Spelling Hatred

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S has spelling homework now that he’s in third grade. Every Monday he brings home a paper with a list of fifteen words and each day he must practice them with a new exercise. Monday he writes each word twice, Tuesday he puts them into alphabetical order, Wednesday he writes them in sentences. Thursday, while we eat dinner, I quiz him in preparation for the test his teacher will give on Friday.

So far, he likes it.

I remember my second grade Spelling class. Instead of a weekly piece of paper, we had a book. The cover was glossy and fuchsia, a color that is the perfect combination of hot pink and cool violet, and there was a picture of a Dalmatian on it. The contrast of the black and white dog and the bright background drew me in and I hated having to cover it with a paper bag cover. I peeled away the scotch tape on the corners so I could look at it. The pages of the book were glossy too, the typeface of the words wide and round, and although it seems strange to describe a font as friendly, it was. I loved it.

Each Friday we would separate our desks to take a test, much like I imagine happens in S’s class now. My teacher would stand at the front of the room and read down the list of words, carefully enunciating each one. At the end, we would be asked to write a few sentences, and our teacher would speak slowly, repeating each one three times.

Her sentences were simple. “Peter asked Sue how to get to the pet store.” “Who let the jet get wet?” And even though I could breeze through the week’s list of short ‘e’ words, I would always get tripped up on the words “how” and “who.” I would write w-h-o and then rub what was left of my eraser (I ate them when I was nervous) over the newsprint paper, leaving skidded tears along the blue lines, and then I would tentatively write h-o-w over the mess. No matter how hard I studied, I could not remember the order of the letters.

As we are inching closer to the election, more and more signs are being pushed into lawns, and I’ve noticed more cars are being accessorized with bumper stickers.

This weekend, when running errands, we pulled up behind a non-descript sedan with a Trump sticker. I felt the red-hot daggers of anger pierce my guts. I asked my husband, “Don’t you feel like people proclaiming their support for him are really just proudly announcing that they’re racist?” This man’s platform relies on hatred, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. A Trump sticker then seems to be just as offensive as a confederate flag, a swastika, or a white hood.

I am aware that my question to my husband makes a sweeping generalization of Trump supporters. An almost-irony, since I am making a broad generalization about people who support a man who makes broad generalizations. And yet, here I am. I was a hardcore Sanders supporter, and although I do not agree with many of Clinton’s policies, there is a chasm between her and the man who suggested her murder, who berated a woman with a crying baby, who mocked a Muslim family who lost their son fighting in Iraq, who failed to denounce the KKK. Those who stand behind this man are either ignoring his violence and racism, or they are supporting it. And neither of those options is acceptable. (Here is a listicle for a succinct, yet thorough overview.)

Now, when I see these supporters on the road, in my neighborhood, or in my newsfeed, and when I hear them repeat their “Make America Great Again” slogan,  I find myself reverting back to old habits. I am nervously chewing on pens and my fingernails. And I am struggling over those two little words.

Who?

How?

On John Donne and Fish Pedicures

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In an earlier post I mentioned worrying about landing a job. (I think I’ve written about worry in every blog post, but I won’t in this one!) I am grateful to say that the Fear of Unemployment ship has sailed for me. I landed a job as an adjunct, teaching one section for now, at the school where I did my BA, so the whole thing feels a little like coming home. With the remaining weeks of summer, I am sifting through the stacks and stacks of books heaped in the tiny room that will one day have shelves, and making long lists of poems and short stories and essays and maybe even a novel that I will teach to a classroom full of freshmen to spark their curiosity and make them fall in love with the written word. I hope.

I’m late (again) on my internal deadline of one blog post a week, but this time only by a few days. I have been working on an essay, which is finally finished and has been sent off to three literary magazines in the hopes that maybe one will pick me. I recently read this article about embracing rejection letters and I am going to try for a hundred, too.

Yesterday, S and I went to see a friend who is renting a beach house. An up-on-stilts, ocean-in-the-backyard, all-tile floors-to-easily-sweep-the-sand-away, beach house. They live in this town, so the rental is like a hybrid staycation/vacation. They can go home to feed their cats and don’t have to stop the mail, but they sleep with sliding glass doors open to the sounds of the waves crashing and hang soggy towels off the veranda to dry in the sun.

It was high tide when we got there and the view from this side of town is completely different, so we went for a swim. S and my friend’s niece joined us. It was late afternoon, when that pink beach light makes everyone’s skin look luminous.

We waded in waist-high and I was telling my friend about my new job while we watched the sun-baked kids with their primary-colored buckets and swimsuits try to catch the transparent little bodies of minnows swimming around us in schools.

The tiny darting fish reminded me of the fish pedicure trend that I read about a while back. A fish pedicure, or fish spa, is a treatment that involves submerging one’s feet into a tub of water filled with Garra rufa fish, also known as “doctor fish,” and then allowing the fish to eat away the dead skin.

The CDC website lists seven reasons why some states have banned this practice. The third reason is that the Chinese Chinchin, another species of fish, is often mislabeled as a Garra rufa and is then used in these fish spas. The problem with this mistake is that the Chinchin grows teeth and can draw blood, which is not only terrifying, but also increases the risk of infection.

With my mind on both flesh-gnawing fish and syllabi, I am reminded of John Donne’s “The Flea.”

 

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

 Yet this enjoys before it woo,

    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

    Though use make you apt to kill me,

    Let not to that, self-murder added be,

    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:

    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,

    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

I wonder then, in the parts of the world where fish pedicures are practiced, are the Garra rufa like Donne’s flea, mingling the dead skin cells of strangers in their bellies in a way that some might say is like an act of love? Are the poor souls (my apologies for the pun) who accidentally dip their toes into tubs of Chinchin fish anything like Donne’s seventeenth-century young couple? There is no lover in these spas, I guess, only the starving fish pedicurers and the rough feet of the pedicurees, but the grotesque intimacy is there.

And as I edit this post and fidget with all of the open tabs on my computer, I receive an email from one of the journals I sent my essay to. A rejection. My words squashed between the fingers of an editor.

Only ninety-nine more to go.

Returning

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Last Friday was a gorgeous day in a string of gorgeous days. Warm and sunny, with an almost imperceptible breeze rustling the leaves. The petals on the dogwoods are starting to fall, which oddly look like snow and make me realize how wonderful New England weather is.

I picked S up at camp at 3:30. He is already tan, freckled, and blond. His little boy beauty nearly knocks me over. I am trying to enjoy these summer days, to relish in the tiny moments of  peace, to stop fretting about the job search. To relax and just be.

His backpack and his knees were filthy from kickball and hiking. He tumbled into the car, buckled his seatbelt while chugging warm water out of his purple plastic bottle and then asked, like he does so often, “What are we going to do when we get home?”

I can’t remember now whether I answered him or whether it was his idea, but before we got home it was decided that we would ride our bikes downtown to get ice cream. He got a new bike this spring, a seven-speeder, and we haven’t had a chance to ride it much. And we haven’t let him ride it downtown yet, because the traffic is often heavy and the roads are a little narrow. And I worry too much.

After pulling our bikes out of the basement, I grabbed the helmets, stuck my key into my wallet, pocketed my phone, took several deep breaths, and we were off.

He rode in front of me, a little wobbly, but with increasing confidence. He even stood up a few times. We walked our bikes through the big intersection, and when we got to the ice cream place we parked them outside by the window before going in.

We ate our sundaes at a little round bistro table on the sidewalk. I didn’t make him wash off his chocolate mustache before we headed back home. We went a different way, still choosing to walk our bikes through the busy spots, but taking a shortcut through a parking lot.

***

The parking lot is next to a municipal building and an auditorium, and as we pedaled through, scores of young girls in bright costumes were filing into their recital. The scene reminded me of my niece’s recital last week, and then I remembered my post from that weekend. I wrote an essay that came out of me in a rush as I tried to understand the catastrophic shooting in Orlando. I wrote it as a way to work through what I couldn’t understand. I still don’t understand, but a few people have reached out to me after reading it and said they felt that I had written a message about hope. I hadn’t intended it to be hopeful, but it felt good to give that to a few readers who were also feeling uncertain.

I know I used the word “hope” in the essay, but I wasn’t really feeling it when I wrote it. Hopeless is how I felt. Kind of empty and defeated. Angry. I used the word “angry” far more times than I used “hope.” No one remarked about that. I would like to think that means more people are drawn to hope than to anger.

***

Once we bobbed and weaved through the dancers and their families we stopped. We had one more major road to cross before we were home free. I patted down my pockets to find my phone and check the time, to get my key out of my wallet. I had my phone. But not my wallet.

My fingers went a little numb. My ears burned from more than just the sun. My heart pounded so loudly I couldn’t think for a moment.

“What’s wrong mom?”

“I lost my wallet. It’s not in my pocket.”

I knew I had to be calm, so I whispered the words “fuck” and “shit” instead of yelling them. We couldn’t just go home and make a few calls because I had stuck my key in my wallet. I couldn’t buy us water and time at a restaurant or café because I had no money.

I had to stay calm and make a plan. I didn’t want to upset my son, but I also needed him to know that this was important and I needed his help.

“Ok bubs. Here’s the plan. We’ll bring the bikes home and then we’ll walk back and retrace our steps. I need your help. Keep your eyes peeled and remember where we were.”

We followed our path all the way back to the ice cream shop. Nothing. We stopped into stores. Nothing. I could tell S was starting to worry; he was muttering about this being “the worst day ever.”

At the crosswalk I held his hand and thanked him. I explained that although this certainly wasn’t the best way to wrap up our day, it was really no big deal. I would cancel the credit cards, get a new license, and we would change the lock on the backdoor. What truly matters is that we are happy. We are healthy. We have bellies full of hot fudge. We are very lucky people.

“Let’s go to the train station and wait for Matt.”

My husband had left work early and it was almost time for his train to get in. Once he arrived we could get into the house. S’s dad was taking him for the night. Then my husband and I could deal with the credit cards and locks together.

I sent Matt a text to let him know what had happened.

He reminded me that he didn’t have a key, either. He had left them with me.

I called my mother-in-law to meet us with her spare key. I told S we had to walk back home and wait for her to unlock the door, and then we could go inside and have huge glasses of water and relax on the couch. He hadn’t complained about the heat or being thirsty. He nodded and slipped his hand in mine. I repeated to him that this really isn’t a major catastrophe. I reminded him that in the big picture, this is only a drop in the bucket. He stayed quiet. I stopped talking. We walked the nine minutes home hand in hand.

***

Maybe I was surprised by people’s reactions to my Pulse post because the word “hope” sometimes connects me, uncomfortably, to religion. When I hear that word, I see stiff felt banners with white doves and dark stained glass windows of saints proclaiming miracles for those who have hope and faith.

I am agnostic. I haven’t attended or believed in church in twenty years, and somewhere along the way I even started to avoid the vocabulary. But I haven’t let go of some of the traditions. There are little stones of my Catholic upbringing rolling around in my shoes and I can feel them when I’m worried. When I realized my wallet had dropped out of my pocket, after I whispered four-letter words, I  prayed to St. Anthony. A vestigial reflex from my childhood.

***

When we got home, S and I clamored up the two steps of our front porch, sweaty, frustrated, and defeated. And there it was. Looking a little limp, the gray zipper closed, the patterned fabric dirty and frayed. My wallet, tossed up on our doorstep by some honest stranger.

We were both wide-eyed. I picked it up. It was hot from being in the sun. My credit cards were in there. My license. Three wet, wrinkly dollar bills. Wadded up receipts. Our house key.

***

Some people say “lucky” and others say “blessed.” Some look for hope and faith, others for charms and signs. One person’s “Do unto others” is another person’s Karma.

What matters is kindness.