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.

Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

The one where I retired: Six months and counting (Part 4)

School started on a Tuesday in late August and there I was for the first time in twenty-five years–home and in my PJs at 7:30 AM. First hour was about to begin.

To quote Shakespeare (as, I suppose, any good English teacher would do) I met that day with bated breath. Would I feel unmoored? Purposeless? Would I crave the hustle and bustle of football games and spirit week and SAT testing and staff meetings? Would I miss those 700 souls I’d lived with day in and day out over the past two decades plus a few?

I woke up and the wobblies were gone. I had planned well.

That first official retirement morning I spent walking in Frederik Meijer Gardens with friend Denice, my retirement ‘midwife’. She had blazed the trail a few years before me and was firm in her advice: 1) don’t rush into anything 2) let yourself meander through your days 3) keep your commitments to a minimum. After a year, she said, I’d know better how I wanted my retirement to look. That morning we wandered the sculpture garden and for once my direction was spot-on, and I didn’t get lost. We stopped to admire the farm garden and chit-chatted with the garden volunteers. I learned what amaranth was. We swapped stories on the boardwalk about herons and loons. Lunched at Panera. In the evening, my husband and I had tickets to see Lyle Lovett, our favorite summer concert tradition. Lovett is so entertaining, warm, and personable that you’d hardly think he was playing to a crowd of nearly two thousand. The perfect end to a milestone of a day.

And then came Tuesday when I unexpectedly babysat a sick grandson and Wednesday when I spent half an hour talking to a stranger–the young mom behind a farm stand at the Farmer’s Market–about public high schools and curriculum and her son’s needs and why she was homeschooling and … and you get the picture. I had time–and energy–to stop and connect without rushing on to the next thing on my long to-do list.

I’ve had no regrets.

The esprit de corps among teachers is a powerful thing, though, and those first six months I mourned the loss of my teaching buddies nearly every day. We were in the trenches together and that’s potent stuff. We kvetched together. Laughed until we cried. Got tipsy on the occasional Friday after work. Attended each other’s weddings and parent’s funerals. But even that ache is waning. I still see those who have been fast friends, and the rest are fading into fond memories of a life I no longer live.

I read more widely than I have before. Because I have the time, and I’m not reading Marzanno’s Classroom Instruction That Works for Professional Development (!). I’ve spent time developing my writing workshops. Through an online social media platform for neighbors, I organized a neighborhood book club with women I had never met before–not something I would have ever done in my previous life. I’ve taken a few online writing and blogging courses. I volunteer one very full day a week for an incredible organization that provides healthy home-cooked meals for individuals living with chronic illness.

While I no longer live at breakneck speed, juggling thirty-seven things at once, I do have busy days, believe it or not. (Although I suppose even that is relative!) And then sometimes I don’t–but I’m okay with that. I’m not living the high life that some retirees seem to because life got in the (financial) way, but that’s okay, too. I am living happy, wild, and free–and I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin.

Life is good.