An awkward return to blogging and some thoughts on forever

27 04 2010

(c)2010 David Parker

Okay, so I’ve taken a hiatus from my blog for, oh, I don’t know, like a year? This post for me feels about as awkward as the first post ever (which I composed nearly four years ago!). I’ve lost a bit of the feel of writing as a daily habit. I’m always telling my students that writing is like running: You can map out your course, buy new running shoes, read about running, watch other people run, but the only way to become a runner is to start running. One foot in front of the other. So here I am, one word after another, writing again for the first time in what feels like forever. I’m sure that I’ll be sore tomorrow.

So where have I been and what I have I been doing? Well, for starters, I’m divorced. That might be a bit of an overshare (awkward!), but I think that my hiatus was largely due to the fact that I felt inappropriate writing about the divorce as I was living through it and in the wake of it. I’m a very big fan of honesty, and divorce is fairly consuming, so I couldn’t really find much to write about honestly.

Getting divorced is strange because when you get married, people tell you “Oh, you should be really sure about this because marriage is forever.” But then, when you get divorced, they say (with their voices dropped so as to indicate the seriousness of the thing), “Oh, are you sure about this? Because divorce is forever.” The finality of divorce felt really good to me. Like, okay, this really is forever. But then I was talking to my friend on the phone a few months ago and she was telling me about her divorced friend who just re-married the man she divorced. This was terribly unsettling to me. I mean, if divorce isn’t final, what is?

In my family, we call the last drink of the evening the final-final. Of course, you can have more than one final-final (and we typically do). And so, in the same way that the finality of divorce was comforting to me six months ago, I’ve come around to taking comfort in the idea that maybe nothing has to be final (or even final-final). There is a lot of freedom in the belief that I can always change my mind. I don’t have to be wedded to any dreams of what my future life will look like or any convictions I may hold now about how the world works.

All of this being said, I feel like I need to be very clear about something here: I do still believe in marriage and I do believe in forever. Two of my very dear friends got married this year and I believe that they have met their for-real final-finals. I also know lots of people who’ve been married for a long time who would say (and I would agree) that they’ve met their for-real final-finals. I find that there is a lot of comfort in believing (in anything) and there is a great deal of freedom in allowing myself to change my beliefs as I grow older and learn more about who I am and the world that I live in.

So, there it is, my awkward over-sharing return to the world of writing on the internet. I am still wandering through life with both hands full of Ruthie, my precocious four-year-old; cynical ninth grade students who don’t want to write, but are impressed when they manage to try; books I’ve been meaning to read; and bags of groceries that tend to burst wide open in really inconvenient places. It’s good to be back.

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PJ Rides

15 06 2009
Ruthie touches the wind.

Ruthie touches the wind.

My Saturday morning begins with the heavy sounds of Ruthie barging down the short  hallway that joins our rooms, still half-asleep, blanket and bear in tow, her hair teased a solid four inches out from her head by what I call sleep-traveling. She’s almost always smiling, proud of herself for spending the night alone and happy to be jumping into my bed, where she not-so-patiently waits for her chocolate milk as I fumble for the remote control. Once I get the t.v. on, I can usually steal a few kisses on her forehead, right along her hairline, which has the sweetest smell I’ve ever known.

Every morning, she has two chocolate milks. On Saturdays, I let her drink the first one at home, then we go to Starbucks for the second. This past Saturday, we loaded up at the wee hour of 6:40-something to make our weekly coffee schlep: Ruthie wearing panties and a chocolate milk stained butterfly t-shirt my parents bought her at the zoo when she was less than a year old, me in my pajama pants and Hanes tagless undershirt. Neither of us had on shoes. I picked her up and thunked her into her car seat, buckled her in (so she wouldn’t “go to jail”), and tucked her blanket in real tight around her legs. With Allison Krauss playing and the windows rolled down, we crept out of the driveway. I caught Ruthie’s eyes in the rear view mirror to see her mouth pulled into a tight smile that only children in a state of heightened anticipation can manage. As we picked up speed down the street, she squealed, “We’re goin’ on anudder PJ ride, aren’t we, Mom? Only girls go on PJ rides, huh?” She laughed and laughed from her gut and so did I. In Alabama there aren’t many days when the air feels cool on your skin, but on this Saturday morning in June, the air felt delicious. We spent the rest of the drive in awed silence, both of us with a hand out “touching the wind,” as Ruthie put it.

Until Ruthie gave it a name, I hadn’t really thought of our PJ rides as a ritual––they were just what we did. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals, how they’re made, and why they’re so comforting. At what point does one aspect of a daily routine begin to shape itself into a ritual? What’s the difference between a ritual and a routine? Why are rituals so satisfying? And what are they satisfying?

So I picked up an old friend (Robert Fulghum’s From Beginning to End: The Rituals of our Lives) and began reading. Again. Here’s what he says:

To be human is to be religious.
To be religious is to be mindful.
To be mindful is to pay attention.
To pay attention is to sanctify existence.

Rituals create sacred time.
Sacred time is the dwelling place of the Eternal.
Haste and ambition are the adversaries of sacred time.

When I think of the word ritual, I think of churches and candles and chanting or reciting words that I don’t understand. Fulghum’s interpretation of the word is so comforting to me because it’s so personal. In a sense, we make our own rituals out of the things that we do on a regular basis, out of the routines and habits that structure our daily lives. Having a three-year-old around makes it much easier to recognize sacred moments when they happen, because three-year-olds are mindful. Always.





Sink or Swim… Er, Float

11 06 2009

Ruthie with cute, pink, ruffled floaties.

Ruthie floating not-on-her-own. Notice the cuteness. And the pinkness. And the ruffles. Oh, the ruffles!

Last Sunday, Ruthie and I, along with a very dear friend, broke into a local neighborhood pool while its patrons were at church. Thankfully, there was only one family there, and they were lounging at an angle that would allow us (and by “us,” I mean my dear friend) to inconspicuously jiggle the gate in just the right way with just the right amount of pressure so that it would open without the key. Once I saw the gate swing open, we plowed through and set up camp in a nice, shady corner where we could eat lunch.

Ruthie loves the pool, but I’m trying to break her into her floaties this year and have been, thus far, unsuccessful. I’ve gone to great lengths to find cute, pink ones; they even have a ruffle. She’ll put them on and wear them in the baby pool, on the steps of the big pool. She even ate lunch with them on. But she won’t let them hold her up. I’ve tried coaxing her to simply stand on the third step and lift her feet, I’ve tried luring her out into the middle of the pool with motor boat sounds and bubbles, but always she is stubbornly resistant to the very notion of using the floaties to FLOAT! I finally got her to let me hold her in the pool and drag her around with her arms out “like an angel.” For a solid half hour, I pushed and pulled her all over the pool, but as soon as she felt my grip loosen, she’d freak out and pull her arms down to her sides. Which made her sink. Which made her swallow water. Which made her even more fierce in her determination to not let me go. I even tried just pulling away real fast, but she had a death grip on my index fingers and I didn’t have the heart to rip them away. All I could think of was that swim teacher who told me to swim to him and kept walking backwards, all the way down the pool. I thought I was going to drown. When I tried to pull away from Ruthie, her face had the look of sheer terror that must have come over my own face when that jerk wouldn’t stand still.

I wanted her to see that she could trust the floaties, that they would keep her up. Having seen tons of kids her age positively leaping into other pools that I’ve high-jacked this summer, only to bob right back up to the surface with those floaties sticking up out of the water. I thought kids just knew that floaties would keep them up. While I can remember being afraid to swim, I can’t ever remember being afraid to float. The problem is that Ruthie has no confidence in her floaties. Her refusal to rely on them to help her float actually makes her sink. In order for them to work, she has to kind of relax into them. But because it’s new and scary, her whole body tenses up at the possibility of me letting go, she jerks her arms down, and her head goes under.

This whole experience struck me as somehow significant and metaphorical, but I couldn’t quite pin it to anything until I came across this passage from Oswald Chambers:

Naturally, we are inclined to be so mathematical and calculating that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing… Certainty is the mark of the common sense life, gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all of our ways, we do not know what a day may bring forth. This is generally said with a sigh of sadness; it should rather be an expression of breathless anticipation.

And brilliant E.L. Doctorow insight  that Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I, like Ruthie, am on the cusp, the brink, the brim of lots of unknowables. I have a new job in a new school system teaching a grade that I haven’t been with in over four years. In recent months, I have experienced tremendous changes in my personal life as well. I have no idea what my life will look like in the fall, or even in, say, July. For the past six weeks, my shoulders have been in knots and I often catch myself holding my breath for no particular reason. I am tense because my life is new, different, and, well, scary.  When things seem out of control to me, my tendency is to run straight through as fast as I can. This tends to send my life spinning even more out of control. And so, as I quelled the frustration that I felt at Ruthie’s resistance to letting go and trusting the floaties, I realized that I may need to do the very same thing in my own life: trust more and fight less.

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie never did float on her own in the big pool. She resigned to the baby pool, where she kept her floaties on and bobbed around like a little shrimp. That is until she confessed that she needed to go “poopee” (however you spell that) and we realized that you have to have a freaking key to get into the bathrooms. It was nap time anyways.





“To fight aloud, is very brave”

30 05 2009

There is nothing more irresistible to me than a bookstore on Saturday morning. I spent the better part of an hour at Books A Million this morning, roving the shelves, armed with a cup of coffee. I get lost in the titles and the covers and the sheer number of books. Getting lost is something I’ve been very keen on this past year. I can’t ever quite tell what will make me lose myself until I’m doing it. I positively swam through the store, hanging on as many words (that were not mine) as I could. It was a relief, to read and not to write or to think of writing. For the past year, I’ve thought of nothing but writing, but I have written virtually nothing. Meandering through that space crowded with words meant to incite, capture, invoke me, the reader, I could feel my shoulders loosen and my stance shift. My knees grew bendier and I rested on my joints. My face became open, and I began to craft some writing in my mind. While I would normally rush somewhere to put it on the paper before the words left me, I tried to relax into the words, repeating them over and over. And then I came across the Dickinson poem that is the title of this post, and the words became cemented in my mind. I left with six books and the resolve to write. Something. Today.

I came home, put on some music, then decided against it and opened the windows, and began reading my earlier posts. I didn’t realize I began this venture two years ago, when Ruthie was only 18 months old. My third or fourth post (Taking the Long Way) speaks to the way I feel now. And it occurred to me that my life is terribly, wonderfully recursive. I keep coming back to the same places, and each time I revisit them, I am a little stronger, a little braver, a little older. I am trying now, even as I type this, to be okay with the possibility of coming off as a complete fool. I am also trying not to write what might be considered a bit of an over-share without compromising any of the truth of what has led me to the key board today. The truth is that I am exactly where I was two years ago, only less afraid and more alone. Scared and alone are two of the shittiest aspects of the human condition, if you ask me. And I am always both. But today, as I sifted through those titles and browsed the books I had selected, it occurred to me that everyone is scared and everyone feels alone (which, of course, is why it’s a part of the human condition and not the Whitney condition). All of my favorite things–- books, films, music, art –-capture those two features of what it means to be human. It is a painful condition, the human one. Which is why I found myself in the bookstore today, seeking a connection, through language, to humanity. Which is why I am writing today, seeking to establish my own connection, in my own words, to humanity. 

I’m finally reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, as per Emma Bolden’s recommendation. At the very beginning, Anna, the person who keeps the notebooks that she (unsuccessfully) divides herself into, has an insight that I can’t stop thinking about. It is during a conversation with her best friend that Anna has this sort of epiphany:

But now, sitting with Molly talking, as they had so many hundreds of times before, Anna was saying to herself: Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they? What it amounts to is that I’m scared of being alone in what I feel. (Lessing, 10)

It is this thought that has kept me from writing through the past year. When I write, my thoughts are permanent and vulnerable, pulsing under the lens of my readers’ discerning eyes. If I simply think my thoughts, then they are mine, and mine alone, and I have no way of knowing whether or not I am alone in those thoughts. When I put my ideas and experiences into writing, then I risk knowing that I am alone in my thinking. But with that risk comes the possibility of being affirmed and understood. It is with hope and trepidation that I continue to write, even now, when there is so much at stake (namely, myself).






Morning Drive

17 10 2008

I drive 27 miles on the interstate to get to work. The speed limit is 70, which means that I generally go anywhere from 65–90 mph. This morning I was running behind, so I did my best to keep the speed around 77 while I put on my make up, checking the clock at every exit to see if I had succeeded in defying time. I also listen to Morning Edition on Fresh Air. There was a horribly sad story today about a man and his wife, whom he met in Iraq, and how utterly miserable they are in Ozark, AK. So I’m driving, listening, getting ready, and probably checking my phone for emails.

When I got to exit 70, which is 7 miles before my exit, there were cars stopped in front of me. Or, they were going very slow. I moved over to the left lane and checked my phone again. I’m thinking all kinds of urgent, frustrated 4-letter word combos. I slammed my fist on the dash repeatedly, which sent my eye shadow tumbling to that place on the floor of my car where my reaching for it only pushes it further away. By this time, I was definitely LATE, with make up on half my face, and, to top it off, there was a dark brownish-golden smudge on the freshly shampooed carpets of my *clean* car (a feat that takes such considerable effort that I believe it’s been a year since it’s been this clean). I grabbed the phone to call another teacher, and began to fume in my mind about how much it sucks to miss work when you’re a teacher. I mean, if you have a regular adult job with adult people, it’s just not the same. However, if I don’t show up for work, 150 8th graders are going crazy in my classroom with no lesson plans, no teacher (unless it’s a co-worker who is on their *planning* period). So I make the call and then text him with lesson plans 10 minutes later just in case.

After 15 minutes or so, the sun came up and I realized that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for a while because there was a truck in the right lane that had gone off the road and there were only 3-4 cars in front of me. All I could see was the back of the truck at an angle and the front, sort of jack-knifed down off the road. There were some people gathering around the cab, but the driver was walking around seemed just fine. Another teacher (from Valley, but not from my school) was parked in front of me and she was kind of nosy––walking around, talking to people, talking on the phone, fixing the way her shirt would get bunched up by the waist of her pants. I borrowed her phone to call the school again because my phone died. She told me that when she drove up, she noticed the smoke coming up from the truck and pulled off to the side.

Soon after, a helicopter came, and two ambulances, followed by a bunch of random people who parked on the exit ramps and walked down through the damp, tall grass to see what was happening with the truck. Under the cab of the truck, there was a anoth truck––a white Chevy. Inside of the Chevy, or what was left of it, there was a person. Trapped. Everyone stopped for this wreck (and there were 2 other cars involved in the wreck, 4 cars in front of me, and so on) was just standing around. Not speaking. Not moving. People who drove by on the other side of the median slowed down, some pulled over, some got off the exit and walked down, waiting 50 yards or so away. While the firefighters worked on the mess, the truck driver was taking pictures with his disposable camera. Click. Wind, wind, wind. Click. I could hear that from where I stood on the shattered pieces of windshield on the other side of the road near the yellow line.

The two men who had on jumpsuits (I guess they flew the helicopter) stood close to the white truck with a stretcher. Waiting. Then someone put a black thick-looking tarp over it. Next were two white shoes poking out of the carnage, followed by the body, head turned to the side. I can remember being shocked at how straight his body was when they pulled him out––like when Mary Poppins pulled that floor lamp out of her carpet bag. All of this happened behind a white sheet that two firefighters held up, but I was on the other side, I was on the inside, I was behind that sheet. My view was not protected and I could not look away. One man––a big guy, a firefighter––sat on the bumper of the yellow truck they came in on and leaned over with his hands on his knees like he was going to throw up. He squeezed his fingers into his eyes real hard and shook his head. Another one came up and put his head close to the big guy’s head. By that time, the black bag was sealed and strapped onto the stretcher. I saw the helicopter fly away, but I don’t know whether or not the stretcher was on it. After that, there were several people in big blue hats waving us off and shouting for us to leave. I don’t know where they expected us to go, but I went and sat in my car anyway.

I write this because it was a strange kind of alone standing there on the interstate. Everyone was alone in their own minds, but together in our being drawn to move closer, to hold our breath, to stand on the tippy-est parts of our toes to see what death looks like. I’ve never seen that before. And I was, we all were, so close to being the one on that stretcher. That man was sitting in traffic just like I had been 45 minutes prior. Maybe he was late. Maybe he was wearing his seatbelt. Maybe not. It wouldn’t have mattered because that truck couldn’t stop. And if he had been only one car ahead, or only 4 cars behind (as I was), he may have been standing next to me on the shattered windshield, on the road, holding his breath and waiting for what they were doing to pull out of that car.

I know this isn’t as light-hearted as what I normally write. It feels strange to have this sitting above the post about Ruthie in a shopping cart and planting mums, but there is no place to write or talk or think about death that is not strange or uncomfortable or easy. It doesn’t follow that after witnessing this awful thing, that I turned around and had a “normal” day. I went to school, ate lunch, emailed a few people, and now I’m sitting here writing on my blog. I’m not sure what I believe happens after a person dies, but I do know that I won’t ever say again that I’m ready for my life to begin. That I’m ready to be finished with the rushing around and the living month-to-month. It’s just so hard not to live for the next best thing. It is so hard to be in the moment living, paying attention, focusing on the now.





Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

19 02 2008

Yesterday, I took a bit of a short-cut to my house in the middle of the day. I live on a one-way street and there’s another street that bisects it about 2 houses down from me. So when I’m really in a hurry, I will cut over and go maybe 20 feet the wrong way down my street to get to my house rather than going all the way around. So yesterday it was a gorgeous day, sunny and about 60 degrees. I was jamming to the new Jack Johnson cd, which is incredible, and I took the cut through so I could unpack the car before I left for lunch. On the way, I passed a woman wearing a safari hat and kelly green top. She had a big leather should bag, indicating she was probably a professor.

So I whip into the driveway, pop out the cd, gather up all the trash I can carry and heave out of the driver’s side door. As I make my way around to the back of the car, this woman is standing there writing something down. I couldn’t see her eyes because she had on some big sunglasses. I looked at her and quizzically inquired if I could help her with something.

She was seething, straining not to yell. “What’s your license plate number?” I wasn’t sure what to say since she was staring right at it, so I shrugged and said, “It looks like you’re already writing it down.”

She started fuming about how there are kids that live on this street. I smiled and informed her that we had one of those “kids”–a two-year old. She snapped back, “I don’t care.” (Ironic since that was what she was supposedly concerned about.) Then she said that everyone was in a hurry and she was just sick of this “blatant obstruction of the law.” (Obviously she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “hurry” since she doesn’t have a two-year old and takes 15 minutes out of her day to chastise people for minor traffic violations, not to mention the time she wound up spending on the phone with the police department and bitching to everyone she knows about the young people going the wrong way down the street).

I told her I was very sorry that I had upset her so much. She responded with a huff and turned dramatically on her heels to walk away. I sweetly called after her that I hoped she wasn’t putting too much energy into this… it seemed that she was awfully upset. To this, she bid me good day.

I took several things away from this experience:

1. It is so worthwhile to be calm when other people get all worked up about stupid stuff.

2. I need to be wary of what I spend my energy being ticked off about,because I could be this woman barking at someone for violating a one-way street for 20 feet or so.