Beach Reflections

Today wasn’t a beach day, though the weather was ideal for surf and sand. I spent most of the day at school preparing for teachers’ first official day back tomorrow. Fort Monroe beach was my second home this summer, and as it’s quickly being replaced by Kecoughtan High School, I feel the seasons changing absent a calendar. Writing doesn’t flow naturally tonight. Words aren’t forming themselves into playful analogies. To borrow from the song, “Back to life, back to reality” seems to be obstructing my creativity.

Trying to pack in the relaxation before diving back into our teacher routines, my friend Kyle and I hit the beach three times in the last week. Ninety-plus degree days, cool water, beach towels, and a Nicholas Sparks book are the perfect recipe for a leisure cocktail. We claimed “our spot” on Fort Monroe beach months ago. After its decommissioning in 2011, Fort Monroe was opened to the public. We forego the popular beach club a half mile up the shore in favor of a tranquil spot of open sand.

I’ve learned so much there about crabbers and cargo ships and tides… I even saw my first jelly fish and seahorse! Though we make camp in the same spot, the friends, drinks, and toys that accompany us alternate regularly. Sometimes my friend Angela and her family join us, and the day is full of laughter and splashing. Other times, Kyle’s roommates show up with soccer or footballs to toss around in the waves. When it’s low tide, there’s a sand bar that creates a natural kiddy pool of sorts, with salt water warmed by the sun where I love to lay out, half in and half out of the water sunbathing.   When the wind is strong, the waves are rough, ideal for body surfing.

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During the week, we have the beach largely to ourselves, even in the peak of summer.   Last Thursday was one such day. We stretched out our towels side by side, as always, then headed into the ocean. After we had sufficiently cooled off, we waded back to shore and deposited ourselves on our towels. Kyle’s current book was political in nature, as has been his obsession all summer.   With the gentle roar of the ocean, the sun at my back, and my toes nestled in the sand, I devoured the final chapters of The Choice by Nicholas Sparks.

In typical Sparks fashion, this book had a heart wrenching twist that drew tears from my eyes as it moved toward resolution. Reaching the last page, I wished it wouldn’t end. It was a deep, abiding love story, woven and developed over a few hundred pages. I fell in love with the leading characters’ love. We read to transport ourselves, if only momentarily, into another world. But the moment ended. The book ended. And though it resolved happily, I was anything but. A glance over to Kyle found him napping peacefully.

I traipsed down the shore and sat at the edge of the water, watching the waves break before me, sometimes over me. I added my tears to the ocean waters that encompassed me, fixated on the love of the characters in the novel. My brain wandered to another Nicholas Spark’s love story, The Notebook. During the credit roll in the movie theater after viewing the film for the first time over ten years ago, I wept in much the same way… so much so that the woman next to me asked if I was alright.

After exiting the building, that same woman came along side me as I walked to the parking lot, slipped her hand into mine, and said, “Love like that really does exist. And you don’t have to look for it. God already has him picked out for you.” Struck by her intuition, I wasn’t able to mutter more than a thank you. A week later, I had my first date with my first husband. Since there hasn’t been a second, I suppose there’s wishful thinking in that admission.

When I shared our love story, that woman’s words were always a part of it. Looking back, we never had “love like that”. We had a good friendship. Routines. Common interests. In the beginning, we had passion that faded effortlessly into dinner in front of the TV well before marriage. Truth be told, I’m not sure I would have recognized we didn’t have “love like that” until I had it with someone else. The use of past tense here grieves me. The relationship I had with the man I dated after my marriage ended was just like the love in the book and the movie… full of romance and activity, the stuff memories are made of. Dangle, preposition, for affect.

Dangle as I do, waiting for what comes after. My saltwater tears on Fort Monroe beach flowed for that reason. I believed that my husband was that love I didn’t have to look for, the one God had picked out for me. Yet, I dismissed my marriage, so there are two possible conclusions: my ex-husband was that man and I rejected God’s choice, or I’m hanging on the hope that He has another match for me somewhere. And if I follow the movie woman’s logic, this past summer spent looking for him was doomed to be fruitless. After all these words form themselves on the page, I’m left wondering why I put so much stock in that woman’s words, over a decade old.

Still, on the beach last week, I cannot deny how I craved for her words to be scripture. It would eradicate any responsibility on my part for my future happiness. It would mean that a “love like that” will find me, that there will be a husband and children and a front porch swing. It would equate trusting the hands of fate or of God or one and the same. And that’s where the equation leaves me resisting.   I grew up citing Proverbs, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight.”

My path has not been straight, and I swear that I trusted Him. The perilous state of my faith was less of a concern to me during my summer on the beach than picking out my second husband on eHarmony. Just beneath my level of consciousness, as I clicked “Hide match” for any potential who did not claim to be a Christian, I would simultaneously dismiss the state of my own faith. Faith in my Creator and a personal relationship with Him had guided the first three decades of my life, yet somehow following my divorce, I could no longer feel God’s presence. Perhaps I gave so much merit to that woman’s declaration because I shared her convictions at that time.

I now have few convictions. I believe in God, but I still feel nothing. Countless times over this eHarmony summer, my mother has left me with a simple suggestion. Pray about it. I’d much prefer my father’s suggestion. I called him on Thursday after I left the beach, and we joked about the lack of direction in my husband-seeking ventures. I am, after all, the last hope in preserving the full-blooded Italian genetics. So laughing, he agreed we should import an Italian man for me, as surely we have an eligible eighth cousin out there. Since we were dreaming, we resolved he should also be tall, handsome, wealthy, and Protestant.

Dreaming aloud is far easier than praying silently.

Beach days are coming to an end. The ocean will be replaced shortly by a sea of students flooding my classroom walls. The impertinent sand that finds its way home with me will be replaced by papers to grade on this white wicker love seat. The Nicholas Sparks’ novels that charm me with prospects of love will be replaced by essential literature and aspirations for my students to pass their end of course exam. Footballs and soccer balls will be replaced by ink pens and copy paper. Kyle won’t be by my ever-present confident, but my laptop instead.

And it is more than likely that the questions surrounding my faith will be superseded by requests for resources for our new English teachers and my obsession with finding my forever mate moved to the background as I focus on the leadership responsibilities that drive my school and student performance forward.

I learned a lot this summer on the beach about the world as the tides ebbed and flowed around me at Fort Monroe beach. It was there I came face to face with the immensity of faith and love. With the waves that rolled in came questions about faith and love. With beach days now behind me, the answers remain a mystery… for now.

Finding Purpose with No Expectations

Summer days are waning.   Crickets chirp while my butterfly wind chimes lay still. The porch light illuminates two empty wicker chairs. All the other porches on my street are silent and empty. The space beside me on the wicker love seat is empty, as usual. I’ve accepted it may be empty a while longer. Not forever, but for now.

To my right, the vines of my evening glories climb. But if your gaze would wander beyond the railing, just below, you would glimpse a quiet wonder likely overlooked by neighbors and passersby. One solitary white blossom.

Twelve weeks ago, I planted a handful of seeds. It was the same week I made my online dating profile. I remember my delight when the first shoots of green broke through the soil, my excitement when I had to put in a trellis to give the first vines an upward playground, and my joy when I first wound the vines around the slats in the front porch when they had outgrown the trellis. The plants in my front garden bed prospered from seedlings or mature plants, but the evening glories were part of my very first attempt starting from seeds; every milestone they’ve reached has brought me unexplainable satisfaction.

Nevertheless, though its vines climbed quickly and made measurable progress week by week, there were moments I doubted if it would ever bloom. A teacher’s summer off gave me plenty of time to observe its daily growth. In those moments when I wasn’t looking, the tips of the vines would make one more revolution around the slats in the porch. Perhaps I was beginning to lose faith because they bloom summer through fall, and a couple of training sessions each week this month for school keep me ever aware that summer is nearly over.

To be honest, I am looking forward to the start of school next week. Last year at this time, I was the new kid on the block, meeting my administrators and seeing my classroom at Kecoughtan High School. Today, I was introduced to the newest kids on the block as they did the same.   While fully immersed in the daily grind of preparing lessons and grading papers, focusing on the end of course testing demands and yearbook deadlines, I was oblivious to my own measurable progress. Over the course of a year, I unintentionally accomplished far beyond that which I strove for relentlessly at my six-year post in the Nashville public schools.

Back in those days, ambition defined me. I was constantly networking, vying for recognition and promotion, shaking hands and making connections, completing my graduate studies, believing that my career would be more meaningful if I were teaching teachers rather than students. In my previous post, I could spout off the name of everyone at the district office and had made myself personally acquainted with any of them who might have influence over my future placements. It did not occur to me to be grateful for a teaching position with tenure, a positive community, or stellar principals. I wanted more.

I could have never anticipated how grateful my career would be for my divorce. I didn’t just leave my husband. I left the quest for significance. I left the striving and the networking and the vying. I divorced ambition. I spent two years out of the classroom, the wealth of it working in an administrative cog-in-the-wheel position for a government contractor where the qualities that had made me an excellent educator – creativity, sound judgment, independence, self-motivation – were cause for derision. Perhaps the best cure for the grass-is-always-greener syndrome is to get what you thought you wanted and contract a critical reality check.

By the time I laid eyes on my classroom at Kecoughtan, I was simply grateful to be back in my element. My world consisted of my students, my lessons, my classroom, and my colleagues. Teaching is in my blood, and hindsight taught me a crucial lesson about the folly of my ambition. Of taking for granted. Of wanting more. I’d been given a second chance in education, and I was starting over. A new state, a new district, a new testing system, a new school, a new set of administrators. I never bothered to learn the names of the leaders in the district office.

When I was asked to lead a technology workshop in December, I was as delighted as I was to witness those first shoots of green from my evening glories. At the end of this past school year, when I was asked to be a part of the building leadership team, and a week later, the technology teacher leader team, I was as excited as I was to buy that trellis for the vines to climb. When I got the phone call from my principal this summer that I will serve as head of the English department, I felt the same joy as in winding those vines around porch slats.

The delight and excitement and joy were sincere. Why? Because I had no expectations. When I planted my evening glory seeds, I had no expectations. I noticed and appreciated every inch of green. I could be satisfied by even the most minor proof of progress, even if not a single blossom ever emerged, simply because I valued the growth for growth’s sake.

It took twelve weeks for my evening glories to bloom. It took fifty-two for me.

I do not have expectations for the countless other buds of my evening glories to open and blossom big and white. If they do, I will be pleasantly delighted. I do not have any expectations for the future of my career to open and blossom into greater responsibility or promotion. If they do, I will be pleasantly delighted.

Neither do not have any expectations for the seat beside me on my writing perch to be filled with a hunk of a man with his arm draped lovingly around my shoulders. My divorce of ambition saved my career. I am contented to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, without ungodly striving to pursue discoloring my rose-colored glasses. In the same span of time it took my evening glories’ seeds to thrive with a single bloom, my online dating seeds simply did not take root.

Perhaps it wasn’t the right season for planting. Perhaps the conditions of the soil or the temperature or the climate of my life weren’t favorable during this attempt. As the summer wanes, the promise of an abundance of teacher and leader responsibilities floods the horizon. Admittedly, online dating has served as a part time job this summer, and I don’t anticipate the luxury of such free time or energy to pursue it when the school bell rings.

But maybe like my divorce saved my career, my dating future will be saved by the bell as I put expectations aside and opt instead for a quiet wonder. A hope that in twelve weeks’ time or fifty-two weeks’ time, a single white blossom will emerge. The product of hope. Not expectation.

Uncomplicating Anxiety for Fortitude

Over the course of the last week, my evening glories have grown tiny clusters of buds yet to open and greet the porch with bursts of color anxiously awaited. Anxiety can be attributed to a variety of causes; in this case, a harmless excitement. It also stirs inside us when we’re out of our element or not at peace. Though we recognize its presence immediately, with its tendency to tap our feet or fingers repeatedly, it’s often difficult to explain away… like on my fourth date with my eHarmony nuclear engineer this weekend.

My evening glories out-climbed the limits of the porch slats and continued to climb themselves downwards and upwards and sideways.   I could have cut them back, but the emergence of the buds gave me pause. Having witnessed their resilience after being un-coiled and rewound for the painting of the porch, I chose an option that would allow them to keep climbing but potentially damage the plant. After using pushpins and copper wire to extend their playground up the sides and middle of the porch, I cautiously began the task of unwinding vines from vines.

Like so many pursuits that seem simple in the planning stage, the endeavor was more complicated than I anticipated. I use the term “complicated” when exploring the relationships between roots and prefixes with my English students. The prefix “com” means together. The derivative of the Latin root “plicare” means folded.   The evening glories became the epitome of the language combination personified, with vines so folded together in multiples that it was impossible not to inflict wounds. Some vines were broken accidently, others intentionally, but belief in the fortitude of the plant’s will to thrive coupled with the promise of the buds that will open soon forced my hands to task completion.

Witnessing the finished product, my friends Angela and Kyle agreed it was the right move. Angela had, after all, suggested it, and Kyle offered that he fully expected I would do that eventually.   Though it pained me to throw away the leaves and vines fractured in the process, looking beside me now at those clusters of buds headed in an upward direction satisfies the anxiety of the injuries born with a restored hope.

On my most recent date this weekend, I still couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. I greeted him with an almost familiar hug when he picked me up and laughed at our amateur bowling skills. We met up with Angela while walking by the marina, and she gave me her stamp of approval. Still, there was that same anxiousness somewhere inside me as I had on the previous date, an anxiety I had explained away as me putting too much pressure on the budding romance. While cooking our dinner, I drank a glass of wine quickly in a wholehearted effort to relax and get out of my own way.

He is, after all, a great guy. He meets the criteria on my uncompromisable-qualities-for-my-future-husband checklist. He is intelligent, ambitious, conversational, and as Angela agreed, “nice to look at” too. Either the wine hit me sooner than expected or my clumsy disposition prevailed because I burned my forearm badly while checking the temperature of the chicken in the oven. Dinner was pleasant, despite the ebbing pain, and I thought I was ready for the goodbye at the door. But mid-kiss, the urge to tap my toes was still present. It wasn’t a harmless excitement. Something just wasn’t right.

After taking some time to process my reaction to the first kiss, I knew that I had options. I could try for one more date… but hadn’t I already done that? And when had I ever needed a drink to kiss a good-looking, quality man before? Maybe I’m not ready to date again yet.   Maybe he just wasn’t the right fit for me. Maybe a lot of things. I can’t explain away the anxiety, but I can identify its presence, and I know just enough to pay attention to it. Our courtship ended amicably, as he was both understanding and kind when I spoke with him.

In essence, what I am doing in my own life is much like the redirecting process I’m doing with my evening glories. Having seen my resilience after my own heartbreaks, I’ve chosen the path with the best hope for upward growth despite the risks. The evening glories have buds, but they haven’t bloomed yet. Had I left the vines to their own intertwining efforts, the buds might have blossomed, but the plant itself had already outgrown its current environment. Its future was doomed. Intervention was necessary. The promise of exponential future growth outweighed the promise of a few buds yet to open.

It’s complicated. My desires for a husband, my online dating, my checklist, my biological clock… all folded together. Unraveling the vines causes some damage, and in this case, I snipped the budding romance intentionally. Because I have a vision for what will be. I see the climbing vines reaching above the railing, growing beyond to intermingle with the hanging baskets of impatiens. When things get complicated, sometimes you just have to go about the task of untangling what you can to answer that unexplainable anxiety and focus on the plan. The vision.

So that’s what I’m doing. I want love to blossom. I want forever and always. I want children. I want a front porch swing to share with a husband and watch, from its perch, our children and grandchildren grow. I might not be ready to fall in love again yet. I might not have met the right guy yet. I might… a lot of things. I can’t explain the anxiety, but I wasn’t at ease on my most recent pursuit of the dream. He met my all my checklist criteria? Well, perhaps I need to add an item: In his presence, I’m at peace.

My mother asked me if there were any other potentials on eHarmony, but I haven’t looked in weeks. It will take my evening glories some time to recover from the trauma I inflicted on them. In a few days, water and sun will replenish the nutrients flowing through the vines, and invigorated, they will take hold of the copper wires and grow upward.

It will take me some time to recover, too. But it was the resilience that the evening glories demonstrated that gave me faith that they would thrive beyond the stress of the experience, and I’ve witnessed that same resilience in myself. By uncomplicating present circumstances, we might be left with some severed leaves and vines. We might not see immediate progress.

But we can still defend the choice. That stirring of anxiety beneath the skin is a signal that something isn’t right. And when logic, science, and pensive meanderings can’t explain it away, it’s best to heed the warning.

No, I can’t be 100% certain that the vines will keep growing and the buds will blossom, but even a 99% belief powered by hope and faith is preferred to the anxiety that I no longer feel.

The Beauty in Weakness

I was right about my garden. It bounced back. Daily nurturing is essential to any profession of care giving. Water the soil, provide sufficient supplements, weed the earth, and positive growth occurs. Ask any teacher how they finally “got through” to a troubled youth and the answer will be an outgrowth of a relationship that they built over time, carefully and intentionally. Unfortunately, not every plant thrives after planting. I’ve seen it in my garden. I’ve seen it in my high school English classroom. You couldn’t have told me when I started either pursuit that I would come to both expect and accept that reality.

When my petunias died, I could explain the failure to a lack of experience, belief in a hope that they could survive without full sunlight. I planted them and watered them, but they needed more than I was able to give. They were doomed from the start. In my first year of teaching, when one of my struggling students was expelled for bringing a knife to a gang fight in the lobby, I could explain the failure for the same reason. I’d invested in him with long talks after school, encouraging him and listened to him. I believed him when he said he was going to find a way to get out of the gang, but he needed more than I was able to give. Breaking free of gang ties was beyond my ability to rectify.

Yet, even when you gain experience and provide the most optimal settings for positive growth, some plants don’t live to see the light of another day. My pink geraniums stood high and strong until a summer storm broke them. One semester, a bright young man who excelled in my class frequently came to me for counsel and comfort. The day he admitted he was contemplating suicide, my heart broke. I contacted his parents and his counselor, as was required of me by law. One afternoon, a friend of his called me at school to tell me the boy was on the roof of his apartment building threatening to jump and his parents were nowhere to be found. I called the police and met them over there. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as the police coaxed him down… or his vocalized anger at my betrayal of his trust.

And sometimes when you’re providing care, you take well-advised risks. Mrs. Washington told me that marigolds would survive in the shade even though they were sun-loving plants, so I planted six mature marigolds in my garden. Five of them still delight me with their little yellow heads bobbing up at me. One of them died, perhaps because the impatiens’ roots overpowered its own. I’ve come to see the troubled teens in my classroom as a similar game of roulette. You show up each day with a smile, you are consistent and reliable, you coax excellence out of them that they don’t expect from themselves, and you hope they’ll be in the five out of six who overcome the odds and thrive. What I’ve learned from my losses is that I can’t consider each child as a personal failure. There are forces beyond my control, and if I took it personally, I might not be so willing to take risks. And public education needs risk-taking teachers desperately.

A caregiver is human. Humans make mistakes. Deductive reasoning stands. My first hanging baskets of impatiens lasted only a few weeks before I overwatered them. When they died, it was easy to attribute the fault to myself; they’re soil was still wet. One of my eleventh graders consistently defied authority, and one fed-up day, I called him out in front of the class. He was irate and became belligerent. Soon after, he dropped out of school completely.   I’m not so self-consumed that I attribute that to me, but the combination of multiple teachers treating him the same way was enough for him to give up. I bought new impatiens that yet thrive… because I take caution when watering them. That same student eventually returned to school, and I was given a second chance. I became a mentor to him. Beyond all hope, he wound up passing a few classes and even building relationships with some of his teachers. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and we do better. That’s human nature regardless of deduction.

Whether it’s in our personal lives or our careers, when we’re making an investment of time, emotion, and energy, we often don’t see the results immediately. I was certain I had sentenced my knock-out roses to death by not transplanting them from pot to soil soon enough. After the transplant was complete, I stared at their browning leaves and concluded failure. Weeks later, they’d bounced back to life with stunning knock-out blossoms. This is the primary reason I have a Facebook account. After graduating, I accept friend request from former students. My messenger history is overflowing with messages from kids-now-grown, many variants of the same: “Hey Ms. P., I’m sorry I gave you so much trouble in English. Thanks for believing in me. You wouldn’t believe where I am now…” They follow with updates on career and family success stories that are enough to make me believe in miracles.

Tonight, it’s the cyclical nature of change that most weighs on my thoughts. My evening glories reached great heights, their climbing vines making measurable progress daily. When Kyle helped me paint the front porch, we had to unwind them, and I worried the shock would affect them. It did. It took several days for the vines to reestablish themselves. They appeared healthy for a couple of weeks until yesterday when I noticed yellow leaves at the base and had to remove a plethora of dead vines. The bulk of the plant appears strong and healthy, so I have to believe this is just a part of their growth cycle.

The greatest personal investment we have as humans is in ourselves. If we’re not strong and healthy, how can we care for others? We tend to our own souls. We reflect and reevaluate. We assess our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and make changes to the way we live. New Year’s resolutions may or may not be carried out, but it’s the cyclical nature of change that we resolve personal conflict on a day to day basis. Like my climbing evening glories, we react to negative changes in our environment and quite naturally have good days and bad days. Change is real. People are real. And deductive reasoning aside, people need change to be real.

Dating in my early thirties isn’t as carefree and fun as dating in my early twenties. While riding a three-wheel bike together up and down the boardwalk of Virginia Beach, I was aware of a nagging anxiety beneath the excitement of my third date with my eHarmony nuclear engineer. He continued to show himself to be a kind, sweet, quality man, so what was my problem? Given time to reflect and reevaluate, I admitted to him yesterday that I was simply terrified of dating again! I never went on a third date at age twenty-one thinking about whether or not I would spend the rest of my life with that person. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a man when I don’t even know his favorite food or color yet. I went on to explain some of the struggles I’m facing in my life and was honest with him about my fears.

Today, when we referenced the conversation on the phone, he concluded something profound. “There’s beauty in weakness,” he said. When her plant appears weak, a gardener still sees the beauty in the life she’s planted, still hopes for the growth it will see, still believes that life can flourish.

The troubled teens in my classroom care. The friends and the family members who are struggling. Even ourselves on the bad days. There’s a beauty in weakness. In being vulnerable. In need. We invest in others. We invest in ourselves. We see success, loss, and failure. We make mistakes. We learn. We change. We grow. And regardless of the environment, level of experience, or forces beyond our control, humanity furthers itself by caring for its people.

There’s a beauty in weakness. It gives us all a chance to see what we’re made of… and believe in what we might be tomorrow.