As life has repeatedly, February is the longest month. Maybe it’s the overwrought repetition of cold, ice, and snow after months of winter. Maybe it’s the shy hints of spring to come — often snow drops before they get snowed under, or days like Thursday, when Harriet and I walked unfettered by heavy coats andg ear in 55 degrees — before the heavy hand of the winter storm warmings land again. Maybe it’s more personal because this is the month when my beloved father-in-law died (10 years ago as of the 10th) as well as my dear friends Weedle and Hadassah died during the shortest month that is anything but short.
Yesterday it snowed, enough so that much of my area of the country was closed to all but those intrepid drivers who ventured out while the accident blotters grew. Tonight, maybe some freezing rain. Tuesday, more snow. Our local school district has now had so many snow days that even the teachers I know are jonesing to get back into the classroom.
But it’s not just snow and ice flying around in single-digit winds. February is often when I see the most winter birds, having tried of thrashing against winter enough to just watch the bird feeders and Cottonwood Mel fill with juncos, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, bluejays, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and usually at some point soon, bluebirds. Squirrels stand on the deck railing, ferreting out the leftover black sunflower seeds. The deer bravely slink across the field to surround the bird feeder too while we hold the anxious-to-protect-us-from-them dog by his collar and tell him to chill out. Yesterday, in the middle of the whirling snow, it looked like a scene from Snow White outside our living room window while beef stew made its way to perfection in the crockpot and I whipped up a batch of applesauce muffins.
As the first February in 23 years that I’m not spending half the month at Goddard at a residency (on unpaid leave this semester), my view is uninterrupted (although Vermont does February seriously). When the sun returns, like right now pouring over my typing fingers as I watch a chickadee hop across the snowy deck, I forget the length and weight of February. Instead, I see how much there is to be with right now. Spring will come, but here is the continual flight of winter wrapping us in its surprises and surrenders.
I started teaching when I was 26. It was English 101 at the University of Kansas, a gig I figured would help me get through graduate school so I could cozy up with my real calling: writing. A funny thing happened on the way through the classroom: I was instantly smitten and soon discovered that teaching was just as much my real work. I regularly told my students, struggling with essay-writing on demand, what I told myself as a writer: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going. It served us all well.
This fall (starting July 1), after 64 consecutive semesters, I’ll take a one-semester leave from teaching I’ve taught through pregnancies and childbirths (although my children had the good sense to arrive either at the very end of spring semesters or in the summer). I’ve graded papers while balancing a nursing baby. I’ve lecture-paced across classrooms with a baby in a backpack. I’ve fit classes into kids’ school schedules, and later kept teaching because they were in college, and their part-time jobs, loans, and scholarships didn’t cover tuition. As the years unrolled, I taught through chemo, surgeries, my father dying, and later — right in the middle of a residency — Ken’s father dying. Teaching was the backbeat of my adulting and middle-aging tap-dancing and couch-surfing moves and collapses.
Because Goddard is a horse of a different color, I’ve been able to teach at this Vermont college while living in Kansas and sometimes in my PJs. I’ve flown and back forth for 11-day residencies to Burlington Airport, my heart always warmed by the sign on the hanger proclaiming “Green Mountain Boys 1776,” and my gut occasionally trembling when I read “flight delayed.” I’ve adventured in the high seas of travel, once even taking three days to get the right combo of flights after being overnight-paused in Manchester, NH and Laguardia. But the flying is a small part of it: I’ve attended 45 residencies that start with two days of faculty meetings, then lift up when the students arrive. While there are ample wonders, the pace is often exhausting, and only once did I arrive home without instantly getting sick.
Most of my Goddard work entails packets — reading long (like sometimes hundreds of pages for thesis projects) — packets of students’ exploration, research write-ups, creative work, studies, and other bells and whistles. My life has been doled out each semester in three-week intervals when packets land, and I’m off to reading them and writing each student a long-individualized letter, often on my front porch or in the living room, and across many a coffee shop, airport, doctor’s office, or other places I’m paused long enough to pull out the laptop and work.
Mostly, I loved it, even when I didn’t. Starting a conversation with a group of students when I’m sleep-deprived (oh, wicked residency insomnia!) often turned into a revelation for all of us. Beginning a packet when I was mildly annoyed by a student using “it’s” and “its” wrong always morphed in my heart melting and mind expanding at what they were unearthing in their lives and the world. Then there’s all the administrative work I’ve done over the years, which I didn’t love as much but brought me so much satisfaction in seeing what good could come from attention to detail, hard-won collaboration, and taking institutional leaps of faith (such as launching the Transformative Language Arts concentration in 2000, and very soon launching the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, which I’ve chaired the committee of for three years).
Why have I not taken a sabbatical, you ask. If only! The places I love to teach aren’t the sabbatical types unfortunately, so it’s been either show up and teach, or take an unpaid leave. This time, to my great surprise, when I was in the tub on Memorial Day, I suddenly realized, “I’m going to take a leave!” To my greater shock, when I sat down to see if finances would allow that, I caught up with myself: my subconscious has obviously been planning for me to take a leave because I’ve arranged all this extra work, some connected to the Miriams’ Well tour, and a lot more involving community writing workshops and the like. So I pulled myself together (truly), and started announcing, with great glee, that I was taking a break.
The world continues to give me green lights, but not “green-as-in-go,” more like “green-world-beckons-you-to-pause-and-just-be-with-it” lights. I stare into the magnificent Osage orange and cedar trees all around me, or up through this sycamore yesterday and exhale slowly. In three or so weeks, I’ll be caught up with the end of this semester (our semester officially ends mid-June), and I’ll lean back into the spaciousness of not teaching for a while. Then come winter, I’ll pack up my bags and happily march back into this work I love. I’ll tell myself: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going.
With temperatures rising to summertime and good rains falling last week, everything is speeding into growth around this house. The hostas look like they’re on steroids, and all blossoming things are exploding into petals until they’re spent to thin, brown paper. Within the house of this human, a whole lot is growing exponentially too, coming to fruition at 80 mph. A bunch of projects that seemed maybe-ish are definite, meaning my days are full with finalizing an extensive online class with Laura Packer on our Right Livelihood Professional Training, watching clips of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe for an upcoming Osher class, working with students on thesis projects and coaching clients on books, and many manner of other soon-to-harvests in the works.
The downside of such explosive growth is how behind I am on weeding — the garden and my mind, which is overrun with tendrils of this issue to solve or that decision to make. As I make my way through a lot of lists and a pile of work, I find — no surprise — that my mind spins with how to get through the mountains of work beyond this mountain in front of me. So instead of counting sleep, I’m counting tasks and hours ahead late at night, planning how to do justice to the work I love when it’s in such a state of overgrowth. There’s also some fearsome and stressful edges in my work to navigate, trying not to get myself into such a state that I can’t navigate the wild waters well.
This is old hat for most of us dwelling in a state of overgrowth, yet sitting on this porch sipping iced tea, I’m reminded, as always by this beautiful world of greening presencethat my little worries and plottings are just the tiny picture shows playing in my frontal lobe. Beyond that is the vastness of this: a late spring morning, the hummingbirds zooming toward the feeder, the dog suddenly up from his long nap to watch a carpenter bee floating toward the walnut tree, the tired car, mud-splattered, napping on the pavement, the delicate wind winding through all that’s opening, doing its thing, then collapsing back again. Like me who will soon close this computer and take a nap on this porch while the world whirls in place.
Did you know you can sing “Weeding in the Rain” to the same tune as “Singing in the Rain”? In a sense, both songs are about falling in love, at least for Gene Kelly and me. After weeks of not getting to the garden for a garden variety of reasons — book release stuff to organize, too cold, too muddy, too dry, more book release stuff to do, too tired, third winter arriving, yet more book release things to check off the list, and oh, why go outside when I can lie on the couch and watch Netflix? — it was time.
I felt that call of the garden as soon as Ken and I stepped out for our evening walk around the edges of the fields. “Let’s just stay here and weed,” I reasoned, but no, he felt we just had to walk, so walk we did — taking in big vistas of elegant displays of great could verticality. By the time we got back, I headed straight for the raised beds where I should have planted stuff back in mid- to late-March. I sat on a ledge of one of the beds, started pulling out invasives and falling back in love with gardening.
Although you wouldn’t know it if you look at our gardens in, say, July when the heat and chiggers make me throw up my hands and use the word “fuck” numerous time as my people (New Jerseyans) are prone to do, I actually like weeding the best. I like it more than that fussy, get-it-right planting. I even like it more than harvesting although it is a luscious thing — quelle surprise! — to lift a leaf and find some nestling cucumbers. Weeding — the daily bread of a keeping a garden — is extraordinarily satisfying to me for many reasons.
I get my hands moving rhythmically in and out of dirt, which is one of the things cheap cialis and levitra hands are made to do.
If, like me, you imagine each weed as a pesky worry — everything from what to remember to buy at the grocery store or why someone won’t return my call to whether I’ll ever get over being too much of a people-pleaser — there’s great catharsis to be had. Pulling out invasions works well for the mind as well as the garden. Each weed is another niggling bit of anxiety, fear, and dread tossed out of the vacinity.
It feels really good to work hard in concert with plants, dirt, light, wind, and in tonight’s case, water. My body chimes as if beautiful music just swept through me. There’s something deeply cleansing about getting down and dirty on ground level.
Then there’s the artistic accomplishment: when I finish weeding a bed, I feel like I just revised a poem (which, incidentally, is the same process). Or I feel like I just made my bed (loyal readers know about how the “Clean bed, clear head” advice has helped me and some of you).
Weeding also allows what we want to grow the necessary air time and space to actually grow — another satisfying symbol of reality!
Now weeding in the rain is all this and more as the drops fall on the my back and the backs of my hands while the wind and rain thicken up. I sat on the dirt, turning increasingly to mud, deep in my groove of reaching, pulling, tossing. By the time I finished, I was about 80% soaked, and walking to the back deck, eyeing the flower beds, I thought of squatting and beginning it all over again, but I figured I’d save that for another day because I got too busy singing, “I’m weeeeeeeding in the rain, just weeeeeeeding in the rain! What a wonderful feeling! I’m happy again!”
Every March, I seek the magnolia trees growing recklessly in Kansas where it’s almost guaranteed that their tree-full of pink blossoms will meet Mean Old Mr. Winter with a fury. These trees are meant to grow in warmer climes, but they seem to survive okay here despite an annual attack (or two) of icy temperatures, turning those fragrant and curvy blossoms sad and brown-edged.
I love magnolia trees. Let me be more honest: I really and deeply love magnolia blossoms, and it’s one of my recurring nightmares to miss them in their prime, especially since those prime weeks can be reduced to a few days, depending on the mood swings of the weather. Today is such a cusp: it was in the low 60s, windy with a particular kind of cold wind that announced far more cold was coming. Tonight? A low of 23 expected. So I set out to be with my people, I mean, trees.
Here is the one I cozied up with the most because I was ill-dressed for that cold wind. It’s a twin, accompanied by another magnolia on the other side of the front of Central Junior High School. These trees guard this bastion of changing hormone levels like statues of golden lions, except without the gold or the lion. Looking up through the tree, once again, I was enthralled, and grateful. Some blossoms aren’t able to last nearly long enough, so when it’s time, it’s time.
As someone who also hasn’t mastered much of the art of holding back, I resonate with these trees, growing in a different climate than were they were native, but homing in to beauty and exuberance none-the-less. Here is my poet about these friends: