Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What I Learned After Singing in the Bathtub

So I'm in a bubble bath bellowing out the Twelve Days of Christmas while I'm shaving my legs (Ted is arriving tonight) and congratulating myself on being able to remember eleven of the twelve things my true love gave me (my particular true love gives me a lot more than twelve gifts, and there ain't no four calling birds among them, but anyway). So, dripping and bristle-free, I rushed over to the computer, despite having at least 13 better things to do, to Google the lyrics. Oh! Nine Ladies Dancing!

And then, damn you Google, I see that this song is not just a plain old song to warble while bathing, but a veritable scriptural mnemonic. AND, the Nine Ladies Dancing--that I in my lather-fueled yodeling missed--actually signify "the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit."

And now I know that those are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and temperance.

Hmm. The world needs those. Here's to the Nine Ladies -- dance on.

Sustainably Scary

Did you ever go to the Farmer's Market and buy beets, trying to eat by the season and be a good earth-friendly mensch, and then you come home and wrap them in foil like the guy recommended, and you bake them at 350 for an hour and when they're done, you slide off the slippery skin and pile butter and salt and pepper on them and think, what a great thing to eat...

And then the next day, going about your natural processes, you see something, well, beet red in your various excrements, and you forget all about that fabulous dinner you had the night before and you think, damn, this is what cancer looks like and your (beet red) blood pressure spikes and you feel the heat of fear come up on your face, and when you look in the mirror, you're kind of blotchy with the adrenaline rush...

And then you remember you are now a sustainable eater and all is well, and then you're so happy everything is all right the whole rest of the day you feel a pulsing sanguine contentment?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thank you, Frank

Thanks to RPCV friend Bob Forbes for letting me know that the photo below was taken by our Tonga colleague Frank Bevacqua. Thank you, Frank, for this beautiful shot, which really captures something about Debbie Gardner's spirit.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sad Tonga Memories -- the Debbie Gardner Murder

Isn't that a gorgeous photo? I'm not sure whom to credit for it -- I found it on Google, and I imagine the photographer is somebody I know. So if you're out there, let me know. This beautiful young woman, Debbie Gardner, was murdered by another American in the Kingdom of Tonga on October 14, 1976 -- Oct. 14, by a cruel irony, is the birthdate of the Peace Corps.

And her tragic story is deeply significant in my life, although I barely knew her, not to mention the dozens of others affected by her brutal death and its aftermath. Again tonight "48 Hours" ran the 2005 show about the murder. She was killed by Dennis Priven, a spurned suitor and, obviously, murderously mentally ill young man.

This is the story my novel Night Blind is based on. It was wrenching this cold and snowy January night to see old friend Emile Hons emotionally recall the events of that terrible night and the weeks that followed. It was good once again to see New York journalist Phil Weiss on the scene in Tonga retelling the story in his quest to get a measure of justice for Debbie. It was good to see Rick Nathanson, my fellow volunteer whose job was to be a reporter at the Tonga Chronicle, retell his story, and to see the old photos of him -- a curly-haired and feisty kid who kept stubbornly reporting the story even though Peace Corps wanted him to shut up. The story of how PC Country Director Mary George twisted the facts and unaccountably repeatedly tried to protect Priven doesn't get any more palatable with the years -- how she and Peace Corps Washington responded is still a craven miscarriage of justice, a dark embarrassment. My heart went out to Mike Basile, our assistant country director, as he remembered that awful autumn -- he was put in a terrible position and one feels as if he's never quite come to terms with it.

All through these decades I've contended the Peace Corps is one of the best American programs ever, but delving once again into this story, the doubts come back. The Peace Corps bureaucrats should have been ashamed. As volunteers, we were all so young, so clueless -- we wanted to believe, after Vietnam, after Kent State, after the Detroit riots, after the assassinations, that just one thing from our U.S. of A. could be full of grace. Instead, we got a tragedy and its grievously mishandled aftermath that has stayed with us, demolishing our trust and exacerbating our cynicism. Those of us who lived to tell about it have gone on with our lives. I finally wrote my book, which took me thirty years. And I feel better for it. But it's not how it should have been. Debbie Gardner shouldn't have died. It's a dirty shame.

But, thinking about the show over night, I come back to this blog entry to add further reflections. It would be grossly unfair to let one homicidal volunteer and one bad country director define the whole Peace Corps, which over its 47 years has placed thousands of volunteers into dozens of countries. The Peace Corps' history isn't perfect, but as I noted in my NYC podcast (, it is an international program with a brain AND a heart, and has had an immensely transformative effect on several generations of young Americans.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Good Read: Identical Strangers

I thoroughly enjoyed Identical Strangers, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein's account of discovering each other at age 35. They were identical twins separated at birth because of a creepy experiment carried out by the then-prestigious Louise Wise adoption agency in New York City and two prominent psychiatrists, Viola Bernard and Peter Neubauer. The kicker, of course, is that neither of them knew they were a twin, not to mention an identical twin -- until Elyse's research in her thirties.

The story is poignantly told in alternating sections by each twin, and for me it was a compelling and suspenseful tale: would they find out why they were separated? How will reuniting affect each of them? How are they similar and different? Will they find their birth mother? What was her story? Why did she surrender them? Who was their father?

Surely there is no plot line more gripping than the loss of mother love, the raw grief and helplessness of an abandoned infant. Add to that separation from one's biological double, the "other" with whom you shared a womb, and the story becomes irresistible.

Both writers and researchers, they intersperse their account with intriguing histories of twins, separated and otherwise. They try to find other separated Louise Wise twins and analyze many fascinating twin studies.

And in the process, their story touches on what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual. There's something here about primal bonding and human loneliness. As others have noted, Elyse, who was kept longer in foster care and then lost her beloved adopted mother when she was only six, seems to have had a harder life, and she pursues bonds with her rediscovered sister more passionately. Paula, who had the luck of a loving and consistent family, went to Wellesley and has a husband and two daughters, eventually welcomed Elyse into her life but not without doubts and resistance. Yet both women tell their stories with remarkable openness. The seductiveness of the discovered link -- that shared DNA, the shared womb -- is the search to be known, to be understood. For Schein and Bernstein, even with their identical chromosomes, the outcome wasn't a perfect fulfillment of the fantasy. But the quest, and the real love that actually did blossom between them, is riveting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

While the Blood Comes Back

Gave a pint of blood for MLK Day today, the first time I've donated my A-pos in decades. It could have been psychological, but I felt a bit light headed afterwards, even after my gulps of Hawaiian punch and cheezits, so I'm stretched out back home, my feet elevated on the Laz-Y-Boy, watching a CSI rerun and looking out the window into the back yard.

And there, abruptly, is a big fat red-tailed hawk, perched on the back of a chair on the porch. No sign of the usual flurry of finches, cardinals, juncos, nuthatches and chickadees. Way to clear the yard, Hawk. I imagine the little birdies all hunkered down, hiding in the bushes and whispering, "shut up, shut he gone yet? Is he gone yet?" He fluffs up and swivels his beautiful head, making me out: he leans in for a better view. I try not to move or make aggravating eye contact from the recliner. After about 20 seconds he lifts off and I breathe again. A light snow starts up, and in a minute or two, the first finch back lands on the feeder -- coast clear. And then a red cardinal in the yew at the window, and then a red-headed woodpecker clambering up the mulberry tree.

Let's just say in the peace of this moment, I feel my blood regenerating, my platelets factory madly manufacturing. I'm glad to be in this world. It's good to be a body among these other bodies, alive in the midst of all this life.

Stand Up Straight for the Ancestors

A couple of months ago, I expressed doubt about the possibility of ancestral messages.

The other day, though, as I walked to work on a brilliantly sunny 25-degree day I was breathing in the fresh air meditatively, enjoying the way my backpack felt bumping slightly against my back. Suddenly I heard my mother's voice distinctly say, "Stand up straight, Janice." I immediately pushed back my shoulders and sucked in my stomach, and as I did I visualized my mother smiling at me. I experienced a moment of piercing love, remembering my mother's many simple and not so simple acts of trying to shape me into a decent, healthy woman. She noticed me, she worried about me, she wanted me to stand up straight. She's been dead, by the way, for 14 years.

It got me thinking. My mother Carol's voice in my head as I strolled along on a winter's day is a kind of immortality. I wonder if her mother told her to stand up straight, and if she sometimes heard her mother's voice and pictured her mother giving her advice long after my grandmother was gone. And if so, could my grandmother Amy have experienced a similar voice from her mother Matilda, and likewise Matilda from her mother Mary Ann, my great great grandmother? Maybe that is how some things get passed along through hundreds of generations.

There's no way of knowing, of course, but it makes me newly open to the idea that some of my thoughts could be the same thoughts that my great-great grandmother had, and that they've landed in me through one patient and loving mother after another. I wonder what else is there. I'm suddenly fond of all those generations of women tending to their children, doing their best to make sure the kids remembered something, anything that would help them be safe in the world and live good lives.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday night in My Old Town

I'm in love with my old town tonight, after a desert-dry martini (a once-a-year treat) some decent red wine, a long night of delicious food and four naughty Marlboro Lights at my friends' Dennis and Teddy's house. The drive home in rain-slicked streets, streets I've been driving on for 25 years, past Kettering and the bridge over the Flint River and along Second Street past the bus depot. On my car radio, the BBC, an interview with Stephen Frears, a person I admire...his exceptionally Brit voice a pleasant companion for my careful journey home, my trusty Honda Accord humming along smoothly, my windshield wipers sliding back and forth rhythmically keeping my view of my hometown clear and glistening. I don't know how to explain it; I never thought I'd stay in this often-infuriating town this long, but tonight, after rack of lamb and hours of wonderful conversation and a round of port at Teddy's house, I can't imagine that I could be happier in any other city in the United States of America -- this is my place.

Walked to work and back today for the first time this year, an invigorating half-hour walk both ways. I got to see a DOT crew unloading concrete flower boxes on the Kearsley Street bridge over 475, and I stopped to chat with the workmen and women, whether they wanted to or not, about how nice it was that these boxes were installed on both side sof the street, and how nice it was to look forward to flowers blooming in them in a few months. I may be nearly an old lady and I don't see life in terms of an unlimited future any more. but it is sweet to be happy where I am, right now, in this moment, in my home town, worn out and somehow beautiful old Flint.

Moments of uncomplicated happiness are hard to come by. I celebrate this one with gratitude.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Power Objects

When I laid out a softly woven red Indian throw, pulled two vanilla scented candles out of my backpack and lit them in class tonight, I suspect my students thought their old hippie teacher (whom they're just getting to know) had lost it. But I wanted to create a ritual of respect for "the image," for the magic we make from the objects of our lives.

I'd asked my Intro to Creative Writing students to bring in a personal object -- something that could fit in the hand, something with some significance. For this exercise, adapted from one cooked up by UMF Theater Professor Carolyn Gillespie, each student slipped the chosen object under the coverlet. I turned off the room lights and one by one, we passed around the objects, in silence, allowing each student to touch each of the other students' objects, in the dark. It's a way to gentle the students out of quick visual identification, quick interpretation, earnest left-brain analysis. This low-key ritual slows everybody down. It keeps the words at bay.

A single earring, shaped like dangling skeleton. A buffalo nickel. A mug with a broken handle. A single wooden golf tee. A small spiral bound notebook. A heart necklace. A blue topaz and white gold ring. A simple red and white button. A pair of glasses. A tiny laughing Buddha. Two guitar picks. An infant hospital wrist band.

And after each item had been tenderly passed around and we observed a moment of respectful silence (corny, I know) each student told the story: a first guitar, a gift from a beloved boyfriend who couldn't really afford it, a gift from a cherished mentor, a powerful memory of the birth of a baby, a talisman from the year of a crushing divorce, a necessary aid to vision, a symbol of family love, escape, a coming of age, a turning point. The stories, in all their rich detail and complexity, rolled around the room, each object a trigger, a catalyst, a comfort. It was sweet.

This, I suggested, was a way of thinking about the origin of an image -- how something accompanying us on our journeys through life can become not just any object, but a carrier of particular meaning -- a reminder of something that matters. And then the students tucked their objects away and class was over.

But I was touched, as always, by the evidence of our attachments, how little bits of metal and wood and plastic transform into shorthand for our joys and peak experiences, for what we've suffered and survived and what we hope for. What a remarkable species we are, poignantly clinging to our lucky charms, finding meaning and reassurance wherever we can.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Duende, Dammit

So, Gary Custer made me take a reference to "duende," out of my latest East Village Magazine column draft. He said he didn't know what it was and my husband, kibbutzing in the background, said, "Yeah, me either." Even though I tried to convince these bon vivants that it was one of those words they just HAD to put in their big dictions, so to speak, they didn't budge, and I caved. Yeah, yeah, it was a "readership" issue -- I get it, I get it.

Later, making fun of my pretensions and licking my faux wounds with my students, I discovered none of them--not even the ones who think they know everything--knew what the hell it was either. I came up with "glamorous melancholy," a delicious condition in which we poets love to wallow.

Here's the definition from Wikipedia. As I hastened to tell my vocabulary-challenged buddies, who will jump at any chance to catch me puffing out too big for my britches, it harks back to Federico Garcia Lorca. Friends, we need this word for our dark and gloomy days.

"Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca first developed the concept of Duende in a lecture he gave in La Habana in 1930.
There would appear to be something vaguely pagan and even demonic about Duende. Duende is a spirit of art, much the opposite of the Muse.
Where the Muse brings golden inspiration, Duende brings blood. The Muse speaks of life, yet Duende sings of death. Duende is not inspiration, Duende is a struggle, a dark force, having very little to do with outer beauty, a struggle present in the artist's soul, the struggle of knowing that death is imminent. It is this knowledge of death that awaits and the despair that stems from it that produce Duende, and Duende will then color the artist's work with gut-wrenching authenticity, painful hues and tones that produce strong, vibrant art."

So there, isn't that fun? P.S. Happy Birthday, Gary!

Breakfast at Bishop

After a month together, a luxury for us in our conjugal cross-country life, Ted and I had to say goodbye this morning, probably our one hundredth "goodbye" at Bishop Airport. We know that sweet little airport inside and out, our own little Sydney Opera House. Today our route was rainy and dark, the brightening snow long gone in the spooky thaw, and at 7:30 a.m. there still wasn't even a glint of sunrise behind us driving down I-69. At that hour there's rare "rush minute" traffic in Flint, the headlights glaring, and I found it nerve-racking. (By the way, my spellcheck program insists that "nerve-racking" is a proper way to spell this word, not just "nerve-wracking" as I've always spelled it. I guess I owe about a thousand students an apology. Go figure) Anyway, I decided I wanted us to park so I could go in with my husband instead of just dropping him off, and then after our ardent departure hug I figured I'd buy a coffee and a New York Times and wait out the dawn; driving in the dark, especially a rain-slicked dark, wreaks havoc on my night blind eyes.

I'm saying all this to get to that 45-minute wait for solid daylight. When you're in a marriage like mine, where from time to time your beloved is pulled away from you and walks down that long hallway and into the skies for weeks at a time of absence, you get used to these moments of reflection, when you suddenly realize you're alone again. It can be jarring. But I've learned to embrace the comings and goings. You look up from your intense dyad and begin noticing the rest of the world again, seeing it anew. It freshens the spirit.

So I bought a mocha from the friendly coffee guy at the cappucino place, and accepted his jovial offer for an extra shot of espresso. Bought a NY Times at the gift shop and didn't mind when the clerk called me "honey." I think I looked a bit disheveled and might have had some "Hillary Clinton"-style watery eyes.

At a table in the cafe, I stretched out my legs and took a deep breath, then a sip of coffee, and then a good long look at the paper. An editorial by Gloria Steinem, predictably griping about how "women are never front runners." Another by David Brooks, usefully comparing Obama and McCain: "One man celebrates communitarian virtues like unity," he writes, " the other classical virtues like honor." And a bonus by poet Donald Hall, a onetime UM professor and former U.S. poet laureate, describing the scene in New Hampshire on primary day today -- not in the booths, but in his barn, "My barn roof bears a yard of snow, which is beautiful but worrisome. Can a barn built in 1865 withstand the weight?" he asks. It's a good day whenever poets make it to the NY Times editorial page. "On days when it doesn’t snow," he continues," the sun’s brightness bears down from the sky and flares upward from the ground." Settling for Michigan's oatmeal skies, I'm jealous of that sun.

On the cafe's big flat screen TV, CNN reporters interviewed wholesome looking people seemingly enjoying their limelight in some local diner, and then a cut to the midnight voting at tiny Dixville Notch. This is fun -- the most fun of any campaign I can remember.

So, I savored my hour until daylight. I looked outside finally and saw that the pole lights in the parking lot had finally clicked off, a milky blue light seeping through the electronic doors along with the travelers.

I'm "alone" again, but still in an very interesting world.

P.S. At the parking booth, the guy who took my two bucks said it had been an extremely depressing morning already -- about 200 soldiers leaving early today for tours of duty in Iraq. (From tonight's Flint Journal, I see that they were likely from the lst Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard.) "All morning I've been taking money from women crying their eyes out," the parking guy said. Damn. Here's to their safe return. Let's hope we get out of this horrid war before everything and everyone we love is lost.