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.

 

 

Finding Lila

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Lila

Sometimes, we’re just granted space. Space to work, to play, to find something that was buried but never lost. On this Mother’s Day, I am thankful for my guitar, whom I just decidedly nicknamed Lila. I stole this idea from my husband, Eric, who told me a story one afternoon while we spooned on the bed about his first guitar, Marianne. Without going into too much detail, I was pregnant during this conversation, and we were ruminating on possible girl names. Marianne was one of my top favorites, I suppose because there’s something of the name Margaret in there, and it sounded smart and grounded, two things I wished for a hypothetical daughter, which I didn’t end up having.

Lila came back into my life last night, somewhat planned and somewhat unexpectedly. I’ve been listening to an African American female folk singer, named Lizzie No, a lot lately. Her tunes seem to resonate with me strongly and conjure up my days of driving across country and living out west. Days when I was on the run from nothing and everything.

I’ve been telling Eric about how inspired I felt to learn one of Lizzie’s songs and asked if he’d teach me; he, the much more dedicated musician between us. So last night, after a delightful dinner out at my favorite Thai place in town, Eric pulled out his guitar and began to learn “Crying Wolf” off of the album, Hard Won. Within the time it took to drink half a beer, he was ready to teach me. I was about to learn my first song on the guitar after giving it up what felt like centuries ago.
The marvelous thing about instruments is our fingers seem to fall back into place, as if memory pushed pause long ago, knowing we’d return where we left off. This isn’t to say I won’t need time to relearn much of what is lying dormant, but I learned enough about the three basic chords to belt out the song in its entirely while clumsily playing along. It was beautiful.

All good starts begin without promises and great declarations like: this is the moment I have been waiting for. Now I will be an amazing musician. I will form the band I was too shy to play for in my youth. No, no, no. I am not saying any of that. But it’s enough that the picture is there. The ability to see a stronger dedication to something I gave up because I lacked the discipline – or really, the stillness – to get good at it.

My writing most definitely plays a big role in this. Going through a somewhat arduous writing workshop, aptly named “Writing Boot Camp,” the past two weeks has been transformative. It’s helped push me out of laziness, vagueness, out of painting snap shot images because that’s what I know best. What I know best is not the marathon, but the one-mile run. And that’s OK, too. But my eyes are opening to the true meaning of craft and what it takes to get good – at anything. Stillness. Patience. Reflection. Hard work. Patience. Stillness. Reflection. Hard work. Repeat.

Possibilities, renewed love, renewed you. These are all the things I wish for you and for me this spring. This Mother’s Day, when remembering what we have always loved about ourselves is worth the time.

This and Then That and Then This

I lived in Seattle when I was in my mid-twenties, but my stay in that strange, glorious land was somewhat short. I lasted for three years before the clouds grew too heavy above my head, and I could no longer hold them. They kept me in bed on weekend mornings, threatening to leak into the spaces between door frames and windowsills. It was a bit dreary, you could say, at least to me.

The past few months in Maryland have been so similar. Many days of rain, wind, and clouds. Even on warm days, there is a crispness to the air as if spring is constantly in approach, hovering like an aircraft that is never cleared for landing.

This makes for a strange end to the school year. It’s May 8th, and I woke up to a 30-something degree morning and the heat clicking on. Then, I went and wrapped up the only class I am currently teaching for the summer. But instead of making beach plans, I want to hide under the covers and read.

I am taking a writing workshop online right now, which will keep me busy for the next couple of weeks and steer me in the right direction. When one is about to have more time on her hands, putting that time into creative expression can keep idle hands and an idle mind busy. And in my case, it can hopefully boost your career. My current goal is to put together a portfolio of essays so that I have a solid leg to stand on when asking or applying to teach advanced writing courses. I am slowly finding my way toward this goal and finally see it as something in reach.

It’s funny how some things seem out of grasp for so long, with seemingly no clear path to follow. Everything is totally overwhelming in those moments. Say, you move to a new town and want a job at the local college. If you were me, you might spend a good year or so writing in vain to the Writing Center Director or to anyone who might listen, after you’ve posted the seemingly pointless online application, the one that drowns into some cyber land abyss. And then, one day you meet a friend who works at said college, and she mentions your name to that same Director. You then spend months working in that very Writing Center envying the adjunct faculty members, drooling over their professorial status, wondering if your application will ever be pulled. And then, someone else mentions you to an English Department Head. The next thing you know, you’re scheduled to teach 3 courses in one semester for the second year in a row. And so it goes. On and on. One day at a time. One step after the other. The path you couldn’t see just gets clearer, the road ahead expanding even farther.

My writing seems to be evolving in such a way, too. I started with this tiny blog, which in truth, is still a tiny blog. But I started anyway because someone wanted to listen, and I had some things to say about motherhood. Eventually, a friend of mine got published out in the world of online magazines, and it dawned on me that I could possibly, maybe get published too. And slowly but surely, the publications are beginning to add up, and what I never thought possible is becoming fruit in my garden. The seeds do actually grow with the right amount of sun and rain.

The summer will come, too, I suppose. She’s just taking her sweet time, preparing us for her full glory.

 

 

 

Motivation

I preach about motivation quite a bit to my college students, probing into their personal lives, asking them to give me the skinny on what is so hard about staying motivated. As if I don’t know. As if I am not such a person who struggles to stay full speed ahead with a project, a goal, a dream.

This isn’t to say I don’t share my personal stuff with them. I do, when possible and seemingly appropriate. I am the first to admit my faults, in hopes they will feel free to share their own. I also use humor as much as possible in the classroom since the population of students I teach still finds titles like “Shitty First Drafts” surprising and radical – and this warms every cockle in my heart. I help them laugh, so they can have an easier time with the grit and sweat of writing, and it truly is a gritty, sweaty endeavor.

A year ago, I was inspired by a friend or two to start publishing some writing, so I put my big toe in the water and ended up having two pieces quickly published by the same online magazine, Sweatpants and Coffee. It was so very motivating.

And then, I took on a personal writing project over the course of summer 2016 that ended up flopping; it just couldn’t stand up fully on its own, and that same boost of motivation came crashing down. So very fragile our little egos are, right? In fairness – or possibly to offer myself an excuse – I was working through some feelings about death, having lost a dear, young cousin to a fatal illness. And then, wouldn’t you know, my father-in-law was diagnosed with a rather nasty form of cancer (although he has made a remarkable and quick recovery), and then my estranged father’s health started sinking down the tubes. What a year.

But we all deal with this stuff, this gritty, sweaty, heart-wrenching crud of life, which is perhaps is why adding some doses of lightness and humor are totally essential. I will do my best to offer these moments for you, and for me, but in the meantime, you just might find much of my crass and sassy humor out on the Internet somewhere, as I seem to have begun a new phase of publishing. Check out my latest piece on Bluntmoms.com here. I am currently working on a second piece for them, too, entitled, “That Time My Six-Year Old Dropped the F* Bomb.” More later.

What I am learning about my own motivation is that it takes a bit of humor and fun to keep the juices flowing. And that one muse-killing factor in my life is my own damn seriousness. In fact, the juices have been flowing so well lately that I have been able to produce two heavier pieces that will be upcoming on Sweatpants and Coffee and Mutha magazine.

Another thing I am taking in from my students and my own experience is that roadblocks can be a total haze. Meaning, they can slow down any process or trick us into believing we’ll never make it out of the field of poppies wherein we’ve been aimlessly roaming. After all, self-deprecation can be the most poisonous nectar.

But there’s always a remedy. Finding your own just might take time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembrance of Me

So it’s Good Friday and all, and as usual, you won’t find me at a church service. In fact, Louis C. K.’s latest stand-up show comes to mind as he jokes about how the Christians won. If you don’t believe him, he asks, then what year is it?

This sums up a lot for me in terms of power and dominance in the world.

I am sure there are many wonderful churches out there, but there are also many other religions that I find to be just as valid as Christianity. Not to mention, my husband’s family is Jewish, which means my son is part Jewish as well.

Nonetheless, Easter weekend is symbolic and meaningful to me. At the risk of sounding perhaps even more heretical to some, I can relate strongly to the idea of bearing a cross. I think most of us can. Each of us has a cross we have had to bear for whatever reason. For me, I can think of more than one, but my place in my family comes to mind. For as long as I can remember, I have been the black sheep, at least in my immediate family.

Without rhyme or reason, I was always the one who was different. I was the one who struggled more with my parents’ divorce; I was the one who didn’t play sports, who had to work super hard to make honor roll; I was the hippie who preached about vegetarianism, the one who worked in a national park, the one to move out west. I was the poet, the dreamer, the one holding change out for homeless people. My family members were good, conservative Republicans who believed in the realities of life, in pulling yourself up from the bootstraps. Any quest for meaning was futile to them. The answers were already understood. But by the time I reached college, I knew for sure I just didn’t understand that everything was already understood. I didn’t know anything. There were an endless amount of possibilities, and I wanted to explore the world. To experience different American cultures. To find my place in this great big universe.

I can’t say I have found that place necessarily. But I have learned to put down the heavy weight of being different. At least, I am not carrying it like a martyr anymore (most of the time). At 44, I am more interested in feeling good than in proving anything to anyone. Instead of bearing my “uniqueness” as a personal hardship, marked as the family outlier, I wear it more like a badge, like I have honorary status of some kind. It’s just too time-consuming and exhausting to live any other way.

This is what Easter is to me. It’s the rebirth of ourselves, the ability to see ourselves in a new light, to let go of the past and what no longer serves us. It’s the remembrance of me.

Nobody Cares, So Do It Anyway

In the early years of my husband’s and my courtship, before the vows, we used to read to each other often. This was in the days of exploring each other’s bookshelves and medicine cabinets, the days of checking for hidden objects under the bed. The newly-wed stage that often takes place well before a couple is newly wed, the delicious, chocolate-cake-kind-of-good days. But I digress.

Eric and I would read to one another in the evenings after dinner, on holiday road trips to meet family, in bed at night with free hands intertwined beneath the sheets. We shared – and still share – a love of meaningful prose. One of Eric’s old favorites, that quickly became one of mine too, was Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. As an English teacher, my love of Salinger began early; his beloved character Holden Caulfield had me with his disdain for phonies and his penchant for appropriate swear words. So it wasn’t surprising that another of Salinger’s stories would effortlessly grab my heart. In fact, if soul food came in paperback, it would be entitled Franny and Zooey.

The greatest lesson of the book is: “do it for the fat lady.” Now, before you jump on the potential offensiveness of this statement, you need to remember, this is the greatest lesson of the book. In the other words, it’s “the seat of the soul.” The holy trinity. The raison d’etre. And so on.

The reader finds Franny, a young college student, lost and disillusioned, obsessed with a spiritual mantra, wanting to give up on her dream of acting. Her brother, Zooey, sets out to bring his sister back from this crisis and ends up saving her, in the purest, most honest sense of the word, by telling her to “do it for the fat lady.” The fat lady, as Zooey describes, is “Jesus.” Or for those non-Christian or non-religious readers, the fat lady is…..you.

The message of this story touches upon the essence of our common search for meaning. It answers the question of why we do anything we do. We stick with our struggles to be heard in board meetings, to reach students in the classroom, to go unrecognized in all of our one million and one mom duties, as we do with our love of Japanese painting or our failing music band because…..Jesus. Because we need to. Because this thing calls to us more deeply than anything else, even if we don’t earn a review in the Times, even if not one single person notices how amazing we are. We press on anyway, for our own salvation.

A modern day connection comes from Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular self-help book Big Magic, in which Gilbert candidly and reassuringly tells us that “nobody cares.” So when we are obsessed that no one has liked something of ours on Facebook or that friends and family aren’t going out of their way to pay attention to our creative endeavors, side projects, or our neurotic crises, we are wasting our time. Gilbert reminds us no one is paying close attention to our lives because they are busy living their own. News flash.

Phew. What a relief. We are worrying and pining and complaining for nothing. All the more reason to do it “for the fat lady.”

Love in the Time of Trump

(This is what I have wanted to say about what we’re not supposed to say anymore. I wrote this for a submission to an online magazine but then realized it wasn’t a fit stylistically, so here it is…)

It all fell apart. Came tumbling down. Crashed and burned. There’s a historic divide in our lives now, a pre and post election 2016. Krista Bremer from The Sun magazine creates a perfect tone for this divide, as she begins her essay, “American Winter” with:

Once upon a time, before Donald Trump was elected president, there was a woman who lived on a cul-de-sac where an orange cone in the middle of the     road reminded drivers to slow down because children played in the street.            The houses were built around a grassy circle with a fire pit where grown-ups      gathered after the kids’ bedtimes. ..” (para 1).

Bremer continues to paint a Rockwellian picture of life to juxtapose the gestalt shift in our nation’s psyche, the total 180 degrees in our personal and collective identities. “Once upon a time,” and all of the fairytale stories the phrase evokes, fits so aptly of my experience of life before Trump emerged as a likely candidate.

On a personal note, the floor fell out from under me as I learned that immediate family members – and several likeable people in my life – had voted for the Donald. I am still coming to grips with it, honestly, but time is softening my dismay and tempering my fury. Nonetheless, how do we continue to look our dear loved ones in the face, knowing they ignored all of the hate and the dishonesty? Knowing they still tuck their children in at night, despite having voted against the rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals? You remember all of the painful rhetoric. You’re witnessing the assault on human rights as I write this. There’s no need to dig it all up.

Yet this is the thing, isn’t it? How do we stop digging? How do we silence the parts of our hearts and minds that demand we care for our fellow humans and that we adamantly oppose those who disregard those same humans? This feels as unnatural as asking daffodils not to rise in spring. And when these disregarding folks are loved ones, how do we reconcile the tremendous discord?

I don’t know, and this is the honest truth. However, I can tell you that my love for family will never cease. I can tell you that life is complicated and so are people. I can tell you that living with great paradoxes is part of the mystery of life. Nothing is clearly black or white. Not people. Not ideologies. Not emotions. Even love is somewhat cloudy at times. It comes in varying degrees. It comes with compromises, with a total willingness to set aside major differences and tremendous conflicts. But like daffodils during a bleak and cold spring, love is going to bloom in the harshest of conditions. Once upon a time, I failed to see this solid truth.