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BREATHING POETRY

Carol Purington Hasn't Traveled Far Since Childhood Polio Struck, But Her Writing Defies The Limits Of Disability

 
July 2, 2000
 
We put frames around the events and periods of our lives, and the markers are often geographical: Leaving home. First car. That trip to the West Coast. Moving into a new neighborhood. But for Carol Purington, who turned 50 late last year, the stages of life do not attach themselves to her comings and goings. There haven't been any. She sleeps in the same room of the sprawling farmhouse in Colrain, Massachusetts, that she has slept in every night for the past 41 years.

The milestones of Purington's life are connected not to place but to the evolution of her identity. The ebb and flow of the composition of her household provides important markers; her mother and father have always been there, and two grown brothers have also come back to live on the farm. New technologies also figure prominently as turning points in her life.

The first five years are the easiest to segregate: Those were before she had polio. She remembers a solid foundation of love and joy that have sustained her through a life of physical immobility but constant spiritual and intellectual growth. "I was a very happy little girl," she recalls. She still smiles a lot. On her first day of grade school, Carol's teacher sent her home with a headache and a slight fever. That was in September 1955, the tail end of the time when poliomyelitis was an abiding concern of American parents. Summer epidemics had been gaining in intensity for half a century, till all of a sudden the virus was virtually eliminated from this continent right around the time of her infection.

By the time she turned 6 that November, Carol had spent two months in the Franklin County Public Hospital in Greenfield. The disease, characterized by an inflammation of nerves that causes muscles to atrophy, had severely compromised most of her bodily functions, including her breathing. Then, for a year, she was one of the very last patients of a polio rehabilitation center in Wellesley named for Helen Mc Ar thur, daughter of film star Helen Hayes.

Carol returned to Colrain when she was 7, but not to her parents' home: Unable to breathe on her own for more than a few hours at a stretch, she stayed with relatives who had a generator that could power her iron lung if the electricity failed. Finally, four years after the illness struck, and after another three-month hospital stay in Boston, she moved back to Woodslawn Farm, the house where her father had grown up and where she was born. Her parents converted the parlor on the ground floorinto her bedroom, and there she has slept since.

Equipment and diversions hold a place in Purington's room and her life, but they don't dominate. The bookshelves are stocked but not overflowing. She has a collection of compact discs - her tastes tend toward classical and folk - and her computer is tucked behind a small curtain at her bedside.

Jutting from her window is a plywood tray sprinkled with birdseed. Bird-feeder-watching - "it's a little different from bird-watching," she corrects her visitor with characteristic light humor - has been a hobby for 30 years. Beyond the feeder and a dirt road is a rolling pasture where the family's herd of 40 milk cows graze, and beyond that, wooded hills and a blue skyline. A vintage television set is perched above a dresser by the window, but "it takes up more space in my room than it doesin my life," Purington says.

She values the news and classical music she hears on WFCR, an Amherst-based public radio station, and doesn't at all rue the quirk of geography that put a hill directly between her and a second source of public radio programming out of Albany. "Choice overload" is a hazard of modern society that this particular hill helps guard her against. And Purington never developed a taste for videos, because, distances being what they are up along the Vermont state line, getting someone to return them on time isn't practical. Her taste in food, on the other hand, is positively cosmopolitan; she believes that an unwillingness to try new things cuts a person off from the adventure of life.

Purington can control only a couple of fingers on her left hand; their range is "very limited," she says, "but very useful."

With them she can manipulate the trackball of her computer, a switch that turns her telephone on and off, and gain access to her mouthstick, a piece of antenna tubing with a plastic base molded to the contours of her teeth. That bit of technology opens a passage to writing notes and turning pages on books propped open for her on a homemade metal frame above her head. Flat on her back most of the day, she relies on a mirror to see through the door to her room.

Breathing is a constant in everyday life, but in Purington's case, the mechanics intrude more noisily. Using a respirator with a plastic mouthpiece can be restful, and allows her to sit upright, but it doesn't permit eating or talking. So Purington spends much of a typical day with a "turtle shell" strapped around her chest, a device that, with a loud and rhythmic hissing sound, causes her lungs to expand and relax. At night, she sleeps in a Porta-Lung - a lighter-weight version of the iron lungs imprinted on the imagination of generations before vaccines arrived. She likens being lifted into the hinged hatch every evening to climbing into a DeLorean auto: "It's a glamorous image, don't you think?" she asks with a smile.

But the identity Purington has worked hard to cultivate is not that of "intrepid polio victim." Her physical condition no doubt distinguishes her from the vast majority of her fellow human creatures, but it is only a small part of who she is. Daughter, sister, aunt, student, friend, and Christian are all roles that describe Purington's images of herself. And during the last decade she has added a new one: accomplished poet.

"I use words to catch what's going by too fast to be looked at," says Purington. "I draw on the sense of rootedness of having lived almost all of my life in one house, in one community. I can say things to a rootless society that others can't say."

W oodslawn Farm has been the Purington family's homestead since the 1780s, and Purington borrowed its name for the title of her first volume of poetry, self-published in 1989. Subtitled "Haiku for a New England Year," Woodslawn Farm follows the seasons through 164 haiku, the Japanese literary form often identified by its three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

Purington was introduced to haiku by neighbors, he a geologist and she a mathematician, who had moved to Colrain from New Jersey as part of a back-to-the-land movement in the 1940s. "They had a custom of giving me a book at Christmas," says Purington, and in 1980 the gift was a slim volume of haiku. "She thought it would be something I might like, but she didn't know how much she would affect my life," says Purington.

A few years later, another neighbor, a New York City lawyer, sought out titles of haiku magazines and gave her subscriptions to the best ones.

Purington had written poems throughout her 20s, and at times she imagined herself as the next Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. She was also an admirer of John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marianne Moore. But now, looking back at her early work - she describes it as "introspective" - she can't find any poems she'd like to share with the world. "I keep hoping that I'll find a few good ones," she says, "but I really can't say that I have."

A major theme of her 30s was her study and growing appreciation of haiku. She also explored tanka, a five-line verse usually limited to 31 syllables, and renku and tanrenga, Japanese forms composed in collaboration with other writers. At first she thought of haiku as "a small world, easier to grasp than English poetry." But that, she says, was before she began to study and seriously attempt to write "good" haiku.

By the end of the decade, she had composed enough haiku to produce Woodslawn Farm, with illustrations by regional artist Helen Chester. Reviewing the book in Modern Haiku, the preeminent American haiku journal, in 1990, Wally Swist wrote that "although far from being a haiku celebrity, Purington stands in the first rank of haiku poets."

Robert Spiess, editor and publisher of Modern Haiku, describes a good haiku as one that juxtaposes two different images in a way that shows their essential nature and their relatedness. It should convey "a specific sense impression, and not an intellective idea," he says. The form of haiku - its 5-7-5 syllable pattern - isn't what makes or breaks a particular poem, according to Spiess; he has known good haiku that range from 9 to 20 syllables. Rather, he says, it is most useful to think of this form as an "up to a breath-length poem."

Breathing is, of course, a conscious act for Purington. In her 20s, her ability to breathe independently suffered a setback that she learned later was a symptom of postpolio syndrome, a common toll on polio survivors. For Purington, the sensation was just that she was getting old before her time. And improvements in breathing equipment were slow in coming.

Advances in communication technology, on the other hand, were astounding and directly affected Purington's autonomy. She first touched a computer in 1980, around the time she was introduced to haiku. "I immediately knew I wanted one," she recalls. "I could see that in the future the computer was going to change the way I could get words on paper." Soon after, she got an Apple that one of her brothers had bought. She says he lives by the philosophy that " `if you don't use something within a year, get rid of it,' which is very un-Purington." Paint brush, the first pro gram she used, allowed her to make her own Christmas cards.

The simple fact that she didn't have to retype every new draft of a poem marked a revolution in her quality of life. It was as dramatic, she remembers, as the advent of electric typewriters, when for the first time she could operate the carriage return with the push of a button, rather than relying on someone to advance the paper line by line. And five years ago came another leap forward, a voice recognition program called Dragon Dictate that allows her to talk to her machine rather than type with her mouthstick.

Purington still needs help setting up the computer, so she continues her practice of memorizing her poems until she gets the chance to record them. Once the machine is out of its cubby, though, Purington is indistinguishable from a marathon runner as an e-mail correspondent. She can also surf the Web and join the chat rooms of any number of subcultures, including people on respirators. It helps alleviate any sense of isolation. It has also exposed her to a lot of bad poetry. "Have you everheard of spam haiku?" she inquires.

This is not to say that Purington sees haiku as an elitist preserve; she takes part in an annual Christian Science Monitor contest for haiku bumper stickers. The Internet also ratchets up the possibilities for composing renku, linked verse in which writers collaborate by building on each other's output on related but shifting subjects. Postcards used to be a favorite medium for long-distance linked verse, in which writers alternately contribute to the growing poem, and for tanrenga, a form characterized by five lines, the first three by one writer and the concluding two by another. But e-mail has added a dimension to this art. She composes tanrenga with her friend and collaborator Larry Kimmel, who lives two miles up the road. "By Colrain stand ards, we're close neighbors," he says. They save their twice-monthly meetings for editing and commenting on each other's work, using e-mail to bounce works in progress back and forth.

In the past decade, Purington has published three more books of poetry. Braided Rug: Haiku and Variations, co-written with Sally L. Nichols; The Trees Bleed Sweetness, a series of poems in the voice of a Native American woman "who might once have walked the hills and valleys of Western Massachusetts"; and Family Farm: Haiku for a Place of Moons.

In Braided Rug, Purington recalls her early illness in these lines: "Weeks isolated / from those without the virus /

My baby brother / learning to take steps / My body learning not to walk."

The "not walking" part of Purington's coming of age would be the most obvious to the casual observer. But the "learning" part is the most meaningful.

In the 15 years after Purington was stricken, the local press reported many of her milestones, including promotions from grade to grade. The caption on a photo taken days before her sixth birthday comments that "two months in a respirator with paralytic polio has failed to dim [her] happy smile." The accompanying article tells of the more than 500 cards she received - including one from survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima undergoing plastic surgery in New York City.

She doesn't remember learning to read, but she does remember reading at an early age and waiting for someone to turn each page. "It didn't make me very popular with the nurses," she says. At 7, she got the mouthstick that allowed her to turn her own pages, a piece of technology that significantly boosted her quality of life.

The town of Colrain hired tutors. Around the time of her 10th birthday, it also created a telephone link from young Carol's bed to her classroom so she could participate in the lessons her age mates were receiving and develop an identity as part of that class. She had photos of her classmates posted by her bed so that when she heard their voices over the two-way Executone speakers, she could see an image of the person talking. One article documenting a straight-A report card comments on "the beginning of a glamorous tan from being on the lawn in the sun on her stretcher" in the early spring; also noted was the fact that she saluted the flag with her classmates each morning.

Keeping up in grammar school was never a problem. After all, says Purington, "one of the things about being tutored one on one is that you have to do all your homework - you can't take the chance that someone beside you will know the answer." As she got older, the mechanics of reading and writing slowed her down. She was a copious note taker, but since she used a mouthstick with an attached pen and needed help propping books up and leafing through them, the most basic tasks took longer. Besides, she says, "the reading and writing load for a good high school in the 1960s would scandalize most college freshmen today."

She continued her education at Greenfield Community College, again with a telephone hookup from her room to various classrooms. She did all the work except labs: Today, she says, she could probably fulfill those by dissecting virtual frogs on a computer screen, but back in the '60s there was no substitute for being there.

Eventually, though, she abandoned college. The state would not pick up the cost of maintaining the telephone connection unless Purington took a larger course load than she could physically handle, she says. But she continued to lead an active intellectual life, studying Latin and Spanish during her 20s, reading widely, and writing poems.

Her older sister died of diabetes at the beginning of that decade in Purington's life, an event that in important ways marked the end of her youth. She took a hand in raising her youngest brother, Ray, 21 years her junior, by playing board games and make-believe with him and teaching him the alphabet, spelling, and history. "I'm sure it was good for me to experience some of the reality of responding to the demands of a small child," she says. Outings included an occasional local sightseeing tour in the family station wagon with some of her six young er brothers.

During this period, too, the family upgraded the emergency generator that her father would have to hook up to the tractor during every power outage. Now, there was enough juice to milk the cows, keep Purington's apparatus humming, and run everything else when the electricity failed.

She also stayed involved with the First Baptist Church of Colrain. She listens to the tape-recorded sermons every week and has studied the Bible regularly with the pastor and other friends who visit. "I believe in God as a person who cares about his human creatures, and I have confidence that he has meaning for the way my life has gone," she says. "I think self-pity, bitterness, and envy haven't played nearly the role in my life that they might have were it not for faith."

Purington's travels have included a trip to New York State as a young child, before she had polio. More recently, she has been to Vermont on leaf-peeping drives in the family car. She tries to attend the annual church picnics and remembers attending a wedding in Belchertown. A couple of years ago, she went to Northampton, in the neighboring county, for the first time in her life, to attend a haiku conference at Smith College.

Her mother, Barbara, is her best friend, she says - not only a constant companion but "my hands and at least half my memory." Her mother deserves credit, Purington says, for the fact that in more than 41 years, her daughter has never been back to a hospital, a remarkable achievement since "every cold is a potential case of pneumonia."

At Thanksgiving and other gatherings, a card table is set up in Purington's room, and at least some family members - she has seven brothers and two living sisters - enjoy the meal with her. The farm, she notes, continues to be a magnet for family members. One brother came back after college and has gradually taken over the dairy operation. In January, another brother left a job in Connecticut to return with his wife and family to Woodslawn Farm, wanting the next generation to know what life in a rural community is all about. Toys are scattered in the small connecting room adjoining Purington's, and through the mirror mounted above her head she watches her nieces and nephews play.

But Purington, in the course of her writing career, has been a scribe not of family lore but of what this hill shows her. Her latest book, Family Farm, is a collection of work written over the past decade. One of her favorites goes: "Black berry ramble / Memory on memory / until the pail brims." She remembers picking blackberries as a young girl, before she got polio, as well as the joy she later took in other children's berry harvesting. Blackberries, she says, "contain the concentrated sweetness of summer . . . they speak to me of happy times."

Her infirmity never was the bedrock of her identity, but it has been the lens through which many people outside her immediate circle saw her. Now, among friends and strangers alike, her literary identity is more likely to spring to mind.

She is a woman of determination. But she doesn't strike one as stubborn or even dogged. Her will is tempered by a zest for life that includes large doses of humor, humility, and plain intelligence. Purington says she wants to give book production a rest, because of the strain each project puts on her household and on her. Don't necessarily expect that resolution to hold for very long.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com