“You may ask yourself, where does that highway go?”–Talking Heads
“Why am I always going anywhere, instead of somewhere?”–Mary Oliver
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.