Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Scars and seeds

This is an entry that has taken seven years to write, and I have written it so many different ways.  I actually wrote one version of it last week, after a striking comment someone made to me about scars, and the remarkable impression they make on both body and soul.  And I woke up to proofread my entry, and it was gone. Gathered up by the blog deities. Sometimes you have to sacrifice things, and give up one version of the story to make room for another altar, another Novena, another candle lit in prayer.

A friend recently remarked that scars can serve as compasses of a sort (I'm paraphrasing here); they remind us to use oven mitts when removing a casserole from the oven, not to run with scissors, or wrestle near televisions. Scars are embedded with instructions.  And so many are beautiful to behold.  They tell stories that become mythologies. They decorate our bodies. They guide us. They still hurt, or in the case of a spider bite I received in infancy, they have no feeling at all. Completely numb, but still there to remind me, as I was moving wood over the weekend, to check for brown recluse spiders in the stacks.

Scars are also triggers for emotions; "soul archaeology," my student calls it.  I was speaking with a colleague about this today. Someone I love is hurting, and it is that particular brand of pain and feeling violated with which I can identify.  And this is where the subject of scars gets tricky.  Emotional scars, or those that require a trowel, a steady grip, and some good gloves, may also be embedded with instructions and they may also guide us.  That said, one may as well throw away the compass and the astrolabe because the human heart, with all of its arteries and pathways and miracles, cannot forget certain things. Sometimes it decides to desert the head, and stray wildly off course. And seven years later, I can still find myself sobbing in fear for someone else, only to realize later that I weep for myself as much as I do for my loved one.  The healing will be slow.  I know this, and I know I can't help her beyond just knowing that one fact.

I left when I was told that I couldn't survive on my own - to me, a sure sign that I wouldn't survive if I stayed.  I left with all the neat precision of a scalpel.  We fight, and I am hurt. Again.  I sleep on the couch.  Again. I think of where I could run to at this time of night. Again.  In the morning, he leaves for work without a word in that cold, sterile way that makes me think of formaldehyde and disposable lab gloves. I call two friends, who arrive within minutes.  They have boxes, packing tape, cashews, and music.  I say goodbye to my beautiful garden, my sanctuary of butterflies, hummingbirds, and rabbits. Books, clothes, my cat all packed in 5 hours and gone. I haven't seen him since.

We eat Mexican food, my friends and I.  They exchange looks across the table, and I stare at my taco. Later, they give me vodka lemonade with mint to stop the shaking. Later, one friend tucks me into bed, kisses my forehead, and tells me I can stay as long as I need to. I think of how I can thank someone who has helped me save my life. I think of how I will explain this to those I love.  I wonder if I will ever be able to love or be loved again.

Tell me what it is like to go to sleep without worrying that he will be there.  I don't know what that is like.  I sleep deeply at times, and wake up in a heat - afraid that I am not in this place.  I have dreamed of being dunked in formaldehyde, of being trapped in a bedroom, of jumping from heights too far for me to climb now.  Tell me what it is like not to feel fear. I don't know what that is like. Tell me how to plant a garden and watch it grow so that it obscures all of the truth.  I have done that.

The poet who lived above my garden loved my cleome, my love-in-a-mist, and my columbine, and he poked his head out of his studio window, chatting with me as I collected seeds and stored them in baggies with their Latin names and dates.  I didn't get to say good-bye before I left, though in his prophetic poetic way, he noted one summer afternoon, "I feel as though you will be gone from here, and what will I be left with if your garden goes?"  I didn't know how to tell him that already, there was nothing remaining. 

I am surprised I remember him.  For all of my scars, and for all that has bloomed since, I remember little of that period.  People who lived in the building say hello to me, and I don't recall having met them.  Scars that one chooses not to see because the digging requires tools I do not have.

Love, though.  Love is generative.  Love can be born of scars and also exist because of them. Love can self-seed, and even if I cannot always believe that its scars work wonders, others know better than I. At present, I hurt for my loved one, for knowing how this hurt can cause one to indeed, "see the world more clearly than before."  And I am also thankful for these scars and seeds, things of beauty all.


In Late November
Of the butterfly-bush, whose purple flowers
The monarch and the swallowtail
Sipped in August, near my windowpane
(Such a wealth of wings and flower clusters
I could hardly see the grass, the trees)
Only stalks and branches remain,
And panicles tipped with russet berries.
Now I see everything so vividly:
The young woman on her hands and knees,
Planting the meek shrubs three years ago --
Three short years and thirteen feet below --
Told me the light was perfect here and so
The plants would thrive, just wait and see
How gracefully the flowers would bear wings.
I would see her when she was not there,
Then go blind, standing right beside her.
How could I begin to explain such things?
Soon enough the blossoms reached my sill,
A floor above her terrace flat. Too late
For her to see the wonder she had wrought
Or for me to tell her. She'd moved out.
I never dreamed these branches in full bloom
Would all but block the summer view below:
Garden, gardener and terrace door,
Casting a dappled shadow across my room.
I never knew that when November came
I would miss the butterflies so much
And see the world more clearly than before.

-Daniel Mark Epstein

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


"Do not look at where you fell; look at where you tripped."  When I first read this West African proverb in preparation for teaching the topic of proverbs and griots to my 9th grade students, I chuckled.  For those who know me well, they also know that I am not graceful, despite my 15 years of training in dance.  My students are so familiar with my movements in the halls and classrooms that they proactively pull power strips out of my path. They voluntarily offer to help carry things for me if they sense that juggling a laptop, a folder, a thick textbook, a bottle of water, keys, and a cup of coffee down a flight of stairs might not end well.  They are unfazed by my tendency to, while turning a corner, mistake the amount of space between the wall and my usually fast-paced stride and smack right into it.  They smile, "Oh Northie." And they keep going too.

I trip a lot.  And run into people, walls, things with thorns.  And I drop stuff - wine glasses, stacks of papers, bags of groceries. So much so that I rarely get flustered now, though it's often brought to my attention by my friends, or a student, or my husband, who sweetly cautions "watch your head," when I exit the car and then grimaces with affection as I proceed to look up and smack my forehead. I've become accustomed to just continue walking, on my own tilted, meandering axis.  It has taken a long while to get to this place. I vividly remember one angst-ridden summer evening in the Easton park as a teenager, when I tearfully confronted the object of my affections.  I was no longer the object of his.  After moments of silence, I decided to do what any person who watches John Hughes' films does: exit stage left, tearfully, with brisk, confident footsteps and my head held high.  I didn't see the sizable tree roots that grabbed at my ankles as I stormed off (they were probably whispering "festina lente": make haste slowly).  Unfortunately, at fifteen my brain was still developing and my coltish thoughts consisted of little else than "Take one last LOOK at what you're missing!"  And I flew face-forward into a belly flop with all the grace of a manatee. In that humbling and humiliating moment, I realized something: I land HERE. THERE, in my moment of hubris, is where I tripped up. And also, OUCH. Ouch, my body. Ouch, my heart. OUCH.

So I come by this grace thing with years of well-honed practice and fine-tuning of my skills.  I can slip on a banana peel in the subway (seriously, it HAS happened), skid a full 10 feet, with arms all akimbo in front of a rush hour crowd, and stay upright.  I can slide down a flight of stairs on my rear, and jump up as if I'd just completed a gold-medal worthy Olympic performance.  I can trip over absolutely nothing, arrive at my destination perhaps a little faster for the stumble, and resume writing on the chalkboard.  Gravity: it is my friend and my foe. At least it's somewhat predictable.

My best friend Gaby started using the term "man-down" in reference to my peculiar grace.  It may have been after watching me race across our college campus, only to step on the hem of my right pant leg, soar through the air as if I were catching a touchdown, and land on my shoulder. People clapped.  It IS indeed possible to pretty much ruin not one but three articles of clothing in about twenty seconds.   Because she is also a member of the "function in disaster, finish in style" club, Gaby and I walk in sync, in this, among many other ways. We have since college, a chapter in our lives that included a truly memorable spectacle of two bouncy students, one of whom slipped, tripping the other, and then tumbling over one another down the very steep hill to the dining hall.  I should mention here that neither of us drank during most of our college years (we were part of the Coffee House crowd), and also that it was lunchtime and the sun was shining brightly on us as we picked leaves out of our hair, our ears, our clothes. Gaby and I run into one another walking down a street, we drop things in rhythm, and we pick them up in unison.  

We pick one another up too.

At some point, "man-down" shifted to metaphorically signal a distress call. "Man-down," I sent in an email. "My heart is hurting," I would say when she immediately rang.  "Man-down, BF. MAN-DOWN," she proclaimed in her strong poet's voice, and I knew that her spirit had stumbled, and was now struggling to grasp onto a moment when the world would just stop spinning for one blessed second.  It is some sort of salve to have this in someone.  It is a strange form of magic to know that emotionally, you can trip in so many terrific ways, and that the fall can be close to earth-shattering, and that there your friend is, with her ebullient gait, flying with flailing limbs over unforeseen curbs and running into stop signs with you. 

We have had our fair share of man-down moments in the 18 years of knowing one another. Living on separate coasts, we can't walk to and from the Coffee House together anymore, and we cannot always be there to lend a familiar hand after an untimely stumble.  But I still can feel when she is hurting, and it twitches at my limbs as I take care to walk down stairs in the morning, avoiding dog toys and things that go bump at sunrise.  And I wonder where she is tripping, and how to break her fall.  And how to be the person who catches the football, who lands the triple sow-cow, and scoops up her dear friend's heart, putting it together again with all the experience and know-how of an ace in the art of tripping. 

"Been there," we say to one another in time-honored words of comfort.  "Man-down."

Monday, January 18, 2010

What will survive of us is love

It is a day for Martin Luther King Jr. A day off from work, a day that had me thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh and the friendship he shared with MLK, and the vividly surreal dream I had last night of walking with Thich Nhat Hanh. I am reminded of his words: "Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now."

This was a day I thus took a long walk and enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather with a carrot ginger smoothie. A day for a good workout, and then 20 minutes in the sauna, lying with my knees pressed to my nose, my toes hugging the wall behind my head. Breathing deeply. Feeling the warmth settle.

It has been a day for a lunch of arugula salad and smoked hummus, and then a nap in front of the fireplace with my two dogs. They had baths earlier, and they nuzzle against me for warmth. We form a contiguous mound on the sofa, with the cat stretching one paw onto the top of my head. My husband comes to tuck the blankets around my feet, knowing my mercurial body temperature, which vacillates between hot and cold in patterns that are sometimes scary. Blessings come in all forms, I think.

It was a day for a long bath, and listening to music: Wilco, Neko Case, Radiohead. Alex and I have a longstanding game of being the first to guess the name of the artist. Pink Floyd's Us and Them comes on. I always liked this song.

It is an evening now for gratitude. For this home that we share, filled with books and art and music, peace and love. We share a garden with cardinals, goldfinches, and blue jays, who chirp, chatter, and gossip in the quince tree. They splashed in the fountain today, wings lifted in a chorus of Hallelujahs. "Amen," I say quietly to myself.

Alex works in his office - on an assignment for graduate school. His focus is admirable, as mine resembles that of a gnat. He tells me to buy myself that jacket on www.steepandcheap.com that I am eying. I decide not to, but am touched by his generosity. We decide on what to make for dinner, and he asks for asparagus made "my special way." I bought a bunch at the organic market today. He loves asparagus.

Scattered in almost every room of the house - living room, bathroom, bedroom, office -- are river rocks, inscribed with the words, "What will survive of us is love," from one of my favorite poems. They are wedding favors, and we are lucky to have extras. I read the words as I brush my teeth, when I'm grading papers early in the morning, and at night when I turn off the light at my bedside. I read them when we've argued, and when we are sitting together in front of the fire, peaceful and at rest.

Uncertainty is everywhere. A man can lose his life for love, for loving what is right. Another man - his friend - can outlive him, and practice peace in the sublime contentment of the French countryside, far from his native Vietnam. Anywhere can be a home.... "and up the paths the endless altered people came, washing at their identity." Love alters us, and we are humbled by what it does to our identity.

So today is a day of love, and this is what we have. We are walking, always. And thank goodness for the little things that wash away the truths and untruths of our edges, making us smooth as river rocks.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

-Philip Larkin

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tissues are on backorder

At the school where I work, boxes of standard-grade, no-frills tissues are available in the nurses' suite for classrooms.  Usually, when I go to fetch a couple of boxes, there is a tower stacked neatly in the supplies corner, waiting to be used.  Never in my four years have I wanted for tissues at Roland Park Country School.  They are there -- in forces armed to battle H1/N1, colds, bronchitis, mysterious liquids on desks, and of course, the inevitable tears for which legions of tissues have done due diligence.

When one of my students announced to the class yesterday, "Tissues are on backorder,"  I couldn't help but feel as though some higher being was giving me a shout-out reminder to burst my own bubble. "How can tissues be on backorder?!"  her classmate pondered.  Incredulity all around, the lot of us stunned into some disbelief that tissues, as we know them, have temporarily left the building. We really are THAT accustomed to having everything available to us - chocolate milk and my favorite, coconut water, in the cafeteria, Purell dispensers strategically located throughout the school, maps printed in color, laptops for each student grades 6-12...it's a cornucopia of privilege, and sometimes it makes me feel tremendously seasick.  The zipcode that places our school within Baltimore city is in many ways immune to the urban equivalent of a Greek tragedy gone horribly wrong.  It's a veritable Leviathan. There are not enough tissues to remedy the pain in Baltimore, "The City that Bleeds" (sometimes also referred to as "The City that Breeds"), and I sometimes wonder how many different ways we need to capsize for the city's citizens to notice that gaping hole letting water in faster than we can breathe.

I have watched all five seasons of The Wire (except one episode, when Omar is killed - I just couldn't do it).  I love the show for its writing, which verges on Shakespearean, for its tremendous cast, for the fact that it was filmed on location, and therefore I can connect my world to that on the television screen.  I love that it poetically addresses the many Achilles' heels Baltimore wears like battle scars- sometimes in defiance, sometimes in resigned acceptance, most often in a limping despair. In some ways, it was easy for me to watch the show and sigh, cry, fast forward through the particularly violent parts, and think deep, burdensome thoughts about what I could do to "make a difference" or "do more".  Apathy all around.  Baltimore is proud that a critically-acclaimed HBO show spotlights the city, but distances itself from the truths so plainly, and violently depicted. It makes me cynical about my city, and of the people who cavalierly state that it isn't violent, or "that bad."  THAT is a whole bunch of hooey.

My assumption well into Season 3 was that The Wire took some artistic license in the stories it told.  Even though I saw the boarded-up blocks, tagged with gang insignia.  Even though two students at Johns Hopkins were murdered when I was a graduate student there.  Even though one of my closest friends lives in Remington, and we hear gunshots while we grill our sausages and drink our fancy beer.

I met Waverly and Ramsey at Sylvan Beach Ice Cream (now named Taharka Brothers Ice Cream), a program that places at-risk young men into a work setting, while also offering them the opportunity to complete an educational degree.  A number of the guys were already known quantities within the juvenile justice system, and were released from their sentence for good behavior. I was there to serve as a "life skills mentor" because somehow, I was supposed to know more about how to cope with life than these young men. Ha.

I ate dinner with the Sylvan Beach crew on more than one occasion, ashamed that they were making it for me.  I listened as Emmanuel talked to me about a book he was reading on The Crusades.  I laughed with Waverly about the disproportionately small amount of food I ate, compared to the table of men with whom I feasted. Antonio, who had a sort of boundless, puppy-dog energy, cracked jokes and then laughed at them.  He was the youngest, with innocent liquid brown eyes and a penchant for lifting me off the ground when he hugged me. Brandon could leap intellectual circles around me.  He got EVERYTHING, and took pride in the excellence of his work.  He also struggled with anger management.  I watched Ramsey look right through me, without emotion. He made the best chicken, but compliments got you nowhere with Ramsey.  A smile was met with a chilled indifference.  I remember thinking, "If circumstances were different, he wouldn't hesitate to kill me." Ramsey was trying to leave the Bloods gang, but it wasn't easy.  In the time he was there, they tagged the ice cream shop, broke into the sleeping quarters while the guys were sleeping, ate away at his will. This was not unusual for the Sylvan Beach guys.  Of the several who were there in my time working with the organization, five left for various reasons. Three are back in prison, adults now.

I worked one-on-one with Waverly, a young man with a slight build and a huge smile who to this day refers to me as Miss Paige.  He is eager to please, good with people, disorganized and scattered, but quickly forgiven due to his charm and warmth. Waverly knows something about everything, and makes amazing coffee.  He is a poet and a musician and he spent virtually all of his salary on recording equipment (a problem when we addressed the notion of budgeting in our "life skills" program). He shared several CDs with me, and my all-time favorite running mix has two of his songs on it. Waverly has dreams of opening a music production company, and I told him he could use the name of what mine would be: Track 6 Productions (based on my theory that track 6 is often the best song on the album). We had an instant connection.  He spoke openly with me about his past, and I, mine.  We talked about abuse and the particular ghosts it leaves.  We discussed in great depth the impact his father's experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War had on his family.  Waverly is the youngest of three boys; his brothers are both in the army.  The brother to whom he was closest went to Iraq as Waverly was nearing the end of his two years with Sylvan Beach.

Waverly struggled with alcohol abuse, and he was ashamed to talk about this with me. We danced around the topic, and he shared what he needed to, even though I was privy to more information than he ever gave me.  He did discuss his penchant for stealing cars, and in graphic detail, recounted the story of his stabbing.  I remember sitting on my hands to stop them from shaking when he showed me the scar. It was not little. 

Because Sylvan Beach has consistently received press for its efforts in Baltimore city, it wasn't uncommon for the local celebrity or two to walk through its doors.  Method Man was a frequent visitor, as were actors from The Wire.  Waverly and I spoke about the show one spring evening, when the windows were open to the streets of Baltimore and all of the cherry blossoms offered the cynic just a little bit of hope.   "It's all true, Miss Paige...all that shit is true," he said, shaking his head and looking down.  I remember the sting of that moment still, and I remember pressing the point, asking him again whether he felt like some aspects of the show were exaggerated to make a stronger statement.  Waverly looked out onto the street at a crowd of MICA students heading to a nearby bar. "Nah, nah....it's all out there." 

I swallowed my gum.

Around the same time, Ramsey borrowed my favorite pen, a gift from a dear friend.  I like the weight of the pen and the green marble swirls that decorate it, and I'd taken to bringing it with me everywhere, if only to have something to hold onto and fidget with while I worked with Waverly on his assignments.  Ramsey had recently started nodding an acknowledgment in my direction when I came into the ice cream parlor. He was in good spirits that night because he had recently purchased a new belt buckle (Ramsey really liked clothes).  He was wearing it, and I found it nearly impossible NOT to stare at because it repeatedly scrolled and blinked his name in red, LED, all-cap letters: RAMSEYRAMSEYRAMSEY.

Seated at the table next to the corner where Waverly and I liked to work, Ramsey was hunched over an assignment and needed a pen.  I offered him mine.  He smiled, a shy, sincere smile and thanked me.  Five minutes later, he dropped the pen and ink splattered across the floor with all the splash of fake blood in a horror flick.  Ramsey's reaction was instant.  His feet kick backed and he jumped up out of his chair.  I'm not sure what spooked him more - the fact that he broke the pen, or the pool of red ink that marred the pristine floors of the cafe. Waverly grabbed a box of tissues, and threw several over the ink, and we watched as it bled through.  Teary now, Ramsey mumbled over and over, "I'm so sorry Miss Paige, I'm so sorry."  I reassured him that it really wasn't a big deal, watching mutely as he knelt on the floor, wiping the ink with fistfuls of tissues, with his belt buckle blinking and scrolling his name over and over again.  I knelt next to him and starting collecting the tissues. It took the rest of the box to wipe the floor clean.

Ramsey always greeted me with a hug and a smile after that night. He gave me a Big Boyz Bail Bondz pen the following week, and I still have it, stored in my drawer with the defunct swirly marble pen.  Relics of what is wrong and what is right in this charmed and challenged city.

Waverly worked for Sylvan Beach until last spring, when he left to pursue other dreams. He lives with his parents now, and has apparently started drinking again. He was taking classes at CCBC in business. Ramsey left Sylvan Beach after he was involved in a carjacking. As far as I know, he is in prison now.  As conflicted as I felt about doing so, I wrote a letter for him, as a character witness in the process of his sentencing, as I did for Antonio, also now doing time. And Brandon, whose smile carried his pain but also his capacity for hope, is in for murder.

So yes, tissues are on backorder. We use them to mop up our messes and our tears.  We use them until the box is empty.  And then we wait for more.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Carriage-vans, ogres, and high school girls

"Didn't the carriage vans carry silkworms from the Arabian Peninsula to the Silk Road?"  
"CARAVANS, Maggie!" 
"Maggie, the silkworms came from China to Constantinople!"
"Wait -- was this before or after Basil the Ogre Slayer?"

"There were OGRES in Byzantium???!!!!!" 

Silence.  Raucous laughter. I face the blackboard so that they don't see just how hard I am laughing. My inner monologue reads something like "Am I really qualified to be a teacher? Do they remember ANYTHING?"

Welcome to the first day back after Winter Break.

As the 9th grade dean at an all-girls school in Baltimore, and as one of two ninth grade history teachers, I spend most of my waking hours with energetic, emotional, anxious, enthusiastic, eager-to-please teenagers -- remarkable human beings who are maturing into women so quickly it is dizzying. It is fair to say that never before have I laughed so much and been moved to tears so frequently on a daily basis as I do in this, my truest of callings. I am amazed by their strength and their spirit, especially given how much they have to contend with on a daily basis. As one of my students dryly remarked to me recently, "Growing up is hard these days, Northie. You have no idea." 

Sometimes when I think about having children, I am terrified by how much I know that I wish I didn't.  A good friend of my senior students is in shock trauma right now due to a drunk driving accident. "She moved her toes," I hear the girls say.  "There's a prayer vigil today.  Maybe we can go after practice," another mutters.  It is serious. I breathe a short prayer, affectionately tug the ponytail of the girl who stands in the hallway, wearing her out-of-uniform Uggs, and keep walking.  I can't bring myself to mention the Uggs.

I don't envy these beautiful creatures.   Every moment of the school day, they glide in swarms past my fishbowl window looking out onto the hallway that is one of the major arteries of the school.  They wave hello while I teach, mouth "Hey Northie!", making hearts with their hands, kissing the glass on their way to something new.  Their lips leave imprints on the glass, and each evening, I watch semi-apologetically as the cleaning staff wipes the windows clean.  How many kisses has this window seen?  How much healing happens here?

They write their names in different script on my blackboard, searching for themselves in the dotting of an i or the flourish of a j.  "STRESS" they write, over and over  - a chant composed of chalk tapping furiously against my board. "The North Caliphate," one student wittily writes.  Another section of the board is devoted to a math equation that I stared at for a good five minutes when I arrived to school this morning.  I am inspired and humbled by how much they know. MEREDITH is written in thick white chalk.  I know that a student was looking for me.  I am sorry I missed her. I could talk to her for hours.

On any given day, I can walk past a student and know how she's feeling. While this makes me good at my job, it also means that my own heart is in large part comprised of the heartaches and the happiness of my students. The girls who through their sullen silence scream "SEE ME!!" and the girls who feel secure and safe only at our school. I often wonder how they do it - how do they find their smile?  How do they go from school to practice, to more practice, to home, eating dinner at 8:00, starting homework at 9:00?  How do they keep up with their lives?  Who do they have when they are not at school?  Do they know the value of silence?  They beg me for meditation time in our classes.  They sob on the floor of my classroom, curled in the fetal position, with their fists clenched in despair.  They struggle with reading and they work through words, and I watch while tears fall on the pages of their textbooks. "I just want something to be easy," they say. They give and take and love and hate, sometimes all in the span of a day. They struggle to be heard and seen, and they grasp at threads of contentment.  Their schedules rarely allow for it, however. "Less is more," I tell them.  They look at me as if I'm speaking Yiddish.

I have never felt disappointment in a student.  I am glad of this.  I hope that I never do.  I am content to see them as they are: flawed and perfect, hopeful and hopeless.  I wouldn't want to grow up now.  And they are teaching me so much about how to do so, in pain and joy.  I say thank you for the get-well card made in the shape of an aloe-juice bottle, for the beverage they know I like to drink. I say thank you to the Amazonian basketball player with the smile made of gold, who stoops to hug me, even though her heart harbors anger I have never felt.  I say thank you to the student who writes about how difficult it was to come out to her mother, and to another who writes about how difficult it is NOT to hurt herself.  I thank two students, who are my friends, for knowing me as well as I know myself.  All of these amazing spirits, fighting their own ogres. 

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.

-W.S. Merwin

For CBCS and MDC: Thank you.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Towards the end of 2003, I started a Favorites List. 2003 was a good year to do this for a number of reasons: the end of a failed and traumatic marriage, a diagnosis of Lupus, a dear friend's suicide. It was an opportunity to kneel before some imaginary altar and give thanks. It also seemed an appropriate time to take stock of things, and not in a mental grocery list sort of way, but in a way that served as an emotional palimpsest for passages in my life that may well deserve another layer of text applied so that I might see things as they really are. Kind of like altarpieces and the painted ceilings of churches. With each Mass, feast day, and Compline, frescoes and triptychs were subject to alterations that the artists didn't intend.Assume that they remained in situ for long enough, and they were eventually blanketed in soot from candles and incense, adding a veil of sfumato where once gleamed gold gilt, aquamarine, carmine red - this is the stuff of time and truth.

When an artist intentionally employs the use of sfumato (from the verb sfumare - to evaporate like smoke), the truth is revealed by the delicate play of light and shadows (with shadows really setting the tone).
Leonardo, as much a scientist as he was an artist and inventor, delighted in the poetic possibilities of sfumato. As beholders of his work, we sometimes shudder at the Mona Lisa, because the truth plainly holds that we will not know for whom she wears that secretive smile - only that it appears from the shadows, and that it could disappear just as quickly. Smoke is fugitive, and this makes it as enigmatic as both happiness and sadness.

So my favorites list commenced, in part because I didn't want to overlook the little things. And also due to the fact that my hitherto charmed life had quite alarmingly filled with smoke, and I emerged from this experience sputtering and sort of sepia-toned. My first entry was "arrowheads," perhaps because I fondly recall finding arrowheads with my father in our newly-tilled field as a child. It seemed as good a place to begin as any other in the first page of favorites, which included, in no particular order:

-Jeff Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah"
-Paul Celan
-touching bushes when I walk by them (?!)
-running stadiums
-seltzer water
-Montagne Bleu tea with honey and soymilk in my teacup from college
-when the photocopier doesn't have a line
-Gorecki's Symphony No. 3
-the Renaissance
-the South of France
-Thelonius Monk
-the Knicks, especially Derek Harper and Allan Houston
-finding money in my pockets
-cleome flowers
-Nina Simone
-Raphael's paintings of the Madonna
-vanilla soymilk
-piave cheese
-four leaf clovers
-the color green
-Peter's fish stew
-bulletin boards
-cooking with Heather
-the smell of lilacs on the corner of University and 39th
-eating with my hands
-Jorge Amado
-laughing with Gaby
-weeping cherry trees
-hope. hope. hope.

Almost seven years later, and my list of favorites is over twenty pages long. Am I that indiscriminate that so many things can be labeled as "favorites", or "the things I love most"? And why, now, do I still feel compelled to almost obsessively commit to paper the things, people, moments, and memories that I cherish? What makes me happier: the many things I've included in my list, or the now religious practice of recording them?

It is wholly relieving to have a fair bit of distance from that period in my life, when my heart and body dangled together on tenterhooks. Sometimes it feels as though I couldn't possibly have been that fresh-faced neophyte who gaped like a bass fish at my own misfortune. Sometimes (and still on occasion) I linger in my own sfumato, unsure of how to embrace the hope. hope. hope. that in my mind is as beautiful as a Botticelli, without surrendering to the fear that defines my edges.

At the end of the day, surely at the end of our lives, perhaps it is the possibility - indeed, the certainty - that smoke appears and evaporates in a measured hush, that urges some piece of me to be aware of my world to the extent that I transcribe its fugitive pleasures reverently, privately, painstakingly. That this can happen in moments of clarity and in moments of confusion is part and parcel of what makes us present, regardless of whether the present comprises peace or turmoil. We are always still painting, wiping away, and allowing dust and candle smoke to settle in the place of something else.

This, actually, is one of my favorite things.

More recent entries in my Favorites List include:
-the time I saw that graffiti heart in Austria with Alex
-my tempurpedic mattress
-when Moxa and Mia play together
-watching Daisy play basketball
-when my student Maggie put her squash bag in the trash can
-coconut water
-Trader Joe's lavender drier bags
-the scent of boiling vanilla, oranges, and cinnamon
-a good fireplace
-birds-eye view maps
-my ukulele

Sometimes favorites are left unfinished, apparently. Leonardo understood this better than most: