My Mother, My Self

Hi, I’m Laura and I’m a bookaholic. This was to be the first sentence of  this past week’s post. I wrote it up, took pictures, and checked for grammatical errors. It was ready. My language arts teacher-self would be pleased. But I am not. For some reason I haven’t released it.

I don’t realize what an issue this is, until, with a self-imposed deadline looming, I go to a quarterly Sunday afternoon neighborhood art walk. Teresa has opened her house to visit and several members of our writing group set up displays of their art work. My brother is playing guitar at another house. The clue to my anxiety starts at the guitar-music house when Kathryn shows me a picture she has taken of my brother and me. I immediately hate it

“Why?” she asks.

“It reminds me of my mother. It’s goofy looking. And I’m looking more and more like her.”

“Oh that’s just your personality showing. It’s what we like about you.”

“That goofiness and silliness is what I didn’t like about my mother. She embarrassed me.”

“All teenagers are embarrassed by their mothers.”

“Yeah, but I never outgrew it.”

And here’s the karma, or whatever. I do have the quirks of my mother and her goofy personality. Here, on Sunday, I realize it’s about time to embrace it.

I think she embarrassed my dad too. He, the Midwestern stoic, had his own quirkiness. But she was the one on the hospital’s psych ward during my senior year of high school. And the family stoically didn’t talk about it.

Was it her response to being a mother of three teen-aged children, the beginnings of menopause, a practicing alcoholic husband, or trying to be a Southern lady when her parents were Yankees, like her husband, but from Pennsylvania?

I don’t know. But it seems to have stuck with me. Don’t be silly or goofy. Don’t call attention to yourself. You’ll end up like your mother.

And then there’s picture. The one in my face, of my face. And now it will be on Facebook. That evening it is, and friends comment on the “great picture.” Argh.

So, this is what I need to write about. Natalie says go for the jugular. That’s where the energy is. Ok, and this is where I am. All this national commentary of mental health issues. I think of my mother’s mental health issues. And suicide. I think of my son’s suicide. What does this say about me?

Ah. Mary Oliver says, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Embrace it, girl.

But the post about books, written like a language arts teacher. Maybe it will  show up in September when I work at the college book bazaar, where there will be tens of thousands of used books contributed by the public and spread out across the gym for unbelievably low prices. I know where my energy will be then. In a room full of quirky bookaholics and their obsession.

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Heart Matters

“My head is stabbing my heart,” Lynda tells me as we write together on Wednesday. She heard that a nine-year-old boy said this. Amazing. It resonates with both of us, so naturally it becomes one of our writing topics. My head fusses and what does my heart do? I don’t know.

Something moves inside me when I hear Lynda’s quote. I’m tuned in to this idea. Does it start with the two movies I attend with friends last week? Movies with friends. The first, the RBG documentary, is with a strong young woman friend who reminds me of myself at that age. The second, a group of writing friends go to Book Club, a movie about older women opening to the idea of a relationship again. Uncomfortable, yes, but entertaining, particularly because whenever we go to the movies with June, we get to hear her laugh through the whole thing.

Or is it the Saturday morning meditation group? A passage is read from Jon Kabat-Zinn, but what I hear is a yearning in my heart. My meditation begins with the normal busy ness in my head, as I focus on breath. Ah, the birds are singing through the open windows. I like this, I think.  That’s about the time I feel it. My heart opens. This is different for me, the learner of lessons, who prides herself in her reasoning abilities and clever words. This time there’s a steady throbbing rhythm. And no words.

Or is it the Sunday trip with a young friend and her three children? I say yes to an out of town trip to a nursery, book store and zoo. Usually just the idea of such an agenda  overwhelms me, but on this day it is exciting, an adventure of sights and sounds with three animated, precocious children. My heart is full, but my always busy mind also finds lessons and stories. I learn that it is nearly impossible to get a picture of three children looking in the same direction. Look at the apple, Melissa says, pointing her IPhone at them. One gets up and begins to wander off. Or the challenge of walking uphill to the café in the hot afternoon sun to find a cold drink and then watch the giraffe play hide and seek. We spend much time at the wild bird walkabout inside a cage of parakeets and cockatiels. Each child gets a seed covered stick with which to coax the birds onto their fingers. I have no stick nor do any coaxing, but the parakeets come anyway. To chew on my shoestrings.

Writing has built your inner courage and calm your negative voices, Laura. It’s time to let go of some of that fear surrounding your heart.

Is it the Tuesday morning I spend interviewing candidates for our alternative  certification program where I meet two wannabe teachers I can’t wait to work with? This new feeling, this heart connection, is becoming a part of so many encounters.

Or on Friday when Tracey comes to my house to share her dissertation structure thus far. It’s a remarkable study, and I’m reminded how remarkable she is. We go to lunch to spend more time together, something we have not done enough of since she started her doctoral program.

My heart. Did my mind need decluttering before I could hear my heart? I’ve been so protective, so afraid of being hurt. And my voice located between the two…Did I need new ways to understand the experience? The mind clearer, the heart more open. And the voice becomes more balanced?

This morning I read in Natalie Goldberg’s book, The Great Spring, that she asks Thich Nhat Hahn at a retreat at Plum Village how he kept his practice alive.

He smiled a wry, sweet smile. “So you want to know my secret?”

She nodded eagerly.

“I do whatever works and change it when it no longer works.”   (Goldberg, The Great Spring, 28.)

I usually focus on breath in sitting meditation. But my busy mind is a constant challenge. This week I focus on my heart. The pounding. The vibration. This life force with a beat. And it seems my mind is just watching, allowing me to hear and feel the pulses and subtle circulation flow.

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” ― Milan KunderaThe Unbearable Lightness of Being

Writing Practice

Writing is the crack through which you can crawl into a bigger world, into your wild mind.  Natalie Goldberg

I first discovered Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones. Was it before I began writing anecdotes about my teaching experiences? I’m not sure. Did the book plant ideas or did I choose the book trying to understanding this out-of-the-blue writing obsession? I don’t remember.

I have attended three of her week-long retreats in Taos, NM, but she has been “with me” for quite a while now. I read each of her books as they come out (Another is coming next month…Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home: A Memoir. Mine is pre-ordered.) and use them to extend my own writing practice.

Natalie is known for her timed writings. Stream of consciousness writing beginning with a given topic. There are some basics I share with writer friends.

These are rules from her first book.

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you are saying.)
  2. Don’t cross out. (That’s editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)                  Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, 8.

And one I heard at the first retreat I attended…

  1. You have permission to write the worst junk in the world.

One I add when giving my own instructions:  Don’t grip your pen too tightly. But I never remember that one until I see writers around the room flexing their cramped hands.

pen writing notes studying

Does it matter what kind of notebook? Or pen?

Not really. Personal preference, I guess. Try different ones. Cheap spiral notebooks are my choice. The spiral makes the book lay flat and the cheapness keeps me from thinking too much about the crossing out and misspelled words. But for sure, you want a fast writing pen and for me that’s a gel pen.

Think of a topic; it can be a phrase, a song title, a quote, or just something buzzing in your head. Write it at the top of the page (along with the date) and set a timer for ten minutes. Now go.

Natalie then suggests some basic topics to use at any time, and often.

I am looking at…Write about objects in your line of vision. If that reminds you of something else, that’s ok. Just come back to the present. Use specifics; rather than cup say ceramic mug. But if you don’t, that’s ok, too.

After ten minutes with that topic, draw a line and then try this one.

I am thinking of…Write of the things passing through your mind. Don’t try too hard to control the monkey mind. Just take notes.

These are similar topics but the first is outward, visual and the second is inside, in your mind.

I use these as check-ins to “see” where I am. What I is outside of me and what is going on within.

There are two other topics she suggests that draw on different parts of the brain.

I remember…and I don’t remember. Opposites. When I first heard I don’t remember, I thought that can’t be possible; I don’t remember it. Let go of the logical. Watch what comes up.

At Natalie’s retreats we write two or three topics in a row before she asks for volunteers to read. We, the listeners, are instructed to just say thank you afterwards. Thank you for sharing. It’s not critique time; it is a chance to gain confidence in our own voices. At other times she would ask us to call back phrases from what we just heard. What we remembered; what stood out.

Do you need to share your timed writings? No. But when writing and sharing with the group I have been with for seven years, trust and confidence grows. And with that, I believe the quality of our writing does too.

Writing timed writings alone works for me because I practice regularly. Regularly losing control, letting go of fears, dropping down past first thoughts and what I think I should say.

Writing is the crack through which I can crawl into a bigger world, into my wild mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening to Story

I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.                             Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I wasn’t sure how this would work, but I wanted to be open to it.  My niece, Laura Beth (Lb) graduated in dance from UT Austin in December. Was she walking in the May ceremony? She has since been living in Austin, dancing in a band and teaching dance in several  venues. Her dad lives in New York City and her mom in Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. If she wants to walk I could go and stand in for the family. As that plan takes shape, my brother, her dad, decides to get a flight to Dallas and meet me at Love Field. Ok, I can do that. Except for the fact that we are both headstrong and often clash, and I’m going to be with him for the next three days.

I go to Dallas the day before his early morning flight gets in. I’m feeling anxious about finding my way around Dallas and not sure I completely trust my cell phone’s driving directions. What if the directions are wrong? Will I be able to get through the downtown freeway traffic and listen to some computer tell me what to do at the same time? These are newer concerns for me; I’m feeling my age.

I begin my morning pages (Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 9-18) before picking up my brother the next day. How can I avoid falling into my old habit of being Big Sister? Bossy, like I’m the teacher. With a bit of self-talk and exploration I come up with the idea to watch, listen, and see it as story. It might be something to share in a blog post. I remember how my other brother told me one chaotic Thanksgiving several years before Mother died to watch the family meal like a movie and when I caught his eye across the table he held up a pantomimed charades-like camera. It was a good plan then. I can do this.

I pick up my brother at Love Field and we head to Austin, again with anxiety, the cell phone app, and another busy freeway. I was in Austin 35 years ago for graduate school, but it’s grown quite a bit since then. The trip is smooth enough; maybe a little practice is all I need.

Lb picks us up at the motel for dinner. I have requested a restaurant that can’t be found back home, something typically Austin. Ah, a Mexican Asian fusion restaurant. With a portrait of Lady Bird Johnson on the wall. It is very good, not too spicy, just noisy. The first real conversation happens on the way back to the motel.

“Oh Dad, I don’t think I told you about my summer plans. I’m going backpacking in Europe.”

“Where are you going?”

She names a half dozen major cities.

“How long are you going to be gone?”

“A month.”

“Who are you going with?”

“I’m going by myself.”

There’s silence.

She adds, “Bill (her mom’s brother) has friends in all these cities.”

Has Lb been trying to figure out how she, daddy’s baby girl, is going to tell him about this? My brother remains quiet. What is he thinking? He later voices some of it to me. It’s part of the story, Laura. Just listen.

The next day begins with morning pages. We go to the campus at noon for the 3 o’clock ceremony because there will be parking challenges and crowds. The graduating class is broken into several ceremonies all over campus for the different colleges.

The amazing speaker, Dr. Chelsey Green, challenges this College of Fine Arts graduates to follow their passions, and I think of Lb and her plan to backpack through Europe.

After the ceremony, time is spent looking for my car in the parking garage, (but that’s another story). Lb drives us to dinner at another uniquely Austin restaurant. Hillside Farmacy. This one is quieter, with an opportunity for more conversation, and I listen to this intriguing young woman with her dad. He, a career musician, is complaining about being a band leader. I’ve heard this stuff from him before and begin to add my two cents. Ah, but no. I need to be the listener.

Lb, who also has some firsthand experience being in a band, tells her dad how her leader interacts with the others. When did this former six-year-old become so wise?

A collection of memorable stories from a meaningful weekend. It’s time to return to Love Field with Google Map directions I now trust to guide me through downtown Dallas traffic. I’ve got this.

But up ahead in the far right lane a white Dodge pickup truck has stopped. On. The. Freeway. A man steps out and aims his Glock across the lanes of traffic. His Glock. In seconds I will be alongside him in the next lane. Where am I? The wild west?

Fortunately he climbs back into his truck as I pass. And with that, my brother and I begin to imagine another memorable story that could go with the experience

Courage

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. Rachel Carson

My plan for today was to edit the draft about my nineteen year writing practice. It was a logical next post according to my teacher way of thinking. But this morning  there are again doubts. Argh. In the future I’m making these posts before my brain wakes up.

But  I,the loyal soldier (see Plotkin, Wild Mind, 19) and teacher-pleasing student,  pick up my backpack, complete with computer, books, notebook, earplug, wallet and pens, get in the car and head to the Starbucks’s patio to take advantage of the fresh morning breeze before the heat of the day kicks in.

A to-do list might help focus all these thoughts running through my mind. Such a thing can usually make the day more manageable. I park at the local art gallery that has a 40 acre backyard of manicured gardens, and sit in the car to make out the list. The list  begins to morph into things I fear.

While school is out for the summer I want to focus on writing and to post weekly on this blog, but it seems to be a real challenge. What is this challenge about? Why is it so hard for me to share the thoughts in my head? What is blocking me? Why do I have so many doubts about myself and my thoughts?

Focus, Laura. Through the car window everything looks so green.  A  walk through the gardens might calm me; there have been past seasons where I walked daily through these gardens. But today I have on sandals that are not particularly supportive. Maybe I can just sit on a bench for a while and breathe in this fresh air. Then I’ll be able to finish my post.

I don’t  do that. My sandaled feet walk past one bench and then another. The natural surroundings are beckoning me forward. A cacophony of birds answer one another, tall pine trees sway against a bright blue sky.

I pass a young woman in hiking boots, camp shorts and “Fearless” t-shirt. Yes, that’s what I want. There’s an excitement surging within. I forget how wonderful this feels. Why can’t I remember? Why do I so easily give in to lethargy? Is it connected to my fears?

Keep walking, Laura. I saunter through a diversity of succulents in the desert garden section, stroll past vibrant blue and black sage, pink and blue hydrangeas and yellow stella d’oro daylilies, breathe in the rich smell of jasmine and gardenia, and listen to the rush of the creek over rocks on its way to the pond at the bottom of the hill.  The more I walk, the more conscious I become of a soul connecting energy.

There are new additions here since my last walk. A bird condominium has been built next to the wildflower garden on the edge of the meadow. A fallen tree was left in its place near the gallery and now has small branches sprouting along the trunk. The satsuma trees once full of green produce stand fruitless and near leafless, perhaps having suffered from the one week of cold weather this winter. And there’s still no sign of the garden’s free range chickens that everyone talks about. I have yet to see them.

It was not my idea to be here this morning. There was, however, a different plan available. Something I didn’t realize I was asking for. Amazing.

Here, Laura. Come experience the strength that earth’s beauty has to offer.

About this Blog

 

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be amazed.

Tell about it.

Mary Oliver

 

I didn’t start obsessively writing until there was Nature Lab. Two years after my twenty-year-old son attempted suicide, a year after he moved to the West Coast.

Nature Lab was my hands-on science discovery classroom for four year olds through second graders. I was sharing nature with small children. Between classes, I would jot down anecdotes about things I was observing– the ring neck doves teaching their babies to fly within a cage set up in the middle of the room, kindergarteners digging in our organic garden for potatoes as if they are buried treasure. Life had given me opportunities to be amazed. Pay attention, Laura.

I wrote these stories for two years, my twenty-ninth and thirtieth years of public school teaching. I wanted to compile them into a book and share the experiences with others. So I retired and spent two and a half years editing pages and querying agents and publishers. To no avail. Except perhaps to better learn how to accept rejection.

Then I got a late night phone call from California. My son had been found dead in his apartment. Suicide. What did I miss? Why wasn’t I prepared for this? He tried it before. What was he trying to tell me? I should have known.  I picked up a journal and scrawled these questions and regrets and shame all over its pages.  Notebook after notebook. My writing showed me the world outside as well as my feelings within. I was trying to pay attention; it was hard to be amazed.

My high school niece needed help with her classes; a kindergarten class in the school where Nature Lab once was got a visit from a box turtle and me. Two years of daily writing of the world around me and my most intimate feelings. In time my grief journey became a story I was ready to share…in part. This time I decided to self-publish.

I take on part time jobs teaching study skills in a nursing program and supervising the homework room in a neighborhood afterschool program. These are activities I still have some confidence in. I supervise student teachers and teach classes part time in the education department at a local college. I’m teaching and learning. Learning and teaching. Paying attention and being amazed and telling myself about it.

My interning teachers keep reflection journals in which to enter their thoughts and feelings, classroom observations, and teaching experiences. I’m passing on what I have learned from my own writing. The balancing of our inner feelings with the world around us. Watching ourselves paying attention. Finding amazement. Telling ourselves about it.

Then a few years ago I began waking with a phrase or thought spinning in my head. Is it from my dreams? Or something I went to bed thinking about? I would google the phrase for a quote that fit and post it on Facebook. It began my day and my attention with the world around me and the thoughts and feelings became anchored in this quote. It was amazing.

So I began a blog, “It Started with a Quote.” For a year I posted this phenomenon. A daily quote with the connection to my thoughts and experiences through the day. I was paying attention, being amazed and telling about it.

I write using timed writings that I learned from workshops with Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) in Taos and daily morning pages from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. But I haven’t understood what to do with all this writing, all this paying attention and being amazed. I’m still a student and a teacher. I’m still having to balance my inner thoughts and feelings with experiences from the world around me. Will I ever know? Is it just for me? The connection is not always clear.

So here’s the new blog, an ongoing journey of my daily pen to paper practice. I reread this post and feel anxious; doubts bubble up. Who do I think I am?  I certainly recognize that nagging question. It’s time to sit still, breathe, and pick up my pen, time to tell myself more about it, and find the courage to share it with you. Perhaps you can relate.

 

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For Now

For Now

Monday morning at the Barnes and Noble Café is usually slow. Today is usual. I come here out of habit, or routine, usually with a particular assignment in mind. It gets me up and dressed. Maybe after thirty years of the public school teacher routine, it is a habit.

Sitting in the back right corner at a small table with a carefully selected chair that doesn’t wobble and is just the right height, I watch the coming and goings. The assistant store manager is again behind the counter; she was last week too. I’m not sure what that means.

Bill and Frances are here, seated in the middle at a bigger table. He’s sporting his purple and gold LSU cap; she’s dressed in her bright spring colors. She has told me before that for decades she had to wear dark colors at work, so when she retired she bloomed. Even her cane is a print of purple and pink butterflies. On occasion he makes sugary pralines to share with friends and the café regulars.

Today her shoes are metallic gold. Slip-ons with a fuchsia flower applique. I tell her I like them and she confides with a sheepish grin that her husband hates them.

At the condiments bar another regular is fixing her coffee and bantering with the café manager.

“You go fishing this weekend?”

“I didn’t, but my husband did. Down at the river.”

“The river?”  she says horrified. “I don’t play with that river.”

Behind them a clattering of ice rushes into the ice chest.

Earlier as I was pulling into the parking lot, the doctor backs his car out. He’s another regular, a bit more bulked up than the rest of us, wearing workout clothes, who sits down to his grande coffee and reads thick thrillers for an hour, then leaves to get ready for work at a local hospital emergency room.

Today is the beginning of spring break for schools in this district and there are few people in here. I expected more kids, but it is probably still too early on the first day of sleeping in. The only sounds now, after the ice, are an instrumental on the Muzak and a slight clank of dishes.

Outside a cement truck rolls by, rattling the store windows, its mixing drum spinning.

A young Asian man strides through the parking lot toward the door, pulling off his motorcycle helmet. He takes the table on my left where there is one of only available outlets, then heads toward the counter. There is a quiet conversation of ordering, but all I can hear from my post is $7.29.

The lady wearing a grey McDonald’s manager’s uniform gets out of her black Nissan. She will take the table diagonally across the room from me, near the other outlet, so she can plug in her computer and begin her paperwork. Payroll? Schedules? She’s one of several, who use this coffee shop as an office.

I’ve now been here for a half hour and more people are arriving. An older African American couple take a table by the window nearest the door. She has an accordion file folder, he a zippered bag and handful of pens. A steady conversation hums from their direction.

A disheveled guy shuffles through the door wearing a black stocking cap and backpack, and carrying a clear plastic Starbucks cup. He fills the cup with water from the glass pitcher on the bar, then begins to clean a table off with moistened napkins. He sits down at his clean table, digs around in his pack for a moment, zips it up, and walks out the door. He too seems to have a routine.

A blue jeaned, t-shirted woman sets her plated apple scone and stack of books on the table in front of me, then at the bar begins emptying packets of artificial sweetener into her coffee. An unusually loud automated intercom announcement about the inventory system interrupts a rather raucous band that has replaced the mellow instrumental tunes. It’s time to dig out the neon orange ear plug from the front zippered compartment of my backpack. I only need one for my left ear; the right hears at 20%. It’s already set to mute.

A different stocking capped guy with a knapsack is looking at the Eastern religion and philosophy bookshelves beyond the café, then wanders off. A twenty-something man standing at the far counter just bought a book and is now walking toward the café. DUH is printed in large white letters on his black t-shirt. It makes me wonder what he bought.

I put down my pen, pick up my own book and begin reading chapter two. A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf is describing London’s British Museum’s surroundings as she sits at a desk. I feel somehow connected.

It’s 11 o’clock. The conversation level has shifted from humming to buzzing. An older man is asleep at a table by the sunny window. More people sit down with their assorted drinks and pastries. And the two seated near the outlets are still pecking away on their computers.

Then three teen aged boys stride through the café. I guess the kids are waking up.

Life is amazing. Each of these people carrying their own stories.

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Try this:  Sit in a place where you can watch and describe what’s happening around you without being interrupted. Pretty cool, huh?