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My mouth is dry

Maura Shea

I have moved to Denver.

I am sitting in my new classroom, imagining the faces that will occupy the empty desks, the colors I will use to mitigate the overwhelming whiteness of the walls, the procedures I intend to begin practicing with them on day one … and my mouth is dry.

It will probably feel a whole lot dryer on the first day when I have to speak to my new students (whom, I hear, have been informed that I am a very hard-core scary teacher by my ACE predecessor).

Or the first time a student doesn’t follow directions, and I have to administer a consequence.

Or that first parent phone-call I make … even though I plan on the first one being very positive – a reaching out and introducing myself to all the parents before they know what hit ‘em.

Or that first summer reading assignment I hand back … their first taste of my high expectations.

But right now, sitting here, typing and imagining and predicting, my mouth is dry.

They tell you when you move to Denver, you should drink a lot of water. Something about the high altitude and the climate makes dehydration pretty common, especially for newcomers. So I’ve been carrying a water bottle everywhere I go.

And my mouth is still dry.

When I was in Louisiana, sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe because of all the moisture in the air. Every time it rained, the water flooded the streets because it had nowhere to go – I guess the ground was saturated already.
Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem, “Grasse: The Olive Trees,” was floating in my waterlogged thoughts all the time these past two years:

Here luxury’s the common lot. The light
Lies on the rain-pocked rocks like yellow wool
And around the rocks the soil is rusty bright
From too much wealth of water, so that the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

If that ain’t Louisiana, I don’t know what is.

Funny, because Wilbur is from Massachusetts like me, and lives a couple of hours away from where I grew up. Apparently the South made a big impression on him though (as it has with me). Look at how beautifully he describes the stillness, brought about by the thick heat. I was warned that people in the South walk more slowly, and talk more slowly. Sometimes, during my first year teaching, my kids would ask me to slow down. And it makes perfect sense that they think we rush around so quickly:

Whatever moves moves with the slow complete?
Gestures of statuary. Flower smells?
Are set in the golden day, and shelled in heat,?
Pine and columnar cypress stand. The palm?
Sinks its combs in the sky. The whole South swells?
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

And then, to my Northern delight, Wilbur notices something that protests the South, and all it’s sticky hot sweetness. And, to my even greater delight, it’s an olive tree – evoking images of that golden time I spent in Italy during college, biblical images, this whole idea of thirst….

Only the olive contradicts. My eye,?
Traveling slopes of rust and green, arrests?
And rests from plenitude where olives lie?
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.?
Their faint disheveled foliage divests?
The sunlight of its color and its sway.

Take a look an olive tree, and then reread that stanza again.

It “contradicts” the landscape, the richness, the “excess.” The olive tree is still thirsty, for all of that water and warm sunshine.

But then this, as well:

Not that the olive spurns the sun; its leaves?
Scatter and point to every part of the sky,?
Like famished fingers waving. Brilliance weaves?
And sombers down among them, and among?
The anxious silver branches, down to the dry?
And tsisted trunk, by rooted hunger wrung.
And then he ends his poem, in this incomparably beautiful way, gently evoking images that make you thirsty too, but perhaps for something else:
Even when seen from near, the olive shows?
A hue of far away. Perhaps for this?
The dove brought olive back, a tree which grows?
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,?
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,?
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

And you think of Noah in that sea of water, after that great excess of the great flood, searching the horizon for the little dove he had sent away. And eventually the dove comes back… bearing an olive branch, and the hope of dry land. (Genesis 8:11)

The South indeed “is not paradise,” but neither is Colorado, as beautiful as it is. I can’t really imagine two places more different from one another than Colorado and Louisiana, but here they are, juxtaposed, and here am I in the middle of them, missing the humidity but loving the clearer air.

And my mouth is dry, it seems no matter how much water I drink. Or, I guess, no matter where I go.

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:13-15)

Topics: Culture , Faith , Personal Growth , Young Women

Maura is a high school English teacher and member of the Alliance for Catholic Education. She received her M.A. in Education from the University of Notre Dame and her B. A. in English and Theology from the University of Dallas. She writes about Catholicism, teaching, education policy, and literature on her blog, mysteriesandmanners.wordpress.com.

View all articles by Maura Shea

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