Aly Raisman Nails Another Routine

In honor of the weekend’s Women’s Marches, I thought I’d take a moment to say that Olympic gymnasts are tough.  Pound for pound, I’d put them up there with those crocodile-eating leopards that are all over my Facebook feed this week.  In fact, as my students would say, Aly Raisman is tough af.

In case you missed it, here’s what Raisman, two-time gold medal winning Olympian, had to say to Larry Nassar, the “physician” responsible for sexually abusing US Olympic gymnasts and University of Michigan crew team members for two decades.  (Let that “two decades” number sink in. I’ll get back to it in a bit.)

Looking right at the man who groomed young girls to gain their confidence so he could abuse them, Raisman said,  “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing.”

Poster saying "Truth Matters" at Women's March
The number of women signing up to tell the truth at Nassar’s trial was 100 and climbing

This Larry that Aly Raisman was staring down is not only the man who spent his career assaulting young women while pretending to “treat” them. He is also the man who wrote the judge a letter explaining it was too hard on him to listen to the women’s testimony.

I heard this story Friday afternoon from my husband, who told me that the judge had laughed at Nassar’s request and told him to get over it. My first question was, “Is the judge a woman?”

“I don’t think so,” my husband said.

I don’t blame him for that. Every year I do a little writing experiment with my students. I stole this from another teacher many years ago, and it’s fascinating. Without explaining what you are doing, you give the students a list of characters defined only by their job title (doctor, lawyer, nurse, etc). You tell them the characters are waiting outside a courtroom and then have them write a short scene.

The point of the exercise is to see how students assign the sex of the characters to the different professions. In 2016, 69% of my students made the judge male. In other high-powered professions, attorneys were 79% male and physicians came in at 84%. The teachers and nurses in the story were predictably female. The teacher I stole this exercise from provided data showing that in 1987 and 1997, the judges in the story were 100% male.

That’s all just a long way of telling you that I don’t blame Fred for thinking the judge was a man. I was skeptical, of course, so I looked up the story. Sure enough,  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is all woman. Not only that, she “became part of Michigan’s history by becoming the first female JAG Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard.”

Judge Aquilina told Nassar that “Spending four or five days listening to them [the young women he molested] is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.” Judge Aquilina is tough af.

Aly Raisman nailed this one, too. She stared Nassar down and said, “You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel.”

"Protest

I have to admit that I’m an Olympics junky. I watch all of it, winter and summer, every time. I watch the athletes process in. I watch them light the torch. I tear up when they stand on the podium. I’ve watched curling, canoe slalom, synchronized swimming, luge, bobsled, skeleton, and even that goofy gymnastics thing with ribbons.

Many years ago, though, watching gymnastics used to make me sad. These tiny elite athletes, it turned out, were basically starving themselves while competing at world class levels. It wasn’t enough to twirl twelve thousand  times ten feet in the air in a half-pike position and land with a half-twist and a giant smile. They had to do all of that while meeting their coach’s misogynistic idea of what a female gymnast’s body should  look like.

Eventually, though, that seemed to change. For the last few Olympics, the US women gymnasts started looking more like well-fueled athletes and less like fragile paper dolls. I thought that meant they were being treated better.

I spend my days surrounded by young men and women. I’m pretty good at knowing when to ask a student if something is bothering them. Watching the 2016 Olympics, I kept asking Fred what was wrong with the gymnasts. They were fierce au (is there a social media “au” that means “as usual”?), but the joy and laser concentration that we all fell in love with in 2012 were obviously missing.

Many years ago, a young woman at my school uttered words that changed my life. A group of students had attended a diversity conference and had come back newly empowered with language that allowed them to describe their experiences.

Their stories of being mistreated by classmates were hard to hear, but it was one young woman’s reaction to the faculty’s outrage and outpouring of compassion that changed me. “I had no idea you would help me with this,” she said.

In the courtroom on Friday, Aly Raisman called out the whole organization; she said that USA Gymnastics was “rotting from the inside” and condemned the US Olympic Committee for their silence.

Raisman said, “If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Larry Nassar spent at least twenty years abusing the power of his position and molesting young women. Meanwhile, those young women were waiting for just one adult to do something courageous, and no one did.

Just one adult.

I know that I am not in charge of keeping the US Olympic Gymnastics team safe from pedophiles. (I point that out in case Sister Therapist happens to be reading–I do know that I can’t save or protect all of them.)

And yet. Maybe instead of blithely celebrating the gymnasts’ Olympic victory, I should have written an essay asking why they didn’t look like they were having fun.

I’m at the point in this essay where I need to decide where I’m going. If I’m to meet my new goal of publishing every Monday, it’s time to wrap this up. I’ve been circling; zigging left, zagging right. But I think I’m closing in.

Last week, Fred and I went to see The Post. I’m not much of a movie critic, but I think people should see this movie. In an age where every leader has to look around and take a poll before they decide what to do, the movie tells the story of one person (just one adult, you might say) who looked inside to find that answer.

Katharine Graham was tough af, too.

The 2016 US Olympics Gymnastic Team named themselves the “Final Five.” Let’s all act like adults to make sure they got that right.

(PS–My students taught me that “AF” thing. I’m finding it surprisingly useful.)

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Singing We Shall Overcome with White People

“We Shall Overcome” is one of those songs you can’t help but respond to. It’s plaintive and powerful. One verse makes you weep while the next exhorts you to shout in defiance.

I have to admit, though, that as much as I love singing this song, it has always made me uncomfortable. Every January when MLK weekend rolls along and my mostly-white choir sings “We Shall Overcome” in my mostly-white church, a part of me feels like an impostor.

I worry that I’m indulging myself by revelling in the song without living the pain that necessitates its singing. It’s an easy way to congratulate myself–“Look how earnestly I sing for civil rights”–without actually having to change anything once the song ends.

Nevertheless, “We Shall Overcome” is one of those songs you mainline; you don’t just hear it, you feel it like a needle rush in your blood. Every year I tamp down the little voice telling me I should examine my motives.

This year, though, when I headed off to our pre-MLK choir practice on Thursday night, I had just listened to the news that the man we elected to live in the White House had called Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa “shitholes” and wished we could have more immigrants from nice [white] places like Norway.

Protest march showing sign reading "Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness"
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” (Martin Luther King)

I had also heard that man’s apologists explain that it wasn’t  a racist comment, it was code for supporting merit-based immigration. The irony that the second comment was as bad as the first was lost on the man making it.

After we finished singing all the other songs for Sunday, we practiced “We Shall Overcome” to sing while the congregation was gathering. We didn’t talk about the arrangement. Scott launched in on the piano, and then Bob, a tenor whose voice cuts straight through the noise of the world to the quiet of the soul, started singing the first verse. “Deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome, someday.”

On Thursday nights, we practice in the front corner of the church. This time of year it’s already dark when we get there, so no light shines through the stained glass windows. The altar is bare, and most of the lights in the sanctuary are turned off.

Singing at practice is more intimate than singing on Sundays. On the second verse, Margo’s strong alto adds a quiet harmony. “We’ll walk hand in hand,” she sings. The  simple concrete floors  and wooden pews bear witness.

On the third verse the choir comes in softly, oohing while Margo and Bob remind us that “We shall live in peace someday.”

Photo of protest. "Power to the people" sign in center
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King)

In a May, 2015, essay titled The Surprising History of “We Shall Overcome,” The Atlantic traces the melody to a Beethoven setting of the 1792 hymn “O Sanctissima.” It credits the 1901  lyrics to “the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a famed black preacher in Philadelphia,” and tells the story of how the song became a staple of American folk protest music.

We aren’t thinking about that history on Thursday night. On the fourth verse, every voice in the choir comes in singing “We are not afraid.” This verse talks about the present moment–right now.  We are not afraid today, we sing; no more waiting for some nebulous someday.

In NPR’s piece on the history of “We Shall Overcome,”  Bernice Johnson-Reagon explains how the song evolved. According to NPR, she “was a preacher’s daughter and knew the song as ‘I Will Overcome.’ She recalls the change to ‘We Shall Overcome as a concession that helped bring whites and blacks closer in the civil rights struggle.” I won’t spoil it for you, but her explanation of why “I” expresses the collective will better than “we” is both funny and insightful. (Her explanation of how she accepted the changes to accommodate white people’s needs is neither funny nor surprising.)

Sheet music for We Shall Overcome.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (Martin Luther King)

When the instruments took over after the sixth verse, the choir dropped out. As the flute and recorder danced around each other,  I was wiping my eyes.

Then Bob came back in with a final, glorious, “We Shall Overcome,” and there was nothing for it but to all join in. Our voices rose in crescendo, filling the empty church before softening into a final “someday.”  When the last chord faded we sat in silence, a little stunned by the spirit singing through us.

The NPR piece claims that ” ‘We Shall Overcome’ is not a marching song. It is not necessarily defiant. It is a promise.”

Protest sign saying "Open your eyes, mind, heart."
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice…But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” (Martin Luther King)

Thursday night, for the first time, I understood it that way. I didn’t hear myself singing “we” as a self-righteous, privileged white woman elbowing my way into an experience I haven’t lived. I heard myself singing “we” in community with other white people who need to get busy overcoming.

I heard myself making a promise.

As I left the church a brisk wind was driving the cold into my coat. I turned the seat warmer to high and cranked the heat. I started thinking about the things white people like me need to overcome if we want to keep this promise, if we want to create a more just society, if we want to move beyond “self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

When we talk about race in my classroom, I tell students about the time I stole a Wii game from Best Buy. My husband and I were buying Dance Dance Revolution for our grandkids. I picked up the game and was carrying it around reading the package (to the unsung writer who creates copy for video game packaging, know that at least one person on the planet is reading your work!).

After we checked out, we walked past security, and the alarm went off. The security guard looked at us, shrugged his shoulders, and waved us through.

When we got in the car my husband handed me the bag with the game. I was puzzled, the way you are when you go upstairs and can’t remember why you went there. I looked at the game I was holding in my hand and realized we had two of them. We had the one we had paid for and the one I’d been carrying around.

I went back into the store and told the guard I had just accidentally stolen the game and handed it to him. He looked confused, but took it from me, and I left.

I draw two conclusions from this story. First, and most obviously, the world has been taught that people who look like my husband and me (white, straight, middle-aged) aren’t thieves. It didn’t matter that the alarm was going off to tell this man that we were, indeed, stealing something. We didn’t look the part so he waved us through.

The second thing I’ve come to realize about the Best Buy story is that I’ve grown up expecting the world to be kind to me. I had no fear associated with returning the video–I would smile and laugh at my foolishness and the guard would understand and smile back and we’d all go on about our business.

When I tell teenagers my story, I’m reminded that those lessons don’t apply to everyone. Every year, my students of color tell me about the time their family was followed around a store, refused service, called names.

This telling is itself an improvement; only recently have my students been willing to share these stories with their white teachers and classmates. We’ve only begun to to admit that what we look like shapes how we live in the world.

And there is still a long way to go. It’s not uncommon for another well-meaning person to jump in to explain those experiences away, to attribute their occurrence to causes other than race. I, too, have to keep learning that the most basic form of respect is to believe what someone tells me about their own experience. I’ve realized it’s a special form of arrogance to believe that I possess more insight into someone’s life than they do.

Thursday night with “We Shall Overcome” still ringing in my ears I drove past the dark field where the cranes feed.  When I reached home, this essay was ringing in my ears. The late shows were talking about the shithole comment.

By Sunday morning there were denials, telling silences, a few tepid denunciations.  I went to church and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The congregation stood as we sang the final verse, visibly moved.

Protest sign reading "Love Still Wins"
“Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.” (Martin Luther King)

This time, I didn’t feel uncomfortable; I felt empowered.

In a sermon he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King called love “the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” In an interview with a reporter today, Donald Trump said, “I’m the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

It’s 2018 and we’ve all got to up our game. Love has its work cut out for it.

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How She Got Back on Her Bike and Why It Matters: A Bike’s Story

Hello. This is Heather’s bike. Not the big burly teal one; I’m the slick Cannondale at the bottom of the picture. Shiny. That’s what people used to say when they saw me coming. Slick. That’s another thing they used to say.

Teal and the Cannondale perched on their rack.
I’m the cute one on the bottom.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Heather used to take me out of the garage fairly often. She wrote about the things we’d see on the trail or how she nearly broke my spokes when she tried to learn to ride with clipless pedals. She even rode me in a few sprint triathlons. I remember cruising down that hill in Rio Rancho…

Then the summer of 2o15 happened, and she quit riding me. I heard her tell people that no matter how much she stretched, her body kept getting stiffer. Then her hands and fingers swelled up, and it was just a quick hop, skip, and a jump (or a stumble, droop, and a nap) into her new life with an autoimmune disease.

As she and her rheumatologist experimented with medications, she had to dial everything back. I, her fancy new bike,

A close-up of the Cannondale Quick
That’s me again.

spent my days leaning against the wall in the garage. Even when she got settled into a good treatment plan, she didn’t want to hang out with me. I’d see her leave the house with a gym bag and come home with wet hair. I didn’t know if I’d ever get out of the garage again.

Then, one day she opened the garage door and the wind felt fresh around my tires. She walked up to me and squeezed the brakes; it was as though she was trying to see if her fingers were still working. I tried to encourage her by helping a little, but there’s only so much a bike can do.

Months passed. Everyone now and then she’d squeeze my brakes again, but I knew not to get my hopes up. It was as though she had stopped being a person who couldn’t ride a bike and become a person who wasn’t riding a bike, but she hadn’t figured that out yet.

I started keeping notes in order not to drive myself crazy from the loneliness and boredom. Sure, I had Tealy-bike to keep me company, but she wasn’t going on any rides either. What else are a couple of bikes going to talk about?

Anyway, I heard that I’m not the only one who had a rough  year in 2017, and the idea of Oprah running for president (what, you don’t think bikes follow politics?) has gotten me hopeful again, so here’s the story of how I finally made it out of the garage.

January, 2017

Yippee! She has pulled me out of the garage and into the driveway. She’s got the bike pump out. WE ARE GOING FOR A RIDE! My spokes are tingling and my gears are feeling loose.

Wait, what’s happening? OW!–something doesn’t feel right. She’s working up a sweat pumping, but the air is just whooshing around and my tires still feel all limp and saggy. I’ve been sitting on the cold garage floor for  years months. It looks like I’ve got a hernia in my back valve stem.

She half-rolls, half-drags me back into the garage and leans me against the wall. She’s just going to leave me here? When the door closes, Teal Bike feels so bad for me she doesn’t even gloat.

Worst of all, Heather looked tired and discouraged after all that pumping and I think her hands and wrists were aching. She went inside and called it a day.

March-ish, 2017

For two months, I was back to my bored self, leaning against the wall. Nothing to read, nothing to look at.

Then in March, my neglectful owner remembered that standing on the cold garage floor wasn’t good for me. One boring Saturday she lifted me gently into the car and took me to the bike doctors. They repaired my hernia, gave me new valve stems, and pumped me full of air and confidence. They also chastised Heather. They explained  that if she hung me on a bike rack instead of leaving me on the cold floor, I’d survive the winters better.

She bought the bike rack, but I still had problems. Apparently it looked like it was going to be complicated to install, so she decided to wait for her son-in-law to visit. Teal and I rolled our pedals at her, but she didn’t notice.

June, 2017

The days are long, and sunlight seeps in through the crack under the garage door. Son-in-law finally showed up, and Teal and I love our new digs! Tealy got the top bunk, which I was happy about because I don’t really like heights. I also thought that the bike on the bottom was much more likely to get ridden, and (spoiler alert!) I was right.

July, 2017

Disaster. They got home from vacation. The man she lives with takes a big dog blanket out of the car and throws it on me. Out of sight out of mind.

The Cannondale under a blanket.
Transformed from a proud bike into a poor imitation of a linen closet.

Every now and then I hear her complain to the man that the blanket he has piled on top of her bike is keeping her from riding. I’m a little skeptical, but what do I know. I’ve never been married.

October, 2017

It’s scratchy and dark under the blanket, and I’m having trouble maintaining my self-esteem. How can a light, slick, bike like me feel good about myself when I’ve been reduced to living as a shelf?

Every day when she comes into the garage I concentrate the energy in my spokes and try to communicate with her telepathically. “Move the damn blanket yourself,” I whisper.

November, 2017

The days are growing shorter again. Tealy’s joints are drying out. I hear Heather tell a friend she has given herself a deadline. She says she has “written it down” and “told her friends” which is supposed to make a resolution stick.

Rumor has it her deadline is December 31, 2017. On December 24, I watch her line the driveway with candles and imagine us riding out between them, paparazzi cheering and snapping photos as we go.

On December 31st I stay up late, not wanting to believe she’ll miss the deadline.

When I hear the fireworks at midnight, I understand why people say the holidays can be hard.

January 1, 2018

10:00 AM. The new year dawns without me noticing. I’m in a deep, dejected sleep when she appears. She rolls me out of the garage, puts some air in my tires. My tubes feel good. My valves feel good. This is it.

Then she starts rubbing her hands. She’s cold. She goes inside. Damn; I hate hope.

2:00 PM. She’s back. My gears sing when I notice she’s wearing her bike shoes and her neon yellow jacket. She tosses me in the back of the Subaru. I’m not sick, so I don’t think we’re going to the hospital.

2:05 PM. Are you kidding me? I’m lying on my back, cramped up at a funny angle in the Subaru when she notices that her helmet is missing. She blames her husband for misplacing it.

2:25 PM. She finds her helmet. I hear her say, “What is it doing on a shelf in the hot water heater closet?!”

Messy closet with bike helmet on shelf
Can you spot the bike helmet?

2:30 PM. She pulls her Subaru into  the gravel lot at the west end of the Montano Bridge. I’m so excited my pedals are spinning. She straps on her helmet, takes a swig from her water bottle, and swings her leg over my back.

2:49 PM: She’s on the Bike!

I only have a few more things to tell you. It feels so good to be out on the trail that I’m gulping in air, shifting more smoothly than I’ve ever shifted, dancing around like one of those Arabian ponies we saw practicing their moves on the ditch bank last time we were out.

I can tell she’s feeling it, too, and regretting all that time we spent apart. I know that because we ride too long. The mountains are on our right and the river is just over there through the cottonwoods. I can hear the cranes and geese and we’re even picking up speed and passing a few people. At one point, she gets brave and clicks into my pedals. We’ve never been closer.

Then a whole flock of crows gathers right above her head. She laughs and takes her hands off my handlebars and for a minute we are drafting, until the crows speed up and pull away.

Later we saw them sitting all pretty in a tree like Christmas ornaments (hey, bikes can appreciate beauty) and then something got them all excited and they started flapping and squawking. We both looked around for an eagle or a coyote, but the trail kept its secrets.

4:00 pm

Back in the parking lot, she’s tired and she leans me way down to get her leg over my back. Her hips are stiff and she’s shaking her wrists like they might be hurting, but we’re both smiling as she lifts me back into the Subaru and gives me a little pat on my seat.

So, this is Heather’s bike, and that’s my story. I heard it was a hard year outside of the garage, too. I just wanted to let you know, if you have been hanging on the wall in a cold garage for months on end, that the cranes are still making wide Vs over the river.

The planet is still swinging wide, making slow, graceful loops around the sun.  I’m here to tell you that those long months in the cold garage can end. Tealy says it’s because hope with action gets rewarded.

I’m no philosopher. I just know that when she got back on, we both remembered how to ride.

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Five Things I Know As the New Year Dawns

Whew! That was a close one, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m ok with putting 2017 to bed. We did it gently. After watching some football and eating tacos with the grandkids, Fred and I watched a little Jeopardy, complained about how inane the Times Square coverage was, and talked about how hard it seemed to stay up till midnight this year. Wild times in Albuquerque!

This morning the new year was waiting for us like the newspaper when we woke up, wide open pages swelling with invitation and possibility.  I’m planning to check off my first resolution (“Get back on my bike”) today, but right now it’s a little cold out. While I’m waiting for the temperature to crest forty, I thought do some of that new year’s reflecting and make a list of things I know.

One: It’s madness not to be who you are.

I thank Franz Kafka for this one. I’ve been thinking about him lately, since this was one of those years when words like “Orwellian” and “Kafka-esque” could be used unpretentiously in pop culture. Who didn’t imagine, at some point this year, that they were waking up like Gregor Samsa, freshly transformed, into a world that was different than the one you went to sleep in? or like Joseph K, summarily arrested one morning “without having done anything wrong.” That’s just how the year felt, I think.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Kafka. In his diaries, he reveals how his writing life torments him. “My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background,” he tells us. “Nothing else will ever satisfy me.”

And yet, Kafka, like most of us, artists or not, got up every morning and went to his day job. His art had to elbow its way in at the edges. In a letter to Max Brod, his friend, biographer, and editor, he noted that “a non-writing writer is a monster inviting madness.”

It was in something of that spirit that I started this blog, back in April of 2013. That feels like such a long time ago! A handful of you have been reading since that very first post, Into the River, and I’m grateful that you’ve walked through these years with me.

Two: Living into your real life is self-perpetuating.

When I started this blog, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I woke up one morning, and the insect I’d been transformed into was a blogger. I spent the rest of that day much like Gregor Samsa, figuring out what to do with this new body I found myself in. I learned what a blog was and how to start one, and then, I started writing.

Since that morning in 2013, I’ve kept my feet in the river, and my life has been better for it. Every day the silty muck oozes between my toes and convinces me, again, that we can help love have an edge in this achy, beautiful world.

Writing is like prayer or meditation; it keeps calling me deeper and deeper into myself.

Three: Things change.

I know you didn’t need me to tell you that, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I’m ok with change. In the years since I’ve been writing here, I’ve lost a few important people, deepened some old relationships,  and gained a few new pounds friends. I’ve developed an autoimmune disease and joined a gym. The grandkids have started turning into teenagers. My hair is longer and lighter because I’m still too vain to let it just be gray.

Four: Things stay the same.

Who knew? A lot of things have stayed the same in these years. I live in the same house with the same man and the same dog. Some nights I cook great meals and some nights I still eat Oreos for dinner. I still struggle to be the teacher I want to be while writing all the words I want to write and playing all the music I want to play and loving all the people I want to love.  I still have days when lines from Rilke follow me around (see this old post if you’re curious).

Five: The road appears when you start walking.

I thank Tolkien for this one. It’s right there in the walking song.

The road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began

Now far ahead the road has gone

And I must follow if I can

I like how Bilbo Baggins assumes the road is out there, and it’s just a question of “pursuing it with eager feet.” I don’t have to plot the course, bulldoze the rocks out of the way, or lay gravel. I just have to start walking. Looking back over these past few years, I can see that the road has been unrolling itself before me as I set out on it.

That’s pretty damn reassuring, now that I think about it.

So there you have it.

It’s a new year and I already know five things. You probably know more. If 2018 is anything like the year we just lived through, we’re all going to have to up our games. Living, really living, in this raggedy, awful, glorious world isn’t for the faint of heart. These times are calling all of us to step into the river, to listen to whatever it is that is knocking in us, to keep living ever more deeply into who we are.

My plan for the new year is to slow down and keep listening. I want to hear my life as it pounds on the door of my hectic schedule. I want to write about what I hear to make sense of it and to remember that I’m not alone.

Thanks for coming with me on this journey so far. Let’s keep walking through it together.

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Note: I’m planning some changes for the blog, including one all of you email subscribers will have just seen. Please let me know how you feel about them!

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Sun in the Window

Last time I wrote it was advent, and I was waiting for the light to come.

Tonight I’m outside in the front yard, coaxing the light in. Fred is spacing the paper bags evenly along the sidewalk and driveway. I’m setting the candles upright, grounding them in the sand, making sure the wicks are ready to catch a flame. Neighbors who walk and drive by silently most nights are stopping to shout “Merry Christmas!” as their curious dogs look on. There’s something old fashioned and magical about these little bags of sand and light.

They make me think of Pittsburgh. In  the neighborhood in the South Hills where I grew up, every house lined the road on Christmas Eve. The Shamrock Manor Women’s Club took orders every fall and dropped off sand and bags and candles as the holiday approached. On cold Christmas Eves, after we’d opened the gifts from the siblings, my father and brothers would put on heavy coats and strike their flimsy matches against the wind and dark.

Later, as we drove to my grandmother’s house and then to midnight mass, the world would be transformed. Luminaria decorated the hills like chains of earthbound stars. We’d sing Christmas carols in the car and go silent as we entered the darkened chuch.

That church is a gym now. My parents are gone. All of my aunts and uncles, two of my siblings, and a few of my cousins have passed beyond this earthly light as well. I’m thinking about them tonight,  dipping my hand into each bag, holding the flame at the end of my lighter against the wick until I see it swell.

I’m remembering one especially sad lunch with my parents. My father was already ill with cancer; my mother was overwhelmed by the thought of that loss, beginning her long slide into dementia. Soup and breadsticks were one of the few foods they could both still enjoy, so we had come to Olive Garden for lunch. The light was gray outside the windows and the trees were bare.

“What if none of it is true?” my mother wondered.

She was thinking about another life, a life they might share after they shed their aging bodies and met again in some promised, airy beyond.

I was thinking about how true it had all been already, how the spring had returned and refilled the branches every year, how the luminaria had stayed lit in the snow, how my parents’ love, swelling like two flames into one, had lit my childhood.

This year it hit sixty degrees on Christmas Eve in Albuquerque and the luminaria burned all night.  Christmas afternoon, a column of  sun poured through our dining room window like the beam from a light saber. All afternoon, this wide cone of light traced a path through the blinds, across the orchid on the table, past the Christmas tree, and into the hall.

Rusty felt it first, and went to lie in the glow.

I saw it while I was on the phone with my sister, miles away in Ohio.  It outshone the lights on the Christmas tree, which shrank back into the branches, recognizing that this wasn’t their time to glow.

A little while later, Fred came in.

“Look at that light,” he said, walking into the family room from his office. “I’ve never seen it quite like that before.”

I have been thinking about light a lot this Christmas season. Ever since Thanksgiving,  I’ve been enjoying the lights on my neighbors’ houses. The neighborhood is aglow with snowflakes, twinkling laser shows, a Santa Claus pig, and simple strings of colored bulbs hanging from the eaves. I like these little stands against the darkness; these tiny blinking beacons shouting into the night.

Recently as I was thinking about how hard churchgoers have worked to turn a religion born out of love and an explicit rejection of power into a hierarchical system hungry for power at any cost, I read an article that mentioned that Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a practice. It made me think about the weeks I used to spend with students at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center in the Jemez mountains. Once a year for a bunch of years I’d travel to the center with a group of eager teenagers.

We’d rise at dawn, don our robes, and sit zazen in the zendo. We’d breathe in and out until we’d pulled the light over the edge of the mountains. After breakfast on those cold mornings I’d take my coffee and stand by the river, imagining what it would be like to let the cycle of light sculpt my days. I’m wondering what the world would be like if more people treated Christianity as a practice, as a simple way of being light in the world.

On nights like tonight when the moon is small, I carry a flashlight when I walk Rusty in the evening. There’s a dark patch where the road loops behind my house, a wild space where the street dead ends into the mesa. If I’m carrying a tiny circle of light,  I move through it without looking over my shoulder, without listening for footsteps in the rustling  leaves.

Sometimes I think it is all real. Sometimes I think that the birds are the heavenly hosts, swooping in to warn us, singing to bring us joy, dancing on the wind to outline the breath of a holy spirit.

Sometimes on a quiet Christmas afternoon when the planet tilts just right, I walk into my living room and see a solid column of light.

Sometimes when I strike a match and light a candle I am certain that light has an edge; that fire will always find a way to outshine the darkness.

Sometimes when the  year has been full of aggressive shadows, when it has seemed like the darkness is swelling, I can toss a candle into a paper bag of sand.  I can strike a match, touch it to the wick, and watch the flame swell, as it passes from one torch to another.

Sometimes in Pittsburgh, rays of winter light would catch in the bare branches outside my parents’ kitchen window.

I can see it now, that light that stretches across time and distance. See how it chases away the darkness; see how it warms me still.

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Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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Doom, Gloom, and Glory

This post is a little different. I was invited to preach a sermon at my incredible church. What follows is the full text I spoke this morning. 

When Father Joe first asked me if I would ever like to preach a sermon, I thought we were speaking hypothetically. Then I got an email that said, “How about November 19th?”

I was thrilled. You see, when I was a good, young Catholic girl studying theology at Notre Dame in the 80s, my classmates were mostly men who were preparing for seminary. That wasn’t a path that was open to me. Even as a kid in Catholic grade school, I knew that. Every year some visiting priest would come and hand out pink and blue plastic rosaries and tell us to pray for vocations (pink nun vocations for the girls, blue priestly vocations for the boys.)  Even then I thought that being a priest and having one of those blue vocations might be pretty cool, but I had no interest in spending my life living in a convent with a bunch of women wearing the same boring clothes and sensible shoes every day. (I like shoes.) I had nothing against the nuns who were my teachers, but I prayed every single year not to have a vocation.

God heard my prayer, so I’ve spent my church life sitting in a pew or singing in a choir. Which is all to say I am grateful for and humbled by this opportunity.

Then I read the scriptures for today. I wondered if the 26th Sunday after Pentecost is one of those Sundays that seasoned priests know to give away.

Think about it. The first words we heard today were “Be silent before the Lord God.”  You can see my dilemma. I decided to ignore the warning of the prophet and speak anyway, and we all know how that usually turns out. You can decide in a few moments if I should have just taken Zephaniah’s advice.

From that point, things only got worse. Zephaniah warns us that the day of the Lord is coming, and it’s not going to be pretty. It will be a time of “ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past year, over the past few months, that began with one person saying something like, “It’s all too much,” or “I just can’t take any more.”

Of course, I don’t have to tell you how many of those conversations I’ve had. We have all been having them. The daily litany of suffering and sadness has been overwhelming. White supremacists are marching in the streets and getting jobs in the White House. Hurricanes are drowning cities. Earthquakes are toppling buildings and burying people alive. Madmen are murdering men and women and children while they pray or make music or ride their bicycles. Surely we are right now living in Zephaniah’s time of “ruin and devastation.” Surely these are “day[s] of darkness and gloom.”

Who wants to preach about that?

I turned my attention to the gospel, to the good old parable of the talents. I was thinking, “Ok, I’ve got this. Don’t hide your light under a bushel”, “be a good steward,“ and all that, but then I read the story. Then I read it a few more times. Then I read the chapters before and after it.

I can’t stand this story.

We all just heard it. The master goes away, having entrusted three slaves with some “talents” [read money]. The “good” slaves go off and, being fine, upstanding capitalists double their master’s money. On his return, the master is delighted with their work. Let’s look at what he says. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.”

This might be a good time to pause for a moment and figure out whose side we’re on.

I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think the master is the good guy. The problem is, I don’t.

Let’s imagine the scene from the perspective of the slaves who please him. In the “long time” the master has been away, you’ve doubled his money. You are feeling pretty pleased with yourself. You’ve had a chance to imagine what he’ll do with all that money when he returns. Think about it for a second.

I bet at least some of us were thinking that the master would give us some of that money. Maybe toss us a shekel or two for our efforts. But that’s not what happens. The master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.” In other words, you’ve done good work, so I’m going to give you—wait for it–more work. Most of us have probably experienced this same phenomenon at some point in our own careers. As a teacher, it happens to me all the time. I think waiters refer to it as the “verbal tip.”

But, let’s get back to the story. Perhaps the master sees the fallen faces of the slaves when they realize he isn’t planning to share, so he magnanimously invites them to “enter into his joy.” They don’t even get to have their own joy.

To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have had that reaction to the master if it weren’t for the way he treats the final “wicked and lazy slave.” This character comes on the scene and speaks truth to power. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

And that moment is when I really started regretting saying that I’d like to preach a sermon. Why should I take the master’s word that this slave is “lazy and wicked”?

Let’s start with the fact that he’s a slave. By definition, the evidence that the master “reaps where he did not sow” is pretty compelling. Isn’t that slavery’s whole gig? Add in the fact that the master condemns this honest, frightened man to “the outer darkness” and a lifetime of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” not for losing his money, not for squandering it on wild living and sports car camels, but for keeping the money safe and returning it in full– the prosecution rests.

I can’t help but admire the third slave. Knowing he works for a “harsh man,” he refuses to benefit from that man’s ill-gotten gains. Granted, he was a lousy capitalist, but in my book, he’s the hero of the story.

I was still reeling from my discovery that I wasn’t routing for the “master” in the Kingdom of God when Matthew drops the moral of the story on us. In the kingdom of God, he says, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

So let me get this straight. In the kingdom of God, the rich get more and the poor get, well, “thrown into the outer darkness”? That sounds a lot like a world I know. It sounds like a world in which the purchasing power of the Federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 and has been losing ground ever since. It sounds like a world in which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, many CEOs make more than 250 times what a typical worker earns. It sounds like a world where the richest country on the planet builds walls around its treasure shouting, “Me first! Me first!” It sounds like tax reform.

Did I mention that I don’t like this story?

At this point, I told my husband I wasn’t going to be able to preach a sermon. What can it mean if the kingdom of god is just like the messed up world we live in?  What happened to the harps and angels and halos? You can’t preach a sermon that says things are bad and they aren’t going to get any better.

But that is exactly how it feels lately, isn’t it? We can’t catch our breath from one atrocity before the next one hits. I was reminded of a time when I was in my late twenties; my sister died unexpectedly, a phone call in the middle of the night. At her funeral, while I was praying for perpetual light to shine upon her, I realized that in my gut, I didn’t believe any of it. There was absolutely no comfort for me in imagining my sister floating around in some ethereal heaven while her son, just four years old, lay curled up on less than one sofa cushion in my mother’s living room. My faith had always been important to me, so I was surprised to realize I hadn’t actually meant it.

Of course, I didn’t stay there. The day after I went to bed muttering that “the Kingdom of God is just like this world,” the cranes came. I could hear them gathering overhead as I drove across the Montano Bridge, through a corridor of cottonwoods so golden that they were shouting “glory!” That same day, a teenager at my school stood up in our morning meeting to ask if we could all pause for a moment and remember all the people who are suffering. Two hundred some teenagers bowed their heads and went silent.

What comfort I found after my sister’s death didn’t come from imagining her in some other, better world. How could there be a better world for a mother than the one in which she can hold and touch her son, who is alive and playing? What comfort I found came from my cousin, who put her hand on my shoulder and kept it there. It came from the old friends who showed up at the funeral home. It came from being a part of a community who made a decision to stand together to stare down sadness.

That’s how I learned to believe again in the resurrection. That’s how I learned to believe again that love, that life endures beyond dying.

And that’s exactly what we do here every single time we come together. I don’t know how people who don’t have a St. Michael’s keep going. What I do know is that it’s no coincidence that the kingdom of God Matthew and Zephaniah describe is just like the world we live in. This is, indeed, the kingdom of God.  We are the kingdom of God. We are the hands, the feet, the breath, even the laughter of the resurrected Christ in the world.

At the risk of talking back to a prophet, these are not times to be silent before the Lord God. In the day of the Lord, Matthew assures us, even the most lowly will be emboldened to speak truth to power.

I am so grateful to be a part of this community that stands together to create the kingdom, to stare down sadness. Thank you for letting me speak in this beautiful and holy place this morning. As Paul advises the Thessalonians, let’s keep building each other up, as indeed we are doing.

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Beating the Thanksgiving Rush

The cool thing about having a chronic illness, I’m learning, is that when you feel good, you feel really, really good. When rheumatoid arthritis snuck up on me a few years ago, I had some pretty bad months. Pre-RA, my joints and muscles have carried me through a couple of (very slow) marathons and even a few triathlons (ditto the very slow), but when inflammatory arthritis first struck, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling like I needed to rest. My hands were used to doing things like playing  the piano and knitting crooked scarves, and for a while, I couldn’t reliably tie a shoe or open a drawer. I remember one morning when my school was about to have a lock-down drill and I had to ask our head of school, who was the only person nearby, to help me close the blinds in my classroom.

I was lucky, though. These sorts of diseases run rampant in my family, and when my nephew was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a toddler some thirty-odd years ago, my sister Judy decided to become a rheumatologist. (Note to any teenagers reading: you don’t have to figure it all out in high school. The path appears. Life emerges as you say yes and no.)  Long before I ever made it to a doctor, Judy had diagnosed my stiff, swollen hands over the phone. I didn’t have to go through years of wondering what was wrong as so many people do before getting started on a treatment plan that works.

The other thing that was cool about getting inflammatory arthritis when I did is that it’s what my brother Paul had. For about a year before he died, we bonded over my painful joints. He called whenever I had a doctor’s appointment, he told me what to expect, he told me I was normal when I talked about being tired. And I started to understand what he’d experienced, not always having good care, cringing when well-meaning strangers pumped his hand. I think about Paul every time someone gives my hand a particularly aggressive shake.

I wasn’t planning to wander down memory lane thinking about my siblings today. I was just going to talk about gratitude, like everyone does as Thanksgiving approaches. This was going to be a totally cliche post–life is good, give thanks!–which I might just still be able to pull off if I work at it.

Here’s the point. Yesterday I went to a “barre-fit” class at my gym. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I used to do yoga, and I haven’t been able to keep that up. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve been frustrated at my inability to put much weight on my hands and wrists in downward dog, or to transition from a pose on the mat to standing without lumbering up like a stale marshmallow version of my former self.

So I went to “barre-fit” yesterday with some trepidation. (And yes, I know exactly what that word sounds like if you say it quickly! Not for nothing I teach teenagers.) I also went with some hope.

True confession. When I watch Dancing with the Stars (and no, the fact that I watch Dancing with the Stars is not the confession–I think I’ve admitted that here before), I imagine the season when they invite ordinary people to apply for a “normal person” slot.  And yeah, judge me if you want, but I want that slot.

Every year when they announce the stars, Fred jokes that he’s never heard of any of them. He calls them has-beens. I don’t care who they are. They agree to get vulnerable and to learn to feel things with their bodies in public, and I’m hooked.  I’m a “never has been” and I want to have to learn to dance a pasa doble before millions of cheering and jeering fans. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I’m just telling you what’s true.

So, the sister who I admire for going to medical school when she was forty is the same sister who kept me from becoming the dancer I’m sure I was meant to become. “You don’t need to take ballet lessons,” I distinctly remember my mother saying. “You’ll just quit like your sisters did.” Perhaps Meg and Clare are also to blame here, but Judy is the one who ditched her ballet slippers under a tree in Elm Leaf park and pretended she’d lost them. (A pretense she maintained until my father’s liver cancer was well underway. When she finally came clean, it was too late for my career as an untrained ballerina to take off.)

Anyway, I’m just delusional enough to believe that there is still a path. Someday, Dancing with the Stars is going to call me, and God damn, I plan to be ready.

So. Barre-fit, or barf-it, or whatever you want to call it. I plie-d, I dipped, I put my feet in first position and held my arms out to my sides with intention, and holy Batman, what do you know, today I feel good. Sure, tiny muscles buried in the flab in my thighs hurt, but my feet, that have been screaming at me for about two years, feel like living things again, not clunky two by fours with nails in them. I’m hooked. I am getting my body ready for the day when Dancing with the Stars announces their “Every-woman” season. You heard it here first.

Now, back to that gratitude thing. Right now, as we speak, my church is welcoming a family from Angola to live in the rooms at the end of the hall. They are seeking asylum, and I’m a part of a community that believes we should welcome the stranger for real, not just metaphorically.

I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for Judy who hated dancing and still blames her bunions on her toe-shoes, and for Saint Clare, the peacemaker, and for Pat, who kept his compass pointed home. And for Meg and Paul who left too soon. And for a lazy Sunday afternoon when Fred’s in Lubbock, and I’m cooking soup (again) and listening to the folk station on Amazon prime. Oh, and for Aurora and Cali, the granddaughters who just last weekend said, we’re choreographing Cali’s contemporary solo, will you help us? And for Luke, the grandson who in sixth grade can get through a Monday NYT crossword puzzle and likes doing them with me, and for Noah and Marissa who are making music in the youth symphony in Lubbock right now while I’m writing, and for Freddy and Cherisse who created all these grandkids, and for Fred, who opted in and has kept standing here next to me for some twenty-five plus years.

I didn’t even mention the friends, or the extended family, or the fact that my body feels flexible and energetic right now, or that the world’s most ridiculous dog is waking from his deep nap on the couch, shaking his head, nudging my knee with his nose. Let’s go for a walk, he’s saying, let’s prance, let’s throw a ball.

In her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here“, Joy Harjo writes, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Every now and then, I think, it really is that simple.

Rusty doesn’t have time for poetry. He’s tapping my leg with his paw, losing patience. I close my laptop, dance up to meet him. It’s a good day to wag our tails. It’s a good day to go for a walk and kick up golden leaves. It’s a good day to give thanks for breathing in and out, for living in a body that can play.

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Things that Move, Things that Stand Still

One morning in July, Rusty nudged me out of bed at 6:30, amazed as always to have woken into another wondrous day. There were squirrels to see, bunnies to yearn for, birds to bark at. His whole body was wagging. How could I still be in bed?

I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, slid my flip-flops on, and out we went into what passes for Eden. The air was cool, a good twenty degrees below the nineties we’d reach later in the day, and everything was moving.

Cottonwood fluff landed on my eyelashes; finches and cowbirds danced and dipped and dove. Trees quivered, a dotted line of ants marched crumbs across the sidewalk, and neighbors on their way to work waved from their cars. Rusty, beside himself in the brand new world, could hardly keep his paws on the ground.

At the far end of the street, high up in the cottonwood by the mailboxes, the neighborhood hawks are raising another family. The eggs have hatched and the birds are staying close; this morning one watches from the wall at the top of the hill while the other flies low overhead, gripping a doomed lizard. Tiny bits of bone and feather and fur litter the ground under the nest.

I was starting to think that maybe I would write about motion when I started noticing things that were standing still. I looked at the mesa, the Sandias tugging the sun over the crest, the thick trunk of the cottonwood I leaned on while Rusty sniffed and pawed at the ancient earth.

That was a few months ago. These days Rusty is sleeping later. Summer’s bright promise slid into golden fall, and I keep sorting the world into two piles: things that move, things that stay still.

I’m in my seventeenth year of teaching high school. I started in 2001, just before the Twin Towers came down. I was driving to work when I started hearing the story on NPR. When I reached my classroom, students were already crying. I remember saying something stupid, something to suggest that when we learned all the facts, things would somehow be ok, less terrifying than they seemed in those early hours and days of not knowing. Of course, that wasn’t true.

That day provided some of my earliest lessons in how to be a teacher. Understand that you don’t have what they need. Hold a space where they can cry. Try to be just a little bit stronger than they are, unless it’s one of those moments when they need to know it’s ok to be weak. Be grateful for structure; in a chaotic day, it can help to head off to chemistry class just because it’s 9:35.

Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my life divides neatly into before and after, just as in so many ways, the story of this country does. Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my work as a teacher has always been tied to my hopes and fears for the world.

Seventeen years isn’t as long as some things. It’s shorter than the time my sister Meg has been dead. It’s shorter than the number of years I’ve been married. It’s shorter than the number of years my parents lived on Marvle Valley Drive.

It’s longer than the lives of the students I am teaching now. When I started my life as a teacher, most of my students weren’t born. The students I taught in those magical early years are married, have children, lament on Facebook that they feel old.

My current and recently past students are in motion. They grow, they graduate, they move away, they come back. “How are you?” they ask me when they stop by on winter break. “What’s new?” Fine, I tell them. Nothing much, I tell them. I am still here. Some of them, I know, find this comforting, this returning to your past and finding your old teachers still mucking around in it.

Last week  The Birds of Chicago spent the week in residence at my school, making music for and with us. These people who tour over two hundred days a year taught classes, made us laugh, and yanked our hearts right out of our chests. We laughed and cried together while our hearts flopped around on the outside like fish at play in this crazy new thing called air. On Thursday morning after they played with our jazz band, I found myself talking to a colleague. “I want to go back and make every decision differently,” I heard myself say. Then the day took off as the days in a school always do, and I didn’t give it much more thought.

Do you know how, when you pray or meditate every day, answers to questions you haven’t even figured out how to ask appear fully formed in your head? Well, I haven’t been meditating every day, but I have been trying to write most days and to take a few deep, intentional breaths now and then, and, wham, somewhere mid-afternoon the answer to a question I didn’t know I’d asked popped into my head. “Do nothing safe,” it shouted, as though it was afraid I wouldn’t hear.

What the hell, universe? I’m fifty-three and ten twelfths years old. I’m healthy-ish, but that’s because I’ve got good health insurance that pays for one of those expensive drugs that flowy-haired women on horseback advertise on tv. I live in a beautiful, paid-for home in a marriage that works pretty well most days. I can afford to take violin lessons with my granddaughter and pay for the gym membership that keeps my joints moving. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger number in my 401K, but I can’t really think of a different number that would make me stop thinking that. My only real gripe is that, when I read that the average age of menopause was fifty-one, I took it as a promise. That hasn’t really panned out for me.

So what’s up with envying people who spend two hundred days a year on the road, and what does the universe mean when it tells me to “do nothing safe”?

The next day I’m talking with my friend Nina who tells me about her friend the successful entrepreneur. His motto is “Think short term and rely on good luck.” It sounds like a prophecy, so I write it on a notecard and tack it to the bulletin board in my classroom. It’s terrible advice for teenagers, but I can’t bring myself to take it down.

So. October is sweeping the floors, getting ready to close up shop. November is dusting off the shelves, hanging the grand opening signs. I hear the cranes have come back. I haven’t seen them yet, but I believe they are here. The sycamore in the back yard is gold and going bare. The plum in the front is still green and going red. Some things are moving. Some things are standing still.

The problem is that I can’t figure out which one I am doing. On any given day I love my work. I love standing like a ledge, or a rock, or a launchpad in my students’ lives. On any given day I’m background noise or a faint breeze. On any given day I support or chastise or applaud while my heart swims out beyond my body and back again, over and over.

Those early lessons about teaching still hold. Just this week I’ve had students who needed strong, and students who needed to know it was ok to be weak. Just this week, I’ve held a place for them to cry. Just this week, I’ve realized for the millionth time that I don’t have what they need.

The problem is, lately I can’t figure out whether I’m living out my calling or avoiding it. Something is moving in me, stretching at my seams.

Maybe it’s just my body’s stubborn refusal to quit producing eggs, or all this Halloween candy, or another chronic illness come to swell my joints. Whatever it is, when it reveals itself, I hope I’m paying attention. I hope I will remember to do nothing safe. I hope I will remember to think short-term and rely on good luck.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might want to check out The Birds of Chicago.

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Googling Poems about Hope

I started this post a few weeks ago, when the places on my mind were Houston, Florida, North Korea, Mexico City, and Puerta Rico.  I wrote, “It’s Monday night and as far as I can tell, the world is a mess.” Now it’s Monday night again, and I’m adding Las Vegas to the list. As I write, CNN is reporting that they’ve recovered forty-two guns from the hotel and the shooter’s home, and they are replaying for at least the thousandth time the sad staccato sounds of the gunshots.

I feel like I should post something, but I can’t write about guns again. Read this old post if you want anger about guns. I posted it after Sandy Hook. Then I posted it after Orlando.

On nights like tonight, when I can’t keep up with the hurricanes and earthquakes, the shootings, the news of human suffering on scales I can’t begin to imagine, I page through the books of poems on my shelves. Usually I find something there that keeps me going; Ruth Stone or Robert Hass comes through with some poem with a long view that helps me look through the immediate suffering and remember beauty.

Tonight I strike out.

I turn to the internet, google “poems about hope.” I pass over the ubiquitous “thing with feathers” and stop at this one, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” by a Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should stop now and read it. I’m not going to say anything here that is more poignant or beautiful or helpful than what you will read in that poem.

I know better than to turn on CNN when something bad is happening in the world, the same way I know that I should eat less sugar and make it to the pool more often. But it’s there, and Fred keeps flipping to it when Monday night football goes to a commercial. All evening I hear tiny snippets of sadness, stories of loss or survival.

Fred flips back to the game and I look back at my laptop. I love how the title of the poem draws you in. “Just try,” the poem says. I’m picturing the poet standing in my family room tonight, looking over my shoulder to the tv, reading the skepticism in my eyes.  “I know the world is all fucked up,” I imagine him telling me, “but try to love it anyway.”

A little later in the poem, he’s not so gentle. “You must praise the mutilated world,” he argues. He says this after the memories he’s sharing have gotten a little darker, and it’s like one of those moments when you’re at your worst in the classroom and you’re trying to dodge a question before a student even asks it. There’s a “because I said so” quality to the line that I find poignant. The imaginary Adam Zagajewski in my family room sees the images on my tv, looks at the shooter’s sight line from the thirty-second floor. He knows I’m not buying it.

He backs off. “You should praise the mutilated world,” he tries. I can’t tell if he’s losing confidence or just trying to read me, trying every construction he can to win this argument.

I remember years ago I had a statistics teacher I loved (pause here for a moment–that may be the first time anyone has ever put those words together in a sentence). Whenever he introduced a new concept, he’d give a long, convoluted explanation of how we could tackle the problem. Then he’d say, “But that would be…too hard!” Over the semester, we learned to shout “too hard” whenever he began the sentence. Then, he’d show us what we needed to learn, and it would seem easy.

I want to yell, “too hard,” at Adam Zagajewski, but honestly, my heart’s not in it. I’m remembering how the hawks came back to their nest at the end of my street last summer. I’m thinking about how the adults guarded the fledglings, carried lizards to them, soared overhead in watchful joy. I’m thinking about how the moonlight iced the branches of the sycamore across the street tonight when I walked Rusty, about the urgent rustling we heard above us in the leaves.

It’s been a long day. It’s getting late, and the game just ended. The poem is coming to a quiet end, too, and I’m thinking I should head up to bed. It occurs to me, as the line changes one more time, that maybe Adam Zagajewski isn’t trying to tell me anything at all.

He’s turned his back to me now; he’s headed out the door. “Praise the mutilated world,” he says one last time, glancing over his shoulder, putting on his coat. It’s loud enough to drown out the staccato sound of the shots coming again from the tv. I repeat it to myself after he closes the door.

It’s as simple as a breath, I think, as urgent as a prayer.

 

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