I lost Jesus at 14 when the woman I loved most in this world was crushed by an eighteen-wheeler. I didn’t trust God anymore. What kind of world kills your grandmother and her best friends on their way to a fundraiser?
Shortly after I gave up on God, some of my siblings took up with him–in that boorish, effusive way of the freshly born-again. Their new-found love, only made me lonelier; and their certainty that Jesus belonged to them, left me wondering how he had ever been my friend.
In my twenties, I came to Al-Anon, and began dating my Higher Spirit, who remained faceless, and who never quite hit the spot like the handsome guy in robes with penetrating eyes and long, sandy hair. It would be decades before I came to peace without a spiritual beloved, and until then I searched for him in many faiths.
When I finally found what I was looking for, it wasn’t in a chapel or a temple or even a women’s circle, it was in the music. On the night before my beloved grandfather’s funeral–the man who lost his wife to the tragedy that stole God–my sister handed me some music that she was ready to discard.
She saved my soul that night, though not in the way she had always wanted.
When the soloist delivered Jesus to me in her rich, sultry tones, it didn’t matter that the stirring I felt inside made no sense.
One of the things that I treasure about blogging is that it’s simple enough to do–even when the kids are home–as evidenced by these posting highlights harvested from each of my blogs this summer. I hope you find a title or two that intrigues you. As always, your voice is most welcome. Read a post, share a comment/connection!
(this piece was written following the appearance of candidates Obama and Clinton in Unity, NH)
~for the children
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Dear Community of ALL,
Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending a political rally in Unity, New Hampshire. I use the word “privilege” because I could afford the time, the energy and the gas it took to devote an entire day to this journey. I also had the privilege of the company of my two young sons, Aidan 7 and Lloyd 12. It was their enthusiasm that fueled this endeavor for me.
Despite being born in the sixties, I grew up with little inclination to participate politically. As a young adult I found politics disconnecting and depressing. When I moved to Vermont at age 30 that changed.
Suddenly things were on a small enough scale that I could manage the attention and faith it took to begin to get involved. Vermont’s Town Meetings were my springboard. Political humans like Bernie Sanders and Jim Jeffords were accessible and worthy.
I still wasn’t hardwired to fully engage in the political process, but I began to hope for my own sons. They attended town meetings with me, ate a chicken supper beside Bernie, and participated in walking with his senate campaign down Main Street in the 4th of July parade.
Lloyd and Aidan showed more interest in politics in their short lives than I had in my entire life. In fact, much of their sand play with peers at South Pond was politically based.
When I went to tell my boys that Obama and Hillary were going to be in New Hampshire–less than 2 hours away–they gave an enthusiastic, “Let’s go!” That was all I needed to take the next step to get the tickets and pack us up for my first national campaign event.
I don’t have the poltical savvy to know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have been inspired by Senators Clinton and Obama, and I never will. My mind just doesn’t operate that way. I am much more interested in the internal politics of our own hearts and spirits than I am driven by what happens on the outside with others.
That said, I do want to be part of the change. Like Gandhi, I want to “be the change” that I want to see in the world… rather than just complain that it doesn’t exist. And though I have never been politically minded, I have always had a passion for history, and a deep fascination and regard for the spirit of this country–for our Declaration of Independence and the freedom we created in it.
9/11 was for meand for many others the spiritual “bottom” of my political experience. It left me wanting to disown this country once and for all; and it also caused me to realize just how much I loved this big bully. I grew up, politically speaking, around 9/11. I began to realize that my participation or lack of it played a part; and that for whatever reason, I was tied up in this country–in its identity and actions.
On the drive to Charlemont, New Hampshire where we boarded shuttles to Unity, I explained to my older son–and to myself–what a “leader” was all about.
“It’s like one of those amazing teachers you hear about,” I said, “like that guy in Los Angles that took that poorly performing class and made them math wizards. Those kids were disconnected, self-absorbed, criminal, disenfranchised–and rightly so…
“And it wasn’t as much about the teacher’s greatness–but that inside each of those students was greatness and he helped them find it,” I continued. “He lead them to it. He created a place of belonging for them. He believed in them. He inspired them to their own strengths and greatness. That’s what this country needs in a President.”
I looked over to see that my son’s nose was back in his graphic novel. But once at the rally, under the bright afternoon sun, surrounded by trees and fields, Hillary and Obama echoed my voice–albeit in their political speech writing ways.
She said that it wasn’t about one person, that it was about the change we wanted to create.
He said that his hope lies in the faces of all of us, in our basic decency and caring.
For me–seeing them together like that–two leaders–male and female–black and white–I felt complete.
I don’t know if these two beautiful people have the answers, but I do know that the answers lie inside of us–inside each of us. I discover that every time I work with someone in my role as a life coach.
My hope, and the reason why I bought my very first bumper sticker (that says “HOPE”), is that these two people can lead us to our own inspiration to change.
It pains me and I know it pains each of you that we live in a world where children are hungry. It brings me to tears that I don’t know what to do about it. It anguishes me that great suffering is happening on “my watch” while I eat my organic cereal and type on my laptop to you.
“NOT ON MY WATCH!” I want to scream, but I don’t know where to direct my voice and my energy and my passion.
So many of you have that clarity. I see you act on behalf of others in so many ways.
Social and political activism have never had the clarity for me. But I am a writer and a thinker and connector; and that is what I have to offer to make the change.
We don’t have to do everything. We don’t have to be good at everything…”You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. ” (Thank you dear Mary Oliver for planting that seed.)
That’s why there’s so many of us, to make it easier. Our talents and interests and gifts blend like circles on a beautiful hand sewn quilt. Let’s get stitching so that we can cover this world with a blanket of warmth, and food, and protection, and safety.
I know I am idealistic. That’s how I came. And I know that many of you know much more about the process because you’ve actually been participating for a lot longer.But maybe there’s a place for me to inspire you with my innocence and heartfelt conviction.
I know our leaders are imperfect, but is that where we want to focus our attention? How would this country and its ideals ever been born if we had focused on the imperfections of our forefathers!?
And I know this country isn’t perfect either. There’s history books filled with our sins against humanity.
But there’s also a light, and that’s what I want to follow and help grow.
I see the light of hope in my children. They each wanted an Obama t-shirt that showed his face in red, white and blue with the word, CHANGE, below it. My oldest wondered why I didn’t buy the “CHANGE” bumper sticker. I explained that I couldn’t put one man’s face on my car–but I could put the word “HOPE” out about him–appreciating that my sons’ would be the change.
That morning, ahead of the rally, the three of us stood under a hot sun in a parking lot at a race track in New Hampshire–waiting for the school bus that would take us to UNITY–to the playground of an elementary school–where the groundskeeper in suspenders was crowned “honorary mayor” for the day, and introduced not one–but two candidates, that I had respected for President.
Behind us in that shuttle line of hundreds, stood two elderly women, who looking around them at all the young people, said with pride, “This is our future.”
On the return bus ride to the racetrack after the rally, I looked at all the folks around me– in front of me and behind me–and I thought, This is my country: the elderly man with Parkinson’s beside me, the college students laughing in front of me, and the family, behind me.”
I’m not writing to tell you to believe in Obama or even that I do; but I believe in us, and I know that we need a leader to bring the change that we need in this world—not cheaper groceries or gas prices for us–but provision for all and stewardship for the blessing of this earth.
At the end of this long day, the boys and I raced home to the pond. I wished Hillary and Barack could join us. I’m sure they needed the swim more than we did, and I would have liked to see them out of their suits enjoying the gift of Vermont.
But alas, they have a different dharma…
No doubt, they’re off on a plane to do more of what they did in Unity–more speeches, more politics. God bless them.
I find myself praying for Obama and his family, that they would be safe from the dangers of this world so that our country might be led by a man who I saw to be “good.”
Obama stood, not more than 6 heads in front of me, and I took him in–not his words or his plan–but his spirit. That’s what I went to see.
I had to wake my boys before 7 in order for us to be there on that field when Clinton and Obama stepped out of the newspapers and into the world. Now that it’s summer, Aidan is the hardest to wake. But when I said to his shut eyes, “Aidan, today is the day we go see Hillary and Obama,” he jumped out of bed like it was Christmas.
By noon, under that hot sun, in a crowd of thousands, he broke down in tears, begging to find any way to get back home. Lloyd and I created a little world under a beach towel for him and he found his strength to go on.
Though they were only 15 feet ahead of us, Aidan could only see Hillary and Obama when I lifted him up on my shoulders. He spent most of the time on the ground, half the size of those around him–but he said that he was glad he came.
And when we got to the pond, he told his cousin all about the rally with pride. And to my surprise, my older son’s classmates were enthralled that we had gone to the rally and ran to find him to see these photos he took and to hear about it.
My popularity index as a parent immediately rose, having plummeted the week before when I was not among those many Marlborians who made sure their kids found a television to watch the night-long Celtics win. “You put us all to shame” said a father about the journey I made with my boys.
“They were our community representatives,” a mother clarified.
I have great hope that this beautiful man of color and character might be our country’s representative.
My husband tells me that both Michelle and Barack Obama made the maximum individual contribution to Hillary’s indebted campaign the other night, and that Barack has asked his supporters to donate what they can to offset her great debt.
Today, I’ll make my first ever direct financial contribution to a political campaign at a national level to both Hillary and Obama. I like the feeling of supporting his campaign and supporting Hillary with hers that has ended. I like the spirit of it.
That’s what drew me to Unity, New Hampshire yesterday morning–the spirit of it.
And did you know that the school groundskeeper that introduced Hillary and Barack, was a Republican?
United we stand, divided we fall. My greatest hope is that we can co-create a world and a country that we are proud to call our home–and that when our time comes to leave this place, we can say that on “our watch” unity and beauty prevailed.
Do I believe a political leader can provide the change we want to see in the world?
But I hold great hope that we can co-create it with his leadership.
Help us to be the always hopeful Gardeners of the spirit Who know that without darkness Nothing comes to birth As without light Nothing flowers.
Most know Ann Gengarelly through the children– and the poetry they write– under her care. These poems have traveled from the hearts of families and friends in her home state of Vermont–to the floor of the United States Senate, where “Distance,” a student’s poem about a grandmother suffering from Alzheimers was read by Senator Jim Jeffords at the 103d Congress. (Written by Hannah Pick of Putney, VT.)
Ann has been sharing the gift of poetry with children for over thirty years. Her work as “a-poet-in-the-schools” has taken her all over southern Vermont– and as far away as The Little Singer Community School on the Navajo Reservation in the state of Arizona. Ann also teaches at area colleges, and offers classes for adults and children at her studio in Marlboro, Vermont.
I had the pleasure of joining Ann while she led a workshop at the local elementary school. My visit came at the end of a four-part session with the primary students there– a multi-age class of six, seven and eight-year olds.
The relationship between Ann and these young ones is palpable the moment they see each other. “I’ve missed you!” she croons as the children arrive in the school library. “Nice hair cut, Lloyd,” she says. “Hey Tim, how are you?” Ann makes a point to greet each child individually, and she laughs as a succession of children drape themselves over her in an embrace before taking their place on the floor.
Each class begins like this– with a warm reunion and a circle gathering. The children are bubbling by the time Ann is ready to begin, but they quickly respond to the sound of her voice. (She can’t help but whisper a few last hellos.)
“Can everyone look at me so I can tell you something?” Ann says softly with a touch of intrigue. “I woke up this morning feeling… Oh… I’m not sure how to describe the feeling in my heart,” Ann says as places her palms over her chest before continuing. “I felt both so excited to see you, but also a little sad. Does anybody know why?”
Hands shoot into the air with the obvious answer: Today is the last day of poetry. The children hang their heads in shared disappointment.
“Until we come to your house!” offers eight-year old Anna, reminding them of the visit they make to The Poetry Studio each spring. The children remember Ann’s stone pathways, her bright gardens, and especially –the small frog pond– surrounded by birches and evergreens.
Ann shares that she looks forward to their visit after the snow and then introduces the theme for today’s class, encouraging the children to close their eyes. “I want you to take a minute to go inside yourself, talk to yourself, and think about this:
How do you know when something or someone is your friend?
Ann repeats the question with great emphasis, adding, “I really want you to help me with this. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. How can you tell?”
The children respond as thoughtfully as Ann asks the question. “You tell by time,” says one boy, “by getting to know them better.”
“Did you hear that?”says Ann. “Say that again,” she asks, focusing the children’s attention on each response as the conversation unfolds. Ann intentionally keeps the themes broad to allow for personal expression while carefully guiding the children’s awareness to greater depths, “I’m going to ask you a different question now so you might want to close you eyes again:
Does anybody here in the circle have a very special friend that’s much, much younger than you; or much, much older? ”
One child raises her hand to ask Ann’s age. “Oh me?” she says, “I’m poetry age!”
The children giggle with delight. Another child raises her hand and offers that her grandmother is her friend, even though she has died. This causes quite a commotion, but Ann stills the room to say, “Wait a minute… let’s just stay quiet, so that you can breathe that in.”
This is how it is with Ann–heartfelt, focused, attentive. “Children are hungry to be listened to,” she says. “We all have the need to tell our stories. Poetry is often the telling of the soul. It can be the key to unlocking thoughts and feelings and visions.”
If poetry is the “key”, then Ann Gengarelly is one of its most trusted keepers: “Poetry is a dance between our inner landscapes and the external world,” she says. “We could all go out and look at the full moon, but our individual response is what creates our unique vision, our particular voice. Poetry, in many ways, is the invitation to pay attention–to notice–to be ‘present’; whether it’s to a birth of a pet, the death of a grandparent, the song of a whippoorwill, war.”
Ann models this attention, this ‘being present’, with each child. “I have watched, shy, silent kids pour out passionate words to her eager face,” says Rebecca Bateman, an intern from Antioch Graduate School. “I have seen angry, stubborn kids melt when she handles their truculence with a gentle embrace.”
Ann continues to explore the theme of friendship with the children with work from the great Masters:Emily Dickinson, Monet… and from the Masters To Be: Art and poetry from students who have written with Ann on other occasions, her ‘poetry children’ she calls them–some who have graduated from this very school, leaving the legacy of “voice” behind.
Ann offers a variety of verse to the children, “Poems that are ‘paintings in words’, poems that are songs, poems that are messages from heart and spirit, poems born from imagination, poems rooted in literal experience,” she explains.
There is a building sense of excitement and momentum as the children prepare ‘to give birth to their own poems’. By the time they pick up their pencils, they are overflowing with inspiration. “Nick you have five poems in you!” Ann says after he shares that rocks are his friends, and later that his dreams are too.
One by one they leave the circle–some to find a quiet spot on the floor, others to nestle in a corner, and yet others to sit at tables with one or two poet friends. The atmosphere in the room shifts dramatically as Ann encourages a ‘quality of silence,’ enabling these young poets to hear their ‘inner voice.’
At this young age, the composing process is initiated through art. The children begin by folding a large piece of paper in half, using one side on which to draw and the other on which to write. “When you start with your drawing,” says Ann, “I don’t want you to think so much about what this friend looks like… think more about what this friend feels like to you.”
Ann moves about the room offering her support as needed. “Let’s draw a picture about that,” she suggests to a little boy whose pet frog has died. “Close your eyes, travel back, and tell me–How was he your friend? You’ve got to help me see it in my imagination.”
“He lived in a little castle in a fish tank,” shares the boy. “But it wasn’t really a castle.”
“It seemed like a castle to you, right?” says Ann. “Let’s write that; we can do that in poetry land!”
Ann refers to this part of the writing process as ‘witnessing.’ “There is the poet as witness–witnessing his own experiences, feelings, dreams, hope. And then there’s the teacher as witness. When a teacher shares a dialogue with a student about a poem, she offers dignity to the human experience… of being human together.”
The witnessing process continues as the children read their completed work to each other. Ann brings the class together again, saying, “Our last poetry party, come on over, let’s share!” She calls this final gathering, ‘a circle of humanity.’
“Who will offer the first gift?” Ann asks expectantly. Most are eager to share, and after each poem is read, another ‘gift’ is requested–that of the listener. Ann directs the children’s attention, deepening their understanding and appreciation of each others work and of the craft of writing poetry.
“What part makes you go ooh?” she asks. “What part was a poetry way of saying what was felt? What part makes you feel convinced that someone was a friend?”
As the last gifts are offered, Ann laments that the session is about to end. “I wish we didn’t have clocks in poetry land,” she says. “These poems were just extraordinary.” She takes a deep breath and looks around the circle at each face, exclaiming, “What friends we have here!”
There is a sweet sadness as goodbyes are spoken, but the children’s time with their poems hasn’t ended. In the upcoming weeks, the students will edit and type their work, compiling their poems into handmade books to be presented to parents at a poetry celebration. Ann will rejoin them on this occasion, and will also stop in to see them in the months to follow when she returns to work with other classes.
By the end of the school year, the entire student body will contribute a piece of poetry to a bound collection–one that is sent home with each child–a tradition that has continued for more than twenty-five years. At a special ceremony before graduation, Ann will read the 8th grader’s earliest poetry from a decade ago. The newest kindergarten class will also be present, seated beside their eighth-grade ‘elders’, who will support them in reading their very first poems.
Ann is passionate in her belief that everyone has poetry inside them, affirming that the journey of self-discovery is as critical for children as it is for adults. “The power of metaphor, of the image world, is evident with people of all ages,”she claims. “Poetry, in the deepest sense is an invitation to remember who we are.”
At her poetry studio, Ann delights in bringing together multi-age groups, and often does so in after-school and summer programs. One of the most memorable gatherings was a spontaneous one following the events of September 11th: “Twenty-five people, mainly families, joined together to give voice to their feelings and reactions, beginning a ‘journey of healing’ as a community.”
Ann feels strongly that we are living in a time where there’s a vital need for compassion in the world, and she believes that poetry plays crucial role. “In a profound sense, there is a compelling connection between compassion and imagination. If we were truly able to imagine what it feels like to live in a war torn country or to be homeless, wouldn’t we be more likely to develop a deeper sense of compassion and commit fewer acts of violence! If we could feel the souls in trees, flowers, and stones as do Native Americans, maybe we would experience a deeper reverence for nature.”
Ann shares the power of poetry, relaying her experience with a young poet, “I remember a 5th grade boy who many years ago came up to me and said, ‘I often make fun of old people.’ I was in awe of this child owning this behavior and proceeded to ask him how he thought that made elders feel. His response was: ‘I’m going to find out today in poetry’– and then picked up a wooden figure I have of an old man. What unfolded was a persona poem in which the boy assumed the voice of the old man whose heart felt like ‘a broken window’ in response to the mockery of a young boy.”
As the recess bell sounds to announce the closing of the morning session, Ann offers these parting words to the young faces before her, “I just want to thank you for the gift of listening to you. It’s been most powerful to hear what is inside you. I hope that even though I’m not doing classes with you, that poetry will remain your friend and that you’ll feel poetry saying- Listen to me, I’ve got something to say.”
When I was a kid, even a broken bone didn’t warrant my physician father’s attention. And bleeding gashes requiring stitches were simply attended to in the kitchen. All other complaints (obviouslynot requiring surgery) were highly suspect– with reponses like “hypochondriac” or “psychosomatic” or “let’s cut it off.”
Thus, it wasn’t until my late thirties that I learned to attend to my own needs for rest or comfort when injured or feeling ill. It was my husband who taught me. Actually, he did it for me. Poor guy. He’s the compassionate, sensitive type who should have never married a cold doctor’s daughter.
Because I just roll my eyes when he’s in pain. Like yesterday. When the stump of a tree that he was cutting down kicked him in the shin, and he came hobbling into the house. His face contorted in a dramatic show of distress and all I could do was sigh–just as dramatically.
“What now?” I ask, perturbed.
(Casey cannot use the chainsaw without crisis. Usually, it ends up stuck in a tree or broken. Once it “scratched” up his chest. And now this. He’s limping. Just days before we leave for a weekend marriage retreat at a “yoga” center.)
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say– or at least I think this loud enough that my disapproval is audible. “Have you elevated it?” “Iced it?” “Are you taking Arnica?”
This is the extent of my consideration. And it doesn’t really count because the whole time I’m oozing “inconvenienced.” We were in the middle of a kitchen pantry renovation which will now be left to me. And there are 3 extra boys in the house who I’ll now have to supervise, alone. There are also chores to attend to before we leave later this week and those are now mine as well.
(That is, “if” we leave. He’s worried that it’s broken.)
Despite the fact that we have treated 99% of our family medical needs through alternative care under the guidance of our Naturopath (including conception, labor and birth), my husband’s knee jerk reaction, to any health needs of his own, is to seek pharmaceuticals or go to the Emergency Room.
Doctor’s daughters don’t go to the Emergency Room. I try to talk him out of it. “I doubt you have any kind of break,” I tell him. Even though that’s exactly what my physician father told me– on two different occasions (at age 4 and 10)–and he was wrong. He also missed a college case of Mono.
But I’m better than my surgeon father at assessing loved ones. I’ve never made a wrong call. Like the time I refused to drive my husband to the ER in the middle of the night when he was hallucinating from fever. I used cold compresses and homeopathics and his temperature dropped in no time without those bright lights and hours wasted in the waiting room of the nearest hospital, 20 minutes away–where they would have been inclined to do a spinal tap to rule out Meningitis.
I’ve refused the ER on at least two other occasions too, and he’s always survived. This morning I distract him with a healing meditation that invites him to “let go” and “trust” that his body knows what to do. Three hours later, he’s asking for the ER again. “What about the meditation?” I say, annoyed with his flimsy faith.
He contorts his face in a demonstrative display of pain and worry, “I just want to make sure I’m not doing it any harm,” he says, hoping I’ll understand. But I’m just disgusted–with his childishness and my lack of compassion. I suggest the chiropractor.
Late at night when he’s sleeping beside me, my doctor daughter’s shield comes down. I realize that I’m not so heartless after all. I’m afraid. My husband’s vunerability threatens my world. It means he’s mortal and I don’t want to think about that. I imagine how scary it must have been for him to have a tree hit his leg and I think about what else could have happen. (I know he has too.)
I want to roll over and place my hands on his shin and tell him I’m sorry for his pain. But I don’t. He needs his sleep. Instead, I dream of Mountain Lions stalking my family, and I wake to noisy boys again.
24 hours later, we compromise. I let him call my father to check in. He catches my step mom during office hours. She’s a nurse, and she tells him the same thing. “It’s probably not broken.”
Next we try the chiropractor, but she doesn’t have any appointments. Finally he gets in at the Naturopathic Physician’s office. He’ll go to the ER if she suggests it. I offer a half smile. A truce. More amused than annoyed with his attachment to attention. And I stay home.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and greater compassion, it’s this: When I take care of myself–without the kind of judgment that was dished out in my childhood (like I’ve dished out to my husband)–then I have a lot more to give. A few hours alone without a handful of boys should make all the difference. Hopefully, they’ll come home with good news. I’ll have a warm bath with Epsom salts ready and waiting–and a greater measure of kindness.
I remember the exact moment that I became a grownup. It was on a playground in a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I was only twenty-one years old. A six-year old, named Danny Goldstein, was to blame.
I’d spent the better part of my youth avoiding “growing up” because I knew that I didn’t want any place in that serious world of adults. In fact, at 13, when I could feel childhood slipping away, I made a tearful pact with myself to keep the magic alive.
In some ways holding onto my youth was easier for me than other teens because I came from a large family. Spending time with little ones kept me young–and busy–which shielded me from having to grow up too soon. The first time I was “asked out,” I let my youngest sister answer for me. At two-years old, her answer was always, “NO!”
Just before I entered high school, my father took me on a date to the movies where the closing song became my personal crusade: “Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth to be Young at Heart.”
The years passed though and soon enough, my interests began to change. I started dating and driving and other teenage things. My best friend and I were always on the lookout for markers of our impending adulthood: the first time we drank coffee, the first road trip, the applications to college. “Now we’re real women,” we’d say, never believing it was true.
By the time I were in college, my high school sweetheart starting talking marriage. M. was two years older than me and was more than ready to join the real world—as an accountant and husband. BUT I hadn’t even chosen a major yet and couldn’t see myself in any role that required panty hose, heels and the title, “Mrs.” The day that he took me to look at rings, my hands began to sweat and I refused to get out of the car.
My fear of growing up took on such mythological proportions that even my youngest sister captured it in song. At 3 years old, she spontaneously adapted a Peter Pan tune for me, singing, “You don’t want to grow up. You don’t want to marry M.”
As my relationship with M. deteriorated, I decided upon elementary education as a major. Now I never had to grown up!
…Enter my semester as a student teacher. As seniors, my roommates had only a handful of classes a week while I spent all day—every day– with first graders! As my friends tossed aside books and headed out to parties, I made lesson plans and called it a night.
After two weeks in the first grade, I found myself stealing naps on the milk-stained rug at recess time. With ten weeks left to go, I began to doubt that this was the career for me.
It was in my last fateful days at Penn Wynne Elementary that my own youth was abruptly stolen. I arrived early to school that morning and just as I crossed the playground and stepped onto the blacktop, little Danny Goldstein, who wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up, rushed at me with those irretrievable words:
Ms. Salasin! Thank goodness a GROWNUP is here!
My world stopped. My ears began to ring. I looked around the playground for the grownup to which Danny was referring, and found only–me. I stumbled through the school doors and down the hall, wondering how it had happened. How had I become a grown up when I tried so hard not to be?
For a couple more years, I pretended it wasn’t so. I turned my back on teaching, frolicked at the beach in the summer, back packed through Europe in the fall, spent a winter as a ski bum in Colorado, and at 22–made a pact with a lusty bartender to avoid credit, mortgages and marriages till at least the old age of 30 when we’d marry each other if we hadn’t found anyone else.
My frivolity caught up with me long before thirty however. After seven years of waiting, M. proposed to someone else! I didn’t think it would matter, but it did. I put up a good fight—humbly lost—and in the process, grew up. My life of fun suddenly became stale. Marriage and mortgages were held at bay, but I moved in with a man who swept me off my stubborn feet, and I even started substitute teaching.
The day that I was offered a full-time job, I cried as if someone had died. But to my surprise, once I began teaching, I was happier than ever. Within a few years, I wanted my own kids–and a house!
Though the realization that I was a grown up came in a single declarative sentence spoken by a six-year old on a playground, it truly didn’t happen in a one moment. The “grown-up” thing creeps up on you over time and never stops clobbering you over the head: like when you sign on the dotted line for 30 years; or when your closest friends tell you that their marriage is ending; or when your teenage son plays your old music, and you find yourself yelling, “Turn it down.”
When I take a good look back, I can see that “growing up” is something that started long before I’d even come of age. The seed of that transformation was planted and watered through a series of childhood losses:
The truth is that I held onto childhood for too long because too much of it had been ripped away from me too soon. And although I still have that 13 year old inside–promising to hold onto the magic– I have a grown up inside now too. She can’t believe she’s 45, but I wouldn’t give her up. I need them both, just as I need my three-year old and my eighty-year old, and everyone in between.
Over time, I’ve realized that the secret of staying “young at heart” isn’t about holding on to your youth, it’s about continuing to grow—up and out and all around.
Kelly keeps it “young” from the Green Mountains of Vermont. She welcomes your comments and conversation below. She also highly recommends the dvd, Young @ Heart (You’re Never Too Old to Rock) featuring Northampton’s remarkable “senior” rockers! Coldplay, The Clash & Hendrix will never sound the same!
Hard to believe that my Alma Mater is giving me homework–29 years after graduation. At least now I enjoy the writing process. But 2 “assigned” posts is too much in one week of a (rebellious) blogger-mother’s life.
Yet, once I get the “nudge,” it’s almost impossible to resist. Even if I don’t put my fingers to the keys, the story starts writing itself–at the most inconvenient times. Like when I’m trying to sleep or make love or drive in the snow.
So here I am, taking my assignment like a good Catholic schoolgirl. Only this time, I’ve been asked to resurrect my dying Alma Mater–rather than bash it.
If nothing else, the closing of Wildwood Catholic marks the end of an era even while its legacy lives on in its graduates who are the greatest testimony to its enduring value.
Take a quick glance at my class of ’81:
Ralph at the Pentagon, John on the State Superior Court Bench, Carole traveling the world, Gwyn living it UP in the deep South, Deb working oncology, Kathy mothering a sick child who recently passed away, Joe teaching history, Patrice coaching swimming, Lou Ann raising two fine boys, Kelley a college professor, Jesse a Public Defender–and that’s just the people that come to mind in this instance–the list goes on.
What did I learn at Wildwood Catholic High? What were the teaching moments that made a difference?
I see myself back in the basement, standing in the cafeteria–not in line for a wet pretzel or a Friday cheesesteak (Were those moms dedicated or what!) or even for the “Last Dance”–but for a testimonial–on behalf of Sister Henrietta–Catholic’s Principal, back in the day.
I can see her flocked with nuns as they play her favorite song and she wells up. “You Light Up My Life…” This struck me. It was a mushy love song. And then it hit me. This is her song for God. And I was moved.
Next stop is the Principal’s Office. Sister Marie, this time. I’ve been called down because of the political cartoon I turned in for Turco and Stubbs’ Senior Social Issues class. The cartoon was my commentary on Marie’s new policy of “no driving” off campus at lunch time.
Granted, in the past, seniors were heading to Woody’s for lunch and throwing down “a few” with their beef. (The drinking age was 18.) But that didn’t take away our indignation over the newly imposed restriction. (Teens excel at indignation.)
My cartoon featured Sister Marie with a ruler, standing at the corner, overseeing a group of chained seniors heading to A & LP where we would now be charged exorbitant prices for a slice of pizza.
“Sister Marie would like to see you in her office,” Turco told me when I arrived for class the Monday after turning in my assignment. Gulp.
She had the cartoon on her desk when I arrived. “Kelly, take a seat, and tell me about this,” she said, in her typically stern manner. Gulp.
But you know what she did? She simply dismissed me, saying “Thank you, Kelly, I’m going to have it framed for my office.” Surprise. Even Principals could be cool.
I have to acknowledge that my studies at Wildwood Catholic were celebrated in more ways than this. Upon a recommendation by the Art Teacher (whose name I wish I could recall), I was asked to design a banner on behalf of WCHS to welcome “THE POPE” on his visit through South America. Apparently, it didn’t matter that I was a Protestant, as long as I could draw Mary and some lillies. I felt honored and expanded–and included.
Art also helped me find my way onto the gym floor (since sports would never do that for me 🙂 I was asked to help design and paint the new emblem at Center Court. With two athletic boys of my own now, I marvel at the dedication and performance that I took for granted in highschool. And I wonder, what will happen to the WCHS banners and trophies? And what about that legacy?
I’m glad to hear the school will stay a school, and a Catholic one at that. After years of teaching in the public system, I did a short stint in religious education, directing the program at a Unitarian/Universalist Church. While administration wasn’t for me, I’ve always loved the study of religion and the pursuit of “understanding.” My favorite Theology teacher at Catholic was a nun who was just there for a short time, but in whose class I delighted in our studies–going on to take three more Theology classes at my Catholic college.
And while I didn’t continue in theater at the college level, my participation in the FTT musicals at WCHS were a huge fulcrum for my sense of self–and belonging. I’ll never forget the feeling during yet another grueling late night rehearsal (and a Saturday night at that!) when Feraco would stop us to say,
You did it! I got chills.
Despite this extraction of sweetness from my years at WCHS, the news of its closing unearthed a range of emotions and memories that found their way into my first “assignment,”An Un-Tribute to my Alma Mater. And by the slew of comments that I received (better than any “A,”) my perspective struck a chord with many–often harmonious– and occasionally sour. Of the latter, this one stirs the most:
You were popular and well liked. I’m surprised you don’t feel more disappointed at the loss of the school. You too must have had many good memories, there were many fun times. There are still pictures and banners of friend’s records there that add to a sense of belonging to something bigger than us. It marks the success of completing a challenge, a place we became adults.
I was surprised about my own “negative” feelings too–which is exactly why I wrote that piece– as part confessional/part exploration. But John Osborne continued to put me in my place when he added this about the direct affect the closing had on his family,
My son just got the news of the end of the school. I wish you could sit in our house and see how the wind gets sucked out of a family.
And while fellow alumni Dan Rosenello ’86 shared that he heartily appreciated my “Un-tribute” , he closed with this “on the mark” sensitivity,
…For good or bad , it was and is the school where I began my own trip into adulthood, and as such , I will miss it. Godspeed WCHS.
And thus, I’ll close Part II of my Un-Tribute with the apropos sentiment of a fellow graduate, Tracy O’Brien ’80.
The most precious thing I took from Wildwood Catholic were my friends, I am still close with them today, and I love them all. I hope people read your letter in the spirit it was written, the truth isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t all ugly either.
With a special nod to Trish DiAntonio, also from the class of ’80, who tipped the scale on this second homework assignment, with these words:
I hope you write a follow up! I can’t wait to read more.
It occurs to me that this subtle sense of vindication isn’t an entirely “appropriate” response to the news that my Alma Mater is closing. Which makes this piece, part confessional/part research, as I ask, How can I hold animosity toward an institution I left 29 years ago?
Which then begs the question, How can I be that old? No matter though, because all those years fade away when I think back on my days at Wildwood Catholic High. And there I am, 17, in a pink Handi-Wipe uniform. I wasn’t even Catholic.
When it came to choosing my highschool, my parents disagreed. Neither wanted me to attend their respective Alma Maters. My father could not imagine sending his first daughter into the wilds of his own public high school experience (at Wildwood High), and my mother couldn’t imagine inflicting her experience at Catholic on anyone else. (She had abandoned her childhood faith when the Church refused to marry her, pregnant, to a Protestant/Jew.)
But when it came to choosing my high school, my father–and the subject of French–prevailed. Wildwood High didn’t offer French III and Catholic did. (Of course, what they failed to mention upon my registration at Catholic was that although they offered it, I wouldn’t be able to take it as a sophomore which was the intention.)
Though it’s come up briefly in other places, I’ve never written directly about my highschool before–and I’m a little nervous about it. Of course, it’s easier to bash something or someone upon death. And personally, I think it’s healthy to do so. A little Razor’s Edge makes the separation simpler.
And to be fair, lots of “good” took place within those walls for me: I met my first love and had my first kiss. I summoned up the courage to try out for the school play. (Thank you Peachy, FTT & the cast of Pippin.) I excelled in the small art classes. I toyed with honors. I recited the Canterbury Tales in Middle English (I still remember them!) And most importantly, I met some of my dearest friends–with whom I am STILL friends. (Take that, Mrs. Coughlin!)
So what is it that leaves me strangely satisfied about the school’s closing? Is it simply a case of Alice Cooper’s, “School’s Out for Summer” with a twisted emphasis on the line, “Schools Out Forever!” And who can resist the lyrics, “School’s been blown to pieces! No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.”
Or does this sense of smugness smack of something hidden, some “slight” left unresolved?
Was it Sister Henrietta standing at the top of the stairwell after lunch, confiscating each of our illegal cardigan sweaters and stowing the whole pile of them in her office?
Was it Breslin throwing chalk at my head for falling asleep in English? Or Sister Paul Mary for slapping me after I asked a “stupid question”? (She was my mom’s Biology teacher too.)
Was it that Sister Eileen singled me out instead of the boys when they nudged my desk ever so slowly out into the front of the room until I banged into hers? (Thanks Keith & Porto!)
Was it the detention I got for scratching my name into the wooden auditorium seats during the weekly Mass? Or the “C ” I got in typing because I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader? (I’ve only recently learned to type without looking.)
Was it that Father Hodges cleverly mocked my Protestant indignation over kneeling for the Rosary– by crowning me May Queen? Was it his hair shirt or the Irish Pub songs he made us sing? (“Oh it’s, no nay, never, no nay never, no more, Oh I’ll Sing the Wild Rover…”) Or Sister Saint Jervase’s unusually strong affection for the bust of Shakespeare?
Maybe it is even deeper yet… Something beneath the surface of institutionalized authority. Something that extends beyond my singular experience…
I wasn’t one of the students being made fun of by the teachers after play practice. But upon hearing them, I learned that not all adults had the integrity I expected of myself in coming of age.
It was also funny to be asked to release my boyfriend’s hand across the cafeteria table, “My dear couple, there will be no public display of affection,” while another girl was giving her boyfriend a hand job in the Library–or better yet, when the new teacher was screwing one of the students.
Admittedly, having my dress looked up with a shoe mirror by my classmates wasn’t nearly as bad as the humiliation endured by one of the smaller boys who was frequently stuffed in the trash can at lunch time or stowed behind the soda machine. (Watch out boys. He’s a Marine now.)
Or what about our very own guidance counselor, who told some of our “lower tracked” friends that they weren’t “college” material and that they shouldn’t bother applying– even to a community school? (Does anyone else feel creepy about the tracking system?)
What about how cruelly we treated one of our kinder, but odder teachers? I didn’t care to pay attention enough to understand Animal Farm, but I’ll never forget the way the teasing made me feel inside. (The term “passive colluder” comes to mind.)
When I look closely at my years at Wildwood Catholic, there’s nothing really terrible there. It was more of a Purgatory, a suspension of living—a forced “playing” of someone else’s game, before I could live my own. It’s probably true of most highschool experiences.
I appreciated the sense of “belonging” at WCHS. Like when the entire first track resorted to hiring the same math tutor (her condo was revolving door of seniors.) Or when we all chipped into the “Chem Pot” so that the poor soul who scored the lowest grade on the tests (which we had all repeatedly failed) would take home some cash. Or the ditties we prepared on our free period to make some abysmal teaching tolerable. I still sing, “B to the negative N, B to the negative N,” (to the tune from the Wizard of Oz.) That bright spot of a dull morning in the basement of the school was worth the pink slip that read, “Kelly is a constant source of disruption in class.”
One of the greatest covert acts of my lifetime was arriving late to school to discover an empty office with a pile of detention slips on the counter. Holding my breath, I shuffled through the pink pile, finding mine and stuffing it into the pocket of my dress.
I never understood why Mademoiselle Hodge distributed cookies during the SATs by serving one side of the aisle and not the other so that she was forced to make two round trips–just with the napkins. But I loved it about her– even more than her thoughtfulness.
And then there was the all time favorite, Mr. Stubbs, who was cool enough to manage the class and treat us like equals. Much to my initial discomfort, his wife insisted I call him “Sam” when we became teaching colleagues at Margaret Mace Elementary years later. We spent Friday afternoons together in the P.O.E.T.S. club (Piss On Education Tomorrow’s Saturday) and during our precious years together, he lost Sharon to cancer, and married a friend, and moved away, like me.
Maybe it’s the building that bothers me. The cross shape. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face the day my parents brought me there to register. “This place still gives me the heebie jeebies,” she said, with a shudder, as we waited in the cold marble lobby for Sister to see us.
It was the first time that my mother had let down the mask of “adult,” and I saw her just like me… as a person. She learned to smoke there at Wildwood Catholic High, across the street, hiding from the Nuns. Maybe in some twisted way I blame them for that.
I guess despite my extensive probing, I haven’t figured out this animosity toward my dying Alma Mater. And so I’ll end with love.
Love for all those who have had their highschool belonging years cut short by this closing. Love for those who never did belong, though they may have ached to. Love for teachers, past and present, who gave of their time and patience to be there, and for those who now face an ending that rocks their world. May you find higher ground.
While I don’t share their walk, I have long admired the living Catholic faith among my old highschool and college classmates, and I can only imagine what a loss this type of ending is for them–and for their children. For that, I offer my deep condolence.
“Hail Alma Mater, Wildwood Catholic High!”
PS. Sister Patricia was wrong. That track 4 guy (that I married) DID eventually go to college, graduate with honors and become a highschool history teacher himself: Vermont’s own version of Mr. Stubbs 🙂
Kelly Salasin, WCHS ’81 is a lifelong educator and “recovering classroom teacher” who now shines the light of learning through writing, yogadance & life coaching.
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I remember the morning that the Christmas “train” took my son on the journey from innate graciousness to maniacal greed to absolute dissolution. He was three.
Since becoming parents, neither my husband or I got much sleep on Christmas Eve with the anticipation of our son’s joy. That first Christmas, he was only a few months old… so it wasn’t exactly what we’d been waiting for.
His second Christmas was much more satisfying–though fleeting. After unwrapping a handful of presents, our one year old simply refused to look at any more. He shook his head “No,” to each pushy request from his parents, finally exiting the room to make his point– teaching us about “too much.”
By his third Christmas, however, our two-year old had fully joined the culture of gluttony. He never left the room once until everything was opened, upon which he said very matter of factly, “I want Santa bring more.”
The turning point, from graciousness to greed, came at our son’s fourth Christmas. Like a train wreck, we watched it unfold right before our eyes. The morning started out sweet enough, as he played with each “present.” But soon his pace began to quicken, and he began ripping apart paper without even looking to see from whom the gift came; and then he began opening one after another without taking notice of what was he received.
Ironically, we had once begged our son to keep opening gifts, while now, we scolded him to slow down. But he couldn’t stop himself. He just kept plowing through the present(s) until there was nothing left– at which point he collapsed into tears, completely unsatisfied with his bounty of gifts.
“We” had created a monster!
After that year, we encouraged the relatives to send less– and since that was mostly a hopeless cause– we bought much less ourselves, even re-gifting things from year to year. That same Santa Moose showed up each Christmas along with holiday themed books, films and toys.
By 5 years old, our son had so many things that there was no need to buy more once our second son came along. So we kept re-gifting–wrapping up forgotten treasures each Christmas. Eventually, what was found under the tree was much more of what was needed~ new bed pillows, a ski coat, a sled to replace the broken one. The few toys that our sons did receive were treasured more and more. Last year’s gift of digital cameras were played with for days on end.
Each year, we reigned Christmas in just a bit more–even cutting back on feasting and celebrations to create the space needed for the feelings we treasured most~ magic and grace and generosity.
But it’s still a slippery slope–for me. I begin each holiday gently just as my son began that Christmas morning that transformed him from gracious to greedy. As the weeks progress, I begin to need “more” and anxiety grips my stomach with both desire and fear. Will I have enough? How will I pay for it? Am I missing out on the experience of abundance by not buying?
Soon the addictive aspect of consumerism kicks in and I reach the maniacal turning point of just wanting to shop and spend, spend, spend.
That’s where I found myself last night— coming out of the beverage store with a costly bottle of Baileys Irish Creme. I don’t even drink it anymore, but it was the holidays, and I used to love it, and everyone was buying fancy liquors, and it was the season, and I wanted to be fully part of it–even though I had just bemoaned that that I had just spent most of my budget for the month on fancy foods for the holidays.