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Moving Forward, by Going Back (to school) – 3/6/22

Not to be Captain Obvious here, but I think my classmates can tell I’m older than they are. Old enough to be their mother. Older than our professor, I’m pretty sure.

There I sit in spring-semester 2022, among 18-to-21-year-olds, in a fold-down-half-desktop chair in a building called Walsh, a few blocks from the main campus gate.

Often it’s a left-handed desk-chair. I’m right-handed. But someone placed the lefty near the electrical outlet, which helps my ancient, work-provided laptop, large and clunky. My classmates have sleek, shiny tablet devices; their vision can still make out tiny fonts.

I’m beyond intrigued to sit here. Let’s say energized, even thrilled. Able to wonder in whole new ways. Grateful for this, at my advanced age.

I still work full-time, and “early retirement” (before age 70) is highly unlikely. At that point, I will have paid into Social Security for 55 years. I hope that will mean enough to live on, simply. Anyway I prefer the simply, with hope to travel more, or again, if our world of conflict and things infectious will allow.

Meanwhile: a perk of unlikely early retirement, 15 years into working at an established institution? Tuition benefit. So, diving into the scholarly world of Medical Anthropology, a field barely known when I went to college -- the first time.

I found my university has such a course each spring, and reached out to the professor last fall. I Zoomed with H.R. about the benefit. “You’ll have to apply to college as a ‘non-degree Visiting Student.’” (Visiting from the other side of the student-union building, where the med-school sits.) So, write an essay, procure ancient transcripts, pay the application fee, anguish over deadlines already past. But, hours before the university closed for Holiday Break, I got the “accepted” email. Yay – it worked!

Only to find, gah! “Intro to Med-Anthro 250” was FULL, with a hefty wait-list. “Here’s the catalog with many other courses,” they said, so I could “choose something else.” That class was the only reason I’d bothered with applying at all.

I circled back to the professor. “Class full,” they say. “I so appreciate all your encouragement,” and thought I’d give it another shot in 2023.

Then, a miracle: this professor stepped in and advocated for me. She added me to the course. (Thank you thank you, Dr. Sylvia Onder.)

Had to hustle for the 90%-tuition benefit, in time for the first class. No course credit, simply from longtime fascination about how things biomedical, cultural and anthropological converge.

And all worth it, in case I implied otherwise. I highly recommend it. Even if you, too, are still working full-time yet still interested in diving deeper into some path not-taken (yet). Go for it.

That path is, almost surely, still waiting for you, too. Okay, maybe tough to pursue Betamax VCR-repairperson, or manual typesetter for printing presses (but I’m not even sure).

Go ahead and learn to speak Portuguese, finally. Study non-Western art history, the poetry of Basho, or urban planning for a new millenium. What subjects have plucked at your brain and spirit, while you’ve paid into your culture’s socialized-security, for 50, 70 hours a week? What interests have come to pluck at you, more recently?

We’re still here! Is the thing. It’s not too late. And, ready or not, we’re all lifelong learners.

In any case, I find myself among students surely wondering, What’s Her Deal? Maybe also, She Seems Happy, Attentive, Curious, while Old.

By day I work with med-students, who’ve spent a chunk of their schooling over Zoom and under the altered, isolating pressures of a global pandemic. I wonder about these even-younger learners. I can’t imagine going to college and not being able to interact with my friends for almost 2 years, up close.

We all sit close in class, now. Mandatory-vaxxed, boosted and masked still, yet feeling the density of the world just outside. We read about the health impacts of major evolutionary transitions, when hunter-gatherers settled into horticulture and agriculture, then into villages, cities, industrial life, into a nuclear age. In our own lifetimes, the ever-crowding of every acre and river and fathom, from our uber-great-ape influence.

Frequently, I wonder, How could there have been only 3-billion-and-change humans at the time I slid out and into diapers? (“Only 3-billion” = roughly double the world population of 1900, itself a doubling since the American and French Revolutions.)

By the time I finished my MFA in 1998, humanity had doubled since the early 1960s – to 5.9 billion. And with my humble lifetime still underway, the same, afflicted planet is now trying to support (and survive) the impact of nearly 8-billion humans, this winter.

Of course there’s an opportunistic virus, taking advantage of the sheer buffet of us. Are we not expecting more of this, syndemically?

My 7th-grade music teacher, Mr. Outlaw, offered our class a chance at individual performance one week, “if you have the inclination.” One girl played his classroom piano. I think it was a spirited version of Bizet’s “Habanera” from Carmen. (Mr. Outlaw had taught us the power of opera through Carmen. It’s the only one I can whistle just from hearing inside my head.) Another kid wheeled a drum-set down the hall from the Band room. He wailed away, drops of sweat flying, on a Led Zeppelin song. Afterwards, Mr. Outlaw asked him why he chose that drum solo. The boy said, “It’s one of the songs me and my dad both like.”

I considered our teacher’s invitation and figured I had enough inclination to bring in the $25 guitar my mother had let us buy at Sears, when we lived in Chicago. I sang “Too Many People,” from the Wings album Ram.

Mr. Outlaw then asked, “And why that song, Mary?”

I hadn’t considered why. Simple chords, the rhythmic mood of a good album? “I guess I just think about that, the too-many people part.”

He nodded, slowly.

Mr. Outlaw had the longest fingers I had ever seen. Keyboard-perfect. I hope he lived a long life of music and meaning. Students come and grow so quickly. I couldn’t fully appreciate that until I became a young teacher-aide, then became other things, including an Aunt Mary, then a teacher, myself.

I’ve been blessed with great teachers all along. Still. In late-February 2022, Dr. Onder started class by acknowledging the week’s events and their likely impact on our psyches.

Russia had invaded Ukraine, after wholly denying that intention. Ukraine was resisting. Most of the world cheered that resistance and ached at the images. Much remained unclear (and still does, in early March) but bombs were landing on apartment buildings. Citizens under attack were trying to flee. They carried infants, companion animals, and not much else. Around the world we felt (still feel) akin, shocked, horrified and unsure how to help.

I glanced around our crowded classroom for my youngest fellows’ impressions. Couldn’t find much expression of more than fatigue, in the eyes above our N95s. I wondered how much import had landed on their psyches about this invasion.

Did they understand what had happened in their grandparents’ atomic-age lifetimes, in recent decades of living history? Did I, really, fully?

My classmates would have learned about 9/11/01 in a textbook, as I had read about President Kennedy’s assassination in books. They were either not yet born, or too young to absorb events beyond their playgrounds.

Around the time of Mr. Outlaw’s music class, I walked into our crowded townhouse one evening after school. My father was sitting in his den, just off the front door. (For most families, his study was their dining room. We needed most families’ living room to fit our dining-room table for 8-12, so the finished basement functioned as our living room.)

I told my father I felt shocked to learn “we were on the same side as the Soviet Union in World War II? How was that possible?” My whole life had understood Russia and its forced union of Republics to be the enemy. A Seriously Cold and Tense War underway, my whole life (all of 12 years). So our most potentially catastrophic enemy was our Ally, in my parents’ lifetime?

My father sort of laughed, and set down his pen. “Yep, we were on the same side, then.”

My dad had been an adolescent during World War II. My mom would have just turned 5 for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Those timelines didn’t make it easier to understand what I’d just learned. But I’ve held onto that moment of revelation, when History itself became more mysterious. Also, alongside, did my own humanity, one of a history-making species.

Ten days ago, after our professor acknowledged the sobering events in Ukraine, we launched into a discussion about the health impacts of our developed environment. A classmate raised his hand to talk about the section on nuclear energy. He described his surprise to learn about nuclear-reactor accidents, “even one in the U.S., in Pennsylvania, a long time ago.”

(Oh my. I was both alive and aware during the time of Three-Mile-Island’s partial meltdown. Musical gods even organized a concert around this, called “No Nukes.” Bonnie, Bruce, Crosby/Stills/Nash, James, Carly, the Doobies. I remember watching it, some time later, on a movie screen, or VHS.)

My classmate continued, “and there was one in Russia, I think” (he means Chernobyl, former Soviet Republic in Ukraine, the sovereign country now being invaded by Russia). “And one in either China or Japan or something, after an earthquake, but that was also a long time ago” (you mean Fukishima?).

Okay, that felt recent to me. Looked it up. 2011.

He was 7 or 8 years old then, with a worldly awareness of soccer practice, a Batman video game? Not a serious nuclear accident after an earthquake and tsunami, half a planet away.

His “long time ago,” was that equivalent to my sense of wars filmed in black-and-white? Might as well have been potato-famine time in Ireland, or reading about fiefdoms, or Charlemagne. A long time ago, 2011. I had already worked at my current job for several years then, wondering if I’d ever have time to use the tuition benefit.

A precious reference book I bought years ago, Timetables of History: a horizontal linkage of people and events, by Bernard Grun, plots out human experience by year, across columns like “Literature, Theater,” “Music,” “Science, Technology, Growth” and “Daily Life.” I’ve never tired of looking back and around the world, even if my edition stopped at 1978 (CE).

Just now, I opened it randomly to a page with the year 1050 (CE) scrolling across. A sampling of that year:

“Egypt collapses under military dictatorship; Normans penetrate into England; Ssu-ma-Kuang [wrote]: ‘History of China from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000’; Oldest Russ. Monasteries [built] in Kiev; Jain temples [built] at Mount Abu, India; The harp arrives in Europe; Time values given to musical notes; Astrolabes arrive in Europe from Eastern countries; English monks excel in embroidery.”

Plus ça change. Beware dictatorships, sigh. Meanwhile, the Norman conquest took longer than I thought. And musical notes didn’t always hold ‘time’? (How would they have played Carmen without chaos, back then?) And Kiev, presently under siege by Russia, was considered “Russ.” during the still-Soviet era of the reference-book writing (about the year 1050).

No joke – that page, totally random. Any page! would hold head-shaking linkages for our lives today.

We’re born when we’re born, with a world underway.

Summers last a long time, when you’ve only lived through a handful of summers. Other ways of tying shoelaces, or eating corn, or earning allowance, or income, will keep challenging a "known" world. At some point in your timeline, you meet your body’s sensations of a first kiss, halfway up the ladder of a playground slide, while it’s drizzling but warm, and that will introduce a whole new known of living in a body. Meanwhile, abuse of power and impulse to conquer will persist, alongside wondrous architecture and our desire to view stars and planets in motion. Habits, techniques, subcultures, communities, rituals, social identities, all in motion, still.

Just jumped a few pages to 1066, for the crowning of conquering William, and found alongside, “Appearance of comet, later called ‘Halley’s Comet’.”

And just a few years later, because I can’t help myself, “Constantine the African (c. 1020-1087) brings Greek medicine to the Western world.”

Think of all the people who, if you could look far-enough back and deep, are literally, physiologically inside you? Could Constantine the African, or a Greek physician, have found his or her way into my own long-forgotten genome variation, or yours? Constantine the African, bringer of medicine – I had never heard of him until this very Sunday afternoon.

When we moved from Chicago to Maryland, as I started 7th grade – seems a memorable entry in the timetable of my own history, at least today - our history teacher referenced a movie starring Gary Cooper. He went on for a while about this, with great admiration for the movie’s depiction of the history (war?) and for this Gary Cooper. Our teacher’s gaze happened to land on me as he finished.

My face must’ve betrayed me. “Question, miss Mary?” I first shook my head, shy from new-kidness. He tilted his head and waited.

Okay, “Who is Gary Cooper?” I had never heard of him.

Our teacher staggered backward against the edge of his desk. He reached down to his chest with both hands and pulled out an imaginary dagger, with a groan. “Who is Gary Cooper, she asks?”

I could only blink.

“Only the greatest actor of all time, and my personal hero.” Then he added, “it’s fine. I don’t mean to pick on you, Mary.”

I could feel the shame saturate my cheeks. New Kid from Chicago, now a statue but for her blinking. Meanwhile, I think he asked if anyone else had heard of Gary Cooper. I couldn’t even look around.

“I feel so old, here,” he said.

We were 12. Mr. ___ was possibly 30, when he pulled my dagger from his heart, much younger than I am now. (You’ll notice I’ve dissolved his name from my pouches of memory. He had a walrus-style mustache, and I really liked him and learned a lot from him, like how my country had been allied with Russia in WWII.)

Ah, the Anthropology of it all, both looking back and looking around right now. Fascinating, enlivening, poignant. Relative. Emerging, through time.

A few years ago, while doing yardwork, a curving sliver of white caught my eye from the ground. Some buried animal bone?

I dug out the dirt surrounding it and discovered a small bowl. A child’s cereal bowl, with a design in the middle. When I brought it inside and wiped off further, I thought, “Why is Superman holding a bunch of wiggly hot-dogs?”

Wait. Those are chains, not links of hot-dogs. Superman is busting out of a chestful of iron chains. As he is wont to do. (Any kid born since 1930 has heard of Superman, even my current classmates, even, I’d wager, most kids around the world now.)

I bought this 1949 cottage from a guy who’d lived here since he was 5 years old. The only home he could remember. He was already retired as a county cop, in his early 40s (6’7” tall, back problems, he said). I met him first during the pre-sale home inspection. The inspector was annoyed to see him home.

His being there surprised me, too, but I figured he was curious about the status of the only home he’d known. We talked in the kitchen about how times had changed since we were young. Mike said, “This 2-bedroom, 900-some square-foot house felt like plenty for my parents, my older brother and me. All four of us shared that one bathroom! We never imagined, you know, big closets, or an “open floor-plan.”

We both shook our heads. Right? Right. He’d also told me he and his wife were moving to a spacious, modern house “out in the boonies.” Presumably with bigger closets and an open floor-plan? Needs change, tastes change.

Hey, I had thought a dishwasher, and a dining-room, would be important to me, if I could find an affordable house. The condo I was selling held both of those for my 15 years there. Yet this cottage had neither. It did have a second bathroom (Mike had added downstairs) for my mom or visiting friends. Also a yard! Room for flowers and vegetables, birdhouses. And those benefits turned out to mean more to me than dishwasher or dining-room, as my life wheeled along.

Times change, wants and dreams change, in any small lifetime. So much will happen that we could never have predicted. Events will change how we see the world, and ourselves. Right now, millions of cover photos are showing sunflowers, for Ukraine. Drops in the sea of history, but millions of drops.

I posted a pic of Mike-or-his-brother’s Superman bowl. I found its existence poignant. Of such great personal value for them in the late ‘60s or ‘70s, they had to bury it, keep it safe. Friends encouraged me to sell it, “could be worth a fortune.” My searches revealed such a bowl in “pristine condition” might earn $5-7 nowadays. This one was not pristine, and apparently they were quite common bowls, and commonly saved by children who became adults who forgot about saving them.

By then, I had tried to remove more dirt with modern cleaning agents. Superman and his chains were disappearing before my eyes. I’d wanted to let Mike know about the find, maybe claim it out of nostalgia. I heard they’d moved from the address I got at closing. His whereabouts were as mysterious to me as my 7th-grade history-teacher’s name. I added the bowl to a “Donate” box by the front door.

Time can reshape the past. Sitting in a college classroom in 2022 means something for my own history, reorienting my college days.

Back then, I also felt happy, attentive, curious, and enlivened, in class and with my friends. I also felt half-smothered by chronic stress, uncertainty, and insecure future.

From one semester to the next, I never knew if I could come back. My brain played a kind of background hum, through every class or assignment or exam, whatif whatif whatif this is it for me, or howhowhow will I find the money for next semester? I was working multiple jobs for my out-of-state tuition, and a roof and bed and food, books. (I didn’t qualify for student loans or work-study. Nor have family help.)

Meanwhile along the same timetable, I felt half-smothered by chronic stress and uncertainty about my family of origin, with little (meaningful) communication to make sense of it.

My parents separated the same day I left for college, and divorced before I graduated. All our family dynamics were shifting, while I was away even through summers. And I still carried trauma in my body that I didn’t understand, since early childhood.

A few weeks ago, our Med-Anthro professor talked about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire. (That instrument came into being in 1998.) My classmates shook their heads when she asked if we’d heard of it, but I knew what she was referring to.

I knew my ACE score. Well beyond college I came to understand how my “very long time ago” had influenced my campus life, distilled into that 8. The toll is lifelong, with respect to health and well-being, even life-expectancy.

Around the classroom, these late-Tuesdays and -Thursdays, I am sure some students bear similar freight and fog, even if they don’t know the questionnaire. I would imagine they, too, find challenging their ability to absorb lectures and readings, to power through writing essays and taking tests, unsure of the very roof-and-nourishment earth beneath them, chronic stress and trauma, embodied.

I wonder if there’s a corollary questionnaire. There should be. An Advantageous Childhood Experiences test.

I would want to see my score there, too.

My family, and extended family, and communities, also gave me a strong sense of belonging, and music and art and reading and wit.

My friends, wow, great friends, wherever our family moved, including college friends who are among my very closest to this day.

My chances to join peer-families growing up -- swim team, choral music, acting – and in worklife, so many meaningful colleague/friends over the years.

My teachers – some of whom supported me in ways they don’t even realize, but which support often buoyed me and counterbalanced the adverse of it all. I have to include my current professor who advocated for my being in class at all. On day one, she grouped us into “care houses” -- our small groups for discussion, projects and looking out for each other. The practical side of life, and learning: a group effort. (My little group named ourselves the Light House; we prefer some sunlight in our daylight.)

So much advantageousness I had, and have.

Here’s what I’ve been trying to say for pages now: I’m so grateful for this spring semester and its unexpected second chance. Beyond the fascinating subject matter! My true “benefit” is not the tuition coverage itself. It’s the freedom from worry about money this time around, worry about a next semester, and a family’s tectonic shifts while still growing up myself, from a distance.

All I have to do, this time around? Sit in an uncomfortable, wonderful left-handed desk-chair near an outlet, and learn.

All I have to do is read and listen and think and write and absorb the nuances of a classmate’s -- or our teacher’s – thoughtful expressions.

All I have to do is marvel at the deeper lessons, peeking out in slivers from just underground now and then -- that I must be learning all the time, in spite of myself.

All I have to do is thank my whole life for the adverse parts along with the advantageous, that connect a blogging Muffin to a baby who once had only 3-billion-ish neighbors.

All I have to do is let my mind and heart remember whatever they do. To link what they remember to whatever comes new, as history keeps happening to all of us, and all of us keep co-creating history, by the hour.

All I have to do is hold a meaningful job at a university that supports lifelong learning, even if that means working some Saturdays and Sundays, and tries hard to live by its Latin motto meaning “care of the whole person.”

All I have to do is open my Timetables book to a thousand years ago and find a gem like “English monks excel in embroidery.”

All I have to do is hold my old college tension gently in my hands, like a long-forgotten bowl with rich (even fertile) dirt all over it, to remind me how some chains, that once felt like iron, aren’t any stronger than a hot-dog.

All I have to do is keep trying to be a caring, kind friend to friends who care with kindness about me, many of whom are also family.

All I have to do is feel ever-more grateful for living this long, for living exactly the life and learnings and loves I have, especially the chance to love all the people I love, whether they’re still alive or not.

That’s all I have to do. It’s such a relief.

Thank you so much for sticking with me, here,


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Mar 09, 2022

Thank you Mary

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