The Same Prayer with No Answers

It was a Charming-less weekend, the first in several months, and I’d practically forgotten what a lazy, single holiday weekend feels like.  While he was headed North on his annual Mancation, I was getting out of school early wondering how I’d make the best of three days on my own.  What did I used to do before Charming?

It was surreal, waking up on Saturday and brewing only one cup of coffee.  I Netflixed, graded poetry books, mowed the lawn, hit the gym, cleaned out a junk drawer, and celebrated my sister-in-law Gabrielle’s birthday at Olive Garden with the kids.  Sounds productive, right?  Somehow, lying in bed that night, the silence of my own dissatisfaction was deafening.

I had kept busy.  I didn’t want to think too much about the quiet or what I had always pictured I’d be doing on a holiday weekend in my mid-thirties.  Kids and cookouts seemed a given not too long ago.  As I set my childhood radio alarm clock for just enough time to get ready for church, I muffled that biological alarm clock and slept fitfully until the real one sounded.

Integrity is marked by what you do when no one’s looking, so while I flirted with the idea of skipping church and binge watching The Americans, I dressed up, drove over, walked in, and sat where I always sit.  Routine.  Grading papers.  Mowing the lawn.  Attending church.  I joined in the worship choruses, wishing the condition of my mind would align with the words coming out of my mouth.

The music faded.  The lights dimmed.   A guest preacher rolled on stage in a wheelchair.  As former Marine Tim Lee was introduced, the congregation took in the man before us, military ribbons adorning his jacket, and no legs.  He told his story in perfect hindsight, the emerging rebellion toward authority that followed his salvation, his excellence in athletic pursuits, a gradual shift toward placing things before God, and ultimately finding that his earthly merits took him further away from the throne of that childhood salvation.

In each dramatic pause, I weighed the silence, until, with a collective sum of them, conviction came and epiphany emerged.  I looked back at my own tarried road and marveled at the parallel journeys.  My adolescent achievements simply bolstered my commitment to storing up successes.  I filled up every empty moment with academic, musical, and athletic pursuits.  We found success and praise.  We made our parents proud.  But even while we were winning medals in Track and Field, Tim Lee and I were both running from God.

Sgt. Lee said he stopped running once God took his legs when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam, and the significance of the sentiment was profound.  We had seen him enter as our guest preacher in that wheelchair.  We knew his story would explain what had happened in the war to his legs and what had happened afterward to his spirit.  We couldn’t have anticipated how his unique narrative would end up being used by God to save lives.  Sgt. Lee didn’t preach about living life without legs.  He preached about living life without running from God.

That’s something I think many in that sanctuary can relate to; after all, I’d been doing it just the night before, lying in the silence of my darkened bedroom, refusing to pick up the Bible and journal sitting within arm’s reach on the night stand.  I chose to sleep restlessly, holding my own worry tighter than a pillow, quieting the desire for a family as I buried myself under the blankets wishing for rest for an anxious mind.

I used to fill one or two prayer journals a year.  I’ve barely made a dent in the one I bought last fall.  When did quiet times stop being part of my routine?  One of Sgt. Lee’s concluding points in the sermon was to highlight Job saying, “Happy is the man whom God corrected.”  It took an act of war to stop Tim Lee from running.  Do I want to let it get that far?

I think about my student Jezebel and envision her like young Tim Lee and me, bucking at authority.  I met with her parents last week, and she was back in class today for the first time.  I prayed God would position my heart to be gracious toward her, offer her a fresh start. The Jezebel before me had been tamed.  I’m not sure how or for how long, but her guard was down, and I was kind.  At church, I realized that Jezebel’s defiance irritates me mostly because I have seen the error of my own ways, and I want better for her.

I’m not sure that I’ve really stopped running.  I mean, I have a good life.  I lead a better life than I used to.  I make wiser choices, mostly.  I don’t achieve much besides a gratifying culmination of strikethroughs on my to do list.  I can support myself with moderate means.  I’m newly debt free.  School’s over in three weeks.  I’m going to Italy.

I live well, but do I live fully?  Richly?  Is every day framed by a renewed spirit resulting from a little quietude with God’s word and prayer that makes me grateful, aware of God’s activity in my life, inclined to mirror His grace to my students?  I live well, but happy is the man whom God corrected.  That restlessness.  That senselessness.  That emptiness.  It’s evidence.

I won’t trust God with this, this fear of who I will be if I never have a child.  Sgt. Lee’s words marinated the next day as I sat in holiday traffic on my way to meet PJ, Gabrielle, and the kids at the beach.  Google Maps declared an accident, marking a short route ahead in red.  For ten minutes that spanned four times as many in my stream of consciousness, the traffic ahead was all-encompassing.  There was little to no discernible movement.

I suddenly wanted a drink of my Powerade but couldn’t reach it.  Then, I felt the urge to go to the bathroom.  I changed the station as signals faded.  It didn’t matter that I would still be early; I didn’t want to be sitting in that traffic, wasting precious day-off beach time.  While GPS claimed the traffic would clear, I saw nothing but cars and trucks and brake lights, and I couldn’t trust it.  Sitting, waiting, unable to see what’s ahead.  I was restless.

All in an instant, the horizon leveled, and I could see the clear road up ahead.  My mood made a bipolar right turn and the sun was shining.  I wasn’t moving yet, but I could see the bigger picture and an end to the waiting that silenced any growing restlessness.  I was waiting at the curb to help Gabrielle unload the children and beach gear.  We had a wonderful afternoon building sand castles and marveling at the twins’ quirks and quips.  I had that massage Charming bought me for my birthday.

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And I went home to a quiet house, again.  It’s here, in this house, that I wait.  It perhaps defines my waiting.  And here, in this house, it’s like I’m sitting in Memorial Day traffic on 64 West with nothing but brake lights ahead.  On the side of a page in my journal, I asked why I keep asking for the same thing when it never changes, when there are no signs or promises, when it’s the same prayer with no answer, when I wait, forever wait.

I didn’t trust Google Maps yesterday, and I don’t trust God.  I am somehow too worn or damaged or wearied to believe that His will for my life is better than what I have planned.  Asking Him for a sign that I will have children someday is like asking the horizon to level and reveal the clear road up ahead, a cherished afternoon with family on the beach to make the long wait worthwhile.

It’s like I’m saying, “God, I’ll trust you when you show me what you see.”  If Sgt. Lee had seen that landmine, would he have stopped on it?  He lived life more richly, more deeply when he stopped running and walked with the Lord, and as an evangelist, he’s changed more lives in our nation than he could have ever imagined while defending our liberties abroad.

As it seems to happen more often these writing nights, I don’t have all the answers, but I cried when I wrote the words, “I won’t trust God with this, this fear of who I will be if I never have a child.”  Navigating the wait in this biological traffic jam will require the kind of fortitude that emerges from an old routine that needs to be revived.

I remember Sgt. Lee said, “The Bible can keep you from sin, and your sin can keep you from the Bible.”  My worry, my sleepless nights holding my anxious fears of a future without motherhood, eventually, over time, like the successes of my youth, I’ve set this desire above God.

What will it take for me to stop running?

If Only, Jezebel

An older man, a little rough around the edges, called after me leaving the gym parking lot today. “You’re beautiful, you know that?  You can tell your man I said so.”  As I waved goodbye in acknowledgement, evading the uncomfortable exchange that logically follows, I smiled and laughed as a silent offering of appropriate gratitude.  I was frowning by the time I pulled off the lot.

I don’t feel beautiful.  Perhaps because I never left high school, I still compare myself to the girl I was when I sat behind the student desks.  She was slender and toned with a budding understanding of the power behind coy eyes and body language that barely toed the line of a Sunday School standard.  Whatever the arena, I was Joy and Tim’s daughter, PJ and David’s little sister, and that came with high expectations by association.

I had no doubt that I would change the world.  I came from good stock.  I expected it.  I could be anything I wanted to be.  In an assembly in fifth grade, I’d even learned that girls could be doctors and men could be nurses.  I could ride out the wave of feminism and be a lawyer, as some of my career aptitude tests suggested.  I could be an actress or a model.

As my students complete their final projects of the year, our “Career Discovery Adventure”, they’re proactively researching a potential career and presenting the journey they’ll have to undergo to get there.  While my ulterior motive is to develop masters of the basic principles of internal citations, works cited pages, and responsibly avoid plagiarism, I ask my kids to look fifteen years down the line.  What’s important?  Your career should accommodate your values.

I shared how each of my siblings and I had pursued different careers to fit our envisioned lifestyles.  My brothers chose to be a gastroenterologist, a theologian, and a marketing manager. I chose to be a teacher, like my mom.  The life I envisioned was a mirror image over fifteen years that closely resembled my childhood family.  Job security was important to me, ever assured of a changing economic American landscape, so a tenure track was a safe option.  Most importantly, I’d be home when my kids were home.

And that was a guaranteed part of my personal landscape the future was certain to hold, so it was also safe, then, to dream about a career that paired with tending to the needs of a family.   Fast forward to thirty-four year old me writing on the front porch of a rental I’ve tried so hard to make a home out of on my own, where the silence of the bedrooms practically mocks me.  My brothers all married teachers, a similarity I can’t chalk up to coincidence.  There’s a continuity to their lifestyles from childhood to present day.  You can hold up the mirror in their houses, and it reflects our upbringing.

Not mine, though.  It’s more than distorted.  It’s shattered. On the weekends, Charming enters the frame, and the landscape improves.  Kecoughtan’s senior prom was Saturday night, and Charming graciously escorted me.  His button-down brought out the blue in his eyes.  He’d sent me flowers at school the day before, just because, and our evening of chaperoning was a romantic masquerade ball.

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Charming says I like to go to see the girls’ choices in dresses and dates.  I’ll admit, those are factors, though it’s more about a chance to get dressed up myself and share my world with him for a bit.  After meeting each student at the dance, I’d connect him or her to some anecdote I’d shared previously, giving him a unique Who’s Who moment in my living high school yearbook.

When my grandpa saw me dancing in plays, he’d lovingly call me his Jezebel.  It’s with that sentiment that I nickname a girl who absolutely lit up the ballroom when she entered it.  It wasn’t just the dress or the hair or the makeup; she was a stunning beauty with a brilliant smile who, at sixteen, carried herself with an almost royal composure.  Jezebel would take your breath away.   She did mine.

Just as easily as she would lie, effortlessly, about her whereabouts when she was supposed to be in my classroom.  I’m not sure what Jezebel wants to do for the rest of her life because she’s skipped every block in this unit.  In fact, she’s skipped every class since the afternoon I pulled her out into the hallway and attempted a heart-to-heart with her about the application of the saying, “Beauty is more than skin deep.” Like adolescent me, she’s discovered she can use her wit, charm, looks, and smarts to deliver results… but she’s testing the limits beyond toeing the line.

Unlike me, she didn’t have that one essential component in her childhood picture: a Bible.  When I was in high school, I struggled to be good.  After my grandfather died, I inherited his Bible.  While I was uncovering the path I wanted to pursue for my future, I started each morning with daily quiet times with that Bible and dozens of prayer journals.  I felt beautiful, not because I was a size four without an inch of fat to pinch, but because despite as many major failures as journals, I still woke up every morning and set my mind, again, on the right path.  I knew forgiveness, and the reflection in the mirror was pleasing.

I see who Jezebel is now.   Her writing scores are off the charts.  Given the right mentoring, she could pursue a future as a journalist.  Her ability to use her words and assets to influence people could find profitability in a rewarding career.  It’s why I pulled her aside that last time I saw her before the prom.  Jezebel is captivating, but I’m worried about the condition of her heart and how that might negatively influence the path she chooses for her life.

At the prom with Charming, I didn’t feel beautiful.  It wasn’t out of comparison, though the disparities between my post-thirty curves and their teenage perfection might have made me rethink bringing my boyfriend.  For me, feeling beautiful means I can look in the mirror and be happy with who I am, not what I see.  After a month of couple’s counseling and an intense session just that morning, I looked at my reflection and saw the impatience, the temper, the stubborn will.

It’s not pretty.  I want Jezebel to know what it looks like when the royal façade fades after midnight, when she’s alone with herself and the aftermath of her myriad poor decisions.  Perhaps another better suited might rise to mentor her character in the future, but I’m comforted by the cherished image of my childhood home, a place where I learned that beautiful was synonymous with the woman of Proverbs 31.

Beauty is more than skin deep.  It’s why I smile when I look at the green leaves of my vegetable garden.  The greatness to come is still in the ground.  That’s what pleases me.  Charming’s flowers can make me feel beautiful for a handful of moments, a reminder that he’s in the picture even when I can’t hold him in the frame.

But to smile when I look in the mirror, really smile, I need to see goodness.  Jezebel’s stunning prom attire didn’t make me smile.  Instead, I grieved for what she’ll miss if she continues on this rebellious path without intervention.  Mom and Dad intervened for me at every juncture.  They modeled that in the mirror, too.

I suppose I shouldn’t give up on Jezebel.  They didn’t give up on me.

I suppose I shouldn’t give up on me, either.  I’m growing.  Just green leaves right now, but I’m sensing there’s greatness to come, under the soil.  That at more than twice Jezebel’s age, I can still make plans about who I want to be when I grow up.

When You’re Not a Mother

I love my mother, but not Mother’s Day.  It comes every year.  I can set my biological watch by it.  Like the incremental changes in my garden that happen while I’m not looking, my dislike of the holiday that began as a small seed years ago now has deep roots and casts an even longer shadow.

Just like that biological clock that used to be contented to tick quietly in the background of my everyday routine got a figurative tech upgrade shortly after I hit thirty and now sounds an alarm every time I see a baby or a pregnant belly.  I’m not a person to hit snooze in the morning.  I set my alarm each night for the latest possible moment I can wake up and not be late.  That alarm sounds, and I hit the carpet running.

This biological alarm clock is different.  I never know when it’s going to go off, instantly generating a chain reaction, emotional and physiological, culminating in the irrevocable anxiety that I am late, that I’ve waited as long as I can, and that if I can’t fulfill this desire to have children, I need to figure out a way to dismantle that clock and get my sanity back.

As I sat in church with Charming up in Maryland on Sunday, I was grateful they didn’t make a big Mother’s Day show.   I noticed our friend who had miscarried this year was fighting tears, and I thought about how much harder this day must be for her.  My eyes scanned the room, and I wondered how many other women were sadder today than usual, saddled by their own maternal anxieties.   How many Mother’s Days have been hard for my mom since she lost her mother so many years ago?

Despite the possible associated discomfort of the holiday, each of us exists because a woman gave birth to us, and a woman gave birth to her, and the cycle continues.  I recall the reproduction unit in AP Biology as one of the most incredible miracles explained by science.  It was awe-inspiring the way my own existence had begun as one determined microscopic organism finding another.

My Bible app announced my verse for the day on Sunday as Proverbs 31:30.  The woman of Proverbs 31 is a legacy for me.  As a senior in high school, I wrote a biography of my mother’s mother, Theresa Rubbo, and the twenty-four page account was comprised of stories about Theresa that illustrated how she embodied those qualities and characteristics of the woman depicted in that chapter.  Now, I think of her every time I hear one of its verses quoted, remembering her as a woman of strength, fortitude, resilience, and faith though I never got to meet her.

I’ve been told that people can change things, but their character doesn’t change.  I think that character is more like the plants in my garden.  The changes are subtle, slow, and unnoticeable until a greater accumulation of the changes reveals something has grown.  What grows depends on what seed was planted in the first place.

Our character is shaped by what was first planted.  That forms the base, the foundation of our life’s greenhouse.  Envision rows of soil ready for planting commiserate with your birth.  Your parents sowed the first seeds.  For me, raised in a family who believed that if you train up a child in the way that he should go that he will not depart from it, my parents were intentional about what was planted.  They got to make choices, like what I listened to or watched and who I spent time with.

I worry about how my garden will fare when I’m in Italy next month.  I’ve invested time and money in those seeds that are now boasting potential for a hearty harvest, and I want to protect this life that grew because of me.  It’s a natural instinct.  My parents were raised by parents who were raised by parents who sowed similar seeds: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.  My mother exemplifies the qualities of the woman of Proverbs 31, as her mother before her, and no doubt her mother before her.

There is continuity in this cycle of nourishing the young generation, tending to the greenhouse of each child’s life to lay a foundation of growth in the areas that will be resilient to the incumbent weeds that will undoubtedly be planted beyond a parent’s influence.  When weeds pop up between my vegetables, I have a choice to let them grow or rip them out before they cause problems.  Character is maintained or altered by our response to the weeds in our life.

Sometimes, we let things grow, and over time, maybe even over generations, those weeds choke the fruit out of the garden.  In church on Sunday, I’m sure there were woman who were sad because their own seeds had not blossomed as they’d hoped and prayed.  After the service, we spent the afternoon with Charming’s family.  With his grandmother there and three generations of women represented, there was much to celebrate.  His mom showed me her garden and gave me a new flower to plant.  It occurred to me that Charming’s family lineage was a lot like mine, shaped by women of Proverbs 31, generations who would find freedom in faith and faithfulness.

I’d managed to smother the biological alarm clock most of the day, keeping it at bay as though nearby under a throw pillow, until his father shared a gift with a quote about how a family was like a tree.  I excused myself to the other room.  I might have actually muttered aloud that I hated Mother’s Day first though (sorry, Mama Charming). I sat on the stairs in the house where Charming grew up, his family’s voices drifting through the foyer.  I wished I had my journal.  I closed my eyes.

I saw a tree.  Not an oak.  Black lines on white paper.  My great-grandparents names linked together, like Maximilliano Tosetto and Michael Palma, men who wrote Italian hymns together, who would come to be connected by their daughter and son’s marriage.  I see that even though Grandma Theresa died before I knew her, there’s a line from her to my mother and another to me that connects us still.

This is why I keep weeding my garden, year after thirty-four years.  We might reap what we sow, but we sow what we reap as well.  My grandmother’s character shaped my mother’s character in those early years where she had the greatest opportunity to plant the right seeds and control my nourishment and environment so that I could thrive.

I want something good to grow from me.  My brothers’ names are each connected to a woman’s, and their names are connected to children.  I pray that my name won’t remain alone, that God will grant me the desires of my heart and allow me the honor of carrying on the Palma family legacy, to be a part of that generational cycle – a story of strength of character, iron sharpening iron spanning centuries.

When something beautiful grows, we notice.  I loved surveying all of Charming’s mother’s pots of beauty, noting her choices in what she’d planted and why.  I’m grateful for her intentionality in what she sowed in Charming as a young boy.  His inscription on his family tree is marked by a familiar theme, good fruit planted in good soil.

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Connections and Cul-de-Sacs

Try to isolate a thought.  It’s warm.  It will be summer soon.  I’m going to Italy.  Then what?  I’ll keep writing on Tuesdays, in Italy, too?  Maybe I’ll write a book.  About what?  That’s the chaotic freedom I’m starting with tonight, ideas bouncing around in my cranium, trying to land on some synapse of revelation that will settle my single nerves and quiet subconscious debates.

My new couple’s counselor says that women’s brains are like spaghetti and men’s are like waffles.  Men compartmentalize life into separate depositories; asked a question, and they pull up the right square.  Ask a woman a question, and she’ll start with the first thought at one end of the strand and trace it back until it leads to the answer somewhere in the entree.  He’d asked us to forgive the gender stereotyping, but the glass slipper fits me and Charming.  My mom and dad and my brother P.J. and his wife can also wear the metaphorical shoe.

I like Dr. Huff.  He explains communication concepts in analogies, and I process them the same way.  While I think Charming might prefer a clearer, more direct path in our sessions, there is something inherently logical in what amounts to purposeful meandering – not digressions, simply cul-de-sacs that bring us back on track eventually.   Dr. Huff had introduced the brain analogy in our first session, and it’s since been unraveling a strand in my Italian mind.

Here’s an immediate illustration.  My neighbor just dropped by to say hello.  I was irritated by the interruption to my writing.  I thought of all the times he’d seemed unaware of appropriate social cues (running to the door, arms full of groceries, in the middle of mowing the yard) and worried about how to curb this conversation without hurting his feelings, which has also happened before.   Then he told me he’d trimmed a hedge for me.  My mood self-corrected, shifting appropriately to gratitude and entertaining a few more minutes of conversation though my fingers were begging me to return to this particular dish of pasta.  Now, he’s gone.  Phew.

And because my brains are like spaghetti, I connect this interruption to my writer’s train of thought, witnessing the evolution of my own emotions as they corresponded to different parts of that short encounter:  irritation, worry, gratitude, tapered impatience as my neighbor stood beside my impatiens, and now relief.  In the span of three minutes, my mind had wandered back to every uncomfortable exchange we’ve had in the past two and a half years, including him questioning Charming at a recent visit.  My immediate response to my neighbor is the product of tracing a strand back through time.

My perception of reality, then, is shaped by an assortment of varied memories and knowledge, stored in regions of my mind that mimic an inner-city grid with lots of inconvenient one-way streets where red lights often dictate when I opt to turn right in the hopes to reach my destination faster.  That is the present.  That is the organized chaos of the purposeful meanderings as I process, still hoping to unearth that synapse of meaning.

The past seems more like a grand road trip marked by varied road and terrain.  It has a traceable, finite path.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  When I agreed to create a slide show to honor PJ’s completion of his doctoral program at his graduation party last weekend, I was excited to spend a week back in time as I created, cataloging PJ’s journey that preceded this accomplishment.  From nearly two hundred photos Mom had scanned, I began planning.  The pictures were organized chronologically into folders of different eras.  An hour in, and I knew this was going to be a much bigger project than just pairing music and pictures.

There was a story here.  Between the pictures, I could practically hear verses of scripture.  And so PJ’s story began with the text, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3).  It was followed by my narration of PJ’s journey, his path, scriptures interjected to reflect God’s providential hand in shaping the story told by pictures of PJ at every juncture and every cul-de-sac, his triumphs and injuries, his milestones and waiting rooms.

By the time I reached the final segment, the present, I’d exhausted my inventory of photos.  I poured over PJ’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, and I settled on the title of his dissertation: From a band of Immigrants to a Global Movement: A Century of Italian American Pentecostalism.  The right synapse fired, and I thought of who the immigrants were, like my great-grandparents and their parents, and I thought about the role they all played in the movement, particularly their leadership and their children’s leadership in the Italian Pentecostal movement, established as the Christian Church of North America (CCNA).

The conclusion for the video tribute unraveled.  My voice wavered noticeably as I recorded in my living room that final section.  Over screenshots of his publications and celebratory posts followed by a map of the world covered by photos of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, I said, “All the while, Paul was unraveling the thread of his work, his ministerial calling.  God’s path for PJ’s life became a passionate undertaking: tracing the paths of his ancestors, entering his grandfathers and great-grandfathers into the annals of the written history of the movement through which they spread the gospel.”

I had almost made sense of the spaghetti, but I had to come back to the original thought: that first verse I opened with.  I counted the purposeful meandering of my brother’s life as blessings.  I saw direction and incredible progress.  I saw success and well-deserved pride as PJ watched that video, seemingly surprised to hear the words I’d recorded in the silence of my home.  I saw him smile as he listened to my final words, accompanied by photographs of our family together.

“Children are a heritage, and Paul would be the son who would grow to uncover a legacy of faith and faithfulness, the path that brought forth a family with generations of children who were trained up to walk closely with the Lord and did not depart from it.  The cycle continues with a path that always leads to the Cross.”

And as I watched PJ watch this tribute, with his parents, children, and friends around him, I heard my words echoing through Papa Ciccio’s banquet hall, sounding over the twins playing corn hole.  There was a family tree in that room, and I could see it superimposed over the scene.  All these shoots, all connected, and then there was me.  And the tree ended.

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Oh.  I sigh.  I breathe.  I unearthed that synapse of revelation attempting to settle my single nerves and quiet subconscious debates.  There are no shoots of growth connected to me.  I fit in context to my parents and brothers directly, my nieces and nephews and sisters-in-law indirectly.  No one has entered my family tree because of me.  Well, that’s not exactly true, but some digressions aren’t productive.

I catalogued the journeys of my parents’ children and the beginnings of PJ’s children.  I’d chronicled God’s path, the legacy in a lineage who believes that if you train up a child in the way the he should go, he will not depart from it.  I am grateful for the legacy preceding me, but I don’t want to just be a part of that family.

I want to be a part of the cycle.  I want the interruption of children at play.  I don’t want my line in the Palma family tree to end with me.  Is it greed?  Is it envy?  No, that’s too easy.  This desire to be fruitful and multiply is God given.  It is not inspired by worldly merit or earthly gain.

I don’t want my legacy of faith and faithfulness to end with me.  I wonder what question Dr. Huff would ask after that cul-de-sac.  See the spaghetti?  Italian food for thought, boiled until firm realization, seasoned with reflective spice, and garnished in gender generalization.  But it makes sense to me.

Poor Charming!  His brain makes better sense of brunch than Italian, according to Dr. Huff.  There’s probably another analogy to unpack, but every therapy session needs to end before more progress can be made on that path so these present one-way streets can seem purposeful in hindsight.

When It’s Write, It’s Right

When it’s the right person, sometimes you just know.  I wouldn’t call it love at first sight.  It’s more like at first knowing, after witty banter and candid conversation reveal a steady foundation where you’d like to build your home.  It’s like a garden bed fertilized and ready for planting.  You see the potential for growth, and you want to see what will bloom.

Charming and I met with an experienced psychologist this weekend down in Virginia Beach.  His credentials were impressive, but that wasn’t what piqued my interest.  I’d read deep into his qualifications and zeroed in on his background in both secondary schools and the military.  He’d also led the married couple’s Bible study at his church for thirty years.  If I was looking for rich soil to zero in on improving communication, this was promising ground.

And when it’s the right person, sometimes you just know.  We’d been fortunate my persistence had been deemed endearing rather than high-maintenance.  Though I got the distinct impression as the president and founder he did not typically see clients on Saturdays, he agreed to a morning appointment.  I’d already decided how we’d spend the rest of the day, eating lunch at an Italian place nearby and then lying out on the beach and walking the Boardwalk.

When we left his office, I had hope.  The session was somewhat formulaic, and Charming and I took turns answering questions.  There was an order that resonated with me.  I trusted his method.  I think he’s the right person at the right time for the right purpose… just what I’d been praying for.  Charming might need a little more time to come to that conclusion, but he’s usually a few steps behind.

I imagine that might make it hard to lead in a relationship.

I should write that one down in my new journal with the butterflies, selected specifically to track the course of transformation in my relationship with Charming.  What I didn’t realize is how much writing about us would teach me about myself.  When we debriefed over pizza after the session, I wished I hadn’t forgotten that journal at home.  And later at the beach, since I’d forgotten my book as well, I laid back, closed my eyes, and thought of the progress I had made in the last week.

This wasn’t my beach.  Fort Monroe is my beach.  Two years ago, my friends Angel and Kyle and I went there every week all summer long.  Since then, more often than not, I go alone.  Spring brought with it warm temperatures and glistening waters with longer days that let me sneak off three nights last week to climb out on the rocks and write.  In my favorite spot, the sun sets behind me until I can no longer read the Prom-posal spray painted on a boulder, potentially by a former student of mine.

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One of my best tips for my kids this week in our “How to Write Poetry” lesson was to go outside where you can see and hear and feel and be inspired.  At the end of the lesson, I put my money where my mouth was and took them outside to Warrior Park to try writing a new poem.  Though I circulated throughout the students perched at picnic tables or beneath the shade of trees, few really needed me.  I’d pumped them with a myriad of potential strategies.  The heat of the sun on my skin matched the glow in my proud smile as I saw that same sun turned into a metaphor of the angry ex-girlfriend in one of my student’s budding poem.

One of my suggestions for inspiration was that these adolescents identify and name their three biggest struggles.  Which one, if they could overcome it, would most improve their lives?  A mature young man in my last block class responded to this by sharing a poem he had just written.  His classmates and I were on the edges of our seats.  We could relate to his personal struggle, and we could mutually appreciate the intentionality in diction and phrasing that put it on par with the poets in our textbooks.

His brave willingness to be vulnerable with the rest of us built the confidence of his peers in equal measure to my lesson on how to write poetry.  I wasn’t stingy with my own vulnerability, either.  Modeling is essentially.  Halfway through this lesson, I always share the story of how I became a writer.  It’s not supposed to be expository or entertaining.  It’s supposed to be inspiring.

I was sixteen, a sophomore, just like them.  I’d had my heart broken for the first time.  A teacher found me who was the right person at the right time for the right purpose, and she built my confidence.  Mrs. Shelton saw a foundation she was willing to invest in because she saw rich soil that, with the right combination of modeling, instruction, and time would potentially yield a harvest.  She challenged me to write about that break-up from every perspective, using my raw teenage emotion to unveil the most significant truth: I was a writer.

And a writer is something you can be no matter what career you pursue.  Today, I had three students seek me out to show me what they’d worked on since our last class.  I know I have to prepare them for their end of course testing and ensure they meet all standards, but my discipline affords me the freedom to encase those reading and writing goals within a framework that aims to shape their identity and their perceptions of the world around them.

The majority of my students this year are writing about real, raw issues in surprisingly good verse.  I think of poetry as a weight loss aid that boasts in bold print: “Most effective with proper diet and exercise.”  Kids can arrange some words in rhyming stanzas, and we tolerate it as poetry because they tried.  For me, if that’s the kind of writing my students are producing a month into this unit, then I haven’t done my job.

If poetry is going to be effective at helping my kids shed their mis-perceptions and chip away at the weight of their emotional baggage, they need diet and exercise.  In essence, I fully believe in a sixteen-year-old’s ability to write good poetry, even if he wasn’t a writer before this unit. Before me.  Like I wasn’t a writer before Mrs. Shelton.  Simply telling them to write a poem is like handing them seeds without a shovel.  They need the tools to do something creative with poetry, blooming potential exponential.  They need to grapple with published authors, analyze and reflect, discuss it, throw the terms around.  These kids in my last block class took this seriously, and now they’re surprising themselves at the way alliteration and similes are easily forming alongside their thoughts.

I think for me, I need to view counseling as a similar weight loss aid, not meant to replace independent efforts, but rather to help Charming and I shed some of the weight of our own emotional baggage and see results faster; I think there’s fine print that it’s also most effective when paired with diet and exercise. The work we’ll do in those sessions will lead to strategies, change, and improvement.

But for me, it was the time at Fort Monroe beach while the sun was setting that seemed the best tool to make the counseling yield a higher potential for success for us and for me.  After attempting to summarize our first session objectively, I read over the freshly inked pages.  I was able to identify four issues.  I named each, one at a time, following the recognition with action steps that I could take on my own.  Six pages in and I could see how even at thirty-four, the act of owning a problem still strips it of its power.  I’ve even got a bullet-point game plan for tackling my temper.

We chip away at the unwanted parts of our lives so often unproductively, simply fashioning our thoughts into rhyming quatrains and calling it poetry when there are tools at our disposal – teachers, counselors, and our own willingness to dig deep and get dirty – that can bring a sixteen-year-old boy to find he’d battled his demon in the written world.  He’s more than blooming.  He’s blossoming.

Those same tools brought a sixteen-year-old girl to discover there was power in the written word, and for her, it would become her most cherished companion.  And that companion seems inspired by Fort Monroe beach, too.   There’s fertile soil in that sunset, and we grow there.