By Maureen Sullivan Keleher
PROMPT — Who am I today?
I am my mother. I am not my mother. I want to keep everyone happy. I want to speak up and make myself happy.
Today in sophomore English, I read Billy Collins' poem "On Turning Ten" with my students over zoom. I was thinking that this poem might resonate more with them than the Tralfamadorians' sense of time in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I don't blame them for being confused by the Tralfamadorians. The first time I read Slaughterhouse Five, over twenty years ago, I had no idea what was going on. I got through it, but I thought, Gracious, I need to sit through a senior class where Donna (colleague) teaches this novel. She had the structure of the novel down, and could break it into manageable parts to such a degree that every character and symbol and motif seemed obvious, glaringly obvious.
The Tralfamadorians don't see life as a linear experience. They see it as all moments at the same time, co-existing. They see it like a mountain range, peaks and lows all together, not separated or chronological. Their version of time is so antithetical to ours, or at least to mine. I am a linear thinker, goal-oriented, hour to hour and point to point. Step to step to get to desired goal. This summer I want to write every day, learn piano by picking up a song that one of the kids is working on and trying a measure or two, add to my Italian vocabulary. I will be able to see how I started with nothing, reached point A by one date and point B by another date. So, no, the Tralfamadorian version of time is not mine.
But then, as Billy Pilgrim experiences a moment in time and then is thrown into another moment of which he is reminded, I think Oh yes! This is how time works. One moment reminds us of another moment that we think of as past, but really, it's also our present. And our future.
In Billy Colllins' "On Turning Ten" the speaker was an Arabian wizard at one age and a soldier and a prince at others. He used to think that, if he skinned his knee, he would shine. He learns, upon turning ten, that, when he skins his knee, he actually bleeds.
I am not just a forty-seven year old woman, mom, friend, teacher, wife, neighbor.
I am also still the six-year-old who rejoiced when she realized that her first grade teacher, Sister Patricia Anne, adored her.
I am still the teenager who decided, when she saw the confidence of her siblings and a parent collapse, that she would never allow someone to take away her confidence.
I am still the twenty-four year old who needed to leave Boston and move to California jobless because she had to stretch.
I am still the adventurer of two years ago who took a job in Italy for a year and then moved with our family of six to Viterbo, Italy.
I am a mom who loves not driving to work during quarantine and instead settling in at home, prepping in the sunny dining room, spending time at home and not minding being at home so much. I am this homebody, too.
Is it Whitman who says that we are contradictions? I'm one of those, too. I am still learning (still!) to speak up, no matter how many times I've spoken up before. I am working on not worrying about upsetting people or about whether people like me.
When I hide out because I am hurt or angry, I am that protective, self-preserving child. When I hesitate to speak up at a faculty meeting, I am that dutiful Catholic school girl not wanting to get anything wrong and to get everything right; wanting to be liked and admired and not criticized.
When I tell my husband that he needs to move out, I am that girl who read her books instead of playing flashlight tag because that's what she really wanted to do; that applied to go to Italy in college after an initial parental no; that moved to California with no job.
I am myself again.
Maureen Sullivan Keleher is a high school teacher of Latin and English, and a writer. She has published pieces in Literary Mama, The Waltham News Tribune, and the gcLi Leadership blog. She wrote a blog during her year teaching in Italy (www.viterboyear.blogspot.com) and is beginning another blog this summer. Her goal is to publish a book of essays during the next decade while still teaching and parenting and enjoying all the wonderful and lucky parts of her life—her kids, her friends, her family, her days.