Leaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What truly makes me happy is ______.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Happiness is a multifaceted idea.”

“Happiness comes from simple things.”

“Happiness is intangible.”

“There is no one definition of happiness.”

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

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

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

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The Brew

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYC Revelations

A few weeks ago, I was packing for a pivotal week-long seminar on the Empire City at Columbia University in New York. I had a list on my phone of things I wanted to prepare for the kids before I left and an equally long list of things I needed to do for myself (order Zade’s eczema cream, get a backpack for the trip). To prepare for my sojourn, I found myself hiding notes and making a scavenger hunt for the days I was going to be away from the kids so that they’d have something to look forward to in my absence. I wanted them to have moments away from me which would make it easier for me to have moments away from them.

My week-long adventure with my friend Tally was filled with historical sites like visiting presidents’ homes and adventurous sites like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. And some tourist attractions like the beautiful central park. Oh, and let’s not forget a blissful moment while reading on Columbia’s beautiful campus.

3 Reading Age at Columbia

7 Walking B Bridge

5 Samira and Tally at Central Park

5 Historical Site

6 Lincoln's House

But it’s so hard to slow down without revving up and preparing to do so. To enjoy the moments ahead, it may take me months of mental preparation to allow myself to get in the zone, and the same goes for an upcoming trip with my kids.

We have a family trip approaching to Canada to see my extended family, and I’m struggling to allow for current, organic, centered moments when I’m meticulously prepping for an international trip.

Like so many, I’m both comforted and discouraged by the noble goal: live in the moment. Reflecting on the moments once they’ve passed is just easier (makes sense since I like to write about them later). I’m so proud of myself when I’m in it though– having that conversation, cozying up in the present glow of it all. “Here it is,” I think. “There’s that look I’ll always remember; I’m so glad we are playing hide and seek instead of folding laundry; look at how they are both holding my hands while we walk across the street, how they fight just to be with me.” These are the sentences I exchange with myself when I’ve clicked in and have felt, even briefly, completely in the moment.

14 Chelsea

I picked up a book by Jennifer Senior called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood in a bookstore in the Chelsea Market. I was reluctant about the title (no fun, really?), but I felt so much comfort in the few revelations I read before decidedly walking to the cashier. Her voice will dominate this post, but I hope it helps anyone who reads it the way it has helped me.

Senior leads to bold ideas. She states, for example, “Not all that long ago, mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of controlling how large their families were, or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence we modern parents do….Today, however, adults often view children as one of life’s crowing achievements [and approach them as] they would any other ambitious life project…We have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives.”

Her laying it flat out like this unsettled me a bit at the first read, but a greater part of me enjoyed reading this helpful criticism of the modern parent. Yes, being a parent is dichotomous– maybe just as selfish as it is selfless. What a thought. What a juxtaposition, offering so many areas to consider.

She gains my trust because she’ll balance a deduction like that with emotionally intelligent observations like this: In one instance, she describes a mother who tries to play a game with her child right after his nap, but when her child is resistant to what usually works, she just tilts her head and adjusts. Instead of continuing her pirate game or tickling her son, she “holds her son in a koala hug as she finds a beautiful Spanish ballad. They start to slow-dance. It clicks. The music forms a cocoon around them, as if I’m not even there. Abe melts onto his mother’s shoulder. She breathes him in.”

I feel I’ve been on the both sides of this about thirty times a day—the side who is just trying to make it and feels tremendous guilt for not being a perfect project leader, and the side who has a glimpse of what it’s like to savor that hand on the cheek or that burst of choral giggles.  I find genuine comfort in the idea that we modern parents put so much pressure on ourselves, a pressure that wasn’t always there when the idea of having a family was more of a reality of life than a choice in life.

Senior acknowledges why so many of the moments we have with our small children feel so “hard-won, so shatterable, and so fleeting, as if located between parenthesis.” Quoting Daniel Gilbert,  a social psychologist at Harvard, Senior justifies, “Everyone would like to be in the present…The difference is that children, by definition, only live in the present, which means that you, as a parent, don’t get much of a chance. “Everyone is moving at the same speed toward the future,” he says. “But your children are moving at that same speed with their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer.”

Sigh. Relief. Thank you for sentences like these that comfort the anxious side of me that is planning dinner or writing a mental email when my kids are doing something memorable. Thank you for reminding me that I’m just steering, and sometimes I really can’t do that with my eyes closed to feel the breeze.

I can’t predict spontaneous and beautiful moments. That would defeat the point.

But I won’t forget the sound of my kids excitedly screaming, “Mommy!” when they picked me up from the airport last week, or the way that I dropped to my knees to greet them. I won’t forget that I needed intellectual time away from the grind of daily tasks and that I enjoyed my time as a student; the equal best part of that is the renewed way I sunk myself into that moment.

12 Greeting Kids

11 greeting kids

So here it is, folks. My confession: Preparation is often the biggest factor in helping me enjoy the moment. I’m glad to know that it’s just a version of me steering. Yes, I’ll catch a look Layla makes when she’s engrossed in a story, and I’m floored by how good it feels to witness it.

2 Layla thinking

But on the other days, on the everyday days, I’ve found it’s the moments I literally carve out that give me the freedom to embrace them.