Thursday, October 16, 2014

29/40 in 40: Pray

My new-found faith/my broken heart: 29th in a series of 40 things I've learned in these 40 years. Pray.

I'm a Catholic. I'm a Benedictine Oblate. I teach in a Catholic school and I go to mass pretty regularly and pick up the Christmas trees each December to put in church and I have been on my knees in front of that altar alone in that beautiful church, not knowing where else to turn.  But I'm not alone.

Tonight, a Jesuit I follow on Facebook posted a picture that had this simple message in it: the thing you seek is what's making you seek.

God keeps pulling me in.

Gretchen says she's been following my faith life/journey for a long time, and finds it fascinating. I can't step outside this time and see it that way. She talks about seizures and hyper-religiosity, and I think about gift.

That's what an oblate is, after all. That's what the word means. Gift.

I have to think about it as a gift, the nagging thoughts in the back of my head, the same ones that tell me I should floss more or read to my kids, they tell me to pray.

I've never been a fan of memorized prayers, and many of them I simply don't know. My colleagues know them and I listen to their beautiful words, but they do not sink in. What's the one that goes o sweet o clement virgin Mary? I just don't know. They are lovely but they aren't my prayers. I can't even manage the new English translations of the creed. I still get tripped up on the God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God (we mention God twice, which heresy were we trying to squash?).

But I'm a Catholic. Some of them are in my head, and the mass ritual is one long prayer, of course, one I cannot find my way around.

But I'm an oblate, and there's something about compline that resonates at just the right vibration in my soul. I was a Benedictine before I had a word for it.

But I'm bone-crushingly busy, so I often stand with Anne Lamont. The three prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow. My Help is always cautious. My Thanks is always intertwined with Wow. And I keep in my heart her other words, so much a prayer: the three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you. The past, the truth, and you. The past, the truth, and you.

I pray to saints. I love St. Anthony and St. Rita and of course I wear that Benedictine medal around my neck. St. Drogo is important to my everyday life. I pray to people I hope are saints, like Dorothy Day and people no one sees.

I think about the sentiment behind Just For Today, and I often remind myself that I CAN'T, but God CAN, so I think I will let that happen.

And in the end, I've marked these prayers in my heart and on my skin in black ink:  

Let them be. 
It's fine. 
You can sleep in the hayloft.
Don't give up. 

The reminders and the prayers and the words bleed out of me without end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

28/40 in 40: Build Family

28th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Build family. Rebuild it too.

Whatever the reasons, some clear and some obscured, I grew up without an extended family. We lived all over the country and came home to St. Louis for funerals and the occasional Christmas. I did not hang with cousins during long summers of grandmothers taking care of kids while mothers worked. I did not learn from aunts and uncles, I did not babysit younger cousins. I didn't know the good stuff and I didn't know the hard stuff. I was on the outside.

And it was fine. I mean that. It was fine. I had plenty of friends and babysitters and family friends. It was fine.

I moved to South City as a young adult, just out of college, newly married. We bought our house early in our marriage because we knew we wanted to get that started before we were saddled with kids, I mean blessed with kids, and had a harder time affording it. Lots of luck landed us on our block, which gradually filled with other young families. Many of them had close family ties, but many of them did not.

We became each others' extended families. Our children became each others' cousins and part-time siblings. We adults became grown-up cousins and, I believe for some, adult siblings. We said truthful things to each other that usually friends don't say. We babysat when mom was in the hospital and dad was freaking out. We shared garden produce and had barbecues and drank too much and told each other how important they were. We built family.

Concurrently, my cousin moved into the neighborhood a few blocks away. She had twins and wanted to breastfeed. Guess who knew about breastfeeding and was able to help out with that? I babysat some during the summertime. Then her mom died. I was a bigger mess than I felt necessary, considering that I hadn't grown up with family. But I was kind of a mess, and I started seeking out connection with my other two living aunts. We went out a few times with my sisters and cousin and my mom (other side of the family). I heard the stories I hadn't lived. My sisters shared some of ours.

We started to rebuild family.

Facebook helped more than you might think. I could stay in touch with an aunt whose husband has early-onset alzheimers and whose son is on the autism spectrum (and therefore, ya know, she's kinda busy). I can keep track of cousins and chime in when things like shootings happen in our neighborhood. Right now a cousin is exhibiting the same symptoms of the thyroid condition I am constantly battling. It helps me stay in touch and offer advice and commiserate.

I am constantly intertwining myself into new roles as well. When Troy introduced me in the bar to those union guys as “this is the mom I wish I'd had” it made them see me with new eyes and, frankly, see myself with new eyes as well.

Family is what you choose. It doesn't matter whose blood is mixed with whose. But there is something special about looking across your pint and seeing the same eyes looking back at you. Build it. Rebuild it. You won't regret it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

27/40 in 40: Keep Learning

27th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Keep Learning

My tagline over there says I like to learn. And I do. I love to learn new things and try my hand at them. For a long time my job description on Facebook was Jill of All Trades, because I was (now I'm a Roustabout, long story, remember the Carnivale?).

I love learning about how one, if one cared to, might lay concrete on an overnight pour on the Blanchette Bridge. I love to read about and then listen for regional dialect in a friend's speech patterns (and then blend them into my own speech). I like finding out about the history of street names in my city, or how to knit a cable sweater. The rules of grade school volleyball. How different countries express linear equations.

I have a collection of untranslatable words. I know how to tie-dye. I know where to buy cigars in St. Louis (although I wouldn't). I know a little sign language, a little Spanish, a little more Russian. I self-diagnosed myself with Hashimoto's Syndrome before the doctor did. I know a lot about quilting. A lot, actually—the how-to and the history and identification and so forth. I know quilts. I can french-braid your hair and make a pesto cream sauce and tell you the history of the doberge cake.

It makes me a good team player at trivia nights, and a good writer of trivia nights, frankly, because I have lots of things to draw from and learn at the same time (medical mnemonics and national parks and architectural trends of the 19th century and airport abbreviations? No problem!). It does not help me make a ton of money, it does not make me a better friend, it does not make me a good person. But it makes life fun.

I want to know more about fly fishing and forest ranger jobs and fault lines and I have internet friends I could go to for that. If I ever chose to move forward with writing and consider publishing, I have people to learn from. Right now I'm considering, very strongly, getting my high school math certification. So I'm reteaching myself trigonometry and then will do that with calculus. (Khan Academy is awesome).

Life is short and I want to know stuff and do stuff while I'm here. I don't want to just consume and be done with it. I want to create and learn and do. I like to learn. I think when you stop learning? You stop living.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

26/40 in 40: Play Favorites

26th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: play favorites

You're not supposed to play favorites. But I figured out that you actually need to. My grandmother made it very clear very early in my life that I was her favorite. Oldest grandchild (not actually, with my uncle's blended family, but even though Angel is older than I am, I was still there first), oldest granddaughter of an oldest granddaughter. I knew for sure when Billy was a baby and she came over to my house to help me out—which really meant not help me out, but instead just sit on the couch and talk to me, because Billy was terrified of her, which was of course HILARIOUS to other relatives but completely uncooperative of him from my point of view. He was not my favorite that day, for sure. I knew, though, that I was her favorite because she brought a statue with her. A little 6 inch tall statue of Mary, quite old, the base carefully glued together.

“My grandmother gave this to me,” she explained. “I was the oldest granddaughter and I wanted it to go to you but my kids, when I die, won't realize its importance. Maria got this from the orphanage where she lived when her father went down to Texas after the Civil War. The nuns gave it to her when she got married and she kept it on a shelf in her house. She passed it to me when I got married, and my kids tipped it off the dresser or shelf several times but I always patched it back up.”

She holds it in tissue paper in her hands, which shake with age, and then holds it up to me. I can't even envision the day when I have a granddaughter to give it to, but I took it and put it on my mantel. It is a small thing, nothing special except that it connects me to Maria's story, one that I found sad and haunting already. I was the favorite.

When Troy lived with us, well, after he left, we were sitting in the kitchen and Daisy walked in and had some sassy thing to say to him. She handled his living with us much better than Fiona ever did, although upon reflection Fiona sees why and can articulate it—at the moment, she just saw her position as oldest child being ripped away from her. But Daisy walked in and said something sharp to him and we both laughed. She walked out and he started tracing the lines on the table.

“She's my favorite, you know,” he admitted.

“Mine too,” I said quietly.

Is she? Often. She is the child I needed to have, after the child I wanted to have so desperately (that would be Fiona). She is Crazy Daisy, she does what she pleases and is bottom of the totem pole strong and mean all the time. I love her in a way that's different than I love Billy and Fiona. I love them the same, in a way that parents do, of course, but differently.

I do it in my classroom too. I have favorites. I stood in the hallway one morning talking with the English teacher across the hall and as 8th graders walked by to their homerooms, we'd say, that one, yep, him too, that one. Totally that one. I have openly admitted I love bad boys and good girls. I do. I love boys with my sense of humor (I am essentially an 8th grade boy at heart) and I love girls who are a little too geeky or awkward or on the edge one way or another. I don't like reindeer games and I don't like suck-ups. I love kids who are totally and completely who they are, even if they suffer for it with peers or teachers. And they are my favorites.

I love underdogs, and I love lost causes. I love ugly ducklings. I am always trying hard to find ways to connect with kids who need someone in the corner with them. I love being your cut man if you need me.

But I'm also happy just loving you and sharing a moment and a ritual (and a tomato if that's what it takes) to show you that you are my favorite. You are.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

25/40 in 40: Haters Gonna Hate

25th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Haters Gonna Hate. I better just celebrate.

I live in St. Louis.

I live in St. Louis City proper, not just a suburb of St. Louis. I don't live on a curvy street fed by arterial roads. I live on a one-way straight street in a mixed use neighborhood with lots of beautiful things and lots of ugly things living and breathing here alongside me and my little family.

I'm finding myself caught in a weird place. There's been another police shooting of a young black man here in St. Louis, but this time blocks from me instead of a vague 15 miles as the crow flies away into a suburb I've never actually been to. I know the corner where he was shot. My girl scout coleader teaches at the school right there. One of my best friends, along with my cousin and her young family, live a stone's throw away.

And that's what happened. Stones were thrown. They were thrown by the crowd that gathered the night the young man was shot. Even though the circumstances were quite different from the police shooting in August, including the fact that the victim shot three times at the officer before being killed, the response looked like here we go again. Here we effing go again.

The next night, Thursday, it picked up pace. A candlelight vigil became a demonstration with burned American flags and then a large number of people, of course followed by media trucks and a huge number of police officers, flocked to Grand. The thoroughfare, the one route north to 2 trauma centers (one of them a children's hospital), was blocked when I went to pick up my sister at work, my sister who was mugged at gunpoint just blocks from where the man was shot. Shot by a cop working secondary detail as a security officer hired by a neighborhood which is, obviously, afraid of what happens in their neighborhood. By the time Colleen and I made our way back to South City, we passed the SWAT team vans and cops hanging out in riot gear, just waiting for the call.

The call came soon after. The crowd moved down Grand. I watched them from my porch. I talked with neighbors, some on bikes who would head down to the protests and then come back to report. Mostly peaceful from what they could see. But then the little pharmacy on the corner got broken into, the windows and door smashed in. A knife was thrown at a police officer. People were maced.

I started to get a little gripped with fear that this was the beginning of the end for my corner of the world. Back in the 70s, my beloved business district was shuttered. My block was filled with elderly people who could not escape and boarding houses filled with, well, the sort of people who live in boarding houses. St. Louis city was scary. I didn't want it to get scary again.

Then Friday night was quiet. And Saturday night. There's a gathering, called Ferguson October, that was planned before this latest shooting, happening in north county and downtown all this weekend. Folks who might be here are probably there, where the action is. I don't know.

All I know is that when I tell people I live in St. Louis, they make these assumptions about this place. It's where the Cardinals play, and so they are angry because we keep beating their teams and we have extraneous beards or whatever it is the Wall Street Journal decided. It's the Most Dangerous City in America, even though it's not, and they're afraid to visit. They live in safer (white) suburbs and worry about my safety or think I'm ridiculous for trying to carve a life out there. They assume things about me that are often true but just as often not. We're listed in the 10 most literate cities in the nation and they can't believe that could possibly be so. Out-state Missourians hate us because we're liberal; the coasts hate us because we're fly-over benighted conservatives. We can't win, it seems.

So instead I just celebrate. I love living in Gotham. I love that I have tales to tell you about real things. I love that we wind up on national news because we DARED TO PROTEST WHEN AN UNARMED MAN GOT SHOT BY A POLICE OFFICER. My sister said that she misses the coziness of Columbia, in the center of Missouri, but she's trying hard to love this "whore of a city" as she calls it. Keep in mind who she is, but she's right. I like St. Louis because it's like me. It's not exactly pretty, it's definitely a little edgy but it's hanging on. Past its prime, perhaps, but it was recently pointed out to me that we've been a metropolis since 1250 AD. Lately we've been compared to New York City circa 1972 and I like that. I like it a little gritty. I like knowing all my neighbors and knowing that we chose to be in this completely imperfect place, together.

Riding out in the suburbs with my daughter Fiona this summer, she asked me, as 13 year olds do, what was so different about where we were driving in comparison to where we live. I told her these places might not be so accepting of having a family move someone like Troy into their neighborhood, and they would have a hard time wrapping minds around what that means and why you might want to, and an even harder time accepting his beat up truck, complicated family situation, the contacts he comes with. They would have a hard time having us over for dinner and inviting him. Maybe not--exceptions happen. But that's what my experience in suburbs growing up was always like. Smile and wave, go in your house, ignore the scary, ignore the crazy, ignore the other.

And I turned to her and summed up: "There is nothing ugly out here. But because of that, there are fewer chances for something beautiful."

Friday, September 26, 2014

24/40 in 40: Teach

24th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years.

I didn't set out to be a teacher. I wanted to be a waitress back in kindergarten, but my mother made it clear that I would be going to college. Then I wanted to be a nurse. My dad was a nurse after all. I still have this cut and paste construction paper artwork from kindergarten on which I explain my choice of nurse, decked out in the white hat and everything.

I didn't really have any other things that came to mind as something I should do when I grew up until I was in high school and I showed an aptitude for science. Teachers thought I should use that, that I should go to college pre-med. Don't put your candle under a basket, all those sorts of things. So I applied to the university and got accepted in a pre-med scholars program, which meant if I met the requirements, I could go to that school's medical school without taking the MCAT. I would be automatically accepted. It would be a done deal. But somewhere along the line I had lunch with my cousin, who was a surgeon at a teaching hospital, not yet married, not really settled in a place, even. She looked tired. Very very tired.

I left that conversation shaken. What was I thinking? What was I doing? This was crazy. I didn't want anything she had. And I had signed on to have exactly what she had. I panicked. I needed to graduate in four years. I needed to walk away from college with a piece of paper that said I could do something. Not just a degree in something. A certificate. I am from a long line of laborers and even the professionals in my family—accountants, nurses, teachers—have certifications that prove they can do what they do. My boyfriend Jake was getting a psychology degree. That made my skin crawl thinking about something so uncertain.

So I walked into the education department and talked to the professor in charge of certifications. The fastest way to get out of college with certification was elementary ed. It was a 1-8 certification and Illinois had reciprocity. This was the best idea. So I took 18 and 21 hour semesters, classes in the summer, and 10 extra hours while I student taught and I graduated in 4 years.

I was a teacher. But I couldn't really teach. That didn't come until much later, until I started tutoring Rachel. Her aunt was the librarian at the school where I was a first grade assistant and she thought maybe I'd be a good fit. Math. Sure. Rachel was in 4th grade and I tutored her each summer, and then by chance wound up as her math teacher at my parish school where she attended. She had major math problems. No concrete math concepts at all. It was actually kind of fascinating to try to figure out how her brain worked. After I quit teaching to stay home with those kids, I kept tutoring Rachel. Took on some other students, but Rachel was my consistent practice. And she taught me how to teach. I worked with her all through high school and into college. She got her masters in social work and I practically took the statistics course with her. Her mother became Daisy's godmother. Math brought us all together. At her wedding I was introduced as the math tutor and people understood how important that was. I realized I could really teach.

I got my current job, and after I was hired, my boss admitted to me that she hired me because she'd never met such a confident math teacher. Neither she nor the assistant principal was a math teacher by trade, but they could see it. And it took me a full year of teaching and the beginning of the second year before I really believed it, but it was true. I could teach.

I can teach, and I can't tell you how I can, which is ironic because the secret of good teaching is to live in the state of knowingly knowing. You have to know how you know algebra in order to teach it well. You have to downshift. But how I do that? I don't have any idea. I can feel the shift in my brain when I introduce a new concept, especially one I know will be difficult. I want math to be clear and simple, not a magic trick. And it turns out I'm pretty damned good at that. Funny how that works out, turning out to be really good at something you never even considered as a possibility.

I think about the future. I think about all the former teachers I know. I think about burnout and fallout and bailouts. I think about how I'm going to manage to keep up with the changing pace of technology and kids...I worry about not being as good as I am now in ten years. But maybe something else will come to pass. It always seems to, in retrospect. And however it goes, I know I'll wind up teaching, something, somewhere, to someone.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

23/40 in 40: It's Not All About You

23rd in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years.

It's not all about me. Positive and negative, it's not all about me. In fact, very very little of it is about me. But there's a tightrope to be walked--oftentimes it is about someone else and I need to be a part of it, but not make it anything at all about me. Whether it's Zelda moving away forever and I need to be quiet lest I say things that are all about me, or if it's Troy playing out childhood trauma roles in our friendship and I need to be ME but not take it personally--either way, I can't take on other people's grief, other people's decisions, other people's failures, craziness, neediness, or shame. But I need to be there for them when I can.

Daisy plays on a soccer team for her school, her lovely low-key solid Catholic school, and most girls girls who play on it who are in Daisy's class, but there are a few girls who attend public school or who are homeschooled or whatnot who play because they live in the parish or nearby. We are easygoing here in south city. You don't have to be Catholic, you just have to want to play. One of those girls, Gwen, lost her mom tragically this week--they were walking into a drugstore, a woman lost control of her car, and Gwen's mom pushed her daughter out of the way before the car struck her, but could not get away herself and died at the scene.

Valerie down the block works at the school and sent me a text about the situation--I hadn't realized the accident, which had been on the news, involved people within my own circles. I was horrified to hear it, and worried about this little girl and all the little girls who know her and play with her and go on girl scout field trips with her and so on, who were sitting at school learning about this and talking with a counselor I hoped was good at her job (she is). I thought about Gwen and her dad and I thought about my biopsy and how if I'd gotten the worst possible news ever in the history of breast cancer news, I would still have time to think about how to leave my kids. I could make a plan, even if that would have been the worst kind of plan I ever would have made. I would have had time to say things that needed to be said. Colleen didn't. She had one moment and she used it how I can only hope I would in the same situation.

And I cried, several times, especially the next day, after Daisy had made some tenuous ten year old connections between this random scary event and the one that killed her tae kwon do master, Glenn Warren. The world IS scary and random. But we have to be brave. That's all I had for her, and talking about it at school the next day was hard.

But in the end, it isn't our tragedy. Not even close. We will go to a memorial service and Daisy will be with her soccer team and there will be flowers and memorial headbands worn to soccer games from now on and terrible real grief.

What does this have to do with not all about me? I wasn't going to go to the memorial service. Not because I was uncomfortable with death, but because I felt like I just didn't belong there--we've only been at the school for 2 years and other people know Gwen better and so forth. But then I was included in this email to the soccer moms and I realized I DID belong there, and I for damned sure had better show up. Because it's not all about me and where my place is and so on. This is about a ten year old girl and these are her soccer and scout friends and to have Daisy not be there would be wrong. And Daisy knew right away. "Yes, I want to go."

Sometimes it's all about me and my stories and my purse-spilling on the table. But sometimes I need to just rein it in and stand next to someone and be there so it can be all about them.

There's a fund set up for funeral expenses and for Gwen's future. It's raised $28,000 at the moment I'm writing. I have to put the link here because it's not all about me.