My brilliant friend, Mary, is retiring this year. She has taught literature and advanced placement English at my school for over 20 years. She is, without out doubt, one of the most incredible writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. This evening, our writers group met and shared and laughed and celebrated this marvelous woman. Here is my ode to you Mary Onions:
Ode to an Onion
SEASON of Keats and Silas Marners
Close bosom-friend of the maturing teens;
Conspiring with her how to peel the layers and bless
With verse the open pages of retirement that round the head with dreams of solitude.
To bend with words the eager minds of youth
And fill their heads with herbaceous seeds of inspiration;
To swell the bulbous plants of their heads
With the sweet kernel of knowledge; to set the budding minds more
And still more later as treatment to the wounds of departure
From the safe, sweet, warm of High School.
Until they think these days will never cease
For an Onion’s career has o’er-brimm’d their tuberous thoughts.
And left them ever full.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy stacks?
Sometimes whoever seeks the fistulosum abroad may find
Thee sitting carelessly in thy library chair
Thy curious eyes darting from page to page;
Or on a half-reap’d recliner fast asleep
Drowsed with the fume of whiskey and sausages while thy hook
Thine waxy husband’s interest in a script-based puzzle or two.
And sometimes like a cepa thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across the pages of Shakespeare or Austen
Or by a pint of beer with a patient look
Thou watchest the lazy breath of retirement pass hours by hours.
Where are the songs of teens? Ay where are they?
Think not of them thou hast music too
While the powerful aroma of solitude doth seep through paper thin layers,
Thine eyes, blink back the odorous stench of essays
Then, in waitful stupor, the small gnats mourn the 30 year routine;
And full-grown sorrow burrows into the putrid holes of regret.
But then, the crickets sing; and now with treble soft
New red bulbs break earth and begin to grow ever toward the promise of sun
Mild flesh: The Pearl, The Red, The Semian, The Sweet
Signaling the song of new chapters yet to be written.
It is on this, my eve of forty, that I march feet first into a new decade. Birthday eves have rarely been joyous occasions for me. When I turned 10 I cried because I would never again be single a digit. At 12 I panicked at the thought of being a teenager. 16 was an anxiety filled nightmare: me + driving a car = unwanted responsibility. 21, designated driver because I was scared to find out what alcohol would do to my system. And 30? That was the number I feared most. 30 meant I had to be a real adult. One that loved and married someone. One who had to have babies and raise them. An adult who had to have life figured out, and college loans paid. Adults are supposed to have a house, and a husband, and kids, and a dog. Right?
On my eve of thirty, I lay in my soft feather bed, staring up at my loft ceiling and gently chanting away the fear. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. At the 29th breathe out, it came to me. A voice. A clear, caramel, voice singing, “Hello? Is it me your looking for?” It`s true, Lionel Richie`s iconic 1983 chart topping song, “Hello” rang loudly in my ears. I bolted up in bed and screamed, “Yes! It is me Lionel. It`s me I`m looking for!” It was at that moment that I decided that being an adult was going to be ok. I chose to believe that real adults can be whatever they want to be. They can collect stamps in passports, and go back to school to learn how to take pictures, and fall in love with accountants and artists. Being an adult meant that I would have the power to choose my path. And I did.
I don’t have babies or a husband or a house but I do have a decade packed full of living. In this decade, I have learned what makes me, me. I’ve learned who to trust and who to avoid. I’ve learned how to survive in the most dire of circumstances, and how to thrive when all seems lost. I’ve learned not to take my health for granted and to be thankful for the beautiful gift of friendship. So, on this eve of forty, I look forward to the what the next decade will bring. In the immortal words of Lionel Richie, “Oh what a feelin’ when we’re dancing on the ceiling.” Come on 40, let’s go dancing.
Eve of 30 Eve of 40
Name on passport: Andrea L Johnston Andrea L Johnston
Hair color: Brown with highlights Brown with highlights
Relationship status: Single Single
Pets: None None
Living status: Lives alone Lives alone
Career: Middle school teacher Middle school teacher
Country of residence: Greeley, CO USA Tokyo, Japan
Weight: 125 lbs. 1**lbs.
Cell phone: Nokia Razor, pink iPhone 6s, rose gold
Five years ago, on July 4, my friends Sara and Aaron decided it would be fun for us to shoot the Fairy’s Ferry ride to Fire Island, NY. I can say, without hesitation, that this was the most fun I’ve had on July 4th, ever. These ladies, in all their glory, arrived on the pier at Cherry Grove and brought the glamour. In honor of the United States’ recent news on legalized marriage for all, I thought I’d celebrate by sharing a few of my favorite moments from that momentous day.
This weekend I was lucky enough to participate in a three-day intensive improv workshop with the insurmountably talented Rob Adler. As part of the exercise, he asked us to encapsulate our experience into words. “Reflect on the experience, ” he said. “Hold onto it by sharing it.” As much as I want to bask in the glow of the work we did as an ensemble and keep the work to myself, Rob is right. I have to open the box and let it out, it is the only way to hold onto it.
Seek the Encounter
What is the where?
the soft give of the laminate floor closing the space between our feet and it
squeaks of barefoot toes softly padding toward old friends
sense the space around us, dense, pliable, malleable
porous streams of people weaving themselves into my space
A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a piece of writing in front of people. It was scary and exciting. I expected a few people, maybe 10, in a coffee shop who may or may not be interested in hearing my story. Instead, there were 150 people crammed into a small bar in mid-town Tokyo listening intently as I shared my writing.
I was slotted the second to last spot on a Sunday night and as the night wore on I worried more and more that the people in the audience would grow tired and leave. Actually, I secretly hoped they would. They stayed. When it was my turn, I pretended to be confident and took the stage, sounds of Alice in Chains’ epic ballad “Don`t Follow” pounding in my head. Breathed in. Breathed out. And shared my story:
Home, A story in 3 Acts
Act 1: The Fuckin’ Yankees
Slam! The screen door shuttered on it’s hinges. Causing the whole house to shake. Shocked by the tremor, my attention swiftly shifted from the Charles in Charge reruns I was watching to
to the screen door.
“The fuckin’ Yankees won again!” Dad announced. He’d just been outside, cleansing his chi. His doctor told him that he needed to walk barefoot in the garden to reduce his hypertension. He does this. Every summer evening. He carries with him, his one companion: A rusty old transistor radio. The one his father gave him after the war. Sounds of crackly a.m. radio baseball sneak out of Dad’s pocket as he enters the kitchen.
“I swear on my father’s grave, the Orioles’ ONE goal in life is to lose to the fuckin’ Yankees!”
“Hmmm” says my mother, calmly snapping peas at the kitchen sink. 40 years of marriage has taught her to react subtly when he is being irrational. Especially when it’s about sports. Especially, especially when those sports are the Baltimore Orioles.
“What happened this time?” She asked
“Derek Jeter, That`s what happened. They can’t seem to stop Derek “f-in” Jeter. ”
“Well, Maybe They will stop `em tomorrow.” I offered, one eye still on Charles.
Next to me my younger brother, Kevin, was too busy playing with his new guitar to care about the scuffle in the kitchen.
“One can dream,” Mom said turning her attention back to the peas.
This was our routine, my parents me. Dad would complain loudly about New York sporting teams and mom would hum show tunes to drown out the din. Kevin played guitar while I contemplated the latest episode of Growing Pains. That kitchen, with its mustard yellow walls and cherrywood cabinets is where we became a home and where I learned what it meant to be home. It is where I learned to love, negotiate, laugh, cry, and listen.
I grew up in sunny Colorado, riding bikes, climbing trees, building snowmen with my little brother, sprinting up mountains as fast as my legs could carry me. Its where I kissed the neighbor boy for the very first time and fell in love on my front lawn.
Summer days spent skipping stones into glassy mountain streams and evenings in dusty old theaters learning everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein.
Its where I learned how NOT to be a successful college student, and how to lie to my parents about being kicked out. Colorado is where I learned the word integrity the hard way, and that failures are stepping stones to success and not life ruining events. It’s where I learned that home is where they have to take you in no matter what. Because like The Rocky mountains, silent and majestic, home is a place for new beginnings and fresh starts.
Act 2: What`s that smell?
“Woah. What the hell is that?” I asked as I stepped off the plane into the dense heat soaked Bombay summer.
“Nothing mad`am. Burning trash only.” he said with a dismissive wiggle of his head.
“Oh.” I replied. But I wasn’t convinced. I’d never smelled anything like it before. It smelled like steamy old rotten bananas mixed with the sour blood of a freshly slaughtered goat.
India is like that; It’s an assault to the senses. We made our way through the busy airport and after only 2.5 hours of waiting for luggage we were finally set free into the steaming buzzing streets of Mumbai.
He turned, looked at me, and with arms wide open he breathed, “Welcome home mad`am.”
“Thank you, Suraj.” I canted.
It hit me then.
This is home?Where the pollution-soaked-sun casts long shadows of overstuffed rickshaws busily buzzing people and sugarcane and cows?
Where Ravens the size of small children incessantly chatter and debate about who gets the last morsel of decapitated rat?
And where limbless people writhe and spill onto dirty dusty roads fighting street dogs for discarded bits of chicken biryani?
“This can’t be home.” I thought. “I won`t survive here.”
And I almost didn`t.
One year and three months into India, I was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Like American Civil War typhoid Mary contamination thousands of people typhoid fever. I’d managed to contract the disease even though I’d had the vaccination. My doctor, Dr. Ajit Sadi, “it’s like this Andrea. A vaccine is like a small umbrella in monsoon. You’ll still be getting wet, but you won’t get as wet.”
The hospital became my home that week. The nurses my sisters, the doctors my parents. It wasn’t so bad. There were catered meals and wifi. But I was glad when it was time to unhook the iv be discharged back my real life into my real home. Unfortunately, three weeks later, I stumbled into the hospital again. This time it was encephalitis. The scary kind. The kind that kills people.
“Welcome home, Andrea! We cannot keep you away!”
I would’ve smiled, but it hurt to move.
“Come. We’ve two new nurses just learning how to insert IV’s. They are very excited to meet you.”
“Perfect! You know how much I enjoy needles. This should be fun.” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could through the encephalitic fog.
“What a good attitude you’ve got Andrea. India has kept well,”
And he was right. Despite two deadly illnesses and countless rounds of antibiotics India was keeping me well, because it’s there that Ilearned how to build a home. How to create my own family. I molded important relationships with the shoe guy and the ice guy and the knife walla, the coconut lady, and the fruit guy, and the little kid who sold gum and old Bollywood playing cards. I grew attached the giant fruit bat family that lived in a tree by my window and the fleet of stray dogs who stood guard every night.
India is where I learned to embrace heat, and noise, and how to celebrate multiple deities, seemingly every weekend singning, “Om Gan Gana pata ye Namo Namah…shri sidd tviyak namo namaha ashta vinaiyak namo nahama ganpatti bapa morya…” It is where I learned to steer myself around noisy firecrackers, and goats, cows, dogs, burning piles of garbage, people, people, shit,more people, chickens, crows, more shit, bats, palm trees, discarded bits of goat, elaborate wedding processions, and even the occasional elephant.
The heart pounding deafening drum beats that echo down the dusty cobblestone lanes became my pulse. India was my heart. It’s where I learned how to really, truly, love being surrounded by the best of humanity.
And worst of humanity.
Because India, that is where I learned the truth about corruption. And blatant bigotry. And racism. And rage.
So much rage.
My home was becoming hostile and turning me into a person I didn’t recognize. One who became irrationally upset with tiny-insignificant things. So irrational that when doors were slammed, they rattled the whole house. I knew that as much as I loved India, and as much as I wanted our relationship to work, we weren`t healthy together. So with a heavy heart I broke up with home sought younger, fresher pastures.
Act 3: Silent Sardines
“Do you hear that?” he whispered
“What? I don’t hear anything,” she replied.
“That. There. Listen.” He said, tilting his head toward a distant sound.
They let the silence sit between them for a while before she reached over to him.
“I miss India.” she said.
“I know you do. But this is home now. You’ll get used to it.”
“When you wake up.”
“When you wake up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean, when you wake up from dream you are in, you will get used to Tokyo. You will adjust to the silence. You will learn to embrace the cold compartmentalized disinterested public and you will see that it is respect for your space and not you being snubbed.
You will learn to love clean air, blue skies and pouty pink blossoms in spring. You will learn to love balls of rice and seaweed and riding your bike on vacant streets in below freezing weather. The rocking hum of tightly packed tin trains carting silent sardines downstream will start to feel safe. Like a communal hug. Silent swarms of silverly salary men and new moms with tiny button babies that rock and sway in the ebb and flow of the foot traffic, will carry you with them if you let them.
Home calls to you when you hear the train conductor whisper, “Kichijoji, Kichijoji desu.” When you wake up and realize that you made this move on purpose. That just because you shifted locations doesn’t mean you shifted homes. Open your eyes and look around and you will find that home has been here all along. It’s in the song of the mountains and the laughter of school children being called inside with the sweet tune of home. It’s the trees you climb in Nogawa park and the Indian wool blanket you wrap up in at night. It’s in the 4:30 am sun rise and the dense heat of Tokyo Augusts. Home is the crack of the baseball bat when the pitcher for the Swallows gives up another base hit. It’s what you carried here from Colorado, and India.
Home is what you bring with you, and home is what you learn.
So wake up!
Stop fighting, and see it.
It’s waiting for you.
And those tremors you feel, those are probably just the fucking yankees.”
I finished reading. Swallowed back tears. Bolted from the stage directly to the bar where a cold gin and tonic was waiting for me. I didn’t hear the applause or see the partial standing ovation. People had to tell me about that later. I am glad I did it. Felt good to share a part of me with strangers, to get good feedback. The writing isn’t as polished as I want it to be, but I guess that is the nature of writing. It is cyclical. I will come back around to this piece, and when I do, I will find home waiting for me.
As it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I am a writing teacher, I thought it apt to teach the art of the limerick to my middle school students. While their poems themed mostly around farts and each other, mine was more an homage of thanks to dear St. Pat for giving me one day a year to make inappropriate jokes with my students. Here’s to you St. Patrick! (Also, thanks for bringing Christianity to Ireland or whatever.)
“No regrets. Compromise. Sun will set. Sun will rise. And we will sing like it’s the end of the world. Raise our voices so they’ll finally be heard. Try to write us off, it just started to kick in and we’ll never buy the life you’re selling.”
-Kevin Johnston, The Bright Silence
My brother, Kevin, embarked on an incredible journey of self-discovery last March. He quit his job in Brooklyn, packed a backpack full of his CD’s grabbed his guitar and boarded a flight to Germany to play music. It was his first solo tour, and his first time traveling alone in Europe. I was able to join him on his trip for one incredible week. The time went by so quickly and when it was time to part, I was not the least bit interested in returning to India. An older sister to my core, I wanted nothing more than to be there to support my little bro. After all, I was the only person in the audience who knew his music by heart. How could he possibly survive without me?
Cut to a year later. His first tour turned into a second tour in the fall, and another this coming March. The players are the same, but the play is so much different. Last March, I left him not knowing what his future held, and this March I know. I know that his will, his creativity, and his resourcefulness will lead him in the direction he is meant to go. It’s scary to leave the known and embark into the unfamiliar but this time, he’s got a will to succeed he’s not had before. His drive to make it is stronger than ever. It’s heartwarming to know he can not only survive without me, he can thrive on his own. Best gift a sister can ask for.
So, in the immortal words of Kevin Johnston, “Things are working out different than you thought, now you realize.”
Go forth and conquer little brother. Your family is incredibly proud of you.