Spring: Slice of Life 31/31 #SOL20

I have been dithering about writing this, the last post of the Slice of Life challenge, all morning. I read some other posts, commented, started a draft, deleted it, did all of that again. I helped the kids, attended an online meeting, cleaned a little, helped the kids again. Finally, my husband suggested I take a walk. I spent a good half hour doing other things before suddenly finding that I needed to rush out the door.

It’s been cold and rainy here, but as I walked I saw signs of Spring. No, wait, that’s not quite true. I went outside hoping for signs of Spring – I wanted to write a post about how Spring is here – but I only saw them because that is what I wanted to see. If I hadn’t been looking, I might have seen only the snow and muck.

Instead, my senses alert for hope, I saw the swelling buds at the tips of branches and noticed where the pale green points of irises poked through snow that had long since ceased being white. I wanted to write that there were snowdrops, but they aren’t out yet. Still, down one street a little girl wobbled along on a bright pink bicycle, nearly falling before finding her balance. In front of me on another street, a child just out of toddlerhood tumbled over the handlebars of her three-wheeled scooter. “Oopsy!” she said, as she stood up and started again. “I have to catch Eleanor.” And she zoomed after her sister, unphased by her stumble.

A lone skateboarder defied the signs posted on the gates of the city park, “Closed except for walkthroughs.” Deep in concentration, he skidded across the cement, back and forth, back and forth, doggedly working towards mastery of some trick I could not fathom. Around me, runners passed and people walked their dogs.

Today, the last day of March, is the first day the puddles in our backyard weren’t frozen when we woke. As of today, the temperatures will stay above freezing. Today I’m reminded that Spring is coming because I’m choosing to be reminded. Tomorrow I may need a prod, but soon enough, Spring will be here and I won’t have to look anymore; it will just be.

Today, and for the last 31 days, I observed my life and found a piece of it – just a slice – to share. I want to find a metaphor in this – the way I wanted to see Spring today. If I look hard enough, the metaphors are there; I can catch them and I could write about them,  but they aren’t quite true.

Mostly I want to say that I wrote, and I’m glad I did. I want to say that I loved reading and being read. I loved connecting and commenting. And when the renovations and the move and the kids and the exchange student and the coursework and the job and the virus and the distancing and the isolation and everything – when it all happened, because that’s how life is, I loved knowing that we were all here, together. I loved that.

And Spring is nearly here; I can see it if I look.

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Pre-mourning: Slice of Life 28/31 #SOL20

The night before I turned 29, I sobbed. I forget what comment from what well-meaning relative released the river of tears, but there it was, there I was, crying uncontrollably about a life I couldn’t control.

At 28+ 364 days, I was unmarried with no children. I loved my job, knew that teaching was who I was, but I felt stuck in a life I hadn’t expected. My birthday, near the end of November, often coincides with Thanksgiving, so I was surrounded by family and usually felt buoyed by love. That evening, I was bereft. Where was the life I had dreamed of? What would become of me? What came next?

My poor father was perplexed by my outburst. He rubbed my back and repeated, “Honey, you’re turning 29, not 30.” And, to be fair to him, I didn’t cry even once the next year when I turned 30 – still unmarried, still childless, still in the same job. Then, I celebrated: a visit to wine country with my sisters and mother; a series of dinners and parties with friends; and, on the day I turned 30, a decadently expensive bottle of wine shared with a dear friend over our favourite takeout Peruvian chicken. No tears at all.

I often mourn before I am meant to. I anticipate the yearning, the loss, the melancholy; sensing an open door, these emotions respond by visiting before I have actually prepared for them. I should know better by now, but I am almost always caught by surprise. Tears come when I least expect them.

This month, I have written and published something every day for 28 days. 28 days ago, I was staring down a month that was far too busy for this challenge. I guessed that I couldn’t blog daily, but I wanted to write anyway. On March 7, we moved back into our home after months of renovations. On March 8, friends gathered to help us move in. On March 12, Ontario announced that all schools would close for three weeks at the end of the next school day. On March 14, some friends and I had a craft day. By March 16, the seriousness of COVID-19 had set in and physical distancing was in full force. My expectations of March were nothing like reality I encountered; I was able to write daily. I forced myself to write daily, even when I didn’t want to write.

Today is day 28. For the past week, writing daily has been tough. I had to consciously allow myself to write about what is actually happening, to name this moment in time. I had to forgive myself when I couldn’t seek out unfamiliar blogs to read. I had to accept that I didn’t always have the emotional resilience to respond to the wonderful comments on my own blog. Some days I *really* didn’t want to write. Some days I actively looked forward to the end of March, to the relief of not writing daily.

Today, day 28, not day 31, the pre-mourning has arrived. What will I do without this daily ritual, without the knowledge that I need to look actively for moments to record and share? What will I do as this virtual community dissipates, convening only on Tuesdays? This blog, this writing, this group has sustained me through the transition into a reality I had never imagined. What will I do without it?

At age 28+364 days, I could not anticipate the fullness of my life today. I had no secret foreknowledge of the wonders that were on their way. My mourning was real but unmoored from reality because I didn’t know what was to come. I didn’t know that turning 30 would be easy. I couldn’t have guessed at my husband, my children, my life in a new country. I couldn’t fathom the adventures that awaited.

On day 28 of the March Slice of Life Challenge, I am pre-mourning the end, and I am trying to remember that there are, undoubtedly, wonders to come. There almost always are.

Still, if you are reading this, I miss you already.

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Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.

We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:

When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.

Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.

In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.

But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.

Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.

I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone. 

I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.

 

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In or out? Slice of Life 1/31 #sol20

Before I even woke up I was already thinking, “should I?” Of course, I knew the answer: I should not.

I answered the question yesterday at a conference when I told my blogging buddy Lisa (over at https://alotalot.wordpress.com/) that I was only going to comment this year. I answered the question last week when another blogging friend messaged me and asked if I was participating. I didn’t write back because I couldn’t bear to say no (sorry, Elisabeth).

I answered the question at the beginning of February when our move date got pushed back to March 7. No one blogs every day for a month while they are teaching, finishing renovations, moving home, taking a course and, well, living. “That would be too much,” I told my husband sagely. He agreed.

This afternoon, I settled in to read blogs. I was already feeling a little sad about my very appropriate decision. I read Peter’s post “Working on my resume” and marveled at his decision to blog even though he knows he might not write every day this month. And something clicked.

My personal challenge right now – in so many ways – is to be kind to myself. I want to be kind to myself with all my imperfections. And here’s what I know: I love writing. I love the way I pay attention to life when I write daily for myself or for a blog. So kindness, for me, for this month, is participating in this challenge, accepting that I will be imperfect in my participation.

Slice: I am sitting on my bed in our tiny apartment. I can hear the kids in the next room. The cats wander aimlessly back and forth between us, meowing occasionally to remind us that it’s almost dinner time. My laptop is warm on my legs. Our things are helter skelter – in boxes or not, in drawers or not – as we prepare for our move in a week. I haven’t quite finished marking papers. I haven’t quite finished prepping for tomorrow’s lessons. I haven’t quite finished my next assignment for my class. Even with all that hanging over me, I feel light. I will take on the challenge of writing daily in March; and I will allow myself the kindness of failure without frustration. I will not miss out on the fun because I cannot be perfect. I will write.

Am I doing the Slice of Life Challenge this month? Yes, yes I am.

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Writing in front of them

It’s not like I hadn’t planned my lesson. I had. 15 minutes of reading – while I conferenced quietly with students – followed by a quickwrite about memories from school. Then I would “write in front of them” to show them how to start crafting a scene. I’d chosen Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a mentor text and brainstormed some memories the night before. I had a few in mind and was ready to go.

Only here I was, sitting in front of 25 Grade 12 students and my writing was terrible. I had modeled how to find a moment – I thought of early memories and jotted them down but rejected them as too vague – then landed on a high school memory of an encounter with my daunting freshman English teacher.

I’d known before the class that I would probably end up writing about her, so I had details in mind. But they didn’t come together. At all. I started a sentence and abandoned it, explaining why. I narrated as I re-thought my entry point and pushed through the lurching prose to at least get a full idea down. I talked about trying to add some detail, but every detail felt forced and flat. I paused and acknowledged my problem out loud: “So I’m stuck and this doesn’t feel good to me. I think I’ll back up and think about what I might be trying to show with this scene. Why am I writing this?”

And suddenly, I was mortified. Not only could I not get this scene on paper but I realized I was wrestling with my own understanding of who I was in high school. I felt naked in front of my students’ curious eyes: Was I the nerd who studied for hours? The kind of kid who got sick on the day of the test? Who spoke up to teachers? Who stood up for her friends? This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, and certainly not as people watched me.

Defeated, I stopped. “I can’t make it work,” I admitted. “I’m realizing that I don’t know what I’m trying to do in this scene. I don’t know who I was in that moment, and I feel like I’m revealing way more of myself to you than I meant to – I mean, was I really this nerdy and this outspoken and this dumb? It’s unsettling – I’m unsettled. Why don’t you start your scenes while I see what I can do here?”

As students opened their notebooks, I stared at my own work, distressed. So much for “writing in front of them.” So much for “teacher as model.” I heaved a sigh and looked up. One girl – front and center, whip smart and unabashedly vocal – looked back and smiled ruefully at me. Then she dove into her notebook, pen moving unwaveringly across the paper. 

And I went back to writing, too.

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Please join us! In March, many bloggers will accept the challenge of writing and posting a Slice of Life daily at https://twowritingteachers.org/. You can try it, too. We’d love to have you.

Pause

My favourite parking spaces are occupied, so I drop the boys off and start round two of the hunt. All the usual spots are inexplicably taken. It’s snowing a little, but the temperature hovers obstinately above freezing and the streets are deep in slushy puddles. The going is tough. The city is behind on snow removal, parking spots are scarce, and plenty of cars are taking up an awful lot of the pavement. My mirror nearly touches theirs as I slowly slide my car down the streets.

img_1970I sigh and turn down another side street. Grr! The red and white no parking signs that indicate snow removal is imminent taunt me from atop the snow banks. No wonder I can’t find a space. I do a quick check of my rear view mirror, touch my brakes and pause. Deep breath. Snow removal is good, I remind myself. Yes, I will likely spend a lot of time trying to find parking tonight, but tomorrow and the days that follow will be much easier. 

10 long minutes later, I find a spot. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough for tonight.

**********************

I’m reading Gregor the Overlander out loud while my older son draws. He’s sketching another manga character, and he’s not happy with the result. As I turn a page he snarls, “I hate this! It’s terrible!” He’s about to crumple the drawing, but my hand catches his before his fingers close around the paper.

“Hey,” I say quietly, “give it a second. What’s wrong with your picture?”

“It looks awful.” He’s looking away from his picture, not at it.

“Mmm. Can you tell me about it?”

He hates it all. I suggest if it’s that bad then it would make a really great place to experiment – just try a few new things. On second thought, he hates a few particular parts. Then he just really hates… wait, maybe he could…

He goes back to drawing; I continue to read.

*************************

The first week back to school after the winter break, I couldn’t bring myself to publish a blog post; I couldn’t find anything that rang true. Every word I wrote seemed to leave out another. I didn’t think it was awful, exactly, but I couldn’t find Hemingway’s one true sentence (even though, I’m just putting this out there, I really don’t like Hemingway). I wrote and deleted, wrote and threw away. I struggled, then I gave up in a huff.

The next week I paid attention and by Monday I had plenty of observations to choose from. To avoid writer’s block, I decided to write by hand first. I got as far as the date. 

I had to pause. I didn’t have much choice: I clearly wasn’t going to write a slice of life by beating myself up. 

Tonight, no parking spot magically appeared; my son’s drawing didn’t suddenly become excellent. Pausing didn’t solve things, but neither did it mean giving up.

So here I am, writing, pausing, and writing again.

 

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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