“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

JS Sargent Repose_Nonchaloire

John Singer Sargent’s “Repose” (Nonchaloir), oil on canvas, 1911: This is how I felt yesterday 

“Sadness is always the legacy of the past; regrets are pains of the memory.” ~ Author Unknown

“Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose. ” ~ The Wonder Years

Well, yesterday was an eventful day, so to speak. We found out that one of the avenues of employment that Corey was pursuing is unavailable. Big disappointment there. I really thought that that part of the plan was going to work. Perhaps that’s why I shouldn’t be optimistic: It always ends up smacking me in the head.

Speaking of being smacked in the head, have to say that so far, the massive doses of magnesium are not helping with the usual morning headache. Each morning when I awaken, I have a headache, not a migraine, just a tightness. I don’t know if I am grinding my teeth, but I don’t think so. Corey would have told me by now if I am grinding. So each morning I get up and take 800 mg of ibuprofen and two Sudafed. This usually helps somewhat as I think that part of the reason is my fall allergies kicking in and causing sinus pressure. Oh well.

Another interesting not good thing that happened yesterday is that I had a minor breakdown. Let me explain.

hampelmann
Hand-painted Bear Hampelmann from Germany

I was looking for something for Alexis that I had been keeping for her. I had thought that it was in the small lockbox in which we keep our passports, birth certificates, etc., but it wasn’t there. Then I thought that I might have put it with her stuff from when she was a baby. I pulled down everything in the top left of my closet as that is where I store the things from the kids’ earlier days.

For example, I have a huge Raggedy Ann that Alexis’s Aunt Ann made Alexis for Christmas one year. The handwork on this doll is amazing. I kind of feel sorry for all of the grandkids, nieces and nephews who came along after Alexis. Everyone was tired of making handmade presents by then. I mean, for the first five years of her life, Alexis was it in the family, so she received handmade Christmas ornaments, dolls, cross-stitched pictures, you name it.

Anyway, Raggedy Ann and a much smaller Raggedy Andy are stored in that part of the closet, waiting for the day if/when Alexis has her own children. I also have a bag of puppets from Germany. They are called hampelmann, which are hand-painted puppets of sorts. Alexis had about seven in all, and they used to hang over her changing table. I would use them to entertain her, and then later, her siblings.

(Aside: Today when I got home from picking Brett up from school, the Pluto hampelmann had been eviscerated, torn limb from limb. I’m pretty sure that Tillie did it as she was the only dog that was hiding from me.)

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” ~ Willa Cather

Sock Doll
Example of a handmade sock doll

Back to the closet. I have kept just a few pieces of clothes from each child, favorite shirts, etc., and I have a bag for each one. There is also a plastic cubed storage container in which I have put several things that belonged to Caitlin. Well, in pulling everything down from the closet, this container also came down.

I made the mistake of opening the container and opening the box that was on top inside of the container. This box holds several things from that hospital, including a sock doll that slept with Caitlin the entire time she was in the hospital.

Let me back up. I’m not a craftsperson. Never have been. But while I was teaching at ODU during that semester in which Caitlin was in the hospital, several of my students brought in things for her. My most cherished gift is a sock doll that one of my student’s mothers made especially for Caitlin. These sock dolls have been around for centuries. They have been called hush-a-bye dolls because mothers used to give them to their babies to keep them quiet in church.

Anyway, I took the doll in my hands, and that was pretty much as far as I got for the next hour. Corey walked in, took a look at the things spread on the bed, and immediately knew what had happened.

“Love lost is still love. It takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t see their smile or bring them food our tousle their hair . . .But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end. Love doesn’t.” ~ Mitch Albon

I came across an article about two weeks ago on a syndrome that some psychiatrists and mental health care researchers are trying to have approved for insertion into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association). The disorder is called prolonged grief disorder, or something like that. PGD is a disorder in which the individual simply cannot get over the loss of a loved one within the “normal” time periods.

PGD is different from depressive disorder, and currently grief is not included in the DSM. In one article, researchers contend “that PGD meets DSM criteria for inclusion as a distinct mental disorder on the grounds that it is a clinically significant form of psychological distress associated with substantial disability.”

Apparently, PGD occurs when grief following lingers and become a serious health problem.

I wish someone would have asked me. I could have told them that years ago. I know that my grief is not normal. I have known that forever. It manifests itself unexpectedly, sometimes mildly, sometimes to the point at which I am completely paralyzed. Granted, I do not have these hour-long crying jags everyday or even every month. But I can count on having at least one Caitlin/Dad related episode in a year.

I really don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that my bereavement periods are longer than most people. I do not need confirmation that the pain should not be as acute as it still it. And I will freely admit that even I am astounded by just how severely I am affected when it happens.

I also know that a lot of the reason that my grief has hung around for so long is directly attributable to my feelings of guilt over both of their deaths. I had to make the decision on whether or not it was time for Caitlin, and I don’t know that I will ever be able to view that as not being questionable: Was it time? Should I have waited? With my dad, the guilt arises over the fact that I wasn’t with him when he died, even though I had promised him that I would be there.

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” ~ Cicero

Logically, you don’t have to tell me that I should have let go a long time ago, or point out my inability to let go. I know all of this. But holding that small, soft doll I could swear that it still smelled of her essence. I know that that is not possible, but grief and despair do funny things to a psyche.

I did look a little more in the storage case: I found the blue smocked dress that I have talked about, which was a real surprise as I have believed for many years that that particular dress is with Kathleen, along with the other dresses that I sent her. I also found the dress that Caitlin was wearing when she had her one and only portrait taken.

Black Patent Leather Mary Janes
Black Patent Leather Mary Janes

Eventually, I was able to put everything away, and Corey put the box back in the top left of the closet. The rest of the things that I pulled down are still in a pile in front of the closet. My accidental encounter with the past left me depleted, bereft, numb.

Too much at once. I’ll get to the rest soon. I think that I am saving it until I can actually enjoy the contents of these bags and boxes. After all, they are filled with items that recall good memories—like Alexis’s tiny Virginia Tech t-shirt. That made me smile.

So I’ll go through the rest, probably tomorrow, refold, repack, and replace on the shelf. I’ll take the time to bring to mind some of the good memories that are associated with these things: Brett’s baby blankets, the various humpelmann, Eamonn’s little cap from the National Zoo, Alexis’s Mary Janes. I find myself smiling inwardly even now as I type about these things. And that’s a good thing.

At times, I can balance with unbearable with the wonderful, the heart-wrenching with the endearing, which only proves that I am human after all. And even if it’s a lie, I will try to believe that it will be all right.

 

More later. Peace.

 

Lives of quiet desperation . . .

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

 

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” ~ John Keating, DPS

I just finished watching Dead Poets’ Society. Or should I say, watching again for 10th, 11th, who knows how many times? Corey could hear me sniffling from the dining room. It’s always this way when I watch this movie, so I space out the time between viewings.

I understand that many people do not understand the attraction of this movie. Many felt that Robin Williams’ appearance was too over the top. For a poetry teacher, he quoted too much Whitman, someone once said to me. Some of you hate this movie because you have been made to watch it. But for me, each viewing brings back some of the best memories of my life.

Mr KeatingNo, not boarding school. Never did that. Never went to a same-sex school. Never had a teacher like Mr. John Keating, either. How I wish that I had. But time for complete truths here: Being in a college classroom, teaching English—poetry, plays, novels, short stories—doing that was the most rewarding job I have ever had. And I miss it just about every day of my life.

I loved to watch minds engage, regardless of the student’s age or background. It gave me great pleasure to watch students look at material that they had seen before or had never seen, and suddenly realize that they really got it. They understood it, and they understood not because I made them think what I thought, but because I allowed them to decipher for themselves. Too many teachers and professors still approach English as if it were written in stone. Classics only include old, dead white men. A poem’s meaning is not up to interpretation. Do not consider the time in which something was written as being related to the work itself.

I used Dead Poets’ in almost all of my applicable literature classes. I would use it in companion with pieces such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, as well as poems by Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Bruce Weigl, Nikki Giovanni, Ntzoke Shange, Langston Hughes and countless others. A myriad of voices writing about similar themes, life experiences, points of view. A mingling of past and present.

We would discuss how the period in which the character was placed affected diction, outlooks, actions. We would discuss how the setting of a piece had a direct effect on a character’s actions. Is the setting claustrophobic? Is the setting controversial? Is the setting in opposition to the characters’ conflicts. We would discuss the roles of men and women in literature: the powerless, almost silent mother figure in the movie, the powerless female protagonist in A Doll’s House.

And then, quite often on the final exam, I would take a quote from the movie and have the students use a selection of the works read to explore a theme based upon the quote.

I’d like to think that I never taught the same class in the same way. I never used notecards in my literature classes, only the text, and my students learned that if they did not participate in the discussion, then I would move on to something else, because I was not there to tell them what to think about a poem, or what the author intended with her point of view choice or at what point the denouement of the story occurred. But it was important to me was that they try, they think, they offer their opinions, and they learned to embrace literature in an entirely new way.

“The powerful play goes on, and  you may contribute a verse.” ~ John Keating, DPS 

Old Book SpinesAm I patting myself on the back? No. Am I laying claim to this method of teaching? Of course not. I’m merely sharing with you why this particular movie holds such meaning for me. And why, sitting here now, I find myself feeling the same thing that I always feel after the movie ends: I belong in a classroom.

I cannot tell you how much I miss teaching. College, that is. I learned the hard way that I was not meant to teach middle school. I’m not entirely certain that I would be any better suited for high school, unless it was a progressive high school.

I suppose that I am still holding onto the dream that someday I might be able to get another post at a small college. Who knows? Who knows if I would even like it anymore . . . I think, though, that if I am to be honest with myself (which I try to be), then I would have to admit that there are few things that I would want more.

My friend Mari, with whom I shared an office for most of my time at ODU, is currently teaching part time at a community college in Massachusetts. Being an adjunct at any college or university is a thankless position that pays close to nothing, but Mari does it because she loves to teach, definitely not because she is making any money from it.

I wouldn’t mind a part-time position somewhere, except that adjuncts usually get stuck with composition classes. Unless you are known, it’s damned hard to get literature or writing classes as an adjunct.

But as usual, I digress . . .

“Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry.” ~ John Keating, DPS

The Movie: Twenty years later, and I think that Dead Poets’ Society still holds up well. After all, the movie’s accurate depiction of the 1950’s in setting and costume is never going to be outdated. Where we are  as a society today does not reflect the roles of men and women during that era, something that the movie captures with its secondary female characters: They are all stock characters with very little to do, simply functioning as a stereotypes—the powerless wife/mother, the blonde girlfriend every boy desires, the ditzy girls who are pick-ups.

Father and SonThe timeless aspects of the movie still hold true, as well. For example, the relationship between fathers and sons can still be fraught with an inability to communicate true feelings. The youthful male bonding and search for identity is eternal.

Another aspect of the movie that I have always loved is the cinematography. The golden hues of autumn, sunsets on the water, misty moonlight forays into the forest, and one of my favorite scenes, Knox riding his bicycle through a flock of geese.

Oh, and one more thing. The pool of poetic quotes from which Keating draws is limited, but remember, the era of confessional poetry was just coming into its own. Women had yet to gain prominence in the genre, and I just cannot see the Harlem Renaissance as being a mainstay in the curriculum for an all-white, male preparatory school in New England.

Say what you will, but this movie still speaks to me. And the last scene absolutely kills me.

What will my verse be?

 

More later. Peace.