Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Return of Bunny Tibbs

This is what she’s supposed to look like:

This is what she looked like when I finally—inadvertently—found her this week:

If you haven’t followed the saga of Sgt. Thomas Tibbs’ favorite companion in the world (after me, I’d like to hope), click here for the back story. To summarize, Bunny was the first plush toy I gave Thomas when he came to live with me, and he is bonded to her just like a three-year-old with a favorite blankie. Trouble is, he’s very possessive. The first time I picked her up from the yard and returned her to Thom’s bed, he buried her the next day. It took him some months, but he eventually taught me to keep my hands off of her or else she went into ‘deep hiding’ for a few days… or weeks… or months.

I don’t know what happened last spring to make Thomas feel threatened, but something kicked his hoarding inclination into overdrive, and I realized one day that he had buried not just Bunny, but every plush toy in the yard. (Currently, he has six inside buddies and four or five outside buddies—I’ve lost count because I can’t remember who’s buried in the yard.) And he buried them so deep, I couldn’t find any of them. Over time, he dug up every one of them—except Bunny. When she didn’t appear after many weeks, I went looking for her one day, digging up each one of his holes. (I did this in the late evening using a flashlight, after Thom had gone to bed in the house, so he wouldn’t know what I was doing. If you think it might’ve been a bit creepy, looking for small lifeless bodies by digging quietly in the dark with a hand spade, you would be correct.) Alas, I never found her.

With the heavy rains this past week, I thought we had lost Bunny forever, that she would be entombed in mud that would dry around her, incasing her forever and eventually degrading her lovely soft self. But no! The rains unearthed her, much to my glee. Or at least partially unearthed her; I actually went looking for yet another plush toy Thomas had buried (in the mud) the day before, but when I began digging, a long slender ear emerged. Poor Bunny had been buried for so long, a weed had actually grown through her foot. If you look closely at this photo, you might be able to see it:

Yes, I probably should have left her in the yard for Thom. But she was so dirty. So into the washer and dryer she went. Later that night, at bedtime, I presented her to Thom. In the past when I’ve done this, Thomas has awakened me in the middle of the night whimpering, trotting back and forth across the family room floor with Bunny clamped firmly in his jaws, frantic to get out to bury her once again. This time, however, I woke the next morning to find him happily sprawled out in his bed, the tip of his nose gently brushing her soft clean fur. 

I just love that he loves her so much, because in those first hours with me, when he was dazed and confused, recovering from neuter surgery (though not ready in the least to begin recovering from all the trauma that occurred to him before he was rescued), I didn't know what to do to comfort him, and I questioned whether giving him my favorite bunny meant anything to him at all. Turns out it did.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Hello, 2016

“I think of each day as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something. You’ll never get that coin back, so whatever you trade it for had better be worth it.” Raymond Barfield, MD, in the January 2016 issue of The Sun

Hello, 2016, I’m glad you’re finally here. Generally, I don’t celebrate this changing of the guard, this exchange of one calendar with lovely photos for a new calendar with equally lovely photos. But this year I’ve been waiting for you, watching through the front curtains, as it were, anticipating the ritual of your arrival so that there could be a jumping off place, a demarcation point for the shift in forward progress I’m about to make.

The previous year—I don’t want to name names, and I know it’s crass to speak openly of exes—had me stalled, blocked, detoured off the wide path of my journey and lost down a single-track trail of tears.

I’m back.

Oh, I wouldn’t say I’m marching forward with enthusiasm. Yet. But I’ve just come blinking into the sunshine from the dark woods, and my feet are firmly back on the path that will lead me forward a bit further each day. I know I’m going to move slowly at first, but I’ll gain momentum with each step of renewed effort.

I want our time together, though brief, to be memorable, and for that to happen, I know I need to be productive, to use my gifts, humble and few as they may be, to make a difference in the world, no matter how minute or seemingly insignificant or isolated that difference may be. Last year, I lingered in “the waiting room of the world,” as C. S. Lewis put it. This year, I want to trade each gold coin, as Dr. Barfield describes, for pursuits that have me smiling, not wincing, as I lay my head upon the pillow each night.

Thanks for showing up, 2016, and not a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Good riddance, 2015

Good-by, 2015, and good riddance. I am relieved to be shed of you.

Good-by to all the grief that came in this year—the deaths of two beloved cousins, the anger and fear of a cancer diagnosis in someone I cherish, the stress-related illnesses that attacked two loved ones with a vengeance. Go away. Expecto patronum! I hereby summon the patronus that will block and defeat you. (For anyone wondering, I have no doubt that my patronus is a California black bear.)

Good riddance to the first semester of my last year of teaching (well, in three more weeks). I thought you would be great. You sucked. Hit the road.

And let me bid a fond and highly sarcastic farewell to the words of a parent, a teacher and an administrator who suggested, at various times about three separate students, that the student in question would be more successful in a male teacher’s classroom. Yeah? I’ve got your male teacher right here, pal. Do you really think genitals and hormones make a difference in managing that spoiled child’s behavior? Bite me.

Good-by to all the lost days I spent on the couch, first with pneumonia, then with C. Diff. You may be lost forever, but I can still make up the time in productivity in the new year, so go ahead, slip away. I refuse to obsess on you.

And as of this day, a huge and heartfelt good riddance to the worst publishing company in the history of the planet. Our contract has expired, thank heavens, and I can now take back the rights to my book, my author persona, my destiny as the independent publisher of my own work. Adios, you greedy bastards. May a class action lawsuit find its way to you soon.

Hallelujah. The countdown begins!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

To the daughter of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik

You are still a baby, just six months old, but my own daughter and I have already discussed your plight.

At this writing, you are temporarily in foster care, having been taken from your family on the day… on the day your parents died.

But your aunt and uncle have pledged their love and commitment to you, and they are doing everything necessary to reunite you with your family so that they can raise you as their own child, keeping you, as your aunt stated, from ever knowing the truth, if they can.

Is that even possible? Your parents made choices that resulted in their deaths—and the deaths of many others. Will this truth follow you, haunt you, all your life? For now, you are innocent, blissfully unaware of the grief and sadness surrounding you and your surviving family. But as you grow and learn, will your aunt and uncle be able to shield you from those who may seek to punish you for the acts of your parents by piercing your heart with the knowledge of those violent and bloody moments on December 2, 2015? It may be impossible.

But how are you culpable? You are not. You are simply an innocent child, your heart a pristine vessel untouched by those who would taint it with fear and hate.

And this is why our hearts—mine, my daughter’s—this is why our hearts hurt for you. Because there is anger and hate on the side your parents chose… and anger and hate on the side which opposes them. No one will win.

No one will win.

No one can. This is not a war of territory or boundaries, or even a war of oppression, though some will say it is. This is a war based solely on fear.

Some will say I am too sympathetic. Others will say I am not sympathetic enough. My words will be interpreted according to the reader’s predetermined mindset. Do you see? There can be no logical reasoning here, no resolution reached after thoughtful consideration of the facts on both sides. Because with all our centuries of accumulated knowledge, we have failed to establish a world that moves forward based on love and mutual exchange. We have created a world entrenched in rhetoric and based on greed and jealousy.

I see little to indicate that this world will change much by the time you are old enough to understand it. Indeed, I see only a worsening of our fear, our greed, our jealousy in the coming years, because few are willing—as yet—to say enough is enough, to blink, as the expression goes, in this stand-off, to back down and give ground and ask, “How can we make peace between us?” Perhaps—and I realize this is much to hope for—perhaps it will be your generation that turns the tide. Perhaps, in learning of your parents’ deeds, you will be the first to say enough is enough.
Or perhaps you will never know any of it. If your aunt is successful in keeping you from this history, you may never know any of it, and your life can be lived without the burden of knowing the events of that day. I would envy you that oblivion.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Eulogy for Danny Fiocchi

I grew up in California, and my cousin Danny grew up in Illinois, so we hardly knew each other. He came out for a visit when we were little kids, but neither of us remember much about that time. I loved his mom, my Aunt Betty. She was my father's sister, and when Dad was dying, she came out to spend some time with us, with him, to say her last tearful good-byes and try to put a good face on losing him. She was kind, caring and nurturing—everything my own mother was not, and I always wished that fate had allowed me to grow up as her daughter.

It was Aunt Betty I wrote to when I was in my mid-forties and wanted some insight into my father. Since I'd been a young child when he died, I knew little about his character apart from the sketchy criticisms Mom would make if I asked her. I wanted to hear about him from someone else's perspective, so I wrote Aunt Betty and asked her what kind of a man my father was.

Many months later I received a large envelope in the mail which contained a letter, photographs, copies of newspaper clippings and an audio CD of Aunt Betty and my dad's brother, Maurice, being interviewed by my cousin Mick about my dad. The information they sent was an introduction to the father I'd never known, and after sifting through all of it for hours, I wept that I had not had the chance to know him better. Turns out he was a pretty good man, all things considered.

Thus began a renewed friendship with my cousins, especially Danny, that grew as the years went on. Via mail, email and, eventually, Facebook, we introduced our families to each other, our children and our grandchildren. But Danny resisted the cyber world, so a couple of times a year, he would call me or I would call him, and now I wish I had a recording of every one of those calls. Somehow, we talked as old friends, even though we'd missed sharing a majority of our lives. And somehow he knew—whether consciously or not—that his time on this earth would be limited. We never chatted about mundane things, though occasionally he would ask about the weather on the mountain where I lived, and I would sometimes wonder how much snow they were getting in comparison. Mostly, we talked about the growth and development of our own psyches. We longed to be good parents and beloved grandparents, but we both were all too conscious of our own flaws. So I encouraged him, reminding him often that his role in the family was to keep everyone connected (a role he took quite seriously), and he would remind me that my role was to write, as that was the gift I'd been given.

And we talked about our mortality. He told me long ago that he was ready to go because we both found the world to be a harsh place. "But I got too many people who depend on me," he would say, and when his grandchildren were born, he found a renewed vibrancy and determination to be around to guide them around the pitfalls of life.

For the past few years, every time I would return from my annual trip to Missouri, he would call and let me know he knew I'd been "close enough to drive to Illinois." In the summer of 2014, I promised him I would not return to Missouri again without coming to see him, which I did this past summer. By then he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life some short months later. But what a reunion. I had not been in the physical presence of my cousins for fifty years. But we embraced as good friends, and we spent our time together laughing and teasing, just as I remember our times together when we were kids. And despite his rapidly progressing illness, Danny was his usual jovial, loving self.

To say that this man was one-of-a-kind would be an understatement. I have never known anyone like him, and my bond with him began in our first phone conversation as adults, when he told me he loved me unconditionally, without really knowing anything about me as a person. I knew he was sincere, and his love and encouragement have kept me moving forward, kept me putting fingers to the keyboard (yes, cousin, I know you're still checking up on me) for the past fifteen years. Because of him, I will push past the writer's block and the dysphoria and the discouragement, and I will continue to write. Because I want to make Danny Fiocchi proud of me. I want to honor his unconditional love for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Eulogy for Jean Thompson

Jean at sixteen

On Sunday, September 20th, my cousin, Jean Thompson, passed away.

Jean grew up in Kansas, and I grew up in California. I didn't even know she existed until I was in my late 40's, doing research for Tainted Legacy, and Alice Lee (Zangaro) suggested I call her for information on the Williams family, telling me that we were probably related. We were, but I didn't know that until Jean kindly sent me pages and pages of the Williams genealogy. I had some trepidation about calling her at first, but she was immediately kind, open and embracing—characteristics which she apparently extended to most folks throughout her life, regardless of how she met them.

It seems strange to acknowledge that I never met her in person. After we connected, we spoke every few months by telephone; whenever I had an hour or so to spare on a Sunday and needed to laugh, I would call her. Because she and my grandmother grew up in the same geographical region (although Jean was much, much younger), she reminded me of Grandma Lila every time we spoke, using such expressions as "I'm not a-gonna do it" (something she stated emphatically to the doctor who told her to quit smoking) and adding that elusive "r" to "warsh, as in, "We had to warsh up the floor after Murphy brought us a bird this mornin'." Murphy was her black cat.

Like all the women in the Williams line, including my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Jean might have seemed simple in her speech and demeanor, but she was highly sophisticated in her intellect and insight into the human condition. Our conversations always began with light-hearted, jovial humor, but at some point we would begin to talk about our kids and grandkids, and she amazed me with what she understood about human behavior. Truly, she was an old soul with unfathomable wisdom.

Beyond that, the attribute most characteristic of her was the love she exuded for everyone, and I mean everyone. She adored her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren—and everyone associated with them. Although she'd never spoken to any of my kids or grandkids, she asked about them often when we talked. At the end of every conversation, we always engaged in a gentle competition to see who could out-love the other. ("I love you a million." "Times ten! Ha ha ha!" "I love you to the moon and back!") Jean always won.

When she passed, the outpouring on her Facebook page was extraordinary. People are still posting notes of love and remembrance all these weeks later. She is deeply and daily missed by her family. She is certainly missed by me. And she will be missed by all those great-grands who grow up without her influence. But she has left a legacy in the way she has raised her children, and they will now step up to be those who readily love and embrace others as she did, a great heirloom to treasure from a truly great lady.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 4

In a Facebook post in September, I mentioned that a very shy boy I'd taught as a freshman returned, now in his junior year, to say hello, and to tell me that life had gotten better, that he talks more now. In response, I received this comment from Donny Rios, a student from class of—2004, perhaps:

S. Kay Murphy, my fav teacher ever! The effect you had on me is everlasting. Because of you and your class my junior year I fell in love with writing. I write songs for a living because of you, my enormous interest in pursuing law school can be traced back to your class. To this day I still talk about the lessons you've taught me and also that damn red balloon movie lol. You have touched many lives and I have always promised myself that if I were ever to win some award or give a thank you speech somewhere I would include you. If that doesn't happen just know that you helped mold me into who I am today.

Are there words to express how deeply his heartfelt sentiment touched me?

For days afterward, Donny's comment floated before my teary eyes as I stood in front of this year's crop of potential poets, songwriters and attorneys. And then something even more miraculous happened.

In anticipation of retirement and downsizing, I have been slowly working through my files, discarding reams of unnecessary paper. A few days after Donny posted his comment, I began to sift through some poems I'd written years ago, evoking memories in the same way paging through a photo album might. And then, BAM. I pulled out a poem entitled "Reading Billy Collins," with a dedication to Donny Rios.

Oh my gosh, I remembered writing the poem but hadn't remembered who inspired it. The flood of memories became a torrent—days we spent in class, me ranting about the beauty of words, my students dutifully resisting anything that threatened a commitment to deep reading. For me, it is always akin to convincing a five-year-old that salad, with all its green foliage, is really tasty. I suggest, nudge, wheedle and plead until they just try a little of it, just to see if they might someday develop an appetite for it. At times—very, very rare times—they do.

Donny Rios did. How incredibly validating for me—especially in this final year of teaching. And then to find this poem, which not only mentions Donny but mentions retirement as well, written all those years ago... I can only say that this special blessing was brought to us today by the Universe. Oh, and thank you. I can certainly say thank you.

Now if you don't mind reading a little further, here is that poem:

Reading Billy Collins
S. Kay Murphy
for Donny Rios

I shake my head from side to side
Chuckling as I turn the page.

Occasionally I don't move on
To the next poem because
I want to savor the one on my tongue.

"How can you sit around and read books of poetry?" my students ask.
"Because he writes about what he is in love with," I tell them,
"and they are the same things that I am in love with."

The hush that follows is familiar;
They are afraid that I will be swept
Over the edge once again with my ranting.

"Like what?" 

The lone voice in the crowd
Is the brown-eyed boy, Donny,
Who hated poetry in September but now in May
Has admitted openly that he loves Robert Frost.

(Can I retire now? Are there accolades that teachers earn for such an achievement as this? A Purple Heart from the President with his warm handshake and a salute, accompanied by an honorable discharge, a hard-earned respite at long last from gum on the desks, phone calls from D grade parents and the ten thousandth essay on Hamlet?)

I digress
As I am wont to do while teaching,
Often choosing to lead my students down
The other path in that yellow wood.

"Mice!" I proclaim, "Dead brown mice!
Dogs! Dreams! Words like they are people! And readers as if they are words!
John Keats! And tea! Billy Collins drinks tea!"

By now I am shouting in my jubilation,
And they are convinced of my lunacy at last.