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.

Why Should I Keep Writing?

The sun sets earlier now. All the restful trips and staycations hopefully prepared Virginia teachers for the decathlon of pre-service: a week and a half long obstacle course where we juggle meetings, classroom prep, and curricular planning amidst a sea of welcomed interruptions and uninvited distractions.  We’re in it together until the final bell; then, we take on our personal challenges as solo mission, like me alone on my porch again, writing again, vexed by nagging imbalances that find peace illusive tonight.

For three and a half years, I’ve been writing my way to revelation in a public forum.  I ended a long distance relationship that had stalled out like my evening glories lackadaisically meandering up the side of the porch, all green vine potential but perhaps too late to see any white blossoms this year. That break up worked its way out in the soil of the garden beds I built.  As I labored in the mulch, my brain toiled in the dirty, forsaken corners of my mind.  I wrote through my gardening reality and unearthed analogies with figurative significance and unexpected insight.

Spring gave way to summer three years back, and the gardening analogies extended beyond broken heart to chronicle online dating disappointments and disasters.  I’d typed my way toward an epiphany resulting in cancellation of my eHarmony account, committing to dive into my career; Charming was reading about my journey from half a state away – he wasn’t my ex-fiancé then, just an old friend from college who’d caught my blog on his newsfeed a few times and reached out to suggest we meet.

It wasn’t quite three years ago.  I’m still holding on to summer.  He entered in the fall when I didn’t know how many seasons we’d share, that there would be a limit, that I’d truly believe he was my forever and always and so firmly reject that in this soft, Autumn eve with a cool breeze that soothes my aching brain muscles.  For two and a half years of manufactured, weekend-long dates traded along I-95,  I wrote through the joys of the honeymoon phase, the frustration of the waiting room, the anxiety of getting older, the fear of missing out on the miracle of motherhood.

When my readers had already fallen for him, too, I reenacted Charming’s epic proposal with my words.  This blue cushion is worn with nearing two-hundred consecutive Tuesday nights of my growth.  It happens in the garden, in the kitchen, in my classroom, but like the evening glories or a water kettle or a kid writing better, I don’t see the fruit or the inspiration in the moment.  This writing perch is anointed by a weekly willingness to expose my faults and failures.  How can I be embarrassed when I see only the moment I am in, this truth, this attached perspective?  When I trust the authenticity of my voice enough to return to my favorite spot in the house and go to the least favorite places in my mind, I equally trust the tenacity with which I once believed I would spend the rest of my life with Charming.

Even when doing so lost me the support of some friends, when my immediate world was shaming me into silence, I wrote about it while trying to respect prescribed and logical limitations.  I broke his heart, mine, our families.  I I didn’t get married this summer, so I didn’t move away, and Tuesday still hold the same order of events.  My sister-in-law and I are just completing our decathlons in different districts.  Despite geographic changes, we settled swiftly into our family dinner night after my typical workout, and it pleased me to lend a hand and know the routine without asking too many questions; with both feet in Hampton, at night anyway, I feel more present in the kids’ lives like before weekend-long dates.

I don’t have it all figured out, and that might worry people who encountered my professional persona.  My former students form a love-hate relationship with the order and structure, receiving a calendar for the first quarter the first week of school along with a packet of prepared pages numbered chronologically for the first nine weeks, noted in the calendar and daily PowerPoint presentation.  I’m yawning.  I’ve done this for eleven-plus years.  I spent enough summers cross-training by preparing the entire year’s curriculum before the first day to realize that teacher burn-out doesn’t feel like I thought it would.

No, teacher burn out is more like overtraining, where in well-intended dedication, you give everything you have for too long.  My high school track coaches taught me to push my body beyond its limit, or I wouldn’t have made it to state qualifiers in my second year; I pulled my hamstring in that race, when it counted.  Do I regret the counsel, favoring knowledge of a singular injury that I’d hurdle past amidst two more seasons, indoor and outdoor, where I would be a healthy competitor?  I meant well in all my passion and zeal, and there were people like Mama Melissa who gently (not subtly) tried to help save me from myself.

It happened when I left Nashville the year I turned thirty.  I stopped writing poetry or prose.  I couldn’t compose since I hadn’t touched a piano since I left mine behind in my ex-husband’s rented home.  A year working in virtual school administration out of a cubicle both equipped me with out of classroom work experience and served to remind me why I became a teacher in the first place.  Investing in the next generation of leaders and teachers and workers and thinkers… it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.  This past year, I knew I’d turn in the key to the classroom with the yearbook tree and hope the next teacher doesn’t paint over the handprints.  I put off submitting the letter of resignation even when my fiancé was scheduling our household moves to Germany.  I was immobilized by what was coming because this time I knew how painful it would be.

When I left Nashville School of the Arts during my divorce to try and start over near family, I lost a community of friends, like Mama Melissa, and students who are starting their own families now and occasionally messaging me updates after reading a recent post of mine.  I think I’d spent my whole life in schools, but each one preceding that had a max term of four years served.  I never planned to leave my husband.  I never planned to leave NSA.  I’d retire in that room with no windows and Mama Melissa just up the hallway.  Educators who love what they do can’t help but respond to the infinite need of teaching a whole child; unfortunately, there’s no divorcing my type A perfectionism.

The irony of our tragic fairy tale’s timeline has humbled me.  A summer of facing a different future than the one Charming and I had planned and accepting that the inevitable goodbye to the yearbook tree ultimately came, discovering the hope in the realization that I was still here, because that means I’m living the advice I give.  What message would I send to my graduated blogging club members if I stopped writing when my life got messy?

After a weekend of squeezing the company of imperfect people into never-ending handouts for the copy room pinned between two days in training sessions, our principal piled us into some buses for a field trip at Camp Arrowhead.  The activities, aimed at providing faculty and staff with an opportunity to develop rapport, connect, and boost morale… well, they did.  Mine, at least.

This morning felt more like I’d gotten a bye and saw a break in the competition against Thursday’s open house school bell.  My favorite exercise was a team task to create a parachute out of some provided materials.  My principal would have liked the dialogue as four assorted women navigated through balanced determination and respect, courtesy and suggestion, trying and failing, trying again.  Our parachute had good air time inside, but we hadn’t accounted for the wind variable at the outdoor launch location.  We failed in that we didn’t have the best time, but we’d bonded and invested so much that after the competition was over, we returned to the drawing board, made alterations through the break, and found our second parachute was flight ready.  The wind didn’t capsize our craft this time.

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It would have won, and to these four random women, forced to get to know one another in a the best attempt I’ve experienced yet, we did win.  The best strategy to avoid teacher burn out isn’t to love less or give less, it’s to invest jointly.  Every tweak we made to our parachute affected its flight course.  When I was watching it fly down to a new teammate, it was impossible to tell which of our contributions had worked.  All of our ideas were wound up in coffee filters, string, and paper clips, a final product that would not have existed were it not for the cumulative individual contributions spawning further changes and development.

The football games have already started at Darling Stadium, but they don’t have me waxing nostalgic to grab a camera and snap shots for the yearbook.  I’d prepared for that.  Few things in my life have actually been for forever and always, even when I thought they were going to be – not men, not teaching posts, not even whole states.  My world got bigger with this school re-alliance though, not smaller.  I still live in Hampton, still bump into students and former colleagues at the gym or grocery store, still smile when they don’t recognize the blonde me at first.  Now, I believe I have a true gift in my new job.  Starting over is always hard, but as I’m trying to get my room to function how it used to, I can picture her shuffling around in the other side of the wall, moving here after a summer playing Cruela de Vil in Disney, trying to imagine what she wants to create inside these four walls, envisioning what it will be like to teach her first set of students.  Create, not re-create, like I’ve been trying to do.  It’s helped me adapt and make my space new, too.

That was a role she played at Disney, but there isn’t a mean bone in this girl’s slender, dance frame… she’s more like a Dalmatian, sweet and loyal, but I know she can bite if provoked by a threat.  It’s reassuring seeing the start of school through her eyes.  This year, I want to work smarter and avoid burn out, give what I have and take the resources provided to do more than just survive a year while your students thrive.  Whatever parachute Dalmatian and I make, hopefully soaring SOL scores, I know it is going to be better and stronger if we tweak together, try and fail together, try again together.

I write alone on my front porch tonight, like every Tuesday night, because I didn’t get married and move away.  That wasn’t forever, and Nashville wasn’t, and this might not be either.  Mama Melissa still encourages me emails and letters, across so many thousands of days and miles. She reminded me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I don’t have everything figured out, but I’m not going to give up.  I’m not going to stop writing, even if I already lost the competition.

When I write, I grow, and I post my sentiments so that perhaps they might be one among many contributions that help another on Team Human get their parachutes safely soaring.

Sunglasses, Side by Side

Today was my second day of new teacher orientation, another eight hours of information overload, and yet already fresh faces feel familiar.  Crammed in an auditorium that’s a virtual black hole for cell service, my school’s latest hires are bonding as much through shared confusion over login credentials as in our mutual dissatisfaction at a forced farewell to the sweet summer still converging outside brick and mortar.  The hectic hype stills as I write into the dark, humid August night, bound to resume its reign with the sun’s return tomorrow.

The sun and students keep coming up, year after eleven years; in fact, the future is so bright, according to this district, that Human Resources handed each educator a pair of sunglasses on the way into training this morning as a symbolic gesture. Every teacher undergoes orientation when entering a school system, and we generally expect little.  I, for one, hope I join the seasoned faculty for pre-service with payroll, benefits, and online accounts in place so I can engage my brain in curricular endeavors and school-specific initiatives.  I didn’t anticipate our training would impact deeply, much less inspire.

The sunglasses, paired with an exercise where we walked twenty steps and shared with strangers our best idea to usher each student into a bright future, ironically opened my eyes.  Perhaps, after some years of service in any profession, we enter into required development opportunities a bit jaded or skeptical, having fought heavy eyelids out of respect to sub-par PD instructors during too many summer sessions when we were all too aware of those snoozing peacefully on the beach getting a tan while we endured yet another training that might never find application in the classroom.

Granted, even wading through benefit options can be a positive experience if you’re sitting beside the right people.  At my old school, we found each other naturally, and those bonds grew during my four years of in-service in the cafeteria with a temperamental, portable sound system. Maybe experience put us ahead of the learning curve, but I’ve made fast friends with a couple of transfers from my side of the water and a recent college grad still ironing out certification.  Though I’d awoken with hesitancy to leave my bed, body still resisting the early to bed mentality necessitated by the inevitable early to rise mornings, figuring out which grasses will be greener and which once more sparse was punctuated by laughter and sarcasm that won our foursome some annoyed glances.

The future certainly felt brighter today.  Even now, after the heavy clouds unburdened themselves leaving a methodical beat dripping from my drain pipes, I’m smiling at the thought.  Sure, the sunglasses seemed gimmicky at first, but we didn’t need to wear them comically indoors to understand the symbolic sentiment handed to us by those responsible for our growth, investing in us so we can foster student growth all year long.  Two weeks from today, we’ll begin to provide return on that investment, and we’re huddled in classes in school squinting at the projector screen so we’ll be ready by then.

During one session, a trainer mentioned they had more online resources now than actual “human” resources, gearing the hour toward ensuring we could access them and take advantage.  By midmorning, I realized that I had three human resources in my pocket already, and they might be the best takeaways from this district’s new teacher orientation.  It’s almost magical how various aspects of our myriad lives meet, marry, and intersect to make me believe a bright future not only awaits us… we’re existing in it already.  At lunch, over mediocre chicken salad, the four of us uncovered a shared interest in Once Upon a Time, taking care to avoid spoilers for those of us still binge-watching to catch up to the apparently controversial latest season.  The TV series chronicles the journeys of fairy tale characters living under a curse in a modern town with no memory of their previous lives as villains or heroes.  I thought I’d introduce them in my blog with pseudonyms derived from the show, but after our session on equity, I’m finding stereotyping more appropriate in a social context.

From the title, I jokingly admitted to my teammates that I thought this was going to be finance-related.  Instead, we were asked to identify ourselves on a worksheet using cultural terms, then answer a series of questions.  I chose Italian-American woman, and I could answer yes to almost all questions, that I could live and attend church where I wanted, find food I like and images of people like me in magazines, etc.  The trainer asked us to assume a different identity and answer the questions again.  I thought of my very first friend four years ago at the start of a different leg of my career, and quickly sobered at the realization that equality wasn’t equity for a gay, Hispanic professional.

The exercise was intended to help us understand that we have no idea what students are carrying in their physical or figurative backpacks on the first day of school.  We see what people want us to see.  The first thing that comes to mind when I remember my Spanish teacher friend is his infectious smile and contagious laugh that warmed my spirit during busy days at school and Wednesday night dinners at my place.  We talked for hours, at work and the gym and on my front porch… but I’d never considered the unique challenges he faced daily and hid behind that epic smile… challenges that didn’t touch me.  That realization touched me.

Our youngest addition to the English faculty sat to my right, identifying herself as a white female professional.  She’s joining us from Disneyworld, and you’d never guess this sweet Pennsylvania girl spent her summer playing Cruella De Vil.  Had I not died my hair blonde, students might believe we were sisters.  We used our lunch break to head to our school and work in our classrooms, side by side with windows opening to the courtyard.  My principal dubbed me her unofficial mentor since we’re tackling the eleventh grade.  He anticipated she would benefit from my experience, but he couldn’t have known how I needed her youthful optimism, positivity, and un-jaded wide-eyed wonder to remind me why I started teaching in the first place.  She doesn’t fit into a fairy tale.  She’s writing a new one, though the heroine is eerily familiar.

To my left in that session were two experienced teachers who taught together in a different school last year, and though I didn’t peek at their cultural identities, these thirty-somethings are as unique from me as they are from each other.  One is married, makes her own coffee creamer, and is perhaps the first teacher I’ve met that might be more geeky and tech savvy than I, with light skin that suggest beach visits are limited to an hour because she has twenty other things she wants to dive into that afternoon.  Her drive is palpable, her sarcasm is disarming, and I can’t wait to find out what she’s got in her back pack.

The last of our foursome is a single black male with a kid in grade school and another just in college, but he’s too young at heart for me to believe it.  I’d met him over the weekend at a gathering with our department, and he saved me a seat at breakfast yesterday as promised.  We have a lot in common, like quitting smoking and taking up vaping, our aversion of Apple products, and our affection for sarcasm, and undoubtedly, our attention deficits are magnified while sitting together.  His answers from the initial questionnaire in that session made me wonder what I don’t know yet that’s going to continue to round out my perspective of myself and others.  He’s strong and kind and curious.

When they handed me sunglasses in the auditorium lobby this morning, my eyes were still half shut.  After a day learning alongside my new teacher friends, I’m awake and alert and ready for the future we’ve already ushered in… even if I would have been content to just stay where I was before.  Our fresh-faced foursome has bonded as much in our shared interests as in our idiosyncrasies, personal plights, and our responses to cultural stigmas.

Today was confirmation that I am right where I am supposed to be, living my best, bright future, writing a new story with a resurrected heroine I thought I lost back in Nashville.  What’s more, I’m looking forward to my morning drive across the water to work because of these three people, newly positioned in my life.  Perhaps I’m catching some of our youngest’s optimism, but I think we’re going to make each other better in areas the Human Resources department doesn’t cover in handbook.

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The Tides that Bind Us

The typical calm the crickets chirp into my solemn street after sundown evades me as I settle in to face a restlessness that sound cannot soothe.  Tomorrow, my little Fit makes its first trek laden with my boxed-up career to a new classroom in a new school in a new district.  Despite more than a decade of teaching, a combination of excitement and fear stirs with uncertainty at all the unknowns that classroom will hold.

It’s times like these where I miss my mom’s encouragement.  I never imagined our daily calls would end, much less that I would initiate a time-out with my lifelong best friend.  Relations with my parents have been rocky since my engagement ended; I think I broke all of our hearts, to some extent, in his family and in mine.  While trying to pick up the pieces of my life following the happily ever after that never was, I just wasn’t strong enough to carry the burden of their broken hearts, too.

Recently, I attempted a conversation with my mother that only served to further my resolve that I am still not strong enough.  The desperate need for my parents’ pride and approval has motivated me all my life, and the absence of it now has forced me to take inventory of the dynamics in our relationships, ultimately finding my dependence on pleasing them has crippled my self-development. From childhood, my dream life was a mirror image of my mother’s across the decades.  I have always believed what they believed about everything from the right way to think to the right way to live.  A moral, Christian perspective shaped my formation, and that should be a good thing.

Most of the time, it is.  I’ve internalized high standards and set high expectations for myself.  I’ve been a classic overachiever, almost certain to excel at new job like the one I’m starting. I like fixing problems, even when they aren’t my own, and I sleep better when all is right with the world.  I’d like to think my friends consider me generous and empathetic, which are good qualities… except in addition to giving you the shirt off of my back, I’ll tell you how you lost yours in the first place and what to do to keep this one covering all.  When we love people, it’s human nature to want the best for them.  But what happens when our best isn’t theirs, when perspectives collide?

I was living in Nashville and was teaching my first batch of bright young minds when my best friend from high school ended our friendship in an email.  At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  Twelve years has diluted my memory of the words themselves, but the sentiment remains.  I’d always been there for her, giving her support and advice.    I’ll call her Jasmine, since her fiery independence both dumbfounded me and earned my respect.

Jasmine knew who she was and what she believed.  Yes, I was there for her, giving her support and advice even when I wasn’t asked.  When that email showed up in my inbox twelve years ago, a great injury was incurred.  I could tell Jasmine anything.  But the same wasn’t true for her I learned when she lived with me in a one bedroom apartment in Music City for a year during college.  I recall one conversation on my patio where she admitted to several secrets she’d been keeping since high school that made me wonder if I knew her at all.  The email that would come the following year explained why: she was tired of my judgment and condemnation.

For years, I’ve mourned that friendship but never understood what it was that I had done to bring it to an end.  Jasmine was trying to live her best life, and despite my best intentions, the advice and admonishments were incompatible with her perspective.  I loved her and I miss her still, that sweet voice that could still a sunset into submission, and I find peace now that the words in that decade-old email finally make sense.  I couldn’t see it then.  Then, I was right.

Now, I see the damage I did in that relationship because I thought Jasmine’s life would be better if she’d only take my advice.  I could confide in her without fear of disapproval, but the same wasn’t true for her.  I see her face pop up on my Facebook news feed now with her children, and clearly Jasmine didn’t need my counsel to build a beautiful life for herself.  The anger and hurt that email set in motion have no power now.  There is peace in understanding, even if it’s too late to say, “I’m sorry,” and start over.

I’m not sure that I would be a better friend yet, anyway.  They say acknowledging the problem is half the battle.  If I’d been a real best friend, Jasmine wouldn’t have lied or kept secrets from me out of fear of facing my moral standards.  There must be a balance, a respect that transcends differences in opinions, a dynamic that encourages honesty and fosters openness, I just haven’t found the line yet.  I thought that I loved her by pushing her toward my best for her life, but being overbearing eventually drove her away.  We choose our friends.  Why would Jasmine keep company with someone who consistently made her feel badly about the choices she was making?

I stole away for an hour today to Fort Monroe beach, just to be alone with my thoughts and creation.  The tide was coming in, and I had to move my towel out a few yards back to stay dry.  Long after I left, I know the tide receded.  That place where the water meets land changes all day long, sometimes high and sometimes low, but you can trust the dynamic of that cycle.  Perhaps if the boundaries in my friendship with Jasmine has been more like the shifting tides, she wouldn’t have to take the shirt off my back without bracing herself for the lecture to come.  Love is a moving force, like the ocean water, and it can as equally cultivate growth and life when balanced as it can destroy cities when it’s not.

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Beach days are almost over, and while I’d love a good pep talk from Mom about moving in to my new classroom tomorrow, I need to believe in myself.  The bottom line of every communication from my parents since the great break-up is that I will not be happy or successful unless I choose the Christian path I was raised to follow.  I believed what they believed all my life.  Now, I’m questioning that.  I’m questioning faith and God and relationships.  I want to know what I believe.  I want to be the kind of friend that people confide in for good counsel without fear of chastisement.

It’s been a while since I wrote about my Fairy Godmother who works at my old school, but we’ve been making the most of the last of summer’s Fridays by sunbathing and talking about everything under the sun.  I’m grateful our friendship continues, but most grateful to discover that she is that kind of friend.  She has faith and high expectations for herself and for me, but like the tide that washes over our toes when we’re chatting in the sun and surf, there’s a healthy dynamic that encourages growth. There’s just one more beach Friday left, but I think my friendship with my Fairy Godmother is just getting real.

This summer, I’ve accepted that everyone who is human lies.  We lie if we object to the previous statement.  We lie to protect ourselves and others.  We justify little white lies out of love and good intentions. If Jasmine were in my life today, I wouldn’t want my impending words of judgment be yet another obstacle that prevents her from being open with me. Jasmine didn’t know what to do in the hurricane of our friendship except jump ship, and a dozen years later, I don’t blame her.

This new classroom I move into tomorrow will be my home away from home.  While I’ll miss seeing into my Fairy Godmother at work most days, the potential for new friendships is an opportunity to put into practice what I’ve been learning, to be the kind of friend I want to have… and next summer is full of Fridays for us to return to our spot, toes in the sand, enjoying each other’s company.

You Can’t Be Better Yesterday

I’m settling into the serenity of a silent street, shedding the business of the day.  The sweet stillness never fails to inspire when I type under the blanket of night and shadows dance around me, the laptop screen casting a small web of light as I type my way to clarity.  Four years ago this week, I moved in, expecting to rent for a while then get married and buy a place.  Now, it’s home for the long term, and I’m okay with that.

My landlord stopped by tonight to fix a few things in the kitchen.  I thought I’d need to defend the empty garden beds to prove I’m still loving on the property, but there was no need.  In fact, he asked if I would ever be interested in buying the house.  My brain quickly accessed my father’s “Financial Manifesto”, and I knew that based on his important tips of financial wisdom, I am still not in a position to buy a home.  Would I be interested though?  It’s something to put on the back burner.

Saving money always seems easier when there’s a goal in mind, and I’ve found when immediate gratification is not possible, I enjoy the long-awaited accomplishment much sweeter.  As it is, I’ve got something on the back burner most nights in that rented kitchen, and I love being greeted by the delicious aroma of whatever spices and dishes I experimented with that day.  A $15 Goodwill kitchen makeover has earned that room my second favorite place to be… second to this white wicker love seat.

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I started out blogging about growth in the garden, but I didn’t plant this year.  In the spring, I wasn’t going to be living here, writing here.  So, this summer, time spent toiling in the dirty soil is now spent laboring over a hot stove.  I challenged myself to prepare three new recipes each week, trying to step outside my comfort zone.  It’s a different therapy entirely than tending a garden because every day I am making something new from things that already are… and hoping that the combined product is pleasing.

In the kitchen, learning from trial and error is expected and encouraged.  When I serve up a new dish, I make the disclaimer, “Okay, this is the first time I’m making this, so I promise it will be better the next time.”  Sometimes, it’s better because I tweaked the recipe to fit my taste buds.  I’ve made my aunt’s Jamaican curry chicken three times in the past month.  While working in Syracuse, I was influenced by the in-house chef at my job who prepared a Chinese curry and potatoes dish that still makes my mouth water years later.  With a little research, I made a few alterations to marry the two, and I think my own curry chicken has finally replaced French fries as my favorite food.

I’m gaining confidence in the kitchen and grocery store by consulting the internet before planning my meals.  Cooking on a budget from scratch is easy when you have the right ingredients in the cabinets.  Dollar Tree surprised me with its range of spices at the best prices I’ve found in town, even better than the ethnic grocery stores.  Aldi’s meat fills my fridge and freezer at a fraction of the cost of other grocery stores, and I make it last two weeks.  Instead of buying marinades and boxed sides, I use small portions of common ingredients I already have.  I trust Google searches to save money by offering me alternatives to rare, pricey ingredients that would only serve one particular dish.

When I turned my writer’s growth indoors this summer, I wasn’t sure I’d find my green thumb had a direct transfer past the old familiar staples I’ve prepared for decades, all ones my mother taught me how to make.  Instead, I’m rediscovering my independence, finding myself willing to do things I’ve never done before.  I essentially quit smoking, though some would argue picking up vaping isn’t an improvement.  I feel better.  I smell better.  I don’t miss out on life while I’m stepping out for a clove.  Maybe the damage to my upper register is permanent, but I’m singing in the shower again and liking the melody my clear throat chirps out.  I am happier with myself, and that’s enough.

Returning to a house filled with a mix of ginger, garlic, and rice vinegar was especially gratifying on Sunday when I tried something even more outside my comfort zone.  While the teriyaki chicken slow cooked for six hours in my crock pot, I changed the front engine mount on my car.  Light bulbs and fuses never fazed me, and changing the oil on my Honda was a good foundation, but this job was intense.  My friend intended to guide and assist, but an hour and a half in, we knew it was a two person job.  The OEM part didn’t line up perfectly, but just a tenth of a millimeter was enough to prevent the bolt from catching.

After a lot of trial and error, all the tools were put away by sunset; I was satisfied at having accomplished a practical goal and saved several hundred dollars by trying to do what I never thought I could do, with the help of someone who had the tools and experience to monitor the progress.  My car sounds better than it has in years, and it feels good to get my hands dirty.  Driving my car now feels a lot like looking at my flowering garden beds used to, that something good has grown from me.  My mechanic mentor asked what I’d learned that day.  Essentially, instruction manuals have a place, but the best strategy when working under the hood is to see and react, applying logic more in accordance with dissembling and reassembling a 3D jigsaw puzzle.  It’s exactly the opposite of kitchen intuition, where following the recipe exactly should yield a palatable meal.

There are different kinds of wisdom, and I’ve never considered myself to be wise.  I mastered my own little wheelhouses in wordsmithing and technology, and in those arenas, I trust my intuition. In other areas, I still have to stop myself from picking up the phone and calling my parents, who will, invariably, tell me the right thing to do. If I’m ever going to be a wise old woman, gaining independence by forcing myself to stand firm without a cheerleading squad puts me in the right place now.  Ego would trick me into thinking that my beliefs are gospel.  I want to live, experience, and develop all the types of intuition that life will demand of me.  Perhaps wisdom is more like core curriculum, where the learner has to have ownership for lasting effect.

This summer, I’m learning by doing.  I didn’t make as many lists.  I’m experimenting with a more flexible, intuitive approach to existing on this planet.  Where did all my plans and lists get me?  I can’t make myself better yesterday.  Why dwell in the darkness of the shadows behind me, as dark as the night around me, when the light is ahead, forward movement, like the laptop screen illuminating my fingertips?

I’m still here.  I’m still writing.  I’m better today than I was yesterday, and subsequently happier and more balanced.  I can’t go back to fix or change anything in the shadows.  Good can come from me today, and moving forward.  The kitchen is teaching me how to adapt to the brave new world I fashioned for myself, and if summer has a lesson, it’s that wisdom will come with experience, after all.

Truth, Lies, Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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