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students

Celebrate the Student

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This week, I start my 25th year of teaching college English.

The brain, she boggles. Brain has been along for the entire ride–since the first day my clammy hands pushed open the door of a classroom on the University of Idaho campus. Clutching a stack of fresh-off-the-ditto-machine, purple-inked syllabi to my chest, protecting my carefully dot-matrix-printed Instructions to Self (first line: “Write name on board”), feigning confidence, I strode into the computer-free classroom, paralyzed by twenty-two sets of eyes that stared in shock at an instructor their own age. From that first day in Idaho, through a move to the University of Colorado–where Christian Coalition-ized students in the early 1990s wrote papers arguing that people with AIDS deserved it–and then on to the community college system in Minnesota–where I’ve taught students whose families were still scarred by the Hormel strike of 1985, students who are locked in the grips of meth and opiate addiction, students who increasingly embrace the culturally transmitted message that college is a place to learn workplace skills, not to gain a broad-based education–my brain has shrieked “Wheeee!” and “Whoaaa!” the entire ride.

Yet, she reels: 25 years?

How can this be, when I’m still a four-year-old who wants to feel the brown, crunchy grass of August under her scalp as she turns somersaults in the yard?

How can this be, when it seems only last week I noticed with frantic pride that my mom had let go of the bike seat while I pedaled wobbily down Forsythia Boulevard?

How can this be, when there’s still a part of me that’s waiting to be asked to Prom by someone other than a cute gay guy from the speech team?

How can this be, when I just want to burn up the dance floor at The Saloon, mouthing the words to “Groove Is in the Heart” until last call?

How can this be, when I still feel like a young mother, stuffing the desperate entreaty of “Someone, please, help the hours pass” beneath my smiles?

How can this be, when I’m busy falling in love every day with the man who’s been my husband for the quick blink of 16 years?

How can I have done anything for 25 years when I’m just getting started?

Naturally, as is the case with all interactions with the world, teaching has had its challenges. There have been students who scared me silly, students who broke my heart, students who pushed boundaries. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors who have caused me to retreat into my office, lock the door, cradle my head into my folded arms, and cry. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors whose words and actions have led to 3 a.m. pacing around the living room, a fleece blanket caped over my shoulders to ward off the chill. There have been long-term effects on my body’s health (I’m starting physical therapy for that nagging shoulder, most likely caused by mouse usage, but at least the pain counters the fire that runs down my left scapula when I write by hand), long-term effects on my defenses (I’ve gotten better at spotting sociopaths and drunks), long-term effects on my psyche (when someone treats me with affection, I now game out the many ways it might morph into rage).

I have earned every dollar, no matter what the public-institution-funding state legislature might argue.

On the other hand, if I’m a creature of free will, a woman privileged with choice, and I’m still doing this thing, then there must be more to it.

There is.

For every unnerving interaction, there are ten affirming moments with students, colleagues, and supervisors. For every time I’ve paced the floor in the middle of the night, there have been ten evenings of chattered debriefing with my husband, in the kitchen, rundowns where I tell him about someone emerging from a life of abuse to discover she wants to be a psychologist, where I regale him with classroom hilarity, where I cry the happiest of tears–the type that spill out when someone who lived in his car for two years earns a degree.

For every student who scares the crikeys right out of me, there are ten shining lights who blaze into the classroom.

One such light brightened this summer for me when she enrolled in Multicultural Literature. Every week, her discussion posts elevated the tone of the class; through her modeling, her classmates were able to see what the behaviors of a successful college student look like. Midway through the class, students were given a “Coming to America” essay assignment with a variety of topic choices. Each student could interview someone who immigrated to the United States. If the student lacked a firsthand subject, he/she could research an immigrant and report on that person’s experience of leaving home and the facing the challenges of assimilation–a topic option that yields entirely too many papers on Albert Einstein and, get this, Mila Kunis. Finally, if students had ever lived abroad for 3 months or longer, they could write about their experiences as “foreigners in new lands.”

Below is the response submitted by the tremendous student who made my summer: Sarah Y. After I read it, I immediately noted that her writing and story deserved a wider audience; I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her response was quick, enthusiastic, and lovely. From start to end, Sarah was a student for the ages, one who reminded me that

I couldn’t have a better job.

An American in Spain, 1998

Sarah Y.

In late 1997, my parents let me know that they were divorcing. I was in the middle of a very unsatisfying semester of college, my grandmother dying, and my future seemed a swirl of dank unhappiness. I instantly decided that I was moving home to take care of my dad. It seemed perfectly logical at the time: he wouldn’t be able to keep it together on his own. I knew I could give his life stability and my life meaning.

“Maybe you should go to Spain,” my mom hinted. Something in those words woke up a sleeping part of me, the curious, engaged person that had been stuck in a quagmire. The idea to travel seemed purely selfish, but it took my head out of my parents’ problems. It was also a good idea for my study of Spanish. So I jumped on it. Plans fell into place easily, as is the case with many good ideas, and before I knew it, I was on a plane.

I had a small backpack crammed with a few clothes. I didn’t take much with me because I wanted to be a minimalist and I also wanted to be forced to abandon the comforts of my American lifestyle. I would be living with a Spanish family, so my household needs would be taken care of. Electronic devices were not a thing yet, so a film camera and a journal completed my pack.

The plane landed in Madrid, and I was to take a bus to Oviedo, in the north of Spain, my home for the next half year. First I had to spend the night somewhere, which involved a series of transportation decisions and communications. I was congratulating myself on getting through this respectably while waiting for a taxi, when I saw a very blonde head bobbing my way. Next was the familiar smile, and I was standing with that girl Emily from my college! I was not super excited to see her, because I thought I could do better independently. I wanted the whole experience of Spain, unencumbered by reminders of my old life. Nevertheless, Emily and I teamed up, spent the night somewhere, shared notes and jet lag remedies, and got ourselves on the proper bus to Oviedo the next morning.

My eyes were glued to the landscape out the bus window. The lack of trees surprised me. There were some mountains, but not much else to look at. At midday we stopped at a roadside rest area, and I bought my first slice of Spanish tortilla, an egg and potato quiche. This moment of Real Food while on the road, and the discovery of the ubiquitous Good Coffee, made me fall in love with this country a little on my first day.

The initial journey came to an end in Oviedo, where I registered with my program, and met my host family. They lived in an apartment about a 45 minute walk from the University of Oviedo. Walking became my new way of life, and I spent most of the next six months on the streets, the lovely streets, the ones that were built before cars were invented, so cars did not fit. There were winding alleys and steps and narrow arches, and stone plazas with more statues than I’d ever seen before. I learned that young people rarely went into each others’ homes in this community, and so most youthful business was conducted out of doors. Couples necked on benches, and large groups of teenagers cruised in flocks through the parks. I had never lived in a city before, and along with all the streets and buildings, I had to get used to all the people, all the time, everywhere. I was a solitary, pale-faced, too-big, non-feminine anomaly among them, walking through the crowds and taking it all in.

My host family had two daughters, but one had recently moved in with her boyfriend, so they had a spare room for me. Meals were provided. I thought that this meant I would spend time with them and get to know what life was like in a Spanish home. The family was not very warm, and didn’t spend much time with each other. Each one had a different schedule, and although I always got a meal, it was usually sitting alone in the kitchen. Once, the mother told me that she wished we could all just take a pill when we got hungry. Mostly I lived on chocolate cookies and cured sausages, and the maid when she came would fix me rice with a fried egg and tomato sauce, and leave a huge salade nicoise for the family. Once in a while the mother would make croquettes or a fish called pixin, pure white and very flavorful. But like the rest of the people in this city, I started going out, and discovering the food of the city.

As my few supplies ran out or wore out, I shopped to find new things: shoes, pants, hair clips, notebooks, a knife. I was amazed by how shopping was done in this place. It was unheard of to browse. The shop workers wanted to know straightaway what you desired. I was not used to admitting to anyone what I was looking for. I was a wandering shopper. This didn’t work well in Spain.

I did eventually find out how to get what I needed. I also found a guitar, which I had been desperately missing. It was a cheap Korean thing. I was in the wrong part of the country to buy a bona fide Spanish guitar. This one had six steel strings that stayed in tune well enough, and a soft case with backpack straps. Back in my solitary room I focused on songs, writing down lyrics, and learning new melodies. Soon I had an idea: I would sometimes see scruffy people on the street singing and making money, and I decided to try it. After much scouting, I chose a place under an archway in the pedestrian zone. I lay my wool jacket on the cobbles in front of me and sang my heart out– all the American folk songs I wanted to sing. Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. Coins clinked together steadily down into my jacket. There were lots and lots of ones, but many fives as well. I usually played for an hour, and never made less than forty bucks. It all went to my eating/drinking/travel fund.

I wondered why people gave me money…. Was I begging? Did they appreciate the music? Or was it pity? Were the gypsies going to get mad at me for taking over their turf? As I played, I had a unique vantage point. I was staying still, and could watch all that was going on around me. I became invisible, in a sense, and could stare at people much more overtly. Dramas unfolded before my eyes. I learned another side of the city.

I had a boom box in my room, and I picked up albums, fueling my musical studies. All were American artists, nothing had anything to do with Spain, but here I had so much time to focus on my obsession. I also began to spend large chunks of time at the public library. The process to get a library card was excruciatingly complex, so I contented myself with sitting among the stacks, pulling out a variety of books, and then puzzling over the I Ching in Spanish, trying to find some oracle of wisdom to make order come to my life.

When I got sick with a bronchial infection, I didn’t know what to do. There was no campus nurse, no family doctor. At the weekly market that I walked through on my way to class, I saw a lady vending herbs. I described my symptoms to her, and she made me a bag of something to take as a tea. It seemed to work for a day or two, but then a classmate clued me in: I could just walk into any drugstore and buy antibiotics. That was a miracle.

One of my biggest challenges was finding who to hang out with. I imagined meeting Spanish people and making friends, really absorbing the culture through them. I loitered around the college, and skulked in the students’ coffee house. I made tentative eye contact, smiled. I carried my guitar around and made excuses to talk to people. Again and again, I was treated like someone you would pass on a New York City sidewalk. I was there, but I felt ignored, like everyone knew I would not be staying permanently, and I was not worth the investment. I watched friends sitting in pairs and trios at outdoor cafes, deep in intense conversations, touching each other, laughing ecstatically, their speech dripping with tantalizing obscure slang phrases that I would never know. I was not qualified to be friends with anyone. I would be gone soon enough.

So, I was left to the Americans. I spent part of my day with them in class anyway, and they seemed to be just as hungry for companionship as me. In my first week, I had been disappointed to learn that although I was enrolled in the University of Oviedo, I was not to be taking classes with the general student population. We Americans were stuck on the non-EU floor with a few Japanese, Australian, and Brazilian students. The classes were designed for non-native speakers, and were not challenging and full-speed like I had been imagining. It was not so bad, once I accepted it, as was hanging out with the Americans. But when I realized that my grade was based on the final exam, which I was sure to pass, I gave myself liberal permission to cut class and experience as much of the non-academic culture as possible.

But I did become friends with the Americans. And we traveled together and experienced Spain together. We looked at thousand-year-old bridges and churches, and ate huge festive meals, and showed each other the bars that served French fries with twenty different sauces, and the underground pub with all the board games. We reminisced about Bon Jovi and the Beatles and TV shows that we were missing. We moved in a pack, and dared each other to be more outgoing. And then the Spaniards seemed to see us. We found ourselves in conversations with people who saw us less as individuals and more as a force. We had strength together. One week I rented a car with a couple of my best friends, and we explored the coast. In a sketchy neighborhood in Santiago de Compostela, we returned to our parked car to see a pair of threatening men flashing a gun. We linked arms, put our heads together, and laughed as we walked towards our car. No one got shot.

I still most often traveled alone. I went to France by myself one rainy spring week and cried in the Louvre, unable to absorb any art. I bought a book of poetry by Raymond Carver and sat on a Paris bench and got lost in it. In Bordeaux I met roller-skating kids and ate canned soup cooked on a hot plate in a dorm room, and tried to explain why I was not a hippie. I stood under an awning during a drenching cloud-burst with an old French man, and he gave me a vocabulary lesson. “When it rains like this we say it is ‘comme vaches qui pissent’” He wrote it down on a piece of paper and I tucked it into my pocket. Later I puzzled out that it meant it was raining like peeing cows.

On the way back to Oviedo, dreadfully sick again, I tried to telephone to find a room late at night and lost all my Spanish. The kind woman on the other end revealed that she was an American and she comforted me in my mother tongue. I was too relieved to be offended, and accepted my luck. I spent too much money for clean sheets and slept and slept. And then I bought more antibiotics at another corner store.

I wandered. I read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and decided that I needed to experience bullfighting. Ciudad Rodrigo was having a fiesta and bullfight coming up, so I threw some clean underwear and a notebook in my backpack guitar case and hopped on a bus. I stepped off in Ciudad Rodrigo at ten in the morning, and walked smack into a group of three drunk young men who had been up all night. For the first time, real Spanish people were paying attention to me, so I kissed all of them. And then one of them said he had to go home to echar a las vacas. Let’s go to the farm and feed the cows. Then we’ll come back to the fiesta. I jumped in the car with these boozy strangers and got dropped off twenty minutes later on the side of the dusty road.

The fellow I was with, Pedro, lived with his parents and sisters. He slurredly introduced me to them and told me to get on the tractor. He started it up and we rolled toward the gate, and he motioned to his father to open it. The old man just stood there. “Open the gate!” he roared. The father shook his head. The mother came out. “Por favor, Pedro,” she called. “Por favor.” There was a standoff. I just stood on the back of the tractor, along for the ride. “I have to feed the cows!” “Please, Pedro. Get down.”

He finally gave up, and he stumbled to his bed and passed out, after telling me we’d go back to town and stay at his grandmother’s house that night. I was glad of that, because I knew the hostels were probably all booked up. I sat at the table, waiting stoically. The mother and sisters just looked at me. Then they fed me. They told me there was a bus back to town in twenty minutes, and told me where to stand to flag it down.

A couple hours later I was rolling once more into Ciudad Rodrigo. I never saw Pedro again. On my own again, I wandered the town, in this fragile, lonely, hungry state. The time was up for the running of the bulls, and I found myself in the perfect place, in a bar along the road they ran down. Iron bars on the open door warned people not to casually walk out. At the last second, several men jumped inside, and a couple of black shapes hurried by. We all filed back out and followed them to the plaza. I sat on bleachers as the bullfight happened. I tried to put myself in a Hemingway frame of mind, but I never quite understood the ritual. I was surrounded by men, this lone, strange American girl who wanted to do manly things. I didn’t work out very well. I returned to Oviedo, dusty and sad.

I went to Valencia with an American friend of mine to visit a Spanish guy that she had dated when he was an exchange student at her high school in Massachusetts. She was my best friend in Spain, but as we got nearer to Valencia, she distanced herself from me. Revisiting this friendship was on her mind.. We were there for Las Fallas, the big festival, where neighborhoods build huge sculptures and then burn them. On the way there I lost a contact lens on the bus, and spent the rest of the trip half blurry-blind. I was constantly disoriented, and had the increasing feeling that I was an unwanted companion. Not knowing what else to do, I tagged along, knowing I was boring and in the way. The ex-boyfriend and his friends were artists, into motorcycles and cocaine. My friend was swept along in the excitement. The best part of that experience was the sandwich that the ex-boyfriend’s mother packed me for the bus ride home. She squeezed tomato pulp onto the inside of a cut-open crusty roll, and layered on the ham and razor-thin slices of manchego. I ate it, and we rode home in silence.

With every experience in this country, making my way through these uncomfortable situations, my shyness dissolved. It had to. I forced myself to speak up, to be understood, to insert myself anywhere I thought was a good idea. And, I inserted myself in plenty of bad ideas. Through it all, my accent got pretty good. I learned new words constantly. I understood just about everything. I felt fluent, comfortable moving through the country. I would go to the movies, and know I hadn’t missed anything.

One evening I watched Good Will Hunting, a current American drama, overdubbed into Spanish, as all movies were. I don’t remember much about the movie except for the closing scene. A car hits the road, the road reaches West, forever. It is an absolutely American image, and for the first time, and like a load of bricks, I began to miss home. I had enough Spanish loneliness; I yearned for the American loneliness of the open road. I cried through the credits.

Six months into my stay in Spain, my mom came to visit me. We explored a few new places, but mostly I ended up taking her to some of my favorite finds. We went to the same paella place I had been to in Valencia. We went to the Inquisition museum, had many drinks, and many tapas, and stayed in lodgings one grade higher than my norm. One evening, in the plaza of a beautiful town, we took a walk before dinner, and the whole rest of the town was out, walking, holding hands, sitting together, gossiping. My mom decided this was an excellent time to show the world her faux tap-dancing routine. Maybe the sound of her leather-soled sandals on the plaza stones gave her the idea, I don’t know. I was mortified that she had blown my cover. I was suddenly just another American traveller, not cooler than all the rest. We were just as obnoxious as anyone. We went to dinner and my mom tried to speak Spanish with the waiter. She was getting it all wrong, but I couldn’t shut her up. I don’t know if I needed to prove more to her or to the Spanish strangers that I was good at this, that I could blend in and be part of this country. But she was the reality check: I couldn’t hide where I had come from. I brought her to the airport, and sent her back to her country.

While I was at the airport, I inquired at the ticket counter about changing my departure date. I had a week left, and $212 dollars. It wasn’t enough, but I was planning to play more music in the street. I just didn’t know where else I wanted to go. The lady behind the counter told me it would cost $200 to change my ticket. I boarded a plane a few hours behind my mom.

The same day, I was stepping off the Amtrak train in upstate New York, shell-shocked. My friends picked me up at the station, and we spent an evening together, trying to catch up, although everything seemed much too current to be news. It was so sudden, I was back, and I didn’t know what to say. The language that I had been working on so diligently had just evaporated from my surroundings. I continued to dream in Spanish off and on for the whole summer.

I haven’t been able to pretend that I had a fantastic, lovely time in Spain. For a long time I blamed Spain for being inhospitable and lonely. Now I think that I was going through a hard time in life, and it would likely have been hard no matter where I was in the world. I struggled with insecurity and lack of direction. With the false confidence of the uncertain, I went there thinking I would fit in, become European, be celebrated, stay forever. It wasn’t the case. However, in Spain I developed the ability to push myself out there, even with low self-esteem, to communicate and to perform. I found some real strength underneath the arrogance, and had more reasons to like who I was.  But in the end, I needed home and family. I missed the endless American road. I wanted to be driving west into nothingness.

I went home and worked at a gas station. Then I went back to college and no one had missed me while I was gone, but I didn’t necessarily need that. I knew what I needed, I loved everyone more, and appreciated the wonder that is a small college town in America. I was still looking for connection, reality, independence, and authenticity.

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When I finished reading this essay, I sat quietly for a minute, feeling, of all things, gratitude.

Thank you, Sarah, for pouring yourself into this assignment, for viewing it as an opportunity to record and clarify an important part of your life.

Thank you to all the students who are thinkers, workers, wanderers, wonderers–you students who remind teachers that they are privileged witnesses to transformation.

Indeed, thank you to all the students who make Year 25 of a teaching career feel not like a sigh of exhaustion but, rather, like the start of another beautiful adventure.

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Twelve Days of Summer

Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY NINE

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On the ninth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: nine sheep a’leaping

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The past couple of years, I’ve been the faculty advisor for our campus’ chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, which is the honor society for two-year colleges. It’s been a fascinating experience–something that’s foreign to my ways of functioning in the world–and therefore I’m grateful to have had it. PTK is very much about awarding official accolades in clappy-clappy ceremonies. As a rule, I don’t crave accolades, I’m not one for clappy-clappy, and ceremonies create in me a strong desire to bolt for the Exit sign. It’s been good for me to see how important such stuff can be for students, though, and how the programming of PTK can truly impact their lives. And if students are into it, and it’s helping them develop skills and earn scholarship monies, I can play nice. Because students plump my shriveled heart and make it grow wings, I can bundle into some Spanx and do clappy-clappy.

On a personal level, the best part of PTK has been the opportunity to travel to the various conferences, whether they are regional or national. The college has provided PTK with a budget that covers such trips; moreover, because PTK headquarters has resources (*coughmoneycough*), the speakers at the national conventions are terrific. Between trips to Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, I’ve sat rapt and listened to Alison Levine, who led the first team of American women up Mt. Everest; listened to Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic; listened to Malcolm Gladwell, the charismatic author of several bestsellers (such as Blink and Outliers); and listened to John Legend, the R & B singer and man intelligent enough to marry hilarious model Chrissy Teigen. These are only a few of the speakers who reminded me that I thrill, from my toenails to my scalp, when I hear smart people spew words.

Beyond the national conventions, I also was fortunate to win a free registration this summer to something called The Honors Institute. Held this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Institute offered six days of sessions and speakers at the University of New Mexico. Attendees stayed in the dorms, ate in the cafeteria, and, at least for the students involved, had their first-ever experience on a four-year college campus.

Beyond the allure of a week of excellent speakers (notably Reza Aslan, PhD, author of books on religious topics, an Iranian-American who experienced a bit of fame when he appeared on the Dunce Network–excuse me, the Fox Network–in an interview that subsequently went viral; the interviewer couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that he’s Muslim but wrote a book about Jesus, despite his continued explanations in response to her questioning of his credentials: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” Completely, entirely, radically, the interviewer was unable to grasp that a person’s private beliefs are separate from his area of academic inquiry. Not unrelatedly: I see students all the time in college classes who suffer from the same syndrome. They refuse to read assigned novels, making claims of faith, lacking the nuanced thinking to see that a book is one thing, yet their faith is another. If their faith is firm, no book will shake it. Refusing to read a book is an indication of unacknowledged fear. We avoid what bothers us, and if a student makes a case for avoidance, then that topic is exactly what we should be addressing. It’s sort of like why I don’t want to talk about Twizzlers. Also, should I maybe start a new blog post and deposit this rant there? Anyhow, as I was saying: Reza Aslan was phenomenally articulate and able to parse out subtleties that too often elude the mainstream. Certainly, I had an objection or two during his talk, but the reason I liked him is this: he’d welcome my objections. Thus, an hour in the presence of his voice buoyed me immeasurably), there was the social aspect of attending the Honors Institute.

First, I flew to the Institute with one of my students and spent the bulk of my time that week with her. She is more friend than student–a 52-year-old full-time clinical data analyst who’s been the student mentor in my online classes the past few years–and I enjoy her hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Then, there’s the fact that my brother lives in Albuquerque and was kind enough to pick us up at the airport, take us out for a hike and dinner with his younger daughter, and let me stay at his place the first night, along with taking a day off from work later in the week when we conference attendees had a free day. I enjoy my brother and niece hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Once the actual Institute happened, there was an overwrought registration process that took hours of standing in a winding line while waiting with 500 others as we made our way to our keys and room assignments. Even though I took out a book and slammed my face into its pages as my student and I loitered in line, packed hundreds deep in a dorm hallway, shuffling forward six inches every four minutes, there still were a lot of people around me with things to say to each other. There was talking as they muddled forward together. There was a lot of talking as everyone shambled together.

At long last, I received my key and room assignment. My student received hers. Since no one at the registration table had a map or gave us directions, we then wandered in large circles around the UNM campus, dragging our suitcases behind us, looking for signs on buildings that matched the words on our envelopes. Eventually, after entirely too much time, we found our rooms (in separate dorms). As I entered my room for the first time, I held my breath. Would my roommate–whoever she was–be there already? Sweaty and tired, needing a quiet break, I pushed the door open. That the room was empty was a colossal clemency. Gratefully, I wheeled myself in and stripped off my backpack. Staring at the two beds, I tried to triangulate the set-up to see if one would afford more privacy. Quickly, I decided to take the one towards the back of the room, leaving open the bed in the half of the room with the fridge, microwave, mirrors, and access to the bathroom. At the very least, once I got settled in my bed, I wouldn’t have to smile and play nice each time my roommate wandered through. As that thought floated through my mind, I heard a rattle at the door. My roommate. When the door swung open, it wasn’t a stranger. It was a woman from my region, a faculty member from the college where I used to teach. I’d first met her in 1996. We had a lot to say to teach other. There was talking, for six days, when we were together. There was a lot of talking when we were together.

Additionally, we were to share a bathroom with the adjacent suite. That meant four women shared a toilet, shower, and sink space. That meant there was no escape, even in the most private moments. That meant I had to reach deep into my history and channel my 18-year-old self, a girl who found dorm living as exciting as it was enervating–a girl who didn’t chafe when she wanted to wash her hair or hit the toilet but first had to wade through a gauntlet of friendly talk. Little-known fact: ladies in the bathroom have a lot to say to each other. There was talking when we all were brushing our teeth together. There was a lot of talking into mirrors together.

Three times a day, as well, there were meals in the cafeteria. Each conference attendee was given a pre-loaded meal card that provided entrance to the dining hall for free meals. Trust me: once or twice, I was more than happy to wave off the crew heading to the cafeteria and hike to a cluster of local shops. There I, or my student and I, gladly paid for food. What a blessing it is to be able to pay for a meal, even when a free one presents itself, simply because the purchased meal feeds the parched spirit. For the most part, though, it was quicker and easier to wade into the cafeteria and load up on carbohydrates and three steamed carrots. Speaking of scenarios that really burn my tits: it’s been years since I held a tray of crappy food while scanning a vast sea of tables, looking for a friendly face and an open seat. Once we found a place at a table, there was lots of talking. There was talking as we all ate Rice Krispies bars together. There was a lot of talking when we loaded our empty trays onto conveyor belts together.

Before and after each meal were the sessions. For each session, there would be a speaker followed by a seminar break-out discussion (the presentations were awesome, one and all–beyond Reza Aslan, we also saw New Mexican dancers, watched a play written by a female playwright who illuminates Latina lives, and enjoyed hearing stories from National Geographic‘s “big cat” photographer, among others). All week, we met in our assigned seminar groups with the same small group of people. Put another way, my usual tactics of skittering off into the darkness were thwarted since I was in a group of 12, and all my seminar mates were fellow advisors. As in, they, too, were teachers. Like, used to keeping track of bodies and noticing when someone was missing. Teachers are also really good at discussing. I hate teachers. During every seminar session–and there were two each day, the last one ending at 10:15 p.m.–there was lots of talking. There was talking as we probed the true meaning of the angry outbursts expressed by the teenage daughter in the play we’d watched. In our seminar group, there was a lot of talking about angry fictional outbursts.

In summary: the week was a highly programmed, tightly scheduled bit of unrelenting socializing. I suspect the overarching purpose of the 14-hours-a-day approach was to keep the underage students from finding the time and energy it would take to score booze, get tanked, and vomit into the cactus-based landscaping. For those of us who require alone time to remain functional, the week was challenging. I did, in fact, skip out on the “optional” afternoon sessions when I could, hoping to score a retreat back in the dorm room. Two things sabotaged those efforts: 1. ROOMMATE; 2. MARCHING BAGPIPE TROUPE PRACTICING OUTSIDE MY WINDOW EVERY AFTERNOON FOR TWO HOURS.

My sanity was saved that week by the same things that keep my nut in a jar in regular life: exercise, beer, and staying up later than everyone else so that I can be alone. Every day, I used stolen afternoon hours to run, and every night, despite the “absolutely no alcohol or you will be expelled” policy, somehow alcohol found its way into my water bottle, and it was the only water bottle I had, so I had to empty the thing otherwisetherewouldhavebeennoplaceforwater. Capping off each day was late-night time perched on my dorm bed–where I would hunch over my laptop and grade that day’s work in my online summer classes. By 3 a.m., I’d feel in control, both of my need for solitude and the heaps of discussion posts and paraphrasing activities.

By 3:20 a.m., I’d turn off my book light, fluff my pillow, and catch a cool three hours of sleep before my roommate would leap out of bed to make coffee and curl her hair.

I find I am a devoted fan of straight hair.

By midweek during the Honors Institute, I was a wild mixture of elated, overwhelmed, satisfied, emotionally sweaty, and exhausted. I’d been away from home for four days. I hadn’t yet called to check in. It was time to call home for some talking. There would be talking about all we’d done without each other. However, given who my family members are, bless Odin, there would be not much talking about all we’d done without each other.

The call was so mercifully brief as to feel like an icy shot of aquavit pouring down a dry throat.

Byron and I had kept in touch through Facebook messages, but still, hearing him on the line restored me. Then he passed the phone to Allegra–ever her mother’s daughter in her dislike of the telephone. She was glad to tell me, in forty-two words, about her job, her running group, some babysitting. Then she grabbed Paco.

“Hi, Mom.” His voice is ineffably sweet when heard in isolation from his face.

“Hey, Punky. How you doin’?”

“I’m okay,” he assured me, wanly.

“How was the sleepover birthday party at Isaac’s last night? I’m guessing you guys slept in his back yard in the tent?”

“Yea,” he yawned. “I decided it would be okay to do that. It was.”

“So how many other boys were there?”

“Ummm, I didn’t count. But it seemed like at least six. A few of them weren’t so much about the sleeping. They talked all night.” I could almost hear him rubbing his eyes.

“Oh, man, I know that feeling, kiddo. It just makes you feel wiped out, doesn’t it, to feel like you’re done with your day, but it still continues?”

“Yea. I was ready to be done,” he confessed.

There are moments when I want to swaddle my twelve-year-old, just one last time, and tuck him into my armpit.

“Aww, pup. I can hear the fatigue in your voice. You sound raspy and tired when you talk. I’m glad you’re relaxing tonight. After you’re done watching your show, go to bed, and sleep really well, okay?” I mothered.

He perked up at this idea. “I’m just going to finish out this Mythbusters, and then I’m going to sleep for a long time. I know I’ll feel better tomorrow. Hey, so how’s your conference? Have you done anything fun?”

Quickly, I gave him a rundown of the good stuff, trying to convey how events that are wonderful can also be too much.

When I was done, Paco asked, “So two more days ’til you’re home? I’ll be in bed before you get home that night, right?”

Correct, Pumpkin. But you’ll feel my breeze as I wheel my suitcase into the house, below your sleeping head.

We wound down our conversation with me telling him to have a good night and him telling me to have fun. Then, just as I was about to say one last good-bye and disconnect, he added, “Mom?”

“Yea, Bubs?”

“I hope you sleep well tonight. I can hear in your voice that you’re really tired. Be sure you get some good sleep tonight.”

The child became the parent, and my heart expanded to match the size of his.

Assuring him I would take good care, we hung up.

The dorm room, barring a hum from the mini-fridge, was completely silent.

Balancing on the edge of the bed, I wiped tears from my eyes, inhaled a bracing breath, and grabbed my meal card.

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friends

To Feel the Sun from Both Sides

I met her fifteen years ago, when I was 29, and she was 59. We taught at the same college, and my first semester there was her last.

She retired when she turned 60, and although we’d met when we were colleagues, our friendship didn’t really begin until we no longer worked together. Having encountered each other at a few dinner parties and grazed glances over the cassoulet–recognizing in each other a mutual humor—we took to email, where our acquaintanceship evolved over months through nightly typed conversations.

I courted with my husband through email a few years later, but Virginia was my first modern epistolary love.

In our nightly emails, we shared stories of romances, dysfunctions, students, travels, families, community involvements. As we grew closer through writing, we grew closer in life, as well. I ate dinner at her house often; we met over coffee; we eased the transition of a Polish Fulbright Scholar and her daughter into Midwestern American life.

At some point along the way, Virginia admitted her sexual orientation to me, which came as no surprise. I like boys; she likes girls. That openness freed us to discuss her on-again-off-again-always-there-but-never-healthy long-term partnership with a woman in town. That openness freed us to agree that, because hair, including that on the chin, continues to grow after death, we would be there for each other to perform any post-mortem plucking or shaving necessary to present a respectable corpse. That openness freed me to gift her with a pair of thong underwear covered with smiley faces; when she tried them out by wearing them to church one Sunday morning, she was gripped with such giggles about her I’m-sixty-one-and-guess-what’s-under-my-pants-as-I-take-Communion secret that she had to bury her head in the hymnal and search for a non-existent song called “Oh Holy Jeebus, I’m About to Pee My Thong.”

After awhile, we took trips together: visiting Madison to eat Ethiopian food; driving to see the circus and National Crane Foundation in Bariboo, Wisconsin; flying to Ireland to travel the West Coast in a group of four women. As we rode on the bus that took us from Dublin to Galway, Virginia provided me with one of my all-time favorite memories. We were traveling with my cousin, someone prone to fits and pouting when not given her own way; said cousin—adult in chronology more than temperament–was in a snit about some aspect of the travel plans and had crossed her arms belligerently and refused to look at or talk to anyone, creating tension and anxiety amongst us all. After a stretch of tolerating the manipulative huffiness, Virginia leaned across the aisle and announced, gently but firmly, to Crabby Cousin, “Say, you see that clock up there?” When Crabby Cousin cut her eyes up to the clock at the front of the bus, Virginia continued, “You have until the big hand hits the twelve to get over yourself and shape up.”

I still regret that I wasn’t wearing a thong, as I would have peed it right there and then before sliding it out the leg of my jeans and quietly setting it onto my seething cousin’s knee.

The years followed each other, and Virginia was always there, always attentive to me, always gracious, always thoughtful. When I turned thirty and was living alone in our small town, she invited me over for cake and candles. Without her, there would have been none. When I was cavalier about recycling and couldn’t be bothered to set up a system, instead tossing my pop cans into the trash—clearly being an adult in chronology more than temperament runs in the family–she suggested, “Just put them into bags in your garage, and I’ll come pick them up every few weeks.” When my car neared death, and I needed a replacement but couldn’t see how to finance such a thing under the weight of existing debt, she noted, “I’ve been needing a new car.  Why don’t you take my old one? Pay me, let’s see, $500. Payments are due whenever you can make them, in any amount.”

Then I fell in love with Byron, and she did too. When I suffered a miscarriage on a night when Byron was five hours away, and I called her in tears at 10:30 p.m. to whimper, “Something bad just happened in my toilet, and there’s lots of blood,” she was at my house by 10:35 and held my hand for two hours as I lay on the table in the ER and let the medical staff extract bits of tissue from my cervix.  A few days later, when we discovered I’d been carrying twins, and one Little Gripper still hung in there, Byron and I called Virginia first. A few weeks after that, at our wedding, at our request, she stood up and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian, thus including Byron’s Norwegian-speaking Christian grandparents. A few months later, as I pushed my first baby out into the world, Virginia stood at my knee, welcoming Allegra into the world.

But I am just one person, just a speck in her larger sphere. Outside of all the many everythings she has done for me, Virginia has a long history of public service, in particular of easing newcomers into the community. As a former foreign language and communications teacher and someone who lived at one point in Germany and some decades later in Madagascar, she is particularly sensitive to the hurdles immigrants face. Thus, she sponsored a Bosnian family when they moved to town and for several years after, setting them up in an apartment, getting them work, caring for their children. This, she has also done for multiple other families and couples; her kitchen table has a permanent open seat for those wanting to learn English, wanting to learn how to drive in the U.S., wanting help translating a letter from one language to another.

She also has worked building community amongst the GLBT population and their families through her decades of work with a group originally called SMAC (Sexual Minority Advocacy Council) but which has evolved in name to Q & A (either Questions & Answers or Queers & Allies—as she says, “Take your pick”).  In the spare minutes not occupied with helping all the struggling souls in a sixty mile area improve their lots or overseeing the care of her Alzheimer’s-riddled mother, she has also helped awaken the community to the need to make sidewalk corners, public buildings, and bathrooms accessible to people with mobility impairment. Rounding out her volunteerism (but in no way completing the list) have been her work with People Needing People, a weekly social group for developmentally challenged adults, and her participation on the boards of the Christian Education Center and a local nursing home.

At some point, do-gooder work can turn into a litany of “did this, did that” and sound self-congratulatory or like resume stacking. Here’s where Virginia is different: her purpose is not to be a Do Gooder. Her purpose is to live life right and well and, thusly, to do some good.

More than a decade ago, she noticed that the new family across the alley, having just moved up from the South, seemed oblivious to the way the frigid Minnesota weather was affecting their tiny dog. They left the three-pound dog outside all day and night, all year ‘round. Once she realized this, Virginia ventured over and caught the mother of the family when she was hanging up laundry, taking the opportunity to offer a piece of thick foam for the dog to stand on; to offer a smaller, lighter chain for the dog to be tethered on; to offer the addition of a dog house; to offer to adopt the dog as her own. “Oh, no,” the mother replied.“The kids love Purdy too much to let her go.” Eventually, the mother—overwhelmed by parenting children with disabilities and an unhappiness with her life—approached Virginia and said, “You can have Purdy. For $50.”

Unable to stomach the name “Purdy,” Virginia morphed it to “Perky” and bestowed upon that pup the finest of love and care (sharing dog ownership, as she had with her previous dog, halving it with a woman in a neighboring city, an agreement that afforded them both the benefits of life with a pet and freedom to travel). Soon thereafter, a hot fifty bucks in her pocket, the mother across the alley left her family. The father had a job and was not the right person to tend to his left-behind children. However, in keeping them—despite severe disabilities—at home, he continues to receive state aid. With the most functional child, whose issues stem from Asperger’s and neglect, Virginia has forged a life-altering relationship. When he was very young, she took him to the library every week, read to him, fed him, rode bikes with him to the nature center for picnics, spent two years teaching him to blow his nose.  Now that he’s in high school, she still feeds him (steak and potatoes—the meal he’ll eat), buys him the winter coat and boots he wouldn’t have otherwise, washes his hair in her kitchen sink once a week with the vegetable sprayer, loans him her shaver, requires him to brush his teeth with every visit. More recently, Virginia and her wife, Kirsten, have constructed a hygiene chart for him and reward his achievements with Pokemon DS games; they also helped him obtain a violin so that he can continue to learn the instrument. Were it not for them, his friend count would be zero. As it is, his friend count hovers at two: Virginia and Kirsten.

In the midst of living this rich life, Virginia was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in the mid-1990’s.  She had a full hysterectomy and underwent an intense three days of radiation at the Mayo Clinic, during which her movements were restricted due to the little diamond of radioactivity suspended inside of her; she was dressed in blood-circulating balloon pants, no thong required.

After being declared “clear” for a few years, the cancer returned. More radiation. Remission.

It was after that second round of fighting off mutant cells that Virginia met Kirsten (in a darkened theater, their fingertips touched…), a woman roughly half her age. Early in their relationship, when it was becoming clear they would have a future together, Virginia advised Kirsten, “You’ll lose me to cancer, you know.” Accepting the odds, Kirsten committed fully to sharing the rest of Virginia’s life with her (my standing up as one of Virginia’s two witnesses during their ceremony remains a life honor). On a daily basis, they have been living out a dizzying love story.

And then, well. Last spring. There was a new diagnosis. The cancer in Virginia’s pelvis was awake. Growing. It was time for new action. In the past, it had been radiation. This time, it would be chemotherapy.

Bolstered by Kirsten’s upbeat approach, Virginia viewed chemotherapy as a chance to rock the world of head gear. However, even a dresser drawer full of beautiful scarves, knit caps, and biker hats didn’t ease the painful morning when Virginia staggered out of the shower in full tears, holding a handful of hair.

How full of grace is the universe that, at that moment, she didn’t have to shave her own head? Kirsten held her, hugged her, and revved up the clippers.

Some weeks later, still missing the feel of hair and the ability to pass as “normal,” Virginia decided she wanted a wig. Kirsten and I shared a quick “Ewww. But we hate wigs” before taking a look at the bewigged Virginia and conceding that she looked incredible. Probity channels through the eyes, not the hair.

As her chemo neared its end, Virginia developed a persistent, dry cough. However, her energy remained good, to the point that she spent hours each day doing yard work, one day tying off eight bags of raked leaves before remarking, “I’m not sure why, but I do feel a little tired.”

The cough became worrying. Follow-up scans revealed that a side effect of the chemotherapy was infection in the lungs. She was put on a drug to treat the spots.

Some months later—fairly recently–further scans revealed that the “infection” was, in fact, not so benign. Rather, the spots of infection are cancerous tumors. During the months of chemo, the pelvic cancer had metastasized.

The thing about tumors in the lungs is that the conversation changes. Hopeful words like “remission” no longer apply. More common are words like “How much time does she have?”

When I first received the news of the lung cancer, I greeted it stoically, feeling that I’d done my major grieving last spring, when the pelvic cancer had first returned. Okay. So there was a new development. We were dealing with a different beast. Okay.

Stoicism doesn’t become me—it holds my face falsely rigid. More natural are the acrobatics of sustained weeping. While we were staying in the idyllic setting of The Fairy Chimney, the weeping hit. At random moments—chopping carrots, logging onto email, putting away groceries—I’d realize I had tears on my cheeks. One night, Kirsten called, and I ended up having the kind of lovely chat with Virginia that made me feel 29 again. As we made moves to hang up (or, in Virginiaspeak, “ring off”), we both were flooded with the unspoken, with the thought of “I wonder if I’ll ever see you again.” The sound of Virginia blowing her nose lingering in my ear, I clicked the off button on the phone. And then I sat at the kitchen table, heaving and heaving, speckling the merry red-and-white checked tablecloth with tears.

As grief gnawed, I continued to wonder if I would see Virginia again. One day, as I attempted to monologue while crying, Byron interrupted me and noted, “Some of this is about your dad, you know.”

I did know. I did. During the weeks when my dad was dying, I was nine months pregnant, and he was more than a thousand miles away. He died in alone, in a room he’d been moved into the day before. Having undergone an emergency C-section thirteen days before he passed, I wasn’t there. We knew he was going, but I didn’t see him One Last Time.

Even more, the way I loved my dad is the way I love Virginia. It’s pure, full of respect, steady, gentle; similarly, with both my dad and Virginia, their returned love—feeling the sun from the other side—landed in me easily and was uncomplicated by show, contrivance, need. The quietest love lodges most deeply, and these two low-key people occupy the same homely corner of my heart.

My dad’s story is over. Virginia’s carries on. Several weeks ago, another scan of her lungs was done, this time to see if the current medication was having any effect. In what could only be good news to someone living with the word uncurable, she and Kirsten were told that the tumors had not grown. They had not shrunk, but they had not grown. Good news. A day for celebration, in its way. The doctors predict she has somewhere between nine months and three years left.

Such a prognosis changes the tenor of every remaining day. Despite feeling guarded, Virginia and Kirsten are now gripped with a desire to live every day intensely, to grab at everything, to make every minute count. Unfortunately, with her diminished health, there are many things Virginia can’t and shouldn’t do. For example, her plan to visit Turkey this year is out; should she run up against a health crisis, adequate medical help might not be available. Yet travel has been her life’s blood, and so, in deciding how to spend their remaining days together, Virginia and Kirsten are trying to satisfy that need and assure, no matter the restrictions nominally put on her by doctors’ cautions, that Virginia revisits the places and people that have meant the most to her. Thus, they are planning a trip to Denmark and Germany this spring, with Kirsten, perhaps, extending her time by tacking on a leg to Turkey while Virginia flies back to the States. Before that, though, they are capitalizing on Virginia’s current high energy and taking a trip (sponsored by the college where Kirsten teaches, where Virginia used to teach) to London this next week. Anything Virginia wants to do there, Kirsten will make happen.

As a bit of a rainmaker, in fact, Kirsten will make things happen that Virginia hasn’t even imagined.

Like flying me there.

I hit Heathrow on Virginia’s 74th birthday.

—————-

Indeed, I’m about to get on a plane to London and, Sunday night, walk into a fancy restaurant whereupon I, quite cinematically, will interrupt Virginia’s birthday dinner. Although she doesn’t know I’m coming, I have no doubt that she will draw upon her greatest gift and make certain there is a seat at the table for me.

Then, for three days, we will tour castles, go to the theater, gaze upon past beauties in museums. Personally, I don’t care if we do nothing, if we sit in a bare room made out of cinderblocks. I just want to be with My Dear Virginia and see her

not One Last Time

but,

rather,

One More Time.

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