I Think I Can

I own a stripped-spine copy of The Little Engine That Could. I’m not sure how I came by it, but with its soiled cloth cover rubbed bare at the corners, it could be the very book I had as a child. I read it in my grandparents’ house in Queens, where I lived from age six to eight. It was a good book for learning how to read, with all those good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain being repeated every time the funny little clown asks the next engine who comes along for help. It is also an inspirational story. Those for whom the task would have been easy decline; an old engine sighs, “I can not, I can not.” Finally the Little Blue Engine offers, “I think I can—I think I can,” but says it many more times than twice.

The copy of the book that might have been mine

It was my favorite book. I must have loved the repetition. Maybe the message too. That someone little could climb mountains. That good children would get their food and toys because the Little Blue Engine practiced positive thinking.

When 45 was elected, I resolved to Do Something. The Women’s March, calling congress, sending postcards, posting political bits on Facebook. But marching in the streets is a young person’s game. I knew I wouldn’t keep doing it. So I also resolved to volunteer in an area this administration threatened. So many choices: our precious national parks, the environment, travel bans, opposing walls, health care. But I’m a teacher, went with my skill set and became an in-home tutor for a refugee learning English. Just me, helping just one young woman.

F— is 25, had only been married a few months when her husband M—’s application was approved and he came here. Already pregnant, she joined him two months later, when he had the tiny apartment and the night shift maintenance job. She took English classes until the baby came. When we met, she had been here nine months and the baby was three months old. “She is lucky,” M— said, holding his daughter, “she’s an American citizen.”

F— confused dimes and nickels, kept thinking the larger coin should be worth more. She mixed up question words: where and when and why. We worked on those things and the basic grammar and speaking lessons the program gave us. She catches on quickly, does her homework.

Their rectangular four-story apartment building is in the middle of a row of four-story apartment buildings. In the minute foyer I should have to buzz them, but there’s almost always a stone holding the inside door open. I climb narrow stairs, a smell of cooking oil wafting down the hall, the sound of several languages coming through nearby doors, a baby crying. Taking off my shoes, I have learned to say, “Salaam aalaik,” which makes them smile, and they respond, “Aalaik Salaam.” Peace be with you. And with you also.

At first F— was quiet, but now she says, confidently, “How are you? Come in.” The tea set she brought with her from Afghanistan is always on the cof—excuse me, the tea table—usually with a small plate of muffins she’s made. In deference to me, we sit on the couch. Once I arrived as they were finishing a meal, a quilted cloth spread over the carpet by the floor cushions, their dishes arranged on it. I imagine it keeps the hips and knees flexible if you do that all your life. Alas. Too late for mine.

I could feel F— tiring of the book exercises after a month. Our conversation choices are restricted by her limited vocabulary. When I taught Spanish, I collected children’s books in Spanish and my high school classes read from them every week. “Oh, Sra. Dubrava, it’s Good Night Moon!” a girl would exclaim, and hug the book to her chest. Buenas noches Luna. Books we loved when small evoke misty memories, even at sixteen.

The next class I brought The Hungry Caterpillar. F— was delighted, could read it to me almost fluently. There were only five new words. “Lollipop” was one. I brought her a lollipop next time, a large round red and white one like the illustration. She added the new words to her vocabulary list, writing the elegant Dari-Persian translations after them.

For one class, the baby was fussy. We spent most of our time taking turns holding her. Another was cancelled for a medical appointment. More than a week later, I came again. F— was excited. “I go shopping,” she said, and I made a note to work on past tenses. She pulled a shiny new book out of a plastic bag. The Little Engine That Could. I hugged it to my chest. I read it to her. She read it to me. When she came to, “I think I can,” she laughed over the repetition and said, “I think I can learn English.”

Posted in Education, Translation | 12 Comments

My Complaints (as of April)

Number One: Climate Change. March was named after the God of War for good reason. March is evil and cold. In Colorado March is the snowiest month. So it was wrong that I knelt in the yard, weeding around blooming tulips and daffodils with a mist of sweat moistening my back. It was March. I should have been huddled over the glow of my laptop, watching snow swirl down, making a pot of stew. If this blog post is late, it is climate change’s fault.

Daffodils & Tulips in the yard

Number Two: Time. Where does it go? How did it get to be 4:30 p.m.? I got up. I just had breakfast—no, wait—I had lunch too. How did that happen? Why haven’t I accomplished anything I meant to do today, like getting my taxes organized? And now I have to think about making dinner?

Number Two Explained, Number Three Embedded: It was Sunday, I slept in. There was the Sunday paper to read, the latest Prez 45 outrages. He’s at Mar-a-Lago again, like every weekend. Do you know what that costs us? Thirteen golf games in his first 70 days, as opposed to Obama’s ZERO games in the same period. Email, Facebook, weeding flowerbeds in unusual warmth. That’s how 4:30 happened. Zip.

Number Four: Money. Our tax appointment is tomorrow. Because we hate everything to do with money unless it drops into our hands with no effort on our part, we put off dealing with it as long as possible. I at least reconcile my checking, so that part of the tax record is download ready. Phil does not, so for the week before doomsday I endure his grumbling and we can’t go to the movies because he’s buried in tax prep. He does this every year, says he must like the stress.

I also scramble for records of this or that deductible, because I don’t track such things. Is it about money? My mind wanders to an Agustín Cadena quote I want to translate. We’re artists, for goodness sake. We don’t have the skills to deal with money. Someone should handle that for us so we can concentrate on our art.

Number Five: Sleeplessness. The inability to stop listening to my mind is worse than the not sleeping. When it comes to your own head, earplugs are useless. Normally, after lights out, within minutes that seem like seconds, Phil starts snoring. Usually it’s a quiet snore and I go to sleep anyway, even though I resent how quickly he goes to sleep. I fall asleep after tossing and turning, changing the pillows, discovering an odd lump on my leg, remembering several things I meant to do, and attempting to regulate my inhale/exhale cycle to a count of five to eight. This takes twenty minutes to an hour. Then I go to sleep. Normally.

The sleepless night isn’t like that. My eyes keep popping open. There are sharp objects in the bed and invisible things crawling on my arm. If it’s winter my feet are frozen; if it’s summer, I can’t cool off. I’m thinking about building a garage and suddenly realize the side of the yard I’ve always thought it should be on is where the sewer pipes are. My eyes widen again. Is that a problem? I envision sewers having to be accessed through the floor of my garage.

Phil’s snoring accelerates from the purring stage to a Harley Davidson rumble. I snore too, and loudly, I’m told, but I can’t hear it, so who cares? I’ve been lying here for eternity. Don’t look at the clock. It makes it worse. Noise. What was that? Someone’s on the roof.

I squeeze the extra roll of flesh at my belly. My hands are obsessed with it, can’t stay away. Should never have eaten that cake, how can I get rid of this belly if I keep eating cake. And exercise. When’d I go to the gym? I skipped Tuesday and never took the walk I was supposed to take and—just feel this gut—it’s huge.

Number One, Two, Three and Five:

April opens with a hint of snow—back to normal, however briefly.

The passage of time is a nightmare of a different color when you’re listening to your idiot brain at one a.m.

Prez 45 seeks to destroy our environment, promote ethnic and religious hatred, allow corporations to do as they will, take from the poor and give to the rich. At two a.m. I composed a furious message to send to my senators.

Number Four? I can’t remember what that was about. Oh, the quote. In reply to the question why write in these times, Agustín Cadena said:

“Times of crisis are when writing is most needed. To write is a kind of activism, an action, a political act, even if one doesn’t want to be conscious of that. Just the testament to life that writing represents is already a declaration of principles.”


Posted in Humor, Politics | 5 Comments

What I Did On My Birthday

From Frida Kahlo’s garden: Our Lady of Guadalupe

If you’re an artist, you work all the time. If you’re a writer, it’s all material. We’re “retired” but seldom take a day off. I need to post my syllabus for a writer’s workshop I’m teaching. Phil has twenty orders for his restored dust jackets. There’s a painting he wants to do, a series of poems I mean to revise. The very thought of taking a day off induces shivers of panic. But when Phil asked what I wanted for my birthday, I had this wild idea: a day off. He developed a plan, we powered down the computers and left the house in the morning, not to return until evening.

First we saw Judy at her swank rehab in Lakewood, took a latte for her, coffee for us, pumpkin bread for us all. It was sunny and mild, a view of hills outside her wide windows. Out there west of town, the land rolls more emphatically, gathering itself to become foothills in a few miles. On her way to a demonstration in support of the ACA, Judy fell and broke both arms. She’s made progress and is also engaged in radicalizing the rehab staff. “Did you know it was International Women’s Day?” She asks the nurses. “You know why we were marching?” You can’t keep a good woman down, even with full casts on both arms. Nevertheless, she persists.

Then back downtown to the Denver Art Museum for the Mi Tierra show, a group of installations by Hispanic-American artists, including tough ones like “Erasure,” Anna Teresa Fernandez’ memorial protest for the 43 disappeared students from Iguala; and fun ones like Justin Favela’s “Fridalandia,” his evocation of Frida Kahlo’s garden in piñata crepe paper. It’s art if it brings sadness and smiles.

The Star Wars costume exhibit is still selling out. For Phil’s sake, we did wander through the Star Wars gift shop, where I said firmly, “we’re not buying that $300 model of a starship.” Jeez. We also saw the architectural exhibit detailing the museum’s iterations to date and those projected in the near future. You thought they were done? There’s a mushroom-shaped welcome center to come.

We had lunch at the museum’s Palettes restaurant. Palate/palette, get it? Winter squash soup. Beet and kale salad with walnuts and goat cheese, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds for me. Phil had pork schnitzel with red cabbage and mashed potatoes. How does this marriage survive?

Then a late afternoon showing of “The Red Turtle,” nominee for the animated film Oscar, stunningly beautiful—Phil says it’s a French style of animation—perhaps a fantasy, but you’re never sure. Not a word is spoken—no dialogue, just natural sounds, music. A guy gets shipwrecked on a deserted island and then… Produced by the brilliant Japanese Studio Ghibli and directed by British-Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it took my breath away.

In recent years most movies are multi-national productions, as you realize if you stay for the credits crawl. The gradual merging and mixing that is happening in all lands and walks of life has already happened in the film industry. I like noting the multiple ethnicities of names and locations as the thousands who made the film roll past.

“The Red Turtle” was a counterweight for “I Am Not Your Negro,” the James Baldwin documentary we’d seen a few days before. Baldwin is one of our finest writers, but the film isn’t a bio pic. It’s a portrait of America, of Baldwin’s analysis of America, interwoven with the filmmaker’s judicious selections of archival footage, bits of old movies and TV. An image that seared me was a news clip of a black girl on her way to integrating a high school, surrounded by young white people. Their faces are twisted and ugly, their mouths splitting with insults, eyes oozing hatred. That loathing of those we have sinned against most sorely, is what we must someday confront if we are ever to heal, Baldwin believed. In “Notes of a Native Son” he wrote, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

After “the Red Turtle,” we came home just past dusk. These days we feel smug when we manage to do that, no longer enjoy late nights or driving in the dark. A bowl of soup, a bit of PBS news, pondering the exquisite film we’d just seen. The story isolates a man, a woman, their child, paring down to essentials to reveal the essential cycles of life: how we struggle, grow, love, suffer loss and hurt, recover, watch our children go off on their own as they must, grow old, prepare to die. I remember a wide shot of the separate tracks two people leave as they walk through a field of golden grass rippling in the breeze, tracks that slowly wind toward each other and unite.



Posted in Humor, Memoir, Writing | 7 Comments

Skulls and Art

Posada’s famous Calavera Catrina

Bishops from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. have united to proclaim that praying to Santa Muerte, a folk figure depicted as a skeleton, is not a good thing and people should stop. Delightful. I found this news on back pages of the February 21 Denver Post. Finding articles NOT about 45 is a daunting task these days. By comparison, death is a fine alternative topic.

It turns out that while Catholic enrollments are dropping, devotees of Santa Muerte are increasing, particularly among drug cartels. I imagine such prayers as, “Dear Saint Death, please kill off the rival cartel and let my heroin shipment get through to Detroit.”

The article didn’t say so, but I’m pretty sure the church regards Santa Muerte as a consort of the Devil. A rack of bones with long dark hair, she often carries the scythe favored by the grim reaper of our heritage. Evolved over centuries from Aztec deities, she reminds me of the Hindu goddess Kali, who’s been around thousands of years, wears a necklace of skulls and is way sexier.

The upshot is there’s nothing new about lady death, she’s just been reconfigured. Sort of like the way Tea Party protesters at town hall meetings a decade ago have now become liberal protesters at town hall meetings. It hurts my feelings, by the way, that they accuse us of being paid activists. Did we accuse the Tea Party of that?

When I worked at Chicano Humanities and Arts Council half a life ago, we had a big poster of the lady skeleton in her rustic wooden cart. That was Doña Sebastiana, a New Mexican variation on the theme. She forgoes the scythe for a bow and arrow. I rather like the irony of that: instead of getting shot by the arrow of love, you realize, too late—this is not that arrow. But either way, a lady skeleton of death has become popular. And the bishops aren’t happy. No good can come of it, they say.

The bishops don’t know the half of it. Día de los Muertos has taken America by storm. Everybody and his nephew has an elaborately decorated Día skull, or sugar skulls with their names written on the forehead. I’ve seen skull earrings and pink flannel pajamas covered in pretty little skulls. Skull tats and skull T-shirts. I was in a Mexican restaurant, idly looking around while waiting for our food, and realized the décor was entirely skull-based. Even the wallpaper had a tiny skull pattern in it.

I was hoping to find a skull postcard to send to Paul Ryan this week. He’s apparently stopped taking our petitions and phone calls, so the women’s march folk thoughtfully published his home address. I sent him a few cards, reminding him of the importance of health care and civil rights. Sadly, none had skulls on them.

I have a lady esqueleto on my desk, wearing a sparkly red dress, pounding away on her computer. I call her Pollyanna Posada. Posada, in honor of José Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican artist who, around 1900, created the satirical skeletons everyone copies; and Pollyanna because I love alliteration. Pollyanna was a gift from Donna and Mike, two cosmopolitan hedonists I know. They gave her to me when I had a birthday that meant I was on the downhill.

Pollyanna Posada at work

Pollyanna’s kind of like me. Most days I can’t resist optimism. Sending Paul Ryan those postcards cheered me up, even though I know he won’t read them. A few days ago I saw merchandise for sale on Facebook in the afternoon. That evening we heard the news about Elizabeth Warren being silenced while reading the Coretta Scott King letter. They showed a clip of McConnell saying she was warned but nevertheless she persisted. “That,” I tell my husband, “is already a T-shirt.”

Response is faster than thunder after lightning these days. That also makes me happy. And I’m completely jazzed by the fact that Pollyanna’s still writing in spite of being dead. Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a writer—a failure to write is.

“Look,” I tell Doña Sebastiana, “point that arrow elsewhere: I need to finish this blog.” Creation of art is always done in defiance of death. I’d never wear that sequin dress though: trashy.


Posted in Humor, Politics, Writing | 5 Comments