Category Archives: adulthood

Adventure

Adventure is a loaded word. I hear it tossed around by high school students who long for an absence of parents and a presence of new. I hear it dreamed about by people my age, seeking change, purpose. I hear it whispering in my own mind: Find an adventure before you get stuck.

The adjectival form of adventure is adventurous, and there are two definitions:

1. inclined or willing to engage in adventures.

2. full of risk; requiring courage; hazardous.

Of course, we’d prefer the former rather than the latter; to be considered one who were “hazardous” would hardly lend itself to warm feelings of comfort or trust.

But to be thought of as “willing to engage in adventures”? This may be the tallest idol of modern humanity.

~     ~     ~

I spent hours writing the script to “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first play I ever wrote. I learned to type on my family’s first computer — a huge Gateway that arrived in multiple boxes with black and white splotches like a Holstein cow that were so large my little brother used them to build forts  — and I agonized over every detail. What would Laura have actually said? What was that thing called they used to make butter again?

I agonized because I was obsessed. I dreamed of the prairie with its sea of gold and the endless sky, the idea of which both scared me and filled me with a deep tingle of excitement. Because I was only seven and too young to embark on a journey cross country on my own, I collected books. Every birthday, every Christmas, I would ask for the next book in the “Little House” series, hoping somehow to absorb Laura’s gumption, Mary’s kindness, and Pa’s fearlessness.

Instead of traipsing across Kansas, I learned to knit socks and sew dresses.

Instead of going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, I canned tomatoes and made a terrible ginger/brown sugar/vinegar drink.

Instead of breaking through the ice of the water bucket every morning to wash my face, I raised a flock of chickens and planted an herb garden outside our kitchen window.

I never did see the prairie, but I can make a mean cabled sweater.

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Sometimes, when people try to describe you, they find a word that, on the surface, might be benign, but when applied with just the right pressure makes you feel worthless.

You’re just not adventurous enough.

No one had ever said that to me before, and I shot back with all the reasons I was, indeed, adventurous:

  1. I studied abroad!
  2. I took a job I never expected to take, I put my heart and soul into it, and I’m good at it!
  3. I got my master’s while I worked, juggling both with slightly less agility than a hippopotamus!
  4. I routinely took a risk to trust others and love them, to fight back my fear of being open!

And as I said these things, the biggest one was this:

5. I stayed home. (This one did not seem to have the exclamation point.)

Because here was the crux of the issue: while so many had moved to Italy or California or D.C., I had moved home.

My risk was trusting that this new and un-sought-for path was the right one.

My risk was trusting that the work that needed to be done in me could be done from the comfort (and challenge) of living with my own parents.

My risk was hoping someone would love me and see me for the adventurous young woman I am.

~     ~     ~

As I enjoy the days of summer with all the planning for fall they bring, I have already become more contemplative. I’m awaiting (or moving toward? or eagerly looking forward to? or unbelievably scared of and excited for?) marriage to a man whose very calmness is shocking to me. He does not worry about being adventurousinstead, he sees all of life as something to challenge and grow and shape him.

I’m entering into a family that embraces forms of newness and oldness and all that’s in-between. I have a lot to learn about what it means to be one of them, and they have things to learn about me. So far, we’ve done so over a shared love of Mary Oliver, the ocean, God, and music.

Marriage is no more an adventure than singleness.

Working through life with your blood family is no less of an adventure than gaining a new family, and crossing the prairie in a covered wagon is no more of an adventure than staying home and breaking your back to make this life work.

You can cross the world with a trembling soul.

You can climb a mountain just to prove someone wrong.

You can drop everything and start over, but instead of running towards something, find that you’re just running away.

But you can also stay with the familiar out of fear, and that’s no better.

It isn’t what you do that makes you adventurous, it’s the spirit with which you live every moment.

[Photo #2 credit: Gabriel Knell]

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Sneaky Three-Year-Olds and Naptime

FullSizeRenderWhen I was little, my mother would send us up for a nap every afternoon. This didn’t last long, given our persuasive personalities and Mom’s fairly chill parenting style, but there were a few years there where I loathed what seemed like the three hours I’d be trapped in my bedroom. What was the point of “trying” to sleep if I wasn’t tired? Because I certainly wasn’t. I don’t care that I’m acting out, whining, slapping my sister, what-have-you. It isn’t because I’m tired, it’s just because I’m awful.

So there I would lie, my door closed, and it wasn’t long before I’d take a deep breath, scurry across the room, and grab the Barbie dolls. Or maybe the little notebook and pencil with which I would write extremely redundant letters to various family members (“Dear Daddy, I love you. God loves you, too. Love, Catherine”  — those were about all the words I could spell at three or four years old). I’d grab that dog-chewed, often-footless Barbie doll, write those letters, and sit up in bed with one ear to the doorway.

One ear to the doorway because there was a tell-tale sign that my mother was coming and I had to slip whatever toy I was playing with under the covers, close my eyes, and curl up facing the wall.

That sign was my mother’s creaky knees.

I still remember the thrill of hearing it – crack, crack, crack – coming up the stairs, shoving the Barbie doll under the comforter, breathing heavily because I was afraid I’d get caught.

Then the words of liberation, “You can get up now, honey,” and away with the toys and the bed and downstairs I’d bound, free from the minimal guilt I felt about disobeying.

And what would’ve happened had I been caught?

Nothing, most likely, but Mom never did catch me. Or, she never let on, anyway.

I teased Mom for years about her loud knees, her bad joints, and she took it like a champ.

“Thank God for those knees!” I’d say. “They kept me out of loads of trouble.”

~     ~     ~

The thing is: creaky knees seem to be genetic. I was walking up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, and I heard it — crack, crack, crack — only, instead of just one knee like my mother, it was BOTH. They were beacons of announcement: Catherine’s coming! She’s on her way! Any minute now! And I realized that my mother of the naptimes and sliced apples with peanut butter and tea with milk in the afternoon was a young woman of 28.

She wasn’t old or wrinkled or graying. She wasn’t wizened or aged like good wine. She was my age, and her knees cracked. She had long dark hair and perfect eye sight. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor. She had three babies under the age of four, and she sent us upstairs for naps not because we needed them, but because she did.

When I was in high school, I asked her what she did while we were up there. I pictured her reading a book, watching a television show, napping herself.

“I usually did laundry,” she said. “Or dishes.”

Age is a funny thing. It means less and less as I get older. I wonder if this lovely change is reversed at some point. If, at the ripe old age of 70, the years mean a whole lot more. If you wish all you had to complain about were creaky knees or a compulsory naptime.

The Art of Dating

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There are definitely some things in life I never saw myself doing. Being a teacher is one (who has the patience?!). Living at home till I was twenty-six is another. Getting on the almond milk bandwagon is yet another (everybody’s doing it, it’s fewer calories, and now I can eat more cheese).

The one that really stands out, though? Online dating.

After dating a few guys in college, going on a handful of random dates with no seconds, getting set up on a blind date and fingers-crossed this was the last first date I’d ever go on, I find myself fully immersed in the bizarre culture that is ONLINE DATING. I don’t think anyone envisions themselves online, trolling through profiles, swiping right, swiping left, liking, what-have-you, but so many people my age are doing it.

Which is good, because that makes the pool just a tad bigger.

Which is bad, because it means that there are hundreds of people on here and each one of them has different expectations, different assumptions, and different ways of expressing this thing called attraction.

For the girl who thought she’d only ever date one guy and then marry him, I have certainly become the expert — at least at the beginning stages. I know basically how interested to appear, how often to text, what topics of conversation to avoid and what topics bring out the side of me that’s just a tad too intense, or how lightly I should graze an arm on that first date.

What I don’t know is how to choose.

I don’t know how to be discerning enough ahead of time. I find myself sitting in a bar with a man I would never go out with had we met in real life. And so, I fill an hour, hour-and-a-half, with questions, just enough information on my end not to be a jerk, and wondering why I didn’t make plans for afterwards so I could make a smooth exit.

I have never been on so many dates with so many men in my life. I fear I am perfecting an art I never wanted to pursue.

As for the array of assumptions, they are vast but they are becoming predictable. There are two ends of the spectrum: the first one is not so shocking, given our current society’s views of dating and sex — a good number of guys are barely able to veil their main reason for asking me out, and I’m learning to let go of my naiveté and accept that we have different sexual ethics and bid them adieu.

The second, though, has surprised me a bit more, and left me feeling a little less sure of my own motives. There is a loneliness in the world that I have rarely observed in the people in my life. It is meeting me head-on, here, in this virtual world, and the deep loneliness reaches out from these men and grasps at me, hoping that I am the one to relieve them of their darkness.

A few have texted me daily even before we’ve met. Once we’ve met, they assume I want to jump into a serious relationship, that I am dating only them, that I am doing my best to be single for as short a time as possible, and that I want to hear trite, romantic bullshit as a symbol of their affection. There is almost nothing that turns me off faster than language that doesn’t convey its truth, and anyone who’s only been on one date with me has no business pretending to know who I am. Isn’t that what this game is, anyway? It feels sometimes like they have a list of bullet points in chronological order: 1. Text incessantly, 2. Find her on Facebook, 3. Find out where she is every evening, 4. Convince her that you are sincere, and 5. Try to get her to see you again and again, even after she has clearly stated she is not interested.

The thing is, I am under no illusions that I can just sit back and wait for an amazing man to walk into my life. I, also, need to learn how to express myself, my feelings, and my admiration in a way that is received and desired by the individual man I am interested in. I have a lot of work to do — learn how to engage people as other, independent creations who have valuable things to offer even if I don’t share all the same values, philosophies, or sense of humor.

Just as much, though, I need to learn how to be straightforward in saying no. In saying, It was nice meeting you. Thank you, but no thank you. 

I wish they didn’t make it so difficult. I wish they didn’t make me actually say: “I am not interested in you.” I wish they could receive the truth in softer words, but sometimes (as I have experienced as well) it takes a blow to drive home the truth.

And the few I’ve liked, the few I’ve thought Huh, maybe…well, they haven’t felt the same way.

There’s got to be someone who falls somewhere between these two extremes. Someone whose pace falls in line with mine.

I hope to write a funnier post in the future, perhaps a list of Dos and Don’ts of online dating, or just a story or two (trust me, they’re hilarious…and a little terrifying). Right now, though, there isn’t much funny about the disconnection of human beings, the desire for love that doesn’t seem to get filled, or the fact that I am consistently bashing my head against a dark wooden bar because I had to go through the list of things I enjoy doing “in my free time” AGAIN.

[Photo: mrhayata]

Expectations

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I’m standing in front of a tent full of people. I’ve finished my glass of white wine, my cowboy boots are cutting into my ankles, and my lace dress feels just a bit too sweaty to be beautiful. I unfold the crumpled paper, look out at these faces, some I know, some I do not, and I begin to read.

Joe, I have known Ashley a long time.

It feels a lot like singing, this performance, in the way that time moves so swiftly I don’t quite notice it’s passing. I read all the words. I look up once in awhile, smile at the appropriate times, slow down when I feel like I’m rushing. But I’m not really aware of what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. It might be that everyone’s looking at me but hardly anyone knows my name. It might be the heat of June. It could be stage fright. It’s probably all three.

I know what I talked about only because I wrote it down. I painted a picture of when we were little girls, playing Little House on the Prairie and baking together, playing Manhunt on summer nights. I talked about loyalty and love — only briefly — because they are things I don’t feel fully equipped to address. How can anyone wax wise on ideas of lifelong and commitment and trust?

Suddenly, I am done. I smile again, she is crying, and we hug. I hug Joe, too, and sit down quickly. I feel embarrassed, surprised, that I have just given my first maid-of-honor speech, and I’m not even sure how it went.

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I knew in the back of my mind that one day, I would be a maid-of-honor. I thought that perhaps I would have to give a speech, tell a story, celebrate two lives becoming one. I knew all of this, and yet I was surprised.

~     ~     ~

I sit across from him and I think: I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.

It’s hard to give someone a shot when you compare him to someone you’ve known for awhile, or, at least, someone you thought you knew, and who now colors your interactions with but I wanted someone like this, and this. 

Things never end up the way you expect.

~     ~     ~

We sit in a restaurant, and the waitress gives us free watermelon sangrias. Someone’s mistake has become our blessing. Susie looks at me and says, “A good omen!”, and we toast to the beginning of our new lives in a city busier than my little hometown of 26 years. Who knows what lies ahead? So we toast and smile and hope.

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We pose for a picture — two high school friends who accidentally followed each other into adulthood. The caption? “2015-2016…bring it!” Even as we’re smiling, I am aware that much lies ahead. Every year is unknown. Bad things happen. Students cry. I get frustrated with myself for everything that I lack, and as I’m smiling for this photo in late August, a little bit of fear creeps in and settles in my stomach.

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It’s December in two days. We want to get a Christmas tree, but we’re not sure how to get it home. The convertible is not conducive to carrying trees, so we’re pretty sure we’ll be trekking it two miles. I can picture cars whizzing past us, shaking their heads with pity at those poor girls in L.L. Bean boots dragging a tree halfway across the city. Worse things have happened. I climb the winding stairs to the third floor apartment, open the door, see the perfect place for a tiny tree in the living room.

I drink tea and hang Christmas lights around the windows in my room. I am at the same time content and longing, happy with a tinge of sadness. I burn a cedar candle because we haven’t gotten the tree yet and I want that fresh smell. I wonder what to get my mother for Christmas, and I think about last Christmas and how much I stressed over a gift that didn’t end up mattering. I think of two books that sit on a shelf — haphazardly, I’m sure, or perhaps on the floor — and I wonder how many things will end up differently than I expect a year from now.

What will Christmas 2016 look like?

Will I look back and think, Praise God?

Will I focus on the smell of fresh-cut trees, the laughter of roommates floating in from the living room, the joyful way we ate breakfast on the back porch in the sunlight?

Or will I feel heavy with the weight of the unknown? Or, perhaps, the now-known but not-wanted?

Sometimes you are maid-of-honor at a childhood friend’s wedding. Sometimes you stop talking to someone you love. Sometimes, you sit across from a man and give him a chance.

Nothing ever turns out exactly the way you expect.

Two Homes

The wooden holy family rests on a stack of old grammar school primers. I remember wandering the cobbled streets of Salzburg, how I picked it out as a gift but then couldn’t part with it once I reached Stateside. Next to it is the delicate hand painted teacup from my old Sunday School teacher. It’s almost too fragile for me to own, so I am trying to enjoy its beauty for as long as I can.

IMG_0301I pounded some nails into the wail to hang my sign and “Alice in Wonderland” caricature from my days of directing. I taped up postcards and photos above my bed, and I’m hoping to buy Christmas lights to string between the windows.

I’m trying to make this home.

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My routines transferred easily to this new place. I still get up and grind coffee beans, boil water, fill the French press. I still pack (or forget to pack) a make-shift lunch my coworkers have deemed “college-student-worthy.” I wipe down the bathroom every once in awhile, put the dishes away, and I’ve even swept the floor twice. My domestic side is not exactly thriving, but she is growing.

When my apartment mate plays James Taylor and Paul Simon.

I cut my bangs leaning over the bathroom sink. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Some routines have transferred easily, others are newly acquired.

When we sit in the living room, some with a book, some with a computer, others chatting, and all of us with wine.

I bought bright blue glasses, and my students said I looked like a hipster. And then my family said I looked like a hipster. I’m wondering how many times it takes before it’s true.

When I walk down the street to a friend’s apartment, and she shows me the best place for falafel.

For the first month, I tossed in my sleep, afraid I would get a parking ticket in this ticket-happy town.  I still haven’t parked in the wrong spot and it’s been six weeks. I only believe in spending $50 on worthwhile things.

When my sister or friend comes down to the city, and we make tea and sit in the shady park.

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A book club friend and I went into the thrift shop, and I came out with a sequined top. Not just sequined but fully sequined, with swishes and bright colors. “Oh my gosh, I love this top!” the cashier said. “I’ve been eyeing it since we got it.” I’m waiting for a good dancing night to christen this vintage beauty.

When writers’ group is about to start up for the year and I’m itching and waiting to read and write.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel so much like home. Like when I hit more potholes than my little car can handle and the wheels get all misaligned. Or when I open the fridge and realize, Shoot, I didn’t go grocery shopping, and it’s hardboiled eggs and crackers and hummus for dinner. Again. Or when I climb the steps to my front door, feel eyes on my back, turn around to see a rough man leaning out of a large white van, staring, watching me enter my house. Or when I google search for a new church to visit, and I slip in quietly, worship alone surrounded by strangers, and slip out.

When I spend a Sunday afternoon making applesauce from Dad’s bruised apples, listening to a sermon on what it means to be sanctified, and starting the next baby sweater on my knitting list.

I am moved by poetry in the fall. My soul is played out in Chopin and Debussy in October.

I am in love with this poem by John Holmes right now, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it. Maybe it’s being so close to him, to where he taught, where he wrote. Maybe it’s experiencing these two towns.

Read it slowly. The end is worth it, and the beginning makes the end matter.

Map of My Country

I

A map of my native country is all edges, 
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.

When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.

Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.

I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.

It is time I drew the map again, 
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons. 
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.

On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.
Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.

Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees. 
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke. 
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.

All that I remember happened to me here. 
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.

On Saying “I Love You”

IMG_1638“I love — ” he shouts from behind me, his voice stopping just short of “you.”

I turn around and see the surprised, embarrassed look on his face. I make a split-second decision.

“I love you,” I say with conviction, because if you don’t say “I love you” and mean it, you shouldn’t be saying it at all.

I smile big so he knows I don’t feel uncomfortable. I leave these three children I’ve been babysitting in the kitchen as I head down to my car. Saying goodbye at the end of the summer is never easy.

He stops short of saying “I love you” for a few reasons. First, he’s a thirteen-year-old boy, and everyone knows we teach our children (boys, in particular) that expressing love or affection is not cool. He desperately wants to be cool. He wouldn’t let me post a picture of us sipping iced tea because he was afraid of what his friends would think, so I didn’t. I understand ego, even if I have a slightly different perspective. Second, I’m his babysitter. I am not his mom or his aunt or his grandma. If our young boys do express affection and care, it is almost always in the context of family, and I am not that. I can imagine his struggle as he tried to figure out what was going on: Do I love her? How can I? She’s 26 and not related to me. But what is it, then? It’s definitely not a crush. Because that is reason number three: he didn’t want to be misunderstood and have his care confused into something it wasn’t.

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[My face most of the summer. They loved stealing my phone and leaving me photographic surprises.]

It’s the last day of summer, and I know deep down it’s my last summer with them. There’s a time and place for a babysitter who takes you to the Museum of Science, the beach, mini golfing, the Museum of Fine Arts, even to Funtown Splashtown, USA. But then you start to feel itchy, like it doesn’t quite fit anymore, and both you and your mom and even your babysitter realize it’s time for a change. You don’t really want it – you do love her, in some strange, mysterious way – and when you hug her, you don’t let go right away because you’re not sure when (or if) you’ll see her again. Will you ever ride the train to Boston again? Or try new things like bubble tea or yoga or hiking Mount Pawtuckaway? You’re excited for eighth grade and high school, but you’re missing your best friend who moved across the ocean, and your grandparents who moved to Florida, and even though you know it’s time, you’re wondering what next summer will look like without this strange loud singing buddy you’ve had for so long.

At least, this is what I imagine is going through his head. I know it’s probably not nearly as spelled out as this, or as worry-filled (because these tendencies come later in life), but I can’t help thinking about his voice in the hallway. How the words flew out of his mouth and he had to stop himself. How many times I’ve done that myself — felt an overflow of emotion that had to be expressed, but my words got strangled in my throat because of fear. We don’t have enough words to express what we feel. No wonder he feels strange saying he loves me; it doesn’t fit our paradigms of love, but there is no other word. And so I say it back to him because it is true, but also to show him that it’s okay to say.

I wonder what he thinks as the screen door closes behind me. I wonder if I embarrassed him. I hope he is able to get past that initial feeling of discomfort because someday, I hope he doesn’t stop short of saying it. I want him to be able to hug people and not let go too soon. I want him to be able to say “I love you,” and to receive that same love back. I want him to be free from coolness and uncoolness, debilitating fear and self-preservation, because when you’re able to let go of these things, love comes a whole lot easier. I wish I could be there to watch him grow into this, but just like my students who graduate every spring, he has to go this one on his own. All I can do is help him see that caring for someone is good and telling them is important. Maybe someday I’ll run into him, all tall and grown. I hope he isn’t afraid to give me a hug.

Six at Heart

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When I was five years old, my father told me I had until I was six to move out. I think we were in the kitchen, and my mother must not have been there because she never would have let me believe that. As it was, though, I spent the next few months awaiting January 11th, a date which used to mean joy and pancakes and a few gifts at dinner. Now it was the first day of living on my own.

I don’t remember being very afraid. A little, probably, because I couldn’t drive, but what I remember most was the planning. If I had to be on my own, I’d do it in style.  I emptied my ballerina bank on my bedroom floor and counted the coins and few dollar bills, somewhere around nineteen dollars. Okay, that should get me pretty far. I had my journey all laid out: first, I would walk down the street to the Calabros’ house. They were kind and would understand. After resting up there for the night, I’d walk a few towns over to where my mom’s friend lived. She lived alone and surely she’d take me in for a little while. From there, I would use the phone to call my grandfather, and I had no doubt he would rescue me from my wandering. I’m not sure why I didn’t call him from the neighbors’ house. Part of me thinks my five-year-old self wanted at least a bite-sized adventure.

I don’t remember the night before my birthday, but the next morning is engraved in my memory. I got up, got dressed, and packed my backpack with my favorite outfits and my toothbrush. I tucked the nineteen-ish dollars in the front pocket and headed down the stairs. I said goodbye to my parents and I walked down the street.

My dad came after me, laughing.

“Catherine! Catherine, come back!” he said, catching up to me right before I reached the Calabros’.

I was confused – hadn’t he been saying I had to leave? It was January 11th, I was sure, and I’d made all these plans…

It’s a story my parents still like to tell, my mother with a little more embarrassment than my father, but with a good laugh, anyway.

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Twenty years later, and I’m in those same few months, awaiting a big move. My Dad learned his lesson pretty well that first time, and he’s never even tried to kick me out since. He’ll tease occasionally – “How can I miss you if you never leave?” is one of his favorites – but I know that moments around the dinner table and evenings of Jeopardy are times he would never trade for twenty long years of empty-nesting.

But I’m twenty-six, and the time has come to be out on my own. I won’t lie that it’s a bit later than I expected, that it’s taken longer for me to get my feet under me. The strange thing is, though, that I sometimes feel as shocked as that little girl.

What? I need to move out? Are you sure?

I mean, I’m pretty little.

I am getting better at holding two emotions in tandem, and this is one time where that skill is vital. There are times when my mom is talking to me, and I have no idea what she’s saying because I’m so preoccupied with September first. With renting a U-Haul and getting the day off and finding a gym membership. I am so excited for this move that I daydream while driving about not driving and being able to walk to a coffee shop or to get a good beer. I imagine having friends over for wine and cheese and crusty bread, and there are times when I can’t wait.

And then, there is the morning I woke up and the birds were singing. I took my coffee out to the herb garden and sat by the pond and thought this is what I’ll be missing – this morning sun and the sound of the breeze through the birch tree. What am I thinking, leaving?

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I wrote an essay my senior year of college about graduating. I wrote about how I didn’t know where I would live: would I move to Cambridge as Kayla and I dreamed? Or would I go home to my parents, pay back my student loans, settle in? I desperately wanted to move away, but the truth was I knew if I went home, I’d never want to leave. I knew the longer I stayed, the harder it would be to pack that car and say goodbye.

That was four years ago. Year after year, things have not lined up, people have not shown up, and I’ve chosen home. But this year, suddenly, my eyes lit up with talk of an apartment. Was it possible that I might get to live with two of my favorite people? I held my breath while decisions were made, and then they were made. Then we found a place. Then we signed the lease. Then, it was real, I wrote the check, and we started talking about couches and parking permits and laundry.

I have 25 days until I load the U-Haul and head forty-five minutes south and a world away. That’s 25 mornings to brew coffee and drink it while honeybees pollinate tall purple flowers and a hummingbird dips its beak into hollyhocks. And 25 nights to lie in my girlhood bedroom and remember all the dreams I’ve had. I’ll get to sort through them, sift out the ones I want to keep, and push the rest off on a flaming dory into the dark sea.

On September first, I’ll wake early and start loading the car. I’ll probably be manic because change can make me that way, I’ll forget to eat, and I’ll drink too much coffee. We’ll move quickly past each other, joke as much as possible, and begin to imagine a different life.

I’ll head for the car, take out my keys, and look behind me, a little part of me hoping to see my Dad running after me.

Funtown Deathtown, USA

photoSo I’m sitting on the roller coaster and the bar comes down. A. looks at me, her eyes wide, and she leans in to whisper, “Catherine, I kind of have to go to the bathroom.”

“Ha, well that’s terrible timing,” I say, hoping the need is fear-induced.

Suddenly we’re making the ascent, the boys looking back at us with big grins because they know how much I am about to scream. Most people are putting their arms up high in the air, getting ready for the zip, but I clutch the bar instead. This is only my second roller coaster ride, after all.

At the very top is a sign that reads “Absolutely No Standing,” and I barely have time to wonder why in the world they would need that sign before we are careening down the steep wooden coaster and I am screaming like a little girl.

Unlike the little girl sitting next to me. She barely makes a peep, just flings her arms around and looks at me once in a while to see how I’m doing.

I wonder for a minute why I do this to myself.

Why we do this to ourselves.

What is it about adrenaline that is so addicting?

Oh, right, it’s a brain-thing.

As we zip around the corners and I hear the wheels crunching and turning, I’m proud of myself for getting on. For allowing myself to be buckled in. For choosing to feel like my stomach was going to fly out of my mouth.

Because they’d begged me to go on the ride, and I knew for some reason this was important to them. They wanted to share the fun with me, I think, and a little bit of them wanted to hear me freak.

But it had a little bit to do with love, too.

I’ve been thinking about love a lot these days, as I ponder how best to love my family after I move, how to be a good friend, how to care for my students. This might sound far-fetched, but I was loving those kids by getting on that ride.

I was telling them making them happy was more important to me than not dying.

I was telling them that making myself uncomfortable was worth seeing joy in their eyes.

And most of all, I was showing them that sometimes you do things you wouldn’t normally do because you care.

I’m sure they aren’t thinking about this stuff at all – that they are just glad they’d convinced me to get in line and that there’s no turning back now.

But I still want to show them what it looks like to stare an old wooden roller coaster in the rickety rails and say:

Bring it.

It brings it. My ponytail falls out and my hair’s flying and we all stagger a little bit when we get off.

I didn’t die.

She looks at me with her big eyes and says, “Okay, now I really have to go to the bathroom.”

Lost Letter

photo 1I found it a few days ago, tucked into a book as an impromptu marker. I’d used one of my favorite notecards and I remember writing the letter in February, sitting in the little white chair in my bedroom.

I’d meant to send it, like any letter, but somehow it’s been hidden for the past five months.

I toyed with sending it now, but my curiosity got the better of me. I tore it open, read the words I’d meant for a friend. A time capsule, this letter that was never meant for my June-self, contained not only comfort, but truth.

I had no idea the difficult conversations I’d be having over the next few weeks, nor the “change” (really, changes) I felt coming. All I knew was what I read, what I felt, and how beautifully scripture pairs with Mary Oliver in a handwritten letter.

“For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar –
The Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand.”
-Isaiah 51:16

Dear K,

This was part of my Lenten devotional – good ol’ Henri Nouwen! – and it struck me for a few reasons. The biggest one, though, is that God’s words fill our mouths – God fills our mouths with his words. There is so much power in that but the number of times I do not feel God’s words coming out of my mouth would seem to disprove this fact. So in those moments when we are most afraid, most vulnerable, most ready to throw our hands up and despair, that is when the power of God’s Word (God’s words) can lift us out of ourselves.

But hand-in-hand with this power is God’s protection. I think it was this combination of truths that brought this verse so deeply into my heart. Because as little as I feel God’s strength and power within me, I would say I feel his protection even less. Sometimes I feel I march through the gates of whatever “righteous” battle I’m waging at the time, but despite God’s power, I am left unprotected, easily hurt, and most often very confused.

I think perhaps there is a little bit of your New York in that: full of strength in the beginning, a sense of extreme vulnerability, and a feeling of no protection afterwards.

I feel on the cusp of some “great change,” and I don’t necessarily mean factual, physical, geographical. I think this Lenten season holds a mystery for my discovery, and when I woke up and read my devotional, writing to you became the first step in that pursuit of quiet, of rest, of opening up to hear God speak.

Morning Poem
by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear

like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead – 
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging  – 

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted – 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
wether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Love,
Catherine

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The Commencement Address I Didn’t Give

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Today as I sat at my students’ high school graduation, I thought: I hope I never have to give a commencement address.

It doesn’t matter how engaging the speaker, how moving his or her message. Really, what we want to see is that student’s name called, watch her walk across the stage, get the diploma, move her tassel to the left, and throw her cap in the air.

We want to witness that smile that can’t be stopped because the work is done. Finally.

Only so much wisdom can be digested in moments of anticipation.

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This was the fifth graduation I’ve been a part of – whether as a student or as a faculty member – and I remembered my own high school graduation. Eight years ago.

I remember singing a song that was entirely inappropriate for a graduation because I’d been asked to sing and I didn’t have a lot of repertoire.

No one wants to hear “Pur di cesti, o bocca bella” when their children receive their diplomas.

And I have yet to see a flattering mid-singing photograph.

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I remember the strangest things about that day. I remember being so happy, driving my bug with the top down. I remember crunching a row of baby turtles on my way to school and crying because I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless.

I remember hardly believing high school was over and I remember being terrified of what September would bring.

I remember eating a celebratory lunch at Striper’s restaurant and overlooking the river.

But mostly, I remember feeling very grown up.

~     ~     ~

I don’t think I will ever be asked to give a commencement address. I’m more of the pep-talk teacher, the one who encourages in one-on-one conversations.

But if I did give one?

If I did try in ten minutes to bestow some sort of wisdom on young minds which couldn’t bear to handle one more ounce of wisdom?

I’d probably say the following:

Chill out. Please.

I know you think you are grown up. And you are, sort of. But not really. And by the way, I haven’t met many people who feel it and are.

I know you feel sexy in those five-inch heels, but trust me, you look far more elegant in flats and confidence.

People tell you “don’t have any regrets.” I tried that – I tried living in a place of denial, in a place that said, “I did everything right and I wouldn’t change a moment.” This place does not really exist. You will have regrets. It’s about what you do with that regret that matters.

You are full of ideas and dreams and expectations. (I still am – I hope I always am.) But wait. You might study music and never sing at the MET. You might get your dream job and loathe your existence. It might end up that college isn’t the road you should take. Don’t be embarrassed that you were wrong. Embrace the second chance.

Do not be surprised when you learn the same lesson twice. Or three times. Do not think you are dumb or naive. Sometimes it takes more than one experience to hammer in a new idea, a fresh lesson in growth. Let yourself be imperfect, but don’t let yourself stay exactly the same imperfect.

And this one might be the most important:

Choose without knowing the future. Take action without waiting for lightning. Make the best possible decision with the knowledge you have, and when you look back, give yourself grace. Do not chastise your past self for making the best possible choice with limited sight. This will paralyze you.

~     ~     ~

In May of 2016, I will walk across the stage and receive my Master’s diploma. There will be a commencement address. I will try to listen. I will strain forward or sit back with the ease of taking it in.

But my mind will be filled with life – my past, my future – and most likely, I will be feeling exactly the way my seniors did today: excited, a little afraid, but mostly hopeful.

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