Sunday, August 20, 2017

2017.08.20 You Won’t like It Here—But You Will Love This Book and This Boy

Why would a book review bear a title that directly contradicts the book’s own title: You’ll Like It Here?

Because when six-year-old Donald Vitkus, an abandoned orphan and rejected foster child, arrived at Belchertown State School, in 1949 he was told a lie: “You’ll like it here.”

Young Donald recognized this deceit because of the rough way he was treated, his desire to “puke”, and because this putative school had bars at the windows and padlocked doors. “School” was a misnomer for Belchertown.

You’ll Like It Here. The Story of Donald Vitkus Belchertown Patient #3394 is Vitkus's biography, written by Ed Orzechowski, a writer and retired high school English teacher in Northampton, Massachusetts. The memoir exposes the painful irony of its title by telling the whole truth: a story of tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy is that Belchertown existed for containment only—not care, not education. It stayed in business under state auspices for seventy years (1922-1992)—even after a 1973 Federal class action lawsuit against the institution’s leadership for cruelty and dehumanization. Children and adults, commonly diagnosed as “idiots”, “imbeciles” or “morons”, lived under inhumane, unstintingly cruel conditions.

The triumph is that some of Belchertown’s designated “retards” proved smart enough to make friends, humor, pranks, and plots. They knew damn well what was happening to them and what terrorism felt like. Vitkus was one such kid. He felt increasingly sure he was not a moron and secretly determined that one day he would prove it. His inner determination eventually taught him the right balance between risk-taking and compliance so that in time he was free from institutional control—
but not before some runaway attempts.

Belchertown took regular photos of all the patients and distributed them to the local police so runaways would always be apprehended and returned. Vitkus’s first runaway attempt happened on August 7, 1953, when he was ten. He had no place to go and no family in sight. Written recurrently on every entry of Vitkus’s case files was this painful sentence:“Does not receive mail or visitors and does not go on vacation.”

One could call runaway behavior desperate, foolhardy or just plain natural chutzpah. Vitkus always was caught of course, yet he never gave up. Once a compassionate policeman took this child for ice cream before he returned him to Belchertown. One ice cream is heaven when you’re in hell.

Life after Belchertown, though less breathtaking, had rough patches but just as many graces for Vitkus, not the least of which was his meeting Ed Orzechowski in 2005 at an event to publicize a book called Crimes Against Humanity and asking Orzechowski if he would be interested in writing his story. Orzechowski agreed to a  conversation. That conversation would turn into eight years and some forty hours of taped interviews, not to mention patience, courage and yes, affection. The men collected official records and documents to prove their book was not a work of fiction. This book is uniquely the product of a relationship of trust between author and subject, a relationship that gives this book its integrity and intimate worth.

Orzechowski listened very closely in order to write the story in Vitkus’s voice. At times he felt as if he were “channeling” Donald. The process wasn’t easy, Orzechowski told me when I contacted him. “I first had to learn to write a book,” he said. “But Donald pushed ahead, because he never wanted ‘to go back to those days.’”  It’s not easy to write someone else’s memoir and make it vibrate with a voice not your own. Orzechowski writes with exceptional craft, skill, and clear-heartedness.
Sometimes a memoir helps a person, not to forget or resolve every painful memory, but to give a lived experience shape, form, and right words outside one’s own mind—contained, shelved and ready for others to read and find empathy and hope. A memoir can be a kind of miracle this way. Vitkus had first to entrust his whole story to a stranger. He wanted others not to feel alone in their truth, and most of all, he wanted to prove he was no moron. Donald Vitkus as an adult in his late sixties is pictured here.

Vitkus lurched clumsily toward happiness as he grew in body, mind, and spirit in spite of having grown up deprived of affection, adequate health care, and most all of life’s most urgent basic lessons from table manners, to language, to pubescent impulses, to the meaning of love—save the inner longing that signals love’s absence. We are not left with the impression that Donald is free of all his scars. He still has a strong aversion to authority. In his efforts to manage life outside he flounders. And he still sleeps with the covers over his head.

What saves this book from being mere reportage of atrocities for the sake of news:   
    -tight structure including compelling chapter titles, often quotes from Donald or his case records;
    -the redemptive quality of the biography-as-memoir genre itself— characters, dialogue, plot—supported by documented facts and photos;
    - a protagonist with exceptional chutzpah who also managed a gentle, respectful touch when he stripped and washed the younger boys for their weekly shower night;
    -a simple pencil posing as a godsend—just one pencil given to each first grade student. Donald had never experienced the thrill of ownership: “mine.” He took excellent care of his pencil;
     -some kind teachers who cared about patients as much as Vitkus did about his very own pencil;
    -transformation of a life nearly sunk by trauma;
    -a writer who never allowed his own emotions, which would have to have been painful, overwhelm the plot or the truth of his subject.

Orzechowski may just have discovered his retirement vocation. He is beginning interviews with another former Belchertown patient who sought him out. Hopefully, some women will come forward as well.  Orzechowski told me: “Since I know the ropes much better now, I expect the process to be considerably shorter this time.”

Today, as Ed Orzechowski promotes his book in readings and presentations, Donald Vitkus attends every single reading. Vitkus, for his part, travels and speaks publicly about his experience. He is Vice-President of Advocacy Network which evolved from Friends of Belchertown.  When he  introduces himself he begins his talks this way: “I’m a human services worker, and a Vietnam vet who can’t own a gun. I am an ex-husband, a husband, father, and grandfather. And a former moron of Belchertown State School.”

Here is Donald Vitkus with his present wife Pat at his graduation from Holyoke Community College in 2005.

Readers of this book will find faith, hope, love, and grace. Darkness and light co-exist, neither overwhelming the other. You’ll Like It Here is ministry—restoring dignity to the innocent and exposing larger social justice issues with universal implications.

Ed Orzechowski, by the way, has also proved he does know how to write a book.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

2017.08.13 Sincerely, the Sky

 Sincerely, the Sky

Yes, I see you down there

looking up into my vastness.

What are you hoping

to find on my vacant face,

there within the margins

of telephone wires?

You should know I am only

bright blue now because of physics:

molecules break and scatter

my light from the sun

more than any other color.

You know my variations—

azure at noon, navy by midnight.

How often I find you

then on your patio, pajamaed

and distressed, head thrown

back so your eyes can pick apart

not the darker version of myself

but the carousel of stars.

To you I am merely background.

You barely hear my voice.

 Remember I am most vibrant

when air breaks my light.

Do something with your brokenness.

“Sincerely, the Sky” from Dear Sincerely by David Hernandez, © 2016. Aired by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Dear Sky,

Thanks so much for your wisdom and for being blue—or not. When I was a kid I thought the sea was blue like you, too. I know you’re just sun-mottled molecules, or my tendency to project all my dearest dreams onto every scape, but to me you’re the glory of God—divine true-blueness. 

I’m on an island now, surrounded by you and sea and sand. When I’m here I forget all about the many careful distinctions people attempt to draw between science and religion. They just don’t matter when you’re bright blue, the sea is deep blue-green, and the silky white sand sticks like glitter to my salted nakedness. 

I’m in one piece when I’m here. So is the cosmos.

Thank you, Sky.
              Sincerely, a Fan.

David Hernandez, born in Burbank California in 1971, is a prize-winning poet who teaches creative writing at California State University-Long Beach.

David is a year younger than my youngest son, which makes me feel old, but not old-mother old. David is four years younger than my other son who aspires to be a poet himself—which he already is. I know because poetry is soul-deep and sky-high.

Thank you, David Hernandez

Sunday, August 6, 2017

2017.08.16 I Love You

Early on, I noticed that you always say it
to each of your children
as you are getting off the phone with them
just as you never fail to say it
to me whenever we arrive at the end of a call.

It's all new to this only child.
I never heard my parents say it,
at least not on such a regular basis,
nor did it ever occur to me to miss it.
To say I love you pretty much every day

would have seemed strangely obvious,
like saying I'm looking at you
when you are standing there looking at someone.
If my parents had started saying it
a lot, I would have started to worry about them.

Of course, I always like hearing it from you.
That is never a cause for concern.
The problem is I now find myself saying it back
if only because just saying good-bye
then hanging up would make me seem discourteous.

But like Bartleby, I would prefer not to
say it so often, would prefer instead to save it
for special occasions, like shouting it out as I leaped
into the red mouth of a volcano
with you standing helplessly on the smoking rim,

or while we are desperately clasping hands
before our plane plunges into the Gulf of Mexico,
which are only two of the examples I had in mind,
but enough, as it turns out, to make me
want to say it to you right now,

and what better place than in the final couplet
of a poem where, as every student knows, it really counts.

"I Love You" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Writer’s Almanac, 3/3/17.

August 7th is my 79th birthday and my husband’s 76th birthday.  “How wonderful and insane,” a friend commented.  It’s mostly wonderful and occasionally insane to be a first child and an only child, both under the roaring sign of Leo, living in the same house—married no less. We don’t say I love you a lot. Love comes in small ways, such as a little phrase we exchange as we hit our pillows to sleep each night: “Okay, g’night.” Even if one of us is half asleep he/she responds: “Okay, g’night.”  

What are your verbal “I love you” habits?  In our house growing up I don’t think we said it all that much. We had the kiss-Daddy-good-night ritual and maybe the love finale just before bed, but it wasn’t a standout phrase. It was not a habit, like goodbye. 

When I had children it got more use. My first husband and the father of our children said it a lot, and I believe it was more or less a requirement for him that we answer in kind. I always wondered about that. He, I thought, was more in love with his booze and his job than his family, yet I knew he wanted to share his heart. I’m not quite sure how or when the love seeped out of our marriage unnoticed, or at least unspoken.

Now with grandchildren it’s a definite expectation or closure for us all, as in “Love you” on texts and phone calls. Some are more excessive with love emojis than others, but that's only because they have excessive in their genes.

My oldest granddaughter, just 21, said it to the loan officer at her bank. “Bye. Love you.” She was horrified when she realized what she had said to a complete stranger who had yet to approve the extension of her loan.

To say “Love you” doesn’t have as much gravitas as “I love you.”  My husband and I say it occasionally. He says it,  it seems, more than I do. Probably he needs to in order to get over his irritation at my quirks. For me it usually rises up when I feel a sudden surge of deep affection for this man I’ve been married to for over 30 years. We’ve grown into each other’s souls like puzzle pieces that are misshapen but somehow fit together like no other two pieces.

Old married love, like traditional practices of language, is like a comforter. It’s full of profound devotion mixed with profound annoyance at small differences we never seem to understand and that never change. Habits of communication and ways of managing time—silly things of little moment. We don’t argue over many big things at all. Well, occasionally over a theological nuance, but mostly we agree. 

I suppose I love you has as many meanings as there are people and circumstances. Still, I love that it can be used more routinely with family, because they all deserve it, you know—no matter what.

No wonder Christians believe God  is unconditional love…..because no human person is capable of unconditional love. Well, maybe a dear pet is. The one who can’t help all her or his instinctual ways but whose ways become tolerable because of the steadfast love, presence and companionship given without reserve. 

To say I love you, and mean it deeply, must include I know you. They go together.

The granddaughter who threw off a quick “Love you” to the loan officer at the bank felt mortified.  But I bet the guy experienced a chuckle and a wee resurrection. And who knows, it might have inspired him to extend her loan—which he did.

So Happy Birthday, Dick, I love you truly, madly, deeply—husband, best friend, lover, and companion in mischief and grace.
Okay, g’night.