Sunday, August 24, 2008

Recurring Nightmares

The first year of teaching, the nightmare was the worst, and I woke with a heart-thumping, cold-sweat start. The dreams have continued at the start of each new semester, but now they no longer end my sleep. We're used to each other by now.

On the night before classes start, the dream goes like this. I'm wandering through Antonian Hall on Carlow University's campus (the location never changes even though I've taught other places). It's an evening class, and I enter in a panic from the street level, bolting up four cement steps, turning right down a long hall of classrooms. Darkened hallways make me wonder if I've gotten the date wrong. The doors are heavy wood with small deeply-colored stained-glass inserts that muddle my view inside.

I know that I'm late. What I don't know is what classroom I'm scheduled into--and so I begin a frantic check of each classroom. How long will the students wait? The rooms in Antonian Hall are quite large--partially separated by an acordion-pleated room divider, and as I open the door, the room at first looks empty. No class here. Then, I hear what might be a voice, and I peer into the back corner of the room. There is someone here! I enter, and I see a gathering of people I have long loved. Some have been dead for years. All have been lost to me, people I may never have the opportunity to see again. My brother is seated in one of the old desk chairs, smiling--with his pipe clenched between his upturned lips, waving me in.

Caught between two worlds, I hold up my finger---stay, just a minute. Wait for me, I plead, and I run down the hall to find my class. All the time I am thinking, how could I leave him? But my responsibilities call me forward, and I tear from classroom to classroom finding no one. When I realize that the students must have grown tired of waiting, I run back to the first classroom, which is, of course, empty.

What might we have said to each other, my brother and I? How fine would it have been to lay my head once again on my father's warm shoulder? As much as I would play Daniel Webster to see them again, the dream never changes. I hold up my finger--stay just a minute. Wait for me.

I'm sure my nightmare is born only of presemester apprehension. New faces line the rows bringing with them challenges and expectations. Can I win them over? Will I be able to lead them to love what I love? Will I be enough?

I wonder if tonight my mother will be sitting in the classroom waiting for me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Learning to Pray

I was nearly 50 before I really learned how to pray. It was a raw spring day, and I had the day off from work. Sunk into black misery over a million wrong turns in my life, I still wore pajamas at nearly 1:00 p.m. My hair stuck out in a tangled poof, and I had been sitting for hours in the oversized suede chair in my family room staring mindlessly at daytime television. I think I dozed through Good Morning America, and then sat numbly through Regis and Kelly, Rachel Ray, The View, and the local news. Nothing registered except for the laugh track.

Finally tired of sitting, I lumbered over to the coffee pot, thinking a dose of caffeine might get me moving before my family began arriving home, one by one. The coffee pot was off, having stopped heating hours ago. I poured the cold coffee into a carefully chosen cup--today, the Pawley's Island mug--hoping for a quick mental dip in the warm, crytalline ocean. Slipping the mug into the microwave, I turned to look out the window. The weathered deck wood looked gray and bleak without the summer deck plants and furniture. It looked like I felt.

Closing my eyes with a sigh, I waited for the beep signaling that my coffee was ready. At the sound, I opened my eyes, and there on my windowsill sat a fiery red cardinal. The contrast between the colorless deck and the magnificent bird made my heart race. The bird didn't seem to be in a hurry, and I studied the point of his beak, the crest on his head, the fragile black feet, the patterned red feathers. "Nature's gift to me," I thought.

My mood lifted, those red wings bringing me a fluttering of hope. Might it be the small things that count the most? If I held tightly to those things, might I find my peace?

And so I started to say little thank-you prayers. Thank you for the startling beauty of the red cardinal on my gray deck. Thank you for the opportunity to teach the beauty of the written word. Thank you for the speed and grace with which my daughters cross the field. Thank you for the marshmallow roasted crusty black and oozing white cream.

Those moments of gratitude buoyed me, comforted me, changed me. When I look beyond the small things and get lost in the large void of "what if's," I reel myself back in by thinking of that random visitor to my windowsill. Then I start over. And so tonight I say, thank you for the ripe tomatoes eaten with fresh mozarella cheese and basil from my garden. Thank you for the corn from our farmer friends' fields, tiny full kernels popping with sweetness. Thank you for the black-nosed dog who lays his two paws across my son's legs. Thank you for the man who has loved me wholly everyday since I was sixteen. Thank you for the pile of unread books waiting for me by the side of my bed. Thank you for the dance of the fireflies I've watched on my nighttime hillside all summer long.

Thank you for listening.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Joke of the Day

In a conversation today about boys, I asked my 16-year-old daughter if she knew the main reason I decided to go out with her father when we were in high school.

"Because you felt sorry for him?" she asked.

My sides still hurt!

Grocery Store Violence

Both of these incidents happened in the same week about ten years ago.

I swear.

The first happened in the produce aisle of a Shop 'N Save. When I looked up from examining some lovely red grapes, I saw a woman grab a head of iceburg lettuce. This head was large, solid, and unwrapped. What happened next, I still see in slow motion. The woman stood up straight, squared her shoulders, raised her arm, and tossed the iceburg as hard as she could--at another woman's head. The second woman's head snapped back a bit, and she began to sob. To this day, I don't know if they knew each other, but there was something in my intuitive replay of the events that signaled they were strangers. Pandemonium broke loose in the aisle, and I hurried away with the bag of sweet grapes in my cart. I still think about those two women, and what really happened there. I couldn't make any sense of it then. Was the lettuce thrower mentally imbalanced? Did she have a grudge against the other woman? Was there a man involved? Or did she just snap under the pressure of traffic, checkout lines, snarling faces, and overdue bills?Over the past ten years, I've recounted this story to my writing students--those who complain, "there's nothing to write about." Open your eyes, I tell them. You might see something like I saw at the Shop 'N Save.

Later that week, I was back in the same store. (What can you do when you have four kids?) This time I stood fretting in the checkout line. I was late to drop off or pick up--or both. My line of vision took in the automatic doors. People streamed in and out, while I stood still (unless you call tapping my foot moving). A man in his thirties bounded in, grabbed a cart, and started off in a sprint toward the produce. In his hurry, he clipped a little girl--a pig-tailed toddler--who had strayed out a bit from her father's side as he paid at the register. The hit on her shoulder knocked her to the ground, and her high scream refocused her father's attention. His fists moved almost faster than his feet as he cold-cocked the cart racer. "Son-of-a-bitch," he growled. "Watch where you are going!"

I pocketed these two incidents, thinking they should be filed together under Shop 'N Save, but there was something more there, a nagging association of more importance than random grocery store violence.

Today, I stood in line at the Giant Eagle, and my cashier made the association for me. Not that she said a word to me. My cart contained a 30-pound bag of dog food, which I dragged onto the conveyor belt. Usually, my husband buys the dog food since he's worked much harder at maintaining his upper body strength than I have. And usually, he holds the heavy bag over the scanner for the cashier and then loads it into the cart. I figured getting it onto the belt was good enough. After all, if the store offers 30-pound bags of dog food, the management must expect the cashiers to finish the sale.

I was wrong. The cashier, an older woman, narrowed her eyes at me with what I innocently mistook as distress at her own inability to lift the bag. Instead, it appeared that she was disgusted with me for bringing something large to her register. "Can I help you scan it?" I asked.
"Can I turn it?"

"Can I help you?"

There was no verbal answer, but, oh my dear, she said plenty. She continued to glare at me while she ignored my questions. My face grew hot. As a customer, I had offended her with my lack of purchasing sensitivity. My instinct was to direct my discomfort back at her--"IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH MY PURCHASE?" But, instead, I swallowed hard and handed her a check.

This wasn't my first grocery-store offense, for which I merited the stare, the glare, or the big, heaving sigh. I've towed two overflowing carts (more than once) to the checkout counter, which seems to be immensely more effort for the cashier than checking out two back-to-back customers. My deli order has often exceeded more than two items--that must be sliced to order! I've also needed to pass by someone whose cart is parked sideways in the aisle. Worst of all, I've dared to say "hello" to someone whose eye I've caught. I fear I am not a politically correct grocery store patron.

So, ten years after the Shop 'N Save episodes, I think I understand. A lobbed head of iceburg, a cart accident, a man thrown to the floor all seemed to be random violence. I think now that it was a perculating undercurrent of anger and disassociation growing in our American society. Of course it would surface in a grocery store, a place where we all gather regularly to meet one of our most common basic needs, but where we really don't connect. As a people, we face each other with a steely set jaw, fencing each other with our carts. If we smile and say "excuse me" in an accidental near miss while looking for cereal, there is no smile in return. Do not expect to hear "excuse me," "thank you," or "you're welcome." Instead, expect lettuce leaves on the produce aisle floor.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


How is it that we've come to this? Angry, venonmous voices snake across the table, searching for a soft target. Snide "hmm's" and "sure's" poke at conversation attempts. Dark moods set in to match the bullying tones, and I look at my children, my family in confusion.

Do I encourage this? Does my demeanor feed this frenzy, this wild ride of the whip at my dinner table? I close my eyes and picture the four of them younger, fresh from their baths. Two of their heads of hair are wet springy ringlets; two others peek out from behind bangs plastered to their small faces. We always read then, each child carefully selecting a stack of favorite books. Did they sense my tiredness as I thumbed through their towering piles of what we called "the long books"? Did they misinterpret my physical exhaustion as lack of interest? Sometimes we all climbed into my bed, and I would read from Hatchet or Holes or Harry Potter until the littler two fell asleep. I felt so confident then, tucking each pajamaed child into bed. Kissing foreheads and tiptoeing backwards out of the door, I was strong in my motherhood. There had been measureable progress. I had loved them well, nuzzling their damp faces, inhaling their sweet breath, moving us forward to another day of just us.

It wasn't enough. I know that now. The knowledge is ugly, twisting around my heart with a viscious squeeze. I must have missed something along the way. Some task, some link, some act of love was forgotten--lost, dropped, split in two. Now hateful words sting me. I watch, feeling myself grow smaller inside. I am there, yet I am not. I am so painfully present, but I am distant...falling, falling, falling deep inside myself. I have failed them. When was the moment we lost other? Did I let go first? The nightly string of words, once soothing, is jumbled now.