How soon can I get it?

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A simple image, but hard to remember. Knowledge doesn’t come instantly. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes better. There is no line in the sand, because sand shifts.

My kids have entered the Peace Corps and I have quoted this wisdom from Piet Hein, WWII freedom fighter and mathemetician, in the days before they flew off. Reading the blogs of other new volunteers, I can see it is a lesson they are learning. Things do take time when the familiar clues of progress are absent, when the language is different, when the expectations of others are out of sync from the expectations of self. Time collapses in retrospect and there is a bit of wonder that becoming comfortable with all the newness could ever have taken so long.

In schools there are still analog clocks on the wall over the door. Kids still watch the clock, but the coordination between minute and hour hands is virtually meaningless. They sneak peaks at phones, or computers to find out what time it is. Time varies from culture to culture. It is fluid. Not just the passage of time, but our understanding of it. As clock styles have changed, so has perception of time’s passage. In the analog world the minute hand has to traverse a portion of the circle that makes up a clock face. A quarter of an hour somehow feels different than fifteen minutes. Seeing numbers flip over is different than seeing the second hand sweep around and the minute hand clicking forward. A new stream bed of time is cut through a digital day.

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The Right to Question

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

It was in 1984. University students across Morocco were on strike, so it must have been some time in February. Teachers were required to put in an appearance and spend some time in empty rooms, normally filled with 80 or more students. Looking busy was essential.

The Chair of the English Department asked to speak with the teachers responsible for teaching first and second year students grammar, composition, and comprehension. He was a Moroccan, recently returned with a Doctorate in Linguistics from a school in the US. He was the third Chair in five years, and had taken charge of the upper level students, mostly 4th years who would be leaving for teaching posts in the spring.

The man had quirks, to be sure. He was insecure and had reason to be. His wife, an American teacher in the department, helped fascilitate all meetings. Feuds with faculty members, both Moroccan and native English speakers, became common. Staff had left abruptly just three months after he had assumed the Chair. Those who had to stay because a spouse worked in another department, were desperately unhappy. Rumor had it that soon the only jobs to be available for expatriate English speakers would be in the language lab, where accent and cadence were important.

I was part of a group of four women who had been working together for nearly five years, teaching the basics to first and second year students. Two of us were French who had spent much of their lives in England. One was Welsh, and I was American. Although grammar, composition, and comprehension were billed as separate classes, we taught them as interrelated. We prepared all our lessons together, using the same texts, many of them from Time, Newsweek, or English papers, and teaching with a Chomskyan view of language. We stressed the importance of asking questions, both for clarification and to delve more deeply into the nuances of English as a language.

This all proved to be a problem for the Chair. He liked Chomsky well enough from a linguistic point of view and when handed out via lecture, but was entirely against this business of encouraging students to ask questions. They expected answers and became surly when they did not get them. They relied on logic to take the place of dogma and would actually argue their point of view. He thought a more prescriptive strategy better suited to students just starting out at university, a strategy that relied more on memorization and acceptance.

He outlined his ideas in our meeting. “No,” said the group leader.

“Do you deny that you teach them to ask questions?”

“Of course we teach them to ask questions.”

“But surely you see this is wrong?” The Chair seemed shocked.

No one, it seemed, disagreed with the facts. Early teaching of question asking techniques resulted in students continuing to ask questions as they got older. The problem was that one side saw this as a good thing, and the other saw it as bad. It smacked of religious fervor on both sides. It was surprising, to me, that he found questions evil. I believe the Chair was equally surprised.

I am sure it was not the first time I encountered this dichotomy of thought. Whether my Dad would go to Hell for having smoked (Toby Tobacco in Sunday School said yes!), or questioning God’s motivation in sending one or another band of barbarians after His Israelites (Reverend Welch said questioning God was “just not done!”) were two of my early experiences. The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War were keystones of my youth and both had a religious aspect to them. This hatred of questioning was, however, the first time I had seen such tempers rise in a strictly secular circumstance. Passions burn hot when individuals, or groups, feel threatened in either their lack of knowledge or way of life. Those feelings can be aroused in any arena.

While the Computer, Burger, and Cola Wars are half joke, half serious, I am surprised (dismayed? astounded?) these days by authentic passion surrounding ideas that I had thought long since put to bed, like racism, equality, gender, unalienable rights.

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Changing the world–a two sided equasion

EPSON MFP image“ ‘I wish I had known I wasn’t going to change the world,’ I’ve heard others say.” – http://passport.peacecorps.gov/2014/06/16/the-5-things-i-wish-i-had-known-before-joining-peace-corps/ – shared this morning in the FaceBook group Peace Corps Northeast.

The writer goes on to describe the small ways her host community was affected by her presence. But like all equations, it doesn’t do to look at just one side. By entering the Peace Corps, she has affected the world in a small way. She has changed herself as well in more dramatic ways. Big World + small changes = One Person + big changes

Both my kids are going into the Peace Corps, and, of course, I have been trolling the net for advice to give them; this is an article I will forward to them as an outside-the-family source.

EPSON MFP image Certainly my days in El Menzel, Morocco did not seem world changing at the time. Certainly I provided a model of “American” that was different from the popular view at the time. I was modestly famous for my speaking colloquial Arabic, riding an illegal moped, being a regular at the public baths, wearing henna in my hair, having a father who spoke a bit of classical Arabic. There is no telling how much of an impact all this made, nor how long lasting that impact was.

This notion of not changing the world is common among returned volunteers. It reflects youthful perspective. It looks for change in others, holding the self as a constant. It was years before I realized that the effect that changed the world was in me. Peace Corps volunteers are not just ambassadors of American culture and values, not just guests at the table. When they leave their host countries, they return to see their own communities with fresh eyes. They develop different standards of poverty, wealth and industry. And perhaps they learn an appreciation for charity and grace.

A couple of years ago I found myself in a class with three other women who had also been Peace Corps volunteers. One had recently taken a young man from Ghana under her wing. He was newly arrived in the Boston area, enrolled in one of the many colleges, and missing home. He welcomed her as a surrogate mom. She had just realized that her own welcome in her host community was much less due to her American-ness, and much more to her youth. The adults of the community helped her assimilate because they recognized a kid out of culture. They treated her as they would any young person far from their family’s guidance. Volunteers are blessed with learning how to “adult” not only in their own community among peers, but in an entirely foreign community. When they return to the States, they will forever hold those two cultures in their hearts.

Used Things MarketSome of the cultural differences are superficial. There were adult interactions I had never really experienced in the States. On my return to the US, it was like going abroad for the first time, learning a new culture; being a stranger and yet at home. I had trouble buying things. Not just because the shelves seemed overcrowded with variety, but because I didn’t know how initiate a transaction. None of the polite social exchange, chit chat, oblique approach to purchase that was familiar in Morocco, worked in Bangor, Maine. Meeting new people was difficult; no one shook hands. I had learned to cook and buy food in a place without refrigeration. Markets there used kilos and sold things in small quantities for daily purchase. Farmers markets were not yet a thing in the States, and the closest open air market I knew of was hundreds of miles away in Boston. Bathing was also a challenge. I had gotten used to having a serious wash once a week in a steamy public bath, chatting with friends, helping scrub their kids, being scrubbed myself. A solo daily shower seemed just odd.

There were, however, more fundamental changes in dealing with others. Knowing what it was like to not even recognize that there was a subtext to some social situation, I was more likely to explain interactions, rather than leaving someone floundering. While my kids and students benefited from this, the risk came in teaching Grandma to suck eggs. This was a useful skill when it came to helping folks transition from the world of typewriters and file cabinets to the world of computers, internet, and virtual communication. Knowing how to explain the unknown, the unimagined, to a person who expects to be in charge and is uncomfortable at being clueless is invaluable.

Time alone, surviving mistakes, learning culture all contributed to an talent for shared self reflection. It became clear to me early on that I alone was responsible for the trouble and frustration I faced. I had made that choices that led me overseas. I chose to let it get to me, or not. I was also responsible for putting my feet on the path that led me to joy and delight. I needed to remind myself of that then, when living as an expat; I remind myself of it now.

The Peace Corps was less about how a volunteer could function as an advocate for change in the world, and far more about becoming the change in the world that Gandhi advocated. My children have heard my travel stories: years spent in Morocco (in the picture I am second from the left), both during the Peace Corps and for quite a few years after COS (close of service); growing up in Kenya and Jordan with parents active in American Friends Service Committee; travel through Europe, learning languages. I am a huge fan of international living. It is weird, then, that for the past 30 years I have lived in rural Maine, traveling only for conferences. Beyond a brief trip to the Maritimes I have never really traveled with my kids. Now I look forward to visiting with them in their new homes.

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Rafe–For Want of a Toe

Rafe sat on the bench, a neckerchief stuffed in the gap where her toe once lived, waiting her turn. Other recruits drifted past, peered at her bloody rag. Some kept their distance. Other fetched up in little knots, glancing her way every so often, the sound of their chatter kept low and private. She wondered how many other recruits managed to lose some body part on their first day. She wondered if it meant she’d be booted out as too incompetent to train.

With the medic’s tent at her back she could either sit bolt upright or slouch forward with her elbows on her knees. Lying down seemed too much like defeat. To keep pressure off her wound she sat with a rigid back and glowered. The little bottle the medic had given her to dull the pain sat on the bench next to her, still full.

This city of tents was so unlike home, she had hoped to find a place for herself. Now it felt like more of the same, still strange, still unwelcome, still having to watch her back and her mouth.

“So, how did you manage it?”

Rafe started at the voice. She had been so drawn into herself that she had missed the medic sitting down on the other side of the bottle of medicine. Worse and worse. Not the makings of a soldier, for sure. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“How did you manage it?” The medic did not seem much older than she was. He was built like a beech sapling and radiated something that broke up tension, and lifted the spirits.

“We were playing mumbledy-peg and I suppose I got cocky. Lesson learned. Won’t happen again.” Rafe sighed. Even as she had spoken, she could hear the tone of voice she had used with her mother, offering up yet another insincere apology, accepting blame for something that was not her fault.

“I get that. Happens all the time. You recruits jockey back an forth, find your place in the pecking order. I deal with cuts, bruises, broken bone, the whole gamut, every time there’s a new influx. So I get how you lost your toe. Nothing odd about that at all.”

“What?” She looked him in the eyes and scrunched her face into the stupid look that sometimes worked with Ma.

“Let’s start again.” The medic held out his hand, smaller and less scarred than hers. “I’m Blue Thane. Medic. For you recruits.” He spoke clearly and waited between sentences, making sure she understood.

Rafe nodded and Blue Thane continued. “You lost a toe. The bleeding looks almost stopped and you’ll be fine. She didn’t take either of the edge toes. Your balance won’t be affected, so no worries there. It wouldn’t be enough for you to get boosted out in any case. We like scrappy kids. You make fine soldiers and generally survive to make the training worthwhile.”

Rafe got a bad feeling. The medic was talking about the other thing that happened. This was, indeed, going to be like Ma.

Blue Thane stayed casual and comforting. “I’ve just spent the last half hour digging pieces of steel and wood out of three of your pals. Legs, hands, and one serrated rib cage. That,” he paused again until he had her eyes on him, “that, young lady, is what I want to know. How did you manage it?”

“Why do you think I did something?”

“It was pieces of the same knife that took off your toe. Several someones saw it explode.”

“And you won’t help me unless I confess to it?”

“Jale’s Needle, no. That’s not it at all. I’m a medic. Live and let live. Sew ‘em up so they will live.” He spread his hands to show how empty they were. “We’ve got folks of all kind here, who come in as recruits. Some on the run, some doing walk about, some just looking for adventure, or to prove a point. There are some here who are wary of witchcraft. You know, magic.”

Rafe’s confusion changed from feigned to genuine. “A witch? Magic?”

“Surely you’ve heard of witchcraft and magic.”

“But they’re not real. Are they?”

“No, of course not. But you did have something to do with the knife exploding.”

It was no longer a question. How had she admitted to that? Rafe looked at the medic’s face. His brows did not fall into the resting scowl she saw in her own face when she looked in a mirror. In fact, he seemed to have just heard a joke and was trying to decide if it was one she would appreciate. He reminded her of Grammy Heddle, definitely not afraid, and maybe even someone who could help. “Can we talk about this inside your tent? It’s not exactly something I want everybody to know – for sure. No matter what they might suspect.”

“Sure, we can do that.” Blue Thane got up and led the way into the tent and Rafe limped in after him. “I’ll just leave the flap open, if you don’t mind, for light. No one can see in.”

Rafe wondered where to start. It was not as if she had needed to explain herself back in Riverside. The neighbors took care of that if there were ever foreigners who saw something they didn’t understand. She looked around the tent. “Do you have anything you don’t mind getting broken?”

Blue Thane fished a cracked mug out of the trash. “Will this do?”

“Put it on the stool.” Rafe opened her mouth. “Ahhhh,” she said, moving her voice up and down, trying out different notes. She found one she liked and got a little louder. Pop. The mug shattered into a pile of dust.

The medic looked from her to the dust.  “Huh. I knew a girl in a tavern up north who could break wineglasses when she sang. How about this?” He picked up a wooden spoon and placed it on the stool.

Again, Rafe searched for a pitch, and found two. The handle fell off, then bowl of the spoon split in half. She watched Blue Thane to gauge his reaction.

“Why did the cup disintegrate but the spoon broke cleanly? Clay versus wood?”

“Partly. But the cup was already cracked. It had lost integrity.”

Blue Thane wiped off the stool and gestured for her to sit. “Can you do this to anything, or just certain materials?” He laid out his kit and removed the wad of cloth from between her remaining toes.

“Pretty much anything.”

“And you do it with just your voice? You don’t do any little hexy thing?”

“Just my voice.”

“I don’t imagine they ask you to sing at parties?”

Had he just made a joke? Yes, he had. Rafe giggled and shook her head.

“So what happened with the knife? Why did it explode? It was solid, not cracked. It had integrity, as you say.”

“I was surprised. I didn’t expect her to take off my toe.”

“I don’t supposed people bothered you much back home. I assume they knew about this.”

Rafe nodded.

“And that’s why you ended up here?”

She nodded again.

“What would have happened if you had stayed — wherever you came from?”

“Blacksmith.”

“The blacksmith would have taken your tongue, or cut your throat?” He seemed shocked.

“No. Da was a blacksmith and I would have been next, until Ducky got big enough. Or longer if Ducky wanted to go sojourning in the world. I guess Jenna will have that job now.”

“Jenna is your sister?”

“Yes.”

“And Ducky?”

“Brother.” This all seemed unnecessary to Rafe. “Will I need to leave?”

“What? No. There are plenty of people with Graven’s Guard who have quirky little talents like yours. It just means you’ll have extra work, training so you don’t go exploding things accidentally. As a rule, we like to damage the other side, not our own.”

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Alone time–naturally.

Alice lay in bed listening. There was the thwap of the overhead fan. There was the hum of the refrigerator. There was the faint wind-chime from the front porch. There were the crows on the front lawn. No video game explosions, no slamming doors, no one-sided phone conversations, no computer buzz, no deep sighs from anyone in time out. Alice waited, listening. There was the click of a coffee maker turning off, and the smell of Fair Trade brew wafting upstairs.

Alice pulled her Kindle from under the pillow and propped it open on the bed. For half an hour she read undisturbed. No cheery face popped into the room with a book of their own for her to read. No distraught faces sought judgment or declaration of fairness. She read until she had to get up to use the toilet. How many years had it been?

No one visited her in the bathroom. It really had been years since she had peed alone. She thumbed through an entire article in the National Geographic. The picture of a school room in Kenya contained the only children she had seen today. Was this a miracle or a disaster? Was she one of the Left Behind? Did she care?

Alice got up from the toilet and turned on the shower thriftily rinsing her hands in the spray. She brushed her teeth while the shower heated. Stepping into the shower, she noticed the water was hot. Really hot. Hot like the first shower of the day. Hot like no dishes had been done. Hot like the washing machine had not even been turned on. Hot like the shower at the Hilton. She washed her hair, lathered her body, and shaved her pits.

And still, no one interrupted her. She searched for the feeling of guilt a good mother should have, a little relieved to find the barest of twinges.

Alice dressed alone. She took actual time to brush her hair. She put on shoes over her socks and went downstairs.

The coffee was still hot and fragrant. Her mug was on the counter. There was plenty of half and half in the fridge. There were four bagels left in the bag instead of the usual half of a broken one. The butter in the butter dish was not festooned with crumbs, or jam, or with a knife stuck in upright. Alice started to wonder if this was, in fact, her house. Maybe she had been kidnapped by good fairies and rewarded for her years of service.

Alice picked up the mug and saw the sticky-note on the counter. “Gone to Mom’s for the weekend. Phone is unplugged.” There was an arrow pointing to the back of the note. “Fiona and Jill will pick you up at 6:45. Happy Birthday!” Released!

“You wake up, and everyone in your family is gone. There’s a Post-it on the kitchen counter. What does it say?” 712 More Things To Write About by The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. 2014 Chronicle Books LLC.

—- I am going to try to post a response to a prompt from this and 642 Things To Write About at least once a week. The prompt will always follow the response. While the prompts are from The SFWG, the responses are my own. Some of these may be expanded at a later date.

© 2016 Susan Dewey

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Morocco 1978–Eid el-Kebir

The hosts were my neighbors. They had saved their invitation for this special night that would be just for family. I was the only outsider present. Being wedged into a corner was a place of honor. There was no escaping the seat and get up to help anyone, fetch tea, pass finger bowls, dish up saucers of salads. In the center of the table was a roasted ram’s head, charred, hairless, bug-eyed. A tasty mixture of brains, garlic, spices, had refilled the open cavity. I was as unprepared for this as, perhaps, you, dear reader, were.

The table was piled with small schlade, plates of salad – orange, carrot, and cinnamon; eggplant fried with garlic and tomato; tomato, cucumber, and mint; artichoke, lemons, and olives – baskets of fresh bread for eating the schlade and brains. A lamb couscous and brochettes were to follow, rounded off with tea and cookies. I would not go hungry, but avoiding the ram’s head was not an option. Composure fraying, nerves on edge, I reached for a piece of bread and dipped.

The family drew close, watching for my reaction, and delighting in the prospect of a gustatory treat.  The four kids assured themselves that I was going to surprise myself by what I had missed, once I had tasted. And it was OK. There was no gagging. I dipped back in for more, along with everyone else. With so many sharing, there was no undue burden to eat more than a token number of tastes.

It was like many things experienced during my years abroad – far less exotic than most hope when they fish for stories about adventures in North Africa. The banter was no different from what went on around a Thanksgiving or Easter table Stateside, when a foreign exchange student was present. Fatima with her high pitched voice told them to back off. Si Ahmed vowed that this was all in good fun. While different in the specifics, this, and many of the other experiences, had their parallels in life in the US.

Even the story of the Eid was familiar to someone raised hearing Bible stories. It commemorated the time when Abraham had been commanded to sacrifice his son to prove his love of God. A ram appeared as a last minute reprieve. Certainly an event worth celebrating. No less mystical than a rolled back stone and an empty tomb.

I enjoyed the meal, the last of that holiday season. I attended other Eids, but this was the only one with brains. I can’t say I was sorry, but I would have been all right with more.

“What was the strangest thing you ever ate, and how did you react?” 712 More Things To Write About by The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. 2014 Chronicle Books LLC.

—- I am going to try to post a response to a prompt from this and 642 Things To Write About at least once a week. The prompt will always follow the response. While the prompts are from The SFWG, the responses are my own. Some of these may be expanded at a later date.

© 2016 Susan Dewey

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Night Watch

Winter FireThen he turned to Wilf. “Look, boy. You go tell your Da that I want a word with him. And your Uncle Ducky as well. And maybe that Molly.” As Wilf hustled off Old Farley turned back to Rafe. “You’ll stay a bit, aye? I’d just as soon make sure no one got the idea to go prospecting in the night.”

Rafe nodded. “Whatever you need. I’ll just get a few things from the forge.” She moved toward the shore, alternately building speed and sliding on the leather soles of her boots.

The last slide brought her to the snow at the edge of the river. Blade stepped forward to meet her and Rafe laced her fingers through the halter, turning him back toward the town. “It looks like we’re not through with winter camping, yet.”

Once in the forge, Rafe packed up a clay tub with coals from the fire that was kept smoldering all winter. She entered the stall Blade used and retrieved the tent she used in bad weather, and her bedroll stuffed with gear. There was a puff of dust as the trap door in the floor of the alley opened and Wilf’s head appeared. Sticking up, from behind his head, was the pommel of Rafe’s sword.

“Hangman’s Drawers! Did you invade my quarters?”

“To get your harness and bring it to you.”

“And did you enjoy the admiring looks of the young ladies as you made your way through the Common?”

“No, Auntie. My hands were full and it just seemed easier. And I thought you might need, you know, a weapon or two.”

“For what? We are just making sure no one gets overcome by curiosity and accidentally tumbles through the hole in the ice.”

“Old Farley mentioned prospecting.” Wilf slid the harness off his shoulders and rested the tip of the scabbard on the toe of his boot.

“Old Farley is a worried soul. I can’t imagine the wagon or the skull did anything to cheer him up.”

“Give over my harness and go fetch a pail of stew and a loaf of bread.”

“Molly’s got that taken care of. She said she wouldn’t let you starve, though the rest of us could go to perdition if we didn’t have enough sense to bring our own dinners. Da told her if she’d taken over the job of provisioning you, she could provision us all. I think she weasled a pie as well.”

Rafe looked past Wilf to see Harland Grott poke his head through the trap door. When he was high enough to lean on his elbows, he swung a pack to the floor and stopped. “I wonder if you can use an extra pair of eyes tonight?”

“What’s in the pack?”

“I thought I’d dust off my winter camping gear, and maybe bring a small beverage. Relive old times on campaign.”

“That gear must be fair to mouldering, even if you retired after they carved this smile in my face.”

“Oh, I keep my hand in. Especially late winter when the game starts moving about. A bit of hunting. Fresh meat for the pot, makes a fellow welcome. You know.”

“Fine, then. But take the bottle back. This is no time for a frolic, just a bit of watching and then to sleep.”

Harland removed two bottles from his pack and tucked them into last fall’s straw in the byre. He hitched one strap over his right shoulder and sauntered out the open door without stopping at the waiting sledge.

Rafe glanced at her nephew. “What is wrong with you, boy? You got worms crawling around under your face?”

“Are you just letting him join us?”

“And why not? Is there some reason he shouldn’t share in making sure no one falls into the hole at night?”

“Auntie, I thought we were going to talk about what happened to the river water, what we were going to do about it?”

“You think just our family can decide that? If it were a decision thing like that, surely your good mother would be part of this. No, this is about the Foals and their kin, making sure they don’t get to market with goods that weren’t theirs to begin with.”

“But Harland Grott. You know he’s from away, don’t you, even though he’s made a home here?”

“So’s your Uncle Barton. What of it?”

“But he married Auntie Finn, and he’s family.”

“There’s a lot of ‘buts’ in your head, boy. Now we’re back to family. You’ve heard the saying ‘keep your friends close…’?”

“And your en…”

Wilf stopped when Rafe held up a finger, moved it to her temple and winked. She retrieved the bottles and moved them to the byre across the aisle. She strapped on her harness and moved outside to finish loading the sledge. Molly came across the yard from the Pig and Toad, carrying a pail in each hand and a pack on her back. Rafe sniffed and smiled, wedging the stew in amongst the camping gear. Wilf removed the pie, still steaming, from the top of Molly’s pack and set that in one of the pail lids. Rafe nodded at her nephew. “Duck inside and grab that sack of winter mash for Blade, and we’ll be off. The others will join us at the river.”

That night, as they sat in front of the tent, Rafe missed fires under the night sky, sparks flying up to merge with the stars. The stories they told were no different than the ones told around the central fire in Winter Home, or Winter Quarters with Graven’s Guard, for that matter. But the cold air and hot stew, the smell of the pie mixed with smoke, knowing there would be toasted bread for breakfast, and even the thin sound of Blade whuffling in his oats, felt more like home than she had found since standing next to the Memory Oak that first day when she had dumped Wilf on his back.

—–

They set up three watches. Wilf with Ducky took the first watch, Harland and Molly, the second. Rafe took the last watch with Boyl.

The second watch started as Hopeworth’s Mill rose above the horizon. Molly rose quietly and squeezed through the tent flap, taking a blanket and leaving Rafe bundled in her furs. Rafe heard the girl crunch through the snow and greet Harland, already at the fire. After a few minutes, Harland said something in an encouraging tone and Molly laughed nervously and objected. Harland spoke again, reassuring. Molly acquiesced. There were more footsteps, and the tent flap opened and Molly squeezed through again.

“Just as you said, Auntie. He said there was no need for me to be up sitting in the cold and dark. Night watch was not near as glamorous as I thought.”

“Sleep tight, then. I’ll see to this.”

Rafe shrugged into a a heavy white sweater. She traded her red hat for a white one and rolled out under the back wall of the tent. She loosened her joints and wormed her way to the corner where she had a good view of the fire. Harland was sitting with his back to the fire, but pointed toward the tents instead of the hole in the ice. She waited and he waited.

When he rose, it was only after Molly had started to snore. To Rafe it sounded like a girl practiced at sneaking out at night, but it seemed to satisfy Harland. He dusted off his seat and knees and started to stroll toward the edge of the river.

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Talking to Girls

“I would like to punch that person in the throat for being so stupid!”

This girl’s comment was the first thing that came to mind after reading an essay by Lisa Bloom written in 2011. It brought up a lot of other things as well: Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a student’s sliced up arms, as a teacher being a mandated reporter. How honest do you be?

Bluntness is always a choice. One woman’s truth is another man’s opinion.

My first day teaching in a US school, I was 45 years old, proctoring study hall. A girl, a senior, approached.

“Is it always going to be like this?”

“Like what?” thinking Really, you are asking me this? Someone you don’t even know? A stranger?

“Stress, tests, failing. Friends stabbing you in the back.”

“Ahhh. That.” A pause. A moment to consider. But comforting has never been a really easy style. “Yes, it will be.”

“Oh. Forever?”

“It will always be different. You’ll get used to the testing. You’ll have performance reviews at work. That’s a kind of test. You’ll get to be the judgy one yourself.”

“I will?”

“And you’ll get to choose where you work, and who with. You can always walk away from those friends who are just mean.”

It helped. It didn’t always have to be grim.

As much as bluntness, whacky humor is important. I howled at the girl who created a possessed green PostIt note that plagued the mop-up guy at the Seven Eleven.

Being a fashionista isn’t always bad. Amidst all the Einsteins, Gandhis, and Hillary Clintons chosen as the most wished for dinner partners, there sat Coco Channel. She would never have crossed my horizon, but I knew she was a perfect fit.

Open research papers always got the share of instant make overs, chocolate delivery systems, and the like. But it also brought out questions like:

“If I really wanted to own a monkey in Maine, what would I have to do and how could I take care of it?” (It turns out that moving away is the only choice for monkey owners).

“If I wanted to raise a family here, what things would have to change for me to feel safe?”

“How can I accurately measure the oil in my engine and not burn it out again?”

“What is a decent water delivery system for a multi-horse trailer, so I don’t have to lug buckets to fill it up?”

Girls need honesty and they need space to ask questions. Most of all they need to learn that the right sort of competition is against themselves, tweaking their own self-image until they can become the person they always knew they were.

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Rafe–Frozen River (rev 1)

 

 

 

This is a revision, augmented and edited, of a section published last year.

Scraping-Ice-for-CuttingRafe rolled her shoulders and cracked her back as she stood at the edge of the ice, leaning on Blade, to watch the developing circus. It had started yesterday when Old Farley drilled pilot holes and declared the river frozen enough to start gathering ice. The cutters pushed their saws along lines marked with sawdust, making their cuts to the three-quarter depth that Old Farley had determined. Drovers lined up, sledges blanketed with hay and sawdust, ready to haul the blocks into the ice house.

Blade pulled on the red scarf Rafe had knit that winter, then stole her hat, whuffling hot breath through her gray hair, cut short for the impending spring. He was restless in his traces and did not appreciate being harnessed to sledge loaded with sawdust. Rafe rubbed her knuckles in the valley under his jaw. “It won’t be long now. You know you wouldn’t be any happier if we were on the march through snow, hock deep.”

Wilf joined her, flapping a wax covered board, and fiddling with the stylus tucked behind his ear. “So Auntie. Doing some heavy lifting today?”

Rafe nodded and continued her scratching. “Blade, here, is. Malingering again, I see.”

“Is this what you did back in the day?” said Wilf, tucking the tablet under his arm to warm the wax as he blew through his mittens. “Or were you out on the ice with the rest of the young bucks?”

“What I wanted to be was a cutter. But that wasn’t ‘seemly’ my mother felt. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.” Rafe glanced at Wilf. That he ignored such an opening, she thought, said that he had, indeed, heard the stories. “I started as a sweeper, keeping the harvest field clear of chips and snow, and then as a gaffer, like young Jole, there.”

Rafe picked up her hat and dusted off the snow. “And you, are you sorry you didn’t leave last summer? You could be warming your back under the northern sun, plaguing some other old soldier to tell you the stories of a misspent youth.”

“It really is all about you, isn’t it. Mother is right. You have no sense of family solidarity.” Wilf made himself stand taller and tested the wax on the tally board with his thumbnail. “As interesting as your maunderings of ancient history may be, I have stayed to support my young cousin, in his first ice harvest as a gaffer.”

Upriver some of the gaffers were playing at quarterstaves, but Jole poked the end of his pike into the snow that banked the river. He had the height for good leverage, flinging chunks of ice on their way to the shore as they flew into the air, pushed up by the water that filled in the gap when the blocks were released from the floe. He was light enough, though, that without the hobnailed boots, he would go flying to the opposite side of the river with each block he grabbed.

Old Farley waved his flag and Jole moved out onto the surface of the river. “Hey! Watch out you kids!” Jole swung his gaff toward a group of sweepers who were creeping toward the men. He had, of course, done the same thing when he was a kid, seeing how close to the cut he could get, jumping on a block of ice as it popped out of its hole, and riding until it stopped, part way to the shore. It was a dare that all kids did. But last year little Pharnam had mistimed his leap and that memory stuck.

The first knife was slid into the hole in the middle of the river. The serrated edge cut smoothly, parallel to the bank. The second side, opposite the first was finished. A team of men cut, on opposite sides, perpendicular to the bank. They would finish together. Jole moved into position, his gaff ready. Mick Jake was opposite him. They would pull the flying block forward as the cutters ducked and slid out of the way. Hale and Mose, at the cut in the middle of the river, would pull the ice forward, keeping pace with Jole and Mick. They braced to catch the ice.

When the sides of the hole were more than half finished there was a sound like the screel of the low strings on a violin played out of harmony. Inchy Foal’s sister, Snicker, Leaped from behind Jole, landed, belly down on the block, as the ice cracked neatly along the marked lines and dropped out of sight. Thunk. Jole’s bugged out eyes locked with Mick’s. who shrugged. Where was the water? And where was Inchy Foal’s sister?

Jole turned toward the shore, locking eyes with Rafe. Her scowl as she stalked onto the ice, Wilf sliding in her wake, made her look rather un-auntie-like.
Jole skated on his feet with Mick and the rest of the men, up to the edge of the hole. Children dashed ahead. They could hear the ice block rocking. The cutters swore.

“There’s dead fish down here!” called Snicker Foal, “froze solid,” as fish, one after the other, came flying out of the hole to clunk on the ice. “And guess where Mare Fisher’s headpiece ended up!” A wedding crown, draped in dried riverweed, came arching out of the hole and clunked on the ice as well. There at the bottom of the river, high and dry but well below the bottom of the ice, standing barely eye level with the bottom of the floe, was Snicker, not a bit winded and quite undamaged.  Fish stuck out like flags, in each hand. “There’s all kinds of junk down here,” she hollered.

A pool of bright light made the girl glow like an angel. Mottled shadows surrounded her as the sun bounced off thickened places in the ice. Toward the ford the river floor sloped up, nearly touching the bottom of the ice. In the other direction the floor sank away into the ice-imposed dusk. The partially cut ice started to crack and Jole and Mick found themselves sitting on ice blocks on either side of Snicker. When they stood up, they found they could see above the ice.

When the boys dropped out of sight, half the people on the ice had turned around and headed back to shore. Under the murmur of the crowd the ice was groaning, driving the people faster than any barked command. The population of Riverside was now about evenly split between ice and shore.

To Rafe’s eye there was no real danger. The hole left by the sawed out block was nearly four feet thick, as thick as Inchy Foal was tall. The uncut ice was still a foot thick, and would support the weight of a single person, but probably not a crowd. Rafe could see his sister, Snicker, still in possession of her two fish, hauled out of the hole by her agitated mother, and hear the constant flow of squabble.

“You can just drop those stinking sturgeon right there.” Ma Foal didn’t bother to look up at her daughter, but made a grab for the catch.

“They’re frozen, Ma. We can have them for supper.” Snicker might tower over the rest of her family, but she was no match for her mother’s low center of gravity on ice.

“I’m not cooking any dead fish found lying in the mud at the bottom of the river.” Ma Foal snatched the fish and flung them aside.

“But Ma, is it a river if there’s no water?” Snicker strained against her mother’s grip to retrieve the fish as they slid back toward the hole. Knees locked tight and the leather soles catching on the ice, Snicker countered her mother’s weight, as she was drag irrevocably to land.

Rafe was impressed by the question, and the girl’s tenacity. As mother and daughter struggled to shore, Jole thriftily picked up the fish and tucked them in his pack. Rafe smiled at her nephew and stepped onto the ice followed closely by Wilf.

By the time she reached the hole, the balance of people were on shore. Old Farley and one of the other cutters had dragged a ladder out and the early scavengers were using it to explore the river bottom. Jole and Mick were back, poking around the junk. Rafe herself did not descend, but rather walked around the opening, scrutinized the treasure seekers and considered.

The amount of junk poking out of the frozen mud was astounding. How much had been washed from upstream? Surely someone would have tried to pull out the wagon, and yet there it lay, crates still tied on. Other things, the crown, the ironware, things heavy enough to have sunk directly to the bottom, must have come from Riverside. She recognized the white of bones emerging from a gap between two tree length timbers. A logging effort had clearly supplied the wood. The river had left them fetched up under a rocky ledge.

Rafe shook her head. The Foal girl was right. It was hard thinking of this as a river without the water flowing under the ice. Deep as the riverbed was, it seemed more like a ravine. It did not even evoke one of the dry wadis in the north, that always anticipated a flash flood. How long had the river been empty?

Old Farley and his crew were moving toward the logs now. “We can use some of this timber to make braces for the ice. That will let us widen the hole.”

“We already lost one block. How we going to keep the next one from dropping to the bottom?”

“We didn’t lose nothin’. That’s what these timbers will be for. We can make rails and drag the ice to shore. We’re going to need every scrap of ice we got. If the river is gone, who can say what’ll happen to the well.”

Rafe recognized the tone of a man who no longer needed to present a patient face to his crew. She’d reached that point herself before she rode out of Graven’s Guard for the last time. She called down to the men, “Sun’s gone. You haven’t got even a half hour’s light.”

“Well, then,” said Old Farley, “there’s plenty of time to get Marlon to help. He’s got brains enough for three of these louts.” He clapped his hands together and dusted his hat on his thigh. “That will do.”

“Before you come up,” Rafe shouted down, “check out those bones wedged up there under the bank.”

Old Farley sent Jole and Mick off to take a look. “I doubt it’s one of ours. I don’t know anyone has gone missing, except maybe you, in the last forty years. Maybe the driver of that wagon, there.”

Then he turned to Wilf. “Look, boy. You go tell your Da that I want a word with him. And your Uncle Ducky as well. And maybe that Molly.” As Wilf hustled off he turned back to Rafe. “You’ll stay a bit, aye? I’d just as soon make sure no one got the idea to go prospecting for treasure in the night.”

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Wandering in a group and alone

EPSON MFP imageThe first whiff of diesel and hot rubber smacked into us as the air conditioned bus unloaded in the center of Rabat, Morocco. It was like coming home. Bags were piled in front of an arched gate in a stone wall dripping with jasmine. The street was dusty, a clutch of small boys leaned against each other and the wall. “Hey ‘Merican!” There we were, ninety-five spanking new Peace Corps Volunteers, along with the people who would teach language and the ways of the Maghreb – the Land of the West. We passed through the gate into a cool, lily lined garden.

Family tradition meant living abroad, learning new languages, and assimilating into a foreign culture, a sort of Miss Rumphius life. Joining the Peace Corps seemed to be the answer, but it was easy. “Finish college first,” said the woman on the phone who seemed to have answered the lost paperwork question before.

I finished college and tried again. The application process started off well, then foundered as all the transcripts, letters of support, and pages of blue boxed forms disappeared in the world of the postal service.

Thinking a life in journalism might be the ticket overseas, I moved back with my folks and started free-lancing as a writer, covering the political season, writing brochures for cedar fencing and in house newsletters for area businesses. My family was unimpressed. In February, I turned twenty-three. “Get a real job,” they said, “or go back to school and get some practical training. Become a teacher.” Reluctantly I signed up for the graduate school entrance exams.

Then, salvation! A notice appeared, in the local paper, that Peace Corps recruiters would be in Bangor the next week, conducting interviews out of a motel room downtown. Walk-ins welcome. At the end pale green corridor with seedy gray carpeting, the recruiters had set up their office. We chatted. They loved me. “Where do you want to go?” Three countries seemed like interesting prospects. Two weeks later the phone rang. “You’re going to Morocco. Get a passport, get a physical, get fingerprinted. Get the documents translated. You leave the first week of June.”

The stone wall surrounded a girls’ school that would house the new Volunteers for the next two months. Language classes were formed based on past experience, and I was placed with the group who were on their second tour with the Corps. Our teachers spoke only Arabic, in class or out.

I made a habit of going off on jaunts, eating charcoal roasted brochettes, drinking milk blended with marzipan. I explored the stone fortress that lined the harbor. I had grown up watching Dad chat in Swahili, Kikuyu, and Luragoli in Kenya, and later Arabic in Jordan. He picked up new words in restaurants, never failing to address people in their own languages. He the liaison. When students went on strike, he negotiated. When the government wanted to close the school in Jordan, he found the common ground. That became my strategy as I moved about the city. When venturing out with other Volunteers, I jumped in and used my language skills.

Once we moved to our assigned villages, there was a wretched afternoon spent in the garden of a small hotel, slumped on a stone bench, crying on a cleaning lady’s shoulder. She pointed out I was a big girl to be sitting there bawling my eyes out. “You speak pretty well,” she said. “This is what you wanted and this is what you’ve got.” She pointed out that my entire complaint had been in Arabic and she had gotten the point just fine.

Two other volunteers, both men, stationed in the village. Beyond sharing a maid and occasional meals, they wanted nothing to do with me. “We came here to absorb culture. Make your own friends,” and finally “Just get a life.” Our maid said the mostly smoked dope with the other young men in town.

Language immersion was the only choice. Teaching students, and fifty rounds of “Whose book is that? It is my book” did not cut it as far as comforting language went. Some British friends in Fes, a full day’s journey away from what was becoming Home, provided an opportunity to relax and speak English.

I made friends with the girls next door. I frequented the public baths, used sticky black soap, hennaed my hair, and ate mandarins floating in icy cold water. I went on walks with neighbors, my students’ mothers, and other young unmarried women met through my maid. I learned to kiss hands, eat politely, join in bawdy wedding songs. The market-day routine was buying two eggs and taking them to the fried dough maker for a deep fried breakfast sandwich. Spices from cone shaped mounds of red and yellow.

I still dressed oddly by local standards, wearing a wooly man’s djellebah, a kind of over the head, floor length coat with a hood. The one worn by women, while prettier and often embroidered, was thin and required layers of clothing underneath in order to stay warm during the winter. I still misspoke to everyone’s great humor, but learned to avoid saying anything truly rude. Trips to Fes, to spend the weekends speaking English, became sporadic events.

One of the American men transferred to mystical Marrakech, then back to the States. The one who remained lasted about two weeks before suggesting we share a house. His or mine, it didn’t matter. “I know,” he said, “that we weren’t very nice to you. But now I really understand and want to make it right.”

It would, I realized, be an upheaval. “Let me think about it.” That afternoon I went to the baths. I helped wash a couple of kids, got scrubbed myself, and warmed my bones to the core. As I was getting dressed, one of the attendants said, “We’ve been watching you. You’re not a prostitute, like some of those other foreigner women. You try to belong.” Decision made.

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