Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thoughts on Marriage: Same-sex and Otherwise

I have been married three times.  Actually four, if you count the illegal one.

My first was to a guy I met when I was twenty.  We married two years later.  I don't know why I needed to grow up so fast.  Maybe it was so I could reverse age.  (I do feel younger now than I did then!)

My second was the illegal one.  We couldn't marry legally because we were both women.  But in February 2004, the city of San Francisco announced it was giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  So we high-tailed it to city hall and married on the spot. Six months later we were among 4,000 couples to have our marriage ruled void by the Supreme Court of California.

That didn't feel too good.

But then, a few years later, same-sex marriage was ruled legal in California.  So we got hitched again.  Legalization was short-lived.  Six months later, Prop 8 passed and same-sex marriage again became illegal.  But our marriage--along with about 100,000 others--was kept in tact.  Talk about weird: some same-sex couples remained married while others were banned from getting married.

It was then obvious to me that there was an irreversible crack in the system.  "Everything has a crack in it, that's how the light gets in," Leonard Cohen once wrote.  In light of all these rulings, and in light of what was happening in other states (and countries), and in light of more and more same-sex couples and their families talking about how marriage related to their life experiences, everyone's awareness seemed to be expanding. 

In direct proportion to that growth, my relationship was dying.  We'd been together for fifteen years, but just six months after our legal marriage, we were falling apart.  Marriage Equality for us now meant Divorce Equality.  Kinky Friedman put it best when he said:  "I support gay marriage.  I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us."

We went through the usual ugly things peoplego through when they get divorced. And then I experienced what a lot of people do after a dark night of the soul:  A rebirth.  A transformation.  You know:  Ashes, Phoenix.  I have forgiven myself and all involved.  I've let it go.  I can now see how much the experience helped me grow.  It wasn't easy to get here, but it's a fabulous place to be.

My fourth marriage?  It happened last year.  I was very aware when Dave and I decided to get married that our genders made it possible. I also thought about how once he and I got married, no one else could take it away.

On the other hand, it was also clear to me what direction history was headed in.  After all, it wasn't until 1967 that the ban on interracial marriage--still existent in 16 states--was overturned by the Supreme Court.  And it wasn't long ago that husbands weren't allowed in the delivery room.  (Some men handcuffed themselves to their wives when they went into labor.)  Hell, in the scope of time, it wasn't very long ago that Americans could own other human beings because their skin was the color of our current President. 

So no matter what the Supreme Court rules, now that it's begun deliberations on the issue, I have no doubt same-sex marriage will, one day, be as much a no-brainer here as it in in Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain, among other countries. (UPDATE: June 26, 2015: Supreme Court gives a thumb's up to marriage equality!)

But back to me.  Some people thought I was crazy to re-marry.  Really?  Get married again, after what you went through?

And my answer:  Yes.  What good is growing if you don't get to embrace what you've learned?   The reality is that we change and grow.  And sometimes we can do that within the boundaries of our marriages, and sometimes we can't.

Obviously, there's something about being married that I like.  My life has been enriched by each relationship I've had.  I can see now that marriage is not a panacea.  I get so much joy out of creating a world with Dave.  I'm grateful we both bring to this marriage a lot of life experience and inner work.  But marriage does not bring happiness.  I bring my happiness to it. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Affecting Eternity: Thoughts Upon Leaving Teaching

Teachers affect eternity.  They never know where their influence ends.  - Henry Adams


When I was student teaching high school in the mid 1980s, a student asked me to the prom.   That's how young I was.  (I told him he had to wrap his mind around the fact that I was his teacher.)


When I was student teaching in a middle school, I was so baffled about how to fill up a 50-minute class session that I read aloud all of Call of the Wild to the students.  That took at least a week.  (Who knew one day my sister would marry Jack London's great-grandson?)


When I was teaching in Japan and my six little charges couldn't sit still another minute, I'd do one of two things:  1) Turn on Madonna's "Holiday" and dance with the kiddies around the room, sing-shouting the lyrics together, or 2) Take out a long rope, tell each kid to hold onto one of the knots interspersed down the length of the rope, and then take them on the three-block walk to a convenience store where each could pick out one snack item, as long as they asked for it in English.


"I aspire to try to be a teacher to my young fans who feel just like I felt when I was younger.  I just felt like a freak.  ... I want to free them of their fears and make them feel that they can make their own space in the world." - Lady Gaga

In one of my frosh comp classes, students were writing about important events in their lives.  One guy wrote about going to a Lada Gaga "Monster's Ball" concert wearing exactly what he wanted to:  a sparkly blue dress.  He was scared at first, but then dancing to her music made him feel more and more brave until he felt, bursting with happiness, that he was one of her "little monsters."


In my Queer Arts course, one girl in the class talked about how she came out as a lesbian as a sophomore in high school, and then was elected homecoming queen her senior year.  We loved looking at her yearbook pictures of homecoming:  the homecoming queen, escorted by her girlfriend.


Last August, on the first day of the semester, I checked my phone during class break.  My sister had called to tell me my mom had passed away.  I knew it was coming.  Mom had Alzheimer's and hadn't spoken in over a year.  Two days prior, I'd spent the day with her.  Lying next to her on her bed, I massaged her, I played Hawaiian music (her favorite), and I talked to her about all my good memories of my childhood.  I also told her the new semester was starting.  A retired school nurse and writer, she liked that we had in common educating and writing.  Perhaps that's why, after the break, I finished teaching my class.  I was kind of numb but I couldn't think of what else to do.  I didn't have my car with me (I'd taken the bus to work), and Mom was in good hands with my sisters 45 minutes away.  I told my T.A.--a graduate student--what had happened, just in case I needed to step out.  I made it through the rest of class.  Afterward, my T.A. said, "I'm so sorry about your Mom, Kate."  I looked at his young face and thought about how sweet he was, and how being in your twenties is a different animal than being in your 40's.  Then he said, "I understand what you're going through.  I lost my mom when I was ten."  As we walked across campus, he told me the story of her illness, of his taking care of her.  What a gift he gave me that day--a reminder that we all have losses in our lives, and that some of us have our mothers longer than others. 


"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." - A. Einstein

My mentor Gabriele Rico--the woman who sparked a flame in me for teaching, for writing, for poetry--died last week.  Everything I do is "stitched with her color."  My office is in the building where hers used to be.  I often feel her presence in that building, and in the classrooms where I teach.  Especially when I'm having my students do clustering or re-creation to awaken their inner geniuses. Gabriele believed everyone had powerful potential.  Her life was devoted to inspiring people to let their unique creativity shine. 


I'm retiring from teaching this year.  It feels like such a fitting time.  Recently I came across this "Love Letters" website and thought about how I would use it in a writing class.  This is how my mind has worked for years:  everything I encounter gets sifted through the how might students respond to this filter.  I sent an email to a group of my teacher friends telling them my ideas and giving them the link, and several wrote back enthusiastic about this new teaching idea.  One wrote:  "Oh Kate, you'll never stop teaching, a very good thing."


During my first year of teaching high school, I saw a former English professor of mine who had been so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Hemingway and Fitzgerald that I couldn't help but fall in love with them.  In fact, I had just taught "Hills Like White Elephants" and felt like I knew how to hook students into the story because of his teaching.  I had an impulse to run up and say something, but I wavered.  And then I thought, what the hell and did it.  I could tell it took him a minute to remember me.  And then I told him he'd had a big influence on me, which had enriched my teaching.  To my surprise, his eyes misted.  Then he said:  "Well, this is interesting timing.  I was just going to sign my retirement papers.  And before you stopped me what was going through my mind was this:  I wonder if what I've done all these years has really mattered."


Here's an email I received last week from a former student:  I hope you remember me. ... I haven't seen you in quite some time, so I would like to offer my congratulations, as I know you were recently married! ... I am thrilled for you! Kate, you may not realize, but you have taught me so much about what it looks like to be an individual, to be unique, and to be comfortable in my own skin. My growing process could not possibly have been complete without your encouragement along the way, so thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Going Homeless

Make a home for yourself inside your own head.  You'll find what you need to furnish it--memory, friends, love of learning, and other such things.  That way it will go with you wherever you journey. - Tad Williams

In two months, we will be homeless.  Voluntarily.

In two months, we are going to put all of our stuff in storage and live for at least a year without a home.

Walking Santa Cruz beaches is a divine experience.
Or, I should say, a house.  We’ll never be without a home.  Home isn’t a dwelling.  Home is where your heart is, as they say.  It’s, as Helen Rowland says, “any four walls that enclose the right person.”

Apparently Dave and I are the right person.  

What has prompted our decision is this:  the condo we rent is going up for sale.  

When we got the news, a zillion possibilities flew through my mind:  We could try to find a way to buy a place right now.  We could immediately rent another place.  But would that be in our beloved Santa Cruz?  After all, I’m retiring in May.  We could live anywhere.  Where to set down our roots?  Do we need to set down our roots?

Funny how the mind works.  We were in the car, driving up to Tahoe, when we got the call.   We weren’t especially surprised.  Our lease is up, and we knew the place had been on the market before we moved in.  We were okay with whatever was to come.

But still, suddenly it felt like my skin didn’t fit quite right.  My mind went on overdrive.  A mass of mixed feeling swept through me.  I felt dizzy.  A little sad.  A tinge of scared.  Nostalgic for our lovely little redwood pad, nicknamed The Love Nest, that’s so close to our favorite beach.  I suddenly got all clingy. 

I forgot for a moment that every single time big change has occurred in my life, it has led to something even more amazing.  Something I couldn’t have imagined before.  Some huge expansion of what life can be.

Road to Tahoe
It was the perfect time to get the news.  We were in the car, with nothing to do but watch the road unfold beneath the crystalline blue sky.  We began to talk.  We played with possible scenarios, from moving in with a friend who wants to start a communal living situation, to moving down south, to traveling.  As we explored the possibilities, I paid close attention to my feelings.  When we touched on something that made me feel good, that piqued my excitement just a little, I lingered there.  Milked it.  Folded and unfolded it like an elaborate origami.

It’s no secret that Dave and I love to travel.  That we love to spend extended time in places to experience versions of life.  That we love to dive deeply into our relationships with friends by spending time together.  That we love to meet new people. 

A recent adventure took us to Grand Turk

And in the three-plus years we’ve been together, each journey seems to take us to a deeper level.  Each trip extends our sense of what it means to move through the world.  It’s as though travel has become not a hobby, not separate from the “real world.”  We're now taking literally the notion that life is a journey.  Each trip, each travel adventure, is life.

As Dave says, this moment is what we’ve been training for.  In some ways, this feels like the next logical step.  Not homeless but house-free.  Taking home with us wherever we go on our journey.

We met Widi and Karen in Alaska, and plan to visit them in Chennai, India.

So in two months we will be off exploring the world.  On the possible agenda are:  

·     places we’ve never been where friends have invited us to come stay (Australia, India, Hong Kong)
·     places we’ve always wanted to go (Paris, Amsterdam, Santorini, Corfu)
·     a place where we can spend a full winter in the snow (Tahoe or Utah)
·     places we know well and would love to hang out in because we have friends and family who live there (Hawaii, L.A., San Diego, Cape Cod).

As we talked in the car, we enjoyed being enveloped in creative possibilities.  I felt a kind of nervous excitement—like you feel on a roller coaster—sweep through me.  So then it felt like time just sit back, let it all soak in, and watch the road unfold.  We put on some music, and the song “Something New” by Hot Buttered Rum filled the car:

"We could fall away from here
But I have faith that the footholds will appear…
There’s not a force in this world, any place any time,
like the human soul on fire.”

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Trip of a Lifetime

Our family, circa 1990

I'd been wanting to write about this for quite some time, and being invited to read at The Celebration of the Muse prompted me to do so.  It was a joy to share the stage with twenty local women writers.  The evening was a display of heart and talent.

The poem is about my parents.  It's about angels.  It's about dying as a transformation.  My mom and my dad each had their own path--and they continue on their own journeys. 

The Trip of a Lifetime


My dad has become much more spiritual

since he’s become a spirit.  Maybe his blue eyes

and handlebar mustache signaled he always had angel

potential.  He’d been gone only three months

when, as I sat at the computer, he—

I don’t know how else to put this—

came over for a visit.  My body filled with

a warmth I recognized as him.  My fingertips

froze on the keyboard.  I resisted saying,

“Hi Dad!” because I worried he’d

evaporate if I spoke or moved.  A

softening cupped my heart.  He spoke

without language, filling me with this message:

Everything’s fine.  Fine as in whole, as in

flawless.  Fine as in don’t worry—as in lovely

and pure.  As fine as the sand on an endless beach

that spreads toward the eternal horizon. 

A few days before he died, he said if the afterworld

was real, he’d find a way to pinch me. 

This wasn’t a pinch, though.  Maybe spirits

don’t have fingers.  I remember Dad’s fingers,

thick fingertip pads that fumbled as he

turned newspaper pages.  Yet he grasped a hammer

so resolutely that he built redwood decks in record time,

laid down railroad ties and hauled thousands of

buckets of firewood.  He’d always slide

his ring back on after his shower, before dinner.


A week after the funeral, Mom and I found

Dad’s wedding band in a drawer

next to the bed, gold and round as a tiny halo. 

“Toss it,” Mom said.  All afternoon she’d been saying

“toss this, toss that” about most of Dad’s things. 

The geriatric psychologist asked my mom:

“In what way are a rose and a tulip alike?”

 Mom said:  “They are not alike.”

He said:  “How are a watch and a ruler alike?”

She said:  “They both measure time.”

“A bike and a train?”

“They are both machinery.”

“A corkscrew and a hammer?”

“I don’t know.”

He asked:  “What would you do if there was a fire in your house?”

She answered:  “I’d close and lock the doors.”

“Patient described as showing a change in cognitive status. Her husband of 48 years passed away two months ago.  She worked as a school nurse for many years but doesn’t recall when she retired.  Patient is a poor historian.”


The doctor wrote:  “Patient is a poor historian.”

Pablo Neruda wrote:   “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” 


Hospice literature says:

“One week before death,

the average patient

still has

a 40% chance

of living.”

It says:

“There is no medical definition

of terminal.”

It says:

“There is no medical definition

of  dying.”


The next time Dad popped in for a visit

I was jogging through my neighborhood. 

“Wow,” he said without words, “Look, look,

look, look, look!”  As my feet metronomed

on the pavement, the colors brightened.  And I saw

through new eyes the crystalline winter day,

the razor-sharp infinite blue of the sky, and the

preposterous fuchsia blossoms as unabashed as the sex of

the world.  Mom gave me the same gift once:

a ViewMaster in my Christmas stocking. 

I’d spent hours peering in,

atingle at the Wonders of the World in 3D—

azure seas and golden windows, lush veils and drapes

and rushing waterfalls—places my mother dreamed of.


Mom began to leave long before she died.

Her language left word by word

as though she was packing a suitcase.

She hadn’t spoken in almost a year.

But when I showed her my engagement ring—

sapphire blue like my father’s eyes—

she reached out and touched my face. 

She doesn’t visit.  I can still feel the release

of her last exhalation, like the lift of a plane.

She’s off on the trip of a lifetime.


For more about my mom:

For more about my dad: