SCATTERED

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Don’t Panic (Coldplay)

https://janahaertl.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/01-dont-panic.m4a

 

My car was totaled and towed to the scrap yard. Our home is dismantled, cabinets torn out and emptied of family memories. The baby grand piano I’ve cherished for 24 years is gone. My children are spread across the globe in various stages of transition. This country is heartachingly fragmented beyond belief. And worst of all – my mystical mala necklace broke, beads scattered and lost forever!

The demise of my talisman is a metaphor in this disheveled, shambles of a summer. Clearly it’s time for change.

Some of these changes are of my own doing, but the most disconcerting ones are not. People often say, “Things happen for a reason.” It’s a nice philosophy to try to make sense of the insanity and the unimaginable, but all too often that seems like a little too much sweetness and light. What on earth could the reason be for the atrocities that mankind brings upon each other or the unbearable sorrows that people somehow endure? Reason or not, the important thing for us to do is to try to make reason out of the things that happen by doing something with it in the aftermath. We can analyze the reasons until the polar caps melt, but it’s not until we focus on results that we can truly transition and move forward.

On the 8/20/17 edition of Meet the Press, the panel discussed the questionable moral compass of our great country. Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and political analyst conveyed a reassuring perspective: “For moral leadership, people look the way they looked in Charlotte, South Carolina two years ago when that bible study group was shot up. The great moral moment the day afterwards was during the bonding hearing of the shooter because the families of the dead showed up and showed who they were as Americans, and said it was heartbreaking [but] I forgive you.” Former Democratic Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland responded, “There are more Americans who don’t engage in hate than there are others, and that is our moral authority.” We look to each other.

There is hope and goodness in this unsettling time of transition. Even in the midst of our stark divisions, the vast majority is striving for ways to find unity in the heart of the matter. And I am finding reasons, results, and most of all peace in the paring down of minimalism and what actually matters in my heart.

  • My eleven-year-old car was slammed by an eight-ton truck, but amazingly we walked away relatively unscathed. My trusty old Lexus served us well right until the end, but it’s time for a new eco-friendly hybrid version.
  • Rather than move from the place we’ve called home for 25 years, we decided to switch it up to accommodate our shifting family. Turning the forgotten living room into a spacious dining room, the cramped dining room into a cozy study, and the tucked away game room into a more open great room may have thrown us into dusty turmoil for a while, but it should wind up just the right size for an empty nest with lots of visitors.
  • There was no room for my piano in our home’s new footprint, but truth be told I hadn’t played it much in years. Serendipitously, an adorable family with two toddlers and another on the way – in fact, our exact family 26 years ago – bought the piano, which made the letting go much gentler. Selfish of me to hang on when others will enjoy it more.
  • Mothers are only as happy as their least happy kid, so they say, and only as settled as the most unsettled one. So I suppose I’m grateful that my children are all happily unsettled, of their own choosing. A baby-on-the-way in Chicago, farming in Italy, studying yoga and meditation in Sweden and India… what’s not to be excited yet slightly off kilter about?
  • Etsy.com is an artistic mecca, and it was there I found a jewelry maker to re-string my scattered mala beads, mixing the leftover magical old with some beautiful new crystals. Maybe it will infuse my sagging mojo with inspiration and vitality. What this tired old chickie could do with some fresh energy…
  • As for our confused country and edgy world, I’m struggling to find reason but taking heart in the overwhelming fact that beauty and morality far outweigh the pervading ugly and iniquity. Focusing on the Good and pushing aside the Bad simply feels better. Loving one another is truly the overriding purpose of living, and the results are mindblowing.

If all else fails, I’mma sheetcake like Tina Fey.

CRUSHIN’ ON HAMI

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The Tiger Beat centerfolds of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy did not grace the walls of my teeny-bopper bedroom. Nor did Davy Jones and Steve McQueen strike my adolescent fancy. Ok maybe torn-out pictures of Robert Redford and Jim Palmer might have been tacked up on my bulletin board. But what really plastered my walls back in the day were posters of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair – even though I had never set foot in a Broadway theater. Talented actors who could bring captivating stories and soul-stirring songs to life were the stuff of my youthful imagination.

When my children were fifth graders, it was with giddy excitement that they performed in America Rock, a musical about the early days of our country. To this day they can recite the Preamble to the Constitution because of one of the tunes in the show. There is something about words weaving a tale set to catchy music that sticks in your head and lodges in your heart, especially when it’s about something as passionate as patriotism.

So of course when the early buzz hit on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, my mind started humming. And then came All The Hype.

The New Yorker: “An achievement of historical and cultural reimagining.”

Ben Brantley of the New York Times: “A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, Hamilton is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals… Hamilton makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.”

Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune: “It was inspired by Ron Chernow’s masterwork of a biography, but Hamilton is many things. A reinvention of the musical. An overdue diversification of a stolid form. A loving tribute to the empty chairs and empty tables of the shows that have gone before. A reminder that America was built by young risk-takers, not serious old white men who stare out at us from currency about to become obsolete. But it is most of all a meditation on that most American of debates — the rewards and limits of ambition and an exploration of what gives us all our best shot at happiness.”

Alex Gale of Billboard: “Hamilton’s stage production should be required viewing for every American citizen…”

With raves like this, I did the only thing possible. Like a kid who once bought the Stevie Wonder album she coveted to give to her brother for his birthday (he was decidedly unappreciative), I scored two Hamilton tickets for the Chicago production and gave them to my husband for Christmas. Fortunately it was something that he wanted as well, and we certainly were not disappointed – it blew our expectations through the roof of the Private Bank Theater. Hamilton is brilliant, in-your-face, and nuanced on so many levels.

Enough said, because dozens of glowing reviews have seemingly said it all, and so eloquently. All I’m saying is that I’ve been crushing on Hamilton from the moment I heard Wayne Brady belt the first note of the show as Aaron Burr. Obsessed. I’ve read the books and reviews, watched the documentaries, and listened to the soundtrack til the songs reverberate in my sleep. I wake up several times each night with Thomas Jefferson and the Schuyler sisters warbling in my brain on a zany continual loop. There is only one remedy for this neurotic malady: I must see Hamilton again, if only to get him out of my system. Especially now that he’s come to San Francisco to see me.

I paid a pretty pence for our first set of tickets to the show, so it’s ridiculous to once again shell out the cost of a little vacation, a new sofa, or a mortgage payment for a mere three hours of song and dance. My mind whirled through possibilities. I scoured the web and willed down the price of tickets – well that was foolish folly. I considered buying another set of tickets to give to Tony for our anniversary, but that probably wouldn’t go over as well as the Christmas gift. I started playing the daily Broadway lottery, but that became an addictive crapshoot. I finally just chilled and “put it out to the universe” – come what may. Lo and behold, a few days later I received a call from a dear, generous friend who ended up with an extra ticket and offered to sell it to me at face value, along with the possibility of another one for my husband. As Hami would say, “Chick-a-plao!”

It’s quite fortunate to have such a big-hearted friend who knows I’ve been pining for Hami and understands that one show is a necessity for everyone but definitely not enough for devotees. My heart and revolutionary gratitude go to her. But there is also a bit of magic in the woo-woo concept of putting something out to the universe to manifest the miracle or desired outcome. Of course it does take more than hoping and dreaming – there’s a great deal of thought process and sweat equity involved in manifestation. Despite the nights of Hamilton lyrics disrupting my sleep, it was far easier to manifest a ticket than to conjure up the book I’ve been yearning to write. These past two months I’ve spent inordinately more time on Hamilton than on writing. So now that my ticket is secure, perhaps I can will myself back to my little desk for some truly productive manifesting.

* If you want to conjure up your own tickets to see Hamilton in San Francisco without starving yourself for a month or two, try playing the daily digital lottery. Go to hamilton.shnsf.com and scroll down to Hamilton Lottery for a link to the digital entry. You can enter once a day for the next day’s performance, and winning allows you to buy two tickets for $10 each.

* If you manage to secure tickets, do yourself a favor and prep for the show. Hamilton is a jam-packed, fast-paced mash-up of history and pop culture, so you’ll get much more out of it if you are familiar with the music, the characters, and the story.

  • Watch the PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America”.
  • Watch the CBS 60 Minutes shows “The Making of the Hamilton Cast Album” and “Hamilton: The Backstage Tour”.
  • Read Hamilton The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life by Jeff Wilser, and – if you’re really ambitious – Ron Chernow’s hefty biography Alexander Hamilton.
  • Read the Hamilton reviews online.
  • Listen to the soundtrack. Betcha can’t listen just once.

The late 1700’s were a contentious time in our early nation – in many ways not so different from today. Hamilton is a hopeful antidote to the frustrations of our unhinged modern day political system, and I truly wish every American citizen could manifest a ticket. Hopefully Hollywood will turn it into a movie for all to see – none too soon.

 

My Shot (Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast)

 

The Schuyler Sisters (Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast)

 

The Room Where It Happens (Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast)

TWO-MINUTE CHALLENGE

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Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman https://janahaertl.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/01-something-in-the-air.m4a

Get Together by The Youngbloods https://janahaertl.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/01-get-together.m4a

It’s been nearly 50 years since “Something in the Air” and “Get Together” were recorded, but here they are today – every bit as relevant. Can I just say WTF? What is wrong with all of us, acting like petulant toddlers who always have to get their way? At the risk of sounding chastisingly obvious, life doesn’t work like that, people. No one is right all the time, we couldn’t possibly agree on everything, and as Mick Jagger admonished us, “You can’t always get what you want.” Let’s get over ourselves and move on already.

Hatred, misunderstanding, prejudice, and provocations abound… it seems to be all about winning these days. The diplomatic blessing and wishy-washy curse of being a Libra is that I really don’t see what’s so difficult about listening to one another, respecting opinions that contradict our own, and working to find compromises that everyone can live with. At the baseline of humanity, we all want the same thing: a safe, happy environment in which to thrive and enjoy life. If we could simply follow the rules we learned in Kindergarten, the world would be far more peaceable. A Pollyannaish perspective indeed. It’s a complicated, deeply divided world, but somehow we need to shake it up and streamline things.

At the same time, no one should have to sacrifice their personal integrity and values – so long as they’re not mean-spirited or violent. In The Death of Outrage, William Bennett wrote, “In a self-governing and law-abiding nation, we must never allow ourselves to be lulled into passive disgust or indifference, the civic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. We must never lose our sense, when appropriate, of outrage.” Thankfully there are (mostly) devoted politicians who are willing to serve our country. There are (mainly) peaceful activists who take to the streets and town halls to make our voices heard. And there are (a few) wise diplomats who have the strength to pull entire nations together. Me, I’m more of an apolitical, behind-the-scenes, reluctant revolutionist, taking action in one of the few ways my simplistic mind can wrap itself around the whole convoluted mess. OM.

Neuroscience is proving that health, wellbeing, and mental function improve with regular meditation. The concept that our thoughts can also affect the world at large sounds wacky, but quantum physics is beginning to prove that this is no farce either. If meditation works so well for individuals, it stands to reason that this power is amplified with many individuals. It’s the same principle as the power of prayer – a group of people focusing their intentions on a single ideal or wish to manifest the desired outcome.

An experiment was conducted in 1993 to demonstrate the effect of group meditation on crime levels in Washington, D.C. The results of this collective meditation over an 8-week period showed that the violent crime rate decreased by 23% during this time. It was a carefully controlled study of 4,000 meditators and was analyzed by a review board of 27 scientists and civic leaders. According to the Global Love Project, “The implications of this are exciting yet not surprising. Meditation does not just serve you; it serves your world, assisting in raising the overall frequency and consciousness level on the planet.” (This better not be fake news…)

My personal meditations have become increasingly dominated by my frustrations experienced while watching and reading the news. After banging my head against the wall, I’ve been concentrating on the big conundrums of our country rather than wallowing in my own little life. There’s something in the air that feels like a two-minute warning. It doesn’t matter what “side” you’re on or what you believe. It takes every one of us doing our own bit parts to harmonically converge as one. Let’s synchronize our alpha brain waves on the concept of collaboration, cooperation, and compromise for the greater good. Kick our united intention onto higher ground.

Meditation – easy it sounds – is tough, so I challenge you to a mere 2 minutes a day. Whether or not you believe in quantum physics and the power of the collective whole, just humor me for a few weeks. If it feels like good things are happening – to you or to the world around you – keep it going and maybe even bump up to 5 or 10 minutes a day. It helps to have a “mantra”, which is simply a single word or phrase to center your thoughts on. Here are some mantras to mix it up with:

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Compromise
  • Listen
  • Respect
  • Peace
  • United
  • No fear
  • Work it out
  • Come on people now
  • Smile on your brother/sister
  • Everybody get together
  • Love one another
  • Right now
  • Get our sh*t together

My Two Minute Challenge: Set your timer for 2 minutes. Close your eyes. Think about your mantra until the chimes ring. Even a 5-year-old Pollyanna can do that. Come on people now. Let’s will togetherness.

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(Photo from Huffington Post)

 

The Global Love Project:

http://www.globalloveproject.com/power-of-group-meditation/

The Global Conciousness Project:

http://noosphere.princeton.edu

FRESH OUT OF KINDNESS

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Try a Little Kindness by Glen Campbell

 

Kindness must be out of vogue. In the contentious political climate, it seems that the nastiest candidates get the most kudos. In this increasingly dangerous world, it feels like gun-toting thugs are taking over. Even in our day-to-day lives, angry disgruntlers honk at drivers, snarl at store clerks, and file lawsuits against neighbors. Negative energy pervades.

The other night I was watching the news, absently flipping through a clothing catalog when I stumbled upon a groovy looking t-shirt emblazoned with “KINDNESS MATTERS”. The shirt struck me as particularly poignant at that moment because a reporter was narrating a video of a man who was punched out in front of a convenience store in Chicago. As the man splayed unconscious on the street, a few bystanders picked his pockets and walked away. Then a taxi ran over the man without stopping, and it took several minutes for someone to call 911. The whole ordeal was painful to watch. How can people be so heartless? Granted, the incident took place at 4:00 in the morning – when nothing good ever happens – but still. Mean is mean, inebriation be damned.

Suddenly I really needed that t-shirt to spread the kindness message! I went on the website but was informed that my tee was no longer available. Curses. Well at least there are other geeks out there who also believe in kindness. And yet – I want that shirt! I checked the website for a couple of days hoping someone returned one, making it magically available again – to no avail. It was silly how disappointed I was about a t-shirt; it felt strangely important to wear that message. But of course it couldn’t be just any old “Kindness Matters” tee – it had to be chic, especially since kindness seems to be so unfashionable lately.

All that changed today as I was waiting at the dentist office. A pretty woman walked in wearing a t-shirt that said “Kindness is always in style.” Nice – maybe kindness will be like the new black. I watched her as she checked in for her appointment, which turned out to be next week instead of today. Upon hearing this, the woman began to berate the receptionist for making a mistake. Her prettiness twisted into a sneer while her shirt morphed into a mockery. And just like that, I was so over my covetous desire for that groovy tee in the catalog. What’s the point of wearing a mantra if you can’t be a shining example of it?

The notion of kindness – at first blush – comes off as a Polyanna antiquation in this competitive world. But look past the blush, and you’ll see it’s the truly confident individuals who bestow niceties. It’s the strongest people who can respond to insults with a compassionate turn of the cheek. It’s brave to be kind. Feeding malice with love and mercy is far more powerful than strong-arming.

And living the message is infinitely grander than wearing it.

 

 

LETTING GO FOR DEAR LIFE

IMG_8595Let It Go by Tim McGraw

Hanging on is a natural instinct. It’s primal. We hold on to branches, rails, vines and wires to break our falls – we hold on to the intangible familiar to avoid the scary unknown – we hold on to the things we love because it hurts to let go. But letting go is a must, and doing so can save our lives – or at least our sanity. There is sublime peace in letting go of our loved ones as they grow up or move on, and there is gratifying freedom in letting go of things that weigh us down or hold us back.

Autumn is a season of letting go, as surely as the trees drop their vibrant leaves in red-and-orange glory, belying the fact that they are uselessly dead. Nature liberates the trees, leaving us to rake up messy piles that scatter with the gusts ushering in fall. Meanwhile, spiders spin out sticky traps at a furious pace, creating spooky decor and forcing us to drag out brooms to sweep away the dirty cobwebs. And perhaps it’s just creepy imagination, but my cupboards and closets are suddenly agitated like a haunted house. Where did all this restless junk come from?

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Forget spring cleaning… all that needs to be done in the blooming season is to fling open the doors and windows to let the floral-scented breezes blow through, clearing out the cooped-up air. Fall cleaning is really where it’s at. There’s this overwhelming urge to roust out the rattling skeletons and round up the tarnished trinkets that have been carefully displayed but now look like annoying dust collectors. It must be a nesting thing, like a mama bear preparing her cave for a long winter’s nap.

My usual autumn exuberance has been overrun by obsessive de-cluttering this fall. It started with the crunchy leaves littering our front walkway and the spider webs dangling around our front door. Armed with a broom, it was easy to let go of that mess. However, it was a different story when I stepped through the front door. The frenzy began as my decorator daughter with her discerning eye began to chastise in that authoritarian way she has.

“You need to nourish minimalism, Mom. Start by getting rid of the frumpy silk plants. They’re so passé.”

“But look at all beautiful pots they’re in,” I said defensively.

“They just make the rooms look cluttered. Pick your favorite one and get rid of the rest.” Sammi ruthlessly scanned the living room. “What about all these knickknacks left over from your shabby chic days? And all the picture frames plastering every shelf and table?”

“But I love all these photos – they make me happy.”

“That’s what photo albums are for, Mom. If you had to dust all this stuff you’d think twice about keeping it.” Touché.

My daughter’s stab at the luxury of a housekeeper struck home and guilted me into a clutter bust. Some of the beloved objects were difficult to let go, so I hauled them up the ladder to my attic dumping ground where tired treasures could be hidden but not discarded. I switched on the attic light to discover jumbled chaos – there was barely space to crawl around. How did this happen? Just two years ago my older daughter moved home after college and admonished me about the mess in the attic as she tried to find room to store some of her possessions.

“What is all this crap, Mom?” Haley teased me. “Let’s clean up this place and see what goodies you’ve been stashing all these years!” We proceeded to weed through every box and basket and bag and cubby and pile which contained things both useful and sentimental, so I thought.

“Mom, why are you saving these pictures?” Haley questioned as she flipped through a stack of framed artwork leaned against a wall. She lifted an eyebrow at me when she came upon a garish Civil War drawing from an ancient newspaper.

“Hey, that’s probably a valuable antique!” I claimed. “Anyway, I thought you kids might want them for your apartments someday.”

“Honestly, none of us will ever put these in our places. You can get rid of them all.” Oh. “And what about all these boxes of schoolwork and trophies and memorabilia?” Haley looked incredulous that I had saved so much stuff from their childhood.

“Well, you kids will probably want to share these fun things with your own kids someday, won’t you?”

“Mom, I guarantee you that none of us will ever go through all this mishmash. Just pick a few of your favorite things and pitch the rest. Or you can take pictures of the things you really like and make a photo book of treasures.” Hmmm.

Now that is practical sentimentality. Haley shifted my perspective of what is important into what is realistic. As harsh as it felt, it was true – what on earth would my kids do with all of those keepsakes? That October day we restored the attic to a respectable storage room with plenty of space to maneuver around minimal crap. And now here it was, two years later, ludicrously stuffed to the rafters once again. One of my bosom buddies and I made a pact seventeen years ago that if either of us died we would go through the other’s attic, trusting only one another to the horrors of our hoarding. Now, years later, our husbands and grown kids would be the ones to wade through the flotsam and jetsam in the wake of our deaths. Not wanting to put that morbid task on my family, I embarked on the Fall 2014 Purge.

Anecdotally, many realtors say that the typical homeowner lives in their house for 7 years before moving on. Statistically, HousingEconomics.com states that the average buyer moves every 12 years. Stodgy homebodies like us who stay put in the same house for 22 years not only beat the odds but accumulate riffraff, remnants, odds&ends, castoffs and gewgaw at an alarming rate. MOVING is the best cure for clutter, but the next best thing is a relentless expulsion.  Simplifying and embracing minimalism is to feel the lightness of being. Besides, it’s rewarding to know that those 127 books, 5 lamps, 4 rugs, 19 homecoming/prom dresses, 8 bolts of gossamer fabric, 3 bags of Halloween costumes, 2 boxes of holiday decor, 7 silk plants in beautiful pots and 16 pieces of heinous framed artwork will go to people who might actually use and appreciate it. Here are some sparse tips about the fine art of de-cluttering and letting go that I gleaned during The Purge…

◆ Dare to be bare and spare. When I removed objects, the rooms felt rather empty. But after a day or two, the open spaces felt fresh, airy and stylish.

◆ Start small, drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf.

◆ Set goals. Give away one item each day. Fill one trash bag every week. Clean one closet per month.

◆ Stop buying stuff and avoid recreational shopping. As Donald Horban said, “We don’t need to increase our goods as much as we need to scale down our wants. Not wanting something is as good as possessing it.”

◆ Employ the Four Box Method: Set out four big boxes labeled 1) Give Away    2) Throw Away 3) Relocate 4) Reconsider. As soon as a box is filled, take the appropriate action. It’s strangely fulfilling to lug a box to the trash or drive three boxes to the thrift store.

◆ Make a Book of Treasures. Just as we cherish people and places through photographs, so we can enjoy our prized possessions more in a memories book than we can stashed in a dark attic.

The most satisfying part of the Fall Purge is that my Project Room is now a streamlined sanctuary with nothing to distract me from the challenge of writing a book. And just like Sammi helped me take drastic measures to minimize my decor, I need to do something radical to maximize my writing. De-cluttering cleared the way for focused creativity, so I’ll be adventuring to the formidable land of NaNoWriMo to let go of my writing inhibitions.

November is National Novel Writing Month with the objective to write a 50,000 word book in 30 days. The pressure of spitting out 1,700 words a day without the tedious self-editing that typically accompanies my writing process is just the thing I need to shake things up. To be sure, the end result will be a very messy, terribly unreadable draft, but like I tell my writing students at Richmond High: Rough drafts don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be written! Imagine the fun I’ll have de-cluttering that manuscript.

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SO HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS?

IMG_2481Give a Little Bit –  Supertramp (click to play)

“School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays…”   That flaky statement sounds nothing like a measure of success, yet oddly for me it signifies a touching consummation and a surprising triumph of this past school year.

***

Summer vacation doesn’t mean much any more to an empty nester like me, but last August as my football coach was ramping up for another season and the summer days were waning, I found myself contemplating what I should do when school starts. It’s compulsive. Years of being one of those semi-annoying moms always flitting around their kids’ schools – planning carnivals, PTA-ing, room mothering, raising Ed Funds, and attending every school event – is so engrained in my psyche that I feel a wistful void when the first day of school rolls around. One balmy morning last summer with September lurking behind the fence, I was trying to enjoy my coffee-newspaper-beach-read routine in the backyard as sunlight filtered through the ivy leaves dangling lazily on the trellis overhead. Unadulterated relaxation – nothing to do, not a care in the world. Yet discontent and restlessness hung about, sure as the ivy leaves that would be dead and falling around me in a month or two. It seems I can only appreciate that free-as-a-bird feeling when I’ve accomplished something or have a worthwhile focus, and I instead was feeling adrift, pointless, unsettled – anything but relaxed. Listlessly scanning the newspaper, one headline suddenly buzzed my trigger words: Writing Coach Project Seeks More Volunteers.

Turns out, the nonprofit Community Alliance for Learning was planning to expand their WriterCoach Connection, a program that brings volunteers into the schools to work with students on improving their comprehension, writing,  and critical thinking skills. The program began in Berkeley in 2001 and later expanded to Oakland, Albany, and West Contra Costa schools. Richmond High School welcomed WriterCoach Connection in the fall of 2012 and was hoping to expand the program for its second year with more volunteer coaches. Hmmm… writing, education and working with at-risk youths was an enticing combination, and my online inquiry was met with an immediate enthusiastic response. You don’t need to be a writer or a teacher to work with this program – in fact, most of the volunteers simply enjoy interacting with kids. After extensive training, a classroom full of new volunteers was scheduled to work one-on-one with the ELD (English Language Development) students at Richmond High, ready or not. We were all a little nervous, wondering if we were capable of teaching, connecting, and building trust with these “hardened” teens. Wondering if safety at this “tough” school was going to be a concern. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but here’s what I found: kids are kids, no matter where they live. No matter how they act, deep down there is a child who wants their life to count.

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Every other Wednesday throughout the school year I trekked to a portable at Richmond High and worked one-on-one first with “Maria” and then “Sofia” or vice versa. I loved walking through the school grounds and hallways to the ELD classroom to pick up the students, partly to catch a glimpse of school life and partly to stroll ‘n chat with each girl on the way back to the portable. This was the trust-building time when we talked about anything but academics. The time when Maria told me how she and her mom spent the whole night looking for her cousin. How they finally found him in jail at 4:00 am. The time when Sofia told me that she broke up with her boyfriend because he was getting messed up in a gang. That she was suspended from school when this ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend beat the crap out of her (she fought back). How Maria’s family lost their house a few years ago. That Sofia’s father left the family and moved back to Mexico. How Maria always feels so tired and doesn’t have anywhere to study. That Sofia is so sick of taking care of her sister’s little kids that live with them. So many obstacles on the road to their dreams that they told me about as we worked on an essay about goals: Maria wants to be a psychologist to help people feel better, and Sofia wants to be a police officer to make things right in her town.

It was an interesting journey trying to balance my expectations with my students’ realities. I found that their smallest accomplishments became my greatest wins as a writing coach. The measures of success varied from week to week. Sometimes just jotting down the ideas from our brainstorming session was all we could manage. Other weeks, a completed outline, mind-map or hamburger organizer was a feat in itself. One of my favorite triumphs came as a complete surprise on the day we worked on a letter, essay or poem for someone special. Sofia wanted to write a poem for her mother but was convinced that she couldn’t do it. Instead, she started scribbling some of the things that she loves about her mamacita with the intent to turn those scribbles into an essay. It was magical to watch that series of sentences unfold and evolve into – ta da! – a lovely poem. Sofia’s surprised delight was my reward of the semester.

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Once I realized that my girls would probably not be writing stellar essays – especially in a language that wasn’t spoken in their home – I modified my expectations for what we could accomplish in one class period. Both of my students were almost paralyzed, fearful or maybe just shy about putting pen to paper. But as I shared my own writing frustrations with them, their self-reliance grew. If I said it once, I said it one hundred times this year: “The hardest part is just getting started – for all of us!” It was heartwarming to watch their writing confidence grow, and as the school year progressed they were able to jump straight into their assignments with less and less prompting from me.

My proudest achievement of the school year came on the last day of coaching when Maria said, “School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays so I can work with you.” If that’s what it takes to keep a kid in school, then by golly I’ll back for more coaching next September. Tears welled up when each of my girls asked if we could exchange phone numbers for the summer – tears of joy that they wanted to keep in touch and of sorrow that the program doesn’t allow that to happen. It was difficult to let go of my students and trust that they would somehow find ways to make their dreams come true. The best I could do was leave them with a card, so I made one for each – cute scrapbooky cards packed with inspirational quotes, words of encouragement and as many well wishes as one card can hold.

How do we measure success? Most certainly I gained more from coaching writing than my students did. When we begin new ventures, lofty expectations are invariably entailed. As the ventures take off, those grandiose dreams often crash into realities… and unless we ratchet down a few notches with the actual realm of possibilities, we are left soaring aimlessly above the clouds – alone and disillusioned. Championing causes of social justice, we imagine that we can change the world. Working with at-risk students, we hope to better lives and inspire academic achievements. So how do we measure success when the project is finished or the school year ends without these miraculous accomplishments – without feeling like a disenchanted failure? We adjust our expectations and find cause for celebracíon in the little things, that’s what we do. Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays.

 

“If you help one community, one village, or one child, the effects can last for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, like a ripple on a still ocean that extends into the horizon. That’s how you change the world.” 

– Jim Ziolkowski (author of “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?”)

 

 

 

TRAINING SHOULDERS

photo-1Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire by Rogue Valley

It’s a game to play – like sampling pickled fish and buttered breads at a smörgåsbord – this trying on the shoulders of fellow train riders to conjure up a sense of community. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand their plight, but sit in their posture to feel their soul, leastways their mood du jour. Train our shoulders – transform our perspectives.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shoulders nudge, jostle, barge up the escalator as the train whistles its arrival. I stride onto the platform and through the train door, shoulders squared. Seated by the window, poised behind sunglasses, my eyes and imagination feel empowered to wander. The train lurches, and a stooped woman in a cardigan – burnt orange coming unraveled – stumbles in her treadless soles, nothing to stop her slide. Her hand grabs a pole just in time as she flops into a seat. The flop snaps her head down, and her eyes catch the tip of her big toe sticking out of her shoe. She wiggles it in time to the click clacking train as her body tries to sync, an ambiguous dance of the shoulders. The spastic movements wear her down, lulling her into a bowed trance. The train slows then lurches again and momentarily tugs her shoulders back, breathing a rush of fresh air into her deflated chest until the dull rhythm collapses her once again. It’s a tough start to the game – let alone life – thrown back on heels and bent in misery.

Across the aisle sits a grand dame of a woman. Her liver-spotted hands caress a hardback book with its paper jacket removed. Surreptitiously I study the pages – curious what she is reading – but she shifts the book away from my sight line as if I am a cheating schoolgirl trying to copy her paper. She reminds me of a past high school English teacher, and I find myself sneaking sideways glances at her severely-bunned hair that gives her a nice little facelift, the zebra reading glasses propped on her beakish nose, her gazellian neck perched on primly erect shoulders. I sit up straight and proper until she sends a scolding glance my way, sinking my posture like a prairie dog burrowing back into hiding. My opaque glasses suddenly feel transparent, eyes exposed like a note being passed in class, caught by the teacher.

Mercifully the train stops, and I aim my sheepish shades at an easier target: a hooded guy that drags onto the train and slouches into a deep corner seat. He pulls his hoodie over slunched head as sleep pushes his shoulders down, down, down until there is nothing more to see. My slumped reverie is suddenly rousted from the depths of my seat as three beanie boppin’ teens clamor through the sliding door from the car behind. Knit scarves adorn attitude shoulders while their janky chatter fills the train car, “…well I ain’t puttin’ up with his assclown pranks no more! He can just bounce his sorry ass back to the playground!” Raucous laughter yanks their heads back while middle-school bravado pulls their wings higher still – girl power in numbers.

I am riding tall on the arrogance of sass when an impeccably dressed man enters at the Civic Center station. Fine suit, dark glasses, supremely pinned-back shoulders, confidently out of place. Our concealed eyes meet and I hold my posture steady, no flinching but warily wondering why he is on this train. Incognito gangster, schmoozing politician, FBI agent hot on the trail, clandestine lover on his way to a rendezvous? My imagination has run away and I can look no more, even behind these worthless Chanel shades, willing my shoulders to settle on the neutral posture of a nearby tree hugger. The gray stubble of his beard blends with the plaid flannel of his shirt and the dust on his hiking shoes as his gaze focuses on nothing and everything in his realm, evoking a meditative trance that calms the air around. I pull my legs up onto my seat – pseudo lotus style – until the swarthy secret agent man looks askance, pinning me back once again.

The train car crowds up at the next stop, and passengers dangle from hanging loops that force shoulders back, creating a carful of swaying riders jockeying for position. A swaggering Giants-jerseyed teen takes the standing opportunity to grind up against his girlfriend’s backside – until the power of the prim English teacher’s gaze cuts him down, and he pretends that the train caught him off balance. With a wry smile for a fellow student in trouble, my shrouded eyes spy a lovely young lady with sad shoulders leaned against the railing. She smiles shyly back at me under her droop – seeming to see through my voyeuristic disguise. The mother in me wants to tell her, “Pin your shoulders back, honey. You’re so beautiful.” Is it a grieving heartbreak, a twisted parent, or simply a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day that afflicts her sweet shoulders? Her smile has lifted her posture ever so slightly, and now this mother wants to wrap my arms around her and press the place between her shoulder blades, easing the burden off her back.

At the Embarcadero station, the danglers dissipate while self-proclaimed Fat Boy and his entourage drift into the train car on a pungent weed waft. They cue up the music, and Fat Boy begins to dance for us, a skanky mesmerizing shoulder shrug of a dance, each shrug causing globulous fat blobs to ripple around his gyrating body – through left arm to chest to right arm and reverse, through back to bodacious booty, neck through bulging belly. Quite certain that my face is blushing, I try to hide behind my dark glasses but am hopelessly face-to-face with his gelatinous gut, impossibly riveted to the spectacle. My attempts to suppress a smile are futile with Fat Boy’s self-deprecating humor, his mocking come-hither look. My shaking shoulders betray me as his tidal waves of fat have turned my smile into ripples of silent giggles. He stops dancing and struts around to collect his tips, but none of the passengers – vigilant pinbacks nor comatose slouchers – throw a buck into Fat Boy’s foppish hat after his performance. Must not encourage those artistic smoke-induced shoulder shrugs on the train, and out puffs the entourage at the West Oakland station.

I wipe the smirk from my face and settle my gaze upon the innocence of twins clad in private-school plaid skirts, one bent over The Book Thief, the other bouncing in her seat, telling her father about her class science project, “…we’re studying the effects of electrolytes on the human body…” Watching her bobbing shoulders, I uneasily wonder if her body was part of today’s experiment. My darkened eyes roam to the passenger behind the twins, a sad sack traveling salesman – Willy Loman-esque – clad in a maroon corduroy sport coat and washed-out dockers. His scratched briefcase is plunked beside his scuffed brown shoes, and his forlorn shoulders hunch over a worn Jeffrey Archer paperback. The disappointment of his latest failed sales call hovers over him like a little gray rain cloud. My own slouchy shoulders want to hear his sorry pitch, perhaps buy a bottle of the miraculous cleaning fluid from his Mary Poppins carpet bag to add to the collection of potions under my kitchen sink that never seem to run out.

A dragon lady springs into view, red-tipped fingers tap tap tapping with a vengeance on her laptop – a scathing memo to her staff. Her shoulders are wound back much too tightly, poised to fly into action, to pounce upon her prey and spew her fire breath around the train car. My slouch has suddenly snapped to attention with the faint acrid scent of fire breath – burning rubber? Slowly but surely the smell of overtaxed brakes permeates the train car, and one by one shoulders perk up – all except the sleepy hooded man in the deep corner. At the 12th Street station, the sassy shouldered beanie bopper pops up and announces, “Girlfriends, I am getting the f**k off this stinky ass train!” Queen Beanie is right.  I’m getting the hell off too, and my shoulders follow her on high alert. The train car is flashing its yellow warning lights, and I realize that we are stranded in the middle of Oakland without even Fat Boy to entertain us. My boots clomp up and down alongside the track assessing the situation in my superpower sunglasses as riders begin to disembark from the smelly stalled train. My thrust-forward shoulders detect no imminent danger, so I clompity clomp to the front of the train and settle into a vacant seat, far away from the burning brake car. A miniature lady comes into focus, clutching her shiny orange pleather handbag that glints like a caution beacon beneath her threadbare coat, shoulders protecting it against snatchers, darting eyes ready to spot the nearest unattended bag or sharp-shouldered hooligan. Eventually the brakes cool, the yellow blinkers stop flashing, shoulders mobilize to load back on, and the train departs the station with the shiny orange purse still safely tucked in its wary owner’s little coat.

Scanning my new train car, I notice a nappy-headed boy sitting on a perfectly-coiffed blond lady’s lap – another trendy celebrity with her adopted son from Zimbabwe or Mozambique? The loquacious boy is talking to a pair of dapper old men in feathered fedoras sitting next to them. He wants to keep the conversation going, captivated by their dark wrinkled skin, their singsongy banter. Does he recognize a turn of phrase or perhaps a twinkle in the eye from somewhere long ago and faraway? They are laughing together and leaning forward, shoulders touching in simpatico. My shoulders lean in too, but I’m just an outsider eavesdropping behind these shades.

Across the way slumps a tired old couple melting into each other, shoulders curled into themselves – a perfect fit after all those years of spooning. Their arms are wrapped tightly around sacks of groceries, guarding their sustenance with their lives, conserving what precious little energy they have left in the day. In stark contrast, a jaunty young couple skips into the car with their backpacks and wheelies. They are from Germany, no maybe Switzerland or Sweden, and their effusive energy and indecipherable excitement about visiting California infects me with a contagious travel bug; I sling my yearning shoulders back, ready to hoist my imaginary knapsack and train around Europe like a carefree college coed.

My darkened eyes light upon a yoga teacher – or most likely a starry-eyed student – with a yoga mat flung over her mountain-posed shoulders, an air of serenity softly swirling ‘round her being. A cyclist wheels into the car and props his bike against the railing. He adjusts the bandana wrapped ‘round his head – no helmet – and the right leg of his pants tucked into a green striped sock and the earphone wires dangling over his shoulders. He nonchalantly sidles up to yoga girl, presumably to compare their nearly-matching sandalwood beaded bracelets. Instant karma connection at the Rockridge station. I don’t even need to lurk behind shades since they are oblivious to prying eyes, eyes only for each other at that moment in time. A bespectacled techie sits next to them with his shoulders tucked up tight under his ears yet crouched, hunkered down over his phone, thumbing his brainstorms or updating his neurotic status, engaged in the cyber world yet ignorant of the world beyond his own short sight.  I feel a headache coming on and quickly shift my gaze.

A wheelchaired young man rolls onto the train, shoulders pinned unnaturally back, smiling – the brightest in the car – glowing with the majesty of mobility. The mere motion of shoulder raising infuses a lightness of being and blitheness of spirit, and his wounded torso invokes a certain power of wisdom. I turn an invisible third eye on myself, feel the shift of my posture that has risen and fallen, taken on the persona of each rider, alternating hunched over, pinched back, hunched, pinched. I like the feeling of this immobile yet free man on wheels best of all. Infused with his unspoken goodwill, my shoulders pick me up and off the train, announcing “You have arrived your destination” – milk toasty safe and sound in my grateful stance.

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