Sunday, December 4, 2011

Lest We Forget

In Honor of World Aids Day 2011

I see trees, bare branches
Where you used to stand
Seventeen or more of you
Men and women
I have known
The world has known
We still rage against
Your dying light
Lest others forget
The life you left behind
I see trees, bare branches
Where you stood
We must stand for you
Lest others forget
You were here

We miss you

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Opening Comments by Andy Flaherty - Digital Media Roundtable sponsored by the Hechinger Institute Chicago, November 5, 2011 – Hard Rock Hotel

It was an honor to be asked to speak at this conference; to say I was “woefully inadequate” describes, perfectly, the way I felt. Following the brilliant librarian who replaced library books with E-Readers and the brilliant headmaster from Connecticut who said he is not willing to settle for “priveledged mediocrity,” I felt small, like I had gotten the assignment wrong. However, after a few moments I realized that this is what I have been called to do many, many times before and my resolve strengthened. To speak for the underrepresented is what I do best, because it is woven into the fabric of my social justice sensibility. So I took off my jacket, pulled up a stool, and talked – without the hyped bridled language of pedagogy- to the journalists (from the AP, Dallas Morning News, etc.) who had gathered. Following the script I had prepared below, I told the tale of the gap in this country that must be filled. Ironically, the brilliant headmaster and I were like kindred spirits – the private and the public must help each other we concluded. The Hechinger Institute deserves credit for bringing in the unvoiced and giving public educators the chance to tell our story.

My Comments:

I am literally and figuratively last. Reluctant for years, as it relates to digital media, I finally came to the technology table with my first cell phone in late 2002 and my first laptop in 2003.

I am a second career teacher. After ten years in marketing and advertising, I became an English teacher to teach writing – big sheets of butcher paper, writer’s notebooks replete with doodles and “found lines” collected for poems. In the past fourteen years, working as an urban educator in schools with 99% free hot lunch programs and then training teachers both in Canada and the United States, I have been repeatedly exposed to the “haves” and “have nots.” To be frank, this realm of digital media defies categorization but I will try.

I understand that the digital media age is here. I understand that our children use it better than some of us do. I understand so well that I now have a Mac; I phone 4, and two digital cameras. However, I am here because I sit in the computer lab now with a cacophony of student voices and a kaleidoscope of images: “I can’t log on Mr. F. how do I format the margin again?,” “My document disappeared – I forgot my flash drive so what should I do?,” and the quiet students who have head phones in their ears but no sound coming out. I understand that my Bronzeville Speaks publication and the Bronzeville Speaks blog are wonderful products of digital media that took hours and hours of after school and weekend time to create. However, I am here because I am worried that digital media in our classrooms will not be used as a means to develop thinkers, but because of myriad problems, will merely promote users and passive recipients of this technology. I want to make sure teachers have what they need to develop creators: using technology, applying critical thinking skills to develop creative solutions. Just as with reading we need to help make sure our students are not passively receiving information but are actually producing literate work.

But let me make a few comments about what I mean by “haves nots.” In schools like mine where there may be as few as 30 to 60 working computers for 500 to 1,600 students, the issue is complex. There seems to be a triumvirate of problems: money, time, and resources; it is a circular conspiracy of competing problems. For example we no longer have the traditional business classes, so who are our resources for understanding/teaching the digital media? The computers many of us have come from a grant written by our librarians, and the little digital media we do use is our own, brought from home. When we are lucky enough to get a grant, we must learn the technology on our own and on our own time. When it breaks down, we struggle to get it fixed. In the meantime copies don’t get made, letters of reference don’t get printed, and the work piles up. Not to mention the questions of where and by whom it will get fixed. In a 48 minute period constrained by district mandates, teaching ourselves and other teachers (usually English teachers or Librarians) who have no expertise with technology, forces us to make the decision of content over technology. So money is the obvious problem and probably always has been. But the larger issue is how do we look at all three issues in a balanced, solutions-oriented way to avoid the pitfalls we faced when computers were first introduced. The “have nots” are really those of us with not three but one or two of these issues in play: no time, no resources, or no money to use the digital media world has created.

Digital media is here and changing our world. It seems to me that all our schools, public and private, must make a sincere, disciplined, and planned effort to make it part of our classrooms since we are producing the next generation of citizens for the world. The questions remain: How do we move it from an extra-curricular effort to a mainstreamed classroom addition? How do we integrate people and machines

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mourning Marigolds

I used to worry that something was wrong with me – did I not have the ability to experience grief? I was very young when attending the funeral of a relative, but I recall leaning over in the pew toward my second cousin and saying, “I am sorry, but I just don’t feel anything.”I had not yet learned to define grief nor to realize that grief seems to look for someone to blame. I knew only that dying causes problems. I looked around the church in an odd gaze, and the words spoken that day have echoed ever since – your feelings will come later.

Both of my parents are now dead. Perhaps the most powerful and transformative experience I have ever had occurred during the last week of my father’s life as he was actively dying. I became his parent and gave back to him what he had given me: comfort, care, and love.

Recently, my mother died, too. Again, while I recognize the personal loss, I do not feel grief. Just as I did not feel robbed of life with Dad when he passed, I feel a sense of fullness, a sense of completeness in the life I had with my Mom as her son.

When I focus on my mother, the woman who lived and died, I have gratitude not grief. I am not troubled or annoyed by her life or our life together. To be troubled by her passing would imply that something was not finished, and nothing could be farther from the truth. As she said many times when out by the garden, “the most important thing is the weeding, to be rid of the inessential things that steal the nutrients from the flowers.” We had done our gardening, and I do not feel disappointment or sorrow and cannot recognize grief as synonymous with mourning.

The rituals I employ to honor Mom’s memory are celebrations of the joy that she brought me, and not a traditional lamentation of what was missing, of what was unfulfilled.

As I have grown older my young man’s impatient demands have become a bit more akin to reasoned acceptance. For many years with Mom and Dad, when we were a little younger, there was little acceptance of one another. Had we left things unresolved, there would be fodder for extensive grief and sorrow, the kind many seem to experience. When people try to make sense of loss and fix what is still broken, it is precisely the moment when grief begins to takes hostages and burdens people with blame.

Luckily, however, my mother and I had spoken directly about all things before she passed: her childhood and mine, her marriage to my father, my adoption and how they raised their children, her relationship with my brother and me, my professional aspirations and disappointments, and near the very end of her life, my sexuality and the incredible relationship with my boyfriend of almost two years. We had unbundled, examined, and set to rights so many things…Did we cover everything? Probably not but we knew we were not perfect and need not be.

What Mom and I had was complex, and together we codified our own unique bond after Dad died that nurtured and transformed for nine years. During this time I was with her often for an overnight stay. Our bond was simple: dinner – soups and salads, maybe pork or beef sandwiches, TV political stories, and “Law and Order,” trips to the store for household goods or flowers, to a restaurant where I would explain that burnt toast and bacon was not a meal , and then of course to church on Sunday morning to see her friends. Our time together was suffused with arguments, concerns, mutual love, and always reciprocal comfort.

Beginning in January of last year, I sensed Mom was finally becoming elderly, and I made a commitment to be with her every other weekend; a promise I honored and that, as she told me each trip, pleased her. It was never a struggle to be with her; in fact, after meeting my birth mother last July, it became even more important for me to show her, my adoptive mother, how grateful I was for the love that she bestowed on me. So joyous was she that my birth mother had found me that she proclaimed her only regret was that they, my two mothers, had not been able to meet and nurture their shared love of me.

So much loss in one year has taught me that while everyone has the right to mourn, they do not have the right to force grief and sorrow on others. I have watched how a rigid definition of grief steals the freedom of the survivors and their profound sense that they have done the best they can, as if you must be angry and not joyous or you are violating the family’s code.

While our immediate family often struggled, in the end, we were not caught in the typical net that entangles extended families when they do not communicate with one another. In a series of changes over the years we had managed to strip away false pride, weather hardships, weed the garden, and find the true humility at the heart of our family. I suspect it was in this clear soil that our relationship really grew.

It is precisely this humility that allowed me to experience feelings this week. Looking back over the month, I realized that I knew who I was in the moment of Mom’s death. My strong sense of identity allowed me to be part of this experience. Just as with Dad, it was an absolute miracle to be present as a witness to life as it moves through the last breath to death.

As promised at that relative’s funeral those many years ago, the feelings have finally come. It seems that they came when I realized that that which was, is no longer. These feelings are present when you do again what you once did with the deceased. These feelings materialize in the absence of Mom pulling down the coffee maker (she preferred instant) and trying not to wake me in Dad’s old room. These feelings come when driving by Culvers at lunch time and learning the ice cream is butter pecan, or when dialing her phone to simply say hi, to hear her voice, and laugh at her tales of local lore. These feelings come in the presence of flowers. I could choose to collect all these feelings and store them in a vase called sadness. However, I have weeded out so much and the sadness is tempered with light that can only be called joyful, and I am able to drive out of town for what is surely one of the last times.

Grief, it seems, is about feeling abandoned. Mourning is a different process, discovered in the absence of all things and opening like a blooming flower. Think of the marigold; her upper oblong leaves, smooth edges, and jagged petals alternating along the stem. Her essence is symmetry; the fusion of her parts, the embellishment like a multitude of memories leads each petal, each one pulls away from the earth and reaches for the heavens because the soil had been freed of obstruction. Her legacy is dependent on only the essentials. The mourning marigold is bittersweet, medicinal, antiseptic, and good for all that ails you.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Obituary for Virginia A. Flaherty

Viriginia A. Flaherty, loving daughter, sister, aunt, wife, mother, grandmother, and loyal friend, passed away June 6, 2011 at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison.

She was born October 28, 1929 to August and Viola (Nesheim) Zibell. The oldest child, she developed a fierce independence and resilience on the family farm. She left home to begin work and find her own life. An intensely private woman, Virginia loved beautiful blue things, mystery novels, cooking, and gardening. She knew that one little ingredient like cinnamon could change the whole meal and one flower the personality of a garden.

On November 2, 1957 she married William A. Flaherty, a navigator in the United States Air Force. She was a wonderful military wife: proud, loyal, and beautiful. “Mrs. Flaherty” traveled the world, learned about other cultures, and forged a special bond with Bill that seemed rooted in a strong sense of humor. Together they also shared a passion for wildlife, the beauty of an open meadow, the trailing of a hawk as it hovered above the car, and, of course, their beloved German shepherds.

First and foremost, however, Virginia was a mother. She loved her boys Andrew Charles and Michael August; Andy’s curiosity, his teaching and writing inspired her and Mike’s incredible parenting skills and his strong work ethic pleased her. She cared deeply for her grandchildren Mark and Mitchell; she loved watching them grow and had a fierce, protective pride for them.

In 1971 she moved with her family to Cambridge, Wisconsin to be nearer her brothers and sisters. She was employed at the Cambridge News and Printing for several years. She joined the Rockdale Lutheran church and was an active participant in its women’s organizations, acting as secretary and treasurer when needed. Virginia had a quiet faith and a love of old hymns that began when singing harmony with her mother at the kitchen sink.

Virginia is survived by her two sons, Andrew and Michael; 2 grandsons, Mark and Mitchell; brother Phil Zibell (wife Betty); sister Carol (husband Steve Hemersbach); sister Sandy (husband Steve Elmer); sister Suzie; and several nieces, nephews, and cousins, and was especially close to Stephen and Sarah. She was preceded in death by her husband Bill, brother Rolland, and her parents.

In keeping with her privacy, Virginia requested that there be no memorial service. She did request that all who knew and loved her step outside, pause, and contemplate the beauty around them. Her wish was that everyone find the everyday sacred around them and be grateful. Perhaps consider these words from the poem “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver:

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular.

Cards/donations to her beloved Rockdale Lutheran Church may be sent to:

Andy Flaherty
5320 N. Sheridan, 1201
Chicago, Illinois 60640

Funeral Letter for Miss Kay

May 1, 2011

Dear Friends and Family of Kay Lovell,

Times like these reveal how incomplete words are as they cannot embody a whole person. However, I will try to use words as luminous as Paula and Patti’s story of Kay’s passing: the single tear rolling down her right cheek as they read to her. It was Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross who said so eloquently, “Love reminds us again and again to let go of the mind and die into the heart.” It is in this spirit of love that I offer you, her family and friends, some thoughts about the Kay Lovell I came to know.

In July of last year, Miss Kay opened a door, and I stepped through it. What I said to her in my first letter was that an adopted child, no matter how loved, has a space in his/her heart that remains unfilled. Yes, I had wondered about her, her circumstances and her life after my birth. With this first correspondence began a flurry of letters, phone calls, and two visits. The five days we spent together changed our lives forever and took us to places we had never planned. We soldered together what was once severed. Like death, such a rekindling was not simple, and it took our hearts, our breath away.

I do not pretend to know Kay Lovell as well as you, but the photograph on my table reveals a lovely, bodacious, intelligent, and courageous woman. We shared a love of texture and color, art and music, poetry. We also shared an illness, an illness whose successful treatment required lifelong service to other alcoholics and addicts. Without question, I learned in this short time with her that our common recovery and common blood sustained each of us despite a separation across countless miles and a half century. At one point during my second visit, the lovely silver linked bracelet clinked as Miss Kay reached for my hand; her gesture confirmed that we were and had always been kindred spirits on a parallel journey.

Miss Kay and I taught one another how to begin anew. As I moved through the landscape of Batesville, tucked as it is between the hugging hills of sand and rock at the base of the Ozarks, I came to realize that identity is cradled, too, by its surroundings. Shaped by circumstance, one’s sense of self is not a perfect art, but a malleable sentience. Miss Kay knew that her decision to put me up for adoption would have powerful, far-reaching implications. Miss Kay surely knew that her parents were profoundly saddened when their first grandchild was given away. But Miss Kay also knew that the sweetest joys often nestle within the walls of the deepest pain. As hard as it must have been, her act of selflessness transformed other lives. You cannot imagine the true love that my adoptive mother felt for Miss Kay, and the great gift Kay gave her: “If only she would have found you earlier, I would have gladly shared,” she has said repeatedly.

Although I enjoyed her vivid memories of Washington, DC, working with Aunt Clara, a happy childhood with her parents and sister Norma, her love affair with clothes and jewelry, and our common desire to spend money, I most admired her stories of courage. Miss Kay endured more omnipresent pain than most of us can ever imagine, but the courage to reach out and share her story with me, transcended the pain. Through these stories, I re-learned from Miss Kay that to live in love is to let go of the problems of the mind: a story does not always need to make sense to be accepted by the heart.
I love reading about alchemy, and I shared this love with Kay: how lead turns to gold, how failure turns to success, how insanity becomes sanity, how darkness turns to light. Is this not grace? During a conversation she said, “I need some light.” At first I felt sadness, but then I came to understand how truly strange this alchemy thing is. By embracing what was in front of us we arrived at an understanding that life is too short to do otherwise. Wonderfully, miraculously, inconceivably, sadness turned to joy as I witnessed her courage, felt her strength. Her darkness gave me light, and my light lessened her shadows.

In closing, thank you all for surrounding Miss Kay at the different stages in her life – from my own experiences with family and friends I know that this can at times be difficult given the nuances of our individual histories. It is never simple. I can, however, assure you that I am there with you today in the spirit of her courage, her sense of humor, and her lopsided grin; there is no doubt that I am my mother’s son.

It is my hope that you will move gracefully into the spiritual realm of memory. During my Christmas visit to Batesville, I happened upon a poem by Ruth Stone, entitled, “Train Ride”:

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.

Thank you, Miss Kay, for opening that door. I am so grateful that you welcomed me back into your life. I will remember you, Miss Kay, next to your orange and red ranunculus in the flowered chair, teaching me all about life everlasting.


Andrew, Kay’s son

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Family's Geography

It is my second trip. I make the 90 minute drive north from Little Rock to Batesville. I am not nervous, simply aware that I am being moved by a bigger force than myself. This place, Kay's home, is tucked between the hugging hills of sand and rock at the base of the Ozarks.

The next three days I will proceed to absorb fifty years, piecing together fragments from my first visit in October and this Christmas visit. I cannot say that I look like the Buchanans or the Lovells really, though everybody sees in my eyes and in my gestures elements of Kay. She desperately wants me to know about this family; Uncle Paul, the newspaper man, and all the uncles who formed a strong and reputable line in service to our country through the military. I listen, but do not feel so compelled to learn of their service, their businesses, and their political connections: rather, I am struck mainly by their escapades and high functioning alcoholism. Is this from too many years of encouraging myself to become a Flaherty? Adoption does this, I think, requires you to find a way to become other. Since there is a great absence of information about your past, your roots, you give yourself permission to make up what you need to. The question of “Who am I?” has always been impossible to answer. History now matters to me as I recognize, though, that without it I was in danger: I could act out of ignorance and avoid the consequences of knowing.

Imagine, then, at almost 50, a stranger approaching you to fill in the blanks. It is like a river spilling its banks with the threat of flooding. While Kay reaches out as a mother, I approach her as a grown man. I am aware enough to know that I must not turn into a child under her touch; her pain and suffering might suffocate an innocent boy. But as a man, I am able to share and ease her pain. So, I came to Arkansas as a grown man, a recovering man, and think I will be able to absorb her story and not drown. We all come from somewhere, born from someone; a person, a place shaped by circumstance. Identity is not a perfect art, but a malleable sentience. So I begin the re-crafting of my life; merging two lives, two mothers, and two families into one Andy.

On Tuesday, December 28th we drove to Memphis. As we left the foothills and cross the flatlands of the delta, I was aware of the hum of the car and the constant migration of birds – ducks and swallows lace the vast horizon. There were fields of brown and gold in all directions and a hint of light above the skyline on an otherwise gray day. We were traveling to see Norma and her husband Robert, the only family Kay has left. When we arrived in Memphis we enjoyed a visit to the Peabody Hotel and the parade of ducks, ate some great barbeque at the Rendezvous’, and then spent the night in their lovely home.

All other family have passed in the last few years. Kay's beloved Aunt Clara Buchanan is gone; Kay's mother and father are gone too, as well as numerous aunts and uncles on both sides, Lovells and Buchanans. Aunt Clara was Kay’s angel. She invited Kay to work with her for Senator Fulbright and the Senate Foreign Relations committee in Washington, DC. When Aunt Clara died, she left everything to Kay. I can only assume it was because Clara knew and appreciated all of Kay’s struggles. This loss, combined with Kay's cancer, must have been insurmountable. I can only imagine the toll Kay’s addiction took on the family. Like the rings on rock after high water, memory’s traces are inconsistent and imprecise records. I am sure her pain and frustration must have taken center stage, just as they have in my own life. Interestingly, Norma gave me just a single picture as a memento, that of my grandfather, Curtis Lovell, at age 19. I have decided I possess his eyes, eyebrows, lips, and the golden skin of the Lovells; staring at this generational specter, one wonders what other hidden traits will surface.

Wednesday, December 29th, we spent driving back from Memphis to Batesville in the pouring rain. The flatlands heading west filled with the runoff. Strangely, hawks perched majestically along the way. This drive is like my "Trip to Bountiful." I continue to learn: Kay is alone. She is in many ways the last of the line. She likes to sing and wished she could have been a dancer. She loves art and tries to paint. Every once in awhile she sings a song such as the one her mother sang to her to push her toward sleep, a song about a soldier going off to war. Abruptly, she switches to another from "Stop The World I Want to Get Off," but his one in Russian with repeated lyrics intoning “little boy, little boy." Her choice of song is telling, as we move along this road once again, a route she must have driven many, many times with her own mother. What is familiar to Kay is surreal to me, and our stories, our songs, our struggles warp and weave.

Although the details I hear in our conversations could be the themes and repeating motifs common to most families, one truth stands as tall as a single pine on the rocky Arkansas hillside: Kay is the only person in this enormous family to ever get sober and stay sober. This huge accomplishment, in a family limned with alcohol addiction, has perhaps been underappreciated. In addition, she has survived cancer and cancer complications (a broken femur, a replaced hip, and the many side effects of the medications) in a family rife with both.

But it is when we attend an AA meeting together that I see her true legacy: "Miss Kay, we are so glad to see you and to meet your son Andy," were words I could comprehend. They fit, unlike many of the strange names and dates I was trying to put together. This simple acknowledgement pointed to a woman who has helped many addicts and alcoholics. Here is a woman who overcame her genetic disposition and continues to fight for sanity and sobriety. While her biological family has disintegrated and maybe even disappointed her, her recovery family has sustained her, and she them.

I identified with this woman. I saw myself in her unwritten history. We sat together and listened to our disease: the alcoholic thinking, the obsessions, the anxiety and panic attacks, the fear of abandonment, the disdain for authority but the need for approval, and the bottomless pit of self-pity we fell into before we got sober. Despite lives of solitude and alienation, we found ourselves sitting together in an old building saying the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” has provided a road out of the insanity of our genetic inheritance. Our meeting in Batesville had been rehearsed for years each time we met another alcoholic, looking for the truth of their existence. When her silver bracelet clinked in search of my hand, she confirms that I was always her son, a kindred spirit, on a parallel journey.

I sat waiting for my plane wondering if I had answered her question, "Andy, are you comfortable with me?" I make a note to tell her again: yes. How odd that a process I began almost 20 years ago would provide the catalyst I need now - our common recovery, more than our common blood, sustains me. The question of why I thought and felt so different my entire life is now answered. Acceptance leads to forgiveness. My recovery, Kay’s recovery, led us here to this place, a place absent of geography but full of grace.

I remember reading about alchemy - how lead turns to gold, how failure turns to success, how insanity becomes sanity, how darkness turns to light. Is this not grace? On our first visit Kay had said, “I need some light.” At first I felt sadness. How strange this alchemy thing is, though, that her darkness brought me light. Wonderfully, miraculously, inconceivably, sadness turns to joy as I witness courage, feel strength, and find understanding. I know when I face my last chapter that my continued living, with all its complications, will help me change and inspire others to change, too. After all, I am my mother’s son.