A Place Between Two Birds

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As I sit here looking at the two blue  porcelain birds quietly sitting next to our black mesh-wire candle holder, holding a vanilla candle, I stop to contemplate the moment, the time in between going from one lesson plan idea to the next. It was the smell of vanilla that stopped me in my mental tracks. If you don’t have a large vanilla candle or one in your own favorite scent, I might suggest purchasing one.

Mine sits on the ledge between our dining nook and our living room. And it’s literally a dining nook; dining room is much too generous, but it’s good enough. It’s a space to eat that out’s of the traffic of the comings and goings of a seven-year-old boy, who is often running from outside to in and then back again, trailing grass and tiny bits of dirt with him. Does the book, No David ring a bell to anyone? If not, it’s cool. And if so, then you can see the visual of David tromping through his house.

Anyhoo, the candle. That’s where I was. The wafting smell of a candle is what lifted me out of the focused bubble that seems to encase me when I am on the computer. After the scent arrived, I looked up to see the two birds and thought how lovely this moment is. I am always more stressed when I am teaching, and having my son Asher home for the summer adds more tension. But there are still moments of stillness that arrive where I can freeze time.

Suddenly, I can hear the lazy cars drifting by our bay window to my right. I can hear the birds chirping as they fly from one fir tree to the next. I can hear my son and his neighborhood friends screaming in the excitement of four-square, bickering over who’s out and who’s not. I can hear the sound of my husband turning off the mower and joining in the boy’s playful squabble.

All of these things are always here to take in and enjoy, no matter what else is happening. Even when I am worried about money and bills. Even when I am unsure how to stuff a semester’s worth of learning into an eight-week summer term. Even when…all the other stuff seems looming out there: the dishes, the laundry, my own personal hygiene for Christ’s sake. I haven’t even taken a shower, and it’s nearly 2:00 p.m.

In the background, beyond the candle and birds, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird sits on the faux fireplace mantle in our living room, another reference to taking things slow. A scene that seems too staged to be an accident, and yet it is.

In her book, Ms. Lamott reminds us to take things “bird by bird,” or one small step at a time, a message that arrived to me by way of a scented vanilla candle this afternoon. And suddenly, the space between two porcelain birds arrives, the one that’s been waiting for me to notice, calling me to stop, to be still, to take in what I have accomplished. To inhale.

This is Why

There is a scene in Game of Thrones, Season 5, during which a young queen climbs onto the back of her dragon. It’s complicated, and I am sure that sounds insane if you don’t watch the show or indulge in fantasy, but keep reading. I think you can relate.

So. there she is, the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys, a heroic and inspiring leader whose kingdom is infested with a strong anarchist movement; she is climbing onto the scaly back of one of her dragons to escape a band of attacking rebels. The two take flight into the air, rising higher and higher above a crowd of slack-jawed, wide-eyed onlookers, including you, the one sitting on your couch stuck to your screen. It’s one of those moments you have waited for throughout four and a half seasons of relentless bloodshed, unspeakable cruelty, demonic ice creatures, and severed hearts. But you made it here, just to watch Daenerys take flight, with those on the ground below humbled beyond belief, falling to their knees inside at the sheer beauty and wonder, at the moment of reckoning they didn’t know would come. They are filled with as much hope and belief as you are. The Mother of Dragons reigns supreme.

Life. We all live for these moments, don’t we? We wade through so much shit, trek across so many dead-end trails, climb a thousand feet just to be knocked back fifteen-hundred. And then, something clears, and it feels something like seeing the sunrise for the first time – or a brave, young woman climb up onto a dragon and leave the destructive, treasonous world beneath her.

I have had a couple of days like that this week, the day before and immediately after I watched the episode described above. Life is cool like that. Bringing us parallels and connections. My story is much less fantastical, though, obvi.

In fact, my moments were in the classroom, an ordinary room with two windows, a clock, a white board, desks, computers, and a room full of students. These students are bright, eager, and hungry to learn, not like all students I meet at my local community college. They are reaching out to engage with each other, to throw around ideas about the American Dream, poverty, and inequality like a ball of yarn between us, forming a colorful, connecting web. And they stay focused for the entire two and a half hours, too. My God Almighty.

Life is full of endless dullness and difficulty, and yes, there is beauty and wonder in the ordinary moments and in the dirty ones. Ordinary moments can contain plenty of life-affirming richness. Tough times help us reach farther into the light still burning inside.

But the shiny, bright times of our lives make the dull and difficult times completely worth it. We drop to our knees in praise and thanks that our dragon queen lives. We find ourselves thinking this is why. Why we haven’t quit our jobs despite strong temptations, why we’ve stayed committed to our spouse through relationship turmoil, why we have kept chipping away at our dreams in the face of setbacks and rejections.

Because our dragon will come, and he will save us. And in that moment, we understand why we are here, doing what we do in our small but glorious lives. We’ve been plodding along for this. This is why.

 

Close Enough

I know it sounds weird. But whatever it is requires less of you, not more. I’ve been guilty my whole life of “trying SO hard.” When I can’t get something right or figure out a solution, I am like “but I am trying SO hard at it.” Waaaa. Why can’t I get it right?

My husband, the first probable spiritual guru I ever met, was the one who shone a light on this part of myself. This was during my first year as a teacher. Days when I’d come home wound up tight like a corkscrew, stuck in a hardened coil position.

I felt so responsible for those kids, like their success depended on me, like I was the sole provider of any true writing leverage in their lives. I felt responsible for teaching every grammar rule, writing strategy, and research skill. (You could say I was either pretty narcissistic or pretty insane. Go on, you can say it.)

So, I’d end the day unable to unwind, barely taking a break from the moment I put down my briefcase to the moment my head hit the pillow. Somewhere in there, I’d eat something and laugh with my husband, but those moments felt barely existent, paper thin.

After a while of this, Eric started pointing out that I didn’t need to work so hard and that doing so even made me less of a good teacher because I was likely taking that tension into the classroom. Eventually, after several months, I began to listen. I began to let go. Get this, I even started playing God of War and Guitar Hero after dinner, for those video game geeks out there who know what the hey I am talking about.

Over time, I did become a better teacher, I am pretty sure. If nothing else, I was happier, lighter. I felt more refreshed in the morning and readier to greet the day.

Today, I came home from my first day of summer school. And it was a truly successful first day. But man, I came home feeling wiped, wondering how I am going to pull that off again on Wednesday. So I am having to remind myself of this basic truth, that for everyday, ordinary stresses – and sometimes even great big ones – there’s nothing that a little incense and some soothing music from my “Meditation” channel on Pandora can’t transform. Either that or a big glass of red wine in the evening.

From there, once I have spent a little time soaking in my new environment, letting it seep into my skin, I can remember that whatever I am supposed to accomplish for the next day, no matter how unprepared I might feel, isn’t a life or death situation. I can work less hard at trying to get it “just right,” and in doing so, I am likelier to get it right – or close enough to right. Close enough is all we really need.

 

 

Crazy-a#@ Horse

fish-resist-crazy-horse-320Every morning I wake up somewhat panicked. Now, as someone who suffers with anxiety, this isn’t necessarily all that out of the ordinary. However, ever since the election (all those months ago now), it’s gotten worse. The first thing I often do is reach for my cell phone and begin sifting through news articles, looking for the next hasty tweet or abhorrent executive order. It’s not good.

The comedian John Mulaney described our current predicament as chasing a horse in a hospital and how none of us know what the horse will do next. And the crazy thing, he continues, is that none of us know together. “We’ve never not known, together.”

This is true. We don’t know – together.

The paradox of our situation is that in the last several months, together, we have joined hands, and together, we have formed alliances to fight climate change, to stand up for the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. Together, we have felt stronger and more committed to humanity and to truth. In all honesty, I have never felt saner or more confident in my beliefs.

I grew up feeling like a misguided soul among an immediate family of staunch conservatives. I was “the one thing” in a series of others that was different, as Big Bird would say. Perhaps, I was simply uninformed, or just a bleeding heart liberal with lofty ideals. Even though my so-called ideals were based on knowledge or even downright truth, somehow that didn’t seem to matter to others. Anything “liberal” was dirty and in some cases, heretical.

The dictionary defines the word liberal as “open to new ideas and behavior; a willingness to discard traditional values.” I would take being “that one different thing” any day if it means staying open.

The astonishing fact is that we now have a horse in a hospital, in part due to so many terrified individuals who aren’t open to new ideas and behavior.

Now, there’s more to the story of this insane horse than this, of course. I just read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance in preparation for teaching part of the memoir in my composition courses. Mr. Vance offers his perspective of growing up in Appalachia, in a community of self-labeled hillbillies. He explains the circumstances which have led to so many of the white working class in that stretch of the country to feel disenfranchised. So there’s lots to understand and figure out regarding who elected a horse to run amuck inside our institutions.

Nonetheless, I can’t seem to wake up anymore without this feeling that I “need to know” what’s happening now. I can’t miss a single detail. If a horse is going to start operating, I better be prepared!

So at this point, when I can sit back and acknowledge what’s happening to me, that I am being overtaken with my own fear, my own utter lack of control, I can begin to pull in the reins. I can begin relinquishing control because in fact, I have quite little. It’s true. I just have my little life that I can preserve and protect, over which I have some sovereignty.

Therefore, I will remember to cherish and maintain my small piece of land, my extraordinarily tiny state. I will remember that I am separate from the whole, that what goes on out there doesn’t need to usurp what goes on inside me. I can give myself time to let it go, to unplug. I can choose not to let a crazy-ass horse into my own precious and sacred hospital.

Eight Reasons

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Today, my only child, Asher, is seven, and I have been having trouble with this word seven; the number seems to stick in my mouth like…I want to say like cotton candy, even though that’s not entirely sticky on the tongue. But the word sticks. I can’t get it out of my mouth without my brain misfiring

When I was seven – and going into second grade like Asher – I went to a small Christian private school, and once I reached third grade, the school became all girls. We were taught all the likely suspects: math, science, reading, French. (I know, French. Not sure why it was French exactly.) And because this school was Christian, we had chapel each Wednesday morning. God fit nicely into education through osmosis or some such organic process. I was unaware that school could be any different, as most kids are, I suppose.

Most importantly, things were spelled out for us. Life fit into boxes and was black and white. This was different than that, Big Bird told us, and that was the same as this. Sure, we watched some TV, but there was no Internet, no constant scrolling distraction. (No fake news that anyone was aware of.) The most controversy that arose was when someone’s parents divorced. Funny how that was the definition of an abnormal family.

My boy’s early school experience has been pretty different.  Since pre-school, he has attended a progressive arts-based school in a building that is LED certified, built solely with environmentally-friendly materials. The other two school buildings are an old barn and farm house. The students have singing meeting each morning just to start the day in joy and togetherness, and the entire elementary school sings happy birthday to each kid on their birthday. The school is built entirely around community in every way possible.

It’s my husband’s and my nirvana, and we wanted our only child to have at least a few years of solid nurturing in such an environment, even if it sometimes meant that paying the mortgage was a stretch.

Our son is growing up well, but despite the sanctuary of his idyllic farm school, the outside world is still getting in, particularly as Ash plays more and more with neighborhood children of various ages. The kids seem to clump together, six and seven-year-olds mixing in with eleven and twelve-year-olds. And while this is lovely, it is also not so lovely.

I struggle weekly with uncomfortable situations like kids on iPads and iPhones, exposing my son to unsavory song lyrics, dance moves, and colorful cuss words. The outside is getting in, no matter how hard we’ve tried to isolate him in a sturdy blue cocoon of love and happiness. Not to mention, Ash will be in public school next year, and this causes more worry than you can know, perhaps.

But we cannot keep the world at bay, no matter how hard we try, and this seems to be the biggest heartbreak of parenthood. “Life” just gets in. Things that are same and different don’t fit so neatly into separate boxes. As if they ever did.

Despite all of this, I know my son is coming out OK, that he has a solid foundation of gooey marshmallow love and acceptance from which to spring forward. And these are the reasons I know:

  1. He is kind to everyone and is willing to offer up his favorite Nerf gun or a giant piece of bubble gum from his birthday pinata.
  2. He says he is sorry after angry outbursts and then tries to explain why he is upset. “I am just having a bad day, mommy,” or “I am just tired.”
  3. When he does something not so good, like sharing a bad word he learned with a school friend, he is often completely unaware it was wrong, and once we explain why “the action” was wrong, he is immediately remorseful and teary-eyed.
  4. He won’t ditch a friend he has invited to the park for a different friend who shows up unexpectedly.
  5. If a friend has given him a piece of candy earlier in the day, he will tell me he has already had dessert at the end of dinner. He still asks for a second dessert (I mean, he is seven), but he believes in full disclosure.
  6. He squeezes in between his dad and me each time we kiss or hug, dropping whatever he is doing to soak up some love.
  7. He is bold, courageous, and strong-willed. All of these traits are forming an alliance inside him. He is a leader, when in the right crowd, and he doesn’t allow himself to get pushed around by older kids when he’s the youngest and smallest.
  8. He is humble.

I am pretty convinced these could be the eight necessities for any decent human. Not much else is required to be a good citizen.

Stay strong. Be a good friend. Be kind. Feel bad when you mess up. Don’t get too big for your britches. Oh, and eat blue ice cream when it’s your birthday.

Love After Love

The title for this post is borrowed from a favorite poem of mine by the late Derek Walcott in which he rightly proclaims “you will love again the stranger who was yourself.” I have experienced these moments during many seasons of my life. Eventually, if you are willing and open and sometimes super patient enough, a part of yourself just waiting to emerge or return can arrive and “…with elation/you will greet yourself arriving/at your own door, in your own mirror /and each will smile at the other’s welcome.” We can arrive a thousand times, returning to one spot or another.

The same is true of marriage. My husband and I have been a couple for 14 years and married for 9. (I had to actually do the math. It seems impossible.) The first one to two years of marriage were strikingly similar to our dating years. It was only after I got pregnant and had a child that things began to change. Or rather, one door swung abruptly shut as another flung open, kind of like an airplane door might during mid-flight.

I need to be taking a run soon, so I should move this along. Today is my husband’s 45th birthday. To some of you, that might sound ridic old, but I am telling you, it’s totally not. Just wait. You’ll see how most of us middle-aged farts, while growing more like our parents each day, are walking around surprised as hell that we have left our twenties. Wasn’t that just a few years ago? For whatever reason, the farther we go from 22, the closer it feels.

So here I am, moving on. It’s my husband’s birthday, and the night beforehand, I said some likely hurtful and confusing things to him. It happens the more complicated and stressed our lives become, the more thresholds we pass through, the more in-between meeting ourselves in the mirror and stuck inside a former or wounded self we feel. I had a father who yelled a lot, and unfortunately, part of his deeply wounded person lives under my skin, too. But that’s for another time and place.

The point to all of this is that what they say is true, I believe. The truest and deepest understanding of love is when you act lovingly despite feeling otherwise. When you can move aside your own s#*@ for a second and arrive for someone else. When you can see your stuff for what it is, a distraction, a temporary insanity that is blurring your vision of the world.

Despite my ill feelings toward Eric on the day before his birthday, I began dreaming up ways I could show him I love him. 45 notes around the house. 45 tiny bites of chocolate. 45 songs he’d love. The more I thought of such things, the more in love with him I became once again. The more I realized what an idiot I can be. And the more I reflected on just much we have been through in 14 years. And it’s a lot. But it’s also barely scratching the surface of love.

My birthday wish for you, Eric, and for others reading (even if it isn’t your birthday) is to fight less hard in trying to arrive, wherever you are, however you feel about your current life circumstances, your graying hair, your sagging chin, your lack of success.

Be less hard today and everyday. Arrive gently, in your own time.

If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere

IMG_4114So what I was saying is that we all need a push sometimes. We become oh so comfortable in our cocoons, our safe spaces, not even realizing the fibrous material has become part of our skin. As we get older, this safe second skin becomes thicker and less noticeable. It’s just there, keeping us comfy, 24/7.

Take, for instance, my family’s weekend trip to NYC this past Saturday and Sunday. In all honesty, as my husband knows because of my silence on the topic of NYC whenever it came up, I was not looking forward to the trip. First of all, we just had two days and one night, and I knew my husband, who is from upstate NY, had a big agenda. A lot of neighborhoods and sites were mentioned in his daydreaming about how this weekend might go. When he’d say “take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back,” “visit Staten Island,” “go up the Empire State Building,” “have dinner in the ‘Indian restaurant’ district,” what I mostly heard was “Wow. This sounds like a lot, like a weekend Olympics of sightseeing.” In fact, the main reason we were going up there from Maryland, a four-hour drive, was to see a dance performance at Columbia University in Harlem. And to squeeze in a visit with my cousin, Douglas.

You could say, we had a different perspective of a quick weekend getaway.

I wasn’t always like this, mind you. In fact, I felt old just thinking about such an excursion, like a 90-year-old woman. But we have a six-year-old boy who comes along on pretty much every vacation, no matter how long or far. And I don’t know about you, but I am just not that mom, that super hero Mother with endless energy, who enjoys hopping from one planned moment to the next or who relishes the thought of roaming the streets of NYC with a young child.

But we went. We saw. We conquered-ish. We did as many of the things as possible. And some of it was wonderful, like walking into a subway station platform as if we had landed on the set of the latest film (insert any that take place in NYC).  Where, smack dab in the center of things was a man playing something like Bach on a big, beautiful cello. I was expecting a cameraman to pop up behind us at any moment. And then, there were the street performers, like the small boy who was break dancing with a group of older break dancers. Micheal Jackson, MTV, 1980’s style.

We bounced from one trendy part of Brooklyn to another, from the Financial District where we passed the World Trade Center Memorial, to 42nd St. and 5th Avenue, scoping out Rockefeller Center and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Grabbing lamb gyros and falafels from a friendly guy in a food truck along the way.

There were juxtapositions everywhere. In Harlem, we brushed elbows with what looked like recent Columbia University graduates and their sophisticated, affluent parents. In Manhattan, we sat on the city library steps while a homeless man slept near us and a young bride and groom walked the city streets in full-on gown and tux. In Brooklyn, we ate at a cozy diner and walked by a brownstone-lined street as families played with their children at the school playground.
New York. In a nutshell. In fewer than 48 hours.

What I learned on this trip is how totally difficult the mother in me can be. How completely obsessed with washing hands. How frazzled her nerves are trying to keep up with a little boy as he leaps happily alongside dancing traffic.

I learned how much I love the quiet of my house. I mean, really, really love the quiet purity of it. I love my polished light oak floors, the bright gray walls, the shiny granite counters in the kitchen. I love the light coming in all the windows of the main floor. Our minimalist sense of decorating – with a few paintings and photos scattered here and there. I love the Southwest vibe of the master bedroom.

I love all these things so much more than any lively street in New York City, no matter how colorful or interesting. I love my small town where I can roam our tiny city streets with women sporting short hairdos and tattoos instead of the glamorous women carrying fancy handbags and asymmetrical rain jackets, each with hair down to the middle of their back. In fact, I haven’t seen a place with so much long hair and so many big, Hollywood style sunglasses as I have in NYC.

I learned that yes, I do prefer the safety of my cocoon, my nest. I prefer the predictable, the quiet, the slow. But I am glad I can still say yes to things outside of my comfort zone. If I can make it out of that, I can make it anywhere.