by Nancy Means Wright
September is here, the days are cooling and I’m ready for school. That is, I was. Good heavens, I’m only teaching the occasional workshop now, so why this fall flutter in the belly? For almost fifty years as student, then teacher (secondary school and college), that school bell rang in my head even as I woke, and I longed for just one more week of summer…
Transitions. My dictionary calls them “the process of passage from one condition, action, or place to another.” In writing, it’s a passage in thought or speech; in music, a passage from one chord to another “by means of a passing note.” (I love that musical note–it helps as I move from paragraph to paragraph). I’d moved with my family thirteen times before college; when my father died, I went from home to boarding school–and then to college, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I’ve switched religions four times (I’m now a Unitarian Universalist). I’ve changed opinions, publishers, political parties (now firmly a Democrat); in my writing I’ve switched settings and genres; I write in multiple points of view. My focus rolls between children and adults; poems, plays, fiction, nonfiction; mystery and mainstream; contemporary and historical. And I love the variety of it all.
But my personal passages have largely happened through choice. I’ve never had to change my “condition”–that is, my basic circumstances: “those necessary for a person’s existence,” as the dictionary describes. If not exactly pampered, I’ve always felt safe, relatively comfortable. I’ve never had to flee like the beleaguered Syrians from their broken homes to live in tents with scant food, water, privacy or medical care. I’ve never lived, like the French, under the rule of a foreign conqueror. In her poignant, lyrical novel, Suite Francaise, which I’m currently reading, Irene Nemirovsky describes the terror of an enemy knocking at the gates of Paris in 1940–young and old fleeing their homes, hearts hurrying in fear of the unknown. Refugees, lacking food and beds as they crowd out of the city, with little petrol for their cars and no public transportation; their husbands, fathers and sons fighting on the front or languishing in an enemy prison.
The enemy was on the move, too. Nemirovsky tells the story of a young German officer, a talented musician, who had no choice but to follow a mad leader; he falls in love with a French woman in whose home he’s billeted–until he’s forced to move on again. We never find out what happens to some of the characters in the novel we’ve lost our hearts to, because the Jewish author herself was in transition–to Auschwitz, where tragically, she died in 1942. Her manuscript travelled from hiding place to hiding place with her two young daughters and their nanny–unopened for sixty-four years!
We see these people every day now in the news, their backs bent double with mattresses, clothing, pots, pans, babies, grannies–or simply carrying a sack full of bare necessities like the Mexicans who travel to Vermont, often undocumented, to work on our dairy farms. Unlike the smiling Jamaicans who come each fall to pick apples, the Mexicans keep a low profile; I seldom meet them, even in the grocery store. Although the immigration feds usually leave the farms alone, workers can be denounced and deported if they happen to be stopped for even a routine traffic violation. What, I wonder, is this prolonged stress doing to the human brain and body?
Zaheena, a student at Middlebury College, is one of the luckier ones. A bright, impassioned girl, she left her home in the Maldives to become a United World College Scholar. She has written her story for my daughter’s humanities class: how she spent her life up to now running from home–a home where mosquitoes bred “profusely” in the open well in the bathroom that she shared with seventeen others. She was fleeing, she wrote, “from a condition that society finds shameful, contemptible, and sometimes deserved.” Now she says, “I straddle two different worlds: a world of vicious poverty at home, and a world of opportunity and wealth at Middlebury College. I am of both worlds, but I belong to neither.” On graduation she hopes to return to her roots, where she vows to bring about changes.
My life pales beside these forlorn and courageous wanderers. I can only try to imagine and invent their lives as I leave my house early each morning–not to go to a classroom but to take a brisk walk, and then return home, refreshed, to write. I’m currently working on a story about a foster child, based on a half-Abenaki Indian girl whom a friend has recently adopted, along with her four siblings. The girl had already transitioned among four other families before she found a good home, which hopefully will be permanent–although the oldest of the four has already run away once.
As for myself, I downsized last summer–an arduous task–and I’ve declared: “No more moves!” But who knows? The quest for new and safer horizons is part of the human condition, it seems, since our ancestors first walked up out of Africa, and then branched out in a dozen directions–like the limbs of a beloved gingko tree that I left behind when I came to live here in town.
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