Uncertainty and Upheaval

Recently at my university budget cuts and space reallocation have caused a great deal of upheaval in people’s lives and as a result, uncertainty about their place. “Does what we do matter?” they ask. Or with more clarity: “what we do doesn’t matter. [ergo] We don’t matter.” Also in the past year, at least two faculty have died–one very young and one at retirement age, the former due to hospital infection after gradual healing from an aneurism, the other in his sleep. At least two students committed suicide. At least four senior faculty have applied for positions and only one has gotten what he wants. A new doctoral program got slapped down at the state level. We stayed home for two days due to snow, and now our entire humanities/arts building is shut down for a week due to an old transformer blown and so, no electricity. Faculty are holding classes outside or in other buildings, but if the “fix” doesn’t fix it, we have 6 weeks of classrooms to find, not to mention offices and art labs. One of my programs was told to anticipate a move in two years and now we’re told we need to be out by August and the building that had been “promised” is now not quite so.

So those are institutional uncertainties, just a smattering of the kinds of upheaval that seems increasingly to define us. Not that in the past we didn’t lose opportunities or find ourselves without an institutional home (for awhile) or lose colleagues and students in tragic ways. But things have ratcheted up in ways we are not accustomed to–what does that mean for how we teach? For how we do our creative and research work? For how we serve the institution and our fields and communities?

Then there’s context: are we feeling a kind of uncertainty for the first time that others have known for a long time? And who, for that matter, are “we”? Our part-time instructors whose low-paying jobs with us are vulnerable to full-time faculty needing a section and to budget cuts? Part-time faculty are paid for out of College funds, yet the tuition goes to the general fund–and now they go for budget cuts by axing the part-time faculty line. Now the College has no permanent budgeted money to pay the xx% of classes taught by part-timers, so they turn to lapsed salary lines–but if those have been carved into increasingly smaller pieces of pie, it soon looks like there’s no money to pay out.

Are staff included in this “we”? Those without whom the university would grind quickly to a loud halt. Those who make a third or a half of what faculty make (not to even mention the upper administration of the coaches). Does “we” mean just my university or is there a nation-wide escalation of worry and doubt–ask Detroit or New Orleans.

Depending on who you listen to, it’s clear that some “we” or another is increasingly under fire or the magnifying glass. Some of the we’s are privileged and others are not so. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of the usually-comfortable now squirming. It’s more like the almost-always uncertain are now on a par with the newly uncertain, like a burgeoning class onto itself. If you are listening to Fox News you get one sense of who the devil is, threatening our very personhood. In fact, if you listen to the 24/7 news you know that things are dire and getting worse. Somehow they’ve been doing that since 9/11. And if I’m to talk about uncertainty from middle-class, educated, hunky-doriness when communities are decimated by white flight or drugs or joblessness and the cold shoulder of our classist racist society, then I have to place one within the other: the most important element of context is that opportunity in this country is neither blind nor subtle. That’s a myth. Note: thanks to Isabel for calling my attention to this article about “FUD”: http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/25/understanding-the-propaganda-campaign-against-public-education/

I haven’t even mentioned the uncertainty and confusion of our personal lives–”our” meaning all of us in this country–home foreclosures, lost jobs, abuse, drugs, prisons, homicides and rape, the list is merciless. But I want to resist a fatalistic attitude–and I understand if that seems like a privilege in itself. Still, the most powerful examples of the kind of resistance to fatalism that I’m thinking about come from those communities most beleaguered. Fierce elders coming together, musicians and artists, boxing clubs, community gardens, book clubs in jails.

It is exactly out of our personal space–unpredictable, messy, vulnerable–that we have the resources to navigate the landmines and maneuver around the gaping holes before us, perhaps even to disengage the bombs for others and close the holes as we step over them. (Using metaphors of bombs makes me uneasy, since real people are still losing legs to land mines left after war and new wars ongoing.) What is it we have to pull out of ourselves? There is really no limit, but I think maybe these are few:

Affirmation for others and ourselves. If we support each other out loud then we begin to believe that we’re not alone, that it’s not “just me.” Tenderness. Showing a little kindness. If someone snaps or yowls, imagine first that it comes from a place of pain, not of willful meanness. Confidence–I want to put our heads together with a certainty that we can come out the other side with minimal wounding and better understanding. Laughter–maybe if we have these first three then we will find ways to laugh. Nothing so awful stays so long as to prevent humor. It’s like water finding the cracks and seeping into our conversations. A pun will do just fine. A not-cruel imitation. A juxtaposition that makes an image. Those adorable goats scampering across a floor (thanks, facebook).

As I look at my little list it appears that they all are both personal-community strengths, and that feels right.

Last night as our night was winding down, our five-year-old granddaughter Leah lay down beside me, her head on my lap. It was a bit of “throwback Thursday” for her, as she had one of her old sippy cups with water and was holding it to her mouth, her eyes closed. She got a little chilled so we grabbed what was within reach: a cloth napkin, a kitchen towel, and the scarf I was knitting, which she pulled around her head. Adorable moments are always easier with children, and yet it’s what we do, we humans, when we are confident–maybe not completely secure–but at least confident that we won’t be alone when whatever is that’s going to hit us comes roaring in.

Leah winding down for the night

Leah winding down for the night

Icycles

Here in Kentucky we don’t get a lot of snow these days, only ice. These icycles are melting from our (in need of repair) eaves.

Melty Icycles

Melty Icycles


Seeing them takes me back to my long-ago childhood in Ohio, where we broke off icycles and puffed on them, blowing out cold air like smoke. These were no puny afternoon stogies, but big around as legs and long as yesterday. Sometimes the stalactites reached the ground, forming pillars we could hide behind, turning us into colorful blurs against the siding of our house.

Ice in Kentucky is the fond act of a cosmic paintbrush, creating a patina of clear gray day against the trees, grass, and berries.
DSC_1834
Ice in Kentucky is crushingly beautiful.
Cedar tree in the back yard
And it’s danger, the weight of what can break us:

Ice flowers bursting on branches

Ice flowers bursting on branches


I took that one a few years ago, but it’s too terrible-beautiful not to include here.

I don’t recall ice like this in Ohio. Ice was serious in a different way than it is here, and we think of ice differently here–shutting down schools at the snap of a finger (or icycle). I used to be one of those northerners who looked at Kentuckians’ reaction to a little cold with a chuckle or a superior snort. But when you live in the hills, with windy, turny roads that see the sun only in patches, where school buses can go careening into a very steep-sided ditch, you get used to caution over very little.

In Ohio and Minnesota, it’s more snow than ice that defines a winter, though occasionally–not this year, and less and less often–we see something that reminds me of how wonderful snow can be, a winter wonderland that leaves you gasping (just a little)….

Like this, our backyard on a snowy day day, wondrous--brings out the kid in any old scrooge.

Like this, our backyard on a snowy day day, wondrous–brings out the kid in any old scrooge.

Ruminations on Self-Doubt

Who doesn’t have it now and then (or in some sad cases, perpetually)? And what makes it so oppressive? If you could turn it off with a switch, would you?

It would be nice to think that once you reach a certain point on your path that you no longer have to deal with the dern thing. Like once you get the job you’ve been training for or the skill level you’ve been busting your ass to achieve. The trouble is that once you clear that high bar, someone raises it. Maybe you do. And maybe it’s just the nature of the mind: to churn on about what is real, what is meant . . . the “yikes” question, Who am I? What’s my purpose? That probably why we seek complacency, laziness–it’s just easier to shut down. Whatever.

Writers know it. Virginia Woolf describes it in her great Room of One’s Own, when she says, “Think of Tennyson; think–but I need hardly multiply the instances of the undeniable, if very, unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him [or her]. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others” (56). Since she also devotes an entire chapter to Shakespeare’s sister, who died at the crossroads and is kin to other women known as “Anon,” we know also that there is plenty of wreckage of women. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.” Well, I don’t know about great in the Great sense, but there’s a lot to be said about building a network of friends that believe in you and affirm your worth. And alongside that is this reality: you have to build coalition and community with people who either don’t recognize the Wonders of You or who don’t know how to show it, some so wounded and closed off themselves that it’s like bouncing off a sealed sphere.

University professors know it. When we collect our student evaluations and 98% of the comments are positive, those 2% nasty are what keep us up at night. I remember one particularly unhappy class of Intro to Literature–no matter how great the story, how beautiful the image, how profound the phrase, they chattered among themselves and started packing their backpacks ten minutes before “the bell.” I vowed I’d teach anything (give me the most tiresome ENG 300) than watch what I loved dragged through the dirt by these heathen. My mother, not a university professor but teaching for a few years in her twenties at a high school, wrote, “This morning, of a sudden, I just knew I didn’t want anymore of small high schools and sassy kids. Next time I teach I hope it’ll be at least be a junior college and MUSIC.” If I had been born then, I might have leaned over and said, “Mom, don’t expect them to love music the way you do.” But I don’t want to discredit students categorically because that would be a horrible thing to do to all those who love learning and appreciate their teachers. It’s just those harsh comments that are hard to take. It might be different if they weren’t anonymous–are they empowered by invisibility to “tell the truth,” or does the anonymity become a screen that they can hide behind, sword in hand? Passive aggressive–sucking up for the grade, then snarling on the evaluation. I guess the same thing happens when faculty do evaluations of administrators–all that anger surges out. As a dean friend of mind said with a laugh, “Oh, you learn all kinds of things you didn’t know about yourself!”

Anyway, students know it, parents know it, I suppose even politicians know it. Self-doubt is as human as hunger. While looking around for easy answers (laziness–but I did know the Woolf quote, as I’m reverent when it comes to Virginia), I found this little exercise by Mahatma Ghandi:

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

I’m not sure how effective that will be; if you can put yourself on a continuum with the “poorest and weakest person whom you have seen,” even for a few moments, the exercise will likely have you scolding yourself for your self-indulgence, spoiled self-centered, selfi-ness. But then you’ll probably go back to fretting, your mind scooting away from those uncomfortable for something more familiar.

Heroes know it. Martin Luther King, radiant light, also suffered from self-doubt, at least according to the Staff of the King Papers Project, who note that “Rather than exhibiting unwavering confidence in his power and wisdom, King was a leader full of self-doubts, keenly aware of his own limitations and human weaknesses.” Perhaps that’s the key or part of it–to be aware of one’s limitations and weaknesses, to struggle with doubt, but to refuse to be crippled by them–to hold in front of one some grand purpose that can silence those petty ego dramas.

The Dalai Lama says self-doubt is a form of laziness, muddling us in inaction. He also says–and it’s probably my favorite quotation–I usually find reason to say this in every class I teach–”If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” A little self-forgiveness can go a long way to get us over self-doubt, don’t you think?

As Gloria Steinem, the great feminist leader said, “Measure yourself by the real, not the ideal.” which I revise to: “not the ideal or small-minded.”

Loving Your Place

Tonight I went to a conversation hosted for Honors students at WKU by my colleagues Wolfang and Elizabeth, and the reason I went was because I wanted to think more about what Wendell Berry argues is crucial–for sustainability or resilience, or whatever term you want to use–for what needs to happen with regard to the happiness or livelihood of this place we call home. What does it mean, I wanted to hear others reflect on, to love your place?

The students offered some insights that I think are worth noting–that a place is tied up with the people we know there. This is true–how to disentangle the people that we know in the place we have come to love? (Why would we want to?) But I don’t think that our sense of place is limited to the people, and if it is, that seems to be a problem. Some of the students spoke about their time here in Bowling Green as temporary–they’re only here for four years or so and they anticipate leaving, so they feel no need to establish the kind of affection for a place that comes with time. I, too, spoke this way when I was an undergrad about my home in the other Bowling Green, in Ohio, where I lived for a short time knowing that it was not where I would “land.” I was a visitor, no need to invest myself in anything but the tasks at hand. (Or is that what I told myself while unconsciously I sent out tentacles of caring? I wrote some poems about the place, breathed in the air of the place, took from it. And 40 years later still store somewhere within the feel of that old farm house in the middle of the soy and corn fields where I lived.)

I told them, I speak as an old person, one who has come to understand that loving a place is an act of resistance. If we don’t care for the place we are now, then we more easily become a pawn. Loving a place is an act of resistance against corporate mentality, against the notion of disposability. If we say, “I’m only here for 4 years,” all those hours become one more disposable thing. Unimportant, unremarkable, unlovable. But if we can say instead, it matters, where I am, then we are enacting something that our throw-away, unsustainable, corporatized world has told us is no longer necessary to a modern way of being.

How do you love your place, not in an easy, packaged way, but in a real, deep way that locates you in the here and now, not in some fantasy of tomorrow? The past couple of nights I’ve stood outside my back door until the cold drove me in, watching white and gray clouds race across a nearly full moon. I listened to the wind. Is this what I love, these full bodied trees, now bare of leaves? The smell of wet leaves dense across the yard?

Berry casts us as either “stickers” or “boomers”: “’Boomer’ names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. ‘Sticker’ names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

“The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

I don’t know that the world divides so neatly into two kinds of people, but Berry’s point is well taken. I think about the pressure we face–those of us who are educators in public institutions (and maybe the private ones too)–to ensure that our students get jobs, preferably right out of college, and preferably with benefits, a salary . . . pipeline to the American dream. How this leads to bottom line thinking, short term results, slippery ethics, corporatization, students as clients, fast-tracks, and hollowed out psyches. I think about how the drive to get a credential and screw the examined life translates into devaluing the humanities, political numbing, greater separation between classes, loss of self. Far smarter people than I have written books on this (Martha Nussbaum, David Orr, and Wendell Berry, to name three from very different pathways).

The very worst thing that happens is a failure of imagination, a closing off of the mind.

I like what David Orr says about the imagination, how crucial it is, and I believe what Paul Bogard says in his book The End of Night about the loss of night to increasing artificial lighting: “The aesthetic sense–the power to enjoy through the eye, and the ear, and the imagination–is just as important a factor in the scheme of human happiness as the corporeal sense of eating and drinking; but there has never been a time when the world would admit it” (214).

Doesn’t that sound like what Orr is getting at when he writes, “We have good reason to believe that human intelligence could not have evolved on the moon—a landscape devoid of biological diversity. We also have good reason to believe that the sense of awe toward the creation had a great deal to do with the origin of language and why early humans wanted to talk, sing, and write poetry in the first place” (reprinted in Hope Is An Imperative: The Essential David Orr, 249).

When we erase the humanities–in our education and in our daily lives–we surrender to the speed-up-and-make-a-buck mentality that flips a bird at what really matters, calling it irrelevant, dreamy, a luxury.

Here again is Wendell Berry on the notion of “stickers”–those who invest their lives in a certain place: “I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.” http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture

This is no soft focus, no optional discourse on love. When the money’s gone, the world we knew swept away by super storms and mega corporations, we’re going to have to look across the landscape and decide wherein we see ourselves.

5 Things on a Walk

So it seemed like an easy assignment: find 5 things worthy of comment on a walk around the neighborhood. It’s one thing to go for a walk on a beautiful sunny autumn day, it’s another to remember 5 things that you then go home and write about. Would there be competition? Would I have trouble finding even 2? Thanks to some help, I came home with five, just five, no more no less.

1. The sun streaking through the trees as it settles on the hill rising ahead of me: reds, golds, yellows brilliant against their drab cousins. But no, this verbal paintbrush is too brash. Not just red! Not gold the color of money! No buttercup or baby chick yellows! My only camera on hand was my cell phone, which could not handle facing the sun, so no evidence from today.

2. The persimmons are stankin! You could walk around our circle (about a third of a mile each turn) with your eyes closed and know immediately when you are passing them. Ken says that if you put one in your mouth you’ll be instantly awash with saliva, and drooling. Here’s an assortment. I love their lavender pink skin in the fall.

Persimmons: whole and various stages of squished

Persimmons: whole and various stages of squished

3. Buddy, our sweet australian shepherd, went with me and walked about 5 times the distance I did, just trotting out the length of the leash then looping left and right then back to me. When I paused to tighten my shoe laces, he rushed over to lean heavily against my arms. This made the whole shoe-tying business take twice as long, as I had to keep peering between his legs to see my shoes. What makes this worth remembering? Just the fact of slowing down and letting someone get in our way, it’s not always so bad.

4. A boy, about seven, and his grandfather arrive in their big white pickup and carry their basketball to the court. As I keep circling, their voices–one soprano and one tenor–filled the cup of our neighborhood circle with sweet sounds. I could distinguish his voice, “Long shot!” “Okay, 4 to 5.” But the grandfather’s remained just a bass rumbling around in the background.

5. I pass our neighbor Shirley walking her toy terrier Scooter. He is wearing a jaunty Irish plaid vest over his back. Buddy towers over him but does not insist, as Scooter scoots around her other side. We exchange niceties, the sort of unnecessary but reassuring sign of recognition. We don’t “need” to say, “beautiful day,” or respond, “wonderful, enjoy your walk,” but we do. The alternative, looking the other way or burrowing our noses in our bellies, would seem outrageous. And so we share our well wishes, and I think we both mean it.

I’ve been wanting to find a place to share this photo of a —-, some soft seed pod that we found last year about this time, on the shores of Ken Lake….I like it for the colors, not exactly the brilliant sun-splashed ones of this afternoon, but nuanced, the way fall is:

Fall pods of unknown origin

Fall pods of unknown origin

Bird Poop on My Railing

We all know that myriad worlds–animal,insect, plant–go on beneath our notice, and it’s often only the traces that let us know that we share this space with others. Tonight as I sat outside on my rain-wet deck, I noticed that my railing is littered with bird poop. A biologist (scatologist) might be able to tell me for sure which of our backyard feathered creatures are frequenting the railing, but I can only suspect it’s sparrows, since I see them flitting around the dead branches of the wisteria vine we had to kill before it turned our deck . . . and next our crawl space . . . into our own version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Trying to take note of the little creatures that inhabit my world, I have to say that when I look out the window they are never lined up there, like birds on a wire, so I don’t know when these 100 or so little droppings got left, but clearly these birds are turning our porch into their daytime chat room. There’s nothing above the railing–no branches hanging over from a nearby tree. No, this is a new hang-out. By day when the humans are gone, little brown birds are walking or hopping up and down the railing, near enough to the bird feeders to grab a bit, litterly (!) a kind of gang plank jutting out from the wisteria trunk. A bird walk. The local bar.

Today, when Leslie and I were dropping off Brandi at her 5-acre farm near Glasgow, we strolled around and studied the end-of-season garden. A huge expanse of deeply mulched rows of end-of-season sweet potatoes and frost-blackened basil, to name just two. From afar I noticed a sea of white spider webs speckling some fall greenery. Beautiful clusters of spider homes–the only evidence of an apparent urban sprawl of arachnids….See here:

Spiderweb Clusters in Glasgow

Spiderweb Clusters in Glasgow


We didn’t see any spiders, but is anyone in doubt? A little further on, we saw a rose drenched in raindrops with a loan spider cluster . . . far enough away from the urban setting to suggest that this was a little spider suburb, or perhaps an intentional community seeking some more aesthetic location to start their own burgeoning population. Still no spiders, just the sign that we have no shortage of spiders. We talked some about how many spiders and spider webs there seem to have been this summer, from the Hunter Spider (big hairy harmless thing) that kept stringing its trap from one bush to another right in front of my doorway, turning me into a Ninja expert every morning I walked into it (thanks to Julie for the cartoon that gave me this image of myself), to the spider bites that freckle my legs and arms and neck every time I walk under a tree or across a path.
Brandi's Rose and Spider Cluster

Brandi’s Rose and Spider Cluster


They’re everywhere! The signs are everywhere: the spiders are coming. We were talking about who our spirit animals are and how you are to know. Is it because they come to you when you don’t expect them? In your dreams or as you’re sitting and meditating in some new place, away from home, unprepared for the visitation? Spiders are weavers, storytellers.

I found this about the GBH: “Heron links two worlds: the waters of life—the Unconscious, and the air—the realm of the conscious mind. He feeds on fishes, which symbolize the treasures of the Unconscious mind: spiritual nourishment for the Seeker. Yet he is also a creature of the Earth, so he is a grounding influence for people who spend too much time in their minds and who are called to ‘fish’ in the waters of the unconscious.” On this website: http://speakerfortheanimals.blogspot.com/2006/03/great-blue-heron.html

I wrote about this in my “Meditation and the Great Blue Heron” because that first visitation had a profound effect on me–that’s why I was stunned when I opened my eyes to see another nearby the other day when visiting Paynes Prairie. I have dreamed about bears–seems obvious that the fact of their hibernation means they symbolize the deep unconscious, the transformative power of going within and emerging after a time.

Leslie said, “If spiders are my spirit animal, then I feel bad for killing them!” Well, yes, one never knows. (I’d hate to think what a fly or a cockroach mean.) I do know that a spider is a wonderful creature and we do well to appreciate it. I’m just glad spiders don’t leave poop along my railing. I like it that their “evidence” is their houses, their kitchen tables. And that those webs let the rain linger before trickling down into the deep unknown.

What I Know About Pigs

More about that in a moment. But first I’d like to share something of my two hikes to Paynes Prairie, outside Gainesville, Florida, which have given me a break from computer and email work. Paynes Prairie is an “ecopassage” that offers a path through an open marshy prairie, which you get to after first hiking through a beautiful light-strewn woods. I’ll present my two trips in reverse order, the better to get to the pigs a little sooner.

Thursday, October 24
I did not expect today’s trip to be so different from Tuesday’s. The leaf dangling from a spider’s thread at the entrance to the prairie path was gone, so I’m glad to have been there to see it on my first visit. Something about that gently turning leaf with the opening into the prairie seemed to invite me in:

Leaf in the Breeze

Leaf in the Breeze

But that missing leaf is only the first example of how today’s trip was not the same one I took two days ago. The path, which you can perhaps see in the photo above, was unmarked last time, except for piles of what I thought were cow poop. If you look very carefully into the distance, you’ll see a flying white egret (I think–it was bigger than most egrets, so I wonder if it was a white heron) and beyond that a big boulder. Only it’s not a boulder!

Paynes Prairie with Egret & Buffalo

Paynes Prairie with Egret & Buffalo


I saw 7 in all. First, one loan buffalo moved from the path as soon as she saw me. Then, I came upon three and being unsure about whether buffalo have the same ill feelings toward the color red as I’ve heard bulls do, I put my gray sweatshirt on, just in case . . . I was not really fearful since I figured that Paynes Prairie would not allow such easy access if these beasts were a threat. I did notice that the two people who were behind me had turned back. These three also lumbered off the path before I got too close. I talked to them in what seemed like a reassuring tone, and took some pictures. Finally, thinking that I would make my way now to the observation tower, I headed on, only to see my final two buffalo, one standing, the other lying on her side. I approached but decided not to make them move. When it seemed I’d gotten close enough, I turned around, looking over my shoulder in time to see the standing one lie down. I was glad I hadn’t made them move.
Three Buffalo Consider Me

Three Buffalo Consider Me


I was feeling very satisfied with my animal encounter, when I heard a splashing to my left. I paused and then saw what it was–a wild boar! He had a very surprised look on his face when he saw me in front of him, seemingly out of the blue. Now what I know about pigs is that they can be fierce and aggressive fighters, so I froze more than mulled over my options. As soon as he saw me, however, he plunged back into the watery marsh dense with vegetation. I’m pretty sure I could hear at least two of them and strained to see them. No luck, so I just imagined them based on the mucking that was going on and light sounds of water disrupted. I had also disturbed the egret and she was in there with the pigs looking for food–isn’t that what birds do all the time, when they’re not mating? I could see flashes of white in the dense green and brown.

Now the other major change in my journey began to make sense. The smooth prairie path was strewn with gouged soil. Huge patches all along the path that yesterday offered only buffalo pies to dodge. What I know about pigs is that they like to root around in the mud and make a mess (hence, “pig sty”). I thought to myself, “I got an A in Biology 100, so clearly I could have followed a very different career path had literature not snared me with its wily plots, delightful characters (even the awful ones), and gorgeous language.

Wild Boar Pig Sty?

Pigsty without the Sty, at Paynes Prairie

Pigsty without the Sty, at Paynes Prairie

My two walks in Paynes Prairie have been a harvest of animal encounters. I feel lucky. As I mentioned, I’m using reverse chronology, so here’s my photo journal from my first visit. . . .

Tuesday, October 22
After Susan came by to stay with her mom, I was particularly hungry for a people-less environment after learning of a crappy administrative tantrum that is going to affect my MA program and one of the co-founders and loyal supporters. So, I parked and walked along a sandy, leafy path until I came to a bench in a little clearing. I sat here for awhile and practiced sending lovingkindness to my mother-in-law, a friend, one of the nurses at the hospital, a certain department head, and finally all the critters in PP and the world. I was moderately successful. And sweaty.

By now I had emerged from the woods and was walking along the grassy path surrounded by prairie marsh and side-stepping drying piles of cow manure (I presume—big, spotty—good BMs, as we say in hospital-talk). I made my way to the look-out stand at the end of the path and climbed it and sat. I continued my meditation, this time just listening to the birds and other sounds. Not for very long, as my eyes were restless and kept popping open. I looked to my left and there, about 100 feet away, stood a Great Blue Heron, immersed in the business of looking side to side for tantalizing movement in the water. Given my encounter two months ago when a Great Blue almost brushed against me as I was meditating beside my friend’s pond (“Meditation and the Great Blue Heron”), I’ve decided that the GBH must be my totem animal. Two times must mean something! What splendid creatures.

I now made my way back toward the woods I’d left 40 minutes before, enjoying the sounds of things leaping away from me. No alligators, probably because the plant life was too dense. I really liked these Yellow Podded plants and took a couple of pictures of them.

Yellow Pods that must delicious to someone

Yellow Pods that must delicious to someone

Finally, back in the woods, I strolled along just admiring the trees and the draping moss and viney branches….
Such beautiful light gets tossed around in these branches
When I saw a deer . . . No, two deer . . . No, three. I got quite close to them, considering they’re deer and I’m me and wearing my bright purple tie-dye shirt and treading every way but gently along that good leaf-strewn path. A little blurry, but you get the idea:
Deer considering what I'm up to

I got to the car, headed back to the house, better off than I had been 90 minutes ago.

Addendum: I learned today that my father-in-law, when he was in the Florida legislature, co-authored legislation that provided a way for animals to cross beneath the road–there had been a lot of problems with the prairie creatures getting killed. I’m glad to know that. I’m glad to know we aren’t slaughtering them in their living rooms.

To chiropract . . . or not

I come from a long line of chiropractor-doubters and have myself been to only two——once several years ago when my 1982 whiplash was seizing up. I finally went in, sometime in the early 2000s. The chiropractor hooked me up to a machine that felt like little hooks were tugging at parts of my back and shoulders–in a nice way. Stress was so bad at the time that I could feel a cold-fisted clamping at my neck that made it impossible to turn my head more than an inch or two. The treatment helped, and I stopped going after a couple of months. I haven’t felt stress like that before or since, and I was completely helpless to know what to do. I went in desperation.

Then last week I went again to someone new, this time about the lower back.

My mother would have have given me her suspicious look.

My cousin just a couple of weeks ago gave me her “no f#cking way” look (in case my granddaughter reads this). “I think it’s best to go to someone where the weight of research is on their side. A doctor.” She’s a nurse who uses a Chinese treatment for her back.

And yet, last week I went to this “real doctor” chiropractor (he’s a real doctor) who has turned to alternative medicine. I’m not going to spill the various diagnoses he gave me, or the cautious success I might be feeling after two visits, but let’s just say that going to a chiropractor when your mother (may she rest in peace) has taken a seat out in the waiting room and is now flipping through a golfing magazine . . . well, it’s enough to make you tiptoe out of there.

Going to the chiropractor is for some of us like taking a bungie jump. We know the success stories, but the internal voices are like, “Warning. Danger, Will Robinson.” It’s like a dirty little secret——when it turns out you can stand on your head or do a double flip off the high dive, and people are asking how you did it, you can let it out. Until then, you’re scurrying from the car into the old house where his office is, your big floppy hat down to your lips.

This summer my cousin and I took a wonderful retreat up to Yellow Springs, and on our last day we each got a massage. Terrific! Our masseuse was an alternative medicine walking encyclopedia. When we came back we looked up some critiques of her a couple of her recommendations, and Quackwatch pretty thoroughly trounced the cleanse she stands by. Was all her advice crap? She made too much sense and was too good at the massage and reflexology to shut her out completely. We simply had to work our way through what we could accept and what not.

I guess that’s really the heart of it, isn’t it? Not just accepting what we’ve been handed (especially when one side so distrusts the other that you can’t even talk about it without sputtering and eyes rolling). Listening to our bodies——another whole topic.

I never did like playing by Hoyle, at least not religiously. Maybe my next trip will be to the iridologist. But I’m not telling anyone, certainly not in a blog.

Trayvon Martin and My Son

Yesterday I attended the march and service to recognize with others in my town the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death. I found the march and service very moving for a couple of personal reasons, and so this post is just one person’s thoughts–better commentaries are noted at the bottom.

I had read several commentaries about Trayvon’s death and particularly about the racial elements that lace through everything–the stalking, the fight, the shooting, trial, media frenzy, and also the hard thinking and desire to act that have emerged and so often do emerge after such an awful loss. I have gone to many of the MLK ceremonies and am always better for it, and I knew in my heart that white people had to show up at this, not just to “show up,” but to join in the grieving and look for insights into ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Here’s my one shot of the march–the people in front of me–mostly Black folks. I walked with a white colleague for awhile. I saw maybe 10 of “us” there. I couldn’t help but notice. “Race” was there. It’s not like I was judging anyone for not being there, but I was grateful that those who were there had felt motivated as I did.

Some of those who attended the march in honor of Trayvon Martin

Some of those who attended the march in honor of Trayvon Martin

I also felt a pull to Trayvon, the teen-ager in the hoodie, shot by a vigilante. Like my son, a wearer of hoodies, shot by a white vigilante/survivalist. I find the photo of him poignant–you can’t miss the look of sadness around the eyes, along with a certain determination and questioning tilt of the face.

The ubiquitous image of Trayvon Martin

The ubiquitous image of Trayvon Martin

I have a picture of Casey in one of his hoodies, but this one shows him wearing another of his typical headgear, a backwards cap. I keep looking at these two young men–17 and 20–and there’s something in their eyes that seems to be expressing the same sort of emotion. What is it they are saying? What would they say now? Would Casey be friends with Trayvon, in the same way he was best friends with another African American boy in our neighborhood. I remember Carlo calling to ask if it was true, what someone had told him, that Casey had been shot. When I answered yes, he said, “Ah, no, no,” holding the phone away from him, coming back, his voice broken and thick, “I have to hang up here.”

Casey, trying to look mean and direct

Casey, trying to look mean and direct


As I look at these two pictures, I recognize what Casey was trying to do with his. Look mean. Manly. I think he took this picture himself, perhaps for a Facebook or My Space profile picture. But I know that those eyes would tell us a lot more about meanness and what is to be a man, if they could.

On the back of the program is a picture of Trayvon with his arm around Emmett Till (I could only find the originator as revcom dot us). There’s no mistaking the similarities in the circumstances of their deaths–at least in the way their innocence–mere presence–was so criminally re-constituted as danger.

Trayvon's arm around Emmett

Trayvon’s arm around Emmett


I know that my son’s death was not racially motivated, though race was almost certainly a part of the worldview held by the man who did it–in his survivalist thinking. But as the excellent pastor said at the service, “This could have been anyone’s son.” As long as we can shoot with impunity, any paranoid with an urge to act out can point, shoot, kill.

The purpose of the MLK Committee-sponsored march, according to the program we were given at the State Street Baptist Church, was to “show support for the Martin family for the shooting death of their unarmed teenage son Trayvon. We seek to gather together grieving members of our community in a peaceful protest against systemic racial injustice evident in the trial of George Zimmerman. In addition we would like to bring awareness of Stand Your Ground Laws in 33 states including Kentucky to challenge state and local unjust laws/policies and to amplify the voices for change in the voting booths in 2013 and 2014.”

Tomorrow we go back to the Court House where Leland Burns will have his sentence commuted to 7 years. We have requested a meeting with him, and that meeting will happen tomorrow as well, as I understand it. Can I face him? Every time I even think of it, tears fill my eyes and Casey enters the room with me. Will he apologize to us? Will Zimmerman ever atone, even share his deep regret with Trayvon’s family? Will it matter? I think it does.

This commentary is good on the trope of black male as fearful: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type&id=1874&fulltext=1&media#article-text-cutpoint
And this one is good as the thoughts so many of us share, of utter sadness:

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/From-My-Heart-to-Yours–Buddy-Stallings-s-e-Letter-from-St–Bart-s.html?soid=1100773447561&aid=JFW84ZSrfnc

This is Rita Dove’s poem:
http://www.theroot.com/buzz/trayvon-redux-rita-dove

Backyard Volunteerism

We have an upstart sunflower with one little head growing beneath one of our bird feeders, the one that holds black sunflower seeds. A second, about half the size, has started growing beneath a second feeder, the one that holds an assortment of fatty seeds. I imagine that in a few weeks, the taller of the two will block our view of the sunflower feeder as it pushes that growing head of seeds up toward the sun. Maybe they both will, as they look healthy. Here’s a close up of the emerging head, in which you can see a little bit of yellow.

Volunteer Sunflower

Volunteer Sunflower

Similarly, we have a peach tree growing beside our propane tank, which is now, though slightly pushed southward, is full of 1-2″ peaches. By our front door, squeezing out in front of one of our overgrown bushes, is a weed of some sort. It’s going to blossom soon and I can’t wait to see what kind of flowers emerge. Among our more annoying volunteers are the grasses–crab and jamaica–that sprawl along the undergrowth like gnarly knuckled fingers clasping at whatever grows there. I think they rather diminish the meaning of volunteer. Among humans we think this is what builds community. This is what builds character.

Last night, Omni and I watched Chimpanzees, a movie-fied true story about a chimp whose mother dies while he is still just a youngun. The other mothers reject him (rather nastily, I might add), the other babies seem to pull away. The last “person,” I was going to say, that little Oscar turns to was the leader of the tribe, Freddy, a tough old loner who has no time for the antics of lesser beings. But Oscar follows and Freddy changes. He becomes Oscar’s volunteer mother, carrying him around on his back, teaching him how to survive, grooming him (in some of the more touching scenes). No one anticipated that Freddy had such nurturing in him, such tenderness. It seemed more likely that Oscar would waste away, ignored, losing weight, no one to pick the ticks and lice from his little body. I was reminded of Jane Goodall’s David Greybeard, and for a moment forgot I was looking at a community of apes.

Then this morning, I found a new sort of volunteer outside our window. It hangs from a branch that holds a third bird feeder, for thistle seeds. This branch is like a skinny hand with many twigs where birds like to land, if fleetingly, and take a look inside (or so I imagine). I don’t recall seeing spiderwebs on this tree-branch till today, but with the dew clinging to the threads, it was impossible not to notice.
DSC_1207spiderweb

This week I’m a volunteer child sitter, something I raise my hand for whenever I can. Yesterday was pretty boring for my good 8-year-old, and I appreciate her patience. She goes to work with me in the morning, where I occasionally have to remind her to turn down the youtube volume, and sometime around lunch we head home. Today she hopes to see her cousin and get in some swim time. I may agree to that. I mean, what would Freddy do? WWFD.

Jump, all fours

Jump, all fours