For my Literature for a Living Planet class I wrote the following, as a response to Terry Tempest William’s “Why I Write.”
So…why do you read? Why do you write?
WHY I READ
I read because of what happened one night, long ago, while I waited for a train. Rain blurred the windshield of my mother’s Toyota Corona, and I crouched on the passenger seat watching the world pop into focus when the windshield wipers swished by, only to be lost again in the deluge. In moments of clarity I studied the illuminated words on a nearby building, and landed on one with four bright red letters.
The word coalesced in my mind and I blurted it out. I could feel my mother’s smile in the darkness, and I smiled too as she hugged me.
I was 4 years old.
I read because my mother smiled. Read because the bright neon letters came together to make a new meaning. They were more than a B, an A, an N, and a K. They were bank, with mysterious vaults filled with gold. They were the place where people I didn’t know gave me lollipops.
I read because of sentences that stun: “And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”
And paragraphs that sing: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
I read because books smell like home but feel like adventure. Because the dust that flies from them, when I lift and ruffle the pages, dances in the sunlight.
I read because I can fly. I read because I can die, and live to see the other side. I read because words were once mysteries, and I unlocked them one stormy night. I read because stories beckon me and offer up their mysteries as I crack them open to the light. I read because books show me new ways to see and new ways to be.
The new semester starts on Monday and I’ve been musing today about what to bring to this space that corresponds with my curriculum. I’m taking 16 credit hours, because I am insane, and my classes focus predominately on writing both fiction and non-fiction. So I think I’ll try to post a few Flash Memoir pieces each week to keep things tuned up, as it were, and collect these little snippets of memory.
In addition, I’m thinking about a photo series called Santa Fe Geometry, because I live and work in a town with fascinating geometry both naturally and architecturally. So there’s that. Plus, I know I’m terribly remiss in following up with pieces like this, and others in the same vein. So, there’s also that.
In the meantime, a Flash Memoir for a beautifully rainy Saturday.
She caught up with me at the end of my street after school.
Told me to put down my books and fight.
Fight? I didn’t know what that meant or what I was supposed to do. Should I brace myself like a boxer? Lift my fists and say “go on, take your best shot,” like I’d seen in the movies? Or do girls grab each other’s hair? Kick? Scratch? Slap?
These confusions flowed through me slowly, like a record on slow rotation, and I gripped my books. My knuckles turned white. The hard corner of my binder dug into my chest.
I couldn’t move. Couldn’t lift my fists, grab her hair or aim for her shins with the toe of my shoe. All I could do was stare, at a spot just below her eyes, and watch her mouth twist again around that word.
ABOVE: My great grandparents, seated, with their children from left, Ruby, Ramsay (my grandfather), Glen, and Pansy. Burma, 1920.
Yesterday, I sat with my mom and kids to watch President Obama’s second inauguration.
As always, when it came time for the singing of all the official songs I found myself moved nearly to tears. There’s something about them that gets me, every time. I have never considered myself a particularly patriotic person–I tend to associate that very term with cheesy American flag regalia, myopia, blind allegiance, yadda yadda. I don’t know where those associations took hold, necessarily, but there they are, and they happen to live alongside the part of me that tears up whenever I hear the National Anthem.
Regardless, I have a particular perspective on this whole love of country thing borne both of my decided privilege in being American by birth and of an understanding of my immigrant grandfather’s own experience in passing from Burma to a new life in the States, where he could be free.
Free of the social constraints of being British in Burma. Free of the caste system that forbid him to work and earn his own money. Free of an expected identity with which he undoubtedly struggled. He was not allowed to befriend the native children, nor was it acknowledged that there was more than British blood running through his veins. His early years were cushioned by the wishfully selective thinking on the part of his parents who, by virtue of their time and station, placed a premium on their British identity to the exclusion of their obvious Indian heritage. (Prior to living in Burma, the family had been in India for years…two generations, if memory serves.)
As soon as the opportunity to leave Burma arose, my grandfather and his older brother, Glen, jumped. They left the country in 1920, and never returned.
Following is an essay I wrote way back in the spring of 2001 for the Colgate Scene. Since this writing, both Grandpa and Glen have passed away. My grandfather died in January 2006, and Glen passed the following summer. Grandpa was 105. Glen, 107. I didn’t know Glen, actually–he and my grandfather weren’t close, in their later years. But my grandfather…I am still close with him. His influence on my life defies words. He was a sage…my mentor, my guide, my hero. I miss him every day.
And, considering the fact, as I mention below, that many more distant relatives who remained in Burma were killed or disappeared during the second world war, I am more than grateful for Dr. Baldwin, the prohibitive price of petrol, and a Model T that never came to be.
Shook the slush of Rangoon off our feet and boarded the Derbyshire by launch. Then a very unromantic farewell to Burma, and not even a solitary tear to augment the muddy Irrawaddy . . . . Ramsay Harris, July 10, 1920
The second day out we got some squally weather and rain and yesterday, although fine, shipped a huge wave for’ard. (It’s blowing very strong now.) Glen Harris, July 14, 1920
These words were written by my grandfather, Ramsay (then 19 years old), and his brother Glen (21) as they embarked on their journey to America. Born in India and raised in Burma, their passage to the States was a dream come true for both brothers.
But it wasn’t just a ship that carried them from Burma (now known as Myanmar) to New York. Stanley E. Baldwin, Colgate Class of 1912, and the prohibitive cost of petrol were instrumental in delivering Glen and Ramsay from the halls of Rangoon College (where signs forbade students from spitting on the walls) to those of Colgate.
The night went down in a crimson haze, and there was a fairly liberal sprinkling of stars — planetary above and phosphorescent and slimy stars in the sea itself. Ramsay, July 13, 1920
A missionary from Bloomfield, New Jersey, Dr. Baldwin met the Harris brothers at the Maymyo Baptist Church after his arrival in Burma in 1916. After becoming acquainted, he invited the brothers on a hike. They took several “long tramps” and, according to Ramsay, in their talks along the trail, “Colgate began to come to life for us boys. Professors such as ‘Craw’ (William Crawshaw), ‘Brig’ (Albert Perry Brigham), and ‘Johnny’ Greene became lively personalities.”
Here we are . . . 12 hours’ sail from Marseilles on a calm, untroubled sea. Far on the horizon is a beautiful sailing ship. Just a week ago we were passing Suez . . . The canal was passed at night so we did not see much of it except late in the evening and early the next morning. Glen, August 9, 1920
Not long after Dr. Baldwin’s arrival in Burma, his church in Bloomfield sent him $500 so he could buy a Model T Ford to use in his missionary work. But, considering the poor road conditions and price of gasoline, a car would have been impractical. Baldwin’s horse and cart certainly sufficed, so he asked the congregation if he could use the money to send the brothers to America so they could attend Colgate. It wasn’t until 1919, however, that the plan came together. At first, Glen and Ramsay didn’t take his offer seriously. But after they finished their first year at Rangoon College and returned home, they renewed their friendship with Dr. Baldwin, who then made it clear that he was serious about funding their passage to the States.
After several months of preparation, Glen and Ramsay boarded the Derbyshire and arrived on the shores of New York in September 1920.
Here we are at last, two sophs in Colgate. We couldn’t write before as there was such a rush of things since we landed at New York. To start off, we had to line up in a queue and pass the Immigration Officer who kept us till about 8:30 p.m. and then let us off. We then trod American soil, entered the huge shed and loitered around looking for our boxes. Ramsay, September 25, 1920
During their three years at Colgate, the world opened up for Glen and Ramsay.
The professors Dr. Baldwin had talked about during their hikes proved to be outstanding educators. For Ramsay, Professor Brigham’s Geology 1 was particularly illuminating:
Within the first week or so [of the class] I moved into a different world. I was able to envision the vast ice sheet grinding southward over the Hamilton hills. The very pebbles on the pathway whispered of vanished millennia.
Glen, a noted gymnast and flute player, was particularly fond of Dr. Crawshaw (who taught literature), calling him “a great teacher, one of the best I ever had.” Both brothers were thrilled to find that America’s lack of a caste system made it possible for them to work odd jobs for pay and they eagerly took advantage of that privilege, with Ramsay noting “how friends back home would scorn — and envy — us!”
The brothers both graduated in 1923. Glen, by then married, moved to Syracuse, where he taught for a year at Syracuse University. After that he went to California and taught at the University of Redlands until 1930. During this time his two daughters, Vilda and Lynn, were born. In 1931, Glen and his wife, Helen, separated and he started work on his Ph.D. in Seattle at the University of Washington, where he also taught until 1952. He met his second wife, Florence, shortly after his arrival in Seattle, and sons Glen Jr. and Trevor were born in 1934 and 1938, respectively.
Glen never did complete his Ph.D. The committee rejected his outline — he proposed a thesis on Sir Rabindranath Tagore — and directed him to write about Byron instead. Halfway through this project, Glen quit and went to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he remained until his retirement.
Ramsay briefly attended Rochester Theological Seminary (he had originally planned to be a preacher), but the frontier called — he got a train ticket and went to California to be closer to Glen. There he taught at the University of Redlands and grew to love California. One of his letters home to Burma describes how California, the land of plenty, was where his parents and sisters should come — instead of Missouri!
Aside from some time spent in the Army and a job machining aircraft parts on a turret lathe for Douglas Aircraft in southern California, Ramsay was a teacher.
He married Mary Barton in 1943, and they had two children, Laura and Andrew. The family lived on the campus of the Webb School in Claremont, California, where Ramsay taught from 1945 until his retirement in the early 1970s. In 1995, daughter Laura Harris Ware of Santa Fe, New Mexico moved both Ramsay and Mary to a retirement home in Santa Fe. Mary passed away in April of 1998.
Remarkably, both Glen and Ramsay have now lived to see the dawn of the 21st century, which puts them in the possibly unique position of being non-twin siblings who have both lived in three centuries. Glen, born in 1899, will be 102 years old in March, and Ramsay turned 100 this past October. Both are in good health, considering their ages. Glen still lives in Seattle and only recently moved into an assisted-living situation, while Ramsay passes his days cheerfully greeting people who pass through the main door of La Residencia retirement home in Santa Fe.
Were it not for the generosity of one man who favored a horse and cart over the thoroughly modern automobile, who knows what would have come to pass? Indeed, the rest of the Harris family was fortunate enough to come to the United States before World War II — a few other more distant relatives who remained in Burma were killed during that time. That fact makes the following poem particularly striking today:
A year ago there seemed to be
Small chance that I should ever know
Aught but what Burma held for me,
A year ago.
But fortune has deemed fit to row
My bark into a foreign sea
And many seemly sights to show.
But never did I dream to see
Along the great historic Toe
The vine-clad slopes of Italy,
A year ago.
Ramsay, August 7, 1920
I guess I had to take an 11-month vacation.
Or more accurately, a 344 day break…which, according to this cool “Date Difference Calculator” I found online is something like 8,256 hours or 495,360 minutes or 29,721,600 seconds.
I’m back now though. And just as non compos mentis as ever.
By way of a reintroduction, I’ll start with a quick update on what’s been happening over the past 8,256 hours since I posted the winner of the necklace giveaway:
1. I had a crisis of identity, on the cusp of turning 40, and decided to radically change my life. Somehow.
2. Determined to finally finish my BA, I applied to two different colleges, weighed my options, considered my financial aid packages, pored over course descriptions.
3. I turned 40. In HAWAII. It was absofuckinpositivulutely INCREDIBLE. See above.
4. I picked a college. Sent some money to them that I couldn’t get back.
5. Essentially got offered a career-making full-time job THAT VERY SAME WEEK. After I sent the money to the college. The money I couldn’t get back.
6. Fretted and agonized.
7. Decided to do both. Dove in headfirst.
The rest of actually kind of a blur. All of my classes at Prescott College are virtual so I can complete my Humanities and Creative Writing degree in the evenings and on weekends. (And/or at the crack of dawn…on lunch breaks….or at insanity o’clock [which is very very dark, by the way].)
The job, on the other hand, is not virtual. There’s an office involved, filled with real-life co-workers. I go there every weekday morning at 8, and leave each evening around 5. Sometimes I leave for lunch, most of the time I eat at my desk. I spend my days pushing pixels, tracking ads, making jpegs, tiffs, and pdfs. It’s a cool job, I love it, and like I said, it’s a career-maker in part because it’s a State job (meaning crazy-good benefits like this thing they call a “pension…” which is a new word in my personal vocabulary. I like the way it sounds).
Life looks completely different than it did 29,721,600 seconds ago.
And yet, despite my absence, there are regular viewers here at this abandoned blog, and when I noticed that recently I started to feel sorry for it. Started to miss it.
Started to think of things to say.
So I did the logical thing: I included “Write in Blog” in the syllabus for my Senior Project, making a return to this space mandatory. Lest I fail.
I don’t plan to fail.
Did I mention that I spent my 40th birthday in HAWAII??
I will be randomizing all entrants at 6 PM Mountain Time tonight. SO! If you want a chance to win the necklace above (fine silver, handmade, comes with a 16 or 18″ snake chain) please CLICK HERE and leave a comment on that post (not this one!!). I’ll announce the winner on the blog tonight.