GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

-Joan Didion

 

Shiv and I flew into Houston on Saturday, a quick trip, a stealth one.  Shiv visited friends and I helped Jill work on our old house, cleaning a LOT of tile grout in order to get the house ready to put on the market.  On Tuesday, the three of us flew back to Phoenix, and as soon as the mountains came into view, I distinctly felt that we were home.

 

Strange but true, Houston is now a Place I Used To Live, the setting for a chapter of my life that stretches nearly as long as the time I spent in Memphis, the Place Where I Grew Up.  I know that this sense of delineated geographic and chronological territory is not at all unique to me, that plenty of people move all over the country and the world, and much more frequently than I have, but this shift is a novelty to me.  I’ve been so focused on the beginnings that this move has created that I forgot to look for the endings inherently tangled up in it.

 

For the past four years, I used Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” as part of the nonfiction unit I taught in my creative writing class for seniors.  The piece (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth your time) describes Didion’s arrival in New York City as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, her subsequent enchantment with the city and the life she built for herself, and finally, manages to capture the experience of falling out of love both with New York and with the person she had become while living there.

 

It was usually around this time of year that we’d approach the essay, me reading it aloud in class to help students immerse themselves in Didion’s language, and also to evoke the tone of reflection that always struck a chord with my eighteen-year-old students, right on the precipice of a great life change of their own, but uncertain as to what shape that change might take.  Which friendships would last?  Who would they become in their new environments?  What would they choose when the majority of their choices were no longer dictated for them?

 

These are questions I’ve been asking myself recently, observing how what I want and what I’m interested in have shifted with my environment.  It’s fascinating data, expanding my sense of who I am and oftentimes surprising me with the results.  Our surroundings necessarily impact how we show up, pulling us into new adventures, like the hike that Jill and I went on this morning, on a trail quite literally five minutes from our house.  And our communities call us into being inside of relationships and the histories those relationships contain—which is why, comforting as it is to be known somewhere, to have a dozen or more years of history to lean on with those around you, it’s also tremendously freeing to start from scratch.  I am a different person than I was at twenty-four, when I started my last job; I have far more experience and far less to prove.

 

Turns out that much of what I had decided was the “norm” in my previous life was a standard of my own creation, one that I built in good faith but grew to feel stuck inside of.  Both my calendar and my mind are much clearer these days, and I am grateful for the chance to create a new sense of myself.

BABY’S FIRST CHAPTER BOOK

My love of Harry Potter goes way back; I am an OG fan.  I read the books as they came out (the first book was released the fall of my freshman year of high school), saw the movies in the theater as they came out (the first movie was released the fall of my freshman year of college), and I don’t think I will ever forget taking my copy of Book Seven out of its FedEx box, climbing onto the couch in our Pearland house, and reading the entire thing in one sitting, exactly one day shy of one year since my father had died.

 

Needless to say, it feels significant to be reading the books with Shiv.  I worked so hard not to project any expectation onto Shiv, not wanting to pressure or push, knowing that it could very well turn out that my kid just wouldn’t be “into” Harry Potter the way I was—so when Shiv asked, one month ago, if we could start reading the books together, it was all I could do to keep my shit together.  We promptly began reading Book One aloud, one chapter a night (sometimes two, when Shiv managed to wheedle me into continuing), and we are six chapters away from finishing Book Two.  After finishing Book One, we got Vietnamese take-out and watched the movie at Auntie Coco’s house; we plan to do the same for each ensuing film.

 

Everyone who knows me knows that I care about ritual; it works for me.  Ritual keeps me grounded, helps pull me out of my head and back into the world.  Religious ritual, specifically, reminds me of the bigger picture, of the seasonality of life and the cyclical nature of the universe.  For everything there is a season.  Impermanence is inevitable.  Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return.

 

Like most sacred texts, the Harry Potter books have nuggets of wisdom placed right alongside deeply problematic tropes and tendencies (female competence propping up male mediocrity, rampant fat-phobic language, a notable lack of non-white characters with anything more than bit parts).  But to treat the reading of these chapters every night as a ritual creates the opportunity to discuss the deeply real and difficult themes the series tackles: theodicy, abuse of power, dehumanization of the other, and how to respond to evil, among others.

 

A few weeks ago, at our yoga studio, a grandmother mentioned that she was reading Harry Potter with her grandson, who is a full two years older than Shiv, and expressed her doubts about its appropriateness.  “Yeah,” remarked the parent of another child, “that series gets dark really fast.”

 

I wanted to, but refrained from saying, “You know, the world gets dark really fast, too.”  This is a frustration that I have with a lot of the parenting that takes place inside of privilege; sometimes it seems as if the less danger children are actually in, the more protective their parents seem to be.  Jill and I have known from the start that we will not be able to shelter Shiv from the truth of a society that stacks the deck unfairly based on all kinds of things, including skin color.  Which is why Shiv has known about racism and slavery and segregation since age 3; we have consciously chosen not to anesthetize the world, tempting as it may be.  Sure, it feels shitty to admit to your kid that the world is unfair and full of as many terrible things as it is beautiful ones; but that’s the truth as I see it, and to prepare Shiv otherwise, would be to prepare Shiv for a world that doesn’t actually exist.

 

As an English teacher, I believe that books can push us to think about the kind of people we want to be, to hone in on what we believe and whether or not our actions line up with those beliefs.  Which is why my family will continue our little Harry Potter ritual, giving my British accent a work-out, marching into chapters that will inevitably trigger tears and tough questions, watching films that do, indeed, grow dark and scary, and doing our best as a family to call evil by its name and to choose how we will respond when we see it.

STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES

For a long time, I thought of myself as a person who valued order, routine, and predictability; “I’m pretty risk-averse,” I would tell people when the topic came up.  Individuals who knew me well often looked at me puzzled—does a risk-averse person self-publish a book or date their professor or adopt a child?—but that was how I related to myself, a narrative formed in childhood that lost its accuracy at some point during my teenage years.  One of the many things that this move has forced me to do is reconsider this story that I have told for so long, and to examine why I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to let it go before now.

 

Narratives are powerful, and like any powerful thing, they can be dangerous.  When we fail to update our stories about ourselves, we wind up living inside of limitations that are entirely self-imposed; when we fail to update our stories about others, we can—as individuals and groups of individuals—do terrible damage.

 

Such has been a piece of the conversation in my classroom the past few weeks, as my sophomores and I read Feeding the Ghosts, a hauntingly beautiful book of historical fiction that imagines the voyage of The Zong, a slave ship infamous for its captain’s decision to throw sick slaves overboard in order to maximize profits.  It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an incredibly difficult text to read and reckon with: questions about dehumanization, power, prejudice, and the nature of humanity have filled my days.  There are no easy answers—one of my personal and pedagogical core beliefs—which is part of what makes the examination worth the while.

 

I am interested in asking my students (and also myself) to look at and consider the material on multiple levels, hence the conversations about how narratives can influence and determine everything from our self-understandings to our institutional structures.  It may seem a stretch, but I do believe these things are connected; if we push ourselves to be more reflective and in reality about the narratives at work inside our own lives, we are better prepared to take responsibility for the narratives we participate in as family members, employees, citizens, and adherents to a particular dogma.  And Lord knows we could use a little bit of that in the world right now.

CLASS OF 2018

My babies graduated today, and it feels a little bit like I graduated with them.

 

I don’t really know how to talk about these kids, about this year, which is weird, because I can usually find a way to talk about anything.  But I am still processing the last few months of my life; it has been a very difficult year.  I did not plan for this year to be my last at my current school, but, as we all know, rarely do our plans and life align.  And while this is not how I had thought things would go, there is a fitting, if unintentional, symmetry to the transition.  The Class of 2018 was my final group of eighth graders before I moved to teaching in the high school, and they will be my final group of seniors before moving to Arizona.

 

When I first met them as middle schoolers, I told several colleagues that I’d never bonded with a class so quickly.  There was just something about them—their humor, their liveliness, their attentiveness and thoughtfulness.  They were easy to be with, easy to love.  They still are.

 

I know them differently now: better, more deeply.  I know that they are not all sunshine and roses, that there are sides to them that I dislike or that worry me, parts of them that drive me nuts just as I’m certain there are parts of me that do the same.  That’s the beauty of really knowing each other, the thing that has surprised me most about teaching: the way my students contribute to me, not as people adjacent to my life, but as people very much in my life.  This group of humans has been unbelievably generous with me in how they share themselves, even (especially) the parts that can be the hardest to share.  On the page, in person, in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, their willingness to be vulnerable, to trust me with themselves, still leaves and will always leave me breathless with gratitude.

 

We are all moving on to new places and new adventures, but there are some things that I want to hold onto from this year, from these kids.  The love and compassion they showed me when I was struggling physically and needed to take time away from school for surgery – stop telling me that teenagers are shallow and self-absorbed, because I have the text messages and emails and hand-written cards to prove otherwise.  The way they cheered when I joined them on their senior trip, lining up to hug and welcome me.  The intellectual bravery and personal risk-taking that has inspired me in ways they will never fully know.  It is because of their example that I have been able to envision a new future for myself, to step into this major change, both scary and exciting.

 

So, Class of 2018, thank you for letting me be an honorary member of your graduating class.  I will forever be grateful for all that you have taught and given me, for the opportunity to know you.  I admire the way that you work to align your values and your actions, the way that you care deeply but manage not to take yourselves too seriously.  Each of you has grown so much this year, that painful growth that brings with it self-knowledge and new perspective.  Hold onto what you’ve gained.  Write in your journal every once in a while.  Trust yourself.  Wear sunscreen.  Cite your sources.  Remember that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.  And know that I love you and I am cheering you on, no matter from how far away.  I can’t wait to see what we all do next.

 

MONDAY MIX (NEW YEAR’S EDITION) – 1/1/18

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

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Shiv was born in July 2012; that new year’s was his first night sleeping away from home, spending the night with his Nani (my mother).  New Year’s Day 2013, he had his first taste of solid food – sweet potato.  Since then, it’s become a tradition for him to spend the night with Nani while Jill and I enjoy an evening together.

Last night, as we driving back from our friends’ house (where we’d thoroughly enjoyed a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity), Jill asked me if I had any goals or aspirations for the new year.  We’re not necessarily resolutions people, but for the past few years, I have picked a word or phrase to focus on: 2016 was “discipline” and 2017, “courage.”  But I hadn’t yet thought of what 2018’s might be until Jill asked.

“I want to have more fun this year,” I told her, as we moved through the dark in the truck, the sky around us lit up as people set off backyard fireworks.  When I think about the memories from 2017 that are the most satisfying, what comes to mind are nighttime dance parties with Shiv, playdates with friends and their kids, time spent in art museums, reading, or enjoying delicious meals.  Those are the times when I am the most present and the least in my head.  Those are, as cheesy as it sounds, the times when I feel most alive, like I am living according to what I value: time with the people I love, good conversation about things that matter, learning new things.

So, I’ll be making a new notecard for my bathroom mirror today: MORE FUN.  What about you?

 

-I’m really excited to be offering a new writing course for 2018!  Come What May: Navigating Transitions with Grace is designed to give participants time and space to examine the changes, both big and small, transpiring in their lives.  Course materials will be delivered electronically each Saturday, from January 6 to February 10.  The cost is $25.  I’d love to have you join me if you’re interested.  You can also gift the course to a friend or family member – just leave me a note with their email address when checking out.

Learn more about the course and sign up here!

 

-Sometimes it’s important to take some time to look at beautiful things.  This piece from Edible Brooklyn features the stunning marzipan creations made at Fortunato Brothers, including the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, but in marzipan form.  All made by hand and ridiculously beautiful.

 

-I appreciated the message of this piece from LitHub: How Fetishizing ‘Craft’ Can Get In the Way of a Good Poem.   I’ve tried in the last year to be especially mindful of how we English teachers can unwittingly cancel out students’ enjoyment of literature by analyzing it to death, and this was an important reminder to keep an eye on that balance.

 

-In the last week or so, we’ve been the lucky recipients of the generosity of so many friends and family members, who’ve volunteered to help with Shiv, deliver food, run errands, help move furniture, and the like.  The family of two former students arranged to pick Shiv and his best friend up for a joint playdate; when I arrived to pick up the kids, they sent me home with a trunk full of food, including this delicious vegetable lasagna.  I’m not sure I can really articulate how humbling and grace-filled an experience it is to have a young woman whom you’ve known since the eighth grade cook you dinner, but I can say with confidence that I’ll be adding this recipe to our family rotation.