At a Fork in the Road

Because April is National Poetry Month, I have a story I’d like to share with you this week.

A few months ago, my son and his fifth grade class were instructed to memorize Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Granted, it’s a famous poem with an important message.  But why did my son need to memorize it?  And in the fifth grade?  (I don’t think I read it until high school).  His teacher never explained the reason(s) behind her assignment or why this particular poem was chosen.

I worked with Ryan, as he learned the poem line-by-line.  I tried to take it a step further, talking to him about the poem and asking him questions his teacher wasn’t asking at school.  

“What does it mean to you?”  

“What do you think the poet is saying?”

We had a discussion about the poem and poetry in general – that, like many types of art, there isn’t always just one way to look at, read, or interpret a piece of art.

Ryan wasn’t overly impressed.  The poem became a chore.

And months later, his teacher must have forgotten about it, because Ryan’s class never was asked to recite the poem.

I fear that an experience like this may turn Ryan off from poetry.  Though I hope not.  These early experiences with art really do have so much power and influence over our later choices and our later opinions about what we like and don’t like, what we’re good at, and what we think we’re not-so-good at.

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my classroom teacher painted over one of my watercolors-in-progress, and after that, I never wanted to take an art class.  In fact, I never wanted to draw or paint again.  (To read more about it, click here and read my personal essay “Too often, teachers extinguish a student’s spark” that was published in the Christian Science Monitor back in 2004.) 

For now, Ryan and I talk about poetry in terms of song lyrics.  It’s fun and enjoyable and an organic way to learn – the way all learning can be.

 

My Job

As I tell my son, one day my name will be on the spine of a book. For now, my name is inside -these anthologies each include a personal essay I have written.

My now-eleven-year-old son gave me the biggest boost the other day, and he doesn’t even realize it.

Ryan told me that during lunch the other day, kids were talking about their parents’ jobs and some of his friends asked what my job was.  It’s a fair question.  After all, I take my son to school each morning, and I’m there each afternoon to pick him up.  I’ve accompanied his class on a field trip to The Getty Center, and I attend all his class performances.  

“I told them you’re a writer,” Ryan told me.

And I smiled.  A writer is, by definition, one who writes.  And I do.  Nearly every day.  My writing time is divided between assigned posts for MomsLA.com and personal essays for my memoir-in-progress and those I submit for publication. (Update –  I have received word that two of my essays have been accepted and will be publishing sometime in the future.  I’ll keep you posted).

“I told them you’re writing a book,” he continued.

Ryan knows that I have a collection of “stories” (his word for my personal essays) that I am working on compiling into a book.  

“And one of my friends said she’ll buy your book when it comes out,” he said.

I smiled.  

“So, what’s your book going to be about again?”

I told Ryan, “It’s about living with an invisible illness.  What it’s like to do all the things I do but having an illness people can’t see.”

He was satisfied with that answer, but I was curious about something else.

“Ryan, did you tell them I used to be a teacher?”

“No.  Because that was before.  And now you write.”

“Do you even remember when I was a teacher?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.  (I left teaching in March 2013.  Ryan was almost 5 at the time.) 

It’s important to remind myself that if I hadn’t left my teaching career, there’s no way I would be writing as much as I am now.  And I certainly wouldn’t have published as much as I have. 

And my son wouldn’t be telling his friends his mom is a writer.

 

Just Keep Writing

For my birthday, a good friend gave me a book from my wish list – Jennie Nash’s The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat – The 43 Worst Moments in the Writing Life and How to Get Over Them.

Having just turned 43, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.  And,  having an increased blog readership and a growing collection of essays I hope to publish as a memoir, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.

While I didn’t agree with everything Ms. Nash wrote (and felt some of her jokes weren’t that funny), there were a number of takeaways I’d love to share with you.  I think you’ll find they’re insightful and valuable even if you aren’t a writer.

Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.”  – Jessamyn Wes

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package.  Don’t consider it rejected.  Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘not at this address.’  Just keep looking for the right address.  – Barbara Kingsolver

What we do might be done in solitude and with great desperation, but it tends to produce exactly the opposite.  It tends to produce community and in many people hope and joy.” – Junot Díaz

Ones best success comes after their greatest disappointments.” – Harriet Ward Beecher

 

A Passionate Life

Four years ago, “A Life of Passion,” a personal essay of mine,  was published on mamalode.com.  (Click here to read it).  I wrote about the big events of 2015 – namely, my mom turning 70 and my son turning 7 on the same day.  I wrote about these two very important people, at very different stages of their lives, each living their days with passion.

And I feared I wasn’t.

Four years later, and in just a few days, my mom is turning 74 and my son is turning 11.  And a few weeks ago I turned 43.

But what has changed?  And what has remained the same?  

Both my mom and my son continue to live passionately.  There is no doubt about it.  They are each taking care of their responsibilities and doing things that make them feel good.

And me?  

I love my family passionately.  I never let my pain, my fatigue alter the way I show my family love.

I think, I hope, I express myself passionately through my writing.  

Amusing to my husband, and annoying to my son, is the way I passionately yell at the TV when we watch basketball, worried when a player hits the ground or when two players begin to exchange shoves and pushes.  

But do I live passionately?  Do I do all the things I’d like to do, or do I hold myself back because of fear, the possibility of “what if…?”  Yes and no.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the same girl who took belly dancing classes, or went parasailing, or enjoyed a hot air balloon ride.  Am I no longer doing such things because I’m older?  Because I’m a mother?  Because I’m often in pain?  It’s so hard to separate and know which parts of my life would have been different and which would have remained the same had I not become ill.

 

I Don’t Have to Worry

Ryan and I as Marvin and Tammi

I worry about my son because that’s what moms do.  

But my worries extend beyond the usual parenting worries.  I worry about how my son is being impacted and affected by my invisible disability.

I struggle each day with being honest about my levels of pain and fatigue, because I also don’t want to shortchange Ryan or frighten him in any way.  It’s not his fault that I hurt.  But “this” (my medical condition) is a part of our life.  And most likely always will be.

Ryan often reaches out a hand to help me when he sees me struggling to stand up.  He knows, and has known for years, about the bottles of medication on the kitchen counter.  In fact, when he was just a toddler he popped a small piece of cucumber in his mouth and chewed and swallowed it with a glass of milk, telling me he was taking his medicine just like mommy.  It broke my heart.  

But I’d like to think that my son is also being raised to look at people with increased levels of compassion, patience, and acceptance.  I hope that my struggles show Ryan that all people struggle with something, even if it isn’t initially apparent.  At the same time, I hope I’m also teaching Ryan resilience and tenacity, and that there are many different ways of demonstrating bravery, courage, and strength.

Still I worry.

And then my son will do something that will totally blow me away, will fill my heart with love and pride.  And I’ll breathe a little easier, knowing that Ryan is alright; in fact, that he’s more than alright.

When Ryan was a little guy, we would often sing along to songs on my computer, using kitchen utensils as “microphones.”  We still sing all the time.  In the car, in the house, in the market.  But for the last month or so, Ryan and I have again been regularly performing one of our favorite duets, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” I love that it’s still fun for my almost-11-year-old to sing with his mom.  And I love that this is one of our favorite songs to sing together.

Because really that is the message I want Ryan to grow up learning.  That we are a family.  We’re in this together.  

“If you need me, call me 

No matter where you are

No matter how far don’t worry, baby

Just call my name 

I’ll be there in a hurry

You don’t have to worry

‘Cause baby there 

Ain’t no mountain high enough

Ain’t no valley low enough

Ain’t no river wide enough

To keep me from getting to you, babe.”

And, if you haven’t seen the 1998 film Stepmom with Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, click here to see a fun scene featuring a family sing-along of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” 

 

Inspiring Words

Women’s History Month is celebrated throughout the month of March, and last Friday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day.

In the spirit of celebrating innovative, pioneering women, I’d like to share some quotes from my most recent library discovery.  (On a side note, this is why I can’t merely browse online for a book.  I need to wander and peruse the shelves, because I never know what I’ll find, what book will be waiting for me when I need to read it.  That was the case with this book: Great Quotes from Great Women – From Marie Curie to Michelle Obama – inspiring words from women who have shaped our world.)

I haven’t finished the book yet, but here are some of my favorite quotes so far:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall

For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” – Audrey Hepburn

You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” – Michelle Obama 

I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them.  I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity.” – Michelle Obama

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world.  Love of books is the best of all.” – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day.” – Rosa Parks

I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.” – Sally Ride

 

5 Things I’m Learning From My Autoimmune Disease

Last week marked the 6-year anniversary of the day I left my teaching career. I still miss it. But I like to think that I’m still teaching – just not in a traditional classroom – but through my writing and in all my interactions with my son. And I’m still learning. In fact, living with my autoimmune disease has taught me some surprising, unexpected lessons. Here are 5 Things I’m Learning From My Autoimmune Disease.

  1. Small pills aren’t always easier to swallow.  I take a lot of pills each day; both prescription medications to try and control my body’s inflammation as well as over-the-counter supplements. Pills come in different sizes. Some are taken with food. Some without. Some are taken every day, at certain times of the day. But there’s one medication I take only once a week. It’s a small pill; probably the smallest pill I swallow. But each Saturday night, I have to take 10 of these little pills. And after a while, those 10 small pills feel more like 10 giant multivitamins.
  2. Being a chronic patient improves my vocabulary and spelling skills.  Since becoming ill, I’ve learned about different “-ists” – gastroenterologist, urologist, neurologist, ophthalmologist, nephrologist, rheumatologist. I’ve also been subjected to different   “-scopies” – endoscopy, cystoscopy. Many were words I had never heard of before. Some were words I had no idea how to pronounce (endoscopy). And some, I still don’t spell correctly on the first try (ophthalmologist). 
  3. I’m willing to have my belly button resemble a volcano.  When I was newly diagnosed and desperately trying to hold onto my life and my teaching career, I tried a variety of things on the chance they might help. I bought compression stockings. Didn’t help. I propped my legs up with several pillows every time I sat on the couch or reclined in bed. Also didn’t help. And me, the person who doesn’t like needles, who always looks away when having blood drawn, saw an acupuncturist. I paid her $100 per visit so she would poke me with ultra-thin needles. Occasionally, she also burned Moxa, and once placed it inside my belly button until it looked like a mini-volcano was erupting on my body.  And it didn’t help my pain.
  4. A blood clot will seem like an attractive alternative.  My illness began on a Sunday morning when I woke up with an incredibly swollen left calf. I couldn’t stand, and once in the ER, all the symptoms (redness, swelling, pain in my calf) suggested a blood clot. I believed that my swollen leg would somehow be popped like a balloon until it was deflated and I was back to normal. It wasn’t a blood clot, and it didn’t return to normal. In fact, while in the ER my calf became more red, more swollen, and more sensitive to touch. Doctors didn’t know why. But a blood clot would have been so much easier. Something that was identifiable, treatable. Something that was temporary. (I was treated for cellulitis, and a year later officially diagnosed with my autoimmune disease).  
  5. An invisible disability is like the wind.  Invisible forces are powerful. You never see wind; wind is invisible. But you see and feel the effects of wind – wind chimes tinkling, kites soaring, leaves rustling. My invisible disability has the same strength as gale-force winds. It made it necessary for me to retire from my teaching career. It qualified me for a disabled parking placard, though I don’t rely on an assisted walking device and appear to be “fine.”

 

Done In Love

Yesterday I proudly sat in the audience and watched my son and his fifth grade class present their special Black History Month Performance.  Each student had researched and learned about a different “trailblazer and difference maker.”  Each student had written a biography about this individual, and each student presented the biography to the audience, speaking as if the student was the distinguished person.  

My son learned about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a doctor who opened the first integrated hospital; a doctor who learned about, and implemented, sanitary treatment conditions in operating rooms; and the doctor who performed the first successful open heart surgery.

My favorite part of my son’s “I Am Dr. Daniel Hale Williams” speech was the quote at the end.  In addition to the general biography facts my son and his classmates had researched, each student had also learned a famous quote that was associated with their distinguished individual, a quote that speaks of the character and actions of this famous person.  

And this week, I’d like to share with my readers that quote.  It’s a quote that I think is a beautiful mantra for how to live one’s life.

“Anything is possible when it’s done in love and everything you can do should be done in love or it will fail.”  Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

 

A Hopeful Read

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott is “an exploration of hope and the place it holds in our lives.”  That phrase alone was enough to make me want to read this book.  And then in an act of serendipity, because I had never mentioned this book to her, a very good friend of mine gave me this book for Christmas. 

I just finished reading it a few days ago and would love to share with my readers some of my favorite passages.

“…life lasts so briefly, like free theater in the park – glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us, awakening us to life, to the green and very real grass, the mess, the sky, the limbo.”

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy.”

Adults rarely have the imagination or energy of children, but we do have one another, and nature, and old black-and-white movies, and the ultimate secret weapon, books.  Books!  To fling myself into a book, to be carried away to another world while being at my most grounded, on my butt or in my bed or favorite chair, is literally how I have survived being here at all.”

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”    (That one line makes up the entirety of chapter four).

Hate is such an ugly word.  How about loathe for the verb, abhorrence for the noun?  (I agree.  When I was a teacher, “hate” was not allowed to be spoken in my classroom).

So, writing.  What a bitch.”  (And this begins my favorite chapter of the book).

In my current less-young age, I’ve learned that almost more than anything, stories hold us together.  Stories teach us what is important about life, why we are here and how it is best to behave, and that inside us we have access to treasure, in memories and observations, in imagination.”

 

Life, Love, and Pop Songs

During some of my high school and college years, I worked in a flower shop.  Those years gave me a whole new way of looking at Valentine’s Day, or in shop lingo, “V. Day.”

V. Day meant at least twelve-hour shifts at minimum wage (at that time, $4.25/hour), tired feet, swollen fingers that were cut by thorns.  Valentine’s Day meant standing at the counter creating one arrangement after the other of one dozen long-stem red roses in a vase. 

Later on, after I left the flower shop, Valentine’s Day again became a day I could look forward to.  (Though from the beginning of our relationship, I asked my husband never to buy me red roses for Valentine’s Day).

Valentine’s Day is the day of love.  But, where do we learn about love?  From our parents?  The movies?  Books?  Our friends?  Probably a mix of all of those.

But also from music.  My husband and I don’t have one song that we consider “ours.”  We have multiple songs that each have a special meaning for us. 

A few years ago, one of my personal essays, “A Blue-Jeans Type of Marriage,” was included in a special anthology.  (The title for my essay was inspired by Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans.”)  Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs, edited by Laura Roberts, includes a variety of stories that, as said in the book’s introduction, are “all about love.  Love hard won, love lost, love unrequited, love that lasts, and love that’s just a fading dream.”

And now readers, it’s your turn.  Feel free to share any favorite love songs in the comments section.  

Wishing you all a Valentine’s Day filled with sweetness, feel-good tunes, and smiles!