When the memorial dogwood blooms

I have been putting off this post until today, when I finally made myself take a picture of the dogwood tree that we planted on campus in front of my office at the Women’s Studies Center. This is the dogwood that our friend Mary Ellen Miller bought and arranged with WKU to plant in honor of our youngest son, who was murdered on October 26, 2009, by a man who lived then on a county road outside Bowling Green (he now lives in prison). It is perhaps no by-the-way that we have just this week learned that the conviction of Manslaughter 2 has been appealed on the grounds that the judge’s “Instructions to the Jury” may have been faulty due to his decision not to include instruction for self-defense . . . and we may witness again a trial of the man who shot and killed our son, Casey. This leaves me in a state of cerebral hemorrhage, metaphorically speaking, as my mind is sound and nothing bleeds, except in the way of language.

A number of confusions seem to come bubbling up from that paragraph, to whit:
–what the hell do I mean by “instructions,” why is it quoted and why did Judge Wilson decide that it was appropriate to leave out the possible sentence of self-defense in his directions to the jury?
–why the hell did the man who killed our son get “Man-2″ rather than Wanton Murder, as he should have, at least in the judgment of Casey’s family?
–why did we bleed, why do we bleed, why did he have to bleed, where is the blood, what is blood, what is death and loss and heartbreak?
–there are certainly more, like what is his life like, the man who shot the gun, and what is prison?
–why did I have to “make myself” take the picture?

But here is the tree, from today:

Casey's Dogwood Tree

Casey’s Dogwood Tree

And here is was when we planted it in the cold winter of 2010, 2 1/2 years ago:

The root ball

The root ball

I can’t get a handle on this post–it’s pulling me this way and that way. There must be 2-3 or 4 or 5 posts here, or one long post that goes into the darkness of tonight . . . so how to pull it together for the post-at-hand….?

What is a tree–even a dogwood–to the loss of a son?

When I pass the tree and the plaque, which I do every day I go to my office, I either notice or don’t notice the dogwood and the plaque. When I do, I say, “Hello, darling, I love you lots,” and sometimes I make the sound of a kiss, such as when we blow a kiss to someone we’re driving away from. . . . When I don’t notice, I suppose my head is down or my gaze akimbo, at any rate, not on him, my thoughts a ways away. For this I am sorry, and I say this too, when I realize that I haven’t been acknowledging him or sending him a conscious thought though I pass this reminder almost daily. That’s when I say, “I love you even when I don’t notice that you’re gone.”

Journal Keeping

I’m a certified terrible journal-keeper. I know several great journalers, people who have been writing and reflecting their way through life–some of them “writers” and some of them writers. Recently I was exchanging emails with the fabulous journaler and writer Kathleen Dean Moore (I’m not dropping names, honest–I had contacted her about possibly coming to speak at WKU). I mentioned that I was going to the Peruvian Amazon and she said something to the effect, “Oh, that must be such a wonderful opportunity for journaling.” It rather took my breath because a) she’s right and b) it’s another missed opportunity, which I immediately added to my very large collection. (By the way, I store these in an Earth-friendly shopping bag in my trunk underneath jumper cables, leaves, old sweatshirts, some crumpled concert programs, several plastic bottles waiting to be recycled, and an array of brown and white bags with who knows what additional decaying opportunities. I rarely look in the bag and for that matter don’t know if it’s still there.)

Another great journaler is my friend and colleague Trish, who has been keeping (and keeping) journals since she was a child. She too is a terrific writer, so I am sure that the connection between keeping journals and enhancing the craft of writing is profound. No end of books on “how to” would seem to affirm that. Other reasons for journaling, according to what I hear, include

1. healing
2. finding out who we are, at this time, in this place
3. creating a record for our progeny (who may write term papers using our 20-something drama rambles as primary texts)
4. understanding what’s going on–without writing it down, it may just mish-mash in our minds, knocking into other things, bruising and rising to the surface distorted and betrayed
5. feeling the joy of letters and words flowing from the nib of a pen, magic
6. exercising our creative spirit so it doesn’t languish

I suppose there are more, but that’s what I can think of right now, without consulting google or my bookshelves.

I have a few journals from now and then and I suppose I’ll keep them, but I don’t know why. I’ll never be famous and no tenure-track professor will ever discover them, giddy with excitement, in a box in the archives at Duke.

What I do rather like, at least today, is putting a few pictures and thoughts on this blog. I don’t think I’ll reflect much on the great events of the day–others do that so much better. Like my friend Mike Rivage-Seul http://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com/. What seems somehow worth my effort (in Mike’s words, “things that matter”), much more than sitting in contentious (or even congenial ones, which is actually more accurate for the good place I work) committee meetings where we are dividing scarce resources among projects we care about or trying to figure out how to make “it” work, this project called Education . . . is the noticing of little things going on around me. (and that’s what you call a long-ass sentence)

I think recognizing small features of the day, the place, the mind, and giving them a little nod to show we love them might just be what being 60 means to me.

Me on the Oroso, a tributary of the Amazon, journaling just once

Me on the Oroso, a tributary of the Amazon, journaling just once

Why I like to mow the lawn

Why do I like to mow the lawn (with a little history thrown in). . . .

First, the history:
I have been mowing lawns with a riding mower since I was 12 years old, which means I’ve had 48 years of experience so am well qualified to answer all questions about mowing the lawn on a little gas-guzzling, carbon imprinting lawnmower (Cub Cadet and Sears being the machines I’m most familiar with, though I admit to some envy when ours is broke-down and I use our neighbor’s John Deere). . . .

When I mowed the lawn as a 7th grader living in the country outside of Oberlin, Ohio, our house on Peasley Road was surrounded by mother-14 owned acres of woods and meadow. Of these, some number of acres were mine for about 6 hours on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the spring and summer. That’s an estimate, but I suspect my mother sighed a big breath of relief when her little drama-hungry girl settled down on her ride-n-cut for the day. I mowed in South Amherst (where Peasley Road is officially) until I graduated from high school in, well, go Falcons! Suffice it to say the Stones were showing some sympathy and the Beatles were just on the brink of drugs and all you need is love and Lucy in the sky, you get the picture. But as a 7th grader, I was probably listening to “To Sir, With Love” and the Turtles’ “I think we’re alone now”….you get the idea.

And I was. But as an only-child, I did not really want more time alone. When I was not mowing, I wanted to be WITH MY FRIENDS…my neighbor Judy Dohanes and her cousin Nancy Callier, Teresa Sivinski, Ruthann Bechtel, girls who lived in their own country worlds. But when I threw my leg over my trusty steed and turned the key, I was okay with alonedom, and even loved the time to mull over and meditate what was most assuredly some serious stuff.

That was the beginning, and it is to those years that I return when I clambor on board now and mow our 1.4 or so acres. This is the season when once a week is almost not enough, before the droughts set in. But to the point of this post. I like to mow because:

1. I have to be alone. It is too loud, this mower, for me to both mow and converse, so go away. I am meditating.
2. Every round releases the smell of fresh-cut grass laced with wild onion and garlic.
3. I see the lawn in new ways–or rather, I see trees and bushes in passing but with the attention required not to mow them down. I would never have seen these worms if I hadn’t been riding beneath them:

Apple blossom with invading (I think) catepillars

Apple blossom with invading (I think) catepillars

4. Now that I have granddaughters, they like to ride with me, and today my four-year-old and I went round and round in circles, she looking over her shoulder to laugh with me when we had to duck the cedar tree’s low-hanging branches.
5. Despite my inclinations toward wildness and meadows, I LIKE the feel of cut grass on my feet. I like the way it looks, at least when it is green because Nature has said, “be green,” and not because 1/4 mile down the road the Earth is sucking for water.
6. Finally, at least for now, I like to mow because it gives me an excuse to pull my camera out and prop my 4-year-old g’daughter in front of the azaleas, because, heave a sigh, the yard is mown, and we can now enjoy the day. . . .
Leah pauses . . . with azaleas

Leah pauses . . . with azaleas

Leah's picture: who wins the silver contest?

Leah’s picture: who wins the silver contest?


I like close-ups but wonder if it’s because I’m nosy at heart and like to get all up in flowers’ grill to see what they’re up to. Here are today’s up close and personals with our purple-pink azaleas and lilac lilacs.

Purply pink azalea

Purply pink azalea

Largely pink lilac....

Largely pink lilac….

Naturally, as soon as my 4- and 8-year-old granddaughters see me out and about with my camera, they’re done with whatever was once so important and are with me holding our subjects still and prying my fingers loose so they can take their own shots. Here’s one of Omni’s close-ups–a nice curly cue grape vine, dried and hanging from our also dried and slightly crumbly swing…

We had a heck of a time getting this blowsy dandelion to hold still enough in the light breeze. We propped the macro lens on our garden gate and took turns holding the green stem. Team work!

Dandelion poof before the wind took its little seedlings away

Dandelion poof before the wind took its little seedlings away

I think maybe it’s not nosiness but delight in the secrets of this amazing world we have, right there in our own backyards. Even an ugly back yard retreats if there’s one nice flower or curly cue to hone in on. Maybe if we look a little closer at the simple things at hand we will learn what it takes to appreciate the more complicated whole.

Friends, 27 years and counting

When you are 60 years old or so, it’s not surprising that you might have friendships going back 27 years or more. Not surprising but no less remarkable, especially given how we come and go these days, following this job, that opportunity (for love, for adventure), wandering far from our childhood stomping ground, many of us . . . and probably most of us.

Last night I went up to Berea, where we lived from 1986-1991, to see my good friends Keila, Barbara, and Peggy. Dorothy joined us for dinner, but the over-night was just the four of us. It was in Berea that I found my first real job–real in the sense that it and I fit each other, grew and evolved into each other–it’s the job that taught me that teaching in a college or university was the best place for me to do whatever worthwhile thing I might be able to do, and that the doctorate was my ticket. It’s the place where our two oldest boys grew from 2 and 3 to the ripe old age of 7 and 8 (don’t worry about the math) and our youngest boy Casey was born, in 1987.

I found my best friends there, a new consciousness, community, love. I wrote a couple of poems that I’m still rather fond of, and one of which is about these boys and this growing, shedding old skin and learning to move in the new body. So I’ll share a part of “Cicada” here:

This transformation takes seven years, they say.
Right now my oldest heads down the homestretch
to his seventh birthday
and I wonder what’s in store for him,
what growing pains first grade will bring.
Seven years ago I began a marriage,
took it upon myself to offer the world two lives,
ended the marriage began another,
ended a job and began anew,
offered the world another life,
said, “Here, I trust you to care for these
they are mine I would not have them destroyed.”

Already I feel an itching at my shoulder blades
where I can’t quite reach the scaly skin
though I can just make out the v-shape through the steam
where my rubbing in the bathroom mirror
has left a filmy reflection.
Any day now I shall lay myself down
pull my body into its tightening shell,
trusting the stillness to remain free
from inquisitive hands
so I can let these wings unfold and dry
before I leap into that startling void.

I hope I will soar. I hope I will sing.
I hope I will meet up with other cicadas,
our wings a crackling testament to our joy.

But that’s not what I started this post about, though there may be a connection. I wanted to say something about friendship, the deep knowing we four friends share—about our frailties, our strengths, our histories. How the four of us want to grasp this thing we’ve got and honor it until we can no more. All of us professors, world travelers, authors, activists, one a Fullbright Scholar, 3 of us mothers and grandmothers, one an Episcopal priest now, two of us survivors of dead sons and a hundred other heartbreaks. Two still live in that town where we met and found each other (one lives in the country outside of town), the third lives now about 30 minutes away, and me, the furthest off, but still here in Kentucky, just a couple of hours down the Cumberland Parkway–I’ve contemplated chewing my fingers off in committee meetings as long as it took me to drive from here to there, a ride that gives you a series of hills touched by green and flowering trees and enough time to listen to a CD or two. On the way there, your mind rehashes the business of work till you shake it off finally. But on the way back you think how you are going to make your home a little better, having shared 15 hours with your friends and seeing, remembering them, yourself, listening, laughing. All the angst and frustration of work are just tempests in cracked teapots compared to what that kind of friendship means.

So here they are, my beautiful friends…..Keila, Barbara, Peggy . . .

Keila Thomas listening to Peggy

Keila Thomas listening to Peggy

Barbara, listening to Peggy (she's interesting)

Barbara, listening to Peggy (she’s interesting)

Peggybest Peggy, listening to Barbara (she’s interesting too)[/caption]

And the four of us . . . Sweet!

Peggy, me, Barbara, Keila

Peggy, me, Barbara, Keila

Purple Dead Nettle, New Kale, and Old Kale

Today I waded through the wet 60-degree grass to take a picture of two of the kale I planted back in October, picked in November and again in February and did not expect to pick again. But here it is rising from the Purple Dead Nettle, which I only just learned about, thanks to google images. The Purple Dead Nettle has taken over my little side garden where I successfully grew winter kale for the first time. If the kale didn’t rise above the Purple would you see it in this sea of green and purple?

Purple Dead Nettle, responds to a rainy day, while rain-dropped kale stands unpurturbed

Purple Dead Nettle, responds to a rainy day, while rain-dropped kale stands unpurturbed

Here’s another shot (okay, I’m learning how to use photoshop on my raw images–does it look new?), which you can compare with my truly “new” kale (below if I can find it and not if I can’t) that I planted in early spring last year, and which was so beautiful, but did not survive the bugs that gobbled the leaves up, seemingly overnight:

My old kale in new spring

My old kale in new spring

Now, all that said about new kale, old kale and Dead Nettle (a good thing), Purple, I’ve also just learned that it works well in a smoothie….well, coincidences upon co-incidents! Just this weekend I finally threw the over-ripe bananas I had in the freezer, with some store-bought frozen strawberries (probably not NGO), some vanilla yogurt, and 1/4 cup of orange juice. Voila! A smoothie to write home about. And if you’re writing home to Dharamsala, to your Tibetan friends, make that a Goji….even better.

Here’s what I learned about the purple nettle, from the wonderful “First Ways: urban foraging and other adventures” Blog: http://firstways.com/2011/02/17/purple-dead-nettle-a-weed-good-to-eat/

That is Lamium purpureum, a mint family plant known as purple dead nettle. You may wonder: Why eat it? Because it is said to be high in a number of nutrients including antioxidants, those cancer-busting compounds we can all use more of! I have been into putting it in my smoothies ever since I read this piece by a Tennessee homesteader. I blend it because the fuzzy texture and bland, grassy flavor does not make for awesome eating as a whole plant. (That said, with a little creativity, anything is possible.)

So I picked some Dead Nettle (a la purpella), ran to the store for above ingredients, or as close as I could get, and threw them into the blender….was it better than my original Goji? See for yourself!

First, the ingredients, then the pouring of the libations….I can’t show you how good it tastes. I put in all the Pupolis Deadus Nettalis (Lamium purpureum to be fair) that you see in the picture, two bananas, a bunch of strawberries (8?), some juice, and half the yogurt….

5 ingredients, that's all!

5 ingredients, that’s all!

Thick, lucsious smoothie with Purple Dead Nettle, minty!

Thick, lucsious smoothie with Purple Dead Nettle, minty!

So, here’s the site map:

begin with picture of kale you didn’t know you had growing because you’re only just now venturing out of your house and into the spring…..

get mildly curious about the purply weed taking over, almost thatching your treasured kale, curious enough to see what google says (take a photo or two)

discover that someone EATS THE STUFF

run to the store (in your car), come home, compile ingredients, more photos (for evidence)

drink (and share)

This is how you go from a long day at work home and make a little sense of your day….ahhhh.

Peach Blossom Special

My granddaughter loves pink and likes to wear it. I think real men eat home-grown lettuce while wearing pink. I have mixed feelings about pink–I think it’s wonderful for tongues, sunsets, and healthy tonsils. Even my glasses are pink, and I look quite fetching (and intelligent) when I wear them, though not quite so much as when I wear my sunglasses, which are not pink and therefore help me look mean and single-minded when I’m driving down Morgantown Road into the sun.

But yesterday, I learned a new love of pink–the peach blossoms on the volunteer tree that sprouted a few years ago next to our propane tank, and which no one had the heart to remove or transplant to a more dignified location. But peach blossoms do not need a well-landscaped yard to sing out their love of pink . . . as you can see:

Peach Blossom Special

Peach Blossom Special

Pink goes well with softly veined petals opened wide to the sun and air, and it also goes well with curled up buds.

Budding, or Before the Opening

Budding, or Before the Opening

And finally (for now), pink does very well as a blur in the eye, or perhaps the bottom hem of a flowery curtain just lifted to view our backyard and our neighbor’s, the Renfros, on the other side of our fire pit and fence. Mr. Renfro is a gardener extraordinaire, and yesterday began dropping seeds into the nearest 3-foot swath, as you can see. Mr. Renfro is not a half-assed gardener, like me, and his garden is one that I lust after…

Rich pink and Mr. Renfro's garden.

Rich pink and Mr. Renfro’s garden.