Sep 3 2013

Gift Card Gratitude

Sheila Gift CardOne of my teacher friends recently received this card from a parent.  Naturally, the gift was to a restaurant/bar, and I’m confident that she used it happily and gratefully.

Teaching is not without its built-in rewards.  I’ve been doing this job long enough to have students come back and visit me; send me Facebook messages from college thanking me for what I do (and what I did when they were in my class as seventh graders); tell me out loud, directly to my face how much they enjoyed having me as their teacher.  I’ve worked with a myriad of complex, diverse, incredible kids, and many of them have open hearts and a willingness to say thanks…even if it’s a few years later.  Their parents are often the same way:  Thankful, kind, supportive, and appreciative.

And let’s not forget the thrill of seeing a struggling student pass the state-mandated test; go on to do something important and special in their lives; demonstrate growth or understanding of a difficult concept; wave excitedly when they see me in the grocery store.

I mean, let’s be realistic:  Teachers don’t do this job for the incredible salary, or the benefits, or the retirement plan.  We don’t do it for the vacations or the job security (which are both growing less and less guaranteed with each passing year anyway).  We teach for the connections and the experience; the playfulness and the fun; the creativity and the love.  (And okay, maybe sometimes for the karma.)  But we don’t do it for the pay.

However…

Occasionally parents and students show their appreciation in concrete ways.  And every single time I get a thank you card, or a book, or a mug, I’m surprised and jubilant.  (I actually collect mugs.  I’m not kidding.)  And then there are the gift cards.

I don’t have expensive tastes.  (I’d better not.  I’m a teacher, after all.)  And I sincerely love a thoughtful note as much as I do any other gift.  I would never treat a student differently if they gave me something, or a particular something for that matter.  I don’t remember them differently, or think of them more favorably.  And I would never expect anything from any of my students or their parents.

But teaching is also very stressful.  And time-consuming.  And exhausting.

So the beauty of the gift card isn’t that it’s expected or needed.  But on those Tuesday nights when I’m working late grading papers; or when I’ve been coaching in the spring and working solid 6-day weeks and I’ve lost my voice for all of the instruction and the talking on the sideline at Ultimate games; or when it’s the end of the month and my bank account is veritably empty…Well, having $10 to spend at my favorite taco place in town is like a fairy godmother.  It means a few quiet moments with my boyfriend, when we don’t have to worry about the cost of our meal.  It means not having to cook.  It means getting off my aching feet and treating myself to some relaxation and reward, without any strings attached or need for justification.  It isn’t about the money or the “present,” it’s about the emotional support and the relief.

…Which is why I store away these little treats like I’m a squirrel.  I know that when those days creep up on me (which they’re sure to do), I’ll have some respite.  And in fact, when I find that Alamo Drafthouse coupon, I’m reminded how thankful I am to be a teacher, and to have that rapport with my students and their parents.  So the stress and the pressure fall away while I crunch away at my popcorn and watch Ryan Gosling on the big screen.

And sure, maybe I’m exaggerating.  But last night Jeff and I celebrated the return to school with a Roommate Dinner, and I used a Central Market gift card for ingredients typically outside my teacher budget.  While we were toasting our new classes and discussing lesson plans over bacon-wrapped scallops, I was also thinking that in some ways the gift card had come full-circle.  That dinner – and the items afforded by the gift – reminded me how very lucky I am.  I’d love my job regardless of these little “thank you” presents.  But they certainly don’t hurt.


Jun 11 2013

Bibles and Cockroaches

A student told me this year that she and her father share a joke.  They kid with each other that on post-apocalyptic planet earth, the only things left will be bibles and cockroaches.  “Those two things are always consistent,” she nodded at me.  “You can count on them.”

I live in Texas, so it’s hard to argue with either.

When I first moved to Austin, my then-boyfriend and I went to the grocery store to stock our kitchen for the first time.  “We’d better get some RAID or something,” he said.

“Why would we do that?” I questioned him.  “Have you seen any cockroaches in the condo?”

I’d never seen a cockroach in my life.  Growing up in rural Massachusetts, I suppose it was just too cold.  Or maybe I’d been lucky.  But Bryant was originally from Baton Rouge; he was a more seasoned traveler than I.  So I agreed.

And sure enough, later that night, our first cockroach appeared.  And I realized that while I’m calm around bees and hornets, and spiders don’t really freak me out, and I’ve held a 100-lb boa constrictor across my shoulders, cockroaches make my skin crawl.  Maybe it’s the fact that they run away from you when you try to ambush them, or the way their little antennae wiggle and shake.  Or it could be that moment when you step into the shower, get your hair all good and lathered up with shampoo, and then turn toward the wall to come face-to-face with one of their crunchy, scaly little bodies, just inches from your nose.

Either way, my transition to Texas was marked by the introduction of cockroaches into my life.

And as for the Bible?  I’d never seen billboards advertising God before.  I’d never heard a State Pledge of Allegiance – nor had I experienced the changing of said pledge to include the word “God”.  I’d never been part of a public school that had a Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  And here’s the thing – I’m not anti-religion, or anti-God, or anti-Christian.  But I still experienced a considerable level of religious culture shock here in my new home state.

I’m coming to grips – ever so very slowly – with the realization that life is full of these changes and transitions.  Some are big, like moving from a small town in Massachusetts to the capital of Texas.  And others are small, like the ending of a school-year and the start of summer.

And even when I’m conscious of the challenges that these changes present for me specifically, they still rattle me.  I always think that I’m eager for summer to begin, but then the last few days of school find me a little weepy, a little fragile, a little sad.  I’m fine while my touring-musician boyfriend is away, but when he returns it’s startling to re-integrate him into my life.  Two years ago I left my current school and began working at a new one, and I was so wrapped up in the newness that I didn’t realize just how much I was struggling with the new curriculum, student culture, and school processes.

I try to head these adjustments off at the pass – prepare myself mentally and emotionally, set up systems to better adapt – but they still sneak up on me.  They still give me trouble and pause.  I still cry a little more than usual, and feel even more sensitive than I’d like.  My emotions are closer to the surface, and I’m quicker to argue with the people I’m closest to.

So while Bibles and Cockroaches might be consistent, they weren’t always a part of my life.  One person’s rock might be another’s wave: ever-changing, ever morphing into something new, ever arriving and then arriving again.

This weekend I started my summer with a writing retreat.  While I had to scramble to finish my year and hit the road for the Texas hill country in a flourish, the immersion set the tone for my next few months.  Surrounded by laptops and journals and other writers, I dug back into works in progress I’d let percolate for all too long.  And I started a few new things, too:  Ideas that had been brewing in my mind and my spirit for a long time.  It brought me back to some of my goals, and gave me a renewed sense of purpose and belief in myself.  In short, I’m transitioning from teacher to writer this weekend.  And in August, I’ll transition back again.  And the cycle will start once more next year.

Bibles and cockroaches.


Feb 11 2013

“You love until you don’t / You try until you can’t”

A few weeks ago I filled in at two Ultimate games for a friend of mine who couldn’t make it.  Several other people picked up like me, subbing for a handful of absent team members.

One of the other pick-ups, Erik*, went through a divorce around roughly the same time that I did.  I’ve known him for a long time through the Frisbee circle, but we’ve never been close enough for me to know any of the particulars about his relationship first-hand.  Any details that I knew about the end of his marriage were gleaned, admittedly, through Facebook and rumor.

I didn’t remember until halftime that one of the guys playing with us was now dating Erik’s ex-wife.  And that they purportedly started seeing each other in the midst of the divorce.  I also knew Jeremy* before any of this drama unfolded, and, similarly, considered him a friendly acquaintance.

The Ultimate community is a small one, and people talk.  There’s been speculation that Jeremy started seeing Erik’s wife while they were still married, and that their relationship may have contributed to the divorce.  There’s been plenty of discussion regarding the other finer points of the marriage, divorce, and subsequent relationship.  I wish that I were above having talked about it myself.  I’m not.  It isn’t a major topic of conversation for me, but I’ve wondered and chatted and – yes, gasped – here and there.

But now that I’ve put all of that out there, I want to say acknowledge a few other things I’ve learned – or confirmed – over the last couple years:

 

No one ever really knows what goes on inside someone else’s relationship.

When I was separating from my ex-husband, I sought advice from a trusted friend.  She told me that she loves me and was going to support me regardless, and she gave me her honest opinion as I’d requested.  But she also prefaced it by saying, “No one ever really knows what goes on inside someone else’s relationship.”

And I couldn’t agree more with that statement.  Sometimes even the people in the relationship don’t know.  I certainly didn’t have a handle on my marriage for a long time.  It took me years of questioning and searching and crying and struggling to figure it out.  Sometimes things break, and we don’t know how to fix them.  Sometimes we don’t want to fix them.  And sometimes we just get a lemon:  A clunker that should work, and appears to function for a time, but in the end just…falls apart.  And we can’t always understand it or explain it.  I know that I couldn’t.  It’s still sometimes hard to make sense of what was wrong in my marriage, to be honest.

So while we all might be prone to getting wrapped up in assumption and gossip and voyeuristic guess-work, the reality is that what happens between two people is far too complex – and far too untidy, at times – for other people to figure it out.  We’d like for there to be foolproof advice, firm boundaries, and definitive rules for how to give and receive love.  And sure, there are helpful techniques and strategies.

But there are no absolutes.  Ever.

 

Divorce sucks.  For everyone.

I sympathize with Erik, knowing at least that he was desperately sad to see his marriage end.  But I’m unwilling to vilify his ex.  I don’t know her.  I’ve certainly never heard her perspective.  I’m willing to bet that she had a difficult road, too.  And I’d like to believe that she came to the decision to divorce with reason, over time, and with a significant amount of sadness.

I’m sure that there are people who assume my divorce was easier for me than for my ex-husband.  There are probably people who wonder about my reasons, speculate about my commitment, and criticize my decision-making process.  If there are sides to choose, I understand that people might not choose mine.  And even if that sometimes hurts, it’s to be expected.  It’s reasonable.  I was the one who initiated the separation; the one who eventually filed; the one who expressed discontent.

But I was also the one who found the counselor, filled journal after journal with fear and worry, cried in the shower every morning, and lost an unhealthy amount of weight.  I was also the one who deeply, desperately wanted BOTH of us to be happy and fulfilled in life, for the rest of our lives.  And I wanted to fight for that.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who “chooses” the divorce.  It’s agonizing.  It’s painful.  It’s challenging and confusing and life-altering.  It does crazy things to people.  I look back on that time with a certain amount of regret, because it was so so hard, and I’m not proud of how I handled it all the time.  But that was part of my story; my road to where I am now.  I did the best I could at the time.

So when I think about the circumstances between Erik and Jeremy, I remember that I believe in love, and I believe in people choosing to be happy.  Sure, I also believe in respect, and compassion, and fairness.  And my heart aches when someone is hurt, or when love dies.  But if I assume the worst about any of the people involved, I over-simplify their lives and their feelings in unfair ways.

 

Change is revelatory.

In the darker corners of love and loss, I learned worlds about myself.  I grew and changed through my marriage, separation, and divorce.  It’s even possible that that growth actually contributed to the eventual end of the relationship.  But I know that I love myself more now than I did then.  I know more about what I need to be happy, both inside myself, in my community, and in a partner.

That experience, and the observation of my friends’ break-ups, divorces, and heartbreaks, has shown me how transition and struggle inevitably forces a personal expansion and revolution.  It isn’t always pretty, but it’s powerful.  We learn what’s really important – to us and in the world – and what it takes to survive and thrive.  We become more layered, more beautiful, more resilient.  We become fully-realized individuals.  Through pain comes discovery.

 

The games that day were fun, and I don’t think that anyone who didn’t know this back-story would have suspected anything salacious   Certainly neither of the guys brought it up, and they seemed civil and comfortable.  (Had I been watching more closely, I supposed I might have noticed something.  I wasn’t.)  From what I understand, there was some fallout after the forced togetherness, but it happened off the field.

At the end of the day, relationships are complicated.  Love is messy and terrifying and glorious and surprising.  Sometimes it devastates and sometimes it inspires.  It can lift you up and tear you apart.  Sometimes it lasts forever, sometimes it sparks and burns out, and sometimes it slowly whittles away.  No matter how hard we try, we hurt each other and we get hurt ourselves.  As Regina Spektor says, “You love until you don’t / You try until you can’t.”

Love isn’t always predictable, but it’s never productive to judge it.  Love simply is.

Or it isn’t.


Nov 20 2012

Last Year’s Thanks, This Year’s Gratitude

On Thanksgiving 2011, I found myself at the home of a new friend, surrounded by my two roommates and an assortment of boyfriends, girlfriends, recent Austin transplants, and other “homeless” pseudo-grown-ups without a place to be.  My life was a bit out of sorts that week – that year, really – and I was throwing myself into the holiday with vigor.

Bobby bought a fantastic local turkey that I prepared (being the only one with any experience in that area, not to mention the only one with a roaster).  Everyone contributed a dish or two.  Holly made queso that we all scooped straight from the crockpot in the hours leading up to the meal.  Hannah talked about the addition of white wine to her gravy.  We had more than enough food, but naturally that was the least important factor anyway.

Once the turkey was adequately roasting, I took an afternoon run through Bobby’s neighborhood and then rinsed off in his shower.  As I was getting dressed again, I heard multiple eruptions of laughter from downstairs and realized that Fran and Leslie had begun “icing” people.  The rules of that particular game are simple:  If you find a hidden Smirnoff Ice, you must drink it all.  Immediately.  Completely.  What better way to liven up Thanksgiving?  People found the bottles in the spice cabinet, the silverware drawer, the microwave, the chip bowl…

I don’t remember what Fran and Leslie made for the meal, but that’s probably because I’d fallen victim to their particular version of hide-and-seek too many times.

After dinner, our bellies full, we all snuggled up on Bobby’s couch with the many dogs we’d brought to the celebration.  I fell asleep on the floor in front of the TV, curled under a warm blanket with Marley.  I woke up to the sound of Dana insisting to Leslie that I was, indeed, alive.

At a time when my sense of family was shifting, and my ‘real’ kin was far away in Massachusetts, I felt at home in Bobby’s cozy house among friends.  When I called my parents from the back patio, I blubbered on deliriously about the food, the alcohol, the football.  But mostly I was giddy with gratitude for the sense of belonging and the fun.  I’d needed lightness and laughter more than ever that year, and I’d found it.

***

This year is very different.  I have a newly-adopted family coming into town, and I’ll be spending the holiday with them.  The size of the crowd will be similar, I think.  But whereas last year was about singletons – an urban assembly of young people – this year will have a range of ages and life circumstances.  There will be musicians and teachers; writers and artists; doctors and nurses; chefs and lawyers and bankers.  A literal amalgam spanning four different generations.  I’m equally grateful for this gathering, and for the introduction of these new people to my life.  I anticipate a warm, indulgent kickoff to the holiday season.

Part of me is a little sad that last year’s party won’t be repeated.  But I also know that it can’t be.  We wouldn’t be able to recreate it, even if we tried.  It was proof that sometimes the universe gives you just what you need, right when you need it.  And in truth, that isn’t what I need this year anyway.  This year I feel secure and content; there’s something fitting and perfect about spending the holiday quietly, comfortably, with a welcoming cluster of relatives.

And so, with hours to go until I’m truly on Thanksgiving Break, I’m thankful for last year’s transitional, hodgepodge crew and this year’s merged lineup of friendly faces.

Even if this Thursday doesn’t include any Icings.


Nov 9 2012

The First Day of Fall

Naja died on the first day of fall.

It was still relatively warm in Texas, and the mosquitos continued to pepper my legs with bites.  My roommate’s cat, Naja, had been in self-isolation in Jeff’s closet for almost a week, and we’d been worrying over his lack of appetite and resistance to come outside.  I came home from work on the last day of spring and didn’t see Naja – or my roommate – anywhere.

Jeff arrived from the vet soon after, with Naja in hand.  The cat wouldn’t come out of his crate.

“He’s dying,” my roommate told me sagely, his voice tight.

My dachshund danced around Jeff’s feet in a frenzy, whimpering and crying, urging him to put down the fifth member of our menagerie.  But when he gently laid the carrier on the wood floor, Naja wouldn’t come out.  He lay still and weak.  My pup quietly crawled in to find him.

Naja made it through the night, with Jeff curled up on the floor next to him.  But he passed the next afternoon.

It was a year of transition, loss, and goodbyes for both me and Jeff.  We became roommates on the heels of our respective divorces, when we were both wrestling with any number of changing relationships.  I know that Jeff is still unpacking his figurative baggage and making a home for it in his newly-changed life.

As I watched him grieve this next loss, I imagined that letting go of Naja after twelve years must have felt like yet another ending; like another page being turned in the story of his divorce.  Naja was, in many ways, a part of Jeff’s marriage.  Heart-wrenching though it may be, saying goodbye to his pet could be seen as another step toward freedom and a fresh start.

Naja did his job, and he did it well.  The cat saw Jeff through some of the hardest times of his life.  He was a good friend and a warm comfort in a cold bed.  He was there in the rubble when the destruction was done.  He was a constant.  A grounding force when the earth shook.

Jeff and I sat in the living room, crowded around the closet, crying and talking as Naja passed.  And once he did, good friends came over to celebrate his life.  We pressed his painted paw on to a stone from the backyard; made chocolate chip cookies; ordered pizza and drank wine and talked around our tiny kitchen table.

We buried Naja at sunset in a shady spot marked with stones and flowers.  Jeff’s French Mastiff laid down on the fresh soil, looking at us with an open, candid expression.  Jeff took a picture.

The air was warm and sultry like summer, but it felt like fall.


Sep 3 2012

A Motivational One-Two-Three Punch

There’s something painfully poetic about the way that, when I most need a workout, I’m least motivated.  I’m at my most tired, my most lazy, my most depleted.

Without getting into the ugly details, August was a bit mercurial.  It began with a sweeping coast-to-coast vacation, and ended with a return to work and a swift and brutal blow in my personal life. 

Last night, the final day of the month, my roommate joked that I was “overdue for my monthly night off”.  And he was right.  I tend to run at high speed virtually the time, but I’d been racing every single day since July.  It’s hard to tackle the emotional and literal tasks at hand when you never slow down. 

So when Friday arrived and I didn’t have anything on the books (save a short and sweet work happy hour), I embraced the thought of a night in.  The first week with students is always exhausting, no matter how prepared you feel, and I was ready to let the bedraggled drip off of me.  A movie.  Some dinner.  A run.  My laptop.  All of these prospects welcomed me like reliable old friends.

But then I got home.  And sat down. 

I needed the cleanse of endorphines.  I wanted to sweat out the school stress, the lingering sadness, the insomnia and restlessness that had been plaguing me for thirteen days.  I knew that the workout would be the right step toward taking care of myself.  But the sun was rapidly setting, throwing gentle shadows across my living room.  Friends was on.  My dachshund settled into my lap, and my comfy chair began to claim me.

What’s a girl to do?

Good judgment be damned, I logged on to Facebook.  This is usually a bad call, but fate was on my side.  In a surprisingly lucky turn, I came across a post from a new virtual friend:

Adventure Amber’s Character Building:  “What I Think About While Trail Running…”

Amber and I were recently introduced on the WWW through a trusted mutual contact.  As a fellow blogger/exercise enthusiast, she’s clearly a kindred spirit.  Though we’ve never actually met in Real Life, her combination of art and activity catapulted me out of the lull of my squishy chair and early-evening sitcoms…and into my brand-new Happy Hour uniform.

Which brings me to Punch Number Two.

 My ultimate team’s new threads arrived on my doorstep this week, and they look good, if I do say so myself:

                   

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it didn’t hurt that I knew I could shimmy into my shiny black shorts and reversible basketball jersey (with signature logo), all flashy and new, for this workout.  We ordered the reversible just for fun – not for competition – and although it wasn’t my idea I’m already in love with them.  Who doesn’t love a retro pinnie?  It makes me feel like I’m in high school all over again.  Which doesn’t hurt when you’re desperately trying to maintain the athleticism of your youth.

I’m so lucky to have a team.  Happy Hour pushes me at practice in ways that I would never push myself alone.  This group of women reminds me that I’m working toward something bigger than myself.  Sure, I like to be in shape for me.  And that’s personal.  But I also want to be there for them; I want to be ready for competition; I want to be fit and fast and strong for them.  I have my own individual goals, but the team has even loftier ambitions, and we’ve made a commitment to each other to reach for them.  We play, we fight, we compete, and we laugh with each other.  What’s better than that?  Putting on the uniform was a true reminder of that relationship and that responsibility, and it energized me still more.  I was alone…but not.

All geared up, with Amber’s words in my mind and new clothes on my body, I yanked my iPod out of my gym bag.  I plugged in the earbuds and pressed PLAY, without worrying about the track.

 Carried Underwood:  “Cowboy Casanova”

Okay, I know.  “Cowboy Casanova” is cheesey and manufactured.  My rock boyfriend would probably argue that it features “The Riff” (which I admit I can’t recognize myself, so who really knows), and point out the studio production of the song.  But whatevs.  I love it.  I relish the heavy downbeat that aligns with my heel hitting the pavement and the chorus of male voices backing up Carrie Underwood’s undeniable pipes.  It’s a Girl-Power, self-righteous, danceable, pump-your-fist-and-play-it-loud tune.  (And it doesn’t hurt that I’ve covered it with my ultimate players/occasional musicians band, so I can imagine myself behind the mic doing my best Carrie impression.)  Plus, I can’t lie:  I wish I could dance around in a brothel/speakeasy wearing a bustle/corset combo myself.

Needless to say, I went for my run.  It wasn’t a trail run like Amber’s, and I confess that I’m sure I’m not the runner that she is anyway.  I probably could have gone farther.  I’ve gone faster before, too, although I was spurred on by having recently watched the ghostly slaughter opening scene of Game of Thrones.  (I spent much of the neighborhood run imagining something supernatural and lethal emerging from the darkness.) 

But the point is that I got home sweating, and immediately shed my new jersey so that I could do my core workout sprawled shirtless on the floor.  It wasn’t my best workout.  Not my hardest, or longest, or most fun.  It wasn’t followed by a rejuvenating trip to Barton Springs or a gratifying meal, and it surely didn’t burn as many calories as I perhaps needed to.  But on a quiet, solitary Friday night, at the end of a distinctly challenging week, it was enough.


Jun 7 2012

My Future is Glorious

“I brought some intention cards,” the yogi tells us before class begins.  “I’m going to spread them out in the front of the room.  I encourage you to pick at random.  Sometimes people like to sift through and pick a specific card, but I think it works better when you draw spontaneously.  It might surprise you how well it fits.”

I love this kind of thing.  Sure, it’s pie-in-the-sky hippie nonsense, but I’m at yoga for crying out loud.  That’s what I came for.  I’m so used to high-intensity, competitive team sports.  It’s always refreshing to be in the me-centered, forgiving atmosphere of a yoga class.

I’m a little distracted by the instructor’s pink pants, long legs, and overall brightness (she’s so darn cute), but I manage to get the gist of what she’s saying.

I draw a card.

My future is glorious.  My life is filled with limitless light, love, and joy.  All is right with my world.

I’m not sure that this is what I imagine an intention to be.  I always thought that “establishing an intention for my practice” was more about setting goals rather than mantras.  And if I was looking for blah-dee-blah earthy-crunchy gobbledeegook, well…I got it.

But that aside, it’s exactly what I need.  The yogi was right.  I am surprised, and pleasantly so.  And even if the word “glorious” was forever ruined by Will Ferrell in Old School  (as someone pointed out when I shared my intention), something tight and knotted in my chest releasess a bit when I read the words.  It’s just a card, of course.  Something sold at a little indie bookshop or curio market, I’m sure, for far more than it cost to make.  It isn’t a crystal ball (or even a Magic 8 Ball, for that matter).  It’s vague and arguably trite.  But I repeat it to myself a few times before we even begin the class.  It just makes me feel better.  Who cares, then, about who made it or why?  What I hear in the words is, “You have nothing to worry about.”  Or, at least, “Worrying doesn’t help.”  And that I do know.

About a year ago I threw security out the window.  I took a very reliable and predictable life and chucked it in favor of happiness.  I’m sure that a lot of people – close friends included – were thinking, “What the HELL is Colleen doing?”  I abandoned much of what was familiar and safe and dove head-long into the unknown.  And it wasn’t scary in the moment, to be honest.  It was liberating.  I knew that I was listening to what I needed and wanted – or at least what I didn’t need and want – and any sacrifice was worth it for that cause.  The lack of fear was proof, in fact, that I was doing the right thing.  I was in crisis mode, only managing the most dire of issues at any given time.  Stressing over things like medical insurance and retirement and home ownership…Well, that took a backseat to the more pressing need of, you know, personal fulfillment and emotional satisfaction. 

I came out safely on the other side of that transition…although just barely.  I got through it, but I’m not without some late-blooming bruises.  Fear has crept up on me recently.  It’s all part of the process, I know, but sooner or later the security that I abandoned had to taunt me a little bit.  I’ve started to think about “little things” again.  Not the immediate woes of adulthood, but the long-term, “What will happen to me?” anxieties.  The “what ifs?” and the “what would I dos?”

Because they’re bound to come up, right?  When you’re young (or young-ish), it’s easy to imagine that you’ll work forever, or that money will just work itself out, or that you’ll always be healthy.  You forget that your parents will pass away one day, or that you may lose a friend or fall ill yourself.  You don’t think about supporting another person (like a spouse or children), or the housing market, or unemployment.  (Or maybe you do.  For a while I didn’t.)  Those things are all there, waiting to spring at you when you’re least expecting them.

None of these issues have actually leapt at me from their dark and shadowy corners, but I’m reminded that they exist again.  I’ve been dreaming a lot more, waking with the awareness that my subconscious has been spinning stories.  (Ah, anxiety, my old friend.  I wish I could say that I missed you…But I sure as hell didn’t.)

So when I read that reassuring card, I remember that, even though this year of flux didn’t eliminate life-stress, it did teach me that I thrive even in the darkest of times.  Sure, hardship and pressure and chaos will be part of my future.  It’s guaranteed.  But to me, “glory” isn’t about winning, or about perfection, or about ideal circumstances.  It’s about shining through the difficulties.  Overcoming.  It’s about magnificent grace. 

Just like my student said all of those months ago, without the wreck you wouldn’t see the beauty.  My future is glorious because I’ll make it so, even amidst struggle.  And I’ll be stronger, more complicated, more interesting because of the mess.  It isn’t a new idea to remember that you can only experience loss if you have something to lose.  But it’s no less true.  And it’s worth it. 

Sure, I can worry all I want about the unknown and the obstacles.  But it doesn’t do me a damn bit of good.  All I can do is enjoy this moment…and this one…and the next…And then roll with the punches when they descend (which, I know, they will).  That’s ensuring that all is right in my world.  That’s filling my life with limitless love.  Opening my arms to the opportunities and the scars and the trouble.  If I lose someone I love – yes, it will be tragic.  But how lucky am I that I have so many people that I love in this world?  To be surrounded by such joy and colorful experience?

My future is unknown.  But it is also glorious.


Feb 28 2012

Without the Wreck

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

            -Adrienne Rich, “Diving Into the Wreck”

 

 

It was difficult for my students to see the extended metaphor in Adrienne Rich’s poem, Diving Into the Wreck.  (Read the full poem here.) 

But then I saw the proverbial light bulb over one seventh grader’s head.  She realized that Rich might not really be talking about exploring a sunken ship, but in fact her own soul.  Gretel* understood that the human character is just as complicated, just as damaged, and just as wondrous as something that’s been lying at the bottom of the ocean, perhaps following a storm or a cannon battle or an act of sabotage.

“Without the wreck,” Gretel tentatively proclaimed, “You wouldn’t be able to see the beauty!”

I’m the first one to admit that my students regularly raise goosebumps on my arms with their insights, but this is one of the few moments when it was hard to fight back the tears along with the chills. 

…we are the half-destroyed instruments

that once held to a course…

Regret is a tricky thing.  If we don’t make mistakes, we don’t learn.  Without the stumbling and the slip-ups, we’re simple, uncomplicated people.  We’re less interesting and more tentative, like a team going into the playoffs with an undefeated record.  (There’s so much to lose when you’re perfect!)  Allison and I often play a game in which we joke about what we’d do to erase certain missteps from our lives.  You know, “Would you let a dozen cockroaches crawl all over you for 60 seconds in order to remove that lower back tattoo?”  That kind of thing.  (No, I don’t have a lower back tattoo.  But I do know a girl…)

Anyway, the point is, it’s a hard game for me to play.  Because even though I’ve made some huge errors in judgment, and I do have regrets, those mistakes add to the tapestry of my life.  They’re part of my story.  And when I look back, I want to see them as beautiful patches on a huge, intricate, multi-textured quilt. 

Now I’m just mixing metaphors, so I’m going to stop.

Bottom line:  Gretel is right.  If you didn’t have those glorious errors and terrifying blunders, you’d be a completely one-dimensional person.  And you wouldn’t know yourself or your capabilities.  If you didn’t have the hard times – the battles and the horrific sinking that follows – you wouldn’t appreciate the victories and the triumphs.  You would skate by on a cloud of safety and denial, under-appreciating the splendor and the brilliance all around.

…We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene…

I’ve had a stormy year, and I’m not going to kid myself; it’s been hard.  I mean, devastatingly, outrageously challenging.  Sometimes it still is.  But it’s left me feeling stronger and more fearless than I ever could have anticipated.  I’m diving into the wreck, learning more about myself every day.  I’m reveling in the good days and the joy in my life…because there are so many good days and there’s so much love.  Far more than before the mess; before the destruction.  Every morning I wake up excited for the day, looking forward to seeing or talking to someone.  And what’s more, I’m lucky enough to recognize that.  I’m not taking it for granted for a second.  I’m thankful to be mining the hidden, uglier parts of myself.  And I know that if it hadn’t been for the storms – for the wreck – I wouldn’t be able to find them at all. 

…the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth…


Feb 7 2012

Loneliness is an Art

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Sarah (a.k.a. “Slev”) prefaced her gchat message.  “But I thought you might appreciate this.”  And then she attached a link. 

I braced myself.  Hmm. 

Take it the wrong way?  What a loaded way to introduce a little YouTube video!  Would it be something illicit that I shouldn’t open at work?  Was I on the verge of learning more about Slev than I ever hoped to know?  Something that, perhaps, she believed we had in common?

Sarah moved to Austin this summer, and I already felt like I knew her through a network too complicated to explain here.  (Let’s just say that it involves one of my college professors, Sarah’s roommate, and a former Austin Ultimate player who now resides in Richmond.  Yeah, it’s that kind of tangled web.  In a good way.)

But such is the nature of our friendship.  Just days after her arrival, she and I traveled to Houston together for an Ultimate tournament, and there was never a dull moment in our conversation.  I already felt like I’d known her for years.  (Or, at least, a few solid months!)  Despite being roughly ten years my junior, she had insight about [my] life well beyond her age.  I was impressed…and appreciative.

So in truth, I wasn’t worried about her link.  In fact, I anticipated that it would be thoughtful and unique.  Which it was:

HOW TO BE ALONE

How to be Alone.  Such a basic message, like a  …For Dummies  book.  Things that few of us would ever consider, like dancing publicly when you don’t have a date or a friend, broken down into terms we can understand and identify.  Interesting.

But it isn’t the simple element of the piece that interests me – the idea of starting with small practices of being alone, like visiting libraries and coffee shops.  It’s the directness.  The artist’s conviction that there is beauty in aloneness.  Which, of course, there is.  But not when you’re idly checking Facebook on your phone, or tearing through recordings on your DVR.  The true magic of being by yourself comes when you embrace the moments; you take stock and look inward, appreciating who and where you are.  Celebrating it, even. 

 

“Lonely is a freedom that breathes easy and weightless, and lonely is healing if you make it.”

Sometimes we just need permission.  We need someone to say that there’s wonder in the ugliness; meaning in the emptiness.  Here, it’s almost as if the speaker is making it okay to be not only alone, but lonely; to savor the sweet agony of time with no one but yourself.  She makes it less painful and more empowering; tells you to find strength in the dark and hollow places of your heart. 

Darkness may be the absence of light, but it’s also filled with glorious shadows and complicated hieroglyphics hidden on the cave walls.  You just have to find a new way to illuminate them; to look without seeing.

It is frightening to envision being alone forever.  Even the most contentedly single people I know have expressed that fear to me (much to my surprise).  But it’s far scarier to be lonely in a room full of ‘friends’ or sitting at the dinner table with the faux company of an empty relationship.  To be happily – or least comfortably – alone is the best of both worlds.  To consider yourself company enough.  In fact, that may be the highest form of self-love.

“The conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself.”

When you remove the fear of being alone, you access opportunity and joy in all kinds of unexpected and inspiring ways.  You see things that you may not have noticed before, like the wisdom of a stranger or the kindness of a new friend; the pleasure of dancing by yourself or the release of sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea (or a beer, for that matter) to watch the squirrels scamper across the yard. 

Being a writer requires time alone.  Even when I’m with a group of people gathered specifically to write, I’m more productive when I set aside time for quiet, solitary craft. 

“Maybe being a writer, you just can’t worry about other people’s needs right now,” my friend Dallas said to me this summer.  I tend to be a bit of a Mama Bird, taking care of others and worrying about them incessantly.  But Dallas is right.  I need to know how to be alone, and sometimes that means actively choosing graceful isolation.  They (those writerly folks, that is) say that ‘God is in the details’.  Maybe that’s just another way of saying that he/she is found within; something you need to coax out to play now and then. 

 

“If your heart is bleeding, make the best of it.  There is heat in freezing.  Be a testament.”

My heart has been bleeding quite a bit lately.  For myself, for others.  For the gorgeous, acute pain of love and loss and change.  I had a lot of time alone this summer, and I was making the most of the mess.  The blood was pouring over my hands and into my writing like the rain after a Texas draught.  But I’ve been pretty crowded lately – in classrooms filled with middle schoolers, at workouts with groups of girls, at shows teeming with people and at meetings piled high with discussion and action items.  And I’m grateful for these communities, these flashes of insight and these wonderful muses.  But the moments that I’ve had to myself (sitting beside my Christmas tree, curled up in the covers of my bed, bent over a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning) I’ve turned to my journal or my laptop for company.  Does that count as being alone?  Does my art make me, somehow, less lonely?

I have to believe that it doesn’t.  I have to believe that it’s my art “needs practice,” and that I should “stop neglecting it”.  My writing isn’t my friend, it’s me

Although maybe those two things are, in fact, one and the same.


Jan 12 2012

#writingislikelife

Last night a new reader joked that my blog depresses her.  “Please write an upbeat (albeit fake) post!” she requested.  And I’m nothing if not accommodating to new fans.

Especially since, in looking back over the last six or seven months, I realize that my writing has adopted a somewhat intense tone.  And sure, I’m intense sometimes.  I’m stormy and occasionally grumpy and now and then I get angry or sad.  But I’m also pretty goofy, really.  I go to happy hours with big groups of girls where we tell dirty jokes (or true, dirty stories) and make friends with the bartenders.  I play wiffle ball and ultimate and my favorite thing in yoga is handstands.  I have a huge sweet tooth that makes it impossible to resist chocolate and very sugary coffee.  I teach middle school and write young adult fiction largely because, in my heart, I’m a big kid who still giggles at bathroom humor.  This is, actually, who I am a lot of the time.  Where did this always-serious girl come from? 

While the trappings and realities of this grown-up life do have the potential to bring me down at times, I would hazard to say that I’m usually quite up.  So here it is – my first (deliberately) “upbeat” post of 2012!

***

Some time ago a good friend tweeted, “Writing is like life:  Transitions are rough and conclusions are hard.”  I’m pretty sure that I proved part of this assessment when I transitioned from potty-talk to being a grown-up.  Awkward and clunky, indeed!  Transitions are rough.

But we didn’t need my poor writing to know that Allison is quite right (and not only because this wise observation emerged from the veritable hell inside her Dissertation-Writing-Closet-of-Death).  Allow me, if you will, to expound on a few more writing/life parallels…

On Paragraphing and Structure:  Sure, it’s nice when things are neat and organized, and you can separate your ideas into clear and concise groupings of 5-7 sentences.  But when the dog is tearing the stuffing out of her new chew toy, and you have 150 essays to grade, and you’re searching for a reasonably-priced bridesmaid dress, and you’re querying literary agents and paying bills at the same desk, and your mom keeps emailing you about buying a condo, and you’re between gym memberships, and all you really really want to do is watch that new episode of Glee…well, who can stay organized all the time?  Isn’t it easier to just allow things to be a little helter-skelter?  To let work overlap into your personal life?  To make the professional personal in your writing?  To grade papers at teacher happy hours?  (Well, maybe not that last bit…) 

Verb Tense (in)Consistency:  I can’t compartmentalize!  The past bleeds into the present, and sometimes gets confused with the future.  And irregular verbs?  Forget about it.

Diction (a.k.a., Word Choice) = Trouble:  Ah, the moments when we realize that we’ve just said something (unknowingly) uncouth, and everyone quietly scratches their heads in uncomfortable silence.  Damn, those times when we misuse a word, or say exactly the thing that everyone else is avoiding.  Sometimes, word choice is everything.  Speaking of which, should I quit while I’m ahead?  Or should I have quit three paragraphs ago?  Is it already too late?  Oh, man…Stop…writing…Colleen…   

Punctuation is Inconsistent and Confusing:  Those little dashes and marks, the curls and dots…they can be so baffling.  And they change everything.  They dictate meaning as much as the words themselves.  Sometimes they appear completely arbitrary and unpredictable.  And they raise so many questions.  Does this sentence require a question mark or an exclamation point?  Where the hell do the quotation marks go at the end of that statement?  When and how does one utilize parentheses?  (Seriously, I really don’t know.  And I totally over-use them.)  And can someone please explain the semi-colon, for godsake? 

Yes, writing is like life, Allison.  Glorious and joyful, tragic and complicated, filled with beauty and ugliness.  And that’s not phony at all.