She is red-headed, fair skinned, wears a billowy scarf, plastic rim glasses and looks impatient with her peers. They are giggling a row in front of her, Teresa, Kaja and Sara—Tekasara for short. A team, merry pranksters, bandying some hot rumor or dirty joke. The lesson began 15 minutes ago but they still sit with their knees touching each other’s at a central spoke. They are huddled over with unbreakable glee. “Oh, that did not happen! No, I don’t believe it!”
“It did! I’ve got footage!”
“Show me—oh my God!”
(I am imagining for they gossip under me in Polish.)
“Tekasara, will you take nothing seriously? This is not the time for irreverence. Longfellow is mourning his lost love.”
“Bor-ring!” Teresa chided in her confident, unreflective manner.
“She probably was bad in bed,” Kaja joked in her crass way.
“Gross! Did they have sex back then?” Sara joined in. Their giggling rose to a fevered pitch, and Dominika sank a little lower in her chair.
Others are in the room, but it boils down to Tekasara, and Dominika—the Four Women. Men are present in equal number, but they serve as counterpoint to the orchestra, if counterpoint were silence. Giorgios from Greece, short in stature, quick witted, but intimidated by the more opinionated girls. Fabian verging on catatonic, dealing with social anxiety issues. Yusef from Iraq, still getting his English up to par, and Arman from Iran, a level below Yusef. They listen gamely and laugh at the right turns. But for content, it’s Tekasara up front, and Dominika in the back.
I have gone through my routine guidelines for breaking down a poem. In case you haven’t read “Cross in the Snow”, here it is:
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
In a word, mournful. Tough to approach at 10am on a Tuesday, but hey, it’s the curriculum. And I have my methods for getting them to talk. Condense the poem to a word or phrase—we’ve done that (mournful). Cut the poem into sections, title each one. Defend your titles. We’ve looked up the unfamiliar and antiquated words. We’ve spoken a bit about Longfellow’s life and the harrowing story of his wife’s death. The fire that caught the ends of her 19th century dress. The fact that she did die like a martyr, tied to the stake. That Longfellow endured her death too, smothering the flames with his own body…and being so badly burned, growing over his wounds his trademark beard. Can you imagine a worse fate for young lovers? Now imagine yourself the survivor. Try to put the loss into words….
I’m able to capture their attention in spurts, but no matter, Tekasara instinctively ignore me. I’m a page on the screen—they swipe—become engrossed—and lose contact with what was momentarily so riveting.
I’ve learned not to take offence. Even when at my best, reaching some philosophical mountaintop, finding a sigh there like an alpine bird—it’s gone as soon as found.
They will not be affected!
But there is Dominika Kaczkowska, sitting on an island in the back row….
So….we arrived at that part of the game called “choose your key line”. Kaja, in her casual manner, selected “Such is the cross I bear each day”, the poem’s pivot. It’s the moment where the subject switches from the dear departed to the one left behind. He who lives with the dying—for whom the dying was for.
This comment spurred a lot of talk. A lot of it mine—to die easier than outliving the one you love. (What? She caught on fire!!) Dying not being death as we know it, but an emotional reality, even a psychosis suffered in the living. (Tell that to the dead!) Funerals, aren’t they a catharsis for the living? It is our mortality we embrace. And our essential loneliness. We live ignoring this fact. We are alone. All of us.
Tekasara sat with their knees untouching. Their eyes were a bit swollen.
“Yea, but Mr. Krasner, why think about that?” Teresa lead. She was a natural devil’s advocate. “Why not just find love again? That’s what Longfellow should do. He’s not dead!”
“Well, he is,” Sara interrupted slyly.
“Now he is! But he wasn’t then. Go find another love, Longfellow. Go live!”
“That’s true Teresa,” I said. “But in your eagerness to find someone, it sounds like you might be running away from something.”
“No. Finding someone is not running away. It’s smart. It’s running to something.”
“And running away from something—too. Being alone. Death.”
“But he didn’t die!”
“You are going to die you know.”
“Yea, and we live with that knowledge, on a deep level. Buried.”
“Like a corpse,” Dominika said quietly. She never smiled like Tekasara, in bursts and capricious turns. Hers was a contained, glowing light. Alone.
“What?” Teresa challenged.
“Just think about it,” Dominika continued, more animated. “Think about how many people have died to make room for you. Well, no you don’t think about it. You’re trained not to. But starting with your great grandparents, then grandparents, soon enough your parents and you. You bury this knowledge just like you bury a person. But then it sneaks up on you in the end.”
“Impressive. So what, I’m supposed the think about death all the time? What good is that? I’ll just be depressed and sit in a closet.”
She did not look back at Dominika, though she addressed her.
“What’s the purpose of living if I’m just going to die?” she finished.
“Well, yea. Exactly.”
“What’s the purpose?” I picked up. “Don’t you think this is an important question?”
“The purpose is the purpose,” Kaja jumped in.
“Yea,” Sara said. “What she said.”
“You don’t want to answer the question?”
“What, do I have to answer that question in order to live?” Teresa said. “I know the purpose instinctively.”
“Ah, instinctively, like you know death.”
“The purpose is to live,” she said strongly. “And in this case, Mr. Longfellow should get up from his dreary bed, say goodbye to his lovely wife’s portrait, and get back out into the sunlight. She’d want that. Why die twice?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, impressed.
“She died, right? Terribly. I get that. Probably not a worse way to go. But why does he have to too?”
“Well that’s true.”
“Well,” Dominika was not satisfied, “he really loved her. You make it sound like everyone is interchangeable. Just find another one! What if she was his only one?”
“There’s no such thing.”
“Well, if you read the poem you might disagree. She was his soul-mate—“
“Oh come on—“
“What, you don’t like that word?” I asked.
Teresa put her two forefingers in her mouth, vomiting.
“Soul-mate. Say it!”
Dominika said it, coolly.
“It means their souls were knit together,” she continued. “One fabric. You can’t just tear apart the seams and reconnect so easily.”
“That’s pretty romantic,” Kaja dismissed.
“Yea, what do you know about love?” Teresa asked.
“I know a lot.”
“Oh, really. You couldn’t tell.”
Teresa glanced back with this dart.
“Ok girls…settle down.”
“It’s okay Mr. Krasner,” Dominika feigned maturity. “I don’t get so irritated.”
“Teresa has a point, though, doesn’t she? Both of you do. True love, if I can use that phrase, it seems to be like your tightly woven quilt Dominika. You don’t know where one thread begins and another takes over. Look at your clothes, your jeans for example.”
They were looking at my words.
“No, I’m being serious—look at them!”
They begrudgingly looked down to their laps.
“Can you see that they’re made of individual threads?”
“If I look like really hard,” Teresa said.
“Right, if you look at things closely, they appear as they are. It seems like one. But that’s not the reality. It’s two, it’s many, coming together.”
“Mr. Krasner! That’s erotic!”
“I’m talking about love.”
“You’re talking about jeans. Two jeans coming together.”
The girls had their knees touching again.
“You see,” Teresa continued, clearly enjoying herself, “you didn’t realize the poem was erotic. You didn’t read it closely enough.”
“Got it. You’re right. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, master erotic poet.”
I pointed to his solemn image, which had been projected on the whiteboard throughout the lesson. Like a cross in the snow.
“Ok, we’ve digressed.”
“We always digress.”
“Well, that’s what poems can do. Isn’t that nice? Aren’t we kind of exploring?”
Tekasara contemplated their next attack.
“At least talking about meaningful things? Isn’t this relevant to you some way?”
“I don’t know,” Kaja said.
“She caught fire and burned to death Mr. Krasner,” Sara deadpanned. “Like at the dinner table. Can’t say I’ve experienced anything like that.”
“How come she didn’t just take off her dress?” Kaja asked.
“Because it was the 19th century. They didn’t have H&M back then.”
“Come on Kaja, think about it,” Teresa egged on. “They had those corset things. You had to have like three people help you just to put it on.”
“No zippers,” I added. “No stretch material. And made of whale bone.”
“Damn. Whale bone?”
“The underdress, that was the corset. The whale bone is what gave the figure that ideal form.”
“We know Mr. Krasner,” Teresa said. “Ideal. As in I can’t breath, but glad you’re happy!”
“It must have been a miserable way to die.”
“Unable to just get out of her dress?” Kaja kept thinking.
“She was a martyr,” Dominika said.
“For what, loose clothing?” Teresa replied.
“Women were trapped in those corsets, trapped in their gowns. It’s a symbol for how they were trapped in their lives. Walking around like dolls so their men could be happy looking at them.” She sighed indignantly.
“Is it so different today?” I asked.
“I can breathe,” she responded. “I can be beautiful if I want, how I want. And I can breathe. And if my shirt catches fire, I can take it off.”
“Easy girl,” Teresa said.
“We were talking about love,” I tried to coral the discussion. “And parting with love. And death. Which however it comes, soon or distant, is our inevitable reality.”
The girls settled down.
“Teresa thinks parting is no big deal. Just get back up and find another love. If you dwell over loss too much, you become lost. You die twice, she said. And Dominika was saying that it’s a little cold to just exchange lovers. That maybe some loves are more true than others.”
“And I think Dominka, you were encouraging that we face death. Whereas Teresa was suggesting that we face life. So which is it?”
“Mr. Krasner?” Kaja interjected.
“We’re too young for this.”
“What do you mean? You’re women.”
“We’re young women.”
“And men…ahem” Teresa joked, drawing attention to the presence of the boys, who reddened a bit in the light.
“We’re still finding love, looking for love,” Kaja continued. “We’ve never even loved! And you want us to think about losing love—“
“And losing life!”
“So, don’t you think this only stops us from living?” Kaja progressed. “Won’t we figure everything out in the end?”
“So I should have English class with 80 year olds?”
I limped to my chair, and sat down gingerly.
“You don’t find any value in facing loss now?” I asked sincerely. “While you’re still young?”
Dominika’s smile rose in temperature.
“It’s enough to know that I’m going to die, one day,” Teresa said flatly.
“But do you know it? Really know it?”
“Oh come on, no one really knows it. Not until you die!”
“So you’re not ready to die, until you die. That seems a little late.”
“Better late than never!”
“No, actually I mean, it would be better never than late. But what can you do.”
At this juncture, my mind was suddenly preoccupied with George Harrison. Maybe it was because at one point in his life he looked a little like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his shy face grown over with mammoth hair? Or maybe it was because I had been feeding a Beatles obsession for two weeks via Youtube, and a night prior got caught up in George Harrison interviews. In one, he had recently survived a maniac knife attack and soberly recounted the event. This was the part that came back to me, just as Teresa was speaking. Harrison said how he was able to ponder his death as he struggled with the attacker, wounded, about eight knife wounds already in him. He thought about what he might miss. His son. But after that, he thought, well, the world doesn’t really need me. I can leave my body any time—
I got up from my chair.
“Have any of you heard the phrase ‘to die well’?” I asked.
“Nope.” They were caught off guard. Even Dominika drew a blank.
“What do you think it means?”
“Mr. Krasner, did you just make this up?” Teresa asked. “You were dwelling over something.”
“Maybe his own death,” Sara quipped. I felt great affection for her.
“To die well?” I repeated. “Anyone?”
“To die without regrets,” Dominika replied.
“And how do you do that? Or how do you accomplish that, for it seems a great accomplishment.”
They were getting a little tired. It was still just 10:40.
“Don’t you think you should be prepared for your death, not just when you’re about to die. But all the time? By you know, living well? Not holding onto life so tightly? So that you could go at any minute and be happy? Or at least content?”
“Then Mr. Krasner,” Teresa picked up, “it seems Mr. Longfellow did not live well. If I can say anything intelligent about this poem, it’s that he is VERY attached to his wife. He turned her into a cross and wears it around his neck!”
“Yea,” I wondered. “Wow, you’ve just given me a new interpretation of the poem. Same poem I’ve been teaching for 10 years.”
“You’re welcome,” she joked.
“The event was too tragic for him to bear. He keeps it in his heart forever.”
“It’s like he’s unable to breathe.”
“He’s wearing her corset!”
“Beautiful. I mean, it’s beautiful what you’re saying. She was too beautiful to die so young. Their love was too. But even the most beautiful of things comes to an end.”
“What a bummer.”
“That should be like our class slogan,” Kaja mused.
Some soft laughter.
“But it’s just 45 minutes a day with me.”
“Actually it’s 90.” Tekasara began packing up their backpacks.
“90, ok. Are you complaining? Well, 90 minutes. Three days a week.”
“And four weeks a month and nine months a year!”
“For a couple of years anyway, and then you’re gone—”
Something stuck there.
“Mr. Krasner, don’t worry,” Teresa said, her bag to shoulder. “You’ll have more classes. You’ll replace us. You’ll find new loves.”
“Not like this one!”
Dominika was smiling in the back row. Tekasara in the front. For a fleeting moment—Tekasaradom.
In Polish, Dom means “home”.