Behold: Redleg Nation has promoted me to columnist, and guess who got the ball on Opening Day. You should go read this if only for the fact that it contains the sentence "The chicken will roll."
These are words and I read them into a microphone in front of a bunch of people while crying a lot.
If you are standing here, you have been affected by alumna Carol T. Dressman. If you are one of our alumnae who graduated before she became Mercy’s development director in 1983, she upheld your legacy and tended your home. If one of the women who attended while she taught and served here, even if you never attempted to decipher her blocky handwriting at the top of an assignment, she lowered your tuition, gathered your classmates, and kept the lights on in your hallways—she was the nuclear reactor, the splitting atom, of the Mercy you knew and loved. If you attended after Carol Dressman retired in 2002, you received the fruits of her dedication, sacrifice, and piercing vision. In her own words, listen to how from nothing but dust and a desk, she harnessed the power of the alumnae and the community to create a school among schools:
The development job at Mercy was a huge challenge. There was no alumnae database, no alumnae newsletter or annual fund drive, and of course no budget to work with. The job became a family project..I started a semi-annual antique show to raise money for an alumnae newsletter. After the first newsletter, I sent out the first official annual fund solicitation followed by a phonathon. In 1990 I started Mercy’s first charity dinner auction, Mercy Gras. This brought donors to the school and raised the bar on what people thought they could donate to a ‘girl’s school.’ In 1995 I began Mercy’s first capital campaign. Our goal was 2.2 million. No one believed that a small Catholic girls’ school on the West side could raise that much. When the campaign was finished we had 2.4 million and over 20 named scholarships.
What many of us took for granted as forever in existence and forever would be, amen, was, in fact, a revolution in Cincinnati women’s education. When I attended Mercy, it was physically impossible to climb the steps of the New Building and turn left. There was nothing but wall in the way, and I thought little of it. But before this woman of faith in God and Westwood and all other things powerful was done, she had indeed gone about her business of eliminating impossibilities.
My classmates and I sat in her English class as this mother of three told of us a day when the Catholic high schools of Cincinnati would begin to compete for students, and to meet this challenge, she said, Mother of Mercy had a ten-year plan, which involved a remodeled science wing and a turned-around gym, which at the time was fraught with shock-orange plastic chairs and a mold-scented tarp hauled out from under the stage for special occasions. She saw it. She saw a beautiful historic building with yet more potential, just as she saw broken or frightened or childish young women who could yet become scholars, warriors, women to be relied upon. And she raised them both.
I tell you the story of Carol Dressman because it’s not actually a story about Carol Dressman. It’s about you. It’s about us. It’s about the parents who counted Fund Drive money, the alumnae who forfeited a month of lattes to write the check, the teachers who set aside a stack of grading to make phone calls, the sophomore who addressed the letter to her grandmother, and the family-owned florist that made a blue card donation. And it is not a tale of money. It’s the adventure of a great rocket, with Carol the engineer, but the metal skin, pulsing engines, and high gantry rushed to the launchpad by those parents, these teachers, that sophomore. This cost, at times, nothing more than the ability to be Catholic; one year, when I informed Mrs. Dressman after Mercy Gras that the bid spotters were often thirsty and next time someone really should be dedicated to fetching them drinks, guess what I found myself doing one year later.
And sometimes the cost was more than that. The day Carol Dressman broke her leg on school grounds was the day they hauled her down the main steps on a stretcher, still yelling directions for the Mercy Gras she was preparing, for her own bone fragments trembled before her.
The last time I laid eyes on her body on this planet, it lay in state in this very room, this room she saw from her own plastic orange seat in the faculty section, this room that she built--but most importantly helped to fill --with young women and good people to shape them. At the time I thought it her final triumph. But now I wonder if the iron rocket skin she began to mold in 1983 was awaiting testing for a day even she couldn’t see, a time you and I were meant to not just occupy, but in our own way and against our own anxiety, launch and break a force of gravity we weren't even aware was present.
That you are here is Carol Dressman’s legacy. That we were educated amongst a million impossibilities is ours. What are you going to do with it?
I am a cactus. I could say that the rejection of my childhood peers has made this so, but I had spikes as a zygote. I kicked at my mother from the inside, simultaneously pushing away my father and anyone else who dared draw near eyes that could not yet see them. “You never wanted to be held,” my mother told me once. “You always ran away.” Present tense. From everybody.
Cacti grow together in tight clutches and yet stand alone. I am tempted to pet them but something tells me they are not huggers. The spines protect their tender innards, where lives the water they soak from the air. The life.
In the West, where the cacti grow, the barbed wire takes its cue. It cuts off one piece of land from another—we don’t see this in the Midwest, where we cut our divides with curlicued gates and and well-mended wide mesh shaped like diamonds, false gems. They are thin hexagons, sometimes painted green to blend into the grass, pretend they aren’t there at all. Cacti and barbed wire, on the other hand, don’t give a damn.
In the mornings I cast my myself out into the desert, which sounds dramatic and all considering I come upon paved road within ten minutes of brisk walking, but I heard howling and this one jackrabbit was scary and once a fighter jet zoomed overhead in chase of the curvature of the planet. It was chilly and like the airplane I chased this off too, eating the Earth in wide strides to reduce the chronic tightness in my right hip, opening, opening. The sun rested on me—it did not beat down, it did not seek to conquer. The air, light and dry, was a companion instead of a turgid, humid enemy pressing against each limb.
In the Midwest, everything is dying, the trees refusing to go without a fight, the yellows and reds and oranges not a color show but a struggle, a final blaze of light, a refusal to go softly into bare branches. Here in the desert, where there is green, you can trust that it stays. It has won. It’s eternal. It isn’t going anywhere. The deal the barbed wire has struck with the West is that the wire will lay low, but it won’t choke off the land. It won’t pretend to be what it is not. And neither will a cactus.
There are fuzzy cacti, too, and even though these seem to announce themselves a safer companion, upon further inspection they reveal themselves to be no more touchable than their spiked counter parts. Fuzzy cacti have more spines, closer together—if you’re careful, if you make a dedicated effort of it, you can rest a couple fingertips against the cool exterior of a saguaro by choosing your spot. The fuzzy ones—no way. They’re not to be touched, anywhere, at all, and they’re frantic about it, their hair blocking the green inside. I looked up the name of one of these: “Old Man Cactus.” Get off its lawn, its lawn of sand and rattlesnakes.
These cacti are also called “Persian cat cactus” or “bunny cactus.” Unworthy. Who runs away from a bunny? The bunny does the running, and so do I—in wide, planet-eating strides, opening, opening.
I am recently returned from Colorado Springs, where my heart lives when it is not in Cocoa Beach or DC or Cincinnati or any number of places I am currently not because science does not have its priorities straight and is concentrating on stupid crap like working on cures for childhood diseases instead of making it possible for me to quadlocate so I can be four places at once and therefore happy. (If you want to know what happens should you leave Ohio—it’s that. You will never be happy, never again. You always want to be in the other places you’ve lived, and when you’re in the other places you’ve lived you want to be in Ohio. So, if you have a one-way ticket out of the only place you've ever known… just cancel it. Throw a bunch of sand on the back patio next to a wading pool and call it San Diego if you must.)
What I like to do in Colorado Springs is walk around staring at all the pretty trees and flowers, which is a challenge because I have a wretched sense of direction, and walking trails in Colorado Springs tend to not proceed in a sensible concrete loop as they do in the Midwest. Apparently sometimes there are mountains and giant rocks in the way. So to walk commands a tremendous amount of time, pre-planning, maps, screen caps, consultations with National Geographic, and preliminary phone calls to forest rangers.
On this particular walk I was feeling immensely proud of myself, as I had stomped my way through the Garden of the Gods without managing to leave the state and after only four failed attempts to launch on the walk (once because I couldn’t find the trailhead, which was ten yards from my car, and had to ask directions; once because I thought I forgot my phone and went back to my car and it wasn’t there because it was actually in my backpack after all; and twice because finding the trailhead and rediscovering the phone took a while and I had to pee.) On my last turn back to the car, I saw three teenagers standing motionless, staring at the ground.
As is pretty much the natural state of teenagers, I stepped around them, but one of them called out, “Wait. There’s a snake up ahead.”
There was a snake up ahead. I couldn’t tell what color it was, other than what zoologists technically term “kind of greenish,” and it wasn’t going anywhere, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Once I served a writing residency in the Everglades, and there were many alligators, and once a scary animal decides it’s going to be somewhere, such as between my front door and my car, that is where it’s going to be for exactly as long as it wants to.
It was decided that the snake was probably not dangerous, because it did not look, quote, “like the ones on Discovery Channel,” so one of the teenage boys made the executive decision to hurl a pebble in its direction, I suppose to send a sophisticated message that would cross interspecies lines (“HEY WE’RE HUMANS AND WE’RE REALLY ANNOYING.”) The snake fixed itself a martini and settled in.
The other teenage boy decided to escalate the issue to the snake’s supervisor, and found themselves a stick. The other two teenagers helped by pointing their camera phones at him. I was long past the point of when I should have found another route back to my car, because, like a passenger on a flight that’s been delayed eight times across two days, I was in this for the duration. Also I had to carry word back to the survivors.
The teenager shoved the stick in the general direction of the snake. The snake moved and so did we all, especially the kid with the stick, who shot past us in the opposite direction, saying, “I hear rattling.”
As this officially consigned the snake as A Big Pile of Nope, I turned around to undertake the impossible task of finding a redirected route. Which I did. All by myself. Like a big girl. And I made it not only back to my car, but back to Ohio, where things mostly make sense and are mostly happy and mostly in a concrete circle.
And that is what makes my snake story awesome.