Category Archives: Michelle Dowd

Nope, not sorry

I recently moderated a panel on Secularism and debated the benefits of an irreligious society with four respected professionals renowned for their contributions in related fields. This angered some people (most of whom weren’t in attendance), just as the bi-monthly Ask an Atheist booth hosted on our campus disgusts uninformed people who claim these students are advocating immorality. Women have a tendency to ubiquitously apologize for anything and everything that could potentially inconvenience anyone in the slightest, but neither the female president of the Club of Secular Understanding, nor its female faculty adviser are apologizing for their controversial presence on campus. And neither am I.

In the documentary film “Never Sorry,” the BBC interviews the influential renegade artist Ai Wei Wei as he is returning from jail in China where he has been violently interrogated for showcasing sociopolitical art projects that clearly offended the government. The reporter asks Ai Wei Wei if he thinks art is a vehicle for changing the world. Ai Wei Wei responds, “I think that art certainly is a vehicle for us to develop new ideas, to be creative, to extend our imagination…to change the current circumstance.”

“But do you think it is a responsibility… to continue to speak out?” The reporter continues to prod.

After his ordeal in prison, Wei Wei sighs, but hardly hesitates. “Yes, I think it is the responsibility of any artist to protect freedom of expression and to use ANY way to extend this power.”

I believe every single one of us is an artist, and we can learn to tap into our innate creativity, because creativity isn’t a talent; it’s a way of operating in the world. As Picasso suggested, “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

I have been teaching college since I was 21. I have spent my entire adult life thinking about expression, how words and phrases and styles are codified, how technology changes our modes and rhythms of expression, and how students can best access and appropriate the hegemonic discourse without losing their most essential selves. I take my profession seriously, and perhaps even more so as a tenured professor at a “community” college, where I believe it is my duty to give underrepresented students access to modes of communication that will help them be heard.

In critical thinking, composition, and in journalism, I teach students how to research for credibility and how to express themselves in ways that will be respected in their chosen professions. In creative writing courses, I encourage students to take risks expressing themselves, above and beyond whatever vehicle through which they will ultimately choose to earn a living.

Every single one of them is creative in ways they have frequently squelched throughout their compensatory education. Learning to re-access and reactivate one’s recessed creativity is an act of courage. It requires us to risk being seen.

In curating a literary and visual arts journal, I ask students to create a space where artists and thinkers can convene, a place where the sheer diversity of voices can be celebrated beyond their commercial value. The freedom to express ourselves is one of our most fundamental, significant and cherished rights in this country, and especially in our California Community College system, which specifically upholds the right of students to be heard on their own terms, even if they offend faculty and administrators in the process.

I am grateful to my academic community for the opportunity to engage regularly in this vital conversation. I believe our job as teachers and as lifelong learners is to evaluate established voices for their relevance to our society, and to embrace emerging voices for their vision– whether or not those voices are conventional. Covert acts of censorship, on and off college campuses, take the power away from the individual and put it in the hands of authorities who have already obtained their positions of power and made up their minds. As academics, our job is to assure that these choices remain securely in the hands of individuals, who may or may not have access to disseminating information on a wider scale. Whether my students are naive or experienced, I defend their right to be heard. I understand and fully accept that I may not be liked, appreciated, or even respected for defending their right to expression. But as Ai Wei Wei suggests, protecting the voices of artists is not a luxury I dabble in; it’s a responsibility I uphold at all costs.

The Women’s Room

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”   — Rumi

When I entered Pitzer College at 17, I hadn’t been to a formal school since the 2nd grade.  I had no idea who I was apart from my upbringing, didn’t know what I cared about, what I wanted to study, who I admired, what kind of career to look for, where I should live, or who I wanted to become.

I felt lost, frightened, existentially alone, and I was acutely intimidated by an academic world that held (for me) no precedent or projected future.  I consulted my academic advisor and went to classes religiously, sought counsel from every authority figure I could, and in time, began to mold a career trajectory that made sense to me.  But I agree with Anna Quindlen that it’s easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.

 During my freshman year, I met Professor Gayle Greene in a course called Contemporary Women Writers, a class that legitimately changed my perspective on women and writing and defined what I would later choose as my life’s work. Gayle’s passion for her subject matter influenced me in ways that would, eventually, help me become a tenured professor, and I am deeply grateful for that.  But more importantly, Gayle helped me craft a life I am proud of, and for that, there is no gratitude deep enough.

Toni Morrison came to Scripps College that fall, and she sat with us around the square table in our Humanities classroom, answering our questions about her newest novel Beloved.  That evening held life-altering dialogue that would change the way I think about literature and art and women’s voices.  This culminated in the peak honor of being invited to have lunch with Ms. Morrison, along with a very small group who had the opportunity to speak with her one on one–about writing and editing, children and priorities, and juggling personal and professional obligations. These topics felt foreign to me at the time, but remain persistently passionate areas of discourse with my girlfriends today.

I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the effect Gayle has had on my career or the influence her work has had on the quality of my life.  In her classes I read authors like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble and Toni Morrison for the first time, women who taught me that love is never any better than the lover, that wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, and stupid people love stupidly.  Remembering this over the years has saved me from despair during pinnacles of heartbreak.

Margaret Drabble came to our class the next year.  And for the very first time in my young life, I thought of what it might mean to some day become a middle-aged woman.  That’s a frightening prospect for any girl, but Ms. Drabble made it seem approachable, necessary, inevitable, a passage to navigate with grace and humor.

Gayle gave me these gifts in my youth, intangible offerings that continue to make my life richer in immeasurable ways.  Her dedication to her profession, and to making art come alive for scads of naive young women, opened up a world I couldn’t have accessed any other way.  In fact, it is now my top priority as an educator to bring writers to campus to celebrate and showcase talents and accomplishments my students have never had the opportunity to see up close.

In one of Gayle’s courses, we read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, books that explore the idea that women who choose less conventional paths are not inherently crazy.  The most significant thing I gleaned from these explorations is a respect for female friendships and a greater trust in my women friends as my deepest allies. This hadn’t occurred to me before Gayle’s classes.  My mother had no women friends; neither did my mother-in-law.  In Sula, Toni Morrison suggests, “She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be, for a woman. And that no man would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand.”

I have three daughters, the oldest of whom just graduated from college. When they were small, I emphasized the strength of the sisterhood, and I encouraged them to value not only their biological sisters, but also their female friends, to understand that men are not our only or even our primary vehicle to comfort, self-respect or social status.  I am proud to say that in addition to strong bonds with their respective boyfriends. each one of them has cultivated lasting connections to women who have served as powerful anchors in their young lives.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood emphasizes, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing.  I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless…”  From Gayle I learned that to be a woman is to be strong, to be capable, to make hard choices, over and over and over. I learned to respect, rather than be ashamed of my body, and to admire my resiliency as a woman. I learned what consciousness raising means, and why the personal is political.  Our job as women is to fight for each other, for ourselves, and to record our journeys, truthfully and unapologetically. To hold a pen is to be at war, and that’s not a responsibility we should take lightly. 

Gayle changed my life.  The personal choices I make now are a vehicle through which I unite with other women– toward community, empowerment, and change.

We are subjects of our lives, not merely objects of someone else’s desire.  As Morrison reminds us, “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glance of the lover’s inward eyes.”  We don’t have to see ourselves through the male gaze. We get to choose what and whom we love.

We may choose to domesticate with men as romantic life partners, but it is our love for ourselves as women that sustains us.  I try to hold true to that in all that I give to women in and outside of my profession.  From the grace and strength through which she has conducted her life, Gayle has exemplified to me over and over:

 “Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.”

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Left

 “Just move your legs and walk. Into a brand new world.  It’s that easy.”

 —–Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

 I love listening to podcasts.  Actually, most of my friends do, as do my mostly grown children.  There’s something so inviting and intimate about listening in on other people’s conversations– especially when the dialogue is professionally edited, and the guests converse capably on clever and compelling topics. I love listening to This American Life, On Being, Freakonomics, and RadioLab, with headphones while running, on speaker while driving, or alone in the dark before I fall asleep.

 Several months ago, my friend Nick and I were talking about listening to our favorite shows and we got excited about a topic we felt people rarely recognize or tout.  As we drank beer and brainstormed about some of the most fascinating people we know, we realized those individuals all made conscious choices to significantly shift their previously planned life trajectories.  They left who they were, without any assurance of who they would become.  We looked at each other and we knew we had our theme.  The theme of our friendship, and the theme of our new podcast.

Semper fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine.  In the community in which  I grew up, we pledged specifically to be brave, loyal, and true.  As Americans, we pledge allegiance to our flag, and in culturally in The United States, we undeniably value loyalty, perseverance, and dedication as qualities we admire in people of good character. We’ve been trained to think that winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win, we’ve been taught a deep fear of losing what we’ve invested, and we perceive walking away as a weakness.

For the most part, people don’t like to talk about what they’ve left.

But sometimes leaving is the only choice we can conscionably make.  Sometimes what we leave behind, what we lose, what we grieve, changes us in such profound ways, we can no longer recognize the person who clung to the safety of what was known. 

(Shameless plug: go to leftpodcast.com for powerful stories from ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary obstacles, who have consciously and courageously abandoned previously held beliefs and chosen alternative routes, and where those journeys have taken them.)

The first significant place I left, I was labeled a quitter, and that word held a thickness of shame I couldn’t cut with a knife for over a decade.  But eventually, I discovered a happier woman waiting for me on this side of that seemingly insurmountable track.

And so I have continued to explore this option, to quit when there is no solid reason to stay.  I have left things I thought I couldn’t relinquish, things I thought I’d never survive letting go of, people and places and identities that formed me, which I strongly believed I couldn’t live without.  I’ve left my family of origin, the religious organization into which I was born, many homes and cities, academic institutions, and relationships that restricted the person I wanted to become.

Most recently, I’ve left motherhood as my defining identity.  Looking back, I was a naive little girl, still in school, when I gave birth to twin daughters.  Instead of investigating who I was, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go throughout my twenties (as I trust my daughters will do), I asked myself what they needed, and I made my decisions accordingly.  Of course, I don’t regret my devotion to my family. I stayed with my husband and gave birth to more children, creating a microcosm for them and their animals in the ways I thought would make them safe and help them grow.  It was a strong choice and a worthy focus for my time and dedication.  But now those first pretty little babies are about to turn 22.  My son is 20.  My babygirl is 16.  They are confident, healthy, happy and well-adjusted young people, with steady relationships and attainable career goals.  Of course, the youngest still needs structure and guidance and relentless chauffeuring, but none of them really need me to define myself solely or even predominantly by their needs anymore.

What does that even mean?

It means for the first time in my life I have to ask myself what I want.

I realize that this is a first world problem.  Still.  It is, perhaps, the hardest and least likely question most first world women will ever ask themselves.

 

 

We, who sleep with a knife

A new life

requires a death;

otherwise, it is

just a shuffling

of the same dull deck,

fifty-two cards we inherited

from our fathers,

adhering to rules relayed

before we were born.

Here we are now,

all that detritus

drifting into our eyes;

smoldering ashes,

combed back with a stare.

Anger should be respected,

even when it isn’t shared.

Mother’s Day, part 2

This post is a tribute to my good friend Angela, who manifests courage in all aspects of her life.

As you may know from our blog, she recently ended her relationship with her stepmother. I deeply respect this, but it is not something I can bring myself to do with my own biological mother. The reasons for this are many (surely some of them weakness), but that is fodder for another post.

I interact with my mother a handful of times a year, and each one ties me up in knots for days on end. I have tried for many years to heal the wounds of our shared past, but I have come to accept this is not likely to happen.  I, too, struggle with how to buy a Mother’s Day card.

 My mother is a scientist by nature and by training, and she doesn’t communicate well verbally. In other words, talking makes her tense and nervous and she avoids it at all costs. I, too, think better through numbers than through words, but I have consciously and actively fought against this, have struggled long and hard to develop an effective means of verbal communication through which to navigate my various relationships.

I often fail.

I don’t hold my mother accountable for my inadequacies, even the ones she inflicted. That neither she nor my father were capable of loving or tending to any of their children is not, entirely, their fault. They are products of a long line of unfortunate teachings. I am just beginning to unravel these.

 The truth is, there are many suppositions my mother ingrained in me, that her mother likely ingrained in her, ideas I absorbed over the years of my unconventional upbringing, that I would like very much to unlearn. I don’t want to pass these liabilities on to my own children; I want them to be more open and direct and self-confident than I am.  Perhaps this will be more likely if I acknowledge that there are some things I inherited from my mother that I have been unable to shake.

I trust that no one who is in contact with my mother knows that I contribute to this blog; so I will share here what I will never say to her.

 Mom, thank you for bequeathing me self-discipline, a strong work-ethic and indubitable energy, but I genuinely wish you hadn’t ingrained in me:

 …how to be so damn strong under pressure, how to hide emotion, how to overcome the femininity you perceived as weakness.

…how to keep myself in the world, but not of the world.

…how to hide myself from men, to distrust them, to fake interest and allegiance to stroke their egos.

 …how it’s never, under any circumstances, permissible to let a man see that you are smarter than he is.

 …that I have no legitimate needs, that my desires and and my body are sinful, something to be ashamed of.

 …that it’s unacceptable to be vulnerable.

 …that love is a weakness.

The Fall

There are very few phrases my father has ever spoken aloud to me. “I love you” is not one of them. “Never depend on a man” is. And I don’t, in fact, rely on men for emotional sustenance, for income, or for praise. I have never hoped for the extraordinary, and I resist disappointment like a used handkerchief.

Back when we were all small, when my sisters and brother and I shared a bedroom, before our family fell, when we lived on dreams and loans, in the only house we would ever own, a soon-to-be foreclosed 800 square foot shelter bordering the city dump, I used to rise early, when it was virtually silent, to watch my father get ready for work.

I would sit on the counter in the bathroom while he lathered his face with Noxema, heating the water until it fogged the mirror, watching while he slid his razor across his preternatural white face. Sometimes I would dip my fingers into the cream and softly, tentatively, quietly mold it onto my girly face. My father tolerated this in silence, without so much as a nod. One time, when he was finished shaving, before he splashed on his Old Spice with a virulent shake, he took the blade out of the razor and handed me the empty shell. I carefully stroked my tender cheeks with the vacuous metal, until each white row had vanished and I looked like a little girl again. Then I splashed my face with water and looked to him for approval. He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost in tandem with his, the rituals of manhood like a handshake between us.

My older sister later told me that girls don’t shave their faces, but that wasn’t of particular interest to me. Our home was a man’s world, where brute strength still ruled, and I was proud that I had stood there next to him, doing what men do. I loved watching his calm face in the mirror, as every errant hair was meticulously removed. My sisters often claimed he looked like a bear, that they were frightened of him, of his gruff manners and his gutteral growl. And to be frank, I was often frightened of him myself–but not as I sat on the bathroom counter, not during his morning ritual, not while I could see my face in the mirror next to his.

It’s simpler to remember the brutality, to focus on the slaps and the slugs that came later, on the random anger, the tightening spine of fear. It’s simpler to negate moments like these, to dismiss early morning reflections in a mirror, to see them as the anomalies they certainly were. And yet, I wonder now if he shared mornings like these with his own father when he was small, before his mother took him far away on a bus in the night, away from abuses of which he has never spoken. He did not see his father again after their stealthy, well-planned and much-needed exodus. His father died of alcoholism and pneumonia only four years later, long before he could become my grandfather, a man I never met, buried in a military grave in San Diego that my father visited for the first time three years ago.

My first boyfriend, called me a cat. He said you could drop me from unimaginable heights and I would squirm and screech and hiss and flail, but I would consistently land on my feet. I told him that sounded like a form of torture, that people shouldn’t take cats up skyscraper heights, let alone drop them. He said this was my lot in this world, that I would be consistently brutalized, but that I would survive. During a particularly difficult juncture not long ago, he called to remind me of this. I assured him I had come to the end of my nine lives, that my luck had rampantly run out. “Ahhhh, but it’s not luck,” he assured me, “it’s in your training. It’s so well-rehearsed, it looks like instinct, but the fact is, you know how to fall.”

We do not know how our origins will save us. But we can  recognize when they do.

Persimmon Pulp

I doubt persimmons are on very many people’s comfort food list, but they are at the top of mine.

Most Americans don’t have any idea what to do with them. When they are ripe, the tangerine-colored skin crawls back nearly on its own, like it is being skinned alive, revealing a bloody orange pulp of thick mucous, like the slime sold to children in the 70s. My nearly grown children cringe when I separate the pulp in the sink, my fingers drooling orange goop. “How can you do that? It’s so gross!” they crinkle their noses at me. I reply that it’s not animal guts, it’s not like I’m not oozing through somebody’s insides. They shrug, unconvinced. I continue to separate skin from pulp and measure it out into Pyrex containers, labeling it in tidy ziplock bags for the freezer. I will cook with the fruit later, will savor the smells and the texture and the tastes, but not today. Cooking with persimmons is a ritual that requires a particular premeditated attention I need time to create.

My maternal grandmother taught me to do this, not through words, but by ritualizing the motions like a religion. I would watch her silently go through these steps with deliberation, a repetitive rhythm of separating and measuring, in a meditative trance that looked something like joy.

Now it is a familial ritual of mine, and it’s the only thing I do that I can directly trace back to her influence.

Grandma Ruth had a stroke when I was 5 years old, and our extended family was told she wouldn’t ever speak or walk again, that her life would be still and silent. I remember how my grandfather retorted, “No sir, she won’t live like that, not her, no siree,” and how completely he dismissed the doctors’ prognostications. She lay in a coma for over three weeks, and as valiant a patriarch as he paraded, Grandpa couldn’t dismiss how much he needed her, how she simply had to recover, come home, earn their income and pay their bills meticulously from her fold-out accordion desk, cook, clean and care for everyone, including their mentally ill daughter.

And so, quite miraculously, she did.

Two years later, with a slightly drooping face, Ruth was impatiently trying to teach me to play classical piano, sitting next to me on the narrow bench, pointing to the notes with fragile frustration. She would get angry that I couldn’t play pieces she used to soar through with ease, but even at that age, I knew her desperation had nothing to do with me or my lack of discipline. Against all odds, she was able to move her fingers deftly along the keys, but not the way she used to, and she didn’t have the language or the patience to effectively guide mine. Even though I was a child with no training, she needed me to take over, to play Chopin as he was meant to be heard, with precision and nuance and clarity. I let her down.

Nevertheless, Ruth managed to run her home efficiently, re-learned to drive, shop, cook and choppily coach piano again, seemingly unaffected when her husband died, continuing her work and her routines throughout the next decade. But it was a small and ever tightening sphere of competency. By the time I was in my early teens, she was a widow with diagnosable Alzheimers. During those years, when our parents spent most of their time leading survival workshops in the mountains and outlying deserts, or prostelytizing across the nation with a bus full of boys, my sisters and I lived primarily with Grandma Ruth and our schizophrenic aunt. We weren’t told there was anything wrong with her, but my mother’s youngest sister clearly believed we were sent from the Devil to set her on fire in her sleep, and guarded the kitchen like a gargoyle. I would wake up on the couch with her steely eyes honed in on my face, where I can only assume she kept constant vigil. Looking back, I have no idea who was taking care of whom. Five intergenerational women in a two-bedroom home, none of us functioning as fully formed adults.

I never heard my mother or grandmother speak to one another.

I have pain in my belly when I realize I have no memories of my grandmother as the woman she must have been in her vibrant years as a bustling matriarch. There are so many memories of her anger and frustration, of fits of rage and constant confusion. I never got to witness the decades she raised her five children and cult-leader husband, how she supported them all through her skill and will, long before my sisters and I added to her cadre of burdens.

But then, there is also the memory of watching her separate persimmons and cook them into puddings and breads and cakes, and I hang onto this as an oar that guides me to compose the image of a matriarch who raised five children and several of her grandchildren without the income of a man.

And so I separate persimmon pulp, contrary to all logic, thinking I will summons either her energy, or her ghost. With open palms, I humbly and gratefully accept whatever wisdom she can impart.

Gayle

Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school. We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, cafeteria menus, diet softdrinks, jealous siblings, the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.

People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shades open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspiculously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school. We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later, at which point I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitely, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.

Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.

photo

My youngest daughter is fourteen now and to me, she is a little baby. I look at her sometimes and time stops; I remember Gayle’s blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?

I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.

During college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Children from those months in those wards now had HIV. I should be informed and seek appropriate counselling.

This didn’t frighten me in the least. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it to college, experienced love, trusted in all my youthful naivite that I had already lived a full life.

My twin daughters are now twenty years old. I look at them and wonder what I could have been thinking.

Gayle has no daughters. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father, her mother, those who knew her as the baby she was? As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had not yet begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents. I am so sorry I didn’t keep in touch. I am sorry I didn’t know what you lost. I am sorry my memories of your daughter are worth so very little in their belated attempt to keep her alive.

Somebody I Used to Know

I saw a man I used to love on the streets, homeless and in hospital blue paper pants. This is not a metaphor.

I loved this man once, many years ago, for all the reasons one loves another person: he was smart and funny, kind and loyal, and we thought we could read each other’s minds. We hiked the national forests and chased waterfalls, ate Rocky Road ice cream from the carton, competed in Scrabble and listened to his stacks and stacks of music, testing each other on artists and song titles, brainstorming which tracks we would use as theme songs for the movies we would make from our favorite books. We had our inside jokes and our secret language; we shared our mindless minutiae and we spoke of forever.

A social worker called me a few weeks ago because I was the only contact she had. He had been admitted to ICU several times the past few months for drug overdoses and she predicted he was close to death. She apologized to me and said my number was the only contact he would give. I told her I hadn’t seen him in over ten years, that his family all lived in different states, but she said she didn’t know where to turn. She asked me for his full name and birth date, for the numbers of any living relatives I knew. I gave her what I could from memory, which was far more than she had hoped. I asked to speak with him, but she said he was unconscious. He had been living on the streets for over two years. I said I was sorry. She said God bless you. We both hung up.

He would call and leave me voice messages over the years, as his locations and circumstances changed, mostly when he was high and believed he was invincible. I was tolerant of his delusions of grandeur when I had known him. I wanted to believe his tall tales of adventures, his conquests, his plans for a glorious future that was surely coming, just as I once believed my grandfather’s prognostications that the end of the world was nigh.

A few weeks ago, my old friend rode the train without a ticket, walked to the Claremont Public Library and waited for hours until it opened for a used book sale on Saturday morning. I didn’t know he was in town or that he would be there, but I recognized him the moment I walked in. He was well over six feet tall, even with his hunch, and emaciated, weighing 140 at most. He looked 60, though he just turned 40 this year. His hair was thinning and I couldn’t tell if the blond was deeply dirty, or if it had turned a dusty grey in the decade since I last saw him. He reached out to hug me. The smell was palpable and I hope I didn’t flinch. I let him hold me while one librarian and hoards of books stood as witness. His ankle was healing from a break over a year ago that he never had set, so he dragged it behind him when he walked. I took his elbow and seated him outside, then walked across the street and bought him the largest sandwich CKs Café could make, and we sat on the bench outside the library while he ate it. I asked him to please use my phone and call his father. He shook his head, “Don’t be silly, I am a grown man, and can’t be bothering Jim with trivial things.” I asked him if he needed money, where he would go, who I could call and he said, ”I require no funds. All I need is right here,” pointing to his wrinkled temple. I stopped talking and watched him eat. He asked me if I still listened to music. I said yes and asked him what he wanted to hear. He said Chris Cornell, “You Can’t Change Me,” so I toggled my phone and played it for him. He smiled wide and proclaimed, “You are positively magic.” I laughed, “everyone can do this with phones these days,” and he chuckled back, like I was being modest. We sat on the park bench and listened in silence, the entire way through. He smiled wearily and said, “It’s good seeing you Krankstressa,” and he shuffled off into the dark misty night. I did not try to follow him and he did not look back.

There was something so final in this journey of his, crossing state lines to listen to an old song in the steely rain. I don’t know whether he believed he was about to die, but either way, I think it was goodbye. I don’t think I will hear from him again.

This is not a metaphor.

I wish it was.

Onward Christian Soldiers

Occasionally, I startle someone I have known for years by singing battle hymns. “Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe, forward into battle, see his banners go.” I try to insert this as comic relief during a serious discussion, but eyes generally widen in disbelief, not humor.

I swear, I don’t do this very often.

Like many Christians, I was raised on the war of principalities. We sang songs about “marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.” We were taught to see life on earth as a source of perpetual tension, that as the Devil’s domain, the earth is something to overcome. God ordained us to assert our dominion over the fish and the fowl, over all the beasts of burden that walk the earth– which includes, of course, our primal selves, long ago cast out of Eden. We were at constant war against the flesh, whether it was managing our weight (required daily weigh-ins), or resisting cold or heat or fatigue, while valiantly overcoming the desire for affection, comfort, and security.

I took for granted the notion that preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.

At chapel, we showcased a mannequin onto which we dressed layers of military garb. “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We ceremoniously placed the helmet of salvation on the wooden head, the breastplate of righteousness on the planked trunk, the sword of the spirit into the rigid fingers of one hand, the shield of faith to quench the fiery darts of the wicked in the other. We wrestled not against flesh and blood, but “against the rulers of the darkness of the world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” We girded ourselves with Truth, to withstand the temptations of pleasure.

No one defiled their bodies with tobacco, liquor, or other harmful habits. We had white glove tests and timed endurance runs, hiked in the snow and rain with loaded backpacks, tackled family KP and Police Call at the command of a whistle. “Let this faith of mine is tried, for the Lord is on my side, I am ready, I am ready, I am ready you can pass the cross to me.”

I am still a light sleeper, attentive and on call, resting with one eye open, waiting for an attack I am prepared to predict. As Christian soldiers, we march onward, for “hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise; brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.”

I don’t know how common this sort of training is, but I have not yet found it useful in my civilian life. I resent this sometimes.

And yet…

There is something to be said for self-discipline, regardless of its origins or its misuse.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I am acutely aware of pleasure and of freedom, of their cost and their value, largely because these were denied me. I am grateful I was raised in a family, no matter how dysfunctional, who taught me to fight for what I believe in. Even if what I believe in now is distinctly different from my upbringing, I know how to fight for my values, to court support, to share the struggle with other likeminded believers. I was taught to build stamina, not dependency, and this has its own logic, and its own reward.

As a mother, I have no intention of teaching these particular lessons to my offspring. But I will give abundant thanks this day for not having to.

midnightpears

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