Found and Lost

There is a $5 Maclaren stroller sitting in my barn.

Early in yard sale season my partner and I were out. We drove through a subdivision not far from home and saw signs of life. “There,” I pointed toward a split level ranch with a minivan parked diagonally across the entrance. He turned, we parked the car, grabbed our still-hot coffee and ventured over.

I saw the stroller before I saw anything else. I walked over while glancing around – my condition was certainly not public knowledge and followed directly after an early loss. I was holding my joy gingerly and privately.

I didn’t see anyone I knew, and so made my move. “Max,” I said, “I want that.” He looked at the $5 sticker, ducked his bald head toward his shoulder in approval, and took out his wallet. We looked the stroller over before sealing the deal. He fiddled with the back latch and deemed it an easy fix. I unfolded a rain fly that looked as if it had never been used. A pack of tow-headed boys swirled around us, not minding the detritus of their childhoods on sale. A woman matching the boys came over taking her hands out of her money apron. “Ah,” she smiled. “We loved this.” I loved it, too. The boys looked – happy. As they talked and walked through the common stroller set up conundrum, I looked from the stroller to the contents of the driveway. I could see the trajectory of these boys’ lives unfolding. I imagined the red top was faded from games and vacations. The back latch bent from a quick stop maybe, the handles worn from trips to and from the neighbors – chasing siblings and company.

We paid and I grinned as I drove the stroller toward the car. Our first purchase – and a steal!

I parked the stroller in the barn, a patch of red reminding me that we would soon be 7. An auspicious number. I slept grew and kvetched about my restless legs and vomited. Until I didn’t.

Now, whenever I go into my barn I see two worn handles peeking out behind the couch and I’m not sure what to do. I planned to send that grand old Maclaren into retirement, but now? I washed and folded my much loved maternity shorts and packed them away in my hope chest with a book and the ultrasound pictures. I can justify not passing these on – no one needs bad luck maternity shorts –  was an easy call. I can’t even fold up the stroller, much less pack it away. And I don’t really want anyone else to have it.

I know we are done now. We are surrounded with more love and fortune than most, and the only thing I am trying for is contentment. But for now, I think, the Maclaren stays.

Re-reads: Good in Bed

My first Jennifer Weiner book was In Her Shoes. The last time I saw it, many years ago, it was held together with a thick rubber band I had stolen from a stalk of kale in my refrigerator. The book was tattered; coffee stained and dog eared, its appearance confessed exactly how many times it had been read. In Her Shoes never returned home, but I still have many of Weiner’s on my shelf. I return back to them periodically, as needed.

I jumped off the deck of the Facebook ship late spring and have been reading ferociously ever since. If reading was my escape as a child it is 176% more so now at 36. But, I’m still operating on the same budget. The obvious benefit is the ability to drive my own car to Goodwill. I found a copy of Good in Bed and Little Earthquakes on discount book day, and stacked them on my living room bookshelf. I just finished (again) Little Earthquakes and then Good in Bed.

This was a smart move for many reasons. I had been disenchanted with Hungry Heart mostly, I think, because of Weiner’s Twitter response to the success of Glennon Melton’s Love Warrior. It seemed like the wizard had been revealed, and she wasn’t so tough after all. Actually, a little bitter. But, I thought as I approached Earthquakes and Bed again, isn’t that exactly why Weiner’s characters work for us? For me? We are ALL of these things: bitter, sweet, jealous, proud, insecure, fierce. Human.

Anyway. I’m in mama mode and Little Earthquakes did the same things to me it always did. Hug my friends, kiss my kid, remember that every person has a story I don’t know, look at my dirty Vera Bradley bag with more tenderness than disgust. A bit into Good In Bed I was talking to a friend and said something to the effect of “meh, I’m not sure if I’ll finish it this time around.” I kept reading. And then . . . the unintended pregnancy! The asshole impregnator! Bad dad! The career crisis and crazy family and legacy of painful childhood! I had forgotten about ALL OF THAT.

“Ahhh” I thought, “here we go.”

As improbable as Cannie’s financial and professional luck rang, I wanted it for her (and for me). Brief Phish culture commentary? I’m a Northeast 90’s product, I got it. Making peace out of white hot fury? I needed to watch someone else do it before I tried to do it myself.

We know what fiction does for us, and for our world. Re-reading Good in Bed in a very different decade of my life was much less beach read than role playing, shuffling the cards in my hand, and realizing there are more combinations than I am aware of. If that isn’t hope, I don’t know what is.

Replacement Filter

I tell all of the parenting stories I shouldn’t. Stories where I swear and fail and damage my child in ways we all do but all ignore, and sure as hell don’t tell the other mothers. My verbal filter is notably porous.

During my first year teaching at a new school where I felt utterly out of my league, I told the “put your fucking boots on” story (cementing my position as the office over sharer).

It’s legend now. During that first year my son and I commuted an hour to our respective new schools. We are not morning people; it was challenging. We were running late, and I can still see my black skirt and broken old Danskos and feel the wet hair dripping down my back. For whatever reason, Colby was bouncing around the small, white kitchen like a pinball machine. “Colby!” I yelled, “Just put your FUCKING BOOTS ON!” I then had 45 minutes of driving during which I could cry and apologize.

When I told the PYFBO story, I learned immediately where and with whom I would fit in. From that day on, my colleagues have found me in my classroom or copy room or office bathroom, grabbed my arm and said “Heather! You’re gonna love this one . . .” And they proceed to tell their very own version of the Horrible Parent Story.

Ann Patchett says that every author has one story, and I’m afraid this one is mine.

I am sure it is annoying and probably the result of a personality disorder, but I can’t stand to walk around with an untold story. I feel an untold story bubble under the skin of my chest and wrench tight the muscles in my back. Also, I quite enjoy the opportunity to entertain my friends, to shock, to be a walking PSA shouting “We are all different!” and “Different is good!” Underneath all that, though, is the knowledge that these stories, the boots and the bongs and sending your kids to school sick, these are the stories that can cause us the most shame. My friend Sarah recently wrote about how we are freed from being the perfect wife but now must be the perfect mother, which is maybe more insidious than the first. Not only this, but we need to be perfect mothers with perfect kids.

Even though I know this, I still find myself wrestling with parenting decisions and sometimes making not the one that I feel is the best fit for my child and my family, but the one that best fits the governing perception of good kids and good parenting in my own community. These are unwritten rules and will change at any time.

My Horrible Parenting Stories are certainly not solely mine. The locus of impact is closer to me than my child in most instances, but these days I’m achingly aware of a new line. A boundary between the stories that are shared and do not affect my child’s peer group or reputation, and the stories where they do. I feel the same way about my nascent romantic relationship. Grateful, curious, protective. My filters have changed.

So I’m learning, as always. Which stories to tell and to whom.

xoxo

Heather

What do we even DO?

My friends.

What are you doing today? Are you, too, at work all in black and hiding your “Wild Feminist” shirt under a big scarf so you won’t get in trouble but also are telling the truth even if it’s only to your own heart?

I don’t know how to mark this occasion. The last inaugurations? We had parties and ate food and celebrated with friends. Today feels less like a party and more like a wake.

I’m not sure what to do, but I know that we ALL should cook at home tonight. If food=love then we are going to have a LOVE PARTY.

Go to your local grocery store or scrounge around in your pantry. If you’re like me you’ve been DOWN since November and have just started grocery shopping and doing laundry and actual work again.

I have spent three months watching goat videos on YouTube. Remember how Margaret Atwood described the fallow state in her Oryx and Crake trilogy? I feel like I’ve been in a goat-video-watching fallow state. And now, it’s time to get UP.

So tonight:

Open a bottle (box) of wine or some good, local beers, or a box of Capri Sun. Whatever. Put on some music. Tell the people in your house that they will be helping and/or leaving you utterly alone. Think about what FEEDS you. Remember that in airplane disasters you are required to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others. This? Tonight? This is your oxygen mask. This may be your oxygen mask for the next four years.

I’m thinking about dinner and my family and my *two teenaged boys who will come of age under the most misogynistic administration I have ever known. I’m thinking of my boyfriend who wonders why I, now, am angrier and more frustrated than I have ever been, and I’m thinking of ways to be less angry and more effective.

But bitches get shit done. So I’m still working on that.

Here are a few options I’m thinking about as I plan my meal for tonight:

Meals

  • Italian Wedding Soup from Dinner A Love Story blog
  • Jenny Rosenstrach’s Chicken Soup with Orzo from Dinner: A Love Story
  • Phyllis Grant’s Hearts of Romaine Salad with bacon, eggs, and pesto dressingSoy sauce eggs
  • Every online community seems to suggest a roast chicken for mourning. If you do this, use Mark Bittman’s recipe with a large cast iron dutch oven.
  • If you still can’t get off the couch – Pizza Toast (Catherine Newman)
  • If you want to eat your feelings and slip off into a warm and comfortable food coma, I would suggest Mississippi roast with mashed potatoes or sausage and lentil stew with cheesy biscuits or bread
  • Tacos, just because.

Sweets

  • World Peace Cookies
  • Chocolate Cake for Any Occasion
  •  . . . Mexican Icebox Cookies

 

Today, I want ALL of my people under one roof and to be drinking and cooking and dancing my way through the kitchen to prove that I AM STILL HERE. WE are all still here. We are going to be kind and brave, we will take care of ourselves, our families, and each other; we will bear witness to this moment and our commitment to this big, brutiful world.

What are you making tonight, loves?

xoxo

Heather

 

*There have been some developments in my life. More on that later.

On Love and Langue

 

My boyfriend and I, we don’t exactly speak the same language. And for once, I am not being hyperbolic.

By profession I am a teacher of English. By birth I am a bibliophile of the first order. I am sensitive and perceptive and have tendencies to overthink that certainly allow me to suss out the nuance of a passage or situation. It also allows me a diagnosis. And a prescription. Any old way, words matter. In 2016, words matter a lot.

But now, this tendency of mine to ponder and parse and analyze is less helpful. Maybe it wasn’t so helpful all along.

My boyfriend, he’s a talker. Even though he knows I only understand about 60 % of what he says on the phone, he still wants to talk, and I feel the same way. Even if I don’t understand the words, I understand his pace, his tone of voice, the way his timbre shifts when he’s tired. Where I once would have pulled an entire conversation into columns of words, words that are friendly or unsure or loving or reticent, I am left with only an echo, an imprint of what was said.

Because when he is looking for words the best word isn’t always available. He’ll lapse, frustrated, into his own language; he’ll choose the closest option. When I am trying to articulate a feeling with idiom (last week it was the impossibility of translating “all worked up”) my best choices include hand gestures and eye rolls and eventually, the grasping of a word that is close, but still not right.

We were talking about the near completion of my second master’s degree the other night. “The only disappointment for me,” he said. I winced, curled up on the couch, squinting my right eye and cheek and corner of my mouth all together. “The only disappointment for me and you,” he tried again, “is that your salary does not reflect the work that you do.” I gave him a pass. I could hear what I would normally say reverberating in my brain: Disappointment? How do YOU get to be disappointed in MY success? Is money really what matters? Are you saying I am a financial liability? But there is no room for that now. I can no longer assume the meaning behind a word, or even the intent. My information comes from elsewhere. I am learning to pay attention to other things.

I am paying attention to things that defy logic and science and definition. To the way four voices fill a house and empty a refrigerator, to the way hope rises; I am paying attention to possibilities and the soft edges of human love.

 

On Radical Kindness

As promised, here are my remarks for our 2016 National Honor Society induction ceremony. 

Good evening. Before I begin, I want to thank you for asking me to speak tonight. I am honored, and so very proud of all of you. As our current Public Speaking teacher, I feel just a tiny bit of pressure to perform.

The National Honor Society is comprised of students who have demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership, service, and character. YOU are the people I send my freshmen to for help. You are the ambassadors of our school and community. I hope that what I have to say to you tonight supports this mission, gives you something to think about as you go forth.

So, to do this, I need you to play along with me for a moment.

Close your eyes.

YOU are Harry Potter jumping into the Pensieve, the sparkling sink of memories, here. If you were to narrate your own story, right now, what would the critical, most important moments, the game changers, look like? Thinking backward, what events have led to your sitting here tonight? What is your story?

When I tell mine, I have landmarks – good and bad – but ALL that good has something in common: kindness. I’m not talking about getting a pay-it-forward coffee in the drive-through at Dunkin’, although that is a sure way to put a smile on my face. I’m talking about deeper, life-altering kindness, a kindness that is not safe, or comfortable, or easy.

Now I want you to take a moment and look to your left, and look to your right. Search the crowd like a spotlight. Whose story do you know? Think of someone you had trouble with today, a freshman in your way on the ramp or a cranky teacher or your best friend, or your mama. What is their story? What do you think their day was like today? Visualize concentric circles and move out, and think about those in your – school – community – state – nation – world. How very many stories are we missing?

My story is built upon the radical kindness of others.

I have experienced radical kindness at the hands of professors who, when my options were to lug a feverish toddler to class or stay home, said, “you are both welcome, come”. In this they said, “you are smart, you are welcome, you are worthy.”

I’ve experienced radical kindness in the words of writers who, knowing what criticism would come, told their truths anyway. For in telling their truths they nodded to the rest of us and said, “you are not alone.”

I’ve experienced radical kindness in Target-line conversations and smiles and held doors and when reading “I’m proud of you” scribbled in the margins of a most challenging grad paper. In this, they said, “you are seen, you are valued.”

Each of these moments required pause, they required time and energy of the giver, a moment outside of oneself (or ones phone).

Each of these moments ferried me over the difficult ones, and it is not hyperbolic to say that I would not be here, right now, without each one of them.

Radical kindness happens in the margins. Radical kindness is not random.

It is empathy, and validating the feelings of others.

It is humility, and knowing we are one of many.

It is respect, regard for that which is different from you.

It is a verb. Not an idea, but an action.

It is recognizing that we ALL have a story.

I fail at this every day, and that is okay. Giving advice to young writers, lecturer and writer Andrew Solomon says “ . . . It is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know . . .” and this thought sits like a virtual worry stone in the pocket of my heart. My daily failure means I am trying. It does not stop me from showing up again the next day, and the next, and the next, for I must.

Now is the time for radical kindness.

This is not to say that the act of “paying it forward” is meaningless. There will never be too much of that. It is to say that you are getting older, and more mature, and you are ready to make the hard choices – to look beyond yourselves.

It is often much easier to pay $2 for a cup of coffee than it is to stop and help someone pick up their dropped papers in the hall. It is easier to judge than to wonder. It is easier to give a present than it is to listen, and it is much more comfortable to complete a “random act of kindness” than to tell your friends “please don’t say that” or “leave him alone.”

But you are ready to make the hard choices. You need 0 dollars to change your way of moving about this one, wild and beautiful world.

Mother Teresa once commented on the state of the world: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” So again, I ask you to look to your left, and look to your right. Search the crowd like a spotlight.

Now, stand up.

If you are comfortable doing so, grab the hands of those next to you.

Here are your people.

In radical kindness we affirm that we do, indeed, belong to each other.

Thank you.

The ceremony was lovely and the most difficult moment was restraining myself from helping when two young gentlemen behind me were struggling to place the new NHS pins on each other. 

Now I am tired, and am looking forward to a weekend of very little other than house cleaning and hockey. 

xoxo

Heather

 

Radical

At school, we share our success just as freely as we share our failures. About a month ago my dear friend and colleague, Jane, popped into my room at the end of the day to tell me about her moment. And friends, it was a good one.

Like my lockdown story, it was born of necessity. She had a student who finished his work and desperately needed something to do. She decided to try something new.

“I decided to do something totally new,” she said,  “I had him give compliments. I asked him to give everyone in the room a personal, genuine compliment. Happily, he’s the type of extrovert who would accept such a challenge. He walked through the rows of desks and stopped to compliment each classmate. If he knew them well, he mentioned their sense of humor, a time they were helpful, etc. If he didn’t know the person, he complimented their appearance, drawings, handwriting, or something else visible to him. Students looked surprised, then quickly pleased. Because how often does that happen in English class? 🙂 Everyone had a smile by the end of class. How simple, yet how powerful.”

Now, props here, because one has to KNOW their class for something like this to work. It also is a precise example of the transitory nature of the classroom. This cannot be planned out and placed in a syllabus, it does not need to be aligned to the Common Core Standards for Students Will Not Act Like Assholes. It is organic, and fluid, and entirely context dependent.

This, friends, is what builds the culture of a program, a school, a community.

After Jane told me about her moment, I started thinking about the risks it takes to be kind. For teachers, students, and those all around, there are significant risks to putting oneself ‘out there’ into the range of others. It is so much easier to stay within the boxes on our syllabi, the lines on our lesson plans. Students are more comfortable filling in worksheets or playing the perennial favorite, laptop solitaire, than they are interacting with each other.

Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager behind a screen, from what I observe, is even harder. Jane’s on-the-fly assignment created an authentic interaction involving every single student in that classroom. The giving and receiving of a compliment seems so very simple, and is anything but.

So I kept thinking and kept thinking and kept thinking about how this was a radical kind of kindness, something vastly different from pay-it-forward coffee (which is awesome, not knocking that at all).

And then I was invited to speak at our National Honor Society induction, and it turns out that I have quite a lot to say about radical kindness. So I will say these things tomorrow.

I am honored and nervous and earnest and fiercely proud of these students.

xoxo

Heather