issue #19

Searching, Searching, Searching,

Searching, Searching, Searching,

It happened again. Out of the blue, I heard from a friend who had been gone from my life for decades. Pam and I lived in the same neighborhood from the third grade through high school, and had been friends for most of that time. She and I attended the local Catholic church and requisite catechism classes, so we were stitched together more tightly than other, looser ties of childhood bind. The neighborhood passel of grade school kids we ran with grew into the girl gang of junior and senior high, and our relationship waxed and waned in all the usual ways for all the usual reasons as we became, in fits and starts, who we are. Late in high school – junior year, I think – we drifted apart (for good, I would have said a month ago), as our classes and interests and cliques changed. I was seriously BORED of EDUCATION, and determined to graduate early in my senior year, and work and study Downtown (as Chicago was always referred to. Here we say The City, to mean New York) until I left for college in that following fall. My family moved to another town then too, and my brothers changed schools, so everyday, informal, neighborly chances also fell away. When I left home I never looked back, molting out of childhood, shedding my whole skin, a butterfly  wanting to soar. I shared pieces and tidbits of my youth with Bruce, naturally, as our life grew together. But really, I never gave a thought to my childhood life and friends as anything other than memories. As anything other than a spring-trap, a morass, an un-windowed basement I had escaped.

A few months ago, Bruce had a similar experience – he heard from a childhood friend who found him on his company website. A pleasant surprise, but also unexpected, and also curious. While Bruce has deep attachments to West Virginia where he grew up, they are bonds to and of place, rather than people. He took me back to Holden once, and showed me all around the hollow (and drove fast on winding mountain roads!), but knocked on not one door. Over the years he has given more thought to his old friends than I mine, but even so, only in passing, uncompelled to weight his memories with present-ness.

Neither experience is the first for either of us. We have both heard from a handful of people in the past few years, and responded politely, but with no urgency or emotion or need. In fact we disregarded the reach-outs as odd, and – as harsh as it sounds – irrelevant. But now the accumulation is too much, I see a pattern, and I am a little undone by it all. I am asking everyone I talk to deeply, “Why?”

Why does anyone search for people from their past? And why now, at this point in life? What drives it? It appears developmental in its repetition, multiplicity. Don’t misunderstand – I am happy for the most recent occurrences. In both cases, it has been a rich and joyful experience to re-connect. Pam and I have been writing to each other, long and frequent letters about the past and present. Bruce and his old friend met recently during a convenient business trip, and found much in common, still, and reasons to stay in touch. I’m sure they will. But I am puzzled by it all. Because, I am not looking for anyone. What is the need?

Where I had gotten to about it all was an acknowledgement of a necessary, later stage of life: one of reflection, of coming to terms, of gaining perspective, of seeing the whole in context, where the past bears on the present. We have just encountered old friends in the act, becoming aware something we have come to know a little sooner. We are/were simply a part of their process towards an old-soul resolution of life and mortality and the finite.

I reencountered a Spanish idiom (while binge-watching a Netflix series, set in Mexico) that secured me in my understanding: El tiempo replace todos. I would translate this for you loosely as “time replaces everybody”, but here I’ll go deeper, because not doing so means something important is indeed lost in translation. Todos is plural in Spanish, to mean all people – as in a crowd. Whereas the words everybody, or everyone (an even less appropriate choice), denote individuals, even if collectively. The plural carries the meaning of the idiom better, as it conjures multitudes and process: time as a river, streaming, eddy-ing here and there, but continual, the flow of people riding its currents, endlessly moving on. I have always accepted the loss of people and friends and memories and meanings as a part of life. I have never expected anyone – not even family – to stay with me, forever. Except for Bruce.

And yet … Have I had I as good a friend as Pam in all the years since? I wonder. I am elated and hopeful at our reconnection, and curious to see if we can/have put our feet in the same river twice … If we will float alongside each other on the remainder of our journey(s), toward the inevitable, infinite sea.


In the Spirit of Things

In the Spirit of Things

My dearest Pam,

I am writing back quickly so as to put your mind at ease, because I just know you will fret and worry about alienating me by sharing your faith. Because of course our re-connection is new, and so maybe a little less secure. But please be reassured, your spiritual life would never put distance between us.

You may think that because I am living in the Northeast among the Coastal Elites that we suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome, and are in favor of unisex bathrooms, against all religious expression (except Islamic, of course), and for socialized everything …. Ummm, No.  I would position myself in the center politically and culturally, but anymore my views seem to align with ‘conservative’ politics. I am always out-of-sorts with the goings on here in New Haven, what with all the crazy Yale students and progressive posturing – so much of it hypocritical. Here residents claim to value diversity, yet live in all-white, gentrified neighborhoods; they profess fealty to public education but send their children to private schools (or use status, wealth, and political connections to get their kids into New Haven’s one well-performing public school). There are a group of neighbors on an adjacent street who cloaked their NIMBY attitudes towards the homeless in environmental grassroots activism. Beyond these self-serving and face-saving shenanigans the virtue-signaling behavior most upsetting to me is the reflexive derision of the middle of the country, characterizing its inhabitants as ignorant, backwards, and yes, deplorable. Because I grew up there (and lived in Kentucky with Bruce for many years), I know the goodness and strength and humility of the people of the Midwest. I have written about this more than once, for MUSE. I am comfortable in the kind of community Midwesterners make – careful and kind and respectful – which is anchored and fostered, fundamentally, by faith.

Beyond that, we are closer than you might think spiritually. For one thing, I do believe Jesus Christ walked this Earth, and everything I know that he preached and said and believed about how to live, and especially How To Treat Others, resonates. Who could be at odds with his teachings? I just do not feel the personal connection you do, rather a philosophical (and spiritual) one. I am not a church-y kind of girl either … no doubt due to my Catholic experiences. Your St. Kiernan’s journey is exactly mine! My mother pulled me out of our second grade class, too, and sent me to Brookwood. Even so, I made my first communion and did the catechism for confirmation, and then that was it. I told my mother it just didn’t make any sense to me, and I wasn’t going to church anymore, and she said OK.

My spirit is most charged and alive and aware in nature. This is when I feel connected to the immense, infinitely bigger-than-me universe, it a part of me as I am a part of it. Bound to all living (and non-living!) things and to a Greater Force, with awe and love and gratitude, for life and the marvelous, wonderful, inexplicable world. I think many people have an experience like this among others, in community, which is to say, Church. You and I share this knowledge/understanding/awareness at the least, and differ only in our devotional expressions. For me, everything I make – art, essay, story, garden, party, friendship, neighborhood – is a prayer, an offering, an homage to the great Creative Power. The one true thing that stayed with me from the Catholic church: that life is a precious gift not to be wasted, but rather shared and expanded and reveled in.

So, just as you have room for Bob’s Catholic framework of these most important truths, I have room – acres! – for yours.



Destinos’ Children

Destinos’ Children

Our two god-granddaughters are learning Spanish in school. Like mine, Printha’s formal course began in sixth grade, but Adeline started much earlier, in fourth. It was immediately apparent they will acquire the language individually, idiosyncratically. Some of this may be down to their respective ages at introduction to Spanish. I am not current on linguistic research with respect to language learning, but some capacity is lost as children get older: the ‘window’ may close for many/most at puberty. But that doesn’t explain all of what I am noticing. They are very different girls, even down to the way they learn, and learning to speak Spanish has made the distinctions sharp.

Bruce and I have been playing with the idea of going to Puerto Rico to live for an extended period. We have grown to love the island, its people, and culture over our many visits, especially appreciating daily life in out-of-the way small towns and communities. We have two projects in mind. Over the years we have been documenting building styles unique to the island, rather haphazardly, and want to research our observations and ideas more rigorously, with more granularity and an historical perspective. There might be a book in it, coffee table or otherwise; we will see where the project takes us. Besides that interest, I’d like to know my family history more completely, and a site-based genealogy study is compelling. Fluency in Spanish is almost certainly called for to accomplish either of these aims. Bruce’s Spanish improves with each visit (mine too!), but we know a more formal approach is necessary, for both of us.

A long time ago we discovered the Annenberg Foundation’s course in Spanish (for English speakers), called Destinos. Destinos is a video series (with audio, textbook, and workbook supplements), that uses narrative form to engage the student. And it does. The telenovela is bingeworthy! The story is told in fifty-two episodes, and takes the viewer/student across the globe to a multitude of Spanish-speaking countries, weaving in histories and cultures. The course relies heavily on immersion, as the dialogue between characters is untranslated, leaving the student to infer meaning from context, body language, and social/human understandings. There is more direct instruction too, as both the narrator and main character Raquel speak directly to the viewer. The narrator speaks in both Spanish and English, explaining the arc of each episode, and translating key words and concepts. Raquel speaks only in Spanish, at the end of each episode, asking questions of the viewer that also appear on the screen (as do the answers). These three approaches together are very effective, and just as important, the story is a wonderful hook. You (as the viewer) want to – have to! – come back, to find out what happens next. Even so, Bruce and I never finished the series our first time through. Never enough time …

But now we are watching it again with the girls, as we watch them watch it. The different ways they are learning fascinate me. Printha is analytical and visual, using pattern recognition, logic, and reasoning to identify cognates and language structure, comparing Spanish with English. She is focused on language, as much as she is the story. Adeline in contrast, is intuitive, following the story, inferring; she is people sensitive, socially aware, and an aural learner – she has a great accent when prompted to pronounce her words con acento apropriado. Printha is also happy with the pedagogy, with the method of the educators; she is comfortable not understanding everything, and doing her thing She is patient when her understanding advances beyond the lesson or beyond Adeline’s. But Adeline is constantly fidgeting – I wonder, is she a haptic learner? – and frustrated by the Spanish-only character talk. She needs to know everything that is said, because she doesn’t want to miss a clue that explains the story. Fro the same reason she is bored with any repetition and rote learning that doesn’t move the story forward. My favorite thing: they both can roll their r’s!

I am wondering what approach to take with Adeline. Should I explain what is being said when characters talk to each other? Or will that ruin either of their learning experiences within the series framework? I also have to deal with their competitiveness. They both want to be the first to answer Raquel’s questions, Jeopardy-style, but once an answer is announced it frustrates and ruins the other’s experience and learning. An approach I will try: I’ll let them alternate responses (with no affirmation or comment from me), and have the non-answerer validate, or correct the other’s answer. In this way they can each come to their own understanding and conclusions, and get credit for independently knowing.

Bruce as a learner is more like Adeline in most ways, except that he is not uncomfortable with being in the dark when characters speak with each other. Perhaps he is just more experienced with implied meanings, and understanding from context. I find myself absorbing everything so fluidly, so easily, I am hopeful this makes for more fluent, default, effortless speaking in Spanish, that I will be translating in my head less and less often.

The real magic for me, though, is not as a teacher but as a fellow traveler, a compadre, sharing with them the very different world Spanish makes. Despite some structural similarities and common word origins, Spanish is a language unlike English. It is nuanced, holding more ambiguity, multiplicities, inferences, and layers, which differently define a richer, more symbolic, insightful, and cleverly humorous cosmos. Spanish lends itself so easily to poetry, really I think it is, in itself, a poetic language. I do so look forward to experiencing understandings and perspectives with them that don’t – will not – translate directly, cleanly, without significant loss. Shall I take them to Puerto Rico? The thought takes my breath away, it captures and embraces me with all the possibilities of claiming and living my heritage – my other, preferred world – and gifting it to the three of them.


The Rewrite

The Rewrite

I feel I need to warn you, this is a sad story, with no good ending, really no ending at all. I am in limbo. Many months ago a friend of mine died. And I have been heartbroken since, about her death, of course, but also about my memories and perceptions and beliefs about our friendship. Katie and I had been out of touch for over thirty years until she found Bruce at his company’s website. Many things and people fell away after Bruce and I moved from Kentucky to New York; keeping up friendships was so much harder then, without email, Skype, WhatsApp, or mobile phones. Out of the blue a reunion! Katie was back in our life for only short two years before her death, but in that time Bruce and I traveled back to Lexington, and wrote and called and shared our memories and lives. It was happy at the start. Soon though, she was in crisis – multiple crises escalating and compounding in a never-ending cycle. Her house was in bad repair to the point of danger, the state was threatening to put her grandchildren in foster care, those same children were kicked out of a well-reputed private school, her daughter worked irregularly and together their incomes could not cover the usual and extra expenses. I consoled her, we sent money, we packed a truck with all of our unused household items and drove them to her, and Bruce made essential repairs to the house while we were there. I wrote and edited letters for her, to the state, her lawyer, to school administrators. We spoke almost daily at one point, as I tried to keep her steady. Somehow we got through the worst of it. The state relented and released her grandchildren from foster care, Katie began to maintain and improve her house and property, painting, buying new appliances, bartering yard work. Our relationship was strained, but I thought all we needed was time to catch our breath, and then the usual, affectionate, sharing ways of friendship would reassert themselves.

But they never did, not really. Katie was constantly needy. A new crisis surfaced regularly, and we were endlessly called on to help. She was always without money, despite the facts that she had a secure and longtime job with the city of Lexington, and that her daughter made thirty dollars an hour working for UPS. Katie was showing herself to be a master manipulator, never asking directly, just hinting and wheedling, crying wolf. And despite all the advice I offered, she continued to make the bad decisions that led her into terrible trouble, creating avoidable and bewildering chaos. I felt helpless to effect any real change in her circumstances. For I am of the belief that adults are required to be self-sufficient on the whole, and rely on others only when catastrophe strikes. When it did for her we pitched in without hesitation, but now, afterwards, with a clearer view, we feel swindled, cheated, used, and it hurts. Her way of living was to depend on others, and I could not school her out of it. There is no other way to understand it, no way to show things in a better light. I cannot pretend. The friendship I thought I had was a con.

Many things have come to light since Katie died that reinforce my bad feelings. Her daughter has been relaying the unending mess of Katie’s estate. All Katie’s assets were borrowed against – pension, retirement, house, life insurance – and she had other large debts, among them a car loan balance for the van that her daughter Megan drives. Little is left to pass along to her daughter or grandchildren. Megan has never learned to take care of herself either and she struggles to parent her three children alone. I cannot imagine where Katie’s money went – her house was a wreck, the grandkids made do with hand-me down clothes and toys, she never traveled or went out, except for the rare supper with Meg, when they could find a sitter. It is hard to blame a lack of life skills given her laudable work history and apparently strong long-term relationships. Did she suffer from ADHD or some other impairment? Bruce wonders if she had a gambling problem or addiction that was hidden from us. I think we will never know. Her family – so unloving to her in all the time I knew her – nevertheless is tight-lipped and careful to paint a rosy picture.

How do I remember her now? It is so hard to reconcile all the lies and maladaptive behaviors with what I want to be true – that she cared for me and for Bruce, that her affection was real, that we were bound by spirit and sisterly love. That her needs were simply those of someone –anyone – caught in a bind, beset by out-sized troubles. These things may not be true. Like so many drowning in deep pain and gasping for air, grasping at any life-saver, she was too desperate to be loving, too preoccupied to be generous, too unwell to be sincere. The currency of our relationship was need. Even so, I recall the brightest things about her: she was witty, and fun to be around, acutely observant of herself and those around her. Although she hid so much, she was unabashed about who she was, giving little thought to the perceptions those in her closest circle might have – in many ways, she let it all hang loose, freeing the rest of us. She was creative and crafty – we both sewed and loved making things. She was loyal to her family, even though loyalty revealed itself as fealty at the end, and an unhealthy protection of image and reputation. She was dedicated and committed in her work, too, as the many remembrances at her memorial testified. Katie was reliable in those two situations and she gave of herself in other ways. But not to me. Our relationship was one-way, all the energy pouring out of us and into her and her surrogates. I suffer now from compassion fatigue, and from the loss of a friendship that maybe, probably, never really was.

This is not the hardest part, though. I am faced with the spiritual problem of caring for her grandchildren, whom we have come to know and love in the past few years, and who need us and want us. Katie’s daughter shows all the traits and behaviors of her mother (needy and manipulative, and immature). To help her reflexively is to enable her dysfunction. Megan works as little as possible, relying instead on every manner of government, faith-based, and friendly hand-out: it is her life strategy. I guess the acorn didn’t fall too far from the tree. Of course I am desperate to save the children, who have the tender, unsullied promise of the very young, wanting only good health, love and instruction to bloom. That is all we want for them, but it is not what they are getting. We can do little from eight hundred miles away, and Meg is recalcitrant. She is insistent on her disastrous ways.

She failed to get her son vaccinated and he fell very ill with the flu. The oldest daughter has ADHD, and the middle child severe dyslexia, but there is no counseling or interventions anywhere outside of school, which would only help the the oldest anyway as the other is not yet enrolled. Megan has a strep infection of the skin, she is in trouble at work for attendance, she is angry because her cousin and family are taking a vacation and she can’t. All of these events are reported to us, in a bid for attention and and money and intervention. I think, is it Munchausen syndrome? Munchausen-by-proxy? The kids eat cereal, cookies, and soda when they are hungry, because that’s all there is. Meg only buys what she likes: cereal, sweets, white bread, and cheese. She herself is diabetic, just shy of needing insulin shots, but will not amend her diet. She will not change any of her ways for any reason, not even for the children’s sake. She can’t see or recognize the error, or logic out the bad results of her doings. She gets angry when I challenge her. She denies consequences and culpability, cause and effect. While Katie was alive, the family belonged to the Y and took some advantage of its programs and facilities. But no longer. Meg says the three children are just too much trouble for her.

What am I to do? What can I do? I am watching a train wreck in the making, horrified and impotent. I have considered calling Protective Services, but I can’t go through with it, knowing the children may be even worse off in foster care. Everyone I share this with tells me the same: Walk Away. Could you? I have no doubt the state would remove the children from their home. I know Katie’s family would not step in, and I doubt Meg would release the children to us or that the state would allow it anyway. The only weapon (yes, it is a fight, I am fighting for the kids and their future) I have is tough love, and Meg has yet to respond positively. All the while the children slowly and surely unravel and wither, condemned to the same chaotic,  dysfunctional hell those adults most responsible for them selfishly refuse – and refused – to forsake.


error: Content is protected !!