Winces of Respect

She didn't tell me that I could write the story of her horrible awful day so I won't. But the conversation endeds with her cheered up a bit but still angry.

 I ask her to come to my bookssigning on Thursday and she pauses then proclaims
"I bet your students hug you when they see you on campus!"

"No, no definitely not," I answer so fast I practically interrupt her.  "They wince when they see me, looking all scared probably because they don't know what crazy thing I could do. They dont want to draw attention to themselves; some cringe. I saw a blonde scitter away and hide once. No, my students don't hug me and I try not to terrorize them in front of their friends. Its a good system. We kinda like it that way. "

She replies with a disappointed "oh" and soon enough goes off to what she has to do.

 Which is good because I suddenly feel like writing  stories again.

Sit Quietly and Wear a Hard Shell

(From "Charming Emily"  - )

In the first six weeks at Retreat, I learned to pray in my own words, to find grottos in the silence, and to offer what I have to those in need.    

Apparently by not dying at that point I was eligible for a promotion. Once I became a Priestess I most enjoyed hearing confessions and giving absolutions.

I do not wish to heal. I do not wish to heal others.

 That isn’t why I’m here; except it seems to be exactly what I’m doing (again, but now for free, which is lost to me hour by hour, let it be known).

I retreat, they follow. I meditate, they surround. 

I try to keep my hands to myself, but like magnets they snap into place, aligned, silent.

Without them, without this, I think I would spend my days waiting for the sunset, then, after that, I would spend my nights waiting for sunrise.

 I would be waiting and waiting for this to just end.
But it will. 

Everything does.

Katie followed me on my walk today, holding a rosary and asking about hell.

I say nothing, I’m not here to say anything, I’d like to be a stone, ignored and silent, baking in the sun.

“The pain,“she asks, “is it mental? Or physical? And is that what God DOES? Abandons us to a sadistic torturer?”

I wonder where she got this, but not enough to interrupt her, which would also involve turning around, which today I am too weak (or, rather “light”) to consider.

She continues, “I don’t understand a vengeful God….” Then she stops, huffing from whatever condition brought her to this camp.

I pause on the narrow bridge over the koi pond, not intentionally waiting for her.

The ripples between me and the darting fish magnify my baldness. I look like an initiate, a nun, a priestess. 

Coincidentally, I think as I ponder myself as confessor, as minister, as gateway, it now seems relevant and almost a sign this whole time that I prefer caftan dresses with long wide sleeves that make triangles when I hold my arms out.

I packed four of them (red, white, blue, black), before I even knew.

Katie follows me, talking more to herself than to me again, which I am not going to point out to her.

“So why did God punish me? What did I do to deserve this? And is dying like this enough for what I’ve done or will I still be paying for eternity for something I did years ago? Or what? I wish I hadn’t and if I could do it again I wouldn’t, but now I still have to pay? Will I? I need to KNOW, you know?”

We walk under canopying oaks draped with Spanish moss. 

A greedy squirrel stops in front of me; yesterday I brought my lunch. 

He remembers. I nod and shrug. He shakes his head. Disappointed.

She continues.“I need to know who to talk to, what to say, what to do, to just FIX this for once and for all, to let it go and to know I’m not spending eternity in flames, tortured, roasting, thirst.  That’s worse than Cinderella’s stepmother. How could a good and decent God send us to THAT? So I should fear him? Hell ya,  I fear him, like I’m cowering in the corner waiting for some beating I just know is coming, so I’m mad too, because how could He do that to me? “

“Isn’t it enough I’ve lost my breasts, lost my hair, lost my job? And now I’m facing eternity being tortured. Oh. My. God. This is insane. What was I even born? Why even create me?”

At this point we’d crossed under the canopy of oaks, arriving on the rocky shore.

I laid my folded red blanket into a thick small rectangle and poised myself to wait for the sunset.

Two ducks sat beside me; a family of turtles sleeping and sunning on a rock held their stillness. 

Katie paced between me and the shore. “I mean, I don’t even know how this is going to end. Right? I could live to be 90.  I could be a grandmother. And I could worry about dying later, but I can’t stop now because if this doesn’t work and I do go then I want to ready, but how? Again, like, is there a form? Because I heard Catholics have a form , like ‘its been x months since my last confession; I’ve done 4 of #x, and 3 of #8.’ I can never memorize the amendments. What if I don’t do it right?”

She looks at me, I look at her. 

The part of me that once would have laughed or would have corrected is still. 

Nothing I can say matters anyway, I am vaporizing, can’t she see this?

I tilt my head up  to the sun which is directly overhead, welcome its revealing warmth on my head.

 I’m tempted to run my hands over my head but instead slide back to stillness.
The water is motionless now. There are no clouds. 

The air feels clean.

I notice my life continuing.

 I breathe in, then out, over and over, appreciating how effortlessly it comes. 

Katie keeps talking.
As the ducks leave me, she is still talking.

“How do I just forgive everyone? Because I hear you need to do that and I can’t forgive someone and really I don’t want to.  I want him to roast I hell over those flames tortured for what he did, for what he made me do. For real. For REAL, how can I forgive him and why should I forgive him, he hasn’t even asked me to and I don’t want to, and it was the ONE thing I said I would never do.”

The ducks left me, one signaled the other it was time, and off they went. 

The smaller one looked back. I think she feels sorry for me.

The sun moved across the sky, unimpeded by clouds. 
Katie kept talking.

“If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have done it.  I wouldn’t have A. met him or B. slept with him. Even though my GOD that man came over me like a tidal wave, like washed me away into his world and I couldn’t stand and I didn’t even want to, you know? Hello? Sister? SISTER?

I look at her, now. I am not her sister. 

Oh God, she thinks I’m a nun.

“Look Sister, I don’t know if you’ve always been a virgin please don’t tell me please but hasn’t a man ever made you melt?

I laugh.

 Katie is satisfied.

After our first date, he walked me back home and sat outside my window, talking to me through the screen. I invited him up but he said no. Seriously, I forget that night because it was before. You know? He said it was against his religion and also, he said I wasn’t clean and if he touched me he wouldn’t be clean. And that was a big deal, in case he died on the way home.”

“We talked all night, offering pieces of ourselves into the air for each other, each story building stacking  delicately together. Did you ever realize how important it is to tell good stories? We become the stories we tell about ourselves. Ever heard that? I don’t know if I made it up so you can use it if you want, if you ever talk, but anyway, I dated a guy with these pointless stories. He would take three hours to describe a half hour sitcom. It’s like no one listened, and he kept talking, talking, filling the air. He never had a point, he never got anywhere, he just talked and talked. But no, this was different.”

I melted in his stories, cursing God for every second he’d been on earth but hidden from me.” Katie sighed and followed my eyeline to the sun, which was lower and softer now.

I consider opening the bag of nuts and raisins in my pocket, but choose to stay in this pause of silent emptiness.

 Right now I’m only still and peaceful, so I do nothing.

Katie continued to  talk and I wonder how she hasn’t needed water. 

Actually, Katie’s frail frame was gesticulating energetically as she talked about this man, this event, this whatever.

When we went out he looked so tenderly like he could somehow reach into my sore spots and fix them. Fix me.  And I wanted him to, I believed he could, like he was going to be that guy who would read my mind, know what I wanted, never would look at any other women but me. His hands….

Katie looked down, “Now I feel like a train crashed into me and I didn’t think to move.”

At that point she sat next to me, unwound enough to look where I was looking, noticing the how the sinking orange surrendered to the purple, sending streaks of pink and red to say thank you thank. 

Now, after her silence, she was ready, and without a ritual or a proclamation, she offered her burden up.

It was only once. On our third date.  It wasn’t what I’d hoped. He walked in the door, looked me over and shook his head. Not a hug, you know? That says something. Anyway.  He marched me to my closet and proceeded to choose this and that and then said things were dirty or dingy or cheap and we were running late, and he went to get a glass of water while I accessorized the slutty short black dress I’d worn for Halloween last year as a one of the back dancers in that “Addicted to Love” video, with the red lips, remember?”

I do remember, and she can tell without me saying a word.

“So then I’m dressed and come out and he has pulled all my glasses into the sink saying they’re dirty. He wanted me to wash them before we left, and while I washed them he stood next to me, tossing peanuts into his mouth,  explaining that I just wasn’t turning out to be what he’d expected, but not to cry, I was beautiful, really, for people who looked past things, he added. Then we finally went to dinner and the place was awful and the waitress fawned on him. He ate salmon and ordered salad for me.”

The sun lingered so long, I think she wanted to hear the story too.

I needed to learn some things, he kept telling me, for my own good.  And I believed him, I swear to you, I swam in his eyes like those cowmaids or milkgirls or whoever danced drunkedly with Krishna. I would change for him. And at home he told me he couldn’t stay the night but that he would put me to bed. Which he did by some hypnosis I can vaguely remember, but I never saw after that night. I thought it was the beginning, otherwise I would have paid more attention, you know?”

Two turtles slid off their rock into the water. The others stared at the sun.

It wasn’t… romantic?... and then, he just sprung up and  afterwards he said my butt jiggles and to work on that. That’s what he said. Then he had to do some ritual cleaning and blew me a kiss on the way out because he couldn’t touch me.

So then a week later, he comes over on his way out to meet another girl and I’m eating dinner and he said it smelled and it made me smell and pretty much I lost my appetite at being so gross you know? He called the next morning before work, then at lunch to make sure I wasn’t eating, then again after work. Each time I’d invite him over, each time he’d say no.”

Then I called him. Twice. Without his permission. A woman answered and I wanted to die. For the first time in my life, really seriously, I wanted to die.”

I sat still, very still, surrounded by ducks and pigeons and a few peripheral squirrels.  

Time has become meaningless to me lately, more since my appetite left.

It was night now. Compassionately silent stars stood guard over our confessional by the lake.

 In my head I call the turtle next to me Teddy, like Teddy Roosevelt (“sit quietly and wear a hard shell,” I imagine his slogan would be) and imagine him giving his friendship freely. 

He opens and closes his mouth then twists his head.

The pamphlet mentioned hearing loss as one of the signs.

I’m not listening for it, but I’m not afraid of silence.

The Fifteen Minute Myth

It was the second week of school, enough into the semester to notice a student who looked a little miffed in the sea of happy students.

After class she opens up electronically. She was frustrated that another professor hadn't given the class a syllabus yet, that he was late to class. "We were ready to walk out, we waited the full 15 minutes..." she mentioned, alluding to that 15 minute myth that has been racing around campuses for generations.

Have you heard it? It goes something like this: If your instructor is a Full Professor and is late to class, you must wait in the room 15 minutes before leaving and safely assuming there will be no lecture. Along those lines, if your instructor is a mere Associate Professor, you only need to wait 10 minutes; if the instructor ranks below that you can pack your bags in 5 minutes and dash safely for the doors.

I've been teaching college at a variety of colleges for 20 years and I have never come across this anywhere in employment manuals or rules on student conduct. 

Perhaps this started back in the days of medieval snowy hilled colleges, where professors donned Harry Potter-esque robes with flared sleeves to hide loaves of warm bread and bottles of spicy wine.  Maybe the professor slipped on an icy path, maybe he was stopped by a PhD student asking another question about another little thing.  Out of respect, wait. A professor running late -- or unable to come to campus at all - couldn't call in, he just had to assume the students would know after 15 minutes that they were dismissed.

That's nice and all, but back then they didn't have cellphones in pockets and purses, phones in the classrooms, computers with internet (everywhere), Twitter, email, Facebook, Blackboard and texting.  A professor running late can notify the class.

I told my student that, and then I flipped it on her. If your professor isn't there when class is about to start, go say something, go tell someone. This isn't normal, it

That leads me to think it's a myth, just like the one about getting straight A's if your roommate dies. Across two decades  I've had three students lose their roommates to death during the semester; none of them got a break from their professors bigger than extensions on papers and exams. 

Camp Art of War

Zack and I are studying military history and building forts.

He builds the forts.

 I attack them.

Sometimes I come in and hang out and pretend to fall asleep. Then I attack him.

Sometimes I jump through the ceiling. I win.

Sometimes I send in good things to eat, and tell him I killed him. Score.

Once I attacked him crucial fortification with a Spongebob ball calling it a "naval bombardment"

Today it was my turn to build a fort.

My fort was square, like the Alamo, and had a yoga mat on the bottom because I hear most of war is spent waiting and waiting so I didn't want to be in the "dirt."

Zack curls up next to me, like a good son should.

 I tell him stories about people just like us who lived a million years ago caves and painted on the walls.

What would you write? I ask him, not at all trying to be a teacher or professor or anyone who had a right answer in mind.

"I'd write F.U. British!" Zack said, then he killed me.

Are they White? or Light?

(Chapter 18 from "Finding the Statue of Liberty in Cuba")

I could have kept going. I was headed right for how the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis affect Cuban exiles in America, just like I taught in lecture several times a semester, over and over over the years.

But I stopped myself. 

They didn't need to know all of that, and besides that, their eyes already looked full of thoughts, like processing what I've just said is enough for awhile.

Next time I go to Cuba - or the time after that maybe -  there is something I want to tell them about. Something actually, I've been meaning to tell Americans about too.  

Every semester while I’m teaching the Cold War, I lecture on Cuban Revolution and the US response: Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and Operation Pedro Pan. I’ve done it so many times I’m having trouble stopping myself from lecturing to these people who I barely know and who won’t be taking a test from me any time soon.

But still, I want to tell them about the letters I found from Operation Pedro Pan, when Cuban families sent 14,000 unaccompanied children to the US to escape communist indoctrination early in the Cuban Revolution. 

 One summer during graduate school, back before the internet and OnDemand and Twitter, I hung out in the archives just looking for what was to be found and basking in the glory of being a graduate students.

A friend researching Operation Pedro Pan opened a box of materials and was disappointed to find just a bunch of letters.

 She opened another box and moved on, but I’m nosy, so I grabbed the letters and they were written by Americans willing to open their homes to the Cuban children.  This was an awesome find because almost all of the Cuban children who came to the US went to family or group homes with Catholic Charities.

There were sweet letters:  
(September 12, 1963, Indiana)
My husband and I have great sympathy for the Cuban refugees that have left their homes and possessions in search of personal freedom. In particular we have great sympathy and great respect for the courage of those parents who have sent their children alone to this country.
 We would like to take a small part in proving to some parents that their trust and faith were not in vain.

There were less sweet letters:

(May 7, 1962, Indiana)  
…Could we have our choice?…Are they white? or light?

(March 10, 1962, Utah)
We would like to apply for a fairer skinned girl five and at the oldest six…my  husband has dark hair and mine is light brown therefore we feel that if we had  a fairer skin child she would be accepted…better.

I’m not sure if this family meant to say they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but their intention come across:

 (October 24, 1968, Michigan)
 I am writing you because we understand that Florida has an abundance of Cuban children waiting to be adopted, but who are often “hard to place” and therefore may be waiting in vain. My husband and I would like to adopt a child, but not the beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed little girl on the Ivory Soap ad who would have no trouble  being adopted….Instead, we want to adopt a child who might not otherwise find a home, a Cuban child, or Puerto Rican or Mexican.

And then there’s this guy:
(May 27, 1962, South Dakota)
            I keep reading about the children that are sent here to escape the unfortunate situation in Cuba. I am a musician [who] used to be in orchestras and universities as a teacher. Now I am teaching here in a small college, and we have no brass players. They are strained, and I would like to get some youngster or youngsters who would like to play a brass instrument, give them free lessons, take them in, and make something of them.

 Anyway, in my heart I would have wanted to tell everyone in Cuba that the people in America love them and wanted to help their children, but now, here at lunch today just isn’t the place.

Kennedy is gone, Khrushchev is gone, the world has changed. I’m ready to talk about Cuba here and now and not focus on the past but I can’t think of real questions to ask them, hard questions about politics and opportunity and access to the outside world. Instead we talk about the status of Puerto Rico, which everyone has something to say about.

Lunch winds down and the man with the cars on his tie leaves us. Machete goes back to the taxi to return a call and Mom takes me through a garden to show me where she walked with my father a few months ago, here.

 She points to a bench where they had sat together.  I can’t even begin to imagine he had as much fun as I’m having, even without lecturing on the Cuban Revolution.

I Won't Wear Black for You, No.

I won't wear black for you, no.

 You were just at that baby shower,
 we laughed together, remember?

I won't wear black for you, no,
not at your funeral tomorrow.

I won't wear black for you, no,
we were just a wedding,
I met your oldest daughter's boyfriend,
he's a gem.
You loved him, too,

I won't wear black for you, no,
we just quietly gloriously just admired
your other daughter,
We talked about her her courage and spirit,

I won't wear black for you, no,
I can't grieve for you, not yet.

You were just here,
so strong, so bright, so loyal,
never wearing black,
never complaining.

I won't wear black at your funeral tomorrow,
I can't imagine something so dark
when we all come together
to celebrate YOU.

I won't wear black tomorow, no.
 I know you'll understand.