Friday, July 11, 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Beauty of Cyber Messiness

link to Robert Sorokanich's website surfaced every time I logged into Facebook today. It contained a mugshot of a man with cords dangling from his ears, a serene landscape muted in the distance.

"This is why you shouldn't take people's Facebook lives seriously," the headline read, playing on the ever-so-human tendency to see only what others show us, not what rests beneath the surface.

Of course I clicked the link. I read the text; I watched the video. Instead of finding the humor some of my friends mentioned in the comment space above the forwarded post, I found a lump in my throat.

I knew what they found funny. The man drove to an open road so he could take a picture of himself "running." He bragged about a sushi dinner with his girl, while a disenaged girlfriend sat 15 feet away and he ate a microwaveable dinner. After catching that same girlfriend cheating, he touted being single, posting a picture of himself with a handle of alcohol, smiling in the darkness. The camera then pans out and we find him sitting in his car alone, on the side of the road.

The video goes on, inviting us to watch our protagonist, Scott Thompson, unravel before our eyes.  Intoxicated by the challenge of molding his unsatisfying life into one others might envy, this man persists in rebranding his failures, in shrinking his viewing window to a minuscule pin point, zooming in on misleading details so no one else can see what rests outside the glass.

His demise is not only sad because his cyberself is nothing more than an empty, misleading shell; it is sad because it is driven by his perception of everyone else's happiness, by the world each of his friends manufacture to fulfill the ever-so-alluring milestone of success. Unable to distance himself from the egocentricism of his misery, Thompson is lightyears away from realizing the distinct possibility that perhaps his friends are not living quite as glamorous of a life as they suggest.

Because most of the time, none of us are.

No matter how fantastic or happy or successful a moment is, before that moment occurs, after that moment happens, or for a second within that moment, we have other moments--moments are just as real as the amazing one--that are ordinary, sad or disappointing. We have moments of struggle, moments of doubt, moments of fear, moments of insecurity, moments of stupidity, moments of moodiness, moments of being the very human being each of us were designed to be. Few people post about those moments, few people upload pictures of baggy eyes or botched plans or unchecked checklists. Most of us don't capture the precise second when our desires tumble out of our fingers and shatter against the floor.

But those in between moments are the meat inside the shell: the things that get us up, that press us forward, that teach us who we are and who we want to become. Those "weak" moments are our human moments, the moments that make the others ones seem so grand. It's easy to forget this. It's easy to start comparing. It's easy to "one up," to obsessively check for comments, or equate "likes" with support. It's easy because it is what human nature leads us to do. After all, illusions are much quicker to develop than real life is to fix.

Social media is the new form of "keeping up with Joneses," but the consequences of such an endeavor are far greater, and potentially far more devastating if we take it all too seriously. While Scott Thompson's behaviors were designed to be funny and were funny on some level, that is only because they aren't too far from the truth. It wasn't hard to imagine this satire playing out in real life, which is precisely why I got a lump in my throat when I watched.

While social media can be a fun place to chronicle memories, share ideas and find inspiration, it can also be a source of angst.  See, without our unscripted presence, without our uncensored existence, without our quirky, strange and flawed traits coloring all of the moments of our lives, we only exist in one dimension. And among hundreds of other flaws in my piggybank of quirks, I happen to be hopelessly greedy for full people. I want 3D or nothing.

In the Absence of My Reflection

It didn't happen right away.

Inspiration didn't swoon down from the gods. The tiny opening in the trees didn't issue an invitation to enter its domain. My fingers didn't feel an irresistible urge to pull out a pen and scribble on the notepad I tucked into the cup holder tray on my stroller.

Of course, those were the things I was hoping would happen when I packed up my baby and ambled down the sidewalk. With a thousand ideas curling around the margins in my jot pad and a million more pin balling around in my brain, I took a walk to find direction, clarity, focus. I took a walk so I could breathe, so I could observe, so I could grant my brain an opportunity to sort through ideas and give the more important ones a chance to clench my throat, climb up my esophagus and demand to be heard.

Of course none of this happened right away.  Inspiration tends to be a tricky, little shape shifter. He rarely appears in predictable garb; she rarely arrives when you summon her. I knew this.  And so I waited.  Aiming to be present in the moment, I spoke to my baby in silly voices, giving him a tour of his neighborhood park, and I made him giggle by venturing into the bumpy domain of grass.

I also turned my iPhone to picture mode, frequently pausing to look around. Scanning the same scenery my husband and I pass on our evening walks, I looked for anomalies in the landscape. I investigated a low hanging leaf, burdened by the weight of raindrops clinging like climbers on the edge of a cliff. I indulged my curiosity, squatting to capture tarry footprints freshly imbedded in concrete. And I drew myself to gaps in the brush lining the creek, spotting a smattering of white wildflowers bursting like pinwheels against the lush vegetation.

I took note of jagged barriers in the grass, where portions had been cut, prepared for picnicking or play, and portions had been preserved, a matted labyrinth presumably left for nature. I relished my encounter with forked paths, marked trees and skittish squirrels. And I pondered the necessity of a 50 foot split rail fence that seemed to begin and end in a spot that appeared more appropriate for trees.

Somewhere along the way, my feet clipped the edge of a puddle sitting alone on a briefly barren stretch of asphalt. The unexpected jolt of wetness startled me, and I hopped backwards, pulling myself from the rainwater tickling my toes. I locked the wheels on my stroller, and turned to face the water which sparsely coated three thin feet of bike path. Leaning forward, I saw my shadow gaze back at me, dark and hazy, stirring back and forth across minuscule ripples, failing to settle into any state of stillness the entire time I looked.

I snapped a photograph of the faceless woman peering up at me, and then I continued further into the wooded area, where I encountered a deeper, larger pool, at least ten feet wide and six inches deep. I leaned over again, this time, hoping my reflection would be clearer.  No matter how far I leaned though, my face did not appear. Leaves, caked in mud, lay matted along the bed, while trees climbed and cuddled above me. I switched positions, attempting to catch the sun at different angles. I crouched low to the ground and balanced my foot on a fallen branch bridging the water.  Still, I could not see my face. I could not even see the shadow of my face. I saw nothing but clear water gazing back up at me.

In the absence of my reflection--in the caked leaves, the pooled water, the over-saturated sticks stretching from one space to another--a dull buzz of disappointment rose within me. When I saw the long, deep puddle, my creativity surged, and with all of the urgency of a person in pursuit of something terribly important, I wanted to see my face: clearer than hazy ripples, lighter than dark shadows. I wanted to capture my reflection in a prettier pool than the shallow asphalt one I encountered earlier. I wanted to snap what I perceived--in that moment--to be the inspiration I set out to find, the perfect image, the muse I needed to begin my latest project.

But I failed to manufacture such a shot. I failed to insert my face into a moment that wasn't meant to hold it. I failed to cast my reflection upon a collection of water already decorated with slivers of life. And I failed, because I didn't fit. I failed because my place was not in the pool of water, or in the symbolic mirroring I aimed to capture. My face wasn't meant to compete with the reflection of sunlight descending through the cracks in the canopy above me, or in the mosaic of muddy leaves layered like plush feathers in the clay. My face wasn't meant to cross over water-logged sticks or mingle with the grass.

My face was meant to observe, to listen, to breathe.

I walked away that morning without my prized shot, but as I pondered its absence during my journey home, I realized something far more important. We don't have to be part of everything in order for everything to be perfect. We don't have to have a place in the center of a landscape in order for us to belong. Our plans don't need to unravel cleanly in order for us to succeed. Sometimes our inspiration is less about what we see and more about what we imagine, less about what we want and more about what we get.  Perhaps sometimes life doesn't intend for us to jump in; it just means for us to open our hearts and be moved.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dreaming is Crap

It's easy to say it out loud: to look into someone's eyes and own what I daydream about every single day of my life. It's easy to think what if and when and someday I will when my dreams hover like white puffs swarming in mid-December air, visible as long as I keep talking, fleeting the moment my lips close.

It's easy to say because in the deepest bowels of my existence, it turns out that I do want every last thing I dream about. I do want to pour myself on paper and toss it out to the world and reach some distant soul who needed to read what I had to say at some particular moment in time. I do want to make something that lasts, that captures our lives, today, and add it to the enormous time capsule of contemporary history. I do want to drill into my brain, set up a rig, and shuttle my imaginative musings out of hibernation and into my fingers so I can come alive. I do want to open a package, find a book with my name on it, hold it up to my nose, shut my eyes, and breathe it in. 

Like me, there are millions of people busy wanting and wishing and wondering. We are all trapped in a cobweb of hope, our fingers and toes stuck, tangled in strings of fear, doubt, duty, and insecurity. All of us dangle there, hanging, our past behind us, our dreams playing out across the room. We can see them vividly. We can even see the people who have already achieved them: those who overcame adversity, those who hit it big on YouTube or Twitter or Instagram, those who just so happened to catch the right person's attention through a forward of a forward of a forward. 

Those who simply took a risk and managed to break free.

They're all there.  

And I envy them.  

I waste a gajillion minutes every single day envying them, wishing I could pull myself loose string by string, and join the conversation, wishing my dream didn't seem so faint and real life didn't seem so comfortable.

But then, a few days ago, in the midst of my comfort, I came across a video of Shonda Rhimes delivering her 2014 commencement address to Dartmouth College. Several of my classmates from Dartmouth posted the video on Facebook, and curious, I took a moment to watch.

"When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things" Rhimes said a few minutes in, after explaining to the audience that she doesn't like giving speeches and she is afraid she is going to "pass out" or "die" or "poop her pants."  

"They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to you spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don't stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true."

She paused.  Then, she said, "I think that's crap."

As she spoke, the videographer panned the graduate section, showcasing an array of black gowns adorned in yellow and orange and red and white hoods. Just behind them, we could see a few rows of undergraduates, some in the traditional black garb, others sitting on top of their split-open gown, shoulders bared, presumably hoping to snag a few rays as they float in time, lost in limbo between everything they knew and everything they dreamed.

I remember being one of them.  I remember wanting to stop and greet honorary graduates Hank Aaron and J.K. Rowling as I made my way to President Wright's outstretched hand. I remember the weight of my degree. I remember leaving the stage, full of pride, full of sadness, full of grief. I remember wallowing in the strange reality that everything I worked for my entire life was ending, and I was now free to fly.

I remember feeling lost. I remember being scared. I remember wondering where my path would go.

That girl needed to hear what Rhimes was saying.  

Heck, this girl still needs to hear what she is saying.

I leaned closer to the screen.

"I think a lot of people dream," Rhimes began again. "And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing....

Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change."

I paused the video. I felt the words on my tongue: dreaming without doing is crap. 


I know that. As the girl who threw a hundred pitches rain or shine every single day of her life until the last day of her softball career, I knew it. As the girl who wrote ten page papers instead of five page papers, I knew it. As the girl who stayed up late to grade her essays in one week's time rather than two or three weeks time, I knew it. 

I absolutely knew it.

I've always known it.  

Anyone who has ever pursued anything worthwhile knows it.

I sat in my seat fully convicted. As much as I live it in every other area of my life, I don't live it with my dreams anymore, and I'm not sure how I ended up here as a non-doer or a partial doer or a when-I-have-time doer: as a dreamer. 

That wasn't who I was when I sat on those white chairs littering the Dartmouth Green.  It wasn't who I was when my starry eyes led me to New York City or my heavy heart propelled me to graduate school or my free spirit flew me to Florence, Italy.

It wasn't who I was and it is not who I want to be.

I no longer want to continue living in my brain and floating in the sky.

I want to push my words to the edge of the airplane and let them dive face first into a vat of ink, tumble onto parchment, and nestle into a piece of paper anchored to the earth. 

I want to put myself out there. I no longer want to sit back, overwhelmed, unsure where to start.

I want to write. 

And so I must write.

If I want my dreams to become real, I need to chase after them. I need to own them, dissect them, explore them, understand them and pursue them.  

I need to stop theorizing and fantasizing, and instead, discover the gold nugget postulate that explains how someone like me can defy gravity. I need to sharpen my voice, find my path, understand my market, surrender my inhibitions and write.

I need to make a schedule, sign my name to it and work hard. String, by string, I need to pull myself down, steady my feet and find my way. It's about time I get off of my butt and stop making excuses for letting my writing dream trail further and further away as I focused on my students, or on moving or on my wedding or on becoming a mom or on any of the other thousands of things that simply make up real life.

Shonda Rhimes is right: dreaming without doing is crap. 

And so, after a year long break, I'm back in the blogging sphere. I'm jumping in headfirst. I'm ready to learn. I'm ready to work. I'm ready to get reacquainted with the person I want to be.

I'm ready to do.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Want...

I want someone to put the world back together.  The sky seems to be crumbling, and as I sift through the dust, I want to squeeze my eyes and imagine I’m just Chicken Little.   I want a man painted with red and blue spandex to scale my house.  I want Wonder Woman to arrive and demand that everyone instantly starts embracing love, peace and sexual equality.  And then, once the super heroes arrive, I want Athena to suddenly appear and conveniently usher in wisdom.

I want the paranoia to dissolve. I want teaching to crawl from its anvil of checklists and prescription, and once again reassume its spot as an art.   I want us to see kids as human beings and not data, and teachers as shapers not disseminators and interveners.  I want kids to play outside again, and I want imaginations to soar.  I want us to remember what its like to dream.  I want us to be good.  I want us to think.  I want us to read.  I want us to color outside the lines. 

And I want us to trust.

I want people to listen to Walt Whitman and be curious not judgmental.  I want our voices to matter.  I want bitterness and revenge to melt away.  I want us to work together.  I want us to accept, to challenge, to refocus on what matters.  I want us to strip away the hypocrisy, the jealousy, and the greed.  I want us to reach out our hands, help each other up, pat one another on the back, and say, “you can do it; you matter,” because everyone matters.

I want to wake up feeling lighter.  I want to rise like the flag.  I want to reach for the moon.  I want unity.  I want love.  I want people to stop killing—with words and guns and bombs.  I want decency and civility. I want people to be generous and authentic and kind.

And until all of that arrives, I suppose I’ll have to be happy that Athena lives in my books, and my family and friends still make me smile.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beneath the Scum

It was then that I came crumbling down—
Like the buildings,
Like the airplanes,
Like the hearts and the guts and the papers,
The papers that should have been consumed
Instead of the steel.

It was then that the air tasted like burnt wires—
Like cotton candy flavored with gasoline,
Like tornados of dust,
Like the people who jumped and burned and cried,
The people who never got to live the rest of their life
Because of some else’s hatred.

It was then that I saw my reflection in the glass—
Like a good friend telling me that my dress is too tight,
Like my soul whispering its deepest desire,
Like a foggy image in dirty water,
Hidden by a plate of pond scum
Beautiful beneath the weeds.

It was then that I smelled my calling—
Like my husband’s after shave streaked on his collar,
Like truth stinking up the statehouse,
Like vanilla pomegranate slicing through ash,
Killing the odor of fear and horror and sadness
And the scent of my neighbors who never came home.

It was then that I knew I would become someone else—
Someone who strove to stain the world with compassion.
I would no longer climb ivy-lined ladders.
I would cease to exploit emotions for a living.
I would honor, I would give, I would live.
And every time I woke up, I’d look up—past the scum—and forgive.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sitting on my Hands

I spent my entire first grade year plopped on top of my hands.

I'm not sure if that's because the teacher wanted to halt my clear propensity for excessive gesticulation, or if she believed squashing my fingers might get me to stop talking.

Either way, I suppose it worked.

"Please stop talking, Laura," she always said with a stern nod.  Then she'd look me square in the eyes and point to the plastic seat that cradled my bottom.  "Now, on your hands."

I complied.  Not because I wanted to, of course.  I complied because she scared me.

And all I remember learning in first grade is that sitting on your hands for long periods of time is pretty uncomfortable.  But I suppose I also learned that you can get used to anything.

As miserable as it was, it stopped my talking.

It also muffled my voice.

And since I no longer possessed the grand ticket to send my hands and my voice traveling across thousands of stale air particles hovering in my first grade classroom, my mind had to invent some place for my over-active self to go.

While I appeared to be following directions, sitting quietly in my seat, I'd often disappear--out the window, through the chalkboard, down the trap door I knew had to exist somewhere on the floor beneath me.  I donned all sorts of costumes and possessed all sorts of powers, and I'm entirely convinced that those imaginative journeys--commencing with my hands pressed beneath my legs--saved me from getting kicked out of my Catholic grade school.

They also saved the voice my first grade teacher was trying desperately to silence.

The following school year, against that teacher's wishes, my parents enrolled me in Mrs. Adams's second grade class.  Her environment instantly changed me.  We sat in desks facing each other; I no longer had to stare at Elizabeth or Andrew's head.

And during silent time--when I finished all of my tasks--instead of telling me to stop talking, stare forward and sit still, Mrs. Adams rested a sheet of paper in front of me.

"Laura, why don't you write me a story?"
"Laura, why don't you make me a poem?"
"Laura, can I share this with my boys as their bed time story?"

She gave me purpose.  She gave me a challenge.  She gave me freedom.

I spilled everything I had onto that cheap, shiny sliver of white paper.  I flipped it, colored it, and surrendered my imagination on it.  With her consistent, reliable words, Mrs. Adams filled my days with joy and my fingers with colorful words.

Sure, I still squirmed--but it was a focused squirm.  I still rocked my foot, bit my lip, and twisted in my seat--but I didn't stop working.  I still chewed my pencil, picked at my fingernails, and bounced my leg--but I heard every word she said and I voiced every important thing I wondered.

And so today, when Betty, Mike and I talked about ADHD accommodations, and Betty and I laughed about my ADHD moments while teaching, I fondly remembered back to first and second grade--why I lost focus to begin with, and how a little bit of challenge and a whole lot of belief helped me to get it back.