on reading to children as a shortcut to glory

When a friend shared A Mighty Girl’s list of resources with this photo/quote on their Facebook wall, I commented there and then realized it would do my Mama proud for me to say it here, too.

I credit my mother entirely with the fact that I was beginning to read on my own at age two. It was a highly valued skill to her, and she started reading to me on the day I was born and, by the time I could walk, she was carefully showing me which word she was saying as ‘we’ read, and I was given books and encouraged to tote them around all day long (and did; there are photos of me running through mud ditches barefoot and carrying a book). So it was just normal for me to be reading whatever I could get my hands on—by myself, with only occasional help for sounding out the big words and without the help of any formal instruction in phonics or the like—long before I darkened the door of a school.

Whereupon the sudden screeching thud back-to-the-pre-reading stage for a couple years running absolutely horrified my small self. My second grade teacher figured it out pretty fast and gave me a pocket-size blue New Testament with a shiny silk ribbon in it: likely she figured I could use the edification, but she also understood that I needed to be reading something besides Dick, see Spot! Jane, see Spot run! Mama also began taking me to town once a week from about the third grade on and turning me loose in the public library, where I could read any book I could reach. This was a glorious, glorious gift for the old little soul that I was. Glorious.

For this and so many other things, I remain deeply gratitude to my mother. I wouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans without her.

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For my mother, who taught me to read, encouraged the habit, and then had to live with the consequences for life.

God bless her strong and willing heart!

~

on genial tornados and their offerings of food

My kitchen (and, were I to be honest about it, my living room and writing nook and front porch and the back half of our truck)—after the first 12 of a likely 42 days of canning and freezing vegetables and fruits of all sorts? Looks as if a small tornado hit my house and was trying to make up for the mess by fixing dinner in its own wake. Or at least ensure that I never go hungry again.

cukes, not pretty enough for stores, but fine of taste for a picky farm-grown palate

cukes, not pretty enough for stores, but fine of taste for a picky farm-grown palate

 

There are cucumbers in every state of pickledness: washed and drying on any remaining horizontal surfaces (and a few that are headed for vertical, but serving anyway); bathing in an overnight lime-and-vinegar solution; ready for triple (quadruple, were I to be honest about that) rinsing and the ice-water bath before the cook-down stage and then the canning. There are fresh blueberries and cherries and corn and peas slipping into the deep-freeze of hibernation from which they are not intended to awake fully again until they’re roiling in someone’s digestive juices.

cukes colonizing even the piano, which I cannot play till they're gone, a heck of an incentive for sure for one who plays every day!

cukes colonizing even the piano, which I cannot play till they’re gone, a heck of an incentive for sure for one who plays every day!

 

There’s a small, pretty, blue, hot pot cradling a batch of fresh raspberry and currant jam, cooling and awaiting its own fateful end. And there are bits and pieces of everything on the compost pile which will never completely go to soil until the little critters that come to feed there day and night—squirrels and birds and chipmunks and woodchucks and butterflies and bees and ants—die and go dust to dust. Dishes and glasses and pots and utensils serve, then await washing, but being of a non-timed nature their wait can take some hours, so they pile atop one another in levels of disarray that have their own hint of grandmotherly charm.

just-picked, just-cooked raspberries and currants, quite fine for farm palates, too!

just-picked, just-cooked raspberries and currants, quite fine for farm palates, too!

 

Normally I would be holding the top of my head on to keep it from flying off in such chaos, but this week? Not so. I grin, duck, weave, and bob my way through the lot to my next task, and when I trip or reach for the hot oven rack sans oven mitt (or thought of one prior to the reaching) or knock four things off when I was not really even trying to pick up one yet? Even that is funny these days. For this all—this littered gift of the congenial food-bearing tornado? Is a beautiful cornucopia of life and death and carrying on, no matter what and right to the end.

~

on edible volunteers

Venturing forth to gather fat red raspberries from the wilding patch in our back yard—on a break from canning pickles and freezing blueberries—I was heartened to find evidence today that my winged neighbors have been helping to harvest the berry crop. We stuck eight bare berry canes into the ground some 15 years ago, and they cheerily took more of the bluegrass every summer, until now when there’s little more than a winding path amongst their edge. I’d always meant to plant black raspberries, but never did: this year, however, I found that several had volunteered themselves into a segregated patch as far as they can get away from the reds.

In between the berries runs a spreading single grapevine that we planted eight years ago and have tried our deadlevel best to kill and chop out every summer since . . . but it has managed to colonize the big middle of the yard not claimed by the berries or one giant bleeding heart. The grape’s vines reach hard for the branches of the lilac tree and swing high into another shade tree, and we have to cut them loose every year or they’d take ‘em clear down. Ripening grapes now sling themselves willy-nilly, tucking in even amongst the burdock, whose roots are delicious and highly prized. The burdock arrived as an invading army on a yard of topsoil sold to me by a farmer long ago, and I cussed and went after it with a slingblade for five years running until a macrobiotic cook informed me of how nutritional (and expensive!) burdock roots are, and now we grow it on purpose but don’t lift a finger toward that except to dig roots. In one odd-shaped corner off by itself I dropped two canes of currants one year, too, too long ago to remember when: but they return faithfully, slick round sweet fruits hanging from the slightest excuse of a branch.

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 I never fertilize, never water, never do anything but harvest and cut it all back (not always in that order!), but this fertile little patch of ground has convinced me that it is willing to grow anything dropped into it—deliberately or not. In the mid-90s, my children and I, not understanding this capacity, planted four tomato plants. On the day the first one ripened, we made a big deal out of it, celebrating the start of our ‘crop’. Then for the rest of that summer and well into the fall, we ate and canned and gave away so many tomatoes that the mere sight of them made us all gag halfway through winter. When it finally snowed, we had a party to celebrate not having to go pick tomatoes—which were hanging in iced gobs, fat and red and still-delicious-if-you-haven’t-had-900-already. The soil here loves seeds, nurtures life and nutrition, steadies a wandering soul. How I wish all who hunger and yearn for a home could have one as giving as this.

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~

 

on farming as heaven

Being amongst people who farm the land using horses and mules and themselves—booted or barefooted as necessary, clad in long skirts and sleeves and bonnets or hats no matter the weather—as my parents and sister and I did for the first twelve years of my life? Is as close to heaven as I ever plan to get in this world or any other.

Thank God for the Amish, neighbors who welcome even the sinner that I am to the heaven that they make on this earth every day.

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~

 

on fireflies and eternity

As the fireflies light up the garden tonight, I remember an encounter in words from long ago:

Florence Farr once said to me, “If we could say to ourselves, with sincerity, ‘The passing moment is as good as any I shall ever know,’ we could die upon the instant; and be united with God.” William Butler Yeats

If god is all that exists—bar none ever—I wonder: on what great longings do the lightning bugs take wing and shine? What might they know of creation and war and loss and the lickety-split nature of destruction? And what might it mean for humans—believing ourselves trapped in a world chaotic beyond easy reckoning, worsening daily and spinning beyond our control—to surrender fully to the good in each present moment and thus risk being united with all things? Might we not see in these flashes of light some better way to carry on while we still breathe? Might we not, on finding our own sinews and cells and desires rooted deep within all that exist—even those whom we most fear or hate—might we not then become a force for healing, for revival, for life? Might we not see our sisters and brothers in those we have styled as enemies, our friends in the very souls of our foes, our selves in the ones whom we have spurned and loved alike? Might we know then that we are one and thus each has a particular , irreplaceable contribution to make in this grander play for which we all fly and flash for a few moments in time?

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~

on the bounties of summer

Woah: summer’s hit all of a sudden this morning: and I’m on a fast ramp-up for this weekend: prepping cherries, wild black raspberries, zucchini, peas, and string beans for the freezer, and canning cucumbers for Mama’s lime pickles. It was sure a hell of a lot more fun to do this in Mississippi back in the ’60s and ’70s: out in the yard, under a shade tree the size of one good-sized Yankee barn, straight-backed chairs around a mound of pre-dawn picked sweet corn piled as deep and wide as a little school bus in the middle; cauldrons for blanching off to one side; an assembly-line setup for cream corn and kernel corn and corn on the cob for the freezers; ladies and girls in long dresses and long sleeves and sun bonnets and bare feet: and everybody singing four-part harmony old-time gospel nearly all day long. The horses would hang their heads over the pasture fences waiting for seconds; the dogs and chickens would just take theirs and go. About mid-morning Mama would dispatch me (the oldest) to the field for a watermelon, which we’d set in the well water to cool for a spell, and then we’d all stop for a chin-dripping sweet slice of Black Diamond (with seeds, which is the only, only self-respecting way to ever eat a watermelon!), and then we’d turn back to the work. By dusk we’d have enough corn to feed six families for two years, so my Mama would set in to giving it away, straight off, because that is what you do when you have more than you need for yourself: you give it to somebody else who might need it. She’d do that all year, till most folks hated to see us coming because they were full up to the brim and couldn’t take it no more.

We’d fall into the bed so whupt at night that we didn’t even have gumption for dreams. Now that was one fine way to grow up, responsible for the bounties of summer, living by the crops’ clocks and not ours. I loved it all so much that sometimes I thought my heart might expand outside my skin. Sometimes maybe it did. At least enough that I learned how to love the work, to love the food, to love the chance to serve, to love this life. What a lucky person I have been!

hp watermelon

~

 

on leaving Madison

This needed writing almost two years ago, shortly after I defended my Ph.D., but I haven’t been able to summon the guts for the task because, truth be told, I did not want it to be quite so true yet. This is a lingering character flaw from childhood, because I just hate leaving beloved places and people (and I’m not all that happy when they leave me, either), but its roots go deeper in this last departure. I am finally leaving Madison, Wis. for good, and to do that I need to write some sort of tribute that is rooted in a reckoning.

Back in 1993, I had the extraordinary good luck—while in headlong flight from what it seemed the postmodernists I adored in undergrad theory had done to my first scholarly discipline (anthropology)—to land in the capital of Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in history. I’d never been there before when I pitched up with two young teenagers in a Ford Bronco II towing a little UHaul with all our worldly possessions. From the flatlands of Champaign-Urbana (IL), we rolled into Madison during the weekend when undergrads were showing up for the semester, and it took over 35 minutes to drive the ten miles to our first apartment. But this small meandering, green city tucked between two lakes and more world-class libraries than you can shake a stick at? Greeted us with wide-open arms and we hurried out on our feet to meet it.

From Picnic Point along Lake Mendota up to Bascom Hill and down State Street to the capitol building, angling over to Willy Street and then along the Monona lakeshore and back down Mifflin and then Drake toward the Vilas Zoo: my, how we walked and walked! And then the semester began in earnest and I began haunting the libraries (Memorial, State Historical Society, Steenbock, Helen C. White) and working on this new, rather daunting field.

Nobody could have had better or kinder advisers, faculty, and support staff than our department provided: without exception, people went out of their way for all of us: as a first-generation college student and single mom of two teens with a fairly complicated life already, I found the collegiality most welcome and swiftly made Madison into more than a place, more than a mere campus or career training ground. To me it became early on a fair-sized icon of what was still possible when thoughtful people were allowed to congregate in a system devoted to learning and teaching and critical thinking and conversation. Aspects of the city and campus were hard to handle, yes—how race and inequalities are dealt with were perhaps the toughest for me—but places with people in them are bound to have issues and anyway we were supposed to be there to deal with such things, no?

The campus itself (aside from the libraries and the reading room in the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Sunroom or the Mediterranean Cafe on State Street) was not the draw for me, nor was the bleak Humanities building: I handled the latter by vowing, prior to every entry barring one (the first), never to commit a crime serious enough to send me to prison, for the building itself fairly exulted in how incompatible I was with brutalist architecture, bad air, and tall windows that developed thick inner sheets of ice during winter . . . which then had the unnerving tendency to get warm suddenly and crash down on our desks. The famed terrace with its brightly hued chairs along Lake Mendota was not one of my haunts: although I loved the sight of it, especially during intersessions (fewer people), I can count on one hand the times I ate there with others. The town with its famously always-orange-barreled-and-under-construction streets or its farmer’s market and street fairs almost never felt like home: congenial for a white person, even me perhaps, but not home.

Terrace

None of that had much to do with the place or its activities, however: I was a first-generation college student raising and home-schooling two teens alone, commuting most semesters from 40 miles away, and to do that and cover the costs of our life prior to grad school (medical and legal bills) and in it, I had to work a 20-hour position on campus during the week and hold down full-time night jobs from Thursdays to Sundays (7 to 7 or longer, with a few 11-7 shifts on weekdays sprinkled in for good measure): the things people do to make a place home were thus far afield for me. When my peers met for drinks on the Terrace or potlucks, I couldn’t go. When they went to ball games together or Rhythm and Booms (annual fireworks), I had to work. Work and study formed the legs of my existence: that’s no way to sidle up to a place. This is, I thought then, okay, for everybody knows we’ll all have to leave here to find jobs in the end, so best not to get too attached to the physical place. Plus I am fatally, genetically unfit for the mingling and schmoozing that is de rigueur for the academy anyway, so my plan was to make it on the strength of my work. Which, of course, required a great deal more work than was even being required of us (not the best match for an already sleep-deprived noggin).

In significant ways I didn’t fit easily with U.S. history either, coming from anthropology and a life that begged all sorts of questions about methods and narrative practices and ethics that everyone else had already answered satisfactorily for themselves. But it didn’t matter to me: none of this mattered. More than anything else, Madison was the people for me. From the first week I arrived, I wanted that family of scholars to become my home in this world. Academics can argue about angels on pin heads and fight tooth and nail for things the rest of the world cares little and knows nothing about; they may well not be able to dance or cotton to doings that others easily do: but they contribute deep understandings to wells of human cognition of our species that are impossible to quantify. If you doubt this, check out what happens when a senior scholar dies: people show up for the tribute because they know how much it means. They know how much heart and work goes into doing this for a living—into meeting students year after year, trying to figure out how best to connect and create the magic that can only happen in good classrooms because the teacher puts in the time and resources to make it happen no matter what. They know the intense pressures that scholars face, on the tenure track and beyond it: the ferocity of academic politics, the constant jockeying for basic resources like the time and space to research and write, the ease with which people who dislike learning in the larger society can dismiss what is happening in such places as trivial, subversive, and corrupting of youth and business and culture. They know the price of admission and, if they’re teaching in a place like Madison, they have paid it. And then some. These are people worth joining one’s wagon to, I thought (then and now), and set about putting together the skills for teaching and doing research so I might become one of them. But life always has a zinger or two left up its ragged sleeves.

On the heels of my son’s unplanned brain tumor, which came on the heels of my first book being adapted into a movie just as I was moving toward prelims—all of which occurred in the year from hell or heaven alike, take your pick—with the quality of my work faltering, I took time off. I taught and got better at it; I wrote and got better at that; I saw both my children start their adult lives; and I met and married someone who wouldn’t hit or stalk me or harm my son or daughter if his own life depended on it (which was a real step up for my little brood). Everything—even the hard parts—was good. But I missed Madison.

I missed the libraries, I missed the earnest and brilliant people and their amazing projects, I missed history itself being served in the daily patterns of a community, I missed the pursuit of that big ol’ goal: the doctorate that would make me employable for life among similarly high-quality, thoughtful people . . . so that I could provide for my children’s futures and ensure that I could have health care and a living wage doing something I loved and could do well, fitting in somewhere and making a little, steady contribution to my own community for the last thirty years before I died. Maybe it’s a small way of looking at things, maybe I’ll always be from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, as one person put it, and thus have too narrow and pragmatic a perspective, but it made sense to my first-generation college head. So why not? I thought, clinging stubbornly to the faith that belonging to the world of scholarship and teaching was a viable future.

Returning in 2004 was nerve-wracking, but I was a better fit than before and the three hours of my preliminary exams were the high point of my graduate career—all that I find most invigorating about intellectual endeavor—and then I won a campus-wide award for excellence in undergrad teaching and, I kid you not, it looked as if all the hell was going to culminate in me belonging to a vocation I had chosen and prepared myself diligently for. And then two of my committee members died within months of each other, and I took a chance on another full-time job to fund my final research and writing.

Much of those final years passed in a blur, me a grief-stricken wreck, working more than full-time as always and trying to wrangle a dissertation into the corral while far away from Madison and the libraries on which I depended like a newling colt does on the milk that reliably comes after a good head-butting of its mother’s bag. Days after major surgery in February of 2012 and with my thesis due in less than two months, I looked at my draft and, hating it and all that it had become (predictable, safe, and addressing precisely none of the theoretical or ethical concerns that had so enlivened my work before), I undertook a 40-day round-the-clock rewrite from whole cloth (with the exception of two sections which I re-used), turned it in on time but massively too long and unwieldy and problematic as all-get-out in many ways, prepared for the defense (complete with music that I thought was needed to break the iron-fisted hold that written narratives have on historical analysis), did it (sans music!), and earned my degree. I adored the project still and loved the ms. for all the right and wrong reasons (including the simple fact that it was done), but I knew I was in trouble on the departure thing a couple weeks later when an administrator on campus happened upon At Sea in the course of his duties and contacted me to say how much he had enjoyed reading it and how it had drawn him in so much and how he hoped I would write it so a general audience could have access to it and so on.

I wept as this stranger spoke and long after, grateful for his take on the pages that were the culmination of all that effort (especially from someone outside the department who sees so many of these things every year), yet knowing how far from the mark that draft had actually landed and how much remained to be done, knowing that the job market was worsening by the day, knowing that I finally, really had to leave Madison and that maybe it would be for good and in all ways and that maybe after all I’d just taken too long to get through and it didn’t matter what kind of skills I had as a teacher or historian or colleague. Maybe there never would be a place like this one that would claim me as a colleague. Nothing else would slow down—student loans, living expenses, those big ol’ medical bills, finding some way to make some kind of steady living—but my scholarship most assuredly would.

My concerns proved prescient. The economic downturn provided a good excuse for more cost-cutting measures in a society that devalues education more every year I’m alive (and the bar was not very high when I was born either), and the bottom has fallen clear out of the academic job market in many fields. I did one intensive year of job searching and applied selectively the second year and then took the writing on the wall at face value: and met the same fate as thousands of other newly minted PhDs. I am now a part-time adjunct instructor of online courses for a good university, with no job security beyond the upcoming two semesters and earning an hourly wage that is less than what I earned as an answering service operator in Wyoming in 1984. In this I am luckier than most but by no means alone: 70 percent of all college classes now are taught by people like me who are considered (with good reason and data) to be among the new “working poor,” and many of them endure far worse working conditions than I do.

For one thing, I know that my department values my contribution—they are unfailingly collegial and supportive—but they cannot make my position permanent or stable. For another two (and these are huge, relevant factors), I know that the university values my work because staff and faculty members have taken the time to say so, and also because they have health insurance plans available for anyone who holds a half-time or higher position. (This is in sharp contrast to many of the buy-a-degree programs that politicians and educational ‘reformers’  are trying to steer us all toward, most of which pay considerably less and limit the number of courses adjuncts can teach so that they can’t qualify for ACA-required employer-provided healthcare plans!) I am merely one of the tens of thousands of highly skilled professional teachers and scholars who are casualties of the late capitalist corporatization/ privatization of not just the university but the society. It’s a war in all but name and the kindness and speed that actual bullets would provide, but all any of us have to offer is our best teaching and writing and serving when we get the chance. And even when we don’t.

For too long now that has been a bitter pill, not just for me personally, but because I believe that it means the end of the university as I knew it. This breaks my heart, and I feel it as a physical ache some days. So for too long now, too, I have been leaving Madison under duress, exiled from its libraries (or at least the access that on-campus students, staff, and faculty get) and its healthcare and the hope that one day I would fit into a community of scholars and teachers like this and get to work alongside them for the rest of my working life. For too long, I looked at the closing door and did not see all those that are open for me. Some have been standing so open and so wide for so long that their hinges have gone hank for lack of swinging.

And yet others are hank for continued overuse for, as I wrote in a recent post (“on obstinate devotion and dwelling in the lively arts”), I am luckier than most of us who leave for parts unknown, for I write and thus have potential income streams not available to many of my peers. Writing has long served me well, and I am now serving it more diligently than ever, making up for lost and squandered time, with some modest results. I am exceedingly fortunate, too, to still be able to teach some, for now anyway, and I find enormous satisfaction in creating a space where students can work alongside to make the past present live and listen to our questions now, hear our sometimes tone-deaf pleas, provide insights for our struggles and blind spots.

I understand better now, too, that belonging to a place is aided by being able to really be present in it, not simply scrabbling for a seat at the table on no sleep for the last 32 hours for years on end, and this helps me be of more assistance to my students, many of whom carry heavy course- and work-loads similar to my own and are amassing debts that will burden them for what may well be the rest of their lives (unless we adopt Elizabeth Warren’s plan to treat students at least as well as the banks who broke the economy on purpose get treated, with better interest rates and income-adjusted payments!). The security of employment once offered in the academy and businesses (large and small alike in my youth) belongs to fewer and fewer U.S. citizens, as the values of the decision-making classes turn ever more deliberately to “Me First” privatization schemes (gobbling up massive resources and exploiting ever more workers to turn profits for a very few) and lop-sided balances between administrative and faculty/staff sides of the houses. I wonder sometimes if anyone has a clue anymore about how to build a workable world. I wonder sometimes if higher ed is not intensifying inequalities—not on purpose, no, but as a side effect of losing sight of the core values of learning and building communities in favor of building stadiums and swanky buildings that may not have tall inner ice sheets in winter but that have gone to winter in their souls. I wonder about schools that pay administrators and coaches and consultants stunning salaries for less actual work than many of their lowest-paid support staff or adjuncts put in every day. I wonder about nearly everything at this point and know very little for sure. But I know this: I finally know how to leave Madison.

I will carry it—all of it, every last jot I can remember—not as ballast, but as cargo in my heart. For the people there give me reason to hope that all cannot be lost. Not yet. Not while they live and work.

~

 With deep gratitude to the UW-Madison Department of History and all of its people, but in particular that small core group who advised and worked with and alongside me: this little reckoning is for them in appreciation for all that each has taught me about being a better human and teacher: Bill Cronon, Jeanne Boydston, Judy Cochran, Jane Williams, Steve Stern, Florencia Mallon, Tom Spear,  Jean B. Lee, Susan Johnson, Jim Schlender, Leslie Abadie, Carrie Tobin, Scott Burkhardt, and Steve Hahn. And for Greg Dening, who—from all the way in Australia, by his own work and cheerful assistance and greetings (“Ka’oha, Hannah!” from the outset)—made the first years of my At Sea project feel both doable and worthwhile. As to my peers—both sets of cohorts, nearly all of whom (like my children) graduated before I did? You are far too numerous to name here, and naming’s a risky business as well, working from memory alone, since I might forget someone. If we took or taught a class together or met for study and prep or just crossed paths in the halls on our way somewhere else: thank you.

~

 

 

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