Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gothic Peas

Flannery O’Connor, saint foncĂ© of southern gothic fiction, wrote brilliant, often disturbing, and frequently comical stories that combine religious themes with violent imagery. She also tended peacocks. Peacocks. I’m certainly not a brilliant writer, but I do think I understand how life with peacocks might feed a gothic spirit.

Ray and I share the Row with a 1
4 adult and 13 baby peacocks. They all have names, though they could care less. And it seems we now have a permanent resident wild turkey hen, Hedda Gobbler, and her three healthy chicks, as well.

Like all good
gothic characters, our peacocks live on the fringe. In spite of their affinity for handouts, they do not want to be touched by humans. And while they’re willing to roost in the rafters of an open-sided shed if it’s 30 below, they will not be rounded up, penned, caged, or chicken-housed. We live around them, not with them—we feed, water, and protect them, but they will never be ours.

The splendor of male peacocks belies their violence. During breeding season, adult males will face off and circle each other slowly. Then, in a sudden burst of flapping wings they’re up, diving at each other mid-air, slashing away with bony spurs on the backs of both legs. Down, circle, up, slash. Repeat to exhaustion.

Like the suddenness of O’Connor’s violent outbursts, peacock mating is violent in its explosive brevity. A male flutters his train full of eyes—spooky enough—thrums wing feathers, rattles tail feathers, and high-steps toward a hen. Then he’s suddenly on top of her, beating his wings and yelling triumphantly, for what seems like a split-second. Check out this video of the dance:

We learn gothic lessons from our peas, too, lessons that are oddly beautiful and often terribly sad. Like this morning, when Ray found one of the quints, about a month old now, dead on the ground
near the Roosting Tree. We knew something was wrong even before we found her, because the flock had been frantically calling since dawn.

So I sit sometimes in my greenhouse office, voyeur to pealife, weakly channeling Flannery. Is it any wonder that my poems are rife with tormented saints, unhappy coincidence, and the aloof or twisted faithful?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Fruits of Our Labor

I need to re-read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the intro and cantos I-V of Dante’s Inferno, his happy treatise on the special levels of hell for various kinds of sinners, for class this coming week. So what have I spent my Labor Day weekend doing? Well...

1. On Friday, Mom and I went shopping in the Big City. Ray and I are upgrading from
a full-sized mattress to a king, which should comfortably hold two adults and two dogs, though I’m not sure life will be the same without the occasional paw to the kidney and dog-sprawl suffocation. Mom and I comparison shopped, met Ray to seal the mattress deal, then ran around town looking for chair cushions and Indian curries.

2. On Saturday morning, I spent an hour on the back porch, watching a spider the size of a .50-cent piece repair a hole in her web.

3. On Saturday afternoon, Ray and I picked wild plums until he had to leave for a gig. Then a couple of friends and I spent the rest of the day (and half the night) processing the plums and a few wild grapes we found into 44 jars of gorgeou
s jam. Mom brought us a crockpot full of dinner, and by the time the jam was done and we sat down to eat, we had scraped and scrubbed plum jam from every corner, surface, and crevice of the kitchen and ourselves.

My canning method – Step 1: Drink lots of coffee. Sit on the patio and chat. Step 2: Turn up the stereo, 70’s hits. Step 3: Discover after an hour or more of steaming, stewing and cranking, that the little food mills you counted on are no match for wild plums. Step 4: Run to town for $50 worth of heavy-duty food mills. Step 4: Process plums, finally. Step 5: Drink more coffee. Step 5: Load up canners, set timer. Step 6: Switch to red wine and head for the patio. Step 7: Remove jars to counter and squeal with delight each time a jar lid pops. Step 8: Clean up. Maybe.

4. On Sunday, Ray and I made a run to to
wn for groceries and more canning supplies. Then he picked apples, and I picked cucumbers and dill. In the evening, we headed to the Big City again, this time for the wedding of two women, poets & friends from school. Since same-sex marriage is still not legal in SD, they had a commitment ceremony. It was beautiful and quite moving, with a UCC pastor officiating, vows they wrote themselves, attendants, prayers of community support, and journals on every reception table in which guests were invited to write haiku in celebration of the couple’s happiness. The bride wore a gorgeous white satin dress, and the other bride wore a lovely white suit. Everything was trimmed in rose pink and brown. There was music, dancing, family & friends, and a whole lotta love.

I know gay marriage is still a hot-button issue for many folks, but really, when I pick up a newspaper or watch more than 5 minutes of CNN, I KNOW with certainty that love is an increasingly rare and amazing gift, and we should be thrilled for anyone lucky enough to find it. Period.

5. Today, Monday, I spent the morning making Sweet Dill Medley, a concoction I dreamed up that includes cukes, white radishes, green onions, red pepper, pineapple, garlic and ginger, all pickled together in a sweet dill brine. Ray’s been processing apples all day—freezing slices for pies and canning applesauce. And I finished another knit Lyra hat (copied from Lyra’s hat in The Golden Compass), which Jada “volunteered” to model for pics.

I could find plenty more to do, but I guess I’ve put off my schoolwork about as long as I dare. Time to settle in with an iced coffee and the Inferno. And is there a special place in Hell for procrastinators? I can’t remember. I’ll look it up sometime…later.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Then & Now: Teacher's Edition

I met with three new college undergrad classes yesterday for the first time; one more starts next week. Ah, a new fall semester at Little Town U! And because I tried to pay attention, I had some “aha” moments about the contrast between walking into class in 1991-ish when I first started teaching, and walking into class yesterday...

Then: The first day of class is a happy lawn party. You get to take the class outside, sit in the grass, and wax philosophical with inquiring, like-minded friends.

Now: Your anxiety is so high by the first day of class (everything depends on student-consumer evaluations) that it causes spontaneous muscle spasms, which students confuse with clumsiness and/or senility. Your class is in the basement of the physics building. You like the dark; it hides your trembling.

Then: Wearing a calf-length paisley peasant skirt with white ankle-length silk long john bottoms sticking out, duct-taped Birkies, and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt for the first day of class helps students relax and see you as their groovy, non-threatening older sister.

Now: Your all-black skirted ensemble and sensible black pumps strike fear into new students and help them focus on the fact that learning is not for the queasy or faint of heart.

Then: You distribute your 2-page syllabus—sprinkled with hand-drawn yin/yangs, happy faces, and quotes from Jung, Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell—at the very end of class, telling students to call if they have questions.

Now: You distribute your 18-page syllabus—sprinkled with state-required disclaimers, learning goals & outcomes, rubrics for academic writing, student services information, and state/university/department/course policies—at the beginning of class, and you spend the entire class making sure students understand their rights and responsibilities. You have them sign a “contract” documenting the fact that they’ve read and understand the syllabus.

Then: You open class by reading a poem about doing your own laundry for the first time. You spend some time laughing and chatting about the students’ lives, Japanese studies tying jumping to bone growth, and why Howard Jones is the genius king of techno-pop. Then you let class out early.

Now: You open class with the Ram Das quote, “Be here now,” explaining that being present in every moment of “our collective learning process” is worth xx participation points, but only if one’s cell phone is turned off before entering class. Then you go over the syllabus. You don’t quite finish, although class runs 5 minutes long.

Then: You hope all 30 of your students will be exuberant English majors by the end of the semester.

Now: You hope you to learn all 65 students’ names by the end of the semester.

Then: I love teaching.

Now. I love teaching.

This was yesterday’s most profound revelation—I still love teaching. In spite of the anxiety, the ever-increasing bureaucracy, heavier teaching loads, and customer-service orientation of higher ed, the sleepless weekends and nights hunched over the dining room table, and the occasional frustrations I heap on my whipping-boy, Ray (his patience is all the evidence I need of true love), I’m grateful to be doing what I do.

I do it for the occasional spark I see in a student, knowing I can fan it into an all-out brushfire. I do it for the moment a student crosses from confusion to clarity. I do it for the ex-students who still call, email, and FB me, some of them now with their own ex-students. I do it because sometimes I hear, out of the blue and many years later, from a student who suddenly realized she/he got something out of my class. I do it to sneak my fascination with language under the skin of pliant young people, where it will worm its way into their psyches. If someone else would do the grading, the job would be near-perfect.

So let the leaves turn. Let the September rains fall. Shake out the jackets. Trade the sandals for shoes. Bring on the heating pad, the coffee, and the Doritos. Come on, Semester. Let’s see what you’ve got.