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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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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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In Praise of Defeat

In Ancient Greek boxing, if a match was a draw the athletes could choose to do what is called a Klimax in order to determine a clear winner. One boxer would deliver a punch to the other while undefended, back and forth, until one of them dropped.

Yesterday as I was standing at the side of the road in the cold and the dark after hitting a deer with my car I was thinking that I felt like one of those ancient boxers—taking blow after blow after blow to the face, to the gut, to the heart…

At what point will I collapse? At what point do I admit defeat?

The past week and a half has been especially difficult and the car accident felt like another defeat in a string of defeats, both large and small. From the Latin de and facio, defeat literally means “to unmake” or “undo” something. Is it really a bad thing to admit defeat in some cases? Can we learn something from admitting defeat?

Moroccan poet and author Abdellatif Laabi, who was imprisoned and tortured by his government because of his writings, composes a poem in the midst of his suffering entitled “In Praise of Defeat.” The content of the poem and the striking title have been on my mind all week. Laabi acknowledges the balance in the universe—we can’t truly enjoy or appreciate victory if we haven’t first experienced defeat:

In this world so disparaged
you have everything
The sun, the moon
cows, pigs
the sea, the soil
love, hate
joy, sadness
peace, war
highs and lows
What more could you ask?

Defeat reduces a situation, a relationship, a circumstance, a life to a void, a nothingness. As I was standing in the dark on the side of that road with my daughter and my puppy in the car, scared for all of us, my mind started slipping toward a sadness—a kind of longing even—for my old life. I never had to take care of issues like this, they were taken care of for me. And I certainly never had to deal with stressful situations like this alone.

But I had to quickly adjust my mindset—and accept defeat. That previous life no longer exists for me. I had to accept its defeat. And if I didn’t I would be stuck, and sad, and consumed by grief indefinitely. How to take care of Claire and Phoebe, who to call for help now, how to get the car fixed—these are my tasks now.

I keep thinking about what is next for me. My life feels so completely different, and although fate has dealt me several unexpected and painful blows I am still standing. And I’m convinced that if I had never admitted defeat then I couldn’t begin to think, to have hope, for something different. Paul Valery writes about emotions in his Notebooks and his ideas about pain and suffering especially resonated with me after experiencing the defeats I mentioned this past week. “The simplest characteristic of pain is its capacity to force the attention, to distract, to deny freedom,” Valery writes.” An important result of embracing my defeat is gaining my freedom back—my freedom to decide what comes next for me.

“Just keep rolling with the punches,” he said.

He’s absolutely right.

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There’s Always a Solution

“There’s always a solution,” he texted me when I was having another bout of anxiety because something else had broken around the house and needed fixing or attention or whatever. Those four simple, wise words had an instant calming affect on me.

Two months ago I had fallen into such a deep depression after the death of my husband that I was afraid I would never pull myself out of it. And I knew I had to pull myself out, that no one could do it for me. I kept thinking about the post-partum depression I suffered after my daughter was born because the symptoms I was experiencing were nearly identical—days of feeling like I was in a fog, no desire or drive to do anything that I enjoyed, a never ending sense of utter sadness that I could never imagine going away. During my experience with the post-partum depression I keep saying that I didn’t feel like myself and I so wanted to fight my way through this fog. Little by little I tried everything I could to break myself out of it. And so I did.

My instinct to fight took over during this most recent episode of anxiety and depression as well. There are a couple of people who have come into my life since this personal tragedy—the person who sent me that text above— and some relationships that have grown stronger because of it as well. At first I thought that fate has a strange way of giving us people we need just at the right time. But then again I am responsible for the deliberate choice of surrounding myself with loving, kind, generous, positive people.

When an unexpected tragedy happens—especially the one that happened to my family—the natural instinct is to feel completely helpless. But in retrospect I see that I did have choices. And I made some crucial ones even in the midst of an ugly, all-consuming depression. I invited my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews to come visit almost every weekend. I asked my parents to go with me to pick up the new puppy I adopted. I accepted a former colleague’s—now a good friend’s—invitation to walk and talk and mourn. And I made a phone call to a contractor to rebuild the massive deck in my backyard.

It’s interesting to discover what different things for each of us become a symbol or an image of hope. A photograph, a painting, a special place, any number of trinkets or objects.

I know this might sound very strange to some, but my new deck has become that symbol of hope for me. Especially in the summer I will spend hours sitting on it, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, reading, feeding the birds, thinking. In recent years this happy place of mine has become worn to the point of being a mess and even unsafe. Within two weeks of Alan being killed I made that phone call to the contractor I mentioned above. At the time it felt impulsive, but in retrospect it was the beginning of creating a space that feels like my own, that I have control over, and that I’ve made a deliberate decision to change and improve. I keep joking that the puppy and the new deck are the two best decisions I’ve made this year, but I do think that this is actually true. A friend on Twitter commented that I’ve created a healing space with the new deck and some other areas of the house I’ve redecorated and rearranged. She couldn’t be more right.

There are still days when I think of how my husband was killed and our shattered family and the effect on our daughter and it feels like I’ve been punched in the chest all over again.

But this morning I was standing in the kitchen baking muffins, with our new puppy sitting at my feet, while my daughter was taking her morning class online, and a friend stopped by for coffee and to pick up some tools. I had a sense of happiness, and contentment, and even joy.

I have pangs of guilt—-which everyone tells me is natural—when I feel happy. Is it wrong for me to carry on with my own life? Is it fair that I get to carry on? But what is the alternative? Should I not do things that make me laugh or smile? Should I stop finding joy and pleasure in the company of the people with whom I’ve surrounded myself? Should I stop finding things, small things, to be grateful for every day?

But if I stopped, then I would give up that fight. And I don’t think that’s even a possibility for me.

As the season changes to autumn and the air is cooler I finally feel like I can breath a bit easier. The fog and sweltering oppression—literally and figuratively—of this summer is lifting. And the colors on the pond in my yard are starting to turn into lovely shades of red and gold. John Clare’s poem “Autumn” that I happened to read this morning captures my feelings very well:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.…

When I look out over my yard I see my new deck in progress, I see the talented person crafting this beautiful space for me, I see the colors on the pond, I think about John Clare’s poem. I smile. I feel hope.

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It Is Unnatural For Us To Be Apart

I was chatting on Twitter with a friend who lost his mother this year after she fought a long, difficult battle with cancer. When I mentioned the overwhelming amount of paperwork I feel buried in after my husband’s death he remarked that when a loved one dies it’s very difficult because we must expend all this energy to erase the life of the one whom we are grieving. It seems so cruel.

And in some cases in order to cancel Alan’s existence it wasn’t enough to produce a death certificate but his birth certificate and our marriage license were also required which I found equally depressing and funny. Alan was a packrat who kept everything, so I waded through his drawers of papers to find this proof of his life with which I was going to erase that very life. As I was searching I found a box filled with every handwritten letter I had given or sent him.

I was, by far, the hopeless romantic between the two of us, oftentimes leaving him little notes—I actually packed his and our daughter’s lunch every day and would still leave both of them notes—from the very beginning of our relationship. I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with electronic communication.

I don’t have many notes or letters from Alan, but apparently he kept every single one I wrote to him. It was too painful and too soon for me to read all of the letters and notes now. So I picked two of them to look at—the first one a birthday card in the shape of a motorcycle (I don’t remember how I managed to find that!) and the second a letter I sent during a year in which we were dating long distance. When I got my first teaching job in New England I moved here while Alan finished up graduate school in New York and we wrote letters, called and saw each other whenever we could. In a letter during this time apart, words that so haunt me now, I said to him: “In case you haven’t already guessed, I really miss you. I can’t wait until we can be together again…I thought what you said on the phone tonight was so touching—that it is unnatural for us to be apart.”

Yes, unnatural for us to be apart. Someday I will show these letters to our daughter so she will remember how much love we shared. But I also feel like I need to show her that the best way to honor that love is for us to move on and find happiness in other ways.

One of the later letters that author Paul Celan wrote to his lover Ingeborg Bachmann, when it was obvious that their love affair would never work out and they were doomed to be apart, keeps occurring to me. Celan writes to her, “Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be. Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another. Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.”

A daily and delicate balance of grieving and yet moving forward. A life lived to the fullest but now erased. The heart will know how to live…

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