Brave

Fearless is a word I don’t have much use for.  Being fearless is sometimes touted as this great character trait, but there are things to be afraid of, things worthy of a shake in my shoes, a shiver up my spine, and a sweaty nightmare or two.  I am not fearless, but I’ve got bravery in spades.  Or at least I used to.

These past few months I’ve taken care to follow doctor’s orders to rest my heart.  While spiders laced cobwebs through the spokes of my bike and my most favorite cycling season fell to the ground in a blush of yellows and reds, I waited for my heart to be sure and steady.

While I waited I pursued my love of words.  I wrote a novel.  I wrote poetry.  I wrote about teaching and life in general.  As the air whispered out of my tires, my fingers flew across the keys tapping out this life of a writer.  Writing can be a frightening affair and I faced some of my writerly fears head on.  When I reached a stuck point in my novel, I tucked my head down and pounded away at the keys until my characters moved my story along for me.  I’d heard of that happening, but I thought it was just something writers tell each other to get past the quicksand that secrets itself away in every newborn plot.  But no, it turned out to be true, even in my meager novel.  I dipped my toe into being published and faced my first rejection letter.  With bravado to spare, I tackled two fears at once: public speaking and reading a piece born of my own hand to a large group people I know.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding days in my life as a writer.  So this idea of facing fears is one I’ve grabbed hold of with both hands in my life as a writer.

It’s puzzling to me then that this boldness in my writing life would come at a time when I was paralyzed by fear of riding my bike or doing anything else that might press my heart beyond its capacity.  The weight of the heart monitor was so much more than the half pound of space it occupied in the corner of my purse.  It sat in that dark corner, unwanted and untouched for almost a month.  My little heart beat away happily, normally as if my heart knew of the monitor’s presence and decided now was the time to play nice inside my chest.  For months I was careful not to strain my heart in the least.  Trust me, I’ve got the gelatinous thighs to prove it.

It was at the tail end of this time that a friend asked me “Is this the life you want to live?”  Well, not really, but the “live” part of that question was of more import than the quality of living I was doing.  On days when my heart was a sloppy quick step and my arm throbbed, living was enough all by itself.  Honest to God it was.  But is that a way to live a life?  No.  Definitely no.

Eventually the time came to turn in my heart monitor.  Enough days had passed without incident or pain that I was free to resume life.  And yet, I was afraid.  Quivering in my shoes, waking up in a pillow of sweat, eyes wide as moons kind of afraid.

What if my heart started to race in the middle of nowhere on my bike?

What if I lost feeling in my arm and crashed?

What if?  What if?  What if?

As I sat on my couch pounding out tales of my brave writing life, my fear of turning the cranks came to a head.  I could not stand the stagnation of my life a second longer.  It was time.  It was time to pump air into my tires, to pull on my gloves and brush the dust off of my saddle.

It feels appropriate that my reunion with my bike happened on Christmas Eve morning, a day full of anticipation.  On Christmas Eve Terry and I found ourselves in Sacramento, near my old friend the American River and it’s seemingly unending bike trail.

That morning I pulled on my tights and armwarmers, my nerves bouncing just inside my skin.  The what ifs rose to every surface of my being.  I forced them back down as I tightened my helmet strap and velcroed my shoes, breathing deeply before facing the morning air.

It was a frigid thirty degrees when I rolled the Rocket out to the street.  I said a prayer and watched my words float above me in bleached puffs against the blue sky.  I wanted to ride 25 miles.  25 miles is nothing on a bike.  Barely long enough to warrant filling a water bottle.

Three of us set out that morning.  My legs moved in unsure circles after so many months off.  I thought about the time I was cycling in a dream and sleep pedaled my sheets into a lump at the foot of my bed, but this was no dream.  We moved onto the American River Trail, the river rushing to the left of us.  My heart was steady.  Steady and happy.  It was a slow and beautiful ride.

After 26 miles I unclipped and rolled to a stop back at our starting point.  Steam rose from the vents in my helmet and the morning air was cold on my teeth as I smiled.  I packed my bike into the car and breathed a sigh of relief.  I patted my heart for a job well done.

A few minutes after our ride, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  These last few months, my increasingly chubby cheeks or my multiplying chins have been the first things to catch my attention when I look at my reflection, but not this time.  This time I was taken aback by the expression on my face.  It was familiar, but something I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was the expression of a girl who’d faced fear and found it wasn’t so terrifying after all.

Welcome back, brave girl, welcome back.

Can O’ Light

The final school day of 2009 passed without any Midol incidents.  This year I received many cards from my students and a handful of lovely gifts.  The handmade journal and the dragonfly pin in particular suit me perfectly.

There was also one more gift that is a superb addition to our home.  It’s a luminary carved from a recycled can.  Behold the Can O’ Light.

It’s simplicity is beautiful to me.  From the manger to Christmas carols to candlelight services to sipping hot cocoa in the glow of the tree, my wish for you this season is that you find simple beauty.

LOVE, Part 3

When I was a kid we lived near the Rogue River and on sticky summer days my family would head to the river.  My big brother would walk the riverbank filling his pockets with skipping stones.  He’d tromp along picking out the flattest, smoothest rocks and then he’d fling them with a flick of his wrist and they’d dance across the water.  I tried in vain to make my own rocks tiptoe across the water, but I always chose rocks that were too lumpy, too big.  I’d heave them into the water and after a satisfying splash, my rocks would sink to the bottom, the river rippling great rings in their wake.

Enough time has passed since sharing about the LOVE statue with my colleagues that I can look back on it and see beyond my quivering hands holding the paper, beyond stumbling over my own words in a room so quiet that my nervous vibrato seemed to echo off the walls.  When talking with my colleagues, the heart of our conversation was my desire not to miss opportunities to act in love because I was too wrapped up in my own life to notice opportunities that are sometimes quite literally right in front of me.  I talked about how it’s easy, especially this time of year, for me to be caught up in the inertia of my own life.

I mentioned previously that some of my dear colleagues shared what they wrote about what it means to love and that their writing moved me.  Two things that they wrote stand out in particular.

The first is this: love means loving even when that affection is not reciprocated.  The enormity of that statement is something I’ve thought about daily since our time together.  It’s something I struggle to put into practice and by the nods in the room, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one acknowledging that unsavory part of myself.

The second thing that has stuck with me is what a teacher wrote about compassion.  This teacher lost her husband to cancer last year.  Currently another teacher’s husband is in the same fierce battle.  Through tears in her eyes and over the muffled crying of just about everyone in the room, the first teacher shared about how love means acting with a depth of compassion only birthed by her own loss.  This teacher gets a gold star for bravery.  To write about her loss and how it has changed her and then to share about it in a staff meeting amazed me, amazes me still.

Each day since our staff meeting, teachers have sought me out telling me their stories, telling me about ways they’d acted in love in light of our meeting.  Teachers began doing things like collecting money to help pay for cancer treatments and writing notes of encouragement to their students.  I was delighted by their actions, but the thing that surprised me most and tickled me to my core, was that teachers took additional time outside of the staff meeting to finish the quick write we’d done.  Oh, that our students would experience that compulsion to write!

My experience at the staff meeting harkens back to my memories of throwing rocks into the river.  I threw my rock into the water and my little LOVE story rippled out in beautiful rings.

I’m left thinking then, what if writing in the classroom was like this?  What if more teachers mustered the courage to share their own writing, to talk about big ideas, to use writing as a vehicle for growth, both academic and personal?  I have a feeling that if we looked at the heart of writing as closely as we look at its structure, then profound change would occur.

My family moved away from the Rogue River and into the backyard of the Sacramento River, but I never did master the art of skipping stones.  And I’m okay with that because right now I’m filling my pockets with rocks.  Big, lumpy ones.  Come January, during the first session in a writing series, I’ll start tossing my stones into the water.  This time I hope they won’t skip across the water.  No, I hope they sink down deep and ripple wide.


Must See Christmas Movies

It’s holiday movie season and there are a few on my list to revisit before the big day.  In no particular order, they are:

1. Love Actually:  I love the weaving of the stories and the deadpan English humor.  A word of caution-I saw this in the theater with my mom and the scenes with the nude stand-ins were a touch, uh, awkward.

2. Four Christmases: One word: Mistletoe!

3. The Holiday: I’m not sure why I love this movie.  The writing is average.  The acting is nothing remarkable, but for some mysterious reason, this one is mandatory.  I think it’s the adorable old man.  Especially his water aerobics scene.  Hot stuff.

4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the cartoon):  I love any movie with a character with a heart full of unwashed socks.  I crack up every year reading this book to my class and the narration in the movie only makes it better.

5.  Elf: It’s impossible to dislike a movie with the line, “I’m sorry for ruining your life and shoving eleven cookies into the VCR.”

6. A Charlie Brown Christmas:  I love the music and the message.  That little tree is just so sad and endearing.  You didn’t know a tree could be endearing?  Obviously you haven’t spent very much time with your Christmas tree.  Shame on you.

*Not on the list because they’re television shows are the Festivus episode of Seinfeld and the Chanukah Armadillo episode of Friends.

Mrs. Mcmahoomei

As I was sitting at my school computer today typing up some of the beautiful imagery my little ones had written in their winter poetry, I overheard the after school program tromp into the pod.  Usually I shut my door when they arrive so that I can work in a little bit of tranquility, but today I overheard a conversation between one of my kids and his friend.  It went something like this:

“I can spell Mrs. McCauley’s name.”

“You can?  It’s looong.”

I leaned in and heard my darling little guy list a string of letters.  I walked into the space where they were working and crouched down near him.  I once heard a student say that her eyes were brown like horses.  Well, this little guy has those kinds of eyes, deep brown in one light, golden brown in another.  Horse eyes for sure.  I told him I’d heard him spelling my name and I wondered if he could do it again.  He smiled the windowed smile that is the hallmark of first grade and started spelling.

“M-c-m-a-h-o-o-m-e-i.”  he pronounced.  “Did I get all of the letters?”  He looked up at me, his eyes beaming from all that effort.

“You got most of them.”  I patted his back

“Did I get enough?”

“Yes, honey, that’s definitely enough.”

Reading. Out Loud. To My Colleagues. Gulp.

A few days ago my principal asked me to speak to the staff at my school about the National Writing Project conference I attended in Philly.  I thought about what to share.  At first I thought I’d share the hilarious genius of the poet Billy Collins.  Then I thought I’d share about a workshop I attended on writing across subject areas.  Both of those sounded just fine to me, except that another idea kept poking at me, whispering into my ear, disrupting my dreams even.

I felt compelled to share about the LOVE Statue.

I wanted to talk about something bigger than the conventions of writing and instead address the purpose of writing.  To present writing as an expression of feeling, as a call to action, as a response to an experience that changed me.

Oh man, that is not even close to what many people consider in the box of “writing instruction”.  Thankfully my principal is an out of the box kind of guy and when I pitched him my idea, he gave me the okay.

I was honored.  I was excited.  I was terrified.  Talking to my colleagues about my experience would mean reading them something I wrote.  Like, out loud, at the front of the room and stuff.

Gulp.

After fighting back the urge to hurl, I summoned my bravery from the pit of my rolling stomach.  Being a writer means taking the risk to share.  At least that’s what I told myself.

The staff meeting was today and I sat listening to my principal talk about copy machines and new phone systems and all the nuts and bolts that make a school run smoothly.  I tried to listen attentively, but my stomach was aflutter and my heart was hammering.  Then it came time for me to share.  I begged for God to have mercy and take me to Heaven right now.

He did not.  So I stood up and took a deep breath.

I talked a teensy bit about an upcoming writing series I’m co-facilitating and I talked a smidge about the conference and then I read my piece.

My voice shook.  My eyes welled up when I came to the part about being ashamed.  I pushed to the finish and waited for an accordion of groans and a slew of pencils flung at my eyes.  Instead they clapped.  And smiled.  And wiped their eyes.

I talked about the discussion Terry and I had about what it means to act in love, to seek out opportunities to show empathy.  Then, we wrote about what it means to love, about big and small ways we can show love.

That’s right, we wrote as a staff at a staff meeting.  It was a quick write and then I asked for volunteers to share out.  And people actually volunteered.  What they shared was moving and brought a fresh run of tears pricking my eyelashes.

In a time of standards and testing and budget cuts, it was water to my soul hearing about the heart my colleagues have for each other and our students.

At the end of the meeting, seven colleagues signed up for the writing series I’m co-facilitating.  Seven teachers willing to give up time on a Saturday to better themselves as teachers of writing, to better themselves as writers.  I have a beautiful opportunity to discuss within my teaching community the importance and power of writing.

Between now and then, I’m going to dig out my brave face and quell my squeamish stomach in hope that come January we will all be reading our writing out loud to each other.  And I couldn’t be more excited, more honored or more terrified.

Cake Or Something Like It

After witnessing a particularly awkward/seething with rage wedding ceremony, I found myself thinking “At least the cake will be good.  I could really go for a tasty little slice right about now.” The cake was a small three-tiered affair with white icing and blue accents.  It wasn’t beautiful, nor was it hideous.  It looked like it would hit the spot just fine.

I sat down and took a forkful of cake.  As I lifted it to my mouth, I had my reservations because it was an odd color.  Really there are only three acceptable cake colors: white, yellow, and dark brown.  The only exception to this is Funfetti cake, which is white with happy sprinkles embedded like delicious little treasures.

This cake was sort of beige-ish, almost the color of spice cake.  I don’t care for spice cake.  Why would you make spice cake when chocolate cake mix is readily available?  It’s a mystery worth pondering another time.  But it’s hard to totally mess up cake, so I took a bite.  It tasted like…it tasted like…it didn’t taste like any food product I’d ever eaten.  It looked like cake.  It felt like cake.  But that’s where the similarities ended.

I couldn’t put my finger on what flavor it was and so assuming I’d gotten an off bite, I took a second bite.  It was just as awful, maybe even more so because now I had impostor cake in my belly and my mouth and, let me tell you, neither location was pleased.  Had I been at home or even in a restaurant or anywhere but in the direct line of sight of the cake baker, I would have spit it out right onto the silvery names monogrammed on the napkin.  As this was not an option, I swallowed it and chased it with three cups of strawberry lemonade.

The weird thing was nobody else at the table could identify the cake flavor either.  I looked around the room and saw people pushing cake around on their plates to give the appearance they’d eaten it.  I felt terrible for having handed out such a poor excuse for a cake.  These people didn’t do anything to deserve that.  Okay, maybe some of them did, but as a whole this crowd was being severely punished.  With cake.

It reminded me of a scene from Better Off Ted.  Two scientists have created a meatless beef product and it’s up to the taste tester to determine exactly what it is.  The scene went something like this:

“It tastes familiar.”

“Like beef?”

“No.”

“Like chicken?”

“No.  It tastes like…it tastes like…despair.  Yes, that’s it.  Despair.”

I never did figure out what flavor this wedding cake was supposed to be, but it was a dead ringer for despair.