Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sweet Forgiveness


Forgiveness. We’re all great at spouting off about the importance of forgiving, not living in or being victimized by the past, moving forward. And I don’t mean this blog post to be a maudlin attempt at confessionalism, or pseudo-therapy, or whawhawha self-pity. I just know there are gazillions of folks like me (some of whom I know, love, and maybe gave birth to), carrying around their boatload of anger, and I’d like for them not to wait half a lifetime (like I did) to learn why forgiveness is a CHOICE and an essential act of SELF-love

I’m pretty good about forgiving people. I always try to see the good in people. I always try to consider the scars they might be hiding. I don’t stay mad. I don’t hold grudges. Well, except for one…

My dad was born on the Ides of March. Maybe in some karmic vision of the Universe, that explains why I’ve always felt betrayed by him. He left my mom (got booted out?) with my three brothers and me, ages 5, 10, 12, and 14, at home. Although he had a decent job with the police department, he paid ZERO alimony or child support. EVER. And even though he lived in the same city, he didn’t call, come to see us, or remember birthdays/holidays.  My grandma (with whom we all moved in after Dad left) tended to us kids while Mom worked two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. And when we grew up and started having kids of our own (his grandkids), he often couldn’t remember their names. My youngest son once called him “that guy named Grandpa.”

I’m admitting now that for DECADES, I seethed. I wrote angsty, hateful poems about him. I made it a point—a mission—to ignore him. I said I couldn’t care less about him. I blamed him for my failed relationships. All men were him. I considered myself somehow unformed or incomplete because of him.

Some idealistic part of me desperately loved him, too, and betrayal is compounded, complicated, by love. My answer was to “live” with his betrayal, to keep it close. I carried it around as a testament to my pesky love for him & to my own survival. His betrayal was my trophy—my really heavy, completely useless trophy.

Recently (duh) I figured out that I have colored, shaped, molded with resentment the decades since my dad left us, and that I had only succeeded in punishing myself. My dad certainly hadn’t been paying attention. My mistakes (plenty of them) were not his fault—they were the result of my own idiocy. My bitterness hurt me, not him. My anger was a little pin with which I stuck myself over and over, so I could be wounded—stay wounded—like everyone else, maybe more than everyone else, because I was so utterly fatherless.

One day (in the process of writing a poem), it hit me that for whatever reason, my dad couldn’t be a father—maybe he didn’t like it, he didn’t know how, he didn’t learn it from his own father, he was too narcissistic, he was too disappointed in his life, he didn’t have a sense of himself, he had a wife and three kids by the time he was 30, he was betrayed himself as a child, whatEVer—the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that I finally understood it had always been MY choice to carry around that ridiculous trophy.

So this week, I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday. I didn’t have to grit my teeth. I didn’t try to get in just one nasty jab. I was actually happy to hear his voice.

I feel liberated to finally wish my dad well. I hope he’s happy and at peace with his life. I’m sad that he CHOSE to miss my life, that he’s missing my kids’ lives and their kids’ lives. I’m sad at how much richer and sweeter his life could have been if we’d all have been part of it. I’m sad that it took me so long to kick myself in the arse (my dad just turned 83). But I won’t carry around that sadness, either. I’m letting myself off the hook. I’m steam-rolling that damned trophy. I’m CHOOSING to forgive my dad. And I forgive him unconditionally—no strings attached (otherwise, it doesn’t really work). He doesn’t have to ask for it (and he never would, although ironically, he’s a strident born-again Christian now, who believes Jesus cured him of prostate cancer). He doesn’t have to want it, deserve it, or feel he needs it. Because really, it isn’t about him at all—it’s about me. That may seem selfish, but it isn’t. It’s self-compassion.

When I say we should all stop talking about forgiveness and practice it, that we should LET IT GO right now, I know from whence I speak. Theologian Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” That’s me…paroled at last, blinking in the sunlight, and breathing in the fresh air.

The poem that flipped the switch…

LETTER TO MY FATHER

It’s four in the morning,
my skin warm against my husband’s back
where I curve along his spine,
his breathing a chant.

I waited a few paltry decades for you,
this hole blasted in me
where your name echoed
in perfect rhythm with my beating heart.
You wouldn’t believe the things
I’ve stuffed in there to muffle that sound—
bits of strung-out boys,
ancient incantations for the dead,
a shell-shocked drug dealer,
bark from a weeping willow,
apologies scribbled in crayon.

Do you know how many times
I peeled back my skin
to show you the color of my blood,
the way my lungs held air?
Late nights, drunk or stoned,
I’d sleep with my ear pressed
to the steel tracks, waiting for a sign
you were coming back
to say something.

Then one day you turned
in a stab of memory and I saw it—
the hole blasted in you.
We were only
what you stuffed in there,
temporary, all those awkward teenage angles,
never enough to fill you up
or muffle your own dark names.

It’s quiet now.
Only a man’s breathing—
that prayer, that song.

© Marcella Remund

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Et tu, March?

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Spring is a sneaky season here on the Row. It’s fleeting for one thing, dramatic and temperamental—think of Spring as the angsty teenager of seasons; Spring tries to pull the wool[ies] over our eyes; it tries to sneak out while we’re sleeping; it’s pouty and petulant. 

It’s true, March and April bring blessed sunshine (and the Vitamin D that pasty, cranky northerners desperately need), sporadic warmth (it’s been in the 60’s in the past week), and slow greening. The crocus (croci? crocuses?) start to push up. The geese fly north by the thousands. The peafowl abandon the loafing shed and resume roosting in our backyard tree at night. 

But pragmatic, skeptical prairie people—folks who call you “new” until you’ve been their neighbor a quarter-century or so—aren’t easily fooled. While the less wise pack away their long johns and oil up their rototillers, we snicker into our sleeves. We know that March & April are just trying to Eddie Haskell us into a false sense of safety. Because remember, March & April are traditionally the months with the greatest snowfall. As Ray likes to remind me, we often get one last serious tantrum from Jack Blizzard AFTER the robins return. So yeah, I’ll sneak out and do a few yard chores whenever the daytime temps hit 50 or 60. But my parka & UGG’s will stay by the back door (I bought my plain, shabby pair of boots for function, not fashion, way back before starlets started wearing them with hotpants), thank you very much.

Here’s a little poem I wrote, which I post every year to remind us all to be vigilant—March & April are behind a barn somewhere right this minute, scheming with their friends, and trust me, the minute our backs are turned…

THE IDES OF MARCH

The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It's a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We've weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We're tired
of winter's grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

South Dakota: A Road Trip Pictorial

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Knit one, nap two.
One of the side effects of winter in South Dakota is the yen to escape. Prairie folk, in the dead of winter or, especially, on the winter edge of spring, fantasize about sun-soaked beaches, poolside reading, decks overlooking the ocean. But this spring break, I was missing my oldest kid and his family, so we headed for the Black Hills. And I made a [re]discovery—South Dakota is an incredible state, and if we aren’t having a full-on blizzard, touring the state can be as breathtaking and diverse as circumnavigating the globe (minus the tropics, although a day out on a floatie in Lewis & Clark lake can get you pretty close).


Prairie Undulations
Just a Peek at the Badlands
Beware the deadly mammoth prairie dog.
We live on the easternmost edge of South Dakota, and it takes us about 6 hours to cross the state to the western edge, where my oldest son and his family live. A common misconception is that the drive is unbroken, flat-as-a-buckwheat-pancake, bored-to-tears prairie. Au contraire mes amis! Take I-90 from east to west, and you’ll see flatlands for sure, but also rolling hills, deep-cut former river/stream beds, the moonscapes of the Badlands, prairie lakes, the beautiful & haunting Cheyenne River valley, and finally, the Black Hills—the sacred pahá sápa of the Lakota people, with its awesome peaks, beautiful green valleys, rivers, lakes & streams, and the seemingly endless national forest.

We took off on Saturday, with March temps in the upper 50’s. A bald eagle flew overhead as we set out, which we always accept as a blessing. Hundreds of snow geese are headed north too, and passed in one formation after another, high over the interstate. We had plans to visit the kids’ record store, Black Hills Vinyl (http://www.blackhillsvinyl.com/) before closing (since they’re closed on Sunday and Monday), so we only stopped once at Al’s Oasis for a stretch-your-legs break.

Four Big Heads
I love the drive—a thermos of good coffee, 70’s playlists on the iPod, road knitting for Ray’s driving shifts, feet up on the dash (the universal traveler sign for “relaxation”), sparse traffic. I love road food, too, although this time I stuck to my Medifast plan and only PRETENDED my carefully-portioned desperate-survivalist packets were greasy buffalo burgers and entire bags of chili cheese Fritos. But the highlight of the drive either way for me is coming over the bluffs just east or west of Chamberlain, SD, and the surprise (in spite of having seen it dozens of times) of the Missouri River and Lake Francis Case suddenly appearing in panoramic splendor. This trip, we got to see the Missouri mostly frozen to a thick Coke-bottle green, with only small open channels mid-river.

Termesphere & Termespointers
We got to BHV in plenty of time to scour the used record bins. I scored a used copy of Peter Gabriel’s Security, and Ray had a whole pile of albums. Then the kids went out for long-deserved dinner and game of pool, while we took the teen grandkids out to eat. It was a study in contrasts to watch our granddaughter delicately pick at a salad, while her soccer- maniac, growth-spurting brother packed his hollow arms & legs with nachos, artichoke dip, Pepsi refills, and a sandwich and fries, all at a speed I can only compare to a hotdog-eating contest title holder.

Termesovoids
Bridalveil Falls: Frozen in Time
On Sunday, the grandkids went off with friends (we’re waaaay too boring for them now), while the grownups went to Mt. Rushmore. I hadn’t seen it for a couple decades, and we wanted to walk out in the 65-degree spring day. I’m conflicted about the monument, and about the Crazy Horse monument, which I also love to visit: Just because we CAN carve up a mountain, doesn’t mean we SHOULD. But I’m also in awe of the process—the vision in someone’s head, the monumental (literally) effort, and then, the resulting sculptures the size of…well…mountains. So what FAQ’s was I most interested in? How much of the monument was “carved” by blasting with dynamite? (90%) How many people died during the construction? (none). Back at the kids' Sunday night, we played a stimulating game of “match the socks” (after a few loads of laundry) and watched Ender’s Game (unanimous thumbs down).

On Monday, the kids had school, my son had work, and my DIL had errands, so Ray and I did our Deadwood/Canyon run. We did our obligatory Chubby Chipmunk (http://www.chubbychipmunk.net/) pickup, so we could mule truffles back east for ourselves and for friends. Then we had lunch with our friends Spiro & Rose (who always graciously drop everything for their slacker friends who never plan ahead), then Spiro, Ray and I went to visit the home & gallery of Dick Termes (http://termespheres.com/). This is how much I love South Dakotans—he wasn’t home, but he’d left a number to call on the gallery door, which I called. Dick answered and said he was in Presho, SD, and had just been sitting across from someone from Vermillion at coffee, and he was sorry he’d missed us. Would we be staying overnight? because he’d be back late Monday night? Love it. I’ve been coveting one of his Termespheres, so I’ll have to get back out there soon.

Kissing Rocks and the Home They Left Behind
Then, we drove the Canyon. It’s a 19-mile scenic drive through the Spearfish Canyon gorge in the heart of the Northern Hills, along Spearfish Creek. It might be my favorite place on the planet. Whenever Ray and I go to the Hills, there’s a spot in the Canyon, “Kissing Rocks,” where we “baptize” by sticking our heads in the creek. It’s a spot where two enormous boulders broke off the mountain and landed in the Creek. The rocks are rumored to have come down so fast, they killed two deer on their way down. We’ve had our kids, grandkids, and friends baptize there, too, so it’s a tradition now. This trip, however, there was still too much snow in the canyon to make it down the embankment to the creek—another reason we’ll need to go back soon.

We ended up back in Deadwood, where I allowed myself $3 to lose in the penny slots, and a stop at Shankar’s jewelry store (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shankar-Arts-Jewelry/212230508795892) to drool over the new designs. Back at the kids’, we all settled in for a couple games of Clue, where I learned that when it comes to deductive reasoning, I am, in fact, clueless.

Wall Drug, Tatanka Hug
Tuesday, we woke to 4-6” of new snow in Rapid City. We thought we might get to postpone our departure, but it was soon warm and sunny enough to turn the snow to slush, and we headed home. On the drive back, we did the Wall Drug stop (another regular feature of trips to/from the Hills), and we snuck into the Badlands far enough to get a look without paying the park entrance (which is TOTALLY worth every penny if you have time to drive the entire loop). We saw two more bald eagles on the way home and hundreds more geese honking and vee-ing their way north. And by the way, that “boring” prairie? You’d be surprised how quickly you get used to seeing clear to the next state or seeing a storm coming when it’s still half a state away, and how claustrophobic you become in the city or the mountains, when you CAN’T see 25 miles into your future…

Wall Drug Souvenirs: The Cheesier, the Better
I’m not sure, in the cosmic/karmic sense, how or why I ended up leaving Nebraska city life (I grew up in Omaha) and becoming so attached to rural life in South Dakota. I've been here 30 years now. I’d like to live in a less politically and socially conservative climate. I’d like to live on the water (in relatively short supply in our landlocked state). I'd like winter to last one week, right around Christmas. But I live here. I am part of and grateful to Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth. In spite of the piles of
If you can't move it, decorate it.
grading laughing hysterically at me right now, I’m rejuvenated by our short getaway (Nature, with her stunning complexity and perfect design, is one of only two things that can shut me up and leave me speechless. Love is the other). And today, as I watch the peacocks strut
past the window in their early spring flutter, I know my inspiration and my connection to this planet are here, in South Dakota.



65 degrees to 6" of snow in 12 hours
Coming into the Missouri River valley
The Mighty Frozen Mo
Dang...I thought you said "Chippendales"!










Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Fundamentalist Food Plan


I have a body that, as my grandmother would say, “runs to fat.” Or, as my mom would say, I’m “a keeper.” Add to that (1) a string of jobs that have required me to sit or stand in one place, exercising almost exclusively my brain, and occasionally my fingers on a keyboard (I have lovely, muscular, albeit short & stubby fingers), (2) three C-sections that left me with three gorgeous, healthy offspring and flabby, bisected stomach muscles, (3) a short, squarish hobbit frame, and (4) genetic insulin resistance with its symptomatic addiction to Doritos and Butterfinger Blizzards. And Type 2 diabetes runs in my family. 

It's a banquet!


As you might guess, I’ve tried every diet known to humankind. I have eaten more cabbage soup in my lifetime than is healthy or wise. I have carried a calculator and scratch pad to add, subtract, and divide calories consumed and burned, carbs, fat, sodium, fiber, etc. until I thought my mathematically-reluctant brain would explode. I have lived for months by The Rule of 24 (weight-watching points). I have eaten protein and not much else until I grew fangs & fur (which weigh a surprising amount). I have overdosed on grapefruit. I have lived, waif-like, on only soybean sprouts, brown rice, and hot pepper paste until I saw angels and fairies. I have blindly followed that simplistic admonition—“eat fewer calories than you burn”—down the starvation and treadmilling road, until I could barely crawl to my La-Z-Girl after work. I have tried the red wine and tequila shots diet. No comment on that dismal failure.

My friend M and I are on a new “plan” now (you HAVE to have a diet buddy, someone with whom to bitch & moan). It’s called Medifast 5+1 (http://www.medifast1.com/index.jsp), and here’s the plan in a nutshell. I buy most of my food from Medifast and eat 5 of their “meals” each day (I immediately realized THEIR definition of "meal" and mine were worlds apart). I eat every 2-3 hours to keep my blood sugar stable. Each Medifast meal consists of a shake, a bar, or a bland, dehydrated astronaut food packet that needs to be rehydrated and microwaved. In addition to the bars and shakes, there are delightful options like mac & cheese (you get at LEAST ¼ c.), ziti marinara, oatmeal, soups, and crunchy snacks (pretty sure these are recycled Styrofoam). Portion sizes are strictly controlled.

Then, at some point in the day (my choice), I have what’s called a “lean and green” meal—lean protein with low-carb veggies—that I cook up myself, made from Grade-A-GEN-YOU-WHINE food. I have learned to make cauliflower-crust pizza, steak tips with Portobello mushrooms, meatballs with spaghetti squash or zucchini “noodles,” and every kind of chef’s salad imaginable. We end up eating between 800-1000 calories/day. The average American eats around 2500.

We have two patient, wonderful coaches who keep in constant contact through email, texts, and conference calls. (Side note: Our primary coach is a nutritionist for the state of CA and has been a dear friend of mine since we were in junior high together. My mom, after watching me fix a “meal” one day, asked if she was getting back at me for something I’d done to her in high school.)

The e-e-e-exercise (that word is hard for me to spit out) portion of the plan is simply to move more every day. So M and I bought fitness tracker bracelets (she has the Nike Fuel band, and I have the FitBit Flex), which really do keep us moving—I never dreamed I’d be the person who gets giddy when my Flex vibrates to tell me I reached my daily step goal. Gag.

We’ve been doing the plan now for about 7 weeks. The weight loss is slow but consistent. I’ve eaten out and attended potlucks by carefully selecting lean meats and vegetables (my lean & green meal for that day). I’m learning to season with spices & herbs rather than salt. I’m drinking 64 oz of water minimum daily. M and I are both moving more and feeling less hostile about it. I’m walking the long way around just to get my Flex to light up (cheap thrills).

The plan is really easy and convenient; I keep shakes and bars with me everywhere I go, so I never have to go more than 3 hours without a meal. Each meal has the same amount of calories, protein, fat, fiber, sodium, and carbs, so the meals are completely interchangeable. Interestingly (and a testament to how my addled brain works), this formulaic, prescriptive food plan has given me insight into the appeal of fundamentalism—I don’t have to think, make hard personal choices, or take personal responsibility—I just eat WHAT Medifast tells me to eat WHEN they tell me to eat it, and I can blissfully IGNORE everything else (food-related, at least).

A little too excited about this...
Who knows how long I’ll stay on the plan. I’d like to keep going until people start asking if I’ve been ill or until I can fit into my tie-dyed bellbottoms again—whichever comes first—but my record for sticking to any food plan isn’t stellar. For now, though, my third monthly Medifast order is on its way, and you cannot imagine how deliriously excited I am to try the astronaut packets of “Fat-Burning Cappuccino Mix.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Not waving but drowning.

 

I recently saw this cartoon circulate on the Crackbook. These are usually funny cartoons, but I teach undergraduate introductory English (some remedial English) at a state university, and I’m not laughing.

A student came to my office yesterday to go over a paper I’d given back. She was shocked to see all my comments on her draft. I asked how much writing she did in high school. She said she wrote ONE 5-page “research paper,” but that the teacher hadn’t given the class any instruction on how to write the paper, how to quote or document sources, etc. She said that she and a group of kids got together to try to “figure out how to write” on their own, and that eventually, they’d all gotten A’s or B’s—with no corrections or feedback.

I’d like to say her story is rare—that maybe she grew up in an unincorporated mining settlement, where the only teacher they could find was the local blacksmith’s daughter, who’d once been kicked in the head by a jittery pack mule named Trixie. Unfortunately, however, I’ve heard similar stories many times before (and this student grew up in a fairly large town).

Stevie Smith has a great poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” that illustrates my teaching dilemma. Here's the last stanza: 

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
 


Let me be brutally honest: Some of my students are out there waving, but I can’t get to them. Sometimes, when students (especially students in remedial classes) come to me and want to know how they can improve their writing grades, I want to say, “Go back in Mr. Peabody’s time machine. Start over. Go all the way back to 4th-grade grammar, which is apparently the only grammar instruction you’ve ever had. From then through high school graduation, have better, more demanding teachers. Give yourself a vocab word every day and build a better arsenal. Shut off the electronics and have face-to-face conversations with other humans. Read books.”

I don’t say that. I beat my head against the brick wall. I do my damnedest to eke out whatever tiny improvement I can in a student’s abilities, although it’s often achingly futile. I throw out a life preserver, but the student and I both know it isn’t enough.

The trouble is, some students are already too far behind when they come to college. I can’t slow an entire class down enough to pull them through, and I can’t supplement their instruction outside of class, which is when I have to squeeze in all of my “extra” duties. And I’m not dissing their former teachers—most of them were probably too overworked & overwhelmed to slow down or ask much of them.

So how is it we used to teach Latin & Greek, and now we’re faced with letting remedial students sink or swim? The answer isn’t in what we teach—it’s how we teach. Teachers today are so swamped with accountability measures, documentation “tools,” extracurricular “service” requirements, committee work, new federal or state mandates, and team-building in-services to focus on…well…teaching. Lesson-planning, effective & instructive grading, inspiring students, and attention to individual students’ grasp & pace all take oodles of TIME & ENERGY, and few teachers have either these days. 

Instead of fostering learning, we have to cram tasks (for which we’re held accountable and about which we must document & measure—our salaries are tied to mysterious charts & graphs & student evaluations (do you like me? was I nice to you? did you feel heard? was the room too warm? did you have to work too hard? how can I make your stay more fun?), NOT to what students know or don’t).





Le sigh. The rise in remedial education, and the U.S.’s dismal educational achievement compared to other developed nations should have made it clear by now that education as a consumer product or capitalist prep isn’t working. But hey…as long as we can spin standardized test score data and blame lazy teachers, we can just smile & nod & rest on our laurels, right?

Just pretend you can’t hear or see the increasing number of students in the U.S. who are “not waving but drowning.”