Winds of Change

I met a Prince Charming this weekend. We were acquaintances in college more than a decade ago. My brother was his RA. He was that God-fearing, strong, ROTC guy that exuded honor and integrity. After resonating with a few of my blog posts, he reached out to me about meeting up for coffee to “swap stories” since he’s also in Virginia.

It didn’t take but a few sips for me to know he was still that guy from college.   As we shared about our failed marriages, I was incrementally inspired by his stature of forgiveness, commitment, and authenticity. Admittedly the better listener, he provoked me with intelligent interjections that were, as he’s promised along with the invitation, cathartic.

It was a rainy fall day, the kind when you want to put on a sweatshirt and go for a run just to feel the drops bounce off your cheeks. On my drive to meet Charming, I realized that if I were falling in love with fall, I should start acting like it. I needed to decorate my home, and not in a required-of-a-grown-woman-with-any-sense-of-housekeeping kind of way, but rather the woman-devoted-and-infatuated kind. The next day I would buy and put up mini-pumpkins and scarecrows and hay and even autumn flowers for the empty vase on my dining room table. I would ask my mother whether or not to pull up the summer flowers in my garden beds, and she would tell me I didn’t have to say good bye to them yet.

But while I was hanging those decorations, I wasn’t thinking about fall. I was still reflecting on that three hour conversation with Charming. He wasn’t charming in the fairy tale sense.   Maybe he could have been if it had been a date. It wasn’t a date. For a date, we’d be meeting to carve pumpkins and bake an apple pie talking about our favorite hobbies and books, not offering up the unpleasant details of our heartbreaking past relationships.

He’s charming because he’s like fall. The temperature moves between warm and cool, different memories triggering the varied sides of him. His insights, stories, suggestions, and confessions made him brilliantly colorful. And there’s a fire just starting to warm the brisk, dark nights of his soul. He’s recovering from a season of hell’s heat, and he’s seeing all the dead leaves gently fall away in a crisp breeze.

One of fall’s defining qualities is its ability to announce its reign with falling leaves. We arrange them into patterns to decorate our front door wreaths. We rake them up in piles, and the younger spirited of us either resist the urge or jump right in. At the moment, I can’t think of any other dead nouns I’d roll around in. Somehow as you throw them in the air and watch them dance back down on you, you accept the end of summer and embrace the cold.

I’m embracing the cold. We all have our preferences, and I love summertime. I’d prefer the warm comforts of the sun on my skin and my toes in the sand. I’d prefer the other side of my marriage when I was hopeful, optimistic, and carefree, with my whole life unblemished before me. But fear of fall doesn’t keep it from descending on us. Seasons end. Seasons begin. Seasons change.  Fall is here. Summer ended, and that version of me with it.

So this fall, I’m embracing the harsh, cold reality of my marital status. It doesn’t define me. I’m Auntie La La to two of the tiniest, most important humans in my life. I’m Ms. Palma to a hundred and twenty teenagers that matter the most. I’m daughter to the man and woman I respect and admire most. I’m sister to the men and women who’ve shaped and influenced me. I’m only an ex-wife to one person.

Why should that define me? I have to quiet that nagging whisper in my ear that I’m not good enough for a quality man. I’m no longer licking my wounds, but the scars are still obvious. My sister-in-law Gabrielle gave me a fortune cookie tonight that reminded, “Time heals all wounds.” While I appreciate the premise, time does little to heal the scars. The scars remind us that we’re damaged, and we needn’t look in a mirror. We wear them at the forefront of our minds. They’re etched behind our eyelids.

Every day, at some point, I acknowledge that I’m divorced. My school secretary asked some of our teachers to fill out a little bio. Question 10: Describe yourself in three words. I might as well have put passionate, joyful, and divorced for as much focus as I put on the latter. But I’m other things… talented, musical, athletic, devoted, persistent, loving, organized, analytical, and those have defined me for decades, not years.

So I quiet the voice of the scars that remind me I’m damaged. I embrace the fall, and with it the end of summer. I’m ready to say goodbye to the impatiens and begonias. I’m ready to lay optimistic and carefree days to rest. But the hope remains, the spark for the fire, the beginning of warmth in the dark night of the soul which will welcome in a new dawn with freshly fallen leaves from morning gales.

We host our editor meetings in yearbook sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce in a circle on the stage in my classroom. We’ve been developing a theme for this year’s annual centered on wind, but we’ve been belaboring the binding title for over a week. As we tossed out ideas, googled synonyms and idioms, throwing out, “Gone with the Wind,” and “Breezy”, I ransacked the storehouses of my brain and uncovered a song cue.   “Winds of Change!” I gushed excitedly.

Really, I have fall to thank. In our discussion today, I asked my students to describe how wind makes them feel and what they think of when the wind kicks up. They detailed leaves falling, vivid colors, and changing temperatures, citing feelings of calm and tranquility. When I reviewed their contributions scribbled on the board in summary, I saw autumn, my new love.

Prince Charming will find a new bride in another season of his life, I’m sure of that. His defining qualities are myriad, and divorced isn’t a word I’d use to describe him. He may not be my Prince Charming. In fact, I may never see him again, but a few hours with him profoundly impacted my perception of life after divorce.

And since I never drop a song cue, I’ll give the Scorpions they’re credit with the lines, “The future’s in the air. I can feel it everywhere, blowing with the wind of change.” Out with summer, and in with leaves and colors and bonfires. My kids were right. The wind brought calm, and I think I’ll let it redefine me this year.

After Happily Ever After

What do you do with an inspired Saturday night when you’re a single schoolteacher? Lesson plan, of course, into the still hours of the morning if the mood strikes. It did this weekend after a day of children’s birthday parties at my friend Angela’s. Husbands and wives and children at the party. Silence in my home.

The air is cooling as autumn claims my magnolias’ leaves. The summer months were aflutter with activity, beach days and online dating among them. My email daily reminds me that, “Opportunity knocks on eHarmony!”, but I haven’t checked in… could it be months already? Saturday nights were spent out with friends and live music, not clicking away at a keyboard rebranding my Yearbook curriculum.

Which leaves me falling in love with fall somehow, for the first time. Though classroom dreams don’t demand my creative gene operate at maximum performance, my teacher instinct does. I sleep better now than in those carefree days gone by, having earned a deep slumber that replenishes my innovative storehouses for another dozen or so hours of output.

Though our afternoons still peak in the seventies, early morning now begs a light sweater. When I leave the gym in the evening, the crisp air cools my skin. The past few days, the sun has been on a vacation. Who can blame it? It fully sponsored my summer of dating bliss. Okay, I smiled and giggled a little, but bliss it was not. Still, there was hope in the hot rays of untold romance and passionate kisses at sunset overlooking the vast ocean, even if the only kiss was actually an awkward, forced one in my doorway.

Looking back, this summer was exhausting. Weekly outings to Busch Gardens and Water Country coupled with trivia night, kickball games, beach days, and bands may have reenergized me, but getting to know potential suitors sapped the energy up with a vengeance. Too old for summer flings, I could not be moved by the advances of any near-perfect match.   Four months after creating my online dating account, I haven’t settled. Neither have I found true love.

True love. What does that look like? Today, my tenth graders and I were studying archetypes. We considered the hero and the damsel in distress. We evaluated the impact of setting on the mood. Place your characters in the forest, and they’re facing the unknown, on an island it’s isolation, in the garden it’s paradise. We analyzed the role of conflict in moving a story forward, that without a conflict, there can be no plot.

The damsel in distress is usually a single, attractive young woman who needs to be rescued. Fortunately for her, the hero needs a quest. And so the two meet in a forest, though they might end up in a garden reciting vows, because a conflict needs to find resolution before happily ever after. The conflict may come in the form of an external conflict with an opponent to the two’s deep, abiding love seeded by one or two magical encounters. (By the way, we also touched on verbal irony, so let that serve as Exhibit A. )

What characterizes true love in fairy tales is a recipe of a dash physical attraction plus a touch of circumstances with a sprinkle of devotion and a rolling pin of permanence. Our protagonists naturally seek a joint commitment to forever, the pursuit of which is a means to an end… and the fairy tales end, perhaps comically, when forever begins.

Give me Cinderella Part II when her mother-in-law begins quibbling about proper princess attire and behavior or Beyond Snow White when her prince becomes jealous of Bashful’s compliments. While I love reading fairy tales to my nieces, I can no longer identify with the damsel in distress archetype in literature or film.   She needs to be saved, and being saved somehow always leads to true love.

The rose-colored glasses of summer are off. In the gentle chill of the night’s air, surrounded by crickets and evening glories, I feel the absence of an arm around my shoulder. I fully anticipate the exponential growth of that absence as winter encroaches ever nearer, that come Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s or Valentine’s Day, I’ll be clicking away at this keyboard with lesson plans extraordinaire.

There is something good that comes out of thirty-some singleness. My principal doesn’t have to worry about the learning taking place in my classroom. It may be becoming increasingly eccentric and unorthodox, but it would be nearly impossible to sleep through my class. All the hours of getting to know you messages and texts and calls and dates are now better spent reinventing my teaching methodology.

Summer has always been my favorite season. I loathed fall because it meant summer was over and winter was coming. So what is it about this fall? My plants are still blooming. Leaves have yet to change color. Fall is just beginning.

I’m falling in love with fall because I need to fall in love. I need something to be passionate about when my students’ laughter is beyond earshot. I need a companion in the quiet of the night, and I find it the extra blanket that comforts and warms. Fairy tale true love sounds like a dream come true, but those aren’t my dreams anymore. I don’t fit the archetype. I don’t need to be rescued.

I mow own lawn. Take out my own trash. Fix my own electrical socket problems. Earn my own wages. Pay my own bills. Own my own car. I’ve made a life for myself, and though I would introduce myself to Prince Charming if he crossed my path, I’m not sure he’d notice me absent a need to be saved.

Too much of my life I invested in the fairy tale model, focused on the wedding day, not what came after it. Those tales did little to prepare me for divorce or reestablishing myself as an independent woman. They do nothing to remedy the apprehension about what comes next. Yet, I recognize that conflict is essential to the plot, and my life is not a short story with one central conflict. It’s a series, or a novel at the very least, or perhaps an epic poem might better serve my life’s narrative.

So, I’m writing Part II of my fairy tale. It’s about an average schoolteacher. It’s set in a small city in the fall. She wants forever and always on a front porch swing, and the central conflict is an internal one. She’s jaded and fighting loneliness. I’m only in the exposition, so I don’t know how it will turn out yet. Maybe she’ll meet a man that will soften her, calm her, woe her, and claim her. Maybe she’ll find companionship in the changing colors of the leaves adorning her magnolias. Maybe she buys herself a front porch swing and imagines watching children play in those leaves.

I’m falling in love with fall, not for the promises of intimacy or true love, but for the need to impassioned. Prince Charming’s only quest with me would be to break through the cynical repercussions of Part I and inspire me beyond Yearbook curriculum or brisk, autumn mornings. But the story I’m writing isn’t about him yet. It’s about wanting something more than what I have, but cherishing the parts of my life that still inspire me.

It’s my story, and I’ll fall in love when I meet my perfect match. For now, it’s a season.

Home in this Very Spot

This morning, my evening glories were still in full bloom, and they paused to have their pictures taken before I left for school. I found myself repositioning the camera lens so as not to capture that yard down the street where there have been two shootings in the last five days. “Teen violence,” an officer told me. “Two injured. Shooter not yet apprehended. You rent?” I nodded. “So when are you moving?”

The officer’s words echoed in my mind as I watched the sunlight dance through the leaves today, putting halos on the baskets of hanging impatiens. Unparalleled beauty in the foreground. Sinister foreboding in the background. Move? It’s time to renew my lease, and I had simply been deciding between one year or two. Assuredly, the events on my street should color my decision, but I admit at the moment I’m glad I don’t have kids.

No, I wouldn’t raise a family on a street where rivaling teen gangs are trying to earn their reputations. But it’s just me. I know enough to keep myself out of harm’s way… and I have an alarm system and 9 mm standing in ready defense if it happens to darken my doorstep. These teenagers aren’t statistics. They live in a foster home on the corner. They go to another school in my district. I likely have friends who are their teachers. I was just sitting down to knock out some lesson planning last night when I heard four gun shots. From my front porch, I could see the aftermath of the drive by, hear a woman yelling at the kids to get inside, and feel the presence of all my other neighbors doing the same as me.

A year ago, this was their street. Now it’s ours. I’ve built a home here for myself. In the absence of a husband or children, it’s these magnolias and azaleas and hydrangeas that greet me every night. On Tuesday mornings, my neighbor Ray brings my trash cans out to the street. On Wednesdays, my neighbor Zach and I mow our lawns at the same time. At least once a week, I chat with Mrs. Washington two doors down about our gardens.

It’s not the hassle of moving that keeps me planted here in downtown Hampton, though I don’t plan to stay in this house forever. There’s something reassuring about the predictability of my life that I’m not ready to abandon. I’ve moved three times in the last three years, and I’ve come to enjoy writing here on my white wicker loveseat with the familiar sounds of the crickets and my butterfly wind chimes, the occasional barking dog or passing car inserted into the soundtrack. Admittedly, I’m a creature of habit and routine. A gunshot could enter the bass line almost as effortlessly as Zach’s laughter does right now as a hummingbird flutters over my head in the evening glories’ great white blooms.

The vines have grown so tall and thick that I can barely see the porch light of the foster home. When I planted them months ago, I never would have expected they would serve as a protective barrier during writing nights. While the evening glories to my right couldn’t shield me from a bullet, they keep me focused on my own yard and my own problems.

Yesterday, my assistant principal showed me a funny video of a little girl trying to buckle herself into her car seat, resisting her father’s attempts to help by saying, “Worry about yourself.” I can’t do anything about the troubled kids down the street. I could pack up my little world and venture off in pursuit of safer pastures, but life has taught me the grass is rarely greener on the other side.

For me, this has rung true in homes, jobs, and relationships. We leave one set of circumstances convinced that if we could just be free of that landlord or that coworker, we’d be happy. We enter a new set of circumstances and discover a nosy neighbor or callous boss takes their place in our discontent. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. We cannot control the actions of others, only how we react to them.

When my marriage ended and I left my home of ten years, there was little trace left of the woman that I used to be. In fact, I type this blog in a word document that I started twenty-eight weeks ago entitled simply, “I Used to Be” because those were the first words I wrote after years of silence.

“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.”

That’s how I began these weekly writing ventures. In the entry that emerged, I admitted that I feared there was “nothing left of value to write in me”, that my used-to-be’s would “dominate my writing material”, that the act of writing would bring me “face to face with the current disillusionment of this decade of my existence”.

The grass was not greener after I left my marriage. I found myself single in my thirties with an ache for a family of my own and a precarious relationship with God. I had escaped a set of circumstances which had me at death’s door, if only emotionally, but I was plunged into a hell of my own making. It did not matter that I had chosen it. If anything, waking up to an unfamiliar, anti-habit, anti-routine existence of my new normal forced my anger inward. In the year that followed my divorce, my greatest opponent was myself.

It would have been easier to cast the blame elsewhere, but my mind betrayed me. I fixated on those qualities within myself that led me to my marriage in the first place. I poured over decades of personal journals in which I had detailed my daily battles with the world around me. There was always a struggle, especially in my prayers. The pages of my journals are littered with accounts that could have prophesized the demise in my marriage after our first date.

“Worry about yourself,” the little girl said.   The girl I used to be wanted what she wanted, and she got it. She was a lot of things, but I’m not proud of that girl. I prefer the honest existence of a woman humbled by brokenness and failure. I prefer to live with beauty in the foreground and foreboding in the background, where the flowers are in focus and what’s behind them doesn’t crowd the picture frame.

If I had a family, I wouldn’t live here. I choose to stay because I’m not ready to leave this little house where I just started starting over. The first time I sat down in this very spot to write, I believed that I would unearth an epiphany that would change everything. Twenty-eight weeks later, I’m still pursuing it. Every week, I uncover some nugget of truth that changes something.

I grow with my garden. I’ve given up on taming the evening glories. They no longer need any re-directing. They bloomed where they were planted, and I will do the same, regardless of the teenagers on my street that are fighting their own daily battles, struggling to find their places in the world that we share.

They’re not statistics. They’re just growing. So is my garden. So am I.   No, I’m not moving. I’ll continue to sit on my front porch and listen to the street’s symphony, writing my way to clarity, focusing not on a threat or greener grass in the distance, both of which are beyond my control, but on the expanse of evening glories, the beauty beyond brokenness in focus.

Hope for the Girl in the Back Row

If asked to envision my life at thirty-two when I was a teenager, I would have prophesied I’d be married with one or two children in my arms, rocking them to sleep in a house we owned in the suburbs. I would have sworn I’d never divorce or leave a community where I was established. As adolescents, with our whole lives ahead of us, we dream big and we dream positive. We don’t plan to fail. Or fall. But it happens.

Today I opened my classroom doors to another score of teenagers. I created what I call the Educational Workroom model, where students become employees of a company. Through a variety of orientation procedures including an authentic application and interview process, I’ll uncover similar details as with a student information sheet and ice-breaker activity, but I’m asking my students to focus on the future.

At sixteen, they bounce from class to class absorbing information and sorting through its relevance. It’s my hope that, contextualized in a setting that mimics a 21st Century workplace, these teenagers will begin seeing themselves in their future roles as employees, contributing to the greater good of society.

When reviewing the possible interview questions they will be asked, I found my gaze returning to a girl in the back row of my fourth block class. Her eyes and hair were dark like mine, and as she studied the questions, she bit her lower lip the same why I do when thinking critically. How will she respond when asked about her plans for the future, her career goals, or her strengths and weaknesses? No doubt she was thinking the same as I studied her.

I’ve conducted these orientations with dozens of classes over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me what teenagers are willing to admit. Certainly, I’ll discover a host of summative talents and experiences coupled with mediocre responses that simply evidence a lack of personal reflection. In nearly every class, there is one student who claims to have no strengths and another who claims no weaknesses.

Where would you sit?

My Classroom – Where would you sit?

Were the roles reversed and my students put me on the interview hot seat, my career goals would be the same now as they were fourteen years ago. My strengths and weaknesses the same. But my future plans… well, I never planned to fall or fail. And I wouldn’t want them to either!

But it happens. Last year, one of my students wasn’t accepted to her dream college, and it all but broke her spirit. When we imagine the course of our lives, we plan right past the disappointments, envisioning white picket fences or Wall Street or Hollywood or Navy Seals or even the White House. And yet, every year, I see a vast number of kids who will leave an answer on a test blank. The fear of getting a question wrong forces them to retreat to inaction. The real fear, beyond the current assessment, is of failure.

As we learn by adding candles to our birthday cakes, with age comes experience and perspective. When I make a wish as I blow out my candles now, I wish reasonably. I’m far more reserved when it comes time for New Year’s resolutions, committing to ventures that are feasible.   I’ve experienced enough unforeseeable failure in my life not to wish or resolve it into existence intentionally.

My garden was not planned. Spring came and my magnolias bloomed and shed their blossoms within a couple of weeks. I began planting simply because I’d come to enjoy coming home to bursts of color. I imagined garden beds overflowing with vegetation, and at first, I planted with expectation. As the months progressed and I discovered the challenge of my shaded front yard, I planted with hope instead. I was so disappointed by the failure to thrive of earlier plants that I became conditioned to feel joy when later plants prospered.

I don’t even know the name of the girl in the back row yet, but my mind keeps returning to her. She reminds me of me, the adolescent-size-four-and-the-world-my-oyster version, unacquainted with disappointment or regret. And when she answers her interview questions, I fully expect her to dream big and dream positive. Imagine the shock if she were to stand at the front of the class on interview day and say, “I’m going to get married, but it’s not going to work out. After we divorce, I’m going to move to another state and start over.”

That’s my reality at thirty-two, but I couldn’t have conceived it at sixteen. If she skips an answer on a test, I’ll be pulling her aside after class for a heart-to-heart. Because we don’t plan for failure, but we need to cultivate a mindset of resilience in the next generation. If fear of failure stops her from answering a question on a test, imagine what that fear will do when faced with life-changing events. The consequence now might be a low grade, but in five years, it could be eviction.

What do we do when we don’t get into the school we wanted? When we get laid off from a job? When our spouses cheat? When we’re denied a loan?

How we respond to the fear of failure in our formative years lays the groundwork for our ability to cope when we’re grown. My first heartbreak of significance is when I didn’t get the lead in my school play my senior year of high school. I quit, threw myself into track, was incredibly successful, and landed a lead in another play that healed all wounds caused by the previous.

Looking back, it’s no surprise that I handled the downfall of my marriage the way I did. Faced with failure of epic proportions, I quit Nashville. Now, I’ve thrown myself into teaching. But if how I handled disappointment in my formative years holds any merit, I won’t feel all wounds are healed until I land another husband. Forgive me for the oversimplification of a matter of the heart, but the comparison needed to be carried out.

Not unlike my students and myself at their age, when I began gardening, I dreamed big and I dreamed positive. With experience came perspective, and gradually expectation was replaced by hope. In fact, in the absence of hope, my initial failures might have halted my efforts entirely.

We don’t plan to fail or fall, but it happens. And so I find one of my greatest purposes in the classroom is not to engage grammatical correctness but rather a mindset of resilience that anticipates failure as a potential reality and can therefore hope and cope. If the girl in the back row doesn’t get into the college that she wants, I don’t want it to break her spirit. If her marriage someday ends in divorce, I don’t want her to give up on the dream of having a family of her own.

I have no children of my own. I rent a home in the city. I divorced. I left a community where I was established. I didn’t plan for this existence, but it happened, and were it not for that collection of path changes and failures, I’d never have laid eyes on that girl in the back row. I have hundreds of teenagers in my care. Maybe I dream smaller and more realistically, but I keep dreaming. Hope is failure’s adversary. And it’s a powerful foe.

When Growth is Inspired

After a few years of written silence, tonight marks half a year of Tuesday night writing sessions. With my evening glories having climbed to the roof of the porch, my impatiens size tripled since planting, and my tiny solar lanterns marking the shortening sunlight hours, my mind is pregnant with yet-pronounced life metaphors. It’s difficult to imagine this same mind absent inspiration, yet a thousand days preceding this half a year found not a single thought begging written reflection. It seems now they all do.

After several summer showers yesterday, my garden plants stood tall this morning. Even the batch of impatiens that was showing signs of demise had bounced back to vibrancy, and I took notice as I locked up the house and headed off for our teacher work day. Nine hours later, as my tires found their worn spots in the driveway, those same plants wore pained expressions, wilting with exhaustion along with all the other flowers in the garden, leaves all drooping in dreary accord.

Nine hours can take its toll. We wake to an alarm, down a cup of coffee, and face a new day energized by a good night’s sleep. We answer emails, counsel colleagues, complete daily tasks, resolve conflicts, plan solutions, and reinvent the proverbial wheel. We breathe and we drive and we talk and we think. And nine hours later, we’d opt for a coffee IV were it not for the risk it would prevent that good night’s sleep that we require to be able to do it again tomorrow.

As I generously watered my garden, I sympathized with each blossom. They were subject to the elements much the same way as I today. Of course, I found my natural energy boost in the giggling arms of my nieces afterward. My sister-in-law Gabrielle and I dialogued about our respective adjustments back in the classroom again while feeding the kids mac and cheese. My nephew JJ threw a mini-tantrum insisting he was not sleepy which served to prove the opposite point as head finally rested on much-needed pillow.

Even my friend Kyle, who usually stops in after writing night for a sneak preview while I make minor corrections before posting, texted an apology tonight that he’s very tired. And though a phone call will accomplish the same, I take all of these as signs that the typical demands of the daily grind are taking a greater toll after a couple of months at rest.

Nevertheless, when I returned home from my brother’s house and my tires found their worn spots for the second time tonight, my evening glories were blooming. A few hours after watering, my garden had morphed back to full life, leaves spread wide, flowers again proudly on display. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if their tired expressions were simply a figment of my imagination, my own exhaustion projected in the garden. Almost.

Where do I go from here? Which analogy begs my attention? A thousand days uninspired and my ten fingers want to type ten different stories tonight. Last week, I gained some insight into a colleague’s life that has heightened my awareness. We both joke publically about our failed marriages, but a recent conversation revealed we shared a similar plight that wasn’t a joking matter. Psychology would probably explain our use of humor to lighten the sting of our failures, but the reality is that in the face of deep, personal challenges, we both stopped writing.

I wrote my first song in third grade about Austin, the pastor’s son. I wrote my first poem in seventh grade about disappointment. I wrote in a journal from elementary school into my first years of marriage. I wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of songs through my teens and twenties. I wrote a book in the first years of my career and started two others that I eventually abandoned. I wrote about love and friendship and ambition and loss and hope and regret… I wrote about everything. Until I didn’t. I didn’t write. About anything.

My colleague similarly wrote every day for fifteen years, and after the summative demands of the existential grind had taken its toll, he describes it this way: ambition left him. I picture my plants, gloomy leaves drooping. I picture my nephew, on the floor crying about how “not tired” he is. I picture myself at noon in an empty house in Nashville after giving up my career in a last-ditch effort to save my marriage, staring out the window at the family of blue jays in the backyard. Exhaustion has many causes and many symptoms. Feet kicking or hands still, there are times in our lives when inspiration cannot be entertained. Breathing is hard enough. Breathing is required to survive. Inspiration isn’t.

My evening glories are going to keep blooming each night so long as they receive sufficient nutrients to continue existing. They want to bloom. Mr. Comfort, my AP Biology teacher, would be pleased that my now inspired mind is piecing together distant lessons on chromosomes, chlorophyll, and DNA, trying to solve a metaphorical puzzle of philosophical significance. I simultaneously weigh in theories of survival of the fittest and nature verses nurture and conclude Mr. Comfort’s abstract diagrams on the parts of a cell definitively apply to real life.

It may seem obvious, since biology is, after all, the study of life. Yet, in his classroom, I could not see past the microscope’s magnification of a nucleus to bring human or plant anatomy to bear on my own perception of the human experience. Forgive the English teacher’s simplification of a scientific matter, but chromosomes and chlorophyll and DNA determine the most basic foundation for our existence.

My evening glories want to blossom. I want to write. It’s who they are. It’s who I am. And if they don’t blossom, it’s because they lack what they need to thrive. If I don’t write, it’s because I lack what I need to thrive. It’s not because the worlds holds no inspiration, but rather the inspiration of the world around me is likewise beyond the microscope lens, and I have only enough energy to see what’s right in front of me.

Nine hours can take its toll. So can nine years. So can nine decades. Still, even my grandmother at nearly ninety-two, burdened with dementia, smiles up from her wheelchair. My nephew will smile up from his bed at Gabrielle tomorrow morning. Kyle will smile up at me from his beach towel on our day off on Friday. My colleague will smile up at his students from his desk chair next week. And I’m smiling up at my evening glories from my white wicker perch now.

My garden can be surviving and thriving in the same day. Life happens. Sometimes, there’s enough energy to breathe, and we make it through to the next day, somehow. But I’m writing again, after thousands of days absent what I was designed to do, what came as second nature to me. And that’s evidence that thriving is, in and of itself, inspiring.