you go to college.

All-nighters are a terrible idea.

Passion can be a great gift or a great burden

Campus is 41 miles from a nuclear power plant.

A line becomes a circle from a farther perspective.

It all comes down to finding a balance.

December 09, 2010

With my bare hands

“There’s a fly in here.” That’s the first thing my mother-in-law said when I walked into her room this evening. She’s in her 80s and very frail.

“What?” I asked.

“A fly,” she said. “It’s driving me crazy. It touches everything.”

I tried to change the subject, but all she wanted to talk about was the fly.

Then I saw it. There really was a fly, zooming around the room. I don’t know where it came from. It’s cold outside, and we’ve got several feet of snow on the ground.

I started chasing the fly. I didn’t have a flyswatter, but I figured it I flattened my palm and snapped my forearm from the elbow, I could be a human flyswatter.

My mother-in-law can’t see very well because of her macular degeneration, but she yelled helpful things anyhow. “I think it’s over there! It just went past your head!”

The institutional beige of the walls made it easy to spot the fly, but it was moving pretty fast. I smacked the arm of her chair, the edge of her bed, and the doorframe. I knocked over the lamp.

And then I got it. I killed the fly.

“Hurray!” my mother-in-law screamed. She was actually laughing aloud. “You GOT THE FLY!”

I washed my hands and tried to look modest.

We talked about other things, but then every once in awhile she’d look up out of the blue and say, “I can’t wait to tell everyone! You killed the fly!” We’d go back to talking the kids and what they were doing and what the holidays are going to be like, and then she’d burst out again, “You killed the fly!”

I drove home feeling like I’d accomplished something today.

December 08, 2010

Going, going ...

Going, going, gone

It's become a tradition for me to post a photo of my picnic table at the beginning of the winter, before it disappears.

December 06, 2010

Everywhere

Many times, over the last couple of years, readers have emailed me with offers to send money or gifts for Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, the two little neighbor kids, who sadly don’t live in my neighborhood any more. It’s really sweet and generous and wonderful that so many people are praying for those kids, rooting for them, and wanting to help.

I’m hoping some day, if I still have contact with these kids when they are adults, I can explain to them how they ended up touching so many lives. I’m hoping some day that I can tell Little Biker Boy and Ponytail how many people were thinking about them and praying for them.

As I’ve explained to anyone who has emailed me, we don’t need any financial support to help these kids. My husband and I can afford to buy them clothes and such. And I’ve got an extended family is willing to help them as well. Red-haired Sister, especially, has been willing to buy the kids whatever they need.

In my return emails to generous readers, I always say the same thing: There are kids like this in every community. There are kids like this in your community.

One blog friend emailed me last week to let me know that she’d gathered up a bunch of clothes and toys, and dropped them off at a shelter in her community that helps out battered women and children. She’d given them a check as well. Another reader told me that she’s kept an eye out for kids in her neighborhood who don’t have mittens: she’s vowed to keep knitting mittens to give away to any kid she sees who doesn’t have a pair. Another said she'd gone online, found the battered women's shelter in her community, and made a donation.

As bleak as I’ve felt lately, frustrated with my inability to help out these little kids that I’ve come to care about, it makes me feel hopeful to hear these stories. Trying to fight the cycle of abuse and neglect in our communities can be a discouraging battle, but the more of us who join that battle, the bigger the chance we have of winning.

December 05, 2010

Visit from Little Biker Boy

It’s only been a week, but it feels like much longer. I’ve been worried about Little Biker Boy, and I felt relieved to see him.

He and his mother have moved again. (Yes, that’s right, after only a week.) But I think it’s a good move. She broke up with the boyfriend, and she’s back on her own, in a small apartment with Little Biker Boy. She’s got a job at a little store within walking distance of the apartment. It’s about four miles from where I live.

Little Biker Boy, I could tell, had had a rough week, but he’s okay, at least for now. He’s back in school. He said that he’s seen his sister, and she likes the school she’s going to. His mother seemed fine with him coming to my house for a visit. I’m hoping we can work this into a weekly routine.

Once he was in my car, he showed me his sneakers, “The soles are coming off,” he said. “I need new ones.”

He and I have a deal: he tells me when he needs new stuff. So we made a detour to the store. Once in the shoe department, he sat on the floor and took off his sneakers. I picked one up to look at the size and realized it was soaking wet. He’d been outside in the slush all day. His socks, too, were sopping wet. They smelled pretty awful.

“Ew,” I said. “I don’t think you can try shoes on with those socks.”

He looked at me. Then I looked down. My feet are about the same size as his. “Quick,” I whispered. “Let’s switch socks.”

I don’t know why I was whispering. I mean, it might be a little strange to switch socks in the store, but it’s not illegal or anything.

“I’m gonna wear your socks?” he asked in disbelief. I sat on the floor next to him and began taking off my shoes.

“Oh, they probably aren’t mine,” I assured him. “I take With-a-Why’s socks all the time.”

By then we were both barefoot, sitting on the linoleum floor, surrounded by holiday shoppers who were rushing carts up and down the aisles. We were both trying to be quiet, which made him giggle.

“These are nice and dry,” he said as he pulled my socks on.

“These aren’t,” I said, yanking on his wet socks. I made a face, and he laughed out loud.

“You wanted them,” he said. He was grinning.

“Try on the sneakers,” I said.

He was hungry, so we got slices of pizza and ate them in my warm car while we talked. We drove through snowy roads, with him exclaiming at the Christmas lights. I’m not a big fan of tacky holiday displays, but he loved even the corniest fake Santa Claus. When we got to my house, Shaggy Hair Boy was playing the piano.

“Can we have a fire?” Little Biker Boy asked. He helped me build it. He loves to be the person to light the match.

“I want to roll in the snow,” he said once we had a fire going. I lent him my boots.

“I’ll go with him,” said Shaggy Hair Boy. He grabbed his coat, and they ran out into the backyard which was covered with fresh snow.

With-a-Why turned from the computer and looked out the window. “They’re making angels,” he reported.

When Little Biker Boy came back in, he said, “I have a surprise for you!” Then he pulled me to the front porch to show me: he had shoveled a path to the door, just like he’s done so many times over the last two winters. Then he settled down in front of the fire with his new plastic wrestling figures, and we talked until it was time for me to take him back home.

December 03, 2010

Til morning is nigh

“I thought of you when I saw this,” Piano Teacher said, handing me a page from a brochure.

The words read: “I always get up from the piano feeling so much better than when I sat down.” I took the page from her and slid into the protective covering on my piano binder, where I’d see it every time I took out my music.

I’ve been playing the piano for almost a year now. I can’t say that learning the piano has come easily. Many times this year I find myself wishing I’d started maybe forty years sooner.

When it comes to music, the one thing I’ve got on my side is stubbornness. I’ll play a piece over and over again until I finally have it. The other thing I’ve got on my side is a piano teacher who isn’t afraid to challenge me and who has complete confidence that I’ll learn.

In October when I told Piano Teacher I wanted to learn a Christmas song, she brought me a version of Away in the Manger, arranged by Martha Mier. It’s the hardest thing I’ve learned yet. I have to play with both hands — and each hand is doing something different. And both hands keep changing position on the keys. And on top of that, I have to use the pedal.

It’s a beautiful song, but it was a big challenge for me. Piano Teacher kept telling me I could do it. She taught me the song just one piece at a time, and then I’d go home and practice it. I struggled so much that at one time I was calling the song, “Away in the Fucking Manger.” I honestly wasn’t sure if I could ever learn it.

But of course, she was right. I did learn the song. For these last few weeks, every time I’ve felt worried or anxious, I’ve sat down at the piano, picked just a piece of the song, and played it over and over again. When I’ve been worried about the little neighbor kids — and frustrated at how little I can do to help them — I’ve sat down at the piano and focused on the pattern, the steps and skips and jumps my fingers needed to do to make the tune. Soon I was able to play the whole song, more or less without mistakes, and eventually, relax enough to let myself hear the music. I’ve played that song over and over again: first thing in the morning, first thing when I come home, and last thing before I got to bed.

And every time, as I get up from the piano, shutting my binder of music to make room for Shaggy Hair Boy or With-a-Why’s music, I glanced at the cover of the binder and think to myself, “It’s true.”

December 02, 2010

Flameo

As Shaggy Hair Boy and I drove home from campus today, I kept saying, "I'm so glad the winter weather is finally here!" November this year was a dark month, filled with dreary rain, so I was happy to see all the white. The snow makes late afternoons so much brighter.

When we entered the house, I noticed that it seemed chilly. I changed into sweatpants, heated myself up a bowl of soup, and went to look at the thermostat. After twenty minutes of fiddling with the thermostat, staring at the furnace, and sitting hopefully by the heat vent in the kitchen, I came to an awful realization. We were without heat.

Soon the house was cold as a grad student's apartment.

The furnace guy will be here tomorrow morning, and hopefully, we'll get if fixed. In the meantime, I've piled wood on the fire. My first priority is keeping the room warm enough for With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair Boy to practice their duets on the piano. The second is making sure the pipes don't freeze.

It's not too much of a hardship: the fireplace seems to be doing a fine job. My husband is sitting on the floor with his laptop, and leaning against my chair, so his body is keeping my feet warm. My sons are keeping their fingers warm with their furious piano playing. I'll probably sleep by the fire to keep it going all night. I'm thinking I might need to bake some chocolate cupcakes or something in the morning, just to warm up the kitchen. I've got two cords of wood in the garage, so I don't think we're going to have to twist straw into sticks or burn up the furniture. It looks like we're going to survive.

Burning

November 30, 2010

Pieces

Yesterday afternoon, I didn’t feel like grading portfolios or answering work emails or doing any of the items on my long to-do list. I kept thinking about the little neighbor kids, and wondering where they were. I played the piano for a little while, but then I relinquished my spot on the bench to Shaggy Hair Boy, since he said he needed to practice.

So I decided to do a jigsaw puzzle.

I hadn’t done one in years. But a few weeks ago, a friend offered me a jigsaw puzzle: someone had given it to her as a gift, and she didn’t want it. Just the sight of the box brought back childhood memories, and I took the puzzle home.

When I was a kid, we sometimes spent winter afternoons doing jigsaw puzzles. My mother would set up a folding table near the front window, where we could get the late afternoon light. I’d sit in a wooden chair, studying the pieces, gathering ones that had similar colors, putting them together to form an image. My mother would work on the puzzle for a few minutes, then go into the kitchen to make dinner. My brother would take the spot next to me, gathering pieces systematically, and announcing anything he considered a big breakthrough. “Okay, folks, the barn is now connected to the sky.” Sometimes we’d talk, sometimes we’d work in silence. When my eyes got tired of staring at puzzle pieces, I’d look up at the sky outside the window, hoping for snowflakes.

So yesterday, I pulled a folding table out of the garage, set in up in my front window, and worked on a jigsaw puzzle. The craziness inside my head seemed to calm down as I moved the pieces around. I got a little feeling of satisfaction I got every time I snapped a piece into place.

“What’s this?” Shaggy Hair Boy asked incredulously when he came home and saw the puzzle. “Is this because the neighbor kids aren’t here?”

When Boy in Black and First Extra came through the door, First Extra surveyed the table with interest. “Wow,” he said. “This is old school procrastination.” He sat down on the ottoman and picked up the box.

He’d read my blog post, he said. He and Skater Boy had talked about it at lunch. He ran his fingers through the box of pieces, looking for edge pieces. I snapped some more pieces into place. Then the boys went out in the backyard to throw.

Pieces

November 28, 2010

Heartsick

For the last two and a half years, I’ve gotten daily visits from Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, two neighbor kids. They’ve played with traintracks on my living floor, built castles out of lego blocks, and colored at my kitchen table. They haven’t been easy kids to deal with; they are children who have already been damaged by the difficult lives they lead. My house has been their safe place, even when I’m not home. In the winter, I’ve left plastic toboggans on the front hill for them to play with, and in the summer, I’ve left toys on the front porch.

They are affectionate kids. When I come home from work, they are often on my front porch and they jump up and down with excitement when they see me pull in. Every time I go out of town, they greet my return as if it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them.

Last month Little Biker Boy told me that they’d been evicted. I kept asking his mother what their plans were, but she kept telling me conflicting stories. She made it clear she wasn’t cooperating with the social worker assigned to the kids; her attitude toward all caseworkers is very antagonistic. I think the caseworker wanted her to move into the city, where she could walk or take the bus, since she doesn’t have a car.

As usual, I got the most reliable information from Biker Boy. Despite his mother’s warnings about keeping the family secrets, he has always told me the truth. Unlike his mother and sister, he doesn’t seem to know how to lie.

Ponytail and her three-year-old brother disappeared about a week ago. Biker Boy says they have gone to live with her father. (He’s the man who attacked the family in a drunken rage one night a couple of years ago. Little Biker Boy drove to my house on his bike, barefoot and in boxer shorts, and I called 911. The cops had to taser him before taking him away in handcuffs.) He lives, apparently, several towns over. I have no way of getting in touch with Ponytail.

In the meantime, a man in a white truck has been moving furniture from the trailer. Biker Boy told me that the man is his mother’s latest boyfriend, and that “he’s mean.” I walked over to the trailer so I could meet the man myself, and he was full of talk about how Little Biker Boy “needed his ass kicked.” He seemed to fit the same mold as the last bunch of abusive, alcoholic boyfriends.

Biker Boy and his mother are moving in with this new boyfriend.

Little Biker Boy kept telling me that it’s his fault that they were evicted. His mother has apparently been telling him that.

“It’s not your fault,” I kept saying, over and over again. “You’re a nine-year-old. You’re a kid. None of this is your fault.”

Little Biker Boy got in my car with me, and we went to find the place where he’ll be living. It’s near the high school that With-a-Why goes to. Unfortunately, the road is busy, so I’m not so sure that it’ll be very safe for him to ride his bike. But he knows my phone number, so I’m hoping that he’ll call and I’ll be able to pick him up sometimes and bring him to my house. I’m relying on the fact that his mother is always want to shunt him off, and will be happy to take advantage of a free babysitter.

I pointed out a farm that’s within walking distance of the house. “See that place? Remember the silos. I know the people who live there. If you needed to run somewhere and get help, that would be a good place to go to.”

He nodded.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I took Little Biker Boy out to a movie. He was excited about getting nachos and candy and a slushie. He laughed during the funny parts of the movie, and kept turning to me and saying, “Are you having fun? Isn’t this fun?”

Back at my house, he and I sat on the carpeted stairs, where we have had many talks. (It’s where I always send him to calm down.)

“Are you going to cry?” he asked.

“I’ve cried every night,” I told him. “Every night this week.”

“For me?”

“Yes, for you.”

He looked surprised. He leaned back and rubbed his head against me, and I rubbed his back. He said that when he’s old enough, he’ll get a car and come visit me.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what a nice young man you’re going to be,” I told him.

“But I might turn out bad,” he said.

“No, you won’t,” I told him. “You’re like my kids. Like Boy in Black. Like Shaggy Hair Boy. Like With-a-Why. You’re going to be compassionate and gentle and nice.”

And then I had to say goodbye, had to drive him through the dark night to the house where he lives now. I don’t know what happens next.

November 26, 2010

Autumn decor

Piling up

Every Tuesday for the last 26 weeks, I've stopped on my way home from work to pick up two boxes of vegetables from the CSA farm near my house. Mostly, we've been able to keep up with the vegetables by eating them within the week we get them. I'm quite proud of the fact that we ate every single zuchinni that the farm gave us. I admit that I did give some of the beets away to my mother: I've got a limit as to how many beets I can eat.

These last few weeks, we've gotten so much squash that I've ended up piling it on the counter. The nice thing about squash is that it keeps for awhile, so I didn't feel pressure to eat it immediately. And the squash are a nice splash of colour in our kitchen.

But then, with the kids home and nothing much to do except lazily hang out by the fire, I decided to bake the squash and make some soup. Our kitchen area is open to our living room (our downstairs is pretty much one big room), so I was talking to the kids as I took a fork and punched holes in the squash and piled them into baking pans.

Boy in Black, wandering into the kitchen area to get a cup of chocolate milk, looked at me curiously.

"You're cooking those?" he asked. "You're going to eat them?"

"Yeah, I'm making soup," I said.

He opened the refrigerator, yanked out the carton of milk, and then glanced over again at the pans that I was putting into the oven. He gave me his crooked grin, "They're food? I figured they were decorations of some kind."

November 24, 2010

Yesterday's rain

Yesterday's rain

It’s been a dark November. Once the brilliant October foliage is gone, we’re left with stark tree limbs against a grey sky. On rainy days, I drive to campus on dark roads, through grey puddles, past ground covered with dead brown leaves.

“Is it always this dreary here?” asked one of my students one morning. She’s from the west coast, and the cold, dark days were getting to her already.

“Colder is better,” Flannel Shirt assured her. “You’ll like winter here.”

“Snow will make everything better,” said another student.

I thought, as I looked out the window this morning, that my students were right. The snow spread across the lawn changed the soft colours of morning. Instead of staying lazily in bed, as I had planned, I couldn’t resist putting on my winter coat and boots, and taking a walk in the woods behind my house.

The cold woke me up as I breathed it in. I didn’t do much more than meander, stepping into puddles to break thin layers of ice, stopping to take photos, and tramping along trails that wind through old scotch pine. As the sun came up, the blue light caught the snow on the branches. Yesterday's raindrops had turned to crystals of ice. I didn’t walk long, but even that short time out in the cold woke me up, sent blood rushing through my veins. And the warm house, when I returned, seemed cosy.

Early

DSC_0088

November 22, 2010

Fermata

It was late afternoon, with darkness just arriving. The old man who tunes our piano arrived in a station wagon, driven by a friend. He used to come with his wife, but she died this year. Driving is not an option since he doesn’t see; he relies on his ears instead of his eyes. Together, he and his friend removed the front panel of the piano, and he began his work.

While he tuned the piano, he told stories about famous musicians he’s met. Apparently, if you’re famous enough, you can demand the kind of piano you want to play on – venues will rent a Steinway if you’re that famous — and it will be tuned right before your concert. Between stories, Piano Tuner hit keys and plucked at piano strings, listening intently, then adjusting the tuning pins. His friend sat in the comfy chair, reading quietly, and sometimes chiming in on the stories.

I’d explained to Little Biker Boy that he needed to be quiet while the piano tuner was here. He took his snack to the staircase and sat on the carpeted steps, peering out curiously at the men in the living room.

Before the piano tuner was done, With-a-Why arrived home from school, and so did Shaggy Hair Boy. My parents stopped over and joined my sons on the couch, all of them watching the piano tuner work. Piano Tuner and my father are the same age, and they began trading stories about local musicians they know.

“Go ahead and test out the piano,” Piano Tuner said when he was done. Shaggy Hair grabbed the nearest book of music – it happened to be the score to the Charlie Brown Christmas special — and began playing Oh Tannenbaum.

After the piano tuner and his friend left, my sons played for their grandparents. I sat on the steps with Little Biker Boy. He’s not a child who sits still very often, but he does love music. He leaned against me while we listened.

Little Biker Boy will be moving away in eight days. His mother doesn’t yet know where they are going. A rented apartment, maybe. Or perhaps a shelter. Their plans seem to change every time I talk to his mother.

I rubbed Little Biker Boy’s back and gave him a hug. “I love you,” he whispered. Through the railing came the notes of music as Shaggy Hair Boy played.

November 20, 2010

Preach it sister

When I was a kid, priests and ministers were men. Women didn’t preach, or bless a congregation, or give eulogies, or baptize babies. Girls were not even allowed to be altar servers.

In fact, because I live in a Catholic community and the Catholic Church hasn’t yet begun to ordain women, I still rarely see a woman on the altar. Women’s voices are still largely absent in the churches in this area.

That’s why it’s been such an education for me to have so many blogging friends who are women ministers. On the internet, I read about their lives: their struggles to nurture congregations, plan church services, comfort grieving families, deal with church politics, and write sermons every week. In addition to their church duties, they raise children, wash dishes, talk about books, do yard work, and struggle with their personal lives, just like I do.

It took me awhile to adjust my thinking, to imagine ministers who are women, who are accepted as spiritual leaders, who are allowed to preach from the pulpit. The idea of female clergy was so outside my experience. Reading the details of their ordinary lives on their blogs is what made woman ministers finally seem completely normal to me.

That’s why it was especially cool when one of my women minister friends quoted me in her sermon this week.

Note to my mother: click on the word "sermon" in that last sentence, and it will take you to her sermon.

November 18, 2010

No crying he makes

No room for a bed

Every afternoon when he comes over, Little Biker Boy brings me a little yellow flower, which he presents to me proudly. Even though I know he’s picked the flower from the pot of chrysanthemums on my own porch, I love the gesture. Usually I set the little flower on the piano, where I can see it while I’m practicing.

I don’t know yet what is going to happen to the little neighbor kids at the end of the month. They’ve been evicted: they will need to go someplace. I hope they end up someplace within bike-riding distance from my house, but that is pretty unlikely. Because she relies entirely on public assistance, their mother doesn’t have a whole lot of choices.

The song I’ve been practicing on the piano, over and over and over again, is Away in the Manger. It’s an arrangement by Martha Mier. It’s the most difficult song I’ve played yet (hey, remember, I’ve been taking lessons for less than a year), and I’ve really struggled with playing with both hands.

Every once in a while, when I take a break from my stiff, laborious practicing, With-a-Why will come over and sit down at the piano. Before turning to his own music, he’ll play Away in the Manager.

With-a-Why plays beautifully, and it helps me to hear him play the song, just so I know what I’m aiming for. I watch his hands moving gracefully over the keys, I listen to the music, and I look at the little yellow flower. I know the song is supposed to be a Christmas Carol, and the holidays are supposed to be a happy time of year, but the music sounds heartbreakingly sad to me.

November 17, 2010

Cat talk

When I went into my bedroom last night, With-a-Why was sprawled on the bed with Rachel, our orange cat. He seemed to be having a serious conversation with her.

“The C stands for specific heat. It’s mass multiplied by the specific heat multipled by the change in temperature,” he said, stroking her head as he spoke.

He looked up as I approached. The cat stretched out and rubbed her head against his arm.

“People always talk to cats as if they’re stupid,” he explained. “No wonder they don’t learn much. I’m attempting to do the opposite.”

November 15, 2010

Pens are for chewing

Pens are for chewing

It’s that time of the semester: we all had work to do. Sunday evening, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black took the kitchen table, their textbooks and papers spread out, cell phones and laptops lying in wait. With-a-Why stayed on the couch: Shaggy Hair Boy took his usual spot at the piano. I took a break from my reading to cut up a bunch of vegetables and get them simmering for soup.

The cats were less sedentary than the humans: they kept jumping up to claim laps, sit down on papers, or chew on pens. Trouble, our grey male cat, kept chewing on my daughter’s pen even as she was trying to write. My husband, traveling on the west coast, kept sending us all text messages; I'm not sure he realized that we were all in the same room. "Did you get the photo of the harbor seals?" my daughter asked as she glanced at her phone.

"Yep," Boy in Black said without even looking up from his quantum mechanics book. "Next it'll be a text about missing you. Dad always gets nostalgic when he's out of town."

It was about midnight when Boy in Black decided we needed a break. "Family movie time," he announced.

"At midnight?" I asked. "That's ridiculous. I'm tired. We all have to be awake in the morning."

But of course, I can never resist the invitation to hang out with my kids. We piled onto the couch, all five of us, and he started the movie on his laptop — a quirky Canadian film about a high school kid who thinks he's the reincarnation of a famous Bolshevik revolutionary.

"You're going to be tired at school tomorrow," I said to With-a-Why, who was snuggled against me. "I'm such a bad parent."

"Yep," he agreed. And then we watched the movie.

November 14, 2010

Ho ho ho

Holiday Vomit House

On Saturday, I went up to Snowstorm University with my parents and Blonde Niece to hear the Mandarins, a female a capella group that includes Drama Niece, my brother’s very talented daughter. For the last six years, we’ve driven to Camera City to see Drama Niece perform in high school musicals, so it’s nice that she’s going to college here in town, which makes it very easy to go to her events. It was a gorgeous fall day, perfect for strolling across campus, and the singing was pretty amazing.

On the way home, we drove through Traintrack Village to drop Blonde Niece home, and she pointed out the Holiday Vomit House. It was a small grey home, whose yard was filled with as many cheap plastic Christmas decorations as they could pile onto the grass. Clearly, they were going on the theory that quantity trumped quality. Despite my aversion to all things plastic, I sort of admired the occupants of the house — I mean decorating your house like that takes a certain kind of courage.

“It looks like Christmas puked,” Blonde Niece said. I was so stunned by the house that I parked the car at the curb and got out to take a photo.

“Get the Santa in the window,” said my mother. “It’s creepy.”

Blonde Niece laughed as I took the picture. “I guess this is going on the blog.”

November 13, 2010

Hearth

Usually, I go up to the apartment on Wednesday evenings to spend time with my older kids: we eat Chinese food and watch Glee. But this week was so busy that we waited until Friday night, and they came home. Evenings have gotten dark and cold, so I built a fire. My husband was out of town, so it was nice to have the company of my four kids, plus two of my nieces.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter had a stack of quizzes she was grading, and she sat on the floor in front of the fire, marking them up. She, Boy in Black, and I are all teaching first year students this semester. “In the Physics department, we have grading parties,” said Boy in Black. “Well, it’s not really a party, but we sit around and grade all day, and the professor brings food.” That actually sounded like more fun than the solitary grading we writing teachers usually do.

Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece sat on the couch, re-formatting Blonde Niece’s computer. “It’s going to take awhile,” Shaggy Hair Boy said. Blonde Niece decided to kill some time by baking, and soon the whole room smelled like warm brownies. Red-haired Niece arrived with some board games.

With-a-Why sat down at the piano. I’d left my music – the song I’ve been struggling with for weeks – open on the piano. It’s a Christmas song: Away in the Manager. I can play the right hand just fine, and the left hand just fine, but putting my hands together makes my head explode. Piano Teacher keeps assuring me that I’ll get it eventually.

So anyhow, With-a-Why sat down, glanced at this music he’s never played before, and played it beautifully.

“That’s so unfair,” I said to him. “I’ve been practicing that music FOR WEEKS, and I can’t get it right.”

“How’s it unfair?” he asked, his finger still moving lightly and gracefully over the keys. “I’ve been playing the piano for years. It’s entirely fair that I play better than you.”

“Hey, that song sounds … just a little bit familiar,” Shaggy Hair said, snickering. “Is THAT what you’ve been trying to be play, Mom?”

“I don’t think so,” said Boy in Black, grinning. “That’s nothing like what Mom’s been playing.”

Shaggy Hair Boy loves to tease me – as do all the young men of the household — but I have to admit that he’s also been completely supportive of my piano playing. When I’m practicing, he’ll say, “It’s getting better all the time.” He says things he’s learned from Piano Teacher. “Just take it slow.”

I don’t know what time the gang of young people all went to bed, but I ended up going upstairs sometime after midnight. I could hear the conversations and laughter still going on downstairs. By then Shaggy Hair Boy had taken his usual seat on the piano bench, playing jazz as I drifted off to sleep.

November 11, 2010

Wings

After a long day of classes and meetings, I walked into the chilly air and onto our quad. The first week after we reset the clocks, change in light startles me. The sun was already smudging the horizon. The clouds had rolled back enough to allow the golden light we get just before the campus falls into dark shadows.

As I stared up at the evening sky, I could see birds, hundreds of black wings, all flying in the same direction. They appeared over the top of one building, moving in unison, swooping first left, then right, then left, curving and rippling, their dark wings catching just enough of the evening glitter that they looked almost like fish, with shiny gills rather than feathers.

I noticed a student, young with a blond ponytail, staring up at the birds. “Aren’t they cool?” I said to her. She nodded, and stopped walking. We looked up at the dance of feathers, the wave of birds.

A biology professor and his grad student, deep in conversation, came walking down the path — and almost bumped into us.

“Look up,” I said. They stopped and stared.

“Crows,” said Biology Professor.

“They’re considered nuisances,” said Grad Student.

We watched as the wings went smoothly past, the dark silhouettes moving through the last golden light of the day.

“But they’re so beautiful,” said Ponytail Undergrad.

Biology Professor smiled. Grad Student grinned. We looked back at the sky. The last flock of birds moved over our heads then disappeared over the brick building. Without another word, we all began walking again, moving in separate paths, me to my car and home.

November 10, 2010

Grading, grading, grading

Ten days ago, three sections of students handed me essays. Sixty essays altogether. I stacked them inside manila folders and put the folders in my bookbag. For ten days, I’ve had this nagging thought inside my brain, a thought that has accompanied me no matter where I’ve gone, like a stone caught inside a boot, rubbing against my heel at every step: “You have papers to grade! You have papers to grade! Must grade the papers!”

The ridiculous part is that I was, in many ways, looking forward to reading the papers. My students had been working on the essays for several classes: brainstorming ideas, talking over thesis statements, and doing peer review on rough drafts. They’d picked great topics. I knew I’d be reading about geothermal energy, straw bale construction, hydrofracking, ecotourism, wind turbines, urban growth limits, nuclear energy, phytoremediation, coral bleaching, offshore drilling, and more.

I wanted to read the papers; really, I did. It’s just that reading and commenting and grading takes soooo much time. If I spent 20 minutes on each essay, for example, that would be 20 solid hours of grading. But I was determined to have a positive attitude towards the papers and just sandwich them in whenever I could. I decided to just take the papers one at a time and not be overwhelmed by how many there were.

So that’s what I did. I read some of the papers at the monastery, between walks through the sheep pasture and prayers in the crypt and conversations with my friends. I read some sitting at my kitchen table, while enjoying the morning sun and a hot cup of tea. I graded some sitting up in bed, cozily under the blankets. I graded some in the living room in front of the fire. I graded some sitting on the couch while Shaggy Hair Boy played the piano. I even made popcorn one night because a blogging friend (COUGHpilgrimCOUGH) claims that popcorn magically makes grading fun, but to be honest, the popcorn mostly just made greasy spots on the paper.

It feels like I’ve been grading papers constantly for the last ten days, but that’s not exactly true. I took time out on Monday to cook dinner for my daughter, a bunch of friends from the Ultimate team she plays on, and of course, my sons. I stopped this afternoon to visit my parents. I’ve had long conversations with friends, with my husband, and with my kids. I’ve taught classes, gone to meetings, stopped at the CSA farm to pick up the week’s vegetables.

But still, it does seem like my students have followed me everywhere for the last ten days. I keep bringing their ideas into conversations. Just this afternoon, I found myself explaining to my parents what LEED stands for. At the monastery, I got into a long conversation with Brother Beekeeper about the evils of hydrofracking. And I keep telling my husband how we need to look into getting solar panels for the roof. I feel lucky that my students have access to so much information, that they study such cool topics in their classes. That’s the part that makes grading papers worthwhile in the end: I learn so much from them.

Still, it will be a relief to hand them back tomorrow — and know that I can look forward to a weekend in which my time is once again my own.

So much sky

So much sky

November 08, 2010

Walking

Afternoon walk

"So what do you do on retreat?" Friends ask. "No television. No cell phone. No computer. No radio. What do you do?"

Well, I spend some of the time with my friends, talking. Mealtimes at the women's guest house often includes long, intimate discussions. The Benedictines don't keep silence, so the retreats at my usual monastery include conversation. Brother Beekeeper and I are friends: we usually find time to catch up on each other's lives.

But my friends and I are good at respecting the need for quietness on retreat, so I also spend a good deal of time alone.

I go to services in the chapel, listening while the monks chant psalms. When the chapel is empty, I sit down in the crypt, cross-legged on the stone floor, and stare into the flickering light of votive candles. I meditate, usually for twenty minutes at a time. I read, I write, I pray. I stare out the window and watch snowflakes spinning against the sky.

Most importantly, I walk. No matter what I'm working through, no matter what swirling thoughts I'm trying to sort out, I find peace by wandering through pastures, tramping through the woods, or following a stream. My spiritual life needs the slap of cold air, the rustling of the trees, and the wholeness of the sky. At the monastery, I leave my books and papers inside on the table, and I walk.

November 07, 2010

Breath

May safely graze

It was raining when Retreat Friend and I arrived at the monastery, but the old stone farmhouse where we were staying was cosy, once we turned up the heat and turned on the lights. We’d stopped for Chinese food on the way through town, so we sat down right away for hot soup, veggies, and rice. We’d just finished when the chapel bells began to ring: time for prayer.

As I pulled open the heavy wooden door to the chapel, warm air rushed out. The chapel air has a musty, spicy smell: the smell of incense, of melted wax. I breathed in the smell and could feel the tension behind my eyes loosen. The monks were gathering in a semi-circle around the stone altar, and Brother Beekeeper gave me a wink.

It was a lazy, quiet weekend. I stayed in on a rainy morning to grade some papers, then write in my journal. Nurse Friend arrived, driving from a city where she’d attended a conference. She made coffee, Retreat Friend made tea, and the three of us talked all afternoon. We talked about grown kids, about career plans, about marriage, about divorce. We’ve been coming to the monastery for 13 years, and we know it’s a safe place for long, serious conversations.

This morning, I rose early to find the sheep pastures covered with frost. By the time I was done taking a shower, the sun had come out from behind the clouds. Blades of grass crunched under my feet as I walked with my camera, taking pictures and breathing in the cold fresh air. As the sun began warming the landscape, I wandered through the sheep barns, along the ridge of trees, and through the apple orchard. By the time I returned to the guest cottage for breakfast, my wet hair had frozen into icicle dreads, my hands were numb, and I felt wide awake.

Monastery in November

November 04, 2010

Gone monking

I've got a busy day today, with back-to-back classes and meetings, and no time even to eat lunch. But first thing in the morning, I'm sneaking away for a weekend at the monastery. I won't totally escape work: I'll be bringing with me stacks of papers to grade. But still, I'll have time to walk the sheep farm, chat with Brother Beekeeper, catch up with the two friends I'm going with, light candles in the chapel, and enjoy the peace and quiet that the monastery always offers.

November 02, 2010

Men get naked too

My blog is the number one google hit for “photos of naked middle aged women.” Yep. I'm so proud. That’s pretty much the biggest accomplishment in my life right now. I owe it all to my cooperative women friends, who have selflessly moved out of their comfort zones to pose for me. And my readers (mostly female) who have supported the naked photo project from the start.

At the conference last week, I decided it was time for a naked male photo. Surely, I thought, one of my male friends would cooperate. After all, they are sensitive feminist guys, willing to talk about gender stereotypes. They are intellectual guys who would surely want to extend the discussion of body image to their own gender. They are generous guys who, quite literally, were giving me the shirts off their backs and the socks from their suitcases.

But they balked.

“No way,” said Artist Friend. “But I’ll ask my roommate, Ghana Priest. You want to write on his skin? You’ll need a silver sharpie.”

Philadelphia Guy mumbled something about how he didn’t have tenure yet. “But how about my roommate? He’s got cool tattoos. You wouldn’t even need a sharpie.”

Literature Professor With Cool Tattoos, who lives in West Coast Movie Star City, did seem like the perfect candidate. He had, in fact, offered to pose naked three years ago, but it was late at night in a dimly lit bar and I didn’t have a camera with me. We’d had a long discussion about porn. He’s got a tattoo that represents the band Skinny Puppy. And he's a feminist. I mean, if that didn’t set him up as the perfect candidate, I don’t know what would.

When I sat near him at the Saturday business lunch, I said to him quietly, “I’ve got my camera with me.”

He shrugged, “Sure.”

It felt like a drug deal.

We had to move quickly. The lunch ended late, and he had plans to attend a panel that began in about five minutes. But the photo shoot didn’t take long. I yanked the blankets off his bed so we’d have a white background, he took off his clothes, and I snapped the shot. Minutes later, we were both heading down the hallway to our respective afternoon conference sessions.

Men get naked too

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. .)

November 01, 2010

Without my clothes

My luggage never did arrive. But really, it didn’t matter. No one cared that I wore the same pair of jeans every single day. They were new jeans, so they looked almost as dressy as the black pants so many of attendees were wearing. And really, it warmed my heart the way colleagues let me root through their suitcases. Want to get some sympathy and attention at an academic conference? Arrive without your suitcase. Seriously. I ended up meeting all kinds of new people because they felt sorry for me.

On Saturday night, the conference organizers had planned a dance, and we were invited to wear Halloween costumes. By then, I’d given up on hope that I’d get my suitcase, with the dress that I’d planned to wear. I’d been wearing Artist Friend’s navy t-shirt as a nightshirt, and his roommate, Fun Priest, graciously offered a red sleeveless shirt that was almost long enough to wear as a dress. I borrowed black tights and a black camisole so that the outfit wouldn’t look indecent, and I pulled the red shirt on over the skintight black clothes. It was miles too wide, but I decided I couldn’t be picky. Besides, I needed a wide palette. I added strips of masking tape to simulate sound waves, first close together, then farther apart. The conference was filled with science nerds – such is the nature of the organization – and I figured everyone would appreciate me illustrating a scientific principle.

The group of grad students who had gathered in my hotel room to share a bottle of bourbon cheered me on as I put the costume together. A woman young enough to be my daughter said to me, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to be, but you have great legs.” Although the bottle of bourbon was almost empty at this point in the conversation, I chose to think the compliment was sincere. “The curves of your body make the straight lines curve like real sound waves,” said another young woman. “It’s totally flattering.” I love grad students.

I had to explain the costume to almost everyone at the dance – most of whom were wearing normal dress-up clothes. Because I was wearing black tights, I don’t think anyone noticed that I had arrived without shoes. What’s especially funny is that I got more compliments on this ridiculous outfit than I’ve ever gotten while wearing my own clothes. Only one person knew the costume right away, and only because he knew where I’d stolen the idea. He and I spent at least twenty minutes discussing our favorite episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Then he gave other people hints by repeating making the noise of a car as it speeds off into the distance.

The next morning, after dancing until past midnight and then hanging out at a bar with friends until 3:30 am, I got up early and filled my backpack with clothes that I had borrowed from colleagues, so I could start returning them. Most of us had flights that afternoon.

I arrived at the 8:30 am session early. Bleary-eyed colleagues were sitting in the rows of chairs, clutching cups of hot coffee. Chicago Friend was fiddling with the computer that would project his powerpoint images. Since the panel hadn’t started yet, I began handing clothes back. “Here are your socks,” I said to Philadelphia Friend. “And your shirt.” I tossed the clothes over to him and turned to Artist Friend. “Can you give this shirt back to your roommate? Sorry about all the masking tape on it.”

I looked up to scan the room, to see what other friends were present. That’s when I noticed that everyone in the room had turned toward me. They’d stopped talking to each other and drinking their coffee. They were actually staring, eyes wide awake.

“We’re dying to know the backstory,” said Tall Man. “It looks like you had quite a night.”

October 29, 2010

On the airplane

On the airplane

I shared my seat with a dog. The woman sitting next to me was a clinical psychologist, who uses a trained therapy dog with her clients. I have to admit, having this cute dog curled under my legs during the flight did help relieve my travel anxiety.

I arrived safely in Obscure City Amongst the Cornfields, but my luggage did not. I've spent the last two days borrowing clothes from colleagues at the conference I'm attending. My friends have been pretty good about letting me go through their suitcases to see what items I could use. Philadelphia Guy donated a pair of socks and a cool t-shirt. My two grad student roommates are too young and thin to lend me clothing, but have provided me with deodorant, shampoo, and lotion. Artist Friend is 6'6" which means the t-shirt he lent me is long enough to wear as a dress.

At the opening reception for the conference, I kept scanning the crowd to find women with my body type, so I could go ask for some clothes to borrow. It's definitely a different way to meet people. For Saturday's evening event, the program says that we are encourage to wear Halloween costumes. Since dressing professionally is fast disappearing as an option, I'm working on a costume based on random stuff I've borrowed — and perhaps a bit of duct tape.

October 26, 2010

Creative energies

Creative energies

My youngest son, With-a-Why, at the kitchen table — sketching, eating, and listening to music. He's drawing an egg against white folds of cloth.

October 24, 2010

Evicted

“We have to move,” Little Biker Boy told me last week. “We’ve been evicted.”

As soon as he said the words, I knew it had to be true. He wouldn’t have known the word evicted otherwise.

I had wondered how long the landlord would put up with the police visits, the neighbor complaints, the many broken rules. The family needs to move out of the little trailer by November 30. It will be winter. I don’t know where they will go.

Ponytail hasn’t said much at all. That day, she sat on my lap and cried about a cut she had on her finger. Then she went back to playing with the traintracks on the floor. But Little Biker Boy talks to me about it every day.

“When I’m older and I have a car,” he said. “I’m going to come visit you.”

“That’s right,” I told him. “I’ll still be here.”

“I’ll come visit you, and we can sit at the table and drink tea,” he said. He has watched me drink tea with Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter.

“That’s right,” I said. “And I’ll make apple pie.”

I reminded him that he’s like one of my kids. “You aren’t like your father or your mother’s boyfriend or Ponytail’s father,” I said. I went through the list of abusive alcoholic men that have come through his life in the last couple of years, naming each one. “You aren’t like them.”

“No, I’m not,” he said, nodding his head with emphasis.

“You are like my kids. Like Boy in Black. Or Shaggy Hair Boy. Or With-a-Why,” I said. It’s a ritual conversation; we’ve had it over and over again.

“When I’m older, I’m going to be like one of your kids,” he said.

I poured him a glass of milk: he was testing the vegan chocolate cupcakes I’d made. He ate a cupcake and gave it his approval.

“I have a car,” I told him. “I can come get you sometimes, and you and Ponytail can come visit. Do you remember my phone number?”

He nodded as he always does, and recited the number back to me. Then he said, as he always does: “I have your phone number in my heart.”

October 23, 2010

Season of cinnamon and pie crust

Protected

One of the things I like most about making apple pie is the way the scent of cinnamon and apple fills the house. Pie-making is messy: flour gets all over the table, the floor, and my clothing. But homemade crust is worth the mess, especially if you eat the pie warm with a cup of hot tea.

Apples ripen here in September just as soon as it’s cool enough to turn on the oven. Apple pie season marks the beginning of fall, when I’m still looking forward to the cold, and ends in late October, when the last apples come off the trees.

The last and best apples to ripen are the Northern Spies: they are hard and tart. The last couple of pies I made were filled with Northern Spies, and the apples were well worth the wait. I don’t like pies that are too sweet (that’s why I only make pie with apple or rhubarb), so the tart Spies are just right for my taste.

I’ve enjoyed seeing my older kids every time I’ve made pie this fall: a text message about homemade pie is usually all it takes to get them home. Last weekend, I went apple picking with my parents, With-a-Why, Red-haired Sister, and her kids. Most of the apple orchards were just about stripped bare. The kids and I spend a pleasant hour climbing the tallest tree in an orchard to get the last remaining apples down from the very top. Beneath every tree, old apples crunched and smooshed under our sneakers.

Apple pie season is almost over.

End of the season

In my house, food needs to be protected from wandering cats, so apple pies are imprisoned under over-turned laundry baskets while they cool.

October 20, 2010

One word at a time

One word at a time

It was a cold fall day, and I was on retreat with my friends. A group of them had gone off to follow the migration of the snow geese while some of us had stayed back for some quiet time. I’d taken a nap down by the lake, moving my blanket as the sun shifted, and then I’d come in to build a fire. Gorgeous Eyes and I began a conversation about relationships, and what happens after they end.

“We leave marks on each other,” said Gorgeous Eyes.

I liked the image of humans drawing on each other, marks that stayed even after they chose to follow separate paths. I thought of the many people who have left marks on me, who have changed who I am; I still carry the words and images left by people who have disappeared from my life.

By the time the other women had returned from their bird-watching adventure, Gorgeous Eyes had stripped off her clothes and I was writing on her naked body with a felt-tipped pen. She chose the words; I was just the scribe. We'd changed the metaphor by then. We were talking about ways to make our own desires and needs known to other people.

My friends are so used to my naked photo project that none of them found this unusual. “I think you’ve got the right idea,” said Makes Bread. “It would be so much easier if humans came with instructions.”

I finished writing on Gorgeous Woman and then took a photograph while she sat on the rug by the hearth, flames warming her naked body.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here .)

October 19, 2010

Piano Man

“I’ve figured it out,” Shaggy Hair Boy said to me one day in the car. “If I practice three hours each day, I can be an expert by the time I’m 26.”

He’d been talking to his sister, who told him that the idea of people having “talent” at creative pursuits is largely a myth. Mostly, people acquire talent through the number of hours they practice. More than 10,000 hours of practicing anything will usually make someone an expert.

Shaggy Hair already spends a great deal of time on the piano. He plays it several times every day. In addition to the lesson he takes every week with the wonderful woman who teaches us classical music, he’s got a jazz piano teacher from the local studio, a jazz piano teacher at Snowstorm University, and another musician who teaches his Improv class. He meets with his grandfather to play twice a month too.

But now, every night after my husband, With-a-Why, and I go to bed, Shaggy Hair Boy sits down at the piano and plays for hours. He plays classical music, he plays jazz. He plays some popular tunes and some old standards. From our upstairs bedroom, my husband and I can hear the music floating up the stairs. It’s relaxing to lie in bed and listen to the lovely rhythms.

Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of the “Piano Man” and I woke up with the words in my head: “Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feelin’ all right.”

October 17, 2010

Weekend at home

Green Lakes

Even though I've walked around Pretty Colour Lake hundreds of times, I never get tired of the view. The colours of the lake change depending on the season, the time of day, and the weather. Red-haired Sister was in town with her kids this weekend, their traditional trip home to go apple-picking, and we ended up, as usual, walking at the lake. Shaggy Hair Boy and Dandelion Niece went off in one direction while my parents and sister went around in the other direction, chatting as they walked. Suburban Nephew and I kept lagging behind or running ahead to take photos.

Eric

That's Suburban Nephew, venturing out on a log to take a photo.

October 16, 2010

What light

What light

Usually when I post photos of naked women on my blog (and yes, that happens more often than you might think), people will chime in on the comments and say, “How come you only take pictures of beautiful people?”

The answer is, of course, is that there aren’t other types of people. I’ve never met a person who didn’t look beautiful to me.

Almost every woman who has posed on my blog has complained, at one time or another, about being too fat or too skinny, too tall or too short, too curvy or too flat-chested, too pale or too dark. As we’re setting up the shot, the woman will confide in me that she hates her legs, or her hips, or her hair. “I don’t even want to see myself naked,” she’ll say. But then we take a bunch of shots, I put them on my computer, and I delete the ones that didn’t come out well. Then we look together at the remaining shots.

That’s when the woman will say, in surprise. “Oh, I look so much better than I thought.”

That’s what I look about the naked photo tradition. Women get a chance to look at themselves the way I see them; they get to see that they’re beautiful.

Today’s photo is of my friend Quilt Artist. She’s recently started putting some of her creative energy into writing poetry, and we had planned a photo of her writing in her journal in the morning sunlight. But then she turned to look out the window, and I snapped a shot that we both liked.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here .)

October 14, 2010

More thoughts about the teenage ghost

Here are my family’s reactions to my ghost story:

Shaggy Hair Boy listened eagerly, and said, “Oh. My. God. That is sooooo creepy.” He said, "After I'm dead, I'm going to go into people's houses and play the piano."

With-a-Why listened and said nothing.

My daughter made me tell the whole story on speaker phone so that Blue-eyed Ultimate Player could hear it. She said, “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Now I’m going to be afraid to sleep alone.” (Her apartment is the bottom part of an old mansion in Snowstorm City.)

My husband said nothing.

Boy in Black grinned and said. "It was just your mind playing tricks on you. Let’s see … you were tired, it was late at night, the lights were dim, you were in a strange place, and you had been having a creepy feeling. It's not a surprise that your mind conjured up the image of a teenage boy since teenage boys usually are standing outside any bathroom you use."

My mother said, “Hey, you saw a ghost?” in the same tone of voice she would use for, "Hey, you went on a hike?" She reminded me of the time she heard a ghost tap dancing in an old theatre building downtown.

My father said, “Oh, I’d love to see a ghost.” He sounded jealous. He wanted to hear the whole story again. He asked, “Was the boy solid or translucent?” He kept saying I should do some research and find out who the kid was.

Artist Friend’s reaction was pretty much the same as my father’s. He asked the same question. “Was the boy solid or translucent?”

The little neighbor boy said, "Oh, don't worry, I see ghosts too. When I lived at my Dad’s house, it was haunted. There was this old man ghost. He would just sit there and rock back and forth.”