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.

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.

Home Sick & “I Believe the Writing is Someplace” & If So, Then Where?

© 2010 David Parker

Last night we spent some quality time reading Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride on the bathroom floor between the hours of 1:30 and 4:00 am. Ruthie had her head propped up on her little hands that were folded one-over-the-other on the edge of the toilet seat. “Waiting on the throw up,” she calls it.

The morning came too fast. In anguish, I scribbled out my lesson plans for today and made the mad dash up to the school to make ready for the sub. I returned home to find myself on the brink of a day that spread out before me like a glass lake. Ruthie spent most of the day sleeping and coloring. (She’s particularly keen on drawing “machines” that do things like “suck up all the bad people.”) This means that I had a great deal of time on my hands to read and to write and to do laundry and to scheme up schemes that make me excited about teaching. But especially to read. And, of all the things I read, this one has me coming back to it again and again. I don’t know how I landed there, but it’s Wendy S. Walters writing for About A Word about writing “In These Times. For me, her words are daunting, mesmerizing, captivating. Her message resonates with me even though I don’t exactly understand just what it is that she’s saying. (I think) she’s talking about how writing helps us make sense of things we can’t make sense of. And how (maybe) going out and looking for a poem is less about arriving at the poem and more about how you get there.

As I’m writing this, she’s sleeping in a chair next to me, her face flushed with a fever of 103. I just got finished Cloroxing the white-tiled bathroom floor, which left my finger tips feeling squeaky and dry. Since the fever has not yet broken, it looks like I’ll be another day at home. Here’s hoping a poem is hidden for me someplace in the geography of tomorrow.

I Stumble Through a Morning that Shimmers In Spite of Itself

© 2010 David Parker

“All we can be called upon to do is to take a start from where we are, at the time we are there…” ~Stephen Toulmin

Last night I slept the kind of sleep that makes you forget what the pit in your stomach grew from. I was awake two minutes before my alarm would go off. I laid in bed for a full half hour trying to make sense of the thick darkness I’m unaccustomed to at 6:00 am. Once I’d quieted the residual tension in my gut from the events of yesterday, I stumbled to Ruthie’s room where I found her wrapped in a fleeced cocoon with only her hair sticking out.

My stomach knotted itself against the coffee steaming from its cup perched on the lid of the toilet while I dried my hair. As I slowly began to coax my mind and my gut to release yesterday and focus on today, I couldn’t stop thinking that today sucks. Today sucks. But I moved through the mantra (and, really, what other choice do I have) despite the seeming futility of such movement. And eventually, it began to work itself out.

Of course, even a morning painted in a darkness as thick as this one has its brighter moments that shimmer anyways. For me, most of them generally have to do with Ruthie who proudly dressed herself today and who gave me a fierce hug and a bag of Fruit Loops “just because you’re my Mommy and I draw pictures of you all the time.” Also, I didn’t cry when I dropped her off as I usually do when she does something especially sweet on an especially bleak morning. Also, it was cold this morning, which made me relish my coffee. Also, there are tree-tops outside my window in my classroom with bright green leaves and I can see the Fall air that moves them even if I can’t feel it myself.

A Friday Folds Into Itself And Falls Away

© 2010 David Parker

Friday afternoons, I begin to breathe. I’m sitting outside with a beer that is quickly turning warm waiting on a friend whom I refer to as Aunt Bea and whose kindness always overwhelms me. She’s the type that still mails cards (you know, with stamps). And while she’s stuck in Game Day traffic, I have the opportunity to talk to another friend who is going through one of those times that makes me want to reach through the phone and press my hand into hers and just squeeze I’m here. But I’m not there, I’m here, drinking a beer and watching a young man who dines alone awkwardly make conversation with the older woman sitting near him waiting on her party. To his burger, he says, You never let me down. I’m thinking I can’t even live up to that hamburger with my friend on the phone so far away and me doing that thing I always do when I don’t know what to say, which is to say nothing except I love you because what else is there to say.

Around the time I get off the phone, Aunt Bea has arrived, ruddy-cheeked and grinning. We eat and drink and have one of those conversations that can only happen when you’re both on the same page moving at the same speed through your lives. By the time we leave, I’m sweating and a bit too full. And as I pull into the driveway, I’m overcome by that lonely, sinking feeling I get when I realize that Ruthie’s at her dad’s house for the weekend. It’s a feeling that always surprises me, because I expect to feel relief, but it’s a long time falling asleep the first night she’s gone.

High School English Afternoons

© 2010 David Parker

This afternoon is turning out to be a tease. From the looks of it, I should be able to open my window, but it’s too hot and the pitiful puffs breeze are just enough to blow my papers around. And there are so many papers. So. Many. Papers. The moment I catch up is the very same in which I fall behind. By the time my planning period rolls around, I’m over it. I’m already thinking about walking with my face turned up to the sun so bright, so blindingly bright I shut my eyes and wind up running into something. But I grade papers instead with my feet propped up on the windowsill. Somedays I can’t even stand music. Today, with my tests for tomorrow made up already, and a fresh stack of classwork that I can grade at home, I chose to write.

No one ever tells you about working inside all day and what an underwhelming bummer it can be. How you could lose your stomach from the force, the fall of a sugar crash. How you can read so much that the text begins to lift itself off the page, meeting you halfway.  Newly acquired job skill: I can actually read aloud and think about something entirely different, which is kind of like taking a vacation in the midst of the most boring piece of your day (imagine reading the same piece of text three times a day for 30-minutes to students who feel like they’re really out-doing themselves by halfway listening). The problem with work is that I don’t have time to get so totally absorbed inside of myself that nothing exists but the words I’m generating on the page. 70 teenagers come and go from my classroom throughout the day. And I love them. I do. But I can see why so many people put off writing their whole lives: because it’s demanding. Almost as demanding as 70 teenagers in five hours.

Whenever I pick up Ruthie from school, I always say, “I missed you all day!” Sometimes I feel that way about myself.