Monday, January 20, 2014

On Being Nineteen

A week or so ago, a student of mine stopped me before leaving my classroom. 

“Mrs. Walker. Stephen King wrote an essay as an introduction in one of his Dark Tower novels. I think you would really like it. I have it in my bag. Would you like to borrow my book and read the essay?”

“Sure, Jack. Thanks”, I said. I took the book, placed it on my desk, and headed to lunch. 

Back in my classroom a half hour later, I looked at the piles of correcting I had before me and instead, I found myself reaching for the book Jack had given me. The eight page essay, “On Being Nineteen (And a Few Other Things)” has been traveling with me for days now. Each day I throw Jack’s book into my teaching bag. I have read and reread the essay several times. I need to give the book back to Jack. But first, I want to write about King’s words. 

The piece opens with the writer discussing his love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and how, at the age of 19 King felt, “endlessly powerful and endlessly optimistic” about writing his own story that would “get inside his readers’ defenses” and “rip..and ravish them forever with nothing but story”. He calls himself “certainly arrogant” at 19, but is quick to say that it’s important to “start out too big for your britches”, because if you’re not, “how are you gonna fill ‘em when you grow up?”

The discussion took me back to my own 19th year. I was a freshman in college and I had just switched my major from theater to communication. I would make another change and become an English major before graduating at the age of 22, but at that point, I was trying things on for size, experimenting and enjoying courses which had me learning the nuances of interpersonal, family, and small group communication. I loved public speaking and was an enthusiastic presenter, earning A’s in all of my classes. I would not have called myself arrogant by any means however, but I can say that I felt the refreshing breeze of confidence, knowing I had so many options and all the time in the world to figure out where these classes would take me next. 

At the age of 19 I was also about to say “Yes” to one of the numerous marriage proposals Eric made to me that year. I kept stalling but luckily he was patient. I knew I wanted him in my life forever, but I did need reassurance that becoming engaged that young wasn’t ridiculous. I spoke to my Mom when I finished my freshman year. Mom knew we’d been together for over four years, however, and she completely trusted my judgement. I returned to college for my sophomore year with a diamond on my left hand. Eric and I were married in the midst of my junior year, four months short of my 21st birthday. (And in case you missed it, he and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past November)! 

At the age of 19 I too felt endlessly optimistic, and as I look and listen to my two college aged daughters, I see that in them as well. Sydney, at the age of 22 calls me to excitedly tell me about a possible job lead and I hear the exuberance in her voice and smile with pride. Emma will turn 19 as her freshman year of college comes to a close come spring. She speaks now of the ideas she has for spring break, summer, and next year and again, I smile at the memory of what it felt like to be on the cusp of something great. 

This morning I woke up to a text from one of my teens, a senior girl in my Creative Writing class. She wrote to thank me for helping her with her reading and writing this year and proudly announced that a teen publication I had prepared her to submit to had deemed her story “the third best of the day”. Yes, being a teacher of near-nineteen year olds is a wonderful way to remain “endlessly optimistic”. 

The funny thing is, I still feel nineteen. I continue to see all the possibilities for where my life will go from here, and I could not feel more powerful, more hopeful, and more alive. Maybe I’ll always be too big for my britches, but there’s truly nothing like writing your own story. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Welcome 2014

Over the first few days of the new year I took several naps, went to bed early, and scoffed at any notion of doing anything responsible. I didn’t put away my clothes. I didn’t do any dishes. I delayed in paying bills or balancing the checkbook. Instead, I allowed myself to be sick with a head cold. And I’m glad. I needed that allowance. But I couldn’t shake the realization that for the first time in countless years, I did not stay up to watch the ball drop in Times Square. More shockingly, as of January 1st I hadn’t made any resolutions. Instead I faced a different milestone of January 2nd, my Dad’s birthday, the first without him. I steeled myself the entire day. I did not mention his name even once. In fact, as my husband noted the next day, I barely spoke at all. It was not only the first time his birthday had passed since his death, it was the first time I’d begun a new year without him. 

The next day I took a shower in hopes that I’d wash away the feeling of sickness and sadness. It helped. I made a big pot of chicken soup and after taking a nap in the afternoon, I prepared a chicken dinner. The five of us gathered on the couch together to watch Harry Potter and I turned in early but not before cuddling with my kids and our pup. Later that week I sat in my recliner in front of our Christmas tree. In the middle of the afternoon, as the sun came streaming in from the back windows, I decided I’d try to figure this resolution thing out. 

In this walk of grief I have learned some important lessons. I have learned how very important it is to cut myself a break, to remain honest and true to myself. It’s also vital to me to hold onto my faith and gratitude, to continue to serve others, and to live, laugh, and love in earnest. I strive to walk in the sunshine, even if it is a bit elusive some days. To reinforce my foundation which has been shaken a bit, I resolve to achieve the following: 

Resolution #1--Be kinder, gentler to myself. I will talk to myself the way I talk to others. I will cut myself a break when I am tired, vulnerable, sad, or frustrated. I have a natural determination to do better. But what I need is to be patient with myself, to say, “It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day”. As part of this resolution, I will also be more fiercely protective of my well-being. I will sometimes rest, but I’ll also take time to run. I’ll get outside. Sometimes I’ll jump in puddles. I will dance. I will sing at the top of my lungs. And to preserve my energy, my focus, and my sense of humor, I will surround myself with the people in my life who are loving, kind, and generous in their attempts to protect me and my heart.   

Resolution #2--Remain honest--When I am feeling the most stress, I later come to realize I am pushing aside feelings I am not dealing with. Or sometimes it’s that I am running at a pace that is not my natural rhythm. This stifling of my feelings or keeping a pace that isn’t my own is not healthy. No feeling is good or bad, it just is. Like the weather, feelings come and go. It is okay to feel sad one evening because by morning, that feeling may very well dissipate. It is okay to feel joy without feeling guilt. It is healthy to express my needs and wants, my feelings, whatever they may be. Feelings are what they are. I give myself permission to JUST BE and to JUST FEEL, to take what comes and to live in the moment. Right now as I write this, I am feeling hopeful. If I wake up and feel something else tomorrow, that’s okay; the hope will return because overall, that’s the kind of person I am. I’m an optimistic, humble, and grateful woman. I’m also a responsible teacher, mother, wife, daughter, and community member. But at times I push aside my own needs and wants to a point that isn’t good for me. I am vowing to remain honest and free to express my feelings in any way that I deem best for me. 

Resolution #3--Give back. I work to make a difference, to serve others. I am out in the world--working with teens at school, interacting with people in my communities on a daily basis. But I also give back when I write and share openly. Wherever I am, I’ll continue to help others to the best of my ability because that’s what I know is right. I also want to return to my practice of “paying it forward”--finding novel ways to add sunshine to the daily life of other people. I am blessed and I do not take that for granted. I’ll continue to give back, however I can. 

Resolution #4--Hold onto faith and return to the confidence I had before some pulled at my wings in an attempt to knock me down. I’ve always had natural instincts which I’ve trusted to bring me to the right place. I’ve also been blessed to have a strong faith in God and I have lived nearly 46 years following my conscience and it has served me very well. I’ve had my share of insecurities like any other, but I have long been a confident child of God--not arrogant, but confident. But in recent years there’s been too much noise and others’ voices have drowned out my own. This will change in 2014. And following His guidance, I’ve already secured reinforcements--people who see me clearly and who do not pass judgment, people who are secure and who l want to learn from. 

Life isn’t always easy but our lives are meant to be lived with kindness, honesty, service, exuberance and joy. Welcome 2014. It’s going to be a good year.