All posts by nenalope

Flush, flush, flush

Years, years, seriously we are talking YEARS ago, I sat on some fancy committee that did “walkthroughs” at my school.  At the time I was fresh to teaching and was learning how best to teach 5th graders, an endeavor that I am still trying to master.

One day when this committee was together and waiting for the next class visit so we could all walk in (all 8 of us) and surprise the teacher in such a way that the words she was speaking stuck in her throat while we stood around awkwardly not knowing whether to sit or stand or even just smile and we fumbled around with these stupid clipboards that only made us feel important but really we were not important and just wanted to tell the teacher to breathe that we were not there to condemn her to teacher hell… so this one old guy starts telling the story of his younger years.

It turns out that the moral of his story was that the older you get, the faster time passes.  I remember his story because it is damn true.  You know it is. I look back on these years when I was younger and I swear a day was actually a DAY.  There was time for me to read, to exercise, to be with friends, to daydream, to go to the library, to call my mom, to see the sun rising, to feel life, to cook, to laugh, to enjoy my heartbeat.  But NOW, a day is like only 6 hours and 5 of them are spent at work.  There is not enough time to do anything and this freaking day called Tuesday seems to have duplicated itself so it pops up more often than Thursday or Friday!!

An hour is not an hour but more like just 30 minutes and you think it is only going to take you a few minutes to go to the grocery store, but the truth is you will have lost HOURS just going to get your potatoes and mayonnaise.  Forget enjoyment, forget smelling roses, forget staring at nothing, there isn’t time for that (unless you do it for 5 minutes) because there are dishes to wash, floors to be cleaned, lunch to be prepared, getting ready for bed routines that seem to just suck the last hour of the day and so much more… pant, pant, pant.

So it comes down to this, according to that old guy from the committee, life is like the water in the toilet bowl.  It starts off slow, just starting to circle around and spinning ever so gently, then right before your very eyes, without you even noticing or feeling it, it begins to pick up speed.  Next thing you know as you get closer to that epicenter, it really kicks it up into high velocity and now every spin comes around so QUICK, oh and now you are really spinning, a ride faster than anything you can experience at a carnival, whir, whir, whir, don’t close your eyes because this is your life passing right before you!! And then eventually that spinning cyclone just flushes you right into the drain – there. GONE. The last bits of you trailing and gurgling and leaving silence.

Sigh. We better enjoy our 6 or 4 hours of day and even if we spend it washing dishes, to make the most of it because soon we will just get flushed, flushed, flushed.

Annie

I probably don’t qualify as being able to call Anne Lamott “Annie” but I really savored her words this past Saturday.

My heart leapt with joy when she said, “a page a day, that is fantastic, fantastic.” The way the word rolled out from her was just delicious.  It didn’t come out too fast, but just perfectly “that is FANTAS-TIC.”  The manner in which she said it made me feel like I could do it.  That my meager writings were fantas-tic.

Then she talked about “just get it down.”  Oh how I suddenly connected with the writer that is inside all of us! I knew exactly what she meant when she said that.  So many times a spark of an idea hits and I tell myself: I will write it down later.  I can remember that.  Hell no! I can’t remember diddly! The moment I get a pencil in my hand, that brilliant idea is forgotten.  I hate that I have allowed those crumbs of amazing thinking to slip through my fingers. Never again, thanks to Annie!!

“Spew and chew.” What a phrase! I need more spewing in my life.  She said to lay it out and then once you have it, you can see the bones of the story and will have a better idea of what to cut and what to add.  Such a smart one, that Annie! Can’t wait to put this tip into practice more often.

Then her talk ended.  At the closing she gave a percentage of a very big number, was it 98%?  ending it with that is how many will not get their story written down.  Hard facts from Annie.  I shuddered to think that I could contribute to that percentage.  I don’t want to, I have a lot to write about.  I refuse to not get my story written down.  I will do my best to write a page a day, get it down and spew and chew.

And maybe by following Annie’s advice, I can get published, make loads of money, become famous and stop parading as a coach.

 

I’m writing to write

It is Tuesday and if I don’t put some words on the page, I will feel miserable tomorrow.  Like I didn’t visit a sick friend when I was supposed to or like I went to a party but I didn’t tell my friend that I went because I went without her.  That kind of feeling.  So I would rather torture myself now and just put some words on the page so tomorrow I can have a better day. And yes, it will be worth it.

I am feeling like that kid in class who always has to ask, “how many sentences?  How many pages does it have to be?”  How long does this need to be to satisfy me and guarantee I don’t feel so awful tomorrow?  Does this suffice?  What if I add another paragraph, would that qualify it as an actual piece of writing?

And now I feel like that other kid in class who every single day just has to say, “but I don’t know what to write about…” Exactly! I mined my mind for some nuggets that could be swindled for some kind of writing, but I came out empty handed.  “Nothing ever happens to me.  I don’t have anything to write about.  My life is not interesting.” That is me.  Right now.

I wonder if I can pull off that move by kids when they spend so much time just getting their notebook ready and looking for that perfect pencil to write with.  Procrastination.  Putting off writing for as long as possible. Damnit! I should have hidden my laptop from myself and spent a good hour just searching for it.  And then once found, should have washed the dishes.

“Is writing time over yet?” Yup I have heard those questions from kids too.  And I am asking that seriously at this very moment. “How much longer?” As if writing is so torturous that I just can’t take it.  But it is!! It is agony.  Why do words hurt so much?

“Do I really have to?” Yes, it is good for you.  Not sure how, but it’s good.  Well I think I have had enough goodness to last me a while, at least until next Tuesday.

Ok class, you can put your pencils down, writing time is over. “But, teacher I just started writing and I want to finish my story!” AHHHHH!!

Guilt

Did I tell you about the time when I ran away from my father?  I was at a casino with my mom, visiting her for the weekend and mom just loves to feast on the casino buffet, so I took one for the team and accompanied her.

On our way out, she suddenly exclaimed, “There’s your dad!”

And sure enough there he was.  Seated at a slot machine, alone, staring into the screen.  His back was to me, but the dirty old baseball cap and dark gray hooded sweater gave him away.  Seconds went by and I didn’t know what to do.  I found my legs walking the other way, moving back.

“You have to say hi to him, ” my mother hissed.

My legs didn’t want to say hi. They took me in the other direction. Dad would not be happy with me visiting mom and not even telling him I would be in town.  I could already see his angry face, deep frown, harsh cold words spewing forth, “you should tell me when you come…look at you, you’re here and you didn’t even tell me…”  I swallowed and headed out the door, my mom racing to keep up with me.

And then the guilt.  Had he seen me?  Maybe my bright sweater gave me away and he saw my reflection on the screen.  Maybe he had turned in time to see me racing out the door.  How would he feel?  Why didn’t I just say hi?

Oh and then it really started pouring.  Pouring guilt, GUILT.  I could see my day of reckoning and the sky would be a television playing all the awful things I had ever done and there would be the image of my poor dad playing a slot machine and my cruel self running away from him.  And he would be seated next to me, seeing the same things I was seeing.  He would witness how I scampered away, away from my own father.  Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilteeeeeeeeee.

The next day as soon as I left work I called him.  I told him how much I thought of him and that no matter how busy I was, that I always thought of him and I wanted him to know that he was always on my mind.  And then for bonus points I told him I would send him money, that I just wanted to make sure I still had the correct address.  I mailed him a fat check and slept really well that night.

Several days later I called him again. Robot voice telling me he had not set up his message service. Great.  Typical dad thing to do.  I called again 30 minutes later. Same robot voice.  Not able to leave a message.  I called again in an hour.  Same. I texted my brother and asked if he had visited him.

“Dad’s in Mexico, he took off Friday.” BAM! The pieces came together.  Dad cashed my check and without a word to me, left the country.  Not even a warning that he would be out traveling, simply took the money and sent himself on a trip.

Hmmmmm did he get a glimpse of me that day at the casino and played me like a violin to get money?

I gave guilt a fat kick out the door.

Pendulum

Outside: What the hell?? Doesn’t this look like a 3? This is a proficient writer! Just read this!!

Inside: Goddamn, none of my kids passed the district writing test…Jeez not even Leonard…my best writer…do I dare share this with parents?

Outside: Where is that coach? Maybe she can explain some of this nonsense.  Just ridiculous. In my twenty years of teaching, this has never happened.  We need to let admin know about this too! Absolutely ridiculous!!

Inside: If I show this to parents, they might ask questions…stuff like what am I doing to help their kid… Writing is on my schedule.  I make time for it, I tell them what to write about and I show them how to get started, then I let them write, for long stretches of time, just like we’ve been told.

Outside: I still can’t believe this! Just look at this! This kid got a 2 for focus, how do you get a 2? Read it!

Inside: This is always how I taught writing.  This is exactly how I told kids to start their opinion essay.  They always got proficient on these tests.  Why are these not 3 anymore? What did I miss? 

Outside: Just because they don’t have a hook? A 2 in focus?? Get the reader’s attention? Show me where it says that!! Is that part of the standard??

Inside: Gulp! I never taught my kids to grab the reader’s attention…why is that necessary with opinion writing?  I always taught them to say, “In my opinion…” and the stronger writers learned to write, “In my strong opinion…”  That’s what I always did…

Outside: Part of our curriculum!! What? Of course I’m using the Calkins stuff!

Inside: Uh-oh, no I am not…

Outside: I do have writers workshop, it’s on my schedule!

Inside: What the hell is workshop?  Tired of hearing that word!!

Outside: Look, you need to go and tell the district that this is nonsense! The bar is being set too high!! I always get 3s every year!! Every year!!

Inside: Dammit!! I need to figure out what is workshop…

Outside: (waving papers in the air) I know these deserve a 3!! I want them rescored!!

Inside: Because I am afraid that it will get found out that maybe I just don’t teach writing…

Outside: These are top students and they deserve 3s!! Look at how much they wrote!!

Inside: How can this be? These kids are smart, they come from affluent families, there is no way that none of them passed this writing baloney of a test…

Outside: (trudging to classroom, shaking head from side to side) How dare they say my kids are not proficient!!

Inside: (deep sigh) This is their fault…my teaching is just fine…will need to find that Calkins stuff…

Outside: (Slams door to classroom, sits at desk.  Stares at student writing)

Inside: What do I do now?

 

Life

Every time I drive home and it’s dark enough to see inside people’s lit homes, I sneak a peek.  Doesn’t everyone do that?  The lights are on and you can see what is happening inside the home.  I can’t help it.  I try to imagine what the people inside are doing, what their day was like, what their talking about.  I want to know their story.

Sitting in the passenger seat today, heading home, I gazed out the car window into the house windows.  I saw the same in each.  Soft light.  A lamp.  The kitchen.  TV glowing.  And I could imagine a person or people seated on the sofa nearby, watching, losing themselves in the TV show.

And I wondered if this is how they wanted to live.  They worked 8 hour jobs, came home, ate, and then surrendered themselves to the TV.  Relief.  Fantasy.  Not reality. Maybe they needed the TV to forget the torture of the real life they were living.  Maybe it was a distraction so that they wouldn’t overthink life and create an uprising of sorts.

And then I thought, isn’t this such a weird way to live?  Everyone inside their boxes, looking at  a screen…day after day after day?  What about the real life that is here?  What about the real life that is passing by each and every day?  Life doesn’t just happen on the weekends, but on Monday and on Wednesday and Thursday even!

I don’t want to live my life in a TV show.  I want to feel every moment, every breath so that when I am 80 and about to finally kick the bucket I can say that I felt life, that I was present in every second of it.  And sometimes this thought overwhelms me because this is all we have, we won’t get a do over, there is no encore, there are not repeat performances here.  It is final clearance, everything must go.

And then it brings me to ask, is this how we want to live?  The more I think about this question, the more I see that I don’t want to live with an 8 hour commitment that doesn’t make me happy, I don’t want to go home and lose myself in other lives because my own is too painful, I don’t want to just look forward to the weekend (“Good morning!” “Happy Wednesday!” “Yeah, one day closer to the weekend!”).

I want to know that when it is my time to go, that I didn’t live life, but rather lived.

The Best Day Ever!

I will admit I am an overuser of “best ___ ever.”  If I eat a damn good cookie I will shout, “best cookie ever!” If I spark an idea it is “the best idea ever!” So yes, there have been quite a few “best days ever!”  But what is wrong with that?  I’d rather proclaim best evers at whatever whim than to go without ever saying any.

So the other day happened to be one of the many best days ever.  Laura met me at Peet’s.  I took her my drafty little books – seriously, imagine cut up pages from regular paper clipped together to look like a book.  Oh, by the way, this is recycled paper that I was writing on. I swear Laura probably bit back laughter or a proclamation such as, “Are you kidding me? Really? This is how you’re drafting your books? (slaps her knee and has a fit of giggles so hard that tears come out of her eyes)”

But no, she didn’t do any of that, instead she asked me to read them to her.  In Spanish. And then translate.  So I did.  And magic happened.  Laura took my drafty pencil book on recycled paper and practically transformed it into a real children’s book.

At one point I was so mesmerized by what she was doing that I stared. And I found myself doing what I always do with picture books that I love.  I gazed at the tomato and chili hanging out in the hot tub.  I could hear their sighs of relief as they settled into the bubbling warmth of the tub.  I believed them into life and imagined they had a conversation about how good it felt to be on vacation and to be in the simmering waters of the hot tub.

Then when Laura drew the pestle (hope I have that right, it is the thing that you use to grind something on mortar – ok I quit, do your best to  figure out what this English Learner is trying to say…) circling about and grinding the garlic, I was reminded of myself.  As a child I would have spent hours just staring at that page; imagining how the pestle would go around and around and wondering how the garlic felt as it was ground into smears on the mortar.  That is the page that I would return to over and over simply because I would want to reimagine the scene and make sense of it.  How did the pestle feel grinding away at the garlic and dissolving it? Did the garlic really enjoy that pestle? About how much work did it take to mash up the garlic? Did the garlic know what was coming to it once it was thrown on the mortar?

The icing came when Laura drew another copy.  She gave it to me and said, “something to keep you writing.” I couldn’t believe it! I had a copy! Smart as I am, I had her date it and sign it.  I haven’t stopped staring at the drawings since.  They feel real to me.  They feel like a real picture book (even though there are only 4 images).  And what makes it so incredible is that the accompanying text is in Spanish. A beautiful, precious, silly, fun story told in Spanish.

Best Day Ever!

A Little Seed

And the little seed fell to the ground.  She could feel the other little seeds plummeting along with her.  Heading to the rich brown earth.  It was a cheerful a moment.  Being born, set free, each seed on its way to find its own life.

And the little seed dug herself deep into the earth where the dirt was darker, richer, with more to give for life.  Thinking that her seed friends were doing exactly as she, the little seed shoved as best she could, knowing that the further she dug herself into the dirt, the likelier her chance to get nutrients and to survive.

And the little seed, twisting, tugging, turning, settled into a cocoon of dirt, deep in darkness, surrounded by moisture laden earth.  Having settled herself and with a final wiggle, the little seed exhaled a deep sigh and closed her eyes for rest.  She thought her seed friends, who were probably not that far from her, were doing the same.

And the little seed came to find that being in the dirt was not that fun.  The time dragged painfully, seconds were stifling.  The little seed could only look around at the darkness.  Sometimes the tightness of the dirt made her feel as if she could not breathe.  But she would think of her seed friends, who were suffering the same as she.  She thought there were a few who were probably fighting better than her.  This gave her motivation to keep breathing.  She could do it too.

And the little see realized it took so much work to begin growing herself out of the dirt.  It hurt, it was exhausting, sometimes the dirt had nothing to give and the little seed had to keep pushing to stretch out of the darkness.  Each move brought her closer to sun, she needed light now.  She was ready for it.  But the seed had to work for it.  She would shut her eyes and fight with her little seed heart to move a bit more.  She thought her seed friends were there, pushing up too.

And the little seed found the ray of sun. She poked a little out of the dirt.  Was this really it? She breathed in fresh air.  She knew she would soon see her seed friends.  But now they would probably not be seeds…

And the little seed became a tiny plant.  Little leaves sprouted from her stem and she could see so much around her.  But the little seed was alone.  Where were her friends?  Maybe they still hadn’t breached the earth? The little seed waited.  And waited. And waited.

And the little seed suddenly had to accept that her seed friends were not coming.  All she had thought about them doing the same as her had been wrong.  They hadn’t fought as hard as her to survive.  They hadn’t pushed or toiled to get out. They were not coming.  The little seed, looking at her leaves and growing blossom, accepted that she apparently fought that much harder, had kept herself going even in the toughest of conditions and she had earned the right to now feel the warm rays of sun.

Just a day in the Life of…

I suppose Laura would say that this post is of the type made to keep me surviving.  Writing to survive I think she would say.

So, I still have my day gig.  Still doing the coaching thing.  Apparently I can still  function while on the job.  And today was one of those days that makes me think I might possibly get fired soon.  I led a half day PD for Kinder through 2nd grade teachers.  I liked it, I guess.  It was ok, nothing brilliant or amazing, just kinda blah.

At some point during the PD, the enormity of what I am trying to do or what my district has been attempting, hit me. HARD.  We’re trying to get teachers to understand writing, to embrace the writing process, to see beyond perfection, to approximate, to confer, to teach, to write, to think out loud, to gather small groups, to publish, to trust their writers, to lose control, to facilitate, to put all that they have been doing for years off to the side and try something different. Gulp.

No wonder we’re just spinning our wheels.  No wonder I often get the looks of,”Whoa, this coach has no idea what the hell she is talking about.  My kids can’t do that, my kids need an organizer to get their thoughts clear. My kids need a lot of structure.”

So I walked away from that PD, with all kinds of thoughts and then jumped into the fire when I went to the main office to read a jumbled email from a group of upper grade teachers who had apparently spent more than a week teaching ONE minilesson to the kids. ONE.  That meant they were drilling and killing, trying to get the kids to master and write this one thing perfectly.  GULP.  Poor kids.  Poor, poor kids.  Sitting there, taking it each day, showing up only to have to practice the same thing over and over… My heart squeezed itself hard as I imagined the torture of having to experience something like this.  Sure, I don’t mind washing dishes over and over until I get the movements perfect as dictated to me by some other person.

This golden moment, really sparkled when my supervisor walked in and  saw the email.  I saw her mouth open, then she swallowed her words and a mumble escaped.  Usually she is so thoughtful, positive, trying to decipher why teachers do what they  do and thinking of how to support them, but this apparently was too much.

“What?! Why? Oh, dear.  Bam, bam, bam.” She faked hitting her head against a wall. That was all I needed.  Perhaps my calling is to  be an Oreo taste tester.  Have they made pancake and maple syrup Oreos yet?  How about glazed doughnut Oreos?  Really I am in the WRONG profession.

An Afternoon with Peter Elbow

So it was Saturday afternoon.  And I had prepared some wise words that I would say to Peter Elbow.  They were going to sound so grand, like nothing he’d ever heard before. So incredible they would be that he might write them down and use them later in a book.

So I took a seat amongst twelve or so.  And greedily started snacking on sweet cookies.  The Oreo kind because that is the only cookie worth having in the same room as Peter Elbow. Just as I finished munching away on the last bite of sugary goodness, I realized I was all out.  I had eaten my 4 daily allowances of cookie. Lost in thought about Oreo yumminess and whether I should peruse the kitchen for other snacks, I felt a movement near my side. To my utter shock, Peter took the chair next to me. A hard swallow.  A sip of tea.  Do I say something now or later? Is now a good time? Should I wait?  Like pretend I don’t know who he is? Maybe just act as if I don’t notice he’s sitting there. La, da, da, just sitting here, staring off to the side, no Peter Elbow next to me, nope don’t even see him…

“I’m Peter, what is your name?”

CRAAAAAAAP! I know who you are! I know EXACTLY who you are!! Oh dear God, this means I actually have to talk to him! Jesus, what is my name again?

“I’m Lorena.”

“Ladonna?”

“No, Lorena.”

“Oh, Lorena?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

He shakes my hand.  Touch. Warm. And then it hits me: I touched Peter Elbow!! The high school girl in me jumps up and down and then runs around screaming.

Smiles. I look into his eyes. They are blue, a very nice blue.  I see that the chair he is sitting in is low to the ground and his long legs just sort of stick out from the chair. Tiny white lint covers his black pants and his brown shoes are scuffed.  None of these details that I am gathering in serve to teach me that he is a normal person.  I refuse to accept that Peter Elbow has lint on his pants or that his shoes are scuffed.  Maybe his wardrobe assistant suddenly called in sick and so there wasn’t time to remove the lint?  Perhaps the real pair of shoes that he was going to wear got damaged on the flight and so he borrowed a pair from Jonathan Lovell?

So I find myself seated next to Peter Elbow and I can’t summon the words I wanted to tell him.  He is a giant and I am just …Lorena.  He has written books, one that took 8 years to write and it took me 8 years just to reach the age of eight! I am quiet.  I try to summon the courage to have something to say.  But that inner shy persona who I battle with everyday has won again.  I just sit and sip tea, too mesmerized by the giant writer at my side.