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“The earth never tires, 

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first, 

Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d, 

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” 

-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Part 9

 

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I flew home on Monday, just a quick trip, less than 48 hours.  I say “home” even though I haven’t lived in Memphis for nearly two decades.  I say “home” even though I am about to live further west of the Mississippi River than I ever have in my entire life.

 

It’s funny—Houston is the city I am about to leave behind, but driving around Memphis in my rented Mitsubishi Outlander I felt as if I were saying goodbye to my hometown instead.  Perhaps this is due to the distance required to see something fully; I know, intellectually, that I will miss Houston, the city where I’ve spent the majority of my adult life, but without separation from it, I am unable to predict the shape that missing will take.

 

Memphis is different.  The whole city is animated for me by memory, brimming with nostalgia and obscenely full of feeling.  Driving around alone in my hometown is a cinematic experience, which I alternately delight in and mock myself for; listening to Nina Simone’s “Memphis in June” while visiting Memphis in June, Nishta?  Isn’t that a little too on the nose?  Add to that the fact that I showed up just a few days in advance of Father’s Day, one of the most emotionally loaded days of my personal calendar year.

 

Believe it or not, the timing wasn’t intentional.  I booked my flight so that I might attend a few meetings for Just City, the Memphis-based nonprofit on whose board I am privileged to sit.  (More about them in a future post.)  And I had planned the trip long before I knew I’d be moving to Phoenix.  But if I’ve learned something in these nearly twelve years of being tenderized by grief, it’s that you’ve got to make time to let yourself feel.  Though it would have seemed unfathomable to me in the beginning that I would ever need to schedule time to grieve, the truth is that we human beings are rather adaptable, and we are good at building our lives like brick walls around the inner sanctum that is our vulnerability.  I am as guilty as anyone of busy-ing myself into an artificial sense of being “fine.”

 

As is almost always the case, I find myself needing the exact advice I just finished giving my students.  “Try not to fight off the feelings!  Stay present in this very special moment of your life.”  Ummmm….hi.

 

Since my very first day of teaching, my guiding principle has been: don’t be a hypocrite.  (This may seem like a low bar, but given the hypocrisy of many adults, particularly those in positions of authority and power, it still feels like the right place to start.)  And so, while I was in Memphis, I resisted the urge to schedule a million things for myself.  I didn’t fill my free time.  I didn’t make a bunch of appointments.  Instead, I spent time alone, mostly with my phone in airplane mode, and let myself feel whatever I felt.

 

I drove around my old neighborhood and got out to smell the magnolia blossoms in the yard of a stranger.  I went to my old coffee shop haunt, got my usual order (a cup of Earl Grey & sourdough toast), and did some writing.  I drove down to the river, to where we scattered my father’s ashes, and wrote him a letter.  I didn’t cry then, but I did cry later, when I spotted fireflies in my friend’s driveway; we don’t get them in Houston.  I think I had forgotten they existed, and the sight of them was like a revelation.

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.

 

BACK AT IT

Y’all.  I don’t even know where to begin.

 

To be fair, that sentiment often applies this time of year – here are past versions from 2011, 2013, 2014, & 2015 (with some pretty good recipes attached!) – but this year…well, this year is a little, as the kids say, extra.

 

We are mid-major-life-transition, with a move to Phoenix happening this summer after 15+ years in Houston for me and 20+ for Jill.  Shiv was born here and has grown up here.  My mom, who arrived in Houston soon after Shiv did, is relocating with us.  Not only coming with us, but moving in with us.  And Jill’s dad, who has lived here nearly four years, will be moving back in Shreveport, where Jill grew up, into assisted living.

 

If you’re keeping track, that’s three Houston houses, two of which we’re planning to sell (the parents’) and one which we’ll lease (ours).  Jill is in Phoenix right this minute, meeting with our realtor and looking for a house to buy there.  Fingers crossed!

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Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I also managed to visit the ER (in Phoenix the night before my job interview), have surgery (thankful to be healthy now!), approve copyedits for my book manuscript (pub date = February 2019!) and spend ten days in Israel with my students as part of their epic, end-of-high-school trip.

 

Like I said, this year is extra.

 

In all of this, I have missed writing.  The irony of working on a book project is that it can take time and energy away from generating new work, and while I have vague, embryonic notions of what that new work might look like, the best way I’ve found to hone my writing voice and brain is to blog.  A regular commitment, with an audience (regardless of size), a place to reflect on everything happening around me, and an opportunity to share thoughts or insights that might be interesting or helpful to others.  So, my plan is to post here at least once a week, on topics that will likely be all-over-the-place, much as I’m sure my brain will be this summer.

 

To start, I thought I would share a few items that made my recent trip more comfortable, since summer tends to be a travel-heavy time.  No sponsored endorsements or affiliate links, just stuff I was genuinely glad I had with me on my trip!

TRAVEL PRODUCTS:

-My friend Courtney told me about Kavu bags a couple of years ago when I admired hers, and this trip was my excuse to buy myself one.  I bought this size, though I found it on sale at a local store, and am glad I didn’t go a size up.  This bag holds a surprising amount of stuff, but also kept me from carrying way too much around with me everywhere.  The convenience of being able to either throw it over my shoulder or strap it across my chest made it perfect for airports and crowded markets; same principle makes it the perfect bag to take with me to the playground or on adventures with Shiv.

-While I’m sure I would have enjoyed a cushy set of noise-cancelling headphones for plane and bus, my budget dictated finding a cheaper alternative.  I settled on these, made from real wood and less than $25.  They are remarkably comfortable; they come with several different sizes of rubber caps, allowing you to customize the fit, and the sound quality is excellent.  I kept them in for many hours at a time (11 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, anyone?) with no discomfort.

This portable charger (thanks, Schoen!) is worth every penny.  Fully loaded, it charged my phone and two others, bringing the battery percentages from the 20s into the 90s, and was still at more than half capacity.  Doesn’t take up much space and means you don’t have to always jockey for seats next to outlets everywhere you go.  You might spring a few dollars extra for the jazzy red one; I didn’t and I sort of regret it.

-Silly as it may sound, I was really glad that I had a travel-sized container of hydrating face mist with me (I use Luminance Skincare’s rosewater toner, but I know some folks who swear by the Evian face mist), along with a pack of really soft and good-smelling cleansing wipes (the Burt’s Bees ones are affordable but good quality, and come in several scent options).  I always feel kind of gross after being on a plane, and the misting toner actually helped me feel refreshed.  We also did a lot of sweating on this trip, so the wipes came in handy when changing clothes mid-day without the opportunity to shower.

-Last but not least, there were a few clothes purchases that made a believer out of me, brand-wise.  I’m not generally a big shopper (anymore – there was a time), so it’s worth it to me find places with consistently good quality and customer service, even if I have to stretch my budget a little and take advantage of sales/discount codes.

-In my search to find a bathing suit I could feel comfortable wearing in front of students, I struggled to find something that wouldn’t be overly revealing, but that would also be cute instead of frumpy.  With little luck elsewhere, I discovered Albion Fit.  The brand carries lots of one-piece options, some more revealing than others, but all in really great prints and colors.  Disclaimers: their sizing options are quite limited – I wore a L, and they only go up to XL – and their bathing suits are not cheap.  It gave me serious pause to spend $128 on one bathing suit, but once I received it and tried it on, I knew I wouldn’t be sending it back.  Honestly, the quality of the material is over and above what I’ve encountered elsewhere, even at J. Crew, which used to be my fancy bathing suit store of choice.  The fit was likewise excellent – I felt contained, but comfortable – and I will definitely be buying an additional suit from them in the future.

-Having heard good things about Athleta’s travel/athleisure pieces, I bought a long, breezy dress and a pair of exercise shorts; both packed like a dream.  Though I rolled the dress and crammed it into a plastic bag, it still looked great when I put it on.  The shorts were a lifesaver; I could rinse them out in my hostel sink after a sweaty day, hang them up in the shower, and they’d be dry and ready to go the next morning.

-My last find was the online store Title Nine, whose name belies a mission that’s easy to love.  Among their clothing and gear specifically curated for active women, I found a great sports-bra (their selection is AMAZING), an extremely cute and comfortable pair of slip-on shoes, and a sporty dress made with dry-fit material, which packed super-well and was very comfortable.  The best part?  It has a zippered side pocket, which is how you know this company is run by women.  DRESSES WITH POCKETS FOREVER.

 

 

LIVING BRAVELY

Last night, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony; afterward, several audience members asked me if I would share the text of my speech, which I am happy to do here.

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Good evening, everyone.  I’d like to thank Carly and the NHS Board for asking me to speak tonight—it’s truly an honor.  In preparing for this speech, I learned that the Board had asked my colleague, Kristine Varney, to give this speech, but she is currently in Israel with our amazing Safe Cracking Team.  Please know, it is no slight to play second fiddle to Ms. Varney; she is one of the most passionate teachers and dynamic human beings I’ve ever met. And since she couldn’t be here with you and I can, I decided to reach out to her and see what she would speak about if she were in front of you tonight.  Turns out that her suggested topic almost exactly mirrored what I had already thought I might say. So, you can imagine, if you like, that we’re both delivering this message.

 

I’m going to talk about bravery tonight, because I believe that bravery is fundamentally necessary to living an honorable life.  Bravery can take many forms, but I fear that all-too-often we pigeonhole bravery into meaning or looking like only one particular thing, or happening under one very particular set of circumstances.  So I’d like to explore a little bit of what I feel like I’ve learned about bravery, and I invite you to take away value or insight for yourself if what I say resonates.

 

I think a lot about stories—of course I do, I’m an English teacher.  Specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about narratives that we tell over time, as a culture or a nation: whose stories get told?  Whose stories get left out? And how does the framing of those stories impact what we take away from them?

 

A few months ago, my five-and-a-half-year-old, Shiv got a copy of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a wonderful volume filled with the true stories of women from all periods of history, all parts of the world, and all spheres of influences: athletes, politicians, scientists, artists.  Each one-page story is told in “Once upon a time” style and accompanied by a vibrant, full-page illustration. Shiv loves the book, and so do I.

 

The thing that has most struck me is how much I’m learning.  Like, where have these stories been my whole life? Why have I never even heard of the vast majority of these women before?  We know the answer to those questions, of course; those in power craft the narratives, and powerful women tend to threaten patriarchal systems.  (Some things don’t change!) Still, my experience reading these stories is visceral: the pride and awe I feel when reading about these incredible women, and the frustration that follows when I realize that I’m still carrying around an outdated narrative about women in general.  Because of the stories I’ve been exposed to—and the ones I haven’t been exposed to—our dominant culture has successfully fed me the notion that women of intelligence, ambition, and valor have, historically, been the very rare exception.

 

This notion of exceptionalism is further revealed by the number of times that the narratives in Rebel Girls include lines like this one, about Jingu, a second-century Japanese empress: “Jingu was thought to have all kinds of magical powers.”  Or this one, about Lozen, an Apache warrior who lived in the late 19th century: “People believed she had supernatural powers.”

 

The message is clear–the only way these women could have been so impressive or done such incredible things is that they had the powers of magic at their disposal.  It’s the only possible explanation. But what if these women were just unbelievably brave? What if all of the women that history has cried “witchcraft” at were simply operating from a deep sense of integrity, knowledge of their values, and out of a bravery that compelled them to do what they believed was right?  

 

This year, on the last day of World Religions Week, while most of the campus was away on Winter Trips, Emery hosted a Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of Hiram Bingham IV, an American diplomat who was stationed in France during World War II.  Harry, as he was known, helped 2500 Jews escape by issuing entry visas to the United States. He toured internment camps and lobbied the American government for aid, documenting the wretched conditions he saw. I don’t think there’s a single person in this room who would argue with me if I characterized this man as a hero.

 

But here’s what we forget.  Bingham was operating in direct violation of the orders of his superiors.  He broke the rules, and in doing so, risked his job and his family’s financial security.  We hear Bingham’s story and forget that, during his lifetime, he was not considered a hero.  In fact, when the U.S. State Department learned of his actions in France, they abruptly pulled him from his position and relocated him to South America, in what was essentially a professional demotion.  A few years later, after he was passed up for another promotion, Bingham quit the Foreign Service. He never shared his wartime actions with his family, and it wasn’t until after his death that his wife and children discovered the documents that would eventually cement Bingham’s status as a righteous Gentile and earn him his own United States postage stamp, among many other awards and honors.  Awards and honors that he never personally witnessed or received.

 

Bingham’s story struck me for many reasons, not least of which is that I learned that he was directly responsible for ensuring the safe passage of two of my personal favorite historical figures, the painter Marc Chagall and the writer Hannah Arendt.  How is it that my history could be so incomplete as to include no knowledge of this man who essentially ensured the continuation of the lives and careers of these two brilliant people who have influenced me and so many others? I struggle to conceive of the fact that so much can hinge on the brave decision of one human being, and I can’t help but wonder what it felt like for him to live out the rest of his life with these actions known to only a few.  It seems that was enough for him, the knowledge that he acted in accordance with what he believed was right, regardless of what others thought. I am moved by the thought, and aspire to live my life the same way.

 

Those of us in this room may not be called to bravery in the same way as an Apache warrior, Japanese empress, or American diplomat working overseas during wartime, but rest assured, we will all face numerous situations inside which our bravery will be tested.  In our relationships, in our workplace, out in public. And the thing I’ve learned is that trumpets are not going to sound and announce “This is one of those moments! Now is the time! Make sure you choose wisely!” We will not know that we are making history, either inside our own individual life story or someone else’s.  There may be no applause or accolades greeting us when we choose to act with bravery, and it is entirely likely that we will instead face scorn, ridicule, and attempts to persuade us of the wrongness of our actions. I think of the young people who spent their summers in the American South, pushing the American Civil Rights movement forward with their very bodies.  Many of them were exactly your age—16, 17, 18. We forget this, too. We think of them as heroes now, but they were literally spit on, beaten, harassed, and jailed, looked on as agitators by the vast majority of the American public. Freeman Hrabowski, whose story has been documented by the Library of Congress, was arrested at the age of twelve, after marching in favor of school integration during the summer of 1963.   He recalls Dr. King telling him and the other children, during the many days they spent in prison, “What you do on this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.” Dr. King, who himself was considered a domestic terrorist by the FBI.

 

I don’t have a perfect formula for how we cultivate bravery—sorry, that’s what you get for having me and not Ms. Varney—kidding aside, I am definitely still engaged in this learning process, and anticipate that continuing until the end of my life.  But I do have a few thoughts about practices that can support a posture of bravery, so that we are able to access it when it’s time.

 

Students who’ve had me in class or in dramaturgy sessions won’t be surprised to hear this, but I believe strongly in the necessity of knowing your core values.  Right now, your lives are so much about your grades and where you want to go to college and what you want to be when you grow up, where you want to live, what you’ll do; but I’m much more interested in who you want to be.  What do you value above all else?  What do you believe in? Only you can say.  And because I’m a writer and a writing teacher, I’ll urge you to spend some time actually writing down your answers to these questions and thinking through their implications.  There is something very powerful about committing a list of values to paper and then working to live by them. It sounds simple, but how can we expect to be brave in the face of challenge when we don’t know what we stand for?  

 

Because here’s the catch—there are lots of potentially meaningful values out there.  And the most difficult times in our lives are not going to be when we have to choose between something virtuous and something NOT virtuous; those may require some willpower, but probably won’t result in much second-guessing.  The hardest situations are the ones in which our core values come in conflict with other values. Think of Bingham, who chose compassion over institutional loyalty. It’s not that loyalty isn’t valuable—in fact, I think we would all argue that it’s an important quality—but my guess is that Bingham’s core value of compassion outweighed his loyalty considerations during his time in France.  In retrospect it seems an easy choice to make, but I doubt that it was so simple for him in that moment.

 

Which brings me to my next point.  If we aspire to bravery, we must cultivate an inner strength that will allow us to stand apart from the crowd, even if that crowd contains friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or family members.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting accolades from others, of course; that’s simply human. But if we are so dependent on external validation, we will never be able to break away from its source. Work to be your own champion, and your own critic.  Congratulate and acknowledge yourself when you act in ways you’re proud of, in ways that line up with your values; and be willing to admit to yourself when you fall short. This, too, takes bravery.

 

At the same time, I encourage you to surround yourself with others who share your values.  Keep those people close, lean on them when you are faced with those difficult decisions, the ones that require courage.  They will remind you of who you are when you are struggling to remember, will support you when others turn away, will keep you from second-guessing yourself when it’s time to put your neck out for what you believe.  

 

It’s likely that none of us in this room will receive public accolades for our brave deeds, though it would be pretty cool to someday buy stamps with a former student’s face on them (if stamps still exist.)  But if, at the end of the day, you know in your heart that you have lived according to your values, to me that’s an honorable life, and one well-lived. Thank you for listening, and congratulations.

MONDAY MIX – 3/12/18

Spring has sprung in Houston!   I know friends in other places are bracing for snow, but down here the pollen is coating everything in sight, rendering cars yellow and noses runny.  Still, the glorious showy azalea blooms and budding trees make it seem worth it…not to mention the gorgeously cool days we’re basking in.  As seen above, we celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, a few weeks ago on our friends’s farm.   I loved Holi as a kid, and so did Shiv; the raucous joy of throwing colored powder at friends and family translates across place and time!  It felt good to celebrate life and aliveness with loved ones.

-I’ve got a few things to share this Monday, and I’ll start with this fascinating piece in The Washington Post by a professor of social psychology at Yale, John Bargh.  He writes about research that links the presence of fear for one’s physical safety to conservative political attitudes, and how researchers have attempted to manipulate those attitudes by reducing fear.

-Though my personal experiences do not mirror the authors, I felt so much resonance with this Slate piece by Alison Spodek Keimowitz.  Keimowitz is both a cancer patient and a professor of environmental chemistry (with a specialty in pollution) at Vassar College; she writes beautifully about how her experience with cancer allowed her to relate differently to the realities of climate change:

“Many students come to my classroom already knowing about carbon dioxide, sea level rise, and mass extinction. What they don’t know, because none of us really do, is how to move forward, how to breathe, and how to live with the knowledge of our own personal and planetary mortality. But perhaps I can offer them tools to endure with some grace.”

-Last but not least, this New York Times recipe is a winner: Garlicky Chicken with Lemon-Anchovy Sauce.  ANCHOVY HATERS GO HATE ELSEWHERE.  My only tweaks were to wait to add the capers before putting the chicken in the oven, and to bump up the lemon juice.  Served this with risotto for maximum sauce-soaking-up purposes and Shiv told me, “Mama, you make the bestest chicken.”  Who can argue with that?