What They Don’t Tell You about Working in Special Collections

They tell you that you’ll stamp your yellowing time card every day, in and out, in the coatroom. What they don’t tell you is that when the powers that be decide the university needs a grand reading room and totally renovate the space without care for the function of the library itself, the area of this coatroom will be expanded and replaced by a locker room and three bathrooms. The bathrooms will all be down this hallway, and when the toilets are flushed the timing almost always works out such that the door opens for the entire gallery space and reader services desk to get an earful of the toilets. They don’t tell you that the librarian on duty one day will send you to flush the toilet when the people in charge of the project come through so that they might understand how their quiet but echoing gallery space is often overwhelmed by these sounds. You will giggle and run off to oblige. The hand dryers that sound like airplanes taking off will be removed, but the toilets cannot be muffled and the layout has already been decided. Perhaps someday that hallway will get a door.

They tell you that the library houses a multitude of collections, that the RANDOM category of call numbers could mean anything. There is a human skull in a glass bell-jar beside the occult section that flickers under the buzzing green fluorescent lights and is unfortunately in the vicinity of a humidifier that sounds like human breathing. You will learn that humming as you page something in these rows makes the experience a little less frightening. Just a little. You will reprise the song you sang as a child when ducking past the bee’s nest by your back door. They won’t tell you that the antechamber to the magic collection room is pitch black and that the light switch is around the long file cabinets and across the room from the elevator. You will learn to always have your phone flashlight on when you leave the elevator on this floor, but you will still run to the switch to turn it on before the elevator doors close. You will feel a little silly when you call the elevator back and run to the switch to turn it off when the elevator opens. Well, you will feel silly only when the doors open and another person is in the elevator, wondering why you are still across the room from them. “It gets so dark in here,” you’ll mutter through a nervous laugh.  

They will tell you that you will find some incredible works in the stacks, particularly as one of the few with card access to this closed-stack library. They won’t be able to capture in words the awe you will feel holding pamphlets from the time of the Stamp Act, a first manuscript page of “O Captain, My Captain,” or fifteenth century publications of Dante’s Divine Comedy. They don’t tell you that you’ll touch these pieces, works that people cannot even ask to be paged and read in the reading room, as you are asked to take down a display or as a librarian pulls you aside to look. They’ll know you well enough to make sure to include you in the moment when something particularly fascinating passes over the desk. They’ll show you the Audubon, double elephant-sized pages with their vibrant and precise paintings of the birds of America spread out nearly as long as you are tall, but they won’t be able to tell you how you’ll feel a special connection to each book you read that mentions Audubons from then on. They don’t tell you the architect will decide there’s no room for the glass case in the lobby anymore and that the book will be locked away.

They tell you that you’ll probably get lost in the stacks. To call the front desk if you ever get stuck between doors. That is, if your phone is still getting a signal. They will joke about giving you a ball of twine for your first few weeks. They will be serious when they say someone will come looking for you if you’ve been gone in the stacks a little too long. They don’t tell you that you’ll spend your last year and a half searching those stacks for the memories you shared with your coworker, giggling and complaining about the patron who seemed to want to page the entirety of the poetry collection in one go. This will be your strongest image of her, alternating between squinting to read out the call numbers in the half-light of the sub-levels and dramatically rolling around on the cement and clouded glass floors. They don’t tell you that this young woman you start working with when the two of you are first years will not be there with you at the end of it all. They don’t tell you that the library is the first place you’ll run when you get the school-wide email in your introduction to international politics lecture. That you’ll key down to the copy room-slash-office and stand, stunned, in front of the only librarian down there at the time. His wife died the year before and you visited his cubicle before and after to talk, left him a card when you heard. You will speak briefly, share a moment of human bewilderment, hug, and leave again, aimless and lightheaded. They don’t tell you that you’ll be the one the librarians ask what happened to her, that you’ll be the bearer of bad news, that you’ll cry with the head of reader services at the small circle gathering the campus chaplain holds. How could they? They don’t know yet either.

What they don’t tell you is that the staff will become your community. The reprieve from the overwhelming 18- to 22-year-old energy of the rest of campus. That the prickly and bitingly sarcastic archivist will take a liking to you. The head of reader services will tell you this archivist is always happy when he’s on desk duty with you. They don’t tell you that you’ll need to step in a couple times when he is about to verbally disembowel the student who invariably comes in asking where he should put his hoverboard, if we can watch his electronic skateboard, if he can order food to the library. It’s a different person every time, but the look on the archivist’s face is the same. You’ll step in to politely manage the situation and hurry the student out of hearing distance before returning to the archivist. “What the fuck,” he’ll say, aghast, and the two of you will roll your eyes and laugh. Conversely, they don’t tell you that the gentle and quiet librarian who folds origami on his breaks and has a soft spot for strays will stand up for you fiercely when a pushy academic man with a white moustache and an overblown ego starts ordering you around. This librarian will tell you afterwards that you don’t have to put up with that sort of behavior, that it isn’t yours or anyone’s job to do so.

They don’t tell you how much you’ll laugh, that the librarians will always swear more than the college students, proper and composed at their first job. You will graduate and a year later have lunch with the librarian you were closest to. Over burrito bowls she will slip you a graduation card to open later. You will realize that the connections you developed there mean something, that, even though they couldn’t possibly have told you this at the beginning, you would consider this experience to have given you some of your warmest memories from these four years. You will know that it’s no coincidence you have been drawn back to libraries time and again during your life, and you will start to believe that there might yet be a path for you in this work.  

Well at least, that is, they didn’t tell me.


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What They Don’t Tell You about Hitchhiking

They’ll usually mention the beautiful places that you’ll see. The foggy forests, and seas of sand. The feeling of jumping out of a semi cab blocks away from the ocean, running straight there, pulling your clothes off and diving into a wave, feeling the freedom of infinite possibility.


They’ll tell about the kindness of strangers. The kinship with other travelers. How every day is new.


But they’ll skim past the times when the driver “can’t take ya any further,” and drops you on the freeway in the pouring rain. They certainly won’t mention that you’ll stand on the side of that freeway underneath your tarp trying to catch a ride for 5 hours until you decide to sleep under an overpass on a ledge coated with pigeon grime. They won’t tell you about the way your head warbles well into the next day because of the deafening sound of cars screaming by at 80 MPH.


You’ll hear about the fascinating characters.

The way that some people will spill themselves to you, simply because you’re a stranger who they’ll be in close quarters with for 10 hours and then never see again. You’ll hear about the folks with eye patches who tell you about the time they hitchhiked to Panama, or the ones who had mothers who never turned down a hitchhiker, would even take them home and set a place for them at the family dinner, and how they now carry out their mother’s tradition.

You’ll hear about the chicken salad that those sons feed you.

You’ll even hear about the ones who lift the center console so that you know they have a gun.


What you won’t hear about, are the people who for reasons you could never describe, chill you to the bones.

The ones who make you want to be in your mom’s arms.

Who you would lie to about where you’re going to get out the ride if you hadn’t just waited on the exit of a casino for 10 hours in a blizzard.

The ones that make you glad to be a male.


They’ll make sure that you know there were tough times-

but fear that if they tell you the full extent of it, you’ll know that it wasn’t a grand adventure at all-

 that they were just running away from themselves.

They won’t mention how exhausting it is to never sleep for than two hours at a time, often wet and cold on concrete somewhere unsafe and uncertain.

They might tell you the funny story about the time they couldn’t find anywhere to sleep in LA so they climbed a tree on the sidewalk, pitched a hammock in the crown, and accidentally dropped a bottle of pee on a passing pedestrian.

 They won’t tell you what it is like to be woken up by the police every other night.

The way all police officers drop the same one liner, “you sure get around,” when they run your ID and see that it has been run every other night for 3 weeks.


They won’t tell you about how you shake, half from hypothermia, half from the scene that plays repeatedly in your head after watching your friend jump off a train, losing a tooth, splitting her head open, and breaking three bones.

They won’t tell you about the ache of loneliness when you’re sitting under your sleeping bag on a sidewalk and everyone speeds up and looks away as they pass you.


They won’t tell you about the hate that you receive for being dirty.

They won’t tell you how the grime is inescapable. How it makes you feel like a different person.

Or how much it hurts when you realized how much you took showers, and warm beds, and mothers for granted.


They don’t tell you about the fear you get when the broken, zombified homeless men see you and reminisce on their days of traveling. How all at once you’ll want to go home and clean up and never travel again.

They don’t tell you how boring it is, waiting for a ride.

How exhausting it is, reading faces of disdain all day, and trying to wear a smile, especially when you’re prone to melancholy and don’t smile for the sake of smiling.

Or how hard it is to talk to a stranger you don’t click with for 12 hours.

How much you want to open your eyes because you know the sun is rising over a beautiful mountainous panorama, but the guy driving will keep blabbering if you don’t pretend to sleep.


They don’t tell you about the track marks and rib cages.

That they’re all just too afraid to go back home. Or don’t have a home.



This piece was written by Adison Smith when he was a student in my Creative Nonfiction course during the fall of 2019. He also performed this piece at Duluth’s monthly community storyshare event, Gag Me with a Spoon. I so appreciate his willingness to let me share his talent. Thanks, Adison.

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Favorite Stuff of 2019

Ukraine. Wanting to use the remaining allowed “out of country” days during the last weeks of my Fulbright term, I rang in 2019 in Kyiv, visiting on January 1st the incredibly moving Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), wandering the city’s churches, snagging a taxi to a folk park, and taking a painting lesson in the decorative Petrykivka style — before hopping a train to the lovely city of Lviv for another handful of days. What I saw of Ukraine during those days of solo travel made me want more time there; it’s a scrappy, corrupt, charming, complicated place. We recognized in each other some mutual traits.


Belarusian women. As the clock ticked down on my time in Belarus, I was reminded again and again how welcoming and kind the people of Polotsk are. From the day arrived to the day I left, the women (English teachers, university staff, students far and wide, exercise buddies) embraced me — “You can call any time!” “Let me know how I can help you!” “We are so lucky to have you here!” — in a way I haven’t always experienced in the States. The five months in Belarus provided a fundamental internal reset that I’m trying to carry forward.


Belarusian street fashion. Picture whiny blondes in plaid pajama pants pushing carts at Walmart, and feel the shame. Belarusians understand the impression imparted by and self-esteem that comes from making an effort with appearance. (HI DO I SOUND LIKE A BOOMER I THINK I MIGHT SOUND LIKE A BOOMER) All I know is my neck got sore from the head swiveling as I ogled coats and boots.


The wooden houses in Polotsk. Yes, I know you’ve seen them. I know you’re over my Belarus time already. But, jeezus Colton, could you relax for a half-sec, raise your head from your joy stick, and let your soul smile at the picturesque?

Everyone who’s been to Eastern Europe now wants to ask knowledgeably, “Is that a Lada?”


The dramatic farewell enacted by the mural on my Polotsk apartment ceiling. The mural was sad, see. ‘CAUSE SAD ANGEL.

A singular relationship


Leaving something behind. The lending library so many of my U.S. friends and family helped to start in the Language Center at Polotsk State University moves heart to throat every time I think of English language learners having a heap of books to choose from.

More books have been sent since. And more books can still be sent. *cough cough*


Coming home. Belarus was intense. I was broken up about leaving the lovely people yet so glad to be home. For about five weeks, I dipped my head over jigsaw puzzles and stayed in the house, exhausted from So Much, but then, slowly: I rejoined the world.


My pal Christa. I’d never met her before 2019. But a mutual friend connected us online when I was in Belarus, so the friendship germinated through messages; we’d been going to the same yoga class for years but never spoken. It was only this year I found out her nickname for me and Byron in the class has long been “puppies under the blanket.” Tip to toes, Christa is a peach. She feels like a friend I’ve loved for decades. We read the same books, we do exercise classes together, we message constantly, and few sounds are sweeter than her big, dumb laugh. As life goes on, it gets harder and harder to find new Friends of the Heart, but Christa effortlessly became one.


Salon joy. Getting my hair cut has never been my favorite thing — egad, can I please just read this magazine and not have to make small talk? can we please just get this over with? do you actually feel good about sending me home looking like this? Ah, but then I started going to Adeline a few years ago, and since then, visits to her charming salon make me feel like I’m a character in a Netflix series named Shags — during Season One, Adeline dances wildly to Lizzo, hosts pop-up events, organizes community action, masters razor cuts, and mentors up-and-coming stylists, all while her trusty assistant, Kristina, keeps a lid on the place while wearing fierce earrings.


Statement earrings made by creatives. A side benefit of Adeline’s salon is the earring bar conveniently located on a glass case by the check out. The wild and joyous earrings I saw there introduced a slew of local and regional artists who are pushing back against the dull mindlessness of mass fabrication every time they cut-pound-squeeze an idea onto a stud or a loop. And now I’m on a constant hunt for jocund jewelry.

Working a Pledge Drive. This is my seventh year on the Board of Directors for the public tv station in Duluth, the year when they looked at me and thought, much as they would of war, “Jocelyn, huh, good god, y’all. What is she good for?” The answer to this question involved a screen test followed by a bunch of hours in which I asked for money in exchange for cookbooks. I was super nervous. And, as is usually the case when I do the thing I’m nervous about, it was super fun. Sidenote: teleprompters aren’t for the faint of heart. WHAT’S THE NEXT WORD I CAN’T SEE THE NEXT WORD IS IT DONATE MAYBE IT’S GALLIVANT

Had I been stationed on the kitchen set while on air, I’da made you a Julia Child omelet for a one-time five-dollar donation

DON’T…WHAT???


Instagram Stories. While my favorite multi-segment video Stories of the year revolved around the diaries of my great-great-grandmother, Minerva, and those of her eldest daughter, Ella, there’s also good fun in recreating the dynamics of a Spin class. Especially if there are oranges in the house.

That’s me, the ginger in the egg cup hiding in the back row

Minverva Baker Haddock gave birth to ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Her diaries are mostly about “doing the work up fine”


Gin’s ashes. Virginia Claire Larsen died in May of 2018, and when her ashes were returned some months later to her widow, Kirsten invited me to accompany her to Europe to scatter bits of our beloved in certain spots Gin had treasured. Beyond that, we also tossed her hither and thither — in the corner of a hundreds-of-years-old pub, in the cellar of a monastery, off the side of a bridge. With the bulk of her well interred or swirling in the wind, we finished The Distribution of Virginia in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague, a place that seemed fitting, given her interest in learning Yiddish (she took classes) and the deeply important relationship she had throughout her life with a Jewish couple who’d escaped death during WWII.

The afternoon light was soft when we dribbled Gin from a Ziploc onto a gravestone, dumped a bit of her in the dirt, poured the dust of her onto a fountain shelf. When the bag was empty, the world around us muffled, and up she floated, bits of her becoming circling motes in a patch of sunlight. Lazily, hanging over the cemetery, she drifted toward the sky.


Speaking to crowds. I know it seems odd, given that I’m in my 29th year as a teacher, but I do not enjoy talking in front of an assembled group. The prospect of it makes me cold-handed and anxious, even sick. Yet opportunities for public speaking keep cropping up, and I keep saying yes, so on some level, I guess I get something from the process of worrying, planning, and presenting. Even more, I feel the like an important part of aging well is continuing to tackle challenges, which is part of why I say yes when my brain is screaming no.

I’m very glad I said yes to Adeline one day when she was making magic with my hair; she’d asked me to participate in her monthly community storyshare event, Gag Me with a Spoon. Before the year was over, I’d gotten on that stage three times, once in a dual performance with pal Christa (We told menstruation stories, and I’m still haunted by the image of a well-used tampon as a dead mouse, so thanks for that, Lawler), feeling more confident each time. I also was asked to be on a panel about “Life’s Curveballs” at my college reunion to talk about the Belarus experience; then a month later, I sat on another panel, this one in front of hundreds of outgoing Fulbrighters at their pre-departure orientation in Kansas, to speak about health and wellness while abroad (“Pack some taco seasoning packets for a special dinner on the dark days,” I counseled).

Each time I’ve hoisted my shaking frame in front of all those eyes, I’ve had to dig deep, square my shoulders, and remind myself: You got this, Jocey. The worst thing that can happen is you act a fool or they hate you. And, girl, you’ve already felt both those things in life and managed to carry on. So open your mouth and let something come out. It might surprise you.


Students. This fall, there were these two firefighting students in my night class, one guy always bringing his rope and giving impromptu lessons in knot-tying to the other. At one point, the knotty guy pulled a classmate across the floor in a demonstration of how a body can be removed from a crisis scene. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp class.

In the same class, a mother of two told me she had to miss one evening to attend a holiday gala at a fancy mansion. I told her she’d be forgiven if she sent me pictures of herself all gussied up. She obliged. Except she forgot to send a photo of the shoes she wore. We came to an agreement: if she wore the shoes during the final exam, all would be well. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp student.

Then there’s the fact that a brand-new class I’d prepared, Creative Nonfiction Writing, had low enrollment and was in danger of cancellation. In a last-ditch effort, I posted a plea for students on Facebook. After more than 100 comments, some realities shook out: ten people, not community college students but, rather, friends from my college years, co-workers of those friends, a former Belarus Fulbrighter, a friend from Byron’s years at Wolf Ridge, and even parents of friends, signed up for the course. The numbers were good enough to save the class. That in itself made my heart swoop. But then the actual class happened.

Week after week, the mix of ages and backgrounds created a dynamic like I’d never seen before. For the standard, degree-seeking community college students in the class, there may have been a few weeks of “What the hell?” as they looked at the writing and work habits of those a bit more — ahem — advanced in life. I venture to say their learning experience was boosted as they realized a world exists where the instructions “write 100 words minimum” simultaneously means “you can write 3,000 words if you want.” The mash-up of people in the class yielded something rare and special in terms of the trust and safety we all felt with each other. As the writers mined their life experiences, I was inspired. In one case, after reading the story of a 77-year-old student’s childhood in International Falls, Minnesota, and how she regularly walked across the border into Canada for all sorts of goods and services not available in her own town, I decided I wanted to do that, too. So, one brisk November evening while in International Falls for other work-related business, I did it. I walked across an international border. And on the way back, I carried a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts for several miles, declaring them at the border as I re-entered the U.S.

One particular student registered for the class a few days before the start of the semester after I’d happened upon him, a worker in the campus’ new greenhouse, when out for a walk with a colleague. This worker and I talked for a few minutes about the college’s Eco-Entrepreneurship Program before he asked me about my teaching. In no time, I was giving him a hard sell on the Creative Nonfiction class. By the end of that day, he’d dropped a course he needed for his major and enrolled in the CNF class. This young man, Adison, is an extraordinary person and an equally fine writer (in future weeks, I’ll be featuring some of his and his classmates’ writing on this blog!). When, part way through the semester, I messaged him to ask if he’d ever consider sharing something he’d written for class at Gag Me with a Spoon, he was open to the idea.

The night when he stepped onto the stage and read his piece “What They Don’t Tell You about Hitchhiking” was special in a lot of ways. Most of all, for me, it was a crowning moment from The Little Class That Could — the class that could survive cancellation, pull together a diverse group of randoms, and ask them to commit to the process of putting their lives into words. That class was the best teaching experience of my career.


Fluevogs. When you wear great shoes, you gotta get the photo. There in the tub, I “did the work up fine.”

Relatedly, a student blew my heart open when she wrote — in her comparison/contrast essay about her English teacher versus Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus series! — “Jocelyn’s clothes are a perfect yin yang balance of tweed style mixed with surrealism.”


Books. I read ’em. I love ’em. Very rarely, though, do I give out 4- or 5-star ratings on my Goodreads. Here are some that made that cut this year.


The lake. My feelings about Duluth and Lake Superior are ripening with each year we live here. Every single time I clap eyes on that massive expanse of water edging the city, I have to stop for a second and breathe in the g.d. majesty of it.

Byron and I had a great time walking home from downtown on the frozen lake

In the summer, I chase Himself around while he swims

THIS IS MY CAFTAN AND IT DESERVES A GREAT BACKDROP

Hey, Slick. Didn’t see ya lounging there

When I picked Paco up at 11 p.m. after a McDonald’s shift, he asked if we could drive down to the beach to look at the moon. No, you can’t have him


90-Day Fiance. It’s a regular thing for me to become addicted to crap, but the fact that Byron is, inexplicably, all in on the nonsense of this tv franchise has been a huge delight in recent months. Now, when I exclaim things like “The shitshow that is today reminds me of when Darcey arrived in Amsterdam and got her Louboutin heel stuck in the escalator at the airport,” Byron understands the reference. A show about idiots desperate for ill-advised marriage has brought a greater level of percipience to my own.


Reunion. How to convey the lasting effects of the best choice I’ve ever made? (…save for ending up with the aforementioned 90-Day Fiance watcher — and that didn’t feel like a choice so much as an easy trust fall into yes.) Let’s try this: Starting in my junior year of high school, all these colleges kept mailing flyers and brochures, somehow having discerned that they were the places I should want to be once I graduated from high school. Because it felt wrong to toss potential into the garbage, I kept all those mailings, shoving them into a shoe box that I kept in the basement by the tv that brought me Sting singing “King of Pain.” At the same time the shoe box was getting heavy, I was obsessed with Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook and thus strongly favoring college applications to East Coast colleges where I might learn to wear headbands and plaid like a native. Alternately, I toyed with the idea of a West Coast college, where I could try “smoking grass” amongst ferns and loaves of sourdough bread. But then, as a kind of compromise, a third option gained traction: what if I applied to this one college that was still far enough away — roughly a thousand miles — yet somehow close enough? What if I sent in an Early Decision application to “the Harvard of the Midwest”?

And so I did. The rest would wrongly be dismissed as history — since the experience of that place exhales a daily, very alive, breath even yet. The way that I think, the values I hold, the people I treasure — all came from a semi-random decision to attend Carleton College.

My class had its 30th Reunion this summer, and as we all put feet on those grounds that absorbed our stomps toward adulthood, I felt more myself than I do anywhere else in life.

Plus, I got to follow my daughter around for a bit while she, a student worker, someone who applied Early Decision to a place that felt like Home, counted heads on an architecture tour.


This painting. Out of nowhere, it showed up in the mail one day. It was from my friend Tim, who also happens to be my favorite artist. What the…??? I was tipsy with excitement, flattered to my follicles. Later, Tim explained that he’d been thinking about our college reunion and the various people who’ve populated that place. Although much attention is given to the “big names” who graduated or taught there, he decided it would be more meaningful to celebrate someone who’s a mother and a teacher and a smiler — someone lesser known who still embodies plenty of admirable traits.

Hey, you guys? I love Tim.

Hi, my name is Joceypants. But you can call me Ms. Frizzle


Puzzles. There’s that thing about challenging the aging brain. There’s also a thing about how working on a puzzle transforms head space into a calm, abstracted place of focus. When I am working on a puzzle, I am engaged in a deep, intimate relationship with shapes and images — a necessary break from words and people.


The Tommie Twilight 5K. In high school, our girl didn’t particularly like track. She’s a cross-country runner at heart. But now, in college, she’s enjoying track more. Last spring, she had a really good race one week, setting a new personal record for herself. And then. The next week, she raced the 5K again — and whittled almost a minute off her time from the previous week. When a quiet person beams, it’s like a shout. After the race, her face was shouting. Even more, I’m so glad my friend Mary Beth came to watch the race with me that night; she saved me from crying on a stranger’s shoulder when Our Fierce Leggy rocketed over the finish line.


Y peeps. There’s a place I go lots of days, and it’s a place that keeps me steady and sane. There are regulars, and there are drop-ins, and through it all, there is something like community, in this place where we’re all just after being our best selves, a place where we never have to go to meetings or worry about whispers in the hall. That place is the YMCA, and I’m ever so glad I’m a Young Christian Man.


Internet. Thank you, Al Gore. Your invention makes me laugh on the daily.


Teens in the kitchen. They are smart, quick, funny, and kind. I love teens. I love them better when they’re in our kitchen.

Sis and her brownie spoon will Tell. You. About. It.

Not a nubbin of pasta left after the crew of, uhhhh, seven boys finished the dinner they’d made

There’s only Bisquick in our house when an animated flipper brings it over


Live music. Concert attendance took a hit when the kids were little, but Byron and I are gradually re-entering the world known as “going places and doing things.” Fortunately, we both love standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans, ears blasted by noise and energy and a reminder that notes flying through the air belong to everybody. They equalize and unite.

Try on this description from Fifth Element about the roots of Dem Atlas’ music, for example:

Growing up in a dysfunctional home in Minneapolis, there were two things Joshua Turner turned to for comfort when his parents fought: the records he’d listen to on a loop to drown out their conflict and the atlas he’d pore over to pretend he was anywhere else. Turner’s all grown up now, but his sources of childhood refuge continue to play an integral role in his life. In his spare time he draws maps for fun, and, under the name deM atlaS, he’s composing his emotionally complex hip-hop records aimed at listeners who are in need of some sonic solace of their own.

Even more, I had a great time in the bathroom at the Bad Bad Hats show, counseling a drunk college student about why her new boyfriend couldn’t possibly have pangs for his ex. As a rule, I do some of my best work with drunks in bathrooms. Just ask my students.


Teens at the potluck. The challenge for our annual potluck this summer was to make a dish that, as of the reading of the invitation, the attendee had never before heard of. For Byron and me, that sounded like great fun, but the reality was that some folks struggled with the “make something you don’t know exists” angle. You know who rep-re-sent-ed, though? Paco’s crew (See: teens in the kitchen). To a one, those teenagers came up with delicious, inspired entries. Paco’s buddy Trenton is interested in a career in the food world; he brought gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce, and I was delighted to teach him how to pronounce the main ingredients in his dish as he sat at the registration table, riddling out the spellings and accompanying story. Then there’s Mason, a kid who’d never heard of beignets before but made them and made them WELL.

So, y’know, kudos to the adults who entered excellent dishes. But YEEEEEEET to the teens.


The Anthropecene Reviewed. This podcast’s tagline reads “John Green reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale,” and while that’s exactly what the show is about, it’s eversomuch more, too. Listen, I’ve never read any of John Green’s books, nor do I particularly want to, but, glory, he does some gorgeous writing for this program as he reviews everything from the QWERTY keyboard to the breakfast menu at Taco Bell to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. His review of Sycamore trees took me to tears.

What I hope to do in the future is echo Green’s example from this podcast — his mixture of history, analysis, heart — by constructing a sort of “review” assignment for my freshman composition classes. I’m not sure I can take another ten years of teaching a standard comparison/contrast essay — but I surely can stand to read students’ assessments, on a five-star scale, of things like Rock, Paper, Scissors and penalty shootouts.

Here, please enjoy the closing paragraphs of John Green’s review of sunsets.

My dog died last year, but one of my great memories of him is playing in the front yard of our first house at dusk.

He was a puppy then, and in the early evenings he would always come down with a case of the zoomies. He’d run in delighted circles around us, yipping and jumping at nothing in particular, and then after a while, he’d get tired, and he’d run over to me, and he’d lie down. And then he would do something absolutely extraordinary—he would roll over onto his back, and present his soft belly. I always marveled at the courage of that, his ability to be so absolutely vulnerable to us, to offer us the place that ribs don’t protect, and trust that we weren’t going to bite or stab him. It’s hard to trust the world like that, to show it your belly. 

I don’t know exactly how to describe this, but there’s something deep within me, something intensely fragile, that is terrified of turning itself to the world. Maybe it feels like loving the beauty that surrounds us somehow disrespects the many horrors that also surround us. Or maybe I’m just scared that if I show the world my belly, it will devour me. And so I wear the armor of cynicism, and hide behind the great walls of irony, and only glimpse beauty with my back turned to it, through the Claude Glass. 

But I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing. The photographer Alec Soth has said, “To me, the most beautiful thing is vulnerability,” and I would go a step further and argue that you cannot see the beauty which is enough unless you make yourself vulnerable to it. 

And so I try to turn toward that scattered light, belly out, and I tell myself: This doesn’t look like a picture. And it doesn’t look like a God. It is a sunset, and it is wildly beautiful, and this whole thing you’ve been doing where almost nothing gets five stars because almost nothing is perfect? That’s b.s. So much is perfect. Starting with this. 

I give sunsets five stars.


And finally.

These ones. No matter the year, they are my favorites and my best.


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Wiggles

About ten years ago, my mom sent an email, kvetching that the city where she lived was spending four million dollars to redo all the street corners.

Just so people in wheelchairs could roll up and down curbs.

FOUR MILLION DOLLARS for a few people, she groused.

Even without the smell of smoke jumping six inches off his body, his brown teeth revealed the habit. His stringy, shoulder-length hair — just turning to gray — brushed the shoulders of a snowmobile jacket. No one had seen him before, but the library tends to see new people on snowy days.

Needing help to get on the wi-fi, a flood of words parting the air before him, the guy steered himself toward the workers at the circulation desk. “Hey, yeah, so my phone doesn’t work right now, and I need to make some calls over the internet because I have some things to arrange – like, I gotta meet my landlord.” No problem, a worker assured him, bending his head over the guy’s phone. As he pointed to the screen, leading the patron from click to click, the patron’s deluge of words continued to wash over bystanders.

Eventually, in a kooky end stop to his tale of phones and landlords, the guy blurted to his wi-fi helper, “You ever heard of Pinterest?”

Sure he had. As media support to the masses, library workers tend to know the platforms. Curious as to where the question was headed, wi-fi helper nodded and asked: “Are you on Pinterest?”

Oh hell yeah, the smoky patron was more than just “on Pinterest.” In fact, he puffed proudly to the library worker, “I’ve got something on Pinterest that’s had over a million downloads.”

Unflinchingly supportive, the worker raised his eyebrows to convey awe. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You should try to figure out how to make some money off that!”

The patron agreed: “Yeah, yeah, I should make some money off it, ‘cause then I could be in the Bahamas, sitting on a beach, drinking a beer with Jimmy Buffet. But I can’t figure out how to make a cent off this stuff. I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg calling me, Jeff Besos, too; they’re all gettin’ in contact with me, and still I can’t make any money off my thing.”

Realizing his phone was successfully connected to the wi-fi, he waved it in the air with a flourish as he headed outside to do business.

Popular rightwing meme on Pinterest

Less than five minutes later, he was back. “Hey, you guys got a phone I can use? Mine isn’t working. I can’t make my calls.”

“Sure,” said a different library worker — the one who bike commutes year-round — “we can do that for you. Just tell me the number, and I’ll dial it.” In short order, the smoky patron was holding the receiver, making arrangements to meet up with a buddy. “Much appreciated,” he called over his shoulder a minute later to the library workers, his hand already cupping the pack of cigarettes in his pocket in anticipation of air without rules.

In December of 2019, a thread on Facebook disintegrated from complaining about how slow the city of Duluth was to plow residential streets after a massive snowstorm into mocking the funding and space devoted to bike lanes in some well-trafficked areas. One wit dismissed: “We live in a climate where 10% can only use [them] 35-40% of the year . . . there is no sense to it. It’s for tourists.”

Five minutes later — the length of time it takes to finish a deeply inhaled smoke — the patron was back. “So, a while back I checked out a bunch of movies from the public library in a different city, and now they’re really late, at least a month, and I was wondering if you guys can do something about that?”

Unfortunately, the worker had only this counsel: “Because they are located in different systems, our library doesn’t ‘talk’ to that other library, so you’d have to directly contact the library you checked them out from.”

The smoky patron didn’t get this far in life without some moxie. “But I was thinking you could call them for me?”

The library worker didn’t get this far in his day without some patience. “Sure, I can do that. Let me look up the number, and I’ll dial it for you.”

Within moments, the patron again held the receiver, again negotiating a plan. “Yeah, I’ve got movies I checked out from you, and they’re really late. Can you help me out? I couldn’t return them because I was down in Brooklyn Center, kind of stuck down there.” He paused. Then, elaborating, he cryptically added, “Man, that was a dark trip.”

In a different location but a sharing a common mission, the library worker on the other end of the phone line created a plan for the movies’ return.

Wrapping up the call, the smoky patron nodded. “Okay, I’ll bring them in Monday.” Handing over the receiver, he again thanked his team. “I’m glad you guys helped me call them ’cause you saved me a lot of money there.”

With that, the patron, well satisfied, exited the building.

A crony of the Koch Brothers, Randal O’Toole asserted in 2016:

Whatever the service levels, [public] transit just isn’t that relevant anymore to anyone . . . more than 95 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and of the 4.5 percent who don’t, less than half take transit to work, suggesting that transit isn’t even relevant to most people who don’t have cars.

The patron’s next cigarette went quickly. Four minutes later, he ambled up to the circulation desk once more.

“I need to call the animal hospital and check on my cats. Can you dial that number for me?”

The bike-commuting library worker obliged. It’s what they do.

Plus, there was the spectacle of it all. This time, the handset recognizing his grip by now, the smoky patron opened negotiations with disconcerting directness, asking the unsuspecting employee at the animal hospital:

“You got Wiggles’ ashes?”

Clawing toward comprehension, the recipient of the question strangled out something akin to “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Yeah, my cat, he died there. You cremated him and put him in an urn, right? And you drew his name WIGGLES on the urn, right?” From this line of inquiry, the smoky patron obtained the information he needed. Shifting topics, he announced, “Okay, now I gotta talk about my other cat. I think I need him tested for worms. How much is it going to cost to get a full test for worms? I need to know the exact amount, ‘cause I got $100 in my pocket, and I gotta take a taxi about ten miles, so I need to know exactly how much it’s gonna cost to be sure I have enough. I have his poop with me, so you can test it for the worms, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he’s got worms. He gave me a look today. I had another Coon cat once, and when he gave me that look, it was after someone had died in my house. Once the cat had seen death, he gave me that look.”

Knowing, from hours, days, years of experience that the storyteller was gaining steam, the library worker moved closer, signaling wrap it up. Not one to abuse privileges, the patron accepted it might be time for another smoke. “Oh, yeah, okay. I’m in the library. I gotta go. I’ll bring the poop. But before I get there, can you find my Wiggles?”

In 2017, New York Observer writer André Walker tweeted: “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.”

Business handled, the smoky patron — a “one-time” drop-in on a snowy day — headed again toward the exit doors, out to the busy street where a bus stopped every five minutes,

waiting as dedicated riders, challenged by limitations of terrain or road access, tossed their bikes into the rack on the front;

depositing the retiree who’d chosen not to own a car but who felt less alone when she attended the library’s Social Knitting for Seniors;

idling while the wheelchair ramp lowered for the regular with cerebral palsy, a young man who liked to roll down a few blocks to Starbucks for a treat;

dropping off the frazzled single mom with two kids who liked to play games in the big building with all the books;

picking up the downtown office worker who’d have liked to make more than $12/hour one day so she could start paying down those credit cards;

providing a blast of warmth to the crew of rough twenty-year-olds who fought, loved, and used loudly and publicly;

transporting a rainbow of people from the west end, the east side, up over the hill — those hundreds of individuals who relied on kind hearts and public services to get through their days;

pulling away from the shelter with a blast of exhaust in the frigid air;

leaving behind a pony-tailed man — head bent as he lit a cigarette — who was waiting for his taxi, a jumpy talker of a guy who called out to a passing acquaintance, “Hey, you need a ride? I’m about to go over the bridge to pick up my Wiggles.”


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Be Still

My dad was the person who taught me to be comfortable with silence. We could get in the car and drive for twenty minutes without a word being spoken. While his and my mother’s relationship ultimately cracked under the weight of that silence, for me, the daughter, his quiet felt benign, reassuring, a safe place to be.

Even more, when he did speak, his words carried weight. A handful of my strongest memories, in fact, center around moments when he engaged in verbal expression. One time, after I’d won a forensics tournament out of town, returning from the meet during the early hours of the morning, I left my trophy on the dining room table. By the time I woke up later that day, my dad had left a note, telling me he was so proud, pronouncing he was “busting his buttons.” Another time, after I’d behaved badly, he sat across from my hungover self and told me he was “deeply disappointed.” Many years later, during the night when a bat flew into my house, and I had a histrionic “I’m all alone, and the bat is trying to kill me” meltdown for three hours in my bathroom, I managed to grab my phone and call my parents, over a thousand miles away. When I sobbed and sobbed that a killer beast was out there, and all I had were tampons for friends and nail files for weapons, my dad, casting about, counseled, “What you need to do is reach way down inside yourself now and find something you don’t think you have. Dig deep, and you’ll find something you need.” He was right. We hung up, and I dug deep, finding inside myself the numbers 911, which I punched into the phone with great bravery.

Perhaps my fondest conversation with my dad occurred about a decade before his death. Chatting on the phone, we stumbled across the subject of my sister and me and our many differences. Trying to qualify the nature of the differences, my dad remarked that my sister took after his side of the family, where a certain dourness and pessimism sometimes manifested themselves. “She reminds me of myself,” he noted, continuing, “and you don’t. You’re more, well, effervescent.”

There it was: one of those moments we hope for with our parents, those moments when they give us a word, an adjective, a feeling of being seen, and it signifies everything: that they see us as separate, as differentiated beings; that they have thought about us; that they have taken stock of us; that we are far enough away from them for the space to have cleared everyone’s vision. Because such words, such adjectives, are born from the lifelong process of symbiosis to independence, they have power. Plus, anytime someone describes me to myself, I believe him.

It wasn’t even so much that I wanted to think of myself as “effervescent” – although it was a welcome label – but rather, it was more that I wanted to think of my dad thinking of me that way. Sometimes, from then on, I effervesced just for him.

It surprised me, then, to learn – repeatedly – that a pipping personality didn’t reap greater rewards, in the larger scope of the world. Certainly, I didn’t expect to be voted into office on the Effervescence Platform, nor did I expect the medical field to approach me, asking me to donate to the Effervescence Transfusion Bank. But I had expected being smiley and liking sunshine might have snagged me a boyfriend.

did date a man throughout my 20’s, and then I truly, madly, deeply dated another guy – one who left my two liters of effervescence out on the counter with the cap off and made all the bubbles go flat. He de-carbonated me in a way that no one ever had before, not even the boys on the high school bus who moo-ed at my sister and me.

He made my sizzle fizzle.

And then my grandma died, and the doctor found a lump in my breast.

I was thirty-one.

Thirty-one wasn’t my favorite year.

Fortunately, just when I was pacing the circle of my small kitchen for the 123rd time in an hour, gnawing on my cuticles, I still had girlfriends who called, opening with, “Oh, honey. I just heard. Talk to me.” Even when I would have to set down the phone to grab another handful of Kleenex, they would stay on the line, shouting things like, “From the amount of snot you’re emitting, you do seem well-hydrated. And that’s something, right?” Also, I had extended family who knew how to circle around sideways and never look me straight in my teary eyes. Instead, they gave me food and invited me to participate in the yearly butchering of the deer after the hunt in November. Gently, they wove easy affection around my heartache.

Eventually, the molasses movement of seconds turned into minutes finally adding up into hours and days, and then months went by. My grandma was buried; the lump was benign; the former boyfriend had a new girl.

Just after the new year, one of my hunting cousins sent me an email, asking if I’d like to drive north to come visit his family and, by the way, if I would be at all interested in letting him serve as my “agent in the field,” romantically.

Flattened, completely without zest or hope, my response was worthy of my father’s side of the family: “Go ahead, if you want to, but I won’t expect anything from it.”

As it turned out, my cousin already had someone in mind, a twenty-eight-year-old colleague he worked with in a very small town of about 300 people. One day, sitting in the office, looking across at this twenty-eight-year-old, my cousin started musing, “How’s Byron ever going to find someone in this bohunk town?” A moment later, he thought back to Thanksgiving, the deer butchering, and the conversations we’d had, which resulted in, “For that matter, how’s my poor cousin ever going to find someone in the bohunk town where she’s living?”

His head swiveled back and forth, and his thoughts rammed into each other. He approached his co-worker, Byron, who agreed, “Sure, you can be my agent in the field. But this cousin of yours, since she lives more than five hours away, she’d have to really knock my socks off for me to start seeing her.” Fair enough. Next, my cousin approached me.

It was agreed: I’d drive the five hours north and, while visiting my cousin’s family, meet Byron. In the past, imbued with effervescence, I’d greeted any opportunity to meet a potential partner with gusto and a knee-jerk, involuntary planning of our lives together. This time, I didn’t think much of the whole thing.

We’d see.

That February, over Presidents’ Day weekend, I visited. I got to hold my cousin’s baby and watch his four-year-old ice skate. One afternoon, we stopped by the campus where my cousin taught environmental education. As we drove away, he said, casually, “Oh, that man back there who was leaning down, talking to people through their car window? The one in the red hat? That was Byron.”

My cousin, perhaps, didn’t understand that such information would have been welcome, say, two minutes earlier.

That night, the guy in the red hat strolled into my cousin’s house, there for The Meeting, there for dinner. He carried a six-pack of homebrew.

I liked him already.

In short order, I learned that Byron not only wore a red hat and was quite tall. I also learned he really liked making bread, reading the Atlantic Monthly, and running on trails. I learned that he was an anthropology major who’d minored in environmental science. I learned that his Desert Island food would be cheese (dropped from a helicopter once a month, to supplement the fish and coconuts he would be living on otherwise); his Desert Island album would be Van Morrison’s Moondance; his Desert Island book would be some sort of reference volume, all the better if it contained maps.

I learned that, while the idea of him hadn’t infused me with bubbles, the reality of him was creating a few tiny pops.

Dinner lasted five hours. As soon as he left, my previously-cool cousin and his wife, who had discreetly retired to the kitchen eight feet away after dessert, were all nerves. They gave me thirty seconds after the door closed behind Byron before yelling, “SO? SO?????”

My response was positive, but guarded. He seemed nice. I would see more of him. If he wanted to.

Because all the little broken pieces inside of me weren’t quite realigned yet, I wasn’t going to put myself forward this time. I couldn’t take another dashing.

Fortunately, a few days later, Byron asked my cousin for my email address. The interest had been mutual. Apparently, his strongest first impression of me was that I had a lot of hair. He thought he could get lost in it.

What ensued was a modern epistolary courtship. For three weeks, we sent messages back and forth, discovering that writing is an excellent way to get to know someone: the small talk is non-existent; the conversations get to meaty matters right away; there is no body language to read or misread, no annoying laugh to cringe from.

After three weeks, Byron announced he was ready to “jump off the comfortable dock” and into the potentially-frigid waters of face-to-face. Thus, during my Spring Break in March, I headed north again, for our first real date.

As we sat in a dingy bar, having burgers and beers, conversation flowed. Snow fell.

14 inches of it.

When it came time to take Byron to his house before driving back to my cousin’s place, my car got stuck. In the snow. At Byron’s house. He didn’t seem to mind. His roommates were friendly. I stayed over.

I had no choice.

What I learned in those days of my Spring Break was that Byron liked to listen to me read aloud – and if that’s not an activity of the infatuated, I don’t know what is. He also proved that he’s very good at necking.

And, about three days in, after he’d had a bath one night, Byron came back into his bedroom, where I lounged. “Brrrrrr,” he exclaimed. “My feet are cold!”

“Why are they so cold? Was the bath water not warm enough?” I asked.

“No. They’re freezing because. you. knocked. my. socks. off.”

Suddenly, BAM: there it was. The effervescence was back, the flatness banished.

Everything was going to be all right.

Not too long afterward, as I stared very hard at the ceiling, I admitted I had fallen in love. He had the right answer.

By the end of my Spring Break week, five days after our first date, we had talked about what kind of wedding we wanted.

Four months later, one July morning, as I slept on a futon on the floor, he crawled in with a plate of pancakes and a Betsy Bowen woodcut entitled “Fox on a Journey.”

He asked me to marry him.

In quick order, we planned a wedding for the following May.

In even quicker order — that night — I got pregnant. Three months after that, I had a miscarriage. Four days after that, we found out I’d been carrying twins, and one was still hanging on.

We moved the wedding to November, not even nine months after we first played the Desert Island game over dinner. Byron became my groom right there at the environmental learning center where I’d first not-quite-spotted-him in his red hat. The bleeding from the miscarriage had stopped three days earlier. I sobbed through the vows.

Four months later, we two became we three.

All of that wonder unfolded in 1999. Not given to dreaming about the future before then, I have since been granted beauties I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

And, like my father, he is gentle. Like my father, he has a thousand-watt smile.

Like my father, he is given to quiet, most comfortable in stillness.

He likes it when I reach under his shirt and scratch his back.
He cooks dinner every night.
He was our stay-at-home parent for 14 years after that baby girl (and later her brother) was born.
He sits on the living room floor with me, straddling my leg, holding two lengths of kinesio tape as I shift my patella this way, then that. Expertly, teasing me about how I shredded my fingernails trying to remove the adhesive backing the first time we tackled “Care of Jocelyn’s Ailing Knee,” he applies the tape from calf to thigh, giving it a pat of hopeful optimism as he says, “I hope this keeps you spry for at least four days.”
He is unfazed by my random bursts of tears.
He is whimsical. He is dry. He is perceptive.
He sees that my ability to talk to people is as valuable as his ability to do everything else.
He cross-stitches abstracts of swirls in squash soup and burn marks left on the pan after vegetables have been roasted.
He knows how to give me directions that make sense, like “go straight until you see the big rock shaped like Richard Nixon’s head.”
He hears my ideas and helps me realize them.
He falls into 90-Day Fiance addiction so we can compare notes on which Russian brides are too smart for the Ohio doofuses they settle for.
He laughs at the suggestion we move our yoga mats so that their edges touch, noting it’s the space between that allows us to breathe.
And in the darkness of night, when I whimper in my sleep because I can’t save the babies from the soldiers, his touch on my back pulls me to safety.

Now, twenty years in to the marriage, there is nothing we love more than to sit and watch the world flit by

holding hands in companionable silence.

_________________________________________

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Do You Have Time for Me?

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

At the end of January 2018, I returned from five months of living and teaching in the country of Belarus where I was a Fulbright Scholar. For those months, I left my family in the United States and went by myself on a grand adventure.

Belarus is a country about the size of the state of Kansas, with a population of roughly nine-and-a-half million people. The president has held office since 1994, and that is the reason why Belarus, more closely aligned with Russia than any other former Soviet republic, is also known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Although I had sought this opportunity and was ready to say “yes” to everything, the truth was: for me to go on this Fulbright, to relocate to the city of Polotsk near the Russian border – for me to rent an apartment and throw myself into untested professional waters – this was something much more than a grand adventure.

It was a chance to see who I was when untethered from all I’d carefully cultivated over decades.

***

In my new city, I taught at several locations, and I taught different groups of students, but one of my main duties every week was to teach at Polotsk State University. At the university, every Tuesday, I was scheduled for two 80-minute classes back-to-back. The first class was fifth-year students (the undergraduate degree path in Belarus is a five-year course, so the fifth-year students were in their final year); these students were charming, dedicated, delightful.

After their 80-minute class, the next class was fourth-year students. There was some confusion with the enrollment for this class, and it ended up that I taught two different groups of fourth-year students who alternated every other week, setting up a rotation where I would see each group of students once every two weeks.

The fourth-year students were messier than the fifth-year students. Perhaps it was because their schedule was somewhat irregular, or perhaps it was because I was teaching to them a class that had never been heard of or seen in their curriculum before. With the fifth-year students, I was teaching a customary class, Extensive Reading, in which we read and discussed American short stories.

But for the fourth-year students, I had proposed to teach a class I had developed in the United States called Writing for Social Media. We thought the students would love this. The students thought they would love this. Maybe the students loved it.

It was hard to tell.

The fourth-year students excelled at absenteeism, attended infrequently, and often didn’t turn in work. It felt like I was teaching at my home college, in some ways.

But when those fourth-year students did attend class, they were a joy. When they were in the classroom, they were attentive, fun, and energetic. When those faces were in front of me, I forgot how ineffective I felt in their absence.

It’s important to note: when it comes to any kind of teaching, I’m high-strung and anxious. I don’t sleep well when I know I will be heading into a classroom. Most definitely, I don’t cruise into the place tossing candy out of a top hat. Rather, I spend significant agitated time in the bathroom as the minutes to the class period tick down.

When put into a new situation, such as teaching in a country like closed-off Belarus, my nerves were even more heightened.

As a result, every Tuesday, when my two back-to-back classes were finished, I felt a rush of endorphins, a glorious and sweet relief that exhaled, “Whew, I did it!” As celebration, once the students had departed, I would run to the bathroom down the hall for another kind of exhale.

Most Belarusian universities and public places are equipped solely with squat toilets. No toilet paper is provided, nor is soap, towels, hand dryers, or hot water. This spartan approach is at odds with the effort that goes into personal appearance. In Belarus, everybody is turned out – as a rule, Belarusians look chic, they look crisp, and they own irons. I was trying to keep up, so when I taught, I wore fancy shoes. Thus, even though I was flooded with relief that I’d made it through my classes – YES! – I still had to navigate the pedestal squat toilet – two steps up — in high heels for the after-class exhalation.

***

One particular day, I’d had my trip to the toilet and returned to the classroom to wait for the next teacher to arrive so I could hand off the key. Sometimes she showed up ten minutes, even twenty minutes, into her class period – she had tea to drink in the faculty office, gossip to catch up on, or questions from the “professor of the professors” to answer regarding her dissertation. Her students didn’t mind; they were perhaps happier to see me than her – because, again, Belarus had been so closed off from Westerners that in this city of Polotsk, with a population of 90,000, and in the neighboring city of Novopolotsk, with a population of over 100,000, I was the only native speaker of English. For those who’d spend years studying the language, my presence was a chance to experience authenticity.

On this particular Tuesday after I’d been to the toilet, I was hanging out in the hallway, waiting for Vera, the teacher of the next class. I loved to hang out in the hall and watch the university students in their native habitat, but I also loved to linger there because into the wall outside my classroom was embedded a cannonball from 1812, from one of the times Napoleon’s troops had invaded Polotsk. I liked to stand there by the door outside my classroom, leaning, resting my hand on the cannonball, rubbing it and thinking, “When else in life will I be able to casually stroke a cannonball?”

On this day, as the cannonball and I were hanging out, I heard a voice come at me from over my right shoulder. “Excuse me. I have a problem.”

It was one of my fourth-year students; I wasn’t quite sure what her name was yet. When it comes to names in Belarus, as in Russia, there are a lot of Nastyas, a lot of Dashas, a lot of Elenas, Irynas, Alionas, with occasional Sonyas for variety. But with this student, I couldn’t think of her name even though she was standing in front of me, telling me “I have a problem.”

Then, in a flash, I remembered: Yana. Her name is Yana. This is the Russian diminutive of Johanna. Yana.

Relief flooding me, I said, “Oh, Yana, yes. What is your problem?”

Inside myself, I was braced and nervous. When a student comes up to a teacher and announces “I have a problem,” the words send a gong of doom ringing through the teacher’s skull.

In very broken English, she communicated, “I need help. My English no good. I need help. You have time for me?”

At this point of my experience in Belarus, I was constantly overwhelmed. As the only native English speaker in the area, I was a kind of celebrity. I was teaching my classes at the university; another day each week I was teaching at the language center in a nearby city; another day of the week I was volunteering at a gymnasium with high school students who were training for a Language Olympiad. When I would leave my apartment or walk home from campus, I would be chased by Belarusian English teachers who would breathlessly ask, “Next Wednesday, could you come to two of my classes, 80-minutes each, with second-year students, and talk on the topic of Travel? A slideshow would be very interesting.” Or another time, “Could you come do two 80-minute classes with my first-year students? We’ll try out a round table discussion on the subject of The Intersection of Culture and Colors.”

Even more, I went to fitness and yoga classes, and every time I left the studio, there would be two or three women wanting to walk me home – to practice their English. The ten-minute walk could take thirty. Sometimes it ended in someone’s home, with tea and cake and photographs.

Absolutely, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attention that alternated with days of drifty loneliness. Whereas my life in the U.S. has a steady, predictable pace to it, Belarus was a study in extremes. Indeed, when Yana said, “Do you have time for me?” I felt an internal panic, a scream rising. What I wanted to say was, “NOOOOOOOOO, PUBLIC INTERACTIONS EXHAUST ME; MY COUCH AND I NEED MORE MOPING TIME!”

But still. She was a student. And I was her teacher.

Of course, the answer was “Yes, I have time for you.”

***

We arranged to meet the next week in the square in the middle of the city where there’s a big fountain. It was October, and the water was piping. Kids after school were playing in the fountain as their parents and grandparents hovered nearby.

Yana and I had decided we would sit on a bench and just talk to each other so she could practice her conversational English. On that gorgeous October day – that kind of October day when the sunlight is slanting sideways, and the whole world seems like it’s glowing, the leaves skittering across cobblestones – on that kind of October day, Yana and I sat for two hours on a bench, chatting and watching kids play.

I knew for this to be helpful time for Yana, I shouldn’t be the one talking. Rather, I needed to get her talking. I went for the easiest possible opener: “Tell me your life story.”

Yana began with the fact that she was from a small village about an hour outside of Polotsk, and her coming to the university was an achievement for her family and her village. She loved her parents, her sister, her older brother, their spouses, her nieces, her nephew. She was devoted to the kids and would help them every day with their homework and play games with them. Her family was her life.

Jumping to important life events, she rewound three years, disclosing, “My head start hurting. Bad head hurt. I no okay.” She went to a doctor, then a lot of doctors, and after many exams they discovered that Yana, at the age of 21, had a brain tumor.

It was difficult for me to find out all the small details of Yana’s medical journey because her English vocabulary was limited. When I asked her, “Did you have surgery?” she looked at me blankly. I tried “Operation?”

She got that one. “Yes, yes.”

I followed up with “Cancer?”

She knew that word. “No, no, no. It okay. I was okay.”

“It was benign?” I clarified.

“It was okay.”

Then she made it clear she had many treatments after her surgery, the aftereffects of which were that she had debilitating headaches still, but she also fell into a kind of depression, suffering from cognitive challenges that made her flat, grey, nonfunctional.

During this time, she dropped out from the university; stuck in darkness, she couldn’t handle being a student. For the next three years, Yana stayed in her bedroom in her parents’ house in the village. The only person she would speak to, the only person she would allow into her bedroom, was her mother.

Every day, her mother would bring in food and try to cajole her. She’d bring in the little nieces and the nephew. Desperately, she tried anything, everything, her every effort asking, “Can we bring Yana back to life?”

Always, Yana refused every overture. Every day was NO.

It got so bad that Yana was hospitalized. There under the October sun, kids splashing nearby, she haltingly explained, “They take me…asylum. Asylum. One month. Bad place. I believe asylum…horrors. Asylum worst place in the world.”

I decided not to press for details on those horrors, but my takeaway from those two hours on the bench was that Yana was different. In Belarus, you don’t see a whole lot of different.

After Yana was released from the asylum, something inside her flipped. She decided, “I’m going to rejoin the world. I’m going to re-engage.”

Bravely, tipping towards the light, she walked out of her bedroom and out of her house. She returned to the university.

When I saw her that fall in my classroom as a fourth-year student, I hadn’t realized it was the first time she’d set foot on the university campus in over three years. I hadn’t realized that when she was sitting in my Writing for Social Media class, she was returning to the world of the living.

As we talked on the bench that October day, she said to me, glowing like the autumn sun, “Now, I fine. No stresses, no pressures, no problems. I look my classmates, these girls, hair, make-up, boots, boyfriends, all look same. Me? I not same. I fine. Nothing bother me.”

***

After that day on the bench, Yana and I agreed to meet again two weeks later. By that point, the weather had changed; stark and windy, November helped us decide to meet at a coffee shop.

Again, we spent two hours together. Contemplating how to fill the time, I had been intimidated, thinking, “She pretty much gave me everything that first day. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.” Punting, I packed some games into a bag.

As we sat down at a table with our lattes, I asked her if she knew the phrase “to be a guinea pig.” No, she did not. I explained the idiom and told her she was my guinea pig with these games because I wanted to know if they would work for non-native English speakers.

Yana’s eyes got big when I pulled out Bananagrams.

For two hours, we sat there, starting off easy and slow – “We don’t have to play by the rules,” I told her, spreading out the tiles. “Just take some tiles and try to put together words in English. I’ll help you. Can you see some words there?”

Oh, yeah, she nodded. Uh-huh. She could see some words there.

Upping the difficulty, I pressed, “Can you link some words together, like in a crossword?”

Sure. Okay. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yana nodded and moved tiles.

Then she got quiet. Her head was down. As she slid more tiles in front of her, I realized she was improvising her own variation of the game.

She had spelled the word deep.

To its end, she had attached the word horizon.

She’d seen the movie.

Her eyes continuously scanning the tiles, she told me, “I want put more after horizon. What I do?”

“Well,” I mused, “horizon could become the word horizontal if we add some letters on the end…”

Yana’s eyes brightened, and before I quite knew what was happening, we were launched into a version of Bananagrams that involved the creation of compound words and portmanteaus and strings of overlapping text.

Having run out of space with deephorizoosafari, Yana started a new line with balloon, asking, “Hmm, what I do? I want add more.”

Looking at the word, I suggested, “Well, if you add a -y, you’ll have the word loony growing out of balloon. We have this cartoon in the United States, Loony Tunes, that’s really famous; do you know it?”

No.

I explained Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Then we added letters to make: balloonytunes. Excitedly, we kept the growing word evolving – adding, re-spelling, shifting – “Ah, how about tuna? Tuna is a kind of fish!”

Placing the letters on the end of the growing word, Yana read aloud, “Balloonytunafish…what I add?”

“What’s the word for a person who takes a rod and a line and stands in the river trying to catch fish?” I challenged her, miming my description.

“Fisherman!” Yana yelped. “Balloonytunafisherman!”

Starting a new word, her brain churning as she tried to figure out the spelling, Yana came up with squeal. Immediately, mind-bogglingly, she saw a word to attach: algebra.

Her hands restless on the table, picking up letters, considering, discarding, she kept going. I helped her with vocabulary and spelling, but she was a firecracker. For an hour and a half, we strung together words.

Before we finished, I realized something important.

I was watching this young woman, so excited, so involved, this same woman who had spent three years in her bedroom, refusing to speak to anyone but her mother – and this young woman was lighting up the space around her in a coffee shop, stringing together letters, enjoying the burble of her brain. She was happy. She was excited. She was pipping.

Clocking the wonder of transformation, I marveled: “Her English is not limited. She does not have ‘a problem.’ Yana’s English is amazing.”

***

After Yana and I met those two times, she tried to schedule more meetings.

Each time, she had to cancel. She had to go to the doctor. Another time, her class schedule changed for the day, so I got messages from her, begging off. “I can’t come. I’m sorry. I can’t come.”

In terms of our class together, her group met with me seven times. Of those seven classes, Yana attended three. Her group was to submit to me five written assignments. At the end, Yana had turned in two.

In terms of the classroom, Yana was terrible. And I felt like a terrible teacher.

So.

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

But.

***

At the end of our conversation that first day under the October sunlight when we sat on the bench and watched the kids play in the fountain, I said to Yana, “I am so happy we had this time together. I am so happy we had one-on-one time, and now I know more about you. As soon as I get home, I’m going to message my husband back in the United States, and I’m going to tell him all about you.”

In return, Yana beamed. “As soon as I leave, I send messages and do phone calls. My family in village, they wait. They know I am meet you. My family know this first time my life I speak with foreigner. They wait hear me. When I call, I tell them – “

her words cracked me open, made me need a kleenexboyfriendshiplollypop, bestowed a benediction upon five months of lonely, exhausting, untethered, gratifying, glorious, unimaginable adventure –

“When I call, I tell them, ‘The English teacher from America, she make me most happy I can be.’”

Damn. I grabbed her for a squeeze.

And then we turned our faces in opposite directions to begin the trek to our respective homes.

Slowly, deliberately, contentedly, we walked away from each other, two changed people, forever connected.

***

This story was first told at the Gag Me with a Spoon community storyshare. If you’d like to hear it spoken: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/gag-me-with-a-spoon/perhaps-this-is-not-that-HKjLDkc76TO/#edit

Yana gave me permission to write about her, in case you feel your panties getting bundled.

________________________________

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10 Things That Scare Me

I just discovered a podcast in which both notable personages and lay-listeners inventory–hey, get this–10 things that scare them. Episodes are short, but their cumulative effect is powerful: everyone has fears and anxieties, and it’s hearteningly equalizing to hear the downloads of others.

Today, as I listened and nodded and laughed and squinted, I started to compile my own list. I suspect, upon reading this or tuning into the podcast, you’ll do the same.

We can’t help it. Fear unites us.

So, here. 10 things that scare me:

  1. All rodents, but especially this: when I’m reading on the deck, and the cheeky chipmunk who is the boss of our yard skitters onto my plateau and tosses me an unblinking look of, “Yeah, hi. This is my deck now” before dropping the seed it was carrying and rearing onto its back legs.
  2. Forced and enforced conviviality. Also known as “holidays.”
  3. Someone touching my children without their consent.
  4. Receiving a message that says, “We need you to come in for a meeting as soon as possible.”
  5. The way the neighbor boy treats their chickens when he thinks no one’s looking.
  6. Three hot hours on the tarmac, plane motionless, with the cabin door sealed.
  7. And no food or water in my bag.
  8. And a talkative Trumper in the seat next to me.
  9. My husband dying before we’re both 97.
  10. When the fitness trainer for the TRX class tells us to drop to the floor and put our feet in the straps.

Now. What you got?


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Finally Full

“You sure eat a lot of fast food.”

Those eight words killed my appetite – punctured my excitement about dashing into the gas station to grab a couple of sliders at the attached White Castle.

Certainly, I knew how he felt. In the many letters and messages we’d exchanged during our courtship, he’d made it clear.

Yet. Those eight words, a casual observation made by the man I had been dating and was beginning to love, shrank me, a 31-year-old woman, into someone jittery, defensive, diminished.

Those eight words sniffed prissily at my history.

***

In 1982, for my 15th birthday, my dad gave me a 12-pack of Mello Yello. It was a thoughtful gift, one that indicated he understood the teenager lurking in the basement. To be presented with my own, private 12-pack of pop – something I never had to share with my siblings, something I could hoard in my bedroom closet – was a kind of power.

Dad didn’t use words much, but our shared meals, as recorded in my diary – pages of artless divulgences stashed in the same closet as the Mello-Yello – constituted warm communication.

Sometimes, to cap off a lethargic day, we’d drive in silence to Bonanza, the low-end, Old West-themed chain “steakhouse” where we’d order a prime rib dinner, maybe top sirloin, not for a special occasion but because it was Wednesday, no one wanted to cook, and we had coupons.

After ladling Ranch dressing onto iceberg lettuce at the salad bar and peeling the aluminum foil from baked potatoes, we’d return to our booth and sit in vinyl communion, relishing the paucity of demands on our energy and the fullness of our plates.  

***

She spent her youth plucking, pitting, and canning, but my mother never liked to cook. As a woman born in 1935, graduating college in the 1950s, marrying in the early 1960s, her lack of interest in the kitchen smelled of “radical feminist statement.”

She certainly didn’t intend it that way: she just didn’t like to cook.

Dutifully, she would make chicken noodle soup, a Sunday roast, “poor man’s” beef stroganoff, chocolate chip cookies. She loved more adventurous foods, but none of us understood the appeal of her mushrooms and asparagus. “More for me!” she’d puff, fishing around the can, trying to spear another limp spear or soppy button.

For my mom, the day-in-day-out call of the kitchen always chafed. Planning a nightly meal became even more thorny when she escaped into full-time work.

***

A crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper in hand, I opened the cabinet below the kitchen sink and dropped it into the trash. Rustling faintly, the wrapper unfurled inside an empty Campbell’s can. So that was the tantalizing smell permeating the house: pork chops slow cooking in Cream of Mushroom soup.

In the ‘80s, although my dad tried to catch up with the times, mastering a few crock pot meals and the occasional batch of chili, willingly scrubbing the pots and pans, his contributions were voluntary. Failure to plan a meal did not tarnish him.

It was my mother who was on the hook for getting food into her kids’ mouths – even when those kids were old enough to pitch in and figure out food for themselves. Yet, like our parents, we couldn’t be bothered to conceive of a plan that would cover the family. My sister and I might share a box of mac ‘n cheese; my brother would fry himself a couple hamburger patties. But tending to the common interest? Flattening ourselves, we refused the challenge.

***

In the early years, our family would head to McDonald’s after church on Sunday – a righteous reward. In our best clothes, we perched on plastic seats, the paper around our hamburgers crackling as we unfolded it. Carefully, I would scrape the rehydrated onions off the patty and offer them to my dad. After tipping our trays into the swinging mouths of the garbage bins, we’d take a minute to embrace the flame-haired Ronald McDonald on a bench outside.

A decade later, a teen trying to separate herself, already disenchanted with the ritual and community of church, I bypassed the worship and went straight to the reward.

***

Desperate to be liked, always desperate to be liked, I spent hours with my face pressed to mirrors – pursuing pimples, applying eye shadow, sucking in my stomach, admiring the star embroidered onto the pocket of my HASH jeans, angling the curling iron. Fancying that effort could result in popularity, I hit the halls of the school hoping that the height of my bangs would distract from the tenderness of my heart.

Too many days, I lay face down on my waterbed, smudging mascara tears into the pillowcase.

Tests saved me. Essays redeemed me. And when the report card came home – evidence that someone liked me – my mom and I celebrated the results by eating out. A musician, my dad had evening rehearsals. My sister found her place in the world through babysitting most nights. My brother refused to join in, noting that we didn’t have enough money to be eating out.

Saluting my achievement worked for a couple of us. As I plowed my way through a mountain of nachos, my mom sighed about her job as a church secretary. Dabbing at crumbs, she alternated bites of turkey sandwich with tidbits of despair about the pastor’s cruelty. To counterbalance her misery, we ordered the cheesecake.

***

My mother marched to the television and twisted the knob until the screen went dark. “It’s after 9 p.m., it’s a school night, and I don’t think that’s a good show for kids to be watching.”

Lazily, my brother unfolded his height from the plaid couch and skirted our mom’s form, still clad in the belted trench coat she wore to work. Leaning around her, he snapped the television back to life, explaining, “We watch this show every week. It’s called Charlie’s Angels. So what if they’re wearing bikinis. Don’t worry about it.”

Two, three, four, five nights a week, my parents weren’t home. Sometimes they’d swing by the house between work and the choir and handbell rehearsals that were their avocation. Providing music for several churches in town, they would often attend more than one rehearsal in a single evening. My father conducted, and my mother sang. When it came to bells, my mom would conduct, and my dad would ring. Creating music for communities of faith united them.

At the same time, we kids would be home, rattling around the kitchen looking for food, often hopping in the car to grab a single, no pickles, no tomato.

I thought I liked the independence.

***

My first car was a Pontiac, a boat of a thing that felt 40-feet long as it swayed across the asphalt. From the day I earned my license – passing the test even though the man scoring it stormed out of the passenger seat after my sixth attempt to parallel park, huffing “I can tell you’re never going to fit into that space!” – I packed the car with friends who, like me, were in search of an invisible something; we called it “fun.” Cruising The Point, hanging out the windows, whipping U-turns, grabbing Whoppers, trying to buy beer, our collective mobility assured us We Had Lives. And if we had lives, We Mattered.

I careened through my teen years, a lack of structure my sole purpose. Attending school, watching soap operas, winging around with friends, trying to fill the belly – the days were a spin of “Go here, go there, go back, go home, go get, find food.”

Direction came only when I turned a slow left towards the pick-up window after yelling at a stranger through an intercom.

***

Home alone on a Sunday morning, planted two feet from the television screen, sitting on the steamer trunk my grandmother had once taken to Europe, I watched State Fair. During the commercials, I raced to the vanity mirror in the bedroom and pulled my nightgown tightly around my hips, measuring my girth, assuring myself the reflection qualified as “hourglass.” Mostly, I was waiting for my mom to get home from the morning’s services. I was hungry.

Much of my parents’ identities was tied up in church. For years, we all attended the Presbyterian church together. Later, our family switched to a Lutheran congregation. A few years after that, my dad moved, seemingly on his own, to a different Lutheran church. Eventually, my mom followed. Collecting churches, they expanded the places where they made music, my mom driving one direction in her car, my dad the other way in his. Occasionally, they’d rendezvous in front of an altar.

By the time I hit fourteen, I knew: when I was sitting in a pew, leafing through the hymnal, sketching out a game of tic-tac-toe on the offering envelope, I floated in a grey limbo, feeding my spirit with something that felt artificial.

Preferring late nights and late mornings, I asserted myself. Outside of holidays, I didn’t want to go to church. This sent a tremor through my parents. Then, shrugging, they focused more hours on ringing and singing.

***

Uneasily, saliva pooling in my mouth, I stood at the Taco Bell counter next to my dad. If I ordered too much, he might comment on my weight. Hoping it made me smaller, I ordered one crunchy taco and a glass of water.

Perched on a hard, plastic seat, I bit through the shell, my teeth sliding easily through the sloppy fillings. The waxy cheese offered no resistance; the meat plopped onto the paper lining my tray. Deliberately, I pinched it, grasping at every possible bite.

Wadding the empty paper into a ball, I admitted, “That was so good. I could eat more of those.”

Dad’s eyebrows lifted; he was pleased by my appreciation of the food he’d provided. Expansively, he offered, “Well, then, let’s get you another one.”

The food waiting for us under warming lamps lubricated our squeaks, spared us from thinking, sidestepped the trick of a family meal. Unquestionably, going out to eat was a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection.

At the same time, without question, all that was going on inside our bodies – compromised nutrition, stuffing the holes with fries, never having a coordinated plan, lacking energy to make the effort, finding ways to never look each other in the eyes – reflected a festering dysfunction.

I thought we were okay. We were not okay.

***

“Bleeeech!” I spit the sour milk into the sink. I’d covered the Cheerios until they floated, priding myself on eating something before a hot fudge sundae at lunchtime, only to discover as spoon hit mouth that the milk had gone off.

When I was 15, my nose for rot was still developing. I’d given the carton a cursory sniff before tipping it into a full-on pour. It wasn’t until the cereal was fully saturated that I realized I was shoveling spoilage into my face.

It would take decades before I could perceive decay with any accuracy; decades before I could realize, with a quick whiff, that the milk in the fridge had expired; decades before I stopped trusting my well-being to artificial preservation; decades before chemical-laden food prepared by indifferent minimum-wage workers stopped being the safe choice.

***

Upstairs, the walls of my sister’s room were painted a sunny yellow; her curtains danced with flowers. The bright décor was deceptive. A more accurate reflection of our collective teenage mood was the basement, where my brother and I lounged in dark wood paneling, tucking our dirty dishes under the plaid couch, occasionally breaking dried clumps of sauce out of the industrial orange carpet.

It was good that my siblings’ bedrooms occupied separate floors, good that we rarely all sat down to a dinner, good to have distance between them. They didn’t much like each other.

Often, my mom ached for distance, too.

In the midst of the unhappiness, I locked the bathroom door and peeled lengths of toilet paper off the roll, mopping at my face. When I was done, I’d hold my hands under the faucet and splash cold water over my blotchy skin, mesmerized by the bubbles sliding down the drain.

***

Just before 5 p.m., my dormmates and I would line up outside the locked doors to the cafeteria. Uneasy with each other, strangers still, we’d stick to talk of movies, professors, friends back home. When, at last, the cafeteria doors swung open, our pack would move en masse into the huge, light-filled room, the group splintering as each of us hunted down the answer to a specific hunger.

At eighteen, echoing my mother’s yearnings, I left Montana and headed to Minnesota for college. I got away from it all. I got away from the crap. I was mean and spiteful and bitter, full of tears and a desire to be nicer. To everyone.

A boy named Tim always filled multiple glasses with milk and slathered a raft of peanut butter onto his plate. My roommate could be counted on to reach for the spaghetti while a girl from Wisconsin with an asymmetrical haircut reliably went for blueberry yogurt mixed with Grape Nuts. Most nights, Jeff from Michigan would finish most meals by dunking a tea bag into a mug of hot water. Accustomed to the challenge of figuring out my meals, I appreciated both the predictability and the choice – even though many of the entrees baffled me, stumping my beef-geared tastes. Eventually, I became a devotee of the salad bar, often topping off my meal with a bowl or two of Captain Crunch.

After a few minutes of individual wandering, seeking the security of other bodies, we’d converge at one of the long tables. No one had to spend time cooking chili cheese casserole for the group. None of us had to plan the menu. Unencumbered, we sparked with each other for hours, taking breaks to scoop cones of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, to toast a bagel, to refill a bowl with Lucky Charms, to watch Tim drink three more glasses of milk.

Leaving home offered me a novel experience: a nightly family meal.

***

“We’ll split a bread bowl salad,” my dad told the waitress at Perkins. A whole salad for each of them would have been too much. Plus, one was cheaper than two. When the bowl arrived, my mom scooted closer; her arms could only reach so far.

Alone in the house, the nest empty, my parents attended rehearsals, cast about for dinner, moved to a bigger place. My dad watched Jeopardy in his recliner; my mom crowed about the new bathroom that belonged to her, only her. One time, she put my father through a test without telling him: she refused to speak to him unless he initiated the conversation. They didn’t talk for three months. I doubt he noticed.

***

Traveling through Eastern Europe with my sister, flying to Iceland to camp with a friend, I lived for his letters. He’d written them before I left the country, handed over a well-kissed bundle of them, told me to open one each day while I was gone. Every evening, after riding a bus into Romania, marveling at the hard-boiled egg in my Polish borscht, swimming in a warm pool in Akureyri, I capped off the day’s novelty by slitting an envelope and easing his familiar voice out of the folds.

Infatuated, he contemplated the shape of our future. What would our days look like when we were together all the time? How could he be there for me? What would we eat? How would we celebrate life’s joys?

The morning after I returned from my trip, he proposed. A few months later, I married the man who wounded me when he noted that I ate too much fast food. Our years together propelled me into a slow-motion trust fall away from the shaky habits of my youth, urged a blind release into a solid landing. In falling, I discovered asparagus doesn’t come from a can, mushrooms can be transcendent, a wok heaped with bok choy is sizzling beauty.

***

After the birth of our first baby, we left her for a night with my parents. Having smiled at her and tickled her feet, Dad left. Later, without having told us she was already booked, Mom headed to a rehearsal, leaving the toddler with my brother. The next day, not interested in smashing a banana or spreading a handful of cereal onto her high chair tray, my mom and brother took her to McDonald’s, where they were amazed at the enthusiasm the diaper-clad towhead brought to dragging French fries through ketchup. It was amazing: our girl had never eaten processed sugar or deep-fried food before that familial initiation.

***

On the day my father opened the front door, not knowing he was being served, unaware his marriage was ending as it neared the 40-year mark, his eyes filled with an expansive view of the Pryor Mountains, 90 miles away. All he’d ever wanted, outside of a cheap sirloin at Bonanza, was the comfort of a yawning vista.

In the five months between their divorce and my father’s death, Dad spent a short period at an independent living home, a place where men were rare and valued. Surrounded by attentive women, no longer slipping around the edges of unexpressed anger, never having to plan ahead, he looked forward to mealtimes.

For my mom, craving demonstrated affection, the divorce freed her to seek out a new dynamic. Dating around, she moved in with a diabetic who loved Nut Goodies; later, she based a relationship with an unpleasant man on their mutual love of Diet Pepsi, no ice, slice of lemon.

Altogether, she stopped attending church. She was ready to buy her own cookies.

Eventually, Mom remarried. Her new husband, first unwilling and then unable to make himself a sandwich, sits in his chair, baptized by the glow of the television. Together, they watch Jeopardy. Eating out for them is not only a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection. It’s also that no one wants to be in charge of food; again, the responsibility falls to my mother. Fast food is the thing they do together, the reason for him to shower and get dressed. As his memory fades, there are two restaurants he still likes; her messages to us are peppered with the words “In-N-Out” and “Subway.” In this new marriage, life is completely different, yet nothing’s changed.

***

Disoriented by how foreign Turkey felt, our young family clung together. At seven and ten, the kids were still young enough to uproot for the wild hair of a sabbatical year abroad. So there we were: in Cappadocia, pacing our days with the Call to Prayer, wondering how headscarves related to politics. A trip to the hardware store required not only a dictionary but also a deep inhale. Even minor transactions were exhausting.

Then, one evening, at a party of expatriates teeming with wine and shouted introductions, I latched onto a Turkish woman named Eren, a woman who ran her own hotel in the next town, a woman willing to answer my myriad questions about the culture and history of the dusty region we’d decided to call home.

Several days later, Eren sent a car to our 400-year-old stone home. With typical Turkish hospitality, she had offered to give our family a cooking lesson at her hotel. Unused to the idea that a man would be a kitchen devotee, Eren spoke mostly to me, but it was my husband who tracked her instructions closely. I took notes. He asked questions, watched her hands. At the end of three hours, we sat down at a table outside to share the lesson’s yield: dolmas, leeks with carrots, bulgur, kofte, a dip of roasted eggplant.

The meal that afternoon lasted an hour, but the information stuck. Years later, six thousand miles from that hotel kitchen, I come home from a muddy trail run and find him smiling with anticipation as he rotates an eggplant over an open flame.  

***

“The closest thing I have to ‘faith’ is the way I feel about yeast.” An agnostic, my husband explores belief in the invisible each Sunday as he punches dough on the counter. His wedding ring rests on the windowsill, a witness, while his capable hands turn and thump the softness, the movements a conjuring. A calibration of heat, time, temperature, his loaves are hope made tangible.

On the radiator, covered by a towel, the dough rises. The kitchen is a mess, a visual cacophony of sticky bowls and wooden spoons. He wipes the counter, but when the moisture dries, chalky streaks smirk. His back-up crew, I wipe the green laminate again, this time with a paper towel; mournfully, I note that even the sides of the counters are coated with floury dust, that a third rubdown is in order. Worriedly, I remark that a drop-in visitor would flinch at the sty that is our kitchen.

“Mess is part of living life. All this flour everywhere means we’re doing it right,” the baker reminds me.

Later that night, when the house is dark and quiet, I stand in the kitchen, slicing a piece – then another – slathering butter, biting into the remnant warmth, feeling the crumbs dissolve on my tongue.

***

Slowly, the boy’s hand reaches towards the tv tray next to his bed. He is searching for relief, for painkillers, gum, something to swallow that will make him feel better.

Our thirteen-year-old just had his tonsils out. Limp, muffled-voiced, he winces with every swallow. Within a day of surgery, he refuses popsicles. They taste “too fake.” Although his stomach is hungry, little sounds appealing.

Except maybe homemade mac ‘n cheese, and if there’s some leftover pho broth in the freezer, he could sip a mug of that. Also, as long as I’m running downstairs, maybe he could tolerate a glass of the hibiscus Agua de Jamaica that Dad brews.

While the boy recovers, our girl is on a high school trip in Europe. In the days before her departure, she stacked clothes in her room, poured shampoo into tiny bottles, practiced using her ATM card. Feeling nostalgic in the fashion of a teenager leaving home for ten days, she requested a special pre-trip treat: Dad’s cinnamon rolls.

It’s beyond the sixteen-year-old’s scope, but sticky rolls are an integral part of her father’s history, something he made for himself when he lived alone, for roommates when he shared spaces, for friends when they helped him move, for his new girlfriend when she drove five hours north to visit. Setting out heaping platters is an extravagant statement of affection from an otherwise quiet man.

***

My stomach growls, and I heft ceramic plates out of the cupboard. A mountain of dirty dishes rests next to the sink. Next to the stove, a chopping knife lies atop a cutting board, still littered with stems. The mess can wait.

With the grace of passing years, I have arrived at an essential realization: happiness is authentic when someone’s hands have touched it, pressed a knife blade into the sinew, peeled back the surface, diced, tossed, grated the whole, exposing the hidden facets, baring the delicate subtleties.

Minutes later, I lift the fork to mouth, wrapping my lips around a complex bite. I am eating my husband’s questions about that week’s menu. I am eating the shopping list he made. I am eating his hours at the grocery store. I am eating the chopping he did before work, the frying he did after. I am eating the heat of the oven, our day’s debriefing, the intimate conversation we had while he stirred wooden spoon in skillet. I am eating my husband’s cells, sloughed off from his skin as he worked over our food.

With each rich, thought-filled bite, I am eating clean, healthy love.

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Newcomers

It’s been so mean lately.

Oh, I know it’s always been mean. “Off with their heads!”; machetes removing limbs; “We will kill you for dancing”; waterboarding a workaday torture; “Tell us what you heard your father say about our glorious leader”; pogroms; labor camps; piles of bodies.

It’s always been mean.

The current mean is insidious as much as shocking, though, during this era when well-off people wrap themselves in privilege and self-righteousness to deflect from the tight bitterness of their begrudging. The current mean erodes my belief in foundations, makes it impossible to feel easy, causes me to yell at phantoms in my head when I’m out for a run. 

I don’t know how to write when the only thing I have to express is an extended scream down an open neck as I nestle a bloody head into the crook of my arm. I don’t know how to write because boundaries and tone become impossible to manage, drowned in a deluge of anger and disappointment.

So I try, very deliberately, to focus on the flashes of pure and good — a fine encounter with a stranger, a happy wave across the yoga studio, a student excited that she gets to take a trip to Greece. I try to open a channel and let the good stuff flow in. 

I started this essay one year ago, a month after my dear friend Virginia died; the opening sentence about “It’s been so mean lately” popped out of my fingertips then, as did the subsequent paragraphs. Even then, I was struggling to stay right as people got meaner. 

Then life reared up, and the essay draft languished. There was too much else to do, not enough time to sit and focus on one of the pure, good things that had saved me from complete disillusionment. 

But now I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe with Virginia’s widow, Kirsten, an ashes-scattering jaunt during which we not only left bits of bones in places that had been special to Gin but also took her to some new venues, whisking that intrepid traveler on one last journey. Along the way, as the bitter and self-righteous sloshed in their own sourness, we were reminded again, through Virginia’s lasting impact on a crew of devoted friends in Germany, that mean frets itself into unyielding little knots, but goodness turns its face to the sun. 

I’m being cliche and mixing metaphors here, of course, but the sentiment is true: people have been making me sad, yet the person Virginia chose to be in the world gives a powerful lift.

When I started this essay a year ago, I wanted to share the contents of a small red volume found after Virginia’s memorial service in a desk drawer in her basement — in the “museum” of Ginnie’s Stuff. 

Feeling tired and sad these past few days, I suddenly remembered that tiny journal she’d kept and realized I do have something to say that isn’t an extended scream down an open neck, dismembered head stuffed into my elbow — “Oh, I should scan those pages and write a blog post!”

Today, when I sat at the computer, I found a folder containing images I’d forgotten I scanned after her death. Today, when I came to the Dashboard of this blog to begin a new essay, I found a post I started in June of 2018. 

In looking at the scanned images and re-reading the notes Virginia jotted in 1984 about a Cambodian family she was sponsoring during their relocation from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields to a small Minnesota town with a kill line, I fell in love with my friend all over again. 

And I fell in love with Hieng and Sakun and Sokong and Soksan. (In particular, I really, really, really fell in love with Soksan on March 31, 1984.)

Looking at the notes Virginia dashed into a little book during the months when she poured time and money and love into a traumatized family, I remembered not everyone sits in their houses where they have too much and complains about brown people showing up where they don’t belong. I remembered that some people live according to the Law of Abundance, some people start and end with the principle that all human beings deserve an equal chance, some people don’t complain publicly about things they don’t acknowledge privately, some people check and challenge themselves: “Am I embodying graciousness? Am I truly living with grace?”

Virginia’s notebook, as it tracks purchases and errands with not only the Hao family but also other refugees being absorbed into her beloved town, provides a snapshot of genuine grace in a mean, mean world.

Virginia was not a saint. After these initial months of language learning, household establishment, health worries, and friendship joys, she left the Hao family more and more in the hands of others. Like me with this blog post, she had other priorities.

When I met her in 1996, however, Virginia was fully in the swing of sponsoring a Bosnian refugee family — helping them find work, enrolling the kids in school, spending hours and dollars to soften their landing. 

It’s been so mean lately.

But once there was a Virginia. And all of us now, if we try to live with similar grace, have it in ourselves to earn the title of “Mom,” to feel our hearts fill, to listen to our doorbells ring repeatedly, to eat watermelon together.

We have it in ourselves to believe that if we buy two bikes for $70 for people who need them, they’ll be as good as their word.

If we can just stop being so tight and mean, we can trust:

They’ll pay us back.


 

 

 

 

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The Best Laddie

I want to remember 16 because it’s as good as everything else has been.

He staggers through the front door, having just walked home from robotics practice after school, and in addition to the fully loaded pack on his back, he’s carrying a big box. It’s the new compost bin, delivered onto the front porch earlier in the day. When it arrived, after giving the huge parcel a test tug, I decided to leave it; the thing is ultimately headed out of doors, anyhow.

But he brings it in with him, the kid does, because he saw it there, and we always bring boxes in. He’s helping. When I call out a greeting and ask how his day was, he answers “Fine, especially walking home in the sunshine. You know what’s extra good today? The smell of sap coming from that tree across the street that blew down in the storm. The sap smell is –” He does a chef kiss towards the ceiling.

Before he came in, I’d been upstairs putting in eye drops, so as he speaks I’m wiping my eyes and, thanks to a raging runny nose, snuffling into a tissue. Following him into the kitchen, I complain, “Oh my god, bubs, but my nose is making me crazy today. I am blowing it every two minutes, and it won’t stop. I took the Sudafed thing we have, but it’s not helping at all.”

Pack still on his back, he turns and looks me over. “Could it maybe be allergies? Your eyes do look a bit red around the rims, and they are definitely watery.”

I explain the eye drops but concede it could be allergies although I’ve never had any before; I’ve been sneezing myself hoarse all day. What I’ve ascribed to a cold could, in fact, be spring popping. He squints at me and asks, “Have you used the Flonase that you shoot up your nostrils? That really helped me the other week. It really dried things up.”

Well, no. I didn’t know we had anything like that in the house.

His backpack hits the chair heavily as he eyes the still-frozen iceberg of soup in a saucepan on the stove. It’s been there since morning, gradually thawing, but still: it’s a ball of ice bigger than my skull. “Would it be okay if we start warming that up now? I’ll be ready for it soon.”

100% doable, pup. I turn on the burner under the soup at the same time he says, “Let me go find that Flonase stuff for you.”

In under a minute, he’s back, bottle in hand, peering at the tiny text on the label. “Now, I don’t remember how many squirts you’re supposed to do or how frequently you should take it, and we don’t have the box any more. I’ll look it up.”

He taps his phone a few times before announcing, “Two squirts, once a day. It might take up to 12 hours to start working. Shake the bottle first.”

While he’s been aiding me, I’ve been whittling the edges of the soup iceberg, trying to make it smaller. “Here,” he says, “I’m taller, so I can get a better angle on that thing.” He takes the wooden spoon from my hand and leans over the pot, stabbing at the mass. “Let me Excalibur this thing!”

I snort some stuff and then put on water for the broccoli. “How much broccoli are you going to want tonight? Just a bare covering of the plate, or a mountain?”

“I want one-third of what you make,” he assures me. “I love broccoli.” I ask if he wants parmesan grated over the top. “Oh, yes, I do. I do. Parmesan is delicioso!”

He’s over there, across the counter from me, head over his phone, when I remember. “Oh, hey! I need your skills. So my photo app has crashed and crashed and crashed all day, and I cannot figure out what to do. I restarted my phone, tried googling solutions, and I am flummoxed. I can’t even figure out how to uninstall and reinstall it. Help a mother out?”

The phone is already in his hands, getting triaged. He goes quiet as he assesses the patient, more focused still when he starts reading comments in help forums. “Oh, and also…” I remember something else. “Once you’re done with thinking over there, I have one more thing to tell you.”

Thirty seconds later, his curls tip up, and he says, “Okay, I’m loading something. So you can tell me the other thing.”

Quickly, I run down how I tried using yet another phone we have to access my photos earlier, and as I tried to delete files to free up memory, I ended up deleting them from his account, not mine, because we’d been using the same phone, and he’d re-directed the back-up to his account.

“That’s no biggie,” he says. “I was done with those videos anyhow.”

It’s a wonder, to be in the same room with this young man, a 6′ 2″ linguini noodle who refuses to have a problem even though, for another nine years, his thinking will be amygdala based, the prefrontal cortex a far-off dream.

Two minutes later, he announces, “There. Your app’s all good. Your photos are accessible.”

“Holy crap, Paco, but it’s going to be weird when you go to college, and I move to whatever city you’re in, just so I can show up outside your dorm and hand you my phone periodically. That’ll be weird, right?”

He smiles, just a smidge off kilter, meeting my eyes as he grins. “It would be incredibly fun; that’s what it would be. So fun.”

And in that moment, my eyes still a little wet from the drops, my nose dripping because that’s what it does today, blessings rain down upon my soul.

“It would be crazy fun, poppet. Think about it: Dad would show up at your place with a few freezer bags of soup he’d just made, and I’d always be stopping by with warm cookies…”

His smile grows. “I like soup. And cookies. I am on board with this plan.”

The iceberg has melted. The broccoli has softened. Hoisting his backpack once again, he loads his hands with bowl and plate — off to his room to eat while doing homework.

As he teeters out of the kitchen, he says one more thing — true to form even while awkward and balancing: “Thank you so much for helping with dinner. I’m so excited to eat!”

Somewhere deep inside our phones, people are shouting at each other. Two miles down the road, someone is getting bruised. In the next state over, a family has just lost its apartment. Across the ocean, people are unthinkingly selfish. A plane ride beyond, people cry for water.

But right now, right here, my heart thumping in concert with his footfalls on the stairs, I am witnessing a good thing.

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