Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Adjunct's Epistle

Dear Dr. XXXX,

Unfortunately, I was not able to pay the fee on the day I arrived at The XXXX Conference last week. As a low-income adjunct in the SUNY academic system, my experience of conferences is perhaps different than that of other academics. I include this explanation with my $55.00 registration fee not because I think it will make a difference, but because it seems to me that someone should say it and it might as well be me. There are a growing number of us who, despite our educations, our dedication, and our contributions are treated as second class citizens of the academic world. We work without tenure, without unions, and often without health insurance. We are paid less money to teach the same courses our full time peers teach. We often lack access to basics like computers, campus telephones, or office space to do our work and meet with our students. We have no job security and virtually no future in the academic field we passionately pursued as students. However much we love our work, our students, and our discipline, we are regarded as lesser than our tenured colleagues. In fact, we are the disposable workers of an exploitative system that relies on our poorly compensated labor.

 Because I am an adjunct a conference represents at best a worry and at worst a hardship rather than an opportunity. I teach four courses a semester and am therefore considered a part-time worker. I do not have health insurance through my work so I must rely on a subsidized health plan. It is not, I will tell you, a good health plan and therefore my health care costs are high. I literally had to consider cancelling healthcare appointments to afford to be a presenter in your conference.

 In order to come to your conference, I had to make sure I had child care and then I had to arrange for a ride to XXXX from XXXX. I had to cancel classes which I was loathe to do given the fact that without a union to protect me, I worry about any irregularities in my work schedule and usually work through illness lest I give anyone with power over me cause to complain. My family relies on my income and we could not afford to pay my student loans if I lost my job.

 The round trip to XXXX was almost seven hours long. I arrived immediately before my panel presentation and left at its conclusion. I could not afford to pay for a hotel room and therefore could not stay for the dinner. I could not, in fact, stay for any of the conference apart from my own presentation because of a lack of time and funds.

 So that’s my experience. It felt a good deal to me like I had to pay you for the privilege of researching and writing a panel presentation, cancelling my classes, and traveling for several hours to arrive on your sprawling campus where I spent the next half hour trying to figure out where I was supposed to be. (Signs would have been helpful.) I then had to turn right around and make the trip in reverse. I left the conference feeling very much like an adjunct. I felt ignored, discounted, unappreciated, and exploited.

 I write this not merely to vent feelings of frustration, but because I want my colleagues, whom I value and respect, to see me and to see adjuncts in general. We experience the academic world differently than our full-time colleagues do. We have much to offer, but our lack of resources and our growing numbers are a challenge to a functioning and cooperative scholarly community. Whether we are acknowledged or not, our challenges affect the entire academic community of educators and learners. I do not suspect that our working conditions are ignored by my full-time and tenured colleagues out of malice, but because it is easier to ignore such seemingly intractable problems than to address them. I do not expect a group planning a conference (and I know from experience what an exhausting and frustrating task that can be) to solve the adjunct issue. I just wanted to be a reminder that I am here, that we are here, in an academic system that is not the same as it was, not as good as it can be, and not as fair as it should be. I believe that whenever we can, those of us without privilege must appeal to those with it. I trust other historians and educators as allies and ask you to consider my words as you accept my money.

 Best wishes, etc.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Beacon Stone

b>BlackberryJuniper and Sherbet is a blog that I love to read. It is one of those blogs that makes me feel a little as if I have come home and am talking to a dear friend and a little like I'm peeking into the life of someone I admire but will never meet. Sometimes I think of her words days and weeks and months after I've read them because they speak to me so strongly. She doesn't know it, but I carry her words around in my head like my beacon stone. I was asked to contribute a guest post to Blackberry Juniper and Sherbet. I was honored, but nervous that I'd embarass myself. Perhaps I have. In any case, it is there for those who wish to read it. With my thanks I offer The Beacon Stone When you are there, continue reading to see why I love to spend time "over there" with an old friend I've never met.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What's In a Name?

My blog title is "Plainly Pagan." I kind of wish it wasn't because that gives folks the impression that I'm more interested in being Pagan than is actually the case. They might imagine me as "Pagan" as "Pagans" exist in their imaginations and experience rather than as I exist in my own imagination. (I exist outside my imagination too, I hope, although these days I'm never quite sure.) I am "Pagan" inasmuch as I find divinity in the natural world, have a strong thea/olgical tendency toward pantheism, and like to play with myths and metaphors with historical connections to pre-Christian, Neolithic, and Bronze Age literary, art historical, and religious traditions. But I'm not remotely interested in reconstructing these ancient traditions nor am I interested in practicing Neo-Paganism with other folks. My Paganism is a solitary exercise in introspection, playfulness, word-play, art history, religion studies, and archetypal theory. So far as those things are worshipful, then we might call what I do "worship". It looks a great deal more like studying, and I'm fine with that. In recent years, I'm finding that I don't like to call myself Pagan because it leads to immediate confusion. People assume that I'm Pagan. Which I am, but not really. Not the way they expect me to be. This leads to all kinds of uncomfortable exchanges based on their assumptions that I hold beliefs that I do not hold. You know. Pagan beliefs. In gods and goddesses or "the Goddess" or whatnot. They seem to assume ritual work, covens, festivals, and gatherings figure into my life. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but I'm such a very introverted Pagan and a non-theistic one at that, that I can't imagine a Pagan gathering of any kind that would allow me to feel comfortable. Nor am I comfortable with Pagan Goddess-talk. My background is in feminist spirituality and I can't even use the term "Goddess" without wincing. While I value the metaphor as an intellectual device for feminist reclamation within the context of religious history, it is also not-quite-what-I'm-getting-at. Then too it is often spoken in emotional tones, and I'm too temperamentally Old Light Protestant for that to fail to make me squirm. Logical or not, I react to Goddess language in the same awkward, harrumphing way that I respond to evangelicalism and salvation-talk. Awkwardly. Someone might ask of me, "So, if you are so uncomfortable as a Pagan, why do you use the word in your blog title?" And my response is, "Because Plainly and Pagan both begin with a "P" and use clever (enough) word play to indicate spiritual ambiguity. Because I'm (technically) Pagan and a (relatively) plain Quaker which is goofy, and it seems a shame to waste perfectly good goofiness." I suppose I could just entitle my blog "The Rural Neurotic," my sister's term for me, as it is probably more accurate, but what if I removed the "Plainly Pagan" title and no one could find my blog anymore? (I fear being un-noticed almost as much as I fear being noticed.) Also, I hate to give up the Pagan title because that would mean that "they" have won and convinced me that because my Paganism doesn't match with more popular conceptions of Paganism that I don't qualify for the term. Well screw "them." (Also, I don't think that Pagan should begin with an upper case P. Why then, did I use it here? I have no earthly idea.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013


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.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

My Grandparents: Stream of Consciousness Memories. Part 1.

My grandfather went to college on a basketball scholarship.  I was told that he could palm a basketball in one hand.  I never actually saw him do this, but I do remember his hands very well.  I used to sit on his lap while he held my little hands, still dimpled and plump, in his own.  His fingers were long and graceful.  The veins stood out in them and the fingers tapered.  He would hold my thumb and tell me just how much a marvel it was and about all the potential a human being carried in her hand just because of  the opposable thumb. 

I recall Grandpa's hands cutting apples with a pocket knife.  I never actually wanted to eat those apples because I was a fussy child and could not be sure just how clean that knife was.  But I ate them anyway even though they tasted funny and were unpleasantly warmed by his hands.  I knew, even then, that this awkwardness was somehow intrinsic to his personality.  He was shy and had a speech impediment.  His knees were bad and made him bow-legged.  His clothes were worn and stained with paint.  He always smelled of paint thinner.  He never said much, but then words could never have measured up to the love he had for all us kids.  I ate those warm apple slices for the same reason I let him tuck blankets around me when I rested on the couch at his house.  It could right smack dab in the boiling heat of summer and Grandpa would tuck me in as if he feared the arctic winds would tear me away from him.  I'd lie there and sweat under a pile of afghans content in the knowledge that no one loved me more than he did.

I held my grandfather's hands as we walked through the village near his paint shop.  One day an old woman saw him with my sister and me.  We were sporting short haircuts and wearing rugged play clothes.  She complimented him on his grandsons.  Grandpa didn't say anything to her, but he was deeply offended.  "Stupid old biddy," he muttered to himself as we continued walking.  It was one of the only uncharitable things I ever heard him say-- and he said it out of love for us.

Grandpa's paint shop was housed in an old stone building that had once been the blacksmith's shop.  I loved to visit him there and watch him work.  I loved to look at his inventory and browse through the wallpaper and paint sample books.  An ancient glass case on his counter held even more ancient Indian arrow heads and other treasures.  The windows behind the counter were full of African violets, my grandmother's contribution to the shop decor.  In the back rooms were the giant paint mixers (one for red barn paint and one for white house paint).  They were each large enough for a man to fit inside and Grandpa told us that they were cobblestoned by "midgets."  It was a lost art because, he said sadly, there simply are "no more cobblestoning midgets." 

I think this was a joke.  Although it may not have been.  You could never tell with him.  He spoke little and laughed even less frequently.  Not that he was serious.  His eyes often twinkled when he was pulling someone's leg.  We didn't always catch it though.  He told us about hill cows with two legs shorter on one side so they wouldn't roll down the hills and about the little man who ran ahead of the car to turn on the lights on all the roadside reflectors.

Mostly Grandpa was pretty quiet and serious.  He didn't laugh or speak loudly even when he was joking.  I never heard him yell.  To visit with him was to sit quietly by his side.  When the rest of the family (and there are lots and lots of us) gathered, he would retire to another room.  It wasn't that he didn't like to be near us, but I think that he was so quiet and shy a person that it overwhelmed him to be in the center of things.  One or two of us would go in and sit with him.  He was not chatty and never boastful, but he would sometimes ask one of us to tell him about our accomplishments.  In those times, he beamed with pride.

Grandpa always had a fine sense of the beauty of small things.  He would often comment about the way an object felt in one's hand.  He especially liked the smooth, heaviness of water-worn rocks.  There were piles of these rocks, plain, speckled, and striped all over his house.  They are all over my house now- a great inheritance of lake stones.  One of my greatest treasures is a rock my grandfather picked up on the shores of Lake Ontario.  It is a smooth, black stone my grandfather called his "worry stone."  When I was a young woman, he took it from his pocket and placed it in my hands.  He told me that his worries were over and mine were just beginning.  This turned out to only be partly accurate.  My worries, truly, were just beginning, but his were hardly at an end.  His last years were marked by anxiety and pain.

I remember Grandpa's hands at the end of his life.  He seemed always to be reaching for something that wasn't there.  "What do you want, Dad?" his kids would say.  His face looked haunted and confused as he dropped his trembling hand then reached again.  He had dementia for five years before he passed away.  Those were hard years for us.  Dementia is surreal and unkind, an agony that an entire family must endure together.  I think of the story of a drop of ice water in the fires of hell.  Moments of lucidity in the midst of dementia are a bit like that.  I can think of few things more precious and I am glad, very glad, that we could share those last difficult years with him.  At one point, at the beginning of the long good-bye, he could not speak so we put a pencil in his hand and with his long, graceful, and trembling fingers he scrawled the words, "You are my family.  You are my life."  But we already knew that.  He may never have said the words, but he didn't need to.  His whole life told us.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Sometimes, when I'm trying to accomplish something outside my daily routine I feel as though I'm trying to reach for something on a tall cupboard shelf while balancing on one roller skate.  The children need my time.  The house requires work.  My mother and father need my help.  My grandmother requires care.  My students clamor for my attention.  Papers need grading.  Lectures must be written and lessons must be planned.  Speeches and costumes have to be prepared.  Animals need attention.  Plants need tending...and then. 

And then I try to read something and my mind just....

I get so distracted.  I begin to read a blog or an article and my mind does this annoying jumpy thing.  I keep beginning articles at the end.  I then skip up toward the middle and then up again to the top. I scan downwards for details that might interest me before realizing there are no details anywhere, ever that interest me.  This all takes place within the first minute or two.  Within moments, I grow intolerant of my own tedious inattention and skip to something else.  When I try to write, I find myself growing impatient or weary or discouraged by the process.  Nothing seems right.  All my words come out lumpy and flattened on one side.  My ideas seem all disheveled like I slept in them.  Or they're all raw and angry as if I filtered them through some melancholic adolescent. 

It frustrates me to be so incapable of keeping it together.  I used to be (or at least I once thought I was) smart.  I sure don't feel smart these days.  I'm a regular dullard.  I can't even comment on others' blogs because I haven't anything clever to say.  I read my own comments to myself and realize I may as well be that weirdo who blurts out irrelevancies ("I like beans!") into sophisticated grown-up conversations. 

I toy with the idea of eliminating this blog because it makes no real sense to keep it going.  I haven't anything interesting to say.  We've pretty well established that I'm neurotic and gloomy.  That can only go so far. 

And yet.  Hmm.  After so many months I'm apparently drawn back to it.  (I keep using passive voice.  I should analyze what that means later...)

I think maybe I want popcorn.  Or beans.  I like beans.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Coven or Solitary?

A very short post:

Sometimes I like to respond to a pagan blog post challenge.  This week's question is asks if I prefer to worship as a solitary pagan or within a coven.

I prefer to worship, as a Pagan, outside of a coven.  My Paganism has always seemed a very poor fit with those of other Pagans.  When I do worship with others, I very much prefer to worship with Christians.  I love being around liberal Christians and get closest to a sense of the divine when I am in conversation with them.  I love that.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring's Arrival

It is the end of March in western New York.  Only a few brave green shoots have poked their heads above ground, but they've been there for weeks and show no sign that they wish to commit themselves further.
Gray branches sway against white sky, and patches of dirty snow lie on the frozen mud.  Early winter snow is all snow fairies and magic.  It falls softly like a blessing.  Months later, the snow is a stubborn thing.  Contemptuous of human calendars, it seems to mock all our hopes for spring. 

March is New York's ugliest month.  Perhaps it is because our expectations are so high.  When the snow begins to fly in November or even in October, a person is winter-weary by Christmas.  January and February drag on tiresomely, and the spring equinox looks mighty enticing from the middle of a blustery winter day.  But the first day of spring comes and goes with more snow, more wind, and more of that damp, biting cold that creeps into your bones and wraps itself around your joints.  I dream of sunlight and the green oasis of spring, but in the snow belt, "spring" is a broken promise.  Winter is a wasteland, and March is a mirage, not an oasis.

Today was like all the other days this week and last week and the weeks before that.  Gray skies, icy wind, aching joints.  But today, in the midst of that tedious sameness, seven men and one woman came to our house with an ambulance and took my grandmother away to the hospital.  I stood there next to her place at the old oak table and watched them mill about our kitchen and pass in and out of her room.  I heard them speaking to her as they lifted her tiny, frail body onto a gurney to carry her out of the house.  When she passed, I did not say anything to her, and she did not say anything to me.  She was caught up her pain, and, I suppose, so was I.  I thought about rushing to her and kissing her as she went out.  I thought about telling her I loved her.  But I didn't.  I just backed up to give the men room and watched her go.

Then the door was closed and I sat down and felt tired.  I felt something else too, iciness and bad feeling that made me stay home when my sister, parents, and uncle made their way to the hospital.   I should have gone with them.  Duty at least should have guided my feet to the door, but I was frozen, and it was hours before I understood what my cold feeling was.  It was anger, painful and raw, that made me want to shout at her and curse her for becoming old and frail, for refusing to wear her hearing aids so that we all have to shout at her to be heard, for refusing to learn how to use her walker so she is unbalanced and vulnerable, for refusing to go see doctors, for refusing even to answer my mother's questions when we found her on the floor.  I'm angry with her for not understanding what we've had to sacrifice for her because of duty, because of principle.  And because of love.  Three generations of us have organized our lives around her needs so she could stay in her home.  But what else could we do?  She is the matriarch.  She is the quick-witted, beauty my grandfather fell in love with.  She is the irascible, brilliant, sharp-tongued, and eccentric center of our family.  She is the grandmother who was too bright, too uncompromising, too dignified to get old.  And then she did.

When I finally understood that my cold brooding feeling was anger, I felt ashamed too. I should have gone with my family to see her in the hospital, but I didn't.  I couldn't.  I'm not sure what's wrong with me.  Probably, this time, she'll be okay.  She'll come home again, and we'll continue to hover around her as if she were made of glass, and our days will resume their old pattern.  For a little while, as routine does its work, I'll feel like time is an indefinite thing without boundaries and conclusions, but she's 96 and I'm not getting any younger either.  I know, whether I can face it or not, how my grandmother's story will end.  Each day brings the inevitability of her death closer.

When that inevitable day comes, what will it mean?  Beyond my mourning for her, it will alter our relationships with each other and with our home.  When she is no longer at the center, and there is no more reason for us to gather together to orchestrate her care, will we also be changed?  Perhaps it will mean that my uncles and other relatives will no longer come to this house where she reigns as Matriarch.  And what of this house?  Will it too pass away?  Perhaps her final illness and death will mean the end of our multi-generational home where I've raised my children, and played with my pets, and tended my garden.  It scares me to think that it is possible that I'll lose not just her, but the home I've shared with her.  I always thought that every spring, I would have her roses and her althea and her forget-me-nots to remind me.  Is it mean of me to wish this house and these gardens never existed if it means that I can't be here to love them? 

As a few of the ambulance crew fussed over my grandmother who lay in the bed in which she was born and which she shared with my grandfather through six decades of marriage, we chatted with one of the men waiting in the kitchen.  He graduated from my high school and seemed to know everyone in my graduating class.  Or rather, he seemed to know where they had gone to make a life for themselves.  I haven't gone anywhere.  I'm still in the same village where my ancestors settled two hundred years ago.  But my job is two rural counties away and apart from my family, I know few people here in the village.  When I speak of my town that I love, it is the town of my parents' and my grandparents' childhoods.  The ambulance volunteer could tell me about my generation.  The generations I know have already passed.  As we travel around the village and town, I tell my children, "Your ancestors founded that church.  They attended that one room schoolhouse.  They farmed that land.  They are buried in that cemetery." 

What do we owe the past?  In a real sense, as an historian, I've dedicated myself to its preservation.  In Grandma's way, she too has been a link to the past, not merely because she has lived almost a hundred years in this village, but because she has taken it upon herself as the mother of the family to keep the records and tell the stories.  I have been learning to tell the stories too, but I'm always afraid.  I am only a chronicler of her memories.  I am not a witness.  Fearful of my own future, I take comfort in holding fast to her past.  The idea that the continuity of our lives might be disrupted, that I might be uprooted, terrifies me.

I've always known, of course, that one day they will carry her away from me and that she will never come home again, but my heart never believed it.  I guess today was the day that my heart finally began to catch on to that awful knowledge.  She will die.  She must die.  This reality cannot be altered.  It cannot be prayed, or hoped, or wished away.  It cannot be ignored.  Things cannot stay the same forever no matter how much we pretend that they can.  I'm an historian.  I should know by now that change is the partner of time.  You can't have one without the other.  I should be a grown-up and face it, but I want to stomp my feet and cry instead.  I don't want this.  I don't want change.  Not today.  I'd rather stay here frozen in this gray day, sad and worrisome as it is.  March may be frozen and bleak.  It may feel like an endless extension of a long, hard winter, but it always ends in April.  Spring, like change itself, may take its time arriving, but it will come.  I don't know what this spring will bring.  Yesterday I couldn't wait for it to arrive, but, please God, my grandmother is in her winter and I've been sharing it with her.  Let it last a little longer.  As dark and cold and bitter as it is, I don't think I'm quite ready for it to be over.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...