13 August 2017

Radical Self-Care

For a few weeks now, I’ve been intending to write, wanting to share my reflections on our recent trip to Iceland.  With school starting and other pressing issues, though, it hasn’t happened.  But now the disturbing events in Charlottesville are forcing me to use my voice.  As one of my personal heroes, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, put it, "We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."  

It’s hard to accept that hatred and fear of others resides here at home.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that terrorism is bred only across the sea, that it’s not to be found in the heartland, and certainly not in Thomas Jefferson’s legacy to us, at the University of Virginia.  Hatred and bigotry do exist there, just as they exist in our neighborhoods and yes, in our own hearts.  This is difficult to stomach.  It’s a challenge to accept this reflection of ourselves, to realize that there are still those among us who continue to view the world with a skewed and sick perspective.  It breaks my heart.  It makes me fearful for those I love who are very much an integral part of MLK’s vision of equality. 

And so, while my heart was heavy when I awoke this morning, I urged myself to follow Anne Lamott’s steps for facing the horrors of this world, the first of which is radical self-care.  Upon waking, I hugged my husband.  I sipped the coffee he made for me slowly, savoring its gifts.  I strapped on my hiking boots and ventured into the forest.  It was a bit muddy from last night’s rain, but the flowers were open and buzzing with pollinators.  The grasses were the shades of green they are only during our brief monsoon season.  The little horned toad that scurried across the trail blended almost completely with the pink decomposed granite.  And the cliff rose perfumed the air as if it had nothing but that to do all day.  And as I walked, I felt myself filling with the light that comes from breathing deeply of clean, bright air.  As Lamott says, there’s a reason why you are to put on your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency.

The second step of her radical self-care is to help the helpless.  I was grateful today was Sunday and that my daughter and I had our weekly slot to volunteer at the Humane Society.  We’ve been socializing cats there since January, which essentially means that we pet them, we hold them, and we play with them.  It was a full house today.  A tiny kitten shook with fear in my palm as I cradled it, whispering and stroking her.  A chubby fifteen-year-old calico purred on my lap, rolling over to show me her ample belly.  An energetic, lithe kitty pawed at us every time we passed by, in spite of the time that my daughter spent with him in the playroom.  Before we started volunteering there, I worried that it would be depressing.  What I’ve learned though, is that it is very centering to be there.  All I have to do is comfort this one creature for the moment I am there.  Everything else slips away – no future, no past – just me and this kitty in this moment now.  And even the ones who are too depressed or anxious to show that they appreciate the attention still need it.  These creatures are at the mercy of us humans and it is humbling to be responsible for that mercy.

After taking care of myself and helping some helpless creatures, I feel ready to raise my voice.  I am tired, just like you are tired.  I’m trying to raise a couple of daughters, to teach more than 150 kiddos, to make healthy choices, and to recycle, and even to save the bees.  I get it.  We have a lot on our plates.  You don’t honestly believe that Rosa Parks had it any easier than you, do you?  That she wasn’t exhausted by a million other things?  And yet, she stood up.  She resisted.

But this is not the time to be quiet.  This is not the time to let someone else fight the fight.  Many people have been fighting for a long, long time to be granted rights that automatically have been granted to me.  I am an educated, financially secure white woman.  I lead a comfortable life, but I cannot pretend that these privileges grant me silence. I would not expect a student in my hallway at school to stand up to a bully if I also witnessed an incident.  I can stand up too.  My privilege makes it easier, in fact, for me to stand up. 

The Confederacy lost.  The Nazis were defeated.  And there have been countless other battles, large and small, in the interim since those victories in which love and light have continued to beat hate and bigotry.  But this fight for equality, for freedom, for righting the wrongs is not yet over.  As Maya Angelou wisely noted, “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world but it has not solved one yet.”  We will still continue to pledge, as we do in the classroom every morning, until “liberty and justice for all” is no longer a vision, but a reality.  Take some steps for radical self-care.  Help someone.  And then stand up.

29 April 2017

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, an homage to AKR on her birthday

Back in 2011, after reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, I was astounded by the similarities in how my mind and AKR's mind worked.  It was eerie and life-affirming and hilarious and it inspired me to keep a journal of similar entries about my own life.  If you've read my previous blog, then you know that AKR meant a great deal to me and that she died earlier this year.  Today is her birthday and I thought I'd share a few of my own Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life entries.  And so here they are, alphabetized and curated à la AKR:

Changing the sheets on my daughters’ bunkbeds always leaves me feeling like an aging pro wrestler.  Too old for those strength-required moves, wrestling and grappling with my mattress-opponent, and then withdrawing from the cage-enclosed stage exhausted, sweaty, and with a new crick in my neck.

When you see your hair stylist out in public and she compliments you on your hair, is she complimenting you or herself?

Exhaustion, Complete
The most exhausting day in my profession is the second day of school.  All the nervous energy that propels me through Day One is completely spent by Day Two.

Game, License Plate
It always takes me several days after returning home from a trip to stop scanning license plates for the ones we haven’t yet seen.

I have a small, gold, plastic Buddha on my desk.  Arden keeps referring to it as my ‘gouda.’  I really don’t want to correct her.

Horn, Saddle
Arden believes the horn on a western-style horse saddle can be used to honk.

It is a great idea to invite someone to come to your house mid-day Saturday to force you to do a ‘good enough’ quick housecleaning.

Language, Foreign

In Montréal, Madeleine remarks that she is amazed to hear young kids speaking foreign languages, especially French.  She wonders:  How can a kid younger than me know something I don’t?

04 March 2017

Nothing > Love

This morning I learned that one of my favorite writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is dying – before long – of ovarian cancer.  I had known that she was sick for about the past month, but I didn’t realize that her situation was so grim.  Gratefully, in this day and age, a cancer diagnosis isn’t a certain death, but unfortunately there are still many types of cancer that are not as treatable as others.  By now, you've probably heard about her from the article in the New York Times, where she essentially writes a dating ad for her soon-to-be-widowed husband.  It is one of the loveliest love letters I've ever read.

AKR, as I think of this writer, has written both children’s books and several memoirs and books for adults.  Her children’s books are sweet, often with a theme of inclusion or permission to be your true self.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her memoirs.  The first one I came across was An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  In this book, she chronicles her life, encyclopedia-style.  AKR is a few years younger than me, so she grew up in the age of encyclopedias.  This book contains short smatterings of her thoughts on various topics, alphabetized and cross-referenced.  There was a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias in my house that my parents probably spent far too much on and which I loved.  They contained the entirety of the known universe.  Anything I wanted to know more about lurked within those heavy tomes.  I can still recall the weight of the volume on my cross-legged lap, the cracking sound of the spines as they were opened, revealing glossy pages and sometimes mystifying black and white photos.  AKR’s uncanny ability to connect interesting commonalities of words or ideas is equal parts amusing, poignant, and oh, so true.  I identified with her ideas and experiences on such a deep level that I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, wondering how she knew me so well.

Through her works, I connected to a couple of friends.  One of those was a college friend, Tara, who was lucky enough to host AKR at her school in Thailand where she was working as a librarian a few years ago.  We both loved AKR’s writing and Tara was sweet enough to send me temporary tattoos from the swag AKR brought to her school.  Given AKR’s latest article, the message is especially pointed.

This fall, I read her latest memoir, Textbook Amy KR.  It’s an easy read with lots of negative space.  For example, here's a page  that struck such a chord I took a photo of it and posted it on my Instagram:

The book also provides many opportunities for readers to interact with one another and AKR.  Readers could share images of rainbows, or enter a contest for AKR to send one lucky participant a pecan pie. 

AKR sees the world through a charmed lens, and it is heartbreaking to me to learn that her diagnosis is so grim.  Her symbol is a yellow umbrella – something bright and sunny on a grey day.  I’ll sport one of her temporary tattoos this weekend to remind me to rise above that which is petty and draining, and to hug and smile and live a little more deliberately.  And to remember always one of her best observations:  Nothing > Love.

29 January 2017

Story Time

We had a white Christmas this year, which has not happened in quite some time.  According to the local meteorology professor, there’s only a 10% chance of a white Christmas in any given year in our mountain town.  It was also the most snowfall we’ve had in many years, which delayed my parents’ arrival to celebrate at our house by a few hours.  One of the gifts they brought for us was a set of “books,” copied and bound pages, really.  These books are their life stories, which they began writing earlier this year after my oldest brother gave them each a journal and asked them to write their stories.

Surprisingly, my mom’s story was the shorter of the two.  She’s the talker of the two of them, so I guess I expected her story to be longer.  Many of her stories were familiar to me, in part because she is a talker but also because we spent a lot of time with her family when I was growing up.  Family legends always came up as we sat around the dinner table or a campfire.  It was interesting to read regardless of its familiarity, and I enjoyed getting a sense of her as a little girl and of my grandparents and uncles when they were younger.

My father’s book spanned many pages and chapters and much of it was new to me.  I knew a few sound bites from his youth, like he and his sister sometimes rode their horses to and from school, that he’d signed up for the Army and gone to Korea when he lost direction in college, and that his father had been murdered by ranch hands after a dispute when my father was a little boy.  I also knew that he and my mom had a whirlwind romance and that they were married less than a year after meeting one another.  What a treat, though, to learn of his extended trip to England as a boy, filled with interesting details about the school he attended, relatives they stayed with, and how frequently he had to clean his muddy shoes – a chore uncommon to an Arizona boy.

He described many life events in a considerable amount of detail, like his time as an Army clerk in Korea, or how he settled on a career as a wildlife biologist, and important projects that he worked on in that capacity.  He’s kept a short account of his days, beginning in his youth, and so was able to recall specifics that may have otherwise been forgotten. 

Mostly, though, I was struck by how deeply he loves my mom.  I suppose that I knew on some level their connection – they’ve been married nearly sixty years and that doesn’t just happen without a serious investment in one’s partner.  But it was so evident throughout his writing.  I recognize how rare and singular it is for me not only to have both of my parents living and healthy at this stage in my life, but also for them to be so generous with their stories.  Perhaps there is some desire for a degree of immortality in writing their stories like they’ve done, but why not?  They lived in a time that bridged some groundbreaking inventions, global events of great significance, not to mention life in rural Arizona in the first half of the 20th Century.  I have friends and cousins who will never know the stories of their parents, as much as they wish they could. 

The stories were entertaining, sometimes poignant, and always interesting.  It’s often that we offspring think they knew their parents having known them our entire lives.  But we forget the lives and childhoods they had before we came along and changed everything for them.  We don’t really know our parents; we only know them as parents. 

I’ve read letters from a great-uncle I’d never met who wrote home of his work rebuilding bridges and roads in France after World War I.  There’s a story in our family history about a wedding dress that was shared by several of my female ancestors.  My husband’s grandparents recorded stories that my mother-in-law transcribed:  the grandmother’s terrible bout with scarlet fever as a child and the burning of the church where the grandfather’s father was preacher.

And so I urge you, write down some memories, funny anecdotes, adventures you took.  What was life like before smart phones, personal computers, and cable TV?  It might feel strange to think your story is worth writing, but if you add enough detail and put your heart in it, it will be appreciated.    Start with one story.  Something unusual, tragic, or funny.  And that will lead to another.  Write it down for someone.  It will be read.