The Return of the Cicadas

This filmmaker has made the periodical cicadas into something damn beautiful, here. It’s a kickstarter campaign, and I must admit I’m tempted to donate.

I’m allowing the wonder of the event to overcome my disgust. Perhaps, in reality, this is an amazing event.

Graduation, Part 1. Before.

I’m about to graduate for the third time in my life. Well, fourth if you count preschool, which I hear was quite an event, and the graduates apparently passed out harder that day than they did 20 years later as new bachelors of arts and sciences.

But the big three graduations, once completed, will represent such vastly different chapters in a life that they can barely be compared to one another. At Linsly, graduation is a most serious business. There is absolutely. no. throwing. of. hats. Diplomas will be revoked should hats be thrown. At least, that was the threat. A similar threat was made regarding graduation attitude and behavior. The event was somber, and we were expected to remain similarly focused and serious. It’s laughable, actually, because an 18-year-old is one of the worst examples of focus and the males in particular lack the developmental skill required to sit still for very long. Nevertheless, we graduated and kept our hats dutifully upon our heads and ate cake with forks and talked about higher education and academic pursuits. And it was a nice little bubble in which to exist, at the time. Had I known what college would bring–both great and terrible–I think I might have taken up a mantle of excitement and terror. But of course, the not-knowing is the deal in this lifetime. The not-knowing is the reason human beings do everything that we do. It’s why we work hard and love hard and act carefully and carelessly, and it’s why we have children and take risks and drink vodka and sail the Caribbean. It’s why we show the best and the worst of our species on any given day.

That’s a sidebar, though. It’s too much abstraction and reflection for a second paragraph, particularly one that recalls a high school graduation, something that signals not an end of any kind but merely a start, as all graduations do.

When I graduated from Eckerd, I cannot remember if I threw my hat. That particular moment escapes me, because as promising as my future felt when I sat in Linsly robes, it felt entirely different as I walked in sandals in the Florida sun towards a stifling gymnasium where my family waited with pride. College was hard. Not the academics. Once I accepted that I was not meant to be a scientist and gave up pursuits like biology and statistics, I flourished. No, International Environmental Law didn’t go down too smoothly either, but I found a calling in the field of Environmental Studies, a beautiful blend of politics and literature and art and science. But graduation from college had little to do with academics, for me. College was a wonderful and miserable time, and though I would look back and yearn sadly for my life in Florida for many years to come, the truth is that my life in Florida

I’m not sure how to finish that paragraph. During my four years at Eckerd College I came to know and love the dearest friends, a tiny handful of which would remain my dearest friends, who would stand beside me when I married my husband and hold my children when they were born. I would also love people who would hurt me so deeply that I would come to know sorrow and depression, who changed me so dramatically that I would never live another day without medication to control my moods. When I walked up on the stage at Eckerd College to collect my bachelor’s degree, my family sat in the audience, as did a boyfriend who complained that he had to be there, who used my credit card to buy his alcohol and told me every day that I was nothing at all, that I was pathetic and helpless and weak. And by the time I did cross that stage and smiled at my favorite professor as I passed him, I truly believed I was nothing.

And so my graduation from college felt very different from my Linsly commencement. Whereas before I could envision nothing but a vast horizon, as flat and open and gentle as a midwestern plain, Eckerd College’s graduation felt as though it channeled me into a deep ravine, a narrow path with walls so high as to be inescapable. Whatever lay beyond the ravine couldn’t possibly be worth the journey, but deep in the grip of an alcoholic abuser, I couldn’t see any path but the one I was already on, and anything that waited for me in the future was already tainted with sadness and suffering.

I wouldn’t ever find what was at the end of that dark gorge, though. Somehow I found another way out; somehow I clawed up the walls and escaped that particular fate.

It feels like a lifetime ago. There are moments when the comfort and presence of my husband and children and parents living next door squash the memory of that time into little more than a page in a photo album, a page in which all of the photos are half the size they once were, edges cut at odd angles and the occasional phantom hand left on my hip or shoulder because the scissors and hole punch couldn’t quite expel all of him from the picture. But I don’t ever open those albums because I have so many others filled with tiny smiles and faces that look like Shawn’s. And in the last 15 years, the weight of that life on my shoulders as I collected that diploma has evaporated, and now what I remember is my professor’s smile and wink, and my friends hooting as my name was called, and the looks on my parents’ faces that I know were there even though I couldn’t see them.

Eckerd College graduation caps were decorated with words and glitter and googly attenae. People wore bathing suits under their robes and passed out that night almost as hard as the 4-year-olds. I would like to go back and enjoy that time, to see an open plain instead of a cold, one-way trudge.


Now, at 37, as I graduate from Chatham University with an MFA, the landscape of the horizon looks unfamiliar but inviting. It’s not flat; I’ve no longer got a vague world of choices ahead of me. The purpose of graduate school is to narrow the focus, to choose one’s field. Still, the road is by no means cloistered or tight. One might say I’ve picked the region into which I will walk, but the terrain will vary over time, and I look forward to what I will see and do. And, as a late 30-something with two graduations and two kids under her belt, I’ve learned enough about life to know that great and terrible things await me out there, and after each challenge will come blessings.

It’s not like me to abandon humor when I write. I feel like we should take a break so someone can slip on a banana peel. This is uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, this graduation (though it has yet to happen) is my favorite. It’s the one that I paid for myself, the one where I earned nothing but A’s, the one where I alone pushed myself into success every morning at 5am. It’s the one when I get to envision my parents’ faces as well as the face of my husband as I walk across the stage. It’s the one when I get to listen for a tiny voice shouting, “Yay, Mommy!” And it’s the one where I know where I want to go when I take off my hood and gown, and whether or not I’ve thrown my cap doesn’t matter, because I have work to do. The work I want to do. And however that shakes out, I’ve got five faces in the crowd.

Lesson from the Lake: Soggy Dogs and Smelly Fish

I went to the lake yesterday. I wish I could say that with more enthusiasm. Actually, since this is type you have no idea how much enthusiasm might be going into my typing; my fingers could literally be bouncing off the keys with zest and verve. However, the distinct absence of exclamation points should clue you in.

As an aside: I hate exclamation points. I have a friend from childhood who peppers her writing–she’s not a writer, but in emails and letters and posts–with exclamation points. Everything deserves one! She’s always terribly excited to tell you that she picked up some new shoelaces and a head of cabbage! Things are looking up!!! And the more exclamation points she includes, the more vividly I envision myself beating her senseless with her own keyboard. Er, with her own fucking keyboard!!!!!!!!

Anyway, weekday lake trips buoyed this blog into existence during my second semester of graduate school. (I still cannot believe I’m writing about it in the past tense, now.) I went out there in the snow, and in the frost, and eventually, in the warmth and sunshine. I hiked and sat and wrote and ice-walked and kayaked. It was great. But in all that time, I never once went to the lake in the rain.

Now wait a minute, you say. The rain isn’t a bad thing to a nature-lover. The world feels different in the rain. It’s quiet and wonderfully solitary. Provided you have the right clothing, a hike in the rain can introduce you to things you won’t ordinarily see. The forest smells peatier; tiny creeks form, giving you hints of where ravines will someday turn into foothills and gulches. (Gulch is far and away my favorite word in the English language. I’m going to name my next cat Gulch.) The rain reveals a little-seen world in the woods if you’ve packed the right shoes. And even if you haven’t, as the cantankerous bag-lady at Kroger once sniped at me when I frowned at a downpour, “You’re not made of sugar; you won’t melt.”

You know, I’d really like to stick that bitch in the mouth. I had a pie with me. Meringue.

But for whatever reason, Piedmont Lake has never been a place I want to be in the rain. I’m ashamed to say that it has something to do with the fact that I’m unplugged out there. Even with the world’s biggest pile of books, I sometimes need to feel connected. Now, not often. I usually go to Piedmont to get away. But when it rains, I’m forced into the house, and when I’m forced into the house, I’m also forced into sitting with myself in the silence. And myself and I have trouble when it’s just the two (one) of us. We start thinking about the rejection email we got from McSweeney’s (again), and the fact that we just spent $40k on a degree that offers rejection emails rather than paychecks. And then we decide to open the fridge and dig out last summer’s s’mores kit, which by now is just a bag of sugar-rocks and broken graham crackers that taste like freon. And we gnaw on them and gag at the taste and our self-pity, and I tell myself I can’t stand her presence because she brings me down.

On a dismal day, Piedmont Lake throws off nothing but gray and self-pity. And I hate self-pity. It’s an unattractive quality and a bad habit. Today, though, I just couldn’t shake it.

Some days, I just feel like a jacked-up dock in a cold drizzle.

I went out to clean the cabin in preparation for the summer season and tackled the filthy beast until every dead millipede and every live roach (especially the one I found skulking under my pillow) had been swept away. The dogs waited as patiently as they possibly could for me to finish so they could trot down to the lake, where the scene was quite dreary. As there was no wind, the rain fell straight down onto a mirrored surface. One miserable fisherman puttered along the shoreline past the dock, and I wondered if he felt as cranky as I did. The fish rarely bite in the rain.

To my surprise, Nugget and Maya reacted with an initial lack of enthusiasm too. The one thing I’ve learned from 37 years of owning dogs is that they like the rain about as much as I do. They’ll allow their bladders to fill to the point of rupture before they’ll pee in a heavy downpour, and if she can sneak away from the humans, Nugget will happily leave a steamy pile in the foyer rather than get her girly paws wet. Down by the lake, both girls picked their way through the long grass, which was overdue for a mow, and looked about as happy as I felt.

But of course, dogs impart teachable moments to us wherever they go, if we’re receptive. When you’re a dog, something always comes along to perk you up. Rather than mope and pity themselves, they keep their noses to the ground, always seeking treasure, ever-confident that it will appear. Dogs’ opportunistic nature should be a lesson to all of us; something great lies just around the bend at any given time. For my girls, something great did indeed lie around the bend. Something great and dead and decomposing.

What can we learn from the dog?

First and foremost, we too must keep our noses to the ground so we don’t miss whatever wonderful, smelly, desiccated corpse happens to be lying on the shore of the lake. And when we find it, we should roll in it with abandon, digging our shoulders into the acrid, rotting scales because these rare jewels come along infrequently in life.

Follow me through the guts of this metaphor, if you will.

Yes, I’m telling you to roll in the dead fish like a dog. Carpe carpem: seize the fish. Roll until the stink of joy covers you, because that joy, that stink, is fleeting, and all too soon some higher power will come along and lure you out onto the end of the dock and throw you into the lake.

Poor Nugget never saw it coming. She was so happy to reek and so stunned when I tossed her in the drink. Yet, like any dog, she bore me no ill will and came right back onto the dock with a sodden, wagging tail, never once imagining that I might do it again. I didn’t. And while I apologized to her, and wrung out her dripping beard, Maya found the fish and plucked it from the wet grass in her jaws, carrying both it and her tail high. A most precious treasure.

I admit I didn’t see it this way at the time. Possibly, I yelled, “Oh my gawd put that down you dirty dog!” Possibly, I ended the excursion and went back inside, wet and resentful and appalled. Possibly, I’m now only realizing that I stripped them of their beloved prize in a predictably human way.

I mean, it was a rotting carp. The girls stunk. And I despise the lemons-into-lemonade cliche. But, perhaps we should all look for the dead fish on dreary days. Otherwise, it’s just a soggy walk in the rain.