If I’m not here, I’m there

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At the end of the semester I received a large gift wrapped in calendar paper: three month’s worth of days. Each day is a gift certificate, good for 24 hours, to be used any way I choose.

 

I am taking three week’s worth of the certificates to Europe, where I will ramble around, stopping as often as possible to gape and wonder. I plan to use my eyes a lot. I’ll carry a camera and try to remember to use it. I placed a little sticky note on the camera: Your jaw is dropping again, please close it; the locals are staring.

 

The trip is a gift from my brother, large enough to include bringing one of my daughters and my grandchild. My life is full of unmerited favor and love, which explains why gratitude is splashing out of my eyes.

 

If you live in Europe, please look for me. I’ll be wearing still brown hair with newly added highlights, large-sized sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. I’m the small woman rambling with her feet and her mouth.

 

 

I hope to send some postcards now and then, as well as read and comment on other people’s blogs. If not, I have days and days of summer left to do just that.

 

In the next three weeks, if I’m not here on my blog, it means I’m there.

 

Until we meet again here, thank you for your months of reading, commenting, and liking. I like you back.

 

A shared childhood

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A shared childhood is a hidden language made up of gestures, glances, raised eyebrows, isolated words and uncalled-for laughter and tears; spoken only by those initiated into the years when memory draws every event in primary colors outlined with thick, black lines. It is a language that can never be translated into another tongue or life; it is time enfleshed in the child.

 

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” may seem like an easy question to most people, but for me it is complicated and difficult. Mother had eight living children over a span of 25 years. I grew up knowing the oldest; she was 15 years older than me. I lived for a while with the youngest, my brother who is 10 years younger than me. And I shared my childhood with my sister, K, who is 18 months older.

 

 

 

She was the golden child, tall, pretty, and smart, who charmed the aunts and uncles. I was not.

 

We played together, sometimes peaceably. She carries small scars from times I scratched her; I suffer with writer’s limp because she broke my arm. She’ll deny it and say the earth broke my arm; she merely sent me aloft in a childish game of push-up. She has always had a problem with reasonableness.

 

When our father died, K was ten and I was eight. She left childhood then, although I didn’t know it at the time. K took responsibility for me while mother dealt with her grief. And once the grief passed, mother began barhopping in search of another man. All those years, I thought my sister was just being bossy, still pushing me, not up, but around.

 

We spent our growing years together parsing the world, trying to understand its meaning. And because our mother played the central role, our childhood is our mother tongue.

 

Just as we inflect words, or modify them, to express a change in tense or number, the stories we now tell are inflected with memories that signal to the hearer a change in mood or meaning, but only to those who learned the language with us.

 

The story of my broken arm is one I love to tell, but only if my sister is there to hear it or read it. In some other language of childhood, it could be parsed as blame, but in my own mother tongue, it is part of the grammar of love.

 

Happy Birthday, sister.

 

 

At the end

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In the last hours of the last days of the last week, a lone teacher wanders across the ruins of the semester seeking a place of rest. Papers flutter in the wind, obscuring the sun. Students run after the papers looking for the ones marked “A.” These papers are light and float upward on the breeze, so they are difficult to catch. It takes a great deal of skill. The ones marked “B” or “C” are easier to find but still require effort to capture. The heavier papers, “D” and “F,” litter the ground; the crowd tramples them underfoot. A few students grab them from the ground and hurry off. Many of the students ignore the teacher; one or two bump into her and move on.

 

 

She remembers silence and wonders where it has gone. A thousand voices merge into a cacophony of sound; life is a roar of demands.

 

 

She grows numb. The noise blinds her, and she struggles to remember how she got to this place and why she is here.

 

 

Three young men approach her. They smile shyly and hand her a gift: three small pyramids and a sphinx, carved out of wood. “Thank you,” they say. The words help her focus. Her eyes adjust and she remembers their faces. Two are Egyptians on their way back home; they have spent the last year studying English. Both took part in the Egyptian Revolution. They carry dreams of democracy and a better life. The third man will return to Ghana to continue his studies in agricultural engineering. He tells me he will use his skills to help his country.

 

 

The teacher’s eyes brighten. She notices a small crowd of students standing before her, some with small gifts, but all with words of thanks. The young woman from Pakistan will start a foundation to help women in her country; the Korean woman needs to finish her degree in mechanical engineering; and the young man from Belgium will pursue a career in politics once he finishes his education.

 

 

One by one the students seek her out. They shake her hand or give her hugs. The quiet woman from Jordan kisses her on each cheek. They each speak the language of joy, and the teacher’s heart grows strong with gratitude. She thanks them in return.

 

 

Looking at all their faces, she sees the world and remembers why she is here.

 

NASA Blue Marble (Flickr Creative Commons/NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

 

 

 

 

Greetings from Accordia

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Accordia is an obscure country on the far, far border of the west that most people miss because they go one step too far and end up in the east. It’s an easy mistake, especially if you are prone to circular reasoning.

 

 

If by chance you find the border, you still might miss it because it’s such a small country. Accordia consists of one large alp. It’s national motto is “Accordia: A Hill of a Good Country.”

 

No one had heard of the country until recently (today, in fact), but it is the birthplace of the accordion. Accordians are touchy about this subject, and if you want to push an Accordian’s button, just casually mention that Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann invented the accordion in 1822. After the bellowing stops, tell the person you were just kidding. Normally, Accordians aren’t that loud, but they are if you push them.

 

 

For unknown reasons, I was selected out of all of the millions of people in the Interlands to be the official representative of Accordia. I have been recording their vibrant history and plan to publish some of it sooner, later, or both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accordia is an obscure country on the far, far border of the west that most people miss because they go one step too far and end up in the east. It’s an easy mistake, especially if you are prone to circular reasoning.

 

 

 

 

If by chance you find the border, you still might miss it because it’s such a small country. Accordia consists of one large alp. It’s national motto is “Accordia: A Hill of a Good Country.”

 

 

 

No one had heard of the country until recently (today, in fact), but it is the birthplace of the accordion. Accordians are touchy about this subject, and if you want to push an Accordian’s button, just casually mention that Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann invented the accordion in 1822. After the bellowing stops, tell the person you were just kidding. Normally, Accordians aren’t that loud, but they are if you push them.

 

 

 

For unknown reasons, I was selected out of all of the millions of people in the Interlands to be the official representative of Accordia. I have been recording their vibrant history and plan to publish some of it sooner, later, both, or either.

 

 

 

 

Missing Mother Days

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I left Mother twice.

 

 

First, I left her cloistered womb. I didn’t want to go, but it was my birthday; and she insisted. I never would have left if she hadn’t pushed me out the door. It ended in tears for both of us.

 

 

Mother took me to a house with empty spaces. We lived alone and together. One by one the years came, filling all the rooms, crowding me until I had to leave. I opened the door by myself and left without a tear.

 

 

I kissed Mother once, the day she left her house. She locked the door and left without her gloves, though her hands were cold. I cried that day; she didn’t say a word.

 

 

I wore Mother’s gloves to fill the empty spaces. They helped me face the cold, and finally grasp what she did.

 

 

I missed Mother the day I lost her glove on my way home. The right one disappeared; I only have the left.

 

 

I missed Mother more that day than all the days before.

 

 

 

Frequently Not Asked Questions: Three

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Why is your hair still brown?

 

First, let me say that I have never seen or heard of the color “still brown,” so I cannot answer your question.

 

However, since you asked and made me look, I checked online and discovered that a number of stills are, in fact, brown. My hair color is very close to the still used to make Ukrainian vodka that is pictured in Wikipedia, kindly offered to the world by Arne Hückelheim. So that answers the question you didn’t ask: Is your hair still brown? The answer is yes; however, I much prefer that you call it moonshine brown.

 

Now back to your question. What exactly are you trying to imply? Are you interested in probability theory? Did you suddenly notice the green grass in the picture of the vodka still and realize that I have green eyes? Do find that odd? Or is it just me? More importantly, shouldn’t that last question really be: Or is it just I?

 

Naturally (and that’s what were really talking about when we speak of hair color) all those minor questions lead to the ultimate question: What are the odds of having both brown hair and green eyes?

 

I don’t mind answering that question, but if that is what you are asking, I wish you would have come out and asked me that in the first place.

 

As you know if you have ever taken Biology 301 Biomathematics at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Sarah Otto asked her students that very question in her lecture notes and gave a simple formula to discover the answer based on Bayes’ Rule.

 

P(B|A) = P(B) P(A|B) / P(A)

 

If you are like Dr. Otto, you probably understand this; if you’re like me, you don’t. To me, it looks like someone stuttering in math.

 

(Oddly, the motto at UBC is “a place of mind,” written in lowercase letters. Apparently the Biomathematics department took all of the capital letters to use in its program, so none were left for the motto. The world is full of these small sorrows.)

 

Third (and this is my last attempt to answer your question), I entered the world with dark brown, almost black hair. Somewhere along the way, I lost it and started wearing blond hair. In adolescence I grew tired of that, looked in the mirror one day and noticed I was a brown-haired girl, the literal meaning of brunette, so I forsook blondism. My freshman year in high school, I grew nostalgic, remembered the fun I had as a child and bleached my hair blonde. I didn’t have more fun, so my sophomore year I returned to my roots and went au naturel, hairwise.

 

Fourth, if you must know, my hair color is merely a pigment of my imagination.

 

Night and day

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I remember stars.

 

The sun blazed in my childhood sky, began its work at dawn and moved through the field of blue, scattering its seed. In the deep black soil of night, those seeds burst forth with light.

 

I ran through summer nights, shoes forgotten, countless blades of grass beneath my feet, countless blooms of light above my head, believing they would always be there.

 

Like the sun, I moved away from my own dawn and lullabies, but on summer nights, lying in the cool grass, I wondered at the stars, up above the world, so bright.

 

 

Now I wonder if the stars are birds that fly across the sky, following the behemoth sun, who lurches through the day, clothed in blinding brass, pushing aside the hours in search of something long forgotten.

 

My night sky is almost empty now, the birds captured, caged in jars that line the roads I travel, hung on poles to light my way. Once they soared across the arch of night; I marked the seasons of their flight.

 

My old eyes, even in the dark of night, see what’s right before me, plain as day. I wonder if the sun is lonely, looking for the lights on the other side of the world, wondering where they have gone.

 

The grass still grows beneath my feet, conquering fields and planting green flags to mark its territory, but night is a barren field.

 

Day and night, I see what’s right before me, but I can no longer see what lies beyond.

 

I remember stars.

 


 Photos are courtesy of NASA, Hubblesite, and Wildfeuer.