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Why Coffee Matters

the morning coffee

the morning coffee (Photo credit: Thomas Leth-Olsen)

There are things that we all do (eat, sleep, shower) , things that we have to do (grade, write, read), things that we do out of habit (facebook, text, drink coffee), and things that we do when given an hour or two with no other options.  I would like to say that’s when I write, but it isn’t always.

My husband says I can’t ever be alone.  And I say, Not true.  Because sometimes I have to be alone to do work.  But I remember being alone a lot of my childhood.  And a lot of my adolescence.  But my husband’s right.  Tonight, my father-in-law picked up the boys so I could do some work before the Writer’s Forum reading, and I have been cramming so much work in lately, that I’ve burned out.  And the house was too quiet.  I called my parents to see if they’d want to have a meal with me.  They were out at a (fancy?) new bar at the mall in the most urban of suburbs in western NY, Greece.

So I ate five Brown N Serve sausages, alone, and sat down with my computer, thinking I might write.

Instead, my mind wandered.  There are people I think of every day (my family, close friends, some students), people I think of on occasion (friends I had a falling out with, former teachers, former students), people I don’t even know, really, that I wonder about when I’m not busy with the people who need my attention and whose attention I need.

Today, my mind went to a professor at the college.

He was old enough that it was surprising he still taught.  When he walked into Hartwell Cafe, my mother smiled.  He and I were the only two in the cafe before it opened on a regular basis.  If my grandfather had lived closer, and lived as long, I imagine they’d be similar in manner and voice.  Though, this professor’s eyes were cinched in a perma-smile.  A life spent laughing.  He wore Christmas sweaters that my cool friends only wore to “Ugly Sweater Parties,” but he wore them in a serious way.  I’d heard he was a great professor.  He taught business.  I wish more business-owners were as gentle.

One day last semester, I asked my mother where he went.  She said his children had come in to clear his things from his office.  I said, “Retirement, finally?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,” she said with her chin turned down, counting singles, and glanced up at me (meaning something happened to him).

Maybe she was thinking of the wrong person.  She sometimes confused one person with another.  No, she often confused one person with another.  And she had cataracts.

Maybe he fell and was recovering.

He would always approach my mother with the smallest cup (a size I never thought anyone actually purchased), and said, “Today’s my freebie, right?”

And it always was.

And then, because the people I think of on a daily basis called, I bought my coffee and went off to teach.

Tonight, I don’t know what made me think of him.  There’s this rule in fiction that the reader always wants to know “Why this story, why right now?” and for this story, I don’t know why, or why right now.

But tonight, I Googled him the way I Google tragic events, obsessively, hungrily, sadly, curiously, and all of these things at once.  My hands cold from the keyboard, my jaw tight in worry, because suddenly, I would find out where he went.

I have a ritual.  I check the Facebook pages of a family that lost a child last summer.  It’s shameful, but it’s my way of knowing that life does go on.  And how.

The Professor’s name came up in an obituary: Donald Borbee.  I have always known his name on our small campus, but it was solidified by a simple morning routine.  I felt sad that he died in February, and now it was November, and I had just now taken the time to let my curiosity find him.  He didn’t know me, and he  probably only recognized the features I share with my mother when he saw me in the hallway, but don’t we all want to know that when we are gone, someone we never knew, would look for us?

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What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


Dear Diary: Connie Rodriguez and What I’ve Realized About My Blog

Student Biking

Student Biking (Photo credit: University of Denver)

I stopped keeping a journal when I graduated from high school.  My journal was a daily escape from ages eight to seventeen.  Upon graduation, I stopped keeping a journal because its contents would then become volatile.

Before that, I journaled compulsively, usually to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing cd, which spun at such high volumes in my stereo, I could hear the hum of my parents’ hardwood floors.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to.  It became something I couldn’t forgo if I wanted to, like the trail of my parents’ cigarette smoke.

Today, I sit here with a paper plate full of Triscuit crumbs and smears of cream cheese, wondering why I cannot continue writing a series of flash fictions for Goddard without first writing a blog post.  I’ve wondered why I had to do this after the Boston Bombings, the Newtown tragedy, the loss of Alexandra Kogut last semester, and other experiences I’ve had like wishing I could call my grandmother on her birthday.

The blog has become, in some fancier way, my diary, which is why, for weeks, I am able to not write a thing, and then some days, I can’t not write.  My blog entries typically come out in an hour or less of writing.  And now I understand why.  It’s the same muse in action that has you jotting down story ideas on a fast food napkin.  I blog because I cannot continue my daily routine without writing about whatever it is I’m obsessing about.

For the past few days, it’s been Connie Rodriguez, one of my students from this past fall, who died over the weekend.

My husband scolds me after tragedy, as though he expects me to react any differently:  I am as guilty as anyone who grips the controller to watch the terror unfold before them.

I found her old submissions from my creative writing course.  I needed proof.  I couldn’t believe she was my student just last semester, it wasn’t so long ago, and I hadn’t seen her since.  I read a Facebook friend’s page religiously, but not for posts about her daughter like I usually do, but for photos of Connie, who was her friend.  I Googled her name to see if her obituary had been posted yet or if anyone had written about her.  Just before writing this, I found a university news article about her.  I had to write.

As her instructor, I knew these limited things about Constance Rodriguez:

She wrote one hell of a short fiction piece for her portfolio–a story about twin sisters who would not stop battling each other, who would wake each other in the middle of the night to physically and brutally terrorize one another.  The story ended with a blaze, the house catching fire, the girls running away.

She was the first to share her writing on the first day of class.

She lost her mother.

She had seen things and lived a life that I could not ever fathom– a life she wrote in her poetry and essays that I will not post here.  She was a survivor.

From reading the article, from looking at pictures, Connie was a bubbly girl, a forgiving friend.  What I can’t stop thinking about is this: the pain beneath her pretty smile.

We like to think we are heroes, that we can save the world, that the future is ours for preserving.  I wonder if I could have done or said one thing to make her life, then, easier.  I couldn’t have healed a thing for her, a tough girl enduring a tough time who’d lost her mother just before she started my class.  Had I known her deep state of grief, would I have been able to be fair?  Should I have been able to be fair?

I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Sunday, when I learned of her passing.  I printed her poems that had been archived away in my college email, the first creative essay she wrote for class.  I read them at 10 o’clock on Sunday night.  I re-read them at 4 pm on Monday, and not more carefully than I did when I graded them, but differently–with the urgency to pull her back, to prevent the loss of her after it happened.

I grieve in a different way from her friends, from her family, who grieve the loss from their guts.  I am sad about the small part of her I knew, the small part of her that pulled back into herself towards the end of the semester, who veered away from school into sadness.  But I remember her as something bigger, as part of a future unknown, as part of a difference we are afraid to make.


Thumbnails

I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.


How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally, I might make some joke that goes unnoticed and unresponded to by most of my students, but this morning, walking into class meant walking away from the comfort of small talk and abandoning the ability to smile without feeling guilty. It was, after the wholly unprecedented event on our campus this past weekend, like forgetting how to teach.

On Friday, Alexandra Kogut was in classes on SUNY Brockport‘s campus, would attend swimming practice on Monday, and had a planned visit from her boyfriend that night. Something went wrong, and Saturday morning, Alexandra’s friends and college community woke to an email from the campus that a female had been murdered in their dorm room earlier that morning.

What’s happened since on campus, I can’t know, but can only from read the news reports–the reports I’ve been glued to, trying to make sense of this while at the same time terrified, not knowing the identity until last night, that one of my students would not sit down in class on Monday morning, that I would have the dreadful task of addressing a class that had lost one of its members. What’s happened since, on campus, has been a visually beautiful display of the internal unrest and sadness felt by Alexandra’s loss. A pulling together of memorial services, impromptu vigils, swim-team members housing other female swimmers who could not face the dorm where their teammate and friend was murdered, a wide white sheet with a note to Alex hung over the siding of a college house. In class this morning, many of my students wore purple, a color bringing awareness to domestic violence.

On Saturday morning, an hour before any of the college community received an email about the tragedy, Alexandra’s killer, 21 year-old Clayton Whittemore, was hand-cuffed at a rest stop of the NYS Thruway. Before any of her classmates had even known she was gone, the murderer was captured. And had confessed.

I admit, after the news reports came out, the hungry side of me searched Facebook for his profile, looking for some explanation or warning, or something I knew I wouldn’t find. What I’d found was this: a very meaty shirtless young man, who looked as normal to me as students that sit in my class. And strong. His picture, because I knew in a very superficial way, what had happened, looked horrifying and violent because those arms and those fists had become accomplices.

A close friend of mine had gone to home to Minnesota to celebrate her new novel, but I couldn’t help ruining her weekend with texts about the tragedy, wishing she was here to see the community come together or simply to wander in this strange proximity, the feeling of wanting to hug, but not having the arms to do so.

Saturday night, I had a dream that I wandered to a house just off campus where an older woman lived. She had a lamp on the end table just in front of her window, and slept, sitting up, on her loveseat, with the remote in her hand and her TV on. I walked in as though the house were my own and lay down on the couch on the opposite wall, pulling the afghan over me. She opened one eye, and then took a second look, but didn’t say anything. And I said, “I’m sorry. I should have woken you up to tell you I had to stay here. I was too scared to stay at my house. I will leave when the sun comes up.”

But she got up and made me tea and talked with me about what had happened, the young college girl murdered, and I’d said to her that when I went back to class (and this is where it gets cloudy and strange) I would have to buy my students chewing gum.

As though I didn’t know what to do next. As though anything trivial that I could offer, even words, could address this loss, this permanent cloud, the absence of every version of Alexandra Kogut.

After talking to my husband, Cory, last night about how to address this with my students, he said, sarcastically, “What, are you going to turn it into a writing prompt?” He was right. How could I approach something as sensitive as the immediate loss of human life, the loss of an individual many of these students knew.

Then I talked to my mother, who runs the Hartwell Cafe on campus, in the building where Alexandra would have had her first class this morning. I asked, “What do I say to my students?” As though any answer could solve anything. She said, preparing a cup of tea for a customer, “Tell them you don’t know what to say.”

So I walked in, and, feeling my nose get sting-y as it does when I’m on the verge of tears, I said to my students, “I thought about it all night, but I just don’t know what to say to you.”

And that’s where it opened up.

Click here for information of domestic violence.