Thursday, December 29, 2011

Words Matter

The day after I vowed to be funnier, I read the book Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson.

I started the book yesterday and finished it today; it was delicious. Not in a sensory detail sort of way--as the sensory details in the text are quite sickening. But in a new-experience sort of way. In a way where you want to stop all else and melt into the words just like you would melt into a decadent piece of chocolate.

To say I know little about war would be an understatement; I know absolutely nothing. My grandfathers died before I was old enough to understand their experiences, and no one else I know has ever sat across from me and painted my imagination shades of sand and mortar and blood.

Smithson's account of enlisting in the Army as a teenager, enduring basic training and ultimately heading out for a tour in Iraq merely dipped my toes into the life of a solider, but this dip took me closer than I ever was before. I realize there are many stories about what has transpired over the last ten years, but I read his story, and his story changed me. It challenged me to think about the war from an entirely different perspective. It made me appreciate even the smallest inconveniences in my life because a blessing had to first be in place for me to have something about which to complain. His story inspired me to consider that despite the atrocities this war has caused, our efforts have helped some. They helped the kids he met. They helped the people he met. They mattered to the villages he saw.

I generally try to place little weight on the news, but I realized how greatly broadcasts have biased my views. The pacifist in me has objected to the war from day one, but Smithson's words have helped me to consider another view. His words have helped me realize that from his vantage point on the ground in Iraq, the people protesting US presence are a small percentage of rich people; the majority of the country is poor, and the majority of the country is a little better off now that Saddam Hussein is gone.

Of course that doesn't change the politics of the war or the rationale given for entering it, but it does give me hope that the thousands of kids who died didn't die in vain. It gives me hope the that millions of innocent Iraqi people who lost their life, will be redeemed by those who lived.

A year after he returned, Smithson found himself in a college composition class where he got an assignment to write about a time when he saw something destroyed. No one in the class knew he was a solider until he read his piece aloud.

Following the exercise, he wrote, "[i]t's funny, all I did besides sit in a dump truck during the ambush was write a story about it. It's funny, but the story is what matters. The story is what changes, at least for a moment, the way these people feel. And what an empowering sensation it is to share it...They are only words, words we use every day. But they are the words of a heart, the silhouettes of a generation. They are my silhouettes. In between these words, there's the resilient silence of humanity. This is my silence" (Smithson 300-301).

Through his words, Smithson not only complicated my opinion about the war, but his courage to tell his story captured the very essence of what we tell our students--that memoirs matter. That our stories matter. That words matter. Because they do.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Husband Thinks I'm Funny

My husband thinks I'm funny. I tried to explain to him that the very things he finds amusing were not really intended to be funny and would not be quite as entertaining to the masses as they are to him--but he still insists that I should embrace the humor he claims I possess.

I sigh.

He begins to list story after story and we begin to shed tear after tear laughing our brains out.

"See, you're funny," he claims again.

I shrug my shoulders and stare at a computer screen waiting for funny to come...but funny seems to come much easier in a company of friends. Funny things happen often, but not daily, and it would be a lot of pressure to have to think of something funny every single day. I suppose it wouldn't be a bad exercise; nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more I have come to realize that being funny ushers in a whole lot of pressure.

See, you can always dig deep for inspirational, or think hard about philosophical, or disconnect your mind and stumble upon creative. Humor is darn near impossible if you don't have a good story. I mean, after all, what would I possibly have to write about on the days I don't fall into the dumpster trying to reach for my keys--like I did on Christmas Eve--or when I don't try to run over a toothless man with his hands down his pants tapping on my car window one dark, Thursday night? I mean, after all, some mornings you wake up, walk out the door and your porch is clean--you don't have a tattered bag of belongings with a ratted piece of lingerie lingering on top. Let's face it, at least three to four days of my week are relatively uneventful, and on those uneventful days, what could I possibly write about to make people laugh?

"Let's make a list," J suggests. "You know, for those nights when you can't think of what to write about--let's make a list of all of your funny stories so you have a bank to use when you're stuck."

I pinched my lips to one side, cocked my head, and pressed my weight on one butt cheek--you know, thinking position. Then I acquiesced.

"Okay, what do you want me to write?"

"What about the time when you killed 568 flies and no one believed you so you kept a bag of them in your freezer to show as proof? Or when you packed a tub of Vasoline in your carry on bag, or when you tried to 'claim' a ham and cheese sandwich at customs? Or when you actually looked up the non-emergency line when someone was trying to break into your condo?"

He had a point.

And so we kept listing stories, I kept typing, and eventually I realized that a lot of weird things have happened to me. I might not be completely convinced that my voice is naturally humorous, but I sure do have a pretty lengthy collection of tales that certainly entertain the two of us. So for now I'm laughing at myself. And I'm not so sure if that's because I really am funny or if it because my life sometimes is.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lucky Ducks

http://photobucket.com/images/two+ducks+in+love/

J and I spent our first married Christmas with both of our parents.

We were two lucky ducks.

We might not have been able to pull off a complete party of siblings, but we were able to spend that first December holiday with the four people who shaped, challenged and loved us through thick and thin. I doubled lucked out and also got to spend it with my brother, sister-in-law, aunts, uncle and cousins.

Now that the festivities have come and gone, and the cleaning up and rearranging are well underway, I am left with a checklist of chores and a bright bulbed Christmas tree. Our home, once filled with hubbub and conversation, is so quiet. J's gone tonight, and I miss the noise. He's moonlighting in an effort to earn some extra money so we can move out of our cozy 700 square foot condo and into a home.

I'm exhausted from our wonderful, busy weekend with family and friends, and all I have wanted to do the entire day, was veg out on the couch and watch a horrible Lifetime movie. But I couldn't do it knowing that J picked himself up by the boot straps and sacrificed a day of relaxation and hours of sleep tonight just so he could tap his foot one bit closer to our tiny little dream of having a guaranteed parking spot, enough space for both of us to be on the cell phone at once, and two bathrooms so we can each disappear and not worry that the other person is scampering around the living room trying to decide if he/I should run down High Street and directly into the first restaurant bathroom that catches his/my eye.

And so I worked. And I realized what it meant to be a partner. Last year, I would have grabbed a book and a glass of wine, or maybe even called a few friends and asked them to meet me out for a drink. This year, I cleaned. Scared of heights, I took small breaths battling the nausea of dangling my arms out the second floor window while I cleared away cobwebs and Windexed the grimy panes of glass I ignored for nearly three years because I was scared to pull them toward me. I also reorganized my closet, deciding what I could part with for a few months so I could fit J's clothes beside mine, and we could get rid of his makeshift closet, subsequently making our room feel a whole lot bigger. Then I scrubbed the tub--CLR, Mr. Clean sponge, Lysol, Norwex--the whole nine yards. We had some stains I previously hadn't been able to tackle, but I scrubbed them and soaked them for hours until my hands were soggy and nearly ever single "impossible" stain disappeared as much as is it could possibly disappear.

I also did the laundry, and as I sorted and folded, I reflected. Thinking through the course of my day, I realized that for the first time, I voluntarily--and subconsciously--did all of the things I LEAST wanted to do, because I knew J would have rather been doing a whole host of other activities on his day off. Instead, he chose to work so he could provide for me and for any little ones who may one day run through the halls of the home we save to buy. The least I could do was get on my hands and knees and make a sacrifice for us too.

This was a novel realization. In the past, I cleaned when I had time to clean. On days like today, days when I was tired and drained and wanted to do absolutely nothing, I always DID absolutely nothing; I postponed my chores because those chores didn't particularly affect anyone but me. Now that I have a partner, they belong to us both, and I suddenly had the desire to make our list shorter so we both could feel a little bit better about what we had to accomplish prior to prepping our place to sell.

It's funny how little moments strike you--moments when you know your life has changed. Nothing came swinging in on a wrecking ball, or tumbling in on a trapeze or barreling in like water plummeting from the clouds. Yet, as I folded the laundry, I realized that I have a teammate. I may not have been married before, but I know what it means to pull your weight on the ball field or out on the court. When someone dives, it makes you want to dive harder. When someone guts it out, it inspires you to fight the fight. When someone shows up, it makes you want to stand right along beside them. Those first few years after my college career ended were hard because I really missed having a team. But now I have one, and it feels incredible to realize I'm no longer going it alone.

J and I are lucky ducks--not just because we got to spend Christmas with both sets of parents--but because we have each other. We might be rookies, but we're a pretty good pair. And that makes me want to run a few extra sprints, throw fifty more pitches, take a dozen more swings--or simply brew some coffee, take him some dinner and then come home and tackle our chores.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Musings

In the RSVP envelope for a baby shower I'm planning to attend, the hostess threw in a card for notes. Our instructions read: Please use this card to write a short message, a quotation, words of wisdom, or any other supportive message that will help J through her first few months as a new mom. You can even specify on the envelope when you would like for her to read it (during 2 am feeding, when her baby is one month old, the day she gets home from the hospital, etc.).

I sat and stared at the 2 x3 inch teeny, tiny card for at least thirty minutes. Paralyzed, I debated a thousand different messages, trillions of quotes and dozens of potential "times" she should read my card. Then I wondered if everyone else felt the same anxiety over this simple task. Do people actually sit and ponder before they write? Do they brainstorm first? Do they carefully eliminate ideas until they land on the one that seems most fitting?

I feel pressure when I see blank spaces calling for wisdom or advice--particularly when it comes to giving wisdom or advice about something for which I know nothing. I teach kids, so of course I understand the awkward teenagers. But I don't understand the intricacies of childbirth, or infants or toddlers. What could I possibly have to say that would be worthwhile?
I pulled out my trusty journal of quotes, and I turned to my friend, Rainer Maria Rilke. He always seems to pen perfect pieces of wisdom. Worthwhile musing saturate the pages of Letters to a Young Poet, and since it set my brain ablaze when I most needed it to find a spark, I figured I might find something in there for J too.

Bingo.

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and...try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer" (Rilke 35).

I don't know much about mothering, but I do know that as a teacher, I always find myself worrying about what I cannot answer. I find myself desiring insight so that I might resolve my students' anxiety or fear. I want to heal the kids who hurt, and I want to energize the ones who feel deflated. I want to know why they make bad decisions and I want to know what I can do to help them make better ones. I want to know what makes them smile and laugh, and I want to know what I can do to help them become better people. And even though I'm not a mom, I'm pretty sure mothers feel the same desires tenfold.

I suppose sometimes we aren't intended to know the answers though, and most of the time, perhaps it is better that we don't. We just have to keep loving, we have to keep giving and we have to keep trusting that we will live into the answer we are meant to discover. And as we do our living, we simply need to enjoy it. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing to read at 2 am or one month in, so I decided not to specify, and to let J live into the answer

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Maybe we should put Santa in our car window...



Driving in December=insanity.

I conveniently forget this year after year. I'm not sure if it is because my near-death experiences aren't memorable enough, if it is because the intoxication of Christmas delicacies clouds my mind, or if it is because all of the lights and ornaments have sent my ADD into overload. Nevertheless, I forget--year after year--how positively scary it is to drive during the very time of year when we are regularly reminded to be kind and generous and selfless.

Yesterday, I actually contemplated the creation of a sign for my window. Annoyed--and slightly jarred--by the regular occurrence of seemingly possessed toy-seekers, I considered pulling out my marker, poster board and tape, so I could pen the following phrase in big, bold letters: "I do not want the toys or electronics or games you are determined to get at all costs. I just want art supplies and frames. Please don't hurt me."

In the span of fifteen minutes, I almost died twice. Nearly pressed flat into the concrete barrier along the left lane entrance ramp, a stream of six cars refused to let me merge. The lane beside them? Open, of course. Then once I got to my exit, the car beside me decided to come over--right at me. I had to actually swerve into the berm to miss him. No one was behind me of course, but he had to have my spot. He couldn't speed up or slow down. Nope. He needed come over right then. He was on the phone of course, approaching the red light, full speed ahead. As soon as I caught my breath, I causally pulled into the lane right beside him; his antics didn't get him an inch closer to his destination.

Once I finally made it to the Michael's parking lot, my bubbling anxiety fizzed out a bit--until someone tried to cut me off in the middle of my turn into a spot at the back end of the parking lot. I decided I would park as far away as humanly possible so no one could come near me--apparently this girl had the same idea, and apparently she didn't care who got there first. Unable to change course, I pressed into my turn, and pulled into the spot. She was so close to me, I would have hit her if I pulled back out and gave her the spot. Nevertheless, she screamed at me, waving her arms, forming curse words with her melodramatic lips. Then she peeled out of the parking lot and took off down the road to who knows where. Despite the fact there were at least ten other open spots, I took her's and if she couldn't have that one, well, by golly she wasn't going to take any of them.

Even in Michael's I encountered elbows and isle cutoffs, people approached the store like a heated battle on the gym floor. I can compete with the best of them, but I felt full of the Christmas carols on the radio, and just couldn't find it in my heart to elbow back. I simply grabbed what I needed, took the last remaining shred of holiday spirit up to the register with me, got into my car, and embarked on my brutal ride home.

Once I returned to my condo, I sat and stared at my Christmas tree, wondering why people tend to be utterly insane during the holidays. I'd like to believe some of it is our desire to give, but I'm not fully convinced. Anger and greed seem to emanate a bit too heavy from the lanes of the highway, and from the asphalt in the parking lot, for me to believe every single person is driven by the desire for good. I'm pretty sure toys and games can't save the world, but I'd like to believe people can. And because of that, I think it's pretty important to keep them alive. I don't know how many car accidents occur during the holidays, but based on personal experience, I have to believe we all enter into a crazy gamble each time we take to the road.

Maybe that's why I forget about the insanity year after year. Maybe I don't want to believe it. Maybe it's because the Christmas spirit has dug deep into my skin and forced me to believe--not in Santa Clause of course, but in all of the good things he represents. The silly guy in the red suit has a pretty respectable job, after all. He spends his whole life getting ready to reward the people who are good and kind and generous. Whether people believe in Christmas or not--that seems like a fairly decent motto. Maybe if I stick his face on my car window it will send out a reminder that he's still making his list, and checking it twice, and those naughty cars better hurry up and start being nice.

Monday, December 19, 2011

While I've Been Away...



It's been a while...and I missed it.

I thought about it each night, wondering what I would write if I had not have been immersed in the world of Lungas and Danu the lions, and Riley and Owen, their little cubs. Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoyed the challenge of scripting a children's book, but this blog has gotten a bit under my skin. Time away has taught me that I am much better suited for essay writing, memoir writing and adult fiction writing, than I am for the intricate responsibility of packaging a moral lesson into a box of imaginative adventures.

Several months back, my husband and I made a promise though. We decided we would write a children's book for our brand new niece and nephew. With the days ticking past until Christmas, we knew this was our opportunity to act. And I knew there was no way I could avoid an all-encompassing immersion into the world of our little imaginary creatures; that's why I decided to put my blog on hold.

This was absolutely true, as Lungus, Danu, Riley, and Owen, as well as Finn, the baboon, managed to invade my dreams. I loved every minute of imagining their story, and everything seemed to be going perfectly until I realized the book needed pictures. I'm not sure why that didn't occur to me from the outset--after all, I've read a gazillion children's books throughout the course of my life. Nevertheless, as I stared at the black and white letters filling each edge of a word document, I realized our story about respecting differences, and meeting in the middle, seemed naked without appropriate images. My stomach churned with anxiety; drawing is not my forte--and to say it is not my forte is actually an understatement.

Contemplating my options, I ultimately settled on cutting out images from scrap booking paper. I found traceable lions online, and I made them out of unexpected patterns. I drew the outline of a less-than-identifiable baboon and I added him into the mix. Then I made a tree, I cut out a hill and I found the colors of my sky. Suddenly, I had something to work with. I laid out my images and I snapped photographs. Inserting them into the slots beside the words, my husband and I managed to make something that seemed to finally resemble a children's book.

Through the process, I realized how much creative energy it took to bring our idea to life. I found myself considering images in a way I never considered them before, and I came to appreciate an art form I've never explored. Any time you throw yourself into unfamiliar territory you are bound to grow, and I feel like my endeavor to produce a children's book pushed me in ways I didn't know I could be pushed. It also made me TRULY appreciate the efforts of all children's book writers who penned and drew the books I loved as a child.

Hopefully one day little Owen and little Riley will like their story. Their aunt and uncle sure had a great time making it, and we can't wait to fly across the country, hold them in our arms, and read every last page together.

And though I'm proud of our creation, I'm also pretty darn excited to be back to my world of blogging. Though still a bit unfamiliar, I think it's slightly better suited for my wandering mind.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

It Isn't Their Fault They're Ugly


My students took a test over Beowulf on Friday and today, as I glanced through their essays, I couldn't help but recall our final discussion. After reading the story from the Danes' perspective, I asked my students to read an excerpt from
John Gardner's Grendel. Once we looked at the story through different eyes, we engaged in a lengthy, and somewhat heated, discussion. Spanning from the acceptance of varying perspectives to war, to what deems an attack as justifiable, to the ultimate effects of bullying, our discussion ran the gamut, sending heads spinning with ideas and curiosities and lots and lots of gray area.

As soon as one person asserted that people have no right to attack unless they've been attacked, someone else said that the US fights ethically driven--not self-defense driven wars all of the time. When someone said that bullying leads the victim to a destructive personality, someone else argued that it could very well inspire them to be a bigger person. When one student said that we all need to accept the fact that everyone has different perspectives and they are all valuable, someone else asked about the boundaries of destructive and malicious perspectives that could destroy a group of people.

By the end of the discussion, we came up with zero answers. No one seemed clearer on their stance; in fact, most of them seemed far more confused. They slowly came to realize what once seemed so simple--so black and white--was really far more complicated than they imagined. Suddenly, Grendel didn't seem as horrible or as blatantly wrong as they originally believed him to be.

I sat up front, hardly saying a word. The discussion took a life of its own and I sat back watching it. Just moments away from the bell, B raised her hand. Usually one for off-beat comments, I could only imagine where she was planning to take the discussion.

"Yes, B," I called out to her.

"When I try to kill spiders, my mom yells at me," she began. I could see a few smirks begin to bubble on the faces around her. "She gets mad at me because she tells me the spider didn't do anything to me--it isn't the spider's fault he's ugly."

Then, right on cue, she trumped her loud declaration with a thunderous cackle, sending the rest of the room into giggles. I doubled over in laughter, accepting the fact that I had no hope at all to pull the class together for the last three minutes of the period. Instead, I watched a thousand tiny debates regarding whether or not spiders deserved to die.

I know very well that part of B's declaration surfaced as an attempt to generate attention, but I also think the reason she thought of her story is rooted in the foundation of what our discussion entailed: the effect of killing without reason, of dismissing without understanding, of being cruel without any attempt at respect.

I kill spiders whenever I see them--as well as ants, flies and mosquitoes. I use sprays and swatters and my bare hands in an effort to rid the world of their creepy presence. Her comment made me stop and think. After all, much of why I kill them has little to do with anything they can control. I kill them because they get in my way, they inconvenience me, or they annoy me. Maybe the rest of life isn't all that different if you stop and think about it. I'd like to believe I handle bigger issues in a better way, but B certainly found my weak spot. Maybe I need to open up my heart a bit wider to embrace the insect community. I suppose her mother's right, it isn't their fault they're so ugly....but it is certainly my fault that my swatting is.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Held Together with Yellowing Tape


I can still see the sheet--torn and wrinkled, held together with yellowing tape. I can picture the battered box containing the limbs, and I can vividly recall the fire drill that ensued as we eagerly grouped them--long, medium and short reds, long, medium and short yellows, long, medium and short blues, and long, medium and short whites. My mom left the grouping to us, while she masterminded the kitchen, rolling, and stirring and icing, sending waves of cinnamon, chocolate and hazelnut throughout the rooms, rewarding our tree-constructing efforts the moment those scrumptious concoctions cooled. And as the four of us worked to transform the house with sights and smells, Christmas music hummed in the background--sometimes, Barry Manilo, sometimes, James Taylor, and if I got my say--sometimes, the Chipmonks.

Looking back, I'm quite certain my father probably didn't enjoy the tree building process quite as much as me, but he indulged us. Always pretending to be excited, always donning the spirit we so looked forward to seeing. I recall loving every single minute. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, I remember loving it more than any other part of December. Christmas morning belonged to my early-waking brother, but calling out the arrangement, orchestrating the moves, finding the perfect branch for the perfect spot, and then adding the ornaments one-by-one--those directives belonged to me. I loved fussing with the complicated ones--setting Kermit's ice skates evenly on the tinsel, plugging in Santa's workshop, and hooking up the train--and I loved smiling over the silly ones I made in pre-school. I loved the satisfaction of seeing our tree rise from broken pieces strew haphazardly into a box, and I enjoyed the tingling that ensued once the long band of lights blared with the force of electricity and tenderness.

Though most of my friends had real trees, we had an artificial one throughout my entire childhood. Apparently, I broke out in a terrible rash as a child, so this artificial tree experienced every single move and every single Christmas with us. It never shed needles, it never rotted, and it never headed out to the trash once the holiday ended. This tree simply came apart, crawled into a box, and waited for us to call upon its brilliance the following year.

Even though I loved that tree, the moment my doctor confirmed that I outgrew my allergy and could function just fine with a real tree in my house, I promptly set aside my adoration for artificial constructions. I turned, instead, to Christmas tree lots and deep, damp, whiffs of evergreen, excitedly purchasing my first real tree three Christmases ago. Just as I enjoyed my childhood tree, I thoroughly enjoyed that one, decorating her with care, watering her with love, and sitting beneath her for hours, admiring every last needle.

Last night, at midnight, I gazed up at the tree my husband and I had just finished decorating. While it might seem absurd that we pulled into the Tremont Center parking lot at roughly 8 p.m. last night to find a tree, and it might seem even more absurd that we stayed up to midnight to decorate it, neither of us could let the tree sit bare. It looked so lonely in the corner, begging us to cover its wet, muddy branches with lights, balls, stars and dancing reindeer--and we just could not resist.

I went to bed thinking my compulsion was because of the "finisher" complex I seem to frequently battle, but today, I decided it was really something else. Today, I decided that I wanted to act for the same reason I loved the torn, wrinkled piece of paper held together with yellowing tape, and the battered box stuffed with droves of color-coded limbs. I wanted to see the tree rise, I wanted to watch it glow and I wanted to witness it wrap the entire room like a blanket.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Stone-Still




***
"I dance because I love it. When you're out there, it's like nothing else matters. You forget the math test you did poorly on, or whatever happened at school, and you are fully present in the moment," L reflected during her flex credit presentation, sitting before a long table littered with our high school principal and a panel full of teachers.

Fully present in her moment, I listened to L's illustrative rendition of a summer time intensified dance experience. Gathering with students all over the country, she took classes day and night, pushing her skills beyond her own perceivable limits, all the while learning what it takes to dance professionally. Passion and grace consumed her as she talked about her greatest joy, and it was a pure delight to sit across the table and listen to her speak candidly about something for which she was so madly in love.

Once she skirted out of the room, and the final presentations ceased, I couldn't help but reflect on the moments she described--moments when I, too, have been able to remove everything from my mind so I could dive head first into the precious ticks of the clock, pausing inside each heartbeat, fully conscious of each breath. It doesn't happen often, and I'm not sure if that's because such an awareness would be far too exhausting, or if it is because I don't slow down enough to make it a reality.

Inventorying my own life, I see an array of moments imbedded in the canvas of memory. Individual moments--moments like standing at the World War II Memorial for Barack Obama's inauguration, gazing upon the Ponte Vecchia in Florence, sitting on a rock along the beach in St. Maarten growing certain that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the man sitting beside me, walking down the isle toward him and dancing our first dance. I've also had a few activities through which I have felt that presence at a regular interval: pitching a softball, publicly performing my poetry and laughing with my husband. While none of that would surprise someone who knew me, I wonder if this is true for everyone.

Do we all have triggers that zap us away from the drone of daily tasks and dump us between the skeletons of time? Do we choose our paths by listening to whatever force holds us stone-still and allows us to be fully aware of our existence as a human being? Should we try to grip time harder, attempting to force the drip rather than the rush of living? Or are we fine just as we are, appreciating those moments when they come without attempting to manufacture them through a forced effort?

I'm not sure, but I do know that those moments of presence are the ones I most remember. They bleed a little brighter in my memory and they are buried a little deeper inside the ventricles of my heart. They are the memories that drive me, inspire me, and direct my course. They are the memories I most want to keep.

When I listened to L speak today, my heart widened with the joy she emanated, and though I sat fifteen feet across the table, when she got up to leave, I felt a bit intoxicated by her over-powering force, by the vapors of her passion. And even if I shouldn't attempt to control the moments that hold me, I'm feeling particularly inspired to have one. Pitching is out of the question on this rainy Monday night, so I think I'll have to sit my husband on the couch, pound out a poem, and giggle until we're both too tired to stay awake.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

$13,000 Suit

I hope someone returns it. I hope someone who embodies every stereotype that describes America's image of poverty finds the money in a suit pocket, and promptly returns the cash. I hope that every single negative comment I heard on the radio, and saw posted on blogs, gets stifled by kindness.

While listening to NPR on the way to work this morning, I heard about an elderly man who recently discovered that he mistakenly left his entire life savings of $13,000 in the pocket of a suit he donated to Goodwill. Sadly, his wife has cancer, and he needs this money to pay for treatment. Of course, Goodwill has engaged in a nationwide effort to look for the missing bills, but since he has no idea when he actually donated the suit, locating it is proving to be a daunting task. They don't know if the suit is in a warehouse of if someone already purchased it; further, they have no idea if the money is still nestled in the pockets, or if it has tumbled into someone else's pocket.

As with any crisis, kind-hearted people offered to contribute money to a fund. Too proud to accept donations though, this man says he doesn't want notoriety or support; he wants what originally belonged to him--the money he forgot to remove--and nothing else.

In a few free moments at lunch, I searched for the story online. There, on quite a few sites, I found comments that sank like a canon ball in the pit of my stomach. People repeatedly said the lesson was "that we shouldn't donate anything," or "that's what he deserves for donating something to those people" or "he'll never have a prayer to see it again."

In the midst of all our political finger pointing, social stratification, and life style marginalization, is that what we've come to? When a man nearing the end of his life only has $13,000 to his name and he still finds space in his heart to donate a suit to those poorer than him, the lesson we are supposed to take is that he shouldn't have done it? Are we supposed to slap him on the wrist and tell him that he deserves to have lost it because he gave it to the pocket-grubbing poor? And why would he have any less of a chance of seeing it again having donated it to those people than he would if it fell into the hands of the rich? It seems to me there have been quite a few white-collar thieves commissioned to time behind bars.

People are people and human nature is human nature regardless of how heavy someone's pocket happens to be. Truthfully, I don't think he would have had any more of a chance getting the money back if he left it on the floor of Tiffany's or if he accidently over-paid a misguided client. While I'm not an expert in statistics, I would venture to say that there are just as many honest poor people as there are honest rich people, and there are just as many dishonest, cold-hearted and greedy poor people as there are dishonest, cold-hearted and greedy rich people--or at least the numbers have to be pretty close. I just wish so badly we could stop lacing our society with the poison of stereotypes, and I wish more people could rise beyond the notion that certain "classes" don't do what's right.

While the media flaunts the trouble threatening our society, I find solace in the fact that most people wake up each day aiming to do what's right--at work, with their family, or in the public at large. While rotten hearts occasionally beat to the surface, there are many more good ones keeping our world alive. I just hope this man's suit caught the eye of one of the good ones, so he can help his wife, and we can watch a stereotype begin to crumble.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tripping Down Tremont Road

Photograph taken by Barbara Schmidt, 2010
www.twainquotes.com

***

Clouds of frost crept up from the base of my windshield; I could barely see above the clustering haze. Luckily, my defrost kicked in just in time--partially so I could drive safely, but mostly so I could see him.

I would have pulled over to snap a photograph, but the street bit narrowly around the bend, and I could sense the rush of cars around me. And so I kept driving. I kept plugging along at the appropriate pace, but instead of deep-sighing at red lights and propelling myself from stop sign to stop sign through sudden bursts of speed and hard stomps on the break, I turned down inconvenient roads, and casually meandered through neighborhoods, relishing the pure joy of seeing a man walk down the street--nose to a book--stumbling over elevated ridges on the sidewalk. The mere sight of his pure indulgence sent a smile fulgurating from the seams of my mouth; I've waited for this moment for nine years.

This is the first Ohio man--or woman--whom I've seen reading in an odd public place. People in Ohio read in libraries, schools, parks and coffee shops; however, I have never once seen someone I don't know reading somewhere unusual--in their car while in traffic, at the mall, in line at the BMV--or while walking down the street at 5pm on a wintery, Wednesday afternoon.

I didn't recognize how rare that was until six months after I moved from New York City back to Columbus. In the heat of summer--on some poorly advertised holiday parade day--I found myself buried in a traffic jam and I pulled out a book. Shortly into my venture, a police office knuckled my window. I could hardly hear his voice above the cacophonic symphony engulfing me--honks, shouts, music, cheers--but I turned my head mid-sentence, while my car rested in park, my knees pressed against the steering wheel, and Ayn's Rand's Fountainhead weighed heavy in my fingers.

"Excuse me, miss," the officer said. His words were muffled by the glass and distorted by the noise around me, nevertheless, I turned the keys in my ignition, and rolled down the window.

"Excuse me, but what are you doing?" he continued now that nothing separated us but air.

"I'm reading, sir," I replied, knowing perfectly well my activities had to be quite obvious.

His jaw sunk a little and his face fell to the right.

"Why would you be reading? You're driving," he said, more befuddled than angry. It seemed quite logical to me though. I couldn't turn around, I couldn't go forward, and I saw no reason to explode with anger--like all of the other drivers around me. Instead of letting it ruin my day, I figured I would read.

"Well, I haven't moved for ten minutes, sir. This parade seems a bit long, and I have a good book. Is it against the law for me to be reading right now?"

"I guess not--since your car is in park. You don't do that while you're driving, do you?"

"Of course not," I said. Then he spun on his heels and slowly wobbled away, as dumbfounded by the situation as I was--but for different reasons.

Refusing to let the interruption squander anymore of my precious time, I continued to read until the parade passed. Then I spent the next nine years waiting to see someone--in some "odd" place--clutch a book and bury their brain in thought. I started looking for it--everywhere. When I took continuing education classes at Ohio State, I gazed around the bus stop; never once did I see anyone reading. They didn't read on the bus itself either. I paid attention to restaurants and bars. No one pulled out a book while they were waiting for their date or their friends or their family. And I most certainly have never caught anyone walking down the street, lost in sentences and thought.

These were all common indulgences in New York though. In fact, I persistently found myself in the company of public readers, people aiming to extract every ounce out of time otherwise wasted in waiting. No one here seems to do the same. It could be largely because we don't commute to the same degree as New Yorkers or it could be because reading lost its sense of cool. Regardless of the reason, I, too, have fallen victim to the absence of books. The longer I live here, the less I find myself toting a treasure.

Today though, on Mark Twain's birthday, some random, middle-aged man tripping down Tremont Road managed to remind me how positively brilliant it is to slip away. How positively brilliant it is to bump into someone because you are so utterly lost in a story or a thought that you don't even notice them in front of you. How positively brilliant it is to embrace Twain's assertion that "life does not consist mainly--or even largely--of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head."

I put a book in my purse for tomorrow, and no, it isn't To Kill A Mockingbird or Beowulf, the two books I'm currently teaching in school. It's the book I never got to finish on my honeymoon, and haven't had the time to pick back up. I might not have too many moments to get to it before Christmas break, but I'll have it with me just in case I do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Addiction



"I have a problem," I admitted to my husband last night, eyes cast downward, shame seething from my eyeballs. "I really love it. I love it so much," I mumbled, cradling my new iphone against my chest.

He burst out laughing--kind-heartedly, course--and then gave me a hug.

"That was so genuine," he told me, as I strained my eyes in the darkness, attempting to play "just one more game of 'jewels' and one more game of 'words with friends'" before I turned in for the night. Logic very much in place, I knew how utterly ridiculous it was for me to prop up my head and play games in the darkness. Nevertheless, I didn't want to pull my fingers away from the touchscreen--I wanted to beat my previous score; I wanted to find the perfect word. As logic edged out desire, I attached the charger and relinquished my prize, setting it beside my bed....then I thought about it for the next thirty miserable minutes, desiring just one more...anything.

The addiction happened quickly--much quicker than I expected. I figured it would occur gradually over an extended period of time; however, I readily admit that in a very short span of time--two days to be exact--I have grown utterly and completely consumed by my desire for this brilliant piece of metal. I thought loved my Blackberry, but I'm quite convinced that I didn't fully comprehend, or whole-heartedly feel, phone love until the iphone 4S became mine and Siri entered my life.

As I sit and write, I see my husband with his iphone; I yearn to be in his place. I yearn to tangle letters and match colors and ask the computer ridiculous questions about anything I desire. I yearn to find the perfect application, one that will help me cure cancer, end the oil crisis and crush tyrannous dictators. I yearn to stop working and simply play.

Then I look again, tracing my eyes from the beast in his fingers to the smile on his face. I know he's smiling about the baseball game, but I pretend he's thinking about me. I pretend we didn't spend the evening side by side in silence, sans a few growls and scowls and "darn-its" here and there. And I decide that as much as I love my phone, I'd rather hang out with him...

After I make my Words With Friends move, of course.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tom & Lisa

For the latter half of my single-digit years, two goldfish held residence in my room. One boasted the name Lisa, while the other bared the name Tom. I greeted Tom and Lisa every day, offering them food and occasionally, a clean bowl. Over the years, Tom and Lisa heard countless stories as I wandered around my room, shaking my hands with reckless abandon each time I stumbled upon the appropriate words to bring my imaginative tales to life. And they listened, patiently, to my temper tantrums over botched French braiding efforts, as well as failed endeavors to “teach” my little brother every component of second grade, and my unsuccessful foray into personal training—a bleak attempt to torture Barbie with calisthenics so she could adequately compete with GI Joe.

I’m sure Tom and Lisa didn’t survive for five full years; however, when I think back to my childhood, I only recall two fish. As soon as one died, we replaced it with a new fish, and in an effort to preserve the order of things in my room, I promptly named that fish either Tom or Lisa. In my little mind, those two names were the most fitting names for orange-gilled creatures moving into my fish tank.

For that reason, death never seemed like a real thing to me. I knew it existed and I came to understand it a little more when I watched both of my grandfathers die, but even then, I didn’t fully understand the depth of their absence until several years later when I noticed how much I missed them, when I started to lose the image of their faces, when I began to accept the fact they would never materialize on the recliner, or around the dinner table ever again.

Since the passing of my grandfathers, I’ve experienced a slew of other deaths, but instead of growing callus to the departure of life, each time I lose someone, I find myself increasingly more saddened, and increasingly more appreciative of the people who are still with me.

This all struck me today when I found out that a friend of mine lost her father. A bowl of sorrow opened in my gut as I empathized with her plight. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to get that phone call; how do you respond to that type of news? What comes next, after you hang up? What happens in the silence that engulfs you?

As I thought about my friend, I wished so badly she could venture out and find another Tom or another Lisa to make her smile. I wished she could go to the store and pick out a shiny, new goldfish, one who could do everything the old fish could—that way, she could go home, plop him into the tank, pick up the pieces and go on. When it comes down to it, I wished so badly that she could slip into my seven year old life.

Sadly, I realize life doesn’t work as simply as it did when I was seven years old, but I do hope that the best part of that simplicity is still possible. I hope that even though we cannot replace those we lose, we can find joy again in our lives. And I hope—that despite the deepest dips of sadness—we can always find the strength to pry open the cracks in our hearts and let loveliness leak into the gaps.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thankful

I approached the dumpster sporting oily hair, a bare face, and grossly mismatched clothes. My recycling bin was overflowing and I couldn’t handle it a moment longer. Since it seemed silly to shower prior to a trash transport, and it seemed wasteful to apply perfectly good make up to a face I would wash as soon as I returned from my field trip, I ventured across the park wearing what ever I could locate on my floor.

Sadly, I walked up to find the Channel 10 News crew 50 feet from the recycling bin. Tino Ramos sported a microphone, and several guys gathered around him. Hoping to slip my disgusting self past the camera man, I zipped across the parking lot, head down, imagining that if I couldn’t see them, they most certainly couldn’t see me.

“M’am, do you mind if we film you throwing out your recycling,” Tino called from a distance.

I shook my bag even harder, hoping to empty it before they could reach me; they were clearly much faster than I planned, standing beside me before I could even raise the bag for a prompt dumping. The “record” light blared in my peripheral and I wanted to cry.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t want to be filmed. Could you please not put this on air,” I begged as I imagined how entertaining my presence would be on TV.

“We’ll just get your hands. No one will recognize you,” they assured me. I felt more and more violated with every shake of the bag.

Once I finished emptying my goods, I rushed back to my car. Then I turned the key and actually started it; I couldn’t, however, bring myself to drive.

Putting it back in park, I switched off the ignition, opened the door, and ran back to Tino and his crew.

“Excuse me,” I yelled across the parking lot. The entire group of men stopped talking and turned to look at me.

“There’s this guy named Arthur who lost his job so he comes here every day to organize our trash. He got sick one week and this place was mess—the entire area reeked of spoiled food. Whoever is supposed to clean it up, never does anything. Arthur is the real story here. He never asks for money or handouts. He just helps us take trash out of our cars, and he organizes it so we don’t have rodents and insects feasting on everything out in the open. You need to come back when he’s here. Someone seriously needs to pay him. This place would be a disaster without him,” I explained, then I turned to go back to my car.

“Thank you for the tip,” Tino said. Then he turned to the man next to him, “This is the guy who runs the recycling. He’s in charge of the pick up and maintenance. We are doing a story about the program's success.”

I felt like a jerk. My face burned and my stomach flipped in half. I was just trying to do a good deed. I was just trying to give credit to a man who selflessly works his butt off to help out his community. I was just trying to turn a really boring story into something far more entertaining. Instead, I found myself staring at a man who was ready to bite my head off. This was his moment of glory and I doused it with kerosene and lit it on fire.

It's been a year since that fateful day, and I still feel like a jerk. I wonder how the conversation went once I shook his hand and ran to my car, sweating bullets of awkwardness. I wonder if Tino ever got to meet my neighborhood hero. But mostly, I wonder where our world would be without people like my Arthur, people who selflessly strive to serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Delightful Shivers

I shivered all day long and that's typically not a good thing. I relish warmth--warm feet, warm skin, warm blankets, warm coffee, and thick, warm, fuzzy socks. Today, though, I relished the chill, and I relished an entire day spent talking and writing at North Star Cafe.

At several points, the day boasted potential for disaster. I woke up with spasms in my neck and spent the first half hour in the shower, engaging in a masochistic version of yoga. Pulling my head and stretching my neck as hot water pelted against my skin, I pressed and twisted my thumb on the knots, as hard as I could, in an effort to release them. Once I got used to a certain threshold of pain, I did not stop, satisfied, like a normal person. Instead, I stepped it up a notch, pressing harder and turning more dramatically, hoping that in some strange way my caveman antics would produce 21st century results.

When the alien in my neck stopped twitching, I made my way to North Star, beginning my morning with Annie, sipping coffee and chatting about law school, teaching, the housing market and writing. Every new exchange inspiring me to remember why I need to invest more effort into seeing her more often.

Potential disaster number two ushered its way in mid-conversation. Sensing a stranger on the other side of the glass window, I turned to catch sight of a guy slumped over at the waist, clearly inebriated with some sort of mind altering chemical. I turned to catch him scowling at me through the glass, his eyes spinning in optical illusion circles.

Having done nothing to warrant this behavior, I released an uncomfortable laugh. Well aware that my response was inappropriate, I wished to retract it. Nevertheless, the nervous/awkward chuckle not only happened, but it incited him. Appalled, he battled his wobbly legs and bent down to the ground. I'm not sure how he maintained his balance; nevertheless, he swept his hands along a patch of loose gravel, collected a healthy handful of pebbles, and launched them directly into the glass, right in front of my face. Then he took off. Inching like an ape, knees slightly bent, feet turned outward, throwing pebbles as he went, eventually disappearing down High Street.

Shortly after the brief interruption, we resumed chatting and writing, wallowing in the blissfulness of our day off. Annie left for a meeting around 11:30, but I continued to punch out an idea trapped in the fibers of my imagination. Inspired by a short story competition, I wanted to finish a solid draft before the end of the day, and once I completed a draft, I spent the rest of my afternoon reading Writer's Digest, devouring articles about short story climaxes, the necessity of the denouement, and pressing on through criticism and rejection. When I finally picked up my belongings, six hours after I arrived, I felt an unwavering sense of gratitude for the day I was given.

Despite aliens attacking my neck, and stones being thrown into my face, my day was delicious, and that deliciousness had little to do with the organic grub I stuffed into my mouth, and everything to do with the delightful shivers that accompanied the freedom to be, and to think, and to express. I have piles of papers to grade the rest of the weekend, but thankfully, today was mine.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sweet Stench

Pages turn before me; I miss her. I miss the memory of her, the idea of her. I miss what could have been.

Pixilated stills and a few videos stream in from the past, but the sound is dull and the image is unclear. I can’t pinpoint my age. Heck, I can’t even recall if we ever had this conversation anywhere besides the kitchen.

“Do you want to practice?” she asks, every time I remember it.

“Kako-si nana,” I repeat syllable by syllable, the little version of me sits, giggling over the roll of foreign vibrations on my tongue, before scribbling phonetic cues along the lines of my tiny notepad.

“Dobro Hvala,” she replies, her arm rhythmically circling a stockpot, activating the sweet stench of vegetable soup. Moving from the pot to the oven, she withdraws a tray covered with perfectly burnt caramelized cherry turnovers, and she sets them out to cool.

Then, the scene goes black.

I wish I remembered what came next. I wish I could hear her voice louder than the logic of my memory, but her figure is hazy and her sound is nothing more than a hum. Everything I remember has been replaced by the smell of soup and the sweet taste of tart and butter.

I wrote about her once, a story that wasn’t even true. I rewrote a teenage love story. I rewrote the final days. I made her understand me. I wrote 5,000 words about a character bursting with the acceptance and pride I always wanted her to feel about me. Scanning those pages, I realize I can’t remember what’s true anymore. I can hardly see her face. I can hardly remember what she was like before Alzheimers devoured her spirit.

I wish she would have known me better. I wish I would have known her. I wish I had asked her everything my inquisitive mind could have ever thought to ask. I wish I could have stained the canvas with something that lasts bit longer than dust. I bet we had some things in common—something more than soup and tarts. I remember she played football with the boys on the farm. I remember that during The Depression she and my Aunt Jo used to share a can of corn for dinner—I tell that story every single year when I teach To Kill A Mockingbird. And I remember that she liked to tell stories. She liked everyone to turn and listen as she sank her voice, or shifted her accent, her eyes rising as a mischievous smile spread across her cheeks. The fairy tales always started off the same way, but by the time she arrived at the end, they became something far more entertaining than Hans Christian Anderson probably ever dreamed.

I wish we could have swapped ideas, bantering and conjecturing, recounting stories with hyperbolic flair. I wish I would have tried harder. I wish I would have opened up. And I wish I remembered more than the sweet stench of vegetable soup and the tantalizing taste of caramelized cherries.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Center of the Earth

PROMPT: Imagine that you know nothing about the center of the earth insofar as science is concerned. As such a person, what do you think is in there?

***

Maybe spirits don’t rise, maybe they sink—not to Hades or anything hot and miserable—but into some place pristine and preserved, protected by the weight of the earth. Maybe they are swimming below us, looking up, gliding through air like fish through water, diving and rising with the ebb and flow of ethically-driven desire. Maybe those spirits are looking up at us, laughing at our shortsightedness and self-absorption, waging bets on which creative genius will dig deep enough to discover the fountains of wisdom gurgling beneath.

Maybe the center of the earth is like a heartbeat, or even like a soul. Maybe the surface is merely skin, burned and abused by toxins. If we drill deep enough, perhaps we’ll find a whole expanse of land free from pollution and chemically conceived concoctions. Heck, there could even be a whole new solar system replete with a brand new sun and moon, and string of planets full of second-generation livers, livers who have learned enough to do better next time.

Maybe the center of the earth is squishy, saturated with a gazillion gallons of water--water that fills clear through to the other side. Maybe the ocean doesn’t have a bottom; maybe if we actually dug our way to China, it would involve more swimming than shoveling.

Maybe the center of the earth is jam packed with compassion. Each time she rumbles and cracks, maybe she is just leaking a little more of her heart, a humble effort to soften our edges. And maybe it's this compassion, more than anything else, that helps the plants grow, the mountains rise, the fruit ripen, and the blossoms burst free.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blue

Grayness chews away the scarlets, golds and tangerines, painting me blue--not the pretty kind of blue--cornflower or azure, for instance--the cruel kind. The kind that seeps into your fingers as they wiz through still air and slam the snooze button, and into your toes the moment they tap against the chilled floor boards. The kind of blue that latches onto your skin and tugs it further and further to the floor. The kind you feared when monsters lived under your bed. Even though you couldn't quite confront them eye-to-eye, you knew they feasted on the fibers beneath the mattress, waiting for the precise time to crawl out and consume you.

This blue usually makes his first appearance the second week of October. Due to some unforeseen delay--at least so far as I can tell--he's arriving late this year. I'm happy that he spared me a few extra weeks of color, but now that he is slowly leaking into my life, everything seems to be heavier. Winter has so many days, and bright skies and bare skin seem oh-so-far-away.

I wish I loved the cold. I wish I could find joy in the gray. I wish could swat away the blue. But mostly, I wish I could reach out my arms and squeeze the sun. I wish I could run barefoot through the grass. I wish I could dip my brush in tempera and flail it around like a pinwheel, spinning faster and faster until gallons of pigment swallow the blue, imbuing the grayness with bright, splattered perfection.

Midst a bout of wishing, I realized I could--figuratively of course. Pulling out words--quotes, excerpts, poems--I let the letters fly like a stampede of wildebeests, stirring me like a rumble in the savannah. When I reached Dale Carnegie, he made me stop and reread. He changed the direction of my wind.

"It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about," he said.

I promptly hopped on the wings of a bird. I soared into cornflower skies. Blazing rays caressed my skin as I dove between saplings. My eyes burned as color invaded them.

Then I blinked.

My husband was next to me. We were riding elephants. Lions thundered in the distance and they made the earth tremble. We were laughing in the face of danger, consuming life with the full force of adventure.

Then I blinked.

My kitchen table spread out before me--dinner begging for transport to the refrigerator, mail yearning to be read, papers screaming to be graded, keys waiting to be loved, to be touched, to be transformed into something useful, something more. I ignored my other to-dos, and then I pressed the plastic letters, watching images come to life.

A smile tugged at each edge of my lips. Joy scaled the walls of my gut, reaching the summit of my brain, and the promise of tomorrow began to spit rounds of color--we're talking a machine gun of pigment. When the attack ceased, I suddenly realized the winter was a little bit sunnier and the gray was suddenly gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fighting the Green Bottle



I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I have not been adequately acquainted with Spiderman. I haven't seen his life span out in a single Marvel comic book, or observed him throwing webs and climbing up movie screens. I saw Toby Maguire once at a party in New York, but other than that, I'm entirely ignorant about this old-school superhero and his vigilante antics.

One of my former students taught me all about him though. Reading her college essay, I learned that The Green Goblin and Spiderman both aquire super-human powers; The Green Goblin chooses to use his powers for selfish gain, while Spiderman dedicates his life to helping others. She used the archetype of the good guy/bad guy relationship to illustrate larger issues in our world--particularly with respect to what's going on in our economy.

I read her essay a few days ago, but it came back to me again tonight when I watched The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. The show featured a story about "pick up artists" who were traversing the nation in an effort to make a difference. Armed with bags and manual claws, they are traveling coast to coast in pursuit of a greener earth. With unemployment, pollution and political unrest poisoning the lives of many otherwise happy people--some are understandably finding reasons to wallow in self-pity. These kids, however, have decided to spend their time picking up trash along highways spanning from the east coast to California.

I couldn't help but think of M's essay. I couldn't help but consider her argument that we all have a choice whether we want to act like The Green Goblin or we want to act like Spiderman. We all have a choice to sit back and complain or to strap on our suit and find some way to make a difference. We all have a choice, and these "pick up artists" made theirs. Hopping on a bus fueled by vegetable oil, they committed their days and nights to eliminating toxins from our world. The became little spidermen, fighting against pollution and greed one Green Bottle at a time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Letting It Go

I remember very clearly when Ayn broke her nose. Our collegiate softball field boasted crushed limestone instead of brick dust, and some of the pieces weren't exactly crushed. We were in New Hampshire, after all, so I suppose it made sense to paint our field with white rocks instead of brown dirt. I guess it absorbs moisture better. Unfortunately, it doesn't fare as well with ground balls.

It seems cliche to say the ball took a bad hop, but it did. Regardless of whether or not it was truly spinning, it hopped right into Ayn's nose and she immediately cupped her hands around her face, clearly crying over the matter.

"Are you crying because of the pain?" my coach asked, innocently. Ayn shook her head and my coach gazed at her with a tighter grimace, leaning over, utterly confused.

"She's crying because she broke her nose," I explained without even seeing the damage or hearing the prognosis. Ayn shook her head in agreement and my coach looked even more confused. I remember understanding it all clearly though; she could have very well ended up with a crooked nose, a knobby bump, or a blocked passageway--all terrifying outcomes for a young, single girl.

For that reason, it seemed odd to me that breaking my nose--and my orbital bone for that matter--did not put me on the sideline for good. Sure, it was scary to look at words and not be able to make meaning out of them. And it was embarrassing to ride in an ambulance from Berliner Softball field to Grant Hospital, only to then explain to the x-ray tech that, "no, I did not collide with a teammate during district finals" because "I [was] 28 years-old," but surgery eventually repaired the damage to my face, and time eventually healed the trauma to my brain. I never set foot on a softball field again, but not all competitive games were off the table.

After all, a co-worker asked me to play kickball. He offered me the chance to pitch--as hard as I could possibly throw the ball--and the meathead in me emerged. I saw the promise of a new chapter, and I grew far more excited than I ever should have grown.

Having learned something from my softball collision though, I decided I wouldn't dive or slide, and if a ball required me to chart out-of-play territory, I would certainly let it go without exerting the effort of a 30-year old fool. On the other hand, I would run as hard as I could around the bases--no holding back, toes and all, cutting my turns on the inside of the bag, pushing for the extra base whenever possible. And I would pitch with all of the fervor I could muster, committing myself to learning the art of unpredictable bounces, whilst maintaining proper velocity changes and spins where appropriate.

Unfortunately, I didn't get very much time to hone my craft. Sadly, during warmups one fateful day halfway through the season, I reared back, braced the force of my pivot against a foot planted 90 degrees in front of me---and...

Pop.

I've never actually been a victim of a gunshot and I don't mean to--in any way--minimize the agony those victims endure, but when I pulled my piriformis, the thrush of pain it ignited stirred the heart of my imagination--it felt exactly as I always imagined a metal bullet might feel as it penetrated something important.

I wish I could tell you that I handled it gracefully or courageously. In reality, some terrible noise emerged from my gut and I wrapped my fingers around the area that hurt. Sqeezing it, pushing on it, trying to do something to stop the onslaught of pain, I looked like a fool as I groped my own butt in the middle of a crowded park.

I suppose I should have let go long before I ever arrived at that pathetic moment. I suppose I had clues along the way, clues that I obviously ignored, clues that involved four knee surgeries, nursing sore ribs for weeks after spending a January afternoon diving for fly balls, enduring surgery to repair my broken face after I collided with a man who didn't call me off, straining my thumb attempting to barehand a line-drive up the middle, and acknowledging the pathetic embarrassment of realizing I tossed a fist pump and bellowed "yeeeeeeeessss" after I--as a first-year teacher--knocked someone out in the championship game of a dodgeball tournament played out in front of the entire student body. Yes, these were all clues, and yes, they all came well after my twenty-fifth birthday.

But I didn't notice their weight until I played kickball. I just kept pressing my boundaries until I reached my limit, and apparently that limit didn't involve a broken nose, surgery or blurry eye sight. Apparently, that limit took root in the very body part I've spent years of my life cursing--and in the end, it won. My blasted butt won. It wasn't enough that he prevents me from fitting into many pairs of pants, or that he causes issues with shift dresses and bathing suits. Nope, he had to take sports away from me too. He had to scream loudly and decidedly. He had to stomp his feet and throw a wild temper-tantrum. He had to remember my weak spot, punishing me still every time I turn the wrong way. To be fair though, I'm not sure I would have listened to anything less.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Solidarity


Two trees stood midst a crowd of bare branches, while the sky stretched above them and the grass bled out below. In a world of chaos--changing temperatures, shriveled leaves, befuddled animals, risk-taking park goers--these two deciduous trees stood, needles in tact, dropping deep, rich, evergreen whiffs hellbent on surfing gusts of wind.

I noticed them as I walked home from the grocery store today, and they reminded me of goodness. Odd, I know, but those pillars--bountiful with purity--stole my thoughts away from from sex scandals and political campaigns. They stood out without being tall or magnificent or beautiful or wise. They stood out because they were standing together.

Mid-step, I stopped dead in my tracks the moment I saw them. Neosporin in one hand, tomatoes in the other, I paused to gaze at them. I paused to admire their solidarity. After spending the last few days listening to banter about the evil residing in all of us, those trees took me back ten year before. They took me hundreds of miles from where I was standing in that moment--both literally and metaphorically--and my entire universe halted to pay its respects.

Hours following the attacks on September 11, I ran from my mid-town 8th Avenue office to a mid-town office on Madison Avenue. Left without a properly working cell-phone, a viable apartment to return to, and roommates who were accounted for, I took a friend up on the offer to connect. Seeking support and friendship--more than anything--I idiotically jockeyed crowds crossing through a police-free Times Square, watching the second tower tumble on the jumbo-tron. When I finally arrived at the Y& R security desk, I bounded through the threshold.

In that moment, I wanted Emily more than I wanted anything. Kate and Kristin weren't answering their phones, and I had no idea what was going on.

"Emily?" I asked, panting.

"Emily left," the security officer told me; my insides caved.

Choking over my reality, I tumbled out the door. Bright colors dashed across the edges of my periphery. Light-headed and scared, the world swirled into a haze and I felt like I was falling. Just when I thought the concrete would catch me, a woman from Arizona reached out her hands and pulled me into her. Rocking me like an infant, she turned my cheek into her breast, wrapped her arms around my shoulders and rotated me back and forth.

"We'll be okay," she promised me. "Even if it's just you and me, we'll be okay."

I turned to look at her--I don't recall what I saw. Air stagnant and sparse, faces blurred, I disappeared into a nightmare. I wish I could remember what she looked like. I wish her face was stained with permanent ink on the slides of my mind. I wish I could summon her every time horrible things happen in the world. I want her so badly to have a face, but right then, in that moment, I couldn't see anything. In that moment, she was arms, and warmth, and cheap rose scented perfume.

"I'm from Arizona," she told me. "I don't know anyone here. But I do know we're going to be okay. You aren't alone," she assured me as tears streaked my cheeks and fear leaked into every extremity. "We'll get through it," she said again--shaking just a little, slight convulsions interrupting her rhythm.

I don't know how long we stood, two evergreens in a crowd. We weren't moving or rushing or screaming at our phones. In solidarity, we just stood, in the middle of the street, trash falling at our feet, cars zipping by, horror bleeding like a gunshot wound around us.

"Laura?" Emily shouted from a distance, cigarettes in one hand, a bottle of water in the other.

I released my grip. I turned around. I let go of the woman who saved me. I ran to Emily. I never looked back. I never said, "thank you." I never said, "goodbye." I never did my part to save her too.

When I saw the evergreens today, I thought about the lady from Arizona, and I longed to wrap my arms around her. I longed to see her face and to tell her that she has never escaped my memory. I longed to tell her that our encounter was one of the most profound acts of kindness I have ever experienced in my entire life. I longed to tell her that she saved me. That she did more than she was morally obligated to do when she wrapped her arms around my shivering body and kept me from crashing to the earth--vulnerable, scared and alone. I wanted to tell her that she made me believe. She made me believe that in a world with more evil than any of us would care to acknowledge, goodness can arrive, goodness can prevail, goodness can rise--like a phoenix from the ash, like two deciduous trees in park of empty branches.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Weekends

I decided to take a break this weekend. I'm not self-absorbed enough to believe my break caused any sort of turmoil; nevertheless, the rule-follower in me felt an urging to explain.

I wrote for 34 days straight and it felt marvelous. Even in my mucus-ridden state, I enjoyed tantalizing walks through my thoughts, tapping away on keys, looking forward to whatever managed to materialize. Now that I'm on a roll, now that I know I can do it, I've decided to cut myself some slack--some weekend slack.

One of my best friends got engaged this weekend, and I wanted to drive up to Cleveland and celebrate with her. I wanted to hug her and laugh with her; I wanted to look at her pictures and watch stories tumble from her lips--I didn't want to relegate such a vital moment to computer slideshows and cell phone chitchat.

I stared at my computer before I left, knowing full well my day of errands led me right up to the final moment before I had to grab my purse and my keys and position myself behind the wheel of a car which would not return in time to pen an entry prior to midnight. When I crossed the threshold yesterday at 4:30 p.m., I knew I would miss day thirty-five, and by missing day thirty-five, my longest writing streak would come to an end. I paid my respects to the process, then I spun on my heels and headed straight out the door.

People are more important than patterns. As much as writing satisfies me--and as much as neglecting that writing hurts me--I don't need to do it every day for me to feel fulfilled. I knew I would return to the keyboard the following day. I knew there were many more posts left to write. I knew the people who enjoy reading my words would come back again once new words appeared, and I knew the ones who value the way I think will appreciate why I made the right decision.

And even if they don't, when I wrapped my arms around my friend, I was so glad I took the weekend off.

Friday, November 11, 2011

To The Veterans:

Thank you for my breath--
Colliding with clouds of chilled air,
It was visible, tangible even.
And I observed it as I walked,
As the chill prodded open my eyes
Before my able hands pulled open a car door,
And I nestled into my seat,
And I drove myself to work--
Appreciating endlessly
This simple gift of independence.

Thank you for the freedom to dress myself
To choose sweaters and slacks,
Silly shoes and mismatched socks,
Pearl earrings or dangly hoops
Or empty, happy pinholes with nothing at all.
For scarves wrapped loosely around my neck,
Covered slightly by long, styled hair
And framed with bronzed cheekbones,
Which aren't required to hide
Behind a veil I didn't choose to wear.

Thank you for the children I'm allowed to teach--
For their questions
More so than their answers.
For my freedom to ask them why--
To push them to think outside of boxes,
And to read,
And to write,
And to speak,
And to imagine the future
They will carve out of the bowels of their dreams.

Thank you for my choices--
For open doors and opportunities,
For my chance to choose,
To switch directions,
To go to school,
To accept a job,
To head back to the classroom,
To accept another job,
To wait for marriage,
And to be free to marry for love.

Thank you for my space to speak
To shout from the rafters,
To pry open my soul,
To bare my identity,
To type any keys I choose,
And in any combination,
To unravel my disappointments,
To combat injustice,
And marbleize my joys
With the rock of voice.

Thank you for my nation,
For my family,
For my friends,
For my home,
And for the water,
The earth,
And the sky--
And for sacrificing everything you have
To keep it blistering with sunshine,
And glowing a cerulean blue.