Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

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.

Don’t Smile Before Christmas

[This is the second 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. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

Don’t smile before Christmas. Don’t make too much eye contact. Rules. You need rules. Make them think you’re crazy: Slap a stack of papers off of your desk and then yell at one of the students to pick them up. If there’s a fight, take a step back and say Stop. You are the one in charge. YOU are. Not them. Lock up your purse.

In the week before school started, I received lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues who, ever since I threw up in the tip jar at Subway, loved to reference my “delicate condition.” As in, “Oh, you can’t ask Miss Reed to do that! Not in her delicate condition.” I was a 22-year-old white girl who had never worked a day in her life. I had just graduated from college. I drove a fancy new car. My whole life had been handed to me. If I had to work with my 22-year-old self, I would hate her. Thankfully, my colleagues were more gracious than I would have been.

On the first day of school, the first student to shamble through my door was Trevonte Harris. He smiled when he saw me, and I, being a human (and a Southern one at that) broke the first piece of advice I’d been given and smiled back. Then he asked me the first question I would be asked as a teacher. “So! MISS Reed, huh? You married? Kids say you pregnant. You married?” Before I could answer, Demarcus had come up behind him. “Yo, you Miss Reed?” And then three young women joined us: LaShonda, Janecia, and Star. All looking at me. We were crowding the door. Everyone was looking at me. They were waving over their friends. I slipped out of the group, mumbling something about homeroom, and into the hallway so packed with students that I couldn’t see any teachers. Panic.

The shrill sound of the bell was met with the heavy closing of doors. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! All the way down the hall. Then quiet, save for the rustling of a dozen or so students shuffling to their respective classes. A boy and girl kissed on the mouth before separating to join their homerooms across the hall from one another. I turned to walk into my own class. No one acknowledged me. I managed to take roll. The announcements came on. When our principal started speaking, I heard Bitch! emitted from a young man who was too large to sit in a desk. He was sitting in a chair at the front of the class with his head rested on his chest in a way that made him look like a fat bird sitting on her nest. I said, “Excuse me?” He stood up, reeking of smoke, and looked down at me. “I SAID Bitch!” He said the word like he was spitting, but his face registered no anger or resentment. He said it like it was a fact. I snapped back that he was headed for a referral. “Well let me just go then.” And off he went, sauntering down the hallway before I could even remember where I’d put my referrals. I scampered down the hallway to my friend’s class. I could hear the class falling out behind me as I slipped through the door. Peels of laughter and the echo of stomping feet followed me down the hall to Tanesha’s room. I asked her what to do. “Write his butt up!”

By the time I made it back to my room, the bell was ringing. First period. I was very proud of my writing prompt on the board. Write about your summer vacation. Students came in talking, sat down with their friends. I can’t remember if anyone spoke to me. What I do remember is that no one had any paper and no one had anything to write with. My mouth was hanging open. “How did you not bring something to write with on the first day of school?!” They weren’t expecting to do work the first day. Once everyone got something to write on, most of them wrote one word: sleep. Going over classroom procedures was about as successful as the writing prompt. I talked for most of the rest of class since no one had anything to share from the “writing exercise,” so by the end of the day, I had watched nearly 70 kids sleep with their eyes open and I was forced to confront a hard truth: I didn’t know these kids. I got their jokes only well enough to understand that they were mostly about me. “Hey, Ms. Reed. Is your daddy a window?” I had never heard students talk to teachers like this. I had never seen kids come to school without backpacks, without paper or pencil. By the end of the day, the trash can was filled with all of my brightly colored handouts balled up or ripped in half.

Thoughts on the Recursive. And Thank You.

© 2010 David Parker

Apparently, with no focal point (like a sun or a star or a you or a me), and with every intention to walk in a straight line, people walk around in circles. But, whether we’re blindfolded or just stumbling through the thick pitch of night, while we’re doing all of that wandering, we think we’re walking in a straight line. Without that external corrective, something inside of us, something about the way our atoms fit together, something about our biology, will not stay straight. I think part of what Souman’s study might reveal is that the human journey is not the shortest distance between two points. Rather, it seems to be the circle that connects one point back to itself.

This resonates with me. Maybe even validates my very existence. Because I do things, the same things, over and over, expecting different results. Someone once told me that this is the mark of insanity, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the mark of humanity. Because don’t we all fall into patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, rhythms of the everyday that are impossible to break? At least, they seem impossible to break. Especially without some kind of focal point like a person or a plan.

There are certain places in the geography of my life that I have been circling for the past five years–one of those places is the beginning of my teaching career. Another might be the day I met Ruthie. Another might be my divorce. Another might be the death of my grandfather. Another might be who I am in my family and who I am for real. And we all have these events, these anchors. Like the novelist Darin Strauss , who ran over a teenager when he was a just a teenager and wrote about it in fiction without knowing he was writing about it. (Now he’s finally written about it on purpose in a memoir called Half a Life.) And the only way that I’ve found to move past these events (or move through them the way one might move through a forest with trees thick as thieves and no light of day) is to write about them. With intention. The story of the event becomes my focal point, the external corrective to my inner recursive nature. And the sifting through those events reveals more and more of who I am. And that reveal is such a relief. Because for too long I’ve wandered around with these stories, these fragile stories, that I had to guard and protect and wear wrapped around my face. And now, here they are. Public and unapologetic: my stories.

And STORY is what carries us back to ourselves. Odysseus receives his ship home in return for a story. He tells a story in exchange for a ship that will (finally) take him back to where he came from, where his identity began. And I think it’s important that he tells his story. He doesn’t get the ship home in exchange for thinking of his story, but in exchange for sharing his story. And in telling my stories, I feel like I’m kind of giving myself back to myself. Owning not only the parts that are uncomfortable and awkward, but especially the parts that I’m proud of, the parts that were hard, the parts where I became. That ownership comes from sharing, and with each sharing, I’m peeling away pieces of my blindfold that hide me from my home.

All this is to say thank you. Thank you for reading and for watching me walk blindly in circles. I’d have no hope of home or a ship to carry me there were it not for your listening, allowing me to share. Just. Thank you.

Faith and Baby Steps

© 2010 David Parker

About a month ago I met Faith, and ever since, I’ve been carrying it around like a new born baby swaddled up in mind-maps and golden tickets punched by me. I’ve discovered that faith (in people and in my own ideas) takes a lot of trusting and a hell of a lot of baby steps.

Today I counted and I have about eight projects in the works. Several of them will appear here, as baby steps. The first is a series of installments about how I became a teacher. Last year was a very discouraging one for me as an educator. I started off this year feeling frustrated with the educational system in general and defeated in particular by the experiences I’d had in my classroom. I used to feel like my career choice was meaningful, that I was accomplishing some truly humane purpose, but as I met people in industries outside of education (especially artistic ones), I became increasingly disenchanted with my profession.  From this disenchantment came the founding of an interdisciplinary arts organization and the beginning of a writing project. Because I’ve only ever understood anything through story, and because I can’t do anything well that I don’t perceive to be meaningful, I decided that the only way for me to make sense of my profession and find the meaning I have been missing was to go back and tell the story of how I arrived here. You can find those installments under the category “Becoming Ms. Reed.”