Night Terrors

Before operating on a person’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end…Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight (Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, 98).

I woke in the night, anxious. I was hot, so I threw the covers off. Then I was cold, so I put them back on. I kept rolling over, trying to find a comfortable position, but my brain would have none of this sleeping thing. At 2:50, I turned my light on (thank goodness even though Gabe wakes up, he can usually fall back asleep), took a small book from the pile by the bed, and started to read.

I haven’t read in the middle of the night since I was a little girl in my parents’ home. I used to love the feeling of rebellion (who was I rebelling against? certainly not my parents, who didn’t care if I slept or read or wrote or dreamed — whatever consequences came from lack of sleep were mine and mine only), and the sense that I had found a book so good, so tantalizing, that I couldn’t sleep until it was over. My sister was a deep sleeper, also, so I never had to live with the guilt of a light in the night or the sound of pages turning.

It’s been harder to sleep through the night lately, and I’ve taken to reading or sometimes watching The Office. The soothing voices of Jim and Pam, the irritating voices of Michael and Angela, somehow these help me transcend the nighttime anxieties of why did I say that? what was I thinking? what will I do for work this summer? why am I not writing? why do I still stink at doing laundry in a timely fashion?

Reading also helps me let go of these thoughts, but instead of easing me into the comedy of a group of employees who never work, it often tricks me into thinking not about the daily worries of a relational human but into questions far beyond the capacity of a tired woman who must get up at 6:00AM.

It might have something to do with the books I’m choosing.

My uncle recommended it to me over dinner with the proper warning: “Be sure you have tissues.” I didn’t have any tissues at hand, but I thought: I have read many sad things. Sometimes I cry. Usually I don’t. So I read it anyway in the middle of the night, this tiny book with a title scary enough to make me wonder if I was being wise.

When Breath Becomes Air — at three in the morning, I read the words of a dying man (he reminds me we’re all dying but he more imminently than most). Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon-in-training, a husband, a hardworking, depths-reaching, meaning-seeking 36-year-old is diagnosed with lung cancer, and suddenly, it seems the future he’d been working toward is completely altered.

Everyone succumbs to finitude…Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned: either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed (198).

I felt a strange kinship with this man I would never meet. He was full of many loves, many gifts, and like me, he had studied English AND… although his AND was biology leading to medical school, not music. This foot-in-both-worlds accounts for his visceral descriptions of the brain, of the opened body, of tumors precisely removed with deft fingers. It also accounts for a question that he seemed to have wrestled with much of his life: “If the unexamined life is not worth living, is the unlived life worth examining?” (31). In college, this question leads him to take a job at a summer camp rather than an intern at a research center, and it isn’t the only time he will choose human relationship over his so-called “monastic, scholarly study of human meaning” (31).

I was reading because I felt anxious about something I could not name, and this reading led me into questions of meaning, truth, death and its inextricable connection with life. I knew he would die — my uncle had told me and I had read the “About the Author” to be sure — yet I kept thinking: maybe he won’t actually die — maybe they find a cure, maybe he dies, but years and years later, maybe my uncle was misjudging my ability to handle intensity.

And then he and his wife decide to have a baby. She is born. She lives eight months. And he dies. He dies in his hospital bed surrounded by family. He gives his unknowing daughter a last kiss, he takes a deep breath, his breath becomes air.

Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at a all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear (108).

Suddenly, I was holding this book with this ending that felt incomplete. His wife Lucy writes an epilogue — sweet, loving, rounding out Paul’s person with authenticity — and I wondered what it must have been like to be in love with a man who was dying and writing, writing and dying, and wanting a child with him even so you could have a daily reminder that he was real, you loved him, and he died.

I was reading to stop my worrying and I had replaced it with deep sadness. Death comes for everyone, of this I have been aware since I was 9 years old and my grandfather died despite my utter determination to pray him into life, and I still do not believe it.

I still think that somehow I will defy the ultimate leveler.

And in the same breath, death feels right around the corner, closer to me than I hope most 29-year-olds feel.

In some ways, I think the worries I have about living enough, doing enough, hurry hurry hurry, all stem from this belief that death really is close at hand, and I am unutterably lucky to have lived as long as I have.

Maybe it stems from my blood clot at 22, my reckoning with if this is the end, how do I want it to look?

Paul Kalanithi did what he had set out to do: he taught me how to die, and in so doing, really showed me how to live. As his wife Lucy wrote in the epilogue:

Paul’s decision to look death in the eye was a testament not just to who he was in the final hours of his life but who he had always been. For much of his life, Paul wondered about death — and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes (225).

“To live is Christ, to die is gain” — even at my best, I find this hard to fully embody.

I closed the book, put it back on the floor, and wept into my pillow. I cried for Paul, for his dreams that had to die, for his wife and daughter, for his family and friends. I cried for myself, for the husband who slept next to me, who might leave this world at any moment like a puff of smoke. I cried for my grandma and her twenty years of living alone. I cried for my students who are just beginning to wrestle with these questions of meaning and truth, and I cried for any child I might have — for the sorrow that inevitably awaits her, the pain she will without doubt experience in this beautiful and terrifying world.

I was reading to forget my anxieties, and in a sense, I did. Instead of focusing on the minute, meaningless worries, I was forced to confront the root of fear and ask myself:

How do I want to die?

Then how do I need to live?

Walking to Know a Place

This morning, I put on my cheap white Old Navy sneakers and headed out the door of our new home.

When I moved to Somerville, it was the beginning of a beautiful summery September. I walked everywhere. I quickly learned that the bike path, while not faster than College Ave, at least offered more beauty and quiet. I peered into shop windows. I wandered into a vegan taco shop (accidently) and was sorely disappointed by my cheeseless/meatless taco. I discovered I didn’t have to go to the artsy, hipster (and, ultimately, quite depressing) coffee shop in Davis, but that delicious coffee was around every corner. I learned that cutting through Nathan Tufts park was the best way to prolong a good phone call or enjoy the last rays of a setting sun.

When I moved to this new town, with its rich history and fascinating blend of socio-economic statuses and educations, it was the cold, snowy month of November. Gabe and I got married Thanksgiving weekend, and even though it was a beautiful and fun celebration (there were points in the evening when he would lean over to me at our little table for two and whisper: I wish we could live this over and over again), it didn’t leave much time for settling in. Christmas flew upon us in a whirlwind, and I was suddenly asked to split holidays and change my ideas of how things go. By the time the New Year started, I had only tried two restaurants in our new hometown, and for this pretend-Bostonian, that is shocking.

I didn’t take a single walk.

I drove to the post office, the town hall. I drove to the famed sports bar/restaurant for a buffalo chicken calzone (not even close to Mike’s). I drove to the YMCA, worked out, and drove home. I drove to the DMV and sat groaning for over an hour, only to be told that I needed to change my name with Social Security first. I gripped the edge of the counter, leaned backward and said through my teeth: “I am not mad at you, but I am very mad.”

Not only had I moved to a new state, but that state was not so sure it wanted me.

It’s taking me awhile to settle in because I’ve been confined to my car. Or I’ve been in our condo, trying to set up our home in such a way that we want to spend time here. We’ve arranged furniture, cooked new meals, cleaned the bathrooms. I’ve been so consumed with teaching and life changes, that I haven’t actually settled in.

So today, I emptied the dishwasher. I prayed. I walked downtown. I looked at the buildings I passed. I smiled at the runners (I am still in awe). I met a high school friend for coffee, and she connected me with a friend who is involved with a local church Gabe and I are considering. I drank a hot coffee and tried to explain my experience with the Church, with church, with God, in a few sentences. It felt new and interesting to do this, partly because so many times I talk to the same people who have known my my whole life, or at least my whole adult life.

I walked over the river to the library and got my library card. That’s how I know it’s official. I checked out two books, partly to show the librarian I mean business.

—     —     —

As you can see, I’ve decided not to stop blogging. I seriously, seriously considered it. I went over all the reasons it may be time to move on. I had a few good ones.

But then I set up my desk.

[the imperfection of the creative process — I couldn’t resist a little filter action, though]

It is the largest desk I’ve ever had. Gabe and I found it at a thrift shop and picked it up with my father’s truck two days later. I am still not using it to its fullest potential, but I have a lamp. I have plants. I have a candle.

There’s something about this desk that begs me to write at it, just like this new town begs me to walk its sidewalks.

Discover it for who it is. Bring to it who I am.

That’s what I plan to do here, as well.

Moving On?

When do you know if you’ve outgrown something? If something that used to bring you joy and challenge and even comfort now just leaves you a bit anxious?

I haven’t written in months.

I’ve jotted down a line here and there. A scrap of a poem. The beginnings of various essays. Some journal entries (due largely in part to my short story class I taught in the fall…)

But nothing for this.

And what is this, anyway? It feels a bit naive to think that a blog is a valuable use of my time. I do not plan on being discovered this way (notice: this way), and I wonder if it’s time to throw in the towel.

You’ve had a good run. Thanks, old friend. Time to move on.

This question is all the more pressing because this blog will expire on February 18th unless I decide to continue.

Do I pull the plug and hope that something else fuels my creativity the way this used to?

[Maybe I’ll finally write on Saturday mornings without a deadline forcing me?]

Do I admit that I have had writer’s block (which I don’t even believe in) for roughly a year and a half?

[Maybe all the places I’ve been/things that I’ve done/books that I’ve read will inspire me?]

Or do I plunk some money down, embrace this place as something that will continue to challenge and grow me, and make myself type?

Jury’s still out.

But this is the most I’ve written since August, so maybe there’s hope yet.

[Photo: Gabe Knell]

The Measure of a Place

Today, I walked into a gift shop and cried.

No, let me try that again:

Today, I walked into a gift shop and teared up.

The woman behind the counter cocked her head a bit in sympathy — she’d only asked if she could help me find anything. I’d spent a good ten minutes picking something up, putting it down, and picking it up again.

“I’m moving away,” I explained, blinking.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Where are you moving to?”

“It’s not even that far!” I laughed a little, swiped at my eyes. Ugh, internal eye-roll. “I’m just looking for something from Somerville, you know.”

“Sounds like you need something from over here.” She gestured to a box on the floor filled with artwork. I knelt down and thumbed through them. I was only sort of looking; I’m picky about art, and I don’t usually drop $35 on something unless it speaks to my soul.

But there it was, about eight or nine pictures in, a framed painting of Mike’s in Davis Square.

In it, two men in hats are sitting outside under an umbrella. A young man with his hands in his pockets saunters out (probably a Tufts student), and there is just enough hidden for me to imagine me and Sally sitting at a table over a beer and buffalo chicken calzone.

I have found this extremely hard to write about. It has something to do with the mixed emotions, the excitement, the sadness, the change. When Gabe talks about all the things he won’t miss about this place (and there are definitely some I’ll be saying sayonara to), I mostly think of things I love:

On my way to work, how the door opens to the world and I actually feel like the female lead in some romantic sitcom.

The way the light pours into my bedroom and wakes me up (sometimes against my will).

The sunset from my bedroom window, how it makes me want to write bad poetry.

The green couch on the porch surrounded by a string of globed lights, red wine, and long conversations that leave us lighter, happier, no matter how heavy the talk was.

The bike trail.

So many delicious restaurants.

Nathan Tufts park and the bench on the slope where I sat and read and talked to my mom on the phone.

Waving to the gas station owner as I walk by, his big smile. “We should respect teachers more,” he says in his Middle Eastern accent. “They are teaching our children how to be good citizens!”

Sitting at True Grounds, trying to write but mostly watching, sipping iced coffee, anonymous.

But mostly I think I am saying goodbye to the woman I was when I came here.

As I handed the woman my credit card, she asked: “How long have you lived in Somerville?”

“Two years,” I said. She looked surprised.

“But that’s enough,” she said. “I would never want to leave.”

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Adventure

Adventure is a loaded word. I hear it tossed around by high school students who long for an absence of parents and a presence of new. I hear it dreamed about by people my age, seeking change, purpose. I hear it whispering in my own mind: Find an adventure before you get stuck.

The adjectival form of adventure is adventurous, and there are two definitions:

1. inclined or willing to engage in adventures.

2. full of risk; requiring courage; hazardous.

Of course, we’d prefer the former rather than the latter; to be considered one who were “hazardous” would hardly lend itself to warm feelings of comfort or trust.

But to be thought of as “willing to engage in adventures”? This may be the tallest idol of modern humanity.

~     ~     ~

I spent hours writing the script to “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first play I ever wrote. I learned to type on my family’s first computer — a huge Gateway that arrived in multiple boxes with black and white splotches like a Holstein cow that were so large my little brother used them to build forts  — and I agonized over every detail. What would Laura have actually said? What was that thing called they used to make butter again?

I agonized because I was obsessed. I dreamed of the prairie with its sea of gold and the endless sky, the idea of which both scared me and filled me with a deep tingle of excitement. Because I was only seven and too young to embark on a journey cross country on my own, I collected books. Every birthday, every Christmas, I would ask for the next book in the “Little House” series, hoping somehow to absorb Laura’s gumption, Mary’s kindness, and Pa’s fearlessness.

Instead of traipsing across Kansas, I learned to knit socks and sew dresses.

Instead of going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, I canned tomatoes and made a terrible ginger/brown sugar/vinegar drink.

Instead of breaking through the ice of the water bucket every morning to wash my face, I raised a flock of chickens and planted an herb garden outside our kitchen window.

I never did see the prairie, but I can make a mean cabled sweater.

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Sometimes, when people try to describe you, they find a word that, on the surface, might be benign, but when applied with just the right pressure makes you feel worthless.

You’re just not adventurous enough.

No one had ever said that to me before, and I shot back with all the reasons I was, indeed, adventurous:

  1. I studied abroad!
  2. I took a job I never expected to take, I put my heart and soul into it, and I’m good at it!
  3. I got my master’s while I worked, juggling both with slightly less agility than a hippopotamus!
  4. I routinely took a risk to trust others and love them, to fight back my fear of being open!

And as I said these things, the biggest one was this:

5. I stayed home. (This one did not seem to have the exclamation point.)

Because here was the crux of the issue: while so many had moved to Italy or California or D.C., I had moved home.

My risk was trusting that this new and un-sought-for path was the right one.

My risk was trusting that the work that needed to be done in me could be done from the comfort (and challenge) of living with my own parents.

My risk was hoping someone would love me and see me for the adventurous young woman I am.

~     ~     ~

As I enjoy the days of summer with all the planning for fall they bring, I have already become more contemplative. I’m awaiting (or moving toward? or eagerly looking forward to? or unbelievably scared of and excited for?) marriage to a man whose very calmness is shocking to me. He does not worry about being adventurousinstead, he sees all of life as something to challenge and grow and shape him.

I’m entering into a family that embraces forms of newness and oldness and all that’s in-between. I have a lot to learn about what it means to be one of them, and they have things to learn about me. So far, we’ve done so over a shared love of Mary Oliver, the ocean, God, and music.

Marriage is no more an adventure than singleness.

Working through life with your blood family is no less of an adventure than gaining a new family, and crossing the prairie in a covered wagon is no more of an adventure than staying home and breaking your back to make this life work.

You can cross the world with a trembling soul.

You can climb a mountain just to prove someone wrong.

You can drop everything and start over, but instead of running towards something, find that you’re just running away.

But you can also stay with the familiar out of fear, and that’s no better.

It isn’t what you do that makes you adventurous, it’s the spirit with which you live every moment.

[Photo #2 credit: Gabriel Knell]

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Latin in the Summertime

IMG_1382Twice a week, I tutor an incoming 8th grader at Barnes and Noble. I order a large green tea, he tells me he’s “fine” when I ask, and we launch into Lingua Latina, every middle schooler’s dream way to spend a summer morning. He never complains — even when I open the door for it — and his desire to do well is lovely. I hope he doesn’t lose it come September.

We even made a friend. Glenn is retired and he comes to Barnes and Noble every morning. I never noticed him until, as I rounded the corner of the cafe, I saw him talking to my student. My hackles immediately went up (which is not exactly the most sane response to a stranger talking to a middle schooler, but my maternal instincts are strong). Glenn proved kind and engaging, Latin being the magnet it usually is in public.

“I heard you talking over there, and I thought: I know some of those words! I took Latin all through high school and I loved it.” Glenn is quick to divulge the ways in which Latin helped him with vocabulary, writing, etc., but I can see my student’s eyes glossing over. I do not want to squelch this man’s excitement, so I smile and talk about my teaching and love of languages.

Glenn is surprised that I teach Latin, and the next time we meet, he gets up excitedly, a red book in his hand.

“Have you heard of this?” he asks, handing it to me. “After we met, I was thinking about all the Latin I took and I remembered this book.”

It’s a book on Latin in English, a huge list of Latin terms that one could use in everyday speech. I’d never heard of it, I know my coworker would love it, and I thank him for thinking of me.

IMG_1357 (1)Many people are surprised that I teach Latin. More are surprised that I enjoy it. I’m not sure I fit the stereotype of Classics enthusiast (at least I hope I don’t), and yet I’m never quite sure how to respond to such shock. Part of me wants to enumerate all the other things I love just to balance it out, but the other part wonders what I could change to seem more of a Classicist.

My coworker and I have been brainstorming the upcoming year: How do we make it fun? How do we make Latin more part of our culture instead of just something students have to do to graduate? How do we collaborate and make our subject more interdisciplinary? Each of us brings unique things to the table, and honestly I am grateful to be able to lean on his knowledge of Roman history and other things I somehow missed during my education.

I sit with my student at Barnes and Noble, and I worry about him losing interest. I make sure to move from thing to thing — translation, vocabulary, grammar, derivatives — because nothing kills joy faster than doing the same thing over and over and over. I wonder if I should make him call me Miss Hawkins instead of Catherine because in the fall he will have no choice, but it feels strange to be in striped shorts and a tank top as “Miss Hawkins.” He never wants to chat afterwards, and I bid him adieu until next time.

“Are you a tutor?” the woman next to me asks as my student hurriedly leaves.

“Yes, we’re working on Latin,” I say.

“You’re good,” she says. “You make it fun.”

I am pleased.

“Thank you, I’m glad. He’s also smart, so that helps.”

I’m a little embarrassed how much this affirmation from a stranger makes me. You would think after tutoring for seven years I would no longer need someone to tell me I can do it. You would think I had arrived.

September will find me teaching Latin and ESL, not teaching English (alas), trying to integrate music, history, and etymology as much as I can, and learning and re-learning my students as a year-older and a summer-wiser.

Now, I am enjoying my twice-weekly tutorings, my days in the sun with my old babysitting charges, visiting with friends, and gearing up for all the fall will require of me.

Today, Glenn asked if I taught full-time.

“Yes,” I said. “September, I’ll be back at it.”

“So no more Barnes and Noble,” he replied.

It wasn’t a question so much as a realization.

[First Photo: Andrew Phillips]

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Sneaky Three-Year-Olds and Naptime

FullSizeRenderWhen I was little, my mother would send us up for a nap every afternoon. This didn’t last long, given our persuasive personalities and Mom’s fairly chill parenting style, but there were a few years there where I loathed what seemed like the three hours I’d be trapped in my bedroom. What was the point of “trying” to sleep if I wasn’t tired? Because I certainly wasn’t. I don’t care that I’m acting out, whining, slapping my sister, what-have-you. It isn’t because I’m tired, it’s just because I’m awful.

So there I would lie, my door closed, and it wasn’t long before I’d take a deep breath, scurry across the room, and grab the Barbie dolls. Or maybe the little notebook and pencil with which I would write extremely redundant letters to various family members (“Dear Daddy, I love you. God loves you, too. Love, Catherine”  — those were about all the words I could spell at three or four years old). I’d grab that dog-chewed, often-footless Barbie doll, write those letters, and sit up in bed with one ear to the doorway.

One ear to the doorway because there was a tell-tale sign that my mother was coming and I had to slip whatever toy I was playing with under the covers, close my eyes, and curl up facing the wall.

That sign was my mother’s creaky knees.

I still remember the thrill of hearing it – crack, crack, crack – coming up the stairs, shoving the Barbie doll under the comforter, breathing heavily because I was afraid I’d get caught.

Then the words of liberation, “You can get up now, honey,” and away with the toys and the bed and downstairs I’d bound, free from the minimal guilt I felt about disobeying.

And what would’ve happened had I been caught?

Nothing, most likely, but Mom never did catch me. Or, she never let on, anyway.

I teased Mom for years about her loud knees, her bad joints, and she took it like a champ.

“Thank God for those knees!” I’d say. “They kept me out of loads of trouble.”

~     ~     ~

The thing is: creaky knees seem to be genetic. I was walking up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, and I heard it — crack, crack, crack — only, instead of just one knee like my mother, it was BOTH. They were beacons of announcement: Catherine’s coming! She’s on her way! Any minute now! And I realized that my mother of the naptimes and sliced apples with peanut butter and tea with milk in the afternoon was a young woman of 28.

She wasn’t old or wrinkled or graying. She wasn’t wizened or aged like good wine. She was my age, and her knees cracked. She had long dark hair and perfect eye sight. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor. She had three babies under the age of four, and she sent us upstairs for naps not because we needed them, but because she did.

When I was in high school, I asked her what she did while we were up there. I pictured her reading a book, watching a television show, napping herself.

“I usually did laundry,” she said. “Or dishes.”

Age is a funny thing. It means less and less as I get older. I wonder if this lovely change is reversed at some point. If, at the ripe old age of 70, the years mean a whole lot more. If you wish all you had to complain about were creaky knees or a compulsory naptime.

Three-Year-Old Freedom

She sits in front of me on the bus, her dark head barely visible over the blue seat. Pink bows keep two small braids from unraveling by her face, and her head turns swiftly as she tries to take it all in through the window.

I am on my way to church — not necessarily against my will, but most definitely against the yearning I feel to roam all day in the sunshine and write with my friends by the Charles River. But I made plans with another friend (in part to make sure I did indeed get up and go), so here I am on the bus that will take me to the T station. I have been audacious enough to ask to be blessed, to ask that God would somehow bless this thing that I find so difficult to do in this season of my life.

With an old man at the next stop enters the hot stench of an unbathed body, and I bristle, both at the smell and at the rudeness of the girl next to me, covering her nose, pouting. The old man looks at me, and I smile — a peace offering — because it won’t be long before I, too, offend people with aging.

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It is the Sunday after a trip to the midwest and the Sunday before I jump right back into all that I left behind. I performed a makeshift grocery-run on Saturday, I diligently did my laundry, I celebrated a friend’s engagement with champagne, and I realized I hadn’t read half as many pages of my stack of books as I had planned. At choir, I leaned in and whispered: I feel like I’m in college choir again. Like those days when I was at the beach but had to come back to campus for practice, and I can’t focus and all I can think about is the ocean and the sun.

I was giddy with something (holiday-high, maybe?), and I sang but I also laughed through rehearsal. Sally and I topped it off with our classic buffalo chicken calzone, and here I am, the next morning, praying that choosing this church to call home, at least for now, is right.

The little girl reaches out and touches the back of her father’s thigh. Her hand is small and her fingernails are perfectly-shaped crescents that I imagine her mother carefully clipping after a warm bath. The girl gazes up at her father’s face. He does not look down, and I realize she is merely checking in. She doesn’t need acknowledgment, only presence.

I am captivated.

We funnel off the bus and onto the T. I do not mean to, but I am sitting directly across from her. Now she stands, her little body full of the confidence so many of us grown-ups lack. She knows to grasp the T pole with both hands — she knows the world loves her.

I snap a picture.

I feel guilty, a thief. But I am spellbound and I can’t explain it.

When we reach my T stop, I get off, knowing I will never see her again. I had wanted so badly to reach out, to cup the top of her head with the curve of my palm, but her ease and wonder would not be possessed. She unselfconsciously took in the world and demanded that it love her.

And I did.

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WriterTeacherSingerSpy

Salzburg

I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

~     ~     ~

Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

~     ~     ~

As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

the sirens’ song

I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

A Hundred Years of Singing

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I remember discovering music as a little girl in the old brown church. Out the thin windows, I could see the pink hydrangea tree dipped down to the ground, bent from years of blooming. I couldn’t read yet, but I stood next to my father and followed him. I remember wondering How do I know where to put my voice next? and it was like the first time you think maybe there is more to be known than you will ever learn.

My grandfather used to sing “How Great Thou Art” under his breath while he hoed the garden, sorted the mail, wrote notes in his little breast-pocket notebook. He would hum and whistle, and ever since he’d lost some of his hearing, the tune hadn’t been quite right.

My Maine grandpa would sing fun ditties as he rocked us in his rocking chair. “How much is that doggie in the window?” and other silly songs that came from decades ago. It was when he took out his harmonica, though, that the music really started — his gnarled, hard-worked hands making music unlike any I had ever heard before.

And then there was singing in the car, belting along to Randy Travis and other 1990s country artists, wondering why I sounded different from the man singing. I hadn’t yet learned what octaves were.

I remember staying in the blue van while my family left because we’d gotten to my grandparents’ house, but it was in the middle of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and there was no way I was going to miss that key change, that high note at the end.

Standing in front of a large woman at church, in awe of her operatic voice but also afraid of it and confused by why she was always a little bit behind everyone else.

Getting a thrill whenever “Black Velvet” came on the radio. Alannah Miles’ sultry voice and lyrics of desire had me enthralled before I hit kindergarten.

My great-grandma played the piano by ear, sang through the open window while she washed dishes and hoped someone from Hollywood would walk by. She never did get her big break, but she sang for 105 years.

~     ~    ~

We start our lessons with stretching to the sky and then hanging loose like a rag doll. I tell her to take deep breaths, to feel her back expand with air. We do sirens to activate the different registers, we talk about our diaphragm and how it supports our breath, and we talk about opening our mouths as the notes get higher.

She loves to sing hymns. She has big hazel eyes that take in what I say with this look of hunger to learn it all. She asks to sing “Amazing Grace,” but she doesn’t want to sing it alone.

“Can we sing it together? You know, when you sing different things than I do?”

“You mean when I sing the alto line and you sing the soprano line?” I ask.

“Yes, yes! Can we?”

Who would say no? Besides, I love hearing her little-girl voice paired with my slightly-less-little-girl voice, a cappella in my practice room with the string of Christmas lights.

I’m not sure she’ll be able to hold the soprano line, and she falters a bit. Then her voice stops wavering. She sings with confidence. At the end, we smile at each other.

I tell her I love singing with her.

I don’t tell her that she’s been gathering music memories for eight years, that they will build on each other and come out at surprising times.

I don’t tell her that maybe she’ll remember singing “Amazing Grace” with her voice teacher, how the mismatch of their voices mimicked the mismatch of their time of life.

[Photo: geraldbrazell]