A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Reinventing my life, again

Late to my first writing class, I looked around the table at my fellow students. I was not supposed to be a student: I was supposed to be a teacher, and had been until brain tumors and their treatments induced my disabilities and ended my teaching career.

“What do I do now?” I ask myself. Which is another way of asking, “Who am I now?”

Maybe I’m a writer, so I’m in this class, preparing to finish the memoir that I started seven years ago, with my first brain tumor.

This memoir recounts my story of moving from refusal (not denial) to the decision to reinvent myself (not acceptance). 

“How did I refuse to acknowledge the possibility that something might be really wrong?” you may wonder. I didn’t return my doctor’s increasingly urgent phone calls each day for a week after the CAT scan of my brain. “No news is good news,” some part of me thought. The memoir is about moving from refusing to hear the news to deciding it was time to change my life—or to recognize my life had changed without my input.

An inevitable sequel to that story is in what way to change my life. I haven’t lived that part of the story yet. Right now, I’m living the part where I’m trying to figure out the change.

A couple of months after leaving my education career, I went to the School of Social Work so that I could immediately become a new person. It wasn’t a bad idea. I wanted to become a one-on-one therapist for people with life-changing health conditions, something I had needed and not been able to find. It turned out I can’t do the licensing for being a therapist because the hours required for licensing don’t fit with my fatigue.

So five years and one degree later, I’m trying to figure out how and where to do work that’s meaningful to me and to people who have experienced trauma and health issues (including aging and dementia).

During my unconventional practicum, I led a weekly poetry reading group for elders in an assisted living home. I also led poetry reading and writing with another group of elders with Early Stage Memory Loss (ESML).

Now, in this search for my next adventure, I sometimes lead a writing group for young adults who are homeless. I’m also working with a local woman who is active in the Alzheimer’s community to develop poetry as an element of the Arts for Alzheimer’s program. Next month I’ll begin leading a weekly Heritage Writing class for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people over 50. In December I’ll begin working with a group that does poetry writing in the state’s psychiatric hospital for children. I am raising a puppy.

And I want to finish my darn memoir and weasel my way into Seattle’s reputed writing community.

I guess my next adventure has begun. The search is the adventure. In our first writing class, we responded to three prompts. The second prompt, Write about a time when you didn’t know what to do made me realize that’s my current situation and made me think of one of the first times I didn’t know what to do. So I wrote…

When my dad called me at college, I answered the phone, and he was surprised to hear my voice. (I almost never answered the phone even though this was in the days before caller ID and anyone could have been calling.)

I let the phone ring a few times before answering in order to steady my voice. As soon as I answered, my father asked, “Is something wrong?”

I hesitated but then came out with the truth. “Mack and I had a fight.” (His real name has been changed in order to protect his innocence.)

“What did you fight about?”

I had waded in, so I went on, “He wants to get married, and I don’t.”

Dad cleared his throat and spoke in his most stentorian professorial voice, “Well you know, Mary, sometimes in a relationship you have to make compromises.”

I gasped, perhaps for the first time in my life clear that my father was wrong. “Compromise! Not about marriage!”

I had been waffling about this relationship’s trajectory for years and would waffle several years more. I didn’t know why I couldn’t commit to what seemed like the relationship I had always dreamed of.

Mack was cute, sweet, funny, and bright. He was smart and would head to Harvard Law School and The Harvard Law Review the next year. He came from a fortune 500 family with parents who were gracious and humble about all their money. Like I was, he was politically liberal. He was devoted to me.

Why couldn’t I say yes?

After all, marrying Mack was part of my life’s plan. As a freckle-faced, auburn-haired tomboy growing up on a suburban cul-de-sac in North Carolina, my parents and I had an unspoken plan: I would be a good student and a decent athlete; for college, I would go to my father’s alma mater; I would become a doctor or a lawyer; and I would marry a well-pedigreed doctor or lawyer.

My husband and I would raise our 2.5 children on a suburban cul-de-sac, and these children would be honorable Southern Baptists, like their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents. The children would love our golden retriever. They would be good students and decent athletes. They would attend colleges of their choice. They would be doctors and lawyers and would marry doctors and lawyers: our future showed an infinite line of Southern Baptist doctors and lawyers, children and golden retrievers.

But my life wasn’t going according to plan, and it was my fault. Mack and I would eventually part and marry other spouses. He would have 2.5 children and a golden retriever. My husband and I would divorce, and I would marry a woman. Good golly. Who saw that coming?

My partner Ann and I didn’t make plans that required us to stay together but agreed about how to live each day. We would be as honest with one another as we were with ourselves. Rather than make plans to stay together forever, we made agreements: We would not share wardrobes, like many lesbians we knew. We would maintain individual bank accounts and relationships with friends. Eventually, we would work in different places. We would go to the hospital when she struggled to breathe. We joined a church, bought a house, and saved for retirement; however, much has not gone according to plan—or expectations.

We have confronted so many surprises in our 23 years together. Some have been delightful, some terrifying, some both. As I was coming out, the superintendent of our school district harassed me: not a good surprise, but not terrifying. Ann and I joined a church that honors us as a couple, and with other church members, we traveled to meet our sister community in rural El Salvador: delightful. Ann had a close encounter with a lioness when we were on safari in Tanzania (terrifying), and we hiked to “the roof of the world” in Lalibella, Ethiopia (delightful). Ann learned the Buteyko Method and conquered her asthma. We hiked in the Grand Canyon, slept under stars and bats, and rafted the Colorado River’s turgid waters. I had two brain tumors, neurosurgery, and radiation. Then three eye surgeries. I learned to walk again. I left my 27-year career in education.

Our list of surprises goes on: none of them expected, even as expectations were changing. Now we’re raising a puppy, another delight that’s a gift of Ann’s asthma cure and my unemployment.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is how darn happy, even joyful, I am as my life goes not according to plan. I never could have imagined, nor planned for, such joy.

So who am I now? A searcher. A reinventor. A joyful one.

That’s what my memoir is about: the surprise that living a life not according to plan has been both terrifying and delightful, and ultimately joyful.

Good golly. Who saw that coming?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ring the bells that still can ring

I am not such a terrible puppy-educator after all! Two days ago and again yesterday, our puppy Dosey swiped at the bells hanging from the door handle, and my partner Ann let her out of the house and into the back yard. I've been trying to teach her to do this off and on for weeks, and the day before I just couldn't figure out how to make the leap from the sound of the bells to the opportunity to go outside, but in her rest time, she figured it out. 

I would have done well to get a puppy when I was teaching high school, so I could have applied all that I'm learning to the classroom of human teenagers. In the 17 years I taught high school students, they often mused on the fact that as kindergarten children they were required to take naps even though they didn't want to, and now as teenagers they wanted to nap and were not allowed to. At the time, I laughed and said they had a good point, but I didn't think much more about it. As I think on it now, napping may be a part of our educational system that is missing, along with adequate and varied physical activity, art of all kinds, and healthy foods. 

As a high school Language Arts teacher, I didn't think this way, but now I think of the ways of living that have become gifts to me now that I'm disabled: slowing down, napping daily, writing to discover myself, eating well, and exercising in ways that are not competitive but are fun for me. These are not the habits I learned or taught in schools. 

I taught about diligence and intellectual focus. I required students to be awake, and I organized my classes to keep students busy and learning. Even reflection required diligence: students often wrote reflections on their work, processes, and learning.  Sometimes, I evaluated their self-reflections using a rubric that detailed what I thought they should reflect on. 

I don't think Dosey would have done especially well in my classes, even if she could read and write. I don't think my system would have acknowledged the way that she learns during reflection time and learns from from other puppies in her agility classes. 

I wonder what grade she might give me as her student (because she is clearly training me more effectively than I am training her.) Somehow I suspect her rubric would come from a spirit of grace and forgiveness rather than the task master's idea of excellence. 

This is not the first time that it has occurred to me that my ideas of excellence may not be universal or even desirable. When I was in my twenties, after my second year of teaching, I went with Amigos de las Americas  as a "health volunteer" (building latrines and distributing tooth brushes) to a pueblo in the foothills of the Michoacan jungle in Mexico. I remember digging a latrine in the summer heat one afternoon while able-bodied young men watched. I knew they thought I was a sucker, and I felt like one. After all, I was doing work that they could do.

My best experiences that summer were with the relationships that developed. (I fondly remember SeƱora Alisa Lopez and her cooking lessons: one cup of lard for beans; two cups of lard for refried beans. She also attempted to teach me to cook tortillas, but the group of women and girls assembled laughed good-heartedly at my lumpy, dumpy tortillas and my dainty fingers, too sensitive to turn the hot tortillas over as they cooked on the fire.)

I also remember the teenage girl across the path who lived in a home of sticks with her parents and brothers. (Their family was considered poor even in this poor town.) She showed me how to wash my clothes using a washboard, and when it was clear that I didn't know how, she asked, "Does your mother wash your clothes?"

"No," I explained. "My mother lives a long way away. She would have to take an airplane to my house." This puzzled her. Why, then, did I not know how to wash my clothes? I explained that in my home, we used a washing machine.

Her brown eyes got big then. "Oh! You're rich!"

"No," I said. "Everyone in America uses a machine." Of course, I was wrong on both counts. Everyone in America does not use a machine, and I was--and am--rich. This awareness required some reflection (like Dosey and her bells.)

At summer's end, the fifteen of us who had been scattered through the Michoacan jungle came together to reflect. Each of us was expected to share. I quoted one of my favorite songs: "Slow down. You move too fast. You've got to make the morning last, just, kickin' down the cobblestones. Lookin' for fun and feelin' groovy."  I had learned that summer that getting a lot done was a cultural value, not a universal one. 

After that summer, however, I returned to my culture and to my hurrying way of life, until twenty years later, my first brain tumor taught me the same lesson again. (As I think Annie Dillard said in An American Childhood, I suspect that rather than learning new lessons, I am learning the same lesson over and over....but I can't find this quotation on the innerwebs and An American Childhood on my Kindle hasn't been indexed, so maybe I'm mistaken about the authorship. Too bad. It's one of my favorite quotations from her.)

Maybe I learned this lesson of slowing down from my brain tumor, and maybe I learned it from a classmate who quoted me back to myself: "Anything that slows me down is a gift."

In this new life after brain tumors, I am learning differently, and in this life with disabilities (and in this country that feels so dark right now), I take hope as I sing along with Leonard Cohen: 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That's how the light gets in.

As I sat with Dosey on my lap and listened to multiple versions of Cohen's song, I reflected on these words, and I read his own explanation of the lyrics

That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
– from Diamonds in the Line 

And I read about the metaphor's origin

The line "a crack in everything" seems to come from a book by Jack Kornfield on Buddhism. The story is that a young man who had lost his leg came to a Buddhist monastary thing, and he was extremely angry at life, and always drew these pictures of cracked vases and damaged thing, because he felt damaged. Over time, he found inner peace, and changed his outllook, but still drew broken vases. His master asked him one day: "Why do you still draw a crack in the vases you draw, are you not whole?" And he replied
"Yes, and so are the vases. The crack is how the light gets in" 

I suppose the industrial people, the investors, and the customers might say that a cracked vase doesn't hold water, but they would be talking about utility rather than poetry, and my life is more poetry than utility. I'm coming to like it that way. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Journey: Marvelous Error! To Elusive Truth

Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt—marvelous error—that my little brother was seven years old again, and my partner Ann and I were in our thirties. We were all in a house with a long hallway, and my brother and his friend chased Ann and me down that hallway. As I ran, I unplugged the many pole lamps along the way, and I thought to myself, “I’ll bet whoever invented the pole lamp made a lot of money.” (When I awoke, I looked it up: Z.W. MANN got the U.S. patent on Jan. 8, 1963. I can’t find any information about whether or not he got rich, so presumably he didn’t, but there are lots of pole lamps for sale on the innerwebs, so maybe someone is getting rich.)

But I digress from the dream’s logical trajectory: Just before we reached our room, Ann took a hallway to the left in order to check on the small baby we were caring for, and I ran into our room and slammed the door behind me. When I imagined that my little brother would be coming in the door, I let out a blood-curdling scream to scare him away. Though I was dreaming, the scream was real. Needless to say, I woke Ann, who woke me. I was again 53 and in my own bed; Ann was 73, and presumably Little Brother Matt was still 47. (Fortunately, our puppy Dosey slept on.) I don’t think this dream was a marvelous error, like the ones in the original poem, but it was marvelous that this was an error.

Later in the night, I dreamed—again marvelous that it was an error—that I was in a psychiatric hospital. Though I was glad when I awoke to find myself in my own bed, the experience was a pleasant one. I remembered the dream when I woke, but now this pleasantness is all I remember. (So then there’s the intriguing connection between memory and reality, but that will have to be another entry.)

The night before, I dreamt that my college friend Jenny and I were at a meeting, and Jenny was wearing a green dress with a peacock feather (that I remember mocking at the only debutante ball I ever attended.) I find this error marvelous, but perhaps neither my friend nor the original wearer of the peacock feather would think so.

How can we know what’s real if we can’t tell dreams from reality? (Perhaps this recalls for you, too, Chuang Tzu’s story, which is all over the innerwebs Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things. --As translated by Lin Yutang). This version is from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zhuangzi . A better (and slightly longer) version is at http://www.taoism.net/living/2007/200703.htm

I know this isn’t an original thought, but dreams are so interesting, aren’t they? Is there truth, or are there only shadowy illusions? Do dreams mean many things or nothing? Are they visions (as Keats asks about his experience in “Ode to a Nightingale”) or illusions?

Do you remember these lyrics: “A dream can mean so many things. Something, something, something on angel wings…” I could have sworn the line is from The Muppet Movie’s excellent song, “The Rainbow Connection.”

I was wrong. I found the lyrics to “The Rainbow Connection” (Listen to it, and your heart will lift), but I can’t find the words I’m looking for anywhere…. Egads, here in the Google Age.

Oh. Wait. Maybe the lyrics are from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat….Yes, I feel sure of it. Googled that, too. No luck. (I can’t find the lyrics to “Shadrack, Meshak, Abednigo” either. Puzzling. Everyone knows that song, don’t they?)

New idea. I think the lyrics are from the children’s musical, It’sCool in the Furnace. Though I can find references to this musical, I can find neither the song titles nor the lyrics.

So now I’ll ask the question a different way, How can we know what’s real if we can’t (or can) find it on the innerwebs? I’ve certainly found (and yes, I’m ashamed to say, spread) fake news because I thought it was real. Perhaps this is the conundrum that makes fake news so prevalent these days.

Those of us on the left tend to discount such news consumers as not-so-smart (I believe this is essentially skepticism fallacy), but maybe we on the left need to give them more credit and they’re just philosophers who lean right.

No. To quote Shakespeare’s Lear out of context: “That way lies madness.” I can’t conclude so cynically about truth as that. But how do I untangle myself from this philosophical muddle? What is truth and how do I recognize it? Or is there even such a thing as truth?

I must stop here and sleep because sleep is where I figure most things out. (Though, of course, my sleep is where this whole mess started.)

Okay, it’s been a few days, and I’m back now. Serendipitously (say it five times fast), my friend Pat sent a link to a Today Show interview with lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson is a lawyer who started a legal practice in Montgomery, Alabama, to represent people on Death Row. His excellent book Just Mercy  tells that story.)

Stevenson talks about the things we don’t talk about as Americans, the ways we don’t tell the truth: the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans.
Stevenson points out that we can’t have reconciliation until we have truth, as in South Africa’s Apartheid, Rwanda’s genocide, Germany’s Third Reich, etc.

Stevenson says we as Americans need to learn the truth of our history in order to  be free. I heard a similar call to knowing the truth about my own country in April 2001 from a friend in a Salvadoran town whose older denizens had been traumatized by that country’s Civil War  (the right in that country being amply fundedand too often trained by the U.S. military). As I learned about my own country’s role in El Salvador in those months before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers, I thought about so much that I had not learned in my history classes, and about how dangerous the white lies of omission are.

As is so often the case, I turn to poetry for wisdom, but as much wisdom as I find in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, her poem “Tell all the Truth, but Tell it Slant—“  disturbs me. I believe this habit of not facing our truths has been—and continues to be—dangerous for us in the USA. (For example, when you studied World War II in school—including college—did you learn about the Japanese Internment Camps? I didn’t.)

So what do we do? Some people don’t need to know no more and get right to activism. Bless their work. In my younger years, I have done that, too. However, now I need to know more. I don’t want to act out of ignorance anymore.  I just don’t see anything more important than truth—not truth seen at a slant, but directly.

And to learn, I can’t go to the academicians I’ve always gone to, those who talk about experiences of individuals and peoples different than they, but I need to go to those who have experienced oppression and learn from them.

That arena of activism, the act of listening to peoples’ stories, is much of my work now. It was my most important work as a teacher, too. And as a partner, daughter, sister, friend. But now it’s not an additional thing I do. It’s the center of my work, my faith, my life.

Telling my own story is an important part of this work. And telling my story is no good if no one is listening. So thank you, as always, for listening.