The Life and Death of a Teacher/Librarian

Today, on December 13, 2015, 1 p.m. at the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, I attended the memorial service for Karen Grace Kinder Borchert. She was born December 14, 1937 and died November 12, 2015.

Here is a poem/narrative constructed of things her family and those who knew her said today. Somethings that were said are included in quotes but not attributed. Others are left without quotes because they are paraphrased.

 

The Life and Death of a Teacher/Librarian

“She dedicated her life to kids and books. She loved us deeply and we never doubted that,” said her son Little Carl (Carl Kinder Borchert) towering above the microphone.

When her other children, her students, graduated from high school, she sent them cards. She taught kindergarten.

She was often quiet in public, even had low self-confidence at times, but fearless. She raised her son mucking the chicken houses. She was staunchly anti-nuclear. Her son grew up writing letters to prisoners of conscience and knowing the name Jacques Cousteau. After all, they lived on an island.

They put conservation restrictions on their properties. She made sure that they included the knoll with milkweed, for the continuation of the monarchs.

Her son joined 40 million other caretakers around the country when he moved in with her, right before she was diagnosed with Alzheimers.

“How did I get Alzheimers,” she asked simply, without complaint.

“Mom, mentor, friend, champion, sounding board…”

[I] promise to be present for my life, to remember you.

 

The microphone was passed around. The Unitarian Meeting House was packed.

“You’d think Star Wars was showing.”

“Or the Heart of the Sea.”

 

Karen loved her chickens, too, keeping them long after they had any economic value, long after they stopped laying. One day, she made some muffins, but used cayenne by accident instead of nutmeg. Realizing her mistake, she brought them on a tray to her family and friends at the table, watching their faces closely as they took a bite. Afterwards, they fed the muffins to the chickens. And those chickens, they started laying eggs again.

 

“I miss her sweet spirit.”

She never traveled without squares of dark chocolate. She always warmed the milk before adding it to her coffee. Her counter was filled with things drying.

“This is what makes up our lives.”

 

She traveled by ferry with a friend — before the internet, before the high speed ferry — to the mainland to take a class. So Karen and her friend spent a lot of time together, traveling. At the class, there was an ice-breaker, a round, everyone clapping and snapping.

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Cynthia!”

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Sarah!”

And when her time came, Karen said,

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Madonna!”

 

Someone who loved her, in preparation for the memorial service, cast about for something to read. He flipped open a book, to a fitting poem, as often happens when we are in need and searching. Fitting, as her partner’s favorite flower was an Iris.

“The Wild Iris” by Louise Gluck

 

“May we leave today more alive, confident, and loving, knowing that everyone we meet is a part of our extended family.”

“At Blackwater Pond,” by Mary Oliver, selected by Reverend Linda Simmons, the three lessons for living:

1. To love what is mortal.

2. To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it.

3. When the time comes, let it go.

 

Two questions to ask yourself, your students, and your friends every day

My friend Kyle has a contagious delight in the natural world. For instance, when he described how bumble bees co-evolved with daffodils, I shared his wonder. The bumble bees’ wing vibrations cause the daffodil to tremble, and their whole bodies get dusted with pollen when they enter the flower.

He asked two questions of his students at the end of each day:

1. What did you learn today?

2. What was your favorite part of the day?

Today, I learned that the maple tree in my backyard has buds exceeding one and half inches in height. I predict that the leaves unfolding from the larger-than-expected buds will be larger than I would have expected prior to seeing the buds.

My favorite part of today is right now. All of the moments of the day are coming together as I reflect on the moments: a thoughtful sermon by Linda Simmons about the anthropic principle and a story of how she heard of another pronoun for an animal, “kin” instead of “it”, and how instead of her friend looking at her like she was crazy, the friend got it; walks with friends (the first walk with friends in person, another on the phone); enjoying a glass of red wine, and sitting down to write.

This poem was sent to me today by Harry Haines, a man I never met but whose wife I met in a library in Errol, New Hampshire. I overheard her talking about poetry, we started talking, and she told me that her husband sends out a poem a day. I’ve been enjoying daily poetry ever since that fortuitous encounter in 2010. It’ll be five years this summer.

Swallows
by Leonora Speyer

They dip their wings in the sunset,
They dash against the air
As if to break themselves upon its stillness:
In every movement, too swift to count,
Is a revelry of indecision,
A furtive delight in trees they do not desire
And in grasses that shall not know their weight.

They hover and lean toward the meadow
With little edged cries;
And then,
As if frightened at the earth’s nearness,
They seek the high austerity of evening sky
And swirl into its depth.

 

I love this poem because it is inaccurate. Or rather, accurate in its inaccuracies. “A furtive delight in trees they do not desire/ And in grasses that shall not know their weight.” Basically, they are flying about, enjoying flight itself. Do the trees and grasses desire to get closer to the swallows, to know their weight? Of course not. They are trees and grasses. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking of unrequited love. Watching people falling into something they love joyfully with their whole being, it’s easy to fall in love.

How’s Your Heart Doing Today?

I hope that no matter whether your heart is aching, or joyful, you take the time to feel it and know that it’s okay to feel it because you are a human being.

In this culture, one of the first questions we ask each other is, “So, what do you do?” Yet, the heart is what really connects us. Certainly the heart and what you do are linked. However your heart is in this moment, it’s okay, let it be that way.

If you care about doing your job well, that’s a good sign. Remember that you may still do good work even when your heart is aching (although it might feel much easier when you’re joyful).

Respect. By showing dignity and respect for yourself, you respect and credit other people within the same profession by association. I hope that whatever occupation you are in at this moment — be it a custodian, a student, a waiter, a farmer, a fisherman, a musician, a carpenter, a CEO, or whatever helps put food on your table — you cultivate respect for yourself.

If you are a teacher or an artist, it is especially important to respect yourself. Teachers and artists are not usually as highly paid as doctors and lawyers, but they perform two extremely important roles in our society: to train the next generation and to help us see the world in new ways.

(January 5, 2016 revision: Actually, it seems that I missed the point. No matter what you do, it seems that self-respect is what enables and allows full respect for others — their time, their right to happiness, their full development as a human being. So, no matter what you do, self-respect is especially important. You are a person, too. How would you have others treat themselves? And be sure to see Maria Popova’s article on love.)

Sometimes, your self-esteem takes a blow. It can happen unexpectedly. A breakup, a social humiliation, an unfair comparison, an insult, a misunderstanding. What can you do? Take a walk or do something with or for a friend. Throw your shoulders back, stand up tall, take responsibility for your actions and decisions. By having dignity and self-respect, we engage with and lift up those around us in mutual respect. Also, you may not realize how many people you are linked to and who look up to you.

Take care of yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your heart is important. Talking face to face with a friend is important. As you grow in habits of respect for yourself, your own needs for leisure time and connection, you naturally grow in respect and care for others. Also, never forget to dance, and realize what a speck you are in the grand scheme of things, and that it’s okay to shake your body and be absurd and laugh about it, too. Remember we are human beings, not human doings (Claros).

Thanks Omid Safi for the inspiration with the wonderful article, “The Disease of Being Busy.”