Tuesday, May 25, 2010

georgia on my mind

This week I’ve been knee deep in suitcases, swimsuits and sunscreen.  We are leaving for a week at the beach and it could not come at a better time.  Tomorrow is the last day of preschool for my children – and for me as a teacher – and when we return I will start the Greater Kansas City Writing Project summer institute.  A week on the beach is in order, for sure.  Honestly, I wouldn’t mind packing to MOVE to the beach.  There is something about sea air that just calms me and makes me feel like a different person.  Thinking about it nearly brings me to tears.  And I have to be honest, and totally cheesy, there is something so magnificent about the ocean I can hardly wait to be closer to it. 
Starting when I was about 15, I spent a few summers in the gulf coast with my then best friend and her family.  We spent hours and hours on the beach, coming in only to eat pimento cheese sandwiches for lunch with sliced tomatoes.  At night we would have bottle rocket wars on the beach and in the water.  We slept in a loft-style room full of windows and to this day one of my favorite memories is of laying still as can be on a twin bed with the window and the shades up as far as they could go.  I can hear the waves crashing and smell the salty air.  At the beach, the stars seem to multiply and go on forever.  That beach house was completely pink.  Ceiling to floor pink.  Outside and inside it was pink.  Even the piano was pink…and it was perfect.  In the “kids” room upstairs was an old juke box that contained only a few 45s: Rod Stewart singing “If You Think I’m Sexy” and Dr. Hook and the Cover of the Rolling Stone singing “You Make My Pants Wanna Get Up and Dance”.  Why I remember that is beyond me, but I do.  I learned to smoke stolen Virginia Slims in that room, and at night my friend’s younger, more daring brother would steal beer for us to sip as we played cards at the pink table. 
I don’t know why all those memories just came rushing back.  That was certainly not what I intended to write about when I sat down tonight. 
I’m looking forward to hearing the waves while I sleep with the windows open next week.  I don’t care if it’s hot as hell, I get one week a year to do that and I will.  I am looking forward to leaving the stress of work and school behind for a few days, but mostly to watching my girls experience the majesty of the ocean again.  I’m going to be watching at night for the lights of the shrimping boats off the coast.  I know when I see them that I’ll feel like I’m home again.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

for lucy bloom, on the fifth anniversary of her first day

Every year on my birthday, for as long as I can remember, my mother would say to me, “I sure am glad it isn’t (X number) of years ago today!”  I used to laugh at her, not fully understanding her labor joke. And then I had my own children.  My eldest daughter turned five today, and each birthday, for each of my girls, I’ve sat with them and reminded them how lucky I am to have them as my daughters, and that every day reminds me how happy I am that I had them.  I thought a lot about this today, and also about all the things I’ve learned in the past five years.  
We were sent home from the hospital with Lucy after spending two extra days there due to her severe jaundice from her fairly awful delivery.  I remember spending the first night at home in our living room because Lucy was wrapped in a “bilirubin” blanket – which was light therapy for her jaundice.  The blanket needed a three-pronged plug and our old house only had the outlets with three prongs downstairs.  We were so tired that it never occurred to us to use an adapter and bring baby Lucy upstairs with us.  At one point during those first days, Steve looked at me and said, (and I quote) “if this is how it’s going to be, we’re going to DIE.”  The good news is that we didn’t die.  The bad news is that having Lucy, and then her sister Zoe opened up an entire floodgate of other stress-inducing stuff for us.
Being pregnant with Lucy taught me to see my body in a whole different light.  I had always beaten myself up for weight gain or changes in my body.  When I was pregnant with her, it was the first time in my life that someone told me it was actually good to gain weight.  That’s what you’re supposed to do! What a change – and such a hard thing to grasp when you've spent your entire life trying to lose it.  More recently, I’ve become more conscious of the things I say about my body.  Complaints of “I’m fat” or “I shouldn’t have eaten that” are kept to myself or sometimes lost altogether, in an attempt to have my girls grow up without body image issues – at least until much, much later in their lives.
Five years ago today, I gave birth to a tiny human being.  I will spare you the details (you’re welcome) but suffice it to say that I was amazed and astounded at what I did.  I made a person (with some help, thanks Steve).  And she came out of my body.  I did that…and it still sort amazes me, even five years later.  Someone once said that having a child was like taking your heart out and letting it walk around outside of your body.  I’m certain I’m misquoting it terribly, but that is what having Lucy (and later, her sister Zoe) did for me.  I watch that child throughout the day and every little thing she does gives me an emotion I didn’t know existed until she came along.  I get angry when she’s had her feelings hurt, I get sad when she has a hard time at school, I get embarrassed for her when she tells jokes and kids don’t get her silly, wonderful sense of humor. 
Mostly, though, I have learned from Lucy and her sister what it means to love unconditionally.  Amy Tan wrote, in The Joy Luck Club, “I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since.” Happy birthday, little fish.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

yo' mama

It’s no secret that my relationship with my mother is rocky at best.  I don’t want to talk about her, but this week I’ve been thinking a lot about being a mom.  I would like to preface this by saying this post is not about anyone in particular.  If you would like to get offended by what I say here, go ahead, but it won’t be because I was talking about YOU.  Whomever you are.
First I would like to say that I think mother’s day is a sham.  I mean, I’m a mother every single day out of the year and I don’t need one silly day for people to kiss my ass. How come people don’t feel like that stuff is important on other days? I will not say who I think came up with mother’s day, because it has offended my husband, but I just think the entire day is ridiculous. I find it offensive that there is only one day out of the year that we call our moms and say thank you. Shouldn’t that happen more often? I mean, really.
So, this mother’s day, my husband told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. I chose to go shopping all by myself.  Any of you with children know what a special gift that is.  I even went to the grocery store ALL by myself – no little hands putting extra things in the basket, no one throwing her body on the floor because I chose the wrong kind of fruit snacks.  It was a little piece of heaven – and yet, most of this week I’ve gotten the stink eye from other moms when I tell them about my day.  I don’t really know why it’s caused such reaction, but maybe I should say that it’s the one upside of having a shitty mother – I don’t have an obligation to spend time with her one Sunday in May.  The downside? I don’t have a mother. Want to trade?
Here’s the thing about myself as a mother: I believe the only thing that matters is that my children are healthy and happy and mostly well behaved.  I didn’t have children to fulfill some empty place in my life – frankly, I had kids so I could see who they’d look like – me or Steve.  I wanted children because I love my husband so much that I wanted to make a human being with him, not because I needed something to do with my time.  My children are my soul, but they do not define ME.  Inside, I am still the same person I was before I had them – and I still need time to myself.  Actually, I covet time to myself.  And while the quantity of that time is wayyyyyyyy less than it was before the girls came along, it is still very important to my mental state and I make time for me every week.  I MUST, or I will lose my mind.
I don’t know how my children will look at me when we are all older – will they remember playing Candyland and laughing at old MGM cartoons until we thought we might wet our pants? Will they remember that I read Goodnight Moon every single night of their lives thus far? Or will they remember me as that lady who never cleaned her bedroom until their daddy threw a fit, and who sometimes made breakfast for dinner because she was just too damn lazy to do anything more?  I don’t know. But I do know this: my own mother did all the things that moms were “supposed” to do back in the day, she stayed home with us, made all the meals, did all the laundry, served on the PTA and the church committees. Where did it get her? She was miserable and still is, and we don’t have a relationship at all.  Clearly, I don’t know what particular qualities make a good mother. I only know how to be me, and I know that sometimes “me” doesn’t quite fit the traditional mold.  If I teach my girls anything, I hope they learn that they don’t have to fit into any particular category, and that just being who they are is always better than forsaking themselves to fit in.
This week on CBS Sunday Morning, they aired a great piece on the writer Erma Bombeck.   I remember my grandmother having her books, but I wanted to know more about her so I did some digging.  While she raised her children and wrote about those trials in a much different time, much of what she wrote hit close to home for me.  Especially these words about a different kind of mother: “She wanted children too, but for another reason.  They fulfilled a strong desire to love, raise, and leave as a legacy another human being. But they didn’t fulfill her ambitions, her struggle for individuality, or her need to make a contribution to this life, no matter how small.”  I wish more moms would think about these words and spend less time catering to other people and more time worrying about themselves. What a place that would be – a different world for ourselves and for our children.

Monday, May 3, 2010

a story

My story is still incomplete. A work in progress, if you will…but it is comprised of many, many moments that make me…well, me.  The days of my youth were spent trying to figure out who the “me” was.  I honestly, truly believe – without a doubt – that I only just started to know the answers. 
When I look back I remember deep orange shag carpet in the living room, replaced years later by pale blue.  When we arrived home from school, there would be lines in the carpet from the vacuum.  Today, I firmly believe that my mom would sit around ALL day long and just vacuum right before we walked in so that it looked like she’d done something while we were gone.  I remember a white Easter dress with a yellow blazer, a hand me down from my cousin Amanda, whom I didn’t really know until we were much older and we found out how much alike we are.  That dress came with a bright yellow hat and when I wore the outfit, I thought I was a star.
I remember sitting in the “waiting” room at Betty Tillotson’s school of dance while we watched my big sister’s dance class.  I wanted nothing more than to strap on her tap shoes and run out there…I bet I was no more than three.  Later, I danced until my knees ached and my toes bled and it is the best memory I have of feeling driven toward something bigger than myself.  I remember walking to the Masterman’s house two blocks away from my own, where you could create “experiments” with the lotions in the bathroom and where no one worried about messing up the lines in the carpet.  They had a cat named Nike and later, the biggest black cat I’d ever seen, aptly named Inky.  I always secretly wondered if Lucy Masterman was my real mom, as she was SO much cooler than my own. Maybe I just wished it. 
I remember making myself sick with anxiety about who might like me – at school, at church, in our neighborhood. I wish I could tell my 12-year-old self to straighten my shit up and realize how cool I was without even knowing it.  Or maybe I wasn’t cool, I still don’t know.  In high school, I learned about race by falling hard for the one kid who wasn’t sure he could be with a white girl.  In retrospect, it was for the better, but I learned a lot about myself and even more about how people relate to one another from that experience.  I remember thinking that my entire world would collapse when Justin Peck told me he didn’t want to go out anymore.  Which is pretty funny now, considering we never actually went anywhere.  That angst is still so palpable I can nearly reach out and touch it.  I remember riding in the backseat of my parent’s car to Woodstock, Illinois to visit my grandparents and listening to The Cure’s Japanese Whispers album the entire nine hours.  That album will always bring me back to plaid shorts from the thrift store, white t-shirts and old Chuck Taylors. 
My story includes two early 1980s Chevy Chevettes. One blue, one turd bucket brown…each more embarrassing than the next to my 16-year-old ego.  What I couldn’t see back then was how lucky I was to have a car at ALL.  I remember the feeling of freedom that came with driving.  And I can recall sitting in the driveway of our home with my sister after she had driven us home from school one spring day.  We knew my mother was lying to all of us, but that was the day we started investigating.  And when a mother tells such a deliberate lie to her children – much less to her husband – it is then that a relationship must change forever.  That part of my story led to a relationship with my smart and funny and amazing sister that I might not have had otherwise.  A relationship that I treasure and hold close to me in the deepest part of my heart.
My story includes boy after boy whom I tried to change.  Time and again I would sacrifice myself to please someone else, or just to keep the peace. My story includes a lot of other stories that I won’t repeat – things I am not proud of but that I would not change, as they are things that shape who I have become.  The one who told me I was fat and stupid, who left my self esteem so completely broken that I was merely a shadow of who I was before I met him.  The one who was good to me but just didn’t know how to love me without a mountain of drama to accompany that love.  I learned that the only person who could change the way that story would go was myself – and it took me far too long to figure that out. 
My story is about a boy, the best one ever, the one who finally just let me be me. Who still patiently lets me figure out who “me” is and never, ever asks me to pretend I’m someone different.  The boy who makes me laugh every single day, the one I can’t wait to grow old with.  My story is about two amazing, smart, beautiful and funny little girls who make me want to be a better person.  My story is important because I can and I will teach my girls all the things I didn’t get from my own mother, things that I needed to hear (and might still need to hear) and the lessons that I couldn’t learn from her.  I try to remember that the one lesson she did teach me many years ago does not ever have to shape who I am today.  My story is realizing that I am not so different from my kind and gentle father, that we share a passion for words and language and a knack for avoiding conflict.  All those years I spent fighting to be someone different, running from what I thought was so wrong, only to find that those are the very qualities that define me.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

the days of my youth...

Yesterday I shared the day with twenty plus teachers from across this city at the Diastole center on Hospital Hill here in KC.  We were there for a pre-summer institute meeting of the Greater Kansas City Writing Project.  I’m participating in the GKCWP this summer and until yesterday I’d been hesitant to get very excited about it.  While I’m in school for my certification to teach English at the high school level, I’m currently an early childhood teacher of children age three to five – not quite the same thing.  I got accepted into the GKCWP as an early childhood teacher, and I had been fairly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to the group in any effective way.  I’m happy to say that I no longer feel that way. In fact, I’m now more inspired and anxious to get started in June.  So, part of the meeting yesterday was spent learning how we’ll be presenting a little workshop on a “stuck place” in our teaching.  Dylan Carter, a creative writing instructor at Shawnee Mission West high school in Overland Park, Kansas, gave an example of his workshop from last summer. Dylan’s stuck place was getting his students to connect with their personal story – and how to inspire his students to dig deeper to find their stories.  His students start the year by reading Beowulf (gahhhh! I get high blood pressure just thinking of teaching this book!) Dylan uses Beowulf’s quote, “The days of my youth have been filled with glory…”  as a writing prompt for students.  They were to start, “The days of my youth were filled with…” and just write.
And so, Dylan had us write our stories.  There were some amazing ones, more than a few brought me to tears.  I’m always astounded and inspired by great writers, by people who can express feelings through words, and I was not at all let down by this group.  Chinua Achebe said, “To be human, one must have a story.”  I’m still working on my story.  But as I write I start to see the patterns of my “youth”, the things that come up over and over again in my writing.  I will share when I finish, but I wonder, what filled the days of your youth?