All right, chums, here’s the conclusion of stories about my grandma, Mildred, and her brother, Lowell, as they grew up in small-town South Dakota in the early 1900s.
During this past year, I’ve periodically done “episodes” on Instagram Stories in which I draw from the diaries of my great-great-grandmother, Minerva Baker Haddock. While some have told me telling extended stories on a platform called Stories isn’t the done thing,
once a punk, always a punk.
You tell me not to do a thing? Heh.
Last week, I posted a couple new episodes. Here’s the first half of a story about my grandma and her brother, Lowell. I’ll post the second half tomorrow.
I know they say you can’t go home again. I just had to come back one last time.
– Miranda Lambert, artist – Allen Shamblin, Tom Douglas songwriters
More than anything, “The Ranch” is the story of my family. The ranch, the place, and The Ranch, the story. So many impressions of both are imprinted in my brain and body. My father bought the ranch in the early 1960s before I was born, but its origins are unclear. Some say he bought the ranch as a way to reduce estate taxes when his first wife, Margaret, died. Some say he bought for their three children in her memory. What is indisputable is that it was a living trust, his while he was alive, passing to his and Margaret’s three children immediately upon his death. The most recent story I heard was Margaret made him create the living will born of knowledge of his sweeping spending habits. All are most likely true.
It’s probably best to take care of this right out of the gate. I am one of seven siblings. We all have the same father, but there were three different mothers. He had three children with his first wife, Margaret, who died when she was 29 when the children were seven, five, and three. He married my mother, Virginia, and they had me and my younger sister, and divorced when I was three. He had two more children with his third wife, Susan, and they were married for 35 years before he died. The age range is 62-35. We are much closer than this description – you will notice I did not call them my step-siblings. We look enough alike that my father liked to say, “a good bull leaves its mark.”
My father, at age 17, inherited millions of dollars in 1949 when his father died. The exact figure is unknown, but even one million dollars in 1949 is fantastical to imagine. Some of the money went to buying and outfitting the over 2,000 acre ranch, about an hour outside of Houston, on the banks of the Brazos River. Known as Riverbank Ranch, it was a working cattle ranch with the main ranch house and nearby hay barn for our family and the light blue foreman’s house within sight of ours with its hen house, garden, barns for horses and tractors, and cattle pens for branding. My mother created the Riverbank Ranch brand – two parallel stretched out “S”s to look like a river. The Riverbank Ranch brand was found everywhere – in thick wrought-iron curtain rod ends in the ranch house, and on playing cards, cups, notepads, and napkins. My father loved the ranch and the brand so much he had cufflinks made of the brand, and they were an honored gift to those who married into the family.
Any time I smell hay, no matter where I am, it immediately brings back the ranch. It smells as it looks, kind of green and kind of yellow, dusty, musty, and fresh at the same time, a little scratchy. My older siblings grew up at the ranch, baling hale, working and branding cattle on the weekends. My father thought it was a good way to keep them out of trouble as teenagers. During the week they were at an old Houston private school and during the weekends, they were at the ranch. The foreman, Martin Sampson, and his children were unofficial surrogate father and siblings and taught them how to do everything on a working ranch. More the “overseeing land baron,” my father bought cattle and rode around the ranch in his Suburban, not horseback. My siblings were excellent riders and also a little reckless as they were under no direct supervision when not working cattle. According to Martin’s daughter, referring to them, “They were so wild they thought nothing of racing horses bareback at night when the horses could have stumbled into holes or thrown them in the middle of nowhere.”
My earliest memories of the ranch are of wandering among the cows and “swimming” with my father holding me in the cow troughs and of the windmill winding above in the usually bright blue sky on blindingly hot Texas days. My younger sister and I “rode” Present and “Upico” – who knows what that horse’s real name was, but that’s what we called him. Present was a gentle pale brown mare with a dark brown mane and tail. Upico was a big white gelding with flecks of grey, a horse the adults clearly felt comfortable enough letting little kids ride. To this day I love horses in a deep part of my being. I’m not a good rider, but I love being around horses. My mother was washing a horse when her water broke, signaling my sister was about to be born. That’s the earliest theory as to why that baby grew up to become a veterinarian.
After she married my father, my mother took us to the ranch where she mainly cooked and entertained guests with my father. My father was genuinely funny and used to having a good time, and my mother was a good partner for that. They hosted friends and spouses who liked to hunt deer and duck and cooked big vats of award-winning chili, grilled quail wrapped with bacon, and served venison sausage with jalapeno cornbread. The “big house” was not that big and was quite rustic. In the early 60’s I suppose it was luxurious as a ranch house. Daddy special ordered the huge, carved wooden front door from Spain so the entrance was commanding. I can still feel the heft and click of that door. The entire house felt appropriately like a hunting lodge – wooden and tile floors, heavy dark wood paneling, a formal dining room with a long wide wooden table that looked like something out Henry the VIII might have eaten on, big wooden chairs, and a large fireplace. Beheaded and taxidermied deer, elk, sheep, and a full bear skin were pinned to the walls. The massive wooden furniture filling the house was also from Spain.
The master bedroom was not that big but had a tiered shower and tub in tiny blue tile that my father based on his time in Japan. It opened to the back yard to shower outside if desired. Bunk beds with brown and red flannel blankets on them were in one room and a king-sized bed in the other. Those rooms shared a bathroom and a spacious shower with a high, powerful, rainfall shower head before that was a thing.
The kitchen was as tiny and cramped as the main room where all the action took place was big. A five-foot fireplace flanked by rough stone and built-in bookcases was the natural focal point and gathering place. A comfy couch faced it and the mantle with a big photograph of a full-sized Texas cowboy looking down with his hat tipped, legs and boots crossed, and the sun fading behind him with cattle in the background. I always secretly thought it was Martin. The pictures from those days show lots of laughing couples in jeans and flannel shirts, groups of men in the middle of telling stories and silly antics, and even my patrician grandmother smiling and kneeling above the seven ducks she killed.
“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Dreams while sleeping can be vivid or veiled, joyful or terrifying, and include memories, feelings, and thoughts. Scientists agree that we dream, and it has been determined to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, not just any time we sleep. What remains unclear is why we dream. In Kendra Cherry’s September 28, 2019, article “7 Reasons Why We Dream” posted on Verywell Mind, readers learn from Scientific American that “..a possible (though certainly not proven) function of a dream [is] to be weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.”
Freud, of course, is the first person many people think of when considering dreams. Freud famously believed dreams to be “…disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” Patients in psychoanalysis are encouraged to try to make connections between dreams and thoughts in safe environment to explore what may be difficult or taboo subjects. Although many devoted Freudians remain, his dream interpretation hypothesis has been challenged. Cherry’s article details several other theories.
• Activation-synthesis model of dreaming (J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977). In this theory, brain circuits responsible for emotions, sensations, and memories are activated during REM sleep. The resultant dreaming is the brain searching for meaning in the signals. Cherry quotes Hobson as saying that dreaming is “…our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted.”
• Information processing is very similar to the activation-synthesis. This theory rests on the fact that sleep allows us to process the information accumulated during the day and dreaming may be a way of the brain creating narratives to go with all the incoming information.
• External stimuli are a way for the brain to incorporate actions outside of the person in REM sleep by having a radio on in the dream if it the dreamer actually hears one somewhere.
• Computer metaphor is the idea that dreams are like a computer cleaning up and organizing before shutting down, removing the clutter to be ready for the next day.
There is a lot of overlap in these theories. I agree with the contemporary consensus: the dreamer’s emotions guide the weak connections between thoughts and ideas generated by the brain during REM sleep.
The ranch had slave quarters on it: three brick buildings close together without a floor. I didn’t know what they were at first, then they became a fascination, then the history hit. I wanted to preserve them for history, but that suggestion was dismissed as a stupid idea, and they were rarely discussed outside of a destination or location. None of the people who worked at the ranch were African- American but an African-American community, Sunnyside, was right next to it. Martin, the Riverbank foreman, was also the county constable, and we heard his radio cracking all the time.
My parents divorced when I was three and my sister Laurence two. We were too young to understand much beyond the fact that we lived somewhere else now. My mother says my father later told her he filed for divorce to “teach her a lesson.” Apparently she was being a less than adoring wife to a man who left her an hour after I was born to go hunting out at the ranch. She believed him when he said he filed, and she filed too. We lived two blocks from each other and saw him regularly – for dinner and ice cream at least once a week. My siblings came over regularly too. And we still went to the ranch with him – where Martin and his family could watch us. The older siblings were 10, 9, and 7 years older than me, so they were largely gone in college or with high school friends so we were with Martin and his family.
We did not work cattle – we had our horses saddled for us and rode with weathered and – even though they were young – wrinkled, ranch hands who I’m sure thought highly of that duty. I think I will always see and smell that horse barn. One of my favorite places in the world. I loved the horses but was wary of being kicked – the others walked among them with ease. I remember tall, skinny, smiling Ricky; short, scowling, smirking, glasses- wearing Wally, saddling the horses and helping us up to ride. Laurence and I were so excited each time.
I now understand watching Martin, his children, and the other ranch hands work was a privilege. The partnership between cowboy and horse makes it particularly painful to look back and think what those ranch hands must have been thinking as they saddled horses for these young entitled kids who did not need to work for a living. To say it was like a rodeo, or scenes from Lonesome Dove does the work a disservice. The cowboys’ horses ran flat out stopped and wheeled around on on a dime as the cowboys corralled the cattle, roping, cutting them off, or reuniting them with the pack as appropriate. They worked together like a well rehearsed symphony each doing their assigned part, well-timed “whoooaas” and “yipeees” replacing the strings, and solos performed by cowboys jumping on and off their horses. The cowboys branded or inoculated terrified and angry bawling cattle – they put the herd one by one into a tight chute, branded or gave the medicine and then let them go back into the herd. In many ways, the story of The Ranch is the dissolution of many different ways of life.
Laurence and I mostly rode around in the truck, trying hard to not be noticed. We opened and closed a lot of gates. In the evenings we were covered in coats and stuck in the back seat of the car as Martin and others went hunting. To this day, I’m not even sure for what. They said raccoons, but I find that hard to believe. We stayed very quiet with our eyes and ears wide open and did.not.move. Or talk. We saw and heard the guns.
We also heard him and others use the n____ word with regularity. With Martin, it was a swear. From my father, it was him trying to be “big.” He was on the board of Texas Southern University, one of the largest Historically Black Universities in the country. I don’t believe he was on the board out of the goodness of his heart. He was an elected judge, so the more likely explanation was that it was political. He used the n_____ word mostly near the end of his life when I’m sure it was to make himself feel better about how far he had fallen financially, to better distance himself from people who were “truly poor and ignorant” (his beliefs, not mine). We asked and told him not to, and then I think he did it just to bother us. It ended phone calls.
I am 100 percent sure Martin ran that county with impunity and terrorized the Sunnyside community. If he terrified us, who he, in some ways, worked for, he absolutely terrorized the people he considered were breaking the law. I try to hold in my head a person I loved as a father and who was an important person in my family’s lives, who adopted a lot of kids, who provided for many others and was a community stalwart along with the reality of a person who committed atrocities (none specific that I know of but, still, am sure of) on communities of color. I can hear him say the n____ word clear as a bell.
The slave quarters stood because there was a Texas Historical Marker outside the entrance to the ranch. We only knew and told our guests to turn in to our driveway when they saw that marker. The plaque noted that Norris Wright Cuney had been born there and that he was the first black postmaster general in the nation. That was the extent of what we knew. And we didn’t look further. Turns out we didn’t even have that right.
My father married a third time, when I was nine, and his wife, Susan, updated the ranch. She installed Laura Ashley bedding, replaced the bunk beds with a queen, hung pretty white curtains, bought big leather furniture, and used pottery and plates from Mexico to brighten up the original hunting lodge. She didn’t hunt, but Daddy and Susan spent extended amounts of time at the ranch, living there not just on weekends and she had book clubs, and they had a wine club. She had a watercolor painting made of the slave quarters and hung it in the house. When Daddy married Susan, Laurence and I stayed with them and did not spend as much time with Martin. We still rode but spent more time playing games and cooking. Susan and Daddy were both good cooks and loved to cook together. She was a very good cook a la Martha Stewart and everything was perfect. They had my two youngest siblings, and a woman named Esperanza helped Susan with her two little children and everything else, including cooking.
My whole life, with two exceptions I can think of, we all gathered at the ranch for Thanksgiving. It was the only time all seven siblings were together, and due to the 27 year age range, after a while the older siblings were married. Thanksgiving was my father’s and our favorite holiday, in no small part because his birthday was November 28, and we celebrated both every year. Our group, about 25 with the spouses, some (grand)children, and some of Susan’s family, outgrew the ranch house. Susan added two trailers to increase bedrooms and kitchens. Even with that extra space, a sister always rented an RV to house her six-person family. They stationed it near the lake so the kids had space to run around and stay away from the Big House. They hosted a dinner one night to relieve the cooking burden on Susan.
Susan always made things perfect and lovely. She even cooked one turkey ahead of time so it could be the centerpiece while we ate the other one and so she could make gravy. She insisted on crystal wine glasses and china plates and made everyone tense – we would have been fine with pizza as long as we were together. My father said the formality was unnecessary but to be nice to Susan because she was working so hard. Susan said “your father” wants the crystal and china. Daddy would wink and tell me when Susan couldn’t hear that my mother entertained easily. He said he could invite friends home for dinner on the spur of the moment and made a point of saying she was fine with paper plates.
We all loved Thanksgiving, despite the crystal and china crisis, and it was nice to fit around the big table with an expanding kids’ table and just be together. We played endless backgammon, gin, dominoes, and we raced Labradors (mine won). Sometimes we played games like Pictionary but found that some of us were too competitive for that, namely our father. The men hunted ducks and deer in cold, wet, grey weather that didn’t make me the slightest bit jealous not to go. There was no TV in the house – we watched the “South Texas TV”: stars or the fire. Evenings, we gathered by the huge fireplace in the family room and entertained ourselves with dumb puns and lots of leftovers and “”Pilgrim Sandwiches” – turkey, dressing, cranberry, bacon, tomato, Durkees sauce (essential), on toasted bread. Thanksgiving gave way to Daddy’s birthday the next day, so we had to eat the pumpkin pie for breakfast.
I credit Thanksgiving for creating a strong bond among the seven children, which was unusual given the three different mothers and age range. Unfortunately, it was at a Thanksgiving 25 years ago that the family schism occurred.
The activation-synthesis theory of dreaming put forth by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley believes in five dream characteristics which make sense to me: illogical content; acceptance of strangeness; intense emotions; odd sensory experiences; and difficulty remembering content. In her online article “What is the Activation-Synthesis Model of Dreaming?” in Verywell Mind November 3, 2019, Kendra Cherry quotes Hobson, noting, “The brain is so inexorably bent upon the quest for meaning that it attributes and even creates meaning when there is little or none in the data it is asked to process.” Newer models are trying to update the activation-synthesis model by better understanding consciousness changes through waking, non-waking, REM, and non-REM sleep.
A study by Matthew Walker in 20102 reported results showing that dreaming allowed the brain to process emotional content in a “safe” place. That emotional processing may give people some distance to view the issues and enable coping strategies. REM sleep was also critical to this theory, which concluded that people with PTSD and depression may not be getting the REM sleep necessary to help them identify coping mechanisms to help alleviate their symptoms.
Other overview information about dreams comes from Kendra Cherry in Verywell Mind’s “10 Interesting Things about Dreams” published on November 5, 2019. I have experienced all of these.
• Everyone dreams about two hours a night, babies and adults, even those that claim not to. Most people have several dreams each night, lasting between five and twenty minutes.
• Everyone forgets most of their dreams. Brain scans of sleeping individuals have shown the area in the brain responsible for memory formation is inactive during REM sleep which is when the dreams occur.
• Not all dreams are in color. Some report dreaming in black and white and most people select pastels when asked by researchers to describe their dreams shortly on waking.
• Men and women dream differently. Men’s dreams are aggressive and involve physical contact; women dream longer and have more characters and conversation. It will be interesting to see what studies of dreams by non-binary people reveal.
• You are paralyzed during dreams. REM sleep is characterized by paralysis of the voluntary muscles and prevents acting out dreams while you’re asleep.
• It’s possible to control your dreams. It happens when you are aware you are dreaming while you are asleep. These lucid dreams are a combination of REM sleep and consciousness and all you to direct your dream.
• Negative emotions like anxiety and fear are most common, based on a study of over 40 years and 50,000 dreams.
• Blind people may dream visually. Blind people have less eye movement during REM sleep but some report dreams with the same characteristics as sighted people.
• Animals probably dream.
• Many dreams are universal as certain dreams are common across cultures. People from all over the world dream about being chased, being attacked, or falling, feeling frozen and unable to move, arriving late, flying, and being naked in public.
Riverbank Ranch was “part of the historic Sunnyside Plantation” according to the realtor’s information prepared when the ranch was sold in 2015. Sunnyside Plantation was founded in 1842 by Philip Cuney, a migrant from Louisiana. He was said to be the largest slaveholder in Texas with 105 slaves tending his 1,800 acres. Norris Wright Cuney (NWC) was the child of the slaveowner and a slave. Phillip Cuney emancipated the eight slaves he fathered. From a 2015 book by Karl Rove, The Triumph of William McKinley and Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, I learned NWC was Texas’ leading black Republican: “For nearly thirty years, the attractive, wealthy, and well-spoken Cuney had been a major power in the state and national GOP. He kept the Texas GOP a biracial party, having not only the backing of the state’s black Republicans but also the support of many of the white Republicans. Named customs inspector by Grant and Galveston port collector by Harrison, he had attended every national convention since 1872” (page 169).
The African-Americans who live in the area known as Sunnyside adjacent to Riverbank are very poor, and I rarely saw them in my 46 years at the ranch. Many asked my father to fish, pick pecans, or hunt on Riverbank land, and to the best of my knowledge, my father always said yes. In later years when the hunting and fishing died out due to climate change, my youngest brother, who lives to hunt, would kill huge feral hogs with a cross bow and then take the dead animal to Sunnyside for people to eat.
After years of happy Thanksgivings, my father (and Susan) created a schism in the family. My father had somehow lost millions of dollars and several houses. At the end of one Thanksgiving, he took his oldest three children for a ride around the ranch. Just them. Usually we all piled in. He wanted them to dissolve the living will trust, sell the ranch, and split it four ways: they would each have an equal part to do with it what they wanted – sell, build, separate, unite. They said no, it was given to them by their mother (this is why the origins are important), and they wouldn’t sell it. If they had agreed, it would have given him liquidity to have money to spend. His wealth was really now in the ranch but it wasn’t his to sell – which meant he didn’t have much money any more. Somehow he had spent an enormous sum of money that to this day we, or I, don’t know how. Maybe those doors from Spain.
I am in the middle, with three older siblings from my father’s first wife, three younger from the wives who came later. I was the only one who had good relationships with each of them. Although I wished the oldest three could work it out with Daddy, I understood why they didn’t support him. Legions of reasons. He had an apartment to himself while they were teenagers, leaving them alone to walk to school while a cook and maid took care of them at home (which is why they visited my mother and me and my sister two blocks away). He forgot to pick them up from camp – and sent someone from work when he realized he forgot. As one sister was literally putting on her wedding dress, he asked her to sign a paper enabling him to sell some ranch land. He asked for a piece of ranch land that Susan and he could live on, and when they agreed to give it to him, he turned around and sold it. Many, many more reasons to not trust him. Both parties were generous to me – my older siblings never talked badly about him to me, and he never talked badly about them (Susan did). I figured I got a father — so what if they got the ranch? I always knew I wasn’t part of it – it was a living will in their names and my mother made sure Laurence and I understood we were not part of it.
After that ride around the ranch with him, the older siblings didn’t return to the ranch for 20 years. I still spent holidays with my father and Susan, but as lovely and Martha/Susan Stewart as they were, we were always looking around, expecting a bigger crowd; the absence of the oldest three siblings and their families made the holidays hollow. The ranch declined without any maintenance since my father had no money. By the end, Susan was putting out buckets in the house when it rained.
Still angry that they hadn’t sold the ranch to help him when he was struggling, Daddy disinherited the older three and all their descendants in his will. Faced with his decision in black and white typography, I could finally understand the pain of all those Edith Wharton books. His choice was mean and hurtful and unnecessary. Susan and her two children were left what remained of his estate, a house in Kerrville, and life insurance. I can’t imagine it was much, but I do know my youngest sister moved out of state and works part time so she can raft-guide, and my younger brother got married and quit his job, however temporarily. Susan bought a house in Houston and a condo in Oregon where her daughter lives. Laurence, my only full sibling, and I got nothing. The older three sold Riverbank Ranch for 15 million dollars in 2016 and generously gave me and Laurence each $200,000.
I dream about the ranch. We had a Goodbye to the Ranch party when the older three sold it after Daddy died. That’s where most of my dreams start. Fleeting images, bright colors faded to gentle pastels, smells of hay, dusty dirt and leather saddles in the barns, coarse horse hair bristles that I rubbed my face in. Goading the horses to cross a river and swimming with them, worrying about water moccasins, hiding under a bridge during a thunderstorm with panicked horses, swimming in the cattle troughs, the five siblings and our father, drinking coffee milk with Martin and his family. Wide open spaces always make me tip my imaginary hat, take a deep breath happy to be a Texan, and hope to inhale the ranch smell. Although the scientists don’t know why we dream, I think I dream to make the ranch come alive and relive my memories of childhood and safety in what I now know is complicated chaos. I’m safe in dreaming and reviving those senses and smells and connectedness when consciously trying to understand the losses is painful. The dreams are welcome and peaceful.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it,
This brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it’s like I’m someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me.
– Miranda Lambert, artist; Allen Shamblin, Tom Douglas songwriters
Thank you to the student who allowed me to share her work (from our Creative Nonfiction class) in this space.
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.
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.
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
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.
These ones. No matter the year, they are my favorites and my best.
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.”
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.
I 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- Forced and enforced conviviality. Also known as “holidays.”
- Someone touching my children without their consent.
- Receiving a message that says, “We need you to come in for a meeting as soon as possible.”
- The way the neighbor boy treats their chickens when he thinks no one’s looking.
- Three hot hours on the tarmac, plane motionless, with the cabin door sealed.
- And no food or water in my bag.
- And a talkative Trumper in the seat next to me.
- My husband dying before we’re both 97.
- 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?