I spent the day sorting, cleaning and packing up many of the books in my library. My book room had become so crowded with books one could barely walk into it because of the volumes stacked on the floor. Since leaving my teaching career and life as a classicist behind, I’ve also had to face the reality that I needed to clear out most of my and my late husband’s Latin and Ancient Greek books. I had to be brutally honest with myself and admit that there is very little chance I will look at these highly specialized tomes ever again.
Grief and loss are sneaky things; they creep up on you when you least expect them. I shed so many tears today as I packed up those books. “But why,” I kept thinking. Why? I’m not one to attach sentimental value to things or objects so why were these books making me so emotional?
Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Unpacking my Library” points out, “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.” I was hoping that our classics books, many of which are quite old, would find that new home, that rebirth with someone else.
A dear friend pointed out to me in the midst of my packing and cleaning, “Those books have really been weighing on you with all of their actual weight haven’t they?” The classics books in particular made me sad, not because I’m getting rid of them but because they have no real place to go. A famous used bookshop in Boston refused the offer of my collection because such books are “too difficult to sell.” The last vestiges of my former life. Not valuable to any one.
I wiped my tears and packed and cried some more. At the end of the day, though, the sense of calm and peace I felt with this project outweighed the initial melancholy. My massive collection of poetry, NYRB classics, and Seagull books are gleaming at me from their perches. And now I have space to add to my collections.
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. After a successful 22-year career teaching Latin to high school students, never would I be in that space or be a teacher, for that matter, ever again. Just a few months later, in July of that year, a state police officer arrived at my house late one afternoon to tell us that my husband was tragically killed by a careless driver while he was on the way home from a cross country motorcycle and camping trip.
I took a leave from teaching that fall and I decided to focus my energy and attention on making my home, my daughter and my pets comfortable and safe. I was anxious and scared out of my mind about running our household by myself and being a single parent. During these months of mourning and figuring out a new life for myself, I realized it was comforting and satisfying for me, and my little brood, to do various redecorating, remodeling and updating projects around my house. One of the first phone calls I made was to a contractor I hired to rebuild my deck and to remodel my master bathroom and bedroom based on my designs. Many of you have seen the photos on social media of my gorgeous new deck and the love affair that has developed between the contractor and my golden retriever, Phoebe.
The contractor and I realized that we worked very well together so I jumped into designing other spaces he was working on and even helping with demo, painting and other tasks I could manage. I soon began working for him as an intern and as his protégé and I’ve since helped with, among other projects, two kitchen remodels, two bathroom remodels and a whole house window replacement. The biggest challenge for me that I still face is doing physical work with another person who has more strength, agility and experience with adeptly using tools. But my determination and the hands-on experience of learning to use tools, equipment, and picking up new skills has been exhilarating, fun, exciting and humbling. Some days even a little humiliating. Not only have I acquired my own set of high-quality tools, but I’ve put to good use many of the ones that Alan left behind in his workshop. I think he would be pleased, and proud of me.
The most exciting part of this story is that my contractor, Ken, has now become my business partner, teacher, friend and mentor and together we have formed a real estate development company, K&M Villa-State, LLC. Yes, “Villa.” I couldn’t possibly cleanse myself of my Latin and Ancient Greek studies entirely. A Roman villa was a farmhouse or a country house which provided the best domestic comforts and luxuries of the republic and empire. Fully plumbed baths, radiant central heating and mosaic floors were common features of these homes. Catullus’s description of his villa especially comes to mind—a place which, for him, personified comfort, luxury and domestic happiness. This is how we want individuals and families to feel when they walk into one of our villas.
Out of all the things we have achieved so far, I am the most proud of the fact that Ken and I have both worked hard to be a true partnership through excellent communication, mutual respect and encouraging one other’s strengths and having patience with one other’s weaknesses. Our vision for the business is building single family homes, duplexes and apartments that provide value and comfort to individuals and families in Northeastern Connecticut where, according to statistics in these rural towns, very few new or affordable homes are being constructed. One unique business strategy that my partner and I have is that we will be doing 99% of the work on these homes ourselves instead of contracting out various parts of the build. We are especially excited about using ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) construction on our projects, a product and technique that is both innovative and green. ICF construction homes are built with polystyrene blocks that are put together like Legos and are separated by plastic webbing. Concrete is then poured into the webbing between the blocks to form a concrete wall. This eliminates wood construction and the need for fiberglass insulation and the result is a home that is durable, energy efficient and requires a lot less upkeep. ICF construction combined with energy efficient propane boilers in all of our homes will lessen the economic burden of excessive heating and electric bills that so many have recently faced. In addition, bidet toilets will be installed in all of our homes which is not only green, but also saves anyone from suffering through another toilet paper shortage.
My biggest challenge has been working on my strength, agility and knowledge of different tools. In my previous career the focus was solely on the intellect so now instead of collecting classics books I’m slowly trying to acquire most of my own tools. And the plot of raw land we purchased feels like a fitting metaphor for my own life—there are so many possibilities for us to create beautiful things through our vision, enthusiasm and effort. A lot of effort.
Just as I never would have ever thought that my teaching career would end so abruptly, I also never thought I would ever own a business of any kind let alone one in real estate development. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given in a profession that is largely male and the encouragement I have received to begin this new life, this new career. What motivates me most is the example I am setting for my daughter that success can be achieved even in the face of an awful tragedy. My partner Ken likes to tease me that my excitement comes from the three cups of coffee I usually have during our morning meetings. But the truth is that my enthusiasm stems from the prospect of providing others with the pride and sense of security that comes with owning a home that has value and comfort.
I’ll still be reading and writing and blogging, but with a new perspective.
Fall used to be my favorite time of the year; a new year of teaching and meeting students, my birthday, our anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas and my late husband’s birthday all in succession. Now Fall has become my saddest, heaviest part of the year for the same reasons—none of these celebrations seem right without him. I haven’t just mourned the loss of his presence, but I’ve realized how deeply I feel the loss of who we were together in those moments. This fall has been especially tough as I try to shake this heavy melancholy which is juxtaposed with a strange sense of an uncertain future and being untethered. I’m weighed down but not weighed down at the same time—a bizarre uneasiness.
This weekend my daughter played alto sax in her school’s winter concert; she especially misses her dad on occasions like this when he isn’t there to see her perform. But she was so happy to be surrounded by our family and friends whom she invited to the concert and eagerly showed up to lend their support. This got me thinking about all of the people, from around the world, who have offered me comfort and love and hope. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve gotten a card from a retired colleague living in Florida, texts from Alan’s former administrators, a package of coffee from a friend in Maine, an invitation to dinner from family friends, a DM from a friend in France who is himself very sick, a Google chat exchanging poems from a friend living in Canada, and a book from a translator in Prague who knows my love for Hungarian literature. Each of these gestures was done with the utmost care and concern. I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that every time I reach out for support, literary Twitter is always there with kind messages and encouragement.
And so I’ve been slowing digging myself out of this slump, fighting on with every ounce of strength I have, feeling very fortunate and grateful to be surrounded by so many generous people. Poetry has also been a solace to me. I haven’t been able to focus on reading anything of great length but I have been able to concentrate on poetry. I would normally feel chagrined about the number of books I order, but it feels good to be collecting books again and sharing them on Twitter. So I thought I would do a series of posts on poetry and share my latest reading. In addition I’ve been slowly making my way through Paul Valéry Cahiers, which itself reads like poetry. His definition of beauty reminds me why I find such comfort in poetry:
The more I see you, the more I want you. The more I want you, the more I create you—the more I create you, the less I know how to—Your impossibility, your necessity, your presence, struggle over my state of being.
If one of those factors is absent, the work is a failure—or non-existent. It has to create the need and satisfy it. And what is more, make it felt that neither the need nor the satisfaction were within our powers. Hence the endless renewal of desire.
Valéry is accurate about the necessity of poetry. And the necessity of all the people who love me and check in on me is also a thing of beauty. So I continue to fight that heaviness, some days better than others, but fight on I do. Writing and sharing these lines helps. More soon…
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.”
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
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
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.
I enjoy books in various genres, but especially literary fiction, literature in translation, historical fiction, history, short stories and travel writing and poetry. I know Latin and Ancient Greek so classics are my specialty.
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Background artwork "Come Back Winter" by Sunandini Banerjee. Used with permission from the artist.