Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis the Season

I've got a cold, not a bad one but as I listen to my own voice disappearing slowly I can't help but find its warbling echo amusing. I sound silly and though my head is full and my throat and body ache I can't help but feel like a kid again. I've degenerated into a whiny, sniveling mess who's curled up beneath her comforter sipping a cup of tea and sucking on a cough drop. My husband is a horrible nursemaid, but in fairness I am a horrible patient. I cry when I'm sick, for no apparent reason shedding tears makes me feel better. I want my mommy. It seems appropriate for this time of year to find myself receding back to childlike behaviors and since I'm in full kid mode I'd like Santa back too. I'd like to believe again in a benevolent universe where a jolly, corpulent old man lives to bring magic into our lives. I want a list of who's good and who's bad and I want someone who is fundamentally kind monitoring it. I want villains to fear finding coal in their stockings, to believe in something today the way I once believed that a generous old man who flew around the world every December 24th.

So, how exactly does one find that kind of magic in middle age when you are bombarded daily with a barrage of bills, bad news, and other stressors?  The search itself seems exhausting but even from my perch on the couch I feel certain it must be worth the work. In my house most of the 'magic' of Christmas has faded. We have no 'believers' here and 2011 has been, in some ways, a horrible year. My child struggled to find himself, made mistakes that were painful to watch, I've had a falling out with someone I dearly love, I am about to have surgery and we have been dealing, like many Americans, with financial stresses. These things pale in comparison with what many of our friends have faced this year, one friend has been raising four children as a widow, one has been dealing with the needs of two handicapped children, another faced (and defeated) cancer and the list goes on. Life, it seems, has been anything but fair this year.

So what is there to celebrate? What is there to believe in? Why shouldn't I curl into my couch and enjoy a heaping serving of cynicism with my tea and cough drops? I want to, it's a vice of mine to wallow, but I've learned something over the years. Things are never as bad as they seem.
Thankfully, I learned this lesson early when, in my teens and early twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder. My disorder was, to put it mildly, resistant to treatment. The details of the ten years I spent battling are still difficult to discuss and I admit I gave up more times than I can count during that period. Mostly, I didn't want to stop abusing myself. I had power over food if nothing else. I was good at starving. I loved the feel of my bones protruding through my skin because that made me feel powerful. I could flirt with my own disappearance and then pull back far enough to cheat death. I had been disappointed and I was protesting. Like so many protests, mine turned violent, the violence turned inward instead of outward and that kind of violence is much more difficult to quash. I wonder now if there wasn't some part of me that was refusing to grow up.

Growing up sucks, kids get Santa and bunnies, and they don't worry about salaries or bills, even at twelve I must have known this. For children belief comes easy, of course there is magic in the universe, reindeer fly, elves labor joyously to make toys for children they don't know, altruism is strong enough to get one man to every child's home in just one night. Adults, on the other hand, often argue over the mistreatment of animals, laborers are often overworked and under-compensated, and the existence of altruism is highly questionable in a world were everyone seems to be out for themselves. Still, I can't help it, I believe.

I believe that people are fundamentally good despite the Jerry Sandusky's and the Bernie Madoff's of this world. I think kindness and generosity are gifts given every day in small, often silent, ways. Today my son's car broke down and his cousin came and helped him get it towed home. My friend offered to drive me to work next week if I need to loan my son the car. These are little things, silly things maybe but no one had to help us, they chose to. No one really owes anyone else those small gestures but they do it anyway. These things are, in my view, simple magic.

What of the larger magic? The thing that will save us all from ourselves? All week I've been teaching Crime and Punishment to my seniors, we've been talking about the advantages and dangers of intellectualism. The benefits and pitfalls of philosophies like Nietzsche's Uberman theory. How far, exactly, should be follow our own ideologies? How much can we trust logic? In theory the concept of an intellectual superman is appealing, logical, even comforting. The precept that if one person's death can benefit thousands then it is rational, even required, that that person be sacrificed makes a kind of mathematical sense. If, somewhere out there, there are these exceptional individuals whose intellectual capacity distinguishes them from the masses, can't they become our new Santas? Can't they give us the gift of a more advanced peace? A more enlightened understanding? Lead the way like the protagonist of Dostoevsky's novel is hoping to do? Isn't intelligence a sort of magic?

Trouble is human intelligence is hopelessly tied to human emotion. Do we really want it any other way? Do we want to make completely rational decisions? In the opening scene of the movie I, Robot Will Smith plays a character whose car is submerged in water.In the passenger seat is a small child. The robot, having calculated the mathematical likelihoods of survival of the two victims, saves the adult because it is the logical thing to do. Thus begins the character's essential mistrust of logic that is devoid of emotion.

Raskolnikov suffers a similar conundrum, try as he might to separate himself from emotion, it keeps creeping in on him. Drunkards and usurers are bad for society. Poverty dehumanizes, someone must step in to save the peasants from their own simplicity. Who better than a young intellectual with a plan? Ah, but the plan falls apart quickly when the protagonist cannot overcome his own humanity. He is, inherently an emotional creature and despite his best efforts, he fails to separate emotion and logic. Of course Dostoevsky had an agenda, I suppose we all do but he tackles Hegel, Nietzsche and other philosophers admirably and wrestles a respectable match.

So, why can't I have my Santa back? Why can't I say someone sold me a bill of goods when they told me to abandon magical thinking? Someone stole Santa, and maybe it was me. I wanted to grow up. I love thinking about things, I want to know as much as I can in the short time I'm on this planet but I can't help but realize, especially at this time of year that without some magic, some belief in the preposterous, I'll shrink somehow. So I'm going to embrace mystery, I'm going to believe. It doesn't matter if I believe in Santa, Buddha, God, or just the fundamental magic of having the ability to feel emotions, as long as I find something to believe in, my life will be enhanced. So guess what? I'm going to sit on my couch on December 24th and watch Christmas specials, I'm going to pretend reindeer and a fat guy in a suit are trekking around the world. I'm going to believe in the power of the human spirit to create magic. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Land of Enchantment

I have begun my trek back to the east coast and despite my pledge to blog daily I found myself too much under New Mexico's spell to sit down and write each night. New Mexico touts itself as The Land of Enchantment and I admit when I read the slogan as I passed under the gateway that welcomes visitors into New Mexico, I thought it was a huge claim to make. I visited Las Vegas several years ago and though I loved it, I was not impressed at all with the surrounding landscape. Coming from an area of the country that has a great diversity in its landscape I found the arid, desolate landscape of the west a bit depressing really. The mountains looked, to me at least, lifeless and hostile. I expected to feel the same way about the landscape of New Mexico with its red rock and a nearly barren horizon that seemed to stretch out infinitely in front of me.

The first two days we were in New Mexico were the sort of days that Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Less Traveled" talks about. The poem's main assertion about how much difference the path we choose can make in our lives became very clear to me as Carolyn and I ventured into the hills of New Mexico. For most of this trip the GPS has been my best friend, when I wasn't sure where I was going the voice inside that little box offered me the security that no matter how many wrong turns I made, someone (or something) knew how to save me from myself. So when, on our first full day, we met a friendly local man at the gas station I was a bit nervous to take his advice and stray from the path the GPS had laid out for me but if this trip has been about anything it's been about exploration and so we decided to follow his advice and take a back-road through the mountains to see an old ghost town and a few locales where movies like Young Guns, Wild Hogs, and Cowboys versus Aliens were filmed.

One thing James (the local's name) didn't mention to us was that 8 miles of that road was unpaved and often steep. Though at first I was having a hard time turning off my cynicism,  I even turned to Carolyn and said "Bet he's calling his friend right now telling him he sent two 'victims' out to the old ghost town and that he should meet and (insert a variety of bad things here) the two of us", eventually we laughed and kept right on driving that mountain road. What a difference that made.

The road, lined by cattle and barbed wire was surrounded by rocks that rose up dwarfing us. As a rule I am terrified of heights and I am not known for being outdoorsy but Carolyn and I stopped on that road and climbed up those rocks. I walked at first tentatively then slowly gained a sureness of foot. Some rocks crumbled beneath my feet but most held steady and allowed me passage. I was, however, always aware that nature was in the driver's seat as I made my way down the road. I suppose this is when I first found myself genuinely enchanted with the land because as I stood there I realized the land exists despite us and the harshness of the terrain reminds me that I borrow my sustenance from the land but the relationship is not reciprocal. If anything, the earth would be better off without us. To become acutely aware of your own position in nature is truly mystifying. 

The unpaved road ended in a small town called Cerrillos, when we rounded the corner I felt sure we'd reached a long-abandoned town. The roads, unpaved, were unpopulated but when we parked the car suddenly there stood a local shop owner, Lori. Lori was an invaluable historian for her town and she was quick to inform us of its place on The Turquoise Trail and how the land and the people suffered as a result of industry and its exploitation of the land. In addition to explaining the impact of mining she was excited to tell us about her experience when she witnessed the first Young Guns movie shooting several scenes in town. Lori, like most of the people we've met here, was a kind and talkative soul who worked both as a shop keeper and as a visual artist. I have been surprised by how openly and eagerly New Mexico embraces art of all kinds. The place seems to pulse with creative energy and I began quickly to see why it provided so much inspiration for DH Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe, and countless other artists. 

After leaving Cerillos, we drove on to Madrid (pronounced Mad Rid) an abandoned mining town that was reestablished by hippies in the 60's who began squatting in the abandoned mine housing. The town is now a haven for artists and full of funky little shops and strange characters wandering the streets selling homemade jewelry. The town's newest claim to fame is that the movie Wild Hogs was shot there and the 'diner' (really a biker shop) featured in the movie is right on its main street. We met some interesting locals while dining at The Hollar. Saul, a self-described flower child, lived in a local hotel and paid his rent by selling earth watches.  I admit I have no idea what an earth watch is and though Saul tried to explain it to me, it looked to me like a rock wrapped in leather. Though what he was selling was lost on me his enthusiasm for living with the encumbrance of a job or a wealth of material goods was something I admired (but could not emulate).  
The creativity that abounds in New Mexico combined with the generous spirit of the people I met that first day cast the initial spell on me, a spell that would only be strengthened by the events of the next few days. I wanted, as I said, to write daily but I find myself needed time to 'digest' the events of each day and I suppose that slowly, as I speed across the stern spine of each American highway I will have the time I need to explain each of the enchantments New Mexico had to offer me. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flies, Lightning & The Difference a Minute Can Make

'Haste is good only for catching flies' or so the Russian proverb says so needless to say I did not catch any of flies that seemed intent on being my travel companions yesterday. It seemed they were drawn to us all day, those minor annoyances buzzing by our ears, landing on our food, intent on proximity for reasons I can never know. I spent the morning trying to escape them and, admittedly, allowing them to alter my mood. Silly but true. 
Oklahoma City was sweltering even at 8 a.m. and so Carolyn and I decided to head downtown early to see the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial before the sun became too oppressive. The city itself felt abandoned with few people walking about and only minimal traffic. The city streets stretched before us almost void of other vehicles and the heat seemed to rise off of them in sullen waves. The people we did see were friendly and eager to offer assistance and moved with a slow assurance that is becoming increasingly admirable to me. 
The remains of Murrah Federal building are flanked by churches and as you explore the memorial, the steeples hover in the distance. I was struck first by the entrance and it's simplicity. The staunch black wall stands against the city skyline broken only by the light that flows through the egress and the quote about the door reminds those who enter not only of the people who died there but also of the people who lived and of the survivor's struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of an act of explosive violence. 
One of the many things I loved about this memorial was that it honored survivors as much as it honored those who lost their lives and in doing so recognized that wounds inflicted by violence are enduring and while we may physically walk away from violence the emotional scars are far often more difficult to manage than the ones visible to the outside world.

As I walked the grounds of the memorial I was struck by the beauty that has risen from the ashes. A place once soaked in blood and littered with twisted metal and concrete has emerged a verdant field where empty chairs face a reflecting pool as an homage to all those families who will forever have empty seats at their tables as a result of a few radicals and their twisted ideological war against the government. The chairs line the footprint of the Murrah building and among them are nineteen smaller chairs, a striking reminder that among the casualties where nineteen children. It is a moving sight and as spectacular as it is saddening.  

The memorial itself is flanked by two doorways, one marked 9:01 and the other 9:03, the space between marks the moment the bomb exploded, the instance when the world changed forever for the people in that building, their families and the consciousness of America. In the immediate wake of the bombing, as people and dogs dug for survivors the speculation was that a foreign terrorist group had done this but in time the terrible truth that the extremism was homegrown became clear. As I stood there I could not help but consider the current political climate, its divisiveness and heightened rhetoric and wonder if we've forgotten the dangers from within. 

There was one part of the site that I found particularly powerful and it was not designed by an artist but a spontaneous proclamation by a someone working in the rubble of the building and it reads like a despairing call to salvage some sense of order and justice. Even in the midst of chaos human beings are driven to create order and understanding. 

Leaving Oklahoma City I felt the repercussions of that one minute when the world changed and I could not help but think of the scars closer to my home and how 10 years after 9/11 New York City has yet to physically turn Ground Zero into a monument to human bravery and a testament to the American will to survive. 

While Oklahoma City was struck by man-made lightning, as we drove through New Mexico its horizon was ablaze with the kind I am at least a bit more familiar with. All through New Mexico Carolyn and I struggled to capture in a photograph those moments when the horizon would ignite with singular strikes that were both awe-inspiring and frightening. Between us we must have snapped over a hundred photos but we were never able to capture a single strike on 'film'. The combination of the open plains, the clouds that came down in streams and seemed to tether themselves to the terrain and the explosive presence of the rumbling heavens made me feel tiny and yet offered me a largess that was enchanting. Like Alice I grew and shrunk in only a few instants. Eventually we turned, as humans do, to a simpler solution that was available and overlooked the entire time and captured it on video.

We ended our day driving through across the desert chasing lightning, beneath the open sky raging in the distance, the brush of tragedy still stinging our skin, we arrived in Santa Fe with an understanding of how much a difference a minute can make, the power of place and how silly it is to raise a sword to battle a fly. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Heat and History

Today was a combination of sweltering heat, 109 degrees here in Oklahoma City, and both recent and distant (?) history. I woke up this morning in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carolyn and I decided to take a few hours to explore the city. I must admit that my idea of a city is based firmly on growing up in close proximity to New York and my trip through several southern cities has been eye-opening. Little Rock was a clean, friendly, relatively uncrowded city. The fact that the air there was not filled with peeling car horns combined with the relative emptiness of the streets caught me off guard. We started our exploration at the Little Rock Visitor's Center where a very friendly woman gave us a list of 'must-do's' given our short time frame. The first sight she recommended was the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, the second the River Market district, and the last Little Rock Central High School (a pivotal battleground in the fight to integrate public schools in the the 1950's). 
We first made our way to the Presidential Library, a bit of a misnomer since the term library evokes the idea of stodgy librarians, rows and rows of books, and a need to maintain subdued silence. The library could probably more aptly be called a museum where the Clinton's legacy is preserved. The history here is a history I clearly remember. I was an adult when Clinton ran and was elected twice and I remember the prosperity of his tenure and how starkly it contrasts to the times we are living in right now. I saw in the films and the mementos however, an idealized version of the time. Isn't this what history tends to do so often? Strip away the less-than-stellar moments and seek to preserve the best of what we were once-upon-a-time? I found myself wistful at the thought of the Clinton-era and the controversies seemed to be minor footnotes in the annals of history. I haven't decided yet if this is a good or bad thing. The library itself held replicas of both the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office and standing there in those rooms that are facsimiles of power centers it occurred to me just how glad I am to not have had to make the kinds of decisions that must have made by Clinton and his cabinet. It's fun to sit at the faux table, but I am glad that the I'll never have to confront the sorts of things that he and his cabinet confronted at the actual table. That is a heat I simply could not withstand. 

When we left the Clinton Library, Carolyn and I headed down to the River Market for lunch. The market, despite it's modern feel, reminded me in many ways of Faneuil Hall in Boston. It's most important function, at least for me today, was that it provided a safe haven from the oppressive heat of the day. For a few moments we escaped the relentless sun and it's steadfast determination to beat us down. 
Because we had very little time to waste (we needed to get to Oklahoma City) we headed to Little Rock Central High School just after lunch. The neighborhood the high school is in has seen better days but the school itself is an awe-inspiringly beautiful piece of architecture. It's difficult to stand in front of this building without feeling small. All of my concerns, physical and otherwise, seemed dwarfed there, not just by the building but also by the events that took place there. It is hard to imagine an America that openly divided along racial lines, but if I doubt the enduring nature of divisiveness in this country all I need to is watch the news coverage of the debt crisis and more broadly the coverage of the current president. I need only look in my own home to see that America has not yet reached it's stated tenet that 'all men are created equal'. In my own experience as the mother of African-American sons, I have seen prejudice up close and personal from store clerks, from teachers, from members of my sister's neighborhood association. I have seen too though the good and accepting people of the world. There are, in my experience more of the latter than the former. 
Standing in the shadow of the school, the focal point of so much of America's shortcomings, was humbling. I tried to image those nine students having to run the gambit of hatred, the angry shouts and vitriolic rhetoric from politicians that encircled these young teens must have been terrifying. The school is outwardly an impressive place but it's the knowledge of what happened there that gives it its real weight. As hot as I was standing in the shadow of that building today, I know I didn't face half the heat those nine teens did back in 1957. 
Tomorrow we're heading to downtown Oklahoma City where another chapter in American history was written. Where the heated rhetoric of militias culminated in the historic bombing of a federal building but more than that we're heading into a city that turned tragedy into strength, much the way those teens did as they walked up the steps of that Little Rock school and into the annals of history. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time & Travel

I began my day in Augusta, Georgia when Carolyn packed her luggage into my car and we set off with a cooler full of water and snacks. I entered Alabama for the first time since 1989 and as the day ticked away we made our way through Mississippi, Tennessee, and finally into Arkansas, over 600 miles of American highway. One of the most surprising things for me was just how empty those highways were, as a Jersey girl I am far more accustomed to traffic jams than I am to long stretches of lonely highway. There were never more than ten cars visible to me on the highway and the long stretches of fields broke suddenly into city scapes with very little warning. The signs along these highways were few and far between and as a result I wasn't able to do what I'd planned to do, take a picture of each state's welcome sign. I'm accustomed to several warnings, constant reminders of how many miles I have before I reach a certain point, 'Newark 15 miles, Newark next 3 exits, Last Exit before toll', in New Jersey there's always something to remind you of where to get off, driving route 20 and then route 78 west, things seemed to come suddenly from nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly into nothing.
One of my favorite parts of today's trip was when we slipped across the Alabama state line I caught sight of a sign on the side of the road that read "Now entering Central Standard Time" and just like that we added an hour to our day. It's amazing to me that just by crossing that invisible threshold I gained what I am always finding myself short of, time. If only it were that easy everyday to add the hour I so often need.

Today I've traveled through states I've never set foot in before and watched through the car window as the countryside slid by. One thing that struck me more than what is different about each state is what is so often the same. Highways in each state were littered with gas station signs, fast food chains, department stores, things I see every day at home. There was also the insistently blue sky and the patches of clouds I found myself trying to find the hidden shapes in. In state after state I saw the things that tie us together, the flags, the car dealerships, the road signs. I think I set out looking for what is different about each state and somehow found, at least today, the things that make us similar.

We've settled into our hotel here in Little Rock for the night. I must admit I found myself enamored with the receptionist's southern drawl, with the slow, smooth surety with which he seemed to move. The world is moving more slowly here, I'm a thousand miles away from the fluster of horns I've grown accustomed to on Route 9, I've distanced myself from the 'get out of my way I'm busy' attitude I've come to accept as normal and I'm eager to press on tomorrow toward Oklahoma City toward more people who smile and chat more. I wonder if maybe the highways here are less crowded because not everyone feels as driven to 'get things done' or maybe it's just that extra hour has makes all the difference. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Places We Don't Ever Leave Behind

How hard it is to escape from places.  However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life.  ~Katherine Mansfield

I just arrived in Augusta, Georgia after a week of vacationing with my family on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina all week. Hilton Head is one of my favorite place and though I haven't been there in several years, it remains a big part of my childhood because every summer my parents would take the family down for much of the summer. From the time I was 8 years old until the time I turned 20 I traveled the winding trails of Sea Pines Plantation and grew to know them in much the same way I knew my own neighborhood. 

My husband and children were eager to ride the bike trails and explore the beautiful places that surrounded us. Sea Pines has miles and miles of bike trails cut through the woods and as you ride you pass alligators sunning themselves beside lagoons, fish jumping from murky water, people on golf carts heading from one hole to the next. When I climbed back on that bike I found that the paths I had not traveled in years remain clearly ingrained in my subconscious. All week I lead them over these trails as if I'd ridden these routes all of my life. 

In some ways, I have. As we drive, walk, and bike this island I find myself collecting the shreds and rags that Mansfield is speaking of. I regale my disinterested teens with stories of the experiences I collected here. See that hotel on the right? That's where my sister's and I used to go to the beach every day.  See that bench over there? That's where I sat the first time I ate my favorite ice cream. See that treehouse? I used to climb it with your aunt all the time.
This beach is where your father and I got married twenty years ago. We had only five hundred dollars to our names, ate Taco Bell every day...  
I admit I've degenerated into a sort of tour guide pointing out the landmarks of my youth. Of course there's a lot I'm leaving out, the secret self I refuse to share with anyone. I see her lurking just behind trees draped in Spanish Moss, at the edge of the ocean where I buried a note I wrote to God when my grandmother died. I was only 12 but I felt certain that if God existed this was the place he'd chose to receive his messages. I can feel the girl I was then and in a way that is catching me off guard. 
In my own head the narrative goes more like this Down that road is where I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. here is where I met the boy who became my first 'boyfriend', the dock over there is where we snuck away to kiss. Remember the party you went to there? The boy who first broke your heart? Don't look down that road, that's the house where you made one of the biggest mistakes of your life...

I think the contrasting tour guides in me were especially noticeable because this year I had my own teenagers and somehow the sight of them wandering the twisting paths was both thrilling and terrifying. I always hoped that they'd never make the same mistakes I did. I hope my daughter never feels the need to dumb herself down in order to fit in, that she never lets a boy convince her to betray herself, that my sons don't climb into a car with someone whose been drinking or ignore that voice inside them that tells them to walk away. 
I also hope they come to love a place as much as I love that place, that the way I saw my memories gathering around me there, they will have place where theirs gather around them. I hope my sons look at the ocean and see the power of place, the way the earth wars with itself and still manages to be beautiful. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Day 1 Travel Troubles

I have had a day full of stories that will be funnier in the future than they are right now. My sister side swiped my car as she left the driveway knocking my side mirror off and scratching the passenger door. She looked so pathetically sad when she came back in the house to confess that it seemed ridiculous to be mad. Luckily my brother-in-law is very handy and he was able to buff out the scuffs and reattach the side mirror so that the scars are barely visible.
The car in order, I headed up, at midnight,  to sleep in my nephew's bedroom while my kids and their cousins huddled down for a night of chit chat, movies,and  swapping stories. I knew that for them this night would include little to no sleep. Half the fun of any vacation is the memories you make right? Let them giggle and be goofy, as I climbed into bed I was still on all systems go for a week of family fun followed by my trek across the south into New Mexico.
Funny thing happens as I'm changing into my pajamas, my younger son knocks on the door and when I open it I find an extended hand, cell phone lying flat on his open palm as if he expects it to explode at any minute. "It's Dad", he says in his newly baritone voice.
My husband, who is traveling in another car, has called to tell me that his car is smoking badly and that he will have to turn around and return home. Tomorrow he will either repair his car or rent another. Not exactly a part of my plan. Having traveled for years with kids I have learned that they hate being wedged between suitcases nearly as much as they hate me giving them fashion advice as they pack, so, in what seemed a burst of genius at the time, I declared that in order for them to be more comfortable their suitcases would be traveling with their father in his car.
Now I have three teens heading for a week's vacation with only two outfits each. Anyone who has ever parented a teenager  knows that this is a category 5 emotional hurricane. No choices of shoes for two whole days? No specially picked matching outfits and sneakers? As their brains fill with visions of fashion suicide, mine fills with the distant echo of doom. Wasn't this supposed to be bonding time? Why then do I hear the manacles of melodrama snapping shut? Why aren't things going according to plan?
I guess I'll need to reexamine my St. Augustine allusion, if this journey is a book, the first lesson must be learn to roll with the punches.
Cars can be repaired, a broken fan belt or a mangled mirror are annoyances but they have only the power I give to them. Tomorrow my husband will roll up his sleeves and dig his calloused hands into the heart of the machine that betrayed him today. He'll get dirty, when he pulls his hands from beneath the hood of that old Suzuki they will be slick with oil and grease, his aging hands will ache from the struggle to fit into tight spaces. He may fail. He may spend hours sliding fingers through the cramped corners of that engine and the fan belt may refuse to fit. He may have to rent a car, spending hundreds of dollars we hadn't budgeted for, but by Sunday he will show up for his family. Like he always has.
I was tempted, briefly, to see the events of this day as a harbinger, a warning from the universe that I should read no further. It would be easy enough to fret my minor misfortunes, to lament about the money all this will cost me, to slide my reading glasses back into their case and head home but then I remember the way the brilliant blue sky hovering over me as I drove across that small bridge outside of Richmond, the wash of music that filled my small car as we entered Durham, and I remembered how much I want to read further in this book. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Reading?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

I'm about to set off on a journey of several thousand miles. As a fundamentally restless person, I find myself constantly drawn to travel. There is something intangibly satisfying about the simple act of moving, about the slick spine of the highway just beneath you, about the landscape yielding then slowly receding as you pass. All of my life I have felt the desire to see new things, to find and explore places I have only read about on the pages of the books that have for so long been my imaginative companions. I began to travel with my family as a child tagging along as my father crisscrossed the country as a baseball scout. My father's soul is not dissimilar to my own, he too seemed to be constantly pulled to explore, to travel, to see, to read, if you will, the pages of book to which St. Augustine is referring. I remember clearly sitting in the back of the family station wagon watching silos jut into the clear sky above the Appalachian mountains, peering through a rain-soaked  window at the jagged skyline of cities that seemed to rise miraculously from the landscape, and spending countless hours reading signs that helped me count the miles to the South Carolina state line.  As you might imagine, some of my siblings were less thrilled with our time confined in the car but I loved the fact that you could start your day in a crowded suburb where people drank soda and wore sneakers and by the time you laid your head on the pillow be in a place where people drank pop and wore tennis shoes. I found myself fascinated by the way a few hundred miles changed not only the scenery but the language and the people.
Once you crossed the Mason-Dixon line life seemed to yield to heat, the people moved more slowly and smiled more.
Despite all the travel I have remained a Jersey girl at heart. One of the things I have always loved about New Jersey is that it a place that is, indeed, many places. There are all kinds of people here from city slickers to farmers and the landscape is similarly diverse. I can get in my car and drive a short distance in one direction and find myself lost on winding country roads and then turn my car  around and drive an hour or two and be in country's biggest city. The faces that surround me daily come in various shades and are arrayed in anything from jeans and a tee-shirt to a traditional abaya. I love to travel to the various corners of my own state and discover its hidden treasures but it's summer and my rambling soul is itching to explore places unknown.
Seven years ago I made a New Year's resolution to see at least one place I'd never seen before each year for the rest of my life and thus far I have kept that promise to myself. I've traveled up and down the east coast and even once made it as far into the west as Las Vegas. My trip to Nevada, however, was made on a plane and so my 'view' of the American West was very limited and Vegas, being what it is, offered only the most commercial of Western culture. This year, I am packing up my car, picking up my best travel buddy and heading to Santa Fe. Together we will trek across several states and make our way into the west.
I've just finished reading On the Road, I've got my Route 66 travel guide and next week, we're off.
So what of St. Augustine's book? I hope that mile by mile I will be turning the pages of my own story, unraveling the plot and characters of my own life by looking both at the scenery and souls who populate the roads I will be traveling. I also hope to find a few minutes each day to blog about the people and things I've seen as I press through the country into the region so full of the rich culture of the indigenous people of the country I love. This will be my summer reading, reading the lines of the landscape, the paragraphs spread across the faces of people I will meet along the way. I am expecting this to be the best book I've ever read.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dress Drama?

Last weekend my town was hit with its second tragedy in less than a month when another of its teens was killed in tragic accident. Two families have had to bury sons they were expecting to watch graduate in a few weeks. Instead of graduation caps and arranging parties for the sons whose lives were only just beginning they have had to choose coffins and arrange funerals. I cannot even begin to imagine what that feels like but I am certain it is the hardest thing that either family has ever done. The first death, that of Michael Rosado, happened over Spring break and resulted in a flurry of death threats to the driver who survived. Emotions run high in times like these and the impulse to channel emotion toward the person we see as responsible is, if not acceptable, at least understandable. It didn't help his case that he went on a social networking site and posted questionable updates about partying and pornography when his friend was barely buried. That said, he is a child whose judgment is not fully developed and so I suppose allowances must be afforded.
The most recent death, that of James Volpe, has resulted in something of a circus sideshow centered around a prom dress and a reality television show boutique. It seems Volpe's girlfriend, Jacqueline Genovese, tried to return her $1200 prom dress in an effort to help his family defray the cost of his funeral. It is not clear if the family needed the money but that is not the point. The girl, in an act of what seems to be generosity, wanted to accomplish two things 1) to get rid of a reminder of dreams that will not come to fruition and 2) make an offering to the family that in some tangible way shows how much she valued her boyfriend. For a teenage girl a prom dress is far more valuable than whatever the price tag reads. It is a symbol of all the Cinderellaesque dreams that have been nurtured in her from the time she first watched Disney movies. For better or worse, ours is a culture that rears girls to see dressing up like a princess to be, in many ways, the pinnacle of their young lives. American girls play dress up from the time they are toddlers, stores are replete with faux-glass slippers, tiaras, glitter makeup, you name it, miniature glamor is a staple of little girls toy chests across the country. What's the message? Well, that's debatable but at the very least, one message is beauty is magic so is it really so hard to understand how a sixteen year old could see this dress (or the money spent on it) as the biggest gift she can give to a grieving family?
Enter the 'wicked witch' who, through circumstance and incredibly questionable business sense, becomes the focus of all the emotion attached to losing a young person with so much potential. In this story the villian will be played by Diane Scali, owner of Diane & Co, a high end dress shop featured on the Oxygen network's show Jersey Couture. Scali, in what appears to be one of the worst business decisions ever, initially refused to refund Genovese's money citing the store's no refund policy. In a move that can only be called assanine she and her daughters chose to go on the news and call the mother and daughter insincere and Diane even asked if people would cry when her shop went out of business. Perhaps one of the worst public relations moves in history. Let's, for a moment, indulge Scali's niece's assertion on a public website that Genovese's mother is "Psycho bitch", if this were indeed the truth, what, exactly is to be gained by digging in your heels? Now the child has lost her boyfriend of two years, your store has decimated its own reputation and a grieving family has become subject to a media frenzy that interrupts their grieving process. Remember the Volpes, the actual victims here? It is probably safe to say that a national controversy involving flashy reality stars is not helpful in their grieving process. Somehow, in all the brouhaha about a dress their son's life has been eclipsed. I agree that Diane & Co is a company that no one should set foot in as it has exhibited a stunning lack of concern for this community but I question whether all the vitriol on the Boycott Diane & Co facebook page hasn't caused us to lose sight of the real tragedy here, a promising young man is gone.
There are cultural questions here as well. What, exactly does it say about us, that in an economic recession, it is not uncommon for parents to spend $1200 on dress that will be worn for all of a few hours. What does it say about us that at least some of our daughters have so much invested in embodying the fairy tale princesses we reared them on? I, too, am guilty of this, my daughter watched these movies, many Halloweens she dressed as a Disney princess, she owned makeup kits, attended princess-themed parties, and I am eagerly looking forward to taking prom pictures in only a year or two. I remember my own prom with relish and I still enjoy an occasion that affords me the opportunity to buy a fancy dress. Diane Scali didn't become famous for being a nice person, she became famous for running a shop that was all about image. She has made her living helping women alter their appearance going so far as to call herself the 'boobologist' for her ability to create the illusion of larger breasts. She and her family have been successful in selling America exactly what it wanted, external beauty. They only seem to have run into difficulty when the audience changed what it wanted. When we wanted inner beauty, generosity, empathy, and tolerance they seem to have fallen short.
Don't get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be beautiful but when your culture has devolved into surgical intervention, vacuous reality stars who value image and money over decency, when the death of a young man takes a backseat to dress drama, it's time to ask ourselves if we've lost focus.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
 -Dwight D. Eisenhower


I've spent the weekend firmly planted in front of my television screen watching the tragedy in Japan unfold. Like many across the world, I've been grieving for the people on the coast of Japan who, despite having one of the best records of earthquake preparedness, have come face to face with a force for which there is no adequate amount of preparation.  I sit at a very comfortable distance from the monstrous wave that washed across the coast and swept six miles inland before finally retreating. Somehow even the broadcast images of that black, debris-filled tsunami are terrifying and despite the numerous times the news broadcasts replay the image I am never truly prepared for the devastation I am witnessing. 

In the wake of tragedy there are always those who step up to the microphone to critique a nation's preparedness and to offer advice on how to be ready should a similar tragedy befall you, the viewer. Various networks have paraded survivors of the Indonesian tsunami out to help us understand the terror first hand. They've brought in geologists, nuclear physicists, and any number of related experts to help us understand the processes by which the earthquake occurred, the measures being taken to ward off meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the psychological effects of such devastation. The information that has most captured my imagination, however, is the fact that this earthquake has altered the earth's axis by approximately four inches. Somewhere on the other side of the planet, deep beneath the sea, an invisible pressure created a chain reaction that literally changed the world. How exactly does one prepare for that? 

When I was young I distinctly remember my father telling me that there was no such thing as luck, that luck was simply the nexus of opportunity and preparation. The concept is both reassuring and disconcerting. The reassurance, of course, stems from the idea that if one prepares then all you have to do to succeed is seize opportunity when it arises. If this holds true then we are all 'lucky' and who doesn't want to see themselves as lucky? The disconcerting part comes in when things don't go your way. It's this logic that leads us to blame ourselves for car accidents, cancer, a loved one's bad decisions. If only I'd prepared for this I could have kept it from happening. Sometimes, however, there just isn't enough preparation in the world to ward off disaster. 

I have always been subject to over-thinking things, it's a trait that drove my mother crazy. I needed, almost neurotically, to know things. When introduced to a new concept or situation, I could never really rest until I'd run every possible scenario through my mind. A Plan B was never enough for me. I needed to plan all the way to Z. If she said she'd pick me up after school I'd have to imagine every possible outcome if she failed to show up. If I confided a secret in a friend almost immediately I'd run every imaginable response to possible betrayal. This sort of preparation comforted me. I could handle anything but surprise. I've often been accused of thinking too much but from where I stood thinking any less felt calamitous.  My parents still joke about this trait and every year they give me a calender called "Worst Case Scenario" which is chock full of information on how to prepare for any number of extraordinary events. For instance, despite the fact that I have never been skiing and avoid both heights and snow, I am prepared to survive an avalanche. Should I be buried alive in one I know to dig myself out a little hole and then spit on the wall of snow, whichever direction the spittle flows, I should dig the opposite way. Yeah gravity! I also know that when being captured by an alligator I should poke him in the eye. I also know that the advice to run away in a zig zag pattern is not the best advice, just run straight because alligators tire easily on land. I live in New Jersey, I have never seen an alligator outside of a zoo here. 

Mostly I'm prepared for things I will probably never face the one thing I'm still not prepared for however, is surprise. 

Surprise is just what I've gotten lately. In the past year my father-in-law was diagnosed with and succumbed to cancer within six weeks, my dear friend was killed in car accident, and most recently my eighteen year old son decided to leave high school early and move in with friends. I was not prepared for any of this. I had run countless scenarios about how my children would grow to maturity. I'd speculated in my head about graduation parties, college dorm rooms, wedding ceremonies, grandchildren. None of the scenarios I ran had my teenage son walking out the door and cutting ties with the family. I was woefully unprepared. 

When I began raising children I read countless books to guarantee I'd do it right. I learned various parenting techniques in an attempt to insure their self-esteem, their work ethic, their academic success. I made mistakes like all parents do but I avoided the major pitfalls. I talked to them, I apologized when I was wrong, I made them do chores and earn the money they needed for trips to the movies and cellphones. I tried to prepare them to make good decisions. It looks, at least for the moment, like I failed my eldest. When he walked out the door in late January my axis shifted and nearly two months later I am still adjusting to the aftershocks. As hard as we try to prepare ourselves for the unexpected, to plan for the battles, sometimes all that strategy cannot withstand chaos of circumstance. 

This year I've seen dear friends struggle with losses I cannot fathom, one with the loss of her husband and the other with the reality of having a multiply handicapped infant. How can one prepare for the emotional ramifications of widowhood? For the loss of dreams you had for a child? For the pressures that build silently below the surfaces of our lives until in one instant your world violently shifts off its axis and you are left to somehow figure out how to clean up the wreckage? 

Sitting in front of the television listening to experts talk about how Japan might have better prepared for this disaster, I cannot help but think of all those people on the other side of the world who have only just begun to pick up the pieces of their lives. Of those preparing to bury loved ones, those gathering shards of broken glass and salvaging family pictures, of mothers clinging to children and workers frantically trying to avoid meltdown, about how the world has already begun to assign blame by critiquing their preparedness. It is human nature to analyze and as humans we like to think of ourselves as rational, advanced creatures who have, more than any other creature, been able to tame nature. The truth, however, is much less reassuring. Sometimes there are forces beyond our control and no amount of planning, no engineering, no matter how sophisticated, will ever be enough to keep unseen forces from suddenly and irrevocably changing our paths forever. So where do we find reassurance? This is not the first disaster to adjust the planet's course, in fact many major earthquakes before it have done the same. So as the people of Japan begin to rebuild their lives in a country that has literally shifted position, they will not be the first to do so. Somehow, despite the sudden jarring, even catastrophic realignments can bring an opportunity to thrive. Perhaps in a few years, when Japan has rebuilt its infrastructure, when the debris has been cleared away, there will arise from disaster a kind of strength we can gained only from the things we cannot plan for.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Who are you? How do you know?

Tomorrow, I'll post this question on the board and ask my AP Seniors to answer it. If history serves, and I have been asking this questions for years, 8 out of 10 of them will give me their names and say something like "I know because it's on my birth certificate" or "that's what everyone calls me." I will then ask them how many of them chose their names and a room full of people will look at me like I've lost my mind. So why ask this obviously ridiculous question? To highlight the fact that so much of how we see ourselves is established through the eyes and minds of others. We are about to embark on a unit that focuses on establishing identity and I want them to ask themselves who and what they truly are. Inevitably, I end up asking myself the same question. Who am I? How do I know? The truth is in the six years I've been asking that question of others, my own answer has evolved. Six years ago I had a newly-minted MFA degree, I was a first year teacher, I had no teenage children. Nearly everything about me was changing. I felt a sort of kinship with the students in the room, all was potential, the future lay before me. In the six years since I first asked that question many things have changed. Some for the better, others for the worse.
So what is it in us that leads us to identify ourselves through the lens of other people? I'm a teacher, I know this, at least in part, because I show up every day at a school and introduce or reinforce material to students. I am a mother, I know this because much of my day revolves around meeting the needs of my teenage kids. Wife? Sister? Friend? All of these are relational definitions of myself. I am these things because of other people. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily but I cannot help but wonder who I would be if suddenly all this were removed. Who would you be?
I urge my students to define themselves, to push past what others have established as their identity and to find and hold onto whatever it is that they actually value. The book we center all this around? The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The novel is, in many ways, a harrowing look at a voiceless, abused woman who struggles to determine who she is in relation to a world that devalues both her gender and her race. Most of my students cannot relate to the life Celie (the narrator) lives, they are mostly white, upper-middle class, and well-educated. They have not lived under the boot of oppression or poverty but each and every one of them is, like Celie, in the process of discovering their own voice. What a thrilling thing it is for me to get a chance to observe this process, what a terrible inspiration it often is to try to redefine my own identity.
There's an old adage about living many lives in the course of your one life and the older I get the more truth this seems to hold. I have been many things over the course of only forty two (okay almost forty three) years and some of them are so different that it often seems their coexistence in a single person must be impossible. I struggled for ten years with an eating disorder that nearly cost me everything. I remember clearly rationing out 200 calories a day in meat and consuming nothing else but tea and broth for the rest of the day. I remember hip bones and ribs that protruded so far as to be my most prominent feature. I did not feel hunger for nearly 15 years though I know this sounds impossible. I was that person once, though I'd barely recognize her now.
I am a mother, both biological and adoptive. I remember clearly my daughter's birth and the separate arrivals of my two sons. I remember time out chairs, making homemade baby food, taking my sons to speech therapists, kindergarten, high school. I stayed home with them for years. I was stay-at-home-mom, maker of dinner, cleaner of toilets, babysitter. All of this was a world away from in-patient hospitals for eating disorders.
I am a college graduate, a woman who finished college while caring for three kids. I'm a success but I am also a failure. I have often failed to keep my temper, to keep the house clean, to attend to the ego of my husband. I failed to anticipate the needs of one child because I was so focused on the other. I have failed to keep confidences, appointments, promises. My failures are as much a part of me as my successes, maybe more.
Tomorrow when my students leave my room some of them will wonder if they really even know who they are. Hopefully they'll question why so much of their identity is defined by their roles in relation to others. Maybe one or two will begin to re-envision themselves, the really bright ones will know that the question I've asked is one they'll spend a lifetime answering, that in their lifetimes they will be many things, not all of them good but all of them things from which they can divine great wisdom. They must, however, be willing to ask the question many times and accept the fluctuations in their answers if they hope to establish any meaningful identity.
As for me I'll keep asking that same question year after year and getting slightly different answers ever time. There's freedom in that. So who am I? Am I the nurturing friend or the lonely isolationist? Am I the conservative mother or the liberal, free-spirited artist? Am I the teacher or the student? The truth is I am all these things. I am a paradox, a contradiction, a fluke, aren't we all? 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Only words?

A little over a year ago, at the not-so-young age of forty one I walked into a tattoo parlor in Portland, Maine and got my very first tattoo. I had always wanted a tattoo but two big fears kept me from sitting down and finally committing. First, my poor Catholic mother and her amazingly powerful 'I'm disappointed' face. She never made any secret of how she felt about indelibly marking your skin. She painted elaborate verbal pictures of a life in back alleys with lascivious men, of the shame the mother of someone like that would suffer. (I admit this was both a barrier and a draw at various times.) The second reason was the pain and the worry that what meant something to me at any given moment may not hold the same attraction years down the line. I am a restless soul, I change my mind frequently. I abandon hairstyles, shoes, cars. I admit I'm fickle with my favorites and so I wasn't convinced there was anything I felt strongly enough about to literally inscribe it into my skin.
In my late thirties that began to change. I had always loved writing. Truth be told I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. As a child I rewrote nursery rhymes, in high school I wrote tortured teen love poems, and then as my life turned toward parenting I would still sneak off while my kids napped or sometimes late at night and wrote scraps of poetry because it made me feel whole. I knew the world was full of things I could not control but for those few moments I controlled language and I felt powerful. As I advanced through my thirties and into my forties I took myself more seriously as a writer and went back to college first for a Bachelor's in Literature and Creative Writing and then for an MFA in Poetry.
It was with one of my graduate school friends that I decided to walk into that tattoo parlor. By then I knew what I'd always want both on and below my skin, words.
On the inside of my right wrist I have a small tattoo of an inkwell and a quill and beneath the the Latin phrase 'vis in verbis' which, roughly translated, means 'power/strength in words'. I decided on this for purely personal reasons. I have always found my power in the written word, in my worst moments I have been able to keep myself afloat by writing. I have been consoled and injured by the words of others. I have retreated into the safety of novels, poems, and prose crafted by the minds and hands of others who understood the power that resides in words. There is unquestionably, at least for me, power there.
In the past few weeks exactly how much power words have has become the topic of national debate. With the shootings in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several of her constituents the conversation has turned quickly to the vitriolic rhetoric which has characterized our political environment for the past few years. As is our nature we have begun to seek to assign blame and through the assignment of blame to regain control over something too frightening to admit we cannot control. I suppose we can never really know what led Jared Lee Loughner to load his gun and head off to hunt innocent people but we can, and should, know that words matter. When television pundits compare politicians to Nazis, when they use the rhetoric of violence, we all suffer, not from the crazed, solitary shooter but from the corrosive effect on culture. Increasingly, over the past few years we have devolved into a culture of us vs. them. Of course the 'us' and 'them' change, sometimes it's liberals vs. conservatives, sometimes citizens vs. illegal immigrants, sometimes black vs. white. Somewhere along the line we've forsaken the language of cooperation almost completely in favor of that of warfare and division.
So what of the old schoolyard wisdom we all chanted as children, 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me'? Anyone who's lived long enough to have a secret betrayed, watched it spread to rumor, and then learned the awful truth about misplaced trust, anyone who's had a teacher or parent belittle them, anyone honest cannot say that words can never hurt them.
This week I sat in a room full of educated people and heard someone assert that those who live in subsidized housing don't care about what's right and wrong and so the only way to get them to turn in a cop killer is to offer a reward. It was painful to hear this kind of divisive rhetoric in a room of 'educated' people but the room was loaded with emotion because in the backdrop was the funeral of Officer Christopher Matlosz who had been shot execution style by a suspected gang member. I have also seen the families of the accused blame his behavior on persecution rather than expressing concern for the slain officer and his loved ones. It's a tragic truth that in times of great stress and uncertainty people retreat into generalizations, embrace the language of division and exclusion
and just when they need nothing more than to empathize and understand they allow their fear to isolate them. We had a moment in the wake of the Arizona shootings to take a step back and ask ourselves if we needed to change the tone, with Sarah Palin's recent appearances blaming liberals for villifying her while simultaneously doing the same to them and Congressman Steve Cohen's evoking the name of Joseph Goebbels while discussing conservatives, I fear our leaders have missed the moment. I hope, however, that we can turn off all the voices clamoring for a division that empowers them by weakening us and find our way back to sane exchanges and respectful dissention, and who knows even stake out some common ground.
In a culture saturated in talk, one that seeks not only rumor and innuendo but also sermon and edification, it can be difficult to distinguish how words matter. Words are sneaky little things that seem, initially, to slide over the skin and off into the unknown but the truth is they seep in unrecognized and implant just below the surface. As human beings we need to acknowledge their power and the fact that they can blossom into beauty or they can fester into division and destruction.