Into the Sunset

I’ll admit that there have been moments I’ve considered ending my relationship with Charming. When we’re together, I’m nearly oblivious to any pain that came before; gentlemen do exist in 2015, and I love that. I might love him, if I could ever think beyond the “might” that bubbles up when we’re apart, assuring me the pain that came before was real. Scary. Foreboding.

Six months ago, I was writing through the fallout of a surprising betrayal. It’s like a warplane crossing over foreign borders, putting the country below on the offensive. They’ve been threatened and stunned, and the best strategy for preservation seems to be to strike first. Even if they eliminated the aircraft’s present threat, there is a lasting impact. They’ll be expecting future threats.

The personal component of betrayal cannot be neglected in this analogy. We must take it personally. Deceit is personal. To accept that someone you love and respect has annihilated the trust and intimacy you esteemed is to admit to failure. I recall sorting through the fallout of my ex-boyfriend’s confession in much the same way I help Mom clean out the attic. Three piles: put away, give away, throw away. I did that with my beliefs about him, my hopes for us, and our memories.

And as I sorted through the relationship rubbish, I cried hard. The mascara running, stomach aching, heart racing, deep sobbing, so-stuffed-up-you-can’t-breath kind of crying. That pain was real. Scary. Foreboding. What had I done wrong?   The act of questioning myself overshadowed his misdeeds. Was I not good enough? Not kind, giving, adoring, or sweet enough?

Masochistic thinking, if not curtailed, promises certain failure. My tenth graders debated this week over agreement or disagreement with the following saying: “Failure is not the worst thing in the world. The very worst is not to try.” The kids discussed a range of reasons for both sides of the argument, but the reasons were most convincing in its defense. As one young man noted, Thomas Edison failed a thousand times before inventing the light bulb. Would we be sitting in the dark if he’d stopped trying?

This half of the class believed that if we never tried, we guaranteed failure. How do you define failure? Edison viewed his thousand previous attempts as steps in the invention process. One of my teens describes it as ensuring you’ll never succeed. But as my persuasive gurus know, every solid argument addresses its counterclaim — that the other side has a point, but they’re wrong.

Failure can be debilitating. Failure applies the rhetorical trifecta to our psyche. We have evidence that we were wrong. We doubt our credibility. We feel regret. That reality is staggering, and we aim to avoid repeating, it if only for our survival.

When I pulled a hamstring and lost the state qualifier meet for the 100 meter dash to Camille Guyot-Bender junior year of high school, I experienced failure. It debilitated only for a day or two, as I could quickly justify the failure by the injury and not a lack of preparation. I went on to compete in college, until another injury halted my sprinting adventures. I made friends along the way, and I learned a daily practice of discipline. It’s easier to overcome failures and keep trying when you’re free of guilt.

I don’t like running. When I made my list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties, I included completing a half-marathon. I listed things I’d always wanted to do, never thought I could do, or was too afraid to do. This one falls into the second and third categories. It won’t be a hamstring a few yards before the finish line – it could be cramping, fainting, or laying down seven miles in too drained to take another step.

I ran before, but I ran differently. My race was over in under 13 seconds if I honored my craft. It was about explosive, powerful strides, not endurance or conditioning or pace. My friend offered to train with me for a half-marathon in March. In the fallout of her own personal crisis, she died her hair red, and it fits, because she reminds me of Ariel, getting ready to touch new toes with new land. She has her own reasons for achieving this goal, not the least of which is the outlet the preparation provides.

So Ariel convinced me to go for a run with her today. It was cold, and I’m a wimp, but she’s a persuasive guru. Sunset found us jogging along a shaded trail, puffs of breath traded with winded girl talk. As we rounded a bend, the woods opened into a plain to the west. The beauty of that sunset gripped me in an uncharacteristic assault of gratitude. I was so thankful to be in that spot with Ariel, so much so that I nagged her into a prohibited stop on our run to capture the moment.

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I considered another discussion my yearbook students had this week. They shared their freewrites responding to the cue: thankful. It seemed timely to reflect on this. Teens opened up about family members, friends, and hobbies. I wrote about them in my freewrite. They inspire me daily. There was a time during and after my divorce where I had given up on teaching. If I hadn’t tried again, I wouldn’t be in this classroom on a peninsula in Virginia entrusted with the positive, forward growth of over a hundred budding promises.

And if I hadn’t committed to this marathon when I registered last week, I wouldn’t be on this trail with Ariel experiencing this sunset. This is one of those opportunities I would have missed if I hadn’t tried. You guarantee failure when you don’t try, but you comfort yourself because you never knew you missed that sunset. And missing out on these Virginia adolescents would certainly have been a failure.

That’s the counterclaim. The other side has a point, but they’re wrong. Failure is a bad thing, but it creates learning experiences that lay the foundation for positive, forward growth. By comparison, not trying is worse than failing. There are no lessons gleaned, no successes tasted, no lights turned on, no sunsets soaked in.

In one of my father’s recollections of my mother, he describes marrying her and riding off into the sunset together. On that trail today, the full effect of that metaphor gripped me. After I snapped my picture, we raced into the sunset. In the nipping cold of the evening, the rays of the sun warmed my skin. I would enjoy it as long as it lasted.

We ride (or race) off into the sunset… knowing it will end. All sunsets do. That’s the logical appeal. We’ve seen every sunset end. That’s the credible appeal. We love the beauty of the sunset. That’s the emotional appeal. Three piles: put away, give away, throw away. Where do our failures go?

All relationships end. Some sooner than others. The pain is real. Scary. Foreboding. But if we never try, we guarantee failure by assuring we’ll never find success. All sunsets end. But if we never run off into them, we’ll miss something amazing, like on that trail today. We soak them up intentionally, knowing eventually they’ll be gone, but being grateful to know their warmth.

The other side has a point. I never want to experience relationship failure again. However, by avoiding commitment, I’m ensuring I will never have a family of my own.   Does the potential for another shocking confession or another pulled hamstring keep me from racing off into the sunset?

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Meeting Joy

With mainstream media flooding our electronic devices with notifications of tragedy, loss, pain, and injustice, it’s easy to lose sight of joy, hope, promise, and life. When reminded of the uncertainty of tomorrow, I found myself most grateful to have my father and mother, brother and sister-in-law, nephew, nieces, and Charming around my dinner table this weekend to celebrate Mom’s 65th birthday.

There are these unforgettable, unrepeatable moments in life. Moments you wish you could pause just to savor a bit longer. Moments when, despite every failure and heartbreak and insecurity that came before, joy is genuine. Those who know her will agree that my mother, Joy, was appropriately named. Spend a half hour with the video montage ode to Joy that family and friends contributed to for this occasion, and it’s irrefutable.

A week ago, I petitioned those who have been influenced by my mother to share their favorite memory of her. Dozens of those unforgettable, unrepeatable moments were catalogued in the video project. Sitting beside her on my couch, her hand in mine, Charming’s arm around me, the giggles of toddlers often overtaking the audio, I recognized this as one such moment. A moment of joy with Joy and some of the most influential people in my life.

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The human experience is a social one, necessitating interaction from infancy into adulthood. My mother’s life is a testament to our ability to positively impact our immediate world by walking out our character. Mom loves the Lord. Her lifestyle and habits reflect godly qualities. Those aspects of God reflected in her as she’s traversed life this side of heaven have made an impact.  She is patient, kind, generous, loyal, and forgiving.

Perhaps because her concern is always for others, Mom was most moved by the rare tribute, wiping clumsily at happy tears fresh for each new face on the video honoring this woman who had touched us all in this social experience of life. And I wished I could click a cosmic pause button.

To put the evening in context, this was the night my family met Charming. As he helped me blow up balloons and hang streamers, I was unconcerned with the introduction to come. In the kitchen, pulling the lasagna out of the oven, he asked if there was anything he needed to know before my family arrived. “Like me, if you don’t want my mother to fall in love with you, you’re going to have to actively try,” I replied with a sassy smile.

His presence added a pleasant dynamic to the celebratory meeting. When I was married, there were even numbers at family gatherings. In the past few years, I’ve felt an empty chair at the dinner table, even when all seats were filled, where I would have had a better half. As I flitted about with dishes and silverware, I’d look up and catch him talking to my father or brother and just smile. He fit the picture. And not just anyone would.

That’s why Charming would have to intentionally try if he was to make a bad impression on my mother. She knows me better than anyone. The man he has shown himself to be lines up with the best she’s always wanted for me, and he’ll have her vote until he presents differently. He is the first guy I’ve ever brought to my father knowing he’d get a stamp of approval.

Though the video celebrated Mama Joy, my dad managed to endear me further to him with his anecdote about the first time he met Mom nearly fifty years ago. Beneath the humor was a current of deep, abiding love and admiration for my mother that moved me to tears. He’s always been a man of few words, but that just makes them count.

During my senior year of high school, Dad used to take me out to breakfast on Thursdays before school. That’s where I heard the bulk of his words, just the two of us. Those are moments I cherish. In the social interactions of the human experience, my father evidenced the capacity for positive impact. In fact, it was through him I ultimately learned what grace meant. When faced with the demise of my marriage, he could have said, “I told you so”; instead, he said, “I’ll support you.”

My sister-in-law also emulates those characteristics of God that have proven her to be a light in the darkness for me and so many others. Our Tuesday night talks preparing dinner for her family are more of those joy moments for me. Like tonight, when she recounted a story from when she was dating my brother, and I got to glimpse her trust in God for the uncertainties and fears that grip us. She sees the best in my brother and in me. When I had lost my faith, Gabrielle never wavered from the belief that God would draw me back to him. She’s been the consistent faith factor for me.

My brother was my best friend in high school. Though we grew apart after college, we’ve had ample opportunity to make up for lost time with dinner three times a week. He shares his family with me. In his video memory, P.J. recounted all the video projects Mom used to do with us when we were younger. I vividly remember laughing with him through every one in silly costumes with silly scripts. He taught me what qualities were most important in the making of a man of God. I followed him to Wheaton College, not bothering to apply elsewhere.

Were it not for Wheaton, I would never have met Charming fourteen years ago, never accepted a Facebook friend request, never received a message arranging a meeting, never had him sitting next to me this weekend in my home alongside these people who have positively impacted my life in profound ways.

I imagine Charming will, too, more so than already. If we create a formula for positive influence from these relationships, then ground zero is loving as God loves, without condition, extending grace, donating faith, walking out godly character. In a few months’ time, he altered the trajectory of my life. While a future with him is full of uncertainties, he effectively disarmed my defenses and inspired me to dream again.

It’s easy to lose sight of joy, hope, promise, and life in the midst of tragedy. But we’re gifted with moments, like at my mom’s 65th shabby chic birthday party. And like the next day, after Charming and I did schoolwork together, him preparing to teach his first college class, me preparing for a department meeting. Before he embarked on the three hour drive that would leave me back in the solitude of days absent his smile, we cuddled on the couch for a nap.

I know he fell asleep because I could feel his breathing slow against my cheek. Eyes closed, head at his chest, wrapped up in his arms, I can’t recall the last time I felt so at peace with the world. This was one of those unforgettable, unrepeatable moments. A moment I wished I could pause just to savor a bit longer. A moment when, despite every failure and heartbreak and insecurity that came before, joy was genuine.

When tragedy, loss, pain, and injustice flood the horizon, when the future is uncertain, if we use that cosmic pause button on the world and remember these moments, perhaps we will be reminded of the joy, hope, promise, and life latent even in the dark days.

The Power of the Written Word

Thirty-six weeks ago, I snuggled up in a blanket and my ex-boyfriend’s hoodie on my front porch and wrote about all my used-to-be’s. There were no “maybe someday’s”, only questions and uncertainties. There was no hope, only a fear that my best was behind me. Tonight, I’m curled up in the same blanket and Charming’s hoodie, and the world is my oyster. Well, mine, and seventy-three tenth graders.

At the end of my first blog entry, I wrote that I hadn’t made any epiphanies or freed myself from an existential life crisis, but I wondered if I was “reclaiming some integral part of what used to define me” by writing again. Two-hundred and forty-five days, a painful break-up, a summer of online dating, a garden make-over times two, and thirty-five nights recording the narrative, and existentialist meanderings have been replaced by bucket lists with a timeline.

Reclaiming writing ultimately profited me several epiphanies, the first coming as the realization that I could still weave meaning into words. Each Tuesday night finds me here, processing the events of everyday life, exposing the realities of failures, successes, fears, and hopes while growing with my garden. I’ve never gone back to re-read the entries. The culmination of weeks one through thirty-five is this reality, and I don’t need to re-read them to know that I’ve made progress.

On a whim last week, I started a blogging club after school with nine of my girls from English and yearbook classes. It shouldn’t have surprised me that some of my students had googled my blog. Over the course of a week, three girls had approached me asking for help starting their own blogs, and Wednesday, our blogging club was born. Two of the girls created their own sites during the meeting, modeling the process from conception to publication, covering topics like purpose, branding, titles, widgets, and internet safety.

These girls want to share their voices. They want to impact society. They want to analyze the world and contribute to its narrative. And unlike me, they’re not starting their blogs with used-to-be’s. They call it Sweet Sixteen for a reason. One wants to emulate the richness and complexity of classical literature in her own writing filtering her perception of the world through literary comparison. This blog is her “maybe someday”.

When I turned out the light on my nightstand after that meeting, my mind was consumed with the exponential potential for the future growth of my budding bloggers and their readers. The therapeutic nature of self-reflective writing is a gift to its investors. If these girls write their way through their teens and twenties, they too will have the tools they need to write their way out of an existential life crisis in their thirties.

They might discover, as I did, that the most powerful posts are wrought from confronting failure as equally as from owning hope. My writing holds me accountable, guided me by a simple principle of honestly in conveying my current perspective. I’ll be a faithful mentor to these young bloggers, hoping to instill in them a sense of the responsibility that comes with the power of the written word.

I can say that I’ll learn Italian someday, but if I write it down on a list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties, I commit to it. In my English 10 classes this week, we had our first quarter award ceremonies, complete with certificates and prizes and treats. After my students wrote and shared their freewrites on “Success”, I curbed the celebratory tone with a personal anecdote about my greatest failure: my divorce.

Of course, I used discretion, as I remember clearly my own tenth grade English teacher stepping out in the hall during class, the phone cord running under the door, arguing with her husband who she would divorce later that year. I told them only what I felt was essential to the mission on which they were about to embark. I recounted moving home afterward and waking up in my childhood canopy bed, daily remembering that this was my life now. I offered them some insight into a mind that’s so scared to dream that it fails to hope. In a few minutes, I summed up my own journey of thirty-six weeks.

Then I told them about Charming’s list and my subsequent epiphany that I had not been living when I realized that while I was playing games on my smartphone, he was scuba diving and jumping out of planes and getting his pilot’s license and visiting Machu Picchu. Finally, I shared with them my list; the written words had power.

You could have heard a pin drop.   “Now, think about all the things you want to do, the times you’ve said that someday you’ll do this or go here, the things you’re afraid to do, the things that money or time or circumstance might prevent you from doing today.” Heads down, pencils poised over colored note cards, excited murmurs evidenced my students understood the task at hand.

“Write your own list. Fifteen Things to Do in My Teen Years, Twenty by Twenty, it doesn’t matter. Dream big. Plan big. Hope big. Just commit to your future,” and pulling a card from Sleeping Beauty, I added, “with at least five items on your list.” These kids really do have their whole lives in front of them. The best is yet to come, I would claim emphatically.

But I can’t help wondering how much I would have accomplished by thirty-two if I’d made a bucket list with a deadline at Sweet Sixteen. I had a conscious awareness of goals, but I never wrote them down. I never committed to them. As I walked up and down the aisles, looking over their shoulders, I’m certain I was beaming. Go to Virginia Tech on an academic scholarship. Swim with dolphins. Buy a finger monkey. Streak with friends at a football game. Become a psychologist.

When I started writing again, I reclaimed an integral part of myself. I found power in the written words to move and to change. Only nine of my students might be engaging with it in blogging form, but seventy-three of them committed to their futures this week. Apart from a brief discussion on the idiomatic expression and euphemism, “Kick the bucket,” this lesson had little to do with English class. Yet, somehow as I type these words, I know it was my best lesson ever. My mind is consumed with the exponential potential for the future growth of these dreamers.

Charming didn’t know what he set into motion that fated first encounter when he shared his post-divorce bucket list. I’m grateful for the inspiration… and the hoodie. They both keep me warm as I write my way back to Sweet Sixteen dreams.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

“I don’t get to make a list,” a friend contested this weekend after viewing my list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties. Struggling under the weight of a thorny marriage and balancing career and childcare responsibilities, she believes that the best of her life is behind her. She doesn’t dream anymore. Doesn’t plan for the future. She moves through life in “used to be’s” and “maybe someday’s”. She’s like Sleeping Beauty, existing in the plane between life and darkness.

Last weekend, Charming asked me to share my greatest accomplishment. Before a little prompting, all I could venture was that I must not have one yet, because something like that would certainly come to mind. I finally offered, however unconvinced of its greatness, that it was surviving my divorce. I remember being too immobilized by brokenness to brush my teeth. I’d awake from vivid dreams to the staunch reality of my childhood bedroom and remember again, each day, “This is my life now.”

So I empathize with Sleeping Beauty. Her life doesn’t change. The myriad of issues we talked through the other night mimic a conversation we had a year ago. There’s still not enough storage space in the house. There’s still no marriage-saving tip to heal all wounds. There’s still no hope that things will get better. She used to be more, someday she might be more, and this is her life now.

Beauty really is beautiful. I know her better than Charming. I took a risk on him with that name, which he accepted as a challenge and continues to live up to. Beauty has a contagious laugh that echoes in the recesses of my mind even as I imagine her now in my living room, coupled with throwing her hands up in surrender to fate or providence. Her daughters are a testament to her dynamic personality, each emulating those qualities I admire most in her: thoughtful and persistent, smart and stubborn, and there’s no doubt from which gene pool those pretty girls emerged.

Unfortunately, you can’t see with your eyes closed. Sleeping Beauty is so blinded by disillusionment that she cannot glimpse any hope for the future. I get it. I cried with her on my couch, in between weak attempts at encouragement. I get it. I don’t just sympathize. I empathize.

My very first words in my first blog post were a list of all my used-to-be’s. I was afraid I’d start to write only to come face to face with my own fear that the best of my life was behind me. I had survived my divorce, one day at a time, one exercise at a time, one shrink session a week, one new friend, one desk job. I adjusted to my “new normal” and accepted my most major failure, but I still avoided childhood friends at the gym. I believed I had nothing to be proud of anymore.

In fact, I remember responding to my mother’s similar encouragement with the phrase, “I don’t get to have that.”  A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A child.   Forever and always. In my youth, I approached those as entitlements. I was smart. I was talented. Id’ be a good wife. A good mother. I’d majored in education, the closest I could get to a motherhood degree. And when I earned that, with honors, I believed the best was in front of me.

Eight years later I had moved clear to the other side of the optimism spectrum. It was enough to put together an outfit and drive to work. My free time was spent playing Candy Crush and watching recorded TV shows.   Last year, I moved to Hampton, and that added in some promising career and family elements to the existing mix.

Then in March, I started writing again… one fewer item on the list of things I used to be. And until I met Charming, that was enough. For a man afraid of falling in love, there is no limit to his lust for life. When I consider the vast accomplishments of his post-divorced life, I’m in awe. I admit to a smidgen of jealousy; while I was playing Candy Crush, he was filling up his lifelong bucket with some thirty potential personal achievements. My mom’s best friend Joanie reminds me to find God sightings at every turn.

Charming was a God sighting. So is Sleeping Beauty. He inspired me out of survival. She needs that inspiration. I challenged her to make a list of just five things she wants, and despite objections, Beauty succumbed. You can’t see when your eyes are closed. But it’s the perfect state to dream.

So I believe that when you’ve reached the point where you’re surviving in “used to be’s” and “someday’s”, when life seems to happen to you, when your eyes are closed to the prospect of the day’s darkness… that’s when you need to dream a little. I see the effect that Charming’s accomplishments have had – not only were they valuable experiences, but the byproduct of achievement is a springboard for future investments.

After considering which, “I always wanted to’s…” I was going to add to my list, I was initially saddened by the immensity of choices. From an idea of Charming’s, I made another list, a past list, of life dreams and goals I had already achieved. The catalyst activated. In several hours poring over my keyboard, I had successfully altered the course of my life.

I can’t explain the outcome any better than this. I’m adding number 20 to my bucket today: Buy a piano. Closely tied to item 26: Write another song on the piano (I think I know the ideal muse). Readers who’ve known me only in my thirties would likely ask, with incredulity, “You play the piano?” I used to. Like being a writer, that answer can change in an instant.

We cannot expect change to springboard from inactivity. Beauty cannot sleep through a year of her life and expect to wake up to a renewed hope in tomorrow. Her struggles will not be resolved without a catalyst. We can spend our extra moments playing Candy Crush or tackling a new language we said we always wanted to learn. Tackling is an active verb. Passivity amounts to little improvement of circumstance.

Long after I gave Sleeping Beauty a good night hug, I was consumed with her plight. In church on Sunday, our pastor brought a message from a new series, “The Best is Yet to Come.” I have to believe that for her. For me. I can’t fathom eternity, but the next thirty years is in focus. Why would I ever wake up and favor reality over dreamland if I’m certain no joy is in store there?

A cherry Young Chang French provincial piano now hails home from my rented house in downtown Hampton. While I realize some items on my list are beyond my reach to achieve this week (like marrying and having a family), the piano was attainable. Crushing candies felt like wasted time when there were thirty commitments to honor.

If Charming asked me now what about my greatest accomplishment, I would have a different answer. Surviving my divorce was a starting point. My greatest accomplishment is making this list. This list is proof that I’m past surviving. I am living again. Beauty will, too. This list means that the best is yet to come. Embracing that is a change, a freedom from inactivity. I can take pride in a will that boasts, “I get to…”, “I am,” “When do we start?” I’ll say, “This is my life now,” with hope and satisfaction as my fingers pore over ivory keys.