End of Volume Two

While many of my friends and family were tuned in for updates on the royal wedding this weekend, I was trying to figure out how I would soon have to explain to them why there won’t be another one in July, why Prince Charming is moving to Germany alone, or why I hesitantly slipped off the ring that, for a season, dubbed me a princess, returning to the pauper-dom of schoolteacher simplicity in my rented house where I can hear each play narrated from Darling Stadium as the field lights carry the announcer’s voice to the foot of my front porch.

My parents think I’m crazy.  I don’t blame them.  Charming is still the fulfillment of every adolescent, innocent wish for the husband of my dreams.  I fell in love with him almost immediately, and he would be my purpose before long.  So immersed in our possible future, I straddled Virginia, living with one foot in Hampton and another in DC, hoping that he would be the father of my children… wanting those genes to mix with the Palma family’s and produce brilliant, Type A worldchangers who feared God.

Yet, even as I dreamed, I battled for balance with the part of me still planted in Hampton.

I say this now as if I were conscious of the divergent path I took to distance myself from Charming and ultimately hurt him enough to finally move forward with his life with a clear conscious, unburdened by any further responsibility to me.

I wasn’t aware.  I’m not even sure I’ll connect the dots right.  I haven’t spoken to my parents since the decision to cancel the wedding was made.  They are in shock… and not that the marriage is off, but that my choices made it an inevitability.  From the day that Charming proposed, I’ve dismissed this nagging sense that I am caught up in a current pulling me ferouciously toward the future that I always wanted.  I ignored the discontent I sensed in my relationship with the man I loved because I should have been grateful.  He is perfect in all the ways that matter.  A friend told me that if I didn’t marry my prince now, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

And maybe I will. All I know is that if I trace my path from engagement until now, I was clearly dragging my feet.  Wedding preparation hiccups felt like mountains.  Wedding planning with Charming felt like military strategy sessions.  I had no sooner survived the application process to Northern Virginia than we were suddenly moving to Germany.  Mom fanned my writer’s flame, and I held tight to the realization of the financial freedom to live abroad, to research and write my family’s story in Italy.  Charming and I were perfectly suited for each other.  Our families have fallen in love faster than we did, even.

So I can understand why someone might drop in for this particular blog post and wonder how this could possibly be the end of our story. In fact, several faces come to mind, and I’m picturing the horror, shock, disappointment, perhaps even the judgment and wrath morality dictates flickering in your eyes.

How do you live with yourself after you realize that you chose to avoid reality, to drag your feet while moving ever closer to a future you’re not ready for any more, to pull away from the greatest man you’ve ever known until his company no longer makes you smile.  Regardless of the myriad obstacles that plagued us, when my grandmother died and it was time to head north for the funeral, I wanted to go alone.  I should have faced it then, but we were so deep in that it seemed logical to continue in the darkness with the decision we had made in the light.  Amongst all my family members, Charming fit better than I ever had.  When a limited edition comes your way, you don’t put it on consignment.

No, I didn’t have the guts.  I kept dragging my feet.  A W. B. Yeats poem echoes quietly, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  The rising temperatures only turned up the heat on my disillusionment with our coming nuptials.  Instead of admitting second thoughts or hesitations, I let the current keep pulling me forward.

Charming and I would never be a team after my grandmother’s funeral.  The realization that I was not happier with him was quickly squelched as my mother embraced her future son with a joy in her eyes I’ve never seen before connected to a man that I’d chosen.  I thought perhaps this season was like a slingshot, being stretched back almost to breaking so that I could catapault into my happily ever after with my prince.

Charming offered me the fulfillment of every dream I’d ever had.  And it wasn’t enough.

I’ve had ups and downs in my faith journey enough to recognize them and anticipate God will draw me back to Himself, but if it takes a couple of years like it did when I left my ex-husband, it will certainly be too late for that suburban family picture I’d so vividly painted as a child that it’s etched behind my eyelids.  Charming would have given up Germany, postponed the wedding, even moved to Hampton to make me happy.

It wasn’t until I was sitting face to face with a close friend at school, having just come clean about every stupid choice that led to another lie and another deception until I had systematically accomplished my unconscious goal: Charming owes me nothing, that his incredible character, commitment, dedication, and sense of responsibility do not have to extend to me.  He’s free to start over and find a career woman who fears God and carry the torch.  I can only hope that my betrayal doesn’t prevent him from trusting her and building a team that works well together.

Mom’s been begging for a reason why I would destroy the best thing that ever happened to me.  After a few days of retreat, of silent reflection, I think he was the best thing that could have happened to me for her, and after my first failed marriage, shouldn’t I just trust they know what’s best for me?

Things fell apart.  The center couldn’t hold.  I didn’t do it on purpose.  It wasn’t clear.  It wasn’t intentional.  I just kept doing what I knew I should do right up until I’d broken Charming’s heart.  Deep down, I knew the consequences of my action would dismantle any modicum of happily ever after that we might have found together with a fresh start in Germany.

Quieting that still, small voice in January was the beginning of the end for this ride into the sunset.  No, I didn’t want this to end, and yes, I did love him, but somewhere over the course of two and a half years, I’d also bridled that sassy, free spirit.  No amount of resentment for the waiting and deliberating that preceded Charming’s proposal nor for his expectations for the chameleon colors I’d shown him could begin to justify the way that I would come to hurt him.

I pass the same trash heap every day.  It grows outside the cafeteria doors.  Broken chairs and discarded pallets litter the pavement, and I ignored it for more than three years. After deciding the theme for our wedding would be “#ANewThing”, I opted to find trash that we could transform into decorations.  I’ve been pilfering discarded pieces from the pile for the last few months, picturing the new life they would find with the right stain and chosen message to scrawl in fancy letters.

On Monday after lunch break, I walked by that old trash heap on the way in to pick up on our career discovery adventure quest with my sophomores.  I’d just received confirmation that I did not sign my continuing contract in time.  I was literally a day late.  I’ll have to reapply to the district.  I don’t have a job for next year.  Kids wandering between classes might have wondered at me standing there beside the trash bins, almost admiring the brokenness.  I still see what they could be.   Redeemed.

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Last summer when Charming proposed at Fort Monroe, I thought it was the beginning of happily ever after.  The sun sets.  The sun rises.  And as the sun glittered on shards of glass, I saw beauty in the broken pieces of my childhood dreams.  I was standing still for the first time in years, two feet firmly planted in Hampton Roads where I have Tuesday night dinners with my brother’s kids and Thursday date nights at Marker 20 with Angel and hear the cheers sneaking up the street on writing night to keep me company.  I’d destroyed my best chance at forever with Charming, but I was free to stand among the trash heap no longer crawling in my skin from the lie I’d been living.  Best intentions mean little after you break someone’s heart.

We wanted our wedding to be a celebration of the way that God redeems, restores, and renews.  How can this premature end become one of those blessings that comes through raindrops, for Charming or for me?  I don’t know.  I didn’t write this story, and I won’t write that one.  An apology is too small a gesture for a prince, though he did not withhold forgiveness.  Character.  Integrity.  I know I’m letting go of a limited edition.

What I do know tonight is that had I been brave enough to face the disappointed Charming’s fans when that tiny voice begged recognition, I might have spared his heart.  Walking away from the trash heap to teach what still might be my last unit at Kecoughtan, I was surprised to find that I was somehow smiling after the dust cleared.  Because really, I was standing still.  The current stopped pulling.  There is no storm, no widening gyre.

Maybe Fort Monroe sunsets stole my heart be fore Charming did.  Maybe I’ll die an old maid.  Maybe lots of things.  But one thing is obvious long after the sun has set: I am still and at peace, and I can only identify its presence because of the weight lifted in its absence.

Stuck in a Sunset

I’m stuck in a sunset, and I’m not sure that I can write my way out this time.  The sun disappeared behind the residential Hampton skyline, a handful of porch lights unable to cut the weight of this particular dusk. Writing authentically has me immobilized as I fight the urge to slice through sugarcoated sentiments and expose the core.  I guess I’m afraid I won’t be quite so endearing.

Stuck in a sunset.  It’s not silent, though other Tuesdays before this one carried the same, small measure of neighborhood noise that I typically invite to accompany me, motor and bark and laughter harmonizing while my brain rifles through a trove of thoughts to produce a pregnant, publishable perception that will illuminate, illustrate, and maybe even ignite change.   Tonight, however, each passing car seems an intrusion, a tether to the moment I can’t get lost in.

Charming came to town for an unusual weekday visit.  Having processed out of his post at the Pentagon, he’s managed to maintain an adventurous social calendar despite his move to Germany in less than two weeks.  He’s energized, proactive as always, disciplined and regimented in his approach to the relocation such that I have to stop and admire.  His patience, tenacity, and ability to adapt continue to surprise me.  After battling the typical I-95 and I-64 traffic, Charming suggested I turn dinner into a picnic.  Knee deep in a moving to do list of epic proportions, I welcomed a little excursion to feel the ocean air.

A half hour later, we were watching the sun set over Hampton from Fort Monroe, perched on the rocky shoreline snaking its way south and west only to terminate in the Chesapeake Bay.  The cloudy sky hid the sun from the human eye, its colorful metamorphosis a heavenly display reserved for birds who could transcend the cloud barrier.  Instead, the pink and orange hues fragmented a blue sky, a cloudy sunset savored with chicken fajita wraps and charming company.  You smile in a sunset, even a subtle one, even if you don’t feel like smiling.

For thirty-five years, every day of my life, there has been a sunset.  Yet, oddly enough, I can only recall a few choice evenings where the sunset scored a spot in my memory bank.  When Charming and I took a cruise to the Bahamas early on in our dating, the golden dance of the sun dipping beneath the Atlantic Ocean registered permanently.  I remember leaning into him wishing we could ride off into the sunset together, that I would be his wife and all my dreams would come true with him.

Charming has always lived up to his name.  He is patient, tenacious, and adaptive with me, too.  This past year has tested is in every way, and if I were to write authentically, this blog would not read like that of a woman getting married in less than two months.  Neither of us would have guessed when we got engaged nine months ago that I would still be searching to find an alternative solution to sleep without medication.  I’ve made progress, but it’s been slow, so slow that like my knock out roses, you just don’t notice the change overnight.  A month’s sunsets create affect.

Charming’s visit was a blur of wedding plans.  We updated our wedding website, chose our male bridal party attire, waded through dozens of emails between various vendors, and finalized our wedding band selections.  Amidst the wedding planning, we reviewed our moving schedule, sorted through the details of each upcoming government move, packed breakables for the fast boat shipment, and called a few audibles on items we should ship rather than store.  Charming’s visit was to be all work, but looking back now that he’s fought interstate traffic north to watch a game with a friend, I’m struck by the notion he chose to start our time together.

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Fort Monroe is my favorite place.  I never planned it.  I hit up all the beaches within forty-five minutes within my first year in Hampton, and this one snuck into my soul.  Long before Charming, my blonde-beauty nurse friend shored up dozens of lazy beach days with me, her family, and our friends.  From wine coolers sipped from the still warmth of the sandbar to lunchmeat sandwiches thoughtfully prepared by Angel, our needs were met.  We racked up hundreds of hours in the sand, sun, and sweat, and I would read Christian romance novels and imagine the Charming I didn’t know already existed.

On our first Hampton date, I brought him there.  When Charming returned the favor and introduced me to his hometown, I knew I had nothing that could compete with a private tour of the Pentagon and the Capital building.  Still, God made Fort Monroe, and its splendor was the most impressive feature of the place I call home that I could think of sharing with him then.  Two years later, he’d propose on that same stretch of sand, and the sweat on my back as the sun set over two who had decided to become one.  It was my fairy tale ending.

Or was it?

My oldest brother married a writer.  Her perspective on traditional Disney fairy tales influenced me greatly in my twenties.  I came to value the tales of Scheherazade, a heroine who wouldn’t need a prince to save her.  She was empowered, brave, and a true overcomer.  Italian blood predisposed me to cherish traditional gender roles, perhaps, and while I’m grateful I can do most things I put my mind to, the flipside tends to be that I prefer my own way.  My stubborn independence has had decades to grow into a beast that’s tough to tame.

In reality, there are a couple of sunsets that I remember as vividly as if they were yesterday that were shared with Charming.  They are moments cemented in my brain by the smells and sounds the sights carried with them.  The rest of my sentimental sunsets are all a haze, running together over Fort Monroe, not with the laughter of Angel’s children on boogie boards splashing around, but a blur of two many nights two count over the last four years where I’ve escaped, alone, to the outcropping of rocks.  There, I sit and feel just how small I am. Most of the time, I’ll write in a journal.

Other times, like last night, though, there are no words.  I’m just aware that I’m stuck in the sunset.  When we teach archetypes, my students agree that we associate the setting sun with life coming to an end.  This spring season is my Hampton sunset.  It’s cloudy, like last night, and I know the brilliance of the end of this chapter is visible above the stretch of nebulas hiding our view of paradise.  And while the sunset symbolizes an end, perhaps even a death, in the thirty-five years I’ve been alive, the sun always rose again the next day.  It’s a promise from God that makes the sunset the bittersweet treasure we seek out on a Monday night in May.  The sun will rise.  Life will begin again.

Everything is ending, I feel.  My career, my lease, my life as I now know it will be unrecognizable in two month’s time, and all the love I have for Charming isn’t a powerful enough foe for fear to loosen its grip on my perspective.  I sat beside my future husband last night, as I have dozens of times before this, and sensed the foreboding loss of change.  He will soon be the only familiar thing under the setting sun.  As dear as his face has become, I know that our fairy tale story is only just beginning.

Yes, I know, two months before my wedding I am supposed to be a giggling bride, gushing over color swatches and table decorations, but I’m scared.  What if my heart breaks when I say goodbye to Fort Monroe?  What if I stay stuck in this cloudy sunset so long the sun doesn’t get a chance to rise?  Charming was bred for this move.  He’s ready, and I know he’ll thrive.  This creature of habit wants to hold onto the spiraling shore line of Fort Monroe because I know it, even if the grandeur of the Rhine River promises something far greater yet unseen.

I’m stuck in a sunset, a spring season of sentiment, storing up all my “lasts” and gearing up for an unknown land where my prince and I will start again.  It’s bittersweet in the sunset, tasting the beauty each ray touches until darkness ensues.  It’s my fear that makes it cloudy, like last night. Angel would tell me I’m overthinking it, that a sunset exists to be enjoyed… I suppose I’m waiting for the clouds to clear so I can giggle over swatches and wedding favors hand in hand with my dream come true.

Tonight, the most authentic story I can tell isn’t hopeful or inspired… I’m holding on to thirty-five years’ experience that the sun will rise tomorrow.  I keep smiling, even in the subtle sunset I’m stuck in, because that’s what sunsets make us do.

The More You Know

I’d start with the quote that was on my mind when I nestled my Capri jeans into the worn, blue paisley cushions of my white wicker love seat, but my subconscious filtered the opener out on the basis that it’s now cliché.  Once dismissed, my frontal lobe surrendered to the cerebral cortex’s cues and chose to focus on the pleasure of a cool night in Downtown Hampton, my wind chimes silent like the rest of the street.  Neurons fire, and I fight the ever-present narrative that breeds in silence: “This might be the last time…”

Certainly, it’s the last time I’ll see the azalea bushes framing my front porch alternating blooms for nearly two months.  These are concessions my brain readily accepts.  It has enough to process.  Last night, watching my nephew effortlessly recite lines in his first play, with dinosaurs no less, I was moved to tears.  The staging was good, the songs were great, the little actors were impressive – and still, I found myself hoping this wouldn’t be the last time I saw him walking in his father’s footsteps onto a literal or figurative stage.  Three years in Germany starts soon.  And it’s real, now.

Charming is already making arrangements for his start date in just a few weeks.  In two months’ time, I’ll join him.  We’re looking forward to a week vacationing with family and close friends prior to the ceremony, and we’re trying to stay optimistic about the massive move that underscores the typical joys of a pre-nuptial season.  While I’m trying to grade poetry quizzes and prepare the yearbook supplement, the reality of our overseas relocation nags at me.  Beautiful weather seized us all.  Even my juniors seem to have senioritis.  School seems to be the required location for our bodies, but our brains are skipping school this spring, or so it seems.

No, the alliteration didn’t escape me.  That’s something else I learned in school that didn’t change like the use of a quote as an attention grabber.  Synapses fired for a few paragraphs before the connections brought me back to where I began.  Nestled between myriad bookshelves and a piano my brother still plays brilliantly, my sister-in-law tried to carve out a corner that would beg her kids to select an adventure to sit and enjoy.  With or without piano, story time is a cacophony these days.  The twins are hedging in on four about the time they’ll precede down the aisle before me in miniature, white gowns.  They aren’t just read to anymore; they want to read to me, not just identify like a year ago.  They will interject with their own plot twists and ultimately follow their creative streams of consciousness wherever it takes them, regardless of whether adults present can keep up with the Power Wheels ride.

My brother’s children don’t need to be begged to pick up a book.  While J.J. already dominates the elementary academic arena, his sisters are sure to follow suit.  They constantly surprise and delight me with the things that they say.  After baths tonight, I tried to read Katarina a story beneath the words in the living room that Gabrielle had carefully selected and mounted: “The more you read, the more that you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you will go.” Dr. Seuss’ brilliance isn’t lost on toddlers.  Kat was tuckered out, lured away before a finished book by the flickering T.V. screen entertaining her brother and sister, but she’d already taught me more than a story’s worth tonight.

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In attempts to keep the house quiet while my brother is teaching his online class in the office, Gabrielle and I often wrangle the twins one-on-one.  Kat was my charge, and I spent our pre-bedtime routine time asking her questions about daycare.  Last week, she’d looked deep into my eyes and exclaimed with a wonder and awe reserved for small boxes at Christmas, “They’re brown!  Mine are blue.”  The excitement, unmasked, was as endearing as this child’s heart already is to me.  Then, at J.J.’s play last night, she looked at the row behind us where Gabrielle’s best friend and her daughters were sitting and disrupted the musical score to cry Eureka: “You the same.  You match hairs.”  Almost before I could digest the cuteness and quiet her, Kat almost shouted, “Is she your best friend, too?”  Gabrielle’s brunette buddy giggled with me at the question that seemed only too logical to Katarina.

Granted, I recognize this isn’t model behavior for her brother’s performance. It was her mother’s job to quiet her, and so she did.  As an aunt, I simply marveled.  I could guess at what Kat might be learning about in daycare, things like body parts, colors, and making comparisons; asking her was bound to lead somewhere.  In all her three-year-old strength of character, Kat told me that she’s learning how to behave.  How do you behave?  “Listen to the teacher. Obey.  Be good.  Follow the rules.”  Why do people like you?  “Because I’m special.”

Kat’s too young to see or recognize the irony in our training.  She basically summed up society’s current functional model while getting stuck in the sleeves of her nightgown.  To be good, conform.  To be liked, be unique.  Maybe it’s not that simple, but it seemed that way with the bath water draining a few feet away.   I asked her a few more questions, and I could see that the concept of cause and effect relationships was to be added to her growing tool kit of inspiring skills.  Moreover, the nearer we grew to bedtime, the more evasive Kat became.  Eventually, she no longer pretended to be answering me.

When you’re three, if you don’t want to answer a question, you say the first thing that pops into your mind.  I knew our “discussion” about Katarina’s recent daycare learning was over when her reply to, “What does it mean to be good?” began with a frustrated “Behave, but I want to play with the pink pen.”   There is a modicum of uncontrolled impulsivity that we tolerate from toddlers.  Sometimes, I wish I could be as honest.  Unfortunately, adulthood turns pink pens into sacrificial offerings.  If Charming asked me a question about packing boxes and I evaded with an admission of how much I’ve been craving Anna’s pizza, we’d both conclude I was running from something.

Part of me wants Katarina to keep holding on to those pink pens; that tenacity and focus, when wielded in the right way, will be weapons of choice for her.  These kids read, and because of that, they know a lot more than I expect them to.  Learning, however, isn’t restricted to the reading corner in the living room of my brother’s home.  As a reading specialist, Gabrielle’s passion for literature is deep-seeded in the DNA coding of these tiny humans I love so much.  Likewise, it’s true of my other brothers’ families as well.

The more they learn, the more they will grow.  There will be so many more firsts for my nieces and nephews, soon to be seven of them, scattered along the East Coast.  For the next three years, I can resolve my mind to accept that I will miss some of these firsts.  Like my writing growth has taught me over the past three years, learning is exponential, and there will be thousands of firsts waiting for me on the other side of a thousand days on another country’s soil growing a new life with my new husband.

A toddler taught me what I need to know for the moment, to quiet my moving worries and woes.  I need to listen and obey and follow the rules.  I will be good if I behave.  I will be liked if I’m unique.  Dr. Seuss was always a favorite author of mine, long before Gabrielle featured his legacy in her reading corner.  He played with imagination, showing children why to color outside the lines.

I see the cultural paradox: a constant propulsion of sameness, oneness, uniformity, and conformity as the behavioral management of society’s classroom juxtaposed against the creativity and imagination that will be required of individuals to distinguish themselves in a twenty-first century working world.

I pray that while Katarina learns about the similarities and differences in the eyes, hair, and skin color that she also learns the value in her desire to use that pink pen, that the world won’t stifle all the impulsivity and will and spirit that makes her impossible not to love.

Charming and I share that love of reading, too. I’ve watched him prop a couple kids at a time on his lap and give it his all.  I admire that.  We read, we grow more.  We learn, we go places.  Dr. Seuss may not have had Germany in mind, but my subconscious has been there most of the evening while I’ve been writing, I’m sure.  While my nieces and nephews are racking up their firsts, I think Charming and I will find a few dozen or so of our own to fit into a thousand days abroad.

I can only imagine the places we’ll go, that the little ones will go, before we’re back in the photographs for a week’s family vacation in the Outer Banks.

A Writer is Born

The seventies spring breezes tease me these days, beckoning me outside to see and savor.  Weeks of afternoons brimming with adolescent adventures in poetry are starting to run together, and I find myself as inspired as my sophomores, itching for an authentic night where I can write and feel, to apply the same tips I’m teaching these kids to get writing ideas and express them… maybe even without rhyming.

One of my suggestions in my “How to write poetry if there is a right way” lesson is to go outside and pay attention.  We did that in my honors classes, but a visit from the governor kept my average class inside even after I’d promised an excursion.  When they finished the block with a water bottle fight, I ascertained I’d made the correct call keeping them out of the hallways where they might bring mischief to the attention of some of our most influential stakeholders.

Earlier in the block, I’d explained for the third block in a row that I would teach when everyone had finished their first task.  What should have taken five minutes took twenty, and a one girl complained that it wasn’t fair that they all had to wait for the few lazy stragglers.  While I resonated with her, it’s impossible to teach the faithful over the chaos of post-lunch sugar rushes and flexing hormones.  Allergies and adolescents challenged my voice to echo over the chatter.

The reality was, some of them were intrigued.  I had to look past the clumsy disorder of the rest of the teens in the room to reach the few kids who might find, like I did in spring of my sophomore year of high school, that they are not just people who write… but they will find identities for themselves as writers.  They will find freedom and meaning in the cathartic process of putting pen to paper, abandoning structure and syntax to maximize the free flow of synapses into sentiment.

In short, when I write, I make meaning of life.  I try to teach my kids to do the same.  I see the knock out rose on my way to the porch and have to stop, sniff, savor, and connect the dots.

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My student aide whose blogging pseudonym matured from Star to Stella this year was in their shoes not too long ago.  In her post last week, she devoted written words to her thoughts and feelings as she poured over my past entries, denoting all the similaries in our thematic trends despite the double-decade age gap.  She was right, and she dove deep into her writing identities.  Most days, she shakes her head and wonders, like me, how we’ll get this bunch of students to stop rough housing long enough to teach them the freedom she found two years ago.

Yet, somehow, it’s happening anyway.  One girl anxiously showed me the poem she’d finished after our lesson today.  Another emailed me one to look over.  The first had potential. The second made my heart break.  She’s just a quiet child on the outside, but clearly, this young woman has a coming of age story waiting to be told.  With disjointed line breaks that fit her subject, she underscored what appeared to be grieving a mother choosing drugs over her children.  Was it a true anecdote that inspired this?  I may never know, but the incredible depth of detail suggests that it is.  Maybe, like Stella and I, writing will become her confidant and she will find freedom in facing reality by escaping into language.

Looking back on the past week of trials, I have no idea how great poetry is emerging from the unabashed, uncontrolled chaos.  It seems that this particular blend of adolescent egos thrives on defying structure and syntax – some of them enjoy breaking the rules, and knowing my audience, I sold them poetry as their one chance at an experience with writing that didn’t bind them to their brick and mortar chairs.  I told them that I knew my English nerds would love this unit, but I’d designed it for those young people who were not inclined to fall in love with it the way they are finding this spring.

I don’t look forward to this class.  They take everything I can give them, and for their sake, the more that I have, the better they are for it… because I’ve been reading some of their “first tries” at poetry.  I’m wrong to call them kids.  I was relatively sheltered in white suburbia where Jewish doctors had the best reputations.  It took getting my heart broken at fifteen years old to unearth authentic writing material, replacing the shallow, rhyming odes to love or nature that had dominated my attempts up to this point.

These “kids” are rising to my challenge to push the envelope by writing about those subjects that shake their souls, the good and the bad, and many of them have a loss of innocence tale to tell in shadowed stanza form, where all the academic social wrongs are protected by freedom of expression.  It’s happening in my average class to a degree, but in my last block class today, the poetic synergy was staggering.  How do you write poetry?  I rhymed in my grade school years because I didn’t know what made anything else an actual “poem”.  There’s been an equally tempting spring breeze calling my fourth block class to embrace this unit and expose themselves.  For that to happen, they need to feel safe.

We’d played with poetry during our writing workshop this afternoon, passing around colored sheets of paper on which each member of the class was to add a line of poetry.  There would be four papers circulating: two yellow poems where each student could see one line before theirs, each folding the previous students’ line over his own before passing it on.  You expect a little continuity, but the emerging poem we shared aloud before the bell gave me chills.   It was as if, in the safety of our poetic cluster, primed by the carpe diem lens with which Dead Poets Society’s John Keating first laid the groundwork, had united my teens.

We were all stunned to silence after recitation.  Devices were seamlessly intertwined.  They were one in their pain, in their joy, in their boredom, in their search for meaning. Two green papers circulated as well.  For these class poems, each student simply independently penned one line of poetry to contribute before folding her line over and passing it on.  Blind poetry, perhaps?  Ultimately, I’ve been doing these activities for over a decade, and there are always a couple of jokers.  I expect that.  We giggle a little at the lines that don’t fit, and we derive meaning connecting the lines that weren’t intended by the authors.  It’s fun.  The spring breezes tempted us all outside our comfort zone, however, it seems.

We shared just one of each of my fourth block’s creations.  I had teens hungry for poetry on the edges of their seats after the first two, so I wielded the power to wait and share the last two next block.  After all, there was no way that any class poem, not in all my years of teaching, could culminate into a class poem of more epic proportions.  It was as if twenty teens were sharing the same wavelength.  Every line flowed.  There was a common theme, a story woven that wasn’t what each, individually, intended to tell in the poem.

That’s the beauty of poetry.  It defies social boundaries, laughs in the face of traditional English language conventions, walks the line of school appropriateness.  When Charming sweeps me off to Germany this summer, maybe it will be that time in my life, finally, where I get to be a writer.  For now, as I coax this harmonious fourth block class to the finish line, I feel like I could retire.

Stella and the sophomore stars are still figuring out how they shine best, playing with poetry and words, but exposing themselves takes courage and insight that I’m honored to witness this spring.  When the breezes beckon me outside to write, I take my kids instead.

For now.  There’s some other writers who need to be born, first, I think Charming would agree.

81 Days

In eighty-one days, my landlord will hand over the keys to the rented house I’ll have hailed as home for four years of my adult life.  After a brief honeymoon, Charming will hand me one set of matching keys to a house we haven’t bought yet, and we will make it our first home together.  It’s either a miracle or madness to think in just three months time, I’ll be a foreigner on German soil, starting a forever and always that resembles nothing akin to a familiar lifestyle.

It’s exciting and terrifying, wonderful and intimidating.  Yes, it’s all those things that everyone asks me, sometimes separate, almost tangible feelings I can isolate and analyze, but also occurring simultaneously such that prevention of the bubbling, meandering train of conflicting emotion finds me simply nodding and agreeing that, yes, it’s an amazing opportunity, but it’s scary, too.  Not particularly profound.

It’s what I don’t say that would entertain a passerby at the intersection of sentiment and logic somewhere in the limbic system of my brain.  There is no way we could recreate the potential life experiences and adventures available to us when we touch down at home base in Stuttgart, Germany come mid-July.  The ability to travel and interact with other cultures will certainly broaden our perspectives and cement our commitment to global citizenship by situational catalyst.  That’s to say nothing for what an incredible career opportunity my husband will settle into in the week to come.  That’s the plan, anyway.  He’ll go ahead and start his post while I wrap up my last eighty-one days as a high school teacher in Hampton, Virginia.

Our world is going to get a lot bigger.  Right now it’s hard to see past the daily grind of poetry lessons, yearbook training video scripts, workouts and physical therapy, and attending to the neverending car repairs that suggest my faithful Honda ages like a dog – eleven years has my Bella panting, ready from a break from my Pokemon hunting cruises and trips back and forth to DC nearly twice a month for over two and a half years.  It moved me here from Syracuse four years ago, and there from Nashville eighteen months before that.  I bought the white Fit the summer before my divorce, and Bella has quite literally carried me through half a dozen crises, keeping me safe despite my predisposition to wreck, navigating me from new home to new home.  She won’t be making that flight with us.

It’s a new era.  The Dunkin’ Donuts app can tell you my favorite coffee break is at 9:45 am.  The folks at the front desk after school haven’t needed to scan my card in ages.  At Marker 20 downtown, the bartenders will ask if I’m having the “regular”.  Whereas my first day of school it took me fourteen minutes to navigate the three-and-a-half mile straight shot from my place to Kecoughtan High, Bella can now effectively execute a nine-minute commute with nearly a dozen right and left turns to weave me past red lights and congestion.  I recognize the names of the players as the announcer’s voice drifts with the Darling’s stadium lights to my front porch, reminding me to walk over and watch our football team (or take pictures of them and the stands is more accurate).

When I first landed in Hampton, there was no “my Fort Monroe Beach” programmed into Bella’s antique, USB powered GPS unit which would take me to my preferred parking spot on countless days and nights in the years I didn’t know I would love.  Of course, it’s difficult to consider what the next eighty-one days will require of Charming and me, but the ones to come?  We really can’t imagine.  At least in America, I know my day will start with a Keurig coffee that never truly tastes good in comparison to the one my former student will hand me at Dunkin’s window between class changes a couple hours later.  Would finding another Fort Monroe beach spot comfort me when it’s partly cloudy year round?

I couldn’t imagine the quality of life and sense of belonging I would find in a rented bedroom that had room for a family I wouldn’t start while living here, as I’d hoped a lifetime ago.  I didn’t know I would wind up on a first name, text-exchange basis with a mechanic for every auto specialty need, or be greeted with a hug by Robin at the cigar shop with an empathetic question that lets me know he’s read my most recent blog post.

I don’t know what our lives will look like in Germany.  In fact, the only thing that will be in Germany that I will have already seen, known, and been familiarized with for years is going to by my new husband.  Charming is the reason I will face the miracle or madness of starting over together in a foreign country.  After the honeymoon period ends, my plan is that we’ll be clinging to each other, forced to thrive as a team or perish in the Black Forest of our best intentions in forging our own paths.

This weekend was the first time I’d seen my fiancé in a month.  That’s twice as long as we’ve gone in the past without refilling Charming’s quality time, love language fuel tank.  Adoration and affection rank hand in hand for what’s most likely to get me to bend over backwards and cook a homemade meal with a bum shoulder, so we were both feeling pretty emptied upon first encounter.  A theme of the weekend seemed to be teamwork, recognizing that we have a lot of hurdles to clear in the next eighty-one days, and simply creating and beginning implementation of a plan that finds us officially married, moved out of two homes, belongings shipped or stored, and in possession of all the legal documents necessary for this move.

I’ll admit, last week when Charming clued me in by phone as to the coming weeks’ demands, I practically froze, the anticipated stress already working its debilitating magic.  However, after an afternoon systematically agreeing on the future of each piece of furniture in both of our current houses, the myriad hurdles remaining didn’t seem so insurmountable anymore.  I left DC with a renewed spirit, hopeful about the means which this particularly end will justify for us.  We filed paperwork for government passport identification, and Charming asked me a serious question.

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“What will your name be?” he’d posed, clarifying that it was an actual question.  Perhaps he didn’t want to assume I’d be traditional, but I’ve never been anything else than that and a hopeless romantic, though the oxymoron isn’t lost on me.  In Nashville, having a double first name was as common as beans and rice were at my former in-law’s dinner table.  It does, following logically, allow for the addition of a middle name.  Today, after thinking the question over, I asked how Charming would feel about my maiden name becoming my middle name.

His response over the phone truly warmed me despite the cold, April showers outside.  His support of carrying my Italian heritage over into our forever and always was perhaps an unintended expression of a love language I understand without any translation.  Maybe, like me, he’d considered the possibility that I’d relish the opportunity this move affords me to travel abroad to my ancestors’ towns and villages, in a hopes to write our story.  Keeping the namesake between who I and my husband have always been, this link to my Italian heritage, it makes the new name twice as special.

It’s possible to feel two things at the same time: excitement and fear about moving halfway around the world, or about getting married, or about shoulder surgery, or about packing up my life into boxes to be shipped, stored, or trashed.  It’s possible to be Charming’s wife and an Italian-American searching to unearth her family’s legacy and answer questions we didn’t know to ask yet.  Anything is possible.  A lot can happen in eighty-one days, and a lot has to happen.  I’m confident, though, with Charming and dividing and conquering where necessary and teaming up whenever geographically possible, that we’ll start over like I did and Hampton and find ourselves saying goodbye to our German mechanics and cigar and coffee shop vendors.  Maybe it won’t be a beach, but they’ll be a place I’ll escape to find peace on the other side of the world, too, I’m sure.

In eighty-one days, everything changes.  In eighty-one days, our lives are ultimately unwritten.  Just our names, really, we’ll start over with… the best of two, dichotomies and paradoxes and oxymorons juxtaposed with a oneness I’m not sure I’ll understand fully until we’re thriving in Germany, doing life together in our home, where the only familiar thing I can imagine is the man I’ll marry.  In eighty-one days.

 

If I Can’t Plant a Garden…

It’s been three years since I built up the garden beds framing the off-center steps leading to the red door of my rented bungalow in Downtown Hampton.  Hauling scalloped red bricks, top soil, and brown mulch.  Digging out hollows, ripping out weeds, pulling at vines without ends.  The five azaleas bloomed in sequence then, like now, with two Starburst Strawberry pink bushes framing the front walk.  For three years, April meant planting… but I’m not tending a garden this year.

It seems almost anticlimactic.  A novice gardener, I didn’t realize that April’s showers would invite me to get my hands dirty.  For more than thirty years, it wasn’t a hobby to feel the sweet sweat of a spring sunset warming the back of my neck as my fingers tangled with roots.  Now, as the temperatures promise trends in warmer directions, I’m questioning my decision not to plant a garden.  Hundreds of hours, I’d surmise, I took to the earth in this little yard, laboring for beauty that was worth the wait.

In essence, I grew with my garden… each day, each month, each season.  We danced with Mother Nature, me and my evening glories and hydrangeas and impatiens.  We bloomed and died together, were reborn, and yes it sounds dramatic, but like trees growing side by side, my own roots are intertwined with those of the knock out roses I planted that first spring here when I desperately needed to see something beautiful grow from me.

With a new life to build in Germany in July after we’re married, it seems illogical to nurture a garden this year.  Vegetables are the practical seeds, starting indoors then transported to the soil about this time of the season.  Their harvest, however, wouldn’t come until I’m gone.  The time and money alone that a properly tended garden demands was enough to conclude I’d pass on the gardening this last year in my little home.  Then today, I when I broke out the Craigslist lawnmower and prayed it would work for just a couple more months, I realized that though the overrun beds call to me, my shoulder reminded me that it cannot tend a garden.  It couldn’t even start the mower.  If a neighbor had been watching me trying to get my left arm to pull the line, he had his entertainment fill for the evening.

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Once I had the coughing engine puttering pathetically, the lawn was a quick cut.  Unfortunately, walking the entire grounds of my property forced me to take in the full effect of winter’s neglect.  Dead leaves suffocate the flower beds while the vegetable garden is overrun with weeds and vines.  Trash peeks out from between the azalea bushes.  My knock out roses are out of control, entreating me to trim them back by pricking me as I walk by each day.  I could navigate that mower, but I was done.  I took one last, sad look at the neglected yard before tucking the lawnmower into the shed and dashing over to visit my brother’s kids.  No, as much as this house beseeches me to take to my knees and start weeding, I have to accept that my body will keep me from making this place a growing fantasia.

Charming asked me last week if I would have gone ahead with this surgery had I known the recovery would be six months instead of six weeks.  Of course not!  Who plans to pack up a house, get married, and move to Germany with a bum dominant arm?  My clumsiness is endearing to my students, fortunately, but the true loss exists in that which I won’t be able to take on.  Every day, I watch fellow gym rats curling and bench pressing and I long to leave the elliptical machine I’ve been restricted to in the aftermath and doom of this surgery to repair my rotator cuff.  I can’t do that.  I can’t do a lot of things.

When I started this blog, it was about my growth as a person and a writer through the inspiration of planting my first garden.  I can’t tend to the weeds in yard, but I can still write about it.  We’re fully immersed in our poetry unit now, and my sophomores are catching my writing fever.  The lessons fly by, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much they already know as we dissect masterpiece poems and figure out how author’s make choices about line breaks and punctuation.   Each class spent a day in the library, flipping through page after page of dozens of books of poetry.  Each student was tasked with selecting four poems.

One boy didn’t finish searching, and when I told him he needed to make some choices, he responded that he didn’t want to just pick any poems for a grade.  He wanted to pick his poems, like I’d promised him, the poems he’d stumble upon while searching that were just waiting for him to read words penned long ago by a stranger.  I smiled. He got it. Yes, I let him go back to the library.  I can’t tend a flower garden, but I’ve been entrusted with other gardens to tend.  I have a few months left to invest at Kecoughtan, and there are plenty of figurative weeds and vines to keep me mentally fit.

Perhaps because I have to keep ignoring the urge to go to Home Depot, I have extra energy to give my kids.  It’s paying off, too.  My last block class this afternoon shocked me with their insights on a complex poem.  Identifying devices used by a poet is now child’s play.  Now, they’re explaining that the alliteration of the “w” sound in “wind’s way and the whale’s way” from John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” actually simulates the sound of the wind and the waves, no Socratic leading necessary.  In the last line, he concludes with, “a quiet sleep and a sweet dream,” and one girl announced Masefield had used assonance to sooth us.  This is my fourth season planting at Kecoughtan, and this unit feels like the best in ten years of tenth grade poetry.  It was a very good day for me.  I got to see the blossoms of a different kind of planting.

When I mowed the lawn this afternoon, I thought about everything I couldn’t do because of the restrictions placed on me by my shoulder as prompted by my forlorn garden beds, adolescent epiphanies about poetry already forgotten with the demands of the current scenery. However, after a brief visit to my brother’s house, I suppose I’d had a little time to plant better perspective.  Katarina and Theresa were listening as I read them stories they had picked out for bath time, playing with their plastic toys and “reading” the words sometimes.  After Clifford caught the robbers, Kat exclaimed, “He got the bad guy!”  It struck me as funny coming from this three year old’s lips.  Where did she learn that?   When I finished reading a prayer, her twin Tessa piped up, “God made everything!”  I don’t have to wonder where she learned that, but it elicited an equal chuckle and grin from me.

They are three, almost four.  I’ve been growing with them like my garden and my classroom, I suppose.  There is so much they can’t do.  Kat and Tessa are some of the most beautiful bloos God’s planted in my life, and they remind me what is possible when you don’t know you have any limitations in the first place.  The twins make gains on a daily basis that are so subtle you’d miss them overnight, but even in a week’s time, roots deepen and they find themselves boasting about a new accomplishment… in complete sentences with vocabularies that remind me how grateful I am that my brother’s wife is an incredible reading interventionist.  I can’t wait to see all that they will do… even if Skype gets the corner on that market while we’re living in Germany.

After all, it’s like Kat said as I was leaving, “You’re family.”  I’m leaving Hampton.  I’m leaving my garden beds and my classroom on CD hall and my sweet nieces and nephews, but there are no limitations for the potential growth God has for them and for me beyond that which we can do now.  It doesn’t matter that I can’t dig out vines this year.

There are people in my garden to invest in now, while I can, where the potential for discovery will yield unexpected blossoms… like my nieces reminded me tonight.  I came home and saw only the pink azaleas framing the front porch, brilliant and beautiful without any help from me.  No annuals this year.  I’ll labor in syntactical soil where I tend to souls instead, where growth will continue long after I turn in my keys to the red door that marks my Hampton home.

Senioritis, Tampa Bay, & Unity

Yesterday morning at 8:20 a.m. when the morning bell rang at my high school, I’d venture that attendance was at an all time low for our graduating class.  Usually, a spring break recharges me, but as we embark upon the last quarter of the year at Kecoughtan, I find myself fighting something akin to senioritis. Just three months until the freshman I shuffled through Journalism I four years ago walk the stage to get those long-awaited diplomas.  There won’t be one for me, but nevertheless, I’m graduating, too.

For ten years I’ve drilled grammatical concepts and come up with clever mnemonic devices for mastering confusing concepts.  I’ve written English curriculum geared at engaging our digital natives in the discipline of analyzing life and sharing their informed perspectives with a world that only requires an internet connection to be published.  I’ve graded over 16,000 persuasive essays, hoping the evaluation reveals my kids have conquered organizational structure, transitions between and across well-developed paragraphs supporting and explaining valid reasons for established positions.  I’ve shepherded thousands of students through poetry explorations and career discovery adventure projects.

I’ve been in high school for nearly my entire adult life.  Tenth grade English is what I know, but does the niche I’ve carved out for myself unintentionally apply to life outside a school building?

After writing last Tuesday night, I couldn’t sleep.  There was no school, no impending pressures.  I packed up the car, and at 2 a.m. started out on a southbound highway.  By early afternoon Wednesday, I was soaking up the Florida heat as I checked into a little hotel room in Tampa Bay.  With Charming’s new job in Germany official, I was finally able to write about the questions and uncertainties I’ve been grappling with for some months now.  It was almost as though coming out in my blog about moving to Stuttgart for three years was a means of typing the removal of a mental boulder that, once eliminated, opened the floodgates of everything else I hadn’t been able to face until I’d written the first truth.

We’re getting married in July and moving to Germany.  This isn’t just my last quarter at Kecoughtan.  It’s the last few months of my single, adult life in America.  And if I am being completely honest, I haven’t liked the person I see looking back in the mirror for a while now.  This little impromptu excursion to the sun was an invitation for God to warm the coldest and most broken parts of me.  Unlike the patio heater that whirs beside me, Tampa’s breeze was subtle and silent, the heat of the day permeating the pavement until well past dark.  The feigning summer days comforted me as I faced all the other truths that come after deciding to move to Germany.

Who will I be after Charming and I get married?  I can teach on base or facilitate online classes, sure.  But do I want to?  I drove for hours.  I thought for hours, too.  Maybe I could get an internship at a German car manufacture and pick up some practical, enterprising skills to keep me relevant and fresh.  God only knew I would end up having enough car problems to turn a half a day’s drive into a two day trek back to Virginia after my soul searching was over and I would wish for that particular skill set.

On Wednesday night when Charming, unable to hide his surprise, asked me why I’d chosen Tampa Bay, I was almost embarrassed to admit it to him.  Because I know I’m going to be his wife in a few months.  We will live together, take meals together, do life together.  I’ll manage our home, and hopefully he’ll manage our finances (shameless plea, noted I’m sure).  We’ll try to expand our family.  There won’t be time for frivolous things in Germany, I imagine.

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Pokémon Go is just a game to some, but once Niantic rebranded the in-game battling system with raid bosses suggesting groups of ten or more, they forced individual players to organize into communities. When I admitted to my students this week that I’d gone to Tampa Bay because it was the one place in the United States where I could catch the regional Pokémon that spawn in Africa and South America, one joked that he didn’t know people still played the game.  I laughed silently because I could still picture realizing that the boy in the back row of my last class on the first day of school in August had been a raid battling buddy all summer long.

Honestly, I see the father and brother of a girl I took to Italy more frequently than my family simply because we share the same passion and are always trying to sneak in some common time to take down those big raid bosses.  We can’t do it alone.  If we want to be successful, we need numbers.  When we come together, I’m one of many, like the thirteen original colonies strengthened by forming one republic.  Who knew Niantic would support our year’s ploys for unity, too?

There probably won’t be time for Pokémon Go in Germany.  And I probably won’t teach tenth grade English in Germany either.  Well, at least not for a year.  I don’t know who I’ll be when I’m Charming’s wife.  I don’t know what our house in Stuttgart will feel like on Tuesday nights when I sit down to write.

I do know that with when this mid-distance relationship with Charming got serious, I started living for the weekends and began pulling away, a little at a time.  It wasn’t conscious, but the logical conclusion is that it would be easier to sever ties if they weren’t closely bonded.  After Charming proposed and I knew this would be my last year in Hampton, joining him in the D.C. area was a natural next step.  Now that we’re moving a half a world away, there are immediate choices: what needs to be moved? Shipped?  Stored?  Sold?  Purchased overseas?  This is what I thought about while I nestled myself into a deserted patch of beach between two lured Poké Stops and caught my first Corsola.

It means little to most of my readers, I’m sure, but the people who have kept me company through the long winter weeks of what feels like the longest year of my life will think it’s very cool.  I never imagined bumping into strangers in Fort Monroe who turned me on to a group chat in the summertime would lead me to find soulmates in Hampton locals who’d been driving the same streets, hitting up Marker 20 for drinks and a live band, all previously passing like ships in the night until a shared passion for an augmented reality game made loners into unlikely friends.

This morning, we held our third quarter award ceremony in my yearbook class.  Having successfully submitted all pages for this volume of the Tomahawk, some of our staffers deserved recognition.  There are a handful of girls who I’ve coached from freshman year through senior year on the Tomahawk staff who have always carried us.  We didn’t meet our final deadline on time, and these girls were honest in their quarterly reflections that they were experiencing senioritis.  In competition with prom dress shopping, yearbook wasn’t the priority it had been for them in years prior.  Today, as a part of our ceremony, we reflected on that reality and gave recognition to younger staffers who are still investing in their legacy in the green and white halls of KHS.

That’s it, I think.  Senioritis isn’t a slap in the face of integrity or work ethic.  I showed up ready to work yesterday, but each natural occurrence was suddenly a bittersweet potential “last time” I’ll do something.  For four years, I’ve lived more waking hours on the CD hall than in my own home.  My shins boast half a dozen scars from all the times I ran into the stage while I was teaching, swallowed the pain, and kept flow with the lesson anyway.  That’s what we do.  As teachers, we respond to the environment.  It’s never canned.  It’s never predictable.  There are always approximately twenty-six variables breathing new life into each analysis of Pat Mora’s “Same Song”, a poem that captures the adolescent struggle, a uniform battle common to the human experience of being disappointed by the reflection we see looking back at us in the mirror.  I can relate, too.

In reality, I’ve lost myself so fully in tenth grade English that I’m unsure what practical abilities I have.  I’m not a singer or a songwriter anymore, and perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise to shed some of the hats I wore to sift through the plight of the Jack of All Trades, Master of None life to which I have become so accustomed after over a decade in public education.  My acting skills are largely to credit for the fact that my average students performed as well on standardized testing last month as the district honors level student average.  If one deems me a better teacher, it’s only because I exhaust myself in pursuing creative new ways, on a daily basis, of selling my kids grammar and rhetoric just like an ad on TV.

If my students believe that their lives will be better, they will buy what I’m selling.  This morning, when my yearbook students and I got honest about this sneaking current of senioritis threatening to destroy our perfect submission record, we wound up engaging instead in a discussion of value.  For me, senioritis isn’t making me lazy.  It’s making me want all of these “lasts” to mean something.  This award ceremony, for example, we got deep.  We honored our traditional recipients, and then we took a few moments to get serious and think about the unexpected ways in which our yearbook theme can change the world.

The theme of 2018 Tomahawk is unity, that we are one of many, each of us contributing to the greater good, together separate and solitary, however paradoxical.  We’ve followed the thread of unity throughout our school year, documenting it in action and featuring our own people to highlight the celebrated diversity.  One of the interview questions we’d explored in the closing divider of the annual was what individual students were going to do to carry on the torch of unity next year at Kecoughtan, but given my recent soul searching adventure in Tampa Bay, I needed to take my kids deeper.

More than half of this class isn’t coming back to Kecoughtan.  They are graduating or, like me, moving away.  How does this theme we’ve tried to hit home for the student body apply after we leave?  Students struggled at first, but as I called them out one at a time, asking where they were headed next and then isolated the question, “What will you do to promote unity at Virginia Tech?” If our theme wasn’t just some fancily crafted words, how does it impact future life actions?

As I listened to seniors I’d coached for years offer statements about acceptance and diversity, about tolerance and time, about morale and equality… I felt the warmth of the Tampa Bay breeze return.  The kids said I was in a particularly good mood today, but the truth is they brought me back to the comfort of the ocean because our journey doesn’t end with the senioritis in June.  We’ve wrought real-world fights in our four years running the Tomahawk Press, dubbing ourselves the Memory Keepers.  Someone else will take that torch next year, but in our four years learning to be one of many, we found a community in KHS.

We unite in shared passions.  It’s happened in my English classes like with my yearbook kids.  And I was fortunate enough to stumble into a fabulous crew of raid buddies and make friends that are happy to keep me company while I play the game a few more months and bring my single adult life to a celebratory close… with a few rare Pokémon as keepsakes from Tampa, of course.

April Fools, God Forges

April started out right with our third Easter service at Restoration Anglican, our dream church nestled in picturesque Cherrydale, the Arlington suburb where Charming and I envisioned settling down after our summer nuptials. Washington-Lee High, just a stone’s throw from the church, reached out for an interview… but spring brings surprising beginnings, and when we buy our first house together, it will be in Germany, not Cherrydale.  No April Fool’s joke here.

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Germany wasn’t part of Charming’s epic Prince-posal.  With his three-year post at the Pentagon coming to an end this summer, he’d been applying to potential positions throughout the fall months, all located in D.C. like we’d imagined they would be.  We’d been engaged a few months when the Charming first mentioned Germany.  It would be a three-year post in Stuttgart working for the government, and his credentials made the application a logical choice.

We were at dinner in Old Town when he told me about the job post, and I could feel my pulse quicken.  It wasn’t excitement; no, I was stricken with fear.  Germany?  I didn’t know anything about the place, and it certainly wasn’t on any of my dream travel destination lists.  The country’s name even sounded cold as it coughed out of my mouth.  This wasn’t the plan.  I’d been waiting more than thirty years to finally grow roots somewhere and raise a family, and Restoration Anglican wasn’t in Germany.  If Charming took a job in Germany for three years, I’d likely be having my first kid on foreign soil.  No, this wasn’t the plan.  The threat to my vision of normal resounded in my mind for an hour or so.

Then, it was silenced.  Arlington was my ideal, but it would still be there in three years.

I can’t even say I prayed about it, but all I’ll ever be able to do to explain the sudden transformation is that God gifted me with a supernatural peace about moving to a place I’d equated only with war and persecution.  I told Charming then, and for the next few months of crickets as he waited for a call that might never come, that if we were supposed to be in Germany, that’s where we’d be, and if not, landing in Arlington was what we’d wanted all along.  We’d get an opportunity of a lifetime that would delay settling down, or we’d get our Cherrydale suburban manicured garden.  We couldn’t lose.

Mom was the perfect encourager during these months, sharing new ideas almost weekly for what Germany might hold for us in the years to come.  So in February, when Charming had interviewed for the position and got an email that he hadn’t been selected, we shifted our focus back stateside.  We weren’t supposed to be in Germany, after all, and the quiet lesson too sensitive to blog about was that I was ready to go anywhere Charming goes, and we would trust God to forge the path before us.

As soon as Germany was no longer on the table, I sent out my applications to specifically selected schools in Fairfax County and Arlington.  There’s a job fair there this coming weekend, and I put it on my calendar.  I’ve heard back from several schools, but I couldn’t follow through with them.  Two weeks after their break-up email, Germany hit send on a courting request that would officially launch Charming’s career into relevant orbit in the most incredible, God-ordained, perfectly designed position for him to thrive in meaningful work.  I didn’t care about the applications I’d labored on for a week.  Everything had changed. We had to make a choice, and in some ways, I feel like that’s Charming’s story to tell, not mine, though now it’s clearly no surprise which one we made.

This Sunday morning as I gazed around the familiar sanctuary, its hardwood floors echoing the usher’s high heels while finding visitors seating in the crowded pews, original artwork of the stations of Christ’s death and resurrection, fragrant spring perennials tickling at my nose, my heart broke a little bit for the first time since we made our choice.  The woman beside me had engaged me sufficiently in hushed conversation that I concluded she might have been my new best friend.  If I wasn’t moving to Germany.

The perennials are an Easter tradition for Restoration Anglican, and each family in attendance is instructed to pick one to take home with them.  I’ve always capitalized on the fact that we’re not married, and the side garden bed I built three years ago now has six plants to surprise and delight next spring, only I won’t be the one to enjoy them.  They’ll bless another family, and maybe another.  Passing over eggs and bunnies for a symbolic gift is an effective ministry; each spring, these perennials remind us of the resurrection of new life from that which was dead, and there’s layers of applications for me, knee deep in soil and dirt from every aspect of my life.

I was already giving up my home in Hampton to start over, so delaying that manicured garden in Cherrydale a few years isn’t a huge hiccup in the grand scheme of things.  The incredible network of family and friends Charming’s shored up over the course of the last few decades will still be waiting for us on the other side of a three year overseas adventure that neither of us could have known to dream of in our existences before now.  It was right to grieve in the wooden pew on Sunday, with Charming’s arm around my shoulder, laying to rest a longing to put down roots where I get to see a tree I planted start out as a seedling and mature into a great oak my grandchildren climb someday.  It was right to start our spring this way.

That’s the only moment I’ve been sad about this move, really.  We’re going to Germany!  After binging a dozen hours of YouTube videos and travel blogs, it’s not this foreign, unknown land anymore.  I’m going to see every fairy tale castle ever constructed!  From February 21st when Charming was offered the position until his installment was official last week, we existed in a holding pattern, restricting Germany chatter to close family and friends.  Having prided myself on authenticity in my blog, keeping this close to the vest forced me to peel back some of those layers of soil and dirt I’ve accumulated over time, wrestling with some uglier issues instead.  I don’t regret the vow of social media silence; this was our month of processing our new beginning and every implication that comes with it.

Charming and I love Restoration Anglican Church, and I still think it will be our home three summers from now, and I’ll still pray Washington-Lee High School will need another English teacher then.  I still have a supernatural peace about this move halfway around the world.  The flowers we brought home to plant in my garden remind me of the saying, “Bloom where you’re planted.” God’s planting us in Germany for our first years as a married couple, perhaps even for our first years as parents.

The last of my pink magnolia blooms are falling because they’ve seen the full course of their lives.  Charming and I are just reaching our prime, and we’ll bloom in Stuttgart or Cherrydale or Korea as long as we lean into each other and trust God’s forging the path before us.

When The Words Don’t Come

Spring may be in the air, but it hasn’t reached my front porch.  The cold taunts me even as the forecast promises it will be warmer tomorrow.  While Charming turned up the heat in Vegas for an epic March Madness Bachelor party last weekend, my stubborn refusal to turn the heat back on condemned me to feel every bit of those dipping, nippy, thirty-degree days and nights, colder still without a handsome man beside me.  I couldn’t remember what to do with a weekend alone, so Saturday I sat on another familiar perch, this one a deep cherry with Queen Anne feet.

The wooden bench isn’t worn, not like my writer’s niche; no, this tattered love seat has endured two moving trucks less than two years apart crossing at least a half a dozen state lines.  The cherry bench isn’t worn like the one in my parents’ living room in Upstate New York, still occupying the same space on the cuff of the Wedgewood blue oriental rug.  Nor is it worn like the stool that I substituted for a bench, the one I last felt beneath my fingers in a rented home on a cul-de-sac in Antioch, a curiously named suburb of Nashville, over five years ago.  Has it really been that long since I left my ex-husband, that 1906 Baldwin vertical piano, and the first decade of my adult life?

It has.  He remarried this year, or so the Facebook grapevine showed me.  We move on. Life moves forward.  We change.  We grow or weaken, but we never stay the same.  Six years ago, I was a devoted wife juggling a full time teaching career with a graduate program coming to grips with the reality that my husband couldn’t relate to the academic parts of me.  Honestly, I played dumb for the better part of the decade that I was with my ex, and I was a good actress.  They called me, “Casi Mexicana.”  It meant, “Almost Mexican.”

Despite the prominent role that intellect had played in shaping my childhood and adolescent path, education was neither respected nor necessary in the world my former husband grew up inside so many years ago.  He would tell me he wasn’t book smart; he was street smart.  This was never more true than when he sat on the stool from Grandpa Rubbo’s workshop that substituted for my piano bench, and no college degree could accurately award him for the masterful melodies he would make there, harmonizing with voice and keys, making me fall in love with the memory of a passionate musician whose only muse was me.  That would change in time, and eventually he’d stop writing.  He’d stop making music. His heart may as well have stopped beating in his chest, if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my collegiate and career pursuits to notice that he’d abandoned his music for a nine to five that would satisfy vested stakeholders, like my parents.

Perhaps we never should have been, but we were.  Perhaps his new wife is his muse now, and he’s making music again.  I’m not.

Charming likes to tease me after church services where folks have commented on my “beautiful voice”, saying, “See, you’re still a singer.”  Oh, but I’m not.  I used to wake up singing, carry that tune on through the shower and the rest of the day, having transformed a freewrite into a poem into the fourth revision of a song lyric that warranted a lunch break camping out in the chorus room, plunking out the accompaniment on a baby grand I liked to pretend was mine.  During class or rehearsals, Mrs. Quackenbush took the helm, but at lunchtime, I was alone in the oversized, carpeted room, and I made music best that way.

Best until I met my ex-husband, that is.  I’d made a demo when I moved to Nashville during college, but few people know that since I was quite confident early on in our dating relationship that there was only room for one performer.  I dabbled a bit in modeling and on stage, but my voice was reserved for three-part harmonies with my mother and father-in-law, slipping between familiar Spanish and English translations of favored choruses while my husband manned the drums; there, he was as equally brilliant as on my makeshift piano bench.

Five years, and there’s no music in my life.  I’ve got some fine-tuned Pandora stations that I’ve meticulously crafted over the last half a decade, but ultimately, apart from songs my gym mentor texts me with a note like, “Watch this all the way to the end, “ I hear what comes and goes on secular radio and the platform at Liberty Baptist Church.  I sing only during worship services.  I am not a singer anymore.

And I really wonder how that happened.  My junior year of high school, I averaged a fully produced song a week, with original lyrics and piano accompaniment.   This weekend, with Charming celebrating with his pals, I tried to do what I used to do before there was Charming, or really, back in Antioch, Tennessee when my diet was a steady balance of music and academia, one foot in each world and happy because of it.  My rented bungalow with the red door in earshot of Darling Stadium, the place where my students throw down on the football field each fall, is usually quiet anyway.  Maybe it wasn’t so much as Charming’s absence as it was a couple of days without formal obligations that found me trying to wear down the cherry wood of the piano I bought in Hampton shortly after Charming and I started dating, after I made my bucket list.  There were notes, but there were just no words that hadn’t been sung already before.

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My bucket list committed me to buying another piano.  It was the first thing I accomplished from my, “Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties” list because, coming at solely a financial cost, it was easy to arrange.  The grand beast was transported by my gym Mentor Chuck and some of his old cop buddies.  I’ll never forget the way they backed Lt. Col. Anderson’s truck up to the steps of this front porch, how they set up the piano just the way I wanted, how they left and I sat down to try and write a song.  How no song came that night, in the quiet.

Two and a half years later, I’m still trying.  I’ve written several enticing chord progressions, but there are no words.  Do I spend all my words here in this blog, leaving no creative originality for the musical meanderings of my mind?  I posit that it is more likely that my inability to write music stems from one of two things: either, that music was the bond my former husband I shared to a fault, and without him, it seems an empty pursuit.  Or, I grew up and realized that the world didn’t revolve around me, that half of the kids I taught in Nashville would make names for themselves as performers, but that I was just a high school teacher.  What message do I have to share?

My love affair with music is longer seated even than with writing, though my favored mistress shouldn’t be jealous.  Of course, solid writing was at the foundation of the songs I’d write, starting as early as third grade when I was trying to convince the pastor’s son that girls did not actually have cuties. I sang in the church choir in elementary school.  I did all our school plays. Mom schlepped me to auditions for community theater, and then she schlepped me back for all the rehearsals to come.  I think I truly believed I would make it in the music world, that I would be famous, either as an actress or a singer-songwriter, and that in that obvious success, I would have proved my worth.

This weekend, I tried to write a song.  That’s on my list of things to do in my thirties as well, and I’m already halfway through this decade.  Why can’t I write a song?  My fingers somehow still compose.  Eyes closed, each digit finds the right note to depress and release at just the right time.  This piano is barely broken in, having been secured in a season when I was only the artist formerly known as a singer or a musician.

I think when I wrote and sang in my pre-teens, adolescence, and even in my twenties, that it was all about me.  I would change the world, right? I wasn’t a millennial, so I’d mastered my craft to make that claim… only the world wound up changing me first.  When I try to write lyrics now, I close my eyes and I’m back at the enormous vertical 1906 Baldwin I had to leave behind when I left my ex-husband.

Writing came back.  Will music?  Will I ever sing in the shower again?  It’s been five years, and every time a familiar worship chorus plays, I still hear it first in Spanish and still choose the second part harmony, still hear my former in-laws’ voices intermingling with mine in an almost supernaturally inspired way.

There’s a picture of me, full head of dark hair, standing on my toddler tiptoes to reach the ivory keys begging to be played just like my oldest brother, David.  His son is now tickling the keyboard, too. His daughter wants to pursue theater, like I did.  This weekend, while my fiancé accumulated incredible memories with his friends, I bonded with an Italian hymnal with songs my great-grandfathers composed decades ago.

It’s so cold tonight, but it will be warmer tomorrow.  There’s always a frost after the cold.  My magnolias must have deep roots to keep boasting pink and white blossoms morning after morning.  Perhaps I should see a lesson in this unusually long month of blooms. After my divorce, it took a long time for different parts of me to thrive.  I think the roots with music go deep enough to face that challenge of writing another song, even if my words and melody are simply for an audience of one.

With the spring comes the thaw, and tomorrow will be warmer.  Warmth is always a more inspiring foundation for original thought.  It doesn’t matter if it changes the world like it did at fifteen.  At thirty-five, I just want it to change me.

Sentiment vs. Syntax

The porch light catches magnolia blossoms half-trodden on the glistening sidewalk before me as I write and remember all the nights spent on this white wicker love seat with the same view. Only, blog post nostalgia begs me to reconsider: the dim, post-rain fog that surrounds me on the first night of spring fails to comfort like the warm breeze that stirs up my wind chimes in mid-June. The setting varies with the seasons, and my perspective tags along.

It’s never really been the same view. My body settles into cornflower blue paisley cushions worn to my shape, and I finish this sentence after stopping to evaluate the necessity of a comma after blue in the previous independent clause. I accept that the Writing SOL exam for my sophomores was last week, and my thoughts can take precedent over syntax like our new units. We’re writing poetry and fairy tales for the next two months, after all. If e.e. cummings can spell his name in lowercase letters, the grammar guru’s genius is eradicated by prioritizing the writer’s voice and message over command of language conventions. If there are no rules in poetry, then the sky is the limit. If the kids are lost in a fairy tale, they will believe anything is possible.

As my students have transitioned from the Art of Rhetorical Persuasion to discover the taste of freedom, as the five paragraph essay basic, staple mainstay fades from foggy adolescent memories, so I find myself allowing more latitude in every area. I’m not as young as I used to be, and my shoulder reminds me in subtle and sledgehammer ways that it has a broken bone, for goodness’ sake. In turn, I’ve been more submissive, bending to the rotator cuff’s will. I will tolerate a degree of organized chaos, ignoring dusty surfaces no one will notice but me and consolidating clutter to appropriate junk drawers.

My gym mentor Chuck helps me sort through life’s clutter. After describing the type of pain I’d felt the day I’d forgotten my sling at work as my arm being pulled downward, Chuck said something profound: “Gravity works against all things… with time.” It was just that way, with a pause for emphasis, and it struck us both squarely as we shifted contexts, and subsequently, we shifted perspectives, too. I could hear my brain cue up Pandora as John Mayor’s voice filled the empty space. It’s working against me, wants to take me down. Gravity is metaphorical. Chuck had been literal, and yet, his words echo and resound every day as I see a new application, even catchier than the pop song lyrics.

Gravity literally weighs on my shoulder without the sling, and I feel the way it works against me. When I look in the mirror, I see the way that gravity has worked against me and know it will continue to add even more wrinkles and make skin sag in a manner that won’t let me pass for twenty-nine anymore. Last April, I was squeezing into size ten jeans. Now, my size two A-line skirts from personal training days are seeing light after a decade in storage. Unfortunately, even though I can fit into the Forever 21 crop tops causing dress code violations at school, I’m too old to actually wear them in public without pulling them down every other second.

We’re never completely satisfied. When our instinctive desire to be better wins out over passive participation in entertainment, the varying perspectives are far more entertaining when experiencing the real world. I’ve done that from this front porch, and I’ve never seen the same two Tuesdays, not in one hundred and fifty-eight nights of blind typing or the near quarter of a million words spilled out of my brain onto the page and shared with friends and strangers who happen to connect with something in the way that I saw life on that particular evening, still and silent on a street that soothes me with the familiar comfort of the collective nights in which I responded to the setting this porch gives me. And yes, that sentence was correctly punctuated, not that it matters to e.e. cummings.

One of those connections was Charming, but I never could have known that starting a blog would amount to finding my husband. Gravity has worked against us, too. Two and a half years of a mid-distance relationship takes its toll. In our fragmented time together on the weekends and stolen handfuls of phone conversations to tide us over until Friday night. The drive on 95 wears on us both, and planning a wedding across state lines adds to the load. The restricted use of and resulting clumsiness combined with the nagging pain and associated sleep loss caused by my right arm keep me at a resting irritability rate of about a five on a scale of one to ten.

I know I’m not fun to be around, but I can’t expect Charming to overlook my snarky retorts and be my knight in shining armor at the same time. Gravity is weighing on him, too, as his career future has taken an incredible turn that will mean everything changes, for him and for us. I’ve written about all my worries for the world to see, but my Charming will bear the weight on his shoulders because he knows I’ve only got one right now. I learn lessons when I sit here. I told myself in a blog post months ago that I can’t put the burden of my happiness in Charming, that experiencing joy originated somewhere else, that I could be at peace even if I wasn’t smiling all the time.

Molded into these blue cushions, I gaze out at the same magnolia tree opposite my loveseat in my front yard. This afternoon, I was surprised by how long they’ve been in bloom. Perhaps rather than confusing the Japanese trees, the colder temperatures gave my block a couple more weeks of brilliant color. Today, even against the rain, they made me smile. My writing journey reveals the seasons I experience just like my magnolias. There were nights I looked out at barren branches and saw the cold in my own heart. Other times, the late setting sun inspired a hopeful optimism as the full shade of green leaves kept me comfortable.

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In one of my very first posts, I fixated on the great, old oak tree that fell on Valentine’s Day three years ago. It was my first nature analogy, setting the stage for the way my writing would take shape and find its own voice and message. Almost always, my perspective fits my magnolias and the weather. Tonight is the same, so night is ever the same. You can’t see the pink blossoms in the dark of night, but they are there. It’s cold, but it will get warmer soon. That’s how I’m feeling about my life right now, too.

Even as I pen these words, all sparked by Chuck’s unintentionally powerful statement. Gravity works against all things, and it’s the “over time” part that matters. Gravity doesn’t affect Word documents, but it affects everything else in my life. Gravity took down that oak tree, but it took a hundred years. For three years, I’ve devoted a night to my mistress, and unlike e.e. cummings, the intentional act of routine writing has led me to a masterful command of language that tantalizes me.

Weaving words and wisdom in attempts at wit challenges me, and there’s no one who gives better advice than Chuck. If the stars align, and it seems they might, I told Chuck to start hitting the record button on his smart phone whenever he starts spilling out one of his inspirational stories from his days on the force. It doesn’t seem fair to the world that all his wisdom is wasted on an audience of one.

What if my mistress could be more than that? I could ghost write Chuck’s book of motivational anecdotes. I could write my mom’s story the way we’ve always dreamed about doing in the hazy someday. I could visit all the places in Italy where my ancestors lived and worked and write the book I don’t even know I’m supposed to write yet. What if?

When Charming and I get married, I will become his wife. That will undoubtedly bring a new perspective, one that will never see these magnolia trees shed their blossoms. Despite the dark, I look out and see the colorful pink I know will be there in the morning. We’ll move into a home together, and I’ll find a new writer’s perch, and I’m already wondering what will replace the magnolias to inspire and delight my writing love affair.