Today’s Poetry Fix: Sarah Teasdale

I belong to an email service called PoemHunter. Some days I get something good, some days I get something okay, but then there are days when I get something amazing. I don’t know anything about Sarah Teasdale. She was not part of the literary canon I studied 20-plus years ago at North Carolina State. I think I’m glad. I come to her fresh at 42, and I like that feeling.

“It Will Not Change”

It will not change now
After so many years;
Life has not broken it
With parting or tears;
Death will not alter it,
It will live on
In all my songs for you
When I am gone.

Sarah Teasdale

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Who Knew?

I find myself constantly astonished by Pink. Family Portrait is a great song. So is U + Ur Hand. She can rock, she can sing R & B, and she can capture regret and nostalgia with genuine heart and soul. Here, she serves it up raw and riveting.

The Real World: You’re Soaking In It

This past Saturday, I took my CNA skills test. I counted a pulse and respirations, listened to a blood pressure, and performed three critical skills, all under the measuring eye of an experienced nurse. How did it go? I passed. How did it feel? I was terrified.

This was well outside my comfort zone. For the blood pressure, we used a teaching stethoscope — one bell, two earpieces. As I listened and wrote down what I thought was the number, the nurse listened on the other end and wrote down what she heard. I had to come within six points on either end, systolic and diastolic, to pass. I took the blood pressure three times. The first two times, I heard bugger all. The third time was the charm; the blood stopped pounding in my own ears long enough for me to hear it pounding through my testing partner’s brachial artery.

As for the critical skills, I drew a good card: ambulating with a gait belt, perineal care on a female, and a back rub. As I’d spent days practicing bed bath and range of motion, my problem was to be as detailed as possible, moving slowly, and assuming nothing. On a skills test, you have to narrate each move like you’re David Attenborough. I knock on the door. I identify the patient. I introduce myself. I greet the patient. I explain the procedure. I wash my hands. (Oh, how many times I washed my hands!)

There is nothing, nothing at all, to connect the world I’m in now to the world of an itinerant English major. My life as a Master’s student in Creative Writing, and then as PhD candidate in Old English — nope, nothing thing. My later work at the University of Idaho Library in Acquisitions? No, no connection. The YWCA? Freelance writing and editing? Strange lands, wholly foreign. When I decided at 42 to become a nurse, I thought I could see a clear bridge between my old life and my new plan. And then I took a job in a nursing home.

I work the day shift. I get up at five in the morning; my shift begins at 5:45. I don’t have paid sick leave. I don’t have paid vacation. I can’t afford it. I started at 30 cents above minimum wage, the trade-off being that I’d get excellent working experience, a free CNA class, and a taste of what was to come in nursing. What’s that taste like so far? Hard bloody work. Frequent frustration. Deep satisfaction. If you don’t like people, don’t be a CNA, and for God’s sake don’t be a nurse because at the end of the day, people are all you’ve got. You’ve either helped them or you haven’t. You’ve either laughed with them, or you’ve cried. You’ve either gotten one hell of a good story to take home, or you’ve worn yourself out for nothing.

I had hoped that being a nurse would be a good fit with being a writer, and I believe that it will be. Being a CNA certainly has been. I change the names, disguise the identities, and jumble up the facts, but every story has a kind of immediate truth that I could only dream about when I was sitting in my university classroom. Then, I wondered how I could get out into the world. Now, I’m soaking in it.

Personality Distilled

I work on the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit of a skilled nursing facility. I won’t lie and say that I love my work. There are days when it’s all I can do to drag my carcass down the stairs, put on my scrubs, and drive in to see what awaits me on the floor. But who doesn’t feel that way about their job? Sure, there are a few happy kooks out there singing “Whistle While You Work,” but the rest of us are buying scratch tickets and playing Powerball. I don’t love my work, but I do love my vocation. I love the people I care for on the Alzheimer’s unit. I love every difficult, odd, impossible, combative, unique, amazing, funny, devilish, sweet one of them.

Still, it’s a tough old life being a CNA-cum-nursing student, and I’ve been asked many times why, at 42, I’ve chosen to make such a dramatic career change. I’m a professional writer. I’ve published two novels, I write regular columns for Q View Northwest and other magazines, and I was, until recently, the Director of the YWCA of Washington State University. Now, I help people to the toilet — confused people who often don’t make it and who then need a clean-up on Aisle 3. I answer repetitive questions from elderly women who can’t remember their maiden names or how many children they have. I remind old men how to shave, and then, when they’ve finished, I remind them five and six times that they’ve already shaved and so they don’t need to do it again. I help people get dressed, comb their hair, brush their teeth, cut up their food, clean their glasses, put in their hearing aids, stand up, sit down, walk, use the remote control, call their children, read the newspaper, and remember who they are.

A good part of my job is an exercise in Job-like patience. I didn’t know I had any patience at all until I began working in a nursing home. I’ve been pleased to discover that I have a good deal. My patience with the elderly is considerable. Once someone has reached his or her 80s, they’re like a book. Most are not thrillers or even histories; they’re short story collections. Sit back and listen. Enjoy. You’re bound to learn something.

The rest of my work is all about creative thinking. How do you explain to someone how to urinate? How does someone forget how to pee? What are the steps to take when you’ve got a man standing in front of the toilet, trousers open, waiting for you to tell him how to do something you always thought came naturally? A thousand bad ideas ran through my head before I turned on the bathroom sink and asked him to listen to the water and, sure enough, one flow triggered another.

When I face down a challenge like this, as small and as strange as it may seem, I feel that the subsistence wage, the long hours, and my tired back are all worthwhile. In training to care for Alzheimer’s patients, we’re taught that no matter what stage of the disease someone has entered, the person is always still in there somewhere. Because they can’t reach us, it’s our job to try and reach them. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of spelunking. If you look at scans of an Alzheimer’s brain and compare them to a healthy brain, you’ll find that the Alzheimer’s brain has both withered and developed cavernous spaces where memory and function used to reside. If the person is still in there, what can you do except spelunk in those caverns until you find them?

We have a tall, thin, difficult and combative woman on the unit — I’ll call her Ms. Firecracker. She’s ornery. She’s ill-tempered. She can curse like a stevedore. And yet what I find when I go spelunking for her is a woman who at 80-plus is just as passionate and strongminded as she must have been at 18. She’s fascinating and she’s funny. The thing about working in nursing homes — and this is probably true about working in medicine, period — is that we rely on gallows humor. People are funny and, in extremity, they’re funniest of all. Ms. Firecracker has a husband who’s about ten years her senior, and she’s as jealous of him as if he were George Clooney. When he comes in for a visit, the women CNAs and nurses have to be careful not to be too friendly to him or else we’re suspected of wanting to steal him from her.

Fortunately, Ms. Firecracker believes that her husband and I are related — cousins — and so I’m exempted from this international female onslaught. I’m allowed to talk with him and bring them both coffee when he visits. Still, even this relationship is fraught. Over the weekend, Ms. Firecracker tried to enlist me in a plan to murder her latest rival, one of my fellow CNAs. The idea was that I would supply Ms. Firecracker with some rope and a truck, then she’d tie up the CNA, drive her out to the woods, and leave her there for the coyotes. Suggesting that Ms. Firecracker’s 96-year-old husband might not be at the top of our 45-year-old CNA’s to-do list would do nothing to relieve her anxiety. Instead, I left it to her husband to reassure her that she was the only woman for him, just as she had been since 1935.

As crazy, and as funny, as this stuff sometimes seems, I take great comfort in Ms. Firecracker’s wild jealousy. When I look into her dark, serious eyes, I see the person she was nearly 70 years ago — young, uncertain, and very much in love. Undying passion? No need to think that the poets and Mark Sanford have cornered the market on that. Here’s a woman from Middle of Nowhere, Idaho who puts the Rossettis to shame. That she still feels so strongly about her husband is a wonderful thing, even if she expresses it in repeated attempts at criminal conspiracy.

Make no mistake, Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. It attacks the very heart of who we are, destroying our mind, our thoughts, and our memories, but as it destroys, it distills. It seems to me that one of the things Alzheimer’s does prior to its final progression is reduce us to our basic essence. Who are we at heart? A lover? Then we’ll be boiled down to our greatest passion. A salesman? We’ll want to work the room, charming everyone. An intellectual? Then we’ll be reduced to some academic obsession or the need to teach one last, elusive lesson.

I have no regrets about my career choice. Working with Alzheimer’s patients has made me a better writer. I’d say that it’s made me a better person, but that would be egotistical and probably a lie. I’m just as irritable, just as flawed and foolish as ever. The difference is that I laugh more. I’ve always laughed a lot, but now I see the humor in just about everything. That’s the wisdom to be gleaned from working with the old, or perhaps it’s just my personality distilled.

Mark Sanford? None of My Business.

This time, it’s Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina.

We’re never surprised, are we? When some Bible-thumping, traditional family values, cast-the-first-stone, holier-than-thou, GOP politician turns up in some Madame’s little black book, or on a Congressional page’s unsavory Flickr page, or in between his mistress’ satin sheets wearing only whipped honey and a toothy grin, we shake our heads at human frailty. Then we wait for the late-night comics to turn that frailty into human stupidity so we can laugh because it’s better to laugh than to cry, right?

But as much guilty fun as schadenfreude may be, is it really good for us? What does it do except lure us into the self-same glass houses that we happily watch these poor, barefoot bastards trying to tiptoe their way out of? We don’t even know we’re doing it, but as we watch — See? There he goes! Point your finger! Are you pointing? Scold! Are you scolding? — we’ve stepped behind the plate glass window. We forget that schadenfreude is like a game of tetherball. You’re human. You’re fallible. Some way, somehow, you’re going to cock it up. It doesn’t matter how hard you pay attention, sooner or later, that ball’s going to swing around that poll smack you right in the face. If you’ve really been yukking it up at someone else’s expense, it might just break your nose.

Our latest object lesson is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who disappeared from his state and his job for several days while his staff tried to convince people that he was either hiking the Appalachian Trail, or working on a book, or doing something that required he be out of touch and out of sight. It was a bizarre spectacle, and because Sanford was a prominent politician, frequently mentioned as a possible presidential contender, the press swarmed. Because Sanford is a conservative Republican, because he’s a Traditional Family Values proponent, and because he loudly condemned Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky way back when, he’s been cheap and easy fodder for the lazy Op-Ed writers of America for well over a week. There’s nothing Op-Ed writers love more than a hypocrite; the columns just write themselves.

Except there’s more to all of this than the lazy columnists have chosen to see. In fact, what we, the jaded but prurient, expected when Sanford stepped before the microphones and confessed to an extramarital affair was the usual GOP “I have sinned” speech. Well, of course he’d sinned. All Republicans have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s probably an official plank in the GOP platform. Only Democrats are forbidden to sin, and that’s because Republicans have officially claimed the whole of Religion for themselves. If you can’t sin, you can’t be forgiven, and so whatever you’ve done is simply irredeemably bad. So, Mark Sanford stepped forward to become the latest in a long line of sinned/forgiven/redeemed Republicans. Another Newt Gingrich. Another David Vitters. Ho hum.

But that wasn’t the story Mark Sanford told. He didn’t stick to the script. He told the painful truth about his “impossible situation of love,” and in so doing he managed to humanize everyone involved. This wasn’t Elizabeth Edwards’ bitter tale of peculiarly single-sided betrayal, a story in which she works overtime to absolve her husband by demonizing a very ordinary woman and dehumanizing the woman’s surely innocent baby. Mark Sanford took the harder route. What he showed — and what he said — are truths people don’t usually share. They’re too stark. They’re too raw. They’re not the stuff of political confessions but of long, sad novels or short, thoughtful poems.

I find myself wishing Mark Sanford well. I don’t want to see him on the next presidential ticket, but that has less to do with his party affiliation than a belief that he feels things too deeply to be any good at the job. The presidency is a pragmatist’s game. It’s not for the man who drops everything to fly to Argentina to bare his soul. Mark Sanford is a poet who somehow got lost in two capitals on his way to the East Village. What I hope is that he’ll soon find his way off the Op-Ed pages and into a future of his choosing. If his marriage works out, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. The man is only 49. The choice before him now is not what he can salvage of his old life, but what kind of new life he’d like to build. His redemption lies not in following a ready-made script — something he seems to have done for the first half of his life — but in writing a new story. How he chooses to do that would be interesting to see, but frankly, it’s none of my business.

Remembering with Alzheimer’s

Wow. Much has changed since my last post. I’ve left my job with the YWCA and begun working in a nursing home. Right now, I’m a nursing assistant on my way to being a certified nursing assistant on my way to being a nurse. I work primarily in a special care unit for elderly folk with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Depressing? Not really, and some days, not at all. A woman who can’t remember her maiden name can remember this ditty from her childhood:

Lincoln, Lincoln, I’ve been thinking,
What the heck have you been drinking?
Smells like whiskey, tastes like wine,
Oh, my lord, it’s turpentine.

I’ve had an angry octogenarian throw her dentures at me. I’ve also been kissed on the cheek by a courtly gentleman of 93. I’ve helped people remember how to use a knife and fork, how to comb their hair, and what to do when they get into the bathroom, step by painstaking step. It’s a rewarding life. It’s an exhausting life. I come home dog tired. I strip off my scrubs, step into the shower, put on my street clothes and collapse on the sofa. I have to take a nap after work just so I’ll have the energy to fall asleep at night.

At 42, I’m twice as old as most CNAs. By and large, this is a young person’s job. There’s a lot of running around and heavy lifting. I transfer men who, in their prime, were six-feet tall and two hundred pounds from a bed to a wheelchair and then back again. I get people up and dressed in the morning, and I put them down for a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes it feels hectic, or worse, mechanized.

I remind myself to slow down, to not be a blur of activity around a stationary person, someone lonely, dazed, and confused. I remind myself that what matters most is not that my elderly friend’s socks match or that her hair be perfectly combed. Maybe it doesn’t even matter if I get her to breakfast exactly on time. What matters is that she sings her song about Lincoln, Lincoln. That’s when I sing my song about how dry I am, and we meet somewhere in the middle on an eternal playground.

How dry I am
How wet I’ll be
If I don’t find
The bathroom key.

Oh there it is
But where’s the door?
Oh too late
I’ve peed the floor.

President Cartman Has Left The Building

Screw you guys, I’m goin’ home.

A few days ago, a friend sent me this photo of the inauguration. It’s a high-resolution panoramic shot, so you can zoom in or out, move up, down, left or right, and focus in on whatever or whomever you like. I like to the shot of Clarence Thomas a few rows behind President Obama. What’s he doing on this momentous occasion? Sleeping. There’s a man with a sense of history, meaning, and the weight of a moment. To the left of Thomas is Antonin Scalia, as fat as schmaltz and looking for all the world like a Borgia plotting to be Pope. Way in the back, several rows behind Thomas and Scalia? There’s a guy in a brown hood. My friend says it’s Darth Sidious, but I think it’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s because I’m an optimist, and he’s a pessimist. Or he has better eyesight.

Pan left, however, and you come to George W. Bush sitting next to a wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney. (Nice hat, Dick, but I’m not buying that story that you’re in a chair because you hurt your back moving stuff. Come on. We’re supposed to believe that you, Dicky Ticker, tried to lift a box? Nonsense! What happened is that as soon as your eight Faustian years were up, the Robot Devil from Futurama came to reclaim his artificial heart and return your dark and crispy own.) But back to George. What is that look on his face?

He wants his cheesy puffs! He has finally begun listening to what Obama has to say, and it isn’t nice. It isn’t flattering. It’s awful, it’s honest, it’s direct and yet polite, and there isn’t a thing he can do about it. He came out in the cold for this? Maybe he really is leaving office with a 22% approval rating. How could that be? He respected the Office of the President of the United States. He wouldn’t let anyone in the Oval Office unless they were wearing a suit and tie. He had standards. Damned if he wants to sit in that well-upholstered front row seat anymore.

Screw you guys, I’m goin home!