Saturday, August 31, 2013

Some Delights of Language

I’m thinking a lot about language lately, specifically about the sheer richness of words in the English language, and about how much I love the color, vivacity, sound and texture of each individual word. School is back in session, and my tenth grade students have completed a list of 25 words (defining them) in preparation for their first vocabulary quiz next week. Last Wednesday, before we embarked on our in-class review of the definitions, I gave the students my I-love-words speech:

            “Aren’t we lucky to have so many words that can refine, shade, and precisely communicate exactly the things we want to express?” I exclaim, as I open my word list on the computer. “For instance, I don’t want to just say I’m “happy;” I want to say I’m ecstatic, exhilarated, rhapsodic!  And our language allows us each new dimension.”  I’m practically singing at them and grin foolishly: “Do you see how each one of those words amps up the volume on merely “happy”?  
My students stare at me, slightly skeptical, mildly bemused.
            “Listen to the sounds of some of these words. If you had not defined them yet, and somebody had called you “unctuous” or “overweening” or “gauche,” would you think that person was complimenting you?”


A girl in the front row states matter-of-factly, “Of course not.”

            “And why not?”

            “Because they sound bad. “unc” isn’t a very nice sound. And if you’re “over,” it’s usually not good…”

            I nod in agreement, though I caution, “It’s not always the case that the sound of the word signals the connotation of the word. But it is fun to pay attention to how a word sounds as well as to how it’s spelled and defined.”

            Today, in school, a colleague is talking about learning a second language. As she speaks, my mind trips into memory. I am eight years old, visiting my beloved Grandparents, Maurice and Florence Roche, on 88th Street in Jackson Heights, New York. My sisters and I, along with our cousin Katie, stay with my mother’s parents for a week each summer. And our special week has come around again!
           Visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Jackson Heights comes with its own set of rules, but I love these rules, partly because they draw a demarcation between my boring, everyday life in the suburbs of Colonia, NJ an exciting, surprising life in New York City. One of the rules is that we girls have to wear our Sunday best for the entire week, when visiting Grandma and Grandpa. We're not allowed to wear blue jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, or shorts. We wear summer dresses and frilly white anklets and patent leather shoes. Sometimes, we even wear white gloves. We are in the Big City now, and we dress the part. 
Grandpa and Grandma Roche
            My grandparents, who both grew up in Manhattan, never learned to drive a car, so we walk everywhere, or we ride in one of those big old black and yellow checkered cabs. On some summer evenings, we walk the city blocks to one of my Grandparents’ favorite restaurants, the Continental or the Cavalier, where a piano player croons songs from the 1930’s and 40’s (and sometimes we join in singing!), and the waiters and waitresses all know and cater affectionately to Maurice and Florence Roche. This particular summer, as we stroll our way up 88th street in our finery, and turn onto the more crowded sidewalks, where pedestrians hasten swiftly past, I decide to walk ahead of my sisters, my Grandparents, and my cousin Katie. At eight, I am the youngest of the group. And perhaps it is the giddiness of being in the Big Apple again for the week or the fact that I wearing pretty clothes and hats and shoes. Or perhaps it is my secret joy at once more being in a city where I can hear Spanish-speaking men and women rapid fire their beautiful syllables into the air around me, on subways and in grocery stores. (As a girl, I am drawn to people who speak Spanish. Part of the fascination is that I am excluded from their communication. I imagine their syllables, as they flow from a speaker’s mouth, dancing around my head like the notes in Disney’s Fantasia. ) Whatever the reason, all I know is that I want to continue my transformation this week and hold onto this exhilarating sense of being able to be someone else for a while.
            So, as we walk the city blocks toward the restaurant, I suddenly want the approaching strangers on the sidewalk to think that I am a foreign child, a girl who is special and glamorously different from her American counterparts. Of course, the challenge is that English is the only language I know—and American English with a Jersey accent is not exactly  pretty (though, to some, those dropped r’s and words like dawg may appear foreign!) But in my happy dazzle of being back in New York and with summer in full leaf along the walks, I don’t let the fact that I’m not bilingual stop me.
Grandpa Roche 
            I walk proudly, a few feet ahead of my family, fiddling with the clasp on my patent leather purse, and I speak louder than normal in a convincing (or so I imagine) stream of gibberish, as if I am answering a question that my sister had posed moments before.  Of course, I do not turn to look at my sisters’ reactions to my foreign language, because I can already hear their disapproval and giggling behind me, “Sharon, what are you doing? Stop it!” They try to coax me back to walk with the group, where they might exercise control over my cheerful prattling of nonsense syllables. “No,” I say, “they (I nod at the strangers walking by) think I’m from Europe!”
            I’m having fun, though in my own mind, I have not decided what nationality I want to be mistaken for, nor do I know enough accents to even try to imitate one well. On and on, I speak my gibberish, its mélange of mixed-up nouns, verbs, and parsed conjugations littered throughout, and I blunder from “accent” to “accent:" a sort of French, a kind of German, a hint of Spanish. I’m sure, those within true earshot, if they bother to tune into me at all, probably pity the poor confused girl, who cannot speak correctly, walking by in her pretty party dress. But in my own mind, I am exotic, original, a girl with new words at her disposal. And new words mean new stories to tell. A new me with new secrets. And if a single person, passing by, pauses, even for a split second to look my way, I feel validated. “See!” I sing out. “They know I’m not from here!” 
(“That’s for sure!” my sisters retort in unison.) 
Grandpa and Grandma with the 12 Fagan children in NYC
Grandma and Grandpa Roch on their 50th Wedding Anniversary
On the streets of Jackson Heights, I am aware enough to know that language is power. And, in my mind, as I walk the streets of Queens, New York, grounded by my loving family, feeling grown up in my ivory dress with its hem of rainbow colors, I can also soar and take a chance to see where wrapping myself in a “new language” might take me (if only in my imagination.)
Sharon Reading to brother Terry
My “foreign 

tongue" elevated me from just a third-grader at St. John Vianney School, to a lass, who housed a world perspective and who could reveal her stories in a stream of music.I was naming my own bright landscape and carving out my own words beneath the streetlights' glow on 88th street and its sturdy, beloved rows of brownstones.
                                                                                    August 31. 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

Of Semper Fi and Silences

~”…Some days//there were no clouds, as though/the sources of the past had vanished. The world// was bleached, like a negative; the light passed/directly through it. Then/the image faded.//Above the world/there was only blue, blue everywhere.”                                                                        ~Louise Gluck, “Landscape”
            When I was seventeen, I tore the ACL in my right knee, while playing a game of pick-up basketball with some neighborhood boys. I was a decent player; my gym teacher, Mrs. Brady, who also coached girls’ basketball at my Catholic high school, had hounded me for two years to join her team, which I resisted based on the argument that I was an “artist,” a musician, not a “jock.” But I liked the sport, and so instead, I’d occasionally join a pick-up basketball game in my neighborhood. On this particular summer morning, I was dribbling the ball and pivoted too quickly, trying to pass, and half of my leg didn’t follow through. I collapsed on the ground; the pain was nauseating.  Two of the boys carried me into my friend, Valerie’s house, where her mother put an ice pack on my leg, while we waited for my mom to come and pick me up.
            By late afternoon, my knee had ballooned, and I was set to see Dr. Levitsky, my pediatrician, the following morning. I hopped around the house on my one good leg, propping it up on the couch, icing it with bags of frozen peas, watching television. At one point, struggling with my new injury, I hobbled into my parent’s bedroom, where dad was reading, and burst into tears. Dad sat me down and put his arm around my shoulder. I sobbed into his chest and heaved,

            I’ll NEVER learn to live with this!  The leg I was born with will NEVER be the same!  Even if the doctors can fix this, I will never have the leg I was born with!

            I was a very sensitive and emotional teenage girl given to the moody ups and downs of the age. I continued on in this vein for a bit longer, wiping my tears with my dad’s handkerchief. I finished, sighing dramatically, Daddy, you just don’t understand!  

My father pulled away from me, a smile on his face, and said quietly, “I think I might understand.” And suddenly, I was mortified!  Next to me, Dad sat, as he always did: his left leg, bent at the knee, left foot on the floor, acting as a counterbalance to his right leg, which was propped straight out, rigid against the carpet with its immoveable right foot pointing firmly toward the ceiling. Absorbed in my own self-pity, I had completely and totally forgotten. Dad had a wooden leg. It was not something that crossed my mind much, because I had only ever known my father this way. Losing his leg was not something Dad ever talked about, and we, his twelve children, learned not to ask him questions about it.
Dad with Grandma Fagan, Aged 21
            When we were young, we knew the basics of the story: Dad had joined the Marines, while studying at Notre Dame University.  When he graduated, he was made a lieutenant in the Corp and was sent over to fight in the Korean conflict.  During a terrible battle, he was shot and by the time he received medical help, doctors had to amputate his right leg above the knee. He was only 21 years old. For his service, he received a Purple Heart.  I knew, also, that he spent a year in a hospital/rehabilitation center in California. He spent that year learning to walk on his new prosthetic and writing letters to my mother back in Queens, NY. The two of them had been on only a handful of dates before Dad shipped out to Korea. From California, he wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters, which helped Mom to get to know him deeply. They fell in love over the course of that year.
Dad and Mom's Wedding Day

            As I grew older, I would, at times, try to imagine my intellectual, religious, sensitive father carrying a gun or aiming his rifle at another human being.  I couldn’t picture it. It was incomprehensible to me that my father, whose interests ranged from sharing bad puns, reading books, writing, painting, growing roses, and watching Notre Dame football games, to theological and philosophical discussions, had been a Marine in the war. I had seen a few old photographs of Dad, so young and in uniform, steadily standing on crutches and standing in front of his house in Little Silver, NJ with his mother, father and younger brother, Jim. But, I just couldn’t fathom the man that I knew, who emotionally belted out “Oh Danny Boy,” while my sister Maureen accompanied him on the piano, leading men into a violent battle, where he was injured and others, died.
            But, because my father rarely mentioned his experiences during the war, nor the battle that took his leg, I was never able to ask him the mounting questions I had. I assumed that all veterans, who returned from war, kept their experiences a secret. What I didn’t realize, until after he died, was the tremendous toll my father’s silence took on him for the rest of his life. Dad struggled with frequent bouts of melancholy his whole life; yet, my mother remembers him as a young man, who loved to joke around and make people laugh.  On our summer vacations to the beaches of New Jersey or Cape Cod, Dad could never join us or walk along the ocean with us (he couldn’t maintain his balance on sand with his wooden leg.) He would tour the historic sites wherever we vacationed, usually solo, as we splashed in the surf. Yet, as a high school boy, Dad loved playing football with his friends on the beaches of Sandy Hook, near his home in Little Silver, NJ. My Dad was vigilant and overly-cautious; he saw danger around every corner, and he constantly tried to protect us from real or perceived harm though, as a child, he loved climbing apple trees, walking alone in the woods and having solo adventures.     
Dad with Grandpa Fagan
            One of the rare times Dad ever brought up losing his leg with me was during one of our arguments during my high school years. One Saturday morning, my father said “No.” I couldn’t go into New York City with my boyfriend. (We were a ½ hour train ride from the city.) Dad definitely perceived Manhattan as a very dangerous place to be, even though my mother had grown up in the city. We had been arguing for a while. I finally yelled something to the effect of,

            Well, you’re just wrong! The whole world’s not as dangerous as you say!

To which my father shocked me by retorting,

            You know, Sharon. There are things you just don’t understand. Once I stood up when I shouldn’t have and lost my leg forever! 

            He was equally shocked that he had said this, and before I could ask him more, he walked away. Mostly, Dad kept the secrets from that awful day, when he lost his leg locked inside of him, and he paid for his silence.
Dad, Returning from his Year in Rehab, with brother, Jim
            All of these memories flooded me recently, when I visited Semper Fi Odyssey Camp, near Ligonier, Pennsylvania, with a group of four eleventh-grade students, as part of my Contemporary World Literature class’s documentary film project. Based on one of the guiding questions that framed our coursework—How does a person maintain his or her sense of compassion, caring, and humanity while living through oppressive crisis or war situations?—students were learning to interview local people, who had gone through serious situations and were willing to talk about it on film. We traveled to Semper Fi Odyssey Camp, so that the boys could interview the General Manager of the camp, a young soldier, Justin, who had lost his right leg at the age of 22, while sweeping for mines during the Afghanistan War.
            As the boys interviewed and filmed him, Justin talked openly about his many, many surgeries, his initial depression, the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life, his post-traumatic stress and about how he coped with “bad days,” by lifting weights, meditating by the ocean, staying busy as a student, and mostly, by helping others, especially other soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

            What soldiers need the most, after returning from combat, are other soldiers to talk with about their experiences. Only a soldier or a Marine can truly understand what another soldier or Marine has been through in the war.

            I began to weep hearing Justin articulate all that he had been through. How differently he carried the tremendous weight of having lived through his war experiences and the amputation of his leg! I kept marveling at how at ease he appeared, talking with my high school boys about what he had been through and where he was in his life now, nine years later. His life had meaning and purpose; he was pursuing an undergraduate degree at a university in Florida where, he told us, he could be near the “healing power of the ocean.”
            Later, Justin gave me a hug and asked me if I were all right. I told him about my father, about his lifetime of silences and how, I had come to realize that his silence about his devastating battle in Korea had exacted too high a price on him. I told him that I had always, privately, feared that my father was not capable of being fully happy, ever, as an adult. I told Justin that my mother had told me, after my father died in 2002 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, that she knew my father had always carried a tremendous amount of guilt about that day in battle, because he blamed himself for the death of the other men in his battalion, as he had been the first one shot. Many men he knew died that day. I could not imagine carrying such a huge burden of guilt! Finally, I said to Justin,

            I can’t help wondering how my father’s life might have been different, happier, had he had an opportunity to talk about what had happened to him,      to reveal his guilt and anguish and loss to other Marines, as they’re doing today at this Semper Fi Camp.

And Justin turned to me and said,

            It’s because of what the veterans of your father’s generation and the veterans who returned from Vietnam suffered through in silence—it’s because of them that we learned that we need to do this for soldiers and Marines now, to give them a safe place to talk with others, who have been where they’ve been and who have experienced what they have experienced. And to offer them all the resources out there available to them to help them more fully reintegrate back into civilian life.”
Dad, Tricia, Ray, Maureen
            On that day, long ago, when I was seventeen and sharing my anguish about the torn cartilage in my knee with my Dad, he gave me a gift: one last glimpse into how he lived with his own tremendous loss. After giving me a hug, he simply said, I miss my leg.

            I held my breath and looked over at him, afraid that he would stop talking. Dad had a faraway look in his eyes. Then, he gazed out the window, at the setting sun, which was streaking the sky in tangerine and violet:    

            You know, Shar, sometimes I think that when I die, heaven will be a place,
            where I spend all of eternity running.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

“When the dream came, I held my breath with my eyes closed…” ~Neil Young

                 ~ “…All through my brain
                        came the refrain of home and its warming fires:
                        And home sings me of sweet things
                        My life there has its own wings…”       
                                                             Bonnie Raitt, “Home”

            Since 2005, I have lived in seven different places, mostly rental apartments in Pittsburgh. It’s ironic that in my adult life I’d found myself moving from place to place on a regular basis, as I deeply valued roots, community, and a sense of belonging somewhere. In one of the last apartments I lived in, on a quiet brick street in Squirrel Hill atop a hillside that overlooked Frick Park, I had constant visitors: a herd of deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs, butterflies, cotton-tailed hares, raccoons and the occasional human. I had hoped to stay in that apartment for a long time, but I lost my job and returned to my family home in New Jersey back in 2010.
            Each time I moved into a new rental, I tried to turn it into a true “home” for myself. I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be a homeowner. As part of my nesting ritual, I would plant a garden outside of my apartment, as soon as the early spring sunshine loosened the earth. I started doing this when I was around 25, living with my young son in a small railroad flat on Northumberland Street. The apartment had a postage-stamp front yard, and I planted cosmos, nasturtiums and a blue hydrangea bush in front of the shrubs. I never asked the landlord if I could do this; I just started digging wherever I lived, and frankly, none of them ever complained.
            The gardens served two purposes for me: they satisfied my soul’s need to have beauty around me, and they gave me the illusion of stability. After all, I was tending and nurturing roots; surely, I was allowed to set down my own roots, wasn’t I? I planted mostly perennials, those hardy souls, which would bloom year after year. In the summer, in my years in the Squirrel Hill apartment, when my daisies, lilies, coneflowers and dahlias flourished in the hot sun, and I was out in the yard, throwing a tennis ball for my Australian Shepherd, Rosie, I could feel myself stable and happy, looking forward to the maples on the property burnishing bright red come October, or the soft stampede of the deer in my yard during the ice and snows of February, searching for my cut-up apples and the birdseed from my feeders.
            But this bubble—this illusion of “home” as stability and as a place I had some “say” over—was constantly being burst. The landlord would politely ask me to stop putting birdseed out in the yard, as it was attracting mice.  Or they would tell me that a part of my garden would have to be destroyed, as they had workmen, who would need to set up ladders where my flowers were growing, so they could re-shingle that part of the roof.
            Worst of all, I needed to move for one reason or another. I hated pulling up stakes, leaving behind all of the neighbors who had turned into friends. Also, I realized that I would have to leave my gardens behind, knowing full well that I was abandoning my flowers to disinterested tenants, and they would eventually wither from neglect or smoother under overgrown weeds.
            At dusk, I walked Rosie up and down the steep hills through my lovely Squirrel Hill neighborhood. During these evening walks, a deep longing for my own home would wax, full and burnished as a hunter’s moon.  Lamps would flick on in the brick homes, offering me glimpses into the lives of families—mylar balloons floating above a table crowded with children in one home; a man, book in hand, putting on his glasses in another; and gangly dogs yowling at Rosie out of front screens. These walks were bittersweet, affording me glimpses into the lives of “settled” families, who owned their own homes and could plan their lives around them. As sunlight transitioned to lamplight, I pictured myself walking up the sidewalk of a particularly lovely home, stopping to pick up the newspaper from “my” stoop, opening the red front door and stepping into those soft pools of light. I imagined someone there to greet me with a smile, glad to see me back again. What was hard to imagine was what it would feel like to say “mine.” On nights when my yearning for a home grew too overwhelming, I would hurry Rosie through our walk and deliberately not look into the illuminated windows.
            So, here’s the AMAZING thing. I have just become a homeowner!!!!  It’s official.  The inspection is done, the offers and counter-offers and negotiations have wrapped up, and the papers have been signed and exchanged. I finally! own a house in the wonderful city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a house that I fell in love with as soon as I walked into it during an open house just a month ago! It is a red brick house with gleaming oak floors and the original woodwork: built-in bookcases in the living room and dining room and decorative fireplaces in both rooms. The staircase with its lovely banister.  Three spacious bedrooms upstairs, and a wide hallway where my artwork will find a home. The closing is at the end of January, and there are still loose ends to tie up, but this beautiful 1930’s home is now mine. I will be able to plant both a front and backyard garden this spring. I could even plant a flowering tree! I will have a separate office, for the first time ever—a designated writing space, full of light, with its delightful little arched brick fireplace, overlooking the avenue, where I can write my poems, blogs, letters and comments on students’ work. 
            And I will have, for the first time ever, a guest bedroom. I’m already imagining putting a vase of flowers on the nightstand for Brian and Zoe’s visits. I picture us walking up to the local restaurant, which serves delicious Pan-Latin food, having a leisurely meal and coming home to my house to play cards and drink Pinot Noir late into the night. My mind is already busy inviting everyone I’ve ever known and loved, my mother and all of my beloved siblings from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, eastern Pennsylvania and Illinois to come and stay with me. I am imagining I might buy a male dog, maybe a pound pooch, maybe a Golden Retriever, to keep my beautiful Rosie company, when I have to work long days. (No more dealing with realtors saying “no dogs allowed!”)

            I am dreaming about wall colors and kitchen cabinets and rugs and comfy chairs to curl up in and read. I’m dreaming of dinner parties with small groups of my very favorite people, and summer walks with dear friends, who live nearby, and music playing and Scrabble boards set up and neighbors stopping by for a glass of Merlot. My guitars will be up in my office space, and I will play and sing to my heart’s content, without always worrying about bothering my upstairs’ neighbor. I will walk to my favorite coffee shop, mere blocks from me and visit with friends and grade student quizzes. And at night, when I walk Rosie down the avenue here, I will glimpse a beautiful lit lamp in the living room window of one particular home and will be able to walk straight up that sidewalk, past the purple coneflowers, onto the porch and open the door to my own home. I can hardly believe this is happening. After all these years. I am thrilled, scared, and amazed. And more than anything, I am so incredibly, incredibly grateful.