Beginning Latin

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I was just looking for a job. Instead, I found a Latin teacher. He is 91 and has memory loss so we move along at just the right pace. My teacher and I share something. He, who is in hospice and me, who is still trying to shake off a divorce, have the same kind of mind. The recognition is immediate. 

We have a matching excitement when we talk about words. In our speech, we’re each so careful to choose words with an exactness of meaning that will pull behind them the whole of the story that has come before. What’s the point of talking if there is no surprise, if the words and the rhythms and the ideas are predictable?   

On the evenings I visit, while I stack all his books and papers in all their varied sizes into tidy piles, he wheels himself to his spot at the kitchen table. He takes off his red beret and the gloves he wears to protect the skin on his hands from unexpected contact with doorways. Sometimes he’ll drink coffee. Sometimes orange juice. Sometimes he’ll eat a piece of chocolate. Then I pull up my chair. We find blank paper and pens and begin our lessons. When we talk about declensions, which we must, I wonder how to call back all the rules of grammar that flew from my head years ago.

“Nominative”, he says, “He ran.”

He corrects me when I say dah-tive instead of day-tive, and says, “I give you an orange.”

“Ablative”, he says, “The color blue is given to winter.”

“The color blue is given to winter,” I say, and I am stopped by the beauty of this image.

We pause to talk about this, how words can hold an image, can so easily shift meaning, can turn ablative into dative. Blue was a gift given to Winter at a time when Winter was colorless. And who was the bearer of blue? This is how our lessons progress.

On one of my pieces of paper, where I’ve written the words locare and remaneo, I’ve also written invenio. From there, I’ve drawn a line linking it to the phrase, It comes therefore it is found. For days this excites me. I think about an essay I will write about finding, about losing. Of course I will mention David Wagoner’s poem Lost. Chill out. “The forest knows where you are.” And maybe I’ll tie in I once was lost but now I’m found and how it must be grace, that which is completely outside of our control, that comes to rest upon us. We’re still in the forest. It hasn’t changed. But we’ve come to recognize something, a truth or a rightfulness of place, like I know I’m supposed to be at the table with my folded sheet of paper and my pen working on declensions. I recognize, too, that I need this because I’ve been brought low with the stories I pull behind me. My teacher does nothing but build me up, even for the smallest things.

One night I will say, “It’s 7:10. Find something to read, short though, if you want me to help you get ready for bed before I go.”

“I see what you did just now” he says. I freeze. I wait to be corrected for my lack of social decorum, reminded of my bluntness that is like mud for so many people.

Instead, he says, “Tremendous. What you did with time. That was tremendous.”

Only once do I remember he seemed irritated with me. He was telling the story of one winter when he and his dad were returning from getting supplies in Michigan, North Dakota. A blizzard, fat with white darkness and black wind, blew in. The team of horses was straining. “We were so close to home,” he said, “when the pole broke.”  I just looked at him. I couldn’t conjure an image. I couldn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. I don’t know if the horses bolted. I don’t know if the wagon they pulled was left behind. I don’t know what happened between the pole breaking and the time they reached the farmhouse that his mother had kept warm and lighted. I wish I did.

It will happen that his memory loss will move along quicker than my learning. He will begin by forgetting my name. He’ll call me Vanessa or Pricilla, but mostly he’ll call me My Bud.  And our conversations will be conducted through image. They will become puzzles. When he tells me about the wheelbarrows at the factory, he’s talking about the hospital and the wheelchairs. When he mentions the man who is a marble, I know he’s talking about the man I’ve seen sometimes when I walk into the building, the one who is round and solid, bald and smooth. I never tire of this image talk.

There were times, it seemed, he knew his mind was dividing. When he said to me, “You have a great appreciation for accepting things that aren’t there”, he might have been thinking about the worms he believed were infesting his body. He wanted a specimen and he’d gently pick at his skin to coax one to the surface. He wanted to watch its behavior. This intrigued me, the matter-of-fact way he treated this hallucinatory infestation.

Now, our lessons involve a lot of nodding off. Reading has become stuttering.

I ask him, “Is this memory loss like having a blank sheet of paper pulled behind your eyes?”

“Thank you for asking,” he says, and forgets to answer.

I tell him I’m going to write something about him. He smiles. I know I won’t have many more chances to sneak past that blank sheet of paper behind his eyes. So I tell him I want to write around the Latin word for found, that without that word being translatable to It comes, the whole essay will be hollow. I want him to confirm. He looks at me squarely, alertly, and says, “You don’t need a translatable word. You need a translatable idea.” And I realize the idea I had was all wrong. This isn’t about finding and losing, losing and finding. It’s about the times when someone comes into your life like a sweet mother. Alma Mater.

 

Swans

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There were two swans on the river this morning. I said to them, “You are my swans,” and they swam closer, as close as they could until they met up with the jagged barrier of ice. One trumpeted softly as if practicing.

“It’s still too early,” it said. At least that’s what I figured it was saying.

And Betty pulled on her leash, half way across the melting ice, while I held onto a branch on the shore. We, Betty and I, stared at each other.

“I’m determined to go out further,” she said to me. At least I think that’s what she said.

“No way, Honey,” I said, “then this walk will end in mishap.”

By now the swans had broken their side by side formation with a slow, smooth spin. Quietly. Certainly. They are so unfunny, unlike ducks with their stunted wings, rapid flapping and whistling with take off. They splash their landings and complain about everything. They make me laugh.

What am I to learn from this? Maybe not a single thing.

Ian at 14

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Ian, there’s no question that you are beautiful, that you’ve always been beautiful. You’re taller now, that’s certain. I can wear your shoes. You can wear mine, if that’s something you wanted to do. The thing is, though we’re matched right now in shoe size, shirt size, pants size, we’re moving in opposite directions. Tomorrow, you’ll be taller. Tomorrow, I won’t be taller. You’re stretching outward. I’m stretching inward, each of us reaching for the same universe.
You always surprise me with your astounding kindness, that pensive and quiet part of you, that escapes from you when you forget about being a teenager, when you forget about who you think you should be, when you just are. And you’re funny. And you think I’m funny. And I hope it will always be that way. And I love you so, so much. Happy 14th my little man!

The Word Gratitude

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Gratitude. I keep running across this word. Be grateful. Practice gratitude. It’s the only way to happiness and inner peace.

The problem I have is not with gratitude itself. The problem I have is that the word has become cliché, its power and meaning shrunk down to a nicety. Be nice. Be grateful.

Since I do not like to use clichés, words and phrases that have lost weight to the point of anorexia, I will talk about thankfulness.

In order to fully feel thankfulness, a dose of sorrow is required, sorrow that has lodged itself firmly in our bones, sorrow that stands in our minds like a tall clock with a quiet tick. With age, time seems to speed up. The ticking loudens. And, as our sorrows increase, so does thankfulness.

Often I tell my boys to say “Thank You.”  But thankfulness is not taught. Thankfulness is accumulated.

As always, I am thankful for my boys. If there was nothing else in my life, they would be enough. But, I’m always getting bonuses like these:

The other night, the sky was smooth and clear and the stars were near, plumped and glittering like Christmas lights above my head.

In the alley there is a stringy, leafless plant. The stem is lavender and bends over as if in prayer.

I walked my dog, Betty, to the Mississippi where hundreds of ducks had peacefully gathered until we showed up. Then they flew. They all flew. They rose up and scattered.

And then there’s Betty, the rescue dog from Kentucky, the rescue dog that saves me every  single day.

Costa Rica

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I brought them, my sons, to a place with a wild tropical ocean because I wanted them to feel the wheel of its waters softly rolling around their ankles. I wanted them to know the unsteadying of their sturdy bodies as the sand was pulled out from under their feet. I wanted them to know joy in the ocean’s unpredictability. I wanted them to be tossed around, their thoughts and perceptions jumbled. And I wanted them to learn that, even when we nurture a vigilance and a steadiness, there are waves that stalk the shore, that spring up suddenly and flatten us.

One cannot say to the ocean, Come this far but no further. One cannot say to the waves, Grow this tall but no taller.

And myself? What did I want? I wanted to see the rise of the mountains. I wanted to feel the rainy season rains that fall with purpose, stopping as suddenly as they began. I wanted to live the surprise of nature, presenting itself without pretense or order– a ceiling covered with geckos, watching an iguana watch a turkey vulture watching us.

The man said there were crocodiles in the river and if you lifted a stone to the steel frame of the bridge, you could summon them. I didn’t want to summon crocodiles. I wanted to see monkeys, the kind that bark like big dogs, that grunt like wild pigs.

  I wanted to see if there was possibility, the possibility of returning to a landscape I knew in my youth, one of exquisite color, one of sounds echoing, and one of thick fragrance trapped in the humid air.

Mostly, I wanted to know if I could return to a place like this, not as a daughter or a sister or a wife, but as a self who doesn’t find beauty in the blocks of the neighborhood houses and lawns, all sleek and square and even, an order that blunts the possibility of surprise. And my boys, I wanted them to know about fierce beauty.

I can’t say how this will set up in their memories. I can say that my youngest son was churned in the ocean waves, was beat up without the malice of fists or feet. My older son, with his all-seeing swim goggles bound tightly to his face, was pummeled and thrown to shore and his goggles were ripped off his head.

He went looking for them.

“You won’t find them,” I said.

And my boys looked at me as if I was the ocean, but we walked the beach anyway. I could not interest them in the tide pools, in the tree growing on top of the ocean rock.

“I need my goggles,” my son said, like once he needed his blanket in order to fall asleep.

“Go get the other pair,” I said, and they, my young sons, walked off while I distractedly climbed a rock.

Then they vanished.

Were they playing a trick? Had they unwittingly taken on the unpredictability of the ocean? No, the sun must’ve gotten to my brain because they didn’t play tricks like that. Would they have gone back into the ocean and gotten pulled out? Both of them? Oh God, I thought, then my life is over. And I walked and looked and I walked and looked. It occurred to me that I’ve been doing this my whole life.

I will not see a monkey, but a guacamaya will fly over my head and let fall a scarlet feather, which will spin in circles around my vision until I catch it. Any my boys will not be carried out to sea and my life will not be over. With hazy vision and the slow realization of distance, of shoreline walked, they, too, will return.