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, October 19, 2016


“I taught special ed students in a junior high school in the Bronx. I was a little crazy, but I loved those kids. One day, a kid came in, angry, and slammed keys down in front of me. ‘What are you crazy Mrs. Pembroke? You left your keys in your car! You can’t do that in this neighborhood!’ He was really angry. I said to him, ‘How’d she drive?’ and he said, ‘Like a charm.” 

May Lynn’s laugh broke into her face, her blue eyes bright behind orange and red reading glasses, her well-worn laugh wrinkles deepening, a delighted mouth wide open, long teeth and all. “I haven’t thought of that story in a long time,” she told me. “I loved those kids, and they knew it.”

Actually, May Lynn told me that story last week. And each week before. No matter. I love hearing it and sharing in her joy each time.

May Lynn is 87 years old, almost 88. She was born on Oct 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed, and she’ll be quick to tell you, “It wasn’t my fault. I may have been the result, but I was not the cause.”

On my favorite days at this assisted living facility, I get to spend time writing with May Lynn. Last week, she wore a purple and blue scarf over her pink shirt. She wore a blue wool sweater to scare away the cold, as elders often do. Before she started writing, she read over what she’d written before. Her writing delighted her.

As she read back over her own writing from our previous sessions together, she sometimes laughed and then read aloud. Once she stopped to sing a song about Anne Boleyn, King Henry’s beheaded wife.  May Lynn’s big green eyes shone jauntily as she sang. She sang the whole song, acting out the lines about how hard it is for Anne Boleyn to blow her nose, because she’s carrying her head in the crook of her arm. May Lynn crooks her arm and widens her eyes as she sings:

Along the draughty corridors,
For miles and miles she goes.
She often catches cold, poor thing,
It's cold there when it blows.
And it's awfully awkward for the Queen,
To have to blow her nose,
With her head tucked underneath her arm.

“I don’t know why I remember that song,” she said, “but I think it’s funny.” Then May Lynn rummaged under the seat on her walker, found a kleenex, and blew her nose.

May Lynn is funny, amusing in an intellectual way, and she believes God has a sense of humor, too. “Look at me!” she said by way of explanation. And then, as if I needed more evidence, she said, “Look at you!”

She and I have had our losses, but we love to laugh. We believe in a God with a sense of humor and delight. And we tend to walk on the sunny side of the street, she using her walker and me with my cane.

Though she walks on the sunny side of the street, she’s not all giggles. Often she’s philosophical about life, her life, the nature of God, and the importance of forgiveness.

She continued reading. “Oh, I must change this date,” she said about the date on writing from earlier this month.

“No,” I told her. “That’s right. That was the date the last time we wrote together. That’s different than today.”

She looked at me hard. She hunched over her writing. Her eyes were wide and un-blinking; then they narrowed. I could tell she was trying to decide whether or not to believe me. Finally, she nodded, left the date as it was, and continued reading.

Sometimes she looked up and was able to continue because she knew much of what was written. “Forgiveness” is her mantra. “It is the end of separation between you and me.” Sometimes she read the word “crap” amongst her philosophizing, and she always stopped and laughed.

At one point, she said she wanted to know about me: “I’m asking you to ask Jesus what he wants you to do and to share it with me. That’s communication. That’s important.”

I told her I preferred to listen rather than to talk, so she nodded and continued. I asked her what she believed. She continued reading aloud.

“I am only here to be truly helpful, to represent the one who sent me and to do what he or she or it or whatever sent me to do....I am here to represent he who sent me. That’s poor grammar. I’ve got to fix that. It should be him. Him includes her. I don’t like the ‘him’ but that’s out of my hands.” For a few moments, May Lynn works quietly, correcting the things she’s written. She began reading aloud again, in a hushed voice, trying to make sense of my handwriting from a day when she talked and I did the writing.

“What does this mean? She asked me. ‘Waiting for "Harrigan"?

“Oh,” I said. I remembered the allusion to Waiting for Godot that amused us both but decided not to bring it up. “That was the day you were trying to remember a song where the name was spelled out, and it finally came to you: Harrigan.”

She nodded and began to sing: “H, A, double-R, I, G, A, N spells Harrigan. Harrigan.

She finished the song, laughed and then continued reading.

“What is your most strongly held belief? I believe there is one God, a he she or it, but not a they." She looked up over her glass and explained," A board of gods is like the board at a company that’s gone bankrupt. Somebody said that. God is the spin of the world, the light of the stars…God is whatever is…" She looked up as she thought about it, "observable, no…visible, no… just is.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living…I don’t remember who said that, but it’s a good mantra. Suppose I were an earthworm, burrowing in the mud for pleasure like I did as a kid. …”

May Lynn’s thoughts went on until my phone’s alarm told me that it was time to go for the day. A caregiver in a blue polo and kaki pants stopped to greet her. “Madeline, “ the caregiver said.

May Lynn had told me previously the story of her name. Her mom had intended to name her “May Lynn” but her mom was drugged after giving birth, and the doctor misunderstood her mom’s slurred speech, recording her name on her birth certificate as “Madeline.” May Lynn kept the official name “Madeline” and now invites those she trusts to call her May Lynn. Quite clever for someone with memory loss: she knows whom she trusts.

More than a year ago, the day I met May Lynn, we were doing a memory activity where she read a poem aloud. We both loved the poem and talked about it. At the end of our session, she had planned to go to a lecture but instead went outside to enjoy the lovely moment we’d just had. As she left, she said to me, “Call me, May Lynn.”


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Big Questions Series

I’m atypical. I have lots of proof: 1) When I first took the Stanford-Binet personality test, I scored in a group that’s only 1% of the population. 2) When I took the test after my brain tumors, I was a different personality: the other one that’s only 1% of the population. 3) Once at a staff meeting in a high school where I was teaching, we took a test that was supposed to illustrate our meeting style: there was North (the people who like to plunge in and get things done), the West  (the people interested in the process and getting things done, the who what when where group), the South (the people who like to know that everyone’s feelings have been taken into consideration and that their voices have been heard before acting—this was the only category in which I scored zero—that might be different now). And then there’s the East, which is what I was. These are the people who like to speculate, to look at all options before deciding, who like to think about the big picture. Yep. That’s me. When the principal had us move into corners in accordance with our direction, I was the only faculty member in the East. (Though another teacher joined me, he was actually a South who felt bad for me that I was the only faculty member in my group.) 4) At a church retreat a couple of years ago, in a survey intended to indicate what kind of Christian we were, I was the only one at the retreat who was “mystical.” 5) And as a teenager in my North Carolina American History class, I shocked the class and myself when a survey of beliefs concluded that I was liberal. 6) I’ve had brain tumors.

The evidence is ample and consistent, and it doesn’t end there. I’m just not normal. I don’t see this as negative. Just true. And maybe even positive.

So recently, when a group from my church gathered to discuss spirituality in the church, I was surprised by how consistent this group’s thoughts and experiences were with my own.

We all love our church: our inclusive community and our activism. And we are all looking for more spiritual grounding in our church.

Before and after the group’s discussion, I imagined what structure might encourage spiritual exploration and devised the bare outlines of a possible plan. I wonder if the “normies” will find this focus on unanswerable questionsinteresting. (A friend of mine who’s a recovering alcoholic introduced me to this term that his AA friends use for people who do drink alcohol but not at a dangerous clip. “Normies” for example, may leave a table with a bit of wine left in their glass. According to my friend, an alcoholic would never do that.)

When I was facilitating trainings with teachers, I once posed an unanswerable question to a group of teachers, and they dutifully explored. When I didn't provide the right answer at the end (this has not occurred to me, as there clearly was not a right answer), a high school social studies teacher asked me, "Wait. What's the right answer?)

"There is no right answer," I told him."Don't you think the unanswerable questions are the most interesting ones?"

I intended the question to be rhetorical, but he answered: "No."

I suspect we were on opposite ends of the bell curve of questioners. I don’t know where on the bell curve of questioners you reside, but I’d love to know if you think this sounds interesting:

Big Questions Series:

Where Do We Come From?
·      How do I understand creation of the earth and of me. Why and how did the earth and I come to be?

What Are We?
·      What is my purpose in this life?
·      What is our social/communal purpose?
·      What is my individual purpose?
·      What is my relationship to the past, present and future?
·      What is my understanding of good and evil?
·      What is the soul? (Nikki, from my church, proposed this question. I think it’s a good one.)

Where Are We Going?
·      What do I believe and feel about death?
·      What do I believe and feel about loss (from life’s circumstances; physical, mental or emotional health; death or loss of those I love?)
·      What do I believe and feel about those who have died?

Directions for the Compass points exercise are at http://schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/compass_points.pdf

Italicized questions in the Big Questions series come from http://spiral.uic.edu/sites/Projects/P016/BigQuestions.pdf

Possible Adult Education Structure:
Week one
Opening prayer (2 min)
Question with time to write/reflect (10 min)
Short Biblical reading (2 min)
Closing prayer

Structure: Week two
Opening prayer (2 min)
Question with time to write/reflect (10 min)
Short poem or prose from spiritual writers
Closing prayer

When Ann came home for lunch today and asked what I’d been up to this morning, I said, “Thinking.” Ann nodded. This is normal for me.