Friday, October 18, 2013

Finding the Right Words

Exactly two years ago today, as we waited for the moment when we would remove Dad's life support, I kept on trying to remember the lines spoken over Hamlet's body at the end of Shakespeare's play. I felt that I ought to say some sort of benediction, some final word befitting the man that he was:

Good night, Sweet Prince...and heaven sings you to your rest.

I knew those weren't exactly right. I'd never bothered to read all the way through Hamlet, though I had seen a couple film versions and could quote maybe half of the famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. I wasn't even sure who said the lines--was it Laertes? Was it Horatio?

Farewell, sweet prince...let...angels sing you to your rest?

I considered Googling it several times, but I knew that would require me to use my smartphone. I'd turned it off hours earlier. I didn't want to see pitying Facebook comments, or worse, messages from people who didn't know.

So I just kept on mixing up the words in my head. I tried to reconstruct the iambs in time to the beeping of the heart monitor, substituting words into the gaps in my rhythm. Sitting there in the hospital room, watching family and friends filter in and out to say their goodbyes to a man already gone, I fixated on finding the magic word order. Only exactly the right combination of those ten words would work. They wouldn't save him, I knew, but they might send him off right.

Good night, sweet prince. And heavens above sing you to your rest.

I never did say it aloud. I felt kind of silly, wanting to quote maudlin poetry over Dad's unconscious body in the Neuro ICU. Especially since I couldn't even remember the bloody words. My lapse seemed fittingly ironic: if I'd had more time, I would have studied elegies, researched good final lines from plays and movies. I would have found the perfect combination of words to send him off into the ether.

Sometimes, this seems like a fitting metaphor for what I've been doing these past two years. All this writing. All this talking. Just rearranging words and sentences, trying to find exactly the right order. Over and over. This time, I'll get it right. The right prayer to express my sorrow; the right incantation to heal my wounds.

So thanks to you, each of you, who have stuck with me through all these stumblings, these aborted and confused arrangements of words. Whether you've never met me, whether we've lost touch as friends, you're family, or you see me on campus every day. Thank you.
Dr. Timothy H. Brown, with baby Caleb
Sept. 5 1953-October 18, 2011

Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!     

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Step 1: Panic, Step 2: Achieve Greatness

I'm currently having a mini-panic attack in the library here at Unviersity of Cincinnati about applying to PhD programs. So stressful! So many things to do! Such low chances that I'll get acceptances!

This is your brain on stress.
I have been agonizing for weeks about which programs to apply to, trying to balance rankings, funding, GRE requirements, faculty, location,and likelihood that I'll get in. Each is an impossible problem to solve, not only because I'm terrible about math. I never could quite get the hang of probability: (If you reach into your sock drawer in the dark, and you have six blue socks, eight red socks, and fifteen mismatched socks, what color sock will you most likely get? The answer is I have no freaking idea. Just turn on the lights).

And no, I don't want to know the answer, smarty pants. It was just a metaphor.

But the problem is also impossible because several of the factors are unknowable: I won't know if I get in until it happens. I don't know who else is applying. I don't know what budget problems the departments are facing this year. I don't know who will read my materials. I've tried to be thorough, but I can't research every program in the United States. What if I ignore the only school I'm "meant" to be at?

I was thinking, "man, I don't remember being this overwhelmed when I applied to MA programs!" And then I remembered, that's cause Dad had died a few weeks before. I barely remember most of that time, and I certainly don't remember if I was worried about my applications as I was pulling them together. Though I definitely wanted to go to graduate school, it was low on my list of daily hopes:

1. That this will all turn out to be a crazy dream.
2. If it isn't a dream, that I manage to get out of bed.
3. Get into a good MA program, I guess?

But I guess having much worse and upsetting things on your mind isn't exactly the best advice for not being stressed about something. Probably not a good idea to invite that sort of thing. So maybe it's about keeping the right perspective: I can do this. I've survived worse. I've done it before, sort of. It'll all work out somehow.

Okay, self: here is your mantra for today:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

One year, ten months, ten days

I think I’m going to keep on declaring, every few months or years, that I’ve stepped into a new phase of grief after losing Dad. That I didn’t understand all the previous stages until now. I think I’m okay with this. 

Hope you don’t mind.

Someone was recently telling me about a distant mutual acquaintance, and how this woman’s husband had died suddenly last year. The friend admitted it had been especially sad because it had been so sudden. Then she said, motioning to me, “Well. You know.”

I nodded yes. I do know. But somehow…I think I meant it in the past tense: I once lost someone suddenly. It was a very painful, jarring experience.

Less than two years ago. I was lost in the haze of shock; nothing added up. Understanding what exactly had happened to me was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle on the edge of a black hole. The bits that I did tentatively fit together—I am still me, I still have my family. I’m going to grad school—scattered, often as not. Teetering on the edge of the darkness, I told myself to just focus on getting the edges in line. Just wait ‘til you get to episode seven. I bet that’s gonna be even better than episode six. I lost some bits entirely, I think. I’ve forgotten much of what it was like in high school, and even college. I remember what happened, but I have a hard time recapturing how I felt at 17, or 20. Sometimes I struggle to connect with my old friends, who knew me before.

I’ll never stop missing Dad. I’ll always have painful memories to conjure on my worst days, if I’m feeling masochistic. (And sometimes, I am.) I’ll never stop half-hoping that he might come back. But I’ve said this before, and I still mean it: I don’t wish my life to have gone any differently. I am stronger. I have more empathy. I try to be more open, more loving. I think I am a bit wiser.  

I see that day as a defining moment in my life. A crease in the page.

Everything before.

But here’s the best part: everything after.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

the perished

"There is so little to remember of anyone--an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long." 
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Formosa, Argentina - Summer 2000

Monday, March 25, 2013

My Semester, in Under a Minute

Normally I like to write really long-winded, overly-earnest musing about my life. I like to take some small event, like walking up a hill or missing my exit on the interstate, to frame a heartfelt confession about how hard it is to live without Dad around. Or how hard it is to be an adult. Or how hard it is to be a teacher.

But today, I don't have the time. Today, I realized I'm slightly (read: extremelyveryalot) behind on work. I need to save my words and actually write that paper for my Teaching College Writing class that I've been procrastinating for ages. (I do appreciate the irony!) So here's how I've been feeling this semester, composed in Youtube videos under one minute. Enjoy.

How I felt at the beginning of the semester:

But a week later:

When it hit Week 6, I lost my mind:

And I had to resort to some pretty desperate measures:

And when I tried to look at my students research papers:

But then I saw this:

And watched this:

Now I feel like this:

And now, it's back to work. Hope you're all surviving whatever you've got going on. Never give up!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I'm...not even on the right highway.

The other day, I was driving home from dinner with some friends and a funny thing happened.
Here's a little context. For those of you who don't live here, Cincinnati has two main North-South interstates, I-71 and I-75. They shape a V around the inner part of the city--the two meet downtown at the Ohio River, and they spread out from one another as you go north into the suburbs.

Now that I live in Clifton, which is a couple miles north of downtown, I'm only a few minutes' drive from either interstate. But my apartment is slightly closer to I-75, and when I drive home from the East Side I like to take this short connector called "The Norwood Lateral" to 75 so I can get off at Exit 3, Hopple Street. Left onto Martin Luther King; left onto Dixmyth; left onto Whitfield. Cross Terrace, Howell, and Ludlow, and then it's the fourth house on the left. Easy Peasy.

Anyways, so there I was, driving south on I-71. I'm getting ready to get off on the Norwood Lateral, like normal, and I was thinking about the work I needed to get done.

I gotta try to read a good chunk of "Beloved."

And I need to do some more work on that stupid Writing Autobiography that's due Tuesday.

Oh shoot, and I should read some submissions for the Cincinnati Review.

I also need to start the reading for Teaching College Writing but that's totally not happen.

Suddenly I thought, "Wait, did I get on the Norwood Lateral??" I looked around and saw the lights of a strip mall up on a hill to the left and though, yeah, okay, that's the Target. It must be such a habit I didn't even notice taking the exit! So I continued driving. Ten minutes later, I started wondering why I hadn't hit I-75 yet and then realized I had never gotten off I-71 South in the first place. Um...oops! What I find funniest about this isn't that I missed my exit. It's that I thought I missed my exit, looked around, and completely and utterly misread everything. I didn't notice how everything looked different than it was supposed to. I didn't see the signs, the exits. I just blithely kept on driving.

This story isn't really that impressive, I know. I recently read something on the internet about a woman from Belgium who left her house intending to drive 50 miles west to pick her friend up from a train station, and accidentally drove east for two days. She ended up in Croatia.

But it got me thinking, and not just about faulty GPS systems or the dangers of absent-minded driving. And I'm not trying to make some cliche parallel to "not knowing what direction I'm going in" because I'm...fill in the blank: twenty-something, single, in grad school, the girl with the Dead Dad.

Instead, I was thinking about how sometimes it's all just so much. I feel like for every thing I do successfully--writing a paper, finishing a novel, teaching a good class or even having a drink with new friends--I drop three more things. The image that comes to mind is that guy at the circus who balances the spinning plates while riding a unicycle. Except that in this circus, he's shedding plates. The stage is littered with ceramic shards. The audience stares blankly at him; the wheel jerks unexpectedly as it rolls over the broken plates. This is the image I have of myself this semester.

Hermione, you lucky girl.

I saw a friend at a party recently who, when I told her I was "doing great!," just gave me that look. The yeah, right look.

But when the S hits the fan, my response is to deny, deny, deny. I think, if I just had that one thing! A boyfriend to make me feel special. Four more hours each day. A time-turner like Hermione Granger's. But this is never true. There is no magic wand you can wave to shorten your to-do list. You can't hire someone to do your reading. But you also can't stay chained to your desk.

(I'd end up like that lady in Kansas who had a phobia of not being able to get to the bathroom in time, so she sat on the toilet for two years. When they tried to help her out of there, she was stuck to the seat. Do not Google this.)

Sometimes I lose track of where I began. It's a symptom. Sorry.

Two years ago, I was in a similar place. My senior year of college sort of spun out of control. At one point, I tried to balance six classes (two of which happened at the same time), finish my 70-page honors thesis, work as a TA for the English department, be in the orchestra, do activities for the English Honors Organization, go to a conference, and spend time with my friends. C'est impossible!

I ended up quitting orchestra and taking time off after graduation--a great decision. After everything I have learned in the past year, though, I don't want to just start cutting things out. I don't want to simply shut down and retreat to my bedroom, like before. You have to bear up under what's really important. You have to keep moving forward, despite everything. You have to figure out a strategy, like Bradley Cooper's character in Silver Linings Playbook. (The acting was great, but the composition, weird, no?)

I feel very young, writing this. I know my older readers are either A) annoyed with my complaints or B) smiling and thinking, adorable. Either way. Have mercy on my young, misdirected soul. To bring back the navigation metaphor at the end of the piece: I'm doing my best to just stay on the damn highway. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Equal Rights

sunrise from McMicken Hall
According to my page view statistics, there's at least one person who checks regularly to see if I've posted anything new. And to that one person, sorry for not writing often. It's just that--
"“The future, even when it was only a question-shrouded glimmer, would not be eclipsed by the past; even when death moved towards the centre of the stage, life went on fighting for equal rights.”
--Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
I'm happy to say that most of the time, my present life occupies my mind, rather than the past. I still miss Dad like crazy. I'm still occasionally caught off guard by moments of piercing grief. In late November, I was walking home after one of the most encouraging teaching moments of my life. I'd given a teaching demonstration in front of my Practicum class, my professor had used the phrase "the mark of a good teacher" to describe something I'd done instinctively, and I was just soaring down Clifton Ave afterwards. Then, all of the sudden, I felt such an ache because I wanted to call Dad. I wanted to call him and gush about finding a way that I can actually help people, I can connect to them and influence their lives--that I've looked up from the books and I can make the world a little better place. I know he'd say, "Well, honey, I'm not surprised." And I'd be so gratified. It's like, it's not an actual success until Dad tells me he's proud.

That's a hard thing.

But this isn't going to be a sad post. Because I'm not in a sad place; I'm in such a good place now. School is challenging and exciting, teaching is challenging and sometimes rewarding. The people here are wonderful. I love my neighborhood. In fact, I've been thinking lately about how passing the one year mark has given me a lot of perspective.

The first thing I see more clearly now is just how lost I was a year ago. Maybe everyone saw it except me. I used to think I was good at hiding how I really felt about stuff. But I've come to understand that I have the most obvious face, ever. Every single thought or emotion I have is telegraphed on my face; I can't help it! To everyone I've ever met: sorry I looked so annoyed that one time. I probably didn't mean for you to know.

Over the Christmas holiday this year, I decided to go back to Walmart to make a little extra money. While I was there, I ran into my favorite, favorite old lady named Marion. She's at least 83 and we were totally Walmart Besties. We were talking about school and she said something that really struck me: "You look so much happier!" At first I thought...Um, I look happy to be wearing these awful khaki pants, while I'm answering the phone at Walmart one day after finishing a 20 page paper? I didn't exactly feel spectacular, but then I realized she had known me during a very dark, very difficult time in my life. When--even as I laughed at a stupid customer or gleefully gossiped about some cashier we didn't like--the sadness was always right there, below the surface.

I really was adrift in my grief. But: working at Walmart is not one of the signs of how lost I was. Oddly enough, it was what kept me going. In the early days, the work was just enough to keep my mind occupied, so I wouldn't dwell on my Dad all day. It filled my time and wore me out, so I could actually sleep at night. And there are actually some incredibly wonderful people stuck working at places at Walmart. At first I got sympathy, and then afterwards, they left it alone unless I mentioned it. And I'm surprisingly grateful. It's hard to bear those looks of pity for very long.

And Walmart was exactly the right thing because I could clock out and not think about work until I walked in the next day. I know now I could not have managed school. I'm one of those students who becomes my classes. I eat, sleep, and breathe the assignments, my responsibilities, my work. Writing papers, even when they're just scholarly and not creative, requires a huge emotional and energetic commitment from me. I could not have focused last year. I struggled to simply fill out my grad school applications. One day when I thought my GRE scores hadn't gotten to Ohio State (ugh) in time, I broke down sobbing hysterically, out of the blue, because it was all just SO hard. I wonder now if my personal statements were exceptionally terrible. All I remember about that process was each time, I would write some thing about how Dad just died three weeks before and then I'd cut it out. My biggest goal was to not mention my dead Dad, so I couldn't really focus on my personal branding as a potential scholar and teacher. I was simply trying to survive. I see this now.

Everyone says, it's never okay, but it gets easier. And I think I finally know that to be true. I am grateful for everything that has happened in the past year. I'm grateful for understanding managers, for loving friends. I'm grateful that misery loves company, rather than isolation. I'm grateful for my siblings. I'm grateful that life provides the kind of relationships where you can sit crying on the kitchen floor with someone, as sad as it may seem. I'm grateful for kind words from students.

I'm grateful that life keeps on fighting for equal rights, despite everything.