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Waiting Space: Story by Phoebe Lumley '15

Dad and I had driven for five hours, and we’d barely done more than smile at my aunt and kissed Grandmother’s hollow cheek when a doctor appeared in the door of her hospital room to herd us back out. My aunt put aside her knitting and led the way down the hall, hands stuffed in the pockets of her black down vest.

“It’ll be about ten minutes,” she said over her shoulder, not slowing for us to catch up. Dad moved stiffly after her, trying to stretch his back while he walked. I glanced back at the closed door of Grandmother’s room, down the now-empty hallway, and slipped my feet out of my winter boots. I stuffed the socks Mom knit me in the mouths of my boots, leaving them neatly lined up next to the door, then set off after my relatives, walking slowly so no one would notice my bare feet. 

I paused at the bank of elevators, then followed my father’s laugh down one of the two halls that stretched identically away from me. At the end was a kind of waiting room, an abrupt end to the hallway with a couple chairs and a little table next to a huge window. The hallway, carpet, and chair upholstery were all different shades of beige. I joined my aunt and Dad at the end of the hall, but stayed standing, kneading my bare feet against the nubby carpet like a cat, trying to shift my weight without moving my toes outside of the little ecru squares. The fluorescent lights turned my skin a sickly shade of greenish-pale, like linoleum in a diner bathroom.

“Shouldn’t you have shoes on?” said Dad, in one of the oatmeal-and-biscuitchecker- boarded chairs. The corner felt close, too warm, the three of us taking up all the breathable air.

I shrugged. No nurses were in sight, and the carpet gave under my feet like moss. I felt I’d been wearing my boots for the past four months straight. Recordsetting snowfalls called for wool socks twenty-four hours a day and boots wherever I went, but the weight of them dragged on my feet. The inside of the hospital was seasonless—clean and quiet, the decor unobtrusive, the lighting removing any sense of time. The induced peace and serenity made me want to scream.

My aunt gazed out the window at the flat grey sky, almost a match for the concrete roof that stretched between our window and the next section of the building, a slim railing running along the edge, ending at a door. Her shoulders squared deliberately, stiff even in this moment of rest. Her whole body carried the same waiting look that Grandmother had in her eyes, except that my aunt was braced for impact, braced to survive. Grandmother was waiting for the blow she couldn’t duck—a flash of fear had lit up behind her glasses when the doctor entered her room.

Waiting in silence felt wrong, but so did talking about what we were waiting for. My aunt was a dedicated cook, and I thought about mentioning the biscotti I had recently made from scratch, but Mom and I had eaten them all—I hadn’t brought Dad any. I wracked my mind for a topic of conversation that didn’t have anything to do with illness, my life with Mom, Dad’s horrible financial situation, or politics, and came up blank. These were exceptional circumstances, but every visit with my aunt felt like an essay question on a test I hadn’t studied for.

Dad leafed though a nondenominational book of prayer someone had left on the miniature coffee table, looking up at the paintings to mutter, “Whoever decorated this place had no imagination.” His red suspenders, green plaid shirt, and paint-spattered jeans seemed unnaturally bright in the sea of beige.

My aunt glanced at her watch, the streaks of grey in her hair mirroring the lines on her face. “We can head back now.” She turned on her heel, tucked her hands into the pockets of her puffy vest like a hawk folding its wings, and headed down the hall, her feet landing firmly on the carpet again and again, a dependable heartbeat. Dad tossed the book back on the coffee table, heaved himself to his feet, and set off after her, favoring his bad hip.

I kneaded the carpet once more, enjoying the moment with no one near me, then started as a figure appeared outside the window and across the roof. A guy wearing scrubs, but just a few years older than me, propped open his door to the roof with one of his shoes. He leaned on the railing, bare foot resting on the other shoe, and lit a cigarette. Glancing up, he noticed me and quirked an eyebrow.

Tentatively, I lifted a hand. He raised his empty hand slowly in response. I could feel his eyes on me all the way down the silent hallway.


Slipping unnoticed into Grandmother’s room, I took a seat by the far wall, jammed between the tiny closet and the machine that told us her heart rate. I settled my computer on my lap. The oxygen tank on the other side of the bed wheezed as Grandmother’s chest rose and fell, her breathing separated from the sound. Occasionally, Grandmother took a tiny sip of water through a straw, then coughed as if she had an ocean swirling through her lungs, drowning her even as she sat propped up against a mountain of pillows.

I stared at the screen of my computer. In his essay “Circles,” Emerson shows that we are all connected, that every seemingly separate part of the world is really intertwined, and therefore we exist in a state of cohesion…

Oh, shut up, Emerson.

My aunt’s knitting needles clicked away on a hideous hat for her future daughter-in-law. “She’s fine, her family is just very different from ours. Catholic. They’re not Republican, but they’re definitely conservative.”

“I don’t like that she was in a sorority,” said Grandmother, turning her large head on her tiny neck like a baby bird waiting for food to be dropped in its mouth. “And she said that she only joined so she could attend parties and have alcohol. As though that made it better.”

Grandmother’s hands were twitching on the blanket, empty without her cigarette. She hadn’t had one in nearly 48 hours. The hospital didn’t allow smoking, and anyway, she was on oxygen. My aunt had stayed at the hospital every night since Grandmother checked in, monitored all of Grandmother’s medication, and dealt with all the doctors. Under normal circumstances, neither of them would ever have said these things. Not about the sweet, kind basketball player my tough-as-nails cousin was head-over-heels in love with, was going to marry and raise adorable blonde children with. The woman my aunt and Grandmother welcomed with open arms at the last family event. They wouldn’t really talk about her with that edge in their voices, their words as swift and pointed as my aunt’s needles.

Or maybe I hadn’t been listening, before. I glanced down at my hands on the keyboard, the little gold signet ring on my pinky, the initial of my first name pierced by the larger letter of my family.

“What are you working on, sweetheart?” Dad glanced up from his crossword.

“A response to an Emerson essay.”

“Ah, Emerson.” Grandmother smiled. “Are you enjoying his work?” I hesitated.

“It’s—very interesting.”

“I remember reading Emerson,” said Dad, putting down his crossword and twirling the pencil between his fingers like a baton. “Or maybe Thoreau? Do you remember the teacher I had my first year of high school, who gave me all that reading that it took me two semesters to slog through?”

Grandmother furrowed what was left of her eyebrows. “When we lived in Pennsylvania?”

“The house on Williams Street,” said my aunt, not looking up from her knitting.

“Ah,” said Grandmother, nodding. “Yes. The year your sister decided to stop being vegan because she didn’t like the synthetic paintbrush bristles.”

“Dad never stopped giving her a hard time for that.” My aunt raised her eyes from her knitting to grin at Grandmother, the corners of her mouth tightening as she took in the knobby hands shaking on the covers, each time as alarming as the first.

Grandmother laughed, the rest of her body shaking nearly as much as her hands. “No, he never would let her forget it.”

“Have you talked to her today?” asked my dad, raising his eyebrows at my aunt.

“Well,” said my aunt, diving back into her knitting as she began to recount the anxieties of their artistic sister.

I tried to tune out and focus on Emerson. We had had nearly the same conversation when we arrived. Circles, circles, circles…

When the essay had finally emerged, I stood up, left my computer on my chair, and retreated into the beige hallway. Padding through the puddles of florescent light, I glanced at my reflection in the dark windows, the outline of my face soft, my body insubstantial. I took a few random turns, moving into what felt like the depths of the hospital. Quiet carpet, soft coughs from the wheels of trolleys and wheelchairs driving along in hallways just out of sight, murmurs at the nurses’ station, no one looking up from their charts and computer screens to notice my bare feet. Following a little corridor with tiles instead of carpet, I came to a door ajar, propped open with a shoe and letting in a stream of air that didn’t smell like disinfectant. Nudging it further open, I stepped over the shoe and onto the concrete roof.

“Careful.” A hand holding a cigarette reached past me to catch the door before it closed, and the nurse stepped into my view, leaning down to replace his shoe in the crack of the door. “Don’t want to get locked out.”

He leaned against the railing, gazing out over the hospital’s half-full parking lot to the highway beyond, and I moved over to stand next to him. Close up, he looked a little older than I had first guessed, but not much—still under thirty. A tattoo peeked out from under the sleeve of his teal scrubs, text that slid around his arm. I tilted my head, trying to read it.

“Visiting?” he asked, blowing out a thin stream of smoke.

I looked quickly away from his arm, but he didn’t seem to have noticed me staring. “Yeah.” There were deep shadows under his eyes and along his jaw. “Long shift?”

“This is hour twenty-nine. One more, and I can go home.” He glanced down. “Aren’t your feet cold?”

I followed his gaze to my bare feet with their chipped red toenail polish. His feet were just inches away, one shoe off and one shoe on, like the nursery rhyme. “Aren’t yours?”

He grinned. “Just the one.”

I smiled, leaning against the railing next to him, the sun already set somewhere behind the clouds. Visiting hours would end soon, and Dad and I would go to Grandmother’s empty house, still thick with the scent of cigarette smoke. Dad would sleep in his parents’ bedroom, which Grandmother hadn’t slept in since Grampa died, preferring her padded chair in the kitchen. My aunt would sleep in the chair next to Grandmother’s hospital bed, and would wake up stiff and sore, Grandmother’s shaky hand clasped in hers.

The nurse stretched his arm along the scuffed expanse of railing between us, offering me his half-smoked cigarette. I had never smoked in my life, but I took it between my fingers, cradling it as Grandmother always did, Grandmother who couldn’t swallow now, who choked on a single drop of water. The filter was soft and wet, still warm from his mouth. I inhaled and held the strange warmth in my lungs. When I passed the cigarette back to him, our fingers met—smoke rose from between my lips and faded into the grey sky, covered rim to rim with clouds that, before the night was through, would release a fresh blanket of snow and cover the rough edges of the world in purest white.

Not looking at everything the same way: An interview with John Willis

Photography professor John Willis was visited by junior Shannon Haaland to talk about how he first came to Marlboro, advice he gives photography students, and how new students help keep his own vision fresh.

Shannon Haaland: So when exactly did you start working here?

John Willis: I taught one class here as a barter situation in 1980. I had just gotten my undergraduate degree, moved to the area, and was looking for things to do. I met some people who were Marlboro students, who said there was a darkroom in the science building here. There was an enlarger and no one knew how to use it, and they had nobody to teach photography. And I thought, “well that sounds interesting,” and I came up and I offered to teach a class. The dean said there was no money for it—students weren’t allowed to do Plans in photography at the time.

SH: Really?

JW: Yeah, but I took one or two classes in exchange for teaching a class as an evening elective. I had six students who worked really hard, and I taught here for one semester on the barter system, then ten years later, after receiving my MFA, I found out about a job here and came back. I was part-time for seven years—back then all of the art faculty were part-time, except for the painting teacher. Then there was a foundation grant that made it so all the visual arts faculty could be full time.     

SH: Did you want to go into teaching?

JW: I didn’t go to school thinking I would be a teacher. Well, I thought I might teach little children, but I was more thinking about childhood education and child psychology. In graduate school I ended up going for photography. I worked in the field for five years after my undergraduate work, and then someone convinced me I could go to grad school and have a “sabbatical” from the working world. I went just to be around other people doing photography as documentary and art, and to have the opportunity to work on my own stuff, and I really loved it. The thing was, in graduate school you can get assistantships, where you get paid part of your tuition in exchange for working, and one of my assistantships was teaching. And I loved it, and just sort of got hooked. 

SH: Do you have advice for students who are going into photography?

JW: That’s a hard one, I think because the world is changing so much. There are definitely jobs out there, but when I was in school there were a lot of students, probably still are, who went to school thinking they could become famous artists and make money off their artwork. And some people can, but it is incredibly competitive. If people are doing photography or other forms of art because they are interested in the medium, and passionate about it, and want to have it in their life, I think there are plenty of ways to be a working professional in the art world, whether that’s doing photography or working in galleries or other possibilities. There are a lot of opportunities, but they may not necessarily involve selling your personal, creative work.

SH: Okay.

JW: It’s definitely worth putting art and creativity into your life, if that is what you are inspired by. There are so many ways to have that contribute to making a living and, beyond that, contribute to having a really interesting and fulfilling life. I know people who are really active photographers and artists of all different kinds who don’t make their living through sales of their artwork. Maybe their living is some really different kind of job, and yet art is one of their favorite things that they have in their life. They have a whole community of artists that they share their work with, help each other, inspire each other, exhibit each other’s work.

SH: What if someone wants to get a job with their artwork?

JW: I’d say this to a student in probably any field: in addition to studying the field and getting a degree in the field, it’s really important to do anything and everything you can to build your resume and your credibility and experience in that field. Right now there are so many people getting degrees in any field, so that when a job opens up there are hundreds of applicants, and resumes are being sent in on the internet so they don’t get to meet you as a person, necessarily. You need to figure on the majority of those people probably have bachelors degrees in that field, so what are you going to do to set yourself apart from them?

SH: Like what?

JW: A big aspect is things that you have done alongside of your classes. I don’t mean to belittle the classes, because I think college is really important. Studying your field is really important in getting a foundation, but as far as getting a job and standing out in the crowd, you need more experience through internships, volunteer work, student employment, summer work, winter work—any opportunity you can to get lines on a resume, you know, that show experience. Not just for the sake of having a line on a resume, but for the sake of having that experience.

SH: What about having art shows?

JW: People who want to collect work and buy work, they’re not just looking at images they like. There is not a standard set of what a good image is, and what it’s not. So when somebody sees something they like, and has the money to buy it, they are much more likely to buy it if other people like it and have bought it too. So it helps to just have more shows to really get the work out there. 

SH: What do you like most about working with Marlboro students?

JW: It’s probably the same story you’d hear from anybody, that Marlboro students designing their own Plans of Concentration bring their interests to the table. I think like 85 percent of them—I’m taking a wild guess there—have interdisciplinary Plans, so I am always learning about different relationships and different topics and different contemporary issues. It keeps it really exciting. I’m learning things all the time from students. When I started working at Marlboro that wasn’t something you would hear about happening at many other schools. It’s not as unique as it used to be, but I still think it feels unique by the way the students are and the size of the school, the location of the school. Marlboro students who tend to work really hard, and do some pretty amazing work, and it’s very motivating. I love the time of year I get so busy I don’t sleep regular nights, like Plan students. 

SH: So students still surprise you with their work?

JW: Honestly, even intro class students surprise me with their work, and intro is where you are trying to teach promising new students the same fundamental subject matter, every semester. Almost every semester I have taught intro and there are certain mechanical things, logistical things, ways to use the camera, I have to teach in every one of those classes. It seems like it would be incredibly repetitive, but what always makes it surprising is that every student comes to it from a different mind and different abilities, and creates different images. Even at an intro level I think it’s really exciting, but at a Plan level, it just magnifies and becomes really, really interesting.     

SH: What are your own current photographic interests?

JW: Well I’m doing a few different projects. It’s always hard to photograph, edit photographs, and print photographs during the school year, but I’m usually doing some aspect of that. I just had a show at Greenfield Community College that was all about issues around housing on Native American reservations, particularly the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Navajo. I’ve spent a lot of time on the reservation, and it’s a response to the community there. There are so many people who live in trailer houses—nothing against trailers, or people who live in trailers I should say—but they are not well made, they are not appropriate houses for living in the open plains where it gets freezing cold. The insulation is really bad and they just fall apart in storms.

SH: Yikes.

JW: I learned that when the Katrina houses were taken back, because they were deemed by the government to be too poisonous, they started giving them to reservations. To me this was yet another example of how this government really takes advantage of marginalized, disadvantaged people, in this case First Nation people who were there before the dominate culture. I made pictures on the housing and an architectural student from Yale was doing his thesis on the same issue and he wrote sort of a Trail of Tears text to go with it about the history.

SH: Sounds amazing. Anything else you are working on?

JW: I’m doing a project for the Vermont Land Trust where I’m doing work on a farm that they own, the Bunker Farm. I intend on mixing those images with pictures I’m making of a metal scrap yard illustrating excess consumption, just thinking about how we deal with land, land use, goals for the land, and things like that. I’m going to collaborate with Matan Rubenstein—he’s been coming along sometimes and making audio recordings of ambient sounds while I’m photographing the sites. Our intentions are to put pictures together from the sites and he’s going to compose a musical score from the found pieces. So I’m excited about that.

SH: Have students helped you in your own work process?

JW: Well I get a lot out of working with students—the whole thing of not looking at everything the same way, and trying to experience the world differently. I learn as much about keeping an open mind, and being active, from seeing how students approach things as from anywhere else.

SH: How have Marlboro students helped out with your work at Pine Ridge?

JW: Exposures, the cross-cultural youth summer program based in Brattleboro, part of the In-Sight Photography Project, was created with five Plan students. I don’t think it would have ever happened, if it wasn’t for this group of students that decided they were going to do this together without pay or credits. We met once a week for a semester and just talked about creating a program at Pine Ridge and taking students from the In-Sight Photography Project, in Brattleboro. It never would have grown like it did without students. You know, the only reason there is a photography program is because of students. The only reason why there is a film program is because of students. Whenever there is a student interest strong enough it just sort of bubbles up. When students have interests, and the interests keep growing, the faculty and administration can’t deny it and then it grows.

SH: Can you think of a time where being a photographer let you see more into a world than you normally would?

JW: We took students to China for three weeks and we were in Turpan, over on the western side near the Gobi Desert, where there was a Muslim separatist area. I was walking around alone with a camera over my shoulder and there was a father with two kids playing in some water and they were just having a great time. I couldn’t speak their language—I couldn’t speak Arabic; I couldn’t speak Mandarin—and they couldn’t speak English, but they were able to make it known, through a kind of charades, that they were playing. They could tell I was a photographer, and they didn’t care if I took their pictures. So, I stood there taking pictures in the road, just doing some landscape stuff in this rural small community. It turned out they were on there way to a wedding, a double wedding, and they dragged along and had me photographing this Uyghur wedding. There is a double wedding portrait up in Mather that comes from that time.

SH: I need to look for that.

JW: It was an amazing afternoon. We could not communicate, and then at the end I wanted to get an address so I could mail them the prints, because they were so generous. It took a while to find someone who understood enough English that they could translate, and I found a Chinese man who could understand just enough to get that I was trying to get an address, and then he had to find someone to translate to them so it took three people to find a way to get an address. They didn’t even have a mailing address, because it was such a rural place, so we had to figure out how somebody knew somebody who had an address who I could send prints to. It was cool. I mailed those prints; I have no idea if they ever got them. I mailed them a pile of wedding portraits that included some that we 20 by 24 inches, it was so much fun meeting them.