Two Scenes, A Dozen Stories

Pumping gas at the Get Go last week, I noticed that near – not in – the garbage bin was an empty can of Chunky soup and its pull-off lid, a used-up Right Guard roll-on deodorant stick, an empty can of Pringles (the regular kind), and a can of Lysol.

I imagined the items were left by someone traveling alone. Maybe a male in his early 20s? Eating Sirloin Burger soup from a can seems like a young man kind of thing to do. Consuming a can of Pringles only takes a few miles, but it’s takes a lot of miles to use up an entire stick of deodorant and a can of Lysol. Where was he going? Where had he been?

So many questions. So many possibilities.

I’m nebby by nature. (The Pittsburgh definition of nebby, not the Merrian-Webster one.) Especially when I see something like a gathering of used items alongside a garbage can at a gas station. It’s not “trash” when you’re curious, and wouldn’t you be curious, standing there holding the gas nozzle with nothing else to think about?

Years ago, I acquired a box of miscellaneous paper items from an estate auction. In it was this holiday card from the 1910s:

Except for the stain, it’s a pretty little thing. It’s even got a church on it. So serene, so peaceful. Snow, stars… I place it on my Christmas tree every year. But that’s only part of the reason I keep it. I keep it for the message inside:

The sender put quotes around and underlined the words “My dear” for emphasis, and wrote, using a dip pen, “To the prettiest girl I ever knew.” Awwww…so sweet, right? Clearly the sender is enamored by the girl and wishes only wonderful things for her.

Or does he?

I’m usually on the side of true love, and every year my mind explodes with sweet stories when I dig out this card. I’ve been partial to the one in which the two – the girl and the sender – were ships that passed in the night, and that the girl kept the card to remind her of a secret love that could never be.

This year, though, the story in my head has steered me in the direction of unrequited love or maybe something sinister. This year, I paid attention to the signature, and for the first time, I compared the letter “r” in the word “ever” to the squiggle after the M and I think it’s signed “Mr. D”.

I’d not noticed that before.

Mr. D.

Hmmm…that feels weird. And it changes everything I thought of this simple Christmas card.

Unless it’s a pet name, “Mr.” infers distance or hierarchy in a relationship.

And now a Nabokov novel comes to mind…

Moving on…

“The best friend you have.” That’s a bold statement, even if it was true. I wouldn’t sign a letter telling a friend that I am the best friend they ever had.

But, OK, let’s assume things were different in the early twentieth century. Maybe Mr. D is an innocent character and is assuaging the girl’s fears and letting her know that he really is her best friend. Kind of like we used to do in junior high, maybe.

Nah… Mr. D/best friend? Now I’m hearing a Police song in my head.

Just one more step to the Stephen King Misery level. You’re the prettiest girl and I’m your best friend. Don’t forget it, “my dear.”

Yikes!

If any of these scenarios is true, why would Prettiest Girl keep a card like this from creeper Mr. D, only for someone to purchase it many years later?

Unless…

The box of miscellaneous paper didn’t belong to Prettiest Girl; it belonged to Mr. D, who kept it all his life because Prettiest Girl was his obsession. He knew he couldn’t send it, so he kept it as a reminder. A reminder of what he could never have…

OK, I’m done! It’s your turn. Be nebby with me! Jump in with your own interpretation of either story. Creep us out or create a Hallmark movie scene. It’s your choice, your imagination. (And you can keep your story to yourself, too. I just hope you have some fun letting your mind go.)

And remember, “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…”

Another Phone, Another Jeep

Last week I made two major-ish purchases. Major for me, anyway, and not necessarily because I wanted to, yet “needed to” stretches it a bit. Let’s just say I’ve done my part for the 2020 economy. (You’re welcome.)

Purchase #1

Buying a new cell phone is up there with buying a new car (see Purchase #2) on my Things I Hate Doing list. But over the last few months, my once cracker of an android started performing random tricks like turning off, flipping the screen this way and that when it was perfectly still, and refusing to charge, so it was time to say goodbye.

Because the people I communicate with the most are iPhone users, I looked at buying an iPhone. I consulted my brother-in-law (Mr. Apple Everything) and he advised me to wait until the iPhone 12 was released because the 11s would most likely go on sale, and they did.

I thought maybe buying a phone online would save me the embarrassment of not knowing what I’m doing when buying a phone in a store, but I still felt like a grossly inadequate consumer. The reviews were an amalgamation of John Q. Public liked this and that and Jane Q. Public didn’t like this and that, and finally – bleary eyed and frustrated – I figured… it’s a freaking phone. It won’t change my life. It won’t even change a flat tire. Its usefulness is what I make of it.

It took seven hours and a nearly 90-minute online “chat” with a Verizon rep to get the damn thing activated and the data from my old phone transferred, but I have a functioning and doing-what-it’s-supposed-to-do iPhone (although my granddaughter in the second grade can spell better than its autocorrect).

Purchase #2

I wish cell phones lasted as long as the vehicles I’ve owned. In 2009 I said goodbye to my favorite one ever, a 1995 Jeep Cherokee that I bought in 1998. In a farewell blog, I wrote that I hoped my next vehicle and I would be friends for 11 years, and we were. I bought a 2007 Jeep Liberty, drove it for 11 years, and traded it in for my new friend, a 2018 Jeep Renegade. And while it took a few hours – due mostly to computer and printer problems – the purchase was a refreshingly painless process, one I took care of all by myself – just me and my credit rating – without my boyfriend or father or other male prop present.

If I keep this Jeep for the same number of years as the other two, I will have the Renegade until…(counting on my fingers…1, 2, 3…)…2031? Is that even a year?

Why, yes, it is, apparently. It’s the year my second-grade granddaughter will graduate from high school! It’s the year of my 50-year high school class reunion! Goodness, I’ll be 68 years old! And I’ll still own the Renegade? Shouldn’t I be driving a Buick sedan by then?

I kid. Buick doesn’t make those anymore.

I’m crossing my fingers that nothing else quasi-crucial breaks down that I “need” to replace anytime soon. My checkbook has to catch up first.

For Barbara…

It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about has died, especially if you’ve kept that person alive in your mind for a long time because a good fiction is sometimes better (well, maybe not better, but certainly easier) than the truth. For more than four years I’ve told myself that my friend Barbara probably moved away from her apartment in Edina (Minnesota) in 2015 and forgot to send me her new address.

I met Barbara in the spring semester of 1996. I was finishing my degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and she was my advanced nonfiction writing professor. She’d come out of retirement to teach the course, however “retirement” for Barbara, then 70, was hardly like most of us imagine.

We became friends that semester, and when I moved back to Pennsylvania later that year, we began a once-a-year correspondence that lasted nearly twenty years. Every Christmas, we sent each other a letter detailing the events of our year. Some went on for pages, and hers often read like mini-memoirs. Hands down she led the more exciting life. She traveled the world, each year to a new country, and when she was 80, she climbed Kilimanjaro.

In the early 2010s, when she was in her late 80s, her handwriting became more difficult to decipher and her once long correspondence filled only the blank inside of a Christmas card, but her tone never changed. She was always upbeat and joy-filled, never a word of complaint.

Except for the sympathy card I sent her in 2011 after I read in that year’s letter that her cat of nearly twenty years had died, we didn’t respond to each other’s letters except at Christmas. That was part of the unspoken understanding of our friendship. We were bound and committed (almost in defiance of the pithy nature of email) to writing once-a-year epistles that were meaty, vivid, dense, and time consuming, both in writing and reading. I looked forward to her letters with almost childlike anticipation, the kind that Christmas invokes, and I always saved her previous year’s letter to refresh my memory before reading the new one. I also mentally crafted my letter throughout the year, noting the big stuff, of course, but more importantly, the little things, like the details of a moment working in the garden or rocking a grandchild, a habit she stressed all writer wannabes should adopt.

In 2015, I was excited to tell her that, at 52, I’d started a master’s program in composition and literature, and that my decision was largely based on her example of not letting age define her. My letter wasn’t returned to sender, but neither did I receive a letter from her. My first thought was that she had become physically unable to write anymore, so I resolved that I would keep up my end of the correspondence. In 2017, when again I didn’t receive a letter, I allowed myself to think, for a few seconds, that maybe she had died, but I chose not to find out. I kept her 2014 letter in my Christmas card basket, just in case, and I imagined she was living somewhere, perhaps in Ireland, with a new cat.

Writing the Acknowledgement page for my book* last week, I included Barbara, and in typing her name, I knew it was time for the truth. I wrote an email to the alumni association at Augsburg and they forwarded it to a professor in the English department, someone I knew vaguely from back in the day. In his email this morning, he confirmed that Barbara died in 2015 after several months in hospice care.

As I formally grieve my friend, I remember and honor the role she played in my writing life, not only through her teaching and encouragement, but in how she lived and wrote about her life. Her writing was exemplary, often a model for some of my columns and blogs. While she is no longer here in the flesh, her influence will be with me for as long as I write.

Still, I will always miss her most at Christmas.

* Tentative release date for my first book is December. I will have more information about it in the upcoming months.

Emotional Transportation

My sister texted me last night to say she was on the struggle bus. I wrote back saying I was on the vacant train. I can’t think my way out of a bag this week, and I can’t retain the plot of a movie or TV show without referring to IMDb. To help shake these cobwebs, I’m cooking things that, unlike slapping together a grilled cheese, require thought and concentration. Even then, I follow a recipe like I’m stoned. It took me over an hour to make rice pilaf yesterday.

On Monday I made bread in the bread maker, which is simple enough to do, but I measured out the yeast like it was the last glass of wine I’d ever drink. I have one and half yeast packets left, enough for one loaf of English muffin bread and another loaf of bread maker bread, and it feels weird and waaaaay hypervigilant that I know that. I can buy bread in the store, but like many of you, I’m trying to limit where I go. It’s been nine days since I was in a physical store (Lowe’s for water softener salt) and it was the first time I’d worn a mask. I support wearing a mask in public, but wow…I didn’t realize how confining they are. Nothing like a little claustrophobia to go along with a heightened state of germaphobia.

I understand that this vacant feeling is part of my emotional response to the pandemic, and I admit that I have adopted old coping mechanisms, including self-judgement for utilizing old coping mechanisms, and I really need to stop “doomscrolling” before going to bed. But the one emotional transport my sister and I agreed we wouldn’t hop on is the guilt wagon.

I’m all for utilizing time creatively…in normal times. But right now, I’m not up to faking creativity. Sure, I would love to write something brilliant with this “extra” time on my hands, but never in a million years could I guilt myself into it. What I’m writing right here is borderline boring, or maybe it’s all-in boring, but it’s all I’ve got right now and that’s OK. And if I feel like reading a book or watching a show at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of being brilliant, I do it. Now, sometimes I do it with a glass of wine or I eat crackers and cheese in bed with the dog (*see the last paragraph about coping mechanisms), and sometimes I say to myself, “You should ____” (write, exercise, sweep the deck…), but I’ve gotten pretty good at shutting myself up.

Reading and Writing in Prison

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions.” Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, 1974

I led an eight-week poetry workshop at our county jail a few summers ago, and there was a corrections officer who routinely laughed at me when I went through the security process to get to my classroom.

He’d say, “What do they need poetry for?” or “Writing poetry? Ha! Yeah, that’s what they need!”

I’d simply smile and say, “We all need poetry!”

I’ve been volunteering in the prison system for four years. I taught classes in writing and literature in our county jail, and I’m currently a writing mentor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and an advisor/editor for the inmate-written newsletter, The Grove, at the State Correction Facility – Pine Grove. You can access our newsletters here.

I do this work because I believe with all my heart that writing and literature connects us to our humanity, and if there’s a place and time people need to feel connected to their humanity, it’s when they are in prison.

Working with the inmate community, I witness writing that is raw, truthful, powerful, self-reflective, angry, funny, searching, and every other kind of human emotion out there.

Reading poetry and literature, though, is a different animal. Upwards of 50 to 70 percent of inmates in the U.S. have not completed high school, or cannot read above a fourth-grade level. While many of my students have completed high school, almost everyone at first resists offering their ideas about a piece of writing or starting a conversation about a text that is confusing or complicated. This isn’t unique to the prison population. Could you analyze a text in front of your peers? Imagine if those peers were strangers you lived with every day! High school, college, graduate school…it doesn’t matter how much education, background knowledge, or experience you have, you’re probably going to be nervous offering a thought out loud.

What frustrates me the most is when students call themselves stupid. I know it’s a defense mechanism, so part of my job is to bring out their confidence, to help them believe in themselves as readers, and – in the grand scheme – to believe in themselves overall. So I try to select texts that speak to them or wake them up.

For instance, at Pine Grove, I met a man who goes by the pseudonym “Stone.” He writes poetry and has contributed several pieces to our newsletter. I asked him if I could use his poems in the men’s poetry workshop, and he agreed. Students couldn’t get enough. His words spoke to their feelings, and it helped them understand how to read and relate to an unfamiliar work.

Many of my female students wanted to read texts that addressed drug addiction, bad relationships, and motherhood. Their request is in keeping with what I said before: Literature helps incarcerated students relate to their humanity, to “find” themselves again, and reconnect to their former lives and selves. I don’t mean they want to wallow in their past or how they got to prison in the first place. They just need a place in which they feel engaged with a larger and similar community.

For instance, I like to use the poem “Emotional Idiot” by Maggie Estep. It’s a poem about emotional duality in an intimate relationship. It begins, “I’m an Emotional Idiot / so get away from me. / I mean, / COME HERE.” When my female students read it, several of them exclaimed, “Oh my god, that’s ME!” When male students read it, their reaction was similar, but in reverse. “Oh my god, that’s my wife!” (or girlfriend or significant other). Either way, both groups connected to the poem and, more importantly, connected to themselves and their lives.

I could go on and on with examples of how literature and writing impact incarcerated students, but I realize that some people think offering reading and writing classes to people in prison is a bunch of liberal BS. Believe me, I hear that all the time: “Why would you want to work with those people? Aren’t you scared?”

No, I’m never scared. I do this work because annually, roughly 641,000 people are released from state and federal prisons and back into our communities. The question we must all ask ourselves is: Who do we want them to be?

Study after study shows that the more literate an offender is upon release, the less chance he or she will recidivate. Check out these statistics. In general, the national recidivism rate, without engaging any education in prison, is as high as 75 percent. However:

  • Completing some high school courses cuts recidivism rates to 55 percent.
  • Vocational training cuts recidivism to 30 percent.
  • An associate degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent.
  • A bachelor’s degree reduces it to 5.6 percent.
  • A master’s brings recidivism to zero percent.

Hope is central to success on the outside, and when incarcerated individuals start to believe in themselves and believe that they can achieve academically, they can change the direction of their lives. It gives them a powerful tool that will not fail them on the outside, and can give them the confidence to engage with the difficulties that will most likely arise upon release.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

For more information about education and the criminal justice system, please visit the website my friend and fellow grad student developed last year,   HigherEducationForPrisoners.wordpress.com.

Clinging and Distraction

Have you ever thought about someone you haven’t seen in ages, and then a few days later you see them somewhere, like the grocery store?

This morning I listened to (checked Twitter) a dharma talk that I didn’t realize would address an issue I’ve been dealing with the last several days. (Checked email. Googled “dharma talk definition.”) (A dharma talk is like a sermon given on some aspect of Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher.)

The title was “Letting Go.” Gil Fronsdal, one of my favorite dharma teachers, asked the questions, What do we cling to? What non-helpful, non-beneficial thoughts and actions can we let go of? (Made the bed.) He wasn’t talking about things, per se (Googled Marie Kondo. Her approach to tidying things is very Buddhist-like.).

Suffering happens when we have a tight grip on ideas that “limit our ability to be wise, to see, to maneuver freely in the world,” and that freedom from those limiting thoughts and actions comes only when we intentionally let go.

In December I committed, again, to writing the book I’ve been saying for years that I would finish. Despite the self-doubt and (checked the news) questioning my ability (answered a text), I’m finally doing it.

 (Emailed my daughter.) Listening to the talk, I thought about how I cling to negative thoughts about my writing, and how my tendency is, while writing, to distract myself (responded to a Facebook message), like I hope the writing will write itself while I’m doing something else. Gil suggested that when we identify what we want to let go of, that we let go into the clinging itself and ask, What’s going on with that feeling? Where are those actions coming from?

Here’s what I came up with: I cling to the fear of failure, and staying present and writing through the clinging is not easy. Ouch! Keep going! And I soothe myself by thinking that if I fail, it will be a familiar feeling and it won’t hurt as bad. I’m afraid that if I put myself out there again, my voice will be ignored, or worse, it will be like talking into an empty barrel. (This is too much. Texted a friend). And I deal with these thoughts through distraction.

As you can see, in just seven paragraphs, I left the process of writing this blog nine times! Even more times if you include the times Jim called, and the dog needed to go out, and I adjusted the electric heaters because we have to conserve gas because the gas line is frozen, and I was hungry and made a sandwich, and I was in the mood for a cup of tea.

The distractions I invent are even worse writing the book. I walk away and distract for hours and days at a time.

But here I am, near the end of this blog, back from the distractions to finish. I will get this blog on my site today (paused…reached for my phone, didn’t pick it up, didn’t give in to the desire to leave), because this is a really important topic, and I want to talk to you about it. Not about my clinging, but yours. You don’t have to get personal, but what do you cling to? What do you want to let go of so you can be more wise and move more freely in this world? Leave a comment. I promise I won’t read it as a distraction mechanism.

If you’re interested in listening to the Letting Go talk, you can click here for the link, or watch the video. What Gil says about grief and depression starting at minute 30 is especially interesting. If you get that far, let me know what you think. I’ll be blogging about it soon and would love your input.