Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sand Sisters

It’s about 7 pm, and the girls are done on the beach, even though the sun won’t even consider signs of setting for another three hours.
I turn in time to see them gathering towels. The organizer, her friend probably thinks of her as put together at turns and bossy at others, shows the chubby girl how to hold the corners and fold, despite the wind. They each take two corners, and, without warning, the organizer shakes the towel to rid it of any sand. But the chubby girl wasn’t paying attention and lost her corners.
I can see the next step coming and wonder if Organizer-bossy can. Chubby picks up the corners, waits for Organizer-bossy to be off her game and shakes the towel out of her hands. They struggle a bit, but Organizer-bossy gets them through it, and soon they have a perfectly folded towel between them.
Organizer-bossy leans down and adds it to her pile of things to carry. She stands and says something to Chubby. Chubby pulls off her hoody-towel and the two set to trying to fold it as they had the first. But the hoody-towel presents some logistical problems. At first, the girls solve this by turning--slowly making a 180 degree roundabout while holding the towel carefully--because they had folded it with the opening toward the wind and couldn’t control the towel.
Chubby decides, as soon as they take their new spots in the hot sand that this is the perfect time to shake her hoody-towel. Organizer-bossy is clearly not prepared for this. She gets angry, picks up the towel and shakes it violently out of her friend’s hands. Chubby returns the favor, and in no time the two are in the sand, wrestling for control of the hoody-towel that didn’t need folding in the first place. They are half-laughing, half yelling, while they kick and pull. It seems, in the end, that Organizer-bossy wins control of the towel, but as she gets up, she throws it on the sand.
Chubby picks up the towel and tries to fold it on her own, but the wind that has swept the beach all day makes this task is impossible. Organizer-bossy makes a move to help but is waved off by Chubby, whose feelings have now been hurt. In minutes, she is frustrated and somehow Organizer-bossy has come around and put an arm on her shoulder. The two make another attempt with the hoody-towel, but they have trouble agreeing on what to do with the hoody as it hangs from the middle of the towel. Finally, they somehow agree to ignore its existence. Organizer-bossy is standing akimbo. Chubby is standing with her hoody-towel a mess.
When they begin walking, barely looking at each other, clearly back to frustration, Chubby discovers a part of the boardwalk that’s broken off. She drops her hoody-towel to bend down and turn it, refitting it in place. This catches Organizer-bossy’s attention. She drops her things as well and soon the girls are working on a new project. 
I watch them leave, piled towels in their arms, leaning into each other, deep tans witnessing the hours they have spent together on this sand. The entire time I’ve been watching my younger sister and I, somehow.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bits -- TREE

I'm going to post random bits from now on. Because I've nowhere else to put them, really, and because, well, why not.

I'll start with "tree."This is from an AVE train ride from Madrid to Figueres. AVE is high speed rail. We were going about 300KM/h at the time.


There stand kilometers of mental distance between a hill covered in trees, even shrubs, and a hill with no more than grass and a single tree, growing at an angle, from somewhere close to the bottom. That second tree on that second hill puts all the other hills into sudden perspective; it makes the distance up any of those hills a day’s work. Suddenly, even from afar, a hill, with a single tree growing at an angle from a third of the way up is the perfect place (among an entire landscape of hills, farmland, and mountainous outcroppings)--the only place--for a picnic. If you could get there.
You’re not even the picnic type. The idea is recognizable as a romantic one from stories and films, but the reality has always come out rather damp-bottomed and bug-ridden, with soggy food and far more stress and drama than any lunch deserves. What presents itself in a pretty little package of romantic realization soon becomes the realization that romance is quite often very much a picnic.
What to do, then, with the beauty of that tree, standing watch over nothing? Is it enough to note, and pass, and think wistfully of opportunities wasted?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On Love

I have set a date for marrying my husband. Yes, it sounds silly enough till you hear the story.

My husband and I met after four years of being in the same social circles and remaining completely unaware of each other. We didn't meet, in fact, until I put in a special request. I tell him this all the time, and he thinks I'm silly for it. But it fills me with wonder.

I was, at 34ish, ready to give up. I had, in most ways, given up long before. At age 10, along with a deep wish to have twins when I grew up, I had a deep down conviction that I would never marry.

But, there I was, coming up on 34, having been the official "Old Maid of Honor" at my sister's wedding. Having been at my brother's small but lovely and quiet wedding. My other sister had eloped. Most of the people I knew in high school had married by their mid-20s. Heck, my own grandmother asked once if I would ever get married; "I mean, to a man." she added as if the question weren't rough enough.

So I decided I was done with it. I thought about the men (and boys) I had dated over the years and what had drawn me to them. I am grateful to them for many things--in particular for teaching me what I needed to know to be in the relationship I am. I actually, literally, no-I'm-serious-Oprah-would-be-proud-ly made a list.

I knew that humor and intellect tied for first place. Part of the joy of intellect is the ability to use it to laugh at the world. Part of the joy of humor is the ability to use it to make intellectual commentary without inducing coma. I wanted one of those.

The rest don't follow any particular order.

I wanted a man who could appreciate music--on a deep level: I trained in Opera and Jazz, and was raised by eclectic-minded people, listening to everything from classical to pop to rock. I wanted someone who could appreciate that.

I wanted a man who appreciated the world beyond the borders of this country: as much as I love America, I love Israel, and Europe. I am sure I would love Africa and South America. More than anything I love travel. I wanted a man whose idea of travel wasn't just a day trip to Tampa.

I wanted a man who wasn't threatened by my intellect. Sounds snobby when I read that line. But when I was 15 my older sister pulled me aside to explain to me the reason she was followed around town by guys and I had no boyfriend was that I refused to act stupid--or even pretend I didn't know something. "For example," she started. "If someone said to you, 'I wonder how far it is to the sun...'" and I responded "About 93 to 94 million miles, but it's called a light year." She stormed off, yelling at me that I had just provided my own example of her lesson.

I wanted a man who was kind. There are different levels and types of kindness (lots of kinds of kind). To me, kindness is not about being soft, it's about having compassion--empathy. I wanted a man who could interact with others at a level that was imbued with that kind of kindness.

I wanted a man who was not afraid, ashamed, or guilty when it came to sex. One who understood it as the deepest form of physical intimacy, who could respect me as a lover and open himself up to me as one, too. I was raised to believe that sex, when meaningful was a beautiful act, not a secret, shameful unnecessary part of life, but one of the most important and meaningful ways to fully and truly share intimacy.

The list went on. I was making my impossible man list. I had to include everything. Unlike Sandra Bullock's character in Practical Magic, I wasn't looking for real impossibilities so as to ward off love, but my list was impossible to fill--I was looking to set high standards.

My husband and I began dating a month and a half before I turned 34. By my birthday, people were asking us how long we'd been married. We were amused. I was besotted. By our second date, I knew I would spend the rest of my life with him. At the end of our first month together, I told him I loved him (having first told him I would prefer if he did not respond to what I was about to say).

Is he impossibly perfect? Nope. He's marvelously human. Does he meet my list? Far more than enough of it. Are we a problemless couple? I doubt that monster exists, and even more deeply doubt I'd want to be in it. We are, however, in it for good--and always remind ourselves when it's tough that it's the hard things that make us better. We are a team. Like our dogs (each of us brought one into the marriage) we have bonded. We are family--in deep, permanent ways that no state approval can change or improve upon, that no disapproval (were we to be of the same sex) could have ever torn asunder.

But he wants a wedding, too. He wants to have a ceremony and a party. And now that I'm getting the planning ball rolling, well, so do I. We will be announcing to others what most of the people who know us have known all along. He was born before me, so technically I was made for him--but I think he was made for me. Special tailored to my impossible list. Meant to amount to the best of every guy I'd ever loved. My miracle man.

Most interestingly, to me, is that while it took him a few months to come to terms with "us," I felt a certainty I had never had in my life. I had loved before--and deeply, too. But I had never known, before, that I was with the love of my life.

Worry not. By tomorrow I'll be feeling cynical and depressing again and write something about war and blood. Today, though, as I pack for Spain, well, my life feels like love, actually.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I was an infant author

In some ways I am now an authoring toddler, but what I mean by infant author is that in the stories we tell in my family, I see that from even before I could write, I couldn't not write. That may sound weird, but hey, let me tell you a story.

I have very few memories from my early childhood. Interestingly, recent work on memory shows that before the age of 3 or so (depending on the child) the brain has not formed enough memory of memory to start keeping memory. I love this fact. My first actual memory is from when I was two years and nine months old. How do I know? It was the day my baby sister was born. Here's my version of the story:

My mother was being taken away in a BIG red and white car that made noise. I was holding on to her leg as they tried to get her in the car. She was fat. My auntie was trying to help them take my mother away. She grabbed me around the waist and called my name over and over and said other things. And then she pulled me off my mom's leg. So I swung around and punched her to make her let go of me. When she did I had to run after the car, but it was gone.

Here's the version I've been told and that has been (re)told all my life:

My mother went into labor while my father was at work, which apparently is how all the birth stories in my family start. She was having her fourth, was an RN, was unfazed, until she realized that it was happening faster than she was expecting. She called an ambulance. The nearest hospital was about 45 minutes at 1970s ambulance speeds. She took us next door to our auntie--her best friend. And we all waited for the ambulance. When it came my mother hugged each of us in turn, but I refused to let go. I had to  be forcibly removed by my auntie who was trying to calm me and promise my mother would return. As the ambulance pulled away, I punched her in the face and started running after it, crying and begging to be allowed to go along.

I knew this story. But even before this story, according to my mother, I was drawn to the written word. I refused to play with baby toys. I chewed on magazines and flipped through them instead. We had games and blocks and things of the like, but my favorite were the punch cards my father brought from work (for the young'uns out there, that's something they used to program computers back when computers took up entire buildings). I would take these and either draw on them or, more likely, pretend to write on them. My pretend writing took up interesting (I am told) forms. My mother would ask what I had drawn, I would insist I had drawn nothing and then tell her the story I'd "written."

When we moved to the US, I pretended to write by scribbling eternally connected loops of different sizes on notebook paper, bringing it to my mother and asking what I had written.

When I finally learned to write I spent hours practicing my words. I also wrote short stories (one paragraph a piece) for my mom. She has one about a tooth named Honey who goes to Hawaii. I'm not sure why Hawaii, but I remember being very intentional about naming the tooth Honey. I felt it was funny. I would now term it Ironic, but hey, I was 7.

In my 6th grade year, a woman who should never have been allowed to teach--and whom I would have nominated for sterilization if possible--took a book report I had written (I wrote it in the style of a New York Times book review because I was bored with summary), had me read it to the class, and then announced as I stood before them that it was the perfect example of how not to write a book report. EVER. This particular teacher hated my whole family through several years of her career. I stopped voluntarily writing for about 6 years.

In high school I was blessed with Mrs. Fields, whom I talked about in my teacher appreciation post, and who made me want to write again. I became an obsessive journalist (in the non-press meaning of the term). I also starting writing stories again.

My high school graduation came around the time of the Supreme Court decision banning prayer in high school graduations. The fight was raging in the local paper. My father, who had been giving me topics to write polemic essays on each week for at least two years, asked me to respond to a "letter to the editor." The Niagara Gazette is a Gannett publication, meaning (both then and now) that most "letters to the editor" were excerpted to about three sentences (if not three words). It was all I expected, but I poured the essay practice my father had been giving me into this one piece. It got published in full--with a guest editor byline. I still have a laminated copy.

In college, when bored and unable to think of a story, I would sit at the typewriter at work (yes, a typewriter) and practice by typing out the lyrics to my favorite songs, parsing them, finding ways to recombine them. I wrote because the physical urge would not be quelled otherwise.

My writing history from that point is unnecessary here. I am a writer. I was, apparently, born one. A writer from infancy. In fancy. I write because writing is stronger than the jones for a cigarette, or the next hit of heroin. It's my next hit of heroine--and I have to have it.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

On mothering in the corners

I'm going to start with my grumpy self and remind you that we came up with this day, this motherhood remembrance because we do not honor our mothers. We have one for fathers because we do not honor them, either. In Israel, there's a "Family Day"--and the mother of the year in 1997 (or was it 98?) was a father. In nearly every country, we have replaced our honor with a day. And this blog is no adequate replacement--can never be. As much as I would like to give this space to my mother, to honor her, I will be using it for me today. For the mother I get to be; I like to call it "in the corners". For the mother I'll never get to be. For the things she taught me, the skills, the approaches, the ways of loving and nurturing tough, strong, capable children into being, that I will never get to use.

Because I only get to mother in the corners. I mother my students--college kids, adults, and fourth through sixth graders alike. How do I get to have so many? I am privileged to teach Sunday School--and so, I have middle ones. I am privileged to teach college--and so, I have bigger ones. I am highly privileged to teach adults older than me a new tongue, a new thought process, new crafts, and so I have big ones. But I see them once or twice a week. Once a month, in some cases. And I mother all I can; scolding when the work could be better--or done at all. Holding when a student deals with the near loss of a cousin who is recovering from the accident they both had while she walks healthy. Encouraging, when none of it makes sense, but is on the tip of the tongue--the new tongue, foreign and greedy, self-insistent.

I mother my friends in the corners. Two are pregnant, one for the first time. And I read and research so I can tell her how wonderful all the tough things about pregnancy are. That they signal a healthy pregnancy. That nesting is a good instinct. That loving too much is impossible--and that it's impossible not to. That as cheesy as it sounds when spoken by a childless 38 year old, she is creating the only true miracle. And creating in a way I, with an MFA and a cast of internal children, will never create. She is godding--the highest form of human endeavor in Judaism. And I will never get to.

I don't tell her that, of course. She needn't be reminded that I lust after her child, her gifts. I have my own. I know that I need only look at my home. My puppies who love so openly and insist on being loved. My hunny who cares so much that it hurts him to see me hurt (and I have chronic hurt). My "kids," some of whom are older than I. Some are older than my parents, even. And they make me feel full. They sate the hunger for the hour and some I get with them.

I came to recognize this year that if I wake up with a "bad day" looming. Joints creaky and pained, fibromyalgia insistent and stubborn past medication, the usual cramping that accompanies reminders of why I cannot (pro)create, a depression hanging off my clothes like a fog. If I wake up on one of those days, there is only one cure: step into a classroom. Vicodin, Oxy, even Morphine have no effect like teaching upon my body. And I know that if it were not an impossibility that I must proudly pretend was a choice, that I would find mothering to be the same.

I've never said this before and I will never say it again. I miss the children I will never have. I hunger after pregnancy and birthing and diapering and holding and bonding and feeding. I move through space a full body, birthing hips designed to carry one on each side, a woman who wanted twin girls when she was 10--and was 17 before she found out that genetically she might then in her 20s when she realized that physically she couldn't.

And I say brightly to anyone that asks that there is no reason to extend my DNA. My siblings have already, and there are children out there in need of parents. And when and if hunny and I are ready, we will adopt. And until then, we host exchange students and might decide to foster, and both of us teach. And the list goes on, because it's the only way I can keep the desperation out of my voice when I acknowledge that I will never carry a pregnancy to term. If I'm tough like my mommy taught me, I will find ways to mother without what I cannot have. I will find the children whose needs I can fill. Even in the corners. It will be how I honor my parents and all the gifts they gave me.

I am angry that I am angry about this. I am betrayed by my inner self, by my biology. Both by having this need and by being unable to fulfill it. And so I will never say this again. I will mother in the corners, I will hold my friends' babies and lovingly rock them in my arms. I will give advice, I will parent my nephew for a couple of weeks in summer. I will mother my students one semester at a time. And I will spread my arms wide to hold all of them in defiance of my body which holds itself closed against this part of me.

Why Don't You Have Kids?: Living a Full Life Without Parenthood

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dedicated to my teachers

All of whom taught me to think critically.

You might think that's pretty good, that all my teachers did that. But in my estimation, those who didn't were no more than baby-sitters. I was going to say glorified, but that would be a lie.

The thing is, that most of my teachers were amazing people who dedicated themselves to the intellectual lives of others. I have a few who were my favorites;:

  • Rabbi Cooperman,who used to crack our knuckles in his oversized hand
  • Rabbi Joel, whom was "cool," especially when he left to become a reporter for the Jerusalem post
  • "Rabbi" Bob, whom we made an honorary Rabbi--he wasn't even Jewish--because that was what we called the best teachers we had, and whose insistence on our excellence and drive to make us try harder, even when we'd tried our hardest, was always a loving push
  • Mrs. Fields, who barely noticed I was alive, but got me writing again after a bad teacher had ruined it for me, and who taught us all that literacy was a gift that we had the responsibility to share
  • Col. Heileman, who pushed us to be our best, but also taught us to take our work, but never ourselves, seriously
  • Mike, whose last name I don't remember but who was my guidance counselor in Niagara Falls and went out of his way to help me feel cared for in a school I had trouble adjusting to
  • Mr. Kanya, who taught us that we had a voice and the right to use it
  • Rabbi Al, who took care of me when I was living in the hell I knew as the US Naval Academy, and who learned from my failures to get help and used my experiences to help a fellow plebe in a similar situation
  • Dr. Lynn Schuster, who taught me that underestimating myself was a handicap, not a form of humility
  • Dr. Pat Miller, who made sure the standards of excellence met the ability of the student and pushed her or him at an individual as well as collective level, and who always let me learn my way
  • Dr. Donna Sewell, who saw through me when I said I wasn't in school for anything other than a "piece of paper" and who met my boredom with greater challenges, took care of me like a mother, and treats me like a sister--and who doesn't ever give up
  • Julianna Baggott, one of the best writers in the world, whom I can call at the drop of a hat, whose work inspires me, and whose belief in me makes me work harder
  • Dr. Kris Fleckenstein, who took my natural teaching abilities and worked to help me learn to be an excellent teacher, even when I was mad at being challenged.
This blog is already longer than usual, and yet I know I've not mentioned everyone who touched my life, made me a writer, a writing teacher, a seeker of excellence, a willing participant in my students' academic and intellectual lives. I cannot begin to thank them, except by being the best teacher I can. I can only pass the kind of love and dedication these people put into my life with love and dedication.

My policy, as I tell my students at the end of the semester, is based in Desert Culture: By accepting the privilege of participating in their intellectual growth, I have accepted the responsibility for their lives. I will always be available to them. Why? Because my teachers parented me. Because they give me a gift when they put all their effort into a project I designed to help them learn. Because they teach me new things every day. Because when I think of teacher appreciation day I think of my students and my teachers.

But I'd like to finish this thank you card to my teachers with one not-too-happy note:

We have a day dedicated to teacher appreciation because we fail, as a society to truly appreciate what they do. We don't have a doctor appreciation day, or an astronaut appreciation day. Why? For the same reason we don't have White History Month: Because we don't need it. It's built in. We already appreciate the researchers who work on our deadliest diseases. But we don't notice the people who helped those we do appreciate reach the excellence they bring to our society.

In fact, we spend most of our time bashing teachers; we proclaim loudly that tenure (which is really only a system by which teachers can't be fired without cause, because they don't get to live professional lives) is a "job for life." We shove poorly designed tests, many of which measure little more than test-taking ability, down their throats. We then judge them for not teaching creatively, after we've forced them to teach to tests. We wonder why our educational system is failing when the answer is obvious: because we have failed those who carry it on their shoulders.

So it's nice to have a teacher appreciation day, but much like Black History Month, I look forward to the day we no longer need one--because it'll just be history, and because we'll appreciate them by providing a professional life for them. 

On a directly economical note, we'll get the best and brightest going into the profession as soon as we make it attractive to them.

Maybe some day the aphorism "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" will be forgotten. Because the best teachers not only can, but they can at the deepest levels or they wouldn't be able to teach.

Finally, thank you to my teachers. Your hard work and dedication have never passed my notice. I hope someday to be as good at what we do as you are.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I might get bombed for this...

I realized, last night, that I was not having the "right" reaction. I heard my hunny telling me Osama was dead. I hear the president repeatedly use the first person in what seems to me the most ego-centric, most UN-presidential moment he has had. I saw the pictures of the house, and I'm sure I'll see pictures of a body, though I'd rather not.

And all I could think was: WHY am I being asked to rejoice in slaughter, when slaughter is what has brought our hell upon us?

So, feel free to blog-bomb me, but here it is:

We have ritually slaughtered the symbol of terrorism.

But just as the shamans before us knew, it is not the ritual slaughter that heals. It is the work that the mind does in thinking it has been healed--and often, it is time. Allowing the body to root out the illness. And just as often, slaughter, work, and time fail, and the body succumbs.

What am I saying? First and foremost, that incarnate evil as he may have been, I refuse to partake in the celebration of the ritual slaughter of Osama bin Laden. If he WERE the whole cancer of terrorism, I might feel differently, though I'm not really sure of that. But he isn't. He was a symbol, and a dead symbol long before his death.

Second, that any American who thinks this is a victory over terrorism is likely also the kind of person who thinks taking one's shoes off in an airport somehow adds security. It doesn't, and this isn't.

Third, that the killing of Osama bin Laden is little more than a ritual slaughter. The intent when showing the "compound", when showing the body, as our journalists insist we must so the Arabs will "get it," is little more than gloating. That "little more" is a power-play.

And I am not so naive as to believe that governments partake in anything other than power-plays. I simply wish I could look around me and see others who understand that today is no safer a day than yesterday was; that this slaughter is no more than a ritual killing; that the scape-goat does not cleanse the community; and that the only offense against terrorism is to live like we did before they brought it to our shores: in LIBERTY, personal and national.

We must make headway in terms of liberty, not backtrack as we have been, if we have any hope of coming out of this a thriving, growing nation.

I somehow doubt that will happen--and the more I watch facebook stati and tweets galore with joyous pronouncements the less I believe it can.