If I Were a Peony

The pink blossoms of my magnolias are the primary spark of color on my street on this last day of March. Each day, the blossoms seem to multiply and their color magnify. I teach my students that adjectives are like flowers. Adjectives decorate nouns just like flowers decorate our world. They distinguish a man from the curious man and the devious man. They add color to our language, and that analogy typically makes sense to my students.

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When I returned my neighbor’s recycling bin to his back yard earlier today, I found three yellow daffodils peeking out from amidst the tall blades of grass, waving hello. There are two overgrown flower beds in front of my porch, and I plan to plant some flowers this year. Never have I cultivated a garden, and though I know it’s too late for perennials this year, I’ve always wanted peonies.

Too late this year. But plant them, and in their necessary time, their blossoms will come. This year, I’ll buy impatiens and put them in the ground.  I can do the same next year, and the year after that if I’m still here, but peonies demand planning and time.  I don’t know much about gardening, but I understand the difference between perennials and annuals.  Annuals make sense to me – you can witness an impatiens’ entire life cycle in one season.  They’re born, live, and die under a watchful eye.

Perennials, however, seem to me seeds of faith.  You open up the earth one season, plant their bulbs at just the right distance into the ground, cover them up, and wait.  Beneath the soil, they wait.  Rains fall.  Mowers cut.  Leaves fall.  Rakes scratch.  Snow falls.  Ice thaws.  All above the bulbs while they wait.   Life convenes around them.  Seasons turn.  Time passes.  And somehow they know when it’s warm and safe enough to break free of their protective casing and become what they were meant to be.

Like those daffodils in the neighbor’s yard, likely long forgotten in a year filled with children and grandchildren, jobs and church, friends and get-togethers.  Their house is always filled with life, cars coming and going.  I didn’t notice the flowers last week, so I imagine they have just made their entrance.  The ground around them is unkempt, so they must be resilient little flowers.  They’re just a few yards away from the grand tree, chopped up.  I’m still waiting for the tree savior to return and collect the firewood, but I’m hopeful.  The life of the yellow flowers next to the dead wood is a dramatic paradox.

Maybe I could learn a lesson from the perennial.  So much of my life I judge success and failure by what’s visible to my eye.  If I planted impatiens, I wouldn’t expect to see them return the next year because I understand what they are.  Their life cycle is both visible and short.  If I planted peonies without knowing which type of flower they were, I would imagine myself a failure as a gardener when they did not blossom right away.  If I judged their success on what was visible, I would resign myself to disappointment.

As I have done with my own existence.  For what is visible is a woman without blossoms.  A peony planted in the fall blooms in the spring, displays glossy green leaves last through the summer, and boasts purplish hues in the fall.  The beauty of its life takes different forms, but it is nevertheless flourishing.  Seasons of the human life cannot be segmented into four month accruals.  Unlike a flower that knows inherently when it’s time to morph into another version of itself, there is no seasonal compass directing my personal transformations.  Yet, if I consider my own being as that of a perennial, change is to be expected.  Every day will not be filled with pink blossoms, but they will come.  We should consider the progressive adjectives: first pretty, then beautiful, and eventually, stunning.

And the seasons in between are all a part of the life cycle.  Even a peony needs the chilling of cold winters for its formation.  Lord knows I’ve had my share of cold winters.  This last one was just a little longer than most.

Perhaps the greatest lesson in the peony is that it takes a few years to establish itself.  Its first year blooming is just a preview to what all it will become.  As I reflect on years past, I cannot help but note the times I flourished.  Senior year of high school with my success on the track team and a lead in the student run play marked a time in my life where I was soaring.  When I first started teaching and I was modeling on the side, doing musicals at church and writing my first book, I was undeniably happy.  If I label these as the great springs of my life, I might be able identify all the summers, falls, and winters in between.

What’s of importance to me now is the most recent seasons.  The last summer I believe started with my marriage.  We honeymooned in Florida and spent the days riding roller coasters and the nights watching TV.  I was contented.  Glossy green leaves for a year or two.  I completed my graduate degree online at Wilkes University with a 4.0 and took more from the experience than all my college courses combined.  Purple hue for another year or so.  Then I left teaching to try and save my marriage, spending my days at home, keeping house and doing puzzles until I didn’t want to get out of bed any more.  Nothing visible.  Winter had come.

I left the city I had called home for more than ten years.   I left my friends, my church, and my city and went back to Syracuse where I had grown up.  I said myself that I was starting over, but that was two years ago, so why haven’t I seen myself flourish again?  Could it be that the decision to uproot and replant meant that my first spring would be like that of a new plant, that I could expect I would not see my full potential for some years to come?

During my brief time in Syracuse, I started a new job and built some incredible relationships.  I began fostering a friendship with my mother that has grown into daily heart-to-heart talks that I do not take for granted.  I returned to the gym and began cultivating my body.  I had a session each week with a psychologist that made such an impact on my well-being that upon running into him during a visit home at Christmas, it brought tears to my eyes.  Maybe I did experience a spring after all, but I missed it because it didn’t look as full as what I was expecting.

As sure as the daffodils in my neighbor’s yard know when it’s safe to break through the ground, my latent potential will find the top of the soil.  As sure as the magnolias in my front yard will be more in number when I pull in the driveway tomorrow, the visible product of a season of dormancy will yield something progressively beautiful as the days of my life unfold.  As sure as the peonies I plant this fall will be more beautiful in 2018 than they will next year, there will be promising blossoms in my future.  I’m a perennial, not an annual, and this metaphor pleases me more than firewood and branches.  I’m an adjective, and that makes sense to me.

The Italian’s American Dream

The blossoms will be pink. Not mine (well, maybe, we’ve just yet to find out), but I’m referring to the Magnolia trees in front of me while I gather myself on the front porch to write again. So much can change in a week’s time in spring, and I only wish the growth were as visible when I catch my reflection in the mirror and can’t see beyond the wrinkles in the corners of my eyes. They are only a handful of buds gathering at the tips of the branches now, but unmistakably, the blossoms will be pink.

Even the dead tree in the back yard has made progress in a week’s time. Just last night, I pulled into my driveway and an unfamiliar black man hurried over from the Washington’s house a couple doors down. “Would you mind if I chopped up that tree for firewood?” he asked. I breathed a sigh of relief and gave him my blessing, dismissing the nagging thought I should probably check with my landlord first. As I settled in for a night of ad design for the yearbook, the buzz of the saw from outside comforted me. As I worked for the next hour, it soothed me. And as the sun was tucking itself in for the night, the tree savior knocked on my door to let me know he was done for the night and would be back to gather the wood and grind up the base.

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“It seemed a waste to let it rot,” he explained with a hint of a glimmer in his eye. “That’s the fourth tree in a week I’ve done. I give the firewood to people who need it.” I thanked him silently for far more than I did aloud. When I shut the door and snapped off the porch lights, I giggled with delight and relished the rest of the evening with an unexpected bubbling of joy that most would have deemed disproportionate to the event.

Despite its seemingly doomed demise last week, my grand ole maple discovered life after death. Will I be so fortunate?

The current unit of study with my juniors is the American Dream. The course runs concurrently with U.S History, so cross-disciplinary instruction effectively contextualizes the Rise of Realism and Naturalism. After a brief review of the era, we dove into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-so-short story Winter Dreams where our leading character Dexter “wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people – he wanted the glittering things themselves.” His desires motivated him toward a social standing that sparked more than flashing dollar signs. We spent extensive time discussing our own interpretations of the American Dream with students highlighting their own desires. Education. Money. Good jobs.

This morning, my first class asked me if they could do a freewrite – and what English teacher would deny a request for honest outpourings of thought in written word? “Okay, here’s your ‘go’ word, are you ready?” Insert emphatic pause here. “Dreams.” A collective murmur responded of “Oh’s”, both exclaimed and moaned. An uncanny similarity sounded in their share time: they bear a deep-seated belief that anything is possible. Their dreams are hopeful and unabashed. These seventeen-year-olds are salivating for a life beyond high school that is just beyond their reach that promises fulfillment of latent and expressed desires for goodness, worth, and value.

It seemed almost a shame to move forward with our exploration of David Wallechinsky’s 2006 musings, “Is the American Dream Still Possible?” which showcases the struggles of our middle class to experience financial freedom or fulfillment of that dream. His conclusion that the ability to make the dream a reality lies in becoming “active citizens” is the product of a mindset not yet necessitated by these teenagers. Understanding, is, quite literally, beyond their years. Avae and Jeremiah and Andi and Davia’s attempts to dissect this conclusion with their adolescent interpretations amounted to no more than, “So we should vote?”

Goodness, worth, and value are valid desires that I would name in my own American Dream. Admittedly, I give little attention to politics or economics when considering my ability to achieve it. College was never in question. I craved knowledge, entertaining the thought of changing my major with every new venture from philosophy to history class, but my childhood commitment to teach English dismissed them each. I stuck with my dream.

When it comes to career and financial success, I concur with my students, as one who boasted today, “I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps,” giving merit to the cliché (another of our vocabulary words). So when and how did the pragmatism about realistic expectations and a lack of personal control take root only in those parts of me intended to grow social or emotional vegetation?   My lack of success toward my other lifelong goals overshadows the contentment I should have over establishing myself in a noble career that is inherently one of value. By Wallechinski’s standards, I have achieved the American Dream.

Maybe it’s the Italian Dream that’s played roulette with my heart. After emigrating from Italy at the turn of the century, my great-grandfathers truly were pursuing and achieving the American Dream. If asked why she never learned to speak Italian, my mother will explain with a healthy pride that her parents believed it was essential to assimilate fully into American culture. And while the language may have been lost on our subsequent generations, the Italian zeal for family is firmly rooted, unaffected by winds of change or seasons of storm.

I do not have an answer to the never-ending debate over nature verses nurture and wouldn’t attempt to posit an economically sound rationalization for ensuring the realization of one’s American Dream. Only have I the dull ache in the core of my being that, when considering dreams as I am right now, physically manifests itself as a tightening in my chest and the threat of tears just forming to assert that I want more for myself than I have right now. Will I be judged harshly if I admit I want to be more than a teacher?

Like Fitzgerald’s Dexter, I want more than association with the glittering things – I want the glittering things themselves. No, my motivation is not for social standing in terms of class, but it’s social standing nevertheless. Husband. Children. White picket fence. Family dinners at 5:30 pm. Throw in a front porch swing watching grandchildren playing under pink Magnolias in full-bloom and I believe I could die a happy woman, dreams fulfilled.

Freewrite to Genuine Thought

It has been a week since I wrote for me. I wrote lesson plans for administration. I wrote quizzes and tests for my students. I wrote whole units for my classes. I wrote emails for parents and other teachers. Is there any writing left for me?

Another warm Tuesday night finds me on my front porch again. The jeweled, purple butterfly wind chime together with the intermittent rushes of wind through the treetops supply background music, interrupted by the occasional car engine or cry of an overtired child dragged inside past his bedtime. When did that tree across the street grow back its leaves?

The words aren’t pouring out tonight as they did last week. I poke out a few words that form themselves into rather generic sentences and brief paragraphs. Perhaps I’ll try a freewrite. Freewrite on Spring. “Pens and pencils poised and prepared to Power-Up!” I hear myself announce to my journalism students before dinging the chime on my desk that signals the beginning. My butterfly chimes respond to my own need for a cue to start.

Spring. Awakening. Who wrote The Awakening? I’ve read it and taught it but just can’t seem to bring the author’s name to mind. Spring. Awakening. What type of tree is that across the street? In New York, I knew the maples and the pines. I’ve been told the two trees framing my front walkway bloom as early as February, but it’s March and the buds have yet to peek out. What color will they be? I suppose I could ask my landlord, but we only communicate if there is a problem.

Like the tree in the backyard that fell down last month while I was in Atlantic City for Valentine’s Day with my gentleman-friend. While I was out of town, my landlord called to ask if it fell on the house, and I didn’t know. Driving back to Hampton, I wondered what I would find when I arrived. When I pulled in the driveway at dark, the gnarled branches dominated my back yard, too massive and extensive to identify how bad the damage was to my neighbor’s car, just a red tail light reflecting my own headlights. The next morning revealed this perfectly fallen, ancient tree smack dab between my shed and my neighbor’s garage, its tallest branches resting silently on my bedroom window. Landlord Duane showed up to clean up the branches, leaving an enormous trunk that’s still back there. Perhaps the scattered winter storms kept him from returning. I wandered back there a few days ago and climbed atop the fallen trunk, eventually staring down into a hollow base. How had this tree stood so tall for so long when its insides were rotted away near completely? How many storms had it weathered before this one called it to its final resting place?

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This freewrite brought me to my first genuine thought tonight. I have so much in common with that tree. So long without xylem and phloem running in its veins, its rings of age were near indecipherable. Outward appearances revealed a problem: no leaves, no growth; nevertheless its sprawling branches had consumed the skyline behind the house. For all its age and countless battles with seasons and storms, that tree had survived decades of change and disaster. To see its branches chopped up and sensibly stacked on the curb waiting for the garbage man drew a rebuttal out of me. Had it made it through such a sordid existence to fulfill no purpose at all, but instead be made trash? I urged some neighbors to take what pieces they could for firewood, but the bulk of it was disposed of on trash day. Tuesday in fact. Like today.

Perhaps I fear that my life will amount to a similar fate. For all my striving through the storms and seasons of my own sordid existence, when I find my final resting place, will I simply be disposed on trash day? When I’m laid in the ground, what will become of my branches? There was a time that I flourished and blossomed, seeing a future for myself that was overflowing with promise and possibility. Admittedly, my divorce rotted me at my base. A spring and a summer came and went with no passionate blood running through my veins. There was no awakening for me that year. My dreams were so vivid in contrast to the stark reality of waking that I preferred sleep. Each morning greeted me with a harsh reminder that nothing would ever be as it was when I bloomed and hoped.

Like that tree across the street that has regained its leaves, the blood eventually flowed in me, also without my notice of it. There wasn’t one morning that I awoke and realized that I was living again. It happened over time. The same way the tree in the backyard probably died. Over time. Without anyone noticing. No declaration that transformations were transpiring at all.

Personification is a device tested on my students’ end of course test: giving humanlike qualities and characteristics to an inanimate object. My tree was not able to cry out, “I’m dying! Put my branches to good use! Let my century-long existence count for something!” I, on the other hand, can. I’m not inanimate. Life is not happening to me. I am happening. I am growing. I am not dead yet. You can still count my rings of age. Perhaps I haven’t made the impact on society that I dreamed I would by thirty-two, but there is still blood in my veins. And with that, promise and possibilities, however different than they were twenty years ago.

“What do you imagine your life will be in twenty years?” my fourth grade had tasked me. My essay ultimately answered a different question. What did I want my life to look like? Armed with the innocence of youth, my yellow pencil did not discern a difference. Now, marked by endurance of decades of change and disaster, I’ve learned to divorce imagination and want. Asking myself that same question now, pragmatism and realism practically dare me to answer at all.

So, let’s aim for a hopelessly romantic view of my life in twenty years, a projection that might provoke a midlife crisis when I reflect back on these words, regretful of all I still did not manage to accomplish. At fifty-two, I will have a family of my own. I’ll be married to a man who makes me feel beautiful inside and out but doesn’t let me wrap him around my little pinky. We’ll have two children who are well-adjusted and kind-hearted. I’ll still be working in education, but I’ll be teaching teachers how to improve the quality of education they are giving their children by coaching them through the ever-changing landscape of training up digital natives. We’ll live near family.

And yes, we will have dinner together every night as a family until they leave the nest. I’ll cook creative meals, and my husband will do the dishes as an act of gratitude. I may not have the comfy cushion of a doctor’s wife, but I will have wealth in memories wrought in love and intention. These are desires I couldn’t have known I would long for at nine. I resign myself that up to this point, the branches that have been put to valuable use are those grown and then chopped up as fuel for the classroom, but I’d like to grow my own family and have that be my legacy.

Each day is one nearer to death. Conscious of time’s passing, not an object personified, I tell myself, “Let my century-long existence count for something.” We’ve yet to find out what color my blossoms will be when they bloom.

I Used to Be

I used to be a writer and a poet and a novelist. And a singer. And an actress. And a media tech. And a computer repair geek. I used to be a little sister and a big sister, a babysitter, a housekeeper, a business owner, a gardener, a receptionist at a hair salon, an intern at a church, a tutor at a private school, a certified personal trainer, a model, a Nashvillian. I used to be so many things. Even a wife.

Now, I sit on the front porch of a rented three bed room house in the middle of Virginia pushing thoughts of teaching out of my mind to free up the room to write again. Even as my fingers depress keys in a sequence of muscle memory so automatic it’s like breathing, my mind is still churning out a never-ending to do list of ostensibly unimportant dimensions: compile make-up work for Antasia, create a vocab quiz for my eleventh graders, contact my assistant principal re: teaching more tenth grade classes because I feel unnaturally well-equipped to prepare them for the writing end of course test.

Like I’ve heard from countless others, my life doesn’t look like what I thought it would at thirty-two. According to my timeline, I’ve accomplished none of what I thought I would have by this age. Yet, when I survey the laundry list of things I have been, I realize to countless others, I have had some considerable accomplishments in my not-so-young life. And still somehow, the meaninglessness of my life gnaws at me like… the simile didn’t come. It would have five years ago.

Just as I know thirty-two should be spelled out according to MLA rules because it’s three syllables or less and that in order to break the rules of starting sentences with and I must understand that I am, in fact, breaking them for affect, and that affect is a verb and effect is a noun, all matters ingrained in me from years of linguistic study, I know that my life is not meaningful as was ingrained in me from a lifetime of behavior study.

Even at nine years old when asked to imagine my life in twenty years, no one could have denied my zeal for the details of my own American Dream. My timeline uncannily mirrored my mother’s. I would be married to a doctor at twenty-one and pay his way through medical school on my teaching salary, as my mother did. I would have four children and own a white house with black shutters in the suburbs, as my mother did. I would stay at home to raise them and serve dinner at 5:30 pm every night, as my mother did. My painstakingly penned De’nelian cursive evidenced my commitment to a future that would be mine.

I could not have anticipated that I would understand more about parallel sentence structure in twenty years than I ever would about a home and a family. Already behind on my timeline, I filled in the role of husband with a struggling musician because, after all, the position was a bill past due. My brief stint with marriage lasted only four years before disquieted disenchantment purged me from my marriage, my home, my career, my church, and my city. At the age of thirty.

It’s been two years since I uncharacteristically snuffed out the woman I was and attempted to start again somewhere else. That’s also two years since I put pen to paper, as I near daily force my high school students to do. Am I afraid that there’s nothing of value left to write in me? That the similes will no longer form themselves into perfect pairings on an alliterated page? That all my used-to-be’s will dominate my writing material? Or that the very pastime of reflective writing that urged me forward for two decades will bring me face to face with the current disillusionment of this decade of my existence?

Perhaps it is all four, but something about daylight savings and the temperature increases of March sparked a long-dead fire in me while driving home on I-64 tonight. It was the first writing tingle I have had since I left Nashville. Mimicking the peace I experienced living in one bedroom apartment after college when I relished my singleness and independence, I headed outside with my laptop in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other and clicked on “New Word Document”. These words are the result. Comprehension of cause and effect relationships. – that’s an essential skill at the “understanding” level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. That to-do list is quickly encroaching on my selfish little writing binge.

Before the list overtakes me completely and I open my work email, one thing remains. The mere fact that I don’t want to admit this compels me to confess: the thought occurred to me while weaving through traffic at dusk that if I could just reach my computer and start writing again that I might just expose a sugarcoated sentiment that would change me somehow for the better. Writing used to do that for me. It fixed problems.   It led me to truths about myself and the world around me that revealed the interconnectedness of the human experience. It was cathartic. Therapeutic. Impassioned.

In reality, I haven’t made any major epiphanies, haven’t found a book topic that might impact the world, and certainly haven’t freed myself from the existential life crisis that ebbs at my wellbeing each day. But I wrote. Does that make me a writer again? Am I reclaiming some integral part of what used to define me? Can pensive meanderings incrementally (not coincidentally, one of our vocab words) add up to equate formulaic significance? More importantly, will I even have a hankering to open the document tomorrow?