Monthly Archives: May 2014

I’ve Had Enough of the News.

I’m over it.

In case you aren’t keeping track, it’s been a tough month for women. Over 270 girls were kidnapped from Nigeria, an Iranian actress faces prosecution for kissing the 83 year old head of the Cannes Film Festival on the cheek, a Sudanese woman is facing the death penalty and 100 lashes for converting to Christianity, the shooting rampage of a man angry for being rejected by his female peers has left seven dead and many injured, and the death of Maya Angelou has taken away a great feminist, poet, and teacher. There’s a reason why I hate reading the news.

Meanwhile, back in my two foot square of influence in Chicago, while standing in line to buy my comfort food, purchased at least in part because I have absolutely no idea how to process and deal with the bombardment of bad news in the media lately, I noticed that US Weekly has chosen this week to publish “The Body Issue: Heidi Klum and 100 Sexy Stars Strip Down and Show Off.”

There just aren’t words.

Yesterday my students helped me label and sort books in my classroom which, over the weekend, became the book room of our school. I’m up to my eyeballs in boxes of books with more than a little work cut out for me.

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I let my students pick the songs we listened to, until one of my students said she wanted to listen to “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry and Juicy J. I said I didn’t like that song. She of course wanted to know why, so I said, “I don’t like the rap. You know the part where it says, ‘She’ll eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer”?” And then I explained who Jeffrey Dahmer was, and why that line is particularly twisted.

They didn’t really feel like finishing their breakfast after that.

It reminded me of a small moment; a conversation I had with my friend Amber. My husband and I were deciding if we were ready to have a baby and I was pretty sure it was hinging on how well we were prepared to do the whole “sex talk” thing. (I have really weird ideas about what it means to be a parent, hang with me here.) Since Amber is a mom I respect, I asked her how she broaches such important topics with her children and she said, “The same way we deal with every other issue. We talk about it, we’re honest about it, and we answer the question that is asked.”

Basically, they talk to their kids, listen to their stories, and share their own. It seems so simple, and yet…

When my student found out about the lyrics of “Dark Horse” her first comment was, “I have GOT to tell Lana about this. That’s her favorite song. She knows all the words. And she don’t even know what she’s rapping.” Then the three of us had a long conversation about being afraid of people like Jeffrey Dahmer, the shooting in California, and what it feels like to be women. And it wasn’t just my stories, it was their stories, too.

It’s kind of amazing what happens when you answer the question that is asked.

Mary Oliver says that the instructions for living a life are: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

I find that when I’m overwhelmed with the news, it’s often because of what I’m paying attention to.

It’s been a rough month for women. But that’s not the only story.

There are women sharing their #YesAllWomen stories. There are post cards being sent to politicians saying “Not One More”, we’ve had enough of the killing. Neko Case is challenging people’s ideas of what it means to be a musician who also happens to be a woman. And my fourth grade helper is telling her friends why its important to understand the lyrics of the songs they listen to.

It’s not everything, but it’s something.

I’m over it. But it isn’t over. It’s been a tough month for women, but we keep marching along, and “still we rise.” We have to.

And so I keep paying attention, I keep telling my stories, and I try not to forget to let the good ones astonish me as much as the bad.

MaryOliver_LIFE

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#YesAllWomen #NotAllMen #HopefulForCulturalChange

she is someone Up early. Made coffee. Opened Laptop. Checked social media (how I track my son who lives 1200 miles away, but who never posts anything, but you never know, so it is important to check anyway).

I am bombarded with the appearance of #YesAllWomen tweets.  Often, I am in awe of the power of Social Media.  This is one of those times.

As I scroll through ten tweets, twenty more are posted.  And it’s 5 a.m.  And these #YesAllWomen tweets are being tweeted by women and men. I am enthralled and captivated. Encouraged and enraged. Dismayed yet hopeful. Definitely hopeful – despite my feelings of  horror as I read countless women’s stories of fear and suffering and pain and death, clicking obsessively between Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.   Why hopeful?  Because finally we (meaning women) are talking about and sharing our stories, #nofilter.

And I believe that every woman has had at least one still lingering encounter with a man or men  that was frightening, humiliating or harmful. But usually, we keep these stories to ourselves.  Why are we generally silent? Why do sexual assaults and rapes go unreported? Home training.  Media messages.  SHAME. So many reasons.

GOOD girls do not place themselves into situations that lead to these horrifying encounters; girls who do probably are”at fault” somehow because they dressed too provocatively, drank too much, were too friendly or flirtatious, or in the “wrong” place.  Sometimes, we experience these encounters with male figures in positions of power: fathers, employers, clergy.   Silence is safety.  So we chalk it up to a “life lesson learned,” rather than reveal how we allowed or, better yet, lured a man to “lose control.”  We quietly bandage our wounds which never quite heal and which make us wary of the world. Almost always, we feel such shame about these experiences, we work hard to forget they ever happened.  But it is impossible to truly forget.  These episodes remain etched in our souls, our psyche, our skin.  #YesAllWomen

I was 19.  I was a passenger on the Illinois Central Railroad in 1978 – I had taken the 9:20 p.m. train out of the Randolph Street station in Chicago and was traveling home (I still lived with my parents) to the far south suburbs. At the time, I was attending night classes at Northwestern University.  I would scurry down Michigan Avenue as class let out at 9 p.m. and I was always relieved to make the train and slide into my seat, always out of breath.  My nightly routine, Monday – Thursday, after commuting to the city on the 7:08 a.m. train to work a full day before I raced to class.  I was a seasoned commuter.  I was savvy and smart.

Except this one night.

For some reason, I grabbed an inside seat.  I was tired and wanted to just lean against the window for the 55-minute ride home.  I started drafting a paper due the following week and got lost in my work.  At some point, a man took the seat next to me and opened his newspaper. I wasn’t paying close attention.  My fault.  At some point I became aware that the man’s hand had drifted onto my leg, and was moving up and down from my knee to mid-thigh.  Startled and unsure, I quickly pushed it away, thinking the man was asleep, as his eyes were closed. Just minutes later, it happened again, and I realized that the man’s other hand was inside his trousers.

I stopped breathing.

I hastily stuffed my papers and books into my backpack and pushed past the man who took the opportunity to grab my ass. I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to die.  But I never made a sound.

I stood in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights in the train vestibule next to the conductor for the rest of the trip home, fearful the man would approach me as I got off the train.  I kept reassuring myself that I was overreacting.  It was no big deal.  I hadn’t been raped – just touched.  It could have been so much worse, right?  My own fault, sitting on the inside seat.  Stupid girl.  You know better.  You are fine.  I leapt off the train when we arrived at the platform, and fled down the stairs two at a time.  I remember the cars on the busy avenue that ran beneath the station, honking as I dashed across the street to the lot where I parked my car.  I still hear the sound of the lock (manual) as I hurriedly slammed the door closed, shaking and sweating and crying and swearing.  When I got home, everyone was already asleep.  I threw away the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed myself clean in the shower, trying not to wake up the rest of the family.  I never told anyone. I remained silent. But for weeks I felt that disgusting touch over and over again.

Commuting was never quite the same after that.  I was distrustful of men who took the train and opened their newspapers, even though #NotAllMen behaved in this manner. In retrospect, minor incident.  Especially when compared to the killings in Santa Barbara this past Saturday and many of the stories I’ve been reading this morning. But for my 19-year old self – it was a big deal.  And I didn’t know how to talk about it. What gets me infuriated now, is that an adult male on a crowded train knew that he had the power to do what he did – that I would give him that power and not call him on it.  What gets me even more infuriated now, is that the man felt he could masturbate and touch a young woman in public – without her consent – with impunity.  And at 19, all I felt was overwhelming shame for putting myself in such a position.

Like most of us, I now have read quite a bit about the young man at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who felt he had the right to seek retribution against all women because he had been sexually rejected or overlooked by women – that the women should be punished.  I watched a portion of a video he posted on YouTube. It was too disturbing to watch through to the end, especially knowing the outcome, even though I have seen and heard a version of these sentiments before. So I read the transcript (click here to read it, if you’ve missed it: gruesome, but informative).   Now, seven people are dead, including this mentally disturbed young man, his roommates, two sorority sisters, and a man at a convenience store.

And I am deeply saddened and terribly uneasy. 

After reading the news accounts of the UCSB tragedy on Sunday, I read an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Disregarding feminism a sad trend for young celebs.”  A few days prior, The New York Times published  “Who is a feminist now?”  Both pieces center on an odd(well for me, anyway) definition of feminism held by many (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind), a “zero sum” game if you will, where the rights of men are somehow diminished if women are granted equal rights.  And apparently, the idea that feminists have “chips on their shoulders,” are “militant” and “don’t like men” still exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   These views are held not only by a number of popular celebrities, but by the current chief exec at Yahoo, all of whom are women.  I wonder if these “non-feminists” realize they have greater access to power and independence because of the “feminist” movement.  Are we teaching the history of the 20th century to our children?

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These “post-modern” views of feminism also make me uneasy.  Because I really want to believe we are farther along in the women’s movement, despite the gender pay gap, despite the increasing and incessant emphasis on the female body, despite the hyper-sexualization of young women, despite the hateful lyrics of some pieces of popular music, and despite the continuing use of the word “bitches.” In my view, feminism means equal rights for women and men: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voice.  It means women who serve in the military don’t subject themselves to sexual harassment or rape – and when they are so violated, they have recourse.  It means respect between men and women.

This morning, I felt great relief at this Twitter explosion, despite the trolls and the #NotAllMen response (#nokidding), for as this tweet aptly states:

And these stories are being told, some in 140 characters on twitter, some on tumblr, some on FaceBook, and some on blogs on #WordPress.  The secrets of women are being disclosed and both men and women are empowered.  Because there is great power in this telling of truths, of revealing the roles of oppressor and oppressed.  Only by acknowledging these roles can we alter them.

I hope and pray that #YesAllWomen is more than a #trend and that it leads us beyond the important conversation and debate to real action and change.  Honestly?  I am used to feeling vulnerable when I am alone – simply because I am a woman. Statistically, the odds are rarely in my favor.  So I plan and live accordingly.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if younger generations of women no longer had that fear? In the meantime, you might want take a look at the Twitter feed.  YESALLWOMEN

 – KarenDSC02405

 

Catching Vomit In My Hands: A Teaching Fail and A Parenting Win

teacherrachel(#TBT: me, my first year of teaching)

The hardest part about the first year of teaching is that you have no instincts to draw upon to help you as you face a sea of faces; twelve year olds with zits the size of Mount Doom and still you are the most self-conscious one in the room. In that moment you are as far away from knowing what it means to teach a seventh grader as the distance you’ve tried to wedge between you and your seventh grade memories. In that moment you become about as qualified to teach seventh graders as, well, your seventh grade self.

Or maybe I’m just speaking for me.

I did, after all, go through an alternative certification program that gave me a teaching certificate after six weeks of teaching summer school while attending evening classes. (These classes were held in a run down Chicago Public School building where the water was not suitable for drinking and the classrooms were on the third floor of the un-airconditioned building. I got heat stroke. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?)

Let’s just say I got “on the job training”. A whole lot of it.

I’m a fast learner, so I realized I had taken a belly flop into the deep end of the pool when my plan for helping students enter the school building from the playground on the morning of my first day of teaching went something along the lines of, “We’re in room 210. See you up there.” All the rest of the teachers stood confidently facing their students, telling them the designated stopping points along the way to their classroom. Then in a spell of jujitsu magic, their students neatly filed into one line and silently entered the school.

I think my line may have been able to accomplish this sometime around May. Fine, I’m exaggerating. Sometime around June. If we ever did get that together. There’s a lot about that first year I’ve blocked from memory. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?

That wonderful year of my life (my first year of teaching) comes to mind frequently these days as I find myself once again at the beginning of something, something I face without the instincts of a veteran. By this, I mean mothering. I’m still in my first year of mothering, and while I don’t have to do tasks like teach my son how to line up in a straight line, I often find myself surprised by how a simple task can seem impossible. Like how to put a sleeping child into a crib without said child waking up and screaming. (The equivalent of Indiana Jones attempting to take the golden statue…no. sudden.movements.)

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While I was living in Philadelphia during my sophomore year of college I became friends with a woman named Keia. She had a beautiful one year old daughter that was crawling around everywhere. I would follow Keia around pretty much all the time so that I could hold and play with her daughter. One day at church we were sitting in a luncheon and I was holding her daughter when the little girl started to cough. Before I registered what was happening, Keia had turned around in her chair, flung her hands forward in front of her daughter, and her daughter threw up in her mom’s cupped hands.

Gross, I know. But also kind of amazing. I developed a new awe for Keia that day. I think I shouted out something like, “You’re a MOM!” By which I meant, of course, “You have those mother instincts!” The ones that tell you when your child is puking. (Motherhood is glamorous, what can I say?)

Which leads me to this week. Our son has been sick for the past five days with what I assume is a cold and a fever. It is way harder than I ever thought it would be to watch my child wheeze. And maybe a little cute that he has a cough that makes him sound like a pack-a-day smoker. OK, not cute. Sad.

He’s been sleeping in bed with us the past five days which is bad news for everyone. But it was that or wake up fifteen times a night to go get him, help him fall asleep, and then put him back in his crib again. (Refer to earlier note about my skill in the area of putting a baby into a crib.) Turns out the latter is even worse news for everyone. It also turns out that my twenty seven inch long son is able to dominate sleeping space, leaving my husband and me mere inches of space on our king-sized bed.

Anyway, two mornings ago at about five in the morning my son wanted to nurse. Having mastered the art of sleep-nursing I fell asleep, waking up at six in the morning only to realize he was still nursing. I tried to cut him off, but he was having none of it. That is, until he started coughing. And then he promptly threw up all over the bed. Approximately an hour’s worth of milk, all over the sheets.

I kicked my husband awake and held our son out to him so I could get something to clean up the bed. In the four seconds it took me to get off the bed our son started coughing again and then threw up all over my husband.

Neither of us possessed Keia’s instincts. It was our first rodeo. We didn’t know. WE WEREN’T PREPARED!!

And that’s what it is to be a new teacher or a new parent or a new anything, I assume. It takes a long time to feel like you have any mastery over anything. And usually once you do, the game has changed and the rules are different and suddenly you don’t know who’s winning in volleyball anymore. (Seriously, rally scoring? What is that?)

But I know that this changes. Over time, the instincts start to kick in.

I know that I can now get most anyone to line up in single file lines with ease and maybe even a little finesse. I don’t know when that turning point happened, only that it has. After eight years of teaching I can walk into a school and instinctively know where the stopping points should be when directing thirty students from one area of a school to another. Eight years in it still isn’t always easy, but it is habit.

Some expert teaching advice I got during that first year was, “Focus on those things which you can control.” Which I now know is also expert life advice.

Most days the thing I can control is getting out of bed and doing the best I can all over again.

But I have a good end to this story. Yesterday morning I woke up and started nursing my son. About ten minutes in he started coughing. I held him upright and my husband and I both shot out our hands and he promptly vomited into them.

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Instincts. They are amazing things. So is not having to wash the sheets two days in a row.

I told you I’m a fast learner.

-Rachel

This is Good: All of It.

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I spent most of my first Mother’s Day in tears. Even for a crier like me, it wasn’t how I had planned to spend the day. But I had the triple header of saying goodbye to family that had been in town for the week, saying goodbye to a house we had planned to buy, and preparing to put my son in a new daycare. (For those keeping track, this is childcare plan #4. Hubby astutely pointed out that we have had almost every form of childcare possible at this point: nanny, in home daycare, live-in care with my mom, and now a daycare center.)

Of these major life events, the daycare was causing me the most tears last Sunday. The idea of getting used to another stranger looking out for my son seemed almost more than I could handle. (Though the excuse to spend $150 at Target for “school supplies” for my son’s first day in daycare was some excellent retail therapy.)

SPOILER ALERT: I LOVE the daycare. The detailed daily report of what and how much he has eaten, the times and lengths of his nap, and the diaper changes and numbers of BMs calms my inner helicopter mama. Just kidding, nothing calms my inner helicopter mama. But it is an appreciated OCD step in the right direction.

No, my crying about the daycare has nothing to do with the quality or satisfaction with the daycare. Instead, it has everything to do with watching my beautiful baby boy go on his next big adventure. It is about seeing him grow up and go places and have adventures without me there.

I kept asking my husband, in the midst of my tears, “What if they don’t love him as much as I do?”

Because when it comes down to it, that’s what I want. A world that despite all evidence to the contrary will hold my son in kindness and compassion. A world that will accept him for the perfect person he is. A world that will nurture and adore him.

I look in his innocent face and think that there is absolutely nothing that has happened in his world yet that would make him believe that the world is anything other than those things I just listed. And I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the reality to settle in, for prick of the spinning wheel, his birthright in this broken world.

I’ll be honest, there’s another side to this coin. It isn’t just the avoidance of pain. The other question that I ask over and over again is… (I’m ashamed to admit this.)

“What if he loves someone else more than he loves me?”

I am the center of his universe. I am the most beautiful and hilarious and exciting thing in his world. And I just love that. I love all of it. I love the attention and the adoration and the acceptance. And if I’m being completely honest (and usually I am) I don’t want to give that up. And letting him go means giving him the opportunity to realize that I’m not the only amazing person in this world.

My husband and I were talking about our son last week and I said something like, “That’s my boy.”

And he replied, “He isn’t yours.”

I obviously responded charitably. Something along the lines of, “SHUT.UP.YES.HE.IS!” But I instantly knew it was true.

Ugg.

I get it. I know that my job as a mom is ultimately to let him go. To let him explore the broken and ugly world, teaching him to see the beautiful in it and to cherish the good. To trust that he will love and be loved by more people than just me; and that this is healthy and right. To put into practice my husband’s words: my son does not belong to me.

But that often seems impossible. Or leaves me in tears on Mother’s Day.

The week after our son was born we asked our pastor to come and pray for him. She came and gave the most beautiful benediction and blessing over his life. And she left me with the best piece of parenting advice. We had been told a lot of “get as much sleep as you can” (useless, useless advice) and “enjoy this time because just you wait, when he’s a teenager you will be miserable.”

In contrast, she said, “It seems like just yesterday that my kids were little, and now [my youngest daughter] is in college. And it was all good. From the time they were babies to now. All of it is good.”

Today is my son’s nine month birthday. We went to the park and he sat in the bucket-seat swing and he laughed and laughed as I made silly faces and kissed the top of his head when he swerved my direction. It is hard to believe that nine months ago I could only image his face, the dimple in his check, the blue of his eyes. And it’s even harder to believe that nine months from now he will be walking around our living room and climbing our bookshelves. In nine years he will be in school, and nine years after that he will be graduating from High School.

Each step of the way, I will be learning how to let go, over and over again. And maybe there will be some miserable teenage years. There will almost certainly be those who do not show my son the kind of love I believe he deserves. And I suppose it is possible that one day he may love someone more than he loves me. (Ugg, again.)

But I am holding onto my pastor’s words. Having faith that I, too, will look back and be thankful. This is good. This is a gift. The loving and the letting go.

All of it.

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Death by Death

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Book thief quote

I have struggled to write this post for months.  And then, I just decided to take it “bird by bird.”  Still, it has taken me weeks to post it.  No, it still isn’t perfect.  But, in the spirit of being a “good enoughist,”  I pushed the button today.

 A dear friend’s husband died last April from lung cancer (he never smoked); he was 43. This is not supposed to happen and an uneasy chill entered my soul. I felt powerless and incensed:  what is God thinking?  Then, not long after, three dear friends of my husband died in rapid succession, leaving behind a bereaved spouse. As we left the last memorial service, I briefly decided (in a very self-absorbed way) that God might be putting me through “widow” school. I mean, my husband is significantly older than I am and maybe I needed to be ready for the next stage of my life – when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?  I did manage to recover from this moment of temporary insanity after remembering that not everything that happens is all about me.

I found the unfathomable grief deafening.  And terrifying. I hugged everybody and murmured worthless words that I desperately wished were comforting. But I felt powerless and STUPID. I had no idea how these graceful widows actually felt.  NO CLUE.  I could sense the sorrow, but I could not feel it with them.  I was an outsider – but I really didn’t want to be an insider, despite my clumsy ineptitude.

 For death, as Hamlet notes, is the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”  Although, Hamlet cannot possibly be right, as his dead father paid him a visit only a few scenes before he uttered these words.  Of course, Hamlet was not in his right mind.  I relate to Hamlet a lot.

 There was a lot of death last spring and summer.

 And then, the unthinkable happened.  My dear friend Nancy was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Nancy: the definition of what it means to be alive.  She was whole-hearted, full of zest, passion and love.

And despite the word incurable, I was certain Nancy’s cancer could be cured.  We just needed to find the right remedy, the right doctor, the right hospital.  I researched treatment options for her cancer like a woman possessed and efficiently put together a binder with tabs and places to record symptoms and medicines and tests and infusions and never-ending visits to doctors. I accompanied her to meet with docs to get a second opinion.  I kept very busy looking for solutions.

 Because Nancy could not die.   Who in their right mind thinks this way?

And despite my will for her to live, Nancy, the soul I loved and cherished, began to leave her life here on this earth.  Slowly, steadily, gracefully: on her own terms.  Even though I didn’t want her to leave – not just yet.  Well, I never wanted her to leave.

This is because I still didn’t (and probably still don’t) have a handle on this death being part of life thing.  There is this tenacious piece of my soul that refuses to accept that we cannot be with those we love forever and ever.  I understand that suffering is part of life – but death?  Who in their right mind thinks like this?

 Nancy knew this about me.  So, she kindly and gently helped me understand that she would die.  Despite my “valiant” efforts to help her get cured.  I drove her to chemo whenever I could.  I meditated and prayed daily, imagining her surrounded by healing blue light, as the therapeutic poison dripped into her veins.  When I arrived at her door after being away for three weeks, Nancy no longer could walk on her own and she was breathless even when lying down.  Her energy, which always had seemed boundless, had been stolen from her.  She appeared to be looking off in the distance most of the time and it was difficult for her to talk.  I think part of me knew that Nancy had begun to disembark from this world and she was seeking her way to the next.  But my heart refused to acknowledge it.

So, I was the friend she asked to come to the “end of life” discussion.  I think she knew I needed to hear the devastating news directly.  Frankly, it never dawned on me, as I drove Nancy and her daughter over to the hospital for what I thought was the next round of chemo, that there would be no more life saving efforts.  I saw that Nancy seemed even more depleted and made a note to ask the doctor for a blood transfusion, because I was sure her hemoglobin was too low.  I chatted away like we were going out to lunch.

 With my notebook and pen in hand, sitting next to Nancy in her wheelchair, furiously taking notes as the oncologist, in a detached voice, talked about the failed chemo and continuing tumor growth, I asked, “ok, what’s next?”  But nothing was next.  Well, no cure was next.  And no, there was no need for a blood transfusion.  I was filled with dread and my heart began to hurt, like someone was beating me on the chest.

 As the doctor left the room to get the papers to “release Nancy to hospice care,” I just kept writing furiously, vowing to stay in my head, ignore my breaking heart and silently prayed for a medical miracle despite this damned, seemingly indifferent doctor.  Nancy’s daughter had been softly crying and quietly apologized.  The room was so quiet, except for the sound of my pen scratching senselessly across the pages of my notebook. And then, Nancy said, “Allison, don’t apologize.  Your crying is perfectly normal.  Of course you’re upset.  I’m the weird one. I’m so detached.”

And with that, despite my heartache, I laughed – as did Nancy – as we had laughed together so many times before when sharing the sorrows and joys of our lives. Allison’s tears were soon mixed with laughter (Nancy’s laugh was one of the most infectious on the planet). I said, “Thanks for sharing that.  I am so glad you noticed your detachment. I thought it was just me.”

It was at that moment, I got it.  She was getting ready to depart – and looking towards her next life, in “the undiscover’d country.”  How like Nancy to help me see what I did not want to see.

For years, Nancy and I had talked as only good friends do as we “fast-walked” the Chicago lakefront path, often meeting before dawn to fit the walk into our hectic schedules.  But now, Nancy embarked on a journey that only she could take, with her family and friends at her side, but yet, alone, all by herself.

 I hated that she was alone.

 Nancy was the friend in the past 10 years that often helped me whenever I felt most alone.  She listened, supported and laughed, no matter what. Despite my relocation 1300 miles away, we i-chatted most days.  Often, she greeted me as soon as I opened my laptop in the morning.

I hated that Nancy was leaving.

Like Mary Magdalene, who clung to the earthly Jesus, I wanted to hold onto Nancy.  She knew this about me.  And even as she suffered through the final stages of cancer, she tried to help me let her go.  Slowly and lovingly.

I last saw Nancy and hugged her a few days before Christmas.  She died 3 weeks later.  On her terms.  And I grieve.  Every day.

 I realized at Nancy’s memorial service how much trouble I was having letting her go, despite her work to help me in my stubborn quest to keep her immortal. I fled the service quickly, consumed by grief, and I continue to struggle with the swiftness of her death (barely 6 months after diagnosis).  I watched cancer, that evil beast of a disease, ravage her body, once the epitome of strength and endurance. My yoga teacher, my shiatsu specialist, the woman who did 100 things a day could no longer sit up for more than a few minutes without being out of breath. But cancer never took away her wisdom, her beauty, her sense of humor, her love, her kindness, her empathy.  So selfishly, I wanted her to stay.  Despite her suffering.  Some friend.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?

 I know I must help clear the path for Nancy’s spirit to “move on” – these are the instructions I remember from the memorial service.  And I panic every once in awhile that I am hurting her by not clearing the path properly.  I’m not experienced in this death business.  Honestly?  I hate leaving places once I am having a good time.  Nancy and I used to joke and laugh about this difference between us – we would be out at a gathering or watching our boys play baseball together, and I would linger at the end, hugging everyone goodbye (sometimes twice).  And I would look to hug Nancy goodbye and she was long gone…she always said she knew when it was time to leave and that drawn-out goodbyes were not her style.  Clearly.

A dear friend, and widow, who despite her own grief, has gently reminded me that the souls that leave earth still visit us.  And though I sometimes claim to be an unbeliever in the spirit life (like Hamlet), most of me believes that we are watched over by those that have gone before us.  And so, every morning at my workout, when I clasp my hands together in a yoga pose and gaze over my left shoulder, I say softly, “good morning, Nancy.”  And sometimes her laugh enters my ears and I see her briefly smiling before me, surrounded by blue, healing light.

 And every day, I work to sweep the path for her, always wondering if I will get any better at this, death by death.

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The Many Shades of Appreciation

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s the week when teachers get catered lunch and are brought balloons and homemade cards by their students. The week rife with platitudes like: “I touch the future, I teach.” And, “I teach, what’s your superpower?”

It’s not that I dislike those phrases or want to take away from the hard work we do everyday, but it’s just those phrases don’t really capture the day to day monotony and ordinary-ness that it is to be a teacher. Most days I am much less aware of my permanent impact on the future, and much more aware of how my teacher training did very little in the way of preparing me for how to handle a student who leaves the room Jerry Maguire style, pointing at each of us in the room and calling, “You’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek.”

Or reflecting on how I never really figured out the right response on my first day of teaching to my seventh grade student, who looked me up and down at 2:45pm when school was finally dismissing (after an excruciating six hours)  and said, “Nice ass.”

And I’m not really thinking about my “superpower” when I am screaming at my students because the fifth stupid pencil sharpener has fallen to the floor, scattering dusty lead and wood chip shavings all over the floor, and five boys have rushed the broom in an effort to be helpful and are now arguing over who is the sweeper for the week. The answer is almost always none of them.

What I do as a teacher definitely matters. But I don’t generally get to see the impact of what I do.

However, there’s a very good chance that this will be my last year in the classroom, at least for awhile, and those sorts of monumental changes and decisions leave me reflective, ruminating on what has been and thoughtful about my legacy. These sorts of goodbyes have a way of crystalizing moments as they happen, recognizing that they may be the last of their kind.

Which is how I felt the moment on Wednesday when Lenaeya walked into my room before school and asked if she could tell me something she hadn’t told anyone.

I closed my computer, looked her in the eye, and said, “Of course. What’s going on, Lenaeya?”

“My dad is in jail. He just got sent to jail.” Her eyes were sad, vulnerability evident in her voice.

I asked her what happened, what details she knew. She didn’t know much. Just that her summer plans to stay with her father had been cancelled. After only five minutes of talking she was already late for class. (Schedules do tend to get in the way of the important things in life.) So I asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me so she could talk more and also write her dad a letter.

At lunch I pulled out the notecards I keep handy for emergencies such as this one and took out the special inky pens I keep sacred and hidden and let her write her feelings and thoughts for her dad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my shared lunch with my ten year old friend, fully engaged in her concerns about her father, her classmates, her friendships. I helped her spell the words she didn’t know and we sealed the envelope with the message for her dad.

Two days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his face, wailing at the top of his lungs. We both turned to him as he crossed the room and flung himself into my arms. I asked him what was wrong and he just shook his head. Meanwhile Lanaeya, ever ready in crisis, left to the bathroom to get him some tissue.

While Lanaeya was gone, Alex stood crying. I was finishing some paperwork I needed to get done when he sobbed, “My dad is going back to jail!” The pain in my eyes must have been evident because when I closed my computer (which seems to always be open) and turned to him to say I was sorry, he broke down all over again. While helping him dry his face with the tissues Lanaeya had brought back, I mentioned that he didn’t have to talk to her, but he might want to share what he was going through with Lanaeya because she had been dealing with similar things.

At first he shook his head no, but then stopped and said quietly, “My dad is going to jail.”

Without missing a beat, Lanaeya said, “My dad is in jail, too. Here Alex, do you want to write him a letter? That’s what I do when I’m feeling sad.” Then she took out some extra note cards from our lunch and wrote while he dictated a letter to his father. They talked together about what it felt like to have a father in jail. And I became completely unnecessary, getting out of their way, as a good teacher does.

And that’s the thing about teaching. Most days are just days, like every other. But then the platitude becomes real, the hackneyed phrase shows up in your classroom in the form of a girl extending kindness to a young boy. Every once in awhile a lesson sticks. And if you’re lucky, it’s an important one. And if you’re really lucky, it happens enough to keep you teaching even when the air conditioner is broken in your classroom and the sewage system has backed up, necessitating bag lunches for a week. (Yes, these things have actually happened.)

After Alex finished making his card for his father, I said, “I know this is a really hard time, Alex, but sometimes it helps me to know that even when I’m going through hard times I am not alone.”

“Yeah, like I have my brother and my mom,” Alex agreed.

“And you have Lanaeya and me,” I added.

“Are you my friend, Lanaeya?” Alex asked, turning shyly to her.

“Yes, Alex, I’m your friend,” she said. She grabbed his hand and walked him back to class.

Being witness to these moments doesn’t make me a superhero. But these moments are what I love most about teaching, what I will miss most when I leave.

And maybe sometimes I do have the privilege to touch the future.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

The Brutal Honesty of a Photograph

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My dad recently posted some photos from our family’s time together at Easter. They are beautiful. They all show our smiling, happy faces, many surrounded by the lush and rich foliage from the nature conservatory we visited. I loved them all.

All except one. There was one I didn’t love. It was the one of my dad, my son, and me. Actually, it was the only one of me. And let me be clear, my dad and my son look great. But I look like a total bummer.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Like, the intensive sleep deficit my husband and I were rocking, due to our choice to drive through the night to get to my family’s house. We got there in record time, without the requisite hourly stops made when my son is awake. We also got there at three in the morning, and two weeks later I think it is safe to say we haven’t fully made up the sleep gap.

Also, my family has this thing about using local and organic and natural (the real natural, not the natural stamped onto Cheetos so you can fool yourself into thinking you’re being healthy) products. I am in favor of this completely. Except when it comes to shampoo. Natural shampoo is the equivalent of rubbing Aquaphor by the handfuls into my fine and oily-prone hair. So besides the bags under my eyes, my hair looks like an Italian mobster’s toupee.

But the biggest bummer of all, perhaps, is the fact that the picture is breathtakingly honest. That’s pretty much what I look like these days. Even without long distant late night drives and lotion shampoo, I generally have bags under my eyes and greasy, sloppy hair. This is what my life has become.

When I saw the picture I started down a shame spiral. How in the world had I become one of those women? You know the ones. They find a guy, settle down, and let themselves go. Also, everyone else looks put together in the photographs. Why couldn’t I at least have brushed my hair? Was that sweatshirt really necessary? Why so baggy and dirty? Is my face always so splotchy? Oy vey. You get the idea.

I started making resolutions about what I wouldn’t eat and what I would buy to make my hair shiny. I thought about the manicures and pedicures and hair cuts and wardrobes necessary to return me to my pre-baby, pre-“letting myself go” glory. I even wrote a full ending to this blog about taking care of myself and prioritizing mommy’s needs. Which I think is important.

But the more I have thought about it, the more I have been remembering the day. The day that the photo was taken.

That day, after months of waiting, I woke up in my parents’ house and got to have breakfast with my dad. I watched my son play with his cousins. I had lunch with my mom. My dad and I took the dogs to the dog park and met really enthusiastic dog owners. (Are there any other kind?)

Then we went to the conservatory and looked at the flowers. A hush fell over my son the moment his stroller entered the fern room. He was mesmerized by the plants, often close enough to rip off chunks and immediately eat them. We took the mandatory family photos by the fountain with the naked girl and my mom got her grandma/grandson snapshot. We breathed deep the rich, oxygenated air, filling up on the green we’ve been missing for the past six months.

We went home and twelve of us squeezed around a table growing too small in a kitchen growing too small to hold the abundance of new members, married and birthed in over the past three years. While eating bowls of lentil soup we laughed until we couldn’t breathe. Because that’s what my family does. Then we played games and laughed some more. And ate some more, of course, because that’s also what my family does.

All of this I accomplished with greasy hair and baggy, out of date clothes. All of this, with the food stains and the glasses that are askew from being grabbed by my curious son too many times. All of this with the fatigue that is my familiar blanket. All of this.

I want so badly to be the person who can do it all. I want to have the career. And I do. I want the perfect house. And I (mostly) do. I have the husband and the kid, the car and the memberships. But I want to do it all with nice nails, long hair that wasn’t poorly cut during a disastrous Groupon mistake. Oh, and clean, trendy clothes. Maybe even a little make-up.

And those are things that I feel like I could have if I just tried a little bit harder. If I just bought the right cream or took the time to blow dry my hair.

But remembering that day makes me feel foolish.

Could I spend more time on my hair? Of course. Will I ever? Probably not. Because frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn. Or at least, not enough of a damn. There’s just too many other things that I care about too much more than whether or not my hair is washed with Vaseline, or if it is washed with Aveda.

Hear me out, I’m still going to buy the Aveda shampoo, mind you, next time I go to the salon (which should be soon because honestly, the Groupon hair disaster is still haunting me). I still like to pretend that there will come a day when I will buy the magic soap that will transform my skin in a single use. Or the super shampoo that will erase the need for blow drying, styling, and productifying. (I told you, I don’t do those things. I don’t even know the appropriate words for them.)

But in case I never do, and because I know I won’t (at least for not any meaningful length of time), I have to remind myself that a picture is just a picture. Sure, it will scroll across the computer screen at my parents’ home forever and ever amen. But it is just a picture.

And I choose the moment and memory. Even with the greasy hair.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel