The early train: Slice of Life 23/31 #SOL20

This morning, I woke knowing what day it was. My mother-in-law had posted this message to remember her son, my brother-in-law, D’Arcy:

12 years ago today, my son boarded what I have come to think of as “the early train”.  You know the train – the one we all inevitably, eventually board.  To those of you who have recently, or are about to, undergo a loss that stuns and overwhelms you:  I can’t tell you how, or why, or when, but for me the time came when thoughts of my son turned from searing hand-on-the-stove kind of pain to a flooding of tenderness with the embrace of the deepest love I have ever known.  I suspect that time will come for most of you. It won’t come quickly, though you might feel it in brief waves, early on. Hang in, hang on, reach out. 

Year after year, I am touched by how she expresses herself on this day. She shares freely what is often hidden and, though I know she will scoff, I feel that her sharing has become wisdom. She will say it is simply what it is – we don’t get much choice in situations like this. He is not here; we are. We must continue to live.

Today, I am sharing a poem. It makes me quake in my boots because I am *always* nervous about poetry – and obviously this is one I just wrote this morning, so now I’m sharing a draft! That said, I am inspired by the way fellow bloggers Not The Whole Story or Reflections on the Teche or Nix the Comfort Zone express themselves in poetry (not every day, but often). And an old friend suggested that poetry is a good way to deal with uncertainty.

I can’t quite explain why all of this came together for me in this way, but there it is. And, I want to be clear: the death in the middle is not my child but my brother-in-law. We miss him every day.

Untitled for now

My first son came slowly.
He hesitated, reluctant to be rushed.
“Push,” the midwife urged me, “you’re going to have to push.”
Wait wait wait
I was focused, determined
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, as the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
White white white
A thin covering over the gray, dirty snow we wish away.
For a few minutes, a few hours, forever
The world is purified.
We remember the beauty of Winter
While we long for a Spring we imagine, beautiful.
And Spring will come
Messy, muddy, melting until the rotted remnants of life
Revealed as death under the dirty snow.
Spring will wake
Wet, insistent, unrelenting with its green promises.
Spring will force us to accept the hope
Concealed by this thin white cover .

Twelve years ago today we woke to a changed world
Because twelve years ago today he did not wake.
No fresh snow covered the gray.
Spring’s muddy mess pushed forward, pushed forward
And he did not.
That year we fought hope forever, for mere moments.
Yet Spring came, unrelenting.

My second son came quickly
His will to be in the world overwhelming.
“I’m pushing,” I cried, though I had just sent the midwife for medicine.
Now now now
Animal, insistent
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain.
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
A reminder that last week, last month, last year
We played in this cold, wet miracle.
Tomorrow, the rain will come.
We will revel in the messiness of Spring,
The searing pain of the memories transformed
To a flooding of tenderness,
The deepest love we will ever know.

The pain is really the briefest sense of undertow as we play in the waves of his presence.

 

And here is the poem my mother-in-law wrote this poem a few days after D’Arcy’s death:

The Early Train

some are travelling northbound
their cheeks flushing pink with the cold
some are travelling sideways
moving west or moving east
some lose tickets, miss the gate
either way, theirs is to wait
and some    are bound for the early train
one      has taken the early train

copyright © mls March 29 2008

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On futons, spiders & memories: Slice of Life 20/31 #SOL20

Today we managed to get the futon frame out of the basement and into the guest room. Our “guest” is our exchange student from the Netherlands. His dad was an exchange student with my family when I was in high school. Given the current state of the world, this exchange is a *little* different than anyone was anticipating. The current state of our house isn’t making things any easier. Luckily, Pieter is very good natured and has not complained about sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor for a few nights. Unluckily, the futon frame – once we found it and got it upstairs – was very dusty and home to more than a few spiders. Pieter and Andre cleaned it up and put it together and then, over dinner, I regaled them with a spider story from possibly the craziest overseas trip I ever led – the time another teacher and I took ten students to Cameroon. 

After dinner and bedtime, I dug up the email I sent from that day, about twenty years ago. Here is a slightly edited letter from my past self to the parents who trusted me (age 20-something – aka *not old enough*) to take their children to Africa for a few weeks. Just re-reading it makes me gasp and smile. (The editing is that I removed the kids’ names, though I doubt any of them would care. We were two chaperones, ten kids from our school in the US, plus five from the local Cameroonian high school.)

Why hello there.  Did you miss us? Have you been sitting at home wondering what in the world your children have been doing?  Well, they are all alive and well and they are not bored.  Let me tell you about it…

As I recall, I left you at the end of the day Saturday – we’d been to the village and the lava flow.  Sunday morning we woke up bright and early and continued our exciting experiences of Cameroonian roads as we headed up to Bimbie, a town not far from Limbe. Our first order of business was hiking the Bimbie Nature Trail which runs through an old growth lowland rainforest – the only one left between Limbe and Douala. We split into two groups and made our way into the dark, humid interior. We walked by fig trees that have adapted to place their fruit on the ground so animals can get it more easily; we saw ebony trees and smelled their wonderfully aromatic flowers – and learned that you can eat the berries inside the flowers, though I found them bitter; we slopped through a mangrove and thanked the heavens once again for hiking boots that the mud couldn’t suck off our feet (though it tried); we saw a tree whose heartwood rots out leaving space for all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of bats; we even saw a four or five hundred year old tree. The hike was lovely and quite a success.

Upon our return to the road, we realized that the car that had been left for us was not big enough for everyone to get back to Camp Saker, the camp where we were staying in the rainforest.  So a LOT of people crowded into the first car, and the other half of us walked. Eventually, the car came back for the rest of us and we all got to the camp, sweaty but happy.

After lunch, we headed back into the forest with researchers from the Botanic Gardens and we learned how to do a wildlife transect to study a forest.  One student got to use the Global Positioning System (super-technology in the middle of the forest) and the rest of us served as recorders, measurers, tapers and spotters. We spotted lizards, caterpillars and birds’ nests as well as lots of crab holes, but we didn’t see much large wildlife because, in addition to the fact that we were crashing through the forest with about 20 people, these forests have been hunted to the point that almost no large wildlife is left.  Sad, but true. A few sweaty hours after we started our transect, we made our way back to the road and then back to camp.

We spent the early evening at the little beach near our camp. The Cameroonian boys all played soccer on the beach and some of our students joined in. Stella, our cook, was supposed to be making us dinner but, unbeknownst to us, our driver accepted a private deal and was, as a result, several hours late. So Stella was stuck in town, and couldn’t get to us. We realized something was wrong as we got hungrier and hungrier, but we really weren’t sure how to cook for 17 in a camp in the middle of the forest with only rudimentary cooking supplies. When I explained to the kids that we didn’t know what was going on, one of the Cameroonian girls stepped up and promptly took over, cooking a delicious bean stew over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen while I made rice (over a gas stove in an indoor kitchen). Let me just say how seriously impressed I was with her ability to take over and cook. Just as we began to serve, Stella arrived with soda (the height of luxury), and even she was impressed that we’d managed a delicious dinner on our own.

After dinner, some of the students organized a coconut feast (the guides had shown them how to get coconut milk on the morning hike). A few kids gathered the coconuts; everyone worked on opening them; one boy even used his baseball skills to throw coconuts at rocks until they burst.  We all loved the fresh coconut meat, which the kids observed tastes nothing like what you get in the grocery store.

Just before bed, I had to get help from my co-chaperone because a GIANT spider had taken up residence on the ceiling over my bed – not quite as big as my hand, but nearly…  I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep underneath it. He chased the enormous thing about until it gave up and dropped directly into my hiking boot – not my ideal outcome. As you can imagine, this made it very difficult for me to put my boots on the next morning. We decided to keep the spider incident quiet because we didn’t want to tell the kids and “creep them out” (many things “creep people out” around here), but then we learned of the lizard in the boys’ toilet and the various critters in the girls’ room, so we shouldn’t have worried. The night was also stiflingly hot, and Camp Saker doesn’t have air-conditioning – or even fans – so we all had a restless night and people looked a little worse for the wear Monday morning.

Today we are having a symposium (which I am late for as I type, so I’m about to sign off) and this afternoon will be spent at the beach with a beach barbecue for dinner. Tomorrow we have an optional hike to Bomona waterfall. It’s optional because it involves starting at 5 am and a 2 hour uphill hike – but the falls are supposed to be beautiful. As soon as the hike is over, we head to Yaounde. Thursday morning we will meet with the American Ambassador and show him our work painting the education center (which the embassy helped fund) at the Zoo and then we go to Douala. All of this is to say that I will probably email tonight, but after that I can make no guarantees. In addition, please limit your emails to your children to a line or two tonight as I won’t be able to get them the actual text, and this is probably the last time you should e-mail.

Hope all is well in DC and that you are out from under the snow.  More information as I can write.

Amanda

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Ice, Ice, Baby: Slice of life 16/31 #SOL20

I grew up in southern climes. My father was in the Air Force and we lived in Panama, Texas and California before we settled in South Carolina. Even my “far away” university was below the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, until I moved to Ottawa, I had little experience with seriously cold weather. I refused to agree to move here until I had visited in the winter. My then-boyfriend now-husband was so anxious about this that, when I arrived in mid-February, he met me at the airport, bundled me into a taxi, looked at me and asked, with absolute sincerity, “So, do you think you can handle the cold?” I said yes. This is what love will do to you – even if you’re a Southern Girl.

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Ice ripples

I didn’t see snow fall until I was in the 5th grade. That summer, we had moved from California to South Carolina, not exactly a bastion of cold weather, but colder than what I knew. One day in February, someone yelled, “SNOW!” and we all ran to the window to see it until Mrs. Rish called us back in her quavering voice: “Sit down! Sit down, children! It’s not like you’ve never seen snow before.” I turned to her, eyes wide with wonder and said, “I haven’t.” Bless her for saying, “Well then, Mandy, you can stay there.” I pressed my face to the cold glass and watched in amazement for long minutes before I returned to my seat.

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Ice near yoga class

You can imagine my first few winters in Ottawa. I had to learn everything anew, not least of which was how to dress myself – and then babies – for cold weather. None of the coats I owned were even close to warm enough. I did not have winter boots. I was pretty sure that no gloves in the world could keep my fingers warm in February. Sometimes I tried to stay inside for days, despite Andre’s gentle insistence that going outside at least once a day was healthy.

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parking lot ice

 

Eventually, time and the kids got me outside. After all, I didn’t want to miss the fun of building snowmen or turning the back porch into an epic sledding ramp. When the boys started parent-child skating lessons, I went to the rink and tried to pretend that, like the other parents, I was mostly there to hold the kids up when, in fact, I was learning, too. Now I can lace skates – theirs and mine – stand up from a fall, and even race my kids down the frozen canal in February. I’ve come to love snowshoeing and have taken a ski lesson to get over my fear of downhill skiing. I still don’t love it, but I can get down a hill.

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This icy dragon is breathing fire

The more I played outside in the winter, the more I got used to the cold. Sure, I wear hats and gloves starting in October and straight through to April, making “real” Canadians laugh, but in last year or two I’ve caught myself “just running to the car” in slippers & a bathrobe even when the temperature is well below zero (Celsius – think maybe in the 20s Fahrenheit). Yet none of this prepared me for my recent fascination with ice.

ice from below
Ice stalactites from a roof

Canadian kids have some built-in knowledge about ice. They know which patches are likely to be slippery and which ones they can careen across without a second thought. My children tear down the sidewalk, sure-footed, running ahead while I slide my feet tentatively across every potentially slick patch, always unsure of what is safe. I am not ice-savvy; I’m not sure I ever will be. Perhaps this is why I started examining the ice all around me as I walked. It was as if my brain concluded “If I can’t intuit things about ice, maybe I can observe my way into this important knowledge.”

Much to my children’s disgust, instead of becoming a savvy winter walker, I’ve slowed down even further. The more I look at the ice, the more I fall in love. These days, I stop on the sidewalk, pause in parking lots and wander through parks, looking at the ice the way I once looked at the falling snow, in absolute wonder at the unexpected beauty of winter.

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Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.

We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:

When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.

Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.

In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.

But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.

Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.

I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone. 

I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.

 

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

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Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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