Wednesday, November 2, 2016

So Many Windows: Women Going Back to School

Back in 1980, when I was an undergraduate at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, there were the two older women students in my American history class. They were kind of a novelty to me, having just transferred from a very “male” school. And they sure added a lot to the class, I thought: they had insights and life experience that we 18- and 19-year-olds didn’t. They got credit for some of that life experience, too; and that, too, was impressive.

Fast-forward to the present. St. Joseph College is now the University of St. Joseph and has a strong Adult Learning Program, started in 1985.. “My positions have changed,” observes Dr. Raymie Wayne, the university’s Associate Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies. Wayne transferred to Saint Joseph’s back in 1991 and returned to teach in the social work department in 2003. “So, sometimes what you see depends on where you sit….What I see now is that a lot of women have tremendous pressure and responsibility in their lives, combined with drive and motivation.”

The women students she deals with are definitely juggling a lot of balls. They’re not only parents, but they may also “be caregivers for their parents or other aging members of their families. They very often have demanding jobs that are not flexible. Sometimes even their supervisors feel threatened that they’re going back to school and don’t do the things that would make it easier.” Many have “tenuous living situations” and/or demanding husbands or partners. “Families vary in how much they understand being a part-time or full-time student, so they vary in how much support they provide or, alternately, in how much they distract.”

The Adult Learning Program currently offers majors in five areas: social work; accounting; management; psychology; and an RN – to B. S. in nursing, which allows students with associate’s degrees from state community colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees in science. Each has “some accelerated path to graduate studies,” Wayne explains. “In some cases, the student would have to apply. No guarantee, but the opportunity is there.”

Wayne is also working on revitalizing and expanding the university’s prior learning assessment – that life-experience piece of the puzzle that seemed so new and radical to me back in 1980. “It has had different names and different configurations over the years,” she says, “but what has remained the same is the commitment to working adults who are returning to school[,…] provid[ing] them with the small classes and individualized attention and caring community that is St. Joseph’s.” In her eyes, they are simply honoring the core values set down in its mission statement. The Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school back in 1932, “were a truly amazing progressive group,” determined to create a learning environment where professional studies and the liberal arts were in balance with one another.

“A majority of the students surveyed were between the ages of the ages of 35 and 49,” the associate dean remarks, “but there have been plenty of students that are older than that on campus as well.” Very often, she adds, they are “the first in their families to be attending college. They are so committed. But the driving force is not that they only want to learn and better their lives but also be a role model for their children.”

Roberta Rogers, the assistant director of the Individualized Degree Program (IDP) at Trinity College in Hartford, has been on both sides of the academic fence. (Her mother was actually in the graduating class with Louise Fisher, who started the program in 1973.) Rogers attended Baypath College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts and then went to work at The Hartford Insurance Company. During that time, she took classes at both the University of Hartford and the University of Connecticut but still had this strong feeling that something was missing in her life.

She finally applied to Trinity. That application process was, she remembers, “the biggest hurdle….I felt that it was a long shot, and I wasn’t sure that I could bring to the table what they were looking for. I hadn’t been to school regularly for very many years.” But Rogers was accepted into the IDP in 1999; and there, at her mother’s alma mater, she found the “intellectual challenge and stimulation” she’d been missing. The classes were small, and she “felt that it was easy to engage with the professors.” That she mattered. “Every school isn’t right for every person. But Trinity was right for me.”

During that time, Rogers went through “a couple of developments that were personal and extremely painful” – her child’s serious illness, which necessitated regular trips up to a Boston hospital, and her divorce. “Both things could’ve derailed the course,” she reflects, “but my friends [in the IDP] and faculty mentors helped me stay the course. They provided support and encouragement. I was able to do teaching-assistantship and research-assistantship work for credit as opposed to carrying a full course load. It gave me the flexibility I needed. And that happens regularly with our students.”

Jan Neuberger, who graduated from Trinity in 2013, also spoke enthusiastically about the IDP. The actress was in the original company of “Wicked” when it hit her that the experience “was killing my heart and soul.” Hoping to get into a classical drama program, she searched for “a graduate program that didn’t require an undergraduate degree.” No luck. Then she happened upon the IDP.

The program changed her “in a very fundamental way,” she says, “because it opened so many windows.” And she, like Rogers, came away from it feeling that she had received “a tremendous amount of faculty support.”

Neuberger was 56 when she entered Trinity. There has always been “a wide range of ages” in the IDP, according to Dr. Diane Zannoni, the director. A member of the IDP council back in the 1970s, she has seen the program through a number of changes over the years. Students aren’t just focusing on their college coursework, she observes – they’re combining school with work and family. And many of them are coming in from other institutions with “an accumulation of credits. It could have been from a community college or a college they went to for three years. The idea is degree completion.”

Of course, she still sees many non-traditional students who are just starting out. But she sees “more people coming having already started. Many, many of our students are mothers with young children – not young women who are staying at home but who are working [and] with children.”

There’s another difference, says Rogers. The students entering the program are “more self-directed steadily moving women. I see more women who are returning younger.” And what’s more, they’re “very supportive to other women. I hear our female students talking about it, and they really appreciate it. I think it stimulates generosity.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge, Part II

 (Writing fiction about a real-life character isn't as easy as you'd think.  I don't know where this is going, but I'm going with it.)

                             PROLOGUE:  MARCH 31, 1984

          “There you go,” Jessie said.  She set the tea tray carefully down on the little table.
          Elizabeth smiled up from where she sat.  She picked up the dented but still elegant-looking coin silver spoon…one of the survivors of the set given to her parents as a wedding gift…and stirred her tea, remembering that long-ago day when she’d first met Jessie in the Providence Cottage garden in Devon.  Mother had just died, she recalled, and I was so horribly alone…glad that her suffering was over but feeling cut off from everything, even my writing.  And then Jessie came in response to my letter, her hair like a horse chestnut a-fire and her eyes clear and direct, and the loneliness began to let go of me….
          Jessie’s hair had gone rusty, and her figure was a tad thicker; but the face with its broad cheekbones was dearer.  Twenty-one years together had worn away all their edges, and they could talk about anything because they knew each other and each other’s stories inside-out.  The young woman who’d come to her as a companion had, in a sense, become the daughter she would’ve like to have had.
          All this and more passed through Elizabeth’s mind as she studied Jessie’s tired comfortable face….”I’d give anything to be able to go out into the garden,” she said with sudden wistfulness.
          “I know, love.”  Jessie’s voice was sympathetic yet matter-of-fact.  “But it’s much too damp for you with your arthritis.  Give it time, Elizabeth – it’s not as though there’s anything much out there to look at yet.  It’ll be warm soon enough for you to sit out there and soak up the sun while I get busy with the flowers again.”
          “You’re just itching to get your hands back in that soil, aren’t you?”  Elizabeth played with half her sandwich:  she wasn’t really hungry, but Jessie had gone to such trouble.  “And the dirtier you get, the happier you are.”
          Jessie grinned.  “You know how it is with me, Elizabeth.  I’m my best self when I’m gardening.  I come alive like one of the flowers and lose all sense of time.  It’s like what you feel when you’re writing, I expect.”
          Elizabeth abandoned her sandwich and reached for the tea.  She sipped it appreciatively.  One of Jessie’s own special teas, brewed from the comfrey she grew in the garden and thickly laced with honey.  And as she drank, her mind flitted about, landing like a butterfly first on this thought and then on the next.  “I wonder what those readers of mine would think if they knew that you’re the one who gives me the information about flowers and herbs that I work into my books,”   Elizabeth chuckled.
          “Ah, some of that’s from you,” Jessie replied.  She slipped a cushion behind the older woman’s bony back.  “And the soul behind them, that’s all you.  I can’t lay claim to any of that.”
          Elizabeth glanced up.  She tried to keep a straight face, but the corners of her mouth quirked up.  “Why, Jessie, you’ve been reading my books!”
          Jessie had come into her employ never having read any of her novels, something that Elizabeth had found refreshing.  She had always loved the letters from her readers, of course, but she’d also worried that they might have this impossible-to-live-up-to stained-glass image of her.  People never could separate fact from fiction and were always so sure they knew you better than you knew yourself after reading your books.
          “Well, I was bound to come to it sooner or later, wasn’t I?”  Jessie demanded with mock fierceness.  She walked over to the front window and began twitching the drapes unnecessarily.  Elizabeth sat there, nursing her tea.  You got the best revelations by holding yourself still and waiting; she’d learned that much over the years.  “I like them, Elizabeth, I do at that,” Jessie said slowly.
          She tilted her head to the side with an expression that made Elizabeth think of the robin from The Secret Garden“You know what I think?  I think you’ve got to read your books more than once.  Once just for the story, a second time for the descriptions – they’re rich, they are, Elizabeth – and a third for the meaning.”  She smiled – a warm, awkward smile like a fire slow getting started.  “So I expect I’ll be reading and re-reading them for quite some time.  Rest of my life, probably.”
          Elizabeth folded her thin hands, letting them rest on the edge of the table.  It had been worth waiting over thirty years to hear Jessie make such a speech and sweeter than any review she’d ever gotten. 
          Jessie ducked back out into the kitchen, leaving Elizabeth staring out the window.  Such a gray day, she thought.  Tomorrow would be April.  Her month.  I’ll be 84, she told herself and shook her head.  I don’t feel 84.  She glanced down at her hands lying so veined and fragile against the table’s wood and grimaced.  Mother was right:  your  hands do show your age faster than the rest of you.  And, of course, there was the osteoarthritis.
          She reached down and stroked her skirt, her right hand moving against the fabric with a kind of rhythm despite its swollen joints.  She’d always liked pretty clothes and things.  Never had thought much of her own looks, although she had rather liked her figure.  Tall and slim, she’d been, a feminine version of her father.  And her hair.  It had been long and beautiful….
          My knees didn’t bend outward back then, and I walked straight, Elizabeth remembered.  That’s what he said I was, straight and slender as a birch.  A dryad come to life.    She found herself yearning over that young woman, unencumbered by osteoarthritis, bright of eye (no thought of cataracts then!), and in love for the first time.  And she found herself yearning over Julian, too.  He had gone to dust and ashes years ago, and yet he was more real to her now than anyone, excepting Jessie.
          He had been married.  That and her upbringing had kept them in check.  But the memory of his touch still sent the blood in her veins thrumming…still made her paper-thin skin feel as though it was about to burst into flame.  It’s surprising how hot a man’s lips can be when he desires you, and there are times you think his arms will crack your ribs, and yet you glory in it.  The words of Harriet, her people-wise old woman from The Rosemary Tree, wandered unbidden into her mind just then, and she smiled wistfully.  Funny how the characters from her novels and the people she’d known were beginning to blur together in this last stretch.  Maybe it was because so much of her life had gone into her books.
                  Or maybe it was simply because her characters had always been so real to her.   Harriet…the Eliot Family, whose trilogy she still loved best of all novels…Fronigna, her white witch.  She still remembered that day so long ago, when she’d seen the beautiful woman step through the hedge, then vanish, though Elizabeth had never taken her eyes off her.  And that had paved the way for her novel The White Witch.
          Harriet…the Eliots…Fronigna….There was a pattern forming, if she could just grab hold of it.  Moving about the room – any kind of physical activity – helped whenever she was wrestling with something.  And movement wasn’t something that came easily to her these days.  Elizabeth frowned, biting her lower lip.  Jessie would be cross with her for risking it.  But she had to try.
          Grabbing hold of her wooden frame, she slowly got to her feet, every muscle and tendon screaming in protest.  She teetered and almost pitched forward.  What if her barely healed leg gave way and she did further damage to her already disintegrating spine? But then, just as suddenly, she righted herself and inched over to the front window.  “’Creep-mouse, creep-mouse,’” she murmured, the words of the old childhood rhyme tap-dancing in her brain.
          Finally, she stood, leaning into the glass, her eyes greedily taking in the landscape.  Didn’t matter that it was sodden and without any redeeming touches of green.  That would change, and she would be here to welcome it once again.  The familiar walls fell away, and she stood – well, metaphorically speaking -- on the threshold of yearning, unable to tell where the pain left off and the joy began.  But, then, it had always been that way with her, even in the days when her love for Julian had colored the picture, spilling over the lines.  Nothing had ever been unmixed for her:  tears in the midst of laughter, blessing bleeding heartache and piercing her soul.  I, crucified, become real.  More words, and she wondered which of her poems they had come from.
          And then she remembered.  It was the poem she’d started to write after Julian had left Ely; unable to finish it, she’d torn it up and fed the pieces to the fire.  She hadn’t thought of it since.  But this little ghost of a line had somehow survived and come back to haunt her now…
          Elizabeth’s eyes traveled to the large crewel embroidery piece hanging to the right of the window.  She’d done it years ago, just as the arthritis had started creeping up on her.  Two stags rested face-to-face under a tree; flitting under the tree’s flower-starred branches  were several birds, able to move freely while her fingers grew more swollen and knobby and her joints screamed at her to stop reaching, stop moving…
          She hobbled over to the needlework and touched the satin-stitched wing of one of the birds.  “’But they that wait upon the Lord shall have new strength,’” she murmured.  “’They shall fly with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.’”
          She found herself thinking back to her stay in hospital a few years earlier.  How she’d been lying there in the public ward after her fall, feeling pretty weary herself – weary of the pain, weary of everything – when a poem had come to her.  And because writing had always been a spiritual thing for her, the poem had been a sign.  A finding – or, rather, a re-finding – of faith and brought on by something as simple as Ida, one of the volunteers, wheeling the tea trolley on that Easter morning, “rattling and banging,
          Swaying and singing down the long ward
          Like a ship in full sail was Ida
          Crying aloud the tidings of joy
          ‘Cup of tea with sugar?    With sugar”’
          …The risen sun filled the ward with light,
          We held out our hands for his bounty,”
Elizabeth murmured, remembering.  And the remembering sent out ripples, widening, ever widening….
          She turned from the embroidery piece, and there he was again.  Julian with his kind, amused eyes that missed very little…his lean face lined as it had been when she’d last seen him, then young and smooth as tanned leather.   The two faces flickered back and forth…a magic-lantern show…and she could not honestly say which she loved more.
          Loving him had been easier than breathing; the holding back had been the hard part.  And yet with them, the non-physical had been as powerful as the physical.  Perhaps more.  They had been circles overlapping one another, their souls somehow recognizing each other right from the start.  She reached one arthritic hand up, wanting to touch that face just one more time:  it flickered brightly, then gently faded away.
          Elizabeth sighed, her shoulders slumping.  She would’ve liked for Julian to stay longer.  She couldn’t always will him back, any more than she could always recall the words to her poems. Still, he seemed to come more often these days.  One of the perks of growing old, she supposed.
          Slowly, biting her lip, she made it back o her chair.  That certainly took the starch out of me, she thought, leaning her head back against the cool chintz fabric.  She glanced at the sandwich on her tray.  I’ll eat later.  A catnap is all I need now.
          She closed her eyes, letting the room wrap its silence around her.  Only as she was on the verge of dropping off did she become aware of a breeze flirting with her hair, which seemed oddly longer.  The curls were brushing against her neck, and the smell of sun-warmed raspberries teased her nose.  And then, suddenly, she was swaying and stumbling as she made her way along the tree-shaded path, the flecks of summer sunlight dancing on the leaves.  There was someone she had to find, but the trees confused her, there were so many of them, and they were so much taller than she remembered them being.
          Then Elizabeth saw him.  She had forgotten how slim and quick-footed her father had been in his younger days, had only remembered the frail old man she had sat with during his final illness.  He moved among the raspberry bushes now, picking the fruit and completely unaware of her.  Mother must’ve sent him to do that, she thought, knowing how much he hated doing anything domestic.  She hastened to catch up with him.
          But her legs had grown shorter and her skirts bunchier.  She tumbled over.  “Papa!”  she cried, but he was already disappearing among the nearby trees.
          Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back.  The sky was darkening, and the trees crowded around her, trying to keep her from him.  But she could still see a bit of the path…could just make out that long-legged well-loved figure disappearing down it….
          There was only one thing to do.  She picked herself up and ran on her stubby little legs after him.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Shifting Facets: Gigi Kast

(From The Way-Back Files -- Just Cats!, July/August 2000)

Sometimes the answers come to animal healer Gigi Kast through images. Sometimes a story will come to her, she explains, and “the healing may be in the mental story. The problem that’s going on, whether it’s emotional or physical, may have its beginning in another time. Because the emotional body is a timeless body, it doesn’t know when it [the problem] is happening.”

Basically, the Walpole, Maine woman tries to leave herself open to whatever the animal is psychically sending her way. “My healing is not of a typical straight-ahead kind,” she cautions. “I work intuitively and have applied that to animals….My strong spot is helping the spiritual or emotional bodies clear by spontaneously going to the root of the problem.” Often, Kast adds, a healing will occur over the phone while she talks with the animal’s owner, “and I energetically work with them. I channel however this is to happen – perhaps through sound, movement, or seeing the vibration shift with color.” For her, each is simply another facet of the prism.

A former emergency medical technician (EMT) and assistant midwife, she has been working as an animal communicator and energy-field healer for roughly the last 17 years. But even as a child, Kast felt a powerful connection with nature and had a number of intensely spiritual experiences. “I went through a period of time where I wasn’t validated,” she recalls. “But the images were always there. They don’t come all at once, and they come in different ways. You have one particular talent, and mine is direct knowing over the visual or the auditory….The whole animal thing has been in my life from the very beginning, especially with wild animals.”

Seventeen years ago, however, she had “a really in-my-face” psychic experience following her cat Ruby’s disappearance. After a few days of frantic and unsuccessful searching, Kast remembers saying to herself, “Damn! I’m going to find her in a dream.’” That night, she did: “The next morning, I found her body exactly where I had in the dream.”

Then several visual and auditory psychic occurrences took place, and Ruby appeared the front and center in all of them. “She wasn’t going to leave until we got the message, so her spirit stayed with us for awhile.” The message was that Kast would become pregnant in three months’ time…and she did. Kast believed that there was a spiritual connection between the cat and the child she was carrying: when her son was born, his hair was exactly the same color as Ruby’s fur. More than anything, it “showed me the interweaving between the animals, my psychic abilities, and humans.”

These otherworldly experiences involving animals – especially wild ones – kept happening. She’d drive by an animal lying dead in the road, “and I’d have to turn around or stop right there to help them pass over. Sometimes they have an issue they’re worried about – like they’ve left their babies – and you counsel and comfort them. Sometimes an animal would merge with me while I was working, and I would come to understand the animal by becoming the animal.” In that sense, her approach is organic or shamanic, Kast says. “You’re traveling to other realms, as in soul retrieval, bringing back a part of the soul that’s been lost or separated.”

She isn’t a homeopath. But she will sometimes suggest homeopathic remedies to clients, “then refer out because I basically don’t want to have that responsibility over the long haul.” She also makes use of flower essences.

A lot of what she does, however, simply falls within the category of “energy work.” As she puts it, “You’re energy-shifting and healing whatever the attitude or the problem is. So you go back and do a healing coupled with counseling.” She focuses on getting the energy to “shift, so often what comes through me is sound. That promotes a shift in the vibration. Sometimes the sound will come in and break up a block, just like the water vibrates and begins movement. The other thing that sound does is promote regeneration at a higher vibration.” Something as simple as a lullaby can be “a really healing thing.”

Actually, Kast’s messages from the animals – especially those who have passed on – can themselves be as simple and healing as a lullaby. Case in point: a recently euthanized 10-month-old kitten. “I see a strong golden light about her,” the healer says thoughtfully. “This is about loss and letting go, connected with light….This particular light has a very strong glow. That light, whether you’re in body or not, continues.”

(Update: Gigi Kast now lives in Velarde, New Mexico. And she’s still talking to animals.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge

     (This is part of a work-in-progress.  Over the last few years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Elizabeth's company, and I have learned a lot from her both as a writer and as a seeker of truth in all things spiritual.)

       Elizabeth deBeauchamp Goudge (1900 – 1984) has been called “the greatest ‘unknown’ writer of the 20th century” ( She was a bestselling author in England and America for four decades; her book Green Dolphin Country (published in this country as Green Dolphin Street) became the basis for a movie starring Donna Reed and Lana Turner. Goudge came back into the public eye in 1993, when Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen plagiarized her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956).  Paul Kafka, who had initially given Aikath-Gyaltsen’s Crane’s Morning a positive review, conceded his mistake, saying, “If something comes from exotic parts, it’s read very differently than if it’s domestically grown….Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.”
          Goudge’s readers have always been a loyal crew.  (It was through an Ontario reader that the plagiarism was discovered.)  Many of us met her for the first time in The Little White Horse (winner of the 1946 Carnegie Medal) and Linnets and Valerians when we were little:  we lost ourselves in the magic of the stories she wove and were totally at home with her because she could see things through a child’s eyes, something that she never lost the gift of.  And we found her again as adults in novels that were brimming over with magic of another kind – that of forgiveness and God’s grace.

          Elizabeth is a spiritual writer first and foremost:  she does not preach, just kindly and quietly follows her characters on their quests for truth and redemption, and that is where the power in her novels lie.  The soul mattered immensely to her – not just because she was a clergyman’s daughter but because she, a well-read free-thinking woman (one of her novels, The Middle Window, deals with reincarnation), was on a similar pilgrimage.  Her novels reflect that.  Her characters suffer, lose heart, lose their way, and sometimes even die.  What matters is that they find their soul-truth; ultimately, it is their spiritual triumph that matters.
          Elizabeth, who was so very open when it came to matters of the soul, was very reserved about her heart.   There is a brief reference in her memoir The Joy of Snow to a love affair when she was a young woman…glimmers of it in her novels…and a strong sense that this is a writer who knows all the shapes that love can take and who empathizes with her characters accordingly.  But that is all. So, for the purpose of this novel, I have put forward a theory of my own, one that I believe is in keeping with both the woman and the writer.  I think that Elizabeth would have understood.