Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Of Moon Walks and Broken Dreams: Rendering a Distant Memory

I have been trying to write about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 since last week. I wanted to write a piece that talked about where I was on that historic evening during the summer of 1969. The summer was tumultuous for all sorts of reasons - political, historical and personal. It was one of those touchstone moments in my life where everything was changing and falling apart around me, and I wouldn’t understand the significance of the confluence of events until much much later. This is one of the reasons I was having such a hard time writing about it from my adult perspective – I couldn’t find the narrative voice of a younger self who could tell the story with immediacy and honestly.

Last night in writers’ group, for our writing prompt, Alison Hicks placed dozens of visual images on the floor and asked us to find one that called to us. I found a surrealistic landscape with a haunting moon hanging low in the sky. I wrote July 20 1969 on the top of a clean page, then made a decision that helped me get inside of the narrator’s mind.
I created a third person limited narrator that was telling the story from the perspective of a 17 year old girl. Here’s what I wrote:

July 20, 1969

It is early evening and she doesn’t remember how she got here or which one of her girlfriends gave her a ride in their father’s Chevvy. She knows one of them did, Randy or Andie, maybe because she doesn’t drive. She’s been here for hours, and the tweed fabric of the orange sofa chafes against the skin behind her knees as she leans forward, still staring at the large black and white TV – an RCA floor model in a maple cabinet, console type with shiny metallic woven cloth covering the speakers on either side of the flickering screen.

She’s not alone, but she sure feels like she is. She hasn’t spoken to anyone since Randy, or was it Andie, left after seeing what was going on here. There is nothing more boring than a bunch of scagged out boys in front of a television set in the unairconditioned living room of a semi-detached brick box in Northeast Philadelphia. She felt the same way, about the boredom that is, but what kept her here was Dock – the boy whose house it was, the boy whose parents left him alone for two weeks while they drank mai tais and attended luaus in Honolulu, and the boy she had been madly in love with since she was fourteen.

It was the summer of 69, the summer before 12th grade, and less than a month before Woodstock and her planned getaway with Dock, though she hadn’t quite figured out what to tell her mother, or even how she was going to convince Dock to take her along with him and the boys when they went to the rock festival.

She let her eyes stray from the television set and wander around the room. The shades were drawn and the volume on the TV had been turned off and the stereo turned up – Walter Cronkite replaced by Jim Morrison. A quick furtive glance at Dock, and she saw that he hadn’t moved from where he’d been for the past hour – lying back, leaning against the wall, face towards the TV, but with his eyes closed.

She shivered slightly though the room was warm and still. She spotted the spoons with their burned bottoms, tiny pieces of cotton still in the center. She looked back at Dock and her eyes drifted up to see a splatter of blood on the wall and the pole lamp. For a moment, she had the urge to go into the kitchen and find some cleanser or bleach and scrub the evidence from the wall, but was stopped by the sight of a girl she had never seen before leaning languidly against the archway between the living room and kitchen, a needle still dangling from her veins. She had never seen a girl shoot up and this girl’s eyes were closed and she was shifting her weight and her hips were moving slowly back and forth. A soft noise like a purr was coming from deep inside her.

Dock had gotten up, and was standing beside the moaning girl as she leaned into his body.

“Damn!” Dock said slowly, as he matter of factly removed the needle from her bruised arm. “Can you fuckin’ believe it? One day we can tell our kids that we watched the men on the fuckin’ moon scagged outta our brains!”

With that, he returned to his spot against the wall, closed his eyes and turned back towards the TV.

Of course there’s more to the story. Of course I never got to Woodstock. It was all in my head anyway. Besides, one week before Woodstock, Dock’s best friend Steve died of an overdose and all of our lives were changed forever. Dock lived to be 50, I understand. Heard he moved to Florida, got married, had children even. I wonder what he told his children about where he was when the men walked on the moon.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fifty Six and Counting

I once heard someone say that if you make it out of your fifties, you have a good chance of living past eighty. I first heard this when I was in my forties, so it felt academic and not particularly ominous. But now, at age fifty-six, I am haunted by these words.

Another friend died on Saturday. Another woman, in her fifties. The third one. All died from cancer that started somewhere else – the womb, the colon, the liver, but ended in the lungs. All died within months of the diagnosis, after brutal surgery, massive chemotherapy and blistering radiation.

I am fifty-six.

My husband is fifty-eight.

He too will be happy to make it out of his fifties without having a heart attack. While the women I know have died from painful, decaying and horrific cancer, the men I know who have not made it to sixty have had massive heart attacks – the kind the doctors call “widow makers.” Sudden and massive and complete. My father in law had a heart attack at age fifty nine, while playing cards. My husband’s best friend’s brother was struck down at fifty-eight while playing golf. And his look-alike and basketball teammate collapsed after running full court ball in the over 45 league at the JCC. He too was in his fifties.

I do not know what to make of this.

I am fifty six.

My husband is fifty-eight.

At Sharon’s funeral today, her husband railed against the oncologists that had caused her so much pain near the end of her life. He eulogized her by reciting Byron’s To Thyzra: And Thou Art Dead

I know not if I could have borne
To see thy beauties fade;
The night that followed such a morn
Had worn a deeper shade:
Thy day without a cloud hath past,
And thou wert lovely to the last -
Extinguished, not decayed,
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.

Her husband and children will never see her grow old. She will never know the grandchildren who will be named in her blessed memory.

Meanwhile, I wait and count.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine………………………….

Living in the In-Between: Rethinking Borders and Personal Identity

Re-thinking Borders and Personal Identity: Living in the In-Between

It’s taken me over a year since my retirement from teaching school after 34 years to realize that for this past year, I have been living in what Gloria Anzaldua calls “la frontera” or the borderlands. Such places are characterized by transitions, multiplicities, shifting identities and contradictions. They are places which can be debilitating or, if experienced in a positive way, very generative.

For me, this border runs through much of my life’s geography. Passing through menopause, seeing my children become independent adults, walking my son down the aisle and finishing my 34 year teaching career, all within a relatively short time has left me staggering in the dark and questioning my raison d’etre.

In short – I guess I am having a post mid-life existential crisis.

And it’s been a pretty wild one, complete with disatrous missteps, renewed connections, emotional highs and lows, spiritual crises, and way too much time to think about it all.

Funny, though, with all of the time and thinking I have done, it wasn’t until yesterday that it all came together for me - the epiphany I have been waiting for.

My teacher self, formerly known as Mrs. Pincus has ceased to be. At least as someone who exists in the here and now. She is a memory -- for me and for the thousands of students she had the privilege of teaching in Philadelphia. And she did some good work – some really good work and the impact of that work lives on in the lives that she touched. But she will never do that work again. Mrs. Pincus is dead. Long live Mrs. Pincus.

I am in a borderland right now, in a state of “in-between” – a place, philosopher Maxine Greene has said, where people can achieve their full humanity with one another – a place that “emerges through a web of relationships, woven through authentic disclosures.”

Recognizing this has given me some peace and brought an internal calm to what had been up to this point a very unsettling year. It's helped me understand what I have been seeking this year - why I have craved deep emotional connection while veering away from it at the same time. Now, I can slow down and observe the landscape, much like I would do if I were entering a new country for the first time. I can listen to the sounds of the language, savor the new tastes, hear the new music, see the nuances of color and light, try to get to know the people, read the history and literature, find the landmarks, enjoy the possibilities and the beauty of this fertile place on the border. I can open myself up to the wonder, be enervated by not knowing what’s coming next and let myself be amused, astonished even, by all of the changes going on inside of me. I can try to know others and let myself be truly known.

I do not have to hurry to leave this place, this frontera, this borderland. I can love, linger and learn in the in-between.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Homo Narratus: On Stories and Freedom

In Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson writes about the empowering nature of multiple narratives that people sometimes construct for our lives. The ability to construct different versions of the same major events or turning points in our lives enables us to see the power we have in making meaning for ourselves. And in CHOOSING which of these narratives will ultimately give meaning to our experiences, we discover our own agency, our freedom.

In what Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot calls “The Third Chapter” of our lives, men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 have the opportunity to reassess their lives, look back into the past in order to make a new future. We get to rethink, reassess and retell in new ways the stories of our childhood that we once thought were set in stone. During times of transition, when all of our foundations are crumbling, we get to rebuild the edifice of our lives with the same bricks, but different mortar and structure.

We can look at the people who hurt us or left us and forgive them because we have hurt or left or left others ourselves and we know what compelled us to do so. We can go back and look at our childhood and see our parents with softer, kinder, less judgmental eyes, now that we are older than they were when they raised us and aware of all of the mistakes we made along the way. And we can reassess the stories we have told our children about themselves.

I have always been over-protective of my daughter Allison. When she was 3 days old, she was diagnosed with a heart defect. During a routine check, the pediatrician heard a murmur which indicated a ventricular septal defect. (VSD) This meant that during the first eight weeks of fetal development, when her heart was being formed, something occurred which left an opening in the ventricular septum, or dividing wall between the two lower chambers.

In the months that followed, we watched over her every breath and took her monthly to a pediatric cardiologist who performed an echo cardiogram, ran an EKG and listened intently to her heart beat. We were told to be patient, that there were three possible scenarios that could happen: she might be able to live with the defect and manage it by modifying her behavior, she might need open heart surgery, or the hole could close and resolve itself.

On our eighth visit, when Allison was eight months old, my husband and I sat anxiously watching as the cardiologist listened to her heart for what seemed like a longer time than usual. Finally, he looked up at us with a huge smile on his face.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said, somewhat cautiously.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well there’s no murmur. It may be that the heart healed itself.”

An echo cardiogram confirmed this. My little baby girl’s heart had developed on its own and autonomously closed the hole between the two chambers. She would suffer no effects from this and from that moment on, had a perfectly healthy heart. I did however, always watched over her very closely. The first months of her life, when we worried about her survival, when we had to keep her from other children for fear she'd catch a cold, when I didn't return to work until she was three because I was too scared to leave her with anyone else set the pattern of over-protection for me
that was very difficult to overcome.

One day when she was five years old, I overheard Allison say to a playmate, “I was born with a hole in my little heart. I had a heart defect.” It always made me wonder how she had internalized her VSD story and how she may have connected it to my need to keep her close to me at all times.

This morning while writing and thinking about narratives and the roles they play in our lives, the phone rang and it was Allison, 26 years old, walking to work in Boston after working out at the gym. An independent woman with a great job and enrolled in an MBA program at night, Ali and I have grown closer now that we live apart.

“I’m writing about you today, Ali,” I told her. “You remember that when you were a little girl you had a heart defect?"

"Sure," she said. "I was born with a hole in my heart."

"Yes, but that’s not the important part of the story. What matters, Ali, is that you healed yourself. You closed the hole, you made your body do what it needed to do.”

“But, Ma, I was only an infant,” she said dismissively
“Yes,” I said. “You were an infant. A strong, beautiful infant with a will to live. And you found the power to heal yourself. Always remember that. That’s who you are.”

I don’t know whether Ali ever consciously thinks about the fact that she had a heart defect 26 years ago. I don’t know if she’s ever connected it to my over-protection which she resented during her teen-age years. By re-framing the heart defect narrative, I am recasting my daughter not as the victim of a random occurrence in the womb, as someone I need to shelter and protect, but as a strong,powerful woman who is an agent of her own growth and healing. I hope she will choose this version of her heart defect story and that will use it as she composes the rest of her life.

And maybe even more poignant, is the way this version of the story re-frames me and how I see myself as Ali's mother -- not as someone who needs to protect her but as someone who can help her see her own inner resources.

We can break free from old narrative structures that have imprisoned our minds and stifled our spirits and limited the possibilities for relating to others in our lives – the victim narrative, the invalid narrative, the addiction narrative, the hero on a white horse coming the rescue narrative, the lone ranger narrative, the I don’t need anybody but myself narrative - and recast ourselves in different more life affirming roles in complex and gloriously diverse and dynamic relationships with one another.

Homo narratus. That’s what we human beings are. The ability to reassemble our random experiences into stories is what separates us from animals. We tell stories in order to live. There are some who believe that we can’t help but tell stories – that we are hard-wired that way.

But what we can control is what stories we tell about our lives, and in the very act of choosing from the multiple narratives, we can discover our freedom.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of Birthdays and L'entr'actes

We celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday yesterday by dancing. And right there in the middle of the floor for the entire 4 hours was my mother Shirley, in her 80 year old glory, shaking her booty, and shimmying up to her 86 year old fourth and fabulous husband, Irving. The party was held at Irving’s country club and if anyone had told me 40 years ago that my mother would be spending her platinum years dancing her life away with a genuine prince charming, I would not have believed it.

My mother, like most of the woman of her generation (or maybe all of us – though I don’t quite have this perspective on my own life just yet) has forged a life for herself that is deeply rooted in the social and cultural upheavals of her age. Born months before the stock market crash, growing up poor, the only child of a single mother during the Depression, marrying a WW II veteran recently returned from Europe, giving birth to three children in quick succession in the fifties, becoming a Donna Reed housewife, only to be abandoned by her husband in the beginning of the sixties, Shirley went through more metamorphoses before she was forty than most people go through in a life time.

A single mother (like her own)during the early 60s, long before it was a life style choice of the terminally hip, Shirley was fueled by pure adrenaline and guided only by her survival instinct. After a sixteen month interval in which she suffered what some might have called a nervous breakdown after my father left, she lifted herself up, found a full time job with the school district and at age 39, entered college and began the education she had forsaken (at the urging of her mother who warned her about becoming too smart to get a man.) She then proceeded to work the system to ensure that all three of her children were able to receive college educations; at one point during the 1970s, all four of us were in college paid for by every possible grant and loan available at the time.

It was also during the 70s that my mother married her second husband. A manic depressive (of course she met him during a manic phase and was completely swept off her feet by his charisma, charm and sexual energy) he took my mother on a wild ride to the heights of pleasure during their whirlwind courtship, sliding soon after their wedding into the depths of despair. I can still see my mother at this time of her life writing her master’s thesis at the kitchen table while he railed at her and wailed at the universe (he refused to take his lithium and shot himself in the head years later). She ignored him until her thesis was completed, then allowed herself the luxury of falling part.

There’s more of course. The 80s when she became an independent career woman, using her newly earned Masters degree to work her way up the ladder at a social work agency, while dating the man who was to become her third husband, love of her life and soul mate.

In the 90s, she lived the American Dream of retirement, traveling the world with her husband, wintering in Marco Island and going out dancing three, four nights a week. She used to say that they were “joined at the hip” so how tragic and ironic that he died from complications of a hip fracture he suffered while they were in Florida in 2005.

After he died, she took to her bed once again, this time keeping company with her late husband’s ghost. It was her gardener who saved her, introducing her to Irving, the nice widower around the corner, the man who was to become her fourth husband, her new dance partner and the host of the wonderful celebration we had for her 80th birthday yesterday.

Last summer, at the Irving's insistence, my mother had knee replacement surgery. For years, she had been having difficulty walking and by last summer the pain had pretty much sidelined her from life. Irving, who at 85 is still vital and who had nursed his wife of nearly 50 years through years of debilitating illness had been looking forward to enjoying his life with his new wife Shirley. He insisted that she have the surgery.

My mother is not a good patient. She has a very low tolerance for pain and knee replacement is one of the more brutal and painful elective surgeries in modern medicine. Throughout the ordeal and it was quite an ordeal, replete with all manner of emotional traumas, Irving remained calm and continued to encourage his wife to do what she needed to do as she spent long months in painful rehabilitation.

It’s funny, looking back over my mother’s life, seeking out the patterns, that it’s the entr'actes that catch my attention right now- the times of transition: the sixteen months after my father left her when she had a nervous breakdown; the ravages caused by her tumultuous second marriage; the months between being a widow and a new bride; her recovery and rehabilitation from brutal surgery.

Maybe it’s because I am in the midst of my own l'entr'acte. At age 56, I am still young and vibrant and thankfully strong and healthy. Finished raising my children, retired from my teaching career, struggling to figure out what comes next, I find myself looking back over my mother’s life searching for signposts or secret messages.

Yesterday, in her tribute to our mother, my sister Janet spoke of alchemy – how my mother has always been able to turn base metal into gold – crisis and struggle into opportunity.

I still need more time to think about what my mother’s alchemical process looks like – to understand her secret formula for making a life..

The only thing that I am sure of right now is that it has something to do with dancing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Searching for a New Vocabulary

Searching for a New Vocabulary

I joined a writers’ group last night. Run by a local woman trained by Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists Methodology, my new writers group consists of twelve people of varying ages and backgrounds, including some who are published writers.

It’s hard for me to think of myself as a published writer, though I have three chapters included in books about education edited by prominent people in the field. All three of my chapters are similar: all are pieces of practitioner research; long analyses of and ruminations on my work of 34 years as an English and Drama teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. They are written in the 1st person, they tell a story about my challenges and struggles in the classroom to make my work real and meaningful to my students and they connect to and build on the work of others in the field, most notably Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene.

But I am no longer a teacher. I retired one year ago last week. And during this year of transition, I have been desperate to write. I have been planning books in my head and cornering anyone who will listen to tell them the details. Yet, throughout this year whenever I would sit down at the computer, with no distractions and all of the time in the world, I couldn’t write a word.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I could write long emails to cherished friends. I could write angsty journals exploring every aspect of my troubled psyche. What I couldn’t do was write anything that I thought would be of interest to an audience outside of my small circle of friends. I couldn’t find the words.

I need a new vocabulary.

I have lived cloistered inside of the classroom for my entire adult life. I know it intimately – its smells (the slightly acrid scent of moldy books and the whiff of a fine dry dusting of chalk) its colors ( beige walls tinted the color of corpses, burnished wood floors with dents and scratches, and splashes of rainbow colored cut out letters tacked on the walls) its sounds (chalk clicking on the slate, fire alarms exploding through silence, the roar of laughter, following the sound of a dish breaking in the cafeteria).

The world looks different from outside of the classroom. As alive as I felt as a teacher, as deeply committed as I was to my work, as thoroughly engaged as I was in the lives of my students, in many ways I was hiding from the wider world in school.

Wendy Wasserstein, in her final play Third writes about the third act that women in their fifties and beyond can have. We have the opportunity to remake ourselves after we have raised our children, attended to our partners, created and maintained our homes. How sad and ironic that she died of cancer before she could have her own. In her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sarah Lightfoot Lawrence writes of men and women engaged in creative and purposeful learning in what she calls the third chapter of their lives. It is in the process of learning something new that people are able to live through upheaval and transitions in their lives.

One quote that she includes at the opening of the chapter “Loss and Liberation” helps me understand what has been happening to me this year:

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” ( Anatole France)

I have only begun reading Lightfoot Lawrence’s book and already it is comforting me.
After a long and dark year of leaving behind my teacher self, the self I had been developing for almost four decades, I have begun to take the steps towards the birth of a new self.

I am engaging in the process of learning. And in that process I trust that I will find the new vocabulary I need to express myself to others.

I have resumed ballroom dance lessons and yesterday my teacher John lead me through a tango for the very first time. In rumba, we worked on cross-overs, spins and swivels --- new words and phrases for my body’s vocabulary.

Tomorrow, I will begin jazz piano lessons with a young teacher. I hope to learn notes and scales and rhythms that I have never known before – a new vocabulary of sounds for my mind’s ear.

And last night in my writers group, inspired by the group leader’s prompt, I wrote a wry piece about a dyspeptic talking squirrel who confronts a tequila soaked troubled middle aged man on a motor cycle and offers him a few words of wisdom that help him unlock the meaning of his past.

The beginning of a new vocabulary?

Here's hoping.