Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thanks Bookstore! And What Comes Next

Yesterday was my last day at the bookstore. It’s hard to overstate the gratitude that I feel for the place—what I took for a straightforward and undemanding job ended up, of course, meaning so much more.

The day back in February when I emailed the OM to see if I could pick up some hours, the email was the only thing I was able to accomplish that day. I was still panicking hard, trying for an hour walk each day, writing down my dreams and not much else. After I sent the email, I was petrified that I would let everyone down, especially Amy, who’d be one of my supervisors.

I was worried that I was so broken that I couldn’t even do my old standby day job, which I love and which has brought me so much comfort over the years. I was still having panics in the grocery store sometimes, feeling unworthy of groceries I knew my former students’ families couldn’t afford. (Once a lunch-party guest, the brightest and most determinedly positive girl in the class, expressed envy of my baby carrots, she said her dad couldn’t afford things like that. I gave her all of my carrots and was never the same again.)

It was hard. For the first few bookstore weeks, I could pretty much only work and sleep. I rode with Amy to work most days, which, like the job itself, ended up making me feel both comforted and trapped. The shadows of school life lurked around with me, I was never sure if I was acting normal or like a mental case.

Sometimes, the young people who worked with me wanted to talk about Important Topics, and I would feel the fear and self-loathing and self-consciousness that precipitates a panic well up and I would have to stop them, but I found their existence so comforting—the wild-haired blogger who declared herself “sick of corporate America” and just stopped showing up, the philosopher who used the phrase “patriarchy as death machine” in casual conversation, they give me hope that everyone’s going to keep fighting evil, even as I move on to cozier ways of doing so.

But what I loved the most, what I’ve always loved the most, is idle work conversation. (This is why Clerks is one of my favorite movies, in spite of my brother’s complaint that nothing happens in it.) (see also: the season three OITNB conversation about the Black-Eyed Peas)
I love the genial, jokey exchanges of near-strangers, the kind that arises from the most exquisite boredom: parsing the intentions of cable radio pop singers, punning on book titles, eventually finding out what creative projects are lurking just beneath nearly everyone’s surface.

And in that spirit, another miraculous thing happened—I got a crush. One day a few weeks ago I was startled to realize that I’d flirted my way through eight hours, with only a break for lunch, and with a mix of embarrassment and exhilaration, I felt a return to myself. Another day went by like that, complete with him recommending an album and me typing while listening to it and settling back to the part of me that has muses, that gets a little giddy and then makes more things. He’s not a viable option, this isn’t that awesome of a story, but just to be off the rails a little, kind of dizzy in the head for someone, it gives me hope that I might still be capable of happily falling when the time comes. Also, it makes me just an eensy bit impatient for that time to happen.

I told someone yesterday during the process of goodbyes that I was broken when I started, and he asked if I was unbroken now. I’ll go with less broken—last week, I wasn’t sure if I had Lyme disease or was sick from all the racism news. I’m better able to engage with the world now, easing back to the Important Topics. It’s still hard to fight the sense of failure and the crippling self-consciousness that got exacerbated in the classroom.

Even though my poetry class is very fruitful and camp seems promising, it’s so hard not to feel like a failure about teaching. Talking to my brother-in-law, a born teacher, over the weekend, it’s hard not to envy the confidence he has with his career, with his place in the world. I envy my friends who all seem so settled, so at home in the world, in their families, in their work.

But playing Mario Kart with my nephew, I wondered aloud why I ended up off road so often. He said “Maybe you’re a…criminal? No, that’s not the word.”

“Outlaw?” I asked, and he heartily agreed.

Outlaw sounds about right. I hate the way that the school system is set up, the way it focuses on data and saps the creativity of teachers and students alike. I feel desperately jealous of my friends who slot so easily into their classrooms, but I have to sympathize with the intensely talented friends who’ve had their love and inspiration sucked right out—that waste isn’t okay with me. It’s not a sacrifice it seems right to make.

Somewhere in my love of connection and my madness for protecting creativity, I hope to find my next line of work. It may be in a nicer school or in homes or I don’t know where. I take comfort in knowing that summer art camp is a job that makes sense, that pays well enough, so maybe that can give me hope for the jobs that follow. My brain is still fragile, but I’m so grateful for the healing that the past four months have brought—thank you, self, for making summer come in February. Thank you, friends, who’ve supported and loved and written with me. Thank you, work, for bringing me back to myself. I’ll do my best with the road less traveled, and I’ll always choose the Kart with good offroad capabilities.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Driving in Summer Mixtape

The mix I listen to year round is called Driving in Summer, so I wanted to share what I'll be driving to the beach and belting out this year. This mix is dedicated to my old pal Marc Beard-- I miss you a bunch and wish I we could go for ice cream cones.

Best Dreamy Song: High Violet is my very favorite album to drive to, and this is the summeriest one.

Favorite Motivational Existential Songs:

Best Concert Memories:

You can look up the whole song, but the summer I saw The Flaming Lips, I was in love with my wife and (unrquitedly) my guy best friend and also had a raging crush on my supervisor at the bookstore, who was a few rows away with his family. It was one of the most perfect moments of being alive, and I'm grateful that someone documented it:

And this one, too:

And this major life changing makeout moment:

Best Songs for Having Singalongs With My Nephews:

And With My Niece:

For Being Gloriously Bratty:

Because the kid in The Way, Way Back thought they were saying "Carry A Laser":
Because the movie The Obvious Child  Is A Fabulous Reminder That Stories Get Told:
Because Orange is The New Black:

Because of the Cute Boy at that Party That Time:
Because Somebody Once Told Me It's Okay to Get Giddy About Somebody:

And While I'm Leaning Into That Shame:
But Sometimes Summer's Melancholy:

And We're Back to Dreamy:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Toughness Lessons? No Thanks. (A Manifesto)

“Why do we spend our lives trying to be something we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?” Thomas Merton

In The Muppets (the Jason Segel one) there’s a moment at the end of Rainbow Connection where Animal, who hasn’t been able to drum the whole movie because of anger management treatment, just gives in to the muse and bangs the shit out of the drums. At that moment, my dear ex-wife leaned over and said “Aw, he achieved his telos.” In case you’re not a philosophy major like her, telos is the thing you were made for. Yesterday I had an Animal-achieving-his-purpose kind of day.

I had training for summer camp yesterday. I’ve worked at the art camp, mostly part time as a poetry teacher, for four years. This year, I signed up for full time even thought they weren’t planning to do poetry.  But then they decided to do poetry! I know it’ll get squirrelly when it’s time to put on the play, but it’s such a relaxed, happy place to work—diverse, kind, and queer friendly. There was even a part in the training where the management told staff, in no uncertain terms, that they are to respect little boys who wear dresses, and to be sensitive with pronouns.

The team skews young, but the music teacher is close to retirement age and kind of old school. When I told her a little about what had happened at the school, she said “Oh, Miss Jane, I’m gonna have to give you toughness lessons.” Though I shut her down pretty unequivocally, she still proceeded to give me an example wherein she told a child she could “Squash him like a bug.”

“Just stop,” I said, trying to be cool. “You don’t know that school.”

“But I know hood rats.”

Now, she’s African American so I guess that makes it less offensive, but I am unspeakably angry to know in my heart that that often when people have told me I’m “too nice,” they mean “Too nice for poor black kids.” The number of times I’ve heard them disparaged, that I’ve been condescended to about it, the number of times I’ve had empathy mistaken for weakness,  the number of times I’ve been told to get a thicker skin, has caused me an enormous amount of stress and sorrow. I’ll never forget the day last winter that my grade partner, who I looked up to and loved so much, went off on me for giving our students “praise they don’t deserve.” A mostly-praise classroom tone was the official policy of the school (and of my heart) but policy isn’t any match for what’s already expected, what’s been expected for generations. Everyone saw me how they saw me, everyone sees the kids the way they see them, and it will take me the rest of my life to write out the pain of that.

Though my music teacher friend meant to be protective and certainly didn’t mean to open a wound, I’m glad she did. I’ve never realized more deeply what a destructive waste it’s been all this time to fight being sensitive, to fault myself for the thick skin that never seemed to grow. I’m very sad about the times I conformed and  tried on that authoritarian armor, and I’m glad soul-sickness made me take it off for good.

The idea that I need to be tougher is bonkers for two reasons. First, anyone who really knows me understands just how resilient, how stubborn, how passionate, what an immovable force I can be. In addition to the sizable amount of strictness I can actually sneak into my handing-out-stickers ethos, I’ve pulled myself through traumas, crossed boundaries, made connections and lived deeply in ways that most people would have shied away from. Yes, I can be really fragile and crappy at life a lot of the time, and I have plenty of regrets, but I’ve turned nearly every mess into art by having compassion, faith, and creativity. I’ve made change at times when I was expected to have no voice, in situations that seemed (okay sometimes actually were) impossible. I may have failed to keep teaching the population I wanted to serve, but while I was there I brought peace and love every day into places most people would be afraid to go.

The fact that my game face happens to be an adoring smile doesn’t mean that I’m weak, it means that I am ale to reach through the ugly, rotten, violent noise of the world and see goodness, see love.

The second reason “toughness lessons” don’t make sense is that sensitivity is a resource. Being a delicate little seashell may limit the number of hours I can work or the number of insults I can field without taking it personally, but it also allows me to feel more deeply, to see and hear and feel details that others might deem unimportant. The best thing is that I get to empathize with people that others might dismiss, and that above all else is what makes me a teacher. It makes me feel beauty and gratitude and love so deeply that yep, I’m often overwhelmed, but I’m also amazing at the art of being alive.

There were no toughness lessons at camp. After lunch, breathless and nervous but sure I knew what the heck I was talking about, I got to give the training in positive behavior support and de-escalation—I gave a sensitivity lesson. We practiced shouting out each others’ awesomeness, praise-only corrections, rewards instead of punishment. We got to practice taking a breath before we speak, using active listening, giving someone space when they’re upset. I told everyone to remember these two things for the rest of their lives:

1. At least 10 positives for every negative.
2. Use a soft voice.

They were already so nice that I cut the training almost in half. I can’t believe how at home I felt. This is me. I was nervous, but I taught, and everyone learned. I don’t know what my job will be when the summer is over, but I know that I will teach, and I know that I will always be strong enough, because I have the most powerful thing in the universe—fiery, bubbly, witchy, goddess-y, sparkly LOVE. (Also, stickers.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Panic and Progress/Little School Stories One

Last week was such a fruitful one—my poetry class’s book release party produced such a special and heartening collection of poems, I got to go on the local radio station and read from my own poetry book, I even got to visit a friend at her family’s lake house and float around in a paddle boat looking at water lilies and goslings while catching up.

But underneath all the wonderfulness was an inexplicable (okay, actually very explicable) panic. Twice at the bookstore I was working in benign but enclosed spaces and felt the hot dizziness sneak up on me. The music felt too loud and my vision went swimmy. “Sorry I’m a little bit out of it, I panicked in the T-shirt closet” is not the least embarrassing thing I’ve ever said.

I’ve been having bad dreams about school, of the principal observing me and calling me out for mistakes, of having a double class plus a baby to take care of, of having to translate Urdu on the spot. I dreamed of a flying, broken house coming at me with a beautiful black and white drawing (the kind you see on paste-up street art) of Ganesh on the side. All of this means something and nothing. Though life is doing an amazing job of moving me forward on its own, I felt trapped and stuck, blocked in a way I always think I should be able to solve.

I’ve had this sad mentionitis about school, like the “This one time, at band camp?” girl except with failure and trauma. This makes me feel like the conversational angel of doom. The other day at work I kept oversharing, talking to anyone who made the mistake of standing still near me about angry parents and lockdowns. I know it all has to come out, but I honestly don’t want to give those places any more than I already have.

Still, let’s talk about the lockdowns. They came every month or so at the first school, every few weeks at the second. The announcement would come on and we’d be told to lock all of our doors and stay in place until further notice. I never had a door that locked from the inside. I was never actually trained for lockdown procedures, so I’d turn out the light, sit down, and do my best. Sometimes we sat in a row on the floor in the back and played Whisper Down the Lane; sometimes we stayed at desks and just put our heads down. Though we were supposed to be silent, I think, to wait for further instructions, (“So we can stay alive,” I’d tell them.) sometimes it helped to sing the peace song:

“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace,
when I breathe out, I breathe out love.”

(Unitarian hymns are so easily adapted for  the classroom.)

Sometimes the lockdowns were because of gun violence in the surrounding blocks, sometimes just for a kid who was momentarily unaccounted for. You never found out the reason until rumors circulated later in the day, after the threat was over.

In the moment, it never occurred to me to be scared, just to get that deep, eerie calm that grownups sometimes need to have. I took solace in the fact that these were the only times I felt truly justified in just letting them sit and draw. Only now does in occur to me that lockdowns were scary. Those kids, for as much trouble they gave me, were among the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. The light shined out of them so purely, so defiantly, so much more miraculously than I can possibly put into words. Despite their harsh circumstances, or because of them, the force of their aliveness was so dazzling that if they had been the proverbial rose-in-concrete, they would have vined the city and the world to its senses.

The horror of being charged with keeping the kids I loved safe in a situation that never would be was one of the many part of my job that was both futile and vital, both deadly and absolutely banal.

As a mark of progress, this is the first easy time I’ve had writing about school—I’ve written maybe ten drafts of blog posts that collapse under the weight of their own sadness, so maybe little stories, a few paragraphs at a time, could be the key.

I think part of the reason this has been a fearful week is that bookstore time is almost over—in many ways, it feels like it already IS over. I’m doing two days a week until camp starts as a way to focus on a couple of projects and get my act together. The part of me that grasps at routine misses the ritual of it, the lunch breaks in the sunny break room or by the fountain, the weight and comfort of organizing my beloved textbooks, my workplace cliché of a coffee cup—Charlie Brown exclaiming “Good grief!”

Good grief indeed. These past few months, though tricky, have been a charmed time. Things have fallen into place through faith rather than effort, or just the effort of singing through the commute or sweeping the terrace for poetry class. I’m sad to let the spring class go even though the summer one starts tomorrow. A big fear in my soup of fears is that I’ll let down the writers who’ve already given me so much.

Reading aloud from my own book of poems brought up so many emotions, too. I’ve got such deep shame for the unrequited loves that defined my life for so long, making it both agonizing and prolific. There was grief over a lost marriage that once seemed so certain. And there was also this: Huh. This is a good book. How did I come up with all this stuff? Will I ever be that productive again?

Returning to art and poetry as the organizing factors of life definitely pulled me out of depression and back to something like my real self, but it also brings with it an enormous amount of vulnerability, one that I can only tackle a little bit at a time. Whereas I have 100% faith in my ability to bring forth good poems from others, my faith in my own work feels Bambi-footed.

Being on stage, both literally and metaphorically, has gotten tangled up in my mind with the everyday humiliations and failures of teaching. The fear of being scrutinized, jeered at, stupid, even hated when I go out on a limb a little is harder to fight than ever before.

I’m frustrated that panic is still holding me back. I see so much possibility in front of me, so many friends and opportunities and gifts. It’s getting harder to take the alone days I still need, that I’ll probably always need. I love the weeks that go by where I feel back to my old self and absolutely hate that I am still so broken. But it is getting easier.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Song for the Job Quitters

This is an old poem of mine. It originally appeared in Apiary, but I'm reposting it for a friend who's struggling with resigning from a self-destructive job. One thing I'm glad to have learned is that no one but me can take care of my career, and that makes saying no as important as saying yes.

Song for the Job-Quitters

There is more love somewhere.
There is more love somewhere.
I'm gonna keep on
'til I find it.
There is more love somewhere.

When you go to collect your belongings
may you not leave a pencil case behind.
May a shaft of sun shine through the industrial windows
in a show of solidarity.
May your boss be out of the office.
When someone asks if you don't work there anymore
may you be unable to wipe the smile off your face.

May you mourn the lost phone numbers,
blanket stillborn projects
and float them out on paper boats.

May you walk those blocks again when you're ready
see the azaleas in all their madness.

May you take cryptic advice from church signs,
list “The Universe” as a source of income
and mean it.

May the duvet whisper sweet nothings.
If you can't get out of bed,
may a cat sit on you.

May you lose the days of the week.

May you leave yourself a maze of flares
across the bridges.

May you walk into kinder rooms
to the dazzling realization:
maybe it wasn't just you.

Monday, June 1, 2015

May Checkmarks, June Goals

I'm working two-day work weeks for most of June, so I'm hoping to make the most of it!

Yay, I'm an Etsy Store

Since I'm making art more central to my day to day life, I decided to let it start chipping it a little. I don't have too many listings up yet, but you can take a look here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheSerotoninFactory?ref=hdr_shop_menu