Lynn’s non-fiction has been published in the Mystery Review, The Brattleboro Reformer, Out in the Mountains, Foster Families and the Southeastern Audubon Society newsletter.
Psychologists, New Agers, Twelve Steppers and people you meet on the street all say it: Letting go is the first step toward healing. Autumn lets go into winter, adolescence into maturity, sorrow into joy. Hospice helps the terminally ill to let go of life and enter the sleep from which no one awakens. We are continually letting go of dreams, illusions, toys, unlived stories, the worn out, no longer possible and the no longer working.
But what if you are always seeing the first two-wheeler bike you ever had leaning against the Co-op wall? Or what if your best friend has just died and you see her strolling the Common, her shadow touching the bandstand as she walks by? Or waving at you as he hurries through the door of Brown & Roberts? What if an endless procession of the young who died of AIDS appears in your dreams nightly?
It isn’t as if I haven’t tried. I have written good-by a hundred times. I have joined others in rituals and memorial services. I’ve cried endless tears and then I get up and greet the new day each morning with anticipation and wonder. I’m grown up enough to know losing a bike and your youthful self is not the same as losing a friend.
It is easy to imagine letting go of a red balloon. As easy as opening your hand to the sky a blue heartbeat away. It is easy to imagine a leaf kidnapped by the West River and tumbling it’s way to the sea. But I can’t seem to let go of love. Memory insists.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver says,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it,
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
This is such wise, beautiful advise. Let go and love again is what it says to me. I long to do so. If only someone would tell me how. It’s hard to let go of how grown up and proud I was as I raced through the streets on my big bike. It’s difficult to recall my friend arriving rain spattered and laughing to insist on a wet walk. Or a certain young man saying, “They will find a cure and I will be its first miracle.” He died five months later.
If I knew how to stop these soft, caressing voices, letting go would be a cinch.
Something real to hold in my hand: the joy and lost art of letter writing
Today I picked up a pen. The kind you get 10 for a dollar. And a pad just like the pad we all used in school. The pad cost $1.49. Then I wrote a letter. If you are very young, you may never have written or held a letter in your hand. It is a missive between two people delivered by the Post Office anywhere in the United States for 45 cents. It is a way to connect with another that most anyone can afford. As one friend writes, “You are the only friend I have who still writes letters and sends them with a stamp. I love it.” I enclosed a tea bag in one of my letters to another friend saying receiving a letter from her was like sitting down to tea and talk. Since then we both include a tea bag drawing at the end of each letter.
I have, collected in boxes, letters written to me from aunts, uncles, my mother, my sister, my brother, friends dating from the 1940’s on. I have letters from my children chronicling their lives as they wrote from camp, from college, from various places they traveled to and from as they grew older.
One of my favorite letters says, “Your New Year’s letter arrived in time to celebrate my 92nd birthday, which I actually didn’t celebrate, as none of my family were here. Your “determination to hold fast” was exactly the message I needed to counteract depressive thoughts—it’s probably not a bad idea to take someone thirty years younger as a role model!”
And, I have been corresponding with a high school friend for 60 plus years. She lives in the west; I live in the east. I have all her letters stacked on my shelf. These letters document our lives and our friendship. Something real I can hold in my hand. The same hand that is connected to my inner being, that not only talks to my friend but helps me understand myself. We describe the weather, what it is like to be in Yellowstone National Park, what it is like in Vermont on a -20 degree morning. I describe the joy of a poem accepted for publication; the disappointment of a rejection. She tells me of collecting jade in a ghost town, of seeing Bighorn sheep on a recent camping trip.
Nowadays we are helping each other grow older. With a lifetime of knowing each other, one sentence can evoke whole stories. We can complain and yet know we are both survivors. We know we will keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what the challenge. After all we have been cheering each other on for a long time.
Today the pen I pick up is inscribed Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. This gives me enough material to fill paragraph after paragraph. Dear friend I say, and I’m off.
This is what it was like
We could have never imagined the 1980s, as AIDS wiped out a whole field of bright, creative minds
IT WAS 1991. I was 56 and I needed a job. I had a 30-plus year gap in my resume, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy in a recession to find one. I had been a stay-at-home mom and now was on my own. Everything in my life had to be put on hold while I found a job.
When I walked into the Vermont Department of Employment and Training, it was just by chance. I had a bachelor of arts in education and a master’s in creative writing. What kind of training could they give me?
Technically, they told me, I was a displaced housewife and entitled to help from the United States Government.
The government, they said, would pay me minimum wage, $4.25 an hour for 40 hours a week, for six months. A poverty miracle.
“And do you have anywhere in mind?” the case worker asked.
I looked at her blankly.
“Someone who will hire you,” she said kindly.
I took a breath and said in a whisper, “How about the Brattleboro AIDS Project?”
I knew the Project as a volunteer. And so that’s where they placed me. Right where I’d wanted to be all along without knowing it.
I was on my way.
THE Brattleboro AIDS Project was a few years old when I walked in holding Uncle Sam’s hand. It had leaped into being earlier to meet one client’s need. Volunteers had given hundreds and hundreds of working hours, their eyes on the cities, watching the epidemic come closer and closer and take on a rural face.
They originally met in an open meeting once a month, deciding what was needed and setting out to find the resources necessary. If you turned up, you found yourself joyfully welcomed and set to work immediately.
Support groups were organized for one client, then two, then three. A support group was organized for parents and partners of someone HIV positive. A buddy system was created.
Always, the Project was one nickel from going under. Its organizers raised $100 here, $1,000 there. By 1990, everyone was burning out.
Yet the client load grew.
SO THE organization took a major risk and hired an executive director, trusting that she could raise enough money to pay the rent and hire a staff. They hired Susan Bell, who provided everything and more that was needed. She was, and is, an inspiration to us all.
Everyone originally was paid part-time and worked full-time. I brought my $4.25 an hour stipend, enormous energy, and educational know-how. I was a walking government grant.
In the 1960s, we sang, “Where have all the flowers gone?” We could never have imagined the 1980s. AIDS wiped out a whole field of bright, creative minds. There was incalculable loss, most of which America refused to acknowledge.
The Project gave me a title: program assistant. I was a real voice on the phone. I organized a library about the epidemic. I was sometimes the only person in the office when people walked in.
A COUPLE with white hair walks in the door holding hands as if to protect themselves from an unseen blow. I pull up two chairs, and we sit down.
“My son is ill,” she says. “He has AIDS.”
She darts a glance a me to gauge my reaction.
“He might be coming home. None of our relatives want him to. They don’t want to eat with him.”
The man says nothing, just stares into space.
I give them simple information. “You can’t get infected from caring for a person with HIV in the house.“
The woman looks at me hopefully. I can almost hear her say, “Can I trust her?”
“When your son comes home, he can call us. Or you can. We will help in any way we can,” I say. I can see the relief begin to unknot their shoulders.
And then the man begins to talk for the first time. He tells me about his son, the bewilderment over his diagnosis.
It all spills out in this small office.
The Project might be struggling to exist at this moment, but for this couple we are a light in the darkness.
Then they gather the brochures and the books into their arms, and go home, with that literature and my words, to educate those who will listen to them.
AND THEN there is C, a tiny man, a diminutive athlete, immaculate in an ironed T-shirt and gold shorts with an aqua stripe.
He can’t weigh more than 90 pounds. He is never still, pacing the office from one end to the other, opening and closing the door, peering out the window.
“My name’s C,” he says. “I’m HIV positive, but I’m still beautiful.”
When he comes to light at the end of my desk, with a Judy Garland smile, his dark eyes are bleak. I’m scared, help me, they tell me.
“Darling, I’m so glad to meet you, “ he says.
A month later, I am sitting on the edge of a hospital bed while he ambles around the room in a little, blue bathrobe. He can’t get out a whole sentence. Everything is a stutter. His feet dragged.
He recovers from this setback and moves up north.
One Monday morning, the phone rings. C had been in the hospital again. And then they are calling and telling me that he is gone.
THAT’S HOW it was in the Eighties. It is now 2013. The Brattleboro Area AIDS Project is now the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont. This organization has met the needs of HIV-positive clients and their families and loved ones for 25 years.
It has seen HIV go from a sure death sentence to a chronic illness. It has gained funding. It has lost funding. It has met the epidemic head on with prevention and direct service. It has saved Windham County and Vermont millions and millions of dollars.
But most importantly, it has saved lives.
It is hard to prove something that doesn’t happen, but I know there are fewer people diagnosed with HIV because of the work this amazing group of people has done and continues to do.
They are still there. The stories continue. Your help is still needed. Why don’t you call 802-254-4444 today, and ask how you can help?
But I’m definitely a jay
The Pine Siskins have found the sunflowers on my deck. They have stopped for a brief visit on their way to somewhere else. Siskins are “landers and stayers,” clinging to the feeder until something scares them aloft. Unlike the Chickadees who take one seed at a time and fly away to private places to eat alone. Unlike the Jays who stuff their cheeks and then deposit their loot in some nearby tree. I’ve heard they then forget their hide-a-ways, thus benefiting some small animal who stumbles across it by accident in mid-winter.
Even when I open my door the Siskins don’t fly away. I thought only Chickadees were that brave. Jays leave as soon as they sense my shadow. The smaller the bird, the greater the chances they must take to get their share. That few extra seconds before I get too close means that many more seeds. According to a children’s book I once read, birds must eat their own weight in food every day. What if I had to eat that much every day? How many hamburgers are in 120 pounds?
When it comes to gathering knowledge, how I wish I were a Pine Siskin. To visit awhile, gather all I can, and then depart. Such powers of concentration those little birds have. They hang on to the very last minute. I’d even settle for being a Chickadee. To return again and again, discovering each seed one by one, and consuming it in privacy. But I’m definitely a Jay. I grab what I can, stuff my cheeks, become alarmed at the slightest disapproval, deposit what I’ve managed to capture, and forget where I put it. That’s why I have to learn some things over and over. Of course the Jay has many compensations. It is quite a flashy bird. Brash and given to strutting, the Jay is gifted with a variety of calls.
At the end of the day, the Siskins are gone. The Chickadees are perkier than ever in their absence. The Jays are shouting, “Do it! Do it!” I’m not sure what it is they are shouting at me to do, but I’m going to do it anyhow.
Falling in love with Alice
All writer’s need an audience. Often the audience the writer imagines determines the piece that emerges. A poet’s audience is usually small. Ten to thirty people, unless your are Mary Oliver or Grace Paley. But I never imagined an audience of one until I met Alice Holway.
I was new to the Brattleboro Vermont area. Still feeling like a refuge in a strange land. I wandered to Putney and Putney Friends Meeting. It was there someone asked me to read to Alice. Alice was a legend in Putney. She had worked for Governor Aiken at the Putney Nursery. In the First World War she had been a part of the Women’s Land Army. But what she was most known for was a farm she owned where everyone was welcome. She had mentored dozens of youth there. I’d been told that someone might live in a Tepee, or build a small house out of plastic. The chicken house became a place to stay. Or someone might live in a Van or build a log cabin. Someone was always coming and going. But at the time I met her, she was well into her 80’s and homebound. I have to admit I was nervous about meeting her. She sounded extremely formidable. But I agreed to do a poetry reading for her one winter afternoon.
I found her in the kitchen of an old farmhouse. A big, old fashioned plenty- of -room- to -can -hundreds- of- green beans kitchen. Alice was sitting in a stuffed armchair way off in the corner by the wood stove. Next to her was a small table with a radio on it. At her feet, by her side, under the chair, crowding the radio were books, books, books: biographies, poetry, geographies, histories and Gore Vidal. “I probably shouldn’t like him.” she said with a mischievous smile. “He didn’t like women very much, but, oh, he can write.”
Alice had a hearing problem. “Pull that kitchen chair over here,” she commanded, “and sit real close.” I removed a bright blue beret off the chair and dutifully put it where she pointed. I didn’t know at the time this was her trademark. Alice wore it everywhere. From under it, she moved through town with the concentrated verve of a British packet boat bringing the long awaited news to a knowledge starved outpost. So I sat not a foot away, looking directly into her eyes. I read a poem. She listened intently, her lips moving soundlessly, her whole body drinking in the sound. When I finished we sat in silence. Then she picked up the theme of what I had said and wandered off with it. She criss-crossed the air with reminiscences, tales of Central America, certain plants in her garden, memories of her mother and father, stories of early civil rights battles. She took my poem and, as I sat there, it grew up, matured, encompassed the world. And again we were silent, until I began to read another poem.
Those few hours with Alice Holway were enchanted. The ultimate poetry reading of my life. The kitchen faded away around us. Blue Herons flapped their wings. Off in the distance an owl hooted. Many languages hummed in my ear. I could have stayed there forever. I realized that I had fallen in love with Alice and her whole life. No, more than that. I had fallen in love with myself, with poetry, with this beautiful human exchange, with life and its unexpected possibilities.
I never met Alice again. Not long after she entered a Nursing Home where she soon died. But for years I had her picture glued to the wall over my desk where I worked as an HIV/AIDS educator. My days were full of stress. The pace could be demented. Emotions flip- flopped all day and everyday. When I was crazy with grief or exhausted with loss, I looked at Alice. She looked down at me from under her beret. The silence settled on my shoulders. I would take a deep breath and inhale her calm voice. There is more than this minute, I would tell myself. There is, you know, love.
Today, I do a poetry reading every other month in a local Nursing Home. I do it for Alice.
All essays © 2016 by Lynn Martin. All rights reserved.