30 years ago

It’s been thirty years since I graduated from Eastmoor High School in Columbus, Ohio, so that means it’s been thirty years since I accepted a full scholarship to the University of Toledo. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had I not gotten a full college scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have gone to (much less graduated from) college. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to graduate school, and I most definitely wouldn’t be a college professor today. The daughter of a truck driver and a housewife, I never seriously considered going to college until my high school guidance counselor suggested that my standardized test scores would qualify me for scholarships. Since my family has never been one to refuse free money, that was it: if I could go to college for free, I’d go.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

Much has been said about the power of a college degree to lift students out of poverty: workers with college degrees consistently make more than workers with only a high school diploma. But money is only half of the story. Nobody gets rich as an adjunct English instructor, but the job offers other benefits: for me, having an intellectually-stimulating, satisfying job I enjoy is truly priceless.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987. #tbt

This is easy for me to say, of course: because of my full scholarship, I didn’t graduate with student debt, and it was only in graduate school that I had to juggle my studies with the demands of being a teaching assistant while holding down a part-time job. In 1987, the value of a scholarship covering four years of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board, and books came to a whopping $20,000: these days, a four-year degree costs significantly more than that.

Thirty years ago, Eastmoor High School class of 1987, with @ericloveslife68

But even though many of my current students have to work to pay their way through college, I still see higher education as being a sound investment. There are plenty of respectable, well-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree: when your toilet is spewing sewage or your car won’t start, you’ll pay whatever price your plumber or mechanic demands. But if you don’t want to pursue a trade, and if you recognize the job you’ll have in twenty years probably won’t be the job you have today, a four-year degree offers something better than a mere boost in pay: it offers the flexibility to do a variety of jobs, not just the one you get when you first graduate.

Class of 1987 senior awards ceremony

What my full-ride scholarship ultimately gave me was a ticket to ride. I sometimes tell people that I went to college and never came home, and that’s one way of understanding the trajectory of my professional career. Receiving a scholarship and going to college not only opened doors, it opened my eyes to greater possibilities.

Nevertheless, Ida B. Wells persisted

This morning, National Public Radio announcers read the Declaration of Independence aloud in its entirety, as they do every year. Like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a document I read in high school and occasionally quote in passing, but it’s not something I have frequent occasion to re-read.

For this reason, today I made a conscious point to listen to the entire Declaration as I was doing my morning kitchen tasks, marveling at the foresight and bravery of the Founding Fathers in penning (and signing their names to) a document that is both radical and treasonous. The United States started as a bold experiment. Could colonists with a range of backgrounds and opinions be trusted to create a civil government by, of, and for the people? Could democracy be the noblest form of crowd-sourcing, or would mob rule rule?

Where the women are strong

Yesterday I took a day-trip to Northampton, MA, a town which boasts of its strong coffee and strong women. In a downtown card shop, I saw a retail shrine to female bad-assery. Alongside “Nevertheless, she persisted” plaques were portraits of early feminist icons emblazoned with the caption “Bitches get stuff done.” One of the bad-assed bitches included in this display was Ida B. Wells, who faced persecution and death-threats to publish a 1900 pamphlet entitled Mob Rule in New Orleans that describes a nadir in American democracy, when lynch mobs replaced civil government.

Any serious, clear-eyed student of American history can recite a litany of wrongs supported by (or at least tolerated by) the majority, such as slavery and white supremacy, the murder and relocation of Native Americans, and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. You’d have to be ignorant, deluded, or both to insist that the majority always gets things right.

Bitches get stuff done

And yet…they say arc of history is long and bends toward justice. We no longer keep slaves, women now have the right to vote, and children no longer work in factories. Democracy is a work in progress–too often, populism becomes a popularity contest, and a jury of one’s peers can fall prey to peer pressure. But compared to monarchy, democracy is infinitely preferable as long as the voice of the many takes care to hear and heed the still, small voice of reason.

Only in Northampton:  pussyhats for sale.

Given a choice between one ruler and a collective of the ruled, I’ll opt for the latter. The whole notion of checks and balances rests on the belief that when one group is blind, deluded, or self-serving, those deficiencies will be called out and corrected by others. We all have our blind spots, bigotries, and biases, so I can shed light on yours and you can shed light on mine.

What this means, then, is we need more voices, not fewer. Instead of giving way to complacency or defeatism, citizens in a democracy need to use their voices. Dissent is indeed patriotic, but it needn’t be noisy, violent, or crude. Individual conscience is a small but insistent inkling that worms it way from mind to heart to gut, and our collective conscience should be no less persistent.

High school graduation

Several weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from a high school friend saying she is going to our thirty-year high school reunion in Ohio later this month. I had initially decided not to go–I had gone to our twenty-year reunion in 2007 and figured not much has changed since then–but since H is coming all the way from California, it would be a shame not to meet her halfway.

Senior pictures

It’s an understatement to say H and I lost touch after high school: we lost touch in the way that people on entirely different planets lose touch. After high school, H and I went to colleges in different states, and we moved in different directions after that. Today, my college students keep in touch via social media with every friend they’ve ever known, but thirty years ago, moving away from your hometown meant you lost contact with people. Thirty years ago, you went to college, made new friends, traveled in new circles, and became someone new, all without the safety net of your old friends.

Senior pictures

So it’s been thirty years–three decades!–since I’ve seen H: how is that even possible? One mystery of middle age is the realization that your body and mind don’t age at the same pace. When I look in the mirror, I see a pudgy, “well-settled” middle-aged woman, but in my mind, I’m still a broke and skinny graduate student playing life entirely by ear.

Thirty years ago, my high school classmates voted me “most likely to succeed,” so the occasion of my thirty-year reunion is leading me to ask the inevitable question: have I succeeded? I suppose it depends on how you define success. In her Facebook photos, H looks beautiful and youthful: a radiant, grown-up version of who she was in high school. To my eye, I look older, heavier, and grayer now than I did then: washed up, or maybe just worn-out?

Senior pictures

But this is judging mere appearances, and success is more complicated than that. Looking back to high school, who was it I wanted to be, and what is it I wanted to become? Thirty years ago, I wasn’t planning on being an English professor; back then, I wanted to be an interpretive naturalist working in a metro park somewhere, taking people on nature walks and teaching them about birds and flowers. I teach inside these days, and I don’t spend nearly as much time as I’d like among birds and flowers. But I am still “interpreting” information: I’m still teaching.

Senior pictures

And I’m still writing: that is one thing that remains constant. As a high school student, I loved to write, and I still do. I’m not sure I knew thirty years ago exactly what I wanted to write; I guess you could say I was a writer in search of a topic, motivation, and voice. But I knew I wanted to write even though I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with that desire.

What I have managed to do over the last thirty years is figure out how to keep writing, regardless of whatever other things in my life are changing. In college, I discovered Annie Dillard and other American writers I’d never encountered in high school, and in graduate school, I learned there is a thing called “nature writing” that people other than Thoreau do.

Senior picture

Since high school, I also discovered Natalie Goldberg and her admonition to keep my hand moving, and in large part I have managed to do just that. I also discovered May Sarton, who assured me that simply keeping a journal of one’s inner and outer life could be art, and I discovered blogging as a way to share my thoughts immediately, without the intervention of an agent, editor, or publishing house.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t sure how I’d support myself; I just followed my curiosity wherever it led me, and I continue to do that. Does that make me a “success,” or does it make me a dabbler?

High school graduation party

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the label “most likely to succeed.” I graduated in the 1980s, when success was defined by the excesses of Dallas, Dynasty, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One of my favorite TV shows when I was a teenager was Family Ties, but instead of admiring the clean-cut ambition of Alex P. Keaton, I admired the warm-fuzzy liberalism of his earthy-crunchy parents. To me, “success” always sounded cut-throat, and I’ve never felt I have the ambition–the kill-instinct–to become a lawyer, politician, or high rolling businesswoman.

Despite all this, thirty years later I’ve done fairly well for myself. I made it out of Columbus, out of college, and out of the Midwest, and like H in California, I’m living in the heart of the “coastal elite” here in Massachusetts. The fact that my life today looks so radically different from what I ever envisioned in high school suggests just how far I’ve come. Maybe “most likely to succeed” is just another way of saying “going places she never even imagined.”

Blue hydrangea

Last night J and I watched the second half of a PBS NewsHour interview with Warren Buffett. Thanks to his knowledge of business and investing, Buffett is one of the richest men in America, but he’s also one of the humblest. In an conversation with journalist Judy Woodruff, Buffett noted that he and other billionaires have no need for the tax cuts promised in the Republican health care bill, and he repeated his oft-referenced belief that millionaires and billionaires shouldn’t pay taxes at a lower rate than that of their secretaries and cleaning ladies.

Hydrangea

Buffett is 86 years old and still mentally sharp and active. Noting the Cherry Coke Buffett drank throughout the interview, Woodruff asked if he had any health or diet tips for staying alert and active in old age. Buffett gleefully shared that he still eats like a six-year-old, adding that you don’t often see six-year-olds dropping dead.

This playful response points to Buffett’s obvious joy in the simple pleasures of life. Buffett still works at the age of 86 because he enjoys working; he still lives in a Nebraska house he bought in 1958 because he likes it and has happy memories there. Buffett is one of the richest men on earth, but he has made a conscious decision to give nearly all of his wealth to philanthropic causes. When Woodruff directly asked Buffett why he hasn’t stockpiled mansions, cars, or yachts, he explained that he’s experienced those things but doesn’t need them to be happy. Buffett is happy with what he has, and this sense of abundance leaves no room for excess.

Hydrangea

Watching Buffett’s interview made me realize he’s not only one of the wealthiest men on the planet, he’s also one of the happiest. Buffett isn’t happy because he’s rich; he’s happy because he has recognized what is truly important. As Buffett openly shared with Woodruff his most recent tax return, I marveled at how different he is from Donald Trump, who comes across as an angry and paranoid old man who needs to guard his secrets. Buffet realizes that being happy is its own kind of treasure while Trump continually reaches for more money, power, and fame.

Hydrangea in bloom

In my Zen school, we have a saying: “Enough-mind fish never touches the hook.” If a fish is content with what he has–if he sees his present situation as being enough for his needs–he can’t be tempted with bait. Warren Buffett is an enough-mind fish. Instead of racing after the bait called More, he enjoys the life he has, taking to happiness as easily as a fish takes to water.

Floating flowers

This morning as I was driving to the Zen Center, I saw a homeless man standing at the exit from the Turnpike, where traffic often gets stopped at a light. I have a policy that if I’m stopped at a light on my way to the Zen Center and see a panhandler, I give him or her a dollar, no questions asked. I figure it would be bad karma to ignore someone in need while bustling off to do spiritual practice.

Monkey see

I know all the arguments against giving money to panhandlers: they’ll probably just use the money to buy booze or drugs, and giving handouts to the homeless only enables bad behaviors. I’ve heard all these arguments and recognize their validity, but when I’m on my way to the Zen Center, I ignore those arguments. Regardless of what any given homeless person does with the money I give them, I like to think that for one moment, they encountered someone who is happy to give them something they need: a purely human experience of one person sharing with another. If I were in their place, I hope someone would have the generosity of spirit to do the same for me.

Stormy seas

When I give money to panhandlers, I try to make eye contact and smile, figuring life on the street is difficult and human kindness hard to find. I don’t pretend to have saintly motivations: it makes me feel good to share a spot of good cheer, and makes me feel grateful to realize I can indeed spare a dollar. When I give money to panhandlers, I’m acting, in other words, as much in my own interest as that of anyone else: this is something I do because it makes me feel good, and if it helps someone else, that’s a blessing upon blessings.

RIP Adam West

This morning, the man I gave a dollar to held a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless. His face was tan and well-worn, but underneath his world-weariness was a hint of radiance: a face that in happier times had found ample reasons to smile. “God bless you,” the man said, and I thanked him: you never know when you might need the prayers of a stranger. I wished the man well and drove on: the light had changed, and there were cars behind me.

Don't forget me

That would have been the end of it, but this: hours later, after I’d left the Zen Center and was walking through Central Square, I saw the same man standing in front of H Mart counting a fistful of wrinkled dollar bills. I quietly hoped he’d saved up enough blessings upon blessings to buy himself lunch and the right to sit down in a clean, air-conditioned place for a half hour or so: a respite of dignity in a life marked by untold sorrow.

Sherman Alexie poses so everyone can take their fill of photos.

Last night I took the T into Harvard Square to see Sherman Alexie read from his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I had never seen Alexie in person, but I knew from radio interviews and other media appearances that he has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and that quick wit was apparent in his reading, which at times felt more like a standup comedy routine than a serious literary event.

For us and our allies

Alexie didn’t take questions, wryly noting that with the sort of subject matter his book discusses, a Q&A session would quickly turn into a Twelve Step meeting. Instead, Alexie regaled the crowd with anecdotes and pointed observations on everything from the smelly state of his luggage after a nine-day book tour (think damp underwear) and his reaction to the election of Donald Trump. (No indigenous Americans voted for Trump, Alexie claimed, except perhaps seven Republican Indians. Alexie’s main observation about the election was that white liberals now know what Native Americans have felt since colonial days: namely, what it’s like to be stripped of power by an unholy trinity of corrupt government, business, and religious institutions.)

Organ

Amid such sidenotes, the central theme of Alexie’s talk (and his new memoir) was the death of his mother, Lillian, in 2015. After spending his career creating various fictionalized versions of his father, Alexie realized he had never given his mother her due. Alexie described his mother as an epic character: one of the last surviving speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language and the person who should have led her tribe. But instead of being revered as a leader, Lillian Alexie and her greatness went unrecognized, as the contributions of indigenous women often are.

Eagle podium

In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Alexie led his audience through an irreverent and honest recollection of his last encounter with his mother as she lay dying in one of the houses where he and his siblings had grown up. This account was simultaneously heart-rending and humorous, often veering from one emotion to the other in the course of a single sentence. Poverty, Alexie explained, was his family’s spirit animal, and humor was a coping strategy he honed out of necessity. His mother, Alexie explained, didn’t teach him their tribal language, telling him that English would be the weapon he’d need to survive. She was right.

Overhead

Lillian Alexie was beautiful, Alexie explained; in photographs from her younger days, she looked like Rita Hayworth or what Alexie called a “reservation Audrey Hepburn.” Lillian was a short woman–barely five feet tall–but Alexie said she never seemed small until she was laid low by the cancer that killed her. Alexie’s relationship with his mother was complicated. Shocking her family by turning affectionate in her final days, Lillian Alexie continued to be passive-aggressive, telling Sherman in full earshot of his siblings that he had the best hair of any of them.

Book signing with Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a master story-teller; anyone who has read any of books or seen one of his films knows that. But telling a story on paper and captivating a live audience are two separate skills, and Sherman Alexie is a master at both. Whatever skills Sherman Alexie has honed over a long and decorated literary career, however, he nevertheless insists that Lillian was a more skillful storyteller than he is. After a career of trying to mold himself into a facsimile of his father, Alexie has finally admitted how much like his mother he was all along.

In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.