My Own Writing
I. From a Textbook
A few years ago, I taught a course on Non-Western Art at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was my first teaching post after a long time away from the classroom, and I was excited — and horribly nervous. Before I started, the art department had chosen a very expensive textbook for the course. The book was beautifully illustrated, but scholarly and dense, and it filled me with misgivings. Were the students going to be happy with it?
Minutes into our first class meeting, the students told me how much they resented the book’s expense and difficulty. Not a great beginning! It got worse. Within a month, most of them had stopped reading assignments, and were coming to class completely unprepared. I tried to fill in all the gaps, but classroom morale was getting lower by the minute. I began to feel panic-stricken, dreading each class period where I had to face all those accusing eyes. I loved teaching, but what in the world was I to do now?
Then late one night, as I worried sleeplessly about class the next morning, the answer hit me: I had to write a textbook for these particular students — a textbook that matched the way they learned. Was I crazy? Absolutely. But the idea was insistent. By now, I knew what the students did pick up on, what stories and images touched them. Stories — word pictures — that was it! Within minutes, I had out my laptop, and stories about art, art-making, artists, were pouring through my fingers onto the keyboard. I vaguely remember printing pages just before dawn.
At school a few hours later, I handed the pages out and asked the students to read them. There had been no time for revision, and I scarcely knew what I had written. While the students were reading, I tried not to watch their faces, afraid of what I’d see. Would they be disgusted? Would it all be a dead loss? And then, just when I could hardly bear it any longer, they looked up at me and smiled: “Ms. Eagan, this is great! We get it now! Keep on doing this!”
So my “textbook” came into being. The following is an excerpt from our unit on Native American art.
The Swallow Mound at Devil’s Lake
Have you ever hiked the boulder-strewn bluffs of Devil’s Lake, just south of Wisconsin Dells? Perhaps you’ve taken a picnic there in the fall, when the maples float their gold and crimson banners in the mirror of the lake, and the rocks tumble through ferns to the water’s edge.
Why is such a perfect, set-apart sort of place called “Devil’s” Lake?
That never used to be its name. The Native Americans of the Ho-Chunk Nation called it “Sacred Lake.” They believed it had been hollowed out in a great battle between spirits who lived in aqueous realms beneath the earth, and the mighty thunderbirds of heaven.
On a clear day, with the lake cupped within the granite boulders of the bluffs, and the trees tossing on the wind, one still feels the sacredness of Devil’s Lake. Power is here, and awe, but no devils.
I always start my visit on the south shore. A narrow entrance road winds downward through wooded ravines. Suddenly, there it is — a grassy space with tall trees, lapped by lake waters that fill the circle of gigantic, broken rocks. If you come to Devil’s Lake in May, the air is filled with birds and birdsong. Swallows are everywhere. Dipping, dancing and flying faster than eyes can follow, these delicate slate-feathered, flame-throated, fork-tailed birds skim the surface of the lake, tracing their passage in watery, calligraphic lines.
The first time I went to Devil’s Lake was in spring. I was new to Wisconsin that year, and my first spring, after the trials of winter, seemed like a miracle. The earliest spring wildflowers — hepaticas and bloodroot — were over, and Jacks-in-the-pulpit, trilliums and ferns had begun to unfurl. Near the lake, the maple trees were in flower. I strolled across the grass toward the water’s edge and watched the swallows. They had just returned from South America to their summer nesting ground in Wisconsin, and were flying low over the water with wild, abandoned joy.
And then, I saw it — the fork-tailed bird mound, 150 feet long, in the grass at my feet. I had almost stumbled over it. Conical and linear mounds I had met before, but never a perfect effigy mound like this. The swallows were darting back and forth across the lake, and here was their sacred counterpart, flying through the turf on the shore.
I have read that some scholars think this effigy mound represents a thunderbird of Native American myth. Others think it is an image of transformation — a bird-man, who turns into bird and back again into man. They are probably both right.
But the mound does have a perfect swallow form, and it is flying toward the lake. I can never look at its curved wings and forked tail without envisioning on the shore a band of golden-skinned people, clad in fringed buckskins and feathers, as they watch the swallows and rejoice that winter is over once more.
II. An Article for the Blue Lotus Farm and Retreat Center, West Bend, Wisconsin
The Blue Lotus Farm and Retreat Center is a peaceful place in the heart of southeastern Wisconsin, just south of the Northern Kettle Moraine. Its owners, Fred and Susan Bliffert, have dedicated it to the care and happiness of people in the Milwaukee area who have little access to trees, water, and country air. Blue Lotus welcomes inner city elderly and children, all kinds of special needs adults and children, as well as their caregivers, who can come to Blue Lotus for days of rest and relaxation.
I wrote the following article for the Blue Lotus website after helping with a glorious “Zip Day” in June, 2014.
Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Day, June 23, 2014
Eleven-year-old Addie trails both hands in the water as the kayak moves quietly through the willow branches along the island’s edge. Her fingers search the ripples for water weeds as she nestles in her older sister Cate’s lap. Cate paddles the kayak skillfully. She knows what Addie likes best, and she takes her in and out of the willows and among the lotus, whose white blossoms brighten this foggy morning. Addie’s peace and contentment are palpable. The girls’ mother, Terri, watches them from the dock, catching their happiness with her camera.
The fog clears, but the day remains cool and grey. A blue heron flies overhead, and the bullfrogs hidden in the water iris trumpet back and forth across the lake. It is a magical morning, and magic is happening here at Blue Lotus Farm. A boy’s excited voice rings out. Fourteen-year-old Joseph can’t wait to get to the paddle boats, and he leads his parents, Carol and John, and his friend Jack, along with his mother, Lisa, straight to the landing. For a few minutes, confusion reigns. Who is going in the boat? Does everyone have a life vest? How does the steering work? Finally, everyone is settled, and Fred pushes the boat into the water. Joseph is beside himself with delight.
John and Joseph paddle, with Carol and Jack as passengers. In the middle of the lake, suddenly the boat stops moving. No matter how hard they paddle, it refuses to budge. Marooned on Blue Lotus Lake! Are pirates lurking on the island? Crocodiles beneath the water weeds? Within minutes, however, Fred jumps into the canoe and tows them in. When everyone is safely ashore, and not too wet, he and John turn over the paddle boat and discover that the bowline is tangled up in the rotor blades. Joseph’s happy laughter makes the adventure worthwhile.
Back at the pavilion, a wonderful lunch of lentil sloppy Joes, quinoa, fresh veggies and dip, and chips is waiting. Everyone is hungry. While the boating parties have been on the lake, other families have followed the “bug lady” on the nature trail, met Timothy the snake, played tether ball, swung in the swings, or simply relaxed in the quiet of the morning. Zip Day is all about having no “shoulds” or “oughts.” The families here with their special-needs children live with intense demands. Today, they can let go to the peace of woods, sky and water, and the kindliness of friends.
After lunch, everyone gathers inside the pavilion for yoga. One minute Heidi, the teacher, is a yoga cricket, and the next, a kitty arching her back. Children and parents copy her, stretching and wiggling and laughing. Wheelchair-bound Deena participates too. Her mother Eleanor, with her helper Glen, holds and manipulates Deena’s body in tune with the others. Little Rylynne does not worry about the poses. She just dances around joyfully. Seven-year-old Grace, who has Down syndrome, is a yoga natural. She makes a perfect animal for every pose.
Then Susan and Heidi get out the parachute, and everyone grabs hold. Eleanor slips Deena’s hand through the handle, and Deena’s smile lights up the room. As Susan gives directions, the children lift the parachute high and bring it low again, toss a purple ball across it, march in place, play “musical parachutes,” and end with “Ring around the Parachute.” Most of all, they laugh.
It is mid-afternoon now, and the sun has finally come out. While the children run and play under the trees and dip their toes in the lake, the grown-ups are glad to stretch out in the deck chairs and talk quietly to one another. Eleanor and Glen watch Deena tenderly as she drifts off to sleep. Afternoon sunlight filters down through the leaf shadows overhead. Another perfect day at Blue Lotus Farm is ending.
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