runs

I wonder if everyone’s brain runs
while they run like mine does
rambling thoughts
my brain is a beehive buzzing
or a running reel as I’m running
I wonder

I’m starting to pass
the same people on the path
Pablo I’ve named the
mustached older guy
he always gives
a thumbs up
or a side clap to me
he doesn’t know me
but something in his
brain buzzes 
to tell him to tell me
good job keep it up keep going you got it
his mask is
down
and I can see kindness on his face

and then there’s — we’ll call him
Miguel — bearded biker with a clear
plastic face shield
and he was shielded the first few
times we passed
but since my mask is always
down
I smile one time and wave
because we’ve seen each other before
and before I know it
his entire face
breaks
into beautiful smile

even the shield
can’t shield
from that

I wonder if my friends
think thoughts like I do
I hope they think I’m encouraging too
and nice
because it’s nice
passing people who can take
the second
or two
to smile
or thumbs up
or side clap

I like it 
I do
and I wonder
if they think about me
too.

slow

i.
what luxury
time is
now
you have stopped
doing things
to read words
slowly
read them slowly
ink 
and 
page

and when I went
running this morning
I filled my lungs
with air
and time
and time told me
in a voice like water to
slow
down
and feeling full
I was overcome
with the gift
time is
now
slow
down
I told myself
running

when I was young
everything was a race
always in a hurry
fasterfasterfaster
of course
the course held
my competition
always
stopwatches spectators guns and
lines and lanes
a beginning
an end

pretend that’s what
life is
go ahead
exhausted before you begin
I’m not racing
anymore
slow
down

I tell myself
I’m not shaving seconds
off my time
I’m not
I’m slow
and observant
and thankful
thankful for the luxury of
time
now.

ii.
I
slowly 
embrace a certain somber mood
sometimes surrounded by city
people
yelling
selling
things
there are always
things to distract
from those thoughts
you know the ones I mean

once I was peeling
an orange
slowly
and
I was overcome
with the gift
time is
now
I sit
like Wordsworth
in vacant and in pensive mood
not pushing the pen
but allowing a 
slow and 
sad
thought
like a lonely
leaf
like a lovely
leaf
falling
slow
and sad
and somber

it’s ok to be sad
I tell my sons
there’s time for that
we have time
now
not everyone does
it was a sad thought
remember
that reminded you
you cared

and that’s worth
the time
now
running in the 
now
not worried to win
because
actually
we’re winning
already
albeit
slowly.

running

so I’m running again
and when my feet
hit pavement I turn
and wave at 
the fading woman
behind me
she’s there
but barely
I rarely turn
but today
I turned
feet facing forward
head craned back
she is still
and sad
and there
but barely
I turn the corner
and wonder if 
there will be anything
or any pieces
left
of
her
when I get back

back when I 
held the pen
again and again
she told me no
couldn’t
won’t
wait
for the right word
so I sat
pen in hand
couldn’t write
the right word
at the right time
I sat
still

and still 
she’s there
but barely
but now
looking back
I see her
sadness
and feel it
the sadness the stillness
unwillingness to
run and
unwillingness to
write and
even as I write now
right now
she is
fading
with
every
word.

5 Tips for Running at High Altitude (Read: Come Run with Me in Quito)

First of all, never did I ever think I’d write anything with this title. Moving to Quito, Ecuador was never in any plans I had. Running also was not. Running in Quito at 9,350 feet above sea level? Certainly not.

But here I am. And because I’ve been running for a few months now, I feel ready to impart some wisdom. OK, wisdom may be a touch hyperbolic, but I will share with you things that worked for me so far on this running journey of mine.

  1. Drink lots of water.

    OK, obviously. But at this altitude, the oxygen is thin, and you dehydrate easily. But here’s what’s tricky for me: I can’t glug the water right before I run or I’ll completely pee myself (see my last post about postpartum running). So I try to drink plenty of water during a day-to-day basis. I always bring water with me on my runs (one of the few times I’ll say it’s nice to push a jogging stroller on a run). And I can glug all the water I want when I finish my run. Fun!

  2. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses every day.

    Being here in Quito, the sun is like a blast burner (whatever that is, though I picture the sun shooting out rays of burning light like a machine gun and lighting everyone’s faces on fire and then everyone walking around with fire faces). I wear SPF 50 on my face every darn day, even if it’s cloudy. Weather here changes quickly, so you gotta be prepared. As for the rest of my exposed skin, I’m getting very brown. But if you burn easily, sunscreen on all the skin. Or long sleeves.

    Oh, and sunglasses. Every day. Find some that don’t slip around your whole face while you run.

  3. Begin slowly.

    For the love of everything good in this world, can you listen to your body, please. Take it easy as your lungs are adjusting to the scarcity of oxygen. Start with a shorter loop. Run very, very slowly. Check in with your body to see how it’s doing. (Example: “Hi, Body, just checking in to see how you are feeling. Do you need to rest? How about some water or a small snack? A little pee-pee break perhaps?”)

  4. Have confidence.

    And what I mean to say here is don’t feel like a failure if you need to stop running and take a break. A break is better than passing out. So, please, take a break. And if you feel like singing “Gimme a break! Gimme a break! Break me off a piece of that KitKat bar!” go right ahead.

  5. Run with a friend, or let someone know your route and when you leave.

    OK, I don’t do this anymore, but in the beginning, I’d run on a weekend when my husband was home. I guess if I wasn’t back in over an hour, he’d . . . maybe continue playing video games for another hour and then go hunt me down and find me slumped in a gutter somewhere.

So get going, my running friends. I can’t help but wonder how my running abilities are going to be when we visit the much lower altitude of Michigan this summer. Probably still slow. But maybe my lungs will be so strong I’ll be able to sing while I run! Who knows . . .

Seen on my run.

Oh, and hey! If you’re still reading and you actually live in Quito, I’ll see you on the outer loop of Parque Carolina most days between 10 and 11 in the morning. See you soon!

distractions

just as I sit
pen poised
to write a poem
un colibrí
flits to feeder feathers vibrating
alert
and 
watchful
but drinking in sweet water
I am distracted by birds
I have words
trying to flow from
pen to page
but I am distracted by birds
philosophical ponderings
life and love and learning
yearning to write
but right now
I am distracted by birds
you say
go to another room
to another table
but I'm unable
because
I want to be distracted by birds.

un colibrí — a hummingbird

Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

Don’t Be an A-hole. Read a Book.

When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The skies are gray today. We are enduring another pandemic weekend lock-down, unable to leave our apartment. I look out at the other apartments across the street from us and see people on the roof, on their balconies, straining to get out.

To escape.

But even when the skies are blue and the gates unlocked, I feel trapped inside the confines of my own non-Spanish-speaking brain. People have told me it takes two years to feel comfortable in a new language, and sometimes, I just can’t wrap my mind around having to endure for that long.

Because I am being tutored, three times a week.

Because I listen to podcasts in Spanish.

Because Spanish subtitles are always on for whatever I watch.

Because nature documentaries I watch are completely in Spanish.

And yet.

When I escape my apartment gates, and someone, masked, speaks to me, I panic and hardly anything translates. Even Thoreau says, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Now add a language barrier onto that? Yeesh. I come home from my outing drained and discouraged.

I wish I could go to sleep with ear buds in, listen to a Spanish novel all night, and wake up refreshed and Spanish literate. If only it were that easy.

When I was in fifth grade, I did think it was that easy. For my science project, I posited that listening to a story while asleep would control dreams. To that end, I found a cassette tape and recorded my voice telling stories and describing the sights, sounds, and tactile imagery of walking down a beach. I recruited my neighbor Chris to listen to the cassette when he was asleep and write down his dreams upon waking. It was a great plan! I was sure to win the science fair.

Except that the cassette tape I found was one of my dad’s, and it wasn’t blank. So when Chris was in dreamland and the volume was turned way up so he could hear my voice describing the sand squishing between his toes, something bad happened. My voice recording ended, and in the middle of the night, Jimmy Buffett’s “Asshole Song” started BLARING:

Were you born an asshole?
Or did you work at it your whole life?
Either way it worked out fine
’cause you’re an asshole tonight.
Yes you’re an A-S-S-H-O-L-E and don’t you try to blame it on me
You deserve all the credit.
You’re an asshole tonight.
You were an asshole yesterday, you’re an asshole tonight.
And I got a feeling, you’ll be an asshole the rest of your life.

It was so loud that Chris’s parents ran into his room, confused and angry, to punch “stop” on the tape player.

Oops. Luckily, Chris reported, he did not have nightmares of being an asshole tonight and the rest of his life.

A good reminder for me when I want to take the easy way out in learning Spanish by listening to novels while I sleep.

But I think our friend Thomas from The Night Watchman might be onto something. Sometimes in life we just need to feel refreshed (likely it was not a refreshing night’s sleep for Chris or his parents). And sometimes, I think that means we need to escape real life for a bit. Maybe even leave “the present” and slip into the fictional world of a book.

When I was a kid, I loved the Pippi Longstocking books. When I read them, I felt empowered to do anything I wanted. Make a huge mess in the house, go on adventures as a Thing Finder, fight off robbers, go on picnics, skip school — lots of things that kids in their normal lives aren’t allowed or able to do. Reading those books flipped this little creative switch inside my brain, and the ordinary things (like a discarded can, for example) turned into a wonderful treasure with lots of uses. Things that might otherwise be scary (ghosts, for example), turned into opportunities for new friends. My living room couch turned into a pirate ship, and the floor was the sea, infested with sharks.

I slipped into Pippi’s world and then I slipped into my own made-up world. And it was a wonderful slip. (I am reminded of those hot summer days when my parents would relent to setting up the slip n slide on the lawn and my exhilaration in sliding down that yellow piece of plastic.)

So this weekend, as I was slipping into the slough of despond under the gray skies, trapped inside my apartment, I decided to reread Pippi Longstocking. It was fun. It was refreshing.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, list seven things to do when we experience those inevitable times of stress:

  1. Move
  2. Breathe
  3. Talk to people
  4. Laugh
  5. Speak to loved ones
  6. Cry
  7. Do something creative

So I’d like to skip straight to number 7 and have a reading party. And maybe we can start with a favorite book from childhood. What would yours be? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Any Roald Dahl book
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Any Judy Blume book
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Megan’s Island
  • My Side of the Mountain

The bottom line is that it’s OK to give yourself permission to escape every once and a while. But that’s not a message that we get very often, and sometimes for good reason. When “escape” has directly to do with addiction, it’s not good. Growing up, my dad would escape through alcohol to avoid real life — and maybe also to avoid me, especially when I was a snobby, loud-mouthed teenager.

So choose a healthy escape, and read great books.

When you’re feeling discouraged and the skies are gray and you can’t understand the people around you (whether it’s the language or you just can’t understand the people around you), read a book.

And maybe read it while awake.

Happy reading, everyone!

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, illustration: page 36 “Pippi Is a Thing-Finder” and has found a can

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen
W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

Unlock the House. And Get Out.

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

Listen 8:15

Living locked — anywhere — sounds pretty icky to me. Say those two words together: live locked. Does that alliteration just punch you right in the tooth? It does for me. It’s definitive. It’s harsh. It’s like when you slam your locker door shut only to realize you don’t have the combination for the lock.

In junior high, I wanted to be locked in the orderly house of coolness, popularity, and rum raisin lipstick . . . and sunflower everything and baggy pants and white eyeliner and baby tee’s from Hot Topic and chunky-heeled jellies. Ah, the glorious mid-nineties — what a time to be alive! And I was living in California, so the word “like” was basically, like, a topic of conversation.

But my problem was that I didn’t have friends. Sad day, I know. (Hey, Parents! Wanna know how to really mess with your kids? Make them change schools right when they are at their lowest point in self esteem, self reliance, and confidence.) So being new and without friends, I — very logically — thought, Why not really go for it and get in with the popular clique?

‘Twas a great plan. A great plan that absolutely flopped. (Think of a fish out of water, eyes glazed in horror and locked with yours, gasping for breath, flopping its wet scales against the flat grey rock. A bit of an understatement to my situation, but appropriate nonetheless.)

You don’t just waltz into the popular group, the word like dancing on your lip-glossed lips. No. Those popular girls — they are exclusive, lemme tell you, and they decided pretty early on that the frizzy-haired, caterpillar-eyebrowed Plain-Jen just wasn’t gonna cut it. I even wore oversized overalls with a baby tee and men’s boxers peeking out. Not. Good. Enough.

So I would wander around campus, alone, wondering how to kill time during the soul-crushing breaks of brunch and lunch. One of my go-to tactics was to casually sidle up to my locker and pretend to busy myself getting ready for my next classes. Even better, to soak up juuust a few more seconds, I’d pretend to get my combination wrong opening my locker. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best strategy, seeing as how it killed maybe 20 seconds and made me look like a total idiot.

The funny thing here is that being a 13-year-old, I really thought that people were watching and judging me at all times. I wish I could go back to that girl, put my hands on her bony shoulders, give her a good shake, and tell her, People don’t really care about you that much! Nobody is watching you “struggle” with your locker. Just get your stuff and go find some decent humans to hang out with! Sheesh!

You’ll be happy to know that I did eventually find some decent humans, but only after a group of super-cool kids paid cash to Danny to try to “pants” me in the middle of the quad. It was all very anti-climactic, though, because I was wearing jeans, and when he got down and tugged, nothing happened. (Hey, Danny, here’s a pro-pantsing-tip: maybe pants someone when they’re in PE, wearing their stretchy-waisted sweat pants. Might work a little better.)

At the end of the nightmarishly long two years of junior high, I came out of it. I’d like to say I came out as a better person, but in truth, I came out as just a solidly average person. I still had lessons to learn in high school and a long way to go in getting to be a decent person myself.

I wanted so badly to be locked in with the popular crowd. I longed to follow their rules — their reasons and proofs. I held onto so much angst for such a stinking, rotten prize.

But struggling with my locker and struggling with my angst helped me to become the person I am today. And the person I am today would hop up onto that soapbox with Oliver and preach to the world that You can refuse to be locked up in the orderly house of reason and proofs!

Though it’s not about rum raisin lipstick and jellies and popularity anymore (maybe for some of you, it still is — yikes), we humans do have the tendency to lock ourselves into that orderly house. We like reasons and proofs and walls and locks and black and white and answers.

But wow has this past year been anything but an orderly house. For me, that meant an international move and the chaos that comes with it — all in the midst of a pandemic. But it was scary how quickly I settled into this new life and started allowing myself to be locked into the orderly house of Zoom and schedules and laundry and dishes and sweeping and cooking. Could I have gotten out of the apartment more, working on my Spanish in real-life situations with real people, exploring my city without waiting for Steve to be finished with school? Yes. But it was so easy to stay inside, telling myself I needed to keep my apartment orderly, telling myself I had to be with my kids during every minute of every Zoom call just in case they needed me even though Steve was in the house, too. I’m going to try to unlock a little bit.

Well this past weekend, we decided to unlock ourselves from our apartment and go stay at an Airbnb in Mindo, a cloud forest in Ecuador. It was a windy, nauseating 2-hour drive (vomit definitely happened — both ways), but when we finally made it, it was as if we had stepped into heaven, except with humidity and bugs and mosquitos. In reality, it was a wooden cabin nestled in the middle of lush tropical gardens and an organic farm. Hummingbirds, toucans, and lots of other birds I don’t know the names of twittered and sang us through the weekend. We walked, we read, we puzzled, we listened to the birds (Oliver would be proud), and we star-gazed. It was lovely.

I don’t think it was exactly what Mary Oliver was talking about in her poem, but, man, it worked for us. It was time to get out of the apartment.

Maybe for you it’s also about getting out of the house. But maybe it’s about refusing to accept the status quo. Maybe it’s about being the lone voice in opposition, being vulnerable. Maybe it’s about being OK with not having the answers. And maybe, it’s about refusing to live locked.

The world I live in and believe in
is bigger than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

One of our activities was hiking to La Reina waterfall. Here, we are trying not to slip on the rocks to get a close-up view of the falls. We were most definitely not inside the orderly house at this moment.
One of the views from the property.
On the property.
On the property.
On the property.
My boys had a blast running around, discovering trails through bamboo, forging into hideouts in the middle of banana trees, and catching sight of the guatusa, a rodent similar to the capybara.

Yet Another Storm — in Quito, Ecuador

The sky is blue, or the rain
falls with its spills of pearl.

“Spring,” from Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

Well it’s been spilling pearls here in Quito lately.

So

many

pearls,

drops

upon pearly

drops.

We are officially in rainy season. I see it outside; I feel it in my heart. Sometimes it feels like each Zoomy-Gloomy class is a fat drop of rain. This relentless rain pelts us, and instead of giving us life and growth and blooms, we’re just cold, soaked, and exhausted.

And while most everything here in the city is open for the masked human, school campuses remain closed. While restaurants are packed with unmasked humans eating food, school campuses remain closed. While grocery stores and malls and markets and buses are crammed with people, school campuses remain closed. Ecuador, I do not understand.

But while I sit here complaining about what a drag Zoomy Gloomies are, I have to remember what a privilege it is that my kids have devices, internet, and a connection — albeit through a screen — to classmates and teachers.

So many kids aren’t having any school whatsoever right now. So I think about all that rain and realize that it’s better than scorched and burning earth.

I am trying to see those raindrops as beautiful pearls and be grateful. But I’m human. And I’m cold, soaked, and exhausted. As I write this, yet another storm is rolling in. The thunder just cracked so loudly that a couple of car alarms went off. Pearls — they’re comin’.

All this talk of pearls — I should mention that in my household, “Pearl” has a very different meaning from the beautiful gem used for earrings and necklaces and rings. A long, long time ago, when kids were not even a thought, Steve and I used to entertain ourselves during church services by making little drawings of animal combinations on the bulletins. For example: a “feagle” was a fox with an eagle head and wings, a “duake,” a snake with a duck head, etc. One of our all-time favorites, both in name and illustration, was our beloved “Pearl.” Steve drew the most hilarious depiction of a pig and squirrel that I remember physically covering my mouth with my hands, stifling the laughs, feeling like my insides were going to explode from the pressure. All this during church.

So of course I start thinking about that poem excerpt, picturing our Pearls spilling from the sky. And though the sky is DARK right now, the thought of hundreds of pig-squirrels dropping from the sky brightens my day.

This. This is why I married Steve. We laugh SO HARD together, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. But isn’t that part of the fun? Tell me you haven’t gotten the case of the giggles during church, or during class, or during a meeting. You feel that tightening of your stomach and lungs; your face contorts; perhaps there are tears; and this volcanic laughter-air does everything in its power to escape out of your mouth and nose.

It’s the best.

Maybe it’s a reason I loved teaching so much. Those crazy students would make me laugh so hard. And laughing is energizing! And fun!

One time during Wellness Club, a club I sponsored, I decided to talk about this very concept of laughter being energizing (if you haven’t ever worked with teenagers, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of sleepiness happening at school). I thought to my 30-something self: I know! I’ll search around the internet and find some super hilarious videos to show them. We’ll all laugh together, AND IT WILL BE AWESOME!

I had such good motives. And such confidence!

So they all filed into my room, collapsed into desks, and I started what was sure to be a total laugh-fest. I started with the hilarious Steve Carell blooper reel from Anchorman. I started playing it, giggling in anticipation. But soon enough, I side-eyed my students to see them practically melting off their desks in boredom. (Think of those Salvador Dali melting clocks — those were my students drooping and dripping off their desks and onto the multi-colored classroom carpet.)

It was so bad that I casually grape-vined over to my computer with a squinty smile and pressed pause. Heads turned expectantly toward me. It was awkward, so I — as I do — filled the silence by talking. Soon enough, we were all laughing at how NOT funny the video was to everyone except me and how clearly out of touch I was with teenage humor.

Even when the rain is pouring, we can choose to view the raindrops as pearls.

Or Pearls.

So maybe this post is a pep-talk to myself during this Zoomy-Gloomy cloudy rainy time. I’ll take it. But I’ll say this to the nine of you reading this: find the humor in this life. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Start there. And maybe your own artist’s rendering of Pearl might help.

And if you happen to be one of my former students reading this, thank you for the laughs.

In all her glory.
More church shenanigans. You know those “connect cards” that churches always have? Yeah.
“I give Journey Church permission to print My Story.”