It happened in August


It happened in August. I knew better than to wade into the water, but I’m compulsive that way.


The water seemed calm enough, barely a ripple on its surface. Maybe it was the shattered sunlight, winking and blinking like a thousand sequins, that drew me farther in. My feet followed the slope of the earth until I stood in chest-high water.


That’s when I saw the wave out on the horizon. I always think it is a small wave brought by some unseen current, a wave that will wash over me gently, but not pull me under.


So, I stood there and waited.


I should have known, and if I’m honest, I did know, but I have a chronic case of optimism that affects my vision. I’m so nearsighted that I cannot recognize reality until it’s right in front of me.


When it was too late to turn back, I saw what lay beneath that wave: the great whale. And it swallowed me, as it has done year after year.


For four and a half months I traversed the ocean in the belly of that whale, my old companion. Then last week, he spit me out, worn and wasted, my eyes unused to the light. For two days I lay on the beach, asking myself if I would return to the beach or move inland.


Next time it will be different, I tell myself. Teaching will not swallow me whole; I will teach and have a life. Sitting by the fire here on the shore, watching the small waves roll in, I believe that.


Next time it will be different. In January I will return to the shore, believing, always believing.


I am called to the sea. I cannot stay away.



 Photos: Seashore   Whale



Bewilderment and laughter

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.


They are a small people, the Karen.  Most are short and wiry, used to carrying heavy loads. They laugh often.



Once, they cultivated the earth. People of the soil, they planted the land with seeds and cuttings to feed their villages. They knew the depth the seed desired, the care the small plants needed, and the time for harvest. They knew the rain by smell, marked the patterns of flight of greedy birds who circled over their fields, and recognized every insect, tree, and animal that shared the land with them.



They have been transplanted, forced to flee their land, Burma, to live here in northeastern Wisconsin. Soldiers have cultivated their homeland with death, planting landmines in fields and on paths. The earth, once life-giver, has become life and limb taker. Eastern Burma, the Karen homeland, now vies with Afghanistan as the most landmine-ridden area of the world.



Three months ago, Ba, Mer, Hsa, Paw, Aung and a dozen others doubled their latitude and landed on the other side of the world. Ba, Mer, and Hsa have never studied before. I bewilder them by drawing lines on the whiteboard, pointing to them, and making strange sounds. They understand the pictures in the textbook, but the sounds are hard to make.



In time they match sound to word, greet me with “Good morning, teacher” and “Good-bye, teacher.” Most of the other students now understand the grammar that we study, do well on the tests, and easily join in the pair work to practice speaking. When I explain the task to Ba, Mer, and Hsa, they laugh and say, “I don’t know.” I want to tell them “I don’t know, either.”



I don’t know the secrets of the soil or how to coax enough food from seeds to feed my family. I must trust others to tell me how to read the sky or translate the language of birds. I cannot harvest rice or carry grain across mountain paths. I know words and live most of my life inside. I live on the earth, not with the earth. What I know is a small tree in a vast forest of what I do not know.



Once, some years past, I had to flee a place I’d grown accustomed to, a place I loved. I left abruptly, never to return, and the ache remains. My own leaving is a small thing, compared to that of my students, thrust out of their homes by war, rape, landmines, forced labor, and destruction of their villages. But I feel a kinship. Somehow we have each been planted here, meeting in rooms to struggle with words, each of us knowing and not-knowing so much. We greet one another and begin the day, scribbling on boards and in books, smiling, speaking, wondering, and sharing our bewilderment. But always with laughter, the one true language we share.


Map courtesy of Aotearoa 


Simple past




Only in grammar

can you guarantee

a past, present, and future

that is perfect.



I have had my share

of that perfection,

but yesterday,

the verbs were restless.

Some sprouted –ings

and flew around the room

as nouns

as if flying were a thing

to be desired.



The rest,

tired of being active,

pulled on their participles

and just stood there,

describing things.



Some of the nouns,

envious of all the action,

broke into a dictionary

grabbed suffixes willy-nilly

and put them on like tails

to strut among the verbs





So many things were


And while much of it

was clearly progressive,

I sat in that hubbub

and longed for my

simple past.

A journey and an explanation



Late August, they gave me a map and instructions. I planned my route, studied the names of the rivers, noted the areas to avoid, and headed out. Like all of the journeys before this, I set out with a heavy backpack and a light heart.

I have made this long trek across the months before and knew I would pass some familiar places. My legs, unused to walking after the long summer of watching clouds, complained and then grew silent. My back has never ceased to speak.

I have been schooled in maps, known, and walked them. A map is the story of the road, told true from first to last, but it is not the road. Contour lines, floating on the flat surface like ripples in a lake, are someone else’s story. Your feet must walk the road and find what elevation means.

I follow a path of beauty, canopied by a wide blue sky, days lined with slow smoldering trees that light the way. I know the sun will turn soon and the winds still the fires. I have a long acquaintance with winter.

Faces wait for me at each encampment; they are why I journey. The weary climb, the bruised feet, the hours setting up the camp – all are forgotten when we meet. I offer them my strength, teach them all I know, and trust they will remember some of what they learned for their own travels.

I have journeyed often and I have journeyed long, but I have never been so tired. Mid-October means I am halfway there. In December when the earth sleeps its longest night, I will sit before a fire and rest, tell stories of my trek, and remark on the terrain I covered.


For now, most of my writing must be in the lives and minds of my students.


At the end


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)