Sunday, July 22, 2012

You deserve a break today.

Sitting on he balcony just watching the world go by...this feels good. The palm trees tremble as the ocean air passes through the fronds. Families are packing their cars...laundry bags and sandy buckets and beach chairs and bags of souvenirs and keepsakes and all sorts of other trinkets make their way into car trunks and cargo holds of trucks. And yet here I feet propped up in a lounge chair and the smell of salty sea air filling my nose. While others are packing up and preparing to rejoin the real world, our vacation is just beginning.

Bright and early this morning, we headed to mass. As I sat between my dad and my brother, I heard the priest deliver fantastic words to weary travelers. "You deserve a break." He reminded us that Jesus and His disciples took time off to reacquaint themselves with God's will and word. (See, vacationing is a good thing!) In his final words, Father Mike encouraged us to spend time with family think about what is most important in our lives and to put our focus there. That is just what I intend to do.

And if I happen to doze off while sitting in my beach chair watching the waves crash, I'm sure no one will mind. After all, a good nap is part of taking a break. We all deserve a break.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Things They Carried

Many many MANY great lessons were presented during the 2012 Northwest Arkansas Writing Project Summer Invitational.  Many.  As I watched each lesson, I looked for ways to use the middle and high school lessons in the elementary classrooms I am lucky enough to reach.  The possibilities are endless!

One lesson, however, is going to take a little more thinking before I will be attempting it at the elementary level.  Not because it was too hard or the skill isn't appropriate or the content was too advanced. No, it will take me a while to translate Katy's lesson at the elementary level because I was so focused on what I was taking away from it was helping me as a a person. 

Katy asked us to read a few pages from Tim O'Brien's novel, The Things They Carried.  I was so draw into this book that as soon as the lesson was finished, I raced to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of the book...besides, I needed a new book to read as I watch the waves roll in when we hit the beach tomorrow night. (Woo hoo!) the close of Katy's lesson she asked us to write about carrying  something that is too heavy to continue taking it with you every day.  So...

Let it go.  Let it go.  Let it go.
You are carrying around too much extra garbage with you every day.  Stop worrying so much about what did or did not happen.  You can’t change it anyway.  Whether it was good or bad no longer matters; what matters is that it is…all of it is.  You over analyze situations, replay events in your head, and exhaust yourself thinking about what might have happened if.  You carry this worry around with you every day expecting a different result.  Guess what…it’s not going to happen.  It’s just not. 

Experiences, both good and bad, make you who you are today and who you might be tomorrow.  No one expects you to be perfect.  No one except you anyway.  Your destiny is not determined by what has already happened.  Your destiny is waiting for you.  God’s path is laid out before you…waiting.  All you have to do is follow where He leads.  You have been truly blessed with so many great things in your life.  If you continue to display the scars you think define you, you will never live the life you are meant to live.

So let it go.  Be brave.  Put down all of your fears and regrets.  You don’t need to carry those burdens around with you anymore.

You are loved.  And that is all that matters.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Monster

My monster Fear walks on tiptoes…creeping into and out of the haunted spaces in my mind.  Large antennae reach and stretch out from Fear’s my monster’s head; they search for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the foundation of the things I hold most dear.  With superhuman strength, my monster Fear hears the things I dare not say to anyone else…the secrets kept inside where no one else can use them against me, but Fear my monster knows.  Fear My monster uses my secrets against me…planning and plotting to bring me down when I least expect it.  If you look closely, you can see where my monster’s Fear’s feet have trod.  Gaping holes and tears…mangled emotions and shattered dreams…rooms once filled with light and life now stand vacant thanks to Fear my monster. 


Faith marches in ready for battle…brandishing a sword and wearing steel-toed combat boots.  Beams of light stretch and reach out from every fiber of Faith’s being; Faith seeks out my vulnerabilities and points of weakness.  Faith does not poke and prod me to discover my secrets.  Faith already knows…and loves me anyway.  If you look closely, you can see where Faith has weakened the grip Fear has over me.  Faith reduces Fear to a crumbled heap of nothing…smaller than dust particles picked up in the afternoon breeze.  Faith fills the holes and tears left in Fear’s wake.  Faith repairs and heals the once mangled emotions and shattered dreams.  Faith refills and restores abandoned rooms with life and light.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Inner Monologue of a Tired, Old, Fisher-Price Coupe

(A faded red and yellow Fisher-Price Coupe sits abandoned in the middle of a back yard.  Light rain has just started to fall.)

Hey!  Come back!  Don’t leave me out in the rain!

Damn…they left me.  Again.  Why do children always forget to put me away?  Honestly, is it so hard to put toys away before dashing back into the house to do whatever it is they do when they get inside?  I guess I should be thankful that I am finally going to get a little cleaner…that mud hole from this morning sure did leave a mess on my undercarriage.  And I’m quite sure we rolled through that dumb dog’s business a couple of days ago.  But still…it really sucks getting left outside in the rain.  If I had motor I could put myself away, but nooooooo…You don’t need a motor.  You’ll be pushed by little feet and the imagination of child drivers.  What a crock of shit.  If I ever see that stupid red coat again it will be too soon.  I tried to tell him that I needed a way to power myself.  I told him.  I said, “Santa, don’t you think I’d be a better car if I had a motor?  All great cars have motors.  How am I going to truly reach my potential without a motor?  You could even experiment with me.  Put in one of those power motors the elves have been using for that Power Wheels prototype.  I can take it.”  “Oh no,” he said.  “That won’t be ready in time.  Besides, my sleigh doesn’t have a motor.  I’m powered by the hopes and dreams of children all over the world.”  It took everything I had to hold my words back.  I wanted so bad to look at him and say, “Then what are the reindeer for…decoration?!?!” 

Geeze…that rain is really coming down now.  I hope the wind doesn’t pick up too much.  I hate getting covered in leaves and beat nearly to death by sticks.  At least I don’t have to worry too much about storm damage.  If those rough and tumble boys couldn’t take me out, I sure as hell aint worried about a little thunderstorm. 

Hmmm…I haven’t thought about them in a while.  The boys…my boy…I miss that boy.  Don’t get me wrong…these new girls are great.  They load me up with new treasures to carry, and we zip and zoom around the yard.  I love to hear them giggle, but it’s just not the same.  When the boys were little, my boy and those two neighbor boys, we’d spend hours together.  Forget the Three Amigos…we were the Fantastic Four.  I was one of the gang!  One boy would climb into the seat, and the other two would join forces and push me around the tree, between the swings, and even through that muddy place that always seems to be between the patio and the little hill that leads up to the trampoline.  The big people would scream, “Stay out of the mud!”  But us boys…we didn’t listen.  The mud was fun! 

Over and over again…they push me to the top of the driveway.  One boy would climb inside and prop up their feet on the front dash.  Then the other two would give a big shove and send us racing hard and fast down the driveway.  We’d coast a few seconds and then dash down the little hill.  Flying!  Soaring! Whizzing down the drive way.  In those first few seconds, I was Mario Andretti…zipping and zooming down the track at Indy.  The boy would make that funny noise that is somewhere between a gut-busting laugh and a terrifying scream.  He was so happy.  Honestly, I wanted to scream, too…only not because I was having fun.  I wanted to scream because I knew what was waiting for us at the end of the driveway…the gate.  That damn gate had to be kept closed so the dogs wouldn’t run away.  I didn’t mind the little dog…he pretty much left me alone.  But that big one…he was something else.  If I’d had my way, I would have opened the gate so that spotted dog would run away.  He kept peeing on me…like he was telling the world that I belonged to him.  To HIM!  Can you believe it?  A car for a dog…Horse hockey.  I don’t belong to no dumb dog.  I don’t belong to nobody.  Nobody except that boy.  Anyway, we’d race down the drive and then slam into the gate.  It’s a wonder we never got whiplash.  Over and over…shove, whoosh, crash!  I’ve never been so sore in all my life.  Man that was fun.

Once or twice me and the boys tried to race under that old trampoline.  We tried to dodge the jumping feet above our heads.  My boy would say, “Come on, I bet we can get all the way from one side to the other while Alicia is in the air.”  I tried to tell him that I couldn’t go that fast…I didn’t have a motor after all.  (Santa’s fault…not mine.)  But my boy was very sure of himself.  We’d wait at the edge of the black mat, and just as his sister would leap into the air for a backflip, we’d take off.  Not even six steps into our journey, the girl’s feet (and sometimes her knees) would slam into my roof.  She’d cry.  He’d laugh.  And then we’d hide…we had to hide quick so mom wouldn’t find us after Alicia went into the house to tattle.  We never did make it all the way under the trampoline, but it never stopped us from trying.

Sometimes, my boy would put on an eye patch, ratty pants, and a black hat.  He’d come out of the house waving a plastic sword in one hand and pretending his other hand was just a hook.  He’d climb in the seat, and we’d be off!  “ARRRR, Matey!” he’d call.  We’d sail the seven seas searching for ships to rob and treasure to steal.  He was the captain, and I was his mighty vessel!  He’d find treasures and load them into the cargo hold (under the back window actually).  We’d find new places to hide our booty (ha…booty) so that NO ONE would ever find it.   Those girls would come outside and scream, “Lewis, where is my tape?  I know you took it!”  I’d sit real quiet like…knowing all along that we had hidden that stupid New Kids cassette under a bucket in the sand box.

One day, my boy realized that his legs were too long to squeeze inside me.  He had gotten too big.  “This is it,” I thought. “I’m headed to the dump.”  But instead of carting me off, the dad did something else…something much worse.  He put me in the rafters of that big boat house at the back of the yard.  He stuffed me up there with the old junk that no one ever used.  He said they just couldn’t bear to send me to a new house…I was a special toy that had brought so many wonderful memories to their son.  I should have felt honored…I was special to them.  I had been a great friend to their boy, my boy really.  I should have been thankful.  But really…I was pissed.  What toy wants to be put up too high for any child to reach?  What good was keeping me locked away where no one could play with me?  “The boy won’t stand for this,” I thought.  “He’ll come out here and find me, and then you’ll be sorry.”

But he never came.  Not for me anyway.  He came for the grown-up sized water skis, the knee board, the big bed frame…and then one day he came with keys for the Jeep…the real Jeep.  The one parked just beneath me.  The one that had a real motor and big fat tires.  He climbed inside that real Jeep and started the real engine.  Then they drove off.  He drove off without me!  How could he?! 

He had grown up.  I decided then and there that never again would I belong to some stupid kid.  I’m too old for this crap.  All kids do is make you love them and then they leave you.  I’m not falling for those tricks again.  I decided I’d just stay up here in those rafters until the end of the world.  I’d show them that they should have just thrown me away.

But then one day, the boy’s dad came back out to the boat house (he had a few more gray hairs, but it was the same guy).  I heard him ask about me.  He was looking for me.  Suddenly, he pulled me down from the rafters, hosed me off, and put a little oil on my wheels. (Sad to say, but I had let myself rust away a bit.)  Anyway…he pushed me back out into the yard and called over a new kid.  A girl.  She kind of reminded me of my boy…skinny legs and a little clumsy.  The girl climbed inside and began to push with her feet.  Her tiny muscles weren’t strong enough to keep us going, so the man pushed us.  “Faster Pawpaw!” she called.  He pushed her all over the yard…around the tree and between the swings, but this time they actually stayed away from the mud.  Wimps.

“Are you having fun?” he asked her.  “This was Uncle Lew’s car when he was a little boy.” 

“Is he going to be mad that I’m playing with it?” she asked.

“No,” he said.  “Uncle Lew said you could play with it…he thought you’d love it just as much as he did.”

My boy.  My boy didn’t forget about me.  He saved me…saved me for the next round of little drivers to play in the yard.  Pretty soon a second little girl started coming out to play with me.  The other day she climbed inside and said, “Let’s go, Lightnin’!  We gotta save Mater!”  Now I’m not sure who Lightning is, but I bet I’m faster.  After all, I’m powered by little feet and the imagination of child drivers.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Magical Moments

Cinderella’s Castle…this iconic structure greets you as you enter Disney World.  It can be seen in the opening credits of every Disney movie, and I was headed inside to have dinner.  Without a doubt, this was going to be one of those experiences that would make the entire trip worth it.  Martha and Robert had planned a fantastic Disney vacation for their granddaughters, my nieces Haley and Ashlyn, and Alicia, Mike, and I were just lucky enough to get to tag along.

 Our first stop upon entering the castle was to meet Cinderella.  Haley was bursting at the seams…she couldn’t wait to get close enough to let her slender fingers graze against Cinderella’s dazzling blue dress.  Ashlyn, on the other hand, was less than thrilled.  She wasn’t excited.  She wouldn’t let go of Robert’s hand, and smiling was out of the question…it wasn’t going to happen.  Deciding that we would not let her ruin our fun, we drug her into the picture anyway.  She managed a weak smile, but everyone could tell that her heart was not into this evening.  After a few quick photos, we made our way up the spiral staircase to see what magic awaited us in the dining room.
When we reached our table, a fancy waiter greeted us.  His costume reminded me of the footman that helped Cinderella into her beautiful carriage.  He wore a puffy, white shirt, vest, and short pants with socks tucked under the hem of the shorts.  His worn, leather shoes had bright shiny buckles on the tops.  As we found our places at the table, he pulled a stack of stars from his pocket…Wishing Stars.  Each girl, including the grown-up girls, received a shiny, blue star.  “This,” he told us, “is your wishing star.  Make sure you keep it close to you.”  With a large smile plastered across my face, I gently placed my star on the table in front of me.  In just those first few seconds, I knew I was hooked.  The magic in the air had taken over.  The waiter also handed Haley and Ashlyn very special wands.  The wands were made of transparent blue and clear plastic, and they sparkled like stars on a moonless night.  “You will need these,” he said very matter-of-factly, “during the wishing ceremony.”

As I glanced down the menu, I realized that this was not going to be the same type of meal I had for lunch.  This menu was fancy, and so was the food.  While the grownups struggled to choose between smoked salmon, braised short ribs, and seafood stew, Haley and Ashlyn enjoyed the comforts of a kid’s menu...cheese pizza, macaroni, or hamburger sliders.  Like all great kid’s menus, this one also came with word searches, a maze, and a beautiful picture to color.  Shortly after making our dinner selections, a trumpet fanfare blasted through the room.  As Haley turned my way, her tiny smile began to grow.  “This is it, Aunt Nae.  One of the princesses is coming out.  Who do you think it will be?”  Before I could make my guess, the narrator began telling the story of a young girl who finds herself in a large house filled with talking furniture and a magical rose that lets a hairy, scary beast know how much longer he has to break the spell cast upon him.  “It’s Belle!  It’s Belle!”  The castle’s magic was seeping into Ashlyn…she could hardly contain herself.  Suddenly, there she was.  Belle waltzed into the room with a gentle spin.  She smiled and waved to each table, and then she began making her way to around the room to give a personal greeting to each family. 

Just as the grownups began to wonder how we would keep the girls contained while we waited for Belle and the other princesses to reach our table, the tray of appetizers arrived.  We all dove fork first into the food placed in front of us.  Salads and cups of soup began to disappear as our tummies reminded us that, while we had had a wonderful day, it was time to take a break and refuel.  Little did we know that these quiet moments would not last very long.  The trumpet blasts once again signaled the entrance of the next princess.  “Who is it going to be?” I asked Haley…knowing that my own excitement was beginning to rival that of my seven-year-old niece.  The narrator began telling of a young girl “…with skin as white as snow…lips red as a red, red rose.”  “I think it’s Snow White,” she said.  And then she was there…Snow White breezed into the room with her hands held out as if she were carrying birds on her fingers just like she does in the movie.  As Snow White began making her way around the far side room, Belle approached us.  Greeting us all with a smile and a wave, she moved to the end of our table to meet the girls.  Haley proudly showed her the journal I had decorated to document her journey and asked Belle for an autograph.  They talked a few minutes, posed for pictures, and then Belle was off to greet the next table. 

Taking no time to savor the magic left in Belle’s wake, Ashlyn turned to the table and announced, “I have to go potty…and I mean I have to go bad.”  Promising to hurry back before Snow White ventured to our side of the dining room, Mike rushed Ashlyn to the restroom.  A third blast of the trumpets followed by a brief introduction let us know that Sleeping Beauty was entering the room. 

“You know,” said Haley, “her real name is Aurora.” 

“I DID know that,” I told her.  “Did you know that I used to be so scared of that movie?  You know that part at the end when Maleficent turns in the dragon?  That used to scare me so much.”

“Really?” she said. “I used to be scared of that, too…back when I was five.  I think Ashlyn is still scared of it.  I’m not.  Not really.”

Before we could continue to discuss the best Disney villains, Snow White approached our table.  Looking at the empty chair she asked, “Are we missing a princess?”  That voice…Snow White’s high-pitched, sugary-sweet voice…the one from the movie I had seen so many times…amazing.  I had to remind myself that she wasn’t the real Snow White…there was no need to ask her how Dopey was doing.  Instead, we simply told her that yes; one princess was in the restroom.  “Oh, that’s no problem at all,” she said. “I’ll come back.”  She then turned all of her attention to Haley.  She signed her book, asked Haley if she had found her own Prince Charming, and then she told her to beware of apples.  “Not all of them are good for you, you know.”  As she left our table, Haley turned to me and said, “Wow, Aunt Nae, she was really nice.  I hope she DOES come back so that Ashlyn can meet her.”  I couldn’t help it…I reached over and gave my niece a hug.  Her tender heart was flowing out of her little body. 
By this time, our entrees had made their way to our table, but we were barely eating.  The excitement of the room was sweeping over all of us.  And while we claimed we were just excited for the girls, secretly we all knew this dinner was bigger than just providing a great experience for Haley and Ashlyn.  Promising to return with Ashlyn so that she wouldn’t miss anything else, Martha exited the table.  Once again, a princess visited us and asked about the empty chair.  This time it was Sleeping Beauty, Aurora, as Haley had taught us, who promised to return to say hello to our missing princess.  Holding out her book, Haley asked Aurora for her autograph.
“This is a beautiful book,” she said.  “Did you make it?”

Haley told her that no, she didn’t make it. “My Aunt Nae did,” she said, giving me a big grin.

Without missing a beat, Aurora gasped and said, “Really?  She is truly magical.  She must be a fairy!  I have three fairy aunts.  Their names are Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.  They raised me in a beautiful cottage in the forest.” 

Whatever grip on reality Haley had left was gone in that moment.  She was completely swept up in considering that her aunt might truly be a fairy.  I just smiled and told her that one day I would share my secrets with her. 

Not long after Aurora departed, the lights seemed to dim a little, and a booming voice announced that it was time for the wishing ceremony.  Haley reached for her wand and made sure that her wishing star was ready to go.  I, however, reached for my camera.  This would undoubtedly be a picture-worthy event.  “Hold your wand above you wishing star, close your eyes, and wish with all your heart!”  Haley did just as the big voice instructed.  With her eyes scrunched tight together, she waved the wand in circles over the glittering star.  I snapped pictures as fast as the shutter would allow.  In my head, I could hear her words from earlier that day. “You know that’s just a wig, right?  That’s not the REAL princess.”  I have no words for what it felt like to watch her wishing and believing in the power of dreams.  The music in the room swelled, and the ceiling was filled with thousands of glittering and glowing wishes.  Haley could hardly believe her eyes.  “Look at all of the wishes!” she exclaimed.  But I couldn’t look.  Instead, I blinked back tears and gave her a tight squeeze. 

Somewhere amongst our excitement at having Belle, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty visit our table, we missed the grand entrance of Ariel, the Little Mermaid.  As she approached, I noticed a pink blur zooming around the room.  Ashlyn made her grand re-entrance and proceeded to, well, attack Ariel in an extremely tight bear hug.  Stunned, and perhaps a little winded, Ariel returned the hug with, “Now where did you come from, Starfish?”  No one bothered to scold Ashlyn for running through the dining room.  No one asked if she remembered to wash her hands.  All we could do was laugh at the moment…clearly more magic was at work.  Just like the other princesses before her, Ariel spent a few minutes talking to both girls, signing autographs, and posing for pictures. 

As the desserts made their way to the table, we began to wonder if Snow White and Sleeping Beauty would remember to make their way back to meet Ashlyn.  How silly we were to doubt the word of two highly-respected princesses.  One by one, they both made their way back to the table.  Each lady told Ashlyn how glad they were that they got the chance to come back by to meet her.  Needless to say, Ashlyn was on cloud nine.  While Snow White spent a few minutes talking to the girls, I snapped pictures of their meeting and conversation.  Once again, being caught up in the moment, I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was doing; I was too busy watching Haley and Ashlyn and feeling the magic in the air. 

All too soon, Snow White left our table, but it wasn’t long before, as promised, Aurora returned.  She gave Ashlyn her undivided attention.  No one else existed except for her.  They talked a bit, posed for pictures, and then she was gone.   In her wake, Sleeping Beauty, along with the rest of the Disney Princesses, left behind two little girls (and five adults) in complete awe of everything they had just seen and felt.  Deciding we would rather eat the delicious desserts placed in front of us than leave them sitting on the table, we returned our focus to the delicate creations in front of us.  Then it was time to go.  Other families, complete with their own princesses, were waiting for their turn to experience this magical meal.  We gathered our things, and began to make our way back down the spiral staircase. 

As we reached the final few steps, we realized that Cinderella was still waiting patiently for princesses to greet and welcome to dinner in her castle.  This time, the room was rather empty…and Ashlyn was in a MUCH better mood.  Seizing the opportunity to have a happy photo, Martha asked if Cinderella would mind posing for another picture.   Ever the happy hostess, Cinderella agreed.  This time, Ashlyn’s smile could not be contained.  She seemed to radiate joy.  Pure happiness erupted out of her.  Magic was once again spinning and dancing in the air. 
Each princess who graced us with her presence ushered in with them the joy and pure happiness of childhood…of believing in fairy tales, birds that can sit on your finger and sing, roses that float in midair, and the power of making a wish that you know could never really come true.  In fairy tales, everything is possible.  The same can be said for dinner in Cinderella’s Castle…everything is possible.  A little piece of that night will always live inside me.  Words and pictures do not have the capacity to fully explain what those moments felt like…how much they mean to those of us lucky enough to experience this magical meal first-hand.  Lucky for me (and everyone else) my Cannon captured an image that, in my opinion, comes as close as any picture ever could.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This is the Patio

This is the Patio

Stepping out the back door, I am bathed in comfort and familiarity.   

No bigger than two cars parked side by side, the patio is a forever friend giving insight to the lives of those that dwell near this perfect blend what life was, is, and someday might be again.
This is where family and friends gather…     

Where steaks, burgers, chicken, and even vegetables have been grilled to perfection before being placed lovingly on the stove top in the kitchen so that family and friends can fill their plates
Where dinner guests sit in the hopes of enjoying their meal before being carted off by the oversized mosquitos that seem to take over summertime in South Arkansas
Where a boiling pot of crawfish draws back those that have moved away even if they can only  spend a few short hours reliving days gone by
Where, much too late and far too many glasses in, the “neighborhood moms” attempted to learn the “Cha Cha Slide” only to discover that they could not contain their laughter long enough to follow the directions being shouted at them through the speakers
Where the warmth of a blazing fire in the fire pit warms the toes (and hearts) of all who gather round on cold nights
This is the place of childhood memories…
Where we Simpson Kids-Renee, Alicia, and Lewis- played tag, hosted birthday parties, and watched Dad get the boat ready so we could all “roll on the river” each Sunday afternoon
Where mom and dad sat watching while we learned to pump our legs so we could swing all by ourselves and then leap out into the air before crashing into the grass and pretending you didn’t scrape your knee when you hit the ground
Where Mathew and I got married because we were six, and that’s what six-year-olds are supposed to do
Where at the tender age of five, Alicia and James announced that they were moving far, far away…all the way to Shreveport, and we could only visit them on Sunday
Where Lewis dressed up Pongo before enrolling him in the town’s annual Fabulous Fourth Pet Show
Where Mom stood to tell us to get out of the Marlow’s pool and come home for lunch
Where we laughed while watching Peter, the largest white rabbit anyone had ever seen, chase Charlie, because he didn’t know that a rabbit was supposed to be scared of a dog
Where coloring books became waterlogged and crayons melted after being abandoned on hot, summer days
Where the grown-ups sat in the evenings to solve all of the world’s problems while the kids played on the swing set or in the sand box
Where neighbors became friends…and friends became family.

This is Daddy’s spot…
Where he sits each morning to drink coffee, say his morning prayers, and watch the sky fill with the day’s light
Where he waits for nightfall while sipping scotch and water at the end of a hard day
Where he has become obsessed with his iPod because it has the ability to play all of his favorite songs just by applying a little bit of pressure to the dial
Where he watches the birds swoop in and around the bird feeders he has filled to the brim.
Where he curses the squirrels for eating the birdseed…Don’t they know that “birdtheed is for the birds”?!?!

This is mom’s retreat…
Where her baskets of hanging plants float under the eaves of the house while the vines stretch over the edges of the pots trying desperately to reach the slab and sprawl on the concrete
Where pots and containers of every shape and size house buds and blossoms carefully tended and watered each day
Where Good Housekeeping and Redbook are often devoured in single sittings
Where, after a night of giggles and smiles shared between life-long friends, Rum Runner became the new favorite
Where she nurtures tiny seeds and plants with the grand-girls in hopes that their little green thumbs will develop in ways that her own daughters’ green thumbs never did
This is a place that changes…
Where the old white bell now lives because no one could bear to leave it out in the country after Mama Mt. Holly was gone
Where the radio with its crooked antennae has been replaced with a new Bose system complete with tiny remote so you don’t have to leave the comfort of your chair to adjust the volume
Where pink bicycles and tricycles and scooters live because the grand-girls have so many riding options that they need a garage of their very own
Where extra bag chairs and folding chairs and benches and stools lie in wait because you never know who might stop by and how many people they might bring with them
Where Alicia now watches her own daughters jump on the trampoline or pump their legs so hard that the swings seem ready to take flight
Where Lewis and his buddies tell stories and drink too much beer while he is home on leave, but life is short, and no one seems to mind
Where I sit with Mom and Dad to talk about hopes, dreams, work, school, new cars, when I might be ready to purchase my own home, and all sorts of other grown-up things
This is a place that stays the same…
           Where a forgotten softball rests at the edge of the flowerbed
Where, just behind the bird bath, a red Matchbox truck sits abandoned and alone after the cousins left on Sunday afternoon
Where, although he is no longer bright red and yellow, the Fisher-Price Coupe peeks out from behind the tree pleading, “Please, come play with me.”
Where shoes are deposited after making a mad dash through Simpson’s Swamp…a souvenir left over from the last hard rain
Where garden gloves for the tall and the small await their chance to once again plunge into an oversized bag of potting soil
Where the electric lines supplying power to the house sag a little too much for everyone’s comfort
           Where a bottle of bubbles supplies endless hours of fun and laughter
           Where fireflies decorate the summer evening sky
This is the patio.
No bigger than two cars parked side by side, the patio is a forever friend giving insight to the lives of those that dwell near this perfect blend what life was, is, and forever will be.
This is home.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Life-Changing Moments

“I HATE YOU!” she screamed.  “Let me out of this hell hole!  I’ll never forgive you for this!”  The insults seemed to fly at me from all directions.  Jenny was having an off day.  The voices in her head screamed at her…told her that we were mistreating her…being unfair…abusing her just like he had done so long ago. 

And still, we barricaded the door.  Struggling to keep my voice steady and my hands clenched to the inside of my pockets, I took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry,” I told her, “but you cannot join the class until I see that you are calm.” 

“I AM CALM!” she wailed.  Her little body shook with rage and frustration.  Deep wrinkles and creases formed along her forehead and between her brows.  Her once bright eyes and rosy cheeks were now hidden in darkness.

“You’re doing great,” Pam whispered into my ear.  This had all happened before…many times, in fact.  Each time Jenny had a meltdown, our school’s counselor would join the scene and either escort Jenny to a place where she could calm down or stay with the teacher to provide support and witness the events for documentation purposes.  Learning from past experience, we both knew that tomorrow, Jenny would not remember the specifics of this outburst.  She would know that something bad happened, but she wouldn’t remember exactly what she said or why.  We had a nice little routine going of what to do when Jenny melted down before us, but repetition never made the events any easier.  We could block the exits, dodge flying furniture, and ensure the safety of the rest of the students with little to no effect on our own psyche, but the verbal assault was always the worst.  No undergraduate or graduate course can prepare you for an average-sized, brown-haired eight-year-old who cusses like a sailor and seems to have no trouble letting you know just how much you are ruining her life.

As I stood in the doorway watching Jenny rock herself back and forth, I began thinking back to the beginning of the school year.  Teacher after teacher told me how sorry they were for me.  “I see that you have Jenny this year.  Good luck.  You’re going to need it.”  This endless stream of negativity spewing forth from my co-workers lit a fire inside me that was unlike anything I had ever felt.  I decided then and there that I would be the difference for this child.  I would reach her on an academic, behavioral, social, and an overall human level.  I would not judge her for the events in her past that had taught her to shut down all rational thought and employ defensive strategies when she felt threatened.  I would simply accept her for the beautiful person she was put on this earth to be; I would accept nothing less than greatness from her.  I would not allow her to disrupt class, but I would also not hold her outbursts against her.  I would only hold her truly accountable for the actions she had the ability to control.

With an air of positivity swimming within me, Jenny and I began our journey down the third grade road.  Jenny blossomed into a thriving young reader and writer.  Knowing how much I had loved to read about Ramona as a child, I introduced her to Beverly Cleary’s books.  She took the challenge and developed an unquenchable thirst for any and all books I threw her way.  My students were expected to set monthly reading goals for themselves, and Jenny was no exception.  She set outrageous reading goals for herself, and month after month she met these goals with time to spare.  Days, and often weeks, passed by without a meltdown or explosion.  My co-workers were astounded.  “How did you do it?” they continued to ask.  The only trouble was that I didn’t have an answer…not one I was brave enough to say out loud. As I saw it, all I did was accept her for who she was…outbursts and all.  I didn’t treat her any differently than I did the other students.  Yes, she would get upset over minor issues in class, on the playground, or on the bus.  We dealt with the issues.  When Jenny got mad because she didn’t get to answer the question posed in class, I knew that she would pout and throw her head down on the desk.  She would hide in her arms, pull herself together, and then rejoin the class discussion.  The rest of the students had all learned to leave her alone when she was upset or angry.  Occasionally Jenny could feel her anger boiling and building inside her.  In such cases, she would ask for a quiet place to sit and think for a while.  These were the moments when I was most proud of her.  After a smile and a nod from me, Jenny would walk to the carpet square in the corner of the classroom…to her “quiet spot.”

Jenny’s first big outburst of the year came after a rough ride on the school bus.  She had been asked to sit quietly one too many times, and now she faced a bus suspension.  During her conference with the bus manager, Jenny admitted that yes, she had been standing up while the bus was moving.  And yes, she yelled at the boy in front of her.  And yes, she spit on the seat…of course, the spitting was an accident.  But what Mr. Bob failed to make her see was why she deserved a suspension.  For Jenny, a suspension meant that her parents had to drive her to and from school for the duration of her suspension…one day.  This was unacceptable.  She would be punished at home.  “Grounded,” she said, “They are going to ground me.  I will have to stay in my room with nothing to do but read books that I have read over and over.  And I won’t even get a snack before bed.  That’s not fair!  It wasn’t my fault!”  Jenny then proceeded to fold the suspension form in half and rip it to tiny pieces.  Magically, the suspension was suddenly three days instead of just one. 
We all knew Jenny’s parents.  Yes, to some, they were a little strange, but they seemed to be generally good people.  They had adopted Jenny and her sister from family members.  Although much of their immediate family had known about the abuse, neither girl knew that they were adopted.  They both had bi-weekly appointments with a psychiatrist.  Both of the girls had been sexually abused, but neither of them remembered the acts.  They were too young.  Those dreadful memories were buried deep in the subconscious folds of their brains.  Alice, Jenny’s sister, tended to struggle academically, and although she did have some difficulty in social settings, Alice did not have major meltdowns like the ones Jenny struggled to keep inside her.  Yes, Jenny would be grounded when she got home.  That was nothing new for her.  She often spent more time grounded than not.  I tried to assure her that I would send home with extra books to keep her company while she spent every afternoon for the next two weeks in her room.  Thinking about new books seemed to comfort her a tiny bit, but she never gave up her claim that, “this is not fair.”  Sensing his defeat, Mr. Bob simply said, “Well, life isn’t always fair,” and he quickly departed the building.

“I hate your fucking guts.” 
Spoken through clenched teeth, Jenny’s mumbled attack snapped me back into the present.  As the vile words tiptoed across her lips, I realized that she was beginning to calm down…drastically.  She spoke to no one in particular, which usually meant that she was speaking to the voice in her head…the one receiving the blame for today’s outburst.  She had stopped rocking, her tears had vanished, and she no longer crossed her arms firmly in front of her. 

“Looks like we survived another one,” Pam whispered with a smile.  “This one wasn’t so bad.  We aren’t bleeding, and neither is anyone else.”  I smiled back at her.   As outbursts go, this one got pretty loud, but it never got physical.  Success.  We both sighed with relief and looked at Jenny as she slowly approached us. 

“I’m calm now,” she said.  “Can I go join the class?”  She was calm.  Her face was relaxed, and her eyes once again held an innocent twinkle.

Bracing myself for another outburst, I told her that the school day had ended, and everyone had gone home.  Before she could panic over missing the bus, Pam told her that her dad was on his way to pick her up.

“Is he mad at me?  He gets really mad when I miss the bus.”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “He might be a little bit mad, but mostly I think he will be glad you are ok.”

She latched her arms firmly around me, and looked at the ground.  “I’m sorry, Ms. Simpson,” she said.  “I didn’t mean what I said.”  The crack in her voice let me know that tears were once again prickling her eyes.

With her arms still wrapped firmly around my waist, I lifted my hand to pat the back of her head.  “I’m sorry today didn’t end so well,” I replied.  “We’ll make tomorrow a better day.”

Together we straightened the desks and stacked the chairs in the classroom.  Jenny packed her backpack, and we walked up to the office to wait for her dad’s arrival.  In the silence that filled the empty hallways, I realized how much this brave little girl had been teaching me.  Fear and anger raged inside her, and yet on most days, she was just a happy kid trying to survive the third grade.  She came to school each day determined to make good choices, study hard, be a good friend to her classmates, and have a little fun along the way.  Every once in a while, the ugly side of her young life stepped in front of her, driving a wedge between her and anyone and everyone who got in her path. 

I think about Jenny often.  I can still see her too short bangs, the result of “my little cousin was playing with scissors,” and her dingy yellow sweat pants…the ones that she can’t seem to get clean anymore.  I wonder what life will be like for her in five years…ten years…twenty years.  Will she survive the cruelty that sometimes comes with junior high and high school?  Will she find a way to go to college and further develop her wonderful reading and writing skills?  Will she simply be able to control her anger so that she will stay out of prison? 

I don’t have the answers to these questions today, and maybe I never will, but one thing is certain…I will never forget Jenny…or how she taught me to love the world and the people in it…or the way she helped me to understand how important it is to always apologize for your actions when they have hurt someone else.  But most importantly, I will never forget how she showed me the importance of embracing the person that you are.  Of being the best version of you that you can be. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Fayetteville Moment

One of the required pieces for the writing project is to add your "Fayetteville Moment" to the anthology.  This is the piece you wrote at 1:00 pm during the writing marathon.  A critical aspect of this piece is the location the writer chose to write.  My Fayetteville Moment was written "in the sticks."  I sat inside one of the sculptures.  The inside was lined with cedar chips...which, as you will see, became a little problematic. 

For more information on this sculpture project, click the link below the photo.

Shut off from the outside.
Like the branches twisting and turning around me, my mind is a jumbled mess.  Which way?  Where to?  How far?  Bits of lights poke through the stems giving just a taste of what might be on the outside.  The cedar chips dig into my legs…much like painful memories I wish I could erase. 
Somewhere above my head, a bird chirps.  I wonder who he is talking to.  Do they hear him?  Will they answer? 
The cars pass by on the neighboring street.  Do they see me?  They see the shell surrounding me…shielding me…keeping me safe.  But do they see me?  The real me?  Of course not.  They only see the shell.  The mask.  I am hidden.  I am shaded.  I have cut myself off from the outside world.  The unknown awaits me out there.  Out there, it is dangerous.  I am safe inside. 
Dry, brittle leaves tremble before me.  How do they find the strength to hang on?  What gives them the inner “umph” to not let go?  Another burst of wind passes through my cocoon, and I am suddenly filled with peace.  No more doubt.  No more worries.  This is a good day. 
I think I have ants in my pants.  Time to go.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Here I Am

There are certain songs that just stick with me.  They get caught in my head and bring me back to another time or place.  Some songs remind of specific people or events.  Yes, some good...some not so good.  That's not the music's fault.  The music is always good. 

Occasionally a song comes along that sends peace and an inner calm that is unlike no other.  For me, one such song will always be "Here I Am."  We sang that song in church this morning.  It's been floating around in my head all day.  And even now as I sit at my computer typing, it makes me smile. 

Be still, and never know who might be whispering in the night.

"I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.

I who made the stars and night
I will make the darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.

I the Lord of snow and rain
I have borne my people's pain
I have wept for love of them
They turn away.

I will break their hearts of stone
Fill their hearts with love alone
I will speak my word to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.

I will hold your people in my heart..."

What were you thinking?

Have you ever looked at a painting or photograph and wondered what the subject was thinking?  A couple of weeks ago, that was our assignment...

 That boy had it coming.  He really did.  That Brock Allen…mean as a snake.  Everybody knows it.  Every day is the same thing…beating up the little kids, throwing rocks at the big ones, pushing the girls down on the playground…it goes on and on.  It’s about time someone paid him back. 

I can hear them now… “Way to go, Becky Ann!”  The teachers will be telling this story for years to come.  Bullies for miles around will think twice before messing with a little girl in a plaid skirt…they won’t want the same thing to happen to them.  This will go down as one of the greatest knock-outs in kid history.  They’ll write editorials about the little brown-haired girl who beat up the meanest kid in ten counties.  TV men will show up to get the scoop.  No one will ever forget the day sweet, little Becky Ann Johnson beat the snot out of Brock Allen Wilson. 

Ok…deep breaths.  Gotta hold back the smile. 

“Mr. Thompson, he’s done it again.  Brock Allen started another fight on the playground.”