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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The [my] Truth Behind Family Photos

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My son’s school offered family portrait sessions yesterday. I signed up for a slot a few weeks ago because we hadn’t done a family portrait for three years, and the kids have changed a lot since then. Last week, I hastily ordered $250 dollars worth of white clothes online so that I could decide on outfits later. Kal wanted us all to do the classic all-in-white photos, which always looks beautiful in pictures but feels so far from a color I’d associate with a real family.

I arranged the outfits and put away the ones I’d return late this week. Kal has been working exhausting hours, and I’ve been working overtime with other hats to fill in the blank. On Friday, he dropped off the kids with me after school so he could return back to work, and I took Zade to get his hair cut, then to get a gift for a birthday party, then to a party, and then to a playdate. If you’ve been following my life or my posts, you know that my duo has challenged me more than I’ve ever been challenged before.

I know that this statement is sweeping since with kids, one thing gets easier while the other thing gets harder. When they finally start walking and you no longer have to hold them everywhere, you’re then stooped over all the time because they can bump their head on something; when they start eating solids, and you’ve just had your fit over washing that last yellow Medela bottle, your bottle brush is replaced with worry about how small or chewable food is so they don’t choke. Something goes away before you notice it’s gone, and then another thing replaces it, expanding like a prism inside a circle.

The night before family photos ended like this: with me staring across the room as I sat across from a plate of food. I probably looked crazy, absently staring at the blinds over the kitchen sink. Kal asked me why I wasn’t talking, and I said it’s because I know everyone’s response. Life has become routine, the arguments, the grocery shopping, the work, the house. Even the excursions feel predictable sometimes. It sounds utterly insensitive in the face of so many people’s uncertainty. And yet there it is. My own truth.

What he didn’t know was that Friday night ended with Layla’s ice cream on the floor, ketchup all over the shoes, more sibling bickering, total greediness, watching my friend fill out an incident report at Chikfila, and a near vow that I’d never take both my kids out at the same time.  By the time we got home and I was staring at that plate of food, I was totally undone. The word I found in my head was stunned. When words made sense again, I had that metaphorical serious come to Jesus talk with the kids and hoped that their little, unclouded memories would last longer than those small flies that only live for one day.

The next morning, I scrubbed the kids and made them shiny. Blow dried hair, styled outfits, and even repainted nails. Kal was away all morning, and he called and said he may not be able to make the photo session. I about lost it, and then he wisely reconsidered. I got the kids into their shiny, white clothes.  I remembered I’d forgotten to set out my own outfit and put something together. I reminded them not to spill anything on their clothes and frankly, not to move. For the first time, I got myself into the car first because the effort to get out of the house was about to push me over the edge. I sat and waited.

We arrived at the session in two cars so Kal could return to work. As soon as we walked in, Layla started bossing Zade around. She didn’t want to smile in pictures unless she was doing it on her own terms. I was trying to find my smile, and the boys were just doing as they were told.  The kids had smuggled in their most bootleg toys and wanted to put them in the pictures. Writing this now, none of this sounds like anything but kids being kids.

But listen–the me that will read this in five years and want to shake myself and say you missed a great moment or you’re over-reacting–I promise you that life in any circumstance is hard and that the common words we use to depict something can’t do justice to it when we see those same things in a whole new angle. Like when you remember that saying, “time heals all wounds” after a time it applies to you. It doesn’t sound cliche anymore once it does, right?

This morning I woke up with the real sense that God has answered my prayers for authentic experience by giving me this vast thing to sift through: what about that picture is real? What about this life at 34 feels more than what it is? And how do we move forward knowing that the stuff that we control, we can make hard and make routine, and the stuff we can’t control makes us afraid and cautious?

And why are all the little things adding up to so much hard?

By the time we left, I’d had enough of my own looping thoughts. I drove over to my parents’ house. I walked in and the house was warm as always. Persian parents love warm houses; it’s like the AC is their nemesis. We sat at the plastic-covered table, and I vented to my mother. I told her that I know my recent dwellings on marriage and children sound so selfish, but it’s just where I am. I’m not sure why I feel such weight now. Maybe my friend’s melancholy shaded or colored my own, and maybe this is the butterfly effect that happens sometimes. But it’s real.

Mom gave me food for the soul and words to the heart. She took me out to run errands as my dad watched the kids. Before I knew it, I was being sent home with food and my kids were going to spend the night–no toothbrush, just the picture day clothes they came in with.

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My mom’s hand under Layla’s hand

A few hours later, Kal and I had an evening out where we got to hear each other speak to each other while we spoke to others.

I woke up to an upside down house, but I don’t feel as flipped like I did yesterday.

When that email comes and I see the family portraits, I’m going to distinctly remember this year. I pledge I will not diminish the challenges I’m facing now because the pictures are beautiful, inspiring an inevitable nostalgia for a time when things looked easier. I pledge that the truth behind the photo is the parents who helped nurse me back to face reality last night, the effort it takes to wear white, the truths we share with each other every day so that we can continue absorbing, refracting, and spraying light like a prism, where white light sorts out its different components, producing these wavelengths of this life we construct, flowing out colors that we lean back and study.