Every Time He Shakes His Tail

I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.

Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.

For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.

My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.

Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.

So, stalemate.

In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.

But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.

So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.

“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.

“No.”

“She just wants to talk to you.”

I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.

Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.

It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.

His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”

I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.

Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.

A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote:  to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses;  to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.

The vote never happened.

The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.

My grade remained a B.

“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.

I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.

“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”

And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.

Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.

Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.

I took the phone call from Jeanne.

I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.

In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.

The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.

Me, too.

I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”

Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”

That, I know to be true.

How Not to Become a Zen Master

“That’s right. Blame it on Zen,” my neighbor, Grace, says.

With Zen, I just don’t hold onto names or nouns anymore was what I was thinking, aloud it seems.

Grace is a Zen master not because she is 90 but because she is contemplative in all ways. She was born to it. And she attends tai chi twice a week. Her whole life is a practice. She would never label herself a Zen master.

We were in the middle of a project that began simply enough but soon involved another neighbor. Specifically, I opened a package that was not mine.

The package was one of four I was expecting but as you can see, there are five packages. The shocking pink garment stunned but it was the thank you card that intrigued–one American meme of gratitude after another, the length of a paragraph.

I read the card aloud to Grace.

“Which company?”

“Doesn’t say.”

All these packages were dumped in the mailroom of our apartment complex on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They were there for the taking and so I did.

It was not until I straightened the cardboard boxes Grace had so beautifully broken down with her seriously sharp knife that I saw the name on the box of great gratitude was not mine.

And now I was writing a card of explanation to a woman whose name I kept forgetting. Grace selected the blank note card, rejecting the polar bear in favor of the fir of a mountain. Appropriate for any occasion.

“Well, when you decide to get dressed, I’ll take you.” Grace was sitting on my leather loveseat, waiting, with her small knife lying next to her.

She wasn’t taking me anywhere in a red polo shirt so large and so long it was more skirt than shirt, nearly covering my khaki shorts. The logo read Elder Affairs.

I finish writing the card and read it to Grace. “That’s classy,” she says.

“I want her to know what I did in case she’s not there when we return the package.” And with that, I pick up the flat cardboard box that is not addressed to me.

“You’re not going to tape that back up, are you?”

“Trust me, Grace. Perception is everything. I’m admitting my guilt but I’m returning a taped package.”

Just another of the many ways I avoid becoming a Zen master. I was born to it.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

And so, we began our journey to Grace’s car. I with my three-wheeled walker and the re-wrapped package tightly cornered into my walker’s lower bag, and Grace with her walking stick in one hand and under her other arm, four cardboard boxes now flat.

Grace decided who took what. She is Sicilian. We do things her way.

We drove halfway across the apartment complex before I told Grace, “I forgot the card.” We look at one another and then, Grace turns the car around.

Again, we drive across the apartment complex and we score the nearest accessible parking spot, the one near the elevator. As we ride to the second floor, I try to channel Grace, but I am who I am. Still, my focus remains mountain.

I tell the woman what happened, as it happened, all the while holding her package. She does not take it from me.

“Do you know how many people would not even bother to do this?”

I wasn’t clear. She doesn’t realize I opened her package. I should not have taped up the box.

As I look into the kind face of the woman accepting her package, I am determined not to burst into her life but I tell her my story, again, with profuse apologies and my concern about the boxes being left unattended.

“You’re an angel,” she says. I assure her I am not and introduce Grace who smiles and stays silent. We leave.

As we drive back, Grace says, “You know, I think she would have difficulty getting to the mail room.”

“I’m no angel.”

Grace laughs.

On this day I have Grace, and for that, there are not enough expressions of gratitude in any form.

Monday Morning 9 AM Social

Grace and I talk a lot about community (or lack thereof) within our apartment complex. There are four buildings, perhaps pockets of community within each, but together, we are factions.

Management sends out a monthly calendar of clubhouse events. Every Monday, there is a 9 a.m. social and has been for as long as Grace and I can remember. Her memory is encyclopedic.

Grace and I share an apartment wall. As she says, “it makes a difference if you know who is on the other side.” So, we decided to find out what a Monday morning social is rather than just surmising.

We meet outside the clubhouse, telling each other how nice we look, and we do. We have brought our own beverages, mine a lime-green insulated cup and hers, a silver thermos, which she raises as she whispers, “community coffee,” a flash of the ironic in her smile.

Ruddy-cheeked and wide-eyed at the world, she is captivating at 90, 20, 50, or 70. Tai chi three days a week. At 66, I am the one with the walker and “black tea,” now conspicuous in its lack of a label for the occasion.

“What does that say about me?” I ask both of us.

We are friends with rhetorical questions, Grace and I; they usually begin or end our conversations. We have little regard for answers, they of the limited run, always replaced by another question.

So on this Monday morning we are open to what we meet in the “kitchen area” of the clubhouse, three women intensely involved in a card game using a star-shaped board with pegs.

Five bid each other “hello,” and three return to their play. Grace and I choose a table in the middle of the room, and I take my walker to a side wall. All other tables are empty.

“Is this it?” Grace asks.

“I think so.”

We had given considerable thought not to arrive early (with Grace, one is never late) but as it turns out, we were on time. We had come to be social, which was not to interrupt the game. Their chatter immediately resumed after “hello” with counting and card shuffling.

Grace and I kept our voices low as we sipped our beverages, telling stories we had left untold during the visits to each other’s apartment, when talking over the phone, or sitting on the wooden bench outside our three-story, white stucco building with red shutters.

It was as if we were meeting for the first time, and that may have had something to do with our age difference.

I look older than my years. Grace is curious but would never ask. That would be rude. Besides, she enjoys putting together pieces of life, moving them around for effect. Until Monday, I had walked around her efforts.

When Grace began, “I am not sure exactly what age span is between us….”

“I am 66 and you are 90.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she let her breath out slowly, indicating the span with a spread of her arms, her arthritic hands still dexterous. Was it a bridge too far?

“I’m a historian,” I said, wanting worth I may not have.

She tells me a story of blackouts during World War II, of many nights sitting with her bed-ridden grandfather who said, sometimes, he wanted to die. Teenage Grace telling him he did not.

“My mother asked me to do it and I was glad to do it. I loved my grandfather.”

I don’t know where in New York State that Grace’s family lived but it was closed to an air field. With a bit of pride, she tells me how quickly she learned to identify the different planes and wing spans. Hesitantly, she admits “it was all a bit exciting.”

“It is the way of children, isn’t it?” I say, as if I know, but how else to get through a world war. And I think of Grace’s teenage angst buried in the memory of bombing drills and identifying warplanes.

I don’t know that but I have been reading many World War II war novels (The Women in the Castle) and biographies like Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.I tell Grace about them.

“Well, without the women in the war…” Deftly, she drops in an ellipsis and lets it sit. “They did everything. They kept it going.” She sips the last of her coffee. “And then,” she says, as she opens the palms of her hands to the sky.

“It is time for women to come forward again,” I say. “And I think it is beginning to happen. This time, there is no going back.” I offer this with more conviction than I carry most days.

Grace looks at me for a while before offering “Yes,” with the finality of belief that won’t bend with the wind.

And this week’s Monday morning 9 a.m. social ends, much as it began. The players still playing but now in silence and with a smile, they say “goodbye.”

Like Grace says, it makes a difference to know who’s on the other side.