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Graduation: The Ultimate Victory

This morning Good Morning America carried the story of Natalie Munroe, a teacher who vented her frustrations about student attitude and lethargy on her blog. She called her students “rats” and “jerks” without redeeming qualities. She believed only her friends would read her rants; she used the name Natalie M, and never identified her city or school name, but somehow–typical these days–her words went viral. She is now on leave with pay, and has hired a lawyer to help her defend her position.

As a retired professor, I feel a bit ambivalent about her need to complain and her naiveté in believing she could write about her students without being caught and reprimanded by her peers and supervisors. (I used to teach students never to write anything in an email—and now blog or Facebook—that they wouldn’t want to appear the following morning in their local newspaper or nationally on TV.)

On the other hand, I totally understand her frustrations: too many students today have an “attitude” that is totally counterproductive to learning. They dress inappropriately (I had a student in a night class who came dressed for the beach even in mid-winter), refuse to read the assigned material, eat and/or sleep in class, address professors as Miss or Mister instead of Doctor, and plagiarize their papers and fight when they get caught. What’s a teacher to do?

Most of us who teach love our subjects and love or want to love our students. My friend Dr. Peggy Brown, who has taught in the same college for over 20 years, says she always looks for the best in people, students of course included. Many of us search for the best students in a class, teaching to those who want to learn and trying not to be offended or discouraged by those who don’t.

It occurred to me this morning: if I were still teaching today, would I have foolishly written here in this blog about my frustrations? Or would I have been wise enough to focus on the victories achieved by the minority of my students and ignored the rest. There is so much to learn from the wonderful; it takes courage and commitment to ignore the rest. I wonder if I’d have had it. I wonder if that’s even the point.

Some of my best students still keep in touch; one tracked me down even though my name had changed since our last contact. Now we chat on Facebook. Another edits a magazine in New York City, following his dream to move away from his birthplace and become a working writer.  Yet another invited me to her graduation, letting me know she’d changed her major to English after my class in American Lit.  Yet another, a huge problem student, did a complete turn around in quality and attitude during the semester, ending the year by taking a get well gift to one of my friends who was battling cancer.

I want to remember the good experiences now, and try to forget the disappointing ones. But I have to admit–those bad times make good tales. And many seem very funny in retrospect.  Even so, writing about them reinforces the negativity already rampant in education. And shadows the victories I experienced time and again.

Teachers and learners wherever you are: send me your thoughts. How do you deal with the disappointments you face with students–not those who can’t learn but those who refuse to push themselves and take the easy way out (cheating/sleeping)? How do you celebrate the victories?

Thinking it Over

Seeing the Light

My dear friend Dr. Peggy Brown sent me this Chinese folk tale, in response to one of my emails to her. Without going into our “conversation” that provoked this response, I thought I’d share the story here and see how others respond. So please, send me your comments and thoughts after you read this story. And thanks Peggy for your wisdom, as usual.

“An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck.

One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments.

But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.

‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.’

The old woman smiled, ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side?’

That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.’

For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table.

Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

I’ve been listening to a Jim Hollis lecture from the Jung Center archives here in Houston. The subject for this course was the power of untold stories. We all are the sum of the stories of our lives. As writers we know that—whether writing fiction or memoir, we write ourselves. The most imagined fiction has our stamp, our voice, our “trademark” if you will, and that special voice is marked by the stories our lives tell. Or, as Hollis often remarks, the stories that tell us. We are the story told.

But what about the stories we don’t know, but that, as he puts it, we live “in service to.” Like the stories of gender we live by as women, or as men, that may have limited our options. Or, the stories of religion that inform our choices before we are old enough to know other religions offer different choices. The stories that inform our lives may be helpful—give us ballast when we flounder—we “know” what’s right because. . .  Well, because we know what’s right: we’ve been taught, told, trained, often without even realizing it. Sometimes, however, the received “key” stories may sabotage our choices, limit our goals and dreams, even define us into a context we “know” is not our true self.  

Hollis points out that in his work as a Jungian analyst, he has tried to trace his clients’ stories back through generations and has discovered we usually know only back three generations, that is back to our grandparents, and often even those stories are vague, or have been silenced by parents. We may know who our great-grandparents are, that is four generations back, but usually their stories dissolve in a mist, silenced perhaps or never brought forward for a multiplicity of reasons.

Consciously, that is, we as progeny may know little about grandparents and even less about great grand-parents, but their stories may not be any less informative of our present lives.  Furthermore, it is often that third generation—forward—that has the need and skills to uncover the untold story behind the family norms or practices or beliefs and trace them to the ways they are unconsciously influencing their own lives.

I have a “story of my life” that begins just before I turned 10. I’ve written it in many versions and for many years it was always the same. Then, once, in the middle of my life, suddenly, something my mother added to my story changed it completely: suddenly I knew, I understood the missing link. The blank page filled with text and though there was nothing I could do about the ending of the story (at the time) there was information that allowed me to deepen my understanding of the middle chapters.

So allow me here to tell, or perhaps retell, my story. It begins with my grandmother—three generations back. I know little of my great-grandparents on either side, but the tragedy surrounding my maternal grandmother’s story still haunts me and informs much of my own story.

My grandmother Ella and I shared a room in our house when I was a child. Her husband Joe Levy, my grandfather, died when I was around 6; I remember his death, the whole family converging on our house—a duplex on Truxillo, in the heart of the then Jewish neighborhood in Houston. I remember white sheets over the mirrors and lots of food arriving and aunts telling me my mother was upset and to be aware of all the sadness. I was sad too—I loved Grandpa Levy; he was a kind old man who lived at the end of our block in another duplex; my mental picture of him remains: his thin frame bent over a huge radio he loved to listen to. I don’t remember much interaction between him and my grandmother, but then they were of a generation that would have been rather formal, in front of people.

Grandma Levy came to live with us after his death, and we moved to a bigger house, a three bedroom bungalow at 3007 Wichita not far from Truxillo.  I shared my room with Grandma and we became “best friends.” I remember that period well—shortly before my father died of complications from his Type 1 Diabetes, a disease he developed before my brother Herby and I were conceived. I remember that period as happy, in spite of the dark cloud that hung over our home as a result of his condition—the insulin bottles at ready in the refrigerator. The kitchen scale weighing his food. His doctors visits, my mother’s concern.  Yet I remember him smiling, happy, loving, dancing in the living room with Mama, calling her “his girl.”

Grandma Levy was my ally when my mother was mad at me. She protected me from her fury: “Frances, it’s okay, leave her alone.” Or “Frances, she ate her vegetables, can she get up from the table now?” as she scooped them off my plate and threw them in the garbage. She was the one person in the world who could tame my tangled curls: she would get out her large-toothed ivory comb and dip it in a glass of water, and curl my hair around her fingers so that damp, they would dry in chunky ringlets. I have a picture of me standing in a white cotton dress, my bright red curls a display of her patience and care.

And I knew her story, part of it at least, for as long as I can remember. Ella Jerwick Levy (1876-1965) came from a shetl in Poland or Russ Poland, (near Bialystok), on a ship by herself at age 17, in 1893.  Her older brothers—whose last name was Jerwick but whose first names I cannot ever remember hearing spoken in the house, and for good reason, had traveled ahead of the rest of the family to America to work and earn enough money for passage for Ella and their parents.

But by the time they had saved enough for passage for three, Ella’s father, my great-grandfather, was too ill to travel and his wife, my great-grandmother Malka, for whom I am named, had to stay back to care for him. So Ella made the trip by herself and never saw her parents again. But she had purpose, for Ella had a true love, her fiancé Calman who had come to America some time before her, and the reunion with that true love sustained her during the arduous journey to America. She would leave her parents, but she would find Calman and they would be married.

She took ill on the voyage here, so the story goes, and lost all her hair. My mother called her illness diphtheria, but my husband tells me there is no hair loss associated with that disease. Suffice to say Ella suffered from a serious illness that kept her quarantined when she landed at Ellis Island. When she was released, her brothers met her in New York, and she was astonished to find herself in a real city, a huge place to her even then, in the 1890s. She’d never imagined getting off the ship and finding herself in the midst of so many people: how would she ever find Calman?

Her brothers were unconcerned. They had settled in Owensboro, Kentucky, 100 miles West of Louisville, and they took Ella there. where they had pledged her to marry Joe Levy. I never imagined how they got her to Louisville until recently when I was telling my daughter the story of her great-grandmother—she will have the story four generations back—and she said: “by covered wagon no doubt.” I think I’d pictured them all on a train, but indeed, I don’t know if there were passenger trains from New York to Louisville at that time, and if there were the fares would have been expensive.

Ella was betrothed to Joe Levy, a man much older than she; with him she conceived 13 babies and 7 of them lived. My mother was their 7th child. Grandpa Levy had the wanderlust and took Ella and his growing family from one city and one opportunity to another until they settled in Kansas City, Missouri, where my mother was born; and later to East Texas, Lufkin, during the depression, where my mother graduated high school, and finally to Houston after my mother moved here and married Philip Kalman, an engineer from a “very good, religious family.”

The point is, however, this is as much of the story that I knew from childhood until sometime in my forties, mid-life, a time of unsettling changes for many of us, a time of intense searching and self-discoveries and crises and solutions.

And now I must back up: first, the name Calman carries irony in and of itself. My maiden name is Kalman—as you see—the surname of my father Philip Kalman, a civil engineer with a college degree from University of Texas at Austin, a man with Diabetes who died at age 39 when I was nearly 10 years old. I always found it interesting that Grandma Levy had a Calman and my mother had a Kalman and both of them lost their C/Kalmans during their younger years (my mother was widowed at 34). (I write this while sitting beneath a huge contemporary tapestry by the Israeli artist Calman Shemi. Such Jungian synchronicity solidifies the connections in my mind.)

The story, haunting as it may be, grew horrific when I learned the full truth of it. For though I grew up thinking that Ella never saw her Calman again, I learned in my forties that indeed she had. And that is the hidden story, the “untold” story that informed my life without my ever knowing it.

For Calman did find Ella, in Kentucky, though I never knew how he found her, what path he’d taken, what kind of detective work it required for him to find his fiancée in this vast “new” country. He found her, and he lost her, and no one knows where he went from there, or what his last name was, or how we, Grandma Ella Levy’s descendants might locate his descendants, and how the story of lost love has affected their lives as well.

Ella’s brothers, the Jerwicks, refused to let Ella and Calman marry because they would not break their promise to Joe Levy. Ella had nothing to say about it. They refused; she obeyed their demands. And she lived her life with a man she didn’t love.     

I never knew just how unhappy she was until recently—just a few years ago when my cousin Mimi Levy Ryan made a DVD with a collage of old family movies and one of the earliest captured my mother’s family way back before I was born. They must have been living in Lufkin; several of my mother’s siblings were married to people I easily recognized, in their youth; my mother was of high school age. One of her cousins, now in her 80s, was there with her fiancé, who picked her up and swung her around to the delight of everyone else. Everyone but Ella, whose frown remained stoically planted throughout the clip.  Arms folded firmly in front of her body, she ran away from Joe when he tried to embrace her: Joe–caught up in the spirit of the moment; Ella—angry, miserable, hurting. She ran from one end of the crowd to the other, away from him.

I played the scene over and over, mourning her sadness, her tragic life, her loss. And by the time I saw that DVD, I knew the story behind the story of her life. That she had lost her love, and found him, or him her, and lost him again.

We can call it patriarchal, we can call it abuse, we can call it ordinary for its time. We can call it by many names, and proffer many explanations; but it doesn’t change the unhappiness of her life, the ways it spilled into the unhappiness of my mother’s life and the ways it created tragedy in my own life—one I have struggled to make sense of; one I have pondered and analyzed since I myself was 17. One part of the mystery was revealed to me when I was in my mid-forties during the bleakest time of my married life; another part crystallized in that home movie reproduced on a DVD I discovered during the happiest period of my adult life: now.  

End of Part One

Dear Ileya,

Driving home tonight after our meeting at Path of Tea, I reflected on your comment: you read my blog and it’s time for a new entry. How honored I felt that you follow my words; how odd it is for you to know me at this time of my life, when writing isn’t the first thing I do and often the last each day.

For so many years my life revolved around writing, teaching, researching, giving academic papers, going to professional meetings. That kind of life requires so much alone time–I only met friends after 4 PM so I could be quiet and introverted all day. Or teach and then meet them. It’s how you write, it’s how you teach, it’s how you search for meaning in life, it’s how you get degrees and then use them.

And I loved it. I felt very privileged that I had the mental capacity do live this kind of life. And though often a struggle, the financial means to see it through in a simple way.

My life has changed radically since I retired from teaching, moved to Houston, married my high school sweetheart–your uncle by marriage. And I love my life. But I don’t stay home, introverted, searching for meaning, struggling to put my thoughts into words. I play a lot, work some, meet up with friends I knew growing up here. I piddle with my house and sometimes garden. I cook (something I gave up once my kids left home).  I am happier than I’ve ever been. Maybe for me, writing was a way of being happy and now that I’m happy in a new way, the NEED to write and seek answers is less pressing.

And yet, and yet–I want to write. I love writing. I love the feeling of creating and putting thoughts together and learning what it is I’m thinking that made me need to put those thoughts on paper (or screen.)

So I started a new project reflecting on my life, a memoir of sorts, that looks at my ancestors, the people who shaped who I have become. Some of it’s painful–that’s inevitable. But it’s time to speak.

I want my grandchildren to know who they come from, at least on my side, and what kinds of things they can’t know without me that might ultimately play a part in shaping who they become. And so it is time for me to begin to get my thoughts out and, as writing tends to do, let me in on what I know about myself and about the world.

I am going to post a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago, Part 1 of what I hope will be a longer work. Thank you Ileya, for the gentle nudging it took for me to “go public” with this next entry.

What happened to America? Where has it gone? I miss the olden days; does that mean I’m old, or does it mean I’m sane?

Of course, anyone over 40 remembers playing outside as a child, riding one’s bike anywhere in the neighborhood, walking with friends to the corner grocery, shopping center, or drugstore. Anyone over 40 remembers how it felt to feel safe.

It’s been many years since we’ve known that kind of peace and security in America. Anyone over 50 remembers the Kennedy assassinations, followed by Martin Luther King’s, and later the attempt on Reagan. We all still mourn the loss of John Lennon–and wonder what in the world that was all about. We wonder about other catastrophes–Oklahoma City, then 9/11 and too many others to list here. What for? To prove we aren’t safe?

I can’t find the words to express the shock and sadness of the latest violent outburst of a madman–by that I don’t mean to say he’s insane and therefore not responsible–just “mad” on every level.

I think of a 40 year old, intelligent, loved, beautiful woman, a Congresswoman, lying with a hole in her head fighting for her life. Because she chose to speak to her constituents at a neighborhood shopping center and grocery store–the kind we all used to walk to in our youth.

And a child in fact now dead because she felt safe going to the rally to meet this woman, and try to learn from her. And others, old and young, injured or murdered because some “mad” man chose to shoot them all. Simple as that.

Mad! We’re all mad as we mourn. Mad! But we weren’t all mad before the Saturday shooting. No. We were just . . . living in America. Not safe, not secure. But living here and wondering what form of madness would come  next. Now we know.

Yet, I don’t know who to blame. The “Mad” talk show hosts who spout political venom? The “Mad” politicians who accuse one another of being UnAmerican or standing for the “wrong” principles? Why are so many people MAD, and when will they realize that being MAD all the time breeds a MADNESS we cannot control? A Madness that dooms us, our country, our children, our people of all ages.

Where is peace? Where is respect for the right to be right or wrong? Where is security? Where is America?

Okay Blog readers: Help me keep these New Year’s Resolutions.
1. I resolve to write twice a week. There’s a new coffee shop near my house–Dunns Brothers Coffee, right behind Costco. It’s clean and light and the coffee and scones are awesome. I resolve that on days I can’t stay home and write–too “antsey,” I will take my laptop and plug into their calming energy. I will write blogs, newsletters for weight management, and finish some plays I started. I will also use this “me” time for submissions of old ones (in two days a week?).
2. I resolve to learn how to use facebook and twitter as marketing tools. This is really a tall order as I don’t find either social medium exciting or even very interesting. So I need a new way into these two, very effective for most people, tools.

I want you out there to encourage me. Send me a line now and then asking for information. Ask me to blog. I have so many false starts here on my dashboard. I do want to finish them off and start new ones.

Thank you and Happy 2011.

Karma Transplant

This is the time of the year to rejoice in our blessings. This is the time of the year to rejoice. Here is the story of just one of my many blessings:

Dottie tells me how lucky I am to have Bobby in my life now. She’s right. Bobby and I both feel lucky to have reconnected with one another. And it’s nice to be considered one of the lucky ones. It’s quite a change.

For the longest time, I was the one among my friends who was always down, worried about finances, a turbulent marriage, rejections from editors, rejections from jobs I was seeking—with desperation in fact–in order to get out of the turbulent marriage and settle my financial issues. Problems – Problems — Problems, with a capital P and that rhymes with Me and that stands for Misery. So many years of misery.

Things have turned around in my life; these last 10 years or so have been the best I have ever known. I did find a great job, moved to a new city, leaving my marriage, and after several years, reunited with the true love of my life, after a 40 year hiatus, moved again to be able to start a new life together, and eventually a new career. My writing changed from serious and scholarly, biography and autobiography, even fiction – a long novel—to some new genres of writing, including playwriting—most recently one with my friend Dottie, a friend I’ve known since kindergarten.

Life is good, not problem free, but with problems my husband and I solve together with as little stress as possible.

New karma! I have new karma.

Karma? Can karma be new? Well, yes and no. Formally, karma is considered an inescapable principle in which each person is rewarded or punished in one incarnation according to the actions and ethical choices one made in prior incarnations. (Of course that is an oversimplified definition and ignores the subtle differences cultures impose on the concept.)

Nevertheless, the way I chose to use the word allows me to see karma as a life long string of events that seemed to keep me in a negative but longing-for-better, striving-for-better, position. And about 10 or 12 years ago, I’d had enough. One day while having coffee at a local Borders, I told my friend Larry Campbell, a medical doctor, that I was going to have a Karma Transplant. Of course he laughed, but seriously advised me this was impossible—given that one’s karmic path is sealed before one is born, and that most people think we have to live it out in this life and wait for the next.

Desperate, I forged ahead.

I had to find a way to give my life a chance because truly (not joking here) I felt if I had to go on living in a black hole, I had no reason to keep living. I couldn’t stop living because I knew I’d never put that kind of burden on my two children, even though they were adults by then. Children are always children and parents, parents. We must behave in ways that give the next generation good models, good patterns. So I had to find a way to make my life work. Karma was the only answer.

How does one get a karma transplant? Well, at least for me, it meant not starting with a doctor, clergy, or any outside help. It meant going deep inside myself and extracting the poison, exfoliating the rough edges of my life, climbing out of the black muck that held me down.

For me, that meant wailing, ranting, screaming out against the elements in the universe that I felt sought to destroy me. At home alone, I sat at the dining room table and simply screamed at the top of my lungs: “Leave me alone. Go find someone else to torment. I’ve had enough. I refuse to acknowledge defeat on any level. I will prevail against these negative forces” and so on. I cried out for a karma transplant, knowing that whatever kind of entities were listening, would understand exactly what I meant.

Since that life-transforming day, I have learned that spiritual advisors call that “voicing intent.” I like having a word to describe the process, but the process is the same: a cry for change. A demand for a new normal.

It took several sessions of such “irrational” behavior (or maybe super-rational behavior is a better term), but at some point, the dark cloud lifted, and I was able to climb out of the black hole that had suffocated me for too many years. In life, I started getting some yeses—from publishers, from job applications, from other quests I’d hoped would bring me some modicum of freedom. YESES. I almost didn’t know what they were—loud and clear yeses are hard to hear when the ear is trained to hear nos.

Many wonderful things happened to me that gave me a sense of accomplishment, autonomy, and security. I was at peace with myself long before I contacted Bobby and changed my life once again. When I decided to make the changes necessary for us to spend our lives together, I no longer felt needy or desperate. I felt in charge.

So yes, Dottie, I am lucky; these years do belong to Bobby and me. They belong to us, to our love and the light in our eyes. Bobby likes to say: “It’s our time.” And it is.

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