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On hospitals…

Patry wrote a provocative post about her recent hospital stay today. As usual, I read through it with admiration for her compassionate outlook on life and people, and the clear and focused way in which she tells a story. And, as usual, she got me thinking. The nurse’s aide who treated her so poorly probably had been abusing patients for years. Patry didn’t complain, feeling too much compassion for the aide’s weary face and look of despair. What would I have done? Probably the same thing Patry did, I suppose, although perhaps not out of the kind of deep love that is Patry’s hallmark . More likely because I’d have blamed myself. If she’s treating me badly, I probably did something. That’s my line of thinking, usually.

I remembered back to my own experiences with health care:

A scheduled ultrasound for a baby that died in the womb. I had a rare form of mishaped uterus. I’ll never forget the technician’s smile of delight as she saw me: “Oh, YOU’RE the bicornuate uterus,” she exclaimed. “We’ve never had a real one of those before.” Excuse me? I am not my uterus. And my baby is dead.

My daughter’s birth, induced because of high blood pressure and protein in the urine. That night, I started to lose the 40+ pounds of water I had gained over the course of the pregnancy. I woke needing to pee. I felt as though I’d drunk three gallons of water, and I needed it out NOW! I hit the call button. And hit it. And hit it. Because I was still attached to an IV that was plugged into the wall, I couldn’t get to the bathroom. It took 30 minutes or so for a response. By the time the nurse arrived, tears of pain were pouring down my face. I was rocking on the bed, literally seconds away from peeing right then and there. (I didn’t make it to the toilet).

My best friend had a mastectomy for breast cancer, and was then placed in a bed on the maternity ward with a roommate who was breastfeeding her newborn. What kind of cruelty is that?

On the night of my second mastectomy, I was put in a room with an old woman who was dying. She spent the whole night crying “Help me. Heeeeeeeeeeelp meeeeeeeee!” I hit the call button, repeatedly. The nurse ignored it. Finally I got up and went out to the nurse’s station. (I had an IV, but it wasn’t plugged into the wall — unlike the one from my daughter’s birth). She was sitting down, chatting to the other nurses, and totally ignored me. When I finally got her attention and told her about the old woman, she said, “Well, she’s dying. There’s nothing we can do for her.”

Because of various terrible experience with hospitals, my sisters and I refused to leave my mother alone in her hospital room while she was undergoing her various cancer surgeries and treatment. Thank goodness. One night I woke to an odd sound, a kind of gasping and gurgling coming from my mother’s bed. She was choking. She was unable to sit up, because she’d just had a full hysterectomy and in the process the doctors had punctured her bladder, causing a full-scale medical emergency and leading eventually to a staph infection. Because I heard her choking, I was able to get her up, and hit her on the back till the fluid in her lungs moved around and she was able to breathe again. If I hadn’t, would she have suffocated there on the bed? She told me she was blacking out because she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t get up, and she couldn’t hit the call button. If she had, would the nurse have come anyway?

I’ve had good experiences in hospitals. I’ve had loving, compassionate nurses and doctors. But the bad experiences are endemic enough that if a friend or relative of mine is ever hospitalized again, I’ll do everything I can to be physically present in the room, even if it means spending the night on a slippery, uncomfortable foldout chair.

Out of step with the millions

It’s got to get better, I thought. There’ll be a point where it all makes sense. A moment where I say, “Aaaah!” and join the 21 million people worldwide who love this book. If that many millions have read it, it must be something worth reading, right?

I kept slogging, and it didn’t get better. Life-changing? A modern classic? The superlatives on the cover and in the first three pages spun round and round my head as I read. I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it. I’m not enlightened. That’s it.

The book had been chosen by the reading group at my place of work, a rag-tag bunch of people including current and retired faculty, staff, an occasional interim administrator. “What’s all the hype about?” said the person who suggested it, a college counselor and psychology teacher. “I’m really curious.”

I had already come to the conclusion that I should stay away from bestsellers. But this was an “International bestselling phenomenon.” It has been translated into 60 languages. People in Israel and Poland and Germany and Japan loved it. Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for literature, endorsed it. In 2005, Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and nobody at the local bookstore had heard of him, which is usually an endorsement as far as I’m concerned (twisted, I know. I also think there are political reasons Pinter won that year — which is not to denigrate his writing, but to say something about the way many educated people in the rest of the world view American Imperialism.) So although I hadn’t read anything by Kenzaburo Oe, I figured his endorsement meant something. It had to be worth giving Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist a try.

I hope none of my readers are amongst that group of 21 million who loved it so much, because if you are, just stop right here. Keep the magic. Enjoy your relationship to a work that epitomizes — in my opinion — the downward spiral in which we Americans — ummmm, scratch that, all humans — seems to be caught. If it inspires you, lifts your heart, makes the day worth waking up to, then just stop reading right now. But comment, too, so that I can see a different view! I really do want to know what the attraction is.

Because I hated it.

Hate is a strong word. I try not to use it. But the book was so vapid, and so ultimately irritating, that I found myself resisting every word. I finished it only because I had the reading group to attend, and I wanted to hear what the others had to say.

Why did I hate it so much? It seems the culmination of a line of thinking that has taken us seriously astray, a line of thinking woven from self-help books and New Age fuzzy thinking. It’s a line of thinking that elevates the individual above the group, that says our individual happiness is worth more than our ability to serve others. In the introduction Coelho writes, “We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” In other words, it’s our job to follow our “Personal Legend” and all those who love us are to fall in behind us as a cheering squad, even if it means they can’t follow their own Personal Legends because their dream is in opposition to ours.

I’d love to be a published writer. I’d love to give up my job, and ignore my daughter, and neglect my relationships in order to pursue my dream of being a writer. But doing so would hurt the one person in this world for whom I have the greatest level of responsibility, my daughter. Writing is all encompassing. It involves giving up relationships (the boy left his family). It involves a single-minded pursuit of treasure that matters to the individual and the individual alone. It is not simply a matter of saying, “Hey, man, this is my Personal Legend, and if you loved me, you’d support me.” My daughter loves me, but I have no right to ask her to suffer for my dream. And if I followed my dream, she would be suffering.

Essentially, Coelho’s book is about finding happiness. It’s a fable, in which a boy goes on a journey to find treasure. In the end he finds it essentially where he started. In the process, he finds his “soul-mate,” and discovers awesome powers in himself. In the epilogue, he is seen looking at the spoils he has found under the tree where he had the dream that took him to the Pyramids in search of the treasure in the first place. He receives from the wind a kiss from his beloved who waits for him in the desert. He is complete, rich both with treasure and with love.

But the book only fuels the magical thinking that sends people in search of an unrealistic and selfish joy. It’s the kind of thinking that says, “If things don’t go your way, it’s your fault. You haven’t pursued your Personal Legend, because if you had, the universe would give you what you wanted.”

No. Life isn’t that simple. Part of learning to find joy in life is recognizing that joy is found in the present moment, not in pursuit of a glorious goal. It’s found in helping others, not in insisting that others support you in whatever grandiose dream you have. It’s found in accepting the present moment, being mindful within it, and in offering to others your love and compassion. A book I’m reading currently, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation, by Charles Barber, quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness” (131). For Jefferson, happiness lay in serving others, in offering up one’s life to help others rather than oneself. “Virtue transcended the selfish interests of the individual,” Barber writes of Jefferson (131).

That vision has been altered in the last few decades. We’re living in the “me” culture, in which people’s desire for continual, unabated happiness is conversely contributing to their misery. A book that fuels the “me” philosophy simply adds to the problem. I have the right to do what I want to do to find my treasure, and if you love me, you’ll go along with it. If I pursue my Personal Legend, the universe will “[conspire] in helping [me] to achieve it.” But what happens if, in pursuing my dream, I get cancer? My kid gets killed by a drunk driver? My husband gets irritated because I’m neglecting my son because my dream is more important than my child is, so he divorces me? Suddenly it looks like the universe is conspiring against me, not with me. I’m miserably unhappy, because things weren’t supposed to happen this way, not according to Coelho.

Life is not simple enough to capture in a single, simplistic fable. It’s complex, and it’s multi-faceted, and whether we like it or not, it’s inhabited by in a network of people who depend on us and for whom we must sacrifice. And by the way, sacrifice is not a negative, martyr-making word, here. I simply mean that when we enter a relationship, whatever that relationship, we must be willing to compromise, to be compassionate towards the needs and dreams of others. If we give life to a child, then that child’s welfare becomes more important than our dreams of grandeur. Even if we don’t have children, we must find ways to love everyone, not just a perfect soul mate that we have conjured from our imaginations.

That 21 million people worldwide have read The Alchemist seems to signify a global change in attitude away from community, selflessness, and compassion. People are looking for simplistic, feel-good answers that give them permission to be selfish, and the book gives them that. Review after review on the internet elevates the book’s “profound,” “symbolic” message to the level of gospel. If it were well written, it might at least have the merit of providing a sense of joy in reading it. But it isn’t. It’s composed of short, choppy sentences, uninspired images, stock New Age cliches.

At least — at least! — my colleagues felt similarly to me, all somewhat bemused that something so shallow could have struck such a universal cord. I suppose it’s heartening that I’m not the only one to feel so out of step with the millions.

School clothes shopping with Mutt and Jeff

I use Firefox to browse, and right now multiple tabs are open. My email inbox. My work tab, which gives me one-click access to work email, the department site, WebCT, etc. My blog site (obviously). And Bloglines. Bloglines demands my attention, and I turn away. Some of the blogs I like to read have dozens of unread posts. Others have been marked as unread because I intend to return and post a comment, or several. I scan a very few as I eat breakfast, and then move on, without time or energy to think of a comment. Perhaps I will just leave stones this time. Other comments say what I wish to say better. I always seem to be on the tail end of the comments thread.


I’ve been out of town again, visiting my dad with Zeke and her best friend. They are a study in contrasts. Anna is tall and strikingly blonde, a snowboarder and soccer player who has modeled. She came to Ireland with us a few years ago, and was a perfect traveling companion, easygoing, curious about everything, happy to help in whatever way was needed. She has just returned from a trip through Europe, including a homestay on Malta, the island of Dad’s birth. Two nights ago she spent an hour or so after dinner showing my dad her pictures of Europe, and asking him questions about his experience. She is serious about her life and her future. She wants to go to an Ivy-League school and become a biotechnologist. She loves science, reading, adult conversation. Her European trip was a People-to-People ambassador program, another tidy entry for her resume. Whatever she does is calculated to add to her ability to get into Harvard.

In some ways, Zeke’s friendship with Anna is difficult. As the only child of two community college teachers, Zeke has been privileged in many ways. She has been able to take gym classes twice a week, to travel in ways many kids can’t (Colombia, Ireland, the Azores, although each trip takes years of savings up for). She has been exposed to theatre and music, has a cell phone and an iPod. She is one of the 25% of students at her school who passed all of her state benchmarks for graduation the first time. (Scary, because it’s a school in a relatively high income area, with a high proportion of solid middle class students in it, and few poor students, and yet academically it’s not too impressive.)

But Zeke can never, ever, live in the rarified air that is Anna’s world. Anna is the daughter of a father from a mogul family (nursing homes, luxury hotels, and vineyards) and a mother who is married to a man with an eight-bedroom mansion and a private plane. She gets what she wants, when she wants it. She has a debit card loaded with hundreds of dollars of spending money. When the two went school clothes shopping yesterday, Anna piled Zeke’s arms with brandname clothes: “Get this! Oh, this is so cute! Oh, you have to have this!” And Zeke, on a budget, had to keep shaking her head no.

Anna is wonderful. Totally unspoilt, she wears her privilege lightly, and well. She was more than happy to stay in my sister’s house in Ireland, despite her amazed comment that “Leah’s living room is smaller than my bathroom!” She never complains. She eats whatever is put in front of her. She finds ways to see humor in the most challenging moments. I adore her. So does Zeke.

But she will probably go her way when school ends in two years, and Zeke will go another way. Zeke brushes aside Anna’s entreaties of, “Come on, Zeke, you can go to Harvard with me. We can room together. Think of how much fun we’d have,” with, “I’m going to XXX. (Small regional college. Nice enough, but certainly not Ivy league.) You should come with me.”

I tell Zeke she can try for scholarships. She shakes her head. “I want to stay close to home,” she says. Five hours away is manageable, I think. I’d miss her if she went to Harvard. In-state is affordable. If she doesn’t get scholarships, she’ll still be able to go to college, and perhaps not rack up too many thousands in financial aid. I’ve been saving for her education and so has her dad. We can do budget education. No problem there.

But the challenge for Zeke these past years has been to maintain her perspective. She wants what Anna has. “Why can’t we be rich?” she has asked, multiple times.

“We are rich,” I tell her. “Compared to most of the rest of the world, we’re obscenely rich. We don’t need any more.”

Yesterday, something clicked. She told Anna she really ought to give her parents a break and put back some of the clothes she was piling up to purchase. “What do you need?” she asked Anna.

“Well, I want this, and this, and this….” Anna said.

“You just started that sentence with ‘want,'” Zeke noted. “Wanting is different from needing.”

Anna looked at her, head cocked to the side. “Oh!” she said. “I guess you’re right.” And she put back a stack of clothes. “I love you, Zeke,” she added. “You should totally come to Harvard with me. We’d have a blast.”

Zeke smiled. And I did too.


Last year’s vacation was the trip to the Azores; this year’s was a trip to a large city four or so hours away. Nada and I drove via Dad’s town, spending the night on the beach before heading into traffic on the freeway. We stopped at my old alma mater, a trip I will repeat next week with my daughter and one or two of her friends. It’s been years since I’ve walked on the campus, and in the surprising bright light of August sun we crossed the brick square towards the student union building, passing by the old clock tower. The square was noisy with some kind of construction, the echoing sounds of machinery, dump trucks, jack hammers filling our ears, but we couldn’t see anything. Whatever was happening was on the lower level of the library building, invisible to us.

I was struck at the sense of loss and decay on the campus. Everything seemed both smaller and more dreary than I had imagined. The buildings were dull gray concrete blocks, dark water stains marring them. The bricks in the main square were cracked and broken, and weeds grew in stairwells and against the building walls. The student building downstairs had a new coat of paint, but it was a neon lime-green that looked tacky and depressing. Maybe it spoke to a younger generation, but I just felt lost. Where was the vitality I remembered from my first visit to the campus, the conversations on Nietzsche and Dada I remembered hearing from inside a bathroom stall 20 years ago? Women standing at a mirror, washing their hands, and arguing over that morning’s seminar topic, not over boyfriends and lipstick shades — the perennial subjects of the community college I attended at the time. No. Twenty years on, the bathrooms were empty, and everything seemed old, but without the sense of history and veneration of truly old campuses. The cafeteria smelt of stale food that had been sitting for hours. The furniture harked back to the 70’s: formica and linoleum; bright, relentless colors; a kind of dismay overlaying the faux cheer.

In the big city two hours south, we visited a small private college that Nada had toured in his senior year of high school. It provides a rigorous liberal arts education, pedagogically similar to my alma mater. But it has money. Way more money than my small public college. The campus is dotted with elegant brick buildings; the bookstore is warm and inviting. The cafeteria was closed, by the time we got there, but the smell of espresso still hung in the air outside the building. The contrast was striking. While my alma mater was undergoing some kind of renovation, the overall feel of the campus was one of ungraceful aging and disintegration. The private college, also undergoing renovation in places, seemed lively, engaging, inviting. Zeke is two years away from graduating, and I try to imagine her at my alma mater. Despite my memories of a life-changing experience there, I can’t imagine her wanting to be there. It’s not her kind of school.

Maybe, though, I’ll be surprised. Next week she’ll walk the campus for the first time, by her request. Perhaps something will have changed between now and then. Perhaps she’ll hear African drums at the entrance to the student buildings, as I did, and listen to the swirling conversations about ideas, and feel a connection with a place that isn’t about looking good, but about fostering change.

Whatever happens, it will be all right.

Canyon heron II

(For context, read the post before this one first.)

So I need to start carrying a camera. No. I don’t. If the heron story has begun to seem unreasonable, too impossible, it is so only to non-believers.

I am writing this all wrong.

What I want to do is celebrate, but I don’t know how. I don’t know who to share this with, who would appreciate it most. It is my story, and perhaps inexplicable to everyone except me and my sisters.

Yesterday morning, I wrote about Leah’s secret. It reminded me of my mother’s death, and so I wrote another entry, about my Mum dying, and my car. As I was saving it, I wondered if I would see the heron that day. I haven’t seen it in a while. I looked out my window, at the green light trapped between the trees and my slider doors, at the petunias and ivy geraniums spilling over the edges of the planters. The bronze heron that sits in my garden looked back at me unblinkingly. I wished I could see a real one fly by. The last time I felt this way, a kind of darkness pushing into me, memories fluttering in the margins of my thoughts, the heron stood by the freeway exit, not five feet away as I passed in my car.

Later, I had a typical adolescent fight with my strong-willed daughter, and I felt the usual gloom such incidents trigger in me. These are the kinds of days the heron has come in the past to comfort me, I thought. But I didn’t expect it. I couldn’t expect it. It does not come as a sign, on command. It comes only when I don’t expect it, and yet in retrospect its presence always makes absolute sense.

Later, this afternoon, I went for a walk in the canyon. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent the $4 in gas money to drive to there, but I was in the kind of mood that only the canyon seems able to soothe. I was walking along, feeling grumpy and lonely and wondering when the challenge of raising a teenager alone will finally diminish, at what point I will finally be able to breathe deep and say, “It’s over now.” And I rounded a corner, and there on the bridge was the heron, maybe 20 yards away. We stood, watching each other, for five minutes I think, and the dogs, who saw it too, never went after it. They love chasing birds. Any other large mobile creature they would have jetted after. But they stood in the shade, calm, watching the heron as I watched it.

Finally it turned and stepped down off the edge of the converted railway bridge and onto the center, and then it walked across, with long, delicate strides, and stepped up on the other side. It turned to give me one last look, and then lifted off into the dappled air and around the corner.

I have seen a heron in the canyon twice in all the days I’ve walked it. Once was the first day I took Sadie to the canyon after her illness, in fulfillment of a promise I’d made while she was in the hospital. The second time was yesterday.

The day my car died

The last entry brought me back to the time of my mother’s death, for a moment. I can be so dispassionate these days. “My old car died the same day my mother did,” I said rather flippantly the other day to someone who had asked me how I had come to buy car I now have. Because I had no car and I had to help arrange my mother’s wake, and I lived three hours from her house and Dad’s, and because all I could remember was the way her eyes wouldn’t stay closed after she died. Pennies don’t work, movies be damned. You can’t close dead eyes by a brush of your hand.

She looked at us from those milky sightless orbs, blinded even before her last breath, and SAW.

I needed a car. I wanted to resurrect my old Toyota, with its 307,000 miles, but it wouldn’t run. I couldn’t bring my mother back, either.

So I bought the first car I really looked at, although the salesman was a crook and I’d always sworn I’d never buy a brand-new car. At least it was a Toyota. It’s been good and reliable for the past five years, run its 100,000 miles without complaint. It should go half a million miles, the salesman told me. If it runs that long, and it marks the days of my dad’s life the way my old car marked my Mum’s, he’ll be almost 100 when it goes. Ha.

Clearly, I’m in a flippant mood. The gods laugh, and I laugh with them.

Retrospective revisited — B*stard children

I’ve reached 1982, and that’s the year I graduated from high school, and so, I suppose, that will have to be my focus. But it leaves out some things that I fear need to be spoken. If I leave them out, I have left out half of what I am, what I remember. I have left out, too, those things that shaped Leah and Rachel, Ruth May, my mother too.

My cousin has been in touch with me through Facebook, another strange synchronicity, because it is his mother who triggered a dark time in our lives. Not her fault, certainly. She was only speaking what she saw, what was suspected.

“You’re really Nathan’s daughter,” she told Rachel. “It’s pretty obvious. He just won’t admit it.”

She had been married to and was now divorced from Dad’s brother. She and her two children had made a life for themselves in a country house owned by a retired doctor who was quite a bit older than she was. She started off as his housekeeper, and later married him. I remember spending summers there, in the oversized house, in the scattered outbuildings, in the sloping fields where it never rained. (This is Ireland. It always rains. Not there. Not in Shillelagh in the summer that Elvis Presley died.) My cousin saw a ghost on the lane when we were fetching in the post. He was a farmer. He was there and he was gone. “I saw him,” she said. Where was her brother, who today sends me Facebook messages from Taiwan?

In my memory, everything is sun and dappled shadow and puffs of dust and the smell of hay. Maureen was my fun aunt, younger than the others. She liked us, and came outside to sit on the river wall with us. It must have been Sunday, one of those Sunday visits that punctuated those years. Maybe we were playing hide-and-seek, and had taken a break. “Anyway,” she said, “I’m sure you figured it out. Sure, you’re the spitting image of each other.”

What is is like to be 12 or 13 and to be told as Rachel was that the man you have thought is your stepfather is actually your father, but won’t acknowledge it? She had no reason, as I did, to be grateful that Dad wasn’t her father. He liked underdogs, and as a small child she had been somewhat of an underdog. Anyway, Maureen’s secret-spilling explained why he was more tolerant of her than of me. She was his blood, after all, as I was not.

Shortly afterwards, we found the letters. They were hidden in the guest room, in a closet with a secret compartment. They documented Mum’s relationship with Dad. They were love letters that smelled of dust and chagrin. How fanciful of me to say so; after all, they were just dry, fading pages in a manila envelope, artifacts that map a time that is swathed in mystery. I was already born then, a babe in arms, but there was no mention of Mum being pregnant with Rachel. That strange lacuna lent Maureen’s terrible confession a truth that we could not deny. And if that confession was true, then surely her contention that Mum and Dad were not married, that they had never been married, must also be true. We were bastards.

To be continued

Courage and love

For B —

I’ve been thinking about family. I’ve been thinking about what happens when family members turn on you in unforgivable ways. I’ve been thinking about the worlds I see through my students’ eyes, through the papers they write.

I learn from my students. I learn how to appreciate what I have now, and the privilege that was my childhood. When I’m tempted to whine about whatever indignity I might have suffered once or might be suffering now, I remember the paper written by a student a couple of quarters ago. He was a gang member, and his family’s house was burned down by a rival gang. He left the gang then, thankful that nobody in his family had died in the fire.

I remember the student who wrote about the scar in his leg, a gunshot memento from running drugs and a gang skirmish. I remember the woman with the three little dots on her cheek, a tattoo that centered her in the sub-culture that was her world. There are men and women here who are recovering from addictions: alcohol, crack, meth. So many meth addicts, trying day-by-day to turn their lives around.

There are stories from girls who cut themselves because that’s the only power they know. There was the student who was molested by his babysitter for years as a prepubescent boy. And every quarter, somehow, someway, there are the stories of girls who have been raped, or sexually abused, or beaten by controlling boyfriends. There are those who were molested once, and who told parents who believed them, and who saw justice done. And there are those whose parents either were the molesters, or who allowed the molestation to happen.

I can’t imagine it. Can’t imagine standing by and letting anyone hurt Zeke. I can’t imagine not believing her, or seeing abuse and turning away. I can’t imagine how a mother could do that to a kid, what kind of dark and twisted world that mother grew up in to think it’s OK to turn her back on abuse to a child.

I think of the extraordinary courage of students who stand up in the face of family hostility and say, “This isn’t right” about the years they withstood abuse that went unchallenged. We’re not “supposed” to be molested by close relatives, but if we are, we’re not “supposed” to send those relatives to jail. Charging a father or a brother or a mother or a sister goes against some terrible instinct that says family cohesion is more important than individual rights. And yet some people have the courage to walk away from family, to recognize that family cycles can’t continue. They break away, at terrible cost to themselves, for something that is ultimately for the greater good.

A few of those brave women (and sometimes men), are able to do so and yet somehow maintain their ability to love, to hold compassion in mind with every action. They love those who have hurt them, and while they take the brave and isolated stance that destroys the family cycle of hate and destruction, they never lose sight of love.

For those rare and precious people, for those few I know personally and others all around the world who also walk such lonely paths, I pray.