THURSDAY OCTOBER 8
Lying in bed half-awake, reminded by brilliant sunlight glancing onto autumnal colors of paisley bedspread that it is October and I have survived September woes customary to commuting professors. First weeks after return to University of Wisconsin always lorn and sad with renewal of solitary life after summer companionship and family visits, not to mention terrifying hordes of brand new students. Stretch on wood floor of University Houses apartment in my flannel pajamas, much relieved that have endured separation from Dear H and that students have gotten sufficiently used to me and my ways to emit first tentative sparks of intellect. Mood both dampened and lightened by fact that it is Thursday, but, for once, I don’t have to fly from Madison to Detroit. Usually feel like ping pong ball picking and pocking back and forth across Lake Michigan, plastic and empty, coming rest only briefly on either shore. In what first thought of but have long since ceased to enjoy as “Our Great Adventure,” one of us flies to the other every weekend, except once in a great while when a professional convention, such as the one Dear H. attending today, intervenes. Have anguished over two week separation but concluded (in Dear H’s phrase) that “this is our time to be citizens of the world.”
While he is off to give paper at Canadian Studies conference, I have accepted invitation to give class and a community slide show at Baraboo campus tomorrow, after which will proceed to Wisconsin Dells for weekend with Prairie Unitarian Fellowship, anarchic little community providing emotional anchor in peripatetic life.
Check little brewer giving off roasting smell but no coffee, realize have forgotten to put water in. Remedy situation and return to living room to switch radio on when stopped in tracks by whangings from Ravi Shankar’s zitar. Pause in front of window, where October sun dapplies floor. Raise arms over head, lean back, as body remembers Yoga Sun Salute and attempts same.
Lying flat on face with nose to parquet, recall long ago dance teacher Bonnie Allen, glamorous Martha Graham disciple, requiring modern dance of every student in school right down to awkward seven year old self. Used to stand us in lines upon the parquet floor, urging us to
“stretch out tall as trees: now stretch your arms up high, just like branches,” at which I would fall flat on my face as if struck by gale winds which seemed to miss rest of forest entirely.
Raise neck in cobra position, gather legs under stomach, rise to feet. Emboldened, crook left leg to right knee, stretch arms straight over head in “tree” posture.
“Here’s to you, Bonnie Allen,” laugh out loud:
“this one’s for you, wherever you are: forty years since you gave up on me, I have turned myself into a tree!”
Eat cheerios, drink orange juice and lovely hot coffee while outlining schedule for next two days. Virginia Woolf class this morning, then office hours. Have to check slide projector, quilt slides and notes for Baraboo presentation, gas up Le Car for trip.
To strains of Teleman trumpet concerto whose pure tones ripple October air, don favorite outfit of light blue turtleneck, grey corduroy trousers and tweed blazer with suede boots and grey wool socks which makes me feel effectively professional.
Still and all, reflect to self, would rather be seeing Dear H tonight. Decide to assuage sadness by bicycling to work along Lake Mendota. At 8.30 on a crisp fall morning, air sparkles like Perrier. From cat tails encircling 17,000 year old marsh squawkings echo back and forth as red-winged blackbirds prepare for migration, exploding from reeds to stream out over lake.
Lake chortles and riffles in light breeze as chug along sandy path, working heavily because back tire flat (left bike pump in Detroit). Far up at the sharpest edge of sight and sound hear tiny bleeps which can only be? must be? kinglets in migration, the last of autumn’s warblers to come through. Peer up into canopy, from which slender yellow leaves float down all around and slender yellow warblers seek camouflage from hawks accompanying their migration.
Four little grey squirrels (could hardly be long out of nest) teetering on slender limb for maple seeds, dangling dangerously over cold lake waters. Calm shattered by sharp imprecations ricocheting off lake from coach in motor boat ticking off large boned crews in slender shells:
“Left! left! I said left! Susie, what’s with you!”
“On, stroke, on, stroke, on stroke, oh damn it!”
Notice two oarswomen in lead boat due for Virginia Woolf class in half an hour, must rush in to prepare 9:40 class.
Class so over enrolled had to agree to “lecture” hall in vast brick science building next door to office, but refuse to let architecture inhibit process of assuaging students’ perennial terror of Virginia Woolf. Gave slide show of post-impressionist and cubist art last time, urging them to tamp down left sides of brain to activate right (visual and intuitive) lobes for this morning’s assignment, a discussion of color and shape in “Kew Gardens.” To their protests of sophisticated disgust (they trust me enough to protest!) have asked them to bring colored markers and big pieces of paper to chart out structure of short story.
Enter classroom to rustlings of newsprint and draft paper they are trying to spread out in tiny spaces between close packed lecture chairs, so urge them to pile chairs higgledy piggledy against wall and find room amongst each other to spread paper on the floor. Gasps of horror. Introduce morning with E.M. Forster:
“In this queer world of vision it is the surface of things, not their names or natures that matter; it has no connection with the worlds of practical or philosophical truth; it is the world of the eye!”
Students proceed to chart story amid groans and imprecations, giggles and shovings of each other for elbow room, until after twenty minutes ask them to pull chairs back (have experienced wrath of university janitors often enough to take precautions) where they were, then tell us what they discovered. Interesting results ensue: how red blue yellow blend and intersect in relation to words of characters; how butterflies and snail fit into pattern, and a wide variety of circles within circles, or contiguous circles, or circles one on top of each other representing students’ different ideas about flow of being among the people moving around the gardens.
As class nears an end have to quiet everyone down, terminating vigorous back and forth between two young men shouting about the color black. Wind things up with definitions of Left-Mode and Right-Mode cognition – symbolic vs concrete, abstract vs analogic -leading class to main point that Virginia Woolf seems so “hard” at first because university students try to approach her with logic: today’s exercise, I hope, has made theml experience her texts concretely, intuitively, and visually.
Am followed into hall by woman student in brown, orange and yellow sweater patterned in rows of geometric figures worn over black wool tights, topped by brown leather jacket, whole effect set off by jaunty fez-style woolen cap of many colors.
“You can’t mean that about logic,” she insists, striding along Park Street beside me:
“I don’t agree with you: what about reason? What about intellectual argument?”
“I’m not against logic,” I reply, “You had to use logic to argue your first paper which you earned an A for, if I remember.”
“You must be against logic, if you’re for intuition,” she insists.
Stumped by dependence upon either/or paradigm has no idea she depends on, she changes the subject:
“This is isn’t what I came to college for,” she cries, in considerable pain about it, I notice.
“All right,” I reply, “tell me what you came to college for?”
She leans against the horrid granite pillar, thinking. “It’s you, I didn’t expect professors like you!,” she announces, more in grief than hostility.
“What kind of professor did you expect?”
“I expected professors who would act like my father, not like my MOTHER,” she sobs, then rushes off, leaving me astonished.
Wait amid mob of students and colleagues for elevator to seventh floor, contemplating issue of transference: students frantic to identify with males in order to fit into patriarchy tempted to model themselves on me, woman professor who is a mother like the one they are so desperate to disengage from. Conclude can only be true to self, celebrating my difference from academic males and their wan women imitators. Gratefully closing door of beige office behind me, review Woolf precepts taped upon it, abjuring self to become true “outsider” who teaches
“Not the arts of dominating other people (but) the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds“
Friday October 9
Traipse back and forth from apartment to Le Car with briefcase of Aphrodite notes and poetry examples, slide projector and index cards for quilt lecture, suitcase of warm clothes for Unitarian outing, poems and notes for Sunday morning service have been asked to conduct. One last trip upstairs to gussy up wool skirt and blazer outfit with (fake) gold jewelry for Barbaboo events. Finally drive down hill from University Houses and make way competently out of town to route 12. Gun up engine, at which Le Car proceeds to buck all over road. Much affrighted, slow down to fifty miles per hour to outrage of farm truck behind me and cars which pile up behind it. Pull over to soft granite shoulder, let them all pass, only to buck all over road every time I approach speed limit. Extremely agitated by ordinarily compliant Le Car’s behavior (two lectures to give, outing would be horribly disappointed to miss) slow down again and proceed along route 12 at forty-five max, to extreme irritation of everyone else on road.
Le Car behaving at slower speed, able to enjoy autumn haze blanketing rich black earth great-great-grandfather once cultivated, wondering if he ploughed over in geometric patterns too? Familiar bright blue roofs of farm complex next to highway reassuring, as is beloved broad Wisconsin River I cross at Sauk City, where tiny group of German Free Thinkers friendly to our fellowship yet worship. At Prairie du Sac corn stands in stiff, grey rows on either side of the road, ears all harvested, soon to be taken in for winter fodder, filling fields once cultivated solely and competently by Sac women.
As Baraboo Hills hove into view wonder about whooping crane project going on back there, handlers dressing up in white sheets with hoods and black beak feeders so that chicks will not bond with humans. Long pull into Baraboo Hills leaves Le Car grinding and whining and me in doubt as to whether will ever get to Wisconsin Dells this afternoon.
Baraboo campus minimal: concrete buildings stretched out on sandy soil, including one containing office of former student E., emerging from barracks to greet me. Always comforting to be invited by someone familiar with and approving of my pedagogy, sit down in E.’s cozy office to query whether it will really be all right to present “Aphrodite in Baraboo,” complete with startling quote from Inanna and definition of virginity?
“Oh, yes, please do!,” E. exclaims gleefully, “just the thing to wake my stodgy colleagues up!”
Clearly about to do E. a favor by playing the prankster, frequent role ever since made a hit as Loki role in second grade play about Norse Mythology. Proceed to classroom where students sit around long table, all silent, all glum, most endowed with Wisconsin farmer characteristics –flat, flaxen hair, big shoulder muscles, huge red hands.
Rise after flattering introduction (query: why do I never celebrate my prestigious degrees and brilliant books for myself?) to read poem by Midwest Author Phyllis Janik “No Dancing No Acts of Dancing,” about Wild Women in the Woods,
…Handsome females with fine, square heads and hairy bodies,
flinging their breasts over their shoulders when they run..
throwing own shoulders back suggestively while incanting verse which never fails to awaken audience. Slight rustling of farm students’ buttocks on chairs suggests at least mild reaction.
“Now let’s go back four thousand years to the Goddess Inanna as a teenager just waking up to her sexual powers,” I continue:
“When she leaned back against the apple tree
her vulva was wondrous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva
the young woman Innana applauded herself.”
Chairs scrape as English professors come to hear famous archetypalist lecture lurch back in shock, but E. grinning from ear to ear, and students wide-eyed.
Having gotten their attention, proceed with short introduction to Aphrodite as celebration of women’s sexuality which includes understanding of virginity as being able to decide for yourself about whether to be sexual or celibate. At this, class stirs into action and hands fly up in air.
“Do you mean, we don’t have to make love on the second date?” queries a very large, football player type young man.
“What makes you feel you have to?” I ask.
Young woman breaks in with “But I thought you guys wanted us to; if we didn’t you wouldn’t ask us out again!”
“No way!” says football player, back by chorus of “that’s right!” and “we don’t” from other men.
“Let’s stop a minute and consider the situation at Baraboo,” I suggest, “when does all this happen?”
“Saturday night!” they chorus as one.
“Describe Saturday night in Baraboo for me, then.”
“There’s nothing but bars.”
“We all go out for beer.”
“Do you get drunk?”
“Well, buzzed, you know, loosened up, like.”
“Tanked!” shouts a young man from the back of the class, then ducks down in embarrassment.
“And that’s when everybody expects sex if they’ve been out more than once?”
“Yes,” all concur.
“Then what can you do on Saturday nights that doesn’t involve drinking?”
“They like to do western dances,” offers E. cheerfully.
“The two-step,” elaborates football player, continuing slowly as if thinking it out on the spot: “I wonder if we could get a non-drinking western dance club going?”
“A celibate western two-step dance club” suggests another young man gleefully.
Women students are all looking at each other like Cortez spotting Pacific.
“You know, about Inanna,” says young woman wearing flaxen hair skinned back in bun and tattered sweatshirt reaching below hips, “let me tell you about the bar scene in Baraboo – here’s what it’s like: I get all dolled up in my miniskirt and tight blouse and go out to the bar, sit up on the stool, you know? There I am, full of myself, like Inanna, but all on two levels. I’m drinking, talking loudly, coming onto men and trying to feel cool, but I don’t: inside, I’m scared to death, don’t think I look that good to anybody, my body, you know? But I want to please men by being this way, dolled up, talking loud, being cool.”
Use this disclosure to get back to Sumeria in third Millennium, when feminine sexuality might not have merely been means to objectify women but respected, celebrated and enjoyed by both sexes. English professors (except E.) look as they have been run over by truck, but students participate eagerly in discussion until bell clangs and they pour out into hall, shouting back and forth about plans for Western two-step (sober, celibate?) party next Saturday night. E. and I endure baleful glances of English faculty as retreat to her house to catch up on each other’s lives.
Always enjoy looking at people’s kitchens: E,’s small, refrigerator busy with postcards of myth figures, soccer schedules and recipes; red and white checked curtains, oak-topped kitchen table with white metal legs. We sit down to refreshing jolt of coffee from brown and green earthenware mugs while E. makes tuna fish sandwiches and tells about divorce and bitter fight over custody of two teenaged children: E. won custody, but must support them on inadequate Baraboo salary. As we eat sandwiches and cut up a red apple for each other E. seems cheerful: relieved divorce is final, despite serious problems with son and defiance of daughter.
Tell her about own college daughter’s tentative pulling away, interspersed with frequent calls home for encouragement; and graduate student daughter’s near estrangement, which H and I hope to bridge by inviting her to go birdwatching in Finger Lakes next summer. Worrying about children tremendous tug at heartstrings, we concur: wonder if storms of maternal anxiety will ever calm? Tell her about what my Mother-in-law Martha said about trying to change children’s character:
“When I tried to espalier my pear tree against the bricks it grew all wrong at first – shot up branches in ways that were very unappealing. I wanted to pull it up, but Ed said ‘No, you’ve planted it, see what it does.’ And there it is today, nicely flat along the wall with its elegant little leaves, blossoms white against the bricks in spring, even a pear of two in autumn.
And that’s the way it is,” Martha concluded: “it doesn’t do any good trying to train your children: they just do what they’re going to do.”
“Flat against the wall,” remarks E., “she did train it!” Agree that it wound up an espaliered pear tree not a pear pear tree after all was said and done, though wonder if we blame ourselves too much for how our children turn out?
Nature vs nurture debate concludes as time for afternoon quilt presentation approaches. Return to campus parking lot to pull slide projector out of trunk to set up in small auditorium. Whole thing funded by a Humanities grant, Baraboo campus has procured Video about Georgia O’Keefe to start afternoon off. Audience trickles in, consisting of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers and female cousins of morning contingent, many (as I have requested) toting family quilts bundled up in bulky brown paper packages. Sturdy stand with hefty clips to set up on platform not provided, so rush about to find it, stored in back corridor.
Audience sits back in dark to dutifully take in O’Keefe video (suspect mothers, aunts, etc. find it hard to identify with glamorous career despite artist’s Sun Prairie origins). Lights go on, another flattering introduction (featuring my research and article on women’s needlework), and I get up to speak. Audience passively looking up at me, professor-as-authority, like rows of rabbits with paws raised submissively in front of them. Wouldn’t think of Inanna bit with this crowd (thought mischievously crosses mind) so start out with
“I’ll bet Georgia O’Keefe seemed very remote to your lives, didn’t she? Can you give me some words that come into your mind when you think about her?”
No hands. Silence. Finally young faculty member raises hand and says “feminist pioneer,” after which a few hands go up and women say “artist,” “sculptress,” “great woman,” “reminds me of my grandmother but grandmother wouldn’t have dared leave the farm.”
“That’s great!” I encourage: ” I’m going to read you what one of my students wrote to me about this piece she crocheted.”
Holding up little round doily, solid cloth in middle but tapering off in lace scallops at the edges that proudly adorns metal filing cabinet in my office, I read from Jeanette Port’s essay “On Learning to Crochet”:
“Grandma molded my hands to the pieces of lace-making as someone had molded hers and that person had been molded, on into infinity. Sometimes when she showed me her mother’s and grandmother’s bits of lace, I’d have visions of an unbroken chain of crocheters descended from Eve and connected to me by my knudled little shoe-string.”
To murmurs of appreciative recognition I continue: “While I learned how to work the threads into the traditional learning patterns, she told me about the old woman who people called a witch, but who was able to cure my grandfather when he fell into a vat of boiling soap.”
Sudden outburst of gleeful recognition reminds me what harsh lives Wisconsin farm women lead. One student, sent out to interview her grandmother, asked (against my instructions):
&”Grandma, why do you always talk against sex?”
“Listen Janny,” replied Grandma, “If you had nine children already and the old fart stuck his big old thing at you, wouldn’t you want to drop the window sash on it?”
Resist repeating this tidbit, though Loki rises within me. Call for the lights to dim to disclose a painting of twenty women busy at a quilting frame (while one disgruntled husband sulks in the corner.) Launch into a brief history of quilting and point out that you can exclude women from high culture but you cannot keep them from speaking and singing and gossiping and crocheting, or from stitching quilts together in intricate patterns, long threads with which, by hook or by crook, we celebrate our lives.
“Watch these slides,” I suggest, “and then tell me if quilts are just pastimes, mere crafts rather than true works of art.”
I start with an ornate English coverlet from 1703, and then display, incontrast, American examples from the same period.
“What differences do you see?” I call out into the dark audience, which enthusiastically responds with “squares!” “triangles!” and “more abstract! Like geometry!”
“How do you think that happened?” I ask, and, after thoughtful silence, someone calls out
“Well, it looks like porcupine beading but I’m Ojibwa, you see.”
“Right!” I exclaim, “exactly right!” then flash the most brilliantly colored slide of all, a Texas Star of Bethlehem, explaining that it is the precise same pattern as a sunburst painted on the back of the buffalo hide cloak of a plains Dakota warrior, which I then display from a slide purchased at the Natural History Museum in New York City.
Oohs and Ahs from the audience accompany slides of the Texas Lone Star, Postage Stamps and Bear Tracks, Rocky Road to Kansas, Kansas Trouble, and Drunkard’s Pathway. Eager to leave time for their own artwork I move quickly through Log Cabins, Crazy Quilts and Amish styles, Shoo Flies and Goose Tracks to conclude with Bridal Quilts and Friendship Quilts, Babies’ First Quilts and Quilts of Remembrance pieced together from remnants of a beloved husband’s clothing. Lights go up upon a dazzled audience, but before they can settle back into dutiful receptivity I call a large woman in a plaid housedress and yellow wool sweater up to the stage with her bundle. As she fastens her quilt humbly to the display stand someone calls out
“Oh! It’s Dutch Baskets!” and she corrects:
“Pennsylvania Dutch Baskets: I copied it from my grandmother, but I made these run up the side instead of across, you see, and I did it in yellow and green rather than pink and white.”
We are off and running, one woman after another coming up to proudly display her handiwork amid heated discussion of pattern and piecing, color and edging, until our hour and a half comes to an end with the approach of another class wanting to use the auditorium.
“So who is the artist?” I call out to the audience.
“We are, I guess,” says one woman, “Yes we are,” admit two more, regarding each other in amazement. I conclude with a poem Adrienne Rich wrote about her Aunt Jennifer, who sounds like she had a tough marriage. She worked for years and years on a crewel work picture of tigers:
“When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made will go on prancing,
Proud and unafraid.”
at which all burst into enthusiastic applause and debauch from auditorium, eagerly chattering about once and future projects.
Buoyed up by success of talk and goodbye hug from E., make way out of town up route 12, holding down to 50 miles an hour, glorying in soft afternoon light over farm fields ploughed like log cabin quilt pattern. Spot wedge of geese heading determinedly south high over hills, try to remember “Wild Geese” poem for Sunday service,
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
.”Meanwhile the world goes on.”
Grateful for E.’s friendship as for Estella’s in Green Bay, Sister Ann’s up in Merrill, dear Ruth and Pat awaiting me at Upham Woods – beads on the necklace of Wisconsin life holding me together. Contemplative mood ruptured as gun up Le Car for last long ridge into Wisconsin Dells at which it bucks and throbs alarmingly. Focusing mind on directions to get through town to camp, resolve to get somebody to drive behind me and rescue, if necessary, on Sunday.
First came to October gathering more than ten years ago, in throes of severe nervous breakdown, emotions washing uncontrollably back and forth across foundering brain like hurricane waves. Drove into camp terrified that new faces would loose fresh tides of feeling to fatally engulf me. Immensely thankful for blessing of non-judgmental fellowship of eccentric folk, make way down sandy track to parking lot as October dusk falls suddenly. Lug stuff into dormitory (gave up on unheated cabins after achieved age 50) where roommate (social worker don’t know very well) greets me warmly and announces potluck supper almost ready. Rush back to Le Car to get loaf of Italian bread and garlic spread and make way to dining hall where friends attacking table covered with rice pilafs and noodle casseroles, pots of beans and disparate platters spread with salads, fruits, bread and even nouvelle exotica like humus and baba ganouj.
On other long cafeteria tables games of Trivial Pursuit, Clue,O and Monopoly (strange choice for left-wing cohort less than friendly to capitalism), puzzles and card games in progress, to which most return after supper. Sitting leadenly to watch goings on among beloved community, realize long day’s efforts have left me exhausted, so that when everybody bundles up to go to singalong at bar in Dells decide to repair to dormitory instead where discover have to make bed (very thin and also stained mattress, moldy smell, can feel springs right through it) with stiffly ironed sheets and one scratchy blanket.
Prepare for bed alone, as room mate has gone off with revelers who galvanize locals every October with repertory of folk songs and hymns, hillbilly ballads and Bach chorales. Musical talent of Prairie Unitarian nothing to sniff at: “choir” won top prize at silo singing contest rendering hymns at top of lungs inside silo especially constructed for this activity at international dairy expo. Fall asleep wondering (not for first time) how singers inside farm silos deal with volleys of pigeon doo enthusiastic vibrations must surely loose from rafters?
Revelers, including room mate, return, still in full voice, well after midnight, wakening me to lie on my thin mattressed cot, assailed by disconnected thoughts which whirl around brain for an hour before fall asleep again and am reawakened long before dawn by pouring rain.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 10
Warning bell rings and rings. Scrabble about me for dark blue shorts and striped tee shirt, camp uniform of 1947, until stiff back and shoulders remind me have survived after all to adulthood. Make way painfully to bathroom where other superannuated campers blearily regarding wrinkles and greying hair in steamy mirrors bring me firmly to present, chilly autumn morning in Wisconsin forest. Denim shirt, sweater, plaid wool jacket warm me up for quick walk to recreation hall where am volunteered on spot to set up tables in dining room steamy with smell of scrambled eggs and sausage, toast and coffee prepared by kitchen crew which has arrived for today and tomorrow and which has, fellowship president announces, Rules We Must Follow. Listen up to how we must select a runner for each table, also plate scraper at one end, place glasses in this bucket and cutlery in that, etc. etc. Attend carefully, as were forbidden to return after disdaining similar instructions in more anarchic 1970s.
Morning activities announced: arts and crafts upstairs, board meeting in basement, choir rehearsal for tomorrow in this room, canoes at the ready but remember we must follow all boat rules carefully (lost an 11 year old to downstream current last year; subsequently picked up by excursion ferry) which are detailed at length. Poetry reading with Annis Pratt announced for 11 (informal affair where we all sit under trees and read favorite autumn poems to each other) leaving plenty of time for me to take canoe up river around island.
Morning so crisp and cool ought really to wear mittens to hold paddle as (without them) pile happily into one of the canoes lying on beach. Head upstream, avoiding downstream where younger daughter and I nearly capsized in wake of excursion ferry years ago. Current not heavy, but concentration required to get around bend of island and hold course along shore. Granite cliffs lean over water, tiny orange mushrooms clinging to them. Spot warbler pretending to be leaf floating about among willows, put down paddle, grab binoculars, attempt to focus, while canoe twirls around to head sideways back down river. Peels of sympathetic laughter from two canoes full of friends passing by decide me upon more philosophical canoeing, just paddling and looking but not trying to identify anything.
Reflect slender river below cliffs and caves quite different from broad currents downstream, where Fellowship makes midsummer canoe pilgrimage to camp out on islands. On a Sunday morning like this seven or eight canoes will be spread out over the wide river, and somebody will start an old hymn like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (predilection of congregation 85% atheist or agnostic for fundamentalist lyrics always strikes me as paradoxical) until singing ripples back and forth across Wisconsin’s wide reaches where it flows slowly down to the Mississippi.
Passively steering through alternating bands of river mist, regard bank lazily, until, rounding bend from shade into sunlight, come upon large oak leaning out over bank with enormous old hen of the woods mushroom growing around and around it, all flaming flesh and bright yellow lips, spewing down crystals of rain from last night’s storm.
“Aha!” pronounce to soul, which has been crawling out of debris of autumn anguish. “I have had my vision!”
Paddle happily home, beach canoe, go to cabin to get poetry books, ensconce self under oak to await participants (if any) in poetry reading. Nice and dry under tree, where sunlight has warmed fallen leaves, while up above me crows gargle and clack like castanets at each other in a language haven’t heard before, perhaps boudoir crow? Dear friend Ruth appears from forest with Pat and Metje and we all begin to thumb through our books for poems to read.
“In Heaven It Is Always Autumn!” I announce to start us off, at least, that’s what my Mother-in-Law Martha always says.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” reads Ruth, … “to swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells.”
“Especially when the October wind,” reads Metje, “with fists of turnips punishes the land..”
We settle back upon the leaves to tell each other how fall makes us feel. Ruth (who looks like an autumn leaf herself in her thick brown sweater and orangish corduroy slacks) positive as always:
“busy, busy, she queries, aren’t we always so busy in the fall?”
“Maybe we’re like squirrels,” suggests Metje: “in a panic because winter is coming.”
“Maybe that’s why I always collect bits of wool and material to sew up,” suggests Pat: “projects for the winter”
“I’m always so sad in September,” I add, “I think it’s because I’ve just separated from Henry.”
“Oh that would do it to me, I don’t see how you can stand it,” remarks Ruth sympathetically.
“But Maybe it is something evolutionary,” demurs Metje: “you know, the squirrels that are most frantic gather the most nuts and therefore survive, passing on their genes.”
We think about that for a moment.
“Today’s mighty oak,” remarks Pat, “is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground.”
We giggle for a while, but the somber mood soon returns.
“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving”
reads Ruth, from her favorite autumn poem and I decide to read my new one to see if they think it will be all right for the Sunday service:
“When you asked me why I was glad to be back in Wisconsin
I said It’s the berries, the berries everywhere High bush cranberries,
elderberries exploding on frail, unlikely tendrils, black choke cherries –
We can spread out in the sun
until they are dried into tight seeds of themselves
we can pound into pemmican
against darkening November and our winter’s pain
We decide upon Shelley, Hopkins, my poem and Mary Oliver’s on Wild Geese before repairing hungrily to the dining room where we devour (politically incorrect not to mention non-nouvelle) white bread with velveeta cheese slices and thick bologna with peanut butter and jelly offered as seconds.
When a rehearsal is called this afternoon for Talent Show Ruth whispers:
“could we get a number up for it from sexist old fifties hits as a spoof?”
Fellowship long feminist to core, we decide this would be hilarious, and agree upon “Whenever we kiss, I worry and wonder” (which I remember verbatim) and “I Need a Paper Doll that I Can Call my Own,” for which will cut out paper dresses with tabs for costumes. Rush off to seek materials and practice hits raucously until we have it all down, then collapse on cot in dormitory for satisfying afternoon snooze.
As Talent Show is to follow Folk Dancing in large assembly room repair there after supper of turkey slices and (reconstituted) mashed potatoes with canned green beans and stewed apples to find Hermine organizing fellowship in big circle, explaining steps to Israeli hora. Tiny and lithe, Hermine (has to be?) at least 70 but still moves about easily, eagerly demonstrating steps, harsh electric lights of assembly room glinting through snow white hair coifed close to her ears like a helmet. From stumblings and awkward gigglings, group begins to cohere: we lurch about, determinedly willing feet right over left in front, right over left in back; step kick step kick, until instructions become less complicated and then unnecessary as we gracefully circle, in total silence.
Satisfied at last, Hermine dims lights and repairs to Boom Box, whence mournful chords of Israeli dance fill room as we link arms and the dance begins, breaking handholds now and then to admit latercomers to our circle. Tempo picks up, Hermine raises arms in air, keeping time with clicking fingers, and we launch into spirited hora. Beloved fellowship bends and sways as last rays of autumn sun stream down upon us to illumine old folks and children, men and women circling in the harmony of the dance.
Session having come to an end with rollicking heel, toe and away we go polka romp to Dodie’s accordion and our string quartet, “The Chicken Pluckers,” we subside gratefully into metal chairs for Talent Show. Evening progresses through family skits based on tv ads, eloquent rendering of “Quoth the Raven Nevermore” entirely from Marty’s memory, and hilarious rendition of the woad song to the tune of Men of Harlech belted out by chorus line Mike has organized, clad in mock armor and pajamas:
“Saxons, you may save your stitches,
building beds for bugs in britches
we have woad to clothe us which is
not a nest for fleas.
Romans keep your armors,
Saxons your pajamas
hairy coats were made for goats, gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas”
Then Ruth and I, Caroline and Rachel succeed in reducing audience to shrieks and moans over (hopefully anachronistic) chauvinism of Paper Doll song, ending with Chorus line style kicking, considerably hampered by having to hold paper dresses up in front of us by their tabs.
Collapse in chair next to white bearded Dr. John, in sandals he wears without socks all winter long, sorely missing dear H. and his perennial recitation of Churchill’s Finest Hour in derby hat and cigar. Miss loved ones even more sorely when, crossing pine grove to dormitory and bed, hear teenagers around campfire singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” same song sung by older daughter last time she came here with us before going away to college, ten years ago.
Sunday October 11
Having slept better in strange bed than on first night (often case when traveling) wake before warning bell and dress for bird walk in chill of overcast morning. Following path along river which exhales mist into the cold October air, seek nature center where red-headed woodpecker, red-breasted nuthatch, goldfinch and pine siskins feed from big wooden shelf generously laid out with their breakfasts. Return through woods to check outdoor circle where will conduct service: pleased to note Mike, Marty, and brawny teenagers laying out council fire already.
Warm fug of dining room gratifying after chilly walk. Look about for children who will process through forest to Sunday service: find them eating lumpy pancakes with ersatz syrup and remind parents to fasten leaf crowns constructed yesterday around little heads. President arises to announce choir rehearsal upstairs, Chicken Pluckers in corner of dining room, kazoo band by volleyball court, where is our minister? As anti-authoritarian fellowship refuses to hire minister with congregants volunteering three month stints as lay minister, and as I have held that position often, raise hand and am summoned to disclose order of worship.
Sit on log overlooking river checking folder for 1) my poem 2) brief notes on when Ruth, Pat, Metje are to read their bits, composing thoughts and sentiments suitable to weekend. Nervously concluding things look o.k. when bell peals and first (discordant) strains of approaching Kazoo Band call Prairie Unitarian Fellowship to Worship.
Always amazed me that largely atheist/agnostic fellowship adores its worship services so much, just so long as no (real) minister foisted upon them by Boston.
Rise and stand at center of circle next to crackling fire as Kazoo Band, little heads crowned with orange and golden leaves, bobs in and out of branches behind Pied Piper Marty, until they are near enough for me to rise and announce:
“In Heaven, It Is Always Autumn” and the hymn the kazoos are playing, number thirty from our tattered old songbook, “Oh Life That Makest All things New!”
We sing at the top of our lungs in an attempt to be heard above the children’s discordant kazoos:
“From hand to hand the greeting flows,”
From eye to eye the signals run;
from heart to heart the bright hope glows,
The seekers of the light are one.”
I welcome them to the morning’s celebration with thoughts about autumn’s sadness, leading into Ruth’s spirited reading of Hopkins followed by my berry poem, which I have to shout out because the wind rattles oak leaves on dry branches leaning down around our circle. Then the children sing “Love is Like a Magic Penny,” their little high voices purer than their kazoos, and Metje gets up to talk about squirrels and panic. Pat reads Shelley and talks about autumn’s mellowness.
I take a deep breath against the rising wind to read from Mary Oliver about how the world
“calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things”
before the Chicken Pluckers plunge into a spirited rendition of Turkey in the Straw, after which it is time for the keylog ceremony.
As the Wisconsin River rushes past us, Mike reminds us of the importance to the loggers bringing their cuts down the Dells in years gone by of the keylog, which held their whole pile together. In each of our lives, he suggests, there is a person or an event that holds us together, and he asks those who feel moved to add a small log to the council fire in memory of such a person or event, either in silence or, if we want, to tell each other about it.
Rosemary gets up to toss a branch to the fire in thanks for the life of her father, who died last month.
George puts one in for Woody Allen, announcing that he will be Lay Minister in the winter and tell us all about why then.
I get up and put one in for Dear H., who we all miss this year, off there in Canada because this is our time to be citizens of the world.
One after another, old and young make their way to the front, talking about a good grade on a test, a hard year of cancer, joy at a child’s achievement, sorrow at a teenager’s departure into the wide world. When all is silent at last, with only the rustle of the oak leaves to punctuate our meditation, I announce a hymn by William Blake and we rise to sing reflectively that:
“Joy and Woe are Woven Fine
a clothing for the soul divine
under every grief and pine
weaves a joy with silken twine.”
At which Ruth, George, and Doctor John play a piece by Bach on their recorders as and we sit in silence thinking it all over until it is time to end the ceremony with our pledge of union:
“As the prairie stretches out until it becomes one with the sky, let us reach out to touch and be at one with the natural world, and with each other.”
Collar Mike on way to lunch to ask him to follow Le Car home, but he is staying late, so rush around until find Cindy, pleased to follow though can’t see what trouble can really be, since it got me here, didn’t it? Ounce of prevention being important at this point to prevent finding self stranded in Wisconsin hinterland, thank her heartfeltedly for her offer.
Chug along down Baraboo hills, hoping am not driving Cindy (in small zippy convertible behind me) out of her mind at my slowness. Feel winter coming on: sky overcast and landscape grey, though sun pierces cloud blanket briefly as we drive down the long slope of Sun Prairie into Madison where we drive off in our different directions.
University Houses, golden oak table with papers ready for correction piled all over it, own thick mattress with more than adequate quilt, seem welcoming and cozy. Put tv dinner of macaroni and cheese in oven and peas on to boil, then sit down to student papers, eating supper while correcting, skipping news and even masterpiece theater to get them done. As evening wears on simply cannot correct any more with clarity, so call up dear H. to see how things went in New Brunswick.
“Mad!” he says, “You know how long I worked on my paper? Everyone else on the panel talked too long and there wasn’t time to give it!”
Commiserate with him, outraged as always am by childish unprofessionalism of professors, but, he assures me, made many useful contacts and secured source of data for book underway so not all lost, how was my weekend?
Tell him about highlights, especially talent show, everybody missed him, by the way, Le Car behaved abominably. Asked for details, tell about bucking and carrying on at which H. asks
“What gear were you in?”
“Third, I reply, there are only three.”
“Oh god!” moans H., “didn’t you know there are four?”
“How would I know that, there were only three when I got my license!”
“That was thirty-five years ago!” groans dear H., though he says goodbye lovingly, while reflect (not for the first time) that marriage between native New Yorker and Detroiter born with stick-shift-in-mouth has moments of total non-communication.