Monday, March 30, 2009

The Edge of April

I haven’t been much of a cheerleader lately. My capacity to look on the bright side, cheer someone up, even offer a few words of encouragement has been just about wholly depleted. Winter is always tough here, and this winter was worse than usual. I found out, just a few days before Christmas (the worst gift ever) that my job was in jeopardy; several friends have been enduringly and scarily ill; my partner underwent surgery and toughed out a long recuperation; and, well, that was enough.

It seemed, in my mind, that all of these things coincided with challenges in the world outside the scope of my little world as well. The chaos in the economy, in particular, has underscored my personal uncertainty and fear in a way that has been hard for me to endure. The resultant stress knocked me for a loop in February, followed by a worrisome couple of weeks focused uncomfortably on my own health. It turned out, after a batch of tests, that I’m “perfectly normal.” More on that dull but welcome assessment later.

What has helped me through the winter has been a love for my job which, despite its precarious state, is a good one. It’s true that I’m underpaid and underappreciated by the powers-that-be, but I have 60 creative, fun, surprising, quirky, intelligent, unique students that never fail to hold my interest during class, never fail to challenge me in comical or legitimate ways, never fail to leave me, at the end of the day, exhausted but fulfilled. Two of my three classes are full of seniors, and I’ve watched them over the last few weeks as they begin to fully acknowledge the end of their college careers. They are excited. And they are scared.

My students feel unprepared for the world that awaits them. They attribute this to the news, to the unrelenting stream of depressing realities broadcast on television, reported in the newspaper, rumored about on Facebook, and displayed in the eyes of their parents and their professors. I want to tell them that every senior class before them has experienced similar fears. But maybe we all want to believe that our situations are unique, that we feel what we feel in ways that are just slightly more enhanced, more acute, more intense, more immediate and, frankly, more important than what anyone else feels. We are all, for a time, as sensitive as poets. One component of wisdom, I think, is learning the falsity of that belief.

The other thing that has helped me through this stretch is simply the world outside my window. The gorgeous trees, thousands of them; the constancy of the skies; the visitations by crows and hawks and robins and the breathtaking streaking red cardinals. I watched the lake as it changed from frozen plateau back to white-capped waves, and studied the snow, which so often is a burden here, but also, so often, is almost beyond description in its ethereal beauty.

It’s perfectly normal to feel overburdened, overwhelmed; it’s normal to be afraid and to wish that circumstances were different, were better. It’s normal to want to trade in this life for some other version of life, one where all our friends were healthy and upbeat, where our studies came to us easily and felt relevant and consistently stimulating, where we knew that two months down the road we’d be financially secure, intellectually fulfilled, and just flat-out happy.

I’m not that cheerleader who can push the facts aside and say hey! That better life is coming! It’s just around the corner! Have faith! But sometimes, in my own quiet corner of the world, I wish that somebody would say, in passing, don’t worry. I want to hear someone say it’ll get better. It’s gonna be alright. I might not even believe the words… but I can’t deny that I want to hear them.

Outside the kitchen, in the back yard, a few patches of crocuses are bearing up nicely under a late spring snow shower. They’re the same flowers that missed being crushed by a dump truck full of wood a few days ago. I don’t know, for sure, if they’ll survive a further dip in our temperatures, but if I have any faith at all, it’s that they will. Everything changes, and everything passes. That’s scary, true. But there is hope in there as well.

It’s normal to want to hear that better days are ahead. It’s perfectly normal to want to slide back under the covers and sleep through the snowfall, sleep through the quiz, ignore the phone, skip class, blink our eyes and magically wake up in a sunnier version of this world. But I’m going to watch the crocuses curl around themselves and live. I’m going to laugh at my students’ jokes and tell them, when I can, that they’re going to be okay. And if nobody’s around to say it, I’m going to chant, like a mantra, in my own tired and perfectly normal brain, that better days are coming.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Here in Oswego, we’ve been taught, over the course of our lifetimes, not to prematurely anticipate spring. When friends downstate start writing about the robins or the crocuses, when friends as nearby as Syracuse mention that they have their windows open, we’re still a little leery. We know that as soon as we dare to put even one sweater away, or as soon as we put the shovel in the garage or – worst of all – say “I’m so glad it’s finally spring” – we will pay a price. That price might be as innocuous as a few days of snow, it might be a damaging ice storm, or it might be a massive bring-you-to-your-knees-and-make-you-weep blizzard. So we’re generally circumspect, a little reluctant to concede that winter is over. The gods might be listening, and we’ve learned that they have, at the very least, a warped and wicked sense of humor.

That being said, I couldn’t help but notice that a handful of crocuses are sprouting in the backyard. I mentioned it to Leigh, who had already noticed but hadn’t said a word. (I’m not the only superstitious one in the house when it comes to weather matters.) I was visibly happy, which has been a rarity lately, so Leigh felt obligated to add “Well, before you get too happy...” I thought I knew what her next line was going to be – some insight into our weather forecast, an expectation of snow… but instead she said “The wood’s coming today.”

At the start of each winter we have wood delivered. That wood -- four to six logs crammed in a single wood stove every few hours, round the clock -- heats the house for roughly six months of the year. It’s our only source of heat and the house is fairly large – we need a lot of wood. This year, for the first time ever, we ran out. Although it’s nearly April, a time when plenty of people in the northeast are thinking about turning the heat down, we’re restocking. We’ve got plenty of cold nights and quite a few cold days still to come. And so, more wood.

Two cords of wood fill a dump truck, and it takes some tricky maneuvering to get that much wood dropped as near the house as possible. It’s important that it’s deposited close, as it needs to be stacked and nobody wants to have to haul it, piece by piece, in addition to stacking it. Leigh and “the wood guy” have finessed a system that culminates in his truck stopping about two feet away from the kitchen door. What that meant, unfortunately, was that either the truck or the wood would land directly on top of the young crocuses. The only way to avoid damaging them would be to move the wood further away, thereby increasing my workload by, say, a few more pulled muscles, a few extra hours of an aching back. I conceded that the crocuses would have to bear the weight of the wood, but didn’t want to witness them being crushed. I walked away.

An hour later, the wood arrived with a crash. It’s literally an earth-shaking endeavor, and I felt the house tremble, felt the ground rumble. I looked at the clock: 5:45 p.m. Crocus time-of-death.

An hour later I went downstairs. The wood guy had just about finished stacking the wood – a gift from Leigh to me. What took him an hour would have taken me a few; Leigh’s recuperating from surgery and not able to participate in any wood-related chores. I was elated to see the high, orderly piles of fresh-smelling split logs. She slipped him forty bucks and he was on his way. The house will be warm for the foreseeable future.

As we turned our attention to preparing dinner, Leigh looked out the window and said “Hey, check it out.” She pointed to the area where the crocuses had previously been poking through the soil. “Look at the tracks,” she said. The wood deliveryman had maneuvered his truck so that the tires missed hitting the crocuses by a hair. I could see a few crocuses sticking up, then a tire track, and on the other side of the track a few more crocuses. Both the heavy truck and the onslaught of wood had spared the flowers’ lives.

I felt like mine had been spared as well. I opened the window and could hear staggered lines of geese, way in the distance, coming home.

Friday, March 6, 2009


This is a shot of crow tracks on the driveway, up against the neighbor’s dog prints. A small gang of three crows visits on a regular basis but we’ve escaped, so far, “a crow problem.” Apparently they can become quite troublesome if they invade the area, but these three just stop by, scavenge some road kill, have a raucous conversation, then take off. They’re gigantic and black as olives and I’m very fond of them.

Saw a pair of cardinals in the yard the other day, too. Male and female. Smaller than usual, but flashing in and out of the bare trees and giving the almost monochromatic landscape (snow, snow, don’t forget the clouds, snow) a dash of color. A welcome sign of spring.

And: this morning, the first long lines of geese high in the sky. These weren’t the local geese; these were the ones who head south for the winter (coward geese) and now, mercifully, return. There were three long strands of them; looked like a pitchfork in the clouds, or maybe more like a trident. Have my window cracked so I can hear if any more pass by. It’s a balmy afternoon by Oswego standards (40’s), so I’m listening to the last big patches of ice and snow melt off the roof. There’s so much runoff that it sounds like it’s raining.

I’m trying, at least for this afternoon, to appreciate these sights and sounds and not worry, as much as I have been, about the job, the friends who are ill, the stacks of papers to read. Trying to remember that everything goes so fast. Like those tracks in the snow. So beautiful – perfect, really – for a few hours, then gone. John Keats, who knew a thing or two about the fleeting nature of, well, everything: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” Amen. And as I type that, I swear, I hear the call of the geese. When I look out, I see that it's the local geese. The ones who stay. The ones who give the impression, the strong impression, that some things, against all odds, endure.