Two Gyms

The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.

The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.

Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”

It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.

I’ve never before stopped  to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.

So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear. 

And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.

I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.

And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.

Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.

I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.

I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings.  A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for.  Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.

I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.

At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”  We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation I Mean Inauguration Weekend and then Mary Tyler Moore!

By the time it became illegal to deny my brother health insurance because he was really sick, most of the damage had been done. Years of inconsistent coverage and subsequent self-medicating had taken a big toll on his organs. He had really good insurance for the last few years of his life, but it was too little too late for his worn out heart.

Not too long before Paul died, we learned I was following him down the trail of inflammatory arthritis. Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been learning what it means to live with an immune system that attacks my joints. I’m lucky; when my hands swelled up and I couldn’t walk up the stairs without resting at the top, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. I didn’t have to suffer for years searching for a diagnosis as so many other people have. I got myself to a rheumatologist and we got busy trying to find medications that would get me back to something like my normal life.

We’ve done that. I have good days and less good days when it comes to managing pain and fatigue, but I don’t spend any time at all worrying about having rheumatoid arthritis. Lately, though, I spend a good bit of time worrying about having a pre-existing condition.

It seems more likely every day that one of the financial or regulatory “burdens” likely to be lifted in the rush to repeal the ACA is the requirement to provide insurance to people who are actually sick. I take two drugs to control my arthritis. One of them is Humira, which would run upwards of $2500/month if I didn’t have insurance and a “discount card” which brings my price down to a minimal copay. What insurance company in their right mind would choose to insure me if they weren’t required to by law?

One of the things I can do because I have good healthcare is play the mandolin. Last weekend the Guadalupe Mandolin Orchestra opened at a house concert by Lindsay Straw. My little group played three songs, ending with a Mozart tabletop duet, where Steve and Ken play the music from the top to the bottom of the page, and I turn the paper upside-down, basically playing from the bottom to the top at the same time. Somehow it all works out, and we reach the end at the same time. My medicated fingers flexed across the frets and we spent a cold, rainy night making music together.

Then Lindsay took over. She plays folk songs from the British Isles, and that night, all her songs featured women using their wit and their wiles to outsmart men and come out on top.

After the concert, she and I made plans to attend the women’s march Saturday morning. I haven’t marched in a long time, and honestly, I’d been a little ambivalent about going. I’ve been in the “peaceful transfer of power is a good thing” crowd, and the “let’s wait and see what happens next” frame of mind.

But I teach teenagers. If I know anything at all about teaching, it’s that what you don’t do teaches as loudly or louder than what you do. So while I hadn’t made firm plans to go to the march, I hadn’t been able to decide not to go, either. Friday night, listening to songs about women being smart, and strong, and powerful, I knew I knew I had to go. I had to go because New Mexico’s rape kit backlog is the worst in the nation. I had to go because I know teenage girls who don’t feel protected by their school. I had to go because there are young boys wearing “Not in my locker room” t-shirts who make me feel hopeful about the world.

So I went. I walked. I ran into old friends and old students. I found myself surrounded by thousands of people united by the simple idea that human decency matters, that using our voices matters. For a few hours on a cold, grey January day in Civic Plaza, ten thousand strangers created peace.

Then it was Saturday night and I went to a ceilli, an old-fashioned-let’s-get-together-and-make-music night. We sang songs like “Let it Be” and “Teach Your Children” and “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” For a few hours on a cold, grey January evening in a warm living room on Guadalupe Trail, a dozen old and new friends put our voices together and created peace.

So that’s how I spent Inauguration Weekend. I didn’t listen to politicians give speeches or watch wealthy people attend balls. I walked with strangers and made music with friends.

There’s one more thing about my pre-existing condition. I give myself a shot every other week with a “Humira pen.” It’s a simple process: you pinch the skin on your thigh or abdomen, position the pen against it, and press the button at the end of the pen to activate the spring-loaded needle. Then, all you have to do is hold the pen in place for ten seconds while the medicine rushes through a needle you never even see into your body. Simple.

The thing is, though, it hurts like hell. After the first few months, I started having a hard time getting myself to do it. I would get everything ready, position the pen, and then just sit there, unable to push the button. It was frustrating–I like to think of myself as strong and capable, and it seemed like such a stupid thing to be unable to do.

On the night I finally got frustrated enough to ask for help, Fred came in and stood near me. “Say ‘position, click, hold,'” I told him, a little mantra I had made up to talk myself through the process. “Click” was the signal to press the button, and the point I couldn’t get past on my own. With Fred standing beside me, I “clicked” on the second try. Now we do it this way every time. During the ten seconds of “hold,” I usually yell. Sometimes it’s a simple “Ow” or “man-o-man-o-man,” but sometimes, when the burn is worse, my language gets a lot more colorful. Fred stays calm while I yell, sometimes laughing with me, telling me that it’s only ten seconds, that it’s almost over. And then it is over, and we’ve done it. This one simple hard thing becomes doable when I’m not alone.

When I see Donald Trump speaking as the President of the United States, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like the voiceover at the beginning of the adventure movie where the demagogic dictator has gained power and plans to destroy the country with his evil plan. Grizzly bears are threatening the children at school, and at any moment, Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson or no, let’s make that Katniss Everdeen, is going to swoop in, vanquish the Grizzly King, and save the children.

I don’t know when or if coverage for pre-existing conditions is going to go away, but it seems both likely and imminent. I don’t know if we’re going to end up in an accidental war with China, or do away with the First Amendment, or commit untold atrocities in the spirit of nationalistic fervor.

I do know that whether or not I can get my Humira is not the most important problem in the world. I do know that if my fingers stiffen and swell and I have to stop making music, my friends will play on. I do know that, for as long as I can give myself shots, Fred will stand next to me and help me push the button.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Standing here next to each other, joining our voices–if we’re going to make it after all, I think that’s how it has to happen.

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Why I’m Going to Get in Trouble This Year

I wish Ruth Bader Ginsburg hadn’t been so quick to apologize for saying “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.”

I wish she had said something like, “I don’t regret speaking out. Everyone who loves our country should be speaking out.” George F. Will wrote, “Donald Trump’s damage to the Republican Party, although already extensive, has barely begun.” The Washington Post called Trump “a unique threat to the Republican Party and to the country.”

The Post listed Trump’s offenses as follows. “Mr. Trump degrades people, serially insulting women, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, Jews and others. He erodes the discourse, frequently and flagrantly lying…He proposes undermining foundational civic institutions such as the free press. He shows contempt for the separation of powers…Where his policy agenda is not thin, it is scary…”

Nevertheless, the Republican Party has finalized its selection of Trump as their presidential nominee. With few exceptions (cheers to Mitt Romney, who said, “I want my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing…”), they’ve relinquished their responsibility to choose a candidate worthy of the office. I admit it—I don’t understand the strange moral calculus by which Republicans claim they can disown Trump’s words, actions, and beliefs while championing his candidacy.

As Trump continues to dive to new lows, I find myself asking, at what point does it become imperative that every person who loves her country or even her fellow humans begin speaking out? At what point should every Supreme Court Justice feel morally compelled to speak as Ginsburg did?

This isn’t an idle question for me. I teach English and Economics at a private, independent school in New Mexico. For years, I’ve agreed with the philosophy that it’s our job to teach our students how to think, not what to think. I’ve worked hard to remain aware of the power I have to shape students’ opinions and to wield it ethically. I try to teach students to understand how persuasive argument works, to analyze evidence, to consider the other side.

I’ve always loved teaching in presidential election years; the curriculum creates itself as candidates lay out their platforms and the media offers simplified explanations of complex issues. It’s exciting in those years to push students to challenge assumptions, to look for the details behind the soundbites, to figure out how their own values shape their understanding of the issues.

But I don’t know how to do that this year. No—that’s not really what I mean. I know exactly how to do it; I just don’t think that I should. As a teacher, I know that what I don’t say teaches as loudly as what I say.

All summer, I’ve been imagining my back-to-school-night speech to parents. I want to explain to them that I can’t be impartial this year; I can’t act as though Trump is just any other candidate. I can’t afford his views on issues the respect that his position would seem to demand. I want to tell them what the Washington Post said at the end of a powerful editorial imploring people to remember the many outrageous statements Trump has made: “Winning is not an antidote to bigotry, violence, ignorance, insults and lies.” I want to say, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow said, “If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism.”

When I say those things out loud in my classroom, I will almost certainly get a call from an angry parent demanding that I stop teaching her child what to think. When that moment comes, I am not going to be able to say that my comments were “ill-advised” or that “I regret making them.” Like Mitt Romney, I want to be able to sleep at night. I’m going to have to say that I won’t be complicit. I’m going to have to say that I refuse to help normalize abhorrent behavior.

It would have been nice to quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 

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An Open Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

 Cute how that rhymes, isn’t it?

 I know we’ve been together for a long time (see Marvle Valley Drive, circa 1977, babysitting, running home at night while Mr. Pierson looked on to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped and buried alive on our quiet suburban street), but there are some things I just have to say to you. This morning I was the pianist in my “Loose at Nine” ensemble at St. Michaels. I was the pianist because we are “loose” at the nine o’clock service, so this cool group of really good musicians is willing to let me learn how to play with them, as if I were a real musician.

That’s you right there, isn’t it? That little voice telling me I’m not really one of them, that I’m not capable of doing this thing I work hard at and love to do?

My sister tells me that I had a stomach ache every morning before kindergarten, and that she always had to walk me places. (“Walk Heather to the birthday party;” “Walk Heather to the bus stop,” she remembers.) That was you, too, wasn’t it?

We’ve known each other a long time, Fear, so I feel like I can be honest. There was that time when my sister died. My parents were sobbing in the parking lot of the funeral home, and my mother’s hair was orange, and I realized I could never let myself love someone as much as they loved my sister. You were good, Fear. That decision not to have kids stuck. I learned to keep some distance in my relationships, curling you up like bubble wrap around my heart.

That is, until I became a teacher. Then I started loving kids with abandon. I thought I had kept myself safe—they weren’t my kids; I was just loving them from afar. Disinterestedly, you might say. I thought you’d done me a favor.

You know what happened next. One of them died, and it was terrifying. Everything in me screamed “Retreat!” It took many good friends, a few priests, and an awesome therapist to tempt me to stand up to you again. You were pissed off about that, weren’t you?

And of course you came back; you’re a seducer. You make people think they are being responsible when they listen to you. It’s good to be afraid, you whisper. You hide behind virtues like “caution” and “responsibility.” Fear is the grown up thing, you tease us. You keep us from driving recklessly down a snowy highway, from opening our doors to strangers.

I’ve been watching you, though, and I think I’m finally on to you. Let me tell you what it’s like to play the piano. When I sit on the bench behind the other musicians and in front of the whole congregation, sometimes my heart starts pounding. Sometimes my hands get sweaty, and sometimes they even shake. Then my mind leaps in, taunting me. It says things like, “Really, you think you can do this? Shouldn’t you let someone who actually knows what they’re doing play?” Those are the nice things. I don’t know why I haven’t broken up with you before now.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you show up, my body gets small. My arms don’t want to stretch across the keyboard. I don’t want to move my whole hand from a C chord to a G minor seventh. I try to press the keys quietly, to speak without actually speaking, to sing without making the air move. It’s a disaster every time. I crash and bang and clang and make sounds that are simultaneously timid and clashing and ugly.  

It doesn’t work. The only way to make music, I’m learning, is to be bold. To wave my arms wildly. To press down on the keys with everything I’ve got pent up in my heart. To be open to every odd sound that might come out of me and to recognize all of it as praise.

Because here’s the thing, Fear. You know we’re not really talking about playing the piano. Let me cut to the quick.  You are killing people. Everyone is closing their arms and closing their hearts and wrapping themselves in bubble wrap—no, in body armor—because you keep telling us we’re in danger. You keep telling us that the cautious thing, the moral thing, the just thing, is to buy more guns, to thicken our armor, to shoot first. And the thing is, people keep dying.

One of my old students posted on Facebook that he’s terrified. He’s a young black man and he’s right to fear that the world tilts toward hurting him and the people he loves. Everyone’s hurting everyone, and, Fear, let’s get serious, it’s your fault.

You’ve got so many people working for you, and they’ve got the microphone. Immigrants are scary! Black people are scary! Muslims are scary! Hillary Clinton is scary! This is what they keep yelling, and they are so loud that people are listening. Another of my old students, who used to mimic shooting geese while I read Wordsworth outside under a post-9/11 sky, recently wrote a serious, evenhanded explanation of why he needs to carry a gun. He will be there, he wrote, to protect me and the other shoppers at Walmart or Costco when someone else pulls out their AK47. We should be afraid, was his subtext, of all those other people buying bologna and tampons and popsicles and of those politicians (you know which one I really mean) who want to take our guns away. Reading his words made me feel sadder, not safer.

And what about this, Fear? Not long ago I realized that every single time I’ve gotten in a car as an adult I’ve locked the doors. Sometimes I’ve done it hurriedly, even frantically. I know that there are carjackings in the world and I don’t mean to make light of them, but I realized that I’ve never ever ever had a person rush to my car and try to get in. It’s never mattered (“yet” I can hear you whispering) whether or not my doors were locked, but I lock them every time.

You’re an abuser, Fear, and I’m done with you. Until you stop pointing fingers, nothing is going to get better. People who have no business dying are going to keep dying.

I know we’ve been down this road together before, and I can hear you laughing at me again. But I am stronger than I used to be, and I know some things I didn’t used to know. I know that when my old student said he was terrified, he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who was listening. He opened his arms wide over the whole keyboard and spit it in your face. The people who responded to him didn’t say, “You are brave,” or “You are courageous” or “You are strong.” That would be playing your game.

What they said was “I love you.” What they did was open their arms instead of closing them. What they did was take off their body armor and stand vulnerable with this young man before the powers of hate.

In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Toi Derrecotte tells the woman “who has to be so careful” to “write the poem about being afraid to write.” 

What I’m really trying to say is fuck you, Fear. You’ve overplayed your hand. Any day now, we’re all going to bare our vulnerable hearts. We’re going to open our arms wide and make bold music. Listen closely to the back beat. I want you to hear us laughing.

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Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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Friday Afternoon at the Shredder

It’s Friday afternoon at 3:15 and I’m shredding troubles. All day I’ve started my classes by asking my students to write down anything that’s bothering them and seal it in an envelope. No one will read what you write, I promise. After a few minutes, they put their names on their envelopes and sign across the seal.  Then I ask them to trust me to hold them for a little while. It’s the first day of class. Every one of them hands me an envelope, and I stash them out of sight.

Summer is officially over. For a week, every conversation I have includes the words, “How was your summer?” and almost everyone answers with some form of “It was great, how about yours?”  We talk as though each of us existed in our own private Junes and Julys. I had my summer; you had yours. Now that school is back in session we reunite the space-time continuum and walk together through the same days.

Why do we think we can own the summer? In my summer it was hot, and the rain finally fell. I woke each morning without an alarm to a cacophony of birds perched on my deck and the steady breathing of Fred and Rusty, my two external heartbeats. I played piano and violin, cleaned my house, read, worked out, and went for long bike rides. You could draw a circle around my neighborhood with a radius of twenty miles and plot my summer inside it with room to spare. It was that kind of slow, simple summer.

We put our house up for sale in May, so it was also a summer of savoring. I spent many mornings running rags over bookshelves, scrubbing sinks, mopping tile. I rubbed lemon oil into cabinets, cleaned dust and dead bugs out of light fixtures, and planted a new pot of flowers by the front door. It’s funny how easy it is to fall in love with your house again when you are trying to sell it. If I ever write that book of poems, I’m going to call it: I Love It Here: Poems about Letting Go. It was a good summer.

In late July as summer ambled on, the ensemble I sing with sang a funny little song as the congregation processed out of the sanctuary. It’s number 714 in the Gather Hymnal, for any Catholics or Episcopalians who might be reading. It’s called “God Whose Purpose is to Kindle.”

Like many hymns and anthems, including “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” and “Rise, O Voices of Rhodesia” (who knew?), number 714 is set to the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth, the choral symphony. In the fourth movement, the chorus sings the words from Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, Ode to Joy.

You know the music. I encountered it for the first time when I was eight or nine as “Bells are Ringing” in John W. Schaum’s Piano Course A—The Red Book. “Bells are ringing, hearts are singing, hymns of love and life worthwhile. All mankind with one great mind unites in free and joyful style.” If you are really interested, you can watch some little kid named Daniel practice it on YouTube. “Bells are Ringing” was by far my favorite piece in The Red Book. I would bang out those joyful chords every time I sat down to play. (As an aside, I don’t begrudge “Bells Are Ringing” its space in my memory, but do I really need to have the full text of “If a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood” and “Motorcycle Cop’s on Guard” claiming neurons? Shouldn’t there be a backspace key?)

According to the tiny print at the bottom of the page in my hymnal, a man named David Elton Trueblood wrote the lyrics for this rendition. If Wikipedia is to be trusted (note to any students reading this essay: it’s not. I use it here because this isn’t a research paper on David Elton Trueblood. The quality of evidence needed varies with your purpose.), David Elton Trueblood (1900-1994) was a highly accomplished scholar, theologian, and academic who “wrote 33 books” and founded the Earlham School of Religion at Earlham College. He was an active Quaker.

Writing Quaker reminds me of an essay I meant to write this summer about the day with three Qs. One July afternoon as I was walking the dog, two quail and a small squirrel danced down the street before us. The quail would glance back at the squirrel and strut forward a few steps, and then the squirrel would sit up like a prairie dog, sniff, and follow them. Rusty did that tilted head thing at me, and I shrugged back to say I didn’t get it either, and we followed a few feet behind them for a hundred yards or so. We finally crossed the street only when we realized they weren’t planning either to scurry away from us or show us how to play the game. It was a good summer.

The reason #714 made me curious about Dr. Trueblood is that the lyrics he wrote for this universal anthem of joy chastise us for being joyful. He wants God to “overcome our sinful calmness” and forgive us for “our tranquility.” I thought if I learned about him I could figure out whether he was being deliberately ironic or simply should have stuck to his day job and left lyric writing to someone less heavily committed to rhyme.

Another way to say that is that I was taking it personally.

The Ode to Joy Beethoven made famous was German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem. The singers open with these words, “Oh friends, not these tones. Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!” I love that plea.  At another point in the poem Schiller writes, “All the world’s creatures draw joy from nature’s breast.”  In the final, ringing lines, the chorus, looking for “the Creator,” sings “He must dwell beyond the stars.” It’s a powerful, hope-filled claim.

David Elton Trueblood replaced Schiller’s triumphal ending with these words: “Save us now from satisfaction when we privately are free, yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor’s misery.” The last booming words we sing out (joyfully?) as the congregation files out of church and into another week in a weary world are “our neighbor’s misery.” What?

And then the song followed me home.

The last thing I did before leaving home for church the Sunday after we sang #714 was to read an article in the newspaper about a woman who was stoned to death in Syria.  She was silent, the article said, as men pelted her with stones until she died.

Oh friends, not these sounds.

It was a gruesome summer. The article I read just before I left home for church on Sunday said they put the woman in Syria in “a small hole.” That detail.

On another day, in a spot that falls inside that circle summer drew around my house, three teenagers, boys the same ages as the ones I teach, beat and killed two homeless men while they were sleeping.

Can you see why I wanted to know if David Elton Trueblood was being deliberately ironic? “How can you say it was a good summer?” he’s asking me. How can anyone sing about anything? It was a gruesome summer.

During the bloody summer of ’14, I imagine some disinterested biographer writing someday, while pain erupted across the planet and the very limits of civilization were being tested, she brimmed with inexplicable joy. She pulled the summer over her head like a down comforter on a cold night and snuggled in. She remembered the days when she could barely stand upright against the world, when sadness made her dizzy, but these weren’t those days. Ladle it out, her heart said of this welling joy, there’s plenty more.

And then, as the days kept passing while I tried to figure out what I was trying to say in this essay, Robin Williams died. I’m breaking a sweat doing Muay Thai kicks when his name catches my eye in a headline flashing across my iPad. A few minutes later my husband comes in to tell me the details, and it’s too much. Robin Williams. Syria. Gaza. Ukraine. Ferguson. Beheading. Another beheading. Oh, friends, not these words.

And somehow there it all is at the end of the summer. I’ve been trying to finish this essay for a month. Early every morning I tweak a few words, move a paragraph or two around, and then I hear the neighbor’s garage door open and realize I can see the branches of the white plum outside the window.  It’s time to stop writing and get ready for work. I still don’t know what it is I am trying to say to David Elton Trueblood about joy and misery.

Because the thing is, if I am going to be honest, I know there is a place deep in the pit of my stomach where I could go if I let go my grip on joy and not be certain of returning. You might call it “a small hole.” Because the thing is, while I am delighting in yet another beautiful, ordinary sunrise, someone is doing despicable things to someone else in my back yard or on the other side of the world. And it matters immensely if I know the person who is in pain, and it doesn’t matter at all if I know that person, and both of those things are true. Someday, I am sure, physicists or theologians will discover that we do not stop at the edges of our own bodies.

If David Elton Trueblood were standing before me, chastising me for joy in the face of my neighbor’s misery, I would say to him, “Oh friend, not these words.” We have to strike a deal, I think, with our neighbor’s misery. We have to figure out how to be with it without being swallowed by it. Somebody, I think, has to hang onto joy. Misery is not allowed to win.

At the end of class I ask my students if they want their envelopes back. They look at me like I’m crazy and shake their heads.  One boy says, a little incredulously, “It worked! I didn’t think about my problems at all.”

This is what I know how to do. It’s the end of the first week of a new school year. I feed the shredder these small envelopes full of pain and watch while it turns them into confetti. That feels like it should be a metaphor for something.

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Bad Whale Jokes

Recently, a good friend who for years was the only person who knew my English-teacher-dirty-little-secret remarked that reading Moby Dick is my white whale.

I’ll have to take her word for it.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve probably taken at least eight college courses that included the words “American” and “Literature” in some combination in their titles (add in a time period, or a gender indicator, or another identity marker and they can add up quickly). I probably took a class called “American Literature” in high school, too, judging by the fact that I wrote an essay on John Steinbeck. Somehow, though, I’ve never read Moby Dick.

I do not mean to imply that none of those classes had Moby Dick on the syllabus. I’m pretty sure at least two of them did. I can’t even remember why I didn’t read it—I’m a homework-doer; my parents had to buy me phonics workbooks when I was four so I could do homework before I ever even went to school. I wish I could claim some life calamity tore me away while the boat crashed and rocked on the sea (I’m assuming at some point the boat crashes and rocks on the sea—doesn’t it?) but if that happened, those calamities have been lost in some great ocean of memory; you might say they’ve drifted out to sea without me.

With the exception of Robin Hood and A Brief History of Time, I’ve finished every other book I’ve ever started. I can’t bear not to know how a story ends, even when the story is a sentence long. When my husband picks up the remote a few seconds too early while we’re watching Jeopardy, I lose it. But what happened when he traveled with his wife to London and a cabby told him he looked like—WHO?? Who did the cabby tell him he looked like?  I won’t remember in five minutes, but I can’t bear not to know right now.

It isn’t that I haven’t tried to read Moby Dick. I have wandered the streets of that little town on six or seven different occasions. I’ve stopped at The Spouter Inn, and I’ve spent the night in that crowded hammock with Ishmael and Queequeg a whole bunch of times. My problem, I think, begins in Chapter Two. Ishmael reaches New Bedford on Saturday night and is “disappointed upon learning that the little packet for Nantucket had already sailed, and that no way of reaching that place would offer, till the following Monday.” That long weekend at The Spouter Inn (the Hotel California?) does me in every time. I just can never quite make it to the sea (Chapter 21—Going Aboard, I’m guessing?), which, from what I hear, is where the action is.

And lest you think I’ve got an old Eagles song running through my head, I should let you know that Chapter One actually has me singing Jimmy Buffett.  (The voice in my sister’s car calls him Jimmy Buf-fay, as in all you can eat seafood at Long John Silver’s on Saturday night. It’s funny every time. A few summers ago we drove from her home near Huntington, West Virginia, to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, telling the car to “Play Jimmy Buffett” every hour or so just to hear the car say “Ok, I’ll play Jimmy Buf-fay,” followed by, “Playing, Jimmy Buf-fay.” Trust me—it was funny every time. Even on the drive back.)

You probably know the part I’m talking about. Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; [some other stuff about wanting to knock people’s hats off]…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  We’ve heard this before—he’s looking for some changes in attitude, changes in latitude.  Right? Am I getting this yet?

It’s not that I don’t know anything about Moby Dick. For the record, I remember taking a test on which I had a choice of essay questions between Moby Dick and some other book that I had duly read and annotated, and I chose to answer the question on Moby Dick.  I got an A on that test. I can’t explain that A, any more than I can explain the fact that I often get the chemistry questions on Jeopardy right.

I’m sure a lot of people go through life without ever reading Moby Dick, and I have nothing but respect for them. It’s just that when people learn you’re an English teacher, they make certain assumptions. My insecurity about this whale of a hole in my education grew a few years ago when I started teaching a class called “American Lit.” You can see how that could make for rough sailing.

Mostly, my strategy has been to avoid discussing Melville (“I’m not a big fan,” does a nice job of suggesting you knew the work at one point and dismissed it, without actually making that false claim). When avoidance has failed, I’ve simply changed the subject. There are plenty of other writers about whom I can talk with some semblance of intelligence. It’s pretty easy with a little practice to turn a conversation from whale hunting to big game hunting or bull fighting. See how I did that? A nice bit of showing off with the correct choice of an object pronoun followed by a quick feint toward Hemingway, and no one suspects that the English teacher with whom they are in conversation is a fraud. (I threw that whom in for good measure.)

The whale almost pulled me under recently when an ambitious student got excited about comparing Moby Dick to Star Trek. I leaned on my more socially respectable ignorance of the TV show (or was it a movie?) to justify my inability to be of much help to him. It bothered me, though, in a grain of sand irritating an oyster sort of way.

A few months ago at a graduation party, my insecurity erupted like seawater from a blowhole. I was engaged in conversation with the head of my school (my boss’s boss, if you want to get technical) our college counselor, my husband, and her husband, who, for some inexplicable reason began explaining why Moby Dick is THE AMERICAN NOVEL. I don’t believe in writing in all caps like that, but it seems the simplest way to express the weight of those words bearing down on me.

I had several choices. I could stay quiet (a challenge if you know me, but I can do it when I dig my oars deep); I could jump up in mid-sentence and ask if anyone wanted me to see if they had cut the cake yet (foiled by the graduate appearing just then—what were the chances?—and asking that very question); or I could come clean. My secret about the whale was throbbing in me like that heart Poe stashed beneath the floorboards, and as Melville says, “Yes, these eyes are windows.” I was sure they knew my secret and had staged this whole conversation, maybe even this graduation and this party, to draw a confession from my tell-tale heart. I took a deep breath and grabbed the whale by its horns, or flukes, or barnacles, or whatever protrudes from that great white preponderance of flesh and metaphor. (Isn’t there some chapter where I’ll learn what protrudes from that great white preponderance along with everything else I ever wanted to know about whale anatomy?)

“I’ve never read it,” I told them, firing my puny harpoon.

I’d like to say a hush fell over the whole party as my students and colleagues lost all respect for me, but I had to speak. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” as they say. (Not Melville?) I’ve spent too many years sailing away from this damn whale with the same zeal that I’ve heard what’s his name sails toward it.

What actually happened was that the college counselor’s husband said something about how the book is about the relentless, disastrous pursuit of something meaningless.  That’s why, he said, the book is THE AMERICAN NOVEL.

“Oh,” I thought. Maybe I should read it. We left the party not long after, but the conversation has dogged me all summer.

Having confessed once publicly, I now find myself confessing all over. I’m like the convert or the new non-smoker who can’t stop telling people things they really don’t want to hear. “Hi, I’m Heather. I’ve never read Moby Dick.” It’s like I won’t be free of this albatross around my neck until I tell my story to some stranger.  (A wedding guest, say. I read that one.)

Recently one of my confessors sent me a cartoon. The drawing is of a woman (who looks a little like me if you lose the sensible shoes) lying on her psychiatrist’s couch. “I’m a liar and a fake,” she says. “Moby Dick for Dummies is as far as I got.”

It’s tempting.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, we drove from Pittsburgh to Duck, North Carolina, to spend a week with relatives in a rented house on the sea. Those were the days when cars still broke down, and early on, ours filled with fog. When the car was fixed, the sky filled with fog, and it was hard to know just where we were or where we were going. Later there was a storm and a wrong turn or two, and some tense moments as the drive we’d woken before dawn to get an early start on stretched deep into the night.

But we got there. Duck in the late seventies was a quiet peninsula with few roads and beach houses tucked in among dunes and sea oats. What I mean by that is that you can drive up and down the same dark roads for a long time without finding Finisterre, the romantically named house for which we were looking. The other thing I mean by that is that it was dark, and the realty office wouldn’t be open until morning.

I can’t remember how long we wandered lost, searching for the end of the earth, but at some point, for some reason, (perhaps because one or the other of my parents was feeling like knocking someone’s hat off) we stopped the car, got out, and walked onto the beach. It was, as one great American writer I’ve heard about put it, “a very dark and dismal night.”

The reason I remember this moment so vividly isn’t because I saw the ocean, but because I couldn’t see it. The stars were black and the ocean was invisible. We could hear it and smell it and sense it, but all we could see of the huge dark water was a tiny string of foam snaking up the beach.

Melville describes how I felt at that moment (and how I often feel) when he says, “..the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open…”

What a line!

I’m on page 53. I’ll let you know if I make it out to sea.

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Unlocking the Doors

Every morning when I get to my school, the first thing I do is to unlock two doors.  The first opens into my classroom from inside the building we call the schoolhouse. The second door leads out of my classroom from a wall of windows onto a grassy quad. Most days while I teach, the quad is filled with kids playing Frisbee and waving lacrosse sticks while teachers’ dogs run after them.

I used to unlock only the inside door. Kids could leave my classroom through the outside door, but somebody had to let them in if they wanted to come in from outside. I didn’t have any real reason for this routine; it was just a habit I’d fallen into. I started unlocking the outside door every morning about a year ago after we had “active shooter training.”

I don’t remember everything that I’m supposed to do if one of those lacrosse sticks were to turn into a gun one day. I do remember that I am supposed to keep my door locked if one my students has gotten trapped outside and wants to come in. I’m supposed to assume at that moment that the outside child is a threat and cast my flimsy protective spell over the children already in my care. I do not remember how I am supposed to live with a decision like that for the rest of my life.

The other thing I remember from active shooter training is that it won’t happen to me. That’s the first and last thing they tell you. Statistically, it will never happen to you.

I didn’t get the “It won’t happen to me” gene. I got the ability to imagine the worst thing that could happen in any situation and the desire to write, which means I live by indulging my imagination. Sitting in a baseball stadium? I’m hoping the upper deck won’t fall on me. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge? I’m hoping the earthquake holds off till I get to the other side. Riding the tram up the Sandias? I’m hoping no small planes buzz through the cables today. Wading in placid waters off Cocoa Beach? I’m scanning the horizon for a tsunami and keeping an eye on the spot, twenty yards out, where frenzied fish are jumping in the air.

I didn’t get like this all by myself. When I lived on Lake Michigan for a few years after college, my mother sent me a Reader’s Digest article about a rare amoeba that lives in the Great Lakes and might already have swum into my ear and lodged in my brain. When I learned to drive, she advised me to look under the car before I got in, just in case someone was lying under it waiting to grab my ankles. I excel at spotting danger where it isn’t lurking.

Not long ago, I walked into my classroom to find Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” written on my whiteboard. Yeats says: “Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

I had a few moments of not knowing what to do. Should I be worried? Is this a warning? Is this one of those signs that everyone can tell is a sign once something bad has happened?

Yeats says: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

To teach in a high school is to walk a fine line between over and under-reacting.

Joy and pain hold hands in school; they walk around as raw and intense as the week’s newest couple. Just last week in a fifteen-minute span I learned that kids were picking on a child I care about and then watched about ten big basketball boys surround my colleague in a goofy affectionate birthday hug. They carried flowers and had even dressed alike for the occasion.

On any given day in a school, life is beautiful. On any given day in a school, life is hard.

Of course, there’s nothing strange about finding odd things written on my whiteboard. Usually I’ll find a hastily drawn portrait, or a TARDIS[1], or maybe a few random words, like “I wish I knew the answer!” Last week, next to two cartoon figures, someone had drawn what I thought was an ice cream sundae. Friday afternoon, talking to a student after school, she pointed out my error. “Why would there be flies buzzing around an ice cream sundae?” She asked.

Oh.

Remember how it felt when you first learned how to pump your legs on a swing? That’s the feeling I’m craving when I get home from school and hear there was another school shooting, this time in Roswell. I am writing angry letters to the editor in my head and I know that the most important thing I can do is not hear the rest of the story. I put my sneakers on and head out for a run.

The trail is loud. Usually when I’m here this open space is largely deserted. Today, three middle school boys are playing with a toddler’s plastic ride-in car. The car is complaining loudly about carrying such big kids, whose heads and arms are sticking out the sides, and the boys are screaming and laughing. They’ve got the crows worked up, so all around me the air is exploding in caws and guffaws.

It’s not fair how the world tricks you into joy while you know how badly other people are suffering. A mile in, and I’m already feeling good. I’m running a diagonal into the sun, scooping the eastern edge of the flood plain, inhaling sky. Down below me on the bike trail, kids are swooshing down the hill on skateboards and scooters. A small moon rides just over my left shoulder, and all of Albuquerque stretches below me. Straight ahead, the sun at eye level, I am blind.

I’m trying a new breathing pattern. An article in Runner’s World says that if I inhale for three paces and exhale for two, I’ll minimize the impact of landing and run injury free for years. It’s too soon to tell if I’m running more safely, but focusing on my breathing feels good.

Isn’t it funny how the rhythm of the lungs is expand/contract, expand/contract? We breathe air in, we blow it out, over and over again, so automatically we hardly think about this quotidian proof that we’re still alive. According to Walker Meade in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, we take almost eight and a half million breaths in a year. I remember watching my father-in-law breathe after he had his stroke, how the air moved in and out for hours, how the spaces between each breath grew longer through the night.

I’ve rounded the curve, so I can see again. Isn’t it funny how the rhythm of the heart is also expand/contract, expand/contract, expand/contract? Blood rushes in to heal or hurt or fill us, and then we push it away and rest a while. I’m thinking about all of this as my footsteps rise and fall in the soft dirt. I don’t like to run on arroyos after dark, and the sun is falling into the west mesa.  I’m breathing hard. I’m chasing the light home.

The morning that Yeats appeared on my board, I shook off the questions in my head. I decided that I would be adding to the things that are wrong in the world if I found a poem and labeled it threat instead of gift. I did what I think most English teachers would do. I worked it into my lesson plan.

I didn’t want to write about Roswell. I didn’t want to write about that other school shooting that happened right after Roswell, or about that shooting in a mall near DC. I already wrote about school shootings once before, and there is something obscene in writing about them again.

Right now it’s six a.m., and I’ve been unable to finish this essay for too many days. I’m going to head into school and unlock two doors. It’s not defiance, exactly. I’m making deposits in a bank; I’m accumulating proof that the world makes sense against that day, which I’m doing my best to believe will never come, when nothing makes sense. I’ll spend the day loving and teaching every sweet face that walks through those unlocked doors.

With any luck, we’ll all put another good day in the bank.


[1] Reader alert: One of the many things I’ve learned as a high school teacher is that if I have no idea what students are talking about, they are probably talking about Dr. Who. That logic will work for you, too, if you are wondering what a TARDIS is.

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Pop!

It’s one-thirty Wednesday afternoon, and I’m standing in a sunny classroom blowing up an imaginary bubble. I make my fingers into a tube, hold them to my mouth, and blow.

I’m with nine teenagers and about fifteen pre-schoolers, participating in Project Serve, an afternoon of service learning at my school. The teenagers have been studying early childhood music education, and today they are putting that training to work for the first time. I don’t have a job here; the “big buddies” are in charge.

Once my bubble is all blown up, I make exaggerated spritzing motions with my finger and squeaky noises with my imaginary squeegee, cleaning my bubble so I can look around and see all my friends in their bubbles. When we’re all enclosed in our own protective spaces, we’re ready to sing and move around the room without crashing in to one another. A big buddy I’ll call Vee leads us in a song in Spanish about a statue garden (at least that’s what I think it’s about; I’m only one week in to Spanish class). When she says, “Asi!” we all stop and make crazy statue poses inside our bubbles.

I have an unusual job. My morning began at the Lucky 66 bowIing alley with seventy ninth-graders. The freshmen are bowling because the tenth and eleventh graders are taking the PSAT, and the seniors are sprawled across the building we call the schoolhouse, working on college applications. The original plan was to take the ninth graders to the corn maze, but we’re in a drought, so the corn never grew high enough to cut a maze into the stalks. I hope the short corn doesn’t mean the cranes won’t winter in this field, but that’s a thought for another essay.

The class of 2017 fills the first twenty-two lanes. Twenty-three and twenty-four next to us are empty (this bowling alley owner knows what he’s doing), and the rest of the lanes are occupied by a women’s senior citizen league. It’s nice, I think throughout the morning, this spectrum we make from one end of the building to the other: exuberant youth yields to blank space, which matures into rich old age. The students notice the women, too, but not the symbolism.  “Those old ladies know how to bowl!” one of them tells me on the way back to the bus.

Bowling always takes me back to Pittsburgh.  My friends and I spent lots of weekends and summer days bowling at the alley across the street from the Howard Johnson’s on the way down the hill toward Kaufman’s. There’s a Galleria there now, but if you live in Pittsburgh, you know that I’d never say I bowled at the lanes near the Galleria; they will always be the lanes up the street from where Kaufman’s used to be.

As far as I know, this firm adherence to yesterday’s landscape is strictly a Pittsburgh phenomenon. If I were to tell you how to get to my high school (which doesn’t exist anymore), I would tell you to turn left where the Heigh-Ho used to be. The Heigh-Ho burned down long before I ever went to high school, but if you want to know where to turn, you need to know that the Italian restaurant whose name no one knows is the Italian restaurant that’s where the Heigh-Ho used to be.

If we weren’t bowling across the street from the HoJo, chances are we were bowling at Caste Village, down the hill from where Aunt Ann and Uncle Don used to live, where you could still roll duckpins in the late seventies.

There’s one another anomaly about getting from one place to another in Pittsburgh that has shaped me in ways I haven’t fully explored yet. The first time my husband came home with me, we decided to make a quick trip to the mall. At the end of my parents’ driveway, Fred said, “Which way should I go?”

I told him the truth, which was, “It doesn’t matter.” He looked at me a little funny, but turned left. At the bottom of the hill, he asked again, “Which way should I go?” And I told him again, “It doesn’t matter.” It’s hard to understand these sort of directions if you grew up in a city on a grid, but most of the time if you want to get anywhere in Pittsburgh, you have to go over a hill or through a hill or around a hill, and it doesn’t much matter how you do it. Somehow you get where you are going.

After bowling two games, the freshman class, the other chaperones, and I head back to school. I stop in the schoolhouse to visit the seniors, and a student I’ve taught for the past two years asks me to read her college application essay.

Do you know how, after someone you love dies, you walk around for a little while without any skin? You feel everything; there’s a tender rawness in the air that tugs your heart outside your body and pins it, flapping, to your sweater.

My student doesn’t quite say those words in her essay, but she tells how she lost a woman who was a second mother to her when she was ten years old. She writes about how frightening it was to let people get close to her, how hard it was to learn to be vulnerable again, and how she finally grew into the strong and independent young woman I know.

She wants feedback on her writing. She wants to talk about how to make her essay more powerful and whether she needs all those commas in the second paragraph. She doesn’t want to talk about the old gash in her heart, or about the crack just now opening in response in mine, so I find myself saying the things I should say, like “Can you write about a specific time when you let someone in?” and “Do you remember a specific moment when you learned you could solve problems on your own?”

Her eyes grow soft while we talk, and I am having trouble keeping mine from doing the same, and this is what it means to teach high school. Students with their invisible stories ask teachers, who keep their own stories tucked in, about sentence structure, specific details, and semicolons, while what we’re all trying to say to each other is “I get scared, too,” and “yes, love will tear you apart.” We keep going up and over and around hills, and somehow we get where we’re going.

I say a few last words about her essay and it’s time to head to U8 to meet my service learning group. Over the course of one afternoon, I watch nine students transform into teachers. They start with their “Hello” song according to plan, and the first group of preschoolers is easy; they wave, they sing “Hi,” they pat their heads and stomp their feet. Everything the “big buddies” do works.

The second group is hard; some “little buddies” just aren’t going to sing or clap or pose like statues today. I watch the teenagers realize they need to improvise; they change their plan, they grab the interest they do see and run with it, reacting to the smiles and needs on the tiny faces before them.

The final group of little buddies is tiny and enthusiastic, and none of the big buddies wants to let them go home. We all wave and say goodbye and watch them walk across campus toward their bus. I imagine the bowling alley arcing back beyond the freshmen; I see these little bodies pushing round balls down smooth, bumpered alleys.

When the tiny ones are gone and the big buddies are putting the room back together, the energy is palpable. They talk about the kid in the yellow shirt who loved the bass, the goofy kid in the puffy jacket who made them laugh, the little girl who wouldn’t do anything but put her head on the floor. I recognize their euphoria, the adrenaline rush, the exhausted high a good teaching day leaves after the last student takes her story home.

All afternoon while I’ve been clapping and stomping and singing songs about shoes, I’ve been fighting back tears. Actually, not just tears. Do other people have these perfectly happy moments, when you become so overcome that you know that if you don’t keep everything in, what is going to come out of you is not a tear or two but a full-fledged, inconveniently timed sob?  I think this might be what James Wright is talking about in “A Blessing” when he says

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

After the little buddies clean their bubbles, a big buddy asks, “What should we do with our bubbles now?” One little boy raises his hand so hard he levitates. “Pop the bubble,” he yells. Another little boy’s whole body smiles as he takes up the refrain, “Pop the bubble! Pop the bubble!”

The blossoming teacher before me promises them they can pop their bubbles at the end of class, so it’s really important to keep their bubbles safe and whole until then. It’s an inspired improvisation, and sure enough, at the end of class, she remembers her promise.

“Ok,” she tells them, “it’s time! Let’s all pop our bubbles.” Tiny fingers make poking motions and popping noises and then it’s done.

We all step out of our protective coatings and take our stories out into the world.

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Gentle

On the floor of the room where I write, a little round rug, a souvenir from the trip to Las Vegas where we saw the Cirque du Soleil “Love” show, proclaims “ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE” in friendly capital letters. The rug was expensive as souvenirs go, but Fred and I both knew when we saw it that it belonged in our home.

Lately I’ve been caught up in the gentle things of the world. I proctor a study hall every other day at work. Ninth graders who are finding their way in the world of high school come for about forty-five minutes, take out their books, and, for the most part, study. We meet in a beautiful classroom; sunlight pours in from a wall of windows overlooking a grassy quad. It’s peaceful in study hall.

Sometimes when I’m working at home in my office, my dog comes in and stretches out on the love rug. When he does this while I’m practicing the violin, I know that what the rug says is true.

Last week in study hall, the students were playful. Ninth grade homework must have been light. They were playing on their phones, I was pretending not to notice, and Google was celebrating its 15th birthday with a piñata doodle. (If you know what I’m talking about, let me just say that I stopped at 48 candies. I was proud of my restraint.) One of the boys announced, in my favorite part of study hall that happens after the kids are free to go and four or five of them stay around and argue about math formulae, that he had just realized that “If Google played soccer, he’d be on my team.” This is what it means to be fifteen.

Sometimes after I play my violin for too long, when I’ve gotten obsessed by the challenge of shifting to play an A harmonic in tune, or when I’m trying to memorize Beethoven’s Minuet in G without sounding like the band in The Music Man, I lie on the rug and stretch. After freeing my neck and shoulders, I press up into downward dog. Sometimes, if Rusty has stuck around for the whole practice, he walks under my downward dog, stretches effortlessly into his own, folds his paws, and settles like a sausage in the space between my body and the love rug.

This past weekend, the Animal Injustice Prevention Society at my school held a dog-a-thon to raise money for Watermelon Ranch, a no-kill animal shelter. Kids in purple t-shirts filled a grassy field with plastic kiddy-pools full of soapy water. Happy dogs meandered among the pools after their baths, sniffing, licking, frolicking, loving strangers indiscriminately. It was Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte come to life, tempered with Chicago’s Saturday in the Park, a song I danced to with an umbrella in Susan Pierson’s basement, when I was even younger than those kids in my study hall. I want to say to them now, “Listen, children, all is not lost, all is not lost, oh no, no…”

Sometimes in the room with the “All you need is love” rug I read the news on my iPad. This is where I am when I read the Pope’s interview in America and feel myself beginning to forgive the Catholic Church for not being a place I could stay. This is also where I read about the recent death of a dear friend’s wife, and where some mornings I read from “My Daily Spiritual Companion,” a little red journal my uncle Larry gave me last year after my Uncle Don died. Sometimes in this room I notice the night lifting, or the white plum casting shadow shapes, or something Rilke said, like “I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It’s still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.”

Last Sunday I could feel my body vibrate as I sang. I have been feeling my breath deepen as time expands out to the horizon and ebbs, leaving me, sometimes gentled, sometimes sad. I have been reading the letters my mother sent to her mother from Germany in the late fifties. In April, 1953, she writes that she lives near the site of the Battle of the Bulge and sees the soldiers clearing landmines. “Don’t worry,” she tells her mother, “they don’t let you go where they aren’t sure it’s safe.”

Do you know that if you Google “gentle poems,” thinking that this time you’ll reach beyond your bookshelves to ground your meandering thoughts, the first fifteen entries will be Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” even though you were determined, this one time, to write about something other than the fact that after we live, we die? Do you know that the next entry takes you to a link to The Guardian, and a story about Taliban poetry, where you will read, “Evening the twilight arrives slowly with its lap full of red flowers”?

It is still true that the world is hard. Tonight as I write, the government remains shut down. No one seems to know how to get from here to the day after tomorrow. Recently, though, when it seemed as though we were about to bomb Syria, it became possible to believe that all that needed to happen to prevent war was for the pope to lead a day of prayer and the American people to lose their taste for killing.

Some early mornings I sit on a zafu on my little blue “all you need is love” rug with the dog breathing beside me and I believe.

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