Thursday, January 31, 2019

What the Creature Read

I haven't really looked at myself in a long time, but I think this is what I look like to my students, especially today when I sort of lit into them about rudeness and respect and the difficulty of teaching when they're walking around making cup o'noodles and chatting to one another and blurting out questions completely unrelated to the subject I'm talking about. I'm not kidding about the cup o'noodles. I think they got the message, though, because they got really, really quiet and apologized and then sang me some kind of song which was kind of embarrassing, but, damn, they're sweet and I just love my new job. I had them do this presentation in small groups about What the Creature Read, and each presentation was so original and interesting and funny and intelligent, that all my frustration melted away. If you're interested, we are finishing up a unit on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and since the theme I chose to dwell upon was empathy in the novel, and I found a really good curriculum on the world wide webs, the project was for each group to review a famous novel or work of literature that the Creature read when he found a bunch of books in a bag outside the home where he was staying. They had to answer a series of questions about why Shelley had chosen for the Creature to read those books and think critically about all of it. (Lord the whole phrase critical thinking!) The books Mary Shelley had him read included Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Young Werther and Plutarch's Lives, and in lieu of my students reading all of those, I printed out some summaries and they went from there. If you're interested, The Creature basically learned from these books how to feel and how to live, so my students worked in groups and placed themselves into the Creature's shoes. They were incredibly creative, down to re-titling the books themselves, which was part of the assignment. For Paradise Lost, they changed it to Garden Gone Wrong. The Sorrows of Young Werther became The Book of Sad Love. One group did a silly play that was quite funny and each group made astounding drawings.

I hope it's okay that I put this up on the old blog. I am filled with delight over these girls when I'm not wildly distracted by their chattiness and unruliness and devotion to cup o'noodles. I'm looking for book selections for the 3rd term for the 12th grade -- thinking of Virginia Woolf perhaps, but which one? For the 11th grade, I'm thinking of Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. It's so profoundly American and has lots of music in it to break up the dryness. What do you think? Any ideas? Remember that I have massive restrictions on what I can teach -- no sex or romance or extreme violence or teenage pregnancy or suicide or mutilation or abuse or or or or or or.

The Bird-Catcher

When fighting time is on, I go
With clap-net and decoy
A-fowling after goldfinches
And other birds of joy;

I lurk among the thickets of
The Heart where they are bred,
And catch the twittering beauties as
They fly into my Head

Ralph Hodgson, b. 1879, Northumberland 

Thank you, dear Andrea, for sending me this poem.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Dispatch from Los Angeles, via Holland and Italy*

dedicated to my comrades, particularly Sandra

When my friends and family check in with me of late, I reply with the above Bitmoji. Those of you who live on another, better planet, or who don't own a smart phone, or who disdain pictorial representations of oneself or, worse, words, who bemoan the dwindling use of language and/or have no idea what a Bitmoji is or even an app, should stop reading now. I wish I lived on another planet, wish I didn't own a smart phone, disdain pictorial representations of myself and, worse, of words, and I bemoan the dwindling use of language, but I do love the Bitmoji app and find endless delight finding exact representations of myself thinking certain thoughts, having certain emotions and otherwise living. 

It's going. My uncle is recovering very well here at the house, and Sophie is on her second day of her sixth month of intravenous immunoglobulin infusions. I have successfully navigated the World of Sub-Sub Acute Rehab by scheduling my uncle's health aide, bathing, OT and PT home health visits. The highlight of my week was when I paid $1.69 for his medication which filled my tiny little mother mind™with wonder, as you can imagine.

If you can't imagine, I wondered what our lives might have been like if Sophie's medications cost $1.69 over the years, as opposed to at least $70 after countless hours of wrangling and upwards of $500 when the wrangling doesn't work. All thinking by the tiny little mother mind™ is rhetorical, of course. Socialized medicine works effectively, I guess, for some of the country but could, apparently, be disastrous for the rest of us (I don't want no government coming between me and my doctor!), so we continue to grease the wheels of capitalism, the free market and Big Pharma in the labyrinthine corridors of the greatest country on earth's medical system, Brazil.

What else?

Speaking of capitalization, I've CAPITALIZED on the increased caregiver duties by increasing my meditation practice which means at this point that I've started meditating off and on all day long. Reader, I can already feel those neurons in my brain firing off peace as opposed to chaos.

The trick (for me) is to be truly mindful of even the shitty stuff, to acknowledge it in whatever way you need, to dwell on it, to muck around in it, to weep profusely over it, to wallow in it and to take your time doing it. It's only then that it rolls off your back, maybe even disappears. I say trick because, let's face it -- I generally feel completely unhinged and at the edge of consciousness, especially when I learn at 7:15 in the morning that Saint Mirtha will not be coming in, that I won't be able to attend my friend Tanya's screening, that the IVIG nurse is going to be early and -- well -- I won't bore you.

So, that's the dispatch from Los Angeles. The upcoming week includes continued caregiver duties on two fronts but also more teaching of English literature, a Clippers game with my love and, hopefully, a trip to Portland next weekend, planned for months.

* This title is a nod to those who were subjected in the early days of their child's disability or diagnosis to the treacly treatise by a certain writer who compared the journey of special needs parent-dom to landing in Holland instead of Italy. Don't ask.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Self Subversion

My uncle has come to stay with us for a while to further recover from a head injury he suffered several weeks ago after a fall. He's been in a rehab facility in the deep dark valley, and yesterday I went to pick him up. I'd like to say that it all went smoothly, that the medical system worked well, that all family members participated, that I never once lost my cool or spoke in the tone of voice I have acquired, somehow, despite myself, that lies somewhere between Stepford Caregiver cheerful and a dripping condescension. I'd like to say that getting lost in the facility and finding myself for a few minutes wandering through several rooms filled with disabled adults who milled about muttering or sat staring and nodding was at the very least, familiar.  Except that the medical system did not work well, all family members have not participated, I lost my cool a couple of times, and my tone of voice didn't just drip but splattered with irritation. And my wander through the halls of adult institutionalization resulted in a bout of sadness about nine hours later that I told Carl was something that just happens, sometimes, this wave of emotion that is best dealt with by assuming a kind of dead man's float, the better to not be drowned. The morning light brought so much relief it felt nearly funny, and I made blueberry muffins that I ate with the three men (one old, one in the middle and one young), along with pancetta that I scrambled with eggs. I cut up two blood oranges, and we ripped the flesh from the rind.

As the hours tick by and the caregiving continues, I think of self-regard, of self-care, of the illusion of the self.

Question: What do you have to look out for? 
Answer: Resentment. 

Resentment. If I could give it a shape, it'd be the infinity symbol or something impossible. If I could give it a color,  I think of something burnt red. Like the gray of embers with bursts of light. The word implacable. Women. Keeping our mouths shut. Resentment is not to be mistaken for anger which is the open mouth or red lips drawn into a smile.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Head Swimming with Wants

We're getting rain here in Los Angeles -- buckets and buckets of rain -- and the most beautiful winter sunsets. That picture above was taken on Saturday in Santa Monica. Carl and I were on the beach, and that's facing east, away from the ocean.

Turn around.

Today marked the first day of the second week of my new job teaching English to a group of eleventh and twelfth grade girls. I have three classes, two groups of eleventh graders and one group of twelfth. Each class is unique and one is particularly challenging. Anger and resistance make the air crackle in that room. Heads swim with wants. Take notes, I think. Keep taking notes. I have a mind and a memory like a steel trap, and these girls will join all the other hostages that wander the labyrinthine paths.

I get this newsletter every day from The New York Times newspaper cooking section. It's called What to Cook Right Now. I love it so much -- the recipes, the commentary, the links. Today I learned that it's the writer John Dos Passos' birthday (1896). I read nearly everything he wrote back in the last century, in my early twenties. I probably read him lying on a bed somewhere, maybe in the apartment where I lived with my first love, out in the country in Chapel Hill, a mattress on the floor at the top of the stairs, sandwiched between two walls and a window at the foot, a bookcase stuffed with used paperbacks. I might have been chewing on some Twizzlers when I read Dos Passos, red plastic mingling with brown must. Dos Passos was a hostage, though, wandering around my mind, lost down some dark corridor, until I read about him today.

Teaching these girls, doing the research for lesson plans, revisiting stories and poetry -- it's all packed in there, in my mind, and it seems that there's no end to what one can stuff into it. So, yeah. Take notes, I think. Keep taking notes.

Here's a passage from The 42nd Parallel that Sam Sifton, the guy from the NY Times newsletter thinks describes the writer's life. I agree.

The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into tattered scraps, footsteps tap fainter in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the want ads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boarding houses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough. At night, head swimming with wants, he walks by himself alone.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

I've completed my first week of teaching three English classes of eleventh and twelfth grade young women. Here are some observations and notes:

  • a bit of Emily Dickinson -- hope and the thing with feathers -- inspired a group of let's say recalcitrant girls to write their own three stanza poems using extended metaphor and dang if they didn't do a beautiful job

  • have argued over whether or not to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (only the 12th grade girls are reading it, now). It's old. It's hard. Cry me a river.

  •  read aloud Christina Rossetti's The Goblin's Market and are now doing a fine analysis of it (thank you, LP, for turning me on to this strange and wonderful poem). I felt a tad uncomfortable reading the provocative parts of the poem, given the sensual imagery of juices running out of mouths, etc., but this poem! the language!

  • have begun reading Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter. Remember that? I loved Hawthorne stories as a young reader and hope to pass along the weirdness (not of me but of him) to these students. 

  • have worn black tights three times this week which is more times than in the previous twenty years. This is not hyperbole

  • who knew I had so little modest clothing? I've had to purchase some things that make me feel strangely invisible which provokes thought -- interesting thoughts --we think the ways in which we adorn ourselves speak to identity but maybe they don't because I am still me however much I look like an Italian widow 

  • (the question of being told what to wear and what constitutes modesty and the concomitant questions of male authority and hierarchy and what it means to be reverent, etc.) 

I am both exhausted and exhilarated, my voice hoarse at the end of the teaching period, warranting a Rules and Expectations hand-out that includes some communication pointers and a stern demand for respect for me and for one another which translates into Refrain from interrupting and talking over one another and me. 




Monday, January 7, 2019

Back to School

I've got so many books that I've started wearing them on my back. Marie Kondo, mondo and all that jazz. Are ya'll watching that show on Netflix? I plan on checking it out as I've resisted that whole cultural phenomenon that appears to cater primarily to the privileged with me, privileged but rather content in the organized clutter that I call home.  Right now I'm trying to get into Circe, a book that was recommended by a slew of people whose opinions I admire and trust, but it's sort of mythological and sort of fantasy and -- well -- I just can't get into it. I'm at the age where I don't continue reading books that haven't grabbed me by, say, page 50. Bye, bye Circe. Hello Elaine Pagel's Why Religion. I've read Pagel's writing, and it's difficult and fascinating and right up my alley. I guess some of you would argue that religion is fantasy and myth, so then given my aversion to both genres, why would I read it? I don't know what to tell you, other than at one point I looked into getting a Master's degree in Religious Studies/Comparative Religion.

In any case, I STARTED MY NEW JOB TODAY. Yes, Sirree Bob, as they say. I've got this new job teaching English to 11th and 12th grade girls in a very, very strict religious school. It's not a Catholic school by the way, so I'm not dressed as a Flying Nun, but I'm dressed in a way that is not customary for me, and while it's not uncomfortable, I do feel a bit like an embedded journalist in a country far, far away. Taking notes, with deep respect and curiosity and a tiny bit of ambivalence about the culture in which I am thrust, black clad and modest.

I love Los Angeles as it's a place where all these different cultures collide -- under the sun, of course, with a new governor and a whole lot of lefties and a smattering of conservatives (just enough to add some "diversity" but not enough to encroach upon our liberal ways). And what the hey is going on with the POSPOTUS and the government shutdown? I'm sorry if you're a furloughed worker and hope that this is all resolved, and we can quit thinking about walls and spikes and concrete and hordes of terrorists rabidly climbing over and into our lives.

The girls were wonderful today -- bright and sweet and outspoken and even a little outrageous. I had some exchanges, stared into some very warm brown eyes and knew immediately whom I was going to love because love is a serious word (she told me) even as I'll be driven crazy.

It's all good.

Tell me what you're reading. Tell me what you'd like to read if you were an 11th or 12th grade girl and have some strict reading guidelines (no sex, no violence, no molestation, etc.). I'm making up a list of book suggestions and need your help.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Working Stiff

Street graffiti, Los Angeles, 2019

I finally got a job that I'm excited about, and it begins next week. I've been applying for various positions from a site called Indeed for the last year, and I was beginning to believe that it might be a front for some kind of data gathering Russian bot/Facebook thingamajig because literally nothing came out of it. I'm perfectly aware that I have my limitations at the age of 55, and I didn't bother applying to the kind of grunt work that offered a salary that would quickly be swallowed up by Saint Mirtha, but damn, it was demoralizing and all death of a salesman around here until Christmas week when I was hired to teach English literature and writing part time in a small private school for girls. The school is very small and very religious, with strict dress codes for both the students and the teachers. That's all I'll say about that. I am very excited and a tiny bit nervous but extremely grateful to have found something that perfectly fits the erratic schedule and overwhelming duties of my other job as CEO of Sophie, Inc. I will be jumping right in on Monday with the girls already reading Frankenstein. 

I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other. 

from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The universe is abundant.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year

Sunrise, Salton Sea, 2017

To the New Year
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W.S. Merwin


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...