Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hallmark Christmas

I have received no small amount of flack in recent years over my love for the corniest of all possible movies...the Hallmark Christmas movie of the week. Now, I don't pretend to insist that they are all outstanding. Some are completely dreadful, with laughable child actors, unlikable faux villains, and horrible can't-pay-for-song-royalties-soundtracks that make me cringe. And then there was that one set in my hometown...featuring palm trees. Unforgivable. Everything hinges on the chemistry between the romantic leads, and when it fails, it's disasterous. (Excellent life lesson, incidentally.) When it works, though? Magic.

And while I know that it is unreasonable and highly romanticized to believe that life and love can be wrapped up in two pat hours, these Hallmark movies still deeply appeal to my whole sense of story, and how my life - and your life...anybody's really - is just a series of episodes. Lots of them are really mundane, and then some of them are actually quite movie-of-of-the-week worthy. And this movie might not appeal to everyone, but for its target audience, it is quite diverting for a little while, and makes those who settle in to watch it feel just the tinest bit more awake and sentimental and smooshy round the middle.

And isn't Christmas that way, really? Isn't that why we all like it? It allows for experiences that make us smooshy round the middle, kind of tender-hearted and grateful, and allows for those moments we exhale and say..."THIS. This feeling, these people, this moment is why I work so hard all year and move from task to task with such a determined and break-neck place. I do it to earn the chance to see these beautiful people in the glow of the twinkle lights and the warmth of the fire and the buzz of the wine and the smell of the Yankee Candles and say...thanks." And then sing some songs about it.

And just to get really woo-woo about it all, let me add this. I could leave this planet tomorrow, satisfied that I had lived my life to the fullest. And I think that if I were to walk into the light and my life flashed before my eyes, it would be an epic heavenly slideshow of my life in Christmases. Starting with believing in Santa SO HARD as a little girl, listening to hear sleigh bells in the snow, and having my realization and my discovery be so slow and gentle that my faith never actually went away. I totally still believe in Santa. I have BEEN Santa. How could I not believe after that? There is nothing realer than making Santa for your kid. It is such a pure kind of love, isn't it? And I am a part of that. I have written a letter to Santa every single year of my life, and have no plans to ever stop.

I remember my brother and I sitting on the upstairs landing on Christmas morning, waiting for my parents to light the tree and call us down, making us pause to take a picture on the stairs. My first Christmas Boyfriend, making sweet homemade gifts for each other and singing "Do You Hear What I Hear" with our high school choir. My college friends and the birth of Faux Christmas. From playing an improv volleyball game, ankle deep in snow, with no actual ball, of jumping from apartment to apartment through the years with our box of homemade ornaments, playing Patterns as we all tried to launch our lives. We have been striving together ever since, and even now, two decades later, we still gather for Christmas, and toast each other and sing songs. "Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more." Quiet conversations with individual friends in the kitchen. Mistletoe in every doorway, so much affection. Pete pounding carols on the keyboard while Liana and I try to find harmonies. Eventually, our collective children "cousin-ing" while watching Rudolph and making crafts and sneaking soda. A million cherished Christmasy moments with my Tribe, with many more to come. My perfect Christmas wedding, its memory still too tender and bittersweet to dwell on. Two small girls, pausing on the stairs in their footie snowman pajamas while I took a photo of their faces alight, eager to see what Santa had brought. A pink and purple plastic kitchen (meticulously assembled by their father on Christmas Eve as the credits rolled on "It's a Wonderful Life.") An American Girl doll bed. A cowboy suit for Snowball, Amelia's ragged, beloved little grey dog, his neck floppy from relentless adoration. Trips to New York City with the girls and my mom, posing in front of the Rockefeller Center Tree and looking into the beautiful window displays in Macy's and Bergdorf's. Hot chocolate at Serendipity and Broadway shows like "Elf" and "White Christmas." These are all real things that have happened, and nothing makes me more hopeful about my life than imagining what other beautiful Christmases I might get to make.

Which brings me to this one. I know people think I am crazy for listening to Christmas music starting, oh, at least three weeks ago. But you have to understand how things are now. I have been through the two worst years of my whole entire life. Racked with heartbreak like you read about. Working my tail off to learn a whole new job in the midst of this turmoil, after 20 years in the same career. And then these new things happened very recently...I got this amazing role in this amazing play with people I truly adore and indisputable Christmas classic where I get to wear a red velvet dress and carry a white fir muff. FOR REAL. I am loved by the sweetest guy, who genuinely wants to watch Hallmark movies with me and see the season through my very rose-colored lenses, and joyfully, gratefully, celebrate all that a "Romantic Christmas" has to offer. My girls are thriving, and while I know they understand the truth about Santa, they are still kind of hoping for magic...a new kind of magic...and as it turns out, I completely get it. And I know just how to oblige. It is another gift of the season...a chance to express to my girls that I understand them, that I appreciate and value the culture of this life we have created under challenging circumstances. Christmas magic, y'all. Let's make some new kinds. My friends will gather again. We will take the girls to see the Rockefeller tree. Though some part of me used to fear it, it turns out that there is actually no expiration date on Christmas magic. It's not just for children after all. I am not at all ashamed to declare myself the poster child, the target audience for this little fact.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books. Anne of Green Gables. Little Women. In all of them, many examples of how to Christmas, and I have taken lessons from every one, as well as from my mother, of course, who embodies the essence of Mrs. Claus. I have taken those examples and forged something completely my own, something that I take with me through all of these continually changing seasons of my life. So much has changed. Some things for the better, and some less so. But I am designed to make the best of things. I know no other way. You will get your lemons, but put on your big girl pants and make your freaking lemonade! And the thing about Christmas is that there is so much sweetness all around, a collective feeling of goodwill, and making that lemonade is just so much easier to this particular Bing Crosby/Johnny Mathis/Carpenters soundtrack. And on some days, the best days, that lemonade becomes a perfectly chilled lemondrop martini.

I can wish that for me, and for you, and for all of humankind, because if Christmas has taught me anything, it's that goodwill for all is a very real thing, and the only thing. Give generously. Sing loud for all to hear. God bless us, every one.

To my big brother, George. The richest man in town.

With nary two nickles to rub together, I am living in an embarrassment of riches, and I will continue to count every blessing instead of sheep.

I will end, now, before I write one more Christmas cliche. (Not for nothing, listen to Nancy LaMott sing "All Those Christmas Cliches." It's my actual theme song.)

May your days be merry and bright.

See what I did there? I had room for one more.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Wasting Time

I have really enjoyed my new relationship with wasting time. I think I have always appreciated it, but I don’t think I actually leaned into it as much as I have lately. I work hard, though not as hard as a lot of other people, of course. But I sure do know how to kick back and relax. I have my Artist’s Dates out in the world…plays and movies and martinis and writing on benches in random places outdoors. Those are wonderful. And then there are times where I do nothing but play on Pinterest and watch episodes of Family Affair (which I actually cared enough about to find and DVR, if that tells you anything about how I invest in the quality of my leisure time,) or watch all four hours of the Today Show, or reruns of the Love Boat. (Where, oddly, I always seem to catch episodes with Charo and one of the sisters from Eight is Enough.) I was introduced to Quiz Up by a beloved friend and I am afraid it brings out the worst in me. (The intellectually competitive high school girl who probably has a genetic predisposition to gambling addiction. That sort of person has no business playing video games against real people. Still, I play. And if you try to get me to stop before I am ready I will feel the urge to punch you.) Those are so indulgent, too. And I have been lucky enough to have a bunch of them in this beautiful June vacation.

I think my favorite, though, are these in between ones, neither the extravagant nor mindless, when I take a little while to just sit by myself in my garden behind the rhododendrons. (I say “garden” as if I do anything to it. I do not. I just pay a college kid to mow my grass and before I sit down I sweep the pollen off of the furniture. I also sing to the peonies, though that might be a mistake because I didn’t get a single bud this year. I am trying not to take that as an omen.)

But I digress. That sometimes happens out here in the garden.

I’ve done it since we moved here to this house I used to love so very much. I take my journal, a magazine, a glass of wine, and my phone both for music and because I know I need to keep being responsible to my life if I am needed. I sit in my wicker furniture that I bought from my earnings for directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and knowing that I earned it makes me feel extra grateful to use it year after year. I listen to the robins. I watch the clouds and notice the patterns the light makes through these oak leaves at different times of the day. Recently, I rigged out an extension cord so I can plug in my laptop out here, and write. I am writing this blog from here right now. It’s a little chilly, so I am sitting under the Wizard of Oz blanket that Auntie gave me in high school. With my glasses perched on the end of my nose, I am sure I look exactly like my own grandmother, convalescing in the fresh summer air. I am okay with that.

I do not always have time like this. I blast through my life like a freight train some seasons, for weeks or even months at a time. But, inevitably, there comes a time where I declare my need for stillness, for solitude, for the right to write. Usually it is just an afternoon or an evening here or there. It has just so happened that this month has been the longest ever string of them, and I have treasured every one. I’ve done some work on my new play. I’ve blogged a few times. I’ve journaled a TON. I feel replenished because of it.

In between, I worked with Andrea on finishing our play, and got it ready to launch for our summer camp. I paid the bills and helped throw a party and mindfully parented and made some positive changes in my life and outlook. I had some challenging conversations. I figured some things out. I got some important things done this June. But not as many as usual. I am okay with that, too.

I understand how rare and precious this is, and that not everyone gets to do this. I think of Lisa, six sons and a seventh on the way. She gets her prayer time, but it is no easy feat to find a moment alone. I think of Uncle Kevin, who is always running around fixing something, for someone. He should be long retired, but instead he climbs on ladders and fixes my garage door. I see that. I am humbled by it. But I also remember time spent hot-gluing Christmas lights into the Corny Collins sign at 10:30 on a Tuesday night. Saturday afternoons cleaning the paint sink or bolting platforms together. Nights crossing my fingers that the mortgage check wouldn’t bounce. Mornings weeping in the car, and having to repair all of my makeup before getting to my destination. (I still keep mascara in the glove department of my car, just in case. I guess I am never sure that the crying is really done for good.) I have my share of trials, too, just like anyone, and no one’s life is ever a rose garden, despite what it appears on the outside. (Or a rhododendron garden, as the case may be.) Some days are hard. In between, though, I steal an hour or a few from time to time, and I savor every moment of it. It’s a beautiful thing.

So, I leave you now, to read my Real Simple magazine, and my book about the making of West Side Story, and this Facebook article Elise sent me. I will drink my wine and watch the cardinals for just a little while longer, and then I will mop the kitchen floor and change the litterbox and get the girls packed up for their sleepovers.

But now? Here. This.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Part of the Human Heart

People say that you are not your job, and I used to believe that was true. But I am realizing that I cannot separate my job from my self anymore. I suppose that could be considered the definition of workaholic, but I think it’s a little different.

I feel like I walk around much of the time as the outside observer of my life, which “people” say that you are also not supposed to do - that this way of thinking keeps you from being in the moment. I don't agree. I feel like the writer and director of my own story all the time now, and feel very present inside of that. I used to believe I didn’t have as much choice in the matter. But I have learned that I am choosing every single second, and that I am responsible for the quality of my life all the time, whether I can always see it or not. I sometimes even hear my own narration in my head…like this afternoon, when I poured myself a glass of wine and carried two magazines, my journal, my iPad, and three books out to my garden. “Our heroine, spent, in need of repose and reflection settles in beside the peonies to pass a summer’s afternoon.” I set a soundtrack: my carefully honed crooners Pandora station, where at any moment I might here Sinatra or Jack Jones or Ella or Rosemary Clooney. I am doing these things because they are exactly what I want to be doing with this moment, and also because I am simultaneously creating a character who would do those things. Does that even make any sense? And is anyone else doing the same thing? It’s it hopelessly cliché to think this way or am I sort of pretentious and possibly bipolar? These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want to know.

So I guess, in that way, I am a writer all the time. (And, incidentally, I have just decided to get over myself and call writing my job, or one of them, because I have some things under my belt now, and they count as something. A kind of work, certainly.) There have been times in the past two years where I have wanted to do nothing, and just sit at home and hide myself away with my murderous cat. The one thing that would get me out of the house, though, would be those times when I would say, “You can stay home and watch reruns of Modern Family, OR, you can go out and do something, which might possibly be something worth writing about.” And I would go. And it might turn out to be nothing, or it might turn out to be something. (Not to say that I haven’t had flashes of inspiration during those sedentary couch times. Those are necessary too…but not in QUITE the number I was racking up.)

I have always known that I am a teacher all the time. It’s the little things, like not being able to go to the mall or the supermarket without meeting students, or parents of students. But it’s more than just that. I went to the most beautiful wedding last night, this sort of very fancy but country-rustic wedding of a former student, homespun and ambitious and beautiful and industrious. She is a teacher herself, an administrator in the Teach for American Program. Her groom is a teacher too, and the wedding was attended by many students I have had in different places – several from years of directing, or from Kidspot, and one from my very magical first year teaching, now a professional actor, and his beautiful pregnant wife. The bride sang to her groom, with a shout out to me, because it was a song from a show that we had done together, which I evidently once told her it was a perfect song for a wedding. It’s called “Human Heart” from Once on This Island, one of my favorite shows to direct. (I’ve done it five times.) It was beautiful and heart-felt. The whole night was full of theatricality and showtunes, actually. My actor student was telling us how he became an actor because of the fifth grade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where he played Oberon and was bitten by the proverbial bug. He met his wife doing theater in Chicago. And I know that I am a part of that, mostly just because I was just lucky enough to be there, in the right place and time, to set one tiny spark that they turned into a life. Not alone, of course. I am not trying to take credit for who they are now…but my crossing their path had a tiny bit to do with it. In that way of my favorite Into the Woods quote: “You move just a finger, say the slightest word…something’s bound to linger, be heard.” And add up those slightest words among thousands of students over the twenty years I have been teaching…and that’s a lot. It makes me feel like part of something in the world.

The courage of a dreamer, the innocence of youth.
The failures and the foolishness that lead us to the truth.
The hopes that make us happy, the hopes that don't come true.
And all the love there ever was, I see this all in you.
You are part...part of the human heart.
Of all who took the journey, and managed to endure.
The ones who knew such tenderness, the ones who felt so sure.
The ones who came before you, the others yet to come,
and those who you will teach it to...and those you've learned it from...
You are part, part of the human heart.

I am a part of a lot of Human Hearts, as they are part of me. Part of those who they will teach it to and those they've learned it from.

I see lots of theatre, which is my favorite thing to do, and every time I do, I am thinking like a director. “How can I bring something of this to my kids? How can I take the power of this moment that I am thrilling to back to them, to give them the experience of creating something that can move their audience the way I am being moved right now?” (I am also thinking, “How can I ALSO set this thing on fire or fly this other thing up in the air?” That is less relevant to this particular story, though.) I can’t ever simply watch something passively anymore, just for the enjoyment of it. I don’t regret that. Part of the fun of watching theatre or movies is the inspiration of it all, and that comes from thinking about it in many layers. It’s work to watch things like that, but it’s so worth it.

I used to have this Teddy Roosevelt quote in my 6th grade classroom: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” It was used in the movie version of Bridge to Terabithia, which I taught every year. I feel like I have won a huge prize in this life, because I figured out what I wanted to do, and I then worked hard, and got to do it. The Jim Carrey graduation speech made its rounds on Facebook recently, and he said a lot of things that I found very resonant – the parts about choosing love over fear, and the law of attraction thing about writing himself a check for millions in a very vision-boardy-ish sort of exercise, obviously, but especially the thing he said about his dad. (If you haven’t watched it, you should.) The key part is when he says that his dad chose a safe career as an accountant out of fear instead of choosing to pursue the thing he loved…and he still got laid off, and “failed.” So, you CAN fail, no matter what you choose, so why not choose the thing you love?

I manifested my dream job, and I love it beyond measure. I have now revised my dream vision. I want to phase out of teaching choral music, and phase into doing only theatre and English. I want to teach Shakespeare, or creative journal writing, or a class in drama as literature where we study Ibsen and Chekov and also Larson and Wasserstein and Ephron and Kushner. And I am totally going to make that happen. You just watch me do it. And I am going to write a new play and have it performed by my students, and observe, amazed, as all of my work, and all of my heart, come together in one shiny little point of light. I can declare that because I am unafraid. Because I love what I am so lucky to be able to do. In this, too, I choose love. And love wins, every single time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Starting on a Hat

Years ago, I read and loved the book What Dreams May Come. There were many concepts about it that enraptured me – the idea of kindred souls meeting in the sandbox in their next life, the image of “hell” as only something that you create through your own pain, and that all you need to do to get out if it is to forgive yourself and choose to walk into the light. Those are the big ideas, but the thing that captivated me most in the whole book was one tiny one. This author described this one little corner of “heaven” which houses something like a hall of records – the story of everyone who has ever lived, and ever will live, the inventions created and still to be created, and the books already written, and yet to be written, when exactly the right author presents herself as ready.

JK Rowling said that the idea for Harry Potter just settled upon her, nearly fully formed, as she rode a train to London. Many authors have described similar experiences when that glimmer of an idea hit. I wrote one play, and the idea for that came to me in a rush, with the image of the very last scene, and the rest all tumbled out. Not to say that the writing of it isn’t hard work, sweat, doubt, nerves, euphoria, vampires, and chocolate chip cookies. It’s all of those things and a million more, but the idea is key. Work you can do yourself. The idea has to happen to you. At least that is what I believe.

I have really wanted to write another play for my students to use, one that would offer lots of roles for maximum involvement. One that would have something to say about taking risks and being open-hearted and following your intuition and creating your own path. One that would address the world of social networking versus human interaction, and perception versus reality.

An idea happened to me a couple of days ago. It just fell into my brain, again starting with the ending picture, and after several hours of journaling every single little thought I could capture about it…it has formed into something viable and exciting. I’ve created the Pinterest Board. I’ve named the main character. I’ve started some social inquiries for ideas I can steal and shape from my friends and loved ones. I’m totally jazzed, and I already know that this is going to happen. For real. It doesn’t have to change the world, but I know it will change me, the way creating anything always does. And it will change some kids, the way being in a play always does. And only good can come from that.

Working title: #choosingElla.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Artist's Date

Quite a few years ago, Craig turned me on to The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. It is a 12 week program for any kind of artist that encourages creative thinking and expression, and digging down deep into your feelings. My kind of deal. It requires daily "morning pages," which is 3 pages written in long-hand, as soon as you wake up. I found that part very difficult, partly because I prefer to type my journaling whenever possible because my brain goes so much faster than my writing hand, and because first thing in the morning is my least productive thinking time. That part went kind of by the wayside for me. One concept I loved, though, is called the Artist's Date, where you basically take yourself on a solitary date once a week, doing something that makes you happy and makes you feel inspired. It can be a trip to a museum, or a great meal, or a play or a movie. Whatever. I have held tightly to that over the years, and even though I don't get to do it once a week, I can usually manage at least once a month. Sometimes twice. It is an outing that is mindful and watchful, looking out and listening in at the same time. I am almost always alone for these, though I do occasionally share at least part of them with someone. And as corny as it sounds, that sharing always feels very sacred.

My favorite location for an Artist's Date is the Loring Cinema in Hingham, where I have seen some of my very favorite movies - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Her, Kill Your Darlings, and Before Midnight, for example. All super artsy-fartsy movies that I loved. There are several restaurants near there with delightful martini lists, and I like to just sit at the bar and listen to the people. I also love the MFA, and I have an annual Christmastime Artist's Date there that I treasure. I have one planned in June to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where I've never been before. Sometimes, it has just been sitting on the beach reading a book. It's the conscious designation of the day that counts.

Today, I have an end-of-school celebratory Artist's Date planned. It starts with taking the train (taking the train is a much-preferred aspect of my Artist's Dates - particularly on my trips to the Broadway Teacher's Workshop...which is the ULTIMATE Artist's Date.) I am taking the train to Harvard Square, and planning to find a coffee shop where I can sit with my journal for a while. Then I will do some window shopping at Anthropologie and the bookstores, have a nice dinner and a festive beverage, and then see Twelfth Night at the ART. I may or may not have a bottle of Trailer Park Punch in my purse while I do these things. (Oh, who are we kidding. OBVIOUSLY there will be Trailer Park Punch in my purse.)

Anyone can make their own Artist's Date. You should try. And really, like everything, it's only the choosing that makes it one. It's just your perspective. You could do ordinary things, and try to think of them as special, and then, sometimes suprisingly...they are. Works for me every time.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Last Day of School

Last Day of School. That is one of my favorite phrases in all the world, along with “summer afternoon,” and a new one I just heard, “stubborn gladness.”

It is the end of my second full time year here at my beautiful high school, and while it has had its ups and downs personally… professionally, it has been outstanding. I am pleased with the work we did, I am proud of how the kids grew, and I am excited that the numbers in all of my classes have significantly increased for next year, which means that I am achieving the goals for which I was hired. Next year, I have two Shakespeare based shows: West Side Story and Twelfth Night, both of which make me ecstatic. I got to fill a giant virtual cart at, so I have all kinds of summer reading books on their way, with titles like The Second City Almanac of Improvisation and Will in the World and West Side Story and the American Imagination and Story, by Robert McKee which is about script-writing and Will Power: How to Act Shakespeare in 21 Days.

Guys, they actually pay me to read this stuff. Un-freaking-believable.

Back in the early days of the blog, I wrote a great deal about my middle school teaching life. I loved it, and worked hard, and felt such a sense of purpose and pride and investment in it. But it was tiring. I wanted this new job so very much for a million reasons, but not the least of it was that I hoped that it would mean I could work just a little bit less hard, for fewer days, and have a little bit more head and heart space left over to do other things…like write that novel, or another play, or follow whatever other creative urge might come along to tickle my fancy. Well, I didn’t anticipate that my head and heart space would need to be used for other more pressing matters in these two years of transition, but in retrospect, the Universe sure knows a thing or three about timing.

This new job was my saving grace in these past two years, and while there are still challenges – namely teaching a subject that I have only encountered as a student, never a teacher – it is, in fact, easier. More weekly hours, but less brain time. More things to do, but fewer pointless things to do. Higher payout (though not financially,) and lower stakes. I’m not impacting kids lives to the same extent, because they have much more of their own stuff going on, and more of a sense of the world than my little guys did. I am a lesser influence, and I feel so much relief in that.

That being said, however, I do have the advantage of having kids year after year. I will have students next year that I will have taught in the classroom for three years in a row, sometimes twice a day. Those are very rich and connected relationships, and I love that. And it’s nice to know that when they graduate, we can actually be friends in the future, instead of many more years between us before they grow up. In three years from when they leave, we could potentially be drinking margaritas together. And have. There are always one or two in a year who write me beautiful letters, and I take them so much to heart. I feel very valued and appreciated, which I know many teachers don’t, and I never take that for granted.

I used to have a whole burning ritual on the night before the last day of school, where I would light candles and set little scraps of paper on fire and say all sorts of incantations and release ceremonies. It was indispensible in helping me let the intensity of the past year go, and leave a clean space for summer to fill. And for the next class to fill in September. I don’t feel the need for that ceremony any more. It’s less burdensome to carry these students with me. These are gentler goodbyes for all of us, because they are more…see you soon’s.

So, while I feel less stress, I feel equally purposeful in my work. I know I get to create communities, little artistic families, transient but profound. Kids feel less alone in the world because of it. I make the platform where kids find their wings…not because I “give” them to them, but because I hold up the giant mirror and go… “Pssstt…look what you got there…wings. Now let’s sing a song about it.” I feel like the art of theatre is a noble one, and teaches people to listen and hear each other. Oscar Wilde said, “I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” I believe that, and I know that I am teaching humanity and connection. It matters. And beyond that, I get to fulfill my own creative self. I wrote two little plays this spring. Nothing earth-shattering, but they are little hats where there were not little hats before. I have another simmering inside me, getting ready to bubble over onto the page. And when it does, I will have a world in which to bring it to life. All while earning a living and supporting my family.

I am excited for those beautiful words: Last Day of School. But I will be equally thrilled to say one of my other favorite phrases: First Day of School.

But first, rest, parties, game nights, camping, Kidspot, star-gazing, beach-walking, journaling, and an epic trip to Europe in August. My first time. I will look forward to sharing my adventures with you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What's in a Name?

The matter of my name has been a source of some serious consideration, as you might imagine. I started my life as Kelly Kennedy, and became Kelly Hines when I was adopted in the 6th grade. I always liked it...the way it flowed, and I usually used my middle initial, just to be fancy about it: Kelly M. Hines. I always envisioned that on the cover of a novel someday.

When I got married, I was happy to change it, wanting to have the same name as any future hypothetical children, as well as being excited at the sense of both belonging and arriving that my new name brought. I loved my new family, and I was proud to have that name. So I used my maiden name along with it professionally for all of my life. Three names, neat and secure. I liked it.

For obvious reasons, I needed to change that. It didn't make sense to keep my married name, clearly, and I could never understand how anyone could after a divorce. Wouldn't it somehow keep you tied forever? Wouldn't it connote a sense of belonging that would become, by definition, a great big lie? Can you really own someone else's name, even if it was your own too for a long time? I did not believe I could. And my two last names had gone together for so long, I didn't think I could have one without the other. It felt like just lobbing something off of myself, and leaving something gaping and unfinished. I also didn't like the idea of going back to my "maiden" name, which made me feel like a child, and still somehow owned by my father. I feel every minute of my age on my spirit, and while I am proud of my age, and feel like I have accomplished a great deal for 42 both personally and professionally, I just couldn't abide the idea of going backwards. In any way. And a year ago, when I was smack in the middle of this crazy journey, the idea of a single step backwards for any reason was overwhelmingly exhausting. The only way out was through and there was no turning back.

So, I decided to pick a new name for myself. I almost went with Nolan, after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I considered Blythe, for Anne of Green Gables. I looked back into my family tree, though, and decided on Griffin, my maternal grandmother's maiden name. I had always felt her around me, even though she passed when I was in the fourth grade. I lived with her for a good portion of my childhood, lived in her house while she was dying of cancer, and not only remembered her very vividly, but saw the best of her in my mom and Auntie, and wanted to honor that. I have a tattoo on my ankle for her, partly, and it seemed to make sense. Above all, I wanted something far from who I was before, a daily symbol of my new life, my new persona.

It's different when you are in a profession where people call you all day by your last name. I think, maybe, it takes on a new importance. I am never just Kelly. I am Ms. So-and-So, formerly a Mrs. My last name is said to me, about me, a hundred times a day, and it had to feel like mine. So, I became Ms. Griffin at school this year, and many times, kids would call my name or ask me a question, and I would not answer them. Because I did not feel like they were talking to me. It was a coat that kept me warm this year, got me through this transition, but did not quite fit right.

When everything was finally wrapped up a few weeks ago, all tidy and legal, the judge would not let me be Kelly Griffin. I would be allowed to legally return to my "maiden" name...I REALLY hate that term...but to take on Griffin would require another petition, another proceedure, lots more phone calls, and a whole bunch of money that I don't have.

I have now spent three weeks as Kelly M. Hines. I have sat with it, rolled it around, written it in my journal, and signed my checks that way. And after a lot of careful consideration...I have decided to keep it. It doesn't feel like a step backwards, as I feared it would. It feels new and fresh, and above all, it feels like mine. Not my father's. Not my mother's. Not an unfinished phrase. It feels like me.

I only had one teaching year as Ms. Hines, my first year at Manomet, and it was glorious. My name changed halfway into my second year teaching. To go back to Ms. Hines now, as my new career is still only in its fledgling stages, feels right. I felt so invigorated in that year, with that inspiring class, one member of whom grew up to become one of my best friends. I feel so much at the beginning of something right now, just as I did then, and I can still see that plucky, enthusiastic, determined girl in the face of the woman I am now. Under the laugh lines, scars and all. Kelly M. Hines is still in there, and she is me.

I know that people will think I am flaky, especially at school. I expect a lot of "What the mother-eff is she doing now?" Three names in three years? But I can live with that. As a teacher, I know I am more than just what I say to my students. I am what I do. I am how I live. So, I am living as a person decides. Who changes her mind if she feels like it. Who is not afraid to change direction, declare a new truth when she learns it, experiment, grow, and make bold declarations. Everyone can do that, every day. We all get to decide. An important friend lately reminded me of that, and I think it all the time. It's been my mantra. I decide. And when I have new information, or new feelings, or new perceptions...guess what? I get to decide again. Still. All the time.

I choose Kelly M. Hines. Nice to meet you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dear eHarmony

Dear eHarmony,

Like many of your subscribers, I am a busy, professional, independent woman who waited a long time before deciding to fill out your very lengthy profile form. I did a lot of head shaking as I answered all of those questions. (Rate the importance of “honesty” on a scale from 1-5? Really? Is there a 30? How else would you answer that?) I very much regarded the whole process with a “What the hell?” sort of attitude, having been alone and recovering from the end of my relationship for...well, A LONG TIME. Clearly, meeting someone, no matter how it might turn out in the end, was an idea whose time had come, if only to get me out of my yoga pants on a Saturday night. Would I find a fling? A friend with benefits? Would it be a string of weirdos who would at least give me writing fodder, blog entries called “Horrible First Date, Number 73?” Would my blind date flex his muscles at me at the bar or ask me how many miles I had run that morning (obviously, ZERO) or text all during dinner or tell me that teaching theater was a very “cute” way to make a living? My expectations, eHarmony, were low. If I’m being an honest 5 on a scale of 5.

Every journey starts with a single step, and since I am a woman long used to being In Charge, I set out on your little website with a business-like plan to pick someone. Anyone, really, to be First Guy. Just to get it over with, no big hopes. Just to get out there. But then I saw…well, this smile. Dark hair, twinkly eyes, whose profile basically said, “Nice Guy seeks an up-front, positive woman who understands busy schedules and hard work and that kids are priority, and values both adventure and quiet time on the couch.” He sounded ideal. But what about the little things? There is not a place on your profile “wish list” to include things like: Looking for a man who will hold open the door. Who will hold my hand from the penguins all the way to the top of the giant turtle tank on an Aquarium third date and remember the quirks of my murderous cat. Who will bring me both wildflowers and a mix CD before week one is even over, and who will render me legless by unexpectedly kissing my ear at the dessert counter.

Based on my experiences so far, you might need to consider updating your questionnaire.

And I know you advise taking everything very slowly and approaching intimacy with care and caution, but honestly, eHarmony, what can you do when you look at his face for the first time and literally hear your own voice in your head say, VERY LOUDLY, “Yep. This guy.” What can you do? You go with it. And the new story begins.

You have all of these commercials with beautiful couples nudging each other with their elbows and tossing their heads back in laughter and gazing at each other with such a sense of affection and true companionship. And on my cynical days, I would just shake my head and fight back the uncharacteristic taste of bitterness those commercials would leave. But clearly, eHarmony, something in those images must have resonated. The quiet part of me that longed for someone who would look at me like that, who would know me like that, who could make me laugh and blush and sigh must have somehow still believed that those stories were real and possible. Something inside me kept the faith that even though I was 40-plus and mothering teenagers, it could still happen, against the statistical odds. And so I kept writing my vision-board-ish journal entries about Mr. Wonderful, who would be able to cook and think to hold my coat for me and be a super invested, connected dad. And - though this is basically impossible, of course, but since I was ordering him up from the Universe I figured I might as well include the following CRAZY little quirks: He will give me reason to visit random cities, like, say, Nashville or Minneapolis, because he would have to travel for work and not mind having me around to keep him company in airport waiting rooms. And, though this is REALLY pushing it, could you maybe make him able to tolerate show-tunes and someday sit in a dark theater with me as an overture rises and hold my hand? And if it isn’t still too much to ask, (though I know it is) might he possibly be comfortable drinking scotch and smoking cigars with Chris and Tom and the guys? How about good grammar, nice lips, maybe an interest in wine and lingerie? (On me, preferably.) Yeah. I know. That’s just Crazytown 101. But still…if you’re going to dream, you might as well dream Big. And extremely specifically.

This is a long introduction to a very short story, eHarmony, because this story starts and finds its Happily Ever After in a New York minute. I found him, literally one day after signing up for your fine service. He said yes, then we both said yes yes yes, and now we are planning picnics and buying tickets and sharing confidences. No one can predict the future, but this today we have found? Beautiful. Inspirational. Healing. So, I hate to say it, eHarmony, because you did a very nice job, but you’ve just lost yourself a couple of prime subscriptions. We are all set.

Let us know when you need us to film our commercial.

Kelly and Adam
Because we’re an “and” now.

Friday, May 2, 2014


My youngest girl has a very obsessive personality. When she loves something, she immerses herself in it completely, head over heels in love, to the exclusion of all else. No matter what anyone else thinks about it, no matter if anyone else knows what on earth she is talking about...she breathes it in completely. (I know...sound familiar?) When she was very young, there were phases of these obsessions. One notable one was these Littlest Pet Shop toys. There were guide books with the names of these little plastic animals, and she had these little houses that she would set up on the kitchen table, moving the pets from one place to another, having conversations between them, clear about everyone's personalities and preferences and best friends and favorite corners. She would sit there for hours as a 3 and 4 year old - and four year olds do NOTHING for hours, so that's saying something - enacting her little plays. These little sheep and dogs and reindeer and frogs came everywhere with her in bags or buckets, and she always had one or two clutched in her little fists.

Later, there would be a very long Greek Mythology phase, where she read all the Percy Jackson books and her dad told her the entire story of the Odyssey and the Iliad, and she created huge posters with all of the Olympians and their symbols and personalities and back-stories and connections to other tales. Just for fun. She painted her room an Aphrodite pink and had a little altar of shells devoted to this favorite goddess. Then came the Hunger Games, briefly, and then she finally read the Harry Potter series after years of protests and refusals. And of course, she fell in love with that, too. She was particularly enthralled with the Epilogue, and the characters of the next generation - Harry and Ron's and Hermione's children and their relationships to one another. She began, at this time, to write very detailed "fan fiction" in which she created all new stories featuring these characters, typed fervently with two thumbs on her iPod. Notoriously shy, she wouldn't let anyone read them. She drew the characters endlessly, in different outfits, in different combinations and families, pages and pages and pages in colored pencil. These, she shared. And these I will hold onto forever in her keepsake boxes.

Around this time, she discovered the concept of a "Fandom." I am sure you are familiar with this - they are little internet groups devoted to a certain fad or actor of tv series. They gather in corners of Pinterest or Facebook, and some eventually lead to things like Comicon. I know they have existed in some form or other forever, but with the internet, they are very easy to find. Abby is like me as a middle schooler in that she has friends in school, but after school, is pretty much content to just hang out on her own, doing her thing, with the stuff she loves. For me, of course, it was reading Anne of Green Gables and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Flowers in the Attic and ridiculous Gothic novels by Victoria Holt, mostly so I could be like Kristin Fahey, whom I idolized. And, of course, there were the Broadway cast albums. Left at my house by my grandmother, and collected from an ex-boyfriend of my mother's, I had every obscure cast album you could think of. Fiorello and She Loves Me and Damn Yankees and many versions of Gypsy and several Fiddlers on the Roof and the black versions of Guys and Dolls and Hello, Dolly. (Pearl Bailey is my favorite ever Dolly Levi.) I listened to them, song by song, and read the liner notes, and they are the reason I win the Broadway Teachers' Workshop trivia contest every summer. Who needed friends when I could spend my afternoon with Laurie and Curley and Maria Von Trapp? But the thing is...I was alone. I knew not another soul on the planet with this same obscure hobby. There was no internet, there was no community theater in my life. I was a solitary, weird little girl who thought I would basically always be solitary and weird. I dreamed of the people who would later become my Tribe, the Bens and the Craigs and the Jamies who came along in the flesh and recognized and shared all of my little Freak Flags. But it took a decade of solitude before that came.

Abby, however, who is the most fervent Freak Flag waver I have ever met, is most certainly not alone. In her little Pinterest world, she sees many other people who love Dr. Who, and the Harry Potter next generation with their fan art and fan fiction that brings to life the stories that she carries inside her as well. Though she doesn't know these people in life, she knows that they exist out there in the world, and that she is not alone. And she will never be alone. I love that she has that sense of community, giving validation to her quirks and inspirations and the worlds that delight and ignite her.

Her latest is Les Miserables, and the fandom for this is wide-spread, vocal, and creative. It has been going on for quite some time, and because my life has always been kind of magical, we have been given a number of very magical gifts to support her joy in this. If there were a stronger word for "obsessed," I would use it. She knows every word to every song. She can list every cast from every version in the US and London, and trace the various actors who have appeared in multiple versions and their relationships to each other. She had drawn all of the characters and writes fan fiction about them. She has read the actual novel, dog-eared and underlined - Victor Hugo at 12 years old, prompting one member of her math class to ask, "Why do you carry a dictionary around with you all the time?" She has written every single word of the musical out in longhand on 12 x 18 art paper - all from memory, and they are rolled up in a scroll in the parlor. She knows all of the actors currently playing the Barricade Boys, also knows as Les Amies, including all of the swings, and follows them all on Twitter. She literally knows EVERYTHING there is to know about Les Miserables and her Freak Flag is very firmly red, white and blue Frenchie-French. Earlier this year, I rediscovered an old friend from my past named Jennifer. (This in itself is a phenonamenally blog-worthy story for a day very soon. You'll like this one. I promise.) Anyway, she lives in London and came to visit recently, and it turns out...she was the pianist for the film version of Les Miserables. She worked with every singer on every song, coaching and teaching, and playing into their ear pieces while they sang live for filming. And she brought her score, and played the entire thing in my front parlor while we all sang along. So, Abby had the experience of singing "On My Own" with the same pianist who played it for Samantha Barks in the film. In my freaking living room. And for Christmas, I got the girls tickets to see the revival on Broadway. We went at the beginning of April (after the months-long countdown Abby had installed on her phone), and not only was I able to use connections to get a backstage tour, it was by her exact number one most favorite actor in the whole entire show, named Jason Forbach. (Who deserves a shout-out because he literally could not have been nicer.) He wrote a personalized note in her copy of the novel, and his friendliness and attention gave her the single best moment of her life so far. I am taking her back to see it again, along with my goddaughter, for their 13th birthdays this July. They have seats in the second row. I maxed out a credit card to do it and I swear, it is already worth every single penny. Because it is her thing. It is her passion. She doesn't play on a soccer league, or skate for a travelling hockey team, or need dancing school costumes or piano lessons. She wants this. She loves this. And it is more than worth it to support whatever gives her a sense of passion and community and reminds her that she is not alone. She hears the people sing. She hears the distant drums. And while I will not have control over many of her tomorrows, I have her todays in my hands and I will do what I can to fill them with as much wonder as I possibly can. Just one among my many, many blessings that are more and more evident to me every day.

Glad to be back to the blog. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

You Can Never Go Back to Before

Well, hello there, old friend. Fancy meeting you here.

I have been away from this blog for a long time, clearly. I have waited until it was “safe” to write again, based on advice from counsel, and even when that time came and passed, I waited until I felt the ground was steady under my feet again. And then I waited a little longer, still, until I felt like I could understand why I even wanted to write again. And then, I waited even longer until a dear friend sent me the nudge, and said…go. It’s time. And then, finally, I waited until I could find the words to qualify and explain and protect myself from future damage with a person who matters deeply…who said, predictably…GO. Be you. Freely.

And so now I begin. On an ordinary Thursday, girls hanging out upstairs, doing their teenage girl things, as I sit on my couch under the twinkle lights that now fill every room, and not just my old Athenaeum office. It’s a new life now.

I have been a long time gone from this, and I have struggled with whether or not to return at all. I have thought long and hard about my motives for blogging in the first place – was it just for attention? Was it to be able to present myself to the world as I wanted people to see me, rather than for who I truly am? Was it just to have a platform to use in order to call myself “writer,” since a writer no one reads is just…what? A diarist? Is that even a word?

So, to come back, I have had to ask myself very deeply…why do I feel the need to do this? And if I do it, what do I want it to be? I am starting today because I know the answer now to both of those questions. Or at least, I know the answers on this exact day as much as I am capable of knowing them. To the first question, the “why,” the simple answer is this: I blogged, then, because writing myself out into the public was a way to keep myself accountable for the person I was striving to be. Not the one I always was, but the one I was reaching for. The person who saved baby swans. The one who pondered life next to Christmas tree lights even in the summertime, and who tried to get sixth graders through their awkward year with some semblance of dignity in tact. I used to feel, sometimes, that some things only happened to me so that I had something to write about. Looking back, I still feel that to be true. Not always, but often. There was so much that I didn’t, and couldn’t, say, but that didn’t mean that what I did say was inauthentic. It was just a slice of life, a series of snapshots of my little world and what I was trying to forge.

Up until today, I hadn’t looked back into this blog at all. It just felt too sad, honestly. But everything is different now. I grieved hard for the past two years, mindfully and with lots of therapy and way too many Saturday nights alone in yoga pants watching reruns of Will and Grace. Today, though, I looked back through some old entries, trying to see myself through the eyes of someone who had never read these words before. How would that land? Who on earth is that cheery, striving, Universe-loving middle school teacher with the showtune soundtrack and the fervently cockeyed optimist mindset? I am not that woman any more.

The life I used to lead is so foreign to me now, and my secondary struggle in the past two years has been to figure out which parts of my spirit to leave behind, and which to bring forward into this new life. My first struggle, my primary focus, has been on how to meet my most pressing needs of providing for my daughters and navigating a brand new career in the midst of this topsy-turvy new world.

Those two things have taken a lot of energy, as you might imagine.

With what energy has been left over, though, I have tried to rebuild my own soul, cleaner and wiser and more hopeful than before. It has taken lots of therapy, lots of journaling, lots of crying, and an embarrassing number of boxes of cheap-ass chardonnay. I have kept my head above water for most of it – not all of it, but most. I made it with the support of my most excellent Tribe, and a determination to do my mourning now and not shy away from it and save the worst of the grief for later. I grieved very thoroughly, with every damned how-to book I could find, and very slowly, I have emerged blinking into the light of this strange new land. What country is this? And what will I bring to it?

Which brings me to my second question…what do I want this blog to be? Now, in my life’s Second Act, what do I want to offer up to the world? I am no longer the winsome sixth grade teacher. I am not raising little girls in a “happy home,”scrapbooking my Lovely Family Scenes while watching romantic comedies in the Athenaeum. I am not the showtune singing, daisy picking, party throwing, Universe-loving woman I used to be. Now, I teach teenagers. I am raising teenagers. And truth be told, the Universe and I spent the better part of the past two years in a really big fight, and I have devoted considerable energy to trying to punch it in the face. So what does this sadder-but-wiser woman have to offer?

The answer is clear to me now. What I have to offer is all that any of us have – I have my journey. My truth, as much as I can state it at any given moment. My hope, my voice, my fears, and my sincere wish to do the best I can…and my determination to articulate that, in the hopes that someone out there might find some light of their own through my attempts to climb out of the dark.

For those of you newly catching up, I would like to say…I didn’t write about my marriage before in my blog, for lots of reasons. I am not going to write about that now, either, though its ending, up until recently, remained a daily factor in my life. Ironically enough, my divorce agreement has an “intellectual property” clause, which allows both of us to write freely without the other either profiting from or inhibiting it. That still just makes me shake my head…that it ever had to come to that. This blog will not be a rehashing or a slam or a tell-all. It is not about then. It is about now. And here. And this. It is about forward, and emergence, and whatever is happening today.

So…today. Today, I wrote scenes for a Harry Potter parody for my acting class. I chose out new music for my women’s choir. I ordered the royalties for our fall musical (West Side Story) and I cleaned out a file drawer full of old sheet music. I talked my oldest through a stomach ache, watched a vlog with my youngest from the star of Les Mis, made pasta for dinner and had a Facetime conversation with a dear friend across the sea about the nature of art and music and creativity…one of many such conversations we have shared.

So, when last you tuned in…I was a cheery wife and mother living in my house of dreams, about to start my Dream Job at a dream school, having no idea how it would turn out. Now, I am a divorced mother of teenage girls, struggling to afford this House of Quite Dented Dreams, with two years of crying and grieving under my belt. The Dream Job? KICKING ASS. I love it even more than I ever could have thought I would, and it has been my saving grace in this whole deal. The Universe and I spent a lot of awkwardly silent and sullen nights alone together, where I pouted and kvetched, and the Universe said, patiently…just wait. I have plans for you, dear one. And I threw popcorn at it and passive-aggressive jabs, and rolled my eyes and felt terribly sorry for myself. Until, finally…I quit. I gave in, and decided to put back into practice what I knew to be true. What I saw work for me in the many years of writing…that when you expect the best, you get the best. When you offer up your heart in gratitude for what you are hoping for, rather than what you already have, then good things always come.

After the worst thing I could imagine happening…happened…something better than I could ever, ever have hoped for has hit me like a ton of bricks. I fell in love. And the broken pieces of myself are coming together now in a whole new and very unrecognizable form…one that I would never have expected or predicted in my dark hours. Maybe this blog will also be a little bit about that.

It’s spring. Daffodils and apple blossoms and peepers. I have found the past two springs kind of insulting, honestly. How could the world still be bursting into cheerful bloom when I was so damned sad? But now? Now, I am blooming right along with the pink azaleas that I pet on my way into my theater each morning. Thanks, Universe. I never really doubted you all along.

New beginning.