Solstice Square Mom

December 21, 2017

***

Crumpling newspaper to start tonight’s fire wasn’t intentionally symbolic. The house was quiet, dogs outside, and I had already swept the floor so that I wasn’t sitting in a pile of wood chips and sand and dog hair. But as I separated the glossy ads (they don’t burn, friends) from the newsprint, my eyes scanned the pages as they always do. Some afternoons I spread the paper back out. I read a piece I missed, or re-read one that was especially interesting and it takes a ridiculous amount of time to start the fire. Tonight I scanned, and I thought about this year, and I closed my eyes. I used it all, the last of the assorted New York Times and Bangor Daily News that we had stacked up in preparation for the winter. I crossed my legs and rolled my shoulders and touched the lighter to the paper. 
If winter solstice is a time of preparation, change and growth, I am ready. The internet says that today, December 21st, is the worst day of the year. At the risk of tragedy in the next 3.5 hours, I know that there were worse days in 2017. This is bad, but not the worst. 

We decided this week that my boy, who looks 32 but whose frontal lobes are woefully undeveloped, will split his time between my house and his father’s. I have an essay from a day in 2012 where I made the call and his father didn’t answer; this year he answered. The calls were similar. “Help,” I would say. “What I am doing isn’t working”. It’s true – nothing is working. My interventions and appointments and lectures have left me feeling like a caricature of the squarest mom in Squaresville. I keep checking myself. “Do I really believe this?” I want to know on a full scale, like when he is actually 32, that this might have helped. That I’m not making a cosmic mistake.   I do believe in the expectations for our household, for the way we treat ourselves and others. I think he does, too. Otherwise I would not be fighting. 

Wise advisors of mine once told me to work when Colby was small. “Wait until middle and high school,” they told me, “you’ll need the time then”. I find myself passing a different flavor of this advice onto my friends. “Save your energy,” I tell them, “I wasted a decade refusing to let my kid eat sugar cereal on school mornings. You know what doesn’t fucking matter? That. Save your energy”. 

So we are here, in different houses but tucking ourselves in for longest night of the year. We need this long night to think and rest and shift. 

***

“I’m all done growing,” I sobbed to my mother earlier this year. I can remember crying in front of her (outside of teenaged rage and no the irony is not lost here but I don’t want to talk about it) exactly zero times before this year. I’ve lost count in 2017. “I don’t want any more lessons,” I told her. “I’m done learning. I’m done”. 

I did not get to be done. 

***

On this longest of nights, I have the smallest window of clarity. I am not out of energy because the universe is not out of energy. Without the worst days I would not have been forced to look at all the pieces of my life and adjust accordingly. And there are people all around this kid of mine, holding him up and cheering him on. Different is not wonderful, but maybe it isn’t worst. 

A winter solstice has never been more welcome, not for the dark, but for the light that I have to trust is coming. 

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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

 

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.

IMG_5898

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.

No one told me about divorce diarrhea.

Warning: Anyone with significant bowel issues or weak stomachs – walk away now.

oatmeal dog

I’ve had enough friends get divorced to know what to dread and what to look forward to. Or, I thought I did. I fully expected to begin crying at any time for any reason, to drop some of the 20 lbs I gained over the last few years (thank you Divorce Diet), and to vacillate between benevolent understanding and the red hot fury of Mount Vesuvius. I’m comfortable with utterly unpredictable urges for loud music, general violence, or watching Disney movies and sobbing. It happens.

But no one told me about Divorce Diarrhea.

I may not be eating much these days, but when I do? Let’s just say that once I signed my name on that very important line, everything just kind of, loosened up. Is it instead because I am forcing myself to eat a bowl of oatmeal every morning? Maybe.

And I know. I KNOW that this is not what you want to hear right now. But if someone had warned me? I would have prepared.

imodium

All I know, is that I wish I had known I would, after paying the requisite $120 for a divorce in Maine, become intimately familiar with every public bathroom in the greater Bangor area. That I would be in the middle of a lesson on critical theory when I feel like Taco just unleashed the brown note. That I would be writing a blog post about poop.

Consider yourself warned, friends. If there is anything else you forgot to tell me? Please. Tell me now. In the meantime, I’m going to go make some chicken and rice.

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