Pages from Patricia’s Journal

February 12, 2002

Home . . . I love the idea of home. I built a whole course around that theme one year: what home is, what makes home matter, what we feel when we’re not at home. In my own life, the “idea” of home has become more real. I spent so much of my life moving, and even when I was settled in an area – a convent or parish for a period of time, I always felt somewhat unsettled. And the convents where I lived – I couldn’t really make them my “home”; one simply had to move into a décor (usually bad) – bland, neutral, colorless so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. Lots of beige and white. Maybe this is why home is so important to me now – and color. I’ve been relishing my decisions about hues and tones in the new addition – vibrant or muted – color!

Above: Dr. Patricia Dwyer (left) with student
Anna Hughes (photo by Linda Tate)




I walked around Shepherdstown tonight recalling my job interview here. That was not my first visit to Shepherdstown, but certainly the one that changed my life. Interview with Linda and Betty, break at what is now the Blue Moon, teaching a class on, of all things, Gulliver’s Travels. Walking around this very familiar little town tonight. I am aware of how different it is now eight years later. Memories fill every space I see – the shops where I meander, the little house on Princess Street where nieces and nephews have roamed, the first apartment I lived in, the building where I teach, the street where I have my wonderful home.

What does a sense of home do for a writer? Why is place important? I remember going to Brazil and Nova Scotia to Elizabeth Bishop conferences and seeing the terrain in both of these countries. I remember thinking . . . that’s why Bishop wrote about this type of house, or those little cobbled streets, these steep hills or those window sills. I saw it as she may have seen it – I felt the chill or noticed the “slant of light.”

Does home make one feel more settled? And then really able to notice? Or is there the danger of Not seeing because the place is so familiar? There is something about home and settledness that is freeing at the same time. It makes for a settledness inside.



February 20, 2002 – in response to class discussion on Whitman

All are one: all people, all regions, all life.

All are different: all people, all regions, all life.

Whitman notices! What makes us one and different at once (reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”). He screams out the “yawp” of individuality, yet he speaks of such a common experience. All the parts of life that attract and excite us: love, voice, sex, democracy, divinity. And all the parts of of life that we try to cover over, erase, hide – the outsiders, the rejected. All of this is part of Whitman’s divine energy. “I am divine inside and out.” Do I believe that? Do I see that in myself? In others? I would love to have Whitman’s energy – his courage – to be as free as he seemed to be. To be OUT THERE! To take all the confinements, the internal checks, the norms that society deems important and just blow them to bits.



March 20, 2002

Emily . . . what a thrill to be in your home today. To imagine you in your room, at your desk, looking out the window at your garden in Amherst. It snowed here today and we could hardly find the path to “Evergreen,” where I imagine you also gazed often. Your relationship with Susan, the excitement you must have felt to have her so close. One of the highlights of the day was standing at your grave with our group while the snow was coming down HARD, and reciting the poem that has always so inspired me . . . “After great pain a formal feeling comes.” I remember studying that poem in high school with Sister Helen Anthony. What a teacher she was – really made your words come alive for me. What fascinated me about this poem was that you so “got” that feeling of numbness, the shock, the mechanical way one proceeds after a loss. As I look back at myself now, I don’t really think I, myself, really got that feeling as a junior in high school. At that point, my life had been relatively undramatic. But now that I’ve lost a parent and close friends, I know all the more how, you Emily, so clearly articulated grief in such few words.

I decided to teach English because of this poem, Emily – so thank you. I love my job that gives me the chance to teach and learn about literature with the students I meet. Gives me a way to talk about values that I believe in – that are radical and inspiring. I have you to thanks in large part for that Emily. It was good to be in your home today. I felt your spirit – and I’ll try to remember that feeling each time I teach your words – after great pain. . . .



April 15, 2002

A Reponse to Wendell Berry’s “An Entrance to the Woods”

“It is only beyond this lonesomeness for the places I have come from that I can reach the vital reality of a place such as this. Turning toward this place, I confront a presence that none of my schooling and none of my usual assumptions have prepared for me: the wilderness, most unknowable and mostly alien, that is the universe. Perhaps the most difficult labor for my species is to accept its limits, its weakness and ignorance. But here I am. This wild place where I have camp lies within an enormous cone widening from the center of the earth out across the universe, nearly all of it a mysterious wilderness in which the power and the knowledge of men count for nothing.”

Berry raises so many issues here that remind me of our Transcendental writers. Of course, Emerson’s ideas about rejecting conventional education and knowledge in favor of the intuitive – those insights we don’t learn from books or in a library. And then there is Berry’s encounter with “the wild” that makes me think of Thoreau’s “A Winter’s Walk” – the wild as exploration of the west that we don’t know rather than east we do, choosing the mysterious over the conventional. But something Berry brings up that I don’t sense in these other writers is the uneasiness one feels with the unfamiliar – a certain lonesomeness one experiences for what one knows. He refers to the garden, his house, the woods near his home – and he names his void a “loneliness” that one must feel and move through in order to really understand that mysterious place that is wilderness.

I’ve written before in my journal about wanting to enter that wild zone of Whitman and Dickinson and Thoreau. But does loving and longing for the familiar keep one from getting there? Keep one (me!) complacent? Dickinson certainly stayed in familiar surroundings yet her work was so on the edge. So how can that translate in my life? Perhaps the wilderness can be a state of mind as well? That one needs to be able to be open to unfamiliar ideas, to acquire a willingness to push ideas to the edge. I remember in meditation I have tried to acquire that ability to keep emotions, viewpoints in balance. (Not always successfully.) Berry writes later in this work about the need for simplicity – leaving behind the “baggage” and coming to the woods “naked.” Perhaps that’s one way to move into that realm of the unfamiliar – let go of all the “things” (ideas and materials) that I cling to so tightly and let the possibility of new ideas and fewer things enter my world. But what about the passion one feels for one’s ideas (like mine!). Is it right to be “disinterested”? Maybe I should start with simply taking a walk in an unfamiliar place – see how it feels – really BE THERE. I was going to try to bike the C & O canal last year – maybe that would be a venture to try this summer. It’s not exactly the experience that Berry describes, but perhaps would give me a taste of the wilderness he experiences – but it’s a step in the direction of “wild.”



May 1, 2002

A Response to “Moose” by Trudy Ditmar

“Moose can be difficult. You try to give them a wide berth. But at the same time, they are unpredictable – there’s no standard m.o. with a moose. Despite all the bar and café stories, and despite those few times when I felt I was about to be grist for one of those stories myself, in the gamut of moose ways the moments of bluster are far less rule than exception, and almost all my encounters with moose have been very different from the stories they depict. They’ll surprise you by what they do, but what they won’t do can surprise you more. A moose is enigmatic. A moose is, at times, a bottomless thing.”

Last year was my year of the moose. I say that because I was with friends on New Year’s Day (2001) and we each picked an animal card that described the spiritual and psychic benefits and pitfall the animal each chose. Mine was the moose. I was thrilled. The moose was described as the most unusual of animal totems. She is a feminine force that symbolizes death and resurrection. (Is this because she can go underwater for great lengths of time? Could that be right?) The moose appears gawky and uncoordinated, but in fact is quite strong and graceful. She is solitary and, according to the card, can teach the ability to move from the outer world to the inner world.

The moose also reminds me so much of Elizabeth Bishop – that great poem of hers called “The Moose.” A female presence that is wonderful and otherworldly – homely, surprising those in the traveling bus with her dramatic entry onto the macadam. Bishop’s wonderful line in that poem – “‘Yes . . .’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes . . .’ / half groan, half acceptance / that means ‘Life’s like that / We know it (also death).’”

After that New Year’s Day I began to see moose everywhere. Signs on “Moose” halls, pictures in magazines. I went to Canada that summer and saw moose on t-shirts, in souvenir shops, on bumper stickers. I even bought a picture of a moose that is somewhere in my attic at the moment. It wasn’t until this winter that I sensed the presence of the moose in my inner world.

Out of my home for seven months, health issues in my family, job and personal issues that have surfaced – I counted on my moose for some comfort or inspiration – or something.

I have to say, as spring rolls around, I sense a feeling of resurrection after many darker days. This class and the people in it have been so wonderful – I treasure this time. I’m back home again, my mother is on the mend – I’m feeling strong, having gone through so many upheavals. And then I read Trudy Dittmar’s “Moose.” I loved her detail – especially about watching the moose try to get out of the mud. They are bottomless creatures – what does that mean? To me their mystery, their enigmatic nature, keeps you wondering about the possibilities. Maybe that’s what I’m wondering about myself at the moment. I’ve felt several small “deaths” – but now the space that has been opened wide seems less empty – seems more like potential. It’s spring – I’m grateful. And I want to see a real moose in the worst way. Maybe in Vermont this summer. Maybe never. But the possibility keeps things exciting.


Patricia Dwyer is an associate professor of English at Shepherd College.



“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.