Come on in; the water’s fine

Welcome, new bloggers! The new year brings new students, and, as in the past, those students will be creating and maintaining their first blogs. It always makes me happy to see their excitement and enthusiasm over their pages. This year the blogs are as diverse as the students, and they have already begun personalizing pages with graphics and interesting text. I’ll run the new blogroll here, so that we can all stay connected and easily maintain our new community.


“The Sadness Will Live Forever”

So said Van Gogh, and on days such as this, I am inclined to believe him. Word tonight that Robin Williams has killed himself–official COD suicide by asphyxiation. What a verse he has written; what a hole he leaves.

Williams publicly revealed his bipolar diagnosis in the mid-nineties, not long after I received my own. I had always felt connected with him, and that sealed the deal. While my mind maniacally jumped from one thing to the next, I could see his follow the same pattern in his interviews and free-associating ad-libs. His characters thirsted, railed, lived in the extreme, and the public loved him. So did I. Maybe, I thought, that was proof someone could love me too.

I had hoped that the passage of time indicated he and I had beaten the survival rate for our disease–a paltry 20%. Today was a crushing blow that reminds us how persistent the disease is, and how formidable a foe. It humbles me that I should survive while he does not. 

Love, then, to those of us who remain. Ever diligent, comrades. Write your verse. “Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Squealing in on Two Tires

Writers write. So I am only a writer here by the stretch of the imagination. It’s been too long since I’ve had the chance to talk to you. I have been writing, though, to the joy of some and the consternation of others. Such is the life of a memoirist while the supporting cast is still alive.

It’s that time of year at school when it seems we’ll never make until Spring Break without one of us running naked from the building in the middle of a psychotic break. Please don’t let it be me. My dual-credit students have proven to be exemplary. Some days, they keep me from leaving. The rest of us will get through the standardized drama of HSAP and EOC exams. Always, the students squeal across the finish line and pull it out at the last minute.

I haven’t sent much out for publication, but what I did send out went to the top of the list, and I’m waiting on the rejection letters so I can send them to realistic choices over the break. Wish me luck.

I am still medicated. It’s why my writing is subpar, but I’m working on it. The small death of my former creative self sometimes seems overwhelming, but so far boring has beaten dead. I suppose that’s progress. 

This is the end, my beautiful friend

Graduation night tonight at Creek Bridge High, and a lot of the students are seeing this as an end–of high school, of their circle of friends, of childhood. Parents see it that way sometimes, too. But I’d rather think of graduation like a funeral.

I know the simile is a stretch for most, but bear with me. Though my grandmother would say the devil will hear me, I’ll type it anyway. Everyone who’s important in your life comes to your funeral; they’re all dressed up and on their best behavior. Someone you may or may not know gets up and says good things about you until your loved ones sniffle and cry. You have no control over your wardrobe choice for the evening, and would have chosen a simply FABulous one if you had. People bring you flowers. But the biggest thing is this–no matter how much you think you have things figured out, nobody is really sure what comes next, and you hang on the precipice.

And that’s a knee-knocking, dry-mouth generating thing. You could go anywhere from that point. Graduates, your life may turn out just exactly as you planned, but chances are the real life will get in the way. There will be good times. There will be times when you struggle to pay the light bill. But the real life will lead you to one much richer and rewarding than you could ever imagine now. It happened to me, and I wouldn’t change it.

So, let your toes hang over the edge of the precipice. Balance there and sway and close your eyes just for tonight, for tomorrow you leap from it, and start anew.

I’m Okay; You’re Okay: How Labels Make a Teacher

There are days I feel as though I’m nothing but a pile of social constructs, struggling to rid myself from being the mere sum of my parts, fighting against all the labels that define me from the outside in. While that struggle is something that gives me a desire to grow, there is also no denial on my part that I am the product of my culture, and I am what I am because of my experiences. There is also no denial that it will affect the teacher I’m becoming.

I’m not from an affluent family. While members of my family have been firmly middle class to upper-middle class, I am closer to the lower end of the ladder. Born in a trailer park to a homemaker and a telephone lineman, we struggled financially when I was younger. My grandmother, a professional seamstress, made many of my clothes. We ate lots of grits and pasta, cheap staples of my mother’s Italian background and father’s Southern one. Over time, they improved their financial situation through education (My mother returned to school, earning her graduate degree and going on to teach, and my father excelled in the phone company, training others to use computerized switching systems), and my life got easier. I still think that education can change anything. That I allowed the other girls in dance class to tease me for wearing my sister’s hand-me-down leotard is still an episode I don’t like to replay in my head. Dancing was something I loved, and the teasing made me stop doing it. Even though I can’t afford to pay for dance lessons for my three girls, I spent time cleaning the dance studio and doing book work for the instructor so they could have the option of attending if they wanted to (They all have until they left home.). Sometimes learning means being creative.

Twenty years after I left, I moved back to Marion because of my childhood, and because I share so many things in common with others who live here. I did what Texans call serious livin’ while I was gone. Married twice, had three children, divorced twice, moved more times than I can count. Tried a go at college, stopped 12 credit hours short, and went on to be a floral designer for almost 15 years. Single parent, struggling, I got laid off one Christmas Eve. Finally enrolled in college again, and I haven’t looked back since.

Even that short version makes me sound so different from everyone I know. It doesn’t take into account that what I know about civil rights I learned from my father, a white southerner transplanted to New Jersey, who was involved in the movement through music, a folk guitarist swept along in the struggle. It doesn’t show the months he walked the picket line later, when the union went on strike for months at a time, when the CWA signs were the most permanent furniture we had in our living room. It doesn’t show the gym teacher I had in the fifth grade who showed the boys how to play football, and just threw the girls jump ropes. It doesn’t begin to explain why I love power tools and the feel of sanded wood. It leaves out those things that begin to explain the kind of teacher I’m becoming.

I did really well in the floral business, working for years as a manager of a large high-end shop in Texas, catering to the Junior League crowd. Sometimes I was treated as hired help, and other times I was the belle of the ball. My employees were much more diverse than my clients: a middle-aged meth addict, a twenty-something drug dealer, a single mother with an autistic child who lied about having a GED, and a thirty-something man who had left his wife and children to live with his male partner. And then there were the delivery drivers…As frustrating as they could all be, they were talented people who went about their work in very different ways and achieved spectacular results. I can only hope that my new colleagues will do the same.

The long and short of it is that I’ve had an interesting life so far.

The most interesting thing I’ve been, by far, is crazy.

Bipolar is my largest label, and it confines me like no other. I have always been a person of extremes, and my diagnosis wasn’t surprising. It has, however, been terrifying to live with. I learn differently every day, depending on my mood. One day I can sit for hours reading, another, I can read the same sentence five times and still not process it. On the worst days, I make lots of lists so I don’t forget things, and I put in earplugs that keep me from being distracted from whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. But I’ve learned to adjust and handle my illness much better than the people around me. The stigma of mental illness is often more of a struggle to combat than the illness itself.

So here I am: white female, lower class, liberal in the land of conservative republicans, single mother, unemployed, with a mental illness. It doesn’t make me a bad candidate for a secondary English teacher; it makes me open-minded. I know what it feels like to be on the outside of mainstream society, and I go out of my way to see things from other perspectives. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t know near enough to make generalizations. My life has served to slow me down when it comes to making judgments, make me more reflective about what makes me think the way I do, and listen to others more actively. And listening goes a long way—with students and parents. Everyone has something valid to say. Everyone has a story. You just have to be open enough to hear it, and find some common ground. That’s when the break-throughs happen.

I Walk the Line

Memoirists walk a fine line. We care about the people in our lives (Really, we do.), but what we do is write, and writers write, dearies, what they know. So how do we balance the emotions about those we hold dear with the reality of what we write? Even trickier, how do we balance the emotions for those we could care less about?

Life isn’t pretty, and neither are the characters in it. Fiction writers get off light, I sometimes think, because they don’t have to write what’s real. In my particular brand of creative nonfiction, where many of the players (especially me) are broken or wounded, the decision about what to write is never easy. I’ve chosen to just plow away and get real, and that makes a few people uncomfortable, especially since I’m now publishing. I’m not going to apologize.

Do I write about my illness?–Kinda the point.
Do I write about the weaknesses of others?–Sure. We all have flaws. Get comfortable with that.
Do I write about small gestures of kindness, of love, of hilarity?–Whenever I can.
Is almost everything fair game?–You bet. I’ve earned this life and everything it involves.

There are only a handful of people in my life for whom I care unconditionally. They know that I do, and support my endeavors wholeheartedly. For others, I say this–If you don’t like what I write about you, perhaps you should have behaved differently when I knew you. I owe you nothing, and if I choose to write about you, I will write what I believe to be true. These stories are MINE. And if you don’t like it, take a flying leap off the jetty at low tide.

Brevity Blog Post–On Writing “Everything (Except What’s Important)”

Dinty Moore and the crew over at Brevity have been too kind. Not only did they publish my flash piece, they also invited me to send in a blog post talking about its genesis. Check the post out here, and keep going back. Brevity is just amazing…

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