Sometimes life seems like a blur of color And sound. Events emerge, retreat, emerge again. Faces, moments large and smaller, Once important, now dim in time’s dark dirge. Old songs, old fashions, worries, memories family and old loves in faded ink Safe in small boxes, the past’s treasury, three-cent stamps, folded paper, the heart’s link. “Dear Martha Ann. Thank you for the flowers. Uncle Hank is here, too. Some days we do OK but on other days we’re slower. I just wanted to say thanks. We love you.” “I love you, too, Aunt Jo,” I say, sure she, in the timeless stream of being, hears me.
Yesterday I did some cleaning and found (again) a bunch of old letters I have saved. I guess I saved them so that when I clean, I can find them again. 😀 Among these letters, I have the letter from my dad to my grandmother enclosing a train ticket. The ticket, obviously, is not in the letter. The event was my birth. I was very small when I was born and they were afraid… well here I am, so… That letter is the one that says “Air, special delivery.”
They had spoken on the phone before that, but my grandmother never liked the phone and she was on a 3 party line anyway. Whenever the phone rang in her house she would jump up, startled, and say, “My lord.” Long distance calls were (to my grandmother) very expensive. It’s hard to fathom that in these days when people carry their phones around with them everywhere and spend a LOT of time on them. The top letter in the photo is a birthday card from my grandmother on my first birthday.
The note from my Aunt Jo was thanks for a Christmas present — plants that she could grow at “the home” where she and my uncle had gone to live in the last two or three years of their lives.
This is a Shakespearean sonnet and here’s a very complete and somewhat annoying explanation of what that is. I write them because they’re easy and I don’t have to think that much about the form. I’m also not very fascistic about following iambic pentameter since English more or less forms itself into that rhythm pattern anyway.
This is my annual Christmas post. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better story. Merry Christmas, everyone, however you observe this season.
Part One, 1956
I am 4 or 5. Small enough to sleep in two arm chairs pushed together, facing each other. One of the arm chairs has velvety grey upholstery in a swirly design. The other, my favorite, is red velvet. I sleep the strange sweet sleep of that place, of childhood. Outside the window is cold Montana, the clear dark pierced by stars and lit by a distant radio tower. Some nights there’s dance music coming from the Red Barn down the road. Among the songs is Gene Autry singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Trains whistle through the night.
It’s still dark when I hear her, coming out of her room, humming softly, tying on her apron, buttoning her sweater. She walks to the kitchen and lights the stove. I smell the fire catch. She comes back singing.
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.
“Are you awake, Martha Ann?” “Yes, Gramma.” “You want to go with me to get the eggs?” “Yes!” “Well, get up then. Put on your socks and your boots and your coat. Be quiet!”
Peeeeeaaace ON the Earth, goodwill to men
In the back room she reaches for her coat and a wool head scarf. She ties it over her ears.
“Put this on your head or you’ll catch your death.” She hands me a paisley scarf. Well, she has good reason to warn me. Already by then, I’d nearly caught my death in more than one Montana winter.
Of angels bending near the earth, to touch their haaaarrrrps of GOLD!
The snow crunches under our boots. She opens the hen-house door, “Shoo, shoo,” she says to the hens, “Shoo!” She reaches under the sitting birds, putting their eggs in our basket. “There now. We can make breakfast for Helen and them when they wake up.”
“Helen and them” is my mom, dad and brother — and anyone else who showed up for breakfast.
The snow crunches on our way back to the kitchen. The light comes through the small window of the back room, yellow and human. All around is cold grey/blue light of dim December Montana morning.
And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their Heavenly music floats, o’er all the weary world.
I open the door. The kitchen now warmed by the stove is friendly in the light. “Set the table, baby. There are,” she stops to count on her fingers, “there are four of you, and Jo and them will be down, that’s four more, set it for nine.” I still have to climb on a chair to reach everything. The big table fills the kitchen with its chairs and benches from all epochs of Montana history. I love the chairs. Even then I know that they are chairs with stories.
Gramma’ lays the bacon slices carefully in the black iron skillet. The December sun struggles over the horizon, appearing as a golden gleam. Blue shadows stalk the trees. Morning.
And all the world send back the song, which now-ow the angels sing!
Part Two, 1979
I snarl at the lousy weather, the hanging gray cold, and all the people, I push through the crowd on Seventeenth Street. After two blocks, I catch up to a crippled blind guy banging his cane against the two-by-four supports of the narrow entrance to a construction sidewalk.
“What is it? What is it?” he screams frantically, “Would somebody please help me? Help me!”
“Damn it,” I think. But I squelch my inner asshole, not because I’m a good person but because clearly going WITH this obstacle is more productive than fighting it.
“It’s a new building,” I tell him, catching up. “They’ve built a covered sidewalk. It’s like a tunnel. Here, take my hand and we can go through it together.”
He tells me he is catching the Colfax bus which is now a block behind us, loading passengers. He is about five feet tall, if that, a little shorter than I. I look at him and see that every aspect of him is wrong. His watery pale sightless eyes, his pinkish hair flattened from sleep, his crooked, red, too-large nose, his feet twisting toward each other just enough to make his stride unsteady. Some of his teeth are gone and his fingers are gnarled. He seems to be my age, in his mid-twenties. His helplessness compels my trust.
“Can you run?” I ask. “Your bus is behind us at a red light. I’ll hold your hand. I think we can make it. There’s no ice on the sidewalk here.” We have a half a block to go and the traffic light behind us has just turned green.
“OK,” he says, and we run to the bus.
“This is fun!” he laughs a snorting little laugh.
The bus driver must know the blind guy because he holds the bus at the corner. The man struggles up the steps and shows his pass to the driver. He turns around, facing me. “Merry Christmas!” he says, “Thank you! See you again!”
I raise my hand to wave goodbye, but at the last minute, I put it in my pocket. “Merry Christmas!” I say.
I reach the Presbyterian church on top of the hill just as the carillon begins;
“It Came upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old, of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, the Heavenly host proclaimed. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”
Suddenly my grandmother is alive, singing in her kitchen, and I am only four years old, stretching awake on the bed made for me of two easy chairs pushed together. A Christmas tree stands in the corner of the tiny living room. My mind’s eye sees her in the dark Montana morning wearing her egg-gathering jacket and hat, putting wood in the stove.
I used to have a lot more answers than I have now. It’s like that Bob Dylan song, “I was so much older than I’m younger than that now.” Or maybe it’s because NOW I know there is so much more to know than I will ever know even to ask questions about.
Today is the open house for the little art show at the museum, and I’m not going. I don’t want Covid again. That was — and continues to be — a real drag. I mean, just now, I put a rawhide stir stick into my coffee for Bear and then I put in another one as if only seconds before I hadn’t already done that. Every day I do what I can as therapy and healing for that and we’re getting somewhere, but if I’m tired, preoccupied, or emotional, all bets are off.
I remind me of my stepson when he was a little guy getting ready for school. It took him forever to put on two socks. He’d put on a sock, get distracted by something, study whatever had captured his attention then look for the sock he’d already put on. It drove his stepdad crazy, especially when Ben put the second sock on the same foot as the first sock.
We ask “Why?” a lot of times when it doesn’t really matter. I do and then I have to step back and think, “What do I really need to know here? Is it ‘why?’ or something else?” We look for motives often when we need to look for solutions, especially when something seems completely irrational.
A question can be very interesting but the answer totally anti-climactic. When I was in my 40s I looked much, much younger. It’s a genetic blessing from someone — I think my paternal grandma. My students would get very curious about how old I was, but thought it was rude to ask. The question would burn with some of them and I always said, “I’ll tell you, but the answer won’t be that interesting to you. Are you sure you want to know?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
I was right about that. The answer WASN’T very interesting, maybe, even, disappointing. “41.” “Oh.”
Other questions? Most recently the question someone didn’t even know to ask turned out to have a fascinating answer and that was Ultramarine Blue from Lapis Lazuli. A friend bought a painting for her mom and now her boyfriend doesn’t think they should give it away because of the ultramarine blue. I know he would get VERY interested in the history of that color, but so far no one has asked and while I CAN pontificate with the best of them especially about paint, I’m waiting until I’m asked.
I really loved teaching Critical Thinking, which I did for more than 20 years. I learned a LOT from that and maybe my students did, too (don’t know). Critical Thinking is basically “how to ask questions” and “what questions to ask.” One of the benefits of that was learning that there are just some questions that will always evade a clear answer. Human behavior falls — for me — in that category. Why? You might well ask. 😉
Yeah, I know this photo is out of focus, but I was just learning how to use the camera and how to hold it still. It’s a posed shot of my dad sitting at his desk in the den that he and I built in the basement of our house is Nebraska. It was just finished. The machine behind him is an enormous adding machine and next to that is one of my dad’s favorite possessions; a Trans-Oceanic radio. We used to try to tune in Russia because we thought it would be cool to listen to stuff we couldn’t understand. More often my dad listened to Juarez or Tijuana.
Anyway, my dad’s favorite things to wear (got that prompt again when I opened this) were t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. All seasons. Yep. OK, not usually outside, but…
SO for the Facebook group I joined that posts prompts to draw to, no not like a saloon where “That’s a pair to draw to” has a completely different meaning, but draw like in draw. The prompt was radio. I decided to use a medium I’m not good at or experienced with and that constantly frustrates me, that is, pastels. I bought a tablet of black drawing paper and I used the first piece. The radio itself is full of tiny details, and I knew with the pastels I wasn’t going to get them. Here’s my version. I’ve decided to keep the model in my studio.
SO my solitary Thanksgiving had its significant wins and irrelevant losses. The biggest loss was my can opener which broke and made pumpkin pie impossible. Oh oh poor me…
As holidays have a way of doing, it made me think of some PAST Thanksgivings. As a kid, my Thanksgivings almost always involved my family, and usually my Aunt Martha had Thanksgiving with us. Sometimes even a bigger family event. This was a Thanksgiving when I was a little kid — maybe 5 years old so 1957?. This is our house in Englewood, CO, and the people? My mom’s on the right facing, two of my aunts and my cousin, Linda. My best MEMORY of this Thanksgiving is seeing the Wizard of Oz on TV and the next day running up and down the street with my two boy cousins — David and Greg — the sons of my Aunt Jo, holding the dishtowel in this photo — running from a “tomato.” My cousin David didn’t get “tornado.” His smart and preternaturally sophisticated older brother, Greg, said we should be glad we weren’t running from a watermelon.
Of course the Thanksgiving after President Kennedy was shot was bizarre, but honestly, from my perspective as a sixth grader, the most bizarre element was we didn’t do anything but watch TV. It was unusual, even given those events, then the truth came out that my Aunt Martha had a big, bloody blister on her foot, and watching “history” was just a way of saving face. The grownups watched but none of them were in the room to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; only my brother was there to see it. Somehow they were mad at him because they missed it.
A reality of Thanksgiving is that after a few days together all the time we all got on each other’s nerves and wanted to get back to “normal” life.
The WORST Thanksgiving of my life was back in something like 1984? when the Good X and I decided to go to Ensenada. We got in our SAAB and headed south. Just south of Tijuana, the pin that turns the distributor broke and the car stopped. We sat beside the highway, wondering what we were going to do when some Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) a kind of roving Tourist Assistance organization of the government happened by.
Mi Español primitivo was very useful and pretty soon two talented mechanics had diagnosed the problem, taken the distributor apart, said, “See?” in Spanish to the Good X who nodded and to which I said, “¡Si!” They then looked along the side of the road for an appropriately sized nail which they cut to fit the hole where the pin would go. The reassembled the distributor and we were on our way to Ensenada.
Ensenada was great. We wandered around and had some rotisserie chicken then headed back toward home when it began to rain. Seriously rain. Torrents. Buckets. By the time we got back to Tijuana almost two hours later it was dark and still pouring rain. The rain had been even heavier there. The Tijuana River was prone to flooding AND it WAS flooding. The main road was in Zona Rio along the river. We were afraid the water was going to be too deep to drive in. We could hear the water splashing on the underside of the car. No way to know what debris was down there, either. Big rocks? Anything. We ran over something…
We made it across the border. Yay! Then, just across the border, the car overheated, steam rising from under the hood. The Good X opened the hood, jumped back, and all we could do was wait. There were no Green Angels in the US, either. After a while, the engine cooled. There was enough water left in the radiator, so we headed home to Hillcrest, the neighborhood where we lived in San Diego.
It was 10 pm. I cooked us a couple of hotdogs, we wrapped them in slices of bread, and called it good. They were turkey hotdogs anyway.
One wonderful Thanksgiving was in my little stone house in Descanso. I had learned by then that smoked turkey was not only tasty but fool proof. You didn’t have to “dress” it but you could cook the stuffing/dressing outside the bird. SO about 10 am I put the turkey in the oven for dinner at 2 (it still took a while to heat up). My friend Kris showed up and we headed to the Lagunas for a Thanksgiving hike. After a couple hours on the trail, enjoying the Jeffry Pines, the autumn cool and conversation we went back to my house and finished what we had to prepare. It was a potluck Thanksgiving and when people started appearing, so did the rest of the dinner — including sweet potato pie. All of my guests were intelligent and funny and happy to be there. After dinner, my friend Denis complained that I didn’t have cable TV so he could watch football and ended up telling stories to my friend David’s two kids and going to sleep on the sofa. The two little boys went to sleep on a corner in the living room and, true to their breeding, my two Siberian Huskies curled around them to protect them and keep them warm.
The ONLY downside to that Thanksgiving was after feeding some ten people, the dishes remained. It took two hours for Kris and I to clean up.
I’ve had some beautiful Thanksgivings since I returned to Colorado with my friends in Colorado Springs and my wonderful neighbors. Maybe the most important Thanksgiving was the one in which the good X and I discovered Mission Trails which opened the world to me in so many ways. It made a tradition out of hiking on Thanksgiving.
In 2012, my stepson and his wonderful wife came up to Descanso for Thanksgiving. Before dinner, we took a beautiful snowy hike on the Garnet Peak Trail.
Hiking is my personal Thanksgiving tradition, but I didn’t yesterday. The thing about traditions is that once in a while it’s good to break with them so they don’t become an excrescent obligation on the face of the calendar.
Featured photo: my mom and grandmother after Thanksgiving Dinner in Englewood, CO, 1958?
Yesterday the Christmas season kicked off in my little town with the Holiday Boutique. I don’t know the whole story behind it but I do know a little. Some sisters and cousins got together 17 years ago and decided to hold a holiday craft boutique. They set high standards and were very exclusive in who they invited to join the core group. One of the non-family members is my friend Elizabeth.
It opened at 4 pm. I was there at 4:15, and it was packed. People kept coming. The boutique is held at the Church of Christ, in the church hall, a smallish room for such a major event. The boutique is one of the lovely things about living in a small town.
I had two things in mind — first and foremost, Elizabeth’s hand knit socks. They are the best socks, especially for walking in winter. They’re lightweight and warm. Over this past year, Elizabeth has made — knit! — beautiful animals. I love them. She knits them and their little outfits. I want all of them, but that would be silly. My favorite is the little mouse in the middle. When Elizabeth showed her to me a few months ago, I didn’t want to let go. I hope they find good homes.
One thing I always buy at the boutique is chokecherry jelly. I stood in front of the display, mildly dismayed that all the jars were so large and, frankly, pricey. I contemplated whether I’d eat a whole pint of jelly in a year (the jury is out on that). A tall woman came up and I recognized her as the maker of jelly, a very excellent saleswoman, too. So…here is life here.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m looking at the chokecherry jelly. I love it. I buy it every year.”
“Ah. This might be the last time. My chokecherry picker went to God this year.” She had tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I know when they go to God they usually stay there.”
“I didn’t think I’d have chokecherries this year but someone showed up at my door with a bucket of chokecherries. ‘Here, Tia, for your jelly.'”
At that point I had tears in my eyes.
Until I started writing, I didn’t doubt the truth of her story. But now? I hate that. I want to be the completely gullible person I’ve always been. I don’t want skepticism to enter into my life at this late date. Wow. That was uncomfortable. BUT she talked me into another jar of jelly. Cherry.
People will tell you their entire life story just like that. I love it. It’s one of the great things about living here. But, chokecherries…
No one has asked me my chokecherry story, but I have one. These bushes grow wild all over America, different strains of the same basic plant. Here they are growing in the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego County.
One of the best moments I remember with my mom was over an Independence Day weekend in 1980 when I went up to Montana. She didn’t live there yet; she was visiting her sisters and staying with my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank. They had a “summer home,” a mobile home at Fort Smith which is at the north end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, known familiarly as Bighorn Reservoir. Along with a few mobile homes in this little community were Crow Indian tee-pees. The Crow have fishing rights on the Bighorn where the river goes into the reservoir, very prime fishing.
One afternoon mom, my aunt and I took off to pick chokecherries and buffalo berries along the river. We had so much fun. So, to me, chokecherry jelly is THAT afternoon. That evening, my mom’s attitude toward life and me went a little sideways (thanks alcohol) but even that turned out OK. Hearing the changed tone in my mom’s voice, my Aunt Jo, who was sitting on the deck with a cold drink, looking at the brilliant sky, called into the house. THAT is the featured photo, another relic from an old journal.
I guess I can eat a pint of chokecherry jelly in a year.
I’m going to write about this because it’s difficult. It’s personal, scary and painful, but on the off chance it has resonance for someone and might be helpful, I’ll go for it.
Carrot, who teaches philosophy and climbs, posted the above blog post on The Dihedral a day or so ago. It’s more than “worth reading” — it’s important reading, I think. Anyway, for me gaslighting is not a colloquialism or a pop-culture psychology term; it’s something people do to each other. Reading Carrot’s blog post while I’m in the middle of Erich Fromm’s discussion of the sado/masochistic personality and it’s link to authoritarianism? Ouch, yikes, runaway, runaway, but with this topic — for me — there is no where to go.
I had never heard the word “Gas Lighting” until after I ejected the Evil X from my house in no uncertain terms. “I hate you, I wish you were dead, get the fuck out of my house” was pretty much what I said, in fact, exactly what I said. Events that morning brought a revelation I’d had the day before into the dim light of my bathroom where he was (allegedly) repairing the flush mechanism of the toilet. But he wasn’t, really. He didn’t know how to do that, but he did know how to blame me for making it impossible for him because I wasn’t holding the flashlight properly. The evening before we had been driving home together from San Diego. I lived in the mountains; he lived with me. He suddenly said, “So, when are you getting ESPN?”
I wasn’t getting ESPN. I said, “I’m not.”
“You said you were.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Is it my fault you can’t remember what you say? So when are you getting it?”
He couldn’t get it. He didn’t have an income. A fuse was lit in my mind. We stopped at the drug store in the town nearest my house, about 18 miles away. He ran in for something. I very nearly drove away, leaving him there. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t, but I waited. Erich Fromm talks about our conscience as a kind of internal authoritarian ruler. There’s something to that, and I remember pangs of conscience that night. I thought it would be mean to drive off and leave him there. But that fuse was burning, and by the bathroom incident the next morning the bomb was ready to explode.
It took him four hours to realize I wasn’t kidding. He left. I drove into town to see my therapist. I knew I needed help formulating my next steps. She said she was proud of me. I was ashamed to have been caught — again. That’s when I understood that understanding something — in this case my vulnerability and where it came from — didn’t mean much in terms of taking action or preventing it from happening again. But I hoped…
I had learned from therapy (before I even met the Evil X) that taking care of my addict brother and “being there” for my addict mother had come with some good stuff and some bad stuff; the bad stuff being this. I had turned to therapy several years before when I realized I couldn’t help my brother, a realization that sent me into a suicidal spiral. I had given him a choice; get sober or don’t call me. I couldn’t take the emotional pain or the extra work — classes — I was doing to support him.
I am extremely vulnerable to this. My mom was a master gaslighter until the bitter (and it was bitter) end. Through her whole life she refused to give either my brother or I power of attorney so we could help her at the end of her life and yet she would always make a point of letting me know where I could find her will, the album she wanted played at her funeral, other related things. The inevitable (for my mom) moment came when she was in the hospital and not “sick unto death” but still not able to come home or take care of herself.
A day or so earlier I was helping her go to the bathroom. As I pulled up her diaper, she had her arms around my neck to stand. She said, “Are you going to stay home and take care of your mother?” The thought of that was absolutely terrifying, and I realized I’d rather die. I had a job teaching (something she said I was not qualified for) and a life. Staying home with her taking care of her? A world of pain opened up in front of me. I didn’t answer.
I was in the unenviable position of having to find her a place to go from the hospital, a nursing home. Well, that’s pretty awful, but possible. However, she had to sign herself in. The doctor couldn’t do it; her attorney couldn’t do it; she had not established me or any of her sisters as the Power of Attorney. I had to present the paper to my mom and hope…
She was ready. She signed the paper with a vicious flourish then said, “There, see? I always knew you’d be the one to lock me up.” That was just the ultimate — meaning last — of her bizarre attacks. She’d set it up, created a false reality and a plot line and cast me in it.
It’s a co-dependent thing, and that’s a term I didn’t believe in until I realized it described me. I was raised — groomed in the parlance of our time — to fill that niche for someone like the Evil X, my brother, some friends. “Your job, Martha Ann, is to make things work for someone so that someone doesn’t have make their own life work.” That’s what it boils down to. I’ve realized over the last few weeks I’m in another one, a friendship, allegedly, but not really. I’m not a friend in that relationship; I’m a utility. But that role is so familiar for me, so paradoxically comfortable, that it might take me a long time to realize I’m just a tool.
Gas-lighting is one kind of manipulation a person like my mom or the Evil X has in their toolkit to retain power over someone so they do not have to manage their own lives or take the consequences for their own choices. I would also add that these people might not be at all malicious, only desperate and deluded. That’s actually worse for the tool (aka me) than malice would be. The only way such a person feels “safe” is by immobilizing the tool. Some people do this with physical abuse, some with psychological abuse.
I can say with all the certainty in life, “No one ever saved anybody,” and I can know that to be true, but it won’t stop me from trying. Thanks to Carrot and Erich Fromm, I had a terrible night with no sleep. The truth boiled around in my mind all night as my consciousness searched for a strategy. Luckily, the person in question doesn’t live with me and all I really have to do is not speak to them on the phone.
I don’t think a person like me will ever be completely free from this bizarre idea of a normal friendship/relationship. I’ve had therapy and worked hard to rise above it, but I haven’t succeeded. I don’t like confrontation, I’m a people pleaser, I am not sure of my own value (apparently), I’m willing to sacrifice to help others — I expect to. But the line between help and enabling for someone like me is very fuzzy. It might be easier for some people to say, “I don’t like phone calls like this so either stop or I’m not answering any more,” but that thought didn’t even occur to me until last night — or 2 am this morning.
This is a person I’ve known for almost 30 years. The solution is so obvious and so simple. Don’t want a phone call like that? Don’t have it. The response to that was, as expected, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It’s really really hard. I’m not a victim of anything but myself which might be true of more of us than we are aware. I look on my struggle with this over the course of my life and see some wins and some losses. I think that’s how life goes. I think we might all have blind spots and this one is mine. I’m sorry for so much personal sharing, but… Well, I guess I’m doing it anyway.
Bleary-eyed and confused, woke up this morning and realized that — OH NO — what? Well, the bleary-eyed and confused part is right. Company coming today sometime and a trip to the store in the meantime and I don’t even know if I ordered anything edible! This post-Covid brain is easily taxed.
I’m going to remember 2019 as the Golden Age of Lost Innocence and Retained Brain.
Last evening, to our surprise, the wind came up and the clouds came over. By now you know what that presages. Four hot days in a row, one small escape, hardly right, is it? I looked at Bear, Bear looked at me. I went to the kitchen and closed to door, preventing her escape, and leashed her. Teddy had it all figured out, of course, as always. Assembled the appropriate fardels and we were out the door. Dusk fell a little early. Clouds and smoke from distant wildfires obscured the mountains, but the sky above was a kind of veiled blue. As we approached the Refuge, I saw the moon was rising golden behind the thin clouds.
“Wow,” I thought as any sane person would (breathe a sigh of relief) and pulled in, parked, and got the dogs out as fast as I could. I didn’t want to miss this. It was too great. And…
Mid-Autumn Festival. OK, it’s not until tomorrow, formally, but clouds and rain are forecast for Saturday evening. Carpe Noctem!
Our crepuscular walk wasn’t very long — 1/2 mile, but WOW. A black-crowned night heron in flight, more birdsong than I’ve heard in my life, an owl in the distance and this beautiful Moon as golden as the chamisa. My first Mid-Autumn Festival was in China, and I try to keep it somehow every year. It’s a celebration/remembrance of distant friends. 💛
Moonlight shining through the window Makes me wonder if there is frost on the ground I look up and see the moon Looking down I miss my hometown
The moon remained bright and visible, unclouded, until we turned around. It was as if the sky and valley said, “Here, Martha, something for you to think about.”
On the way home, Mohammed’s Radio played the song the valley gave me as I drove home from seeing an ortho in Salida a few years ago. It was before my most recent hip surgery. The doc was abysmal and meaningless, “One of your legs is shorter than the other! I can’t fix that!” was about all he had to say along with, “I can’t read your X-rays,” as if it were my fault that his computer system couldn’t open the DVD my doc sent up with me. Driving home, I felt so disheartened, a little frightened of hip surgery, and unsure about everything. It is a song I never liked, but as I dropped down from the top of Poncha Pass into the Valley, it was as if I’d never heard it before.
When I heard that song that day, I understood something about this place where I came to live 8 years ago (September 20, 2014). It wasn’t only that I felt I belonged here; the valley thought so, too. The valley is like a person to me, maybe it’s my family, too, along with Bear and Teddy.
Last night the salient lines were:
“When evening falls so hard I will comfort you I’ll take your part When darkness comes…”
It’s been a tough summer, but what a wonder I got from that short and beautiful evening walk. Thank you, Heaven.
Once upon a time, long long ago, I lived in San Diego, not all that far (compared to now!) from the ocean. I was also a part-time (very part-time) mom, and, in summer I had the “task” of taking the kids to the beach. The deal was they came to school with me, payment for which was a Happy Meal, and after school we packed the cooler and chairs and headed to La Jolla Shores. Sometimes their dad would get off early and come with us; other times he met us there. It was a perfect beach for that because it had a large grassy area for throwing a frisbee, concrete picnic tables where we could set our Hibachi, nice showers so we could shower when we came out of the water and go home clean. (A LOT easier on me than making them take a shower at home.) We body-surfed or whatever they were up to at whatever stage of their lives.
There is a kelp forest down there and we thought it was hilarious to yell “Kelp! Kelp!” But now I don’t think it’s all that funny. Kind of funny, but not very funny.
For a couple of years my niece joined the summer “custody” thing, and I’d tow around three kids and buy three Happy Meals. The oldest of the two boys, and I didn’t get along very well — I’m not sure it was me; I think he resented his dad leaving his mom, but because I was there I got the flak. When he was old enough, he stopped coming in summers. Then I had a little girl and Ben, the younger of the Good X’s sons. It was good because it meant the beach drill lasted a little longer.
I thought about all this the other night and it seemed like it was a dream, reasonably because it wasn’t many years and within those years, not many weeks. My thoughts about it were combined with a beautiful memory of a moment. When the Good X and I split up, the younger son — then 15 or 16 — came to visit me. We were hiking at Mission Trails together. He’s a brilliant, gentle, unique, imaginative, intense, sweet, shy… In reality, there are no adjectives for Ben. Ben is and always has been and always will be Ben. He is truly not like anyone else.
“Martha, I just want to know one thing.”
“OK, Ben. Anything.”
“Because you and my dad are splitting up doesn’t mean we have to split up, does it?”
Ben is nearly 50??? How?? Oh, wait…
We’ve experienced so much together — as a “family” of four and as two grown up friends. He now has a great wife and two beautiful kids. Getting there was a long and interesting journey for him — a story that’s not mine to tell, but I can tell this. When he and his wife were heading from California to their new home in the midwest, they stopped to have lunch with me at the little cafe in Descanso CA. We ate, talked about plans, finished our meal and knew we were about to say good-bye. He and his wife are both well over six feet tall. I barely clear 5. Sandi hugged me and got in the car to give us a moment. Ben and I stood looking at each other. Then he bent down and put his arms around me. “I love you, Martha.”
“I love you too, Ben.”
Knowing we might not see each other again, we had to say it. ❤️
My mom and her family grew up on a farm that anyone would say, “Now that’s poverty.” It was, even for there. But it was also the 1920s and 30s on the high plains of Montana, and I don’t think a lot of rural people were doing a lot “better.” Maybe it didn’t help that my grandma’s view of birth control was denying little people their chance to live. She had a very vivid image to describe this, too. Little hands reaching out toward the light. So, ten kids, a husband who was (by all accounts) pretty eccentric, and a wife who struggled to recover from the loss of her little boy. I think they did great and their greatest achievement was 9 healthy, pretty happy, adult children.
My grandfather had a third grade education — pretty normal for farm kids (Iowa) born in 1870. Back then they squeezed a LOT into those three years of school and his third grade arithmetic book has triangulation as part of the curriculum. Well, you gotta’ measure hay stacks, right? The man read everything; his favorite writer was Thomas Carlyle. Try giving THAT to a third grader today or YOU read it (yikes!).
Two of his daughters had college educations. My mom and my Aunt Pat. My Aunt Dickie went to nurses school and my Aunt Martha went to business college. How did they pay? Well, my mom worked as a domestic servant. Back then, teachers went to school one year then taught on year, went back to school another year, then taught — it was an 8 year deal. I don’t know what my Aunt Pat, presumably the same. When my mom went to work at the lady’s house, my granddad used his savings to buy her a cookbook with fancy recipes so she could cook that for the lady and thereby not “disgrace the family” with the kind of very plain cooking she grew up with. I had that cookbook for a long time and it had such elegant items as petits fours. My Aunt Martha worked at a jewelry store to support her school which was two years. After that, she went to Washington DC and worked for the OSS. My Aunt Pat taught on Indian reservations because her husband was an Indian Agent. My Aunt Dickie was a nurse during WW II.
My mom persuaded my dad to finish college. He didn’t want to. He wanted to work for his dad’s construction company, but education meant a lot to my mom and my dad was truly a genius. For my mom and her entire family an education was the greatest thing a person could have.
I grew up believing that and I never thought of pursuing anything else. I started as an art major, but my mom, who held the spare cash purse strings, put the kibosh on that. Journalism. OK. Well, that didn’t happen but English was a compromise. I did like to read… English wasn’t going to lead me to a profession except teaching (my mom still hoped I’d become a journalist and never accepted that I was really a teacher). And, by the time I entered the field, colleges and universities had realized what a good deal it was to hire a stable of adjunct faculty rather than hiring tenured teachers. We saved them money. When the show was over, I ended up very proud of being able to teach well enough to keep working for 38 years and have enough to retire on. Believe me; that’s an achievement. Most of all, I was a good teacher; I was better than good. I was a great teacher. People lined up for my classes and waited out semesters until my classes had spots.
I was also a student. Some of my professors were assholes — there was the guy who told the class if we were a woman or a Jew we wouldn’t pass. I walked out. I failed, but whatever. I could’ve dropped but I forgot. There was the guy who ridiculed one of my papers in front of the whole class. I told him to get fucked and walked out. It was too late to drop so I had to make up that F in summer school. What a blessing! I got a professor who not only loved teaching, but loved Yeats, and had the most wonderful way to teach critical writing. I had no thought of becoming a teacher, but now I know that every class I took was teacher training.
Working at the college and university level was absolutely totally wonderful. When I started at San Diego State in the fall of 1999, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. When I became a contract lecturer, it was a dream come true. Attending professional conferences and sometimes presenting was a wonderful perk — not a duty or obligation, it was my chance to write what I wanted and share it with my peers. No one paid for me to go, though one of the colleges at San Diego State for whom I taught required I go.
The other day I had occasion to look up one of my former professors and to my immense surprise (and later, pride) I saw that my CV has more publications and years in the classroom than does his, though he’s an emeritus professor who was tenured. What that said to me is, “Martha, you’re the shit. You loved what you did.”
I did. I believe in higher education. I taught too many people who were like my mom or my aunts, young people and sometimes not so young from poor backgrounds for whom it was everything to have this chance.
One story stands out more than any. When I was a volunteer teacher in Denver for the Adult Education Tutorial Program — I was in grad school, 24 years old — I taught two nights a week preparing single students for the GRE. One of my students was a Puerto Rican woman about 45. She’d raised her sons and one of them was putting his mother through community college — her dream. She’d supported them through their school working as a cleaning lady in offices in downtown Denver. I was tutoring literature so they could pass that section. I had to teach them how to read poetry. OK, poetry scares people because they think they won’t understand it, so my job was to break that barrier. I knew the woman by the time we got to poetry. I took one of Langston Hughes’ beautiful poems and brought it to class. Here it is:
Mother to Son Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor— Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, And reachin’ landin’s, And turnin’ corners, And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light. So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now— For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
She read it and looked up at me with tears in her eyes and held the paper to her heart. “That’s my life,” she said, “this man wrote my life.”
And THAT is something I could not have experienced — or shared — without the Ivory Tower.
My business students used to ask me, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” I answered, “You’re going to dinner parties. Do you want to be a crushing bore who can’t talk about anything but cost accounting or software design? Or do you want to know a little something about human culture so you can talk to your boss’ wife who happens to be a journalist or a teacher or a diplomat?” Usually that was persuasive.
My education was pretty expensive. I earned a scholarship to Colorado Woman’s College based on my high school performance, but that was only two years. For the rest? My dad had to be disabled and then die for me finish (GI Bill) I earned a “free-ride” (tuition paid) to graduate school because I already knew what my thesis would be about, but I had to perform to keep it. Was I lucky? None of this was luck. And I worked — I worked through undergraduate school and through graduate school and ever after.
If a person really wants it, they can find a way to get an education, but, sadly, we live in a society that has diminished the value of intellectual curiosity and that’s not right. Am I privileged? I think so, but not in my having gotten a good education, but in my family and its values.
I think of my grandfather who went after it every day of his life and wrote the best short story I’ve ever read. I have a couple of his books, Les Miserables and Thomas Carlyle’s book about heroes. Every Christmas he read Snowbound to his family. Throughout the year, he read. All of my aunts knew many long, long, poems by heart. What a gift he gave them! Better than being a prosperous farmer, in its way. My grandfather’s books — cheap editions, coverless, worn, brown and broken are as ivory tower as they come. In reality, no one needs a professor to teach them, but having one — having access to thousands of years of human thought and discovery — is a freeway to knowledge.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had bad experiences in school. I did. You probably did, too, but that’s learning. It’s a pretty safe place to learn that out there in what is alleged to be ‘the real world’ there are all kinds and throughout our lives — students or not — we have to deal with that. Some of my students were real assholes. Some were scary. One of them pushed me against the wall and tried to choke me (he’d gotten a B and was angry about it; he also had PTSD from Iraq). Another told me to get fucked but he had to come back and apologize — and he did. Another student was so dangerous that I had to go to class with a security guy. She’d been in a car accident and her brain had been damaged; treatment, counseling, medication — wonderful woman, a pleasure to teach and to know. A couple of these scary people grew up to be…teachers. One of them because I inspired him by standing up to his nastiness and teaching him anyway. All the people in the Ivory Tower are human beings. I have a wonderful life now, but I’m one of the lucky people who can look back and say, “Well, sometimes it was hard, and sometimes it sucked, but at least I got to earn my living doing something I loved and believed in.”
I thank my family for that. My last remaining aunt — Aunt Dickie — wrote, “I’m so proud of you and what you’ve achieved.” ❤️
The featured photo is my mom’s brothers and sisters (and her) in front of the family home, probably 1923 or 1924. Two of the girls got a college education. One of them went to work for the OSS during WW II. My mom and Aunt Martha are the two little kids sitting on stools in the front row.