Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.  -Thomas Hornsby Ferril 

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the injections, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, too, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing comes most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall – every Easter and Thankgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom – posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father, across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old. 

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings – boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time – I have always been quiet by nature. Since I couldn’t run in P.E., because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers, I spent more and more time reading and writing. 

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir – the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing – here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward. 

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that – a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my “space” again. I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family. 

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. I found my way through with words and pages. Decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom. 

I remain today, whole and strong, and grateful, because of it. 

Every word, every decision, every moment – wisdom matters. 

If tomorrow is to be. 

Of candy, ice, & equity

Candy throwing

The throwing candy tradition. Lars PloughmannCC BY-SA

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Reading these lines for the first time as a college student, I smiled in recognition of Shakespeare’s schoolboy. In less than twenty words, The Bard encapsulated the drudgery of the school experience and the subsequent aversion of countless children since the dawn of education itself. I thought of my young self’s occasional feigned stomachaches and the heaviness of my own feet on the pavement en route to school. I doubt I had a “shining morning face” – especially since my mother sometimes grabbed a used dishcloth to wipe it while I recoiled from the sourness.

As an educator living over four centuries after Shakespeare nailed this image, I sigh. Two thoughts weigh in my mind: Why school is still drudgery for so many, and how the rich get richer.

In Shakespeare’s time, of course, only the boys of wealthy families went to school; girls in these families were tutored at home. If parents had money, their kids got the education, the wealth of knowledge, to be the next leaders and shapers of society. While all children in America today have access to education, they aren’t all at the same place when they begin school. We know this. I heard it said best at at a district Title I meeting years ago by the keynote speaker, an esteemed professor from a nearby university: “The problem is systemic. Systems are designed as if all children are standing on the same starting line” – he showed a slide bearing a line with little dots along it, even a few ahead of it – “when the truth is that many are starting from far behind.” He clicked, and little dots appeared at varying distances below the “starting line.” Many alarmingly below.

I looked at those dots below that line. I knew some of those children, how terribly much ground they had to cover just to be at the beginning place, while their classmates surged onward, clearing bars being raised ever higher. I knew the truth of the professor’s words. I nodded as he went on to challenge curriculum and practices, admiring his boldness. Although he didn’t name it, he was essentially pointing out the Matthew Effect in reading – those who had already acquired foundational literacy skills versus those who hadn’t, that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” Thereby hangs the achievement gap, that bane of many a teacher’s, school’s, and district’s existence.

It’s like a homecoming parade. Everyone turns out to cheer for the football team as the marching band sets the pace, followed by fire trucks blaring loud enough to wake the dead (side note – recall that chilling scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus?).  At my sons’ high school parades, I stood, hands shielding my ears, as people on the floats tossed handfuls of candy to the children lining the roadside. I watched the children who were closest, the ones who were strongest or most agile, scramble out to grab the candy as it fell. The ones farther back couldn’t get there in time. Over and over the scene repeated, unless a parent or a larger sibling got out there with the kids who couldn’t reach the candy. 

The parade rolls on, the beat keeps going, there are smiles and celebrations all around, but all things are not really equitable.

The chidren creep unwillingly to school often because access to the learning is not designed for them, in the ways that they learn, but for their stronger, more agile classmates. Or because it’s boring. Or because the teacher, with a sense of desperation borne of increasing expectations and evaluations, is tossing the lessons, the standards, in a catch-as-catch-can attempt. Some kids get it, some don’t. What about the child who’s already had plenty of this “candy” and is ready for something more? 

Drudgery, indeed – for everyone. To the point that teachers might creep unwillingly to school. Or leave the profession.

In recalling the professor’s words about “systemic issues”: Systemic change is slow. Glacial, I once heard it described, implying millimeters at a time. Agonizingly slow. But the truth is that glaciers actually flow – they mold themselves to the land and even shape the land, reforming it, as they go. 

Where does the momentum begin?

On the first day of my college math education course, the instructor eyed me carefully.

“You look scared to be here,” she observed.

“Math’s never been my thing,” I replied, with an attempted smile. Deep in my memory lay the words of my geometry teacher, who had attended the high school play in which I performed a lively comic relief role: I didn’t think you had it in you. My performance in her class had been poor; I couldn’t “catch the candy” and eventually transferred out before I flunked it.

My instructor pursed her lips. I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye.

She ended up pulling me into a group to present on the course and the college at a local event – we had shirts made with the words “Cutie Pi.”

The teacher – to this day, one of my favorites – turned my dread of the content into an experience, into something unexpectedly fun. She acknowledged and eliminated my barriers. Met me where I was and propelled me forward. 

One of her greatest statements: “The parents of the kids you’ll teach are not hiding their best kids at home. They’re sending you the best that they have.”

They don’t all start at the same place, nor will they all achieve at the same rate, but they can and will achieve. Systems compare students to one another; teachers must see each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Systems do not move children; teachers do.  Teachers, not the curriculum, are the architects and engineers of student learning, creatively building bridges between the child and the standards, finding the entry points and scaffolding.  Bit by precious bit, the ponderous glacier keeps moving because teachers are the gravity, the one absolute, magnetic force, whenever they make the sweet stuff – the love of learning, the desire for it – the real goal, with every child getting a true taste of it. 

 

I loved you at your darkest

At your darkest

August. Days of sweltering, snaky heat. Yet he donned a black tuxedo with a black-and-silver striped ascot and got to the church on time. 

In a back room, her bouquet of pink roses dripped on the front of her white gown, creating panic amongst the bridesmaids, but it didn’t stain. 

The morning’s thunderstorm cleared and the sun was shining for all it was worth when the ceremony began at 1:00. 

At 1:10 the preacher pronounced them husband and wife.

When they left the church hand-in-hand, the summer day was blinding – they shielded their eyes and made a run for it.

We’ve been running ever since, really.

For over three decades now. (I was a child bride. Well, sorta.)

As we mark another anniversary this week, I consider one of my favorite gifts from him, a bracelet he bought a couple of summers ago. We were at the beach for a few days, trying to get away from the daily demands, the stresses and strains – a lot was going on in life at the time. We went into a shop, and I saw it –  a band with a metal plate reading I loved you at your darkest.

It pierced my heart, those words. The incredible forgiving, trusting, reliable power of them. The surety.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

I nodded, for I didn’t trust my voice at the moment.

And so he bought it. I wore it out into the brilliant August afternoon, holding tight to his hand.

We’ve come through many darknesses – losses of people we loved, various setbacks, our own inner dark sides. Seeing each other at our worst.

But we’ve also seen the best in each other.

Growing older means acknowledging that there are darknesses yet to come – watching his mother’s decline with dementia is a daily reminder. We will not always be as we were, as we are now. Our summer is brief.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, wrote Robert Browning.

It’s the togetherness, the commitment, the laughter at silly stuff, the embrace in the hardest moments, that drive the darkness away. The sacrifices. The faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, and with it, hope. Abiding gratitude for every day.

It’s never the darkness that we carry with us anyway. It’s the knowledge that we walked through it together, to come out on the other side. Our minds, our hearts hold to what is good, what is bright. It propels us onward. Makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Especially when the journey almost wasn’t.

On the evening of our first date, I called to tell him I couldn’t go. I had a raging fever; I was being admitted to the hospital for tests.

“I am sorry,” I said into the phone, tears stinging my eyes. “Please don’t give up on me.”

“I won’t ever give up on you,” said his voice, strong and sure.

He never has.

I loved you at your darkest.

I did, I do, I always will.

Thank you.

 

The inner reaches


It’s the stuff of dreams, a trip around the world. From the frenetic cities and marketplaces throbbing with conversations in myriad languages to snow-capped mountains where there need be no words at all. From mysterious man-made structures and their lost meanings to the astonishing buildings of recent eras – mankind has always been a prolific builder of things. From ice palaces to tropical islands,  from the platypus to the father emperor penguin incubating the egg he fertilized – the wonders are endless.

How, then, is there more to see in a walk on the beach?

The wonders are truly no less. The ocean speaks not with words but with overtones of infinity, encompassing all of time. All that was, all that will be.  Continuity. It has always been here. The sun rises and sets as it has always done, painting the sky and waves with its fire. On a clear night at the beach, the moon and stars are silver sentinels of  vast outer reaches beyond the human grasp. Order; everything in its place. Reliability. The seafarers of old navigated by the stars.

Salt air, salt water – the beach is a place of healing. Body, heart, mind and spirit.

It is hard to stay worried at the beach – I have tried. Whatever is knotted in the heart or tangled in mind is slowly unraveled here. Peace, often so elusive, abounds with the splashing of waves on the shore; the breeze caresses, comforts, clears away. Restores.

The outer reaches of the world, the little pieces of the universe that we can see, impact us from the outside in. Wonder, awe, inspiration, curiosity.

The beach invites us to work from the inside out. To think. To contemplate ourselves, our place, our paths. Our existence. To know the inner reaches of our own minds, our own hearts.

The inner reaches are as vast as the outer.

Maybe more so.

​​​

​ 

Cactus malpractice

Cactus

Kelly’s cactus. GinnyCC BY-SA

I want a puppy, but his answer is always “NO.”

Tweety, my yellow parakeet, has died after six years of squawking, escaping his cage, and flinging seed hulls everywhere.

“No more birds, either,” says my father, in a tone that I dare not challenge.

I am bereft. I want something to take care of. Some small living thing that belongs to me.

I’m getting too old to catch caterpillars (the forest tent caterpillars, to be exact, which have amazing, detailed patterns with brilliant blue stripes and are not very hairy) and keep them in used margarine containers until they turn into little brown moths. Far too old to catch toads after school and bring them home in my metal Charlie Brown lunch box, which I was quickly forbidden to do.

I sigh. 

On a trip to Woolco, something catches my eye. It’s enchantingly tiny and it won’t make a mess or escape in the house.

So I ask: “Daddy, can I have a cactus?”

He looks at me oddly, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not I am being a smart aleck.

“Sure,” he says. 

The cactus costs 89 cents, the same as a 45 rpm record. It’s spherical, about the circumference of a quarter, about the height of a quarter standing on its edge. 

“Isn’t it the cutest thing?” I ask my Dad.

He raises his eyebrows. “Well, it’s certainly easy to take care of.”

For a couple of week, the cactus sits on my dresser, until I start worrying that it’s not growing. I know cacti don’t need a lot of water – maybe it needs more light, more heat. Cacti grow in the desert, after all.

Hmmm. How can I help it?

I know! The mirror in the bathroom is in a large frame. I can climb on the sink and put the cactus on the top of it, right up there under the light. 

Sure enough, it fits perfectly, just inches away from the bulb.

After a few days, I climb up and check on my cactus. It’s grown taller! I give it a few drops of water and return it to its makeshift sun.

And then I forget about it for weeks.

When I finally remembered the cactus and scrambled back on top of the sink to retrieve it, I found only a little brown crisp in the tiny pot.

Burnt slam up, as my grandfather might say.

I stood there gazing at the destruction in my hands, feeling a pang of horror mixed with shame – Am I the only person, ever, to kill a cactus? 

I meant well. I wanted the cactus to grow, to thrive, to have what it needed.

I just failed to check on it more than once to see if my plan worked, or to determine if it was even a good plan in the first place.

And the cactus couldn’t say Hey, this is too much light and heat, not enough water – I do still need that, you know. 

It just quietly withered away.

The word that comes to mind is mindfulness.

A mighty and crucial thing, indeed.

***

Note: There were hermit crabs and, yes, puppies in my near future. 

They fared far better.

Lit happens

Lit happens

I saw the T-shirt on display behind the register of my local indie bookstore, as I succumbed, yet again, to rampant bibliophilia.

Lit happens. 

Had to have it.

Oh yes, there was one in my size, in blue. The store owner smiled as she added it to my total. “I can order it in red for you, too. I tell people the color stands for being well-read.”

Irresistible.

As I returned to the store to pick up the red Lit happens T-shirt, I thought about literary people being well-read. Bibliophiles. Bookworms. I thought about the shirt my aunt made for me decades ago, with iron-on letters spelling Bookworm: “Because you always have your nose in a book,” she’d grinned.

I turned the the idea of lit happens around in my mind, from being well-read to learning how to read: Literacy happens.

How?

How does literacy really happen?

Research immediately tried to crowd my head, for a big part of my bibliophilia is professional. My shelves at school and at home are lined, overflowing, in fact, with books on growing readers and writers – how to teach, assess, reinforce. Every bit of it is powerful.

But I pushed the research back for a little breathing room, to think about my own path to literacy. How did I become literate?

It’s anything but strategic or elaborate.

Sure, my grandmother read to me from the time I can remember – the same books, over and over, until I could anticipate and recite the words before she read them aloud. I didn’t ever think of my parents as readers – they were big TV watchers – but I do have a memory of my mother reading “Sleeping Beauty” aloud to me, deliberately changing the name to “Beeping Sleauty.”

“No no no!” I am laughing hard. “Her name is SLEEPING BEAUTY.”

“Oh, that’s right,” says my mother, turning the page. “Let’s see if the prince uses his sword to cut through the thorns to find Beeping Sleauty.”

The sound of the transposed name is hilarious; I dissolve with laughter. My mother begins giggling, which means we will be laughing for a while – her cackling is utterly infectious.

It was wordplay, not word work – not intentional, just being silly.

So much fun.

My parents had one bookshelf in the living room, containing a set of encyclopedias, (including, oddly, medical encyclopedias, maybe thrown in with the purchase of the standard set), old dictionaries, high school yearbooks, an avocado green Living Bible, and a set of children’s literature anthologies, Through Golden Windows, by Grolier. The book titles: Mostly Magic, Fun and Fantasy, Wonderful Things Happen, Adventures Here and There, Good Times Together, Children Everywhere, Stories of Early America, American Backgrounds, Wide, Wonderful World, Man and His World. 

These anthologies contained a multitude of classic stories and authors; I read some of them over and over while eating my breakfast cereal until the covers were grimy with use, particularly Mostly Magic. In these books I first encountered Medio Pollito, the little half-chick, Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes, Tom Sawyer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Daniel Boone, Robin Hood, and so much more.

An excerpt from the dedication page of Through Golden Windows:

What can books give to a child that is growing up in today’s curiously complicated world? Many things, we believe, although the evidence is not altogether conclusive. Facts and information, of course, about almost everything; understanding of himself and others; confidence and security; fun and laughter; friends and friendships; escape from reality at times – all these are the possible results if the right book is used with the right child in the right way.

But suppose the right book is not available? … Or suppose parents and teachers do not know the right book? Many, by their own admission, do not know children’s books well. Must the child’s values in reading be left to chance, while he struggles with everyday problems, or grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book?

That was written in the “curiously complicated world” of 1958. Well before I was born. Thirty years before the World Wide Web. Before much of the educational research lining my shelves was begun.

What strikes me are the words “grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book.”

That, I believe, is where the path to literacy lies, in getting that first taste of rapture from a book. The right book mentioned by the Grolier editor in 1958 isn’t a “just-right” book referenced in reading education today, one that is leveled, that a child can read without too much difficulty. The right book could actually be a magazine or blog or site. The right book always was, and always will be, one in which the reader immerses so that the word “reading” doesn’t even seem to fit the process of pursuit, the wanting more, the needing to know, the absorption of the ideas and images, the stepping out of self.

Note that I didn’t mention school in my early path to literacy – for the bulk of the literate life occurs outside of school. Many of my friends and teaching colleagues say that they didn’t enjoy reading until they were grown. That’s an awfully long wait for the full rapture.

When the words become more than words, when they become the window, the gateway, to all that lies beyond what one can immediately see, arousing a driving desire to get through and drink it all in – that’s the rapture.

Lit happening.

Through Golden Windows

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.

Desperately.

In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.

Mystical morning

Ocracoke surprise

The island dawn is one of nebulous grayness, the sun an oblique white disc shrouded in veils of clouds. Painted from a palette of pearl, silver, and slate, the sand, the sea, the sky are starkly monochromatic, like an old black-and-white-movie. The temperature is indeterminate, neither hot nor cold. The morning is not uninviting nor inviting; it simply is.

As I make my way past softly rolling dunes of long grass shivering and undulating in the wind, I think only of the ocean, the opportunity to savor its splendor in relative isolation, away from commercialism. I expect to see a die-hard beachcomber or two; surely this a shell-collector’s paradise.

I do not expect the tree.

There it is, up ahead in the sand, directly in front of the path where dunes give way to the shore, with the shimmering, empty Atlantic for a backdrop.

How curious. I’ve not seen a tree smack in the middle of a beach before.

Are there others? I scan the shoreline, as far as I can see, on the left and the right.

No.

This is the only tree.

Did it grow here, somehow? I investigate. I suspect not, as the sand is built up around the tree’s base, although I can’t discern human handprints. Or footprints. I don’t even know what kind of tree this is, although I saw numerous others like it lying in the Pamlico Sound on the Hatteras side of the ferry ride to Ocracoke. I should have asked the crew what kind of trees these are and why they lie so far out in the water. 

Driftwood, then. 

It stands here on the vacant beach with its thin, snaky branches twisting skyward. Shells dangle from some of the vine-like tips, reminiscent of castanets on fingers. Or earrings.

I am enchanted. I’ve a sense of standing in no-man’s land, except that someone has clearly been here. Maybe someones, plural. Mystery people were inspired to plant this bit of driftwood and to decorate it with what was near at hand. 

The tree is dead. Shells, for all their intricate beauty, are but skeletons. I marvel at the human heart, its great desire for creativity and play. At the ability of the inner artist to see that random pieces of things no longer living, broken things, can come together in such an unexpected way. Whimsy in the wind. The beach tree stands as a mystical reminder that all is not lost, that all has value, that there’s beauty beyond the brokenness if we are willing to rearrange the pieces. The extraordinary lies not beyond the ordinary, but within it. Not beyond us, but within us, within our very grasp, if we just reach.

The ocean sparkles despite the obscured sun, like the twinkling of an eye when someone’s just about to smile.

Ocracoke morning

Note: The title is a deliberate play on that of a previous post about my son’s trip to Iceland – both attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mythical morn.

slice-of-life_individual

The last stop

 

Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.

 

Soul-ache

Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

I recently learned of the UK’s Empathy Museum, which began in 2015. Their mission: To help us look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk in their shoes.

Literally.

Part of the exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” is an actual collection of shoes worn by a Syrian refugee, a war veteran, a neurosurgeon, and many others. A person can don the shoes and walk in them while listening to a recording of the original shoe-owner’s story.

Another project of the Museum is the Human Library – instead of checking out a book, you can borrow a human for a conversation. “A Living Book,” says the site.

The keys to empathy are story and dialogue. Experiencing what others have experienced.

The Museum was founded by – can you guess? – a writer.

A thousand things flood my mind as I read about the Museum. Although I know it well, the power of story to impact and transform the mind and the heart is driven home again, anew. To live for a moment inside of others, to see through their eyes, to feel the stab of their pain, their fear, their sorrow, their longing, their joy (for joy, too, is a stab; read C.S. Lewis and William Wordsworth) is to bleed away part of ourselves on their behalf. Empathy is a simultaneous forgetting and remembering of our own soul-aches, while standing in someone else’s shoes.

Shoes remain, as stories remain. People do not. I have long been haunted by the image of shoes lying around the wrecked stern of Titanic when it was discovered. Author Charles Pellegrino writes that it took months for scientists to realize that these pairs of shoes, still intact after seventy-three years on the ocean floor, were uniformly spaced about eighteen inches apart, with shoelaces still tied. There’s no other trace of the people at all – not even teeth. Only the shoes remain to mark where the bodies came to rest. Scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how leather and shoelaces endure when no other clothing or skeletal remains are to be found, yet the shoes are there, the final witnesses, the last word in the story of their wearers. (And one more secret of the utterly mysterious ocean).

It is also worth noting how the hardcore scientists, successful in their famous mission to find her, wept over the Titanic.

Empathy.

Soul-ache.

For the suffering of others.

It’s also important to note that the word origin of empathy is rooted in passion as well as in suffering, hence the photo at the top of this post. The little girl runs to hug the stuffed bear in a burst of feeling, then runs away too quickly for the camera. Her image is blurred, ghost-like; a reminder that life is fleeting. She will not be a child for long. She may or may not ever be in this place again to see this bear, but in this moment, she is spurred to action.

That’s what empathy does – the short walk in someone else’s shoes strikes our souls so that we come away changed, wanting to make changes. We are all islands in a common sea, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, twenty years after the kidnapping and murder of her baby boy. The common sea – the human experience, with all of its sufferings, its horrors, its joys, its beauty. See – really see – the people around you. Hear them. Feel their soul-aches, even as you feel your own. That’s empathy. Read it, write it, speak it – and by all means, teach it. A little soul-ache goes a long way in making the world more livable.

For all of us.

Note: The idea of soul-ache came to me while reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”