A Non-Traditional Love Life

I respect the sanctity of Tuesday night writing binges, so I’m perched on the same white wicker love seat that supported three and a half years of processing life and love through garden analogies and teaching metaphors; I don’t want to write tonight, but what example am I setting for sixteen year olds with writer’s block if I don’t honor this commitment.  I sit stiffly, typing to the tune of the cicadas and crickets, stiffening at the first thought I’d rather dismiss again.  I don’t write about my love life anymore.

I have one – it’s just non-traditional.  The story Charming and I were writing with our lives was exciting and adventurous.  For a few years, I was a princess in a fairy tale.  It’s disquieting now to recall the epic Cinderella proposal, complete with horse and carriage. It’s been just over a year, but the warmth and joy of that day couldn’t survive a scorching summer after separation.  He was incredibly good to me, and I’ll always cherish the way so many of our friends came together to make the moment happen and share it with us.  The love I felt then still lives in the memory, despite the way things ended.

Charming was my love life, and writing about our dates on King Street in Old Town was typically a safe choice.  These past few months, I’ve processed life here every Tuesday, but I’ve been avoiding the most common theme.  I haven’t been entirely true to my voice.  I’m supposed to just settle in on the blue paisley cushion and write whatever comes to my mind. In recent weeks, I’ve dismissed a few first thoughts, and though I still experience “writer’s growth”, I wonder what realizations I haven’t arrived at because I’ve been afraid I’ll drown once I dive in.

To some extent, my relationship with Charming ended when I began questioning faith, meaning, God, and tradition.  Grams lived a full ninety-plus years, but her death still shook me.   She was the matriarch of our family.   I don’t understand how my obsessive thinking came to center on questioning those values and beliefs most central to Gram’s ideology… and three generations to follow, all gathered around her casket in the rain.  I’m not angry at God.  I’m not rebelling.  I just don’t know if I only believe what I believe because Grams did, then Dad, then it was only naturally for me.

Maybe this is a mid-life crisis.  People like authentic.  It wasn’t something I could name in high school; it was just a feeling I got from some people didn’t like me. I had a family name to keep polished and Christian example to uphold.  I saw my mother get up for quiet times every day to spend time with the Bible and in prayer, so I did, too.  Every day for dozens of years, I spent a quiet time with God.  The peace and comfort I know my mother found in those quiet times evaded me.  No, ours upstairs in my bedroom was stiff and distant, structured and scheduled.

I spent time with God because I knew I was supposed to, and I do well with some impassable structures and routines in place, not unlike writing night every Tuesday.  In thirty years of living life as a proclaimed Christian, I never experienced a deep and abiding friendship.  I was always struggling, striving, seeking forgiveness.  My family is grieved that I’m not walking a righteous path, and understandably so given our heritage.  I’m still open to God, only I see a desperate urgency to figure out who I am, independent of deep family roots, so that I live fully, authentically and peacefully.  I don’t know how to explain life’s existential questions without the lens Biblical Christianity always provided.

Charming was my love life before, when God was still real to me in a personal way.  Now, I’m collecting love in unsuspecting places.  With strained family relations post break-up, I found support in my existing community.  People that I’d met up with at raids for Pokémon Go have some of my closest, most reliable friends.  I still have a love life; it’s just non-traditional.  I love the game, my Pogo partner, and spending time with friends who love it, too.

20180925_200458I find love in my nieces and nephews.  The twins are in Pre-K, and tonight I got to join the family at the school’s open house.  I saw their hand prints and their desks and their “All About Me” posters.  Tessa’s boasted she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, like her mommy.  I smiled.  I could remember making a similar poster when I was little.  Tessa took me to the board and read me the word “Scissors” while her teacher explained to Mommy how Katarina plays the, “I don’t know how to do this.  Will you help me?” card when she’s disinterested in doing something she can do.  I smiled.  I could remember a similar strategy when I was little.  They’re not my children, but they are precious to me, and a hug from one of them is like a love tank instant refill.

I find it most lately in stolen moments with Leia when school’s not in session. Friday night, we just sat in her back yard and talked into the darkness.  The crickets and cicadas weren’t so persistent.  The whole world disappeared into the suburban skyline and we laughed at each other’s self-effacing humor, determined to be happy right where we were.  Her girls have always called me auntie, and I’m starting to feel like one.  It’s not a traditional picture, but I’m happy with Leia and her kids.

When Charming proposed, there was this outpouring of love from friends and family that made an impression, and though there are some different faces in the circle now, I’m surrounded by love everywhere I turn, even at my new school.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, but I still want to be a mom.  My juniors were talking about how to avoid making the same mistake twice, and I found myself thinking about my biological clock.  A year ago, I never would have considered motherhood without the male silhouette in the perfect family frame.  I’m open to it now.

When I was with Charming, he was my love life, and that was restricted to the weekends.  Most days, I’d see no one from the time I left the gym until school the next day.  It was easier to be a workaholic when friends weren’t dropping by, announced or unannounced, when the china gathered dust in the dining room hutch, when the only cushion getting used on my front porch was this one.  I love loving people, and I get to do that in everyday ways.  It’s not a traditional love life, but I’m happy.

I don’t have it all figured out, and that’s okay.  I make mistakes and try to avoid making them again, like my juniors will do.  I get writer’s block too, and I can and did write through it to arrive at some nugget of truth.  The story I was writing with God and Charming was a lot easier because I knew where I wanted the plot to go.  My writer’s growth is dependent upon my willingness to go places I don’t want to go.  I didn’t drown in the despair.  I’m still here, typing to the tune of cicadas and crickets.

And even if I don’t feel like it, I’ll be back next week.

Whipping in the Wind

Last week, a hurricane didn’t hit Hampton, but it still wreaked havoc, damaging any sense of normalcy in its potential wake. Stores closed. The government evacuated homes.  Families stockpiled water and canned goods.  We prepared.  Braced ourselves.  Waited expectantly.  Its course shifted, and though the winds stirred swiftly, a true storm never came.   In the aftermath of a hurricane that wasn’t, I’m recovering tonight from a week’s departure from my normal routine.

I’ve always been a creature of habit, but it wasn’t until this past week that I realized how desperately I rely on my normal routine to keep my brain balanced.  With no school for three days to add to the weekend off, the gym closed for my daily workouts, and my best friend out of town missing the inaction, the unfamiliar, uninhabited hours loomed eerily after my last post was live.  Writing night concluded my commitments.  Every other obligation or responsibility was dismissed with the threat of the storm.

When I awoke Wednesday, I inventoried all the possible ways to make the unexpected day off a productive one.  I cleaned and shopped and baked and laundered and still didn’t make a visible dent in my task list.  When my new teacher friend texted that she’d taken me up on my offer to ride out the storm here with me, it was rinse and repeat until she arrived that night.  We spent a couple of days like college roommates, always intending to crack open the books to plan for our eleventh graders, but talking into the wee hours of the morning instead. Worlds collided.  The teacher next door was now a millennial in my guest room, and I hoped my mid-thirties night life of nightcaps with friends and Pokémon Go shiny hunting wouldn’t disappoint Dalmatian, especially when all Hampton’s offerings were closed.

Even Fort Monroe beach.  It would be days before I’d step foot in the sand, but that’s what an impending hurricane does.  What’s the value of routine if you don’t have enough water to survive an extended shutdown of utilities?  Dalmatian was dogsitting for her roommate, and she suggested we get outside and expend some energy before being cooped up by the storm.  Instantly, I thought of Leia’s kids and messaged her an invite to walk with us. Fort Monroe is her favorite place, too.  Options limited, we opted to walk the abandoned streets of downtown Hampton and play Pokémon Go.

Though Dalmatian was a good sport and had played the augmented reality game with me and my friends, she surrendered her phone in favor of running and playing.  Leia, on the other hand, is torn.  Whether born out of a desire to spend more time with me or out of dissatisfaction with her same old routine, Leia created an account.  She’s a fast learner, leveling up quickly, always asking questions, and her excitement is refreshing.  Leia likes the game and my company.  She’s caught between real life and the game, and our stroll through the windy streets and down by the bay made a picturesque backdrop for her growing Pokedex.

Unlike Dalmatian and me, Leia is a mom.  Her oldest warmed immediately to my new teacher friend and hound, contented to run with the dog on a leash, smiling a toothy grin, all pre-teen authenticity.  Her youngest was glued to me, partly because I was hot-spotting internet to the device I loaned her to play with during our walk.  The two girls are like night and day.  This one objected to beach outings regularly until I introduced her to Pokémon Go.  Now, Leia’s girls join us for time in the sun and in the game.  Thursday afternoon, we walked into the wind, five girls and a dog, all driven by different motivations at different stages of life and yet pleased by the surprising moments cultivating kinship in the calm before the storm.  We had the common goal of enjoying the fresh air together in our own ways.

The storm didn’t come.  Dalmatian packed up her roommate’s dog and headed home. Friday, my house was quiet again.  The previous two days had been almost corporate, hanging out with friends and making decisions on the fly, and while I needed some alone time to recharge, anticipating three more days until we’d return to the normal routine forced me to call the gym and discover they had reopened, despite what Google said.  I was mentally already in the parking lot before hanging up.

A little bit of normal and a steady endorphin release primed me to devote Friday night to grading.  I worked more than I played for the rest of our impromptu break, fitting in workouts and chores and schoolwork, always seeing more that I should do, but refusing to reject an invitation from Leia.  My life’s been pretty windy these days.  Adjusting to a different school system, managing life around a longer commute, and trying to make a new normal flow has me perpetually preparing for a storm that is coming eventually.  I’m flirting with the workaholic mode again already, only now I hear Stefano, our tour guide in Italy, telling us that Americans live to work while Italians work to live.

I reply, “Yes,” to Leia’s invites because we’re in a similar place with a similar threat of storm, both having worked too hard without living enough, dissatisfied with the real world such that King’s Street looks more promising through the screen of a device that might spawn a rare Pokémon.  Whether it’s hitting the beach, walking downtown, or even joining her for my first step class at the Y while my gym’s door was lined with sandbags, Leia is my silver lining.  We laugh as sincerely together over a drink at Marker 20 as over her silly kids on the swings at the playground.  She has the kids I dreamed of mothering, and I have the independence that active house makes her crave.  And we’d never venture that the grass would be greener if we swapped shoes.

We’ve done enough living to work.  We’re counting wrinkles and days.  We’re measuring our lives against traditional values and coming up short.  We’re feeling the angst of not knowing how much time we have to make something meaningful of our lives and sharing the fear that we’ve wasted too much already to leave a lasting legacy.  Leia’s girls just couldn’t grasp why we had spent so much time and money preparing for a storm that didn’t come.  She explained that when a hurricane is coming, we make the most of the moments before we have to hunker down, stockpiling, preparing for the potential worst case scenario.

Sunday was the first day we didn’t have face time in over a week.  We were both preparing for the work week.  I wrapped with an afternoon grading AP dialectical journals in a beach chair with the tide licking at my heels.  The wind whipped the strands of my hair and the papers in my lap, but I hadn’t felt so still or calm since school let out last Tuesday.  Tonight, alone again on my front porch, the air is calm, but I’m feeling the winds kick up.  I’m writing about living and finally naming the storm: Death.  I’ve been living to work, stockpiling for a future that I still haven’t arrived in yet, always preparing to live more.

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In the threat of a hurricane, we prepare for the worst.  What if instead of preparing to live more, get more, attain more, achieve more… what if we prepared for that impending storm that could strike at any moment?  What if we lived like we were preparing for the worst, facing death and question marks and concepts like infinity.  Leia and I have been un-tethered in our crises, whipping about in the wind like my schoolwork, and I never pass up a chance to spend time with her because, somehow, we anchor each other in an unexpected way.

Leia’s my silver lining in this season.  Like working with Dalmatian at school during the day, living life with Leia in my free time is better, easier, more enjoyable when it’s together.  Dalmatian said just the other day that no matter how much schoolwork she does, there is always so much more.  It will be that way for all of us until June, every year, rinse and repeat as long as we’ve got passion.  I’m giving Dalmatian Stefano’s advice, and working with Leia to live the example.

Our lives might not look like they thought they would.  We might not have lived up to our own expectations.  But what we might have done or not done is irrelevant; contemplating it only serves to prevent us from living now, from seeing the shiny potential in the moments in our everyday routines. Leia is the silver lining to my life after Charming; she makes the real world look promising again… it’s comforting  to be navigate these winds of change together.

The Idiomatic Storm

It was just this morning that I observed a moment of silence to commemorate a seventeen-year old tragedy with a classroom full of students that never knew life before 9/11, while I’ve nearly doubled my age in the years post-tragedy.  An hour later, notice that school would be cancelled tomorrow until further notice stole the memorial’s thunder, promising Hampton Roads a hurricane with forced evacuations.

You’d never know a storm was brewing to look at our peaceful Hampton Roads tonight.  Apart from the absence of water in the grocery stores, the crickets chirping, my neighbors chatting next door, the occasional car lighting up the night briefly, and the warm, still air all set the stage for a typical Tuesday night of writing through my own personal storms.  Three years ago, I navigated through another September storm for a first date in Richmond with a man who would become a protagonist in my narrative.  I called him Charming.

For a long time, my story was our story.  Our dating adventures, his iconic proposals, and my absolute love for Charming were chronicled here in the annals of my blog.  I paused to consider the tense I’d used by default there, “were” vs. “are” and opted to trust my gut that the first instinct is most accurate.  And all my advocating for the power of freewriting chides me, enticing me to follow the stream of consciousness despite my logical mind’s best efforts to maintain control.

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Crossing the water twice a day is normal now, though it didn’t worry me until the schools around me closed a day before my district.  Without traffic, it takes just forty minutes to transport myself into an unfamiliar landscape that’s growing on me.  It’s the first time in twelve years of teaching that I’ve been entrusted with the training of half a dozen students in the same block who struggle to write in complete sentences or stay in one tense even while speaking.  Fortunately, I have an experienced coworker with whom to share the burden of shuffling these juniors past the SOL finish lines.  We have our work cut out for us.

Yesterday when we met to plan together, I noted idioms and figures of speech as first quarter curricular foci.  We’ve only collected a few writing samples, but I’d seen enough to question the effectiveness of previous lessons I’d developed with this particular collection of adolescent minds.  Just like it only takes a spark to get a fire going, it apparently only takes the threat of a hurricane to turn my struggling writers into poets.  At the end of the day, one young man who had just claimed English as a weakness, blurted out, “It’s getting ready to flood like the Titanic.”  I complimented the surprised, confused boy on his correct use of a simile.

He was baffled, I think, at why I was so delighted, but one unintended comment had cleared all the clouds away.  I’m doing it now, and normally I do it without thinking, but I’m writing about thinking about teaching figures of speech and idiomatic expressions from a new vantage point, the one on my front porch back on the other side of the water, where the high school English teacher never really stops thinking about how to reach her students.  I use figurative language all the time, but that’s not unique to a writer; teens speak in idioms when they aren’t asked to give you an example of one.

This solitude in Downtown Hampton won’t last, but in the stillness of this moment, it’s the calm before the storm that encourages my teaching spirit.  Everyone’s preparing.  We’ve cleaned out the stores and some have jumped ship, but the figurative language ends there.  It’s a reality that many have had to leave in search of higher ground.  Provided my zone doesn’t get evacuated, I plan to hunker down in my rented bungalow and knock out some schoolwork without interruption.  That’s my silver lining.

My students are enjoying all the silver linings while staying safe, I hope.  While thoughts of school are likely in the wind for them by now, I’m thinking about their impressionable minds before the rains come.  They will come, and we teach them to prepare for the worst case scenario when a hurricane is hurdling this way.  The survival advice we apply literally to times like these almost uniformly translates to life guidance.  The idiomatic storms resemble Florence’s.  There are dozens of expressions about bad weather.  My students have been exposed to bad weather.  They’ve also endured their own figurative storms.  They can make the connection.  They can master this set of literary skills.  We just need to start with what they already know.

After all, when it rains it pours, to throw another (and another) expression in the ring.  I’m typing away on a laptop keyboard producing sets of words that show me the next step with my struggling, young writers… and subsequently, I’m accessing dusty, cobwebbed idioms that deepen my relationship with the written word.  I write, I think, I learn, I teach, and in this blog, I have a hard time differentiating between the four.  There’s no formulaic approach to my weekly writing nights, and there may well be none for teaching idiomatic expressions and figures of speech to seventeen year olds who’ve only seen the Twin Towers in pictures.  For that reason, we excuse them for zeroing in on this pending hurricane with more emotion than observed during this morning’s moment of silence.

Tonight, everything is still.  I know the storm will come.  The eye will keep moving.  The torrents will damage and destroy.  Those are inevitabilities.  The variables and of when and where entrust leadership the responsibility of preparing the rest of us for the worst case scenario.  Tonight, as I look at the peaceful street around me and question how a hurricane could possibly be in the forecast, I make a simultaneous realization that my leadership in the classroom is similarly obligated to prepare my students for the storms they don’t believe are coming.

Charming isn’t a featured protagonist in my blog anymore, but he’s still my perfect storm.  Some days it’s the calm before, others it’s the eye of, and still others it’s surviving in the aftermath.  Like reading and writing and learning and teaching, this storm’s phases are unpredictable and even overlapping.  I wrestle with the sweet memories of our normal.  I was going to marry him.  He was forever and always.  Only, he’s not, and if finding peace is like waiting for a raindrop in a drought, maybe the impending torrential downpour in my physical world will show my personal one how to end.

I’ll weather this storm, these storms, whether my head is in the clouds or under a cloud.  I’ll ride out thirty-five waiting for that raindrop in the drought.  I’ll celebrate the silver linings, face the prevailing winds, and even if I don’t know which way the wind blows, even if I throw caution to it, both Florance and my tempest will come to an end.  We’ll assess the damage, reflect on all the idioms that went into explaining the events of days past, and try to smile like we haven’t just been through a hurricane.

Today, the storm clouds gather.  Hampton Roads readies itself to protect against flooding.  Students paused briefly to observe a moment of silence honoring heroes who never shared a day’s breath with them this morning, and tonight they look ahead to Mother Nature’s threat to survival.  We need to apply survival skills as equally to the real as figurative, and I need to teach figuratively by starting with what’s real to my kids.

You know you love being an English teacher when you spend your first night of hurricane break mentally fostering relationships with teenagers who don’t know if you’re a Ms. or a Mrs., when you thought you were going to write about yourself but can’t turn off that write-think-learn-teach multi-processing brain that still wants to make an impact beyond the grave.

The First Day, Again

Four years ago this week, I put a green T-shirt and boasted Warrior blood, as green as my lawn, begging to mowed since my attention shifted to the blue and white backdrop of my new school’s colors.  A year ago yesterday, I said, “Yes,” to the perfect proposal from the perfect guy, knowing it would mean an end to Warrior green.  Our wedding day and has come and gone, and our colors, sea glass green and robin’s eye blue, once faded into the black of broken promises, find new life in my home away from home.

The most colorful facets of my classroom weren’t the details I attended to before I met the new batch of bright young minds I’ve been entrusted with for the next few seasons; the rugs, lamps, and posters don’t hold a candle to the dynamic rainbow of personalities its seats will host the year through.  After a quiet summer in Hampton, the hustle and bustle of commutes and demanding workdays reminds me that I’m not as young as I used to be.

When I introduce the concept of a paradox, I suggest the familiar claim that youth is wasted on the young.  Perhaps under the guise of attending high school for the rest of my life due to my chosen profession, I truly believed I would never feel old.  During a five minute planning conversation with Dalmatian, the bright-eyed new teacher next store, I know that my age and experience carry positive and negative connotations.  Her enthusiasm is palpable, her excitement disarming, and her energy seemingly endless.  After her first day of teaching, she had us both smiling as we snapped pictures in our new classrooms to commemorate the occasion.

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When was the last time I took a picture of myself on the first day of school?  During my planning today, I’d already broken in the school’s yearbook camera, securing a few photos to use as instructional aides when I meet my staff tomorrow.  Dalmatian reminds me to keep the first things first.  While I was stressing over the quarter’s eleventh grade curriculum, she was dreaming of how to create her own welcoming learning environment.  After our first full day, we were both emotionally spent, but I think we were equally encouraged at facing the year together.

It’s been a long day.  I met a hundred kids, reviewed syllabi and supply lists, and tried not to butcher the names when I called roll.  I left after bus duty, drove to the gym like I always do, came home to change after a solid calorie burn, and landed at my brother’s dinner table for hugs and a first day debrief.  I came home to write, like I always do.  It’s only just the first day.  We hit the ground running, us school teachers, putting our best foot forward while lamenting the rejuvenating rays that make summer a necessity to recover from the ten month race we’ve started… and it’s just the first leg.  I don’t feel like writing, so I know I must.  I am not sure what life has to teach me tonight, despite a clear picture of my students’ expectations for the next nine weeks.  I’ll trust the process, that if I sit here like a hundred and eighty plus Tuesday nights before, I’ll make meaning of my life.

I can’t remember the last time I took a picture of myself on any of my recent eleven first days of school, but this is a new beginning for me and Dalmatian.  She doesn’t know what to worry about yet, and I am grateful for the unjaded energy that pops its head in my room throughout the day with her new, bob haircut.  Dalmatian doesn’t walk – she bounces… and she lifts me on her the upstroke.  Had it not been for that extra busy duty responsibility that raised my privileged eyebrows, we wouldn’t have engaged in a conversation resulting in a shared desire to snap a few photos of our new digs.

Had I not been fully present in the moment I was in, I would have missed what was a momentous moment for Dalmatian.  I was honored to apply the rule of thirds and store some shots of this dynamic brunette, beaming with the pride of fulfillment completing her first day in her chosen profession.  Our decorative flair flows seamlessly, the eleventh grade English classrooms all twinkling with alternative lighting, more like an office suite with the curtains, throws, and cushions that invite sixteen-year-olds to figuratively put their feet up.  I’ve finished so many first days with so many new faces and names not to butcher that I’d taken the fresh start for granted.

I’ve always worked through lunch, so when I saw Dalmatian eating across the hall with a few other teachers as I picked up some handouts from the printer, it struck me that perhaps it was natural to engage with others over food instead of squinting at a computer screen for the half hour break from adolescent hormones.  I’ve always done a lot of things, like hitting the gym after school.  I’ve skipped twice in the last week, not in a lazy, summer objection sort of way, but because I was experimenting with my “always”.  It was being ejected from the familiar colors of my old pond as Charming’s fiancé in Warrior green with a June expiration that catapulted me into a vast, unchartered sea of new experience.

My gym time is healthy, but so is meeting my friend Leia at Marker 20 for a mid-week nightcap, where we talk so much the watered-down drinks are not bartender error.  Her name’s not really Leia, but after some friends and I finally convinced her to create a Pokémon Go account, I pulled the pseudonym from her favorite movie to help make her trainer ID when she signed up this weekend.  She isn’t a princess at all, no air of pretense or entitlement. My Leia teaches kids, raises little women, and runs just five years ahead of me also questioning how her life doesn’t look like it thought it would by now.

Dalmatian’s new world is probably unfolding on Facebook tonight while Leia tucks her children in and wonders how, after so many years walking its green earth, there seems to be nothing new under the sun.  If there’s a bell curve, I’m nearer to Leia on the plot progression.  Young Dalmatian reminds me of both of us older women back in our finer hours, not just the tight skin and bright eyes, but also that spirit eager to devour adventure… spirits Leia and I tamed for our disparate reasons.

It’s inspiring. It’s unsettling.  But isn’t that what these new starts accomplish for the pensive among us, those who require a little extra time and external stimulus to coax our brains away from waxing nostalgic over To Do List’s and things we can’t change into a rejuvenating night’s sleep that will only tease until the final bell rings in June?

Charming started over in Germany a few months ago.  I opted to stick a little closer to Fort Monroe beach.  I cross the water twice a day now, barely noticing the tunnel that used to make my pulse race.  I venture outside the familiar colors of my garden beds in the morning and experience life that changes me when I return.  I was a workaholic so long that I didn’t realize I was missing out on relationships, that hiding in my room or car or living room at a laptop screen couldn’t satiate my hunger for adventure, not in the long term.

I didn’t have to take an airplane – I just crossed the water, and I found another friend to add to the circle of imperfect, passionate professionals navigating the colorful, uncertain seas of starting over.