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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Parrot

Layla playing. Pic taken by Zade

My kids have been getting into a lot of trouble lately, and it’s exhausting. It seems like most conversations involve bartering and logical banter. I think most parents recognize that the only one walking away feeling foolish after trying to create a syllogism with a child is the adult.

My kids will need to pick up their toys when they’re done with them.

Layla and Zade are my kids.

Therefore, Layla and Zade will need to pick up their toys when they’re done with them.

It’s simple, really. But it doesn’t come out this way (if it comes out at all). Right around when I’m telling the kids they can play with blue play dough if they pack it up and put it away, Zade asks, “Where’s the green truck?” I pause and get back to what I was saying, and Layla, who is wearing a cardigan and faux riding boots like a 17-year old, yells over my throaty words as she defends, “But I didn’t put those Legos there. I told Zade to clean them UP!” I sit there wondering how every simple explanation became such a small battle. As I hand Zade the green truck and assuage Layla’s defense for an issue I wasn’t even thinking about, I try to breathe through my frustration.

Zade with hat

There are times I desperately parry with them as their high and higher voices pitch over my rational self. I look like an adult with my bigger body and my title, Mom, but if I were to open up like a new children’s book, one could see a picture of me having a tantrum. I pat myself on the back when I winnow the important stuff, separating the noise from what needs to happen. Mostly, though, I’ve heard the way I sometimes sound to them through the boisterous parroting of my children.

Today while I was cooking, I tuned in.  When Layla got mad at Zade, I heard her express, “Zade! What did I tell you? You’re not listening! I just need some quiet time!” Or when they played with their dolls and action figures together, Zade disciplined Spiderman with a long time-out and a lecture. He told me not to let Spiderman out of the room for five minutes because Spiderman hit his sister with the small toy car.  Their cathartic role play was quite funny as they tested out an authoritative command with such little voices.  I chopped tomatoes for the salad as I listen to them innocently use my models.

If I listen sharply enough, I hear a standard I’m setting with my kids. When I’m just reacting in the best way I can as I put out toddler fires, my kids are unconsciously taking note of my voice inflections, my proud parenting moments, and sometimes (whether I want them to or not) my own interior toddler tantrums. I’m both within and without in these moments, the mom governing and the mom watching from 15 years away.

Kids with umbrella

As the sun went down tonight, the kids played together well again, but soon enough they transitioned to bickering passionately. It wasn’t until they saw that Kal had started the sprinkler outside that they dropped their argument in uniform excitement.  They joined forces and forgot their mommy parody. They dolloped on their shoes and funny accessories and ran through the water, liberated. Together they knew that fun was waiting for them and they were going to reach for it together no matter the temperature or the time. I felt relieved to see the kids move back into their own voices, their own way of being.

I reflect on our feelings so often that a reprieve from seeing a magic mirror of my parent self is definitely welcomed. I am warmed, however, thinking about Layla and Zade’s future jokes about my mannerisms and eventual go-to lecture lines. I know my brother and I certainly share our own about our parents. And the inevitable continues, as our present gives fodder for the future.

Panorama

I am not a night owl. The closest I get to one is in the summer when I’m not exhausted enough to want to sleep just yet. I love the dark sky on the way to work and the promise of the eventual sunrise. There are some hectic mornings where I’m just lucky I didn’t forget to put on a bra and that I got all the lunches made in time, but there are other smooth mornings where I may even stop to get something warm to drink, those mornings when I walk to the school building not looking forward to the doors but looking up past them, noticing the trees changing and the sky lightening up.

I set four alarm times on my phone before I go to sleep at night. After I get up, my mornings are often filled with checks, my eyes darting from my task to my phone, a consistent check of the minutes, counting backwards to see how much time is left before Layla’s shoes need to be tied. The inevitable rush to be somewhere that yanks us from side to side can make us blind sometimes.  I’m consistently aware that I’m taking something for granted. I want to gently scold myself with lines from that beautiful Lauryn Hill song, “It could all be so simple, but you’d rather make it hard…you let go, and I’ll let go, too.”

It reminds me of the seasons and how unconsciously nature handles its responsibilities— so similar to how I feel I handle mine, doing what needs to be done for the next phase, but I struggle at times to see the full beauty in it all. I’ve found myself exhausted at the never-ending clutter of life. It’s like the more I do, the less I do.

The fall checked me this year. It’s been quietly waiting for me to see that it’s arrived. Patient like a great grandmother who has seen it all, autumn calmly sensed I wasn’t appreciating its brilliance. It tapped me quietly on the shoulder on a rushed trip to a pumpkin patch. A Halloween custom nodded in its direction as well.

Kids and Dooney at Big Springs

Kal and Kids on a hayride

Layla in awe of pumpkin

Layla enjoying the fruits of her labor

Zade and pumpkin

Zade enjoying his pumpkin design

I took the day off on Friday to be a volunteer at Layla’s school. I helped over 140 kindergartners make black cats out of paper plates. Afterwards, we ate lunch in the cafeteria amongst electric personalities, and I read to the kids before the end of the school day. We surprised Zade and picked him up early from his school. We got home in time to rest a bit and get costumed up again to attend a big Halloween party at her school. The day turned out just how I envisioned it when I first decided to devote my time. But by the end of the night, I needed complete silence.

I felt like I did all the right things: I showed Layla I care about her environment at school and connected with her in her new world. When I got home, though, I felt depleted. I didn’t feel fulfilled. It’s so hard for me to write this because it feels dismissive of how deeply I love my children.  It’s not fair to say that I didn’t feel lucky to see Layla so happy or so grateful at her excitement to share her space with me. I tried so hard to tap into the moment, to not feel tired or even regretful that I didn’t share some of that daytime with just myself. How can we live in the present, I ask myself, when it takes so much to get to the present? Truly though, the most frustrating aspect of that day is that all of it—all that effort—wasn’t enough for me to just be full.

On my last day in New York this summer, I gasped for the moment to be with my kids again.  I know that my happiness relies on their happiness. But that’s the biggest part, not the only part, right?

Trees line up in Athens

Thank God for the trees. I saw fall recently, trees going from green to red to orange to yellow. Nature is the vast and infinite landscape that can either mirror or correct my blurry vision. It’s when I look up that I feel I’m talking back at myself and remembering me, the wistful girl who stared out so many windows, romantic in how she saw each person, and felt engaged in her daydreams even when she was alone, or the woman who still embraces these qualities and has some life experiences to deepen them.

Window in Athens

At the end of the day, my way home from work is the small pause from mother, wife, and teacher. The moment I’m by myself for long enough has no role. It takes some time to quiet my mind from the first draft reactions to the day. And after 20 minutes, I take a few deep breaths and breathe out a loud exhale and slowly start building my way back up to me.

Fall pic 1

I saw the fall because it made me see it. It caught me like those slender mornings. Leaves fall off trees and the earth gets cooler, but it all looks so beautiful standing outside of it. I have to trust that my own realities look just as poetic when I take big steps back to see the panorama. I have to forgive myself for not feeling full when I don’t.

I have to see the human nature of it all.