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. 

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.