Saturday, September 18, 2010

This I Believe

I believe in quitting. I believe in the power of throwing in the towel and saying, “enough is enough. I’m done.” I believe that walking away can pay just as high a wage as persistence.

I have always chuckled to myself at the bumper sticker that glibly states “Rehab is for quitters.” I enjoy the play on the connotations of the word “quit.” But as every addict knows, quitting ultimately requires personal conviction and courage. The same is true for the pathologically persistent.

I didn’t realize that I was pathologically persistent or that I was even a persistent person at all until my battle to breastfeed a baby who came into this world seemingly unequipped with even the most basic of human survival instincts: the child didn't know how to suck. Sometimes, I would work with her for hours at a time to achieve a good feeding. 14 months later, my daughter was a chubby, newly weaned toddler and I had bragging rights: my baby had been exclusively breastfed. Yes, persistence did pay off. I had something to show for the sleepless nights, the soreness, the sobbing baby. In the end, the battle was fought and won and all had come round right. I, the triumphant mother.

The same persistence was what got me through college with a Bachelor of Arts degree and a teaching certificate, despite my insecurities and throbbing self doubt. Persistence is the reason I currently have a career that allows me to stay at home with my family.

However, this same persistence is the reason I stayed in a six year relationship with a guy who didn’t really want me. It is the reason that I have stuck through bad jobs and have sometimes remained friends with people who were not really friends at all: as if all of my self worth relied on enduring through this one excrutiating act.

My relationship for instance: I knew it was just all me who was wrong. It couldn’t be him or even worse, us. It must be me. Well, I’m proactive and honest; I could fix me. And so I tried. He seemed to like witty women. I would crack more jokes! He liked beautiful girls. I could primp. He said he liked charismatic girls. Hmmm. Where could I get charisma? I felt like a gambler continuously feeding coins into a slot machine: one more quarter and I would hit the jackpot. One more act of forgiveness on my part and he would love me. Eventually, this thing had to pay off. The stakes were too high to let go (or so I told myself with every subsequent heartbreak.)

Flash forward 3 years: one brief conversation, a few intermittent tears, a couple of Indigo Girls songs later and I felt light. I was totally unattached and it felt great. Where was the expected dread and suffering that I had been so afraid of? I was afraid to feel good?

So, I affirm the wisdom and the dignity of Chief Joseph’s words spoken at the end of that hundred day march now known as the Trail of Tears. “I will fight no more forever.” And for me and others who are, likewise, pathologically persistent a new serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to persist when my efforts will be appropriately rewarded;
the courage to quit when it is time to cut my loses
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Social Awareness

Sometimes it happens: a situation or a person calls me to sudden clarity and I realize that the "daily grind" I swear off and swear about and swear by is an altered state of reality. I am guilty of being obtuse. I am dutiful and hardworking. I worry that one misstep on my part can cause the whole of my personally constructed universe to fall apart. (Can you see it now, that solar system model made out of paper Mache falling off its wire hanger? Landing on the floor, all of its interplanetary strings a tangled disaster. Saturn's rings broken off. No biggie, nothing a little Elmer's glue can't fix.) But sometimes I can look beyond and realize that there are others out there and I, unsuspecting denizen of Planet Where-Ever, never saw them there. (Maybe being "spacey" isn't such a bad thing.)

Like many busy moms, I sometimes like to unwind by getting a pedicure. One Saturday morning I was looking forward to the relaxation and hour away from my kids this would afford me. As always, I have my iPhone nearby with its ready array of novels loaded to the Kindle app. I begin to read a novel set during an insurgence in Sri Lanka. Where is Sri Lanka? I can't even recall. I read about brutal war time deaths half a world away.

I pause from my reading a moment to glance at my manicurist. I notice that she is a slight woman, but her hands are strong as she massages lotion into my heels and the balls of my feet. The thought occurs to me that if ever I am to be a good writer, I will have to do what Ondatjee, Kingsolver, and Fadiman have already done. I must step outside of my natural, childish shyness and talk to strangers. I have to be aware that they exist. I have to become an interested, therefore interesting, person. A senseless resistant insecurity warns me that I am stepping onto unfamiliar territory, but a stronger force tells me that it is time to grow up.

"Where are you from?" I ask this middle-aged woman who is now tearing at my cuticles with clippers.

She looks up a bit startled, but with a pleasant smile.

"Vietnam." Her accent is thick.

"How long have you lived in Lake Havasu?"

"One year."

"Do you like it here?"

"Yes. I come here with my daughter." She gestures to the girl with the blunt cut bangs and perfect almond eyes crouched in front of the spa chair next to mine. "She is 20."

"She is very beautiful," I reply.

"And that is my brother." She gestures to the man across the salon who is filing a woman's nails. "He's been here nine year. I come here to work for him."

She continues to talk softly in broken English. It is hard to hear over the top of the classic rock station promo truck parked outside. I think she is describing her work day. I understand "5:00 AM exercise" and "9:30 Come to shop." Other than that her words are lost somewhere between my poor audio processing skills (I said I was obtuse) and "Dust in the Wind." She looks satisfied and proud.

As she paints my toenails a vibrant red, I try to imagine this woman leaving her home and traveling to a world every bit as foreign to her as Vietnam is to me. I think of what her first shy days at work must have been like, hunched over working scrupulously at a new trade, trying to pick up a new language. I imagine her avoiding conversations with cutomers- so difficult to understand or to reply in a different tongue. That is as far as I can try to fill in the blanks. And I am struck to think that this woman, crouched at my feet, finishing my nails with a careful filigree has done something much more courageous than will ever be required me.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring Cleaning and "Hurley"

Where, may you ask have I been? I have been teaching and mothering and that is about my whole life. I decided I needed to post again because spammers are making more money off of my blog than I am. Also, I am currently teaching a high school creative writing class (which I dearly love). I wrote a short short story for them and so I actually have something to post. Here is my short story.


Leon “Hurley” Malone was popular in his unpopularity. He had been Hurley since the 8th grade when Jamison Potter had cornered him in social studies.
“You smell so bad, you make me want to hurl,” said Jamison, he placed his meaty palm on his stomach and made retching sounds for emphasis. “Your name should be Hurley. Ya like your name, Hurley?”
The other students laughed derisively while Ms. Shumway battled with the pull down maps bolted to the wall above the white board. So Hurley became Hurley and since I was the teacher’s aide in Mrs. Boswell’s English class and saw his name “Leon” on the roles, I think I was the only one who remembered Hurley had a given name. He was even Hurley to his teachers.
Mine and Hurley’s lockers were situated near each other down the same hall for most of high school. I was, by no means popular, but I could blend. If I watched my shoes while walking down the hall, I could generally avoid eye contact and conversations with my peers. Hurley tried, but he could never get lost in the wash of the crowd. On any given day, I could hear the treble of female voices. “Eww! Nasty! Hurley touched me. Go rub your slime on someone else.” Or the lower cadences of male voices, “Hey, Hurley. Did you forget to brush this morning?” Inevitably, this would be followed by the slam of Hurley’s slender body as it was thrown into the nearest wall.
One day, while grading papers for Mrs. Boswell, my eyes ran across an entry in Hurley’s English notebook. "I can’t write about my friends. I don’t have any." I knew it was true, but actually reading it made me feel so sorry for him. Even so, I never considered offering any camaraderie or even so much as a vague smile.
Hurley and I had one, brief personal encounter. I was just finishing up my usual lunch: a peanut butter and jam sandwich smuggled into the library, daily. I was gradually making my way through an old set of World Book Encyclopedias. I had reached “M” and was just reading up on marmosets.
I heard a sound behind me. Thinking it was the librarian, I stuffed the rest of my sandwich into my mouth. I was surprised to see Hurley standing over me. It was then that the smell hit. It was not the typical B.O. but something both sweet and rotten.
“They all say I small bad.” He said. “Even the teachers complain to my mom. I don’t smell anything. Do you think I stink?”
I forced myself to swallow the one, last dry bite. I hoped my face wasn’t as hot as it felt. The words that came to mind were, “Yes, you reek of death!” But I couldn’t make my mouth form those words. All I could do was shake my head slowly side to side. I suppose I could have tried to help him at that point, but I was too slow, too faltering.
“I thought so,” he said, relieved. “I do shower, you know,” and he walked hurriedly out the back door.
Yes, Hurley stank. Over time, even his locker seemed to emanate an odor. At first, it was subtle, almost imaginary as if all of our unkind remarks had turned into an olfactory presence that clung to the hall where Hurley deposited his books. Rumors had started; at first, they stemmed from the smell. They were whispered and giggled, and passed in notes. They started blank and meaningless as white noise. “No running water. . glandular problems.”. Gradually, they took more notable shape and ranged into the absurd. On the periphery myself, I only caught fragments, “mom and dad. . . half brother and sister.” “Family of Satanists. . .”
The stories reached a roar until Hurley was more high school folklore than real person. Hurley’s increasing absences didn’t help the situation. In Coach Openshaw’s biology class, Jamison was passing around a comic strip he had just drawn. It was called, “Hurley the Human Corpse.” It showed Hurley, in caricature, walking by a potted plant that drooped and withered in the next frame as he walked by. Next it showed, in similar sequence, a tank of dead fish. . . a cafeteria of dead students. . .
“Ha! Ha! Ha” Mr Openshaw roared, “Have you all seen this?” He displayed Jamison’s artwork to the class.
Hurley came to school less and less. Even so, the funk surrounding his locker grew as did the rumors. Eventually Hurley’s attendance dwindled until the stories and the stench were all that remained. When walking by his locker, girls would theatrically cover their noses with their hands and boys would dare each other to take a whiff.
Somebody finally decided to take action and alert the faculty. Coach Openshaw lumbered down the hall followed by Jamison who pointed in the direction of Hurley’s old locker. Mr. Openshaw tried the combination lock, but when it did not give, he forced it open, bending the latch. The locker sat there open and rank. It was empty save for a plastic sandwich bag. Coach picked up the bag which contained a moldering human thumb, black and putrid.