Monday, December 10, 2012

On Writing: Ellen Hawkins

On Writing

“‘He also serves who only stands and waits’,” my husband said with a wry smile. We were in the waiting area of an eye clinic where, five days earlier, an ophthalmologist had done laser and cryogenic surgery on his right eye to repair a detached retina.
            “Milton,” I said, ”On his Blindness.”
            We fell silent, the word sitting between us like a nosy child. Blindness. I was reminded of the April meeting of the International Association of Chile, where a volunteer worker had described the freezing conditions in the Colegio Helen Keller, and how mittened students struggled to read Braille. From there it was no distance at all to Naomi.
            For a time Naomi, who is blind, came to our weekly meetings. She’d been published in Spanish but was studying, and now writing, in English. At first we found it difficult to separate Naomi’s blindness from who she was, for she came with Plato, her guide dog, who stretched out under the table by her feet. She traveled by bus and metro and found her way to the house by asking for help.
            More awkwardly, when we got out our notebooks and pens to write, Naomi picked up her tools. If we found the clacking sounds distracting, these soon blended with the hum and thump of passing traffic. That she could express her thoughts by punching holes in strips of shiny paper–and read what she’d written without losing track of the sequence–filled us with admiration. 

            As the weeks passed, evidence of her courage grew. She wrote of having been selected as a candidate to get a guide dog; of how she’d flown to the US to meet, then spend months, with Plato; of her anxiety that he should be ‘the one’ she was looking for: a perfect match.
            Like all of us, Naomi missed an occasional meeting. Then she began to attend less often and finally stopped coming altogether. We kept in touch by email–for she normally wrote on her computer–but by way of explanation she said only that she’d been busy.
            Yet I often wonder if the real reason lay elsewhere. Not in the hassle of getting to meetings, nor in finding her voice in the cultural hodgepodge of our group. But that she was writing in a foreign language. Many of us struggle to express ourselves adequately in Spanish, even just to order pizza. Imagine wrestling with English, a complex shifty tool whose words elude and betray us sighted native speakers, and writers, every day.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

First Word: Larissa Higgins: Prize

St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The world’s largest wedding cake.

I sniff.

I sang there once – before the altar of Saint Peter’s.  I was fifteen, and the concert was the prize at the end of a choir festival-  three weeks singing in every hill town church in and square in Tuscany, and as a grand finale, a performance during a Cardinal’s Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome: five choirs would sing one mass, in unison in the heavenly acoustics of that massive hall, and the Pope would be there to listen when we sang. 
            From the outside, St Peter’s appears a modest-seeming three stories tall, but as you see the clouds move behind the building, and as the multitude of ants crawling before it resolve into people, you realize just how large the building is, and the tricks of scale resolve into an order several hundred times larger than life
            Inside, the church is a warehouse of wonderful sculpture, all of it drowning in the immensity of the space, and where there isn’t something splendid and sculptural, there’s something cheap tacked onto to fill the gap - swags of second-rate saints and sibyls and cherubs, chiseled by assembly line and cheerily defying gravity, swinging from the clerestory arches.  There’s no grace there. Or if there was, it was lost in the shadows and swept out years ago.
            The cherubs are worse than second-rate: giant stone babies with cellulite and the eyes of eighty-year old congenital sinners, dipsomaniac and debauched. When an eight-foot infant leers out of the shadow of an altar and eyes you up like he means to try something on right there in church, you know things have gotten to some place that they shouldn’t have.
            My parents and my sister were meeting me in Rome at the end of the tour, and they had come along to the Vatican to watch us sing.  My father made it inside the basilica in good time for the mass.  My mother, good ex-catholic that she was, was still outside, standing nose-to-nose in a screaming match with a striped member of the Swiss Guard.
            Inside, we began to sing.  Right there in front of the great bronze Bernini Baldacchino.  It had been a long and dusty three weeks and we were under-rehearsed; we were all unfamiliar with the new music, and none of us had found time for one proper practice with all five choirs together, and in that great big barn of a space, the acoustics were just too good.  Booming, grandiose, and a big problem.  The place was so big that our conductor was three bars behind right from the start – she simply couldn’t hear.
            I know for a fact that my own choir finished the piece three full bars behind at least two choirs, and one poor group, all the way from Australia, trailed off to an uneven finish half a verse after the rest of us had stopped for good.  Our proud chaperones melted away like snow in a Roman summer, hiding behind pillars and vanishing quietly into side chapels.  Dad told me afterward that it had been the most excruciatingly embarrassing musical moment of his life –
            “I was hiding behind that baldacchino!  You were like cats.  Cats who harmonized, but cats!”
            There was only one small scrap of silver lining.  As the whole thing trickled its way to an inglorious finish, Mum swept into view, flushed and square-shouldered with triumph.
            “It wasn’t what he said.”  She said. “It was how he said it. There needs to be a complaint.  Where’s the Pope?”
            “Ah.”  Dad brightened and beamed at her.  “That’s the good part.  He has a cold.  He didn’t come.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tuesday Prompt: Jennifer Wickham: Unfrickingbelievable


I was glued to the TV —as most Chileans were—for the summer Olympic finals of the men´s vault in the gymnastics competition.  Here in Chile futbol (soccer) dominates and many Olympic sports are still unfamiliar; so with new excitement, passionate patriots gripped corners of the Chilean flag, schools of children gathered in assemblies with painted-on mustaches, imitating their star, and this long, skinny nation (along with this gringa) prepared to cheer on Tomás Gonzalez in hopes of securing an Olympic medal from the London Games, 2012. 
I was wrapped in a towel, hair dripping, and in a hurry for a meeting. My nerves were shot. I asked Angelica, the jovial and stubborn woman who helps us in the house, to sit with me. She refused. Her husband, Gabriel, talks about futbol all day. “This is different, Angelica. Watch. Besides, there´s an American competing, and our Chilean, Tomás.” She hesitated. “And it´s gymnastics, the sport I was injured in when I was twelve years old.  It was so traumatic I wanted to quit and take up the clarinet.”  Her eyes widened and she sat down next to me.
As we watched the men prepare for their vaults, clapping and stomping billows of chalk into the air, Angelica rolled back into the sofa chair, kicking a foot up and copied their hollow claps. “Their hands are like mine when I make pies,” she squealed. I handed her my Chilean flag. “Even their feet seem to be covered in flour!”
We watched the Russian blaze down the runway. Stunning. “Lindo,” cried Angelica. Beautiful. Then Great Britain´s competitor fell backwards. Heartbreaking. Then the American, Sam, was up.  My heart was with Sam. I waved my American placemat, the biggest American flag I could find. Runrunrunrunrun, round off, back handspring, summersaults, turns, and twists and – BAM. He nailed the landing; much like Mary Lou Retton in 1984 when she needed a perfect 10 to beat the Romanian and grab the Gold. I had watched her from my Grandmother´s bed in Savannah, Georgia as I suffered from excruciating menstrual cramps. I remember being dizzy with nausea and nerves, biting the edges of the sheets as I watched this stocky, determined girl catapult into controlled twists and STICK that landing, her arms thrust in the air. Then her contagious, ecstatic smile stretched across the T.V. screen. I cheered and cried and jumped on my Grandmother´s bed in celebration.
But now in Chile my heart was waving two flags.
I shivered, barely holding my towel on, when darling and poised Tomás saluted the judges with dignified grace. At the runway, he seemed to stare down a bull. Gulp. Angélica flicked her flag as Tomás exploded straight armed towards the springboard with short, powerful strides and .…………………….……............ BAM. 
            He beamed radiant, fists in the air. I jumped up and hugged Angélica. Lindo, lindo. Sí, sí. ¡Lindo! Beautiful! ¡Lindo!  I wiped tears with both flags.  
Igor-the-Ukrainian, Isaac-the-Spaniard, Flavius-the-Romanian were all competing at their best. Then Yang Hak Seon, the light “vault god” from South Korea, launched into 58 flips with 32 twists at two-story height and touched down like a feather. I dripped. My towel dropped.
Tomás finally vaulted himself into 4th place – extraordinary – since Bronze, Silver, and Gold were unfrickingbelievable and unfrickingbeatable. Then Tomás Gonzalez said something that I loved: "This fourth place almost means more to me than taking home a medal." I kept thinking, why would he say this? I have a theory: This humble young man competed against the world´s best. He was among them. In order for him to have won a medal, some of his competitors would have had to make grave mistakes in execution because their vaults ranked higher in difficulty and were worth more to start with. This was unlikely as one commentator reported that Yang of South Korea practically lives on the vault. 

I get competitiveness. Yet, I can´t imagine someone in a healthy right mind wanting others to fumble so that they can take home a medal. Winning a medal when everyone does their best is what it´s all about. At least that´s when medals mean the most. I was sorely disappointed by the women´s vaulting finals. So many fell or took large steps or hops, or couldn´t manage to finish. Even the Gold medal winner made mistakes and admitted being disappointed. And the American girl, sixteen, pouted on the podium with the Silver. She thirsted for more. This made my heart sink; I felt embarrassed.
So, to see Tomás radiant with fourth place, imagining what he´d been through with economic disadvantages and lack of support (like so many athletes worldwide) was inspiring, to say the least. He not only fulfilled his declared childhood dream to make it to the Olympics, but he had the fortune to face the fierce level of competition in the finals next to men competing at their best. Tomás Gonzalez was Golden.
Angelica seemed to agree; after the competition, she felt like making a pie. I got dressed and cart wheeled out the door, hair still damp. I rolled down the windows and headed to work, letting my hair air dry and my heart soar.