Dear Ishmael,

You don’t know me, yet I feel like I know you.  I recently had the opportunity not only to read A Long Way Gone, but I had a chance to experience its pages in a way many people do not.  My co-teacher in the SITES program chose your book in his study of global issues.  Having never read the book, I chose to read it with our students, so that I could engage in conversation in class.

As a child of literature yourself, you may know that sometimes, a book can speak to us in a way we do not expect.

For me, maybe it was that I had just finished teaching Paul Rusesabagina’s Ordinary Man and I found the parallel between the two stories haunting.   Maybe it was the moment in our first discussion when one of our students pointed to a passage that I myself could not shake, “We must always strive to be like the moon,” and a ten minute discussion followed analyzing the truth and wisdom of these words.  Maybe it was the fact that you wrote so poignantly that I was able to transcend the delicate refinements of my life to see what I think you want everyone who reads your book to see: even though mankind can terrorize one another and bring pain and hardship, what matters is what we do after the experience.  This book, your book, stays with me because by the end, I felt strengthened by a feeling that already existed in my heart: if I only allow myself to experience man when he is at his worst, I may never know man for the potential he has: for his beauty, for his amiability, and for his love.

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear you speak.  As someone who is constantly analyzing my own place in the world, I felt like a child in a classroom.  Your story and strength of the first book were inspirational, but the limitlessness of your spirit is profound.  You are correct in your theory that happiness should not be measured by stretches of time.  It is not to be measured, but it is to be experienced.  Ultimately,  you were the victim of childhood captivity; without an alternative, you were forced to be a soldier. Yet, despite the reality of your past,  you have allowed yourself to heal, you have allowed yourself to eclipse a world speckled with hatred so that you can live again.

Standing in line with my students eagerly waiting to get your new novel Radiance of Tomorrow signed, I felt renewed.  I felt that within the hour of listening to you speak, my understanding of mankind deepened.  Ishmael, for me you rejuvenated truth:  Many people will enter our lives and they will see the flicker of our eternal flame.  Some of those people will want to extinguish it, and if given the opportunity, they will.  However, others will see us for what we are, for what we can be.  These people will take one of two actions: They will either do everything in their power to relight the flame, or seeing that it still flickers, they will protect it, nurture it, and wait for it be what it was meant to be.  Each of us has a light inside, and with the proper guidance and nurturing, it will blaze and we will live to our full potential: hopeful creatures, dedicated individuals, and spiritual heroes.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for not only signing my book but for touching my life.

Sometimes, It Stings.

It is midnight.

I am trying to finish prepping Pride and Prejudice for tomorrow when I realize that my thirteen-year old is avoiding going to bed.

I finally question her hovering.  “You just went to the bathroom and got water.  What are you doing?”

“I had to blow my nose,” she responds.  However, her voice has a lilt in it.  I can tell something is wrong.

Hmmmmm.  I feel agitation.  I want nothing more than to finish my reading.  She is at least an hour passed when she should go to sleep.  Ugh!  I am feeling a little undone because I am pms’ing and the dishes are never put away and no one else seems to be able to fold the laundry and the damn garage door needs fixed.   To be honest, I just want to go to bed but I have a lot of reading left and the minutes on the clock are ticking away.  I sort of feel like an emotional roller coaster, so to have my thirteen-year old daughter milling around when it is already midnight makes me feel like I could teeter or I could totter. Either way, it might not be pretty.

“Carson, it is late. You need to go to bed.”  I speak these words in the calmest, most motherly voice I can muster.

Of course, she says good night, but then, from behind her not-so-closed-door, I hear crying.

Momentarily, I assess the situation:  I need to finish prepping.  It is late.  She should already be asleep.  I should be asleep.  Shit.

I walk into her room.

“Carson, are you crying?”

“Sort of,” she says through a mixture of sniffling and tears.

“Why?”

“Because Susie is having a birthday party and I wasn’t invited.”

Susie.  A dance friend.  A friend that is a friend but not really a friend but seems like a friend because proximity puts them in the same building together four days a week.

Upon this proclamation, she lets go.  If I could teach actresses what true blubbering is, this is it: snot and tears and saliva and a constant wiping into arms and pillows and covers.

(If the sanitary police exist… we may need to be arrested.)

Watching this fiasco of emotion, I feel somewhat ambivalent.  It is late. She is overtired.  I am overtired.  I selfishly wish I would have let her cry it out.  What is it that she wants me to do?  Offer advice?  In the state I am in, my advice will either be to address Susie directly or tell her off, with the latter winning in my brain as she exhales the jagged breath of a crier.

As she escalates up her emotional Mount Olympus, some paradigm shifts in my brain.   Wait!   I will not have to spend thirty bucks to buy a gift for some kid I do not really know? 

Cha-ching!

The Hyde of my dispassionate Jackal realizes the pain she is feeling:  Someone told her about a party she was not invited to and  she believes the inviter to be a friend.  She feels ostracized.

“What do you expect from this crying, Carson?  Will this solve any of your pain?”  I ask.

“No!”  She takes a deep breath and cries harder.

I inhale deeply.  I count to three.  What to say?  What to say?

“Honey, this friend is a friend now, but she will not always be, and even in two months, her party will be arbitrary.”

I go for reason.  It doesn’t work.  She crosses her arms at the elbows and covers her face.

Yet, I still continue with reason.  “Carson, this is just one party of hundreds of parties in the course of your life.   She made a mistake!  Chances are you might not even remember Susie in twenty years.  Please do not let one little indiscretion hurt your feelings.”

“Okay,” she says as she tries to control her breathing.  She knows that I am right, although I cannot take the hurt away.

*****************************

 At thirteen, her world is so limited that she is unable to see a bigger picture.  As much as I want to protect her and punch all the little Susie’s of the world in the face, she is experiencing reality:  sometimes, you are not invited to the party; sometimes, the friends that you put all of your hopes in end up leaving you in the end; sometimes, what you thought was real was not actually there.   But, there will be other parties and other friends and more experiences that will fill her with joy.

Hold out Carson, it will be better soon.  And don’t forget.  I am your mother.  If you need me to, I can ruffle some feathers.

A Zen Little Unplanned Existential Experiment

This morning, I did not expect NOT to go to work.  I mean, it was a figuratively balmy 8 degrees at 6:00 when I awoke, and the temperature was only going to climb as the day progressed.  In no way would calling school be justified again.  The Polar Vortex was done ravaging us with wind chills in the -40s; it was time to get back to normality.

However, at 6:13, a friend texted me, “No school again ?!?”

I thought he was joking.  I had not received the call, and this friend of mine, he can be somewhat of a jokester.  However, I walked out of the bathroom, and wouldn’t you know it, the phone rang one-minute later.  Today, school was cancelled because the majority of the busses wouldn’t start, and they could not, of course, allow the little dumplings stand in the frigid air while the few busses that did work tried to manage all of the routes.

Day Three.

The first thing that went through my mind was a song I used to love in the 90’s.   My mind could hear the riff of the guitar as the words played in my mind:

For three strange days
I had no obligations
My mind was a blur
I did not know what to do.
And then I lost myself

I, for the life of me could not remember anymore of the song.  I could not even remember who sang it.  Thank God for Google and the world-wide web.  I vaguely remembered the band School of Fish and when I looked up the lyrics, I found that they were actually really depressing.

For me, these have been three strange days, but unlike the lead singer, I have not lost my motivation.  On the contrary, I have relished in the gift of freedom that snow days bestow.

A gift, you scoff!  What about all the other days off?

Don’t you think, dear reader, I know you are dubious of the complexities of my job.  You see it as a cake walk: three days at Thanksgiving, two weeks at Christmas, Spring Break, and then nine weeks in the summer!  But, what you do not understand is the paradox of teaching: we work our asses off for 187 days a year because we need for the students to excel and be better at whatever subjects we teach, and in order to do that, we need days off to regroup, reevaluate lessons, and recharge our batteries.

Everyone feels burnout, you say.  Well, I do not disagree, but please, try to be a teacher for even a year, and you might think a little less critically of our chosen calling.

Now, I do not mean to put you on the defensive or make you angry.  I love my job and I am grateful for the time off that school districts give students and teachers to restore their enthusiasm and yearning to learn.  Likewise, I was grateful for our winter break.  I crossed many items off of my list.  I shopped, cooked, entertained, visited, cleaned, worked out, graded some papers (not as many as I should have, I will admit), and relaxed with my family.  It was the perfect break.

Oh, but then the Polar Vortex hit, and three magical free days were conjured in the universe.  Free Days.  I did not plan on these days.  I did not have a schedule of chores that needed to be accomplished.  I did not have any set list of items that needed attention because these days were not planned, and thus, they were a gift.

For three strange days I had no obligations….

With no obligation comes the ability to just exist.  I kind of zenned out in my own little existential experiment.  I realized that nothing had to be done, so I decided what should be done was anything that I wanted to get done.  Do you understand the enormity of this gift for a 44 year-old, full-time working mother of three?

So what did I do?

  • I read The Fault in Our Stars cover-to-cover.  I would recommend it because it is incredibly well written, but blubbering for forty or more pages makes it a hard book to recommend.  Okay, screw it.   I cried but I also laughed. You should read it!  It’s that good!
  • I worked out twice!  I never find time to workout during the week, or is it that I find a million other things to do besides working out during the week?  Well, whichever way, the endorphins made me feel strong.
  • I played countless games of Life with the girls.  I won more than once.  I always pick the college track, and I think they are starting to realize that long-term earnings increase exponentially with a college education.
  • I slept.  One can NEVER sleep enough, in my opinion.
  • I cooked delicious meals.
  • I blogged.

It was a glorious, unencumbered three days, and it was almost better than any planned vacation.

If only I could give the gift to each of you readers so you can understand how having three strange days can seem like the perfect motivation to get done some of the things you never seem to find time to do.