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, June 29, 2013

Slightly famous

At last year's Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference, a woman approached me after one of the break-out sessions. "Don't I know you?" she asked me. I didn't think so. She was from Oregon so chance encounters at the grocery store were unlikely (plus, since my disabilities I don't go to the grocery store.) She persisted: "I feel sure I know you." Nope. Neither her name nor a face rang a bell.

The next night, after the awards ceremony (I didn't win, but I was a finalist, so my photo was shown to the thousands at the conference), the same woman approached me. "I figured it out!" she said. "I read your blog, so when I saw your photo I recognized you from your blog photo!"

A church friend had shared a blog entry with her when I wrote about a church dinner at our home.

Writing without a clear sense of my audience feels odd sometimes.  I can see the number of people who log in each day, and I am always surprised and grateful for the numbers, but I don't know who you are. 

Sometimes, friends or even people I haven't seen in a long time let me know that they're reading. A couple of weeks ago, we went to see Alice Walker at the International Film Festival (both a film about Alice Walker and Alice Walker in the flesh!), and afterwards Pam, a woman we see from time to time connected with her amazing international water projects in poor areas, spotted us in a crowd and hollered out, "Can't duck it!" I felt slightly famous. And bashful. And grateful. 

Yesterday, I was lying with my eyes closed on my yoga mat before yoga class started. (I like to be one of the first there, close my eyes as others come in, and then marvel at all the people who entered while my eyes were closed: it feels like a magic trick every time.)  Usually people come in fairly quietly, but yesterday I heard a woman squeal my name (with delight, I'm hoping). 

"Mary Edwards!"  I opened my eyes and this was a new kind of magic. It was Kim, a woman with whom I shared an office at the last school where I worked. She had squealed similarly one morning outside of church when she was dropping her mom off. We seem to pop into one another's lives from time to time. 

Kim said that she was surprised to read that my partner Ann had been working in schools for 46 years, so I knew that Kim had read my last blog entry. I felt honored and again slightly famous. How odd it is that people know about my life even when I haven't talked with them recently.

Last night, when Ann and I went to the Storm game, I had the chance to talk with someone even more famous than I am. Sue Bird, one of the world's best women's basketball players, leading two Storm WNBA championship teams and winning two US gold medals (on the injured list for the Storm this year as she recovers from knee surgery) was signing posters, bobble heads, hats, t-shirts and whatevers before the Storm game. 

Ann and I got to the stadium early and waited in line for a moment to speak with this shero and get a couple of signatures. When I got to the famous Sue, I said, "This feels weird, but would you sign my shirt?" and I turned my back to her.

I have long found it odd that some people idolize stars and follow their lives. "They're just people," I've said. But I didn't treat Sue Bird like a person. I treated her like a signature machine.

I wish I had looked her in the eye and said, "Sue, you are awesome. Would you sign my shirt?" That's the sort of thing I would have said to the many teenagers who came my way through schools. That's the sort of thing I would say to people working menial jobs who take a moment to treat me kindly.

I guess it's kind of like reverse discrimination: I treat people without status with a kindness that surprises them, but I treated a shero like she's a machine. 

I want to be better than that, and if there's a next time I will be better. Maybe next time, all I'll have time to say is, "You're awesome, Sue!" If so, I'll say it. If there's more time, maybe I'll tell her this story:

Two summers following brain surgery, when at the age of 45 I had learned to walk again, I often went to the nearby park with a basketball or a soccer ball, the play things of my youth.

I would stand with the basketball on the lay-up spot on the basketball court (erected by Storm and NBA volunteers) and think, "Be like Sue." Then I would hurl the ball towards the backboard, sometimes  watching the ball fall through the net but satisfied as long as the ball at least hit the backboard. 

There was no way I had the balance for an actual lay-up anymore: just throwing the ball upwards (to call it "shooting" would be an overstatement) required all the balance I had. 

I want to be famouser (sic), like Sue, so that I can share my stories of spirit and grit in the wake of my brain tumors in a way that might inspire others, perhaps as Sue inspires me.

If you want to help me become famouser (many of you email me about this, and I know that commenting on this site is difficult), then it would be a huge gift for you to share the blog with someone whom you think would like it. So please share. www.cantduckit.blogspot.com (In asking, I feel a little bit like the singing group that defeated the Brady Bunch by dressing like poodles and begging for applause--do you remember that episode?)

Thanks for being here. You mean a lot to me. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When I came out to my family twenty years ago (golly, I'm gettin' old), I did not imagine that Ann and I would ever have the state and federal benefits of marriage. In fact, I did not imagine that I would ever marry again: saying "yes for the rest of my life" seemed like a promise that I did not know myself well enough to say.

In response to my coming out letter, Sister Jen sent me an envelope full of newspaper and magazine articles about famous people like Ellen Degeneres coming out. On the outside of the envelope, she wrote, "You're hot."

I've not often been called hot, unless it's been me in recent years during a hot flash, so the message was particularly inspiring. Sister Jen's notes reminding me of all those people coming out helped me not feel so alone, so abnormal. 

The change towards gay and lesbian people in our country has, it seems to me, moved at an overwhelming speed. My peeps and I wonder aloud how things have changed so fast during our life-times and why other social justice movements have not gained such quick gains.

We make guesses that having so many people come out has meant that many Americans know someone who is gay. I have gone further, noting that because gay and lesbian people are sometimes in families with privilege has made the movement faster than, say, social justice movements for people who are in prison or immigrants. 

This morning on NPR, I heard a "log cabin Republican," a gay man who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive, argue that making connections within both the Democratic and the Republican parties has been key. 

I am stunned about the Supreme Court's decision to strike down DOMA, even as I am aware that for too many people--those who are poor; immigrants to the US; our bisexual and (especially) transgendered brothers and sisters--this decision will not bring peace and justice.

Right now, I have only a vague notion of the practical effects of the decision for Ann and me--effects that I know are more significant because of my disabilities. The impact right now is an emotional one: I feel like a full citizen in my country. 

In discussing coming out, someone told me a long time ago that once his mother found out he was gay, he didn't care who else knew. There's so much truth in that sentiment for me: most important to me in these years of discrimination has been a family that has loved me throughout.

To my loving family and to others like them, I say, whatever your political philosophies may be, thanks for loving us in this time when our relationships have been in such public limbo. Your ongoing love means even more than today's decision--and that's saying a lot.

That love made this decision possible. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

End of Teacher Ann's Era

After 46 years in secondary education, my partner Ann returned her school keys yesterday and will not return to a school in the fall. It's time for her retirement, and she says she's had a great time all the way, but she's ready to stop now.

Ann started teaching in a Debre Berhan, Ethiopian middle school in 1966. Other than her Peace Corps training in Boston, she had never spent any significant time away from the West Texas region where she grew up. She says that people had an easier time understanding her West Texas accent in Ethiopia than they did in Boston, where she had to go out with a translator if she wanted to order dinner in a restaurant.

When Ann and I visited Debre Berhan eight summers ago, we went to her classroom in the school where she had taught, which was empty on that day. In some ways, things had not changed. The desks were still the same, still in rows as they had been when she started. There was a new blackboard, nailed over most of the one that she had used when she was there. I sat in one of those all desks and raised my hand. When she called on me, I used one of my two Amharic words, "Algebunum!" or "I don't understand." She says she heard this cry many times each day when she taught these students who were so anxious to understand.

Ann began her first day of teaching by telling her first class something of her story. Students had studied English throughout elementary school, but this would be their first year to have classes in English. At some point, she said something that should have provoked a response, but her students continued to nod agreeably. Very slowly, she said, "If you understand what I'm saying, raise your hand." One student who was repeating the grade raised his hand. She started writing numbers on the black board and sensed relief from her students.

When she returned to the United States from this lush Ethiopian town, she attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, which is not lush. With her Masters in Teaching, she moved to inner city Houston where, in the year before integration, she taught in an all-black middle school. It is hot and humid in Houston, so she said that she and her students sweated rivulets for ten of the months in the two years she was there.

Her classroom was on the first floor and sometimes people from the street wandered in. Once a tough girl came to see some of her friends, and when Ann told her to leave, the girl threatened Ann, "Leave me alone, or I'm gonna..." Ann walked towards her, chest puffed out: "You're gonna what?" Ann asked. The girl left and Ann got the reputation as a tough lady.

After her first year of teaching, Ann spent the summer in Seattle with Peace Corps friend Rita. They lived in an apartment on Lake Washington. It was blue skies and sunny most days, with temperatures ranging from the 70s to the 90s instead of Houston's sweltering 100s. They could walk out on a deck over the water or said their Hobie Cat on pretty days, which was most days.  "This is a lot nicer than Houston,"she thought, so after an other year sweating in Houston she moved to a small town in the Seattle suburbs and began teachig at Issaquah High School, where she would teach math (and one year be "Activity Coordinator") for 26 years. She and I met in a carpool from Seattle to the suburbs.

Ann moved for her last four years teaching in public schools to help open a new school in a mostly upper scale neighborhood on the Pine Lake plateau. Humanities teachers like myself had rooms with beautiful views of the Cascades, but Ann spent her four years in the basement with the math and science teachers.

After 30 years, we threw a big retirement party, and she went to work as a school reform coach funded by the Gates Foundation. Her heart, however, was still in the classroom, though she wasn't ready to return to the rigors of public schools again, so she took a job with The Northwest School, a progressive independent school on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Ann taught high school math at The Northwest School, and is widely created with revamping the math department into a highly respected program with a rigorous and creative reputation and a staff that worked together to improve teaching. Instead of the 35-40 students she had in each math class in Issaquah, her classes ranged in size from 14-18 students. At the end of  her first day, she came home,  jaw dropping, and said, "My students thanked me for teaching them at the end of each class." These expressions of gratitude would continue throughout her seven years in the school. She walked a little over a mile to and from school each day, and she often described her tasty lunches, using her hands to emphasize the exquisiteness of each dollop. "Every kid should have a school like this, " she often said. I call it "School Heaven."

Cute Cousin Michael and I visited one of her Calculus classes a couple of weeks ago. First, a student presented her solution to a difficult homework problem and answered questions from the other students. Then Ann's "lecture" began. She'd ask a question and would tap on icon on the white board, apparently a smart board, and the question would pop up. The students weren't surprised, but CCM and I loved it. When the question stumped her students--I think each one did--she'd say, "Turn to your group and talk about it." And the students would. After introducing some new questions for them to struggle with,
CCM whispered to me, "I could learn Calculus from her!"

In her last class with students, she drew student names and let each winner choose something to take home from the room: two took Escher posters, three took math t-shirts (Mariah, who had once yelled out, "Who needs drugs when there's math?"took the one she was wearing. Fear not, the students had made her a pi shirt with notes from each student on the back, so she wasn't nekkid.) Macy went home with Ann's Calculus book, Ann's name printed on the side.

Yesterday was Ann's last department meeting, and she gave her department presents, too. She emptied her closet of math tools like play doh (for geometric shapes and volume), cut gutters (for racing marbles down a ramp to determine velocity), and barbie dolls (for barbie doll bungee jumping, which had some mathematical application that I can't now remember.)

Ann's been a math teacher for as long as I've known her. In our first years, she would sometimes work so hard or get so frustrated that things hadn't gone as smashingly as she had hoped, that she would cry. Most of her hard work, however, has been the kind of heartful effort that my yoga teacher Victoria today called "Joyful effortlessness" or what makes sense to me as "Effortless Effort." Her effort has come from her heart, and she has a great heart.

What will she do now? She is wisely not yet committing. She's joined a committee at church and has decided that she will volunteer as a math tutor at The University of Washington's Women's Center, where many of the young women are immigrants to this country--quite a few from Ethiopia. She is giving her heart time and space to lead the way.

She's my partner, it's true, and I do love her, but she's also just dang amazing.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Playing with Fire

Much of the Western canon is suspicious of fiery spirits. The Greek myth of Icarus tells the story of a son (he must have been a teenager) who despite his father's warning to fly steadily--neither too close to the sun nor too close to the ocean--with his man made wings flew close to the sun, causing the wax in his wings to melt and him to fall into the ocean. 

As a child reading this myth, I thought it was a story about obedience to one's parents, but now I think it's a cautionary tale about soaring too high and too low. Perhaps the myth tells us that we are meant to be steady.

Then there's Lady Macbeth, the Shakespearean "B." Holy cow. The lady wanted her husband to kill the king and to make her queen so badly that she says she would have plucked a suckling babe nursing at her breast and thrown it against a wall rather than leave such a promise unfilled. She was a fiery lady, and in the end she went crazy.

That's what happens in our literature to people who are fiery. They drown or go crazy.

I am not like these legendary characters. I fly steady and throw no one against a wall. I am even-tempered, and the unpredictable and all-consuming threat of fiery spirits makes me tense.

I can only think of three times in my life when I have lost my cool: twice at school administrative support who seemed to me to be thinking of themselves instead of students and once at my father, who was mystified by my anger. There have probably been others, but I have suppressed them. Okay, I just thought of another one. But you get the point. 

I don't like anything that raises my adrenaline: caffeine, a suspenseful movie, or a public (or private) flash of anger.

I am not alone in this discomfort. This month at the Samarya Center where I do yoga, teachers have been doing dharma talks on "tupus," the Sanscrit word often translated as "fire" on one of the eight limbs of yoga. Teachers and students alike have talked about how they have learned not to be too fiery, not to overdo it--whatever "it" is: maybe work or perfection or emotion.

They seem to echo Thomas Merton's admonition:

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist...destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

Though I've never thought of myself as a fiery person, I did tend to overwork before my brain tumors slowed me down, so I kept Merton's words in a frame by the desk in any school where I worked.

I also posted Lao Tsu's "One must know when to stop." A young teacher in the last school where I taught stopped by the sign and asked me, "Do you?" Her question was of course rhetorical. She thought I overdid it. 

I have been tired most of my life and have always been a hard worker who tired out, a late sleeper and a siesta-lover, so I have assumed that my spirit is more of water than of fire. I did a (very little) bit of research Monday on yoga's five elements--earth, water, air, fire, and space--and found a website that described a person of water in this way: "You're sensitive and fluid, responding to feelings more than anything else. Dreams, visions, love, and the mysterious attract you. You may be prone to depression, so try to balance your emotions with rationality." (http://www.beliefnet.com/section/quiz/index.asp?sectionID=10002&surveyID=62)

I think this did describe me twenty years ago, when I started practicing yoga. I remember my first yoga teacher, Denise, and her fiery spirit, and thinking that I should be more like her.

When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor six years ago, however, I came to suspect that my lifelong fatigue resulted from trying to perform at high levels and to live a full life in this body worn weary by overcoming the tumor. I think now that there's more fire in my spirit than I had thought--after all, I did a lot for someone living with a brain tumor. 

I have often not known myself, so I wondered how the innernets might describe me now. I took an online quiz (you can take it, too, at (http://www.beliefnet.com/section/quiz/index.asp?sectionID=10002&surveyID=62) and the quiz situated me between water, as described above, and air:  "You're smart, witty, and process-oriented--but may be a little abstract and spacy at times. You're drawn to ideas and love to learn. Just make sure to leave room for feelings and sensations."

Yep. That seems right. Witty and spacy.

Ann, who still takes classes with Denise, says that she doesn't think that Denise identifies so much with fire anymore. 

Perhaps as we age we take on the characteristics of other spirits. Perhaps when we're enlightened (in a few lifetimes) we'll be an even mix of all of these spirits. 

And then what? I don't know. Maybe we are finished with earthly lives. Maybe then we can just be. Maybe that's what we're here on earth to learn. 

To be. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Tonight when I was sitting at the kitchen table in my parents’ home in Raleigh, Dad walked in the kitchen door, a scenario we often played out when I was growing up. As then, he didn’t say hello. Instead, he belted out, “Shut up, Fool! I know what I’m doing.”

Ironically, he had missed this question on the Jeopardy game that Sister Jen had created for their fiftieth wedding anniversary last night. The answer was, “______ _____, ___________! I know what I’m doing,” so the correct question would have been, “What is ‘Shut up, Fool’” but Dad remembers obscure dates of Napoleonic history better than he’s aware of what he says every day, so he missed the question.

Many other of Dad’s common phrases were in the Jeopardy game, too: What is “It isn’t raining rain to me; it’s raining daffodils”? and What is “What a curious thing a terrapin are”? and What is “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am”?

My dad appreciates repetition. He has a poetic sensibility, as many Southerners do. We like words and poems and stories, especially tall tales. We like the way our words and stories, accents and histories bring us together as family.

Last night, we celebrated my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary with lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, and a fair number of people who have married into the family.

My soon-to-be Uncle Max was there with his bride-to-be, my Auntie Susie. When I said to Max, “Welcome to the mad-house!” he replied, “I’ve been inducted already. I went to the beach with the Matthews sisters.” (I knew their spouses went, too, but we both understood that it’s the sisters with their high-pitched camaraderie who make up the mad-house.)

There was a lot of laughter all night, and we were laughing again when most folks showed up for breakfast at the house this morning. (God bless Kimbo and Holly, mom’s friends who hosted.)

Mom’s sister Mary Ann, the Matthews family storyteller, was in rare form as she described whom she wants to see when her time to go to heaven comes. (There seemed to be no question about her destination.)

“The first person I want to see in heaven is…well, I should see Jesus first, but then I want to see Abe Lincoln. Then Mama and Daddy and Anna Lee.”

When someone asked, “What about your husband, Tommy?” she said, “Oh, if he’s there already (not a question of place but of time), then I want to see Tommy before I see Mama and Daddy and Anna Lee, but I want to see Jesus and Abe Lincoln first. Then Tommy. I’ve been waiting a lot longer to see Jesus and Abe.”

Susan interrupted this flow to show everyone the pictures of leopard-print wedding gowns that Cousin Lori sent her last night. Susan teases (I think) that she’ll wear a leopard-print wedding dress when she and Max marry this fall. She seemed to like the idea of getting her face painted, too—especially that cool damp black nose. (Max says he’ll wear overalls, but it’s clearer that he’s teasing.)

This extended family is a funny group, and they’ve taught me that love of family comes before everything except love of God, but really this family love is part of God love. (no, that’s not a typo. I mean God love, not God’s love. It’s a question of quality, not of ownership.)

I’m not sure what they all thought when I came out as a lesbian two decades ago, but they’ve been consistently loving to my partner Ann and me. We could have been outsiders, and I thought we might be in this largely Southern Baptist crowd, but not in this family.

There are others there last night who might have felt like outsiders, too, but I hope they felt how included they are. I hadn’t seen my cousin Dean in maybe 15 years, and he was there with his wife Stephanie, whom I’d never met. I was glad to see them. I hadn't seen my Aunt Lorraine since her husband, my Uncle Tommy (There are two uncle Tommys and one Uncle Tom) passed. She looked just the same. That's amazing.  I hadn’t seen my cousins Carrie and Sam—both young adults a generation younger than I am—since they needed baby-sitters, and they are taller than I am now (though Carrie’s four inch heels give her an extra boost.) Like our family and my Auntie Myra and cousins on my Dad's side of the family, they’re a bit more subdued than the Matthews sisters, but then most everyone is. It’s been ages since I’d seen Cousin Lori and her husband Rick, too, though Cousin Lori and I are close in age (she’s three and a half  months older than I am, a fact that she reminded me of when we were younger and that I remind her of now that we’ve reached middle age.)

This extended family could divide along lots of lines: political parties and philosophies, regions and religion, health care practices, lifestyles, and so forth. But we don’t divide. We gathered in our differences to mark this moment in time, to celebrate my parents’ long marriage and our long-term commitment to family.

We celebrated my parents and this family where everyone’s wacky in their own ways. Where each of us (even Dad) recognizes our imperfections and forgives our relatives as we would have them forgive us—not in some high-fallootin’ ethereal forgiveness, but just in a “hey we’re family and we’re amusing and we’re here together” way.

Thanks, family...every one of you. It was a blast. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Last night Ann and I dog sat for our neighbor’s beautiful and highly anxious dog, Violet.  Most people would just leave their dog in the house or in the yard when they go to a Mariner’s game, and that’s what Andrew did with their other, more mellow dog, Sadie. But Violet gets so anxious when she’s home alone that she has often broken out of the house through a front window (this smart dog learned to open it), so Andrew left us with her for the earlier part of the night, wanting to reduce her minutes of anxiety.

We had a lovely time together. It was a beautiful Seattle evening, so Ann and I ate our dinner on the deck, and Violet lay beside us at first. Then, when she got too hot in the sun and we had stopped rubbing her belly in order to eat our dinner, she moved her nap into the shade.

As the night grew cool, we realized that we couldn’t stay on the deck all night, so we broke our cardinal rule of no dogs in the house and invited her in. She lapped water loudly from a person dish, licked up all the crumbs she found around the butcher-block table and in the dining room, and lay near me on the floor as Ann began reading us a story.

She was so calm with us that it was hard to believe that when she was alone, she was so anxious.

I finally started getting ready for bed, and Violet took Ann for a walk. Ann said the walk was lovely, and afterwards she took Violet home to wait for Andrew. She wrote Andrew a quick email telling him what a fine time they had and that Violet was tied on the front porch. As we chatted before drifting to sleep, Ann said, “I can understand why people have dogs.”

In this morning’s email was a response from Andrew saying that Violet had broken away from the porch before he got home last night and that when he found her she had been hit by a car and had died.

I am so sad.

When I read Andrew’s email, I thought of a poem Sister Jen wrote when she was in the seventh grade:



The poem made me cry when I saw it on the yellow bathroom counter in 1979, and it makes me ache again today.

Ann and I have both had near-death experiences in our eighteen years together, and each time we survive Ann says, “It was not my (or your) time.”

On a Serengeti safari, when Ann was in the tent by herself, a curious lioness nosed the zipper trying to get to Ann. Our guides raced up in jeeps to save her. “It was not my time,” she said then.

After surviving two brain tumors (and thus using two of my nine lives), I was t-boned by a SUV travelling way too fast, and though I had to be cut from my totaled car, I was remarkably only a little bruised (a third life gone.) “It was not your time,” Ann told me.

This sentiment was more comforting when it was not my time, but I guess last night was Violet’s time. 

Do I believe some micro-managing god or blind goddess of fate planned her death? No, I don’t. It’s simply a fact. It was her time. All of us will die. Each of us will have our time. 

The reflection brings to mind “for whom the bell tolls,” a phrase originally used by John Donne in “Meditation 17”, and later by Hemingway in a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Google tells me that Metallica has a song by that title, too. As Donne wrote:

Each man's death diminishes me,
 For I am involved in mankind.
 Therefore, send not to know 
For whom the bell tolls, 
It tolls for thee.

And I riff:

Each death diminishes me, for I am involved in life. Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.

And further I riff:

Each life enhances mine, for I am of the spirit of life. Therefore, know that all who live and all who came before are with me. I am not alone.

As I write, I think that I am more of the spirit of Walt Whitman than of Donne and Hemingway and Metallica. Listen to the fullness of life at the opening of Song of Myself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

I do not believe that I am in denial, that I will not see that one day I and those I love most will die. I know this. I believe it. And yet, it is life that most embraces me. I more Walt Whitman than John Donne, and in more modern musicians I am more Blues Traveler than Metallica:

Life I embrace you.
I shall honor and disgrace you.
Please forgive if I replace you.
You see I'm going through some pain,
But now I see clearly,
And the dawn is coming nearly,
And though I'm human and it's early,
I swear I'll never forget again.

And this is why I write. Because I have seen my own death and marvel more at my own life, at the power of life around me. The dawn is coming nearly. I’m human, and it’s early. I suspect I’ll forget again.

Life is what it’s all about.

Rest well, dear Violet. Thanks for being part of my life.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Though I was born on Friday the 13th on the 13th floor of the hospital, I’m mostly lucky.  I grew up loved, well taken care of, and well-educated. I started out in the South and landed in Seattle. Ann and I married in a time and place where the state recognizes our marriage.

I’ve survived two brain tumors and continue to live a full life. Sixteen years ago, Ann and I bought a home in a neighborhood we love, though we knew little about it when we made our down payment. My dad started hassling me about investing when I was twelve, so I started saving for retirement early, lucky now that, after my tumors, I’m unemployed. I walked across the steel girders of an unfinished bridge in Michoacan during a lightening storm. I was t-boned in a car accident that might have killed me, but instead I could walk away (once the nice fireman cut me out of my car.)

Last night, Ann and I went with some friends to a new documentary film, Beauty in Truth, about Alice Walker, the amazing writer of The Color Purple. We had great seats—though the film at the Seattle International Film Festival was a sell-out—because the staff intended to save our seats for someone else, but they forgot, and three of us have disabilities so the usher gave up on trying to make us move. And then…AND THEN…the woman introducing the film introduced two special guests for this opening: the film’s director, Pratibha Parmar, and Alice Walker.  Alice Walker!

Ann and I wouldn’t have even known about the film except that our friend Ellen invited us and others. We didn’t know that Alice Walker was going to be there. See what I mean? Lucky. (That we saw this film and that Ellen is our friend.)

Before the film, several of us went out for dinner, and I shared with these friends that I had that day discovered that I have a file at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. In that file was confirmation of last summer’s pre-requisite course (“Biology for Social Workers”) that said I’d passed (whew!), an invitation to an event that I wouldn’t have attended anyway in March, two graded papers from a professor I liked a lot from winter quarter, and some papers that I actually need for now.  Lucky I didn’t need any of that before, and lucky that I’ve found it now.

I read through the extensive comments from my professor. My favorite comment was his last: “You are cool.” A self-avowed geek, I have never been told this by a professor before. In fact, I think my childhood friend Heather is the only other person who has said this to me before.

At dinner my friends and I discussed what “cool” means (only geeks would turn this into a semantic exploration), and we determined that no one at the table was cool. Rose posited that no one over the age of 25 is cool. (Sorry, Dad.)

And then we went to see Beauty in Truth, and Alice Walker in the flesh.

Alice Walker’s had an amazing life, in some ways lucky and in some ways hard. She was the baby in a family of eight children, and her parents were sharecroppers. Born in 1944 (the same year as Ann), she grew up as a poor African American girl in Eatonton, Georgia where the landowner wanted her parents to send their children to the fields, but Walker’s mother sent them to school instead. Lucky Alice.

Walker did well in school and was awarded a scholarship to Spelman College, where her freshman history professor was Howard Zinn, the progressive author of The People’s History of the United States, a man who wisely said, “Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide, and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” So one of her first college teachers was a superstar in his own right. Lucky Alice.

She got involved in the Civil Rights movement, transferred to Sarah Lawrence, spent her junior year studying in Africa, and after graduation registered voters in Georgia and worked for Head Start in Alabama, where she met her husband Mel, a white Jewish guy. They married, and she gave birth to their child, Rebecca. Lucky Alice.

Some may think that her luck ran out when she married the white Jewish guy, and others may think that his luck ran out. Some might think that her luck ran out when they divorced, but she doesn’t see things this way.

She’s had a life-time of lovers—male and female (including the singer Tracy Chapman)—and continued a writing career in which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She has also continued throughout her life to work for justice where she sees injustice. Name almost any social justice movement in her lifetime, and she was there. (She’s just returned from Gaza.)

In all of this, she sees herself as lucky: a childhood in a shack where she focused on the flowers in the yard; a rich education in classrooms and in the streets; a life full of deep love in which she pursues a curiosity of the many ways that love can be lived; tremendous success in her writing; a voice of justice that wields social power.

She’s not been altogether lucky, though. When as a child she and her brother were playing cowboys and Indians, he shot her in the eye with his toy gun, and her right eye went blind. (That explains why this African-American woman has one blue eye). Later in her life, the greatest critics of her Pulitzer-prize winning novel were Black men and women who were offended by her portrayals of Black men and Black families. The stress of their rejection was hard for her.

Now, she does not have contact with her grown daughter Rebecca, so she does not know her grandson, and the estrangement of daughter and grandson clearly pains her. Angry about a childhood with a mother who she says raised her writing more carefully than she raised her child, Rebecca is also a writer and a feminist and a bisexual (though Alice Walker doesn’t attach labels to herself, so she wouldn’t call herself a bisexual.)

Alice Walker lives life on her own terms. In the film and in her responses to questions last night, she seemed confident about the controversial stances she’s taken throughout her life. She seemed tough and unapologetic. She seemed at peace when she talked about hard times.

Now I know who is cool. Alice Walker is cool.