Artsy fartsy

art·sy-fart·sy/ˌärtsēˈfärtsē/adjective INFORMAL•DEROGATORY
1. associated with or showing a pretentious interest in the arts.

No one would ever call me artsy fartsy. This, despite the fact that my father was an architect and a watercolorist. Let’s just say I didn’t get his art gene! Mind you, I love visiting the Chicago Art Institute–but mainly because I like to see the famous paintings in real life like Sunday Afternoon and Nighthawks and Child’s Bath and American Gothic. And I’m one of those I-know-what-I-like type of museum goers. When it comes to art, I’m usually out-of-my-comfort-zone.

But this past month I’ve seen some fine art– both as in fine art, and fine. art. Friend Denice and I went to the Muskegon Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Patricia Polacco, children’s book writer and illustrator. The exhibit was in honor of teachers and so it was fitting that I attend with Denice, a retired school librarian and book store colleague in our previous lives. My familiarity with children’s books ended with my time at Pooh’s Corner (a children’s bookstore), so I wasn’t familiar with the illustrations on exhibit, but I sure did fall in love with some new titles. Especially An A from Miss Keller, in which Tricia takes Miss Keller’s creative writing class and gets the greatest accolade of all–Miss Keller’s comment, “You’ve given your words wings.” Now that, my friends is what I miss about being in the classroom–the opportunity to watch kids soar.

My Town recently installed public art on electrical boxes throughout the downtown area. Based on Kate Schatz’s children’s book Rad Women A-Z the twenty-six installations feature rad(ical) women from Angela Davis to Zora Neal Hurston. Represented are women in entertainment, the arts, science, and civil rights. I was lucky enough to join up with a walking tour of the exhibit that just happened to include the ribbon cutting for the installation–and writer Schatz walked along, too! The boxes were painted by local women artists during Women’s History Month. We walked up hills and down and heard stories of incredible women, many I’d never heard of before. (Look up the Grimke sisters and Lucy Parsons.)

Can you say “Carol Burnett”?!

It might be telling that both exhibits were inspired by children’s books where, my experience tells me, the best writing and artwork is often to be found–and certainly the greatest Truths.

Perfect for a beginner like me.

Love and Marriage

What I read

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are on their way up. College educated young professionals in Atlanta they are confident and accomplished–Roy, in the business world; Celestial in the arts. Theirs would be a good life, stepping from one rung on the ladder of success to the next.

Their marriage isn’t perfect: there is her fierce independence and his flirtations. Their marriage is young: only eighteen months give or take. But love? They had it. Passion. Check. Commitment. You betcha.

And then Roy and Celestial’s world turned on its head after a night in a small town hotel when Roy, a good Samaritan, is accused of rape, arrested, and convicted. But innocent, no doubt.

What happens to that marriage when the couple is separated? Roy’s sentence is twelve years, but Celestial’s lawyer uncle gets busy appealing the conviction, and, for a time, weekend visits and letters seem to hold the marriage together.

Until it falls apart. Celestial’s hand-sewn dolls–and the artist herself–gain some fame. A woman has needs. Not only for sex, but for companionship and a co-created life. It is in the human soul to want a partner. So Celestial finds herself a married woman engaged to another man.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones also tells the story of parents who drop the ball and parents who never even caught it. Of parents who play the game with skill. Jones explores love and loss and the glue holds men and women together. Or doesn’t. Hers is a tender perspective on that old proverb that the greatest act of love is letting go.

What I lived

I’ve done this marriage thing twice. It’s complicated. Even more so when the principle players don’t have their shit together and must explore the idea that they might have built a house of cards.

Or not.

When it comes to love and loss, I tend to side with Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior philosophy. But that requires a whole lot of vulnerability and willingness to trudge through the muck. Sometimes that just ain’t happening for one of the players or another. Sometimes the warrior becomes a conscientious objector.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

Beauty of a different sort

My earliest memories are of tree canopy and the smell of fresh cut grass, of singing sand and lapping waves and drizzly Sunday afternoons. I’ve never known a life that isn’t saturated with green, that wasn’t waterlogged.

My world, clothed in beauty–what I see when I hear the words, “And God saw everything she made, and behold, it was very good.”

Last summer when I traveled for the first time to New Mexico for a writing retreat, I allowed myself a few days of travel on my own to explore countryside I’d never experienced. I was enchanted with the wide open spaces and touched by a spirit (Spirit?) that blew in and out and around on the breeze. And I filed Santa Fe’s high desert beauty in my heart under “magic”.

How’s this for a driveway? Their home sits at the base of the Catalina Mountains

I traveled back to the Southwest in April, this time to Tucson, where my son and his family recently moved. And of course, they were the main attraction! But the country? It was no less breathtaking New Mexico.

Puzzle fun at the visitor center

When Grandma comes to stay only twice-a-year, the first day or two are best spent doing, to ease into the visit and get comfortable with each other again. So we played mini-golf and went out for a bento lunch and did some grocery shopping. Just down the road from my son’s house, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest is a fine place for exploring with a four-year-old. (It’s also one of granddaughter’s favorites!) The visitor center has a sweet little corner with books and wildlife puppets and crayons and puzzles–the perfect spot for some kid time–and we took a tram ride deep into the canyon. A saguaro forest covers the sides of the mountains, the Sabino Creek runs swiftly over the nine stone bridges we crossed–and dozens of hikers walked alongside the tram, trekking the four miles to the top on foot. The one-hour tour was just right for a precocious four-year-old. She listened and looked … and answered every one of the rangers throw-off comments as if a response was required. Ranger: “Is everyone loving this beautiful weather?” Granddaughter: “YES I am!”

The Sonora Desert is the most bio-diverse desert region in the world.

When work and day care sent the family their own ways, I drove out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Every “What to do in Tucson” site I read before my trip rated this a Must See. And it was. A kind of botanical garden-cum-wildlife rescue-cum-nature preserve, the museum is spread out over 98 acres; walking paths cover over 2 miles. Very manageable even in the heat. I only spent about three hours at the museum, but I could have stayed the day. The docent-led tour I took to orient myself was a great place to start. (Plus I learned to tell the difference between cat prints and coyote, and distinguish cougar poop and from wolf–truly a life skill not to be missed!)

Barren … that’s what I expected of the desert–a dry, dusty landscape. It wasn’t. The desert was blooming with color and awash in dusky green. Every morning the quail and cactus wren and Gila woodpecker chattered, while hummingbirds flitted from tree to tree. The sky was clear and lapis blue, the mountains benevolent and watchful. Giant saguaros lifted their arms in benediction.

Beauty itself, wearing different clothes. And it was very good.

4/20

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999.

I attended the March For Our Lives last March in Grand Rapids

Not even a year later, a teacher across the hall from me intercepted a note. In the note, one student told another he wanted to napalm three teachers on 4/20 and watch them burn. I was one of the teachers named. Now I’m not naive. Kids have always talked smack about teachers–especially when grades are in play or they feel some injustice has been done to them. But this note was passed only ten months after Columbine. Teachers and students everywhere felt–quite literally–in the cross hairs.

Teach your children well

In response to Columbine, Michigan legislators amended school code to include what was informally called a snap suspension. The new legislation stated that teachers could impose a one-day student suspension if they felt threatened. And so the three of us teachers named in the note met with the assistant principal after school, gave him a photocopy of the note, and asked that the one-day snap suspension be carried out. It was all we wanted, really: to send a message that language such as this was no longer acceptable. Because while the student’s sentiment was scary enough, we were living in a new era: one where violent rhetoric–even what might once have been considered a normal teenage rant–could not longer be tolerated in school.

A child shall lead them …

What followed was a mess of grand proportions. After meeting with the parents and students, the principal decided a written apology was sufficient. (These were good kids, after all; it was all in the heat of the moment.) We teachers refused the apology. Administration maintained it was not a “real” threat. Union lawyers became involved. The gossip mill in our small community turned fast and furiously. Public comments at a school board meeting were largely in favor of the teachers, as were the letters to the editor in the local paper. Lawyers proposed we seek a personal protection order. The superintendent sent the teachers home until things settled. A judge dismissed the petition.

The teachers involved felt unsupported by administration; the administration felt attacked.

The district did adopt a procedure requiring that if and when similar situations occurred students be given a risk-assessment by an outside agency. And the risk assessment has been used in the last twenty years. Several years after my own incident, a student posted inappropriately about a teacher on social media, and later still there was an incident of student stalking. Other than that, what good came of my experience?

Since Columbine there have been at least ten school shootings. Several hundred staff and students have been injured or killed. (I’d suggest not looking at school shooting memes on the internet because it is clear that the attitude towards school violence is irreverent and dismissive, at best.) Set aside the fact that my own incident didn’t involve the horror of gun violence, it was dreadful nonetheless.

We three teachers went on to have successful careers. One of us is still a teacher in the prime of her career. Another is an education professor at an Ivy League university. I am retired. But I find myself thinking about those students quite often. They are now in their mid-thirties, with families, I’m sure, and probably children of their own. I assume they felt as swept up by the moment as we teachers did; I’m guessing they also felt victimized by the situation.

But how could those students–now adults–not regret writing those words? I used to think if they were truly sorry, they would some day offer an explanation–if not an apology–to make amends. But after twenty years I doubt that will happen.

Now I wonder if they think about that cold winter day in January at all.

I do.