Blossoms and Brackets

March is confusing, boasting the onset of spring amidst weather upsets not unlike Syracuse heading to the Final Four. When I hailed the same home as the Orange, there were years it snowed in late April. I knew what to expect there. In Virginia, I need a jacket before work and windows down after it. March madness is full of upsets despite our efforts to predict when it’s best to start planting and store our winter clothes.

I made a bracket this year with the help of some student basketball enthusiasts, though I started alone thinking, “How hard can this be?” There are entire fields of research and production centered around numbers, statistics, and probabilities. Partner past performance analysis with the compare and contrast strategy, perhaps a Venn Diagram for each pairing, and I figured I had a strong system.

We make predictions constantly in English class, and ideas about what will happen differ invariably. Two teens can be given the same background information and predict contrasting outcomes. As a teacher, my role is to help them learn to identify relevant clues. A few of my boys did this in an entertaining role reversal for my March Madness bracket.

They questioned my choices, trying to understand why I had selected certain teams to win in each round. They sifted through the data and supplemented their own advice with a sufficient combination of reasoning, credibility, and emotional appeal to influence my decisions. The evidence of our intense studies in the art of persuasion delighted me.

I hope that my gardening predictions fare better than my bracket has. Breaking open the shed has two functions this time of year: attack the garden beds and switch out summer and winter clothes. Through the cold months, I long for the days I can take on anything in a sundress and flip flops. Nevertheless, on my last two visits to see Charming, jeans and a leather jacket weighed me down. It’s too soon to pack them away.

And it’s too soon to plant. There is still the possibility of a frost, and fledgling seeds might not withstand it. There are probably statistics and numbers to analyze, and there are certainly Venn Diagrams for flower options in store for me, but like March Madness, though there might be upsets – frosts, storms, droughts – I still sift through a mental bracket and make predictions. Regardless of outside counsel, I commit to certain outcomes.

Whether it’s a story, a game, a wardrobe, or a garden, making predictions involves an element of risk. Absent certainties and absolutes, I navigate my life journey in superlatives. What would be best or worst, greatest or least? I trudge through “supposed to”, “might”, “likely,” and “almost” at a slow pace, aware that the grass might not be greener on the other side after all, but hopeful for that oasis beyond the sandy rocks.

It might look like the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC did this past weekend, with thousands of Japanese trees at peak bloom framing the tidal basin. Charming said it would be beautiful. We layered up and faced the crowds, I with a face full of wonder and awe. On a Saturday in March, Charming took my hand on Ohio Drive along the Potomac and led me down the path to a real life fairy tale.

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I had never seen so many trees blooming in one place before! The Washington Monument, reflected in the water before us, seemed softer, more inspiring amidst the white and hues of pink. Fingers laced together, Charming and I wove through the multitude of people and blossoms, through Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial parks. We took pictures of the Capitol in the distance and snapped selfies in front of the Jefferson Memorial.

Hours passed like minutes. I had the strange sense that we were walking in an alternate reality, one where beauty and hope and possibilities incapacitate numbers, statistics, and probabilities. For an afternoon, there was no war on terrorism. There were no ex-husbands or ex-wives. There wasn’t even basketball.

The sun rose to the occasion, dismissing our jackets. We stopped for a few minutes to sit by the water with our legs dangling below us. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much, seemingly involuntary. It was just my body’s natural response to the environment. Beside me, surrounded by a spring’s blue sky and a sea of cherry blossoms, I saw Charming in a way I hadn’t before and might never again.

Because for that one afternoon, numbers and statistics and probabilities were suspended. They cannot permeate the blanket of blossoms. In a world that’s blue and white and pink, anything is possible.   I found myself envisioning being married beneath the cherry blossoms. My vivid imagination, undoubtedly the product of wild optimism and a lifetime love of literature, was activated in this alternate reality, my fairy tale in the Nation’s capital.

Without “supposed to”, “might”, “likely,” or “almost” cluttering my mind, I broke free of superlatives. What would be best or worst, greatest or least didn’t matter. Certainties and absolutes were made obsolete by the mere presence of hope. Though we would drive away from the fairy tale hours later and into the actual reality where Charming is a mental bracket laden with educated guesses at projected outcomes, in that moment, I saw him beneath the cherry blossoms with me.

And something inside me changed. We’ve been dating for half a year, and that was the first time I let myself picture us together in a story that gives us a happily ever after. High School Laura Joy would have been writing Charming love poems a month in. She was unconcerned with numbers or statistics then, but she grew up, and she stopped writing poetry.

The deeper into our fairy tale unit that my students and I get, the stronger my own belief grows that anything is possible. I teach my kids to make predictions, to dream and dare, to take risks. Yet, for my own life, I navigate strategically each crossroad. I analyze numbers and compare and contrast and evaluate data. Number crunching doesn’t inspire poetry.

Charming and I are in the March of our relationship, and it’s unpredictable at best. It’s full of potential, but it’s too soon to start planting promises. Would the upset choice be a tear-filled break-up or a cherry blossom wedding? When I made my March Madness bracket, I committed to certain outcomes. My predictions did not actually affect those outcomes. Choosing Kansas to win it all did not stop them from being eliminated in the fourth round. Fear that Kansas might not win did not stop me from envisioning them taking the championship.

Until this weekend, I kept my imagination at bay with Charming. Losing myself in a modern-day fairy tale awakened that inspired, youthful poet. I voluntarily cast aside all calculations and did something I hadn’t done in eight years. If dreaming about forever and always with Charming does not have any effect on the trajectory of our relationship, what’s the harm in a little imagination?

I let myself dream, and the divergent thoughts converged into a poem. All these years, I was creating my own writer’s block by suspending imagination in favor of bests and most likely’s. A writer’s story is limited only by her ability to imagine what’s beyond the sandy rocks, and after an afternoon in a cherry blossom oasis, where beauty and hope and possibilities incapacitate numbers, statistics, and probabilities, anything can happen.

Villains and Heroes

I’m a simple schoolteacher. I’m not qualified to speak publically about war or terrorism. I spend the majority of my waking hours selling reading and writing to teenagers within the same four walls, day after day. My world often shrinks to that classroom. I tell my students to write what they know, and I don’t know anything more about war or terrorism than what I read in the news.

But I know about villains. My kids are writing fairy tales, and we needed to understand the villain’s character before we could create convincing antagonists. They agreed the villain is depicted as evil, but has arrived there through some tragic event in his or her past. The villain wants control or power and will stop at nothing to get it. A villain is typically overtaken by the hero in a fairy tale, resulting in the unveiling of its morale or lesson.

We began this Fun Fairy Fiction project with six students in each class designing a setting for a tale and the rest designing original characters. The students presented their settings and characters and formed teams based on which ones had story potential. Now, there are six fairy tales in progress, with three-to-four fully developed characters meeting in their stories to inspire the plot.

Each character, given his or her set of circumstances, has the potential to be a hero or a villain in those tales. I asked the students to give the characters a back-story with past issues, family life, interests, and hot buttons. Suddenly, a girl whose father squandered the family’s wealth tricks a prince into marrying her to restore her status. She could just as easily have been pulled out of squalor by a knight in shining armor, but no one created that character. Empathy made our villains realistic. They were neutral sketches on a page until interacting with setting, plot, and other characters set them in opposition to our heroes.

In a fairy tale, a happy ending is often synonymous with good triumphing over evil. Cinderella rises from the ashes into the arms of a prince, Rapunzel escapes with an assist from a gentleman, the evil queen or witch or imposter king is taken down. We delight in the careful execution of justice. Centuries before Netflix, adults entertained themselves with fairy tales, like the ones where birds peck out Cinderella’s step-sisters’ eyes to punish them for their falsehood. The revealed morale is positive, optimistic, encouraging.

I can’t entertain myself with the news. My heart sank as I learned of today’s ISIS attack in Brussels, where thirty-one lives were terminated prematurely. After a day wandering through my students’ imaginations in Fun Fairy Fiction, reality seemed something of a cruel joke. The villain isn’t one man or woman. It’s a faceless multitude, stereotyped by design. The villain fits our criteria for evil on a quest for control or power, but he has no back-story.

We can’t empathize with this villain that kills parts of itself in its mission to secure a global caliphate. He does not have a personality or a past so that we can understand him and hope to save him. Redemption stories are just as powerful as those overcoming evil, but we have no hope for one here. We search for the morale or lesson, but we can’t make sense of it.   Thirty-one deaths voids optimistic intentions.

In Madrid in 2004, 192 people were killed in commuter train explosions during an al-Quada terrorist attack. A little over a year later, I walked those cobblestone streets during a study abroad experience. We took a train to Toledo, called The City of Three Cultures because Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted within its walls for centuries. I remember being fascinated by the way the architecture reflected a blending of those three cultures.

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Gazing into the courtyard of a 15th century gothic monastery, I felt a bit like I was in a fairy tale. There was no presence of war or terrorism, no cloud of death. Even in Madrid, spirits were high as they fought to host the next Olympics. They had survived this tragedy. They rallied. They returned to normalcy. That, in itself, is a means of resisting the villain. There, in The City of Three Cultures, I tried to understand this villain.

I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. The massacres continue, the story develops, but the setting remains a stormy, gloomy night after thousands of dawns. I remind my students of the impact of setting on mood, plot, and theme. The dark night breed tales of isolation and struggle. We’ve been there so long, it’s hard to remember what life was like before 9-11.

I was in the Smith-Traber dorm lobby at Wheaton College when I first learned about the Twin Towers. Charming was somewhere across campus. Later, we’d gather with thousands of other reeling students and the faculty at chapel and try to make sense of 2, 996 deaths. Why did this happen? How can we stop it from happening again? In what form would a hero come?

Charming’s story would carry him on to two tours in Afghanistan, mine to wave after wave of hundreds of inquiring minds. He’s far more qualified to speak about war and terrorism, and he’s been a patient tutor for me. I know literature and I know adolescents. Each of my students is a fully developed character with unique past issues, family life, interests, and hot buttons. He or she has the potential to be a villain or a hero, just like their characters in their Fun Fairy Fiction projects.

I don’t understand the villain in this war. I cannot empathize with him to be able to strategize how to sway him or defeat him. In a fairy tale, the villain is usually overtaken by our hero. Like villains, we needed to identify the characteristics of a hero in order to create believable ones in class.

My kids agreed that the hero is brave and has to overcome challenges. He is inherently good, though not without his own flaws that make him relatable. The hero defeats the villain or becomes a savior, but he typically faces a series of challenges to get there. A hero, too, is made not born.

I will never put on a uniform, but many of my students will. I may never inform law, reform, or policy, but they will. I will never command a post, but each year I have the opportunity to set hundreds of minds on courses of heroism. Under the blanket of literature and writing, my kids learn character, develop citizenship, and build perception.

Within the four walls of my classroom, I get to create the setting, and I choose to emulate Toledo, The City of Three Cultures, where we cross barriers to unite in writing stories. The Christmas lights and throw rugs make the mood hopeful and expectant. If we’re ever going to escape the gloom and doom of our current reality, we’re going to have to change the setting.

I don’t understand the villain. After 9-11, Madrid, Brussels and so many others, I know the villain only as a faceless multitude. To reveal the morale humanity longs for of good triumphing over evil, every villain needs a hero counterpart.

Tomorrow’s heroes are writing fairy tales in my classroom. To achieve our happy ending, we’re going to need a lot of heroes.

Rescuing Rapunzel

If I could say one thing to nineteen-year-old me, it would be, “You’re going to date Prince Charming.” Mere acquaintances in college, I simply had a sense about him. That he would be strong and silent, yet gentlemanly and romantic. That he was a quality guy of integrity. He was, quite simply, out of my league.

In this case, my imagination was delightfully accurate, though it would be another thirteen years before I’d find out for myself. In those days, I accented my tank tops with a string of guilt. Reflecting on my mistakes evolved into fixating on them. My occasional assertions of teenage rebellion bore lasting scars. “Others can, you can’t,” my father would tell me.

He was right. It was because I knew better. I asked my sophomores to freewrite on the word “choices” today. There was this clear thread of morality woven through my kids’ writing. As they shared, the mood deepened to pensive, pregnant with thought. They wrote of good and bad choices, right and wrong choices, careless and daring choices.

Human nature is to pounce off of instinct. This weekend, Charming and I visited with my brother’s family. After a long walk outside, we retreated into leisurely family time with my twenty-month old twin nieces and five-year old nephew. Tessa was playing on the floor with a toy when Katarina begged me with an adorable, persistent, “Pease? Pease?” for my phone. I conceded. Immediately, Tessa dropped her toy and grabbed assertively for the phone in Katarina’s hands. A little fight ensued.

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The scene was precious… and so telling. Before knowledge and experience shape us into responsible human beings, we see what we want and go after it. There is no concern for its fairness, its goodness, its safety, or its ability to compromise our integrity. There will not be one lesson for these little girls. It will come in thousands of little moments of modeling and instruction by the grown-ups and peers in their lives.

I see it already beginning with the girls when Tessa picks up one bottle for herself and immediately carries another to Kat. They respond to the cue, “Share.” They mimic what we say. Ultimately, our choices, as informed by collective years of our own growth through modeling and instruction, we shape the moral compass of the next generation and inform the dialogue my teens were having today.

In those times in my adolescence when I abandoned my integrity and chose what I knew was not right, little gems of guilt piled up on my nightstand. That was why others could, but I couldn’t. The consequence of a choice made not of sound judgment was living with it after it was inevitably declared a mistake, often by my father.

My recent commitment to read the news every day leaves me mostly dejected. My flirtation with current events involved a minor politician crush which Charming seemed amused by.   Mom will often text me updates. This just in: “I’m in tears! Marco’s concession speech was so beautiful. More like a sermon.” I was ignoring the news updates as I wrote tonight, but I couldn’t help but check my phone after hearing Mom’s text tone.

When I watched Marco Rubio debate last summer for the first time, I modeled my own view after my father’s on the couch beside me. Rubio was just too young this time around. My father is wise about these things. Well, about everything. (Note to my young bloggers: Give it a decade, and you’ll feel the same way!) Marco stooped to a low level in his campaign, and the backlash was astounding.

Others can, Marco can’t. His political identity was assuaged by attacks on his character and integrity. He knew better, too, like I have felt so many times, and he admitted as much publically in its wake. Our character, our integrity, they are informed by modeling, but they are formed through choices.

In my nephew’s kindergarten class, there is a behavior monitoring system. Each student starts in the middle of a ladder, and his position moves down for bad behavior and up for good behavior. Eagle is the highest rating a child can attain. Up until last month, J.J. had landed on Eagle maybe twice, and his name had even been on the announcements.

It’s not easy for five-year-olds to make it to Eagle. They are met with an abundance of choices, and they have a fraction of the collection of knowledge and experience points that adults have. They have to choose to be obedient, well-mannered, kind, considerate, and helpful.   This month, J.J. landed on Eagle five days in a row. It was unbelievable. When I asked him how, J.J. responded, “I made good choices.”

I didn’t expect a freewrite about choices to highlight morality; however, by adolescence, we’ve earned just enough knowledge and experience points for it to be dangerous. We flirt with minor instances of rebellion despite the little red flags in our purview or checks in our spirits. I overheard a conversation between some of my students that left me conflicted. An older guy with a shady reputation asked one of my girls out. She is a young innocent, like Rapunzel, waiting for a brave lad to rescue her.

But we all know that the witch tricks Rapunzel, and please don’t read the Grimm’s Brother’s version of the tale as a bedtime story. The innocent are impressionable. They know right and wrong. They know hope. And they often place too much merit on hope’s ability to affect the outcome of a poor decision.

I hope Rapunzel isn’t fooled by a wolf in sheep’s clothes; I wish that she could borrow the Queen’s magic mirror and see her own Prince Charming on her arm in a decade. That it would be that vision of imagination that would keep her steadfast to her own value and worth.

Ultimately, Rapunzel will assess her value and worth for herself, and if she piles up enough gems of guilt on her nightstand to make a necklace of her own, then like me, she’ll meet Charming and think, “He’s out of my league.” As babies, we act on instinct. As children, we mirror behavior. As teens, we consider the consequences… and dismiss them for the hope that something good will come of them, or heed them as integral in shaping our character.

After Charming, an older guy with a shady reputation couldn’t manipulate me into casting a single glance in his direction. He has earned enough knowledge and experience points to model sound judgment. He is exactly who I imagined him to be so many years ago, perhaps even better. The choice to engage in a dangerous flirtation would comprise my integrity. I want to be a better woman than Charming imagined me to be thirteen years ago, too.

Tessa, Katarina, and J.J. will look up to learn how to make choices. On Saturday, they were looking up at me and Charming. Their parents trust me with the responsibility of modeling morality and encouraging good decisions. It will be some time before they understand what grace is, but we’ll be modeling that, too.

Our choices continue to define us. We age. We acquire knowledge and experience. We make bigger choices. If we pay attention to the little red flags or the checks in our spirits, we might make a choice we’re comfortable living with afterward.

Sometimes, we miss that step and end up regretting our choice. If that happens, learn from the mistakes, girls; don’t brand yourself with them. Reflect on them only long enough to learn and move forward. Redefine yourself with the next good choice.

What We Stay Alive For

Abriel. Female. Age 24. Deceased. When I taught her eight years ago, her blonde hair framed her full, genuine smile. Her voice emerged in our poetry unit back at Nashville School of the Arts, where Principal boB (yes, he spells his name backwards) led with a passion for The Beatles and Superman, supplemented by now Dr. Williams’ “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day” over the loudspeaker each morning.

In the classroom, teachers can’t play favorites; however, there are some kids that just grab your heartstrings with the positive vibe they bring in with them. Abriel was one of these, like a Disney cherub, soft-spoken and smiling in the background. She was sweet and kind to me and her peers, jotting me little notes I still have in my “Reasons Why I Teach” binder.

That’s how I remember Abriel, like the pink magnolia blossoms just opening in my front yard, once again the first sparks of color on my street. We kept in touch via Facebook some, and the last she’d shared some two years back was that she was going to get her GED. This weekend, Facebook told me that she had died.

The circumstances surrounding her death are currently unknown and hazy. Investigations may bring some closure, but it cannot assuage her parent’s broken heart or her fiancé’s. I still see her leaning over her desk, think strands of blonde hair falling into her face, smiling up at me, ready to learn.

The Earth grows darker with the loss of that smile. While on Facebook reading about Abriel, my USAToday app notified me of another death the next day. At the age of forty, country artist Joey Feek lost her battle to cervical cancer, her husband Rory and her two-year old daughter survive her. I’ve been following Rory’s blog for a few months now. He weaves in current progression, stories from long ago, and music they made together as he reveals the sweetness even in the saddest of developments.

Rory posted not long after Joey finally went home to be with the Lord. He titles the entry “A Dream Come True”. The tone contrasts with the clamor around Abriel’s death. We knew Joey’s was coming. Rory prepared us even as he was prepared. His blog is reassuring and uplifting, warranting tears streaming down my cheeks, week after week. This entry was no different.

It was Charming’s birthday last week, so I popped up for a surprise visit. He discovered me at a medieval themed party in his honor with his Bible Study. The night was filled with fun and laughter shared with friends. The celebration of life contrasted so sharply with the unfortunate news to come.

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He probably saw me cry more this weekend than collectively over the past six months. Because the next day, on Saturday, my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Sorkin, also died at age seventy-three. My phone notified me of my mom’s email with “sad news”.

Mr. Sorkin was an incredible teacher. I didn’t have a particular passion for social studies at that age, but I adored him. He was stern but effective, and I got to see a softer side of him that year when I was going under the knife for reconstructive knee surgery. Mr. Sorkin gave me this little white bear holding a heart. He said it was for good luck. It was perhaps something he had tucked away in his desk. The plush parts of the bear were faded… or that might be because I held onto it for so long that I rubbed it off myself. It was still in my hand when I came out from under the anesthesia.

The next day, former First Lady Nancy Reagan died at age ninety-four, surviving Abriel by a full seventy years. Mrs. Reagan had seen multiple blossoming seasons. She’d achieved, influenced, accomplished, impacted, affected change.   She had lived. Given another seventy years, what might Abriel’s legacy have been?

Four deaths in four days, and each affected me differently; yet the effect of all four together left me driving home after another fairy tale weekend with Charming ever-focused on mortality. We process grief in accordance with our own personal manuals developed through our mental contracts with the guiding principles of existence. If there’s a heaven and a hell, if there’s eternal life, if there’s an entrance fee, or if there’s nothing… those beliefs dictate how we respond to death.

Are we comforted that the woman we love is with her Heavenly Father, or are we grieved because this is the end of her book? While we celebrated thirty-four years of Charming’s life, the decade-younger Abriel’s life would find itself plucked before ripening.

I don’t know how many years I have, or how many my parents will have. I fret on it occasionally, but quickly combat the line of thought with reassurances from scripture memorized decades ago in AWANA. Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Every moment that I spend worrying overshadows opportunities God can use to inspire supplication and thanksgiving. When Abriel died, I was honoring Charming. When Joey Feek died, I was meeting Charming’s co-workers. When Mr. Sorkin died, I was reeling from a St. Patrick’s Day parade extraordinaire. When Nancy Regan died, I was at a play with Charming’s family.

I am grateful for these moments. I thank God for these moments. I thank God for the moments with Abriel in my English classroom years ago. I thank God for the inspiration that Rory + Joey have been to me and so many others. I thank God for Mr. Sorkin’s big heart and setting a standard for how I teach.

Our future plans cannot defeat the question mark on our own expiration dates. Often we fear the earlier demise of someone we love more than our own ending. What comes after that date, that ending of this life, well, what you believe will impact how you do your living now much the same as it influences how you respond to death.

My tenth graders’ end-of-course test is now behind us, and I wanted to reward them with a unit on Dead Poets Society. I introduced them to the unit with my favorite quote from the film where Robin William’s character says,

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I ask the students what they think it means, and I secretly hope one of them will see what I see. That we need medicine to keep our bodies going, law to keep us civil, business to fuel an economy, engineering to keep us housed… but all of that exists so that we can experience beauty, romance, love. Those cornerstones sustain us, but our desire to live is in that which delights us.

We don’t know if we have twenty-four, forty, seventy-three, or ninety-four years on this planet. I don’t know how many times I’ll get to see my magnolias bloom. I’m comforted by what I see beyond my gravestone, and I want it to be my life and not my death that defines me. Worries about what might be and grief about what has most certainly been lost are best offered up in prayer requests coupled with praise and gratitude for the moments I stay alive for.

An Hourglass Minute

My magnolia trees will bloom soon. In fact, a few impatient buds are already crawling out of their casing, begging for light. It will be my second spring in this rented bungalow. Now, I know to expect magnolias. That they’ll be cotton candy pink. That they’ll bloom for only a few weeks. That they’ll shade the front garden beds all summer long. And that changes things.

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A year ago at this time, I hadn’t planned to craft a garden. The magnolias were responsible for planting that seed. They bloomed and they were beautiful. Then, the inconspicuous bushes dormant since I had moved in suddenly boasted azalea buds in varying shades of pink. Mother Nature was inspiring. It was here on my white wicker loveseat, overlooking the desolate, empty garden beds beneath a blanket of Magnolia blossoms that the seed took root.

I was inspired, and I wrote about it. As soon as the last threats of frost were gone, I bought a few tools and some seedlings and played in the dirt. It was a Saturday in April. I figured it would just take a few hours. I didn’t realize that the beds were overrun with vines and clover weeds, and I hadn’t anticipated the host of hours that ripping them out would take.

I know now to expect the magnolias, and that they will once again force my hand to the shovel, even though I also know now to anticipate the back-breaking, knee-aching labor involved in creating a garden. That changes things, too. This year, I’ll plan a day to work the soil, and another day to plant flowers.

After toiling well past twilight, the garden was finished… or so I thought.

Within weeks, the magnolias would shade the yard and starve the petunias and the salvia of the direct sun they needed to thrive. The hanging baskets would shrivel with insufficient light. I would have to start again.

It didn’t faze me, early on. I found that the ebb and flow of the life tide in my garden mirrored my life in uncanny, inspiring ways. My writing found a focus, centered on growth… mine and my garden’s. Each week as I sat here to write, words simply formed themselves into extended metaphors while I looked out at the garden.

For seven months, I tended that garden. I continued to experiment with various species; some thrived and some died. I began to expect that, too. I was living out Gardening 101 with a Google Search textbook and a Home Depot tutor. I reinvented the garden every couple of weeks, and it pained me to cut back the evening glories when I strung up my Christmas lights.

My expectations for my garden are optimistic. Having completed my introductory course last summer, I will undoubtedly make better choices in what to plant, aware of the shade limitations. Nevertheless, I know not to get too attached – a few rainy days in a row and a drown plant frowns. I’m going to experience some loss, but somehow that’s just as inspiring as the growth.

In my garden, anyway. My expectations for my life are not quite so sunny. My juniors were discussing the American Dream today as a part of a unit I taught for the first time last year. These students’ perceptions of the American Dream echoed last year’s. Some want riches, others fame, and still others family. My conclusion echoed last year’s as well. Our dreams differ. How we determine and evaluate success differs.

We agreed, however, that the common denominator is hard work. Our dreams won’t be handed to us. We don’t deserve the glittering things. We need to enter in guts and gumption in our half of the equation. And even then, it’s not promised. It’s not guaranteed.

I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would have a failed marriage and be starting over in my thirties, single and childless. Now I know, and it changes things. Divorce changes things. You. Your dreams. Your expectations. Your ability to plan is intercepted by your inability to trust. Your hands-on experience and lessons with a relationship on the rocks leaves behind a bed of gravel. You sift through it to find the pearls of wisdom.

Because my first marriage was like the first chapter in Gardening 101.   What can I take away from my first failure to foster success in my next attempt? I need shade-loving plants in the garden beds, and I have to be careful not to overwater the impatiens baskets. My infant garden taught me the importance of learning from failure.

I’ve been determined to do the same in my relationship with Charming. This weekend, we had an argument (or a discussion, or a disagreement, or whichever word carries a less negative connotation). Despite all my usual efforts to maintain the demeanor of a sweet, charming female counterpart, I got mad and lost my temper.

I turned red, but it wasn’t from anger. That momentary glitch where my mouth opened and words bubbled out that I could get back in? It was an hourglass minute, where I could practically pick out the grains of sand. I felt every second. Embarrassment flushed me immediately, and I tried to hide my face from him. The monster got out.

I pride myself on the new leaf I turned over when I started writing again. My aim is to be authentic, genuine, and real. In my defense, I warned Charming about my temper, first cited in throw-down-on-the-floor-kicking-and-screaming bouts at age two. Still, I’d been intentional about hiding this less-than-flattering side of me.

It was out. The burst of anger was intercepted by embarrassment that sharpened into fear. I expect some things to thrive and some things to die in my garden. But in my life, I expect the worst. Tears were dripping down the front of my shirt before I even realized I was crying.

I know the worst in me better than anyone else, and I sometimes have a difficult time loving myself.   I was waiting, in that hourglass minute, for Charming to come to his senses and get out while he still could. I was suddenly aware that I had starting making plans with him, little ones true, but ones that I would miss.

He intercepted all the emotions and simply geared the conversation into a strategy session for how to play on the same team when we have a disagreement in the future.   He always seems to surpass my expectations.

And perhaps it’s because divorce changed me. My American Dream is for a family of my own, but I’ve had enough coursework to learn that it’s not promised or guaranteed. When I toiled in the soil, I uncovered nuggets of wisdom. When I sorted in the gravel, I uncovered some pearls. Some things will die and some things will thrive.

But it takes guts and gumption. And sometimes with all that emotion tied up in hard work and determination, the worst of us creeps out. I worry about the impatient Magnolia blossoms sneaking out before their time. Will they be killed in the next March frost? I worried my temper sneaking out might have killed my budding romance.

For me, it was character failure. That’s a lesson. Charming must believe in the importance of learning from failures, too, because he turned that hourglass minute of emotional turmoil it into another inspired moment of Writer’s Growth.