Saturday, July 27, 2013

John

He was old, skinny, and wrinkled and he smelled strongly of cigarette smoke.  I first met him as I trailed my father around the college like a puppy.  Dad is big man on campus.  I play the role of faithful, devoted daughter.  I may have been there for a decade, but he's been there longer.  He outranks me and overshadows me.  I don't mind.  When your father has as much charisma as my father does, you grow to appreciate the reflected glory.  People like my father.  A lot.  They tend to congregate near him on campus and gather in his office where he holds court.  People are just attracted to my father.  John was one of those people.

It sometimes happens that those who find my father appealing find me appealing too.  John was one of those people as well.  He took all the courses he could get with Dad and then began taking my courses.  I think he must have taken every single class the two of us offered except for women's history.  I never could get him to give that a shot.  He did take African American history and Religions in America.  The last turned out to be more important than I could guess.

I can never remember how old John was.  He looked very old.  His eyes were old man blue behind the thick lenses of his glasses.  His white hair, slicked back from his forehead, was thin and his skin was deeply furrowed.  That may have been the smoking.  He gave it up in the end, but until he did, every paper he ever turned in smelled so strongly of cigarettes that I had to keep his papers separate and wash my hands after I touched them.  If his papers chanced to make it into my bag with the other books and documents, I had to air everything out --sometimes outside on the laundry line.  He was always coughing and smoking and smoking and coughing.  I remember him leaning into my father's car and talking to us about this and that.  The smell was revolting, but somehow John was not.  He was just John.

I'm sure he didn't have a lot of money and I always figured he was a bit lonely.  One semester, I planned a party for him and brought cupcakes and snacks and drinks into the classroom to celebrate his birthday.  He was all gruff and embarrassed (as I would have been had he done the same for me), but I was glad I did it because he had been telling us how how old he was going to be for weeks, and I wanted him to know that I cared and that he was worth celebrating. 

In other semesters he teased me about my love of candy and brought me a huge box of chocolate for Valentine's Day with a note about making my husband jealous.  He'd stop class to tell a joke or a story and I always let him.  He was old, you see, and funny and charming too.  I played the appreciative and indulgent young woman to his appreciative and witty old man.  It suited us and somehow made the entire class a more entertaining and friendly place.  At the beginning of each semester, he would give a little lecture to the other students about what a good professor I was.  He'd tell them that I was tough, but that I cared.  "She'll make you redo your work!" he warned them.  I would too.  I made him redo his work if I thought he wasn't giving me his best attenpt.  I'd mock lecture him about following instructions.  Not that it mattered.  There was no way I would ever give him anything less than an A.  He wasn't there for the education; he was there for the company. 

I teach conversation-based courses so people talk.  They tell stories.  And boy, could John tell stories!  There were funny stories and jokes, sure, but there were also painful stories.  He told us stories about racism and poverty, hard work and disappointment, and then how "Two guys walked into a bar..."  He was from an Irish Catholic family in a blue collar town.  His upbringing, so different from my own, was harsh, impoverished, and violent.  His marriage had failed, and though I never knew his whole story, my father hinted that there was more to him, something darker and sadder, than the charming man who sat in the front row of my classroom cracking jokes and teasing the professor.  It occurs to me that though I knew him for years, I did not really know him.  But I loved him.

Religions in America was the last class he took with me.  He had already graduated from our college, the oldest person to do so, but he came back for more classes.  He needed to be among the young folks.  He was also very proud of himself because he had learned to use a computer.  Even more impressively, he had stopped smoking, but his breathing had become so labored that it made the rest of us in the room worried and uncomfortable.  One day he came in late to class because he had fallen trying to enter the building.  He was getting weak.  I fussed and worried over him, and lectured him about taking care of himself.  When Dad pulled up to the college to drop me off, we could see him struggling to get up the steps to come to class.  We knew he was dying, but he brushed it off.  Always joking, John was.

But the joking had become a kind of dischordant note.  Like his labored breathing, his humor was forced and painful.  That semester, John's grandson committed suicide.  The boy had called John just before taking his own life, and John was haunted by it.  It finished him.  Eventually he had to stop coming to class.  He was hospitalized and called me from his hospital bed.  We chatted and I told him that of course, he had earned an A for the class.  He let me know that I had been a friend.  I let him know that I cared about him.  And that was it.  That was all.

I don't remember how I learned that he had died.  Perhaps my father told me.  Maybe it came in a message in campus email.  I do remember that I wept.  I was angry with myself for failing to visit him in the hospital.  I was angry with myself for being surprised.  I reread his papers.  Even there he was a character.  He never took my assignments very seriously.  He wrote in pen when I asked him to use a computer.  He told his own stories when I asked him to cite sources.  No matter.  He said what he needed to say and what I wanted to hear from him.  His own life taught him everything I wanted my students to learn in History.  Life is funny and hard and fierce.  You aren't better than the next guy.  Be kind.  Be fair.  Don't judge.

It has been a couple years since he died.  Last week I found one of the last papers he wrote for me.  It was about God.  He believed deeply.  I'm glad of that.  It makes it easier for me.  "Oh, John..." I muttered to myself as I sometimes do when he comes into my memory, and then I put his papers away to save forever.  They belong with the poems I wrote as a girl, letters from beloved family, and stories I wrote as a child.  His papers (and his memory) belong with the stuff that made me who I am.  It seems I can't be rid of him.  He isn't done with me.  A few days later, the local newspaper printed an article about our college's financial woes and labor disputes.  Incongruously and illogically, they printed a picture of him in his cap and gown, fists raised high in celebration.  I cried when I saw his face again.  Had he really been so frail and skeletal?  I hadn't remembered that.

Some weeks ago I went to see a Spiritualist medium.  I was curious and really wanted to see what it was like so I laid down my money and gave it a go expecting to hear from great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  The woman told me about a man who wanted to let me know he was there.  "He was skinny," she told me, "like a skeleton."  She told me that people weren't sure about him, that they never knew what to think about him, but he was okay.  They didn't need to worry about him.  "He had a lot of respect for your family," she told me.  We were important to him.

It had to be John.  There was a connection there though I never quite figured out why.  I was his "teacher" though he was several decades my senior.   We flirted with each other the way only an old man and a much younger woman can.  I fussed over him as if he were my grandfather, or my child, and he praised me in front of other people as if I was his mentor...or his grandchild.  And all the while I had no idea just who he was.  I never knew his whole story or half of the pain and the mistakes that haunted him.  But I know that whatever haunted him, he's haunting me now, and it will be a long time before he and I go our different ways. I close my eyes and I can imagine a big box of chocolates.  I can imagine his corny jokes.  I can imagine the smell of cigarettes.  I don't know why John decided to love us or why we decided to love him.  I guess it was just one of those things.  Sometimes that's all there is to it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Jerk in Grandpa's Paint Shop and Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. 
(Micah 6:8)


My family and I have been attending a semi-programmed Quaker meeting.  There are hymns and a brief message followed by silent waiting worship and a concluding hymn.  Recently, I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard in which the speaker, a member of the congregation, reflected upon Micah 6:8.  I can't really say much about the sermon because it was delivered so humbly and simply that it had an eloquence that would only be ruined by my own verbose attempts to comment upon it.

In the silent worship that followed, a few speakers rose to share messages.  I was the last to do so.  This is the story I told:

My grandfather had bowed legs and a stutter.  People thought he really wasn't very smart because of this, but he was.  Sometimes, instead of talking to him, they'd look past him and talk to my grandmother instead.  "What did he say?" they'd ask as if he wasn't there.  People couldn't be bothered to listen to him.  It used to make me so angry.

Grandpa owned a small paint manufacturing company housed in an old stone blacksmith shop.  One day, when I was a teenager, a man came into the shop.  I watched as he talked past my grandfather to my grandmother.  "How's the old guy doing?" he asked her as if my grandfather wasn't there.  He was insulting and dismissive, but Grandpa didn't strike back.  Instead, he kept quietly telling my grandmother to add items in the bag and to decrease the cost.  I couldn't believe it.  Instead of retaliating against this jerk, my grandfather was giving him free stuff and decreasing the price of his purchase?  I sat on the chair next to the counter and seethed.  It wasn't fair!

The man continued with his bluster, and my grandfather continued in his quiet manner to complete the transaction.  Then Grandpa said, "She was a good woman.  We'll miss her."  The man's entire demeanor changed and the bluster stopped.  My grandfather knew, although I did not, that the man I saw as just a jerk was a human being in a great deal of pain.  The man told my grandfather how hard things had been and Grandpa listened.  My grandfather was merciful
.


 That was all I had to say and then we sang Amazing Grace together.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found
was blind but now I see.

I'm not sure what any of this means or why I was called to share that story in meeting for worship, but I've been thinking about it ever since.  I spend so much time trying to figure stuff out, but maybe it is a good deal more simple than I make it.  Grandpa just chose kindness and let justice follow on its heels.  If I had rushed to my grandfather's defense that day, I would have done so believing I was defending a vulnerable old man from a callous jackass.  There's justice in that, but no mercy and certainly no humility.  I would have missed the moment when my grandfather's kindness stopped time in my heart.  Almost thirty years later the power of that moment still fills me with wonder and brings me to tears. 





Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shadow Self


Somewhere between the days when I was brash, confident, and bright and today (when I am none of those things), I think I must have taken a couple funny turns.  I thought I'd be a scholar and a writer.  I am only an adjunct in a rural community college, and therefore, in the academic world and to borrow one of my father's favorite phrases, lower than whale shit.  Far from being able to finish the book on which I've worked for longer than I care to say, I cannot even submit a blog post on a regular schedule.  I thought I'd have a lovely Victorian home filled with books, plants, and tasteful paintings.  Instead I live in my parents' basement with no windows large enough to support more than a couple sickly plants.  The same art prints I bought as a teenager hang in cheap frames on cement block walls.  To be fair, I'm here because I need to be here to help my parents care for my grandmother, but still, Better Homes and Gardens this ain't.

I also (mostly) hate my job, though there is some good in the work.  I have found that if I focus on each student not as student but as "some mother's child," then I enjoy teaching them, praising them, finding beauty in them.  But otherwise, my job is demoralizing.  My students are there to get a degrees to work in fields for which they have no passion but will increase their wages from 7 and a quarter dollars to ten.  They don't care about theory, or art, or spirit.  Most of them just want a grade and to get the hell out of there.  Worse still is the contempt that other academics and administrators have for the lowly adjunct.  I work without benefits or recognition on a pay scale so far inferior to that of a full time faculty member that it is laughable.  Except I never seem to laugh.

At my worst,  I am the distortion of the person I feel called to be.  I am nervous instead of nurturing.  I'm a hypochondriac instead of a healer.  I am judgmental instead of discerning.  My arrogance is only a parody of a wholesome confidence.  I take too much pride in my neuroses and find comfort in being curmudgeonly, cool, and distant.  I mock others' sentiment and cannot speak even of my own pain without chasing it with derision.

I am a mother and a housewife, but it is my parents' home I keep and it is, increasingly, my grandmother rather than my own children who require my concern and care.  Even my youngest child shows signs of maturing beyond his need for a mommy.  He called me "Mom" recently and nearly broke my heart.  My grandmother, meanwhile, is increasingly frail and increasingly emotionally distant.  She needs my help, but does not ask for love.

So what?  So, this.  This is when a person realizes that there are times in life when the best thing is to ignore one's ambitions and do what must be done.  Sometimes that means setting aside one's self in order to serve where one is needed.  My students need me.  My children need me (for a little while at least).  My parents, husband, and grandmother need me.  I cannot help them if I am writing or playing at being a theorist, thealogian, or even a witchy gardener.  Those things are not called for.  Not now.  Not yet.  Perhaps there will come a time when I will rediscover who I am.  But not today.  Whatever else I am called to be in the fullness of time must be ignored in the here and now when the every-blessed-day stuff must be completed by every set of available hands. ...................................................


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

When I was 18

I've had terrible writer's block.  Awful.  Day after day goes by and I don't write.   Darn it.  Why can't I write?!

So I've asked for some assistance from readers of this blog and I've received some good ideas for writing exercises that may help me with my difficulty.  I think I'll start with this one given to me by RantWoman.

"When I was 18, I knew everything. Luckily I have forgotten a lot since then." Discuss

I didn't know everything when I was eighteen and I was not confident that I did. I was reared and socialized in the church among elderly folks so I guess I didn't develop the same kind of teenager vibe other kids get.  Other 18 year old kids scared me.  I made a study of avoiding them.  To this day, unless I'm playing the role of professor, I avoid young adults because they still make me feel nervous and inferior.  This can be problematic because to avoid anxiety attacks, I occasionally have to avoid eating or shopping in places where they hang out.

The year I turned eighteen I was attending a community college in lieu of my senior year of high school.  Being able to attend college instead of returning for a final year of high school was a blessing.  It was heaven to be on a college campus where I could focus on my studies instead of having to wake up each day with that sickening fear that went along with having to walk into that high school building.   I was a "Brain" and that is not a good thing to be if one is a girl. Not in a public school in a rural, blue collar community. Luckily, I was ignored more often than I was bullied.

Reluctantly, I got my driver's license at 18, but only because  I had to drive myself to college each day, and could no longer justify delaying the inevitable.  I knew other kids were thrilled about turning 16 and getting their learner's permits.  Not me.  From 16 to 18 I'd been avoiding it because I was certain that driving would be horrifying.  Terrified of getting into an accident and even more terrified of annoying other drivers with my beginner's mistakes, I even hid my learner's permit test prep booklet and intentionally forgot the hiding place (I found it later under the dog bed mattress) to avoid having to study for the test.

But at 18, regardless of my feelings on the matter, I found myself driving.  I became pretty proficient as long as I could stay on familiar routes.    My parents bought cars that were easy for me to drive to ease my experience.  It was not wholly unpleasant although I was still white-knuckled much of the time and had to psych myself up for each excursion.  Thankfully, I did not have to drive for long.  Eventually I was able to turn the wheel over to more confident hands when I married my husband.  I stopped driving when I was 23. 

I also had my first date at 18.  (I met my husband some years later).  My first date was a nice enough boy.  He was popular and good-enough-looking, but a bit of a dullard.  We went to a school play, and that was about that.  Pretty lukewarm on the romance side.  What was remarkable was that he noticed me at all.  I had never before been the positive object of male attention and had therefore assumed that I was probably repulsive.  The only time a boy asked to kiss me was on a dare and he told me he needed the lunch money.  Needless to say, I declined the invitation and then went home and cried. 

So by 18, I had not yet developed a sense of myself as a person of worth to anyone outside of my family.  I treasured the love and acceptance my parents showered upon me so although I was often difficult and snarly, I also was devoted to them and convinced of their brilliance.  My inability to fit in anywhere else pushed me deeper into my studies, but also pushed me to view older adults with thankfulness.  Because grown-ups seemed so comfortable in their own skins, and because they seemed to have both superior knowledge and the confidence I lacked, I did not become the kind of teenager who rolls her eyes at them.

I was becoming the adult I am today.  The things that mattered to me are the same:  family, intellectual rigor, honesty, decency.  My weaknesses are the same:  emotional fragility, anxiety.  My relationship with gender, though evolved beyond that of the deep insecurities of an adolescent, is still strained and a bit surreal.  I'm better educated than I was at 18 and therefore less confident in myself and the promises of the world.  I'm better able to stand my weaknesses than I could as a girl.  If I were to travel back in time to speak to that young woman I would tell her that she knew more than she thought she did.  I would assure her that others' would learn to find value in her even if she never became very likable.    I would tell her that being liked is not nearly as good as being honorable.  I would tell her that integrity is a thousand times more worth cultivating than popularity.  I would tell her she was on the right track.  But I would not tell her much more because, being so inexperienced, she was still very hopeful that she would flower into something special, and I wouldn't want to take that hope from her by telling her about future failures and struggles.  The memory of her hope that she would become a success is a sustaining memory for me.

It is funny to me when students ask for my advice or when they respond to me with unveiled admiration.  I know that I am not at all the confident and together person they assume I am.  They do not see how much of the uncertain eighteen year old is still with me.  They are unaware of my self-doubt, sense of failure, and frustration.  Perhaps there are many adults who feel as I do.  Perhaps I am not the only one who never seemed to outgrow the fears and anxieties of adolescence.  What is my role in life?  How do I navigate this gender thing?  Who am I?  Why do I feel like such a misfit?  Why is the world so scary?  How do I satisfy everyone's expectations of me?  What if everyone discovers that I'm just a pathetic loser?

I may not feel that way all the time, but it happens often enough to comment on here.  The reason I share it is just this:

I think these feelings of inadequacy, fear, and isolation can be instruments of love.  I know what it is like to feel vulnerable and alone.  I can use that feeling to help me become more gentle with others.  People called me "aloof, arrogant, and snobbish" when I was really scared, shy, and convinced that I was unlikeable.   It is good for me to remember how well I have covered up my own weaknesses and fears.  It is good to remember too that no matter how expertly I cover my fear, I cannot escape it, and it still hurts.

So if I know how well I can bluff, I also know that others may be bluffing too.  I'll try to remember that a show of confidence is not the same thing as confidence.  Bravado and cheekiness can hide vulnerability.  So when I'm out in the world, and especially when I'm teaching,  I'll remember that sometimes adolescence hurts.  Heck, sometimes being human hurts.  I'll remember my own hurt and try to respond with love instead of anger and compassion instead of judgement.   You never know when the "brain" or the "jock" or the "geek" or the "princess" (no matter what their age) is really just a frightened and lonely kid.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Grandma, Grandpa, and the Handsome Ex-Boyfriend

Grandpa was already quite old by the time I was born.  His face was wrinkled and his knees bowed.  The veins stood out of his hands and his hair was thin.  Even so, I didn't think of him as old. I thought of him as Grandpa. He was ageless. He was always there and always would be. I did not understand why he was teary when we had to leave him for any length of time. He was often afraid he would die before we came home to him again. His parents and five of his seven brothers and sisters had all died young, and he was always preparing us for his own early death.  Always planning ahead, Grandpa was. 

More than anything, he wanted to make sure my grandmother would be well cared for after he passed away. They were a funny couple, my grandparents. He was long-limbed and blond while she was a tiny woman with waves of dark brown hair. He was gentle and shy, struggled with a speech impediment and knew what it felt like to be different. He was careful with other people's feelings, slow to anger, quick to tears, and more comfortable with children than with adults.

Grandma, on the other hand, had an abundance of confidence. She had been both smart and pretty as a girl and was smart and beautiful as an adult. She was powerful too, and had a commanding presence with a biting wit. She could be intimidating despite her diminutive form. I think, despite the fact that Grandma frequently gave my grandfather hell, that he adored her. I can remember him looking at her with a slight smile playing across his lips and that twinkle in his eye like he couldn't believe, even after decades of marriage, how lucky he was to have her. He was a shy, orphaned farmer boy with a stutter and he had married an acknowledged beauty with a biting wit.

Grandma knew she was beautiful too. When I was a child, a photograph of her from the 1930s hung above her dressing table.  "You were beautiful," I said in admiration.  "Yes.  I suppose I was," she said without vanity.  It was just a fact.  I grew up hearing about her dates with various boys in town including Chet G___., who was athletic, handsome, and popular.   I loved to hear about car rides on the rumble seats or the time she kept popping hoarhound candy in one obnoxious fellow's mouth just to keep him from kissing her.  Grandma did not have a difficult time finding men to court her,  but she wasn't going to settle on just anyone. The man who married my grandmother had to be strong enough to handle her. Or nearly strong enough to handle her anyhow. As an old man, my grandfather marveled at a rather large nurse who was looking after him. My father joked with Grandpa, "Got a thing for her, do you?" My grandfather smiled. "Nah," he said, "I've got five feet more woman than I can handle right now."

He really never could handle my grandmother, not in the old-fashioned patriarchal sense.  It is difficult to imagine that he ever tried.  What would be the point?  In the 1940s and 1950s when other men were trying to fit into the hyper-masculine, man in the gray flannel suit, post-war model of manhood, my grandfather must have seemed like some kind of alien.  The son of a suffragist, he seemed to subscribe to the idea that a man's job is to support his wife in the care of the family.  We have stories about him cooking on weekends so Grandma could rest, of him helping with the arduous task of cleaning diapers before they had heated water or washing machines, of him taking the children on long hikes to give her some free time, and of him honoring her decisions and taking pride in her accomplishments.

Grandpa was a loyal, protective, and adoring husband in the 59 years they were together before he passed away.  I never heard her tell him that she loved him and she didn't cry for him at his funeral or in the days following unless she did so when no one could see her.  But on the day he died, she wore one of his old shirts and she looked lost and bewildered.  After I spoke at his funeral, she said to me in a tone that comes as close as she ever comes to affectionate, "That was well done."  And that was that. 

But she must have loved him.  On the few occasions when he was cross with her, I can recall her climbing onto his lap and stroking his hair.  She didn't have to say a thing.  He couldn't resist her, and his anger just seemed to melt away with her touch.  I also remember how she called him when he was at work to tell him about her day.  She'd call him on that old black telephone, sit right on the edge of her seat, and chatter to him about this happening or that, this friend or another with as much enthusiasm as a teenager.  Though I couldn't see him where he sat across town in the old paint shop, I knew he was listening closely, and I could imagine how his eyes twinkled with appreciation for his clever, pretty little wife.

I bet Chet.G.,, Grandma's old flame, thought she was pretty too.  I'd heard about him, but had never seen a photo of him until recently when old village sports team photographs went on display in one of the downtown storefront windows.  My mother, sister, and I located him among the other ballplayers and agreed immediately that he was, without a doubt, a good-looking young man.  He was big man on campus and graduated to become a big man in the community.  He stood out among the other boys with his roguishly handsome face and his easy confidence.  I could imagine my grandmother at his side with her dark curls, rosy cheeks, and blue eyes.  Grandma always had a gorgeous figure too.  She was slender, but she had great curves.  They must have been a great-looking couple.  But she didn't choose Chet.G.  She chose the orphaned son of a dairy farmer.

I'll never know just why my grandmother settled on the shy farmboy with a speech impediment and the bad knees although I think it was the right choice.  As I've said, she was smart as well as pretty, and she wasn't about to sacrifice herself on the altar of romantic love.  Not that my grandfather didn't love her or that theirs was not a relationship rich in romance.  They could be spicy and racy at times and there are plenty of stories about them that are designed to make children and grandchildren blush and protest in mock horror.  But they had more than a lusty relationship.  My grandfather honored and respected her.  For me, one story says it all.  When it came time for them to buy a house together, my grandmother found one she liked.  She told Grandpa about it and he said they should buy it. 

"Don't you want to see it first?" Grandma asked.

"Can you raise a family there?" Grandpa asked in return.  When Grandma answered in the affirmative, my grandfather told her that was all he needed to know. 

If she said the house was good enough for their family, then it was so.  He bought the house on her word alone.  He believed in her intelligence, in her goodness, and in her capabilities.  I never saw him behave rudely or harshly toward her.  I never heard him raise his voice to her or try to run her down.  Whenever he looked at her, I'd swear he thought the sun rose and set on her.  Like all the other boys, he probably thought she was a sweet young thing when he first saw her, but every day he knew her, she grew more cherished and more remarkable in his sight.  More than that, he honored her as a woman, as a human being, and as his beloved partner.  He trusted her and she trusted him right back.  I'd like to see old Chet.G. compete with that.