The Perfect Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom to Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skills for Starting Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow, Sunset, Lightning Strikes

June is almost expired.  The one true, unadulterated summer month is nearly upon us.  I’ll usher it in on a camping trip in the mountains with a group of fellow wanderers.  Instead of moving out of my rented house and preparing for a pre-week multi-family vacation in the OBX prior to the wedding that was cancelled, I’ll be caring for a friend post-surgery.  I’ve been applying for jobs, fixing things that are broken, and finding any excuse to sink my toes in the sand at Fort Monroe beach.

I don’t know what it is about that place.  On Sunday night, I wanted to collect my thoughts, so I grabbed a shiny, new journal and aimed my car in the right direction.  Autopilot, almost, if my reliable old Honda had the technology for it.  Leaving Hampton up Settler’s Landing and weaving through Phoebus, it seemed all the traffic was exiting the fort, backed up for nearly a mile in either direction. By the time I’d crossed the bridge on Mellen Street and made the familiar left turn down toward my favorite spot up the shore, I realized I was the only one going to the beach.

I parked where I always do, the same place my best friend took me on our first beach visit more than three years ago.  I grabbed my green gel pen and notebook before locking the car and securing my keys.  It was just in time to write into the sunset, as I’d planned.  The colors playing in the sky were rich, and I’d have the beach to myself.  Fifty feet from the car, the sky open down poured.  With my newly blonde hair, I covered my journal and returned to my white Fit for a dry escape.

Fort Monroe was a parking lot.  Clearly, all the traffic was leaving the beach because some people pay more attention to weather alerts than Pokémon Go.   It was twenty minutes before the scheduled sunset.  I’ve lived in Hampton long enough to know that if you don’t like the weather, you should just wait ten minutes.  It has a moody personality, like me, and it’s worth it when you wait for the rain to dissipate and give you not just a miraculous sunset to the West, but a full rainbow over the Chesapeake Bay to the east.   The beach traffic left me behind, just a beach chair to keep me dry as I wrote through the sunset.

I thought about a conversation that day with my gym mentor, that regardless of the endless first world struggles that seem to pop up in trios and quartets these days, that I smile more than I used to.  I will admit, hugging my legs into my chest, feeling the salty, sweet sting of ocean air that stirs one’s lifeblood, digging my bare toes into the Virginia sand as if the solitary strands will anchor me somehow… I was smiling.  I love it on that beach on any day.  But Sunday, I planted my floral chair on an empty shore facing the water and distant lights of Virginia Beach after the rain, and the bay gave me a full rainbow to complete the symmetry of the sunset behind me.

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The obvious symbolism of a rainbow warmed me in that hour, knowing the coming days of a search for a new home to continue my eleven year career in education will require more than a lucky leprechaun.  In English class, my students learn the archetype of a rainbow used by authors in literature to symbolize new life, not unlike the changing phases of the sun.  I’d waited out the rain, and I got a sunset and a rainbow.  For a half hour, I planned out my summer projects and finalized an eight-step strategy to knock out my job applications by mid-week.  That’s when the lightning began.  I put my green pen down.

The sun was still setting behind me, and I could still make out ROY G. BIV in the waning arch before me, but the sky had deepened from a soft blue permeated by fluffy, white clouds to a cerulean better fitting the vast sea all around me.  The strikes illuminated the 64 bridge tunnel to Norfolk, cars sitting still escaping the storm.  I was alone, ten toes in the sand as far as my eyes could see.  I could have kept writing a few more minutes with enough light not to hear Grams warning me not to damage my eyesight, but this was clearly one of those gifts that you miss when you stick to the plan.

I’ve been sticking to a plan for a very, very long time.  I’ve passed the six bins of clothes I’d moved temporarily into the study to sort through on a daily basis since ending my engagement six weeks ago.  Every day, the plastic tubs take up a little space in my brain.  It’s a tedious project, so I avoid it.  It no longer has an urgency, so I avoid it. I know trying clothes on will aggravate my shoulder, so I avoid it.  In reality, I have enough other projects to keep me productive for the next few months that I should have no problem simply returning the tubs of clothes to the shed.  Only, it’s taken six weeks for me to realize that was an option… without being considered a failure in some way.

I’m thirty-five years old, and I have devoted so much of my existence to should and oughts that I don’t even know what makes me happy anymore.  Yes, I’m good at knocking off the items of a to do list, but in the absence of some of the strongest influences in my life, I’m beginning to question why I do the things I do.  I love Fort Monroe.  It inspires me.  The wind and waves sooth my wayward spirit.  Most of my visits there are impromptu, and only this one surprised me with rain, a sunset, a rainbow, and a lightning storm within a forty-five minute span.  It’s when I’m out of my routine that writer’s inspiration strikes.

And sometimes, it’s like lightening.  You see everything clearly, crisply, in better focus than you thought possible for just an instance, then you’re plunged back into the dusk, post-rainbow haze where you have to remind yourself that just because you didn’t have children of your own doesn’t mean you’re not still connected to all of this somehow.  When did I add that to my life’s to do list?  I was probably about five, changing the diaper of my baby check-up doll, admiring my role model’s life such that my play world looked like hers, with four children, and that made life meaningful.

I’m not sure if I will be happy in five years or in ten years, but I lived three and a half decades preparing for a life that didn’t happen.  It’s possible, I think, to be too forward thinking.  I’d convinced myself and almost everyone else that I’d be happy in Germany with the perfect man.  Then, in the future.  If I’m real, authentic, honest… the kind of blogs that tend to attract more readers, I think it’s past due that I figured out how to be happy with me in the here and now rather than shoring up stock in a future plan that might be better altered.

Like Sunday night, I might get wet and run for cover.  I might have to wait for the weather to change to see something more than what I’d come for.  I might have to go in the opposite direction of all the traffic to land my solitary beach chair into a rainbow spanning the Chesapeake Bay.  I might have to write with the awareness that a promise of hope in new life covers me from north to south, accept the sunset’s eventual exit, and welcome the lightning strikes like the fireworks that will replace them in a week’s time.  I am happier now, alone and honest, than I’ve been in a long time.  It’s worth a smile.

Pride, Power, and the Pen

The subtle softness of dusk’s glow only highlights the inactivity post storm, my freshly pruned rose bush’s thirst now satisfied, and just the orange cones and clean concrete a reminder of the gas line’s noisy month-long project.  They’re a friendly bunch who keeps me company while I finally attend to those neglected garden beds.  Yesterday, one said he liked my Supergirl look.  That was a new one.  Wonder Woman, occasionally.  I glanced down: red top, blue shorts.  Oh, then it hit me.

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The beachy blonde waves, a product of about $20 bucks and Angel’s Wednesday night and a super fun curler courtesy of Amazon Prime, had unwittingly opened me up to a whole new realm of  likeness comparisons. This past month has been pregnant with life-altering changes in trajectory.  If it weren’t summer vacation, I’d still be filtering my perspective though the elements of a short story, surprising myself with plot twists I set in motion, watching as supporting and new characters rise to fill vacancies for regulars now pursuing solo careers.  The story is changing.  I’m changing, and I’d never so strongly sensed the desire to make a drastic outward modification to reflect the new tone of a familiar setting.

I’ll admit, when I woke up the next morning, I had shocked myself.  The hairdresser’s words from two weeks back echoed between my ears as I took inventory of the olive skin and dark eyes as she urged me to cherish my brunette locks before begrudgingly compromising with some golden streaks Angel would later cover and color.  My Italian heritage wasn’t compromised by a bottle dye job, despite any texts my bestie may have received from my mother begging her not to make me a blonde.

That’s probably the most obvious character missing from my narrative these days as I’ve attempted to respect her wishes not to make any mention of my family in my blog.  Losing someone’s trust is easy.  Regaining it is a challenge.  That’s life, and accepting the responsibility for one’s actions isn’t enough.  The void of daily afterschool calls with Mom is impossible to ignore, but that’s what happens when you drop a bomb on your future marriage.  I hadn’t thought about the fallout or casualties.

The blonde is growing on me.  The archetypal color of the sun is warmth, hope, goodness, and even truth.  A visit to Walmart and some quality time with Angel allowed me to make a change to my protagonist that would fit the theme of the new story she’s writing.  The reality is that I’m not Supergirl.  When the key breaks off the FOB in my car and the top drawer of the cabinet snaps in two and my Google account gets prematurely disabled and my car is making a rattling noise, my gut reaction is not to look up and soak in the sunlight.  No, I question myself.  I doubt, I fear, I pity.

I pick myself up eventually, but it’s not pretty.  Writing has always been my therapy, my safe free place to unburden my brain, untangle the strands of spaghetti to light on something that will make me better, make someone else better even just by saying what no one else will.  It never ceases to amaze me that my most well-read posts are not the uplifting, encouraging ones, but rather those times where I laid bare my brokenness and said things like I’m about to say now.  I’ve never really liked myself much.

My gym mentor is MIA this week with his wife at the beach, but he left me with tidbits to reflect on.  I’ve been wrestling with how to write authentically these past few weeks without having the freedom to write about what’s most weighing me down.    Chuck likes my family, but in this instance, he caught another glimpse of what has defined my self-worth all my life: their approval.  No standing ovation was needed after a performance, just Mom’s delighted smile of pride.  In my eyes, she was always the perfect woman, no superhero powers necessary.  Wonder Woman couldn’t have raised four kids with a full time job and made us all feel loved.  Mom made it look easy.

The effects of her praise, it turned out, had a superhuman reach after all.  Somewhere over the decades, I think I forgot how to be proud of myself.  She’s always been my number one cheerleader, and I will always be grateful for that.  Now she’s silent, and I’m grateful for that, too, because as I’ve been tackling job applications and interviews these past few weeks, the urge to call and ask for advice has been reduced to a palatable level.

My counselor’s brow went up when he confirmed during a recent visit that this was the first time I’d heard that thirty-five year olds don’t usually talk to their mothers every day.  While having a strong relationship with your parents is certainly a positive, I don’t think I could see the dependence I’d come to have on mom until she exited by way of a plot twist I subjected her to that was a far greater shock than my blonde hair will be, I imagine, and perhaps even longer to outgrow.

I’ve lost that smile of approval.  I don’t want it anymore, at least not until I don’t need it.  I’m in the subtle quiet of my street after the storm tonight typing beyond fear of disappointing by isolating that Supergirl strength, in my DNA or hair dye.  I’m Wonder Woman’s daughter, and if I had to change the color of my hair to reaffirm the commitment to find power and self-worth beyond her legacy , to choose to overcome rather than throw a pity party, well, then blondes don’t just have more fun; this character trait change is an attempt to alter more than hair color.  Streaks weren’t enough.  It was all or nothing.  Dark to light, all over.

My greatest healing power is in the pen, and I can’t write my way to a person I can be proud of if my hands are tied.  I held back last week, restricting myself to the safest topics among the relationship rifts created by my marriage-ending bomb, but another week of tiptoeing around in this brave new world has given me sufficient opportunity to find my own opinion, my own voice – I am finding that I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and that like my students, being forced to own my learning instead of relying on the wisdom of others exercises a critical thinking skill that might just help me change that pesky, internal narrative that says I’m not enough.

I might have resembled Supergirl yesterday, but I have years of bad habits to unlearn.  It’s going to take more than a few bottles of hair dye to eradicate the dark spots.  I loved my brown hair, just like my mother’s, and I’ve always loved being my mother’s daughter.  I’ve never loved me. I want to love me.  I want to be someone full of light and hope and warmth like my beachy blonde hair does, encouraging me whenever I catch a glimpse in the mirror.  Mom’s text to Angel didn’t stop me from making the change, but it freed my writer’s integrity to pursue purpose in my life with the power of the pen.  I’m not much of a writer if I’m in a room full of elephants and fail to include them in the setting.

The storm was over before I sat down to write, but stubborn spurts of showers kept me company as settled into an authentic rhythm.  The cool, summer breeze soothed me as I stirred up dust with my words.  The darkness of night contrasts the golden locks framing my face as if to confirm we’re at peace, Mother Nature and me, that change is possible, that all things take time, and the time between the sunset and sunrise only seems longer than its lighted path.

Breaking Free

There are blonde strands falling into my eyes as I type to the “drip, drip” drumming of the gutters in twilight.  I tried to go blonde last week.  The stylist wasn’t my faithful Michelle; I didn’t let her cut a strand, but she painted my virgin locks with lightener and dye.  After two hours and the great reveal, I asked where the yellow was, and she reluctantly surrendered the rest of her evening adding some bold highlights.  I thanked her and tipped her well, but neither of us left pleased with the end product.

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It was fun and different.  At thirty-five years old, I’d never experimented with even a single color streak.  This is my season of change, after all, and the nature of a weekly blog makes that public.  I’ve penned my path through some of the most sensitive experiences, careful to avoid supplying unnecessary salacious details or content high in shock value but little else.  When I make a mistake, Tuesday night writing sessions keep me honest.  When I destroy a marriage, the balance between personal and private details indulged complicates in manifold by all the hearts broken in my wake, the loss and grief compounded as my voice alone attempts to strike through the absence of silence.

It’s been too long to remember a time when I was the subject of gossip.  My students often confide in me when their so-called friends are talking about them behind their backs, and it’s easy to console another human being simply by giving her a chance to set the record straight with someone who matters in her eyes.  Ending my pending nuptials too late to renew my teaching contract at Kecoughtan paints question marks in my future horizon, and still I find myself able to laugh at the newest evolutions of the telephone game rumors coloring me black and white and shades of gray in the community where I served tirelessly to bleed Warrior green in establishing dynamic Yearbook and Writing SOL programs.  Goodbyes are hard but a part of this very public changing of seasons.

When I was packing up my classroom this afternoon, the great painted tree on the wall caught me waxing nostalgic amongst sample projects I’d selected to save and a pile of records for the next department chair.  My senior girls had added their handprints as promised.  One of their mothers snapped me a picture of the graduates with green hands standing by the tree after yearbook distribution last week.  We’d planned that I would add mine, too, before leaving for Germany with my new husband this summer.  I dismissed the sentiment and returned to sorting through four years of my blood, sweat, and tears…

And still, I found myself able to laugh as I flipped through journals and recalled innumerable discussions we’ve held in CD23 that are uniquely unrepeatable.  Few will understand a reference to the OG Palma or Alcatraz, but those on the inside were a part of something rumors don’t change.  They’re superficial changes, semi-permanent says the box; these chunky blonde highlights don’t make me any less brunette by nature. We don’t always get a chance to set the record straight, and that’s as good a lesson for my teens to learn as any.  Fortunately, I was raised to believe that people will eventually see you for who you truly are, and at the end of graduation on Saturday, I’m confident this particular bunch of graduates will recall me in time to come as an influential educator who helped them become better versions of themselves just as they have done for me.

The details, the gossip, the rumors, the permutations, the deviations, the nuggets of truth – they’ll be as irrelevant as these streaks soon, growing out with time to reveal what’s real.  My best teaching years were here.  The peak of my career was in that room with those senior girls who grew into women while I wasn’t looking.  Some of them, I took as far as Italy last June at about this time.  I made a wish that I would marry the man of my dreams on a mermaid rock in Capri.   It was supposed to come true in a year’s time.  It almost did.  I can live with my choices now, because I’m grateful to be breaking free.

It’s an odd expression given the comedy of errors that my life seems to be these days, but my gym mentor used it earlier today after enjoying being back to our regular routine with physical therapy behind me and improved sleep latency giving us back three afternoons a week.  In the absence of my former fiancé’s voice, his greatest fans are missing in action now.  Yet, even packing up my classroom into portable boxes for my shed, my world feels bigger and more welcoming than it has in a long time.  Friends and colleagues have come out of the woodwork to offer encouragement, advice, or just companionship. I’m breaking free of the expectations I set for myself as a girl, because every five years or so, I still start a sentence the same way, “My life doesn’t look like I thought it would at…”

What should my life look like?  I just trashed the painting I’d been making of my forever and always, and behind it I see Angel, Chuck, and my brother’s family still ready to fill the frame.  Casual acquaintances that I’ve made through a shared interest in Pokémon Go have evolved into friendships and lots of new faces on my front porch.  I’m not sure what I’d wish for if I could pass the mermaid rock in Italy with my students again, but this is a good life. Why had I not noticed how much I enjoyed the company of so many people who’ve been here, watching me pull away to move away?  I’ve always suffered from the fatal flaw of believing life started when I became a mother, and FOMO drove me to a few FML moments, I’ll admit.  Now, I don’t see a typical family filling the frame, and there’s freedom in that.  Had I married and finally fulfilled that dream, would I have actually been satisfied?

Maybe this is a midlife crisis, and if the rumor mill’s throwing shade my direction anyway, I figured I might as well look like something’s different.  I have no illusions that a blonde head of hair will make me happier, but summer at Fort Monroe could be more fun.  My best friend Angel encouraged the external change, and despite recovering from an outpatient procedure, she still took the time to game plan with me for our home makeover tomorrow night where she’ll do what I’d asked of the stylist last week.  My guess is that we’ll both be satisfied because we’re on the same page.

Four hours in a salon wasn’t my expectation for my first attempt at going blonde.  I expressed my desire to have a classy, golden do.  The stylist countered with praise and admonishment, urging me to celebrate my virgin, chocolate locks, and likewise discouraging such a bold metamorphosis in one sitting.  As an expert, I trusted her judgment, and the first round might have yielded some auburn hues, but after the second attempt, I left knowing I wasn’t going to be blonde in her chair.  She was in control, and she had a different professional opinion for what would be best and most natural for me.

But I’m not trying to blend in. My Pokemon raid buddy pointed at the blonde strands around my face and said, “I think you’d look good with your whole head that way.  All or nothing.  Black or white.”  And as ironic as that is, he’s right.  Sometimes we know the truth will be hard to hear, so we’re not that brave.  Afraid of hurting others, we justify tiny white lies until the whole head turns black and trust is tenuous.  Some love beyond question, some beyond control, some co-dependently, and some do whatever is in their power regardless of the produced effect.

My little experience at the salon last week assures me that relationships are beneficial when both parties have the same goal, and I’m grateful for a friendship like Angel’s in this season of change.  She lets me be me, and she loves me by helping me break free, not by anchoring my feet to the mud.  I can look back at the decisions I made that made me the source of gossip and they break my heart, too.

The only problem is that I can’t make much forward progress if I live in all the “what I should have done’s”.  I like the picture I see in this frame, filled with family and friends and truth and freedom in being myself and reestablishing myself.  Whether my hair is ash blonde or boring brunette won’t make a difference.  That frame still holds my yearbook seniors and their handprints on the trees, honoring the legacy we built at the Tomahawk.

Hair dye fades.  Someone will inevitable paint over that yearbook tree.  Rumors will go the same way.  If you never get the chance to set the record straight, maybe it’s because it’s not the record that matters.  There should be a little more black and white, a little more willingness to go “all in” and change the natural, best-fit picture.  Even with all the question marks, I’m sleeping soundly.  Breaking free.

Truth, Trust, and Trouble

The sun sets almost on cue in June, late enough to chase it down over the bay as the day rests.  In its warm rays, I rest.  In the after glow, the cerulean sky painted with slate-grey clouds, I find myself still, if not stagnant.  The last of my Kecoughtan days wanes, and my heart breaks at the bittersweet goodbyes knowing the senior girls who’ve labored on our yearbook for four years will soon replace it with new hobbies, that their smiles will no longer be a staple in my classroom.  If I could pause the world to catch up, I’d sit in tonight’s sunset for a few days at least, soaking up the hope in its kaleidoscope of color.

wp-1528243434618.jpgI’m not sure I have anything of value to write about that’s worth another’s time.  I flirted with sitting on the rocks beside the bay and abandoning a nearly one-hundred-and-seventy night streak of Tuesdays here on my front porch.  So much as changed, but I am still breathing.  Despite the challenges of this year, my yearbook staff produced an inspiring annual worthy of the legacy we’d built together, boasting green and white.  My sophomores gave me the best parting gift ever in the original poetry they produced this spring, and I’ll cherish the treasure it was to guide them to find their own voices.

I’m still finding my voice, it seems.

In the absence of my old routine, a daily schedule more than two years ingrained in my car’s GPS, I’ve found myself engaging in conversations with new players.  From my writer’s perch, I can hear my next door neighbor’s voice intermingling with our street’s landscaping expert.  They live in the houses to the right of me, and over the last four years, we’ve had ample opportunities to get to know one another.  Living beside me, I imagine this man knows more about me than some of my friends.  He knows when my routines change.  Today, we talked about family and time.  He reminded me that things work out as their supposed to, and I took to heart his fatherly reminder not to dwell on what I should or could have done differently in these past few months to have avoided causing others pain.   In a sense, I made this bed, I’m lying in it, and it’s the choices I make now that matter most.

That’s why I wanted to pause tonight’s sunset.  The days are climbing ever forward, and I am not ready for what comes next.

It only came as a surprise to some that I had ended my engagement.  Our school accountant has become another dear friend since I moved to Hampton, and I’m grateful for her ear and counsel.  She has an uncanny way of seeing the silver lining.  I’m grateful for friends like her who call to check on me and reassure me that the future still has beauty.  Whenever I was having a tough day at work, I knew I could sneak into her office and she’d find a way to capture the hope of tonight’s sunset in a story about her life that encouraged me in the grey areas.

Truth and trust and trouble, they go hand in hand.  Truth should be black and white, but humans are too colorful to exist in stark contrast.  No, more like the hues of gold and amber interlacing with white puffs of clouds over a crystal aquamarine sea reflecting a half a dozen shades of blue, truth changes subtly when the light shifts.  The physical objects within the camera frame would be the same morning, noon, and night, but the play of the light across the docks and the water changes the picture.   I’ve crossed the Pembroke bridge to and from work too many times to count, and no two mental photographs are equal in shade or content.  Rather, the colors bleed together until you cannot see the lines.

My gym mentor Chuck levels with me.  In our chats this week, he’s been trying to help me figure out what to do after ruining happily ever after.  Instead of getting married and moving to Germany, I’m looking for work and mending fences.  Today while hitting the elliptical, he picked up on a theme and commented that I couldn’t please others if I wasn’t happy with myself.  I looked back at the road that led me here, to the same spot on my white wicker love seat as I’ve been for the last three years, but with an entirely different future than I had three weeks ago.  Truth and trust and trouble.  I’d stopped being honest with myself.  Trust was impossible.  Trouble was inevitable.

I can look at the sunset and tell you the colors that I see.  I can paint you a picture of my world at this instant, the sun long since disappeared, just the white slats of my front porch illuminated by the street lights permeate the night.  I can’t see the magnolia blossoms, just silhouettes that might be any tree.  I could take a photograph now and believe they were oak trees, and by this light, you might believe me.  I didn’t know I’d become a liar and fed you my shades of gray.  The trouble is in being human.

Because truth isn’t black and white.  There was a fight in my classroom a few weeks back, and though a handful of students witnessed the incident, I heard a smattering of variations in the story.  They were slight differences in details, but truth became subjective.  Just as the horizon doesn’t actually change beneath the sunset, the existential truth remains obscured by the light at day’s beginning, middle, and end.  Surely, the creepy statue freed from the shadow of night’s cloak is a wonder of man’s handiwork when the sun’s rays are dancing with the stone twelve hours later.  What I see before me know is different even than an hour and a half ago when I first popped open my laptop to write.

I saw it all in the fading sunset, the trees and overgrown grass and weed-infested garden beds.  I saw all that I should do if time could just pause.  All the weeding and pruning.  The trimming and ripping and work it takes to make something beautiful.  It’s intimidating.  I was leaving, so I didn’t plant a garden.  Now, I see the unkempt mess that grew while I wasn’t paying attention.  It’s overwhelming.

Now, it’s dark.  I know the work that needs to be done, but the grey hues of moonless sky are forgiving.  When I came up with the name for my blog, it was simply an observation of what writing nights had been for me.  I grew as I wrote, and those analogies began in the garden.  We have a lot in common now.  I’d love to pause tonight’s sunset, to sit and think about what comes next, to grieve the last chapter before starting a new one, to store up all the hope and wonder to carry me through what comes next.

Because even thought the sunset and the colors and shades and hues have resolved into darkness, what the light illuminated still remains.  I know all the weeding and pruning and trimming and ripping it will take to make me beautiful again, where it matters.  It’s beyond a gardening task for one.  After happily ever after, when the most familiar face is gone, the sun’s rays illuminate friends who had been there all along, waiting to help you pick up the pieces when the sun finally comes up again.

When the Fog Clears

Crickets hum. Old school R&B beats fade in and out of focus.  The sky beyond magnolia branches is a Wedgewood blue haze, a fog framing this waning, May Tuesday like bookends featuring Hampton Road’s best seller weather, where rain and sun swap protagonist roles in the encased series.  It’s the beginning of another volume in my blog as well, the one after the fairy tale.  The one I write even if the fog settles in beside me, sifting through the sounds of twilight for a truth that abides.

Seasons change. Jobs, friends, homes, cities.  Like my street tonight, it’s almost quiet, but beneath the crickets, a subtle spring breeze carries the echoes of life.  Across the street, a For Sale sign long ago replaced the shrieks of girlish giggles as two sisters played accompaniment for my earliest writing nights.  In the three years I’ve contributed my narrative, I’ve been inspired by the family’s laughter and alternately envious of it.  Now, I miss it, wondering how I would respond to the presence of young children when I shot my reproductive organs in the foot by choosing to start another story.  Again.

Job applications interweave with grading poetry projects, editing the yearbook supplement, completing the English department’s textbook inventory, and personal emails are read but left unanswered.  When you unconsciously yet systematically destroy your best planned future, you make yourself a contender in your own Hunger Games where survival of the fittest requires you to turn inward and strategize.  Seasons change.  People change.  The ebb and flow of disconnection ultimately connects us all.  This isn’t the first time I’ve surrendered my always and forever at the feet of an independent unknown, but now I’m three times past due on starting a family.

I should be afraid now like I was when I left Nashville and never looked back.  No goodbyes, just a clean slate I placed in front of the dirty chalkboard that marked the first decade of my adult existence.  I never thought to clean the board.  Perhaps now that I’ve managed to make a bigger mess, Music City’s mistakes are easier to face.  When I ended my marriage, it was a decision the people closest to me supported.  I didn’t have to face the broken hearts in my wake, from students I’d taught to friends from church.  Within two years, I’d effectively established myself in Hampton with few ties to the creative, transient city that wooed me in my youth.

When the fog clears, and it will, I’ll be here in Hampton soaking up another salty sunset, maybe realizing I’m missing the delighted glees of the little girls who moved away because they were a part of my story.  The longing to be a mother, a wife, it subsided when the fairy tale tide began to recede a few months back.  There was nothing strong, brave, or courageous about how I secured yet another new beginning.  Two weeks ago, I was hurtling headlong into a marriage and move that I was still refusing to believe I no longer wanted.  My choices were selfish and indefensible by any traditional moral standard.

Yet, I made them.  And I will live with them, too.

There’ve been a lot of questions about why the wedding and move to take place in less than two months have gone the way of the tide in the bookend fog down at Fort Monroe.  Like broken seashells, the shards of questions almost formed are left unanswered.  They cut too deeply to sort through amongst the remains of everything else in the wake of the storm.   I suddenly have no short term or long term plans, and those boulders take priority.  Last week, I lived here.  I woke up and went to work and the gym and saw my brother’s family.  I survived the onslaught of disappointment and disillusionment, deserved open expressions of disgust and derision, and yet, no expected anxiety or stress seized me.

In fact, I’d slept peacefully since breaking the engagement, even unassisted.  Having made it to the weekend, I allowed myself to reread all those unanswered emailed, cutting my fingers on the broken shells the tide left behind.  On Friday night, I didn’t want to sleep.  No one was calling for my help citing sources with parenthetical citations, and I could be the woman beneath the teacher.  It was after midnight when I drove to the water in the dark.  Fort Monroe was still the welcoming abyss of wonder and mystery as it was the first day I’d laid eyes on the shoreline creeping out past Paradise Ocean Club.  Moonlight found the rocks where I’d shared what I didn’t know would be my last sunset with the man of my dreams.  Within days, the ride would end prematurely there before happily ever began, and I would choose not to be a princess after all.

Had there really been a man beside me on those rocks, a week and a half earlier, a man who is now a half a world away starting over without me?  Could he already feel like a part of another story?  When I started writing this blog, my words were for me.  I prided myself in authenticity.  Perhaps my pride came before the fall, that I believed I was incapable of knowingly hurting a man I loved.  It started insidiously with little secrets until covering the truth became fibbing and white lies steamrolled in black clouds I couldn’t find my way out.  The fog cleared, though, and even though I’m standing alone, I’m standing.

I cannot boast in bravery at breaking a man’s heart instead of making a mature choice to dismiss the ideal man, not just one my parents would have chosen for me, but one who met every criterion I could have dreamed up during my summer of online dating.  When I looked over the still water of the Chesapeake Bay this weekend, I knew I was also finally still, that the ebb and flow of a two and half year trick at sea writing my own fairy tale had turned a Hallmark love story into a Lifetime tragedy.  I had loved a man and said yes when he proposed, and somewhere my mind was just too afraid to tell me it had changed course.

There was no fog on Friday night.  It was warm and still and silent.  The holiday weekend would congest the fort in daylight, no doubt, but in my favorite place after a week of survival of the fittest, I finally let myself fall apart.  I wept on the rocks, grieving the sunsets, the children’s laughter, the houses and front porches that never will be.  After, I didn’t sleep.  I went home and faced the one room of my house that was packed for an overseas move. Then, I labeled a banker box with what will no longer be my new last name and filled it with every remnant of a royal courtship. By the end, there were three boxes.  Nothing physical was trashed.  I’d savored every treasured moment again, allowing my heart to be fragile enough to realize every single thing that is different now.

After the fairy tale ends, when the fog clears, who are you?  A few months ago, I hated the person I saw when I looked in the mirror, and that was before I hit my personal moral all time low.  Maybe I knew I was running from the truth.  Maybe the fear was a current far greater than the Chesapeake Bay’s.  Maybe I saw anxious twitches instead of smile lines.

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I’m starting over again, and I know it’s the right path because I can look at myself in the mirror and the woman before me is true.  I’m not asking for a clean slate.  I’m not putting one chalkboard in front of another.  I’m still writing a story with my life, and because I keep writing it, I know this volume will hold unexpected adventures that will grow me beyond my greatest failures.

After the fairy tale ends and the fog clears, I see myself in the sunset alone, a silhouette smiling into the stillness of the beach that stole her heart a thousand sunsets ago.

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.