Category Archives: Reflections

It’s hard to honor a loved one’s wishes when they were gleaned through a medium

I left my students with a sub, once again, in order to attend my uncle’s memorial service last week. My uncle was my mother’s high school classmate, my father’s younger brother. My unreliable memory tells me that she had dated him before she met my father. Small towns in the fifties, you know? I guess I’ll never get the whole story now because there’s no longer any first party to ask. Within a month of each other, two more members of the class of ’59 vanished, leaving the living plagued with distorted memories and random mementos. I say “plagued” because I have very little control over what will trigger my emotions–maybe a sock, maybe a billboard. I cry when I cry, and that could be in the car or before class or when an old friend of my uncle’s or my mother’s cries in front of me.   No matter where I am or who I am with, I am reminded that I no longer have my mother or my uncle. I can’t even begin to imagine how my dad feels about this.  Yesterday was their 57th anniversary.  Today is my uncle’s birthday.

While Mom was dying, I cried over all of her stuff, like pairs of shoes she’d kicked off in the landing a couple of weeks earlier when she could walk. I cried over those shoes because it was just dawning on me at that time that she would never put those shoes on her feet again. I cried over shoes, bathrobes hanging on the bathroom door, half-empty tubes of cleanser, and Walmart receipts.

The week after she died, I hardly cried at all. I had my husband to keep me company and my family all around, and I was busy writing obits and making preparations for her viewing. I felt some kind of temporary high of relief that lasted until I walked through my own front door, after.  When there was no one to nurse, no memorial preparations to make, no family to joke around with, all I had was this feeling of “after.”

I’m in the “after” now. I guess it’s where I’ll always be. There was life when Mom was here, and now there is life after she’s gone—two distinct lives. I’m not really enjoying life “after,” if I may be frank. Something big is missing. I feel it everywhere—that absence. I know Mom anticipated this absence and wanted me to fill it up, and I’m certain she didn’t want me to fill it up with Jim Beam or become the crazy dog lady who has one-sided conversations with her dogs all day (too late). She was too vain for that. She was proud of me and my brothers because we gave her something to feel pride in. None of us are slackers, despite my self-deprecation.

At my fingertips, I hold all the anticipated clichés in response to her last wishes—things I must do to honor her daily, things that ultimately end up honoring me by cleaning up my own bad habits. Honestly, I don’t know what she’d want. When Mom was here, she’d want to take a trip or go shopping for solar-powered lawn decorations or drink some salted-caramel and vanilla something-or-other from Starbucks. She’d want to tell me all the latest news about the family that she’d gleaned from Facebook posts. She’d want recognition and a travel/shopping/gossip buddy. Now, after she’s gone, and all I can do is be sad. I don’t know how to live for her, or me. I’m just lost.

 

 

There’s nothing weirder than this…

Today, I visited my family home and my father for the first time since my mother died. I was about to explain this experience by introducing it with the phrase, “There is nothing weirder than,” but then I checked myself by remembering that nearly every experience I’ve had in the last two months could be introduced by the phrase “there’s nothing weirder than…”

There is nothing weirder than showing up at your dad’s house when it used to be your parents’ house. There is nothing weirder than the look and sound of THAT house, the dad’s house with the mom’s stuff still everywhere in it because Mom’s stuff made it the place that it is… was. Dad’s disorganization and absence of an eye for detail is starting to swallow up the neat, pastel-colored, over-scented house of my mom. There are random objects lying around that were here when I left two weeks ago. For instance, there’s a box lid that Mom had used for a tray before someone with more wherewithal bought her a portable tray. On that box lid is a plastic serving plate, an extension cord, a hanger, and one of those “grabber-nabbers” like my neighbors use to pick up trash without having to touch it. Why is that assortment of objects in the dining room?

Two weeks ago, I thought Dad just needed to get the shock out of his system, and then he would find a home for that cardboard box lid that Mom had used for a tray. He didn’t. The house is filled with things, objects with no home, like the complete Harry Potter series that my aunt bought her for her convalescence. I found the fucking thing on the buffet, still in the box and the bubble wrap, exactly where it had been sitting two weeks ago. Its presence bothered me then, and it bothers me now. There is nothing weirder than arriving “home” and finding your father in a time warp. There are things he can’t part with, and I have to decide what to pitch. Even my dogs are depressed.

But you know what else is weird? My father’s raw adoration for my mother. It’s something that he doesn’t wave around like a Facebook post, but that’s because he isn’t from the generation (ahem, mine and ours and the millennials) that can do that with candor.   He’s a vintage man’s man. This shit is hard to express. I see him struggling with every sentence. He’s a walking eulogy.

I came here this week to sort out my mother’s crammed-yet-organized walk-in closet because my dad wants to move back into the master bedroom. It’s a harder task than I had imagined. For one, her travel buddy and friend-for-decades purportedly cleaned it out last week. Before I had a chance to try on those boots I saw on the top shelf, Dad had invited her to come and clean house, and she left with three, thirty-gallon trash bags full of stuff. I arrived here today expecting a closet with one or two things left, dangling sadly among the empty hangers. Instead, I got a whole closet of clothes that I didn’t know what to do with. Mom liked her clothes.

There’s nothing weirder than listening to your dad try to express his admiration for your mom by talking about the fabrics she wore. He sat down on the edge her bed and said, “You know, the clothes she wore, all of them were soft. All her clothes were so soft.” And then he wandered off again. Dad’s in a funky place. I’m in a funky place. Her clothes, her skin products, her trinkets around the room perplex him. I have to sort it all out, separate the spring and summer clothes for the Salvation Army from the winter clothes for the upcoming church bazaar.  I set aside things I don’t really need because they remind me of moments and events, like our trip to Michigan or my nephew’s wedding. I’m taking home her commemorative t-shirts that I’ll probably never wear. I’m parting with outfits that she had discussed with me in detail over the phone. There they are, no longer relevant.

There’s nothing weirder than this: new grief.

There’s nothing weirder than watching your mother die.

There’s nothing weirder than changing your vocabulary from “them” to “he.”

There’s nothing weirder than walking into that second life, the “after” phase, and realizing that that’s all there is.

There’s nothing weirder than this.

And So It Goes…

It’s November 5, 2017. My mother died on October 24, 2017, almost two weeks ago. I had the privilege of seeing her last breath. I used to count them—thirteen per minute, twelve per minute, nine per minute, one… That was the one. I stayed up most nights, as my two most recent entries reveal. I doubted myself. I went limp with fear when she woke up one morning at 2:00 a.m. and vomited her green, cancer-corrupted bile all over herself. I’m not a nurse, but I did my best.

The day she went, I went off on my family for acting casual as her corpse rested in the living room in front of the picture window. I stared at her hands before the funeral home director came to get her and put her in the back of a black, Chrysler minivan. I stared at her hands. My dad thought I wanted her to be there forever, so he waited to call the funeral home director; but I was, in truth, ready for her body to leave that house as soon as it could, as soon as we all had had our time, and BEFORE we started looking at pictures, writing obituaries, and getting tanked.

In short, her death marked a new kind of beginning—a week of family and friends and throwing myself into printing posters and making picture collages of her life. I seemed ok. My ex-boyfriend came the viewing and told me how together I seemed to be. I guess that’s how it works. Grief. It’s a tricky emotion. I’ll write an entry some time about those triggers. But first, I want to do something I never do and share the pieces of blog entries that I had started and couldn’t finish throughout this process. My computer notes the date and time of every one. I’m going to post them here, as is, without any editing and only the working title and time that I had written them. Those times were traumatic, but  worth sharing:

“Stuff around the house that Mom left unfinished last week,” October 21, 7:16 p.m.

 

A copy of Mary Alice Monroe’s Swimming Lessons, bookmarked at page 176.

A box of Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds.

A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a cat on a windowsill.

Three recorded episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful.

A bag of jellybeans.

Half a bottle of Ensure.
“I’m learning a few things on this journey,” October 21, 9:14 p.m.

Everything does and will remind me of Mom.

How to turn a patient in bed. I’m shitty at it.

How to check a patient to make sure he/she is cleanly and has no bed sores. I’m shitty at it.

Nurses and nurses aides are people I live for.

 

“CouldaShouldaWouldas,” October 21, 11:10 p.m.

Coulda, shoulda, wouldas seem to be common themes that travel around with death like barnacles on a rotting ship. They have tried to creep into my already infected consciousness this week, especially after I checked my mother’s Facebook status and noticed that she had reposted quite a few memes on October 17, the day before I decided I needed to tell her what she needed to know via Facebook Messenger. My final thoughts will be forever unopened, as my father and I plan to shut down the account.

That’s sad, sure, but that’s not nearly as sad as, well, everything else—loss, grief, a sense of tragedy, unfinished jigsaw puzzles and a her jacket still hanging off of the back of a chair. I imperfectly folded my parents’ laundry recently and haphazardly shoved it into drawers like I always do when someone puts me in charge of laundry, and I thought, “Man, Mom is gonna have a fit when she opens up these drawers and sees this.” Then I realized that Mom’s would never have the chance to scold me for not intuiting correctly which drawers certain fabrics belonged in and such. She spent a good deal of time during her comparatively lucid state on Wednesday fretting about how well my niece had cleaned the tile floors, “Had she steamed them or just swiffered them?” I told her the floors glistened. She’s never gonna see those floors again, so what’s a little lie?

 

“Every profession has its heroes,” October 23, 12:17 a.m.

Every profession has its heroes, people who were born to do the job. In fields of wellness and education, these heroes can make a significant difference. If I could gauge my performance by student feedback, I might determine that I have hero potential in my branch of education. Where there’s potential, there’s fulfillment. I will stick with teaching. Had I chosen to become a home health aide or a nurse, however, I would not have had hero potential. Nope.

All the love in the world can’t seem to guide me in my awkward attempts to turn my mother from her side to her back, and again to her side. The nurses and the aides tell me this is crucial. My pained mother who will spend her last moments in a hospital bed also indicates to me that this is crucial. Bedsores are the enemy. Discomfort and itchiness are major enemies as well. But I can’t do it. I’m a health care flunky when it comes to rolling that pad thing and shimmying it under the body and crossing the legs and then rolling it out and again, and I don’t what else. I feel like a failure. Tonight, I smoked a butt from the ashtray (ran out of smokes), woke my mom to give her some morphine oil, which she hates, and cried up a storm while I waited for the morphine to kick in. All so I could get up the courage to turn her on her side.

I wasn’t successful. I lowered the bed like her aide had showed me. I flattened her out and crossed her arms and rolled that stupid pad thing.   Then I wondered if I was rolling it from the correct side. Then I determined I wouldn’t roll, but I would just shift her body sideways with the pad thing. I don’t need to go any further. I caused my mom unnecessary discomfort in the last hours of her life on earth.

 

 

 

Does Anyone Else Feel Old?

I‘m having one of those, “Can this really be happening?” weeks. Yes, it can, and yes, it is.   This week was the double whammy of a sudden death in the family and the potential for much worse endings, pending a few tests. I feel old.   Mom and Dad have been careful about when to call me with news. They expect me to break down while I’m driving or whatnot, so they wait until I’m sitting on a couch with my husband nearby to tell me whatever it is they have to say. Then they marvel at my ability to just hear it.   I guess I grew up.

I’ve noticed lately that I keep thinking that I’m forty-six, even though I’m forty-five. In fact, for the past year, I’ve considered myself closer to fifty than I really am. Why is that? Why am I making myself old, rushing through the remainder of my forties?   Maybe it’s because the forties kinda suck. I just have this feeling that the forties are gonna go down in my history as the decade I lost everyone.

I’ll explain: My favorite uncle had a stroke on the operating table and died exactly a week later. We all thought it was gonna be a quick and easy operation. We all expected this summer to be the worst of his trials. Not even close. I don’t think anyone was prepared for an end. My father sure wasn’t. He lost his little brother, his closest sibling, and his greatest ally. This uncle and I spent weeks together while my mother and father were in the hospital or recuperating from one illness or the next. He was always there to help. I thought my mom was being morbid when she alluded to his last visit, while he was still on chemo, as a potential final hurrah. Damn, these people in their seventies who are so starkly aware of death.

And that’s one bit of bad news that has colored my week. There’s more, but the test results aren’t in, and I’m still allowed hope. Hope feels very different lately. It’s not a positive or a negative, it’s just an unknown. Sometimes, the unknown is better. For a little while anyway, while we process what we do know.

Embracing Rock-Bottom

Although the forties are the new forties in many more ways than one, sometimes we get snagged on one feature that plagues us throughout the decade, like alcoholism has me now. And while these snags are not just a forties thing, I suspect they’re a distinct characteristic of the forties in the Western world. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock-bottom, happiness-wise,” in its “Wonkblog” section (soooo millennial… the blog AND the title). The writer contends that our general sense of happiness reaches its nadir in our forties, supporting the claim with evidence from a survey designed to determine the life-satisfaction of over a million subjects. In one more line, I can summarize his point: people in their forties are the most unhappy people in the Western world.

A line graph attached to the article makes it easier to digest this generalization—our lives seem to follow a U pattern—first, life’s one big party—all the wavy lines are at the top of the graph; then we hit rock-bottom; finally, we turn fifty, and all the wavy lines rise again to the top of the graph, like a middle-aged phoenix soaring from its ashes—life becomes one big party again. How nifty.

Ordinarily, I would ignore or vehemently argue against such conjectures, i.e., the whole point of this blog; however, we experience some pretty heavy stuff during our forties, enough for us to question our own life satisfaction and possibly admit doubts on a survey designed to assess our “happiness levels.” Here’s what I know: the forties are humbling. It’s the decade when we finally start to see life for what it really is—a finite series of choices that we make, choices with results that could affect us for the remainder of our lives. I was unhappy with my job in my thirties, but I was too busy being a born-again single lady to notice. I ignored the really big choice—staying at my job—for the simple choices like where to go for Sunday brunch. I dreaded going to work five days a week, but I lived it up on the weekends, and I thought that was happiness. That’s not being happy. That’s just being delusional. If a representative from the “General Social Survey” had asked me about my happiness levels when I was, say, 33, I might have responded, “Yeah, all good here,” even though I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

The other side of this spectrum takes a different, yet no less delusional, approach to its life satisfaction. Have you ever asked an elderly person how it’s going? How often do we hear something like of “Oh, can’t complain!” That’s right. Once you’ve already faced your life’s choices, once you’ve recognized your own mortality, and your friends and family start dying off, you might feel fortunate to still be breathing. At that age, it’s probably easier to frame the definition of happiness in an “I’m still standing, so what?” kind of attitude. Life isn’t one big party on the young or old sides of the line graph, life is just one big fantasy to get us through our days.

Our forties tend to be the years when we face those life snags, when we start ruminating over questions like, “How much longer do I have with my parents?” or “Is this really the only career I’m ever going to have?” or “Did I really sign up to spend the rest of my days with this asshole?” The term “mid-life crisis” had to come from somewhere. I’ve ruminated over those questions, except for maybe the last one because I chose wisely the second time around the marriage-go-round. These thoughts become big, existential dilemmas in our forties. Rather than considering the forties our time of greatest unhappiness, I would rather consider it our time of greatest introspection.

It takes a lot of strength to confront reality. I think that if you can come to grips with your choices, attempt to solve your problems without ignoring them, and find peace with whatever you can’t change (like crepe-neck or aging parents), then you have a right to label yourself “satisfied” or “happy” or whatever it is that the young and old are saying on this survey. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s quite possible that our forties could be the worst of times and also the best of times.

The $1300 Pee Test

I lived abroad for one year once, and during that time I learned to appreciate the perks of having been born and raised in the U.S. Engaging in a healthy discussion about opposing viewpoints, for instance, didn’t really happen in my host country. Opportunities for women’s advancement, as well, were certainly lacking in my host country as compared to the U.S.

Then there’s that “purple mountains’ majesty”—it exists.   I used to live on one of those old, East Coast mountains, along those ranges that change color with the seasons and even the time of day. Sometimes they do look purple, in certain shadow. In the U.S., one can drive a car for twenty-four hours, from those old ranges in the east to the newer ones out west, and still be in the U.S., and not even near a coastline.  That’s kind of awesome.

But I’m already running out material…

What else? Well, lines certainly aren’t long, not by third-world standards, anyway. You can wait in some semblance of a line in the U.S. and eventually get to the end of it and receive some kind of answer to your question (unless it’s the Department of Motor Vehicles). The answer isn’t always satisfactory, but you get one.

And that’s how far I got in my “perks of living the U.S. inventory” before settling for not-so-third-worldish line organization. There’s something wrong with this picture. Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be struggling to come up with five perks of living here, the fifth one being kind of a non-perk because one can compare any social or cultural institution to the worst the world has to offer, but that doesn’t make said institution an efficient one or even a good one.

It must be my mood today that got me thinking about how many things actually suck about living in the U.S. I’ve been attending the odd assortment of AA and SMART recovery meetings, the latter being a free hour or so of cognitive behavioral therapy, which definitely appeals to my pragmatic side. I’m following through with what I said I would do and getting help. Isn’t that what my closest friends and family have suggested I do for twenty years or more? To get help?

Yesterday, I got a bill in the mail for the remaining costs of that sham of a treatment center I visited for one evaluation. I was in the place for three hours—I took a breathalyzer and a pee test, then I talked to a zombie doctor for another hour or so, and then I received a summons to arrive at 9:00 sharp the next morning for five weeks of treatment. After paying an initial $160 upfront, the remaining costs of that afternoon, after my insurance kicked in a healthy sum, was $605. That pee test alone cost $1300.

This treatment center represents my view of how the U.S. works. There’s a lot of wealth floating around, and our business and institutions thrive on it—charging insurance companies $1300 for pee tests and whatnot.   The desire to “get help” in the U.S. is as profitable for some as the desire to buy the latest electronics—it’s big business. But desiring mental well-being for your own health and the sake of others around you really shouldn’t be a desire like buying the latest Samsung. It’s a need, not a desire. In the U.S., however, where everything’s for sale, there is very little difference between our basic needs and our base desires. Nothing is free, except for maybe groups like AA, and unsolicited advice from acquaintances.

In the U.S., if you’re not born into a family or a community that can provide you with opportunities, or if you’re not savvy, you will sink. Many of us do. And many of us drown. Getting that bill for the remaining costs of a $1300 pee test yesterday clearly drove that point home. Knowing that I potentially got screwed by this treatment center is enough to make me want to buy a box wine and check out for the remainder of my weekend. Perhaps last week I would have done that.

But this week, not so much. Perhaps it’s the week of sobriety whispering in my ear, “There’s so much more than anger.”  I’m going to do a few searches and make a few phone calls. Perhaps the $1300 pee test is an error.  Meantime, I still have my five perks, like the purple mountains’ majesty.  It’s a lovely morning.

 

Drunks and Reprobates… bring ’em on?

I have many skills and abilities. Some are useful and some not so much. I’m a good cook, for instance. There’s a useful ability. I can also give a decent blowjob, also a useful skill, especially after several years of marriage. I can edit the hell out of anything in print, sometimes useful (sometimes just an annoying voice in my head because most people don’t concern themselves with using correct object pronouns and active voice and such). I can plan and deliver a pretty good lesson, especially if it involves grammar!

Among my less than useful skills are my keen knowledge of nearly obsolete Office programs; my ability to see a vehicle from a distance and know the exact make, model, and ballpark year of assembly; and my keen introspection, which does nothing for me at the moment but bring on waves and waves of guilt.

Here’s what I know about myself today (because, like the subtitle of an old blog of mine once read, I’ve been psychoanalyzing myself since the seventies):

My alcoholism has indeed progressed to a new stage. My cousin’s method of “following skinny bitches on Instagram,” i.e., using women who look hot for inspiration to lose those extra pounds, ain’t working anymore. I don’t even fit into the fat clothes I bought at a thrift store last month to tide me over until I lost my extra weight. That was during a blissful week of sobriety, when I had almost reached that “how could I have done this to myself for so long?” stage. Almost. Then came the concert, always my undoing.

Anyway, my introspection makes me aware of this problem. My alcoholism doesn’t care. And my intelligence can’t ignore my alcoholism. We’re a strange trinity.

Today I thought about some of the infamous drunks I’ve known in my lifetime. There was the friend who, after a night of drinking with me and my ex, ate a whole pizza in our half bathroom. We woke up to no leftovers and crumbs all over the bathroom floor and thought, “What the fuck?” I display that kind of behavior now—the double-binge—when I drink too much and feel like I need to put something else in my stomach and that something else becomes everything I can get my hands on. That’s new.

I also thought about the two friends my ex and I drove five hours to visit one weekend. Infamous drinkers, they were. I had been drinking with one of them since I was twenty-two (a year of firsts in debauchery and experimentation, by the way). We knocked at their door, and knocked and knocked. Finally, one of them answered the door in his underwear, bleary and vaguely coherent. They’d been drinking all day, knowing that we were coming to visit. That truth didn’t stop them. Because, eventually, nothing does.

Am I there yet? God, I really judged all those reprobates that my ex-husband loved so much. Now, I’m secretly one of them. Secretly. I can still call some shots and avoid mimicking the behaviors of people I have respected least in my lifetime.

Just a couple quick words about death

Well, it’s Easter, so I’m seeing a lot of pastels and other awful Sunday best. Some of the neighbors are hosting the obligatory ham dinner I can see from the number of cars parked out on the street in front of their houses. Other driveways and streets are empty, their occupants eating their ham at someone else’s house. I wonder if anybody’s feeling particularly restored this year, rejoicing in their lord arisen and their souls buoyant. I’m not. Personally, I find Easter to be the most depressing of Christian holidays. When I think of Easter, I think of pastels, again, (never been a fan), and the moldy smell of a church basement where kids gathered to color creepy pictures of Jesus with his arms upraised and his hair all combed and neat. I think of quiet, nervous little ladies trying to teach us something, but with a bit of edge in their voices, like they just knew how many of us would never return after the age of ten. God, I hate church.

I think my church was always the blue sky and the sound of wind through the leaves of the trees around my childhood house. My psalms are the sounds of the doves outside my window that woke me up with their cooing in the springtime. When I first read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” I felt like I had come home. It’s about death, “Thanatopsis,” and it makes no apologies for it. Resurrection, to the American Romantic like Cullen Bryant, was in the form of a new molecular structure—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This poem told me that there could be nothing more beautiful than returning to the earth, feeding it like all of our forefathers did. Will I be worm food? Yes. But I like worms. Jesus avoided that fate. Hadn’t his flesh disappeared from the tomb after the crucifixion? If that’s the case, then he never really returned to the earth, did he? Had he rotted in the ground, fed the next season’s crops with his decomposed flesh, then he’d really be a part of this, a part of my church.

 

Thanatopsis

BY WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT

To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; for his gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—

Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—

Comes a still voice—

Yet a few days, and thee

The all-beholding sun shall see no more

In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,

Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,

Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist

Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go

To mix for ever with the elements,

To be a brother to the insensible rock

And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain

Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak

Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place

Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish

Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down

With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,

The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,

Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,

All in one mighty sepulchre.   The hills

Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales

Stretching in pensive quietness between;

The venerable woods—rivers that move

In majesty, and the complaining brooks

That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,

Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—

Are but the solemn decorations all

Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,

The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,

Are shining on the sad abodes of death,

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread

The globe are but a handful to the tribes

That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings

Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods

Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,

Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:

And millions in those solitudes, since first

The flight of years began, have laid them down

In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.

So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw

In silence from the living, and no friend

Take note of thy departure? All that breathe

Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh

When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care

Plod on, and each one as before will chase

His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave

Their mirth and their employments, and shall come

And make their bed with thee. As the long train

Of ages glide away, the sons of men,

The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes

In the full strength of years, matron and maid,

The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,

By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, which moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

 

Behavior Modification for the Debauched

My mornings are always filled with grand promises to myself: I’m going to start a healthy diet; I’m going to stop drinking; I’m going to get up earlier; I’m going to write and read more and watch TV less. Yup. It’s 10:04 as I write this, and I’m still processing my second of two routine cups of coffee, hours past my early morning wakeup goal.   My coffee ritual in the morning, that nothing can officially begin until I’ve processed those two cups, is about the only routine in my life that I’ve built and haven’t strayed from since I was sixteen. It only takes a few weeks to build a habit. I’ve built quite a few and even managed to make some of them healthy habits. But the scales tip more to side of unhealthy in my world, and my success rate at kicking is much lower than my success rate at starting. I think coffee is the only habit I haven’t tried to kick at some stage or another. I mean, why, you know? Why kick coffee? I do much worse things to my body in the course of a day.

And speaking of those other habits, I’m going to kick them now! The diet starts TODAY. The detox starts TODAY. The munchies after 11:00 pm end TODAY. Blah blah blah. Now I really sound like a middle-aged woman.

I remember, decades ago, listening to my mother talk about the exercise routine that she was going to start any-day-now. She was going to start walking and riding her bike. Yup. She’s 75, and I think she’s ridden a bike ten times in the past three decades. Her get-up-and-go got up and went before she even tried to start that habit. Am I gonna be like my mom and talk about what I need to do for the rest of my life? Or my mother-in-law, who has been talking about starting a diet since the eighties? I heard one time she actually did stick to a diet and lost like forty pounds. I think my husband might have been in middle school or something—it was that long ago. But it was a triumph she still talks about. She has plans to return to that svelte woman who looked so good in a red dress at her 40-something year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah. Ahhhhhh! I can’t do this to myself. I can’t become these women who I am so eerily resembling at the moment.

Well, then I guess I have to cultivate and maintain some good behaviors for at least three weeks, the minimum amount of time it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Let’s start today. Why not, right? Tomorrow’s not gonna hold any more promise than today for getting my life back. It’s April 14th. I must maintain my good behaviors until at least May 5. I can do that. I can do that, right?  Yeah, I can do that.

 

 

A little love for the teacher

I have a delicious morning routine that I have indulged to the fullest since I quit teaching in public schools. Twelve years of getting up before daylight, rushing out the door, and trying to map out the day ahead as I exited the highway with the sun’s just creeping up over the dead industrial horizon taught me how to really enjoy a slower morning.

Anyway, my morning routine goes something like this:

  1. I hit the snooze on my smartphone (the alarm is always set for a reasonable, productive hour) for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
  2. I think about my dreams. I always have dreams.
  3. I talk to the animals that wander into the room and that finally inspire me to get up and let them out (I know I sound like lonely pet lady here, but I swear I have a husband. He just operates on an entirely different schedule.).
  4. I get up, let the dogs out, pour a cup of coffee, let the dogs in.
  5. I feed the dogs.
  6. I drink my coffee, pour another cup, and drink that while I skim headlines of various news apps on my Kindle.
  7. I choose the stories that interest me most, and I read them.
  8. I stop reading when I can no longer stand being stared at by two dogs that expect me to take them for a walk the minute I wake up, yet never do.
  9. I take the dogs for a walk.

After that, anything goes.   Often, if it’s a weekday, I spend a good chunk of that day preparing for my night classes—grading or tweaking lessons or creating ancillary materials or just generally staying ahead of the students. It’s what teaching should be. All teachers should be able to think during some point in the day and thoughtfully plan during others. Having that time allows us to connect with students and properly differentiate our instruction. It wasn’t until I had this kind of time to live my life AND teach that I realized that I’m a fairly effective instructor—student-centered, with progressive yet research-based methods that drive learning. How about that? It’s all about time.

Lack of time is the elephant in the room that American educators rarely talk about above the grassroots levels, the “trenches,” if you will. It’s one of those things that just about every other developed country on this earth (and many developing countries) including China provide for their teachers. Not every country provides the kind of time off for students and teachers that the U.S. does, but believe me, Uncle Sam and his league of state legislators have found a way to make teachers pay and pay for those extra weeks in the winter and summer. Given the average quite shitty teacher pay rates that rarely keep up with inflation or rising insurance costs, those two months in the summer, if you can afford to take them (and most younger teachers don’t because they need to make extra money), feel more like rehab than a vacation.

I will go back to public schools, I will do it all over again if I can just show up at a reasonable hour and teach a reasonable number of classes a day with a reasonable number of students in them, and attend a reasonable number of meetings and spend a reasonable amount of time planning instead of whatever bullshit the administration needs me to do to keep the school running on a skeleton crew. My last school (and this wasn’t where I spent the bulk of my career, but a place where I dipped my toes after taking a significant amount of time out of the public school arena. As soon as I saw the writing on the wall, during the first week of my tenure, I officially resigned) had teachers doing the jobs of the custodial crew.

I will do it all over again, I suppose, when pigs fly. Maybe when hell freezes over… ok, that’s enough clichés. Six and counting (Can you find the other three?!).

The sad thing is, when I left that last school, the one I mentioned above—where, incidentally, I ended up spending a month-and-a-half because my principal, literally, wouldn’t let me leave—the friends I’d made on the faculty and staff didn’t hide their envy of me or their dissatisfaction with the way things were. More than one single or widowed mother told me, “I don’t blame you. I could do it, if I would.” The way they looked at me when I said I was leaving might have resembled how a prisoner looks at her cellmate when she’s about to be released, or like a soldier might look at his fellow who is about to finish a tour. Probably shouldn’t be that way.

There are other jobs that teachers can do, depending on the subjects they teach. English teachers have the flexibility to get into writing and publishing fields or to pursue a higher degree and transition into law or project management or something.   Math and science teachers have a wider range of possibilities. I’ve seen young teachers transition out of the field rather smoothly. The older you get, though, the harder it is to make that transition into an entry-level field where you have no experience. I have all my eggs in one basket (Cliché number six, POW!), so I’m staying in this field, albeit part-time. My colleagues above who envied my escape are staying in this field, full-time. Our lives are very different from one another’s.

I could say so much more. The English teacher always can. Honestly, I don’t want every teacher to transition out of the field. Who does? We’re needed. We’re just not loved.