Archive for the 'grief' Category

A Landscape of Indifference

amywink June 12th, 2018

As much as I would like to say that my escape from my first academic job lead directly into happiness, my second academic job at a small university in Kansas, came with troubles of its own. My friend Sheryl had indeed saved me by contacting her friend, the department chair, and he hired me to replace an outgoing faculty member so in the summer of 1999, I made my way, with the help of my BFF Kristi, into the heartland and out of Texas.

And it was beautiful. I left behind the tall pines of East Texas, my garden, and my darling house, and moved to Emporia, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, 45 miles south of Topeka. The town was picturesque, a postcard for Midwestern Americana. It looked like home.

And yet, I had a terrible time finding a house to rent that wasn’t in such a terrible state of repair as to be dangerous. I did eventually find a house with a fenced yard (I had dogs) and I set about to make it habitable–though I never was able to keep the birds from falling out of the furnace in the basement and suddenly flying into the house and the hole in the ceiling was never patched. The young faculty helped paint the interior before my furniture arrived (3 weeks later), and I pulled up the shag carpet with the permission of the landlord (as God is my witness, I will never have carpet again) and made the place mine. I tried again to bloom where I was planted but I also knew that I was not going to be able to move again and again. My roots did not like being disturbed. I knew it was going to be was this place or no place. I held on to hope for this place but something had gone out of me and I was more reserved and wary.

That fall, the silver maple in the front yard turned such a miraculous color of golden yellow that it illuminated the entire interior of my house, which I had also painted yellow. It felt like peace.

The department chair encouraged me to teach my academic specialties, asked if I wanted to teach another women’s autobiography class, engaged me in the department. I sent my book manuscript off to the press, where it was accepted for publication. All seemed to be going “according to plan” and I continued to do all the “right things”: attend conferences, publish, teach.

Everyone said I was “on my way” to a good tenure-track position. And it did look like that because that is what everyone said was the right way to go about getting an academic job. This was the plan. This is how it happens. And yet that was no longer the way because there were far too few jobs and the old “right way” to get one had not kept up with the times. Still, everyone clung to the idea of the right way because what would it mean if that was no longer the right way?

I had no interviews that year at MLA (where everyone in Literature and Languages interviews), which was in Chicago, where I visited Stacey, and we watched 1999 turn to Y2K as Tom Brokaw kept saying “Nothing continued to happen.” Truer words were never spoken. Nothing continued to happen.

I tried to love where I was anyway. I loved the Kansas prairie. I spent a lot of time antiquing and learning the history of the area. I was very close to the route of the Overland Trail to Oregon and could go see the ruts worn there by all those who traveled West. I visited Lawrence occassionally, which was gorgeous. I tried to garden because I could suddenly plant things that would never survive in Texas. I liked the students, who were genuine and kind as one might expect in Kansas, and who found me quite exotic (just as my East Texas students had done). My classes filled and I was happy enough. I taught an Advanced Composition class focused on personal narrative and had an amazing time with the students. Two of them had essays published in the college wide publication of Best Essays, and faculty commented that personal essays usually never did get in.

I taught a wonderful class in Women’s Diaries the first summer and it was perfect, a dream class in which I was able to do the things I wanted to do with the 6 students in the seminar. I took them as a class to the Kansas Museum of History, where we toured the exhibit and had a more visceral experience of the diaries we’d read of the Overland trail–one student tried to lift the iron kettle and nearly fell over. We all understood that she’d have died on the trip. I took them all out to dinner. It was a beautiful teaching experience and one I will always cherish because I got to be the teacher I always wanted to be.

And then the department chair left for a position at another college at the end of my first year and in the midst of that change, all the welcoming faculty retreated to their offices. I became invisible.

Active hate is one thing to experience but indifference may be worse. At least with active hate, you can see your enemy clearly. It’s easy to know you exist, even as some kind of ill-conceived representative of an idea. Indifference makes a person invisible. People stopped talking with me. If they did talk with me, mostly it was to assure themselves that not thinking of me was perfectly reasonable. I heard more than once “Oh, you’ll be fine. You have a book.”

And yet, nothing continued to happen. The new chair perkily told me, standing in the door of my office, that there wouldn’t be a position for me the next year. She wasn’t sure she could even offer me summer teaching. And I was at an end. Nothing I had done made any difference and yet this was the thing I was entirely meant to do. This was the soul-work of my life and I was very good at it, gifted. I had the vita to prove my worth. And there was no help for what to do next except cursory suggestions that I “could do a lot of things” or, the fall back for everyone who can think of nothing “There’s always technical or business writing. You’ll be fine.” And they walked away.

That winter, my golden tree did not last a week as winter blew in with snow. My house did not glow with the light as the entire landscape turned grey and icy. It was an apt reflection of my internal darkness as the vision of my future faded. At Christmas, I had to wait for the temperature to rise to zero before I headed south to Austin.

I did apply for a number of other academic administration jobs, etc, and nothing continued to happen. My future went entirely black and my own light almost went out.

Only one way opened, returning home to Austin, to live with my parents for what I hoped would be as short a time as possible. I had no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing or anything else. I just knew I had to go. And so I came home a failure in May 2001 because “home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was 36.

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.

What Would Stacey Think?

amywink May 16th, 2018

The Sunday after my birthday, I told the story of my faith journey with the Creating Spirit to my Sunday school class at First. I was nervous but some people knew I could do it and I felt their support as I talked. It was the first time I’d narrated my experience this way, but I had thought about it for a long time. I closed my talk by saying that I had come to church in March the year after Stacey’s and my mother’s deaths to grieve and I spent a lot of time crying in the balcony until by September I started laughing again.

Though I am still in such deep grief some days, I am laughing so much more than I ever expected to be, just 2 years into this new life, and every time I laugh, I know Stacey is with me. She worked so hard to make me laugh sometimes, and she usually succeeded because she was very funny. And we had laughed a lot together in our last months, when we knew the end was coming. Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we fell back on our sense of humor after our initial shock. She had spent a lot of time worrying about having an old age like her mother, who had several major health issues and had been on the brink of death many times, and also, ironically, outliving her money because her grandmother had lived to be 92. When Stacey was diagnosed, it was clear she wasn’t going to make 92, or even 52, so she could start spending the carefully gathered hoard of money she had meant to use to get to her old age. As we talked about the 3-year-deadline she’d been given, she said, “I guess I’m not going to have to worry about being old either.” I replied “yeah, I guess you should have been more specific when you said you didn’t want to be old like your mother.” And we laughed. All the times we laughed are what I hold dear now, and what I remember most fondly. I can make myself laugh by thinking of those moments, even the ones when we joked about death, because what else is there to do?

When it became clear that the experimental drug (the one that worked for Jimmy Carter) was not working (Why not Stacey, Lord?) and she felt she had been betrayed by her doctor who had not really informed her of rules of the study she’d agreed to enter, she sat in her own darkness but I could not leave her there, just like she never left me. I texted her “your mind is a dangerous neighborhood right now, and you know how I feel about leaving people alone in bad neighborhoods” and we sat together, via our phones, in that dangerous neighborhood until I said the right thing and she laughed. Then she thanked me for making her laugh and we walked out of that bad neighborhood together. I am grateful I was able to do that. Thank you, God, for a sense of humor.

Recently, BFF Caroline asked what I thought Stacey would think about my return to the Methodist church, (and becoming so religious) and I have thought about that for a long time. My answer at that moment was she would be ecstatic about my writing, having walked with me through my long darkness as well as some of my most creative times. But I imagine she’d have been taken aback by the startling depth of my faith, something we never talked about specifically–preferring the “spiritual” not “religious” discussion. She had been similarly surprised when I mentioned a desire for chickens, a hereditary craving that I wrote about for our City Ancestor/Country Ancestor project, and just like she had been floored when I decided to buy a horse, something she never knew because she’d come into my life in the middle, when I had almost put that dream away for good.

But early in our friendship, I had mentioned that I didn’t think I was very good at being Christian (given public perceptions of what is deemed Christian, re: Baptist, and I was a free-range, unchurched person-of-faith), to which she, my Jewish-turned-atheist friend who had read the entire Bible on her own, had replied, “Oh, no, I think you are exactly what a Christian is supposed to be. You do all the right things, you just don’t talk about them.” Once, much later, after a moment in which I ranted against some public idiocy I can’t recall and wrote a rather fiery response in an email about how we are saved by grace, she had carefully asked “so, what is your religion?” (after 20 years, she asked!) and I replied “ecumenical Zen-influenced Christian” and she said “well, I thought so.” I should have just said Methodist.

So, what would Stacey think? I don’t think she’d be surprised for long, having known I had a deep but private faith– though an equally deep lack of faith in myself– and I know she’d be very happy that I am so deeply happy and creative again. And I have made myself laugh by thinking about her arrival in Heaven, because I know that after her surprise wore off, she’d have marched right up to Jesus and threatened to break his arm if he didn’t help me after all I had done for her and everyone else in my life. I imagine He said “It will be all right. Don’t worry. I have my best people working on it.” And He would laugh.

Missing

amywink April 27th, 2018

Missing
for Stacey 1964-2016

At any moment,
or perhaps just not any
but the moment of
happiness or need,
I stumble into the emptiness
where you were,
and falling I am swallowed
by that deep chasm
of our friendship.

What I missing now,
those moments I’d have turned
to you to celebrate
some teaching glory,
or the moment you
carried me through
some aggravation
on your sharp wit,
or when you stood fierce,
unmoving, against my adversaries,
daring those you would so happily,
so eagerly vanquish,
or when you stood
always ready to help me risk
a leap into the unknown.

What I am missing now
is how you knew me,
how you understood
what troubled me,
how you accepted
who I was without question,
and even in those rare moments
when you discovered some included flaw
suspended in the amber of my self,
how you held that relic
up to the light in wonder
and discovery of a glowing treasure
that you would turn as priceless gift instead.

Distance

amywink April 12th, 2018

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” John 13: 12

The first Sunday after Easter, I came face to face with the slow transformational change I have experienced in the last year as I attempted to return a little cushioning distance between myself and the overwhelming energies I experience in large groups of people.

God laughed, and I may have heard, “you’re kidding, right?”

And I had to laugh too because there was no way not to recognize I was not going to get distance, though God did allow me to connect in the way that I am, instead of the ways that others are. And my Lenten practice revealed how deeply true my understanding of what I let go in those forty days as I moved closer to being my whole and complete self.

Last week, for Easter Sunday, I came down from the balcony to sit with the members of my Disciple class, to whom I have grown very close in the last 24 weeks. We have engaged in the challenging questions of our faith and how we live our lives as people of faith, what we understand about how God speaks to each of us and calls us to be who we are has built a loving community as we continue to learn together. I have enjoyed their company and I wanted to enjoy their company on Easter and deliberately chose to move closer to all of them.

It was glorious.

And overpowering.

As Easter should be.

But I was very glad I had done it. This experience of standing in the middle of more than 850 voices singing is not one I will forget and I was deep in the sound because I am about a foot shorter than everyone who stood around me. I could not hear myself and gave up singing just to be filled instead by sound.

This week, I moved forward into this changed life. I said yes to something big I had been asked to do, and stated my boundaries for yes. I was moving into a new stage for the Bolder than the State of Texas project, one which required a lot more public connection with everyone–which I want to do and am able to do. But I looked at my Sunday schedule and thought, “this is too much.” I asked myself what I needed to be able to do these bigger things? I decided to ask for help so I wouldn’t have to usher at the 11:00 service.

It’s a small thing, and some people might not think it’s such a hard thing. And it’s true, it is not at all difficult. Except, for a Sunday when I was doing something that would take some of my most concentrated energy before and after the service, I knew I needed the service. I needed not to be doing something during that service. I needed to be renewed by the experience of it instead. So I asked for a substitute saying I had a lot on my plate and could someone sub for me and someone stepped right up.

I went on about my week, preparing for Sunday, doing my regular life, taking care of my Dad, managing his Medicaid application, teaching my classes, and taking a few risks as I kept moving toward Sunday and an anniversary I had forgotten kept coming closer too. But my body remembered. With the memory, the experience of every risk I had ever taken and been punished for came with it as well as everything I’d ever had to take on alone when I was supposed to be helped.

Grief is a weird and terrible thing, triggered by odd incidents that seem to pass unnoticed and suddenly like water pouring from shattered dam, it is overpowering and I was deep into it before I understood what was happening. C. S. Lewis wrote “no one ever told me grief felt so much like fear” and he was writing truth. By Saturday, I was deeply in the grip of bone-shattering fear. I did not understand why. When I finally recognized the fear, I spoke it. I sat with it. I felt it. It wasn’t great. It was terrible. But one thing I have learned is that anything I refuse to feel doesn’t go away, it just keeps coming, waiting to be felt, gaining strength in my resistance to it. If I am going to have feelings, I must have all the feelings, even the ones we think are uncomfortable and dangerous.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as the character Amy treats the deep wounds on Sethe’s body, she says “It’s gonna hurt, now. . . anything coming back to life hurts.” I have been coming back to life and there is hurt and it has to be felt. But I didn’t understand why exactly. The week had been lovely. So many beautiful things, why such fear? I knew a couple of possible triggers but it wasn’t until I thought of C. S. Lewis that I understood. We had held my mother’s memorial service the Sunday after Easter two years earlier. I had completed a lifetime duty that I had felt I had to do mostly alone. I had carried the weight of that duty until the day of her service, when I finally finished the work, from which I was completely exhausted, but I had not failed to complete and God had been with me.

And God was with me Saturday, as the burden of memory broke me again.

God was with me Sunday in the voice and face of every one who welcomed me into church and celebrated seeing me. Everyone I encountered seemed to light up when they saw me. People had assumed I wasn’t coming to church when I asked for help with ushering. I just needed the service (even more than I thought I would by Sunday). They greeted me with joyous surprise. I stopped to tell my Disciple class downstairs that I’d be retreating to the introvert’s balcony and they begged me to stay, but I explained what I needed and they understood (I think). But when I got to my balcony, someone had offered my presence to someone who knew no one at church. There was no way to refuse. Another new member saw me and I invited her to sit by me as well so we could talk about books. I explained I was trying to be an introvert and she rightly said “I bet that is hard for you” and later she invited me to dinner at her new house. I was greeted so warmly by everyone I knew in the balcony (we people of the balcony) and I could not help but laugh because everyone was close. There was no way I could have any distance.

And God was laughing, “You thought I was kidding. Do you know what I have done to you?”

I am just beginning to find out.

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