Stardust

A letter to my senior ballet class, a rather-more-complex-than-necessary answer to the question, “What does this song say?”, and a long-winded glimpse at a creative process:

Last week, we all had a laugh because you were dancing to music that no one could figure out the lyrics for, and everyone had their own interpretations. It was yet another funny moment in what has been an amazing seven years with some of you people. Some of those memories get buried in the sheer multitude, some stand out and stick with me. They have become part of me just as I know they are part of you, these moments of your fleeting childhood.

When I realized that you didn’t understand what you were dancing to, words and sounds you could hear but not decipher, I also realized that there was no way for you to understand the parts that I never told you. After telling you where we were going, I never explained the steps I had to take alone to get us there. I had to laugh to myself too, because I’ve been doing a one-word challenge this year and chose the word “Listen.” And there you were, not quite hearing this message I have spent the whole year filling with meaning for you. So let me tell you now.

I began in January by telling you that I was excited about a “space” spring concert until I realized I’d have to be part of it. Ever since I was a fifth-grader and watched the space shuttle Challenger, carrying a teacher from my home state, explode live on television, I have had an ugly disdain for the space program. It’s inherently risky. It’s so expensive. We could be feeding people. Why do we need this? I have had a solid wall around that stance for as long as I can remember.

So I focused instead on what I found beautiful and interesting, and hoped I could salvage an inspiration and create something from that. Soon I found there was more room in my heart for the universe than I realized.

I had a little boy once, less little these days, who was fascinated with space, for whom I set aside my reservations about it and allowed to bask in the wonder of science. Perhaps it was he who cracked the wall. For a while, he claimed to be named for Neil Armstrong, though that was wishful thinking on his part, and I took him to the Museum of Science to sit in the lunar capsule, and to the Smithsonian Air and Space many times, to touch the moon rock, to witness the legacy and bravery of the astronauts, to see how they go to the bathroom in space because these are things little boys need to know, and to wonder with all his heart why we need missiles. He was sure he’d be the first person on Mars, and he asked to have Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star sung to him every night for far more years than I could have ever hoped, sometimes twice. We camped out and watched the Perseid meteors together until we fell asleep last summer.

There is wonder and awe in all of it. In the infinite space that we gaze out into. In the shifting space between us as people. And, in the spaces inside us that we don’t look into until we have to.

So as I wondered what you could be – you, my other stars – I wanted to make a piece about constellations for you. Each of you is different. You shine in your own ways. Connected together, you tell a story, or stand for something, or become meaning out of chaos.

A constellation ballet, however, is not what happened, not exactly.  The constellation moments are a remnant, but the piece is not about stars, or myths, as much as I wanted to convey their timeless humanity. I kept returning to Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata, given to me in my high school graduation year, which reads in part:

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars.
You have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

I listened to the voice that reminded me of that thought, about being where you are right now, and let it, like the stars, guide me. We are all right where we are supposed to be. In spite of all the times I doubted myself then, or doubt myself still today, I am doing what I am here for. And you are too, and will be. I have known some of you through times when you believed you were insignificant. But that was never true. I knew that a million tiny successes were waiting inside each of you, and it’s one of the reasons I know the universe put us in the same room.

I listened to so much music, some of it many times, trying to hear deeper into the meaning in it, before I found what I needed your piece to be. I was struck when I heard the voice of Joni Mitchell, who I discovered in high school. She wrote music in the 1960’s of peace at a time of war, singing with a haunting voice that conveyed both innocence and heartbreak. Something about her particular gifts resonated with me, although her music was 25 years old at the time I was discovering it. (Sometimes I have wondered if I was born in the wrong decade. But no, we are where we are supposed to be.) I heard the “stardust” vocals, and – Bingo. And because all this time those words were lost (giggles), I give them to you now:

We are stardust
          (million year old carbon)
We are golden
          (caught in the devil’s bargain)
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

We are literally made of the same stuff as stars. We are better than whatever hurdle is holding us back from our potential. We can and should change the world, to make it what it better. This is why I chose this song for you. This, and the words from the original song (that our version doesn’t include):

I don’t know who I am,
But you know, life is for learning.

You on the launchpad of life, so to speak. (This year would be nothing without its epic puns.) I immediately had inspiration beyond what the audience would ever hear. They won’t hear a voyage of self-discovery as they watch, but it is there because it is you. It is where you are now, it is the trajectory you’re on, for the next few years, and pretty much forever. God knows, I’m still learning too, and I’m at least halfway to old.

I needed to overlay some space transmissions for continuity, and given the choice, I always go with meaning. (I’m making art here.) So as the beat falls away and the vocal sings only “We are…”, there’s an emptiness that I could certainly have left alone. But, “life is for learning,” she says, so I used it for “what do we learn from all of this?” All of the science, discoveries, risks and missions, these disasters, displays of human achievement and dominance. I thought, “How I wonder what ‘we are’… What are we?… What defines us? In all the universe, what is it that makes us? It’s little bit of all of those things.”

So I inserted some sounds from the Apollo 13 mission that form some answers:

She sings,“We are…” and I responded with the clip, “Houston, we’ve had a problem…”

…because what are we, if we’re not sometimes defined by our worst fears coming to pass?

The voice continues, “We have a main B bus undervolt…”

…now, I don’t know what that means, but, when we are face to face with that fear, aren’t we better off when we can name it? So many times in life we can’t distill it to its root cause or communicate it.

She sings again, “We are…” and I added NASA’s statement, “So we have to go to the back side of the moon and come back.”

…because we are also defined in facing those fears, in order to get past them. In taking a risk, letting go, feeling alone, giving up a dream but not giving up hope.

Those guys wanted to walk on the moon more than anything, and out of all of the millions of human beings on earth, they were not only among the very few who were qualified, but also the ones chosen. They got so close, and when disaster struck, they had to give it up if they were going to survive, and even that was uncertain. They had to go into the dark, out of range of communication with Earth, as they went around the moon, and trust that when they came back into the light, someone would answer and bring them home again.

The men in Houston had to own the malfunction to the news media, to America, and to the world, after a prior failed mission had killed some of their colleagues. They were hoping against all hope, a solution still not found and the clock running down, defending both the careers that were their passion, and the pride of the nation in the midst of the space race. All while trying to save their friends’ lives. And grieving.

I hope you live your whole lives and never have a moment when you feel like you’re headed around the dark side of the moon, or worse, sending someone you love into the dark. Or owning something that hurts that badly. But if and, more likely when you do, know that you are defined by the hope and trust that give you the courage to face it, and that the light will come.

Next, she sings, “We are…” and I responded with “Hang in there, it won’t be long.”

…because we are also reassurance to others. And we are where we are only temporarily. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that. Or we have to be there to remind someone else that we are, none of us, alone.

She sings, “We are…” and I responded with nothing.

…because sometimes in life we ask the question and get no answer. We aren’t alone, but there is no response to our call. Sometimes we hear silence, or we are silent. Or we have to wait, and trust, and hope in the dark. But in the quiet, the universe is there, and as in the poem, we are an entirely necessary and deserving part of it. Sometimes, despite the darkness and silence, what is to come… is worth the wait.

Finally, she sings, “We are…” and here, a conversation, the one that put those astronauts back on target to home: “He needs to put his throttle to min…”…“Throttle to min… 29 percent now…”… “Okay Aquarius, and you’re go for the burn.”

…because we are… talking someone through it. Whatever “it” is. And we are only solving that problem when we’re working together. And we are only getting it done when we’re going all in. That “burn” was their only chance. We have to bring our best, every time, whether what we are is life and death, or teaching a preschool child their numbers, or watching a new company take off, or designing a museum, we have to believe in it. What “We are…” is in showing up for life.

And then, we go back to the full vocal. We are stardust. We are golden. Shiny, radiant, beautiful, and connected to everything else in the universe. Everything. All the successes and the failures, of everyone. Friend or enemy or complete unknown.

In the background as you exit are the electromagnetic waves of Saturn’s rings. Rings that aren’t solid, but made of gas and dust and rocks and ice, all coming together to create a circle. Just as you have come together to create something.

I hope I don’t have to tell you that for many years now, you have been admired by all of us, young and old at a distance. Some of us have been lucky enough to get up close and know you better. Some of the little ones have been afraid to, because you’re the seniors. (Or because you’re sassy, whatever.) But we rarely think about all of the parts of your life that you juggle to get here, working together with the sum of the parts of the person next to you, and those of the one next to her, and so on; we see you each as One Amazing Something. We see you shine, like stars, as individuals. We see you create stories and connectedness with each other, like the constellations. We see you as something we can barely fathom in all its awesomeness because of all the parts that make you unique, like the rings of Saturn. You are all of those things to us. To me.

All things considered, I think the scientists at NASA could just as easily find my job unnecessary in a world where we can’t manage to feed people. We could be discovering things. Why dance? Why create art?

They might as well ask, why breathe? Why be alive? Discovering meaning in something that challenged me, going on a journey without leaving my little world, helped me reach into my discomfort zone. The crack in my stubborn wall of opinions is a little wider. I’ll let science keep striving to find answers in the universe, and I’ll keep searching for meaning in my own way, with or without the hard answers they require, with or without their inspiration. There was more humanity in the endeavors of science – even in their disasters – than I’d thought about before. And there’s more science in my own work than I often embrace.

Life is for learning. Joni Mitchell was right.

George Balanchine famously said, “See the music, hear the dance.” And you will bring all of this to life as you move through it, in a few weeks. You can choose to carry as much or as little of it with you as you’d like. But it is my gift to you. And it is art I couldn’t create without you. That has been your gift to me. Thank you.

Your constellation still exists. You form Cassiopeia, and there is truth and humanity in her story. Being connected as mothers and daughters, feeling trapped sometimes by those who love us. Sacrificing things we love to protect ourselves. Feeling set apart from the world sometimes and seeing it turn upside-down before our eyes. You may not be dancing that story, as I thought you would be, but you carry the hard-learned trials of being human inside yourselves as you dance, and you dance because it is a way to free yourself from them.

You’ll do it with telescoping movements (pun intended), because together we stretch ourselves (another pun, ugh!)…with turning and twisting movements, because we see things from all angles, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable …with balancing movements, because life is about that too …with movements that are soft, as we are, and those that are strong, because we are that too. It is hard sometimes. Some movements ground you. Some you’ll grow up and out of. Some, you’ll feel gravity pulling you down from. Some will allow you to fly.

You’ll move at different speeds, or you’ll move at the same speed but different times, because to rush to keep up with someone else would be ruinous to where you each are supposed to be, both here and, in life. And you’ll move in unison, because we have to appreciate those times when it all falls into place and all seems right with the world, those too-rare and special times when we are all together. Special not just because we so rarely have perfect attendance, but because those are times that I will miss as you go out into the world.

So I’ll send you out with one more of my favorite quotes, from Havelock Ellis: Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself. 

I am so grateful that the universe, unfolding exactly as it should, put us all in the same room to learn a little something about life together.

A World Domination Communication

A mass-communication came along last week inviting me to a new group, and as I was headed off to work, I didn’t look at the contents right away. But the name made me chuckle. It was the Crystal Weaver World Domination Group. I thought, “well, I don’t know what she’s up to, but that sounds fitting.” I repeated it out loud to my husband, and he got the same twinkle in his eye that I was feeling as we felt the echo of a piece of our lives that was left behind over 15 years ago, but somehow still with us. Crystal Weaver. You just have to smile.

Crystal Weaver. This is not a person you can simply sum up with World Domination. That is a given. It’s the many facets of how she dominates the world that are actually remarkable.

I could write a list of professional accolades that wouldn’t touch her professionalism. I could point out any number of teaching methods and strategies but it would fail to capture the woman’s passion, and enthusiasm, and innate ability to inspire. I could tell you about the high bar she set for a generation of designers, but you wouldn’t see the intense energy of studio after studio of students at 2am, 3am, 4am, jacked up on coffee and nicotine, trying to reach that bar. Trying not to let her down.

I came to Savannah with a studio art degree, looking to change my direction in my masters, but not sure I would make a good designer. Very quickly, through provisional coursework (studios for those whose undergraduate degree was in something else), I was hooked. I loved the five hour studios, staying up until all hours overdoing the details. I got a lot of compliments in my early courses about the training I had clearly received in perspective and drawing, and my professors worked with me to hone my artistic skills to better fit the architectural rendering style. I absorbed as much as possible, bolstered by their praise, and felt I was ready for anything.

Anything except Studio III. The last of my provisional classes was a dark cloud looming on the horizon. Its reputation preceded it: it was impossible. It was Crystal Weaver. Cue the Imperial March.

I can’t believe I dreaded this, but yes, let’s put that out there. Crystal Weaver was larger than life. For every person who had a great story, there were two that said they were hated, ignored, or flunked. The work load was unbearable, her standards were un-meetable, she hated everyone no matter what they did. So, dread it I did.

I have never laughed so hard or so frequently at someone I was afraid of, but there you have it. She was not a tyrant or un-personable, she wasn’t hard or unfeeling, she just knew what she wanted, and let you know. She was clear about her expectations, and if you did what she’d asked, she had something to work with, so you got back from her what you had put in, and then some, because she had the voice of experience.

Crystal loved every face to face opportunity she had with students so much that she was downright exuberant to talk about everything from exit signage to minor details of product specifications. From the moment she would walk into the classroom with her file basket brimming with papers (which you knew you’d be hole-punching and highlighting for the rest of the night), she was 100% focused on the time she had with you in that classroom, that moment. Your questions, your concerns, your projects, your developing skill sets. Of course, she’d start with a story or two about Trouble, her 18-year-old cat, or what happens if you microwave your Easter Peeps, or the time she fell out of the baby seat as an infant, but then she’d magically segue into something about electrical symbols, and damned if you weren’t learning something without meaning to. Hanging on every word.

The actual act of teaching, whether lecturing or running a studio critique, was Crystal’s true passion, so it came as no surprise to me when she said, upon taking over as the Dean of the School of Design at SCAD, that she would only take the job if she could still teach. Not everyone is a born teacher, and as it was her true gift, it touched so many. Which is not to say it wasn’t intimidating to pin something up on her wall.

An art critique is a blend of the viewer’s personal taste, knowledge of historical context, and the artist’s vision, ability, composition, and quality of the materials, among other things, but also seeks to measure the immeasurable: the artist’s ability to express an idea or emotion. A design critique adds the component of problem solving to all of that, so the idea the artist is expressing isn’t one of his or her own but the solution to a set problem. An analytical answer from the mind and the heart together. Now, produce a high quality visual (or several), conforming to an accepted set of standards, to convey that solution that is both academic and a raw piece of your soul. Good luck! If pinning up is going down the scary slide, pinning up for Crystal was skydiving.

If you tried to cut corners, she called you out. She met excuses with reasons why you would have just lost a job if she were the client. She prepared you for the possibility of that response by telling you exactly that in the project outline. If you tested that, she was happy to deliver, but if that thought put the fear of God in you and you did the work, your reward was a honest, straightforward evaluation and a kick in the pants with a smile. (But only if you needed one, and then just hard enough to keep you traveling in the right direction.)

You worked hard for round one, revised and integrated corrections and suggestions for round two, and so on. Whatever you put on the paper, she would work with, but she wouldn’t respond to something you didn’t take the time to show. She was teaching us new language; to convey our ideas visually so someone could have a response, the design equivalent of your Spanish teacher telling you “En Espanol, por favor.” You had to make your idea clear or someone couldn’t say “Yes, I want that!” and get it done. It changed how we thought about our critiques. If before we’d been nervous to put anything up there, now we were afraid to leave anything out.

The first project I had for Crystal’s class was a doctor’s office. I sweated the details of that design in every possible stage. The space plan had to work on every level – doctors, staff, patients. Way-finding, work flow, privacy. Every line I over-crossed had to be fixed, letters that weren’t my best architectural penmanship were carefully scratched off the vellum and redrawn. Ceiling and floor tiles were centered to the inch. By hand.

Then. Ugh, materials. How did I know what she was going to like? I finally knew how to convey my design ideas the way she wanted them, and I’d made the design work, what was I doing now? Choosing materials was a stab in the dark. How should I dress this thing? There was no mid-stream pin-up for this, it was make or break, and I was stuck. I was wasting time stressing out over this last detail, and suddenly realizing that it – the colors, textures, patterns – had the power to unify or destroy the design by giving it harmony or discord. It wasn’t a last detail, it was how people would experience the space and decide whether or not they liked it! And I’d left it all for last! Panic ensued.

Internal monologue: Help, God, I am going to ruin the world with upholstery.

Real lessons from the materials library: I looked up, and there was Crystal, trying to figure out why half of her class had disappeared. (I wasn’t alone in there.) This was not the answer to my prayers that I had expected. She glanced over my shoulder at my palette, grabbed the upholstery, said simply, “No, boring.” and walked away. Quickly, she came back, threw a new sample on my pile, and said, “There.” So many thoughts exploded in my mind: one, I’ve been standing there trying to match the palette the entire time with the materials touching each other, and she finds something that matches from across the room after looking at my palette for two seconds? Two, and she claims to be color blind?? Three, but am I supposed to use it? Does that count as me doing the work? Four, but if I don’t use it, will I get marked down? Because this upholstery is certifiably ugly.

I’d had professors in my fine arts background that would say to me, “Don’t be so precious about every little line.” I spent years learning and unlearning and relearning based on different expectations of different instructors, but that seemed to be a common theme. Overall composition meant more than any one line or component. “And don’t be stingy,” they’d said – draw through an object so you can find the back of it. Draw, draw again, keep drawing even if it’s over the same line. You’ll understand the weight, the depth, the relationship in the still life if you keep searching, and leave a visible trail of your search. In interior design, I had been learning that every line had to translated into something build-able, so unlearning and relearning was continuing – this time, I was learning that every line was indeed precious, and why, and how. To save the sketching, searching lines, and softness for ideation and perspectives. But in the switching of that upholstery, and Crystal’s three words, I relearned a lesson: don’t be so precious about every little detail. Don’t get hung up on a color or fabric.

Voice in my head I was scared to accept: Because you know your design is good.

Growing understanding: Otherwise, this would be decorating.

And obvious to those in the industry: This is so not decorating.

I used the fabric.

I didn’t love the fabric, but I brought up some of the other colors to match its intensity, and it worked. And I learned that you don’t have to live in a room with that fabric. Or be married to that furniture. How freeing. Later, that translated into not being married to any one design idea, project, or job. Don’t sit there and guess what will make someone else happy like it’s personal. Yes, the quality of your work should be personal. So find something that works, and if it isn’t right, find something else. Don’t be so precious about every detail. Details can change. Just do good work.

Presentation day, there we were, all dressed up (because you dress like you want the job, said Crystal, so we did). Every one of us showered and did our hair even if we hadn’t slept. Anything that required a printer or color copier had been done in advance (because you can’t count on the printer not running out of paper or ink, said Crystal, and you wouldn’t get credit, or the job, with excuses about a printer, said Crystal, so we printed early). Lots of us had note cards and were studying what we wanted to say (because you want your presentation to be organized and logical, said Crystal, so we organized.) And one by one, we presented and defended our work.

I can now appreciate what a true critique is. We don’t grow when our classmates and friends say, “Good job!”, or “I like it.” We grow when someone says, “I see where you were going here, but next time try this to make it clearer,” or “Did you use this design element just to use it? Or did you want to relate it to something? How about repeating it here so there’s a connection.” Or someone calling you out for an omission or legitimate mistake. In the moment, those critiques feel deadly, but they inform everything you do later. They make you better.

Those were Crystal’s critiques. Certainly most of the “problem areas” of a design were going to be sponged out in the working process in the studio, so there wouldn’t be a lot of surprises in the final presentation. End of project presentations were the glossy boards, final drafts, explanations of how you solved the design problem, and the quality with which you could visually tie the work together. There was something both exhilarating and scary about knowing that your over-arching design idea was on the chopping block, and you were defending the whole quarter’s worth of your work. Of your life. (Because let’s face it, there wasn’t much life outside of studio.)

There I was, in my most professional-looking outfit. I had even ironed, which my dearest of friends will tell you is not my gift. I was proud of my work, I felt good about everything, and then…. I flaked on word recall. I forgot how I wanted to explain my choice of furniture. It was very specific and intentional. I’d gone with a very traditional look to bring comfort to an aging patient population in a historic town. But as I stumbled in explaining it, what came out was something like, “If there’s one thing people here really dig, it’s their antiques.”

I’d like to say it was maybe a bit better than that, but I’m guessing it was probably worse. All I know is that I definitely used the word “dig.” And I don’t know if I have ever, in any other circumstances, used the word “dig” to indicate approval. Sandbox, garden, construction site? – yes. Definitely appropriate uses of the word “dig.” Fan of something? – no.

Internal monologue: Oh my god, I just did that. In front of Crystal Weaver. No, not “in front of” Crystal Weaver, presenting FOR Crystal Weaver. She is going to eat me alive. After I worked so hard!

Real lessons from a real critique: she never mentioned the “dig.” She did mention that I had gone past the requests of my client to consider the comfort and experience of the patients, and praised my ability to think beyond my own tastes and design sensibilities to what would make the design better for its function. She also didn’t mention much about the color palette, certainly not “her” upholstery. And as was her way, she found suggestions to make, praise to give, and ways to bring laughter to it all.

And just like that, I went into healthcare design.

That process was not without its hiccups. For a short while, I worked for the college. They offered me a job while I was still a student. It was teaching professors how to convert their traditional course content into digital material for online learning. I cried. Serious, convulsive bawling. I was studying interior design, and if I took the job, I might never practice. I’d be letting myself down. I’d be letting Crystal down. Wasn’t she preparing me for, as it turns out, World Domination in Interior Design?

I went to see Crystal about this. I don’t know why. She was probably only used to crying from students who needed to get their grades up by end of term. I don’t think she expected me to come looking for emotional support or personal approval. She almost looked uncomfortable. But I think she also looked proud. Proud that I cared that much about getting out there as a designer? Proud that I would take an opportunity to work and learn and consider whether it was an obstacle or a stepping stone? Proud that she had taken me from scared to pin up, to presenting to a room of professors? Maybe? Proud to have put her time and effort into the person I was becoming? God, looking back, I hope so. I hope she knew all of those things, through my blubbering.

I stayed a very brief time – time when she treated me as more of an equal than I deserved, befriended my husband, and gave me continued professional perspective and honesty – before I took a job in Interior Design back in New England, but today I am the one who is proud. Proud that for an ever-so-brief blip on the radar of history, I could consider Crystal Weaver a colleague.

Crystal laughed because for the first few months of my design career, I emailed her constantly to tell her what I was doing. “I’m designing a plaid floor, Crystal, no joke! For a science lab!” or, “I am here long after hours, Crystal, drawing details for this project. This feels just like studio!” Her response was always, “Why are you emailing me? Get back to work.” She wanted me to move on. But darn it all, I still wanted her approval, and to know that I’d succeeded in doing what she’d tasked me with.

The years went by and I stayed in design until my kids were born, then part time for a while, and then took a job teaching at a college nearby. I taught Interior Design for eight years, and I’m sure you can guess where I set my bar, how I ran my critiques, what sorts of expectations I had. I figured, if I had to strive, then these kids do too. They have to know: anyone can decorate, design is work. A few times I wrote to Crystal to ask her advice, to check in about whether my expectations were really that far off base when I was in periods of frustration. Her advice: Hold on to your standards because it doesn’t do you or the students any good to compromise them. And focus on what you love.

Those could be the best lessons for life anyone was ever kind enough to lay out for me.

It is bittersweet for me to say that today, I’m not working in design anymore, at least not in the same way. The other love of my life was dance, a passion I couldn’t seem to quit and had kept working on, on the side. When the college where I was teaching dropped their Interior Design program, I increased my work at the dance studio to become the artistic director of the ballet program, and I have now been doing that for seven years. It is a different dream come true. But it is one that is hard to explain. It is design, but with temporary, moving parts. For those who knew me in the office environment, I’m sure they imagine me twirling around like a fairy, not doing real work. For those who knew me as a professor, it’s easy to imagine the teaching part, but hard to think of it in a theater or in a leotard. And for myself, there are times when, faced with the expectations of what I thought I would someday become, I wonder if I failed at something because I didn’t do what I once worked so hard for. I second-guess all the time whether this is any sort of success. Not because I don’t love every second, but because I wonder what people think. I need to stop that.

I wonder if there isn’t still a small piece of me that doesn’t want to let down Crystal Weaver. Maybe that’s it. That by doing something else, I am somehow saying that the gift of that time she gave me was somehow a waste. Let me assure you, it was not – not one minute wasted. I had to take that path, and I am so much better for it, and here’s why: I know how to dream something up and pour my heart into it – logic and schedules and creative vision and all – and not stop working until I see it happen; it just happens on stage now. I know how to get my ideas across visually, and I make t-shirt and poster designs that sell an idea, and props, costumes, set pieces, and all kinds of things that I know how to do largely because of my time in studios. (Sometimes I even make something beautiful out of ugly upholstery. It’s true!) I know how to think about people in space – but instead of people moving around furniture and walls, these people are the stillness and the motion, the mass and the void, the visual rhythm, the symmetry and balance; they create these beautiful forms… and then it’s over. I don’t get to finish a punch list, turn over the keys, or go back and visit. It’s temporary and fleeting, but it is just as lovely.

There’s just something about the built environment though, that is so nice and permanent, am I right? So you know you’ve been here? Done something? Made a difference?

Teachers make a difference, and that’s why we can all think of exceptional ones we’ve had, like Crystal. I hear this all the time as a teacher. I see kids change and thrive, and I know it is worth it. Sometimes you know, and other times you have no clue who you made an impression on until much later, if at all. But I could not have conveyed to Crystal at the time I was her student how much I was changing and growing, because I barely knew myself. I didn’t just learn a visual language, how to be a designer, or just the material. From watching her, passionate about every answer, honest with every critique, uncompromising in every expectation, I learned through example exactly what she summed up for me so much later in her advice about teaching: lowering expectations isn’t going to serve anyone. Do what you love. And by God, have fun while you are here.

Sometimes, what you’ve actually built, is invisible.

She gave the keys to building her world out liberally to everyone she was ever in contact with, as far as I know. She just poured it out into the universe, and to some of us, it stuck. I don’t know if she had favorites, I don’t know if she was as able to let go as easily as it seemed she did, but I do know she missed us. When we came back to visit, she said, “Oh, my possums are home!” And to this day, when I think of possums, I think of Crystal. Of being one of her possums. Of the way her words just stick to you and don’t let you go. The lessons in them, and the weight of them. One that says, Don’t get stuck on a detail. One that says, Follow your gut if you know you’re right. One that says, You can do it. One that says, Life is funny, people are funny – laugh. One that says, Don’t look back. And one that says, You were loved. I wear those words around every day, under my skin. You can’t see them, they’re part of the invisible legacy Crystal built, but they’re part of me. I struggle with the one about not looking back. Especially today, knowing that Crystal’s time here is drawing shorter due to her battle with MSA, multiple system atrophy.

Enter World Domination.

In glancing down the posts in the World Domination group page, I am struck by the far flung locations and age range of the lives Crystal has touched through the years. I smile to think that in each of our communities, we bring a little more “Do what you love,” to where we are because of what Crystal has meant to us. That we push a little harder for something because we saw what it was to meet a standard we thought was impossible. That we are uncompromising because we had her example. We have this invisible strength because we knew her.

World Domination, to my mind, is this: get over whatever your hangup is, keep going, keep striving. Do what you love with passion, with determination, and with laughter, because that’s the only way to live. And know that whatever happens, it won’t be because you didn’t care enough.

Thank you, Crystal Weaver, for teaching that to so many of us.

not perfect, just right

Last night my Thing 2 asked me, “Who chose you for me?”

After making him repeat that a couple of times so I could understand, I told him, “Different people would answer that differently. But with a question as big as that? I would say God.”

He said, “Oh. Good. It was a perfect decision. I can’t imagine a different Mom. You’re the best one.”

Now, this was after not-my-finest-showing-at-patience for the evening, so I assumed he was playing the Christmas-is-coming-better-stay-on-the-nice-list angle. I asked, “The best one for you, you mean? Why do you think that?”

He answered, “Sometimes I just look at other moms and I think, uhhhh… That mom thinks even her lips need to look all shiny. My mom wears sweatpants and she doesn’t even care. She’s awesome.”

Now, sweatpants do feature heavily in my wardrobe rotation (and discussions about it, and possibly my approach to life), but I have never worn them to school or even one of his ball games. I think maybe he’s just comfortable at home and wonders how those other moms make the switch from fancy to relaxed. Or maybe if they do at all.

But I do pause. In two sentences he’s neatly articulated that he sees a different person in me than I do. Mostly, he thinks I don’t care about appearances, which is something I tell my kids not to do but unfortunately can’t honestly claim I am able to do myself. I do care more than I’d like to. I’m generally a jeans and chucks kind of girl, but I always feel inadequate when other moms show up in nice boots or cute heels. I regularly wonder why I’m the only one I know who doesn’t look like a grown up with my shit together, but when I try branching out I always end up back where I started. My kid, however, sees a better version of that mom: accessible to kids, okay getting messy, just as comfortable on the floor as in a chair, willing to agree to “twin” with him for the day to match his team colors, or wear matching shoes.

And man, lipstick? How does he nail these things? I hate lipstick. I look ridiculous in lipstick. My mouth already takes up my whole face, why draw more attention to it? But he sees it as a plus: when I reminded him that I do wear heels sometimes (it’s not like I never clean up), and I do put on a little makeup to go to work (where you can be sure my hair accessory always matches), he responded, “Sure, but not so much that you look like a different person.”

Huh. While I’m busy wondering why I’m not like the other moms, this kid likes me for the mom I am, and for not trying to be someone I’m not. And then tells me I’m likeable, for reasons I don’t necessarily see as assets.

Boy, am I ever lucky to have this kid to set me straight on these things. I could learn a lot from him.

I bet there are some other lucky kids out there who think I’m weird, and their mom is super beautiful with her perfect hair and nails, or that perfect shade of lipstick that makes her seem so put together. And they’re well matched. But not mine. Mine doesn’t want highlights or heels. So he’s right, we are perfectly suited for each other.

I don’t know if we raise them to appreciate the things we are, or if they are born to give us that gift. And oh boy, to hear these kinds of rave reviews straight from them? Rare if ever, and so hard to hear between whining and bickering and the endless soul-sucking need for snacks. There are maybe some times, though, in the draining depletion of resources, energy, time, and sense of self that parenting is, that it dawns on me that however needy these people are, I might need them just as much. Thank goodness a better decision maker than I am chose these people for me, and me for this.

 

Saving the day

I am writing today down so I can save it.

I’m saving today because there are too many times that I want a do-over at the end of a day, or wish for a superhero to come save the day for me, as in, fix it. Today, on the other hand, was chock full of moments that were worth saving, and could spill over to save many other days if I let them.

I’ll start you out where I started.

If you ever want to feel like you’re winning at life, head on down to your local district court. I was at there to testify as a witness in an OUI case that I had phoned in before the driver ultimately crashed.

This was an education.

There have been days in the past decade or so that I have told myself, “I may feel like I suck at this, but at least I kept my kids alive today and didn’t do any permanent damage, so at least I am one step above the riff-raff. Tomorrow I get another chance.” While it has made me feel better in the moment to know whatever it is will pass, what I really want on those days is to not feel like a failure. And while technically I could claim I didn’t fail, I know I’ve lowered the bar for myself so it doesn’t feel like it counts as a win. Plenty of people don’t kill their kids but the kids can’t say they’re better off. Too many people have lost a child tragically through no fault of their own. Today is proof of that. But I do know that even when I lose it, my kids know they are loved. And there are some people who never hear, or feel, that.

Today, I began to feel, was illustrating that point. While I waited, I sat in the hallway, overhearing bits of the other cases. One person had threatened bodily harm to another over the price of cigarillos, and returned to deliver on the threat, causing damage to property. Another person had sold Xanax in a parking lot while trying to rebuild their life after a prior offense, and didn’t want this on their record. Another person was reviewing their situation with their lawyer, listing living and “working” arrangements among the details of a life I could not comprehend.

I often feel that in my town especially, but you could argue state, region, and especially culture, that my kids are “growing up without.” No play room. No cable. No garage. No neighborhood. No Nintendo, or whatever the kids are playing these days. But these snippets of conversation served to remind me that they have stability. A home. Goals and dreams. Hobbies. Passions. They are warm and dry. Blessed. And so am I, with all of those things.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things seem to happen when my phone and I aren’t looking at each other. Phones are prohibited in court, so I brought a book. I am between books, so I grabbed one off the shelf that was a Christmas gift from my husband several years ago but I’d never found time to read. Today, it grabbed me back.  Called “A Hand to Guide Me”, it is a collection of reflections by famous individuals about mentors and teachers who helped them achieve the great things they have accomplished. Hank Aaron, Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg.

Well, I don’t know what they had to say, because I only got as far as the introduction. Written by Denzel Washington, it speaks for several pages on the people who inspired him, sacrificed for him, spoke on his behalf, and pushed him to become what he is today.

I mused for a little while about all of the hands that guide a person, and how the people around me in court, all pleading guilty by the time I had finished Mr. Washington’s words, were missing the resources, inspirations, and advocates that those hands can be. A different story could have been unfolding for them that day if the right hands had been there at a different time.

It took no more than a second for me to think about my lineup of major players – teachers, mentors, friends who offered me something Real and Valuable that all became part of who I am. My first few minutes at the courthouse were spent feeling lucky to have my moderate circumstances, and by the time I left I was overwhelmed with awe and gratitude for the road I took to reach this place and so many people I could never thank enough.

Contrast made me feel like a success today. Instead of looking at a frustrating day backwards and saying, “Hey, at least I didn’t ruin my kids like some people,” I started with someone else’s nightmare and saw how lucky I am. Does that mean I lowered the bar today like I do on all those other crap days I’m trying to feel better about? Maybe.

But, then again, no. Contrast success only took me to 11AM. There was a whole day to be lived.

First, and partly because I had some reassurance, I wasn’t starting from a moment in which I felt like I did a crap job at something. That’s usually the thing that makes me lower the bar for myself. After doing my little bit of reading, I had approached the victim of the car crash I had intended to prevent by making my phone call the night of the accident.

“I just wanted to reintroduce myself as the person from the scene who called in the erratic vehicle,” I said. “I wanted to say I’m sorry about the accident. I wish I had called sooner. I’ve been kicking myself all this time for waiting to make the call.” I had been behind her for a few miles, wondering if she was drunk or just texting.

“Not at all,” he said, “I’m fine. I saw her hit the post and swerved well enough away to avoid a head on collision. These things happen. Honestly, the worst part was dealing with the other driver’s insurance.”

Forgiveness is a funny thing. I find mostly, that the person who really needs to forgive me for some overblown wrongdoing is me.

So I did. At least for this one.

Unburdened (read, slightly less burdened), I set about the rest of my day.

Second, I went to work. For some people this is where their day is going to go south, but for me it is like Christmas and Easter and my birthday every single day, even the bad ones. And today, work was even more amazing than usual. Maybe I was just mentally open to have my socks blown off, but it happened several times. Students telling me they’re joining another class because they like this one so much. Begging me to give them special permission to sign up for more classes they aren’t old enough for. Wide eyes talking about discoveries they’re making. Connections that show they’re invested. Memories they have from some of their favorite things we did together. Asking for a hug because they haven’t seen me in a week. Disappointment that we have to have a holiday break in a couple of weeks. Taking a correction so earnestly and doing something successfully as a result. Pride. Joy. All of this on a day when I feel like we never even  “accomplished” a ton.

Look at that list! That happened today!! Not just to me, but to those young people!!

All because someone – several someones – I should say Someones – gave this to me.

Wow.

I have to write this down and save it, I thought, because I won’t believe it later. Someone gave this to me, now I get to pass it on. Look at that light.

Third, I locked up for the night. As I did, I glanced at our bulletin board. We are featuring our graduating seniors’ photos there. About a month ago a parent said to me, “Look at that. Look at what you did.” And I looked, and saw these four lovely girls I have known through braces and PSATs and blisters and falls, and beautiful red letter days, listening to me some days and incessant talking on others. “Look! You did that!” she said, and pointed out to me that two of the girls had their senior photos taken in their ballet costumes, one even holding her pointe shoes over her shoulder.

She spoke those words to me a month ago, amid Nutcracker preparations and a stampede of noisy dancers, amid recovering from Lyme disease and worrying about props coming together, amid my routine of organized chaos.

Tonight though, I heard them.

I heard them louder than the voice in my head that criticizes me for “not using my degrees.” Louder than my worries that I’ll never do enough or be enough or make enough. Louder than whatever ridiculous double standard I have that idolizes my own teachers and mentors but still sometimes has me seeing myself as “just” a teacher. What is that?

Bullshit. That’s what that is. I couldn’t have done better in a million years than to fashion my life in the way they did theirs.

It wasn’t about those girls loving to put a costume on, no matter how awesome those costumes were (and they were pretty incredible). It was never about how they feel in a dress. It’s about how they feel doing something they love, with people they love, because someone is there to give them that gift of love.

So now I get to be someone’s Someone. Thanks to all my Someones.

Seriously, I really have to write this down, and save it.

These are things that I know, but too often, I don’t believe.

Fourth, I stopped at the bank on the way home, and realized that, although we did not plan to (or want to) buy two cars this year, there is still money in my bank account. This may seem like a dumb thing to add after all that good stuff about being someone’s Someone, but you know what? In court today, the issue that seemed to hold up each case was how the defendant was going to be able to pay their fines and in what time frame. These were not enormous fines. But these individuals were quite obviously facing tough decisions – feeding a daughter or staying out of jail. I had found myself wondering what Christmas will look like where they live. What we have – it is not nothing.

Write it down. For all the days you feel like your paycheck disappears faster than you can earn it thanks to special dietary restrictions and the unending renovation that is your house, write it down and save it. There is enough.

Fifth, I was home, to hot soup and a chance to pick out a Christmas present with my third grader for his teacher. It was our part of the class gift. And for all of his obstinance on certain issues, his love is fierce and strong; this was a moment of him being his best self not only for her but thinking of his classmates too. I loved this moment.

I had to ask him to turn his back while I “checked out” online because there was something previously in my cart that was for him. He giggled a little bit. I love that he still giggles.That is something I wish I could save; it will be gone before I know it.

When I was done, he turned around and asked me, “Why are you buying something for me? I don’t even know what I want for Christmas yet. How can you know?”

I reminded him that sometimes people get us things we didn’t ask for but we need, want, or just plain like anyway. He nodded. But then his forehead wrinkled. The same way mine does. Oh baby, I am so sorry I gave you that worry wrinkle. “I just don’t know what I want,” he said.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I pulled him onto my knees and said, “What do you want for Christmas little boy?” (I tried to make it sound like the Santa in “A Christmas Story”, but even I can’t be that freaky.) He smiled a little, but sat quietly. I guess it was a thinking day for him too.

“I want it to be that nobody is going to be hungry,” he said.

“Me too,” I told him. “I want that a lot.”

“I want it to be that people don’t kill each other or hurt each other because of their religion or because they come from a different country. And just, …peace.”

Write it down, Mama, write it down.

“I want people to know that a boy doesn’t have to marry a girl, it could be a boy if they want.”

“Wow, Buddy, I think you and I want all the same things.”

We headed upstairs to get him tucked in.

“I want people to know that it doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, it doesn’t make anyone better or worse.”

Preach.

“I want segregation to stop.”

“Hm. That’s an interesting one. It is illegal.”

“Yes, but it’s still there. People are apart from each other and there should just be people.”

“You’re right.”

“Also,” he said, climbing under his covers, because this old soul is still only in third grade, “I would like this stuffed dog to be real. But not so real that it would die if I strangled it while I was sleeping from hugging it so tight.”

Then he made a few potty humor type jokes and went right to sleep.

And I came downstairs to save the day.

 

 

 

Paper Covers Rock

This summer I sent my Thing 2 off to camp for the first time. He’d been to camp before, camping with us, but not overnight, by himself, for a week. A lot of people asked me if I thought he was old enough. I told them how I went to overnight camp at his age, so he could handle it. He is far more outgoing than I ever was. But then again, I was pretty miserable that first year, and vowed to never return. Well, I don’t know about miserable, but I was definitely clueless. Check out any of the few existing pictures and I’m there in knee socks with sandals and yellow soccer shorts, with my hair barely brushed. And kids these days are far more dependent, with their over-scheduled and micromanaged lives. So… maybe, I thought, in a tiny place in my heart, maybe he’s not ready.

Aw. Who was I kidding? This kid was born ready. He learned to walk at camp, tottering a few steps at a time, on his little misshapen feet, wearing his blue bear pajamas as we waited out a snow storm that kept us an extra night. He threatened to run away for the first time at age four at camp: he was moving there because “Mommy only stays outside in the snow for a few minutes. Paul takes me on the sled all afternoon.” Camp was in his blood before he was born, his great grandparents volunteering, sitting in their chairs on beach all afternoon; his grandmother, aunt, dad and I all on staff. As an infant, he’d stayed awake until the stars came out and screamed when we tried to put him down a minute sooner.

But maybe still not ready. His toe deeply cut a couple of days before check-in, and there he was, milking a limp. Was it still there when no one was watching? I wasn’t sure. Maybe he wasn’t sure. Did he want an out? Then there was the feigned disinterest: “Yeah, I guess,” was his response when asked if he was excited to go. Maybe it was just me that wasn’t ready, for the last first time. Yeah, probably just me.

The hours ramping up to check in brought a lot of tension. Thing 1 had been to camp for three summers already, and he remembered that one year I’d gotten her a new book to read at rest hour. “Do I get a going-away present too?” he asked. Ugh. I can’t handle the number of times these people think they need g.d. presents! “No,” I told him, “I have been here with you all weekend. I have had no time to buy you a gift. Besides, camp IS the gift.”

There was some howling. And louder than that, the screaming in my head that this child NEEDED to leave me for a week, and fast. I was reminded of my kids as preschoolers when I was certain I’d love them just a little more after a nap. “It’s not fair! You love her better than you love me! She gets everything first! And a present too.” No amount of explaining what a gift camp is could settle him down.

And how DO you explain what a gift camp is?

Kid, you’re getting things that will become part of the fabric of you. The smell of rain and mulch, the sound of the lake lapping gently at night, the crackling campfire. Grass stains and sweat. The bell. Loons. Ducks. Hay and mud. The sound of the dining hall door slamming. Dirty feet. Candlelight. Cheering. Sand and rocks. Some of the rocks have paint, or googly eyes on them. It’s camp.

Try something new. A new food, a new song, a new friend. A new sport. You’re getting all that too. And you’ll find out that you can use your competitive spirit in ways you never dreamed. All this time you’ve been trying to hit the strike zone, or catch the perfect pass, but games await you that won’t need you to have developed your skill sets: whoever can sound like a chicken while doing dizzy bat is the winner. Think you can handle it? GO!

The gift you won’t understand, kid, until you’re in it is, you get the week off. A week of YES. We get on you for everything: Use your fork, not your fingers. Be patient while someone else is talking. That’s too much syrup. Use your inside voice. Is that your best penmanship? Sit on your bottom, not your knees… no, all the way down. Stop running. Enough of the fart noises. Ketchup has no nutritional value. Change your socks. Why is there peanut butter on your eyebrow? Did you even have peanut butter today?

Camp gives you a chance to learn that, guess what: those things don’t matter. Sure they matter to us as your parents, trying to raise a civilized human. But they aren’t the measure of who you are becoming. And maybe sometimes you’re frustrated, or feel like a failure, reminded constantly of The Expectations. So go to camp, kid. Use your fingers. Yell a lot. Don’t sit properly. Run EVERYWHERE. Don’t write home. Make extra fart noises, the louder the better. Live exclusively on syrup and ketchup. Don’t wear socks, or wear the same ones all week. Indigestion, scraped knees, and body odor be damned! No. One. Cares. You be you.

You’re one of the lucky few, kiddo. We aren’t rich, but you are, because you have parents who know you need this. Every kid needs this. Underprivileged kids need this because there’s too much fear and shame in their everyday and they need a week off too. Privileged kids need this so they can realize what really matters. There’s not a kid, or a grown up for that matter, who doesn’t need a week off. Not a vacation or a trip, but a week off of the rules, whatever their rules might look like.

And while I’m at it, it’s the opposite of “Kids these days…”

Think about it. Nothing good ever follows those three words. It goes something like:

…can’t make eye contact.

…can’t unplug from their screens.

…can’t take responsibility for their actions.

…have their parents handle all their problems.

…are lazy.

…are obese.

…can only speak through texts.

So, guess what, kid: No screens for a week. You will get up at 7:00, clean up, walk everywhere, make nice with strangers, get a ton of exercise, make all your own decisions and deal with all the consequences, and write letters home about it. On paper. With a pencil. You will NOT end up like “Kids these days” if it is the last thing I do, and you will have all the fun of all the yesses that go along with it, so just go to camp and stop asking me for an effing present!

I didn’t say any of that.

Truth is, he was more than ready. At drop off, I was barely finished making his bed when he said, “Okay thanks. Bye, Mom.” I asked if he wanted to go get his sister checked in too, and he answered, “I know where she’ll be. Girls Cabin Four. It’s fine.” And while I did get a hug out of him, he didn’t need anything else.

I had stolen a few moments to write a letter to leave in his pillowcase. It wasn’t a present. But it was what I had to give him: something to hold him over until real mail would arrive. A few questions about his cabin-mates and activities in case he needed some prompting to write home. My excitement for him to finally be old enough for the “real deal.” And a reminder of how much I had enjoyed the past three summers of solo time with him while big sis was at camp overnight, and would be missing hiking up to watch the sunset, reading late into the night by flashlight, campfire-cooked dinners, and running a 5k together.

I didn’t hear from him all week.

I picked up a very happy dude, who had only worn two outfits all week. He’d actually showered, but just put the same clothes back on. He liked them. Oh boy. Well… less laundry than I’d anticipated. Silver lining.

He swore he had addressed envelopes but had forgotten his notebook so there was no paper. No paper? More likely, he was having too much fun to ask.

The stories trickled out, sometimes gradually and sometimes in gushes, all full of fun and noise and dirt and crazy. His counselor was the BEST storyteller ever. He did everything he’d wanted to and more. He was sillier, funnier, louder, more rambunctious, and larger than life. Outgrowing his body. He wanted to go to camp for two weeks, no, THREE weeks, next year.

In the quiet though, my little boy came back to me.

“Mommy,” he said. “I found your letter. Thursday night. It made me homesick.”

“I’m sorry,” I answered, “I didn’t mean for it to upset you.”

More quietly. “I cried. In my bed. Late at night.”

“Oh…”

“I put it around my special rock, and crumpled it up and squeezed it.”

“Were you mad, to do that?”

“No. It was late. I was tired.”

And just like that, he was on to another topic. It had rained one day. There was a dance. All the older boys love Axe body spray. Their cabin was the messiest. He switched out of Frisbee class to Soccer instead. He played baseball at Free Period and forgot to go to singing practice. There was so much Four Square.

I was left to ponder. Do we do our kids a favor by over-involving ourselves? I’d hardly call two letters in a week over-involved, but still… there was nothing I could do to help him that week other than to let him know he was loved. And maybe even that was too much. The thought flew away until, unpacking, I discovered the rock.

Oh, THAT special rock. It was a special rock. He had found it on the path at camp the previous summer because someone had painted a message on it. He had carried it all over the camp, and then all around at home all year. Sometimes in his backpack, sometimes it was on his desk next to his bed. Sometimes he would ask me who I thought had painted it. Sometimes it would disappear for weeks and reappear again (a minor miracle in his treacherous bedroom). Always a reminder that camp was with him, and that he was coming back again. Somehow, very purposefully, he had brought it back home. But I hadn’t known.

And there, surrounding it, my little love note to my baby growing up.

I’ve wondered all my life how, in Rock/Paper/Scissors, Paper beats Rock. By covering it? Really???

Yes, really. Man, that letter is tiny. Squashed up and squeezed, hard around that rock, in the palm of my 8 year old in the night.

He loves camp. But where mom is, is still home. For now.

See, it works both ways. If we don’t send them away from us, we don’t give them a chance to miss us. We’ll just keep scheduling them and correcting them and making them believe they need our approval. If they don’t get a chance to make their own way, even if it is strewn with maple syrup and fart noises, they won’t know they can.

So he found out he could change a class he wasn’t happy with, on his own. (Advocating for himself – look at that!) And he found out that if you forget to show up for singing practice, you won’t be in the picture for the program, also on his own. (Natural consequences – Okay!) He found out that you get really smelly wearing the same shirt for five days, on his own. (Wow, that’s ripe. Does he care? NO!) And he knows now that if he’s walking around with dirt so thick he can’t see skin, he may just have had the best time of his life. On his own.

Kinda big deal stuff.

And, he discovered that he really misses his family when he’s on his own.

Even bigger.

He was ready. But paper covers rock.photo-sep-15-2-29-27-pm-1

The Indian Restaurant on Georgia Avenue

Five years ago was a hard time.

In the middle of the God-awful time I was having in my personal life, I had a calm-in-the-storm opportunity to catch up with an old friend. Wise Old Turtle, we’ll call this friend. Wise Old Turtle is not one for keeping in touch, and Wise Old Turtle is not much for social media. So in this day and age, we had the rare experience of catching up the old fashioned way, by talking. Digging into what we’d been up to for the previous, oh, 17 years, and presenting our take on the highs and lows from current perspective. Neither of us even had a smart phone yet, so there were no photos to rely on for proof of anything. Just words, and eye contact. The retro stuff.

We gave each other the highlights: What we did after college. Places we’d lived, trips we’d taken, career paths, kids. I put my best face on, but I was frankly in the middle of one of the worst times of my life. I had recently suffered a pregnancy loss which was consuming all my emotional energy. You don’t want to throw that one out there. My marriage was at a low point – also not share-worthy. My kids were at an age where they were young enough to still be needy and old enough to have started sassing me, making me feel like an abject failure. Well, at least you can spin that one by making them sound cute. I was working in two jobs, one of which was in my chosen profession but I was frustrated with it, and the other was teaching ballet, which was allowing me to keep alive a creative passion that I’d always assumed I was just keeping as an outlet of sorts. It was about to turn into something amazing but hadn’t really blossomed yet. I was in a rough spot emotionally and beating myself up for not using my degree to the extent that I had once thought I would, or having much to show for the “other thing.” Hard to know how to package that up neatly.

Wise Old Turtle, on the other hand, is a career person; seriously kick-ass career awesomeness, changing the world one day at a time, on a trajectory since birth to do exactly one thing and do it astoundingly well. Or at least that’s how I saw it. Luckily Wise Old Turtle was also a trusted friend, so I didn’t feel judged for a second, but, cue my inferiority complex anyway.

To validate the amount of time and effort I was putting into my not-yet-blossomed life, I shared a story about a student I had once had, I’ll call her Spirit, who had reached back to me through the years to thank me. See, the thing about teaching is you don’t always know who you touch in the moment, and rare is the student who will let you know about it later. But I had one. Spirit had gone on to rock the world in a completely different creative field, yet on occasion would get in touch and say, “You made me believe I could do this,” or, “If you hadn’t made me want to express myself, I never would be doing this today,” or, “You opened a door I didn’t know existed, and I am so grateful.”

Wise Old Turtle doesn’t work in a creative field, but has unbelievable acuity when reading people. Wise Old Turtle could tell that teaching, and the creative work, not just the gratitude from Spirit, really lit me up, but that I was judging myself.

This was entirely true. Whenever I heard from Spirit, I thought, “Woah. She’s awesome. Look at her go! I can’t believe she’d say something like that about me,” instead of, “Woah, I’m awesome. Look at her go! And I had a hand in that! I’m so glad she told me.” I was looking at a piece of paper I had earned from school and telling myself, “According to this paper, you are good at ‘A’, so a life of ‘A’ you shall have, or your dollars invested and time on this planet shall be considered a waste,” instead of listening to my heart which told me, “You learned so much from ‘A’, and you will use it in more ways than you can ever hope to realize when you are on a much happier and more fulfilling life of ‘B’, so do what you love.” Life being a non-linear experience was not something I had begun to accept yet. And the state of my unhappiness at that moment was aiding and abetting the poisoning I was doing of my own thoughts.

“I think it’s amazing that you can do something you love, that’s so creative, and it makes a difference to people,” Wise Old Turtle reassured me with kindness that in the moment, in my funk, I shrugged off. It has obviously resonated over the years, but right then, I scoffed. It didn’t measure up to a super-career saving the planet. It wasn’t what I was “supposed to be doing.” It was only one person. One.

Wise Old Turtle then said something that has stuck with me ever since, every minute of my life, and changed me entirely: “Well, what more could you want? Someone came back and told you. Imagine how many there are that don’t. That doesn’t make you happy? Proud? Honestly, what would be good enough for you? What’s your magic number? 50? 200? And even if it was only one person whose life you changed, you are making a difference to someone. One should be enough.”

After we said our goodbyes, I got into my car and thought I was going to cry. The same flooding feeling rushed up from my chest and guts that would usually have been accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing, and I had done a fair bit of it that year. But no tears came. Just a feeling of validation welling up into the empty places I’d been feeling, and slowly, ever so slowly, came acceptance that life is messy, and hard, but that we all find our paths in different ways, with different teachers at different times helping to show us the way.

I have been so fortunate to have many amazing teachers over the years, some in the classroom, some elsewhere. Some family, some mentors. Some peers, some friends. Some are my students. Spirit was my student in the classroom, but I was hers in life, because she embraced her passion without hesitation, and I was so slow to take the wheel with my own. Wise Old Turtle was my dear friend, but in that moment also turned out to be my Best Teacher Ever, just by saying what I so obviously needed to hear, at exactly the right time for me to hear it. And so, my life changed forever at a tiny Indian restaurant on Georgia Avenue.

Over the past five years, I have learned over and over, that one should have been enough. But I’ve also learned that by doing what I love, I make a difference to far more than one. I’m not going to hit the mark for every single one, but for some, what I do will make them light up or point them toward something that will. So every day, I just meet them each where they are, one at a time.

Thank you, Wise Old Turtle. Thank you, Spirit. You are the bread to my Awesome Sandwich.

And…

One more lesson from that day, for all of us: Put down your phone. You could be someone’s Best Teacher Ever too, just by being human, and present.

Gratitude: the Ever-Evasive Superpower

On the two-year anniversary of this Facebook post, I share it with you here; every word of it rings as true today as ever:

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On Thanksgiving when I was volunteering with the homeless, I was handed a baby to walk for a while, so his single mother could finish dinner and go to the bathroom by herself. What mother doesn’t need that some days? It was even her birthday. I was more than happy to.

He was wearing pajamas. That was all he had. He’d outgrown all of his clothes and was down to pajamas because they were stretchy. Moms, think about how quickly your kids were in and out of clothes that first year. To not have what you need next week? Startling to think about. I could only respond that I thought we should all wear our pajamas, and he looked so sweet in his (both of which I meant honestly).

He had a scratch on his forehead. Sort of a gash, actually. He was learning to pull up, and it isn’t very baby-proof where they are staying. My own kid was busy playing with the bigger kids and didn’t pay much attention to me getting my “baby fix,” but he did giggle and comment that “This baby has a REAL Harry Potter scar.” He had insisted on wearing his Harry Potter robe from Halloween and a drawn-on scar to Thanksgiving. Two signs that we are among the fortunate ones. Something to wear just for fun, and a pretend scar. It struck me.

By chance, that baby shared a name with the child I lost three years ago this week. We had anxiously watched the calendar and waited until Thanksgiving to announce to friends and family, in the safety of the second trimester. But some things are not to be, and a few weeks later we were in the emergency room instead, leaving every Thanksgiving afterward to be a little bit hollow, and a day of remembrance. This year, the angel on my shoulder grabbed my attention on that day he knew I would recognize.

Three years ago, I never would have believed that it would all be okay, ever. Not two years ago, trying to make sense of why the holiday cheer wasn’t showing up, and not last year when losing one of my jobs was adding insult to injury in this emotional time.

But this week, my fan club has been out in full force. I don’t have a glamorous life, but I have a million tiny successes to celebrate and confirmation around every corner that being present and giving love to a project makes a difference to people. I am supported by my family (sometimes unexpectedly), friends (though too often at a distance), fabulous colleagues (and I do mean fabulous), and wonderful kids and their families that I get to see every day. And I was given, by teachers and mentors, the passion and tools to do what I do.

I am among the fortunate ones, indeed. I wanted a bigger family; yet here I have a blend of nature and nurture that shaped me, a support system, and so many beautiful kids, even if they don’t all belong to me. They skip their semi-formals for my rehearsals and bring me cookies the next day. They text me at midnight. They clean the studio and thank me when they are finished. They make me presents. They give sweaty hugs and sing their choreography. I am so fortunate to share them.

As with all grief, the empty space never completely goes away. The place where the bottom dropped out won’t ever look like smooth surface. It’s more like a weird mosaic made from blown out glass. But it’s my own lightning-bolt scar. It gave me these awesome super powers, and I can only make good of the loss by using them. The most important and sometimes difficult one is gratitude.

Yet I am thankful for these two boys with the same name, both of whom I knew so very briefly, and for all of my other kids who teach me daily to dress for fun and embrace my scars. Because now, it is hard to imagine the path going any other way.