Tuesday, January 06, 2015

At the ready: How 2014 prepared me for 2015

Just needs the key. Photo by Sean McGrath, Flickr

I am always ready for guests to come over. The rooms, though never immaculate, are presentable. I have food and drink around to share. The kitchen shades are up, so anyone wandering by can peek inside and think, “That looks homey.” My house, in its imperfect and ordinary way, is in a constant state of readiness -- a state that transforms an address into a home.

As I learned in 2014, the state of my heart can be closer to the state of my home than I knew possible. In the year's first half, I rode a wild pendulum of experiences and emotions, from my grandmother’s death to disappointing romances to three beautiful weddings. I cried on a regular basis -- tears of frustration, sorrow, joy -- and wondered with each nose blow where the pendulum was headed next.

The second half of 2015 turned out to be calmer. I stayed in town more, caught up with friends, settled into schoolwork. As I finally found the time to process and evaluate the first six months of the year, I recognized them as the emotional and mental equivalent of spring cleaning: a scouring purge of closets and baseboards so I could see just how space I really had.

For that’s what opened up in my life -- space to reflect, to contemplate, to appreciate, to acknowledge how much was right in my life. And as I pointed to each good thing and named it as such -- the job where I was learning and growing, the coursework where I was pushing and stretching, the relationships where I was loving and investing -- the space expanded. I was leading a full and joyful life, one with movement in all directions, one where the harder moments were tempered by hope and the shinier ones were polished by gratitude.

I was stable. Receptive. Ready.

Ready 4 ... anything, really. Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr

Readiness, it turns out (after my usual OED consultation), covers a spectrum of states. It can be “having a desire or need for something, esp. a source of relief or pleasure.” It can mean you’re “inclined, disposed, or apt to do something.” Or it can mean you’re “willing and eager to act when required -- prompt to oblige.”

That said, I did not truly know I was ready until a thing I was ready for happened. Two months before the end of the year, I fell in love. Fulfillment of a long-held desire? Check. Inclination to act on the opportunity? Check. Immediate promptness in obliging? Check, check, check.

I used to think readiness was strictly overt -- that I could direct preparation only toward particular purposes. But as the life-bound arc of 2014 showed me, readiness can be stealthy too. I can leave my heart close at hand, carry on knowing that it’s beating warmly within arm’s reach, and make myself vulnerable in the best way -- by being more open to whatever comes.

The person I have fallen in love with, by the way, was once a Boy Scout. The Scouts’ motto?

"Be prepared.”

Prayer #281: The Ready Path

Set the table. Pick your outfit. Try not to watch the clock. Guests will be arriving soon, except you don’t know who and you don’t know when, and you think you have enough food, but if it turns out you don’t you can always run to the store for more chips. Chips! You forgot the chips. So now guests will come and you’ll give them everything except chips, but that’s ok because you don’t know what they’re expecting of you anyway, so maybe they won’t even want chips, and what they’ll want instead is to say hello and pawn off unwanted and slightly stale holiday cookies. Cookies are better than chips, anyway. The evening (or morning, or week-long extended stay) will turn out fine if cookies are involved. And if your guests come. Which they will. You think. Pull out more silverware. Pick an alternate outfit. Busy yourself with other items on your list. And ask the God who’s sitting in the dustpan you forgot in the hallway to keep you occupied with good thoughts and brave musings until the doorbell rings.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

I, Catulla: What Latin subconsciously taught me

A photo posted by Julia Rocchi (@jmrocchi) on

Many high school students give their teachers cards or scented candles at the holidays. I wrote my teachers poems. And no one amassed a larger body of my work than my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Bender.

Over the course of three years, I wrote reams of translations, essays, and parodies inspired by my Latin classes. I couldn’t help myself, really; the material was so rich, the concentration so directed, that not a class went by where I wasn’t inspired by a character, phrase, or technique.

It all came to a head my junior year when I took AP Latin. That’s when we got to the good stuff -- poetry, mainly Horace and Catullus. Everything I loved came together in this one subject: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, scansion, meter, rhyme, imagery, humor, drama, and interpretation. The challenge of making ancient texts accessible to a modern audience fascinated me, and it elevated rote translation homework to the nobility of art.

At the end of the semester, I compiled a little book for Mrs. Bender as a thank-you gift. Titled “I, Catulla: One Latin Student’s Lasting Impressions of Catullus, Horace, and Everything in Between,” the teeny volume comprised six poems, two parodies, and a parting thought. I handed it over to her with great contentment, waved goodbye, and forgot about it.

Cut to 13 years later, when I took a poetry course as part of my graduate writing program. As I pored over our English texts, scribbled notes in the margins, and tapped out iambic pentameter on my thigh, I felt a familiar stirring somewhere in the back of my brain. Writing poetry was whacking a pleasure button I’d long forgotten. Suddenly I was back in the small classroom overlooking the courtyard at my high school, scanning sentences on the board, parsing passages on thematic as well as molecular levels. I heard pencils scratching, loaders scuffing, girls giggling.

It was then I remembered my little book of poems.

A photo posted by Julia Rocchi (@jmrocchi) on

On a whim, I emailed Mrs. Bender and asked if she by any chance had kept my gift to her. A week later, I received a fat envelope in the mail that contained a photocopy of every special piece I’d ever written for her, from an award-winning translation to a Christmas poem not even connected to our class. And there, right on top of the stack, was a standalone poem I did not remember writing -- a translation of Horace Odes III.30 with the end line of I.1 tacked on for emphasis. Here’s how it reads:

I have finished a steadfast monument
more enduring than bronze, and loftier
than regal tips of royal pyramids.
Neither erosive rain nor winds, north-sent,
destroy it, nor can the raging warrior
of countless years -- the flight of time -- corrode.
I will not -- can not! -- die entirely,
for much of me avoids mortal demise.
Instead, my words (and thus my soul) will thrive,
made fresh with future praise as long as he
who worships questions gods within their skies.
I will be sung as one still much alive;
though rustic people heralded my birth,
the royal lines exalt my lasting fame.
O Muse, gain from my achievement rich pride,
and willingly fashion of Delphic earth
a laurel crown befitting my great name!

For I will strike the stars, my head held high.

-- Horace Odes III.30, I.1; trans. Julia Rocchi

I read it once. I read it again. I sat with it in my hands, looking at the undated paper, repeating the words, wondering if I had not just written this the other day and somehow slipped it in the pile.

Because here was a work I composed when I was around 16 years old, based on literature two millennia older than that, and yet the theme and voice and construction felt as familiar and fresh to me as notes I’d jotted yesterday. There was the iambic pentameter I love to scan. There was the rhyme I thrill to include. There was the artist’s statement I constantly refine. And, most telling, there was the fervent, desperate hope that the work would outshine -- and outlive -- me.

In this print-out I’d first produced on my parents’ computer, I saw my entire essence as a writer foretold. At age 16, long before I’d found the words to express my drive, I had heard a kindred spirit echoing across dusty centuries and strove to apply it to my own life in rhythm and verse.

If that’s not a sign you’re on the right path, what is?

Prayer #280: Human Declension

To the Great Translator:

On accusative days, I’m acted on by others, in that they direct and I object.

On dative days, I’m more willing to receive, in that they direct and I accept.

On nominative days, I am a subject all my own -- the lead, the actor, the one who calls the shots.

On ablative days, I become the means -- not the doer, not the deed, but the way.

And on genitive days, I simply am possessed.

But to You, I remain in vocative -- a call, a cry, a name that disappears in the wind and leaves its intonation behind. You capture my substance and my essence. You convey my meaning. You change me in form, but not in ending. For when my piece concludes, Your translation will persist, and the final work is not yet one I know.


Friday, October 03, 2014

Love is for the weak

Imperfect. Photo by Dan Iggers

“Let us love, since our heart is made for nothing else.”
-- St. Therese Lisieux

Love is for the weak, who cry from bed for water though the nightstand holds a glass.

Love is for the hunted, who chew their cuds in open glades, forgetting they are prey.

Love is for the brittle, who snap at slightest pressure, crack, and clatter to the floor.

Love is for the wounded, who slump against the barricades and weep to lift the flag.

Love is for the dim, who do their homework every night and always get it wrong.

Love is for the lost, who dropped their map 10 miles back and can’t recall the turn.

Love is for the snitch and the stool pigeon, the turncoat and the tattletale, the liar and the loser. It is for the snookered, the cynical, the spooked. The shivering and the shabby, cranky and conceited, bloated and boorish. Love is for the slack-jawed, cross-eyed, weak-kneed, yellow-bellied, chicken-livered folks. For the bland. The forgettable. The forgotten.

Love is for those who say they don’t want it, and for those who won’t say they need it.

Love is for anyone but the whole.

Prayer #279: Let Us Love

I can never love as You love -- a gulping love, a saturating love, an inundating love we call "love" only because we have no other word to capture the deluge. No, I am merely a chipped cup, long emptied of unmemorable contents, now gathering dust in a neglected cabinet, alone except for the cobwebs.

But even in this forgotten corner, pour out of me what I don’t think I have. Let me sit filled, because I’m not alone, not really. Millions of hands jostle just outside the handle, blindly groping for something, anything, to slake their thirst, and all I need do is inch closer and nudge open the door.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

At the quarry (or, Thoughts on our mutual foregone conclusions)

Which way up? Photo by Marlon Malabanan, Flickr

"I tell students who want to major in English, 'You're majoring in death.' This is why I'm not a guidance counselor." -- Billy Collins

We cannot see the bottom. Long ago,
men mined this pit for pittance. Who was it
who spotted pleasure in the void, who softened
thuggish crags with borrowed water, docks,
and rope swings? Doesn't matter. We float now,
white legs astride our Skittle-hued noodles
that pop the choppy surface leagues away
from scars of arcing picks and dynamite.

Our conversation turns to space. "How big
is it?" one asks. "What lies beyond its edge?"
another says. "If it's expanding, then
what in?" a third pipes up. In unison,
we shake our heads and cluck. None of us knows.
Besides, the rays are warm. The water cools.
The rope swing sways. We know the bottom's there.

Prayer #278: The Clock Puncher's Lament

The sensation that comes from contemplating nothingness is orgasmic -- a torrid rush of abandon and abandonment, of being wrung out and draped yet not pinned enough to the clothesline to stay on in the twisting breeze. The prevailing winds will carry me with or without my consent, so I'd prefer to leave with grace and dignity intact, perhaps even with a spirit of adventure.

But I'm not there yet. I am merely a void-gazer in danger of becoming a clock puncher, a drone too preoccupied with the end result to optimize the process.

God of a beyond I haven't breached, ground me in my own existence. Let my heartbeat underscore me, my sentience gird me. Catch my timecard in Your breath and whisk it far beyond my reach, so that I chase You, not it.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Shall we be brave today?

Dark side/light side. Photo by Daniele Nicolucci, Flickr

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? ...

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we stare that great white in the eye?
Shall we ball up our fists
And give him a kiss
So the joy that he feels make him cry?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we fend off the alien queen?
Shall we set guns to stun
And blast her with fun
So she no longer wants to be mean?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we take the old Bogeyman on?
Shall we hide late at night
And share our flashlights
So he learns to look forward to dawn?

Shall we be brave today?
Shall we tackle our everyday fears?
Shall we turn on the news,
Face truth (though we bruise),
So we act overtop of our tears?

Shall we be brave today?
We shall own the unpopular truth
That the world's dipped in black
But we can fight back
And help others be brave today, too.

Prayer #277: "Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles"

When the wrenching events of the day scratch our eyes and claw our hearts, let us not stick our heads in the nearest sandbox, but rather find, descry, and face the dark horse galloping across our floating rock, drumming its thunderous hooves against the shrinking grass.

Let us devote our flash-in-the-pan lives to obstructing its path and making it question -- if only for a snorting, sweating second -- if it would do better to halt. For in that second we have hope, and in that second the grass transforms to steel.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

The insignificant other

Significant? Photo by Mandy Jansen, Flickr

We will do, we will hope, we will live,
We will rest in the hearts of remembering men
Who saw us as we passed.
-- from “You,” by Carl Sandburg

In historic preservation, places being considered for the National Register must identify their period of significance, or the span of time in which whatever makes the place noteworthy occurred. It could be an event, a person, a distinctive characteristic, even “the potential to yield important information.”

As the National Park Service puts it, “Events and associations with historic properties are finite; most properties have a clearly definable period of significance.”

People, however, are not buildings. We are far from finite (barring, of course, the mortal coil), and bring with us myriad ways, modes, traits, and choices that vary our levels of significance to different people at different points in our lives.

Why, then, do we as a society perpetuate the phrase “significant other?” Here’s my thinking:

  • If we were to apply a preservation context to this phrase, we are saying that this person (the SO) has a clearly defined period of significance. Yet we’re currently in the midst of our time with them. We have no knowledge of how long or to what degree they will remain significant. Instead, we make a big call in real time – always a risky, potentially inaccurate move.
  • To call someone a significant other is to assume that we have already identified what makes them noteworthy for us. In the best case scenario, they are significant because we love them and have entered into a fulfilling, meaningful relationship. In the worst case scenario, they are significant because they have a pulse and we bring them to parties. The former is uplifting; the latter, dispiriting.
  • The very phrase negates itself. Significant implies that this person is worthy of attention, that they carry influence in our life, that they have made an impression. But then we tack on other, a xenophobic word choice that smacks of separatism and opposite-ness, alluding to a foreign object that has somehow wiggled its way into our bloodstreams and staked out parasitic ground, a stranger that gains a body only when it is part of a pair. So when we say “significant other,” we’re really saying “noteworthy nothing.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “insignificant.”

Huddle up. Photo by Keith Williams, Flickr

I don’t want to be considered insignificant to people I care about, nor do I want to burden an insignificant interloper with a phrase that simultaneously inflates and removes his importance. If someone’s name is going to be attached to mine in conversation or on the fronts of envelopes, then I want him to be an equal, fully formed person -- not a check through a box, not a stroke for my ego, and certainly not a lazy, imprecise shorthand for “not single.”

So what am I asking for here? I want us all to acknowledge that any person, romantic or otherwise, who we let across our welcome mats will enjoy a period of significance in our lives, and that if we’ve let them in that far to begin with, then they can never truly be other to us again.

What’s more, we are far from other to ourselves. Our personal periods of significance last as long as we believe them to be so -- hopefully from the day we come out to the day we croak. And when we have each deemed ourselves significant -- as independent, cultivated, substantial people with “important information” always bubbling up -- we will stand marked as so.

Please, let’s retire "significant other." It speaks nothing to the power true relationships hold, and even less about the value we place in ourselves.

Prayer #276: The Welcome Mat at the Castle Gates

I’ve laid the welcome mat outside the gates.
(My gators ate the first one, but I will
Not be deterred.) It rests there, flat and striped,
Beyond the sulfur moat that belches fumes,
Beneath the poison arrows that land true,
Beside the wobbly ladders doomed to fall,
Far from the cauldrons bloated with hot tar.
For I, with wisdom gleaned from faith alone,
Know that the person who can reach the mat
And ring the doorbell, interrupting lunch,
Deserves to join me in the peaceful courtyard,
Take the other armchair at the hearth,
And help me find rooms even I’ve not seen.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spine of steel: My grandmother's legacy in death and life

Grandmom Helen at her 90th birthday

“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel.” -- Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The blue-eyed teen -- Elena by birth, Helen in Americanese, Len to her four brothers -- wanted more than anything to sing. Blessed with a clear, lovely voice, she sang around the house, she sang at church, she sang in the hopes of being known for singing.

Her crowning achievement was having a solo lead in the chorus at Helen Fleischer Vocational School where she attended. The group was practicing extra hard because they’d been recruited to sing a jingle on the radio. A real jingle, for a real company. And who would be featured but Len herself?

Every week her older brother Joe, a pleasant and dutiful bodyguard, accompanied her on the trolley to practice where she let her voice soar out the open window on the assurance that her big break was coming. Every week her immigrant parents waved goodbye to her as she headed to Callowhill. Every week the chorus got better, and the recording date drew nearer, and Helen’s dream grew bigger.

But when the day of the recording finally arrived, Helen’s mother stopped her on her way out the door. “You can’t go,” she said in Italian.

“Why?” Helen’s hand tightened on the doorknob.

“Because you’ll be discovered,” her mother replied, “and then you’ll go into show business. So no. You will not sing today.”

Helen was the only daughter of immigrants, and only daughters of immigrants do not say no. So she stayed home, safe from the grasping clutch of immoral show business, wishing she were caught.


Over the years I heard my grandmother tell the story of her big solo many times. The budding writer in me detected (or likely added) a twinge of resentment to her voice; she could have been a star, after all.

In the space after the story closed, when Grandmom would bounce her hands in her lap and sigh in perpetual resignation, I always found myself willing her alternate universe to unfurl. I wanted Helen-the-teenager to sneak out of the house against her mother’s wishes, to catch the trolley without the aid of her brother, to burst into the studio just as the suits were threatening to cancel the whole deal, and to trill in front of her astonished and delighted classmates, “I’m here, gentlemen! Shall we begin?”

Cue music. Fame. Fulfillment.

Instead, she married at 18 and started having babies during wartime. She raised eight children, the oldest and youngest two decades apart. She worked nights at Strawbridge & Clothier to help make ends meet, and exercised her considerable sewing skills on the side. Even after her retirement, she cared for her dying mother and ailing brothers and boomerang children and my grandfather, always my grandfather, for nearly 70 years.

At her funeral service, the priest went into great detail about how Helen had done “exactly what God asked of her.” She worked hard, gave abundantly, loved evidently, kept the faith, and sacrificed. Sacrificed, sacrificed, sacrificed.

Then my father, her son-in-law, gave a lovely tribute at the luncheon: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ Helen’s family is her institution. All of us here are her shadow.” Shadow upon shadow upon shadow.

Behind him a projector screen scrolled through photos of her long life. Every time a new picture flicked up, I saw a different relative reflected in her face. In almost every picture she was laughing, smiling, playing at the beach, squeezing a baby. Baby after baby after baby.

Nona, Mom, Grandmom, me, 1983

More than anything, I want a four-generation photograph. My grandmother would be sitting in the middle, the place of honor. My mother and I would stand at her shoulders, looking over the baby girl she’d hold in her arms. My baby girl, the one who seems far from materializing at this moment in time. The one I haven’t met yet, might never meet, and that my grandmother will definitely not meet. Not now, anyway. Not on this earth.

My rational side chides me, You had 30 years with her! Most of your cousins’ kids won’t get to meet her either! But when I picture that never-to-be snapshot, that image which will never circle on a screen in front of people who ooh and point and say “she looks like...,” I see evidence. Evidence that I’ve married and procreated in a reasonable enough timeframe to enable such a photo in the first place. Evidence that I am fully participating in the proper generational channels. Evidence that I’ve done my womanly duty and entered the cycle of nurturing sacrifice.

Let the record show that my grandmother never put this pressure on me. She didn’t always directly grasp my single, educated, living-in-a-different-city life, but she supported me and took pleasure in my adventures. I alone am responsible for my angst.

And why do I torture myself so? To what end? When I look at my grandmother’s long life, I cannot recognize one minute, much less a day, when someone didn’t require her, a minute where she could escape for two seconds and be alone with her own thoughts and needs. A minute where she was wholly herself -- not a wife, not a mother, not a Helen, just her.

Do I want that? What if she wanted more, or something else? Did it keep her up at night? Color her days? Recast her goals?

In these wonderings, I could be projecting my own neuroses on a woman from a different generation who probably didn't have the time or energy to ask herself these questions. Or maybe they are the musings of someone overwhelmed by all the ways 90 years of life could go, and terrified she will end up on a path she doesn’t want, thwarted by bad timing, good intentions, or basic, run-of-the-mill fate.

Beach time with Grandmom, 1984

I sang at Helen’s funeral Mass, as did several of my aunts and uncles. Despite the earnest efforts of my crying relatives and the priest’s insistence on throat-closing incense, I kept it together throughout the service. Once the final organ chord faded, however, I stepped down from the altar and burst into the tears that had threatened since the moment I watched her casket closing and saw her favorite coffee mug tucked in the corner. One of my cousins appeared and let me sob and snot on her shoulder.

“You did a great job up there,” she said, handing me tissues. “It’s so funny -- everyone has the same voice. You can tell we’re related.”

Everyone has the same voice. That is, we have Grandmom’s voice.

Beach time with Grandmom, 24 years later

I will never know how my grandmother’s life would have progressed had she performed her solo. I know what her life ultimately did entail -- hard work, resilience, stubbornness, courage, sacrifice, faith, love. By all appearances she believed in herself and stood by her choices. Who am I, then, to take that from her?

I bend at my waist, not with my knees. I use everything I have until five years past the end of its given life. I cook all my meals from scratch. I sing with a natural vibrato. I firmly believe I know the best and most efficient way to do everything. I am, in genetics and practice, Helen’s granddaughter.

And the same self-belief that fueled my grandmother -- the same confidence in her abilities, even if the opportunity to exercise them isn’t always present or taken -- is alive and well in me. We can make anything work. Maybe that’s why I wanted my four-generation picture. To show my daughter what a steel spine looks like when it comes adorned with clear blue eyes.

Next time I’m at the beach or over my stove or on the porch -- all sacred spaces to a woman who didn’t often have space -- I will draw a deep breath and sing whatever solo strikes me. Whether I am single or married, published or well-traveled, content or seeking, I will take that moment on my grandmother’s behalf, for any and all moments she had to miss, for any and all moments she managed to capture, and I’ll thank her for showing me that I can become the woman -- the person -- I choose to be.

Prayer #275: Say Hi to the Ocean for Me

You are already far out to sea, the farthest I've ever seen you. As I watch you swim, I think of Esther Williams -- elegant, timeless, at home in a fluid, unpredictable world.

I haven't earned my mermaid tail yet, so I remain land-locked, a sub-par siren who shrieks at people she loves when she sees them dip beneath an unnerving wave the way you just did, dropping from my sight for a heart-halting minute.

The tides, in their wisdom, tell me I should let you go. But I'm afraid. Only a breath ago we were running our hands through the breakers, raising them high over our heads on our way back to the blanket, tucking into a cooler full of salami-and-Jersey-tomato sandwiches before our beach nap. Yet now the current flows between us with an undeniable strength only you are equipped to handle, while I am forced to watch and fret from shore.

Promise me that when you reach your destination -- the one you're stroking toward, the one I can't yet see -- promise me that you will turn around and wave, twice. Promise me that after all your deep breathing and disciplined kicks, you will pull yourself up to rest and bask in the magnitude of what you've accomplished.

I, in the meantime, will shade my eyes and follow you in memory alone, my gaze a lifeline you no longer need but will hold onto anyway, because that's what love is.