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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tangled


I rediscovered this poem today as I scanned my files from this summer.  I wrote it as an exercise in a poetry class and after thinking about why I loved Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I couldn't help but linger on this language and the moment that produced it.  I know it isn't typical blogging me, but it's the me I am tonight:


Tumble
D
O
W
N
TaNgLed StReEtS
And cease your efforts to untangle them.

Allow the grass to graze upon asphalt,
Peruse the pigeon’s overcoat,
Marvel at the pulse of purple-bellied mosquitoes,
Implore your mind to digest new perspectives.

Press the prints of your thumb and pinky together—
And like an escaping convict—
Slip your wrist through the cuff of social expectation.
Gallop barefoot,
Entreat your gaze,
Embrace your diversions,
Invite your mind to wander,
To ponder recklessly like iron intended for demolition,
Intended for dispatching stores of luscious mental debris.

Strike the rules,
Rip off the gag,
Tip the carafe to
                                         let
the energy
                                                                          s  p  i  l  l .

Poison ordinary streams with original ideas.
Erode your damns,
Deconstruct your walls,
Empty your sandbags;
Bag the water instead.
Keep it to raise the dead,
To hydrate the words
Shriveled beneath the dust
Ogling at the possibilities
                                                         just beyond the silk
Where the boats have water,
And the sky has wind
And ideas are free to
S     A     I      L . . .

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dumpster Diving

I started my day in the dumpster.

Well, I wasn't exactly in the dumpster, submerged knee deep in garbage. It was more like a bent at the waist, tottering in mid-air, employing my go-go gadget arm, as I reached for my fallen keys in the corner of a very large and stinky receptacle type of "in the dumpster."

Of course my keys ended up in the dumpster because I didn't listen to the years of advice warning me not to carry too much. Rather than make two trips, I decided to fill my arms with awkwardly balanced items. And those awkwardly balanced items did as most awkwardly balanced items do--they wobbled and bobbled until they all fell down.

I blame this partially on the fact I am carrying around two sets of keys--one for my condo, the other for my rental car, a lovely byproduct of my 15 mph fender bender with a guy who decided to gun it rather than to inch out into the intersection. I held the car keys in my left hand, with my mug of coffee and lunch bag, and I held the trash, a container of snack nuts and my condo keys in my right hand. As I wound up to toss the trash into the mouth of the beast, my condo keys caught the edge of the plastic bag and managed to plummet to the base of my arch enemy.

When I move, I will not miss that dumpster. I will not miss the thunderous gong of his Monday morning emptying, or the flies he attracts in the summer. While it has provided an onslaught of entertainment, I will also not miss the over-indulged festival goers who feel comfort in their effort to congregate around his opening just in case they need to dig for styrofoam boxes containing four day old carryout food, or even worse, those in need of a receptacle for what ever gurgles in their stomach or desires to escape their bladder.

And while I appreciate the spirit of the people who are looking for free food and refurbishable furniture, I will also not miss waiting for the dumpster divers to get out of the middle of the road so I can make my way through the alley and into my parking spot. But mostly, I will not miss the times I have accidently found myself in position to do some dumpster diving of my own, all because I didn't want to make two trips through the parking lot, and managed to toss my slippery keys directly into a mound of gritty, foul smelling trash.

But I have nearly a month to go before I am home free. I have a month to go before I have a real trash can outside my door, and a parking spot inside my garage. I have a month to go before I am entirely absolved from the possibility of beginning my day extending my fingers in a slow-motion-montage type of moment, only to watch my object of desire tumble speck by speck through the air and into the very thing I most seek to avoid.

It was bad enough to lose my keys, to dig through coffee grinds, banana peels and sour beer, but it was even worse that mid-effort, as I focused my energy on the fleeting rescue of my keys, I managed to subsequently release the grip on the mug of coffee held in the clutch of my left hand. As my keys tumbled, so did that coffee, smashing plastic against concrete with the force of utter devastation, launching slivers of hot heaven through the air and directly onto the fabric of my crisp, white pants.

And so, without time to change, I had to arrive to school with brown stains on my white pants, fingers flaked with nasty residue, and a foul dumpster stench laced across the base of my nostrils. Even worse, I had to deal with all of it sans a capsule of warm, nurturing caffeine.

I scowled at that grimy little dumpster when I came home today. He claimed me on Christmas Eve and Tax Day. I'll be ready when my birthday rolls around; I'm going to load my car the night before.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sometimes We Just Need to Write



Thank you cards are underrated.

It's funny, my thoughts have turned to potential first lines for the last seven days. I took such a long break from my blog, it seemed almost futile to jump back into the page and wrap my ideas inside letters. My husband even asked when I planned to start writing again.

"I don't know. Maybe tomorrow," I kept telling him. I wasn't sure where to begin.

But then, I walked to mailbox and I found a letter. And for the second time in seven days, my eyes grew misty.

My life has not been short on blogging muses. Over the last few weeks, J and I met our two nieces and our nephew for the first time, I survived my first attempt at skiing in Colorado, we snowshoed in Rocky Mountain National Park, our condo is in contract, we found our new home, I got into a car accident, I spilled coffee on my laptop, I started working out with a personal trainer, and I got rescued by a ranger in a local Columbus park.

There are a lot of stories in there. Stories that have filled me with with joy, wonder, fear and hope. Moments that challenged me, or changed me. Experiences that have made me appreciate some aspect of life. And yet, with each passing day, all of them seemed to slip through the hourglass before I could punch them into existence. At a certain point, I wasn't sure where to start, and so I just let them all go.

Wishing for the push to find my voice again, I found it today, freed by a thank you note painted with dainty, red flowers, and thin, wandering branches. At eight o'clock this morning, I reached into my mailbox expecting to find flyers or notifications. Instead, I found myself thumbing the ridges of textured paper, pulling open a card containing the words of a former student who decided to thank me for the role I played in her life two years ago.

My eyes misted before I made it half-way down the page. I instantly thought of my mother.

My mother touted thank you cards throughout my childhood, and my reaction today illustrates why. As a child, the moment my last friend wandered beneath the threshold and all that remained of my party was chocolate cake and colored balloons, my mom handed me a stack of cards and instructed me to write. I'd sit, begrudgingly--knowing better than to argue--and press the tip of the pen to the page in an effort to express my gratitude.

"You'll thank me one day," my mom always told me.

I may never know the magnitude of any of my letters, but I certainly understand the magnitude of the letters I've received, the letters scribed by the hands of people who--on account of me--poured their heart into cool, wet ink. Humbled by the weight of something so simple in principle, but so enormous in effect, I am still paralyzed each time I hold a thoughtful, hand-written note in my hand.

And so it was today, when I walked to my mailbox to find A's letter. In this fast-paced world, we rarely thank each other. We text, we facebook, we email and sometimes we call, but very rarely do we plop down behind a desk, prop a pen into the crook of our fingers, and write a note to someone else. Very rarely are our mailboxes stuffed with anything other than political propaganda, sales brochures and bills.

But when they are, it is magical.

And lucky me got two doses of magic in the last seven days. Last Thursday, S told me he just found out that he got (nearly) a full ride scholarship and he thanked me for helping him with his essays. Today, A thanked me for being in her life. Two different students, writing for two different reasons. Both notes: fully unexpected and far too kind. Both notes: reminded me that I matter. That each day we all have the chance to matter. To reach out, to speak, to say hello, to say thank you, to say let me help you out, to ask how we make someone else's life just a little bit better.

Sometimes what we do doesn't have to be very big. Sometimes, we just need to write.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Buzzing

I salivate at the thought of positive energy. I want it, I crave it, I relish it. Like bumble bees prodding at partially dried syrup, jolts of optimism inspire me to hover, and make me want to buzz.

Right about now, the buzzing is on overload. In a little over 24 hours, I will be holding my first niece and nephew in my arms. I will get to see their magical personalities and hear their tiny, little voices as they strain to find a means for communication. I will get to look into their perfect little eyes and imagine all of the adventures that await them. I will get to imagine who they might become and all they might want to say.

I will get to disappear for a while and remember how brilliant life really is.

And I absolutely, positively cannot wait.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

J vs. English, Episode I

"I hated it more than anything," J explained at dinner, as if I were wholly responsible for every English assignment ever created in the history of mankind.

"I worked so hard on it," he continued. "In fact, I spent hours on it. I could have told my teacher every single thing that ever happened in Call of the Wild. I could have analyzed the themes or the characters or the plot. Instead, I stayed up until 1 am cutting out a dogsled and bodies of people at the finish line, and the teacher gave me a B.”

Despite the twenty-some years that have passed since that fateful diorama, his wound still festers, raw with infection and pain.

“You know I’ve never assigned a diorama,” I said, fighting back a smile. “I think it’s a pretty dumb assignment unless you actually have a written component that's worth far more than a box filled with cutouts and glitter.”

“All I remember is the diorama. I don't even remember what the book was about,” he said, eyes bent down at the table. I let him sit with his thoughts, but then, he suddenly sat up.

“You know what was worse than the diorama?”

His eyes focused squarely on mine, and his voice increased in volume. Before I could guess, he answered his own question.

“This illuminated manuscript thing we had to do where the first letter was really big and fancy and it was supposed to have these pictures on it. That was horrible. It was not art class. I just didn't get it.”

He continued to mock the process, a process when weaned from his recollection, seemed utterly absurd and comical. He doesn’t recall the stories or the themes. Instead, when he thinks about his early experience with English class, this unbelievably bright man sinks to the realm of self-deprecation, berating his inability to cut and color and paste properly. Suggesting--albeit indirectly--that those skills culminate as deciding success markers in the course for which I have spent the greater part of my life both studying and teaching.

Once I shake my head twenty or thirty times, the conversation invariably shifts focus, and I dish out equivalent waves of blame for my experience with frog dissections and the entire discipline of calculus.

He doesn't even fight it. We usually just burst out laughing, forgetting our wounds until the next time we revisit and reconstruct missteps along the path of our glory days.

Today, as I cleaned off a desk filled with dust, papers and books, I managed to come across a folder, thick with special paper. Curious, I opened it, and staring back at me was the sample assignment I created two summers ago when I returned from my writing class in Italy.

“Illuminated Manuscript” it said in bold letters at the top of the assignment page. Beneath the explanation of a contemporized take on something very old, I found two cardboard pages filled with words and images that belonged to me.

My eyes traced the letters and analyzed the pictures. Fond memories returned, and suddenly I saw myself sprawled out on the kitchen floor with scrapbook paper, magazines, scissors and stacks of my own poetry. Attempting to collect my identity on the pages before me, I worked.

For hours.

And I loved every minute. I loved what I could make, what I could express, what I could capture in the space that greeted me. As I held that illuminated manuscript in my hands, I reacquainted myself with the girl who made those pages; she seemed very much alive.

How could J have hated making something so meaningful? How could he see this as horrible?

Then a different scene flashed before my eyes: a stack of medical books, JAMA articles, and a pile of running gear.

Hours and hours of work. Difficult, tedious work. Meaningful work.

Work I would have absolutely despised.

With the situation fully illuminated, I decided to torture him with my assignment. After all, he had a pretty simple day trying to save lives. I figured it was about time to give him some rigor.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Living in the Layers


The Layers
Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
Though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

***

This poem first greeted me through the voice of a student, standing at the front of the room, alone. I experienced it through his adolescent lens, and the words pierced me, unexpectedly, with the same sort of intensity Franz Kafka spoke of when he said we only need to read books that wound and stab us.

It arrived a second time when my friend Nancy offered it up for Kevin's birthday anthology. I read it again, through that lens, the lens of 60 years passing, tumbling like brilliant leaves tossed by the strong hand of the wind, falling beneath an oak that continues to grow, to sprout, to shine brilliantly despite what nature offers.

Nancy brought it to my attention again, a third time, at a department meeting--a meeting where we all came together to set our course, to take control of the oars, and attempt to triumph over the rough and muddy waters of educational uncertainty, a meeting where smart and inspiring minds pressed to embrace an inevitable shift with vigor, perspective and compassion. There, in that room filled with colleagues I respect beyond language, Nancy provided yet another lens as she read Stanley Kunitz's poem.

I brought the poem to my own attention today, as I listened to our principal speak about the changes, the uncertain changes we all know hover along the horizon. As I watched him speak, my eyes stirred beneath, calling up the dew nestled below the surface. It's hard to imagine fighting this fight without him pressing on, sifting through the mud and the muck, championing what's right for kids. It's hard to imagine this building without him, or my life, as a teacher, without a man so committed to affecting change for schools all over Ohio.

It's scary to know little about what's ahead, when so much weight falls on our shoulders. And it's even scarier to know he won't be there to help us pick through the litter and find the gold beneath. I've revered him for nearly seventeen years, half of my life. And today, his retirement finally sunk in as I watched him stand like a pillar in the front of the room. My heart hurt.

And so tonight, with a face "bitterly stinging" with reality, I returned to Kunitz's poem (21). Studying it, pondering it, applying it to my life, I decided that "with my will intact to go/ wherever I need to go,/ and every stone on the road/precious to me.," I need to sift through the wreckage of difficult times, and realize that none of it is going to poison or bury me (22-27). It is not. And it is not, because I have the ability to choose to see it as a layer, a layer that I must live inside, not litter I must live upon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Punch Line

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

It all started this morning when I decided to dry my hair. I listened to the weather report the night before, I checked my phone prior to slouching out of bed, and even if none of that were true, I could not have possibly missed the prodding echoes of persistent water streams tapping against the window.

Nevertheless, I decided that dry hair was a priority. It didn't matter that I snoozed three times and needed to cut out portions of my morning routine to make space for a pre-school errand. It didn't matter that we had two viewings that afternoon and there were dishes sitting beside the sink. And it most certainly didn't matter that the rain would reverse any effort I made to eliminate moisture. This morning, when I jumped in front of my husband to take a shower, and remained in the bathroom to dry my hair, I was on a mission to avoid slicked side concoctions, and a thundering ponytail headache.

As with every decision, this one had consequences.

My hair drying efforts left only enough time to make a single trip to the car. Sadly, this single trip required filling both hands with goods, and neither of those goods were an umbrella. Aware of my Macbook's potential doom nestled inside a cloth bag, I took short cuts between the bushes, scurrying through puddles and splattering mud across the bottom of my pant legs. All the while, I moved with a slight bend at the waist, ducking my head in an effort to shield my leather satchel from an onslaught of liquid. Every few seconds, still in the bent position, I awkwardly raised my eyes to focus on the fully-filled vase of flowers stuck in the clutch of my right hand. Despite the mad dash, I tried desperately hard not to disrupt the balance of water keeping the tulips alive. Of course this meant occasionally swinging my coffee mug hand over to steady it when the levels shifted and the sloshing mounted to a near overflow.

I had to have looked ridiculous.

And this scene only escalated when I added a large Diet Coke from Speedway and a six-pack of Classic Coca-Cola (a birthday treat for my friend, C). Once again, I didn't have time make two trips from my car, so of course, I managed to carry it all in at once. Each new item inspiring a more dramatic hunchback, more spillage of tulip water, and more opportunities for me to drop absolutely everything.

But even more, it gave the rain a greater opportunity to wet the largest square footage of hair it could possibly wet; the same hair I so desperately wanted to dry. Oh, the irony.

I wish it would have been this funny at 7:40 this morning.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Gratitude




"You need a gratitude journal," I said, and then I pulled a cup of warm coffee to my lips, paused long enough to inhale its thick, deep fumes, and tilted the edge of the cup toward my mouth.

My friend simpered as she sipped her latte, gazing up at me with two scrunched eyes that very clearly uttered huh?

"It's this journal that you keep by your bed. Before you fall asleep, you write in it. No matter how bad your day seems, you have to be thankful for something. That's what you write down," I said, squaring her eyes directly for moments at a time, occasionally lightening the delivery with sips of coffee, and glances toward an imaginary spot nestled deep inside the tiles of the floor.

Her lips squeezed a bit at the thought, fighting to press back a smile, waiting me out in an effort to determine whether or not I was actually serious.

I proceeded as if I didn't notice.

"You might repeat a lot of them over and over, but when you look back, you'll find an incredible list of positives. I was pretty bummed out when I did it the last time. I almost quit my job, moved across the country and abandoned everyone in my life. I started writing in that journal and well... it might sound stupid, but it helped."

She watched me a few minutes longer, then she shrugged. "I'll try it," she promised, swirling her cup as she spoke.

We rounded out our coffee date with details, updates about the previous few weeks, predictions about the ones still to come. When our sipping cups were dry, we left. And I forgot all about the gratitude journal. I forgot about our chat, about my idea, about my insistence that positive energy had the ability to squash sadness.

I forgot about it until tonight.

Tonight, as I drove home from a family dinner, I reflected. My voice, tinged with bitterness, felt foreign and cruel. And the grouch who showed up dressed in my clothes sent waves of remorse through my conscience. I shouldn't have let it get to me--I should not have let the weight of things I can't control press down on my shoulders so hard I lose sight of who I am. I should not have, but I did.

And as I meandered through neighborhood streets, making my way home, I remembered the gratitude journal. I remembered its lined pages, and the words too heavy for them to hold. I remembered how it felt to sit and grip its smooth cover, straining to extract each day's simplicities, thankful to record them all. And each night, as I wrote the date at the top, I remembered gazing back at what came before, and wondering what might come next. And for those few moments, propped up on the shoulders of optimism, I felt buoyant, bobbing on a sanguine sea wide-open and ready to be conquered.

Tonight, when I got home, I walked to my room and found the journal, stuffed beneath memorabilia in the bottom of a box. As I flipped through the pages, I remembered that girl. I remembered those nights. And I remembered how desperately I would have wanted to trade places with the girl I am now.

And so I started to write.

I'm grateful for my husband, for finding the "reliable, spontaneous, fun, funny, thoughtful, caring, integrity-filled, compassionate, dreamer, ambitious, honest, selfless" sort of love I said I wanted to be thankful for when I wrote in my journal on March 8, 2008 at 12:55 a.m.

I am grateful for my family. For their love, their support and their concern. For the fact they don't turn their backs on me when I'm grouchy and grumpy and sad.

I am grateful for my coworkers. Each day--despite the difficulties that plague us--I am reminded of their brilliance, their compassion and their dire determination to make a difference in the lives of kids.

I am grateful for my friends, scattered across the city, across the country and some, across the world. I am rich with the joy they have given me, and I am better because they have helped to shape my life.

I am grateful for those who came before me. Those who stood up, spoke up and squared up. Those who fought to make things better. Those who gave me a voice.

I am grateful for....

Mid-keystroke, I turned to the old journal beside me. I longed for another dance upon her pages. I longed to feel her strength in my fingers, and to fill her lines with my hopes. I longed to remember how lucky I am and I longed to trust in the luck that is yet to come.

And because of how deeply I longed, she will get the rest of my words tonight.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Getting on with it...

"Pick yourself up."

Those three words rang through my ears over and over as a child. Each time I wobbled off my bike, tripped over my footwork, or pitched the ball down the gut of the plate, one of my parents would invariably pat my back, guide me into position, and direct me to pick up my head and get on with it.

And I always did.

I survived each scrape, each heartbreak, each injury, each haunting replay zapping like a lightening storm in my mind.

And once I got going--once I took that first step--getting on with it didn't seem so hard. My muscles didn't feel as tight, my joints didn't feel as achey, and my ego always found something else to cling to for an extra nudge of support.

I never seem to remember any of that though when my feet approach thresholds. I never seem to recall my potential for resilience or the probability that I will emerge in a better place. Instead, when I find myself toeing up against a wall--thick, opaque and monstrous--I seem to bow my head, sink my eyes and feel sorry for myself.

At some point, however, I find whatever gumption it takes to lift my leg--sometimes forward, sometimes sideways, sometimes higher up. And I breathe. And I trust. And I push. And I try to pick myself up, wipe off the dirt and get on with it.

And so it was last night when I toed up against a wall of failure, when I read the rejection email for the twenty-ninth time, and wondered if my goal to become a writer was nothing more than a pipe-dream wrought with glitter and glue and naivety. When I wondered if I missed my opportunity long ago when I twirled circles in a city filled with important, powerful people.

But then I stopped.

I silenced that voice and I wrote.

And for that first private minute--just me and the screen--I felt alive again.

I don't need an acceptance letter to make me a writer. I don't need a phone call or an email or a book deal to tell me who I am. I just need to sit for a few moments and let my fingers knit something fantastic with the yarn in my brain. I just need to reach down into my throat, and pull out every strand of cotton choking out my voice. I need to realize that rejection is part of a game I'm only beginning.

And then, I need to believe I'm important enough to pick up, so I can get on with it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Rediscovering Respect


My computer sat, perched on top of my counter, alone, for an entire week. I looked at her occasionally, wondering if pressing her buttons would resolve the ache in my gut. I decided to let her hover alone.

I didn't feel like writing. I didn't feel like letting go of my short story rejection letter, or our two failed condo contract prospects, or the house we lost and can't seem to replace.

And I certainly didn't feel like tackling Rush Limbaugh's effort to label Sandra Fluke a slut simply because she advocated for women's health coverage, or Glenn Grothman's mission to label single parenthood as child abuse, or Rick Santorum's assertion that "we are seeing the fabric of our country falling apart because of single moms."

I have opinions--strong ones--but I was stunned, speechless, disoriented by my realization that the decade currently cradling me in its weak, feeble arms, is one that doesn't actually boast much progress beyond the misogynistic views women have fought so hard to dispel for the last one-hundred years.

Of course I take solace in the fact that not everyone feels this way. My husband doesn't. My family doesn't. Most of the people around me don't. But the people who do are not a small population of dissenters, like I once believed. After all, when those who have been in office, are in office now, or are currently running for office all make public statements that seem to be generally offensive, it leads me to believe they are not alone. They represent a lot of people.

This scares me--quite a bit.

I know the economy is important, but right now, I care more about the issues politicians are trying to toss aside. All of these issues are entangled, and even if they are not important to the men speaking about them, they are important to me. I cannot look beyond the acidic rhetoric and the damaging subtext. I cannot look beyond the progress women have fought to foster for so many years. I cannot wrap my arms around how any of this can be okay.

I know we are desperate and looking for people to blame, but this is absurd. The last time I checked, women do not choose to have intense menstrual cramps, they are not wholly responsible for conception, and they are not flawed, monstrous beings because they are the responsible individuals who stay to raise the children fathers leave behind.

We have problems, yes. We have trends, yes. We have strong beliefs, yes. But it is not okay to wage unsubstantiated attacks on women and tuck those attacks under the safe haven of "preserving religious freedom," or say that statistics support the notion that single moms are to blame for the "ruination" of our country.

Let's stop pointing fingers. Let's stop looking for someone to blame, and let's look for some way to fix what's wrong. Let's get serious about welfare reform. Let's change it; let's make people accountable. Let's find jobs. Let's clean up the streets. Let's stop making it more lucrative to collect welfare checks than it is to earn minimum wage. Let's stop ignoring the fact that poverty (which also includes hunger and issues of safety)--more than tests, more than teachers, more than anything--impacts a child's ability to learn and to succeed in school. Let's figure out how to make a "real" paycheck more attractive than drug trafficking. Let's reincarnate the notion of "the village" and remove the litigation that prevents that village from doing its part to "raise its kids." Let's re-instill manners, and responsibility, and self-discipline, and ethics. Let's empower people to empower themselves.

But more than anything, let's stop finding scapegoats. Let's stop pointing fingers. Let's stop puncturing one another with sharp, vicious swords. Instead, let's work together to stand on top of these rocks, gaze out into this rough, beautiful ocean of life, and find a way to rediscover respect.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Boy Who Walked Backwards...



Yesterday, barely visible through the wet fog, I caught him out of the corner of my eye. A brownish-gray coat hung to his small waist, while worn blue jeans striped his legs. All around him, other kids skirted to the bus, stiffened legs moving at triple time, miniature backpacks bouncing behind them.

He paid them no attention, moving backwards as if in slow motion. Tilting his head one way, and then another--but not in the way people tilt their heads when they're trying to keep rhythm. He tilted his head the way we do when our eyes are wide open and they see something brilliant.

I paused at the stop sign to observe him. His arms swayed like a monkey and he walked on his tip toes, weaving from one side to another with the carefree nature of a one-year old who just learned how to walk.

I sat for only a minute or so. Headlights blinked in my rearview mirror and the glare of iridescent bulbs jolted me. And so I pressed the gas and left him.

Smiling.

An uncontrollable grin crept from the base of my face. The kind of grin which tends to manifest when joy pries open your lips and hops onto your tongue and plunges into your body with the same commitment as an adventurous kid approaching a zipline.

I wish so badly I could have bottled up that joy. I wish so badly I could have captured that kid's curiosity and carefree meandering. I wish I could have dove inside his six-year old brain and saw the world through his sweet, imaginative eyes. But mostly, I wish I could have encouraged him to hold on to his simple joy, and to continue wandering outside the lines.

Since I couldn't, he inspired me to dust off the cobwebs, to claw my way to that spirit nestled deep inside me. To find the little girl who used to wander aimlessly against the grain, tripping over raised edges, shaking her hands with reckless abandon, lost inside her own imaginative fantasies that played upon the reel of real life.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

As Soon As We Get Past This...

"Life is just a series of just as soon as I get past this or thats," my friend's mom said in casual conversation.

Seemingly simple.

But it got me thinking.

A quick scan of the last twenty some years produced a montage of moments--

Moving in 4th grade
The death of both grandfathers
A year-long mystery illness in 6th grade
Frog dissections in 7th grade--heck, middle school as a whole
9 years of conditioning sprints
11 years of projects and exams
Applying to college
Waiting for graduation
Overcoming injuries, surgeries, and physical therapy
Enduring heartbreak
Interviewing for my first real job
Moving to New York City
Surviving September 11, then looking for job back home
Choosing to leave NYC and readjusting to life in Ohio
Overcoming Dengue Fever
Recovering from a car accident
Training for a marathon
Recovering from more injuries
Applying to grad schools
Moving to Cleveland to go to grad school
Experiencing loneliness and fly infestation in my apartment building
Racking up more loans, more heartbreak, and hours without sleep
Getting through my first few years of teaching
Adding car payments to my budget
Getting over my grandmother's death
Experiencing more heartbreak, more injuries, and another surgery
Enduring more disappointments, more loneliness, and a super long power outage
Getting past the beginning stage of a relationship so I could figure out if it was going to last
Wanting to be engaged
Planning a wedding
Surviving our first year of marriage in a 740 square foot condo
Trying to sell our condo and coming up with a down payment for a house...

I stopped.

Wanting pain to end, waiting for life to begin, figuring out how to handle each new bend in my road.

Sure, every situation struck me acutely in the moment it attacked. Digging, twisting, wrenching me to worry and fear and wish. At each peak, my challenges/worries each assumed a post as gatekeeper, holding me back from the life I waited my whole life to embrace, a life I imagined others were experiencing, a life I wanted so desperately to get.

Laura, once you get beyond this, I told myself, you will see the beacon of light, you will tap your toes on your very own yellow brick road where the air will reek of greener grass, and the skies will be occupied by chirpier birds, and every empty inch of your heart will be flooded with love. Don't stop believin', my little inner voice told me, because if you hang in there--if you keep pursuing the happiness you learned was yours when you memorized the preamble in 8th grade--you will eventually find it. Just you wait...

Until what? Until I reach the next level? Until I kill all of the monsters and collect all of the coins? Until I find more obstacles, more difficulties, more dreams, more goals, more challenges, more life? More chances to ignore the beauty of the life that holds me? Or the opportunities to be thankful for how lucky I am? More wishing past something I will eventually yearn to have back when I find myself short on heartbeats and low on breath?

Of course I look forward to the day when J and I have a fire to cuddle beside, when we don't have to clean our house every morning and pretend like no one lives here. When we can put off dusting and vacuuming one more day so we can watch our baby giggle and play catch with our dog. When we can have space for family and friends to stay with us, and a place to go outside and grill.

But...

My friend's mom is right. I should also be thankful for today. For fewer square feet to clean. For the thirty-some bars and restaurants within blocks of our front door. For Saturday and Sunday mornings when we can sleep as late as we want, when we can go out to dinner without hiring a babysitter, when we can travel to visit family without worrying about a pet, or packing a baby bag, or hoping our child won't burst into tears on the airplane.

Never again will we be in this space in our lives. Never again will we have so much freedom, so much promise, so much life to live--so we need to make sure we enjoy the freedom we have. We need to live each space in our lives--joyful and difficult. We need to stop dreading weather reports, grunting over repair bills or complaining about not having enough space. We need to be happy for the space we do have. We need to find the good lacing each challenge, the opportunities that peek through the cracks of each struggle. We need to be happy for what each gatekeeper teaches us, without focusing our eyes on the mythical road that rests beyond the reach of his trident.

My friend's mom is right. Life is a series of as soon as we get past this'es. And so today, I took a little peek around our condo, and filed its details deeply into my memory. That way, when J and I sit down with our grandkids, we will be able to adequately tell them about the incredible year we spent in the Short North--and every bit of it will be true.

Then, I laughed at previous traumas and played out what came next. I saw where I grew strong, where I became wiser, where I should have paused and enjoyed every single heart beat of anticipation, or quelled any unnecessary fear. I realized that I have the power to triumph over any challenge I face, but that power must be renewed every single time I take a breath. It's me who must define my attitude, and it's me who must embrace my life.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I Will Always Love You


Her name occupied the space at the top of a Taboo card last night; this morning, Alexandra sent me a text message informing me that she was gone.

I've seen a few posts here and there on Facebook--mostly from women my age. The smattering has been surprisingly minimal. Considering everything else garnering attention on social media, her virtual absence makes me sad.

Of course she fell from grace--like so many other people who have become larger than the life they could live--but haven't we come to expect that? Haven't come to expect that no one is ever as fantastic as we secretly dream they are?

I remember seeing her with Bobby Brown and wondering why someone so pretty and pure and talented would ever pick him. I remember hearing about the cocaine habits, the police reports, and the abuse--but by then, Hollywood's many facades had already made me jaded. By then, I stopped aiming to become like those I proclaimed to admire.

Instead of wallowing in disappointment, I wallowed in my memories. Instead of expecting my heroes to be more than their talent, I appreciated their gifts. Instead of listening to media gossip, I listened to their music, to their speeches, to their talents.

She, like many others--Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and President John F. Kennedy--all at one point took residence on a pedestal in my heart. Then, one by one, their indiscretions poked holes in my innocence, sending each of them tumbling to the floor. Even though their personal behavior saddened me, at one point, I still admired them. I still wanted to dance like The King of Pop, play hoops like Air Jordan, and speak commandingly like JFK.

And in my room, as I twirled atop green carpeting and bathed myself with the sunshine blazing through my window, I wanted to be as beautiful, as bold, and as earth-shattering as Whitney Houston. I wanted my lungs to explode with authority, my curls to bounce wildly with every step, and my shoulders to tilt with the same convincing confidence Whitney exuded from the cover of my favorite album.

I remember sneaking into my mother's cassette collection and stealing Whitney. I remember sealing my door, repositioning my mirror and cuing up her voice.

Clock strikes upon the hour
And the sun begins to fade
Still enough time to figure out
How to chase my blues away
I've done alright up till now
It's the light of day that shows me how
And when the night falls the loneliness calls.

Without looking deeper into her words, without recognizing what that loneliness might do to her, I leaned forward into my mirror, rocked my shoulders, pumping them a little before marching in a circle and spinning back around. Throwing my arms out toward the mirror, I focused my eyes on the sea of adoring fans resting just beyond the glass.

Oh! I wanna dance with somebody
I wanna feel the heat with somebody
Yeah I wanna dance with somebody
With somebody who loves me

...Don't cha wanna dance say ya wanna dance don't cha wanna dance?
Don't cha wanna dance say ya wanna dance--uh ha...
with somebody who loooooves you...ohhhhh!
Ohhh!

Then, I collected myself. Cuing up "How Will I Know." I set my feet in position. I gazed down at my toes. And I inhaled and began again.

The song didn't matter--I loved them all. Her voice lit fire under my feet, and because of that, it was always about the choreography.

I knew my limitations. I knew I couldn't sing, but with Whitney drowning me out in the background, no one--not even the people in the mirror or Monk, the stuffed monkey on my bed, could hear my disastrous pitches.

And so I danced and belted and pulled back my shoulders. I popped my hips and marched around the room. I jumped on top of my bed, and pulled my hairbrush up to my lips, rocking out to Whitney Houston with every ounce of energy residing in my soul.

For several years of my young life, Whitney Houston was a goddess.

And sadly, just like the Gods and Goddesses who spanned the pages of Greek and Roman mythology, she thought she was immortal; she thought she could live forever indulging in the life she wanted to live. Unlike the gods and goddesses who assumed the spotlight in ancient texts though, Whitney eventually hit her limit.

I thought she learned her lesson before it was too late--at least that's what it seemed like on Oprah. But she was human after all. When she set down her microphone, when she took off her gown, when she let down her tussles of hair--she was just a woman. Full of pain and fear and insecurity. Imperfect, lonely and real.

But no matter her flaws, she could sing. She could command the room with her beautiful face, and she could incite goosebumps with her electrifying voice. She was the first strong, bold and confident woman I remember ever seeing on stage. And her cassette tapes inspired some of the most treasured moments of my childhood.

And so, Whitney, it doesn't matter to me why you died, or how you lived. No, I am just thankful for what you gave. For what you started. For what you helped me create. And because of all of that, I will always love you.

Rest in Peace, Whitney Houston.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Quite Nice

http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/photos/photos.htm

I have to admit something.

Yesterday morning when I crept to my car, I actually enjoyed seeing snow--white tipped trees, fluff on the sidewalk grass, crystalized formations on my windshield.

As much as I've traditionally despised winter--as much as I usually complain about it and curse it--I'm conditioned to expect it, to tolerate it even. I'm conditioned to find my own sense of brightness beneath dreary, gray skies. I'm conditioned to hide my silhouette inside bulky sweaters, and tuck my toes inside thick, warm boots. Heck, I'm conditioned to complain about blahness and coldness and misplacing my mittens.

But this year, I haven't been able to do any of that. This year, I've spent my time waiting. Waiting for the inevitable explosion of white ice. Waiting for the gruesome gust of coldness. Waiting for the 60 degree days and the sunshine skies to shatter and break like glass across the earth's harsh floor.

Waiting.

And missing out on the sharp brilliance of the present. A present I would have appreciated a thousand times more if I stopped to consider the possibility that once the very thing I have been dreading arrived, it would actually be quite nice.

Monday, February 06, 2012

War on Women

I really try to keep my blog fairly apolitical.

Try as I might to avoid politics, I realize it's inevitable that some of my beliefs will seep into my writing. It's inevitable because sometimes--like on nights like tonight--those beliefs literally set my fingers on fire.

When I sat to write today's entry, I made a valiant effort to hopscotch down a few paths. All of those attempts either resulted in a blinking cursor or a tangent related to the recent legislation President Obama supported.

And so tonight, politics it will be. Please know that I realize this is a horrendously dangerous topic to tackle, and I am sorry if I offend you. If you don't share my political beliefs, I beg you to please stop reading now. I beg you to forgive my brief indulgence. I beg you to return tomorrow when I will tackle something far less divisive. For now though, my brain is in desperate need of venting.

On Sundays, when J has to work through the morning lineup of political talk shows, we DVR them so we can watch them together. He was on all weekend, so our dinner tonight happened to be serenaded by the blatherings of David Gregory and Fareed Zakaria, complete with interviews and round table discussions with Newt Gingrich, Michael Bloomberg, Mitch Daniels, Deval Patrick, Xavier Becerra, Rachel Maddow, David Brooks, Alex Castellanos and David Remnik.

As you can imagine, the discussions were red hot.

Before I dive into my venting, I'd like to preface my entry by saying that I appreciate hearing arguments even if I disagree with them. I love how they make me think and I love the bickering and debating which invariably manifests from tossing strong-willed, fairly articulate and fundamentally different people into the same conversation.

Not only do I love it, J loves it too, and we love it even more when we get to watch it together. In fact, we live for our Sunday morning vacation from chores or work, because it gives us the chance to solidify what we think, to challenge what we previously believed, or to consider issues for which we have absolutely no opinion. And I especially love when J pauses the show, when we fill our quiet condo with talk about the absurdity or the brilliance of the words we are hearing.

Tonight, when they talked about the war on religion President Obama waged when he demanded that insurance plans cover contraception, I tried to maintain an open mind, but I felt my internal thermostat continue to rise. My cheeks flushed, my stomach churned, my palms filled with puddles of sweat.

"You're scaring me," J said as he watched me curl my legs beneath my butt, and nervously swap one fingernail for another, chewing like a deranged drug addict.

"I can't believe what they're saying. I am teaching the civil rights movement right now. I'm discussing inequality in class, and I'm listening to an educated person tonight--a person whose words, if reapplied, could conceivably appear on the history pages we are reading."

"I know," he said back to me, staring with the same disbelief.

"I had to pay $80 for birth control when I was in grad school. After college, when I stopped playing competitive sports, my body waged war on me. I was in tremendous pain one week, every single month. When my doctor prescribed birth control, she changed my life. I could function; I felt human. If some of these men who see birth control as a war on religion actually felt what some women feel each month, this would not be an issue. I wasn't preventing birth when I was working 18 hours a day to become a teacher. I was spending $80 a month just so I could get out of bed and function in my job. It was absurd for me to spend that much money, but I went to a small college who took part in a graduate school insurance consortium, and no matter who I complained to, they wouldn't cover it. Viagra--yes. Birth control--no."

J nodded his head.

"They are waging a war on women!"

Breathe.

"I understand that the Catholic church does not believe in birth control. I understand that the Catholic church has firm standards and rigid rules. I understand all of this because I am Catholic. And I don't believe the actual church should have to pay for a policy that funds something they bitterly oppose.

BUT...

The actual church does not have to follow these laws. The affiliated businesses, on the other hand, should. I recognize Catholic organizations provide charity, but so do a lot of secular businesses and those businesses are not exempt from following laws for which they disagree.

Breathe again.

"And I can't believe Newt Gingrich is leading the charge on this. What about the the affairs he's pursued or the adultery he's committed or the wives he hasn't stayed with when they were sick? His decisions have been anything but Christian exemplars. And now, he asserts a pious position?! A war on religion? In a secular society?

We finally have legislation that takes women's health into consideration and it's being twisted into a war on religion. I wonder what the bishops he is quoting have to say about his lifestyle. You have got to be kidding me."

J sat nodding, listening.

"A lot of people agree with him," he said.

I strained for air. I tried to imagine how. I really did. But I couldn't.

When I heard the NPR story declaring that women would get their birth control covered by insurance, I actually squealed. I sat up higher in the driver's seat. I felt like my nation was moving forward. The economy might still be rotten, some of our minorities are still facing discrimination, and poverty is out of control, but this....this gave me a light of hope.

This made me believe I mattered. This made me believe that the fight I started fighting in grad school mattered. The letters I wrote, the "managers" I spoke to, the people who had to listen to me complain about the injustice of their prescription coverage--they were all in the past. And this was the future, a future where women--no matter where they happen to work--would have the right to the drugs they need (yes, it is hard to find jobs these days so healthcare workers in Catholic hospitals or teachers in Catholic schools might have to work there even if they aren't religious).

Yep, silly, naive ole me thought that maybe, just maybe, we finally reached the point where women no longer had to feel dirty when they picked up their prescription, or had to deal with doubts when they mailed doctors notes to complaint departments, or worse yet--had to make the horrible choice between food and pain.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Out of Nowhere...

"My wife told me April was going to be horrible," he yelled as I shuffled down the sidewalk. I had thirty seconds until boot camp, and I didn't realize anyone was outside. Jarred, I turned to identify the voice, and I found a man in his late 60s, walking briskly, 50 paces behind me.

"I'm sorry?" I asked, pausing for a minute as I readjusted my yoga mat and water bottle.

His salt and pepper hair glistened with sweat and his ruddy, round cheeks glowed like a vibrant sunrise. My question provoked a smile and he happily jumped on the opportunity to elaborate.

"My wife has a negative view," he began, swinging his arms back and forth in perfect coordinated rhythm, as he jetted toward my spot on the sidewalk. "She thinks the nice weather will bite us in the ass in April," he continued, nearly matching my position foot-for-foot.

I smiled, slightly amused, slightly concerned about being late.

"Not me," he bellowed, raising his volume and lowering his register four or five notches, clearly commanding a masculine authority of sorts.

"I'm not living in April. I'm living for today, and today is absolutely spectacular," he concluded, raising his eyes like a small child following the trail of a kite.

"You're right," I offered with a half-cocked smile. "Sunny, 60 degree days in February are rare and we need to enjoy them without worrying about April," I stammered out. He met my declaration with a nod and an infectious, full-bellied smile, and then he walked right past me.

I haven't been able to extract him from my mind, attempting to figure out which corner produced his presence on what seemed like an otherwise empty street. Or what inspired him to call out to a perfect stranger, 50 feet in front of him.

Then I traced back through my day. Despite the fact I walked outside this morning without mittens and a scarf, I never stopped to acknowledge the warm breeze. Despite the fact I didn't have to scrape or heat up my car, I never appreciated the fact I could open the door, sit in my seat, and begin to drive without laboring over thick slats of ice or waiting for my windows to defrost. And despite the fact I even removed my coat before I entered my vehicle, I never felt the inner tickle to burst into song, belting "The hills are alive with the sound of music," across urban Columbus; instead, I plopped onto the seat, tuned into NPR, watched out for pedestrians, and engaged in a series of mindless right and left turns en route to school.

But it was an absolutely gorgeous morning now that I think about it. And that absolutely gorgeous morning continued throughout the day. Once I got to school, I spent my early hours coaching a student on his poetry performance--something I absolutely love to do. I spent my morning classes reading funny material that inspired a few laughs and certainly more engagement than the previous two activities, and one of my afternoon classes was interrupted by a student who wanted to thank me for my help on her college essay. "I got into the scholar's program," she explained and then she reached out to hug me.

From start to finish, I had so many things to rev up my engine and make me sing, yet I never stopped long enough to relish the good. Instead, I found myself overwhelmed with concern about the bad.

But then, some 60 year old guy came out of nowhere. Some 60 some year old guy tossed around a few silly words about the weather, and consequently jostled my thoughts about the delicate workings of my internal Doppler Radar. Instead of appreciating the temperature, the young poet, the kids who enjoyed my reading selections, the students who were engaged in their afternoon writing assignments, the 83 year-old partner Laura found for one of my students, or the twelfth grader who took time to come thank me for my help, I directed all of my energy on the few who were off task, on the a few who needed a bit more focus.

As I trudged into boot camp, my steps were stopped by a man who asked me to pay attention. Who asked me to take notice of a 60 degree day. Who invited me to feel the sun above me, to allow the luke-warm air to lift me in his arms, and to realize how many blessings we can see if we could just take a moment to gaze beyond our cynicism.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bad Day

The air stinks of defensive dialogue.

The stench isn't new; for some time now, tension and criticism--both constructive and destructive--have been acquiring their armies, building with each passing day. I've felt it in pockets, here and there, but lately, it feels like its getting heavier. It feels thick and pungent like smoke.

Fear feasts on our toes, impeding our steps with each nagging nibble. Comments carry unintended connotations, questions inspire angst.

Today, when I finally got ahold of someone at the senior center, defensiveness seeped through the phone. Leaking from the mouth of a perfect stranger--a woman I thought would appreciate my call--it gushed directly into my ears.

"Many people don't understand what happens here," she said curtly. "They think the seniors sit around and visit all day long. In reality, they are scheduled for events throughout the day. This is not residential, so when they're here, they are taking yoga, or strength training, for instance. They are busy. If you have students come over during the school day, those seniors are going to be annoyed."

She paused.

"If you want to send them over at lunch to wander around and see if they can find someone to talk to, then I suppose it might work, but we're only free from 11:30-12:30, so it would have to be during that time."

She left no room for discussion.

"I promise I won't send students over during the school day. I wasn't planning to do that," I tried to assure her. "I think it's great there are so many activities. I was just wondering if you had any leads. I have three students who can't find partners for their project, and I would just like to pair them up with someone who is over 70 years old. Unfortunately, I don't have anyone to match them up with. I was hoping you might have a lead for names of people who might be interested. Then the students can work with the senior to pick a time that works," I explained, a bit flustered by what seemed to be a passive aggressive suggestion that I was under-estimating what the senior center had to offer.

"I think you probably should call a retirement home for that," she instructed me and then she proceeded to list off a dozen different establishments. Returning again to her speech about how busy the seniors were with activities and how little idle time they had, she went on to assure me the nursing home residents were much more sedentary.

Slightly bothered by her unwillingness to help, given the fact that I'm sure there must have been dozens of 70 year old seniors who would have loved to tell their story to a high school student, I remained seated in an agitated state for several long moments.

Then, attempting to follow Atticus Finch's advice, I put myself in her shoes. I put myself in the position of an over-worked person who has budget restrictions, funding threats, and a public perception to manage.

As I sat in her shoes, I realized they weren't much different than my own. Beneath her edgy voice, I recognized fear, a need for validation. And I realized that she, like me, probably has piles of expectations, and gallons of fear.

Her defensiveness was simply survival.

As my day went on, I felt the same emotions well inside me. My students told me they wanted a more creative assignment, so I restructured everything so I could deliver one. I worked hard to teach them tricks of the descriptive trade. I opened up boundaries; I gave them choice.

Some of them seemed excited, but still, the same few who fail to grow excited about anything slouched in their seats and sighed. Their slouches jabbed at my fear, at my defensiveness. Their slouches make me tremble a bit.

I am fully responsible for engaging all of them, for pushing all of them to their potential; if I don't, their failure is mine.

Now, not only is that my personal motto, my personal goal, my muse for rising out of bed in the morning, and staying up late into the night, it is the law.

I work really hard; I tear open my heart and give it to my kids. I don't rely on packaged lessons or pull out binders laden with neatly organized lecture notes. I answer emails from kids late into the night. I give up every free minute I have if a kid needs help. I listen to their fears, to their joys, to their "totally random" stories. I give them practice interviews, I write letters of recommendation, I read their personal writing, I help them with college essays, I volunteer to support their causes.

While no one ever reaches a state of perfection, and each day offers opportunities to grow, just like 99% of the teachers I know, I can say that there are very few minutes each day when I am not doing the very best I can. There are few minutes in the day when I am not thinking about students and what will help them become better people.

But I worry sometimes. I worry in meetings, I worry when I hear the news, I worry when I try and try and try and I still cannot get certain kids excited about school work. I know that is my job, and it is certainly something I strive for, but sometimes it feels like I'm the enemy.

How many adults get excited about going to work? How many adults enthusiastically chose to create spreadsheets instead of hanging out with their family, playing games, watching TV or going out to dinner? How many jump with glee when they must stay up late into the night or work over the weekend on something major and unfamiliar and worth a lot of points?

I'm lucky, because I do. I'm lucky because most of my day is rewarding. Most of my day fills me with purpose. Most of my day is spent in worthy cause. I wouldn't stay if it didn't. But sometimes I have to do things I don't agree with or things I don't like. Sometimes I have to do things that don't engage me or interest me or make me believe in something important.

And sometimes when I'm knee-deep in all of those things, and I still hear that it isn't enough, I feel the gurgle, the bubble, the rising stench of defensiveness eroding the walls within me. And it makes me curl up my nose, clutch my stomach and dig deep to figure out how I can be better. How I can smile when all I want to do is cry.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Ragging on Radio


"Fireside Chat"
http://www.trekearth.com/gallery



I'm in Italy right about now.

Two classes of students are smack dab in the middle of a memoir unit, and I'm nose deep in love. Monday morning ushered in a Stephen King interview, and I thought my students would love it--the gruesome details of his accident, how the person driving the van seemed eerily similar to a character from one of his novels, and what the book itself means to him. The only reason I wasn't fully submerged in love was because I had to keep my eyes above the surface. If I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to see their reaction.

After providing a bit of background information, I pranced over to the speaker. Sadly, this prancing was met with sighs and slumps and "radio interview?"

"Just give it a chance I promised them...it's really good."

I lost nearly all credibility.

A few indulged me, and I actually believe they liked it. Most, however, seemed totally bored by the slow, steady voice, the lack of visual images, the rhythm of oral story-telling. To be perfectly blunt, the notion of a radio seemed as uninteresting to them as a Game Boy would. In their life, any sort of audio streams through earphones, and that audio has already been carefully sifted and selected. There's no fast forwarding through songs they don't like or listening to commercials or having to wait to hear whole interviews. Their life consists of their favorite songs--commercial free--and sound bites updating them on juicy details. It seems crazy to imagine anyone would actually sit and listen to an interview when you could search for the important parts later.

None of this occurred to me until I watched them suffer through every single syllable. I thought sharing this interview could help them conduct their own. I thought the story telling might entice them. I thought that maybe I could convince them there was some value in patiently listening to a radio show. But unless it was the Monday morning blahs, I'm pretty sure I thought wrong. By the looks on their faces, I'm pretty sure most of them disliked every minute, and I'm pretty sure that brief exposure to NPR resulted in 46 fewer potential listeners.

When school ended, when boot camp came to a close, and when my evening errands all fell off the list, I reflected on my interview. I know it won't be a good idea for next year, but it was a good idea for me tonight.

As King's words dwindled to nothing, I decided to go back to Italy. I decided to think about my memoir, to drink my water of life. To plan the steps I need to take to carve out the time I need to edit and to submit my work.

With such plans, came images of a fire, a radio, and a tiny little notepad. And for one brief moment, I thought that perhaps I understood why FDR's sea of Americans gathered around and waited, and listened, and imagined. And in the next moment, with the streetlight blazing beside me, I pried open my computer and began to chat.



Sunday, January 29, 2012

Drink and be Filled up



I've lived under a rather dense pile of heavy, air-tight dirt for the last seven days. It's the kind of dirt that clumps inside your mouth, presses on your shoulders, and inspires you to dive head first into second base, beating--of course--with the potential of rounding third and heading home.

Adolescent performers shuddered a bit as they trudged to the front of the room, breath all out of whack until they pulled it in, focused their energy and delivered magic from the tips of their toes and the ridges of their tongue. As a judge, I sat and listened to them. I watched their nervous antics, I witnessed transformations, I observed a few tragic collapses.

Words pelted my skin like rapid fire and inspiration bled like an open wound. I wanted so badly to soak it up, but in the end, time didn't allow for any sort of manifestation. Instead, I replayed poems in my mind, and I looked a few up on the computer. Then I gazed up at a clock that informed me it was time to get to work.

I wiped stainless faucets with rubbing alcohol, I scrubbed an already clean toilet and then I dusted books on my bookshelf. My fingers tingled a bit as I pressed them back and then forward, wiping away particles that clung to the bindings with determination. As my fingers pulled those particles away, they gloated a bit over their victory, over the moments they knew they'd one day get to press their pads on the pages and open worlds of magic.

Those books made me want to write. Those books made me want to create something that moved people as much as so many of those precious papers moved me. I wanted to pour, to explode, to wander, to dive back inside my ideas and press them into reality.

The clock told me it was time to do school work. And I walked to my bag and pulled out the materials.

Marlene, one of my team members, reserved Fresh Air recordings from the library and Stephen King was one of the interviewees. I plugged him into my laptop and listened. He read from On Writing in the interview. I wanted to read the story for myself and so I walked back to the shelves. Stephen King peered up at me from his rightful spot, nestled tightly between Maxine Hong Kingston and John Knowles.

I've had that book on my self for a few years, but I have only read the back. I meant to dive inside it--in fact, I have wanted to devour it since I knew it existed--but I let life get in the way. I let the dust grip it as tightly as I would have gripped it had I opened my fingers and freed the words.

I lost myself in the couch cushions as Stephen King wrenched open his skull, and sliced open his heart, telling me why he writes, how he writes, and why I need to get reacquainted with my computer. Suddenly, time didn't matter so much.

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book--perhaps too much--has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it--and perhaps the best of it--is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up" (King 269-270).

I will.