A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Do you hear what I hear?

I’ve always imagined that little lamb in the Christmas song didn’t really say anything to the shepherd boy about hearing a song. Though Christmas is the season of miracles, this seemed like pure fiction to me—improbable enough to suggest that a Southerner probably wrote it.

Today, however, I’ve changed my mind. I think the little lamb got a hearing aid like I did and is amazed by all there is to hear like I am. The little lamb is reminding the shepherd boy of the miracle of sound and song, a miracle that the shepherd boy has come to take for granted.

See what you think:

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
“Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing thru the sky, shepherd boy:
Do you hear what I hear?

“A song, a song
High above the tree
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea.”

I knew that I had lost some hearing in both ears after radiation two and a half years ago, and that the loss in my right ear was more severe than the loss in my left ear. I became accustomed to sitting myself on people’s right, and when someone to my right spoke in my right ear, I often said, “What?” and turned my left ear towards them.

Nobody treated this as odd. Bless them.

Now, however, I have a hearing aid in my right ear, and I’m overwhelmed by all that I hear. My rain jacket’s zipper is extremely loud and incredibly close. The floorboards in our house creak when I walk. Tapping on a computer keyboard sounds like the first giant drops of a Salvadoran spring rain hitting a tin roof.

Yesterday, as I walked through the university under an unusually blue sky, I kept thinking that I heard a truck’s breaks behind me. I finally figured out that I was hearing birds singing, and I relaxed and enjoyed their celebratory song. (They were singing in birdese, “The sun’s out! The sun’s out!” And since my hearing aid comes with a translator from birdese to English, I could understand them.)

Of course, just as there’s always an upside—even to brain tumors—there’s also a downside—even to a hearing aid.

Everyone’s talking like Owen Meany: voices high and loud. Also, I keep thinking I’m hearing people on the front porch, so I open the door, but the voices are a house or two down the street. Perhaps worse, I can hear myself sing.

Still, like the birds, I’m singing a celebratory song.



Thursday, December 27, 2012


When I lived in Dallas twenty years ago, I had two friends who were Physics PhD candidates. Neither seemed to have much of a social life, and they were beginning to have paunches from the chips and beer they consumed as they watched television.

When I asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” they would look at each other, shrug, and say, “Couch.” For them, couch was a verb. An action verb.

I understand couching now better than I did then.

Last night, Ann and I had dinner with our friends Ellen, Donna and Chris. Ellen and Donna are twins, originally from Long Island, but hippie-Donna and her late-blooming sister Ellen have lived in Seattle for a long time. Now their mother Lillian, in her nineties, lives here, too. All three are characters.

Chris is a gentle soul with a loving heart who loves to be around characters, as I do.

During our tasty vegetarian dinner of rice with onions and mushrooms, soy loaf (as opposed to meatloaf) and mixed salad, Ann shared with us her nightmare about returning to college and living in the dorm. We all talked about our experiences living with other people when we were younger.

Chris once lived with three married couples, and the men didn’t do their share of the cleaning up, so one day all of the women just got a new place to live and moved out without telling the guys. She guesses that it took the guys a while to notice.

Chris also told the story of when her girlfriend lived in a house with a lot of people, and the woman who lived in the attic had the best stereo, so when she was out of town the others who stayed in the house tried to get to her room first.
One midnight, Chris and her girlfriend were sleeping in this woman’s bed when she returned and caught them in her room. She was mad, but Chris couldn’t say anything because her girlfriend taped Chris’s mouth shut when they slept to keep Chris from snoring. I’ve forgotten what absurdity kept her girlfriend from speaking, but she couldn’t talk either. The woman whose bed they were in was not amused. I was.

I told the story of living in D.C.’s Georgetown one summer with two male friends from Dallas (sort of like the sitcom “Three’s Company,” as mom said, which was code for no sex.) One of the guys, Eric, was pathologically neat. Once when I was reading a book with a cookie on the plate beside me, I reached down for the cookie, but cookie and plate were gone. (I’m really focused when I read, but I suspected that Eric had taken my cookie.)

“Eric!” I yelled. “Did you do something with my cookie?”

“I threw it away,” he said. “And I washed the plate.”

“I was eating that cookie! I was sitting right beside it! Next time, at least ask before you take away the food I’m eating!”

We all had stories.

After dinner, we moved into the other room to talk. The other three sat in chairs, and I lay on a couch that already had a bedroom pillow and a comforter, and Donna tucked me in. I was “couching.” (As an aside, I must say that every home should have a couch like this.)

I was comfy, and I could hear the conversation. I couldn’t really sleep because the conversation was too amusing, but I did rest as I couched.

The other three talked about movies that they’d seen lately or would like to see.

Donna and Ellen took their mom to see the 3-D version of The Life of Pi. As fish swam by, she tried to catch them. At the end, the narrator reflects philosophically on the matter of truth, and asks rhetorically, “Is this the truth or not?” Ellen’s mom yelled out, “It’s not the truth!”

Donna said that she doesn’t like films with dead people that she’s “known personally, like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan or Martin Luther King, Jr.” Films with royalty, like kings and queens, are fine. She never knew them personally. She says that historical figures she didn’t know personally are probably fine, too. Like Joan of Arc. Lincoln’s probably fine, too.

Donna tried to invite the others into the horror of playacting. She said, “One day, they could make a film with someone else playing Pete Seeger.” Shudder the thought.

“Someone can play themselves,” Donna said. “Like Barbara Streisand. And she’s not dead yet. In her last film, Barbara Streisand plays an excellent Jew, with the intonation and hand gestures and everything.”

From my place on the couch, I laughed and thought, "Two thumbs up for Barbara Streisand."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Telling Stories

In church yesterday, Ann and I sat in a pew with Cute Cousin Michael and 92 year-old Betty and heard the Christmas story re-told, as it is every year. Different people in the congregation, kids and staff, read Bible selections and the congregation sang hymns.

As the story progressed, a living crèche emerged: Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus who was in a manger; angels and lambs (who have the best costumes every year); shepherds and wise men. (My favorite moment was when one of the wise men, who could not get near the manger because of the greenery, threw his gift down to the baby Jesus.)

This is a season for miracles, the season for telling stories.

Last weekend, Karen invited friends to her home to celebrate the last day of Chanukah. The plan was to light many menorahs and tell the story of the miracle, a tradition I love, but her friends didn’t cooperate with her plans for telling the story.

She had planned a game called “Strangers on a Train,” which was a little complicated for the group and required that newcomers not sit on the only apparently available seats in the room because these seats were the train seats.

Newcomers rolled their eyes as they were asked to move and Eve, dressed in dark greys and blacks, repeated, “I don’t understand this game.” A twelve year-old boy tried to explain the rules, but she was too irritated by having to move to another seat to really try. Besides, I think she was really saying that she didn’t understand the point of the game, and after one round, others agreed that this would be a Faulknerian telling, since it would be very long and fragmented.

Finally, Karen asked, “Can someone tell the story?”

Another Karen, a woman dressed in a black sweater, black pants, and black rimmed glasses, began the story somewhat curmudgeonly, as if at last this would be done right, “There was a king somebody,” she started.

And the chorus of voices began. Judy added, “Maccabee. King Maccabbee. That’s why they were called the Maccabbees.”

“Right,” continued the Karen-in-black. “King Maccabee. But the Syrians ruled the land, and it was a violent time for the Jews.   One night, Syrians came to the temple and tore it apart.”

Another voice chimed in, “They had false idols.”

And yet another: “No false idols! That’s a different holiday.”

“Desecrated the temple,” corrected Yarrow. “They desecrated it.”

“There were false idols,” said someone.

“No false idols!”

“Right. The Syrians desecrated the temple, and…”

“And the Jews needed to be sure that the eternal flame stayed lit. Though someone did find one small bit of oil, it was only enough for one night,” continued Eve who was once irritable but was now engaged. “It would take a trip of four days out and four days back to get more oil….” She demonstrated the trip to and fro with two fingers walking down the table and back.

And another voice, “I think there were false idols.”

Not willing to take this misdirection again, Karen-in-black banged her fist on the top of the bookshelf she was leaning against. As she pounded her fist, she yelled, “No false idols! No false idols! No false idols!” She laughed. So did I.

From the kitchen came the smell of Ellen frying potato latkes in oil, a smell that saturated the room.

“So a man went off to get the oil for the eternal flame, and those people who remained lit the candle…”

“And the miracle was that the candle burned for eight days and nights. That’s why the Menorah has eight candles (plus the shamash which is used to light the others).

“Yes, that’s the story. Shall we sing?”

And the group, once grumpy, joined in song. Another miracle.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Solstice Coven 2012

My partner Ann and I spent this year’s winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, at our friends Rita and Linda’s home with a lovely group of thirteen women (the traditional number for a witches’ coven, I’m told).

Rita directed each person to bring healthy and sustaining food to share, so there were hearty kale salads, root vegetables, roasted chicken…and black bottomed pie, a delightful addition of dark chocolate, custard, and whipped cream (lest we take ourselves and our healthy food too seriously).

As we ate our dinners, Rita shared with me a book titled Ripening that looked like it was printed in the 1970s. On the fading orange cover and throughout the book were Georgia O’Keefe inspired drawings of flowers that suggested female anatomy. “My mother could not abide this book,” I tell Rita.

On the back page, in Rita’s handwriting, is the solstice celebration from Rita’s younger years. There’s a lot of dancing in a circle. I’m glad to be at this celebration at a more seated time in Rita’s life.

After a hearty meal, Rita (a camp counselor in a recent life), directed us into the other room to order ourselves according to age. “Crones,” the oldest and most revered among us, stood at the front of the line and as the youngest, I was the maiden and stood at the back with Davida, who was the penultimate woman-child.

Eve, our most respected crone, with energetic eyes and apple cheeks, said to me, “You’re young enough to be my daughter.”

Even at reverent times, I can be sassy, so I said, “There’s another way to say that.”

The room tittered as women said, “We’re old enough to be your mother.”

Having turned out most of the lights, we re-entered the darkened room and Eve as the eldest crone chose her seat. The rest of us sat in order. A kind crone who had noticed my difficulties with balance, Eve situated herself so that I would be in the same seat that I started in, a full chair with full arms that made it easy for me to keep my balance.

After we took our seats, Karen—a middle-aged crone with lovely white hair—led us in a meditation. She closed, “Tuck the world into your heart.”

In the semi-darkness, camp counselor Rita invited us to talk about the gifts of darkness. I was quiet. Though in the daylight hours, I am thankful for my dark times, I could not summon that thankfulness in the dark. Having survived profound depression and brain tumors, I could only think about the gift of light in the darkness.

I thought about Martin Luther King, Jr’s quotation, painted on his mural on the side of Catfish Corner (where they advertise “farm-raised catfish”): “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I also thought of Emily Dickenson’s poem:

There’s a certain Slant of Light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death – 

Almost everybody who spoke talked about light in the darkness, especially about stars and the moon. Only Linda talked about a tulip bulb’s under-the-soil darkness. Utter darkness. A time of rest.

Storytelling about the Mayan calendar followed, each person building on the next. Candy said that some people in Japan were truly afraid that this was the end of the world and bought pods, white shelters, in which to protect themselves.

Louise added that the Mayans had many calendars, each of a different length of years in cycles. Their longest cycle ended yesterday, though according to the Mayan calendar, with that ending was a time of the end of one epoch and the beginning of another, not the dismal apocalypse that I had imagined.

Camp counselor Rita asks us to consider what darkness we will relinquish in the upcoming year, what we will carry into the light.

Responses ranged from the humorous to the serious: “I will give up my anger at people and things…especially when I’m driving,” said Eve. And others: “This year I gave up doing anything that I'd feel resentful about...I haven't gotten much done.....I will give up sadness and guilt about mother’s last years….I will give up avoiding exercise….I will give up believing that I have the best way to do everything….I will give up fear….”

We wrote our responses on little pieces of paper and burned them with the fire of the one taper and then drowned them in a watery bowl.

Next, camp counselor Rita asked: What light will you carry into the world this new year?

Louise said, “I have struggled with the male-nature of the word ‘God,’ so I have begun to replace that word with Love. I will continue to focus on ‘love’ this year.”

Reflecting on the discussion about the Mayan calendar, I said, “Recently, it has sometimes felt like we are headed for the apocalypse, with so much environmental degradation, war and other violence, including the recent massacre in Connecticut. The idea of a new epoch feels hopeful instead of apocalyptic to me—a sense of a new epoch rather than utter destruction. Thank you for that. I carry that hope into the new world.”

Then, led by camp counselor Rita, we sang songs. I didn’t know the words to most of them, so I mostly listened. I sang along with, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” and “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”

At the end of the night, strangers before, we hugged one another and some of us planned to see one another before the next Solstice.

Like the tulip bulbs that rest in darkness, nurturing their strength until the time for spring’s bloom, I feel blessed, resting, revitalizing. I am preparing to bloom, but for now I can rest.

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun: A time to be born and a time to die;
 a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
 a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh;
 a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
 a time to lose and a time to seek;
 a time to rend and a time to sew; 
a time to keep silent and a time to speak; 
a time to love and a time to hate;
 a time for war and a time for peace.”

This is my season for rest. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Stable as a Cave

My friend Kathy came to church on Sunday. It was great to see her and to hear her. (She has an amazing soprano voice, and she sat between us, so we got to hear her.)
Kathy belongs to our church, but she’s been going through breast cancer treatment since this fall, so she's only been able to attend once or twice.
I know she feels crummy a lot, but she looks beautiful as her now whitish hair is beginning to grow back in. It was such a gift to see her!
When the infant twins were up front for the Children’s sermon, Kathy said, “I can’t believe how big the twins are! They’re like little people now! I feel like I’ve been living in a cave.”
Sunday was supposed to be a joyful day: it was the third Sunday of advent, so we were to light the candle of joy, and our gifted choir was singing its Christmas music.
Friday’s deaths in Newtown, Connecticut, however, sobered our joy. How can a person kill so many small ones and teachers, his mother and himself? How can our country not care for people with mental illness? How can our country continue to allow automatic weapons in our homes?
As my 92 year-old neighbor Annabella mourned: “the darlings…”
The NC Baptist church where I grew up postponed the candle of joy and lit instead the candle of love. I thought we might do something similar at our Seattle church, but we didn’t.
Our minister, Karla, delivered just the right sermon. She began the sermon with words of mourning for the deaths, giving language to our sadness. Our friend Lori, who has cerebral palsy and cannot talk, wailed a painful cry that reverberated with our sadness.
Then Karla reminded us that Jesus was born into a violent world, and that he was born in a messy stable. “God is in this mess,” she said to us, “in this chaos, in this stable that is a cave.”
Karla’s description of the stable as a cave echoed Kathy’s earlier comment and surprised me. There’s no way that Karla heard Kathy, but the echo made the message that much more powerful for me.
God is with us. We are not alone. God is in the darkness.
Earlier this month,  before this massacre, Ann and I celebrated the light in the darkness with our annual solstice party, and we will celebrate the light again with other friends on the actual solstice, the darkest day of the year.
Saturday night, we celebrated the miracle of Chanukah with other friends, and delighted in their telling of the story, lighting the many Menorah , and singing.
Soon, there will be a time for action and for change, but now, as I seek solace in the darkness, this is a time for lighting a candle and saying a prayer: God be with us.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Poem as Prayer

Keeping Quiet - Pablo Neruda (trans. Alastair Reid)

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

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 not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
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 of 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.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Je ne sais pas quoi

Especially for the community in Newtown, Connecticut
Geneviève, a practicum yoga teacher, has been working in my yoga classes this month, and I've been trying to figure out what makes her so excellent, but (in the Frenchie spirit of her name), je ne sais pas quoi.
Wednesday, she helped me stretch into the Lord Voldemort pose (the pose whose name shall not be spoken). With her help, I found new space and flexibility, gifts that I can use independently now that she has shown me the way.
Last week she led the class in a sort of kneeling side bend that challenged my balance at just the right place…just enough so that I felt about to fall but didn’t.
Now I do that pose every morning, and I always almost fall but never do. I do other poses that she’s taught me, too. And every morning, I thank her.
Geneviève is new to teaching, but she’s clearly gifted.
I’ve thought a lot about what makes a teacher gifted.
Throughout the last decade, I worked to help high school teachers improve their craft. I only worked with teachers who wanted my help, and working with me cost them extra time for planning and reflection, so the teachers with whom I worked were a dedicated lot. This collaboration was a sign, but not a cause, of their excellence.
Some teachers were brand spanking new; others were at the end of long careers.
Some were clearly gifted and improved quickly; others, I struggled to know how to help.
The work got me thinking about what makes an excellent teacher and if it’s possible to teach excellence, or if one must simply inspire it.
For starters, the teacher needs to be knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. Some people don’t think this is important: they say that building relationships is the only thing that’s really important in teaching. I disagree. Friends might not need knowledge and passion, but teachers do.
There’s more, though: a certain je ne sais pas quoi. It’s that je ne sais pas quoi part that I’ve been thinking so much about.
I think about another brand spanking new teacher with whom I worked: Sean Riley. He was an excellent teacher from the start. Of course : his teaching improved dramatically with just a few years of practice, but something about him was excellent from the beginning.
I remember visiting him in his classroom after school many days when his student LaJoy was there. LaJoy seemed not quite to be able to believe all that Sean expected of her. As they talked, she would whine and roll her eyes, and he would laugh. It seemed like a game to determine whether or not she was really going to rise to her best self. I don’t know if she did, but I know she was thinking about it. Otherwise, she wouldn't have continued showing up in his classroom after school.
What was it that made Sean so excellent from the start ? There’s that je ne sais pas quoi part again.
Both Sean and Geneviève know their subject matter: Sean, literature and writing, and Geneviève, the body and breathing. Both show respect for their students and joy in the connection. Both laugh easily.
But that’s still not quite the je ne sais pas quoi. In their teaching, neither is ego-driven.
As the poet Rumi says, "All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty."
These excellent teachers see that they are guides, that the teaching is not about them. Both Sean and Geneviève build independence rather than dependence. Maybe I'm getting closer to understanding excellence.
I don’t know if they’d use this word or not, but both teachers convey a spirituality that embodies the sacredness of learning and teaching.
Maybe that’s the je ne sais pas quoi: sacredness in the learning, the teaching, and the connection. The sense that together, teacher and student connect to something larger than themselves.
What is that something? A new je ne sais pas quoi. Perhaps it’s what Rumi calls the moon, some call God, others call the divine, and still others call beauty or truth. Maybe it's what yogis call satya, or perhaps it’s what Robert Pirsig’s schizophrenic protatonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancetries to tease out as he searches for Quality.
Perhaps, it's what Anne Lamott called "Howard," as in "Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name." Corny, but amusing. And true.
Maybe like the band Motorhead sings, there are a thousand names for God. But maybe the real name cannot be spoken because the spirit is really too big for a word.
Maybe excellent teachers help us connect to the divine, whatever you call the divine.
It's an excellence that cannot be quanitified. No interview question will capture it (and if a question did, it would be illegal anyway).
And perhaps it’s the blasphemy in a school, a sacred place that must be safe and hopeful, that makes yesterday’s massacre at Sandy Point Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, even more disturbing.
The sacredness of our children in a sacred space now desecrated. It breaks my heart.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Not "The Kid" anymore

My department chair, Christine, called me “Kid” when I was teaching in my first school. I was 22 years old. Most of my colleagues had lived at least twice as long as I had. I had to convince the lunchroom ladies every day that I could have two milks, a privilege not available to students but reserved for faculty. (My students in line with me would taunt, “Nah! She’s not a teacher!”)

In class, I would joke about how old I was, and the students would laugh with me. When I requested papers from my seniors one day and my unusually hairy student Ben didn’t have his, he said to me, “I’ve dated girls older than you.” (My retort: “I don’t date boys your age. Bring your paper tomorrow. It will be late, and if you don’t have it, I’ll need to call your parents.)

When Ann and I got together eighteen years ago, she was twenty years my senior. (She still is.)

This year, I’ve started attending “Silver Sneakers,” an exercise class for seniors and me, all of whom need to sit in a chair to keep our balance while we exercise. Here, I'm still "the kid." 

I have thought of myself permanently as the “kid,” but apparently time doesn’t work that way.

About a decade ago, I made a joke about how old I was in one of the high school classes I was teaching. Nobody laughed. Awkward.

Last week, I met with a group of young adults from our church to begin a book group around a text about race and spirituality. The group had been advertised as open to people between 18 and 41 years of age, but then they opened it up and said I could come even though I’m seven years too old.

My friend Elizabeth missed the cut-off, too, and they also let her join.

As I sat on Annie’s couch in her and her husband Robbie’s hip artist’s loft, I ate my soup, and I felt older than those around me. I had to work to balance my soup in my lap and not to shake when I moved the spoon to my mouth. The others balanced and spooned easily, laughing familiarly with one another.

As we introduced ourselves, I felt older again. How had each of us found our little progressive church? I realized that Ann and I found the church while these nice people were in elementary school. 
The others talked about experiences they’d had in their twenties, and the way those experiences led them through the church door:

Annie had returned from a year in El Salvador and was church shopping. When she saw the Salvadoran cross and the Romero poster, she decided she’d stay. (Once, during a meeting that Ann was facilitating about our relationship with a small town in El Salvador, Annie turned to me and said, "Your partner rocks." High praise, indeed.)

Kara found the church when she was late for her parents’ church and was walking in her parents’ neighborhood. She came in and decided to stay. 
Her husband Brandon visited and Jim, the minister at the time, invited him to go jet-skiing, so Brandon stayed, too. (Ahem, Jim…You never invited me to go jet-skiing. I thought we were buds.)

The group’s other Southerner, Hadley, heard the multi-racial Total Experience Gospel Choir from the street, and came to see what was going on. She cried as she witnessed the scene of people of many races singing together (and was surprised the next week when our less diverse choir sang instead of our visitors.)

A younger Mary introduced herself as "the other Mary." Because our church has so many Marys and Marie's, however, we started numbering ourselves for our Salvadoran friends who had difficulty keeping us separate in our emails.

I told the younger Mary, "I'm Mary #3," so she said, "I'll be Mary #4, then."

She could not be Mary #4. Number four is Mary Fry, who thinks she's #1 but is really #4. There's also already a #5 and a #11, but the numbers in between # 5 and #11 are available. Younger Mary will be #6.

I felt more a part of the group and less aware of my age as we began reviewing the books.

As the books were introduced, Hadley said, “I love books!” Choosing one, she massaged the book’s cover and said, “This book has a friendly cover.”

“Ah, a young adult soul mate!” I thought. “There are geeks here, too!”

A deep analysis of the texts continued.

Elizabeth shared, “This is my favorite book. I’m not sure why. She [the author photo] looks happy.”

Chris, another soul mate, I suspect, said, “I like the black and white ones. They look academic.”

I think it was Kara who shared her more sensitive side: “This is the one that made me have feelings.”

We finally chose a book that might appeal to our intellectual, emotional and tactile selves: Becoming an Anti-racist Church, and set our agenda for the next meeting: a Friday.

I was impressed that these young adults would choose to attend a book group on a Friday night: definitely geek soul mates.

Since we’re going to meet on Fridays, my partner Ann can join us. I may not be the kid anymore, but I won’t be the elder, either. That role will fall to Ann.

I’ll be the middler. I’m cool with that. (Or maybe I should say hip…or filthy…or even better, hella-filthy.)

Then again, since this is a church group, and I’m a responsible middler, I’ll say hecka-filthy.

I’m no old dog. Though I can’t run with the pups, I look forward to learning with them and to connecting with this generation.

As the Star Wars’ wrinkled green guy said to Count Dooku and thus to me: “Much you still have to learn, my old padawan. This is just the beginning.”

Monday, December 10, 2012

Someone Important

When I called to talk with my youngest nieces a couple of weeks ago, seven year-old Gretchen and I talked, and then Gretchen called her older sister Lucie to the phone. Lucie was slow in coming, and I heard Gretchen yell, “Lucie! It’s someone important!...It’s Auntie Mary!” Bless her.

As Gretchen and I talked, I asked her what the best part of Thanksgiving had been. She didn't hesitate: "Seeing Isabella."

Isabella’s Gretchen fairy princess…and her seventeen year-old cousin.

I said, "Yeah, Isabella's the best" and she followed with, "You are, too, Auntie Mary."

I thought we were going to talk about something else, but Gretchen interrupted me: "And Aunt Ann. Aunt Ann's the best, too."

We may be the best, but Gretchen is for sure the most thoughtful. And she’s a talented dancer and singer. (Finally, someone got Mom’s amazing voice!) She’s funny, too, not in the way that little kids are funny because they’re little but in the way that adults are funny when they’re clever.  

I love having nieces.

Isabella is my oldest niece. She’s beautiful and smart, and she’s so kind that you can’t hate her for it. Plus, her hero is Gloria Steinem. Can’t beat that.

My favorite moment with Isabella was probably when she and her brothers Jack and Sam were in elementary school. Little Willie was in pre-school.

Ann and I played the Game of Life with the group of them, and Willie needed help so he sat in my lap, and we played as a team.

When Willie landed on “Get Married,” Isabella asked him, “Would you like two pinks, two blues, or a pink and a blue?” Then she flashed her dimples at Ann and me.

I’m not sure that Lucie and Gretchen were even born yet, but now my niece Lucie is nine years old. A couple of years ago, as soon as we all arrived at the beach house where we would stay for the week, Lucie jumped in the pool wearing all of her clothes.

When she came upstairs, I said to her, “I’ll give you $5 if you jump in again.” Her eyes lit up, and she ran off. When she returned, her mother Kristin had joined us, and frowned to see drenched Lucie in her dripping clothes. Gretchen said, “Aunt Mary told her to.”

I just smiled sheepishly and shrugged: aunties don’t have to be responsible for good behavior.

Lucie and I are writing a book together. I’m sworn to secrecy, so I can’t tell you what it’s about, but it’s going to be good.

We started by brainstorming characters and plot together.

Right now, to generate more ideas and to help us think about style and structure, we’re studying Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In. Each week we read two chapters on our own and then we talk about what we noticed and what ideas the chapters give us for our book.

I proposed the idea of writing together so that we could get to know one another from opposite coasts, but it turns out that Lucie is a natural, and the thinking together is super-fun.

I love being an aunt, and I love having aunts.

Aunt Ben was my favorite great aunt. She taught first or second grade for over forty years, so she knew about kids. She didn’t try to make us be good children. She just spoiled us and enjoyed us. Each year at the beach, she gave us quarters so that we could play Astroids, an early generation video game, at the arcade.

Aunt Ben had as many wrinkles as would fit in her skin. When she laughed, her blue eyes twinkled, and she threw back her head so that we could see all of her dentures.

Aunt Ben was my grandmother’s senior by quite a few years. Grandmother was the baby sister, and she and Aunt Ben were close. Once, when Dad and I were visiting Grandmother at her home in Spring Hope, North Carolina, Aunt Ben visited.

The two started telling stories about the old days and laughing so hard that they couldn’t speak. One would say, “Then Lola…” and the two would crack up, little tears forming in the corners of their eyes; they were laughing so hard they gasped for air. They didn’t have to finish the sentences: each knew what the other was talking about. Dad and I didn’t know the stories, but we recognized the joy and laughed along.

Aunt Ben’s given name was “Magnolia,” a good Southern girl’s name. Grandmother nicknamed her “Ben puttin’ it off” after an early 20th century cartoon figure who, like Aunt Ben, procrastinated. The name was shortened to “Ben,” and it stuck.

Great Aunt Ben was a joyful woman. Now my nieces love another great aunt. Their Great Aunt Susan loves them and spoils them, just like Great Aunt Ben spoiled us.

Aunt Susan is just twelve years older than I am, and she has always been young at heart. When Cousin Lori and I were in college, Aunt Susan took us out on the town. This was three days before my 21st birthday. We went to a bar, and the bouncer was going to let me and Lori in, but he carded Aunt Susan, so he carded all of us. No mercy. We had to go.

Another time, some college friends were over at Aunt Susan’s with me, and Aunt Susan offered us white wine—in a Styrofoam cup. I just couldn’t drink it. It seemed too much like a urine sample.

Aunt Mary Ann is closer to my mom’s age and is the mother to my cousins Lori, Jeff, and Kenny, so she and I have never gone out on the town.

Aunt Mary Ann’s the family storyteller. She seems to know a lot of family history that Mom’s forgotten or never knew, and she has a Faulknerian style. Like when I read Faulkner, I don’t always know what’s happening or where the story’s headed, but I’m always glad I stuck with it.

Mom’s youngest sister, Aunt Cindy, is sixteen years younger than Mom and just seven years older than I am. She’s an artist who makes her money as a stockbroker (or something like that), and—bless her—she’s a Democrat.

On my Dad’s side of the family is another Democrat, my aunt Myra. I was named Mary for both of my grandmothers and my Aunt Mary Ann. I figure I was also named for Aunt Myra, since Mary is just Myra scrambled up a little, and I figure Aunt Myra and I are probably the most alike: like I am, she’s a reader, worked with many poor people in education, and she leans hard to the left even when the winds not blowing.

I loved it when Aunt Myra came to visit when I was a kid. She always gave me big bear hugs, and when my dad came in the room, rolled his eyes, and groaned, she called him “Archie” (from the sit com “All in the Family”) and kept hugging me.

I love my nephews and uncles, too, but there are just too many to write about in one blog, so for today I’m just writing about the ladies.

I’d like to be the kind of aunt for my nieces that my aunts are for me: women who don’t try to improve me but just love me and give me ideas of some of the many ways of being a woman in this world.



Monday, December 3, 2012

Family History

Growing up, I knew I belonged in my family tree, but I suspected that I was somehow different than the others.

On my mother’s side, I had Grandmom and Granddad, three aunts (two of them closer in age to me than to my mother), one uncle, and some great aunts, great uncles and cousins-some-number- of- times-removed.  Uncles and aunts married uncles and aunts, and first cousins were born.

I loved to hear stories from times and places I hadn’t known.  When I got a call that Granddad had died, I flew home from Dallas for the funeral, expecting a miserable time. There was a lot of sadness, but a lot of joy, too. After the burial, the family sat in the parlor and the older ones told stories about Granddad.

He had been a six-foot-two lanky young man whose ears stuck out from under the hat he liked to wear. I am imagine that he was somewhere between a dandy and a good ol’ boy. He worked for the Seboard Railroad.

Once, when his young family returned home from a vacation, they found that a burglar had ransacked their home. Someone called the police while Granddad kept an eye—and a rifle—on the burglar. The burglar started walking, and Granddad followed down a dark road and into the woods: the burglar in front and Granddad behind him, gun pointed.

I think the burglar must have known that Granddad was really a pussy cat at heart. The burglar kept telling Granddad to stop following him. The burglar finally turned around and threatened, “If you don’t stop following me, I’m going to kill you.”

The room of mourners erupted in laughter, and Dad summarized the punch line: “He had the gun and that burglar threatened to kill HIM!” Everybody laughed again.

Once, I went to the nursing home with Mom and Grandmom to see Mom’s uncle, who had emphysema and was really sick. He had a trach in his throat, and I remember that he smoked from his trach. I was still in elementary school, but the image had a strong impression on me. I never smoked. Not a thing. Not once.

Aunt Mary Ann, the family storyteller, told us about other ancestors, like her Uncle Bubba who looked so much like Clark Gable that people would see him on the sidewalk and pull over to get his autograph.

Mary Ann also told us about our ancestor Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who mapped much of what is now “Hayden Valley” in Yosemite and fathered a child with a Native American woman, though neither mother nor child made it into the official family records.

On my dad’s side of the family, Granddaddy died when I was three years old, but I knew Grandmother and several great aunts, especially Ben (nicknamed Ben by my grandmother after the turn-of-the-century cartoon character “Ben Puttin’ It Off, who was a procrastinator like Ben.)

I always seemed to have the most in common with Dad’s sister, Aunt Myra, who liked to read like I did, and she gave me bear hugs and called Dad “Archie” (from the sit com “All in the Family”) when he rolled his eyes.

Aunt Leona and Uncle Bill, who was born on January 2, 1900 and who was not ticklish, lived with Ben at the farm where Grandmother grew up (next to the farm where Granddaddy grew up).

Each summer, this family of Aunt Myra and her husband and my cousins and lots of great aunts and uncles and cousins-some-number-of-time- removed vacationed at a North Carolina beach. We rented three houses and moved easily among all of the houses.

Afternoons, everyone went to the sound, where the young ones (that included Mom and Dad) water-skied and those with grey hair sat in the shade and ate watermelon.

This family told stories, too, though when Grandmother and Great Aunt Ben got to reminiscing, they laughed so hard that I couldn’t understand a word they said.

I’ve always loved to hear family stories, to know something about where I came from, but I also wonder about the stories that haven’t made it into family lore.

As a lesbian, I wonder if anyone else through the years was GLBTQ. I know that there were some single women along the way, but I don’t know if any of these single women were lesbians. I know that some aunts and uncles had names unusual for their genders, like Aunt Jim and Uncle Lola, but for all I know the names came from some story, like Aunt Ben being named for the cartoon character.

(Of course, I also can’t assume that the married people were straight.)

I ache to know my family’s invisible history, to know if there were rule-breakers before me or ancestors with brain tumors and what their lives were like.

Mom’s cousin--a paternal Uncle Frank's son--Sam updated that family tree a few years back, and to his credit, he listed Ann as my partner. Ann’s not in the silent edge just off the picture.

I suspect I’m not the first lesbian in this family, and I suspect I won’t be the last. For the future generations, there will be at least one record that shows that our family embraced each person.

For that, many thanks, Sam. And to the family storyteller, Mary Ann, thanks for the stories. They connect me to my past and remind me that in this family, I belong.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

My nine year-old niece Lucie and I talk on the phone each Wednesday about a book we're writing together. We started with some ideas (all Lucie's good ideas, really), and now we're studying a book with some similar themes: Sharon Blake's The Skin I'm In.

We read and discuss two chapters each week. Today, Lucie asked the questions to get us started, and I talked about what I was thinking and she added ideas. We always talk about the questions, "What did you notice?" and "What ideas about our book did these chapters give you?"

The process is superfun. Since I live so far away and see my nieces and nephews so seldomly, I proposed the idea as a way for us to connect regularly. I didn't anticipate how diligent and thoughtful Lucie would be about the work, nor how smart she is.

Every auntie probably thinks her niece is supersmart, but mine really is.

Today, Lucie told me about her three best friends. "They talk a lot," she said.

"Do you talk a lot?"


"Do you talk in class when your teacher wants you to be quiet?"

"No. I have a great teacher. I want to impress her."

"What makes her great?"

"She's just totally awesome."

Thanks to Lucie's teacher and to all the totally awesome teachers out there.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Miss Pig

Growing up, I didn’t have an enduring nickname, but my cousin Lori was always “Miss Pig.” I don’t know how she got the nickname, but she always got pig-themed gifts.

The nickname was never ironic or sarcastic. I’m sure the nickname indicated fondness.

My mom was two years older than Lori’s mom, my Aunt Mary Ann, and Lori was four months older than I was. Thus, she was my elder, a fact she didn’t let me forget when we were younger, and I don’t let her forget now that we’re nearing fifty.

I think my first memory of Lori was when Sister Jen and I visited her family in Winston-Salem, and I staged my first non-violent protest. Lori and I were six years old and Sister Jen was three when we made brownies in Lori’s easy-bake oven.

Lori’s dad, my Uncle Tommy, ordered me to give my brownie to my boy-cousin Jeff, who was four and had been watching football with his dad, and as a feminist protest I popped the brownie in my mouth. (Sorry, Uncle Tommy—I know you didn’t know the whole story and more than forty years later you must be tired of hearing about it.)

As punishment, Uncle Tommy sent me to the bathroom to reflect on my bad-doings. Instead, I was indignant and then delighted when Cousin Lori joined me with the left over brownie mix. As I remember it, Cousin Lori and I scooped the brownie mix out of the bowl with our fingers, talked about the ways of being a woman in the world, and became fast friends.

Cousin Lori and I were both the eldest children of three children, and we were both redheads, though her hair was strawberry blond and mine was auburn.

Their family lived in Raleigh for a while when we were young and then in a nearby town called Cary, so we saw each other often. Cousin Lori was always fretting about her split ends and her weight (because of the fashion of women worrying about their weight, not because she was overweight). She also mourned our aging as we moved from “child” to “kid” to “pre-teen” to “teen.” The designations didn’t bother me.

I think it was when we were in sixth grade that we went up to the front for communion in our large Southern Baptist and we got the giggles so badly that I could only tremble and pass her the bread and the little grape juice glasses instead of saying somberly, “This is the body of our Lord, broken for you,” and “This is the blood of our Lord, poured for you.”

After church Mrs. Mackee scolded us for our irreverence. Unaccustomed to being scolded by an adult other than my parents, I remember trying not to giggle again.

When we were in middle-school, Cousin Lori had moved to a different city (Charlotte, I think), and her family went to a more conservative church than our family did. One day, Cousin Lori asked me, “Are you saved?”

Not knowing that term and already slightly suspicious of it, I asked, “What does that mean?”

“It’s when you accept Jesus into your heart,” she explained, and she told me about the day that she was saved. I think Cousin Jeff was with us, and he told me about being saved, too.   

“We don’t talk like that in my church,” I told them. “I wasn’t saved on a particular day. It just happened gradually as I grew up.”

My cousins seemed satisfied with my response and didn’t quiz me further.

Later, for college, I went to the small liberal arts Davidson near Charlotte, where Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Tommy lived, and Cousin Lori went to North Carolina State University (NCSU), the state university in Raleigh, the city where my parents lived.

Though NCSU is a large university, Cousin Lori and my high school friends Becky and Catherine lived on the same floor in the same dorm and became friends. I visited them when my college was out for Christmas break before the university was.

Becky and Catherine were roommates, and Becky was frustrated because Catherine and her boyfriend had taken to going into the room and closing the door. This happened while I was visiting, and Cousin Lori decided to find out what was going on: she would “spy” on them.

Cousin Lori donned what she imagined a spy would wear: a trench coat, hat, and dark glasses, and went to the closed door. She threw the door open, jumped into the frame, opened her eyes and mouth wide, then covered her mouth with a gasp, and ran from the room.

I still don’t know what, if anything, happened, but the scene seemed straight out of “I Love Lucy,” and I laughed so hard that I wet my pants a little.

Fast forward to our adulthood: We live different lives now. Cousin Lori has married, has two kids, and lives in a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, where she grew up.

I moved to Dallas, got married, moved to Seattle, got divorced, and came out as a lesbian.

When I came out to Cousin Lori twenty years ago, she called and said, “I don’t understand.” I really think she still loved me. She sent me a membership to Focus on the Family, which I believe she intended as a gift of kindness.  

When my partner and I have visited Charlotte, my Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Tommy have hosted us, and everyone, including Cousin Lori, has been loving.

When Cousin Lori and her family visited Seattle a decade ago, however, she didn’t contact me. I thought that was strange.

After this year’s presidential election, I was relieved at the outcome and emailed my family to say that I knew some of them felt like I would have felt had Romney been elected: afraid, sad, worried for my country.

Cousin Lori emailed to share her sadness, and she mused, “I wonder why we are so different when we came from such a similar background.”

I wonder that, too. Maybe it’s because her parents are more conservative than mine, and so was her church. Maybe it’s because I had a young feminist sister as my next sibling, and she had an athletic brother. Maybe because she stayed in North Carolina, and I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Maybe because I’m a lesbian, and she’s not. The possibilities go on.

Maybe, partly, we were just born this way.