Directly/Indirectly

February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

I heard it on the news, and on Facebook, which is faster than the news. Then, I heard, maybe it was one of the women’s husbands, a domestic dispute, not because she was Muslim. Somehow, I don’t know how, that seemed more comprehensible than a hate crime on a very low scale of horrible to worse—a different kind of hate—which in itself says plenty about what we get used to accepting, moving on from. When I got to school, the first person I ran into was Ama. She had emigrated with her husband, but he was shot at the convenience store he owned in Raleigh a long time ago, and she had been on her own for many years. She had taken my English 111 class. She was diligent in every way. She had seen a lot, raised four children. She was Muslim. We said how terrible the triple murder was. I told her the husband theory. No! She said. That’s propaganda. She was 21. My son knew her. Her husband and sister were killed too–a beautiful family!

I went on to teach class, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He said so many indelible things, like: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I explained that to the class, but they knew what it meant. And then this: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The truth of this echoed. A few students had claimed at the beginning of class that the reading was boring. I asked them to listen to the power of the words, still resonating after 52 years. The idea that we live in an inescapable network of mutuality has yet to hit home with many.

A few years before, I had had a fantastic student, a woman who wore colorful hijabs to match her outfit. She was planning to be a respiratory therapist. When we read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that semester, she told me she took it home and made her kids read it. We talked a lot in that class about tolerance, justice, and action. It wasn’t until the end of that semester that I found out her husband is in jail, charged as a terrorist. I had thought I knew what that meant. I found pictures of her on the Internet proclaiming his innocence, face covered, all but her eyes. I knew her eyes though: warm, kind, thoughtful. I didn’t know how to reconcile what she’d told me with what the papers said. I just knew that I was tied to her too.

After class this week, I found out that the man who murdered the young family in Chapel Hill was a student at this very school. My school. The administration sent an email. Part time student, they said, trying to limit the ties, but still. He could have been in one of my classes. They were required for his program. I wondered which of my colleagues had pulled that short straw. Though, when he had been in class, semesters before, would they have known? Would it have made a difference if he had read Dr. King? If he had pondered “networks of mutuality?” I was secretly glad that I had never met him, and wouldn’t have to second guess every word I had ever said in his class.

Like everybody in my community, I can’t make sense of  these murders, this terrorism. Over parking? As if that’s understandable, as if it’s not about hate? I wonder if I ever took this man’s spot in the parking lot outside my building. It would have been legal for him to have a gun in his car. Would he have shot me, my hair a wild mess, uncovered?

So this is community college. This is community. The single garment of destiny: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist. All in the same place, walking through the same halls. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How do we make sense of senseless violence? of hate? How do we reconcile this in one small building, one small state, one world?

Tone and Burn

February 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’m taking a fitness class called C-Fit “Tone and Burn.” I thought it might be a good way to start the year— you know, out with the old and in with the new, trading muscle for fat. I wanted to see a difference. Each Monday, I lift weights and run and jump and lift weights again. The first night after the class, I woke up with my chest burning at three am. I was also starving, but I knew better than to eat in the middle of the night. The muscles (who knew they were under there?) were calling out for some kind of relief, but when you can’t even really say where that pain begins, just that it is filling your chest and calling you from sleep, how can you fix it? You breathe until you go back to sleep.

My kids are buff, especially the younger one who does karate. In our dining room, at night, he flexes without a shirt on, admiring his physique in the reflection of the bright light on the windowpanes, the night outside a black velvet backdrop. Jeff and I are in awe of him too. His muscle is the result of years of discipline and dedication at karate class. He has special push ups named after him. It is this confidence I’m going for, more than the actual muscle and fat loss. I want to feel strong.

I haven’t been writing this blog, or much of anything in the past several weeks. It looks like 2015 is bringing a lot of changes to my life—new people, new places, hopefully new work—and I had to sit with all that for a while. Now, I’m ready to build all kinds of muscle, to make something new.

I asked my son what he thought about maybe being in a new place. He thought, then got practical: “I’m smart, kind of good looking, and I play sports. I’m good at making friends,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” I am trying to borrow his confidence in redefining himself. I want to have his honesty, to own what I’ve come this far to get. It goes against my upbringing, against the culture for that matter, but I can recall Jack Handy if I need to. I guess teenagers have to do that everyday. There’s more excitement to it than fear—more thrill at admiring newly developed muscles.

I am now able to tone and burn without waking in the middle of the night starving and in pain. Well, maybe with just a little pain and hunger. Change must be felt, I guess.Pretty soon, I’ll be ready to flex in the dining room window.

Late Night Grocery

October 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

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My mom visits me in strange ways. For no reason, out of the blue sometimes, she’s with me, watching, wanting to be in my life. She always liked to direct, rather than act. Sure, it’s psychological, but I feel her. In remembering her, somehow, I conjure her. Last week, in the grocery store, she was riding shotgun in the cart. I’m a practical person. I make a list, then I forget to bring the list, but it’s in my head. That night, my mom was making decisions. I let her have free rein.

First: In the produce aisle, we are not interested in actual vegetables—they’re so, well, green, but we want champagne dressing. My mom, you see, was an expert in condiments and was never very interested in vegetables, except the occasional artichoke with lots of melted butter, and maybe some Romaine. I tasted champagne dressing way before I ever tasted champagne. Bottles of mustard often fell out of her refrigerator in crazy defiance because they had been so confined in the side of her refrigerator door. I make Mom skip the horseradish mustard this time.

We want chocolate, of course, but that is both of us. She wants the one with chili in it. Nothing could be spicy enough. She wants to feel it. We skip the meat section. She always thought it was strange that I went vegetarian in high school, but I rarely saw her eat anything but a carb. We hit the chips and crackers because that’s dinner.

Ooh! The bargain basket! Here we find all kinds of treasures. It’s not that she wants the bargain–that’s me. But she points out the purple eye shadow for $1.99 and the bacon bowls. Yes. A bacon bowl is what you think it is, and it comes in a box. That’s why it’s in the bargain basket. I don’t even eat real bacon. But she wants it. Just to see. I pick it up, consider its comic value, then toss it back into the basket.

The wine aisle? She always had a special fondness for Stag’s Leap, or maybe it was Frog’s Leap—I can’t remember—doesn’t matter, I guess. She really wants the pricier one.

In the bread aisle, we see a man with a prosthetic leg, wearing shorts. I look away, but Mom pulls me back to look. There is a color photo printed on the plastic calf of the leg: a little girl with blonde curls, smiling. I can’t stop looking at it, even though I know this is rude. My mom would go talk to him, ask if the girl was his granddaughter. Why would he have a photo on it, if he didn’t want you to look?  she says. I walk past him, but now I can’t look away from the leg photo. I don’t ask the questions she’s prompting me to ask, I just get a loaf of whole wheat and leave the man to choose his bagels.

By the checkout, I really feel that Mom is there in the lonely late night Kroger. We unashamedly look at the gossip mags, consider the candy, buy a pumpkin on the way out the door. When I get to the car, though, she slips away into the night, no doubt on a hunt for wasabi mustard.

Joiner

October 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

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Joiner

I’ve been thinking about the verb join. This is what Webster’s Online Dictionary says it means: a. to put or bring together so as to form a unit b. to connect by a line c. to put or bring into close association or relationship d. to engage in e. to come into the company of f. to associate oneself with.

I’ve never been a joiner in the sense of d, e, or f. I was born into a team of five sisters. That’s enough. I don’t need to commit to any other group. Jeff says I missed out by not playing team sports, but had I been a point guard, I doubt I would have ever passed the ball. I hated when the teacher made us do group work. If you grow up in a group, you learn to fend for yourself, to desire your own company. Squeaky wheels and all that. A friend who also grew up in a family of five says he doesn’t like to share things now because he shared everything growing up. I get that.

Jeff was born to be a camp counselor, a team captain. He really believes that more is merrier. I think it’s just more. Maybe it’s because he grew up with only one much older brother. Maybe it’s because he wanted a tribe to roam the woods with. I always wanted to set myself apart from my tribe, alone in the woods, until I joined him.

Lately, I’ve been joining people in the sense of a, b, and c above. I’ve been marrying my friends. Not that way. What I mean is I got to stand up in front of them and officiate twice this year. I’m a reverend, according to the Internet and the state of North Carolina, the state of Texas, too. My friend Lauren was a little worried her North Carolina wedding wouldn’t be legal, but she married a man, so when we turned in the license, the lady at the desk only asked if she wanted a copy.

It is a privilege for me to join my friends, to help seal their deal with each other in front of their friends and family. We come together today to join this man and this woman (or this woman and this woman or this man and this man). Coming together to join, to become a part of, to come into the company of, to associate with. I’m all for that, now that I know you can join someone and still be alone in the woods from time to time.

I can’t imagine my life without my group of college friends, friends from other parts of my life, the family Jeff and I have created. If I connect them all together, they are a web, a net—that still leaves me space to breathe. I can see how anyone would want that. I can’t imagine being told I couldn’t have it. I believe in joining, in unions, and I’m thankful that very soon in North Carolina and in most of the country, I’ll be able to join anyone who wants to come together so as to form a unit with anyone else.

Easy Birth

August 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

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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.
“Oliver Cole.”
“Ollie!”
“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.

Full

June 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

 

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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.

 

Noun or Adjective? Choose.

April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Image“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.

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