A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Heather's Book

Ann and I spent last week at Emerald Isle, a beach in North Carolina, with my parents, Sister Jen and her family, and Brother Matt and his family.

This place is as beautiful as any place I've been, with long white sandy stretches that are flat enough for walking, water that is grey or brown or green or blue--or all of those--depending on its mood. Waves crash with that rhythmical regularity that's mesmerizing. Sea oats wave in the dunes' breezes.

It's the one week each year that we gather together as we have since my parents' children were Gretchen's age, five, and skiing on the sound whenever we could. It's a time when we relax together. Someone's always reading; someone's napping; someone's eating; someone's on the beach. We're together.

It's our annual pilgrimage when we gather to remind each other that we are family, and we are here for each other.

This year, Sister Jen read aloud to me the novel, Under the Mercy Trees, by my childhood friend Heather. Heather's Owensby family, a dysfunctional lot living in the North Carolina mountains, became part of our family this year. They're dysfunctional, but they're endearing, and I'm glad they came along with us.

The novel's beautifully written. Here are a few snippets:
In describing a copse of bent trees, a young woman records, "Some trees had rotted and laid down tired in the undergrowth, but some still sat....eight ladies murmuring a welcome.... She wondered if the ladies minded the kinks in their trunks as they remembered the trauma that bent them, or had they gotten on with things....Maybe we'd grow crooked, too, if we got hit in the middle by a storm" (19).

Later in the story, another character remarks, "Bacon is a gift from God." Heather attributes this thought to the character Hodge, but I know it's really Heather.

The book's a gift, as is the beach. I recommend both the beach and the book to you. The book is cheaper.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fish Tacos and Chichis

This is a g-rated blog, so if you speak Spanish and are worried that this entry won't be appropriate, fear not. I am writing about the tasty meal we had in Hawaii in December and the dinner party for church auction folk we had at our home last night.

The fish tacos were made with true cod, jalepenos, garlic, cole slow, tomatoes, mango salsa, and melted cheddar on a soft taco shell; and the chichis are a blended drink made with pineapple juice, coconut cream, vodka, and macademia nut liquer. Those chichis might be the only thing in the world that's tastier than a milkshake. In fact, they're a lot like a milkshake with vodka, so you see what I mean.

Eleven people who signed up at the church auction came to this dinner. It was a fun night with people from lots of different pews. We believe in diversity.

Michael recounted some of his favorite marquee signs on the now closed, peep show establishment, "Lusty Lady." On the inauguration on the Seattle Art Museum's "Hammering Man," the Lusty Lady sign read, "Hammer away, big guy" and during the Mariners' winning streak in 2001 - "Randy Johnson?". Then the Lusty Lady had a respectfully  blank marquee for about two weeks after 9/11.

I remember the Lusty Lady signs, so I did a little historical research into previous signs. There are several top ten lists. I like the Seattle Weekly's favorites:
An hour after the Ash Wednesday quake...
We're Still Shaking -- Come Feel the Earth Move
During the W.T.O. riots...
W. T. Oohhhhhhhh! -- The Nude World Order
On Oscar Sunday...
We'd Like To Spank The Academy
On St. Patrick's Day...
No Body's Wearing Green and Erin Go Braugh-less
We're here for yule and Dancers, Prancers and Vixens
And Thanksgiving...
Happy Spanksgiving!
When SAM first moved in across the street...
Welcome SAM! Once you've seen their nudes, come in and see ours.
When Hammering Man was first installed...
Hammer Away Big Guy.
When SAM reopened after an expansion...
We Made Sam Grow
And when Chuck Close came to town...
Chuck Clothes
And finally, in 2006, after the Lusty refused to sell to ex-Mayor Paul Schell and the other investors trying to tear it down and build a Four Seasons...
We're Open, Not Clothed.
Just not for long.*
*All marquee titles come from memory, History Link, Rick Anderson's story on the failed Four Seasons sale and Robert Jamieson's 2001 column in the P-I.

Pat, a Metro bus driver, recalled seeing one of those "Jesus is _______." billboard signs on her route one day. The blank had been filled, in excellent billboard scrift, with "a taco." On the return trip, the sign had already been cleaned of its humor.

Pat also recalled a large man, not fat but barrel-shaped, who collected cans and crushed them in his hands. She referred to him as the "Can Man." One day, a lady with some sort of disabilities who talked very loudly got on the bus and announced that there are three ways to get into heaven, so the bus did not need to pray for her. Pat described  her this way: "She was very special.....really, I knew she was very special. She had these kind but very intense blue eyes...like a wizard would have, or the sage lady living in the hollow of a tree in the fairy tale....and her mission was to tell people how to get to heaven. There are three ways: ONE: You give birth. TWO: You save someone's life, and THREE: You give blood. Notably all are about sustaining life. She was precious beyond precious. I knew God was present when she was." As the Can Man got off the bus at a later stop, he said plaintively to Pat, "You can pray for me."

Another day, a different woman who voiced her thoughts was sitting towards the front of the bus when two perfumed women boarded. "I smell a candle," the woman at the front of the bus said. Then she pointed to the two women making their way down the aisle and said, "It went that way."

Yet another time, this same woman sat near two women on break from their jobs at Nordstrom's Department store. When they departed, the woman said, "They have man problems."

The conversation was at times hilarious and at times serious. Pat recounted a day when a man, apparently homeless, got on the bus. He was whistiling beautifully, and as he boarded he whistled the tune to Ella Fitzgerald's "Someone to Watch Over Me."

There's a saying old
Says that love is blind -
Still we're often told,
"Seek and ye shalI find."
So I'm going to seek
A certain lad I've had in mind.
Looking everywhere,
Haven't found him yet;
He's the big affair
I cannot forget.
Only man I ever
Think of with regret.
I'd like to add his initials to my monogram.
Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost
There's a somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that he
Turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me.
I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood.
I know I could
Always be good
To one who'll watch over me.
Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key.
Won't you telI him please to put on some
speed -
Follow my lead -
Oh! How I need
Someone to watch over me.
Someone to watch over me.

The raucous bus quieted to his song, and our conversation took a more serious tone. "What is our responsibility to those who are in pain, to those who are homeless?"

Individuals shared how they respond to homeless people. Whenever Doug and Mary get in their car, they take Power Bars to share with anyone they see who is hungry. Ann buys the homeless newspaper "Real Change." Others shared their strategies.

Terry takes $1 bills when he drives, but he takes the bus to work, and talks with people on the bus who seek his company. One Sunday, when the church was having a brunch, he invited a homeless man he met on the way, and the man came to church for a couple of months and sat on a back pew. We wondered together how open and affirming we as a congregation are to those who are homeless. Terry shared the disturbing statistic from a Food Bank study that showed that over 60 percent of the women who use Seattle's Food Banks are women with small children whose husbands have abandoned the family.

It might sound like the party ended on a downer, but it was a communal celebration where we shared moral struggles and left feel connected and reflective.

Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something. " -- Henry David Thoreau

Friday, July 15, 2011


My aching body feels better now than it's felt in the four years since neurosurgery. I just don't hurt so much. I attribute this partly to the fact that I'm neither driving nor working right now. I've done yoga every morning for the last fifteen  years. That helps in an ongoing way. Recently, however, I attribute much of my healing to my masseuse, Dawn.

Yesterday after my massage, she took the time to help me understand her work. I asked her what she pays attention to when she’s doing a massage because she is clearly attending to something, but I can't figure out what. Once when she was doing massage, she whispered, "I thought so." She noticed something.
When we talked yesterday, Dawn talked about the spiritual sense of being present, and her words echoed the words of my minister about being present for people who are walking through the valley.
I don’t think you have to go to church to be a healer, but I do think that you need to attend to your spirit so that you can be without ego, entirely present. This is important on the level of life and death important.

I actually think that kind of presence is important in all disciplines: healing, teaching, ministering, directing traffic, and soliciting donations door-to-door.
I hope you'll do whatever you need to do to feel present. If you live in Seattle and you need a massage, I'd recommend Dawn at Lanz Massage on Capitol Hill. If you like to read, I'd recommend Annie Dillard's memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one chapter, Dillard writes about the fleeting experience of being fully present. If you learn more through your body, I'd recommend yoga at Yoga Arts Studio on the south end of capitol hill. No matter how you get there, I'd recommend reading poetry, whose essence is presence. Brother Matt and I really like Mary Oliver.
I suppose this is the most preachy I'll ever be. Sorry if it's irritating.
Being is a spiritual practice. Even if you don't have brain tumors, learning about how to be present will change the way you live. Really. I'm not exaggerating.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Happy birthday, Ann-a-Plan!

Ann calls me “Sweet Mary,” and I call her “Ann-a-Plan.”

Ann's nickname is descriptive, as Ann loves to have a plan. The name has internal rhyme and hints at an iambic meter, as do so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. That’s what gives the name its poetic ring.

When we said our vows at our wedding, Ann addressed me as "Sweet Mary" and I addressed her as "Ann-a-Plan." That way, we were sure to know whom we were addressing.

How did I arrive at such a perfect nickname? In the car one day, I was trying to create a palindrome, an expression that reads the same forwards and backwards, like "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama." Ann likes to make plans, so I started there: Ann a Plan. But backwards that reads Nalp a Nna, so instead I made her name a poem: "Ann-a-Plan; Eat a Banana; Drink a Cherry Coke." Every now and then I call her "Eat a Banana" or "Eating Bananas," and we get funny looks in the grocery store. I've never called her "Drink a Cherry Coke.” That would be wrong.
 One of the great things about Ann is her laughter. It is always kind and always at the right place and time. We laugh together often, and she understands intuitively when something about my tumors and their symptoms will be funny to me.

Soon after my surgery, we went to an outdoor concert to see the Indigo Girls sing their harmonic tunes. It was cool outside and the sky threatened to drizzle, so I put on my Gortex rain jacket. When I tried to take a sip of water, I missed my mouth and poured quite a bit of water down my front. Ann noted, "At least you're dressed for drinking." We both laughed.
In a recent iteration of night violence, I sat up in the dark of the night and grasped a corner of Ann’s pillow in each fist. Then I yanked it out from under her. She awoke, startled, to hear me say to the pillow, “You are not my pillow.” The next morning, as she told me this story (I didn't remember it), we laughed together.
More than a decade ago, Ann and I worked with a few other members of our Methodist church to apply for a“sister parish relationship” with a community south of the U.S. border. In the application, we provided a description of our church and its mission, and in that description we explained the church’s central mission, to “reconcile” with GLBTQ persons.

Ann and I laughed about the possibility that any Latin American community would read our profile and choose to partner with us, but we were quickly paired with a community in El Salvador. We theorized that they must not have read our documents, but as we got to know this community, we learned that our assumptions about Latin America, like so many peoples' perceptions of the American South, were oversimplified and did not allow for the complexity that we would find there. What we found on our first visit—and in subsequent visits over the last decade—was that we had much to learn about our own country’s role in their civil war, and that they were willing to learn with us, too. We have laughed at ourselves for our doubt.

Last Christmas, I agreed to brave an ocean crossing for the first time since radiation, though I was not quite ready to leave the United States, so Ann and I went to Maui.

Our first day there, we tried snorkeling. When I tried to get in the water with my flippers and mask on, I was washed back to shore by a large wave, scraping the ocean floor as I tumbled to shore. I scooped up so much sand that I was still finding small shells in my belly button the next week. Others on the beach tried to help me, as I suspect they feared I might drown. I survived, and Ann and I laughed with our whole bodies, but I didn’t try snorkeling again. We still laugh about me rolling about like a fish caught in the shallow surf.

In the year after my surgery, we loved the way that children around the age of three responded to my eye-patch. Once, soon after going home from surgery, we went to Children's Hospital to visit some friends and their child. (Their young child had undergone several heart surgeries. She looked great and continues to thrive.) Her mother was telling us how many entertainers came through Children's to entertain the young patients. They had seen singers with guitars, puppeteers, people with puppies, and so on. As we were leaving, Ann pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall and a boy about seven years-old came out of a nearby room, nonchalantly raised his hand in greeting and said, "Hi Pirate," as if he was not at all surprised to see a pirate in this hospital. We laughed.

Another time, when I was waiting in the emergency room, a girl of about three came bravely over to ask me if I was a pirate. "Yes," I said, "I am a pirate. What are you?" Without hesitating, she said, "I'm a cat." And to this I wisely responded, "I thought so. That must be why you painted your fingernails." She simply nodded seriously and raised her hand to show the nails—bright pink with little white kittens—as proof to both of us.

Our niece Gretchen was not so amusing. She took one look at that patch and wailed in fear. She sobbed so powerfully that she had dry heaves, and my brother looked to the heavens, "Please, please, don't throw up." The next year my sister-in-law asked, "Gretchen, are you sad that Auntie Mary doesn't have her eye-patch this year?" To this, Gretchen responded seriously, "No, I am not sad that Auntie Mary doesn't have her eye-patch this year." Ann and I laughed and nodded in agreement. We weren't sad to miss that patch, either.

Ann and I have a long history of laughing together. Before my surgery, we visited our sister parish in Guarjila, El Salvador. The first morning there we awoke to a squealing in the yard where our family lived. When we had arrived, a young pig—perhaps a piglet—was tied to a stake in the yard like one might tie up a dog.

That morning as the pig squealed for an hour or so, we worried that this family might be slaughtering its piglet for us, but when we emerged from bed, the piglet was in the backyard, unfettered. When we asked why the pig had been squealing (remember that our Spanish is not too good, so this was a challenge), they laughed. The pig was new to them, and young pigs will return to their mothers, but if you run them around the house three times, they get confused and will stay at their new home. We laughed at our own confusion.
Ann has a kind heart. She is especially gracious to a soul in pain. She is kind to me, to students, to our families, to strangers and to our neighbors' pets Violet and Hector.

Ann is kind, but she is not perfect. She is also tidy. (In my book, tidiness is not next to godliness.) I feel at home in a certain degree of disorder, so at home Ann has created places where I can be messy in a way that doesn't bother her. It works, as no one who visits sees my hidden mess, and neither does Ann, but I get to make piles.
Did I say Ann is tidy? A few years ago, when my parents were visiting, Ann bought Dad some oatmeal for his breakfast. He didn't eat any the first day and left it on the counter. She gave it to the postman for the annual food collection for the food banks the next day.

In another example of excessive tidiness, a carpenter, Sailor (I don't know why her name is Sailor and not Carpenter), remodeled our downstairs bathroom so that it is now more accessible for me. Sailor put some extra tiles and plumbing parts in an old trashcan and moved it to the basement to get it out of the way. Ann emptied the trashcan when she was straightening the basement that afternoon, and our parts were driven to the dump during trash pickup the next morning. Oops.

I am perpetually amazed that I get to live my life with Ann. Though she is twenty years my senior, we are soul-mates. Often, people see our closeness, but perhaps because of the age difference, our relationship seems unclear to them. Ann has beautiful white hair, while mine is auburn. I walk slowly with a cane, while she trots about town. I hold her arm while I walk.
Ann’s age coupled with my disabilities often confuses people. They think she should be the one who needs help. As we entered the hospital one day, me holding Ann’s arm on the left and my cane on the right, Ann overheard one of the volunteers say, "I don't know which one is the patient."

This has happened to us before. Early in my radiation treatment, we were crossing the street in the crosswalk as we left the hospital, and an elderly woman wearing her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers (to protect her from the winter cold) turned to me and said, "Thank you for taking such good care of your mother." When she noticed that I was the one using the cane, she looked confused and shuffled along.

Once again, we laughed together.
Ann, like I was, is a high school teacher, but I taught Humanities sorts of things (Language Arts, History, Journalism), and she teaches math (Algebra, Geometry, Calculus and such). Like I do, Ann finds teenagers compelling: she laughs with them, delights when they discover an idea new to them, and cries when something awfully good or awfully bad happens to them. She loves to spend time with them in the classroom (during or before class) and in the outdoors (camping and hiking).

Ann’s earliest teaching experiences were with the Peace Corps in Haile Selassie Secondary School in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia. A few years ago, when we were travelling in Ethiopia, we visited her classroom, which had changed little since her time there 45 years ago. The old blackboard was still there. I sat in a student’s desk while she stood by the chalkboard, raised my hand, and said, “Algubunyum” which means, "I don't understand." I waved my arm repeatedly (and somewhat desperately) and said, “Algabunyum” so that the visit would feel like old times.
 One of my favorite stories of Ann’s teaching in Ethiopia is her story of her first day. She stood before her middle school students, each of whom had studied English as a foreign language throughout elementary school, but they were taking their first core courses in English. She introduced her West Texas self in her West Texas drawl and told the students something about herself. They all nodded and smiled, but at one point, she said something that should have elicited a response, and they still nodded and smiled. She slowly said, “If you understand what I am saying, raise your hand.” One student raised his hand, and the rest nodded and smiled. She turned to the board and started writing numbers. They seemed relieved. (Apparently, she had an easier time being understood in Ethiopia that she did in Boston, where she had her training and where her Texas accent confused the Bostonians.)

Once in Ethiopia when we visited a market, a herd of children followed us. One tried to sell us a plastic bag, but mostly the children were just watching what we white people might do. An older woman selling produce in the market said in Amharic to the children, “They’re human, you know.” Ann translated for me. We were relieved, as we had been watched and followed so closely by children and adults that we had begun to wonder.
Ann taught thirty years (egads) in Washington public high schools. When she retired, she worked for five years as a consultant, but she missed the classroom. Without the energy to teach the kind of load of public schools, she’s teaching now in a small private school that is committed to building a respectful community. She loves the work, and those in the school seem to love her. Colleagues, students, and Ann seem to thrive: a win-win-win.

I feel so lucky to be living this life with Ann. Today, I'm celebrating the fact that she was born to make so many of our lives so much better. I love you, Ann-a-Plan!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Dance of Hope That We Call School

Dear Teaching Colleagues,

Last night my partner Ann and I watched Waiting for Superman, a documentary about students and neighborhoods who aren't being served by our public school system. The documentary  reawakened in me sadness and anger about children who aren't served and about my inability to teach in a public school classroom right now.

I feel angry and sad, but I also feel grateful to know each one of you, and to see the commitment and the passion you devote to teaching each student you see. I get to work with a lot of you, and that ability to work with you and your students and to witness the power of hope you bring to their lives inspires me.

When I first started teaching in public schools 20 years ago, I thought I would change the system. It needs to change. I thought a lot about the system, and when as a twenty-something I asked the writer Jonathan Kozol what I should do to help, he told me to teach. Though I did some consulting around educational reform in schools around the nation, I came to believe that the real way for me to make a difference was in the classroom, one child at a time. I was devoted to being in school (I still am), and I thought I might go into administration and support teachers doing excellent work with students.

Having to leave the classroom as the teacher and to give up ideas of helping students, their families and their teachers as an administrator was hard for me. Schools are joyful places of so much hope for me.

It's such a gift to continue working with you, helping you to serve the students you care so much about. I am asking myself lots of questions about how I can best serve now, and I'm not sure where this new journey will take me. For now, I will continue doing the best I can to help you do the best you can.

Thank you for the work you do and the work you allow me to do in this all-important endeavor.
With love and respect, Mary

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Driving Lessons

Driving Lesson #1:

I stopped in my little Honda Civic Hybrid in a gas station driveway. I looked left. Then right. Then left again. No one was coming either way. I pulled out. Suddenly, to my left appeared a fast-moving Chevy Blazer. I slowed. The driver, Mr. Smith, didn't react. I hit the gas to try to get past him. He still didn't react. His big Blazer t-boned my little Honda and pushed my car 110 feet in his direction.

Mr. Smith and I were both taken by ambulance to the regional trauma center. As far as I can learn, we're both (miraculously) fine. My car died that day. I don't know about his.

Though Mr. Smith was almost certainly speeding and not paying attention, I got the ticket. He hit me in his lane, after all. Police budgets are tight. There was no real investigation. I don't know how all of this will come out, but I know now that I can be following all of the rules and driving carefully, and I can get in a bad accident and be legally at fault. That's my first driving lesson.

Driving Lesson #2:

The same accident would have been much worse for me if alcohol had been involved. It wasn't.

Driving Lesson #3:

I don't know if Mr. Smith is having relationship problems, but a friend's therapist told her that 90 percent of people going through a divorce get in a car accident. (Just to be clear, I'm not getting divorced.)

Please be careful. Don't drive fast. Don't drink and drive. Be especially careful if you're going through a divorce.

Dangling Conversations

Ann and I have been walking in public parks with long, flat, paved trails lately. Yesterday we walked around Green Lake.

I love listening to the snippets of conversation we hear as people pass:

Two women, friends it seems, walked together. One was tall and large and pushed a baby stroller. The other was skinny. The large one said, "I want him to give me another one." The surprised skinny one asked, "You want more babies?" The large one laughed and replied, "I love babies."

As two other women in their twenties passed, one advised the other: "Don't compromise. The sex is good, but the boyfriend's bad."

In a more new age conversation, a woman with big sunglasses and a blond pony tail said to another, "You have to listen for what makes your soul sing."

I do not recollect what we said. Maybe one of these women would know.