Saturday, March 31, 2018

Spring Break in the Smokies



Brad and I just returned from an early second honeymoon/babymoon/kid-free getaway to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. 

We stayed in a cabin up a long, narrow, winding dirt road that took us past a picturesque stream, waterfalls, various rusted out pickup trucks, and a family of goats. We were away, away. 

It was cool and overcast for most of our little trip. The grass was just starting to brighten and tiny buds form on the trees. The forest floor was just starting to green up but the rest was still wearing its winter wear.

We didn't do a whole lot. We took some naps. Played Scrabble.  Listened to birds. Watched the clouds roll over the mountains. I re-read Jane Eyre while Brad flipped through local tourism magazines. 

We also went on a couple of hikes. For one, we started along the Nantahala River (Cherokee for "Land of the Noonday Sun"- the river flows through a narrow gorge and there are spots where the sun only reaches the ground when it is directly overhead. I love that there's a word for that.) We also wandered up a steep pitch of the Appalachian Trail for about a mile or so- before my lungs and legs suggested I was being too ambitious. On another day we set out to find a couple waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The landscape was picturesque. Mountain streams tumbling over smooth rocks between mossy banks. Dioramas of peaks in all shades of slate and steel. Waterfalls tall and short around just about every bend. 

Rather than trying to capture the grandness of the forest at a macro level, I found myself looking for smaller moments of beauty. 




Every time I pull out my phone to capture pictures of a  rushing river or a mountain vista or the way the layers of color in a landscape, I'm often disappointed with the results. I'm never able to represent in pixels what my eyes take in. 

So I  try look down more, seeking out interesting subjects on a slighter scale. The red feather lying on a muddy trail or the variegated fungus growing on a log that looks like a cross between a flower and a piece of agate. The way the tiniest flowers look like gem stones against the verdant green moss. 






All around the trails we hiked, there were delicate, little wildflowers dotting the ground. Reading the park website I learned these early blooms are called ephemerals. 

They've adapted to life in the forest– appearing above ground in late winter, flowering and then dying back in just a couple months. They take advantage of the moist soil, nutrients from the fall leaf decay and all the sunlight reaching the forest floor before the deciduous trees leaf out and they go dormant again. Waiting for the next year to reappear. 

Ephemerals. I love that name. Wise little things that pop up in the weariest months of winter offering the promise of spring and light. Annually ceding their space to bigger blooms and then the shady trees. Teaching us that the Earth provides just the right resources at just the right times. That there's no need to be greedy. No need to despair. That even as the tops of the forest looks drab and stark life is persisting down below. 

And that all of this– the grandest trees and the sharpest rocks and the littlest flowers are fleeting. Always being whittled away and felled and smoothed out. It all goes from being nourished by the landscape to nourishing the landscape. 

I needed that reminder. Not just because I'm ready for spring, but because of this state I'm in right now.

I feel as if my body is in near constant rebellion.

Case in point, yesterday, while driving home from North Carolina, this song by Death Cab for Cutie came on that I hadn't heard in years and it took me back to this long ago place in my heart while simultaneously fast forwarding me to the inevitable losses of the future and before I knew it I was trying to suck back tears (cuz I was the one behind the wheel). And I was successful for a minute and then the lyric "Love is watching someone die" rang out and it was no longer possible to hold back all the feelings. They came rushing out in a geyser of tears and what I thought was snot. Only it wasn't snot. It was blood. 

Because I can't cry right now without getting a bloody nose. Just like I can't cough right now without peeing just the tiniest bit. Which wouldn't be a huge problem, except that I have phlegmy bronchials courtesy of a nagging cold and am coughing with some regularity these days. 

I'm a study in circles. All rounded out and inflating week by week. Gasping for air as I walk up the stairs. Scratching my midsection as my skin gets tighter and tighter across it. Groaning at unexpected cramping and lower back pain. Sighing as I realize I still have 17 more weeks to go.

(Those readers with teenagers are more than welcome to share some of my more recent posts with their children for birth control purposes. Graceful, glowing pregnant lady I am not.)

I know this is all just a season of my life. My body is doing so much work right now molding this person in me that some systems have had to readjust. It's fine really. All temporary. Judging by the high levels of activity in my midsection, Little Lady Jennings- the girls call her Edna- is thriving. She wiggles and punches and kicks and rolls around like a tiny uterine ballerina. 

In a way, she and I are both ephemerals. Occupying this space together for a season (or three) before ceding to the next stage. Though in our case, rather than withering back into the Earth, little Edna will burst forth into it and I'll deflate a little and we'll both take deep breaths and take in our reshaped universes together. 

These new spring flowers and the other lovely little things I walked past got me thinking about our world at large, too. Because I can never have just one train of thought. There are usually two or three or four running at the same time. 

I'll be ruminating on hidden meanings in spring hikes while simultaneously considering heartburn and wondering when the next house will go on the market and also whether I should have a bowl of ice cream or just go to bed. It's all the things.

But back to the flowers and the fungus and the feather. All things I found on a cloudy, cool spring day by looking down rather than ahead or up or over. All things that made me smile. Made me appreciate what an eye for aesthetics the natural world has. Made me remember again (how many times will I need this reminder in this lifetime) that the little things- so often the little things- are the root of our happiness. They're the root of our goodness, too. Small kindnesses beget bigger kindnesses. They're the root of our betterment. Our contentment. Our day-to-day steadiness. 




To be sure, the waterfalls I saw were magical. The park vistas where you could see mountains upon mountains for miles and miles were awe-inspiring. Seeing the might of the Nantahala River through the disarray of its flood planes was humbling. 




These things remind us that we, too, are small things on this planet. We are both tiny and powerful. Capable of making deep impacts through seemingly insignificant gestures. 

I get wrapped up in the idea that the only actions that matter in this life are the ones on the grandest scales. As if my footprint has to be Grand Canyon sized. My influence visible for miles and miles in breathtaking landscapes. My voice roaring like a river.

But then I see the fiddleheads of ferns emerging from their winter's sleep. All curled up and low to the ground– just the start to what they will be all summer long- and I loved them just as they were. Not for what they would be. Not because they preached at great volume and length about the wonders of creation. But because they whispered it at exactly the right time.




And if in this life, that is the person I am, than that is enough, I think. 

I'll leave the rest to nature.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

To the kids in eighth period study hall who made me cry


Dear Eighth Period Study Hall,

To start with, I didn’t sleep well Sunday night. I woke up around 1:30 a.m. and started thinking about the week- about you, about friends I’d been meaning to check in with, about bills I keep forgetting to pay, about how the dog makes it really hard to roll over in the bed, about how I really, really wanted to be asleep, about things that happened years ago and that things that might happen months from now. Trying to find a comfortable sleeping position when you’re pregnant is impossible. When 5:30 arrived I stumbled out of bed feeling as though I’d just arrived there minutes before. It all felt very unfair and unjust. Two feelings you know well I’m sure.

Then I left my coffee on the counter. I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but on an over-tired Daylight Savings Time Monday morning I really could’ve used it. Especially because Mr. D was elsewhere in the building for the day and it was up to me to teach lessons on reading the periodic table of elements to two classes. I’m not a science teacher. I haven’t studied the periodic table of elements since sophomore year of high school and it was a nightmare. So I was nervous about standing in front of two classes and acting like I knew what I was talking about when describing the anatomy of an atom and the role of valence electrons and how to figure out how many neutrons there are. Two students in second period kept yelling at each other across the room and half of fourth period was asleep for most of the class it seemed. If I asked them to keep their heads up or to stop chatting, they looked at me as if I’d grown a second head.

And I was so thirsty. I usually dump out my coffee and replace it with water part way through the day, but I didn’t have my cup. So that didn’t help things.

I know. None of that seems really all that awful on its own, right? Adult problems are so lame.

It’s just that when you arrived in the classroom eighth period, I was already kind of done with the day. You know how it goes. You’re sometimes done with the day when you sit down for first period. Like, you don’t want to be there. I get it. 

And at the start of eighth period, there was just a series of things- little things- that got my eyes twitching. The person who turned off my computer for no reason. Finding papers from my desk thrown on the floor. Discovering the word “Fag” has been written on my blackboard in pencil for who knows how long. Seeing the box of tissue I brought from home all mangled on someone’s desk.

I know that none of it is earth shattering. None of it is even surprising coming from a bunch of cagey, hormonal 13 and 14 year olds. The things I’ve gotten accustomed to after spending a better part of this year in middle school. On most days I can roll with shenanigans. Even laugh at the funny ones. You geeking out over Pokemon, loudly singing the lyrics to “Fruit Salad” by the Wiggles or offering each other relationship advice (for the record, the term “you gotta cuff” is definitely cringey in the age of #MeToo). I love when we can have conversations about weird internet memes or books you’re reading or plans for your weekend.

But I’m just kind of tired of hearing words like “fag” and “retarded.” The loud, out-of-nowhere aimless yelling is startling and annoying. And I don't really want to listen to a bunch of eighth grade boys talk about “having a strong pull-out game” or discussing pre-ejaculate while using the lotion I bought for the room. I don’t really want to have to remind someone 10 times to stop banging the school calculator on the desk or to stop wandering out into the hallway to talk to students who also shouldn’t have been out in the hallway. 

You know I’m only supposed to give you three passes a quarter to use the restroom or get water? But I bend that rule. The bathroom’s right across the hall, the water fountain’s not far. I let you use both once a class usually. If you ask. I know the room is small and it’s the end of the day and I don’t want you to feel like this is prison, even though I think we all kind of feel as if you’re the inmates and I’m the warden. I’m trying to be flexible where I can be flexible.

But when you ask to use the bathroom and then don’t return to class for 15 minutes (if I’m being generous) and I’ve already accumulated a list of lesser offenses (I feel like I shouldn’t have to remind you again that the “F” word is not appropriate for school) then I start to feel a bit more rigid. Like I’m being taken advantage of. I reported you for cutting class because it’s my job to know where you are, to keep you in the classroom and to help you be successful. No, the fact that you were hanging out in the bathroom to text your mom doesn’t change the fact that you took advantage of the situation. And the fact that you’re pissed about receiving consequences does not make it my fault.

I’d like to take a minute to remind you that while I’m the lame substitute whose name you can’t feel bothered to remember (I can handle being Fake Miss M, Bootleg Miss M, Miss M Negative 2.0 for the remainder of the year, whatever) I’m a human being. In fact, technically, right now, I’m actually two human beings in one. When you left my classroom the other day I cleaned up the broken pencils on the floor, straightened the chairs, checked the blackboard for expletives and then I cried. Because I was overtired and overwhelmed and felt like a fraud. Like a fool. Like I wanted to quit right then.Like I’d just been run over by a stampede of nine unruly middle schoolers.

I’d like to let you know that I see you as humans, too. That as angry and annoyed and frustrated as I get with you, I still see you as people. I still see your potential. I still see the goodness buried underneath all your crassness and assholery. I know you are passionate and have ideas about the world. I know your worldview is starting to take shape- that your brains are being molded like clay- and it’s fascinating and inspiring and infuriating to witness.

But as your teacher (even if it’s only your substitute teacher) I’d be failing you to not point out that the language you use matters. That the way you talk to people and the way you treat them matters. So when I say “hello” to you in the hallway and you look past me like I’m not there, that matters. I’ll continue to say “hello” to you, because I’m the grownup and I want to make sure you know I see you, but each time you fail to see me as another person, that sits with me. When I ask you to put your phone away so that I can share pertinent information with you and you tell me, “No, I’m good,” that matters. It tells me something about you. When you make jokes about suicide or your classmates’ sexuality or race, it matters. When you insist on using profanity despite my repeated requests that you don’t use profanity, that matters.

I get that they are just words and that you are in this middle ground where you are not children and want to test out all this seemingly “adult” language and ideas. Just because you can. If feels kind of good and kind of rebellious. Kind of like you’re toeing the line. Testing the boundaries. But it’s still all kind of disrespectful. Not just to me, but to yourself and your classmates.

I know right now, at 14, that doesn’t matter much to you. It doesn’t carry much weight. But it will one day. One you’ll know. Get it out of your system now- the rest of the world will not be as forgiving.

I’ve regrouped and reminded myself that you’re still children – well, half children anyway – that none of this is personal. That the people you are today aren’t the people you will be forever. That I was in middle school, too. Walking around with notebook page reinforcements on my nose and passing notes to my friends about boys as the civics teacher droned on about the three branches of government. I was annoying and obnoxious. And I still am today, but hopefully less so.

Come next eighth period, I’ll be right back on my stool. Rolling my eyes at your antics, keeping my ears pealed for the insightful tidbits about your lives and your perspectives that you feed me. I won’t forget my coffee this time and I won’t forget that every day is a chance to start over. And I hope the act of showing up and sticking it out will be a subtle to reminder to you as time goes on, that despite your best efforts, I still see you. I want to be a soft place for you to land because I know middle school can feel a bit like a warzone.

I’m only partly doing it for you. Last week we did a lesson on forgiveness. You ignored most of it, but I was paying attention. Did you hear the parts that said people who were able to forgive were happier and lived longer? Well I did. So I'm giving myself the gift of grace. Forgiving you for stretching the limits of my patience and forgiving myself for not always being up for the job. 

Sincerely,
Mrs. J.

P.S. You know those days that go all wrong and you kind of dread having to wake up and face the next day? One thing life keeps reminding me is that waking up and facing the next day is the best thing for you. That doesn't mean the new day is all sunshine and butterflies, but if you don't face it you won't get to hear, for instance, that a student in fourth period thought you did a good job heading the class the day before. And you won't get to take home an out-of-the-blue thank you note from a student in seventh period. You won't get to hear another teacher confess that they lost they've lost their cool, too, making you feel a little less incompetent. It gets better. 

P.P.S. I know if I actually ever sent this note to any of you, most of you wouldn't get much further than the first paragraph and fixate on some random excerpt like "the dog makes it hard" and spend the duration of our interaction making inappropriate innuendo about bestiality. Because, middle school.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Art: It's so necessary cave people did it (and you should, too)

Dad's wave art made from wood scraps.

In science class recently I was passing out giant pieces of newsprint to students for a group activity and I had this flashback of being in elementary school.
All those times a teacher would hand out a blank piece of paper or that newsprint that was half lined and half empty- reserved for writing and illustrating a story. I recalled that feeling of anticipation and possibility I had for those blank pages. The teacher providing nothing but quick guidelines- use the space to do a rough sketch of a figure or an object of your choice, or to do a story web. Use it to empty your brain of incomplete ideas that can’t quiet be articulated. Use the space to think or to plan. To imagine. To dream. To start the framework of your creation.
Here’s a prompt. Open to an empty page in your notebook and write.
I always loved that part of class.
As an adult though, I find myself running from blank paper though. Dodging empty spaces. Avoiding eye contact with creativity.
What happened? I wonder.
Because the desire is still there. There’s a long and abiding yearning to make things from nothing. It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain. Only that I love raw materials- a box of ribbon in all different patterns and textures, a rainbow of embroidery thread, caches of pastels and watercolor paints, stacks of tissue paper and construction paper and scraps of wrapping paper and fabric. For the past several years I’ve been saving plastic bottle caps and sorting them by color in gallon-sized Ziploc bags thinking that they could be a mosaic one day.

My bottle cap collection. I know. Weird.

But for the most part though all these materials sit day in and day out in the drawers, boxes and bins in which they are stowed. Remaining unchanged, unmanipulated.

And maybe it would be perfectly understandable why I haven’t taken to creating Etsy-worthy creations. You know, I’m raising two children who sometimes treat me more like a pack animal than a person and working full time at a job I’ve had next to no training on. I’m obsessively checking Zillow and Redfin for houses.

Oh yeah. And I’m growing a whole other human (something I like to remind my students when they’re whining to me that school is too hard or they’re too tired or everything is too awful for words - “Really?” I say. “Well I have to suffer through all this, too. And… I’M GROWING AN ENTIRE HUMAN BEING ON TOP OF THAT!” My rants generally have no effect on the kids. In the battle of what’s harder, middle school or pregnancy? Middle school will always win. It’s just fact.)

Where was I? Oh yes, there are excuses! Of course there are. There’s just no time. No time for creation.

Which re-reading I just kind of think is bullshit.

Because we’re human. We’re wired to fill blank spaces. It’s buried deep in our DNA. Even before we were actually human.

National Geographic recently shared this:

“Long before Picasso, ancient artists in what is now Spain were making creative works of their own, mixing pigments, crafting beads out of seashells, and painting murals on cave walls. The twist? These artistic innovators were probably Neanderthals.”

Sixty-five thousand years ago before there were even modern Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals in Spain were hanging out in their stony houses, interpreting the world around them with symbols painted on walls.

And here I am in 2018 with a that’s brain wired for interpreting the world around me using symbols. And I’m not doing it.

What I am doing is looking for and creating obstacles to creation. You know- the dishes in the sink and the dog hair on the carpet and the socks in the hallway and organizing the smelly part of the laundry room and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scroll…. You get the picture… through Facebook and Instagram watching videos of cats doing weird shit and disembodied hands making babka bread or tables out of old crates or wall art out of paint samples, or reading the endless back and forth between owning all the guns and destroying all the guns.

I mean, in a way, I suppose I’m a patron of the arts- if social media could be considered digital cave art. The place where we scrawl our interpretations of the world around us in 1s and 0s. The picture of my dog with just the tip of his tongue sticking out. That thing Lily shouted as she ran to the bathroom the other day (Lily: ACK! It’s a poop emergency!”). What that author I love wrote about else said about our purpose on this Earth:

“You do have a purpose. But it’s probably not what you think. Your only purpose here is to be Loved.That’s it. And I spell 'Loved' with a capital L, because I’m talking about being Loved by creation itself. I’m talking about knowing that you are Loved by divinity, that you are Loved by the universe itself, you are made out of Love, and that you will return into Love...and that this Love does not give one single solitary shit what you do or don’t do with your life; It just LOVES you.There is no part of yourself so dark or so flawed that Love cannot find it and surround it and Love it.”
I think many of us use our social media to create our digital footprint. To remind the world, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” Like birds at the tops of trees in the spring.
Sometimes it’s really beautiful and self affirming. Sometimes it allows us to throw ropes down to friends or followers who are stuck in ditches. Sometimes it allows us to feel as if we’re not crazy after all. Or maybe that we are crazy, but then so is everyone else. Sometimes it inspires us.
But then. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes it’s just this filler in my life. The absent-minded thing I do with the precious seconds I’ve been given here.
The thing that stands in the way of me using this brain wired for creation and these hands wired for making.
I suppose that filling an empty blog page with ruminations and questions about life is making something where nothing was before. But it feels impermanent, insignificant, maybe wasteful even given the number of web pages that were filled before and all the ones that will be filled after. Like I’m only contributing to an ever noiser wasteland. Like everything I’ve written online and all the things everyone else has made will one day be in an enormous digital garbage heap that’s cheerfully sorted by a Wally-E-esque robot. Destined for a compactor.
Also, I guess sometimes (even for a writer) words just aren’t enough to tell the story. Or maybe we just get tired of using them. Like they start to feel hollow. Particularly if the story you’re writing is the one in which you’re picking apart what it means to be in this place at this time. You know the purpose of it. The why of it all.
Sometimes your brain needs different symbols, you know. Color and shape. Tones and rhythms. Movement. There are so many ideas that can’t be ascribed words. That our language doesn’t quite have the depth for.
I mean, we try.
The Japanese have a word for the way light filters through the leaves of trees. Komorebi.
They have a word for that, which I love, but that word can’t encompass the feeling of the way light filters through the leaves of trees. It doesn’t capture the layers of colors and filigree of the leaves and the peace that staring at light filtering through leaves fills you with. That requires all these clunky descriptions.
But the image- the image speaks for itself.

What that blank newsprint reminded me of was being a child. Not being self conscious about creating. Just coloring and coloring and coloring. Going through stacks and stacks of construction paper or printer paper. Singing and skipping and dancing around. Being loose and being unusual and unpredictable in space and time.
Your whole life centered around the next outfit you were going to make for Barbie, the next thing you were going to build with Legos. The city you were going to construct in the sandbox.
Why is that still not a priority?
Instead, it’s always about tidying the living room or reacting to a comment. Making dinner or scheduling an appointment. And the spaces in between? Flopping on the couch or collapsing in the bed.
I don't prioritize it because the lame, practical grown-up in me tells me there are more productive things to do with my time. Because I'm not a professional artist or a professional musician or a professional dancer or a professional anything, so then why on earth should I pursue creativity? It's not my job to, right? Not the thing I'm destined to do probably. Who do I think I am, trying to be an artist? Should I just stick to my lane: mother, writer, substitute teacher.
But our ancestors thought it was important. You know, they put aside whatever it was Neanderthals did with their days- hunting mammoth or gathering nuts and berries or making fire- I don't know. They took time to make paint and spread it on the wall in the shape of the things they saw in life. And I'm guessing the first man or woman to do that wasn't fretting about whether they'd be the next Micheangelo- for all intents and purposes they were the first Michelangelo. And they also probably weren't worried about what other people might think or whether they were any good at it or whether it was going to make them famous or noteworthy. 
Dad's Colorado-Inspired mirrors.
I always look up to the people around me who allow space for creativity. Brad’s cousins living in Shanghai dancing and making music. My Dad who sent me this picture the other day of bathroom mirrors he made. Or who takes scraps of wood from his workshop and turns them into waves. My Mom who makes quilts. My sister who draws. Acquaintances who take photos or paint portraits or make paper sculptures. My friends who knit and crochet. The kid in 7th period who compulsively makes origami. The girl who is perpetually doodling on her lab notes, like all these adorable little creatures in a rainbow of colors. Geez.

This is humanity at its most wonderful, I think.

When we are building something. Adding beauty to the world. Capturing the loveliness around us. Showing what it means to be alive. To be living and breathing on this weird little planet.

That’s the tribe I want to be in.

P.S. I started writing this post like, a week ago. And I kind of stalled out on it. And then the wind storm came. And then I had kind of a depressiony day and thought maybe I shouldn't post anything ever again because what's the point and who do I think I am? And then today someone sent me a photo of themselves that was just ... so beautiful and human that I had to do something with it. So I drew a picture - which I'm not going to share because it's sorta personal- but it felt good to make art. And also I decided to post this enormous bit of mumbling anyway because this is my little space on the stupid internet damnit and I'm going to use it.

In closing, art by my nephew Finn currently hanging in my dining room:

Mixed media: melted candy corn,
a plastic spider, two screwdrivers and a pocket knife. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A case for joy in joyless times

It's Sunday afternoon and the Daytona 500 is on. Brad is out watching it with some buddies up in Baltimore, but Lily asked me to turn it on. She stood for the National Anthem and cheered when the green flag waved signaling the start of the race.

Before he left, Brad had each of us draft some drivers. Whoever's driver wins gets to pick dinner next weekend. Lily listed her drivers out on the whiteboard. She's planning to keep track of their track position during the race.




Periodically, she comments about where her favorite drivers are running. I asked her who they are this year now that Jr.'s retired. She has an extensive list: Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Danica Patrick, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, A.J. Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne.

I asked her to narrow her list down to her top three picks. 

She says they're Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott.

Brad would love if I had Lily's level of devotion to NASCAR, but after years and years of Daytona 500s (probably 12 years by now), I'm still pretty "meh" about the whole thing. 

What I do enjoy is seeing Lily and her dad talk shop. How they yell at the screen together and bemoan crashes and cautions. While their enthusiasm isn't contagious, exactly, their joy is infectious. I love watching them watch racing.

It's funny, you know, where we find happiness. Or where happiness finds us, rather.

So often, I get stuck in this idea that the best kind of happiness is derived when good things happen to me directly. You know, like sipping the perfect chocolate peanut butter milkshake or putting on the softest pair of pajama pants at the end of the day or receiving an unexpected Valentine from a student I'm teaching. To be sure, those moments bring happiness– I mean, I actually sigh in relief at the end of the day when I change pants, so grateful I am for fleecy, stretchy goodness. 

But more and more, I've found real joy in indirect happiness. Seeing good things happen to other people. Like a two weeks ago when the Eagles won the Super Bowl and Brad stood in front of the TV dumbstruck.




"That was the Super Bowl, right?" He asked as I went to give him a hug. "They just won the Super Bowl!" 

Once reality sunk in, the man grabbed a bottle of Presseco someone had gifted us and ran outside, spraying wine all over the driveway, jumping up and down before running down the sidewalk whooping and periodically making obscene gestures at the Patriots flag flying across the street.

He was just so excited. And while I also hold NASCAR levels of enthusiasm for professional football (OK any football really), I was happy, too. Not just happy for him either. It's hard to explain, exactly. Just that I felt joy, because he felt joy. And I knew Lily would be joyous when she woke up the next morning. 

It happened again yesterday. The girls were out playing in the dusting of snow we were getting and I happened to peek out the window and saw Jovie lying flat on her back with her mouth open and her tongue out, catching snowflakes. Lily was standing doing the same. I ran to get my camera figuring the moment would be fleeting. They stayed this way for several minutes. Snowflakes fell on and around them as they basked in the magic.



I could've watched them all day. And not just because for the first time all day, the house was quiet. But because I remember being this kid in the snow and I knew moments like these burrow themselves deep into the recesses of your brain and visit you like old friends as you grow up. It's as if you get to live in two dimensions- both the child who is completely immersed in the purity of that instant in time and the adult who has that hard-earned awareness that this is life at its most beautiful. 

I've been thinking about happiness lately. Well, maybe not thinking about it so much as being more aware of it. Happiness and its various accoutrements– things like contentment, satisfaction, peace, goofiness and laughter. 

Things that, perhaps as a result of hormones, exhaustion, stress, uncertainty and new routines, have been absent for me for months (and months and months).

Have you ever felt like you've forgotten how to laugh? Like, you can force out a giggle on your kid's behalf or text an LOL that isn't accompanied by actual laughing out loud, but that deep, rich chuckle that wells up from your belly is lost? That's how I've felt. Sort of hollow in the humor department. Not sure I'd ever find anything really, truly funny again. 

When you're in that place, you're not even really aware that laughter is missing. I had a vague feeling of maybe being overly serious and morose. Kind of ho-hum about my day-to-day existence. And I grew accustomed to it. Like it was just my new way of being.

That was until I laughed again. Real, actual laughter. 

It happened in a totally nondescript, kind of obvious way. 

Brad and I decided it was time to catch up on our "Broad City."

"Broad City," for those of you who have yet to discover its awesomeness yet, is a show on Comedy Central about two best friends in their mid-20s navigating New York. It was created by and stars comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. That's the Wikipedia description. 

That description would incorrectly make it seem like "Broad City" is a show my mom could watch without being shocked and appalled. The show is Not Safe for My Mom (NSFMM). Sorry mom. There's just a little too much pot smoking, profanity, sex, extreme bathroom situations, more pot smoking and absurdity for the likes of my mom. Probably many people's moms. On the other hand, I'm a mom, and I like it. So, it's not that it's not a mom-friendly show. It's just that it's not mom friendly for moms who would find a plotline involving a melted dildo distasteful or who would be grossed out by an unflushable turd getting stowed in a shoe. 

For serious though, it's super funny. And smart. And it's empowering to women. And it's about female friendship. And I love it and I wish I could be even half of the queen Ilana is.


Anyway, a few weeks ago, a short time into the first or second episode of season 4, I got my laugh back. I don't even remember what caused the laugh- probably Ilana adapting her signature "Yas queen!" into a "Yes beesh" (you just have to watch the show to get it)- but there it was. A from-the-belly, not cute, genuine guffaw. 

Man. I'd forgotten how good that felt. And it kept coming, too. The laughter. Realizing that they were bleeping Trump's name on the show as if it were an expletive. Ilana having to use her obnoxiously long fake nails to cut herself out of the ridiculous body suit she'd pooped herself in (again, it's better to have some context). Abbi's first gray hair and her accidental lentil wart.

So many moments of silliness. 

The laughter hasn't only been reserved for binging on "Broad City" though. I'm laughing more at my kids. Jovie renaming NASCAR driver Ryan Newman "Ryan Poo-man." Lily practicing for her role as a lion in her school's production of "Seussical Jr." (if ever there was a person born to play a big cat, it was Lily, who at a young age hissed at strangers and can often be found constructing "Pride Rocks" around our house for her to rule). 

I'm laughing more at the shenanigans at school. The teachers trying to figure out the identity of a student who threw an entire bag of Takis in the middle of the 8th grade hallway offering multiple aliases when confronted about his actions (I'm still not sure we know the kid's actual name- only that he told the teacher his name was one thing and the other kids say his name is William, but it might actually be Victor. It's not clear. But the preposterousness of the situation had several 8th grade science teachers and one long-term sub in stitches during lunch). 

Or, at the student who answered "Tide Pods" to the day's brainteaser "According to a new study researchers say that to be on the safe side, you should not eat this when it's more than 12 hours old." (The actual answer was snow. And seriously, kids, enough with the Tide Pods).

Brad and I are finding more moments of levity at the end of the day, too. A break from the  weight of figuring out where we're going to live next and how we're going to swing a third kid. 

Rediscovering real laughter has sort of cracked this self-constructed dam inside of me where I could only focus on problems that needed to be solved and skipped over things that were a little more lighthearted.

For instance, singing in the car. It's the most fun ever! But have I been singing in the car? No, I've been listening to NPR pretty much nonstop, which is informative, but doesn't always inspire, you know, hope for the future of our country or even hope for the duration of the day. But blasting 90s alternative while heading to school in the morning? That kind of gets you ready for the day.

I know I'm not alone in the stress department. The American Psychology Association just released the results of its Stress in America Survey which found that Americans' stress had increased for the first time in 10 years with two-thirds of Americans saying they had stress about the country's future. Meanwhile, I'd read another article (ugh and I can't find it) that was talking about ways Americans were relieving stress. And despite us being more stressed, we're not using the tools that have traditionally provided relief from stress- things like reading, listening to music, exercising or prayer- as much. We're online more. But that might be causing us more stress. It's all very complicated. 

It's all so complicated. Because you have weeks like this week where you can't just tune out the news because it's so big and tragic and infuriating. Where you have to live in this ugliness and take ownership of it because it's all our mess. I'm right there with you.

I think where I've come to rest, at least for this week, is that I can't drown in it all. That's where I get stuck and forget to laugh. When I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into this bog. 

The fact is, there are still plenty of reasons for laughter. Real laughter, not just LOL laughter. Not just meme laughter. We just have to put our phones down long enough to see it. 

And there is still joy here on this Earth, in this country even. And when we miss it, we're missing the opportunity to fill our cups. And we're not going to get a whole lot done by way of raising resilient children, nurturing community, breaking barriers and shaking up the status quo when our cups our empty. 

I've done an awful lot of crying in this life. I'm going to go ahead and choose to laugh more, too.  

Abbi and Illana would give me a big old "Yas Queen," I think.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How growing life has left me feeling like a hot mess


I'm going to go ahead and apologize in advance for the amount of oversharing in this post. For those of you who are squeamish about human bodies and their various functions, I'd recommend reading up to the third paragraph (where I casually drop a personal bombshell with little fanfare) and then go about your business. Got all that? OK. Proceed with caution.

So here's me a couple weeks back. 

I'm almost three months pregnant. My waist is disappearing. I have hemorrhoids (which is a really annoying word to have to figure out how to spell by the way) courtesy of pregnancy. As is customary for me during pregnancy, there's a lump growing in my left armpit. Nope. Not the big C. Just some excess breast tissue setting up camp along one of my milk lines. Yeah. That's right. I have a third boob (it's really a thing and before you suggest I go ahead and join a sideshow, I'm not alone). Oh, and then I got a cold sore on my lower lip.

"What happened there?" my little brother asked, pointing to my mouth.

"Cold sore," I told him.

"Oooooo. You mean herpes? You got the herps?" He teased. 

And because I have no dignity left, I sighed. And nodded. 

Just add it to the list.

I'm hormonal. 

I'm overtired.

I'm stressed because I'm due in July and in August the lease is up on our rental house and we have to figure out a place to live and I have to figure out how I'm going to contribute to household income whilst simultaneously caring for a newborn and rearing two other little people. 

All I see ahead of me are lots and lots and lots of dark, scary trees. No forest.

What else? Oh yeah, I just started a long-term subbing gig team-teaching 8th grade science as a learning disabilities instructor. Several kids in my 8th-period study hall tell me they hate 8th-period study hall and that they just want their old and (infinitely more qualified) teacher back. They keep asking me if I'm going to quit. They ask me if I regret taking the job. I answer "no" to both, praying they'll hate me less as the weeks go by. I don't want to dread the 90 minutes I have to spend in study hall every other day. But I still kind of dread it. 

So that's the state of affairs.

A couple weeks ago, I got home from school feeling kind of like a pilot whale that had been washed up on a trash-strewn beach and I found a box on my doorstep. Attached was a note addressed to me in handwriting that I recognized instantly. So tiny and perfect it should be its own font. It hasn't changed in the two decades I've known the writer, one of my oldest friends.

She and I had met for breakfast earlier that week -- only when she arrived she looked kind of grey and peaked. 

"You feeling OK?" I asked. 

She said her stomach was bothering her, but that she thought she'd be fine. 

She ordered some toast and I ordered some apple cinnamon French toast (umm, it was as delicious as it sounds). But before our food even arrived I could tell she was going downhill quickly. I suggested we get the bill. Told her I could drive her car back to her condo. She protested for a millisecond and then agreed she couldn't drive.

I took her home, tried to get her comfortable and waited for Brad to come and pick me up. My friend apologized for the mess (her house has never not looked like a tidy, adorable Ikea showroom -- did I mention she doesn't have kids?) and seemed embarrassed about the fact that some underwear she'd just purchased was lying on her dresser. 

I glanced at the pile 'o panties -– they were all lacy and delicate and ladylike in elegant colors. I told her I was impressed with her taste in undergarments. That she actually wore, like, nice grownup underpants, as opposed to me, whose underwear drawer more closely resembled my own children's (think lots of cotton. All the cotton. And also character themed. Whatever. Who has time for impractical underthings?).

She kind of brushed it off and said she hated pantylines and these particular drawers kept her work pants looking neat and professional (though she added that they don't do much for keeping her butt cozy. Score one for cotton!).

We chatted a little more before Brad arrived. I left my poor friend in a clump on her bed to get some rest with an empty trashcan and a glass of water nearby. I told her to call if she needed anything.

Flash forward to Wednesday and this mystery box she left on my front steps.

Once I was inside and settled, I opened the note in which she thanked me for a silly birthday card I had gotten her and for helping her out. Then she wrote this:

"While briefly discussing briefs, haha, I left out an important part. (Probably because I was actively trying not to vomit.) Classy, sassy undies do solve the dreaded pantyline problem, but they just make me feel good too. (Again, not in sub-zero temperatures or butt cheeks freeze. That feels the opposite of good.) At first, they made me feel a bit uncomfortable, not like myself, but then strangely confident and good. Not for showing anyone else, just for me. Give them a shot. Not for Brad, just for you. This is a carefully curated collection, by the way. I took note of your affinity for cute prints, then I picked a staple, a sensible and a Sue. I think you might like them."

I opened the box and nestled in some tissue paper was that aforementioned carefully curated collection of frilly underthings.

Then I started crying. 

Like. Sobbing. Like the red-nosed, snot-dripping ugly variety of crying.

Her note and gift hit this nerve in me. The one that had long stopped feeling at all ladylike or feminine or fancy or confident or sassy -– all the adjectives I haven't applied to myself in forever. A long, long time. Years even. And here they all were in a little, lacy panty pile on my lap. 

The truth is, I don't know that I even recognize the woman who would wear these things. I don't know if she's still in me. It feels as if she's sort of evaporated into the ether.

I spend so much time just kind of getting through the day, you know? Like, it's enough that I shower semi-regularly, right? It's enough that my pants are relatively stain-free. That maybe I put on mascara. Maybe the shirt I'm wearing is in a flattering color. That's enough, right? And now that I'm pregnant and my body is changing shape all over the place and erupting in hormones, my expectations for looking cute aren't all that high.

My reaction to my friends' gift kind of reminded me that, no, no it's not enough. It's not enough to just get by feeling quasi-presentable. Feeling like I look "not bad." That I've lost something in the translation of my life from young professional to work-from-home mom to whatever it is I'm doing now.

It's not really about underpants, of course, or physical appearance even. It's about that, somewhat, but it's more about confidence. About trusting my inner-compass and the direction of my life. You know, the tending of my person. That little glowing center of me. My soul.

Is anybody still with me here? Am I even still with me here? I don't even know.

What I know is that right now, I feel a bit lost. My soul feels adrift and life seems kind of a mess with all its unanswered questions.

And I haven't even dug into the elephant in the room, or rather the baby in the womb (see what I did there?). 

What about this baby? You wonder. 

Yes! Yes! This baby. We call him/her The Colonel. 

This little, lemon-sized soul that's growing bigger by the day. The Colonel can squint and frown and grimace and grasp now. He or she can urinate, too!

"Wait," Lily asked me the other day. "You mean you have someone peeing inside of you right now? Gross."  

Just add it to the list of gross things about me currently, right behind third boob, hemorrhoids and herpes, I thought.

People have asked if this pregnancy was planned. Which, seems a bit -- I don't know --  nosy or judgy, though I know it's not ill-intentioned. I think they ask the question in order to gauge my level of enthusiasm about the situation and so gauge their level of enthusiasm when congratulating me. 

Brad and I have two other small people. By now we know the mechanics of baby making. Let's just say this baby was not, not planned and leave it at that.

And we are excited. Absolutely. I've wanted a third kid since, like, back before I had the other two. I've always wanted a big family. I'm one of six myself. The realities of parenthood have shaved off the number of children I think I can handle. We're not aiming for six (uhhh, Brad would probably like to point out he was never aiming for six). Two always seemed a little too neat, but three or four feels like just the right amount of chaos. So, yes. Yay baby!

But I also won't pretend this baby doesn't weigh on me. Because life has taken on a certain rhythm. It's been six years since I last had an infant. Both girls are in school now. I've been hitting a groove with this subbing business. We're still getting settled in Virginia (and will soon need to re-settle in another house ... somewhere. Where, exactly? Who knows?). 

I feel as if I've been playing this careful game of metaphorical chess and some obnoxious 7th grader just ran by and flipped over the board (obnoxious 7th grader is redundant. Also, can you tell where I spend my days now?). For the record, The Colonel isn't the obnoxious 7th grader. I think in this scenario it's life. Life is the obnoxious 7th grader. 

I feel like I've gotten one area of my life on task only to find out that the other 90 percent has been sending SnapChats of my ass to the rest of the school for the past 20 minutes. 

Like, what the hell am I doing, even?

The answer is, I have no idea.

No clue. 

I'm hormonal. I'm tired. I'm trying to keep Lily and Jovie alive and raise them to be good humans. I'm trying (and I'm pretty sure I'm mostly failing) at being a good wife. I'm trying to be supportive to various family members and friends who are also struggling through their own lives. I'm trying not to panic about what housing or work will look like in the next year.

I'm dealing with this cold that has turned me into stuffy nosed mouth breather.  

I'm growing another human inside me and that human is peeing in me. 

I'm trying not to feel guilty that I don't feel like that pregnant lady in Johnson & Johnson commercials who spends her days folding little clothes and humming to herself, the morning sun lighting up her perfectly contented maternal face. There is no morning sun casting a warm glow on my life. Nope, these days I feel like my life is lit up like an Old Navy dressing room– all Unflattering and fluorescent.

What am I doing? I'm surviving, that's what. 

And l don't mean to whine. I really don't want anybody to feel sorry for me or anything like that. Really, truly, I have the means and desire to care for this one as I did the others. I know it's not like that for all pregnant women. And there's no judgement on those who learn they're pregnant and feel only despair. 

For me, this baby is a gift. A little burst of hope. I know when he or she comes sliding out into the world I will feel joy. 

The reason for my (over)sharing is that I have to believe there is at least one other woman out there who has gotten pregnant with her third (or second or fourth or seventh) child and maybe isn't feeling as doe-eyed about it as she did with the earlier ones. And she probably feels like crap about that, too, right? And to that person I say, you're not alone. I feel you.

And also, because sometimes it just feels better to lay out all the little broken bits of your brain and stare at them for a minute. You know, take stock of all the clutter. Sometimes doing this kinda helps me get my arms around it all.

I texted my friend to thank her for the panties. I told her she was really sweet for thinking of me and they were really lovely, but I'd probably hold off on wearing them ... you know ... until my undercarriage was a little less ... grotesque. 

"When you're ready," she wrote back. 

Right. When I'm ready to be the lady in the fancy pants.

I'm still dubious about that day ever arriving.

***

There's this student in my third period class. This girl is beautiful and loud and strong. Attitude for days. Her aura fills a room. And she's perpetually messing with her hair and her face tweaking her eyebrows, fussing with her false eyelashes, braiding her long, dark tresses. One day she was on her phone when she wasn't supposed to be, I told her to put it away. "But I have to finish contouring," she told me. Her phone was on selfie mode and she was using it as a mirror as she brushed on powder. Of course, I thought.   

So she walked into class earlier this week and looked over at me.

"Your hair looks really good today," she said. I'd worn it down and put some product in it so it was curly. I.E., I made some effort. 

We were chatting during some downtime later in the class. She told me she'd been talking to kids in the other science classes. "They really like you," she says. "They think you're really pretty." 

She was shocked to learn I was married with two children.

"How old are you?" she asked (not entirely appropriate), but I answered anyway.

"Thirty-six." How could she not see that in the lines on my face and the bags under my eyes? 

"What?! I thought you were like, in your early 20s," she said. 

OK. So I know this girl is only 14 or 15. I know her perspective on age is probably a little off. And I don't really need anybody thinking I look 10 years younger than I am- I'm totally fine with being 36. But it still felt nice, after feeling like a bit of a dumpster fire for the past couple weeks, for someone to compliment my appearance. 

More than that, it was having a student take the time to talk to me as a person rather than glaring at me from across the room or ignore me completely. She wasn't the only one who made conversation. 

One of the students in the honors class who hadn't said two words to me in the three weeks I'd been in the room all of the sudden called me over and wanted to tell me about auditioning for the school play and the Disney Cruise she was going to go on. In another class, one of the boys was clearly frustrated about something. He wanted to cool off so I took a walk with him. I asked him what was going on, not at all expecting him to share, but suddenly he was telling me all about a fight he'd had with his new girlfriend.

Another kid had been looking down for a couple days, so when we had a minute I asked him about it. He told me his dad was at a hearing that day to find out if he was going to be deported. His parents ran a family business- his dad doing construction, his mom cleaning houses. His dad had been living here for more than 20 years and was really respected by his clients. I could feel the weight on this kid's shoulder. His face was etched with agony. I told him how sorry I was that he was facing such enormous stress and that I'd keep his family in my thoughts.

And I did. I prayed for them on the drive home from school and before I went to sleep. And when I woke up in the middle of the night because my nose was stuffy and my mouth was dry, I prayed some more. 

At school the next day he came into class -- a little more swagger in his step. "Did you get any news?" I asked him. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. "We're good," he said. His dad can stay.

Gosh our lives are messy, right? All of them. We're all carrying these unwieldy burdens– even the kids. And we can't solve them all, right? 

I wish I could make sense of the piles and piles of mental clutter laid out before me. But again, no forest. Only trees.



Of course, it occurs to me as I'm reading that last sentence that I actually like trees. How they both burrow down deep into the earth and stretch up, up, up into the sky. How their bare branches look like arteries and how they break up the sky into stained glass. How they're so strong and steadfast and wise. How each one is so unique. How their flaws and scars only make them more interesting and more beautiful. How they weather this world and all its tumult so gracefully and graciously.

Maybe I need to think of my clutter as trees. Each their own milestone on my walk through this life. An opportunity to grow deeper and stretch higher. 

Maybe it's fine that I don't see the whole forest right now. Maybe it's OK to be down here under the canopy alongside all these other lost and searching souls, stopping to appreciate each masterpiece in front of me.

Brad says it would also be helpful if I listened to what the people around me were saying. Like the girl who told me my hair looked good or my friend who still sees the potential for me to be a fancy underwear wearer. The students who open up to me. My sisters who tell me I'm wise or my mother who tells me to keep writing. Or, god forbid, Brad who tells me pretty frequently that he thinks I'm an awesome person. 

It's always been much easier for me to deflect other people's positive feedback. To change the subject or say something self depreciating or to assume that they just aren't seeing the whole picture. The whole disaster. The whole forest.

Of course they're not. We rarely get to see the entire scope of any one individual. We're not meant to, I suppose. We take in only what's in front of us. What our eyes choose to see, our ears choose to hear, our hearts choose to feel. 

I always tell my sister that the parts that speak mostly loudly to me about her aren't the same ones that speak mostly loudly to her about herself. When she looks in the mirror, she only sees her shortcomings– her varicose veins or her graying hair or her impatience and failures. I'm aware of her flaws but mostly revel in all her best parts. Those are the ones that sing to me. Her compassion and her beautiful cheekbones and her warmth and her freckles. Her infinite wisdom. The depths of her empathy for the downtrodden. To me, she's a perfect specimen.

If I'm to follow Brad's instructions- and maybe I should given the scourge hormones have laid on my mental health in recent months- perhaps I'll just have to stop looking at the mirror with my eyes and try borrowing someone else's.