MANDELA, Presente! Free Leonard Peltier

Last night when news came of Nelson Mandela's death at age 95, I posted on Facebook my poem, "Mandela Appears in Montreal 1990," (see the text at the bottom of this post) about the incredible summer that Paul and I spent writing in a cabin in Quebec and we saw Mandela on his world tour after his release from prison. That Quebecois day had been such a celebration of Mandela's spirit in music (Oscar Peterson! children's choirs), chanting, shouting and speeches. We all expected it to be a celebration of him, but Mandela was not going to rest in his release. He used the dais as a way to speak of all the people in South Africa, in the world, who still did not have freedom, not even the freedom to vote. My poem quotes Mandela's final question to the crowd, "Who will stand with us to the end?"

So here we are: is this it? Is this the end? Oh no, there is still much work to do, right here in the United States in achieving freedom for all. I'd like to suggest that one way to honor Mandela's spirit here in the U.S. is to free the one man imprisoned for being Native American, Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier may seem a more controversial figure than Mandela. He's not seen as the saint by some that Mandela is. That Mandela is today. Last night, the Cleveland TV-news interviewed a Shaker Heights couple originally from South Africa. They said they were raised to believe that Mandela was a monster, a very evil man, and that it wasn't until his release and his famous soccer game appearance that they saw he was, in fact, a man, and a good one, who would go on to lead their country into positive changes that were generations in not coming until he led. 

So imprisoning people on trumped-up charges is not a new game, nor a passé game, nor a South African game only, and if the person is a person of color, he has a greater chance of drawing a "get trumped-up" card.   

KSU parking space where one of the
four students was slain.
I don't know that anyone in reading my poem has wondered about my reference to Louis Riel, who was  hanged in Canada in 1885 on charges of leading a Rebellion for Native American rights, a rebellion in which he never carried arms. Like Peltier, he was a controversial figure to some (I mean, whew! he had his days!), but the jury of six English-speaking Protestants who found him guilty also recommended mercy-- which is to say, not the death penalty-- and the judge overruled their decision. The place where he was hanged was later blocked on three sides and turned into a parking lot (shades of the Kent State massacre site). There was a lot of care taken in choosing the Mandela Celebration site, with all its political symbolism. For decades before and after Riel's hanging, it was a site of protests, over French Canadian and Catholic rights, over the draft, and the government had finally managed to stop those by blocking the square off and up, making it difficult to gather in the stark concrete expanse of space. But those who chose the site persisted. They set up viewing stands, they hauled sod in for the day, and for that one glorious warm (in Montreal!) day, people sat in the grass with their children. "Oh listen, darling," one mother gasped, "Oscar Peterson," as he sat down to the piano.

So today we are all feeling the sorrow in the death and the joy in the life of this great leader. And I do mean there is joy in my heart today along with the sorrow because I feel he is still with us. I am reminded that when I lived in Nicaragua, there was a tradition that never failed to bring tears to my eyes. When the name of a person who had died in the Revolution was called out, someone would answer"Presente," present, reminding us that the person's spirit was with us. So today, I say "Nelson Mandela. Presente."

And if the spirit of Mandela is indeed with us as I believe it is, I hope it works through us, and especially through President Obama who has the power, to free Leonard Peltier. 



          Your personal world echoes
          in ways common enough,
          a parking lot....
                                      --Robert Creeley

Although it is a drizzly day
in June in Champs de Mars,
thousands can more easily stand it
than they stood it a century ago
in November cold as only
Montreal after Louis Riel hanged.

Then City Hall went up
with its back to the site,
but still the people gathered here
against conscription..
A new court house rose
so high its shadow cast a pall
over the promenade, finally fit
for only a parking lot.
For this day, the lot’s  been paved,
sodded, painted, and set with a stage,
bannered MANDELA, as though
the title of a new musical.

For hours the musicians sound-checked,
dress rehearsed, then did their work
for hours past the set hour, right up to
a choir that started Nkosi Siekli
Afrika--then stopped
then began again as Mandela appeared
to shouts of Amandla!
his native Xhosa, “power!”
that surged in his voice, reverberated
against the lot’s three walls.

          “Twenty-seven years ago
          when I went to prison
          I had no vote....”
                   (no vote,  no vote, no vote--)

That first echo stopped
the applause and silence
held out for a right to more.      

          “Today I still have no vote....”

                   (no vote, no vote, no vote....)

Seventy-two years old, POW-thin,
having withstood so much, still standing,
far-reaching, far-hearkening.

          “Our people continue to be killed....”
                   (be killed, be killed, be killed....)

Montreal echoed, the world’s walls echoed,
the backs of the leaders
he would have to see all week
had to face the millions
that stood in the rain to hear
words that reverberate
years later, though the hasty sod
has buckled and died and cars
pack the space again
The words reverberate:

          “Injustice continues....”
                   (continues, continues, continues....)

to the millions who stood
in Toronto, Montreal,
and New York; Boston, then
Oakland, and London--

          “Who will stand with us to the end?”
(From The Places We Find Ourselves: Poems. Diane Kendig copyright 2009.)

“I WITH NO RIGHTS IN THIS MATTER:” On the Death Of a Former Student

Last week, one of my former students and lifelong friends, Mary Fisher Diaz, whom we at the university knew as "Mary Beth,"  died.  And as I mourned, the last lines of Roethke's "Elegy for Jane, My Student Thrown by a Horse" echoed in my mind: "I with no rights in this matter." I kept hearing the final lines without ever looking up the poem. So then I did want to look up the whole poem, something about a pickerel smile and wrens. The poem is an elegy on the death of a very young woman who was Roethke's student, and I was struck how much of his first stanza reminded me of Mary:

…her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her
And she balanced in delight of her thought.

Googling around, I tripped over, and made the mistake of reading, what some readers thought of the poem. One stated that since Roethke had known Jane "for only one quarter," he didn't know her very well, so he couldn't really be talking about her death, he couldn't really have felt it that intensely. Her biographer says that Roethke must have conflated that death with the death of a friend of his who had been killed earlier while horseriding because he couldn’t have felt that way over a student, that he was infusing the poem with his grief over the other death.  

Well maybe. Does anyone say that Dylan Thomas doesn't really mean that poem about the six year old killed in a fire because he didn't really know the child? Certainly each poet's poem launches an attack on the general fact of death, but each is definitely grounded in the very specific death that "set the poet off." Thomas is clearly angry; Rotheke is....moved to a much more mixed emotion. His poem does not begin, "Oh weep for Jane, for she is dead, oh weep, oh weep" the way Shelly begins his elegy for Keats. But then he is a Modernist, not a Romantic. He begins with an affectionate, almost bemused description of her curly hair, of her pickerel smile and her syllables. Bemused, affectionate, but yes, the rest of the poem is a bit distanced.


Mary emailed me about three months ago to say that she had just finished a huge project for her job as librarian at The University of Illinois-Chicago: she had curated the archives of the former Mayor Daley. The opening was featured in the Chicago newspapers and on websites that I linked and sent to other former students and faculty who knew her. It was a big deal. She mentioned that she had rather run her health into the ground with the work and had lost a lot of weight, but she was seeing a doctor who would help her regain her strength.

None of this alarmed me. She has always been thin as a shoelace and utterly disinterested in eating while at the same time being a very hard worker. In the circa 1989-90 photo I have of her, moments before we began layout for the college creative writing magazine (before Page Maker), in the days of rubber cement and wax paper, which she clutches in the picture, she looks intensely serious. But in the following photo, taken a month later, she smiles broadly as she holds the completed issue which she edited, its cover the heavy heather pink stock covered in a flower design, which she chose from art students’ submissions.

Our lives had gotten seriously entwined her junior year when she had creative writing classes with me and linguistics with my husband. Then, too, it was a small college and a small department, and all of our lives were entwined-- not in the sexy exciting world of affairs and intrigue depicted in academic novels but in the quotidian of sharing books and meals and troubles. Mary's trouble was the need to pay her own tuition at the private college, and the only job available to her working in a diet business, making cold calls and being a receptionist. She hated it, and one day when she and I sat down to brainstorm other work, we came up with the idea of her setting up her own business doing odd jobs, housecleaning, housesitting, and running errands, and she soon was making twice as much money in half the time for her last two years of college. Her senior year, there was a lot of drama on her grad school application, which ended up in the wrong program, but the chair and her advisor made calls, her record spoke for itself, and she got a full ride to grad school two states away.  

Before leaving, she married the fellow student she had dated through college in a beautiful wedding which she invited us to in a former President's house in her hometown. She and her husband visited us when they returned to the area, and she called us right away when she ended the marriage. After her master's in English, she began grad work in library studies and came back to the college to speak to my "Jobs for English Majors" class. She loved being a librarian. She decided not to get a PhD in library studies so she could spend more time working with students and less with writing a dissertation. While working in the library, she met the love of her life, Carlos Diaz, and they bought a house in Chicago and had a daughter. About that time, Paul and I left that college and the state, and we only saw Mary and Carlos once in the ensuing years, a time when we were at a conference in Chicago.

But we've stayed in touch by email and Facebook. Many many of my Facebook friends are former students, and as Paul taught English the same place as I did for 18 years, many of them are his Facebook friends too. I have often said, our morning coffee chat sounds like the parents of 50 children,"Oh, and did you see that Troy got sick on that trip he's on in China?" "Did you see Bryan's fiance?" "Did you answer Steph's question about how Faculty Development works at your college?" (Just days before Steph invited us to her wedding reception after she elopes.) Photos of Julie’s sons, Laura’s son, rants from Lisa and Kim. Links from Ted and Theresa.

And yet we aren't their parents, are we? Speaking of Facebook, there is a lovely little ditty everyone is posting this week titled, "People who don't have children think they know. They don't know." Speaking only for myself, I know. I was my one and a half year old niece's caregiver much of my sabbatical year. I was the first one to take her to Santa Claus. And do battle over boots and hats. And then for much of the two years when my sister Daun, a single mother, was dying of cancer, I was my niece's caregiver, along with my other sister and my parents. I drove infinitely many trips to Montessori, playing over and over the song, "What do you do with a dinosaur, who eats your lunch and asks for more?" And did battle over carrots and picking up toys and getting there (everywhere) on time. And yet, my sister’s friends all laughed that my other sister and I were just inept because we had never been parents. At one memorial service, someone pointed out that the last week of my sister’s life, I got my niece’s hair caught in her coat zipper. I guess real parents never do that.  

And then my sister died, and my other sister became the parent, and though she never had children, suddenly she was deemed parental. And in her parenthood, she decided that I would not get to spend summers with my niece, that I would get to see her only once a year, sometimes only every year and a half for three to five hours, and that went for my parents, her grandparents also. My niece was not permitted to stay over at my house, as Daun said she would but never thought to put into writing. My niece is not permitted to Skype with me (or her grandfather). Everyone told me to stay the course, write to her, send gifts, and she would remember me the same. But she is 18, and though she is sweet to me in the three hours a year we have a year, there is a distance that is much much more distant than I experience with students I haven’t seen for years. So I am very grateful for students and three goddaughters who have kept in touch.

When Paul and I returned from England and Wales in the summer, I sent Mary Beth a huge postcard on Jane Austen which I had bought for her in Bath. Austen was her favorite author and subject of her master’s thesis, long before Austen was so very hot. I said I didn’t know if she was still a fan. She was, she wrote back, and hoped so to one day go to England and visit Bath. I planned to send her the book I had bought, Jane Austen’s Bath, for Christmas this year.

When Daun was dying, a long two year death by cancer, her dissertation director sent a card once a week, and, toward the end, nearly every day. This in addition to emails. Funny cards mostly. Hysterically funny sometimes. The day after Daun died, one of Joanna's cards arrived and made me laugh for the first time in two days.

About two months after emailing me about her archives exhibit, Mary called to say she had bad news: she had esophogeal cancer, and she had very little time to live. I had lived this conversation once before. It produces an other-worldly feeling. A Dystopia. I asked her if she wanted Paul and I to visit. She said yes, as soon as she got home, and she added, “Whatever would I have done without you two during college?” And she gave me Carlos’ number, which she said was the best to use for awhile.

I got busy contacting Mary's undergrad advisor (and my long distance dear friend) and former college classmates. And I bought cards. Not funny ones. Pretty ones. Not sappy. Not sentimental. Not rhyming. Pretty, about friendship and thinking of you. She was the kind of a person who liked those kinds of cards. After two weeks, I called Carlos, who drove from the store he was in to the hospital to put Mary on the line. She told me she was still hospitalized but they thought she might be able to go home as she had just for the first time in weeks managed not to vomit but to keep down the fluids they were now pouring into her (as opposed to dripping into her IV tube) after removing her stomach. "This is not a cure," she said. "This is just so I can get nutrition more comfortably in the time I have." 

Paul and I discussed making a quick 2-day trip, flying in to Chicago after our Thanksgiving guests left. I alerted a few other former students in Chicago that maybe we could do coffee while we were there. Then, last week, mailing Thanksgiving cards, I went to Mary's Facebook page to get her daughter's middle find that she had died five days earlier. The funeral and burial, held not in Chicago but in her hometown here in Ohio, was over.

I broke down sobbing, and I am still crying ten days later, during which time I have been mourning a 97 year old aunt whose funeral I spoke at. This not the same as losing a relative. It’s losing a friend, but not just that either.  It is a loss all unto its own. Roethke knew that too. We do love our students in a different way than family and other friends, even when they are our friends, too. If nothing else, as Adrienne Rich reminds us, our minds must love the minds of our students. But it’s not just their minds. It’s their neck curls and pickerel smiles. It’s that twining of lives that I mentioned earlier. Maybe moreso in small colleges, maybe moreso when they are majors in our departments. Maybe moreso in English, when they have written stories in creative writing about dying parents or when they have aced linguistics and tutored students who are floundering, or when they are the students floundering in linguistics and being very funny about it, or hating creative writing but having to take it for their major and being funny about it.

If Roethke seems curiously distanced emotionally, as people have noted about the poem, it is because where we fit in after the classes, after the graduation, is not all that clear. There is so much time together and then there may be none except what we scrape together in our travels, on Facebook. You can feel so very much but in the end, as Roethke says, you have "no rights in this matter, neither father [nor, I'd add, mother] nor lover." And yet, Roethke also says, “Over this damp grave, I speak the words of my love.”

My cousin Linda called me this week to tell me that her mother, my 97 year old aunt, Aunt Margaretta, had died the night before. At the end of our conversation, Linda asked if I thought I could send her any memories I had. Memories about Aunt Margaretta? A million. I, sat down and wrote and cried, wrote and cried, finished, sent a copy off to Linda and a copy to an out of town cousin.
I didn’t write a poem, but perhaps I will. An advanced search on the “Academy of American Poets” for references to aunts suggests to me that they are underrepresented. The site locates more biographical references to poets raised by or living with aunts than it does poems about those aunts, and the few lines that surface are too brief if telling, as one by Ruth Stone, who sees she is becoming like “Aunt Virginia, proud but weak in the head.” Meanwhile, this is the prose offering I sent the cousins:

I have at least 12 aunts and many more great-aunts, all of whom I have loved, but Aunt Margaretta is in the top of aunts who nurtured, amused, babysat, and loved me, and whom I love most dearly. I am glad to say that in my past three years back in Ohio, I have been able to visit her much oftener that in the previous 40 years, and I am most glad to say that I always took chocolate, and as she wolfed it down—and I do mean Wolfed. It. Down—, she and I would quote her son Bob, reported to have said as a boy, “Candy good for me.”
Gladys, Wilma, Grandma Young, Margaretta, Madeline

She is the oldest of the four daughters of my maternal grandparents Gladys and Jim Young, and my mother Gladys is the youngest. In between were Aunt Wilma and Aunt Madeline, all three of whom were present in my life throughout my life until they preceded their sister in death, all of them dear to me. There were so many things to love about her. These are a few of them.

I loved how she invited us over every year to pick cherries from her huge sour cherry tree and the ensuing cherry pies she and my mom baked and froze and we ate for months after, not before eating half of the cherries while picking. And while we are on food, among my cherished recipes are those for her raisin-filled cookies, her sugar cookies (secret ingredient: nutmeg), and her suet pudding, which was always the treat at Christmas. I have a friend in Michigan who will do anything for my Aunt Margaretta’s raisin-filled cookies.

I loved all the drama between her and Uncle Leroy over the Leesville Lake cottage he wanted and she never did and I loved the weekends they invited us to stay at the cottage. One long weekend when all six Kendigs and some of the Luddens stayed there,it rained the whole time. We watched old black and white movies and stayed up late eating her homemade fudge. And we all recall how at night, she pulled the blinds down, saying in mock scolding, “No show tonight!” supposedly to the hoards of Leesville Lake denizens who were standing around hoping to see us in our nighties or less. To this day, if you say “No show tonight,” to the cousins, we all laugh, remembering the way she said it. And speaking of drama with Uncle Leroy, how about the time she cleaned out the old tie boxes in his drawer and burned them, only to learn too late that they were where he was hiding a stash of $20 bills? What a great pair they were, and, now they are once again, too.

My brother once called her, “the most well-adjusted person I have ever known,” which she was, and certainly she was compared to my flightier mother. So they made a great pair, too. “Now Gladdy May, just stop,” she would say when my mom got on her last nerve with fussing. She was always the big sister to my mom, buying my mom a dress and picture for Mom’s high school graduation in the depth of the Great Depression when my grandparents couldn’t afford them. Actually, Aunt Margaretta was a great big sister to all three of her sisters, the four of whom to this day, we still call “The Young Girls.” Her house, where we had so many family dinners, was one of the last places that Aunt Wilma visited before she really couldn’t visit anywhere anymore because of Alzheimer’s. My mom’s funeral, as upsetting as it was to Aunt Margaretta, was one of the last places Aunt Margaretta got out to before she really couldn’t get out either. They were such a powerful quartet, those Young girls, and if the four of them have managed to get together by now, there must be quite a din somewhere because the four of them always felt that there was nothing at all wrong with all of them talking at the same time. Loudly. Shouting over each other, trying to top each other in volume. Laughing. My cousin Bob recorded one such scene of three of them with their spouses. The men barely got four words in the whole hour while whole minutes go by where you can’t understand a word because all three Young girls are yelling. Talking, they would say.
Wilma, Madeline, Gladys, Margaretta
Aunt Margaretta had the best laugh, a school girl giggle that went on and on. Aunt Madeline, certainly the funniest of the Young girls, kept us nieces in stitches with her wiseacre remarks and jokes. (Once on the phone when she couldn’t identify which niece had answered, she said to my sister Daun, “I can never tell you girls apart. Next time I call, answer real sexy so I’ll know it’s you.”) But Aunt Madeline could say these things without cracking a smile herself. Aunt Margaretta, on the other hand, could barely tell a joke, she would be giggling so much before she got started. She was like that character in Mary Poppins, who “loved to laugh: loud and long and clear.”
When my sister Daun and I were students at Edison and Perry High, we often stayed after school at the last minute for an extracurricular activity. Then, instead of using the pay phone to call our mom for a ride home, we would walk to Aunt Margaretta’s house, thus saving a quarter AND getting to eat cookies and ride her front porch glider. I think Daun and our sister Beth and our cousin Tussy and I about rode that glider out when we spent long summer afternoons at her house playing and eating infinitely many cookies.
So I was just undone when Linda told me that in her last conversations with her mom these past three days in hospice, as Linda sat with her, Aunt Margaretta said, “I have to go babysit my niece.” She has six grandchildren, all of whom she had babysat often, not to mention great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, so this seemed a strange statement. Why not, “I have to go babysit my grandchildren, or even, “I have to go babysit the kids”? Linda asked. “What niece are you going to babysit?” and she answered, “Daun.” Daun is my sister who died of cancer 11 years ago, and Daun has just won the lottery of babysitters.
And we, who are left here without Aunt Margaretta, have just lost the best.


Hating Heckling Hazing Even If No One Dies of It

A friend recently noticed that I did not list my undergraduate college on my Facebook page. “That’s right,” I answered, “And I am not going to.” I hadn’t thought much about the decision not to list it, but since I have to list it on my resumé, I have recently been thinking a lot about that decision to leave it off elsewhere, about my ambivalence to my first four years of college, especially the first.

The small private Midwest school had been my dream choice, made possible only with a generous financial aid package, based on my test scores, my hard-earned grades, and the financial need of being the oldest of four children of a factory worker and a stay at home mom. I was so happy to be able to attend there, and I imagined it would be a real academic experience, unlike our sports-crazed high school. I was excited to be living in an old dorm with two big rooms for my three roommates and I. We all wrote each other that summer of 1968, excited at the upcoming trimester.

And then I arrived on campus, and I found in my packet of materials, instead of the laptop students these days receive, a maroon cap, referred to in almost reverential terms, both then and now, as "a beanie, an important tradition at this college." This cap was my first personal introduction to the experience of hazing.

Not my first knowledge of hazing. That came in junior high, when I learned that the ninth grade choir required an “initiation” that involved demoralizing and uncomfortably disfiguring (though not physically endangering) rites such as having rotten eggs rubbed into one’s hair while wearing diapers and having photos taken of the embarrassment. This was all in good fun, as they say, under the auspices of the choir director, an adult of the type my sister and I used to call “Friend to the Teenager,” adults who cared more about being friends than being adults, who were into all the gossip about who was dating whom and what we thought the hottest rock song was. Fortunately, I didn’t make choir but was in band, and our band director, who was not a “Friend to the Teenager” but a musician and hard worker, would not allow any such thing.
I had no idea that college would involve any such thing before I arrived on campus, so I was surprised by it, and though I had reservations about the process so great that I could have been a Hilton Hotel, I was assured by all the administrators (most faculty were not so keen on it either) that this was going to be great fun! All first year students were to wear the beanies at all times so everyone would know we were “frosh.” But not so they could help us make any adjustments. No, so they could scream across the street or in the frosh face, “What’s wrong with you frosh? Can’t you wear that beanie right?” or some other supposedly mild demeaning insult. Whatever you answered to that was wrong, and many upperclassmen expected you to answer respectfully by saying “Yessir” or “Yes ma’am,” as though they were your drill sergeant. Many screamed like drill sergeants. I was not accustomed to being screamed at.

And it wasn’t just on the street. I recall one particularly odious sophomore woman who was attractive  , with long, straight hair which would be the envy of any 20 year old today and a large-nostril nose, a bit, I have to say, pig-like looking. She worked in the cafeteria, and every time I came through the line where she was dishing up salad, she’d harass me: “Better get that beanie pulled down, frosh!,” “What did you say, frosh? Don’t you mean, ‘tossed salad, please ma’am’?” I would try to case out which line she was on and go to any other.

I just wanted to blend in, not be called out, and to wear a beanie meant to be called out, without warning, at any time. And if one chose not to wear it? One was called in. A committee appeared at one’s dorm room, with the threat of a formal hearing if one did not wear the beanie.

I know, I know. This was all meant in fun. Over and over, I was told what fun this was. And I know it was not the alcohol-abusing, death-defying harassment perpetrated by Greek organizations. However, it was campus-wide, it was perpetuated by the adults on the campus, who quashed any complaints by repeating how much fun it was, how it provided a bonding experience that nothing else would. How it was a cherished college tradition that freshman had endured for decades for the first six weeks of school, after which there was a big bonfire, which freshman had to build and circle around in the dark, and then the next day, presto, change-o, we didn’t have to wear the beanies any more.

Our parents were told not to let us come home during that six weeks. My parents would have let me come home any way, but I was determined to try to fit in and get invested in my studies, which I loved. But any time I was outside of class or my dorm room, whether in the library, at meals, or crossing the street, the hazing could begin and I spent the six weeks with my stomach in knots most of the time, waiting for the next small public humiliation.

I have to say, for me, and for many freshmen I knew, it was not a bonding experience. Two of my three roommates left at the end of the year, and I was becoming distressed at the college’s general emphasis on amusement over academics. And while I am relieved, I am not amused today to read on the college’s website that “Hazing is not a tradition….Hazing is not a ritual,” which I was told in 1968 over and over again that it was both.

Still and all, I hadn’t thought about that very stupid hat for a long time, until I read Kim

Stafford’s latest book, 100 Books Every Boy Can Do, explores his memories of his older brother, Brett, who committed suicide in middle age. The book is written in part for what can be learned from the brother's life and death.  It happens to touch on Brett’s experience with freshman hazing at Grinnell College. Brett hadn’t mentioned it to his family at the time, but Stafford recalls now that years later, when helping his brother create a new resumé, Brett refused to list his year at Grinell. And after his brother’s death, Kim learns while visiting Grinnell that terrible hazing incidents were delivered up on the freshmen during Brett’s freshman year there, especially on the men. Kim writes:

I understood that my brother, though a year older, was always too young, too tender, too much the saint. Those were the years of Vietnam, soldiers, a kind of free love for which my brother’s Midwest heritage had not prepared him, and his first long departure from home into a world he could not manage.  

No one in my family would ever call me a saint, but my mother had always said that I had her father’s tendencies to be overly self-conscious, and that nails why the hazing was such a trial to me. I wanted to come to college and quietly succeed. I felt self-conscious enough as it was, some of it due, I now realize to being a first generation college student. I did not need someone to be shouting out my difference from all corners of the campus in sudden, unexpected times, and with disrespect.  I could not manage that place. But I came to feel that I had to if I were to graduate from college, which I wanted to do more than anything. The first in my family to go to actually obtain a degree, I felt that fitting in was very important to succeeding there. I was wrong and eventually found other cockamamie unfitting profs and friends, but not that first year.
After the initial beanie experience, all the hazing on that campus came out of the Greek organizations, and I knew I would never join one. However, at that time Greek life (to use an oxymoron) was the only life on campus. By the historical account now at my college’s website, 80-90% of the students there in the 1960’s belonged to its local sororities and fraternities. I had excellent grades and when pledging offers came into me at various times from four or five of the six sororities on campus the Dean of Women Students, definitely a “Friend to the Teenager” type, called me in three semesters in a row to ask why I didn’t want to pledge. If it was dues, she offered, the college could help me out with that. Every semester, I would say no thanks, politely, and not get into debates with her, but if I had, I would have told her that in addition to the hazing issue, I thought sororities were against everything I had learned in church about loving everyone (and not just the ones with enough money to be in your club). But then, I lost a lot of my religion at that church college.

However, I could not transfer. At that time, a transfer student would lose financial aid for one year, at least lose the government student loans that LBJ’s “Great Society” had worked for kids like me. It had seemed like an enormous gift as I headed off to college, but when I tried to transfer, it became my golden handcuffs, binding me to the college in ways the beanie did not. As the oldest of four children, I had a sibling coming along every two years, and I could not afford to lose a year of financial aid. By my sophomore year, I went into home mode, heading the two hours back to my parents’ house every other weekend, battening myself down with my studies on the off-weekend.
I eventually graduated and continued for years after to be overly self- conscious, to experience bouts of depression and even suicidal tendencies that I am now happy to have left behind. And while I don’t think those first six weeks of college damaged me forever, they did alienate me from the college where I had to spend the next four years, and left me totally opposed to hazing in even its mildest forms. I know many people find such private and public humiliations fun, especially with the thought that in the coming years, they can be the perpetrators rather than the preyed-upon. Such people believe that I am quite the spoilsport.
And I know that hazing has been reduced today, purportedly even at my undergraduate institution (which I will never be able to call my “alma mater.”) But I also know that the emphasis has been on preventing physical harm, since that leads to death, which is so messy for colleges to clean up after. Hank Nuwer, a professor at Indiana's Franklin College, who wrote "Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking," when asked his opinion on bringing beanies back said to The Christian Science Monitor, “No one ever died from a beanie,” and stated that keeping such a tradition was just a great way to build solidarity. So even he, the expert on hazing thinks it's just fine to bring back the old humiliations.

I beg to differ. While few if any people have "died from a beanie," death does not have to be the only reason for getting rid of traditions that involve the harm and humiliation of any kind of hazing, including enforced hat wear and all the heckling that goes with it.

When "Adult Protective Services" Becomes Murderous

One Side of the Issue

Recently in my hometown of Canton, Ohio a trio of lowlife relatives of an 88 year old man were sentenced to prison for their failure to care for him before he died under horrific health conditions and a near total lack of  sanitation, all the while cashing his social security checks. Their treatment of the man has led local agencies to hold workshops on elder abuse and the local paper to run sides bars titled "Help protect the elderly." But the paper has not presented the other side,  the side of the elderly who are being forced out of their homes in cruel, unprepared ways into expensive nursing homes, who are being harassed by Adult Protective Services in ways that purport to be helpful and are in fact rude and presumptuous.

The Other Side

This past summer, my 82-year-old aunt was taking care of her home and husband, my 83-year-old uncle, when she received a letter saying that she had been reported for possible elder abuse and would be visited by Adult Protective Services. In the meantime, it was reported that my uncle had a gun in the house, and they were given two days to get rid of it by taking it to the police.

Later that day, her son called with a related message: if his parents did not move into a senior facility within two weeks, they would be in big trouble. If she were found guilty of elder abuse, she would go to jail, and my uncle, who depends on her, would be sent alone to "a nursing home, I don't know what kind," my cousin said, "probably a public one, probably not very nice." This son had not even been at his parents' house for months, not even that winter when my uncle fell on the ice retrieving the mail and had to go to the emergency ward. He reiterated the warning about the gun.

Now, my aunt and uncle would like to point out that the gun in question is 20 gauge shotgun that my grandfather gave my uncle (as he gave each of his 8 sons) the day he turned 14. My uncle considered it a valuable family heirloom and not a means of wrecking violence on himself or the neighborhood. Nevertheless, my aunt found a gun collecting relative to give it to, through the hands of the local police. This particular use of force is one my uncle remains bitter about, months afterward.

My aunt was beside-herself upset after receiving the letter, but she is one tough biscotti, and she got on the phone with everyone she could think of: the Stark County Council on Aging, the Veterans Administration, and even the law firm of her former lawyer, who had died awhile back. They all said they would not get involved with family issues. Finally one agency referred her to a retired lawyer in Massillon who provided some advice: that she should meet the examiners at the door with equanimity and  then hope that the intelligence he heard in her voice would carry her through.

So she did. And in fact, when Adult Protective Services walked in the door to her clean, beautifully-decorated house, the examiner said, "Well, I don't know what I am doing here." Nevertheless, the visits ground on for six weeks, often in the morning before my aunt and uncle had even had breakfast. My aunt finally asked if they could please come just an hour later. At the end of the six weeks, my aunt was cleared of any charges of spousal abuse--she who has cared for my uncle so well for so long. But the emotional upheaval has taken its toll. Today on the phone, she said, "It's so humiliating. It's a call from a government agency, all but accusing you of wrongdoing.

Eventually, her doctor confessed that since her husband's sugar readings had been super-high, he had asked the local hospital social worker to see if my aunt needed help with cooking and with delivering my uncle's medicine. The doctor was shocked to hear what she had been put through and said he would never refer anyone again. AND it turned out that my uncle's high sugar readings were caused by a change in medicine that my aunt had reported as the issue weeks earlier.

What my aunt and uncle were put through was incredibly upsetting. As I have said, my aunt is a very intelligent, tough woman. And though my uncle has been through many injuries, one which left him with a metal plate in his head, he is remains smart and funny and tough himself. They have each other and they have a neighborhood of friends and a few of us relatives who agreed to come stand in the yard and bear witness, if nothing else, if any more transpired.

It's harder when the elderly person is alone. A year ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article about an 87-year old woman who died of a massive heart attack shortly after receiving a letter from Adult Protective Services, saying she had been reported as not being able to care for herself. She had been having trouble making ends meet, since her decades- long job as an adjunct professor for Duquesne University had left her with no health or retirement benefits. But she was mortified by the letter and, many believe, simply died of weariness and the mortification.

It's not as if these Adult Protective Services letters suggest they are coming to help you. No, here is how my aunt's letter opens: "The purpose of this notice is to inform you of our intent to conduct an Adult Protective Service Investigation." Such an introduction to the seniors who receive them can seem so very threatening.

And they are threatening. There isn't a single senior who hasn't had a friend dragged off to a senior facility against their will. Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Phillip Morris has been chronicling the story of the 107-year-old Judge Jean Murrell Capers who has been forced into a senior living facility and into a guardianship, despite the fact that she sure seems capable of making her own decisions. He notes that there is a growing number of centenarians in the U.S., the vast majority of them women.

Today, I called in to check on my aunt.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"Kicking butt," she said.

"Oh good, I said. "Then everything is back to normal."

For now.






REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY: Several Brief Personal Memories

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74

(NYT headline, August 30, 2013)

I have so many memories of Seamus Heaney, on the page and on the stage, and this is a record of them and not an analysis of his work, though I have spent much more time with his work, which which has meant and remains too much to me for me to talk about it much now. So for a few fun memories of the man instead and of course, from afar.

Circa 1979

The photo here is from the one time I met him, about 1979, when he came to read at Cleveland State. The Poetry Center Director was on leave and was coming to introduce him in the evening, but it was my job to see that he was picked up at the airport and delivered there the next morning and that he was fed and accompanied or left alone when he needed to be.

I had read his amazing book Field Work by then and a packet of poems handed out to students which contained his poem "Digging," which ever since has been rooted in my heart. I think the poem resonates with anyone from a working class background who steps out of that world and into academia or whatever world where people do not carry lunchboxes. It asks, "How do I stay faithful to that world I come from of hard physical work, to claim it and not be ashamed of it and yet do the now more mental work I am being trained to do?" Only the poem says more and better. It begins with a gun and ends with a pen, surely the best job of turning a sword into a plowshare that any poet has ever achieved in 31 lines, and certainly I got it without a lot of explication, as our Cleveland State students did, too, and they came out en masse to hear him at that evening reading-- as did half the Irish-American population of Cleveland and the writing and reading community of Cleveland.

But before the reading, there was dinner with a group of poets who took Heaney to The Parthenon, the old (and I do mean old, and now gone) Greek restaurant down the street from C.S.U. where the flaming sakanaki was the best I ever had and did not come with the waiter shouting "opa," just a flame and a huge squirt of lemon. We ordered lots of saganaki and retsina and rodidas and platters of wonderful lamb and moussaka. Heaney seemed to really be enjoying himself, even though he was very tired, especially when a wedding party in the next room started smashing plates, and he got up to watch.

After dinner, we sauntered the six blocks down the street, early for the reading and thank goodness because the aforementioned mass of students, Irish-Americans, and other citizens had filled and overflowed the lecture hall we had chosen. Security showed up, found us an even bigger lecture hall, and there was a parade through the building to it, and even then, people had to squeeze, sitting on steps and standing around the edge of the room. (And I sat there praying no fire marshal showed up.) It was such a damned fine reading, and if you have never heard Heaney read, please go to the two links I have posted above, or any link of Heaney reading. He has always been one to give very brief, but very meaningful intros to his poems, and my favorite story that he told was about going back to his grade school, where the nuns had prepared the children to recite, in chorus, his poem "Death of a Naturalist." He held his breath as they got closer and closer to the line,  "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting," wondering what the nuns would have them do with that word, "farting"-- would they skip it?  Surely they would never let the children say it. And then it came: "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads darting." He then read it to us with all its farting, with relish, already the king of language, long before his Nobel prize.

(More recently, about his poem "At a Potato Digging,"  he noted that a critic, "once described me (to my face) as 'laureate of the root vegetable.'")

But his best witticism came the next morning, when poet Bob McDonough drove him to the airport and groggily clutching coffee, he mentioned that he was tired to the bone, was giving something like 10 readings in 8 days or 8 readings in 10 days in 10 cities, in order to pay for a sports car, and we were the next to the last just one more to go.  Still he smiled and waved good-bye to Bob, saying, "Well, I am off to simulate real life." 

Circa 2000-2002

During these years, I was living in three cities: Findlay, Ohio (where my job was), St. Cloud, MN (where my sister struggled and wrestled with and defied and died of cancer), and Boston, MA (where my husband had taken a new job). At least once a month I was flying out of some way-off terminal of Logan Airport, and it seemed that nearly as often, Heaney was flying out there too. I never spoke to him, just nodded in recognition and in leaving him alone, and he nodded back.

One day, when he got a bagel and then boarded, I said to the women in the snack bar, "Do you know that that man you just waited on is a Nobel Prize winner?" They looked up and said with some real enthusiasm, "Oh, really? In what?"

"Poetry!" I said with the same enthusiasm, only to see their faces fall.

"Oh," they said in real disappointment. What would have thrilled them? Physics??


If the two airport workers didn't appreciate Heaney's presence in Boston, I think it is fair to say that that most Irish of U.S. cities, where he taught for over two decades, did appreciate him. (That is to say, Boston-- okay, really he taught in Cambridge, but we won't be splitting neighborhoods just now.) I moved there late
in 2002, after my sister's death, and I myself ran out to appreciate him whenever he was giving a reading, as he was one particularly memorable reading in Sanders Hall, along with several other poets (Jorie Graham, Robert Pinsky, et. al.), for what has always seemed a perpetual fundraiser to keep Grolier's Poetry Bookstore from going under. Fact is, the packed hall was mostly there to hear Heaney, so as the time approached, and we saw he wasn't there, a deep disappointment crept in. And then it was announced that he had had to make a sudden trip back to Ireland because the roof of his house was leaking or caved in or some such disaster, and as poet Julia Lisella said yesterday on Facebook, "I liked thinking about him choosing the roof over his family's head over the roof over ours there at the Sanders Theater waiting for him!" 

March 7, 2013

This past spring, I heard Heaney for the last time, though of course I didn't know it then. He seemed hale enough, as though fully recovered from his 2006 stroke. It was a wonderful reading because it wasn't really a reading but a "conversation," between Heaney and Derek Walcott, moderated by Roseanna Warren,  interspersed with their reading poems while seated in big comfortable chairs onstage. Heaney's voice was strong, as was the sense that he was, as always, as the N.Y.Times has said,
"consumed with morality." The podcast of this reading has been suddenly blocked from the AWP website, and I hope they make it available again soon because it was a
mighty moment, about which, as his own poem says:

... we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened. ("Clearances")

That's how I am feeling about Heaney this weekend.  There is a big open space where he once was. But look, in the clearances, he has left us all this, that keeps opening and opening: the poems, the translations, the essays, his asides and witticisms, the  music of language and languages, the strong sense that the poet is, in his own words, "...on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.”

Crossing the Bridge at McGarvey's Landing

"what is it
they say can turn even this into wisdom
and what is wisdom if it is not
in the loss that has not left this place"
                                W.S. Merwin, "The Indifferent Stars"

As I last foresaw on this blog, I did make off to Vermilion, Ohio last week to write in a beach house there, just across the street from where I lived my first year out of college. The weather was perfect, mid-seventies and sunny, I wrote mornings, walked afternoons, read evenings, just like summer had been in 1973. With one exception. I did not have the dark cloud of depression and suicidal thoughts hanging over me, not even on Sunday, when it rained all day.

And as I was walking the mile and a half to the library, as I did often 1972-3, feeling rather content, as it seemed I never felt back 40 years ago here, W.S. Merwin's poem "The Different Stars" came to me, nearly whole:

...pain having gone from there

so that we may well wonder
looking back on us here what tormented us
what great difficulty invisible
in a time that by then looks simple
and is irrevocable

pain having come from there...

What was all that pain about then, I wondered, looking down River Road, where I had actually considered just plunging my car off the edge two specific afternoons. What was the deal?

When I graduated in the summer of 1972, I had wanted to come back home, but I could not get the job I wanted. My local school board had interviewed me, and I thought the interview had gone great, then I heard nothing. Eventually, a former teacher told me the new (and short-lived) superintendent had thought my skirt was too short. I was devastated, having spent four years of college getting a five-year degree with honors in two majors and a secondary teaching certificate when I could have just bought a longer dress!

And I had to take a job two hours away from home in a rural farm community. The kids were great, but most of my co-workers mistrusted me as the only person not "from there." The curriculum was appallingly bad and boring and there weren't enough textbooks to go around, so I bought books and wrote my own curriculum to cover the district's and still do my own thing.

I taught well: two of my Spanish students placed in the top three in the state tests that spring. And I just loved my students. I started a Spanish Club and when the kids taking German felt bad they didn't have a German Club, we made it a "Culture Club" and went caroling in German and Spanish. We had a paella dinner and drove to German Village in Columbus for lunch. I was sophomore class advisor. We read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, and they helped me pick a trash bag full of dandelion flowers to make dandelion wine. The head of curriculum showed up to observe my class unannounced and said it was the most exciting he had ever seen.

And back in my own life, I had found this great apartment right on Lake Erie, in Vermilion, which itself was not all that friendly of a place, but I had the beach and the seagulls and a great walk to the library. And I appreciated all of that.

But I overworked myself to the point of exhaustion, and I was lonely. I tried joining a theater group, which just became a monthly gripe-about-Vermilion session. I had my one friendly colleague and her family to dinner on Friday evening. And after they left, I felt so bereft, I took a whole lot of pills and alcohol...which I slept off and woke, the next afternoon, quite surprised by the beauty of the very late afternoon sunshine.

Looking back on me there, I do wonder what tormented me so, as Merwin says, what great difficulty invisible plagued me? Merwin is talking about the breakup of a relationship, but it certainly applied and applies to the breakdown of my psyche just then. I can say "exhaustion," I can say, "loneliness," but really I have been just as tired and lonely since then and did not feel so very desperate as I did in my early twenties.

It may be that the answer to Merwin's question, "What is it...can turn even this into wisdom" is just "go on, live your life, don't die. Choose life. I guess it didn't hurt that I found the poetry of Adrienne Rich to read alongside Plath and Sexton and those great lines of hers:
..all the time nursing, measuring that wound.
Well, that's finished. The woman who cherished
her suffering is dead. I am her descendant.
I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me,
but I want to go on from here with you
fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.

                                    (from 21 Love Poems)

This past week, I walked across the bridge at McGarvey's Landing, and I saw that pain has gone from there. The house I stayed in last weekend had a plaque above the kitchen sink that said, "And they lived happily ever after."

It's true.

"Kindred," An Old Poem, a New Reading: On Leaving for Vermilion 40 years later

Next weekend, I am off to write in Vermilion for a few days, thanks to a very generous invitation from a couple who have a beach house there. And thanks, too, to a poem I wrote in 1973, "Kindred" and published in my first book in 1980. I had forgotten that poem, and now I know that when I wrote it, I didn't know the half of it, as I have learned from a Cuyahoga County Librarian named Laurie.

Standing with my friend Kate Newland in the lobby at the Rita Dove reading in April, I struck up a conversation with Laurie and her husband, Tom, who said something about Vermilion, Ohio. I replied that I had lived there during my first teaching job out of college, on Ewa-Yea Street in "The Comas."

Tom's jaw dropped, and he said, "We have a house right across the street on Minnie Wawa." Oh man, I had forgotten Minnie Wawa, the next street over. A memory stirred, "I have a poem with Ewa-Yea in it in my first book," I said. But for the life of me, I couldn't recall which poem it was.

I had to come home and look it up. 

"Kindred," of course, "Kindred." At first, I had felt so out of my element that year, 1972. I couldn't get a teaching job at home, where I wanted to come back to desperately, finally landed one at the last minute, just before Labor Day, in a tiny farm community, one of the only teachers in the school not "from there," and feeling like a goldfish out of the bowl, and not finding any water in Norwalk nor any apartments in Oberlin, where I would have fit in with all the neon tetras and zebra fish, I landed in a second floor studio apartment in a neighborhood on a beach of Lake Erie.

There in that wonderful, miserable first year of teaching, I was quite truly suicidal much of the year, so very lonely and overworked. But college friends visited, and my mother called to remind me that a clean apartment wasn't all that important just now, and squirrels came and banged on the screen when I hadn't put corn out early enough for them. When I wasn't at the high school or working or asleep, I walked the beach nervously, though the only way down to it  was to shimmy down a cliff. In the winter, I walked in a long green cape I had made out of two army blankets and noticed how the lake waves froze in discs, like records piled up on shore. I noticed too someone taking photos of me. I must have looked like a tent coming across the icy sand. In the summer, I floated in very shallow water and recovered from the year. In August, I found an apartment in Oberlin for $30 less, and I moved, but Vermilion has always held a small strong place in my heart, a place I came to feel a kindred to, even though I had no connections to any humans there. 

I sent a copy of "Kindred" off to Laurie:


Where does a page re- and re-read land in your genes--
as the car emptying oil finally throws a rod?
Somewhere you have never been. Painting through,
painting through, even the artist may see the color only
after, the way you glance and glance before noticing
the blue spruce has carved itself out around the spouting.

Things become kindred by heart tock and metronome.
Maybe you've seen Wyeth's picture thirty-ones times,
no connection, then thirty-two, you about face, and
Christina's flesh-colored sleeves are yours, your torso
is angling, touching your elbow, wrenching; in the bleached
expanse you were that desolate but unafraid.

There was no such line for the shore to cross
at Vermillion's beach front off Ewa-Yea Street,
no one number of times that the water lapped
but the sand moved. People
reappeared on your doorstep and ran through you,
an hourglass trying to give them an order.

Whole wedges are pie-cut, spatulaed off the clock,
handed over and not begrudged to what's not you
and then is.

(from A Tunnel of Flute Song, copyright 1980 Diane Kendig)

Like reading old diaries, reading old poems brings back more memories than are on the page. I recall now that that spring, I had actually driven a car, leaking oil, across I-70 to visit a friend in Indiana and the car had thrown a rod on the way home. "Throwm a rod" seemed to me such understatement for what had sounded like a hundred children under the hood, throwing rods, leaving me stranded far from anyone I knew, which was how I had been feeling every day anyhow. Also I had been to MOMA that year and had seen "Christina's World," for the first time, had felt my heart breaking in the left side of my chest when I first glanced up and saw it, felt how far away her home was across that wheaten-colored space.

So much had happened that first year away from home. And so little in the grander scheme of things. I was alive, though, and felt the opposite of Tennyson's Ulysses: that all I had met was a part of me: the downstairs neighborman with the cleft palate who had eight reeking, unfixed male cats and a suitcase of poems with opening lines like, "We love our little kitties, we do." New England accents in the Vermilion coffee shop in March, the amazing diaries my students kept, the stories they had of farm life and the orphanage some lived in across the street. It was almost too much to bear some days. 


When Laurie received my poem, she emailed me back and said that all the streets in Vermilion's "Nokomis" (ahem) neighborhood were based on Longfellow's Hiawatha and that "Ewa-yea was the owlet, or the sound the owlet made." Oh my gosh, the people in my neighborhood in 1972 had said I was living in "The Comas," or I had misunderstood, so all along, I missed that I was living in a most literary neighborhood, living right on, as Laurie says, "The Crystal Shores." And yet, I have no doubt that it was those shores, that water, that kept me alive that year. 

"Kindred" may be 40 years old, and yet, I see from it that, "I am still learning," as Michelangelo said, just as I learned last year about the first poem.I composed at age 3. (See "Language, Memory and Poem Acquisition.") I feel the poem has just been handed back to me, resurrected, and so I send it back out to the world again here as I head out this week, back to where the poem came from, hoping write a few more poems, to see what else I can learn about myself then and now, this time, accompanied by the person who has been most very kindred to me for 26 years.