Loss and Living Onward. . .To Press

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

In one month my second book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices, will be in your hands. As I write these words, talented lay-out and cover designers David and Maggie are making last-second tweaks, and sending the manuscript off to press.

Let me admit something: This book has been pushing itself up and out of my very pores for nearly five years.  It’s been close to publication with two other publishing houses. And I’ve been teetering on that slick ledge of giving up on it, oh, 174 times. But I have a persistent (bossy and endearing) cheering committee, and they wouldn’t let me hunker down in the safe retreat of silence.  Finally, this book has found its rightful channel to reach the public.

I am grateful. I am joyful. I am tired.  I am anxious.

Anxious and slightly exhausted smile. . .

Anxious and exhausted smile. . .

When cataclysm erupted in our family’s life, I turned to literature for a community, common experience and spiritual knowledge.  People who know me well know that, with the exception of math, marbled meats and sometimes sleep, I don’t do much half-heartedly. So that same intensity translated into gathering hundreds upon hundreds of statements on loss and grief. Not with a mind to ever publish an anthology, mind you, but with a heart that was stunned to a sputtering speechlessness and needed understanding. I scraped and spelunked through other’s words to speak for and to me. In time, and without having had a plan on the outset to do so, I had the makings of a major tome on grief. Those quotes–at least those for which my publisher could acquire legal permissions– together with 17 of my best personal essays, have evolved into this substantial book. I can hardly wait to get it out there.

I sent a friend and fellow bereaved mother a galley (pre-published) PDF copy. Here’s what she wrote to me just this week:

Dear Melissa,
I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much of this past weekend with your wonderful book…My husband was not feeling well, so we were both at home, and I read and read.  I can’t tell you how often I picked up my computer and said to my husband, “Read this,”  because you were able to articulate just how I was feeling so much of the time. And you did it so eloquently and beautifully.  You were able to put into words what I felt but could not express and you did this so much better than any other author I have read.
I loved the quotes at the beginning of each section.  I must admit though that I hurried through them so that I could get to your writing.  I do plan to go back and highlight as soon as I get my hard copy.  There were so many wonderful nuggets where I paused and smiled because they nailed feelings I had experienced and interpreted what I was still trying to identify.
One of my favorites was the grief beast section.  My grief beast looks a lot like yours, and now I can put a name and description to it. It’s still lumbering around but it doesn’t come as often as it did before and it doesn’t stay as long.  But I think that now I will talk about that beast to others so they can have a better idea about how awful grief can be.
I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it must have been for you to move to an entirely new country and new community right after Parker’s death.  How did you survive?  I’m so glad that you wrote.  It must have been healing for you, but now it is healing for so many others. Even though you were so alone, you have been able through your writings to reach out to so many.
I’m so grateful that you have such a gift for writing.  All of us who have experienced the loss of a child feel like your book is balm for our grief.  I shed a ton of tears as I read, but I felt so understood and valued. I will read it again and again. Thank you.  Thank you.

You know those emails that make your throat sting and nose prickle like you’d just breathed in a whole room full of dry ice fumes? This one.  If she says it works, I’m convinced. I need that kind of reassurance.  Similar to my fears of publishing Global Mom, I have had some nagging fears for this book, too. What if I turn my son into an artifact? Will I be misunderstood as bitter, gloomy, morbid, or strangely proud of or elitist about our family’s loss? Will my family’s story not be fairly represented? Will I make grief look too easy? Too hard? Too dreamy? Too predictable? Too comprehensible? Too tidy?  Will its most helpful pages not be the ones that were the hardest to write, which were the descriptive ones (my essays), but the most helpful will be the prescriptive ones, which took just a day to whip together (the two appendices with What To Do/ What Not To Do and a suggested readings list)? Will my deep faith and profound, repeated experiences with the spiritual alienate readers who do not, perhaps, consider themselves people of faith, or “spiritual” types? WiIl this book speak with humility the truth I’ve known?

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

 

I’ve run down this list of questions plus a longer one, be assured. But I’ll let you read my writings, and you can decide.

Visit my Loss and Living Onward Facebook Page to find daily updates as well as quotes I could not include in the hard copy itself.

You can preorder now on Amazon, or wait until May 6th to order and receive your stack for yourself and for

US Mother’s Day, May 11th,

and

US Memorial Day May 26th.

 

Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

traction

For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

Interview: Claire (Sorella) Bradford, Returned Missionary

Claire, our daughter, returned just three weeks ago from eighteen months of full-time service as a volunteer representative for our church in Italy. Taking some liberties here by ignoring my usual separation of church-and-blog, I want to report on her experience. I’ve captured her attention for a whole afternoon, and the following is a frank and detailed interview about her experience.

If you have any questions––any questions––Claire will respond to them here in the comment thread. Please don’t hold back: ask away! She will do her best to respect your sincere curiosity. As you’ll see, she’s used to answering all sort of questions. (And if for some reason you want this whole transcript in Italian, we do aim to please.)

Rome, St.Peter's Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Rome, St.Peter’s Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Claire, tell us about your decision to serve as a full-time missionary for your church.

I think I kind of always grew up thinking I would go on a mission. I’d always planned on it, and since both my parents went, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I prayed about the decision, talked to a lot of returned missionaries to hear about their experiences, and then knew it was something I had to do.

3 at fountain

You say, “had to do.” Did you feel pressure?

Well, yes, sort of. Maybe. There was one point, yes. I remember coming back from Tanzania, [where I had spent a semester working as a volunteer assistant warden at a juvenile detention center for boys] and not being sure at that moment if going on a mission was the right thing for me, at least not right then.  I voiced that hesitancy, and I think it surprised you and Dad.  So it made me think. You really hoped I’d have this experience.

claire cara

Can you describe the difference between your service in Tanzania and what you did in Italy?

Missionary work of the sort I did in Italy is not about working in orphanages, shelters, detention centers or building huts, digging wells. There are missions of my church meant just for that, for doing humanitarian work. They are all over the world and they do much good. But Italy was completely different, except for the fact that you’re giving 100% of your time to a cause bigger than you are, to something that should help others. As was the case with my Tanzania service, there’s really no quantifiable “gain” from going on a mission, except, I guess, that you could put in on a CV if you wanted to. But that was not my motivation, not at all. And I gained more than one could ever write up on a CV.  Also, I thought my internship in Tanzania would help me on mission.  But the work in Tanzania was different from what I did in Italy.

IMG_9101

You chose to go to Tanzania. But did you choose to serve in Italy?

Right. I chose one, the other was an assignment. If you’d asked me beforehand where I wanted to serve a mission, Italy would have been toward the top of the list. But I never told anyone. I kept that hope a secret. It was one of the places I wanted to go, and not every single missionary gets that answer or feeling right away that their location assignment is right. I remember that I’d prayed about it, and thought, well, I’m studying Humanities at university, and I don’t know if studying Humanities is the right thing, or the most practical thing, so it would be nice if getting my mission assignment would be an indication that my studies were heading in the right direction.  But I opened up that letter and ecco, Rome, Italy!  So, yeah, I realized that I should be studying Humanities. But I read that first line [ from the letter a missionary gets, declaring the mission assignment for 18 or 24 months] and the thing that got me emotional was not that I was called to Italy specifically, but that I would be called as a missionary. Period.

sorella anderson

Was Italy as a culture anything like what you had imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. I’d lived in West European countries, I knew many cultural aspects of Latin Europe. There weren’t any big surprises, like I wasn’t surprised, as some other American missionaries were, maybe, that Italians built their cities up on hills, that there were strong and distinct dialects, huge 4-hour long meals, stuff that looked sometimes a bit chaotic. Most things for me were not that shocking. What was actually surprising was how much I loved Italy more than any other culture I’d ever lived in. I didn’t expect anything to pass up France or Norway or others places I grew up. Yet I felt so connected so quickly.

Ribs, anyone?

Ribs, anyone?

What do you ascribe that to?

I wonder if it’s the fact that I was serving 100% of the time while I was living there. I loved the people so much. Their quirks (others missionaries on occasion would criticize these things), just all made so much sense to me. They were endearing! They are such a loving people, but they didn’t feel fake or salesy or superficial.  When they trust you, they bring you into their home and treat you like their own child. They are extremely loyal and passionate and yes, some things they do don’t always make sense to outsiders. Look, it’s not really a country run on practicality, hyper organization, some mathematical spreadsheet. It is a culture that is driven by a love for the arts and architecture, painting, the language, the food, passion. And not passion of a sexual nature. How do I say it? There’s a HEAT. Italian culture runs on HEAT. Fluid, flowing, warm and Mediterranean heat. It’s not uptight or antiseptic. It’s more like doing yoga instead of doing punishing crunches and push-ups.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

Roman countryside

Roman countryside

Gelato

Gelato

So, was a mission anything like what you had imagined it would be?

No. I think I thought the things that made me a good university student would make me a good missionary. I think I thought, okay, I’m organized, task-oriented, goal-driven, I’m good at getting things done, I’m a hard worker, I’m a rule-keeper.  I thought those qualities would make me a good missionary. In school, I could master the system. I could control it. At university, if you do this and this and work really hard, you will have success. You can get a certain grade. It was a straightforward formula. But I don’t think any missionary can ever say they have “gotten” or “mastered” the work.  No missionary ever “masters” it. You don’t master some formula then you can do anything, and you learn very quickly that that’s not at all the reality. Some missionaries are great with language, some are gifted socially, some are deep and sincere, but none of that can control other people’s lives. Nothing you do can control how people will act or react to your message about religion, especially about Christ. I wasn’t expecting that.

claire district palermo

So that sounds hard, not being able to see quantifiable results even from a lot of effort. Can you share other things that were hard?

Being tired emotionally and physically. You want to give your best, and sometimes you want to be all there, but you are totally exhausted. I felt limited by my energy. It is hard to constantly be thinking about other people, all day long. Not just the people you are teaching and working for, but also the people you are working with. If you are in a leadership and training position like I was, ( for many months I trained missionaries newly arrived from America), you have to be thinking about a lot of other missionaries and their needs. That can be exhausting, though always rewarding, with time. Also, it is hard to follow all the rules.

IMG_9089

Please tell us about the rules of being a missionary.

Well, I just mentioned that Italy is a culture run by heat. But as a missionary, you can’t get too close to people either with the language or in touch. In European languages, like Italian, you have the formal and informal form [the lei form and the tu form]. As a missionary, you are supposed to only use the formal form, although in some missions with other languages you can use informal form. To keep relationships professional and to guard an emotional distance (important as a missionary) you’re asked to be formal, socially distanced. Spiritually close, but socially distanced, if that makes sense.  All you want to do is love them, and for me, especially in the south where I served on the island of Sicily for many months, it felt sometimes strained and unnatural to be in such a warm and loving environment but hold my arms at my side.  Not hugging my many friends was hard for me, but the rule was to help me remember the dignity of my calling.  I said to myself more than once, “For the sake of my name tag I will restrain myself.”

During your mission only platonic relationships are allowed. That goes for interaction with those interested in your message, members of the church, other missionaries you work with. There can be no romances, no dating, no flirting, no interactions beyond the strictly professional. Friendships are very encouraged. But they have to be wisely balanced, keeping things non-romantic. This encourages an environment of mutual support and safety and total focus on your work.

claire and friend

Some rules were a challenge, but I understand that not all rules were hard for you. What else was not hard?

Italian wasn’t really terribly hard for me. I had to study, but I was lucky that I loved to study, and I love languages, and that I loved, loved, loved Italian more than any language I had ever learned. I even loved the grammar. (I’d hated French grammar.) But Italian grammar! I’d sit and look at grammar book for hours and hours. I became known as the Queen of Conjunctivo. (or the subjunctive case).

Being away from family was not so hard. Italians would always ask, “How long have you been here? Don’t you miss your family?” The very idea of not being with family for 18 months was shocking to them. They live at home for 30 or 40 years, sometimes. Much more immediate family cohesion than I’d seen elsewhere, especially in the US where people move apart from parents early on. Not in Italy!

Not being paid was not a problem. Not dating, not going to movies, concerts, not reading the newspapers or literary books, not surfing the Internet. That wasn’t really that hard, neither was keeping a strict daily schedule . . .

IMG_9113

Strict schedule?

As a missionary, you’re required to be up at 6:30 a.m. to exercise until 7:00, then to do different kinds of study (alone and as a companionship) until you leave the house at 10:00. Then you leave the house and work until 1:00.  Then you have lunch and language study until early afternoon, then you are working (out on the streets talking with people, or visiting and teaching people in their homes, and we also taught a popular English course) until 8:00. From 8:00 until 9:00 pm, you have dinner, then until 10:30 you study again and go to bed.

IMG_9568 (1)

Sounds regimented. And this was every day except Sunday, 18 months straight? When did you relax?  And visit the Vatican?

Every missionary has something called a preparation day, or P-Day. In my companionships, we spent very few P-Days inside, just lounging. Sometimes, we did a spa day.  We soaked our feet, did facials, painted our nails, got our hair cut.  Most often, though, we went to interesting cultural sites, went food and/or clothes shopping. In all of this, we always wore our name tags. We’d called it a tourist P-Day, but we always wore our name tag, so we could be identified and so we acted the part.

Missionaries on their preparation day

Missionaries on their preparation day

How about never being alone, and always being with a companion you did not choose, but were assigned to?

Oh, that was okay. I served with 9 different Sorelle [sister missionaries] including when I was in the Missionary Training Center.

You didn’t know anyone of these young women before being assigned to work with them?

No, not a one. That’s hard for some people, I guess, but it was not hard for me, although I had prized my alone time before becoming a missionary. I’d had my own room at university, my own car, I was a very independent person and loved doing things my own way.  But I can count on one hand the times in my mission when I needed to sit alone on a little balcony in one of our little mission apartments.

IMG_8380

You lived in how many places/apartments?

I lived in three different apartments, three different cities, two different zones. I lived in Ragusa (Sicilia), Roma 3 (Roma), and Palermo (Sicilia).

And you trained missionaries, right?

“Trained”: You get a brand new missionary that has to be taught the ropes and the language. Yes, I trained four different new missionaries, new “greenies” they are called.

IMG_9514

What did it mean to be an STL?

A Sister Training Leader is an assignment given by the mission president. It means having responsibility for the emotional needs of the various sisters under your stewardship. There is a chain of command within a mission, and it is so stressful being the president of a mission (in our mission alone covering all of southern Italy, there were almost 200 young missionaries. You can imagine the needs that keep coming to the President and his wife.) So, the missions are divided into zones and zones are broken into districts. District and Zone leaders try to handle what needs arise, but if it can be dealt with on local level, (homesickness, language frustrations, health concerns, problems with a companion) you can do what you can as a Sister Training Leader to influence that part of the mission. Sister missionaries would sometimes call the president asking for help, and the Mission President would ask me to take care of it. He would say, “Sorella Bradford, you’re my ‘guy’ for this issue, okay?”  I served in this capacity for 9 months, so the whole second half of my mission.

IMG_8579

What did you learn from sharing messages about Jesus Christ?

(Long silence. Thinking, thinking…)

I found that a lot of people had a kind of memorized or scripted concept of God or an impersonal relationship with Christ. Not that I am any better than anyone else, but it really struck me that few understood that Christ was their personal Savior. They’d  heard things, maybe, from their parents, from school, from sermons, or rumors from grandparents, some truthful but some untruthful things, that they had heard and  memorized.  How many times did I hear, “I’m devoutly religious and I practice my faith,” but in a deeper conversation about the New Testament, for instance, this good person had little idea about Christ’s life, His miracles, parables, they had based their belief, it seemed, on a cultural norm or tradition, but hadn’t gotten much deeper than that.  Then I think we surprised them. They were taken aback that a young foreigner believed in Christ and would then express these very personal feelings about Him.

What did you learn further about teaching others about faith?

To teach simply. Especially going straight on a mission from college. There was a bit of a temptation to use complicated words and teach complex concepts and just blow people out of the water with major gospel knowledge. But the best lessons were when there was a conversation and we spoke simply.  Then I felt something powerful and special. We all did.

Claire and Martina

Claire and Martina

Can you give an example of teaching and having that special thing happen?

Martina. Normal, Roman through-and-through. Married. It was amazing from the very beginning. It was incredible to see someone so prepared for what we had to teach her. She had zero previous knowledge of or background of the church, she had no concept of certain doctrines. She was just, oh what’s the word, someone so normal, just a very normal woman who had some normal human questions and needed someone to just explain certain things, and she did her own research, and came to church and loved it. She was, ah!, incredible, It was incredible to see her progress and learn and become happier. Honestly, I went out of every lesson thinking, WOW.

As missionaries, we want to serve and help anyone who will listen to our message to live happier, more stable and productive lives, have happier families, better health, all that. When they progress and desire more, then we invite them to be baptized. When we invited Martina, she said yes. Her husband, who said no at first, later changed his mind and now both have become members of that congregation in Rome.

How are they doing?

Incredibly.  They are the strongest members in that little congregation.  I’m going to go see them next month. (Big smile. Little squeal.) I hope I know them forever.

Martina at her baptism

Martina at her baptism

Sounds like you miss it. A lot. Was it hard to come home, back to civilian life? Um…to…us?

Yeah. It’s hard to be home. A mammoth let down. For a lot of reasons. I had developed a strong identity that I don’t feel I brought back from my mission. It’s hard for me to be feeling like I’m not the person I was. I can’t demonstrate that I was a responsible leader in my mission, that I was entrusted with decision-making power by my president, I also feel far less on-the-go; the next day as a missionary was always planned and full, now that structure is gone. I really miss a culture that is loud and spontaneous, and so I feel a little lost, floating. I was so needed as a missionary. And so challenged. And I had so many people to love, who needed me.

Even if you’re busy at home doing all sort of good things, nothing will compare to the importance of the world you were in as a missionary. I just loved watching people change all the time. That is a satisfaction I’ve never experienced  doing anything else. It’s just such a dense spiritual experience, and life feels. . . a little superficial right now.

IMG_8726 (1)

Is this why you wanted it to last longer?

Yes. I begged to stay longer. But to tell the truth, I was so exhausted in the end. I don’t think the body or the mind is made to live with such intensity permanently. Still, maybe two years would have been the best for me.

If I can insert myself, Claire, I’ve often told you and others that the greatest blessings of my life have flowed from my opportunity to have served a full-time mission (in Austria in the ‘80’s.) The person I married, what I studied in undergrad and graduate school, where and how we have raised our children. Can you speak to that?

No question, this mission will have a huge impact on the rest of life. I can’t say from here what the long-range blessings will be, I can speak in theory. I want to live at some point again in Europe, probably Italy and probably long-term, not just a vacation or semester, but live there. That is my dream.  I won’t use Italian in my remaining two semesters of university, but I have no idea how it will affect my masters studies. For sure, I’ve gained countless life skills, tons and tons of life skills. What I hope is that my mission refined my good qualities, and showed me weaknesses I didn’t know I had. I feel like you can’t go through a process like a mission without being transformed.

IMG_8451

And since coming home as a transformed person. . . you have been keeping weekly email contact with another missionary still serving in Italy, someone you met at the very end of your service. Am I right?

Yes.

Can you ––?

Um. . . This is all new, so I am still not sure of how to––

Would you care to­––?

Let’s just say it’s pretty serious.

But can you tell us about hi––?

He is incredible. He is Italian. And I am committed.

Sounds like it.

(Interviewer and interviewee smile.)

IMG_9114

Any last thoughts?

It is not easy approaching people all the time, trying in the very few seconds you have to convey all of the joy and love you have for this gospel, for the message you are sharing. It is not easy watching people make great steps in their lives, seeing people make such progress, seeing them be happier, and then letting it all go. Letting all of it completely go. It is so hard watching that, and knowing that our job is not to force anyone, not to convince them. So you don’t. That is up to them and their God. You try and communicate why you love your mission, why you love what you are doing, and hope that they will feel that love. All of that difficulty is worth it, however. I have found my best friends in my mission. Some are missionaries, some are members of our Church, but not all of them. I have incredible friends that, for some reason or another, decided to not take our lessons, or decided to not be baptized members of our Church. But I love them so much anyway. You just get to be part of all that love, and it is so rewarding. So worth it.

 From an address Claire gave at a recent youth evening, where she spoke about her mission:

“Many of our missionaries begin their missions thinking they are going to repay Heavenly Father for His goodness toward them by serving Him for 18 months or two years.  But before long they learn an important eternal truth: you can never do more for the Lord than He can do for you.”

––M. Russell Ballard

Book Touring & Home Again

Hello.

You’re back. So am I.

With friend Ellen while in Boston on book tour

With friend Ellen while in Boston on book tour

Two months of blankness here at Melissa Writes of Passage. Two months of blessedness in my off-line life.

Because it’s been so much, you’ll excuse me this one time if I’m dry and unimaginative. I dislike “dry and unimaginative” in writing as much as I do in eating. Who wants a 2″ cracker that sits on your tongue like an old cardboard bus ticket when you could have a deep ceramic dish of eggplant parmesan and a generous serving of tiramisu?  I mean, honestly.

But I can’t go for juicy, well-spiced and elaborate today. Unless I write another book. I’m doing catch-up here. So I hope you’ll pardon the cracker:

Jan 5 –Feb 5:

Crunch month. Many 16-hour days devoted to prepping for book tour.

Jan 5-Feb 5:

Crunch month also for final submissions of manuscript for my next book, Loss & Living Onward, releasing in May. (But you can already go ahead and preorder here.)

Book Tour: New England and the Rockies

The Global Mom New England/Rockies book tour grew from what originally was to have been 3 events to 21, spread over 12 days. There was one day with 6 back-to-back events. A lot. But it was invigorating and, on the deepest levels, nourishing for me.  So, with the huge support of many large-hearted folks, I managed it. I’ll give more details of individual experiences as I get back into posting here every week. Much to share.

Feb 6-12. Massachusetts and Utah: I saw and spoke about things that really matter, and with dozens ––even hundreds–– of people, most of whom I was meeting for the first time, some of whom have been lifelong friends, and even a couple of key people with whom I’ve been virtually incommunicado for several years.  The power of human connection and, above all, reconciliation was at times enough to make my spine melt. I found my self welling with tears many times over the 12 days.  I never cried from exhaustion or stress (even when my computer battery died in the middle of a presentation, or when I lost my voice from one minute to the next); I grew teary from joy, gratitude, and from the tenderness I felt many times as I communed with new and old friends. There seemed to be a palpable outpouring of goodness every place I was able to go. It was uplifting and fortifying for me.

With Maja, my lifelong friend

With Maja, cherished lifelong friend

Multiple times, I lectured on Global Mom and the nature of internationally nomadic living. But I also focused many of my engagements on addressing head-on the landscape of loss. This naturally dove-tailed Global Mom with a lecture on Loss & Living Onward. At one fireside in particular, arranged by Sharlee (a lifelong friend you’ll learn more about in future posts) the atmosphere was palpably resonant. I’m indebted to the many professionals and friends who facilitated gatherings like that.

Women of the Marriott Business School (Jacque second to right)

Women of the Marriott Business School (Jacque second to right)

I was fortunate to speak twice to groups at Harvard Business School (one time of the two was in tandem with my lifelong friend Jacque, who is a corporate business partner; you’ll also learn more about her in future posts), three times at Brigham Young University, including one keynote address with Jacque at the Marriott Business School. There were formal book signings and readings, six firesides, a Mormon Women Project event, four book groups, a grief roundtable, a fun radio interview (will post that link soon) , a quick morning TV spot, and filming of the trailer for my upcoming book with Michelle (you’ll learn more about her and our friendship, too, here and in future posts), and many valuable side conversations with audience members and readers. Every single day––every hour, it seemed–– was weighted with meaning.

With Michelle and her daughter, Mary

With Michelle and her daughter, Mary

Request

If by chance you attended any of these events either at Harvard, in Cambridge, in western Massachusetts, in Salt Lake City, at BYU or any other venue, maybe you can leave a brief comment here about what you attended and experienced. It’s nice to see these things from others’ points of view. I won’t be able to do the entire tour justice unless I have participants’ input.

Home Again

I landed­ at the Geneva airport on Monday, February 17th—exhausted, (sort of), but primarily exhilarated, bone-deep grateful, and soaked-through with memories of people’s kindness­. I felt I could have turned around and done the whole thing all over again. Except for the fact that. . .

Meeting our daughter at the Geneva airport. The eyes tell volumes.

Meeting our daughter at the Geneva airport. Her eyes tell volumes. It is bewildering and sometimes painful to leave the rich mission experience and reenter mundane life.

…only 24 hours later, on Tuesday, February 18th, through those same sliding airport doors walked our daughter Claire, finally home with us after 18 months as a volunteer for our church in southern Italy. We have not see her face-to-face this whole time. (We’ve only exchanged weekly emails and Skyped three times, one hour a shot.) My next post will focus exclusively on her experience.

Christmas dismantled. On March 3rd.

Christmas dismantled. On March 3rd.

Fulfilling a promise we’d made to Claire many months ago, we celebrated Christmas Eve (The Sequel) on the 19th, and Christmas Day (The Sequel) on the 20th, on what would have been our Parker’s 25th birthday. It is difficult to share what these landmarks mean to me, to us, to our ongoing sense of family.  There has been a lot of smiling, crying, silence, laughter and embracing. And while it’s been thrilling to all be together, it’s also been sobering to not all be together.

Claire and Dalton

Claire and little brother Dalton

Claire and Luc

Claire and baby brother Luc

The day after the Christmas Day Sequel (and fulfilling another  promise we’d made earlier to Claire), we drove off for northern Italy, to Milan, with our Claire as translator, where we stumbled into Women Fashion Week, but quickly escaped in order to spend Sunday with the Di Caros, friends our Claire made during her missionary service. This visit (and the seven-course dinner served in their charming farm home surrounded by vineyards and beehives) deserves its own post, also coming. (With some great photos).

The Bradford and DiCaro women

The Bradford and Di Caro women

 

The whole family

Bradfords and Di Caros in Stradella, Lombardy

Not a single cracker here...

Not a single cracker anywhere here…

...but a perfect tiramisu.

…but a perfect tiramisu.

Cattle Truck Diva

Oliver bought her, cared for her, loaded her with heads of cattle and drove her from livestock auction to livestock auction up and down the state of Utah.  In places like Sanpete, Spanish Fork and Santaquin, she rolled in on dirt roads like she had rolled out of The Grapes of Wrath, only with a fancy new paint job. Fire engine red and nearly as big as your average city fire truck (though in his life Oliver had never lived in a big city, and had probably not seen a big city fire truck), she signaled far and wide to farm folk that Bishop Dalton, as they called him, was passing through. Rough hands shook over mottled heifers with molten eyes, and the red cattle truck trundled off, dust and trust billowing over the transaction.

Trip West 1960 (241)

Jessie was Oliver’s wife, the Belle of Springville and mother to four lanky farmhand sons, who chewed on wheat shafts and the ends of their sentences, and grunted submission when she hollered to “scrape that manure off those boots of yours before you enter my home!” She tolerated the red cattle truck in the driveway.  But only if its bulkiness didn’t make contact with her manicured rose garden or prized lilac hedges. Fragrance –– from homegrown flowers to flasks of perfume she kept in the velvet-lined drawers of her dressing table ––marked the borders of her domain.

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna and the lilac hedges

Donna would become Jessie’s daughter by marriage. Originally come north to Utah from the deserts of Arizona, Donna was raised by Mildred who had worked long, dull hours in a citrus-packing plant to fund the great dream: college, for all her six children. Donna was at university with one purpose, to sing. And it was while singing that she’d fallen for the blonde guy on the fiddle, the one who led the orchestra’s string section accompanying the choir concert where she soloed.

Donna with Oliver and Donna's parents, Leland and Mildred and the red cattle truck

The red cattle truck and Donna with Oliver and Donna’s parents, Leland and Mildred.

This was David, one of Oliver and Jessie’s cud-chewing farmhand sons who had shown just enough talent to set his heart on a future as a violinist. David had also set his heart on the brunette soprano standing in the university choir’s front row.  And as they say –– at least they said it in the1950’s –– the two ended up making beautiful music together.

David and Donna in concert

David and Donna in concert

They also ended up making for the due east. Leaving desert and Rockies, lilac hedges and red cattle trucks, they set out to study music at the finest schools and conservatories they could scarcely afford to get into.

Heading east

Heading east

Graduated couple

Graduated couple

In Vienna, Munich, at the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University – the two studied in tandem, parented in tandem (three daughters were born while they completed these studies), and finally, they built parallel careers. And a home. In tandem. In Utah.

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

Homebuilding gallery with the red cattle truck

FAM 1972 build house 079Donna became a melding of her two mothers, Mildred and Jessie, a thick crust of grit and workhorse filled with the sweet cream of cultivation and topped with a bright diva cherry. For a visual of her humility, tenacity and scope, imagine her pregnant with her fourth child, my younger brother, driving to and from opera rehearsals in the only second vehicle my frugal parents had: the red cattle truck.  Imagine her humming Puccini or Strauss while turning, with two hands the massive key that controlled the truck’s motor, a motor that grumbled, hissed and clunked like an apoplectic B-52 bomber. Then see her rappel, practically, down from the driver’s seat, slam the huge metal door, brush the dirt off her backside, and stride off to take to the stage.

Indiana 1967-70123Indiana 1967-70125Indiana 1967-70210BYU II UT 1970-064Indiana 1967-70211

A defining shift in my life occurred when I understood for the first time that not every mother practiced Italian arias while re-caulking shower tiles.  And that few ladies wore corsets and Renaissance wigs to their workplace after having hauled and laid bricks all weekend long.  And no one – I mean no one – in our neighborhood wore a paint-splattered denim mechanic’s jumpsuit to re-shingle the roof in the afternoon, then donned a purple paisley kaftan at dinnertime to stand out on the sidewalk and sing their children’s names on a high note and at the top of their lungs:  “Oh Daaaaaaaaltons!  Come to diiiiiiiiiiinneeeeeeeeeeer!”

Oliver has been gone for many years, as has been Jessie. My mother is now 79. My father turns 80 in a few days.  And today I am older than the Donna who hoisted two-by-fours and power saws, wore a brocade costume for a Wagnerian lead, sang for many years in the Tabernacle Choir, and drove a cantankerous hand-me-down monster truck. That red cattle truck, I suppose, has long since been turned to scrap.  The scrap has been melted down, poured into other uses, uses that will carry cattle. Or bricks. Or maybe an opera singer carrying a son. Or daughters who carry stories, and the stories carry us all.

Donna, my mother

Donna, my mother

 

So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

My mother is everywhere. In my father’s fifty years of personal photo archives, for instance, she shows up in the majority of the shots. Sometimes she’s the sole subject. Other times, she’s the single fleck of red in the corner of a frame.

SA181977 Israel GRE167

She wore a lot of red as I was growing up – a striking contrast to her rich black hair that became, over time, a crown of silver braids – and got used to carrying a red something-or-other to add that pop of life in pics dad would be shooting.

TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland152Decades before amateur photographers carried their self-focusing, self-editing, smart instruments in their breast pockets, he was carting a suitcase of lenses and tripods in one hand while wearing a big clunky Mamiya slung around his neck. They traveled the world. He shot it all. Mom was his favorite subject.

CNGRS17 2002 Seattle105

His shots captured both the minuscule and the majestic, and often, when he went for the grand sweep, he asked mom to stand “right over there, Donna,” in her red. Hat. Sweater. Coat. Shoes. Lipstick. Wearing red, she’d be the spot that heated things up with the shade of energy, of regeneration, the place a discerning eye first landed when scanning a photo.SA18 1977 Slz CZ DDR091

TRP6 1994 Noway bigtrp129CNGRS17 2001 NZ104TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland090

Today, I look at these shots – a colonnade, a hillside, a bench, a snowfield – and my head might register that I’m seeing a colonnade, hillside, bench, snowfield. But when I ask my deeper senses what they recall, the answer’s fast. They remember my mother’s red.

SA19 1977 Spain084SA19 1981 IT Slz Mu Vie033

In these thousands of images that chronicle our life, you could be fooled into thinking this mother of mine is a mere accessory. A lovely addition, but peripheral, a parsley-like adornment to the real, main thing. But that’s wrong. Her presence is no simple trimming. Because she doesn’t just complete the composition. She is its lifeblood.

SLZ 1977 UK NE Mu Wen034SA18 1977 FR UK0901975 Utah061

One of my closest friends buried her mother over the holidays. We two had spoken on the telephone on a Wednesday, and when I’d asked about her mom, my friend had mentioned her mom was a bit under the weather –– nothing radically out of the ordinary, though, she added, exhaling lightly.  My friend had to run. She was taking her car to the garage for some repairs before the projected winter storm slammed through town, and said she’d keep her cell handy, waiting for a text from a sibling for an update on their mom. Just in case.

Within 76 hours from our phone call, my friend’s mother was gone.

She wrote about her mother to me today, the day which happens to be my own mother’s 79th birthday:

“A package that she mailed to us for Christmas is still sitting in a stack in my entryway, waiting for the time that we can Skype a belated Christmas morning gift exchange. How could she be gone if I still haven’t opened that package? If I still have questions for her? If I still see things that will delight her?”

And I shut my laptop to the sound of my heart cracking down the middle.

Germany 1961-62122SA181977 Israel GRE047

To reflect on my mother’s vivid red lifeblood trail, of all that has delighted her, still delights her, delights me about her, of all that we have yet to delight in together, especially when another mother’s trail has run dry on this earth’s crust, is to plug into an industrial strength power source, twist the ribbed metal knob of my emotions all the way to the right, and brace myself. Things start rumbling then shaking – I feel it – and soon they’re shimmying and skidding across the floor.

Engagement, Marriage032

So I’ll save myself from dismantling, and will ratchet down the intensity, rein it in, by closing for today. I promise to write more about my mom and what her motherhood has meant and still means to me, and how her red bleeds into my motherhood still. For now, I leave you with a twist on William Carlos Williams, and some images of my magnificent mom-in-red, a color that runs through me.

Alabama 1966-67752

The Red

so much depends
upon

a red
mother

glazed with
lightshadow

beside her
children.

International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.

Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.

drumming

The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film.  Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.

Luc, thumbs up

Luc, thumbs up

Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay.  On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too.  They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.

Dalton, extended essay

Dalton, extended essay

Extended ecstacy

extended ecstasy

There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.

basketball champions

basketball champions

I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten.  Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .

For what?

volleyball buddies

volleyball buddies

For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it.  Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”

“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”

Hands were shooting up everywhere.

“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”

More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.

“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”

Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered:  Is she happy?

drumming at trocadéro

drumming at Trocadéro

And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.

“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”

for the school's cabaret

for the school’s cabaret

The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”

“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”

“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”

“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.

The men were quiet.

“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”

seniors

seniors

To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta.  Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.”  And I so want to weep.

Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball.  He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.

parker, age 9, his school stage

parker, age 9, his school stage

Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency.  They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.

The last week of Parker's life; shot taken at site of accident

The last week of Parker’s life; shot taken at site of accident

Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those  “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.

fam

And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its

1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,

2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,

3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,

4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and

5) its global grading practices …

And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth.  Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.

volleyball near the Eiffel tower

volleyball near the Eiffel Tower

portrait

International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 7; Extracurriculars

ib

“Your high school had what? ” Dalton asks me, “A band that. . . marched?!”

My teenaged boys, schooled only outside of the US, are finishing off their cannelloni for dinner. As is often the case, Dalton our IB student is venting about the pressures of his program and the gravitas of his educational trajectory.  So I am diffusing things by telling him what an advantage he and his brother have when entering college and a globally complex world and. . . Let’s fact it: I also want my hear my boys laugh. Mom’s high school experience, paleolithic as it was, should be hilarious enough to get us hooting.  At least I think so.

“Marched? But. . .why?” Luc asks, fork hovering midair, suspicion flattening then raising his brow.

“And with that band –– get this!” I paint the full picture, still hoping for humor, “There was a marching squad.”

“A squ–odd? Like police? Military?” Dalton drags the edge of a napkin around his gaping mouth. He then plants both hands on his forehead, and slumps. Stumped. Not a whole lot of laughter yet.

nashuatelegraph.com

nashuatelegraph.com

“Marching squad! Marching band! Flag twirlers! People who did serial back flips across the whole gymnasium! A mascot in a fuzzy dog costume. We had theme days, homecoming royalty, best dressed contests, most preferred couples. We had girl’s choice dances, modern dance club, clubs and clubs and more clubs.  A whole parade of what we called extra-curriculars.”

Our cannelloni is going cold and crusty.  “Extra-curriculars?” one of them stutters.

“Extras. Um . . . Non-academics. Did you know Dad was in sports practice every single day after school and sometimes before school, too? And he went on ‘away trips’ with those teams? I was on the debate and public speaking team.  I had a lot of music and theater. We had a full-blown theater department and an award-winning choir.  As a high school senior with lots of time on my hands, I was recruited to make life-sized caricatures of what we called the ‘varsity basketball team’ for something we called ‘pep assemblies.’ Assemblies were needed to boost ‘school spirit,’ a big deal in most American high schools. I also decorated the gym for dances, which we had, it seemed, every other month or so. High school was –” (why does this feel illicit as it leave my lips?)  “– fun.

“But that sounds like . . . And . . .you. . .” Dalton’s voice, usually resonant, grows thin, “You both got into college?

“Kind of a good college?” Luc asks, pushing his plate away and staring me up and down. Shame singes up and through me from my shoulders right to the last hair follicle on my head. My eyebrows are even smoking.

“Dad had. . .a 3.99 GPA, right?”

Ah, that legend, yes.  But a true one.

“Hold it,” Dalton blurts, things clicking maybe too quickly in his eyes.”This means that there might be kids out there applying to get into the colleges I’m applying to.” He speaks slowly, while his dimples go from peachy to raspberry,  “And these kids, they’ve had time to learn how to do backflips? And they’ve gotten to wear . . . dog costumes? They’ve had time to go. . . to a dance? To dances? They’ve had time. . . to dance?”

Pause.

And they all have 3.99 GPAs.

No amount of home-stuffed cannelloni is going to soften this blow.

ib profile

What my kids are grappling with is far bigger than a simple comparison of school systems; one kind that values bands, squads, mascots, dances, fun and pep, and another kind that doesn’t.  It’s also more than a comparison of IB vs. AP, of American vs. International schools, of supposed “fun” versus supposed “seriousness.”

Those comparisons are abstract. Concrete and even trickier will be applying to US universities, a process we are undergoing right now with Dalton.  Not surprisingly, besides GPAs, test scores, letters of recommendation and application essays, most US universities are highly interested in an applicant’s extra curricular involvement. Swim team. Concert master. Soccer goalie. Model UN. Thespian. Equestrian. Rodeo queen. Mascot. Back flips. You get the picture.

If you have followed a traditional US high school education, you will  have had not only a broad choice of extra curricular offerings embedded in your educational culture, but you will have had time and encouragement to do these things. The system, a reflection of the culture’s values, makes concessions for “fun.”

(Here I won’t bother delving into the millions upon millions of tax and private dollars that go each year to supporting US high school sports programs alone. But if that interests you, you might check here or here.)

highschoolsports.nj.com

highschoolsports.nj.com

So what happens if you are pursuing a program as rigorous as the full IB diploma in a bilingual international school, which academic demands don’t allow you to engage in many (if any) extra-curricular activities?  As crass as it sounds, you won’t have those strengths to pack your college application. Your “profile” as they say, will be weak.

Much more pernicious, in my opinion, is the threat on young minds, bodies and spirits when there is a blatant lack of bandwidth. They need to scream, cheer, run, make music, sing at the top of their lungs, run the court, do back flips or flip out, all in healthy ways. If not, they flip out in unhealthy ways.

And they need, oh do they need, adequate sleep.

Additionally and even more importantly, it is in these crucially developmental teen years that one learns about the value and satisfaction in service, about the profoundly binding language of music and theater and the building blocks of character, which begin with cooperation and camaraderie over competition.  All of these things can serve to develop compassion.

In response to a perceived imbalance of academics over non-academics, the IB developed what is called CAS (Creative Activity and Service) hours. CAS hours, which the IB website calls “a refreshing counterbalance to academic studies”, are a required element of the full IB.  What counts for CAS? You can tutor younger students, organize regional sports activities, direct a student production of Romeo & Juliet or play the accordion every weekend at a soup kitchen.  Or, as we’re learning, you’ll probably have to do all four to fulfill the CAS requirement.

high scool musical

The weakness I note here is that such activities are not built into the extant educational IB program as are extracurricular activities in a conventional US system. Perhaps CAS hours are more easily completed in US schools offering the IB because there is already in the US a cultural infrastructure that not only provides for but insists on sport, music, charitable engagement, entrepreneurial projects, student leadership.  My sense –– and it’s no more than a sense –– is that extracurricular involvement is more readily accessible, more robustly supported, more culturally self-evident within the American value system and therefore as part of the US educational approach than elsewhere in the world.

But it is all hard for me to judge how this plays itself out in today’s US schools. Hard to judge, at least, from where I sit. Fiddling with my now-brittle cannelloni.  Forcing some spurts of laughter with my boys. Making deliberate fun of my “fun” high school years.  Here, in the shadow of the wintery Swiss alps.

alpinist

alpinist

International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas

***

I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 5; Weighted Grades

You’re reading a post by a high school drop out.

pbs.org

pbs.org

In a manner of speaking. I more or less stopped going to high school half way through my senior (final) year. I wasn’t a vagrant (I wasn’t a “flunky”) nor was I brilliant (a savant heading off to MIT on scholarship.) It’s just that I’d turned 16, and according to the basic requirements of my school, I was done anyway. So I took only one academic course (AP English) while spending the rest of my time involved in student government, (elected positions of leadership.) Busy with non-core courses until June, I then donned the synthetic gown, the shiny mortar board, and walked up to get my diploma. Easy.

huffingtonpost

huffingtonpost

What classes did I take to fill my time? Student government, symphony orchestra, special string ensembles, A Capella choir, debate, public speaking, released time for religious instruction and an hour-long lunch break. I spent much of my time in rehearsals for drama and musical productions. With other students, I traveled regularly and regionally for orchestra, theater and competitive speech competitions. I got “A’s.”

And I took Driver’s Education.  I got an “A” in that class by mastering parallel parking on a couple of acres adjacent to the school, a swath of asphalt decorated with fluorescent safety cones like oversized candy corn decorating a gray cake. Cruising that parking lot was like visiting an amusement park. This meant that at the same time I got that high school diploma,  I also got a newly-minted US driver’s license.  When I tell this to my non-American friends, they just can’t fathom it. They also squint at me, and nod at why I’m such a weak mathematician. 

do something

do something

In many places outside of the US, getting secondary education degrees, like getting driver’s licenses, is designed without much amusement (or fun) in mind. Instead, it’s the great sifter.  It’s designed to be rigorous, even ruinous.  Just ask the woman who stood in front of me in the line in Singapore where we were filing in to take the written exam to qualify for that country’s driver’s license.  “My sixth time,” she whispered while sweat shimmered on her forehead and she rocked on her heels a bit, arms clenched against her belly as if she was birthing an alien.

Or ask the South Korean, Polish, and Finnish high school-aged students profiled by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. (I will return to this book and the linked article in my upcoming posts. Thanks to Janina, one of our readers here, who sent me the link. Provocative reading!)

the smartes kids

This year, US colleges will receive more applicants than ever before. What’s more, these applicants will come from more diverse secondary schooling systems than any previous year. Some will probably come from South Korea, Poland and Finland. I get dizzy (and for a moment just the slightest bit anxious) learning about what other cultures deem as “best and bright,” and when I skim the statistics about other US college applicants.  Thank goodness I do so only for these posts on education; normally, I’m not a rabid follower of such graphs and predictors. I’m no way a Tiger Mom. In our home, whenever we speak the word “Ivy” it’s about leaves, not League. 

But my kids are heading to college. Two already have, two will yet. And the younger ones are facing an even more competitive college application scenario than the oldest two did, just 5 and 8 years ago. It is impossible to escape the roiling undercurrent of competition in today’s college entrance process, or the fact that the admissions process, complicated and unreliable as it is, depends primarily on numerical indicators to sift through the thousands of profiles piling up this very hour. Those numerical indicators seem to favor (who’s surprised by this?) numerical or quantitative skills!  Many colleges don’t even consider the written part of the SAT, a major disappointment for someone like our children, whose strengths (and who’s surprised by this?) lie in languages, critical thinking and verbal/written expression.

This all colors one’s GPA, of course. GPA is, for most if not all universities, the first numerical benchmark to determine a student’s ranking. But the problem with GPA is that while some post-secondary institutions have manpower and time to consider the nuances of such numbers, many do not. Certain classes, like instructors, like high schools, like countries – will produce widely varying grades. I pointed to this in my last post.  Not all these differences can be justly weighed.

Stop and think for just a moment: You and I know, while peacefully reading this post, that an “A” given for Driver’s Education (or student government or cheerleading) in an average US public high school is lightweight – featherweight – an easy “A”. We understand it’s nowhere on the same weight scale as a 7 (A+) given to a Full IB Diploma student in a HL (Higher Level) Chemistry course in a college prep school. The problem is that many colleges do not make the distinction between heavy, welter or featherweight.

(Should they first distinguish that driving or cheering not be part of any high school’s academic curriculum? That such grades not be included in the GPA in the first place?)

To simplify the process, college admissions personnel are looking first at the cumulative GPA and test scores.  A high number on either can be a foot-in the admissions door. When heavy (rigorous, college-level, mercilessly graded) courses combine for a lower GPA, that can mean the admissions door is summarily closed. The fundamental problem, I believe, is that weighting grades (or courses or instructors or overall high school or even country reputations) is too nuanced and subjective an undertaking to be carried out fairly. 

So what can one do? The response I hear often is to counterbalance a “weak” (below 3.5) GPA by building a portfolio of leadership and extra-curricular strengths. Design solar powered homes in Costa Rica, they say. Start a soup kitchen in Detroit. Run for office. Discover a planet. Whatever you do, you’d better stockpile your extra-curriculars. Theater. Speech. Orchestra. Cheerleading. Driver’s Ed.

And you see we’re back where we started.

pbs.org

pbs.org