Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Parliament of Owls

     I know you’ve seen a flock of geese and a litter of kittens, and you’ve probably also seen a herd of deer, a swarm of bees, and a murmuration of starlings, but I doubt that you’ve ever seen a parliament of owls. I can tell you it’s a beautiful thing. Strictly speaking, of course, I didn’t see the parliament of owls outside my bedroom window last week, but I did hear it, and it was one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed in nature, even though I was in my own bed in my own house in the dark at the time.
    Seven summers ago, when I moved into my new house, I would hear an owl calling night after night from somewhere near the house, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away, but always in the vicinity. One evening, in the fade of twilight, he suddenly swooped close above the floor of the deck, grazing my vision with a dazzling white underlayer of feathers and startling me with his immense size.
    I kept trying to find him in the binoculars when I heard him calling, but he was always too hidden in the trees until one night, before the fade of twilight, I heard him in a tree ten yards or so from the deck. Immediately retrieving my binoculars from the house, I raised them to my eyes, searched to orient myself in the larger landscape, found where I thought the owl was – and there he was, clearly focused in my enlarged vision. He was startlingly beautiful, with black bars across a white chest and gorgeous big eyes. But those eyes were staring straight at me! Disconcerted, I lowered the binoculars, feeling vaguely ashamed, as though I had been caught spying. But now I could identify him as a barred owl. I was supposed not to like barred owls because they drive out the more rare spotted owl, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t dislike him. I loved my owl.
    I paid a heavy price for capturing him in my binoculars, though: that was the last time he came to my house. For years afterward I heard him in the woods, sometimes closer, sometimes far up the mountain, but never in the woods immediately around my house. I always recognized his beautiful four-syllable hoot with a slight waver at the end. A few years ago I started hearing two owls, a male and a female, according to the timbre of their voices, one higher, one (my owl), in a lower register. One would give a call: “I’m over here!” The other would answer, ”And I’m here.” “I love you-ou-ou.” “I love you, too-oo-oo.” Maybe that’s not what they were saying – I don’t know their language – but they were definitely communicating. I felt in a community of beings with my owls, knowing they were there, knowing they knew I was here. I felt privileged to be included in their woods.
    Last week I woke up to hear the owls in the very trees just outside my bedroom window. The first owl, my owl, the one I have known since I moved into the house, had convened a parliament of owls. His voice was the leader’s; I knew it well. I could distinguish at least four, probably six, different voices, all from the same small clump of trees. They had different calls – one with more of a waver, one with a caw-like hoot, one clearly my owl, another clearly the mate I had heard him talking with. The voices were different and the words were different, but the owls were all speaking the same language.
    It was a strange parliament. My owl would begin things, bringing the meeting to order. Then everyone else would join in with his or her own words. There would be a jumble of voices, everyone talking on top of everyone else, all those various calls distinguishable one from another. Then they would all fall silent. After a bit, my owl would ask another question, and there would be another mishmash of responses. I’m not sure that anything got accomplished. I’m not sure what was supposed to be accomplished. Maybe it was more of a choir than a parliament, the conductor laying down, then raising again his baton. It went on for about an hour, all that various hooting and cooing and calling. It wasn’t territorial – they were all in one place. It didn’t sound angry; it sounded conversational. It sounded like a parliament of owls taking care of owl business, to which I was a privileged listener.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Birthday post

    It’s my birthday today. It’s also the birthday of a dear friend, and because it’s her 60th, she is having a party, and because it’s my 73rd, an insignificant number, I’ll give up a celebration of my birthday to join her for hers. She did the same for me when I turned 70. I did the same for her when she turned 40.
    Nonetheless, the day should not go by unremarked, so I’ll remark on it with a poem from a series of poems I’m working on about aging.

    I Always Thought I Would Grow Old Gracefully

I always thought I would grow old gracefully
    graying graciously as I knitted by the stove
    smiling sweetly as conversation wafted
        unheard over my head
    setting aside my tennis racket with just a tiny sigh
        when arthritis-riddled hands
        lost their grip.
I always thought
    I would use my cane with dignified acceptance
    and be an example to young people
    that growing old
        is not the horror
        they think it is.

But now that I am here
    growing old and graying
I see the fallacies of my fantasies.
I am fighting tooth and nail
    (thank goodness I still have tooth and nail)
    against the signs of old age coming.

I swear at the tennis ball that knocks the racket from my hand.
I rant without cease over hot flashes and night sweats.
I curse the knees that creak and moan
    as I stoop to wipe
    a spill from the floor
I weep over the thinning of my once-luscious, thick hair.

For all the good it does.

It would be better to ease gracefully
into old age
better for me and better
for those around me,
because, after all,
what is there to get so worked up over?
It's just a little bit of gray,
an ache and a pain here and there,
and if it's a sign of what lies ahead,
isn't it better to bend to the inevitable,
smile and say, "You win,"
than to be a poor loser
with the temper of a child?

Thursday, July 13, 2017


            Though I wasn't particularly looking forward to attending a high school graduation last June, I wanted to honor a young friend who was graduating, in this case from the International High School in Eugene, so I went. Being with her and with her family, good friends I don't see nearly enough; remembering what she was like when I met her, a nine-year-old child swinging from a tree; contrasting that memory with the confident, joyful young woman walking down the aisle to receive her diploma; hearing the kind words said about her at the ceremony – I was so glad I could be there.

            Beyond that was the graduation itself, in the Holt Center auditorium. The graduates sat on the stage in tiered seats with an aisle down the center. On each side of the stage were lecterns where the faculty spoke, alternating sides to give two or three sentences that particularized each student and told what that student would be doing after graduation. It was briskly done, and the achievements and plans were impressive. This one was a soccer player and a runner, that one won a literary prize, another spoke three languages, another excelled in music. Many were going to impressive universities: Brown, Boston, MIT. Almost all were going on to college. Maybe in a few cases the teachers had a hard time coming up with complimentary things to say ("He will be remembered for his bright smile"), but listening to the list of accomplishments and future plans, I could only marvel at these fine young people preparing to be leaders in our world tomorrow. Public school, parents, teachers – we have done a fine job.
            Graduations are one of the most meaningful rituals in today's society. It's no wonder we have started including graduation ceremonies for each school students leave, from kindergarten to elementary school, from elementary school to high school, from high school to college, from a community college to a four-year college, from college at the B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. level. Each step is an achievement worth celebrating. At my son's graduation from the Atlanta College of Art, I remember the rousing cheers given a young black man as he received his diploma, and suddenly I saw what an achievement this moment marked. He graduated from college. Maybe they never thought he would do it. Maybe they had pulled and pushed him through it. Whatever the background was, whatever his grade average, here was a man who had achieved a terrific accomplishment. My respect ran high.
            My granddaughter also graduated this year, moving into fourth grade at a school different from the one she had attended since kindergarten, which only goes through third grade. By now, in her eyes, it was a school for children, and she has grown up and moved on. Time to graduate. So there was a ceremony. The graduates didn't wear gowns, but they did wear caps, and they threw their caps into the air. There were no speeches but there were games and presentations to the teachers who had meant so much to the children. There was lots of singing and lots of laughing. The pictures were wonderful. What a good time they had! What a special occasion for those children. 

            Do you want to keep kids in school? Make it exciting to be moving to the next stage.
            One of the best graduation traditions I know takes place at Central Point Elementary School here in the Rogue Valley. Graduating high school seniors who had gone to Central Point Elementary came back to the school, in their caps and gowns, to make a procession through the outdoor hallways between lines of current elementary school students and their teachers. Teachers high-fived the graduates as they walked through the school courtyard, reached out to shake their hands or give a special one a hug, the little kids clapping for them and high-fiving them, too. The graduates looked grand. They looked excited and proud. They were being highly honored. And those little kids? They were in awe. You could just feel them thinking, "That could be me. I could get there, too."
            It's a big thing to graduate. It's an accomplishment to be proud of. At any level.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ending a 30-year Career

     In mid-June I turned in final grades for spring term, always a moment of complex emotions as I grapple with disappointing work, give every break I can to bring grades up, and marvel again at the progress of some students and the superb work of others. The emotions I faced this time were particularly complex, as it was the last time I'll turn in grades. Or grade papers. Or teach class. My long teaching career at Rogue Community College is over.
     Oh, how I will miss it! I'll miss being on campus and around young people. I'll miss the challenges of teaching – figuring out how to make concepts clear, coming up with creative and interesting assignments, helping students think critically, analyze judiciously, and pay attention both to the world around them and to the words they use. I'll miss seeing the amazing improvement as students apply themselves to my class. I'll even miss that frequent and gratifying comment, "This was the hardest class I've ever taken. But I learned so much!"
     I am not voluntarily retiring, though the new minimum enrollment of 17 would be hard for me to meet. Students don't flock to sign up for my classes, since I have a reputation for being tough. As a teacher, I am like the recipe for an orange and garlic salad I read about years ago: "Not everyone who tried it liked it, but those who liked it loved it." I received many complaints, but other students thought I was the best teacher they ever had. They said things like, "This was the first real college class I've taken at this college" and "You are the first writing teacher who has ever taught me anything. They usually just give me an A, and that's the end of it" and"Every time I write anything now, I think about what you taught me."
     But my supervisor, new this year to the position (though she has been teaching at RCC for as long as I have), apparently dislikes me intensely and does not think I'm a good teacher. (She is very good with the students in the bottom half of the class, helping them succeed. I am very good with the top students, who, I think, are just as often neglected.) I received an email from her mid-term this spring telling me that, because she is having to cut classes with enrollment under 17, I need not return "for fall [term] and beyond," adding, "You are a gifted writer and thinker, and I know you will have other opportunities opened to you."
     The omissions were glaring. Not a gifted teacher? Not a word of thanks for teaching at RCC for more than thirty years? Not the slightest acknowledgement of what I have done for so many students? Incensed, I wrote back something along those lines, giving her a chance to rectify her oversight, mentioning some of the students who have expressed admiration and gratitude. She replied only, "Isn't it nice to have good memories?"
     It has taken me all these two months to let go of the insult. My former supervisor, who is still at RCC, helped by stepping into the gap, when I told him of my dismissal, with words of appreciation and praise, recognizing that my hallmark has always been academic rigor. My secretary gave me a gift and a card, saying she knew that leaving was bitter-sweet for me. (Yes, I thought. "You're the sweet. Midge is the bitter.) Cleaning out my office plummeted me into nostalgia. I threw out the years' accumulation of class assignments, knowing I'll never teach those courses again. I found a thick folder of thank-you notes from students over the years. I read a few. They all said the same thing: "You are a great teacher. I learned so much in your class." I remembered the former students who had come to my seventieth birthday party and given toasts with stories about my teaching.
     Although I had the satisfaction of seeing Midge skulk out of sight whenever she saw me on campus after her notice of dismissal, I did run into her once, as she was going out of the English office and I was going in. Disappointingly, I didn't say nearly half the things I had thought I would say. She apologized for "doing it badly," but that was all. Even given this second opportunity, she still couldn't say anything nice.
     Immediately after that encounter, I saw a former student on campus. She ran towards me. "Let me give you a hug!" she cried. "You did so much for me. I loved your class. I recommend you to everybody. 'Take Coogle,' I say. 'You'll learn so much.' Let's get together for coffee this summer. If you ever need your ego stroked, come to me."
     Such moments were always my best reward. Midge can think what she wants about my teaching. It is not the humiliation from her with which I end my teaching career but the humility I feel before my students' gratitude, admiration, and recognition and the difference I know I have made in so many lives. Besides, my former supervisor, who is the one who schedules literature classes, said that when enrollment at RCC picks up again, he wants to offer ENG 204 – Medieval and Renaissance English – and when he does, he wants me to teach it.