I’m not feeling well enough to write much since I started chemo this week, but here’s a twenty-three second clip just prior to my first chemo treatment. More to come!
There are places in the world that feel like home even if you’ve never lived there. Places that feel immediately familiar, where your shoulders relax and you sigh deeply. Places that deeply touch some part of your soul and beg you to stay. Places you yearn for when you’re away. Places where you don’t have to be anything other than who you are.
For me, that place is Wyoming.
I’ve traversed America countless times to return to Wyoming. Each time is like a homecoming.
On a flight to Oregon once we flew directly over eastern Wyoming. It’s expansive nothingness was unmistakable. I looked out the window and thought, “My heart is down there.”
I don’t think I’ve ever said anything more true.
For years, my family made summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming. My daughter worked as a park ranger in Yellowstone, then a geologist in Jackson Hole. This summer we returned for her wedding overlooking the Tetons.
On our first trips, Wyoming seemed so far away. Two full days of driving with two bored kids in the backseat almost didn’t seem worth it. The fights, the restlessness, the boredom. But once we got out of Texas (which is over nine hours of the entire trip), and the drive became more scenic, even the kids couldn’t complain too much.
Nowadays we avoid Colorado and sacrifice mountain views for the easy, monotonous drive through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. I ponder the emigrants of the 1800’s walking through these arid places, following their wagons, ready to start a new life. I wonder what it would have been like to be a woman, coming to such a place and raising a family.
This year we drove up through southern Utah, another place I think of as home. Still clinging to our stressful, fast paced city lives, we were anxious to reach Wyoming and help with wedding preparations, and made no stops in Utah. It was tough to drive past Canyonlands and Arches and not enter the parks. For me, southern Utah and the four corners area is like the center of the world, and if there is such a thing as “sacred space,” it is found in Utah.
Regardless of which direction we enter Wyoming, I’m in love the moment we cross the state line. From the lonely, empty landscapes of the east, to the mountains of the west, it’s all magical to me. The sky is huge and never remains the same. Weather changes are dramatic and sudden.
We camped on Shadow Mountain, across the valley and overlooking the Teton mountains. We camped five nights on forest service land, and I couldn’t have been happier. We had only planned on camping three nights, but the choice between a hotel room and sleeping outdoors was an easy one. Despite a fire ban, which meant no evening campfires, every minute spent on the mountain was priceless.
My daughter was married there.
The Tetons wear a different face every morning. Its face changes throughout the day. It’s fascinating to watch those changes. I could never grow tired of the view.
One could sit for a lifetime on Shadow Mountain and grow old, watching the changes sweep across the mountains, and know that despite the changes, nothing really changed at all. This is the mountains’ greatest lesson.
I used to think of Wyoming as being someplace far, far removed from my Texas life. It isn’t. Even if I never physically live there, I will always carry it’s songs and pictures in my heart.
When I’m back in Dallas, in my air conditioned house trying to escape the 100+ degree temperatures outside, I can close my eyes and imagine myself standing before the Tetons. I know all the roads that will take me there. I imagine one long road, a tether, an umbilical cord, between myself and the mountains. I know that at any moment, if my everyday life ever becomes too overwhelming or artificial, all I have to do is start driving.
I’ll be there soon enough.
Is it possible there are things you have to give that you haven’t yet discovered?
Last week on television someone asked this question: How many gifts are in you? I wrote it down to think about later because I liked the idea of each person having gifts within themselves to give to the world.
I believe that people are intrinsically good. People can do horrific things, but there is always some kernel of goodness in each person. We make choices, and they aren’t always the right ones, but it’s up to us to work on finding the wisdom to make those choices from the place of goodness within ourselves.
I think even the most vile and evil persons have that same kernel of goodness within. It doesn’t excuse the choices they’ve made, or the fact that they may pay a high price for those choices, but there’s always the potential to find the good again and to be forgiven for those choices.
I love the idea that who we are–that which makes us us–can be seen as a gift. A gift to me is something that’s given without any expectation of gratitude or acknowledgement, something that doesn’t need your name attached to it.
Maybe it can be something as small as a smile you give to someone you don’t know, a door held open to the person behind you, or paying the lunch bill for the person sitting alone at the table next to yours.
These are small kindnesses, but kindness is a gift.
I can’t say that I’m always the nicest person, but I try. Thinking of my life as a series of gifts I can give to others makes me want to search for the gifts I’m not yet aware of. What are those gifts I have left to give? Are there others I don’t know about, that lie hidden so deeply, waiting until the time is right to be brought forth?
These are things I used to think about when I was fifteen, alone in my bedroom, wondering who I was and what I wanted my future life to look like. Is it possible that I haven’t figured it all out yet, that 35 years later I’m right back in the same place as that teenage girl, knowing it doesn’t matter where I am on this road, that I can focus and redirect my life in any direction I want to take it?
This is something I struggled with as a teacher of inner city kids, that so many of my ten, eleven, and twelve year old students had already given up and weren’t able to see the gifts within themselves. Many of them didn’t understand about choices and the idea that life is bigger than their own small worlds. They were so used to seeing life as something passively happening to those around them, not knowing that each person has the power to make life happen, and that it can change and be better.
It’s one thing for a teacher to bring out your gifts, but quite another if there is silence at home. Or screaming.
We’ve all seen people make miraculous changes in their lives, and it can be inspiring. People lose weight, leave a thankless job, turn a passion into a career, or decide there’s something better than what they’ve known.
It starts with realizing you’re more than who you think you are.
Knowing there are gifts that each person can give to the world is a very powerful idea. If we viewed each person we meet as having something wonderful to give, something they might not even be aware of, we might see that person very differently.
And if each person actively worked to realize their own gifts, and to bring those gifts to light, what a different world this could be.
We all know anger. It rears its ugly head when you least expect it, and it bites faster than a rattlesnake on a hot afternoon in Texas.
A few mornings ago my running group met before work for our long run. We ran on a Friday instead of our usual Saturday morning because one of our members had a memorial service to attend the next day and we didn’t want her to have to run 16 miles on her own. We’re a tight group and that’s how we roll.
We met at the impossibly early hour of 5:30, but the weather was perfect. 58 degrees, no wind, and clear skies. There were four of us and the run was surprisingly tough, but mostly uneventful. We ran down to our local lake, did an extra 3 miles out and back, then ran the full 9 mile loop and back up to where we had started from. Since it was a work day there wasn’t the usual mob scene of runners and bikers vying for supremacy on the road and path. Everyone behaved themselves and the run was incident free.
Well, there was one small unintended incident, and it caused some anger.
Around mile 9 I realized I needed a bathroom break. At mile 10 I realized I had missed the port-a-potty. At mile 11.5 we suddenly spotted one and everyone came to a stop. We were tired, it was early, we had already run a long way, and we weren’t paying attention. Someone took a step over the dividing line on the path and almost got plowed down by a cyclist. I apologized for us, he started yelling, I mumbled under my breath thanks for letting us know you were there (because he didn’t say on your left as he passed) and he yelled back WELL, THANKS FOR LOOKING! We were in the wrong, we didn’t do it on purpose, it all happened very quickly–as most accidents do–and we had apologized.
I honestly only mumbled what I did because he started yelling at us, and I wasn’t mean about it. It was merely an observation.
This battle between cyclists and runners is an old one with no winners. Because he was dressed in a sweatshirt and plumber’s shorts (yes, it was gross) we knew he was probably just someone from the neighborhood and not a serious cyclist. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt because we should’ve paid more attention.
But my friend was so right when she made the comment as he rode away: People are SO ANGRY these days. It’s like everyone’s just a thread away from snapping.
I’ve been noticing the same thing a lot lately, too. All you have to do is look around wherever you go and you’ll see lots and lots of very angry people.
Now that I’m home during the day, I have much less stress in my life and my moods manage to stay fairly even keeled. (Usually. I’m not perfect, and I do live in Dallas.) But just driving a few miles up the road to the grocery store is like a violent video game come to life. People do the most ridiculous things from the anonymity of their cars, and most of it is just plain mean. And stupid. And sometimes dangerous.
The same friend who stepped in the path of the cyclist the other day has been telling us about the “psycho dads” she’s had to deal with this year (she works in a public elementary school). On three separate occasions in the past seven weeks of school she’s had fathers fly off the handle over small matters involving their children. In my last few years of teaching we all noticed that more and more often we were up against parents who liked to yell first, blame everyone else next, and ask questions later. It always involved something that didn’t warrant that level of anger–and they certainly weren’t setting a good example for their children, who usually stood by embarrassed because of the scene their parents were making.
Turn on the TV or internet these days and you’ll quickly see that this country has an anger problem. From politics to trashy talk shows to angry, rude comments on news websites, there’s a lot of anger out there.
What are we all so angry about?
There are all the usual reasons: work, stress, relationships, money, time, and so on. Those will never go away and anger will always exist. But can we really continue as a society if we don’t learn to keep our negative emotions in check? I don’t believe in pretending not to feel something that’s there, but I do think we must find better ways of dealing with our lives than indiscriminate anger.
And lest you think I’m sitting up here on my high horse, I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I’ve been known to say a few choice words under my breath while driving the streets of Dallas, and nothing can set me off more than someone who is purposely rude and mean. I grew up in a family filled with anger and I’m quick to become defensive and indignant when provoked. But I also make an effort to be considerate of others–even strangers–and to not make a fool of myself if I can help it.
When someone does something that makes me angry, like cut me off in traffic, I try to remind myself, that could be me, I’ve done that before, too. Or when I hold the door open for someone and they walk through without even a glance, I try to remind myself that I don’t need their thanks.
The bottom line is, all I can do is be aware of my own reactions and my own feelings of anger when they arise. I can’t change anyone, I can’t make them do anything, and getting angry about things usually doesn’t change them.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the change has to begin with me.
I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview. I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs. I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par. I told him I have great test scores.
More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike. I sign a new contract every year.
Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist. Neither are a lot of parents.
Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools. I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie. If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work. If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life? What will happen to our society? Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?
In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School. I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there. Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for. I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for. Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.
I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet. Even with all the cool discounts.
The other day I was in the front flowerbed, surveying some of the stalks for signs of life after a colder than usual winter, amazed that tiny leaves are starting to sprout. I had the thought that no matter what, things want to grow. Ever since I quit my job almost a month ago life around me seems to be thriving. Even an indoor plant that has barely clung to life for the past five years has inexplicably decided to shoot up a single large white flower.
I can’t explain it. Maybe I don’t need to. It’s as if once I made the decision to leave my dead-end job years of stifled and stunted energy had to be released and regenerated. Demeter is smiling down on me, and my life is fertile once again–in the garden, at least. Who would’ve thought?
Oh, it gets even stranger. Two weekends in a row now I’ve had dreams of snakes. Small snakes. That bite me. We’ve found three snakes in the garden so far, and the other day I found a snake skin in the new wildflower garden I planted. I went online and found a great blog post about snake medicine and another woman’s experience with snakes showing up in her life, too. Then yesterday, in the middle of boring test prep, a student interrupted and asked if I had heard about “the snake that escaped from the zoo.” I had to stop and blink a few times before I could process what he had just said.
I know, I know. It’s spring, snakes are out there, people dream about them all the time, and some even escape from zoos. Still, it all seems somewhat synchronous. Have I suddenly manifested all of these snakes in my life and my dreams, or am I merely aware of what has always been there? Now that I’ve made this major change in my life, am I simply tapping into a universal symbol, part of Jung’s “collective unconscious” made manifest? I’ve always loved the idea of a collective unconscious, that no matter how different we all are there is a network of understanding that speaks to us all in the language of symbols, images, and archetypes.
I woke up this morning with that same thought again. Things want to grow. No matter how much of an idiot I am in the garden, or in my job, or in my relationships with others, things change and grow and renew despite my own best/worst efforts. I think everyone senses this, even if they aren’t strong enough to make a major change in their own lives. I’ve been surprised by so many friends and colleagues telling me how much they admire me for quitting my job, and most of them seem almost wistful when they tell me this. Perhaps it’s the idea of change that’s so scary to us, even more than the actual reality of that change–kind of like the monster under the bed that kept our arms and legs tucked safely under the covers when we were kids.
Since I’m still teaching until June, my own Personal Big Change hasn’t happened yet. Or has it? Already I’m looking at the world differently, and things are good. Paralleling my new found fertility in the garden, I’m feeling more creative these days. I’m calmer, too. Like the little snake skin I found left behind in the flowerbed the other day, I’m moving on, leaving a lot of stuff behind–and that’s a good thing.
Walls can be found in all kinds of places, even in nature, and this past weekend I hit a new one. I planted a vegetable garden. In our backyard. In the middle of the city. Two years ago I planted a flower garden in our front yard, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed gardening. I couldn’t believe how everything flourished in our extreme Texas heat, but it helped that I purposely chose native, perennial plants. A vegetable garden, however, seemed like a delicate operation that I wasn’t trained for. Like I said, this was stretching it for me.
This whole idea came from my boyfriend, Michael, who craved strawberries like he had growing up in Ohio. Even though Texas is hardly Ohio, and we live right in the middle of a huge city, last summer he built a large compost container and plotted off a corner of our backyard for a garden (Michael loves projects). He did some research online, built a wooden structure for the strawberries, threw in some sand, and lovingly planted the plants he had ordered online. He also grew seedlings from some habanero peppers we cooked one weekend, rigging up a homemade greenhouse with reflective walls and a grow light on our kitchen table. (Did I mention that Michael likes projects?)
During spring break we went to Home Depot and went a little crazy buying packets of seeds and starter plants. We bought tomatoes, okra, cauliflower, oregano, sage, peppers, onions, garlic, and zucchini. I also couldn’t resist adding more flowers to the flower garden, and bought some irises, hollyhock, calla lillies, wildflower seeds, and sunflower seeds. We bought all kinds of seed packets–carrots, celery, looseleaf lettuce, and broccoli, to name a few.
We started on Saturday afternoon, but I spent so much time planting the new flowers and starting a wildflower garden against the back fence, that we never even had time to do anything in the vegetable garden. We made up for it on Sunday and worked like dogs until it got dark. Gardening is hard work. It was hot, too, for so early in the spring, with the temperature hovering in the mid-80’s.
This is where our inexperience starts to show. We did nothing extra to the dirt in our garden. We had been adding compost to the ground since last summer, so we figured it was good to go. Michael kept saying it would be okay, even though my Mother Earth News magazines always talked about ph levels and acidity. We eyeballed our plots (none of that measuring and using string to make everything nice and straight for us), and plopped everything in the ground. Our garden was taking shape, but by the late afternoon we were getting tired and cranky. At one point I saw Michael dig a hole and put in an entire head of garlic and cover it back up with dirt. When I asked him if he wasn’t supposed to pull the cloves apart and plant them separately, he replied he was too tired. Running marathons are hard, but my brain was starting to feel as fuzzy as it does around mile 19. We had definitely hit the gardening wall.
Our garden filled up quicker than we expected, and I still needed to plant the onions. I decided to add them to the front of my new wildflower garden, kind of like a natural border. The ground was hard as a rock, and when I mentioned it to Michael he pulled out an entire bag of peat moss from the shed that I didn’t even know we had. I was secretly thinking we should have added it to the vegetable garden. I dug a long trench and mixed the peat moss in with the flowerbed dirt and somehow found the energy to plant about 60 tiny onions. My back was killing me by the time I was done. I had the feeling my onions were doomed. Just below the peat moss mixture was a wall of hard clay that I doubted my onions would be able to penetrate. At the very least, I figured they would be horribly deformed and would make good conversation pieces when I tried to give them to my friends. Hey, check out these pancake onions.
Somehow, when everything was planted, we managed to pull ourselves together and take stock of our hard work. With optimism and the satisfaction that can only come from a day’s worth of hard physical labor, we staggered off to the shower, not knowing if anything would actually take root and grow in our own little inner city vegetable garden.
Continuing the topic of joy . . . Three weeks ago I took an incentive pay package and quit my job. It is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After 19 years of teaching in the same downtown neighborhood, it was time to go. I couldn’t deny the fact that my job wasn’t making me happy any longer, and that it had been years since I had looked forward to going to work every morning. That’s a miserable place to be. Life is too short to settle for the security of a regular paycheck in a job that no longer brings you joy. I kept hoping some new type of job would show itself, that the universe would hear my call and answer it for me, but either I missed the signs or it never happened. Finally, even though it felt like one foot was dangling off the edge of a cliff, I decided to stop letting others call the shots and start doing what was best for me. After a sleepless night and three good cries, I turned in the paperwork and said goodbye to teaching. By lunchtime I wondered why I hadn’t done it years ago.
Though I’m still teaching until June 3 and will get paid through the end of August, it’s the great unknown of afterwards that makes me nervous. I have to say, however, that I’m excited about the possibilities of all the things I could do with the rest of my life. It’s like the way I feel every New Years Day, the expectancy of change and renewal, and the chance to start fresh. In truth, we have that chance every single day that we’re alive, but how many of us take that chance and make those changes in our lives? I never thought I was strong enough to make such a huge change–until I actually did. In the end, it feels like I have the chance to find myself again–and what could be more joyous than that?