As was our custom, I started class by telling “Ant and Elephant,” a world tale from India. The story begins with the animals naming Elephant as King. Once named, the previously gentle animal becomes a bully. Because he is so big, none of the animals dare to challenge him. Only Ant, the smallest animal figures out how to solve the problem. Everyone in class had a minute to fingerpaint an image of ingenuity. When a student, I’ll call him Jeff, showed his image, the class and I gasped. Normally, I never commented on students’ images but time and again Jeff’s images were so brilliant that this time I couldn’t help myself. Neither could the rest of the class. “How did you do that in one minute?” asked a student? Jeff shrugged. “You’re an artist,” exclaimed another. The class murmured their agreement. Jeff shrugged again, and again, deflecting all compliments. It felt as if the more they complimented him the smaller he got.
I had noticed his images becoming darker and his words more bleak as the semester progressed. Now I worried about Jeff’s inability to take in the feedback offered by the class. In the past, I’d often thought I needed to say something about what I saw, but held back. I live with inner darkness. I have to be careful not to impose what I see and feel on someone else. I don’t always trust my perception. And yet, each time someone called him an artist Jeff became more agitated. Something was definitely wrong.
I asked to speak with him in my office after class. “I can’t,” he said, “I’m busy.”
“Whatever you have to do can wait. We need to talk.” When he told me he had to go, I told him we could talk outside. The more he resisted, the more certain I was I needed to talk with him. As a professor I have a certain amount of authority and I used every bit of it. “Let’s sit on that bench. Now!”
I didn’t mince words. “Why did you get so upset when the class called you an artist.?” Jeff stared at the grass, watching an ant carry a crumb twice its size. “If Ant could tame Elephant, why can’t you be an artist?” One thing didn’t really have anything to do with the other but it was all I could think of.
It took him a while to respond. “I used to draw a lot when I was little. My father always made fun of me. It got so bad I just stopped showing him what I drew and painted. When I came to the university I wanted to study art but he told me the only major he’d support was engineering. He says he won’t pay for my “doodling,” as he calls it. I just can’t do it anymore. Life isn’t worth living.” He refused to look at me.
“Your father is wrong. You are an artist. You have the right to do what you love.” Jeff shrugged. I recognize feelings of hopeless/helpless, knowing only too well how debilitating they can be. ”Look,” I said, “if your father is so worried about you not being able to support yourself once you have your degree, tell him you’ll sign a contract promising not to ask him for any money after you graduate.” Jeff laughed bitterly. I felt increasingly desperate. “Take back your life, Jeff. If your father won’t pay for your studies, apply for a scholarship. You have talent. You’re smart. Let me help you. Please!”
Jeff stopped watching the ant and looked at me. “Why do you care? What’s one student more or less?”
“Every student matters to me. Why don’t you matter to you?” He shrugged. I could feel my frustration and desperation rising, especially when he brushed aside my suggestion that he go to the Counseling Center. “Jeff, if you’re so determined that the life you’re living isn’t worth living, why not do what you want? Change your major to art. Take control of your life. I’ll help in any way I can. So will the art faculty.”
“What about my father?”
“What about your mother? Won’t she help?”
“She does what my father tells her to do.”
“Maybe standing up for yourself will impress your father and he’ll agree to pay for your studies, but if he won’t, it’s not the end. Your tuition is paid for the rest of the year. You have time to apply for scholarships and work study.”
Jeff stared at me. I met his gaze. I could feel his struggling. “Tell me one reason my life is worth living.”
I normally never talk about my life, but it was all I knew to do. “If I tell you something, will you keep it to yourself?” He nodded. “I grew up with abuse—physical, sexual, emotional—I was told I was stupid, unlovable, clumsy . . . I believed what I heard. I thought I deserved to be abused. I tried to kill myself several times—obviously unsuccessful. I know about despair.”
“But you’re a college professor. You have a PhD. You teach courses no one else does. You care about imagination and creativity. What happened?”
“I kept going, like a horse with blinders, one foot in front of the other. I became a teacher. I create a class where students feel safe and can flourish. And now, here I am, a professor in the Honors Program, teaching the brightest students in the university, like you. What I was told was wrong. What your father told you is wrong. He has money, but you have power. Use it!”
Jeff changed his major. His father disowned him. He qualified for financial aid, work/study and scholarships. He graduated summa cum laude, majoring in art.
It was the summer I turned nineteen, between the end of my junior year in college, before the beginning of my senior year. I was hired as a summer recreational therapist in charge of a building of about 300 women, part of a mental hospital with over 6,000 patients. I took the job because the salary, $60.00 a week, was a whole lot more than I could earn as a camp counselor. Besides, the job description: take patients out, play games with them, bring them all back safely, sounded simple. How hard could it be? I’d been playing softball since I could hold a bat. Although I thought I’d be given orientation, training—what I got was a metal chain around my waist with more keys of differing sizes and shapes than I’d ever seen, and then sent to the building where I was to work.
Terrified by the strange sounds and smells, I walked up to the ward to meet my patients. I stared at the women—lolling, muttering, drooling, talking to people who weren’t listening. A woman zoomed toward me, only to stop a few inches from my nose, then zoom toward someone else. Another woman, with piercing blue eyes strode up to me and asked in a menacing voice, “What are you doing here?”
Too scared to lie I said, “I haven’t a clue.”
She laughed. “Well at least you’re honest. Maybe you’ll last longer than the other one.” Who was the other one I wondered, too afraid to ask. More women gathered around me asking questions, demanding I help them immediately. Soon it seemed the whole ward was pushing against me, wanting, needed, wishing, hoping. It was too much. I decided to leave, only the women were blocking the door.
A large, stout women with a curt voice cut through the chaos. She looked at my name tag. “Miss Rubin, you are here to help patients, not upset them. If you can’t do better, I will recommend your termination.” Part of me was relieved—maybe I could get a job I knew how to do—but part of me was offended. How was I supposed to know how to interact with patients with no training? As the attendant in charge yelled at me, the women silently disappeared. “Your job is to take patients out for recreation. I suggest you focus on what you have been hired to do.”
It took all the courage I had to respond. “Please tell me how to take the women out?”
“Don’t you know anything?” she snarled. I felt like saying, “No, I don’t.”
Without waiting for my answer, she yelled, “Ladies, if you want to go out with Miss Rubin, line up at the door.” After assigning one of the ward attendants to come with me, she spoke in a scathing voice, “Miss Rubin, you will return the same number of patients you take out. Is that clear?” I nodded. About fifteen women lined up. I started down the stairs. The attendant at the back, a prune-faced woman who looked like her last meal had been months ago, scowled and spit out, “Miss Rubin, slow down!” I realized I had to move much more slowly if I wanted the women to keep up with me. I felt as if I were leading a funeral procession. Mine?
Walking so slowly, even down steps, gave me time to think. Since I knew nothing about mental illness, I made a quick decision to treat everyone as if they were mentally healthy, whatever that meant.
When we finally got to the ball field the sun was strong and there was no shade. With the temperature and humidity in the 90’s, I couldn’t imagine making women much older than me run around a baseball field or play any kind of game in such heat. I told them I thought it was too hot to run around, and asked if they’d like to hear a story. They wanted to know what kind. “A Once Upon a Time story,” I said. Although that seemed to sound good to them, the attendant sniped, “Miss Rubin, you’re supposed to play games with the patients, not tell stories.”
With every criticism of me she seemed more pleased with herself. I couldn’t stand her self-righteousness. Besides, technically I had a higher rank that she did. Trying to hide my annoyance, I ignored the attendant and asked the women what they preferred. A few of them cried out, “We want to hear your story.” They were acting normal in my opinion, and normal was what I could deal with. “Okay, let’s go sit under that tree.” They followed me to a large oak where we sat in the shade on grass. They settled themselves amicably and I began, making up the story as I went along, in no hurry, happy to ignore the attendant’s scowl.
Suddenly a man in a dark suit, surrounded by two men in suits, approached, looked at my name tag and bellowed: “Miss Rubin, you’re supposed to be playing games not telling stories. Get your group up and start moving!” I was flabbergasted. The attendant hid behind the tree; the women began crying and mewling and cursing and apologizing. Everyone was upset. I didn’t know who the man was but the women did—they whispered—he was the director of the hospital, my boss. I stood up. The women followed. I walked a few steps as slowly as I could, then stopped. It was even hotter than when we’d first left the ward. When the men were out of sight I turned to the women and asked, “Would you like to go back and listen to a story?” Silence. Fear. Anxiety.
The attendant smirked. “You heard what he said. We need to play games.” I felt like throttling her. Then the women began to speak: “Will we get in trouble?” “He’s a bad man.” Why does he need to shout?” “It’s too hot to run.” “What’s wrong with that man?” “He’s a man, what does he know?” Emboldened, they continued offering their thoughts. Yes. No. Maybe.
I sighed. If I got fired I might still have time to apply for a job at a summer camp. Although I probably felt as anxious as the women, I told them not to worry, I would take responsibility for choosing to tell stories sitting in the shade rather than running around in the heat. One of the women astonished me by saying, “This is a perfectly responsible decision. That man should know better.” Some of the women voiced their agreement. None objected. Despite the attendant’s vocal disapproval, I led the women back to the tree, we settled ourselves down, and I began, “Once upon a time . . .”
What would you have done?
I didn’t want to go to sleepaway camp. It didn’t sound good despite my father telling me I would love it. When I asked him what I would love he told me he wished he’d been able to go to camp. Even at 7 I knew that wasn’t an answer, but when he didn’t want to answer a question there was no point in asking again. I didn’t want to leave my baby sister. I didn’t want to be sent away from home again, but I had no choice. My mother had spent nights sewing labels with my name on my clothes. One morning she packed my suitcase, made a picnic lunch, and told me to get into the car. When I hesitated, she said that if I didn’t get in the car, “right now!” she’d give me something to get me going. I knew that meant trouble. I got in the car.
My mother was angry that she had to drive such a long drive by herself, angry when I wouldn’t eat, angry when she had to stop so I could use a bathroom. By the time we got to camp, she was furious and I felt sick. She told me I should appreciate how lucky I was, that I should be grateful, not a spoiled brat, that she’d never had such a wonderful opportunity to spend a summer in the country and be out of the hot city. She deposited me with a counselor and left.
I was only seven, but I’d been put in a bunk with nine-year-olds. The counselor told me to take off my dress and put on shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t want to wear shorts. I didn’t want to take off my dress. She said I had to; it was the rules. “Who made the rules?” I asked, but she just ignored me. When the counselor wasn’t looking the kids in the bunk made fun of me. They called me Titsucker, and Babysnot, refusing to call me by my name. I knew I was too young to be with them, but I didn’t ask to be in their bunk. When they kept telling me I didn’t belong, I silently agreed with them, but where was I supposed to go?
When it was time for supper the smell of the food made me sick. I ran out of the dining room, gasping for air, hoping I wouldn’t throw up before I got out. The counselor followed me, told me to come back in, to sit at the table like the others. She could make me sit but she couldn’t make me eat. After supper we gathered around a fire to roast marshmallows. There were too many kids huddled around the fire and no one made space for me so I sat on a log and watched, slapping mosquitos, wishing I could leave.
The next morning my dress was gone. I put on the shorts and tee shirt and went to the infirmary. I told the nurse I didn’t feel good. She checked me out and said there was nothing wrong, that I was just homesick. I didn’t tell her I was campsick. No matter what I said, she insisted I was fine, that I should go to the arts and craft shack to join my group. Since she was no help, I decided to run away.
The only place I could think to go was the forest. When no one was looking, I ran as fast as I could, into the forest at the edge of the camp. The cool air, smelling of earth and wildflowers and grasses comforted me. I felt better. Then I saw a boy, a little older than me, a little taller than me, but friendly. He smiled. “I’m Peter. What are you doing here?”
I told Peter I hated camp and my counselor and the girls in my bunk. He told me he loved the forest, did I want him to tell me the names of trees and flowers and birds that he knew? I nodded. He took my hand and we walked into the woods, stopping when he showed me a wildflower hidden near a fallen log, a baby oak tree, a bird’s nest. I forgot about hate and sick. I forgot about the counselor and the girls in my bunk. I wanted to stay in the forest with Peter until it was time to go home at the end of the summer.
Peter looked at his watch. “We need to go back now; otherwise they’ll start looking for us. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll meet you here tomorrow, same time. Okay?” I nodded. “Just make sure no one sees you leaving the forest.” I promised to be careful.
The next day and the next day and the next day Peter and I met in the forest. I learned the names of trees and flowers and birds. But one morning, as we were leaving the forest, his counselor and my counselor caught us. They were furious. “We’ve been looking all over for you. We were worried something happened to you. Don’t you care about anyone besides yourselves?” Peter said he was sorry as he walked off with his counselor. I wasn’t sorry about being in the forest. I was sorry about being caught. My counselor tried to take my hand but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t believe for one minute she cared about me and I didn’t care about her. She was mean.
The next morning, after breakfast, when no one was looking, I ran into the forest. The forest was my friend. I wished Peter was in the forest with me but still, I felt free and happy. I found a path and walked on it. Maybe it would lead to a little house in the forest where I could live until the end of the summer.
After walking for a long time, I felt tired and sat down on a soft green mossy mound. I leaned against a huge oak tree and closed my eyes. I imagined the kind people who lived in the house and how they would make food I liked to eat. Suddenly there was a lot of noise. Someone yelled, “There she is! We found her!” A lot of people rushed toward me. I tried to run but a woman knelt beside me and put her arm around me. I tried to pull away but she held me tight.
“I’m Marty, the nature counselor.” I didn’t know what that was. She told me she liked to study trees and wildflowers and birds. That sounded nice. “Would you like to be my assistant?” she asked. “You could come to the nature shack and help me out.”
“For how long?” I asked. Maybe it would only be for one morning and then everything would be terrible again.
“You can stay with me for as long as you like, but you have to promise you won’t run away any more.”
I nodded but she said she had to hear the words. I didn’t want to say them. Even though she seemed kind, maybe my counselor wouldn’t let me stay with her. The best I could do was say, “I’ll try.”
She looked like she was studying me. “Okay,” she said after I wouldn’t promise. “I guess that’s good enough for now. Let’s go, it’s almost time for lunch.” We started walking back to camp. She took my hand and wrapped hers around mine. I let her.
Did you ever run away?
People say age is only a number. Hah! It’s much more than a number. It’s how people see you or think about you or find you interesting enough to get to know you. Ageing, especially for women, gets a bad press. It’s good to be young, bad to be old and wrinkled and saggy. Ads and culture say: Do what you can to look and feel younger. It’s almost an obligation to avoid looking or acting old, whatever that means. Old people—no particular age designated—are used up, washed up, of no value except as consumers of products and places especially designed for old people.
People tell old people: be careful, watch your step, don’t rush, don’t take risks, don’t climb a ladder, don’t, don’t don’t. And for the do’s . . . Do rest. Do take it easy. Do live in adult only communities. Do be careful. Do accept that your time as a sexual, vital person is over. Be afraid you might fall. Be afraid you might be lonely. Recognize that society regards you as a person whose time of contribution is over. Retire with grace and acceptance—out of sight.
Do I sound angry? Annoyed? Frustrated? Tired of dealing with clichés? Making a big fuss about nothing? Are you ready to tell me about all the wonderful old people you know who do amazing things? That’s like saying, “One of my best friends is a . . .” Proves nothing and doesn’t change the generalizations that fuel movies, television, and social media.
How we age is a crapshoot, dependent on genes, luck, attitude, luck, self-care, determination, luck. Why so much luck? Because things happen that we can’t foresee . . . I bought a house in Santa Fe, when I wasn’t looking, quit my teaching job, and moved 2,000 miles when I was 65, to a place where I hardly knew anyone, with no idea who I’d be when I was no longer a university professor—an identity I’d had for 35 years. As it turned out, my son called shortly after I moved and said, “Mom, now that you’re not a professor you’ll need new business cards. I’ll make them for you. What should I write?”
I didn’t even hesitate. “Storymaker.” There went my identity crisis. Does your identity depend on your work? If so, what happens when you stop doing the work you’ve been doing? Who will you be? How will you know?
Ageing is a mindfuck because it’s full of traps. Take me for example: I hike three times a week, often on a steep trail, by myself, in all kinds of weather, doing between 4 and 8 miles regularly. And yet, when I’m invited to do a longer hike—8-14 miles I now question whether I can do it. There’s no evidence I can’t. There’s every bit of evidence that I can, and yet the number 84—almost 85—gets in my way. I have to work hard to separate reality from fear, and it’s the damn number that causes the trouble.
I read this statement in an article in the NY Times on Friday, March 31, 2021: Most of us, as we get older, will find that our ability to remember and think dulls a bit. This is considered normal, if annoying.
How the fuck do they know this? From whom did they get this information? How many people did they interview to decide this? How old were the people, if they interviewed anyone? What were their lives like? And why should it be considered normal if annoying?
I just wonder how much of aging is self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe my disinterest in “normal” is serving me well as I “age,” like wine in a bottle.
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’ve carried all my life. I avoided thinking about my age. I knew I’d be the oldest by at least fifteen years. I knew I was the oldest participant the leaders had ever allowed to do a vision quest with them. I answered questions from friends who asked why I needed to do such a thing at my age, by telling them, “Because I need to.”
There were nine months of preparation—making a string of 44 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco to encircle our vision quest spot, a visit with the vision quest leader each month where we talked about being alone and on our own—how we wanted to spend the four days and nights, and what we needed to do to prepare for a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest. Once we were at the retreat center in southeastern Canada, as part of our preparation, each of us brought a sleeping bag, four gallons of water, a tarp, and a bag with personal items and a journal to our space in the forest. As a group, and individually, we met with our retreat leaders to discuss our intention, participated in a sweat lodge, and performed ceremonies for two days before beginning the vision quest. Nothing we did prepared me for what happened.
We entered our separate, designated locations the first morning at 5am. I lay down on my sleeping bag, with only a tarp for protection and immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by an inner voice telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time an inner voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home many times before I was five. At times, I viscerally remembered events I’d been told never happened. Other times, experiences surfaced for which I was blamed and shamed. I began to understand the pernicious effect of the childhood abuse, that although I blame myself, the abuse was not my fault, that no child asks to have her bones broken, her body violated, her will shattered. As I thought about relationship choices I’d made during my adult life, I realized it was as if I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I worked hard to allow memories and feelings and thoughts to arise without judgment. Being in the forest, feeling the warmth of the sun, the chirps of the birds—all helped to soothe and comfort as I did my best to leave the wilderness, knowing more, feeling more.
On the morning of the fifth day, we were awakened by drumming, calling us back to the retreat center where we processed what we had experienced during the four days and nights. I had no desire to share and never raised my hand to offer. Then, there was no one left. It was my turn. I cried for the first time since I was 16, when I had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or smart enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. No one moved. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
Then, as a group, they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough. I understood that my age didn’t matter to them. Although the issues we dealt with during the vision quest were different, in the end, we were all questors, all seeking inner knowledge.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough. It may have taken 80 years to feel strong enough to face the truth of my life, but it’s comforting to know that going forward, no matter how few years I have left, they will be years spent freer from the effect of people and experiences that burdened my life for so long.
Here are two photographs one of the questors took after we cleaned up our vision quest spots at the end of our stay.
I moved to Santa Fe in 2001 and immediately fell in love with the mountains surrounding Santa Fe—Sangre de Cristo to the east, Taos to the north, Jemez to the west, the Sandias to the south. I’ve hiked them all, each with its own awe-inspiring typography and place in my heart. Every hike was an adventure. Every hike left me increasingly grateful that I live amid such an amazing landscape.
I have dealt with depression all my life. Nothing—not drugs, biofeedback, therapy or supplements—made me feel better What always helped, at least for a while, was vigorous outdoor exercise in nature.
In 2006, facing months of chemotherapy. I scheduled treatments as best I could so there was at least one day in the week I felt well enough to hike. One morning, depression grabbed hold of me like I was its best buddy and would never let go. Desperate, I called a friend and asked if he would drive me to Big Tesuque so I could hike up to Aspen Vista—only a mile, but fairly steep, and very beautiful. “It’s snowing,” he said.
“Please,” I begged. “I really need to be in the mountains.”
“Don’t you have treatment today?”
“Not till noon. If we leave in half an hour we’ll be back in time. Please.”
He’s a good guy. A kind man. Very reluctantly, he agreed. When we got to the Big Tesuque trail head it was snowing hard. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked, clearly sure it was a terrible idea. In response, I put on my backpack and started hiking. He followed, not pleased to be on a steep trail in the middle of a snowstorm with a woman frail from chemo treatments, but I could feel my spirit rising, a deep happiness filling my being.
“Could you take a photo?” I asked. He sighed and took some photos with his cellphone. As we climbed he kept asking if I was all right. I kept saying I was fine. “My soul is happier than it’s been in years.”
He muttered something like, “Good for your soul,” but even he was soon enraptured by the beauty of the snowy woods. We hiked the rest of the way up in silence, broken only by him asking how I was. When we got to Aspen Vista road, we stopped for a moment, enjoying the vastness of the mountains frosted with snow, before heading back down the trail and to my treatment. The glow from the hike continued to nourish my soul and raised my spirit for days.
Above is one of the photographs from our hike.
Soon after the treatment ended I celebrated my 70th birthday by joining a local Sierra Club hiking group. My first hike with them was supposed to be eight miles. After crossing a stream, which I thought was half way, I learned, much to my dismay, the hike was actually ten miles—more than I had ever hiked. There was nothing to be done but to do it. At the end of the hike I was filled with joy, more than a little surprised at how well I’d hiked, even more amazed at how much better I felt at the end of the hike than I had at the beginning. I discovered I could do more than I thought I could—a valuable lesson when it came to going on long hikes. I soon relied on these outings to maintain a modicum of wellbeing and keep depression at bay.
In March of 2020 my hiking buddies quickly disappeared, not wanting to hike with anyone, even though groups were usually less than five, more like two or three. I live alone and my cat doesn’t hike. Previously, I had seldom hiked alone, and never on trails in the mountains, but the thought of confining myself to hiking on trails close to Santa Fe—parking lots and paths crowded with lots of people—was disheartening. I began to experience increasingly powerful and overwhelming bouts of helpless/hopeless feelings. I needed to do something to make myself feel better that wasn’t dependent on anyone else. This meant confronting fears about hiking by myself on a steep trail that few people knew about. This meant I was less likely to contract the virus from others, but if I fell or needed help, I’d be pretty much on my own since cell service is spotty at best. I chose to ignore my fears and hike three days a week, mostly in the mountains, knowing this was the only way I could hope to feel better.
It’s not so hard to face my fatigue and fears when the weather is sunny with mild temperatures. It’s harder when the relentless summer heat sucks energy faster than drinking electrolytes can replace it. Most difficult is hiking on unbroken snow-covered trails when the temperature is below freezing and every step is a slog. And yet, when a hiking day came, no matter the weather, with depression lurking, ready to pounce, I hiked, often feeling crappy as I began the hike, always feeling fine and grateful when I finished.
I began solo hiking in March of 2020. It is now March of 2021. Although I am a year older, approaching my 85th birthday, the decision to hike three times a week, mostly on a steep mountain trail, by myself if necessary, has been medicine for my soul and nourishment for my spirit.
How did you take care of your soul and spirit during the pandemic?
I was enjoying teaching, writing, and directing plays for children, but I felt as if the world owned every piece of me. I needed to do something creative that I could do for and by myself, that didn’t depend on anyone else’s schedule, needs, wants, or wishes. I thought about painting, which would fit into my tightly scheduled life, but when I painted, what came out of my fingers can only be described as ferschtunkenah, a word I made up, that sounded like my paintings looked—awful. But, the urge to make something was too strong to ignore. Ceramics was out. Too messy in a small house, with no place to store or use clay. I had no money to invest in jewelry-making, even if I had the talent, which was doubtful.
A friend told me about a weaver with a great sense of humor who was going to teach at the Delaware Arts Center. “She could even teach you,” grinned my friend. I was so desperate to find a creative outlet, something just for me. I signed up. I had never thought about weaving but the course wasn’t expensive and it fit my schedule.
The weaving teacher focused on process. Eleven of the twelve of us who signed up wanted to weave placemats. They were unhappy. I reveled in the freedom of process and looked forward to learning more. Toward the end of the course, only four sessions of which focused on weaving techniques, the eleven placemat weavers quit and the remaining sessions were cancelled. As important as the few weaving techniques I learned, was the realization I couldn’t weave on a traditional loom with moving parts that clanged as the shuttles and heddles and treadles went up and down, in and out—the feet doing one thing, hands doing another, and who knows about the mind.
Coincidently, a man who lived in my community asked if I’d befriend his wife, a professional weaver from Norway. I found her difficult and wasn’t surprised when he told me his wife had left him. He said he’d had a loom made for her that she’d never used, a tapestry loom, essentially a big picture frame with no moving parts. I asked to borrow it. Even warping (the vertical threads on a loom) was different. Unlike a conventional loom, where warping is a continual process, with equal tension until you have the length of warp needed to make the finished product, I had to put each piece of yarn on separately and tie it off. My warp was sometimes four and a half feet long and about five feet high. By the time I finished warping, the threads I put on first had loosened so I had to tighten them, but I was never able to make the tension on the warp threads consistent. I learned to accept and use the varying tension in the warp. When a weaver takes off a piece from a conventional loom the weaving is flat unless the weaver has added texture. When I take a weaving off, the uneven warp tension creates texture and is never flat. I had to learn to enjoy my imperfections as a weaver working on a less than perfect loom.
After I put my first warp on the loom and began weaving, I realized I didn’t want to give the loom back, despite its funky design. It had been made by a carpenter who’d never seen a weaver weave. The loom had no lateral stability, no vertical strength, and the roller had no stops. No wonder my friend’s wife never used it, yet it was perfect for me. No moving parts. No clanging noise. No stress. I asked if I could buy it.
“You have no money,” he said, which was true. We settled on a can of cookies, a loaf of bread, and a weaving. It took some years before he got his weaving; we became friends.
I turned the loom around, stored my yarns on the roller, and figured out how to stabilize the loom laterally, and strengthen it vertically. Using the four techniques I learned in 1968, I continue to weave quietly, slowly, with fingers and a fork, choosing handspun yarn with texture, creating patterns as I work. If I don’t like what I’ve woven I unweave. If I like what I’m weaving I keep going. If I run out of one kind of yarn, I find ways to incorporate other yarn. I weave without a plan, without expectation or schedule. The process is slow. There is no way to weave fast on my loom. If I feel speeded up inside myself, as soon as I begin to weave, my inner world slows down. I’m focused on color and design and texture. For the moment weaving is my world—a respite from problems and pressures.
Before I even made my first weaving I decided I would weave to please myself. If people liked what I wove, fine. If they didn’t, fine. I refused to take commissions or sell what I made. Instead, I give weavings to friends and family. Although I couldn’t paint with paint, I ended up learning to paint with yarn.
What is it that you do for yourself? For your satisfaction? Free from others’ comments?
I was a single mother, with no income, no health insurance, and no child support. I needed a full-time job. Badly. But, I’m not good at doing what I don’t want to do, and what I didn’t want to do was teach physical education or Junior High Science—both of which I was credentialed to teach. Given all the years I’d been teaching dance, when I saw an advertisement for a position teaching dance at Swarthmore College I immediately applied, paying no attention to the ache in my stomach as I sent off my résumé. I still had a bad feeling about dancing and choreographing after my experience at the University of Wisconsin where the two dance professors and I were in continual conflict about the worth of my dance ability and choreography—a conflict I first experienced as an 8-year when my ballet teacher refused to let me dance the dance I created for the annual spring concert. She said it wasn’t beautiful and dance had to be beautiful.
Elated to be invited to teach a master class as part of the interview process, I paid no attention to the nausea I felt as I walked to the studio. I told myself how I felt didn’t matter. What mattered was the secure position, doing creative work, good salary, and benefits.
Students walked into the dance studio and began warming up. One young woman came up to me and asked if I was the new dance teacher. “I hope to be,” I said, hoping my grin was not a grimace. She wished me good luck and joined her friends. They stared at me. Time to begin.witch up
I told the class I would like them to move as they felt inspired by the story I would tell them. The students looked startled, but started moving in their own ways as I related “Hummingbird and Panther,” a world tale from Brazil, about Panther who wants Hummingbird to poke mud out of his eyes. Hummingbird is afraid he’ll eat her, but his distress overcomes her fear. When Panther can see he expresses surprise at how drab she is. Hummingbird is affronted, but Panther offers to help. She decides to trust him once again. After doing what he tells her to do, Hummingbird flies to the river to look. Her trust has been rewarded. She is now as colorful as she yearned to be.
After telling the story I asked the students to take an aspect of the story that intrigued them and create a movement sequence, either by themselves or with one or two others, using found sound or any of the musical instruments in a box in the corner of the studio. They quickly began to create, intensely focusing on the assignment. When I asked them to share their work, one woman with long dark braids asked, “You going to judge it?”
“No. I’m not into judging, but if you want help in deepening your work, let me know.” She looked suspicious but volunteered to be first.
Her work was wonderful, as was what followed. After the last group finished, the woman with braids said, “We never did anything like this before. It was fun. I hope you get the job.” I flushed, thanking them for their wonderful participation. This time there was a real smile on my face, and no stomach ache, as I watched them leave.
After a brief lunch with the dance teacher who was retiring, she walked me to the Dean’s Office to meet with the Dean. Before parting she told me she’d heard really good comments about the class and was sure I’d get the job, that the other interviewees had not been as interesting or innovative.
The Dean, a woman in her 50’s, with twinkling blue eyes, welcomed me into her office, and offered me coffee and scones. Like the retiring dance teacher, the Dean told me she’d heard wonderful comments about my teaching. I relaxed, sure I would get the job. As we sipped and munched she asked me about my life, what interested me, how I’d thought to create the kind of class I’d taught. Disarmed by her friendliness and interest, I told her how I taught dance to “underprivileged” children, helping them to find words as well as movement to express their feelings,” that I’d started a children’s theatre group in a Black community center, writing and directing plays where action mattered as much as words, how I used movement to tell stories. I told her about the acclaim I’d had as a choreographer working with young adults. All the time I talked she nodded and smiled, asking questions that encouraged me to articulate my view of teaching dance performance and choreography.
Just when I thought she was going to hire me she asked, “You don’t really want to teach dance, do you?
I was too stunned to lie. “No, I don’t”
She spoke kindly, caringly. “I’m going to do you a favor. I’m not going to recommend you for this position even though you did a fine job teaching the master class and you have wonderful recommendations.” My distress was too spontaneous to hide. “It’s not what you think,” she said.
“Then what?” I managed to blurt out.
“I’ve listened to you talk about your interests, your previous work, how you create. I don’t think you want to be teaching dance. I think you want to teach movement and create theatre pieces. If I recommend you for this position, you’ll be teaching something you don’t really love. I can’t do that to you. You’re a wonderful teacher, a woman with marvelous creativity and ingenuity. You need to follow your heart as well as your mind. It may not feel like this right now, but I’m doing what’s right for you professionally. I’m sure you’ll find a way to teach what you love.”
Nine years before, I’d had a technical scholarship to study dance at the Connecticut College Summer Dance Program. Tom Watson, the technical director, was demanding, with a lot of dance prima donnas to light, costume, and care for. I worked diligently, carefully following his instructions, ready to do whatever needed to be done. At the end of the summer he said, “I don’t know how or when I’ll repay you for your hard work, but I owe you.”
Now, nine years later, stunned by the loss of the dance position, but realizing the Dean had seen into my heart, I made an appointment to see the new Chair of the Theatre Department. The sign on his door read, “Dr. Thomas Watson.” I gasped in amazement. He remembered me from when I’d worked for him nine years ago, and asked how he could help. With his support I earned an MA in Theatre and was then hired as a part-time instructor. Twelve years later, after promotions, authored articles, books, and plays, and teaching both abroad and throughout the US, I became a full professor in Theatre.
When the Dean refused to hire me, based on my uncensored talking and her sense of what I really wanted to do, I felt ashamed that I’d revealed myself to her, in despair as to how I could do what I loved and still support my son, wondering if I’d ever find a way to do the work I loved. At the time, actors studied ballet and other forms of dance to improve their physical ability. I was one of the first people to create courses in movement for actors, explore emotional projection, and use traditional stage blocking as a way for actors to express inner thoughts and feelings. The Dean’s refusal to hire me was an unexpected, albeit painful gift, that made possible a 34-year university career where I created almost all the courses I taught.
Have you ever experienced a rejection that led to something new and unimagined? What was that like for you?
When I was three-years-old I became one of the designated entertainers for my six-year-old cousin Rose who’d been stricken with polio. I had heard my mother and others talk about how lucky it was that Rose didn’t die. I wasn’t sure what die meant, but the way my aunt and mother talked about Rose dying didn’t sound good. She lay in bed, motionless. I sat in a chair next to her bed, trying to think of things to say that would interest her or make her laugh. I wasn’t very good at telling jokes and half the time I couldn’t remember the punchline. This made her mad. She told me I needed to learn to tell jokes but I had no idea how to do this. Since I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and was tired of sitting, I left the bedroom and went into the kitchen where my mother and aunt were drinking coffee. My aunt told me to go back, that Rose needed company. When I stood there, unwilling to leave the kitchen, my mother scolded me. “Nancy, you’re always telling stories, go back and tell Rose a story.”
I walked to the bedroom as slowly as I could, hoping she’d be asleep, but she was awake, waiting for me. I told a few stories as best I could but Rose soon let me know she was bored with my stories. “Read to me,” she said in a voice that frightened me.
“I don’t know how to read,” I admitted, scared of what she’d say.
She looked angry and made a terrifying chest noise. It sounded like what people described when they talked about her dying. When she caught her breath she said, “Reading is easy. I’ll teach you.”
I don’t remember how she taught me, but I was desperate to learn as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be the one who made her die.
I must have learned fast enough and well enough to suit her, because when I started reading, she stopped complaining about my reading. The only problem was that sometimes I didn’t know a word and stumbled. Disapproving of my mistake, she made the horrible chest noises that petrified me. I panicked. What would they do to me if my cousin died while I was reading to her? The sounds she made when I mispronounced a word scared me so much, the next time I didn’t know a word, I made one up. Since she couldn’t see the book, she didn’t know the difference. I began to enjoy reading to her, making up half of what I read. No mistakes. No terrible chest sounds. No die. Big relief.
How did you learn to read?