O’Reilly Auto Parts and Other Things You Can Count On

There we were, reaching what was supposed to be the easy part of a meandering drive from Denver to Lubbock. Late July, and we are on our way to reclaim our faithful golden retriever from sleep-away-camp at my step-daughter’s house. He’s spent the last three weeks playing with her black lab and entertaining her family by barking at the animals on tv.

I call the drive meandering because, when our son-in-law told us where to turn to take the direct route, neither of us was paying much attention. Instead, we woke up in Denver, plugged “Lubbock” into my phone, and followed the google over the river and along Ranch to Market Roads and through the woods until at last we found ourselves skirting the southern edge of Amarillo.

A straight shot down I-27 would get us to Lubbock any time now. I put my phone away, try to find a radio station that isn’t telling me to turn my life and money over to Jesus, and look up at the sky.

I wish I hadn’t. It’s that purpley-black color that always makes you think you’re about to see Aunty Em and a mooing cow fly by. We’ve been playing keep away with these clouds all through Texas, and now it looks like the clouds are going to win. Sure enough, we’ve barely merged on to the interstate when rain comes bucketing down. Even before anything goes wrong, Fred is straining to see the car in front of us, and the clouds are so thick that I wonder how we’ll ever fit two of each kind of animal into the Subaru.

Let’s stop here for a thought experiment. Pretend Mary Anderson had never invented windshield wipers. When it rains, you have to catch a crow and use your shoelaces to tie him to the windshield. Then, you roll down your window and toss handfuls of grubs or worms or kernels of corn to entice the pissed off crow to hop back and forth across your windshield, dragging his wings to clear the water.

I don’t expect I’ll win a design award, but that’s exactly what I think when the windshield wiper on my side breaks and starts flapping around like a broken wing. The near-zero visibility we’ve had since the rain started drops even further.

Now, this essay isn’t about how differently my husband and I see the world when we can’t actually see the world, or I’d explain that his response to our life and death crisis was to turn the windshield wipers off so the wiper that was flopping around like a pissed off crow wouldn’t scratch the windshield. At the time, this strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. I start praying the Memorare, certain our flimsy ark is about to go down.

In everyday situations, I wouldn’t describe Fred as calm. In a crisis, though, he’s a rock. He’s driving the car through the blinding deluge as though he’s the only one wearing swim goggles. “Ask Google to find the closest O’Reilly Auto Parts,” he says. I take a break from reminding the blessed virgin Mary that she’s never left anyone who implored her help unaided to ask Google to find me an O’Reilly’s.

Google and Mary both come through, and we finally drive out of the storm into Plainview, Texas, an aptly named town. Young Frank steps away from his computer to verify that our windshield wiper is indeed as useless as a dead crow and snaps on a replacement. $7.00 and five minutes later we’re back on the road, ready to brave the next storm.

“You can always count on O’Reilly’s,” Fred says. He sounds like a radio ad at the end of a Garrison Keillor broadcast. His words feel loaded, like one of those ordinary sentences that ends up meaning more than it meant to. I’m strangely reassured.

I have one of those moments when you realize that even after twenty-five years of living with someone, you can still learn something new, and the rest of the summer passes uneventfully, with lots of live/love and no other close encounters with leave.

Last night I read this essay out loud to Fred as I often do before I post them. “You’ve got too many different stories,” he said. “You should just let it be about the drive.”

He has saved you all from some rambling diversions in the past, so I tried to listen to his advice. I cut the part about Jerry Lewis dying and the memory about the neighborhood carnival where I dressed up as clown and sold popcorn for Jerry’s Kids. Maybe I’ll put that in some other essay. But I keep feeling like this next part belongs here, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. (If you can’t get past it, write the problem into your work, I tell my students.)

So, summer passed and I’m back at school. The theme for our opening faculty and staff meetings this year is play. Thursday morning while people with very different jobs than mine are performing knee surgery or nailing two-by-fours together, I’m in our black box theater playing rock paper scissors with seventy other adults.

By the time the champions are crowned, the rest of us are lined up in two long chains behind them, our hands resting on each other’s shoulders, chanting the names of the last two people standing. It was another one of those accidentally meaningful/O’Reilly Auto Parts moments.

But that’s not why I don’t want to cut this part of my essay. In the next game, we’re given a notecard. We close our eyes, and the facilitator’s voice guides us on a long, long walk through a beautiful forest. At certain points she tells us to write things on our card: a favorite animal (Rusty, of course), a favorite color (that morning, it feels like yellow).

Then she tells us that we have reached an immense wall. It’s so big there is no way around or over or through it, and we’re too tired to walk back. “What do you do?” she asks. I write my answer on my card, and before long we’ve moved on to the next game. My small group has already started planning how we are going to turn our bodies into three still photos that tell a story when she interrupts us.

“By the way,” she says, “here’s what those things you wrote down mean.” It turns out it was one of those games like the ones you play at bridal showers–someone writes down people’s random comments and later reads them back to the bride as things she’ll say on her wedding night. The animal and the color we chose had something to do with how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. But it’s the last phrase, the one about the wall, that I can’t stop thinking about.

“That’s how you feel about dying,” she says.

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read one of my essays, you know I think a lot about that “leave” part. Usually I’m writing about death from a place of grief, or anger, or fear. At best, it feels like a design flaw. “Let’s give them unbearable beauty and the capacity for love,” a generous creator says. “Yes,”a trusted assistant chimes in, laughing, “and expiration dates!” You have to wonder how the idea even made it out of committee.

One time years ago I was telling Sr. Therapist about a dream I’d had. (“You’re still adding stories,” I can imagine Fred saying. He’s in bed, though, so I’m not listening this time.) It was terrifying. I was lying in the grass on a tiny raft when a huge storm came. The raft was tossing in wind and waves, and I was certain it was going to overturn. When drowning seemed imminent, a voice in my dream spoke, calming my fear. “It’s not a raft, it’s an island,” the voice said.

By the time I’d finished explaining the dream, Sister Therapist was beaming. “That’s your subconscious,” she told me. “It’s telling you that you are going to be ok.”

When I unfolded my card to learn what I really think about dying, I felt that same relief I felt in my dream, that same relief I felt when we pulled into the parking lot of O’Reilly’s. When I reach that insurmountable wall, the wrinkled notecard of my subconscious tells me, I’ll “rest against it, letting it support me.”

Sometimes the insight you need is right there waiting for you, in plain view.

 

 

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Clowns to the left of me…

It’s Peace Sunday at my church today, so maybe I can finally get this damn essay finished.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this: You’re at a movie, and the people behind you won’t stop talking. The previews are still running, and you’ve already heard about his dog’s kidney stones, her cousin’s messy divorce, and every single calorie he’s eaten for the last two weeks. You glance over your shoulder once or twice–aggressively, you think–just to see if they might notice there are other people in the theater.

They don’t. They keep talking, and even if the movie is Taken 17 and you know he is saying “Hang on, Kim, I’m coming for you!” you still want to hear Liam Neeson talk.

If you’re like me, you are getting angry. In your head, these people behind you are losing their “peoplehood.” They’ve become idiots, or jerks, or, my husband’s favorite pejorative, clowns. Any hands up yet? Hold that thought.

Last year I started doing water aerobics, and I loved it. No matter how old you are, you probably won’t be the oldest person in the class. Ditto for how much you weigh, or how long it’s been since you’ve worked out. Unlike upstairs in Body Pump or Spin Like a Lion is Chasing You, you don’t need to be fast, perky, or own cute leggings. Sure, we’re all wearing bathing suits, but we’re standing in water up to our armpits, so no one is judging anyone else’s jiggling. It’s perfect.

Make that almost perfect. My only problem with water aerobics is that you do it with other people. It’s not like yoga, where everyone downward dogs on her own mat. Here in the pool, as soon as the music starts and you’ve claimed your turf in front of the four-and-a-half-foot marker, the Man Who Breathes Too Loudly will move into position just off your left shoulder. You take a step to the right, and the Man Who Stands Too Close will move in. Before Buddy Holly is done singing about Peggy Sue, you’ll be one flutter kick away from giving a stranger a bloody nose. Some days I think I would like water aerobics better if I could do it inside a shark cage.

Case in point. All last winter, the Man Who Won’t Stop Talking and the Women Who Egg Him On came to every class I took.  These people [by that I mean clowns, idiots, jerks] don’t care that I teach teenagers and had heard my name called by someone who needed something seven hundred and ninety-two times that day. Sensory overload is real. One time years ago when I got home from school, my husband said, “Let’s go to the grocery store,” and I started crying. Maybe water aerobics isn’t for me, I thought more than one time.

If your hands aren’t too full, hold that thought, too.

As I said, it’s Peace Sunday, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a decent person while our president does things like wake up one morning and try to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

It’s easy to be outraged, to call him a clown or a jerk or an idiot. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s not like I emerged from the womb knowing that gender is about what’s in your head and sex is about your genitals. For a long time, I was weirded out by the idea that someone with male genitalia could know deep down they were a woman, or vice versa. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I didn’t try to wrap my heart around it.

Then a few summers ago my school did some seriously powerful training about children who get marginalized. Jess Clark from the Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe came and talked about the trans community and how to support trans kids in schools. He talked us through the difference between things like the sex you are assigned at birth (“It’s a girl!”), your gender identity (“I’m a girl”), your gender expression (I present myself to the world as a girl), and your sexual orientation (I like boys).

Jess’s message was simple: Gender is more complicated than we’ve been raised to believe. In one of my favorite moments, he pointed out with gentle humor that in polite society we don’t tend to go around asking people what their genitals look like. Check.

I thought about the kids I teach who are gender nonconforming and how they struggle. I thought about the kids I taught years ago, kids who were living with an unspoken, and at the time unspeakable, pain. Some of those kids have transitioned since I knew them, and their stories make so much sense now.

Bear with me for one more awkward transition. Recently I read in The Sun an excerpt from an interview published in April, 1984. In it, Deena Metzger says, “I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament–learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world.”

She was explaining how hard it is to think about achieving world peace when “Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like.”

You can put down all those thoughts you were holding now; I think I’m getting to the punch line.

One night a funny thing happened after water aerobics. The Man Who Won’t Stop Talking followed me into the hot tub. He kept talking. I closed my eyes, hoping he’d talk to someone else.

“You’re a teacher, right?” he finally stuck his arm into my shark cage and asked. At that word, I opened my eyes and dragged my better self off the bottom of the hot tub. Then he said, “I must drive you crazy.”

There it was. I laughed, agreed with him, and just like that, The Clown Who Won’t Stop Talking and The Stuck-Up Jerk Who Won’t Talk to Anyone (that would be me) turned back into people.

So then there’s Donald Trump and his terrible idea. I want to tell him to lean into the idea that makes him uncomfortable.  I want to tell him that trans kids have a higher than average suicide rate, and we should try not to make their lives harder than they already are.

I want to tell him to believe those trans soldiers when they tell him the truth about their lives.

But, of course, I can’t tell Donald Trump anything. In most of my circle, his name is code for idiot/jerk/clown. And I don’t disagree–I think he’s dangerous, and sad, and unhinged. But what I learned that night after water aerobics is that if I want someone to stop driving me crazy, I have to build a relationship, not a shark cage.

I don’t have any idea what that means on dry land. I don’t know how to keep resisting things that appall me while staying in relationship with people whom they don’t appall.

I just know it’s Peace Sunday, and that quote about disarming on the inside won’t stop following me around.

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Estranged

Late one evening in Cocoa Beach I was having a glass of wine with my friend and her sister after Fred had gone to bed. Somehow the conversation drifted to the idea of friends or family members who have become estranged. It’s not a word I’ve ever given much thought to.

Most of the old friends I’ve lost have been through carelessness. You mean to call, of course, but there’s all that life stuff going on, and before you know it years have passed. We didn’t have Facebook when I graduated from high school or college to make it so easy to retain at least an illusion of connection. That’s an excuse, of course, but it’s one of those excuses that works a little bit because it’s true. I’ve squandered more good people than I like to admit.

That night we were talking about how silly it was to let one or two stray comments end a long friendship. We were talking about a relationship that ended because someone said something that rubbed the other person the wrong way, and it burrowed in like a tick and festered. How easy it would have been to have a different ending, we told each other. We ended the evening laughing, declaring we were all now estranged and making plans for the next day.

I went to bed and didn’t give the conversation any more thought. The next afternoon, my friend of over thirty years and I were sitting way out on the end of the pier at the Tiki Bar, watching pelicans dive for fish and surfers paddle out to catch waves. “Whatever happened to your old friend [who I’ll call] Amanda?” Kathy asked me.

I told her I had no idea. Come to think of it, we were estranged. We had been close, things had happened, and we had both felt the need to close the door on the friendship. At least, that’s how I remember it. In retrospect, I am not sure how mutual the decision was. Nevertheless, the door closed more than a decade ago, and over the years neither of us ever knocked on it.

It was a lazy afternoon at the beach. Kathy had known Amanda too, so she said, “I’ll just look her up on Facebook and see what she’s up to.”

Sometimes that’s a good thing to do. We’ve probably all looked up an old friend from our childhoods just to see how things turned out. I’ve reconnected with a number of people I’m happy to have back in my life. Many of my old students have found me online, and I love to see who they’ve become as adults.

That afternoon on the pier, though, Kathy got quiet. “You’re not going to like this,” she said. And if you are reading this post, you’ve probably read enough of my other essays to know that what we found was Amanda’s obituary. She died two years ago, apparently from some sort of cancer.

So there’s that. I still haven’t figured out how it makes me feel. I’m sad, of course. A vibrant, joyful life was cut short. I don’t think I feel regret, but maybe that’s just bluster. I feel tender toward that thirty-something-year-old me, doing the best that she could. And yet, it turns out it is different to be estranged from an old friend who is going about her life in the world and an old friend who has died without your ever knowing she was dying.

Kathy and I sat there quietly on the pier, watching the waves wash in and out. Then we paid the bill and headed off down the beach, two old friends, as the late afternoon sun sank inexorably toward the water, and the waves erased our footprints as we walked on.

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If you called an old friend after reading this, tell us all about it in the comments!

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Big Potatoes

"Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one's will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another's misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons." The Catholic Encyclopedia

It’s mid-May. The rose bushes are blooming and I’m thinking about the school year ending, and about the fact that I never posted in April, and about the things I should be grading tonight. But mostly I’m thinking about mercy.

It’s my Uncle Larry’s fault. Easter morning found me flying out of Albuquerque into the sunrise. I was on my way to Pittsburgh to get home for his funeral. Having held on deep into Holy Week, Uncle Larry had died on Wednesday, and we had to wait for Jesus to rise from the dead on Sunday to bury my uncle. He’s a Catholic priest. Something about flying into the light on Easter morning felt right.

By 1:00 Monday afternoon the family had gathered, filling the 18th-century sitting rooms at Beinhauer’s on West Liberty Avenue in Dormont. My sisters and I were sharing a room at what Judy calls Bereavement Hotel. (People who stay there for other reasons know it as the Crowne Plaza across the street from South Hills Village.) My brother Pat and his wife Pat were standing near a fringed lampshade when we got there, and the rooms were filling quickly with my cousins, their kids, and their kids’ kids. These cousins are the people, my generation, about whom Uncle Larry said last year, “There were twenty-two of you. Five are gone.”

That was at my brother’s funeral, and my uncle’s pain was palpable. “It’s too much,” his body seemed to be saying, while his mouth said “Our Father, who art in heaven” and “When I say ‘Lord have mercy, you say Lord have mercy.'” Today Uncle Larry looks like he is at peace, flanked by the flowers surrounding his open casket.

All day long we meander through these rooms like disorganized extras on a film set. Along with the four sitting rooms, there’s a kitchen stocked with coffee, tea, and, for some reason, cherry slushies. The kitchen opens into a playroom. “That’s where they have the birthday parties!” one of the cousins’ kids’ kids explains.

In Catholic tradition, the corporal works of mercy include such things, among others, as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and “harboring the harborless.” All day long, my uncle’s former parishioners and friends merry-go-round through the funeral home, sharing stories about the times my uncle did these things for them. “Your uncle came to the hospital every day while my wife was dying,” one man says. “Your uncle got me into AA,” a woman whose kids I used to babysit for tells me. “Your uncle opened the rectory on Christmas Eve and made a great Manhattan,” says a man with twinkly eyes. I can vouch for that one.

At some point after we’d been there a little while, Uncle Larry put his glasses on. I didn’t see him do it, but there they were, where they hadn’t been just a few moments before. I don’t question things like this at funeral homes. I know there are funeral directors who take care of these sorts of things, just as I know there is a moment when a doctor can declare a person dead. But I’ve also been there for that last breath, and in those days just before that last breath. I’ve walked through that shimmery space, that opening between what we know and what we can’t imagine.

So I’m glad Uncle Larry put his glasses on to see the room fill with his old friends and parishioners, all those people who called my Uncle Larry Father John. My cousin Tommy, the oldest cousin/acting patriarch, greeted every single person who came through the door.

On our way to St. Bernards that morning, one of those fancy osprey helicopter/jet hybrid thingies flew right over my sisters and me as we drove down Fort Couch Road. It turns out President Obama was in Pittsburgh for a funeral, too. Dan Rooney, long time Steelers patriarch, was put to rest about an hour before my uncle. The Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese sent a letter to my family explaining that he had to be at the Rooney funeral instead of Uncle Larry’s. My uncle would have said something funny about this situation, but I don’t know what it would have been. That’s the thing about people dying.

Even though Bishop Zubik wasn’t there, St. Bernard’s in Mt. Lebanon was full of priests that morning. Thirty or forty of them in solemn robes billowed into the first five pews across the aisle from my family. The priest who gave the sermon was the same priest who had been smiling from the altar since the mass began.

He talked about my uncle’s faith. “We’re sad,” he said, “but don’t begrudge your uncle his joy on this day.” I thought about Uncle Larry’s words at everyone else’s funerals: my sister’s, my brother’s, my father’s, my mother’s. “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” he would say. And I thought about his wry smile in the coffin after he put his glasses on.

The smiling priest reminded us that when Uncle Larry/Father John wanted to get people’s attention, he would say, “This is important–this is big potatoes.” I remembered how Uncle Larry would come up to me, the “caboose” as he once described our shared position among our siblings, at other funerals, and say, “You’re going to say something, aren’t you?”

The first time this happened my sister Meg had died. It was 1990 and I was twenty-six. I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember quoting Dostoevsky from the Brothers Karamozov. “…let us remember how good it was here, when we were all together, united by a good and gentle feeling, which made us all, perhaps, better than we are.”

To bury the dead is another of the corporal works of mercy. On Tuesday, Tommy (who would later snag some yellow roses from a bouquet outside the mausoleum saying “The O’Shea girls should have roses”) said a few serious, gracious words, and the funeral drew to its end. The closed coffin perched beneath the altar, the holy water was sprinkled, and the pall-bearers stood in position. All that was left was to sing one more hymn, process out of the church, stick a black flag on our car, and fall in line behind the hearse on the way to Queen of Heaven cemetery.

And then Bishop Winter went off script. “I want to say one more thing,” he said. “There was a huge snowstorm in Pittsburgh one night.” He paused and looked away for a minute, the way you do when you feel like you might cry but would rather wait until later. “If you had made it home, you were happy,” he said,  “and you stayed home.” He paused.  “I stayed home.” He paused again, and I thought of the way my father couldn’t speak the only time I heard him mention the baby who would have been my fourth sister.  “Not Uncle Larry,” he said,  “I mean Father John.”  We laughed as the man we knew as our uncle merged with the man the Bishop knew as a priest.

The cloistered Passionist nuns, he told us, had quietly tucked in that cold evening when they heard a knock on the door. It was Father John, the Bishop said, braving the blizzard, checking to see that the sisters had everything they needed to weather the storm.  “That’s what I remember,” the Bishop said. Then the organ clanged a chord and they rolled the coffin down the aisle.

We filed out, pew by pew. The church was packed, and the person standing at the end of each row was holding a lit candle.  Tuesday afternoon we followed Uncle Larry, one more time, through the light, into the light.

One of my favorite memories came years ago when my brother Pat had my last two uncles use Skype for the first time. Self-conscious on camera they joked, and then, somehow, my mother’s sister’s husband and my father’s brother decided to sing “As Time Goes By.” Just for fun just now, I looked up the lyrics. Reel Classics begins with these lines I’ve never paid attention to before:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension…

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

In my uncle’s last Christmas card, he wrote, “I don’t like Skype.” He also said, “I love the old phones that had mouthpieces that you spoke into,” but not the distance that had flung my sisters and me across the country. “O well,” he concluded, “times are changing, I’m not. I don’t understand.”

The simple facts of life that cannot be removed are these: Easter morning I flew home to Pittsburgh and Wednesday afternoon I flew back home to Albuquerque. Sunday afternoon at five to twelve I opened Skype, right on schedule, to join my niece’s online baby shower. We broke bread and drank wine and I can’t stop thinking about mercy, about my big and scattered family, how strong the bonds are, how fragile the strands that bind us to this world.

It’s big potatoes.

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Two Gyms

The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.

The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.

Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”

It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.

I’ve never before stopped  to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.

So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear. 

And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.

I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.

And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.

Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.

I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.

I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings.  A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for.  Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.

I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.

At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”  We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation I Mean Inauguration Weekend and then Mary Tyler Moore!

By the time it became illegal to deny my brother health insurance because he was really sick, most of the damage had been done. Years of inconsistent coverage and subsequent self-medicating had taken a big toll on his organs. He had really good insurance for the last few years of his life, but it was too little too late for his worn out heart.

Not too long before Paul died, we learned I was following him down the trail of inflammatory arthritis. Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been learning what it means to live with an immune system that attacks my joints. I’m lucky; when my hands swelled up and I couldn’t walk up the stairs without resting at the top, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. I didn’t have to suffer for years searching for a diagnosis as so many other people have. I got myself to a rheumatologist and we got busy trying to find medications that would get me back to something like my normal life.

We’ve done that. I have good days and less good days when it comes to managing pain and fatigue, but I don’t spend any time at all worrying about having rheumatoid arthritis. Lately, though, I spend a good bit of time worrying about having a pre-existing condition.

It seems more likely every day that one of the financial or regulatory “burdens” likely to be lifted in the rush to repeal the ACA is the requirement to provide insurance to people who are actually sick. I take two drugs to control my arthritis. One of them is Humira, which would run upwards of $2500/month if I didn’t have insurance and a “discount card” which brings my price down to a minimal copay. What insurance company in their right mind would choose to insure me if they weren’t required to by law?

One of the things I can do because I have good healthcare is play the mandolin. Last weekend the Guadalupe Mandolin Orchestra opened at a house concert by Lindsay Straw. My little group played three songs, ending with a Mozart tabletop duet, where Steve and Ken play the music from the top to the bottom of the page, and I turn the paper upside-down, basically playing from the bottom to the top at the same time. Somehow it all works out, and we reach the end at the same time. My medicated fingers flexed across the frets and we spent a cold, rainy night making music together.

Then Lindsay took over. She plays folk songs from the British Isles, and that night, all her songs featured women using their wit and their wiles to outsmart men and come out on top.

After the concert, she and I made plans to attend the women’s march Saturday morning. I haven’t marched in a long time, and honestly, I’d been a little ambivalent about going. I’ve been in the “peaceful transfer of power is a good thing” crowd, and the “let’s wait and see what happens next” frame of mind.

But I teach teenagers. If I know anything at all about teaching, it’s that what you don’t do teaches as loudly or louder than what you do. So while I hadn’t made firm plans to go to the march, I hadn’t been able to decide not to go, either. Friday night, listening to songs about women being smart, and strong, and powerful, I knew I knew I had to go. I had to go because New Mexico’s rape kit backlog is the worst in the nation. I had to go because I know teenage girls who don’t feel protected by their school. I had to go because there are young boys wearing “Not in my locker room” t-shirts who make me feel hopeful about the world.

So I went. I walked. I ran into old friends and old students. I found myself surrounded by thousands of people united by the simple idea that human decency matters, that using our voices matters. For a few hours on a cold, grey January day in Civic Plaza, ten thousand strangers created peace.

Then it was Saturday night and I went to a ceilli, an old-fashioned-let’s-get-together-and-make-music night. We sang songs like “Let it Be” and “Teach Your Children” and “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” For a few hours on a cold, grey January evening in a warm living room on Guadalupe Trail, a dozen old and new friends put our voices together and created peace.

So that’s how I spent Inauguration Weekend. I didn’t listen to politicians give speeches or watch wealthy people attend balls. I walked with strangers and made music with friends.

There’s one more thing about my pre-existing condition. I give myself a shot every other week with a “Humira pen.” It’s a simple process: you pinch the skin on your thigh or abdomen, position the pen against it, and press the button at the end of the pen to activate the spring-loaded needle. Then, all you have to do is hold the pen in place for ten seconds while the medicine rushes through a needle you never even see into your body. Simple.

The thing is, though, it hurts like hell. After the first few months, I started having a hard time getting myself to do it. I would get everything ready, position the pen, and then just sit there, unable to push the button. It was frustrating–I like to think of myself as strong and capable, and it seemed like such a stupid thing to be unable to do.

On the night I finally got frustrated enough to ask for help, Fred came in and stood near me. “Say ‘position, click, hold,'” I told him, a little mantra I had made up to talk myself through the process. “Click” was the signal to press the button, and the point I couldn’t get past on my own. With Fred standing beside me, I “clicked” on the second try. Now we do it this way every time. During the ten seconds of “hold,” I usually yell. Sometimes it’s a simple “Ow” or “man-o-man-o-man,” but sometimes, when the burn is worse, my language gets a lot more colorful. Fred stays calm while I yell, sometimes laughing with me, telling me that it’s only ten seconds, that it’s almost over. And then it is over, and we’ve done it. This one simple hard thing becomes doable when I’m not alone.

When I see Donald Trump speaking as the President of the United States, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like the voiceover at the beginning of the adventure movie where the demagogic dictator has gained power and plans to destroy the country with his evil plan. Grizzly bears are threatening the children at school, and at any moment, Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson or no, let’s make that Katniss Everdeen, is going to swoop in, vanquish the Grizzly King, and save the children.

I don’t know when or if coverage for pre-existing conditions is going to go away, but it seems both likely and imminent. I don’t know if we’re going to end up in an accidental war with China, or do away with the First Amendment, or commit untold atrocities in the spirit of nationalistic fervor.

I do know that whether or not I can get my Humira is not the most important problem in the world. I do know that if my fingers stiffen and swell and I have to stop making music, my friends will play on. I do know that, for as long as I can give myself shots, Fred will stand next to me and help me push the button.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Standing here next to each other, joining our voices–if we’re going to make it after all, I think that’s how it has to happen.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

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Peace on Earth and Barry Manilow

I vaguely remember one New Year’s Eve–call it early high school in Bethel Park, PA. I don’t know whose basement we’re in, but there’s a tv up on the wall in the corner and we’re waiting for the ball to drop. Barry Manilow is singing “It’s just another New Year’s Eve,” and my friends and I are throwing things at the tv. “Good riddance,” we are yelling at 1970-something. The details are sketchy from this distance, but I’m thinking our bad year had to do with boys, maybe even one specific boy. Maybe it was one boy who several of us had been in love with. Maybe some of those loves had overlapped, and maybe that boy who might have been tall and lanky had been careless with our eager hearts. Maybe that Barry Manilow song would become an anthem of sorts, pulling us back together. Maybe when Barry Manilow sang, “We’ve made mistakes, but we’ve made good friends too,” my friends and I looked at each other and knew our friendships would outlast all those high school boys who might have tossed their heads to push long straight hair out of their eyes while they played tone poems on the piano and sang soulfully to each one of us as if we were the only one who mattered. Like I said, it’s all blurry from this distance.

This New Year’s Eve, I haven’t been able to get a purchase on my feelings. My life with a small l is as peaceful and rich as it’s ever been. After trying without success to sell our house for the past few years, we finally decided just to stay. I love my house. The ceiling in the family room soars to three high windows, way up on the wall. Sometimes when I am sitting on the couch, I see a plane fly by. Sometimes when I am standing at the kitchen sink, I see a friendly moon rising over the deck. Sometimes when I sit in the loft at night, all of Albuquerque twinkles below me, and I remember how the snow crunched in Pittsburgh, how the whole city glittered beneath Mt. Washington at night. During the day, the Sandias put on a cloud-show, playing games with the light from the moment the first red glow appears before dawn.

Since we’re staying, we’re doing the things you do when you love something. We’re fixing up, polishing, tending to, shining. Everything old is feeling new. It’s not the same anticipation I had been feeling about building a new house; but it feels good. It feels solid. It feels like home.

Last Christmas, not long before he died, my brother bought a tree and a nativity set. He was newly excited about living, even as his health was getting worse. I put up his nativity set this year, and I think about him when I walk into the living room. Maybe that’s how I feel about 2016. It was sad and hard and beautiful and joyful, and we’re still here. Last night just before midnight I asked Fred what he thought was the best thing about 2016. He thought for a while, and then he said, “I’m still alive.”

I thought about what he said in church this morning. I started singing in church choirs in middle school. With the exception of a few years when I was too angry to be a Catholic and too Catholic to be anything else, I’ve sung in church choirs my whole life. I need it: the camaraderie, the ritual, the faith act of opening your mouth and turning air and flesh and bone into music. All of it feeds me in a way I’ve finally learned not to try to understand with my head.

This morning we were singing “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” The story goes like this: Once upon a time, a bunch of angels dipped close to earth, playing golden harps and singing about peace. The earth just lay there listening (“in solemn stillness” to be precise), but didn’t really get it. I’m picturing a polite clap from a few cold, bored shepherds leaning on crooked staffs on a rocky hillside before they turned back toward the fire. Fast forward through the centuries into verse two and the angels keep coming. They float around singing elevator music about peace on earth while the “weary world,” now filled with “sad and lowly plains,” keeps ignoring them.

By verse three, we’re getting more explicit, and strangely, this morning I find the words deeply comforting. The angels have been singing for “two thousand years of wrong” while “warring humankind hears not.” The lyricist even gets a little testy: “hush your noise” and listen to the damn angels, he says. I’m not sure I should be feeling better about 2016 and life with a capital L in 2017 because the world has been messed up for millennia, but somehow I am.

Neither Barry Manilow nor the carol writer can resist sappy optimism in the final verse. Barry tells us bloodlessly that we’re going to be “just fine,” but not even I can look around the world heading into 2017 and believe it’s going to be that simple. (Besides, it’s obvious Barry just needed to rhyme with Auld Lang Syne. He could just as easily have said, “the cancer is benign,” or “now go out and dine.”)

I’ll get to the angels’ happy/sappy ending in a minute, but first I need to tell you about something that happens every now and then when I’m singing. Once in a while, my body disappears. That’s not exactly what I mean, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s as though I’m not the one making the music; rather, I’m as much an instrument as Justin’s recorder or Rachel’s viola or Ken’s violin. In those moments, instead of singing, I’m being sung.

That happened to me this morning during the angel song. In the fourth verse, the angels stop flying around and the writer imagines a better time, a time he believes is coming, maybe even immanently. In this new era, the angels give up on floating around strumming cheery Muzak on their shiny harps. In this new era, an impatient peace takes over and”flings” it’s “ancient splendors” over the earth.

Imagine that! I spend a lot of time talking to students about using strong verbs, and I’ve never noticed that one before. I want to be alive when peace starts flinging itself over this weary world.

I’m left with contradictions as this new year begins. We’re all still alive. My life in this house I’ve lived in since 1998 feels whole and rich and grounded.  And yet, I know it’s probably not just another New Year’s eve. The world beyond my house feels jarring and chaotic, violent and confused.  It seems unlikely that peace will pick 2017 to start flinging itself at this weary world.

I was talking to a friend after church on New Year’s day. “I’m ok today,” he said, and I think there’s wisdom in his words. All sorts of things we can’t foresee will surely be demanded of us tomorrow. I’m going to try to meet them with love. I’m going to try to notice when peace comes flinging my way. It’s been a long time since anyone accused me of being an angel, but for what it’s worth, I’m going to keep on singing.

 

 

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Minutiae

As I write this, my granddaughter Aurora, the one who wanted violin lessons and so gave me the gift of learning to play a new instrument, is writing an essay arguing against glowing cats. This too, it turns out, is a thing in this weird world.

Her third reason (“thirdly,” she says) why glowing cats are wrong, after “we should use less important animals than cats, like rats or mice” and something about how we should get over worrying about tripping on our cats in the dark, has to do with the fact that the cats have to eat jellyfish to make them glow. I didn’t get to read enough of her essay to figure out whether she is concerned about the jellyfish, or, more likely for this cat-loving vegetarian, she thinks we are making the cats do something gross.


Many years ago I found myself saying something positive about the church I go to when I said to a friend, “Oh, you don’t have to believe in God to go there.” I’ve wondered what I meant by that for years.


“Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I looked in the mirror and saw—[wait for it while you twirl]—myself.” I remember these ritual words from  the ceremony in which I moved from being a Brownie to being a Girl Scout, which tells me I was probably in second grade at St. Louise de Marillac. This is the year I learned to write in cursive and spent my days with Sr. Ernestine in the classroom across from the lockers. I think it was also the year when we watched, in preparation for making our First Holy Communion, a movie where we saw evil souls being damned to a fiery hell.

The rhyme appeared in my head sometime Tuesday evening before the election results were in, when it was still possible to imagine seeing something other than ourselves in the mirror.


T3 (if we’re counting these post-mirror days) it’s Veterans Day, and I show up for a professional development day at my school fresh off an evening in the emergency room.

I won’t describe the whole, healing day, but here’s how lunch went: a physics teacher I play mandolin with some Sunday afternoons sang Irish songs. Then our service learning director showed us how to bang our arms on our tables “to make our silverware dance” while she sang (in Latvian) a Latvian table song. Then a Latin teacher got up with his guitar and said “I think we should sing Hallelujah,” so we did. Then a chemistry teacher and an English teacher rocked out to bring the mood back up, before we closed with our Director of Diversity singing (in Hebrew) from the Song of Solomon.

A little bit later we lay on quilts in the grass reading “Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.


I can say with great certainty all the things I don’t believe about believing in God. Not Santa Claus. Not involved in the Cubs breaking the streak. Not interested in my traffic problems. No big front porch with rocking chairs in the sky. I don’t go to church because I believe in God, I finally realized. I go to church because I believe in people.

I remembered that moment this morning when my priest, who looked a little ragged on T5 after spending his week immersed in organizations that work with immigrants, said that this isn’t a time for talking about what we believe. Instead of reciting the creed we spoke the beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we said out loud together. “For they shall be satisfied.”


I’ve cleared up some of the glowing-cat confusion. Something from the jellyfish is inserted into the eggs of the cat. (She’s a seventh grader, so that’s the gross part.) And it turns out she really would be just fine if they’d only use mice or rats or some other animal we don’t like as much.

That’s a connection I wasn’t planning to make here.


Some of the last words spoken in our faculty meeting came from the man who had chanted the psalm at lunch. He quoted Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a Yemeni poet who said, “Even though there be no mercy in the world, the gates of heaven will never be barred.”

I don’t pretend to know what Rabbi Shabazi meant. He was speaking to people who had been driven into the desert from their homes, who were watching their families suffer and die around them. I want to think that there were warm, sad evenings in the desert, evenings when tired, hurting people gathered around a campfire and someone started to sing. I want to think Rabbi Shabazi meant, “Even though there be no mercy in the world, there will be mercy in the world.”


The first thing we did on our professional development day was write one sentence in big letters on black paper about why we teach. Then we were photographed with our signs.

The last thing we did on professional development day was watch a video showing everyone who works at our school holding up their sign set to another Leonard Cohen song. “I teach,” mine said, “because I believe love wins.”

It’s not a creed, I realized as we spoke the beatitudes this morning. It’s a call to action.

 

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Right Now

Right now–Cubs up 5-1 with two outs in the  bottom of the fifth in game seven–while the Cubs still might win the World Series for the first time since 1908, and right now, while the U.S. might still elect our first woman president since, well, ever, right now, I want to write about road rage.

A few weeks ago as Fred and I pulled into BJ’s on a Tuesday night for half-price wine, we watched a Yukon-sized car careen through the mall parking lot, pull in front of us as we turned into the restaurant, then come to a dead stop in front of the entrance to unload a clown car’s worth of passengers. I’d be lying if I said we waited calmly and patiently while people climbed out of the car, but we did wait. That was our only option, as the car was stopped in the middle of the road, blocking our only path to a parking space. (For the record, I’ll add that it was a hale and hearty bunch who climbed out; no little old ladies or little kids with broken legs in sight.)

Things took a turn for the worse when the backup lights came on and it seemed likely that the car was about to ram into us. That’s when Fred hit the horn. It wasn’t one of those cute little tap-tap honks that says, “Excuse me, I just wanted to make sure you knew I was here.” It was a long honk, the kind that calls the other driver names, the kind that continued beyond the point when the other driver saw us and decided not to back up.

The big, empty car realized we were there, pulled forward, and we all parked. As we headed into the restaurant, while I tried to avoid eye contact, the driver came toward us angrily and said, “I was going to stop!” There was some arm waving and head shaking, and somehow Fred managed not to respond in kind, and we all ended up in the restaurant. Fred and I hustled off to a table in the bar while our new friends waited to be seated.

(Right now, the team that needs to find a new name just scored two runs on a wild pitch, so I need to write more quickly. The Cubs are up 5-3, still two outs.)

I ordered an expensive glass of La Crema Pinot Noir since it was Tuesday and I was having the cherry chipotle salmon, and Fred and I were talking and having a nice evening. At some point after our drinks were served and before dinner came, the man from the parking lot appeared at our table.

“I was out of line,” he said. “I would have reacted exactly like you did.” (I’m going to bet you didn’t see that coming, either.) Of course, that led to a pleasant exchange, we admitted our honking had been a little excessive, and the evening became brighter and warmer than it had been.

A little while later I was eating my salmon when our waiter came by with another glass of Pinot Noir. “This is from the folks at table 22,” he said. I went to the hostess stand to make sure I had the the right table, and then went over to talk to them.

The thing is, I had had a pretty hard day. Sometimes I struggle to leave my students’ problems at school. Sometimes the helplessness I feel about not being able to make someone’s life different than it is threatens to engulf me. I worry about the unknown, the news that might come in the next phone call.

That’s what I said to my new road rage friends at table 22.  “That was so unnecessary,” I told them, “and so incredibly kind.” I told them it had been a hard day. I thanked them for reminding me that bad things can lead to good.

It was only later that I realized they had also reminded me that grace is real, that I’m not completely crazy for believing that good has an edge.

Right now (6-3 in the top of the seventh, less than a week out from the election), when everything is possible and everything could still go either way, that’s what I wanted to say.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up and either be the same Cubs fan I’ve been since those wonderful summers right after college when I lived a quick train ride from Wrigley and rooted for the perpetual underdogs, or I’ll be some new kind of Cubs fan who cheers for a team that can actually win.

November 9th we’ll all wake up in a different world than the one we live in today. My road rage buddy made me a little more hopeful that, whatever world it is, we’ll figure out how to live in it.

 

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Why I’m Going to Get in Trouble This Year

I wish Ruth Bader Ginsburg hadn’t been so quick to apologize for saying “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.”

I wish she had said something like, “I don’t regret speaking out. Everyone who loves our country should be speaking out.” George F. Will wrote, “Donald Trump’s damage to the Republican Party, although already extensive, has barely begun.” The Washington Post called Trump “a unique threat to the Republican Party and to the country.”

The Post listed Trump’s offenses as follows. “Mr. Trump degrades people, serially insulting women, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, Jews and others. He erodes the discourse, frequently and flagrantly lying…He proposes undermining foundational civic institutions such as the free press. He shows contempt for the separation of powers…Where his policy agenda is not thin, it is scary…”

Nevertheless, the Republican Party has finalized its selection of Trump as their presidential nominee. With few exceptions (cheers to Mitt Romney, who said, “I want my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing…”), they’ve relinquished their responsibility to choose a candidate worthy of the office. I admit it—I don’t understand the strange moral calculus by which Republicans claim they can disown Trump’s words, actions, and beliefs while championing his candidacy.

As Trump continues to dive to new lows, I find myself asking, at what point does it become imperative that every person who loves her country or even her fellow humans begin speaking out? At what point should every Supreme Court Justice feel morally compelled to speak as Ginsburg did?

This isn’t an idle question for me. I teach English and Economics at a private, independent school in New Mexico. For years, I’ve agreed with the philosophy that it’s our job to teach our students how to think, not what to think. I’ve worked hard to remain aware of the power I have to shape students’ opinions and to wield it ethically. I try to teach students to understand how persuasive argument works, to analyze evidence, to consider the other side.

I’ve always loved teaching in presidential election years; the curriculum creates itself as candidates lay out their platforms and the media offers simplified explanations of complex issues. It’s exciting in those years to push students to challenge assumptions, to look for the details behind the soundbites, to figure out how their own values shape their understanding of the issues.

But I don’t know how to do that this year. No—that’s not really what I mean. I know exactly how to do it; I just don’t think that I should. As a teacher, I know that what I don’t say teaches as loudly as what I say.

All summer, I’ve been imagining my back-to-school-night speech to parents. I want to explain to them that I can’t be impartial this year; I can’t act as though Trump is just any other candidate. I can’t afford his views on issues the respect that his position would seem to demand. I want to tell them what the Washington Post said at the end of a powerful editorial imploring people to remember the many outrageous statements Trump has made: “Winning is not an antidote to bigotry, violence, ignorance, insults and lies.” I want to say, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow said, “If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism.”

When I say those things out loud in my classroom, I will almost certainly get a call from an angry parent demanding that I stop teaching her child what to think. When that moment comes, I am not going to be able to say that my comments were “ill-advised” or that “I regret making them.” Like Mitt Romney, I want to be able to sleep at night. I’m going to have to say that I won’t be complicit. I’m going to have to say that I refuse to help normalize abhorrent behavior.

It would have been nice to quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 

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