on learning/teaching and vulnerability

IMG_7355While watching a small black kitten socialize a grumpy old orange cat a few days ago—on a break from preparing my course materials for fall—I began to ponder the uneasy interactions between learning and teaching and the vulnerability that must underlie both if either is to be a success in common (or mossicakesuncommon) hours.

The old orange cat, of course, is neither all that old nor in need of socialization. Per him, I am quite sure, this new once-lost kitty is a pain in the neck and other places, she’s the wrong color and wrong size and too busy by far, and the humans of the household clearly need their empty-but-for-rocks heads examined for rescuing her from a wheel well, toffing her up with fine milk and seductive IMG_7342homebaked treats and a shocking pile of storebought toys donated by generous neighbors, and then bringing her knock-kneed prissy little self home to bat at the end of his tail or chew on the tops of his ears or simply hop over him one way and then back the other four times in one row when he is trying his deadlevel best to get in his IMG_7233needed 22 hours of daily Zzs.

Orange cat thinks black kitty is trouble on four feet minus one boatload of good sense. Black kitty thinks orange cat is odd, long, and rangy, and possibly doesn’t mean what he says either (since the growls don’t match that come-hither switching tail when black kitty goes off to play with somebody else or her toys or nothing and nobody at all), and besides, maybe it’s way past high time he learns how to be in the world that will soon be run entirely by black kittens who know how it should go. “This learning equals teaching thing is bunk,” the kitty sometimes seems to protest (as so many students/teachers do), “for I know what needs to happen right now and he doesn’t.”

I have no new answers to the razor thin fences between these twinned practices of teaching and learning, but my questions have multiplied, fierce in their unending layers, and are thoroughly unwilling to lie down and play nice so I can make quick work of my syllabi prep. Lest any complaint be assumed in there, trust me on this: I do not wish to lay hold on shortcuts. I do not want comfort or any shred of confidence to mark my choices about what I ask students to do. I do not seek an end to my questions. Up until quite recently, though, I did want all that and more. Every time I prepped a course, I wanted to make it better, using the answers from last time to avoid any missteps again. Now, thanks in no small part to what I’ve learned from three stray felines, I know a little better and want a little less.

Old orange cat did not show up at our house alone. He came with his sister three years and eight months ago, both traumatized from having been tossed outside after the cute stage wore off and having to fend for themselves for too many weeks in a cold winter against local coyotes and bobcats and bad weather.

IMG_1746They were scrawny and skittish on arrival, and kept carefully to their new plush, warm bed, high above the microform reader in my office,  eying our dogs and chickens and goats warily and venturing out almost not at all. The dogs, of course, knew the house rules where anything breathing (and not!) was concerned and were no threat. They watched from the doorway, polite and gentle, until the newcomers indicated a wish to approach. Cupcakes and Le Girl (named thus by the four-year-old child whose parents could no longer abide cats indoors) soon figured this out, settled in, and became full, willing members of our pack. We were better than coyotes or bobcats or high-desert snows, I suppose. We certainly all tried to be.

IMG_1902 IMG_1737From the outset they were both a bit clumsy, cobbled-together kittens and Girl especially so, her back feet never quite following her front so well as she planned in her jumps. Often as not, she’d miss whatever she was aiming for and turn out nearby and askew, much more hannah- than cat-like in her efforts. This was no particular cause for concern. Sometimes it was even funny. She walked like me, just fine and even graceful out-of-doors but with a penchant for strolling into solid things at high speed in the house. But she and her brother were healthy and soon at normal weight. Into everything, they were each other’s shadows, traipsing about the place like natives born to it, and never far from us.

IMG_1856 IMG_1851Then, a few months on—come to think of it, not too long after our female pet turkey Jukes took an abrupt and keen dislike to her brother Waylon one morning and went at him like a street preacher in a come-to-Jesus meeting in which she clearly intended to land Waylon at the pearly gates first, and she would’ve succeeded, too, had I not intervened and built separate residences for the pair—Le Girl had a sudden flash of a similar row with Cupcakes, and the two fussed and spat and took to opposite sides of every room they entered for three weeks running. No cuddling in the bathroom sink or middle of the bed or one on either side of the same human. No sharing treats nicely. It was knockdown dragout every time a tail switched or a hair moved and, let me assure you, that was often.

Nobody was more confused about all this than me, for, as it turns out, I know very little about cats, but Cupcakes came in a close second. His little ghost twin suddenly did not like him, and he mooned about after her like a teenager after a first love, following her everywhere and yowling for her to play, bringing their catnip toys and dropping them nearby to lure her into one of their favorite games, waiting patiently beside his food bowl for her to come sample his kibble: all to no avail.

IMG_1812IMG_1814For three weeks she would have nothing to do with him. She could be in mid-nap and if his feet touched the sofa, she would leave it. If she was headed for their favorite chair and noticed him already there? She’d hurry the other direction. On the few occasions he managed to slip up beside her unnoticed? She’d deftly stand up and move away. Cupcakes was openly lonely, vulnerable, and sad, and Le Girl, for those three or so strange and discomfiting weeks, was not. They eventually got to where they could be in the same room without a spat, but she was a different cat: she wanted her own space, to look at squirrels and birds through a window without him at her shoulder; to eat without company; to sleep without him taking up space on either side.

IMG_2141Cupcakes finally accepted her rules, but he seemed sadder, quieter, and he slowly turned more to us humans and complained less at her. Every now and then I’d catch him watching her with a quizzical look on his face, as if to say, “When did the world change and you turn out like this?” He would still follow her around, but from a long distance. She allowed this, and they built a new normal. And then it happened.

One night on the back patio, Le Girl took her last wobbly leap. Startled by something in the dark, I know not what for sure (but found fresh bobcat tracks outside the fence the next morning), she leapt off the top of a tall trashcan to the ground and that was her last step. All four of our dogs raced to stand between her and the dark night beyond, teeth gnashing in frenzied barking at whatever was out there, while I gathered her up and hurried inside. They followed, quiet and worried. Girl was still breathing, but otherwise paralyzed. Moments later I realized Cupcakes was nowhere around. The next hours were frantic, me racing from her side to the desert outside, calling for Cakes and listening in vain for his meow. He did not show up that night or the long next day, as I took her to have her back x-rayed—hoping against hope that the problem could be found and fixed—and then sat weeping and trying not to weep (for her sake) beside her for the long hours until our next-door neighbor (and vet) came home from work to bring the healing injection that would end her pain and life for good . . . and open an unhealable gash in ours.

There are no good words for goodbye, but I put her on my pillow for a couple hours that afternoon and let her lie in my hair (favorite previous spot for a nap) and tried to say in my heart all the lovely things I knew because of her so she could know deep in her now still bones what she had meant to us—as if cats might actually care about such small and unmemorable matters. I did reiki over her small frozen body in hopes of easing any pain and set aside my doubts about meaning in the afterlife to make a vow that, “If there’s ever any way to come alongside you beyond here, I will surely look you up soon and, until I catch up, you should check out our crew, for a small slew of us are already there.” When losing a loved one for good, there is no end to how vulnerable a human can be, it seems. And then the vet came with the syringe and the kindness to refuse payment and an explanation of what he thought had happened to her back (a congenital defect of the spine, which had likely rendered her clumsy and thus always susceptible to one severing fall), and I held her sobbing while her breath left that tiny ghostly body for good. It took me some dark hours into the night to get her grave shoveled out and her laid deep into it, wrapped in my softest t-shirt, and then covered over with the yearning earth and ringed with cholla cactus balls all about (predator proof), and I called and walked and looked for Cupcakes for the rest of that night and the next two days and nights, to utterly no avail.

Suddenly one morning I heard him, outside the fence, high in the pine tree by my window, and I tore out of the house and crawled partly up that tree as clumsily as Girl ever could have, and brought her brother down. Since then he has been sad a lot and sleeps way too much and, having gone entirely without water for more than three days and survived, cannot now seem to get enough fresh, running water. He loves us and spends time with us, yes. He is affectionate and talkative and occasionally even plays with the dogs. But he is sad inside and he does what he must, but mostly he just sleeps.

IMG_4286And sleeps and sleeps and sleeps.

IMG_7035 IMG_6977 IMG_6694And sleeps and wakes and then sleeps some more.

IMG_6977 IMG_6552 IMG_5863No one has more sleeping poses than this big old orange, lonely-for-his-sister cat. He sleeps upside down, backwards, curled up in a backwards ball, and falling off sofas and chairs.

IMG_6506 IMG_6270 IMG_6988 IMG_6963He sleeps on any horizontal surface—piano, bed, shower, yard, or lap—and only rouses for food, water from a tap, hugs and a nap next to mom or dad, and relieving himself. He sleeps in boxes, under quilts, in windowsills, and on laundry (preferably clean and folded).

IMG_6949 IMG_6568 IMG_5834 IMG_5817 IMG_4381IMG_2143He likes to be outdoors with us when it’s feeding time for the crew, yes, but if a coyote yips miles away, he hits the tin roof of my writing shed (12 feet off the ground) in nothing flat, and when I finally coax him down again, he heads into the house and sleeps and sleeps and sleeps some more.

IMG_6960“You need a kitten,” I said to him a year ago, genuinely worried about what all this sadness and sleeping would do to his health.

But no kitten presented itself and, to be frank, I didn’t want Cupcakes to go through another rejection. He’s met two grown cats since his sister died and hated them both with an easy roaring passion, too, so there was always a chance that he would be the one doing any rejecting.

So sleeping big old orange cat carried on with his indolent self.

988600_10200814401874149_1684398672_nUntil the day this summer when dad found a little black kitty stowed away in the wheel well of a neighbor’s car in Wisconsin and brought her home. And, well, you know the rest of that story almost as well as I do now. Mossi (little black Wonder kitty) and Cupcakes (big old orange grumpy cat) are beginning to reach an agreement of how things will be for their lives here. She’ll wake him up for no reason and sometimes no rhyme. He’ll grumble at her but switch his tail to get her attention when she wanders off to play by herself. She’ll pat both sides of his face (from above or below) with soft kitty feet and chew on an ear or two when he lets her. He’ll fall asleep with her wound up in his fur or, preferably still (but not by much), stretched out next to him in fine imitation of the big orange cat. They are both vulnerable to the other, learning and teaching alongside—not just about the great big world and all its tiny filled corners, but about the spaces in their souls that could stand some filling just about now.

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IMG_7723And when I watch them, I rest easier on my teaching prep (I do not stand down, but I do rest easier). For I remember all my teachers, animal and human alike, and so many of the little quirks that made each one so unique and so memorable, and I think that, of all the great reasons to have teachers in the first place, the very first just must be precisely this lesson that I re-learned from Cupcakes and Le Girl. That every one of the best teachers I’ve ever had was as different from each other or me as the rivers are from the sea, and that—even when our edges eddied into one another for a string of moments in time and purpose—they and I, too, were already headed out for blue or green water, no telling which or when or for how long or how gone. And, notwithstanding that great standing wave o’er our heads? Still they all had one thing in common with me, and they owned that, made it clear—in their own individual ways—every day.

They were still learning, you see, still opening themselves to the fullness of this thing we call existence, this parenthesis of breathing in time we call life. They were vulnerable and honest enough to own their shortcomings and failings right alongside their strengths and passions, and that gave me the courage to be vulnerable and honest, too, and although all our paths have diverged long since—as teacher and student paths must do, if any of us are to answer our callings while here—from them I learned the lessons Le Girl taught her brother, and he and Mossi teach me. Nobody knows anything but how to walk the path at her/his feet on any given day.

We none of us are getting out of this gig—this ‘sexually transmitted terminal disease’ we call life—alive. We must make of it what burns in our soul, no other, every day, and, while we may well grieve (and sleep and weep and sleep) on every step forward, we must also remember to show up for lessons when it’s our time to be grumpy and orange and old and switching the end of that tail when our ear tips aren’t being chewed down or our cheeks swatted on by soft little paws. Stray black kittens do show up—they reliably show up, in all sorts of forms (some human, some not)—to put us back in school, to show us what we don’t yet know and aren’t sure how to find on our own. There are no shortcuts to be had through the pain of realizing that yesterday’s wisdom is today’s chopped liver, and to work in the world means you open up to that achingly vulnerable, unpredictable space where you either learn something else every new day or you quit. Like Le Girl, the little ghost kitty who stopped a while with us; like her brother, Cupcakes, who misses her as much today as he did on the day she grew into herself and even more on the day I had to lay her deep within desert sand and cacti; like Mossi, who along with a goodly number of my human teachers regularly makes it clear that I have an enormous amount of basic lessons left to learn: I believe I’ll lead with my chin and leave the quitting to the grave. For that will surely come soon enough on its own.

In memory of Le Girl, for her brother Cupcakes and us.

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on blogs and being while here

cropped-img_1168.jpgIn the reliable hurdy gurdy that life has now become, the idea of beginning a blog still unsettles me. First off, let me admit to some befuddlement. I am not sure what the word “blog” is supposed to mean.

For me the word “blog”—say it slow, as a southerner would, with at least two or three syllables involved, and listen—has always and only conjured up a single vivid image of blundering pell-mell through the woods, tripping over a stump, and regurgitating supper on my short trip to the ground. I have done this in real life more than once, racing through thigh-high brambles in knee-length skirts and bare feet, trying to beat the rain home, clearing the creek just fine and easily vaulting several trees downed by Hurricane Camille long enough ago that the moss had o’ertaken them and made for easy tripping. Agility from long practice overweens the brain, though, and the body can’t always follow suit, for (of course!) then there was that one buried stump, no victim of a storm, only humans in need of a tree for a holiday and then kindling for the fires of a winter just ahead—and, on that summer day, well behind—me.

That stump hadn’t yet had time to go under moss. It hadn’t yet had time to fold beneath the weight of the dripping ferns crowding close now that the spreading tree was gone. It was just there, being itself, close to the ground with no plans to rise and, most assuredly, I think now (but not then), no plan for upending a small child bent on outrunning the storm. I can still taste the soggy rotted leaves as I plowed, face first, into them. I can still hear the thunder and the patter of heavy raindrops on the leaves above. I can still remember trying to get attentive quick to what else might be on the ground with me: the big water moccasin that slipped into the creek earlier on my way through? the cottonmouth that lay concealed in an old logging rut until eight kids and three adults had passed jauntily by, before my father—bringing up the end of the line with a slingblade and a gunny sack for the muscadines we were off to pick—asked us to turn around and look at just how little attention we were paying to what was in the water-sogged ruts on either side of our feet? the baby turtles I’d hauled off the road earlier in the week? As usual, the dangers got first glance, but what earthly sense would it have made to rescue two teensy turtles one day and then fall on and smash them the next?

Minds carry moments like these for eternity, it seems. The word “blog” unexpectedly brings it all back. And it stumps me, has done now for four years, ever since I was first asked to write a “blog.”

Secondly, with a few notable—and deeply welcome—exceptions, I don’t really read blogs, so I don’t exactly understand the genre. It seems a cross between diary entries and magazine or newspaper articles, none of which comfort or sustain me for long. There is nothing wrong per se with these expressions. Each is worthy and needed and very giving, all told. But I am a lifelong devotee of the book—pages between covers of any type qualify as worth checking out—and no other genre quite suffices. I owe this to my mother, who read to me from as long as I can remember, and to her church, which claimed a direct line to the Almighty Himself and thus gave me more reasons for learning to read a book for myself than any institution before or since has done.

Books are my co-conspirators in life, they gin up the stakes on whatever human-jerryrigged nonsense is afoot, and I find in them steady reasons to go on being while here. In the books I have written, I work my way through whatever life has handed down: only afterward is the experience fully real. Or fully mine. Sometimes it takes me 20 years to get a true sentence. At other times—awakened from sound sleep in the middle of the night or stopped mid-word in a conversation—I hear a word or two and on setting that to paper find some strange and marvelous story pouring in from some place I could never control, and it flows like rivers to the sea. Since I’ve become an historian, too, my sentences are often tied to years of grubbing archives and oral histories and traditions for bits of evidence, so they are slow to emerge and not lined up well with even the rather leisurely paced clocks of formal tenure. My personal sense of timing, my inner clock, and my habits of thought, work, and wordsmithing, then, may well simply be out of step not just with the academy but with the blogosphere, where people turn out tomes or tweets every day. All significant to boot. It’s a sight on earth and more intimidating to me than most other genres I’ve taken a swing at.

Thirdly, given the extraordinarily polarized state of the world today, I don’t know how a person can blog without wading well into the fray, and I’ve been strenuously advised that any scholar and writer wishing to make a living now has to carefully craft an image that is appealing to the public (as if, of course, anyone ever alive on this earth could suss out what “the public” is or what the heck it might find appealing in advance!). This means, too, I have been told with authority by people who have some to dole out, a serious writer has to sidestep the hottest political or social topics and opt for balance (“This side says A, and that side says a”), has to avoid extremes at all costs and only gingerly take stands so as not to give the least offense. Both scholar and writer, too, I have been advised, must “brand one’s self,” must network and schmooze (chat with intent of gaining some personal advantage and social connection), must post the obligatory “head shot” (as any meat market should require), must do, in short, one’s work in ways calculated to be a “success” in the skankiest possible meanings of that word. Branding aside—I’ve just never found that appealing for either livestock or humans—to none of this can I surrender. Just cannot.

For me, raised barefoot in the piney woods of southern Mississippi and still there most days in my soul/soles, all this is fine if it feeds a person’s heart and reason for being here. I’ve no intent to judge anyone else, that’s for sure. But I also do not wish to surrender my own chance for being fully me to anyone else’s notions of what is proper or wise or even savvy. I value diversity—across every last board—so much so that I wish for everyone to do and say what they really feel they should be doing and saying. Cookie cutters, despite how appealing they seem to be these days, do fine on raw dough intended for the oven. I’ve wielded one or two in my time and been thoroughly satiated by the results. But cookie cutters also, consistently and with no little abandon, mangle human beings, do they not?

And so that brings me to the fourth(ly!) reason I mulled so long the whole matter of starting a blog. I treasure diversity. I think every person on this planet has a unique, fathomless gift for the rest of us. When I speak my truths, though, far too often some people take offense. This has become scripture and verse for the public sphere now existing in the United States, and I account myself in this reckoning. Let somebody say something we disagree with, and we unload on ’em with both verbal barrels. People like me who write can lay hot lead down in a sentence in ways that make it downright impossible to sidestep. This is a good thing, I’ve always thought (and still, to a great extent, do). But the world now is spinning faster and meaner than I remember it doing before, and words too easily become weapons with no neighborliness embedded.

To be fair, political pundits have whipped up the furies and fires amongst us so hot that it’s hard sometimes even to carry on a conversation with those we love or sleep with, much less anybody else. What’s even worse is that genuinely meanspirited and systematic efforts are afoot—namely, to destroy working people and those in poverty the world over, while handing over the global economy to the exact same giants of runaway crony capitalism that have broken everything on purpose! More than ever we need finely honed, powerful words, it seems to me. People are dying out here, people are hungry, they are homeless at levels I can scarcely fathom anymore: and some CEOs and corporations and already-bought-and-paid-for politicians are trying to make sure it all gets worse. That causes caring people to feel anger, rage even, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel it. Nor would we be humane if we didn’t express it. But the levels of condescension and demeaning afoot now—from all sides—are appalling to behold.

Don’t get me wrong: without any question, our times require fierce, even vociferous voices in public. In standing up for the kind of world we want, though, it seems to me we have to daily remember not to slip into the same condescending rhetoric that’s so common now. I struggle with this quite often. It’s especially easy to be condescending in soundbytes. But when I stop and look at the people with whom I most ferociously disagree—when I really stop and look at them and ponder what on earth they’ve gone through to make them think, act, and speak as they are doing—I know that they, too, have fears and values and must believe on some level that what they are doing makes sense. Somehow I have to find a way to voice strong objections to the most hurtful of their actions while remembering that they, too, are humans with gifts for us now.

Blogs, it seems to me, have reached a point where they genuinely do break down barriers of soul and spirit—the carefully cobbled walls we put around our hearts and experiences to get through each day—for there is something about tripping over hidden stumps and falling headlong into wet tree duff that is amazingly, wonderfully life-affirming. There was no water moccasin staring me down on that long-ago wet afternoon, no cottonmouth with fangs capable of latching onto my hide (good thing, since my father’s slingblade and the man himself was lord only knows where just then). There wasn’t even that much moss or leaves to be spat out with the blackberry cobbler I’d just downed on my grandmother’s porch. There were no tiny rescued turtles (likely quite horrified at having been taken so far off their own life paths, and so abruptly to boot!) to be squashed in my tumble. There were only the woods that—wet or dry or any of the possibilities between and beyond—taught me without fail the kind of lessons no books could ever teach. I still think the woods or deserts of the world are my best teachers, but of late I’ve come also to find some succor in blogs, the heartsongs of somebody else, being while here. And so, much as I have done with all writing, I’ve written myself through this matter far enough that I can finally step off into the stream.

Thanks for reading, thanks for being here, thanks for everything that you—friend, acquaintance, or stranger—do every day to make this a kinder, more just and compassionate world for all beings. We are neighbors on this planet, and better off for it, I believe, particularly on those days when we’re flat on our faces in damp leaves and mud. I’ll mull on eclectic topics in this space, honoring my life and others rather than sticking to one particular theme, and I hope you’ll feel free to engage in conversations here or to tell stories or add links to your own blogs where you’re carrying on these or other discussions. I welcome your comments and musings and will respond to as many as I can.

It is a true joy, in this journey we call life, to understand that sometimes we, in fact, do not walk—or even run pell-mell through damp woods aiming for the next hidden stump—alone. Blogs, I believe, may help us remember that better. Welcome to this one!