Random thoughts from an animal-loving French prof / mom of three on things she finds beautiful, funny, sad, or strange.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

What I do matters

First, a word on what I mean when I refer to what I do. Many of you have read my posts about adoption, childhood trauma, and advocating for the mentally ill, which, of course, all matters. A lot. But it is not the only thing that drives me. It's not even the first.

The first thing that ever lit me up, inside and out, was music. Close behind that was French. We were exposed – woefully late, I might add – to French and Spanish in junior high. I liked both, would go on to study both, but the language I fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with, was French. Thanks to two marvelous high school teachers, Ms. Griffiths and Ms. Chester, I was able to cram five years of study into four, and actually got pretty good. I chose a college with approximately one goal in mind, study more French and go to France. Nazareth College gave me a scholarship to do just that. When my time there was almost up, my trusted and beloved mentors, Candide, Ruben, and Octave, encouraged me to try for grad school. Since all I really wanted to do was keep speaking and reading French, this seemed like a plausible option, so I did.

When I arrived at Indiana University, I still wasn't really sure what exactly I intended to do, other
than get a degree or two in French. I had a teaching assistantship, but subbing gigs at my local high school had suggested the classroom might not be for me. Still, I reasoned, I'd get to speak French. Besides, it paid the bills.

I loved it. Turns out teaching college is exactly what I'm supposed to do. I remembered Octave and Ruben and Candide and began to believe that like them, I could maybe make a difference, see that my love affair with French didn't begin and end with me. Less than two years after finishing my PhD, I landed at Cumberland College, where I've been ever since.

It's not all roses, though. This love of mine is subject to more or less constant attack. I've gotten flak about my francophilia pretty much from day one, right up until the present. Not that I've much cared, being a) stubborn as a mule and b) convinced this is what I was born to do. I've been interrogated about what it's good for, admonished that everyone speaks English, had so many stereotypes rammed down my throat that I'm surprised I've not yet choked. I still don't really care. France and French are just my "thing." Quitting them would be like quitting oxygen.

I could spit out a bunch of numbers, use math to explain why French matters. I won't [although if you're interested, you can check out the AATF Fact Sheet here]. I didn't learn French for the numbers. I did it for love. For love and for the stories. The blueberry grower at the Paris agriculture exhibition. The World War II pilot shot down in the center of France who decided to make his life there. The journalist who flew on the actual Concorde. The couple camping in the American West when they encountered their very first skunk. The businessman who needed a French-English speaker to get through the immigration line in India. He in turn got us to our connecting airport minutes before the airport closed due to monsoons; without him we would have been another day late in meeting our son. These aren't just ways French has proved useful; they are tales of human connection, stories that never would have happened if I hadn't embraced a language and cultures beyond those into which I was born.

To many such things don't matter, including those in my own back yard. Our governor began disparaging my life's work years ago. Then my daughters' high school began an attack of its own, replacing a talented teacher of first-year French with a second-rate computer program that is leaving students further and further behind. I know French, and I know good instruction. This software offers neither. Nor can it. When is the last time you heard a computer, of its own free will, share a compelling story or make a deep connection? I guess such a machine could exist, but I've not seen it here.

Worst of all, French has turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. Education itself is on the chopping block, in my state and across our land. Libraries, universities, and especially teachers are undervalued to a degree I have never seen. Teachers have seen their benefits cut, then found themselves bullied by the government for daring to protest. Every time I think things cannot get much worse, they do.

It doesn't have to be this way. There's a time to be heartbroken, and a time to say, "enough!" Let's stand up for the things that matter, not (just) the numbers, but also the stories. Especially the stories, all the stories. They may be the only thing that saves us now.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

About that wall...

Photo by MabelAmber on Pixabay
Since November 2016, there has been an awful lot of big talk about walls. Got to protect ourselves, right? There are a lot of bad hombres out there, after all.

Here's the thing. I get it.

Keep reading, please. I'm still the same center-left tree-hugger – or far-left liberal nutjob, depending on your lens – that I've been far longer than most of you have known me.

Still. I know a thing or two about walls. And I bet if I pushed hard enough, you'd admit that you do too.

Think about it. Walls aren't all bad. It's March 8 in the South and I'm sitting here watching it snow. I'm pretty dang grateful to have a set of sturdy walls between me and all of that.

Or take my cats. True, they are not fans of walls unless said walls can be climbed. But walls sure come in handy when they won't stop fighting and need to be confined to separate corners!

It's not really snow or cats that are leading me down this thought-path, however. I'm thinking more of the times walls don't work.

Like border walls.

Like school walls.

Photo by Oladimejj Odunsi on Unsplash 
Like the walls we build around our personal space, both physical and emotional.

I don't know about you, but I've got a few too many of those walls. I'm talking several layers thick, like some kind of medieval fortress for my soul. It's a wall made of a lot of different materials – the election, yes, school violence, yes, but so much more. Things like the disaster that was my marriage. Learning that "innocent until proven guilty" is just a pretty phrase unless you have the right combination of color, cash, and connections. The lonely exhaustion of raising a child with multiple needs, knowing I can never come close to being everything he and his sisters deserve. The dozens of betrayals, large and small, the relationships cherished and lost, the fear of being hurt again. None of these building blocks are necessarily all that effective on their own, but stacked together, they're pretty hard to breach. If you add that I'm a natural introvert, perfectly content to be left to my own devices, well, if I'm not careful my self-made fortress can suit me awfully well.

Photo by Angello Lopez on Unsplash 
The thing is, even introverts are not made to live alone. A house built for one is not necessarily much of a home. I know this, and so I'm trying. Through heartbreak, trial, and error, I think I've found my tribe, the ones who are still and always there when the dust clears after life's many storms. Even when I wall myself in for self-protection, once I start tearing that structure down, I find them there on the other side, patiently waiting for me to emerge.

I've not yet been able to quit my wall habit. Maybe I never will. But I am happy to report that I am losing my touch. The walls aren't as thick as they used to be, and it takes less to knock them down. It's a work-in-progress, though. I still have a mean perfectionist streak that would love to stack every block so perfectly that nothing can get in.

If 40+ years on the planet have taught me anything, though, it's that perfectionism is overrated. Life is fuller, richer, better in the gaps, the places where you leave a way out... and in.

Photo by MissEJB on Pixabay

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Music Blues

I fling the hymnal angrily to the floor, thankful to be the only one home. At least I won't have to hide my tears. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Humph. I have rather another word in mind for "Hark," also ending in "k" but nowhere near so lofty. I'm crossing into blasphemy. I don't care.

This is not an episode of Wesley-induced rage, although I suspect that I am far from the first or only church musician to be frustrated by the musical stylings of our dear Charles.

Nor is it my usual irritation with the unholy greed that marks what is supposedly the Christmas season in the West.

It isn't even the mental and emotional gymnastics required to shepherd a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder through the holidays. Yeah, it's a little awkward and a whole lot messy, and yeah, I sometimes forget my lines, but I mostly know those scripts by heart.

It's another holiday memory slideshow, four bleak snapshots looping relentlessly in my mind:

  • Implacable questions in a dismal gray office where I hoped for help and instead found pain.
  • Me, huddled on the kitchen floor after the fight that would mark the beginning of the end.
  • A knife raised menacingly in a child's diminutive hand.
  • My father lost in a maze of tubes and wires.

"Maybe" I think, "I can replace this show with music." I bend to retrieve the hymnal, look for Sunday's second hymn. "Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart." You have got to be kidding me. In the face of my psyche's chosen holiday feature film, I'm supposed to rejoice?!?! Then again, I'm not so sure I belong with the "pure in heart." Perhaps that lets me off the hook.

I start again to play. It goes badly. I break the music down, transform it into a mechanical exercise. It goes okay.

"Take Time to be Holy" is a passable success. I decide not to overthink the implications of this for my current mood and turn instead to "Joy to the World." I can play the heck out of this one. I proceed to do just that. Until... 
Well then. Apparently, the sorrows are supposed to stop growing. I'm not convinced. And something else in this verse nags at me too: the blessings. Apparently they are still flowing. I sit on my hands and think. As dark as things have been, there have been moments of light. Not the light at the end of the tunnel. Not the candle on the cold, dark, winter's night. More like a sense of light, dimly perceived through a scrim or screen. Kind of a lot like this image, repurposed from Ann Patchett's "My Year of No Shopping": "a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: We can see some shapes out there, light and dark..."

That's what it's like in my head these days. I've already listed dark shapes, the ones my mind insists it most clearly sees. I failed to mention, though, that a) my mind likes to trick my brain, and b) each dark shape has its opposite in light. It's hard to see through the Vaseline. But if I take a tissue and wipe it away, I remember and I see. I see that I left that office and found some help. The fights are over, their instigator gone. The knife is safely in its block. My father is free of tubes and wires. 

The shape of hope can be difficult to discern. That doesn't mean it isn't there.

Anyone got a tissue?

Monday, October 23, 2017


Nellie her first year home
It all started with an ad in the paper.

Well, not really. It all started when we brought the girls home. They hadn't been here long before we realized every kid really should get to grow up with a dog. I was a vaguely known entity in the local animal rescue community, had helped re-home a few before, so I imagined one would come our way. And one probably would've, but then I saw this ad:

Female black lab mix free to good home. Has shots. Spayed.

Ads like this bother me. First of all, I don't like to think of any creature being rejected. Secondly, "free" animals around here are all too often sacrificed to fights. Combine all that with an early childhood spent with labs, and you can guess what happened next. I made the call, and we haven't looked back since.

Until now.

Nellie is...was...to my kids what my dog, Misty, was to me. Misty was not a lab, but rather an Australian Shepherd we got when I was young, sometime after Barnaby, who was a lab, was lost to complications of Parvo. Despite her fear of cows (admittedly not a great feature in a herding dog on a beef farm!) and one entirely too-close call with a passing car, Misty lived a long, full life. She was smart, funny, and occasionally brave – at least when it came to defending her red pick-up truck! Most of all, she was my constant companion, a girl's best friend. More than one chapter of my life closed when, during my senior year of college, she finally crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

My kids had that with Nellie. My son, a high school freshman, has never known family life without her. My oldest is a junior in college, their sister a senior in high school. Like me and Misty, they've literally grown up together.

Nellie going gray
The only thing is, Nellie being a dog and all, she didn't just grow up – in fact, one could argue that is the one thing that didn't happen in her fourteen years! She grew old. The seizures she'd always suffered lessened, but she lost a third of her teeth. Her heart, the physical one, began to fail, even as the other, the heart of love, continued to beat strong. On the last day, the one we'd feared for months yet never could imagine, she got up, had a snack, and stretched out for a nap. It was a morning like any other, except this time, she didn't wake.

I've said before that it is hard enough to lose a pet, that it's a thousand times worse to see your kids losing one too. I imagine most of my readers know such pain entirely too well. So rather than dwell on it, I thought I'd share a few snapshots that reveal Nellie as she is was, show why we loved love her so:

  • Whining from inside her crate at our lion-maned cat as, dangling from the top, he taunted her.
  • Stealing a bologna sandwich and swallowing it whole.
  • Standing at the back door barking, usually around midnight, her hair –and mine!– standing on end.
  • Basking in the admiration of friends, strangers, and passers-by: "Look! There's a dog at Niagara Falls, and it's smiling!"
  • Taking off hell-bent into the woods, hot on Cooper's and later Roxie's tail, even if we suspect she rarely knew what she was chasing.
    Nellie and Roxie
  • Sheepishly belly-crawling back into our yard after sneaking off for a bite or two of new-lain horse apple or stinking fresh green cow pie.
  • Getting skunked, and good, right smack in the face.
  • Looking at me mournfully through yet another round of wormer – she never could quit those pasture snacks!
  • Curling by my feet as I slept fitfully on the couch, keeping vigil through another night of illness, usually hers, sometimes the kids' or mine.
  • Leaning on my knee, gazing up goofily with her snaggle tooth and her bugged-out eyes.
  • Snoring. Clicking toenails. Clandestine crunching of cat food. It's way too quiet now.

I know this post needs some kind of end, but I've had about enough of things coming to an end here in black cat land, so let's just say to be continued. We'll catch the rest when we meet again, somewhere across the Rainbow Bridge.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Uncle Doug

"It makes me so happy that you call him that," my grandmother said.

"What?" I asked, confused. I don't remember what I'd said, only that I truly was perplexed. It was just another ordinary conversation, and I had mentioned my uncle Doug.

"That you refer to him as your uncle."

"Well, he is, isn't he?!" I replied, now more irritated than confused.

I don't know what we said or did next. I only remember how I felt. But now that two or three decades have passed, I have some idea of what she meant. After all, I can't count the times I've heard some version of "oh... you're the mom." Blood relations are a given. Other ones are not.

Except in my family, they were. My grandparents were all about fostering and adoption, long before it was in the news, long before it was "a thing." Doug, he was one of the foster kids. For the longest time, I didn't know, or didn't know I knew. To me, he was a beloved uncle, someone to make me laugh and give me sweets. Sure, I knew his last name was Mason, that he wasn't blessed with the Dennis neck –or lack thereof– but it never occurred to me that for some people, that might matter. Not, that is, until I adopted three kids of my own. Our family's "normal" is still, for far too many people, strange.

This sense of family has been much on my mind lately, partly because I'm trying to write a book about my son, partly thanks to my work with the ATN blog, where every week I get to share other families' stories. This week, though, it's almost entirely because, well, Uncle Doug died, and with him, a piece of my family's collective heart. I know he's better off now, enjoying a long-deserved rest after a life filled with his infectious smile, but also hard work and many sorrows. I can see him rough-housing with his dog, Jake, laughing with his wife, my aunt Joan, and their daughter, Donna, two beautiful souls he lost far too soon. Plus there's my grandparents. How good it must be for all of them to be together. I miss my kids after only a day. They'd been apart for years.

Still, it hurts, the pain made worse by the fact that I can't get to the funeral, won't be able to say a proper goodbye. Maybe this will work instead:

Thank you, Uncle Doug, for loving me and my kids, not like we were your own, but because we were. Goodbye for now. Someday we'll meet again.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Facing the mess as me

We all have so much we mean to do.

I, for example, mean to put up a new post on the ATN blog every Tuesday night. Last spring, I started to hit my rhythm, and last summer, I was really getting it done. I felt productive and accomplished. Things were good.

Then the school year started.

Day 1 was good.
Day 2 was good.
Days 3, 4, and an unspecified number after that, not so much.

My oldest found out apartment living isn't the cakewalk to independence she thought it would be.

My middle suffered a compound dislocation in "the small finger" of her dominant hand. In case you didn't know (I didn't), compound dislocation, sans fracture, is a thing.

My youngest struggled mightily with the transition to high school, and in one of his verbal assaults, said all he could to hurt me. It worked.

I'm seeing those closest to me suffer from cancer, injury, heartache. I used to live in Houston. I have friends in Puerto Rico. And can we talk for a minute about India, the place where 75% of my household was born? In the midst of all the horror here, this was largely missed:

Bringing things back – literally – to the home front, this marks the first time since August that we've had three homemade meals in a week. Yes, we are lucky to be eating at all. And yes, plenty of families eat but never cook. It might seem like no big thing, but for us, not cooking and eating at home is a big, fat, hairy deal. (Garfield anyone?)

So here we are, Wednesday night. Still no ATN blog. Yes, the bloggers do the writing, but the managing, the editing, the layout? That takes time. Time I feel like I don't have. I'm behind on another deadline, this one fixed, and I have three more looming just after that. Combine all that with work stress, and just a few hours ago, I only wanted to go fetal and cry. That or run away to the beach.

Going fetal and crying, though, that's not much like me. There's nothing wrong with them, mind you. They're just not me. Escaping to the beach is me, but there's these pesky little obstacles in the way–I think they're called mountains. If I was going to find me, I was going to have to look here at home. So I sent a few rather sassy texts to my closest friends. That helped. I rustled up ingredients and cooked tonight's meal. That helped a little more. As we ate, we chatted and watched our kitten play. That definitely helped. By the time we opened the M&Ms, I felt like someone I could recognize as me. So much so that I opened my laptop to write.

Are the deadlines still there? Yep. The struggles of a working, single mom of 3? Likewise. All the disease and disaster, pain and death? Check, check, check, and check. None of that is likely to go away any time soon. And yet. For the way I've spent this evening, my regrets are exactly none. The bad stuff is going to come. At least this way, I can face it all as me.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My Home in the World

In her stunning memoir, In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri describes what was for her the painful duality of growing up between lands (India and the United States), languages (Bengali and English), and loves (family and writing). As her reflections unfold, she shows us that a third way, a way out of that pain, is possible. For her, that path is Italian, a language that opens up heretofore unknown, untried parts of her mind, body, and soul. Through Italian, she charts a way forward, one in which duality could become a good, desirable thing: "It's not possible to become another writer, but it might be possible to become two."

I cannot say enough how much I loved this book. I love it like I love Jane Austen, like I love that first morning cup of coffee, like I love those rare shining moments when my pen translates my thoughts on the very first try. Her writing is finely wrought, worthy of a life richly lived. It also helped give new shape to my response when, for approximately the 1000th time, someone asked me a version of the tired question, "how did you end up here?"

On the one hand, I can kind of see their point. I'm a Yankee born and bred; unlike many Americans, I am multilingual by choice, and I've lived in nearly a dozen different places from small-town America to Houston to Versailles (yes, yes, that Versailles). Given that, I guess I can kind of see why some might wonder that I am so happy to call this corner of Appalachia home.

On the other hand, I don't get it at all. Yes, I've called 3 countries, 5 states, 11 cities "home." I've left...and, more importantly, found...a piece of my soul in every single place. Why, then, should I only lay claim to one? There is a version of my best self basking on the terrasse of a Mediterranean café, another so ensconced in a book that I found myself unexpectedly snowed in (true story!). I can suit up and speak at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, or I can throw on jeans, boots, and flannel to share my musings with a herd of Hereford cows.

I am all these selves and more. They come from a lot of different places and taken together, sometimes those selves and places don't make a lot of sense. Do yours? I didn't think so. And yet. They're yours, right? Your places helped create you, just as Lahiri's form part of her and mine are shaping me. They morph and meld, grow and change, yet ultimately, remain ours. Ours to carry wherever we go. Ours to keep within our hearts, the true home where all our best selves live.