Sunday, December 11, 2011

Touching Grief

Earlier this semester, I asked my students to attend a documentary on end-of-life issues called Consider the Conversation. The film outlines how our modern society steers clear of talking about death and our end-of-life issues. I asked my students to reflect on how families deal with grief and loss, and how they can better help their loved ones as they pass. I'm currently grading those papers.

2011 has been a year of saying goodbye. We just said goodbye to my maternal grandma in November, and I lost my very dear, and very vital friend, Amy, this summer. In both cases, it was hard to say goodbye to people who've so long been a part of my life. Grandma and Amy both passed in institutional care (grandma in the hospital after a brief infection, Amy in hospice after a long battle with cancer). The film discusses how we've gone from dying at home to dying in institutional care and what are the positives and negatives of both.

Grandma had her daughters at her side. Amy had her husband, children, sister, and father with her. Thank goodness. I'm so grateful for all of these special people for being there for such special and wonderful people, no matter that watching someone go is such a painful feeling. I, on the other hand, was not there for either. There's sorrow and gratitude in that. I'm not accustomed to watching people die, and I'm scared to. I've never actually seen it happen. That's how our culture tells us it should be: distant, abstract, done quietly in a room, away from regular life.

But while reading these papers by my students, I've been thinking a lot about the last time I did see Amy in the hospital in our hometown and how little I actually did. We knew what was happening. She'd been given days to weeks. She looked only a little like the Amy I grew up with. So thin, so weak, a whisper of a voice. And in my inexperience with death, I had no idea what to do. So I sat down and started to blather nonsense. She tried to respond as best she could, but she also slept a fair amount while I blathered. But then, she woke up and saw me. She looked at me, knowingly. And she extended her hand.

I hadn't thought to take it. I hadn't thought to touch her, to comfort her that way. Not until she asked. Of course, I took it then, and held it as tight as I thought I dared, feeling her delicate wedding band in my hand as it hung loosely on her thin fingers. I noticed the mother's ring she wore. I noticed the coolness of her skin. She squeezed back as best she could. We sat that way for some time, still talking, still being together as we'd been in years past, as we began our initiation into adulthood.

As I offer feedback to my students about our culture's hesitancy to touch death, to be near it, I realize just how much a part of our culture I am. How could I not have taken her hand of my own volition? Why couldn't I see she needed that, she, my very dearest of friends. The person who always knew what to do and say to me. How much that moment has taught me now that I've reflected on it. It's just like Amy to teach me something so profound with something so simple.

My only saving grace, the one thing that makes me not feel like a total heel, is that as I left and said what I knew was our last goodbye on earth, I asked if I could give her a kiss. She smiled and nodded yes. And then I kissed the forehead that held the brain that held so much of my soul and essence. So much of me and who I am meant to be, even when I couldn't see it for myself.

That was my last opportunity to give comfort to Amy, but I hope in future, I am able to learn that a more proactive approach toward reaching out and comforting is the very least our loved ones deserve. They need our touch more than we need our distance. Our fear of mortality is nothing to their fear of being abandoned in their time of need.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Losing Cleo

So, I am down to one grandparent. This terrifies me. My mom's mom died yesterday, and though she had suffered from dementia for some time, it was still hard to see her go from not quite all there to not at all here. She was a regular feature of my life, particularly in childhood when she and Grandpa would visit us in Sioux City or when we stayed at their house on weekends and holidays.

Grandma was the one who served me grape juice (a real treat!) in a tiny glass cup for Sunday breakfast to wash down my pancakes or eggs. She'd sit to my right (as I perched on the stool) as we ate. She's the one to made kringla that rivaled her mom's, and she'd bring or send home old ice cream buckets full of them when we'd see each other. She's the one who seemed quiet, but if you listened you could hear the wicked fast wit under the surface. Just enough to make you wonder what snark she kept under raps to keep up appearances. Just enough to know you could respect her brains as much as her cooking ability. She's the one who made our Christmas chili, kept her pop in the garage to keep it cool, and had more craft projects than you could count. I have a little pink cloth travel case that I keep my---girl stuff---in when I travel. I've had it since before I needed girl stuff.

This is a woman who's been part of my life. Even when she was increasingly lost in her own brain with dementia, we'd get these flashes of the old Grandma so we knew we still had her. She may have had the name of my dad and uncle mixed up, but she never lost the ability to return their teasing. She had lost her pristine, kept-up appearance toward the end, but she never lost her colorful clothing choices. Occasionally, she'd come out with a story about her past that was filled with details that were accurate, just before she returned to telling stories that made no sense. But however sporadic, we loved those moments of Grandma. They were enough to get by, but now we don't even have that.

Grandma is relieved of suffering and confusion. I rejoice in that. But I also wish for those old times of my quiet grandma in my house, sewing with mom, going shopping with us, doing her quiet laugh. Those have been memories only for years, but now they are Memories only. That's hard to swallow.

I was blessed with two amazing grandmas, more different than alike, but equally loved and valued for their own strengths. A girl can't ask for more than that, even though she might like to.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

So it goes

One of the greatest authors of the 20th century is Kurt Vonnegut. That's perhaps not earth shattering information to the more literary among the world, but whatever. It's true. Vonnegut speaks to me because he so seamlessly merges cynicism and frustration with an underlying humor and almost-but-not-quite hope. It's a position I find myself in, and I appreciate someone who can articulate what I'm not clever enough to do myself.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut writes a semi-fictional account of his time as German POW in WWII. He was in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city into oblivion, killing thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut was profoundly impacted by this, and it shows not in hostility but in wry observation toward both his allies and his enemies for creating such a situation.

The most famous line from the book is repeated throughout after Vonnegut describes particularly absurd, inhumane, and horrifying situations in the plot or about humanity more generally: "And so it goes."

"And so it goes." This simple sentence could follow the paragraphs that are Summer 2011. If I were writing my biography, I would write about the last two years, and the last few months most particularly, with plenty of "And so it goes." My best friend, Amy, who has always been the most loyal, compassionate and encouraging person outside my parents, lost her battle to cancer on July 5.

She fought for two years. She got clean remission reports, only to find more ravaging cancer a few months later. She would be encouraged, then collapse into despair. She would find hope only to have it pulled from under her feet. She was Optimism to my Pessimism, but in our last conversation she told me I had been right all along and my heart shattered. She had a wonderful husband--one of the best--and three delightful and sweet children. Everything to live for.

And so it goes.

I know for certain that Amy wants me to live the life she saw for me. I know she wants me to be happy, to feel joy, to embrace life. I want that, too. But I want that with her around. I want to tell her about all that. I want to be an old lady with her so we can laugh about all the dumb stuff we thought about life in our 30s. I don't want to see her only in dreams and in clouds, and I don't want to only hear her voice in emails and the wind and in the sounds of cicadas that remind me of her farm.

And so it goes.

I know that life is always a gamble. I know that none of us have control over our time of death. I know cancer has struck many other wonderful people who also lost their battles. I know some of them. I know that it's better to live 34 powerful and engaged years than 100 miserable or careless ones. I know that I should be grateful I had the chance to grow up with her, to become an adult with her. But that's not enough.

And so it goes.

And so I go. Without my sister friend. Without my email inbox filled with loving shoves and pointed observations and uncomfortable insights whose validities are undeniable. I go on, with the wind, the cicadas, the clouds, and the dreams. I grow older with an empty chair, and an empty spot in my heart. With a silence that will never again be filled with her voice.

It shouldn't go like this.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So it begins

Next week marks the beginning of my sixth semester as a professor. Below are some funny things that have happened in my classroom over the years both at my current university and as a TA in grad school.

1) Student spelling errors are always a treat, especially when MS Word either doesn't catch the mistake or corrects inappropriately. I often have students analyze examples from the media and their real lives to be sure they connect course material with their lived experiences. Once, a young lady was applying a friendship theory to Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy. She meant to say that Lucy would always have her Ethel to rely on, but what she wrote was, "Of course, Lucy would always have her ether." A very different kind of dependence.

2) I assigned people into pairs to work on a small in-class discussion. That day there was an odd number of students present, so I looked at the pair the last extra person was sitting nearest and said, "Why don't you all just have a three-way?"  The whole room looked at me with wide eyes until it sank in what I said. As it dawned on me, I added, "Well. That didn't come out well, did it?"  They all laughed, we moved on, and I learned to be more careful in how I speak. I also learned early on it's better to be laughed with than at. They respect you more if you can laugh at yourself.

3) A student was presenting on the issue of gay and lesbian teachers and parental fears of their children being "indoctrinated." Only she said, "Parents are afraid gay and lesbian teachers will rub off on their children." I am not a mature person, but it didn't help that a few of the other students giggled, too. The student who said it was very smart and kind, and she took it in stride. But I had a hard time controlling myself for awhile.

4) I was teaching a freshman public speaking class early on in my time at my current school. I had a little metal tin that I passed around with numbers so that they were randomly assigned a date and order for giving their speeches. The first time I did this during the semester, I explained the process and then started walking around for them to draw their number. I got to one girl, who apparently hadn't been paying attention to my instructions. I put the metal tin in front of her, and she got a very sheepish look on her face as she reached into her mouth for her gum. She thought I was busting her for gum in the classroom. So cute. I said, "No. You can have gum. That's okay. I just need you to draw a number for your speech." Then she turned from sheepish to embarrassed.

5) In another speech class, a student was clearly wildly under-prepared for his speech on soccer. He was nervous and fidgety the whole time. He got to the part on the importance of proper handling of balls, which would be hard to say under the best of circumstances when you're an 18-year-old boy (or an immature teacher). Under these less ideal circumstances, even harder. He paused. Everyone looked up. He smirked. Then he snickered. Then he desperately fought to regain his composure. Then I had to look down and shake quietly with laughter while he continued on.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my job, and the responsibility, and the students who just don't care. But really. How amazing is it all, really? There are lots of funny, fascinating, and educational opportunities even for teachers. So, I will go on, head into this semester hoping for more funny than frustrating.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Persistence of Violence

Excuse me while I jump on the bandwagon here.

The situation in Tuscon is a tragedy, and now we have to wait to figure out what exactly went on and why this person chose to harm a Congressperson. What I won't be a part of, in the angst, is an overly simplified partisan attack on speech.

On one hand, I absolutely understand the concern being hoisted on the Sarah Palin target ad, the call to violent revolution by the Tea Partiers, the Nevada politician's call for a "second amendment solution," the Glenn Beck wild conspiracy, the rage-filled response to the health care bill last year, the insinuation that Obama is a Muslim/not a citizen/Hitler. Currently, it seems that the Far Right is focused on a self-righteous crusade using violent and angry rhetoric. All of those things have consequences, and that consequence may be that it pushes already imbalanced people over the edge. It doesn't make the Conservatives responsible directly, but it does give them secondary responsibility for their words and actions.


On the other hand, there's no way that I (as a more liberal leaning person) can allow the pundits on my side of the aisle to wash their hands of the whole thing. Keith Olbermann (who annoys the holy bejeezus out of me) calls people "The Worst Person in the World" on every show. Bill Maher antagonizes the Right with spiteful words and a condescending air. I hear liberal friends and pundits too readily dismiss Conservatives and Christians as mouth-breathing hate mongers. None of these, in my opinion, rise to the level of hate I see and hear from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, but they certainly aren't blameless or innocent. Just as above, these comments don't mean liberals have direct responsibility for the actions of people like yesterday's shooter...but, again, it does give them some secondary responsibility.

Rumors surrounding yesterday's assassin have him reading the left-wing The Communist Manifesto as well as the right-wing Mein Kampf. Clearly this guy isn't the simple "mouth-breathing" conservative that some have insinuated he is. Regardless, that doesn't mean the current political rhetoric of violence and hate haven't impacted his already screwed up mind. Because what really matters here is that we've created a partisan divide that dehumanizes the opposition, whichever side you're on. Different opinions are too often seen as fundamental flaws, implications of an evil or ill-intentioned heart, as reason to hate. We're all guilty of buying into this, myself included, I admit. A side effect of this is that we also tend to see ceding a point as weakness, because it implies that we might agree with something evil or vile. When we paint the opposition as evil or the enemy, we paint ourselves into a very dangerous, very explosive corner. We eliminate our ability to reason and find consensus and unity...on anything.

And there's more! Beyond the political rhetoric, we live in a culture that values and prizes violence, and to think that has no effect on society is foolish. Our movie rating system is quick to slap an R on a movie with a sex scene or a few too many "f words," but more lenient when it comes to torture, explosions, gunfire, and physical assault. Our network television shows have to limit their vocabulary and sex scenes, but I've seen terrible and deeply offensive acts of violence on nearly every night that I've flipped through. Law enforcement shows, hospital shows, action dramas--all of them are free to show blood, murder, and attacks.  Similarly, our video games are now based on murdering "the bad guys," whoever that might be. Our music often glorifies violent acts, too.

Like the political rhetoric, none of these media portrayals of violence, or their creators and distributors, are directly responsible for the violent acts that occur in our society. But, once more, they bear some indirect responsibility through their glorification of violence and the sheer brutality that an imbalanced person might glom onto.

As a society, we need to stop seeing acts of violence like yesterday's attack as exceptions to the rule. We can no longer afford to write them off as isolated incidents of crazy or unstable persons. We are creating monsters through the violent and demeaning undertones of the discourses we use and surround ourselves with. We are a poisoned culture. We are a particularly violent society. And the sooner we connect the dots between our words/entertainment and the violence that we see on the news, the sooner we can work toward reducing these non-isolated events. We're all guilty.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Academic Me

I taught a course in the fall on the idea that what we know to be true and real is a product of our time and place. What we taken for granted about ourselves, and the world in which we swim, is a product of our upbringing, our experiences, our cultural norms and rules. The world isn't made up of Truth, some universal, mandated Has To Be This Way reality. Instead it is made up of the truths of the moment and the truths of the prior moments.

I teach my students that who they are has some grounding in their genetics and psychology, but that our enactment of our psychological makeup is a product of how those impulses have been cultivated through our relationships and interactions in a world of rules and norms. For example, I believe I am genetically predisposed to my high levels of anxiety...there's a thread in the family that's hard to ignore. However, because I live in 2011, that's seen as just part of who I am. If I had lived in 1911 or 1811, who knows? As a woman, I might have been seen as hysterical with the common curse of feminine frailty and emotional weakness. As a result, back then I would never have been able to channel an of that anxious energy into education or other diversions. I might have become more recluse, more frail and pitiable because society told me that is who I was and that was what I deserve. I would have been Dena, but a very different Dena--the same genetics with a very different lived experience.

Anyway, what this leads to is that I've been thinking about my own hypocrisy. What I teach my students is that there is no Truth, no Inevitable. We live in a culture, we shape our own and others' lived experience through our interactions. Yet, in my own mind, I am somehow forever doomed to unhappiness. I am a I am a Failure. I am an unchangeable force of pessimism. It's just Who I Am.

But how can that be when I'm such an advocate for the lack of such a Truth? I can point, of course, to the fact that every time I've tried to be more positive I fail and go right back to pessimism and unhappiness. But do those failures to overcome signify a Truth of an inevitable future of unhappiness? I also point to the fact that a majority of my daily interactions in my relationships are supportive and should lead me to a positive self-image, but here I am otherwise. In my head, this is proof of the Conclusive Evidence of my own permanent rut.

But can I really be an honest professor, can I really teach my students about the social construction of realities, when I don't practice this in my daily life? How can I become a more honest professor by taking on my philosophy to conquer my own demons? My tendency is always to use theory and philosophy to think through my opinions and understanding of the world. Can I do the same to think through myself and my understanding of myself? Can I do a research study on myself? Review the "literature" on my own mental health, gather the data of my experiences, analyze it within a theoretical--social constructionist--framework and come to some improved understanding through careful analysis?

Is the answer to my problem the research process? And further, can I get tenure on that?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


There's hope for me. It's small. It's fleeting, but it's there.

Yesterday I had a meeting that I was dreading, and I knew I was the cause of dread for another person at the meeting. I hate confrontation most of the time (Delta Airlines being an exception to the rule), but being an adult and a professional means that I sometimes have to have difficult conversations. Yesterday was definitely in that category. I'm blessed to have a department chair who is my total advocate and always goes beyond the call of duty to help me.

So, as I was sitting in my office beforehand, I was experiencing that old heart racing, stomach churning, shaking feeling. And the thought flew through my head and onto my Facebook status before I even had time to fully reflect on it: "So far in my life, I have got through everything that has seemed overwhelming and scary. This day will be no different."

What was that? Optimism? Is there some aquifer of positivity that lives way down deep in the core of me, waiting to be discovered? Given my general emotional state right now, that was profoundly unexpected, but it really worked. I felt my heart rate slow and my shaking reduce. I went into the meeting still nervous, but with an overall calmer feeling than I expected. When the meeting began, I opened it with (I think) grace and a sense of ease. And it all went fine. I got through it, just as unexpectedly predicted. 

So there you go. I may not be a lost cause after all.