Thursday, March 15, 2012


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


"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.