Friday, March 25, 2005

The Company Store...

When I was a kid (somewhere in the dark ages), Tennessee Ernie Ford had an AM radio hit with "Sixteen Tons." Every time I make a major purchase, that song echoes in my head--"You load sixteen tons/ and what do you get?/ Another day older and deeper in debt./ St. Peter, don't you call me/ 'cause I can't go./ I owe my soul to the company store."

I don't work in a coal mine, though sometimes it feels that way, but I feel as though I'll be working for the rest of my mortal life, a slave to ownership. My reason for lamenting? I just bought a new car.

I like this car; I think it will serve me for quite a time. But I am indentured to it for the next five years (and beyond, if you count maintenance costs, gasoline, etc.). I suppose if I lived in a city like Austin, TX, or in some quaint little neighborhood where everything was is walking distance, I could dispense with a car, as my children have. They both live in Austin and haven't owned cars for several years. They're incredibly fit because they walk and ride their bikes whenever possible. And they don't have car payments or insurance; they take the city bus when they need to, and are quite familiar with the Greyhound Bus and Amtrak schedules. They've learned to live without the vehicle, and I envy them.

So, I chose to live 45 miles away from the places where I work; but, even if I lived in the city where my jobs are, I would still need a car. The city has a lousy bus system; what's more, it has spread, spider-like, in every direction and the bus doesn't reach all areas of the city. Using public transportation would create difficulties for me; I can't imagine what it does to the people who rely on it. The buses begin running around 7am and shut down around 7pm most nights; on weekends, they stop running earlier and run less frequently. If I had to be to work at 3pm, I'd be okay; but, if I worked until midnight (which I do), I'd have to walk or beg rides from my coworkers. A city with a population over 200,000 should have a better (and cheaper) public transportation system.

Okay, enough about that, though I think we create many of our own difficulties. And, of course, we buy into popular perceptions of what makes up "the good life." I'm content, at the moment, to know that I have reliable transportation--my old car was on its last leg (or would that be tire?) anyway.

I'm making inroads on grading my papers and should be finished with the majority of them by Sunday. On "my" time, I've managed to knit a number of washcloths and make some progress on a couple of scarves I've promised to people. My niece is expecting a baby and I want to start on a baby blanket, some booties and a hat for the tot.

I really love to knit. It's become addictive, the way writing has always been for me. I love the texture of wool and cotton and the fun of eyelash and metallic yarns. And color--I love color, especially for hats. Ah, I think I'll knit for a while before bed.


The dogwood is in bloom, as is the redbud. Color everywhere, and scents! Spring's a wonderful time, except for my allergies. But I try to ignore them and enjoy the season.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Lambs and Lions

The winds of March are upon us, those roaring blasts that snap off limbs as though they were twigs. I don't mind them, except when I'm driving. My tiny little car weaves and bobs like a prizefighter. But, while I'm inside grading papers or out mowing the lawn, the wind is welcomed. Inside, I can listen to the wind chimes as they dance; outside, the breeze blows the sweat off and keeps me from overheating.

I only really fear high winds at night, especially when they accompany a thunder/lightning storm. Several years ago, when I lived next door to my parents, a large oak tree crashed across our common fence and landed up against my bedroom windows. One minute, I was looking at the traffic on the road, the next minute all was obscured by oak leaves. And, of course, the falling tree took out the electricity, so I was also left in the dark (for about two days).

The house I live in now is surrounded by very tall, very old trees--pine and pecan. Limbs from these trees snap easily and I worry that the excessive amounts of rain we've received lately will uproot them. This is probably a groundless fear, but... When I lived in the Highland area of Shreveport, rain and wind crashed over 100-year-old oaks on a regular basis; I imagine a pine tree wouldn't be difficult to topple.

I've graded another set of papers, so now it's time for me to take a break and finish knitting another dishcloth. I love knitting. I taught myself how to knit ten years ago, but didn't really apply myself to it. I picked it up again last winter and knitted about 30 hats, nearly one for each of my co-workers at the bookstore. I sent my daughter 10 or 12 hats, too, to wear, sell or give away. Scarves take me longer because they can be boring; but I did knit myself a poncho/shawl and a long, skinny scarf. Big needles and bulky yarn--those are the tricks to make scarves go faster!
I'm still working on a pair of socks using single-pointed needles. I had to search for a long time to find a pattern for socks that didn't require double-pointed needles. But, I've discovered that, if I have to read a pattern to knit something, I lose interest in it. I like to "wing it." With hats, once I get the basic row pattern down, I can vary the pattern and adapt it to the hat's basic shape. One of my co-worker's says I'm an "intuitive" knitter; she may be right. I just like to do it my way.
So, I'm off to knit now.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Spring Break

As much as I'd like to believe that spring break actually is a break for me, I know better. I just downloaded about 40 assorted assignments from my students and will probably spend the better part of the week reading/grading. Yeah, I know--if I didn't assign the work, I wouldn't have to grade the papers; unfortunately, our educational system requires evaluation in some form, and papers/journals are necessary in this case. I'd love to be able to not give assignments, to just talk about what we read, but the realities of academia preclude that.

I have, however, decided to pace myself. I'll grade a few at a sitting, then go do something else--I have some knitting I want to get done: scarves, dishcloths, maybe a summer sweater (like we really need those here!); I also have a few academic papers I want to work on (publish or perish!). And I have a book to read before Monday night (The Soloist by Mark Salzman) for my reading group at a local bookstore. So, even though this is a break, of sorts--I'm not really "working" my usual hours at either of my jobs (I also work at the aforementioned bookstore part-time)--I'm still "working." I guess the "break" consists in having my time to myself and being able to choose what I want to do with it. That, in itself, is a luxury for someone who is too often constrained by the clock.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I taught my evening lit class tonight, trying to do justice, in under three hours, to both Flannery O'Connor and Sandra Cisneros.

I like night classes, generally. The students are usually more mature; most of them have full-time jobs and families, and have learned to prioritize their time, though I do occasionally have to threaten them with a quiz if they don't read the assignments. Also, many of them have greater insight into the complexities of poetry, fiction and drama--because they usually have more real-world experience than 18-year-olds.

But, back to O'Connor and Cisneros. Both come from Catholicism, though their approaches to religion seem polar opposites. One cannot read an O'Connor story without being acutely aware of her view that, without faith, one is doomed. Without faith, one lacks a core. Her characters, even the protagonists (the people we're supposed to like) are reprehensible. The only characters in her stories who seem to have belief systems are the "bad" guys--Manley Pointer in "Good Country People", The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find", and Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." Her central characters are constantly being whacked on the head in an attempt to shock them into belief, but, each time I read her stories, I despair that they have learned their lessons.

Cisneros, on the other hand, deals with the constraints of Catholicism, especially on women. In "Woman Hollering Creek," Cleofilas is a victim of her macho, partriarchal, Catholic, Mexican heritage. She has little support from her brutal husband or her father and seven brothers. She gets help from two women, total strangers, who conspire to spirit her away. What Cleofilas finds is that women do have options--they can holler "like Tarzan," they can have jobs and buy their own pickup trucks. Cisneros seems to imply that faith doesn't help much, that we must make our own way, with or without it.

I always wish this particular class met more often; I have too much to say, too many questions to ask and not enough time. I hope, at least, that I communicate my love of language and literature--my sincere belief that our lives, hearts, minds are enriched by the insights that writers share with us.
Mr. Lester's peach trees bloom in stages, so I should be able to enjoy this swash of color for a few weeks. And, to borrow from a letter E. D. wrote to her brother Austin, "The peaches are very large--one side a rosy cheek, and the other a golden, and that peculiar coat of velvet and of down which makes a peach so beautiful." This is what I have to look forward to this summer--more time to read and Ed Lester's peaches!

Monday, March 14, 2005

Ed Lester's Farm

I'm beginning my third year in this small town. I know this because Ed Lester's peach trees are in bloom again.

Ed Lester owns a farm directly across the Red River from my house. The peach trees bloom a pinkish purple, usually right before Easter. When I come across the bridge each morning, I'm shadowed by his orchard, bounded by his vegetable fields.

He should be opening his vegetable market before too long. I'm always surprised, because I never expect anyone to sell fresh produce this early in the spring. He must grow his first batch in his greenhouses--the fields are still fallow, just being plowed.

More on this as the spring and summer progress. I can't wait for the first batch of yellow squash and the vine ripe tomatoes. His prices are reasonable; his produce just tastes better than storebought.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

E. D.'s "Circumference"

Emily Dickinson's "circumference" generally refers not only to what is enclosed, but also what is left out. If we think of the "circumference" of a circle, the boundary of the circle encloses space; at the same time, what is outside of the boundary also becomes significant.

For Dickinson, at least, choices demanded exclusion--to be a poet, as she saw it, meant that other options were not viable. Her "circumference" excludes as much as it includes.

She has been on my mind a great deal lately. In freshman lit, I teach Dickinson, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes "in context"--in other words, I try to provide some perspective on these poets' influences on literature and life. Over the years, I've gained a deeper appreciation of her complexities--I'm not sure I understand her work any better, but I certainly appreciate the boundaries she set and her rationale for those boundaries. To be a "poet" meant that nearly every other choice had to be rejected. We can see this in such poems as "I'm 'wife' -- I've finished that --"(#199) and "The Soul selects her own Society --" (#303).

Sometimes I wish I could do that--be defined as only one "thing" instead of having to carry all of my identities around with me. Each is important (really, every aspect of our identity is important); it's when they come in conflict that I want to throw up my hands and run (This usually involves a fantasy where I learn to speak fluent Spanish overnight and abscond to Mexico).

The difference, I suppose, is context. In Dickinson's time, women weren't expected to amount to much outside of their families. They were daughters, mothers, wives--the house was their domain (and this has changed how?). These days, we're expected (and, to be truthful, we expect of ourselves) to be masters of all trades inside and outside of the house--brilliant, beautiful, wise, funny, ambitious--able to leap tall buildings, etc. I'm really not complaining; I believe women should have the right to do whatever they choose, whatever suits them. As Virginia Woolf would say, you cannot define "women's work" unless you find out what they are capable of doing.

But, every once in a while, I wish I could, as Emily did, just "[shut] the door." And, sometimes, I do.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


I just set this up and have precious little time to do much with it at the moment. I will be back later to explain the title and introduce myself. But, by way of introduction, here's Fragment 802 from Emily Dickinson:

To ascertain the House
And if the soul's within
And hold the Wick of mine to it
To light, and then return --


I've downloaded all of the student midterms, papers and reading journals that I have received so far. I guess I'll be grading papers all day tomorrow (Sunday), which is usually what I do on Sundays (and Tuesdays and any other day I have a block of time to read critically).

One of my students sent me her Blog address--she keeps her journal on her Blog--so, I thought I'd start one, too. My friends tell me I'm opinionated, though I'm not sure that's required to keep one of these. Maybe "curious" is better for a blog. Anyone can have an opinion; not everyone has curiosity.

I teach composition at a local university (notice I haven't told you where--that's to protect them as well as me!). My ideas are my own, and in no way, shape, or form reflect those of the institution where I teach. I love teaching; I think, if we each have a destiny, that teaching is mine. What I love most about it is seeing the look on students' faces when they finally understand, independent of anything I've said, what they have read. My most wonderful moments are when students crowd around me after class, eager to continue a discussion we've been having--their ideas tumble out, their eyes shine, they're excited. And, every once in a while, I get papers that take the top of my head off--full of profound and studied opinion and observation about a topic on which I briefly touched. When students begin to really think, they begin to really write well, and that's my deepest joy.

I have been teaching at this university for four years. I hope to continue doing this for the rest of my working life. The only profession I'd like more, I think, is as a professional book reader, but I think I'll have to wait until I retire.