Medusa sculpture Cuba

The Machine: What ifs

In the event you were concerned, The Machine is not dead. I picked it up again a few weeks ago when I started a writing class that focuses on how the heck to put a story together. Story is my challenge, which I defined in mid-August while taking a creative essay class. Story is what happens between A and B. It’s the PB&J slathered between slices of warm, chewy bread. It’s the journey between Earth and Mars. The how the heck did we get here?

Maybe you already knew this—it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it—but, sometimes, I need a flashing billboard and dancing cats before something clicks into place.

Several months ago I started TM with a narrative voice, but not much else. That voice took me through a few pages, then stopped. Some writers can just create a character who then wanders around, creating adventure, and voilà! a story is born. I’ve never been able to do this. My characters are usually some sliver of me, so they generally find a nice corner and beat their heads against the wall, because that is how you discover the meaning of life.

The class I’m taking has opened the story enormously so far, just through the writing of What if? questions. What if I wake up one morning as a gigantic bug? What if my family finds me repulsive and locks me in my room? What if my fairy godmother observes my distress and beams down a handsome prince to save me? What if that prince refuses to kiss my pincher lips and now we’re both locked in this room together? What if my sister, who has always loved me and is distraught at my transformation, peeks through the keyhole to check if I’m alive, sees the prince, falls in love, steals him away, and they are married that evening?

It’s kinda fun. Not that I had fun creating my own list—it was a little frustrating at this stage when I don’t know my character or the world well enough, but the list-making did bring a lot of great questions to mind, and I have a loose idea now of where the story will go, so my character can stop beating their head against the wall now.

This is a draft, and feel free to tell me your thoughts: likes, false moments, where I should add unicorns.

What Ifs:

What if TM has always been an oddball, on the outside of the circle, because they didn’t get the unspoken social rules or fit into any groups, because of their overly analytical nature?

What if this lead to intense loneliness, which TM ameliorated through books?

What if this caused huge conflicts with their mother, growing up, because she didn’t understand their behaviors and related conflicts (bullying)?

What if this led TM to disconnect even more from their emotions, further preventing them from relating to others, at times? Though this doesn’t mean they completely lack sympathy or empathy; it just takes a lot to get them to feel.

What if TM moves out as soon as they turn 18 and get their housing allotment, further straining the mother-child relationship?

What if TM’s affect prevents them from getting a job, since most available require intensive personal contact and TM always fails the culture interviews, even for the few computer-based jobs?

What if TM practices “normal” human behavior at home then uses this at interviews?

What if it doesn’t help but catches the attention of Sara, who is intrigued?

What if Sara contacts TM and manages to get TM a job in one of the few non-interpersonal areas, namely link clicking?

What if Sara and TM become best friends, possibly lovers?

What if Sara is someone TM can relax with, emote more with?

What if an antibiotic-resistant plague (The Loss) begins sweeping across the world?

What if Sara gets sick, but TM doesn’t notice?

What if Sara convinces TM to see a psychic with her?

What if the psychic tells TM to go to the water?

What if this doesn’t make sense to TM, especially given the water restrictions, including access to the ocean?

What if Sara dies a few days later?

What if TM locks themself into their apartment, numb, waiting for the plague to stop spreading?

What if TM loses their capacity to escape into books?

What if TM survives because of the way their building is designed—ea. apt. is its own unit, nothing connects, an experimental unit?

What if once the All Clear sounds, 50% (or some horrific number) of the population has died?

What if this includes TM’s mother?

What if TM inherits their mother’s cat, which, btw, their mother could have left to any number of friends, and let’s not go into what the cat did to their mother’s corpse.

What if TM doesn’t understand keeping pets, including cats?

What if TM considers killing the cat or somehow getting rid of it?

What if TM changes their mind and keeps the cat? [maybe Sara loved cats]

What if the inability to read, the cat in that tiny apartment, and loneliness drive TM into the world?

What if they respond to Marcos’s (work overseer-type) attempts at friendship/relationship?

What if Marcos is very popular, wealthy, and introduces TM to a different class of people?

What if TM, again, acts normal in order to fit in?

What if TM succeeds (perhaps the complete lack of emotion, due to grief, is the ticket) and becomes popular among these friends?

What if this popularity spills into professional life and TM skyrockets up the ladder, an odd combination of faking it ’til you make it with totally rational decision making, plus the world’s a thinner place.

What if Marcos, initially attracted by the depth he saw in TM, is confused by this changed and obviously fake behavior? [Why does he wait so long to confront?]

What if he confronts TM about the change?

What if this confrontation triggers the grief over Sara’s death that TM has been refusing to feel, like the pebble holding up the mountain until the elephant sneezes?

What if the shame, guilt, and anger causes TM to lash out at Marcos in a pretty unforgivable way?

What if everything else comes tumbling down as a well, the faking it no longer an option?

What if TM finally takes the psychic’s advice and goes to the ocean (now they can afford it, too)?

What if this is the beginning of a transformation?

What if TM decides to escape into the world of their favorite book (must have some sort of water theme)?

What if TM decides to build a boat, which is illegal?

What if TM finds someone who will sell them wood and hide it in a certain place near the ocean?

What if TM works on the boat in secret?

What if Marcos finds out (something about keeping tabs on them, huge sums of money moving around)?

What if Marcos threatens to report TM?

What if TM goes into hiding (with the cat), in a cave near the ocean, working on the boat?

What if TM swims daily, and the transformation continues, something about the grief and loneliness healing?

What if TM’s sudden fall from popularity and financial activity (boat materials bribe) catches the attention of the media?

What if the media finds TM on the beach, probably because some people saw TM when they visited the shore?

What if the media tries to get TM talking?

Again, what if TM escapes, this time to the ocean, with no plan?

What if the aborted interview and the escape are broadcast?

What if TM isn’t arrested, even though their activities are illegal, because, well, entertainment, also, 50% of the world just died, priorities are different?

What if at some point during this journey out to sea TM simply accepts Sara’s death, their difference…maybe some other stuff, and this opens the emotion barrier that opened with Sara, that had been closed in childhood.

What if that leads them to turn the boat around and go back?

What if Marcos is there to greet them, whisk them through the throng and back to safety (his apology for the role he played in this)?

What if TM resettles, this time in a slightly larger microapartment, with more space for the cat?

What if someone reaches out to them, another oddball, one who watched the escape story?

What if they become friends?

What if TM finds a community?

Theme:

This is a story about someone trying to connect with others.

This is a story about social contradictions: valuation of the emotional over the rational while automating the workforce, life; valuation of individuality over conformity while being increasingly able to avoid introspection and interaction with difference; possessing increasing amounts of personal information about each other while knowing less and less.

*** *** *** ***

And please enjoy this Medusa sculpture from Habana. Unlike The Machine, she bristles with emotion.

theresa

bus from cuba

Re-creation, or now what

Here I go again, re-creating myself, this time into a writer slash editor. Except it’s not so much re-creation as acceptance of the fact that those are the two things I am best at AND enjoy, so I might as well suck it up and try to survive doing those things. Despite a degree in playwriting, I’ve avoided the writing/editing life because I don’t understand how to break into it, and it feels so insecure, hopping from job to job, with no guarantee of the next, and I like security. Sure, I quit a steady job and left my home to teach in a foreign country, but I knew I’d have a place to live, with enough food, what my plans would be for the next ten months, and that I’d have someplace and someone to return to at the end.

Hmm…as I qualified my statement, the bullshit meter sounded. Did I really know what would happen over that year? A lot of crazy can happen under the umbrella called “teaching and living in another culture.” Methinks my tolerance for the uncertain is higher than I realize. Also, don’t I have a fairly secure living situation now, too, as I look for a job? (Hello, retirement savings!) So, really, self, what’s there to fear on this next adventure? A little credit, puh-lease. I’m too hard on myself, I’ve been told. Often.

Wow, you have just had the joy (or annoyance — I have no idea how you’re feeling) of witnessing a successful moment of self-therapy. Hugs all around. I actually feel a little more confident, and I need all the help I can get because it was tough putting on my brave face last week, Week Two of the Quest for People to Pay Me.

Week One was energized and hopeful as I crafted a decent resume, slogged through the clunky platform known as LinkedIn, discovered a few jobs that excited me, and brushed up on a long overdue skill. Week Two, on the other hand, was more of a kid-sized mood roller coaster as I filled in tedious online applications and crafted writing samples (Sell us toothpaste! Come up with awesome medical topics for our blog!). But the mood roller coaster may have been due more to the daily hot chocolate-induced sugar and caffeine crash than the dark hole that is job searching. I’ve been reluctant to admit that, however, because it feels so right to settle cross-legged on the round tuffet between the coffee table and couch with a cup of syrupy hot chocolate as I open my laptop to start clicking job links. A bright spot that coffee (decaf) cannot replace. It is with reluctance and baby dinosaur fist waving that I thrust the cocoa powder from reach. Here’s to Week Three being approached with more of the verve from Week One.

I’ve also been lost as to how to approach this blog. As the header says, it’s here to chronicle my attempts to take over the world, but now that I’ve returned to a world I’m much too familiar with, sometimes the attempts simply don’t make for blogworthiness. I don’t want to post about my breakfast or other dull minutiae from life. So I’ve been quiet, unmoored and searching for the voice again. I think the restlessness relates to my last post about avoiding passivity. That death of life is creeping in much too quickly, helped along by long days searching through job listings, the morning routine of scooping the cat box and watering the garden, the (occasional) evening routine of planning and making dinner. All those tasks are part of life but don’t make a life. It’s easy to get caught up and not look beyond them. I need that manifesto.

Here is something larger than me. I’m doing transcription, and a little PR writing, for a photographer who is interviewing and photographing engaged or married gay couples in celebration of the June SCOTUS decision, one of the few bright reports from the US during my absence. I’ve always been a softie when it comes to love stories. Check out the project.

So long,

theresa

P.S. I’ll probably post pictures from Cuba for awhile, unless you’d like pictures of my cats.

On Passivity

Hello, World! it’s been awhile. I last wrote from Honduras while sitting and sweating in a gray plastic chair, aged laptop burning in my lap, and semi-effectual fan quaking above. Now, after brief stops in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba, I report from my new-old home of Portland, Oregon, USA, chilled from the AC, with a large striped orange cat snoozing in my lap and construction wailing, pounding, chopping, grinding, drilling, and clanging outside.

It’s a different world [sound cue] physically, socially, economically, emotionally. The roads are paved and I’m anonymous. The papayas are barely larger than my hand and cost twice as much. I bus or bike anywhere without consideration to the area’s safety and wince at the frivolity of my $5 almond milk decaf latte (vegan again). People’s eyes don’t meet mine as we pass, and I sometimes pass them while holding hands with my partner. New Seasons, our overpriced local grocery chain, carries several varieties of kale chips and half a wall of energy/protein bars. Hot water and drinkable water are available with only a turn of the faucet. Passivity, born in comfort and strengthened by the option of relying on another to make tedious and sometimes important decisions, because choices carry risks, big and small, slowly creeps in.

And I fear that disconnection from life more than the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps more than the thought of another Bush presidency.

Last year’s steps away from a secure job and comfortable home were not passive. As a teacher, a job that consumed my waking hours for the first several months, reliance on someone else was not an option. I made decisions all the time, sometimes bad ones. I can’t deny that there were passive aspects in my life, which lead to my not learning Spanish as well as I’d hoped, but/and/or several others have suggested that I be gentler with myself on the language matter, given how much energy I expended in trying to be an awesome teacher. Ultimately, I’ll have to decide how to frame that memory.

The few weeks of solo travel after school ended were the highlight of my year, because they weren’t passive. I knew and (usually) did exactly what I wanted, like earning my Open Water diving certificate, visiting random art galleries in Antigua, Guatemala and swimming and scrambling through the beautiful Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in San Ignacio, Belize. Not only was there no one else to make decisions for me, I didn’t want there to be. I didn’t want to compromise my limited time, and there were so many delectable options, life adventures awaiting. I had moments and days of unqualified happiness (and a few of distress). Now, I’m back to before, and while I’m not the same person, I’m similar enough that if I’m not careful, I could slip back into my previous life, especially as I face challenges, like job searching [any leads welcome] in a town that builds apartments before infrastructure.

My passivity springs from fear of the unknown, of discomfort, of displeasing others, and from assuming that everyone knows the answer better than me. It comes from unhappiness and feeling trapped. It comes from rejection and failure. Also, comfort. Too much choice (First World Problem). Obligation. Inadequacy.

I’m searching for a manifesto, akin my beginning entry on the eve of my departure. A manifesto of self-action that makes bold, confident declarations. I don’t have one, yet. I do, however, have an ongoing list I started several months ago as I looked ahead to the pitfalls of my return. A list of things I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t:

  • join Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers
  • archery
  • learn swing dance, among others
  • kayak
  • go beautiful places in nature
  • incorporate more music into my life
  • take writing classes (check! I start a personal essay class on August 4)

There, that’s the list. Pursue action that brings joy and fulfillment. Easy enough, right? While the sun is out, anyway.

The returned,

theresa

gifted shirt

Final tidbits

Today I finished the science recuperation exams for those who failed the term, hugged goodbyes to the Honduran staff (teared up a bit with Miss H., a beautiful woman inside and out, quién le admiro mucho), and walked my last walk home. On the way I worked on my final list of tidbit observations I’ve wanted to share.

1. Hair gel. Boys are never too young for a stylish quaff, preferably with copious amounts of hair gel. If Costco opened down here, it would sell gel in gallon tubs, because most people of the male persuasion take that shit seriously. A tornado could whip through town and rip out my pigtails, but their hair? wouldn’t budge. One rumor is that the gel is necessary to prevent the hair from getting messed up while playing football. Personally, I prefer a more dressed down hair style, but no one asked.

2. Bellies. On a hot day you will usually find men hanging out with their t-shirts pushed up so their bellies are exposed. No doubt this DIY crop top is cooler, but to my culturally biased eyes, it’s ridiculous. But, then again, if women can wear mini tops and shorts/skirts, men should have their own way of not melting from the heat.

3. Photos. More than once a parent of a child that isn’t my student has wanted a picture with me. I’ve read this happens elsewhere.

4. Selfies. OMG, folks, kids are obsessed with selfies. It’s one thing to read about it, another to experience it. I’ve never been sitting around and thought, “Wow, I really need to record myself in this moment,” but that’s all kids are thinking when they are with photographic device. I have selfied after a new haircut, while wearing a plastic bag on my head, and to upload a photo so I could virtually fit some glasses, but that’s about it. I selfie with purpose. The kids’ selfie-ism, however, is a whole ‘nuther thing and it took up much of the final hours of school and an end of year party I went to on Saturday. I kept telling my kids they were vain. (un?)Fortunately, most of them don’t know that word. That’s it, I’m old.

5. Language. When I first heard students describing another as being “blond”, I was confused. In the States, blond hair ranges from nearly white to yellow. Here, blond means any hair that isn’t black or deep brown, what we would call medium brown.

6. Fresco. “Fresco” is short for “refresco” which is “beverage”, and the only beverage that counts here is soda. It’s sold in 3 liter bottles. A party without fresco wouldn’t be worth attending. You could forget the pizza or cake or chips, but, whoa, You forgot the fresco?! Show your face here nevermore. If I’m offered coffee, I’m surprised to not be offered a side of fresco with my coffee.

7. Adult Children. Outside of school, I rarely see anyone in professional dress, as in non-denim pants, button down shirts, or dresses that don’t say party or picnic; t-shirts or company logoed polos and jeans are the standard work wear. Considering the economy here is agricultural, retail, and production based, I would hardly expect khakis, and I’m a supporter of comfort over conformity to a bizarre dress code. (Why is a tie considered formal? Does it symbolize that we are owned by someone else, like an animal? Do our uncomfortable restrictive outfits prevent us from running away?) Anyway, jeans and t-shirts, I can’t help being reminded of overgrown children.

8. Cavities. More than once the volunteers and I looked at little kid’s teeth and commented, “I’m glad those are his/her baby teeth,” because those black things will fall out and be replaced by new, whole teeth. Blame the ubiquitous fresco, cookies, and super sweet juices, and probably inattention to and inability to afford dental care (a tortillería offers free extractions). By the way, it’s ridiculous that dental care isn’t included in basic insurance or Obamacare.

This is probably my last post from this small town. Sunday I’m off to Útila to learn how to scuba dive, which I didn’t know was a thing you had to get trained for until I came here. At this moment the skies are throwing down rain, which I’m used to from Portland but actually enjoy here. Thunder and lightning (not so very frightening) make any rain so much more exciting, so worth the wet. I will miss it.

Moving on,

theresa

PS. If you are alarmed by the recent plethora of posts, fear not, travel adventures may lead to a temporary drought.

The Machine (4)

Prior parts.

[indignation] What the hell kind of advice is that? Return to the water? 

Advising someone to use swimming or bathing or hot tubbing as a physical therapy against forthcoming grief when the nearest body of water requires a swimming permit that costs more than most make in a year month, the public pools are too expensive for the public, and water rationing prohibits use of bathtubs, is like throwing a firefighter an empty fire extinguisher to use on a raging flame. Sure, I considered not bathing for a week and collecting my daily water ration in some type of barrel, but how much comfort can be derived from sitting in a tepid, dusty barrel-bath. Better to recall that we are mortal, with unspoken expiration dates. Better to place the photo in a difficult to reach place beneath the kitchen sink that can be reached only by removing the dishes and soap and the wood cover hot glued over the picture, so that it cannot be held and stared into the long mornings and evenings, until the person isn’t remembered, only the person in the photo, who is someone else entirely, an idealization, a shadow, a moment.
***
The water is climbing higher and higher up my leg
The water is above my ankle and slipping to mid-calf.

The water has slipped above my ankle and is climbing to mid-calf. Crane-like against the dock presses my other (right) and wedged into a smallest gap between planks are my fingers. Any moment (past the knee) gravity will overcome my grip and pull me in, where I desperately want to be, in the satin ice of the water, wrapped in its cocoon.

A barely perceptible whine, shudder of ripples against the dock. I wrench myself up and out, teeth clenched, panting. The patrol boats are white, and this one, it’s too far off to tell, but it could be. But it could also be illegal fishers or someone who bribed the right officials for a permit. I slap my palm against the dock, then the edge of the dock. Hard, then harder. The boat is gone; the water smooth. It’s ridiculous that this water was cleansed if…no, of course it should have been cleansed for the life that belongs there…and for the rich, of course the rich…the beach is barren because no one can afford…I can’t afford…

(Fuck.)

My clothes are off/lumped on the dock and I’m in the air, I’m in, dear God, oh am I in, pouring between the sweetest sheets, skin vibrating/throbbing with a gazillion pricks/an army  as each hair erects, each pore welcomes this cleansing/purification. Surface. Breath(e). Face upward and float. Green earthy tendrils slowly creep from my hair, back, heels, heading/curling/creeping deep into the water to make anchor. I am an island, a mangrove; let fish nestle among my roots and birds and monkeys caper in my branches above. I can/will bring/invite life back into this world. But not human life—we have enough of that. No one has said it aloud—yet—but one day it will be said publicly that The Loss was necessary. We were too many, barely any part of the earth remained without our footsteps and clutter. Now there are open spaces again. Some politicians are calling on followers to replace those that were lost, so, mindlessly, their sheep engage in production sex, but when they hold that tiny human they’ll realize that their grief remains and the child will grow up beneath that shadow.

We get too attached and expect permanence. Attachment limits our ability to accept that the world is changing every second and there’s practically nothing to hold onto. No one is permanent and we shouldn’t convince ourselves otherwise. All that time and energy wasted on grief could be spent on…making really delicious tacos. [seriously?] Okay, that’s flippant, but rather than pointlessly wallowing, I wish I had spent that time…

…those hours…

…weeks…

…making really delicious tacos.

I don’t know. I spend a lot of time massaging the twitch from my clicker finger. Maximizing the space in my miniature refrigerator. Holding my hand over the door handle to the outer hallway, searching for an urge to exit into the public sphere, to move away from the stench of my skin, without a destination. Listening to my lower neighbor speak EXTREMELY LOUDLY to her pet fish, Marbles. WE’RE ALL GLAD THAT MARBLES IS VERY HAPPY ABOUT HIS FLAKES. NO, WE ARE NOT JEALOUS. I don’t understand people who talk with fish.

Some fish still live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Gorgeous exotic fish with neon colors, nightmare fish with inch long fangs, practical fish that make their own light. Every few months I check out a vintage National Geographic photo book about deep sea fish. It must be so quiet down there, and deadly; darkness often brings violence. Many of them haven’t changed since their beginning. Their world is so constant that they haven’t had to make adapt or die plans, unlike the rest of us.

Even with my eyes closed I can tell I need to leave to catch the last train. [too quick?] Skin sodden with water I attempt to propel my upper body upright, but my bones are too soft and my muscles refuse to contract. Evidently I will be sleeping here tonight, perhaps forever, and my neighbor can bring Marbles to nibble my flesh as it gradually peels away. What is the reason for returning to that apartment? Without books I spend too much time watching nonsense on my tablet or dust build up in the corners or peeking into the refrigerator.

But, no, I will be found and fined for exposure and swimming and the fees will be much too high to pay and I’ll have to carry their weight forever. The urge for life is already waning without that additional burden/impediment.

Eyes open to the dusky haze the world has become, its corners softened. I spin around to find I’ve drifted a surprising distance from the dock. I roll over, breast stroke, heave myself up, shake off, dress, lift my leaden feet to the train station. I don’t know if its the dusk or the hours spent with closed eyes, but everything is slightly blurred, as if I suddenly needed glasses, and sounds are muffled. While buying my entry code, a couple passes by to the exit, laughing as if through a bag of cotton. Heavy as my limbs are, they continue to tingle softly. The daily pain in my shoulders and wrists is absent. I shuffle around the room several times before I find the well-marked direction to the platform. I’m just a little bit drunk, I think.

As I wait, I nibble on the ridges of my wrinkled fingers, pass them over my cheeks. Because of the hour the northbound platform is empty. Several southbound trains stop and expel/birth commuters across the way. Chattering, fatigued, bright, dark, only their blank backs glance toward me. I’ve played the ghost today, maybe so much so that the northbound train—there’s the light down the tunnel—will hurtle past and I’ll be left on the platform, staring at the diminishing red tail lights.

Yet it slows to a stop and the doors clop open. Then I board, back to the city.

——————————-

Photo by Tim Laman from National Geographic

Before I forget

Friday was the last day. Many of my students signed a t-shirt for me (*sniff*). The administrators gave the volunteers plaques and a speech of thanks, goodbye, and eternal welcome. I dripped tears in front of everyone. I received unexpected hugs from certain students and wrangled others into chokeholds before they could flee my affection.

This was all more than I expected. Even if my inner cynic takes into account the fleeting romanticism and sentimentality that comes over many of us during goodbyes—perhaps the fear of the unknown as we depart the familiar—it cannot ignore the love. There was love, a lot and surprising given the challenges I’ve had. I don’t understand love. I never really have. Or maybe I just don’t understand kids. Being a kid is hard.

I’ve been here ten months. In one week I leave this small town for Útila, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba. In a month I’ll be back in Portland, Oregon. I return with browner skin, tighter jeans, and a greater tolerance of spiders near my bed and pitter patter of ants on my skin. While for months my anxiety addiction has been directed at teaching, I’ve too quickly redirected those superheroic powers of worry on my solo travel plans and money making capabilities. (Please, gods of anxiety, turn your faces from me.) Before I get completely caught in that net, I need to do some looking back, some internal analysis. Before it all fades beneath the dust stirred in the relentless push on.

From my first post:

If I take too long of a look, I’m afraid about all of it, so I pick one fear: I want to be a good teacher for these kids! This journey toward selfhood is difficult and I’ve whined a lot. But, despite my fears and doubts and whining, something inside of me believes I’m up to this challenge, that even failure will be a success.

So, was I a good teacher? Yes, for a neophyte. Could I have been better? Obviously, and I was the best teacher I could be. I tried to approach each child with compassion and understanding. I worked hard to create interesting lesson plans. When I could, I let the goof out to make kids laugh. I refused to accept cheating and laziness as okay.

I see my failures and understand them; they’re easier to elucidate. When I failed, I looked for solutions, although sometimes I just gave up for an hour or two. I was never firm enough—damn you, self doubt—which meant that the students who wanted to learn suffered, in particular. I couldn’t cater to all levels of learning, so the brighter kids got impatient. Also, I could have tried harder to get into what the kids were into—a recommended bonding tool—but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for One Direction or Frozen or the Fast and Furious series. I wasn’t a typical teenager and am much less one twenty years later. Sometimes compassion fell apart, particularly at the end when exhaustion and frustration led to sarcasm. Every now and then I just waved my hands in the air and wailed incoherently like a crazed muppet. These are failures I can live with, because I and the other volunteers did what no one else wanted to this year. We showed up and worked with these kids.

I am proud of the work I did these past months. Next year my grades, fingers crossed, are getting experienced teachers. Unless they turn out to be scary people, this can be only good news.

And now…

theresa

My gross keyboard

The Machine (3)

Read (1) and (2). I’ve started including the notes to myself and potential edits, just in case anyone’s curious about my thought process.

Some time ago I went with a friend to a psychic. My friend was—taken in The Loss—a great believer and insisted I try at least once, to the point that she paid the fee equal to ten days of clicking. “I’ll hate you if you don’t,” she said, handing me the damp paper ticket. I didn’t then, but I see now the slight shaking of her hand and the pale amber tint to her eyes. The early stages. We’d been given pamphlets by the government and received messages over the emergency network, and the disconnected had received personal visits regarding the signs. ATTENTION AND TIME IS EVERYTHING. I’d laughed, as you do, as I do when the border between serious and humor is unclear. And that day it was.

Did she know? Because…. No, I can’t give you that, the last of her. Not yet. We’re still strangers and I have too many questions. How did you survive The Loss and how much did it cost? Or did you even know about it, living so far up here? Was it something you only had to read or watch? 

We entered a white, windowless room: that was the first oddity. The second was the lack of incense or candles burning. In fact, the room was lit with bare industrial bulbs and completely spare but for three chairs, one of which was occupied by a man in a brown suit. He faced the wall, away from us. For the first fifteen minutes of our meeting I saw only the back of his head. Black hair, wavy, freckles, slightly jutting ears, and erect posture. I couldn’t see or hear him breathing, but the freckles gave away his humanity. gave him away.

She pushed me toward the right chair, sat in the left and [something about tension leaving her body? or that will happen when he mentions the end is coming.] Of course, my friend had been through this, none of it surprised her. 

She turned to me and smiled (that smile!) then walked strongly/forcefully/boldly to sit in the left chair. Sara grayed early and wore her hair long. Today it was in a single braid, rather than her usual two. As was her habit when sitting, she snatched up the braid and looped it into a bun. How many times had I watched her do this? Why didn’t I see that she could now wrap it five times? [like the implication, but this seems weak to blame self for. Or she now has one instead of two braids, whereas her hair was too thick like that before.] LOOK FOR HAIR LOSS. Why are we so pathetically unobservant? Why isn’t there a billboard or pamphlet or emergency alert for that?

My footsteps twanged/bounced off the walls like plucked rubber band as I crossed to the remaining chair; and an image of me sitting on the tile to remove my shoes flashed, but that was a ridiculous idea, who cared if I made noise, and my shoes stuttered and squeaked as I stopped/halted and continued in the same moment and was sweating as I sat, without scraping the chair, beside Sara. She squeezed my hand with hers. ARE YOU SUDDENLY COLD? But Sara was often cold and her fingers swollen and numb, both from poor circulation and nibbling at her cuticles. She said it was genetic and carried a pair of gloves with her, even in the summer.

“I got laughed at a lot in school,” Sara told me once. “No one ever wanted to touch me during handholding games. Ew, the glove girl. She’ll make you sick. But I had such a great collection. Grandma had saved my mom’s from when she was little and Grandma had made most of those, because gloves are usually so boring. I had stripes and spots and flowers and plaid and every single color you could think of. The hardest part of getting dressed was figuring out which to wear that day. Mom said she could read my mood from the gloves I chose. Now they’re mostly worn out and in a box somewhere, and I’m stuck with the boring ones.”

I mimed putting gloves on, but Sara only smiled and turned to face the back of his head again. So this is the back of a psychic’s head. Looks pretty normal. Is the facing away stuff real or is this part of the hocus-pocus bullshit, to create some air of mystery so we’re sucked in? Sara’s breathing became deep and regular, almost as if she were asleep. Not that I could hear it or anything in that room other than the irregular pounding of my own heart. I attempted to match Sara’s breaths but that just made my heart beat faster and louder, like those torso sized drums in marching bands that keep everyone stepping together. Except this was making me fall apart: sweat started dripping down my face and arms and blackness began creeping in from the sides of my vision until I was just about to lean over and put my head between my knees, like you’re supposed to do in a faint, and he turned around.

Here’s the part where I describe what his face looks like. I can’t. I have no memory of it. I assume all the parts were there, but I couldn’t tell you even if threatened with metal splinters beneath my nails scorpions and the rebirth of my mother. His voice reminded me of a recording I saw about the old candy making process, where people tugged on thick ropes of sticky sugar and folded it back and pulled and folded it back. His voice was deep and strong like that, and as he spoke the sound seemed to be pulling something from me, something I struggled to keep and relinquish simultaneously.

[My weakness at description is painfully evident here.]

“I’m only borrowing it,” he said. As I let go a slow chill spread across my chest and down through my groin. Goosepimples rose; my lower back ached. I leaned closer to Sara and, I realize now, to him. My hand was enveloped in his own—did I give? did he take? all agency had drained away, my head throbbed—enormous hands, with blunt fingernails and fine black hairs on the knuckles, I wanted to pet like a small animal. I flexed my new hands, because they were mine now, both mine and his, and across from me sat Sara and my now empty body but it wasn’t me there but him, staring out from my eyes….

I’ve tried to reconstruct the hours we were in the room, but I’m putting together a puzzle with half the pieces missing, and the pieces that are there, I can’t look at directly, but with a side eye. Most of what I see is Sara’s eyes, practically glowing amber in the falling darkness. And I’m suddenly very sad. His voice speaks from within my body. My/his throat vibrates deeply. “You must return to the water. It will help you deal with what is to come.” I stop breathing then, for just a moment as I let go of the bridge railing and fall forward, as I had so many times before while my finger click click clicked, and gasp only when my body slams into the water, my lungs filling, my arms flailing, my eyes seeing only another’s. And they are closing.

[Note to self: tense issues]

static

Inútil

I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

Tire seat

Thought motes

1. Whining. Sometimes I (along with all the volunteers) am as whiny as the students. I groan when the Volunteer Coordinator reminds us about our weekly meeting, bemoan the pointlessness of our attendance when told of the monthly staff meeting, and bitch when a day off or free period is cancelled. Like my kids, I often try to shoot the messenger.

2. Plastic? I’ve been meaning to mention the love of plastic bags here. The freshness of the observation is lost after nine months, but I do recall that the eagerness to give me a plastic bag with my purchase, no matter how small and how many other plastic bags I already have, used to surprise me. Any rejection of the proffered bag is met with bewilderment. Fortunately, even the smallest bag can be reused for cut produce, like avocado or melon. Also, juice, water, and frozen juice or milk treats called topogigos are sold in knotted plastic bags. Bite off a corner and suck away.

3. Balls. One dreaded part of my job is litigating arguments between kids over stolen balls and fighting in general. If I can’t punt the role of judge to another, I dither about fairness and trust neither party to tell me the truth. Thus I chastise both and no one is satisfied that justice has been done. Is this a contributing factor to the “zero-tolerance” policy in many US schools? Where the bullied is punished for self-defense, as well as the bully?

4. Happiness. For twelve years, my primary jobs, excluding the theatre-related, and even some of them too, have put me in a position that where no one is happy to see or hear from me. A call from me or the sight of my face means that person has something he doesn’t want to. My first adult job was in bookkeeping at a medical collection agency. I took money from people who most certainly did not want to (and sometimes really couldn’t) pay. My next job was as a paralegal who had to contact clients to request a year’s worth of financial documents. And if those weren’t enough to present a solid picture to the court, the person had to supplement with another pile of paperwork. Then I had to contact these people with personal questions about their spending habits. More than one took my questions as personal attacks, despite my sugar padding efforts, my emotional tap dancing. In the theatre life, as a literary manager, I would have to reject more plays than I accepted. Now, I teach children who most definitely do not want to be taught. Please, can I just have a job making people happy?

5. No fun. Joe has been a real jerk in class lately, telling me I’m mean and bad, and whining about every bit of work he has to do. I’m afraid we’re going to end the year on a bad note.

6. Science. My favorite geeky boy told me I was the best Science teacher they’ve ever had, because I explain things so students understand. Now, how can someone not teach that way?

7. Cliques. I will not end this experience with “friends of a lifetime” à la some summer camp or group vacation brochure. Is the cliquishness among the team indicative of age or is this just how adults naturally act when forced together?

8. Ants. I look forward to living somewhere where I’m not awakened by fireworks or firecrackers exploding at 4am. Also, I will not miss the itch of ants crawling over me.

9. Sex. I’ve ended the year by teaching Sex Ed. Of course the kids (and this teacher) are counting the days until school ends, and this is my best bet at getting their attention. It’s also the only topic I feel qualified to teach (get your mind out of the gutter, because experience would mean I’d feel more qualified to teach English) because I was one of those kids in high school who went to other schools to sing about condom use and act as the good witch Sister Syphilis.

This is also my chance for a little socio-political action, to spread messages that girls will not be harmed by masturbation, despite what doctors tell women; that both parties are responsible for protection and the outcomes of sex, despite the fact single motherhood is high and 25% of pregnancies happen to women under age 16; that if someone tries to pressure you into sex as proof of love, you kick that person to the curb because they are quite obviously an asshole and you can find someone better; and, BTW, folks, Miss theresa doesn’t care who you have sex with, or how, as long as you respect yourself, respect your partner—and respect includes protection—and all parties are willing.

I’ve received such wonderful and frank questions, which I attribute to my attitude of non-judgment, but perhaps questions about threesomes and porn and masturbating with car parts are normal conversation topics at this age. I wonder at times if I’m being too direct and open—the grossed out faces on the 8th grade girls when they saw the banana condom, the distressed look on a 7th grader when I responded to her question that the first time probably will hurt, but if she is relaxed and with someone she trusts, it will be easier—and I know, at times, that what I teach is directly counter to their parents and the Church. But they ask, so I tell. And next week we’ll discuss, briefly, homosexuality, in the context of love, because how does more love in the world hurt anyone? While this was on my not-so-secret agenda, someone did ask me, in an anonymous note, if it was “bad.”

With all the grades I did an exercise to prove the point that you have sex with everyone your partner has had sex with. I choose an innocent (ha!) volunteer and informed the class that this lovely person just had unprotected sex and now has HIV, but s/he doesn’t know. She had a great time last night and decides to have more unprotected sex. So she grabs another student, who now also gets HIV, then both have sex with new partners, the disease spreads, etc., until in about four days, all 10, 14, or 17 of the kids has HIV. This lead to a 9th grade braggart assuring me he will buy condoms after school (yes, I am sooo impressed by your sexual prowess) and a shocked expression on Antonio’s face as the exercise ended. Ultimately, I’m skeptical of my overall usefulness here, but if my teaching gets these kids thinking about who they share their feeling parts with and how, then it was worth it. If it encourages my girls to be strong when they’re pressured, because they will be, and makes them less afraid of learning what they like, then it was worth it.

On a related note, the 9th graders laughed when I told them that some schools in the US don’t allow sex education teaching. All grades also enjoyed practicing safe sock wear.

10. More cats. During the Parents’ Day celebration, a 9th grader gave me an itsy bitsy quite-obviously-still-needing-its-mommy kitten, because “Miss theresa likes cats.” Now, she first tried to pawn off the kitten on the Volunteer Coordinator, so it wasn’t a gift for me specifically. Despite my protestations that I couldn’t care for this kitten, it was left on my lap and my student and her father left. Fortunately, my geeky boy loves animals and together we were able to convince his mother to let him take it home to his bunnies and birds. The kitten is doing very well.

3 weeks to go,

theresa

P.S. Today’s picture is the winning project for 7th grade. These were very popular seats.

pig made from detergent bottle

Making do

The busito that takes us to school is gray and battered, like a package that’s fallen off a truck and been kicked around several times. I identify its approach in the morning by its squeaks and rattles. There’s no speedometer, the front passenger door opens from only the inside, and the rear sliding door has always been tricky, requiring a strong arm. On Monday a volunteer’s arm was a little too strong and pulled the door completely off the track. The driver spent a few minutes attempting to slide it back into the track, then left the door at the pulperia across the road. The door was reattached on that afternoon, but has since disappeared. I don’t mind; the additional breeze is nice. The rainy season is long past.

As we trundled off to school, I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in the States, we would still be at the small house, waiting for a new van to pick us up. And rightfully so, I’m sure. Part of me was worried about a sudden turn that could push me off my seat and spill me into the road, or a T-bone collision on my side of the van. But we had to get to school and the busito still worked, so, doorless, off we went. Practical.

Almost everything here is cheaply and poorly made, as if this town is supplied solely by Walmart. Bandages don’t adhere. Paint peels quickly. My earbuds broke almost immediately and are held together with masking tape. Kay’s new coffee thermos cracked on the side the next day and it no longer pours well. None of the replacement bulbs for my Christmas lights worked. Our washing machine needs a lot of assistance to get anything clean. But the broken isn’t thrown away. People use wire, twist ties, and plastic connectors to hold the easily broken but ubiquitous plastic chairs together. The cheap and now broken fans are repaired. Empty paint cans are used to scoop water for flushing the toilets. Old pants are used as wash rags and fences for hanging clothes on to dry. Plastic bottles, cans, rocks, and even unripe mangoes double as footballs.

I am not very handy, except with duct tape, my go-to solution for just about everything (tape, albeit packing, currently holds our toilet seat together). While DIY and making and crafting has resurged in the US, still the prevailing attitude is buy and replace. Shop and Home Economics aren’t offered much in school anymore, as the push is for academics, not life skills, unless a child is in a special education program. College is the goal, not trades. Rather than a holistic view that values and incorporates academic and life skills, the sides are split and actively—and sanctimoniously—battling each other.

Now, pause that thought. Biking. There are two or three bike parts and repair shops in the less than half mile walk to the town center. Many people, mostly men, bike. A bike can be a family vehicle, with a father pedaling, a mother sitting on the center bar holding a child, with maybe another child sitting on the handlebars. One of my students once transported himself and three others from school to the nearby football stadium on his youth-sized mountain bike, and going at a rather rapid pace, I might add. Bikes carry bundles of firewood and supplies. Vendors pedal and peddle newspapers, pastries and coconut bread, and hot food from plastic coolers.

My home is in a place that desperately wants to be the biking hub of the US. Within a one mile radius are at least three, maybe more, bike repair shops. I bike, my partner bikes, and there is traffic during rush hour and I get bike road rage. If I want, I can order pizza or soup or sandwiches to be delivered by bike. I can move house by bike. New Seasons, the local grocery store chain, included bike parking in its promo campaign for the store opened in our neighborhood. You can go on a pub pedal and ride while drinking beer on a nifty and ridiculous contraption to all the nearby bars, meanwhile drunkenly harassing passersby. Biking is THE THING. Portland is GREEN. Cars vs. Bikes…Who Will Be Victorious?

I started my life as a full-time biker and special waterproof clothing wearer eight years ago when I transitioned from full-time to part-time work and could no longer afford a bus pass. And I had been taking the bus because driving makes me nervous, plus, yes, it is better for the environment. What would generate a low internal boil was when people ascribed moral qualities to me for biking. I’d get comments, particularly in winter and on rainy days, about how good and admirable I was for biking in the weather and how the commenter could never do that. Well, sure, the commenter could if her income was low enough. If the alternative on those bad weather days was a nausea and headache inducing hourlong bus ride. I don’t deny I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about the topic because, honestly, biking in the rain, when condensation builds up in my jacket and my shoes get soaked, sucks. Biking in freezing weather while wearing three pairs of gloves that still aren’t enough to prevent my fingers from going numb is unpleasant. Biking to the point that I have soft tissue (aka genital) pain that several different saddle styles hasn’t helped, leading to significantly decreased sexual pleasure, sucks. Please, don’t moralize at me. I do love having exercise built into my life and the wind-through-the-helmet feeling. But, sometimes, a car would be nice.

I do wish more people would bike in the US because it’s better for the environment. It’s also good exercise, if that’s your thing, and, really, I’m not a gym person. But I don’t appreciate the moralizing, and ego, and, again, sanctimonious attitude from other bikers. I’m not a better person. I don’t like the price markup that comes with bike appropriate gear, like waterproof clothing or bags. The idea of moving house by bike is ridiculous and causes more pollution as the crowd of bikes blocks car traffic. And can my fellow bikers please be honest about how annoying wet shoes and socks are?

Ultimately, the point of biking, just like walking or cars, is to get from here to there. The bikes here aren’t fancy or shiny (that’d be impossible in this dust), but they get the job done. Point A to B. If given the choice, I’ve gotta believe that someone would much rather drive than pedal up that steep hill while carrying firewood on a road that is so rutted and rocky as to bump and bruise anyone’s genitalia. I’m also sure that someone would much rather afford a better built fan in the first place than having to fix it when it breaks down the next day.

Honduras is not an environmentally conscious country. Trash is thrown from the window of a bus and garbage is burned and people wash their clothes, cars, and animals in the river. The choices made to repair and bike are usually, I’m assuming, financial ones. But I appreciate being amidst the attitude of why we repair and bike in the first place—it’s necessary and the best choice. Ten people ride in the bed of a truck because it’s the best way to get somewhere. It’s certainly not safe, but it is practical. This is a place where people make do. They have to. Some people in the US who don’t have to are relearning to, and that’s terrific, blah blah, but along with that comes an attitude and judgment toward those who don’t. The reaction is extreme. I suppose if that gets others to change, great, but in the meantime, I appreciate this aspect of life in the judgment free zone. Don’t talk, just do.

Sweatily,

theresa

P.S. Another project from Earth Day, this time by seventh grader Isabel.