Adelaide Literary Award for Best Essay FINALIST for 2017

Excerpt STRINGS IN OUR HANDS: A Memoir for my Community of Teachers

I sat on Oscar’s front step in Guatemala, holding his daughter after her first birthday party. After almost three years of Peace Corps working together in his elementary school and a few months in to a stint at an international school nearby, I was automatically invited to all family gatherings. Galy was Oscar’s third child and first girl. I was dressed in my guipil, a bright blue traditional blouse with multicolored figures embroidered in horizontal rows. I was feeling the elegance of fitting in to a standard feminine definition, and really, just fitting for a couple of hours. I was odd in the mess of guests, but enough of a constant that I was not worth staring at, which felt acceptable.

“Magda, she really wanted this. It’s what she has. She’s been so excited.”

“Didn’t you talk about her completing junior high? Or at least elementary school?”

“She wanted a daughter.” He meant what he said in the most positive way, not that his wife was restricted in her choices. My graduate school voice cautioned that Oscar was being ridiculous. There were always invisible strings. Seeing as how I wasn’t I bubbling over with happiness in my professionally dominated existence, I was no one to judge her. At 30, the majority of my close friends were married with babies as well.

The tamascal was a traditionally clay structure, so low that I had to duck down to enter. They were unbearably hot and also the remedy for illness, postpartum recovery and general wellbeing. Even the poorest families allocated a space on their small land holdings to construct this bathhouse. I was generally uninterested in them for my own use. Breathing was like having a blanket over your head on the most humid of summer days. As the women stoked the coals and flicked water, I found opportunities to peak my nose out of the cloth hanging in the door to breathe. For one particular cultural practice, they intrigued me. It never occurred to me previously that a daily task could carry meaning, but in Guatemala I had started to cling to the idea, charging the learning of those tasks in recreating identity. To be seen as a woman was the main reason for letting Oscar’s wife, Magda, watch me struggle to wash clothes by hand once a week in the pila instead of just lugging them to the laundry service available in Panajachel. It was not much different than focusing on the selection of a particular literacy activity or maintaining the science table in my first year classroom so that I could justify a teacher identity. Those actions were markers of belonging, even if I didn’t understand their entire purpose.

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