August 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
I called my dad to tell him his first grandson had been born. He wanted to confirm the gender. You see, I’m the fourth of five girls, and my sister had two daughters, so my dad was incredulous that I’d actually given birth to a boy child.
“I’m sure,” I said. “It’s definitely a boy. Definitely boy parts.”
“Well, it’s good you had an easy time delivering,” he said.
Easy? That’s not the word I would have chosen after ten hours of labor and some stitches. Should any birth be described as easy? I just expelled a person! But my dad was an OBGYN. He knew better than I did what could go wrong, how long labor could last, all the complications I could have had. It was a miracle I’d had this healthy baby boy.
“Relatively easy, I guess,” I said.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“Um, “ I said, thinking of Oliver North, “We’re going to call him Cole.”
This was yesterday, except not. It has taken us over seventeen years to get to this point. And now, I won’t see my boy every day, or every week, or even every month.
For the last month, I have felt a strange combination of excitement/joy and total despondency. I wanted to know the name of this, a word for the feeling, so I took a page from my kids’ book and Googled it. “What is Bipolar disorder?” was the first hit. Exactly. I want to send away the person I’ve been protecting for almost 18 years. Elated and bereft. Schizophrenia, maybe? The Halloween decorations in Costco almost made me cry the other day because Cole won’t be here in October. Stupid, I know, but I was feeling, as my friend Laurie says, “all the feelings.” Forget about the grocery store. It’s a fucking minefield. I stocked up on Nutella. For medicinal purposes.
My dad is gone. I can’t impress him with the fact that his grandson is going to Harvard. I can’t tell you how much I want to say that to him—to prove all sorts of things that don’t really need proving. He would have felt justified, so to speak–hillbilly doctor’s intellect finally validated by the one of the world’s pickiest validators. Me too, somehow. Face it: we live through our grandchildren and children. I’d love to tell my dad, whose letters from Eastern Kentucky University to his mother said a lot about laundry and how he thought he might could scrape together enough money to get home for Christmas break.
So, this weekend, we will head up to the frigid North—why would anyone live there? You don’t have to be cold all the time. Who ever heard of Spring coats? But still. There are so many books and people who love them there. So many people whose bodies are just carrying cases for their brains–my boy’s lost tribe.
Jeff says I should imagine the quiet—no large, gangly human clanging around the kitchen for a midnight snack. No one banging out Maple Leaf Rag on the piano for hours and hours on end. Lord knows, I have yelled enough for quiet and just a little goddamn peace! So many wishes and fears come true.
This is the real birth into the world. We got him an ID card (he still doesn’t drive), signed him up to vote (absentee, we need him here!) and got his lost debit card reissued. He’s a grown up to strangers, capable of the intellectual thought of the ancients, but incapable of making his bed, buying groceries, etc.
Nobody asks you if you kick ass at breastfeeding, once your baby can eat. After awhile, no one can even guess whether you’ve given birth. I have a lot of obsolete skills. Gave birth just like in the textbook, the midwife said. Easy birth, she called it too.
There’s no visible sign that someone is going missing from your life, having the time of his life, becoming a full person in the world, filling you with all of the feelings at once. Except for the slight smear of Nutella above the lip.
June 24, 2014 § 2 Comments
Twelve years ago, we moved into our house, the second owners of a 1922 bungalow with a million repairs and urgent updates. I can still see the gold sparkled pink cherub wallpaper that graced the bathroom with the shower stall we liked to refer to as “the abandoned summer camp shower.” Still, we made it through the closing with a few pennies left and dragged our kids, then five and one, to the house every night to pull up carpet, paint, and imagine. My friend Judy stopped by to see the house. I had a diapered, curly headed Jack Henry on my hip, paint spattered on my hands, and I was calling to Cole to stay in the thick green yard. It was late July or early August, but not too sticky to sit on the porch somehow. I was about to quit nursing my baby and start teaching part time.
“Oh, Stephanie!” Judy said. (You have to imagine here the most mellifluous South Carolina accent. It makes just about everything Judy says seem magical and important) “Your life will never be this full again.”
The words struck me as a relief right then. I could get through all the change and the busy-ness. I could make this place a home. The kids would be all right. Things would let up.
Those things did let up, but whenever something eased, my life always filled with something new: the house got painted (enough) and the kids grew. I worked myself into a full time job, then into grad school, then eventually into another full time job. Jeff taught and made art; I wrote. The kids grew. They went to school. My Dad died, then my Mom. Jeff’s mom got sick. The kids grew and filled the evenings with sports and clubs and schoolwork. Finally, which is why I’m thinking about this now, Cole graduated and is scheduled to leave for college in two months. For a minute, I thought I felt the old rubber stopper pull, but thankfully, it hasn’t emptied anything yet.
I realize now, closer to fall, what Judy really meant and what I felt on that summer day was the ripe lushness of my life, the full upcoming harvest of it. For years, I would hope for just one minute to be bored, but now I don’t want that. I want everything to stay as full and chaotic as it ever was.
April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Nobody did good on that test,” Jack Henry says. “She didn’t teach of any of that. It was grammar. We never do grammar.” I am driving, so I have to contain myself a little, but my English teacher blood boils. “ Well. Nobody did well,” I say.”And what do you mean she doesn’t teach grammar? Do you know what an adverb is? A pronoun?” He kind of knows, but not really, not definitively. “What about an antecedent?” I ask. He gives me a blank look.
“OK,” I say. “I know what we’re doing this summer. We’ll diagram sentences. You’ll love it. It’s like drawing with words.”
“Mom. Really? I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Yes, you should have. It’s important.” He rolls his twelve-year-old eyes. I worry though, that if he doesn’t get a handle on language, doesn’t know the names of the pieces of it, he will not be in control of his world. I believe you can speak things into existence if you use the right words. I admit it: I’m a little obsessive about grammar. It’s just that grammar controls not only what you say, but how other people understand you, categorize you, how they place you in the world.
I tell my students this on the first day of each semester. I tell them my favorite word is ustacould, as in “I ustacould do a back bend, but I can’t anymore.” I tell them that I know this isn’t a word for them, but it’s a word that places me. We talk about speaking different Englishes, which is now called “code switching.” I tell them that in order for their academic ideas to be taken seriously, they have to dress them in standard English grammar.
Last week, I went to see Gloria Steinem speak. She said a lot of insightful things, but the most insightful to me was this: “The powerful get the nouns. The oppressed get the adjectives.” As in female lawyer, instead of just lawyer. Or, male nurse, or African American doctor. Power starts at the sentence level, or maybe even before that, at the word level. She also tells us that 2/3 of the world’s illiterate people are female. All of a sudden, my job teaching English feels as life or death important as a surgeon’s. It’s low paying still, but the grammar I teach can change the power a person has in the world. I won’t even get started on the impact of pronouns.
I tell my students to make sure they avoid the passive voice, that they need to have a clear subject, an actor in the sentence. Now, I need to tell them to claim the noun and be more than the adjectives that describe them. We are the subjects of our own sentences. We are who or what does something, if we want to do anything. This summer, Jack Henry and I will draw the words out and claim them.
February 27, 2014 § 2 Comments
“The words you choose, the abstract nouns, or ideas, and the verbs, those shape what you are trying to say. Your words become your sentences, which become your paragraphs, which become your essay. Get the words right first and you will say what you want to say: the abstract nouns and the verbs are what counts.” I tell this to my composition class, but as always, I am really telling myself, in my lifetime of composition, of making a life from words.
Tomorrow, future tense, is the anniversary of my Mother’s death. I’m looking at it in the past tense, and the distance helps. Still, I wish she’d died on the 29th, so I only had to feel this once every four years. She was so close to that miracle of numbers, that lunacy of a solar calendar, but like everything else in her life, so far. I think about the present progressive, as I learned it, now called the present continuous. It’s ongoing, in the moment, the most forgiving tense. You’re still trying. The problem is, you can’t see the end of it; the beauty is, you can’t judge it yet. There is no end. I am going, I am living, I am thinking, I am feeling, but nothing is finished yet. Nothing is gotten over. She is present. It is happening now, or every day, depending on your interpretation.
I have an idea what you’re thinking: isn’t three years enough? But I am thinking, I am remembering, I am in the middle of life and this state and I am ever present.
On the upside, my mom is continuing. She is the subject, here and ongoing, for me and anyone else in her sentence, her paragraph, her story. I am not focusing on the past. I am going, each day. I am remembering, I am still loving, I am continuing, and maybe progressing.
February 18, 2014 § 2 Comments
“Damn it,” Jeff says. “That’s it. I can’t see the Olympics. I’m ordering cable.” He has always been a fan of figure skating; he had a huge crush on Surya Bonaly.
“No! Can’t we just get a new antenna or something?” I say. “We can’t go back. Surely there’s a way.” NBC is a snowy black and white dream image, but we can kind of make out the skaters. Enough to know who wins.
See, it has gotten to be a thing with me. I refuse to pay for nine million channels I don’t want, just so I can watch sports. We learned how to get Duke basketball games from a European website (from a friend who shall remain nameless). We got a digital antenna for most of the local channels. Everything was perfect. We could get Netflix and basketball—what more did we need? My children were totally used to the scantily clad women advertised in the millions of pop-up screens before each game.
“Delete the girl with the butt,” I’d say, and they’d do it like I’d said, “turn up the volume.” Even early on, when we were offered Russian Brides who were really hot for us, we weren’t phased. The ends justified the means. This was ACC basketball we were talking about, after all. My boys understood the urgency. We made jokes about the bad feeds and rebooting. “Look, Mom,” Jack Henry would say when the feed lapsed and players were stuck in motion. “That guy has some serious hang time.”
My sister with a background in copyright law was a bit concerned, but I argued it was not like ripping off artists. “We already pay for Internet, but they won’t give us access to the ESPN websites.” She turned a blind eye, even though I could tell she didn’t approve. Like I said, it’s basketball.
Let me flash back here to the quadrennial family gatherings of my and Jeff’s youth: The Olympics really were an event, and not just an advertising bonanza, though they were that too. No, my children, in the olden days, we gathered around the television and watched the USA as a family. We hung on the announcers’ every word. For every sport, But this was before Slope style and Ice Dancing. This was in the days of the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat. For both my family and Jeff’s, this was patriotic. We had, after all, just boycotted the Olympics in Russia. Still, I was in love with the most Russian of sports: gymnastics in the summer and figure skating in the winter. My birthday falls smack in the middle of the winter games and I would imagine myself ascending the podium and Peggy Fleming or someone saying: She gave it her all, on her seventeenth birthday, and it was enough to bring home the gold for the USA. Never mind that I was never outstandingly athletic in any sport. I could still imagine it. Never mind that when Jeff sees CO4U on the screen, he sees a weird code; when I see it, after studying four years of Russian in college, I read Sochi in Cyrillic. The Olympics in Russia! We knew we could not miss the games, even if it meant giving into the capitalist system. It was our duty as Americans.
At work, on one campus where I teach, I sit in a cube behind a Russian woman. She sits behind a Brit. You can’t help hearing everything in a cube farm, and I’m nosy.
“What do you think of the Olympics being in Sochi?” the Brit asks the Russian.
“It’s great! We used to gather around the TV,” the Russian says. She is maybe a few years older than me, “The whole family would watch figure skating,” she says. She still has the accent you imagine. “Even my grandmother. It was a big deal, even though it was in black and white. We would listen to the announcers because we couldn’t see the colors. They would describe everything. I miss that.”
I don’t say anything, since I’ve been like, spying on a Russian speaking to a Brit, but I want to tell her I know how it feels. I miss it too, the imagining the Olympics as they happen. Now, I’m willing to pay anything. I want be nostalgic the American way: in HD.
February 6, 2014 § 6 Comments
“When I die, I don’t want to be found,” I say to Jeff in the car on the way to a concert.
He laughs. “What? You mean found at all? Like your body will disappear? That’s morbid.” He is used to the way my mind wanders to odd things, my dark thoughts, but he doesn’t get what I mean.
“No, it’s not funny,” I say. “Don’t be a jerk. I don’t want to be found dead.” He is quiet.
“Like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like my mom. Face down on the carpet. Or in the bathroom. The only people found dead are murdered, or they’re addicts.”
“Homeless people are found. Or people who have heart attacks,” he says. I look at him with the “stop talking” look. He stops talking.
This is the week my Intro to Lit class reads Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Do you know what the blues are? I ask. They don’t really know. For real—they don’t know. I explain. I play Billie Holiday. I think they get it. Look at her face singing “Strange Fruit,” I say. “Like she’s about to be sick from singing the words.” How could they not get it? I have to tell them what it means to “feel blue.” They get it. They just never heard it said that way because instead they say, “feeling some kind of way.” “Blue” is better, I say.
Blue, like the color you turn when you die, I think, but I don’t say this because they already think I’m kind of weird and depressing. I, of course, told them first thing that “only trouble is interesting.”
I go back, like a lot of my friends in shooting range of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s age, to the inevitability of death, the possibility that we will fall into this hole, the jolt of fear that all of our beloved addicts bring with them everywhere they go. Raise your hand if you have been touched by addiction, I say. Your family, your friends, your neighbors. Two thirds of the class raises their hands. I suspect the other one third are better secret keepers. Maybe the addicts we love will fall back into the abyss and end up in the ground. It has happed to me. Twice. I don’t tell my students this. I tell them that Sonny feels this pain and suffering for everyone through his music and lets it all go, even though I am not an optimist when it comes to addiction. Somehow, at least for the length of the story, Sonny lives. For Sonny, it’s heroin or music. For my mom and dad, it was alcohol and nothing creative, except maybe children. Okay, it was alcohol.
When my father fell off the yellow couch, into the floor with liver failure, and my mom didn’t know whether or not to call 911 because everyone in their small town would know; when my mother was found, face down on the white carpet, dead, I was in shock. The real kind. I didn’t want a drink, which people tell me is good. I wanted it to be untrue. I wanted it to all go away, to disappear, like any other secret. It didn’t.
Philip Seymour Hoffman haunts me. He is proof that we all want to pretend this isn’t happening to two thirds of the families we know. His death is proof that we are still ignoring the inside of things as long as the surface is beautiful—when the fact is, our beautiful lives could end, will end. When we die, we might be found alone. And someone will feel a guilty sense of relief that it is finally over, along with impermeable sadness. I know I am right on this one.
January 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
I ask my class to write about a personal experience of being stereotyped because we’ve just watched Chimimanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” Tedtalk. You can watch it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html
I start the semester with this as an icebreaker because it sends us off on a note of truth and it bonds us, most of us descending from poor people the world over. I have my own small story of being put in the box of the hillbilly, which is a constant battle, but it pales in comparison to my students’ struggles.
Most of them dread the assignment and are eager to tell me how much they hate English class, and writing, specifically. “It’s important, I say. Reading and Writing are what college is all about!” As I say it, I wonder to myself if some of them wouldn’t be better off studying something else if they hate studying language. They groan, but comply.
Their responses don’t exactly address the prompt, but they humble me. They write about race, size, gender–all the usual suspects. I have three or four students from Burma, though, whose stories are stunning. One of them, I’ll call her Bibi, writes about her birth: “I was born in the forest,” she says. “My mother had to run away because of the war when she was pregnant with me. Can you imagine? A nurse later named me. It means Blossom Flower.” She is sunny and beautiful; the name seems to suit her. An American student says to her, “Isn’t it called Myanmar now?” Bibi looks puzzled. “I didn’t grow up there,” she says. “I grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. We lived there for thirteen years. I was born in Burma.” She is sure that the name Myanmar does not match her struggle, or her story. Another student, Thi, says, “Girls were forced to marry soldiers and boys were forced to fight. We hid in the forest when I was four until I was about seven. Then we came to a refugee camp called Mae La.” This is the largest refugee camp on the Thai border. My American, Kenyan, Mexican, and Dominican students in the class have powerful stories too, but none speak to me like the women from Burma, who are not actually Burmese. They are from the ethnic group called Karen. They are now in their very early twenties. They have been in this country for four years and now, here they sit, in jeans and sweatshirts, logging onto the computer as I ask, like all the other students in my classroom.
What have I got to teach them? Nouns? Adverbs?
I follow the syllabus–what else can I do? James Baldwin saves me. We read “Stranger in the Village” https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/stranger.htm and Baldwin’s words call to me: “the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” That is what each of us in the room is looking for, some semblance of control over the world, over the way we are described, what we are called, how our stories are told. Our very survival, I have learned this first week, may actually depend on words.