Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Usual End-of-Semester Post

Well, actually, it's not a usual post. And it's not quite the end of the semester, though the end is in sight.

The College of Liberal Arts, the college in which I teach, had it's annual social last night. I honestly thought about ditching it because of the gas prices. I know--if I lived in Europe, I'd have something to complain about. I suppose everything is relative. But, with a budget already strained beyond its limits, high gas prices are the "straw" on my camel's back. I am grateful for distance learning--its my pathetic stab at the hearts of the huge oil companies. For three months or so, I will not drive so much, thereby doing my part to conserve resources. If all of us could work from home at least one day a week, we'd probably conserve quite a bit of gas--as long as we didn't use the day away from the company to run the roads!

Anyway, I bit the gas bullet and attended the social. I had received a couple of anxious "You are going, aren't you?" requests on Thursday before I left for the day. That should have clued me that the game was afoot. But I dismissed any thoughts of what might be coming. I've attended these socials for years. They are fun and great ways to spend time with your colleagues--especially people from other departments who I hardly see.

Every year, the department hands out awards--three to adjuncts (who contribute a great deal to the smooth-running of any department) and three to full-time faculty. The awards to the full-time faculty go for service, scholarship, and teaching. This year, a history colleague received the scholarship award, as he should have; the service award went to a music professor, as it should have; and--hold on to your hats--I received the teaching award.

"Shocked" is the first word that comes to mind, "delighted" is the second, and "humble" is the third. I have the framed certificate sitting on a shelf in my living room. Every once in a while, I glance at it and feel grateful for the opportunity to do what I love. Where else could I have this much fun? I get to talk about writing and literature, commas and semicolons, and anything else that appears to be relevant to whatever course I'm teaching at the moment. I meet great people, make friends, and get to fuss when necessary. And I have a cool work environment--an office with a window and free books from book companies that want us to adopt their texts. Not bad.

I spent thirty years trying NOT to teach. I kept thinking that I could make more money doing something else--computing services, technical support, administrative assistant-type jobs. I almost always ended up teaching something. Desperation drove me back to academia. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me--right up there with being born and having my children.

My life lesson--money isn't everything. Teaching pays decently, but, if we work only for money, then any money we earn is tainted with dissatisfaction. I have to love my work first. Otherwise, it becomes drudgery. One thing I can say for sure is that teaching never gets dull, and, while it does have some tediousness (I don't really like to grade papers all of the time), it's one of the most creative and thought-provoking jobs in the world. I get paid to think; I get paid to have fun and share my love of English. Who could ask for more than that?

I don't know that any of my colleagues read this blog, but, if any of them do, I say "Thank you." Thank you for your support, thank you for your joy, thank you for being willing to share yourselves and your talents.

To my students--past, present, and future--thank you for making what I do so much fun. Thanks for your enthusiam, your struggles, your effort. Just thanks!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Eloise's Hat, a work in progress.

Finally, after many months, I've written a poem. I just wrote it this morning and it's undergone some changes, but I expect, with feedback from my writing friends, it will improve.

I wrote it in memory of a woman for whom my daughter was one of many caretakers the last few months. Eloise died of breast cancer, so this is for her and for all men and women who battle this disease.

Eloise’s Hat


The clear sky chides me from my study.
Knee-high grass waves and laughs.

I must mow.

I have waited through cold and wind and rain.
The hulking mower stares
from the garage.

I delay. I dress. I stop
for water, grab the key,
pull on my grandmother’s boots,
find gloves
and Eloise’s hat.

I am ready.


The lawnmower scares me,
all roar and wire and stuttering.
It could blow up.
It could stall out.
It could run out of gas.
It is like me.


It is red and loud.
I would wear earplugs
but I would miss birdsong.
I would be out of touch.

I wouldn’t hear the ping
of pinecones spinning off the blades
or hear the rocks
smash against tree trunks.

The yard flashes past me
at three miles an hour
and I must watch
the tall grass fall.


I take a drink of water, a long breath.
I push the mower into the yard,
slip the lever to neutral,
flip the park switch,
set the choke.
I am deliberate.
I turn the key.
It chugs alive after months of sleep.
I move the lever to forward,
move from choke to rabbit,
increase speed.
I drop the blades.
“Off with their heads,” I yell.
I’m off to murder the grass.


Here is what you see:

A fifty-ish woman
in her grandmother’s boots
scruffy clothes
and a broad-brimmed straw hat
strap firmly under chin.
Her gloved hands
grip the wheel
and give to its swerve.
She seems intent
watches the highs
and lows.
She doesn’t hurry
though she feels
the earth move past
without her consent.


I ride and mow
and think of Flo.
Her boots go with me
to stake and weed and harvest.
They stand with me.
They kick stray logs
into the fire pit.


The hat stays on my head
despite the wind and speed.
My eyes shade clear.

I think of Eloise.
I did not know her.

I imagine she wore this hat
on days when, wheeled to her patio,
she watched my daughter
weed and plant
the gardens out of reach,
this hat keeping the sun
from her face, her head.

I think how seventeen years
with a husband is too short.

I think this is a glorious day.

I think that chemo and radiation
might dim even my view.

I don’t know.

I thank Eloise for the hat
and write poems to her as I ride.

She rides with me.

It is my gift to her.


The broken limbs and twigs
hump over the fire pit.
I strike a match
and thrust it to the heart of things.
The flames rise to low tree limbs.
I hose them down to moderate the burn.
I watch the mound flatten to coals
and think of the women
I would not become.

I am all of them.

Thanks for the poem, Eloise, and for the hat!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

First Mow of the Season...

Well, I cranked up the riding mower and took a ride around...and around...and around the yard today, but I'm not finished. I was afraid of running out of gas in the south forty, so I stopped when I got all of the high grass cut down. I still need to mow closer to the house, and, though I did a good job, I think, of picking up the sticks, the wind has been blowing constantly, shaking down a fresh crop of twigs that I need to gather for the burn pile. I plan to do that tomorrow morning, buy more gas for the mower, and finish the job.

I wore Eloise's hat today for yard work. It's a nice straw hat with an adjustable chin strap so it won't blow off while I'm working in the yard and riding the mower. Eloise died from breast cancer; my daughter was one of her care-givers to the end. Eloise gave Dorothy a bunch of hats; I asked for this one, and I felt guilty asking for it, but my daughter was generous and let me have it. So, the whole time I was mowing the grass today, I was writing poems to Eloise in my head. I need to write some of them down and send them to Dot. I feel lucky that I'm still healthy enough, in my fifties, to mow the grass, teach my classes, and generally make my way through the world. I should complain less. My life could be worse, really. And while that sounds cliched and stupid, it's true. I should remind myself, more often, to be grateful. And happy.

The semester is almost over. I will miss this current crop of students--they've been fun, interesting, and hard-working. And they don't complain much, really! Everything a teacher likes in students!

And I'm teaching summer school from home, so less driving! Hooray! I can reduce the big oil companies' profits by a tiny bit. Wouldn't it be great if more people could telecommute? We'd be able to reduce at least some of our dependence on oil. Of course, we still have to deal with heating and cooling the house, and a million other products that require petroleum. I wish I had enough money to convert my house to solar energy.

I'm going to make a conscious effort this summer to reduce the amount of gas I use. Except for a trip to Austin, I may only drive to visit my mother. I'll be a hermit! At least until the fall semester begins. Then I'll only be driving in two days a week and for meetings when I must.

Coffee's ready and I have papers to grade, or, as Robert Frost writes, "But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep." So, I'm off to the next task.

P. S. The peach tree I planted last year has peaches on it! But the plum trees I planted are just now leafing out--I haven't seen any blooms. Boo! That's not going to help the older plum trees that have already bloomed and leafed out. Probably no plums, unless the Victoriana sprouts some. I'll keep you posted.