Uncertainty and Upheaval

Recently at my university budget cuts and space reallocation have caused a great deal of upheaval in people’s lives and as a result, uncertainty about their place. “Does what we do matter?” they ask. Or with more clarity: “what we do doesn’t matter. [ergo] We don’t matter.” Also in the past year, at least two faculty have died–one very young and one at retirement age, the former due to hospital infection after gradual healing from an aneurism, the other in his sleep. At least two students committed suicide. At least four senior faculty have applied for positions and only one has gotten what he wants. A new doctoral program got slapped down at the state level. We stayed home for two days due to snow, and now our entire humanities/arts building is shut down for a week due to an old transformer blown and so, no electricity. Faculty are holding classes outside or in other buildings, but if the “fix” doesn’t fix it, we have 6 weeks of classrooms to find, not to mention offices and art labs. One of my programs was told to anticipate a move in two years and now we’re told we need to be out by August and the building that had been “promised” is now not quite so.

So those are institutional uncertainties, just a smattering of the kinds of upheaval that seems increasingly to define us. Not that in the past we didn’t lose opportunities or find ourselves without an institutional home (for awhile) or lose colleagues and students in tragic ways. But things have ratcheted up in ways we are not accustomed to–what does that mean for how we teach? For how we do our creative and research work? For how we serve the institution and our fields and communities?

Then there’s context: are we feeling a kind of uncertainty for the first time that others have known for a long time? And who, for that matter, are “we”? Our part-time instructors whose low-paying jobs with us are vulnerable to full-time faculty needing a section and to budget cuts? Part-time faculty are paid for out of College funds, yet the tuition goes to the general fund–and now they go for budget cuts by axing the part-time faculty line. Now the College has no permanent budgeted money to pay the xx% of classes taught by part-timers, so they turn to lapsed salary lines–but if those have been carved into increasingly smaller pieces of pie, it soon looks like there’s no money to pay out.

Are staff included in this “we”? Those without whom the university would grind quickly to a loud halt. Those who make a third or a half of what faculty make (not to even mention the upper administration of the coaches). Does “we” mean just my university or is there a nation-wide escalation of worry and doubt–ask Detroit or New Orleans.

Depending on who you listen to, it’s clear that some “we” or another is increasingly under fire or the magnifying glass. Some of the we’s are privileged and others are not so. But I don’t think it’s just a matter of the usually-comfortable now squirming. It’s more like the almost-always uncertain are now on a par with the newly uncertain, like a burgeoning class onto itself. If you are listening to Fox News you get one sense of who the devil is, threatening our very personhood. In fact, if you listen to the 24/7 news you know that things are dire and getting worse. Somehow they’ve been doing that since 9/11. And if I’m to talk about uncertainty from middle-class, educated, hunky-doriness when communities are decimated by white flight or drugs or joblessness and the cold shoulder of our classist racist society, then I have to place one within the other: the most important element of context is that opportunity in this country is neither blind nor subtle. That’s a myth. Note: thanks to Isabel for calling my attention to this article about “FUD”: http://billmoyers.com/2014/03/25/understanding-the-propaganda-campaign-against-public-education/

I haven’t even mentioned the uncertainty and confusion of our personal lives–“our” meaning all of us in this country–home foreclosures, lost jobs, abuse, drugs, prisons, homicides and rape, the list is merciless. But I want to resist a fatalistic attitude–and I understand if that seems like a privilege in itself. Still, the most powerful examples of the kind of resistance to fatalism that I’m thinking about come from those communities most beleaguered. Fierce elders coming together, musicians and artists, boxing clubs, community gardens, book clubs in jails.

It is exactly out of our personal space–unpredictable, messy, vulnerable–that we have the resources to navigate the landmines and maneuver around the gaping holes before us, perhaps even to disengage the bombs for others and close the holes as we step over them. (Using metaphors of bombs makes me uneasy, since real people are still losing legs to land mines left after war and new wars ongoing.) What is it we have to pull out of ourselves? There is really no limit, but I think maybe these are few:

Affirmation for others and ourselves. If we support each other out loud then we begin to believe that we’re not alone, that it’s not “just me.” Tenderness. Showing a little kindness. If someone snaps or yowls, imagine first that it comes from a place of pain, not of willful meanness. Confidence–I want to put our heads together with a certainty that we can come out the other side with minimal wounding and better understanding. Laughter–maybe if we have these first three then we will find ways to laugh. Nothing so awful stays so long as to prevent humor. It’s like water finding the cracks and seeping into our conversations. A pun will do just fine. A not-cruel imitation. A juxtaposition that makes an image. Those adorable goats scampering across a floor (thanks, facebook).

As I look at my little list it appears that they all are both personal-community strengths, and that feels right.

Last night as our night was winding down, our five-year-old granddaughter Leah lay down beside me, her head on my lap. It was a bit of “throwback Thursday” for her, as she had one of her old sippy cups with water and was holding it to her mouth, her eyes closed. She got a little chilled so we grabbed what was within reach: a cloth napkin, a kitchen towel, and the scarf I was knitting, which she pulled around her head. Adorable moments are always easier with children, and yet it’s what we do, we humans, when we are confident–maybe not completely secure–but at least confident that we won’t be alone when whatever is that’s going to hit us comes roaring in.

Leah winding down for the night

Leah winding down for the night

Looking Back and Seeing Now

I am pulling together all my journals and blogs over the last 4 ½ years with the thought that, with editing, they might be worth something to someone. I have done all the copy/pasting into one document, 153 pages single-spaced initially and now am deleting what is not so relevant. Today is Monday, March 24, 2014, and I am sitting in the living room listening to Brahms’ Requiem and reading those entries. Back in the first year or two, I listened to this piece over and over every day. It is so beautiful and searching that I seemed to find an expression of what I was enduring in the music—beyond expression to a momentary redemption. As I listened I heard angels singing and believed they were embracing Casey, and perhaps in doing that, embracing us.

I think about how much I enjoy pictures of my friends with their loved ones on Facebook. Latoya posting a picture of lovely Omni in her spring dress, holding the skirt out in its fullness. My colleagues with their movies and pictures of kids they adore and are bursting with love for. My other friends with their animals, funny, touching. Me with my pictures of birds at our feeder. Friends’ artwork, showing how they’re reflecting on what matters, marking their way through material and movement. I know we laugh at how superficial Facebook can be, but I am touched by all we share there.

I revived this blog back in 2012 with the intention of making time and space for the little things that matter—and looking back over my posts I see how meditations on pink and spider webs and wrinkles and icicles. I look up and see a glimpse of my neighbor who walks up and down our street and around the circle, trudging along with her little dog Scooter. She is looking more hunched in the last few months than before, and I wonder about their bond—he with his little jacket in the winter, she bent over but looking up to smile and greet. What do they do when they go home? Does she watch TV? Sew? Read? Clean? Is it just the two of them? I know nothing about my neighbors’ private lives and yet I see them day after day, just as they see me: heading out for work, returning, walking sometimes, our three dogs racing around or trotting amiably beside us. In the summer, they see me mowing. Our connection is so tenuous, even if so predictable. What would happen if it all blew up?

I wrote a poem a couple of weeks ago (the last post) and it was the first poem in a long time. I’m not doing so well marking the small things that mean so much, am I? One poem in the last two years, or is it three? Where have I been?

In reading my old Family Blog—the one I did back in 2010—I find myself face-to-face again with my mother at 19, 20. I stumble on the interview I did with my cousin Bette about her growing up. What determines the kind of life we live, how much love we are lucky to have showered upon us, what evil confronts us? So much luck, ill or good. So much unknown. Is it any wonder we hang on to the familiar and resist change?

My uncle and mother were raised by the same mother and father and yet how differently they found their paths in lives strewn with intermittent joys and sorrows, failures and jubilations. What I know of their two lives rises and confronts me: my mother with her short marriage resulting in me and then just the two of us for the rest of our time together, my uncle was blessed with a beloved wife and two children. Then somewhere along the way disappointment marked their lives. He began drinking—how much did this cause or reflect his disappointment? My aunt pulled back, pored her love into her first-born, her son Bobbie, probably protecting him from his father’s harsh unforgiveness when he did not measure up . . . while my uncle turned his hopes on his daughter. She tells the story of hating to play piano, but forced to, her dad banging a rhythm with his fist on the edge of the piano as she struggled to keep up. Threatened, she tried to save herself.

Who wouldn’t reach out to hug the girl she was, hiding in the bathtub, and for the woman she has become—generous to a fault, hard-working to the bone, so hard on herself. Funny and fun-loving, my one and only cousin. The only one in the world still alive to share being the generation after the children of Isabel March and Lyman Hiatt. Whatever happened between her father and her and her brother, my loving, love-hungry cousin took care of her dad for over 15 years until he died last year (she asked me to write the obituary, which is here).

I remember her daughter, my Uncle Bob’s granddaughter, calling me to say that he was going fast and would I like to talk to him by phone. He might not hear, but I could try. I’m so glad Niki gave me the opportunity, and I poured out my gratitude to him—how honored we all are to be related to such an intelligent, unique and ground-breaking man. I told him that I was glad that my boys had gotten to know him and how they always speak of him with affection and pride. I don’t know what else I said, but in the end my voice was breaking as was my dear cousin-once-removed Niki’s.

I read about my camping trip out west when I wanted to run away from WKU, so disappointed in myself and in my colleagues who didn’t want me for the job I thought I wanted. How I came home in early September, not knowing that I had a little over a month to cherish my youngest son. How I complained about this or that (while acknowledging that I was glad to be home), glibly oblivious to the coming tragedy that would gut me and Ken and Casey’s older brothers, his tiny daughter. Our world completely rocked and knocked.

So I am come to this point, looking back, considering now—not so interested in whatever tomorrow has in store, because what I seem to have is then and now and nothing more. I am listening to Brahms and in honor of this recollective moment am going remember some of the haiku conversations we had, when all I could post on Facebook was my heartbreak. How people responded, with love and creativity. Thank you, from me now to you then……

In Honor of Our Haiku Conversation….from 2009, when my reaching was a raw call to touch something reciprocal (they’re mine unless indicated):

I’d ride to find you
(if love were a big strong horse)
and bring you back home.

Kathryn:
Do not walk in pain.
Stay positive in the light.
Embrace your true friends.

Monday morning now.
Someone should make me coffee.
Guess that would be me.

Here’s another day
low as dirt and bleak as dun
12 hours till bedtime.

Susan:
Where emptiness dwells
may love take root like peach trees
bearing newfound fruit.

Linda
Delight in small things
New Merrell sneakers arrive
Walking feels so good.

I got new sneaks too!
Mine are gray with lavender
We are soul sistahs!

Kathy E
think of you daily
and how much the heart can hold
sending haiku love!

Melanie, when I said I was trying not to wallow:
Let’s wallow away
together today, white flags
poised, almost unfurled.

Kathryn
Wallow but don’t wail.
Unless wailing eases pain.
Sleep to wake anew.

If haikus annoy
stop reading my posts today
I can’t stop myself!

Tim
Jane’s haikus are great
They make me check my facebook
And then I chuckle

Wow. Now I’m chuckling.
I wonder where this will lead—
More hilarity?

Susan
I love Jane’s haikus
I love Jane and Kenneth too
I admit bias.

You are Ken’s sister
You are my sister-in-law
More now, you’re my friend.

Life goes on . . . and on
Death, too, does not go away—
These two [=] mindfulness.

Susan
Nothing is the same
it will never be the same
yet still, morning breaks.

my hands grasp at air
everyday the tear widens–
will I split apart?

Susan
No, you will not split
even if we don’t know how
we’ll hold together.

Nightmare or sweet dream?
You wake me with a whisper.
Stay and tell me more!

Yesterday Ken and I found a place for the beautiful urn that Laura Bain-Selbo made for Casey’s ashes. They have sat these 4 long years in the box we were given, in the plastic bag—except for those we spread under the peach trees. I said to Ken, “I feel a stab just thinking about where to put this.” We talked about how many stabs a day we still feel. I asked if he wanted to keep the original box and was not surprised when he said he did, though it is “just” a black box made out of very think plastic with a lid that doesn’t close. On the side is a white sticker marking what’s inside.

We are now past the mother’s Part V of Brahms’ Requiem and approaching the “death, where is thy sting” Part VI. Every section of the great work has spoken to me in different ways, which is why I wrote “Requiem for the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” each of its seven parts in honor of its antecedent in Brahms’ Requiem. This part, the most dramatic conversation between the chorus and the orchestra, reaches higher and higher, deeper and deeper, with every iteration of

Behold, I shew you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:
for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory?
(1 Corinthians 15:51,52,54,55)

Whatever else I might believe, I know that Casey believed in the trumpet, the incorruptibility, the transformation through God. And so when I hear this, I hear angels singing, taking him under their wings, transporting him. I believe in something, for him, because he did. And why not? Can you think of a better reason to accept the possibility of redemption and transformation? What alternative does not leave you on your knees in a dark night with no end?

As powerful as Part VI is, it is Part VII that I love most. At our one-year reckoning of his death we had a second memorial at the church where some of his ashes lie behind the marker that reads, Casey Stewart Olmsted, February 10, 1989-October 26, 2009, at the Columbarium above the labyrinth at Christ Episcopal Church, where he used to attend, with his dad, and where people still remember him fondly. We closed our memorial with Part VII, an image of him reading on the porch at Gethsemani Abby.

I hear the tenors singing, calling him home, their voices so exquisite that all that is ugly shudders to a silent awe. The lyrics are simple for the nine minutes of repeated refrain:

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth:
Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours;
and their works do follow them.
(Revelation 14:13)

So, my darling, your works, your life, do indeed follow you—and everyone else taken from us when we are ill-prepared. What the Spirit calls forth, is. It’s the tenors—oh, the tenors singing—that I have always heard calling him. They are his spiritual brothers who lift him with their strong arms.

I do not know what happens after death. But I do not accept that Casey’s spirit is utterly gone. Beyond his family’s memories or our expressions of loss, however we find our way to make them, some part of who he was lives on—perhaps it’s in the air we breathe, the air he once exhaled, perhaps it’s in the light he gave to some of us, lifting the darkness of our doubts just enough to allow us to continue, with awe and affection, and sometimes a little grace.

Poetry: A Whisper for You

Here’s a new poem. You can scroll down to listen.

A Whisper for You

Last night I dreamed
my boys were fighting.
That was long ago, and yet
they are 10 or 11 again,
and one of them has hit or twisted
some part of the other’s body
so that he is curved into the wall.

A blade sudden as a ray of light
cuts heart-deep, and my own voice
rushes at me from across the room:
“I can’t do this anymore!”

They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.

What is it you can’t do anymore—
stand by watching, hands dangling
or cupped and asking to be filled?

I reach across the rocking floor
seeking what it is that holds me here—
my dog’s soft ears,
her warm scent of a cared for animal,
the sweat that leaves
gray trails behind my child’s child’s knees—
yes, these are the things I’ll miss.

And you? What will you miss?
Tell me. I’m in no hurry
and am learning to listen underneath
when someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.