turn around

This is a blog of two pictures and a simple reminder.

So, there I was, waiting in the car for my oldest to finish up at cross country. I sort of dread these evening cross country practices because they mean leaving school after a long day, only to return shortly thereafter. It means, I arrive at school just after the sun comes up and I leave just after the sun goes down…it’s not a short day. So, there I was, sitting in the car while it was getting darker trying to stay awake and slowly coming to understand how it was that my dad always fell asleep waiting for me to be done with whatever activity he was picking me up from. Honestly, if I didn’t work at the school, a nap in the car would’ve been a pretty brilliant use of my time (a picture of the principal sleeping in her car in the parking lot spreading through SnapChat stories isn’t worth the extra sleep…for real).

Regardless, I was staring at a darkening sky and thinking of everything I had to do and it was weighing me down.

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I was spending my time as any weary mom might…wallowing in thoughts of cooking dinner and getting kids ready for bed and writing this blog and wanting to just crawl into my own bed instead. I wasn’t doing much to rekindle my energy…just cycling from sleepy to sleepier.  In the midst of this not so proud moment, I received a text from my husband who had just finished coaching my youngest at soccer practice. My son had asked him to send me a picture of the sky because he knew I would love it…he was right.

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It was in that moment I realized that beauty and light were still present…all I had to do was turn around. Instead of gazing straight ahead into the darkness, if I simply turned around and looked behind my car, I could see these last warm tinges of the day’s glow before they settled in for the night. If I only turned around, I could witness the reminder of all that I have to be grateful for. If I just turned around, revival awaited. This action would take energy, sure. It would also require a little faith that I wouldn’t have missed the moment…faith there would still be light to be shared…faith I wouldn’t just be disappointed.

So many moments in life require this energy, this faith. So many moments feel easier if we just stay in our lane heading listlessly into the dark skies craving sleep instead of experience. So many moments feel too overwhelming to make the effort. So many moments distract us from the awareness that the light is waiting for us to find it. So many moments require someone else to remind us that the there is still warmth and beauty in the world.

As fortunate as I am that my son was that reminder for me tonight, he also helped me to remember that I need to be this reminder for others as well. He didn’t make me turn around. He didn’t badger me or try futilely to revive my mood. He didn’t make any empty promises that everything would be okay, as we are so prone to doing when we don’t know what else to say to someone lost in the dark. He didn’t even know I was sulking in the car all those miles away. He just knew I would love that picture and so he found a way to send it my way. He was mindful; he was present.

Just as we all should be. Mindful. Present.

(this poem came to mind while I wrote this entry… “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

simplicity

My boys were singing in the car this morning on the way to school…loudly…and giggling the whole time. Effervescent joy permeated the air lending levity to the mundane.As they sang along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I paused.

School mornings bring a bit of insanity and frustration to my house (I don’t think I am alone here). Getting lunches and backpacks ready…cajoling kids out of bed…debating the “I’m not hungry for breakfast” dilemma…fuel the potential for disagreement and discord. (I should mention at this point that I am an all out morning person in a house full of boys who possess no love for the hours before 8am–like I cannot wait until they are old enough to be caffeinated!) I work to preserve their moods but also my own because it is impossible to walk into your day feeling like it will be successful when you have spent the morning arguing over the location of socks and the necessity of  brushing away morning breath.

The singing without abandon in the car freed all of us from whatever morning drama had occurred. And it reminded me. It is truly the simple moments that populate my day with positivity. Without being present in those moments…noticing and feeling grateful for them…they would flicker and extinguish themselves into meaninglessness. Lacking focus on these smaller moments of delight would make it easier for negativity and pessimism to creep into my internal dialogue. When I’m consumed with the busy-ness of my life, when I let the less important things creep up the hierarchy of my priority list, I don’t take the time to notice and revel in these bits of positivity and in the people I love most…and my entire outlook changes.

The point of this positivity project blog series was to shift my gaze–to realign it. This morning’s pause offered proof that intentionality is certainly a crucial step to mindset and outlook. This morning’s pause set the tone for the day and realigned my perspective moving forward (so, when a student in my AP Lit class wondered if Marianne Dashwood would be a VSCO girl, it was easier to crack up in laughter, lean in and be grateful for the gift of my job and the even greater gift of my students).

Flashes of delight fill our days, but they don’t wait around too long hoping to be noticed. We have to be in the moment, expectant, hopeful, ready to grasp them in gratitude and to store them up like fireflies in a jar.

Things don’t have to be complicated to be worth our attention. Embracing simplicity can change everything…if we let it.

Threshold

When I was in 7th grade, my family moved into a house that possessed a singular identifiable feature. This little house stood in a row of other little houses that looked blandly alike. Yet this gem announced its presence just a bit differently than the others and gained small scale recognition and notoriety simply because it wore its difference proudly.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

In the days before Siri would announce that a destination had been reached, everyone who came to visit us knew to look for this unique detail. At the front of the house, tucked at the end of a small front porch, stood a large red door…with a silver doorknob decorating the center of it. It was one thing to live in a house with a giant, solid red door…but the doorknob in the middle added another level of oddity to it that my 12 year old self wasn’t so certain of. In order to open the door from the inside required a certain secret knowledge and deft ability to turn the knob and pull sturdily on the handle simultaneously.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

I am pretty sure I was embarrassed by this door for more than a little while. Pretty sure that I wished we had a door like everyone else…and that our house didn’t stand out in this way. I didn’t need it to be pretty or fancy–just “normal”. But at some point along the way, all of this angsty humiliation shifted and I came to treasure its presence. Came to love that thing that allowed our house to stand out a bit from the rest. Came to own the uniqueness as a gift rather than an embarrassment. Came to identify that door with what it opened into–a house full of warmth, family, joy and love.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

Writing this blog during this 59 day challenge required more stamina than I realized it would and also required me to open myself a bit more than initially felt comfortable. I am very much at ease being vulnerable, admitting fault, telling stories…and, yet, somehow having to tell them more quickly than I wanted because I had to meet the deadline of the daily post made me question the decision and waver on whether to continue. I preferred to refine my writing and to take time to have it reflect the truth of what I am capable of crafting. But at some point, I had to release that ambition and frustration and accept that the importance of the task resided in the act of writing each day…in the sharing of it with an unknown audience regardless of how I felt about it…in the building of my confidence…in the ownership of a writer’s identity…in the recognition that sharing this gift is not a reflection of ego but a desire of the soul. The importance resided in opening the door that so clearly identifies as my passion without fear of what is on the other side…resided in the ritual of walking through it daily and coming to treasure it as a homecoming.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should you accept the invitation 

“Doors” by Carl Sandburg

(Day 59–Mardi Gras Day–King Cake day!!!–The blog will continue of course…just maybe once a week:) If you’ve kept up with me, you have no idea of my gratitude!! If you’ve stopped to say something encouraging along the way, words can’t express how that helped me to continue writing. I sort of can’t believe I’ve finally written the last one!)

 

magical

It’s Mardi Gras weekend and the city is alive and humming with visitors who might walk away understanding what Mardi Gras really is or who might walk away with nothing more than a headache, some plastic beads, five extra pounds and a few fun memories. Mardi Gras, for those who live in New Orleans and the surrounds suburbs and cities, presents a much richer heritage and tradition than simply consuming large quantities of alcohol. The intoxication from this season is far more varied than if it solely emanated from the obvious source. And I would venture to say that the people of this city could attest to the veracity of this with reflections upon traditions of family and friends, the attachment to community and place that this season forges, the food…so much food…, the stories of Mardi Gras past, the music, and more. Sure revelry plays a role, I’m not sanctifying the holiday or anything. It’s just that, as with anything, Mardi Gras is more than its label–it’s layered, textured, vibrant.

My family’s Mardi Gras traditions when I was growing up fostered some of my favorite childhood memories. Beyond the stress of where to park and where to find a bathroom when you needed one, there was family, there was joy, there was delight, there was Andy Gibb, whose face was emblazoned on a pink t-shirt I wore religiously as a little kid, riding on a float right in front of me. There was the Monday night parade, Hercules, that passed by my grandmother’s house where my family gathered pre-parade–cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles…all of us–to eat Mimi’s meatballs and spaghetti and garlic bread that was so toasty I would accidentally inhale the powdery crumbs and choke a bit before going back for more. Homework would get finished at the table before we could go out to the parade and inevitably, Vanna White was turning letters on the television. There were the death defying moments of riding on my dad’s shoulder’s to garner more throws only to have him swoop down to pick up a doubloon (his favorite-a prized commodity)–he knew I wasn’t going to fall…I, on the other hand, remained less than confident. There were the costumes and the face paint that decorated us on Mardi Gras day. We masked as a family and my mom made our costumes every year (face paint was all my dad though). One year, we went as the band KISS (I was maybe 3 or 4?)…another year as characters from Strawberry Shortcake…each year presented a new opportunity to get dressed up for a day and go have fun-together, as a family. There were parades where we were so cold it didn’t feel worth it, only to be greeted by hot food when we got home. There is all of the junk we carted home that felt necessary, vital even, in the moment and suddenly worthless when exposed by the harsh fluorescent light of the living room. There is a lifetime of memories that sing a harmony far sweeter than if this were really just a holiday about drunken debauchery.

Tomorrow, we will take our kids to one of the famous super-krewes, Endymion. We will pack sandwiches and snacks, and we will wait on the parade route for hours (though some have been there for days). We will probably throw the football and hopefully be able to walk to where they line up the Clydesdales. We will listen to our kids whine “how much longer till the parade gets here???” because this is what you do! And we will sit back in delight and watch the eyes of our children light up as they are dazzled by the magic that is Mardi Gras.

Because, when we allow it, magic is exactly what Mardi Gras creates.

(Day 55–four blogs away from king cake!)

balance

Concentration: my inability, here, the issue I face most nights as I sit down in an attempt to write in fulfillment of the daily requirement of this challenge.

Evenings in my house are chaotic to say the least. Dinner needs cooking, kids have activities and events, homework demands supervision, and conversation amongst loved ones eager to share their days awaits. All a realization of the dreams I had during those agonizing years spent impatiently waiting for a child, thinking one may never arrive. I would trade none of it (even the nights where it feels like everything is a struggle…fights over which kid will bathe first…meltdowns over homework…frustration over the ever-growing mess). It is the warmth of my heart living outside of my body. It is what transformed this house into a sanctuary. It is the very vibrance of love and family. And it fills me with gratitude.

But it does make writing difficult.

In order not to relinquish some of the only time we are allotted each day together as a family, I attempt to write each night on the couch with the dog running across my lap, my kids and husband talking, and the tv on. Part of me loves that I am still able to think straight enough to write given these circumstances because for all of those months and years of vertigo, even a quiet space would have been an impossible writing environment. Just composing a single sentence that felt coherent in those days drained my energy supplies. So, I appreciate the challenge of these evenings of writing amid the ruckus. But I also know that the writing suffers because of it. I know that in a quiet room, when I am more awake and able to think clearly, my writing thrives and I am truly able to work on my craft.

That’s just not where I am in this moment, in this phase of my life. If I am going to write everyday, in this life that I have built with my family, this is how it is going to have to be. I will have to learn how elevate my writing despite being surrounded by movement and sound…all of the time…and not the movement and sound of a coffeeshop full of strangers–that is easy to tune out. Rather, the movement and sound of people I love intentionally vying for and deserving of my attention…anxiously waiting for me to wrap up the writing portion of my evening. I will have to learn to seek stillness in the madness, calm in the fury…a new discipline to strive toward. I will have to learn that while honoring this creative element of my self is vital and life-giving, I owe it to the people I love most to honor them as well.

Balance: still seeking this utopian quality for it will deliver me to a place of equal dedication to all that is important in sealing the shards of my spirit.

(Day 41! just under the wire!)

magic

There’s a magic that happens when a baby enters the world. An enchantment stirs inside of the hearts of those who, for months, have been anxiously awaiting the moment that tiny new life would pronounce its presence in person.

What never seems to allow itself into definition or explanation is that the depth of that love grows as the child does. I tell my kiddos everyday that, without fail, every time I think it is impossible to love them more, something inside of me stretches to lend a bit of extra space. And that is a true statement.

Today is one of those days. One of my boys turned ten (double digits…how?!) and the other opened with a leading role in the school play today. As I watch these boys grow into the world shaping the humans they will become, it is pure joy to witness the avenues they travel while seeking their passions. Whether soccer or the stage, watching each in his element swells my heart a bit more.

Not sure what I’ve ever done that warrants the treasure of these children, but it is one that I cherish and honor (even when it isn’t like tonight…even when it is hard…even when there is attitude…because that is all part of the job). And this job pays richly.

(Day 34!! It’s short and down to the wire but still got it in!)

reminiscent

A couple of years ago, I attended the Heinemann literacy retreat in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. We spent mornings in this idyllic environment filling pages of writers notebooks while working with Linda Rief. Really, those mornings earned and own space as beloved moments of time–moments that could never endure a precise recreation, for I will never be exactly as I was then. Yet, they live on inside of me nonetheless.

On one of those brilliant Maine mornings, I wrote the following piece. I’m not sure what made me think of it today, but suddenly I found myself possessed with the desire to seek out my notebook from that week and find this particular piece…and maybe nudge it and rework it a bit. A response to Katrina and the loss my family suffered in her fury, this piece testifies, I think, that even though lives move on and we find healing, solace, old wounds still open up every now and again, proving painful with their sting.

My mom and dad and sister and brother will probably read this piece and I worry that it will be too much (so maybe, stop reading here you guys…or if you continue, don’t say I didn’t warn you!). But I also don’t want to leave these thoughts out of the record of my heart, my life.

~~~~~~~~~

The table that got carried away by the flood knew stories, so it knew lives. Knew my childhood. My family–all of them: those that came before me, those that sat around it with me, whether for many years or for fewer than felt fair. It knew projects and homework and it knew me–the tiniest in the house charged with dusting its belly and legs—a job to keep little hands occupied and little me out of the way (that is until I deserted its secret dusty crevices in exchange for the tedium of picking parsley leaves in the kitchen).

It knew warmth. The center of our gathered hearts as we shared a meal, exchanged communion in conversation, offered up wishes of Thanksgiving or Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday or Congratulations–our most precious occasions. And it celebrated with us. Holding up our joy, taking in our laughter (or our tears), relishing it all. A bounty of food could only further adorn its beauty, a bounty of love surrounding it, effervescent. It became a touchstone, a symbol for family, for togetherness.

The table that got carried away by the flood also knew discord (all families really do). It stood strong in the midst of disagreements, teenage angst, parental concern…endured the occasion frustrated fist hammering down in order to punctuate a point…and it reverberated the echo as if in agreement. It knew grief too and absorbed the weight of loss as we attempted to endure and learn to live again.

But the saltwater of those tears could not prepare it for the deluge to come, for the sacrificial offering it would become. The table had withstood floodwaters before (though they merely tickled its toes), so it had remained confidently behind…on guard so to speak for all the life that house contained even with its people huddled together in some other house, in some other city just distant enough to escape danger (they were some of the lucky ones; they had a place to go). Yet, the enormous rush of water didn’t baptize to bring forth new life. No, these waters came in a hurry and took up residence only to depart weeks later leaving mold, stench and destruction in their wake.

Today, there are grandkids who sit around a different table (one with far less history) beside their parents, grandparents, cousins. Today, new conversations scintillate the air around a new table in a new-old house. Today, there are celebrations and arguments and joy and there is family and that abundance overwhelms, but the missing remain present as no one expected the lingering litany of loss.

The table that got carried away by the flood could not be replaced, though a stand in fills its vacancy. Memories only surface intermittently these days causing ephemeral tinges of longing for another chance to grace its antique sturdiness. These moment usher in longing and then gratitude, for life, health, the past, and the people that brought that table to life.

(Day 33–this one was a joy to write, though I don’t love the ending…it is a bit rushed, but so am I. I can return another day.)

comfort

So, you know it has been a hard day when I have a fridge full of healthy meal prepped food and I opt to make gluten free blueberry pancakes for dinner instead. I spent hours on Saturday and Sunday working in my kitchen so that I would not make quick unhealthy (read that: fun) choices during the week. Yet, here I am, on a Tuesday (that I have titled Second Monday) finding ways to justify my choice to make and eat blueberry pancakes for dinner instead: “Well, I mean all of that food will freeze so well and will make other weeks easier to prep for…Well, I mean, your jaw has been hurting and pancakes are so easy to eat (ignoring the fact that one of my healthy options was a pureed squash soup)…Well, I mean, you did have a terrible day…”

Evidently, based on my carry through with this pancake plan, I am a very convincing person. I also find myself wondering where the voice is inside of me that wants to be healthier, you know the one who is eternally frustrated over how hard it has been to reclaim fitness since the inner ear debacle devolved into 7 months of slow debilitation followed by surgery and several more months of recovery? I’m just thinking that voice comes from the same brain as the other one and should be pretty convincing too—right? So, where is it?

I feel it is probably important to note here that aside from poetry, one of my most consistent comforts in this life has been food. I’m sure there are healthier habits to have, but food has always been the warm fuzzy blanket to my cold winter’s day (if that even makes sense outside of my own head). This should come as no real surprise, though. I’m a New Orleans girl who was raised in a city and by a family where food is always a topic for discussion in the best possible way. At breakfast we are talking about what we will eat for lunch and at lunch we are mapping out dinner. Food has always been something to look forward to and to savor; a form of communion, as a meal shared with family or friends becomes an almost sacred encounter. Food has always been a bit of nostalgia for me (there is not a grilled cheese that I make today that doesn’t remind me of the grilled cheese sandwiches my mom made for me when I would come home from college). Food has always been a means of communication, of communicating love; standing next to my mom learning how to make her red beans because there was no way to write the recipe–it simply had to be witnessed and then enacted step by step.

When I got married, my husband’s grandmother, who has been my grandmother essentially for the last 22 years now, gave me a recipe book with all of her most prized recipes in it—handwritten. Now, she may have left out some of the secrets that make these recipes quintessentially hers, but that book is physical evidence to me of the importance of food in a family and its role in communicating love from one generation to the next. Every time I see those painstakingly handwritten recipes, I see her heart written across the pages. I see her desire to be remembered by the things she cooked and I think, you know, if people only remembered me for the things I cooked, I would really be pretty okay with that.

I mean, I’ve never been above using food to win someone’s heart or to brighten their day (I do, after all, keep a giant jar of seasonal Hershey’s Kisses in my office because I know if there is chocolate, students will stop by and say hello…and take some chocolate). I don’t think it is a coincidence that the man asked me out on our first date all those years ago on the same night I made him a batch of Rolo cookies (literally, dark chocolate cookie dough wrapped around a Rolo and baked so that the caramel melts in the middle–totally date worthy!). I don’t think it is a coincidence that my sister always felt like my sandwiches tasted better than hers because when someone else makes you food, it does taste better. You feel loved and cared for in the unselfish moment of the gift. And we gift each other food all of the time–when I had my surgery my sister and my mom nursed me back to health again with homemade deliciousness that took the sting out of bedrest away and only made me feel wrapped in warmth and affection.

So, yeah, I made blueberry pancakes for my dinner tonight. So what? They were delicious and my kids sat at the counter and cheered me on…I think in part because it meant they wouldn’t have to smell my lentil soup warming up, but also because they knew that small creature comfort, that small bit of self care, was a bit of grace I could extend to myself and I think there are worse examples to set.

And because a food poem seems appropriate, here you go!

Pot Roast by Mark Strand (See the excerpt below…but also, read the whole thing!)

“These days when there is little
to love or to praise
one could do worse
than yield
to the power of food.
So I bend

to inhale
the steam that rises
from my plate, and I think
of the first time
I tasted a roast
like this.”

(Day 10…done!)