All of Me… for All of Us

The email arrives at 2:18, one minute before the last bell and the rush to professional development that will rob me of my time and steal what little time is left to revise my latest paperwork dilemma (the endless paperwork dilemma of being a teacher in the twenty-first century).

This is the rush, the constant rush, that is my afternoon: students stopping me in the hallway to ask what they missed when they were gone, teachers commenting on the lack of grammar present in all writing and instruction, a line for the only staff bathroom nearby, a snakelike maneuver through the after-school net of kids clinging tightly to the last moments of the school day, a quick conversation in the shared bathroom about a shared student who told a teacher my class is his favorite, the rush back to my room to pack up my bag, gather my things, and make it to the classroom on the other end of the third floor.

All in ten minutes.

All after giving up nearly my entire block of planning to meet with a student and her family about an IEP, after waiting for a translator who never showed up, after discussing her math skills, her joy of writing, her absenteeism, her prom dress (donated by a kind soul who managed to find a sheer blue scoop neck that was made for her).

And after an hour of mindfulness with a video that has scared the shit out of me about my failure to raise teens in this day and age, about the addictiveness (equivalent to alcohol) of phones and social media, I must begin my afternoon rush: late to pick up my youngest, a dash across town to gather up the carpool, a dash back to discover two unpaid water bills by our tenants, to receive two flustered calls from the insurance agent about the dent in my Pilot, to break up three arguments over whose doll is whose, and to finish that damn SLO data nightmare before my midnight deadline.

All in sixty minutes.

I have ten papers for my online class that I must grade by Saturday. I have twenty emails I haven’t checked. I have a stack of paragraphs waiting for editing. I have dinner to cook and children to coerce into completing chores and finishing homework.

And I don’t have time for this.

But I do it anyway. I place the delinquent bill on top of our MacBook for Bruce to see. I finish my tea. I gather my keys. I call my girls. The oldest defiantly stays, but the younger two join me for the trek back.

We stop for fast food noodles and make it in time to see the art show. Riona googles over the sculptures, the pottery, the mixed media. Mythili eyes the graphic arts.

And then the choir concert. The show begins with all the choirs onstage singing a song from five decades ago, and Riona comments (quite accurately) that they must have picked a song from when the choir teacher was little. I can almost feel a collective groan building up inside us all as the song nears its end. But then I notice how many of my students are on stage, and I simmer down, because they are why we are here.

The cute emcees crack song-related jokes between each song. And what follows is nothing shy of amazing.

Soloist after soloist take the stage with voices as smooth and luxurious as anything you’d hear on the perfect pop radio station. A mix of modern and foreign, old and new. Belting out all ranges of the scale from the highest soprano to the lowest baritone.

As I sit with my wiggling girls in the front row, screaming and clapping when they hit those high notes, tears are ever present. I let them fall only two times–when the smaller-than-the-rest special needs student sings a solo in the choir’s interpretation of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and when PoeMuLayLo takes the stage.

Hers was the paragraph I put up on my screen for the past two days as one to model, one to look up to.

Hers was the voice I heard singing in Karen last week, the lilting pain of persecution so clear even if I couldn’t understand the foreign words.

She has been in my class for three years, with her bright eyes, her kind smile, her desire to bring every piece of writing to perfection, to never put up with anything but the best from even her seat partner, to quietly be a calming presence that no one would ever think to cross.

And here she stands, her accent gone, the American song spilling out of her as if she wrote the words herself, and I can do nothing but try to capture one last piece of this magic before I have to say goodbye to her forever.

I’m not thinking about the emails. The papers to grade. The endless tasks that make up my afternoons of teacher-motherhood.

I’m thinking about only her luxurious voice, about the music that connects us all, about how much I will miss her.

“She’s leaving, isn’t she, Mama?” Riona whispers to me, seeing the tears linger on my cheeks.

MuLai belts out the chorus of “All of Me” one last time as I nod my head, unable to answer.

Right now, in this moment, there is no rush. No snakelike maneuvers. No wishing to be somewhere else.

There is only her voice. John Legend’s song. And All of Me.

Here.


Are You Hungry?

My day begins before it begins. With a late-night text, a non-response, and a warning. With cats scratching me awake as the sun just enters the sky. With the complexities of parenthood that bring joy and turmoil to each and every day.

Me: “Hope you’re having fun! Please be home by 8:45 so that we can deliver the cookies to the food bank.”

Two hours later:

Two hours and thirty seconds later: “If you are not home by 8:45, you are grounded for a month. We have been planning this for three months. Please do not ignore my texts.”

Two hours and forty-five seconds after first text: “OK.”

Even as I type the words, I know they are too harsh. And when she cycles around the corner at 8:42 in the bright morning sun, her eyes puffy from lack of sleep, I just want to scream. She goes straight upstairs to change clothes. I bring her her Girl Scout vest, and she silently glares at me. She comes downstairs without wearing it, and I just about lose it.

The last words I heard her speak, after the flurried series of texts and phone calls the moment we arrived home yesterday, after my felt-like-a-migraine headache and hurried “yes” response to her sleepover, after I remembered, already under the down comforter, “You have to be home by 8:45 because we have to deliver the cookies,” were: “Why can’t the rest of the troop do it?” followed by a door slam.

The other three girls pile into the backseat of the Pilot, and I pile it into her. “You cannot have a phone if you refuse to respond to my texts. I’m taking it for at least a week.”

Her tears begin to fall.

“And I just can’t believe how selfish you are being right now. We are going to give cookies to people who DON’T HAVE FOOD. And you’re mad at me for making you come home from an unplanned sleepover at the time we agreed to go?”

“I thought—”

“You didn’t think. Why didn’t you respond to my text?”

“I thought it was just for information.”

“It was. But do you remember the last words you said to me as you left?” (I’m thinking of the pounding headache, the echo of the wooden door slamming). I remind her.

“If you can’t respond to texts, you can’t have a phone.”

Her tears swallow her words now. She swallows them in the brief moments between my harshness and our arrival. The others are already there, waiting for us.

We carry and roll the 43 boxes of leftover Girl Scout cookies into the school. Jacklyn is waiting for us, her heart so big that she practically offers a hug to each and every one of these girls she doesn’t know.

“We’re so happy to have you here! Let me give you a tour.” She points to a girl who is filling bags with loaves of bread. To the tables stacked with clothes. To the halal chicken she found especially for our Muslim students. To the shelves and shelves of canned goods. To the two hundred pounds of rice, the stacks of towels, the cabinets filled to the brim with more for next week.

A man enters, having seen the temporary “Food Bank” sign on the door. He is as small as my twelve-year-old, wearing glasses and a hopeful grin. She immediately welcomes him in her cheery voice, explaining that the food bank is for the students’ families, but he can surely have some Girl Scout cookies and a snack.

“Are you hungry?” She asks him. It is a question that all of us say every day, never even thinking about its weight. Its weight presses against me now as my oldest wipes away the last of her tears and smiles at him.

“Yes.”

Jacklyn hands him apples, the last box of Thin Mints, and before he leaves, he has an entire box of food in his hands because her heart is too big to say no.

Families trickle in, and it turns out I know almost all of them. The mother and younger siblings of Isra, who’s graduating this year after four years of being a shining star in my classroom. Her tiny sister, her purple niqab as bright as her eyes when she picks out cookies for each of her siblings. The father of Ana Maria, whose mother took time out of her busy life to help me improve my Spanish, who spent the day with my girls and I last spring break, who recently left for Mexico and risked everything, even walking, to get back here.

Jacklyn greets them each with a hug, a reference to their last visit, a cooing comment about their beauty, their students, the exciting availability of Girl Scout cookies. Her warmth bubbles up all around her, and I feel my harsh comments and my daughter’s shaky responses melt away into the reality that fills these bags with food and hope.

The girls busy themselves filling quart-size bags with rice, and Izzy perks up enough by the end of the hour to speak to me in a normal, and kind, voice.

Just before leaving, one of the newcomers arrives with a small black backpack on. Jacklyn knows just how to speak to a student learning English. Slowly. Looking at his eyes. Using gestures. She learns that he arrived by bicycle, that he lives near Monaco, and that his bag is too small.

“You just fill up two boxes for your family. I’ll get a pen. You can write your address and we’ll bring you the food.”

Before I can surmise the legality, I mention that we live by Monaco and will bring it ourselves. Moments later, it becomes clear that he is unable to write his address. I hold up my hand in a cross. “You live on Monaco, do you know the cross street, the street that crosses Monaco?”

His eyes brighten. “Iliff.”

We gather our things. Four girls and the food pile into my co-leader’s car. He helps me remove the wheel from his bicycle so two girls, the bicycle, and he can fit into the Pilot. As we make our way eastward, I ask his name.

“Donald.” (only when he says it, it sounds like, Doh-nol-d).

“Hello, Donald. That is my husband’s name!” (Riona snickers, knowing he hasn’t used that name since the moment he was born). “And that is our president’s name.” At this, even Donald snickers, because even he, newly arrived from Malawi, knows that it’s a joke.

Ten minutes later, we drive past our house. I point it out to him. Not because he’ll ever go there. Because I want him to know that, if he needs to, he can. We continue to Monaco and Iliff, and he is able to tell me where to turn, when to stay straight, until we arrive at the apartment complex and gather the food, the girls, and the bicycle out of the two vehicles.

We carry the boxes to the door, and Donald enters with one of the boxes. We set another on a chair on the makeshift patio, and three small children emerge. A girl not older than three tries to lift the box, which is easily as tall as her torso, and then a mother and perhaps a father, emerge from the apartment to shake our hands and send us on our way.

“Every Friday, Donald, every Friday you can have food.” It is all I can think of to say.

It is just past 10 a.m., and I feel as if I have lived a year in these few hours. We return home, and Izzy is her cheerful old self. No dirty looks. No retaliation. She runs to jump on the trampoline at the neighbors’ house. She plays on the hammock. She makes a smoothie concoction and even washes the blender.

We continue with the exciting Saturday of double income, three kids: a dishwasher selection, grocery shopping, fixing lunch, returning library books, visiting the local coffee shop, soaking cedar planks for grilling salmon, sitting on the patio to soak up the mid-spring sun. The girls spend the entire day outside and between their troop members’ homes.

I tell the girls we’re going skiing tomorrow, and the younger two plead their case to stay home.

“Only if you call Grandma on your own and stay with her.”

I haven’t taken Izzy’s phone away yet, and I go upstairs just before dinner with a proposition and a promise: while the younger two are at Grandma’s, she can keep her phone if she goes skiing with me. But when I enter her room, she is dead asleep, light on, with the kitten, and I can do no more than take a picture of the beauty of that moment.

I want to tell her it is dinner time. I want to ask her, “Are you hungry?”

But I don’t. She already informed me, mid-afternoon, that she was up till 4:30 because she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her friends since she had to be home by 8:45.

I don’t wake her. I don’t need to ask my child, “Are you hungry?” because I know she isn’t.

I am quiet for once. I am thinking about Donald, who told me he’d never ridden a bike in Malawi, and now he even knows how to remove and replace a tire, to navigate across town on a Saturday morning even though he can’t write his address, to ask for food for a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile from my $400,000 home.

Instead, I sit on the patio with Donald Bruce and my two youngest, underneath the blooming crabapple tree. We eat cedar-grilled salmon, rice, tomatoes, and beans. We fill ourselves with stories and the evening breeze. I do the dishes for the fiftieth time in the six weeks since the dishwasher has been broken. I don’t complain, because I hate to admit that there is some satisfaction in completing the task by hand, in seeing your work, in soaping your hands.

And my day ends before it ends. With a full belly, a full plate, and this family.

With Jacklyn’s kind voice so much louder than my own, asking, “Are you hungry?” and knowing that all of us are hungry for something.

A text. A bicycle ride. A ski trip. A bright moment in a dark day.

My day begins before it ends. With a late-night silence. A sleeping child. A dish rack full of freshly washed dishes.

And a hunger for a better tomorrow.

Shards

an afternoon wind
 blew in a flurry of texts
 and opened this door–
 
 it knocked down a glass
 from our dishwasher-less rack
 (because all things break)
 
 it sent me spinning
 on my endless carpool trip
 (keeping up with kids)
 
 the sun was shining
 on my student-made pastry,
 unaware of shards.
 
 i swept up pieces,
 circled back to get daughter
 and wash more dishes.
 
 baklava melted
 like rays of afternoon sun
 in each of our mouths
 
 (a reminder that
 gusts of wind, circling drives
 are just shards of days)
 

The Swirling Reality of Everyday Life

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I watch the white world spin outside the third story window. Flakes, long absent, now twirl in a late winter dance, clinging to bare branches, reaching for a new hope.

I catch glimpses of the video–an analytical description of the autonomic nervous system. It is both too much and too little for me right now. The primitiveness of the hunt, the threat that is ever-present in our lives, has put me on this graph at full activation–State 1–always ready to react.

I want to be outside. To feel the flakes on my face. To bite the cold with shivering teeth. To pretend that winter will stay.

I want to be those bare branches, gathering snow in my arms, soaking up every last bit of moisture after too many days of drought.

The sky whitens as the swirls make their way across the city. The video provides a relatable example–how we react when we’re driving a car on a snowy evening and slide on a patch of ice. I giggle, minimally, and my co-worker turns her whole body towards me to be sure I see her how-dare-you? glare.

Does she not understand the irony? After a winter without snow, we’re watching a video with this particular example on a snowy afternoon?

Later, State 1 follows me as I rush out of the building, late to pick up my youngest. I find a parking spot half a block away and rush against the crowd of parents and children leaving the school. I stomp through the slushy parking lot and round the corner of the building as the first grade teachers close their doors. There she is, the final student standing in the cold, holding her hood around her eyes and huddling against the brick wall.

She asks for both of my gloves before we arrive at the car, blasts the heat, and turns on the heated seat, but she doesn’t complain. For once, she doesn’t complain, and I find myself breathing in, breathing out, like the wild animal described in the video, ready to let go.

But I can’t let go. It’s the drive on ice in swirling snow, the counting of thousands of cookie dollars when I get home, the friend over, the constant mess, the story told of the one day the older girls caught–and almost missed–two city buses, the trek across town to the bank, the grocery stop, the endlessness of the swirling snow and the swirling reality of everyday life.

Before I jolt across the parking lot that separates the bank from the grocery store, I hear the sirens. The sound of panic, the crashing of metal. The slipping on ice.

I grab the few frozen items I need off the shelves and make my way back into the snake of traffic. It twitches and slithers in the shadow of blinking red and blue lights. The accident, less than five minutes behind me, four cars splattered in pieces across the intersection, firefighters fighting the good fight.

That could have been me.

I think about the graph in the video, the curving line, the constant dip that we find ourselves trapped inside, unable to get over the hump that could save our lives.

The panic that sets in when our kids won’t listen, when we’re running late, when we fuck up an interview, when we slip. On ice.

I make my way into the snake. In slow motion, we weave through the mess of the accident. I breathe in. Breathe out. Think of the words I will write. Of the children I will hug.

Of the irony of this swirling reality of everyday life.

And I laugh.

(No one glares at me).

What Sundays Have Become

Nearly nineteen years into our marriage, it is time for new furniture. A friend came over the other night, and as the girls piled onto my lap on the sofa claiming their right to me, the wooden leg busted underneath, exposing the reality of its twenty-year-old, hand-me-down state.

Hence, Bruce and I spent four hours today driving between stores, researching cat-scratching deterrents, and deciding on a leather reclining non-power furniture set… that we didn’t buy.

Instead, we continued our twenty-first century journey to the grocery stores. We bought the usual to feed our family of five: avocados and cilantro for our weekly need for fresh guacamole, bananas, apples, and clementines to fill lunch bags, chicken and sushi to make our dinners.

And something more: a stockpile of nonperishables. Beans. Pasta sauce. Brown rice. Cans of soup. Tea. Flour. Canned tomatoes.

Yesterday, my husband of nearly nineteen years and the man so nonviolent that he cringed at the idea of actually killing an elk the one time he went hunting, told me he thought it might be time to buy a gun.

Today, we decided to save our $2000 on furniture because we might need it to stock up on food and provisions before the coming of the war that inevitably will destroy our democracy.

This is what Sundays have become. There is no joy in errand-running, no hope for a new living room set. There is the impending doom of a future that none of us can predict nor look forward to. There are three girls in our home whom I fear will not have a future at all. There are tweets and executive orders and absent investigations and jaw-dropping obstruction.

Soon there will be food shortages. Rations. Militia.

It is all around the bend as we navigate from city to suburb to city on the highways brought to us by progressivism, searching for what we need today, for what we might need tomorrow.

This is what our Sundays have become: me sitting in my nearly-nineteen-year-old recliner, hoping this marriage, this world, my children, will live to see another nineteen years.

The Singles Line

Siri failed me this morning. She didn’t tell me last night that my 4:44 a.m. alarm was only for weekdays. I woke before I heard a sound, in the dark of early morning, wondering how in God’s name had my body managed to wake before such an insanely early Sunday alarm. I lay there for several minutes, listening for the cars on Jewell. But it’s Sunday, I told myself. At 4:23, I thought.

Finally I looked at my phone, irritated that I couldn’t sleep longer. 6:06??? FUCK!

I rushed to the bathroom, hurriedly raked through my tangles, and put on my four layers of clothes. I started tea water, fed the meowing kittens who waited screaming at me outside of the bathroom, scarfed a banana, and threw together a PB&J for the road.

The road: warning signs lit up 6th Avenue. “Slow and go traffic from Floyd Hill to Empire exit.” It was 6:46. And the whole world rainbowed the highway with a string of red lights in search of snow.

I pulled into the parking lot at 8:19 after the harrowing icy drive over Berthoud Pass and backed into one of the final ten spots. I ran to the bathroom, rushed back to the Pilot, and began the tedious process of slipping dress-socked feet into hard plastic ski boots. I carried my skis and poles the thirty feet to the slope, clicked in, and headed 300 yards to the singles line.

Before 11:00 a.m., I had skied ten runs, a near miracle on a crowded day. I had chosen my lifts wisely, and I had only the snow and my speed to wait for. In the singles line, you don’t have to wait on anyone. You slide up ahead of large groups, of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, young children, lifelong friends.

All day long you hear or partake in snippets of conversations.

“Look at that little girl. Not more than six on the double black! I didn’t do that till high school. And look–her mom can’t even keep up with her.”

“I can’t wait till Maddie starts skiing next year. She’s such a spitfire. She has no fear. She’s nothing like Miles, afraid of everything.”

“Once they open Vasquez Circle, the whole winter world will change. Only half the mountain heads over there because there’s 300 yards of road, and snowboarders won’t go near it. It’s all natural snow and just skiers. You’ve gotta try it.”

“I just finished taking a class at UCD even though I’m from Illinois. Sadly, this is my last day on the slopes.”

“Dad, how many runs do you think we can do before lunch?” “I can ski all day without stopping.” “Maybe five?” (At 10:36).

“Is this the singles line?” “Yes.” Long pause. Red beard below black goggles. Giant grin that glances toward the huge crowd entangled in the group line. “Aren’t we lucky to be single?”

Yes, yes we are. Never mind that my father hurt his shoulder and not one of my three girls wanted to get up and ski today and my husband doesn’t ski.

Today, I could have given in as everyone I know always does and always would. But I said I was going skiing, and damnit, I was. I missed my alarm, crammed into the traffic, and by the end of the day was soaked down to my skin from so much snow. My legs ached. My fingers were numb. I was wholly alone and wholly together with strangers all in the course of a day.

I learned that groups who were smart split themselves to make a long singles line. That way they could get through lift lines faster.

That people don’t care who they ride with or what they say on the lift as long as there’s fresh powder to carve down on the other side.

That I can be free and happy even if I’m alone. And in fact, because of it. I could choose every run I wanted, when I wanted lunch, I could skip back and forth between Mary Jane and Winter Park, I could stop at the gas station and fill up on tea, I could listen to an audiobook instead of moaning over a traffic jam.

I could survive, at least for a day, in the singles line.


 

To Laugh Until I Cry. To Live Until I Die.

In the crook of early January, three weeks since seeing my students, on a cold wintry Saturday morning I shlep across town to make lesson plans with three other colleagues.

Later I will heat water for hot tea and curl in my recliner with a book, wishing I could write a novel as lyrically beautiful as Caramelo as my children wander in and out of rooms, in and out of our house and the neighbor’s, in and out of wanting to be near their dear old mom.

This after two attempts to jumpstart the old Hyundai whose lights I left on in our trek to the grandparents’ house last night.

This after listening to dating tales and math updates and wondering what it would really be like to be a single woman in modern America.

This after coloring intricate books with the girls in the brief time between our latest tech argument and the neighbor’s reemergence.

So is our Saturday, chicken defrosting in the sink, chores done and Echo playing my Pandora playlist to suit the color of my mood.

No dog to walk, no true purpose to the day other than making plans for a class no one really wants to teach.

What sits in the back of my mind is how easily I want to be able to relax. To have a deep and thought-provoking conversation that is justifiably, blood-burningly exciting. To laugh until I cry. To live until I die.

To take these lonely household moments and flip them over or back or somewhere else, when my children were small and my Chihuahua never left the warmth of my leg, when my marriage was young and everything we thought and did was about each other, not some game or book or phone or faraway friend.

In the crook of early January, holidays left out on the curb waiting for a second chance at life (mulch me till I can be reborn!), the cold of winter settles into my bones. The winter of this year, of my children’s childhood, of my marriage, nineteen years in the making.

Even with the beauty of the flakes that fall, their demise lies in slushy streets and icy black pavement, ready to trick any masterful driver, so used to winter but not its ugly, dry-grassed truth that lies beneath the surface.

In the crook of early January, I wait for the sun to rise high in the sky. For the snow to melt. For the tree to be taken. For the hollowness that hides inside this nook to break open in me a new way of looking at the world. For the bend of this season to straighten out into a road I can see, wide and clear and as questionless as a summer’s day.

But in the crook of January, there are no summer days. There are only questions.