As I put the snow and icicles of Goddard behind me for another semester, I was thinking about the question of whether one can teach writing. I don’t know if we taught it, or whether we simply lived it, all together, for the last eight days. I come home filled by my colleagues who have been writing in the world: Kyle Bass who put together the beautiful Cry for Peace with Ping Chong, drawing on the lives of refugees from the Congo; Susan Kim who has been collaborating on a dystopian young adult series and working with caretakers and medical staff who are supporting our veterans; Kenny Fries, poet/memoirist who wrote an opera this year; John McManus, whose novel-in-progress about gay refugees in Uganda just received a Creative Capital grant…etc., etc. fourteen times for the fourteen faculty who shared the residency with me.
I have also carried with me the work of my students, their questions, their struggles, their imagination, the high bar they set for themselves. This semester, I asked the graduates for their graduation speeches (at Goddard, every graduate give his or her own speech). These few snippets will show you why I love Goddard and what makes it special:
They said, “This has been an incredible journey.”
They said, “This means the world to me.”
They said, “We are leaving our incredible faculty, brilliant talents themselves, who truly care about the likes of us, who utilize equal parts love and cattle prod…but we’re taking each other.”
They said, “This place is magic.”
If there was a slogan I could put in an ad for Goddard it would be this:
“This place is magic.”
At our last residency for the Goddard MFA in Creative Writing in Vermont, we had three amazing and successful alumni return to talk to our current students. Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, spoke with Kenny Fries and me about the pitfalls and pleasures of crafting a resonant, universal story from our daily “here’s what happened next” life. We spoke for over a hour, and I am pleased to be able to share it with you here.
Here’s a sample from the beginning:
My question (one of many!) to Mary: “There are those things we are afraid of…that we don’t want to relive. Could you talk about what you left out of your memoir, and why, and how you got what you did onto the page?”
Mary: “Fear was a big thing for me…putting it down on the page for anybody to see was really scary. Kenny was my advisor for my first two semesters at Goddard. I had written a few things… During one particular packet, I started to write the sex stuff. And it was really hard for me. I wrote this piece and I sent it off, and when I came back from the post office, I wrote Kenny an email and said, ‘I just sent my packet to you, please don’t open it. I will send you another one.’ And he wrote me back and said, ‘Oh! So at last you have finally written something worthwhile!’”
2012.01.11 Transformation From Personal Experience to Published Memoir from Goddard College on Vimeo.
My father recently sent me a picture of my mother playing with a lizard. It was a Jackson’s Chameleon, green and black with three horns on its head. You might think how cute, or that she was visiting a zoo with children, or that she is an intrepid exotic animal lover. You might begin to question your assumptions, though, when I tell you that my mother has dementia, and the lizard was something she and her caregiver rescued from the side of the road.
Last night I had dinner with Kenny Fries, renowned disability expert and author of several books, most recently, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory. We were talking about disability, and Alzheimer’s, and a Father’s Day article in the New York Times, by Katy Butler called “What Broke My Father’s Heart” about a family’s struggle with stroke, dementia, pacemakers, and aging. We were both moved by the story. He had some issues, however, with the disability aspects, particularly with questions about quality of life, and who decides when a life is worth living or what the experience of that life is.
Kenny is a born disability activist. He was born missing bones in his legs. The majority of the rest of us, the “normal” ones, do not start life thinking much about disability. But we will all become disability activists eventually. Because, we are all on a life path that ends in disability. It is not other. It is, or will be, us.
This notion of disability as both ordinary and inevitable is part of what Kenny is writing about in his next book. Disability has entered my life in the form of my mother, just as it has for some five million people who have Alzheimer’s, and ten million unpaid caregivers who love them. These numbers are projected to explode, and I may become one of them. If I don’t develop Alzheimer’s, something else will happen to disable me (unless I fall off a caldera and am killed instantly). But if I do, I have my mother to look to for my future.
She has been losing her memory for twelve years. She can’t feed herself, dress herself, put together a sentence. She needs full time care. Yet she can enjoy her grandchildren, even if she doesn’t remember their names. She laughs. She apparently likes lizards.
Would I want this for myself in a perfect world? Would I prefer the alternative of “assisted death” that author Terry Prachett is advocating for?
One of the strategies that Kenny Fries espouses is for our society to turn away from the “illness model” where we try to cure disability or treat it in nursing homes, and give assistance instead to families who are trying to help their loved ones live quality lives. The strain that Katy Butler’s mother suffered, caring for her husband for seven years at the expense of her own health and life, doesn’t have to be the norm. It is something my father would do, though we are not at that stage quite yet, but not something any of us would want for him. For the moment, he has managed to get some help from home caregivers who amaze me with their joy and patience and competence. They are helping my disabled mother to live a life of laughter and hugs and Jackson’s Chameleons.