Like Jungle Flowers

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My academic breaks pretty much never line up with my husband’s entrepreneur life. So over the years, typical breaks like spring break became a time I would stay home with the babies and heal them from that cough they caught at school or relieve them from the pace of a long school day. As they got older, we continued with this pattern, adding productive tasks like cleaning out closets and preparing for the next week.  They are getting older and our break-life is changing, and so am I.

On Friday of last week, I felt this crazy dread of the laundry-list of chores; I foresaw images of my productive energy feeling misspent on preparing for the next week instead of following the hum of this one. We were supposed to attend a wedding in Chicago, and when we could no longer go, my disappointment and my acknowledgement of what I did not want the week to be, caused me to make a change.

I googled “beaches in Georgia” and a few clicks and a state later, I booked a trip to Amelia Island with the kids. I’ve never been there before and never taken a long road trip with the kids by myself. The trip has felt like a momventure to me; if we got badges as humans, I’d get one in the shape of a wave for this one, and I’d try to iron it on before the iron was even hot enough. Like I imagine other peoples’ lives and wonder about their innerworkings, I know, for me, this 3-day trip equates a growth and independence that is a tendency I’ve been nurtured away from, which is why every independent gesture feels so special.

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So two days later, I bought bathing suits from Target and filled up my car with gas. Kal checked the oil and helped pack up the car. I let the kids pack whatever they wanted; the back seat was filled with throw blankets, unicorns, bears, the Switch, crackers, and books. We stopped at Publix to get subs and chips. I downloaded an 80s and 90s playlist for the occasion, and off we drove. I didn’t plan it, but “Don’t Stop Believin” started the journey.

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The Inn I booked ended up being perfect in its simplicity. Breakfast was made by a young woman who wore a bandana like Rosie the Riveter, a sign I nodded to inside my heart. The kids had some trouble getting over the cold Atlantic and the gravel sand that skinned their knees. But what we got was the blessing of the unexpected: the first night there, a folk band with an alluring fiddle player performed original music at a restaurant nearby. Both kids were enthralled, nodding their head to the music. The band was probably 20 years older than me, and they sang with that much experience. Each night the kids wanted to go back to this spot so they could see more live acts “that gave me [them] this feeling, mommy.” By the third band on our last day, they asked me to download songs like “American Pie” and “Sweet Caroline” to listen to on the way home.

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Our little suite had a balcony that was small enough to hang some wet clothes on and enough to get that ocean wind fix in the room, but it wasn’t one I wanted to write or read on, something I vaguely hoped I could do. What ended up happening at night instead is that I read The One and Only Ivan, a book Layla has been recommending to me for a year.  I read her book each night  and finished it the day we came back. I didn’t write (or grade) while they slept, but something better happened: each morning Layla woke up and likely saw her book sitting on my side of the bed. The little book about lives changing other lives, partly about a young girl’s artistic inclination and its triumph, became the literary measure of the trip. Like Ivan given new paints to reveal a message he’s trying to figure out, my heart glowed “like jungle flowers” as we experienced this little break together.

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Books, in fact, became a highlight of the trip when the kids spent hours in a book store in the historic section of the island, which got Zade tucking a book under his arm on the way to each meal. He has turned into a little worm even more these days. I also witnessed his sheer desire to do anything he could to make people around him smile–from jumping in freezing water to encourage his sister to do the same or from making up silly handshakes with kids at the park–this kid is a little extrovert with a big heart. And I got to witness it all alone, a chosen state–nourished by a husband and a home back in Georgia–without gearing my attention to making all of us content. Instead, I was able to just blend into the moment as me and a mom rather than consistently doing a litmus test of the four of us, one a mom and wife knows well. I threw in detours like a visit to a lighthouse by just checking within.

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One thing I asked of the kids was to take an early-morning walk after breakfast on the beach, an unpopulated area where empty spaces let the mind wander.  The water was freezing, the wind was freezing, so I asked the kids to just walk with me and dip their toes in if they wanted until it warmed up and we could go upstairs to change later for some water play.

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They conceded for me, and they ended up finding the “best shells” and chasing “the best waves” on our walk. I hardly got a walk in, but I didn’t care because they looked surprised they were having a good time. What a beautiful gift, seeing kids surprised at their joy. I made a point to say yes to holding their shells in one hand, hanging on my arm their clothes that were peeling off every hundred feet.

I could see Zade searching my face every time he got closer to falling into a wave. Later, when I asked them about their top moments during our short adventure, they noted that morning walk; Layla said, “I looked at you, and you were smiling at us when we were getting all wet again like you told us not to, and I knew you were happy and that it was okay. You were having fun, too.”

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Our drive home was filled with a mental gratitude list. In traffic, I played a Calm Masterclass on gratitude and let the kids take from it what they heard. I wanted the kids to come home safely, and when we hit our main road, I exhaled a prayer so thankful that we did something for me, for us, for the week, and life returned back to usual as soon as I walked up the side-door steps. If you walked into our house an hour after our arrival, you’d smell a simmering stew and hear the faint knocking of zippers going round and round in the dryer.  Kids with damp hair and fresh pajamas were in bed just in time for me to turn the page on our trip.

The eccentric greek bar owner in the second Mamma Mia gets young Donna to grab the mic and sing. She says she can’t just sing just like that. He says, “Here on the island, everything is just like that. You think too much, you get unhappy. Thinking and all this, it’s pretty much a mistake.” I know I’m a teacher who encourages analysis, and we spend most of our lives up there in our heads, but hypocrisy to the ocean wind: that line is the truth right now.

This trip marks a spontaneous and independent bookmark on overthinking a little less and re-learning a little more.  Like Tamara Levitt’s masterclass, the best type of happy isn’t a feeling of excitement or productivity; those are great and separate. It’s one of surprise and gratitude. Had I let practicality or fear take over, two usual (but aging) suspects in my way, had I let myself stay comfortable in routine, or had I overthought the details of this trip, it’s likely I’d submit to previous outcomes and miss not only a chance at proving something to myself and my family but also re-learning simple gifts about life.

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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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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?

 

Snow, Ghormeh Sabzi, and Creativity

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Much of the Georgia around me was swept unexpectedly under what felt like a foot of snow this weekend. In the past, warnings of ice and snow would come in scary tones on the news. This time, though, it felt different; even the weathermen were caught off guard. Later over the weekend when we got power back, I think I heard one of them apologizing on the news. Predicting weather was always somewhat of an oxymoron, so no apologies necessary.

Released early from school on Friday, we all found ourselves back at the house. The neighbors who were making snow men across the street came over. Kids played in the icy play dough with the awkward joy of a southern kid whose mom just quickly stacked them up in some clothes as his limbs jazzed around. Snow melted inside my house all day. We put towels everywhere and put the coat hanger by the crackling fireplace.

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By 7 am Saturday morning, I saw what I always hear under my ears on snow days; I marveled at the “north wind’s masonry” and felt I was part of the “privacy of storm.” The snowman became a relic on the shelf of yesterday’s adventure. I felt good that the kids got to see the type of snow they see in the movies, but I was surprised to reflect that my favorite part of the storm was when I was the only one awake, and I walked outside the front door to take these pictures. I wore Kal’s shoes and made deep imprints in the fresh snow. Tree branches were fatigued and said a crooked hello; the sky and the ground were unanimous.

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By the next day, things were cautiously bubbling outside again–cars picking up some speed and mail getting delivered. I got out of pajamas and got fancy for a Persian lunch with new friends from Oregon. I was in a soltani mood and feeling extra chatty after our 2-day winter shut down. One of our guests ordered ghormeh sabzi, essentially the Iranian national dish. She asked Kal if he likes this iconic dish since like her husband, he’s not Persian either. He confessed it’s the only dish he doesn’t like. We talked about how its the kind of dish whose hard-won scent is so distinct that it will dominate, permeating house and body. She said when she lived in Iran, she never wanted to eat it because of its common and nagging aroma, but now she always orders it whenever she can because she can’t cook it at home, and mainly, she wants to carry the smell with her to her house and to her body. It’s her way of reconnecting.

It’s life–the way we change our minds about something because our circumstances change. The courage we have to say it’s okay to carry something new you’ve discovered about yourself even if its as simple as eating the thing you never loved and relishing in the symbol. I was reading a collection of poems my cousin Shadi bought me called Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle. Each poem best carries the weight of its creation when its read by itself. Micro prose can feel like water color when sped through, but I had the time beneath the snow to just read through the little poems anyway.

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What I liked most about the text is her introduction.

She says that when “healing happened, the fire that was burning within me simmered down…It’s like my senses decided to power off because the darkest parts of me had been healed by the vibrant hues of electrifying truth…Perhaps they figured I didn’t need my vibrancy anymore because, well, I had found it.” She says honestly that she doesn’t want pain and trauma to be her “resting place” anymore despite the art it created; instead, she will focus on “growth and resilience.”

While Elle has her own distinct story, I found a common place here in the words I think all new artists should read: “I feared that my contentment wasn’t what people wanted to read about. In my mind, I assumed more eyes would be looking for the pain to relate to. Who wants to read about happiness when they are still in the thick of aching and turmoil? Nevertheless, I hope whoever is reading this wants a different view and perspective…preparing for joy is just as important as healing from hurt.”

I value this admission. Some of us who seek art to fill our bellies with whatever it so desperately craves fear that the best work is created in the midst of the ache-current. It’s like the escalating, chaotic blooming sound Claire hears when she is about to go through the stones and through another time in Outlander. But that can’t be the homeroom every time you want to make art, at least for me anyway; to rely on that would be more like seeking the pattern of an addict. I’m learning this myself as I’m in the changing room with my own process. I’m realizing that to rely on what used to work is immature. To rely on the ache of expressing something forgone isn’t enough and can produce work that is meaningful, but not in the way I may be seeking in the long run. Like the famous resilient Persian dish, the markers that used to launch the creative process can just flavor on their own while I sit at the same desk but write into something else from another place, in another time, with another way.

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Accepting the Magic

I haven’t wanted to write another post after Chile Part 2. The canvas of that trip has become the image I see when I close my eyes, and I can’t figure out how to create another. I recall those 4 nights in Chile when I need to remember magic. When the background noise is a jagged jutting of nonsensical You Tube kids videos and kids arguing over who gets the remote while I’m trying to pick up after everyone, I have found myself closing my eyes and channeling that magnitude.

Each night when we walked out of our hotel room, I would gasp audibly when I looked up and saw the brilliant stars existing up there. I wonder if they see us with the same awe, stars looking down on us while we look up at them, both of us angling our necks and wondering what is going on over there. Just like I haven’t been able to make a mark here on this site, having a strange fear that writing something else will erase the imprint of the trip, I haven’t been able to take but just a cursory glance at the night’s sky in Georgia since returning. My capricorn sign says I’m a loyal person, and so perhaps the loyalty has stayed firm in my commitment to the blessing of that magical trip and that Chilean sky.

It was only yesterday that I looked up at the night’s sky on my way home from dinner and thought I’d love to smoke a wayward cigarette on the porch and wonder with the sky like I did on so many cold nights last year. I figured then that I have preserved the luggage tags long enough and that it was time to return to the magic of the continent of the real world I live in.

Through magic, I’m having the novel of the owner of the Libreria translated to English so I can continue to dig my hands in the mysterious and story-filled sand. I can only grasp the literal words when I try on my own. Spanish seems to be the breeze in my life these days, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s a sign of something I need to pursue or just something I’m observing more now since my senses are heightened. For example, I went to the land of llamas, and I see them in every holiday display these days; Allende came out with her latest novel, and true to Allende’s birth country, the protagonist is from Santiago. Just seeing the city’s name on the page is like remembering a nestled romance. I just went to a show where Spanish was everywhere. Andrea and I joke that, basically, Chilean anything seems to be the new black. My gift to myself tomorrow is both to stay at home since we’ve been busy all week and to watch this incredible documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, for the second time, post-trip, since I’m still pretty nostalgic in a different way myself.

The magical doesn’t just live far away in South America though. Magical is defined as something “beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.” Chile was removed from my everyday life and entered into a realm between spiritual and supernatural. What took me there transformed into marks like an invisible constellation tattooed across my forearm. And now that I’m back, I’m still observing inside and outside of things. I’ve had some unusual magic here in reality, too.

As a teacher, I get a week off during Thanksgiving break. I don’t ever remember this week as a truly restful break; it usually isn’t. We’ve had the sweet company of aunts and cousins, and while pictures of us all together show fun, coordinated outfits, red lipstick, and poised selfies, I have to be honest and say that I can be a total monster behind all of that. Before guests come over, for example, my pleas for help to pick up the house escalate, and I become the worst version of myself. I am disgruntled and even resentful that things aren’t the way I want them to be. I don’t need to have a neat house because it makes me look like a better human than anyone else; I need a neat house because there are so many other small messes and decisions in life that I feel the foundation has to be clean for my brain to handle the other stuff.

So on Monday, I was racing around even more than usual to clean corners. I was up until 2 am stuffing shells and rolling kofta meatballs and preparing dinner for 20 guests. I know they are the most forgiving audience, but I wanted to show them I appreciate them by making the event as elegant as I could. The whimsy of all of this is the big-bulbed, yellow lights strung up over our deck, the cousins putting on dance contests with their own bluetooth speaker—independent of the music we played inside the house—and the fun they giggled at outside. I looked outside at one point and saw kids sliding down the zip line we have up between two tall trees while other kids were eating cookie cake and joking kid jokes probably about emojis and poop, two favorite topics of discussion it seems.

Inside the house, we played old Persian music videos like Hamsafar while my cousin and I used plastic forks as microphones, reenacting the video as two young loves in front of an orange fire, Kal’s crackling masterpiece every evening. Guests cracked walnuts and devoured butter cakes and sang along. Something picturesque was stirring through it all. The preparation monster inside me subsided, and I finally had fun while they had fun. Even though my food may have been a tad under salted, it was made with desire and seemed truly appreciated. Even though I forgot to get little toy tokens for the kids; they didn’t seem to need anything else but their independence outside. And even though I drove myself nuts over details, it seemed to pay off in laughter and in family.

The biggest magic of my reality is my children’s forgiveness. They are like the beach in the morning. All the marks in the sand are erased at night and by morning, the sand is renewed. My kids didn’t even skip a beat at my own shame of being more of the kind of host I want to be rather than of the kind of mother I want to be. They may just have to accept this part of who I am, and I’m working on that acceptance myself.

The truth is, my children who may read this one day, I’m a preparer. My heart is full of desire, and I want to be all the things at once despite my humanity. I sit at Starbucks for an hour or two longer so I can write. I know you’re sad that I am not sitting next to you watching You Tube videos, and I hope you can magically forgive me for that, too.

And the final magical imprint I’d like to share with you of my continent’s reality is this picture of Layla taking polaroids during our nature hike up Kennesaw Mountain on Thanksgiving morning.

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The boys went ahead of us because what was important to Layla was to take photos and to take everything at her own pace. I resisted my urge to speed walk up the mountain.  Layla took her snack breaks. She was proud of what she’d packed for the short journey; she ate granola bars every 15 minutes, which I laughed at inside since she called it “refueling” when we’d hardly burned any fuel.  And I was patient. I gave her what she needed, and she took little rectangular photos and chatted with me about every little thing on her mind.

Both kids had their little cameras. Zade wore my scarf around his neck, looking Parisian (in a NYC hat, nonetheless) while he walked with his hands in his pockets.

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So that’s where I want to end this message, post-canvas. I began it with the memory of my faraway, special place, and I’m ending it here with the magical clearing that’s there when I am able to open my eyes and be what I need to be when I need to be it.

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Chile: Part 1

The trip has only just begun, but I’ve already been overwhelmed with so much emotion both in preparation for it and in the journey to our final location that I am afraid I won’t be able to catch up to how fresh it is by the time I am back home and sit down to write at my desk. Doing that would surely offer a wider reflection that includes all parts not only behind the scenes but also ahead of them. Using the terms of the many photographers who have tried to capture the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, it would give me a better panoramic view of my experience. I’d even be able to upload larger picture files. Instead, though, I’m going to work with what I have and write what I know now.

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At some point in the early summer, Andrea and I were talking on the phone. The house was asleep. I had my laptop open while we talked, and I was looking up words like Santiago, Calama, Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Desert, and listening to her tell me again about how she wants to travel there to see all of its wonders and to help write her finish her novel. The primary backdrop to her novel is this astronomical and geological mystery that she knew so well intellectually but wanted to see for herself. I squeaked out that maybe I can come, too. I had some story interest in this region as well, and this was a chance to see my friend’s dream actualized. This became our little writer’s retreat. Andrea, who calls me her practical Capricorn and who has always wanted us to travel somewhere together, might have fallen out of her chair in shock when I said I may come. Getting the family approval was the first struggle, but I was going to try to make it happen. Going with her could only have been written in the stars because there were so many odds against my going to this completely random and faraway place in another continent.

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It’s usually the Geminis in my life, like Andrea, who inspire (or badger) or motivate (or ask relentlessly) me to say yes to something outlandish. Wherever that guidance has taken me is usually something difficult for me at the time, but ends up being something I never regret because it stamps something else to my character and forges something in my relationships. This capricorn who dreams while sitting steadfast in a chair gets catapulted into the adventure she seeks because of these passionate Geminis. So, I worked all day, took the kids to lessons and ice cream, sent them off to soccer practice, got in an Uber with a stranger named Andrew, sat in a flight from Atlanta to Santiago for over 9 hours, in an airport for 4 hours after that, in another plane to Calama for 2 hours, and then an 1 hour and thirty minute drive to the hotel to what has seemed to me now as this: to sit on the edge of something beautiful.

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In the plane, I got to see the path of The Andes and the lines of the desert that Andrea called sand rivers. They looked to me like an open palm, flat to be read. Like anything we see in nature, the awe we have to living art is akin to the awe we reflect in ourselves.

Boarding our flight to Calama, I noticed the plane was filled mostly with men, and the airport was the same way after we got back. It turns out that they are here for the Chuquicamata copper mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. That rugged industry and local information felt incongruous to the music in the restrooms; at one point Elton John was singing “Your Song” to the backdrop of the airport, and Pretty Woman’s theme song played at the previous airport, the comical side of globalization.

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The car ride to the hotel was wondrous. The  land here is incomprehensibly fantastical. Mostly, this area is unpopulated. In the car, I learned there are about 16 million people in Chile, 8 of them in Santiago, and about 1500 of them in this small area we’re in now.

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Roads are clear, the land is an expanse of myriad things. In my mind I see a time of tribes or a time of dinosaurs.  Where there seems to be very little human life on the setting around us here, there are surprising images everywhere. I wrote on my phone on the way here that my brain doesn’t understand how snowcapped mountains are the backdrop of a dry desert. I understand roughly that it’s all a result of science from years ago, glaciers, rain, The Pacific Ocean, the Andes of the East, the Humbolt current of the west. But like I told Andrea after seeing the most magnificent, pure night sky last night, this place for me is like tasting different palette-inspiring dishes that leave you wondering about their ingredients, about the Chef’s magic.

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I saw Saturn’s rings, or moons, last night. I saw the haze of the milky way galaxy. I learned about star cemeteries and black holes. After climbing 60 stone stairs to the observatory, I reclined on a lawn chair, like the ones you’d lean on and view the ocean waves, and instead looked up at drops of blinking stars. Our ancestors saw the sky without cities, overpopulation, and pollution, and I felt that I went back in time to join them for thirty minutes when our star guide, Pablo, told us his narrative of the stars. He used words that messed with any concrete resolution I’ve had of time, of humans, of organic matter, and of history.

After eating a delicious meal—while desperately trying to stay steadfast to a diet that may prevent the heavy altitude sickness that prevails among newcomers to this part—and star gazing, we called it an early night to get ready for a day of quiet acclamation.

I’m sitting on the patio of our room with my feet burning in the sun and my hands gently cracking from the crisp, cool air. I see a person or two walking quietly among the grounds of the hotel, which looks more like a sanctuary. Every time I look up from this computer, which is stringing together dusty connection, and see it, I can’t believe it. And I know for certain, just like the pictures I saw of this country before I got here, that pictures cannot do this place justice. And by “it” I mean both the grand gasp this region gives you on the inside and the ancient beauty it displays on the outside. It’s a place of incongruity yet a place of symmetry. I hope I can search these early ideas more as I move on through the days here.

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New Framing Turf

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I am new at this official sport stuff. It’s no secret to my friends that sports for me can be like walking through a zoo; I stop and pause at the exhibits, nodding and reading the descriptions, and then I decide I want funnel cake and wander off. But yesterday, we bought a couple of red sports chairs so we could sit at the sidelines. I sat in one while getting to know parents on the same green turf as me while we watched kids play their first soccer games. When I got home, I noticed my chest and shoulders got red from the sun. I’d say we are officially in new-soccer season terrain.

We’ve somehow branched away from the rec soccer camps we’ve done before–the kind where not knowing the rules of the game was okay. I had to find a blue shirt from Layla’s closet to turn inside out for her game. I’d ordered one color and not the other, so I had to make do. It’s when we ran from one soccer game to Dick’s to buy cleats and shin guards for the other soccer game that we decided to really get sporty with those chairs.

Looking up to the week before the games, I could see all the black expo ink on the house calendar and worry about the stuff I knew was coming up that hadn’t even made it on there. This year I made the hard call not to not sponsor any extra clubs at work and that I would be smart about what I let slip into the work/activities week. I even had to put up a limited-number sign-up list for students who requested a college rec letter; I’ve done 30 each year in between all the things, and those take so much time for me.  A lot of last year had seemed less of a time management issue and more of an omg-there-is-too-much-on-here-to-be healthy issue. So I’ve started clipping coupons with time, so to speak.

After the games, the kids left a path of wet jerseys and black shorts across the floor. I picked them up while I got ready to head out again to help a friend write a college admission essay, a promise I felt worthy enough for the calendar. Each part of the day was full. I came home wiped out like most of the women I know on Saturday evenings. I’ve written stuff like that before, but I hope the small difference between last time and this time is lasting: it is going with the flow of things rather than against it.

Natural disasters like the ones going on around us now, of course, change the answers to the question, “To what are you committed?” To echo one of my students, we need essentials like safety in order to reach up to happiness.  With the privilege of safety, I started thinking about my commitments and the things that make my family happy (happy wife, happy life!), and once again like the women around me, it feels like everything–to my family, my students, health, authenticity, home, etc.  Recently, though, I co-presented on a professional development for the classroom that involved how we should frame things–and change the way we think about overarching unit questions– to promote cross-curricular understanding and critical thinking (for all parties involved). Extending beyond the classroom, I got to thinking today about why this academic year feels more peaceful than last year despite similar demands, a busy calendar, and the same “busy busy” text messages. I think some credit should be given to how this year is framed.

The way the crazy is paced this year feels more deliberate. It doesn’t change the load, but it changes the way I feel about it. If I frame this stage of my life as, “What kind of mom do I want to be during this short stage of their life?” or “How do all these black expo marks add up in the big picture?,” it helps me find true steadiness in things I have to let go and things I’ve had the privilege to keep.  It doesn’t mean I won’t serve the questions that frame other characteristic of my identity or that I haven’t stopped writing this piece at least 40 times to break arguments or pour cereal into bowls,  but it does mean I am a little less weary of all the things. It means that more than before, I feel peace with this. I’m tired but full because it’s clicking–those small changes and the feelings around them. 

You know that game we all play of what would you do if you won the lotto? Kal and I will do that sometimes on car rides or on the porch. That conversation can start broad and then get personal. After all that imaginary money is spent, I usually tell Kal that the simplest thing to do instead of criticizing aspects of your life is to just change your perspective about it. Not easy, but simple. We usually rock back and forth on that for a minute and walk back inside the house.

Lastly, I attended Jen Pastiloff’s “On Being Human” yoga-ish writing workshop a few weekends ago. Over 70 women sat mat to mat in a hot room while honesty poured out of them after a pastiche of yoga moves, dancing, and hugging. Of her many thought-provoking questions (I think on so many of them even now), Jen asked us, “What is your bullshit story?”–that story that keeps you from doing something, makes you feel shitty, or is in rotation on your feedback reel. I think when you’re a working mom who is also so curious about experiences outside of your family, it’s really challenging to just focus on patience with the stuff it takes to raise children, and even more to to find genuine satisfaction in it. I have several bullshit stories, one of them being “she’s too busy.” Busy can be misconstrued as exclusive (of the things we don’t have time for) when it really is the effect of being the most inclusive as possible. Busy doesn’t mean I don’t have a choice; I’m just searching hard to make the right ones. 

At the end of the evening as I drove home from tutoring, I–for the first time ever–listened to college football news on the UGA and Notre Dame game because, hey, I’ve been telling myself that bullshit story for awhile about not understanding sports when really I just didn’t care to. These kids, my new red chairs, and their blue soccer uniforms may guide me otherwise. 

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Unrounded thoughts on the way things line up

IMG_8629It takes a certain patience to watch women speak in different stages. This weekend at a crafty and beautiful baby shower, I heard the voice of a young lady sitting next to me, and it went up and down with a higher frequency, filled with a pattern I’ve heard before and probably abided by myself. That equally heartfelt and feigned adult. That voice represents a smaller waist, a confidence that looks over her shoulder, and a youth that makes me want to swear I never sounded my age.

But the truth is that girl–kind of a symbol of all of us when we were in our 20s–really wants to be 26, talking in a steady voice about the career she’s started right after college. And even that curious girl at 26 will still wait for things to happen and be glad she’s not 19 anymore, barely remembering details that were once important to her.

To my left sat a great grandmother, poised with nails painted red and wedge heels crossed at the ankles. We talked intermittently–exchanging dessert recipes and inappropriate jokes–and then we just sat and looked around at people engaging at the party. I couldn’t help seeing myself trying to forgive myself at 20. I wondered how all my exuberance and practiced maturity sounded to all the older women around me then.

At the same time, though, when I was 12, my mom had a friend in Chicago who would ask me to come over to hang out, which sounded so adult (and maybe a little weird out of context). She’d make me tea and she would vent to me about the disappointments in her  life. She had three kids and was probably in her late 30s.  I loved our conversations. Like many of my mom’s friends, she said I was so mature for my age, and that made me feel grown. My listening ear is sharp, but what about the things I said and felt when I was younger? Did I embarrass myself? Did I not embarrass myself enough?

It takes a lot of patience and empathy to remember how it is when you’re younger.

I wished I could talk to the great-grandmother about what she sees when she looks out at all the chatting women. How do you lean over someone at a party and say, “Hey, how does this all look to you now that you’re so much older from it?”  I imagine she is far removed from the young ladies and sees it all as stages she passed without realizing she was in them. Her generation’s popular culture didn’t insist so much self-awareness.  

In light of the solar eclipse heading our way, NPR’s science correspondent Nell Greenfieildboyce wrote a captivating article on umbraphiles, or shadow lovers, who are a “part of a small community of people whose lives orbit around total solar eclipses.” Many are captivated by its “otherwordly” or “emotional” charm. I was instantly captivated by this idea of shadow lovers roaming continents for this experience. One man says, “You may intellectually understand the workings of our solar system, and the vastness of time and space, he says, “but a total solar eclipse makes you feel it.”

How much about that sentence captures your own world? Don’t we intellectually understand how things work–college, marriage, divorce, childbirth, sacrifice–but a particular moment, most often after it, that makes you feel it.

I think back on most of my 20s–mainly before I had kids–not with a view of superiority like it may seem I’m referring, but with a sadness for moments I didn’t understand. The times I felt I understood what I didn’t, like trying to fix a family feud that I had no business doing or giving up control over my life over to others, and I feel like there is a sliver of me who was acting the part instead of truly chasing authentic emotion for the wonder of it.

The most fulfilled I am is usually when the moment has passed and I have quiet to think about it. I’m not busy engaging, preparing, entertaining, or adjusting. 

 The eclipse we may stand in a shadow to feel next week is a symbol, too, of the gift of experience. 

This “cosmic quirk of geometry” feels so intriguing to me because it’s impossible to remove the timeliness and the wonder of it; for most of us, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Isn’t that with every moment in our life? Every night I tuck my kids in, every show I watch with Kal at night; they are unique despite their ordinary.

With this eclipse, we are responsible for knowing the time is now. It makes me want to put the hype and energy for the moment in a bottle, ready to down it when I’m caught up with everything else. It also makes me want to go back to that younger self–voice of higher frequency and all– and visit for awhile. I’d want to wake her up somehow, maybe even urge her to be young a little longer without worrying about how things may line up. It will have beauty either way. 

The men in Greenfieldboyce’s intriguing article agree that the trouble of seeing any eclipse is completely worth it; it’s only the ones they miss that they regret.

My Cup of Water

Just a hot second ago, I walked out of the living room to look for my cup of water. That cup that I filled a few hours ago and stuck a yellow straw in. I used my phone light to check around the sleeping kids’ rooms. Checked Layla’s forehead to make sure her cough hasn’t turned into a fever, touched Zade’s cheek because how could I not, and then made my way back through the living room again. I threw my right hand in the air, a gesture you’d see from an angry pedestrian who just got cut off.  Where is that cup, I asked myself. I walked to the end of the house. Could I have put it in the guest room before dumping clean laundry in it? I clicked on the light. Nope. Maybe it’s in my bedroom near the phone charger. Nope, not there. Oh, maybe it’s near the oversized chair. Nope. Finally, I walked to the bathroom and clicked on the light, and there it was–on the counter where I put it before bathing Zade.

I must have walked past that room 3 times before looking into it. The answer was practically right in front of me, and I kept missing it. In the meantime, I asked myself if I had even poured the water in the first place; maybe that was yesterday and I’m confusing the memory; and why did I just remember to drink water when I’ve been thirsty?

These questions and this moment are hardly worth writing about except that they are; in fact, they are entirely representative of the last few weeks. The water quest was simple: I went searching for something that I knew I needed. The answer was pretty close to my face. I doubted myself in the process, and then when I found the thing I needed, I took a cool sip.

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Yesterday, Andrea and I went to a long-awaited City and Colour concert. We had brief spurts of quiet time to chat since we only had one full day together, but our talk gave me the place to exhale about some shadows cast on the last few months. Over hot tea and with some road time, some of my words came out clearly, slicing fog with each syllable, while other words sought the safety of friendship because they were of a different kind–that kind where we speak ideas out loud so that we can uncage them and see how we feel about them, giving me a chance to examine each with the perspective of my own third party.

In fact, I’m trying to help a friend and also myself by listening to this on audible. There is an exercise that advocates instead of pushing away the multiplicitous thoughts that may affect you negatively, you identify them, or dare I say, classify them. My interpretation has been that when the cluttering thoughts stream unannounced through your mind, you may say the following back to yourself: “I notice you’re thinking about the way you think she may be judging you again, ” or, ” I notice you’re replaying what you said at the meeting again.” It’s strange at first, but then it can be just the right shift in thought.

I’ve been doing some of this type of listening and filtering, and it’s been so interesting to see how things take shape. For example, I’m nearing the conclusion that my mind-thieves love to create a person’s expectations of me and then let me judge myself against them, which is neither fair to him nor to myself. It’s going to take work to bring that bad habit to a minimum. Like so many motivated people around me who wonder, where does all this effort go, I want to make it count, making my way–whoever else that satisfies–authentic.

Of course you can’t be happy all the time, but you can aim for that beautiful, ephemeral high and land among the peaceful. I feel deeply the last words of Girls tonight: “Kids are super-easy. It’s being an adult that’s hard.”

I can see the answer right in front of me: satisfaction comes from peace of mind, and there are only so many things in our busy lives that are worth our precious time. The stuff resembling water, and the stuff that complements our shared experience. I am working through how I can be better about putting this to practice in my world of ever-stretchy expectations.

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February

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I’m sitting on the deck while Zade dips plastic figures into a concoction of warm water, grass, and mud. It’s breezy and in the low 60s, perfect day for a run or a hike, but I’ve propped up my legs, one with a bag of frozen peas at my ankle. I’ve got a 10k coming up soon, and I need these ankles to work right.

It’s unseasonably warm outside. Stuff is in bloom. Every time I see something fluffy white, or bright yellow, or low lavender, I have to remind myself it’s just February. Instead of having spring joy, I feel cautiously aware at how forced the weather feels, blooms confused, opening like a confused bear out of hibernation to a fickle pretense–that it will stay warm enough to sustain its glory. These spring buds have a weird edge to them, a reminder that when you’re not ready for something, we’ll look awkward as we build trust for it.

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This last month has been an unseasonable race as well. The election started the year with an earthquake, and then life has to go on, radio dialed up on the way to Publix, hosting meetings for students while making doctor appointments.

Our life, with my mischievous calendar, is up to no good, and it’s burning me out.  I’m legit trying out breathing exercises and having moments of rebellion so I can rise to responsibilities. It’s not that my world is unique; we’re all busy. It’s that I feel hyper-aware at how fast days move to the next. My friend got me a dreambook planner that reminds me what so many of us come to over and over again:

“Your energy flows in the direction of your attention. What you put your attention on grows and becomes a theme of your life–whether you mean for this or not…As you take your last breaths, what do you want to have done with your life?”

Reading this the other day made sense and also freaked me out a bit, especially the, “what you put your attention on grows and becomes a theme of your life” part. I had this freakish image of my life being a series of working at the same school for 30 years, folding crumpled heaps of laundry Sisyphean style, telling my kids to stop yelling at each other. Would those tasks represent big thematics in my life? It fed into some major insecurities.

But looked at from a broader lens (after I calmed down and walked away from the crumbs on the floor), I guess, the lines could suggest a different version of those statements: that I’m shaping and getting shaped by a good community; that I’m taking care of my family the best way I know how; and that I’m trying to teach my children to respect each other. The minutia (and the noise) absolutely feels gargantuan in these unseasonable Februaries. I know I have to continuously work on letting the unimportant stuff go, but like my mom says, this is life. What is part of our life right now, filled with stuff that busy our lives that we hope are filled with the right, the optimum, the real, the raw, the meaningful, and the loved–this is life.

And if you’re like me and have 9,000 photos of this messy life on your phone, watch this commercial, give its advertising team major kudos (they nailed it), and get a “magazine subscription to your life.” I finally did it and feel like it was the right decision, and those certainties in this flip-flop February are hard-earned.

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