Questions

I was drying off the Girl when she began asking me some rather basic questions.

“Why do we grow up?”

Why indeed? Really, who wants to grow up when a child in the Western world? Still, I thought to continue the conversation: “Why? Don’t you want to grow up?”

“Because I don’t want to get old and go to work.”

From Bricks to Books: A Literacy Memoir

In some sense, my love of reading and writing was inevitable. Given my parents’ background and dreams for my future, given the religious environment of my youth, and given my temperament, it would have been more surprising for me not to grow into a man who has bookshelves in each and every room of his house, with books scattered on coffee tables and nightstands.

When my father was in ninth grade, he decided he would drop out of school. His father, James, a mason by trade, was wise enough not to forbid my father from making these choices for himself.

“Good,” James replied. “You’ll come to work with me tomorrow.”

As soon as they arrived at the work site, James pointed to a large pile of bricks and indicated that my father was to carry them to another area of the construction site. My father spent the rest of the day hauling bricks to James’ journeymen masons and mixing mortar. He finished the day with raw fingers, a dragging body, and second thoughts.

Three days later, he declared that he’d reconsidered his future in school. Ten years later, he was working as an electrician by day and going to school at night, with the hope of becoming a draftsman. By the time I was in school, he’d become a project manager, with several engineers working under him and a handful of patents to his name.

He was determined that my intellectual life would be the opposite of his.

II

My first memories of books are connected with my father. I sat on his lap, and he read book after book to me. Every week, my mother would buy me a Golden Tell-A-Tale book at the supermarket, and my father would read it to me that evening, along with a handful of older favorites. He often found the books as amusing as I did; occasionally, he found them more so. As he tried to read The Sleepy Puppy for the first time, he had to put the book down several times to wipe the tears out of his eyes and calm his laughter. This comedic trend continued: as I grew older, Dad read more and more “adult” books. When I was about nine or ten, he introduced me to Tom Sawyer and the pirate adventures of Treasure Island. Not only did my father read to me every night, but he also read to the family as we drove to vacation or to visit relatives. Mother always drove, and he always read something to us. My early love of reading, then, was deliberate: I loved reading because my father loved it.

It didn’t take too long, though, for my father to graduate out of the “worldly” books and into the religious books that I listened to him reading long before anything like “Books on Tape” existed. As we belonged to a less-than-perfectly orthodox denomination, we were constantly exhorted to “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks [us] to give an account for the hope that is in [us].” Because many of the organization’s beliefs were simply and blatantly heterodox, we had to read much from the church’s publishing division that explained, essentially, why the Bible seems to say thus-and-such but in fact states the polar opposite.

We had so many Bibles, commentaries, and church-produced literature that my father and his brother constructed an entire wall of built-in bookshelves for his downstairs office. There was room left over for dad’s Great Books collection, and I used to thumb through the hardback copies Aristotle, Pascal, Adam Smith, Lawrence Sterne, Lavoisier, and others that comprised the collection, wondering when my reading and attention span would be great enough to tackle such seemingly incomprehensible books: I admired the Lexile heights from afar.

As I grew older, books continued to a part of our relationship. Most of my Father’s Day and birthday gifts were books. While in college, I worked in the bookstore, and with the discount I could get on discontinued books, I once bought enough new books to hide them throughout the house the next birthday. Even today, when it comes time to pick out a present for him, I head to the nearest bookstore.

When I became a father myself, I began passing on the love of reading to my daughter. I read to her in the womb, and every night, my wife and I take turns reading to her while she’s in bed. I’ve inadvertently upped the intellectual ante, though: because I married a Pole, we have a bilingual household, and on Mama nights, Lena chooses her favorite Polish-language books, often frustrated the next evening when I don’t read a Polish book to her. “I don’t want you learning my bad accent” is the weak excuse I give.

III

I wrote my first book when I was in grade school. The teacher handed out blank books (little more than blank paper folded hamburger style, then stapled and trimmed) after we’d been reading Virginia Mueller’s Monster books for independent reading, and she declared that we were going to write and illustrate our own Monster books.

For days, I thought about what I might want to write. The formula for a Monster book was simple: the purple beast was always going new places, and the title always reflected the novel destinations: Monster Goes to School; Monster Goes to the Doctor; Monster Goes Shopping. I had two concerns, really. First, I wanted it to be original: I wanted to take Monster some place he’d never been before and some place no other student in the class would think of. Second, I needed to compensate for my rather limited artistic ability: I knew I wasn’t the best drawer in the class, and I didn’t want that to be painfully obvious in my creation. Fortunately, I was able to solve both problems easily enough: I could draw boats without much difficulty, and I didn’t think anyone would think to take Monster to a shipyard.

We worked on the books in class and at home, and I noticed a striking difference between my creation and others’: most students were using the illustrations to take up the majority of the individual page while I was trying to have at least three or four lines of text per page. I’d even decided that, no matter how difficult, I was going to have one entire page with “nothing but words.”

Writing, too, ultimately came from my father. He’d dreamed of being an adventure story writer for so long that he enrolled in a creative writing course and sent several manuscripts to various publications. “I got enough rejection slips to wallpaper the study,” he later laughed: he never received any more positive notification from a publisher than the occasional encouraging word scrawled on the rejection slip.

As a deacon and eventual lay pastor in our church, my father spent a great deal of time writing sermons and exegetical treatises. Seeing someone sitting, surrounded by books, absorbing and synthesizing made it easier for me to do my own writing (i.e., homework). I learned that reading and writing are the same: the difference is only in the direction of the relationship. It also provided a practical example of real writing, not just writing for an audience of one, the teacher.

When I began writing for school (essays, research papers, etc.), I found it to be relatively easy, and occasionally, I even found myself excited about the prospect of writing on this or that topic. The process of untangling my thoughts and research, of putting down ideas in a systematic, organized way appealed to me immediately.

It was in eleventh grade that I discovered the journal. My English teacher told us the first day of school, “Go out tonight and buy a spiral notebook. You’ll be writing your journal in it.”

“What do we write?” someone asked.

“Anything,” Mr. Watson replied.

Just writing anything, whatever came to my head, had never occurred to me. The thought of creating a narrative of my life as I lived it, being my own stenographer, thrilled me. It was as if I’d discovered that I could see after thinking myself blind for sixteen years. I went home thinking the journal might be the most engaging assignment I’d ever received in school.

Every night I wrote in that journal, pages and pages of adolescent angst and joy. When I was the object of a perceived wrong, I simply couldn’t wait to get back to my room to write about it. Somehow putting it into words helped it make more sense. When hormones got the best of me and I cheated on my long-distance girlfriend, I wrote about in small, guilty letters that filled several pages. When a minister told a friend and me that we couldn’t perform a certain song in the youth talent show because of the simple fact that it was originally performed by an objectionable band, I scratched my anger, in exaggerated, looping letters, into that journal. When I felt a teacher was giving busy work, I jotted a quick note about it in the journal.

Once every six-week grading period, Mr. Watson took up the journals and read them all, leaving responses and notes in the margins. He helped me come to grips with my cheating heart, writing a full page in response. His words calmed my anger at being discriminated against musically. His calm acceptance of me, in writing and in person, made me a better person and inspired me to be a teacher. Indeed, were it not for Mr. Watson, I’m not sure what I would be doing now, but I’m not convinced I’d be a teacher. (The greatest regret of my life is that I never told him that. He died of leukemia several years ago, when I was still living abroad. I never even wrote him a letter to say, “I am who I am because of you.”)

My journal writing continues to this day. While I no longer keep it in a ragged spiral notebook, I still try to write daily, still try to pour out my frustrations and joys. I write on the computer, in leather-bound journals, in a small Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. During the last several years, my writing has shifted to a blog I keep as a scrapbook of my family’s life and my daughter’s development, but I still consider it a journal of sorts. Writing a public journal, of course, raises the question of audience, and I’m not nearly as frank online as I was when keeping a daily journal, but it brings the same benefits.

I was most diligent in my journal keeping while I was in the Peace Corps in the mid-1990’s in Poland (of all places). During the three years of my extended service (I didn’t get enough in two years), I don’t believe I missed a single day writing in my journal, and it began the moment I boarded the flight Washington, D.C. to join the other volunteers on June 1, 1996:

I don’t know what to write – I don’t know what to feel. I’ve been shoved to this moment by a force more powerful than anything I’ve ever encountered. It seems time was jerked from me like a tablecloth yanked from a table. It’s been so sudden that I don’t believe I’ve even begun to deal with the emotions. What I’m about to do still feels as unreal to me as the landscape far beneath me.

Yet as I leave, as I finally get under way, a calm has settled in. The most difficult part is over. I cannot turn back now even if I wanted to. With that finality is an almost perverse security. Now that I can no longer cling, I no longer reach. Of course this is just the eye in the first of many emotional storms I’ll face. I suppose part of it is simply the beauty of flying – it’s difficult to be upset up here.

Of course, there was so much to write about, living in a new culture and learning a new language. On arriving in Poland, the first thing I wrote was:

Everything is different. I suppose this is culture shock, on a small scale at least.

From the air the first thing I noticed was the fields: long and narrow. From that point everything just became more and more different. (Horrible sentence construction.) The roads are terrible, the people are friendly, and nothing feels the same. Even the toilets and bed sheets are different.

I would love to write more, but I am simply too exhausted.

In addition, I was exploring my post-Peace Corps options and gradually coming to the conclusion that I wanted to earn a doctorate in religious studies (specifically philosophy of religion). I have many pages of response to Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and others (I finally began reading the Great Books!) scattered among celebrations of finally understanding this or that element of Polish grammar, screeds about this or that ridiculous aspect of the Polish school system, and descriptions of odd toilet designs and of traveling about Poland by bus.

It was during my second teaching stint in Poland (2001-2005) that I discovered blogging and quickly created two: one for sharing my adventures in Poland, the other for discussing the religion and church I’d grown up in. The first continues to this day; the second, while it reached a peak of about 500 visitors a day, exists only in the Internet Archive site.

Keeping a blog has changed my journal writing habits. Indeed, it has virtually killed my journal: I only have so many hours each day to fulfill an ever-growing list of responsibilities. I blog about many of the things I would have journaled about, yet I find there are enormous differences. The first, of course, is audience. A journal is private, and while my blog has such low readership that it might as well be private, the potential for uninvited eyes exists. Additionally, blog entries encourage brevity. Lastly, I find I tend to let photographs tell my story instead of my writing.

IV

In some sense, my love of reading and writing was inevitable. Given the teachers I had, the desire of my parents that I have a strongly intellectual life, the books that surrounded me and shaped my life and views, it’s certainly not surprising that my chosen profession involves teaching the skills and techniques to read and write effectively. Teaching something I love is advantageous in that I don’t have to fake the enthusiasm I feel. It helps create a positive atmosphere in my classroom, and it draws me back each and every August.

Family and Food

I should have some kind of keen observation about the nature of extended family and the good old southern Thanksgiving dinner.

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For the former, I suppose one just has to look at the pictures: pockets of conversation springing up here and there; the some males drifting in and out of the living room to check the progress of a given football game; women circled around a child.

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Getting the extended family together was the goal of Thanksgiving on my father’s side. I recall celebrations of twenty years ago when all the brothers and sisters, in-lawns, children, grandchildren, and a few guests got together and filled a small house to overflowing. There must have been forty or more people some years.

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Now, we meet in a bigger house with a smaller family: all the cousins have grown and have families of their own. Some are even grandparents. They have their own gaggle to gather together Thanksgiving and Christmas: if we tried to bring together the same group today, there would be sixty or seventy, not just forty.

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I wouldn’t recognize half of them, and I wouldn’t even known many. A stranger in one’s own family. It would be like looking through photos of someone else’s family reunion.

Still, even in that case, there would always be the familiar faces.

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The smaller group is better. No strangers. Just smiles and quiet conversation.

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It all spills outside as the children play. Blizzards in the north and our family has Thanksgiving in shorts.

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Now, just as my cousins and I played together years ago, our children play together. Uncles put them up trees, older cousins lead them into various adventures: it’s all very familiar.

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Playing in grandpa’s back yard, exploring together. I have the sense I’m watching my own life.

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Perhaps just looking at the pictures wouldn’t suffice, though. Pictures are worth a thousand words only to those who know the narrative behind the shot. For others, they’re just pictures of strangers.

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Do the pictures of the food suffice, though? There are no exotic holiday-influenced dishes here. Turkey and dressing with thick, chunky giblet gravy; casseroles that are a variation on a cheese-and- theme; an enormous ham with a lottery of uneven slices; green beans, greens, and sweet tea. It is a southern meal in spades.

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Pictures are enough, but I didn’t take many pictures of food. It was, in a way, the very least important guest.

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Interrupted

“I’ll just head out now, while the rice is cooking,” I called out to K, keys in hand, heading out for a quick run to the grocery store. I pulled out of the drive way, and as I came to the intersection, I saw something odd: a police car blocking the road at the next intersection — my destination. I continued, thinking there must have been an accident and planning on taking a back route. I glanced down the blocked street and saw a sight one doesn’t see often except on the news: dozens of men running around in hazardous materials suits.

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What to do? Go back for the camera and tripod.

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I was the only one with a camera — other than the local Fox affiliate crew — but there was a small crowd gathering. The officer blocking the road replied, “Hey, I’ve got no idea myself,” to all queries, but we all knew.

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With that much haz-mat protection, it could only be one of two things. Neither is something you want in your neighborhood.

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“The coroner hasn’t arrived yet,” laughed one of the spectators, “so we know it’s not a pile of dead bodies in the basement.”

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“And we know they weren’t growing a little grass in the basement,” another added. The group consensus: meth lab.

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And sure enough, it was. Odd and rather creepy to think that I passed a house every day for several years where such nefarious, lethal behavior occurred. Most chilling: I’ve seen children playing in that yard.

Coincidentally enough, there was another drug bust in our little town on Friday.

Sunday Afternoon

“Tata, I want to help!” she calls as she hops down the deck stairs. With an armful of branches and twigs, I’m agreeable, but I smile, wondering how much help I’m actually going to get.

“Grab a couple branches,” I explain, “and follow me.”

We march to the street, L chattering all the way, explaining how she’s going to explain tomorrow how she helped her daddy.

Suddenly, behind me, I hear it: “Ouch!” She’s rubbing her eye; I’m wondering when she’s going to ask for a bandage. It’s been her obsession lately: no matter the wound, no matter the location, there must be First Aid.

“The stick went in my eye,” she says, with concerned voice. After so many months of learning her various voices, I know it’s nothing serious. It’s not quite play — something did happen — but perhaps her concern is exaggerated. She sees K and me hurt ourselves, and she models the reaction.

“Come on,” I say offhandedly. “You’ll be fine. Little things happen when you work as hard as you’re working now.

She plods along, amending the story she’s going to tell tomorrow, practicing the Tragedy of the Stick.

As we’re returning to the backyard, the late afternoon sun reflects off the golden autumn leaves, and it’s as if she’s walking into pure light or developing a halo. I walk about twenty paces behind, watching her hair bounce and sway as she dances into a golden November afternoon.

Count Me Out, In

In order to create, we must destroy.

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Partial destruction is oxymoronic: in the process of destroying, we often find we need to destroy more than we’d initially anticipated.

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One cannot destroy only halfway, though one can create halfway. It’s called cutting corners.

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Living in a house highlights that mystery, for a house is itself a mystery.

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There are leaks that leave tracks, and sinks that have no visible connection to the main drain line.

“When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out. In.” You know, it’s going to be alright. Eventually.

Prayers and Candles

Today is All Saints’ Day — one of the best times to be in a Catholic country like Poland. This morning, every single cemetery in Poland had something like this going on.

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Photo from 2001

Every year I write the same things and probably show some of the same pictures. Since we haven’t experienced All Saints’ Day in Poland since 2004 (has it really been that long?), I’ve only a very limited stock of photos, and an even more limited stock of stories: I can only tell the same stories so many times before even I get tired of them.

That’s something of the appeal of it: the repeating ritual of the Catholic liturgical calendar means we’re always coming back to the same place. It makes life less of a straight line and more of a spiral.

One of the most calming and consoling times in that spiral is the evening of All Saints’ Day, when all the cemeteries flicker with the light of thousands of candles, and the hissing, crackling, and popping of the candles punctuate the prayers of the faithful.

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I would visit the cemetery at least twice: once when the priests were leading prayers and a second time when no one else was there. Both were calming in very different ways.

Surrounded by Poles who had intimate connections to the cemetery — here lies a brother, a mother, an uncle, a great-grandmother — I felt the peace of the community, even though I was an outsider. Catholicism is very communal and intimate, and prayers in a candle-light cemetery are the epitome of that intimacy and community spirit.

Yet it was when I was alone that I felt more calm than I’ve ever felt in my life. Surrounded by death, I felt more alive than any other time of the year.

Halloween, in comparison, is so distinctly American: commercial, whimsical, with just enough evil to make us worry but not enough to make us act.

I prefer the Polish Catholic version, and I would imagine I always will.