Aly Raisman Nails Another Routine

In honor of the weekend’s Women’s Marches, I thought I’d take a moment to say that Olympic gymnasts are tough.  Pound for pound, I’d put them up there with those crocodile-eating leopards that are all over my Facebook feed this week.  In fact, as my students would say, Aly Raisman is tough af.

In case you missed it, here’s what Raisman, two-time gold medal winning Olympian, had to say to Larry Nassar, the “physician” responsible for sexually abusing US Olympic gymnasts and University of Michigan crew team members for two decades.  (Let that “two decades” number sink in. I’ll get back to it in a bit.)

Looking right at the man who groomed young girls to gain their confidence so he could abuse them, Raisman said,  “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing.”

Poster saying "Truth Matters" at Women's March
The number of women signing up to tell the truth at Nassar’s trial was 100 and climbing

This Larry that Aly Raisman was staring down is not only the man who spent his career assaulting young women while pretending to “treat” them. He is also the man who wrote the judge a letter explaining it was too hard on him to listen to the women’s testimony.

I heard this story Friday afternoon from my husband, who told me that the judge had laughed at Nassar’s request and told him to get over it. My first question was, “Is the judge a woman?”

“I don’t think so,” my husband said.

I don’t blame him for that. Every year I do a little writing experiment with my students. I stole this from another teacher many years ago, and it’s fascinating. Without explaining what you are doing, you give the students a list of characters defined only by their job title (doctor, lawyer, nurse, etc). You tell them the characters are waiting outside a courtroom and then have them write a short scene.

The point of the exercise is to see how students assign the sex of the characters to the different professions. In 2016, 69% of my students made the judge male. In other high-powered professions, attorneys were 79% male and physicians came in at 84%. The teachers and nurses in the story were predictably female. The teacher I stole this exercise from provided data showing that in 1987 and 1997, the judges in the story were 100% male.

That’s all just a long way of telling you that I don’t blame Fred for thinking the judge was a man. I was skeptical, of course, so I looked up the story. Sure enough,  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is all woman. Not only that, she “became part of Michigan’s history by becoming the first female JAG Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard.”

Judge Aquilina told Nassar that “Spending four or five days listening to them [the young women he molested] is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.” Judge Aquilina is tough af.

Aly Raisman nailed this one, too. She stared Nassar down and said, “You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel.”

"Protest

I have to admit that I’m an Olympics junky. I watch all of it, winter and summer, every time. I watch the athletes process in. I watch them light the torch. I tear up when they stand on the podium. I’ve watched curling, canoe slalom, synchronized swimming, luge, bobsled, skeleton, and even that goofy gymnastics thing with ribbons.

Many years ago, though, watching gymnastics used to make me sad. These tiny elite athletes, it turned out, were basically starving themselves while competing at world class levels. It wasn’t enough to twirl twelve thousand  times ten feet in the air in a half-pike position and land with a half-twist and a giant smile. They had to do all of that while meeting their coach’s misogynistic idea of what a female gymnast’s body should  look like.

Eventually, though, that seemed to change. For the last few Olympics, the US women gymnasts started looking more like well-fueled athletes and less like fragile paper dolls. I thought that meant they were being treated better.

I spend my days surrounded by young men and women. I’m pretty good at knowing when to ask a student if something is bothering them. Watching the 2016 Olympics, I kept asking Fred what was wrong with the gymnasts. They were fierce au (is there a social media “au” that means “as usual”?), but the joy and laser concentration that we all fell in love with in 2012 were obviously missing.

Many years ago, a young woman at my school uttered words that changed my life. A group of students had attended a diversity conference and had come back newly empowered with language that allowed them to describe their experiences.

Their stories of being mistreated by classmates were hard to hear, but it was one young woman’s reaction to the faculty’s outrage and outpouring of compassion that changed me. “I had no idea you would help me with this,” she said.

In the courtroom on Friday, Aly Raisman called out the whole organization; she said that USA Gymnastics was “rotting from the inside” and condemned the US Olympic Committee for their silence.

Raisman said, “If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Larry Nassar spent at least twenty years abusing the power of his position and molesting young women. Meanwhile, those young women were waiting for just one adult to do something courageous, and no one did.

Just one adult.

I know that I am not in charge of keeping the US Olympic Gymnastics team safe from pedophiles. (I point that out in case Sister Therapist happens to be reading–I do know that I can’t save or protect all of them.)

And yet. Maybe instead of blithely celebrating the gymnasts’ Olympic victory, I should have written an essay asking why they didn’t look like they were having fun.

I’m at the point in this essay where I need to decide where I’m going. If I’m to meet my new goal of publishing every Monday, it’s time to wrap this up. I’ve been circling; zigging left, zagging right. But I think I’m closing in.

Last week, Fred and I went to see The Post. I’m not much of a movie critic, but I think people should see this movie. In an age where every leader has to look around and take a poll before they decide what to do, the movie tells the story of one person (just one adult, you might say) who looked inside to find that answer.

Katharine Graham was tough af, too.

The 2016 US Olympics Gymnastic Team named themselves the “Final Five.” Let’s all act like adults to make sure they got that right.

(PS–My students taught me that “AF” thing. I’m finding it surprisingly useful.)

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Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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

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Things that Move, Things that Stand Still

One morning in July, Rusty nudged me out of bed at 6:30, amazed as always to have woken into another wondrous day. There were squirrels to see, bunnies to yearn for, birds to bark at. His whole body was wagging. How could I still be in bed?

I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, slid my flip-flops on, and out we went into what passes for Eden. The air was cool, a good twenty degrees below the nineties we’d reach later in the day, and everything was moving.

Cottonwood fluff landed on my eyelashes; finches and cowbirds danced and dipped and dove. Trees quivered, a dotted line of ants marched crumbs across the sidewalk, and neighbors on their way to work waved from their cars. Rusty, beside himself in the brand new world, could hardly keep his paws on the ground.

At the far end of the street, high up in the cottonwood by the mailboxes, the neighborhood hawks are raising another family. The eggs have hatched and the birds are staying close; this morning one watches from the wall at the top of the hill while the other flies low overhead, gripping a doomed lizard. Tiny bits of bone and feather and fur litter the ground under the nest.

I was starting to think that maybe I would write about motion when I started noticing things that were standing still. I looked at the mesa, the Sandias tugging the sun over the crest, the thick trunk of the cottonwood I leaned on while Rusty sniffed and pawed at the ancient earth.

That was a few months ago. These days Rusty is sleeping later. Summer’s bright promise slid into golden fall, and I keep sorting the world into two piles: things that move, things that stay still.

I’m in my seventeenth year of teaching high school. I started in 2001, just before the Twin Towers came down. I was driving to work when I started hearing the story on NPR. When I reached my classroom, students were already crying. I remember saying something stupid, something to suggest that when we learned all the facts, things would somehow be ok, less terrifying than they seemed in those early hours and days of not knowing. Of course, that wasn’t true.

That day provided some of my earliest lessons in how to be a teacher. Understand that you don’t have what they need. Hold a space where they can cry. Try to be just a little bit stronger than they are, unless it’s one of those moments when they need to know it’s ok to be weak. Be grateful for structure; in a chaotic day, it can help to head off to chemistry class just because it’s 9:35.

Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my life divides neatly into before and after, just as in so many ways, the story of this country does. Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my work as a teacher has always been tied to my hopes and fears for the world.

Seventeen years isn’t as long as some things. It’s shorter than the time my sister Meg has been dead. It’s shorter than the number of years I’ve been married. It’s shorter than the number of years my parents lived on Marvle Valley Drive.

It’s longer than the lives of the students I am teaching now. When I started my life as a teacher, most of my students weren’t born. The students I taught in those magical early years are married, have children, lament on Facebook that they feel old.

My current and recently past students are in motion. They grow, they graduate, they move away, they come back. “How are you?” they ask me when they stop by on winter break. “What’s new?” Fine, I tell them. Nothing much, I tell them. I am still here. Some of them, I know, find this comforting, this returning to your past and finding your old teachers still mucking around in it.

Last week  The Birds of Chicago spent the week in residence at my school, making music for and with us. These people who tour over two hundred days a year taught classes, made us laugh, and yanked our hearts right out of our chests. We laughed and cried together while our hearts flopped around on the outside like fish at play in this crazy new thing called air. On Thursday morning after they played with our jazz band, I found myself talking to a colleague. “I want to go back and make every decision differently,” I heard myself say. Then the day took off as the days in a school always do, and I didn’t give it much more thought.

Do you know how, when you pray or meditate every day, answers to questions you haven’t even figured out how to ask appear fully formed in your head? Well, I haven’t been meditating every day, but I have been trying to write most days and to take a few deep, intentional breaths now and then, and, wham, somewhere mid-afternoon the answer to a question I didn’t know I’d asked popped into my head. “Do nothing safe,” it shouted, as though it was afraid I wouldn’t hear.

What the hell, universe? I’m fifty-three and ten twelfths years old. I’m healthy-ish, but that’s because I’ve got good health insurance that pays for one of those expensive drugs that flowy-haired women on horseback advertise on tv. I live in a beautiful, paid-for home in a marriage that works pretty well most days. I can afford to take violin lessons with my granddaughter and pay for the gym membership that keeps my joints moving. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger number in my 401K, but I can’t really think of a different number that would make me stop thinking that. My only real gripe is that, when I read that the average age of menopause was fifty-one, I took it as a promise. That hasn’t really panned out for me.

So what’s up with envying people who spend two hundred days a year on the road, and what does the universe mean when it tells me to “do nothing safe”?

The next day I’m talking with my friend Nina who tells me about her friend the successful entrepreneur. His motto is “Think short term and rely on good luck.” It sounds like a prophecy, so I write it on a notecard and tack it to the bulletin board in my classroom. It’s terrible advice for teenagers, but I can’t bring myself to take it down.

So. October is sweeping the floors, getting ready to close up shop. November is dusting off the shelves, hanging the grand opening signs. I hear the cranes have come back. I haven’t seen them yet, but I believe they are here. The sycamore in the back yard is gold and going bare. The plum in the front is still green and going red. Some things are moving. Some things are standing still.

The problem is that I can’t figure out which one I am doing. On any given day I love my work. I love standing like a ledge, or a rock, or a launchpad in my students’ lives. On any given day I’m background noise or a faint breeze. On any given day I support or chastise or applaud while my heart swims out beyond my body and back again, over and over.

Those early lessons about teaching still hold. Just this week I’ve had students who needed strong, and students who needed to know it was ok to be weak. Just this week, I’ve held a place for them to cry. Just this week, I’ve realized for the millionth time that I don’t have what they need.

The problem is, lately I can’t figure out whether I’m living out my calling or avoiding it. Something is moving in me, stretching at my seams.

Maybe it’s just my body’s stubborn refusal to quit producing eggs, or all this Halloween candy, or another chronic illness come to swell my joints. Whatever it is, when it reveals itself, I hope I’m paying attention. I hope I will remember to do nothing safe. I hope I will remember to think short-term and rely on good luck.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might want to check out The Birds of Chicago.

*****************************

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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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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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An Open Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

 Cute how that rhymes, isn’t it?

 I know we’ve been together for a long time (see Marvle Valley Drive, circa 1977, babysitting, running home at night while Mr. Pierson looked on to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped and buried alive on our quiet suburban street), but there are some things I just have to say to you. This morning I was the pianist in my “Loose at Nine” ensemble at St. Michaels. I was the pianist because we are “loose” at the nine o’clock service, so this cool group of really good musicians is willing to let me learn how to play with them, as if I were a real musician.

That’s you right there, isn’t it? That little voice telling me I’m not really one of them, that I’m not capable of doing this thing I work hard at and love to do?

My sister tells me that I had a stomach ache every morning before kindergarten, and that she always had to walk me places. (“Walk Heather to the birthday party;” “Walk Heather to the bus stop,” she remembers.) That was you, too, wasn’t it?

We’ve known each other a long time, Fear, so I feel like I can be honest. There was that time when my sister died. My parents were sobbing in the parking lot of the funeral home, and my mother’s hair was orange, and I realized I could never let myself love someone as much as they loved my sister. You were good, Fear. That decision not to have kids stuck. I learned to keep some distance in my relationships, curling you up like bubble wrap around my heart.

That is, until I became a teacher. Then I started loving kids with abandon. I thought I had kept myself safe—they weren’t my kids; I was just loving them from afar. Disinterestedly, you might say. I thought you’d done me a favor.

You know what happened next. One of them died, and it was terrifying. Everything in me screamed “Retreat!” It took many good friends, a few priests, and an awesome therapist to tempt me to stand up to you again. You were pissed off about that, weren’t you?

And of course you came back; you’re a seducer. You make people think they are being responsible when they listen to you. It’s good to be afraid, you whisper. You hide behind virtues like “caution” and “responsibility.” Fear is the grown up thing, you tease us. You keep us from driving recklessly down a snowy highway, from opening our doors to strangers.

I’ve been watching you, though, and I think I’m finally on to you. Let me tell you what it’s like to play the piano. When I sit on the bench behind the other musicians and in front of the whole congregation, sometimes my heart starts pounding. Sometimes my hands get sweaty, and sometimes they even shake. Then my mind leaps in, taunting me. It says things like, “Really, you think you can do this? Shouldn’t you let someone who actually knows what they’re doing play?” Those are the nice things. I don’t know why I haven’t broken up with you before now.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you show up, my body gets small. My arms don’t want to stretch across the keyboard. I don’t want to move my whole hand from a C chord to a G minor seventh. I try to press the keys quietly, to speak without actually speaking, to sing without making the air move. It’s a disaster every time. I crash and bang and clang and make sounds that are simultaneously timid and clashing and ugly.  

It doesn’t work. The only way to make music, I’m learning, is to be bold. To wave my arms wildly. To press down on the keys with everything I’ve got pent up in my heart. To be open to every odd sound that might come out of me and to recognize all of it as praise.

Because here’s the thing, Fear. You know we’re not really talking about playing the piano. Let me cut to the quick.  You are killing people. Everyone is closing their arms and closing their hearts and wrapping themselves in bubble wrap—no, in body armor—because you keep telling us we’re in danger. You keep telling us that the cautious thing, the moral thing, the just thing, is to buy more guns, to thicken our armor, to shoot first. And the thing is, people keep dying.

One of my old students posted on Facebook that he’s terrified. He’s a young black man and he’s right to fear that the world tilts toward hurting him and the people he loves. Everyone’s hurting everyone, and, Fear, let’s get serious, it’s your fault.

You’ve got so many people working for you, and they’ve got the microphone. Immigrants are scary! Black people are scary! Muslims are scary! Hillary Clinton is scary! This is what they keep yelling, and they are so loud that people are listening. Another of my old students, who used to mimic shooting geese while I read Wordsworth outside under a post-9/11 sky, recently wrote a serious, evenhanded explanation of why he needs to carry a gun. He will be there, he wrote, to protect me and the other shoppers at Walmart or Costco when someone else pulls out their AK47. We should be afraid, was his subtext, of all those other people buying bologna and tampons and popsicles and of those politicians (you know which one I really mean) who want to take our guns away. Reading his words made me feel sadder, not safer.

And what about this, Fear? Not long ago I realized that every single time I’ve gotten in a car as an adult I’ve locked the doors. Sometimes I’ve done it hurriedly, even frantically. I know that there are carjackings in the world and I don’t mean to make light of them, but I realized that I’ve never ever ever had a person rush to my car and try to get in. It’s never mattered (“yet” I can hear you whispering) whether or not my doors were locked, but I lock them every time.

You’re an abuser, Fear, and I’m done with you. Until you stop pointing fingers, nothing is going to get better. People who have no business dying are going to keep dying.

I know we’ve been down this road together before, and I can hear you laughing at me again. But I am stronger than I used to be, and I know some things I didn’t used to know. I know that when my old student said he was terrified, he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who was listening. He opened his arms wide over the whole keyboard and spit it in your face. The people who responded to him didn’t say, “You are brave,” or “You are courageous” or “You are strong.” That would be playing your game.

What they said was “I love you.” What they did was open their arms instead of closing them. What they did was take off their body armor and stand vulnerable with this young man before the powers of hate.

In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Toi Derrecotte tells the woman “who has to be so careful” to “write the poem about being afraid to write.” 

What I’m really trying to say is fuck you, Fear. You’ve overplayed your hand. Any day now, we’re all going to bare our vulnerable hearts. We’re going to open our arms wide and make bold music. Listen closely to the back beat. I want you to hear us laughing.

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Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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Friday Afternoon at the Shredder

It’s Friday afternoon at 3:15 and I’m shredding troubles. All day I’ve started my classes by asking my students to write down anything that’s bothering them and seal it in an envelope. No one will read what you write, I promise. After a few minutes, they put their names on their envelopes and sign across the seal.  Then I ask them to trust me to hold them for a little while. It’s the first day of class. Every one of them hands me an envelope, and I stash them out of sight.

Summer is officially over. For a week, every conversation I have includes the words, “How was your summer?” and almost everyone answers with some form of “It was great, how about yours?”  We talk as though each of us existed in our own private Junes and Julys. I had my summer; you had yours. Now that school is back in session we reunite the space-time continuum and walk together through the same days.

Why do we think we can own the summer? In my summer it was hot, and the rain finally fell. I woke each morning without an alarm to a cacophony of birds perched on my deck and the steady breathing of Fred and Rusty, my two external heartbeats. I played piano and violin, cleaned my house, read, worked out, and went for long bike rides. You could draw a circle around my neighborhood with a radius of twenty miles and plot my summer inside it with room to spare. It was that kind of slow, simple summer.

We put our house up for sale in May, so it was also a summer of savoring. I spent many mornings running rags over bookshelves, scrubbing sinks, mopping tile. I rubbed lemon oil into cabinets, cleaned dust and dead bugs out of light fixtures, and planted a new pot of flowers by the front door. It’s funny how easy it is to fall in love with your house again when you are trying to sell it. If I ever write that book of poems, I’m going to call it: I Love It Here: Poems about Letting Go. It was a good summer.

In late July as summer ambled on, the ensemble I sing with sang a funny little song as the congregation processed out of the sanctuary. It’s number 714 in the Gather Hymnal, for any Catholics or Episcopalians who might be reading. It’s called “God Whose Purpose is to Kindle.”

Like many hymns and anthems, including “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” and “Rise, O Voices of Rhodesia” (who knew?), number 714 is set to the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth, the choral symphony. In the fourth movement, the chorus sings the words from Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, Ode to Joy.

You know the music. I encountered it for the first time when I was eight or nine as “Bells are Ringing” in John W. Schaum’s Piano Course A—The Red Book. “Bells are ringing, hearts are singing, hymns of love and life worthwhile. All mankind with one great mind unites in free and joyful style.” If you are really interested, you can watch some little kid named Daniel practice it on YouTube. “Bells are Ringing” was by far my favorite piece in The Red Book. I would bang out those joyful chords every time I sat down to play. (As an aside, I don’t begrudge “Bells Are Ringing” its space in my memory, but do I really need to have the full text of “If a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood” and “Motorcycle Cop’s on Guard” claiming neurons? Shouldn’t there be a backspace key?)

According to the tiny print at the bottom of the page in my hymnal, a man named David Elton Trueblood wrote the lyrics for this rendition. If Wikipedia is to be trusted (note to any students reading this essay: it’s not. I use it here because this isn’t a research paper on David Elton Trueblood. The quality of evidence needed varies with your purpose.), David Elton Trueblood (1900-1994) was a highly accomplished scholar, theologian, and academic who “wrote 33 books” and founded the Earlham School of Religion at Earlham College. He was an active Quaker.

Writing Quaker reminds me of an essay I meant to write this summer about the day with three Qs. One July afternoon as I was walking the dog, two quail and a small squirrel danced down the street before us. The quail would glance back at the squirrel and strut forward a few steps, and then the squirrel would sit up like a prairie dog, sniff, and follow them. Rusty did that tilted head thing at me, and I shrugged back to say I didn’t get it either, and we followed a few feet behind them for a hundred yards or so. We finally crossed the street only when we realized they weren’t planning either to scurry away from us or show us how to play the game. It was a good summer.

The reason #714 made me curious about Dr. Trueblood is that the lyrics he wrote for this universal anthem of joy chastise us for being joyful. He wants God to “overcome our sinful calmness” and forgive us for “our tranquility.” I thought if I learned about him I could figure out whether he was being deliberately ironic or simply should have stuck to his day job and left lyric writing to someone less heavily committed to rhyme.

Another way to say that is that I was taking it personally.

The Ode to Joy Beethoven made famous was German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem. The singers open with these words, “Oh friends, not these tones. Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!” I love that plea.  At another point in the poem Schiller writes, “All the world’s creatures draw joy from nature’s breast.”  In the final, ringing lines, the chorus, looking for “the Creator,” sings “He must dwell beyond the stars.” It’s a powerful, hope-filled claim.

David Elton Trueblood replaced Schiller’s triumphal ending with these words: “Save us now from satisfaction when we privately are free, yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor’s misery.” The last booming words we sing out (joyfully?) as the congregation files out of church and into another week in a weary world are “our neighbor’s misery.” What?

And then the song followed me home.

The last thing I did before leaving home for church the Sunday after we sang #714 was to read an article in the newspaper about a woman who was stoned to death in Syria.  She was silent, the article said, as men pelted her with stones until she died.

Oh friends, not these sounds.

It was a gruesome summer. The article I read just before I left home for church on Sunday said they put the woman in Syria in “a small hole.” That detail.

On another day, in a spot that falls inside that circle summer drew around my house, three teenagers, boys the same ages as the ones I teach, beat and killed two homeless men while they were sleeping.

Can you see why I wanted to know if David Elton Trueblood was being deliberately ironic? “How can you say it was a good summer?” he’s asking me. How can anyone sing about anything? It was a gruesome summer.

During the bloody summer of ’14, I imagine some disinterested biographer writing someday, while pain erupted across the planet and the very limits of civilization were being tested, she brimmed with inexplicable joy. She pulled the summer over her head like a down comforter on a cold night and snuggled in. She remembered the days when she could barely stand upright against the world, when sadness made her dizzy, but these weren’t those days. Ladle it out, her heart said of this welling joy, there’s plenty more.

And then, as the days kept passing while I tried to figure out what I was trying to say in this essay, Robin Williams died. I’m breaking a sweat doing Muay Thai kicks when his name catches my eye in a headline flashing across my iPad. A few minutes later my husband comes in to tell me the details, and it’s too much. Robin Williams. Syria. Gaza. Ukraine. Ferguson. Beheading. Another beheading. Oh, friends, not these words.

And somehow there it all is at the end of the summer. I’ve been trying to finish this essay for a month. Early every morning I tweak a few words, move a paragraph or two around, and then I hear the neighbor’s garage door open and realize I can see the branches of the white plum outside the window.  It’s time to stop writing and get ready for work. I still don’t know what it is I am trying to say to David Elton Trueblood about joy and misery.

Because the thing is, if I am going to be honest, I know there is a place deep in the pit of my stomach where I could go if I let go my grip on joy and not be certain of returning. You might call it “a small hole.” Because the thing is, while I am delighting in yet another beautiful, ordinary sunrise, someone is doing despicable things to someone else in my back yard or on the other side of the world. And it matters immensely if I know the person who is in pain, and it doesn’t matter at all if I know that person, and both of those things are true. Someday, I am sure, physicists or theologians will discover that we do not stop at the edges of our own bodies.

If David Elton Trueblood were standing before me, chastising me for joy in the face of my neighbor’s misery, I would say to him, “Oh friend, not these words.” We have to strike a deal, I think, with our neighbor’s misery. We have to figure out how to be with it without being swallowed by it. Somebody, I think, has to hang onto joy. Misery is not allowed to win.

At the end of class I ask my students if they want their envelopes back. They look at me like I’m crazy and shake their heads.  One boy says, a little incredulously, “It worked! I didn’t think about my problems at all.”

This is what I know how to do. It’s the end of the first week of a new school year. I feed the shredder these small envelopes full of pain and watch while it turns them into confetti. That feels like it should be a metaphor for something.

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Bad Whale Jokes

Recently, a good friend who for years was the only person who knew my English-teacher-dirty-little-secret remarked that reading Moby Dick is my white whale.

I’ll have to take her word for it.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve probably taken at least eight college courses that included the words “American” and “Literature” in some combination in their titles (add in a time period, or a gender indicator, or another identity marker and they can add up quickly). I probably took a class called “American Literature” in high school, too, judging by the fact that I wrote an essay on John Steinbeck. Somehow, though, I’ve never read Moby Dick.

I do not mean to imply that none of those classes had Moby Dick on the syllabus. I’m pretty sure at least two of them did. I can’t even remember why I didn’t read it—I’m a homework-doer; my parents had to buy me phonics workbooks when I was four so I could do homework before I ever even went to school. I wish I could claim some life calamity tore me away while the boat crashed and rocked on the sea (I’m assuming at some point the boat crashes and rocks on the sea—doesn’t it?) but if that happened, those calamities have been lost in some great ocean of memory; you might say they’ve drifted out to sea without me.

With the exception of Robin Hood and A Brief History of Time, I’ve finished every other book I’ve ever started. I can’t bear not to know how a story ends, even when the story is a sentence long. When my husband picks up the remote a few seconds too early while we’re watching Jeopardy, I lose it. But what happened when he traveled with his wife to London and a cabby told him he looked like—WHO?? Who did the cabby tell him he looked like?  I won’t remember in five minutes, but I can’t bear not to know right now.

It isn’t that I haven’t tried to read Moby Dick. I have wandered the streets of that little town on six or seven different occasions. I’ve stopped at The Spouter Inn, and I’ve spent the night in that crowded hammock with Ishmael and Queequeg a whole bunch of times. My problem, I think, begins in Chapter Two. Ishmael reaches New Bedford on Saturday night and is “disappointed upon learning that the little packet for Nantucket had already sailed, and that no way of reaching that place would offer, till the following Monday.” That long weekend at The Spouter Inn (the Hotel California?) does me in every time. I just can never quite make it to the sea (Chapter 21—Going Aboard, I’m guessing?), which, from what I hear, is where the action is.

And lest you think I’ve got an old Eagles song running through my head, I should let you know that Chapter One actually has me singing Jimmy Buffett.  (The voice in my sister’s car calls him Jimmy Buf-fay, as in all you can eat seafood at Long John Silver’s on Saturday night. It’s funny every time. A few summers ago we drove from her home near Huntington, West Virginia, to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, telling the car to “Play Jimmy Buffett” every hour or so just to hear the car say “Ok, I’ll play Jimmy Buf-fay,” followed by, “Playing, Jimmy Buf-fay.” Trust me—it was funny every time. Even on the drive back.)

You probably know the part I’m talking about. Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; [some other stuff about wanting to knock people’s hats off]…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  We’ve heard this before—he’s looking for some changes in attitude, changes in latitude.  Right? Am I getting this yet?

It’s not that I don’t know anything about Moby Dick. For the record, I remember taking a test on which I had a choice of essay questions between Moby Dick and some other book that I had duly read and annotated, and I chose to answer the question on Moby Dick.  I got an A on that test. I can’t explain that A, any more than I can explain the fact that I often get the chemistry questions on Jeopardy right.

I’m sure a lot of people go through life without ever reading Moby Dick, and I have nothing but respect for them. It’s just that when people learn you’re an English teacher, they make certain assumptions. My insecurity about this whale of a hole in my education grew a few years ago when I started teaching a class called “American Lit.” You can see how that could make for rough sailing.

Mostly, my strategy has been to avoid discussing Melville (“I’m not a big fan,” does a nice job of suggesting you knew the work at one point and dismissed it, without actually making that false claim). When avoidance has failed, I’ve simply changed the subject. There are plenty of other writers about whom I can talk with some semblance of intelligence. It’s pretty easy with a little practice to turn a conversation from whale hunting to big game hunting or bull fighting. See how I did that? A nice bit of showing off with the correct choice of an object pronoun followed by a quick feint toward Hemingway, and no one suspects that the English teacher with whom they are in conversation is a fraud. (I threw that whom in for good measure.)

The whale almost pulled me under recently when an ambitious student got excited about comparing Moby Dick to Star Trek. I leaned on my more socially respectable ignorance of the TV show (or was it a movie?) to justify my inability to be of much help to him. It bothered me, though, in a grain of sand irritating an oyster sort of way.

A few months ago at a graduation party, my insecurity erupted like seawater from a blowhole. I was engaged in conversation with the head of my school (my boss’s boss, if you want to get technical) our college counselor, my husband, and her husband, who, for some inexplicable reason began explaining why Moby Dick is THE AMERICAN NOVEL. I don’t believe in writing in all caps like that, but it seems the simplest way to express the weight of those words bearing down on me.

I had several choices. I could stay quiet (a challenge if you know me, but I can do it when I dig my oars deep); I could jump up in mid-sentence and ask if anyone wanted me to see if they had cut the cake yet (foiled by the graduate appearing just then—what were the chances?—and asking that very question); or I could come clean. My secret about the whale was throbbing in me like that heart Poe stashed beneath the floorboards, and as Melville says, “Yes, these eyes are windows.” I was sure they knew my secret and had staged this whole conversation, maybe even this graduation and this party, to draw a confession from my tell-tale heart. I took a deep breath and grabbed the whale by its horns, or flukes, or barnacles, or whatever protrudes from that great white preponderance of flesh and metaphor. (Isn’t there some chapter where I’ll learn what protrudes from that great white preponderance along with everything else I ever wanted to know about whale anatomy?)

“I’ve never read it,” I told them, firing my puny harpoon.

I’d like to say a hush fell over the whole party as my students and colleagues lost all respect for me, but I had to speak. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” as they say. (Not Melville?) I’ve spent too many years sailing away from this damn whale with the same zeal that I’ve heard what’s his name sails toward it.

What actually happened was that the college counselor’s husband said something about how the book is about the relentless, disastrous pursuit of something meaningless.  That’s why, he said, the book is THE AMERICAN NOVEL.

“Oh,” I thought. Maybe I should read it. We left the party not long after, but the conversation has dogged me all summer.

Having confessed once publicly, I now find myself confessing all over. I’m like the convert or the new non-smoker who can’t stop telling people things they really don’t want to hear. “Hi, I’m Heather. I’ve never read Moby Dick.” It’s like I won’t be free of this albatross around my neck until I tell my story to some stranger.  (A wedding guest, say. I read that one.)

Recently one of my confessors sent me a cartoon. The drawing is of a woman (who looks a little like me if you lose the sensible shoes) lying on her psychiatrist’s couch. “I’m a liar and a fake,” she says. “Moby Dick for Dummies is as far as I got.”

It’s tempting.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, we drove from Pittsburgh to Duck, North Carolina, to spend a week with relatives in a rented house on the sea. Those were the days when cars still broke down, and early on, ours filled with fog. When the car was fixed, the sky filled with fog, and it was hard to know just where we were or where we were going. Later there was a storm and a wrong turn or two, and some tense moments as the drive we’d woken before dawn to get an early start on stretched deep into the night.

But we got there. Duck in the late seventies was a quiet peninsula with few roads and beach houses tucked in among dunes and sea oats. What I mean by that is that you can drive up and down the same dark roads for a long time without finding Finisterre, the romantically named house for which we were looking. The other thing I mean by that is that it was dark, and the realty office wouldn’t be open until morning.

I can’t remember how long we wandered lost, searching for the end of the earth, but at some point, for some reason, (perhaps because one or the other of my parents was feeling like knocking someone’s hat off) we stopped the car, got out, and walked onto the beach. It was, as one great American writer I’ve heard about put it, “a very dark and dismal night.”

The reason I remember this moment so vividly isn’t because I saw the ocean, but because I couldn’t see it. The stars were black and the ocean was invisible. We could hear it and smell it and sense it, but all we could see of the huge dark water was a tiny string of foam snaking up the beach.

Melville describes how I felt at that moment (and how I often feel) when he says, “..the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open…”

What a line!

I’m on page 53. I’ll let you know if I make it out to sea.

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