(young) Humans

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I dropped my giant bags on the table as soon as I walked into my classroom this morning.  I had a rolling to-do list and the sense that I was late to something. All of that didn’t matter when one of my star students who never misses a beat came in to say hello. She’s not that student who just comes by for no reason throughout the day or one that asks to eat lunch in my room; but she is one whose eyes I seek out in class when no one feels bold or right enough to answer a discussion question.

She hadn’t said more than hello before I asked her if she’s doing okay.  She began to cry through her sweet smile, which totally caught me off guard. Though she claimed my class wasn’t one that was pressuring her, she said she feels incredibly stressed about school. We talked for a little while, and she expressed that she feels she is always doing school work and never has time for ideas she wants to pursue. I sat on a desk across from her and opened up, saying that finding the time can be hard even as an adult if you don’t give yourself permission to seek a balance. I encouraged her to talk to her family because they care about her experience at school. When I asked her about her schedule for next year, she said she has no time next year to do what she wants. Here is a girl who is taking advanced, junior-level classes as a sophomore, theoretically getting ahead, and she hasn’t given herself permission to slow down and enjoy the fruits because she wants to race through the harder stuff to get to the finish line easier.

As an adult, though, I know it’s rarely like that. We create new finish lines before the finale, or we fill in the gap between the end of something and the beginning of another.  At least I know millennials do (that word, millennials, never feels like the right fit, and yet…); it’s what we do best despite some considering us the lazy generation. In college, I always got the best grades in the semesters I was overworked; when I took some time off, I didn’t have the pressure that I needed to control my efficiency. But since college, I’ve always been busy. In Anne Helen Peterson’s “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” she discusses paralysis people feel doing the most mundane tasks; and she says “Why am I burned out? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it–explicitly and implicitly–since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennial are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which its become hard for us.” Though my student is too old to be the daughter of a millennial, I wonder if this same pressure–minus the faith that our hard work would lead to something–is falling on a generation already exhausted at growing up too fast in a streaming, live, online, competitive world that is pinned up next to a world with a streaming, live, online, “live your life to the fullest” sign.

But in the case of someone who is looking up to the long haul, shouldn’t she seize the opportunity to be here, be now?  Or am I, too, caught up in the tech world’s push for consistent energized “relentless work….propaganda?” The truth is, I feel the gap closing in between what I know about life and what she predicts about life. Her generation senses the toil ahead and doesn’t seem as interested in the idea of a long fight for the ivy leagues. And I can’t blame her.

The last two years, I find myself giving pep talks as often as I can in class. I incorporate empathy lessons or discuss the meaning of “happiness;” I’ll throw in female pronouns instead of the dominant masculine pronouns when I make handouts; I try to show that I don’t believe my class is the only class. I find myself apologizing or empathizing with the exhaustion my 6th period students, already spent from the day and trying to rally for their sports or clubs after school, feel as they walk in.  It’s common to hear me saying more than ever that there is a big life outside of these 4 walls, that it will be okay, it really will, that what you are feeling is real and relative, and it’s temporary, that I will do what is in my power to help them realign what is important for my own class, a place in their worlds I have some place to make a change. It’s not uncommon for me to start or end my classes asking students to breathe and know it’s okay. I have a sign on my board that says, P.S. I care about you. 

In fact, as our school has been tragically caught in its own number of student suicides and its climbing number of students debilitated by anxiety; it has also been working overtime with any resources available to provide a listening ear, getting students to focus on their health over all else, and drying more tears than I remember in all my years as a teacher. Our school and faculty has seen a demonstrative shift even within ourselves. A level of empathy and flexibility one may have once only associated with private schools is now stretched and respected in the climate of competitive public schools. Why? Because so many public school teachers, the ones I have the privilege of working with, are wizards of understanding and capability.

The last two days, though, have been tough. Walking a previous student into the clinic because she was having an anxiety attack, seeing emails about kids who were having a moment and needed to cry and couldn’t make it to class (so don’t mark them tardy), or be aware of this kid who is having a rough day (so maybe don’t call on him today), and running through the bus lanes to find another star student who had been crying because “it’s all just too much” to get her to talk with someone and to ensure she got home safely; it all made me want to go home and tell my kids I swear to God I will love you no matter what. Just be good to yourselves.

So I ended the day knowing something was in the air; whatever pressure has erupted wonky February weather must also be pushing against kids’ sensibilities. I dug into whatever power-pocket I had and offered kids flexibility–the same I offered myself by giving myself permission to go have an ice cream cone with family instead of doing work.

Using the small buttons we have in some good way, maybe that’s the only thing we can do. When I told my morning student that she could change her research topic and rearrange all the requirements so she could focus on her hobby, it felt natural–if there is something we can be flexible on, something that doesn’t carve too much out of the tree, shouldn’t we just do it? When I told another student she is not allowed to work on anything for me and to just tackle the stuff stressing her out, I may be accused of warping a life skill, but I assure anyone who sees kids for at least 8 hours a day is that they–especially now–need flexibility because the ground they are on these days just doesn’t feel so hard. In this fragile time to be a teenager, isn’t it the responsibility of those of us near them to adapt just as much as we support?

At the beginning of the week, a teacher covered my class so I could talk to a former student. The young woman came into my room filled with emotion. She cried and rubbed her palms together, saying she hated herself for not being able to let things go and for obsessing over things that don’t matter. These same words are the struggle of one of my best adult friends.  This intelligent student several days later, surprised her friend with the most beautiful, touching gift, one that took her days to saw and glue and develop. These kids who feel the hardest also have this capacity to give the deepest. I have to believe that somewhere in all these earthquakes of emotion and illness–one I won’t call mental because that’s a problematic label in itself–there is change to be made for the better, more calls to reforming the way we live in this world and the expectations we fabricate so that we can be in it.

I’ve been starting each discussion in class reminding students that what we say today, we may change our minds about tomorrow, because isn’t that what high school is for? A place where we can test out our ideas respectfully in a safe place? Where we can make a hypothesis, test it out kindly, and hold our findings close? I sense students–surrounded by the paparazzi and tabloids of phones–need that reminder. I’d rather they test out a rotten idea here than in a world much more real. A student once said to me that school is a social construct, not an educational one: I’d argue it is absolutely both.

I had this idea (but wonder if it was inspired by something I read that I can’t remember) the other day: what if instead of saying “Hey!” or “Hi Sam!” or “What’s up?,” we greeted each person with “Hi, human!” Isn’t that the most important acknowledgement, a consistent reminder in all the literature I’ve ever taught that being human is one of the hardest and most beautiful challenges out there?

 

 

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Exhibits

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We walked in and out of 7 art installations today.  An attendant timed our experience, opening the door for new group rotations every 20 or 60 seconds depending on the installation. Each time we walked in, we were visually stirred with lights or dots or pumpkins in a new way, awakening our senses like a visual carnival. Every time I set my purse in the cubby and walked into a 3-man exhibit, I was ready to be surprised.  

Months ago I got tickets to see what a student recently returning from New York said was a magnificent show coming to Atlanta’s High Museum. I got tickets based on her description and the website’s hype as to how Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit will sell out immediately. I panicked when my online turn came up as the bell rang at school, and I accidentally got tickets for a weekday. So today came, and we all played hooky and went on a “field trip.” The best part of the trip was–without fanciful responsibility to feel this way–seeing how much the kids enjoyed it, both of them wanting to take another round at some of the infiniti mirrors experiences.

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On the way to an exhibit encouraging us to experience love as Kusama designed it, there was a line of artwork, starting with a piece that was so simple I didn’t photograph it. In fact, I didn’t take a lot of pictures especially in the installs because I wanted to actually feel it for myself and not through the lense. I’m glad Kal snapped a crooked picture of the sketch for me when I confessed I have no idea why I like it so much, this small doodle of dots in the presence of so many other more sophisticated pieces.

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Clearly Kusama, whose exhibition occupies an entire floor, is coveted, and my small entry into her world, and my surprise in looking at this piece that surely art students around the world have elevated and examined is naive. But the act of its personal resonance and how I talked about it later tonight connects –in the way of art crumbs and timing–to my entry into Mary Oliver’s poetry.

Oliver was renowned and already recognized for brilliance long before she,with her eyes up to the trees or through the morning, came into my life. Some of my friends sought guidance from Oliver’s poetry years ago, and all of us agree that it is the magnitude of her plain expression that swoons us and then balances our vision.

In fact, every tribute or article of her life that I read last night mentions her poetry’s notoriety, accessibility, and simplicity. Summer Brennan, once Oliver’s student, wrote a unique little look into Oliver in The Paris Review yesterday. Brennan remarks on how long that simplicity could often take; in one example, she notes one of Oliver’s published poems had stayed in draft format for 12 years. Even more beautiful is Oliver’s willingness to bring in “failed poems” to dissect with students to help them improve. 

When Oliver says “the world offers itself to your imagination,” and when she reminds us that “every morning the world is created,” or when she says, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it, and, when the times comes to let it go, to let it go,” we instinctually bow our head because, gently, she put the spoon near our mouth. 

Artistic threads just help pull up a grey January. When I watched this film last week and watched interviews like this one about it, I fixated on how the art was born and what it did to the people making it–what are the circumstances of their magic? Thinking about art and wanting to quietly commemorate her life, I re-read this article about Oliver and her late partner last night; Mary’s poetry and Molly’s photography complemented each other over their 40 year relationship (see this glimpse into their lives).  In a different journey, I wonder, what life circumstances brought Yayoi Kusama to say this?: 

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Maybe it’s the English teacher in me that cannot divorce artistic appreciation from wondering how an artists’ work affected his or her real life.

While on our excursion from the routine, Kal was getting call after call from real life because that’s in full swing, and we oscillated in and out of that real-life during the art-life we were immersed in temporarily. For as long as my life allows it, I want to be carried away with art-life phrases like “orange sticks of the sun,” songs born out of magic, or art born out of necessity that help simplify and resound because there is always and always other life that is also in full swing. 

 

Wonder

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For a million years when I was a young girl, I thought my mom was 36. If anyone asked me her age, I’d kind of glance about for a second and say, “I don’t know, 36? Something like that.”

It’s possible when I dressed as a business woman at my elementary school’s Halloween party, I raided her closet for a button down jacket in an effort to look grown, like the 36-year old she was. It’s possible when I saw her in her long nightgown, slightly pink from the pattern of faded country flowers, I looked at her as the woman with reigns, like the gatekeeper of all the milk and all the honey, and she was 36. It’s possible when I wrote that I hated her (an awful teenage blemish) in my plastic white diary, its shiny key hidden under my pillow, she was 36. It’s possible when I raided the family albums, carefully peeling plastic away from the yellowed adhesive, to find old photographs of her for a Mother’s Day gift, she was 36.

How strange is it, then, that I recently turned 36. The sliding scale of what I remember about my mom when she “was 36” is inching closer to my reality now. A magical mirror is held up against my perception of this number now.

There are incredible caverns unveiled each time a woman blows out a birthday candle. Somehow, that breath blows away the dust and sand covering the blocks of untapped strength and beauty. It’s strange to recognize that it took 35 for the threadbare puppet strings to release me mercifully into a new space.  Walking through last year reminds me of the slim gorge leading to Petra, a marvel I visited over 10 years ago when I went to Jordan.

In The Condé Nast Traveler’s Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Edmund White describes Petra, one of the world’s wonders which was once ruled by Nabataeans to Romans to Byzantines, and then somewhat forgotten by the outside world for about 600 years, as a place where at ” every turn you’re hard-pressed to distinguish between natural and human creations.” 

At the time, I didn’t know of White’s advice in his travel essay: “Be prepared for lots of walking.” What I remember, though, is that walking and sweating, walking and wondering, mostly with absent-minded appreciation, and finally getting through the Siq, or the main entrance. At the end of the gnarled hallway, I gasped with surprise at the sheer architecture that unfolded under the sunlight. I was so taken by it that it took a few seconds before I realized I was crying.

Like my friend says, I caught the surprise. I hadn’t researched where we were and what to expect from Petra, but I trusted it would be worth it. I feel maybe I meandered this way when I first became a mom, something so many of us do. Like then I have blind trust in future attractions–both as a parent and as a woman.

I’m convinced that the women I’m lucky to have in my life are consistently folding out of rocks and sand and emerging a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more interesting to even themselves. And with this beautiful nod to the women ahead of me and before me, I want to marvel at their magic. When I see a woman standing at the rock of her 40s, I imagine her strength even if its only coming from the soft place of acceptance of herself.

Sometimes I wonder if these are the middle years, the formative years that we’ll need as the next big stuff in our lives change–not only as our kids grow into and out of things but also as we attend more funerals or get more midnight phone calls or get surprised by others’ life changes. I wonder if women have been created from the strongest bones as I am convinced we are, in many ways, the superior gender.

Maybe looking older is worth the swap for intelligence, camaraderie, and subtle self acceptance that comes with it. Maybe what White says about Petra is similar to our own journey: “As we pushed farther into the valley, the strangeness of Petra overwhelmed us. Everything here is improbable–the remoteness, the mineral force, and especially the bizarre juxtapositions of color, which sometimes looked like watered silk, sometimes like batik, sometimes like old rag rugs.”  What was improbable was the most surprising.

I laugh at my naive assumption that mothers of 14- year olds were always around 36-years old. No matter my appreciation of my mother, I likely considered her a flat character of our lives during that time. It makes me wonder about my kids’ impression of me and what they will feel when, one day years from now, they may have the magic mirror held up to their beautiful, older faces.

 

Leaf

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It’s convenient to use a fall analogy since the weather is in the 40s and the trees are slowly thinning out. I thought we would see the bud of this season when we took a family trip to NYC in September, but the weather was like Georgia’s. What wasn’t the same, however, is how we felt together afterwards.

Deciding to take the kids to New York was the beginning of a shift.  A gem came at just the right time. I had a few rough patches with kids’ stages over the summer, and that feels farther away now. I feel connected to their growth again rather than enduring a change or stage. I can see now that the change was as gradual as our 1-hour train ride from Midtown to Coney Island, starting off in a windowless packed subway with everyone heading in different directions, to slowing down and seeing the sunlight stream in near the Island, people thinning out, women talking with their moms while tending to a stroller, and space literally widening up.

I feel more confident in us now that we’ve briskly walked 18-thousand steps a day together, shared Central Park on tandem bikes together, walked through memorials at night together, run into cabs together, watched a Broadway show together, and watched the sunset over the Statue of Liberty together. These large iconic pillars marked for us the possibility of experiencing new things, leaving us with an exhaustion at the end of the day was fulfilling to all. In contrast to a trip we took last year, this one felt like we could fly to France or anywhere right then and set roots. I’ve casually referred to the shift as the post-NY afterglow as it marked my hope in the future. I can’t help but connect New York’s archetypal, everlasting promise for newness with the sense of renewed family it gave me.

I was proud to discuss NYC with my Adventure Writing class. This unique group of 12 young women is a surprise. Every day when 35 students clear out of one class and 12 students fill up just 1/3 of the desks in my room, the air changes. It’s with this class I took a walking tour of the Atlanta BeltLine a few weeks ago and ended our trip with sampling food from around the world at Ponce City Market.  They chose this day trip to represent some of the units we’ve loosely covered in class—from nature and place, to the pursuit of happiness and journeys, to travel and culinary adventures. They were thrilled to be part of a vibe they consider or taste from time to time. Just seeing them ordering coffee in Inman Park or running through the skateboard park and graffiti walls was enough for me to remember that bursting, youthful desire to be part of the city’s current.

This class got to choose any book to read in our latest unit, and after searching the Internet and listening to each other they decided:  Eat Pray Love. How interesting it has been to hear them criticize Gilbert’s thinking. Some girls quickly decided they “just don’t like her.” It was a month journey to get them to figure out why. While one student criticized Gilbert’s lens, another student confessed that she recognized she, too, thinks like Gilbert, and this quality inherently annoyed her. I related my experience watching Girls. I would grind my teeth while watching that show, and I had to take a break from it; it depicted 20s in way-too-close filters. Awhile back I had to stand up to my criticism of myself and watch the final season, an intelligent definition of being a woman and growing up and away.

Then, when we watched the film Eat Pray Love, a very different experience than reading the book, they spent more time talking about annoying camera angles and its visual portrayal of a lackluster journey than about the protagonist. The film was released when these students were 8 or 9 years old, and since then, they have been inundated with wanderlust images, signs that say “Be Happy,” and stories of people leaving everything in search of something. This audience has already heard or seen about all that. What may have felt enjoyable to the 28-year old in 2010 was irritating to the 17-year olds in 2018. One student fixated on camera angles and abrupt transitions, something I was not expecting we’d end up talking about. But I realized, too, that we are currently in a visual-stimulation carnival, which will push us to seek newer ways to depict reality.

One reality that the educational world is facing is  fostering mental health and sense of well being. One of my best friends introduced me to Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning (SEE) Curriculum, an educational project that The Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University is growing. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Emory University Presidential Distinguished Professor, says, With modern science’s focus on the material, little attention seems to be given to the workings of the mind. And yet, so many of the problems we face today arise because of our disturbing emotions. I believe by learning more about inner science and how to tackle our emotions, we can ensure that individuals, families, and all of humanity will be happier and more at peace.” I’ve been privileged to have the first two chapters of the new curricula, and I’ve been trying to implement mini-lessons in connection with state curriculum.

In an adapted lesson, I asked students to stand up to agree or sit down to disagree (or sit on the desk if neutral) to varying prompts like “everyone wants happiness” and “I know exactly what I need to do to make me happy,” for example. I was thrown back as a teacher at the kids’ wisdom and willingness to explore. No one stood up for these two prompts. Yet almost everyone stood up to this: “My wish for happiness motivates most of my actions.” When we debriefed, it was clear that while most of them don’t know what they need to make them happy, all of them agreed that happiness motivates them.

The biggest takeaway was the second day. After they checked in with their bodies through a series of prompts SEE provided, they wrote on a post-it note responses to these four prompts:

“When I was younger, I thought happiness was _______, but now I think happiness is____.”

“Sometimes, I ______ because I think i will make me happy. Instead, it makes me ____.”

“What truly makes me happy is ______.”

“Something I want to learn about happiness is ____.”

They stuck their notes on a quadrant on the board and walked around to read responses. Their notes were simple, direct, and honest. They reminded me of how much more in touch they are to their ideas than I was at their age. After reading the group’s ideas, they had a conversation. The debrief was the most curious; here is what they said:

“Things that make us happy are not things we experience here at school.”

“Most unhappiness is related to some type of consumption (too much food, alcohol, drugs, etc…)”

“Happiness is a contradiction, it’s simple and yet so hard to make sense of.”

“Happiness is a multifaceted idea.”

“Happiness comes from simple things.”

“Happiness is intangible.”

“There is no one definition of happiness.”

They seemed enlightened at their own ideas, and they quickly owned up to what this first draft of discovery felt like.

I did this activity alongside them, and perhaps it also connected why something like NYC was so important. My happiness is contingent upon my family’s state of being. As a mother, I think about this line I heard on NPR the other day: “A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.” But beyond that, my exhilaration in life is contingent upon productivity, possibility, patterns, fresh experiences, and seeing how people express their lives.

And as I type these sentences, I want to add so much more about this term that we see often on coffee mugs and t-shirts; “happy,” a term that can have a stressful underbelly for some students who are trying really hard to just “be fine” for now. Yet, at the end of the day, our discussion illustrates our mythical pursuit of happiness, how critical we may be of people trying to find it, its complicated construction, and, at last, the achingly beautiful realizations derived from our common pursuit of it.

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The Brew

When you write in space like this, it’s easy to repeat memories. I thought of this one today, and it’s likely I’ve said it here before. I was thinking of when around 10 years ago my friend Susie told me I sounded like I was ready to have a kid. I hadn’t been talking about kids, just about general place in life.

I guess that settled stage of life I was chatting about happens to us from time to time about different things. It kind of feels like you’re waiting in a long line for something you decided you needed. Maybe you’re leaning your weight at the hip and scrolling through your phone, spacing out with one thought leading to the other.  Then you look up a minute later and have somewhat forgotten that you were waiting in line, and it’s time to move up. It takes a couple seconds to tune back in to the subtle sounds around you and the reason you’re waiting there. By now, a gap has formed between you and the rest of the line.

Been thinking about that gap, about dutifully waiting somewhere, getting comfortable with other pleasures to make the time pass fine, and then finding yourself wondering about that space–the gap–that has been made between you and the destination.  I’ve been aware of that gap and tuning in to figure out what to do about it.  The last few months have had this interesting study behind it all, and behind this study is a sweet comforting world, which always inspires–even in the thick of daily grind ups and downs–a rekindling for reading, writing, and new.

The English teacher in me sometimes feels on this blog (ugh, what a terrible word) like a writing adulteress–teaching drafting and writing with precision in an AP class only to default personally on the lighter way here because its easier, more creative, more immediate. So I asked myself these two questions this morning : what are you trying to say? how do you plan on saying it?

But in a writing space like this, the answer tends to be murky: the space is a mixture of what my former student coined in her own writing once, a diary entry, a letter, and an essay.  I concede, and therefore, if the top of this little expression was some mental context, here is one for the diary-letter-essay meat of the post.

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

I’ve recently watched the intelligent, emotive film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name twice in whole and a few other times in sought-after gulps, then read his  novel once and then back at it again and again in sought-after gulps (you know when you’re searching for the feeling an author got just right and want to connect with again), and it has made me close my eyes and think back and back and back. That thinking makes me wonder about memories, and it challenges how much I can think back on details if I concentrate really hard.

I’ve been closing my eyes each night and welcoming a new memory, whichever one I can zoom in on. The look of remembering recently has two faces: I have to tilt my head and notice my ear (the way one looks when he hears something in the other room and can’t figure out what it is). Or I whisper inside to the memories excitedly, “go ahead and appear, honey; I’m ready” right before I close my eyes at night.

I thought about balmy days in Toronto and the scent of vanilla candles; I’ve thought about the way the stairs felt on the walk up to Kal’s old apartment and the chipped paint around the doorway; I thought about the quiet sound and cool air in the town home before anyone spent free time on phones. I called up the sound of stroller wheels on asphalt when everyone else was at work and felt my green terrycloth jacket on my skin. Stuff like that.

In this brew of tuning in to the gap and finding my safe haven, I’ve connected to a literary bubble I’ve crafted up. Between my writer-admiration crush on Andre Aciman, whose articles (try this or this or any) are thought-provoking, the vivid cinema of Luca Guadagnino’s Italy, teaching Adventure Writing, and coming up on my one year anniversary of looking up at the enormous Chilean sky, I am in a beautiful mental state, ripe for literary bad behavior.

Just because I write here and there doesn’t qualify me as a writer, yet Amy Tan’s line caught me a few days ago: “It’s a luxury being a writer because all you ever think about is life.” I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about life, coming up with mental one-liners about some notion of experience. The lazier approach to writing (or pre-writing), really, is to drench myself in others’ writing, and an even lazier approach to writing is to listen to their writing.

I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Podcast series where writers and artists read from The New Yorker archives. In around 40 minutes, you get to hear brilliant writing and forget you’re driving at all. Tessa Hadley’s reading and discussion of John Updike’s 1996 “The New York Girl” took me on a few rides, raising my craving to be a student in a graduate classroom again, reading and listening, thinking so hard about sentences that I’d give myself a headache well worth the Advil. There is a line I will remember in “The New York Girl” where Updike writes: “Early thirties is a time for fresh calculations.” Yes, yes, that’s right for me. That line confirms for me that writers sneak in their wisdoms any chance they can get.

We have our dreamy literary lands, and then maybe there can be parts of real world that match up, meeting each other like frayed strands at the edge of a sweater. I had to make a choice about something I’ve wanted a long time and an experience, an idea that came up in marital conversation. At the time, I was in the middle of the travel portion of our unit, mixed deep with Anthony Bourdain, Japan, and the spirit of adventure.

I thought about it for a few days, and I kept seeing this image of the kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. So the choice became taking the kids to New York. I could see their world becoming part of my world up there, an exciting notion of being able to experience something together that was once carved in my memory as a single woman, etched as a newlywed, repurposed as a student, but not experienced with a family.

I’m looking at the “the gap” like a woman in a rocking chair, and I’m enjoying feeling like a student twice a day on my ride to work. I’m eternally crushing on wordsmiths and stories that extract uncanny patience out of writers and create worlds where we can park and view and test our own senses. My world seems a little brighter with NYC on the horizon, and hasn’t that always been the case? Its promise for everlasting experience, a new book tucked away for the journey, and some hope or newness to reflect on; isn’t that the brew that should always tempt and color a September?

Endurance

I reached to the back of the medicine cabinet tonight to grab my ziplock bag of really old, really stale Virginia Slims and my funky Bic lighter. I haven’t allowed myself to have a casual light for awhile. The once-a-blue-moon act doesn’t really pair well with morning exercise, so my rebellious refuge hasn’t worked with my staunch commitment. Seems pretty metaphorical, leaving a borrowed itch by itself while I work on something else. But despite a positive day as teacher, the challenging night as a mother needed an innocuous antidote.

A couple years ago, I wrote a story I was really proud of. I told myself I’d work and work and turn this story into a novel. The writing had moments of glory, some sentences actually saying what they meant, but in retrospect, the piece needs a lot of work. The story centers around two characters who are dear to my heart, Ellie and Paul. In the years I’ve been removed from the piece, when I try to think about it again, I see Ellie casually walking around her house, one that befriended her intimately; she saunters from inside the home to outside the home, sometimes sitting on the porch and looking out while she smokes, sometimes packing or unpacking the stuff in the kitchen. I feel Ellie is casually stuck there, just waiting on me to write her out of it.

Tonight, I sat on my porch and watched the cursive smoke and had this funny, clearly obvious thought: I, too, live in this house that saved me, sit here on this porch and look up. My view is shorter and green; hers is expansive and blue, but I laughed to myself at how this character I made up, like me, is still figuring shit out.

I was only able to understand my best friend’s love of this callous habit because I understood what it gave her: smoking demands quiet, providing a solitary act of thinking, as if the smoke builds a wall around you and gives you this selfish space to just think in solitude for a a few minutes.  It’s not for nothing that I am like a teenager with this motif in stories.

After putting the kids to bed, I had some space to myself to think. I think I’ve been in a parenting slump lately. My son is in a mom-heartbreaking phase that makes me feel far from him, and my daughter has entered a new one that makes me want to hold her close. To equalize each day to ensure some sanity and safety, I’ve carved even more inside me and been left many evenings with this empty pit in my throat. Some summer days chipped hard at my patience. And yet there were warm pool days, a beach vacation, fishing, and ziplining. Each night I go to bed hoping tomorrow I’ll be better equipped to handle the minute, the fickle, and the aggressive, and a few hours after the sun rises, it’s a challenge again. But meals happen, playdates ensue, clothes getting washed and folded, little love notes slipping into new lunch boxes, new school clothes being bought with care.

I heard on a show recently that our heart, despite what we think it can handle, continuously expands for the people we love. I believe that in the same way that I know I have two legs and two arms, a natural truth despite its fragility. What scares me recently, though, is the long haul. I’ve said here before that in your 30s, your life isn’t celebrated in 4-year increments–high school, college, masters, engagement, marriage, baby, and baby, etc. Most women in my age bracket with kids around my kids’ age, if they are willing to say it out loud, can find themselves–on really tired days–asking themselves the following: how do I do this for the long haul? Of course I recognize the pattern that once this stage is gone, you miss it, coloring it with some regret and a pushing it a shade or two more inside the lines. Maybe the challenge is how to both sustain yourself and raise good kids. A friend and veteran parent said it easy and true:  it’s hard to raise good kids. But some days it’s a challenging blessing to look up at the work that is just beginning.

At my gym, trainers have what they call endurance days. Those are the days you may find yourself on the treadmill for 23 minutes going up and down, slow and fast, up and down, but you can’t stop running no matter what. Like exercise, I think parenting endurance is being either built or tested like a muscle ripping and repairing, ripping and repairing.

I’ve been in an honest slump, too. I posted on Instagram one day about how I bought myself roses. I made a light comment about how I deserved them for staying calm after my headstrong son threw stuff at me while I was driving. It’s not like me to post something bad about my kids for many reasons, but it was true–those flowers were gorgeous and well-deserved. That truth caused some controversy with my family, my parents not liking my expression, my open-minded brother expressing over brunch that he didn’t really like it and that it was outside my norm. In truth, I had felt guilty after posting it, even reading the supportive comments with more care than usual just to see if I overstepped. But when we talked, I saw something else grow harder inside: the part whose sweat on endurance parenting has left little room for a truth that isn’t mine. I recognized that defensive feeling creep up fast. What good does it do to even myself if I only post pics of manicured me and not “I survived today” moments?

I walked around the store a few days ago without my kids, a rare summer moment. Moms warding off kids’ questions in a late-July haze, staring  forward, probably trying desperately to remember why they were there in the first place, while pushing the cart, kids’ fingers dragging them along. One exasperated mom telling her kid, “We are leaving right now if you ask me that question again!” I see texts of my working-mom friends who are battling, too; divided in desire and ability.

Tomorrow morning my growing kids will step on the bus and start new school years. The summer went fast, so a few days ago, I started a list of things we did this summer because I know we did good things with good humans even through my parenting slump. When I look at the list in the light of a few red embers, I see two truths, one unrelated and one related: 1) money has less effect on my long-term happiness than I thought it could; 2) how much we do, and how much I give out as a parent will be taken as a reel, not so much a picture with its rectangular, finite edges. It will pull, and pull, and it will create something whose editors, my children, will have full authority (and hopefully grace) as they cut the footage together.

For any of you out there in a version of this place, I hope the slump fades gently as new routines start back up. I think I’ll cling on to the honesty despite the challenges, getting stronger in mind and body, and maybe I’ll even get to the day where I can write my Ellie off that porch.

Sitting on the plane after landing. Unedited. A cut and paste note to myself.

It’s almost immediate. I’m on the plane to Ohio, and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s Felicity. I want to have all her words and let them spread over me. Or gulp them. Anything. I’m smiling at the poems. Clever, true, open. Unpretentious. Natural and wistful. Whimsical. Nostalgic. Yellow.

I can’t remember which teacher long ago said you always have to read a poem twice, that rule I say to my students as casually as, “the sink is over there.” The person viewing casually over my shoulder is probably wondering what’s taking so long to read a few lines.

I want to take three of her books and spread a blanket on the ground under our oak trees at home. I want to call Layla out to me so we can read poems together. She would love that. Why don’t we do that? Why let the baggage I’ve packed weigh down so heavily that we can’t travel anywhere? Time is running out; she won’t way to lay there with me for another 15 years, and by then she’ll have to schedule me in.

Samira, please remember to take an hour to do this. The house is a vacuum. This imagination is not. Do more of the latter than the former. Making a home is more about the mess, about the grass blades decorating kitchen floor when you come in, not the grass blades you have to wipe up later.

Samira, wake up. Be inside it more. Carve deeper; go past what needs doing and do what you actually want to feel.

I’m in your rip current, Mary. Can you tell?

Breaking the dam

This post doesn’t capture all of my June, but it is the June in which we lost a really interesting human being. There is half of a warm summer that I’ve experienced with family and friends. I’ve been quiet online. My last Instagram post was mid may. My last post here was around the same time. Days have been full, and I’ve had lots to say involving other more positive inspirations, but writing it all down was only ever on the horizon, somehow out of reach in the 9 pm setting sun.  I had to break the dam with this post.

I wanted to title this post Anthony Bourdain.

On the day he died, I squinted up at my phone in the blazing heat and impulsively ordered three of his books. I knew I was overpaying for them since I was not alone in my impulse. Two of the books were already sold out and would take some time getting to me. I didn’t care. I’d never read his books anyway, so how could I complain about that.  Amidst sounds of kids splashing in the outdoor pool, I reacted to news of his suicide by buying his stories.

I google his name daily to see what else is out there. I know that sounds crazy.  If you haven’t  seen Anderson Cooper’s tribute to Bourdain, you should see it; it says what needs saying about Bourdain’s personality. One of my favorite parts is when Bourdain says rather simply that he won’t miss that magic that comes from eating a meal even though he knows he may be sick from what he’s eating. “What’s the worse that can happen? A course of antibiotics? What do you get in return? I think a lot.”

The thing is, I’m just one of many who thought him to be a gifted and fair storyteller. I’m not special in finding his voice or eyes or abandon or appreciation attractive. I hardly knew I liked him as much as I’ve considered lately. Like you, I thought of inviting him over to our home for dinner and how that would be. Until recently I really didn’t know anything of his past except for his allusions to it in a Part’s Unknown trip to Morocco, let’s say, or in some dusty closet when a celebrity’s name comes up. In fact, when some pedestrian culinary conversation would sprout, I’d add excitedly that I love his shows, or I love when he visited Iran, etc… I even spent some of a year saying, “Anthony took me to (insert country) last night” or “I went to (insert city) yesterday for free” after travel-lusting via Netflix each night.

And yet I have carried Kitchen Confidential in my bag every day since it came in the mail a week after his death. Like so many books I stroll with, I didn’t underline a single worthy sentence–not even ones that made me laugh out of context, not even the ones that instantly made me walk into a culture and a time about which I had no idea. The only evidence I have of my engagement is the curled up cover, random Safari pages of names he drops that I’ve googled, and the glance of the mechanic.

If I’ve learned anything from my recent reading, it’s that wrestling with the burden of telling your truth is heavy. Writers use figurative language and their sensibility to artfully present a truth, and the artful part can be a crafty achievement when you are protecting parts of the truth. In  Kitchen Confidential, he calls out names, restaurants, people, and details candidly. I don’t know if I could ever tell a story this way. His abandon is my opposite yet totally enthralling.

What is empowering, however, is the permission he grants himself in the later publication of the same title.  For example, Kitchen Confidential was published  in 2000. In the updated 2007 version, his first line in the Preface is, “Things are different now.” In the Afterword, the first line is, “Times have changed since much of the action described in this book took place.” He acknowledges changes without really apologizing for them. I think as humans we can all take a lesson in that: what people may say about us or how we may feel about people will likely change. To remain the same or to feel we’re at the apex of thought is already downhill.

Reading his work pulls my face to the real burden the introverted, principle-lined, talented, and often tortured human’s face (the very torture that perhaps makes them endearingly empathetic). Andrew Zimmerman, who is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, got me thinking in his recent interview after his friend’s death.

Teaching high school has meant the last few years has seen too many mental health issues, too many heartbreaking suicides. I think I bottled all that up until hearing about his, this man who never knew me. What I struggle with the most is feeling that if he got to the other end of the moment where he gave up, he would regret it. This man who said almost 18 years ago that the world of the kitchen made the most sense to him; being in the real world was the hardest. That type of desperation haunts me, looping in my mind. Maybe what pulls at my heart so much is that I know with certainty that nothing is more seductive than learning something new from someone in conversation. He brought that to us, and I’m moved by his talent and our loss.

Most of Kitchen Confidential shares his experience of how a successful kitchen should be run, but near the end of the book, he recounts an example that defies his earlier claims. He admits it. Clearly. That is the meat of what I love about that book: his words are human, and even in our very distant worlds, he offers truths that help the way I see.

This wasn’t meant to be an unnecessary book review. While I don’t write about current events, I guess this just made its way here. I didn’t feel I could write about a recent hike or about house epiphanies until this made its way out.  I’m equally perplexed by how much his story has been on my mind. In grad school, I wrote a 20-page paper once about an Egyptian author who committed suicide after writing his first novel. Maybe I grapple with what else these artists had to give or what they endured that made their stories distinctive. I suppose this post is my memory of how I’m thinking about this storyteller, and about how I was taken by surprise, not at my admiration of him or my interest in his works, but by my reaction to his story.

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If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

 

On memories

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Julian Barnes writes a book with an alluring cover—gray backdrop, wooden table, and an egg sitting in the middle. This is the edition of the The Sense of an Ending that I was most attracted to. It took longer to wait for the book to arrive in the mail than to read it, still stretching it out as much as possible so I didn’t gobble it up in one bite. Nuances of life and how they’re planted into our mind from the author is my audible reading exhale. Outside of his elegant farming, Barnes’ story is life’s commentary with a clever delivery, reframing the way we look at our own life history. Like every great novel, it makes us think of how we make decisions. He exposes how we remember things, the associations that filter and create the images we use to validate or explain our present.

If I could paint an image of what memory feels like to me, it would be of a man walking upward as if climbing stairs, and underneath his feet there are blurry, colorful chunks eroding into a midnight backdrop. Friends and family harbor some of those chunks for you, but mostly we’re at the mercy of what we remember and what surfaces when we need it. Above all of that is the present us that reads the past us. Ten years ago, I asked my mother in law what she would have loved to do if it was possible for her, and she said she would have loved to sing. I asked her the same question a few weeks ago, and she said she would have loved to study the culinary arts. Maybe it was the mood surrounding the question at different times, maybe it was her life events that changed her dreamy answers. But what I know for sure is the power of a question and the gravity of our experiences that help create the answer.

I was the first of my friends to start a family. I don’t remember clear ways in which I expressed those first years of motherhood. I don’t think I would have even called it that then. When my friends called me or visited me, I was too young to know how I wanted to present myself as a mom. I hadn’t even put those words in my mind not to mention the next big question: what kind of mom do you want to be? Thinking of asking that question didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t on social media then, so there wasn’t this extra effort of “this is the kind of mother I’m being” to be showcased. I probably went through it like I do most of everything else: do my best for the responsibilities of the occasion and then wonder how I feel about all of it later. I look back at old photos and get a sense of the weight of the years as we figured out our life in a bad economy; I see a young woman who took care of her kids with whatever natural instinct she had. I guess I let the experiences guide the way.

My best friend is 35 and expecting her first baby. She has heard me talk about my life consistently since I can remember. This includes any unfiltered detail over the years about having kids and husband. No one else around me was pregnant or even trying to be, and so I must have enjoyed talking openly. In what feels like beautiful contrast, she is having a mindful pregnancy; she has reflected a lot about what kind of parent she wants to be. She’s had friends all around her who have strewn their stories over her like a night’s sky while she helped them connect the lines. She’s facing her new life with intention. I know life isn’t as easy as that, but I also love that she has this creative template as a foundation. Whereas I just wanted to manage it all and do whatever Layla needed in those early years, I feel she has this adult vantage point that has its own weight of gold.

In thinking of memories, though, I am so curious which of my own memories bust out as she vents to me in a few months. I imagine that all the beauty she sees may add filter to my own pictures; I imagine how her experiences will shape how I feel about the kind of mother I am when I see—beyond where she can see in her own life—what kind of mother she evolves into.  And I wonder how my answers to any of her questions will make me pause, think, and maybe even change based on the couch I’m sitting on, the mood I’m in.

My sister in law just had a baby. When they came to visit us, I saw the baby bottles. I saw her doing things I used to do and doing things I never did. I enjoyed watching her and remembering how the days of a 2-month old are in 2-hour rotations. I see that rinse and repeat as a blessing now. A new parent needs some predictability, and there you have it with feed, burp, cuddle, nap, and change.  Now, my circumstances are no longer there; it’s somewhere between soccer practice and making intentional nudges. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to reap this fruit: my experience is making me stronger. 

In I’ve Been Thinking, Maria Shriver says

“I’ve come to realize that we all mother in our own way, and I’ve come to trust myself in this job.”

Maybe that’s the best thing to frame my last 8 years and hopefully the next 8 or the next 80 to come.  If I gather the net of my experiences and the ways in which my kids have repurposed and reminagined my life, I can see that I’ve come to believe in myself as their mother. And when the time comes when play areas turn into middle school plays which turn into high school games and then into college graduations, maybe I’ll recall her lines here, too:

“I have faith. Faith in myself and in my kids. I know this new era of my life is going to be more unscripted and more wide open. That’s both scary and exhilarating. The days will no longer revolve around school schedules. The days will become mine to imagine, mine to create.”

That sentiment of a very different stage in life does two things to me:  it gives me immense gratitude that my children still make me paintings and want me near them all the time; that they are so not there yet. Also, though, it gives me perspective to see that motherhood has its stages. We have our growing pains as we take in their lives inside us and expand and “flow down in always widening rings of being” (Rumi).

I didn’t intend to end that thought with his words, but he said it best. And shouldn’t we always remember that we’re all in widening rings of being?

My kids just burst out of my bedroom for the countless time with loud grievances, one accusing the other and then overlapping in vehement self defense. I put my hands in the air and said, I know what needs to happen now. I smiled with my hands still up in the air. They paused and waited for me to get upset at the umpteenth interruption. Instead, I gave up and said, “Go outside and turn the sprinkler on and go run around. You don’t even have to change your clothes.” They looked at each other, started laughing, and ran together out of the front door.

Didn’t know those were going to be the words coming out of my mouth then either. But shouldn’t we be certain that we’re capable of more than we thought?

 

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Happy Mother’s Day to every human who has helped a child or a mother make memories that are worth remembering.

Unplanish

IMG_2067Thursday I came home from work thinking the night was going to look a certain way. I took off my work shoes that got gradually uncomfortable by the day’s end. I settled on a cotton camisole and ditched the work blouse. The weather was breezy and inspiring, reminding me of the quiet gardens I’d visited last week. I even started writing and continued to write while sitting on the bleachers at Layla’s soccer practice.  Even though I scrapped the writing without feeling much attachment, I was pleased with myself for making use of the time.

Productivity despite the angst of fat that elongates its side satisfies me. If I’m given a blank slate of time, I want to do most items on my list before I treat myself with 1/8 left on that slate. Maybe its because I suspect what I do in that time will sprinkle over the week and maybe make it smoother.  Pretty sure there is a tiny, overworked secretary in my head punch-typing and prioritizing a list of things. Time management is perplexing, isn’t it? Just the two words next to each other are funny. Managing your time indicates that you’re the boss. When the bird of this thought–“hey, you’re kind of the boss of this sometimes”–catches my eye, I feel a little free.

What I’m noticing though is that the larger your family, the more initiatives you have; the more I suspect my family needs, the more I want to push to make it happen. The more I set goals for my creative temperament, the more I have to push to make it happen. For example, that I didn’t say no to taking the kids roller skating on Saturday when I should have been working on writing the rest of the online course was totally in my control. That I write this now instead of resting in the bed and watching this guilty pleasure is a decision I’m making. Maybe its because satisfying an initiative, it is worth it to me.

Knowing that I’m the one making these choices puts me back in the boss’ seat.

My friend Katie recommended two movies lately. I watched them both in a cramped up week that should have been restful but had a different purpose.  One is about a couple traveling a continent on a renovated school bus. Their youth and simple plot line is worth the scenery and the acknowledgment that another way exists. In the spirit of self-knowledge, she also highly recommended  InnSaei: The Power of Intuition, and it quickly became a conversation piece among some friends.

Much of the argument–“of connecting within in today’s world of distraction and stress”–is like a warm mug of yoga, Mary Oliver, and this Ted Talk by Benjamin Grant about the brain effects of seeing Earth from space.

Our busy lives are making it harder to get out there and sharpen or revive whats inside. I feel we’re fighting for it back, but sometimes it seems we’re standing on thick ice as it cracks, severing us away from what it once was.

One speaker in the documentary says with confidence the following:

“The noise of the external world is muting the sound of the internal world.”

I think just as the noise of the external world messes with our intuition, the schedule that feeds the noise messes with something important that Alicia Keys summed up today in a post: “Destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding to be successful. Embrace the concept that rest, recovery, and reflection are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and ultimately happy life.”

Bless long summers for they should be mandatory for all, and I’m so thankful my profession respects this. My friend was just joking with me on Saturday. She said lovingly, “Try not to do too much shit today.” She challenged me to a weekend where the only plan is an unplan. Last year I blocked off Wednesday evenings just for family, and it was a successful step that evolved healthily. It’s now from a steady, equanimous place on the heels of a beautifully incongruent weekend of hot sun and cold rain where I’m intrigued by her challenge: I blocked out a weekend in May (okay, that wasn’t easy) to challenge myself to say absolutely no to the external and heck yes to the internal.

I’ll leave the parameters undefined and lazy– just as it should be.

Want to take an unplan challenge?