Archive for the ‘Memoir/Autobiography’ Category

Carson McCullers

“But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things.” — Carson McCullers, from her story A Tree A Rock A Cloud

The road I run on is beside a small municipal airport and reminds me of a small highway. For a moment looking at mown grass on the road today, I imagined my feet were touching grass on a stretch of the road ahead of me and not on the part I was running on.

On Saturday, I participated in my first race, the Sunrise Stampede in Longmont, a 2-mile/10K run walk. I ran two miles in 28 minutes and placed 287th of 468 finishers.

The race was very casual. Many families participated, running and walking through shaded streets in Longmont. This was my first race, and I didn’t know what to expect.

As a group turns a corner together, as you listen to a woman encourage her daughter or a man pace his son, you become part of the child’s response as their lives begin to finish inside you.

How difficult is it for the overweight son trying to finish the race for his father? Is the man trying to save his son or win him? As the boy looks up, does he hear something about endurance or enduring or is he trying to live his life through the eyes of another man?

Will the boy remain the person trying to lift his knees higher? Will the small girl who seemed to drift through the streets as if it were a magic mountain become a mother who will encourage her child?

You climb and fall together, knowing that one day they will remember this day on the other side of a life when they stopped in the sun for a photo beside the water table.

There are moments when I run now that I vanish. I don’t feel my lungs working or my legs pounding the pavement. I am not a tree trying to grow from the earth, I am not a rock unmovable and alone. I am a cloud, floating for a moment above the earth, able to see the part of the road I touch now and the part of the road that is ahead of me, touching all parts of the road at once.

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I have heard the echo of my heels, in the cool light, in the darkness. —  Ezra Pound

A woman said to me recently she walks faster than she runs. That’s true of me too. I began running recently and plan to run part of the Bolder Boulder 10K on Memorial Day.

A neighbor who lives in these condos is a running coach. In a discussion on running, he mentioned sub-130s and sub-145s. I finally realized he meant people who can run half marathons, 13.1 miles, in less an hour and 30 minutes.

My dog Scout and I did a trial run of the Bolder Boulder race course this week. We discovered we are sub-120s. We go 6.2 miles in a little less than two hours.

The Body Wheel

Danny Dreyer, in his book Chi Running, reminds us to maintain correct posture as we run, to align the ear, shoulder, hip and ankle as we take each step and to visualize our feet as if we were turning pedals on a bike. That requires lifting the heels.

I don’t have a wheel. I barely lift each foot from the ground, but when I see pros running in town, their knees do follow a circular pattern. Dreyer illustrates ideal running technique with photos of children. They have perfect alignment, lean, heel lift, arm swing, cadence and stride.

We lose ease in running as we become adults because it takes more effort. We no longer run with smiles on our faces. As children much of what we do is perfect because we’re not fighting something in ourselves that wants to get it right.

700 Breaths

I am only a few weeks into this and can run about a mile. Today I took about 700 breaths during my run.

Sakyong Mipham suggests we count our breaths to take our minds off discomfort in our bodies. In his book Running With The Mind of Meditation, he compares running to forms of meditation that direct you to calm down the mind by focusing on the breath.

Today, as I finished my run I found cottonwood and maple seeds on the ground. I collected cottonwood seeds as a child, wondering if they were like cotton in the fields of Tennessee where I lived.

We called the wings of the maple seeds whirlybirds. Whenever I throw one into the air now, I realize how few people remember me as I was then.

I try to remember. I try to become less mechanical, less worried about technique, to become the person I was as a child when I watched the seeds drift through the trees at twilight.

Even as a beginner, I realize that something about that has more to do with running than trying to be technically perfect or finishing a race.

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Somewhere in my house now a metronome beats 120 beats per minute in 4/4 time. It runs continuously and can’t be turned off, only muted. That’s how it’s designed.

I purchased the metronome when I started playing classical guitar recently. My life is now measured with a rhythm I can’t hear but only know is there, steadily beating on with accented and unaccented notes.

I suppose clocks tick away that way too, but they aren’t designed with music in mind.

When you walk through the front door of my house, the music stand is the first thing you see. If the Chinese system of Feng Shui is correct and our houses are set up along a compass of energy, the energy in my house passes only two things as it flows from my front to my back door: the music on my music stand and the paintings in my back room. Perhaps somewhere along the way I should post some poems as well.

Unlike poetry and painting, music is more standardized. The right hand notes of guitar music are plucked in a certain PIMA pattern, and the left hand presses particular frets. The musical notes and rhythm remain the same, and it is all counted with a metronome.

I am recently unemployed, and music is one of the only things in my life that arrives each day in a predictable manner. Maybe that’s true for everyone. We rise in the morning not knowing what a day may hold. Our bodies change, friends, jobs, finances, homes. It can all change in an instant.

But somewhere for me music is waiting on a music stand. It helps calm down the rattle and chatter in my mind and a general feeling of being disconcerted.

No concert yet, just the warming up of strings, flutes, oboes, horns and distant drums. They clash together, not yet forming music or melody.

And the metronome beats on.

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The last few days I’ve questioned the value of freedom. What if it meant giving up the woman I wanted to spend my life with.

I had a Romanian student last semester who lived under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu before he was executed in 1989. She said, “It was a diseased society, where the inmates had taken over the asylum. Neighbors were encouraged to spy and report each other. So were children about their parents.”

Growing up in that country, she realizes the value of freedom in ways some don’t in the U.S.

Perhaps something in our childhoods keeps us from moving beyond the dark part of ourselves that wants to sell our freedom short. The voice must be the same, we say, the voice of the person I come from must be the same voice of the person I become. My future rises out of my past, and I cannot empty myself of it.

I will be something else one day, but not now, not now. I must be the same thing I was born into, the empty room where I had no name and waited in corners for morning to come so that I could open the door and leave the room again.

Somewhere the lost tribes of the earth keep walking. Somewhere the lost tribes of our world live alone and die and wait to be born into a freedom they can only watch others have. What things, they ask, could I have if only I had freedom. This is the opposite of me, they say, but how can I change it.

From each of us this desire sets out in life. It is born in us and lost, and the lost tribes come. We look for them and they are gone. There is no tracing them. They have clung to promises that never come and now they have no way to recognize their dreams.

I lay in bed the last few nights wondering how I could keep my soul alive without freedom. I lay listening to people stand outside my window, wondering if they would leave or what I would do if they tried to enter my room. If they leave, will they come back, I asked myself. And if not tonight, what about tomorrow.

Even now as I write this, they are above me and beside me. They are home tonight.

I know the walls that listen. I know a place that listens and watches me walk out my door and across a parking lot and through the streets so there is no place I can walk without being seen.

This is something I thought I would always have, the freedom to stand in my own home without being heard. It’s difficult not to sit as still as possible so that no one hears me.

But tonight I type these words. Not even you tonight beyond those walls can keep me from typing, not you who stand on street corners and take photos of me from cars and ride past me on bikes.

You think you have my heart. You think you can walk beside me and fly out like birds from every bush, but even in the stillness of these rooms I grow. I grow and keep on growing. Freedom is the only image of me you can never take. It doesn’t come and go from rooms at regular hours, it doesn’t stand or sit in certain places on the street, it doesn’t open doors or close them at specific times. It lives inside me.

You have your own stories. You look around for someone else to become, but there is no one else. What we have inside is all we’ve been given. Freedom is a dream that’s born even in animal’s eyes, and there’s no use looking for it in someone else’s face.

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Painting by Charlie Baird

The story’s not in what people say — it’s in what they don’t say. That’s what you listen for and write.former editor

My mother left Memphis in 1988 to be near my brother’s family in Austin. She was 60 at the time and had lived in Memphis her whole life. She wanted a new identity after my father’s death the year before.

I’ve often wondered how much money she had after she sold the house she and Dad lived in for 30 years. I do know the car she arrived in, a mid-80s Oldsmobile Cutlass, was the same car she was driving 15 years later when she died. She prayed the car would last one day longer than she did, and the night before she died my niece saw the car abandoned on the side of the road, left by whomever mom sold it to. Realizing what that meant, I rushed back to my mother’s apartment, finding the hospice nurse already there.

Mom at age 46

I see now the move my mom made to a new city at that stage in her life was a journey of faith. She left friends, neighbors and the church community she’d help create to start over again. Whenever I need to move forward to some new place in my life, either geographically or emotionally, I remember this. My mother didn’t know what words to use to encourage me along the paths I needed to take, but her endurance and perseverance remain with me.

After she moved, she lived in a duplex a few streets from my brother and sister-in-law, who had two daughters ages five and nine at the time. In some ways, it worked well. She became part of the girls’ lives, started a new job and developed new friends. But she missed the friends she’d made as a hairdresser in Memphis.

The rituals of hairdressers die hard, and these women had worked in the same shop 35 years, raised children together, helped each other through disabilities, diseases, accidents and widowhood. I don’t believe any of them divorced. This was characteristic of women in my mom’s generation but was also due to lunches the women held at each others houses.

The lunch bunch reupholstered living room furniture, painted walls, shampooed carpets, polished silver, mowed and edged lawns before the lunches began. From inside my treehouse, I could hear them giggling and clinking glasses in the house as they ate the deviled eggs, sliced cheeses and scooped honeydew and watermelon balls my mother and I prepared before they arrived.

Georgia, Dot, Oresa, Mozelle, Mary Francis, Roxie, Rosie and Helen — I’m reminded of the honeysuckle vines that grew along a fence behind our house. The smell of the ladies’ hugs remained on me for hours after they left, as mom and I carefully washed the crystal and china and slipped the silver forks, knives and spoons back into their special compartments inside the velvet box.

On Wednesdays as mom and I drove home from Oresa’s pool, still in our swimming suits and still smelling of chlorine, she was always relaxed and happier.The women took from each other what they needed to move on, my mother’s determination, Oresa’s business savvy, Mozelle’s humor, Roxie’s candor, Mary Francis’ tact, the divinity in Dot’s face and the grace in Helen’s.

I don’t know what they talked about when the children were sent away, but I do know as the women sat beneath the table umbrellas, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, they began to resemble each other. Through the bawdy jokes and tears and baskets of flowers, they’d learned to listen to each other, not only what was said but what wasn’t said and what needed to be heard in the silence. Mom never found that again after she left Memphis.

Three of the women drove to Austin to visit mom after she moved away. Standing in her driveway, they noticed fig trees overloaded with ripe figs in a neighbor’s yard. Early the next morning, they woke, slipped into the yard, stole the figs and carefully returned to my mom’s house, stifling laughter all the way. In her kitchen, they meticulously sorted the figs into four sacks and tried not to eat any. Fig preserves were a specialty among the lunch bunch — figs, a fruit that symbolize fertility and the feminine world, women both as goddess and mother.

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There is no city that does not dream from its foundations. The lost lake crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers, the floor of the ravine where light lies broken with the memory of rivers.Anne Michaels

This week, I went to an all day seminar on the environment and sustainability put on by the newspaper where I work. It’s a difficult day, remembering who people are, where they work, if we’ve written articles about them and what the article said. You don’t want to forget the name of a bank president sponsoring the event.

We host one event a month at the newspaper. As print subscriptions and ad revenue decrease, we must come up with new ways to support the print media the business was founded on. We host events celebrating women, health-care workers, entrepreneurship, businesses with innovative ideas and privately owned companies growing fast.

I’ve been at the newspaper seven years and attended many of these events, not only ours but those put on by chambers of commerce, halls of fame, universities, service organizations and nonprofits. Our office job at the paper might be in editorial, production or advertising, but we have event planning duties too, from printing and stuffing name tags to organizing speakers and catering.

The events are put on to generate revenue, but in the end the round table discussions, seminars and awards ceremonies bring the community together in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise. As leaders in bioscience, banking, health care, green business or natural products sit together at a table or mingle at an after-hours event, connections happen that make the community stronger.

Lesbian, gay,
bi-sexual or transgendered

In my other life, I attend LGBT events. The Boulder-Denver area has many lesbian groups. There are lesbian hiking clubs, mountain-bike clubs, dancing groups, pot lucks, ice-cream socials, barn dances … lesbians who bird watch and lesbians who play board games.

When I first came out in Memphis in the early 90s, my only choice was a lesbian bar full of drug dealers. The last 20 years have seen many changes in the gay and lesbian community, and I’m very grateful.

It’s my privilege to see these two parts of the city grow, the mainstream business sector and the LGBT community. What I see on both sides of that coin is the work that goes into it. Whoever organizes an event, someone must sell tickets and man registration and put up banners and booths and tables and take it all down again once everyone’s gone. It seems like the people who do the work, who come out of their insulated lives to bring it all together, feel more connected to each other and themselves and the world beyond than those who don’t.

Oat fields

One Hundred Years

It’s also my privilege to work on a history of Boulder County. As I do this, I think of what Thornton Wilder said in Our Town, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

Families settle, begin farms, a city is platted, a bank forms, a town square, a grocery, a school, a fire department, police station, hospital and church. The city is incorporated.

Wars come along, babies are born, more houses are built, streets are paved, sidewalks are put in. Some people want paved streets and sidewalks, and some people don’t. The issue is voted on.

Manual laborers receive more rights, the city plans low-income housing and libraries and better sewer systems. Electricity brings power plants. People no longer need coal sheds or out houses in the alley out back. Technology lends a hand with phones, radios, television and the Internet.

Now the Old Town area needs renovated, business parks are formed, roads are widened and new hospitals, new police stations, new stores and new subdivisions are built. The new subdivisions have recreation centers and golf courses and parks where festivals are held to celebrate the peach orchards, oat fields and cotton plants that once lined the roads.

I think about all this as I sit on the edge of my bed each morning, I can dream too. As long as I can dream, the time and the land and the people and the things in my life will change, and the change itself is what holds me together.

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This semester I asked my students to keep a timeline journal. Beginning the year they were born, they wrote in significant events in each year of their lives. Other writing assignments were designed around the timeline.

I asked them to extend the timeline out as far as they thought it went, writing in hopes and plans for the future. One student asked, “You mean you want us to continue it out to the year we think we’re going to die?” Yes, I said, not realizing the boy in the second row only had 11 more weeks.


I don’t know that I teach well. I prepare lesson plans, I lecture, I sit down as much as possible to let my students talk. I tell them what is expected in the program, how to write research papers, where to place commas and periods and capitalization. They want to capitalize every word at their age and place exclamation points behind each sentence. Lectures on tone and voice quality escape them. They just want to pass a course.

I assign creative writing exercises to help them rediscover how to put words on the page so that the gears are are turning by the time they write their research paper. The class is set up on a point system. You receive points for attendance, turning in homework assignments and turning in essays. If you receive a certain amount of points by the end of the semester, you receive an A.

It solves the age-old problem. Who deserves an A more, the person who enters class with adequate writing skills but skips lectures and doesn’t pay attention or the person who begins with inadequate writing skills but never misses class and works hard with a tutor to revise essays. That’s the A student in my opinion, but I can’t ding the kid who comes in able to write but doesn’t pay attention.

A Brick On A Wall

In one creative writing assignment, I ask my students to write about a brick on a wall. It’s a straightforward assignment but always puzzles them. “That’s it, a brick on a wall? That’s the whole assignment?” Yes, I say, write about anything that comes to mind.

John, the boy in the second row, entered class with strong writing skills. He was a sandy haired, freckled-faced, 20-year-old boy with a thick Chicago accent who had been educated in private schools. Even though he had strong writing skills, he paid attention in class, always had something insightful to add or funny to say. Much of the energy in class centered around him and his earnestness to participate. The night we discussed a student essay on Hinduism, he discussed his own interest in that religion and research he’d done, which was extensive. I was impressed by his story Flugzeug, which I posted on this blog a few days after he died. 

In the writing assignment on the brick wall, he wrote, “A brick on a wall has seen some of the greatest events in history, symbolized some of the worst, and has been around since the beginning of human civilization. The brick can be many colors, gray, yellow, clay, usually red. All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall. Drug dealers will hide a brick in a wall. A “b” in a “w” can also represent bricks in a wall, bird in a wall, beast in a way.”

In a writing assignment on success and failure, he wrote, “Since early puberty, I’ve gone through cycles of successes and failures that are all self-generated. I have the ability to achieve so much, and if I work hard I can exceed anybody’s expectations.

Conversely, I have the tendency to destroy myself and cause more harm to my success than any external factor. In sixth grade, I was almost kicked out of school, disowned by a large portion of my family and thrown into juvenile court. In seventh grade, I made high honors every quarter, was the only person from my school to go the state science fair, and changed my lifestyle.
My first semester [in college] as a freshman I had a 3.5 grade point average while taking chemistry, calculus and junior-level German. Last year, I failed two classes and almost went into drug rehab. Now, I’m back on track. I have been going to therapy to break these cycles, and I look forward to the future.”

I didn’t see the words, drug rehab when I first read this. I read the paper quickly along with 23 others and paperclipped it away on my desk. When I received the phone call from one of his friends that he’d accidentally overdosed on heroin, it took me completely by surprise.

The Timeline Journal

In the timeline journals students turned in, goals for the future included plans for jobs, family and children. The timelines extended until the students were in their seventies or eighties or only into their thirties if they couldn’t see beyond that.

The night I told them John died, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell them how he died, but I assured them it wasn’t suicide. He had shared with the class earlier in the semester when his twin brother Mark had attempted suicide, and they all wanted to know if Mark knew yet. His parents were telling the brother that same night.

In the next class, a student brought a card they could sign and give to the family. I didn’t think of that myself. I couldn’t seem to pull it together those final few classes. When they gave me the card to mail, I tucked it away in a folder and didn’t look at it again. I realize now even as I type this, I still haven’t signed it.

John had been in the hospital the week before school ended with a virus that left sores on his face and in his eyes. The virus had started in Chicago when he was visiting his family for Easter, and the doctors weren’t sure what the virus was or how contagious. They prescribed several medications and kept him in the hospital two days on IVs. His trip back to Colorado was delayed, and I had to ask him for a release before he could be admitted back into class.

The night he showed up I was in the hallway having individual conferences with students about their research papers. The damage to his face was considerable. In e-mails from the hospital, he said he felt grotesque. He turned his head away as he looked at me and reached for the door knob. I reached for the door at the same time to enter the password, and when his hand almost touched mine I jerked it away.

I couldn’t look at him then. I unlocked the door and let him into the room while I continued the conference with my student. When I entered the classroom a few minutes later, he was sitting in his usual seat, staring at the other students and not knowing what to say. I could see how awkward he felt, but I had to ask him for the doctor’s release.

In Flugzeug, he writes about a man
trying to escape East Berlin in a
homemade airplane, after receiving
a letter from his wife.

The Face

It is that face I see now, not the face of the happy boy who always had something bright to say in class, but the face of the boy turning his head to the wall as he passed me later that night, saying sorry as he passed because he had to walk by me again.

It was that face I remembered as I told my class he’d died. They sat in their desks crying, not knowing what to say and wanting me to say it for them. And I didn’t know how to respond or how to hold them when they came to me wanting to be.

In conversations with his mother later, I learned he didn’t die from a heroin overdose as his friends suspected. The drug was discovered in his dorm room but not found in his body during an autopsy. Pathologists believe his death may have been caused by damage done to his heart from epileptic seizures in childhood in combination with the virus he’d had the week before they were unable to identify. His family may never know.

Final Letter

Three days before he died, he wrote his brother Mark, “At times, when I lose hope and feel trapped, I have to keep reminding myself that I have an indispensable intellect. We both do. We are tortured souls who have hit some bumps in the road. Nevertheless, we must keep living so that one day the world can benefit from what we have. You are special in so many ways. You have an amazing sense of humor, are quick witted, and have unparalleled insight. You have to recognize that we aren’t your average joes. Grades and the legal system aside, we both have the potential to change the world. Get this shit over with, so that you can fulfill your destiny. I would be nothing without you, and I need you to be strong for me, [for our family], and all the people whose lives you have touched. I love you bro. Keep at it.”

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Yesterday afternoon, I found out one of my students died in an accident Saturday night. This was an extremely intelligent 20-year-old boy from Chicago. He had a 4.0 average and was one of the brightest students in my class.

Sitting here today, I remember something I once heard about the word peace. Peace is something we associate with lying in the sun on summer vacation, but in reality we never find ourselves entirely free of stress, pain, fear and the responsibilities of life. Real peace thrives in moments we don’t expect it, in the midst of the wars we struggle with in ourselves.

I felt this kind of peace the last year of my mother’s life. Some switch flipped on and kept me going during the months I watched her in pain and was unsure what to do. We are a results-oriented people, but there are times in life we can’t produce results, we can’t be strategic and plan our days efficiently, we can’t focus.

Some people call this thing within us God, but I think of it as a limitless communication system that keeps the mind, body and spirit operating and linked with each other when all the circuits aren’t open. It is a peace at work no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in. It makes us more stable in the end, attaches to places in our minds, bodies and spirits we can’t reach ourselves.

I think about this today because I want to say it to that boy’s family, because I wanted to say it to my class last night. But it is not a time to speak of peace. We are all still too overwhelmed with the news.

Here is a story he wrote this semester called Flugzeug:

East Berlin

Herman had an unchanging daily routine. He would wake up every morning at 6 a.m., dress, and trudge 10 feet from his bedroom to the coffeepot. His apartment was a studio consisting of a closet-sized bedroom, a kitchen and living area. Ritualistically, Herman would put on half a pot of Röstfein coffee and begin cooking eggs, sometimes sausage. He would have exactly two cups of coffee with breakfast. When he was finished eating, he would pour the rest of the coffee into a tacky key lime colored thermos before making the descent to the street.

The whole routine took about 30 minutes. After exiting the building, he would sputter away in his boxy, rusted, sky blue Trabant, his beloved Trabi. Nine hours later he would return home from the RFT radio factory where he worked as an electrician. Work was generally unchanging from day to day, and Herman was a valued employee because of the skilled and efficient manner in which he approached his trade. Where many see such a routine as monotonous, Herman found it to be a refreshing dose of stability in such tumultuous times.

The year was 1974. The air in Berlin, Germany, was quite suddenly and abnormally becoming colder, damper, and heavier. It was strange even for late September. To Herman Reichle, the shift was especially sharp and unpleasant. Many things were unpleasant those days. From the window (one of two) in the closet-sized apartment he called home, Herman could see the wall, barbed wire, and guard towers as they stabbed at the sky like the arms and legs of fallen soldiers. Berlin was racked by terrorism, violence, and a fear of resurging fascist ideals. Perhaps worst of all was the construction of a wall in 1961, one that physically divided east and west, German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, families, and lovers.

On the fourth floor, Herman was level with the top of the guard towers. The guards looked down on the streets with apathy and a yawning disposition. The air in Herman’s kitchen was stale from greasy meals cooked with little ventilation. Herman suppressed the urge to choke. Everything outside the little rectangle that hung above the kitchen sink was gray. When Herman imagined East Berlin, before he saw his crumbling apartment building on Taubenstrasse, before he saw the shops and the alleyways and the homeless and the violence, he saw gray — unadulterated, ugly gray.

In his free time, Herman liked to take walks along the canals near his house. His lifelong devotion to work had left him with few friends and no wife, so he had come to find comfort in things outside of personal relationships. In his youth, he had known love and let a few soul mates slip from his grip, but his love for his family and career were by far the greatest. He struggled to support his family through the great inflation, the 30s, and WWII.

He left school at age 13 to work as a farm hand 20 miles outside of Berlin. He learned his trade from the master of the farm who would repair radios in the evenings. Herman was only 45, but his face was wrinkled and he had terrible posture. The creases in his face seemed to portray a permanent sad expression. The years of tough work, hunger, and stress had worn on him. The canals he walked near reminded him of evenings he would spend on the banks of the Spree with his boyhood friend Samuel. It represented a time of innocence and optimism for Herman. Almost every night, Herman would sit on a bench facing the canal, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette while drinking in the scent of the water and tobacco, the sound of the geese, and the touch of the breeze.

As with any regular routine, one comes to know recurrent sights and sounds as well as the routines of others. Herman had witnessed Berlin go through dramatic changes that many people in other parts of the world couldn’t understand. He had seen his home destroyed, an entire portion of the population evacuated, book burnings, beatings in the streets, the rise and fall of two regimes, and the marks of hunger and disparity that characterized each decade of his life. He returned to Berlin after much of it had been rebuilt, having moved to Frankfurt an der Oder toward the end of the war and remaining there until he returned in 1960. He had come to know people like him who stuck to their routine despite the massive changes going on around them. One of these people was Hugo Ritter.

Hugo lived across the street in a small, yellow, dilapidated house. It was one of the few houses that remained in the area, and it became increasingly apparent that it would soon get demolished to make way for another apartment complex. Hugo refused to have any say in the matter. To defend the location of his boyhood home would be against the greater good of the state, a form of treason. The house had obviously been rebuilt after the war. Perhaps Hugo rebuilt it himself. Herman would never know. In fact, Herman knew very little about Hugo at all. Every so often they would exchange a polite, “Hallo!” or “Tag!” but no real conversation. Herman never expected Hugo to be anything but an echo to his hello, that is until the noises started in late October.

Hugo first began to notice the sounds during his regular trips to the canal. He could nearly set his watch to them. They began at around 10:30 p.m. every night, about half an hour after Hugo returned from the auto plant. Sometimes it was a banging, a hammer perhaps. Other times it would be ding, as if Hugo was ringing a loud bell. Every so often the noises would be interrupted with a loud, “Scheisse!” Sometimes Herman would stand outside the man’s house and try to make out the origin of the sound. “Whack, whack, scheisse!” He couldn’t put his finger on it.

People on the block began to spread rumors. “Maybe he’s boxing someone,” one boy chimed. For a second, Herman thought that possible. He figured that Hugo could be hitting a punching bag or something similar. After all, the man always seemed so distraught. Maybe he was releasing some pent up aggression. “Nonsense, autos,” a man interjected, “He makes autos.” The noises continued into late December then suddenly ceased. Taubenstrasse no longer had something to talk about. The block remained silent until the end of January when the silence was once again broken.

Liebe Hugo

“Hässliche Arschloch! What have you done with my Volkswagen you little asshole?” Herman heard someone scream and rushed outside to investigate. A large man in a dirty gray Jacket and large black boots was holding a boy of about seventeen in his sausage-like fingers. The boy’s charcoal colored sweatshirt was constricting his neck as the man held it tighter and tighter. “Nichts! I know you stole it you stupid swine!” the man replied. “I swear I didn’t! You can ask my father!” the boy said.

The neighbors were growing concerned. A couple of women had their hands over their mouths. The citizens looked on in shock, not knowing how to respond to the scene. The large man looked like angry enough to kill the boy. “Where’s my car goddamnit?” Herman was transfixed on the two until he saw a figure move in from the corner of his vision. “Leave him alone!” shouted Hugo Ritter.

Hugo was wearing an oil-stained, forest green jumpsuit. It was his work uniform. Hugo was a tall and imposing man, perhaps six foot three inches tall and with a muscular build. A disheveled tuft of black hair sat on the top of his head. He was in his late thirties. “This little thief stole my car,” replied the big man in the gray jacket. “You saw him steal your car?” Hugo asked. “No but this little bastard has stolen from me before,” replied the man. Looking upon the fat figure with disdain, Hugo responded in a condescending tone, “Maybe you should look into things more before you go choking kids to death. When was it stolen?”

Now facing Hugo, the man rebuffed, “Some time late last night.” Hugo shook his head, looked the man in the eyes, and said, “He is one of the night watchmen at the auto factory. I know for a fact he was working last night. He couldn’t have stolen the car.” “Ach,” grunted the man. He then faced the boy, “You’re lucky! This guy may have saved your stupid little life. I’m phoning the Polizei. They’ll sort this out.” Turning quickly away, the big man stomped his way onto the sidewalk and into his apartment building. The boy stared at Hugo with confusion and mouthed the word, “Danke.”

The police arrived about a half hour later. Herman saw them interviewing the theft victim from his window. The man was flailing his arms about and flapping his fat mouth. Herman heard his muffled screams vibrating through the window. When he had seen enough, Herman retired to his couch and picked up the newspaper sitting on the antique coffee table. After a while, he could no longer hear the man’s voice and figured the police must have told him to calm down.

He began to scan the front page of the Zeitung but was too distracted to read. Why did he bail the boy out? He delivers newspapers. I don’t get why he would … Hugo couldn’t have stolen the car, could he? He couldn’t stop reviewing the scene in his mind. He imagined the large man in the black boots, the tall Hugo staring down at him with his brow creased, the boy’s confused expression. Suddenly, the room echoed with the sound of a loud explosion and then a choppy, sputtering sound. Herman shot up out of his seat. He ran to the window and looked out in terror, filled with flashbacks of WWII bombings. People were standing in the street outside looking at something in disbelief. Herman ran down the stairs of his apartment.

The door flew open as Herman quickly stumbled into the street. There was thick black smoke everywhere. A loud humming rang through the streets. Herman quickly identified the source of the racket. It was the sound of a modified Volkswagon engine roaring in the sky. What appeared to be a large, shiny silver tin can with wings was headed right toward the dead zone, the mine filled area between the east and west walls. Hugo’s head poked out of the top of the aircraft. He was wearing a brown, hard leather helmet. He was trying to fly right into West Berlin!

“Go, Go, Go!” one woman shouted. “Traitor!” bellowed another. Herman’s eyes followed the plane as it clumsily tore through the sky. “He’s going to make it!’” clamored a boy. The plane was just about to clear the west wall when Herman’s eyes were diverted toward the guard tower. “Oh no!” he cried. The guard had seen him coming and began to shower the small plane with rifle bullets. The sound of the shells tearing through the gut of the plane was sickening. A gut-wrenching scream ricocheted off the buildings. The plane started to spill out more black smoke and became entirely consumed in flame before it shattered into the earth below. The sound of the explosion was followed by the crackling of burning fuel. The air smelled like burnt petroleum.

Herman buried his head in his hands. No matter how many people he saw die, death still got to him. That poor, lonely man. For a moment Herman wished he were in Hugo’s place. He wished it had been him burning in the street. His conscience couldn’t bear any more loss. On the street he saw a piece of paper that had floated down from the wreckage of the plane. He picked it up and read:

Liebe Hugo,

You can’t imagine how hard it is for us. I’m taking eight-hour shifts at a restaurant to support our children. Your paychecks are worthless here. I have to leave little Anita and Thorsten at my mother’s five days out of the week. How could you, Hugo? How could you pick that stupid house over your family? Your children need a father. I’ve been telling them you passed away. I can’t bear to tell them that their father abandoned them. Why haven’t you even considered escape? The hardest part is I still love you despite my anger. l want to see you again. Please, Hugo, think about your children.

Anette Ritter

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“I have always had a level-headed attitude about the vagaries of
so-called fame. I certainly had my share. I was honored by my peers
with an Academy Award and several nominations. I had a
marvelous long-term marriage to a wonderful man to sustain me.
I have all the money I want, and work when I feel like it.
Life has given me, in abundance, all that any woman could
possibly wish for.” Claudette Colbert (1903-1996)

God wasted half a face on Claudette Colbert. — Doris Day

Claudette Colbert preferred not having the right side of her face photographed or filmed. In later movies, entire sets were built to light and frame the left side of her face.
This might sound like the ravings of a spoiled prima donna but Colbert was a good business woman, and her face was her most important asset.

“I had a childhood street accident in New York; I had a tiny bump on my nose when photographed on the right side,” she said in an interview with Lawrence J. Quirk in her 1985 biography. “And name me a professional who doesn’t want to look his or her best. So yes, I asked to be photographed on the left side. It was professionalism, not vanity.”

At age 3, Paris, 1906 (top).
At age 4, 1907, with her mother
and brother George (bottom).

Early Years

Colbert was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin in Paris in 1903. Her brother George became her agent and business manager during her Hollywood years. She and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1910, after her father suffered business losses.

“My mother spoke only French to my brother and me when we were children,” she said. “Mother believed that many foreign-born parents erred in speaking English to their youngsters when the adults themselves knew little about it.” 

Colbert’s maternal grandmother moved to the U.S. with them. “She was a woman of great strength of character and stick-to-itiveness,” Colbert said. “I think she kept us all together and functioning. . . . She gave all of us a sense of emotional and physical security. The least neurotic woman I’ve ever know. ‘If you are afraid of something, face it.’ That was her way.”

This was the on-screen persona Colbert became known for. In her movies, she had a poised manner and a down-to-earth, no nonsense attitude. “My grandmother had taught me to avoid inferiority complexes, to go out and get what I wanted, to believe I could be and do anything I wanted. I think I was a very healthy-minded, positivist nineteen year old, and I can thank her for that,” she said.

At age 19, Colbert was teaching French and studying fashion design in New York. She had first performed on stage in a high school play and later landed a small three-line role in the Broadway production of The Wild Westotts. Bit by the acting bug, she began performing stock theater roles.

“I used to stand in the wings every night and watch actors like William Faversham, Lowell Sherman, Arnold Daly — all great names of the theater at that time…. Anyway, I’d watch them every night. I don’t remember the plot now, but I remember the performances. Whenever kids ask me for advice, I tell them to do Off-Broadway, do stock, get practical experience in front of an audience. It’s the only way you learn timing, for one thing.”

Colbert appeared on Broadway throughout the 1920s. When she was 24, she played opposite her soon-to-be husband Norman Foster in a Broadway production of The Barker. About that meeting a friend said, “A girl so passionate and life-loving was bound to have had ‘romantic experiences,’ but I honestly don’t think she knew what real love was until she met Norman.

“He really bowled her over. She was very close to her mother and brother always, as well as to her grandmother, and I think she thought of them as protective shields against the wolves. She was always a discreet person, and a fundamentally decent and orderly one. But the shields were unavailing against Norman. There was a shyness and vulnerability and, yes, an innocence about him that disarmed her.”

Hollywood Years

In 1928, Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and began appearing in silent films. A year later she appeared in her first talkie, The Hole in the Wall with Edward G. Robinson. By 1934, she’d won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in It Happened One Night with Clark Gable. She is the only actress in history to star in three films all nominated for Best Picture Academy Award the same year: It Happened One Night, Cleopatra and Imitation of Life.

She divorced Foster in 1935 and married UCLA-surgeon Joel Pressman that same year. They remained married for 33 years. In the years after his death, she divided her time between a Manhattan apartment and a home in Speightstown, Barbados. When Colbert died in 1996, she left the bulk of her estate to retired Saks Fifth Avenue director of corporate relations Helen O’Hagan. The two met in 1961, and O’Hagan cared for Colbert after she had a series of strokes in 1993.

Helen O’Hagan

Colbert appeared in 65 films between 1927 and 1961 and continued working on stage into the late 1980s. Her biographer Lawrence Quirk said about her in 1981, “As I looked at her, I was amazed to realize that the charming, well-groomed, youthfully radiant woman before me was seventy-eight years old. She had taken excellent care of herself and has applied to her personal life the same discipline she devoted to her career. . . .

“She told me, ‘I’m glad to broadcast my true age, if only to remind my contemporaries, and people of all ages, that it isn’t the years they have to worry about; it’s how they take care of themselves. A body that is treated right will serve you right.”

Praying to Claudette Colbert

Of Colbert’s 65 films, I’ve only seen 25. It’s difficult to find them in print. I’ve never been a collector, but if I could collect and watch all 65 of Colbert’s films I would. It’s difficult to describe the connection I feel with a movie actress who is no longer alive. But at times in life I need courage, I sometimes find it watching her films.

When I read Colbert’s biography, I realized it was really her grandmother, Marie Loew, who had survived the Siege of Paris in 1871 when France was attacked by Germany, that I owe my gratitude. The courage she instilled in her granddaughter and the common sense, don’t-panic attitude are strengths I draw from in Colbert’s films.

In a sense, you can say I pray to Claudette Colbert, if prayer means calling on the strength, humor and endurance of another person. I also feel that connection with certain poets. I don’t know what I’d do without the poems and letters of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, for example, who died in 1979. Pouring over drafts of her poems, I see what it takes to have depth in writing and begin to hear her voice in my own poetry.

I can’t go so far to say I hear the voice of Claudette Colbert in my everyday life, but I do believe that part of being human is feeling connected to other humans for inexplicable reasons, whether you meet them or actually see them in day-to-day life or not. I absorb Colbert’s character when I watch her films in the same way she absorbed the craft of acting by watching actors backstage in the 1920s. It’s how one generation offers itself to the next.

It’s not hard to see why I would be drawn to such a graceful, charming and beautiful woman, but in context of what I’m saying here, it’s her psychological strength I draw from in her films, that has left its biggest imprint on me and was apparently part of her off-screen character as well as her on-screen persona. It’s the poised, intelligent woman who meets life’s challenges with her head as well as her heart I take into my life.

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Black-capped chickadee

Walking in a field near my office yesterday, a bird song caught my attention. I have a habit as a singer of imitating bird calls to see if I can match the intervals and pitch. This was a two-part whistle with an interval of a third in between. The first note was higher than the second.

From a tree in an opposite field, I heard the response, also a two-part whistle with an interval of a third, but lower in pitch. By the time I got home, I couldn’t remember the notes.

This morning in bed, I dreamed the song again. I could hear the birds calling to each other across the field. As I opened my eyes in the dim room, I listened to the call and answer of the two-part song. Then I realized I wasn’t dreaming. One of the birds was in the tree outside my window.

I jumped up and ran to my piano. It was an interval of a third as I thought. The first note was a high C, and the second was an A two notes below that. The response was the A again and then the F two notes below that. Today on the phone, I whistled the call to a woman at a local bird shop, and she helped me identify the bird. She said, “That’s the Hey-Sweetie of the black-capped chickadee.”

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother today, having found some embroidery work she stitched in a tablecloth left to me by my mother. My grandmother was born in 1900 and died in 1970, the year I turned six. I e-mailed my brother to see if he knew where she is buried in Mississippi. He wrote back, “As I recall water valley ms. Very small country cemetery. You would probably never find it.”

But I did find it. It’s a small cemetery in Pope, Mississippi, called Chapel Hill. When I was sitting at my desk searching for it, I felt like a small bird calling to a woman across time I hardly knew. I thought of her at 20 years old marrying a man 40 years older and raising five children in a small house in Memphis on income made from ironing and sewing.

I thought of the fine handwork of her embroidery and how evenly and perfectly stitched the thread is on both sides of the cloth. If you looked at the underside of a button I’d sewn on, you’d see a thick mat of threads intersecting the cloth like layers of a freeway overpass in Dallas.

I remember playing with buttons my grandmother gave me as a child. I’d pour jar after jar on the floor, sorting the buttons based on size and shape and color and texture. What I wouldn’t do for one of those beautiful jars of buttons now.

Below is the bird song of the black-capped chickadee. The notes aren’t quite the same as those I hear in Colorado:

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