Finis

JMW Turner. Dido Building Carthage. Oil on Canvas. 1815.

On March 13th, 2020 I walked out of my classroom at The Woodstock Academy wondering when I would be back. How many books should I take with me? When would I see my students in person again? Everything was being shut down so rapidly because of COVID and no one knew how long it would take for things to go back to normal. I could not have imagined that the answer would be never. Never would I ever teach Latin again in that room, in that space.

My late husband established the structure, curriculum and tone of the Latin program at The Woodstock Academy when he began his teaching career there in 2000.  When he left The Academy in 2008 I took over and continued the program that he set up so it had been a personal labor of joy and pride for our family for the past 20+ years.  On May 4th I was removed not only from the Latin program, but also from my position as World Language Chair, via a “courtesy” phone call from my union representative and a letter in an email from administration. If I wanted to return to The Academy, I was informed, then I would have to accept a position as a social studies teacher. No more department chair. No more Latin program. Like so many other things this year, gone in an instant.

I had been on leave from teaching at the time because of my husband’s tragic death so to receive news of yet another loss for our family in this way felt shocking, disheartening and disrespectful.  A phone conversation from anyone in administration–an administration that claims to cherish and value its faculty–would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.

The official reason that was given for my removal from the Latin program (no reason for my demotion from chair was ever given) was the fact that the position in the Language Department, as I was aware, was not full-time.  The union contract required them to restore me as a full-time faculty member and they chose social studies. But this reasoning of part-time vs. full-time doesn’t quite give a complete and accurate picture of what my position was during my time at The Academy.  I agreed, over a decade ago now, to consolidate my six Latin classes into four—which meant teaching classes with over 30 students on some occasions, as well as having students at different levels combined into the same classes—in order to accept the position of World Language Department Chair which was offered to me. 

As Latin teacher I grew the program and added three UConn courses; my classes were oftentimes used as marketing tools for the school and the most common feedback I received from administration, staff and the community was how positive my rapport was with my students and their parents and that my program felt like a “supportive family” for them. Therefore, reassigning me to social studies and removing my leadership position would have drastically changed my role at The Academy. I saw no attempt whatsoever, as the contract also required, to restore me to my position prior to my leave.

I am wholly convinced that administration—and quite frankly anyone who has ever interacted with me on a professional or personal level at all— knew full well that I would not have considered coming back for anything less than full-time Latin and the World Language Department Chair position.  It is abundantly clear that they had already moved on from me when they half-heartedly offered me a Social Studies position. I’m not naive or ignorant— I’ve been in education for far too long not to understand that budgets need to be balanced, staffing decisions need to be made and contracts need to be followed.  Everyone is easily replaceable. And hiring younger, less experienced faculty members saves money and makes it much easier to balance budgets. But the poor and transparent excuses for my removal from the Latin program feel punitive for taking a leave in the midst of a devastating personal tragedy. It’s a shame that a teacher with a proven record of long-standing dedication, service and leadership couldn’t have been treated on a personal level with more respect or dignity. And so I officially declined the offer to teach social studies and resigned my position as faculty member at The Woodstock Academy.

Unfortunately this gap between faculty and administration is not unique to my former place of employment. Alan and I talked about this nearly every day before he died. All school administrators say what a noble profession teaching is and that their teachers and staff are the best and most dedicated. But the public praise and lip service appear hypocritical because at the same time these teachers are stressed out, sick, and overworked.; the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the rift that has always existed between leadership and faculty. It makes me sad to see the haggard looks on my former colleagues’ and other friends’ faces who teach elsewhere when I’ve spoken to them about going to work under such difficult conditions. It’s pretty clear that surveys and data which are routinely collected are never taken seriously or turned into real change for the better as far as morale and working conditions are concerned.

And so what now, for me? What now? I’ve learned in the past year that tragedy, loss, and change, can be catalysts for something bigger and better. I keep thinking about my dear friend Naveen’s beautiful words which he composed about “ruins in motion:”

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

As I read Naveen’s provocation I kept thinking about Vergil’s Aeneid (once a Latin teacher, always a Latin teacher) the theme of which is that something bigger and better has the chance to emerge from ruins and tragedy. Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger has the potential to emerge out of the devastating tragedies that befall us in life. We can’t control awful experiences that happen to us, but we can control how we deal with the aftermath., with the ruins. A “creative ruination.”

Stay tuned for bigger and better things from me….

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Why Must I be Preyed Upon?

Pain, and grief and heartsickness can be so lonely and isolating. The rollercoaster of emotions settle down, but there are still days when the pain, the memories of what has been lost feels like a harsh punch in the chest. Who can I talk to? Who can I call? To whom can I describe this almost unbearable sensation? It’s nothing new. It’s more of the same. It makes me weary and I feel like a broken record repeating these tiresome things to those in my inner circle. I’m sick of myself, I think, so how can they not be sick of me too?

Writing and reading poetry are what I end up retreating into when the loneliness and isolation set in. I like to think that all of the books of poetry I have voraciously consumed in the last few years are paying off in the form of solace. I share here two recent favorites that have helped me in the hopes that they might be comforting to anyone suffering in any way—there seems to be an abundance of pain everywhere one looks nowadays.

Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz’s collection Absolute Solitude, beautifully translated by James O’Connor and published by Archipelago Books, is full of memorable lines that are worthy of writing in my notebooks and revisiting for those tough days. Here she envisions grief as a wolf to which she falls prey:

There was a lull in the pain. I fled from it as if I were fleeing a wolf suddenly taken with sleep. But when it wakes, it will pick up my scent and follow my trail. I know this. And it doesn’t matter where I hide, it will know how to find me, and when it does, it will pounce on a body too weary to resist it. Why must I be the preyed upon? Why does its mouth water every time it spots me? I have no blood to slake its savage thirst and I carry nothing in my saddlebags but the echoes of dreams grown cold. Where did I lose my way? I can’t remember. What flowers did I step on pretending I didn’t see them? Before me the great jungle grows dense.

And from Kathryn Smith’s Collection Self-Portrait with Cephalopod published by Milkweed Editions a poem that envisions the possibility of being whole again after tragedy. “A Permeable Membrane in the Mutable Cosmos”:

Tell me again of the lepers who learn to shed their disastrous skin by eating the meat of vipers: something transmutable in the flesh. The ancients spent lifetimes considering the resurrection of irretrievable parts: wolf-devoured flank, eyes of martyrs pecked clean in the village square, Tell me again about the new heaven and the new earth, when the bear returns an unblemished arm to its faithful socket, when mountains open their mouths to receive conduits and I-beams and engagement diamonds and the fish ladders the rivers will give up with their dams when the earth is made new. Tell me the formula for feeling whole again after tragedy. The equation for how much time I needed after saying no before I’d tell you yes. Tell me I’ll never be alone, even when I want to be alone.

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Filed under American Literature, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Spanish Literature

Grief as a Test: The Collected Poems of Louise Glück

Achilles and Patroclus. By Philippe Auguste Hennequin. 1784-1789.

Grief, I have learned, any type of grief, is a test—albeit a cruel, harsh, and unfair one—of the people around us, those whom we lean on and consider our support system.  Grief strips away any pretensions, facades, masks, and posturing and challenges all types of relationships in a way that no other human emotion can. People deal with a grieving loved one in with such a vast range of emotions and reactions—some rise to the occasion to offer support, love, kindness and others back away, withdraw, remain silent.  

I’m not making any kind of a judgment here. People are who they are. There is no changing that—for a variety of reasons some are wired to avoid any type of emotions whatsoever, especially the difficult ones.  But on the other end of the spectrum there are those who have a special presence, know just the right things to say, and show unconditional love and kindness.  I keep thinking about grief-as-test in the last few weeks as I’ve made my way through Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012; her insights on loss, grief, pain, heartache, and the everyday difficulties that life throws at us have struck a cord with me.    Glück writes about growing up and watching her mother grieve over a lost child and the effects it had on  Glück and her sister. Grief as a test of the family, especially the surviving children:

It was something I was good at: sitting still, not moving.

I did it to be good, to please my mother, to distract her from the child that died.

I wanted to be child enough, I’m still the same,

like a toy that can stop and go, but not change direction.

Glück also processes through her poems the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship. She writes: “I thought that pain meant I was not loved/it meant I loved.” And her struggles with grief suffered in various romantic relationships, including marriage, are raw, honest and astute. “Seated Figure” has particularly been on my mind, I’ve thought about this poem every day for weeks:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Although it’s not specifically about grief, I do see it through that lens. Glück wants this man to stand and be in a relationship with her; oftentimes because of grief, pain, heartache we ask someone to stand for us—for support, kindness, patience, love, understanding—and are faced with silence. As  Glück says we believe so powerfully in the projection we have of a person that we refuse to accept the reality of who they are and what they are capable of giving us.

Finally, I need to mention Glück’s use of Greek mythology as examples of grief-as-test. She has a series of poems written from the perspective of Penelope, Telemachus, and Circe and how they deal with the grief caused by Odysseus’s absence. Her best poem involves one of the most heart-wrenching examples of grief in ancient literature, Achilles’s reaction to the death of his best friend and fellow warrior, Patroclus:

In the story of Patroclus no one survives,

not even Achilles who was nearly a god.

Patroclus resembles him, they wore the same armor.

Always in these friendships one serves the other,

one is less than the other: the hierarchy is always apparent,

though the legends cannot be trusted— their source is the survivor,

the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being

and the gods saw he was already dead,

a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal.

Achilles’s grief tests his mortality, his emotions, his fellow soldiers, and an entire Trojan army. The end of the Iliad and Greek’s return home show us the various ways that men on both sides handle that test, for good and bad.

Grief has certainly cast in a new light every relationship that I have now or will have in the future. 

Grief as a test.

Of myself.

Of those around me.

Who stands up and who is incapable of standing up?

I’ve even learned that sometimes I’m the one who needs to stand up.

And maybe even walk away…

 

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Putting My Shaken House in its New Order: What 2020 Has Taught Me

I normally compose a year-end post discussing the books I’ve read and how my reading, writing and thinking about literature progresses and shifts over the course of time. I contemplate my ever- evolving literary choices in light of what George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.”

But this year I’ve read fewer books then ever and a personal tragedy has overshadowed every aspect of my life. It seems much more fitting to write a post about what I’ve learned about myself—how my perceptions and views of the life, love, happiness and the people around me, have shifted over the course of the past 6 months. Every day I feel like I struggle to do what Steiner describes in that last sentence: put my shaken house in its new order.

I was riding home with a good friend today and we were having a discussion that comes up often between us—attempting to look for the positive that comes out of a tragedy. But there is no silver lining, so to speak, to my story or my daughter’s—at least not yet anyway. A husband, a father, a teacher being tragically killed while doing what he loves most. Where is the sense, the positive spin to that? It’s nearly impossible to find something, anything. But this struggle and this pain have taught me many valuable lessons most of which are admittedly cliche or mundane. But I share them nevertheless for those who look at me with sympathy, pity, and yes, even horror, because life is so damn unfair and this could happen to any one of us.

In the days and weeks immediately after my husband’s death I learned practical things which I believe helped me to keep moving forward and keep my mind from sinking into an abyss of despair. How to plan a funeral, how to get a body home across state lines, how to deal with coroners and autopsies and police reports, how to hire a lawyer, are just a few of these tasks that carried me on day after day after day. And then began the numerous household tasks that occupied me—and still do—how to run the generator, how to deal with the tank for the well, how to figure out what’s wrong with my leaky sink, etc. I have had help and lots of offers of help, but in the end all of these things are my responsibility and their success or failure comes down to how I handle them. Every time something else breaks or stops working I keep reminding myself that it’s another learning experience and that the number of things to quit on me around the house are finite—eventually everything will be replaced at this rate!

I’ve also learned that having even just a little bit of a sense of humor every day is a lifeline.

I’ve learned, and thought a lot about, what kind of a single parent I want to be. Raising our teenage daughter by myself is the scariest part of life nowadays. I want her to see me as an example of strength and perseverance despite suffering; I want her to think that I have been a good provider for her and given her a warm, nurturing and comfortable home. And, most importantly, I want her to know she is cared for and safe and loved. I constantly think about what she will remember from this period of time and I plan my actions sensitively and carefully with this in mind.

I’ve learned that, quite surprisingly, I am a dog person after all. We adopted a golden retriever puppy and I love that big, goofy dog—and her best dog friend Quantum—with all my heart.

Phoebe and Quantum.

I’ve learned that letting go, and even forgetting, is okay. Some days the pain of what I’ve lost is still unbearable, but new memories, new connections, new surroundings are not bad things. At first I felt guilty about connecting with an old friend and making a new one—two people, in particular, that happened to enter my life as a result of specific choices I made after this tragedy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that in life we are either moving forward or backward and we have a choice about which direction we are going in every day. Letting go of a life that no longer exists is both sad and hopeful. As a friend wrote to me recently, “…You have suffered greatly and yet are transcending suffering. That is the greatest and most terrible lesson of life—that we suffer and yet also can, must, and do transcend suffering.”

I’ve learned that the book community and literary Twitter are some of the best and kindest people I know from around the world. Even though I haven’t met many of them in person they have sent me, and continue to send me, gifts, notes, well-wishes and love. I’ve realized there are a few, in particular, that I’d like to meet in person as soon as it is possible.

I’ve learned that everyone handles grief and suffering in such different ways. At first I was surprised at some of the friends, colleagues and former acquaintances that didn’t reach out or say anything to me. But those looks of sympathy and horror that I do get have taught me that sometimes there just are no words.

I’ve learned that I am as strong as, or stronger than, I thought. In the beginning it was a struggle just to get out of bed, sit on the deck and stare at the sky. I still catch myself staring at the sky, but my days have slowly filled with new, wonderful people and activities and ideas and endless possibilities. I was having a conversation with my daughter the other day about what we’ve both learned through this experience. She mentioned that she was afraid she would become a different person—dark, depressed, angry, bitter. But she learned that she is much stronger than she thought as well. We both agree that anger is a wasted emotion and that we are determined to get through this together and are, at heart and soul, strong people, committed to finding gratitude and happiness despite a horrible situation.

I’ve learned that, regardless of a lack of concentration for my usual, epic reading projects, poetry continues to be soothing and thought-provoking and mind-bending in brilliant ways.

And finally, I’ve learned that when all is said and done, nothing else matters in this life but love. Neither possessions nor careers nor broken appliances nor money nor anything else matters. For a while I was haunted by all the questions I would really like to ask Alan: Why do you have so many tarps/tents/knives? What did you think was wrong with the furnace and why did you keep working on it? How did you keep track of so many notebooks? But then I realized that the love expressed between us in our last text messages to each other were simple, and said it all—that was everything we needed.

If anyone learns anything from me it should be this: don’t be afraid to express love or find love or show love or seek out love. Even if it’s not returned. Trust me, love is always a good thing. Don’t let anger or bitterness or any number of other obstacles close your heart off to love. Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on this in his poem “Heinrich Heine” are perfect:

For man and woman the days pass into years

and the body is a grave filled with time.

We are drowning. All that rescues us is love.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Respice Futurum: The Future Doesn’t Help

Every year I compose a reflective piece entitled “Respice Futurum” describing the books I plan to read in the new year. As I’ve explained in previous posts, the institution where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has this simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” Using this motto has always been a fitting way for me to think about and discuss reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape what I will read moving forward. It seems wise that our past should be taken into consideration when we plan for the future, so it’s a good way, really, to think about and frame any future plans, not just those that involve reading.

But this year I feel untethered, like a woman with no future, or at least a highly uncertain one. A personal tragedy has destroyed my previous life and has forced me to start over. Every day feels like an attempt to slowly rebuild my life from the foundation up—one small, agonizing step at a time.

And when the past is gone—my past feels more definitively gone now—what do I look back to for guidance towards and reassurance of the future? The present is all that exists for me, it is all I can focus on—taking care of my daughter and pets, making my home as safe and comfortable for us as possible, wrapping the Christmas gifts I got for family and friends. I realize all of these short-term things will come to an end—Christmas will be over, I can only make so many repairs/changes to my home, and my daughter needs me less and less as she gets older. Then what? I ask myself every day: then what?

Reading a poem entitled “Tangerine” by Robert Kelly yesterday—an especially low day for me—gave me some comfort:

TANGERINE

The past spoils now
and the future
doesn’t help. I want
this simple thing, this
tangerine of the moment
to peel and pull apart and taste
segment by segment, each
in all its sweetness,
and chew the soft pulp of it
after and after, and it still
will be now.

And so I guess it’s not such a bad thing that I take one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Savoring, appreciating, taking in all the sweetness that the present has to offer. A dear friend also reminded me recently of the importance of this in a note that brought tears to my eyes, “To have a spouse, to keep a house, to raise a child–these are vast gifts of our humanhood. They do not last, but they should be treasured all the more for that.”

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