Beginning

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This week, I started an MSW program, and it will take me a little more than two years to complete the degree. The program has a strong focus on social justice, so it was not surprising to be asked in my class on policy to write about how we see ourselves as agents of change. Here is what I wrote:

Over the past few years, I have thought a good deal about what it means to be an older, twice-divorced woman in a culture that reveres youth, beauty, and coupling, and it has taken considerable effort for me to come to terms with the fact that I am in the autumn of my life. In fact, until a few years ago I believed, as many did and do, that at 67, my current age, I would be let out to pasture (with an occasional trot to Florida). I have had several careers over the course of my life, but for the past 20 years I have been an educator and, as an adjunct, have taught classroom-based and online courses in writing, research, literature, and more at community colleges and universities on the west and east coasts. I have known for some time, though, that I have just about reached the end of my enthusiasm for teaching. I also have thought that I had no more careers left in me. It turns out I do. Having worked for the past two years in mental health, I have come to see that I am as curious and as energetic as I always have been; moreover, in my work with first-episode psychosis clients I have been seen (and have seen myself) as a valued member of a coordinated care team, where I am easily 25 to 30 years older than the majority of the clinicians with whom I work. My age seems a benefit in this setting because I can bring a certain maturity and experience, and, although I have never been made to feel that I am too old or that I don’t belong, I do think my presence has had an impact on the way others view older workers. I also think my 36-year-old daughter will have in me a model for what a “senior” can do and be. Most important, I have changed my own views about who I am and can be, and, by my doggedness, I hope to help others see that life only ends when it ends.

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“Home”

A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018

by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

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Less Is More

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Here and Now‘s Robin Young spoke last July with Andrew Sean Greer about his book Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Aired earlier this month, the NPR interview focuses on how and why Greer developed his “hapless” Arthur in the way he did. Dubbed by the author as a “gay Job,” the protagonist, we are told, is “a middling novelist who, faced with his lover’s impending marriage and his upcoming 50th birthday, embarks on a series of adventures that go comically awry.”

I’ve never been drawn to humorous novels (the mournful in me seems always in search of its reflection), so I confess that I likely won’t read the book. Still, I was very interested to learn about Greer’s prize-winning approach to writing it, and I listened attentively to what he told Young. One thing he said stayed with me:

“[Arthur Less] is nobody,” he tells the listeners. “That is the whole thing. He’s been attached to a genius, and he’s had some amount of success in his own career, but really by middle age if you haven’t had great success you’re kind of invisible in some way.”

Stuck on that last part, I have been reflecting on the nature of success and invisibility. As a child and then as a young adult, I learned from both the women and the men in my family (and from the larger culture in which I also was raised) that success, for a female, meant being skeletal and sunken-cheeked; hipless; melon-breasted; alabasterly flawless; deadly alluring to, though ultimately submissive in the presence of, men; and emotionally tucked in at all four corners.

Because I could never conform to this ideal feminine, I spent my younger years suffering profoundly over what I thought was a personal failure: It turned out I had a body and a spirit I could never tame, no matter what I tried; there also was in me an acute physical and psychic sensitivity that was ever pained by the inevitability of human ham-handedness.

I saw that loving kindness was at the same time required of a woman and dismissed as her central weakness. Her intelligence, too, was frequently trampled, mocked, disregarded, or even questioned: Years ago now, in response to something I told him during a winding conversation we were having about spirituality, a man I lived with for a time asked me if I was expressing an idea of my own or if I had read it somewhere. When I was accepted into a doctoral program at Berkeley, an honor for which I had toiled, and expressed to my mother that I was worried about whether I would successfully complete it because I wasn’t sure I could afford to pay for tuition, rent, and food (among other expenses), she said, “Don’t worry about finishing. It’s enough that you got in.”

It’s little wonder, then, that I have faltered at every step — doubting my strength, my intelligence, my own kind of beauty. Unsurprisingly, I have never earned much money, despite money being the signatory of success, and I have struggled mightily with poverty and with the looming spectre of homelessness. Partly this was to do with being a woman and a single mother in a society that values neither. Partly it was to do with the being I was when I came whole into the world.

Now, at 66, I am beyond middle age and have few, if any, external trappings that would signal to Greer or to those like him that I am a success. Although I have taught college for more than 20 years and have been devout in my commitment to it, I have always earned what has amounted to slightly more than minimum wage. I have never sought tenure; nor have I looked to become valued in academic circles for my publications or for my teaching prowess. And, despite having written nearly all my life, at middle age I had not achieved “great success” as a creative writer either. In fact, ruminationville, now a little more than six years old, has managed to attract just 315 followers. To those who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, this is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

Yet, I am grateful for each person who makes a decision to read what I write here. Some tell me my work has been affecting. I value, too, every student I have taught, and I know I have made a difference in some of their lives.

To a scattering of people, then, I do not think I have been invisible. Or without success.

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