Made to Order

Another bright, warm Mexico City morning dawns. From the terrace of our top-floor apartment—an airbnb rental with panoramic views—I can see the Starbucks on the corner…and I want some coffee. Neither of my sisters is awake yet, and I can stave off my caffeine deficit with some warm water. I’ll be ahead of the game when I actually get the coffee after all since I’ve adopted my new cup-for-cup rule.

About an hour later they emerge, tousle-headed but rested. We’ve been walking the city (as one tour guide describes it “the city that never ends”) and riding the Metro for days, with a couple of really early mornings thrown in for good measure. We need sleep! By now, I’m settled in, have almost completed journal writing and city gazing. My older sister Mary offers to make the Starbucks run.

Disclaimer here: I make my own coffee at home every day. I am not someone who hits Starbucks—or Dunkin’ Donuts when I lived back East. This rental has some amenities, but it also has its gaps, a coffee maker being one of them. There are bidets in every bathroom but no coffeemaker, priorities I guess.

“I’ve pretty much got yours, Trish. I can order the Café Americano, no problem, but I’m going to need some help with yours, Anita.” It turns out that, despite its bragging rights as one of the largest and highest capital cities with stellar museums and architecture combining the historic and the modern, English is not as ubiquitous as we had anticipated. Among us— “Las Tres Hermanas”— I have the most Spanish, so I write my younger sister’s order on an envelope scrap and hand it to Mary. She rehearses a few times, steeling herself for the unfamiliar. She is nothing if not an intrepid world traveler.

20190322_055006

That scrap, my memory in artifact, is what falls from the pages of my journal as I rifle through, looking for the next blank page. And this is the slice it evoked.

 

Advertisements

LeGuin’s Gold

leguin

The Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin, a 6:30 screening of Arwen Curry’s documentary, draws a standing-room-only crowd to the downstairs meeting room at the public library. Oregon has embraced LeGuin as its own for she lived, worked, and died on January 22, 2018 at her home in Portland. She and her husband had settled there early in her career, but she was born and raised in Berkeley, California and spent summers in her beloved family farmhouse in the Napa Valley.

I was not a fantasy reader, still am not, so my knowledge of LeGuin, my interest in her is recent. The Oregon Council of Teachers of English will devote its fall journal to her, and my husband is a longtime fan. Just recently he brought home a collection of essays about her writing, Words Are My Matter. The title, the topics covered, speak volumes. Early in Curry’s film, LeGuin says she can create worlds out of ink and paper. The words are the stuff of worlds—and that is true for writers. Poof! Something exists that was not there before. She just happens to be better at the creation that most.

Curry spent a decade creating the film, and as she says in an enlightening interview, that she was learning a new language, the language of film, because words are her “matter,” too. She features many contemporary writers who lend their heartfelt and glowing commentary about LeGuin to the film: Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Michael Chabon among others.

Many revelations come to me as I watch, and when I watch it again as I must, I know there will be others. In one particularly poignant scene Jeff Becker, a Berkeley High School teacher, is discussing her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Of all her work, this is what I know best. I have read it with my college freshmen. The singular reflections of the students represent the breadth of possible response to this creation of a complex utopia, perfect in every way, except for its deep, dark secret: there is a child held in a dungeon in the bowels of the city—when residents come of age they learn this—who is denied any and all humanity. As Curry says, “Of course the student who owns that he would stay, forget the child who pays for the perfection he and the people enjoy,  and continue to live his life…well, there are people who pay for the life we live now.”

The second unforgettable moment occurs when Michael Chabon says, “She talked to me when I was 10 and still when I am 40.” Isn’t that at the heart of great writing, the essence of Rosenblatt’s transaction. No matter when you and the words meet, the magic happens, the alchemy of paper, ink, and reader: Gold!

What I Can Do

 

 

athleticfield“‘I think about actions, not outcomes,'” Gretchen Rubin tells Ryan Halliday in a recent interview. Halliday—among the many hats he wears— promotes the philosophy of the Stoics and authors a daily email/blog: Daily Stoic. While I receive the mailing, it’s only certain statements that strike at just the right moment, like catching lightning in a bottle. That’s Rubin’s quote, exactly what I decided yesterday as I drove the winding Pacific Coast highway to my substitute gig.

I can travel as much as half-an-hour north or south to reach a district school. Yesterday brought a.m. perfection, the kind of morning that makes me glad I’m alive. Uncertainty coupled with that joy. Teens and pre-teens individually have a lot going on. Put them in groups, on an invitation-to-spring day in a place where they are compelled rather than choose to go, and best laid plans, a teachers’s raison d’etre, become futile.

So I decide, a day before Halliday publishes today’s Stoic wisdom, “I can only do what I can do, my best. I will bring my 100%, and that will have to be enough. What the result will be, I must let go.” And that is how the day unfolds.

There’s a scheduled fire drill the penultimate period of the day. At its end, my students join their special on the field leaving me to spend the last period of the day free. The promise of a perfect day realized, I walk up the stairs that flank the bleachers heading toward the building. I notice a young man from one of my classes earlier in the day sitting on one of the shaded benches, gazing down at the track and green field spread below. (This is the Pacific Northwest and green is our signature color!) High schoolers have met there to practice field hockey. Track team members have begun warming up.

I walk into the row and sit beside him. Almost everyone has gone where they need to be. The last few stragglers, like me wont to leave this idyll behind, call out typical comments, “You in trouble, Ricky?” “Hey, Ricky, wha’ did ya do?” “Oooo Ricky, you in trouble now.”

“He’s not in any trouble,” I softly counter. They move on.

Ricky and I sit silently, the afternoon scene spread before us. He turns to me and says, “I guess I better go in. Seems like a shame though, right?”

“Absolutely.” We rise and head inside.

 

 

The Best for Last

First thing I do, even before coffee, is check the online job postings for substitutes. There are four jobs staring me in the face. I decided last night that I wanted to work, so now to choose: the first is a sixth grade self-contained in a school a 30-minute drive from here, one new to me; the second is a first grade position in a school right up the road; the third, a two-day posting half an hour south teaching Art and ESOL; and the fourth PE/Health 15 minutes inland.

After a minute’s hesitation, I press the “Accept”button for the sixth grade. The circle spins and spins and spins, pale blue flashing hyphens…nothing. So I refresh the page (not the first time the system has balked). In that brief span, all the jobs are gone—except the one I have selected. I hit “Accept” a second time and am rewarded with a confirmation. Last one taken: sixth grade. My first choice—obviously NOT everybody’s.

Wish me luck!

Real Education

College was a peak experience, gaining admission, I mean. I’d aimed high and scored. That’s how I felt. I fully expected to major in English; literature, writing both held me in their sway. My first class crushed those hopes. I’ll be honest here. There was a lot of soul-crushing going on. Now I know I was not alone drowning, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. My high school on the West Coast, as good as it was, had not prepared me for the rigor I encountered.  For a seventeen year old 3500 miles away from home, the initiation was rocky.

Then I found religion—literally. The religion department saved me, ironically not before it almost destroyed me. My first class where we analyzed the gospels side-by-side, was taught by a biblical scholar who radiated faith despite what he was teaching. Each class forced me to confront the contradictions among the gospel accounts, these men who were conduits for the Word of God were, as he helped us see, just imperfect men after all. How did he reconcile the disparities in the Word of God with his belief? I struggled with the tension between dogma and analysis, and in the end, abandoned the faith I’d had as a child.

The religion I found, and the man who helped me find it, was Professor Donald Swearer who initiated me into the study of East Asian religion, particularly his area of expertise, Hinayana Buddhism.The vacuum created by an intellectual pursuit of the ineffable was slowly filled with the help of a man who I understand now must have led so many questing, questioning college students to a place of uneasy acknowledgement of a system we might not fully understand and find peace there. At least, that’s what he did for me. I wanted to bask in his approval and his calm.

When he took us to a monastery to experience meditation among those for whom it was a way of life, the meditation meant little, the journey everything. He shared that with us; he was my teacher and my bulwark. In my junior year, he was completing a text to use in high schools about Vietnam. One day he invited me to his office and offered me the task of indexing the slim volume. I jumped at the chance to work alongside my mentor even though I am well-aware that he probably saw the neediness I tried so hard to disguise. I do know that I undoubtedly contributed more work than I alleviated, as many questions as he had to answer for me about the process. Nonetheless, I emerged from that office a different person than the one who went in.

In my senior year, Professor Swearer was on sabbatical when I had to complete my senior thesis. His absence added to the overall anxiety I was experiencing. My father had declared bankruptcy at home. The provost called me in to say I wouldn’t be able to attend graduation with my peers unless we could straighten out the payment piece. My thesis was, in a word: garbage.

Somehow, though, I made it through. I have no doubt that it had more to do with what preceded that semester than the semester itself. I owed someone. I never got to say goodbye and years later wrote him from Colombia to ask him to help me straighten out travel documents in Philadelphia—which he did. I introduced him to my husband at our 20th reunion and watched two people who have enriched my life connect during a dinner conversation about rogue monks.

Maybe it’s college admission in the news, maybe it’s the monks visiting town, but today’s inspiration is a teacher who changed my life. Thank you, Dr. Swearer; it’s a pleasure owing you.

Tashi Delek (Auspicious Greetings)

20190316_111450

20190316_111522
Grains of the Universe

 

Five Tibetan monks (in exile) from the Gaden Shartse Monastery have been in town this past week sharing their philosophical and cultural traditions. Yesterday I visited the Maritime Heritage Center to see the specially trained monk complete the Sacred Medicine Buddha Sand Mandela. Before they leave today, the mandala, the beauty that took days to create, will be destroyed. The message: All is impermanent, transitory, attachment foolhardy.

As a microcosm of the universe, a mandala (accent on the first syllable) represents the journey towards enlightenment. Its creation is a meditation; so is its contemplation. Like most, it is a square shape with four gates and a circle at its center point. This particular mandala is aimed at healing, sending positivity into the environment and comes at a propitious time for our community inasmuch as the new hospital and wellness complex is completed. In fact, the monks have blessed the facilities.

At the heart of their visit, however, is the wish for peace. At the end of the PBS News Hour on Friday, Judy Woodruff took a moment to reflect on the difficult week it has been—for all of us, especially those most directly affected by the massacre in New Zealand and the crash in Ethiopia. Until she somberly addressed her colleagues, acknowledging them, I had not internalized how devastating reportage in times like ours must be. I had not weighed the emotional cost to those who love their jobs yet deal in tragedy with no end in sight.

In the wake of what has happened in New Zealand, in Pittsburg, in Charleston, and throughout the world, the monks’ message of peace bears amplification.

Everybody’s a Critic

Invited by great friends and even better company to a St. Paddy’s Day dinner—more an excuse to get together than any sort of nationalism for this motley crew—I decided to try a new recipe. My mom, a Bon Appétit maven, admonished never to use an event as a recipe’s debut, but events are motivational for me, so…

I found the recipe on the New York Times cooking site, one of my go-to sources and was intrigued. The ingredients by themselves were neither exotic nor too many in number. I’ve recently purchased a digital scale—yes, people, this is what basic cooks do who want to venture into new territory and subscribe to the fussier food fixing—so I was ready. What I didn’t do when I chose this Chocolate Whiskey Cake was read the comments.

My selection process: title (ah writers, the importance of a title) and photo; sentence or two of blurb; ingredients; step-by-step; and finally…and maybe… the comments. Everyone’s a critic. People love it and rave, then proceed to describe the changes they made. People like it just fine, but make suggestions about changes they plan to make, despite the success of their first effort. Then there are the haters; they go to town.

My husband tells me, when I am quick to do to Yelp or Google to scan reviews, that it is generally only the disgruntled who write them, so naturally they’re skewed. I can appreciate that though now a user of both Uber and Airbnb, I know that operators actually strongly encourage (beg for) positive reviews. A colleague and I had an Uber driver tell us that we were the best passengers he’d ever had as if that would prompt us to return the accolades.

The Chocolate Whiskey Cake crowd was generally positive, and I did find a suggestion that was echoed by one or two others, nothing rogue, merely: “Much better the second day.” Since today’s the 16th, I guess I’d better get to it.