Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do

I am right smack in the middle of my thirtieth year. Which is to say I’m 29. Which is to say my legs look different, somehow, around the knees. Which is to say I paint my nails bold colors and wear sensible shoes. Which is to say I’ve made some decisions.

I began teaching when I was 22. I was pregnant. I needed a job. My husband at the time was cutting grass. We needed health insurance that would not consider pregnancy a “pre-existing condition.” I was an emergency hire and thankful.

Cut to eight years later. I’ve been writing off and on throughout my teaching career. What brought me to teaching was the writing, the stories, the humanity. I am no hero–I’ve never had any grand notions of sacrificing myself for students who need saving. And yet. There are times when what we do within these four cinder-block walls drives a child to put words on a page that move me to tears. Visceral. Language you can smell, language you can walk around inside of.

I’ve always been driven by story. Always. When I was a little girl, I lived in my grandmother’s stories. She told beautiful stories about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, born so small you could put a tea cup over their heads, slept side-by-side with a heated brick between them, tucked into my great-grandmother’s dresser drawer in the dead of a Tennessee winter. I listened to sermons for the stories that started them. I watched my father tell stories with his hands, loud-laughing at his own words to patients, to relatives, to the dinner table, who laughed along with him. My whole life.

In many ways, quitting teaching and starting a whole new career feels a lot like getting divorced. It’s a loss, but there’s a sense of rightness about it. There’s things I’ll miss, sure. My colleagues, my students, people. I’ll miss the people. It’s hard to miss any institution.

There was this moment. Right after my ex-husband moved out. When I found myself at home alone on, say, a Tuesday. And it was so peaceful. I vacuumed. The sun was pouring through the leaves beyond my windows. Choices: a cup of coffee, a load of laundry, a phone call.

In moments like this, I can do with my life what writers do with words to a page: world building, shaping a story, making & learning characters. In order to do this, you have to know what you want. It should come as no surprise that what I want is a life full of people and stories. All kinds of people. All kinds of stories. I want a life full.

Already I’ve been surprised by the places we’ve found stories in our new work. There’s so much beauty in people. In truth. I’ve fallen in love with everything local. I’ve fallen in love with hands that make things, with people who stop living one dream to pursue another, truer one. My favorite stories are the ones where people become successful doing something you never dreamed a person could be successful at. The videos we’ve made in my new life’s work, Room Eleven Media, tell these kinds of stories.

This, my thirtieth year, is the year of jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down. It’s a year of risk, a year of choice.

I have ten weeks left of teaching. A balancing act. I’m finding myself loving my students so much. I’m loving my colleagues for the coffee mugs they drink from, for their words of encouragement, for their voices coming through my wall, “You can do this. You can. Try. Come on.”

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The Amber Moment

© 2011 David Parker

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” [Kurt Vonnegut]

I’ve discovered that I am most present with what is not here. I am the kind of person who longs for. Who savors. Who stockpiles hotel keys, t-shirts left behind. Who, as a child, licked the bowl, the spoon, the bottom of the just-cooled skillet my grandmother used to make her chocolate icing. Who saves letters not for the words they contain but for the handwriting, for the hands that brushed the page.

I linger. I want everything, but especially this, to last. Preservation, proof, posterity: these are the things I write for.

I spent my teenage years and my early twenties fascinated by home videos and pictures of myself as a child. I seemed so quiet and so calm–not words I’d use to describe myself now. My favorite album was the one that contained images from the first weeks of my life–Mom in the hospital bed holding me with (strangely) a clown behind her, Dad with his socks pulled up balancing me on one arm (I was so small my head fit into the palm of his hand and he’d hold me out like you might hold a crystal ball), my granddaddy so young his hair was dark. Ruthie, too, is captivated by the video of her first days. We’re enthralled, I think, by the love we see our baby-selves receive. Now that I’m a parent, I know that as we grow, that love doesn’t diminish, but it does become less apparent as we become less dependent. And so maybe, what drives us back to those first days is a longing for something we’re not so sure about, a longing for what we miss.

Every time Ruthie leaves for the weekend, she comes home someone else. More precocious, taller with hair on her legs, smelling like grass and dirt, saying things like “Let’s just not talk about that” when we begin to disagree. She disagrees. Unafraid of worms, lizards, frogs, she fears apocalyptic things like earthquakes, floods, jellyfish in the bathtub. She tells secrets, has secrets, makes up stories for the books she can’t read yet. And every night I regret the words I failed to put on the page to preserve the person she was today, the questions she asked: Are we human?

And in 20 years, in a month, five days, tomorrow, I will miss this. Through my doorway, Ruthie strolls past eating cheese with her stuffed elephant. Lately, she has decided that it’s best to fall asleep holding hands with me. On the way to the grocery store the other day, she said she wished there was no gravity so we could float everywhere. I said I felt like floating takes too long–sometimes I want to go FAST. She thought for a moment and then decided, “Okay. I wish for gravity. But I also wish for wings.” And it occurred to me that wings are kind of a celebration of gravity–without gravity, flying isn’t special. The past and the present, living and writing, have the same kind of relationship to me–the one celebrating the other.

Spinning Yarn

© 2011 David Parker

Last night I had a dream that I was a ball of yarn spun out, connecting bright spots shining in a kind of tangled web. Until all that was left was me holding one end of the string. And you holding the other all wrapped up like prey. And between us all of the projects and dreams and people that were too shiny to say no to, that I loved too fiercely not to wrap myself up in. And all I did in this dream was stand there looking out across this messy shaking constellation with each point writhing, caught up like little cocoons, little coffins, suspended from me.

With this dream, the residual feeling was weakness. And tenacity. As the ball of yarn spent itself, I could feel the energy leaving, but I dared not let my end go because I knew it was all I had left. In the dream, I would die for letting go. So I just… held on. All of my focus directed to the point where my thumb and index finger pushed against each other to keep that string.

And I woke up today with a resolution to take myself back, gather myself up. It’s a slow process that begins with raw sugar in my coffee. I’ll unbind all of us–me and you and everything else–set us all spinning like slow-motion tops. Time feels thick, but I can re-wind this ball of yarn until it feels dense enough for me to fit into the palm of my hand, to toss into the air. By this afternoon, we’ll all be breathing better.

Three Days

© 2011 David Parker

The truth? I flew to Idaho and back in three days to do a little housekeeping 2,500 miles from home.

There were pugs who jumped on top of tables to lick the cream out of my coffee and a boat that pushed through a thin layer of ice on the surface of the lake. In the middle of the lake was an island. On top of the island was a house with lots of windows full of people who don’t care if anyone sees them throwing rocks. In fact, they encourage you to throw your own rocks, or at least stop carrying them around, but no one casts the first stone. There was music that glittered with the water reflecting mountains dusted with snow. A child entrusted with a knife sat criss-cross-applesauce on the counter to help cut vegetables for dinner. Self reliance. Some kind of pasta with rabbit. A toast to me. To us! A world of plastic sea creatures, a sprawling spiral, on the child’s bedroom floor. Confidence that it is beautiful because she made it. Smiles. Hugs that don’t pull away. Affirmation.

An Invitation: You give away your anger, your only power, and trade it for a new one, a truer one, on the promise of a net that will appear only if you jump. But you know the net is there because of how you began.

Can you remember? When you were just barely a speck, a few cells glued together by your own spirit, glowing and warm inside of your mother’s belly? She doesn’t even know you’re there. But you know. And you are perfect. And your life holds nothing but promise. The universe adores you. You are a beautiful, beloved secret. Your world is a soft place filled with the faint sounds of your mothers laughter and the ins-and-outs of her breath when she’s sleeping. You remember. That’s not a question. You began there. We all have that in common. And your spirit, your cellular glue, has a voice that isn’t afraid because it hasn’t learned fear yet. This is mine. Hello.

In Remembrance of Snow Days

© 2010 David Parker

Holding a cup of coffee in my hands, I’m standing in the hallway to greet the students as they come in. As the girl with red ribbons braided into her hair hops through the door, her blue tu-tu flouncing around her, the warmth of my coffee mug feels like it’s coming from another time and place. The girl announces to the class that she’s dressed in red, white, and blue to celebrate the addition of a new ride at Six Flags called The Dare Devil Dive in the USA section of the park. As she describes the ride, the way it pulls you to the top, stops you, and then sends you hurtling down straight into the ground, I’m thinking that this ride sounds a lot like my re-entry into the classroom after so many snow days. And I’m thinking that my coffee and its heat in my hands is a piece of those snow days lingering the way good food smells linger in the house after I’ve prepared and devoured something especially yummy like grilled cheese with basil and tomato soup.

Belated: Xamp Xmas

Xamp Xmas began as a kind of reclusive, experimental approach to the holidays that grew from my dread of spending the holidays without Ruthie. Without my little buddy, Christmas just felt ridiculous. She spent ten days with her father, and I decided to spend those ten days quietly and without all the bustle and hustle–no presents, no parties, no long trips home, no big family dinners. I allowed my days to be enveloped by a growing entropy that made time pass in strange, unmarked ways. The experience was relaxing, like living in the eye of a storm.

Armed with documentaries I’d been wanting to see and books I’d been meaning to read, Xamp Xmas was a generally cozy experience, though there were parts of it that were hard. Since I would get Ruthie back on the 26th, her dad decided to “do Christmas” a few days early so she’d have time to play with her toys and stuff. So Ruthie called me on December 22 to wish me a Merry Christmas. When Ruthie called on “Christmas morning,” I was up in Atlanta hiding out during the days while David worked. Something about that phone call made me feel sad deep down in my marrow. I hated that I didn’t get to set out her presents, that I didn’t get to wake her up and see that sleepy, swollen excitement leap into her eyes, that I didn’t know until I spoke to her on the phone that Santa was bringing her a guinea pig (which would be a lovely pet for her to keep at her father’s house). I hung up the phone with her and was overwhelmed by the desire to be a part of the holidays. So I jumped in the shower and headed to the MECCA of Christmas: Lenox Mall.

Traffic was a mess. I had to valet park. Ten freaking dollars. Clusters of people were waiting for their cars with their hands full of bags bloated with the “perfect presents.” Inside, the mall was positively vibrating with “Christmas spirit,” which felt manic. I walked from one end of the mall to the other, found a restaurant and had a mojito while I read a book. I felt ridiculous. The mayhem, the bright lights, the noise, the energy all felt so arbitrary. All of these people were fighting to cram in their shopping ahead of time while my baby girl was having her Christmas day NOW. The hype, the energy, the mania–all of it was disorienting.

That night, I picked up David from work and told him about my day–how I’d talked to Ruthie, how she’d gotten a guinea pig, how I’d gone to Lenox Mall, how I’d drunk a mojito next to a woman at the bar who didn’t speak English, how terribly cliche the experience of being a single parent without her child on Christmas had felt. I perked up when he affirmed that indeed, that did sound depressing and suggested we do take out for dinner. So we watched the Banksy film and ate a quiet dinner of Pad Thai, the unopened fortune cookies between us holding some kind of promise that felt warm and comforting to me. My cookie reminded me not to rush into things, his promised wealth and opportunity. A good night.

Christmas Eve, we made white-chocolate-covered pretzels with sprinkles and watched half a dozen movies that weren’t “Christmas” movies, but that were set during the holiday season: Die Hard, Ghostbusters 2, Batman Returns. We walked across the street and had dinner, and declared this a most excellent Christmas Eve. My family was in Colorado skiing, and, though I missed them, I was perfectly content to be sitting next to my favorite guy eating a white truffle chicken salad sandwich and sipping on a “Ruby Slipper” (a drink with rosemary syrup that tastes like Christmas). And herein lies the paradoxical emotional experience of the single parent: that you can miss your kid so completely, so deeply, that it settles like a stone caught in the bottom of your gut; and that you can, at the very same time, enjoy (down to the tips of your toes) the quiet adult time you are granted because of her absence. It’s a complicated, confusing, often enriching experience that makes me truly appreciate both the time I have with her and the time I have to myself.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a dead car battery, which, with the help of AAA, we overcame. We schlepped to David’s parents’ house two hours away for an early Christmas dinner. Their warm house and the mimosas we drank were a relief to me. Our dinner was quietly festive and warm. I had decided not to join my parents and brothers on their trip to Colorado, and, though I didn’t regret my decision, I felt sad when my dad called me that afternoon. He’d decided to call it quits earlier in the day than everyone else, and I felt a pang as I realized that, if I’d been there, I’d be sitting next to him drinking a beer and looking out at the snow and the mountains. I could hear the distance in his voice so many miles away on this, the first Christmas I’d spent away from him in 28 years. The presents my family had shipped to me before they left emphasized that distance–humbled by the brown paper packaging, the lip gloss and old holiday movies my brothers sent me were particularly touching. The simplicity of those gifts–two or three thoughtful items– made me appreciate why we give gifts at all. Because “the perfect gift,” at any time of year, reminds us that we are understood, that the people we love and care most for “get us.”

The thing I loved the most about Xamp Xmas was its balance. It was the perfect mixture of holiday and rest. Rather than being a time marked by obligation and chaos, it was a time rooted in the present and marked by gratitude.

The Calling

[This is the first in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories.]

The day began like every other that summer: I woke up wrestling with nausea and lost. Twice. However, unlike every other day, this one was marked by a job interview with a school board in very rural Alabama. After heaving what was left of my first-trimester stomach lining into the kitchen sink, I wriggled into a butter-yellow pencil skirt and a freshly-starched white button down, grabbed an apple and ran down the three flights of stairs adjoined to our pitiful excise of an apartment building, careful not to look through the spaces between the stairs where the ground so far below made my jaw tingle. Ten minutes later, whizzing down a country road I’d never known, captivated by the landscape of vivid Alabama green blurring by my window, I was already pining for the commute through foggy fall mornings to a school where I would really make a difference.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the hormones, but about halfway into the drive, something about the texture of the apple I’d been eating caused me to pull over and retch on the side of the road beneath a romantic canopy of trees. There was nothing cool to lean against and there was no one I could call. I had no choice but to shamble back into the car, my fresh butter-yellow skirt smeared with red clay, and attempt to collect myself for the interview. Any illusions I’d had of myself exhibiting grace and mental composure I left there, mixed with spit on the side of the road. From this point on, my memory of this day is marked by extreme heat and profuse sweating.

And so it was that I found myself sweating on the front steps of the Chambers County Board of Education. Despite my lack of experience in education beyond my years as a student, I was confident–it was the kind of confident only a young person can feel as it’s the kind of confidence that comes from never having failed at anything significant before and never having endured much of anything challenging (that is of course, if you don’t count breaking the news to my parents that their unwed daughter was going to have a baby). This kind of confidence might also come from having very little to lose.

First impression: This place is a dump. The city of Lafayette reminded me of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Its old, lacy Victorian homes were depressing—they were falling in on themselves, old furniture stacked to the porch ceilings and prickly signs nailed to their trees. NO TRESPASSING. The Board of Education was nestled among those houses like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake on her banquet table. To the right of the Board there was a grassy hill that led up to the high school. As I began to climb the steps, I was very aware of people sitting on their porches across the street. Watching me. I became aware of how bright and clean and pressed my outfit was in comparison with my surroundings. What was I doing here?

The front door felt greasy and, as I pulled it open, seemed to stick the way the soles of my feet do when I’ve just stepped in gum. The air inside felt thick and humid, like walking into an open mouth. The large black woman seated behind the desk to my left directed me to wait in a plastic chair along the wall. More sweating. By this time I’m sure the shirt under my arms was completely transparent. A man with a preacher’s face and a politician’s smile led me to a room where I wrote an essay about what, I can’t remember, but I accomplished it and placed it back in his outstretched hand with the same kind of knowing satisfaction that I’ve always had upon turning in work to my teachers. We went into his office where he conducted an interview alongside the principal from the high school at the top of the hill. Throughout the interview, most of my attention was directed towards the amount of perspiration that was accumulating on my upper lip and how long it had been since I last licked it off. Since I’ve always been able to talk my way into or out of anything, answering questions came naturally.

There were two concepts that have stuck in my mind since that interview: “The Age of Accountability” and “Highly Qualified.” The first came from a question that the principal asked me. She was asking what kinds of things I would do in my classroom since we are now living in the Age of Accountability. I assumed that this had to do with holding students accountable for their work. In the past six years, I’ve discovered that this has more to do with teachers covering their asses than with teaching or learning. THe other term, “Highly Qualified,” turned out to be what I was. Me. The girl with NO background in education and no prior work experience in anything. Apparently, a certain number of courses in English (Literature) made me achieve “Highly Qualified” status as an educator.

So I got the job. And the signing bonus. Signing bonus? Signing bonus. $3,000. Or something like that. Because it was July and their 9th and 10th grade English students (99% of whom were receiving free or reduced government lunch, 99% of whom were minority) desperately needed a teacher. And the job came with benefits. Benefits! Health insurance! My feet were singing and dancing their way out of that office, down the cracked front steps, and I was practically waltzing in the streets across from those people sitting on their front porches looking deflated and indifferent. Hopped up on adrenalin, I called everyone I knew and practically vibrated home. I was going to be a teacher! I was going to make a difference.