Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Knocking

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature? Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.   (Shakespeare’s Macbeth I-iii)

There’s been a knocking at my ribs. I could easily point to the amount of cleaning, shopping, wrapping, baking, entertaining I’ve done, but that would not be an honest explanation of why I haven’t been writing. The truth is, I’ve been afraid to. I have struggled with the honesty of writing.

Eleven days before Christmas a troubled youth killed 26 people at an elementary school in Connecticut, mostly children. I saw the news blurb pop up on my Yahoo page at the end of the school day and later as I sat sharing some pre-shopping appetizers with Eric at a restaurant, I heard more on television. The pictures of the little angels and their protective teachers which hit the airwaves over the next couple of days were mixed with debates on gun control, mental illness, and school security. I returned to work at my own high school just two and a half days later barraged with school notices, meetings, and discussions so sadly troubling to be faced with at this holy time of the year.

Through it all, I’ve felt myself putting on armor, shielding myself with insistence that the evil found in this world does not compare to the goodness of humanity. The stories of conflict, pain, and suffering are those the world focuses more upon. People are drawn to the horrors in life and are much too complacent and unappreciative of the beauties and joys to be found in our world. This I tell myself, all the while grieving for the loss of innocence...all the while, demanding that I hang onto hope and faith that I am not as naive as I sound.

Writing gives me a choice, to wallow or to find whatever sliver of goodness I can find. And maybe that’s why I haven’t taken time to write. I’ve been afraid I’ll only wallow. Because, truth be told, I could do that quite easily. I feel deeply and I’m a strange mix of confidence and insecurity. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

My Mom-in-law died a month ago. I’ve thought of her every day, each time I pass the pool float in the garage or open a drawer and see my bathing suit. I won’t sit next to her at her backyard pool next summer. I thought of her when I was out shopping for Christmas. I saw things I thought she might like and then realized I couldn’t buy them for her any longer. I made crabmeat rollups for our Christmas Eve buffet and thought of how she’d enjoyed those, and prepared our favorite needham candies knowing there’d be no playful fighting over how many she would go home with at the end of the evening.  In watching my own parents age, half way through their 80s, I never really thought I’d be saying goodbye to Barbara at the age of 67.

My Dad’s sister, my Aunt Vera also died a few weeks ago. She was 80. She always reminded me of my Gram who died when I was 17. I gave a lot of thought to how she’d been the only girl with several brothers in her family and I smiled with tears remembering how much I had enjoyed my aunt over the years. I may only have had four visits with her--at ages 8, 17, 18, and 29 but she’d touched my life in an honest way. Seeing this matriarch die so soon after another prompted me to realize my own role with my daughters and nieces, son and nephews, teen students at school, and former students I am blessed to have in my life now, months or years after they’ve left my classroom. It’s a daunting thought to think I’m being placed in that role now, that I’m quickly becoming one of the oldest women in the family, but I suppose it’s true.

I know that I’ll forever have help as I make my way through this uncertain world. I am lovingly supported by my family and friends. But I’m talking about another. God was with me when my Mom answered the phone the other day, when I closed my eyes and embraced her voice and her happy laugh. God was with me when Dad called to share with me their happiness and appreciation for the little box of cookies I sent to them after they could not make it down for Christmas. God was with me that evening when Sharon, my dear friend from college, a friend I’d regrettably lost touch with a few years ago, called me to reconnect. God is with me now as I clumsily return to the blank page, filling it with sputtered words of emotion seeking rationale, insight, and wisdom. He is one who set up these three very important, unexpected phone calls for me this month. Three calls, each of which strengthened me and returned to me the energy and the needed reminders of who I am and how I will make my way through this life.

The words are on the page. The writing may need reorganization and revision, but the honesty has fought its way to the surface. The knocking at my ribs has quieted.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.  Rev 3:20

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lights of Beauty and Peace

In the past 14 days I’ve grabbed tightly to minutes, if not hours, when everything seems to be perfect, or as perfect as I would want it all to be. It did not take loss to open my eyes to life’s precious moments, as I have always taken a step back to see the world in its most extraordinary being, instances when beauty and peace intertwine and make me catch my breath, however since the death of my mother-in-law two weeks ago, my sensitivity has been greatly heightened.

This happened Saturday when we did nothing that took us from the house. Having gone out to dinner as a family the night before, we took time to sleep in and watched television together in the morning. In the afternoon I cooked some soup and my husband built Emma and I a fire in the living room so we could reach cuddled up together on the couch. It was a simple and peaceful day. Perfection. And yesterday afternoon, as my husband and I got home from work together, it happened again. All in the midst of hanging our outdoor Christmas lights.

I’d bought a new strand of pretty white lights a day or two before. I thought of how they might look pretty tracing the two little trees near my adirondack chairs in the back yard. I started stringing the lights while Eric worked to clear the back deck of its summer furniture. The dog happily ran in and out of the woods chasing a soccer ball. The sun set and, in the near darkness, it began to snow. I can’t possibly recreate every little piece of the scene that unfolded next, but it included laughing with Eric as I convinced him to stand in a certain spot under a tree branch so I could throw a spindle of lights to him after catching some on a tree. It included that puppy being most excited to have her masters outside throwing the deflated soccer ball for her, over and over again. It included untangling several strings of lights and not minding at all when I anticipated my husband’s words, “I’m glad we’re doing this together”.

The air grew chilly and I pulled my hat down over my ears. I heard the rustling of the leaves as they began to dance in whirlwinds. I saw the glow of those big old-fashioned bulbs adorning the garage and front shrubs, and after we headed back inside, I smelled the roast chicken I had popped in the oven before our decorating work had begun.

Fifteen minutes after we had gone inside ourselves, our children returned home together after a basketball game.  Each had seen our afternoon’s work of course and had noticed the new set of lights I had placed in the backyard. In his teasing way, Paul came into the kitchen and pointing at the backyard said, “Hey! What’s this?! That’s new!” My daughter added, “We stopped on the driveway and looked at everything before we drove all the way up”.

I imagined the two of them pausing, sitting in the car together in the driveway, taking in the glow of the lights side by side, and I smiled. For they too take time to step back to see instances of beauty and peace, especially when it is in their own own backyard.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Weight of Grief

I have had a full morning with my teenage students. In our five hours together, one block of teens and I discussed the concept of “economy” when writing a story, and they practiced crafting a two-voice poem with a partner. The exercise was enjoyed by most in the Creative Writing class, evidenced by the laughing as pairs brainstormed topics and gently ribbed one another’s use of language. “A dog wouldn’t say THAT!”, one young man said, teasing his friend. In the second block of my morning, my International Baccalaureate English students happily arranged their seats in a circle, anticipating our return to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The close-knit group of ten have taken parts in the drama, and my enthusiasm for the characters and the storyline, not to mention my insistence that they “talk like witches” when the Weird Sisters appear, has eliminated any worries they might have had with when first reciting iambic pentameter. The hot topic of the day was Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband and her coercion to have him kill King Duncan in his sleep. Several boys in the class began calling Macbeth “whipped”, while others, girls and guys, simply dropped their jaws at his wife’s evil nature. “She said she would do WHAT to a baby she was breast-feeding?!”

And finally, in my final morning class, my twelve Horrific Tales students reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, jumped online to take Jung’s Typology Test, a 72 forced-answer personality quiz which when submitted, instantly placed students in one of sixteen different personality types. Students eagerly read articles listing qualities of their dispositions and providing the names of celebrities or historians or fictional characters who share their typology. Remarkably, the entire class tested as introverts, and we all discussed what it is like to be introverted. Everyone nodded and smiled at the discussion of how we introverts tire easily when placed in social situations, and then we took time to discuss how our “duality” of positive and negative characteristics can be compared to the psychology within the characters of Dr. Jekyll and the abominable Mr. Hyde. The students will draw self-portraits this week in an attempt to capture their own understood duality as we continue exploring the novel’s themes.

I went to lunch after these three blocks. I sat down at the teacher’s room lunch table. I had survived my day and would have only my prep period after lunch, a time when I would attempt to update grades online and plan for the lessons of the next day. But as one of my colleagues sat down to join me, I found myself apologizing for being poor company. “I could take a nap right now”, I said. And that’s when I realized how exhausted I really am. I am surviving, perhaps even thriving in my day-to-day teaching...I love it so, but I am weary. I had a decent weekend, spent time with my husband and the children, had a little fun and managed to get in some exercise, reading, baking, and holiday decorating. I even took a short nap! But hanging over me is this oppressive cloud, this feeling that I could easily hit the pillow and sleep for several days’ straight. It is the exhaustion of grief. My body is telling me what my head and my heart are trying to keep in check.

I think I am doing fine, moving on, accepting the losses, looking ahead, but my body knows differently. It knows that this is nothing so easily or quickly overcome. And so I give in. I rest my head on my hand at my teacher desk and I close my eyes for a few minutes. Breathe in...Breathe out. I plan to exercise some of the stress away after school when I take to the gym. I vow to get to bed earlier tonight. And I tell myself it is okay not to be super-teacher for the rest of the day...or even tomorrow. The heaviness will lift in time. But that day isn’t today, and that’s alright. I’m in the game. I’m putting one foot in front of the other. I am with people, beautiful, honest teenagers, and I am laughing and smiling with them every hour. I still love life, even if it tires me. That’s enough for now.