SoCS: JC’s Confessions #25

When I saw that Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was “key,” I knew that this would be another intersection with JC’s Confessions, my occasional series in which I “confess” to things that aren’t really sins but that I feel vaguely guilty about. (I’ll paste the usual intro to JC’s Confessions at the end of this post.)

I sometimes wear my Phi Beta Kappa key when I am nervous about a challenging meeting as a confidence booster. It’s on a necklace chain, so it isn’t that noticeable and, if someone does notice it, they are likely to think that it’s just my sorority or my husband’s fraternity key. (This would only be possible if the person doesn’t know us. I went to Smith College, which does not have sororities. B’s university did have fraternities but he would never have considered joining one.)

I think the origin of my feeling guilty about it is that I’m wearing it as a secret reminder that I am intelligent in the best liberal-artsy way, that I can use those skills to delve into new terrain, and that I can contribute to solutions to complicated problems.

That I want my membership in Phi Beta Kappa to be a secret is the problem.

So, I was always a good student. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, which, at that time, placed me in the top 1% of my class. I made first election to Phi Beta Kappa in the fall of my senior year.

There is somehow in the United States an undercurrent of suspicion of people who are “smart.” Having been a good student is taken to mean that you must hold yourself above others. This is not at all true of me but others may assume it is and react in a hostile way.

I nearly always kept my little secret undetected. The one time someone noticed and commented on my key was when I was serving as a parent volunteer on a school district committee doing curriculum work. It was daunting for me to be the one person who was not a professional educator. We did do training together for the work but I had to rely on my personal skills and intellect rather than on pertinent academic background in education. Thus, my need to boost my confidence with my key.

During a break, one of the teachers commented on my Phi Beta Kappa. I probably blushed! In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me, as he earned a couple of degrees from Harvard himself and would certainly have known those Greek letters when he saw them.

It was nice to have someone in on my secret that day, someone who understood what it meant without thinking I was being a show-off.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve worn my Phi Beta Kappa key. My life has been much more contained, especially since COVID appeared.

Maybe I’ll wear it someday not as a confidence booster but as a celebration of my now long ago academic past.

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

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As previously mentioned, Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “key.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/19/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-20-2022/

My 40th reunion at Smith

Last week, I attended my fortieth reunion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who may not be familiar, Smith is a women’s liberal arts college, chartered in 1871, one of the traditional Seven Sisters, five of whom remain as women’s colleges.

I came into town a day early in order to meet up with an alumna friend who lives in Northampton and graduated a year before me. Her sister was a member of my class and passed away in fall 2020. I was honored to be able to commemorate her at the Service of Remembrance during our reunion. My ’81 friend and I enjoyed hours of conversation on her front porch, followed by dinner on the porch at Mulino’s, an Italian restaurant that did not exist back in my student days.

I stayed at the historic Hotel Northampton, which has fun features like a mail slot near the elevators on each floor that connects to a large brass mailbox on the main floor for pick-up by the postal service every morning. I also got to do a bit of shopping at Thorne’s Marketplace, a collection of local shops and restaurants housed in a grand historic building. Thorne’s was a fairly new undertaking back in my undergrad days and I’m glad to see that it continues to thrive. I bought some cards and gifts and books and made two trips to Herrell’s ice cream shop. I got a sampler each time, so I got to enjoy eight – count ’em, eight! – of their delicious homemade flavors. This will surprise no one that knows me. I also got to have lunch at Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant/bar that was also relatively new during my student days. I had mac ‘n cheese that featured fresh asparagus from a farm in nearby Hadley. I love asparagus, which is one of the glories of spring in New England; it reminds me of going with my parents to harvest a patch near my father’s hydro station, a remnant of a garden from an old company-owned house that had been torn down.

On Thursday afternoon, I went up to campus for the duration of reunion. Because of the pandemic, everyone had to have proof of vaccination and boosting to register and many of the meals and events were held outdoors. Indoor events were masked, except while eating and drinking. I immediately met up with some of my ’82 friends and the celebration began!

One of the things about Smith reunions – and Smith alums in general – is that we somehow manage to have meaningful conversations with each other at the drop of a hat. Perhaps because of our shared liberal arts background, we are engaged with a broad range of topics across current affairs, public policy, arts and culture, and on and on. Of course, the deepest conversations happen with our close friends but there is a lot of sharing of ideas with acquaintances, too. In retrospect, I wish I had prepared a succinct answer to the question “What do you do?” Lacking a shorthand reply, like “I’m a lawyer, working for this government agency” or “I teach at such-and-such school”, I found myself stumbling to explain forty years of my life in any brief, comprehensible way.

Unlike the vast majority of my classmates, I’ve done little paid work in my life. I’ve devoted many years to being a caregiver of both elder and younger generations, with more than our share of medical issues. I’ve volunteered in church music and liturgical ministry and facilitated a spiritual book study group. During my daughters’ years in public school I served on curriculum committees and shared decision making teams and helped design the honors program at the high school. I joined NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, in 2000 to advocate for social justice. I was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York which finally achieved an administrative and later legislative ban in our state; this led to ongoing involvement in the fight for climate and environmental justice. There is my writing life, as a blogger and poet.

This does not condense into an easy answer to “What do you do?” but it does constitute the bulk of my adult life, which would not have been as rich and varied were it not for my Smith education. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that you “learn how to learn.” By studying across the spectrum of academic disciplines, one absorbs different approaches to real-life issues, enabling critically sound and creative solutions that promote well-being for ourselves and others and for our environment.

Maybe I should have replied, “Just forty years of being liberal-artsy.”

The other thing that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the flood of family memories. Because it was only an hour-ish drive to campus, my parents visited often for concerts and events. They were there for my recitals in Helen Hills Hills Chapel and John M. Greene Hall. They visited at Haven House where I lived all four of my years on campus. There were there, of course, at B and my wedding, a few weeks after commencement with the reception at the Alumnae House. This reunion was the first time since their deaths that I was back on campus and missing them added another layer to the strange mix of familiarity and difference that the passage of forty years brings. For example, I thought about my parents when we were attending the remembrance service, sitting in rows of chairs where the pews had once stood. The pews were removed years ago to allow for more flexible use of the space but their absence felt strangely current when I remembered B and my parents there in the front pews on either side for our wedding.

I also found myself missing my mother in particular among the spring flowers. We were blessed with unusually warm weather for mid-May and the flowers and trees were blooming simultaneously and profusely in response. The scent of the lilacs between the President’s House and the Quad, where we were staying, was so overwhelming I nearly choked. There were lily-of-the valley in bloom, which are Nana’s birth flower. What would have been her 90th birthday was the day after reunion and the third anniversary of her death is a few days from now.

I’m grateful to have been among friends who could support me with this grief aspect. Many of us have lost our parents now, with some still in the phase of dealing with their final years and indeterminate endpoint. As classmates, we were also dealing with the deaths of more of our ’82ers, adding to the list that, sadly, began during our senior year when we lost one classmate in a plane accident and a second to cancer. That’s why I and some friends always make a point to attend the service of remembrance during reunion. We want to honor our departed ones and their importance in our lives, even if they left us long ago. After the service, we visited the memorial tree planted beside the chapel in honor of our classmate Beth. We took a photo which we will send to her mother, who I know finds comfort that we remember her all these decades after her death.

While the central activity in reunion is visiting friends, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy. Some are long-standing traditions, such as Ivy Day when the alums, wearing white, parade between rows of the graduating seniors, also wearing white and carrying red roses, welcoming them into the community of alumnae. The night before commencement, the central campus is illuminated with Japanese lanterns. People stroll among them with live music in several locations.

There are also a number of lectures, receptions, and concerts. The President gave an update on the state of the college. Everyone is very excited that grants are replacing loans in financial aid packages at Smith, making an education possible without graduating in debt. Smith also highlights its accessibility for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. That was my situation forty years ago but it was not recognized in the way it is today. I also attended two lectures of interest. One was how the Botanic Gardens are being re-imagined in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and best practices for preserving species in the face of climate change, all with an eye toward education and social/environmental justice. The other was about the transition of campus to ground-source heating and cooling, which will be a major contributor to Smith being carbon-neutral by 2030 without making extensive use of purchased off-sets. I was particularly interested in this because of the projects we have done at our home to reduce our carbon footprint and because my church is in the process of drawing up a strategic plan to reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels.

Besides college activities, we had a few opportunities just for our class. I alluded to one in this post – an open mic event to read something from our college years. I chose a passage from my adult psychology course journal about my experience coming from a tiny town to Smith. A few of us had brought something with us but we had time to do additional sharing which was fun. Our class theme for Reunion was “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I appreciated that our futures also came into that discussion.

We were also honored to have a preview screening of Where I Became, a documentary about South African students who came to Smith during apartheid. Our classmate Jane Dawson Shang is co-producer and shared some of her experiences making the film. When it becomes publicly available, I will surely share that information here at Top of JC’s Mind so everyone can see the remarkable story of these women.

Reunions at Smith are always exhilarating but exhausting. I had originally planned to attend commencement on Sunday morning but opted for quiet conversation with friends. Walking 17-20,ooo steps a day for three days straight in hot. humid weather proved to be a bit much for my feet and ankles, which swelled rather impressively.

It also meant that my reunion experience ended with what is always most important, sharing with friends in a place that was instrumental to our lives. I hope to see some of them and return to campus before our next reunion.

Five years seems too long to wait.

upcoming reunion

Later this week, I will travel to Northampton, Massachusetts to attend my fortieth reunion at Smith College. We only found out on March first that our reunion would be on campus rather than virtual, so a lot of direct preparation was done relatively quickly and closer to the event than in prior iterations.

One unexpected task that fell to me was updating our class website. I was lucky that it was built on the WordPress platform, although it was still using the classic rather than the block editor. Fortunately, I have been blogging long enough that I had experience with the older editor, although it did take a fair amount of reaching into my memory banks to resurrect some of the particulars. It was also good that there were templates in place from our reunion five years ago so that I didn’t have to build from scratch.

I am fortunate to live close enough to drive, so I didn’t have to worry about plane reservations. I did decide to come into town a day early to see some friends who live in the area before reunion begins. Due to pandemic protocols, the campus is not open to the public as it usually is, so it made sense to see friends before and then stay on campus exclusively once reunion begins.

All alums and guests had to prove they are vaccinated and boosted to register to attend. Many of the activities and meals will be held outdoors with masks in use for indoor events other than while eating and drinking. Campus will be very busy because our reunion coincides with commencement weekend this year, so the seniors and their guests, along with students who are participating in or working for the festivities and staff members, will be thronging the buildings and grounds. (It could be worse. All reunions used to be held on commencement weekend. Now, only some are with the rest happening the following weekend.)

I’m working on final preparations for packing. I have to remember to bring an all-white outfit for the Ivy Day parade and ceremony, one of the very-long-standing traditions of the College. I’ll need to be prepared for the changeable weather of a New England spring. I also need to be prepared to deal with my new orthodontia, which is causing more than a little anxiety.

The most fraught thing is trying to decide what to bring for one of our class events. We are having an open mic-style reading of things from our student days. I’ve known for months that this was planned but I was in no mood to look back that far. Our class theme is “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I would have much preferred looking forward, but I recently decided that I should look for something to add to the event.

B helped me excavate some of my old memorabilia boxes. To my shock, I found some papers going back to elementary school, including a poetry journal that I had thought was lost long ago. There were some high school papers, too. I read an interview assignment that a friend and I had done in journalism class our senior year. The bulk of the papers were from college, though. Note books from some of my most important classes. Music I had written for theory and composition classes. Yellow books for midterm exams and blue books for finals. Final papers carefully typed on corrasable bond.

I had hoped to find some of my letters but their whereabouts are still a mystery. I did, though, find the one notebook that I thought might have something from my college years worth sharing – a journal that I was assigned to keep as part of an adult psychology course I took the fall semester of my senior year.

The journal was designed to be self-reflective, as well as responding to course readings and discussions, so I thought I might find something personally substantive rather than just academic to share. Something that represented who I was at twenty-one. Something that would be authentic but not totally mortifying in hindsight.

And I did.

Before I go on, I should explain what that semester was like for me. I was taking adult psychology and a course on women and philosophy, an early foray into what eventually evolved into the women and gender studies department. I chose these courses in hopes of learning things that would be helpful to me in my life after graduation. I was also taking a seminar in music composition and preparing for my senior recital, a full-length organ program on stage at John M. Greene Hall. B and I were engaged and our wedding was already planned at Smith a few weeks after my commencement. I was very much in a preparatory mode for my future “adult” life.

And then, things happened.

There were two unexpected deaths in October. The first was a classmate who was killed in a plane accident over October break. The second was B’s grandfather, his last remaining grandparent. Then, at Thanksgiving in late November, B had a bad car accident, as in, his car wound up on its roof in an icy, but thankfully shallow, river. He wasn’t injured but we were both traumatized at how close he came to disaster.

So, here I am, forty-and-a-half years later reading this journal…

I was surprised by how astute I was in my analysis, by how much of what I consider to be my core identity now was already there. The high school interview I found in the memorabilia box described me as “serious”; my college friends would most likely have used that word, too. The advantage I have looking back now is that I can recognize the role of my level of introversion, my need to ponder extensively before I speak, my discomfort at speaking in groups, my penchant for wanting to understand and integrate everything, what I now recognize as the gifts of being an INFJ and an HSP but what I thought of then as traits I could change if I just tried hard and long enough.

I had forgotten how painfully aware I was of these things about myself and how I congratulated myself when I managed to cover them in social situations. Over the ensuing decades, I would get more practiced at this but my core has remained the same. Just in the last few years, when introversion has been more in public view with books like Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I’ve come to understand that there isn’t any shame in being who I am. As I’ve weathered the final years of my parents’ lives and the pandemic, it’s become more evident to me that I need to take my inherent nature into account as I plan my “next chapters”. While there will always be some situations in which I need to make myself heard in a large group discussion or react quickly to an event, I will try to tailor most of my activities to play to my strengths and not waste energy on pretending to be someone who is outgoing and quick on my feet.

I am comforted by knowing that I had the same core at twenty-one that I have at sixty-one and that I understood more about myself at that age than I expected. I suppose that some people might be perturbed to discover such resonance with their younger selves, as though it meant that they hadn’t learned anything or grown over the decades. For me, though, I recognize that I have grown and changed and learned from my experience, all while staying true to my authentic core as a person.

I look at this journal now with what I hope are wiser eyes than the somewhat bleary ones of a college senior scrawling long-hand in a notebook, getting ready to graduate, marry, move to a new state, and deal with any number of unexpected things.

I hope I’m wise enough now to choose a passage to share at reunion that gives a sense of who I was then and still am today.

orthodontia

I’ve spent years dealing with other people’s orthodontia. Spouse B in his twenties needed braces to correct his bite and preserve his teeth for the long haul. Both of our daughters inherited his jaw and went through an assortment of jaw growth appliances, full wires, headgear, and retainers.

I did a lot of traipsing people to appointments and making soft foods and supervising tooth hygiene and such, but never had to directly deal with orthodontia myself.

Until now.

My mouth has always been small for my teeth. I had to have all four of my impacted wisdom teeth removed surgically because there was nowhere for them to go. My bite had been good in my younger years, so I hadn’t had to worry about braces, but, as I’ve aged, my teeth have moved and crowded together in such a way that my bite is affected. In order to preserve my teeth for what we are hoping will be another couple of decades, I needed to take action.

Last week, I started treatment with the Invisalign system. Several weeks before, my dentist’s office had taken a series of digital photos and measurements, which Invisalign used to create fifteen pairs of clear aligners which will gradually shift the teeth into their new positions. Each set is worn for two to three weeks. There are little pegs bonded to some of my teeth to help keep the aligners in place, although they fit pretty tightly on their own. The system is designed for the aligners to be worn at least 20-22 hours a day. They need to be removed to eat or drink anything other than cool to room temperature water.

Adjusting to this is…a process.

I’m finding that taking the liners in and out is subject to a fairly steep learning curve. By design, the liners are tightly fit and put pressure on the teeth to shift them, so there is a fair amount of finesse required to get them out and then snapped back in place. As you can imagine, the teeth of a 61-year-old are not especially inclined to move quickly in a new direction and will probably noticeably loosen a bit to accomplish this, but these first few days are causing considerable discomfort, especially during the removal and insertion process, while brushing, and while eating. Due to my particular problems, biting into anything with my front teeth is not possible at the moment.

My mouth is fairly comfortable when the liners are in, so I am minimizing the number of times I have them out. Fortunately, I often only eat twice a day and don’t snack or drink anything other than water between meals, so I’m cutting down on the amount of pain. I’m trying not to catastrophize this initial adjustment period as indicative of the eight to nine months of expected treatment time. I spoke with the dentist’s office yesterday and, while I seem to be on the more severe side of the discomfort scale, they expect that I will get adjusted soon and then be more in line with the usual day or two of discomfort when progressing to a new set of liners.

We did decide to adjust when I would make that move due to a personal commitment. Rather than moving to set two next Wednesday night, I am going to delay to the following Sunday. As it happens, I will be travelling to Northampton, Massachusetts, that Wednesday to attend my fortieth reunion at Smith College. There will be lots of group meals and receptions and some longer periods of time when my liners will need to be out, so it’s best to not have the extra pain and complication of a new set of liners thrown in on top of that.

I’m also hoping that I will be more adept at getting the liners in and out by then. My goal is to get to the point where I can accomplish this in under a minute. Now, it can take several (uncomfortable) minutes in front of a sink and mirror, which may be difficult, or at least embarrassing, to engineer on a campus with thousands of soon-to-be-graduates, students, staff, alums, and guests.

I am nothing if not persistent, so I will keep working on this adjustment and deal with whatever complications come my way. This trip to Northampton will be a trial run for travelling with Invisalign because B, T, and I will be heading to London late in May to visit daughter E and family. We will be there for granddaughter ABC’s fifth birthday in early June.

At least, birthday cake is easy to chew!

SoCS: travel

Now that it’s (maybe) safer to travel, there are a few trips that I and/or family members may take this spring.

T is going to a high school friend’s wedding in Florida in April. Arrangements are all in place so this is the surest bet to happen.

The three of us have been wanting to get back to the western MA/southern Vermont area where B and I grew up and where we still have friends and relatives. Maybe we will actually make it when the weather is better and we work through a few health things that have been annoying us lately. At the moment, it’s snowing like crazy, a reminder that spring is not here yet.

B and I also are hoping for a getaway this spring. It’s been a while since the two of us could do this, first due to caring for our elders and then still having the pandemic hanging around. Granted, the pandemic is still with us, much as we all wish it were over, but the rates of infection are finally getting down to where leisure travel is possible. My sisters gave me a lovely gift certificate to a posh Finger Lakes inn that I want to use this spring, especially because our 40th anniversary is approaching.

Speaking of 40th, my reunion at Smith College is in May. We finally got word on March 1st that it will be in person. (The last couple of years had been virtual due to the pandemic.) We haven’t started the registration project yet but I’m definitely planning to attend and stay on campus, as is traditional. Our reunion will be the same weekend as commencement; it’s always great and energizing to be on campus with the students and a fuller celebration of the traditions, such as Ivy Day and Illumination Night.

I also have my fingers crossed for another trip to London to visit daughter E and family. We are hoping for June but it’s so hard to say right now if it will be possible. Will there be another variant racing around the globe? Will there be war ongoing? It’s so painful to think of the current suffering, much less project its horrifying dimensions into the future.

Which trips will take place and which will (yet again) be deferred? I don’t know, but it’s likely that you will find out here at Top of JC’s Mind.
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Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is trip. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/03/11/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-12-2022/

the pleasures and dangers of poetry readings

One of the opportunities that has arisen during the pandemic is the easy availability of poetry readings, as many institutions have re-imagined their live readings as online events.

I admit that I wasn’t in the habit of going to a lot of readings in-person before the pandemic. They are usually in the evenings and I try to keep as much evening time reserved for family as possible, so it was difficult for me to commit to the transport time plus the reading time. That is less of a factor now that I can attend and still be at home, in case something comes up that needs my immediate attention.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a virtual book launch for fellow Boiler House Poets Collective member Erica Bodwell’s Crown of Wild. I heard one of my Smith College poetry godmothers Anne Harding Woodworth read from her new book Trouble, as well as her previous books. I’ve tuned into readings sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center and the Binghamton University Center for Writers. I have even participated in an online reading with the Binghamton Poetry Project.

It’s been wonderful to hear poets reading their work and I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to hear poets speak about their lives and work in interviews or question and answer sessions.

I admit, though, that these discussions, particularly when they take place in academic settings, can shake my sense of myself as a poet.

I consider myself to be a community poet, meaning that my work is informed by my experiences much more so than by my academic background. While I have been blessed with learning about craft through the Binghamton Poetry Project, the Broome County Arts Council, Sappho’s Circle, and my poet-friends of the Grapevine Group and Boiler House Poets Collective, the last time that poetry was a significant part of my academic work was in grammar school, many decades ago. I’ve also learned a lot by reading different poets.

In comments in their readings, poets that I admire talk about the wonders of writing in forms like sonnets or villanelles and how this focuses their writing.

I’ve tried variously to write in form. I’ve never managed to write a traditional sonnet or villanelle that was worth making it out of my notebook.

The thought of trying to write a decent sestina is enough to make me break out in hives.

I do a bit better with forms that have made their way into English from Japan. I have written some successful haiku, tanka, and haibun. I am especially fond of tanka and have included several in my chapbook manuscript, which is still in circulation with publishers and amassing an impressive list of rejections. (Note to self: send more submissions.)

When I am feeling shaken about not having formal training, an English major, or an MFA with all their attendant skills and expertise, I try to remember the times that my poet-friends have reassured me that, although my poetry is different, it is still worthwhile – and that I am indeed a poet.

Now if I can just find those presses and publishers that agree…

anniversary reflections

Earlier this month, I wrote about June birthdays and mentioned B and my 38th wedding anniversary while writing for Stream of Consciousness Saturday here.

Our celebration of our anniversary was different this year. We usually try to go away for a couple of days, usually to a small inn in an historic, picturesque location where there are nice places to stroll and good restaurants.

This year, B did get to take most of the day off from his now-working-from-home job. We did go out briefly for a couple of socially distanced errands and an afternoon visit to the walk-up window at a favorite local ice cream shop, but we made dinner at home with T and had a quiet evening in. All of which seemed right for this somber time.

Thirty-eight years is a respectable amount of time for a marriage and gives me hope that, if we can keep life-threatening disease at bay, we will be able to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, as we were able to do with our own parents.

Perhaps because we are hearing so much about people changing the date or plans for their weddings, I find myself thinking about B and my wedding, the changes in plan that it entailed, and how it was perceived.

Because B and I were planning to marry shortly after I graduated from Smith College, my mother and I did most of the planning the summer before my senior year. Those were still the days where the tradition of the bride and her family doing most of the wedding arrangements (and paying the costs) was still observed, especially when the bride was young and not established in a career. I chose to be married at Helen Hills Hills chapel on the Smith campus. I had been involved in the life of the chapel throughout my years at Smth, as an organist, choir member, and accompanist and was close to Sister Judith, the Catholic chaplain. The reception would be at the Alumnae House, a short walk down Elm Street from the chapel.

There was no resident priest on campus, so an associate from one of the Northampton parishes presided at mass on Saturdays. I asked him to preside at our wedding ceremony and he agreed. In January, he was re-assigned to a nearby city and decided that he would not come to the wedding. A young priest who was assigned to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst was filling in at Smith for the spring semester became the default priest for our wedding.

This turned out to be very problematic.

He didn’t know me – that I had been serving as a Catholic church musician for over seven years, that I took my faith seriously, and that I had also studied the history of Christianity in the United States and around the world. He also didn’t trust me, which was hurtful. When I met with him to do the questionnaire that is required, he made me swear on a bible to tell him the truth, as though I was going to lie to a priest.

In May, during the reading period before my last-ever final exams, the priest and I were taking a walk on the Smith campus to finalize some of the details. Because B is not Catholic, we were having a ceremony, not a mass, which should have made things more flexible. The priest, however, would not allow any changes in wording, would not allow Sister Judith to read the gospel or offer a reflection, which should have been allowed outside a mass. As we were finishing the walk, he said to me that he thought I would be more comfortable being married in a non-Catholic ceremony.

I was devastated. It was six weeks before the wedding and I didn’t have a member of clergy to preside. I went to the chapel offices in tears. Sister Judith wasn’t there, but Rev. John, the ecumenical Protestant chaplain was. He immediately offered to preside and gave me some different prayer books to look through to find a new ceremony to follow. We had to file dispensations of place and form so that the Catholic church would recognize the marriage and the priest would still read the vows, although they would be from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The best outcome was that Sister Judith delivered a beautiful reflection.

People often say that their wedding days are perfect and they wouldn’t change a thing, but there are some things I would change if I could. I would have made a recording of the ceremony because Sister Judith spoke without notes, so I have only memories and not a record of what she said. I also would have ignored the advice of the wedding gown shop and not worn heels and a headpiece that stood up on my head. Because B is about ten inches (25cm) taller than I, they were trying to make me look taller, which seemed silly at the time and even sillier now. Most of all, I would change the trauma and drama of the clericalism that led to my not having a Catholic wedding, the clericalism that still infects the church and causes so much damage.

Our wedding and reception were designed to be an adult affair, so we didn’t invite children. This wasn’t unusual at the time, but didn’t set well with a family member who wanted their grandchildren to be invited. I’m still sorry that those young cousins had a very boring day.

Some of the adults were bored and upset, too, although I, thankfully, was not aware of it at the time. The Alumnae House could serve wine but not liquor, which upset some people who somehow thought they were owed an open bar. We also did not have dancing; neither B nor I enjoy dancing and Alumnae House is not set up for it. After dinner and our delicious spice cake with buttercream icing, a break from the super-sweet white cake with white frosting that was traditional at the time, B and I went from table to table, visiting with our guests. Strangely, after we talked to people at a table, most left, so that, by the time, I changed to leave for our honeymoon, only immediate family and a few close friends were left to wave good-bye.

I don’t regret our reception choices, which reflected our personal style and preferences. I was sad that some guests gave my mother grief, although I didn’t realize that was happening at the time; it was very rude. I was also sad that people were putting their expectations over our true-to-ourselves choices.

My biggest take-away in looking back on the not-entirely-perfect wedding day that B and I had 38 years ago and in hearing so many stories of couples re-defining their own weddings due to the pandemic is that, while weddings are important days in our lives, they are just one day in a marriage. The accumulation of those days, each presenting joys and challenges, is what is most important.

Love is always most important.

Smith commencement

On this weekend in an ordinary year, the Smith College campus and Northampton, Massachusetts would have been awash in graduating students, their families, and returning alumnae, participating in the traditional activities of commencement and reunion. (While all reunions used to be held simultaneously, now only landmark years, such as the 25th and 50th hold reunions in conjunction with commencement weekend. The other classes meet on the following weekend.)

This year, though, because of the pandemic, the festivities moved online. Saturday evening, the campus would have been illuminated with hundreds of lanterns. Instead, there was a global illumination event, with alumnae and friends of Smith lighting their own lanterns or candles in honor of the class of 2020.  Commencement was livestreamed on Facebook, with a special Zoom experience for graduates, family, and friends.

As a proud member of the class of ’82, I watched the first part of the ceremony. (I admit that I didn’t watch the conferral of degrees, which included the name and photo of each graduate.) I was surprised by how often the alumnae were invoked in the addresses. It’s comforting to know that the strong connections among alumnae and to the institution persist, despite the efforts to divide people that have been so worrisome in the United States in recent years. I add my sincere good wishes to the new alumnae as we all try to find a positive path in the face of these troubled times.

Here are some of the things about the ceremony that I found especially striking:

  • The acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of the region where the Smith campus now is by Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Matilda Rose Cantwell ’96
  • The strong bond that President Kathleen McCartney has with the students, the alumnae, and the entire campus community and the sensitivity with which she treated the disruption of the pandemic
  • That 2020 Senior and Alumnae Class President Dimitra Konstantinos Sierros chose to attend Smith for much the same reason I had – because the students she met as a high schooler were so engaged and interesting that she wanted to be a part of such a vibrant community
  • That Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drew together the accomplishments of notable alumnae and the activism of the class of 2020 in her commencement address, while looking forward to the future endeavors of the graduates

This is not a reunion year for my class. When we meet for our 40th in 2022, I expect that there will be a vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 widely available so that we will be allowed to travel and gather on campus, although masks and less physical contact may still be a feature of post-pandemic life. I sense, though, that this experience of nurturing community at a distance will make our bonds even stronger.

The class of 2020 may prove to have the strongest bonds of all.

Why we went to Slovenia

I have done a couple of posts on Slovenia here and here, but am hoping to do a series of posts on different things that we did and saw there. I thought I’d start on the reason we travelled to Slovenia.

I am a member of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sing at occasional events on campus in Northampton, Massachusetts, and every other year or so, go on an international tour. This year, we spent a week in Slovenia. We sang the Haydn Missa in Angustiis, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass, and the Duruflé Requiem, in conjunction with orchestra, tenors, and basses from Slovenia. We did have a few tenors and basses of our own along, mostly spouses of alumnae, but, as a women’s college, the vast majority of our chorus is sopranos and altos.

We performed two concerts under the direction of our conductor Jonathan Hirsh on our last two evenings in Slovenia. Our Friday night performance was at the cathedral in Koper.
Koper cathedral performance

On Saturday night, we performed at Saint James’ Church in Ljubljana. To our surprise, a representative from the United States Embassy came to greet us and the performance was recorded by the Slovenian public broadcasting service.
St. James Ljubljana performance

To the delight of the audience, Maestro Hirsh addressed them in Slovene before each concert. He told them a bit about our chorus’s mission to collaborate with local musicians when we toured and a bit about each piece. Both were written in times of strife and uncertainty. The Haydn, which was the first half of the concert, ends with a forceful plea for peace. The Duruflé, however, is much more meditative and ends very quietly with the “In Paradisum” as the soul enters into paradise. Mr. Hirsh asked the audience to take a few moments to reflect before applauding.

Those moments of silence, after the last chord had finished reverberating in those magnificent spaces, were incredibly moving, illustrating the power of music to reach across language, social differences, and time to touch hearts and minds.

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