Sunday, January 27, 2008

If a tree falls . . .

She's my mother, but since she's moved to River Court assisted living two years ago, she doesn't look like the mother I remember. She's gained weight, probably too much, but after the lean days when my father died and she stopped eating regularly, she looks pleasingly plump. Just not familiar.

She still remembers me. She knows my voice on the phone-- usually-- but I've taken to identifying myself just in case. "Hi, Mom. It's me. Ruthie." She knows me when I walk into her room, but if I passed her on the street, unexpectedly out of context, would she?

Her short-term memory is shot. She knows this, admits it with a rueful shake of her head, a slight chuckle. "I let others do the talking," she says. "I can't get in trouble that way."

It makes for a tough hour on my part when I visit. Keeping a conversation going is my forte, but I do need a return volley now and then. She responds and waits for my next comment.

I write cards for her. I take them home to stamp and mail. I ask her what she wants me to write.

"Oh, that I miss them. I'd love to see them," she says. "Tell them I'm fine. I'm happy. I'm content." She absently strokes Susie, her cat and constant companion. She's looking off into the distance. She can't get into trouble with these comments.

If you don't remember what you had for lunch an hour ago did you enjoy it? If you don't remember that you play bingo every afternoon, did you have fun? She has a new stash of stuffed animals that share the couch with Susie and her. I think they're her bingo winnings, but she doesn't know where they came from.

I leave when an aide pops the door open and says, "Bingo's starting! You don't want to miss it. There are some good prizes."

"You go, Mom," I say. "I'll just use the bathroom and make sure I shut the door when I leave." I don't mention that I'm sure I'll catch up to her even with her head start.

"I'm in no hurry," she says. "We'll walk down together." And we do. I can't walk slowly enough. I repeatedly move ahead, stop, turn, and wait as she pushes her walker slowly. If she exercised, I know she wouldn't need it, but she depends on it now.

I hug and kiss her good-bye, watch her get settled at the gaming table, then wave and leave.

If you don't remember your daughter came to visit . . .

She won't. This I know from experience. But I wrote "Ruthie came" on her calendar, when she asked me to. Its the way she "remembers" things.

"Put a smiley face, too," she'd said. So I did. A big one like I put on my student's papers when I want them to know they matter to me.
"Esse est percipi" ("To be is to be perceived")~George Berkeley

Thursday, January 24, 2008

When I grow up~

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Since I was six I answered the proverbial question with a simple, no-nonsense reply, "Be a teacher."

My 34-year career will end this June. Seven years ago I applied for early retirement, a state "incentive" designed to rid the profession of older, therefore higher paid, teachers.

For seven years I've been asked, "What do you want to do when you retire?" far more than I was ever asked the other question.

People assume-- rightfully-- that no one retires and sits around letting cobwebs gather. Demographics promise, barring any misfortune-- knock, knock-- that I have a good number of years ahead, decades. I'm counting on three, at least. Certainly enough time to do something when I retire.

So while I floundered with the answer at first, as the questions persisted I began to think seriously about just what I would do when foot loose and fancy free.

And now, with less than 100 school days to go, the question I ask myself is, "What won't I do when I retire?" I have a finger in lots of pies, and I've got my eye on a few others, and unexpected opportunities will appear.

What do I want to do when I grow up? Lots of things!

Here's a pre-retirement venture-- the latest issue of the Internet Review of Books, brainchild of a retired friend who isn't letting any cobwebs gather either. Check it out.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~E. E. Cummings

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The ants go marching~

You know that awful feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you see something sad? For me it feels like tiny ants crawling in circles, a faint but decidedly unpleasant swirl of emotion trapped inside.

I feel it when I see injured or abused animals. A bird with a broken wing flapping on the roadside, an abandoned nest of baby rabbits, and a skunk trapped in netting. Even the struggling mouse my cat proudly brings home in her mouth makes the ants crawl.

The pictures MSPCA posts regularly in the newspaper accompanied by sorrowful stories of lonely abandoned animals give me the feeling. The sad, but hopeful, eyes looking into the camera beg, "Come love me. Take me home." It crushes me.

I distract myself. I move on. The ants go to sleep. I don't forget, exactly. I just don't try to remember.

Yesterday we drove through Boston on our way to one of David's basketball games. Like all cities, Boston has its homeless, its wounded, its "invisible" people. Each has his territory; real estate is precious along heavily trafficked roads where cars line up at red lights.

Some sell flowers, some wash windshields, some carry a can from car to car hoping for change. And yesterday as we sat in the long line waiting for the green light, a man with both legs bound in braces limped between the lanes of cars. His cardboard sign-- neatly printed, all words spelled correctly-- said "I need money for knee replacements. I'm embarrassed, but there is nothing else I can do."

The ants crawled.

The man looked neither left nor right, no hope in his eyes. No one rolled down a car window; no one offered a fistful of change. We didn't either.

I said to Bruce, "I feel so bad for him, but for sure he won't put any money he gets toward a knee replacement."

He'll buy wine or street drugs with his daily take. If I offered to drive him to an orthopedist and pay for the operation, he'd have looked at me like I was crazy. He'd rather have a dollar.

"How do you even know he needs a knee replacement?" Bruce asked.

"I know, but it's still so sad that he's reduced to this."

"Reduced to what?" said Bruce. "He could get a job." Getting a job is Bruce's cure for the homeless. I think this hard practicality is how he keeps his ants from crawling.

But it isn't this simple. There are no jobs for the mentally ill, the drug addicted, except to panhandle for a daily wage.

And it makes me feel that awful sensation in the pit of my stomach when I see such helpless suffering when there is nothing I can do.

Is there?

“It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people, or houses to the homeless.”~John Kenneth Galbraith

Monday, January 14, 2008

Beyond race and gender~

I'm colorblind, racially speaking.

A black man told me this.

Back in the day when my ex gambled, and my youngest was not yet two, I delivered The Boston Globe before I went to school. Why I was scrambling to compensate for money he threw to the dogs-- literally-- is a story for another time.

During this exhausting, but strangely empowering year, I met men and women, each with their own story. Victims of corporate downsizing, victims of divorce, victims of gambling husbands, we were all victims of something.

We talked and joked, squeezing past each other on the crowded loading dock and jammed parking lot during the pre-dawn half hour it took to load up our cars and check the manifest for changes.

After a year, when I was able to quit and survive economically, Al gave me a goodbye hug. His comment, not the exact words but the gist, sticks with me today. He thanked me for being a friend, said my smile made a difference in his life, and that I acted like he wasn't black, only it came out nicer than I've paraphrased.

I remember blinking at him until his skin color came into focus-- a nice shade of brown-- coffee, one cream. I guess I'd just been looking into his heart via his eyes and bypassed his skin, his gender even.

He was a person, a friend. No more, no less. But that's a lot.

I don't remember what I replied, but nearly two decades later I still wonder: how did I act toward him that was different from how others acted?

Now we have a black man and a white woman running for president of a country that espouses racial and gender equality. Demands equality. Legislates it.

Both Hillary and Barack use race and gender to divide. They make it a big deal, pulling it front and center, sticking it in our faces. It is to their advantage to do so politically, I suppose. All's fair in love and war, and a political race is a battlefield. But such warfare serves no purpose beyond their own. It hurts the country they claim they want to improve.

Give us the facts, your plans, even your hearts, but cut the childish bickering over who called who a what!

We see your race, your gender. Those who care about such things need no reminder. Those of us who don't, say, "Get on with the show. Let us look into your eyes and see what really matters."

Take the high road, the road less traveled. It leads somewhere better.
Sex and race, because they are easy and visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups . . ..~Gloria Steinem

Monday, January 7, 2008

Primary 2008~

So Hillary is human. Of course she is, poor woman.

She remained hard when Bill betrayed her in the public eye. She was angry, we knew; we watched her shake off his hand as they prepared to board a plane, but she never shed a public tear.

Was that a bad thing? Who's to say? Would I have cried on the nightly news in similar circumstances? I have no clue. I might have, but most likely I'd have had my armor on-- like Hillary did-- for the public.

And because she fastened her armor tightly, we all said, "How cold. She's a stone. Has she no emotion?"

And then, "She needs Bill. She wants to stay in politics. She'll never dump him."

And she didn't. For whatever reason-- love or politics-- she didn't.

But today, years after Bill had his fling with Monica, and the world watched for Hillary's response, she showed a soft side.

Exhausted, she spoke in New Hampshire on the eve of the primary elections, answering question after endless question. And she wavered, sounded teary, weary, and emotional.

Hillary is human. Of course she is, poor woman.

I will not vote for her, but she melted me.

It might have been scripted- a political maneuver. Her advisors might has said, "Act softer, kinder and gentler. Be more human."

My husband said, "Remember Edmund Muskie." Muskie's presidential run went south the moment he shed tears, tears in defense of his wife.

But he was a man. Hillary is a woman. Muskie's tears were genuine. Were Hillary's almost tears real?

Isn't that what we want first and foremost in our president? A living, breathing, feeling human? One who shares our pain? One who works for us because he or she understands? One with passion? One with a heart.

Sure. And one who is strong on foreign policy, and the economy, and health care, and national defense, and . . .

There is no such a person. But each candidate wants to convince us he is. Or she is.

Other countries have, or have had, woman in high elected positions, but not the US. We think about it too much. We analyze it too much. We think it matters too much.


And race.

The 2008 elections are just gearing up, and already are wearying-- for the common man as well as the candidate.

Stay tuned.
I think it's about time we voted for senators with breasts. After all, we've been voting for boobs long enough. ~Clarie Sargent, Arizona senatorial candidate

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Time warp~

Teaching history to ten year olds can be a challenge. They've only got ten years under their belts. Taking them back to the 1400s pins them in a time warp so outside their ability to conceptualize that they lose the sense that the ancient cultures were once as alive and vital as ours is today.

I spend a lot of time trying to get my students to see the Mound Builders, lets say, or merchants who traveled the Silk Road, as living breathing people: people who loved, feared, cried, and had needs just like ours. They were people who had a rich culture that was as modern and technologically advanced to them as ours is to us is not something my students understand easily.

Ferdinand Magellan didn't go on his voyage bemoaning the limitations of his compass and astrolabe any more than we wake up and say, "Darn it would be so much easier if I had something better than this iPhone."

Someday, I tell them, school children will read about us, the Ancient Americans, and wonder why we didn't just travel in worm holes when we wanted to go to Mars. Our iPhones will look as dated as the rotary phone already does.

They sort of get it. They laugh at my examples. But still, who is Vasco da Gama really? Nothing like the space explorers of today, they think. Just some boring old guy in a boat, and they miss the sense of courage his journey required. They miss the sense that his life involved more than his celebrated journey around the Cape of Good Hope.

All this made me wonder what future anthropologists will say about our civilization in a thousand years. What will they say about our celebrations and holidays? About New Years Eve?

"People lived in the realm of time," they will say.

Will "time" be a vocabulary word? An unfamiliar concept to students living in the eleventh dimension apart from space and time?

"Ancient Americans gathered in public places called "cities." With the aid of potent beverages and a collective scream they birthed the "new year." To symbolize the birth, they lowered a glowing sphere lit from within by "electricity," an ancient source of heat and light. Wars were fought over the resources used in generating that light."

What will they say about the confetti, the resolutions, and the other cultural customs we follow without thinking-- the kiss at the stroke of midnight, the champagne and streamers? It will be seen as superstition, although we don't see it that way.

Perhaps if string theory proves true, if parallel universes exist, there are children studying us at this moment, wondering why we are so old fashioned.

Weird to speculate, but fun. Who knows?

May the coming year be one of growth and blessing for you as individuals, and collectively as a part of mankind. Perhaps this will provide some perspective. It's not new, but it's always a beautiful reminder of life's purpose. Happy New Year!