Family weekend

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Bethany at work in Kenyon’s metal shop yesterday. She and two other sculpture majors share a studio the size of a small townhouse. It has a twenty-five-foot ceiling and its own bay door for installation art. Bethany, however, likes to make miniature pieces.

The new studio art building opened while she was in Japan.

Pines

“Pines,” a chestnut here, got a good weeviling this week. It fit a project at school. A friend was so complimentary that she set me to revising it deeply.

3PicturePines4I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels and the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds and that tribe I knew from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.

Nagano now

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Bethany’s fall semester ended in late January, and her spring semester begins in early April. She’s been traveling around Japan in the two-month interim, staying in hostels and meeting up with friends.

Now she’s working on an organic farm in Nagano, which a lot of us older Westerners may remember as the home of the 1998 winter Olympics. She’s neither farming nor skiing, though. She’s earning her room and board by doing odd chores and helping her host with her seamstress business. Bethany loves crafts, so it’s a good match that way.

She finally has Internet again, and we caught up with her last night on Skype. She seemed happy. She wears a hat indoors because her hosts keep the thermostat low in the winter. (It’s as if my side had won that eternal domestic argument. When Victoria first walked into my life, I was at my stove in an overcoat. Since then, some changes have been effected.)

Bethany looks forward to returning to her life and school in Tokyo, though. She’s arriving five days earlier than she had originally planned, and she has already booked a hotel room.

You know what she misses, even longs for, even in Tokyo? Couches. Areas on or near campus where one can lounge. I guess it’s not part of the Japanese college mindset. Sophia University has about two sofas, Bethany reports. It’s funny what you find yourself longing for when you go away for a long time.

The seamstress and her husband’s Kindergarten-aged son had a stomach bug recently, so lots of the household’s conversation involved excretion. Bethany helpfully made the child a poster showing how such conversations may transpire in English. It went over well.

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A transcript of the portion shown above:

“Did you poop?”

The child doesn’t say anything.

“She peed. She is just being shy.”

3PictureBJapan03

And yeah. I’m the guy in the corner with the nose.

 

The comforter

The comforter is half-folded over with the upsweep of a snow bank against a house, if you’ll picture my wife’s side of the bed as the house.  Certainly, I am comparing a floor-plan perspective with an elevation, as it were, but you may ignore the rest of this paragraph: it may be worth your time instead to visualize the comforter just so.  She made the bed before she left, and I have not disturbed her side of it except to take her pillow.  She comes back Monday.  The sheets are pink, and the top one entwines with a thin, cotton blanket, the sheet’s yin swirling with the blanket’s yang.  Miles above them, the comforter’s displeasure is a perfect crescent.

I’ll make the bed Monday morning.  My simple sleep seems hardly enough to have messed up the covers to this extent, though I do sleep better with everything shoved to the side except some blanket over one leg.

Things would surprise her were she to return early.  The windows are open though the temperature is in the 80’s.  I have also saved up all of the dishes and housecleaning for Sunday.  I hope I will get it done.

When we’re in bed, my knee lies between her legs like a log dropped on top of an ebbing campfire (the elevation and floor plan again, I’m afraid), and my face is in her chest.  The comforter is full above us, and I stay under until I get too hot.  Then I lie on my back, and our dreams spire like smoke.

There are also clothes scattered around I have not picked up.  Maybe none of this would surprise her.  The man in me wants her, but the boy is a little afraid, as if I had mooned passersby through our window or had pelted them with snowballs from our roof.

This is not an object poem, but it was inspired by Francis Ponge’s object poems and by Robert Bly’s object poems that were themselves inspired by Ponge’s object poems.

Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting

At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.

“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.

“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”

“Not for me.”

“No.”

Continue reading

Billy

Billy, my stepfather-in-law, died last month after a nine-month battle with cancer. During our subsequent four-day visit to Nashville and Columbia, Tennessee, Betty asked me to preach at the funeral, something I haven’t done before. Here’s what I said.

Who can sum up a man’s life?  The finest eulogies diminish the dead. I can’t say what Billy meant to you, either.  I can talk a little bit about what he meant to me, and maybe it’ll add to your own reflections about Billy.

And even though we can’t sum up one another, we can all draw lessons from one another. We’re that close to one another.

At a funeral it’s customary to hear what someone accomplished.  And Billy accomplished things.  He and his first wife raised Joe and Tina. Those are amazing accomplishments! And marrying Betty would have made anyone proud. Billy had great taste in women – he married the mother, I married the daughter – and he was an accomplished mechanic, too.

But his accomplishments, many as they were, weren’t the main message of Billy’s life, to me. They’re not what I learned from him.

When I thought about what to say today, I thought I ought to run it in my mind by Billy. That didn’t take long.  I could hear Billy say, “I don’t care; whatever you think is all right with me!”

Billy was low maintenance. He didn’t ask things from life that life wasn’t about to give him. In an age when we’re all trying to reduce our footprint – our carbon footprint, our demands on our planet’s resources – Billy was ahead of us. Billy has always had a small footprint in this life. He worked, he came home. When he was retired, he walked in the house, and he walked outside. He had his truck, his transistor radio, and his poker machine.

But most of all, he had Betty. Betty dressed him, and he looked sharp. Betty fed him, and he was happy.

Billy was loved.

One of my favorite Bible characters is Benjamin, the youngest son of Israel. What did Benjamin accomplish?  I’ve searched the scriptures: as important as he was, Benjamin accomplished nothing, or at least nothing important enough for the Bible to mention.  But he was always on the minds of his father Jacob and his brother Joseph.  Before Jacob learned that his son Joseph ruled Egypt, Jacob and Joseph got into a tug of war, and Benjamin was the rope. Joseph gave Benjamin more than he gave his other brothers, and Jacob, keeping him in Canaan despite the famine, protected him more than his own life.

Benjamin was loved.  That’s all.  And how much history he made by just being loved!

We had a seven-hour visitation yesterday, and we about needed it all, too.  Billy was loved. His wonderful brothers and sisters – J.C., Charlie, Ruby, Ada, Bob, and Barbara — loved him, and he loved them.

And there’s a part of me, the older brother – part of all of us, I guess – that needs to be like Benjamin, too. That’s what I learned most from Billy.

Just before Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, she named him Benoni, “Son of my sorrow.”  But his father renamed him Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” Benjamin was born with a second chance! And Billy knew how to appreciate a second chance, too.

Billy appreciated everything.

I met Billy about the time he bought his truck. The truck is now nineteen years old, and I hear you have to know a few secrets to start it. But the truck didn’t have to move for Billy to enjoy it. The sun still came in warm through the windows.  You could still see through the windshield.

The Bible says we see through a glass, darkly. What Billy taught me was, that’s okay. Or, as Billy would say, “I’m fine with that.” You don’t have to have it all figured out to enjoy it.  You don’t have to earn love.  You just have to take care of your own business, work the program, and let God come to you.  Sometimes, it’s not about coming to God.  Sometimes, it’s about God coming to you.

One day, Billy found himself living next door to Betty.  The girl next door when you’re forty-four – they ought to write a country-western song about that.

And Betty, I’m sure God is singing over you this morning.

We see through a glass darkly.  But Billy now sees him face to face.  And if Billy were to speak himself this morning, I bet he’d say, “That’s okay, too.” And he’d smile that winning smile, and chuckle a little.

Be comforted when comfort’s offered. God bless you all in your grief.

Pines

I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels or the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds, or like that tribe I recall from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.

 

Posted April 2005

My kite

One day I was flying my kite.
My kite was lifting me up,
and I was flying!

– Peter S., First Grade

 

Literary analysis:

It a bummer when you want to write some verse, you know, and you’re always writing in the shadow of your best poem written when you were six. Everything I’ve really always wanted to do in a poem I did in first grade, and I haven’t quite done it again since. To be frank, I haven’t gotten close to when I was at the top of my game, learning to write the alphabet.

Let’s pull “My Kite” apart. First of all, the poem goes somewhere. In three short lines, I move from my everyday world into another world. I accomplish what Billy Collins says poetry is all about: “Poetry for me is a kind of travel writing – travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness.”

Second, I go somewhere without really leaving my world. Indeed, the change of consciousness in “My Kite” was there all along, even in the mundane and matter-of-fact first line. The poem demonstrates this idea two ways: repetition and verb forms. The third line is a repetition of part of the first line. In fact, the entire third line is really only a stripped-down version of the first line, as if the transcendent world lives and lurks in the prosaic world all along, like a seed waiting for its husk to split open.

The poem’s verb forms also support this “extraordinary in the ordinary” theme. The verb in the first and third lines stays the same, but its form changes. The poem uses the present participle of the verb “to fly” in both the first and third lines to express what’s happening both before and after my change of consciousness. I’m airborne by the end of the poem, but within the poem I move only from a transitive form to an intransitive form of “flying.” Nothing has really changed; I’m still flying my kite. I’m just flying with it, that’s all. Just… flying.

[Sigh.]

 

Posted August 2005

They move

I got a letter from Nash:

Hi, Peter. I enjoyed your Slow Reads Digest that you pretty much forced me to subscribe to. I don’t get to read books too often, except I check out books on CD from Cracker Barrel when I’m on the road, which is like all the time now.

Last week I had business in Waynesboro, and on a lark I visited a farm I had seen off of 81 probably a dozen times before. Really the idea came the day before as I was passing the farm heading to Waynesboro. I didn’t think I’d seen the cows on the south end of that farm’s pasture before. I believe they were normally at the north end near a pond. But there they were, some sitting and some standing, most in the shade, some grazing and some staring at I know not what.

That night at the Super 8 I ordered a veggie pizza and for the umpteenth time forgot to tell them to hold the olives. I arranged the olives to simulate where I had seen the cows. The pizza box lid was the field on my last trip here, and the bottom of the box was the field earlier that day. The olives were probably not placed too well on the lid because I wasn’t really paying strict attention to the cows last trip. So I kind of jammed them together at the lid’s north end.

I stared at the box until two in the morning. I even ate three of the olives. I knew I had to visit the farm.

“How do you get them into position each day? Farm equipment? And how do you decide on the arrangement?” I was too embarrassed to say what I really think: that the cows seem as if they’re some sort of giant dice rolled after long intervals – maybe a day or more between each roll. Think of a colossal Yahtzee game, where you roll a lot of dice, except it matters where they land. It looks like – it just looks like – some opponent takes some meaning from the cows’ relative positions and then counters the next night with a throw of his own, either on the same farm or on one nearby.

The game is slow because it’s complicated, maybe more complicated than chess. It’s big and it’s cosmic and somebody is telling somebody something.

I was careful not to say any of this. Although I’ve never met this farmer, I make it a practice to impress upon everyone I run into my ability to distinguish between my imagination and reality. I’ll need all the practice I can get when I call Tom Ridge.

“No. No equipment. They use their legs.” He looked at me squarely, and not without warmth. “They move.”

I’ve never seen a cow move. Granted, I’ve only driven by cows. But I’ve never heard of cows moving, either, except in nursery rhymes.

He was smiling now, leaning back. He cocked his head and studied his arrangement. “They got legs.”

I knew that, but I figured the legs were to prop up the operation, and to provide easy access to the udder for the calves and the farmer. But I was out of my element and said nothing.

I started down his gravel road. In the side view, I saw him turn his back to me and walk toward a shed. I stopped my car and arranged the olives on the lid to match what I saw. Clearly there had been some movement since yesterday. I could get technical but there’s no reason to here. And it’s not like I was using GPS or anything.

I’m starting small. I’m hoping to get a grant from The Old Farmer’s Almanac to study the connection between cow arrangements and long-term weather forecasting. I’d like to continue with this farmer because he was very nice. My working plan is to outfit the cows with battery-powered Rudolph noses in order to study their movements at night. It would be in December and I don’t think anything would look out of place.

[Inspired by Tom Montag’s “Morning Drive Journal,” in The Middlewesterner, May 13, 1998 entry: “The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?”]

 

Letting go, part 3

in which Bethany chooses a college.

[Victoria and Bethany, age 1]

In early April, after the college acceptance packages had come in, Victoria asked Bethany, “Which way are you leaning?”

Bethany wasn’t completely sure yet – she wanted to visit the schools again – but she was pretty sure she wanted to go to the art college. The liberal arts college we had visited in November (hereinafter, “the liberal arts college”) was in second place, and another liberal arts college was in third place. She would visit them all in April, and a fourth college, too – the other out-of-state college – if her mind wasn’t made up after visiting her top three colleges for the second time.

I started my campaign – a limited campaign, just a few remarks here and there – to push the liberal arts college despite my new insight into James’ letter. I just couldn’t help myself. When we visited the art college open house in April, Victoria and I found an opportunity to tell Bethany that she was too bright for the school. (Based on her grades and board scores, I had an argument, snotty and as flatteringly manipulative as it was.) But the rest of the time I wasn’t disparaging; I simply highlighted the virtues I found in the almost-daily mailers the liberal arts college sent her or sent Victoria and me. Sometimes, when I said things, I knew I had gone too far. Sometimes, it felt fine. But my heart wasn’t where I wanted it to be – solidly in favor of any decision Bethany would make. She needed to decide what college to go to, obviously: if she ended up hating the college and felt that I pushed her there, it would hurt our relationship for a long time. And it’s her life. Right?

Victoria, who has a better read on Bethany than I do often, said that Bethany didn’t feel pressured. “She just thinks you’re being you,” she said. She meant that I was always advocating something. That made me feel better. Maybe she could stand up to me. But that made me feel worse.  What if she stood up to me and made the wrong decision? When I’d go on about all of this, Victoria would always tell me, “She’ll figure it out,” meaning that she would figure out the right thing to do. Yeah, I thought, but what if the right thing to do isn’t what I think the right thing to do is?

Around this time, and for the only time this year, our principal stumbled into my classroom. We were all reading silently. I came up to see what he wanted, and he asked me how Bethany’s college search was going. I told him about her options and her upcoming campus visits. “She’ll figure it out,” he whispered, and left the room. You would think I would have gotten the message.

I emailed my siblings about how I thought Bethany was going to make a terrible decision. I called my mother and told her about a plan I had hatched to have the entire family sign a congratulatory card with a new bribe in it that she could accept if she would go to the liberal arts college. (My entire family was in favor of the liberal arts college over the art college, too.) My mother wisely suggested that I drop the idea. There wasn’t anything subtle or even funny about it, of course.

I talked with my close friend Michael a few weeks ago about Bethany’s decision. Years ago, Michael tearfully told a few of us the story of how he tried to stand in the way of his own artistic daughter’s career. He realized it in time to end up supporting her decision to go to a fashion school, and she’s done very well. Michael, as usual, gave me some good perspective. “You’ll make lots of mistakes, and she’ll turn out fine,” is Michael’s general outlook, and he’s been accurate on both counts over the years.

º º º

Having ceded more than three months to the art college by accepting her in April instead of December, the liberal arts college began to make up for lost time. It offered an overnight visit and not just an accepted students’ day that the other schools offered. It offered to fly its candidates to its campus at its expense and to feed them in its dining hall. The candidates even got luxury accommodations in sleeping bags on dorm-room floors.

[Bethany, age 17]

But the college’s travel agent I had to book the flight through to get the flight reimbursement was hopeless. By the time she called me back, the rates had gone up beyond what the school was willing to pay, and we ended up three airports from here, an hour and twenty minutes’ drive one way. During the five days I was dealing with the agent, I was cursing the agency that threatened to spoil the conspiracy I had formed with the liberal arts college to persuade Bethany to select it. Then I thought to myself, “Remember, you are not in control!”

Victoria heard me fuming about the travel agency and said, “Remember, you are not in control!”

Some of Victoria’s and my conversations with Bethany involved how a BA studio arts degree from a liberal arts college might affect her ability to go from college into an MFA program at a studio art school. These days, most young professional artists get, or want to get, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree; the field is exceptionally competitive. Bethany was understandably concerned that the MFA jewelry and metalworking programs would require a BFA – an undergraduate professional degree – in jewelry and metalworking, something that no small, liberal arts school that I could find offered, so I emailed the liberal arts college’s sculpture professor and the head of its studio arts department and told them about Bethany’s dilemma. Both responded with long, thoughtful emails describing the advantages of small studio art programs at liberal arts colleges and assuring us that Bethany would be at no competitive disadvantage in four years if she wished to pursue an MFA program in jewelry, metals, or anything else. The sculpture professor had a daughter who had gone from a program similar to the liberal arts college’s into a specialized studio arts MFA program, and the department chair herself had done so.

I read the letters out loud to Bethany. I also pointed out that half of the art college professors in its jewelry and metalworking program had gotten BA’s in studio arts and not BFA’s before getting their MFA’s.

But just to confirm things, I also emailed the MFA jewelry and metalworking programs that U.S. News had ranked as the top ten in the nation, and I explained Bethany’s dilemma to them. Would they accept students with BA degrees from studio arts programs, or would they accept only students with BFA degrees in jewelry and metalworking? Most of their web sites were not clear on this point.

I sent those out on Saturday, the day before I put Bethany on the plane in Baltimore.

By the time I took her to the airport, the first response had come in:

Wow I’ve never seen a letter like this before — helicopter parent? (wonder where he went to school?)

This professor, I hope, thought she was responding to the other professor in her department whom I had addressed the email to, and not to me. (As far as the parenthetical query goes, I guess I did come off a little condescending about the art college. I didn’t stop to think about how my attitude toward the art college might come across to professors at other art colleges.)

Bethany and I laughed about it on the way to the airport, and we theorized about how I might respond to the inadvertent email.

By the next morning, substantive responses to my emails were coming in. Here’s the first:

First of all, this email should have come from your daughter. If she is mature enough to start college in the Fall, she should be asking these questions herself.

[Art college] is an outstanding university with an outstanding art department and an outstanding metals program. If she wants to do graduate work in metalworking, I would recommend Bethany attend [Art college]. We would not accept her into the MFA program in Metals without a metalworking portfolio. We prefer that applicants have the BFA degree, but if the portfolio is strong enough, we will consider the BA degree.

I hope this answers your questions.

If its any consolation, thirty five years ago I was a student much like your daughter. I was accepted into several Ivy League schools and even offered a full scholarship to attend Harvard as a math major (I got a perfect SAT score in math–very rare at the time). To my parent’s chagrin, I attended a  much lesser ranked school because it had a good program in metals. (I had taken one summer class). It is a decision I have never regretted and one that served me well in my ensuing career.

Hope this advice helps

Professor X

I tried reading the letter to Victoria, but I couldn’t because I was crying so hard. The letter felt like a direct hit, a much stronger version of what I felt God was trying to point out to me with the insight from James’ epistle that had intrigued me earlier in the month. It showed me as being everything I feared – a helicopter parent (as the first professor had pointed out), and one who would let his pride in having his daughter accepted at some fine liberal arts colleges stand in the way of his daughter’s decision. A father trying to shape his daughter in his own image and standing between his daughter and her God-given calling.

Three other letters came in while Bethany was visiting the liberal arts college. While none were as confrontational, all said the same thing about what kind of coursework and degree they would accept from prospective MFA candidates: only a BFA in jewelry and metalworking. They all suggested that Bethany go to the art college.

Perhaps things had changed since the liberal arts college department head and its sculpture professor’s daughter had gone to graduate school, I figured.

But I realized that I was now where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to stand in Bethany’s way. Really, after those letters, I could honestly say that I would be happy with any decision Bethany made. And Victoria, who has a great deal of insight into how Bethany’s mind works, told me that she felt Bethany would have a decision when I met her at the airport.

After we picked up her bag and sleeping bag, I asked Bethany to sit down with me for a minute in some chairs by the baggage claim. I told her that I was sorry for pushing her towards the liberal arts college, and I reiterated, much more forcefully (and sincerely) this time, that she had a wonderful decision to make, one that her hard work and perseverance had presented to her, and that I would be thrilled and excited about any decision she made.

“Did Mom put you up to this?”

No, I assured her.

“Well, as it turns out . . .” Her voice trailed off.

Then she began what seemed like a minute-to-minute account of her two days at the liberal arts college. (She gets the need to provide every detail from me, of course.) Suddenly, I was thankful for the travel agent because the long ride back would give Bethany a chance to unwind her decision to me the way she wanted to before she had to face Victoria, who can be very to the point.

Bethany was obviously excited. She loved her hosts, and she described their different personalities as if she had been to summer camp with them for three weeks. They played some kind of game in the dorm hall that Bethany ended up winning. (I withheld my cynicism; the college selected these hosts, after all.) The kids were talking about the kind of things that Bethany loves talking about. At some point, the boyfriend of one of the girls came in, a philosophy major. He and the girlfriend, a sociology major, described to the group a paper they had written together the night before for the hell of it regarding some insight that involved both of their disciplines. It was the perfect thing for Bethany to hear. She loves doing things best when they’re not assigned – well, who doesn’t? – but it was the first time she has been with a lot of other kids that share the same approach to learning that she has.

I even got lost driving for about a half hour – I’ve lived in this area for only a quarter century – because I got so enthralled with Bethany’s nonstop account of her trip. So the ride back took almost two hours.

Just before we got home, she told me that she thought she wanted to go to the liberal arts college (to “my [name of school],” as she began calling it that night).

When we got home to Victoria, Bethany gave her an abbreviated version of her experiences. We told Bethany about the four letters, but Bethany wasn’t too concerned. She agreed with us: how could a BA degree in studio arts prevent someone from getting an MFA degree in jewelry and metalworking? She could approach those programs in four years and say, “Here’s what I’ve done. What more do I need to do to get in?” Someone or something somewhere – an additional year at an art school, an apprenticeship, some summer programs, a job – would give her the experience she needed and the opportunity to build up her portfolio with jewelry and metalwork.

I asked Bethany not to act on her decision for a few days since she was in no danger of missing a deadline. I thought she should live with her decision, she how well it wore, before sharing it with the colleges.

After Bethany made her decision, four more MFA jewelry and metalworking programs responded to my helicopter-parent emails. They all came to exactly the opposite conclusion than the first four did, honest to God. Bethany should go where she wants to go, they said. A response typical of these four letters: “The only thing that we stipulate is the student must hold a Bachelor’s Degree.  We do not mandate that it be a BS, BA, BFA, etc.”

Bethany accepted the offer of admission from the liberal arts college a few days later.

The night she and I got back from the airport, Bethany told Victoria and me, “Whenever I picture myself at the liberal arts college missing the art college, I think of all that cool metalworking and jewelry-making equipment on the third floor. But whenever I picture myself at the art college missing the liberal arts college, I think of the kids, the dorms, the classes, the food, the buildings, the trees, the countryside . . . the whole thing.”

“Bethany, you’re describing the art college kind of like I describe my law school when I look back on it. And you’re describing the liberal arts college like I describe what made my undergraduate years special. It sounds to me as if you’re saying you aren’t ready to get a professional degree yet. It sounds like you want to go to college first.”

It was the wisest thing I had said in weeks.

Previous posts:

Part 1, in which I process Bethany’s growing up

Part 2, in which God gets my attention through textual insight

[The first photo above is of Victoria and Bethany when the latter was one year old. The second photo above is of Bethany a few months ago.  The photo below is of Bethany, age two, and me.

Warning!  Bethany becomes an adult this week, graduates from high school next month, and leaves home in August.  It may stay a bit lachrymose around here for a while.]

[Peter and Bethany, age 2]

In celebration of SoloPoMo (Solo Poem Month), I hope to blog every day in May using Charles Wright’s poem “Images from the Kingdom of Things” from his 2006 volume Scar Tissue.  I’m not sure how many of these posts will explicitly refer to the poem, but I hope there’ll be some connection with the poem each time, if only felt.

 

Posted May 11, 2010.