Nurse Ratched and Me

Recently I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a volume I’ve had on loan for about 6 years (shout out: jill). I watched the movie years earlier and expected this novel to stir those old, anti-authority sentiments that were an integral part of my English studies. What I didn’t expect was the existential backlash that came from the stirring of these feelings in conjunction with my job as a teacher.

As a young teacher, I have struggled to be taken seriously both by my students and professional peers. Because I look like the high school students I teach, I am often mistaken as a member of their cohort rather than the equal of my colleagues, creating in me a sort of “little-man” syndrome ( sometimes called by those post-Kesey as imposter syndrome). I feel because I don’t look the part of an authoritative presence, I must act it. This rubs against much of what I believe about authority. I am still in my 20s and, you could say, still very much against “the powers that be.” However in my classroom, I am the authority and I directly represent the powers that be.

So as I’m reading Kesey’s novel, I sympathize with Nurse Ratched. She, like me, is attempting to control unpredictable people. She, like me, is a cog in a machine (what the Chief calls “the combine”) that inevitably moves forward, a machine that crushes her charges with or without her. She, like me, is in need of power to maintain order, to do the job assigned to her, and to make it through the fucking day.

I firmly believe, from my experience in the classroom, that students need order. They need a clear authority and rules with consequences. But when does that authority cross the line? When does that authority forget to take into account the essential and healthy need to rebel? When does resentment for and opposition to authority indicate a real problem within the practices of authority?

Of course, the real question I had while reading has more to do with me and less to do with those that suffer from an abuse of authority:

How can an authority figure question the ethics of their own authority?

I have no answers for these questions, but I feel as if I stand on a divide between being “the man” and being “the people.” Each year I feel myself slipping closer and becoming more cozy with “the man.” It would be easier to create space between myself and my students. It would be easier to ignore their grievances and criticism as part of their litany of complaints. It would be easier to become Nurse Ratched.

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Slashies

I recently listened to a kickass podcast on being a slashie, as in a teacher/scholar or a waitress/actor etc. I feel that many of my peers fall in this category with me. While our jobs fill our working hours and bank accounts, it is our #sidehustle that fills our thoughts and dreams.

Listen to the podcast and be inspired to be your slashie self.

Brilliant Notions

My thoughts are held
inside Russian Dolls,
airtight and proportionate.

Like cloned, women soldiers
lined up above my desk,
they look down at me writing.

Long lashed, pearled, and hungry
to hold another organ
thieved from my body of theories.

Tiny canopic jars,
will you let the rotting musings fall
onto pages and smear between lines
bloody trails of may be genius?

I open and open and open each
nesting doll to nothing
inside their wooden chests.

The Feminist Meeting

The feminist meeting is always held in the same odd locale.
The room is typically masculine, the attendees are typically not.
The hostess reminds them, “Keep moving past
that floral living room, the kitchen (devilish word)
and on to the den!” Canned beers crack open.
Coors. Keystone. Corona. Never flavored or coolers.
The attendees become cunning and prolific writers.
Drunk, they yell nonsense haikus like

The penises lie
next to the winter fire
while bras turn to ash.

They finish with a midnight vigil under Virginia Woolf’s portrait
and map out the extra room they all need
to one day write more than seventeen shrew syllables.

Secondhand

Leaning on my father’s arm, a wave of nerves engulfs me. The impatient priest guards the end of the aisle. I think of my soon-to-be husband, but then I think of my dress. My hands slow their shaking and the music rises. Held together by the fastened buttons and the tight embrace of lace, I begin to walk.

They say that age is the enemy to beauty. The brass hinges of the old Samsonite and the well worn lines of my grandmother’s hands could count as proof to this point. Her palms and the sky blue suitcase open more tentatively and with less fluidity than the grace of their youth. But when she offers her open hand, I notice the gold band on her ring finger, somehow a truer gold after decades of wear. And when I was lost in her attic, the Samsonite seemed like a treasure chest.

“I bought it brand new,” she begins as I pry into her memory about the dress. Her admission of extravagance surprises me. I’ve frequented all of the thrift stores and resale shops in a tri-county area with this woman. I’ve never in my life seen her buy something new for herself. Even most of her Tupperware comes second-hand, saved from sour cream and spaghetti sauce containers. The thought of my grandmother, in her words, “picking the prettiest one from the bridal catalogue” is as strange and foreign to me as her reasons for excessive thriftiness.

I found her dress in that old suitcase, along with the skirt hoop, veil, and matching gloves. The dress was not-so-carefully folded in a tattered sheet, and the accessories were stuffed as haphazardly in a plastic bread bag. I had seen the dress in her bridal portrait where her young self, widely smiling, holds silk flowers indefinitely. My mother has a similar picture, clad in the same dress with the same side smile and coached posture.

I had secretly always wanted to try it on, feel the weight of its sturdy satin and yellowed lace, but until I was engaged, this secret was my own. When I finally told my mother that I intended to be the third wearer of the dress she asked, “Why?” I expected a gush of approval or at least a tearful hug, but my mother keeps secrets, too. She taught me through example that, for sensitive souls, the way to stay unhardened is to keep your heart guarded by its cage of ribs instead of on your sleeve or anywhere else a heart’s not supposed to be.

Despite her initial reaction, she helped me into our tea-length heirloom. Muffled by the layers of dress and shimmying movements, she began to tell me the dress’ history: “Grandmother cut this dress up only a few years after her wedding. She was going to use it for something.”

Her emphasis on something told me that this was like the collection of perfectly cut circles of fabric stacked in the closet: Grandmother had a final project in mind, or perhaps deep in that part her that doesn’t dare speak its intentions, but had stopped before anything more than a mess was made. “We had to put it back together so I could wear it,” my mother continues, “I left the hoop out because it was the 80’s and the 50’s weren’t as cool as they are now. After my wedding, we stuffed it into the suitcase. I guess if I had known you would wear it, we could have preserved it.” But I already knew that precious things were preserved better by the magic of forgetting.

Once we got the dress on, the waist cut off my already shallow breathing. Panic flooding my eyes, I looked to my mother for an answer. “Grandmother took it in for me about an inch and a half.” Then, seeming to forget for a moment the universally feminine fear of fit, she said, “Knowing Grandmother, she probably cut out the extra seams.” I stared at the ceiling to make more room for the tears forming. “Take it off,” I said, “Just help me take it off.”

Inside out on my bed, the dress seemed a skeleton of my hope. We measured the seam with bated breath, and with whispering humbleness, I thanked my grandmother. In her wisdom and my luck, she had not only left the seams untrimmed but was about my size in 1952.

Cut once more and together again to fit me, the dress became my armor against of my doubts of the future. The tiny wine stain reminded me of my grandmother’s hand trembling with the same doubts. The veil reminded me of my mother’s tentative look to her new husband from beneath the tulle. I move forward, held together by  the patched grace of second-hand hope.

To My First Love

I find myself tweezing frayed thread
from a scarred hand. I doctor myself
like I’m tending to shrapnel
deadly, deep,
but you have let your ends dangle,
little couplets through skin.

I remember, you took my hand
and, poetically, knit it to your own.
Needle of noun, thread of verb.
The space between us closed

like a healing cut, but blood
would seep from that space,
from my stitches.
You always had thicker skin.
You pulled at the seam, suddenly
uncomfortable with the closeness.