Tuesday, November 11, 2014

remember

This year is the centennial of the beginning of the First World War, and today is the annual commemoration of the armistice that ended that war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Remembrance Day and Veterans' Day commemorations have been more visible in the media this year as Europe marks the centennial and as the US grapples with issues in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. 

Some of my pacifist friends object to the wearing of the red poppy because of the way the tradition has become almost jingoistic. There is a compulsion to wear the poppy or make public thanks to veterans in social media as though one can not be a patriot if one does not. 

A peacenik myself, I understand the pacifist perspective, but as I was thinking about this today, it occurred to me that those who began the tradition of remembering on Armistice Day remembered not only the sacrifice of those who did not come home but also the horror of war for everyone involved. 

They knew that death for one's country was far from sweet and fitting.


Dulce et Decorum Est

BY WILFRED OWEN
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.


Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

For me, the poppy, this resilient flower that reclaims the scarred land, is a way to remember not only the valor of all those who have served, but also the horror of what it is we ask them to do. I look forward to the day when we have learned not to ask. 


Photo courtesy AU United Methodists



Sunday, November 9, 2014

donate

For hours after my husband died, the phone just kept ringing. People were returning my, "Hi, this is Kate. Please call me as soon as you can," messages. Each call meant I had to darken someone else's day with my terrible news, and each of these conversations made the horror more real.

In the quiet of the evening, a different kind of call came. Mark had heard the news already and, having processed his shock, called to sit with me. In addition to the tragedy of the day, we talked about normal everyday things, and this was a conversation that reminded me I was still alive.

Then came the best call of the day. When the voice on the phone said she was calling from Gift of Life Michigan's organ and tissue donation program, I said, "I'm so happy you called!" I think she was a little surprised to hear the word 'happy.'

I had known that Adam wanted to be an organ donor. However, that paperwork usually happens in the hospital. I never went to the hospital, and I didn't think to mention it to the police officers who came to the house. By the time Gift of Life called, organ donation was no longer a possibility, but I gave permission to harvest whatever tissues they could. This conversation was a reminder that even death contributes to life.

The woman who called me was the epitome of compassion, but it was still a difficult conversation. It was not easy to give permission for the body of my husband to be cut apart when a part of me wanted to jealously guard all that was left. It was not easy to talk through a medical history that carried with it so many memories.

I did it anyway because I know that donation saves and enriches lives. My uncle lived more than ten years with a second heart. A friend lives today thanks to a live donor's bone marrow. Somewhere there are people whose lives are better for Adam's donation. One young woman wrote me a letter to say that her new knee means that she can ride again.

I'm telling you about this now because Adam was included in Gift of Life Michigan's donor honors ceremony this year. We could not attend, but they sent this:


So many donors. 

So many young donors.

So much new life. 

It's gut wrenching and beautiful.

I hope you'll consider being a donor, too. 

Mark your driver's license, tell your family, swab your cheek. Save a life.

Friday, October 24, 2014

done not done

Recently, a friend mentioned that he was dissatisfied with his work, that his job no longer made him happy, that he was done with it. I was floored. This friend is excellent at his job, and I love my job so much that I can't imagine ever being done with it.

I've heard other friends express the same sentiment: that they wanted to move up, they wanted more, their company had no place for them to go. This craving has always baffled me. There's only so far up one can go before moving from doing a job to management or administration, and those roles require vastly different skills. For days I've been wondering if I'm just weird. I've been teaching for ten years now, and I really just want to keep teaching forever. Maybe I'm just wired wrong.

It occurred to me yesterday, though, as I was mulling over the game plan for getting through another Michigan winter in the country, that I can relate to being done. I am done living forty-five minutes from almost everything. I am done constantly dealing with mice. I am done with drafty windows and insufficiently insulated walls. I am done thinking about gutters and leaves and appliances. I'm so ready to move on that it's easy to resent the things keeping me here. It's so easy to descend into a spiral of complaints and shake my fist at the responsibilities I no longer want.

Just as I was warming up for a solid session of fist-shaking, however, the words 'weed where you're planted' popped into my head. Because Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse have not sold, they remain my responsibility, like it or not, and these responsibilities tie me to this place. If I want to live well as long as I live here, I have to think about mice and windows and walls and gutters and leaves and appliances. In truth if I have any hope of walking away from closings in the black, I need to think about more than just those things. Even while planning for future change, it's critical to be a good steward of the things within reach and to do so with more joy than resentment.

It's a difficult position to be in, done yet not done.


Friday, September 26, 2014

breadwinner

Two Mays ago Old Cat's death was hard on all of us. It was especially hard for me to watch our younger cat Jack wonder where she had gone.  When Jack came into our lives as a strapping young boy, Old Cat was already old, and, although smaller than he was, she boxed his ears and told him in no uncertain terms that she was #1 Cat. She had first claim to my lap, to my bed, to any open doors, and to the food. For weeks after she died, when I set the food down Jack looked around to see if she was coming before he started to eat. He looked at me with disbelief that it could be just for him. This past January when Buttercup came into our lives, Jack went into a tailspin again. He knew he didn't want to be #2 Cat to this young brat, but he didn't know how to be #1 Cat.

As I've been working on job applications these past couple of weeks, it occurs to me that I'm a little bit like Jack. While I wouldn't say that I was subordinate to my late husband, I had settled into my role as the trailing spouse, the one whose career would always happen in the space around the breadwinner's career. There were a lot of practical reasons that Adam would always be the breadwinner: Because his age and his co-op experience put him ten years ahead of me in career development, because he was an engineer, and I am a language teacher, because he was a man, and I am a woman, his salary would always have outstripped mine. For most of our marriage, in fact, my contribution to the family's income was ten percent of his.

When I started my PhD, the desired plan was that I would find work within daily or weekly commuting distance from Rambling Farmhouse, working as an adjunct until something full-time or tenure track came up. As things got worse for Adam at his workplace here, we started talking about my doing a national search for full-time work and moving the whole family to whatever I found, but it still had to be a geographic area within a daily or weekly commute to something for Adam.

My trailing spouse status was not only a result of our relative earning potentials, though. It was also about the difference in how driven we were. Adam always wanted to reach higher; he wanted to manage a group of engineers, to run a multi-million dollar project, to move the company from good to great, to start his own business, to work at the cutting edge. Me? I don't crave leadership. I don't burn to see my name on a publication. I don't aspire to eminent scholar status. I don't settle for shoddy, but I'll never be a rock star researcher. My elbows aren't sharp enough, and I don't own brass knuckles. I want to do what I love and do it well, and really, that's the perfect attitude for a trailing spouse.

I don't get to have that attitude anymore.

Insurance settlements and Social Security payments buy me some time retool the plan, but they will not last forever. As they cease to fill the coffers each month, I have to take this career that was intended to be secondary and find a way to support myself, my children, and our critters in the present while also preparing for college and retirement in the future. All of a sudden, I'm the #1 Cat, but no one is offering me first choice of the food each night.

I have to be the breadwinner, and it frightens me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

still in love

This student meditation was delivered in the fall of 2000 at the Protestant Community worship in The American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center. The student meditation was then a new practice, and I was then a graduating senior. This text is almost arrogant in its simplicity, but when I found this brief meditation, the first sermon-like thing I had ever done, in a file recently, I was struck by the way it foreshadows much of what I have written since then. I am eternally grateful to the Reverend Joe Eldridge for the challenge and the inspiration. 

Nearly two years ago, my fiancé asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Shortly thereafter Joe got into the habit of saying, "So, are you still in love?" every time I saw him. This, of course, got me thinking about what love is. I searched out definitions and descriptions of love, and I found many:

God is love.
Love is one who lays down his life for his friends.
Love is patient and kind.
Love never fails.
Love makes the world go round.
Love means never having to say you're sorry.
Love is blind.
Love is when you care more about someone else's happiness than your own.
Love grows by works of love.

Joe's repeated questions made me think a lot, especially at a time when Adam and I were having problems, but my answer to Joe's question has always been yes.

I realized that the key to love is commitment. Love is commitment to being patient and kind, a commitment to persevering. A commitment to grow together rather than growing apart. This is the love we see in  lifelong friendships and successful marriages.

I think that I have this kind of committed love not only with my fiancé, but also with my friends, with many of the people here tonight. I only hope each of you can have it, too.

Joe continued to ask me the question in the years after I graduated when I visited campus first by myself, then with an infant Anna, then much later with Adam and both girls. The answer was always yes.

The last time I visited, Joe didn't ask. The answer would have been a complicated one. It is impossible to love an absence, and yet, it is out of love for the person who was that I care for his affairs and effects. 

So, no, I am not still in love with my late husband; I am, however, still in love with love.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

chalk

I have a classroom again, and the happiness I derive from this is perhaps bordering on the ridiculous.

The job of a professor is generally described as having three parts: the teaching part, the research and publication part, and the service to the university and to the profession part. While most professors do each part, rare is the person who excels at all three.

Me? I excel at the teaching part, and that's the part I love.

It's also the part that I was forced to give up when I became a widow, and I have resented that. A lot.

Having a classroom, I feel like a professional again. Feeling like a professional, I feel like a whole person.

It's only two classes and only for this semester, but I don't think I've ever been this excited about chalk.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

a glimpse of majesty

so. much. water.

The American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls from just below the Hurricane Deck.


So much water that it roars. So much water that it penetrates every surface. So much water that one feels privileged to stand so close to it.


So much water that it's hard to imagine the drought on the other side of the country.