Saturday, April 30, 2016

Simone Weil 9

His imagination was not strongly enough attached to power to be able to span the years: it turned toward a cup of tea. To compensate is to obey a clock. “I clock myself in” is not to say I'm clocked. It sounds like a stapler, but what it attaches is me to my office; underneath, jack hammers stitch rhythm into chaos. Somewhere in the corner, where the signatures are, I hoard my time; it grows in that right angle like a dust bunny. One with ears to hear voices through construction. We're due a new elevator, but the car shall remain the same. Assign it to god or mammon, this servant of the up and down. The elevators at Reina Sophia looked out on a square; those at Windward Mall on a plastic playground. We could walk, but we know the view's better inside the shaft.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Simone Weil 8

To soil is to modify. To shift terms, like two images that bleed together at a mirror's edge. A boundary without wall cannot get mended. He would have shoveled Ken Kesey's cow shit just to breathe the same air he did. But my friend was allergic to his smoke, as to his privileged skin. A novel has a plot but no soil, unless you use its paper in the woods. Leave it there and it self-erases. Liken it to natural selection, or the retreat of word into sound. Rose is name and she is noun, more electronic pulse than petaled thing. In the video, he's cut in half, then replicated. He's two partial wholes, dancing toward us in silky blouse and tight pants. We forget the emotion in these songs, he said at his last concert. We didn't know his piano was a guillotine, that his body would soon scatter, that no magician could undo the illusion he offered us. He moved so beautifully, my husband says.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Simone Weil 7

To act not for an object but from necessity. Seeing my $20, the Hilo vendor stuffed my sack with tomatoes, long gong, small ovoid mangos such as we'd never seen. One of the Two Old Ladies brought me mochi from the back; she'd been hanging boys' day kites from her ceiling. At the intersection of For and From we exchange objects for 20s, and sometimes we get change. It's in the air, this shift of tenses, as if we'd waited out the squall and headed for a landing. Some days, travel is allegory. The market sells what this earth creates. A tailless white cat, one eye shut, follows us around a cottage, rubbing our legs. Domestic, needing a home. I smelled his spray beside the door. That's what keeps him outside. The market stinks, too, of old fruit. If we're lucky, we are who others need us to be. Necessity is not the mother of invention, but mother to another girl who travels more awkwardly than we. A pruned metaphor might heal the family's tree.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Simone Weil 6

Time and the cave. Tenses split like the cave's lip. I am the cave's tongue, its soft red blade, its reporter on the beat. I am the man in the elevator, the anemone at Shark's Cove, the dancing tool in a cartoon. Memory is a moving within strangeness, cat in a flung bag. Who's to call it “good” or “bad,” name it character in a mystery play, watch its wagons lurch across England. I am a pilgrim, she told her mother. A little girl carries her chair up a mountain, and it is green, not blue. The sky may be, but she's not there yet. The man in blue dances on our skull walls; we cannot get him or us to rest. We see only spotlights, emergency exits. The day before the day he died, he rode around a strip mall parking lot on his bike. We know, because he sat on a curb, refusing the inevitable photograph.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Simone Weil 5

A rock in our path. She carries a lump in her throat. I suggest she name it, talk to it, make friends with it. The lump is scary, as if she dreamed what came true, in reverse order of myth. The lump does more than denote discomfort, it is what takes the place of nothing, which is calm abiding. She never differentiates the lump, never gives it fractals or a neighborhood; it is indistinguishable from any shape that doesn't fit. There are things to worry over: workplace, daughter, what was and will be. But now there is the lump. She worries over, not inside or under it. I see her hover, like a parasailor from her umbilical. Beneath her, a tiny boat skitters, honoring no direction except back and forth. Be forward looking, we're told. It's a way to frame an ideology as correct. Think of the lump as what holds us back, gives us pause not to pander but to rest.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Simone Weil 4

Love is not consolation; it is light. Neither is quite noun, or verb. Noun, Verb, and Period sat in a bus headed for Nanakuli. Noun was such a dull one that Verb fell asleep, missing his stop. The bus driver wasn't inclined to stop where there was no sign, but Period pulled her authority card and put an end to that. Consolation is a lightening, but not yet light. The green flash happens in the morning, too, when sun edges through a hole in the Pacific. Light can be abject, like a comma, or it can be voice, lifting comma like an early moon. My son's eyebrow covers his eyelid like thatch. His eye inhabits the photograph but what it sees is not I nor you nor any thing, but something past the provenance of the lens. We can see an eye, but not its seeing. We can see through light, but we can't see it. Pronoun, only slightly more scintillating than Noun, missed the bus all together. She rests in the empty space of a semi-colon's rustled bed sheets, shifting her gender. My former student is now a “he,” and that sheds some light on who she seemed to me. It is only if the light is empty that it works. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Simone Weil 3

A time has to be gone through without any reward: reword this, repeat it, rehearse it, recap it, resurrect it, remonstrate with it, oh recidivist it! Do you think while you play soccer, I ask my daughter. Not about the cats, she says. Stein's gerunds are all doing, no dead space. A portrait that moves bears no images. He that is making has no face, even if what he makes is portrait. Go on vacation, but before you do, blank out her face. It will rise again later. There's an app that tells you the best sunsets on earth. But we're on the east side so all we see is the orange of its rising. The dead lemons come later. Take out the word “hard” before “stone.” Some conditions do repeat themselves, even if it's only history running its rails. Trade winds today, running east to west like the sun. Popularity is anachronism; judgment connotes the negative. The mountains are like waves, but fixed, except where clouds Isadora Duncan them. Too quick a start is deadly, too slow a one fails to unfold, like a mobile in a vacuum. Imagine if the Calder had babies, a friend said. When I meditate, I carry my black hand bags into space then drop them from my fingers like seeds. Today I floated in colorless air as they danced around me. When we touched, I opened each bag and pulled out its contents. I kissed them, opening my fingers wide.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Simone Weil series 2

Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. Suicide a debt that cannot be paid. The word, as ever, is newer than the act. Eleven people tried to kill themselves in one day in northern Ontario. We're not supposed to call this an epidemic. We're not supposed to utter the word, because it carries its own magic. Like the suicide's backpack, worn to an overpass or lab, a wooded area or lake where the man failed in his attempt but left the husk of his earlier life behind. At my university, students fall from high places; the volition that is jumping is not permitted. It might skew the statistics we fail to keep. Numbers are what matter: student retention, the sense that if we speak we enact the awful pact made between the young man and his car, or by the woman whose last tweet read: “I'm addicted to everything that's bad for me.” I cannot find his obituary, who sat in my office week after week, working. Whom I picked up at the wrong Starbucks to watch our cat. “Would have been” is the most awful verb form. Weeks spent in the “if it happens again, I will” construction of the verb to be. Sentences are not emotional, but paragraphs are. Mine hangs on ramshackle scaffolding, the kind you could either build on or leap from. Stein loved prepositions the best. And they do spin us in so many directions, toward and then away from. The worst days were those that cleared for an hour. A puppet show of happiness at 4 p.m., then the curtains fell and the little carriage left my room to its darkness. That is not the word, but it stands in. The word is verb, motion, antic rolodex of moments bathed in acid. I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.

Simone Weil series 1

All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Italics are inversions, except where they're the rule. A woman was singing in MacArthur Park; she slung her arm around a pole as if to resist a strong wind. I noted the men seated on benches beside her, tents on the other side of the park, objects placed on the sidewalk for sale across the street. The lyric is troubled when it speaks for more than one, but that is all we are on this sidewalk, needing not more pronouns but more angels. Or an umbrella. Depending on how it's lit, like her eyes or like the melody Stein says is too seductive not to be avoided. At the airport, the man's shirt read: “Shredding a / tidal wave of / whiskey on a surfboard / made of / don't care.” He kept leaping to his feet to dance, snapping fingers as he threw one arm across his body. He talked to no one who was listening, said he was moving back after 38 years, 15 of them in L.A. I thought he was the mythological homeless man put on a plane to Honolulu. After all, his carry-on was a tent. But he muttered something about Nanakuli. His gray hair was matted, his standard black glasses framed dark crossed eyes. As we landed, his body moved in waves, arm thrown out, the snapping of fingers faster and faster. The flight attendant called him brother.

Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil, translated by Gustave Thibon, 1947 / 1952.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Student Deaths at the University of Hawai'i: Part III

On Monday, March 28, I was preparing to travel to Los Angeles for a writer's conference. I got up that morning to open my email, expecting the usual departmental dribs and drabs, notes from friends, the typical morning haul. Instead, the following subject line caught my eye:

Crisis Intervention for Students Affected by a Tragedy

The email below the header came from the mother of a freshman; she wondered how to get help for her son, who needed to process the loss of a friend. On that Saturday night--two weeks ago now--a young woman died at one of the dorms on campus. This was the first I'd heard of it. She found me because google answers searches for "student death at UH" with a link to my op-ed about the need for a student death protocol. She hadn't found a central site at UHM that listed resources to use in such events, probably because there is none. The website needs a major renovation. If you are faculty, to cite just one example, and you enter off the main page through "Faculty & Staff" to look for "support services," you don't find the Counseling Service. Instead, you find the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That link was put there after I requested that the counseling center be made easier to find.

But enough about the website. A young woman had died tragically, and UHM administration had told us nothing. On Facebook, I found an announcement posted to the Kamehameha Schools alumni site, alongside a sweet selfie: "We have lost a part of our 'ohana. Kalena Medeiros, class of 2015 (Hawai'i Campus) passed away early yesterday morning. Please keep her and her family in your prayers. Thank you and Happy Easter." This was posted on March 27. I sent the note on to our interim Chancellor, along with a request that he say something to the larger community. He responded with a note about family notification and permission, which is the usual way to say no, at least not yet.

The first mother I heard from was not the last. While in Los Angeles, I heard from a second mother, who wondered how to help her son move from his dorm room into a space that was less traumatizing. He'd been sleeping on floors and even took Uber to Mililani (quite a drive) to stay with a friend there. I sent her message straight to the Chancellor. I later heard back that the Vice Chancellor for Students had called the mother and that "she seemed grateful" (the VCS's words). When I wrote Mother #2 a follow up message, she reported that housing had made something happen for her son, and that he'd been moved. Like Mother #1 she seemed too grateful to me for steering her to resources on campus that should be easy to find.

Every time I've engaged in a dialogue with administration (the VCS, the Dean of Students/Head of Student Housing, and the Counseling Center head, who is faculty), I've been told about the way they target students in the dorms after a tragedy. According to them, they do it well, by finding friends of the deceased and by looking up his or her affiliations on campus. They tell students on that floor of the dorm (or whatever other limited area) how to find help. They have resident counselors, as well as RAs. Yesterday, I met with Mother #1 and her son, who is a friend of the deceased woman's boyfriend and his roommate (now moved into another room). The son had never received an email to inform him about where to get counseling. As in many of these stories, the targeting of affected students is so very fine that it misses even those closest to the deceased.

It turns out that the deceased woman was a student at KCC, not at UHM, and that she was living with her boyfriend in the dorm. Like the last two people to fall (or "fall"?) from the dorms, she was not one of our students. Her lack of affiliation with our university is no reason to ignore her death. KCC has made no announcement either, I'm told. And the only reason that the death and serious injuries of the two men who fell this past August became known to us was that the story broke internationally. It was the case of a Good Samaritan dying to try to save someone who intended to kill himself. The Good Samaritan died, and the suicidal man survived. At the time, UHM's communications person, Dan Meizenzahl, made statements, but only in response to the media. They careened from the distant to the compassionate, and he vowed that UHM would do something about the windows in the dorms, making them harder to fall out of. UHM's administration never told the community about counseling, never suggested to faculty that they be aware of a traumatic situation faced by their students, never expressed condolences to the community, never mentioned a memorial.

This past December, I found out about the death of a Botany post-doc, first from Will Caron at The Independent, because someone on campus had told him that police and ambulances were swarming around St. John's Hall. When I contacted the person who told Will, he reported that it had been part of his job to follow up on that report, but that he'd been turned away from the scene and had to spend an entire day putting together puzzle pieces to figure out what had happened. I've found out about other deaths in this byzantine way, by putting stories told me by two people together, or by finding out from my friend who works at Revolution Books and is tied into many communities of students and faculty. There is never a direct path of transmission or reception, only the tortured path that leads to gossip, and to a lot of pain. If we are not allowed to know that someone died, how can we grieve? If we can't grieve, how can we lead our daily lives without traumatic distractions? Not knowing is not a cure for death or for a survivor's pain. To the contrary.

So what to do? I and my Compassion Hui have advocated up and down the UHM administrative ladder. We organized and held a Celebration of Life in February to mark the passing of members of the community over the past year or so. We send out occasional emails to the faculty list. We are a DIY function of the community, filling in for the huge gaps in administrative practice. In the Fall, we hope to hold an "Out of the Darkness Walk" against suicide. But we're hardly going rogue. Consider that other universities, dozens of them, do it better. I enumerated a few in my last piece on institutional compassion for The Independent, but here's a new one from Tufts University.

This letter follows what seems to be standard practice at universities that do this well. Here's an outline.

--An announcement of the death with brief description of the deceased.
--Information about counseling at the dorm and a meeting to support students (that very evening).
--Information about the counseling center.
--The promise to follow up with announcement of a memorial service.
--An expression of condolences to the student's family and friends.
--The names of five prominent people on campus, from the president to the chaplain, who sign the letter.
--Four additional resources for students.
--Resources for faculty.

This message was sent out several hours after the young man died. Just this morning (4/11) a student at UT-Austin sent me a series of emails on a recent murder on their campus. They're gathered here, easily found on their webpage:

I met a few months ago with the interim Chancellor, his new communications person, and an aide. The Chancellor was responsive, vowed to do better. In some ways, the administration has done better lately. After a lab explosion in a building in March, the community got a message that told us where the counseling center is, for example. But his desire to split off his own communications with the community from the "crisis management" end of things, something he laid out at that meeting, simply won't work. If the crisis managers are deeply invested in containing tragedies by informing only those they think are directly involved--and they are deeply invested in this method--then the Chancellor cannot (at least in his own mind) communicate what is otherwise being hidden. Need I add that nearly everyone in UHM administration is an interim these days: we have an interim Chancellor, interim VCS, interim Dean of Students, interim Dean of my college. The positions that are not held by interims are often precarious in other ways: the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, for example, is under investigation and has a vote of no confidence against him from the Faculty Senate. No one's running the show.

In the meantime, it's been two weeks since Kalena Medeiros died on our campus, and we've heard nothing. The email that my Compassion Hui sent out the other day to inform faculty of resources alluded to the recent tragedy and was met with many responses of thanks and confessions of bewilderment. Faculty simply do not know about these resources, even where to seek them out. Purdue Psychology Prof. Heather Servaty-Seib, with whom I spoke yesterday on Google chat, specializes in student bereavement issues. She noted that no one is supposed to die in college. It's a subject no one wants to confront. And yet her campus has a bereavement policy for students. If they are grieving, they must be allowed to hand in late work. Of course she and colleagues and students got the policy not by arguing along humanitarian lines, but by pointing out the bottom line. You can retain students better if you give them space to grieve. Mother #1's son will be leaving UHM at the end of this semester and will attend another school, one that is smaller and more compassionate. It's a real loss to UHM; he's a lively, warm, smart young man. One of my colleagues who taught him in honors composition described him as one of the best students she's ever had. The boyfriend of the deceased woman has dropped out. Doubtless other students are wondering what to do next. Doubtless also, counselors at our center are doing their very best to keep students going. But there are too few of them, and their services are poorly advertised. As Prof. Servaty-Seib pointed out, sometimes counseling is not what's needed after a tragedy. The creation of support groups is. Where are our support groups? She also pointed me to an on-line resource for grieving students, here.

Several weeks ago, thanks again to Google's search engine, I heard from family members of Abel Pellegrino, who died in September, 2014 after he fell from the top of the stairs into the quarry beside the dorms. They are not immediate family, but they were close to Abel, spent a lot of time with him, advised him, loved him. No one in the family, they told me, had been contacted by UHM administration after he died. There had been one call, answered by a 12-year old. Another call was promised, but it never came. A year later, another grieving mother did get a note of condolences from someone in administration, or so I heard from a third party. But this latest mismanaged tragedy tells me there's a lot more to be done, more arguments to be made, more DIY work, more grassroots action on our campus to make it a more compassionate place. The counselor at my son's school just wrote to ask me how UHM could make the transition from high school to college easier, socially and emotionally. I was nearly at a loss for words. When they came, in a flood, they were not encouraging.

After opening that first email of Monday, March 29, and trying to deal with this tragedy on our campus, I opened another. From that message, sent by a friend in the History department who is a member of our group, I learned that an international student who had worked for my small press for a year and who had house and cat sat for us several years ago, someone I was very fond of, someone whose wife I also know, had killed himself in the DC suburbs. He leaves behind his wife and a two year old daughter.

Yesterday, I found an obituary for Kalena Medeiros. I sent a message to our Chancellor that read, "it's not a secret," and he thanked me.