I Can’t

“Step One: Admitted we were powerless over (you name it), that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For a very long time I couldn’t take the first step. I realize now that I was confusing powerlessness with weakness. I couldn’t allow myself to be weak; I had to be strong for my daughter. But only after seeing how unmanageable my life had become in my attempts to be strong was I able to finally see my stubbornness and self-will for what it was: a desperate attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Then, and only then, was I able to let go and accept the unacceptable: I couldn’t save Angie. And I learned, paradoxically, that there is a lot of strength in surrender.

Amen to that.

Looking Ahead

From “The Forum,” August, 2015, p. 19:

“I’m so grateful I found a way out of sadness, a way to take care of myself each day, and a relationship with the God of my understanding, who will never abandon me. The pain I’ve felt in the past is equal to the measure of joy I feel now.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Whoever wrote those words in “The Forum” is saying that somewhere between despair and happiness she or he did some work, and found some answers. For me, anyway, I entered into a state of grace. I quite deliberately let go of my precious wounds, which served no further purpose in my life. The lessons they taught me have been learned. I’ve put my sadness in a back drawer—and replaced it with positive thoughts that keep me motivated to reclaim my life, my remaining loved ones, and keep my heart ticking.

Grief is not a badge I wear anymore. Joyfulness is.

No Quarantine for Sea Creatures

                                                     

“Hello, Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob.” Gene named them all ‘Bob’—easier that way.

Even before quarantine, Gene was a little nutty about this group of eight or nine giant starfish living under seal rock. That’s the rock we paddled past a few years ago with a fat seal sunning itself and sitting right on top. Got a nice picture, too, as we paddled on by.

Gene tries to walk on the beach every day during low tide. Winter or spring. Rain or shine. It’s about a mile to seal rock, and that’s where he found these giant sea stars, clinging to their home at the base of the rock. They can live without water from 8-24 hours while they wait for the tide to come in.

What a life for these starfish. Clinging to their rock. Do they ever venture off of it? Do they ever swim around like sea anemones or jellyfish? Or do they stay on their rock in their isolation, avoiding the company of other sea creatures?

Oh Covid! You’ve turned us into a couple of hermits, me and Gene. We venture out to the store when we have to. And a couple of people even came over recently, six feet apart, no hugs.

“This is surreal, Gene,” I whine after they leave. “I miss hugging people. And I miss a closer connection with my grandchildren. I feel like I’m losing time with them.”

Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob don’t care about the coronavirus. Or isolation. Or losing time with anyone.

What a simple life they enjoy. It’s only humans that make it complicated.

The Eyes To See

                                                    

Many mornings at dawn the western horizon has bands of blue, then pinkish orange rising like horizontal stripes over Whidbey Island. At just the right time the pink hovers over the Olympics, still jagged and dark, punctuating this band of color. Then I sit and watch the coloring fade as the sun in the East starts to come up over the island and change the light, muting the colors. As it rises in the sky the sun will shine down on the Olympics, looming over Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island, like ghosts, snow-filled crevices trickling down chocolate ice cream cones.

Sometimes I wake up on warm summer nights and go out onto my deck to look at the night sky. It has barely rained at all this summer and the clarity in the heavens has been amazing. There is also very little light pollution where I live on Puget Sound. But on one particular night I was in for a visual delight that I had never had and probably would not have again.

“Make it zebra-like,” I always tell my hairdresser. “It’s so boring if it’s all the same color. Put streaks of white here and there to blend in with my white sides. But weave it in and out with what’s left of the dark.” 

In similar fashion, this night sky had bands of shimmering white stars, all in different widths, stretching from horizon to horizon, with the darkness of space, like my brown hair, providing the contrast to appreciate this glimmering show. When I first saw it as I sleepily sauntered out onto the deck I couldn’t quite believe it. I did a double and then a triple take. It was so stunning. I went right inside to my computer and looked up The Milky Way, and my cursory search in the middle of the night convinced me that that’s what I must have seen. I went around excitedly telling everyone that I saw the Milky Way that night.

But that’s not what I saw. With further research I learned that the Milky Way is very different from what I saw. But it was striking anyway.

Once again I’ve been fortunate enough to have the eyes to see a natural phenomenon—I’ll call it “My Milky Way”—to remember how small I am in the scheme of things. How my life and problems are absolutely insignificant when viewed next to larger more important things that have pressing consequences for the world and its population. I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis. It lifts me out of the mire of my own ego and brings me closer to the peace and serenity that I seek.

Just consider The Milky Way: a thing of beauty that we’re part of, and if we’re very lucky we might get to see it from an inside perspective. A whole new take on the world and our place in it.

Humbling.

The Talk

From Living Sober, AA World Services, Inc., p. 49:

“Many of us, when drinking, were deeply sure for years that our own drinking was harmless. We were not necessarily smart-alecky about it, but when we heard a clergyman, a psychiatrist, or an A.A. member talk about alcoholism, we were quick to observe that our drinking was different, that we did not need to do any of the things those people suggested. Or even if we could admit that we were having a bit of trouble with our drinking, we were sure we could lick it on our own. Thus we shut the door against new information and help. And behind that door, our drinking went on, of course.

Our troubles had to be pretty dire, and we had to begin to feel pretty hopeless before we could open up a little bit and let in some fresh light and help.”

Not all of us reach the same bottom, of course, before we decide not to drink. For many, it’s that first (or third) DUI. It could be lost employment for others. I’ve seen a couple of people with late-stage alcoholism awaiting liver transplants. Hopefully more and more alcoholics will decide to quit long before that happens.

My bottom cut me to the core and maybe that’s why I haven’t wanted to drink since. My son and his wife had an intervention with me. They called me out on my habit of drinking alone in their basement, something that I thought I was getting away with. Didn’t I think they’d notice all the empty vodka bottles? That and the fact that I was being secretive about it were red flags. Shame and secrecy all play into the denial that enables us to keep up bad habits.

I was stunned and deeply ashamed. And only because I’d had many years of work in another 12-Step group did I have enough recovery to stay in my chair and listen to their concerns. They were concerned about their children, my grandchildren, and the danger of drinking and driving. But most of all they were concerned about me, keeping me safe and alive long enough to enjoy watching them grow up.

I am so grateful to my son for stepping in. He saved my life. My own father was just a couple years older than I am when he died prematurely from alcoholism and smoking. History does not have to repeat itself.

When my children were young, I was not always emotionally present for them. To feel my son’s forgiveness now and to see his concern for my welfare is incredibly gratifying to me. I’ve been given a second chance and I want to take advantage of it. How many people get do-overs like that?

The Calling Card

Bears are almost mythic nowadays. They’re still around but far fewer in number; we keep destroying their habitat. But once while camping on Mt. Marcy in the Adirondak Provincial Park, in upper state New York, though we didn’t actually see the bear, we knew he’d been there.

What’s scary is that we were sleeping in an open lean-to. If the bear had really been starving, he could have attacked us!  As it was, he settled for going after our food.

Gene, like all responsible campers in bear country, hung our provisions up on a line out of the bear’s reach, including the locked bear-proof barrel. We went to sleep in the open air, confident that our food was safe.

As usual I woke up early while Gene snoozed on and went to get our food bag so that I could make coffee. After a long day of hiking the day before, I was hungry for a nice salty breakfast. I could taste the succulent bacon and eggs already, and was glad I’d remembered the salt and pepper packets we always snitched from McDonald’s.

But I was in for a surprise.

Sprinting back to Gene, I woke him up. “Honey,” I whispered, “the line is down and our stuff is strewn all over the ground. Did we get beared?”

“No, I put it up high enough. There’s no way he could have reached it,” he asserted, opening his eyes.

“Then how did it happen?” I asked, “No camper would do that to another camper.”

“There’s always a first time,” he suggested, “Is there any usable food left on the ground? Did the egg holder protect the eggs? Any sign of the bear barrel?”

“No. I’m gonna follow the food trail and see where it goes.”

“Okay. But if it leads to another tent, come back here before you say anything to them.”

The trail led down a hill to a deep stream below. I searched the area for signs of food, and there, plopped in the middle of the stream, wedged between some boulders, was the bear barrel.

I waded out to the boulders, up to my thighs in cold running water. Grabbing the barrel and slogging back to the bank, I sat on a log and nervously scanned both banks for our friend.

Deciding to see what I could salvage, I turned around and made my way back up the hill to our campsite.  All I found were torn wrappers stripped off our energy bars, shredded baggies, the Oscar Meyer wrapper, and some unwashed cutlery minus the food.

For a wilderness camper, food is life. We keep forgetting that they were here first, and have every right to forage for it. We’re in their backyard.

But we got “beared” and were out of luck. So we had to pack out early.

Returning our barrel at the park entrance, the ranger gave us a knowing smile. The claw mark of our visitor was clearly indented in the top of the barrel.

“Better luck next time!” he laughed.    

Listen and Learn

“Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.” ~Deborah Meier

“So often I don’t listen. I’m consumed by my own thoughts and the next thing I will say. But there’s so much I don’t know.

I feel I must know a great deal; I must appear strong and competent.

For others.

I know I don’t know everything, but I want to appear confident.

For others.

I would do well to put myself aside and learn from others.

For me.”

Ladinos And Me – A Commentary

A crucial part of my teaching journey has been to confront and accept who I am in relation to my students in order to forge the most effective partnership with them. In addition, I have enjoyed sitting back and letting my students educate me. For truly, as Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”

Much of my adult life has been witness to Hispanic and Ladino culture.  My journey began quite randomly, when I was a nineteen-year-old college student, searching for a summer volunteer job.  I ended up at San Sebastián Christian Service Center, deep in the rain forest of Puerto Rico.  I went there to teach English to some of the poorest, most uneducated “jibaros” in western Puerto Rico.  But, as with all the stops on my journey, I came away learning more than I taught.

This experience opened a door for me, for when I was twenty-three, I met a Cuban graduate student at Harvard, and despite our vast cultural differences, he became my husband.  Angel joined the foreign service, and for fifteen years we lived in several different third-world countries.  But the first two, Nicaragua and Ecuador, were the setting for what I’ve learned in this unit.

When I started teaching ESL in Arlington County ten years ago, I thought that my background would enable me to bond instantly with my Hispanic students.  Was I wrong!  Only now, after taking a close look at what the poor populations have endured in the last generation at the hands of the United States, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and Bolivia, do I understand why my students don’t feel any special affinity toward me.  “But my son is Nica!  He was born in Managua!  You, Jeffrey Flint, you are from Managua.  Don’t we have a lot in common?”  “Not on your life, Miss.  You and your husband  represented the United States government, which backed Anastasio Somoza, who oppressed my family and all the poor people of Nicaragua for forty years.  When I look at you I see only an American who happens to speak Spanish. I’m glad to be in your country now, but I’ll never forget why I and all of my Central American buddies had to come here. So no, Miss, we don’t have anything in common, certainly nothing that would endear me to you, especially.   You’re  just a nice teacher who happens to speak Spanish.”  So much for my “in” with the Hispanics.

I never actually had this conversation with Jeffrey, of course, but I do understand him better now.  Before I took this course I was always a little baffled and disappointed with my students’ disinterest in me and my background.  Now, in retrospect, I think they’re being polite.  There’s much they could say to me, that their parents and grandparents have told them, that I might not want to hear.  For all of my Hispanic students come from poor backgrounds, and after reading Rigoberta’s story, and excerpts from Harvest of Empire, I understand where they’re coming from.  “To comprehend this new Latino wave, we must have a rudimentary sense of what the immigrants left behind.  Simply put, the vast majority of Central Americans today live in perpetual misery alongside tiny elites that enjoy unparalleled prosperity.  The average cat in our country eats more beef than the average Central American.” “Central America’s victims perished mostly at the hands of their own soldiers…and invariably from weapons `made in the U.S.A., since in each country our government provided massive military aid to the side doing most of the killing.”  There you are.  Now that I’ve understood and accepted .the gulf between me and my Hispanic students, how does this affect me in the classroom?

I teach to what they know as much as possible.  I have many educational materials that tell their story and from their point of view.  Joel Medrano, an El Salvadorian student of mine, walked from his country to the United States with a few companeros and lived to tell the tale.  I just finished reading Grab Hands and Run in his class, and what classroom activity could personally validate him more?  This book echoes Calixto’s tale in his Odyssey to the North.  Felipe, the narrator of Grab Hands and Run and newly arrived in the United States, is getting to know his American hosts.  “It seems that although the U.S. government does bad things in El Salvador and supplies the weapons with which we are killed, many North Americans have good hearts.”   This, one hopes, is the conclusion many Ladino immigrants arrive at.  One day in my classroom community, my advanced students and I might have a lively discussion about U.S. foreign policy and the “ugly American.” Another time we might do a role play about Sandanista policy dilemmas.  The Network of Educators’ Committees on Central America has published a curriculum on Nicaragua called “Inside the Volcano,” which has all kinds of classroom activities that the students can have fun with, and more to the point, relate to.  

Back in my beginning class, I have a group of Bolivian girls who speak Quechua around me as well as Spanish.  It’s not that they don’t want me to understand what they’re saying (though maybe they don’t!).  I think they’re just reaffirming their culture and their uniqueness because Quechua, after all, is not widely known in the U.S.  It’s almost like a secret language (echoes of Rigoberta?).  They always love it when I read them The Legend of El Dorado by Beatriz Vidal.  They can certainly relate to the Indian history surrounding the legend.  Speaking of legends, I love to teach my unit on Central American legends around Halloween:  El Cipitio, La Siguanaba, La Chintintora, El Duende.  The kids get a kick out of my familiarity with things only their grandparents used to tell them late into the night.  Even though I’m not one of them, I think they like it that I bring these stories into their classroom community. 

Of the three units we are studying, the Hispanic unit is the one I am most familiar with, both from extensive personal experience, and also with respect to the materials I incorporate into the classroom curricula.  And yet, I’m still very much an outsider, just as I was when I married into a strongly male-dominated culture.  It was that cultural trait that doomed my marriage, because I wasn’t willing to be told what to do.  I can’t shake being an outsider and carrying the burden of white privilege, whether I’m teaching Blacks, Ladinos, or Asians.  And yet it’s that very separateness that might give me the objective edge as their teacher and as their friend.  Together we can read about and discuss aspects of their history, their suffering, and above all their endurance.  For it is that very endurance that I celebrate often in my classroom, how I admire them for what they have had to overcome and the discrimination they are still overcoming as they assimilate into this culture.  I celebrate my ESL students, so that someday they may celebrate themselves.

Three Days

When I was a teacher twenty years ago, one of my assignments was as a long-term substitute.  The teacher left lots of engaging assignments, and I did my best to implement them. The students had a break from their “real” teacher, and I felt little pressure to invest myself in the assignments because I knew I’d be leaving.  That attitude, and my subsequent behavior, could have brought on tragic consequences.

Shirley was a pretty, soft-spoken girl in this class.  She rarely smiled and I sensed that she was unhappy.  But I left her alone.  I had twenty-three other students to attend to.  It was two weeks before I asked her if she had a problem she wanted to talk about, and she broke down in tears.  I was relieved that she was so able to open up.  She said that she was treated very badly at home.  Shirley lived with a much older sister and her children, and this sister resented her living there. I asked her if there was any physical abuse and she said no; they just made her feel like she wasn’t welcome.  Shirley said she was so miserable she wanted to die.  I told Shirley I should tell the counselor about this, but she begged me not to say anything because she was afraid it would make things worse.  This is where I made a huge error in judgment.  Partly because I lacked experience with child abuse and partly because I had promised Shirley I wouldn’t tell, I naively hoped that the problem would correct itself.

But for three days I didn’t sleep well.  I had a terrible sense of misgiving, and finally realized that I had to tell Shirley’s counselor what she had told me.  There was immediate intervention, and Shirley was placed in a foster home where she eventually finished high school.  

The weight of those three days still burdens me sometimes when I think of how my poor judgment could have proved disastrous.  The fact that I was a substitute in no way should have diminished my responsibility to my students.  My inexperience would have been a poor excuse if anything had happened to Shirley.  Needless to say, after that I was very vigilant with my students, and often went to their counselors with my concerns.   

But a larger truth I realize now as I’m telling this story is that we teachers are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings who have been given a large and important responsibility to care for other people’s children.  How we regard that responsibility is at least as important as what we do in the classroom. That is the lesson we learn. We will make mistakes.  If we are good, well-intentioned people who strive to do our best, are open to critical reflection and can learn from those mistakes, then I believe the teaching profession is better off with us than without us.  And that’s what making a difference is all about.

Duxbury

This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

“Lining up all my conches and other shells like students in a classroom, I’m mindful of what they are teaching me.

Once I waded into a cave in the sea around Greece and found a large cache of sea urchin tests, or exoskeletons, long since abandoned by their hosts. When my family left Athens in 1990 I packed them as carefully as my mother’s Limoges china, but I’ve loved them more.

The most beautiful shell I have used to sit on the window seat in my mother’s hillside home in Massachusetts. We found it at dead low tide one hot summer day at Duxbury Beach when I was seven. She had held onto that conch for over fifty years, maybe for the same reason I have trouble throwing my shells away: the assurance that something of us is left behind.  

From each of my beach excursions, I’ve made sure to bring back a shell or two. And in the fifty years that I’ve been amassing my collection, I’ve run out of space to display them.

Now, my son chides me, I must leave them where they are—and driftwood too—to shore up the beach.”