Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Jar of Garlic

This coming week marks a two year anniversary with moving to Missoula. The story of how and even why I moved here is either too long or too simple to tell. Frankly, I can sum it up in just one word: hope. But I must clarify. I cannot say I moved West with the idealized hope of finding gold, wealth or even the antiquated idea of homesteading. Nor did I have the kind of simple hope in greeting cards such as, "Hope you are feeling better" with a picture of a fluffy cat wearing a beret. I would like to think I didn't move with a suitcase full of naive intent thinking life is always better somewhere else. Nor would I say I was searching for a different version of hope that was once lodged in a jar, Pandora's Jar, and circled out along with the other abstracts such as destruction and grief. The darker side of hope was surely not my intention either. The hope that I was chasing was simple, a hope to start again in my mid-thirties in a town I liked the sound of. Simply, Missoula has a high concentration of both writers and mountains and all I wanted to do or hoped to do was write a lot and ski a lot.

For most people, hope seems to fall to the positive side if life, offering one last chance in a mired of desperate feelings or a state of chancelessness. It can be that undeniable glimpse or fraction of light that can surprise even the darkest of hours--when even stars betray you and seem like just some other light for someone else to wish on. Yet hope strikes us when we least expect it and when we fundamentally need it the most. Now, I am not going to take this into a metaphysical realm, not completely, nor will I start bringing in religion either, but the complexity of hope fascinates me.

Perhaps my first sense of the difficulty with hope came from one of my ninth grade students, Maggie MacAlpine. Maggie spoke with a slight lisp and carried herself with an awkward stance of confidence. She always caught every error I made on any of her Greek Mythology quizzes and had the maturity of a thirty year old trapped in a young and awkward preteen body. During one of our readings of Epimetheus, the one who ignored the warnings not to take any gifts from Zeus, blindly took the gift of a woman who also came with a rather questionable jar. Now, I have to pause here to say how difficult it is to really teach Greek Mythology to ninth graders without having to go into polygamy, sodomy, rape or try to explain wife swapping? Basically with Greek Mythology you are teaching unedited sex education. Seriously, try to teach anything about Zeus PG-13.

Luckily I was teaching in Rome where billboards are unrated and mythology still makes sense in understanding Italian laws of attraction. There might not be a Zeus, but there are labels like Prada, Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana or controlling Italian nonas and mamas that wield some power over the city's men. So mythology was more like teaching sociology and Maggie MacAlpine was a quick study. After we had read how Epimetheus blindly doted over his mail ordered bride (via Zeus the all knowing post master), Epimetheus was more than smitten and basically let Pandora do anything, such as release all the evils of the world from her jar. So watching the new world that he and his brother, Prometheus, had so carefully made fall apart with the simple opening of a jar, Epimetheus finally realized the meaning of his name, "after thought." Concluding the fact that he was an idiot.

It was tempting at times to say, "okay kids, so what did we really learn from this myth?" Hoping to hear something along the lines of "Well, Ms. Walter, this myth clearly shows the problem with power dynamics between men and women and how you want to be sure not to be controlled by another person's motives especially if you are persuaded by superficial aspects like beauty and charm." This was a challenge. They were fourteen. They didn't even really like the opposite sex yet. Luckily though, I was in Italy and these were budding clones of fashion and sexual impression. I'd glance in the teacher's edition for the "right" answer and find something like, "Epi means after and this story clearly illustrates the power of afterthought or hindsight." What? This is so dumb, these kids read 10 pages for this answer, I thought to myself. What good would this answer really do for these kids in life? Do I tell something like, "Basically kids, you can tell yourself that your heart was broken and that you were mislead by this person whom you trusted for basically, linguistic reasons. Be sure to know the Greek root of your name and remember kids, It's called hindsight." Or maybe I could say, "Basically kids, never trust people with jars." No, they needed something more and Maggie MacAlpine was going to help us.

Maggie raised her hand and said, "Mthss Walther, thes is odd. If Pandthora released all the evilths in the world, then why was hope in there? I thought hopthe was good?" I paused. Looked out the window and smiled. I didn't want to interject or release my own dark side for these desk-seated, freshly-washed pink cheeked fourteen year olds. So I asked, "What do you think of Maggie's question, is hope a positive or negative feeling?" Looking around at blank and nervous faces, I said, "Or is it both?" "Have you ever felt "tricked" by hope?"

And I must say, what followed will go down in my mental history as some of the most fascinating discussions of metaphysical dilemmas posed. Yes by 14 year olds. Seriously these kids understood dilemmas and the temptation of hope that can blind them. Sure, they referenced buying video games they thought were going to be cool and ended up being lame, but at least they started to understand the importance of cause and effect of their actions brought on by the slippery duality and temptation of hope. No, I wasn't trying to form small jaded skeptics in my classroom. Rather, I wanted them to think through the repercussions of their actions especially if they were using naive or shallow reasonings. What were the results they were creating by their actions? Basically, I wanted them to learn accountability. I wanted them to think through what they were being tempted by and if they were willing to accept the possible results. Or so I hoped.

And so, even out of the classroom, hope finds me yet again today in this place that I feel grateful to not have been lead by shallow or simple reasons. This place is Missoula, but more importantly or metaphysically speaking this place is my heart for while I was driving into the darkness over mountain passes and along rivers lit by moon and October stars, I found myself falling into a city where I would also fall in love. Luckily, I wasn't led by own blindness brought on by superficial reasonings nor by shallow intentions. Not this time. Happily, I can say in these two years of living here, I've had to deal with both the darker and lighter side of hope and thankfully I've had to learn and keep learning my own answer I finely gave to my class in regards to Pandora's box: Each of us posses the power to choose how we want our gifts to be used, for positive and creative means or for negative and destructive results. We might not choose correctly all the time, but remember we aren't the gods and that makes us lucky: We get to choose which hope we want to live.

Cold Storage

Most days are either beef or wildflowers,
brief moments of sustenance or sun
filling the gardens of my mind with nothing
but garlic, whole heads posing
as papery fists that never bloom or hit
the surface without the hint taste
of swollen rain and tart onions. Even
when neglected, my heart, the bulb
of my body never rots, no matter
how hard I try. Forget about farmers'
almanacs, French techniques or thinking
the sky of soil pearls just you a private moon.
Your heart, bitter onion of your being, roots
in the basement of your neglect. Your savored weed.


  1. Somehow this just applied to my day in so many ways. Thank you for writing. Sending all my love.

  2. This month marks my 5th year in Montana. I have been in Missoula the whole time, minus 10 months in Bozeman. Hope is an interesting themem to apply to Missoula, I too came here with hope to start again, to bike, write and have a change of scenery. Thanks for writing this, I love your poems.