or “Learning to Speak”
I was way, way into adulthood. Yes, I was surely still distraught – my husband, Tom, had died of a heart attack just one year earlier at age 42 – but what’s puzzling is how typical this moment was for me. Here I see myself starkly, I feel my frozenness, I feel my own present puzzlement looking at that past moment. Something is wrong with this picture. How did I come to this?
I wanted to go back, even alone, to the field in the woods where Tom and I had gone together on the motorcycle, to the great field with the six-or-seven-deep circles of pine on the far side of this openness. The field was so big we’d hardly seen the trees at first. We’d parked the motorcycle, took off all our clothes as the day was hot and we were way off in the backwoods; we wandered toward the only interesting thing in the field, this far-off grove. Upon arriving there I walked all through it and finally stood in the middle to feel the energy. I remembered Carlos Castaneda’s writings about places of power, and particularly he’d said that a warrior must find their own specific Place of Power where their spirit will go after they die, where before leaving the earth they will do their warrior’s last dance. I decided that this would be my Place of Power when I die.
Tom was wandering around somewhere and came back saying it was time to go. We headed back to the motorcycle, put on our clothes, and drove off through the endless quiet woods of the Manistee National Forest to my family’s cottage on the little lake.
Now here I was two years later trying to pull together some new life. After twenty years together Tom had been taken from me to another world. I had come to the cottage alone. I wasn’t able to drive the motorcycle, but in the tool shed I found an old bike – no gears at all. I took one of the old Indian blankets that had been part of my family’s picnicking all through childhood, wrapped a can of bug spray in it and somehow put it on the back of the bike. I wasn’t sure how to find this field; all these sandy trails through the woods looked the same, but I headed off as best I could remember.
Riding the heavy old bike on trails of sand was hardly easier than walking, but I pushed forward slowly. Finally, to my surprise, I came to the field. As I got off the bike I realized I’d lost the Indian blanket. “It must have fallen off somewhere farther back,” I thought. I stood by the bike looking back down the road, trying to decide what to do. Head back down the difficult trail for an unknown distance? There was sentiment with the Indian blanket, besides wanting to sit on it in the circle of pines.
As I stood there, weary and unsure, a pickup truck came down the trail. Two men sitting in the front drove slowly by me, so close we could have shaken hands. Their window was open; they said nothing. And I, too, said nothing! I hoped they would stop and offer me what I’d lost: “Did you drop something on the trail?” they might say. But they did not. They looked at me but all was silent as they continued slowly on.
Frozen. I remember my mouth feeling sewn shut, forbidden to speak.
They were men, this was part of the situation.
They seemed men of power and I was a small woman of 43 who still felt like a girl-child.
They were strangers. I had never seen my parents talk comfortably with complete strangers. I did not feel permission to do that.
It was not that I felt the men were dangerous, it was not that at all, though they looked like men of the woods, surely hunters in the fall, surely ignoring regulations when they didn’t like them. Was it my mother inside me? “Hold everything that’s you inside, silent and unshown.” My earliest real memory as a child is of looking up and seeing her crying quietly, as if she were trying to hide this show of true feelings. “Take what Life and men give you; you cannot have what you want,” she had told me with her example of silence. The Depression had taught her this stoicism, as well as the general culture of her times that left all decisions to the husband.
What else? Was it something I’d been taught or was it just something missing in my experience? Why could I not ask for what I wanted?
The question brings up other memories. I’m maybe five or six, standing on a beautiful wooded hill in autumn that slopes steeply down to the Muskegon River. My dad has just said to Mom that his dad, Grandpa M, has some old wooden skis in his garage. Excitement rises up in me; I can see the skis in my mind’s eye. Wouldn’t it feel grand to go down this steep hill on skis? But how does one get up the hill again? How does one stop and not run into trees? Would they ever let me try Grandpa’s skis? Would it be dangerous? I wanted to try skiing, try sailing down this steep hill in the winter snow, but I stood there silent, small between the grown-ups, quiet as I always was, no bother to them. I never asked about the skis, or how does one do this skiing, and they never even knew I was interested. A desire unspoken, silenced at the gate – the closed mouth.
A few years later it’s Christmas and we’re at my maternal grandparents house for dinner. “Uncle Moe” (we couldn’t say “Melvin” when we were little) was still living at home as a young quiet bachelor. Upstairs we’d get to tiptoe briefly into his room and he showed me his ham radio, through which he could talk to people far away, even in other countries. I was excited by this! Wouldn’t that be fun to be able to do that? But did I ever ask him or anyone if I could learn it? No, of course not. No one ever knew that interest in my heart.
Do not ask. The family policy: We will give you all you need, all we can. We give and give abundantly, but please do not ask for something from your own heart. Somehow I had learned this..
Once the secret desire in my own heart matched something dad wanted too, and without asking I received a gift that matched my secret longing! I’m still surprised to remember this. One surreal day I was sitting in boring Spanish class when someone knocked on the classroom door. I was called down to the school office. On the way my best friend fell in step beside me as she, too, had been called out. The superintendent greeted us in his quiet stiff manner and invited us into a little room. As we entered I saw a circle of men around the table and recognized one, our friend Mr. V, the only Catholic on the school board. Yes, this was the school board. Then someone explained to us that they had been thinking it would be enriching for the school to send some students to other countries as exchange students and have foreign students come here. Would we like to go abroad as exchange students?
Oh my! Would I like to travel abroad as an exchange student?? Would I like to …
This had been in my heart for several years. I had never asked my father; I wouldnever ask him. I had three younger sisters; to spend such money on me would take too much from the family pot, I knew. Dad had already taught me this when I had sent for mail about a Catholic girls’ school in Miami that I longed to attend. He must have seen the mail because out of the blue one day he said “I pay taxes for public schools; I’m not sending you girls to private schools.” Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
But now the School Board had “chosen” me! And they had already talked with our parents and received an OK. Later I learned that they had picked five students out of our class of 44 and visited all their parents: any student could go whose parents would pay for it: the School Board was not giving any financial help at all. We were the only two whose parents agreed to pay for the trip.
So I spent a summer in Sweden, an experience that jerked me out of my small town life into a much larger view of the world. If I had asked for this experience, I’m sure the answer would have been “No,” but the honor my being “chosen” gave some kudos to my dad, so for once my heart’s desire matched what the world offered me.
In hindsight now, I’m thinking perhaps this was not good. This experience seemed to feed my passivity, this principle by which I was living that adults would give me what was good for me without my asking. The right to ask for what I want, the responsibility to ask – these have been missing in me for some reason.
There is the possibility that it all began as Freud, from his own neurosis, would have predicted, – with the mother. Dad told the story more than once about that long drive from Michigan to Georgia when he was in the Air Force. There I was an infant lying in the back, crying and crying to be fed. “Feed the kid – she’s hungry!” Dad would say. And Mom would answer, “I can’t! The book says she can only eat every so many hours!” The mother separated from her own good instincts by theories of control over nature. I cannot remember this experience but I can only imagine what a baby would eventually figure out when crying for all she’s worth gets no response. “Speaking out for what I want is not the way to get what I want. What isthe way?” She would search. “I can only watch these two big people and see what pleases them. They have what I need and it seems that dancing for them is the way to survive.” This, I surmise, would be what a baby figures without words or thoughts when crying out for what one needs gets nowhere.
Perhaps gratitude, ironically, has also been part of the problem. Our major income was Dad’s work doing tax accounting for individuals, so of course he worked like a dog from January through April 15th. Then in the summer he really played when he played. But seeing him work late at night, night after night, month after month, gave me pause if I wanted to ask for something that cost money. He was already putting out lots of money to give us as much happiness as he could. To ask for more felt like adding to his burdens.
But still, here I stood at age 43 wanting my Indian blanket back and unable to open my mouth and ask for it. Something is not healthy in this picture.
I have receivedmy life. For much of it I’ve felt like a tiny boat pushed around this way and that, sometimes in calm waters in shady coves of loving trees, often out alone feeling winds heartlessly whipping me around, the world wanting things from me, trying to form me into what others needed me to be. In all these desires of others pushing and pulling on me, I’ve still and always felt a compass inside that kept me peddling, swimming, in a crazy zigzag way, trying to pull myself back onto a course that I would recognize as ‘truly me’ where I could feel comfortable with myself.
Often the best I could do was to say “No” to what I would finally recognize as Not Me. In so many of my life’s experiences I would finally come to see that this was not IT, not what I was looking for, did not feel right and I needed to get out of something and continue searching elsewhere.
Perhaps finding “no’s” was like a sculptor with a large chunk of stone. They say the sculptor must find a form that’s there inside the rock by chipping away everything that’s not the form. I’ve learned to recognize what doesn’t feel like “It”, like “me.
I remember in college I’d decided to minor in speech and drama because I loved a particular prof and was growing a lot in oral interpretation and public speaking. I had to take an acting course but acting felt impossible for me. I could not let go of myself and pretend to be someone else. How could I let go of myself when I hadn’t yet found myself? My direction was that of a person desperately trying to hold onto something very fragile, small, tenuous but essential – still trying to stand firmly in “me.”
One of my strange zigs or zags was the two years I spent in the convent.
That adventure was the result of a “Father Knows Best” moment. I really, really wanted to go to the great University of Michigan for my college studies. Perhaps there’s never been anything I wanted more than this: to do serious studies in a place that adequately challenged me. When I did ask my dad about this precious wish in my deepest heart, he said “No” so quickly he never remembered it. “You’d get homesick like my sister did at Michigan State. You’d be just a little fish in a big sea,” he said. I had asked for what I most dearly wanted. Thus silenced, I began an intense religious search for some guidance: now, where to? How to find a future that felt like “me”, especially in a world that still expected girls to marry and spend their lives raising children? Eventually the convent seemed the only thing to try, so I could live a dedicated life without marrying.
I gave this strange way of life a try but this didn’t feel like “me” either. Among other frustrations, there was this: that all day long, day after day, I could never make a decision about anything. How could I know who I was without making choices and decisions? I longed for the freedom that every young adult longs for – to begin to try to make my own life – by choosing. No, after all, having someone tell me every small and large move to make did not feel like “It”.
Getting out of the convent was not easy for someone as unassertive as I, but some survival instinct kept me hunting till I found the way out. This experience – finding my way out – was a little step in learning to trust my own inner knowing of what was right for me.
But once I left the convent – discerned that this was not It – I still felt the pressures of what the world expected: marriage, then children. How did I know this? I remmeber my dad talking about two female remote cousins in mymother’s family who weren’t married. He always referred to them as “the old maids”, even though they were teachers and had traveled around the world. This was all it took; I picked up from this that marriage would be required of me. And back in those days children went with marriage for Catholics.
I fell into line and married and raised children, experiences with so much joy but still, there was still that part of me that was towing the line rather than expressing my true self. I did what other interesting work and study I could do with whatever energy and time was left. Finally now at age sixty two I feel myself relaxing a bit, smiling, feeling I’ve found a free enough place where I can be my simple self.
My simple self! That’s what I’ve been looking for all along! Not trying to live up to what others need or want from me. Imperfect, unglamorous, gentle, content with an ordinary little life. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” I write on my learning board. “It’s OK to choose differently than my parents and family.” “It’s OK to be unseen;” “It’s OK to be seen.” “It’s OK if not everyone likes me.” “It’s OK to want what I want.” Healing words. My body breathes as I say these and other words I’ve learned. My whole being relaxes. I have worked hard to find these words.
I feel my feet; I feel my butt against the chair. I’m in my body unafraid. I can talk with men now. How did this happen? I can usually say what I want and dialogue over it, listening to the response of the other. How did I finally get here? Wrangling with the two great guys I married – that certainly changed me! Even the two widowhoods brought me gifts of warmth and connectedness with others. Having babies, raising children – I didn’t wannna do it, but it put my feet on the ground and certainly kept me in my body. And raising children was fun! It’s been a real heart-warmer that connected me with every other parent on earth. And living in the big city with neighbors of every race and nationality has been delightful and enriching.
I’ve found good friends whom I respect and by whom I feel respected. I found a spiritual family that feels true for me, where I can speak, even haltingly, without censure and feel respected. As a Quaker in The Religious Society of Friends I learned to trust an Interior Guidance, that Something loving and wise leads me forward if I trust myself to listen and hear it. I did much interior work: spent years reading and thinking and talking with others, trying to figure out what I’m made of and how to be a human being. I learned to write my thoughts out truthfully. One small book I read on Assertiveness Training said I have a right to speak up or to ask for what I want, even when I can’t explain myself. That concept opened wide a door for me.
And then, – counseling others. For several years I counseled adults in the Literacy, G.E.D., and English as a Second Language programs of a community college. I was honored to have every imaginable variation of men and women share with me the insides of their hearts and guts and minds. I smile as I remember one of the very first problems presented to me: a Kurdish woman whose father had two wives and twenty children, now adults, who hated each other. She wanted me to tell her how to get her father to write a will so the two families wouldn’t kill each other when he died. To my amazement, I found a way: her father sounded eerily like my own father and I told her what I had learned from my own life… Then I counseled an old Mexican gambler who’d lost his wife and house to his addiction, and a Puerto Rican mother who was trying valiantly to free herself from heroin so she could keep her children. Two separate gay Mexican men came who had each tried to kill themselves. A fine young African doctor was busing tables while trying desperately to pass the licensing exam in English. An Iranian woman whose husband beat her every day for twentyone years as he drank became a big part of my life asI helped her through a dangerous divorce. A middle-aged black man who could not learn to write no matter how he tried was scared to death his boss would find out. Well-educated Muslim women came with their husbands speaking for them. Young black men now with prison records from drug associations asked me to help them find a path for their future. A Thai woman had had to drop out of school in third grade because she was a girl; she’d been taking classes to learn English for nine years but still could not pass the written nurse assistant test. Many medical doctors and college professors came, engineers, storeowners, plumbers, truck drivers, prostitutes, mothers on welfare, homeless people. I remember the Iraqi youth who came to me with his face half frozen: he’d been fired from his hospital job immediately after the September 11th tragedy because he was Iraqi. Two weeks later his face was normal again after he found another job. A young Mexican gangbanger (his words) was heartbroken when his girl took their baby and left. A mother came to me whose son had been murdered in El Salvador; black parents came whose teens were getting into drugs. There were marriage problems I was not trained to counsel, but without money, to whom else could these people go? Legal problems came to me that were hopeless for illegal people with no rights, and my heart felt sad that I could not help. Sitting at my desk I traveled breathless all over the world and into the corners and houses of every neighborhood. How could I be afraid of anyone now? I‘ve completely forgotten what the word “stranger” means.
Though my life has felt so unacceptable to me in many ways, my heart has been opened and connected by all this experience. It must be this connectedness that enables me, finally at sixtytwo, to speak and ask for what I want or need.
So now if I stood at the trail it would be easy to smile and ask the men, “Did you see my blanket on the trail?” They would smile and give me my Indian blanket, and with ease I would turn around and walk toward the field.
But here the ending of this story cannot change. Someone else took control of the end and it’s not in my power to change the way it actually happened.
In fact, I turned around and headed across the meadow to the pines. Something seemed different as I approached – something wasn’t right. Then I stood there at the edge of the grove, once more completely silenced. There had been a fire. Almost all the trees were charred and bare. I walked through row after row, dumbfounded. I walked to the middle, puzzling. I stood in the middle and gazed around. Then suddenly I knew. Tom had been here. Big Tom, man of power. Somewhere in those forty days after his return to spirit and before I saw the rainbow on the fortieth day, his spirit had come here and he had done his warrior’s last dance, burning the trees to tell me he’d been here and that he, too, had been a person of power.
I smile; how right. He was a great person and I was honored to know him well. He had laughed at those New Agey ideas, but he respected me and was open to new interpretations of life.
Now I would have to find a new Place of Power for myself. I turned around slowly and gave a respectful bow to all the trees, and then walked back to my bicycle – now today I would also have my Indian blanket – and I peddled slowly back alone to the little cottage on the little lake to live my contented little life, connected comfortably with other imperfect and marvelous people just like myself.
I grew up in western Michigan, where fun is the way of life for all. Summer camps, swimming, canoeing down the Pere Marquette River, climbing sand dunes and jumping in the waves of Lake Michigan, picnics all through the Manistee National Forest, hay rides in the fall and horseback riding across fields, ice skating on real ponds and tobogganing down steep hills, all were part of my formation and have had great influence on my writing style. “A certain fresh naturalness” someone has called it. “There’s a simplicity and playfulness in your style.”
Perhaps I also owe it to my French-Canadian father who certainly had a taste for enjoying life, that Joie d’ vivre that bounces back in me even when life takes a bad turn. Plus my always cheerful Swedish grandfather, who I watched live through many challenges of spirit with quiet gracefulness. I can find the rainbow in the rain, eventually and always. Much of my writing, then, is an attempt to share the positives that I’ve gotten out of the negatives of my life. Much of it are learnings I wish I’d known as a child. I instinctively try to express what I’ve learned in a way that either a child or adult might enjoy taking in this learning.
After plodding through the brain-exhausting college years, I married and immediately began the completely different work of raising a human being, for which NONE of my education had prepared me. As I walked out the hospital door to get into our car, the nurse handed me this fragile little being, wrapped in a snuggy blanket and quietly looking up at me. I took him in my arms, climbed into the front seat holding him delicately, and we were off! I thought to myself “What am I supposed to do with it? How on earth do I care for this? I know nothing about babies!” I could not believe the nurse was entrusting this precious life with me.
Two ignorant humans are a little more help than only one, and my husband and I began to figure things out. “He’s crying! I’ve fed him, he’s napped, I held him and rocked him and he’s still crying! I exclaimed in fear and frustration. “How about his diaper? Said the other brain. …. “Oh! The diaper!” I remember throwing the pampers down the toilet – I thought that was how we dispose of them – but it plugged up the plumbing badly and the landlord was most unhappy with us. I sat the baby on the kitchen table facing me and watching the fishbowl in front of him. Next thing I knew he’d pushed his feet against the fishbowl and fallen on the floor, still strapped in his infant seat. Yes, we were off to the doctor, and yes, a concussion. “It will heal by itself,” the experienced pediatrician assured me. “Their heads are malleable in the beginning.” How did the first one survive my ignorance? Somewhere I read that the miracle of raising children is not so much that parents raise children to become adults but that children raise parents to become adults.
From those first tender exhausting years, finally we arrived at kindergarten with the firstborn. At the school door, the little Hungarian boy from up the street stood crying pathetically and hanging on his mother’s skirt. He did not know English yet and was completely scared to leave her. My heart went out to the child and next thing I knew I’d volunteered to come to school twice a week and help that particular child learn English. I had no training, just the intuitions of mothers about children and language. The teacher gave us chairs in the coat room, I brought magazine pictures, and thus began many years of teaching English as a Second Language with immigrants. From there a Cuban friend who was a social worker asked me to teach Mexican mothers English. Again, I just jumped in with no training, we all brought our babies and the social worker watched them while I used my simple magazine-pictures technique and we did something with the English language. I went on to paid positions with titles without even knowing there was a profession called “teaching English as a Second Language” and one could be trained for this work.
Again with no education in how to raise a child, we grew on with our two children, learning as we went. Fortunately my husband, Tom, was a problem solver (a math major) and he had a great sense of humor and play so we relaxed into the years with many happy times. We did tent camping and eventually were able to get an old popup trailer so we could sleep off the ground. Tom had a telescope so we’d often stay up late into the night out in the state parks looking at the stars. Teaching the children to swim was a must for me, being a Michigander. Soon it was time for Cub Scouts! And then Brownie Scouts followed. We “got involved”, as parents must in volunteer programs like these. I recruited and trained leaders and Tom was Scoutmaster. Then I led a day camp for the Girl Scouts. Such fun! I got to sing all those wonderful songs I’d learned myself as a Brownie and Girl Scout! Games and crafts and fun, fun, fun; I, the director, took the name “Stretch” because I’m so short. Then the next summer our local professional Girl Scout trainer and I designed a two week camp for both boys and girls in the area who were from other countries. The neighborhood was a little United Nations, 32 different languages were spoken in the elementary school! In the summer the children lost much of their language learning while out of school, besides needing to get to know the Chicago area. I directed this two week program, with field trips, and recruiting the shy parents to help out.
Meanwhile, back in the back of my mind I had realized I wanted to get some practical education so I could do something professional and financially helpful. I’d begun taking college courses preparing to direct Religious Education programs for Catholic public school children. I received my Masters of Arts in Religious Studies, focusing on religious education, and I took a full time position in a Catholic parish. What a joyous opportunity! I’d grown up in a rural Michigan town where my own Catholic parish did almost nothing for the children because they believed that nothing can be done with the public school situation; “someday” they’d be able to build a school and then the children could learn about their faith. I’d observed my Baptist friends at school: not allowed to go to movies or dances at all, yet the Baptist kids enjoyed being Baptist and learned their Bible and beliefs well. They had all kinds of sports teams and outings and fun together. All the Protestant churches had very lively summer camps. I knew we could work with Catholic children in public school situations if we wanted to do it and I began to dig in as Director. I was responsible for 1,000 children, preschool through high school, to design the program, recruit and train all the teachers, order all materials, supervise the class times, and also be in charge of the religion program in the parochial school! The nun who’d tried to run this before me had also taught eighth grade! She’d had a nervous breakdown.
I worked there two years, often hurrying home to pick up my two children after school and then bringing them back to my office with me. I felt exhausted but happily satisfied that I did begin a thriving program for all ages, including a social and learning program for the high school students. However, it was at this point that I hit bottom with my Catholic faith, feeling entirely discriminated against as an intelligent competent woman. Strangely, also, when the Mass had been put into English this had turned counter-productive for me; it felt like there was too much talking, too many thoughts to handle too quickly! When I’d had to deal with Latin, I’d become used to more quiet, contemplative worship.
I looked for a new spiritual home to feed my spirit, and was led by slim chances to discover the unprogrammed Quakers, who worship in silence and equality, waiting for Spirit to lead anyone present to speak out of the worship. I joyfully embraced this new spiritual family. However, these Friends do not hire anyone, not even pastors! There were no jobs in religious education in this denomination. I began serving on the religious education committee for my Meeting and then also for the regional gatherings, called Yearly Meetings. At summer Yearly Meetings I often taught the middle grade children and then eventually the high school students. These were dear and rollicking times, as we all camped out in tents and wooden dorms in the middle of corn and soybean fields in central Illinois. Campfires and singing at night, dancing children and adults on the lawn with live fiddle music, doing crafts with the children under tents in the afternoons, carting all to the nearby town to swim, I got to go back and forth between being an adult with the children and being a child with the children.
My own two children continued to grow and we all together entered the world of high school and challenges of the teens. I went back to college and took courses in teaching at the high school level and began to substitute in the four local high schools. Every day was a different “adventure,” directing choirs, teaching languages and subjects I didn’t know, trying to keep a balance between seriously trying to teach something and just relating to these young people as human beings.
These years were interrupted by the sudden death of my husband from a heart attack , the result of having been given too much radiation for cancer. My life took a break here; my son fortuitously was able to get good scholarships to a Quaker college. My daughter and I had three close years as I tried to accompany her through a serious high school attempt at a music career. Finances were more difficult for her college as a music major. During these years I taught English as a Second Language in local junior colleges and designed and taught E.S.L. programs for factory workers.
Somewhere in between all I’ve remembered here were a few other children’s activities. I was trained in the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict Program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; from that, I and my daughter led a two week summer camp for poor children in the inner city of Chicago at The People’s Church in Uptown.
I also worked with Illinois Quakers to revive the work camp opportunities that Friends had done after World War II in Europe. We helped our own young people develop leadership skills working with us in committee work, and later several went on to design what is now called Quaker Volunteer Service, an internship program for young adults.
I had taken training in counseling in the method of Carl Rogers and was certified in Client Centered Counseling. When my children were both launched off into college, I took a position in Triton Community College as counselor for the Adult Basic Education Department. I counseled adults and young people learning English as a Second Language or getting their high school G.E.D. or still learning to read in the Literacy program. This work was the richest work of my life. It was so deeply touching, such an honor, to help support the lives of people struggling against so many odds to build a future. All these students worked while going to school, many had children to raise, too.
Eventually, my life took another sharp turn when my adult son died of melanoma at the age of 40. I had remarried after my first husband died but my second marriage had been short when that second dear man had a brainstem stroke and eventually also died, after I cared for him for 2 ½ years. Now the death of my first born and only son really brought me low. I did immediately try to pick up where he left off with his high school students in their Robotics Club and in the creative contests of Destination Imagination. I worked with these delightful high school students for three years but then decided to move closer to my daughter, now married with her own two children.
I had followed the lives of children now from newborns through elementary school, through the teen years, and the college years and young adulthood. Where I am now is back at the beginning, immensely enjoying the best job I ever had – being a grandmother! And finally, I have no responsibilities except doing my writing, which has been waiting patiently in my heart. I look forward to sharing more from my life experiences with children, youth, and adults in interesting and creative self expressions.
It feels just a few short years
since shyly we began to hug.
And now – we must back off!
We stand 6 feet apart
and long to touch the bare skin
of another human being.
To take and shake a hand today
Could bring me tears.
To hear the phone ring – a dear voice!
brings life into my being.
Am I so low I cannot lift another?
A storm came through with fury.
Now all is still.
I arise from sleep and sleep and sleep
like a daffodil
long wintered in the ground.
and then awake
and feel a new person trying to break my shell,
letting off old ways,
familiar thoughts and patterns.
I will let Death change me
Before I let him enter through my door.
I will stop my doing,
be a different person,
What wants changing in this life?
In this body?
In these habits that I wear?
Who do I need?
What do I really require?
Where have I been headed?
How can I change course?
Can I still tack with the wind?
How close or far away is this boat to port?
The White Saddle Band, one of the best-known Country Western bands in the Chicago area, was
playing for my old circle of friends called Special People, a support group for the handicapped. I
playing for my old circle of friends called Special People, a support group for the handicapped. I
hadn’t danced in the last four years since the death of my husband Tom; he and I had loved Country
Western dancing. Tonight something in me felt pulled to give this a try.
I hadn’t been involved with Special People since moving from Des Plaines to Oak Park, farther away from their meetings. The dance brought back memories of the hard and frightening times after Tom’s death. Supporting myself and putting our two teenagers through college, while limited by my back curvature, was a scary situation. This was why I’d sought out the support group for the handicapped., looking for any helpful ideas.
My attendance was irregular with the group as time was tight and the situation of the others was often different from mine. I was able to look almost normal and function fairly well, with my limitations hidden, and so I felt “borderline handicapped”. It was actually a new step to publicly see myself belonging with this group. Maybe I was coming to the dance alone to keep my association with the handicapped anonymous.
They were quite a mishmash of humanity. Every kind of disability, ailment, and limitation imaginable were all brought together by suffering and needs. Poverty, loneliness, discrimination, and the frustrations of trying to do minimal daily activities were constant experiences for most. Some were subjected to emotional abuse or felt harshly judged by others. Most all felt the temptation to feel inferior. All these kinds of daily experiences united this clan of the Anawim, God’s beloved poor. (Zephaniah 2:3 “the humble of the earth”)
The program was directed by a fine and competent man named Ron. He had survived polio when he was young; he was now maybe 45, about 5’3” and verythin. Sometimes he had to hold his hand to his throat to strengthen his vocal chords in order to talk. He drove a car capably, but walking was difficult. His parents were dead and he lived alone, doing graphic artwork and directing this group Special People to supplement his small disability income. Ron was intelligent and caring, he never complained, just continued to do his best under circumstances that silenced my own small complaints. I felt such respect for his courage as I did for all the people in the group.
Ron and I became friends. He was upfront about his wish to love someone, describing what life would be like if one were to live with him, such as sleeping with his breathing machine. I had such admiration for him that I considered this relationship, but had enough to take care of already; this did not fit my own needs.
This night I wanted to come to the dance because I knew that with these people I could do whatever I felt up to doing or not doing, without embarrassment. Dancing was in my heart but my curvature made standing on my feet difficult and painful, let alone dancing. Yet strangely, I still could never quite see it – that yes, I am handicapped! How many dance classes had I started and dropped because they were too hard? Polish polka dancing, Appalachian clogging, Irish step dancing, Scottish country dancing and the Highland Fling (where I’d broken my steel arch support). Even Hawaiian dancing had been hard because I had to take off my orthopedic shoes and dance in my flat feet. I was coming to this event by instinct and the longing to dance, but my brain still didn’t admit that this was my tribe.
The event was being held at Oakton Community College, located back in the beautiful woods along Golf Road. As with all handicapped people, I was anxious to park where I wouldn’t have to walk too far, but I had no idea where on the campus the dance was being held. After randomly parking somewhere and walking with difficulty through many halls, I found the room. To my surprise it was a large ballroom and packed with people. Evidently the network of handicapped people that Ron’s newsletter reached was much larger than our small monthly group.
No one looked familiar, so grabbing a bottle of pop and I sat down at a the nearest table. The room was not decorated but was well lit and just the right size for the crowd: plenty of room to dance but not so spacey to leave anyone feeling alone.
The room was filled with much chattering, excited energy, and a happy feeling. I surveyed the gathering. People were dressed in street clothes and jeans, nothing fancy, expensive, or even western. Many people were in groups with group leaders while others seemed to be with family or friends.
The band warmed up and began to play. Immediately I realized that these people were not going to be doing the normal line dancing – “Slapping Leather,” “Bootin’ Scootin’ Boogie,” and other fast-foot dances. Nor were they going to glide as couples elegantly around the edge of the floor in cowboy-style waltzing. They could hardly stand up, probably not even do the slow zipper-melting, buckle-polishing body-to-body dance/walk that couples did at bars. Nope. This crowd was not going to do anything fancy at all, but they were going to have a good time.
The band was fantastic; I could see from their smiles and enthusiastic music that they received great joy from playing for this crowd. In spite of how these people looked, they were normal. Like everyone else in the world, they wanted to move their bodies to good music, to be revitalized by movement and rhythm, to express and experience joy in being alive. For some it took heroic effort because their bodies did not easily do what their spirits so wanted to do. People got out and stood on the floor and mostly moved the upper halves of their bodies. Everyone just did whatever they could. Many held the hand of someone beside them, perhaps encouraging each other, or perhaps just enjoying the feeling of belonging in the human community.
Off to one side was a circle of deaf people who stood right in front of the five foot high speakers, seeming to feel the beat. They moved in interesting ways, different from the rest of the crowd, and they talked to each other with sign language while they laughed and danced.
There were people on scooters who rode onto the floor and waved their arms around while sitting. Some danced as couples; the standing one would grab the hands of the seated person and jump around with the seated one laughing and moving any way possible.
A few groups had lovely youngish women with them who would drag some of their group onto the floor and dance with them, smiling wholeheartedly, glad to help them have fun. After watching a bit as an outsider, I finally got up, went onto the floor, and like everyone else, just moved to the music – nothing special, just pure natural response to great rhythm and sound.
Eventually the band took a break. I wandered around looking for Ron. This was his night, he would surely be here. Someone told me Ron and his wife were taking tickets on the other side of the ballroom. Then I remembered that he’d announced in a newsletter that he’d married. He was on a scooter over at one side of the room, surrounded by people. His health had clearly deteriorated. It wasn’t hard to identify his wife. Joy was a non-handicapped woman who showed on her lovely face that she was clearly proud to be married to such a fine person.
Ron was busy with his responsibilities and the many people needing his attention, so I wandered around in the hallway, then back into the ballroom. The band was warming up again, and soon they were playing in full swing, their music inviting our bodies to come and move. I leaned then into my identity as a “normal” non-handicapped person and became one of the “responsible” caretakers trying to get shy people out on the floor. The first person I approached declined but I succeeded with the next one. The woman and I danced beside each other and enjoyed ourselves.
A young man on a scooter was sitting on the sidelines, swaying to the music alone. I went over and grabbed his hands to dance with him. He responded with enthusiasm. As the music went on he actually got up on his feet, stood on his scooter, and continued to hold my hands and sway. When the song ended, we talked a bit. Another really nice person living a difficult life.
The groups on the floor morphed around so I found myself dancing with any number of people, individuals and circles. Before I knew it and to my surprise, the end of the evening arrived as the band played their final joyful, wild finale. Then we all reluctantly donned our coats and headed chatting down the halls, wandering out to find our cars.
Strangely now, as I drove home I felt more normal than I had in a long time. I had given in and participated as one of this group, as a handicapped person. Having accepted both of my contrary identities, handicapped and non, I felt at peace. And the music and joy had given me a vacation from my sadness and worries. I drove home emotionally relaxed by the self-acceptance, while my body felt rejuvenated by the joyful movement to music.
Someday I’ll read all these 280 books on my shelves.
And then, after that, Someday
I’ll mark every photograph in
those five bank boxes, plus the one in the garage,
with dates and identities
for the sake of the grandkids.
I’m going to one-of-these-days develop a
whole chronology of my life
because I can’t remember the years
when things happened.
And then I’m going to clean off my computer and toss
these 1300 old emails, but
I have to read them first.
I have about seven boxes marked “family mementos” which
Someday I really should go through and
see what they are.
But the old financial records – they really must
get sorted and organized and tossed or shredded.
There are family histories from several different branches of the family tree
that should just be gathered together into one place.
I’d like to go back to Sweden Someday and maybe Ireland, too; they were delightful,
but I also haven’t seen Germany or England yet.
But tomorrow I have to return a faucet handle to the hardware,
buy groceries and cook some chicken,
also cook the whole cauliflower before it spoils,
and do at least one load of laundry, water the plants,
pay the tax estimates and
balance the checking account. I really should
call Graciella: she needs encouragement.
I’ll have to wait till Wednesday to start
marking the photographs or
Whoops, – doctors appointment on Wednesday.
If I have any energy left tonight after washing dishes
and reading emails, I’ll start one of those 280
books I want to read.
Oh yes. I still could start working on my PhD.!
Also, Someday I’m going to
lose 20 pounds.
Christmas and my mind is full of shoulds.
“Buy, wrap, mail, clean, cook!
Give, get, thank, visit, “Enjoy”!
Little shoulder-devil mutters
I see the cat stretched long
on sofa pillows.
Window-sun shines bright and warm
across his fur:
“Contentment” says the scene.
Pulled magically, I find
myself stretched out beside the cat.
The winter sun commands me “Rest!”
Caving, heart and breath slow down,
smile floats to surface.
Little sounds and motions other side of glass!
One eye opens cat and I.
Flitter flutter birds and squirrels
trees to feeder, round the ground.
With interest and disinterest,
we watch the fun;
sink back to deep contentment
in solstice sun,
The cat and I. December 21, 2019, Marti Matthews