When asked to relate my experience of anatomy to the first-year medical and physician associate students at Yale before the start of their own first dissection, I found no better words to share than those of my classmates. Why speak with only one tongue, I said, when you can draw on 99 others? Anatomical dissection elicits what our course director, Lawrence Rizzolo, has called a “diversity of experience,” which, in turn, engenders a diversity of expressions. For Yale medical and physician associate students, this diversity is captured each year in a ceremony dedicated to those who donated their bodies for dissection. The service is an opportunity to offer thanks, but because only students and faculty are in attendance, it is also a place to share and address the complicated tensions that arise while examining, invading, and ultimately disassembling another’s body. It is our pleasure to present selected pieces from the ceremony to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine readership.
— Peter Gayed, Co-editor-in-chief, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine and Chair of the 2008 Anatomy Ceremony Planning Committee
A Kind of Afterlife
When people think of medical school, they think of anatomy. And when they think of anatomy, they picture the dissecting of cadavers — excuse me — donors.
My group’s donor was 100 years old. He died of cardiac arrest, and that’s all we know of the man. Of the body, we know more. We know the expression, how the lower jaw is frozen in a permanent divorce from the upper lip. We know the thinness, how one pinprick can pierce through the skin and muscle into the innermost recesses, releasing a gurgle of bodily fluids. We know where his ribs articulate, what vertebrae they connect to, what direction the muscle fibers shoot, what his nerves innervate, where his arteries flow, where his heart sits. But, what was his name? Why did he donate his body to us? Does he have a family? We’ll never learn the answers to these questions.
In our History of Medicine lecture, the instructor showed us slides of the past. Exhibit A: medical students in the 1900s. While the pictures are from different medical schools, the layout is universal: eight medical students circled around an anatomy table, posing with a supine cadaver. They sent this to family and friends as a holiday postcard. Can you imagine? “Merry Christmas. Love, XOX. P.S. Here’s a picture with me and you-know-who. Isn’t he a handsome fella?”
A lot of the cadaver tables were inscribed with variations of, “He lived for others, but he died for us.” But some students thought too much and wrote instead, “Such the vultures live” or “Rest in pieces.” And then, of course, there’s the picture of Mr. Cadaver with a cigar in his mouth playing poker with his medical student buddies.
Is that irreverence for the dead? Maybe. I know my 21st century politically correct and proud classmates definitely murmured and shook their head in disdain. But what’s more striking is this need for personalization among medical students in the past century. They were not simply satisfied with a body. They wanted to add a fedora. A cigar. A deck of cards. They wanted a man, but that being impossible, they invented a character.
It’s funny to picture such an afterlife. You live well, you die, you’re transported to a lab. Then, it’s time to hang out with us. Oh, baby. Your skin is peeled, your ribs are cut with a saw, your chest plate is removed, your organs are poked around with minute attention, your genitalia are incised for closer inspection. And if it were prior to the 1960s, we would all be taking a picture together — before or after you’re completely dissembled.
I doubt that our donor knew the details. If he did, would he be so willing to give himself unto us? Has he ever heard a rib cracking? It’s a terrifyingly crisp sound. Terrifying, because as much as we acknowledge that our being is both physical and mental, to hear that casual crunch of metal into bone is to forgo all misconception, all hope that the soul might be mist and the heart an organ of fire. It is an irrevocable admission that we’re meat.
You would wonder who would do this to themselves. In the ancient times, it was the prisoner, tied and bound against his will for a vivisection. In the past two centuries, it was the freshly buried, snatched gingerly out the grave and hurried through the underground tunnel into the medical school. Nowadays, donations are strictly voluntary, and so our bodies are no longer restricted to the discriminated minority groups or low socioeconomic strata. “Men, women, young, old, Hollywood celebrities, lawyers, police officers, teachers, anyone,” our professor had enumerated. Noticeably absent, however, were the physicians and surgeons. Perhaps their invasion of other bodies made them more guarded about their own? Had they seen too much?
I’ve asked myself the same question: Knowing what I know now, would I donate my body after I die? Even with religion out of the picture, this is no trivial question. Many take the attitude, “Hey, when you’re dead, you’re dead. What do you care?” But it’s my body. This is my wall against the world. This is my heart that beats in hidden recesses. This place where you’re cutting into me, that is where boys steal kisses, where I scrub extra hard with soap, where my mother places her hand when I’m down, where I fell at age six riding a bicycle for the first time and almost cracked a bone. But for all you know, it is just a clavicle.
There are stories in which the donor has made his wishes clear, but the family changed their minds, or perhaps they were never comfortable with the decision in the first place. To think that somewhere out there, their beloved is lying under the scrutinizing eye of strangers — it is more than maddening, and they can’t sleep at night. They want it back. Whatever it is, whatever there is left. Almost always, the wishes are respected. The one exception is if the dissection is in progress. You’re allowed to have the body back, but not before the remains have been cremated.
To lie on a metal table, naked and open like a classroom, is not to be ordained with sainthood. It is to give up all that you have left. It is to trust that your predecessors will not waste your gift. And if our donors have thought this through before dying, that is no small feat.
I'm grateful for the volumes my donor taught, he who has never spoken to us. I’m grateful for the intimacy, whether willingly donated or not. Finally, I’m grateful for the selflessness, for if everyone was as possessive as I was, medical science would never advance like it does.
The glory of donating to science is not in the visual or the short-term. Our healthcare system still sucks, HIV is still without a cure, and no one individual will immediately benefit from this donor’s contribution. Hopefully, however, down the road, one less patient will have to suffer because we were allowed the privilege of practicing first on our donor. It’s questionable whether this is quite the afterlife this man visualized, but I hope it’s an acceptable one.
Anatomy lab was a fascinating and surreal experience, but above all, a humbling one. What did we do to deserve this gift? How could so many people trust us with their bodies? I’m not sure we deserved to dissect our donors, but it was liberating to know that we had their permission anyway.
How much can you tell about a person from just their body? I think very little, despite the fact that there’s nothing left to hide. Our donor was a thin, lightly bearded man with gray hair, whom we nicknamed “Sarge” because of the matching heart tattoos emblazoned on his shoulders, which, I suppose, reminded us of the tattoos somebody would get in the military. Only after several months did we decipher the name “Rachel” tattooed across each heart, because the letters had faded and blurred so much over time. Who was Rachel, I wondered? Had she faded away like the tattoo? I wanted to believe that Sarge was as pure a person as the love expressed in his tattoos, but how could he be? Did we all want to believe that about our donors? Does everyone look that innocent when they die?
From the first lab onward, my group was in awe of how much Sarge resembled the paintings in Netter’s Atlas of Anatomy. We were told that he had died of something related to his heart, but even that looked deceptively good to us.
It was thrilling to see and touch his vital organs, especially his heart and brain, and nerves, a few of which were as thick as ropes, which really fascinated me. It was stunning to finally see the body as the incredibly sophisticated system that it is, perfectly proportioned and beautifully connected. Like the notion of infinity, the mechanisms by which our nerves and vessels and glands know exactly where to go and what to connect with is still impossible for me to conceptualize.
From the beginning, I was compelled to share my enthusiasm for the dissection with nearly everyone I knew. Almost everybody would listen for a minute or so, depending on the details of my description, but then grimace and interrupt me, saying, “All right, that’s enough.” At first I would continue, asking them, “But isn’t it amazing, to be able to see the inside of a person not much different from yourself? To see what the heart looks like, and the brain, and so forth? To see how it really is?” However, almost everyone told me, “Well, I can’t imagine doing that,” or “I could never do something like that,” not so subtly hoping for a change of subject. Why was it so uncomfortable to think about? Was it too morbid? Was the idea of donating a body too difficult to accept? Was it too real? These moments reminded me of just how fortunate I was to be studying what I love, but they also made me feel a bit like a mad scientist, toiling away on some forbidden experiment.
As humbling as anatomy lab was, I do feel pride in having completed it. It was certainly the most intense learning experience I have ever had, and our excellent anatomy professors deserve much credit for balancing the intensity with reasonable expectations and good humor.
Thanks again to Sarge, table 11, the extremely dedicated Crelin Society, the laboratory staff, and all the rest of my class for their enthusiasm, curiosity, and openness. It was a privilege to share this experience with all of you.
Wabi-Sabi, Another Word for Beauty
Leonard Koren wrote that “the closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become.” Wabi-sabi is the word that expresses this. It is a Japenese term that describes the intrinsic beauty of something that ages naturally. It is the aesthetic of imperfection, austerity, affirmation, and melancholy. It is the beauty of the weathered, the tarnished, the scarred, the intimate. It is the appreciation for the ephemeral, the tentative, the evanescent.
Wabi-Sabi, another word for beauty.
A word that illuminates the surprising loveliness of our donor. The elegance found in her hands, her face, her body. Wabi-sabi, another word for beauty, a word for her beauty.
Lawrence J. Rizzolo, PhD
For many years now, first-year medical and physician associate students at Yale have concluded their anatomy course with a Service of Gratitude. The students reflect on the experience of dissecting a human body and give thanks to the donors who, when they were alive, made such an awesome gift of their remains. Much of the artwork, prose, and poetry from these services are displayed in the hallway of the anatomy lab. As I review that work, I am struck by how often “hands” are a central theme. But why should I have been surprised? We use our hands to caress our lovers and children, to greet friends and strangers, to express ourselves when words fail. Consider the slow passing of my mother.
Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. In some ways, the most horrible stage of the disease was when Mom still knew what it was to be healthy and realized the insidious creep of her memory loss. Even as she fought to retain her independence, she was fearful and anxious of her failing abilities. Eventually, she came to appreciate the value of her move to an assisted-living community for Alzheimer’s patients. Day by day, the disease took its toll, and Mom was moved to the assisted-living’s nursing home. At first, she was aware enough to resent the move and its further restrictions, but her social interactions and joy of living were enhanced in this more restricted, structured environment. Little death by little death, Mom’s ability to communicate became more and more restricted to the use of her hands.
Emotions are the last to die. Mom adopted an almost Buddha-like nature. With no memory of a past or concept of a future, she truly lived in the moment. She would marvel at the beauty of a flower or a cloud in the sky, as if she were seeing them for the very first time. Though her words made little sense, the tone of her voice with the motion of her hands made communication possible. One time, we were walking in a spacious, glass-walled room that looked out on a garden. She motioned that she wanted to sit on the couch. Once settled, she spoke the longest coherent sequence she had uttered in some time: “Look! We have the trees, the sun, the flowers! This is what it means to sit!” And so we sat, holding hands.
In time, Mom developed pneumonia and fell into a sleep from which she would not wake. On her last day, I sat alone with her and praised her life as a mother, how she had touched so many lives, how she had touched mine. I said she need not do more. With love and sadness, I gave her permission to die. All the while, holding hands.
By Samuel Choate
Eleanor, or "Auntie El" as she was called by everyone, was my primary caretaker for the first fifteen years of my life. Auntie El grew up in the blue-collar town of Everett, Mass., never married and lived with my grandmother, who was her older sister. She spent her spare time bowling and looking for bargains on items nobody needed. Auntie El worked for the Gillette Company for 43 years in its South Boston factory as an inspection clerk in the Quality Control Group, scrutinizing the edges of razor blades under a microscope. Auntie El retired in November of 1989, the exact same month and year in which I was born. My parents both had demanding jobs with long hours and therefore needed someone to look after me during the day. Three months after I was born, they still had not found a babysitter, and time was running out. My grandmother volunteered her younger sister, mainly to get her out of the house they were sharing. Auntie El was called in to "pinch hit" on a temporary basis.
Cranky and wheezy from her latest cigarette, Auntie El walked into our house on her first day wearing her flowered apron and carrying a plastic grocery bag in which she packed her clothes for the week — not exactly Mary Poppins. Both my parents did not see this arrangement working, but were grateful for her services until a suitable caretaker could be found. She took care of me for two weeks until she went on a previously scheduled trip to Las Vegas. I guess she must have softened to the idea of caring for me because, halfway through the trip, she called my mother and told her she wanted the job full time. Auntie El started the next Monday.
No longer able to smoke because of my fragile lungs (I was on a respirator for several days after I was born), Auntie El had to find activities to take her mind off cigarettes. She took me on long walks every day and, as I grew older, would play catch with me in the backyard. Her health improved dramatically. We were good for each other.
As the years passed, we became even closer. By the time I was in first grade, she was a faculty favorite at my school and could be found waiting for me every day in the parking lot in her white Cutlass Ciera Oldsmobile with her BINGO plate on the front. She quickly became a school legend when she was the only adult in memory to join the Halloween parade which took us through every classroom in the school in costume. Auntie El wore a witch's hat and a black and orange polka dot apron; I was a fireman.
Through our years together, we had numerous adventures. One night, her nose bled profusely and she could not stop the bleeding. Since my parents were at work, she had to call an ambulance and was forced to take me with her. With the sirens blaring, I hopped in the back, dressed in my red Power Ranger pajamas.
Auntie El's tough, gritty mentality made me a stronger person. She grew up without a father and her family was poor. She and her siblings were taken out of school by tenth grade in order to help support the family. She never missed a chance to point out how hard my parents worked to provide me with great opportunities and called the town in which we lived "la de da land." I always had Auntie El to give me a dose of reality.
The littlest things seemed to pull Auntie El and me together. Our passion for food was a regular topic, and we would have daily discussions on what I had to eat for lunch that day at school. Late at night, I would sneak up to her room and watch episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and would laugh until my parents heard us and ended the fun. No matter where we were, you could always find Auntie El and me laughing about something and enjoying the moment.
In the fall of my freshman year, Auntie El was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a successful operation, she spent some time in a rehabilitation center to regain her strength. On Thanksgiving evening, 2004, Auntie El suffered a heart attack. She fell to the floor, and hit her head. She was found later the next morning, and was pronounced dead. I found out when I heard my mother scream on the phone with the hospital. Auntie El's passing affected our whole family, but it was particularly tough for me. My good friend, my partner in crime and my teacher was no longer with me. Coming home to her every day for fifteen years was something I really enjoyed. Arriving home to an empty, quiet house and having days pass without talking to her was the worst experience of my life. I did not know life without Auntie El.
However, my family and I had to adjust but I did not know how to start over. I found myself thinking about Auntie El a lot and, one day, realized that she was still with me when I would hear her voice in the back of my mind during a test or a game or just when I was making dinner for myself.
More importantly, I realized that Auntie El instilled in me the values that I admired in her. She was genuine, caring and respectful. She taught me to work hard, and be mentally tough for life's challenges. Her perseverance and grit showed me a lot and provided me with the perfect role model for life.
Why My Friends Didn't Visit Last Summer
By Riley Smith '12
Maybe it's because I live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where Brett Favre draws more of a crowd on Sunday than any religious service, cheese is a staple food, it's sub-zero during global warming, current "fashions" come three years after they've hit it big with the rest of the world, and where all children by the age of ten can use a 12-gauge like it's their job.
I shouldn't have told them I live on a farm with a barn, ten chickens, a dog, a canary, two thousand deer, coyotes and beautiful Silver Bass Lake. When I say beautiful lake, I mean it in the past tense. Each year the water level drops several inches, and we now refer to it more accurately as "the puddle" threatening to transform into a wetland. But even though you can't swim because of the weeds that entangle your appendages, you can still kayak! Just be sure you wear muck boots with your swimsuit because we traditionally portage the kayak a quarter mile down the bank to find water deep enough to push in. The bloodsuckers are also a turnoff. In the last year I have only had two bloodsuckers (leeches with small teeth) attach to me. The anticoagulant kept my leg bleeding for around two hours while I lay with my leg elevated; my neurotic mother pacing the room and crying while on hold with the local ER. But really, that's no reason to postpone a visit!
Another fabulous addition to our "farmstead" is the field that Papa was able to mow into a running trail. In order to escape the locusts that cling to your legs and spit brown juice on anything they come in contact with, you have to run early in the morning, and by early I mean quarter to five and still dark. However, this does pose another problem. Recently we've spotted some bear scat, indicating there is a bear somewhere on our property. This was confirmed when my sister ran into two cubs and a mother sow during her morning run. Rule number one for human survival; do not run into a mother bear with her two cubs. Luckily my sister is an elite cross country runner and was out of the woods by the time the bears even realized an intruder's presence. But I still find it an excellent excuse to not use the "awesome" running trail.
Being a true-blooded Wisconsinite, naturally winter is my favorite time of year. The amphitheatre in our field provides ideal opportunity for break-neck tobogganing, and the running path is converted annually into a cross country ski trail. Two years ago we recorded five feet of snow in our field. It's great for my brother and sister who just prance around happily on the icy surface, however, I tend to sink down to somewhere around my mid-thighs. If you've ever watched the movie A Christmas Story with Ralphie's little brother in the intense snowsuit that resembles the Michelin Man, you would understand what I look like. Adding to my attire of boots, mittens, hat, scarf, face mask, long johns with snow pants and two sweaters, my mother insists I wear an oversized blaze orange jacket, because in Rhinelander, every season is deer season.
It probably wasn't the best idea to mention my two uncles. Uncle Pete is fun; he always comes to watch the Packers game on Sunday and enjoy my mother's home-cooked brunch. But the partial he received last year, after he knocked out his two front teeth dog sledding with his huskies through downtown Rhinelander, does at times make you lose your appetite. My Uncle John sometimes can be mistaken for a mountain man. His assortment of furs and strange bags full of fishing gear and other odd tools whose uses are a mystery to everyone but Johnny himself, add to his "Yooper" appearance. To clarify for those non-Midwesterners, a Yooper is a term used to describe those from the backwoods of the Upper Peninsula. So sometimes he's a little strange. However, he is probably one of the most well-known men in all of northern Wisconsin; famous for providing fresh bluegills to the Franciscan nuns, his state-renowned loon calls, and his never-ending repertoire of jokes. He's burst into our house on several occasions with a dripping and still-twitching forty-eight-inch musky. And did I mention he's a part-time grave digger?
But no matter how hick it may seem, in the end, I just feel sorry for everyone who scoffed at a visit to Rhinelander. Long nature walks in the woods, fresh little red potatoes from the garden, glowing sunsets off the porch, families of loons and whippoorwill calls, rhubarb and asparagus patches, freshly fallen snow, fiery reds, tangerine oranges and the sunburst golds of autumn, making apple pie with the apples from our orchard, playing piano at night in front of a blazing fire — they're the ones missing out.
Music for Prague 1968
By Ryan Park
Do not judge this piece until you have performed it." Repeatedly, Mr. Benstein challenged us to look beyond the rugged atonalism which went against every concept of our musical knowledge, and convey the raw emotion that inspired Karel Husa to compose Music for Prague 1968. At that time I did not understand how emotions could be expressed without words nor could I comprehend the nightmarish atmosphere of a Soviet invasion. Instead I was more overwhelmed by the foreign rhythms, the harsh, squeaking notes that existed in the highest registers of my clarinet, the thunderous tempo. I hated the song.
Just as Music for Prague shattered my perspective of music, my mother's unsuccessful battle against leukemia shattered the stability of my life. In October of 2005, after eight years and several failed treatments, it was determined that nothing more could be done for my mother. Over the next several months I watched as she withered away, living the last of her days with the feebleness of an old woman. When my mother lay too still in her sleep, I feared that I had lost her. And when she was awake, I was haunted by the images of her shivering violently in bed, the images blurred by the tears I tried to suppress in order to be strong for her, and the demoralizing feeling of helplessness that came with my inability to comfort her. I was torn emotionally. I wanted her suffering to end, but that meant losing her forever.
May 17 was the night of the concert and however nervous I was, all I can remember about that night was my mother, still a mother despite her physical state, harassing me for not taking a shower. It was for her that I vowed I would perform the song.
Mr. Benstein raised his baton and the melody of a bird song echoed from the flutes; the audience fell silent. The peaceful aura was broken by the minor chords of my clarinet, calling forth a looming presence. His baton strokes widened, and machine guns blasted from the snare drum, adding to the roaring of the brass tanks. My instrument emanated the cries of suffering, the notes shivering off my tongue. With the final upswing, he summoned the Hussite War song, and much of the pain that had built up inside my heart over the past months was lifted. My father told me later that he was deeply shaken by the piece as well. I realized that Music for Prague was not about the structure or the visual images it conjured, but instead it was the very lack of structure that allowed for Husa's emotions to stand out.
She passed away only a couple of hours after the performance. For the first time in months she looked at peace as she lay still in the presence of her family and I was able to accept that she was in a better place. It was Karel Husa's ability to capture the loneliness and the pain of losing a loved one that allows Music for Prague to move us all. The rhythm and beat of music describe emotions not restricted by words, flowing together with the beating of the heart.
There is Something About Africa
By Sorina Seeley
"You say, 'Sawubona.'"
"Then the person says 'Sapela.'"
"Then you will reply 'Sakhona snez wa nena.'"
"Sakhona snez wa nena"
"Remember if someone gives something to you or helps you, say 'ngiyabonga kakhuku.' It means thank you."
"Got it all?"
"Good, because we're almost there."
My heart skipped a beat, we were almost there, we were just minutes away from the a world that so far, only existed inside my mind, inspired through bedtime stories and faded photographs. I was minutes away from a place completely strange, yet so familiar to me. As we drove through the vast open land, my father rolled down the windows and said, "Stick your head out, smell that? That's Africa."
Despite the many travels that characterized much of my childhood, I had never been on a trip quite like that of my first visit to South Africa. To me Africa existed through my father's journals, letters exchanged between my grandparents, an array of photographs and wonderful stories of what it was like having Africa as a home. However now for the first time, I was actually arriving at the small town on the eastern coast of South Africa where four generations of my paternal side had grown up. Driving through the town of Estcourt for the first time seemed somewhat like a dream. As we passed the small stone church where my grandparents were married, a small black- and-white picture rushed to my mind. The beautiful stained windows over my grandparents' heads were somehow familiar. Jacaranda trees stood proudly between houses and along sidewalks with little blue flowers seated delicately on the top of most branches, so fragile due to the heat that when a warm breeze ruffled the branches, the flowers would float slowly to the pavement.
Soon the individual trees disappeared into a park in front of which stood a small sign that read: "Drummond Park." "It was named after your great-grandfather," my dad explained. "He was the first mayor of the town." Soon the houses became more scarce and once again the landscape became littered with cows, horses, zebra and small flightless birds. Five minutes into this we had arrived at a house at the top of a hill. Glen Roy was etched on the wooden arch marking the entrance.
My dad's cousin rushed forward to meet us, welcoming my dad home and welcoming my brother and me to our heritage. She guided us around the property, together with my dad, pointing out various places where events had happened: the rose garden overlooking the dam where my father and mother were engaged; under the tree where lunches were eaten when it was not too hot; and the back shed where the half-a-meter-long pet tortoise was kept. That same afternoon, exhausted from traveling yet full of excitement to see everything, my dad announced that he had someone he wanted us to meet. Her name was Josephine and she had been his nanny when he was a child and continued to look after him until he left Africa for London to find a job.
We walked around to the back of the house to the hill that leads down to Wagon Drift Dam. I lowered myself onto the grass, in between my brother and my grandmother, slipping forward as the dry earth crumbled a bit beneath me. My eyes swept the grass around me, yellow from the heat and lack of rain. By the dam at the bottom of the hill lay ten or twenty small huts raised from the earth. Up the hill from the huts marched a figure followed by many other smaller figures. "That's her," my dad said laughing. A tiny woman no younger than ninety reached the top of the hill and embraced my father, both with tears in their eyes they sat down around me. After a moment's silence Josephine started to speak. She spoke so quickly, the Zulu words rolling out of her mouth indistinguishable from each other. Yet the unfamiliar words told a familiar and wonderful story. My grandfather and father were laughing as my grandmother translated the fast-paced monologue into stories of my father's childhood. It was incredible to see my family's history and my father's past told through someone like an aunt to my dad, someone who had been a part of all the stories my father told me. I was seeing a part of me through someone else's eyes that before had only been a bedtime story.
At first, Josephine's small frame contradicted the image of a strong black Zulu woman I had imagined from my father's stories, but her strength, vigor and powerful presence greatly surpassed my previous image of her. Finally the fast-paced discussion slowed, and the laughter was replaced by a peaceful smile. She said very slowly in broken English that it was her first pilgrimage back up the hill to Glen Roy since my dad left over 30 years ago. Her dignified, serene stature remained dominating as many of the smaller figures came closer, around twenty small children gathered around her, the smaller ones crawling into her lap, the older ones tentatively remaining a few meters away. My grandmother explained that most of Josephine's children and friends had died of AIDS, and she was now the matriarch of the village raising orphaned children as her own. She gazed at the children with such love and care, the same affection that saw my father's upbringing.
As we stood up to leave, Josephine turned her head and looked at my brother and me. "Singabangane," she said. The word sounded so familiar and beautiful. My grandmother leaned forward and whispered translation into my ear. "Singabangane," I replied. It meant we are friends.
"There is something about Africa," my father always says, "something that runs deep in your veins, something that will always draw you back." When I lie in bed at night, I still imagine myself in far-off countries, immersed in exotic cultures, yet after a while my mind always returns to Africa. I feel the hot sun pushing me into the ground, the vast openness around me and the connection to the country that means so much to my family and me. I see the thatched roof of the house where my father spent his childhood and the landscape that makes my heart beat fast and hard. I think of the hot air that wrapped around me and the beauty and mystery of Africa that cannot be put into words, but remains a constant ache in my heart to return. On the plane ride back home to Prague, I wrote in my journal:
In the distance a hot wind
Sways the branches of a lone acacia tree
Giving futile shade to a lonely bird
It doesn't sing or dance, just sits there
Staring out to nowhere
Too hot to move, too hot to think
Just sitting there, staring into the distance,
Into the eternity of Africa.
By Danielle Burby
Huntington Station, N.Y.
We wanted to choreograph a tap dance like no one had ever seen before. We wanted to tell a story while we danced. We wanted to deliver a monologue. In the brainstorming session, Elyssa, our teacher, told us to think of a story, an experience, and to tell it not only through our words, but through our feet as well. I sat on the cold floor, my arms wrapped around my knees, and I wondered what story I should tell. I sifted through my memories, grasping for inspiration. Nothing.
One by one, my friends stood before us, dancing their stories. First went James, his tap shoes ringing out like pealing bells against the springy floor, telling a funny story about doctors. Then Sally, her beautiful red hair, newly cut, swinging and swaying along with her and her bubbly tale of band camp. Then Katie, intricately weaving a pattern across the floor, speaking about her open heart surgery. Then my little sister, the youngest one there, timidly striking her feet against the ground, quietly recounting the time she and my father had gotten lost canoeing.
Finally, it was my turn. I was the last to go, and I still had a hundred stories racing through my head. I stood up and slowly walked across the long room, my tap shoes clickety-clacking with every step. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my reflection follow me in the mirror. I turned around and faced five pairs of expectant eyes. Of their own accord my feet took up a rhythm: ba da dum bum, ba da dum bum. And above the metallic sound of my tapping flew a story I hadn't consciously chosen; a story I had been keeping locked tightly away from even my deepest thoughts.
As I realized what I was saying, my feet quickened and the tapping grew more frantic. But the tapping couldn't drown out my words; a story about my grandmother. I began with the surprise visit my mother and I decided to pay. I told of the window through which I watched my grandmother fall. I told of the glass door, the locked glass door, and my grandmother's slumped form lying unmoving on the floor with just a door barring us from her. And my mother, my clean-mouthed mother, cursing and struggling to find a key, finally finding it and thrusting the door open. The two of us rushing to help my grandmother, me a few steps behind, unsure of what to do, of what was going on.
As I told the story, my feet and words felt clumsy and I didn't know what they would do or say next. Five pairs of eyes, full of pity, watched me. I choked on the words. My feet faltered. But I had begun, and now I had to see it through. I described the sour smell of alcohol seeping out of my grandmother's very pores; the blood, the crimson translucent blood, puddled and smeared across the floor. And worst of all, her eyes, bleary and unfocused, facing in different directions. I told of my own eyes, wide as steering wheels. Blood oozed out of the cut on her head. And my grandmother — my grandma — tried to act as though nothing had happened, as though she weren't drunk, as though she wasn't an alcoholic.
My tapping faded out after the words had finally stopped running out of my mouth. The tale hadn't been told in a cohesive manner and my dancing had been disjointed. But my story was out in the open. And as I stood there, I suddenly felt naked. I was utterly exposed. I had dug up a piece of my soul that I suddenly wasn't sure I should have uncovered. Even an hour later, riding shotgun in my mother's minivan, with the trees flying past me, I felt as though a piece of me had been scooped out and left for the vultures.
But miraculously, after I got beyond my feelings of vulnerability, my wound started to mend. It was as though by telling the story I had let out an infection. My anger toward my grandmother was scabbing over; my resentment was being changed into a small scar. And even though none of the people who had heard my story ever brought it up again, sharing that small piece of myself with them allowed me to accept what had happened and to heal.
By Hayden Kiessling
Pound Ridge, N.Y.
I was sitting on the floor of a stall in a barn tucked away on one hundred acres of land in central Pennsylvania. Lying next to me was a very pregnant Ayrshire cow weighing well over 1,000 pounds. Petoria didn't scare me. I was used to being in such close proximity to her. She was my favorite cow at Hameau Farm. My third year there as a camper, I had shown Petoria in the farm show at the end of the session. Now she was quite a bit bigger, and very frightened. It was her first calf, and she didn't really understand what was about to happen.
Thirty curious girls surrounded the calm haven that I had created in the stall for Petoria. The campers watched through the bars of the stall, waiting quietly and patiently for something to happen. I thought back to five years before, when I had first seen a calf being born. The mother was out in the pasture, so my friends and I watched in awe and anticipation as the massive creature lay down on her side and started pushing. A new calf was always an exciting change at the farm. Chores were put on hold as we wondered at the slimy, skinny animal trying to take its first steps.
The day Petoria went into labor, the girls were supposed to go to the state park for a barbeque and a swim, but they chose unanimously to stay and watch Petoria bring her first baby into the world. These are the kinds of girls that come to Hameau Farm: inquisitive, hardworking, independent girls who would rather spend two weeks feeding a baby goat with a bottle than splashing around in a town pool with their friends or playing soccer for their travel team. Even though my days as a camper ended long ago, I still consider myself a Hameau Farm girl, and this was my seventh summer.
For the moment my place was in the stall, sitting in the hay with Petoria. She let out a soft moo, and I stroked her soft brown-spotted coat. She was ready. I moved aside so that she could lie on her side, first coaxing her to the center of the stall so that the campers would get a good view. She started pushing. A series of hushed whispers rippled through the line of young girls. I loved that they were so excited. These were a bunch of city girls who had been dropped off almost a week ago, not knowing what to expect, but willing to try something new. I thought back to my first week at camp, and how I hadn't even known how to wash my own dishes. When it was my chore group's turn in the kitchen after dinner, I not only learned how to scrub, rinse and sanitize, but by the end of the night, I learned how to make the perfect beard out of soap bubbles, and I picked up some great dance moves to Britney Spears songs. Everything was an adventure at camp, and today was proving to be no exception.
Petoria was breathing harder. I could see the feet starting to emerge. I knew that the front hooves would come out first and the calf would literally dive out of its mother. This calf had some of the biggest feet I had ever seen, and Petoria had clearly noticed as well. As pushing got harder, Petoria became more vocal, and then she stopped. She was out of energy, but she needed to push or the calf wouldn't survive. I tried to feed her grain and give her water, but Petoria would have none of it. She was exhausted.
After deferring to the camp director, I had to gather up twine from the bales of hay around the barn, tie them together, and tie the long string around the calf's exposed hooves. It was my turn to do the work. I pulled on the twine, but couldn't get a good grip on it. My fellow counselor and I tied our end of the rope around a pitchfork. That provided us with at least a little leverage. Three of us pulled on that handle for what seemed like an hour. By then there was no point in trying to keep the campers quiet and relaxed. They were all concerned, shouting words of encouragement to Petoria and clapping and cheering whenever a little more of the calf emerged.
It is a Hameau Farm custom to name a new baby animal something starting with the first letter of its mother's name, so when that little bull calf finally came out of Petoria, the campers voted, and we named him Presley, after The King. He was the center of attention for days after, but as I made my way down to the farmhouse to shower away the slime, dirt, and sawdust, I knew that he was just one of the many adventures that each one of those campers would have at Hameau Farm.
Block by Block, Word by Word
By Daniel Steinman
Short Hills, N.J.
You can make almost anything out of LEGOs. You can build miniature spaceships, colorful forts, or cities of blocky skyscrapers that span the basement floor. My favorite was constructing ancient, booby-trapped temples like the ones from Indiana Jones.
In elementary school, I was fanatical about my LEGOs. I would build the medieval castle, complete with the moat and the drawbridge and guard stations and the throne room for the king and queen and their royal dog, Patches. (Coincidentally, Patches was also the name of my dog.) I would kneel for hours, hunched over the hundreds of blocks spread over the carpet, to select just the right piece for each part of the structure.
Once the castle walls were erected and the knights on horseback were set to approach from the other side of the moat, I was done. I didn't really play with the castle afterward. I moved it to the corner so that my sister's Barbie convertible wouldn't crash into it and ruin my little "Ages 3 and Up" masterpiece.
Looking back on my childhood, I was a bizarrely obsessive little kid. For days after building a fort or a spaceship, I would stop and examine that every plastic block was still in place.
It's strange to think that between the age of riding a tricycle and the age of driving a car, I am, in some ways, exactly the same. I don't play with LEGOs anymore, but I am a construction worker of types. Now I write essays and stories and newspaper articles, and I approach it with the same compulsion.
Every word is painstakingly selected with the same intensity I exerted as a child choosing the right color block. Every phrase is turned around and around in my head like arranging the walls of the castle gate. Every sentence is examined for its structural quality. At my desk — like kneeling over my rug — I craft meticulously.
By writing, I hope to create the grand and intricate images in my mind, to give them some physical incarnation. Inked on a page, a nebulous mass of related thoughts can be forged into something real. A story or essay can be erected as the fulfillment of a single concept. My gratification comes from being able to perfectly embody an idea. This can be frustrating because I've never written anything close to perfect. For as much as I agonize over my words and methodically rework every draft, my ideal eludes me. Still, I return to my desk and keep writing, editing, and rewriting because if I don't return to my desk, I'm sure I'll never write the essays, stories, and newspaper articles that I know I want to write.
You can make almost anything out of words. You can build planet-sized spaceships, long-lost medieval castles, or cities of glass structures that pierce the clouds. If my construction work is solid enough, I believe I will be able to make these worlds — real and imaginary — come alive on paper the way they did on the rug of my basement. So I continue to build — block by block, word by word, sentence by sentence — in the hope that I will end up with something I can put to the side of my desk and examine every once in a while to see that every word fits in place.