I’m going to make a concerted effort to blog more often. I’m a writer who has lost her way from the pages, paper or otherwise, of her life. There is so much to say, to ponder and a million distractions from capturing one’s voice. I’d like to think if I wrote more, I’d talk less. The idea of silence is intriguing, but it may backfire as writing sparks richer intellectual fodder for the most part. More to come.
15 Sep 2010 Leave a Comment
I return to the ELL classroom tomorrow after a three year hiatus. I reenter a space where human experience, in it richest and its most ragged forms, expresses itself. My co-teacher shot me an email tonight, warning me that a certain older gentleman, Mr. Abdi*, was back, waving his cane aggressively at anyone who dared sit near him in the front row. (Threatening him with absolute exile from English class only halted him temporarily.) And the sweet conflicted woman I’d know from years ago, sad and hurting, still continued to float in and out of our class, barely able to take more than 30 minutes of English each night. Teachers after me allowed her this silent nightly flight, figuring the disruption was of lesser importance than her need for human connection. I will do the same.
English class is a place where teacher and student interchange with each other clumsily. Sometimes, I am struggling to remain the one imparting information essential to their survival. At other times, I am feverishly working to win their validation, sharing the little Somali, Vietnamese, and Oromo cultural remnants I have picked up over the years. Respect me, like me, trust me I call with my over zealous efforts to connect them to my intention. I am younger than you, but I love you. I seek to know you so that you can feel safe and welcome. My heart lies, soft and vulnerable, in their tentative hands. They look to me to lead them, to show them the way into the seemingly impenatrable world of the English language. A language full of ludicrous idioms and wayward grammar points, a language coveted and pursued around the world in an effort to open international doors to opportunity…all my sweet people want is a chance. They want something painfully simple- to make a new life, to start with new dreams, to forget the traumas of the past, the nightmarish memories….they only wish to dream after accomplishing this first step.
They desire the words to understand their neighbor or their child’s report card. They want to communicate with teachers and police officers. They want to answer questions in a job interview with thoughtfulness and accuracy. They want to pass their citizenship test’s written portion. They seek societal literacy- enough to make such navigation a painless and understood experience. This is my charge, deceptively simple, but truthfully, a daunting charge for any English teacher. Where to begin? You teach while easing around lonely ghosts, stopping angry emasculated patriarchs from venting on unsuspecting classmates, listening to those who seek to share their whole selves through the fragmented lens of broken language. You are a teacher and a listener to human hope.
ELL teachers of refugee and immigrant adults need to be weavers, they try to create patterns where hope and despair are balanced. We watch our students sit through ridiculous standardized tests that affirm the shortcomings their lives never let them forget. These tests do not validate the courage and the heartache I see in my learners, the daily treks to our little classroom, leaving families and children each night in the pursuit of elusive dreams of true belonging and acceptance.
I tell them learning English is like building a house. It happens brick by brick, patient layer upon layer. One day the roof rests on the beams one has labored to raise and the precipitous outside is kept at bay. You are safe. You are welcome. You have (re)created home, an imperfect and lonely triumph. A success rooted in sacrifice.
25 Feb 2010 2 Comments
Leo is in the dog house in a big way. A week ago, he bit our lovely neighbor Sally (whose name has been changed to protect her from Leo) and then proceeded to lick her hand apologetically. At the time, she assured me he had not bitten her, but four days later an apologetic and nice note was left on my windshield inquiring about the status of his shots. Leo was not only up to date but insured. (Writer’s note: Unlike 40,000,000 Americans in this country. How is that possible?!?)
That night, I showed up at her house with flowers. She showed me the cell phone pictures. Two teeth points neatly pierced the skin on her leg, leaving a bruise. The damage is done. Leo is now a human biter and boosted into a category all to his infamous own. Being a cool neighbor, she offered to help me with any training I needed to do to redirect his aggression. I took her up on the offer.
What is a dog mother to do?
I called Leo’s trainer in tears. Sobbing, I told her he had committed the ultimate sin. Leo was out of the running for therapy training. Canine good citizen classes….maybe. My dachshund had become a menace to society and could be put to death at a moment’s notice with the wave of my nice neighbor’s pinky finger. Or her bruised bitten thigh. She quickly assured me that he could not be put to death and that he needed to be in the Human to Dog Socialization classes. That meant changing my work to another night. How about a Saturday when I usually rested? So was the case.
Putting your dog in a class like Dog to Human Socialization takes a great deal of humbling for dog owners like myself. It means admitting that your dog is not the king of canines, a magnanimous and gentle lover of humans. It means he has problems and they are serious enough to need fixing. Reluctantly, I agreed, changing my schedule and elongating my work week as a result. This is what responsible dog owners do. This is what dog parents on a walk of shame must do in an attempt to absolve themselves of their dog’s sins.
I showed up in class, which has begun the week before, with Leo in tow. As I introduced myself, he proceeded to bark menacingly at the class, until the teacher had to come over and show me “the hold.” “The hold” consists of flattening a little dog against your chest with one arm, and firmly holding the dog’s head with the other hand and flattening his head as well. The more physical connection one has to the dog the calmer he will become. Leo wanted nothing to do with this new way of holding him. He thrashed and wiggled and attempted to break it. Finally, he gave up and settled into my arms to observe the class.
As I looked around, I realized there were two other dachshunds. Out of a class of seven, almost fifty percent were of Leo’s breed. There was Sophia, a long haired black and tan who shook in her parents’ arms. There was Sylvia, also timid, who melted into a shivering ball of anxiety within thirty minutes. A large sheep dog, a pit bull mix and two black labs made up the rest of the doggy roster. How comforting to know I had the breed of choice for human socialization needs.
After explaining the best way to approach fearful dogs and what different forms of body language and eye contact communicate to a dog, we proceeded to the first exercise. She had us all walk around and just throw food to our dogs and “desensitize” them to strange people and dogs by equating them with good food. Leo did well with this until a black lab got too close. “Too close” to Leo is about five feet away. He sprung towards the lab in his signature aggressive hops, clearly articulating his displeasure at having to share class space. The teacher came over again. I explained to her that it was big dog thing. “Ahhh,” she commented, “Yes, he has that issue too.” Sigh. Leo got to be “held” again until he calmed down.
After some walking and treating, she had us line up the dogs and clip their leashes to hooks placed intermittently on the wall. Then we practiced the first phase of the approach, which involved throwing treats to the dogs. The teacher chose several of my classmates, I not among them, to walk in a line and throw a treat to each dog.
Leo thought he had died and gone to heaven.
Imagine a line of humans walking by you reverently and respectfully, not stopping to antagonize or build your anxiety, but throw you an assortment of foods. Leo, ears pointed forward, waited patiently for each person and gobbled their offering. Forget his mom. Forget hating new people. There was food and plenty of it in an assembly line of non-threatening goodness.
When we stopped the exercise, he began to bark again. Bark and bark and bark. This time, the teacher came over and told me I had to firmly grip his shoulders and tell him to stop it. No mess. Sit your ass down and take heed. The other instructor, who had been observing this exchange, reminded us that Leo’s bag of treats was just out of his reach. He hadn’t been barking at other dogs, he had been demanding the treats continue. So, bad manners got added to his now growing laundry list of social anxiety and canine hatred.
Now, as I type this blog, my dog is lying next to me. He is spread out the full length of my thigh, sleeping peacefully. You can’t help but be just a little touched by his great and unwavering love for a single human being. He forsakes all others for you. He wants to please, but his little heart and body are not so easily convinced that others may hold the same regard for him that you do. You are the divine center to his world, the place where unconditional love and sweet caresses reside. Why would he waste energy on diluting this devotion? My sweet little juvenile. My darling dachshund deviant. My canine convict. I will help him learn the world has to be trusted at times and when I ask this of him, he needs to oblige, to use his courageous hart deep within that barrel chest of his. He is being tasked with turning his devotion into difficult but right action towards others. I may not always be there, and Leo must have the ability to trust and love another. This is the best gift I can give him. No doubt the Lion’s heart can handle it.
19 Feb 2010 2 Comments
I am recuperating from four immunizatons and a blood draw. This happened yesterday, in preparation for my trip to West Africa. To clarify, I will be going to Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso and Liberia. The jewels of the West Coast of the African continent, resplendent in their varying levels of cultural, sociopolitical and economic brilliance.
I knew I needed the yellow fever shot to enter Ghana, and yet walked out with two forms of the flu vaccine, rabies shot and one for bacterial meningitis for good measure, with two more appointments worth of inoculations to look forward to. I felt awful around midnight and am trying to figure out how I can withstand an additional seven shots next Friday. These would include Round 2 of the Rabies vaccine, both Hepatitis’s, the infamous yellow fever, measules/rubella/mumps and whatever else the doctor deems will make me a walking immuno-human.
A visit to the Travel Clinic is an interesting vacillation between common sense, fear and diplomacy. I was told by a harried, if not extremely thorough, doctor that I should wear rubber gloves when I play ball with school children just in case they carry the HIV virus and get a cut. The idea of putting gloves on to play with the children of any country hosting me feels awkward and imperialist. While impossible safe, I’d rather take the risk and eliminate what barriers I can control.
I was handed a 50 page handout that outlines every known disease and horror each country I intended to visit could throw my way. Each section ended with the address to the U.S. consulate, so I could crawl, infested, to U.S. soil should the need arise. I should boil my water at a rolling boil for 30 minutes. Only eat fruit with thick peels. Wear gloves when playing with children. Buy a particular deet filled mosquito repellent to compliment my malaria medicine. Don’t ever go barefoot however tempting. Carry straws and don’t eat in an open market. Carry pepto bismal just in case. The list goes on.
So how does one truly travel if the voyage must be riddled with what ifs and the potential for unrealized danger? How does one build connection if the very act of sharing a meal or playing ball is deemed a risk to one’s health? I think traveling comes down to a leap of faith, a trust in the greater goodness of meeting people where they are at and loving them there. I intend to live and be with the local people, the beautiful folks who will show me my follies and not inoculate themselves against my inevitable cultural mishaps. They will laugh, perhaps be offended, forgive and teach me. Travel is about eliminating barriers, not posing new and unnecessarily offensive ones.
The beauty of preparation for a journey. Diseases aside, my hope is to open my mind and heart to all human-related contagion: love, good humor, grace, forgiveness…. Let it pass to and through me. May it open my own heart and change it forever. I hope my perspective broadens irreparably and I succumb to the grace of hospitality in all its forms.
19 Feb 2010 1 Comment
I recently attended an information session on a new program that my local dog training school is facilitating. The impact of this program brought tears to my eyes as Danielle, one of Leo’s favorite trainers, described it. Danielle reminds me of California. Yes, the state. She’s varied with a myriad of skills. She’s groovy and laid back. She can growl like a dog and turn around and deliver a PowerPoint on the effects of animals that leaves you speechless. Leo surveys her with a mix of respect and curiosity. Danielle speaks dog but is not to be messed with. She’s a gentle lioness and, our dogs, her cubs.
Danielle was approached by a local elementary school to see if she, as a dog trainer, could help a group of kids with discipline issues. The staff wanted to explore how working with local dogs could help these youth learn responsibility, leadership and focus. Danielle brought in rescue dogs and a mutually healing experience began. These abandoned dogs got training while the kids learned responsibility and unconditional love. The program blossomed and became a small movement, that now is asking dog owners to consider training their dogs as therapy dogs to join the volunteer effort.
Leo has answered this call and my small, stranger averse dachshund will now experience a world beyond his personal comforts. You see, Leo is a rescue dog. When I found him at the age of nine months, he had already experienced six homes. I can’t help but wonder, if some emotionally closed child, might be able to relate to Leo’s story.
Leo loves children. He thinks they are curious creatures. Aside from my five year old neighbor, they are a source of fun for him. Could he teach a child who is as equally unsure of strangers to laugh or love without fear? Could my little dachshund help a child gain confidence and realize the redemptive power of leaving hurt behind and trying to know forgiveness?
When I found Leo, his final and fifth foster home was full of seven dachshunds adored by his foster mom, Dawn. Leo was handed over to me skinny, dirty and full of fear. When not shaking in my arms, he lay stiff and fearful. His ears were full of mites and dirt. He didn’t have his shots. He was underweight and lost. I fell in love. Now, a roly poly little ball of bravado, he has learned how to claim his space in the world. Could he help a child do the same? (Author’s Note: As I write, he is currently disemboweling the stuffed bear with vigorous shakes of his head.)
I have to try, and even if we fail, if Leo is unable to move beyond the trust issues he inherited in his early and ongoing abandonment, the journey towards trust will not be for naught. Obedience II begins Saturday, February 20, and it will be the first step in a rigorous therapy dog process. We will both be different at the end of it. And this is what I look forward to experiencing.
17 Jan 2010 2 Comments
When I was 18, I left the home of my parents and never returned to live. I’m not sure why independence grasped me so quickly compared to many of my peers. My parents were the orbs around which I rotated, whether I divulged this to them or not. They were the unfortunate recipients of my teen angst and indignation at their continual shortcomings or upheaval over life’s taxing and relentless inconveniences. I relied on them to weather my emotional storms and to remain steadfast and resolute in their acceptance of my meltdowns.
This past month, I received two photos of different places I have called a beloved home. My childhood friends, Amy and Kevin, were kind enough to surprise me with images that conjured deep nostalgia. The first, was my home in Fredricksburg, Virginia, located to the left of my writing. The second was Kitty Hawk, NC, resting farther down in this blog. In both pictures, the images are decades past my inhabiting of these spaces. In both, the skies are overcast and gray. Trees have grown, structures changed, memories born between now and then. They appear muted and blurred, not unlike my memory of them. Home they say. You are part of these places.
What does it mean to be… home? I have come to realize this is often a challenge to define for me. It is something I embraced with ease as a child and as an adult fumble to obtain and experience. I have heard that it is where your heart is, but your heart, when broken, can be a traitor to the soul’s need for stability. Your home, others say, is inside you and is created from you. I have been wrenched from a home recently and even after a year, I long for that place too. Is the longing due to what I worked to create within the walls or the shattered myth of what I convinced myself existed? Or was it the daily hope that I was building towards a final feeling of my own home.
You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right. ~Maya Angelou
So what is home if not the place where a lifetime of family and memories collide? Home is a combination of wood and brick, of people who have to invite you in and others who long for your return. Home is good food and hours of laughter from tipsy cousins. It is yuker played after a melting pot of African and American thanksgiving food. It is drums beating. It is quiet still nights where you feel blanketed from the race of a life you lead otherwise. It is also a place I have not always known to be these things. In one sense, my homes have always supplied my basic needs for shelter, warmth and nourishment. They have included dedicated parents, beloved pets, a persistent and highly present younger sibling. My homes have also evolved into complex configurations of new family and even newer version of parents I had come to know in other forms. The launching of such awareness has often been brutally painful at best, since more honest versions of who they are as people have emerged. For a child, home is a mix of illusion and delusion. As an adult, you don’t quite lose the need for these two things to remain a part of home.
My physical homes have included the foothills of the Appalachians, the history-rich grounds of Fredricksburg, a gorged South American metropolis and a breezy Middle Eastern city by the sea. My current home is a frigid and unrelenting tundra called Minnesota, the closest place to settling I have ever been. And yet..home continues to elude me.
Perhaps because I have never felt grounded, rooted to an earth I can call my own. My emotional homes have been housed in the pictures presented here- long before the fallout of love and hope. These homes reflected, in my child’s mind, working units of calmness surrounded me and delighted in my existence. They accessed people and places that I adored. My mimosa tree that we climbed and played around for hours. The Atlantic Ocean with its mysterious moods and sea oat lined dunes. Kevin, Barb, Amy, Olan, Missy, Bryan, Lisa and Karl…my playmates and my soulmates for different periods of time and need in my life.
As I grew older, the longing for other began. I can recall vivid memories of lying on my bed, staring at the white ceiling, going nuts with boredom. I longed for any kind of mobility that would lend itself to new stimulations and experiences. Home was predictably full of activities handpicked for me by Masters degree parents, who also happened to also be teachers.
How does one merge the emotional and physcial home? So often they are split and disconnected as one grows into an adult. You can hang the pictures, paint the walls and feel the walls embrace you while your heart burns for connection and understanding not found in the same place. You recount the idyllic wispy memories of an old childhood. Does it come with purchasing a home? Having children? Getting married? I would venture to say that Angelou’s words ring most true. It is not external. It is deeply and undeniably internal and the road for some to reach this center is long and difficult. So, my search and sentiments for home continue to elude me. Perhaps I am getting close as love settles in and I grow older. Meanwhile, in the walls of my rented duplex, my dog sleeps near by and the quiet of a winter night accompanies my writing. It will have to do.
07 Jan 2010 Leave a Comment
God, it’s cold. Suffocatingly, so. Taking the dog out to pee is a labor of love. I’ve actually contemplated if letting him go on the bathroom rug he prefers to toilet upon would not cause irreversible training damage. Minnesotans are in full hunkering mode. We are shuffling between light and heat with skillful steps, hoping to make it to the next enclave of warmth before the cold reaches ours bones.
Once the cold reaches inner skeletal mass it takes double the time to recover. Minnesota winters eventually reach all of our bones at some point. One cannot quite shake the physical, snaking imprint of cold once you’ve felt it. It is only with a series of uninterrupted spring days of young sun that it begins to creep into oblivion. For the time being.
This winter, for some reason, has been harder for me to adjust and find my rhythm, my wintering pace. To endure a Minnesota January, is a mindset that must be in place so that hours of darkness and penetrating cold do not send you off the deep end. Mentally you must prepare for anywhere from five to six months of winter. The extra time to layer, the discomfort of cold cars as they warm, the precipitous surfaces unsuspecting feet tread upon and the almost Herculean effort to run the simplest of errands is all part of ….. wintering.
There is, however, a blessing in this drought of warmth and light. There is a slowing down, a mindfulness, a sense of peace and quiet. The snow is beautiful and calming. The world falls silent and still more often. The leaving of footprints remind you that others are living and moving around you. I am reminded of a poem, that captures the deep and quiet comfort of a peaceful winter night.
|Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening|
|by Robert Frost (1923)|
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
He gives his harness bells a shake
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
24 Dec 2009 2 Comments
My grandmother is 94 years old. She has the mental acuity of someone far younger while possessing a wisdom only decades of living can bring. She has always been the primary keeper of family stories. We have heard these tales often, as any story worth retaining by the next generation should be repeated.
Her mind remains sharp due to a lifelong pursuit of learning. Learning she did between the demands of children and husband. She recalls details and facts of my own childhood I have forgotten in the haze of a fast-paced and over-stressed professional life. At family reunions, it is my grandmother who weaves children to parents to grandparents as we stare blankly at each other. She has been witnessed to calmly recount the long lineage of a sunburnt five year old standing mutely in front of her, with popsicle juice stuck to his cheeks.
We have heard about Flint Hill, our great grandfather, Poppy, and the farm hands, the buggy she drove and her favorite mule. My grandmother loved horses. I have seen may photos of her on horseback, young, beautiful and strong just like the mounts underneath her. She passed this love on to my mother and the stories continue. My grandmother told of packing my mother’s small pony into her Chevy Sedan (with the back seat taken out) to transport it and the famous picture still passes through relatives’ hands. My mother tells of her fifth birthday, when a huge thunderstorm descended on the party goers. Grandmother had hired a pony for rides and quickly surmised that the best place for the horse was the living room. My grandfather came home to find the animal standing on a tarp next to the sofa.
She remembers stories about picking Flint Hill berries, ripe and drunk in the sun, hanging ready to eat in summertime. She recalls the cold New York winters with only the fireplaces and wood stove of the old homestead to keep a small struggling farm family warm. She loved to walk the soft rolling acres of her cherished home, the land fought for and purchased by her great grandfathers. Land that is now parceled and owned by strangers. Yet the stories are ours and we try to capture all of them,hungry to claim connection to a place where our family name still stands.
My grandmother now resides in Thomasville, North Carolina, with my grandfather who is also an impressive 94. Their home is within an assisted living complex, a button’s touch from a waiting nursing staff. She now struggles to walk and balance herself, burdened under the painful weight of severe osteoporosis.
Last week, we captured a new story about my grandmother, one that embodied her wit and charm.
The first snowfall of the 2009 winter came to North Carolina. Quietly falling, it caught my grandmother’s attention. She crept out of the back patio door (my grandparents’ unit is on the ground floor) as my grandfather napped, and stood watching the snowfall. I imagine it reminded her of a childhood in a cold farmhouse, surrounded by sacrificing spinster aunts and a father working to provide for three small children. Snow was a staple of an upstate New York winter. It brought comfort and struggle, a drawing close and chins set in resolve. Snow is not common to North Carolina, where she followed her husband in his retirement, seeing her beloved New York few and far between.
As she stood watching the flakes, the story my grandfather now recounts, was that her glasses began to fog up. Already precarious on her feet, she lost her balance, having enough wherewithal to lean towards the ground. She was stuck- her frail body unable to move enough to get up and her husband asleep inside. She sounded her emergency beeper, alerting a nursing staff of five to come running through the halls to the apartment. Waking grandfather, they asked where she was and he couldn’t answer. They found her, lying in the snow outside.
As they helped her up, one of the nurses scolded her, expressing that she “should be spanked” for scaring them and going out into unpredictable surroundings. My grandmother, regaining her footing did not miss a beat. “I needed to give people something else to talk about than Tiger Woods,” she replied.
Tiger Woods. The first time my grandmother fell, she safely regained her footing only to take one of the most scandalous news stories of the week out of commission with her humor. This will go down in the family storybooks, right next to berrypicking and horse rides. Tiger Woods.
22 Dec 2009 1 Comment
When I first started dating the love of my life, I wasn’t sure how the other love in my life would take him. Leo is a four legged powerhouse of dachshund bravado. He’s been known to take on German Shepherds while tied to a tree with a red sweater on. The dog knows no fear.
Leo was a rescue puppy. At nine months of age, he had already experienced six homes, surrendered by a breeder and passed from foster home to foster home until he landed in my lap in Litchfield, Illinois. I knew I was hooked on this skinny, dirty little puppy who thought I was terror incarnate. Over the next two years, he learned to love me with undying devotion and to be equally devout in his skepticism of strangers.
With Ibrahim in my life, it was a crap shoot how Leo would adapt to him. I should have more faith in my dog. They are great judges of character. Ibrahim and Leo have a very special relationship. It’s quite different from Leo and my relationship. For one, Ibrahim has taught him tricks I long gave up on Leo’s success at achieving. And he’s taught them with panache.
For example, play dead.
Leo doesn’t just fall over and lie still. He swoons in a slow circle. He gracefully leans into the floor with is feet up in the air. He waits for his piece of chicken. Ibrahim has taught Leo to take death to a whole new level.
And then there’s “Where’s the ball?” which leads the dog to only bring round objects back to you. Or “high five” which he learned in two days- placing his large padded dachshund paws into Ibrahim’s open palms.
I tried to teach Leo “play dead.” Many times. I also tried a simple “down” command. He looked at me with his head tilted, pondering the verbal utterances. It was as if I was a curiosity to him. I did practically everything to get him to play dead, short of lying on the floor myself with a frozen grin on my face. I did get down on the floor, illustrating what I intended to teach him.
Sad. So sad.
Enter Ibrahim. Quiet, gentle, calm. Has the dog licking out of his hand in a matter of minutes after meeting him. In fact, the first few months Leo tried to lick Ibrahim constantly. His own human chicken strip. Ibrahim would close his eyes and Leo would pounce, tongue out in anticipation. Love at first lick.
Tonight after the dog finished his bone, he was walking around on the sofa. Ibrahim, without missing a beat, covered the dog and told me he was ready to sleep. I had totally missed that cue. To my left, man and dog are cuddled together and Leo is indeed snoozing under a layer of cover the way only earth dogs love. Love.
20 Dec 2009 Leave a Comment
One of my favorite foods to eat is a West African dish from the Ivory Coast. It’s called attieke. (pronounced AH-cha-kay) Made with seasoned fish or chicken, the meat is fried to perfection and set aside. The staple accompaniment is a plate of finely chopped fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions. The attieke itself is steamed cassava grains. You add water and a little salt and butter. It readies for eating quickly. It is best eaten with your hands.
This is how I see America. We aren’t a melting pot of cultures merging into a homogenous goo of barely recognizable pieces. We are similar to attieke. The distinct flavors of recognizable foods brought together in new ways.