Thursday, July 20, 2017

Birthday post

    It’s my birthday today. It’s also the birthday of a dear friend, and because it’s her 60th, she is having a party, and because it’s my 73rd, an insignificant number, I’ll give up a celebration of my birthday to join her for hers. She did the same for me when I turned 70. I did the same for her when she turned 40.
    Nonetheless, the day should not go by unremarked, so I’ll remark on it with a poem from a series of poems I’m working on about aging.


    I Always Thought I Would Grow Old Gracefully

I always thought I would grow old gracefully
    graying graciously as I knitted by the stove
    smiling sweetly as conversation wafted
        unheard over my head
    setting aside my tennis racket with just a tiny sigh
        when arthritis-riddled hands
        lost their grip.
I always thought
    I would use my cane with dignified acceptance
    and be an example to young people
    that growing old
        is not the horror
        they think it is.

But now that I am here
    growing old and graying
I see the fallacies of my fantasies.
I am fighting tooth and nail
    (thank goodness I still have tooth and nail)
    against the signs of old age coming.

I swear at the tennis ball that knocks the racket from my hand.
I rant without cease over hot flashes and night sweats.
I curse the knees that creak and moan
    as I stoop to wipe
    a spill from the floor
I weep over the thinning of my once-luscious, thick hair.

For all the good it does.

It would be better to ease gracefully
into old age
better for me and better
for those around me,
because, after all,
what is there to get so worked up over?
It's just a little bit of gray,
an ache and a pain here and there,
and if it's a sign of what lies ahead,
isn't it better to bend to the inevitable,
smile and say, "You win,"
than to be a poor loser
with the temper of a child?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Graduations

            Though I wasn't particularly looking forward to attending a high school graduation last June, I wanted to honor a young friend who was graduating, in this case from the International High School in Eugene, so I went. Being with her and with her family, good friends I don't see nearly enough; remembering what she was like when I met her, a nine-year-old child swinging from a tree; contrasting that memory with the confident, joyful young woman walking down the aisle to receive her diploma; hearing the kind words said about her at the ceremony – I was so glad I could be there.

            Beyond that was the graduation itself, in the Holt Center auditorium. The graduates sat on the stage in tiered seats with an aisle down the center. On each side of the stage were lecterns where the faculty spoke, alternating sides to give two or three sentences that particularized each student and told what that student would be doing after graduation. It was briskly done, and the achievements and plans were impressive. This one was a soccer player and a runner, that one won a literary prize, another spoke three languages, another excelled in music. Many were going to impressive universities: Brown, Boston, MIT. Almost all were going on to college. Maybe in a few cases the teachers had a hard time coming up with complimentary things to say ("He will be remembered for his bright smile"), but listening to the list of accomplishments and future plans, I could only marvel at these fine young people preparing to be leaders in our world tomorrow. Public school, parents, teachers – we have done a fine job.
            Graduations are one of the most meaningful rituals in today's society. It's no wonder we have started including graduation ceremonies for each school students leave, from kindergarten to elementary school, from elementary school to high school, from high school to college, from a community college to a four-year college, from college at the B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. level. Each step is an achievement worth celebrating. At my son's graduation from the Atlanta College of Art, I remember the rousing cheers given a young black man as he received his diploma, and suddenly I saw what an achievement this moment marked. He graduated from college. Maybe they never thought he would do it. Maybe they had pulled and pushed him through it. Whatever the background was, whatever his grade average, here was a man who had achieved a terrific accomplishment. My respect ran high.
            My granddaughter also graduated this year, moving into fourth grade at a school different from the one she had attended since kindergarten, which only goes through third grade. By now, in her eyes, it was a school for children, and she has grown up and moved on. Time to graduate. So there was a ceremony. The graduates didn't wear gowns, but they did wear caps, and they threw their caps into the air. There were no speeches but there were games and presentations to the teachers who had meant so much to the children. There was lots of singing and lots of laughing. The pictures were wonderful. What a good time they had! What a special occasion for those children. 

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            Do you want to keep kids in school? Make it exciting to be moving to the next stage.
            One of the best graduation traditions I know takes place at Central Point Elementary School here in the Rogue Valley. Graduating high school seniors who had gone to Central Point Elementary came back to the school, in their caps and gowns, to make a procession through the outdoor hallways between lines of current elementary school students and their teachers. Teachers high-fived the graduates as they walked through the school courtyard, reached out to shake their hands or give a special one a hug, the little kids clapping for them and high-fiving them, too. The graduates looked grand. They looked excited and proud. They were being highly honored. And those little kids? They were in awe. You could just feel them thinking, "That could be me. I could get there, too."
            It's a big thing to graduate. It's an accomplishment to be proud of. At any level.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ending a 30-year Career

     In mid-June I turned in final grades for spring term, always a moment of complex emotions as I grapple with disappointing work, give every break I can to bring grades up, and marvel again at the progress of some students and the superb work of others. The emotions I faced this time were particularly complex, as it was the last time I'll turn in grades. Or grade papers. Or teach class. My long teaching career at Rogue Community College is over.
     Oh, how I will miss it! I'll miss being on campus and around young people. I'll miss the challenges of teaching – figuring out how to make concepts clear, coming up with creative and interesting assignments, helping students think critically, analyze judiciously, and pay attention both to the world around them and to the words they use. I'll miss seeing the amazing improvement as students apply themselves to my class. I'll even miss that frequent and gratifying comment, "This was the hardest class I've ever taken. But I learned so much!"
     I am not voluntarily retiring, though the new minimum enrollment of 17 would be hard for me to meet. Students don't flock to sign up for my classes, since I have a reputation for being tough. As a teacher, I am like the recipe for an orange and garlic salad I read about years ago: "Not everyone who tried it liked it, but those who liked it loved it." I received many complaints, but other students thought I was the best teacher they ever had. They said things like, "This was the first real college class I've taken at this college" and "You are the first writing teacher who has ever taught me anything. They usually just give me an A, and that's the end of it" and"Every time I write anything now, I think about what you taught me."
     But my supervisor, new this year to the position (though she has been teaching at RCC for as long as I have), apparently dislikes me intensely and does not think I'm a good teacher. (She is very good with the students in the bottom half of the class, helping them succeed. I am very good with the top students, who, I think, are just as often neglected.) I received an email from her mid-term this spring telling me that, because she is having to cut classes with enrollment under 17, I need not return "for fall [term] and beyond," adding, "You are a gifted writer and thinker, and I know you will have other opportunities opened to you."
     The omissions were glaring. Not a gifted teacher? Not a word of thanks for teaching at RCC for more than thirty years? Not the slightest acknowledgement of what I have done for so many students? Incensed, I wrote back something along those lines, giving her a chance to rectify her oversight, mentioning some of the students who have expressed admiration and gratitude. She replied only, "Isn't it nice to have good memories?"
     It has taken me all these two months to let go of the insult. My former supervisor, who is still at RCC, helped by stepping into the gap, when I told him of my dismissal, with words of appreciation and praise, recognizing that my hallmark has always been academic rigor. My secretary gave me a gift and a card, saying she knew that leaving was bitter-sweet for me. (Yes, I thought. "You're the sweet. Midge is the bitter.) Cleaning out my office plummeted me into nostalgia. I threw out the years' accumulation of class assignments, knowing I'll never teach those courses again. I found a thick folder of thank-you notes from students over the years. I read a few. They all said the same thing: "You are a great teacher. I learned so much in your class." I remembered the former students who had come to my seventieth birthday party and given toasts with stories about my teaching.
     Although I had the satisfaction of seeing Midge skulk out of sight whenever she saw me on campus after her notice of dismissal, I did run into her once, as she was going out of the English office and I was going in. Disappointingly, I didn't say nearly half the things I had thought I would say. She apologized for "doing it badly," but that was all. Even given this second opportunity, she still couldn't say anything nice.
     Immediately after that encounter, I saw a former student on campus. She ran towards me. "Let me give you a hug!" she cried. "You did so much for me. I loved your class. I recommend you to everybody. 'Take Coogle,' I say. 'You'll learn so much.' Let's get together for coffee this summer. If you ever need your ego stroked, come to me."
     Such moments were always my best reward. Midge can think what she wants about my teaching. It is not the humiliation from her with which I end my teaching career but the humility I feel before my students' gratitude, admiration, and recognition and the difference I know I have made in so many lives. Besides, my former supervisor, who is the one who schedules literature classes, said that when enrollment at RCC picks up again, he wants to offer ENG 204 – Medieval and Renaissance English – and when he does, he wants me to teach it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Return to Houkola – Part 2

(See previous post for Part 1, if you missed it.)
Miriam, in front, and I walk towards the buildings that are all that's left of Houkola, the commune of the seventies.

            As Miriam, Sequoia, and I ate lunch on the slope above Sasha's cabin, 

looking over the distant hills, forests, and fields to the freeway and its tiny moving vehicles,


the memories spilled over. Stories poured uncontrollably from my mouth. "We used to walk up that ridge so we could see Mt. Shasta from the top," I said, gesturing to my right. "Ela learned to ride a bicycle on this flat spot where we're sitting. Sasha said it was like having a mini I-5 out her door. One night I woke up hearing, 'Ohmmmm. Ohmmmm.' I thought it was strange that someone would be outside ohming at that time of night. Then I realized I was hearing the trucks on the freeway."
            We peered through the windows into the house but didn't try to go in because it was filthy with animal droppings. I could see the doorway into the one bedroom, where I had lived during my first winter there, after abandoning the tipi; the long narrow kitchen, where we would make voluminous salads from the garden, which, augmented with brown rice, were our dinners, night after night; the very living room, where we would spread cushions and tablecloths and have dinner on the floor, and then the music and stories until late in the evening. The rainbow paintings were still on each side of the windows.

The rainbow paintings in the living room

"When I first got here, I was taking heavy anti-psychotic drugs," I told Miriam and Sequoia. "They made my neck and shoulders so stiff I moved like a zombie. Mariposa told me later that she thought I was the strangest person she had ever met. I felt strange even to myself. Then one day my doctor gave me a medication to relieve the stiffness. There was instant relief. That night as we were having dinner here in the house, Rachel walked through the door – this door – took one look at me, and said, in her dramatic way, 'A veil has been lifted' – as good a way as any to describe the difference."
            Miriam's memories and mine were sprawling out, sometimes converging, sometimes not. People's names tumbled from our mouths – Seven, Running Deer, Vicky, Ruthie, Rachel, Frank, Apple, Sasha, Mariposa. Juice Lenny and Air-brush Lenny. Tom, Eric, David.  People who had come to Houkola for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years; people whose names were forgotten, but who gave us music or stories or help in the garden; people whose names came back to us as we sat there where we had once known them. Memories of communal living flooded our talk: working in the garden, cooking dinners, playing music, doing crafts, hitchhiking to town and back and asking the driver who gave us a ride back to let us off at a certain spot on the freeway, saying we would walk from there, astonishing the driver as we shouldered backpacks full of food and town trip items and walked into nothing but woods and mountains, into emptiness, because somewhere out there in that wilderness was our home.
             Miriam, Sequoia, and I walked up the hill to the spot on the knoll where Miriam and Eric had built a hogan, where Sequoia had been conceived. Now Sequoia stood inside the square of boards on the ground that was all that was left of the hogan, standing on the spot where she had been conceived.
Sequoia (r) and her mother, Miriam, on the site of the hoagn

Here Miriam's memories spilled over as mine had done below – walking up the hill to the hogan through the snow and in the dark after dinner at the house, her mother and brother coming to visit from Switzerland (Miriam, too, is Swiss), the cross-country trip she and Eric had made just after she became pregnant.
             As we walked back down the hill, I told one last story, about the time when we in the commune had decided to go to Lake Chelan, Washington, to pick apples for much needed income. But someone would have to stay behind to take care of the land. I said I would stay. As I walked down the hill now, more than forty years later, I remembered watching everyone else drive off in our orange and white jeep, O.J., and feeling my utter isolation, the enormity of the wilderness closing in around me.

I looked up now at the mountains and the vastness and felt again that moment of fear. Now, too, I remembered just as vividly throwing off that fear at once, so I could do what had to be done. That I could stay alone in that isolated spot for that long was a test of my wellness. I did it, and I knew by that that I had returned to myself, that I was fully healthy again.
            Houkola was a healing place – for me, for the young woman whose boyfriend had been killed in Vietnam, for others whose hurts I didn't know. Like many communes, Houkola was a place of openness and acceptance, healing factors in themselves. Many legacies of the hippy movement are of questionable value, but I think there are few places in this country where I could have had the freedom and the support that Houkola gave me to return to myself, as I so desperately needed to do.
         Before Miriam, Sequoia, and I left Houkola, I dug up some irises and pulled up lilac shoots to plant at my own home, like the memories planted at Houkola that still nourish who I am today. 


Miriam and Sequoia in front of the main house at Houkola.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Return to Houkola – Part I

           When I was 29-30 years old, I was diagnosed (rightly or wrongly) as catatonic schizophrenic and spent a year in and out of mental institutions. At the end of that year, in the spring of 1975, I moved to a commune, deep in the mountains south of Ashland, Oregon, called Houkola, owned by a woman named Sasha. One of the couples on the commune, Eric and Miriam, had conceived their daughter, Sequoia, there. Last week I got a call from Miriam, who lives in Ashland but whom I hadn't seen since the days of Houkola, telling me she wanted to take her daughter to see the place where she and Eric had conceived her and did I want to join them?
         Yes!
         What it would be like to be at Houkola again I could only imagine.
        Miriam and I only had vague memories to help us find the land where the commune had been, situated in a remote part of the Siskiyou Mountains, but when we came to a particular hill on the road, memory kicked in. "This hill! I remember this hill!" I cried excitedly. "This is where – oh, what was her name? – slid off the road in the snow one winter," and Miriam said, with as much excitement, "I remember the railroad coming close to the road – see it there! – at the bottom of this hill." Pretty soon, with the help of a resident who was driving up the road and who could show us where Houkola had been, we were walking through a gate – a new gate; we had had no gates at Houkola – 

up the road to the commune again. We had walked that road a lot, in the days of Houkola, in the snows of winter and in the heat of summer. As we walked past a grove of small oaks next to the road, Miriam said suddenly, "I remember these trees!" We knew we were coming back.
        About half a mile up the road, we came to another gate, from which I could see the top of a house. We hesitated a split second (maybe it belonged to the new owner?), but we weren't about to stop now. Once through the gate, when I could see the house more clearly, I burst into a run. "That's it!" I cried. "That's our house! There's the porch. Sasha was weaving on the porch. I was sitting next to her. Two other women were weaving under these very oak trees."


            The memory was vivid. I had been so anxious, so unsure of myself that day, as always during those first few months out of the mental institution, when I was suffering a shattered personality and didn't know how to be myself any more. I remembered now what I had been thinking at that moment: "I have a loom. Shouldn't I be weaving, too?" I remembered how, on that day, sitting on that porch, I calmed my anxiety, saying to myself, "It's all right. What you're doing is watching the women weave. You don't have to be doing anything else." It was such an important moment for me, a lesson in "beingness" that took me one step closer to wholeness.
            Miriam also recognized the oak trees next to the porch. "I remember sitting under those trees making moccasins," she said. 
            I was beside myself with excitement. Everything was still there, albeit dilapidated – 

the house, the fence around the garden area, Sasha's cabin, the sauna, the barn on the side of which I had built a room. The room was now just a pile of broken boards, the reverse image of me: a pile of broken boards when I arrived at Houkola, now an intact, whole person. I had just been released from the mental institution then and was heavily drugged with anti-psychotics. Life was meaningless; everything I did was busy work. When I met the people in the commune, that first night at dinner, and told them Sasha had invited me to live in the tipi there, I explained my condition and said that I had lived in a commune before, so I knew how necessary it was for each person to carry his or her part of the work load, but that I knew I wasn't capable of doing that at that time.
            They just nodded in agreement. "That's all right," they said. "You will do what you can when you can." And that was all. From the first moment, I was given permission and freedom to focus on the healing process, to rediscover myself. 
          It wasn't always easy. When I moved to Houkola, I had to leave my son with his father, who had become my ex-spouse while I was in the mental institution. I knew I wasn't capable of taking care of my child, but it broke my heart to leave him. I loved the times when he came for week-long visits, visits I used for reconstructing our relationship. The memories of our time together are wonderful ones – Mariposa, the person I was closest to at Houkola, told me later how much she learned from me about raising her own boys – and if those memories were circumscribed with painful memories, well, that's the way things were.  The whole of my time at Houkola was important to me, so remembering it all was also important to me, now, at my return.

(Part 2 of "Return to Houkola" will be posted next week.)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Slip-n-Slide

            I am so sore! I have aches and pains, bruises and bumps, screaming stomach muscles. What was I thinking, playing with my granddaughter as though I were nine years old?
            It was so hot while I was visiting my family on Vashon Island that my granddaughter asked to play in the sprinkler. She ran through it, again and again, urging me to join her, but, really, I'm beyond the age of playing in sprinklers. Still, I was tempted just to get wet, so I went inside and put on my bathing suit. When I came back out, my son had spread a long sheet of black plastic down a steep slope on the lawn, with some rubber mats under it and the sprinkler at its top for a slip-n-slide. My granddaughter was already sliding joyously down the hill.
            "Come on, Amma Dee!" she yelled. "You try it. Come on."
            Well, I mean, how undignified could I get? Sliding down a hill at my age? No, no, I said. But I did sit at the top and tease her with pretend pushes as she tried to crawl up the plastic. "I'm coming up the black river," she would say, making her way up the slippery route, and then, within my reach: "Oh, no! It's the Amma-Dee squid!"  and I would lunge at her, and she would go sliding down with squeals and laughter.
            "Come on, Amma Dee. You do it." Then, when I wouldn't: "Bad Granny!"
            Bad Granny?! Bad Granny!? I am not Granny. I'm Amma Dee.
            That did it. Down I went, on my bum.
          She was delighted, and I had to admit, it was fun, so I went down again, but this time, I fell over a bit and slid down on my hip. I went really fast! And it was really, really fun.
           For the next three hours, she and I played on the slip-n-slide. We slid down the slope one after the other, convulsing in laughter at the bottom. I was getting plenty of speed by sliding on my hip, even flying past the end of the plastic, stopping only when I hit the grass. When I stood up, my legs were flecked with grass cuttings.
            Once, when I stood up after my slide, still on the plastic, my feet slipped out from under me, and I fell boom! on my bum. (It's a hard way to learn that I don't have osteoporosis, I thought ruefully.) Another time I slipped unexpectedly and crashed into my granddaughter, both of us tumbling down. Sometimes, when I veered off track in my uncontrollable slide, I hit the dry part of the plastic, which was very hot. I screeched the rest of the way down.
            Besides "Amma Dee Squid," we played "taxi": when we landed at the bottom, my granddaughter would start crawling back up the hill with me hanging on to her ankle. She was the taxi, pulling me up the hill, except, of course, she wasn't strong enough to pull me up, so really I was hanging onto her ankle and pulling myself up with my elbows and thighs. But the plastic was very slippery, and I really did need her nine-year-old's strength as well as all the strength I had to crawl on my stomach up a steep hill of wet plastic. We made incremental progress, slipping backward, then heaving forward again. I kept putting my head down to rest, saying, "I can't. I can't," and then gathering energy for another pull until finally, every time, we made it to the top, dissolving again into giggles.
            We screeched and yelled and laughed. We slid down, out of control. We pulled ourselves up again. It's no wonder I feel like I've beaten. Good Lord. I'm almost 73 years old. Don't I know better than to be throwing myself around like a nine-year-old?
            It was wonderful. It was imaginative and exhausting and free-spirited. My granddaughter loved it. I loved it. And when I left the house to catch the ferry, the beginning of the journey home, she came running from the house, threw her arms around me, and gave me another long, tight hug. Every bump, bruise, ache, and pain I have now was worth that moment.