Let Freedom Ring

Dear Reader,

I apologize for missing my First Friday deadline – the first week of classes has me playing catch up, but here we go! Better late than never.

So, I have watched with interest as the controversy around Colin Kaepernick has unfolded.  For those who have not heard, the NFL quarterback has decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem, thereby exercising his right to peacefully protest.  He is doing this to continue to call attention to the reality that people of color are subjected to injustice on a daily basis.  Because of his protest, he has been called a traitor, his jersey has been burned, and people have called him a hypocrite because he happens to make money as a football player.

A couple of things come to mind here:

1. “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem, and I come from a proud military family.  When I hear the anthem, I stop. I face the flag. I legitimately contemplate the sacrifice of our military – tears come to my eyes.  That’s just who I am. I feel respect and pride.  It is my first amendment right to feel that way. Okay.

2. But, I live near Baltimore.  I attend games at Camden Yards.  Fans yell “O” when we get to the part of the verse that goes, “Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave….” – some fans yelled “O” during the Olympic medal ceremony when Michael Phelps was on the podium during the Rio Olympics last month.  He laughed.  Both shouting “O” and laughing during the anthem could be considered disrespectful, no? I missed the outrage on that, but I did see that Gabby Douglas got hammered for not putting her hand over her heart when she was on the podium. Hmm….

3. Did you know that Francis Scott Key’s song has multiple verses?  We only sing the first one.  In the third verse we find these troubling lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”   Well.

I could go on, but I think the main point is emphasized by US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a gay woman, who has also decided to silently and peacefully protest by kneeling during the anthem. The point, and it is an important one, is this: as great as this country is, and as much as we embrace the belief that we are all created equal and deserve equal rights and equal protections, the reality is that this equality is not reality – it is an ideal.  For minorities, including immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ citizens of this country, life is different.  If you have never experienced inequality, I am happy for you.  I know personally that my wife and I sometimes hesitate before holding hands or showing affection in public – even though Maryland is one of the more progressive states in America.  There is always the nagging fear that someone will take exception to our existence and act aggressively about it. We had to wait a few years after we were sure we wanted to be married to legally be allowed to get married in our home state while somewhere in Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Connecticut, and many other states, sixteen-year old heterosexuals were allowed to exchange vows with full support of the American government.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is exactly what the patriots of the Boston Tea Party demonstrated when they dumped the tea in the harbor to show their displeasure over taxes.  It’s what empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the marches against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century.  Freedom of expression allowed Vietnam War protestors to speak out in the 60’s.  It’s the same freedom of expression that allows the Westboro Baptist Church to show up at military funerals and voice their opinions.  It’s the freedom to say that you disagree.  No matter your politics, it’s the freedom that we all have.

To quote Aaron Sorkin (via the film The American President), “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.  You’ve got to want it bad. ‘Cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs for that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.  You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag [or an anthem for that matter], the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag [or sit during that anthem] in protest.’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

In my ethics class this week, we used this issue as an icebreaker.  What I am happy with is how thoughtfully my students considered this question.  They have, at a young age, embraced a nuanced view of the world and the reality that we can reasonably disagree without casting each other in the roles of patriot or traitor.  As someone who believes that the purpose of education is to produce compassionate, independent-minded, informed, and empathetic citizens, this gives me a lot of hope.

Free speech does not just mean that we only celebrate or protect those who agree with us.  Free speech is bigger than you or me or our opinions.  If you think Kaepernick and Rapinoe are wrong for exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate freedom of expression, you have totally missed the point. It does not disrespect the military.  It does not disrespect America. When I stand for the anthem, I celebrate the very freedom that allows them to sit or kneel in protest. That is what freedom really means. You can disagree, but your disagreement does not make them wrong. Let Freedom Ring.

© Ryna May 2016

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For Your Grandma

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

Dear Reader,

Have you ever come to a fork in the road?  Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?

Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.”  It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester.  It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother.  The two daughters are as different as they can be.  One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life.  But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college.  She has become her own person.

So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story.  No one really likes Dee.  They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to.  They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother.  They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with.  These are all true observations.  Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her.  They’d rather be Dee.

This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family.  I moved out on my own after high school.  I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have.  I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee.  I put myself through college.  I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life.  Not a better life, but a different life.

There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times.  There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe.  After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt.  The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not.  I think about this a lot lately.  The fork looms – what will make the difference?  This is the difficult choice so often in life.  Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?

I have always wondered about this.  It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be.  I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next.  In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore.  Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral.  It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family.  Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish.  It may be true that you can never go home again.  Or maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them  – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food. 

“For Your Grandma”

 

On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories

Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,

Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.

Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,

Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,

The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.

I watched her sometimes while she cooked.

Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,

And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs

That were thrown onto the biscuit pan

And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.

In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless

Dough into perfect submission.

If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.

They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.

They must rise, golden and perfect.

They better not be made with Bisquick.

Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.

In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,

Good as money, the bread of life.

The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,

A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.

I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and

I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember

How to make biscuits the way she did.

I do remember her hands.

Wherever she is now,

I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:

We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.

 

And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best.  The key is the lard:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tspn salt

1/3 tspn baking soda

5 tbspns of lard

2 tspns of baking powder

1 cup of buttermilk

1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter

  1. Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
  3. Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
  4. For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
  5. Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
  6. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter.  Enjoy the awesome.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Losing Saint Ricky

This week – from the archives: a story about my father.  This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death.  Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand.  This is how I remember it.

Ricky
Ricky Odum, @ 1971, entering the Air Force
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.

There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.

My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.

I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.

 

But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.

That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then.   The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear.   The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.

A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.

A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.

The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.

There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.

I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.

There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016

 

Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May

Monuments

“Sonnet 98” – William Shakespeare

From you have I been absent in the spring,

When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,

That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odour and in hue,

Could make me any summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight

Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.

Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,

As with your shadow I with these did play.

Dear Reader,

Poetry or Baseball: an impossible choice to make for this April post. So I decided not to choose. In honor of National Poetry Month, baseball season, and the fact that I am an avid baseball fan, this post is dedicated to things I love in equal measure: baseball and poetry. I have missed baseball. Even though I play with its shadows all year ‘round (the Hot Stove season, filled with trade rumors and free agent watching, has plenty of intrigue to keep me going), there is nothing quite like watching actual games. Bring on the peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and beer! My soul is trapped in winter without my Bronx Bombers. (Yes, if somehow you missed it, I am a Yankees fan.  You are allowed to despise me now.)

The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in the history of sports.  Even if you hate them (which many of you do), you have to grudgingly admit that the Yankees have set the standard for excellence in team sports.  Here is a bit of trivia: did you know that Yankee Stadium was the first baseball venue in the United States to be called a stadium? Not a park or a yard or a field.  A stadium. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, closed in 2008, re-opened in 2009, and the name has never been changed. It has never been sold to be PNC or M&T Stadium. The word stadium means the same in Greek and Roman languages – it is a unit of measurement. It was also used to describe a tiered structure with seats for spectators surrounding an ancient Greek running track. And perhaps, more interestingly, the word means a stage in a life history.

The Yankees have won 27 world championships. No other franchise in any other sport comes close to that. The Yankees also boast so many great players – players who haunt the history of the game like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, Jackson, Rivera, and yes, even Derek Jeter.  Someone recently wrote about all of the numbers that have been retired by the Yankees.  Pretty soon, they could run out of eligible jersey numbers, as Jeter’s number 2 will surely never be worn by anyone in pinstripes ever again.  In fact, no one will ever wear the numbers 1-10 again for the Yankees. That is unprecedented, but not unreasonable given the players we’re talking about here. The true greats are honored with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of mini-hall of fame for Yankees legends. The plaques reside now in a special hall enclosed in the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The purpose of a monument is that it stands to commemorate historical significance or importance: in this case, the greatest players of the greatest team. I visited Monument Park the first time I visited the old stadium in 2006.

monument park
Monument Park next to the plaque of my favorite player growing up: Don Mattingly (“Donnie Baseball”)

In old Yankee Stadium, Monument Park used to be in the middle of left field. Before the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s, the monuments were even in play – quite a hazard for the left-fielders to navigate. The monuments were approximately 460 feet from home plate, so it wasn’t everyday that a ball would get lost out there, but it did happen. Eventually, Monument Park was moved beyond the left-field fence, and for any true baseball fan, a visit to Monument Park is a pilgrimage worth making. My first visit to Monument Park got me thinking about my brother – we were both big fans of baseball. Someone recently asked me about my brother because I referred to him as I was telling a story about our youth. The friend I was speaking to didn’t know I had a brother because I seldom do refer to him.  That is not because I don’t love him or think of him, but because he died 22 years ago.

I have told this story before. I first brought this story to Journal Club in 2001.  But now that I am blogging, I will tell it again because I want the record to show this story. It is kind of an origin story for me.  It is also a tribute to my brother, Bryan.  In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” He was talking about how his sonnet was a monument to the person he loved. Just like the Yankees have Monument Park to commemorate their great players, in the stadium of my mind, this story about Bryan stands to honor him. You know how in the movie Field of Dreams, they say: “If you build it, he will come?”  Yes, I thought: “If I write this, he will be remembered.”  Though I have worked on this story for many years trying, without success, to perfect it, the title has never changed.  I thought I’d share the very first version of it I ever wrote because somehow it seems the purest.

“Seasons of Perfection”

I have grown to love baseball because every boy always told me that I couldn’t play it.  There’s a secret here that boys don’t want girls to know: they can play it, and they can be a lot better than the boys are.  My brother Bryan and I played baseball together in little league.  He didn’t want me to play because I was a year younger than he was, and way better, and oh yeah, I’m a girl.  So my mom thought it would be a good idea if we played on different teams – he for the McMinn County Reds and me for the McMinn County Astros.  In high school Bryan worked hard at it, and soon baseball was my brother’s best sport – it was the only sport that he was better at than me, and just barely.  In his senior year of high school, he got on base every single time that he came to the plate – not all hits, but still: a perfect season.  I really admired that, but I never told him.  It’s against the code of sibling rivalry to congratulate one another for anything at all – a stupid code I now think.  It’s not the only thing I never praised him for.  There is a litany of silences that I regret now in the way that you can only regret things you will never get to do.   After my brother died in 1993, my mother asked me if there were any of his things that I wanted.  Of all his things, the only thing I really wanted to take was his baseball jersey.  The way that I remember him now in this jersey, in his life, is spotless.  It’s a trick of the memory to clothe people in their best possible robes after they are gone, like a jersey worn in a season of perfection.

bryan's jersey
Bryan’s jersey from his senior season

When I was seven, our father took us to a minor league baseball game to see the Chattanooga Lookouts play.  They are named the “Lookouts” because there is a great mountain near Chattanooga called Lookout Mountain.  It’s the only really prominent thing in Chattanooga other than the famous choo-choo train, and no team of men wants to be called the “Choo-Choos” I guess.  We sat very close on the third base side of Lookout Stadium.  My dad told me to bring my glove in case there was a foul ball hit our way.  I was seven, but he was certain that I could catch the ball if it came near me.  He taught me to play ball before he taught my brother.  Bryan wasn’t very coordinated when he was a kid.  Dad thought that I was a prodigy.  Anyway, this was the first and last game my dad ever took us to, and it seemed like it was going to be perfect.  A few innings into the game I got the chance that I had been hoping for: a foul ball was hit my way, but it was coming too fast and I was not ready for it.  I was lost in the pink and blue fury of my cotton candy, and even though I did have my glove on, it was whizzing past my right ear and smacking the seat behind me before I could even move the mitt.  In a perfect world, I would have gotten that foul ball, but that is not how life goes.

Astros
With the McMinn County Astros – 1982

When I was nine and ten and eleven, I spent summers with my grandparents.  I remember the summer evenings that stretched out lazily into warm, dark Tennessee nights and the apparition of curtains that advanced and retreated eerily in the soft night breeze, carrying the sweet smell of crab apples and wet grass and wood and coal from the shed on the hill.  My Papa Odum, a Yankees fan, was a baseball nut.  He watched games all day, every day, whenever they were on, and when he went to bed at night, he listened to the games on the radio.  It is this ritual of listening that I remember most clearly, the way the game sounded on the old clock radio.  It’s the kind of clock radio with the flip numbers, the kind that growled instead of shrieking, the kind that clicked methodically.  The sound on the radio was never good; neither was the reception.  But Papa Odum always seemed to be able to find “the ballgame” no matter what.  The games were quiet and far away.  The announcers droned on over the restless buzzing of the fans: “Two outs now, and Mattingly to the plate with nobody on…he digs in and takes a called strike… 0 and 1 the count now on Mattingly in the top of the fourth….the Yankees trailing 3 to 1…”   The windows were always open at night, allowing for the most glorious concert of sounds – the baseball game, but not only that; the baseball game and my grandfather’s heavy sleep-breathing; the baseball game, and sleepy breathing, and creaking of the house, and the mad crickets and the whispering rain…

With its tragic ease, baseball is both dull and wonderful in its perfection; but it’s the imperfections that provide the real opportunities for humor and grace.  There is a poetic rhythm to baseball that no other sport can imitate, and this is precisely because baseball is about the so many things in-between, the so many lost moments.  Like the way that the crowd lulls in lethargy between pitches, between batters, between innings; like our mistakes of silence – things we don’t say, things we’ll never be able to say.

I love baseball because it reminds me to revere moments of imperfect life and preserve them in perfect memory.  For me, baseball is a day at the park with a favorite friend, sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog, Cal Ripken breaking the streak, cotton candy stuck to the pocket of my mitt, Mike Schmidt hitting his 500th home run, the foul ball that sails just past my head, Harry Carey calling the game for the Cubs, the organ music – out of tune, Sid Bream, with his leg brace on, sliding home to beat the tag and win the ALCS, the seventh inning stretch, the ground ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s legs, and Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbling into the batter’s box and hitting the ball clear out of the park in October of 1988 in the World Series.  Baseball is the great poem of my life, and baseball is still, for me, about remembered seasons of perfection; they are the stuff that dreams are made on, and so much more: the way that we remember the suddenly ubiquitous smell of grass, the first warm, long evenings, disappointment, childhood, fathers, brothers, and histories.

 © 2015 Ryna May

One Last Walk

Dear Reader,

I know it isn’t the First Friday yet.  I am violating the protocol of my blog so that I can honor my best friend, Oberon.  For over 14 years, my beloved border collie has been at my side every day.  He has struggled in the past few months – his mind was as sharp as ever, but his body betrayed him.  Today, we let him go on to The Rainbow Bridge.  I am unaccountably sad to lose him.  I take comfort in the only thing possible: the knowledge that I gave him a great life.  He gave me a great life as well.

Oberon is named for a character in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The character is the King of the Fairy World.  The play has long been one of my favorites, so it was a natural, unique choice.  When Oberon came into my life, I didn’t want a dog – too much responsibility, I said.  I was in my final semester of my senior year of college at the University of Baltimore, I was applying to graduate school, and I was in a rocky relationship with the person who is now my ex-husband.

Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun
Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun

Why in the world would I want a dog?  I gave in – but only if I could choose his name. In every way, he has lived up to his namesake: he has been a magical presence.

To steal a phrase from Tim O’Brien, this dog has been the hero of my life.  I could not have known what a blessing Oberon would be.  For those of you who own dogs, you know. They are so much better than people in every single category.  They never hold grudges.  They always think the best of you.  They are always genuinely happy to see you when you get home – and they don’t get mad when you are running late.  Oberon has seen me through writing my master’s thesis, through my divorce, through a major life change when I finally opened up to the love of my life, through a new marriage, through bad, annoying days at work, through my doctoral program and all the tears and stress of comprehensive exams and the dissertation process, through everything.  He has been my constant, my touchstone, the buddy who reminds me that everything looks and feels better after a walk in the fresh air.

Oberon and Yorick
Oberon and Yorick

He has been a source of continual comfort. Just interacting with him always lifted my spirits no matter what happened during the day.  I’ll never know exactly what he thought about me, but I like to think he also saw me as a friend – though Billy Collins has some pretty interesting thoughts about this. (It makes me happy to think of the dogs writing poetry somewhere, out there. Oberon will write Shakespearean sonnets, I just know it.)

In my Philosophy class this semester, we have talked a lot about what happens to our souls when we die.  That discussion feels more real to me today.  Some believe, like Aristotle, that matter and form exist together, so when our bodies cease, everything ceases: our soul cannot exist apart from the body; but some believe we go on in some form – whether that is to heaven or to Plato’s world of forms or The Rainbow Bridge or just as energy that needs to find another way of expression.  When it comes to Oberon (and all dogs for that matter), I guess I prefer to think of his soul as the Eastern Philosophers do: as energy that has always been here and will always be here.  His energy is not here anymore inhabiting his body, but now it has been returned to the world.  It looks for a new way to interact, but it does not die, does not diminish.  That would be an unbearable loss.  To know that Oberon’s kind, gentle spirit will reincarnate into another form is the only thing that lets me let him go.

This week we have enjoyed the warmer weather, turned our faces toward the sun every chance we had. We’ve been noticing so much more together: how much greener the grass suddenly seems, the way the air smells different after spring rain, the red buds pixelating all of the trees, and the first smiling daffodils. All this will go on now, without Oberon this time. Today before the vet came to help him transition out of this life, my wife Stephanie and I took one last walk with Oberon.  It was something we were both looking forward to and dreading all week long, ever since we made the decision to let him go.

Last Walk
I wish we could keep walking forever

We walked slowly and comfortably in the direction he wanted.  He got to say goodbye to his best friend, Colby, a Golden Retriever who lives a few doors down.  He sniffed everything, breathing in the world and enjoying every bit of it. I could not help but think that I almost missed all of this – that I didn’t want him.  That seems incredible to me now.  I would have missed out on so much love and friendship.  I am grateful for every day of these last 14 years – I only wish we could have had a few more.  I hope it was peaceful, his final act. It was peaceful and heartbreaking for me in equal measure.  I just wanted to keep going, keep walking with him forever.

Tomorrow, I do have a post prepared for the First Friday.  I hope you’ll come back for that.

© 2015 Ryna May