First Words

William: “Mommy, what do you think were the first words ever said?”

Mommy: “Oh, gosh, I don’t know. The first words God said in the Bible were ‘let there be light.’ Maybe that’s it.”

William: “So the first word was ‘let.'”

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“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled.”

–Ray Bradbury

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Aaron likes to remind me that when we first met at a college orientation, I was wearing my hair in a ponytail wrapped in a ribbon printed with yellow rubber duckies. Twenty years later, I’m getting socks for Christmas from a colleague that say, “Less bitching. More feminism.” When I first had Clara, a friend with older children told me the only thing I could count on was change. Her words have stayed with me through more than just colic and teething and sleepless nights.

Against the odds, I have found delight in teaching English as a second language at 5:30 a.m. in our basement. I love to hear my students reach for words to describe a thought and then somehow capture it best when they’re in that space between both languages.

When I teach adults–the pharmacists, engineers, pregnant mothers, biology majors, we work on a prescribed lesson for 45 minutes. A week ago, Anna and I were discussing the lesson called “Hopeless Romantics.” The lesson told us that a “hopeless romantic” is a person who gets very upset when they learn a couple got divorced. Checking her vocabulary comprehension, I ask if she knows the word “divorce.” She says, “Yes, it’s when your love is broken,” and, I thought, yes, that’s probably it exactly.

Later that week, I worked with a terribly misanthropic but oddly charming eight-year-old. The lesson on nature instructed us to draw a sun and beautiful flower on our shared screen. I drew some lovely pink and purple petals on a green stem and asked if she could see my beautiful flower. She promptly clicked the black marker and shrilly reprimanded, “That is NOT a beautiful flower!”. She proceeded to scribble through my simple-minded daisy. I tried all the tricks, loading pictures of cute bunnies that were NOT cute and sweet puppies that were NOT sweet. Finally, when I said, “Bye, Linda, have a notgreat day!,” she cracked a smile.

Often at the end of these lessons, we sit smiling and waving  over our webcams for an awkward thirty to forty seconds. I want to be sure they know our time is up and I’m not leaving the lesson without reason, and they earnestly want to be sure there’s nothing left they need to do. We recite multiple times, “Bye! See you next time!” I’ll load a cartoon dog that barks, “Great job in English today!”. Sometimes it goes really well and a student might say, “I feel really warm in this class” or we sit and draw hearts with faces on our white screen, full and happy from a nice time and trying to smile our way into good-bye. Yesterday, Summy was repeating “thank you, my teacher” and this ongoing exchange of smiles, where there are never enough words for the feelings, led her to say, “Bye! Love you!.” And to this woman across the world I’ve known for less than an hour, I say, “Yes, love you, too!”

There’s a nice line in Colson Whitehead’s novel Nickel Boys when Elwood hears MLK give a speech. Elwood says when he heard that speech about the power of love and nonviolence, he felt “closer to himself.” As things change, we drift further or closer to where we thought we would be when we showed up to college orientation in a ponytail and hair ribbons. The “where do you see yourself in five years” question is a pervasive one. It seems a special human burden that our minds slip easily back to moments that have passed and into those we hope will come, that we neglect the ones we’re in right now. I’m finding that the more I let myself be where I am, the closer I get to who I want to be. The more I touch life rather than strangle it, the more life can breathe. I think of William and his crazy questions and that maybe the first word for any new cosmic act of creation, new day, or new moment is just “let.”

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Something Else Honest

In this board for introductions, please tell us a little about yourself.

Student: “The people I love make me happy.”

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The best and worst part about teaching online classes is that you don’t remember what your students say. Their inspirations and their grievances don’t stick. You don’t carry their faces around with you to the grocery store, to home, to the gym like you do when you see them everyday in a high school English class.

But I haven’t stopped thinking about what should have been a passing remark in a passing discussion board assignment for a passing online composition course.

I think about people who love someone who doesn’t make them happy or about people who are made happy by someone they don’t really love.  And, with the house in Florida that won’t sell and the house in Minnesota that barely has room for a toilet, I think at least the really complicated parts of life are still simple. There are a lot of–what was it Rumsfeld said?–known unknowns: jobs, homes, 15 below 0 in the winter. But if I think on it for five minutes, I am nearly brought to tears by what it must mean in the south to be blessed–these guys make me feel happy, loved, and necessary. If I wake up and decide on any given day I want to make Clara, William, and Aaron happy, I will know how to do that. Of all life’s mysteries, expenses, and disappointments, it’s no small thing when love isn’t one of them.

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Something Honest

“You may ask yourself, where does that highway go?”–Talking Heads

“Why am I always going anywhere, instead of somewhere?”–Mary Oliver

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Winona is an island city gridded neatly into numbered streets with lots of right angles. Instead of traffic lights, it has a confusing system of stop signs.  There are two-way, three-way, four-way, and five-way stops, and when we all arrive together, I’m never quite sure if it’s my turn.

In a past life, when we were stopped together to stare at the same sign, I’d get my foot on the gas in a hurry and wave as if to say “Thank you, it’s my turn.” But in Winona, it is customary to wave as if to say, “Please, you first.”

At this moment, which I suspect is as brief as the time it takes to move my foot from the brakes to the gas, I’m learning how to say “you first.”

When Aaron and I are at church or a gathering with his colleagues, we both feel the sharp-edged question coming before it jabs us in the gut: “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. What do you do in Winona?” Everywhere we go, people don’t catch my name. After church in the fellowship hall, the older husbands of the retired nurses have a way of standing up to refill their coffee when I join the conversation. I have given myself literal pep talks in preparation for the question “what is it you do” before we are off to meet new people: “Tell them you work from home and say it like you love it!”

This is what I do: I go down to our unfinished basement to find an ethernet cord and teach English to little kids in China with teacher-friendly names like “Apple Wang, Queenie Yu, LOUISE SHEN, Peter Pan, and Yo Yo Huang.” Then I teach composition to working adults in Alaska. On Tuesdays, I teach yoga to the sparky 7:00 a.m. crew at the YMCA.  I am inspired by the little seven-year-olds in Shanghai who go to school, do their homework, and take English class after dinner but before going to bed; by Marla in Homer, AK, who’s a single mom with four kids and taking a writing prep class at age 47; by Tim, a self-declared felon who finds a way to share in every discussion board that he’s been clean for three years because damn right he’s proud; and by Sue who at 82 still does pigeon pose with the best of them.

When Aaron saw my “office” in the basement, he cried husband tears. He said he wasn’t sure if it was because he loved me or felt sorry for me. Down in the office, I am uniformed for iTutorGroup in a bright red turtle neck, as bright as a stop sign. And here’s what I see at this cross-section: I see my daughter who almost pulses with potential and her strange love of math. I see William actually glow with curiosity. I help Clara turn improper fractions into mixed numbers and decompose angles; I read with William for over a half-hour without checking my phone. I see my husband realizing a dream.

There was a time when I had nothing to spare, nothing to give. I left at 6:00 a.m., came home just after 6:30 p.m., and spent the weekends on homework for ed leadership coursework. Back then, it was always my turn. Our lives revolved around my schedule.

For now, I’m seeing more than I am seen, hearing more than I am heard. For years, I joked about needing to learn how to say “no.” Now, I’m learning how to say “yes” again.  It’s hard to keep your foot on the brake–much harder than pressing on the gas, but it’s easier when you’ve seen your rush to get somewhere (or worse, anywhere) cut off the people you love. And I’ve been on the road long enough to understand there’s a difference between a stop sign and a dead end. 

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Bluffing

“On a bluff, the vegetation is often shallowly rooted in poor soil and can be easily disturbed.” –National Geographic

In Alaska, everything was the extreme version of itself. The mountains were really mountainous, the cold was very cold, the humans superlatively human. It was a place for people who liked to live on the edge of themselves. It was not always for me. I didn’t know it until we got to Minnesota, but in the same way some people are “beach people” or others prefer an open field, I like bluffs. I like that they are paradoxically formed both by erosion and crashing waves. They roll where mountains jag. You don’t have to buy special boots or be documentary material to climb them. You can be seven-years-old and get to the top.

 

At the top and on the climb, I thought about my question. My guess is everybody has at least one question that won’t leave them alone. Mine is “will there be something for me to do”–a something to do that might become a something to be. I’m reading books with subtitles like “the power of not knowing” and “how non-conformists ruled the world,” and these books are full of anecdotes describing people who have done something large and lasting with their lives. While I often feel faced with too many questions, they seem pressed to choose between too many answers. It’s as though at some point, they had to break their own hearts and say “no” or “yes” to something the rest of us are afraid to talk to.

Even my junk mail thinks I should have something to do, with its “5 workwear essentials” and “boss lady wardrobe deals.” I am advised in yoga to “breathe out work toxins” that I don’t have. But Aaron says, “wait.” He says let me give you what you gave me–time to, like Bruce always says, “Talk about a dream. Try to make it real.” In response, I apply for the first education-related job I can find. In the wake of its second interview, I am afraid of both getting and not getting the offer. The position is a stretch, with a long list of software experience requirements, and when asked about my qualifications, I channeled my newest geographical crush and did the only reasonable thing: bluff. I can YouTube Power Bi and SPSS later.

Besides the fact that I want things–a house where the bathroom isn’t part of the dining room, a boat to ride the Mississippi, I am also more comfortable with answer the noun than answer the verb. Strunk and White’s “never use two words where one will do” has become a life’s work. When asked “what do you do,” why answer “I am learning to teach yoga to help people with joint and muscular issues” or, even worse, “I’m writing a book” when I can say “I’m a teacher” or an “assistant director of assessment.” Nouns are clean, easy, and fit comfortably on a business card. Verbs are infinite.

My dilemma is that when asked “what will you do,” I have always had to bluff to get the latest job looking me in the eyes, asking me to be its noun:

“Do you have experience working with struggling readers?” (2007 interview question, first job after M.A. in English.)

“Oh, yes, that was a strong consideration in my thesis on disability criticism in the southern grotesque.” (It’s not always a phonetic struggle? Maybe?).

When you’re sitting on your bluff, you might be happy, even fulfilled at moments, but your soil isn’t necessarily rich. You learn to be permeable, to keep your soil sandy and silty with room to let a lot of things drain in and out. You feel the bluff grow with every slamming wave or every gradual loss of eroded surface material.   It can happen so quickly or so slowly that sometimes you’re not sure how you got there–if you ever decided that’s where you want to be.

But here’s the truth–decisions are a luxury, a rarity even among the middle class. Bills don’t pay themselves, and a detailed job description is a challenge I’ve often been very pleased to accept. If they offer me the job, I’ll be grateful and look forward to working hard, being in a professional community, and getting on realtor.com. If they don’t, then I’ll be glad for a husband who never says “now” and a question that’s as patient as it is persistent.

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Coming to Winona

A couple months ago, we convinced William he wanted to go to basketball camp. He reported daily what he learned: if you drop the ball, you have to run five laps; if you dribble with your left hand, you have to do five push-ups. Now when he taunts his sister or doesn’t say “excuse me” after burping at the dinner table, I threaten to send him to basketball camp.

Then when we moved to Winona, William suddenly knew what a chest pass was. Unpacking boxes together in the basement, he regaled me with numerous ways to execute the full-court press and zone defense. Now, he cascades through the neighborhood like his second home was the rec park:

 

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We spend lazy afternoons stalking the high school marching band on our bikes as they parade around the neighborhood:

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Just as unfathomable, Aaron is asked in less than a week to join a jazz combo, the great ask we have been anticipating for over eight years. Every where I look there are natural brunettes and full-coverage khaki shorts. Every where I look there is not Zoom Tan, vaping paraphernalia apparently designed to smoke opium,  plastic straws, or cosmetic surgery billboards. Aaron and I exchanged these texts a couple days ago:

“I’m in a coffee shop (locally owned!) and there’s a man reading a chapter book to his three-year-old daughter.”

“I’m at the pool and the high-school lifeguard just told a middle-schooler not to curse at his younger brother.”

The college cross-country kids run around the lake with shirts that read “River. Donuts. Bluffs. I love Winona.” They glow from their lack of irony.

So imagine my delayed horror when I was flicked off in the intersection yesterday.  I felt like Prince Akeem in Coming to America as I inadvertently cut off a car full of kids (probably from Wisconsin) with lots of obscure band names on bumper stickers. I was gently driving through town–soaking in all the majestic basilica, and the ones piled in the back seat turn around to look at me. I wave vigorously. These Winonans! So friendly! Then the driver sticks his hand out the window, and the Minnesota common loon would be aghast at how rudely his bird was flying. I truly didn’t know what was happening. I just kept smiling and waving with my wide Eddie Murphy grin: “Yeah, Winona, you’re #1!” Once I realized he was unhappy with me, I sat, stung in the locally-owned coffee shop parking lot, for a few minutes to recount whether he was driving with Minnesota plates. 

(Later that day, I saw a truck at the lake park with a sticker that read “diesel fumes make me horny,” which I deliberately misread as “diesel fumes make good honey,” you know, because there are so many locally-owned farmer’s markets, and he must use a special fuel to cultivate his home grown bee colony.)

Yet, we continue to be charmed. Here are some pictures from our afternoon in La Crosse:

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Moving Parts

Of all the things the internet has stolen from me, what I miss the most are words. It can keep “cookies” and “bugs,” but some others are worth preserving. Since I was a naive 16-year-old waiting for AOL to dial up, I have come to think of connection as something that is always about to be lost–“we’ve got a bad connection,” “I’ll try to call when we have a better connection.” Weeks ago, on the precipice of a cross-continental move from the places and people I have loved, I thought about how desperately I didn’t want to lose connection. When it’s not co-opting words, the internet is, of course, offering advice: “To maintain strong connectivity, a clear transmission channel is required.”

Let the transmitting begin.

Part 1: Connached (kuh-nAtcht)

A few months ago, William proclaimed, “I can’t move it. It’s too connached.”  Connached, the Branjolina-esque portmanteau of “connected” and “attached,” has come to describe for us something that won’t let you go. It’s stronger than connection but not as consuming as attachment.

Like a ghost limb, Tallahassee and Wakulla’s rhythms are still moving with me. Around noon on Sunday, I hear William and Clara’s little voices give the charge at church: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” I mentally prepare for the first back-to-school faculty meeting. I knock things over on my bed stand to answer a work text.

But I believe Simone Weil when she says that God has created us so that the present is all we have. She explains that the most effective part of our will is not found in effort, which is directed at the future, but in consent, in the word “yes.” Though wrestling through some connachment issues, I am saying “yes” to Winona and finding here that the present moment has a lot to give.

There was no way to properly visualize how beautiful a Midwestern island city would be, to always be five minutes away from either lake or river. We walked down to East Lake, as pristine as vacation, and then crossed the street to discover we get a West Lake, too.

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At some point, we decided it best to let William in on the traditional phrasing of certain ideas so he could make a choice. On the drive from Florida to Minnesota, somewhere in Kentucky, I overheard William saying “yes” to the present: “Goodbye, Connached. I will miss you, but I’m going to first grade at a new school now.” In the strangely prophetic way kids can phrase things, he tells me he doesn’t want to be attached so instead, he’ll stay connected.

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Part 2: Moments

“Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.”

–Leigh Hunt

I like this little sing-song poem because, without abstraction, it states what I’ve long suspected about life–we are defined by moments rather than definitions. We become what other people do, give, and say to us. There are certain days, nights, conversations, even looks from the last few years that march along with me:

The day my dad got out the old train set and put it together with William and Clara

The jean skirt from Martha that I wore on my first Winona Saturday

Socks from Alena, the ring from Charlee

Emily’s treehouse

Sarah’s home, full of faces from our church to say a proper goodbye

Singing loudly to “Patches” on the ride back from deep sea fishing.

In this time of job interviews and shiftless days, I pull purpose and direction from who I am and have been to other people–their mom; his wife; their daughter; her sister; her daughter-in-law; their assistant principal.

Here’s what open days and opened boxes look like while you live without internet for a couple weeks. William and Clara built Santa’s sleigh out of empty packing materials and cast themselves as Santa and Rudolph, respectively. Looks like someone is getting pretzels for Christmas.

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Part III: Neighbors

When we pulled up to the home we’ll rent for a year, our neighbor was shouting at his dog to “get the hell in the house.” Big, bald, and brassy with a heavy northeastern accent, he was either shouting or just using his voice. I pinned him as someone I’d have to keep the kids quiet around. But, the next morning he saw us on the front porch and used his voice to offer us donuts for breakfast. In the evening, his wife Sherry brought over a pie made with apples from the nearby orchard and introduced her husband as Clayton.

I’m sure Sherry and Clayton have heard us flush the toilet. Our house is about four feet away from theirs. The homes here are turn-of-the-century and beautiful, but they’re jigsawed tightly into this island city as if, even in 1902, the urban planners decided good fences only mean you don’t always have to say good morning.

We’ve been invited to trivia night at the local brewery, treated to tater tot pizza by a colleague who brews beer in his basement, and taken out for veggie manoush at a coffee shop named for the blue herons that fly over the city. I want to tweet Donald Trump and let him know I found it–America is great again. They deliver your mail to the box on your front door, and when you’re picking up baking soda at the Kwik Trip for the cookies you’re making, they ask if you got fuel because, when America is great, you pump then pay.  The only political sign I’ve seen in anyone’s yard says “Love everyone. No exceptions.”

Winona is modestly populated at 25,000, but stacked on top of each other in homes that age well, they’ve apparently declared a collective “we may as well do this together.” Let’s build a beautiful aquatic center to celebrate two months of summer.

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Let’s buy our paperbacks from Lynn’s store and throw a performance shell on any piece of green space we can find. The lakes are circled by paved trails for sixty-year-old men and me to go roller-blading, them with hockey sticks from the good ole days and me with my questionable braking system. We hear there’s a group of Winonans who carry large shovels in their trucks so they’re always ready to help drivers stuck in a snow embankment. Last night we joked because the police blotter often reports “dog at large” or “we think we may have seen this one kid smoking a cigarette in a public space.”

There will be struggles (or maybe worse, there won’t be any at all), there has already been loneliness, but for now, it appears we have moved to a place where people are neighborly, at ease with themselves and each other.

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Reasons

This little girl was at overnight camp for the first time,

Clara at Camp

and on the way there, she asked if she could sit in the front so we could talk. She asked, “Mommy, what’s something you don’t understand, but not like something big that nobody understands–like ‘what’s your reason’–but like something small?” I borrowed a line from Spain circa 1425 and told her I didn’t understand how the earth could be round when every time I’m on a highway, it feels like I’m driving on a straight line.

But her question reminded me of May 10th. Aaron had left to teach Swing Machine, and Clara, William and I were finishing dinner. Clara had missed some questions on a math test, and when she was visibly upset, a couple kids told her she was, as of 2017, one of the worst things you can be in second grade: sensitive.  Sensitivity is the second grade version of stagnation; it means you aren’t growing up, you aren’t moving forward, which will send any reflective 8-year-old into an existential crisis.

Clara says, “I’m not sure I have a reason. I’m not sure I have a purpose.”

I am unsuccessfully working my way through this conversation and so took a break to regroup and brush my teeth. I’m brushing and there is a loud knock on the door that only strangers use.

An 8:00 p.m. knock at our house is not a neighbor’s son who wants to play a few more minutes before bedtime. It’s not an older neighbor with arthritis who needs help opening a jar. It’s concerning.

I’m spitting out toothpaste and William has run to the kitchen door, the door for friends, and opened it wide. I’m scrambling, trying to get the man’s attention through the windows on my way to the kitchen.

Clara beats me there and has her arms around William’s neck. The man is aggressively asking ,”Where’s your mom?”. I am now yelling, “Hello! I’m coming!” from the house, nearly there.

I walk into the kitchen and the man is frantic. He is repeating, “He can’t do that. He can’t just open the door like that.” He is holding a brand new, bright green rake and wearing a shirt that says “Be Blessed” in red bubbly letters. He’s struggling to get his words out. He asks if he can rake our yard now that the sun has gone down. I’m scared; I want him to hear me say the words “father” and “husband.” I tell him, “no, it’s okay, my husband likes to take care of the yard on the weekends,” which is a truth.

He turns to leave, and through my sweep of relief, I hear Clara call out, “Thank you for offering.” She doesn’t fully understand the expectation of economics. She sees a nice man leaving our front porch.

He turns back and says, “She’s going to be a very good girl” and walks out. Her face fills with a smile.

We close the door. For a moment, I feel what he felt. I think about what it must be like to never be told “thank you.” Seeing the moment for what it was rather than what it could have been, I cup her sweet, soft cheeks in my hands and tell her, “That’s your reason, that’s your purpose.” She beams.

As we go to bed, Clara is telling me about the boys she likes as boyfriends and I am curled up on the bottom bunk with William for story time and prayers. After we recite “Our Fathers who are in heaven, hailed be tie name”, I hear Clara whisper, “Thank you for giving me my reason.” And I am thankful that she helps me understand mine.

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