Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This morning, as the dogs and I took our walk around the outskirts of my small college on the hill, I saw two crows, large as black cats with wings, chasing squirrels across the tops of several trees.

Were the crows protecting their nest from the squirrels, which are known to eat small birds? Or were the crows hunting for breakfast, opting for live squirrels rather than road kill? I guess I'll never know, although it's probably the former.

Still, the thought of the large-as-cats crows protecting their nests reminded me of nesting, and of how important having a nest, a place to call my own, is to me.

This crazy-busy semester ends Friday and so ends my weekly commute between households, which has now been going on for almost 10 months. Between the small city and the tiny village, between the large house and the tiny apartment, between the place where my husband and the cats remain and where I and dogs travel to.

Lately, it's gotten harder and harder to leave either place. When I have to leave the large house, I hate the idea of leaving my husband and cats behind. But when it comes time to leave this apartment, I also hate leaving my routine here, the peace and quiet of the woods, and the dogs hate leaving behind the super-comfy dog beds that their self-appointed fairy godmother (my friend and colleague who teaches the eighteenth century) gave them.

For a person who loves nesting (my living spaces have always been very important to me), it's become increasingly less fun to divide myself between two nests, which at this point don't really feel like they're altogether mine. The house has to remain "staged" for selling, so it no longer feels much like home (more like we're stewards of the place), while this apartment is actually furnished with Dr. S's beautiful things so it doesn't feel like my own place either.

By week's end, I'll be packing up myself and the dogs again and heading back to the large house, all the time hoping that someone will come along sooner rather than later, who'll love it the way we've loved it, and will want to have it as their own.

In the meantime, and until we sell the large house, I'll just have to work on cultivating the little patience I have in my psychic arsenals, while I dream of the time when I'll have my nest again to love and cherish, like the crows, big as black cats, that chase the squirrels across the tree tops near my tiny apartment in the woods.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shared homes

Today I was followed by a doe and her fawn. I'm not exaggerating, or misrepresenting events. I was followed by a doe and her fawn for several yards while I walked the dogs this evening.

It all started when I walked out of the apartment. As the three of us exited the apartment complex, I saw a doe and her fawn calmly grazing the grass in front of some apartments that overlook the road.

I tried to point the deer out to the dogs, but they are too old and senile, and while I was trying to direct their attention to the deer, they were busy snorting at and peeing on every spot they found on their way out of the parking lot.

As we walked down the road and turned the corner following our usual evening route, I was surprised to see that the doe was trotting toward us, followed by a hesitant fawn who seemed to be wondering what its mom was up to.

I told myself that, of course, the deer wasn't really following us, that it was just coming our same way. That seemed odd, though, because not only am I a human, and not really the kind a friend a deer should want to have, but I also have two dogs with me, which at the very least must seem like coyotes to any deer with dos dedos de frente.

Did the doe mean to attack me to protect its fawn? I didn't really relish the possibility of having a close encounter of the unwanted kind with wildlife so I rushed the dogs up the road, trying to leave the rapidly advancing deer behind. After all, it has four legs to run on and I have only two rather stumpy ones, and two rather slow, elderly dogs.

"Is it the same deer that comes to eat at my window and she's recognized me and wants to say hello?" I thought in a moment of Disney-like delusion.

At a loss as to what I should do, I called my husband on the cell phone, just in case I ended up mauled by a deer, so someone would know what happened to me. He suggested that sometimes deer will follow humans just to make sure they don't mean any harm. I felt reassured and continued on, while the dogs, their goofy faces on and their tongues out, remained utterly oblivious to the fact that the fantastic creatures they dream of chasing were right behind us.

As I was coming back around, wondering what the deer would do this time, my youngest nephew called to thank me for his birthday present, a set of Legos based on the Indiana Jones movies. When I told him I was being followed by deer and asked him what I should do, he consulted his sister, who screaming-laughing in the background suggested, variably, that I bang it over the head with a bat, find a gun and shoot it, or run it over with a car.

"And I thought you were the one who cared for animals!" her brother reproached her, as she insisted that she was only joking, and laughed merrily at her devilish suggestions. And I know that she was just being mischievous since I believe she is probably the youngest member of PETA.

"I think you should make it follow you into the woods and show her the way home," my nephew said seriously.

Well, I didn't need to follow his well-considered recommendation, since the deer had done just that. When I turned the bend on the way back here, the deer had vanished into the woods, melting into the brownish-green scenery as dusk approached.

"That's a great idea!" I told my nephew, adding that I'd do my best to follow his advise.

I wonder if this is the same doe and the same fawn that I keep bumping into, and whether she has become more used to my presence and to my dogs. In any case, I'm going to continue to assume that cross-species communications isn't a good idea, and when I see her next, I'll do what I did today: avoid her at all costs.

I don't think I'd actually want to walk into the woods (the ticks might be coming out about now), and I would certainly not know how to show her the way home. Although it occurs to me that perhaps what she's insistently trying to tell me is that I share her same home territory now.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Spring garden glories

After two crazy-busy weeks, one in which I traveled three hours each way to and from a two-day meeting north of my small college on the hill, followed by another week that went by in a blur after hosting a visiting Latino poet, life has regained its saner and more enjoyable pace.

One thing I've learned at this stage of my life is that I don't measure my success by how crazy-busy I am, but by the time of leisure that I can spend literally smelling the roses (well, more like spring flowers nowadays because it's too early for roses).

In that spirit, today is one such day. I'm ensconced in my basement office, listening to classical music on my husband's great stereo, while working on revising a part of the dissertation that has been accepted for publication in a book. I'll then move on to start revising the larger Monster, which is finally finished.

My advisor e-mailed me Saturday and said my introduction and conclusion were "terrific" (total hyperbole coming from his very-demanding self), and that he'd approve the dissertation as being fully drafted. That means that I'm basically finished for real, since the revisions that are needed for the defense version of the Monster are minor.

On top of this great news and of getting back to my more manageable life pace, spring is definitely here and our garden (soon to be someone else's once the house is sold!) is full of glorious sights, which I'd like to share with you.

I have no idea what the pink bush below is called, but it is simply glorious. Not only are its flowers pink and dainty and lovely, but the perfume coming from them is simply sublime. I also love the contrast between its tiny flowers and the large, blood-red leaves of the bush.

Speaking of blood, my bleeding hearts are also in full bloom, hanging from their long, green stems, like loving, bursting hearts available for the taking.

I also have no idea what these tiny blue flowers are called, but they look like miniature grapes, and I absolutely love their azure daintiness.

The down-to-earth daisies, always facing toward the sunlight, swayed in the breeze, pretty and happy.

And then this, the pièce de résistance of the early spring garden, these breathtaking tulips of vivid yellow and fiery oranges with black centers, summoned me to them, demanding attention.

The tulips are all decked in their best regalia throughout the garden these days. Not be outdone by their multi-colored cousins, these red and yellow tulips also called me to them so I could look at their dark centers, surrounded by the explosive velvety petals of their primary colors.

Spring is most decidedly here, the semester is almost over, my husband is a much happier man ever since he started working from home, we're both in good health, our families and friends and menageries of pets are well, and the Monster is basically finished.

What else could I possibly ask for? Not a thing. Nothing at all. That is a true blessing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I can tell by the length of my "silences" on this blog how full my days have been. But today I get a respite from an inordinately busy week because I just finished both the introduction and the conclusion to the dissertation, and will send them off by Priority Mail to my advisor tomorrow.

They're going out about a week later than I would've wanted, but with getting the house ready to sell, and with a diversity summit in mid-week, and an author's visit to my class at week's end, I just couldn't do it any sooner.

Though later rather than sooner, I'm officially DONE with the Monster. Now comes the time for revising and perfecting and making it prettier (or perhaps simply stronger) than it first came out. And while I look forward to that process, it's not half (perhaps not even a third) as hard for me as the process of gathering and thinking and making connections and writing, which is now complete.

I used to grumble to my dissertation co-director that the Monster was really some humongous hoop that I was being forced to jump just for the sake of showing I could jump it, not because it had any intrinsic value in and of itself. And I resented that feeling, after so many years of both academic and professional development.

But I have to say that while I was right to see the Monster as a huge hoop (that's a hard image to conjure up), I was wrong to think that the process did not have any other inherent value. I know that I have learned more about so many things in this time of getting the dissertation done, than I did in the two years of course-work for the Ph.D. Better yet, this time around I got to analyze and interpret the material on my own terms, following my own instincts, not those of someone else, as mostly happens in a graduate school class.

In talking to the author that I brought to visit my class this past Friday to discuss his novel (which the students read), he told me at lunch that the moment comes when you (the dissertation writer) knows more about your dissertation than your committee. That's the moment you know that from graduate student you've been finally transformed into a scholar and a true professor, one who actually knows whereof she professes.

That time has definitely come for me. It's like the transformation of the ugly chrysalis into the gorgeous butterfly. Being a graduate student has been like being the gold-colored but homely pupa.

But now I'm ready to spread my deep lilac and black wings, stretch my legs and antennae, and fly, fly, fly toward the sun for as long as I have the chance to do so.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Shedding, discarding, minimizing

I've discovered that I'm a hoarder, and of the very worst kind. I have what seem like centuries-worth of papers, magazines, receipts, cards, notes, etc., that should've been thrown away but that I thought might have some significance some day.

One of the great opportunities that moving presents is the chance to purge anything and everything that isn't absolutely necessary or has real meaning. Thus, I'm saying goodbye to years of Martha Stewart's Living and other magazines, which I've kept around in the hopes that someday I'd get to leaf through their picture-pretty pages once more. It hasn't happened yet, and the likelihood at this point is that it never will. To the garbage bag with them!, I say.

As I fill huge garbage bag after huge garbage bag with things that I should've shed a long time ago, I get a feeling of renewal and of clean-slatedness that is energizing.

Recently, I reorganized the top of my chest of drawers (we're starting to "stage" our house for a hopefully quick and profitable sale soon), and loved the result of only leaving a few things on top of what had been a crowded surface only moments before. I loved it so much that I'm going to keep it that way when we move and start anew in the tiny village of my small college on the hill.

I'm quite the fan of HGTV shows like Designed to Sell and House Hunters. In the first one, a team of experts comes to a house that hasn't sold and with a $2,000 budget they make improvements that often help the house finally sell. In the second one, you get to share the experience of one or two people who are looking for a house to buy. They usually visit three houses during the span of the show and choose one as their abode, and you get to see the changes they make once they've moved in and been settled for a while.

Back when we were in Puerto Rico and moving to the States was still a hope rather than a reality, I used to watch House Hunters and dreamed of the moment when that would be us, my husband and I, trying to find our own home en estos lares. Our house hunting has never been like it's on TV, since we've never found the home that took our breath away (we probably can't afford such a home anyway), but we've been house hunters in Ohio twice and now we'll be going at it in some future date for a third (and hopefully last!) time.

Getting a new house every 3 or 4 years isn't ideal, of course, given that we've only been here seven years but that's how things have worked out. I forced us to move out of our first house in the suburbs, not only because it involved a daily 52-mile commute for me to and from the state university, but also because our neighbors were untenable.

On one side, we had very nice people, whose sons appeared to have some kind of illicit business going on as strangers came in and out of their house at all hours and an acrid, but unmistakable, smell wafted toward us from their back yard. On the other, we had an absentee-father and absentee-mother household where the youngest and most psycho of the kids liked to split spray cans with a hatchet, set a lighter to the spray of a spray can, and dress up their bird-feeder pole so he could shoot at it with some kind of gun.

A few houses down, meanwhile, we had a neighbor who strung a dead deer from his garage after hunting it (I guess). A few houses up on the other direction we had another kid, a good friend of the psycho's, who joined him in their favorite prank of exploding illegal firecrackers near our house, just to watch me jump. Back then, I was alone in the house recovering from my surgery and my husband was at work most of the day, so it became a harassment that I just didn't want to live with. It turned out that the police in that suburb were as useless as the absentee parents in controlling two wacko adolescents, so the only solution I saw to the problem (short of adolescentcide, which would have ruined any future I dreamed of) was to move.

That experience taught me that it's not really "location, location, location" when it comes to buying a house, but that one also needs to find out about the neighbors. No location in the world makes up for the crap I had to put up with when I lived in the suburbs, which cured me of that desire forever and ever Amen.

In contrast, we've been wonderfully lucky here in our small city (especially given that we checked out the neighborhood for a year before we bought the house), and our neighbors are truly awesome. We will be sad to leave them behind when we move.

But, alas, such shedding, both material and personal, is inevitable at this stage. With my husband going back to establishing his own freelance writing/editing/translating business, and with me needing to be up in my small college on the hill more often once I start there full-time in July, this house no longer makes sense in our long-term life plan. And if the commute of 52 miles a day was exhausting, the 100-mile commute to the small college on the hill with these gas prices is financially suicidal.

Thus, the shedding and the discarding of everything that isn't absolutely essential or that means something continues unabated. We will both miss this house but (change-junkie that I am) I look forward to the new, minimized, life that awaits us. My husband says he's not convinced that I won't just pick up where I left, and simply rebuild my hoarding empire. But I'm asking him to have a little more faith in me.

It's true that I've been an unrepentant hoarder, and perhaps that malaise is an incurable one. But, as with almost any addiction or mental illness, as long as I accept it and realize what it means, I can manage and combat the urge to hoard and collect and pack and stack.

Just as little green leaves are starting to sprout all over, I've turned a new leaf. I'm ready to become a recovering hoarder, and minimize, minimize, minimize.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


These past few weeks, in my class, I've been discussing dialectics, or the combination of theses and antitheses into a synthesis that includes both instead of eternally pitting the ones against the others. This, for instance, is part of the philosophical framework you find in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, a canonical book in U.S. Latin@ literature that is always a good read, and which students tend to love.

Today, as I watch two adolescent squirrels messily eat the bird seed on the window sill and on the window feeder, they remind me of the dialectical nature of life and death. Where there is one, there is the other, and what we ultimately have is a recursive combination -- not an opposition -- of both.

Whereas I usually would rap on the glass and open the back door to warn the squirrels before I let the dogs out to chase them into the woods (which they love to do although I make sure to give the squirrels plenty of forewarning so there's no chance the dogs can actually catch one), I'm letting them eat to their heart's content today.

That's because a little while ago, I saw two dead baby squirrels at the foot of one of the tall trees I pass during my evening walking route. Yesterday, when I had almost finished the dog's last walk, I noticed one of the tiny baby squirrels haltingly coming down the tree, and then stumbling awkwardly across the road.

I was sure the baby squirrel would get run over by a car or eaten by a predator, so I called my husband and asked him what I could do. He suggested that I should try to get it closer to the tree, which would give it a chance to reunite with the mommy squirrel in the nest.

I brought the dogs back to the apartment, armed myself with towel paper (I didn't want to leave any scent on the baby squirrel and I didn't want to handle it with my bare hands), and I went back to the spot where I'd last seen it. There, to my dismay, I discovered that there were not one, but two baby squirrels intent on leaving the nest for God knows what stupid purpose, and there was no sign of an adult squirrel anywhere near.

I found the first one I had seen already across the road, trying to nestle against a beer can under a pile of leaves, and I picked him up (he had a very obvious pipicito) and set him at the bottom of the tree, where he promptly started climbing quite adeptly. The other one was trying to come down the tree, and when the owner of the house where the tree is located came out, she told me that they'd seen that other baby squirrel in their front yard earlier that afternoon.

When I left, the one I'd rescued from the woods was well on his way up the tree, and the other had gotten itself turned around and seemed to be climbing upwards, too. I prayed that they would be alright, and left without being able to do anything else.

This morning, after I'd given the dogs a long walk, and walked to and back from the tiny village to have breakfast with a student, I decided (against my better judgment) to stop by the tree to check on the two baby squirrels. At first I was heartened because I didn't see anything on the ground, and I didn't hear any of the high-pitched distressed sounds they had made yesterday.

But I was soon slapped by reality (as it is wont to do), and my heart broke when I discovered that one of them had obviously fallen from the tree and died of the fall, while the other had died overnight in the cold. If there had been any sign of life in that one, I would have brought it back here to do God knows what with it, but I wouldn't have left it out there again. But he wasn't breathing and there was no other sign of life, which was as heartbreaking as heartbreak can get.

My husband says I did all I could, which might be true. Today I found a website on rescuing fallen baby tree squirrels. I'll do more research and see if there's a place nearby that I could actually take a fallen baby squirrel, if another one should cross my path.

While spring is a happy time in terms of how it teems with life, it's also sad because a lot of that life is clueless and doesn't last very long.

In the meantime, I have to remind myself of what I teach my students about dialectics, and about how two seeming oppositions are basically inseparable and part of the same thing. For those two baby squirrels who so sadly died last night, I have these two pesky adolescent squirrels (perhaps last spring's brood?), who are still small and nimble enough to wreak havoc with my miniature window feeder.

When my husband comes up this weekend we're going to bury the dead baby squirrels, if they're still there. I guess the good thing about Nature is that all goes back to the same place it came from.

But I'd like to think that there's a Baby Squirrel Heaven where those too little starcrossed explorers will go back to feeling warm and fed and protected. I'd like to think so.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April, finally!

It's finally April although this morning it didn't really feel that different from March, which didn't feel any different from February, which was a cold, dank copycat of January.

In the morning news, the meteorologist said this had been the fifth coldest March on record in Ohio, which contrasts with the fact that last year we had 8 days at 70 degrees or higher in March. Thus, I'm not at all out of line in thinking that this March, despite all it promised back in February, actually sucked lemons, and of the hard, dry kind no less.

But, thank God, time does go by and here we are on April 1st, and I'm already listening to all it's promising. I pray that unlike March, April isn't a total wash out, and instead actually delivers on what it has pledged.

I recently noticed that the small, crimson heads of my peonies have started to peek out of the soil, and while the tulip leaves are verdant green, it hasn't been warm or sunny enough for the stems to rise and any petals to open. Last evening, we saw some daffodils already in bloom, and there are a few little spots of color here and there in the grass, which do their best to persuade us that better days are yet to come.

The surest sign of spring I have had yet, however, was this past Saturday when, as I prepared to leave the tiny apartment in the woods to return to our big house in the little city, I saw the doe that visits me. What was special this time is that Mama Doe was accompanied by Cute Little Fawn, and they were both happily munching on the seed and some leftover bread I'd scattered outside for the birds.

What a gift, I thought, to be able to see such sights so closely. I made sure they couldn't see me, so I didn't disturb their foray into my sort-of backyard, and when I finally arose because it was time to leave, they had vanished, just as silently as they came. But I think Mama Doe is used to me because I could swear she sees me through the large window and, while wary, pretty much has figured out I don't mean her or her brood any harm.

This morning the dogs and I headed back here, and Rusty was already excited about the possibility of seeing deer, while Geni dreamed of the plush new bed she got from a dear friend and colleague, who also happens to be Geni's friend. The bed (with memory foam!) is almost larger than the eating area in my kitchen, but I've managed to locate it so that the dogs can enjoy it and I can still move around. Every time we're here the dogs play musical chairs with the new bed with Rusty taking it over any time Geni gets off, and vice versa.

I just gave the dogs their second walk of the day because while it's in the low 50s, the sun makes it actually feel a lot like spring out there (I walked without a coat or jacket!) and there was no telling Rusty that he'd had a walk this morning in the little city so he didn't need another one before dusk here. But my pay off was seeing his silly grin as the three of us took a short walk in the sun.

I'm actually looking forward to this week because I plan to polish the introduction I finished last week, and draft the conclusion of the dissertation. My revised goal is to be finished-finished with all the new writing that needs to be done by this coming weekend. I'll send those off to my directors, and then I'll take a few days' break before I start the process of revising, and of assembling the Monster's parts together to see how it looks all together.

Yesterday, a dear friend commented on how the majority of those who started with me in the Ph.D. program in 2003 not only haven't finished their dissertations, some haven't even started, and all have now run out of graduate school funding. I can't help but wonder about the people who wanted those spots but were not admitted and who would've finished, who would've made the most of the opportunity rather than wasting their time...

There's actually nothing mysterious about what I've done. I also have a good friend, who started with me, and who's finishing a few months ahead thanks to several fellowships. All else being equal, what we've both shared is the will and the discipline to finish (helped along by fellowships, of course).

A long, long time ago, I read about how George Bernard Shaw (I believe) said that the best way to write was to sit your butt on a chair and not allow yourself to get up until you'd written. For some reason, that idea stuck with me and has been with me over the years, and I think I've finally figured out why. I was keeping that little kernel of advice until the day I needed it, and it has been the truest recipe to ensure that I will complete my dissertation.

I used to have a boss in Puerto Rico who told me that when he had two things to do, one unpleasant and another pleasant, he would always choose to do the former first to get it out of the way. I don't think I always make that choice because there's something to be said for sometimes postponing the unpleasant, but I do believe he's essentially right. To do what you have to do, you just have to do it. I don't want to sound like a Nike commercial, but I do think that's ultimately true.

I look forward to finally being done with all the first rounds of writing. I can already taste it's sweet promise, and it tastes very much like a cool, perfectly whipped chocolate mousse (which I indulge in once or twice a year!), or one of the pink cupcakes I love so much from the little bakery in the town next to my small college on the hill.

With that taste in mind, I'm going to do some more sitting-my-butt-on-this-chair this week, and some more doing the less pleasant and postponing the more pleasant so I can finally accomplish this goal. Like April, which finally brings the promises of spring, I have my own promises to keep.