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 Sound of One Hand Clapping

© 2010 David Parker

It’s taken me nearly 28 years, but I’ve finally learned how to be alone. It sounds simple, but I’ve found that simple things (sticking to a budget, having patience, sharing, being nice) can be the hardest to accomplish. Being alone is one of the trickier simple things for me because I haven’t had much practice with it. I had roommates from the time I left for college until I left grad school to have Ruthie, at which point I swapped my roommates for a husband. Now that it’s just me and Ruthie and a boyfriend who works often and out of town, I have a lot of alone time on my hands. Especially in the summer time.

Before the summer began I made a conscious decision NOT to fill the days with furtive trips out of town, major projects, work. I made NO plans (very uncomfortable for me). After two days at home with Ruthie, I realized that I hadn’t done this since I was on maternity leave, nearly five-freaking-years ago. It took some trying, but I finally learned how to relax into being by myself. This was all new to Ruthie too. When I came to get her out of time-out (on a rug in her room), she asked (in her excited voice with her eyebrows raised) if she might be allowed to play in her room. It struck me that Ruthie has also spent a great deal of time away from home. During the week she was at daycare, and I’ve always packed the weekends with “fun things to do.” And so this summer turned into a nice, wide stretch of time for Ruthie and I to learn how to entertain ourselves at home.

The thing about me is when I’m really enjoying myself, I have this overwhelming urge to share it with someone. Whenever I find myself becoming immersed in a moment–coffee on the front porch in the early morning before Ruthie wakes up, making dinner with music and a beer in my hand, eating a pretty breakfast of yogurt and granola with fruit, catching fireflies with Ruthie before bedtime–I always want to call someone. To make it real. I mean, if I have this beautiful moment, and only I witness it, then it’s like the proverbial tree in the forest. And isn’t that why we write, take pictures, talk? To preserve something the way we see it or the way we want to see it so that others can witness it as we did?

When you have a child, everyone says, “Write it down. You’ll forget all of this.” They say that because they’ve already forgotten. And the other night when I was putting Ruthie to bed, just after she fell asleep, I kissed her fat, smooth, perfect cheek and pressed my palm to her chest to feel her fluttery heart. Her mouth was kind of open and she was clutching her favorite stuffed animal: an elephant named Audge-A who smells like love. And I thought of how I so desperately wanted to preserve the moment because I’ll never have it back. It’s our job as parents to remember our children and how we loved them while they’re small because if we don’t remember it, no one will. No one will know Ruthie as she is now, at four years old. No one but me. And I’m going to miss so much about little Ruthie when she’s big. Like how she treats a glass of chocolate milk like a bottle, sucking it over the rim of the glass until it’s gone. Or how she will spend nearly an hour making shapes on the floor with bobby pins. And when Ruthie gets older, like when she’s a teenager, she’ll think I hate her. And it’s my job to give her little-self back to her when she’s older, through stories, pictures, my writing, the drawings she’s done, the videos I’ve taken with my phone.

So I call people when I’m alone and loving myself and my life and what I’m doing. Or I write about it. Or I take a picture of it. Or I sketch it miserably on a napkin. And it’s spectacular how little I have to record for the moment to come flooding back to me. For example:

Sleeps like superman

Ruthie: “I gotta show Mr. Bear what’s the deal”

Magic number: 113

David & Max come in from a walk–smell like dirt and leaves ground up between my fingers, like cinnamon and heat

I’ll see these in a month, in five years, and I won’t just remember, I re-live them as vignettes. These snippets become gorgeous talismans. Without them, those moments would be lost. Forever. And if no one remembers, it’s like it never happened. But if I record it, I can remember it, and share it, and it can be lived and re-lived by more than one person. Forever. And that’s publishing: putting something down and sharing it with others so that when the moment has passed, or when you have, your life is still there, pulsing in ink.

What am I doing here?

© 2010 David Parker

So here I am. At my new digs in cyberspace. What am I doing here? I’m not exactly sure. When I started Both Hands, Ruthie was only a few months old and my whole life felt frenetic. Both Hands was a place for me to publicly make sense of my life during those years. I really stopped writing regularly when my marriage ended because I just didn’t have the energy. Divorce is like swimming through a tunnel of mud. Especially when you have children. I spent this past year adjusting to life as a single, working mother with a new, very challenging job. When the school year ended, it was like I was spit out of that tunnel of mud and it took a summer of nothing for me to begin to feel like myself again.

Now that I’ve arrived on the other side of myself, it seems appropriate for me begin writing again for real. My favorite thing about writing is that it has its own agenda. When I sit down to write Something, Something becomes a creature I didn’t plan for. And as I begin to see Something take shape itself on the page, I learn. About discovering herself as a writer, Joan Didion, whom I adore, wrote this:

All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

I revisited this text, a cornerstone for me, because I felt as though I’d lost my voice as a writer. Of course I’d lost my voice. And since my mind naturally tends toward focusing on what I am not (even when I am), I began to wonder if maybe I’m NOT really a writer. And then I read this. Where Joan Didion arrives at herself as a writer because it was the only way she could make sense of things. And so I return to writing as a means of making sense of myself and my life as it is now.

What the content of this place will be, I don’t know yet. I’m still groping the walls for the light switch. But I will be here. Every day. For one year. Public, like a frog.

Oh! And, on occasion, you’ll get a two-fer: my writing, David‘s pictures.