A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Face of a Bulldog

Our neighbor and my colleague Kiki gives me a ride to work three days a week. Even if Kiki were snarly, I'd love her for the rides, but I love how dang cheerful she is. When she picks me up in the Seattle dark, I ask her how she is. She always says, "Great."

Her five year old son Luke is in the backseat with his action figures. He's always great, too. This week he was especially great because he won the family football pool. He's a sharp one, that Luke.

At the end of the school day, I ask Kiki, "How was your day?" (I'll bet you've guessed this already, since you recognize patterns as well as any freshman in Ann's high school Algebra class.) She says, "Great." Every day when I say, "How was your day?" she says, "Great."

Every day, she also tells me an affectionate and amusing story about her students. Friday she told me about David (not his real name). David's in Kiki's Spanish for Spanish Speakers class.

At the beginning of the year, she thought he'd be tough, a hard kid. He's tough-looking, wears gangster-like clothes (but a little classier). Mostly, though, he has the "face of a bulldog" (meaning tough, not ugly).

As it turns out, he's not hard. As she's getting to know him, she's learing that he's thoughtful and insightful, a real delight to teach.

As she told me the story, she said, "I saw him in the library at lunch today. He was on a computer, and I thought he might be doing his Spanish homework. I stopped to say hi and glanced at his computer screen. He wasn't doing his homework. (He had already done it.) Into the google search engine, he had typed, 'Love poems for my girlfriend.'"

I love it that Kiki's a teacher who is so captivated by this tough-looking guy's sweetness.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enduring Friendships

In the past week, I've been lucky to reconnect with a number of long-time friends, all people I knew before my brain tumors. All, I now realize, are teachers.

Last Wednesday I lunched with Brett, who was a sophomore in my English class twenty-one years ago. Brett and his wife Vera are in Seattle for two years as Brett studies in the university's Masters in Teaching ELL program. They are in town from Austria, so I am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect before they return to Austria.

When I asked Brett to tell me about his teaching, he said, "Well, I'm not one of those passionate teachers." "What are you passionate about?" I pressed. "I'm passionate about Vera, and I used teaching to stay close to her." I love it that he's passionate about his wife, and as a person who went through a divorce and now has many friends going through divorces, I wonder if he realizes how lucky he is in this love.

Brett has always been passionate about music. He plays guitar, and when he was in high school he introduced me to Tom Petty's Wildflowers and Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." He would share a song with me by playing on--a walkman, maybe?--and as I listened he would close his very blue eyes as if he were listening, too. He would nod his head like blind musicians do, and though he could not hear the music I was listening to, he would imagine it and would say, "Isn't that amazing?"

Brett often seems disappointed in his life. He did when he was fourteen and thought he'd never have a steady girlfriend who loves him, and now at the age of thirty-five, he shakes his head and sighs because he hasn't been able to earn a living as a musician. (Yet, I would add.)

How lucky, though, to have such passion. When he asked me what I'm passionate about, I was surprised by the question. I thought it was obvious: "Teaching." I'm also passionate about Ann, my family, my faith, writing, poetry, wildflowers...For this passionate way of living, I'm glad to be reminded how lucky I am.

Saturday morning, we brunched at our long-time friend Marion's home with our friends Declan and Laura, who have moved from the area in suburban Washington where Declan, Ann, Marion and I taught high school students together. Declan and Laura moved a long drive away, clear on the other side of the state, to Pullman, Washington,  where Declan teaches in another school and Laura works as a nurse and a teacher with mothers who are breast-feeding. (I have no idea how one would teach that. Seems awkward.)

Declan and Laura are a charming couple, both with dimples and sparkly eyes. One of my favorite moments in our work together was when Declan, having been a pain about something the day before, came to my office with his head hanging low. He knocked on the door and without making eye contact, he said to me, "My wife said I should apologize to you."

Declan and Laura have four children, ages four to seventeen. Their children seem to have as much personality as they do. Their oldest children call their youngest, "the red-headed monster," and Declan and Laura clearly love this. The nickname, it seems, rings of truth.

Marion, who hosted the brunch, brought us all together for a brunch feast. (There was no chocolate. I couldn't believe it. Still, it was tasty.) Marion and Ann had already been carpooling for more than a decade when I joined their carpool, and we got to be good friends as we shared our lives, always facing forward, for eight years. It's hard to describe Marion's friendship. She's the master of self-deprecation, but really she's a good and solid and amusing friend who always cooks a tasty feast.

Then, out of the blue it seemed to me, I received an email from Sue, who was a history teacher in the Texas private school where I first taught, in the eighties when big hair was big. She and Christine, who was English department chair, will call Thursday to catch up. Sue has been on my blog, so she has some idea of what has been going on with me. I have no idea what she's been up to, but she referred to Christine as "the general," so I gather that she's still got some spunk about her.

This weekend, Ann and I went to see our long-time friends Marie and Colleen at their home on a nearby island. We call their home our favorite "B and B." It's always good to see them and they always fix a tasty breakfast.

This time, we went for the "Tour de Whidbey," a bike ride that Marie was helping to organize. On the ride, you could go ten miles or fifty miles or a hundred miles. Ann, Colleen and I opted for the ten-mile ride, which was designed especially for riders with disabilities and their families.

At the end of the day, the four of us went out for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. We laughed belly laughs the whole night. Colleen told the story about when she was in sixth grade and played softball with the older girls. She had seen Bill Murray in the movie Caddy Shack and thought it was hilarious. She kept moving her upper lip to the left and her lower lip to the right (she did this as a sixth-grader and she did it again now) as she said, "I smell some gopher poontang." As a sixth grade student, Colleen thought that poontang, sounding much like "poo," must mean doo-doo, and she ignored the warning looks of her friends whose fathers were the coaches. "I smell some gopher poontang," she said again with her lips all funky, and we roared.

When we got home from the island, my friend Rose, who has been a friend since I first moved to Seattle thirty years ago, called. She is going through a difficult time right now, and we talked about how grateful each of us has been for the steadiness of the other through all of these years, all of these ups and downs.

How lucky I am. And I feel lucky that you, too, are here. Mary

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gang aft a-gley

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft a-gley,

--Robert Burns, "To a Mouse"

Odysseus planned to go to war, win, and come home a war hero. Instead, he took ten years to wander his way home. He was blown about the seas by Poseidon's wrath and ended up between a classical rock and a hard place. He had to outwit a one-eyed man eating monster, and tear himself away from the island where a beautiful sorceress held him love-slave for eight years.

Before heading home at last, he and his hungry fellas landed on an island where the beef mooed mournfully on the barbeque. I don't know if he went home a vegetarian, but he probably did.

Today, like Odysseus, I planned a simple trip that turned into an odyssey. I went to lunch with my previous student Brett (who was fourteen years old when I met him and is now thirty years old). After lunch, Brett would drop me off at my masseus on his way home. After a healing massage, I would walk a short distance to catch a bus to Virginia Mason Hospital for a Brain Tumor Support Group. I planned to catch the bus home right out front.

My massage was on 12th Avenue, and I needed to catch the bus on 10th Avenue. I had a good fifteen minutes to walk the two blocks it took to get there. Unfortunately, however, there are about six blocks with names instead of numbers between 10th Avenue and 12th Avenue. Still, it looked like I would make it in time.

I hobbled my way to Broadway Avenue, also known as 10th Avenue. Oh, wait, no. Tenth Avenue does seem to merge with Broadway, but this far north, Tenth Avenue is its own street. I watched the bus go by as I made my way to Broadway.

I still had forty minutes, and I remembered that the hospital was on 9th Avenue--just one more block--so I headed down to 9th. Only 9th Avenue didn't exist this far north, so I wanded my way through the streets until, now too late for this support group, I found a bus that would take me home.

I was exhausted. I have blisters on my feet from walking so far and a blister on my hand from gripping my cane as I traversed those broken sidewalks. I boarded the bus and sat in the front seat for people with disabilities.

When we stopped near Group Health Hospital, the driver hollered to a blind woman on the sidewalk, "Ma'am,  do you want the 8?" A guy standing at the stop yelled up, "No, she doesn't want the 8," and the driver yelled back, "Yes, she does."

This woman boarded the bus, and I slipped to the next seat barely in time not to be sat upon. This woman could not see, and her speech sounded more like moans than words. She was clearly anxious that this was not the right bus, and rocked and shouted, "The eight?" Each time, the driver affirmed, "Yes. This is the eight."

As we turned right to go around the hospital, she stood up and shouted. She was clearly upset. A delivery truck was parked illegally in front of the hospital, making it tricky for the bus driver to make it by. As we squeezed by, the woman yelled very clearly, "Baaaad."

When at last we turned onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, she nodded with her whole body. This turn she recognized. It was going to be okay. We both relaxed.

When I got home, there were no suitors trying to win Ann's hand in marriage. Usually there would be, but Ann is on a camping trip, so I didn't have to shoot arrows at an obnoxious mob. I just took a nap.

Homer doesn't mention the inevitable truth that Odysseus took a nap at the end of his journey. Homer really should have mentioned that part.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


"Remembering the ATLAS Site Developers' Retreat in Boston on this fateful day. So much has happened in our lives in these 10 years! So glad we are both still here."--Sue Gee

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in Boston at the John Hancock Center to meet my new colleagues and to learn about my new job with ATLAS, a national education reform organization. During our first morning break, I stepped into the hall to call my friends Jack and Sandy, whom I planned to visit after my week of training.

Jack answered the phone.
"Hey Jack. It's Mary. I just wanted to check in with you about this weekend."
"Mary! Oh my God! The world is ending!"
Thinking that their son Ben might be in some sort of trouble, I asked about him. Jack said, "No! Turn on the T.V.!" Then, I think he hung up on me.

Confused, I returned to the room where we were meeting. Someone had turned the television news on, and I watched planes fly into the twin towers. Security swept in with their holsters and their computers, telling us we'd need to leave the room because they needed it for a national emergency. Not knowing what news was breaking, Sue tried to convene us again. There was lots of confusion. Finally, we went next door, and the men in blue took over the room.

In the next room, my new colleagues and I watched as images of the planes flying into the twin towers played over and over.

Just that weekend, my brother, his wife, and their young child Hayden and I had walked to the towers from their home. It was pouring, and so I left my camera in Hayden's stroller. I'd get a picture another day.

As I watched those planes fly in the towers over and over, I sobbed. I knew that my sister-in-law and nephew often went there in the mornings for breakfast, and I feared that my little brother, whose job I've never understood except that it has something to do with the stock market, had been in the towers.

I looked at my new colleagues, strangers, around me. "No one could have survived that," I said. "I'm afraid my brother might have been there."

When I finally went to my room, I tried to call my family but couldn't reach anyone. I continued watching the news, hoping that I might learn something about my family. On the news, I saw a picture of my hotel. Supects of the attacks, the news reported, may be holed up in the hotel across the street. Blue-suited men sporting holsters and walkie-talkies were everywhere.

We were evacuated from the hotel. Then cordoned and required to stay inside. Then evacuated. Then cordoned. And so on. Late that day, I walked around town in the cold grey rain.  Groups of people with opinions shouted their nationalistic slogans--some pro-U.S. and others not.

I worried about what my country would do.

I went to a colleague's home with two other out-of-towners, glad to be away from the television images. We sat on the back porch, listening to the odd silence in the skies. Dad called to say that everyone in our family was safe. Now I could think about other peoples' grief. Back at the hotel that night, again we were cordoned and evacuated.

And then I went to Rhode Island to stay with my friends Jack and Sandy, hoping that flights to the west coast might resume from there. The trains were all full, and the cars were all rented. No flights would be leaving New York or Boston any time soon. Seattle was a long way away.

When I talked with Ann that night, I realized how different were our experiences of that day since I was on the east coast, and she was on the west coast. In Boston, my colleagues and I had been cordoned and evacuated over and over. I had wept. Ann's group was worried, but the day's evets were far away, and her meetings had resumed.

A few days later, I flew first class from Providence to D.C. to Portland to Seattle on one of the first flights to go cross country. I sat with a cabin full of pilots who whispered tensely in small knots in the aisles. Next to me, a pilot inked black angular lines on the back of his napkin. He exhaled heavily from time to time, running his hand through his dark hair.

When I arrived in the Seattle airport, the terminals were earily empty. I heard a shout and saw two flight attendants run to one another and grip one another in a tight embrace. After a long moment, they both started talking at once: "You're okay. What about..."

Ten years later, I sit in my Seattle church, listening to a trumpet play taps outside, feeling the sadness again, and remembering.

Friday, September 9, 2011


"Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars."--Danaan Parry, Warriors of the Heart 

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about...
Pablo Neruda, "Keeping Quiet"

"If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change." --Buddha

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of my life as a journey, like Odysseus's journey from war to home or Luke Skywalker's journey from clod to Jedi-knight. In this paradigm, my tumors and other troubles are like the one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops or the menacing Storm Troopers. In this paradigm, I must overcome these antagonists in order to continue my journey. If I defeat them, I too will be a hero. In this paradigm, I know the way.

Now, however, I am wondering if my life is more like the still moment in a poem than like the journeys of an epic hero. In this paradigm shift, I wonder if I should sit still and watch closely rather than trying to defeat my anti-heroes. I wonder if I must sit still and breathe and look around.

Sitting and watching. Just being. It's hard work. I don't know the way.

For sure, I need to begin by learning to breathe again, learning to breathe in order to be instead of breathing to run somewhere.

I feel like there's some truth in this, but it's hard for me to get my mind around it.

It seems like there's so much to do. I do believe that this world needs to be a kinder place, and I have committed my life to justice for more through my work in education and my connections with poor communities.

If I am just being, how do I work for justice? That's a conundrum. I am swinging on that trapeze, preparing to let go of the bar that I have held so safely through so many hard times, and now I think it's time to let go. I vaguely perceive a new bar swinging towards me, but I don't know if I'll catch hold and if I do, I don't know where it will take me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yoga Month

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." --Marianne Williamson

September is yoga month. To celebrate, I'm returning to yoga instruction for the first time since brain surgery. I'm working with Cyndi, an instructor at Samarya Yoga Studio who specializes in working with people with chronic conditions.

I feel good about the studio. Samarya is Sanskrit for "community" and the studio is a non-profit organization committed to serving underserved populations. They count people with brain injury as underserved.

Today was my first session, where Cyndi and I introduced ourselves and did a little stretching and balance work. No homework yet. That comes next week.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Maybe Not

When I called to talk to my parents last weekend, as I have every weekend in the four years since surgery, Dad went to wake Mom from a nap. I heard him ask, “Do you want to speak to Mary?” and she asked, “Who’s Mary?” (By the time she answered the phone, she remembered me.)

I have always believed that I am the favorite. Maybe not.

Riding the Bus

When I was in sixth grade, I loved riding the school bus to our sixth center, where all of Raleigh's thirteen year olds, went to school. My friends Cybil and Susan and our boyfriends Jeff, David and John, liked to ride at the back of the bus. When the bus driver turned a corner, we all yelled, "Bad turn!" and leapt into a seat on the side of the bus that leaned with the turn.

In high school, I hated riding the school bus, but Dad had seen all of those cars parked beside buses in the school parking lot and declared the waste. I would not squander the opportunity the ride the bus. I was shy, tall, awkward and cautious. The bus made me feel my loneliness and made me feel afraid.

Other kids  smoked pot to and from school, so even though I didn't smoke, my thick red hair always smelled like pot. Our bus drivers were high school kids themselves. My last bus driver had curly brown hair, a face covered in acne, and a very pretty girlfirend. She sat in the front seat, and he twisted around for much of the ride so that the two could make-out much of the way home. Usually, they waited until we were at a stoplight. Once, to impress his pretty girlfriend, the driver sped up and raced towards a parked car, swerving just in time.

Now I love riding the public bus--in any country. I get to be a witness to unfamiliar cultures as I listen to the conversations and watch the interactions.

When Ann and I took the six-hour ride from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to Awasa, a university town further south, an elderly woman nodded and smiled at us from her seat just in front of us. "Gwabez!" she commended us. "Gwabez" was on the short list of my Amharic vocabulary. She was lauding us as clever and brave.

A Guatemalan bus dumped me and the rest of the passengers onto the side of a dusty roadway when it started breaking down. When the next bus came, I was pushed aside as travellers forced their way onto the bus. When the second bus came, I was again polite, but when the third bus slowed down (I'm not sure it stopped), I forced my gigantic American self onto the bus with my backpack. I don't think I knocked anyone down. I didn't want to be pushy. I was just following the rules of this place, and I didn't want to spend the night by the road.

On another Ethiopian bus, this one in Nazret, we took a bus down a long street of red dust from a small town that reminded me of movie towns in the Wild West: men drank beers in the morning sun. Teenagers played ping pong on public tables. Two men got into a fight, one wielding a machete and the other a pistol. With lots of ruckus,  peacemakers, drunk themselves, separted the two fighters and wrested the pistol from the one.

We  had help getting onto the bus, which was overfull with hot, sweaty passengers. On the way down the road, one man who had paid full fare complained loudly that another man was in his space. A lively argument among many of the passengers broke out. When we saw policemen on the side of the road, the bus driver pulled over, and everyone except Ann and me got off the bus. The group formed a circle around the fighting men and the policeman. The policeman seemed to facilitate, hearing everyone's complaint. Since I don't speak Amharic, I don't know what they were saying, but at the end, the policeman had the two men hug and everyone got happily back on the bus.

I like riding the bus in my neighborhood, too. Before I had disabilities, I rode the bus when riding my bike was impractical. Now, riding my bike is always impractical, so I often ride the bus to get around town. Today, returning home from my massage on the number eight, I sat up front with three friends who seemed to be in the early twenties. One, an African-American woman named Tanisha with two small children, rode across from me. Next to me sat another African-American woman, Sondra, with her child, and a hispanic-looking man, Gerardo, with the stroller.

Tanisha and her children were on their way to pick up Tanisha's older daughter from her first day of school, and Sondra and Gerardo were accompanying her. Tanisha's youngest son started to cry, and she threatened him with the whip. The three adults talked about their beatings as children. Tanisha said, "I had to kneel in dry beans and rice. When I stood up, the indentations hurt." Sonda said her dad had used a whip.

Gerardo said, "My dad used electrical cords and wires."
"Oooo," said Tanisha, "You had a mean daddy. My daddy hardly ever used the cords."
By way of explanation, Sondra said, "His daddy was white."
Tanisha, "I didn't know that."
Gerardo, "He was a red neck."

Then they all piled off the bus and I rode home, thinking of how different our lives can be.