Archive for the 'Encounter' Category

The Waiting Horses

amywink January 7th, 2019

“You must give up the life you had planned to have the life that is waiting for you.”

~Joseph Campbell

Bracken, Texas.

In 1971, Bracken, Texas was not even a small town, more of a remnant of the German farming settlement whose red and white brick Methodist church had just celebrated its centenary. The steeple could be briefly spied through the fields and hills from the interstate highway. Off the exit, farms whose fields held cattle and often, horses. I, a six-year-old with deep abiding longing for horses, always searched the fields for the horses and was delighted when I spied them among the cows, or better yet, in a herd. The farm-to-market road curved in front of the church and east-facing farmhouse parsonage. From the front porch, a view of the church cemetery, opposite, behind a chain link fence and an arched opening, and beyond that a train track in the distance, that we would watch from the front porch, where we also watched thunderstorms roil and roll over the hills.

This is where my father landed in his last years serving the Methodist church as a minister. It was the seventh or eighth church he had served since his time at Perkins Theological Seminary in the early 1960’s. During that time, he and my mother had begun their family with my brother, born in 1962, and myself born in 1965. I have memories of some of our early homes, mostly punctuated details that remain with me to this day: the moment when I was two and a fire blazed through the backyard and I was left alone in the high chair as everyone ran out to fight the fire (a fire apparently started to burn a building so migrants wouldn’t stop there), the moment with my brother who ran ahead of me and leapt out the front door and over the snake I saw coiled at the doorstep and stopped, the moment I tried to follow my brother’s leap over a prickly pear cactus which I fell right into it instead (I learned to be cautious in following that daring brother); the time I was three and we visited my mother on the grounds of the hospital where she recovered from her first manic episode when she first diagnosed with what was labeled then as manic-depression, now termed bipolar disorder

But it was in Bracken that I began to come to awareness of the world and the beginnings of my self. There, in that rural parsonage and across from the beautiful German church, the continuity of my memory begins to coalesce into a more coherent narrative and I begin the story of my self, aware in the world. I started school at Comal County Elementary and met my first best friend, Sharon, and others I still remember. I spent time in that beautiful empty church listening to my mother practice piano, watching my father preach on Sundays as I occupied myself with coloring while in the pews. My brother taught me to tie the shoelaces of my roller skates as we skated on the sidewalks and volleyball court behind the church’s creaking and spooky Sunday school building, where we sometimes went to get a Coke out of the refrigerator. That volleyball court was also where I also learned to ride a bike.

We walked between the church and parsonage each Sunday and entered the house after to the glorious smell of the roast and baking potatoes my mother had left in the oven while we were at church. In the evenings, we watched the bats emerge from the now famous Bracken bat cave and fly swirling into the night. Looking east, across the rolling landscape we could see the trains and the cemetery where members of the community were laid to rest after their caskets were carried from the church, beginnings and endings right there together, and always the journey between them.

I wrote my first poem sitting on the porch swing near the fig tree that bore the most wondrously sweet fruit each year, and also swarmed with wasps. I started to keep a diary–not much more than drawings and the occasional sentence description of what happened in first grade. I had cats, dogs, and then eventually, the most amazing thing, a pony, who my parents made the wonderful and terrible mistake of buying and bringing into our temporary lives as if we would always be in that country place, as if we would always have the space for the pony they handed their sensitive, poetic, and animal-loving daughter, and a pony I had to give up.

These are the lovely memories of beginning consciousness but they are not the only ones and as much as I love these memories of my beginnings in that country place, I cannot also ignore the endings that happened there. My parents were not suited to the itinerant life of a Methodist minister and “pastor’s wife”, the constant judgmental pressure from the community to behave as they “should” and to make their children behave as they “should.” My father had lost the enjoyment of his work, my mother struggled to find her place while she finished the college degree she’d started at Southwestern ten years previous at Trinity University. The old house I loved, with its wooden floors, high ceilings, wide front porch was in disrepair and would eventually be torn down (much to my horror) to make way for something new and serviceable, and sadly, quite ugly. The school I attended was filled with the children of migrant laborers and farmers and, as effortlessly and strictly as they could, they enforced the racial and class divisions of the day. I wasn’t supposed to touch anyone browner than I and I wasn’t supposed to enjoy their company. I wasn’t supposed to sit laughing with them. I struggled to understand the term “wetback” which was used frequently. I wasn’t supposed to be kind to the little brown boy, Juan, who crushed for me. I wasn’t supposed to like the haphazardly-dressed white boy, John, who handed me a piece of jewelry I later came to understand was a tie clip, that someone suggested he must have stolen. I wasn’t supposed to call my mother Mom at school, but Mrs. Wink instead. The rules were clear. Stop being who you are and be some one else. While I loved school and learning, I began to be punished for speaking out with answers, for reading different assignments in the books, and for being an alert and bright girl, ready with curious questions and wanting answers. As much as I loved school, I was learning also what was not allowed and what happens when a girl is not what she is expected to be. It was not a place for me to grow, it was not the place for my brother to grow, and it wasn’t a place for my parents to grow. We had to leave that life behind and even though it was difficult, we had to start something new. As my parents changed their lives, we changed and we had to move.

I thought of that church last year when someone asked me about where my Dad been a minister. We were standing in the empty sanctuary of my current church, the only church I’ve attended since leaving Bracken in 1972. I had stopped to look at the afternoon light coming through the west-facing stained glass windows and glazing the tops of the pews in gold. I had been (somewhat relentlessly) pursuing a new creative project, gathering the information I needed to make my idea work but the light in the church made me stop and pay attention. I began explain about my memories of the empty church at Bracken, how I loved to be in the empty sanctuary in the quiet opening of the space, how I had loved that country place, the old house with an oval glass door, wood floors, and porch swing, even with its wasps, scorpions, and bats. I was brought back to that sanctuary of memory, like I had come back to the sanctuary I was standing in, and in the colored light of the afternoon, I remembered the beginning of me, that long-ago pony, and the life and the horses that had been waiting for me when I gave up the life I had planned.

What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

amywink July 19th, 2018

When I was in college, my summer job was day care. Aside from the excruciating tension headaches I also experienced with the job, I loved it because I enjoy playing with the children. I just liked them, partly because they can be a lot of fun, but also because they are often ready to be present in a way that adults don’t often allow themselves to be. Children just like you to be who you are and I like being with people like that, even if they are new people.

When I was in graduate school, I had a second job working at a church nursery where another friend worked. In the middle of the rigorous intellectual pursuit of my PhD, I got to play with babies and toddlers. It was great, very grounding, except on the days when more than one child was Not Happy and Not Going to Have Any of This, though really, I could always sympathize. Who has not felt like screaming their head off some days? There were really amazing moments too, like the time I watched a two-year old just work on figuring out how to put the nesting animals in the right order so they all fit back inside the cow. It took him a while but I was watching his brain grow and it was amazing. Watching someone learn is fascinating if you understand what you are watching. I now know so much more about brain development and the neuroscience of learning and as that child put those pieces together, his brain was forming new pathways, making neurons fire, creating insight and understanding, growing his brain. Every “ah-hah” moment we have as humans is actually a neuron firing and making a new pathway of understanding. Brains are really cool. And children are always learning and I love learning with them. I’ve joked with friends that I am very popular with the three-year old set and it has always been very grounding when I hang out with children.

Going back to church has brought children back into my life and reminded me of the fun I used to have at the church nursery during graduate school. It’s fun to hang out with the future. Watching the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, also served to remind me how I learned to present with children, and what a challenge when they ask really hard questions, like “are you ever afraid of the dark?” or “why do people get sick?” Sometimes, if you really listen, they remind you of things that are so deeply human, your heart will break wide open.

I’ve been thinking of one of those moments recently, given the news these days. I don’t shut off the memory because it’s the memory of how I learned, yet again, to be present, as a person, as a teacher, as a human being. There was one child (there’s always one) at the church nursery who was a handful, frustrated, and prone to episodes of anger. She was two when I started working there and was somewhat infamous. But she liked me and I liked her so we got along, though not like the two children for whom I eventually became the favorite baby-sitter. When Bethany finally learned to talk, it became clear that her frustration had simply stemmed from not being able to explain what she was thinking, which was quite a lot. Once she was talking, she was fascinating, engaging, and not nearly as difficult to deal with. Once she knew how to speak her feelings, she enjoyed life a lot more (and we are all so glad!) She was also delightfully bossy and assertive, acting much more mature than she actually was. It was endearing. But she could still throw a tantrum if she needed too and her emotions were still very close to the surface. Her bold air also made people forget she was still new and working out her way in the world.

One evening, I was engaged to babysit my regulars and Bethany was added to the evening, which was entirely manageable. Except, when she and her family arrived, it was obvious no one had told her she’d be staying behind, and I could see the betrayal on her face, the fear, and then the anger at the betrayal. I am, and was then, a person sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, and I knew what I was watching and I was also becoming angry, as I always do, when I see people ignore the feelings of another, or, worse, intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. And when that person is a child, I am both shredded and outraged. It is the double-edged sword of my compassion. I’m not much of a gatekeeper but if you want righteous anger on your behalf, I’m right there. Some friends have accidentally hit that button and some friends have gotten exactly what I have to give in moments when they needed it.

But Bethany was just four and an outraged adult is not what any four-year-old needs in her face at the moment when she is overwhelmed by her own anger and fear. As she raged at the door her parents exited, I sat with Emily and Alex, the other two children, who were also trying their best to figure out how to react to the episode. Emily, who was quite mature and sophisticated at 5, looked at me and assessed the situation before she pronounced, “She’s just being a baby.” It was a test, for her, for me. I responded, “No, she’s very angry. I think she has to be angry for a little while.” And I left it at that while we settled into our evening together.

Nothing major happened. Bethany eventually calmed down. We all watched a movie and the night got later and later. I put Emily and Alex to bed but there wasn’t any bed for Bethany, so we sat on the couch together and started talking, like friends do late into the night. I cannot recall what we talked about exactly, probably the movie, but I remember how present we were, how close to each other. Then, we got to the heart of the matter and in our quiet conversation together, Bethany said “Sometimes when my mommy goes away, I get really scared.” I responded like a friend should, “I know. It’s really scary when that happens.” It was the right answer. She paused then she crawled onto my lap, draped her arms around my neck, sank her body into mine and held on for a long time, until she fell asleep. I held on too as my heart broke wide open to hold her.

The Question

amywink July 1st, 2018

On the floor
with this beautiful child
of my old friend,
I am so much in love
with her entire being,
in joy of her existence,
when she lifts her finger
to tap my arm and asks
“Are you white?”
and I am shot through
by the difference she
already knows is somehow
important, too much so
for her small being,
who at three, is figuring out
the world in which she lives.
I do not want to answer,
but I must answer
carefully, and in my answer
shift the question, expand
the differences so she
might see something
wider, something broader
something larger than the
either or she has already
noticed because of
her own difference
and I say “well, beige really”
and I show her the colors
of my skin on which her
finger continues to rest
as she ponders while
I breathe, hoping my
answer is a good one
for the time being,
knowing that it
also may not last,
thinking I must
make it last.


amywink June 15th, 2018

In the feather snowfall
of her sudden kill,
I am interrupted
by this hawk of my
morning’s contemplation,
who appearing, to my surprise
and wonder, arrived to share
this communion from the trees,
as remnants of
beautiful death drift
on the air,
down sinking
in the light

Her gaze holds mine
and we see each other,
perhaps she daring
me to move,
or just contemplating
my presence
before deciding
I am of no consequence
or danger she turns
her attention
and together we rest,
feasting in each other’s company.

20 Years

amywink June 7th, 2018

It has been twenty years since James Byrd was murdered in East Texas, when I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University. My memories of that time still cause a visceral reaction and my voice shakes when I tell about it, though I keep telling it. But it is different when I write and perhaps that is why I write instead. I originally published this piece in the Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 11(Winter 2005-06). I still remember holding her hand.

The Middle of Difficulty

Sometimes in my writing classes, I have asked my students to write about a community problem and determine what action they, individually, can take to affect change. In essence, what can an individual do on a personal level to solve a large, sometimes overwhelming, problem? They do very well describing and pointing out problems, writing ardently about things that need change. They flounder when describing what they can do, falling heavily into cynicism and ennui. It’s not that they don’t want to create change, it’s that they do not recognize how an individual continually creates and re-creates the world in which he or she lives. This year, I may tell this story:
In the summer James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck outside of Jasper, Texas, many of us in the region were fixed in our horror. The heat was unbearable as well, rising to near 120 on many days, as if Hell had been invited in and decided to stay awhile. I was teaching an eight o’clock class to heat-exhausted undergraduates. One day, a colleague noticed one of her basic writing students, an African-American woman, nodding off in class. When she asked her if she was ill, her student replied that she was very tired because she had been walking to the university from her home . . . 30 miles away. Her story unfolded. She had been refused Medicaid benefits for her epileptic son because, when she’d gone to court in her clothes from Goodwill, the judge thought she dressed too well to need the money for medication. Because she didn’t have enough money to keep her car, and she knew that getting her education was the only path she had out of her life in poverty, she walked. Because she wanted to be in school, she walked, starting well before dawn so she could make it for her first class at 8:00. She walked in the dark, in the piney woods of Deep East Texas, which stretched on to the east, where her cousin James had recently been killed.

Profoundly troubled, my friend started to find assistance for her student, whose needs were so many. If nothing else, we will get her a ride, I said. I asked my class if anyone came from the same direction. My quietest student, her Irish ancestry clear in her red hair and porcelain skin, volunteered, her eyes widening when I told her why she was needed. We arranged for our students to meet and they began their daily commute together. When I met my colleague’s student that day, she could not speak but to this day, I can still feel her hand grasping mine. I had done a tiny thing, but the impact was great. Her world changed. My student later wrote how much she learned by talking with her new friend as they drove to campus, and I asked her if she ever thought about what she might be teaching with her own being. My friend and I continued to find help, and while we could not change everything– the history of racism and sexism compounding the difficulties of her personal life, the poverty she struggled to escape– we did help. And we found more help. No, this small connection did not end racism, did not cure her son of epilepsy, did not free her from poverty. But if we had thought only of solving these problems, we might never have solved the most immediate one. She needed a ride to school. We found her one.

I hope this is a story my students understand. I hope they learn to see solutions as easily as they see problems. I hope that they see how they might practice in their lives the small changes that affect the larger world. I hope they understand the necessary union of theory with practice. I hope they consider how their ordinary lives can exemplify larger ideals. I hope they understand that generosity blesses the giver and the gifted. I hope that they see in the middle of difficulty, there are many opportunities awaiting discovery.

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