Apples to Adjectives

An apple for a teacher is sweet. An apple with a handwritten adjective describing the teacher is priceless. Yesterday was a Macintosh day. One of my sophomores volunteered “Apple” as the freewrite go-word. The adolescents scribbled for a few moments and shared much longer, about colors and phones and foods. The joy of a freewrite is its freedom: it removes the barriers – grammar, spelling, punctuation, penmanship – between brain and paper. Thoughts spout in unexpected directions.

My student Young Beauty’s blog is made up entirely of freewrites. She can never predict where unhindered stream of consciousness writing will lead her. Sometimes to emotions, sometimes to silliness, sometimes to epiphany. Young Beauty leaves in all errors intentionally to preserve the integrity of the freewrite. If anything, you might say the mistakes were what freed her to achieve a greater goal of self-discovery.

When I write, it’s like a tamed freewrite.   I make no significant alterations before publishing, preserving the integrity of the free flow of thought. I rid my physical and mental worlds of distractions before diving in to explore the murky sentiments bubbling up beneath the surface all week long. I don’t plan what I’ll write. I start with the first thing that pops into my head. To emphasize the importance of transitions, I’ve admitted to my students that, without them, my writing would appear to be a collection of randomly strung-together ideas.

In fact, last March, it was a freewrite about the hundred-year-old oak that fell in my backyard that inspired my own first writing epiphany since my extended hiatus from practicing the craft.  I empathized with this great tree, branches stacked on the curb waiting for the garbage man, purposeless, rotted at the base. In this tree I saw my own loss mirrored. Youth. Optimism. Future. Purpose. All surrendered in the fall, both of us powerless to do anything about it.

That night I concluded that I wasn’t dead yet, that I still had the ability to put my branches to good use and make my existence count for something. I recalled my nine-year-old predictions about my life in twenty years and replaced them with a new twenty-year dream. I really grieved the loss of that tree. Granted, it was unwarranted, but it’s true, nevertheless. I determined then to find a fate better than that of the great oak.

This weekend, I found myself standing inside the trunk of a similar grand old tree a few hours from here. Charming and I had escaped the city to spend our sixties-and-sunny Saturday in a nature park. We walked, read posts, scanned the scenery for wildlife, and wandered out across fallen trees. Near the park’s entrance, we encountered this enormous, sprawling trunk. In the dead of winter, no leaves could prove whether it was alive or dead. It stood tall, despite the gaping hole at its base which could have easily housed a slender giant.

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I could, perhaps, identify better with this tree than my own. As I inched my way inside, sliding my fingers across the bark, I was amazed that it was still standing. When I divorced, I felt a similar gaping hole. A year ago, I was just beginning to come back to life. I wasn’t standing tall, but I wasn’t on my knees anymore either. My tamed freewrite led me to determination and action that night.

After my apple freewrite students vacated their desks yesterday, our English faculty replaced them for a department meeting. Each teacher received an apple ornament and drew a random colleague’s name from a jar. I asked them to use a sharpie to write an adjective on the apple that described their person. Finally, they gave their apple adjectives to their teachers. There was laughter and hugging.

My former co-teacher had drawn my name. She smiled slyly as she offered me her apple, on which was penned, “Wildly Optimistic”. Since I was leading the meeting, I knew I had to table the significance of this particular adjective compliment until later. After a quick hug and thank you that put my emotions back in check, we were able to finish without incident and the desks were vacant once again.

I’ve been in high school for fourteen years. As a student, I’d had peers and teachers describe me with adjectives in various exercises. As a teacher, I’ve had students and peers describe me. I’m used to ones like creative, energetic, and perfectionist. I’ve described myself with adjectives, always careful to pair any compliments with related criticisms, an act that unwittingly keeps me humble. No one, myself included, has ever attributed “optimistic” to me.

When did that happen?

I sat at my desk and considered when I was most clearly optimistic. I glanced over my left shoulder to the bins containing costumes for Julius Caesar. Back in Nashville in my early teaching days, my sophomores would act the whole play out in class on a make-shift stage. It was tiring but worth it. The kids brought the archaic language to life, different in every class every year. There was probably laughter and hugging then, too.

It was the year some members of the band Faith in Shadows sat in my desks. I learned something new every day. They taught me as much I as I did them. Youth. Optimism. Future. Purpose. I had them. I was just starting out. It never occurred to me that someday, not so far off, I’d be a tree with a gaping hole, maybe even lose all four.

This year, my students are like those ones. I’m always learning. In an apple freewrite, one student used the term, Skrt. A clueless Ms. Palma requested a little schooling. The kids explained that it’s like the sound the tires make when a car changes directions quickly, and you use it to change the topic… or at least that’s what I gleaned from their excited teachable moment talking over one another.

After bringing the lesson back to English by asking the students to recognize the literary device in Skrt (onomatopoeia), I made a silly show of using the word to shift from the warm-up to the lesson; there was laughter in the transition, but the point was made.

For the past fifty weeks of my life, I have this written record that catalogues every Skrt in my life’s narrative. Like Young Beauty’s freewriting blog, my tamed weekly freewrites mark the changes and shifts I’ve endured and enjoyed in my recent history. Each little epiphany adds up.

That’s why this apple with a handwritten adjective describing me is priceless. My colleague thinks that I am wildly optimistic. That happened over the past fifty weeks. My writing nights are like weekly progress reports, generated and processed only when everything else is on pause and the barriers are lifted.

I’ve made my goodbyes to Youth, but I welcome back Optimism. There’s still plenty of time to chase down Future and Purpose.

 

Coordinated Movement on the Mountain

If you’ve ever tried your legs at skiing or snowboarding, then you can likely empathize with the shiver down your spine warning the rest of you that you’re hurdling down a mountain with ever-gaining speed, certain you’re going to fall at any second. It’s an odd sensation: cold and wind and gear and gravity drive you down the slope in a series of connected turns, each movement with the potential to steady your course or plunge you unbalanced and ungracefully into powder.

For my Valentine’s Day gift, Charming opted to give me a bucket list experience. Like running a half marathon, learning to snow ski was included on my list as something I was both afraid to do and feared I could not do. I’m a sprinter by choice, but I hate running distances. I’m a New Yorker by birth, but I hate the cold and the snow. Trust me; I reserve the word hate only for those elements worthy the sentiment.

As a little girl, my back yard encased my first negative outdoor experience, where nature contrived with my brother’s sled to drive him down the hill and right into me (or perhaps over me would be more accurate). Home video captures me at nearly three years old in a pink snow suit trying to recover, fumbling to remove my mittens to empty the snow from my sleeves. I was ready to go inside.

It isn’t unexpected that I would spend many a lake-effect winter curled up with a book or my journal in years to come. When I was a freshman in high school, a local organization rented Toggenburg Mountain for a Young Life Ski Night. Though I intended to stick around the lodge, my friends enticed me to join them on the bunny hill for a little lesson.

Thirty minutes later I was plummeting down a blue run with the sudden realization that they hadn’t taught me how to stop. Below me loomed a group of ski instructors with their special jackets, lounging about in the middle of the mountain. I was out of control. Speed was building. I couldn’t stop. Not until after I’d made contact and they scattered like bowling pins. I was, understandably, ready to go inside.

So on Saturday, when Charming enrolled me in a first timer’s ski lesson, I excluded the winter sports debacle that was my first attempt nearly two decades ago. My strategy this time was to actually have a strategy, unlike at age three or fourteen. First, I would prepare for the cold, a lesson learned from my brother’s sled. I did my research. I talked to my sister-in-law. I collected my layers. Base, middle, and outer. Both my gloves and my jacket could tighten at the wrist. No snow was going to permeate my outerwear Fort Knox.

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Roundtop Mountain Resort in Southern Pennsylvania boasted a high of fifteen degrees that day, but I rarely felt more than a chill on the ski lift during our seven hour visit. I’d learned my first ski lesson, and I was determined to tackle the second. That was a part of the strategy, too. Before taking on any of the instructor’s challenges, I asked him to show me how to stop.

Two hours later I was ready to hit the slopes with Charming and some new friends. They were patient with my beginner tumbles. The first time I attempted to exit the faster of the chair lifts, I failed to get off fast enough and the chair knocked me off balance. I fumbled to snap my boots back into the rented skis and get out of the way. My third ski lesson was the importance of timing. After that, I concentrated in advance on the end of the chair lift, coordinating my movements with Charming’s to ensure a steady dismount.

Perhaps the most significant lesson came in the form of a ski jump I was unwittingly hurtling toward, off course in a wide “S” gone wrong. I wasn’t ready to attempt that yet, so I threw myself down full force, landing just shy of the jump, skis and limbs askew. That was the first fall that hurt. I should have been ready to go inside, but I had a strategy this time. I wasn’t going to quit if I got knocked down… or knocked someone else down inadvertently.

I was an innocent when I discovered the essential of layers. To foster the greatest potential of protection from the elements, I needed three layers of clothing. One without the others would not suffice. When we’re working toward career, relational, or personal goals, I give merit to the time invested toward establishing each layer.

I don’t want Charming to be a casualty to a failure of mine to learn from life’s ski lessons. Authentic layers take time, and in the end, they would be the best protection from the elements if we attempted a more advanced trail. Learning to stop is a fundamental of skiing. For my best chance at success, I had to start with the basics and build up. I won’t jump blindly into adventure with him without first learning the rules that govern the sport.

When I was young, I was unconcerned with the importance of timing or persistence. I was dauntless… but I was reckless. Then I was a quitter. Every coordinated movement in skiing is a product of mental time and space calculations. They say with skiing, if you’re not falling, you’re not trying. Many of our aspirations for a brighter future are overtaken by the bleak reality of falling short of our sights.

And sometimes it hurts. We get passed over for a promotion. We find out our spouse is cheating. We realize that our lives don’t look like what we thought they would. But if we fall and we quit because it hurt, then we’re not trying either. Persistence is a response to face fear and overcome past hurts. Some of us come by it more naturally, I think, than others, but I’m working on it.

I know that I hate the cold and the snow, but I chose to take on skiing as a personal challenge. I approached it with a strategy this time, carefully considering each step from clothing selections to executing a J-stop. The older I get, the more negative experiences I’ve had on winter slopes. They changed how I approached Saturday’s bucket list experience.

Despite the cold and the snow and the many falls, I laughed and smiled and giggled my way down the mountain with Charming close behind. I felt it then: the cold and wind and gear and gravity drove us down the slope in a series of connected turns, each movement with the potential to steady our course or plunge us unbalanced and ungracefully into powder.

Two are better than one; Charming picked me up at least a dozen times that day. There’s reward in the risk, but I believe the best path out of my own way right now is to apply little ski lessons to life.

What Takes My Breath Away

With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, dazzling jewelry overtakes department store displays. Stones are mined from the earth and affixed to metals that humanity have dubbed precious … yet a simplistic combination of the right gem and ore has the potential to take my breath away. For me, the most treasured of my jewelry are those pieces that tell a story.

Jewelry is to me what football is to Charming. They are both, ultimately, forms of entertainment. The way he gets excited when his team gets a first down is the way I feel when I finger Grandma Theresa’s ruby ring on my hand or the amethyst earrings Dad gave me for Christmas a decade ago. Football is the story of winning and losing. The conflict in between is what makes it worth watching. Jewelry is the story of giving and loving, but it too is not without conflict.

A man broke his TV this weekend when his favorite costumed men failed to cross enough white lines. If we remove sentiment and emotion from the game, as we have with the stones and metals, it is an amazing phenomenon that we would feel as great a sense of emotion towards these things as we do toward Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

But where human lives intersect, whether with jewelry or football, meaning is created that is apart from the design or the game. I found myself cheering on a quarterback in what might be his final game. When he triumphed, I was genuinely happy for him. Before that, I was nervous and excited and worried for him as the conflict unfolded. Individual people are what make the game worth our passion, like for me with sentimental items of jewelry.

We are, in part, conditioned to respond to the right combination of anything with passion. Last summer, I analyzed hundreds of online dating profiles, engaging in communication only when the man represented in the profile met a strict list of criteria. It was exhausting and even disheartening, at times. I thought, “I’m finally old enough to know what I want in a man, and he’s not on the market!”

I took a road trip with a friend to escape the string of dating debacles that were my first two attempts. On Fourth of July weekend, we found ourselves in Charleston’s open air market, and I was determined to buy myself a right hand ring. Because there is conflict in jewelry. For a long time after my divorce, I wore my wedding band on my other ring finger. It was, after all, the prettiest piece I owned, and I had, after all, bought it myself in the first place.

My teacher friend Ariel says there should be a company that facilitates the exchange of post-break up jewelry. At Christmas, I gifted her a butterfly pendant that my ex-husband gave to me that I had never worn. She wears it now, because in her own separation woes, she can no longer wear the pendants her husband had given her. I smile every time she waltzes into my classroom with it around her neck. Butterflies represent new life, and never more so than on Ariel.

When I was ready to cut ties completely to the last decade of my life, I sold my wedding rings, rings that at one time took my breath away. What I was looking for in that open air market was my Independence Ring. It would be the first piece of jewelry that I had bought for myself in half a decade, and its story would be of a woman who was contented to be at peace alone. I’d never have to stop wearing this ring.

My friend had the patience of Job. I paused at every display. More than a dozen times, I thought I’d found what I was searching for only to handle it and find the ring would come up lacking. Not the right shape, size, or color. After an hour of browsing where I’d almost given up, I found it in a little air-conditioned shop hidden away in the market. A white gold band with a pale blue aquamarine stone set amidst diamond chips. If only a match on eHarmony could have fit my future mate criteria as seamlessly as this piece fit my Independence Ring requirements.

Charming and I found ourselves back in that same little shop in Charleston after our cruise last month. I told him I was looking for a pendant like my ring, something I would wear every day. For my birthday two years ago, my ex-boyfriend gave me one that I didn’t take off until I knew it was over. When I wore it, I knew I was his girl. When I wasn’t his girl anymore, I couldn’t bear to see it reflected in the mirror.

Having always felt rather naked without a necklace on, I had some filler pendants that had little meaning connected to them which were suitable for everyday use (meaning they go with everything). To me, finding a new pendant in the same spot as my Independence Ring on New Year’s weekend with Charming at my side seemed like the perfect story.

Charming and I left the market sans necklace, but not empty handed having found little gifts for friends and family along the way. He understood that I would know the pendant when I saw it, and I never did. If anything, because of Charming I understand that being unwilling to compromise on criteria works out for the best. I didn’t buy a necklace that day, but navigating the same crowded, narrow aisles with Charming as six months before during my respite from the disillusionment of online dating painted the stark contrast of my life then and now.

I gave up my wedding ring when I was ready to cut ties with my past. I bought a right hand ring when I was ready to commit to my future. During Sunday’s sermon on love and dating, tears were silently streaming down my face. I couldn’t control them. Preaching from Song of Solomon, the pastor was drawing parallels for how to make a marriage thrive. I was overtaken by sentiments I couldn’t articulate to Charming until hours later when my birthday weekend would come to an end.

I had let my marriage die. I hadn’t treasured it like Solomon. I saw it as the next step in a life plan, not the perfect combination. We are conditioned to respond to the right combination of anything with passion. Charming was beside me in that church. I let my marriage die. I certainly didn’t deserve another man in my life that was everything I had ever dreamed of, and I was overcome with gratitude for the grace that would allow me to rest my head on his shoulder in that moment.

Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. I don’t deserve Charming, but I’m perpetually launched into a state of gratitude because I know his value. My birthday weekend was meaningful because of intersections with him. When prompted to unzip the returned tupperware container I had sent home with leftovers for Charming last visit, I found a little black box.

Inside was a pendant: a white gold droplet with a pale blue aquamarine stone framed by diamond chips. Clearly, Charming pays attention to details. The glittering combination of gem and ore took my breath away.

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far in five days of age thirty-three is we come to most cherish and value those things for which we must wait. In the waiting is the conflict that makes us all the more certain of what we want. Then when we see the right combination, we just know. And it takes our breath away.

He takes my breath away.

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Connecting the Dots

I’ve managed to get my heart broken so many times in my three-days-shy of thirty-three years of life that I’ve lost count. The first was half a lifetime ago. He had Charming-potential until he started dating my best friend. She was the second, hindsight painting her perhaps unfairly as the villain counterpart. Heartbreaks are subjective, the turmoil equal to the cumulative investment.

These were only the first of many (hindsight writing them much smaller roles of course, in light of subsequent events that would far surpass their investment value). In college, after losing two friends to tragic accidents and another to suicide, the world broke my heart. After college, there would be more soured friendships, more post-boyfriend recoveries, and even career disappointments.

Our hearts break when we lose the object of our investment. In her twenties, my mother lost her mother to a failed procedure, and her little brother to cancer in her thirties. The more candles on our birthday cakes, the more of our own losses come to mind as the examples build. Love, death, illness… they all break our hearts.

Divorce is not an alternative to heartbreak, but rather the ultimate heartbreak. When I was married, two hearts became one before God.   Electing to sever that tie was a death-sentence of sorts. In the months leading up to filing the papers, my journal daily detailed that internal battle and spiritual struggle. A few short months after leaving my husband, I stopped writing altogether. Perhaps, once severed, I really didn’t have the heart for it.

Perhaps, once severed, I became more protective of what was left of it. I didn’t cry at movies anymore. I held new friends at a distance. And when I did start dating, I picked a guy for the simple fact that I couldn’t see it going anywhere. I believed that I was guarding my heart by protecting myself from cumulative investment, thereby avoiding future turmoil and keeping my heart intact.

And hadn’t God had a hand in breaking my heart? I had trusted Him when I entered this union. If He knew all things, He knew this would come. How could I trust him with my future now? It was unconscious at best, but I kept God at a distance, too.

Though I was no longer reading scriptures, the proverb still surfaced then, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). My friend Chuck reminded me of this verse at the gym today, putting it into context and challenging me to consider the weight of its implications.

As a lover of language, I have the utmost respect for the significance of individual words, and I could not be contented to debate the significance of such a sentence without first returning to the original Hebrew nor leave the abstract “heart” without attempting to make it concrete. Like the physical organ that is central to our body’s functions, the Hebrew word for heart (לִבֶּ֑ךָ) is the mind, the will, and the emotions.

The heart is the core of who we are. When Solomon spoke these words, he was offering wisdom to his son about the direction one chooses. Other translations say, “Keep watch over your heart,” like a sentinel might keep watch over a city. A sentinel doesn’t build protective walls, he guards them.

If Solomon were advising me about how to have wisdom in choosing my path in my post-divorce life crisis, I think he would have cautioned me much the same way. Guarding my heart didn’t mean that I should build up walls to protect me from all the potential brokenness, failure, loss, and disappointment that might lurk beyond them.

After about an hour Googling lexicons, translations, and articles extrapolating the meaning of this verse, I stumbled upon a commentary that left me speechless as countless erroneous dots in existence were instantly connected. It was as though the most expansive, elaborate connect-the-dots portrait of my life was suddenly complete, and who has words when that happens.

In it, Phil Johnson explains the implications of this verse: “So you need to protect your heart with all diligence—to keep it from becoming dry and empty, poisoned and polluted, or stagnant and bitter. Because if your heart is wrong, everything else in your life will show the effects of it.”

If you’ve ever been so dejected that you poured an extra glass of wine, you understand the almost sub-conscience desire to numb the pain. In the aftermath of my divorce, I became numb. And I thought that I was protecting myself, I thought myself quite clever at the discovery; I could avoid turmoil by steering clear of emotional investments.

But just as a glass of wine numbs you to pain, it numbs you to every other emotion as well. In my futile efforts to build up imaginary walls that might not actually do anything to protect me from future heartache, I was unwittingly looking away from my post. While I was building walls, emptiness and bitterness were poisoning the waters of my heart. When the dots were connected, my portrait was a sad, broken woman who had far undershot her potential.

Forty-eight weeks ago, I started writing again. Each night that I position myself criss-cross apple sauce on this white wicker love seat on the front porch of my rented bungalow, I examine my heart – my mind, my will, my emotions. My laptop becomes a mirror, and I have to face myself. I wrestle with moments and memories and metaphors.

By grace, that connect-the-dot portrait is now outdated. The repeated act of writing reflects a cumulative investment in myself, and the pages typed out over the past year paint a different portrait. In a sense, when I began writing again, I began truly guarding my heart, beginning by identifying the bitterness and fear and disillusionment that I saw reflected in my earlier entries.

Everything in my life shows the effects of it, and in light of the commentary that so captured my attention, it makes sense. In writing nights examining the core of who I am, I began a process of ridding myself of the poison. The walls I so painstakingly built eventually came down, and it was my writing that eventually connected the dots of me and Charming.

And I’m interested in Charming because I can see a future with him. My heart is no longer stagnant, bitter, or numb. When he visited this weekend, we had a picnic lunch at a nature park. Afterwards, stretched out on a blanket, he read to me. The sun was not as warm as his touch. I felt hope and joy and peace as I looked at him.  That’s the best way I know how to make the abstract heart concrete.

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This is the portrait of my life now, one in which God drew near to me when I stopped holding Him at a distance. Building walls only served to cheapen the quality of life. While the turmoil is equal to the cumulative investment, so too is the alternative: joy and hope and peace.

And if your heart is right, everything in your life will show the effects of it.