Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Spring is in the air (finally!)

My bleeding hearts have resuscitated and might even sprout one or two tiny hanging blood-red hearts to my silly delight.

Still, the cruelty of this winter is apparent in our crab apple tree, which by this time last year had flowered so majestically that we didn't tire of taking picture after picture after picture. The flowers, this year, are small and they barely cover the tree, unlike last year. Back then, the tree looked like a bouquet of bright white wedding-perfect flowers. This year, the tree is almost bare. But it does have flowers. And they are still pretty and smell good. So they will do.

There's no doubt that spring is finally stirring everywhere, from the curling-lipped tulips and the late-sprouting daffodils, to the blood-red cardinals chasing each other across our yard to the sun-bright male Gold finches doing likewise in the front of the house. It must be mating time in the bird world because the males are a lot more contentious than usual. The male sparrows continually push and shove each other out of the feeder and, when they fall off, they fluff themselves, trying to make themselves bigger than they are. It's rather funny, actually.

Have you ever seen cardinals face off? They do so like cats, lowering their crests, like cats do their pointy ears, and crouching, like cats do when getting ready to pounce. Once I had to shoo two fighting cardinals off the middle of the street, where they were likely to be flattened by one of the many idiot drivers who speed through our quiet alleyways. They wouldn't have time to notice the two jewel-red birds getting ready to rumble.

We've even had our first thunderstorm last night, with lighting hissing and crackling so near that the glass windows rattled with each guttural growl of thunder, like a large monster was trying to get into the house by pushing itself against our windows. I don't like thunderstorms. Something in my reptilian brain, that brain that harks back to our lizard days, cringes and cowers each and every time. My more advanced brain knows there is no reason to be afraid but tell that to my lizard gray matter. It doesn't listen to me.

That's despite the best efforts of my father, who would bring us all together during spring and summer thunderstorms to sit in front of the large sliding glass door in the study so we could watch the storm unfold. His thinking was that watching the lighting paint patterns in the sky would make us less afraid. And while I'd much rather watch storms than feel them, I'm still scared to the bone. Sometimes I think I'm more scared than Rusty, who once tried to paw himself through a wall in our closed bedroom during a particularly violent storm a few years ago.

But thunderstorms are a sign of warmer weather. So they will do (as long as they don't turn into deadly tornadoes, of course).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Today, I will remember

I will remember today because it has been a perfect day.

It began, most importantly, with sun and warmth. I think I've developed seasonal affective disorder because it only takes a little bit of gray to bring the corners of my mouth down but a sunny day will make me grin like a fool.

Then there were the good news from the vet: Geni, who has a penchant for developing tumors, doesn't have cancer. The little warrior dog survived two harrowing cancer surgeries this summer that were very hard on her and harder still on me, who am a wienie when it comes to animal suffering (surprise, surprise). She does have to go on a strict diet, though, because she's put on a whole three pounds, weighing in at a porker-ish 45 lbs. I'm sure the episode when Darwin helped her get to Rusty's duck treats and she ate the whole 1 lb. bag did not help.

Rusty, who came along just for the ride (my husband's idea), managed to bite the vet's assistant (earning us a "Beware!" sign on the door of the clinic and the vet's slightly tight-lipped suggestion that we needed to Prozac Rusty even when he was coming for the ride) and almost bit the hand off a woman who insisted on wanting to pet him even after we told her he was not friendly. She finally desisted from her rather suicidal friendly overtures after she realized Rusty did mean to sever her hand, if she insisted. (sigh)

Then my husband and I took our first motorcycle trip of the year and had a lovely ride. We went to our favorite little restaurant in the Hocking Hills for lunch and passed llama, sheep, cow, steer and horse farms along the way. Our friend (well, he doesn't know he's our friend but we always look out for him), the Amish farmer, was out with his team of two large horses getting ready to do the old-fashioned way what all the non-Amish farmers were doing today with their tractors: tilling the soil, getting it ready for planting.

We had a great meal, complete with lemon meringue pie for me and blueberry for him, and the pleasant surprise of friends, who on their own motorcycle excursion, saw my husband's bike and stopped by to say hello. Then we set off into the afternoon sun on our way back home.

That's when my husband had a stroke of inspiration and took a detour to a natural reserve that was our favorite when we used to live in the suburbs. We arrived and were treated to the sight of a Cooper's hawk, sitting tranquilly if eyeing us warily but without alarm, on a low tree branch. She didn't move, following us with her telescopic eyes as we walked past her, hoping she wouldn't fly away so we could get a good look at her. She didn't, and we did. We also saw robins and red-winged black birds and white-crowned sparrows and geese and ducks and fish that flew out of the water to catch some clueless insect buzzing by a bit too close to the surface.

Then we came back home and the church bells have tolled the hour and now it's time to walk the dogs. Like I said, a perfect day. Thanks be to God.

Those who can, teach

That phrase has been with me since I was a child but I can't remember where I first saw it or why. I think it was on a poster my teacher parents had and I remember pondering why the comma was where it was and how the meaning of the phrase would change, if the comma was placed elsewhere or taken out altogether.

Those, who can teach. Those, who can, teach. Those who can, teach. Those who can teach.

I remember spending a good amount of time trying to figure out the different meanings and playing around with the comma and the words. Now, those mental exercises seem a clear foreshadowing of what I've dedicated my life to doing: teaching about the power of words and the power of language. Teaching about how literature illuminates and reveals life.

I had an epiphany recently while talking to someone else about my teaching. As I articulated the reasons why it is so apparent that I am in love with the experience of teaching, I discovered that the reason I love teaching at the college level so much is that I had sorely missed those endless discussions late into the night about everything and anything, which my college experience was filled with.

I discovered, as I grew older and my life veered into so many different paths away from the classroom, that those days of discussing life and books and movies and politics like your life depended on it, gave way to the real world of duties and work and little unoccupied time to spend waxing intellectual. College is a privileged time, indeed. Only I wasn't aware then of how very privileged.

Now, teaching at a top small liberal arts college where most of my students come ready to rumble and are eager to engage in those conversations about life and books and movies and politics like their lives depended on it, I'm in my own personal heaven. I get to initiate and participate in those discussions for a living and I get paid for it (a lot less than teaching should be worth, granted, but I'm not in this for the money). There can be no greater privilege for me.

That's why almost each and every time I walk out of my classroom I do so with a big grin on my face and the feeling that I've thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual grapplings we've had together as a class. I learn as much as they do about the texts, about who my students are as people and as sentient beings, about the world the literature illuminates and how, about myself as a person and a teacher.

I am a teacher. I am among those who can teach. There is no greater privilege for me.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Open windows

I can feel the house sighing contentedly because I've opened some of the windows in the expectation that the temperatures will near 70 today.

Magellan, showing her true Puerto Rican colors, is sun bathing in the largest patch of bright yellow sunlight streaming through an eastern window.

Darwin is marauding, looking for a way to get into trouble. He already got a reprimand from Rusty, who gets more gray around the muzzle and more ornery by the day. Rusty also is sun worshiping downstairs.

Geni is already taking a nap in the mud room after our walk this morning.

The windows are open, the sun is mounting and taking the chill off the air of this most-March-like of Aprils, and the birds are making sure I and everyone else knows the spring must come, come what may.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Rain in these gray parts conjures melancholy with as much success as witches at a cauldron conjure dancing devils.

The tentative pat pat pat on the windows, the bone-chilling cold outside that seeps through every crevice, trying to overtake the warmth inside, is sadness personified.

This isn't the rain of my tropical landscapes, those fat pebble-sized drops that bang on zinc roofs, like the wild percussionist in a rock band, hitting the oversize green plantain leaves like a volley of transparent golf balls.

That rain falls in plain sunlight to signal that the brujas se están casando. On my Caribbean island, the rain drops form a traveling curtain that hits you one moment and passes through you and is gone in another. The witches, they say, get married when the sun is out and it's raining. Perhaps that's why it rained a little on my wedding day, just as my father and I started walking down the amapola-flanked "aisle" toward the cabaña at the beach where the ceremony was held in Guánica.

Just like there is a sun in the Midwest and a Sun in the Caribbean, there is the rain in these parts and then there is a tropical rain. The one in my life up here is mostly a melancholy rain, one that brings with it the murmurings of sad memories. The one of my life down there is a lively rain, one that laughs with you as you get drenched in celebration.

My father always had a trick against the rain. Anytime he got rained on, he'd take the comb out of his pocket and run it through his dark hair. His theory was that the body wouldn't know the difference between that and a shower if he did exactly what he did after showering, which was to comb his hair. This trick he has credited for years for never getting colds after getting soaked in a rain shower.

My mother, on the other hand, has never been a friend to rain. In her family, her grandfather died after a particular virulent rain (complicated by malaria, it turns out). Thus, getting rained on to her is akin to summoning Death.

My husband, good West Virginia country boy that he is, scoffs at rain. We just walked the dogs and while I, my mother's daughter, had my trusty baseball cap, my hooded fleece-lined rain jacket and an umbrella, he just had a baseball cap and a jacket and, as usual, refused anything else.

The dogs, these former Puerto Rican street urchins, hate the rain. Tonight, after they went about their business, the dogs signaled that they were ready to come back home even though we were not even halfway through their usual walk. I've heard of breeds who love to get wet. Not these mutts. These two like to be warm and cozy inside. I guess they remember the times, before we came into their lives, when they spent many a rainy day without shelter.

I don't like getting wet in the rain. I remember one motorcycle ride my husband and I took into the mountains many years ago in Puerto Rico and it rained almost the entire trip. I was miserable. And while I can't remember any time in my adulthood that I've been actually pleased to get rained on, I do remember those days of my Puerto Rican childhood when we'd go out of the house in the hard rain to get soaked and play and slide on the tiled porch and swim in the flooded street, like it was a great big river.

It's the memory of those happy, carefree rains that I recall now, as the melancholy rain outside insists with its plaintive pat pat pat, pat pat.

Monday, April 9, 2007


"To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation. And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it," says the wise old man to the young Andalusian shepherd in Paulo Coelho's lovely parable The Alchemist.

I read Coelho's book some years ago and found it to be almost eerily applicable to how my life has gone. When I have pursued my true desires, those that were in sync with what I believed to be my calling, the universe has invariably conspired in my favor.

But when I've erred my way and pursued other people's dreams for me, or the dreams I knew in the depths of my soul were not what I truly wanted, but were convenient or prestigious or expedient, the universe has quickly churned to create chaos and catastrophe in my life.

As a young girl, I had the strangest feeling that there was a larger plan for my life precisely because things just fell into place. I sometimes felt that I only had to desire something for the road to rise and meet me, like I was standing still on a path that was leading me where I was meant to go, pushing obstacles aside for me as I moved forward.

For one, I attended a good public school but my education was mediocre compared to what the girls in the private school I was later to teach at received and I was a smart but not stellar student, who teachers said always could do better, if I applied myself. Still, I was a voracious reader who read almost every literature book in our paltry school library. Before my teens, I had already read War and Peace, and many years later a school mate would comment during a reunion that she remembered me as the girl who was always reading a very thick book.

As the universe would have it, I improbably got into Harvard and worked hard to graduate with high honors in my field. I applied to two graduate schools, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The KSG said I was too young and inexperienced and rejected me, the HGSE took me in. A few years later, with a master's of education in hand, I applied to three law schools: Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. Stanford said my application was late so I couldn't be considered, Yale kept me wait listed until the very last moment and then said no, and Georgetown said yes.

That's when the universe started careening me into disaster. That story is longer than this post will bear, but suffice it to say that after much hardship and heartache I eventually found myself back on the road I was meant to follow and, since then, the universe has spookily and wonderfully began to turn in my favor.

Last Friday, I received news I had almost not dared hope for because it was just too good, it seemed to me, if it happened. Well, once more, the universe obliged and I get to stay at the wonderful college where I'm teaching for one more year on a teaching fellowship so that I can finish my dissertation.

Yesterday, on Easter, I drove around looking for the Catholic church in my neighborhood, wanting to light a candle in thanks and appreciation to all the spirits and the saints and the angels who look after me because there are many back home who ask them to, as I also ask them. I didn't find the church, which is odd, because I'd driven by many times before.

I took that as a good sign, though. The thanks, I think the universe is saying, are in your willingness to realize your destiny, come hell or high water. The thanks, I realize, is in doing my duty and fulfilling my life's obligation: to become the best teacher I can be and to strive to be the best human being I can become.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Bleeding hearts

My bleeding hearts are dying. My lovely, first-to-bloom-in-spring bleeding hearts, with their chartreuse-green leafy stalks and their petite red heart-shaped buds, which hang like cute little earrings in display, have collapsed under the weight of the below-freezing temperatures that have assaulted us for days now.

I know it's irrational and silly, but I wanted to scream at the smiling weatherman two days ago because he continued to grin while he forecast temperatures in the low 20s through Tuesday. This is April, carajo, in case Evil Winter hasn't noticed.

Can't the weatherman see, I wondered, that there's nothing to smile about in the weather department, especially when the bleeding hearts are dying and the gorgeous tulips look like they've given up the ghost and the water in the bird bath is a miniature skating rink, and the daffodils wonder what hit them and the peonies wish they could become ostriches to dig their heads back into the ground?

Dr. S is right when she says this is spring in Ohio, it's not that Evil Winter is hanging on with claws and fangs, trying to remind us of who's boss in this part of North America where we are so much closer to the Arctic winds of Canada than to the warm breezes of Mexico.

I know all that in the rational part of my brain but my bleeding hearts are dying and there's nothing I can do about it. And I'm not good when dealing with things I can do nothing about. I'm still in training on that one. For now, all I can do is pray that the bleeding hearts will hang on to life a few more days when the temperatures will rise and when they'll hopefully stop dying.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Nieve en abril

If April showers bring May flowers, what do April snows bring?

In true Ohio tradition (and I swear that despite living for decades in Boston and Washington, D.C., I never met weather as changeable and temperamental as this one!) we've dropped 40 degrees in one day and are now hovering over the freezing point again.

And it looks like for the next week or so we're not going up from the 20s and 30s at night. The heat, which had been turned off weeks ago, is now back on. The windows, which had been opened to welcome the spring breeze, are shut tight against the 20 mph freezing wind outside.

My husband just walked in a few minutes ago to announce that it was flurrying.

In April.

¡Dios mío!

All the potted plants that I had happily brought outside more than a week ago and that were basking in the wondrous spring days and growing like crazy, are now back inside, crammed on a small deck table that is now also inside, looking like annoyed people wedged in an elevator waiting to go somewhere.

I can almost hear their whispers of disappointment and concern, especially the miniature burnt-orange rose, who is plainly scared of Magellan because the evil cat loves to eat her petals, even if it's just to puke them up shortly thereafter. The violet and crimson pansies also are stressed out from the anxiety of being inside because they've heard of Darwin, for whom they are the greatest delicacy, worthy of the best restaurant salad bar. And the palm tree, which is almost bursting out of its pot, is quite sullen because Darwin chewed up all the edges of his long luscious leaves this winter and he was certain those days were over. Last night, Darwin almost killed the purple Petunia, pushing her pretty white clay pot to the floor where it was destroyed. The Petunia, gracias a Dios, survived Darwin's attempted murder.

Yes, things get a little more exciting in our house when the potted plants and the cats are at war. At least the pink trinitaria doesn't break a sweat. She knows that the cats are nothing against her sharp thorns and her bitter leaves and flowers. She, at least, is safe from the military strategies Magellan and Darwin are developing, as I speak, in their neverending War Against the Potted Plants.