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.

 

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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

 

The Lockdown Story

 

Lockdown drills are an unfortunate necessity in modern America. Every school has their own protocol, and I’m finally seasoned enough to only question whether I leave the blinds up or down.

I know where my “Grab and Go” bag is, and I no longer need to consult the cheat sheets and maps for directions.

My students always gather in the same spot. As soon as the announcement booms over the intercom, they look at me, and all I have to do is point; they follow. Even when I know the announcement is coming, my stomach still drops when I hear it.

The students are every teenaged archetype all at once. A couple of boys flick each other and gesture to communicate. I suspect they have Pokemon cards in their pockets. One girl scowls at the chalkboard, her eyes betraying her invulnerable appearance. All of them look without moving, and I know that they, too, wonder: Is this really a drill? 

I think about the moment in yoga class when the teacher inevitably instructs us to open our hearts, to let our hearts raaadiate out to the corners of the room. I visualize this, and hope that the kids don’t know what I’m thinking because they’ll NEVER let me live it down, but also that they feel it. It’s okay, I breathe, I’ve got you.

I grab a clipboard, a piece of scrap paper, and a pen. I write “Once Upon a Time . . .”, and the kids take it from there.

Once Upon a Time . . .

Our class wrote about Student X.

The story was about him getting hurt.

But he ended up being okay.

Which was very fortunate for he had plans that afternoon.

While they write, I breathe. I scan the students, do a quick count from my perch on the floor, take the temperature of the classroom. The two fuzzy faced boys are still playing silent games with each other. Others have settled in, criss cross applesauce, and are waiting for their turn to work on the story.

He had plans to create an army and overthrow Donald Trump.

And Donald Trump yelled at him to go away

Donald Trump decided to build a wall in between him

and Student X. Donald was leaning on the weird wall

one day and Student X shaved his hair off his head.

One couple looks a little too cozy. We’re sitting directly under Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and this makes me smile. But I’m still watching them. Another teacher is nearly hidden amongst the students – the poor guy just wanted to show me a funny quiz, and now he’s stuck here, silent, on the floor, dwarfed by freshmen.

He accidentally cut his head open with the razor.

I watch the clipboard snake its way through the huddle of hormones and hair. The intercom clicks and I know what’s coming: ‘Good job’ the assistant principal announces, the lockdown is over.

Students groan and I grin. “Read it!” they yell. I hold up the clipboard “As soon as you’re back in your seats!”

Once upon a time . . . 

My Shitty Husband

I didn’t realize it was my (former?) anniversary until I saw it on Facebook. “Three years ago today . . .” it said. And there was a picture of so many of us, my people, huddled together in and around and on top of the outhouse that my then fiancé carefully crafted so that it would be useful at camp after we used it as a photo booth.

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I couldn’t find him in the picture.

I thought the hard part of divorce was the decision. I remember a nearly full year of agonizing and crying and mourning. Of walking through every possible scenario to save whatever was left. Then one day, I wasn’t mourning anymore. I was done crying and done hypothesizing; the unraveling of our union proceeded with remarkable ease.

But here I am, five months later, and I realize that the hard part is NOW.

The hard part is when you miss your really shitty husband.

The hard part is when you have cramps like Vesuvius and your kid is surly and you think you’ve failed at raising him AND the fucking dishes never end, man. Never end. You just want to read your book, walk the dog, go to fucking yoga, man. You realize that there is no one else to make the coffee, and no matter how shitty a person is, if they bring you coffee in the morning? You remember what that feels like. You still wake up some days and roll over, thinking that a hot cup of coffee will be right beside you.

Even when your shitty spouse seems to do nothing more than make life difficult, there is someone there to yell at. Someone who, for better or worse, knows the only way to stop the tears, catch your breath.

Our life together was not healthy or fun, and the rare good times were too far apart to even create the illusion of happiness. But he was . . . there. Even if the burden of home fell on me, there was another human around. In Case of Emergency.

As a teacher, I spend the end of August and beginning of September coiling, coiling, coiling so tightly that I actively fear the release. I know that something is next, but I’m never quite sure what. It could be a weekend of sleeping, a thrown coffee mug, or a midnight drive. But usually, it’s just a couple of hours of uncontrollable sobbing. (I blame society, not nature, for the record.)

Maladaptive, yes, but there are few people in the universe, who can both push you over the edge and soften your fall. My shitty husband could do both.

 

And I miss him this week.

Recipe for Numbered Days

Wake early. Make coffee. Notice the sunlight warming your shoulders through the kitchen window.

Choose one album whose story you can follow as you putter: cook, start laundry, find a million dirty cups. Press play. Feel your shoulders, hips, stockinged feet begin to move.

Pull your snarled hair up and secure. Smile at your reflection – a slash of white, earned, you have no intention of coloring.

Turn on the oven. Peel strips of bacon and layer them on a cookie sheet. Place them in the oven and forget about them. Heat two cast iron skillets on the stove. Ease the pages of your red, Betty Crocker cookbook binder open; they are stuck together with drops buttermilk, smears of eggy fingers, years-old flour dust.

Triple the recipe:

1 = 3 eggs + one for good measure

1 c. flour = 3

1 c. buttermilk = 3

1 c. blueberries = entire bag

and so on.

wash – crack – sing – stir – sizzle – flip 

Eat pancakes over the stove. Ignore the hot blueberries burn your tongue. To feed the masses, you must first feed yourself.

Drink your coffee while you listen to the last song of the album. Realize that this moment is the first song in yours.

Wake the one, two, three, four teenaged boys inhabiting your house – one yours, three borrowed. Listen to the thud of elephant steps on the stairs, laughter, guitars.

Revel in your status as ‘that house’ and realize ‘that mom’ always has to do a fuck ton of dishes.

Let the boys – paradoxes all of them – scruffy and smelly and intelligent and articulate and infinitely scatalogical – commandeer the music. Cock your head and really listen to the clarinet solo. Be impressed.

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Watch the food disappear.

Send them outside. “Pitter patter, boys. Go make music.”

Pour another cup of coffee. Sit on the front steps.

Look. Listen. Feel. Remember.

 

xoxo

Heather

 

Thursday

And if I loved you Wednesday,

Well, what is that to you?

I do not love you Thursday —

So much is true. 


And why you come complaining

Is more than I can see. 

I loved you Wednesday, — yes — but what

Is that to me? 

— ESVM



Oh, friends. 

You heard me say, yesterday, how I did not believe in so very many things: fate, true love, kismet. But just maybe something was at play today. 

I have slept, eaten, and read well. I drank too much coffee and ate an enormous breakfast; I took a long, hot bath and fell asleep-with wet hair- in my bathrobe. I woke up at lunchtime and ventured into West Stockbridge for coffee. I finished some reading, had a lovely visit with Joel from the Cali-style mobile store which included a tour of the factory. I bought a felt puppy for Baby Fern. It was gorgeous, sunny and sparkly and clear and warm. 

I drove by the Millay property at Steepletop and realized that I should hike today — storms are in the forecast for tomorrow. The property is situated off a three-ish mile dirt road. 

  
  

  I ditched the Subaru, threw on my backpack and hit the trail. 

 

  I had no idea what to expect. 

one of my favorites – look it up and read the entire thing

  These poetry placards line the trail. 

precisely, Vincent
 
  
 
The Millay Poetry Trail

  

 I had no idea 1. How long the trail was or 2. That the grave sites were situated at the end of it. I have unrealistic expectations for a husband simply from reading about Eugen. He once said if his wife wrote one good poem a year, then he had done his job. 

Mama Millay

  

I wrote to a friend: “I am sitting in a family graveyard.” I sat for awhile. I gathered stones and stacked them next to others. I talked to myself, to the trees, to one very loud bird, and to Edna and Eugen. 

 

I was passed by a young gentleman runner. He caught back up later and walked me to the end of the trail. He was a composer, one of the artists-in-residence at the Millay Colony for the Arts. More on that later. 

  

I reached the lower parking lot and gathered my keys when I saw a man open the shed door. “Do you work here?” I asked him. He replied “yes,” and I asked permission to walk the house grounds. He smiled and showed me to the main office. Martha gave me a sticker so I could be official, and Michael, who I learned is the staff gardener, pointed me in the direction of the main house. Then he said “oh, I’ll show you some of the highlights.”

  

  

  

Millay’s last writing cabin

 An hour later, we finished back at the main house. 

The new caretaker was moving into the apartment Norma and Charlie Ellis (Millay’s sister and BIL) shared, and he and Michael talked as I prepared to get into my car. “Do you want to see it?” He asked, and I knew I was about to meet my new best friend or get murdered. I weighed my options and figured that if I had to go, this was a pretty spot to bite it in. My mother will be proud. 

It was bright and warm, and I walked the same floors that Edna walked when she used the apartment to write in while her shed was being rebuilt. His excitement was palpable. He knew how special this place was. 

I stayed awhile longer and we sat by the stream sharing Stories. This new caretaker, Prescott, had a lifetime of knowledge not just about the property, but the entire area. We acknowledged the rare gift of today, and of Millay’s spirit – connecting Maine and Steepletop yet again. 

More tomorrow. 

Xoxo

Heather

Aftershocks

A post in which I use a tired metaphor because my brain is tired and I can’t really think of anything else.

If I were a geologist, I would have seen the earthquake coming. Unless it’s one of those disaster movies (why do I love them so much?!) where the fancy ass scientists don’t recognize the warning signs and only the nerdy crazies know what’s coming but nobody listens to them. In that case, someone would have noticed, but I digress.

I didn’t.

I should have. (Shit. Does that make me the obtuse and narcissistic scientist? Let’s pretend no.)

I barely got out in time. I am, if we’re sticking with this metaphor, still driving as the ground crumbles behind my back tires. But we all know that I will make it. You all know that that dusty truck ALWAYS drives toward the rainbow.

But now I recognize pieces of my life are beginning to settle into old and new places.

I am consumed with hope simply because it has been so long.

It’s itching at my clavicles and my heels. It was there all along.

This is new. Before, I drove and sobbed and contemplated and reckoned carefully. I am sure I am not finished driving and sobbing and contemplating, but it is no longer ALL.

And the aftershocks are coming, I know. I am going to do just what I always want my characters to do: keep my running shoes on, pack water, look up.

xoxoxo

Heather