A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Friday, April 29, 2011

Feeling Clever

Friday night, I woke Ann in the middle of the night as I was rummaging through my drawer. The noise woke her up, and I told her I was looking for my tape. She said she'd help me.

Thinking that I was Alice in Wonderland and had shrunk to the size of a cat, I slid to the bottom of the bed and attempted to curl up in order to get out of her way. Because I am really a somewhat long human, curling up was hard, but my imagination is stronger than my body, so I managed.

Ann slid to my side of the bed, kicked me only a little, and rummaged about in the drawer. Finally, she said to me, "You don't have tape. I have tape."

"Oh right," I said, and pointed my finger to the back of my lower teeth. "I want the thing that goes here."

Ann nodded and rummaged some more, emerging with my splint, a contraption that looks a lot like a retainer (meant to keep me from clinching my teeth in the night). She tossed the green case to me.

"No," I said to her, "that goes on my top teeth. I need the thing that goes here," and again I pointed at the back of my bottom teeth.

"What thing?"

I tried to think more clearly, and finally it dawned on me. I said, "I must be asleep."

"Oh God," Ann said, as she turned off the light and moved back to her side of the bed. I unwound like a slinky and slid back to my pillow, very cheerful and feeling clever that I had solved this conundrum.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Imagine my Surprise

Imagine that you just learned that your little brother won the Kentucky Derby. You don't have a little brother? Imagine that you just learned that you have a little brother that  you didn't know about and that he won the Kentucky Derby. Your brother is not the rider or the owner. You brother is the horse. Surprised?

That's how I felt when I received an email from my brother Matt on Sunday saying that he had just read Mary Oliver's poem "The Journey," and it made him think of me.

My little brother is reading poetry.

When we were young and went to the beach and the mountains each summer with our family, Mom, Dad, Jennifer and I would read. Once, we were reading the engrossing story of North Carolina's Green Beret Geoffrey McDonald, who murdered his family and disguised the murder to look like the work of a crazy religious sect. We were enthralled. We took turns reading the book. I remember setting my alarm for 2 a.m. so that I could read for my assigned slot that night from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Brother Matt didn't take a turn.

Brother Matt didn't read much. I believe he was a senior in high school the first time he read a whole book on his own: The Catcher in the Rye. The family celebrated his great progress.

I've known for years that Brother Matt's become an avid reader. Now he's reading poetry, poetry that I love, and he found it on his own. I'm delighted and stunned.

Not one for poetry? You should check out Mary Oliver. Brother Matt and I find solace in her. Mary

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Easter Story

As Ann finished reading aloud Patty Smith's Just Kids, Smith's memoir about her loving relationship with her soulmate, Robert Maplethorpe, I wiped a tear from under my right eye.

My tear surprised me. I wasn't surprised that I cried. The memoir and its close were moving. My right eye, however, has not teared since I had surgery four years ago. Right after surgery, I could not close my right eye all the way because of nerve damage, but I've regained a lot of control since then, so I've been able to close the eye for some time. Generally, however, the right eye does not water. If I cry a tear, my left eye usually sheds that tear.

At night, Ann puts an ointment in my eye so that it doesn't dry out too much, and during the day I use eye drops. I know that if my eyes dry out, they hurt, and I don't see very well. Thus, this tear feels hopeful to me.

I think of the Ocotillo, my favorite flowering desert plan, which looks like dead sticks buried in the dry desert sand, but in the spring, strange green leaves sprout from its woody stems and its ends bloom a surprising bright red. At a desert museum, I once encountered a sign in front of the ocotillo in its woody winter phase: "Dead or Alive?" Sometimes, as the poet Pablo Neruda writes so hopefully in "Keeping Quiet" (one of my favorite poems), "Perhaps the earth can teach us / as when everything seems dead / and later proves to be alive."

Spring is the time of so much rebirth. Maybe this single tear tells me not to give up where I have given up. Maybe this tear tells me that my nerves may yet come back to life.

I don't want to fool myself, but I don't want to miss signs of life, either. I wonder in what ways the world and I are coming back to life. I wonder if I am noticing.

(I've posted all of Neruda's poem below, so that you can love it, too.)


KEEPING QUIET -- Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we all keep quiet.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors
would put on clean clothes and
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with
total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My new favorite Bible verse

Since I was a child watching "The Waltons" on television, I have loved the verse, "Jesus wept," because, to be honest, it was short enough for me to remember.

I have also loved the 23rd Psalm, a poem that has been especially comforting throughout my time with tumors:
23The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green [1] pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest [2] my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. [3]

Also comforting has been this passage from Isaiah:

28 Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. 29 He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: 31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew [7] their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

Now, however, I have a new favorite. This verse speaks to the importance of being sullen and quiet early in the morning, even if you're the cheerful type:
Proverbs 27:14
"He that blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him." (American King James Version).

Many thanks to my minister Jim for sharing such wisdom on Easter morning.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Post Traumatic Surgery Disorder

For years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, I felt a literal sinking in my heart, a deep tightness in my chest, every time the news reported a grand catastrophe. On that day in 2001, I was away from home, staying at the John Hancock building in Boston. I was there for a week's training for my new job, and our organization's meeting was disrupted by Police who swept us out of the room in order to set up security plans for Boston. It was rumored that accomplices to the attacks were holed up in the building across the street, though this turned out to be untrue. We were alternately cordoned in the building and evacuated. I paced anxiously in my room, gasped for air as if there were a great weight compressing my lungs, and sobbed until I heard from my New York family members that everyone was safe.

Less than a week later I returned to my home in Seattle on one of the first coast-to-coast flights after the attacks. My section was filled with quiet pilots who scribbled frenetically on napkins and whispered in the aisles. In the terminal, two flight attendants yelled to one another from a football field's length away, ran to one another, embraced and sobbed. It was an intense time, and for years afterwards I felt that tightness in my chest again whenever there was a large scale disaster. This response, it seems to me, is the right one.

Since brain surgery, however, I respond more emotionally to the tragedies of indviduals. When U.S. representative Gabriel Giffords was shot in the head and six others were killed with her earlier this year, I followed her recovery news as if I knew her. I still do, though she's disappeared from the headlines.

A couple of weeks ago, the local news reported the death of Corporal Roger Scherf, Jr., a soldier who had been the lone survivor of a roadside bomb that killed the other eight in the vehicle in Afghanistan. Ironically, Corporal Scherf died in the U.S. in a car accident, and I think about all of the rehabilitation and personal grief that he must have experienced before his death and the pain that his family must be experiencing now.

I also heard on the news an interview with Linsey Addario, a New York Times photographer who was kidnapped with three colleagues by Gaddafi's forces and finally released after some brutal treatment.

I know that all of us will die, that this is the way the world is, and that I will one day be in the toll. Mostly, I take this in stride and feel with amazement the power of this world's beauty, the grace of the gift of being in this world. In response to such individual stories, however, I experience the great sadness of someone else's death, and remember again that one day, the death will be mine. That feels sad, too.

I am mostly upbeat, and I wonder if sometimes that's irritating to others who have experienced life-changing disease or other great tragedies but this sadness keeps me grounded. I like Annabella's matter-of-fact approach to the sadness in her toast: Here's to those of us who are left.

In her poem, "One Summer Day," Mary Oliver asks, "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?" Maybe it's brain tumors or moving into my late forties (yikes), but I think daily about this question now, and maybe I'm mostly upbeat because I feel so lucky about this one life that I'm getting to live: a solid partner (today, we celebrate 16 years of living together); loving and fun friends; a supportive spiritual community; the opportunity to work with high school students and their teachers; the on-going chance for new adventures, new ways of seeing.

Here's to those of us who are left. Here's to being here. Here's to Ann. Mary

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dear Editor

Today’s editorial page focused on Educational Reform. In this focus, The Seattle Times acknowledges that our public education system is an important topic any time and especially now in the time of “draconian” budget cuts. Thank you for that.

I’d like to voice a perspective not represented in the editorials: the notion that if we neglect to fund a reasonable work culture for our teachers, our students’ educations suffer. This conclusion reveals a truth hinted at in your two top-of-the-fold headlines today. The first headline reads, “Class size matters—but some things matter more” and the second reads, “Every student deserves an excellent teacher.” I would argue that unless teachers have a manageable workload, too many excellent teachers will either leave or never enter the teaching profession, and too few students will have an excellent teacher.

Schools are built for students, not for teachers. I’ve said it myself. As a person who was both a student and a teacher in both public and private schools, I have often argued with teachers and leaders in both systems that we must make decisions in schools based on the students’ needs rather than the teachers’ convenience. This prioritizing of student needs, I still argue, is fundamental for good decision-making in schools.

The larger society and our representative government, however, need to take a larger view. We need to fund public schools that foster the professionalism and educational environment where our children and our teachers can thrive.

Statistics of teachers leaving the profession make it clear: something is wrong. Throughout the prosperous eighties and nineties, and still today, thirty percent of teachers leave the profession in their first three years, and fifty percent of teachers leave urban schools in those first three years.

Why do so many leave? Teachers entering the profession know that pay and social prestige are comparatively low. As a classroom teacher for seventeen years, I have witnessed new teachers, novices fresh out of college and novices from other fields, enter with great ideals and soon look too weary. Many leave before they start.

The job is just harder than those outside the profession imagine. The job in public schools is harder than the job in private schools (though in each city’s elite private schools, contrary to popular myth, pay can be as high or higher than in public schools). Likewise, the job in urban schools is harder than the job in suburban schools.

What makes the job so hard? The generational divide between our most experienced and newest teachers can be frustrating for young, idealistic teachers, and the teachers’ union’s leadership tends towards more experienced, and therefore older, teachers. The difficulty of making a difference in the larger system frustrates a common ideal of changing the world for the better. Little support for professional development and few opportunities for advancement for teachers in their second decade make the horizon seem flat and long.

Most significant, I would argue, is a system where the moment-to-moment emotional and work intensity is so high that the reflection and creativity essential for good teaching require teachers to compromise their ideals for excellent teaching or to sacrifice their personal lives.

Why is this profession so intense? If you have children of your own, you know that their lives and their learning are intense, and your life with them is, too. If you have facilitated groups of twenty-five to forty adults, you know that facilitation requires tremendous focus, knowledge, and sensitivity. If you have ever edited writing or otherwise given someone feedback on work, you know that providing meaningful feedback requires energy, time, and the ability to communicate respectfully. Have you ever presented research and ideas to others seeking to learn from you or to determine whether they want to purchase your product or expertise? Teachers do that multiple times every day.

Teachers do all of the jobs every day. If we commit to the idea that every student deserves an excellent teacher, we must commit funding to help create an environment where creativity, reflection and care thrive.

We should therefore not be deciding between reducing public school class sizes by a couple of students or providing the essential courses in the arts and physical education. We should be talking about reducing class sizes a more meaningful seventeen AND increasing the arts and physical education. But, you argue, this is not the time. The economy is so weak. Somehow, when our economy crested was not the time either. We say this is not the time because we lack the political will to care for our children. We need to make major decisions about funding, not minor ones.

It’s time—it’s past time—for those of us who can afford it to tax ourselves so that every child can have an excellent teacher, and it’s time for more of us to recognize that we can afford it.  

This must be the time. We are late already.


Mary Edwards was a high school classroom teacher for seventeen years. She began her career in a private school in Dallas, Texas, taught in suburban Issaquah high schools and has worked as a consultant and classroom teacher in Seattle, Portland, and Highline Public Schools. Currently, she is a Literacy Specialist in the Highline School District. Mary blogs regularly about teaching, poetry, and brain tumors at www.cantduckit.blogspot.com

P.S. I sent a much shorter version of this letter to the paper.