Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Blues

A little blue heron is a fragile bird. Even though it's about two feet high and its wingspan exceeds three feet, its leg and wing bones are so long and spindly that it seems spectrally susceptible to any gust of wind. That long curved heron neck doesn't appear to add anything in terms of solidity.

And yet there they were, survivors of Katrina, mucking about in the canal as if nothing had ever happened.

I spent part of an afternoon during my New Orleans trip at the Barataria Preserve of the
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Monsieur LaFitte was a pirate of some renown, remembered by name in the form of a tiny town and the various components of the Preserve that lie scattered across the Mississippi Delta. I don't know what kinds of natural blasts from water and wind he endured, but as a pirate he's as good a symbol as any for survival in the face of the merciless ravages of weather and politicians.

The park, as you can see, has suffered. The cypress knees huddled together remind me of a childhood book I loved, The Singing River, but the bare limbs from which the Spanish moss waves heroically signal hurricane destruction. It's the south, and the trees have no business looking like the ones at home this time of year.

I walked a mile or so along a path through the swamp, one of the few open to hikers even five months after the storm, and then another mile or so on the boardwalk that parallels an old canal. The yellow-rumped warblers that will find their way back here in May were much in evidence, along with chickadees whose call varies just slightly from that heard in the winter woods of the north. I'm guessing that that means they were Carolina chickadees instead of our own black-capped chickadees.

No alligators, and only the occasional human. I am so grateful for places like this Preserve, where I can be alone with my thoughts and the wide swath of world to which human delight and loss are alike irrelevant.

Down along the canal, a great egret hunted hungrily, and a muskrat so enormous that I at first thought she was a beaver feasted on waterlillies. The little blues were more elusive. In St. Augustine, there are places along the river where you can sit at sunset and watch them sailing in flocks to secret overnight haunts. If there are still flocks of them in southeastern Louisiana, they did not make themselves known to me. But there are solitary survivors, testamentary to the quiet will of nature even in the face of its own most devastating onslaught.

This 'n That

I have one more Louisiana post in me, but I'm taking a little break today to catch up on questions, answers, thoughts, and meanderings:
1. What have you all found to be the best service for alerting you to new entries? I am missing too much with my haphazard system of clicking on my links, and then on their links, and then on the links of the links. I need to get going on the massive online changes ahead of me -- part of my AOL vanished a couple of weeks ago. My email is no longer visible unless I go through Internet Explorer to My AOL, and my favorite places have vanished into space. (And yes, I have reinstalled it, and tried everything else short of torturing myself with a telephone call.) Almost time for the big switch. I just have to get a new printer first so that I can finish copying all of Midlife Matters -- I broke the printer quite awhile ago when the lovely daughter's absence prompted me to try to insert a new cartridge all by myself. Those little pieces of plastic are just not too durable, are they?
2. If I change my template, will I lose anything other than my links? I'm getting really bored with this black background. If I copy my links, flickr, etc. to Word and then repaste them in, I should be fine, right? I just don't want to lose my entries.
3. I've just started a course in medieval history. Not sure what I think yet. There is an undergraduate in the class full of questions to which I hope my 9th graders know the answers, so I am thinking it might be sort of slow going.
4. I'm reading God's Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power -- A History of the Jesuits by Jonathan Wright and The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell. Jesuits in Paris and Rome and Jesuits in Outer Space. How cool is that? In fact, in a few minutes I am going to curl up in bed under a down comforter with The Sparrow as a way of avoiding grading 8th grade paragraphs on New England villages. I was going to go over to school this afternoon and write up my last set of report card comments, but I'm going to read instead.
4. Two of my students just IM'd me. They're working on a bio report on sea turtles. I suggested a field trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
5. I've had a very church-oriented week or so. Last Sunday I taught our adult education class on Ignatian Spirituality, an experience in which I am currently totally absorbed. This past week my 9th grade world history class covered the Reformation. I LOVE teaching church history to my Jewish students -- they take religion so seriously that they are completely fascinated by and full of questions about other traditions. (I've been reading up on the Reformation (in which I loosely include the counter-therof). Really, you could vomit. I'm not sure why anything that occurs in the Mideast is surprising to those of us who are the inheritors of either the Roman or the Protestant tradition. Our ancestors were neither the meek nor the peacemakers, that's for sure.) Then I spent most of this past week-end on a working retreat for church elders just prior to the ordination and installation of new elders and deacons this morning. We went to a Catholic retreat center on the other side of town -- a magnificent place, both inside and out, with beautiful facilities, incredible food, and a lovely 40 acres for hiking.
6. In the more-than-you wanted to know category: my thumb is killing me. I was in a rush between events at church this morning, went to the bathroom, couldn't get the TP to unroll, went to grab a paper towel, knocked my thumb against the paper towel dispenser, cracked it right across the middle, and then couldn't pull my corduroy pants up because my jagged thumbnail kept catching on the fabric. Just so you know that Presby elders are always functioning decently and in order.
6. My brother turned 50 this week-end. He was four when our mother died and in his early twenties when he had testicular cancer. Now he's happily married (second try), a successful businessman, and the proud father of a young lady about to graduate from college. Yay for him and Happy Birthday!
7. Sparrow and comforter, here I come!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Some Things Don't Require Many Words

Jackson Square -- might look familiar as the backdrop to some sweeping Presidential promises.
One of the world's most fanous streets -- quiet on a Sunday morning, but it will rise again.
A t-shirt hanging in a Bourbon Street storefront.
And if you're in the mood for many more words, go here. Jazz great Wynton Marsalis made quite a Martin Luther King Day speech at Tulane University.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Tulane Revisited

On my last morning in New Orleans, I went back to Tulane and wandered around the campus by myself for awhile, trying to get a feel for my daughter's new home. The evening before, I had visited the Audubon Park across the street -- an absolutely lovely, manicured, but somewhat natural area, lined on either side by beautiful homes, and host in the slanted light of early evening to runners, cormorants, and fulvous whistling-ducks. I didn't have a camera with me to record my life-bird of the week, but the next morning I did try to compile a record of the Tulane campus. Don't forget that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them

Tulane University is in possession of something that the rest of our country lacks: a visionary and insightful leader of extraordinary skill. As a result, the campus looks reasonably acceptable, the students are housed and already volunteering all over the city, the classes are moving forward, and the mail system is only a minor disaster.

I think that my first picture is of an original Newcomb College building. Newcomb was the women's school, Tulane College was the men's and, until Katrina, they retained separate identities for administrative purposes. For all obvious intents and realities they have been merged into Tulane University for some time, with Newcomb having lost most of its identity to the men's school, just as Radcliffe and Pembroke have to Harvard and Brown -- but it is only with Katrina that the final blow has been dealt to whatever individuality they did maintain. Although I'm not sure exactly where Newcomb begins and ends in a geographic sense, it's easy to see from the rough outlines of that portion of the campus what a lovely southern college for women it must have been. I found some humor in my daughter's enrollment last spring in Newcomb -- she had steadfastly resisted all my efforts to interest her in eastern women's colleges and then, somewhat by accident, found herself a student at a southern one. With sororities, no less! And now I feel saddened by Newcomb's demise; her diploma, should she decide to stay, will read "Tulane University" only.

The fourth picture, by the way, is a little present for Carol, a proud graduate and loyal alumna of Newcomb College.

I tossed the second picture in to demonstrate that, while Katrina may be somewhat responsible for the effect, frat houses tend not to look like the gracious buildings maintained by southern women's colleges, regardless of the circumstances. The cardboard sign on the second floor says, "Yes, We're Open," a familiar enough message around New Orleans, but certainly an important beacon to college students on a Saturday evening.

The third image illustrates the center of the Tulane Campus. I myself am not a fan of the combination of yellow brick and yellow grass, but I am confident that the grass will return to its original pre-Katrina green at some point in time. And the yellow bricks, which I consider particularly ugly, are at least bolstered by a humorous story. It seems that at some point in time, the same architect was designing clusters of buildings for both Tulane and Vanderbilt. The bricks for each school's buildings were shipped to the other by mistake, and the universities agreed that they would not bother with an exchange. From what I hear, the yellow ones would have been much more in keeping with the Vanderbilt campus as a whole. All I know is that I wish they were anywhere but Tulane.

And finally, the last image, with a student running alongside one of the buildings more aligned with my taste in Gothic university architecture, honed by my own alma mater and my son's years at Chicago, represents what was truly a delightful sight to me on that early Sunday morning: a campus at peace, a campus on which students who had adapted to extraordinary circumstances all over the country were finally able to engage in ordinary activities in the place they call home.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Formation Out Of Water

New Orleans, situated above the snake-like curve of the Mississippi River and below the enormity of Lake Ponchartrain, is a city of the water.

When the Americans began to pour into the city after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, they discovered that the French, long ensconced east of Canal Street, were eager neither to make their acquaintance nor to welcome them into New Orleans society or government. However, there were fortunes to be made as tarriff regulations vanished in the wake of the takeover by the new little American nation and the port of New Orleans opened to trade with Europe, the eastern United States, and the western frontier. The Americans weren't going anywhere. They settled west of Canal Street and began to build their own culture, across from the "neutral zone" where peoples of all nationalities could set up necessary encounters, and a distance from what we know today as the French Quarter.

The small prestigious American enclave benefitted from Mississippi floodwaters of the early 19th century, which deposited a thick layer of silt as they seeped away. The silt destroyed sugar plantations, but created high ground for houses and fertile ground for gardens. Hence, the birth of the Garden District. I was fascinated to learn that a natural and economic disaster not so different from Katrina had created the circumstances under which a neighborhood flourished in the decades following and was largely preserved when, 200 years later, a few inches of ground meant the difference between salvation and inundation.

As is evident from the last photograph, the Garden District did not emerge from Katrina entirely unscathed. The mansion in the bottom picture, encased in scaffolding, exists entirely under the auspices of a historical slate company from Cincinnati at the moment. One of New Orleans' most famous restaurants, Commander's Palace, has a long and difficult comeback ahead -- its sign says "We Understand."

But other homes remain mostly intact, a blue tarp here or there the only obvious sign of what happened. Perhaps there is something to be learned from the results of the flood that created the Garden District.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"Unknown Legend"

Lookin’ for a magic kiss
She gets the far-away look in her eyes.
Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind
She’s been runnin’ half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Collidin’ with the very air she breathes
The air she breathes.

There was a Florida vacation years ago when I listened to that song almost nonstop, north and south on A-1-A over and over again, back and forth between taking care of kids and looking for gannets and storks and ibis.

My hair was brown and my vehicle was a Plymouth Voyager but you know. . .

Neil Young just gets it RIGHT.

And that's what I thought again when I drove home tonight listening to Harvest Moon. Now my hair is graying and there's even a new white streak in front, but I HAVE progressed to a red Corolla. And Neil Young still gets it right.

At Brokeback Mountain there was a preview for a Neil Young concert movie coming out in March, I think. If I recover from Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar by then, I guess I will just be completely undone again.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cities of the Dead

Contrary to many misconceptions, much of New Orleans' history remains intact, despite the devastation wrought by Katrina. Many of the famous above-ground cemeteries, for instance, are in reasonably good shape, including St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, which we visited on a tour arranged by Tulane. (I've just been visiting cemetery websites and learned that under no circumstance should anyone consider a solo visit to a New Orleans cemetery. Good thing I didn't let my natural affinity for cemeteries worldwide lure me back for a private walk. I had no plans to move in permanently.)

The cemeteries are above-ground for a couple of reasons. The more dramatically appealing has to do with New Orleans' location below sea level, which means that coffins buried underground have a tendency to pop back up during a flood or hurricane. A less dramatic but more likely reason is that above-ground burial was common in France and Spain, the two countries from which many of New Orleans' European residents arrived pre-1800.

For whatever reason, above-ground burial is emminently practical in New Orleans. Although numbers of names frequently appear on the tombs , they usually represent more former than present occupants. There are, after all, only two slots in most of the tombs, each of them usually owned by the same family for decades. The recently departed are buried in wooden coffins, and the intense Louisiana heat causes body and encasement to disintegrate rather quickly, enabling them to be swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb. Cremation in lieu of burial was not permitted by the Catholic church until recently, but "natural" cremation was acceptable.
You can see in the bottom photograph that the tombs are constructed simply, with only one layer of bricks needing to be removed in order to brush away a former occupant in order to install a new set of remains. (The photograph above that portrays the tomb of a Carmelite house of nuns -- many names but few spaces.)
New Orleans law still requires that a body remain in his or her original space for a year and a day -- a carryover from the years of yellow fever epidemics, when people did not know the origins of the disease and feared that the fumes from a decomposing body might be contagious if a tomb were opened too soon.
The tombs are more or less elaborate depending upon the income and status of the owner-families. The walls of the cemeteries contain the budget-rate vaults; the families with wealth produce elbaorate carving and statuary. The cemeteries are immensely interesting, with their lengthy litanies of French names and their village-like quality -- but apparently an official cemetery tour is the only safe way to go.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Southeastern Louisiana is not all turmoil and devastation. Egrets and herons still stalk the bayous, and chickadees and warblers still flit among the cypress and palmettos.

I'm headed out of town to visit family and take a look at an employment opportunity, and I'm returning Saturday to a stack of papers to grade and a Sunday presentation on Ignatian spirituality for our church adult education class, a church luncheon, and the annual meeting.

So it will be a few days before I pick up my New Orleans series again. If you haven't read it, I hope you'll look back at my week's writing. I'm not participating in NOLA rebuilding, but I'm trying to do what I can by sharing the story as I witnessed it. Please share a comment if any of the entries makes an impact on you.

And a minor update: my daughter seem energized by her first week at Tulane. She's thrilled that her urban sociology class will offer her a chance to do fieldwork in the neighborhoods of her new city along with opportunities for service learning with local agencies. I'm thinking she's doing just fine.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Heading South (Click on Photos to Enlarge)

"Go down to Buras and you'll really see what Katrina did." So said another set of Tulane parents whom we met, all of us with freshmen daughters in tow, on the Jazz and Jambalaya Riverboat Cruise the University hosted for new families last Thursday night. This particular family was from Buras, much of the way down Route 23, where they are in the oyster business. (Hear that, Paul?) Their house is unlivable, so they are residing in their 65' cabin cruiser and thinking about turning down the trailer for which they've finally been approved, since the boat is quite comfortable. I had hoped, in pre-Katrina days last summer, to travel down Route 23 to the National Wildlife Refuge at the end of the finger-like pensinsula stretching southeast of New Orleans. They told me I would probably not even be able to reach Buras but that I should try if I really wanted to see what Katrina had wrought.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and I headed south, a little nervous since I am entirely unfamilair with the area. I did, in fact, make it to Route 23 pretty much entirely by chance, but make it I did. Of the dozens and dozens of vehicles speeding down the highway, I was almost the only passenger car. Truck after truck followed the road south -- most of them going much farther than I was able to since I was, indeed, stopped and ordered to turn around at a checkpoint about 10 miles north of Buras.

The trip is a bizarre one. There are stretches of highway bordered by lovely small estates, with pastel-colored stucco homes sporting long verandas worthy of Southern Living cover photos and carefully manicured lawns. And then there are the stretches where Katrina altered everything.

Boats rammed into bayou banks, boats hurled on top of each other, boats upside down in ditches.

Buildings surrounded by fallen trees, buildings with roofs and siding ripped off, buildings crunched and sagging into twisted skeletons of their former selves.

Houses flattened, or blown off their foundations and up to the highway.


Must Move Your House.

Asbestos No Removal.

Call So-and-So.

John and Lucille, 1141 [Disappeared] Lane

Rebuilding Do Not Bulldoze

Report Animal Sightings Please

The trucks that accompanied me south looked like little matchbox playthings in contrast to the sheer vastness of material that must be removed and landfilled and somehow replaced.

I was struck repeatedly by indications of how much courage and determination will be required to rebuild this area. The homes were not vacation mansions on stilts such as those built by northerners and city-dwellers along the Outer Banks in defiance of all reason and sense. These were the homes of small businesspeople and their employees, the homes of people who loved to make their lives along the Gulf. I'm sure you don't have to be someone like me who's dreamed of a life along the water to be pained by the sight of houses, docks and boats blown to bits, and the hopes and expectations of Gulf families along with them.
Paul mentioned yesterday that the osprey looks mythic. To me, he seems in this photo to be challenging us:
Fix it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Southeastern Louisiana: A World Apart

That's what I saw spray painted on a small house in New Orleans.

I had expected that my first look at what was left of southeastern Louisiana would be from the air, but overcast skies prevented me from seeing anything until my plane landed. The gray day did nothing for my spirits as my taxi took me to Tulane, and I was immediately immersed in the chaos of a college reawakening after its semester off, so I had little time at first to take in much in the way of hurricane damage.

My first view of serious Katrina impact was of the tree in the first photograph above, blown down and against a St. Charles Avenue mansion. Nearly five months later it still lies there, in all of its former live oak glory. My guess is that the home behind it remains in good shape, so no one is going to turn limited resources toward its removal.

The next day we hopped on a bus for a city tour provided for Tulane parents. Most of the morning was designed to acquaint us with NOLA history and architecture (more on that to come later this week), but some parents asked for a trip to areas where the hurricane had done its worst. Our guide indicated that she had been told to stick to the usual tourist routes, but she acceded to the requests and took us out to the West End, to the suburb of Lakeview, bordering Lake Pontchartrain. (If I am a little off on geography and names, I apologize and gladly await corrections from NOLA readers.)

Imagine your home. Think about what you do there. You grab meals on the run from the frig. You spread your bills out on the dining room table. You sit around and watch tv in the evening. You clean the bathrooms and rake the yard. You roll your eyes when the phone rings and it's always -- always -- for a teenage member of the household. You take the dog for a walk. You spread the best china and silver and welcome friends and family for a holiday dinner. You sit down at the kitchen table for a heart-to-heart with a child who came in too late last night, or a parent contemplating a move to a retirement community. You arrange fresh flowers for the mantle and call the piano tuner.

Unless you live in Lakeview, in which case you don't do those things anymore.

Lakeview is an eerie reminder of the destruction wrought by Katrina. Street after street of middle-class homes, pleasant brick ranches and colonials, water-stained and vacant. Disorienting. You feel for a moment that you are in a construction site, host to a new development of homes not yet completed or furnished, and then you are quickly brought back, by a water line on a fence, or a pile of trash and applicances, to the reality that this is a place of de-struction. There is no con-struction. The streets are silent, empty. There is none of the comdraderie and laughter of neighbors dealing with yet another home maintenance disaster of the type those of us who live in older cities are accustomed to -- there are no neighbors. There is no plumbing to complain about. No electrical. No heat. No dogs.

I don't have any photos of the West End -- the bus didn't stop there and I decided to cover more ground the next day rather than retracing my steps. (The other four pictures in this entry, including that of the unperturbable osprey, were taken further down the coast.) But I am haunted by what I saw. My husband said that he thought he had read somewhere that Lakeview was, like our own city, one of the first suburbs in America racially integrated with some degree of success, and that there was a great interest in returning it to life. I thought about Lakeview when I went to the gym this morning, where the population was a pretty even mixture of black and white, and where the few skinny babes in stylish workout clothes were offset by the Orthodox Jewish women pumping away on the Ellipticals in their ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved t-shirts, and head coverings. I thought about my neighborhood, with its eclectic mix of elegant older homes, somewhat out-of-place ranches, apartments, funky shopping blocks, modern schools, and extensive parks. I thought about it all just being gone. About all of us being gone.
The news in New Orleans is all recovery-related. Signs posted everywhere advertise clean-out and tear-down and haul-away services. The mayor says in exasperation that the destruction is God's punishment. You might almost think so, if you were inclined that way. It does tend to bring Noah to mind.
And God's wrath or not (and no, that's not my way of thinking), the wake of Katrina does clarify why the ancient stories of floods, common to virtually all civilizations, retain such a hold on us thousands of years later. The damage is awesome and the silence is deafening.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Tulane University Reopens

I'm going to start my New Orleans series with the event for which we were there: the reopening of Tulane University. Readers of Midlife Matters know that my daughter, like most other freshmen, was there only a few hours last August before the Katrina evacuation, which was expected to last four days. In the four months that passed before they could return, Tulane students attended nearly 600 other colleges and universities, in many, if not most, cases with tution waivers that enabled badly needed dollars to stay at Tulane.

The campus itself, on higher ground than much of New Orleans, was badly damaged but not devastated. Four months later, much restoration works remains ahead, but the buildings are functioning and it is possible to imagine the beauty that must have marked the quadrangles of live oaks, magnolias, and green grass. Far more devastating has been the loss of several programs, cut in the wake of the Katrina-driven budgetary crisis. And worse than that, the loss of many faculty and staff homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods.

Nevertheless, they came back -- over 85% of the freshmen who had had to begin their college careers elsewhere -- to a rousing convocation last Thursday. The auditorium was packed as a jazz band marched and danced down the center aisle, followed by the banners symbolizing each of the Tulane University colleges, the key members of the administration and, finally and to a spontaneous and rousing standing ovation, University President Scott Cowen. The last time that Dr. Cowen appeared on the convication stage, he was wearing Bermuda shorts and urging students and parents to hightail it out of town. This time, bedecked in his full academic regalia and wiping tears from his eyes, he presided over the rebirth of a university that he must have more than once suspected might never come to pass.

You can read the Tulane version of the event and see more photos here. From a personal standpoint, I will add that this was my first trip to New Orleans and I went, not because I thought my daughter needed two parents for her third attempt at beginning college, but because I wanted to be a witness to history. And I was never disappointed. Scott Cowen has made some hard, hard decisions in the past months, some of which have engendered further confusion, loss, and heartbreak for students, families, and faculty in departments that have been eliminated. But there is no question in my mind that Tulane University would no longer be in existence had it not been for his vision and determination, and the tireless effort he has made ever since he pulled his staff together by text-messaging when cell phones failed and paddled his canoe out of the building where he weathered the storm. It must have been quite a moment for him to stand on that podium and look at the freshmen families whose return he and his extraordinary administration, faculty, staff and grounds crews had engineered.

The rest of orientation was -- well, like and unlike freshmen orientations. Freshmen families were feted on a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi, a trip I had never expected to take, and at a party at the Audubon Zoo, one of the first NOLA instituitons to reopen after the hurricane. We got lost and frustrated on our attempts to pick up hangers, a surge protector, and toothpaste, and managed to miss all the information events scheduled for parents. The lovely daughter has had her challenges: she lost her wallet in a movie theatre the night before orientation, creating a series of headaches that will take months to repair, inasmuch as she is now 1000 miles from our own Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and she is deeply missing her first semester friends and feeling a bit isolated in her sadness. Most of the freshmen went to hometown schools, had less than desirable experiences, and are thrilled without reservation to be back at Tulane, but she went to her second-choice college, one that she would have happily attended in the first place, had a wonderful semester there, and has very mixed feelings about this new transition. Thankfully she is a resilient, observant, and thoughtful young woman, willing to put herself on the line and fully capable of making her own decisions (woe to the person who tries to intervene!), so I am sure she will figure out the right path for herself.

We did make it onto a city tour bus, and I did make my own journeys south of and around a bit of New Orleans, so there is more to come in the next few days on history, architecture, and the everpresent and overwhelming wake of Katrina.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Unexpected Everything

One of the first things you discover when you have children is that you will be happier if you abandon all expectations. Nothing will ever go according to plan again, and your vision of control is little more than fantasy. Such realities perhaps become apparent to parents of multiples more quickly than to most other parents, but they do come to all of us, sooner or later.
College? Now THAT seemed somewhat under control. A Herculean task, to be sure, but a manageable one, as long as you do not mistake your own completely unbiased and adoring view of your child for the more jaundiced one that might be taken by admissions committees. A couple of reaches, sure -- but on the whole you and your child try to figure out what her realistic options might be and arrange things so that when the letters come, there are more acceptances than rejections and at least some of them offer something enticingly green. She makes her choice, she refrains from the kind of idiotic behavior that could get her expelled from high school in May, and she goes off to college.
So who thought about a hurricane?
Nope, not me. I just laughed at the "Personal Hurricane Emergency Preparedness" information that came along with the phone cards and post office box numbers and refrigerator orders.
Why would a woman who had to single-handedly evacuate three children under four from the house late one night when the church next door burst into flames EVER laugh at the possibility of disaster?
What can I plead? Undying optimism?
Well. My daughter and her father are back in NOLA this afternoon. Both of them, of course, have their phones turned off, so if something worse than Katrina has happened I don't know about it yet. I assume they're exploring and I hope they're safe. Tomorrow she'll get a look at her new dorm room and will learn whether her clothes and bedding survived the past four months, and then she will, once again, begin her career at Tulane.
She has certainly grieved the loss of Willamette, her first semester host school, and her wonderful group of friends there. But last night she was online purusing the array of volunteer and rebuilding opportunties available in New Orleans and wondering how she was ever going to choose what to do. I think she'll probably be all right.
PS: I'm flying down tomorrow and I'm staying till Sunday. "You're not planning to hang out with me all the time?" asked the lovely daughter. Are you kidding? My cameras are primed and I have hundreds of photographs to take. I plan to see as much of NOLA and southeastern Louisiana as I can. More next week!
PPS: They called! And here's the first report: No, it's not the NOLA they visited a year ago. Trolley cars? Gone. Street lights? Nope. Traffic lights? Mostly down. My daughter says it probably would be depressing, but there are lots of people around. French Quarter: There, but very quiet. Hotel? Sheets covering the windows, room ceiling pulled down, no hallway wallpaper anywhere, endless evidence of blown-out windows and water damage. "Spartan, " says my husband. However, there are lots of parents and students wandering around. My daughter does not sound the least bit deflated.
To my utter dismay, they also report that the President (of the United States) is coming to New Orleans tomorrow. Honestly. This administration's contribution to the recovery of a great American city equals less than zero. How dare he show his face just when the colleges -- among the few institutions that have made real headway, and almost completely on their own steam -- are re-opening? No one needs a presidential entourage impinging upon things tomorrow. Let the university communities have their day in the sun.

Monday, January 09, 2006

New Years' Musings: Twenty is the Cruellest Age

Twenty or thereabouts. My sons are 21 and my daughter is 18. From a mother's point of view, these are difficult times. Nothing like the meltdown we endured during the high school years, but trying and depressing nevertheless.

The kids are, of course, revelling in their independence, as they should be. But how quickly they discard childish things, and how little they have created to replace them.

Over vacation they were mostly bored. Their friends and activities and lives are all elsewhere now. They spent a little time with high school friends, but none of them show a keen interest in going backward in time. Not so much interest in the present, either. I did all the holiday decorating and preparing myself -- the days when they enthusiastically pitched in to hang ornaments or bring in greens are apparently gone, at least for now.

I had some unpleasant moments with each of them over the issue of "parental pressure," as they describe it, or "acedia and inertia," as I describe it. I listened to many protests in which the key theme was an insistence that "I'd take care of it if you'd leave me alone." That, as a friend of mine and mother of six noted, is not the case. I said very little from September to November to any of my children about matters that they needed to take care of, matters pertaining to majors and courses and spring and summer plans. As a result, none of those things have been taken care of.

Yesterday I finally said to my daughter that (1) it might have been nice for one of her brothers to have spent spring break with Habitat on the Gulf Coast but the deadline for his school's program was in November (2) the job she has indicated an interest in is competitive and her three weeks at home have produced no completed application or requests for references and (3) she might remember that last winter break she similarly rejected all my pleas to explore a community theatre opportunity for the summer, announced in March that she was indeed interested, went down to apply, and was greeted with laughter -- all the jobs had been filled in January.

She rolled her eyes.

It is so hard to see three young people with the energy, freedom, and mental elasticity that I no longer have frittering away their time on poker, video games, and television. They could do ANYTHING at this point in their lives. The boys still have at least one long summer ahead of them, and parents willing to finance certain adventures. I told one of them that in a couple of years he will be wearing a white shirt and tie in a corporate environment that allows him four annual weeks of freedom, and he will wonder why on earth he didn't take this summer to work in Alaska or volunteer on another continent or go back to work as a summer camp counselor -- one last chance to play in the mountains. Or -- go and grab one of those summer internships that looks so impressive on a resume. Just DO something!

As I sat around with my own friends on Saturday morning (out post-holiday breakfast lasted over three hours), I said that I thought maybe we wouldn't be doing Christmas dinner next year. "The kids don't seem to care about being home, or about the family aspect of Christmas anymore," I said. "And there are fewer and fewer spaces on the calendar when all five of us can be in the same place at the same time. So I'm thinking maybe we need to develop a new tradition for a few years, and travel over the holiday. "

Somewhat but not entirely to my surprsie, two of my friends said they had been thinking the exact same thing. I'm afraid that this city is full of mothers wistfully decorating trees by themselves and trying to think of other ways to foster family closeness at least once a year.

When I started this series, I noted that there is little guidance for this stage of life. All those hundreds and hundreds of infant and childcare books -- but nothing for the mother who has to somehow master the final transition to independence. The kids barely notice -- they pack, they drive, they fly. And it's the ones who don't, who struggle to independence in the most roundabout ways, who foster the most dramatic parental grief -- the child who flunked out of college with only one semester to go, the daughter who had a baby and now struggles to combine single-parenting with work and college, the children who never went to college and whose mother finally decided to use the tuition money for her own graduate program. But those who navigate the last years of youth less eventfully are still capable of twisting the knife.

I guess there was nor reason to expect these years to be as delightful as some in the past have been. I know that it's a time of terrible struggle for the young people, as they come to terms with the looming spectre of employment and the possibility of making choices they will come to regret. They don't know how to tolerate the internal chaos on which the cusp of adulthood teeters, and their mothers, mixing memory and desire, don't want to.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot

Sunday, January 08, 2006

New Year's Musings: Which Way?

This morning as I walked down the hallway at church, I saw a familiar face -- the young woman who was our Youth Director for a couple of years is now in seminary in Atlanta but was back for a visit. "Wow!" I said. "Hi! How IS it?"

"It's WONDERFUL" she responded. "When are you coming?"


Now. I am supposed to see that as a significant question, or a polite conversational response?

That's the problem when you start wondering whether you should be in ministry. You begin to see meaning where it might not be. Or might.

I thought my decisions about next year were starting to firm up. Teach high school, teach college, teach in a nontraditional educational setting. Something -- one of those. I thought seminary was a definite "nope." A quarter of the way through the Ignatian Exercises, and my call to teaching is so clear to me. Of course, there are another three-quarters to go. But the flip side of the coin would seem to be my non-existent call to certain other aspects of ministry.

A Presbyterian pastor is called to a ministry of Word and Sacrament. I'm fine with the Word part. I've been reading words since I was three, and anyone who's been a lawyer and a teacher of people ages three to eighty-three is comfortable with words in whatever form they can be shaped. People liked my first sermon last summer. People like my occcasional presentations for our Adult Ed program. I get plenty of positive feedback in the Word department.

I'm also probably okay with the pastoral part of pastoring. I'm not so much afraid of death, pain, hospitals, the justice system, jails, lawyers, police officers, the offices of people who are accustomed to intimidating other people, and all those other places and situations where people need care. Unfortunately I have needed care in not a few of them myself. Or maybe fortunately. Sometimes I think maybe there is a significant reason I have ended up in the most godawful situations. (Other times I think the reason is more along the lines that some of us just have more bizarre lives than others: "Too bad, you're it!")

But then there's the Sacramental part. And here's the thing. The sacraments of the church do not particularly move me. Is that something I dare to admit? A deal-breaker? I've been thinking "yes" to both. In the Protestant church we have only two sacraments: baptism and communion. And I have ADD; I'm sure of it. I can barely sit still through a communion service. At least in a baptism there is usually an adorable infant who gets marched down the aisle, gurgling and cooing (or screaming) in a long white gown, after a VERY SHORT ceremony. Communion is INTERMINABLE.

Well, I will have to talk this over with my guide through the Exercises. As a Catholic priest, he celebrates Mass everyday and communion is, of course, the whole point of the Mass. So far he has just nodded his head in understanding when I've mentioned that the sacraments are mostly more of a Catholic thing.

This is not where I had planned to go with this entry. Ah, writing is a wonderful thing. You start with a plan and you end up mulling over something else.

(Which reminds me. Sometimes I think that what I am really supposed to do is just write about all this. About what it's like to have God in your life when you are basically an extremely ordinary liberal and highly skeptical scripture-and-history geek known to have used rather crude language in religious settings. Not, in other words, Ms. Right-Wing Christian or Ms. Holy Mother.)

There is one other thing I keep wondering about with respect to discerning a call to ministry. I have some land in southern Ohio, a wedding gift from my grandfather. If I were to go to seminary, I would have to sell that land, which has been in my family for 150 years, to help finance the cost. Last summer I told a dear friend of mine that I was thinking about seminary, in a conversation in which issues of land and money never came up. That friend is a woman my father's age, a nun who was once one of my agnostic Methodist grandfather's closet friends. Her eyes just danced when she exclaimed with relish, "Seminary! Imagine how your grandfather would respond to THAT!"

I've thought about that conversation a lot in the past several months. Only God is capable of providing for irony so extensive and so humorous -- a grandfather who dismissed preachers as "good for marrying and burying and that's about it" gives his granddaughter land as a wedding present in the hope that she will build a home and raise a family nearby, and thereby unwittingly provides the resource that might enable her to become a minister?

There. See what I mean about what happens to a perfectly good mind once God gets hold of it?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

My daughter and I just got home from seeing Brokeback Mountain.

Now there is a portrayal of human spirituality. The capriciousness of joy, the anguish of longing, the vastness of loss.

As Jack and Ennis struggle with what is not to be, I kept thinking of my recently widowed, after not quite four years of marriage, father, saying over Christmas, "I'm so grateful that I have opened myself up to the things I have over the past few years." And then I sat there and cried quietly through the entire last fifteen minutes. The expanse of grief is just what grief is: huge.

This movie could change lives, at least for those of us who always settle, always compromise.

The images of the splendor of the Rockies and the rivers of woolies aren't bad, either.

(And this movie makes that tv show last night look just plain silly.)

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Daybook

Just a set of scrap notes, something I like to do occasionally to remind myself of what my life is like at any given time --

Today --

6:15: Got up, checked my email and played online for way too long. I am intrigued by reactions to the television series The Book of Daniel that begins tonight (except where it's already been canceled before anyone's seen it.) The American Family Association views it as an evil, heretical, and flamboyant assault on Christianity. NBC and the cast and crew claim it is a sensitive portrayal of the dilemmas and struggles of a family in which the husband and father is an Episcopalian priest. Most reviewers seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. It looks okay to me so far; nothing much special for television. I am mostly perturbed by the selection of the actor who plays Jesus, a European Caucasian rather than a Jew. He looks more like he is about to stride out of the countryside of France toward the Crusades than out of the hills of Galilee toward the saving of the human race. One might think that the casting director could at least get the ethnic background right.

6:45 Went back to bed. It was miserably cold and dark outside and in the house.

8:15 Finally woke up and got started on the day.

10:00 Taught one of my two 8th grade groups the Deerfield lesson on the layout of an early New England town.
The other class did it yesterday. We've noticed that our students struggle mightily with work that requires visualization skills -- inadequate art instruction in elementary school? This group did catch on more quickly than the other to the fact that the 1671 map on which we worked paralleled the 1996 map, once they began to color in the lots and river. The most interesting tidbit I have picked up this week is that the farm lots were long and narrow because the early settlers used oxen to pull their plows, and oxen don't like to turn around. Solution? As few turns as possible. On a more humorous note: my students have easily understood the Puritan penchant for getting in their neighbors' faces and obsession with details about private behaviors. Several of them report having neighbors who "spy" on their Shabbos observances to make sure that they are kosher enough. I guess community life is always a struggle, no matter who you are or in what century you live.

11:00 Spent an hour or so inputting grades and comments for the end of the semester into the computer.

12:00 Off to Office Max and Borders for CDs for photos and magazines to appease my endless need to read. The New Yorker has yet another article on NOLA and Time's cover features Martin Luther King, Jr., so I picked those up, along with the new Sojourners.

1:00 Lunch and computer playtime. We called Tulane and learned that the lovely daughter does indeed have a new roommate -- but we have no way of contacting her yet. I have designated Friday afternoons, when I get out of work early (although not usually as early as today -- it's exam period), as a time to work on the photo collections I have allowed to build up over the past three years. So I went off to the photo store with a disc full of pictures. 1250 pictures as it turned out. I ordered some prints and purchased and some frames and went to another bookstore. I've been looking for Christmas cards on sale since I really did plan to send some out after Christmas but I lost them. Success on that purchase, too, and, of course, just one more little novel to read. As I drove home, the little handle that controls the window-wipers came out of its socket. It still sort of works, but the electrical connection for the washer fluid doesn't. The car has 4,000 miles on it.

6:00 Took the silly dog for a mile walk. It's about 20 degrees and snowing lightly -- quite lovely, actually. Continued the second two miles on my own -- no longer snowing. Most people still have their Christmas lights up, so it was a very nice walk indeed.

8:00 Spent an hour fooling around on the computer, mostly with Nothing whatever about technology is intuitive for me. As you can see, I've added a Presby blogring to my repertoire -- but I have no idea what a blogring is.

9:00 Settled in to watch the dreaded Book of Daniel on tv. My take on it: Desperate Housewives II. I guess it could be called Desperate Clergy Families. The family dysfunction isn't any more offensive than it is on the real DH, where the girls bounce around in skimpy outfits and extra-curricular sex and murder are de rigueur. The Jesus character has a few potent lines, but mostly comes across as a somewhat stoned hippie -- not surprising, since a number of other characters have drug and alcohol related issues. The offensive part, to me, is the depiction of the female characters. The minister's daughter is a drab takeoff on Claire Fisher of Six Feet Under, one of the finest television dramas ever concocted -- same looks, same mannerisms, same artistic temperament. The minister's wife and her sister mostly flail around with their martinis, and the bishop played by Ellen Burstyn is no step up. The man bishop is astonishingly dense and not a little creepy in his denseness. It's entertaining enough -- but hardly a show that takes the life of faith seriously. In fact, I would say that most of the lay Presyterians I know -- and we belong to one of the more liberal denominations -- spend a lot more time taking questions of God's presence and our connection to God seriously than anyone on this show. Conclusion? I'm not offended, but I'm not impressed.

11:00 Time to hit the sack with my new novel -- a mystery of some sort set in the fourteenth century and concerning the transcription of a forbidden English translation of the Bible. Probably both more entertaining and more on target insofar as spirituality is concerned

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Countdown: One Week To Go

Freshman orientation at Tulane University begins one week from today. They are calling it "Orientation Deja Vu" since most of the freshmen were only there for a few hours the first time around. I posted the following on a college website tonight:

I called Housing today to try to find out my daughter's situation. They say she is assigned to the same room, her stuff should be there, they have no idea if the washers and dryers work, she will probably be assigned a roommate from the housing waiting list (which she expected, since her roommate never materialized and did not respond to phone calls post-Katrina), and she might be able to find out who it is if she calls them late tomorrow, and then she might be able to make contact through the Facebook. The woman I spoke to sounded completely frazzled and said they do not have access to the housing database and are working off an Excell spreadsheet.

The lovely daughter is cautiously optimistic. She says that she and her roommate last semester discussed how, after all the schools go through to match roommates, their assignment was completely random and could not have been more perfect. (Her roommate at her host school had also had a roommate who just didn't show up.)

No info about books ot anything else that might be different; we are hoping that her ID, room key, and PO Box are all still hers and functioning. Clearly we all have an adventure ahead of us.

New Year's Musings: Whimsy

I spent a morning right before New Year's trudging around Chautauqua, the summer community where we have spent time for so many years. Trudging is the only word for it -- most of the snow had not been ploughed or salted, and the roads were alternately slushy and icy and always treacherous. I had my moments though -- a Cooper's hawk sitting high in a tree and calling back and forth to someone it eventually flew off to join (Do Cooper's hawks mate for life? I was astonished to hear what seemed like a courtship ritual in late December --) , and a pileated woodpecker. Chautauqua is one place where you are almost guaranteed a pileated.

And this house! Arising in the 1870s as first a tent community and then a village of summer cottages built on the old tent platforms, Chautauqua was a dilapidated shell of its former self a century later when the nouveau riche descendants of its early teacher and minister families rediscovered it. Victorian rehabs and new construction popped up all over the place and, sad to say, Chautauqua is no longer a place for the financially faint of heart. I expect every visit I make to be my last, as those of my generation having the wherewithal to build summer homes in the range of the high six figures have crowded out the more modestly monied population that built the Institution in the first place.

But the houses are irresistible, and thinking about this one has reminded me of the romance and whimsy and quixotic features that have all but disappeared from my life over the past few years. In my case, small children brought with them years and years of joyful explorations of the natural world, hours of reading fantastical stories, and long afternoons of creating bizarre architectural structures in the house and yard. Adolescence brought with it a period of much pain and sorrow, and drained away most of that joy.

I'm ready to grasp the pleasures of life again, and to start letting go of the things that don't work. Easier said that done -- I think our brick colonial house could best be described as "ponderous," and light and openness and joy are what I want to be about. Financial constraints will deprive me of purchasing a different house, but this one could stand some emptying, some improvement -- and some COLOR.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

There Are Days I Love Teaching

Another blogger, whose joyous posts about her first year as corporate-exile-turned-teacher are great fun to read, inspired me in the last day or two with her resolution to be more reflective about her teaching. Herewith, therefore (ah, yes; old lawyers never die):

1. For the rest of this week I'll be teaching the eighth graders about Puritan settlements. I wanted something a bit more primary-sourcey than what I used last year, so today I decided to google something like "New England village + map." I found the most marvelous lesson plan based on the layout of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a town settled in the 18th century by the Congregationalist descendants of the Puritans, with terrific plat maps and illustrations of the sort of houses I once expected to live in (although I personally was aiming for Williamstown or Little Compton). Deerfield Academy is the archrival of my own boarding school, and the layout of the town is not dissimilar to that of the town of Northfield that I know so well, complete with river and long, narrow lots. Reading through the material was like going home again. When you go to school in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which I did for 7.5 years, you tend to pick up a lot of New England literature and history -- in fact, you leave the area under the impression that, with the possible exception of Yeats and Eliot, there has been no literature of note since the Transcendentalist era, and no architecture worth discussing since the houses on Benefit Street in Providence were erected. So I am loving this little visit to Deerfield upon which my 8th graders are about to embark.
2. A group of us from church (where I am the adult education elder) are making a trip in July to the tiny island of Iona in western Scotland. It has developed that a young lady formerly of our church, now a student at Harvard, spent her last semester working on Iona, and so I have asked her to speak to our little group this Sunday. What's particularly fun for me is that I have known her since she and my sons were three-year-old Montessori preschoolers together -- in our church building, in fact. It's an experience to realize that the brillant and poised young New England scholar you have invited as a guest speaker is someone whom you knew when she spent her mornings pouring water and building the pink tower.
One of the best things about teaching is the connections across generations and geography.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's Musings: Who Knew?

I swear, I was a complete idiot. I thought people got old by choice. All those old people I knew? With the extra weight, the extra skin, the stiffening joints, the graying hair? They all made those things happen, right? For some reason they wanted to be old.

It seems that I was in error.

I don't mind growing older. Although the speed of time seems to increase exponentially with each passing month, so does the knowledge I acquire. (Of course, I forget much of it, but that's another story.) And I know a number of talented and engaged older people, so I'm not afraid of being put out to pasture.

I do mind the physical-ness of it, however. I mind the extra weight, that's for sure. When I first started blogging, my journal was called Unload! and referred to the pounds that needed to go. I had this fantasy that by being publicly accountable in an anonymous kind of way, I could make them disappear.

I mind the aches and pains. A couple of them are worrisome, especially since I have three friends, two male and one female, who've had hip replacements in the past several months. As I've been talking things over with friends, I realize that over the years I have gradually compensated for various physical ailments while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge them. When my twin pregnancy (13-plus pounds of babies) did in my back, and produced endlessly repeating bouts of bursitis, I just made a few minor adjustments. Now I automatically arrange myself in a nest of 4 or 5 pillows to sleep -- not giving my needs a second thought except when I go away, as I did this past week, and forget my pillows and have to scavenge every cushion in the living room.

But here's what I really mind -- and sure enough, just as Tess suggested in her comment that they would, the thoughts are emerging slowly as I write -- what I really mind has nothing to do with the slings and arrows of advancing age. What I really mind is that I am not living the life that I want. I am not outdoors as I want to be, and that's more a product of family patterns than creaking bones and missing cartilage.

In our pre-kid years, my husband and I did a lot of backpacking and birding, and I always looked forward to sharing those activities with my someday children. However, we were stopped dead in our tracks by organized sports -- in the form of soccer. Evenings, week-ends, and vacation weeks melted away as we drove long distances and spent long days at tournaments. My husband became involved as a team manager, coach, and club treasurer, all of which ate up more time. I never minded the soccer per se -- but I was amazed that so many people were so little interested in anything else that they were able to spend all their free time at ball games.

We managed to carve out exactly one free week-end for backpacking with our kids when they were all in middle school. And then there were the week-long canoe trips in Canada organized by my father -- but that was it. I suppose we could have done more in the outdoors as a family had we not sent the kids off to camp for three weeks every summer, but I'm a firm believer in the value of experiences for children completely independent of parental involvement. Summer camp was practically mandatory. (And let's face it -- they never would have gone rock climbing with us.)

I'm not complaining about how things worked out for our offspring. But I am realizing, with them gone, how much of what I loved went by the wayside. And how accustomed I have become to their absence. And how easily I postpone enjoying them now, because I have gotten so used to taking care of all the other things I need to manage in their place.

Cynthia has a wonderful entry today in which she talks about how easily she (by which she unwittingly means we) postpone engagement by spending so much time getting ready:

"That's really what organization, cleaning and creating order are all about to me -- getting ready. I have the urge to clear the deck and get on with the real work, the fun stuff, the activities which mean something to me and truly help define who I am. I just need to make sure that I don't get hung up in getting ready. "

And that's exactly what I do now. I work on almost anything besides the main things. I am reminded of an analogy that Stephen Covey uses in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He notes that if you want to fill a jar with large rocks and sand, you can't start with the sand, because there won't be room for the rocks. You have to start with the rocks -- the big, important things you want to accomplish -- and pour the sand -- the minutiae that tend to consume our lives -- into the spaces left over.

When I started my first journal, I wasn't just trying to lose weight. I was hoping to get in shape for bigger and better things -- outdoor things that require energy and strength and flexibility. I forgot about those things pretty quickly, but it's time to reclaim them.

I don't have to look like Jennifer Aniston to die happy. But I do need to be doing the things I want to do, and I need to become more in touch with what those are.

At the Christmas Dinner we hosted, I overheard one of my friends say, "I know that doing this makes Robin so happy." I stopped in my tracks between dining room and kitchen and thought about that for a second before I hauled out the desert plates. "That's not true," I thought. Or rather, it is true, but not entirely true. I do love seeing all my friends together, happily enjoying a meal and good conversation in the candlelight. But I am no longer wedded to following the same ritual year after year, especially one that no longer nourishes me personally. The truth is that, as beautiful as my great-great grandmother's china and silver looked, I would rather we had been having a picnic on a beach.

I may not have a choice about aging, but I certainly have some choices about where and how to proceed. Perhaps this needs to be the year of exploring alternatives.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A New Year, A Not-So New Life

There isn't much guidance for this stage of life.

When I was a teenager, there were magazines: Glamour and Mademoiselle, guides to the intricacies of fashion and the mysteries of sex. What else did a girl need to know?

As a young professional woman, I subscribed to a pile of periodicals designed to keep me abreast of my field and the advancing role of women in the working world. ABA Journal, OSBA Journal, local bar association journals, working women publications national and local. Fashion and sex still mattered -- I learned how to accessorize a suit and how to avoid the pitfalls of office romance -- but so did deposing hostile witnesses and writing briefs.

The world of young mothers is nothing if not prolific in words. As I moved into my thirties I was never at a loss for the magazines and books that enabled me to master the details of childbirth, infant feeding, potty-training, preschool selection and the developmental markers of every age. It went something like this: natural is best, breast is best, readiness is best, Montessori is best, self-determination is best. Not wanting to miss anything, I included a c-section, bottle-feeding, bedwetting, homeschooling, and Eclecticism 101 in my mothering repetoire.

The teen years are better left unmentioned. Suffice it to say that I found parenting easy, fun, and fulfilling for 17 years and then I found it bitter, agonizing and, at best, relentless. I am extremely grateful, and not a little surprised, that our household achieved a 100% high school graduation rate and now counts among its members three college students.

As I look around and ahead, I see that there is an increasing amount of information available for the aging baby-boomer. The first ones have just turned 60, after all. How to manage your 401(k). What to do if you unfortunately overlooked the necessity for a 401(k). Yoga for seniors. Financing assisted living and nursing-home care. The best retirement towns. Luxury eco-vacations for those who have advanced beyond backpacking. Hip replacements for those who have not.

But I'm not yet beyond middle-middle age. I am pretty much plop in the middle. In fact, with my grandmother turning 100 in March and me, myself and I turning 53 in July, I could quite literally be in the middle of my life.

And I'm finding it an uncomfortable spot, without much of a pathway delineated for me. I'm finding that almost all of my relationships are increasingly difficult -- most disappointingly of all, those with my children. I'm finding that my work life is providing too many challenges I don't want and not enough of the ones that I do. I'm feeling burdened by possessions and debt -- the very things that we work for 30 years to accumulate are the things we find we want the least. And my body is in a state of imminent collapse -- who knew that the suppleness and energy of youth were not eternal?

Fifty-three is feeling remarkably like 13: baffling and disturbing in every way. It was never in my plans to backtrack 40 years, but the work of midlife bears some strong resemblances to the work of adolescence. If my persistent ADD doesn't impede my progress, I'm going to explore these thoughts for a few days as this new year begins.