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Tag: triumphs

first semester: fini


dispatch from 02139 (in which, in the blink of an eye, the fall semester has come crashing to a close. and we look back, scratching our head, wondering, where’d that go?)…

seems like mere hours ago i was marching into my first lecture hall here at veritas university. my heart pounding like a kettle drum there in the hollows under my ribs. needing a swallow of water, fast, just to keep my lips and my tongue from sticking together, sandpaper rough against parchment.

then there was the first seminar, one of those too-small tables for grad students only, where each flank of the square was covered by IQs and brain trusts the likes of which i’d rarely encountered. not face-to-face and dissecting literature, anyway. these were kids on their ways to PhDs, for God’s sake. and there was me, old, silver, and with one measly goal: dear God, please let me finish one novel. please.

oh, i got into the swing of it, all right. piled on reams and reams of pressure (my specialty, honed over the years). nearly pulled one all-nighter (went to bed at 2, climbed outa the sheets at 3, typed till sun-up). plotted my weeks by when and where i could squeeze in hundreds of pages of reading. wrote and wrote and wrote, and wrote some more.

people would ask, “but you’re not getting a grade, right?”


then i shot back: “it’s a moral obligation.” if you’re going to sit there taking up space at a table of 12, you’d better cough up some thoughts and make ’em be weighty. or at least original. original, i was (a euphemistic way of saying i was out of the scholarly groove). figured i’d make up in life years, what i lacked in theoretical perspectives. shot my hand in the air, offered up tales from the front. from my days in the newspaper trenches. from life in the 1960s, a good THIRTY years before three-quarters of these kids came to the planet.

most of the time i forgot that i could have birthed any one of these kids. i was that old. they were that fresh-faced.

but now, one by one, i’ve bid goodbye to classes i’ve loved.

nearly cried, honest to God, at the end of “virginia woolf and religion.”

ditto, in global health, when arthur kleinman, the great godfather of the course, mentor to paul farmer, as well as the originator of the academic pursuit of what it means to cure the biosocial ills of the world, grabbed the microphone and bellowed: “i’m 71-1/2 years old. i don’t have to teach this. i do it because this is one of the most important things i do. i want to see you be the best you can be. we believe in this course as the first step in that direction.” and then he hit us with his closing wallop: “if there’s a single piece of wisdom on the art of living that we could give you, it’s this — to the extent that you do for others, you’ll do amazing things for yourself.”

this from a doctor who battles drug-resistant tuberculosis in the prisons of russia, who fights AIDS in the hills of rwanda, and all of the above in the rubble of haiti.

early this morning i turned in my very last paper for my hardest and favorite class: narrative writing. i never knew, till this semester, how damn hard it could be — should be — to craft a beautiful sentence. i’m embarrassed to say that, till now, writing came easy for me. put fingers to keys and they launched down the keyboard. not anymore. every verb is a goldmine, waiting for search light and shovel. nouns demand careful choosing. dispense with adjectives, adverbs and all the rest of the flimsy modifiers. be brave. go bold. choose deliberately, thoughtfully, and with the precision of surgery.

all in all, i’ve realized that it’s a helluva shot in the arm to be smack dab in your middle 50s, to be deeply anchored in the whole of your life, and up and throw yourself into the melee. to cast yourself wholly into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the deeply uncomfortable.

to have to find your way, memorize names, get lost, feel afraid, miss home, marvel, and gulp it all down.

i am, above all, resistant to change. a creature of habit.

well, habit ditched to the hills these past four months. i was awhirl in the world of the new.

and now, with thousands of pages, 11 virginia woolf novels, seven “modern spiritual pioneer” biographies, and lord knows how many typed words under my belt, i am sighing a deep heave of relief. and i am also inhaling. the sweet breath of accomplishment.

i did it. i did what i swore i could not do. i up and moved to a faraway place, a place i’d long inhabited in dreams. but dreams are barely ever even in color. dreams don’t swim through your soul with nuance and lessons. dreams don’t toughen your soft spots, thicken your muscles. dreams don’t sharpen your seeing. fill your head and your heart for the long road before you.

heck, i read a whole novel. at least eight times over. i managed to stick my hand in the air, utter a question. thread together a thought that wasn’t dismissed, not blatantly anyway.

i realized there aren’t so many chances in life to really, deeply, say to yourself: i did it.

it makes you a wee bit less wobbly. it stiffens your purpose. it makes you sit bolt upright and say, okey doke, now i did that. what’s next on the docket?

sometimes i think, for creatures like me, creatures of habit and comfort, we’re not nudged into the woopsy-daisy zone quite often enough.

it’s a cold splash to the soul. a north wind howling down our spine. it’s waking up to this infinite possibility. the one with the timer that will, some day, clang.

it’s the knowledge that these days of our lives spin by but once.

and we’ve the chance to fortify, if we make the right choices.

now that i’m nearly done, now with a mere two classes on monday, and a smattering of nieman encounters left on the 2012 calendar, i’m looking ahead at all of the clear space. the hours and long afternoons when my afghan and tea mug will call me. when the long shelf of books on my desk will finally get cracked. the books i’ve tucked there for months now, deeply longing to read.

there is much to be done, now that i’ve learned: i can do it, we all can. if we ask one simple question — what needs to be done? if we wait for the answer. follow our hearts. and get the job mastered.

it is always an amazing wonder, how these words have a mind of their own. zig when i thought they’d zag. so what was going to be a meander about what i’d do next, now that i have a sacred six weeks for self-plotted journeys. but instead, the words seemed to want to course over the terrain of these last four months, and the refrain of the little engine that could: i think i can, i think i can. i did it. i did it. what mountain climbs in your life have pushed you up and over a particular ridge? and what did you learn once you’d done it? 

p.s. still waiting for baby up portland way. any day now, i KNOW i’ll be motoring to meet him. bless him for letting me finish each of my classes. what a good boy already. 

when words spill, finally, from lips

it was the very last thing he told me the other night, as i hugged him extra tight after a flawless and dramatic flashlight reading–his reading, by the way, not mine–of that not-quite-classic “morris has a cold.”

i had tears before he even told me, just huddled there beside him, listening to his intonations, taking in his little asides–“this is really funny,” says he, offering his literary critique in whispers in my ear–hearing him growl when the bear talked in capital letters, shouting when an exclamation mark allowed, encouraged, insisted.

when he got to the end–the outline of a smile stretched from ear to ear across his face, half-lit in flashlight shadow– i couldn’t keep from burying him in arms and heart that couldn’t be contained. (a fine thing that comes with mamahood is, sometimes, you don’t have to keep your hands to yourself.)

i started to tell that blessed child that i knew, oh, boy, i knew, how steep that mountain climb had been, how i knew it was really, really hard to be the almost only one in all his class who could not get the letters to behave, to fall in line, who had not yet found the on-switch inside his brain to make the words spill from his lips.

i told him i was so, so proud because not once did he slam a book. not once did he burst into tears. he just kept trying. sound after sound. word after word. page after page. determination upon determination,
and look, sweetheart, i said, you made it to the mountain top. you are reading now. and you’re not only reading, you are telling me a story. you are making me see and hear that silly moose and goofy bear. you are making me laugh out loud.

that’s when my little mountain climber–the one we always say is “the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer”–that’s when he softly, proudly, said, “i’m not in reading group any more.”

which prompted a not-so-poetic “what?!” from me.

you see, he’s been pulled from class every morning of every school day to try to jumpstart those reading pistons. and it had not escaped him that it marked him as, in his eyes, “not so smart as all the other kids.”

said he, upon my yelping: “mrs. patrick took me in the hall today and we had a little talk. she told me i don’t need reading group anymore so i can stay in my classroom now and not miss morning tally.”

by the light of the flashlight beam i caught the glow coming from his smiling cheeks. he saw my face. he saw my tears and smiled even harder. he’d kept his big fat secret till the lights went out. maybe till the time when dreams click on in sleepy heads.

i was shrieking, calling for his daddy. and that’s when he asked, too, if i would get his brother. “i want to make an announcement.”

we all gathered, yes we did, and circled all around the little boy in bed. he was busy tracing arcs of light across his ceiling. and then, with just a moment’s pause for drama’s sake, he spilled the news.

which, considering just months ago i was wondering if maybe he’d repeat first grade, was, well, sweet and stunning all at once.

we whooped. we hollered. both brothers rolled–all arms and legs and sheets–and giggled. i galloped down the stairs to send a note to mrs. r., the amazing first-grade teacher, to find out if this was true, or simply wishful fiction.

upstairs, surrounded by morris (moose), boris (bear), and a beaming flashlight, the triumphant reader finally fell asleep. bushed, no doubt, from all the reading ruckus.

when morning came, so did word from his amazing teacher. it’s true, she wrote, he got to where he dreamed. he is reading, word for word, with all the rest.

to witness such determination is wholly rather humbling. just weeks ago when buttoning his pajamas, he looked up at me and told me kids often called him “stupid.” he told me more than twice that school was really, really hard.

but he was blessed, that child was, with one or two amazing teachers, both of whom stoked his little reading motor. kept him from being swallowed whole by a big bad sentence. or just a stubborn syllable.

mrs. r., i know, wrote him love notes, tucked them in his desk. pulled him to the side, whispered in his ear. reminded him, time and time again, that he was a hero for all the work, and mighty thinking, he was undertaking.

now, i know that he’s not the only one to whom she said these things. but i also know that hers is the gift of making each and every thinker think that her or his cogitation is rather something special.

and the greatest gift of all: someone, besides his mama and his papa, believed in him when he could have fallen down. she wouldn’t let him. she guarded the ledge. kept him climbing till he got to where the words came tumbling from his lips.

standing back and watching, sitting side by side, night after night, book after book, was to snare a front-row seat on the bumpy flight of a kid who wouldn’t be a quitter.

doesn’t matter to me if it’s a boy and a book, or a guy without a leg who rides a bike. there is, in all of us, the capacity to be inspired by those who won’t back down, won’t stop believing that through sheer determination, and a wingspread wide enough to catch the updraft, there’s no challenge that can’t be conquered.

i know my little boy who learned to read–who now tries to make his way through every word in sight; cereal box, passing street sign, names on back of football jerseys, doesn’t matter how or where the letters fall–i know what he taught me this week: don’t slam the book. don’t walk away. a world of never-ending story is just around the corner.

and it never hurts to have a most amazing teacher in your corner, either.

this one’s for my little one’s new jersey grandma, she who lives to teach to read. and kept close eye on all the chutes and ladders of this reading climb. it’s for his teachers too. the ones who worked one-on-one, nearly every single schoolday. and especially for the one named mrs. r, who never stopped believing that she could get him up the mountain, where he now sees the whole wide world of words. most of all, it’s for him himself. and for you who’ve read along, the saga of the struggling reader, i promise–at least i’ll try–no more reading stories. this is the end. and we’ll all turn pages, happily ever after.
sometimes though don’t you just wish you had a billboard to shout hallelujah when you watch a holy triumph? thank heaven, then, for that billboard called the blog. happy half birthday little reader, just in case you read this…..