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972 Days

The unexamined life is not worth living…

Socrates

So, I waited. I waited for my sons to grow to adulthood. I waited for Dad. Then, I waited for Mom. I waited as I told myself that it was ridiculous and tragic and that the time was now or the time would never be. I waited as that deeply embedded fear I’d rehearsed for too many years whispered to my soul; soon, the waiting will have made you too late. And then, I moved. Two-thousand-nine-hundred and twenty-seven miles—the other side of the country. Nine-hundred and seventy-two days—until the autumn leaves, Macintosh apples, maple syrup, snowflakes, lilac bushes, oak and beech trees, weeping willows, and family beckoned me back.

Nine-hundred seventy-two days in Southern California. Days mostly spent in solitude—in part through the circumstance of arriving so late, and then later by design. It was an exercise in isolation that proved illuminating; to my surprise, I was rarely lonely. Vastly different than the experience I might have had in my twenties, my later self used that time to rehearse—to live in the present, and to understand the implications that accompany that practice. It’s challenging not to look back over your shoulder—and yet looking forward conjures thoughts of your own mortality. I was on a mission to discover the secret that so many others already knew; you extract the most from life by living in the moment.

As I pointed the camera to photograph the sun melting into the sea, a girl climbed atop a rock.
San Diego 2016

Still, as you bump up against your expiration date, you inevitably find yourself reviewing the past. In doing so, you realize that what others think of you and whether or not you’re loved by people outside of your inner circle are worries that have become less significant. Such pointless distress has been usurped by those innermost concerns you’ve been repressing for years in order to keep moving forward. Concerns that have grown more insistent with the passing of time. Specifically, are my family and friends healthy? Is everybody happy with their life choices? What damage have I unwittingly inflicted on my children? Have I contributed to the lives of others in a meaningful way? Because aging is a privilege that arrives with elucidated perception, you’re now able to identify the things your younger self failed to see. 

At the risk of sounding morose, this is the moment when you realize that dying has subtly but steadily set up shop in your quotidian life. Though unwelcome, this realization underscores the fact that you’ve been fortunate enough to survive this long. It’s a moment when recognizing names in the obituary column becomes less remarkable. The moment when resignation sets in. The moment when the precarious nature of life becomes a recurrent subject for contemplation. The moment you realize that you’d best get on with it—whatever “it” is.

Insidious in the way that it becomes a consistent and repeating fact of your existence, death also draws your attention to the possibilities of yet another day. Another day you awaken. Another day you are able to open your eyes and raise yourself up off the bed. Another day to drop an oar into your swamp of faux pas and cull out the lessons. Every day you remain vertical until bedtime is a boon, a moment of grace in a fragile and sometimes merciless world. Suddenly and inconceivably, you find yourself passionate about a host of ordinary things you barely noticed while you were busy living for the future. As you advance in the direction of what will ultimately be your last adventure, you want to be sure you haven’t missed that which remains truly meaningful. You endeavor to be too busy living to attend to the fact that you’re also dying.

I’ve come to recognize that the most valuable method for avoiding contemplation of your own demise is to be present—something a plethora of self-help practitioners advocate for a variety of reasons. Admittedly, I am averse to many of these advocates, though I have come to embrace the concept of living in the present. And yet, as valid as I may perceive the practice, I laughed out loud when I read essayist Phillip Lopate’s rather unique and candid opinion about remaining present at all times. He writes,

The argument of both the hedonist and the guru is that if we were but to open ourselves to the richness of the moment, to concentrate on the feast before us, we would be filled with bliss. I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much over-rated….But to “be here now” hour after hour would never work. I don’t even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.

It’s my observation that to live life in the moment is to live life at full capacity—to recognize that not only is now the only sure thing but if it turns out to be the last thing, you had better make it count.

One year into his undergraduate degree in computer engineering at Roger Williams University, my youngest son called me after completing his last final. The conversation went like this,

            “I’m worried.”

            “What are you worried about?” 

            “My major is boring.”

            “Yikes. Okay, well, was there a class that jazzed you?”

            “Yeah, psychology.”

           “Well, maybe you should go do that instead.”

           “Yeah, but how will I earn a living from psychology?”

           “Don’t worry about that right now. Follow your bliss. It’ll work out.”       

Though somewhat concerned about the impact of his shift in focus, I’d already learned that being jazzed by your profession is key if you are to enjoy your life. The shift my son made has worked out. He’s chosen a career that may not earn as much as a computer engineer, but one that—by the very nature of the work—will never be boring.

It took decades, but eventually, I embraced the same advice. Until that time, I peered through a plethora of keyholes in search of my own bliss. Only recently has it revealed itself to me. In fact, the long path to this end more closely resembled the squiggly mess you made using both hands and dials on your Etch-A-Sketch simultaneously than it did a horizontal line to California you plotted on your road map with a Crayola.

A visit from home, San Diego harbor, August 2014

And though I spent two and a half years in the place I’d dreamed of living for over forty years, I failed to plant roots. At the beginning of year two, I missed the thunder and lightning storms our family gathered together to view from the safety of our front porch. I found myself longing for that scent in the air that foretells the change in season. My love for these things eternally pulsing through my veins, I discovered that to experience Mother Nature in her full range of temperament each year is a requirement if my roots are to grow.

Perhaps it was the solitude while living on the West Coast, but I also began to experience increased attention to things I’d previously failed to notice. For much of my adult life the demands of work, single-parenting, and attempting to have a social life had hijacked my attention—often leaving me senseless to the world around me. I lived in my head and forgot to notice the world—outside of those scheduled moments when I was required to do so.

That solitary existence in the land of sunshine also produced the unexpected side-effect of forcing me to examine myself—a practice in which I continue to participate. How did I want to spend what was left of my life? What did I need to feel happy? Am I really at home some two-thousand-nine-hundred and twenty-seven miles from New England? In the end, I knew that a perpetually sunny place would never be more than a layover. That invisible magnetic pull back to New England I’d seen in nearly everyone I knew who’d left and returned was incomprehensible to me until I moved away myself —something that when I understood, made me slap the heel of my palm against my forehead.

For me, home is the place where the heat of summer gives way to the scent of fallen leaves and some translucent essence in the air signals that it’s time to gather the Macs from local orchards and tap the maple trees. Thinking back now, I have to laugh at my California self as I realize that one of the things I missed the most about New England was an apple. It hadn’t occurred to me that Macs won’t grow in SoCal.

Home is the place where piles of fallen leaves blown by a harsh wind settle in dampened masses in the corners of our yards and the scent of a seasonal shift permeates every burst of that mistral-like wind. It’s the scent that promises the first snow—impossible to describe and yet it exists. It’s so ingrained in me that I don’t need the weather report to tell me what is about to happen. A hush accompanies the white-grey veil that settles over our rooftops just before that promise is kept. It’s the most glorious of anticipations that can only be satisfied when the flakes begin to drop. They’ll come slowly at first but soon gather speed, culminating in a confetti-like shower that makes everything soft and clean and quiet.

That first winter back reminded me of what I’d missed—shoveling snow in the evening by the light of streetlamps as the briskly falling flakes tumble from the sky. The biggest snowflakes imaginable shortening your visibility, nearly blinding you as the light filtering through those flakes cause its crystals to glisten—surrounding you in a rapturous, shimmering landscape. It’s a stunning, silent spectacle that affects me viscerally and leaves me without the proper words to describe it—unlike the Inuits who have some one hundred different words to describe snow. They have a word for this type of snowfall. It’s called tlapinti.

Home is the place where the spring peepers awaken after the air has shifted to the damp scent of spring, not a musty scent, but something crisp and new. The sky is a darker shade of grey when only water falls from it—perhaps it’s the lament of the clouds showering us with their tears because they’re no longer able to delight us with snowflakes.

Home is four seasons—the climate of my joy, my sorrow, my accomplishments, and my misadventures. I continue to reflect on the journey thus far, and I land on the unfortunate habit I’ve always had of losing myself in relationships. I’d become so focused on that person and absorbed in who I am with him, that I’d begin to fade. Fade in the way deep crimson drapery hanging in the direct sun for too many years turns pink—I’d become a paler version of myself. It’s something I’ve been aware of for decades but had failed to examine before those moments of solitude spent gazing at the Pacific.

Home is New England and after my return, it was also the house. It was the house I grew up in now sheltering me from the other side of the building. Joyce Carol Oates nails the distinction between house and home in her essay “They All Just Went Away” and I’m guessing that it resonates with most of us. She writes,

A house: a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms, these divided from one another by verticals and horizontals called walls, ceilings, and floors. The house contains the home but is not identical with it. The house anticipates the home and will very likely survive it, reverting again simply to a house when home (that is, life) departs. For only where there is life can there be home.

Yes. And it’s very specific lives—the lives of the family with whom I share DNA and the lives of the family I’ve chosen to love.

My color restored, my energy refocused, I’ll soon smell the seductive scent of lilacs—the signal for the transformation from spring to summer. Until then, I rejoice in a sound specific to this house—a steady hum that once I grew acclimated, I often failed to hear—a sound which has provided me with comfort all along. I hear them now as I write. The long-awaited chirps of the spring peepers that lulled me to sleep as a child are drifting up from our swamp.

by Sonja Martineau


Works Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. “They All Just Went Away.” The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, pp. 553-563.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/coffee-book-flowers-setting-2390136/

Root Systems

His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place and take its place among them.

From “A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

Of the roots that cling to the earth underground, there is much to know—about the soil, water, and sunshine required for them to sprout and grow plants—so too, there is much to be observed of the roots that attach us to a place through the life we’ve lived there and the community still present. Literal roots anchor the fruit and vegetable plants that sustain us, just as figurative roots anchor us to a particular place. My family’s roots are planted in a place where for years, residents boasted of having the widest paved main street in the world—a claim that was never authenticated with any authority but was fun to repeat.


Widest Paved Main Street, Circa The 1950s

If you Google the definition for “roots” you will be confronted with a variety of interpretations and utilization beginning with the “part of a plant which attaches it to the ground…typically underground, conveying water and nourishment…” and another—that of: “family, ethnic, or cultural origins, especially as the reasons for one’s long-standing emotional attachment to a place or community.”

Of the roots that grow plants, pollination is necessary to reproduction and my father contributed to this with his small apiary under an addition built on stilts at the rear of our house. It was ideal in that it sheltered the hives when Mother Nature did her worst. Despite that the house is located on a busy city street, our backyard buzzed and swarmed just as it would have if situated in a more rural setting. Dad had attended a course at Stonewall Farm to learn the do’s and don’ts of beekeeping and before long, had his own bee condominiums. At first, he got stung repeatedly upon each encounter with his charges. In the beginning, the stings would swell to great proportions—I walked into the house one evening to see Dad’s top lip grotesquely misshaping his mouth as if he’d stuck a golf ball between the inside of his lip and his top row of teeth. In time and with practice, he learned how to move around his bees so as not to disturb them. In turn, the bees grew to know his ways until eventually, the stinging stopped—that is, with the exception of the Russian strain. The Russian bees were menacing immediately upon arrival. He told us they were, “crazy, mad bastards,” relentlessly and deliberately stinging the hand that fed them.

Dad’s Label

Dad and his bees produced high-quality honey that friends would seek out and pay for—creating a fund he then used to improve and replenish his hives. But “Ralph’s Bees” served more than just our family and friends. They were our neighborhood pollinators, the conveyors of Mother’s gold, as they buzzed from plant to plant within a two-mile radius of their backyard residence.

In his 2017 article, How Capitalism Saved the Bees, Shawn Regan explains how commercial beekeeping compensates when other animals fail at pollination;

The chief reason commercial beekeeping exists is to help plants have sex. Some crops, such as corn and wheat, can rely on the wind to transfer pollen from stamen to pistil. But others, including a variety of fruits and nuts, need assistance. And since farmers can’t always depend solely on bats, birds, and other wild pollinators to get the job done, they turn to honeybees for help with artificial insemination. Unleashed by the thousands, the bees improve the quality and quantity of the farms’ yields; in return, the plants provide nectar, which the bees use to produce honey.

Just as bees are an essential component to the facilitation of plant propagation, the place where we grow our roots and the people we grow them with, is essential to our emotional lives—even when we’re not fully aware until sprouting roots of our own.

Our family is rooted in our patriarch’s birthplace, a city where between 1848 and 1970 trains traversed that “widest” street. A place where traffic was drawn to a halt and my sister and I hoped for a sighting—though our parents invariably voiced annoyance at the interruption by the behemoth blocking our passage. Whenever we were lucky enough in our timing to arrive simultaneously with the train, we’d watch through car windows as the lights in our path turned red and the huge metal arms dropped down on either side of the tracks. We heard bells clang wildly as if there were some sort of emergency—a sound that only served to heighten our sense of excitement and curiosity. Tree and I looked forward to counting the boxcars—always aspiring to up our numbers—and listening for the train’s whistle, which would sound upon arrival at the station. Then, we’d watch—slightly crestfallen with that feeling one always has at the ending of something pleasurable—as the flashing red lights turned to green and the arms were raised. Resigned, we’d listen to the last moments of the clackety-clack on the tracks—escorted by the train whistle the conductor blew with perceived alacrity—as they receded, and we lost sight of the great silver beast.

Despite being rooted in the same place since childhood—a place where most of my female relatives had the single-minded goal of reproducing—I had not envisioned myself settling down into motherhood. Having a child is the ultimate game changer—an irreversible decision. Something twenty people can tell you about and still, you will not fully comprehend. An offshoot of your root system that you are now and forever responsible for and to—one you must nourish properly to avoid doing it damage. Everything you do and say from that moment forward deeply impacts someone else’s life, someone who relies on you for his survival. And while you’re still trying to understand the awesomeness of this responsibility, your offshoot arrives as a master pooing machine that needs to be fed every three hours so he can poo some more—a scatological wonder. This is the beginning of the years of sleeping with one part of your brain on high alert, something that persists for the remainder of your life. But these are also the easy days and once you settle into the routine of stuff going in one end and out of the other, this little person starts becoming himself—he begins a peregrination that will culminate in his own roots, an intricate system entirely separate from yours. Until then, he delights in nothing you can identify, tracks your movements with wide eyes and a series of eyebrow-raised, perplexed expressions until before long, he’s able to throw his hand up and you see his little fist punching aimlessly but deliberately at nothing with all his might. You marvel at his prodigious capacity to produce saliva as you lose count of the daily outfit changes required by the stuff that continues to come out of both ends of your adorable little offshoot. Still, one smile, one giggle, one contented head pressed up against your chest is all it takes to realize you wouldn’t return him from whence he came—even if it were possible—even on the worst days you spend together.

As you settle in, life is all pretty groovy until he starts to walk—particularly in the case of your second child, the one you dub “curtain climber” (not original, but accurate) and who at the ridiculously early age of 9 1/2 months, climbs out of his crib, falls to the floor, and begins to move around vertically on his two longest limbs. It’s too soon for you. It’s a home safety micro-disaster. He’s a danger to himself. Your groovy life becomes three vigilant—and seemingly interminable—years of attempting to see from both the front and back of your head in an effort to escort your offshoot safely into maturation.

Aaron 1982
Josh 1988

And then somehow, through years of cultivation, both offshoots survive the mini and near-macro disasters of childhood and manage to mature into full-grown plants. Because while you were busy feeding and watering, they’d been drifting on the current of a light breeze and without your notice had re-rooted in the soil of a new, autonomous garden—something insidious that transpired so fast you wonder how long you’d been unconscious. How on earth did you go from feeling your days were endless to being astonished and perplexed by how fast that same time passed? But then,

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

From “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon


Though John Lennon added a couple of words to this Allen Saunders quote when he re-used it in his song, it remains a universal reflection for parenthood. In one moment, you’re putting your arms out for your first little offshoot to precariously stumble into as he teeters on his newfound legs, his face a study in concentration, his determination palpable. You’re both so proud. And in the next, he’s five with an infant brother. Then—in what at the time feels like years but later seems an instant—you’re staring at both their backsides as the two walk out the front door and into their new lives that entirely separate from yours. You are forced to recognize that this is not some ill-intentioned conspiracy designed by the universe to hurt you, your sons have simply grown to adulthood—something you’ve meant to have happened and helped them do all along. Your job is complete. Through years of cultivation, while you were busy feeding, watering, and keeping them safe, your sons had stealthily become men.

by Sonja Martineau


Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. “A Native Hill.” The Hudson Review, vol. 21, no. 4, 1968, pp. 601–634. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3849275.

Of Water

Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
Albert Szent-Györgyi
 

We enter the world through water, and it leaves our bodies as we exit. In between, it touches our lives in myriad ways, and I’ve been thinking lately about its role in mine.

When spring arrives, the reeds will barely poke their heads above the surface. Having melted without an outlet, the snow will form pools between the cattails, and flood the areas around the clumps of marsh grass. Edged with patches of tangled briar bushes, our swamp is an isolated eco-system that existed long before we arrived. Still bereft of leaves on this early March morning, the tree branches loom over the edges, encircling the area in the sparse embrace of winterreminding me of the days we ice-skated on the small frozen patches between the dead clumps of grass until dusk cast its eerie glow over the swamp and left us scrambling back up the embankment for hot cocoa with gooey spoonfuls of marshmallow.

When spring arrives, the breeze will scatter the dialogues of hundreds of peepers all the way up to our screened windows. When we open them, they’ll fill the house—accompanied by the screeching and barking of a mother fox who’s raising her kits on the crickets, grasshoppers, mice, rabbits, and beetles who survive at the pleasure of our swamp. She conducts year-round patrols of the perimeter with her almost daily broadcasts. It’s loud enough to wake the dead in the adjacent cemetery and so distracting in its vehemence that we all wonder, What on earth is she trying to tell us?

In the summers of my youth, our backyard swamp—which by definition is actually a marsh—was not a place many would choose to slog around the edges of, but we delighted in its endless capacity for new discovery and ultimately, its proximity to our house. For in the early 1970’s the only other body of water nearby—the pond in the park across the street from our front yard—vanished; a victim of the hysteria that accompanies the possibility of litigation, it had been filled in by city bulldozers. Prior to its disappearance, I remember winters when the snow was so deep that my father would bring his snow-blower over and clear the pond—providing our north end neighborhood with a place to ice skate. Though figure and hockey playing skaters alike appreciated the gesture, my sister and I lived in fear of Dad and his blower crashing through the ice, sinking to the bottom, and being too weighed down to pop back up. We marveled at how our Superhero always knew when the ice was safe—but then, he’d been ice-fishing and understanding the clues nature provides since he was a young boy.

In summer, the wood between house and swamp will camouflage my view with its shimmering leaves turning their faces forward and back at the slightest shift in the air—and the dark veil over the swamp will be penetrated by firefly waltzes as the moon rises over Beech Hill. Visible for now, the swamp remains a maze of snow mounds, dead grasses, broken limbs, and is appreciably silent. This is the backyard of my childhood—a marsh abuzz with activity for most of the year. When my sister and I played in our swamp we never analyzed how much life it contained—or would be lost if it disappeared—we were too busy using this natural gift as the backdrop for our safaris. Oblivious to the possibility of whole species’ extinction by human progress, we were too young to consider what life was sustained by the swamp before we’d arrived or what may not exist after we’re gone.

Rachel Carson writes in her essay, “The Marginal World,” that we turn to nature to understand the history and hidden explanation in the evolution of earth’s species,

There is a common thread that links these scenes and memories—the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations as it has appeared, evolved, and sometimes died out. Underlying the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance. It is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us, that sends us again and again into the natural world where the key to the riddle is hidden.

I think about nature’s riddle as I study my childhood playground through the kitchen window. Not equipped to offer the human-designed delights of snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba-diving, our swamp provided the mysterious delights of Mother’s wildlife. At rest and awash with morning sunshine, my contemplation is unexpectedly interrupted by the monologue of a yellow warbler—whose song is as sweet to listen to as her yellow feathers are to gaze upon. It seems spring is on the cusp after all. The naked trees suddenly capture my attention and that’s when I notice it. Our swamp has shrunk at some point in the last five decades. Not simply the shrinking of something as re-visited with adult eyes, but an actual shrinking. I suddenly wonder, where has our wilderness gone?

When I gazed at our swamp through the lens of childhood there was less evidence of human existence. My eyes beheld only the splendor of its revolving mantles with each shift of the season—tree branches laden with thick layers of snow later dotted with chartreuse colored buds bright against the damp brown wood that matured into lime colored leaves before turning to red, orange and gold—a circuitous and ever-changing treat I awakened to each morning. Today, nearly all the trees are gone on the far side of our swamp. Today, our frozen playground lacks the jungle-like quality it held in childhood. There are new structures next to embankments; humans have surrounded our swamp like settlers circling the wagons in the Old West in preparation for an attack. There’s an apartment building where there was once reeds and trees. The footpath that connected Wilford and Cottage streets—and where I fell on a pile of glass while making my getaway from a black and yellow spider—is now a paved road. When I pass through my darkened house at night, I catch the flicker of car headlights eerily floating above the swamp in the center of my window pane as if all the fireflies fused together to form two big nightlights.

Scanning the swamp as I lament the loss of our wilderness, I wonder if this proliferation of human interference will continue until the entire marsh has been filled in like our childhood pond across the street. In thinking about marshlands in New Hampshire, I discover that I’m not alone in my concern about their diminishment. Just a year ago, an article on the UNH Extension website reminded us of the threat to our wetlands,

Historically, New Hampshire has lost fewer wetlands to development than many other states. However, we also have little direct protection for these important parts of our ecosystem. As southern New Hampshire faces increasing development pressure, wetlands and their surrounding uplands are at risk. Construction setbacks aren’t always required around wetlands in NH (except septic systems) and wetlands are routinely filled and damaged by driveway and road crossings. 

Admittedly, I think of water more since returning from my stint as a San Diego resident. Living in a place where there’s a short supply of rain—and water becomes scarce enough to require periodic water bans—makes one consider the wasting of it, though this consideration was nothing new for me. I obediently became an abstemious consumer after my parents bought the duplex and had to pay the city for our consumption. In our house, water was always a precious commodity—one that if wasted, had repercussions.

In his essay “Water: Our Life Blood,” Dr. Brian O’Leary pragmatically articulates the importance of water in our lives,

We live or die according to the condition of water inside and outside our bodies. Water has memory, structure and healing properties. It is the medium through which our consciousness works. It’s often said that water is the oil of the 21st century. Water is our very lifeblood, which is much more important for our well-being than oil. Without abundant clean water, life cannot go on.

https://www.pexels.com/photo/circle-clean-clear-drop-220211/

Between childhood reminders not to waste water and the stark realization of the shortages in California, the concept of clean drinking water as a precious commodity has been planted, nurtured, and forever instilled in me. Water is indeed our “lifeblood,” but it is also one of our most powerful adversaries, one we now face more frequently.

Today, when I see modern climate disasters related to water I think, well of course—most of the earth began underwater and so, perhaps, we shall end that way as well. According to NewScientist, “Earth 4.4 billion years ago was flat and almost entirely covered in water with just a few small islands, new research suggests” (NewScientist Staff). After decades of heating the place up, we can’t expect it not to spring a few leaks, and return to its pre-human past in self-defense.

I’ve been having a love relationship with water from the beginning. I’m told that at the age of two I walked into a lake and kept walking… until I was in over my head. My frantic mother raced over, yanked me up out of the water, and steeled herself for the ear-piercing scream she was sure would follow—but instead, was met with a squeal of glee. Until that day, my only experience of water as a source of entertainment was while sitting in an oversized, porcelain kitchen sink as cupfuls were poured over my body to rinse away the soap—a common occurrence in the life of a toddler. If the adult with the cup was adept, soap in the eyes was avoided and the bath was one of the more joyful moments of the day.




As soon as the spring rains swelled her sides, my father was fishing again along the banks of the Connecticut River. This day, his baby girl rested nearby in the grass on their patchwork quilt with his young wife, catching the scent of magnolia and the kisses he threw over his shoulder—waiting for him to put down his fishing rod, lift her up, and tell her stories that would make her giggle.

Contemplation about water invariably returns me to the Atlantic, the site of my most memorable encounter. We’d spent many consecutive years at Old Orchard Beach with our parents and cousins. We slept in a canvas tent the size of the largest bedroom in our house and were lulled to sleep by the snaps and crackles of the campfire and a chorus of crickets. On rainless days, we’d pack lunches and Pepsi in a large metal cooler, load the car with blankets, the radio, books, and sunscreen for our short drive to the ocean. We delighted in chasing the waves, building sand tunnels, and warming ourselves in the heat of the sun after the water had turned our lips blue-violet and shriveled the skin on our hands and feet. It was the summer of my thirteenth year—nearly our last at Old Orchard—when the Atlantic taught me respect for her superiority in water games. With a single slam she turned me into her volleyball as she played a rubber-match with the undertow—heaving me out toward open sea and violently spinning me around and tossing me ass over teakettle—before depositing me without apology on the shore with my swimsuit top twisted around my neck and piles of sand clumped through my hair and embedded in every orifice. It was the closest to drowning I ’d come before or since.

Our love for the mysteries of our swamp and Old Orchard Beach notwithstanding, some of my most cherished moments in water are the summers my sister and I pedaled our purple Stingray bikes to the chlorinated, but oh-so-clear, water at Robin Hood Park pool clutching our season passes and watching boys fight for first place in the long line of swimsuit-clad children sweltering under the oppressive sun. Upon entry, we’d take a combination lock and green mesh bag for our shorts and shoes—and shiver through the requisite, goosebumps-inducing shower before leaving a trail of wet footprints all the way to the pool where we’d stand lined up around the edge—and wait. In the way discomfort always feels like it lasts an eternity, we were held back to the very end of our endurance before suddenly, the lifeguards blew their whistles and 50 shivering, dripping wet children would leap into the pool in unison. It was here that we spent countless days each summer with our cousins sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the shallow end of the pool—miming our tea parties as the glint off the sun filtered down through our floating hair and warbled our every movement. By 5 pm, we’d be covered in freckles, our hair sun-streaked, and with the whites of our eyes red—bloodshot from opening them to chlorine all day. At home after dinner, if we still had the energy, we might explore in the swamp until dusk—until being overcome by armies of mercenary mosquitoes—and until, at some point, we grew out of our swamp adventures. These were the halcyon days of my youth; the days I’d return to if only.

Today, our shrunken swamp is still zoned as “conservation” land, though the new road and apartment building cut straight through the middle of that land, leaving me perplexed at the zoning definition of “conservation” and wondering about the ecological cost of interfering with that land.

https://ci.keene.nh.us/sites/default/files/planning/City_of_Keene_Zoning_Map.pdf

Perhaps it’s serendipity—or perhaps I’ve subconsciously realized that our swamp may be under threat. In any case, that I’ve been recently spending time contemplating the role of water in my life, appears to be important timing. Though I can’t unpave the road running through our swamp or unbuild that apartment building, I’m impelled to pay attention to changes in city zoning. Our swamp is a precious landscape—of which this contemplation serves to remind me to be attentive and protective.

by Sonja Martineau

Shimmer

…I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Joan Didion

Self-respect is a concept discreetly lurking in the background of our subconscious, but it moves to the forefront when we realize that we’ve sacrificed it in favor of something else we thought we required to be happy. At that moment, self-respect becomes as basic and central to happiness as love—because it’s about loving ourselves, is it not?

For Joan Didion, the realization that she’d outgrown her childhood ability to attract all that she needed for happiness in life brought into focus the harsh reality that she alone is the architect of her own self-respect, but first, she had to face her own self-deception. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she writes,

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of self-respect.

In thinking back on the weeks we’ve spent in assaying the essay as a literary form, I realize that it is incomplete without a review of Joan Didion’s oeuvre. There is much to assimilate and digest in Didion’s writing and as I read the first essay, I was reminded of a recent discussion about “persona” as it pertains to the essay. This quote from Nicole Wallack’s, Crafting Presence immediately came to mind:

No matter how revealing, confessional, narrative, or self-reflexive writers decide to be, no matter how completely writers rely on autobiography as the source of inspiration and evidence, and no matter how visibly and often writers figure their presence in the first-person singular, essays are not “personal.”

In “On Self-Respect,” a title that naturally made me think of Montaigne, Didion displays the “fierce attachment to an idea” that Nicole Wallack writes about later in her book. Didion’s idea is the complication between innocence and self-respect and self-worth. She begins her essay by telling us,

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made a painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

She is recalling a time when she was “unnerved” by disappointment and speaks of it in terms of losing her innocence, as if some delusion has been shattered. She portrays her loss of childhood naïveté starkly in this passage:

I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kapp keys but happiness, honor, … and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.” (143)

But it is her raw and unapologetic honesty in examining inescapable, human imperfection that captured my attention. She goes on to explain:

“…self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards…” (143)

This passage is representative of the way Didion smashes through the mirror of persona and yet retains her own mask by writing of this imperfection in the third person. And it’s effective. It pulls us in and then shatters our delusions about ourselves, forcing us to awaken to the fallout from our own unpleasant faults. She moves on to identify self-respect as “…a discipline, a habit of mind,” impossible to “fake” and something that can be “developed, trained, coaxed forth” simultaneously imbuing us with hope—the hope that one feels when realizing it’s not too late to address and correct self-destructive behavior (146).  She continues to remove the mask as she repeatedly reveals intimate pieces of herself. She speaks of being told to try sticking her head in a paper bag “…as an antidote to crying” (146). There’s no indication as to who told her this, what it was in response to, or at what point in her life it occurred, though she was twenty-seven when she wrote the piece. I’ve grown up in a world that considers crying a healthy form of expression and can’t help but wonder why someone would suggest she stop? The placement of this suggestion within an essay on self-respect appears strange today, though her reaction to the idea is unemotional and nearly comical. She writes, “…but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag” (147). Didion avers that self-respect is gained by having a sense of “self-worth,” and that once this is achieved, to have self-respect is to “…potentially have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147). 


One of the reasons that Joan Didion’s essays are so successful is that they are at once both “personal” and yet often not. The essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem entitled, “John Wayne: A Love Song,” in which Didion chronicles a period in Wayne’s life when he had recently come through a battle with cancer—the disease that would later take his life—is an example of both. Didion was an eight-year-old the first time she saw Wayne on a movie screen, and she writes of the shock in hearing about his illness years later,

“I licked the Big C,” John Wayne announced, as John Wayne would, reducing those outlaw cells to the level of any other outlaws, but even so we all sensed that this would be the one unpredictable confrontation, the one shoot-out Wayne could lose. (32)

She describes a type of collective rejection of facts in which she participated, “I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality, and I did not much want to see John Wayne when he must be (or so I thought) having some trouble with it himself.” (32) Later, while Wayne is in Mexico working on a film almost unbelievably, that eight-year-old girl—now a married woman—is with the big man himself, “…time brings odd mutations, and there we were, one night that last week in Mexico.”  She and her husband John [Dunne] were dining with Wayne and his family and she writes of the incident that led to the title of her essay, “And then something happened. Suddenly the room seemed suffused with a dream, and I could not think why. Three men appeared out of nowhere, playing guitars” (41). What Didion hadn’t realized until later was that without saying a word to the movie star, the three men had been playing the theme song to the film Wayne had just shot there. She writes, “…even now, I can still hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this (41). Though this essay is essentially about John Wayne, Didion literally shows up at the beginning and end of the piece. She writes of her presence and proximity to Wayne at two different moments in their separate lives; it’s somewhat about her personal experience, but mostly, it’s about John Wayne’s journey and she takes us along for the ride as she sews their life pieces together seamlessly in her unique and pragmatic style.


In her essay entitled, “On Keeping A Notebook” from her book, Slouching towards Bethlehem, Didion discusses finding old entries she’d written in a notebook and how upon revisiting them she is unable to explain the meaning of or her motivation for having recorded those thoughts. Her self-reflective questions take us on the journey with her as she asks,

Why did I write it down? …what exactly was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that a compulsion tries to justify itself.

Later, her tone is almost dismissive of the act of recording what now appears as random and useless, “What is this business about ‘shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed’? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?” (134). As someone who has kept a journal at different times, I completely understand this sentiment. Despite the thoughts having come from my own mind, when too much time has passed and I re-read them, they appear foreign, sometimes inane, and often—pointless. She delves deeper as she discusses what she feels is the truth uncovered in a notebook and how it is intrinsically linked to our own slant on things. She tells us that her family frequently called her out on “what some would call lies” and writes,

Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. …How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. (134)

One conclusion Didion draws about the reason for keeping a notebook is stunning in both its truth and its simplicity, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Her description of the minutiae that sometimes appears in one’s notebooks is elegant; “…we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker” (136). She believes it’s useful to revisit our notes because they keep us tethered to our younger selves and that this is at the very heart of keeping a notebook. She writes, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” (139).


As I read more of Didion’s essays, I became curious about how others have perceived her work over the years. I was fortunate to happen upon an article in Vanity Fair written in 2016 in which the writer, Lili Anolik appears to have captured the very essence of Didion as a “cultural icon” and as a writer. She is quick to include a codicil however, warning that she could be guilty of “misapprehension.” Still, her assessment of Didion, the woman, feels accurate:

She’s cool-eyed and cold-blooded, and that coolness and coldness—chilling, of course, but also bracing—is the source of her fascination as much as her artistry is; the source of her glamour too, and her seductiveness, because she is seductive, deeply. What she is, is a femme fatale, and irresistible. She’s our kiss of death, yet we open our mouths, kiss back.

The article begins with a flourish by revealing to the reader that Anolik is in awe of Didion as she includes Didion’s own intention in her writing:

In a 1969 column for Life, her first for the magazine, Joan Didion let drop that she and husband, John Gregory Dunne, were at the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce,” surely the most famous subordinate clause in the history of New Journalism, an insubordinate clause if ever there was one. The poise of it, the violence, the cool-bitch chic—a writer who could be the heroine of a Godard movie! —takes the breath away, even after all these years. Didion goes on: ‘I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.’

This quote leaves no question about Didion’s presence in her essays. She means for her writing to be idiosyncratic and she’s unapologetic about its revealing nature, the secrets she discloses about herself.


In her 1976 essay, “Why I Write,” held in The New York Times Archives, I discover that Didion writes about grammar much the way I experience it:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.

The essay was written for a lecture and before she delves into it, she reveals why she “stole” her title from George Orwell; “… I like the sound of the words: Why I Write.” Didion explains in a no-nonsense way that she is “not a scholar” nor is she an “intellectual” and she writes of her time as an undergraduate at Berkley with uninhibited candor,

I tried, with a kind of hopeless late adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract. In short I tried to think. I failed.

This description is something I suspect many writers can relate to—trying to “buy” our way into “the world of ideas.” Another way of saying, I got nothing over here; where the hell do I start? I also appreciate the way Didion describes her process—how she begins with an image and then the writing and syntax is the result of that image:

The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…. It tells you. You don’t tell it.

She also describes how images “shimmer around the edges” and how this is the genesis of her stories. She uses a novel she wrote entitled, A Book of Common Prayer to make a point about why she writes. She describes how at the time she began the novel she was unaware of “who” the characters were and “who” the narrator was and that this is at the heart of why writers write—to solve the mystery of that shimmer: “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

I love this explanation.


Joan Didion suffers from debilitating migraines that prevent her from working on a regular basis, and yet she is a prolific producer of writing. In her essay, “In Bed” from her book The White Album, she discusses the experience of living with this ailment. When she touches upon a phenomenon that I experienced for an entire decade of my life—the idea that pain is imaginary—I could practically feel her headache.

I spent a decade in agony for every step I took, a pain that no practitioner could cure. I tried physical therapy, chiropractic adjustment, acupuncture, somatic movement, Pilates, kinesiology, massage, biofeedback, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, before I moved 3,000 miles from home to the land of sunshine in the hope that the change of climate would improve my condition. And still, I walked in agony. Doctors believed in my pain, but some outside the medical profession doubted the veracity of my claims—the suspicion of hypochondria besting their frontal lobes. In her essay, “In Bed,” Didion recounts a similar experience—a time in her life when people did not believe her pain was legitimate:

For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary….Migraine is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination. (168-9)

Didion also discloses that she hid her pain. She experienced her first migraine at the age of eight and she explains that because of the stigma [pain as a figment of her imagination], by the age of twenty-five and “wary of the trap,” she would “sometimes lie” about the frequency of her migraines—despite the physical truth of her situation. She writes,

The fact that I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secret, evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink. (168)

As Didion grew older of course, she understood that her painful condition was a result of biology,

One inherits, …the predisposition. In other words, I spent yesterday in bed with a headache not merely because of my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, and wrongthink, but because both my grandmothers had migraine, my father has migraine and my mother has migraine. (169-70)

She continues the essay by listing the effects of this illness (many more than I’d realized) and that because it “stretch[es] the very limits of [her] endurance” the fact it is not fatal… seems, to someone deep in an attack, an ambiguous blessing” (171). For me, the most poignant statement Didion makes about her condition is when she writes of the continued negative discourse around migraine pain:

All of us who have migraine suffer no only from the attacks themselves but from this common conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin, that we are making ourselves sick, that we “bring it on ourselves.” (171)

She concludes by explaining that she has made peace with her incurable condition and her foray into personification makes it real for her reader. She writes,

We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble…. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work don and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited. (172)

Despite how debilitating and inconvenient this “friend” is, she ends her essay in an uplifting manner. She writes that it acts like “a circuit breaker” and that the “fuses have emerged intact” and then she leaves us with an image of what it’s like to emerge from such pain,

There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings. (172)

Didion is an enigma in every sense of this word and her essays, though inherently hers, present a cache of varying ideas over many decades of thinking, writing, experiencing, and observing the choices and events that occur in a human’s life. Hers has certainly been a wholly unique and interesting one and she writes about all of it with her own curious, revealing, and distinct shimmer.

by Sonja Martineau


Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping A Notebook.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.

Didion, Joan. “The White Album.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

Wallack, Nicole B. Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. The University Press of Colorado, 2017.

Fraud by Hindsight

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, it might have been.

Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve done it. Likely, you’ve done it. Who hasn’t done it? Who hasn’t looked into their past and thought, why did I make that choice…? Who hasn’t asked themselves at some point in their lives, why couldn’t I see that? This revisiting of past decisions is an experience we’ve come to know as hindsight—something that can hold us hostage or when instructive, impact our future choices.

I became a mother at a fairly young age and often felt as though the task of raising children was like trying to navigate my way out of some intricate maze blindfolded. Exasperated at times, I wondered, what in the hell did these tiny tyrants want from me? As a result, hindsight has held sway over my opinion of myself as a parent throughout my sons’ lives. If only I could go back and do things differently. Why did I tell them to play in the yard so I could vacuum, change the beds, and wash six loads of laundry? Were the household chores more important than taking the boys to the park or the library? Will they remember that their home and clothes were clean? Given the choice, would they have even cared about cleanliness? Decidedly not. This is the “wisdom” of hindsight. An understanding that is completely elusive—until after the fact—and then it appears as wisdom. Wisdom that we are distressed to realize had eluded us the first time around.

Interestingly, the courts don’t consider wisdom a result of hindsight. They consider hindsight inaccurate and in the case of securities litigation, have given it the name “Fraud by Hindsight” pointing specifically to the hindsight bias identified by psychologists. In an article in the Cornell Law Faculty Publication, the authors write:a hurdle that plaintiffs in securities cases must overcome”[ because hindsight] “blurs the distinction between fraud and mistake.”  

In other words, it’s only because of the way you remember an incident now that you think you understood it perfectly then. The inherent problem here is that we are using information we didn’t have access to earlier to judge our past decisions. Is this useful or is it a case of sabotage by hindsight? Does the perspective of hindsight help us be more mindful in the future? Psychologist Richard B. Joelson thinks so and explains how he considers hindsight as a component in provoking behavioral change:

One of the ways I discuss change with my clients is by defining three states of awareness: hindsight, insight, and foresight. In the process of trying to change, hindsight is often the first way in which a person becomes more self-aware. Looking back at a problematic choice or action taken provides a useful beginning in the effort to function differently.

This makes sense to me. I see the value in using past mistakes as a tool for making better decisions. In doing the research, however, I discovered that psychological scientist Neil Roese disagrees with this idea. He believes hindsight is a barrier, “If you feel like you knew it all along, it means you won’t stop to examine why something really happened.”Okay, so he’s focusing on the situation as the impetus for the bad decision and worries if we rely too much on the outcome as simply a product of a poor choice, we will overlook all the stars that came into alignment to prompt the bad decision in the first place.

In trying to understand these opposing views on hindsight—and determine who is right—I returned to my oft-made decision to clean the house rather than play with my children. In hindsight, would I choose differently today? Absolutely. But by simply looking back in hindsight and deciding it was the wrong decision, am I failing to examine the things that impelled me to make that decision at that time? Things such as: it’s the same choice my own full-time working mother made, or what will other people think upon entering my apartment if they are greeted by mountains of dirty laundry and dust bunnies skittering across the floor?

As I analyze my life at that time, I realize that hindsight isn’t just about deciding which choices were right or wrong. It’s also necessary to discover the reason that I believed that housekeeping was more important than spending the little time I had outside of work playing with my sons. While it’s one thing to believe that we might have made a better choice, it’s something else to understand why we made that initial one.

Just as it can be an instrument for positive change, hindsight can also be a canker on our memories. Like a canker it goes away, but then it returns just as painful on subsequent outbreaks—particularly because it’s escorting regret. There is no instance in life where this is more pronounced than in the death of a loved one. Was there something you forgot or were afraid to ask?

Why doesn’t a neon sign flashing the words, “LAST CHANCE” appear in your head? I don’t know, but sometimes, it just doesn’t.


My father was a fighter, a real scrapper. A tall, wiry young man, he was seen as a weakling and frequently challenged to fist fights—the majority of which did not bode well for the guy who picked the fight. This was a source of angst for his mother, but it served him well later in life when he got into serious scrapes with his own body. A massive coronary at age 55 would have killed him had the cardiologist not been standing at his bedside. A third of his heart died that day. That vitiated organ no longer had enough oomph to pump the blood to the places it needed to go—his prognosis was grim. Nonetheless, Dad went on to spend the next 17 years of his life battling a plethora of health issues—meeting each new threat with a tenacity that to this day I look back on in wonderment. Upon each visit to that same cardiologist, the doctor would shake his head in disbelief and ask a question that he and Dad both knew was a challenge,

Are you still here, Ralph?”

My father’s will to live survived two cardiologists and transcended the physical pain he consistently met with fierce defiance for nearly two decades. We appreciated his desire to remain with us, though his suffering was breathtaking and distressing to witness. He preferred evoking laughter to complaining and during his many stays in hospitals around New England, he counted numerous fans among doctors and nurses alike. Humor was Dad’s panacea for the plethora of needles, IV lines, incisions, the rib spreaders, and two burr holes drilled into his head that he’d told the neighbor’s daughter were there because “that’s where I had my antlers removed.”

Despite always knowing how precarious Dad’s health was, we pushed the thought of his tenuous grasp on life to the back of our minds and were then bewildered when he reached the end of his journey. How could this be? He’d always rallied.

He too was shocked, but his shock transformed to anger and disappointment when he realized that he was expected to give up his place on this earth. The cardiologist approached Mom, my sister, and myself and advised us that Dad’s defibrillator device would need to be disconnected—an intentional, measurable step toward his end; our father had a living will. I imagine when Dad signed it he assumed that my mother, sister, brother-in-law and I would be the ones to decide to let him go. I’m certain he never imagined a scenario he’d be expected to participate in deciding his own fate. Who would? Don’t we all assume we’ll be comatose when our medical directive is activated? I know I do. I envision myself lying brain dead on a gurney and that the steps taken to end my life will be an act of mercy. What must it have been like for him to still be able to walk and talk and think and yet be expected to give up the life he cherished?

The cardiologist himself arrived later in the week with his laptop—though a technician is typically sent on these missions. In addition to the doctor and my father, there were seven of us present in my parent’s sunny living room that afternoon. We conversed about everything we could think of that had nothing to do with the reason we were all there.

Through Dad’s myriad of health issues, I’d consistently been the most vocal during his hospital stays—always questioning what the doctors were doing to him and asking them to explain their decisions. I know it’s the reason he looked at me first when he asked,

            “Do you have any questions?”

I was blindsided. I’m a slow processor. I could see the demand—if not in his voice, in his eyes. My mind went blank. I answered without having truly considered the question. In hindsight, I believe he wanted me to ask how the doctor knew for sure that it was the right time for this dramatic and irreversible action. Why didn’t I ask? My soft-spoken “no” was followed by six additional assenting voices before the doctor attempted to disconnect the device. I say attempted because he struggled with the program. What was meant to be a quick and simple computer command was met with resistance. Was this Dad’s tenacity at play or was the universe sending us a message?

The air in the room grew heavy with confusion, disbelief, anxiety, grief. Those of us who had earlier replaced awkward silence with chatter—remained voiceless. Then…a series of beeps. Then…it stopped. Then…silence. A count of ten. Then… like a gunshot that suddenly pierces the stillness at a military funeral, the ominous click penetrated the silence of our collectively held breath as the doctor closed his laptop. Just like that, the cardiologist finished the last chapter in Dad’s story. And that question I meant to ask—would have asked if Dad had turned to me last and I’d had time to process—what of that? That question remains to this day unasked and unanswered—relegated to the abyss of time and the hindsight eternally linked to a final, clear memory of my father.

Today— though hindsight provides an unobstructed view of the past—it feels more productive to survey my life through the driver’s side windshield.

by Sonja Martineau


Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Goodreads, Inc., 2019. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/98330-of-all-the-words-of-mice-and-men-the-saddest

What Would Fred Say?

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.
~Yehuda Berg

When we sit down before our keyboards—or lift our pens—we consider what words to write, how to arrange them, and why, when given a choice, we sometimes choose writing over a conversation. As an impulsive person who frequently finds spontaneous conversation uncomfortable, my intentions are best articulated when I write. Writing enables me to be thoughtful, provides me an opportunity to change my mind, gives me time to recall what I can’t remember, and allows me to be provocative without the risk of reddening my face. Therefore, I choose to write, but when it comes to which words to use in my writing and how to arrange them, my options are infinite. In part, because the Merriam Webster dictionary continues to expand, adding hundreds, sometimes thousands of new words a year. In 2018, they added among others, ‘binge-watch’ (no surprise there) and ‘Seussian’ to their dictionary. With so many possible word choices, I wonder at the psychology in play when we make those choices.

In addition to the almost infinite number of word choices, is the choice in how to arrange them on the page. Though admittedly grammar rules provide fewer options, still there is typically more than one way to state something and for me, the best way depends on what it is I’m trying to say. If the point I wish to make is of vital importance, the word choice I opt for is the one that will have the strongest impact—this is also where punctuation can act as an additional truss to prop up my argument. But the words that wound us need little trussing. Even a slight inference in the direction of negativity can harm us when we’re starting out in life.

What child has not had the first-hand experience of words as weapons to inflict pain, embarrassment, shame, and fear—think elementary school playground. And yet, throughout our lives, we also experience words as tools to repair relationships, effect a compromise, or to express love. It is our words that lead us to war, but it is also our words that return us to peace. Words wound us emotionally, entertain us, rescue us from despair, crush our self-esteem, and imbue us with confidence. Used for oppression, entertainment, and didactic purposes, words are catalysts for change, and they sow the seeds of enlightenment.

I despair over the wretchedness in the world. I’m frustrated at the destruction of our environment and ashamed of my own role in that destruction. Our ignorance and for some, apathy, will be the ruination of our grandchildren’s future home—we have no right to do this, and yet we persist. But just as volatile, destructive, and specious words sway the pendulum of public opinion into this environmental abyss, the poignancy of other words has the power to transform my despair to hope—words like community, acceptance, gratitude, and kindness. Of the nature of words, Nathaniel Hawthorne ascribes them no authority when they stand on their own. He believed that it is only when a writer puts them together that they can be either destructive or helpful. He wrote,

Words: so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

This concept doesn’t completely hold true today for I can think of many potent and “evil” words that stand completely on their own—the racial and ethnic slurs I overheard as a child come to mind.

The point is that word choice is paramount. Today, there are trainings specifically around teaching the appropriate word choice in any given environment. Whether you work for an agency that provides supports to individuals with disabilities or with college students on campus, there are specific words you are meant to use or not. It’s crucial to consider the words we use judiciously so that we may show one another respect and greater humanity.

Just as Merriam Webster is adding new words to its dictionary, we find ourselves abscising others from our lexicon because they’re now deemed offensive. In fact, some words are so offensive we can’t bring ourselves to speak or write them—I myself continue to reject the pernicious “n” word.

In discussing writing, C.S. Lewis pointed out the value in selective word choice for a different reason. For it’s not only the offensive words that we need to excise or set aside for another day. Sometimes, it’s the words we labor over to improve our writing. Of this, his premise was simple, don’t lead with the fancy words, you might need them later.

C. S. Lewis notwithstanding, there are times when that bigger word must be said—or written. The formal essay used for academic and scholarly pursuits, for example, requires formal and precise diction which includes using more professional word choices appropriate to the subject. The writer is expected to have gleaned information from external sources and his or her word choices should reflect this.

Moreover, the higher the stakes, the more critical the word choice. I’ve recently begun an internship working with the marketing and fundraising departments of a non-profit organization. My work is meant to both raise the organization’s profile and hopefully, revenue. I think about the power of words as I work on my first assignment—a feature story. It’s about a STEM class I observed in which three medically fragile and cognitively impaired young adults were participating. They were performing tasks with a degree of success to which one might think them incapable and I want to honor them without coming off as condescending. Too much surprise at their abilities could be demeaning and yet they’d participated as fully as it was possible for them, which to some extent was due to the ingenuity of their teacher and the aides who were there to guide them. But it was also through their own perseverance that each student achieved some degree of success that day. This is what I want to shine the spotlight on, and therefore my word choices matter. My piece will appear in the organization’s magazine and because I’m still writing it at this moment, it’s on my mind—insidiously inserting itself here. I know that I need to find a balanced, accurate, heartwarming way in which to describe what I witnessed that morning with being overly sentimental. I need to take the time to find the right words.

In this age of instant transmission of information, now more than ever, the right words matter. One careless and ill-chosen word in the workplace can prompt a lawsuit. Unfortunate and deplorable word choice by a world leader can offend an entire nation.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” – President Trump’s widely reported comments made in private during a meeting on immigration,  11 Jan 2018

Conversely, I’m reminded of someone who used the right words to positively impact the lives of countless children. I’m referring to an important string of words uttered on May 1, 1969, that helped preserve funding for a valuable children’s program and the Public Broadcasting System as a whole. The setting was a U.S. Senate Subcommittee meeting on communication. The committee—as directed by President Nixon—planned to slash the public television budget in half during a time when the Vietnam War was escalating.

The speaker that day was Mister (Fred) Rogers and his mild-mannered plea touched all who listened. He recited in his short speech the words he felt made a difference in children’s lives. Words he spoke as he ended every Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program—something he referred to as “an expression of care”:

“You’ve made today a special day by just you being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you and I like you just the way you are.”


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9uIJ-o2yqQ

These words express a simple, but vitally important sentiment. Fred Roger’s word choices not only showed an “expression of care” for all the children who watched his program but the gravity of his message helped save needed funding for the Public Broadcasting System.

Cruelty is a contagion that is passed from one generation to the next and it begins with the words we use when we speak to our babies. Anyone who remembers being a child understands the capacity of a single word to propel us toward success or self-destruction—a word with the power to irreparably alter our lives. A teacher or a parent advising a child at age eleven that he has no natural affinity for something he embraces can impel him to abandon the very thing that inspires him. Conversely, one word of encouragement may have been all it took to set Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Nikola Tesla, and the enigmatic Oscar Wilde off in the direction that would define their lives. We will never know which words inspired them to their destinies but we cannot doubt that one or more significant words of encouragement or provocation played a pivotal role.

Social situations will always require thoughtful word choice for a successful conversation, but today there are a host of land mines to navigate. There are now multiple terms to refer to gender, it’s best to say “differently abled” rather than “disabled” when referring to a person with a disability, and Native Americans are no longer “Indians” to name but a few developments beginning in the last century. This is by no means a criticism to our hyper-attentiveness to word choice, but rather a reminder. A reminder that through lack of care in our word choice, serious emotional damage ensues. A reminder that there’s a better way. Through his expression of care, Fred Rogers sought to instill the next generation with positive self-esteem which developed in childhood, would serve them well for the entirety of their lives.

Perhaps whenever we ponder our word choice we should ask ourselves, “What would Fred say?”

by Sonja Martineau


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