Observations from the Invisibility Cloak

When I was 28 and writing poetry, I wrote a poem lamenting the feeling that I was invisible because I was no longer the youngest, cutest thing on the block --- and I had become a mother. Now I'm in my sixties and really invisible. And I like it!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Why I March

Teachers took to the streets on May 16 in North Carolina. It's been a long, hard decade for education since the economic meltdown. When the state legislature and governor's mansion changed hands, things became grim indeed. They've never recovered and now public schools feel under attack from all sides.

I started this blog when I left the classroom in 2011. The changes were already apparent. Raises were a distant memory. Classroom budgets diminished and I found myself spending more of my own money and tapping parents for basics. I hear it got a whole lot worse after I left teaching. Retirement gave me some distance but I still talk to friends I left behind.

This has been a week of public protest. On May 14, the Poor People's Campaign kicked off with direct action and civil disobedience in more than thirty cities across the country. Raleigh was one of them. The crowd was small compared to the Moral Mondays from a few years ago, but the issues are the same. Poverty, racism, healthcare, living wage, education. People are coming together.

These two actions back-to-back have had me thinking. They are so intertwined, poverty and education. I think back to my days in the classroom and the poverty that was evidenced every day in our school.

It wasn't one of those terrible schools you see pictured on the documentaries. Actually, the building was sound and recently renovated. The school staff was caring and dedicated. It stands in a neighborhood whose residents often struggle. Many of the 6 to 8-year-olds I taught showed signs of stress.

I remember one little boy who, after being given a toothbrush by the visiting dental educators was thrilled because he had his own now and wouldn't have to share a toothbrush with his siblings.

I regularly had children who were underdressed for the weather or showed up in clothes that hadn't been washed recently. Some came to school too late for breakfast and arrived hungry almost every day. Some whispered that they hadn't eaten any supper the night before. I kept large bags of cereal behind my desk and cheese crackers in the closet for such situations. 

Sometimes they would go through the lunch line only to find that their account was empty. I wasn't the only teacher or teacher-assistant who kept extra money on account to cover those lunches.

Serious behavior problems arose. A few times I had to report suspicion of abuse. More often, a child would "act out" unaccountably, hiding under a table or crying and rocking inconsolably. I made many referrals to our overburdened counselors or assistant principal. 

Our school had a burgeoning population of Spanish-speaking students during the years I was there. Despite the language barriers with both the children and their parents we managed, and all of us grew together. What I did not anticipate were the problems particular to immigrant families. There was the boy who took everything home every night because this was the third school he had attended during the current year. Sure enough, one day he simply never came back. When one of my little girls confided that her daddy had been taken away and had to go back to Mexico, I was stunned. She was devastated. My heart broke for her.

Too many of these kids had to deal with situations that would have been unthinkable to me as a child: the boy who was going out to dinner to celebrate his dad's birthday but they ended up at the ER after the girlfriend stabbed his father, the girl who came to school one morning talking about the man who had been shot dead at the end of her driveway the night before, the number of kids who lived with grandparents or other relatives because their parents were on drugs or locked up, the child who had to get up before dawn to ride with his taxi-driving mother until time to go to school.

Poverty. I thought I knew about it. I had been on welfare and food stamps when my son was an infant. I had scrounged and worked multiple low wage jobs to hold body and soul together. But I realized it was a whole different level of experience the day I tried to teach a sequencing lesson to one of my first-graders.

I spread out six brightly colored picture cards entitled "How to make a Bed." His task was to put them in order. He hesitated then moved the cards around, obviously guessing. I gave him hints, but it didn't help. Finally, he told me he didn't know. He had never had a bed. He slept on the couch or the floor in a sleeping bag.

 Poverty and Education. That's why I march.

Poor People's Campaign, Raleigh NC, 5/14/2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sudden Change

Jill and Todd

Jill and I are in the pause, the hush and intake of breath that follows a sudden death. Yesterday, her brother Todd died unexpectedly. He was only 49 years old. The stillness is intense.

We all do it, I think. We chug through life doing what needs to be done, following routines and prescribed roles day after day. There's comfort in the mundane --- grocery shopping, laundry, lawn mowing, jobs. Even with the certainty that nothing stays the same for long, we walk through days and weeks as though today is the permanent blueprint. Until it isn't.

The phone call marks a break. There was before and then there is after. Before was normal. After, unpredictable. It takes time to adjust, as though the molecules have rearranged themselves into a new shape that is not recognizable in this moment. 

Previous losses crowd to the top, loosed from their moorings once more, adding to the sense of disorientation. It's easy to stand for minutes with the refrigerator door open, unseeing, lost in thought. Dogs nudge questioningly, aware that something is amiss. Conversations lapse in mid-sentence.

Gradually, it fills in again, the empty spaces begin to shrink but never disappear entirely. The sudden impulse to text or send a picture doesn't hit as sharply over time. 

"He would love that . . ."

"She never got to see . . ."

A sudden scent or sound triggers memories that flood through, stabs of pain, then cleansed and washed away.

Farewell. You leave a self behind that will not be erased in the minds and hearts of those who knew you. Sleep well, Todd, and be at peace. 

                                                                                    Todd Hahn 1968-2018

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Band-aids and Ice

Back in the golden, olden days of television, there was a show called WKRP in Cincinnati. Of the many memorable characters on this sitcom, a favorite of mine was Les Nessman, played by Richard Sanders. Les nearly always wore a band-aid. Most of the time it had nothing to do with the action; it was his schtick. That tickled my funny bone and it reminded me of being a kid.

My parents convinced us that band-aids could treat almost anything. Fall down and skin a knee? Wash with soap and water (ouch!), apply Mercurochrome (ouch!) or Merthiolate (double ouch!) and top with a band-aid. The injury didn't even have to involve broken skin. Come crying to Mom with a bump or bruise and she would give it a little rub or a kiss, and a band-aid. A goose-egg might bring out the waterproof pouch with the screw-on cap, filled with ice to relieve pain and swelling before the curative band-aid was applied.

Those strips were 1950s magic. Some of you who are old enough may remember that they came in metal containers with a hinged lid. The crackly wrapper on the strip itself was opened hygienically by pulling an orange thread down the side. No touching the sterile pad!

By the time I settled into classroom teaching in the early 2000s, late in my education career, the fear of litigation meant that we had returned to fifty years earlier when it came to children's daily scrapes. School nurses were few and far between; first aid consisted of band-aids and ice.

We sometimes speak of "slapping a Band-aid on it" when we treat problems with stop-gap measures. In business or politics, complex issues are often addressed in superficial ways to relieve the pressure of public opinion and put off effective examination or remedies for another day.

A band-aid won't cure a broken arm nor will feel-good legislation, however well-intentioned, bring relief to problems endemic to the society we've created. I have been reminded lately of the "common good" and the responsibility we have for each other. In times when the wider world seems fraught with conflict and dangers which I can do nothing about, my actions need to be directed close to home.

More than ever, I am called upon to be mindful, kind, and respectful. It may seem inadequate in the face of turmoil and uncertainty, but a well-placed band-aid and a kiss can create peace that angry words and hopelessness will never accomplish.

I wish you peace and serenity, whoever and wherever you are. We're all in this together.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

I'm sorry. I haven't been able to write. My office was taken over by wild animals. You know how that goes.

Actually, I have spent so much time reading what other people have to say that my own thoughts and ideas got pushed out of the way. In other words, overwhelm to the Nth degree. I can't seem to stay off the news sites but all that reading leaves me with a twitchy eye and low-level depression. Not to mention too much ice cream and coffee. So, I have decided to take myself in hand and shake it off!

What do you want to talk about? No, not politics. Or Trump and his many henchmen. I could show you pretty pictures from vacationing in the Azores. 

That's the other old broad mentioned in the title of this blog.

 What's that? You don't know where (or maybe what) the Azores are? If I let you in on the secret do you promise not to tell and spoil this amazing paradise? Mum's the word. Look it up.

I could tell you about the novel I just published, which you can look for on Amazon and Kindle. But you should really read the other two first, since it's #3 in a series. Go ahead and look for Gaddy's Song.

Or #1 Way Out in Dog Heaven or #2 Haints in the Side Yard.

Haints are ghosts, for those of you not acquainted with southern vernacular. I'm beginning to think I've spent too much time with the specters. I'm noticing that when I am alone in the house, and sometimes even with others here, I detect the sweet, comforting scent of cherry pipe tobacco. A long time ago, when I was 11 or 12 and we had just moved to Germany, Dad went through a streak of smoking pipes. I think he liked the idea more than the actuality, but he acquired several handcrafted German pipes and a pipe stand and a humidor. I even saved up money to buy him a pipe one Christmas. I loved the smell of the tobacco and the smoke. Now I'm haunted by it, 14 years after his death.

It's not the first time I've been haunted by odors particular to my father's life. When we were clearing out the last house he and Mom lived in, the scent of bourbon wafted in the hallway and his bedroom. He was not a big drinker but enjoyed a party like the rest of us. Nobody had been in the house for awhile and it had already been five years since he died. But it was as clear as anything that he was raising a glass to the change that was underway. 

This time of year, I'm much more likely to remember my mother. It will be 3 years on December 15 since she passed on, Ella Fitzgerald singing her to the next world, Christmas lights and scents spiriting her away. 

Every year, through Advent season, we have a family tradition of lighting candles on the wreath and reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, one stave each week of Advent. This instructive ghost story is an annual reminder to live in the moment at hand, but also remember the past. The older I get, the more ghosts there are who inhabit my world. These ghosts of Christmas past aren't scary at all; my life is richer for their presence. And when they come bearing sensory gifts, so much the better.

Nancy, Lester, and all the rest ---- it's time to feast and celebrate. The love deepens with every passing year.

The Azore islands are Portuguese. 
Beautiful, secluded, magical.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Too hot. No escape in prison.

It's hot, y'all. I know it gets like this every summer but this is a long string of hot, humid days and that is hard to bear. Maybe it's because I'm getting older or more spoiled by air conditioning. Can you even imagine being without air conditioning anywhere these days? 

Oh wait, I can. I was born in 1950. Summers were hot even back in the olden days and yes, all we had were fans, shade, and cool drinks. Is it worse now? I don't know. Depends on where and who you are.

There's one place I'm personally aware of that is ridiculously hot in these 95 -100 degree days. Women's prison in Raleigh, NC.

Oh, well, they're prisoners. What does that matter? They shouldn't be comfortable anyway. They're no worse off than our grandparents were. And it's supposed to be punishment for bad people.

I've written about my friend Joanna Madonna, here, here and here. She's in Women's Prison right now and has been for awhile.  I talk to her frequently and between letters and phone calls, I get a lot of news about her experience in there.

It's hot, y'all. Really, really hot. A throwback to the 1950s hot. And there's no going to the mall or the movies to escape. There are cooling procedures in place for the 1,000 or so inmates --- large industrial fans in some places, smaller fans in others. You've stood in front of one of those huge fans before, haven't you? Remember how comforting that is?

And water. There are large containers of drinking water strategically placed. I know when I bring my glass of ice water outside these days the ice melts within a few minutes and the tepid water needs to be refreshed. I don't know how the water containers on the compound or in dorms are cooled. Some water, even if it's not cold, is better than no water at all. At least for hydration.

They're even authorized to take extra cooling showers when the temperatures are extreme, and I'm sure that feels good. For a few minutes. Unless the sweat is pouring off of you when you step into the shower and doesn't abate much when you get out. 

Should inmates be treated like regular ol' human beings, like the rest of us? After all, aren't they the bad folks everybody is scared of? Aren't they the terrible predators, the irredeemable, the sinners? They get fed and housed, don't they? What more are they owed?

For a huge number of people, including policymakers, prisoners are a faceless horde. Theoretically, it's obvious that the person who stole from a store, stole a car, got caught with drugs, even committed a violent offense, is someone's mother, father, son, daughter or spouse. In this case, some are grandmothers, even great-grandmothers. Locked up and put away, they're all invisible and it's easy to dismiss the humanity of someone deemed a criminal.

What do we owe those among us who have been locked up? Not even going to questions of the justice system, and there are many, what standards of human compassion must we show to those who have been segregated from society? 

It's hot. Give these women some air conditioning, for heaven's sake!

For more information about Joanna's case

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Esse Quam Videri, Y'all

Things are not always as they seem, nor easily projected into the future. I foolishly thought that by the time I got to the shady side of sixty-five I'd have things pretty well figured out and simply coast for awhile. Not so much.

I'm auditioning for inclusion in an Alzheimer's study at Duke. This is for people at higher risk but not showing signs of dementia. I won't know whether I've been accepted (met the conditions) for a little while yet, but it has me thinking. One part of the consent form stated the probability of an adverse reaction to one of the procedures in the study as 1 in 4,000. Whoa! That gave me pause. It then went on, for perspective, to state that the chances of dying in a car crash are about one in 82, and the chances of being killed by a car while crossing the street are about one in 730. Context is everything; I'll forge ahead.

I have an abiding and very personal interest in this kind of research. When each of my parents began to show signs of dementia, my immediate reaction was denial. It wasn't possible. It had to be something else. There was no family history and they were in good health. But it was true. I could neither wish it away nor ignore what was unfolding in front of my eyes. Alzheimer's doesn't care if you believe in it or not --- it's happening.

So now there is an established family history for me and for my siblings. The four of us, all in our sixties now, whistle in the dark, peering around corners and invoking gallows humor over any slip of the tongue or a lost water bottle. Spooked, we are, and rightfully so.

We each are developing strategies to stave off the anxiety. Three of us are geographically close and when we get together, the jokes will fly. One sister, always more active than the rest of us, still runs the trails regularly, still works full time. She's the baby sis. We older three make stabs at the modern obsession with diet and exercise that is supposed to banish decrepitude and death indefinitely but do so with little conviction. We all know what's coming, it's just a matter of how or when.

So my strategy at this stage is not to stay excessively hale and hearty. Yes, I'm teaching Qigong classes six times a week, which definitely keeps me moving and meditative. (It's a revelation to me that the only way to make sure I get regular exercise is to get paid for it!) I eat all right though I do seem to have overridden my appetite-curbing mechanism. But there, you see, is the magic bullet. If and when my brain starts to dissolve, I don't want to be so fit that I have to take it to the very end. 

Mom and Dad both rode that pony all the way back to the barn. The ending of Alzheimer's Disease is not pretty. Some people, upon hearing a diagnosis of AD go ahead and plan to short circuit it intentionally. The trouble with that plan is that it's too unreliable. The progress of the disease precludes being able to make plans and complete them. Being paroled by a heart attack or stroke before the last gasp of AD is no more reliable a plan, but has its appeal for me.

Jill, my voice of caution, reminds me that dementia may not even be in my future. I know that. I'll take it under consideration. She just wants me around for years to come, she says. Isn't she sweet?

So all things in moderation, as they say. The other lesson I'm learning as I age is that it is just fine to be myself, warts, tummy rolls, moon face, and all. In due time, it will all be resolved. In the meantime, I continue to treasure the moments as they come without too much expectation. This day is sufficient and I am happy "to be rather than to seem" --- esse quam videri.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Icebox Brigade

Right now, our refrigerator is full. I've been reading about food waste lately and while I grew up with the ironclad rule that food should never be wasted or thrown out, I know that these days I do contribute to the food waste stream. We have fresh produce delivered from a farm to the house every Wednesday and sometimes don't eat it all before it goes bad. Some weeks we even avail ourselves of one of those meal-prep delivery services which makes me feel like an actual cook but sometimes doesn't turn out to our liking.

So the fridge is full, and what a blessing that is. I've known this appliance by many names --- the icebox, the frigidaire, the fridge, the refrigerator. Over the years I've had quite a few. Remembering them today, as I contemplated where to stuff the leftovers from lunch, I realized that they trace the trajectory of my fluctuating economic circumstances.

Things started out ok. When I was 18 and newly married, we rented a furnished apartment specifically set up for servicemembers from the nearby Navy base. That was where I started learning my way around the kitchen, though my husband did most of the cooking. He had a talent for it.

When he got out of service and we started college, money was tight. All our furniture and appliances were second-hand,  as was our series of beater cars.  After a couple of years, I moved out on my own for awhile to live in a student boarding house, the first time I shared a kitchen with 6 other women. It was a never-ending effort to keep tabs on my own food. The fridge, with its limited space, was the hardest to control.

After Andrew was born and his dad and I separated for good, I went on welfare and food stamps to keep life together while I finished college and looked for a job. My upstairs apartment had a small fridge with an undependable thermostat and a freezer just big enough for ice cube trays. I learned to shop every couple of days and was very grateful that breast milk was always at the ready and at the perfect temperature.

Next, I threw resources in with my sister and we rented a small, tattered house together. Garage sales provided appliances, including a stove with 2 working burners and a refrigerator that had to be roped shut. Inconvenient, but at least it worked. Somehow, she forgave me for suddenly packing up to move to California, leaving her to unload all our fine furnishings. 

My second place in San Francisco was another shared space with 5 housemates. We instituted the use of small colored stickers to differentiate refrigerator food for each of the roomies. It sort of worked. Sometimes.

Zig-zagging back to Chicago for awhile, I had a garden apartment with no refrigerator at all, and no hope of affording one. Andrew and I slept on a single floor mattress and ate off of a round cocktail table with 2 metal chairs. That was all of our furniture. But the kitchen had hot water and a stove, so I stopped at the market every day to buy cold things for the styrofoam cooler and somehow we got by.

Moving in with my parents in the Azores gave me all the comforts of home: washer and dryer, a working stove and fridge, and a grandmotherly, Portugese, housekeeper/babysitter who took good care of things --- and of Andrew. 

It actually took until I was well into my forties for me to get a brand new refrigerator for the first time. Same thing with a car. Fifties before I owned a house. You would think, after all this history, that I would never take anything for granted, but that doesn't seem to be the way things go. We live in a country in which poor people having a refrigerator calls their legitimacy into question. It's complicated. What exactly is a luxury and what would be a necessity?  

Jill and I have a fifteen-year-old fridge that is still pumping away for the time being. It's ample for us, even without the bells and whistles I see in Home Depot on the new models. I hope it lasts awhile longer, but I also am pretty sure that when it gives up the ghost we'll be able to go pick out a new one, not shop the second-hand stores. We may not be rolling in dough, but we also don't have to tie the door shut with a rope to keep the cold in. 

And that's the lesson, isn't it? Not everyone is so fortunate.

I remember.