Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mud Season

It is Mud Season in Oregon.

Mud Season in New England arrives at about the same time, but it is triggered by the thawing of the winter earth and is a sign of both near spring AND maple sugaring. Robert Frost wrote a poem about “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” moving from a comment on the changeability of the weather to a meditation on doing meaningful work that I have always loved. Mud Season is beautiful in New Hampshire. (maybe I’m being nostalgic here…)

Mud Season in Oregon is a totally different experience. After dealing with long slow rains from November through February, the ground is saturated. Then, in March, we have teaser days of sun, followed by days like today—downpour, sun, downpour, sun, downpour, sun, and maybe some hail. The packed clay soil just cannot take any more moisture, and it rebels. Water seeps into the basement from the cracks in the floor. The entire house shifts and doors will not shut and windows will not open. The bathroom curtain never dries out. Mildew blooms on the bedroom window frame. AND the entire yard turns into a mud pie. I went out barefoot a few days ago and my toes sank into the ground, covered. The path to the back yard has disappeared, eaten by the mud. The ladies stand on the doorstep of the coop and talk about the water that surrounds the garden beds and how they what to visit the compost, but the mud and the water and… it is just too much for a chicken to bear, so they go back inside and refuse to lay eggs. This year it was made worse by having a yard and a half of fertile mix delivered during a sun break and then the next day, having two guys come out to insulate the walls. They tromped around the house all day, turning grass into mud. It is awful.

It would be okay, I think, if it stayed outside, but it doesn’t. There are five or six pairs of shoes gathered by the doors, covered in mud. Shoe prints throughout the house. The cats go out reluctantly and dash back in when the downpours begin. They track in grey mud that turns to dust from the dining room, through the back hall, across the kitchen, along the brick fireplace, and into the bedroom, where they proceed to knead Mark’s pillow before washing their feet. Then, bored, they tear through the house, rumpusing around, over and around the couch, fur flying. We are all losing patience with the rain. We all want to go out, to sit in the sun, hunt for Fawn Lilies, which should be blooming by now but aren’t, to dig through soil and plant seeds or eat bugs, and then come home with clean feet. It will be a while….

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay

And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bless the Beasts and the Children

It’s been a long school year so far. I feel like the teachers are all waving their arms yelling “Stop! Bad Idea! Let’s talk this out before we jump into (whatever the new fad may be)” and administration, from our vice principal on up to the president of the United States, is listening to business men who have never stepped foot into a classroom since they graduated high school, never mind taught school for 30 years. But then, there are moments in my classroom when all of that falls away and we are focused and a light bulb goes on over one head, then another, then another—and I know why I love my job…

We’ve been reading Bless the Beasts and the Children in Freshperson English for the last week. It’s a crowd pleaser; I love it. It’s an obscure book from 1971, complete with references to Freud, repression, Vietnam, and beaded headbands. But it is also a classic story of a bunch of misfit boys trying to find themselves, save something they love, and becoming adults at the same time. It has great vocabulary—where else do you find the words caravansary, curio, and motley (yes, we talked about the band when that one came up..) in one book? The plot is complex in that it incorporates a series of flashbacks to previous events and the boy’s earlier history, and it does a great job of building suspense. You know they are on a mission to rescue something, but not what until chapter 12. And there was blood on their hands at the end of chapter 11, so we’re all curious.

I traditionally read chapter 12 aloud. The timeline of the book, including flashbacks, is on the board behind me and there is a gap to be filled.
“so,” I ask, “what just happened?”
“Wait,” Adam calls out. “I’m confused.” General confusion reigns.
“It’s 11 AM, same day as they left camp at 11 PM,” I fill in a blank on the timeline.
Ohhhhh,” Nancy shouts. “It’s a flashback in a flashback!”
“Now I’m really confused,” Adam sighs.
“Just think, this is why they left—to rescue…” Diana adds.
“Ohhh,” comes from Diego in the back off the room. “I get it. This was Cotton’s dream. It’s not horses.”
“It’s buffalo!”
“That’s why they have the head.”
“So, why are buffalo important?” I ask. It’s the key to the entire story.
“They are the Wild West!” Christina chimes in.
“Like cowboys—with horses and a rifle.”
“I get it!” echoes around the room. Even the girl who has not checked out the book and has been glaring at me for weeks is swept up in the moment and looks a little sad that she does not get it, because she’s only read fifty words in the story. The class comes together in a wave of intellectual pleasure, which my Latin teacher always claimed was the best.
“I like this book,” an non-reader announces as the bell rings and they leave for the weekend. Someone else agrees.
Another notch in the belt for Bless the Beasts and the Children and a reminder to me about why I teach high school—especially ninth grade.