West Virginia Incoming

I won’t be writing about the devastating floods happening in West Virginia here. That sort of post calls for a heavy heart and an earnest hand, and as of this time I am not yet able to write what I’d like to with either. 

We’re getting ready to take a little family trip. I hesitate to say “vacation” because we’ll only be gone for three days and because I make a distinction between trips and vacations. When I was young our family went out of town in two ways: we either flew to the beach in Florida or the Caribbean and set up camp in a condo to which we would return every few hours in between lazy beach excursions (the vacation), or we would bounce from hotel to hotel, landing in a different spot each night after a day of driving and sight-seeing and hiking (the trip). The vacation is relaxing, laid-back, and low key. Beach, pool, sail, snorkel, dinner, bed. The trip, however, is fast-paced, heavily-scheduled. Grand Canyon, mule ride, river raft, boat excursion, waterfall hike. It’s the difference between flip flops and hiking books. We took both vacations and trips, and I’ve always put our family outings into one category or the other.
Tucker County: Blackwater Falls

Shawn has taken the week of July 4th off, and we’ve got two separate excursions planned. First, we’ll bop on out to Piedmont Lake for 3 days of relaxation. We’d planned an entire week out there originally, but then I got this bee in my bonnet about taking the kids to Pendleton and Tucker Counties. As a West Virginian, it’s important to me to show them the beauty and wonder of their state, and though I’ve wanted to do so for quite some time now, only recently have they become portable. Until Ben reached age 5, longer car trips consisted of multiple bathroom breaks and endless whining and backseat fisticuffs. Now…well, nothing has changed at all, actually, except that they’ve both learned how much fun it is to pee in a bottle. And I can turn around and tell them to shut their yaps instead of having to provide them with a toy or a movie or something, instead of having to be all nice and motherly because my kids are too little and innocent to be barked at. 

“Ben’s kicking me!”
“Andy’s being a jerk!”
“Hey! Shut up back there.”

You can totally say that when they’re older.
Plus, they’re now old enough to understand empty threats. “I will turn the car around!” “I will make you sit by that rock until you’ve learned your lesson!” “So help me, we will rake the lawn when we get to the resort!”

Pendleton County: Seneca Rocks

Pendleton County is by far my favorite spot in the Mountain State. It even edges out Canaan Valley in the “awesome” category. The geology is amazing: it’s part of the ridge-and-valley geologic province of the Appalachians, characterized by long, even ridges that parallel long, even valleys. From the air the topography looks like corduroy. The other half of West Virginia, the more northwesterly half, is the Appalachian Plateau province and is actually a high, eroded plain rather than mountains. So when I take them to Pendleton County, they’re going to get their first real glimpse of West Virginia mountains, geologically speaking. 

I don’t know if they’ll appreciate what they’re seeing. We have plans to take them to the top of Spruce Knob, the highest mountain in West Virginia. We have plans to see Smoke Hole and/or Seneca Caverns and to ride the Cass Railroad. I desperately want to take them to the Seneca Rocks swimming hole, which, for my money, is the most beautiful swimming hole in the state. (And also possibly the coldest.) 

Seneca Rocks swimming hole.
Shawn asked that I not upload the photo of
him swimming in his underwear.

When I am in the heart of my home state, I feel overwhelmed by its beauty and stupefied by how old it is. There is such comfort here. I admit that, pound for pound and peak for peak, the Rocky Mountains are far more impressive and one look at the Grand Tetons will shut your mouth for days. I would live in the high Rockies if I could; they’re unmatched in this country for stunning-ness.

But I don’t live in the high Rockies; I live here. And when I’m in the ridges and valleys, I feel more at peace than I ever have anywhere else in the world. While the high mountains of the west stir awe and excitement and leave me with stunted speech, the view from Dolly Sods calms me and gives me the feeling that I am of this place, this state, and I know that nowhere on earth will give me such a strong sense of belonging. 

The word “content” doesn’t get its due credit, because it doesn’t feel like it means all that much, when in reality, content is perhaps the one emotion that we should strive to maintain in the long-term. Happy is too difficult; happy is too hard to chase, and too elusive when we catch it. Content should be the goal, the feeling that carries us through our years.

Content is the view my kids will see next week. And I wonder if any of it will mean anything to them. I’m an adult approaching 40 now, and I write about West Virginia as if it has always been in this deep place in my heart. But really, that feeling grows over the years, out of decades of experiences. Ben is 6; the view will be neat for him for about 30 seconds and then he’ll tire of the place we are and ask to be moved onto the next site of adventure. I wonder how many years and how many views it takes for a person to fall in love. At what point, if I have done my job as a West Virginia mother correctly, will my children realize that they are infatuated with this place? When does that notion take hold? In hindsight, I assume I’ve always loved it here, but this is absolutely not the case. Many summers my father tried to organize a “West Virginia Vacation,” and David and I always shot him down in favor of a trip to Yellowstone or Zion National Park or Grand Cayman. We could never get excited about a tour of our state. I was a teenager then, and though I had been to Canaan, for example, many, many times, I desired a sexier vacation and taller, craggier mountains.

I think, perhaps, it was my time away from West Virginia that made me love her. Florida is a different world, and when I left West Virginia I didn’t look back. How could anywhere compete with blue ocean water and dolphins leaping and the fronds of a palm tree that make a melodic clacking sound in the breeze? I fell in love with Florida. She became my home, and I identified as a Floridian.

But the thing about Florida is that it’s a scrub-land. The green you see in Florida is largely introduced. Palm trees aren’t Floridian; palmettos are. And palmettos aren’t tall and breezy; they’re short and scrubby. In fact, everything in Florida is scrubby. Have you ever looked at the leaves? They’re hard and pointy; the natural landscape is brown and spiky. There’s no carpet of grass, and the only grass that grows is a foreign species that’s sharp on the feet and prickly on the ass. And all of this is just fine, because it’s Florida. That’s how the state is supposed to be: scrubland and swamp. (I will touch on my feelings re: the wetlands another day.)
After four years in Florida, the shine wore off, as it invariably does with any new situation, and in particular with any vacation-destination-turned-home. The landscape and the novelty of a place—especially one to which a person feels they have escaped, as college-bound kids often do—no longer stands out as notable. Yes, there are blue waves and happy dolphins out there, but they do not negate the fact that it takes 45 minutes to drive 7 miles. 

On one particular day, I woke up alone in my apartment and decided that I needed some furniture. My grandparents, two hours to the south, had graciously given me their kitchen table and chairs, and all I had to do was drive from St. Petersburg down to Fort Myers and pick it all up from storage. I’d been putting off the trip—a 4-hour venture, all told—but on that particular day I had no friends to play with and nothing scheduled. And so I jumped into my car in pajamas, having not bothered to brush my teeth, even, and drove two hours south, put the furniture into my car, turned around, and drove two hours north, home. It was a weird trip, spontaneous and random and in hindsight I dearly wish I had stopped for an overnight to see my grandparents, but of course I couldn’t yet imagine a time when they wouldn’t walk on this earth with me, and I just blew in and blew out of Fort Myers without bothering to even hug them.
(Fight the tangent, blogger. Fight it hard.)
The road to Dolly Sods

The story of the trip lands in this blog because, on this day, though the sun was shining as it always does in Florida, I felt deeply homesick. Not for my family (sorry, guys) or my house or my old life, but for West Virginia herself. I missed the green, and I missed the topography. I wished, as I drove along, to see anything but flat, anything that might give a hint of a rise in the land, any sort of grade whatsoever. My car, in those days, had a cassette player, and I put my tape of John Denver in it and played “Country Roads” over and over and over, for four hours. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Tear up. Play. The interstate was so straight that I took off my shoes and drove with my bare feet (I was 20, after all, and 20-year-olds are invincible idiots) and tried to picture not the long blade of cement interstate stretching out in front of me, unbending, but rather a two-lane ribbon of road darting in and out of the trees, winding its way through the morning. And I tried to feel the soft brush of West Virginia grass against my skin. At times I looked out the window and ran my hand over imaginary hills, trying to feel the feathery foliage of deciduous trees and picturing the way the treetop canopy waved in the wind, many trees moving in concert like the Gulf rollers at the beach. 

That was what I missed: soft green mountains. It may have been one of the loneliest days of my life, and without a doubt, the most homesick I’ve ever been. And though, at that time, I had great plans to build a life in Florida and pursue my love of estuarine wetlands, I think an unconscious part of me decided then that I couldn’t stay in the scrubland too long.

So how is it, exactly, that we fall in love with place? With any place? We aren’t born loving where we land. In fact, many people fly the coop as soon as the door is opened. Most of my high school graduating class has done so, gone to New York, D.C., or California or more local cities like Columbus and Cleveland. And yet, their departure doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t in love with West Virginia. It means only that they’ve chosen to make a life elsewhere. A beautiful mountain does not a successful life make. A hemlock forest does not content everyone. Nor did it always content me. I can well recall a time in my life when the mountains were a fun day outing, but they hadn’t yet grown into the marrow of my bones. And no matter how many times I re-read the words I’ve written here, I can’t pinpoint a year or an age when I sat up and said, “I love West Virginia with all of my heart.” But it grew, as time passed and in my time in the south, until one day—that day in the car—it was simply there, present, as a palpable ache. If it was born of a childhood in the mountains or if it was realized in hindsight, I cannot say. But, now that I feel it, it can’t be ignored, and I cannot imagine a time when I will not be in love with this place, no matter where I live.

The North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac

When I feel frustrated with West Virginia (and I do, often) I try to remember that day in the car, and the moments of irritation I had in Fort Myers traffic when I reached my destination. I cursed the throngs of people around me, all going somewhere on hot pavement in one big crowd. I think about how frantically I scanned a map to find a forest in Florida—a forest that I didn’t have to bathe in Deet and traverse a boardwalk to see. I recall craving the smell of hemlock trees with the wild desperation of a junkie and instead breathing in only salt and tar.

It’s not easy for me to live here. Bodies that suffer auto-immune disorders don’t like cold rain; minds that become seasonally affected need more sun than West Virginia can offer. But in exchange, I can touch the green. I can smell the pine and hear the cold, rushing water. It’s a trade-off, and on some days I would choose Florida. At least, until I see the ridges-and-valleys. And then I’m quite sure where I should be.

Introversion introspection

There’s a lot of talk about introverts right now.

I don’t quite know where it came from, but within the last two years my social media newsfeed has been been flooded with introversion: introvert memes, introvert photos, accounts of introvert misery inflicted upon a poor introvert at a tortuous social gathering, and depictions of relieved individuals hiding in bed in their pajamas while the weekly Friday night adventures unfold around them.

On behalf of introverts everywhere, I beg the internet to stop. Take your spotlight. Shove it up your ass.

Yes, I’m an introvert. A pretty big one. In fact, I’ve just been at an art gallery for the opening reception of an exhibit about which I will be paid to blog, and on the walk home (during which I finally allowed myself to breathe and also began the arduous process of berating myself for every idiotic thing I said) I started wondering just when the world decided to bring introverts back into the limelight.

Because we hate it.

Introverts are popular, suddenly. They’re hip, even. It’s hip to be an introvert but in a rather lamentable way. And the ironic thing about all of this attention is that, while the introverts are happy to be recognized as such and hopeful that the extroverts will come to understand us via these memes and perhaps require less of us socially, the very spotlight that will potentially illuminate the plight of the introvert makes us incredibly uncomfortable. We don’t want you looking at us, wondering why we’re in a meme wearing flannel pants. Because if you start wondering, you might get a little too interested in us. You might want to talk. Or drink coffee together. Or–eghads–introduce us to new people.

And we sure as shit can’t have that.

We, the introverts, just wish that all of this introvert bullshit would go away. Hey internet, stop drawing attention to that miserable person at that vibrant party lest some well-meaning extrovert attempt to extricate him from the corner where he’s been happily petting the hosts’ dog for the last 67 minutes. He likes that corner.

Well, “likes” is a strong word. The introvert likes a corner the way a squirrel “likes” to sit in the silver maple while our German Shepherd stands on her hind legs barking and slobbering in a vain attempt to reach him. Truth be told, it sucks in that tree. It’s hot and muggy and there’s a twig poking his crotch.

But as Daenerys Targaryen said, “People learn to love their chains.”

Extroverts, don’t try to peel us off the wall. Don’t try to better us for our own good. Do you know what you’re doing? You’re throwing a toddler into the pool in order to teach them to swim. And do you know what? If you do that, we, the toddlers, will purposefully choose to drown just so we don’t have to face that social gathering any longer. That’s right: drowning is the better choice. We’d prefer to sink to the bottom of the party and suck liquid solitude into our lungs rather than make small talk with people we don’t know.

I mean, really, what are we going to talk about with strangers? “Hey, I like your hat. I have a big sun hat myself because the doctor found a precancerous mole. Yeah. Suspicious borders on that one. Cut it right off. Long healing process. I had to bathe in the sink.”

That’s an actual thing I said to a stranger, once. 

So don’t try to help us. You’ll make it worse by providing us with an opportunity to say things that will haunt us every night as we try to fall asleep. In fact, if you see an introvert hugging the wall/dog/aquarium at a party, treat them as you would a rabid possum. Lookie but no touchy. Unless, of course, you’re another pitiable introvert. If you’re uncomfortable too, that’s a horse of a different color. Go over and take your rightful place by the fish tank and share your discomfort. The only way to save a drowning introvert is to throw another one at them. Usually, they’ll form some sort of polar covalent bond and stick to each other until they bob right out of the pool and mutually agree that social events suck and decide to go see a movie.

Then again, if you knew anything about introverts at all, you wouldn’t have invited one over to begin with.

Cicadas: Day 11

Hi Cicadas,

Well, here we are. You guys and me.

I know I was reluctant to welcome you all, the most magnificent Brood V, to the panhandle of West Virginia. I know I said hasty things I’d regret later. But I went out of my way, on Day 5 of your miraculous emergence, to correct my faulty thinking. I apologized to you for my vitriol. And I tried to make you feel at home and marvel at your evolutionary genius. We’ve settled into a routine now, right?

It’s just that…how do I put this?

The thing of it is, well, that was, like, Day 5. And you guys were crawling out of the ground in moderate numbers and unfurling your beautiful wings and resting in the shade, and my kids were playing with you and you were crawling on their shoulders and hanging off their ears. It was a jolly swell time, wasn’t it? And, you know, I’d just seen that amazing Kickstarter cicada video with the violins.

Violins, cicadas. I get swept up by violins. And then they threw in some sunset shots and some text that kind of faded into the background as the camera panned away from your little carcasses. I think I got lost in the romance of it, you know?

I went to Jamaica once. I’d just had a long, sad breakup and I was feeling really unattractive and miserable and lonely. And I got a little carried away by the romance of the island. Maybe I made some poor choices. It’s easy to do when you’re emotionally affected. But then, ultimately, reality sets in and you realize you’ve had fourteen Purple Rains and a roll of film is missing and it’s the dawn of the internet and girls are going wild and things aren’t quite as beautiful as you thought they were.

And I’m not likening you guys to regrettable Caribbean hot tub misadventures. Certainly not. It’s just that…not everything ends up quite the way we think it’s going to. Sometimes life is violins and sunsets, and sometimes life is a dog vomiting cicadas carcasses up onto the bedroom carpet.

Remember that time you just sort of sat on my lounge chair and stared at me and didn’t move and I was able to admire you in your stillness? That was nice. I was thinking about it the other day when one of you bumbled into my eye socket. Like, right into my cornea. And it’s not that I don’t welcome your morning input, but I also found one of you in my coffee cup. Why, cicadas?

Feel free to ride the dog–seriously–but could you hop off before the dog comes into the house? And could you, like, leave your exoskeletons maybe out in the yard instead of on my dental floss? Just a thought.

Quite frankly, you guys are kind of loud. And there are about 10 million more of you than I was expecting.

I mean, did you ever throw a party or maybe plan a wedding, and you have a set number of guests and the right amount of seats and food for those guests, and then on the day of the party Uncle Hank shows up with his new girlfriend and her four kids and they just kind of shrug and say, “Gee, hope you don’t mind our crashing your party–har har,” and then you realize you’re going to have to give up your own dinner because there’s not enough food for them so you just end up eating cold cocktail weenies off a toothpick while her kids gnaw on the steak you set aside for yourself and resenting the shit out of Uncle Hank who obviously doesn’t realize that she’s just using him for his time share in Myrtle Beach? God, what an oblivious idiot.

I’m not calling you party crashers. It’s just that there’s a lot of you. And normally in June, I’d be on my deck with a cocktail and a novel, or planting some caladiums, but at the moment you guys are so loud that I just feel like listening to the hum of my air conditioner instead. They say your decibel levels rival those of a rock concert. Heh. Wow. That’s something, eh?

I know this is your life cycle, and I was all, “Yay cicadas!” a few days ago. Really, I thought you were well on your way to doing your bug-romance thing. But I’ve noticed that some of you are still crawling out of the ground. Getting a late start on your emergence. In some circles, Cicadas, we’d call that rude. Lateness is generally frowned upon.

Sometimes I wish for a good old fashioned stink bug sighting again. And that’s not your fault. I’m sure it’s my own baggage I’m dealing with. Still, if you could work with me a bit, I’d appreciate it.

Also, I don’t know how to say this delicately, but some of you are starting to stink.

Cicadas: Day 5

NOTE: I wrote this blog on May 21.

I’m not really sure how one eats crow in a public forum when one has gone to such great lengths to denigrate and castigate an entire species.

A few months ago, I composed a blog about my distaste for the impending arrival of Brood V of the periodical cicadas. I said I wished to will them out of existence, to wreak an entomological genocide and wipe their presence from the face of the West Virginia hills. Or something like that. I was all up in arms about the Biblical swarm to come and dropped several unladylike f-bombs as I railed against the cicadas.

And now, with tail tucked firmly between legs, I offer up a sincere apology. Cicadas, please, hop onto my knotted rope so that I may flagellate myself a little harder. I deserve it. Because I think you’re so damn neat.

As their emergence neared, I grew ever more nervous. Ben and I watched the nymphs closely as they meandered in their tunnels under the pavers. The weather warmed; the weather cooled. Just when I thought they might appear, they didn’t. It’s like when you’re in the dentist’s chair waiting for a root canal and you hear the dentist approach and then retreat and you sort of want him to get his ass in there and get it over with and you sort of want him to fall down a mine shaft.

Anyway, I was anxious. The nymphs grew larger, and they built cicada chimneys from which they would eventually emerge. They did this a month ahead of time, proving that periodical cicadas are nothing if not neurotic over-planners.

I think that’s when I started to crack. Boom: there was my commonality. We’re both Type A, obsessive creatures who pack our bags a month ahead of time and have an eye on our escape root the moment we enter a building.

When I caught the boys stomping nymphs and crushing them with bricks, I was appalled. I told them that the little buggars had waited 17 years for this chance and that I wouldn’t stand for cicada cruelty, pain receptors or not. (They’re arthropods, after all, and so are lobsters, and don’t you tell me that lobster isn’t screaming to get out of that pot when you boil him up.) Suddenly, it seemed so unfair to have to work for 17 years for a chance at life only to meet your grisly end under the weight of a tiny Star Wars Croc. (All the more undignified a death should it prove to be a shoe that lights up.)

And then I saw that cicada video I put in the previous blog. It’s a genius piece of artwork, with the violins and all. Somehow an insect swarm, when put to piano and moody lighting, loses the ick-factor and becomes a moving and powerful example of the miracles in nature, of evolution. When they got to the individuals with the deformed wings, I was teary. When they all died, I was inconsolable. In fact, I dare anyone to watch that video and not be moved.

Cicadas, I love you guys.

Wherein the writer collapses in on herself

You know what I suck at?


That and hanging up my clean clothing. Laundry itself doesn’t bother me: it’s the part where I have to take it out of the basket where it’s been sitting, clean, for two months, and put it on a hanger. Why is that so detestable? I’d seriously rather just re-wash it and start the cycle of ignoring all over again.

I digress. That’s another thing I do that sucks. I digress all the time. And now that I have no teacher reading my words, I can digress until the cows come home and nobody will say anything. They’ll just hit the arrow button and go back to Reddit. I’m going to digress myself right out of my readers.

See what I did there? I digressed for so long because I’m uncertain. My thesis is finished, my tenure in grad school almost complete. And now I’m sitting here in recovery mode, totally clueless about what to do with myself and so mentally tapped out that I haven’t any energy to figure it out. Many people have told me to take a break from writing. In fact, a writing friend told me recently that when she completed her MFA she took a step back for the better part of a year and that it was a necessary endeavor. She assured me that the words did come back eventually, and now she’s in a pretty good groove, teaching and writing and publishing.

Enter: the control freak. If God took the “O” in OCD and formed it into a gangly pile of legs and sarcasm, He’d have me. And as the human embodiment of obsession, I cannot possibly just sit back and enjoy my time off. Oh hell no. Rather than taking a few months, or as long as I need, to reflect on the last two years of very hard work and considerable learning, I’ve decided it would be far more productive to open and close my laptop forty-five times a day, start a piece, write half of it, announce to the empty room that it’s sheepshit, hit save, and shut the computer. And then go outside and blow cicada shells off the deck, where I berate myself in the overwhelming thunder of both insect and leaf-blower.

I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of behavior they treat with SSRI’s.

Timelines haunt me. I allow them to snake their way into my writerly consciousness. So-and-so wrote blabbity-blah at age whatever. (Annie Dillard, I’m looking at you.) I hardly think I’m alone in this, and the tendency goes way past writing and bleeds into my regular life, which tells me that I’m first and foremost an obsessive and that writing chose me because I’d make it such a great little servant.

But so what if I take a few months off? What’s the worst that happens?

Well, my head tells me that if I should dare to take these months off, to let my guard down and give my body and brain a little rest, that gradually I’ll stop cracking open the laptop altogether, and I’ll stop going into my tiny blue office to write. And that in itself is a slippery slope, because I have a Christmas cactus in there and there’s nothing more pathetic than a dried out Christmas cactus lying dead on the table silently asking me if it really had to die for my lack of a literary work ethic. (The aloe plant, on the other hand, seems to have a sharp tongue, and it would loudly tell me to go fuck myself and drop dead out of spite.)

Good job; get to work.

Chatham’s MFA department awarded me “Most Innovative Thesis.” It was supposed to be “Best Creative Nonfiction Thesis,” but I told so many tall tales of raccoon and cricket that I wrote myself out of that particular category. Nevertheless, it was an honor and I was stunned to receive it. So you’d imagine that in itself would inspire me to rest upon my [very small] laurels for a few weeks, but instead it only served to remind me that I was being recognized for yesterday’s work, while today’s had not yet been finished.

Come on, brain. You can’t even budge an inch, can you? You sick little ganglion freak.

So now it’s June 1, and I’m working on settling down with the blog, and I have an essay in its most raw form, and I have ideas that are reaching for paper but not finding much success. But the children don’t start camp until next week, and somehow they’ve got this idea in their heads that their mother should do fun things with them instead of holing up with a computer and a group of foul-mouthed succulents. And next week Shawn will have a painful back procedure and Andy will have his tonsillectomy, and if the stars align properly, I’ll be driving down to Ripley for my favorite writerly event of them all: the West Virginia Writers’ Conference. The universe is making it difficult for me to focus on writing. God knows I hate taking a cue from the universe, but I may have little choice in the matter for the moment. I’m pretty sure I’m being not-so-subtly guided, but unless I receive a certified letter from Destiny advising me to put myself on hiatus, I can’t be sure.

With that, I leave to water the spider plant before it develops abandonment issues.

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.

Yesterday’s Blog

Already I’ve fallen off the wagon on my 30-day blog-a-thon. I’m going to try to double up today, but it’ll be difficult. We’ve got a road trip planned. Perhaps I can allow room for one day away from the blog each week. During grad school I always gave myself a day off.

That’s not true, actually. When I realized, suddenly in November, that I only had six months left to write the thesis, I panicked. It sounds utterly ridiculous, doesn’t it? Six months and you panicked? You freak of nature. I know. And I am a freak of nature. But recall, if you’ll permit me some slack, that I have OCD (without the C) and an anxiety disorder, and those voices are far louder than those of reason.

But at the same time, I don’t think I can possibly be the only thesis-writer to have sat up on Thankgiving night and said, “Holy shit, I have to turn this thing in six months from now! I’ll never get it done.” When I started the thesis in early August on my own, before the semester had started, I felt like I had plenty of time. The better part of a year. And it was only required to be 125 pages, and I had one solid essay written and chunks of others that would eventually morph into thesis components. But once I started assembling these bits, and writing more bits, word by agonizing word, I realized why it takes people years to write a book.

Writing is hard. It’s tedious. And there are many, many days when the words just aren’t coming. Now, in “real” life, when you’re writing a book on your own terms, you can say, “Eh, today’s not my day,” and piddle around or just abandon the effort altogether. It doesn’t make for writerly discipline, of course. It’s frowned upon by uber-hard workers and the super prolific. And I can make the argument that even if you’re writing garbage, at least you’re writing, and that from the pile of crap you produce you may just dig up a diamond. (By that I mean a single decent sentence out of 4 shitty pages, or a salient idea worth pursuing.) In school, however, there’s a deadline. You’ve got to write. If you write crap today, you damn well better not write crap tomorrow, because there are only so many tomorrows in a semester. The point is to get it done, and to do so largely on your own. Nobody pushes you in grad school; they just expect results on the appointed date.

One of the most valuable things I learned about myself in the last two years is that I function really well with a deadline. I’d never have thought that about myself, but it turns out that when I have no expectations placed upon me, I just fart around and dally in the daffodils and dream half-assed writer dreams that never come to fruition. This is possibly the most important thing I could have learned about myself with regards to a future career. I will never get anything done unless someone is expecting work by a certain date. Doesn’t matter who. I just need a date by which a piece of writing must be ready, and then I’ll be efficient and studious and hard-working. I need a second entity in my writing life, someone who’s waiting for me to write. I alone am not enough to push myself to success.

That seems kind of wimpy, kind of weak. Perhaps, but it’s what I know to be true. It’s how and who I am. And I’m so glad I learned it.

When I realized I only had six months, I panicked. And I think plenty of thesis students have done this. Writing a book-length work in under a year is impossible, really. No thesis is book-ready. I could edit and rewrite mine for another year, and I fully expect to, for more than a year. And sadly, the manuscript will no longer be the laser focus of my existence. (Damn kids, always needing food.) It’ll be a side project, one that gets my attention when I have time, when the stars align properly. That’s a huge bummer, and a huge relief. The thesis and I need some time away from each other. I’m happy to devote myself to the pieces individually, but as a whole, it’s starting to feel like a houseguest that won’t leave and has been feeding my dogs table scraps and teaching my kids obscene gestures.

With that said, I’ll cut this blog shorter than I’d like to (I can do that because nobody is reading it or checking it or expecting it) and go rouse my menfolk. We have moutains to find today!

17-Year Horrors

We’re about to undergo an event here in West Virginia. It’s a miracle of nature that happens only once per generation, a much-studied, much-anticipated entymological occurrence that makes the news and water-cooler conversations: the arrival of the periodical cicadas, a.k.a. the 17-year-locusts.

They aren’t locusts, technically. We refer to them as such out of habit around here. But these are cicadas, the same insects that arrive in August to drone on for a month. The regular summer bugs are what’s known as the “dog day cicadas”; what’s about to arise from the ground after 17 years of underground dwelling are the periodical cicadas. They come in 17- and 13-year versions and they spend their lives under the earth, chewing on tree roots and undergoing various metamorphoses, from what I’ve read. Then, when the 17th spring has arrived and the soil reaches 64 degrees, they all emerge in one giant horde, a display of the awesome power of nature and the wonder of evolution.

And it’s fucking disgusting.

I dread this emergence with every fiber of my being. In fact, I dread it so much that I’ve actually begun to concentrate my dread within my third eye in the hopes that if I resist their arrival with enough vehemence I may actually will it not to happen. And in so doing I will spare West Virginians the agony of Brood V’s wretched swarming.

It’s hard to consider myself a nature writer and admit that I despise the cicadas. I feel as though I really do my part to educate my kids when it comes to the creepy-crawlies. Every year Ben enjoys the arrival of the tent caterpillars (he calls them bagworms). We break open their nests and hundreds of squirming bodies plop out onto the ground. And I let them crawl on my arms so he can see that nature is not to be feared or choked down with a shiver and a gag. (This lesson wouldn’t apply if we lived in rattlesnake country, would it?) We also spend lots of time fondling earthworms and kissing crappie when we catch them. We dig up Florida Fighting Conch down at the condo in Fort Myers Beach, and poke at their slimy, tongue-like feet.

I don’t think that nature is gross at all. It’s miraculous. It’s nifty.

But not these fucking cicadas.

I was three when they first appeared, and I have no memory at all of the experience. My parents say it was eerie: as Dad walked his dog in the evening he became aware, suddenly, that they were all coming out of the ground, and millions of red eyes watched him. They rose like the dead in unbelievable numbers, discarding their shells as they did so at the base of every tree in piles ten inches thick. Mom recalls how they screamed all day, so loud that conversations were drowned out, and she specifically remembers the cicadas clinging to her shirt and sitting on her shoulder, singing their love songs in her ear.

I do not want this to happen. I do not want a song crooned in my ear. Especially not a cicada booty call.

They returned again in 1999, and as luck would have it, I did not return home from college that summer and missed the periodical cicadas entirely. The stories from that year are bland and uneventful; for whatever reason the bugs were not as intense as they had been 17 years prior. Nobody I’ve talked to can recall anything striking or significant.

In 2013, we saw what scientists call “stragglers.” These are cicadas that, for whatever reason, emerge 4 years too early or 4 years too late. There were a handful in the yard, just enough for the boys to gather and organize a cicada circus. I recall the red eyes. Dog day cicadas lack the red eyes and for that I am thankful. Demon bugs belong down in hell.

Yesterday we had some leaf-rakers tend to our yard. Over the long, cold months, the leaves tend to get caught in the gardeny places, between boxwoods and lilacs and under the hemlocks. When the guys raked clean the bare soil, I saw that it was pock-marked with holes, a tell-tale sign that cicadas are here. And when Benjamin lifted a rock, there they were.

They’re not yet ready to officially emerge. Still in their nymphal stage, they’re just below the surface, tunneling around like ants in an ant farm. Each rock and flagstone and flower pot we lifted had cicadas under it, burrowing. Ben poked at every single one of them, trying to decide whether they were fascinating or repellant. I tried my best to imply that they are fascinating. I even picked up a nymph and let it crawl upon my hand.

But I hate them. They’re going to cling to me. And rrrrrraaaaaiiiiirrrr in my ear.

Surely this is an evolutionary reaction. Somewhere in my genetic memory lies the recollection of an Egyptian plague, and the subsequent biblical trauma that ensued. It was a rough time. First, we were enslaved for 400 years. Then a plague of locusts started a big-ass coup, and everybody ended up wandering the desert for forty years. There were sunburns and lechery and a golden cow, and it really sucked.

I think I’m on to something, here.

Anyway, the El Niño has brought a warm spring and an early spring. And the bugs are awake and raring to go. Every day I wake up and wonder if they’ll be out, and I stare out at my baby redbud tree knowing I have to cover its new growth to protect it from the egg-laying females who will deposit their icky little spawn in the branches and damage them.

And so, I wait.