Truth, Lies, Doubt

Today didn’t turn out like I expected it to.  It’s not raining, but it should be.  The humid air suffocates the sweet summer sounds, weighing on my fingers, as heavy as the burden of the truth.  The seaglass sky, absent streaks of sunset, deepens to periwinkle clouds pregnant with doubt that the rains will cool us off tonight.  I’m writing in the hot seat anyway, so the nape of my neck doesn’t mind the beads of sweat.

I’ve aimed the last few days of summer vacation into creating necessary closure related to my broken engagement.  It’s been more than two months since our epic post-prom break up, the details of which aren’t suitable blogging material.  Maintaining a public forum where I write about my life equates a willingness to be vulnerable.  When I dig myself deep into a pit and have to claw my way out, my weekly writing nights force me to take inventory of all aspects of myself.

I can’t pen everything that’s happened over the past two months into the annals of my blog; I’ve committed to honesty, and it’s difficult to be authentic while trying to respect others’ privacy.  I write to find the truth, and when I stumble into a plot twist, riding it out in the wrong direction, it’s usually here that that unwritten discovery is made. My life’s missteps are most clear to me when I know I can’t write openly about them without hurting others or myself.

Given the nature of our long distance relationship, I am not going to run into any of my ex’s friends or family any time soon.  Those closest to us who were privy to the whole sordid affair are entitled to brand me with a scarlet letter, question my narrative, and ultimately write me off.  My family wasn’t so lucky, bound by blood and love ties.  I found quickly two months ago that since it was my deception that caused the ever widening gyre between us, and nobody including me was ready to jump into twister to sort through all the spinning perceptions to find the actual truth, that I wasn’t strong enough to fight for anything but getting myself back up to make a way forward for myself.  I let them go spiraling instead.

The bluish-purple clouds are indistinguishable from the night’s sky now.  Periwinkle used to be my favorite color.  I wasn’t lying when I claimed that in my youth.  I didn’t know it would change.  In making concessions to close doors on my latest failed relationship, truth and lies make strange bedfellows with doubt.    Favorite colors are fickle phases for kids, but favorite people carry much stronger responsibilities; when your favorite people sow seeds of doubt, the repercussions will come.  Like the sky when I sat down to write, just desperate to let go of all the clouds are holding onto, the storm will be real… and it is still only just brewing.

On Saturday, I opened the closure attempts by sitting through the familiar traffic near Fredericksburg on 95 to spend the day in Old Town Alexandria.  It was the set for my Hallmark movie romance with Charming, and if ever I was to discover I’d made the wrong choice, maybe it would happen on the Riverfront.  I made myself sit in places we had been.  I ate Bugsy’s pizza.  I remembered all of our incredible memories, all the Saturday routines on King Street.  I sat on the edge of the dock and looked out at the Ferris wheel across the ocean and remembered dozens of adventures.  I did love him, and we were happy.  It was true for a long time, but my smile in our pictures from down by the water had been mostly half true since late last spring.

I was comforted by the memory of amazing days with an amazing man, and I was also reassured that the seeds of doubt began a long time ago.  I was also proud of myself for facing all of our special places, trying to somehow honor the relationship by paying respects, mentally apologizing to the rocks where I used to read him G.K. Chesterton stories.  It didn’t feel good, but the hurt was a peaceful one.  I was still on the docks watching the Ferris wheel spin others round and round, and I was grateful to be still.

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In the dark on the drive home, it stormed so badly you couldn’t see the lines on the road and each swish of water threatens to make cars hydroplane and collide.  And if I write responsibly about that night, my ability to avoid pronouns would allow me to tell the truth as I am willing to reveal it without divulging other details I’m not sure how to write into my public narrative yet, perhaps because in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are more weighty writing battles for me to face.

That is why I write it.  I would admit to any fault if charged.  I’ve learned to own my personal season of being the villain for people in real life while maintaining my one-hundred-seventy-some Tuesday nights of writing through tragedy and joy: because it’s in my brokenness where the silent see a light for themselves even if I might be missing that in the periwinkle dusk or a fierce highway downpour.  I had said goodbye to Alexandria, and I woke up in my little home in Hampton.  That afternoon, someone I respect greatly shared that I had become one of her favorite authors.  The compliment struck me such that honored isn’t a powerful enough sentiment. To be a source of solace and hope to one human being while knowing the pain and discord others have felt is equally as sobering as the spinning Ferris wheel.

The closure continued this week as I finalized engagement gift returns, trying to rectify a mess of geographical proportions while experiencing the appropriate feelings of guilt and shame as I reached out to people I’ll likely never see again, who are justified to feel as they feel, but each of whom gave me greater gifts in how they lived their lives, people I genuinely miss.  One mentioned she still reads my blog, and it gives me some solace and hope that there is life after the scarlet letter.

I love to write, but I never imagined being a favorite author.  There have been a lot of nights this past year I didn’t want to face the readers to whom I was giving an unhappy ending.  I heard it said once that the truth may hurt for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.  In the midst of gift return conversations today, I discovered a wealth of ongoing lies and betrayals, now more than two months’ deep.  Born of love and good intentions, deception cleans up nicely.  Those who believe in karma might be satisfied by the plot’s iconic irony.  My gym mentor Chuck tried to reframe the situation with one of his original one-liners that left me speechless.

“Doubt is the liar that never gets the truth.”

People sow seeds of doubt in half truths, or by avoiding specifics.  Writer’s do it to, though I’d like to commit tonight to living a life I can write about publically without causing pain to some and inspiration to others.  We control perception with our words.  I’ve heard too many versions of the truth to want to jump back into that gyre again.  I don’t blame anyone else for fleeing the scene because I know how hard it is to face someone after they find out you’ve been lying to them.

In reality, in the moment I am in right now, I think there’s too much doubt to ever get the truth, and maybe it’s best to let the pursuit of it go.  My current perception is only real now.  In a month, I might see this truth differently.  It’s human nature to explain how things worked out for the best in retrospect, after that other door has already opened.  Maybe it’s time to start writing the book I can’t blog about, now, before the ending comes about and I see all of this differently.  I don’t want the doubt time’s shadow will cast to affect the perceived narrative.  I messed up, and I’m starting over.  And I’m going to be okay, even if some of those favorite people don’t believe in me now.  I’ve got to find a better ending, because the broken engagement was a plot twist that threw us all, but I’m still writing a story with this life of mine from this white wicker love seat in Hampton.

The Perfect Ending

Summer came after the hardest winter I can remember, and with it June, and now July is wasting away.  In a few weeks, my shed will breathe a sigh of relief as ten years of teaching storage finds new life in a new classroom across the water.  Hampton’s salty tears drip-drip an archetypical anthem from the gutters.  The rain had to end before it could start again.  Is the same true for me?

A week of scattered showers reminds us all of the futility of making plans during hurricane season.  Still, every teacher knows she needs to make the most of that staple summer staycation.  On Sunday, my car showed up at the beach ready for surf and sun just as the sky open down-poured. At first, I was disappointed that my discounted bikini wouldn’t make a debut, but as the sun set, I burrowed into comforting pastimes.

In the kitchen cabinets, I found farfalle pasta, sweet peas, and enough of the right ingredients to whip up a chicken alfredo dish that delighted my taste buds.  Before I could cook, however, I had to fix the shelf that had broken beside the refrigerator. And then I realized how much more efficient the workflow of the kitchen would be if the contents of that cabinet were moved to another, and so began an impromptu kitchen makeover that has already proved to invite me back to prepare a few new dishes this week.  Mundane, right?  I was alone for a few hours, moving and cooking, but a familiar voice in my head kept coaching me along, unwittingly.

My mom would tell us stories about how my grandfather would bring unannounced guests over for dinner in their parish beside the church, and Grandma Theresa would take whatever items she could find in the cupboards and whip up a gourmet meal.  I never got to meet my mother’s mom, but her daughter raised me with three brothers and untold volumes of unannounced guests who perhaps shared more meals around our dinner table than with their own families, at times.  Food goes with family.  Family starts in the kitchen.  Love is the secret ingredient that makes each meal seem worthy of a restaurant review.  I learned these life lessons along with the secrets to preparing food on a budget, on a deadline, and on the spot.  I never questioned her cooking counsel.  It was scripture.

And like those Bible verses I memorized in grade school AWANA days, Mom’s advice still bubbles over while I’m checking to see if the pasta is al dente, having boiled salted water with a bay leaf just like she did for innumerable Sunday dinners all my life.  In fact, when my family helped me moved into my rented bungalow four years ago, Mom set up the kitchen.  For four years, I never questioned it.  But a lot changed in four years, and now that I’ve taken up a new hobby experimenting with new recipes every day, I’m spending time in that room.  I know why everything was where it was, but it stopped being functional, and there isn’t enough nostalgia to be impractical about such things.  It was time for a change.

Ready to be off my feet and enjoy the storm, I cut on the best alternative to Hallmark movies without cable television: The Good Witch is the type of wholesome entertainment my family would have invariably huddled up around on those worn, burgundy couches with the black bear stool with spots worn in just for Dad’s feet.  Those who know me well aren’t surprised I turned to my grand puzzle collection, but they might be shocked at my ability to break my own cardinal rule.  I put away the unfinished Cinderella puzzle I was working on when Charming and I broke up.  It was antithetical to the purpose of relaxation to punish myself putting together the pieces of a picture that won’t be realized in any way that matters.  Then, I opened another Thomas Kinkade original and started over.

My approach is systematic, like everyone else who starts by piecing together the edge pieces to form the puzzle frame, only I don’t look at the cover after taking the pieces out of the box.  Until the border is there, nothing has a place.  I’d turned over all 750 pieces and fashioned the frame just as the current episode of my drama was coming to an end.  The ground, the sky, the water… I could see just enough to know what the completed picture would be.  Sadly, that’s as far as I’d gotten with the Cinderella puzzle before I stowed it away prematurely.  Mom would always take time out to join me in a puzzle zone-out, but I know she preferred to be doing.  It was enough for her to see the border and believe the final picture would turn out right, provided there were no missing pieces.  In a way, she provided the theoretical scaffolding for my entire existence, believing essentially the same thing about how all the parts of my life would come together, about the picture the end of the puzzle would reveal.

It was my picture.  Granted, if Mom’s life had been a Hallmark movie, then the story I wanted to write with my life either had major copyright infringements or would need to be dubbed a remake of an old favorite, like the Star Wars trilogy.  In fourth grade, I had already decided I would be a teacher married to a professional with kids at the same age intervals my mom made each milestone.  Those would be my milestones, after all.  By the time my mother was my age, she already had three children and a house and a neighborhood Bible study.  I look in the mirror and my thirty-five year old smile lines chuckle at the size two waist, unadulterated by pregnancy, the Italian childbearing hips purposeless in that discount bikini I didn’t get to wear this weekend.

I had a picture in mind when I started this puzzle of my life.  Mom was with me when I put together the edge pieces and fashioned a frame where everything would fit.  I never look at the cover after I take the pieces out.  The life jigsaw puzzle metaphor struggles when I consider the fact I never had the center pieces to begin with… that I didn’t know what pieces would be missing from the start… that I never considered that like my kitchen cabinets after four years, that the picture might need changing, too.

Sunday night, after reorganizing, cooking, and placing the final edge piece, I watched the wholesome mother read the last page of a book to her child in bed.  The good witch’s daughter is speechless for a moment, then whimsically exhales, “That was the perfect ending.”  The salty tears that stirred could have rivaled the storm outside before I was even cognizant of the cause.  Mom and I had a perfect ending in store for my life, and it didn’t happen.  I’m starting over in a new job, and that means the old one had to end first.  It didn’t end perfectly, but the story still owns its ending.

It hasn’t started raining again yet, but it will, and I’ll plan to change plans when necessary.  On Thursday, the weather cooperated enough for my brother’s kids to celebrate their birthday at Busch Gardens.  The twins are finally tall enough to ride Grover, the Sesame Street roller coaster.  Tessa grabbed my hand to be her riding partner.  Theresa is her grandmother’s namesake, but Tessa fits her four year old feistiness better.  We rode twice, and I couldn’t stop laughing at her excitement.  Between cries and shrieks and giggles, I could make out a repeated phrase: “I was so scared.”

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With that huge smile lighting up her tiny face, you’d never believe Tessa was scared.  She was ecstatic after the ride was over.  Tessa and I didn’t get on that roller coaster to find the perfect ending.  Even after experiencing fear, she was right back in line to do it again.  The journey, its twists and turns, its ups and downs, took Tessa through a range of emotions, and if I judged a rollercoaster’s quality like I do that of a storybook, I would miss the point.  There is no perfect ending for a roller coaster.  It stops, and the rider remembers the journey.

Charming and I rode the bigger coasters last year.  Tessa asked at family dinner tonight when she was going to see him again.  I looked into those light eyes that just days ago glimmered with glee and faced her sadness with grown up words she understood.  I truly am sorry for the unfinished puzzle.

Food goes with family, but now that I’m alone in the kitchen, it’s time for a creative makeover to that perfect ending, Thomas Kinkade, storybook picture of my life.  If I discover there is only one silhouette in the frame, where will I find my legacy?

Four Days

Four days ago, I didn’t get married.  I’m not on my honeymoon in Europe en route to set up life in Germany.  The familiar cacophony of crickets and nocturnal creatures soothes and settles my soul on my writing perch.  I can count on this worn love seat cushion to boost me even when I don’t want to write.  Compared to our epic, broken plans, four days of everyday life seem too simple, too ordinary.

Try though I might, I can’t recall a sincere acquaintance with another woman who has walked where I am walking.  Cancelling vendors in the OBX was the easy part.  Strangers aren’t entangled with any heart strings.  This week makes two months since I broke Charming’s heart, crushed my family’s hopes for that perfect happily ever after, and discovered I was simply a day late signing my continuing contract and would need to find a new home to continue my teaching career… fate’s attempt at comic relief, perhaps.  Everything changed that week, and I’m honestly still adjusting.

This relationship, almost three years deep, was my personal last attempt at the traditional happily ever after.  Two months of thinking time has helped me understand myself in reflective summer solitude, and it’s a bit of grace to have the space to consider who I am and how I got here.  Somehow, regardless of how intentional I have been about making plans, there’s a part of my brain that is still waiting for life to begin – that life with the house and kids and sporting events and play practices to shuffle kids between each night.  My ovaries are no longer in their prime;  maybe I am destined to be an old maid like my aunt Esther, as I can already see the way all these years of independence have only served to make me less practiced at compromise and flexibility.

Last week was emotionally charged , and that’s too be expected.  A date only wields as much power as we let it, but knowing the former love of my life was still sailing down to the OBX with his friends as we’d planned and not an ocean away took a natural toll on my conscious meanderings. When I received an invitation to a friend’s birthday party the same night as my wedding reception would have been, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go… but I need to start living the life I’ve got and stop waiting for an imaginary one with kids and white picket fence… so I volunteered instead to run a photo booth for a Harry Potter themed party.  It was a welcomed distraction that began four days of intentionally living, of trying to figure out how to make an impact with my life without leaving a legacy with children.

Saturday was Day 1.  I am just a little too old to have fully engrossed myself in the later novels of the Harry Potter series, so I brushed up watching a few of the recent movies and chose to attend the party as Luna Lovegood, a solid blonde fit for the night.  A quick visit to Good Will yielded me all the necessary costumes and props for under fifteen bucks, and several hours of crafty creativeness completed the look.  I’d broken out the jewelry kit to make Luna’s iconic blue-beaded cork necklace and radish earrings.  While I labored, I thought about all the bracelets I’d made Grams before she passed this year, and I remembered how Charming’s friends’ children loved playing with the colorful beads last fall.  I wonder if I’ll ever see any of them again.

The pictures came out incredible. It didn’t take long to realize why I had thrown myself into pulling off a photo booth even though my heart wasn’t in it, and why I’d enjoyed the bonus diversion of creating an authentic costume.  After the excitement wore off, I found myself escaping to the front porch for a cry that I felt was warranted.  The death of a good relationship with a great man should be mourned, even if the picture that was developed looks different from the one we had taken so long ago.

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On Sunday, I recovered from the late night snapping photos with an early breakfast date with my friend Kimmy.  Day 2 of living intentionally revealed itself in the setting of a hole in the wall diner near the Norfolk airport.  I’d hoped to visit her down in the Outer Banks since she kept her vacation plans after the wedding was cancelled, but I’d overestimated my ability to change my wheel bearings.  Apparently, an oil change is my current expertise level cut-off with my budding mechanical skills, and I gave it a solid effort.  It wasn’t wise to travel, and perhaps it was best I didn’t visit our former wedding location on that date that still holds so much power.

For two hours, we chatted more than we ate and ignored the growing post-church crowds to enjoy a heart to heart.  Kimmy’s life looks like the one I’d planned when I was young, like the one I would have had if I had always made the right choices for the right reasons.  Her firefighter husband was her first love in high school, and they have two incredible children, one almost school-aged and the newest an adopted, adorable addition to their suburban home.  We were just kids ourselves when we bonded on that study abroad trip to Spain in college.  Now, we can go months without talking, and I still feel like I did when we said goodbye at the airport in Nashville after living together in a foreign country… this woman is one of my favorite people in the world.

The last time I’d seen Kimmy, Charming and I had visited her during our summer road trip two years ago.  I’d told her then that he was the one, that I was sure.  In any event, we had a lot to catch up on.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing anyone else in the diner Sunday morning.  It was just two old friends being honest about where our lives have taken us, if the journey is passive.  The day before had come and gone with little attention to the significance of associated broken relationship, broken plans, and broken hearts.  There was no fear with Kimmy.  I told her all the good and bad choices I’d made recently, and it didn’t cheapen the quality of the hug before her flight back to Ohio.  The night before, I’d put myself out there to serve others, and it felt good to give a gift like that.  It felt equally good to be broken and honest with another human about the worries about the worst parts of who I am and still part ways confident that her love for me doesn’t waver.

Monday, yesterday, was my third day of intentional living. My aunt’s Jamaican curry chicken and rice and peas is a favorite dish of mine, so much so that preparing it myself made it on my bucket list.  The recipe requires significant preparation, so I began the night before, soaking the kidney beans in water overnight like my aunt suggested five years ago when she taught me how to make it in her kitchen after I’d left my ex-husband.  They have four boys, and though grown, Josh was around that visit to give me the best bit of advice he had for getting through a tough spot: wake up every day starting by recognizing at least one thing that you’re thankful for, that this attitude of gratitude was more than rhetorically pleasing.

While I cubed the chicken and rubbed in the seasoning, I thought about Josh, about the past five years, about my aunt’s years of raising kids and all the memories visiting them down in Florida.  I thought about how I’d been living, the past thirty-five years, how I’d already been living while I was waiting for life to begin, and that even though Charming wasn’t there to see me cross this item off my list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties, and even though the top two items on my list are no longer realistic or evident, I am living life.  I followed the recipe expertly, and the tender morsels of curry chicken paired with the texture of the rice and bell peppers pleased my tongue.  I wanted to call my mom to tell her about my success in the kitchen, but I reminded myself that intrinsic reward comes from me.

Today was day four of living life intentionally, as my little twin nieces celebrated their fourth birthday.  They are the reason that I moved here in the first place, and since things with Charming got serious, I feared the moment when my presence at Tuesday night family dinners would no longer be the norm.  Tonight’s was double the fun, and watching Kat and Tessa unsuccessfully resisting the urge to lick the frosting from my cake before dinner just made me laugh.  I’m the aunt, after all, not the mother.  For four years, these two tiny humans have given me more joy than I can put into words, and I’m grateful today and every day that I get to watch them grow up, bake them more cakes, and buy them more shoes to wear out in six months.

Two birthdays, a reunion, and a bucket list meal.  Those were my last four days.  Four days ago, I didn’t get married.  Instead, I hosted a photo booth for a friend’s party, reconnected with an old bestie on a breakfast date that soothed the soul, made Auntie Cherry’s legendary curry and rice and actually got it right, and giggled with my brother’s goofy, growing kids over dinner, cake, and presents for a few hours.

Life doesn’t look like what I thought it would right now, but the ordinary, everyday, mundane life is truly good if you stop to take the time to be grateful for the people and experiences that mean you’re living now, today… not waiting for a happily ever after storybook style that might not ever come.  It’s just four days, so far, but my white wicker love seat will tell what comes next.

Freedom to Fly

I finally took down the calendar I made Charming for Christmas, laden with photos of us and our family and friends with special dates marked. It’s just four days from the overlapping ring graphic that mocks our broken engagement. Many of those calendar faces are still adventuring together in the OBX as planned during the week prior to our dream wedding. My family still took a vacation together, they just didn’t invite me. July is the same; I guess it’s me who changed.

My associations for Independence Day have grown beyond celebration of our nation alone to encompass a student whose heart for service and empathy for others earned her the pseudonym Snow White around the time she launched her blog during sophomore year. Her birthday is the 4th of July, and after four years in my classroom exuding national pride, I can’t see an American flag without thinking of Snow and her quest for freedom and independence in high school.

At this time last year, we’d just returned from Italy, and Snow was no doubt gleefully distributing all the gifts she’d picked out for her happy dwarves back in Hampton. Now, she’s enjoying her last summer before college… but there are no more school days ahead for me to enjoy that front row seat on Snow’s journey. In a decade of public education, over a thousand young, impressionable minds have been entrusted to me for ten month intervals. Beyond meeting curricular aims, I saw my place in Snow White’s life as a mentor with a responsibility to support and scaffold beyond poetic progress, though she saw that transpire in my classroom as well.

I found myself thinking about this new graduate last week while watching the fireworks over water from a rooftop in Newport News, simultaneously wondering if I’d ever see her spark up another heated debate over a hot topic that impassioned her. In her analysis of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” a couple of years ago, Snow White became the teacher, flushing out an empowering message of hope and healthy pride. She identified the common struggles of identify, worth, meaning, and belonging, and her words at sixteen were powerful enough to spark my mind during an expensive lightshow that faded to the background as I took a quick mental detour to celebrate the teenagers like Snow from my Yearbook staff that finally earned freedom from their four-year sentences and have untold futures to write without me.

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I ran into another of my students last week, though I’m pretty sure she had to do a double take to match my familiar white Honda with the blonde curls in the driver’s seat. Job interviews in neighboring districts the last couple of weeks have reminded me of the need to change my verbiage. Since I was getting married and moving to Germany, this was always going to be my last year at Kecoughtan. Still, I reference the way my department and school and district run in present tense. I’m not their teacher anymore. That part of my career ended, and I’m excited to start over in the fall and inherit a new team of Yearbook staffers for the next ten months. I was Snow White’s teacher for four years. She graduated. I changed schools. The other primary role I had, as her mentor, that responsibility never ends.

I know that because it’s July and I’m thinking about a young woman I chose to invest in who poured back into my life with her tenacity and resilience. She outgrew the worrisome sophomore woes and walked the stage a month ago with honors cords weighing down her neck, but it was still held high and proud. I think I found Snow White to be the most free and happy over the course of her high school quest when she began to accept criticism as constructive instead of blustering to self-defense. I saw it in a traditional example with her responses to my writing critiques. By the time she was ready to leave campus for the last time, Snow White believed in herself enough and trusted me enough to take feedback and make her work better. This 4th of July baby makes me proud to be an American, proud to be a teacher, and proud to be imperfect and vulnerable so others can grow along with me like they do with Snow, for ten months or four years or a lifetime.

Last year, we missed the fireworks, Charming and me, and maybe that was symbolic, so I was determined to watch a great show from that rooftop vantage point surrounded my new faces, maybe ones for next year’s homemade calendar. We were caravanning from a barbecue, and I started to get snippy when we couldn’t find parking right away. My friend called me out on it, saying, “Watch your tone, girl.” It was effective. My concern over being late to the fireworks wasn’t improved by a snippy comment about having left earlier, as I suggested.

My personal mission for the month of July is to find freedom from myself and my inherent ability to abuse the dangerous combination of a high IQ and a mastery of the rhetorical power of persuasion to explain things away. As an English teacher, I’m supposed to be good with words. Even my neighbor felt safe asking me for a second pair of eyes on a recent cover letter given my profession. My discipline requires me to mold malleable minds in a medium that’s flexible, promoting synthesis and analysis. In essence, if I’ve done my job, kids can make connections even between things that, at first glance, seem unrelated. I’ve been doing that for years in my blog, writing about life and my garden and finding an analogy in the resolution that comforts readers who weren’t sure my digressions would cement to meaning. I’m not worried, because my typing fingers always get there eventually.

If our dream wedding was still on, I’d be writing somewhere on the shore in the OBX tonight, bubbling over all the pre-day festivities as we made memories with friends and family. No, I’m not getting married, I’m not moving to Germany, and I’m not Snow White’s teacher anymore. So, who am I? Labels are efficient. If I’m targeting a certain protein intake, a nutrition label will quickly get me the information that I need to calculate. For a while, I used an app in my phone to track my diet and exercise, but eventually I gave up because cooking from scratch produces now barcode to scan. To determine actual nutritional value, I would have to manually add the quantity of each ingredient, or find something similar just to fill my daily eating log. Either way, the need to create a label is time consuming and finding a similar meal defeats the purpose of tracking my nutrition. I uninstalled the app about the same time I decided I preferred spending my team cooking and eating rather than calculating the nutritional content in those meals.

I stopped counting calories long ago. I still fit my wedding dress, though that doesn’t matter. There are some labels on that calendar I made for Christmas that will always matter, like Independence Day and my great aunt’s birthday, but taking down that calendar is necessary. I am not Charming’s wife. My family relationships are tenuous. In the freedom of the summer when I’m not a teacher, I get to dive deep into the life lessons I need to learn most, and I know the results won’t be as obvious as my metamorphosis from brunette to blonde, but I feel a little of the peace and happiness I saw in Snow White just before graduation when she believed in herself enough to see where constructive criticism could only make her better.

Labels are great when they work. Snow White wasn’t surprised when her writing mentor was diagnosed with ADHD last summer, but I was. For thirty-five years, I survived fine without the label, but I can recall at least a dozen times in the past year that I’ve cited my ADHD as an excuse for forgetting something. In fact, I remember worrying about spending a week’s vacation in the OBX prior to the wedding because I’m “not good away from home.” I likely would have excused snippy comments to being tired because I only sleep well in my own bed, or to having a headache because I forgot to take my medicine, or to a tummy ache because I was too worried about the centerpieces to eat.

In short, I’ve let labels become my crutches and excuses for bad behavior. I’ve only seen Snow White’s bad side a couple of times in the past four years, and even in an impassioned outburst, by her senior year, you’d never catch her blaming anyone or anything. She didn’t need to master manipulate words to convince herself and others that she was still a good person despite a misstep. At thirty-five, I guess I’m coming into my own senior year of self-esteem, where I can look at the fireworks from a rooftop in Virginia and smile over the abundance of sparks like Snow White that I’ve had the privilege of learning from over the past decade.

The furthest travel I’m doing this week is to Air Power Park to catch a Pokemon Go raid with friends. I’m not getting married. Instead, I’m using July to find the freedom to fly, unentangled by the labels I’ve allowed to tether me to should and oughts, ready to take responsibility for myself in my thirties like I did without question with the young minds entrusted to me to teach… and the ones who wind up teaching me.

Skills for Starting Over

It’s just the Third, this year.  Last year, I blogged on the Fourth of July, simply because it landed on a Tuesday.  I wasn’t engaged yet; I remember driving toward the water entangled in holiday traffic that kept us from seeing the fireworks at Fort Monroe in anything but the rear view mirror.  Priorities.  Expectations.  Responsibilities.  Compromises.  Relationships are full of these, but I remind myself I’m not engaged anymore.

There is another relationship, perhaps a more important relationship that I’ve neglected for some time, one cemented at birth with a familiar creature whose brunette roots are boasting the alpha gene as they creep up on sunny, beach waves that affirm me when I see my reflection in the mirror.  I started over. I started over at Wheaton College at eighteen – who needs to start over that young?  By eighteen, I’d already made enough beds that I had to lie in to need a clean slate.  I never noticed that before.

The cleanest slate is either birth or death, I can’t decide.  I’d factor in a wedding with the theme #ANewThing, but I’m not feeling particularly masochistic tonight. Grams passed nearly six months ago.  That stubborn will serves her well even from the grave, with her frugal, God-fearing advice and admonishments still alarming in my ears.  No, it’s not a whisper.  I miss her more today than other days.  Her declining battle with dementia in later years only further endeared her to me, and while I clung to lucid moments when I was certain she knew me, I was comforted by the simple fact that my presence warmed her heart.

My mother’s mother died long before I had the chance to benefit from her wise counsel.  Perhaps had she survived, the double teamed grandmother guidance might have found me married to Prince Charming in two week’s time.  Her younger sister stepped in to fill out the family portrait, and because it’s the Third of July and not the Fourth, it’s not just the birth of the next child in this generation of Palmas, but it’s the celebration of ninety years that Aunt Esther has walked a well-worn portion of the eastern coast.  Despite all her physical ailments, she took the time to write me an encouraging letter and remind me she is still praying for me.  Tonight when I called to share birthday wishes, she was overjoyed.

It had nothing to do with my call.  I could hear my excited parents in the background, keeping Aunt Esther company during her birthday dinner at the nursing home.  My youngest brother welcomed his second child into the world before the sun rose this morning, a girl this time, one who would share her birthday with Great, Great Aunt Esther, the two born exactly a decade shy of a century apart.  No matter how far removed, the greatness of connection in familial lineage doesn’t see degradation in strength or power.  At ninety, she probably sees the birth of this tiny new being differently than I do at thirty-five.

Can I start over again?  I have had too many second chances already.  After Wheaton, I hailed Nashville as home for ten years until priorities, expectations, responsibilities, and compromises broke me.  It’s been four Independence days since choosing to start over here after a year and a half pit stop in my hometown in Upstate New York.  In the past six weeks, I ended my engagement with the man of my dreams, cancelled my move to Germany, signed my contract too late to keep my job, and I assure you I beg no pity for any of those realities. Some beds we make are better than others.  I may be writing on this white wicker love seat with the blue cushions, but I’m sleeping on a straw cot of my choosing.  I’ve known the world as my great aunt knew it three decades ago, and I know it as my newest niece enters it.  So different now and then, but no less complicated.

I’ve lived long enough now to understand that cultural norms, political priorities, and even people are as diverse as the Virginian terrain.  Consider my favorite place, just ten minutes away where I can bathe in the warmth of the trapped bay waters by the sand bar.  Travel a half hour to Williamsburg, and historical nuts are irrevocably satisfied.  Three hours found me just south of Petersburg, weaving up and through the mountains tasting Friday’s sunset with a few friends.  We had plans to hike and cliff dive the next day, but I didn’t make it that far.  The rich shades of orange and pink that fractured the deepening blue sky as we traversed by car up the mountain would sooth the raw, red skin and black and blue bones I incurred early the next morning, if only in my memory.

It wasn’t so much a rock climbing incidence as it was a crash landing.  Some scans at a hospital a half hour assured me of no internal bleeding.  The damage was superficial, even the pain in my recovering shoulder the product of bruising and inflammation.  My shirt had torn in the tumble, and the mountain rocks took advantage.  When it heals, I imagine that rocky road somewhere near Petersburg will likely own about a third of my shoulders and back in scarring.  For now, I’m grateful to be around to celebrate ninetieth birthdays and new baby nieces.  It could have been much worse.

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I find myself reminding myself of the same words I quote to my students from the famous protagonist of Dead Poets Society, John Keating, “There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and the wise man knows which is called for.”  Summer might be the time for taking bucket list risks, but recklessness landed me in that particular hard-headed bind.  Some lessons, I suppose, we can afford to learn again, if we’re alive to learn them at all.   Fortunately, I’ve been given an abundance of mentors in the half-fulfillment of my own life expectancy.  And like Grams, physical proximity isn’t necessary.  Their lifetime contributions of tid-bits of advice permeated this hard head with more power than a Virginia mountain side.

Grams would have been delighted by the birth of yet another great-great-granddaughter, even in the confusion of her old age.  This newest Palma will never see Grams laboring in the garden, playing the piano at First Christian Assembly, or raking the Adirondacks because those pine needles needed taming.  Still, somehow, those lessons we learned as hardheaded children permeated the skull where it was most impressionable, and my little brother probably still turns off the water while brushing his teeth…. And his tiny baby daughter will pick that up along the way.  That’s the impact some people have.

This morning, outside the bathroom of the waiting room for a timely follow-up with my shoulder surgeon, my breath caught in my chest.  A New York accent asked if I was in line, and suddenly I was engaged in a conversation with a retired teacher who reminded me so much of my grandmother that I followed through on a meeting at a nearby coffee shop after my x-rays results indicated there had been no reinjury.  This tiny woman has a life full of stories, and I can’t wait to share a cup of coffee with her in days to come and find out how a New York Jew came to volunteer at Vacation Bible School at Catholic church in Virginia.

I went to the mountains for an adventure, and I left early with a wake-up call instead.   I was reminded of the reasons I love traversing this existence, like the little girl born this morning and the old lady celebrating her ninety years tonight.  My encounter with Gram’s twin at the doctor’s office was a gift, and a timely one, another great voice to permeate this hard head when I need sage counsel the most.

When I think about this holiday weekend, the picture I’ll store is of the sunset before the scrapes.  There is a peace in a mountain sunset away from the hustle and bustle of daily life that helps you hone in on the basic essentials.  We need food, water, and air, yes, and I have those in abundance.  But we also need relationships to connect us, and balancing priorities, expectations, responsibilities, and compromises are essential skills to link us to the life beyond that sunset.

It’s the Third, not the fourth.  Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our great nation’s independence.  Today, I’ll celebrate life: my niece’s, my great aunt’s, and even my own.  Sometimes it takes getting knocked down to discover that you have what it takes to get back up again, after all.  That’s probably Gram’s genes… or her jeans.  They still fit me, after all.