Friday, October 29, 2010

40? Bring it.

I’m feeling surprisingly, and suddenly, obsessed with the idea of turning 40. And not in a bad way. It’s in a way that makes me feel kind of thrilled and excited. And strange little inspirations and entertainments keep finding me to reinforce the way I feel about it.

I’ve decided to lose 40 pounds by the time I turn 40. Not to impress anyone…not even to show that I can, but so that, for just a while, what I look like on the outside reflects how I feel inside. For one segment of my life, I want that particular kind of harmony, and feel capable of attaining it. Inside, at nearly 40, I feel more powerful and vibrant and enthusiastic about life than I ever have. I appreciate everything more…my friends, my family, a great meal or a perfect latte. I feel more present in my life, my REAL life, as it is, rather than I how I hope it will be, than I ever have before. So many people have told me that your 40’s are the best time of your life, and whether they’re lying or not, or just trying to make me feel better about this approaching milestone, I’m intending to make it so.

My children aren’t raised yet; I’m in the middle of that. My career is only partly how I would like it to be; I’m working toward that vision. (And in the meantime, I’m blooming where I’m planted in that regard.) I have ever so much left to do, to accomplish. But I’m digging the journey, right smack now. I am living an examined life, and delighting in the gifts that brings.

I had a good friend tell me not so long ago that my somewhere in my soul's past, I had to work to find my voice. I still feel like I'm looking for that, striving toward it, figuring out how to say what I need to say. Getting close to 40 is helping me to do that. I feel surrounded by people who are capable of using their voices, of speaking their truths and owning their own opinions about things. I want to be that aware, that certain, that in tune with the most authentic self I can be. The knowing, the wanting, the striving, is half the battle, don't you think? Noticing who is doing it "right," whatever that might mean for them, inspires me.

I am psyched for turning 40. Psyched for a vacation with my girlfriends, psyched to create the body I want, psyched to have an awesome family and the most glorious, magical group of friends a person ever had.

This weekend, I celebrate with them. I celebrate hotness at any age, certainty of belonging, and the sheer joy of having people around who know where I've been, and are eager to see where I'm going. And vice-freaking-versa. I LOVE them, and hope for them the most fulfilling, joyful lives they can possibly find. And I know that they will be there, and love me, no matter where the journey ends.

But the end doesn't matter now. It's the journey. It's always the journey, the yellow-brick-road. I can only hope that whom-soever you find on yours is a fraction as magical as the ones I find on mine. And I really do hope that for you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why No One Should Ever Give Me Plants

An Open Letter to Francie, the Bonsai Tree in the Athenaeum,

I knew it would come to this. I rejoiced when you arrived, so green and optimistic and unexpected, and I was so grateful to your sender, a friend whose support for my creative pursuits is boundless. I vowed with the best that was in me to nurture your verdant life energy, to talk to you and sing to you and honor you as a talisman for personal expression, and as the mascot of the Room of My own I for which I had so long pined.

But now you’re dead.

You are dry, irreparably ruined, and looking like a pitiful twisted, leafless twig from some Danny Elfman universe. Against all odds and my own personal history with plants, you showed some early potential. You held on through the summer, and then, with the coming of autumn, with the explosion of my schedule and the loss of my focus on home and hearth, you gave up. You quit me, and I’m trying hard not to take it personally. I recognize my responsibility for your fragile potted life, but I forgot you, and you keeled over and died in dramatic protest.

I blame myself completely. Your tragic demise is an apt metaphor for the loss of my life essence that grabs me by the throat every spring. And, you know, it’s ironic, because I’m actually feeling more fortified than I usually feel in the fall, but all of my energy is devoted elsewhere. What I have left after teaching sixth grade all day, and peppily directing a classic musical at night, is going to my children…to be more precise, to their laundry, and whatever I can throw into the crockpot. And as it turns out, when I get home at 8 and clean out the backpacks and put on my sweats, all I really want to do is sit on the couch with Patrick and watch Modern Family. My creativity points for the day are all used up, and I just want to sit down.

I have spent no more than business-like passing moments in the Athenaeum since school began, wandering in to find a purple marker or put a book on the shelf or to open or close the futon for the girls so they can watch a movie. I bought autumn Home-Sweet-Home candles for this fall that have yet to be lit, and my fainting couch, from which I intended to sit and watch the oak leaves fall, is currently covered with a pile of winter coats unpacked from storage that I haven’t yet had a chance to hang in the hall closet.

But, hey, the fact that I managed to unpack the winter coats is something, isn’t it? And the fact that my children are fed and clothed and generally wearing clean underwear is a comfort. And I’m getting better at snagging moments throughout the work day to nurture myself creatively, wherever I can. As I thought up this very blog entry, I was sitting at rehearsal while Pam staged the Crapshooters Ballet. My only job is to run the CD for her, and rather than tapping my foot and thinking of all of the other things I should be doing, I made the grocery list, figured out the plans for snacks and crafts and games for Abby’s little Halloween gathering with her schoolfriends on Friday, cropped a bunch of photographs, fine-tuned the rehearsal schedule for this week, and looked up a bunch of point values for snacks on the Weight Watcher ap on my phone.

That was four days ago. Now, it is Wednesday night, and I am actually here. It’s too late for the once-pert little Francie the Bonsai tree, but the fact that I can sit here now…that I carved out the time today…shows that the possibility of creating something, even in the autumn, still exists. This makes me wonder if perhaps there is still a shoot of green somewhere in this pretty plant, and that if I bring it to school tomorrow, my Shaman of a teaching partner might be able to coax it back to life…

Never give up.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wearing Purple

I am wearing purple today, as part of a nation-wide inititative to raise awareness of the prevalence of gay and lesbian teen suicide in our country. And of course, I asked my sixth graders, "Does anyone know why I am wearing purple today?" A number of them did, and there followed a long discussion about it. The topic comes up every year for one reason or another, more often than not because I overhear someone using the word "gay" as an insult, or when we're reading Bridge to Terabithia and the father calls his son a sissy for loving to draw. I've been teaching for fifteen years, and it never ceases to surprise me how much easier the conversation becomes year to year. The world is changing, and though I can't be an activist like Jamie, I feel compelled to continue to play my part in that shift in mentatlity.

Today, the kids brought up Glee, and the characters of Kurt and his father, and a number of them literally said, "I don't get what the big deal is. Who cares who you like?" They talked about Don't Ask/Don't Tell, (none of it prompted by me, I swear) and one girl said, "My mother doesn't let me go to church anymore because of what the bible says about gay people." (I had to play that one cool...while I will profess my beliefs loud and proud when it comes to people's basic human equality, I have to tread carefully around religion, being as I have to also teach evolution, and all of the major religions of the world from the ancient Greeks to modern Buddhism and everything in between.)

The tone of the room, of the conversation, was so surprisingly relaxed, nothing like it would have been fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. Yes, there were the couple of snickering boys, but there were more kids rolling their eyes at the snickerers, rathering than everyone just shifting uncomfortably, looking at the floor. And I know it's because of the hard work of the people on the front line, raising awareness, holding the rallies and raising the flags. I'm not that person, but I hope that if I do have a gay student in my class this year, there is at least the tiny part of them that knows that the conversation is okay to have, it's not going to be as bad as they gets better.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Dear Sixth Grade Boy

Dear Sixth Grade Boy,

It will still be there when you get home.

I promise.

Please leave it alone in class. Please.

With eyes on the ceiling,
Your Teacher

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This Little Light

We had a music rehearsal yesterday for my high school show which generally means that I sit and observe and offer crowd control. It gives me a bit too much time to think, and to miss my favorite musical director, one who controls his crowd by making us all just love him and respect him too much to set a toe out of line. The kids were singing “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” and I realized that I still can remember all of my alto lines from singing in the ensemble of that show at Company, fifteen years later. And it’s not because I’m a good student of music; I’m a great big faker when it comes to music. It’s because my teacher is so extraordinary, and made us all excellent. He does not settle for less. It was all I could do not to jump in and teach the song as he taught it, diction and dynamics and really solid ending consonants. He spoiled me for every other music director ever.

While not sitting on my hands, I also had time to ponder the ways in which I find and lose so many amazing people in my life. The best and worst part of all of my jobs is the fact that I get to know people so intensely for such a short time. Some, I keep, but it’s so incredibly rare. I can only think of one person who started as a student and stayed a friend. (I suppose this has something to do with the fact that I can count on one hand the number of real friends I have now that I’ve made since college - that’s twenty years now.) I meet such extraordinary people as a teacher, and in the moment when I know them, I am so filled with awe and appreciation of them - as human beings. It’s never about their talent, interestingly. Sometimes they are in a show because they happen to be talented, but that never has anything to do with whether or not I feel drawn to them.

“Kindred spirits are not so rare as I used to think,” says Anne as the world begins to open to her. It is such a gift to have one wander into my life, but I am always so sad when they wander out again. I know there are so clich├ęs about people leaving footprints on your heart or how some people are meant to be with you for a moment or a season or whatever, but still…There are so many careful levels of appropriateness that must be maintained, which I understand are there for a reason, and I always err on the side of caution in that regard. But I think about the students I’ve known, and truly loved, and I wonder what happens to them. I catch them in the midst of becoming who they’ll be…I wish I could get to know the final product sometimes.

There’s Facebook, which I’m grateful for, but it’s not the same as being able to sit and have a cup of coffee with them. I wrote that play last year based on four of the sorts of people I am talking about, and even that was something I had to handle carefully, working hard to honor them and how I saw them, while trying to avoid anything like a creep factor, even though they’ve all long graduated. There are four students in this current cast who I feel that way about, people that I wish I could know forever. The truth is that they’ll graduate in a year or two and go about their lives, making room for new teachers, which is as it should be. There will be occasional Facebook messages or something, promises to get together next summer, but it probably will never happen.

I am not a stagnant person. I grow and change and evolve all the time, so this doesn’t come from a sense of being left behind, or inflating how important I should be to them because of the title of Teacher. It’s not even about trying to reap what I sow in the energy or guidance I give them. (Or that they give back to me.) It’s more about the profound blessing I feel from knowing amazing people, or people who are on the brink of becoming amazing. They take their amazing selves out into the world, and I have to be content with just knowing that they’re out there somewhere, finding and recognizing other kindred spirits, and connecting us all in a web of light, however briefly our lights may have shone together.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Add something lovely to your October day...

by Edward Hirsch

Fall, falling, fallen. That's the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer's
Sprawling past and winter's hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Expressing Motherhood

Tonight I went to see a show called Expressing Motherhood with my friend Christianna. We went because we both love a blogger called Damomma, and she was one of the speakers. It was a Vagina Monologues style show, where a dozen different mothers got up and told their stories of some aspect of their lives as mothers. Maybe a vignette, or a rant, whatever. I love this writer, and in the way I've come to feel like a student of all of my favorite writers, I feel like I know her. I feel like we have shared perspectives, and I feel like she's a kindred spirit. We parent in very similar ways, and she often makes me focus on things about my daughters that I might not otherwise notice.

So, there was the fun of seeing her speak. There was also another woman presenting who used to work at my school. That was cool. And then there was the experience of putting on high heels and lipstick and being with Christianna, a friend that I adore, sharing the joy of her new house and gawking in amazement at the fact that she made bowling pins out of fondant for her daughter's birthday party tomorrow. I loved drinking a pre-show martini at a fabulous girly bar, and swapping daughter stories with someone who is right down with me in the trenches, trying to be a mother while staying a real-live person in the meantime. She is one of the smartest people I know, and yet I know she needs the same things as I do...well-adjusted children, competence in her career, love in her marriage and a party with the Tribe from time to time.

And then we saw a show, 12 mothers with their own stories, and we had similar levels of appreciation/judgement/connection for the various monologues. I drove home singing showtunes at the top of my lungs, is so, so good. My children are home safe, eager for my return but perfectly fine without me there because they have the best dad. I have amazing friends and family, and daily get to do work that actually mattters in the world. I'm sure this sounds bromidic and trite but I am just overwhelmed with gratitude. One really good day is a powerful reminder of that.

Here is the note I wrote to Elizabeth, (damomma) but I haven't decided whether or not I'll post it to her. I am a little afraid that she'll think I'm a crazy stalker.. Which I'm not, but I have stuff to say. Maybe I'll just post it here and that will be enough.

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, and for an evening full of comfort and laughter. I would not have gone to that show if not for you, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to hear so many fierce and tender women tell their tales. Yours was the most resonant for me, which may be bias because I feel like I know you through this blog. (Or it might be because you were just the best.) It might be because I love that image of you - of Mother - standing under the stars, beside the oak tree with her baby in her arms, pondering a Universe that gives so bountifully but also has the potential to take without your permission. I am so happy that your story ends so well.

I also loved the woman who said the short piece about having the gift of hearing the quiet voice of her child's soul, and how she covered her child's face with kisses for one whole minute at bedtime. Isn't that the best thing we can do with the small souls in our care? Listen hard, and love without limits, even for the victim sherpa years. :)

I think the greatest struggle of my parenting is the same as yours - how to raise fierce and fearless girls in a world that offers so many reasons to feel afraid. I connect to your writing partly because I, too, am the mother that sends them off to find the milk, and lets them go to the summer camp, where I know many other mothers would not, and think I, too, should not. I appreciate the quiet support that your writing gives to the way I also choose to mother - mindfully, passionately, with trust and glitter, and always with a sense of humor and an appreciation for cold vodka and a well-made meal.

What I loved about your show is the reminder of the fact that for every mother in the world, there exists shared experiences. Mothers' experiences carry a variety of levels of shame and elation, and of smugness and adoration, guilt and entitlement, resentment and gratitude, and a thousand other layers in between. It was a comforting reminder that what I feel every day, however contrary and contradictory these feelings might be - Well, it's all just part of the journey.

I like how you say in your blog that your number one responsibility in life is raising little women. Mine too. I like the fierceness with which you insist that deciding to have a child is entering into a life-long contract, one whose first 18 years are exhausting. That's how it is. You don't get to sleep till noon for, like, 25 years. That's the deal, and that's the priority. But I love, too, that you are managing to still be you - writer, teacher, wife, speaker, whatever-else - for your own growth and financial contribution to your household, as well as to be the example to your girls of how to live a productive life. I am trying very hard to do the same, and I appreciate knowing you're out there in the world, travelling a similar road. It makes it much less lonesome.

So that's what I would write to her. And I will add, here, that the women that I choose to be friends with, the working moms and the stay at home moms, the ones who've already raised their kids and the ones with their babes in arms and all of us in between...well, even if we don't always have time to talk about it, I love you. I respect all of you, all of us, for doing the very best we can with what we've got.

I am so grateful for the ability to spend an evening tonight with Christianna, my glorious woman-friend, who quipped on the way out the door, "Geez! Even when it's girls' night out, it's still somehow about the kids!" I get it. I'm just so glad that we're all in it together.