Monday, June 11, 2018

Summer Reading: or, My Daughter's Modeling Gig, with Auschwitz Survivor, Henri Landwirth

As with many parents, I have always tried to let my daughter know that I'll listen to her wishes. In keeping with this, I submitted her photograph to a modeling agency when, at age 7, she said she wanted to be a model. By sending one photo I'd taken of her at Niagara Falls, I felt I was keeping my promise while also not being quite so dogged about it as to lead anyone to think I actually wanted this path for her.


Within two months of submitting the photograph, I got a call. Someone wanted her to pose for a statue. Yes, fully clothed, holding a stuffed animal, the agent replied. As a poet and artist, I felt this was as good a modeling job as I could wish for. I accompanied her to the location where I was informed of the nature of the assignment: she would hold her teddy bear (named Oatmeal) and smile at a man. The man was Henri Landwirth. While a photographer took pictures for the sculptor to use, Mr. Landwirth's assistant told me his boss's story of how as a teenager he had been in Auschwitz.  My daughter's first (and so far only) modeling job now had taken on a meaning deeper than I could possibly have imagined. The statue was to commemorate his leadership in developing a Disney-adjacent-though-little-known amusement park for terminally ill and developmentally disabled children, entitled Give Kids the World. It would be life-sized, bronze, and a permanent part of the park. 

 

I read Mr. Landwirth's books, which he gave to me as a gift. In Auschwitz, he writes, his engineering skills allowed him to stay alive while building rockets for the Germans. As part of the Resistance within the camp, he miscalibrated rocket after rocket at degrees so miniscule no one would notice until the missiles simply failed. Because of his work, he discovered tablets for his typhoid fever under his pillow when he fell ill.

Upon D-Day, the guards given the command to execute the last of the Jews simply opened the gates, as though weary from killing, pointed toward Belgium and said, "Run." Henri ran. At one point he encountered a nazi soldier on his path beside a lake. He felt he could kill the soldier, or he could pass by him, and in the feeling he was aware that each choice would shape the rest of his life in entirely divergent ways. He passed the soldier and continued to Belgium.


Henri's first job in the United States was as in reception at one of the first Holiday Inns in Orlando. As German engineers collaborated with American ones in more rocket-making, Henri once had to deliver "more towels" to one of the hoodwinked yet torturous commandantes from Auschwitz, and did so.


Soon, Henri bought his own hotel, as the space race surged, and as Disney World emerged on the Florida inland, soon Henri owned several. He hosted astronauts and film stars. These guests became the benefactors of Henri's dream of a universally designed amusement park for children whose medical conditions prevented them from enjoying Disney World. Disney characters, Jonas Brothers (my daughter's eyes widened), and all the free ice cream anyone can eat all awaited the guests at Henri's park, all of whom received, with their families, free travel, free accommodation, free admission, and free food, all paid for by movie stars and astronauts.

My daughter's summer reading this year is Night by Elie Wiesel.  When she told me, I went to my antique letter-writing desk to retrieve the one book that always stands in one of the compartments. The desk itself belonged to my grand-father when he lived in China, a British surgeon attending the health of miners in a British mine. When the Japanese seized their belongings, servants hid the desk with other fine pieces in a secret room below the basement of their house in Tientsin's  (now Tianjin) British concession. After my grandparents were freed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the internment camp in Weishen (now Weifang), the servants shipped the antiques to Canada. From the compartment, I pull my beloved copy of Night and hand it to her. 


We worry together that summer reading is so often material that is most needed to be read in a community, with witness and guidance. Instead, our children last summer read They Killed My Father First by Loung Ung with no one to ask questions to, no one to hold space for the horror, the real meaning of horror. Worse, they read it with awareness that there would be a reading quiz to test to make sure they'd "done it" rather than a colloquium for mission statements, witness-bearing, a teach-in. 

My daughter announced this summer's selection with the complaint that summer reading is so sad all the time. I consider this. So sad all the time. The 30-years-of-experience teacher in me recognizes that the safer books are taught in the syllabus while the memoirs of genocide are placed outside the school year, presented as the one school thing children do in the off-months. For my daughter, and many of her friends, books like this should be the syllabus. The questions that emerge from them should be school. She recognizes quite clearly that while we make the space to laugh together and enjoy our friends, the world is sad all the time and these stories don't lie to us. But their placement in the reading calendar does.

My daughter knows about the children being snatched from their parents and daycares and detained in cages in abandoned Wal-marts and unmarked spaces. She knows the world she lives in and understands that "summer camp," "internment camp," and "death camp" are three very different things and all three are occurring in her world right now, somewhere, maybe here. 

When I hand her my beloved and beaten copy of Night, I imagine her face as she will read, one rainy afternoon at camp, about Juliek and his violin, about the long walk in the snow, about that drink of water toward the end. I realize I can't let her read it alone. I say it: "Don't read this book alone at camp. Let's read this out loud to each other this weekend or next week. My darling, this book holds a story that broke open a silence, and I don't want you to be alone when it breaks in you." All the English teacher me sort of startles her with intensity. I recognize the look as that of my students as they thought, "Wow, Ms. Hope is a bit crazy." I tell her, "This is about the camp that Henri was in." I remind her of the numbers on his wrist, and the meaning of her first modeling gig expands. 

I tell her, "I love this book with my whole heart."

I discovered while writing this and gathering the photos here, that Henri Landwirth died in April of this year, just over a month ago. He lived to be 91. I haven't told my daughter yet, and I'm having trouble accepting for myself the death of man who actually did give kids the world, a world that he as a child was robbed of, a world so many of us still seek to save. At the very least: to remember.


And I'll keep my promise to her to read Night again beside her. There are books in the world that, just as there are experiences that cannot be endured without a witness, should not be read alone. If Elie Wiesel taught me anything, if meeting Henri taught me anything, it is to give what I can. In the case of reading Night, it is to hold the words with my daughter, because they are too heavy, for her, for anyone, to hold by herself. And as I read, I'll hold up the words in my heart for not only my child, for all the children who are missing tonight, for all the children in the world.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Suicide Push



In the two days that presented us with celebrity suicides, I have been quiet. I saw the posts and acknowledged the tragedies. The fame and fortune of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain--and also the charm each possessed--nestled in with the personal notes from friends and relatives to script fragments of stories together that will never be whole. Like the poems of Sappho salvaged from ancient ruins, this is all we are left with. I had nothing to say, and I'm often one who can say something.



My silence indicated to me that it wasn't a reflection of not feeling anything or not having anything to contribute to the communal grieving and raising of awareness. It indicated that there was a block in me. I was blocking the grief and even the witness.

Back in the 1990s, I was engaged to Tom Andrews, the beautiful poet. The story I tell most often about this fait-incomplit of an engagement is that at his memorial service a friend of his turned around in his chair and asked me if I was "one of the fiancées." Sure enough, there were five of us there, including the one on whose wedding day Tom had slipped into a coma that would turn into his death from a rare blood disease. Tom was a hemophiliac, but he did not die of hemophilia, a fact that rather fit tidily in his own self-recognized narrative of having been the one that beat the odds repeatedly, and this narrative he celebrates in the collection The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle and later in Random Symmetries and stunning medical narrative, The Codeine Diary. He had been one of the 2% of people who had received blood transfusions and survived when the blood supply was discovered to carry HIV.

When his best friend, who was going to be Tom's best man perhaps at all his almost-weddings, called to tell me he had died, the first thought through my mind was "he finally did it." I didn't mean he'd finally had a fatal bleed. I meant he'd finally succeeded at suicide. I don't tell the story of Tom's suicide attempt because the "five fiancées" story is such a winner, complete with all of us being seated together at the reception and his father's commenting "my son had such great taste in women." That story is a killer. It's the other story, the one I don't tell, that kills me.

The story I can hardly bring myself to tell is the one of how he broke off our engagement. Abruptly. We had bought a house together and had just adopted a puppy. We had rented a villa in Tuscany for the honeymoon, and Tom had bought me a grand piano as a wedding present. There were pieces in place that looked to be a wonderful picture. One afternoon I was listing off prices for various flooring options for the new house when he told me blankly, "I can't do it."

"Parquet?" I asked. "Well, we can go with the berber."
"Laura, I'm not talking about flooring."

I didn't fight. I dislike scenes and have long known I'm far too good at them and that my words can eviscerate when set loose with anger. I told him I'd take the puppy, and I loaded up my truck with the items I'd moved into our house months before. He was resolved that he didn't want to marry me. I was resolved that I didn't want to convince him. If he changed his mind, he'd call me back to him after a time. Why risk ruining everything with words now? I drove east over the Ohio, stoppping every few hours to let myself and the puppy pee.

I found out weeks later from our best man that the day I left, Tom had driven out to the new house and attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car, sealed it with duct-tape then fed it through a slightly opened window and duct-taped all open air out. A neighbor had come by to meet the "new couple" who'd bought the place. Tom was unconscious and rushed to the hospital then admitted into psychiatric care.

I had been hating him the whole time, telling myself with every day that he didn't call me that Wow I really should have let him have it.

After hearing what had happened, I wondered if I had expressed my feelings, if maybe I'd been harsh, if maybe I had done what I tried hard not to do and said something that had driven him over the edge.

Two years later he was seated next to me on an airplane, a 6 a.m. flight from Cincinatti to Asheville. I was returning from a visit with friends in L.A. He was arriving to teach creative writing at the school where we'd met. The chances of our being placed side by side astonished us both enough to over-ride any awkwardness. I felt his arm's strength through his leather jacket. He'd put on weight. He was happy, in love with a woman in Athens, Greece. They were engaged.

We met for a walk with "our" now full-grown puppy, Zoe. He told me that he had gone off his medication when we were together because "I was finally happy." He had told me shortly after we'd met that he was a "citizen of Prozac nation" and was on other anti-depressants. He now told me he'd gone off them months before breaking up with me--around the time we visited friends in frozen Minneapolis I thought as I pieced the narrative together, remembering I'd driven home in Spring. In short, he said, I hadn't stood a chance against the depression that was swallowing him. He was saying it wasn't me.

A few months later I got the call from our best man: he was dead. The blood disease he must not have known was emerging when we walked had taken him. It was his second death, I felt. If not his third, if you count the near-miss on the infected blood supply. I thought about how maybe he had willed his own death, having failed at suicide years before. I caught myself. He was dead. I had to grieve him, not understand him. Months later at his memorial, I was surrounded by his other fiancées. Again, I had to grieve him, not understand him.

He is the boyfriend my mom and step-father agree was the One. Charming, brilliant, hilarious, kind, blessed with excellent social skills and capable of long, meandering, insightful conversations. I remind them: Bipolar. Off-meds.

What would have been enough, I wonder when I allow myself to wonder.
He was smiling and waving at me as I drove away. Smiling and waving. He was pushing me out of his life so he could end it. Smiling and waving. Making room. And rather than being able to tell me and express his fear of what he might do to himself, the suicide was already in control. The suicide had seized him weeks or months before. It saw me as its enemy, something in the way. Maybe before the new house or the puppy, and he had been fighting back against it with these tokens of a life we'd create together. But he had not won. Smiling and waving.

The suicide was already there. In our lives. In our bed. In our story.

My silence at the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are because of this. I think about the people surrounding them. I think about the urgency with which we are told to reach out, to support, to be there for each other and know from my experience that that wasn't what it was about. The scariest thing in the whole world to me is that there wasn't a single ask. Not a single request that I sit and listen. No request for help and no sign of suicide that would happen that same day. There was a wedding gown, a puppy, a villa in Tuscany. These were the signs of suicide for Tom.

This is my story of Tom.
You can see why the other story I often tell is the favored one.

This one is just too terrifying.




Tuesday, June 05, 2018

"We Don't Give Bad News On Friday"

Thank you, friends, for asking about my trip yesterday to Hope Breast Cancer Center. It is timely that this happened as I was gazing at a deadline for a grant for a conference on Narrative Healthcare--because these past three days have been vexed by an experience that shows me just how badly we need narrative training for doctors. In the end: I'm fine. It is, as I suspected an infected spider bite or an infected blister from a Canon camera strap. Because some bites can be very poisonous, I went to a GP on Friday afternoon to get some nice antibiotics so I didn't slip into a coma in my sleep as the worst stories go. I left with a worse worst story.


My regular GP wasn't available so I went to another. Seeing the infected bite, she was taken aback and immediately said it could be inflammatory breast cancer then left the room to make an appointment for ultrasound and mammography, leaving me there with my phone which I immediately googled IBC on: presents at stage IIIb, highly aggressive, rare, basically really hard to treat. Doctor came back into the room and was surprised I was crying, "Oh, you're crying." She handed me an appointment sheet for Monday. In three days. She said it might not be cancer and left. As I drove to meet my mom at the steps of All Souls Cathedral, I went through the details of dying in my head: will is done, power of attorney is done, daughter's trust is done, I can jump off the bridge over the French Broad to save everyone the trouble. . . these thoughts. Thoughts that perhaps come with every possible Stage IIIb (line from WIT comes to mind, "there is no stage V") diagnosis or possible diagnosis. I spent the weekend holding my daughter close and fading in and out of naps and Parks and Rec episodes. Not thinking about double mastectomy and head-shaving (both of which I'd do in a heartbeat if Monday came back positive). On Monday, I made my first trip to the breast cancer center. I am third generation, that we know of, so I felt that this was my natural progression of events, only more aggressive and challenging than my mother and grandmother's. Maybe this was my turn.

It wasn't. But here's the narrative side of things: in medical school people learn to diagnose, but they don't learn how to share that diagnosis. It gets delivered like the answer on a multiple choice test (because it once was), not like the incredible life change that, in cases like cancer, it is. Cancer was the first reaction. In narrative training, that first response is a quiet starting point then the "reader" inquires more. Practitioners learn that the diagnosis is a plot-twist and that plot-twists challenge a character on every level. Reading more about inflammatory breast cancer and seeing the actual oncologist on Monday, I learned how many more questions there were to ask, and how telling my story about photography and the possible spider bite directed his attention to polysporin and bandaids, a much more welcome treatment.

Yes, the GP ought to have considered cancer, yet the way she revealed it (first impulse--surprised outburst) and the way she managed the situation at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday were damaging, difficult beyond belief, even traumatizing.

I am still reeling.
That GP is part of my story now forever, the story of the Friday I heard I might die. She could be another character in another story: the story of the Friday the doctor asked me about what I had been doing lately, suggested bandaids and polysporin, and then gently suggested that I call back on Monday as my other medical office does because "we don't give bad news on Friday."


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

About Poetry in Times Like These


(I tried to find the artist of this. If you know, please tell me.)



At an AWP conference in Chicago, I encountered a vast ballroom filled with writers and poets. They were listening to one poet, Marie Ponsot, whose talk, a sign by the door announced, was entitled "The Poet's Responsibility." When I had seen the title in the conference schedule I had shuddered. I wouldn't go, I told myself.

Why go when I know I don't fulfill my responsibility? Why go when I know it will leave me feeling utterly and profoundly irresponsible. Yet, I had stumbled into the very ballroom I'd vowed to avoid (those who go to AWP's perhaps know this form of disorientation). Rather than lambast us for not doing enough, though, Ms. Ponsot said this:

"A poet's job is to pay attention and to write good poems."

She repeated this.

"A poet's job is to pay attention and to write good poems."

I ponder it still because I paid very close attention to that. I still work on the "write good poems" part of the equation. Pay attention. 

Since going deaf, paying attention has become a constant action in my life. In order to lipread well, I must be focused and calm and attentive. If I stray for a moment, I lose the whole minute. Attention is a slight step from its French counterpart: attendre, to expect. 

So, how do we expect? How do we pay expectation? In lipreading, this is accomplished by guessing and intuiting, based on the facial expressions and the gestures of the person talking. Without sounds, I can tell.

For poetry, perhaps it is the same.
You attend to what is, and you expect what it is to come. In one swift gesture, one movement of the lips. That, too, is how to write a poem. To attend to the moment, and to allow that beautiful sense of the expectation without even knowing what it is.

And doing this again and again, constantly, persistently.

"A poet's job is to pay attention and to write good poems."

Friday, June 12, 2015

How Asheville Can Win The Battle of Busk



When a friend asked me while we dined on salads what I thought of the busking situation in Asheville, I almost choked on my salad.  "We have a busking situation?"

He told me he'd seen the article in the New York Times. Again: almost choking, "New York Times is writing about buskers in Asheville?"

I love this so much for so many reasons.

The fact that we are in the 9th most food insecure city in America, the fact that people can walk around this town and not know we have a large African-American population scuttled away on the outskirts as a result of demolishing 2000 homes in the city center, the fact that we don't have affordable housing in town, all this aside: we make the Times for our "busking situation."

This is why I love Asheville. This is why you really should move here: we have a busking situation.

We have music everywhere. We have music outside t-shirt shops that print quotes by great songwriters on their organic cotton and complain about the musicians outside on the their sidewalk. We have music outside banks. We have music in the alcoves of galleries and jewelry stores. We have music in the park all the time, and we have music all night long on the sidewalks to sing you back to your parking deck where you will no doubt also hear music in your car.

As an (ahem) award-winning historian of this lovely city, I have to tip my hat to the people who feel the need to "do something" about our "busking situation." I am not wearing a hat though so I will not. The busking situation is classic Asheville. It simply is. This is a city that is so rooted in music that no one will ever ever stop the busking because it is actually impossible to stop the music. These mountains are made of music. The people here--well, the people who have been here a long time--have been raised on music. Music just is part of the brickwork of our early 20th century architecture, and it's just part of the gorgeous landscape we look up at through our office windows then escape into when evening comes.

To get more specific, Asheville was designed for healing and for song. This is the land of breathing, where people who could not breathe came to so they could. They came here also to drink moonshine, to dance on the verandahs of gorgeous hotels. They came here to play.

That kind of energy does not change.

People made money elsewhere and simply brought it here to make beautiful homes and to get in touch with the one of the strangest natural resources known to man: mountain magic. The best translation of this magic has always been either in the cooking or in the music. Last I checked one would have to have some health department permission to serve up the first of these on the sidewalk, but last I heard one needs no such permission for the second, and that's because music poisons nobody. Music hurts nobody. Music doesn't even touch you, unless it's in that, yes, magical sense, in your heart, your soul. Maybe it makes you move. But that's not harmful. That's what we call beauty (even when it's not perfect!) and it is good for you.

There's beauty in the simplest presence of the slightest attempt at making music. It's the beginning of something. If someone has a song to offer, well they are in this world welcome to sing it. Rather than viewing it as an affront to the image of the city, we'd be much better off accepting it as the city, because that is exactly what it is.

This is a city of music. Before it was a city, it was just the music. Sometimes, if you're in the right frame of mind and heart, you can hear that. And maybe if you're really in the right frame of mind and heart, the frame in which this city was first formed and the frame it really wants you to remember as a vital and still-needed part of your life, you can dance to it.


http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/us/with-this-many-buskers-in-asheville-a-discordant-note-was-inevitable.html

Monday, June 01, 2015

Free Time



Remember in elementary school when after an in-class exercise was completed the teacher just said, "Now you can have free-time?" Maybe it was just three minutes, but the idea of it felt like a patch of blue sky through a firmament of cloud. During free-time, I could doodle without being told not to. I could lay my head on my folded hands on my desk, I could talk with my best friend quietly in our third row seats.

My daughter mentioned free-time to me yesterday. Having completed a two-hour standardized test in less than one she had two hours of free-time in which to de-standardize. Disallowed markers for drawing, she was permitted a book, which she was happy to have some quiet time read. She also folded her blue sweatshirt on her desk and took a little nap. "It was nice to have some free-time."

I had forgotten about free-time.

I have had unscheduled time. Plenty of it. As a university professor my classroom time is far outweighed by what has become nearly constant prep time as I read, update, prepare course content and, most importantly, keep up with my students' lives and stories. Sitting at my laptop to accomplish all this, I also am checking emails and notifications on social media, often opening several channels of my varied lives at once, and they accumulate on my screen until I am actually doing ten things at once. This makes me feel inspired, on top of everything, and I'll often get two or three ideas for new projects (this blogpost for instance) so that by day's end I have consumed my time with busy-ness even in moments when I might have taken a break.

I am reintroducing the concept of free-time to my vocabulary to prevent this from happening every day.

Free-time means I am not at the computer. I am not even writing (because writing, for me, is work-adjacent).

I am at the piano or in my car on the Blue Ridge Parkway (after dropping my child at school). I am sitting in a chair or the hammock in my garden with a cup of coffee or tea. I can be reading if the book is not a book for a course I am teaching. I am lying on the grass letting my thoughts drift.

Right now I am aiming to have 90 minute segments of free-time in both morning and afternoon. The purpose: to break free of technology's accumulation, to let my brain relax, to bring a little bit of childhood forward into my adulthood, and for no other purposes than these.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Kissing the Water (an excerpt from a memoir about my grandmother who'd been in a prison camp in China)




. . .

Three days a week we did this. I did it for a whole semester until one day I didn’t wake up and meet the van outside. I let it just go the way I let the balloon rope go once the burner had filled the silk. I never gave any of the team my phone number. Arthur had no idea which dorm was mine. I wish I could say it was because I didn’t need it anymore. I did need it more than ever. Everyone needs it--those early mornings of blackness, that uplift of seeing heat raise something so enormous simply by being itself up into the sky.

There was a “move” I learned about in one of the very few conversations I had with my balloon people. We parked the van with a view of the balloon just as it lowered toward the earth. Normally, when we saw it descend, we tumbled out and started the most violent 500 meter dash over thorn bushes and yucca and pyrocanthus and every other miserable Florida plant that Florida produces to seize the ropes the Captain tossed down to us and which we grabbed hold of with every fiber of muscle tissue we had in our small little human hands. The rope burned through the heavy canvas of my gloves. The brambles tore at my denim jeans and poked through my thick socks as I held on with the others. But no balloon wants to come down. No balloon wants to be trapped on the ground. The slightest updraft would pull us soaring into the air, sometimes twenty or thirty feet (I never counted, but I never let go either) back up into it then it would end and send us plummeting to the sand, with our only goal not to get smashed by the basket. You’ve seen the peaceful flight of hot air balloons over where you live. You’ve imagined the quiet of the air, the view. What you didn’t imagine was the bone-threat of being lifted by one of those blasted beautiful things and being thrown back to ground on the whim of something so harmless as a morning breeze, a soft lilt of air. This one morning, though, we didn’t run.

“Shouldn’t we be running?” I said to Arthur.
“Just watch.”

The balloon approached a lake in the middle of the vast field, a man-made lake but a lake about the size of a similarly man-made shopping mall. The captain lowered the flame in the burner, and the balloon gently descended.

“Shouldn’t we really be running?”
Arthur shook his head.
The balloon came down to the water then just in time the captain flared the burner once again, lifting the balloon back into the sky.
“It’s called Kissing the Water.”
The seven of us stood in a line like we were watching something die and come back to life.
“He only does it when the conditions are perfect.” 

I never saw him do it again, but the phrase stayed with me. It was something that could happen.