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.

enough

So I wanted to be a writer
specifically in fourth grade
I had read The Phantom Tollbooth
both my brain and pen
were in motion to create
characters! and
adventures! and 
new worlds! and
invisibility and flying, of course
my beautiful and wise and kind
fourth grade teacher Mrs. Smith
assigned a book
to write
and right away 
I got started
too excited to wait

and now decades later
after abandoning
and forgetting
then doubting
and dismissing my ability
(I didn't have a Mrs. Smith encouraging
and validating
and smiling
and loving
me)
three decades later
the weight of writing
is being lifted because
I've begun to write again
decades later 
I've begun to create

I wonder if I'm too late

but anyway I write
I've turned the faucet back on
and on and on
I write "in spite of everything" like
kid and 
kid and
kid and
I kid you not that
words are 
bursting and
roaring and
coming out of my soul
like a rocket

So I want to be a writer
and, Bukowski, what I want 
to know is
when is want enough?

murder

I fall asleep
dreaming of poetry
words lined like lemmings one by one marching off the cliff
tumbling
to
terrible
deaths
but my words march off lines
black words
on
white page
tumbling
into
life

because that's what we poets do
poets do
but for a long time
my words
lined like lemmings
died too
I'd thought
I was only a possible poet
I wrote it
those words
on lines
keeping time
maybe rhyme
but into the bin they went
sent to certain death next to an oily tuna can
I killed those words
I chose that
I murdered
words they're
dead

I fall asleep
dreaming of dead poetry
and wonder about words
whether I can
bring dead words
to life
I find
peace, though
in letting them go so

I write new words
black words
on
white page
tumbling
into
life.

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

Getting Rejected and Other Fun Things About Publishing a Book

At the beginning of [chess], there are no variations. There is only one way to set up a board. There are nine million variations after the first six moves. And after eight moves there are two hundred and eighty-eight billion different positions. And those possibilities keep growing. There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living.

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

What an analogy to life! You make a decision, thinking you know the outcome or the desired outcome or the correct outcome. We moved to Ecuador for our family to have a new experience and make a difference in our community and become bilingual. And while the first two are actively happening in wonderful ways we could not have predicted, the third is sliming along at a snail’s pace. Not what we imagined. I tell myself that the time and effort it is taking for all of us to learn Spanish might provide experiences and (embarrassing) memories that we will come to cherish. This time and effort might be making us into better humans. I can only hope so. Because if I don’t, my forehead will start looking for the nearest brick wall.

You might remember my announcing with great grandeur and flourish that I’m going to write a book, a terrifying but exciting decision. But I felt ready. I had the support and encouragement of a successful author and educational consultant. I had a good idea. I had the work ethic.

I sat at that chessboard knowing that my first move would be just that — the first move, of many. But I also knew that my first move would be the start of a game that I would win. And winning meant that I was going to publish this book. Not a bad way to play a game, knowing that you’re going to win and knowing what winning looks like.

So I got to work. I wrote, I edited, I pondered life’s mysteries, I drank coffee. I compiled my work into the required proposal format. I sent it off to a large educational publishing company with humility to know that it was my “reach” publishing company. No surprise, I received my first rejection letter a few weeks later. I was pretty sure my first move would result in this.

Oddly, I felt a sort of pride receiving this, knowing that most great authors out there have experienced rejection. I was all set for this rejection to be a wonderful chapter in my becoming a great author story. And, really, this big bad publishing company didn’t even know me. Why would they take a chance on a complete unknown author when they didn’t have to? Well anyway, I changed their message.

Jen
you
are
valuable.
we
are in
Development.

I created the closure for this rejection and moved on in stride. I went back to the proposal drawing board for the next company. Now this company — this company was the one my mentor recommended as a good fit for me and for the type of book I was writing. I pored over the proposal, checking everything. I didn’t want a single apostrophe out of place. Suffice it to say, I was very nervous submitting the proposal. I probably checked over the email and the attached proposal for 20 minutes before simply pressing that blue SEND (while holding my breath and twitching my toes).

In a few weeks, I received the reply.

You know, I felt like I had a knight-fork chess move going with those two publishing companies. Surely I would get one, but there was a countermove I hadn’t expected, and I lost my knight. (Steve helped me with this one: a knight-fork move is when a knight is attacking two pieces at the same time.)

Jen, you again

keep writing.
be
your best

Because losing my knight didn’t mean I was going to lose the game. I still had all my major pieces. I had my queen and two rooks (or if we care to remember the analogy to life — I still had my physical and mental health). I would keep playing and doing my best. But I was sad all the same. And that was OK.

Wipe the tears away . . . and ONWARD to the next publisher I go. I rewrote and reorganized my proposal to fit this publisher’s particular format and even added some details that I thought would help. Looking back, this third proposal really was the best. I had been so confident in my first proposal and then even more in my second, but those two rejections had forced me to see that my best hadn’t been that first or second proposal. It was my third. I was feeling good. Again I waited the several weeks for a reply, and when I saw it sitting unread in my email, I had butterflies. This could be good!

Neat. And, you’re welcome for the bit about the iPad and melatonin! How exciting that you liked that! So so great!

Sigh.

This trying-to-publish-a-book thing is not for the faint of heart. Luckily I have a nice strong heart. So that’s one thing goin’ for me. And a wee bit of creativity to bring me out of the black and white chess game for a little break.

We’re not
moving.
That was
you!

And speaking of movement, I remember another tidbit of advice Mrs. Elm, the wise librarian from The Midnight Library, gave to the hapless protagonist, Nora:

. . . a pawn is the most magical piece of all. It might look small and ordinary but it isn’t. Because a pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. One square after another. And you can get to the other side and unlock all kinds of power.

All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. And I’d humbly add to that: AND NOT GET CAPTURED BY THE ENEMY AND DIE. Simple yet powerful advice for playing with a pawn. And for living life. And for trying to publish a book in the time of COVID when publishing companies have had postponements and they’ve downsized and they’re only going with sure-deals and they’re only looking at known authors and
and
and
and.

Interestingly, two friends recently gifted me with the book Get to the Publishing Punchline, by Joy Eggerichs Reed. I devoured it. It was an easy, fun, funny read, and I enjoyed it. But it was discouraging, too. I read through all the advice Reed gave, and for most of it, I can say that I enthusiastically followed it. But just like reading a chess book can’t prepare you for every possible move you might need to make in a real game, reading a book about publishing didn’t help me for this particular move in this publishing game. But it might for the next move.

That is, when I figure out what that next move will be.

So that’s what’s on the agenda for me: stare at the chess board and do some serious thinking. Perhaps it’s time to pay a little more attention to my pawns.

And, hey, if you know of any good educational publishing companies out there, let me know. I’ll take all the help I can get.

There is always a time to say it with fresh eyes, a fresh voice, and, frankly, an alive voice. And if you are alive, and something is in you to write, get it out.

Joy Eggerichs Reed, Get to the Publishing Punchline: A Fun (and Slightly Aggressive) 30 Day Guide to Get Your Book Ready for the World

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.

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Your Dreams Are Not Your Own

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” — Hebrews 11:1 —

My husband and I have done a thing. A big thing. It’s exciting and scary, and I (still) have lots of questions about it. But the thing has been decided, we’re doing it, and our entire world is about to change. This week, I’m sharing a post that my incredibly talented and intelligent and philosophical husband wrote. So with my intro as a teaser, please enjoy my husband’s words as he reveals what we’re up to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

How many dreams have you had? How many can you remember? The answers are probably not zero, and are likely numerous. Whether they were dreams while you were asleep, day dreams, or the figurative dreams of future achievements or adventures, they exist.

My wife planned a wonderful night for us to go out to eat with friends and then to a Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert. It is rarely my idea to spend money on such luxuries, but it was like a dream. Was it my dream or her dream?

As my training in philosophical writing* would have me do, let me briefly acknowledge many definitions of dreams, my delineations of them, and narrow the focus of the topic.

A dream of completing some banal goal is finite and cannot be undone. This is basically anything done in your past that you had dreamt of doing at some point in your life. If it is to run a marathon, once you’ve done that thing, your dream has been accomplished and cannot be undone.

Conversely (or should I say contrapositively — look that up if you don’t know the difference), if a dream can be undone, then it would qualify as not finite (or infinite). You might dream of having a house or a family. Both of those things can be taken from you in varying degrees of tragedy or negligence. To keep that dream a reality is a never-ending effort.

There is also a difference between material dreams, personal dreams, and interpersonal dreams.

No surprise, a material dream deals with some inanimate object that you desire. I have a bicycle. I dream of a better bicycle. One that shifts so smoothly it barely makes a sound. One where the brakes never screech and always work well. One that is lightweight for my wife to move easily on her own but can also have all the desirable baskets, bottle cage, bell, lights, computer and other accoutrements. I can acquire the materials to make that happen, thus dream complete…for now.

A personal dream is something you can, essentially, do on your own. (I realize I needed a mom and dad and food and shelter and whatever else to bring me to adulthood. It takes a village, blah blah, don’t get uppity.) If I dream of running a 6 minute mile, that’s on me. No one else can train or run for me.

As expected, an interpersonal dream involves other people, which can make it much more complex. I dreamt of dating my now wife, but before she was my wife or girlfriend, she had no intention of agreeing to my dream. So this includes all sorts of celebrity encounters, potential friendships, or joint ventures with other beings. (For the sake of argument, if I had a dream to wrestle a bear, that bear would also need to be a relatively willing participant.)

Complex dreams involve lots of the aforementioned categories. We have a house. I dream of making it better. I also dream about who could move into the house for sale down the street (or who of my current friends I could persuade to move there which would make living in my house better). That’s some material, interpersonal, and possibly both finite and infinite dreaming.

Other dreams are fanciful (or were) like playing in the FIFA World Cup. So much time and effort on top of God-given talent would have had to go into that personal dream much earlier in my life for that to become a reality. Plus, given its dependence on coaches or teammates along the way, this is hugely interpersonal.

Or a dream could be downright ridiculous. I dream of being a knight in King Arthur’s court but with modern amenities and the ability to fly in a rocket ship to Mars while eating dark chocolate peanut butter cups. 

And yet dreams for some people — graduating from college — are expectations for others. (I do not plan on unpacking that issue in this post.)

The problem with dreams for me is not if I have them or if I can remember them or how to define them, but can I stop them? People may not dream of moving to a suburb of Jacksonville like Orange Park. I get that. Once you’re there, however, you might develop dreams for your future there. I did.

If I am stuck** somewhere for any length of time (more than five minutes will usually do), I will dream of how it could be better. Imagine a waiting room, for anything. Hopefully I brought a book, but is the seating optimal and efficiently arranged? Sitting and writing at a cluttered desk — can I build shelves? Will that just invite more room for more clutter? Living in my house — what if we knocked down a wall, built an indoor laundry room, added a half bath…?

Some of the dreaming is not location dependent. My kids dream of going to a playground, but not usually one in particular. My wife may dream about a relatively close and not crowded beach, sitting in the warm sun, and reading a good book. I might dream about real estate investments locally or somewhere else which could also be done in that waiting room if I don’t have a book to read.

People, whether they be friends, family, or co-workers, may have dreams for your life. Parents may have dreams (or expectations) of their children to go to and graduate from college. I have dreams for my kids to be happy and healthy but also to be intelligent and kind (and successful, however you define that).

Since this may be more like an unkempt lawn growing wild, let me give it a fresh cut. (Note: I may still get caught on a section here and there just like my real-life mower does for various reasons.) So let’s focus on infinite, interpersonal dreams that are not location dependent and stay in the relatively rational realm. Mine will specifically address my family.

Twenty years ago, the expectation was to go to college, but my dream was to have fun and find a wife. Not incongruous, so all was well. Then, it turned into graduating, actually getting married, having a home together, and maybe more. Hold up. We needed jobs (let’s avoid all topics of dream jobs, it’s ridiculous). 

Twelve years ago, we needed new jobs (again, not dream jobs, just paid employment to thrive). Once settled with better jobs, a big house, and stability, the dream became filling the house with children (and stuff, kind of). With children, the dream quickly turned into wanting more time. Time for everything, the kids, each other, our jobs — life. 

Side note: what did we do with all of our free time before kids?

Six years ago, I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache and had a new dream — retire early. That’s when we would have time for everything. So I ran the numbers and figured it would take ten years to get to a point of walking away from obligatory work.

Three years ago, well before we could actually retire, I stopped working to partially fulfill the dream of more time with my kids. I was a stay-at-home, homeschooling dad. I loved it. I also still loved my wife. (It’s an infinite dream, one that needs never-ending effort.) If her job was making her unhappy, I needed to at least provide a potential solution. Note: I had already told her to resign or quit or just leave, but that was not good enough.

About one month ago, I applied to teach again. Part of the reason was to provide her a way out without her deliberate resignation. This would serve the purpose of love and protection, too, which I vowed to do. Part of the reason was to possibly live out a dream I had — to live internationally, and potentially raise bilingual children. Recently, my dreams were coming true all over again. I was my wife’s knight in shining armor (see ridiculous dream above, double bonus). I was offered a job teaching math in Ecuador.

Dreams change and yet remain remarkably consistent.

My dreams are not my own, not entirely. And think about the dreams while you’re asleep. They are nothing but weird images and storylines unless you share them. Dreams are not meant to exist in isolation.

Odd note: I have been reading through the Old Testament. So many revelations came through dreams. While I am a skeptic as to the veracity of those claims, dreams can have that power.

Second tangent: I had a dream (while awake) to buy the property across the street from me so I could rent it to a friend before my parents moved down to Florida (my dream for them) to be close to their grandkids (and another dream for them). That dream came true, but is being undone as we are likely liquidating everything for our international move to Ecuador in less than six months. Oh well, dreams can be superseded by other dreams, I guess. 

And we’re back. Back to the Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert, almost. Drew Holcomb has a TEDx Memphis talk of similar nature to this post so I resonated not just with the beautiful music but also the message of a fellow dreamer. (John Lennon was also probably on to something.)

Because my wife shared her dream of a great night out with friends and a concert, we both got to live the dream. What happens when you stop dreaming? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, I can not seem to stop that part of my brain. But what happens when you stop sharing those dreams?

I applied to the school in Ecuador because my wife had a rough week at school and had gone to bed really early on a Friday night with no morning obligations. Normally, we might have just stayed up doing nothing together and loving it. The kids were asleep, too. So I was left awake and alone. Dangerous? I searched for my dream of living and teaching internationally. While I could have remained quiet about my pursuit, I told my wife the next day. My dream was not my own. I couldn’t dream without my family.

I can also tell you my wife dreams of me writing. She turned on her faucet of words months ago. Being so moved at the concert — a dream which was not my own — I felt the need to share her dream of writing. Is it also a Valentine’s Day gift? Bah…who cares; it’s too late anyway.

The dreams that really matter are not just about me. They are the dreams that never end, and I hope they never will.

-Steve

*I have limited the repetitive nature of philosophical writing in this post in hopes for a more readable blog, but if challenged to further develop my thoughts in an unassailable way, I may be inclined to expound on these ideas. For example, some may wonder what the differences between a dream and a goal are. I do not address goals directly in this post.

**Rarely would I consider myself stuck somewhere. It is mostly a choice to remain in that place for some end result or sheer inertia.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

so you want to be a human?

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/ in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” –Charles Bukowski, “so you want to be a writer?”

His whole poem is *bursting* with little gems like this one — a lot of reasons not to be a writer. My students love it because they immediately latch on to the “don’t do it” part. I gently explain to them that he is talking about being a writer, not writing an assignment for a class. (Two very, very different things.)

I have to say, I enjoy a little Bukowski sentiment in my life occasionally. His self-righteous, smug nonchalance feeds my own privileged, first-world ego. So what if writing doesn’t burst out of me. I have the privilege to write. Or not write. (Also I don’t write for money. Or fame much of an audience — if your eyeballs are reading these words, WOW! And thanks! So I don’t write novels. So I don’t write for a living. A privilege it is, indeed, that I write whenever and however I want. I don’t have anything riding on it.)

But beyond the privilege element, I appreciate the organic nature of living — not forcing yourself to do certain jobs, to like certain things, to be certain ways. It also makes me seriously question the entire American schooling system — learning certain things, learning certain ways, learning at certain times, etc. I’m afraid that we’re gobbling and slurping the joy right out of it, all in the name of “knowing what’s/when’s/how’s best.” And while our motives are good — raise smart kids to go to good colleges to get good jobs to “make a difference in our world” — I think the foie gras approach is maybe not the best. Students are stressed and tired, anxiety issues are at an all-time high, and rarely do students get to explore what they are naturally curious about.

If, as a teacher, I rigidly stuck to the curriculum all year every year, I would . . . maybe die. And if not death, certainly I would become a rule-following robot simply beeping out the lesson of the day. The beauty of a school with flesh-and-blood humans as teachers is that we’re just that: humans. We have complex minds that stray from the curriculum when need be.

Sometimes when we stray from talking about enjambment

in a poem, time frees up to talk about how we don’t know who we are

without our stuff.

Recently, I had a student fill out an evaluation on me and my class, and she wrote that sometimes I and the students go off on tangents and that we should stick to the topic. And while I agree that a certain knowledge base should be taught in a class that is preparing for an AP exam in May, some of the “tangents” we have I’d argue aren’t even tangents at all. When a poem makes you look inward, it’s not a tangent. When a novel makes you question why you’re sitting in a desk surrounded by four walls, it’s not a tangent. When I tell the students a story of a caller to a radio show arguing about the placement of a “deer crossing” sign because it’s a dangerous place for deer to cross, it’s a tangent. But sometimes our brains need a break and we need to laugh and we need to be reminded of our humanness.

I don’t know why, but sometimes stories like Donna and the Deer Crossing Signs come bursting out of me.

The problem is when we’re in situations or jobs that allow us no “bursting” freedom. If you feel like that’s you, my privileged self would tell you to leave! Change your situation! Quit, and get a different job! I know enough about my blog audience to know that you’re probably set up well enough to do it.

So do it already.

I might rewrite Bukowski’s poem to expand it beyond being a writer — and take a slightly different approach:

“so you want to be a rule-following robot”

if you want life and vitality to come bursting out of you
in spite of everyone telling you how to live
don’t be it.
if you don’t want to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
phone
don’t be it.
if you want to think
and have opinions
and questions
and dissent,
don’t be it.
if you want joy
and fulfillment
and belly laughs(-till-you-cry),
don’t be it.
don’t be like so many robots,
don’t be like so many thousands of
robots who call themselves humans,
don’t be dull and boring and
rule-following-till-you-die.
the statisticians of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your robot number.
don’t add to that.
don’t be it.

if you can see the sunrise
and be flooded with possibilities
and be overwhelmed with beauty
and be overcome by life itself
to the point of a tear forming in the
corner of your eye,
then you’ll be a human, my friend.

I think my disdain for rule-following robots is clear, but I wonder what Bukowski would say about them. I think he might believe that following rules at all is bad. And this is where we’d differ. There are plenty of rules I follow:

  • For the most part, I follow the law. Do I occasionally speed or slow-slide through stop signs? Yes.
  • When I play games, I am one to try to follow the rules. And I confess, I do get annoyed when people don’t want to follow the rules. Last year at my school’s gift exchange, we got to the very end, and the last person to go got her own gift. She declared that we should open the game back up so that she didn’t end up with the gift she brought. I was not in favor of this. But that’s what we did, and she got the gift she wanted (and took it away from someone who thought the game was over). It’s silly, I know, but it just seemed selfish to me. AND WE BROKE THE RULES.
  • I minimally follow the rules at school. This means that if it’s a rule I think is dumb or busywork, I’ll probably follow it — but in the most minimal, least-amount-of-effort way. And will I still gripe? Yeah, probably. It’s something I need to work on, for sure.
  • I have this fear of being reprimanded, so I try to follow general rules of social conduct when I’m out and about. This mostly means that I don’t let my boys climb up onto the shelves at BJ’s, disappear into the clothing racks at Marshall’s (Narnia, clearly), or push their kid-carts careening down the aisles of Trader Joe’s while other bug-eyed shoppers frantically swerve their carts and dive out of the way and into the frozen bags of asparagus risotto. I used to not let my kids sit in the large section of the cart because it’s against the rules (according to what’s written on the plastic piece on the baby seat, that is). Yeah, I just don’t care about that one anymore, mostly because I don’t think anyone else cares.

The point for me is to avoid being a robot. Know the rules before you break the rules. Be aware of the rules you do follow. Know why you follow them. Bukowski’s screw-it-all philosophy doesn’t quite work in the real world. But if we can find a balance between following rules (and conventions and norms) and being true to ourselves (and our motivations and our desires), that’s where the magic is.

So if being a writer means you wait until “it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” we might be here awhile, waiting for your book to be published. But on the flip side, if you’re writing (or fill-in-the-blanking) just because you’re supposed to (or expected to) but really don’t enjoy it, do something else. Or change your mindset. Or change something.

Poems that have influenced my life (and this particular blog post):

Lemon Cream Pie and California Dreamin’

“Shake the hand that feeds you.” –Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Lemon Cream Pie. Just saying those three words brings me back to my grandmother’s warm kitchen, watching her bustle around in her silky sea-green “cooking” robe. My grandmother was fancy — no simple apron for her. But the fancy was always in direct contrast to the frenetic bustling, especially for holiday dinners. She would scuttle here and scuttle there, taking the scalloped potatoes out of the bottom oven, basting the turkey in the top oven, snatching the heavy whipping cream out of the fridge. She always had the wild-eyed look in the kitchen, but as soon as I came in, she’d stop in the middle of whatever she was doing to wrap me in a squishy (read: voluptuous) hug and give me “some sugar” — aka, kisses on the cheek. And then back to the bustling.

It’s funny how we don’t truly appreciate things until they’re gone. This year, I’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner with only my immediate family: my husband and three boys (and, unlike growing up, I’m so very, very outnumbered). Not only do we live across the country from my California grandmother (and my aunts and uncles and cousin), but at the ripe age of 95, she’s certainly not bustling anymore.

So the lemon pie comes down to me, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. The first order of business is to find the recipe. The (potentially) devastating part to this is . . . I don’t know if I have it and . . .

My grandmother never used a recipe.

Years ago, when I was an undergrad, I decided that I needed to learn how to make “The Pie.” I asked my grandmother if she’d walk me through the recipe, and she happily obliged. All I remember from that afternoon at her house in Palo Alto is a flurry of trying to keep up with her as she tossed into a bowl a cup of this, a spoonful of that, and then . . . mix and pour and pie crust and oven and hot and cold and refrigerator and eat. Surely I must have written something down, but I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if I still have the (potentially) written down recipe. And if so, it’s probably chicken scratch and hardly readable.

(And now I will take a short hiatus from the writing of this post to rummage around my kitchen and see if I can find something — anything — that resembles my grandmother’s lemon cream pie recipe. Wish me luck.)

***

Update: I found a recipe! It’s in my mom’s handwriting (but on a recipe card that says “from the kitchen of Inez,” my grandmother’s name), and it’s severely lacking in details, but it’s something! Here it is:

Beat 3 eggs til foamy
Alternately: add 1/3 cup lemon juice and 2/3 cup sugar
Beat together well
Cook in double boiler. Stir constantly til thick. Take off heat. Crumble/beat in 3oz. cream cheese. Beat to melt.
Top with whipped topping.

That’s it. I flipped the card over, only to find a blank side. Nothing about a pie crust. Nothing about how to make the whipped topping and how much. Nothing about chilling it and for how long. My grandmother has dementia and is hard of hearing, so calling her on the phone to clarify anything is out of the question. So I’ll be using what I have as a base recipe and crossing my fingers for the rest of it.

How beautiful will it be, though, for me to take the rough recipe and smooth it out with my additions. I am actually looking forward to it. I’ll definitely add some lemon zest. I have a lovely new pie crust recipe from a coworker (thank you, Caroline) to try, and I am familiar with making homemade whipped cream. As for how long to chill the pie . . . that’s probably going to depend on how patient I am.

***

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, acknowledges the importance of our relationships with food and with the makers of our food. We should know what our food is. We should know who makes our food. We should appreciate our food. Simple, good advice — and there’s so much more in the book. If you’re a human, you should definitely read it.

When he says to shake the hand that feeds us — if nothing else — it’s a good reminder for us to be aware. As Thanksgiving approaches, more than likely our families are beginning to plan for the day. And the plan probably revolves around food. Just this morning my California cousin Krysta sent me pictures of mini plum and apple pies that she’s testing out for Thanksgiving. I responded to her text with a snarky “FINE! YES I’LL TAKE ONE OR THREE!” I’m deliciously happy that she’s enjoying baking pies. I’m just not thrilled that I won’t be partaking in the eating of them. So, yes, this week in particular, many humans are beginning to think about and plan for . . . food. Be aware of that. If you are one of the humans thinking and planning, you already are. But if you are a human that simply shows up to grandma’s house, sits at the table, and chows down, take a minute to be aware (read: thankful) of all (read: love) that goes into the preparation of the food.

I’m asking my students to write “Favorite Thanksgiving Food” articles this week. It’s been a fun conversation so far about their experiences and memories and how they fuse together into a pan or cookie sheet or skillet or bowl. Some of my students have taken the assignment to heart and have spoken with family members who make the dish. Some of the students have already obtained the recipe. (Did they accuse me of assigning this just so I could get a glut of recipes right before Thanksgiving? Yes. Yes, they did. And I didn’t completely deny it.)

Food in so many ways links us to family. When I think of lemon pies, I think of my grandmother. And as I suck on this Ricola cough drop right now, I think of Krysta. And that’s not even something homemade. There’s plenty of research that tells us that our sensory experiences (especially smell) link to past memories. But aside from the science, there’s something special about food. When I sent out an all-call email to my coworkers to ask them for food articles they had, I was hit with a barrage of online articles and glossy magazines. One article I read from The New York Times, after copy-pasting it onto a Google doc so my students could view it, was 44 pages long. About food. But clearly about so much more than that. It was about tradition and family and ingredients and preparation and elegance and recipes and beauty. And it had beautiful pictures. Allison Roman from The New York Times clearly poured her heart into this article about . . . food.

My post began with lemon cream pie but quickly became about my grandmother. It then took a broader turn to being aware of and appreciating the humans making our food (and maybe even shaking their hands). As I close out, I’m thinking about my students as they pour their hearts out (hopefully!) writing their articles. Perhaps they’ll take an extra minute of their day to make a connection to a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle through . . . food.

So as we continue through this season of thanks, let’s be more aware. Let’s appreciate more. Let’s give more thanks. Let’s cook together. Let’s sit together. And eat.