Thursday, November 26, 2009

Roller Skatin': An Exercise in Gratitude

There is so much to be grateful for, too much. I mean, how can I consciously appreciate everything---my honey love, my momma, my sweet friends, my house, my health, my body and mind, my spirit connection with the world, my bike, my extended family, my job, my literacy, my lap-top, my students---and still have time to write and play back gammon? Leave it to me to find a way to be overwhelmed by all that I am lucky enough to have and experience. Leave it to me to turn gratitude into a burden.

Yesterday was one of those glory days: by high noon I was racing the waves up the smooth beach, so warmed by the sun that had I not been with students, I would have stripped down to my underwear and plunged in. After a ceremony around a canopy of bells and a hike over rugged sand dunes, I felt the zing of aliveness. I watched the boys doing back flips off the dunes, running wild and fearless into the ocean. I hiked back with my pants rolled above my knees, my calves and feet salted and sandy and grower tougher with each step.

As a school, we feasted on turkey and green beans, countless pies and dairy-free ice cream. We sat outside and sipped sparkling cider and felt the coastal winds start to pick up speed. After stopping by a co-worker's house for a sampling of her home-made cordials (blackberry, rose love potion, apricot), I came home to a sunset nap. Then an early evening walk to Community Market for last minute Thanksgiving essentials. I felt a sense of peace that, I realized sadly, escapes me on a daily basis.

So happy and energized, what else to do but go roller skating? Though I go ice-skating with students every year, I hadn't been roller skating since the Clinton administration. Right away I felt at home---the smell of wax and nachos, those brown-carpeted boxed seats, the tan skates with orange wheels. And, of course, the resident weirdos, like the white-haired man who ogled all the girls while gyrating/skating backwards, or the greasers who did hand stands in the middle of the rink.

Oh, the fun of it! I skated so fast I couldn't imagine braking. I skated so hard and fast I quickly needed to fold down my knee socks, hike up my long sleeves. I skated so long and hard that today I have a walnut-sized blister on the bottom of my right foot. I skated for nearly two hours, my boyfriend intermittently video-taping me rap to Vanilla Ice or bust some dance moves to "Livin' on a Prayer." Then he'd skate off to attempt twirls and single-foot stunts, sometimes crouching low to better tape the synchronized footing of an older couple.

I loved the feeling of my knotty hair flying behind me. I loved singing the lyrics to "Like a Virgin" and "Can't Touch This." I loved slowing down to hold hands. I loved that by the end of the night I'd nearly mastered the cross over on the turns. At ten o'clock we shared a handful of dispenser candy as we walked out into the cool night air. I am so very thankful that at thirty years old, as I am coming more fully into adulthood, I am still tickled by skates, skirts, skittles, giggles, corny tunes, and star-splattered knee socks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stuck (Or So It Feels)

This week I've felt stagnant, despite all the changes in my life (new home, new relationship contours, new class schedule, new curricula, new rain, even a slim new moon). The rain today reminds me of the constancy of change and possibility. And even though I do not feel like unpacking boxes and shelving books, do not feel like exercising my tight limbs, do not feel like it should be ink black by 5:45, I am writing villanelles inspired by Sylvia Plath. I am allowing the stillness. I wrote this little essay a few months ago, in March, but in re-reading it today, it seemed to matter more than ever. Soon enough, this time, these last months of the year, will have flown by, and I will be in a new place, maybe moving, maybe stuck. (And my brother, thank the good Lord, is now on his way to a treatment center). Here it is:

I celebrated the last few days of this rainy winter in Tahoe, frolicking in a bright snow-capped wonderland. Lucky enough to teach at a small private high school whose philosophy includes thrice yearly trips to take us beyond the classroom's limited potential for learning, I accompanied 16 students and 5 fellow staff on our annual snow trip.

The first and final days are spent traveling to and fro, setting up and breaking down camp (in this case camp is a giant 6 bedroom home with a hot-tub and a pool table). But sandwiched in between, those two blissful days of skiing are more than worth sharing a bathroom with twenty people.

This year I soar down the intermediate runs with grace. For once, I don't have to work too hard to tame my hamster-wheel mind. This sport requires graceful focus, and somehow the sticky sugar beneath my feet and the spun sugar clouds above my head and the impossible blue of lake and sky squeeze out all the anxiety of teaching, writing, (not) publishing. I am free. Not free like a bird, but free like a woman one season in to thirty, free like a girl who still thinks giggles and charades are the funnest way to spend an evening.

And then I come home to the news that Natasha Richardson has died, tragically, in a skiing accident in Quebec. Why am I so saddened? After all, the only movie I can recall her in is The Parent Trap, a cutesy remake of the far-superior Hailey Mills version. (Her performance was certainly beautiful though). I spent the exhausted car ride home talking to co-workers about my childhood, my tyrannical father and doting mother, my meth-addicted brother who worries me so much that my hamster wheel can’t even slow down enough to let him on. It’s too much to bear. The idea that he is tempting death just like that ski jump tempted my recklessness. I came away with bruised and swollen knuckles, yes, but even more, I felt alive.

Was Natasha being reckless? Was she under the influence of some substance, challenging herself too much? Or was she just enjoying, like me, the final days of this season of dormancy before emerging into the new life of spring? And if death does just take us so unawares, might the opposite also be true?

Might life somehow, some way, continue to take my aching brother under its wing? Might life bear him upon her strong back, and eventually drop him atop a mountain of potential and purpose? Might he glimpse the impossible beauty of life as he soars down, his troubles momentarily frozen, his body free once more? Might he remember to giggle about the charades he pulled as a boy, remember that as adults, even in our thirties, we can continue to glisten with possibility, mischievous ambitions, uncertainty?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Things I am grateful for, brought into sharp relief yesterday, as I suffered with a nasty queasy illness:

1. My boyfriend. He took such good care of me--- tracked down grape juice, the only thing I could imagine consuming, brought home a digital thermometer (fever was 101.5!), researched my symptoms on the internet to quell my disaster-prone fears of swine flu and rapid death.

2. My job. I showed up at school feeling like a pile of poop, "taught" three classes (to the junior high: "take out your journal and write about something for ten minutes"), got loads of sympathy and hugs from my teenaged students, left after lunch. Granted, being a teacher is often hard thankless work, but being a teacher at Nonesuch is sweet like candy corn. I teach what I want, in a quiet country setting, and when I'm sick, my Advanced Comp class dutifully writes in-class essays on Lysistrata while I lay my head on my arms. They are extra quiet and obedient.

3. My home. As I lay on the couch in bone-aching misery, too weak to lift my head off the pillow for a sip of liquid, all I could do was watch the orange and yellow sycamore leaves sway gently in the breeze as sunlight poured in through the huge living room windows.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Our House

All we want is a house. A stand-alone house with some garden space in a quiet place. That's it. Sure, there are the dreamy ideals: hardwood floors, closet space, front porch, an office, a garage, a laundry room, a kitchen with counter space to spare. But nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just a little house to make home.

Simple, right? I mean, isn't that what we hard-working Americans are supposedly entitled to? Isn't that the dream that we're supposed to wake up to? But instead I feel like I've been traveling through Dante's nine realms of hell, a nightmare that I can't shake.

Quiet? Just go to the Press Democrat web-site and click on the map of available places: 9 out of 10 pop up along the thick red coils of highway snaking through town.

Un-shared walls? Like fishing for trout in a mall fountain. Apartments, duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes abound. But an actual house? Sure, as long as you don't mind the windows rattling from the semis that fly by on highway 101.

Garden space? Better you look for affordable produce at Whole Foods.

Closet space? When the property owners are dividing giant Victorians into five apartments, squeezing bodies into square inches the way cattle are herded into pens, the casualties are brutal: no closets, window-less bathrooms, claustrophobic lofts that masquerade as bedrooms.

But then there are the factors that you don't anticipate, like crazy, insensitive landlords. A strapping old house that seems just right. Baited, all ready to bite when the landlords (a groovy couple who installed solar panels on the roof) give us the snag: we use one of the two bedrooms for our office, which we inhabit pretty much 24/7. Ouch.

Or the sweet elderly accented couple who courted us like an eager sixteen year old boy desperate for another date. They couldn't meet us fast enough, were tickled by our travel tales, wanted the application ASAP. Never mentioned anyone else who was interested. Until the phone call that shattered the dream: we decided to give it to an older couple. But the good news? We really like you, will keep you on file. Gee, thanks.

Another wide-grinning landlady probed us for flaws: you seem too perfect, there must be a catch. There was. Her manic tongue held us captive for half an hour after we realized that the dingy carpet and concrete "yard" were not for us.

We were getting desperate. Weeks of searching to no avail. Day of the Dead, a Monday afternoon, a trip to the grocery store, prayer candles on sale. That evening, as the flame flickered and the internet flashed page after page of ads, we came across one that looked good. Next day we met the landlord, a sweet gentle soul who loves to garden and camp. Next day we got the call: it’s ours.

If the past three weeks resembled the fiery depths, this feels like floating, like roaming timeless through the Elysian Fields. Our new house, which we get to move into in a week, is perfect. It stands alone. Raised beds all ready for gardening. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood full of American-dreamers. Built in the 1930s, it bears the regal simplicity of the old Victorian, with wide open rooms, tall windows, hardwood floors, built-in cabinetry, a front porch for watching the world spin by. And though there is no laundry room or garage, though we are paying a little more than we wanted to, there is no beating the feeling that, like the Jefferson’s, we are moving on up.

That we, too, finally, have a piece of the pie.