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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Endurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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