I’m still around, living for the moment in Writer’s Limbo. I’ve sent in a book manuscript and signed a contract for its publication. The book, tentatively titled For the Birds: The Life and Drainage of a Minnesota Wetland, is due out in Spring 2016. Any day now I should be getting the editor’s comments. Soon, or when the work on the book is done, I’ll be back to blog. Once again, I’ll write on whim, when something strikes me as worthy of commentary. It might even be tomorrow. Thanks for checking in from time to time.
We are enjoying the peak of the fall season here in Minneapolis, amid flaming red and rich gold maple trees, bronze oaks, and hues of rust and wine. Last Thursday Bob Herbert, formerly an op-ed writer with the New York Times and now affiliated with Demos, came to speak to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. He started out by lauding the beautiful day. It reminded him of learning about autumn in grammar school, he said, because the pictures in the books looked just like our trees. Now Herbert was born in Brooklyn, so he probably knew autumn first hand. Yet he made me think of the many children in warmer climates for whom trees turning red and gold are otherworldly. I remembered, too, how I used to puzzle over books that dated the coming of spring to March.
Recently I heard about an acquaintance who had gone to Maine earlier this year and, he said, “fulfilled a lifelong dream.” What might that be? He had walked on a frozen lake! When I tell this story to Minnesotans, they double over laughing. A couple I used to know moved to Minnesota from Maryland for graduate school and decided to use their sojourn here to try out winter wilderness camping. They pored over the map and chose a big lake north of the Twin Cities that would be just the place. When they pulled up with their camping gear, they found it covered with ice fishing houses. Cars and pickups drove back and forth on plowed, named streets. Yes, it was Mille Lacs.
Where this all leads me is to another memory that has greatly benefited my writing and teaching. An essay I was working on about cornfields had gotten a strangely befuddled and negative response from a New York City critic. In need of a second opinion, I turned to Paul Gruchow, the late Minnesota writer. He gave me a piece of advice I have lived by ever since: “Remember that you live in an exotic landscape. You need to interpret it to readers who haven’t been there.” It’s sound advice for all writers, wherever they live–even New York City.
I feel as though I’ve sliced off a chunk of my life and let it fall away. In the midst of a serious basement cleaning, I came across a cardboard box taped shut and marked “Scandinavian Stuff to Store.” I doubt that the box was opened on its move from a former home to this one, where I’ve lived for 28 years. I imagine one of the friends who helped me through that difficult move transported it from its attic lodging to the old coal room of this basement. The coal room turned out to be a poor place to store precious things; its walls wept whenever the ground around the house was soaked. But how precious could “Scandinavian Stuff” be?
The tape peeled off easily, having lost its adhesive. Inside were spiral notebooks with the University of Chicago seal on the cover, along with the price, 60¢. Each corresponded to a class I took on my way to three degrees in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures. (Yes, I’m a bird as rare as the Chicago phoenix.)
One notebook was a literary history on pages of graph paper, with titles of works charted alongside public events of the same year. I remember how refreshing it was to read Scandinavian novels in their historical context after my encounter, during my first year of general courses, with New Criticism, which insisted that nothing but the text is of interest. Another notebook recorded all that I was learning about sound changes from Proto Germanic to Old Norse and through all its phases and geographical divisions down to present day Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. I had once even known the patterns that distinguish Færoese from Icelandic. The notebooks affirmed my sense that I was a thorough and meticulous notetaker, as I read under the vaulted ceilings of my favorite Neogothic reading rooms, and as I followed discussion in class. Lectures were not the standard mode of a UC education.
The box of Scandinavian stuff reminded me how much I loved all that learning, how pleasurable it was to record new, amazing bits of information and then let them merge into place in a synthesis that made me feel as though I understood some facet of human experience, esoteric though it might be. For a moment I imagined myself reading through the notebooks again to recover all that knowledge I no longer retain. But they were too musty and smelly. Turning the pages made me cough. Instead I recycled the best of the bunch and dumped the rest in the garbage. With that reasonable, practical decision went some of the joy.
Years ago I found a shoebox of notecards for my Master’s thesis in the garage and felt great relief at clearing them out. This time, the residue is more like grief. I suspect the “stuff” I accumulated for my Ph.D. dissertation still lurks somewhere in this house, but finding it will not cheer me up. Tossing away the tangible evidence of my schooling leaves nothing to protect me from losing the sensory memory of it. I also realize that my daughters know little about who I was in my twenties and how passionate a learner I was. They know that I went to the University of Chicago and that it’s probably the reason I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” so much. I knew those guys in the place where, as the t-shirt reads, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I relished the Life of the Mind we odd ones came there to live.
If I’m going to be true to the spirit of my education, I should take up some new subject and fill new notebooks as joyfully as I filled the ones the city’s trucks hauled away this morning. I may be less thorough, less meticulous. The adhesive in my brain is nearly as worn as the adhesive on the tape around that precious, waterlogged box. And I probably ought to send in my end-of-the-year donation to the University of Chicago so that some other small town Midwesterner from a working-class family can enjoy the privilege of mental immersion in thrilling “stuff.”
Last week an overloaded boat full of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, at the cost of at least 143 lives. I learned of Lampedusa only weeks ago, while playing the online game Geoguessr. What I saw onscreen was a quite rundown Italian city. I had no idea there was such an island just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia. It didn’t look like a safe and welcoming place to be a stranger, but apparently other migrants have sought refuge there, too.
The director of health services for Lampedusa, Pietro Bartolo, was interviewed on TV. He seemed like a genuinely compassionate man, moved to tears by the tragedy that had happened in his jurisdiction. One observation he made has stuck with me: The children among the victims, he said, were wearing new shoes, a sure sign of hope.
I’ve thought of those new shoes ever since. I’ve thought of all the parents over time, including those in my own family history, who have dressed their children in new shoes for a long, dangerous journey to a new and strange destination where life is supposed to be better. Few of us can look back and say with certainty that our ancestors have stayed put in the one place they were born to and felt entitled to claim as home. Migration, exile, displacement, refugee status are common to the histories of all peoples. Those hope-shod children and their parents deserve our compassion always, and, too often, our grief.
I have been at work the last couple of weeks drafting a chapter on 1877. Yes, I just picked a year that might show changes afoot that advance the story I’m telling about the transformation of a landscape–to be precise, the drainage of a large wetland. I chose 1877 because I happened to learn that my great-great grandfather closed his blacksmith shop that year, at age 50. I figured there would be other reasons for doing so besides the toll on his body. 1877 turned out to be a good choice, but I won’t tell why here. That’s the story I’ve been drafting. You’ll have to wait for the book, which no one will be happier to see completed than its author.
One of the notable events of 1877 was the locust plague—an invasion of grasshoppers that crawled, flew, and wafted in on the wind as a drought spread from the west into my home territory in Southern Minnesota. Anxiety about the crop-eating insects turned out to be worse than the damage they actually did in Freeborn County. Its many lakes and wetlands did not make a hospitable environment for grasshoppers.
Just a few minutes ago, I stepped out my front door to water the young oak tree in my boulevard, because a heat wave in August and September has brought drought conditions in 2013, too. Clinging to the screen on my door was a creature like this one.
This photo, cropped and enlarged and framed, spent the summer hanging in the Westminster Gallery in downtown Minneapolis. It was taken by Maria Register, who snapped it because it was such a rare sighting, and because she thought the bug looked out of place. She called it a grasshopper and surmised it would be more at home in the grass, where its color would work as camouflage. She titled the photo “An Unlikely Beauty.” (The image here is a smudge compared to the framed photo.) A visitor to the photo exhibit said, however, that it was not a grasshopper but a locust, and that it was the same species of locust that wrought havoc on the plains and prairies in the 1870s. It likes the dirt.
So why did another of these rarities–or maybe the same one–turn up today, just as I completed my first full draft? Shall I take it as a talisman? Is it a warning or a sign of approval? Or shall I just blame its appearance on the drought that is compelling me to water my young tree? I just went out to move the hose, and the insect was still there.
I have gone missing from this blog for most of the summer. Yes, I’m still mourning the loss of Leila and still being surprised by her absence in odd moments. The prime explanation for my silence, however, is that I’ve been writing elsewhere. I’ve been working, pushing ahead on the research and drafting of a book I’ve had underway for too long now.
This week may see a let-up in the pace of my work. The forecast is for temperatures in the 90s, approaching 100, with heat indexes (indices) already higher than that thanks to the sticky humidity. My brain grinds slowly in hot, humid weather, and I’ve found it wise to be forgiving and set my expectations low. I don’t have air-conditioning. That’s my choice, not a complaint. It’s enough to be sealed inside the house all winter with a gas furnace blasting. I don’t want to spend my summer in a refrigerator. Instead, I adapt to the heat.
My first adaptation is to remove my watch, which pinches my sweaty skin. The word “watch” is fitting, because I watch mine compulsively. Going without it frees me somewhat from the constraints of time. (I can still cast glances at the top corner of my computer.) I have been living in the 1870s the last few weeks, anyway, reading microfilmed newspapers from 1877, the year the railroads came through my hometown from every direction, the year my great-great grandfather retired from blacksmithing, the year McCormick farm machinery and sewing machines and pianos peppered the advertising sections of my hometown newspaper.
Now, to get myself through this hot week, I’ve moved back two more centuries. Last week I happened upon an essay, “Tidens historia” (the History of Time) in a collection by the Swedish historian Peter Englund titled Förflutenhetens landskap (Landscapes of the Past). I found this book in a Little Free Library standing near the hardware store in my neighborhood. I’ve begun taking my own Scandinavian cast-offs there, to trade with the unknown reader of Swedish who left this treasure. Englund points out that the minute hand on the clock wasn’t developed until the 1670s, the same decade in which people who could afford them began carrying miniature clocks on their persons. Before then, there was no standard way to divide time into such brief segments as a minute, and even the measure of hours was irregular, different from one locale to another. Only after the introduction of the minute hand did time begin to be seen as a measurable commodity, with a monetary value, or, more germane to my situation, the moral expectation that each minute be put to good use. Moreover, humans living in the 1670s could still travel no faster than a horse could run or a ship could sail, Englund says.
So what’s the rush? This week there will be none, and if there’s work produced, I’ll welcome it as a bonus. As long as I’m living outside of time, I need not feel bothered, either, that I haven’t written a blog post before now.
Early in 2001 a young labrador mix–maybe a year or two–strayed from her home north of the Twin Cities. No one knows who housebroke her so perfectly or taught her “sit” and “down” and to wait for an “OK” before exiting the door on her walk. No one knows whether her leaving was deliberate or a garbage sniffing gone too far. No one knows what name those people called into the dusk when she didn’t return.
By the time she was brought to the Animal Humane Society she was skinny and dehydrated. Kennel cough left her quiet and subdued enough to lie in her pen looking demure while the other adult dogs barked and howled and leaped against the fencing.
I wasn’t shopping for a dog. Our mischievous woodwork-chewing, chocolate-binging, furniture-marking Rebel had died three years before. My life was nearing its empty-nest phase. One daughter would soon graduate from high school. The other had a year of college left and was living at home, but her plan was to go to Korea after graduation. She had turned 21 the day before and thought it an important enough milestone for an extra day of celebration. “Let’s go to the Humane Society and just look at the dogs,” she suggested. That quiet, demure black one caught us.
Over the last twelve years I have often wished I could tell those people in or near Coon Rapids what became of their sweet girl. She never got to hunt ducks, which I presume they were training her for, but all her instincts were poised on the mallards swimming in our city lakes. I apologized to her many times for my inability to satisfy them. The first time we left her home alone she found a copy of Packinghouse Daughter and not only chewed its edges but ripped the dustjacket right across the photo of my face. We bought her a kennel, and it became not only a place of confinement but her refuge from scolding looks and loud voices. She needed little scolding, however. She never chewed another object that didn’t belong to her. She never stole food off countertops, although she was a determined sidewalk scavenger.
She became the perfect companion for a work-at-home writer. She wasn’t needy, didn’t whine for attention, didn’t follow my heels up and down stairs. She liked her own space–preferably in front of the window on my Tempurpedic mattress, and she was known to move upstairs or down when the humans got too noisy. Someone once called her “catlike,” but I would dispute that. She didn’t cuddle but relished back massages. She communicated her needs with a focused stare. She was an obsessive fetcher. I couldn’t shovel snow without finding a frisbee or a deflated football in every other shovelful.
Mostly she loved to walk. We took three walks a day: before breakfast, early-to-mid afternoon, and either before or after the 10:00 news. She never learned to heel, so she always led the way, and we walked at a good clip. (I never enforced heeling, because I’d just as soon see a dog enjoy some good sniffing.) We became neighborhood fixtures. I suspect I was that woman who gets pulled around and talks to her dog. She drew attention from passersby–just an ordinary black lab, but with charisma. Salespeople stepped out of stores to offer her treats. Once a man who lived on our walking route ran across the street barefoot to hug me and thank me for taking such good care of my dog. She took good care of me. My whole body still longs to walk on that schedule.
She never passed up a meal, not until last week. On Sunday, the cook preparing to open the Thai restaurant on our walk brought out a metal bowl full of chicken and beef and set it down on the sidewalk for her. On Monday she hung around her dish asking for seconds. On Tuesday she stopped eating altogether. Even a piece of chicken couldn’t tempt her. A nasal tumor had pushed one eyesocket forward weeks before and was distending the other. Her breathing had become more and more obstructed. She obviously hurt but still never complained. On Friday, we put her to sleep.
A neighbor had objected to the planned euthanasia, which left me second-guessing the awful decision. She was, after all, still walking, still greeting people and wagging her tail. I asked our vet, Dr. Teresa Hershey, for her advice, and here is part of what she wrote in an email:
“What I like best about dogs is they find joy even in bad situations. It sounds like Leila is doing that- she’s so good-natured. . . .Your neighbor sounds like she loves Leila, but she doesn’t see Leila all of the time like you do. And Leila probably puts on her best face for company.”
I won’t be shopping for another dog soon. Leila, the best, may be the last, although I won’t say never. I’m thinking I can have my wood floors redone. I can come and go at will, on my schedule. I can take a long car trip. My nest is truly empty now, eerily empty.
Here in Minnesota we expect another winter storm tomorrow, past the midway point of April, before the snow from our early April storm has even finished melting away. The 50 degree day promised at the end of every week’s weather calendar keeps moving ahead, luring us day by day through a cold and dreary spring. This past Monday, my favorite radio show, “Bop Street” on KFAI, played a series of doleful songs about spring. I was listening passively while I finished up preparations for my class that evening, yet I could feel my mood sinking lower and lower. I caught on to the trick when Frank Sinatra’s voice began the dirge-like “Spring Is Here”: “Why doesn’t my heart go dancing? . . . Why doesn’t the breeze delight me? . . . Could it be because nobody loves me?” Thank you, emcee Pete Lee, for making me laugh out loud.
My old dog, Leila, is on her last legs, but they still trod ahead of me at the end of the leash on our thrice-daily walks. She has tumors in snout and neck, yet she still scans every nook and cranny with her good eye and her good nostril. Dogs may be the most optimistic species on earth. Today she stood outside the butcher shop, nose in the crack of the door, tail wagging, waiting for one of the treats she knows is inside. The shop wouldn’t open for another two hours, but I stood there with her until even her tireless patience gave out and she moved on to the birdseed stash outside the Tibetan gift shop.
Cancer has struck our human family, too, fifteen years after its last appearance. My sister is on a six-week chemo holiday, eating to put on weight, feeling her scalp turn fuzzy again without the weekly onslaught of toxins. We wait for the sun to shine on her upcoming round of scans and lab tests.
Monday evening when I pulled into the parking lot at the Loft, where I was about to teach my last class of this session, I heard a faint bird song. When I opened my car door it came clearer and I saw its source: a female cardinal at the top of a tree in the adjoining lot. She wasn’t chirping any of the formulaic patterns we recognize as cardinal sounds; she was singing a full-out melody more reminiscent of the nightingale I heard one midsummer night in Sweden. I carried that tune with me into the classroom and might be hearing it still, were it not for the news that came over the radio on my drive home after class: a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon.
The commentators who study terrorism tell us that the attackers intend to arouse fear just as much as they intend to kill and maim. They want us to remain in a perpetual state of fear, questioning our reliance on our government’s capacity to protect us, uncertain about everything we normally take for granted, afraid even to leave our houses.
I will walk my dog again this afternoon, this evening after dark, again tomorrow, for as long as she’s capable. I’ll be listening for the cardinals, whatever they choose to sing. I worry about the spring birds surviving the coming storm, but I’ve seen on my computer screen how the Decorah eagles, feathers soaked in the freezing rain, hunker down over their hatchlings knowing the sun will come eventually and dry them all out again. We just have to trust a bit longer.
This morning I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon preached by Anna Kendig, who will be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry this coming Saturday. I watched Anna grow up, and I still remember the sermon she gave on behalf of her fellow seniors on a Youth Sunday about ten years ago. It was a “real” sermon, a metaphoric tour de force that used the church’s stained-glass windows to articulate an already mature faith. I’m pleased that Anna found her vocation early. She’s a natural.
Of course her commanding presence in the pulpit set me thinking about all the would-be female ministers who were denied access to it in earlier times. Oddly, I can say that I am a beneficiary of that unjust exclusion. My earliest memories of worship feature at their center a round little woman in a blue suit named Florence Lien, who surely would have been an ordained Lutheran pastor had she not been born too soon. Instead, she became the Sunday School director at First Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She gathered her underage charges in the smaller, modern chapel, not the dim, imposing, sacred space of the big sanctuary. I can still feel the smooth, blond finish on the pew and the stiffness of the starched dishtowel with a hole cut for my head that I wore as a member of the Cherub Choir. Miss Lien’s words to us laid the foundation of our faith. One story she told us still serves me well: Two girls were dawdling along on their way to school when they suddenly realized they would be late. One girl wanted to kneel on the sidewalk and pray that they arrive on time, but the other had a wiser idea: “We can pray while we run,” she said. It’s the best example I know of how grace and free will can co-exist.
Remembering Miss Lien got me to thinking about the spinster teachers who conducted my education at Lincoln Elementary School: Cleo Reiter, Agnes Preus (of the Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Preuses, who, if male, were likely clergy), Bernice Olson, Mary Kampen, Lillian Purdue, and Lois Ann Kriesel (not a lifelong spinster). They were spinsters because the Albert Lea School District, like many others in the 1950s, did not hire married women. I left my second grade teacher, Madeline Feil, out of the list because she became an exception to the rule. She had announced just before Christmas vacation that we would have a different teacher when we returned to school because she was getting married. Yet she reappeared in January, for lack of a ready replacement, calling herself Mrs. Maceman, which the waxy-eared among us heard as Mrs. Basement. The professions were no longer closed to women, but enterprising women were roundly discouraged from becoming the doctors or lawyers or public officials or artists or business executives they might be today. A woman of intellect became a teacher, and many of these spinster teachers instilled their unfulfilled ambitions in their promising female students. I am the grateful beneficiary of the limitations placed on their lives. I had an excellent education.
The exclusion of married women was lifted by the time I started junior high, but still the district enforced an anti-nepotism policy. When teaching couples arrived in town, the husband usually got the job in Albert Lea while the wife waited for opportunities to open in the smaller rural districts nearby. The women employed in the high school tended still to be spinster teachers. I profiled one remarkable woman, career English teacher Sybil Yates, in Packinghouse Daughter. My journalism teacher, Edna Gercken, held the local clergymen’s association at bay when they wanted me removed as editor of the Ah La Ha Sa for arguing against prayer in public schools. Freedom of the press was sacrosanct to Miss Gercken, even if those exercising it were minors. I still evaluate the layout of a newspaper page through Miss Gercken’s eyes. My sophomore World History teacher, Elsie Sebert, was the sharpest of them all, and I feel privileged to have been taught by her. One day she told us that when she was walking along the street uptown, boys who had been students of hers always stopped to greet her. The girls, however, went out of their way to avoid her. “They think it’s contagious,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that some of us are old maids by choice.” I was stunned. No one had ever said aloud what other girls besides me probably longed to hear: That a woman could commit herself to a dream, an ambition, a vocation and let her prospects for marriage be as they may. Our spinster teachers had not simply been passed up in the game of romance. Many had chosen, and our education was richer for their choice, unfair though it was to make them choose.