Fitting In Just as I am and Passing That On

Like most kids with their parents, my kids like to go work with me. Yesterday, the college had its first Wrangler Day on the Abilene campus (we have two campuses), a day of games and food and fun. We put on our matching special tees for the day and off we went.

We visited with people, wandered around and watched students try to ride the mechanical bull, ate hamburgers, and then while I helped serve those wonderfully greasy burgers, the kids sat under the big tent and watched the people and kept themselves occupied.

(courtesy of Cisco College's facebook page)

Like my kids are doing, I grew up at Cisco College. Both my parents taught there, my mom for over a decade, and my dad from the mid 70s (part time the first few years) to two years ago, when he retired. My brothers and I roamed the various halls and classrooms (the Abilene campus moved several times), and we all attended the college, both brothers going through technical programs--my youngest going through the nursing program my mother taught for, and my other brother going through the electronics program my dad ran at that time. My first college instructor was my father, who taught me BASIC and intro to computing in my senior year of high school.

I even managed to take a drafting class at the Clyde campus in the 80s and, as the only female and a smart ass at that, fail. That was okay. Visualizing screws cut in half and then drawing them really wasn't my thing. 

I've been teaching with the college, first as an adjunct and now full-time, since 2005. It is, without a doubt, my dream come true. I know I am doing exactly what I was meant to do where I was meant to do it.

I grew up as an Air Force brat my first ten years, and although Dad was stable at Dyess for most of that time, my parents were transplanted Yankees. We moved a few times around the town, and then finally out to Potosi, where I am lucky enough, as an adult, to live next door to my childhood home. One of the things I lacked as a kid was continuity, a sense of place, of belonging. I never felt like I belonged at the school I went to--we were one of the few military families at the time, and I was different from the kids, period. I wanted to be with adults. I wanted to be in the library, and most of all, I didn't want to be at recess or in the cafeteria. Yes, I did manage to make friends, people who were similar to me and who made the place bearable. But I didn't fit there.

When I was at the college, though, watching my parents teach, or talking to their fellow instructors, or the students, I was happy. I fit. I was home. 

What I want most for my kids, both MY kids and my students, is that they all have a place they fit, that they are comfortable being themselves. I've worked hard to make home that place for my kids and my classroom a place where all my students knows they will be heard by me and accepted. I want it to be for them what it is for me: the place I belong. 

Yesterday, I had a wonderful day, even though I started it not feeling well. I had a great time serving burgers, visiting, seeing students I have taught over the last couple years come together to have fun, watching my kids at home in that environment, even managing to deal with loud music, a crowd, and smoke from the grills for three hours before I had to take them home--before it was sensory overload. It was a lovely day, and I am so proud of my children--they handled it like troopers, in part because the college is a place they love to go, and they were willing to experience new things there because it's a safe place for them. It's their other home. How wonderful is that? 

I'm not big into rituals or traditions, in general, but this--passing this love of the college and this sense of belonging on to my children and my students, I'm downright mushy about.


Rituals,Traditions and Customs: Creating Meaning

After 26 years together (we met April 15, 1988 and fell for each other instantly), I've grown to embrace Rick's refusal to accept traditions just because they exist or to celebrate holidays because they are on a calendar. It took some time to get used to, since my mom loves holidays and traditions and I grew up under that mindset, but over time I've gotten to like what's replaced it: our own traditions and rituals.

We don't do anything about the New Year, because, well, we're usually asleep or Rick's working and for me, the year always starts at the end of August. :)

Valentine's Day...well, I've gotten an occasional acknowledgement, but for the most part, no mention is made of the day, and to be honest, I'll take no Valentine's Day in exchange for the husband who, knowing I was out with our daughters walking in 90 degree heat, took the time to drive by the walking path and give me a glass of ice water, and then when my left ankle locked up, came back and gave us a ride back to my car. That is true love.

Easter is another day that passes by without any real acknowledgement--for several years we ate Easter dinner at my parents and the kids got baskets, but Easter and what it involves is difficult for my kids--they hate injustice and no matter how many times the whole Easter story is told, they are seriously pissed that Jesus and others were crucified. Not even the resurrection overcomes that. Plus, they are seriously literal minded and highly skeptical. The less said on the matter, the better. Their father is a pretty solid atheist and their mother is an agnostic who believes in following Christ's teachings and ignoring the rest. So this weekend passes without any celebration or tradition. Seems the smartest way to go for us, especially when their reaction to injustice is hours and hours of heartwrenching sobs.

Memorial Day, Rick's and my birthdays, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving...not a huge deal for us, at least not the way many people celebrate them. The kids' birthdays are, of course, a big deal.

Veteran's Day is probably the only holiday that means a lot to Rick and me, and to the kids. But celebrating it doesn't quite fit. We acknowledge it. We honor our service members. It matters. With family members who have served, friends who have served, and with Rick's service and my own short service, we hold this day sacred.

Christmas is low key for us. No tree...now that the kids are bigger, we do gifts before Christmas and choose to watch movies together.

This doesn't mean we are without rituals and traditions and customs. It just means we created our own and refine them over time.

We eat supper together every day. Most days we eat lunch together. Many mornings we eat breakfast together. Being together for meals and sharing that time with each other is important to me and Rick.

We all love the same shows, the same books, the same games, the same toys. We share our time together, choosing to be with each other most of our time at home.

The girls and I cuddle and talk for hours.
Bob can talk my ear off on his story he's writing, the games he's playing, the books he's reading. And, given that it took many years before he could do that, I listen and remind myself what a blessing it is, even if it gets repetitive at times. He's 24 and he still wants to talk to me. I'll embrace that.
Rick and the kids play games together for hours.
Rick takes the kids to the toy store every Saturday, takes them to a toy club meeting once a month. He plays with them, and they love to quote Big Bang lines to each other (and to me).
We decorate our life-size skeleton throughout the year with trinkets that amuse us.
And so much more.

We have, I know, our own lexicon that might be confusing to outsiders, but a single word can resonate with deep meaning for all of us.

When you live with literal minded, logical people who want a real reason for doing something, maybe the culture's traditions get thrown by the wayside, but what we have is rich, intense, joyful and full of meaning to us.

And that's exactly the way it should be.

May your traditions and rituals be as rewarding to you and yours as you celebrate this Easter weekend, from a spiritual, religious, or secular perspective.


Out of the Mouth of Babes

Our busy world keeps us from "doing the things that keep us in balance, healthy, and connected with our inner selves and our place in the world."  --Savor

I think the idea of balance and that we, as women, have the right to have it takes us by surprise. And forget about an inner self. We wouldn't recognize her if we saw her.

Our culture pushes the idea of women who are always on the go, and too often that's true. We're all so very busy. Our health, our well-being, goes on the back burner. It's not necessarily a martyr complex, although sometimes it is. 

The hardest part is believing we have the right to be in balance, to cultivate our inner self, and to let our inner and outer selves match. Much of the time, our grief, anger, fear is hidden, even from ourselves. We put on a mask, keep our mouths shut, and soldier on because we believe there is no other option.

Being weak, giving ourselves a break--forget about it. Even when our dearest friend calls us on it, we may scoff and wonder how we can possibly let go, of pretenses, of situations, of people, of choices.

The trick is to somehow realize that being human isn't being weak. We have the right to break under undue burdens. We can always duct tape afterwards. But if we don't allow ourselves the right to break when necessary, I think we rob ourselves of the chance to increase our flexibility, our empathy, our ability to bend.

So balance is the quest: a balance that lets us nurture our soul and our children's souls, that lets us be ourselves, so that we are not shocked and grieved when we hear one of our children say to her sibling, "Mom looks happy," with a sound of surprised awe in her voice. Because if it's been so long since our children have seen a genuine look of happiness on our face that it merits mention, it's been way too fucking long since we've been happy. 


Nearly five weeks later...the fiercest of loves

Come Monday, Snapple will have been with us for five weeks--five weeks that flew by. She has integrated into the furry side of the family very well, and makes sure to love on us humans as she does with her furry brothers and sisters. Ouch. We are having to teach Snapple to not live up to her name--her little bites hurt.

Not that Val minds those sharp little teeth. 
They love to play.

As many pets as I have had over my life, 
it never fails to surprise me how deeply 
I fall for these critters,
how intensely I love them.

Watching Lily carry her puppy everywhere, 
the bond they are developing, 
is lovely. 
She has what she wanted: an animal that loved her the most.
And she adores the pup, looks out for her, feeds her, cleans up after her
without ever complaining.
Animals are so important for children.

When it's right, it's right, and you know in an instant.
Watching them as they met, it was immediate and intense.
Just like Bobby nearly three years ago with Dude.
The fiercest of loves are created with just a look.


If Focusing Only on the Pleasant Bits Worked

Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, has Billy Pilgrim talk about the Tralfamadorians' philosophy of ignoring the unpleasant times and focusing only on the positives. Pilgrim, however, is constantly being pulled back into the war and his times in Dresden. He is helpless to avoid it, although he compensates by creating a future with centerfold Montana Wildhack on a Tralfamadorian zoo where they live happily and procreate.  Wish fulfillment, lovely daydreams or schizophrenic visions?

I've taught this novel for several years, and each time, I try to deepen my knowledge of Vonnegut and his experiences and keep up with the literary criticism. I teach the novel through the lens of PTSD, and every semester, my confidence that this diagnosis fits both the man and the character grows. I don't reject any student's essay that argues against. I think we see things through our own experiences and we recognize kindred spirits when we run across them. 

I'm setting the novel aside after this semester, though, having decided to give it and me a break. Of course the work I've chosen to replace it with is even far more harrowing. That seems to be me: literature and art should make us feel raw, visceral. Grave of the Fireflies will certainly do it.

I cannot seem to escape the films or novels of my youth. They seared themselves into my psyche and I must continually take them out, turn them around, explore them. Break them down and build them up again. Break myself down, and work at rebuilding myself. And as I run across works new to me, I must study them, too, make sense of them. Drain every drop of feeling from it.

I'm not terribly interested in stories that wrap up with a neat and pretty bow, allowing the characters to live happily ever after. I'm interested in characters who suffer and bleed but still keep crawling forward, and in understanding those characters who don't, those who give up, like Pilgrim. 

Life in the disability community, teaching students year after year, and age have all combined to show me how messy and difficult life is. How broken we often are. And as Maya Angelou reminds, of how we can rise again.


Ding Ding Ding: And We Have A Winner

I should have known something was awry when I got these heads, months apart, a year (2?) ago (time slips and I'm too lazy to look back through thousands of pictures to figure out how long these heads have been hanging at the foot of my bed staring at me). 

It should have been a huge red flag that something was wrong. A dear friend (who is great for giving me the necessary nudges I need) and I discussed it the other day on the phone and I took them down while we were still on the phone, trying to figure out why I would let them be there, staring at me, when I really didn't like them, hadn't liked them when I bought them. Frankly I was mystified at the time of the animal print obsession when it began and remain just as befuddled today, as Batman sweeps through the house the way the animal prints did, except I like Batman--we all love Batman, so it totally makes sense, especially when we've been collecting Batman for 25 years.  And we don't have near the amount of Batman that we do animal print.

The heads are still down and a Batman poster is up in its place. It's a little freaky, what with the hand reaching for me, but it beats the hell out of the heads staring at me.

                                                         Hand reaching...

Photo: Batman replaced the zebra and giraffe heads and the tiger eyes

Heads staring...

I even tried to make it work  for the blog.
Too many damned eyes.

I can kinda understand why I bought the heads in a "how many people would have these" way; sure, it's cool but what the heck do you do with them? Especially now that they are no longer hanging up? They are life sized, after all.

Okay, this is an option.

I'm ambivalent looking at them--glad that I gave myself permission to take them down rather than continuing to dwell in sunk-cost fallacy or the idea that taking them down would be admitting I was wrong to buy them in the first place. I had to accept it was okay to admit I didn't really understand buying them and didn't really like them there or anywhere.

In the end, I'll probably move them outside to the garden as part of some weird tableau or see if I can get Rick to hang them outside the front door so people know what they're in for as they walk up the steps. And by moving them outside, I would be one step closer to getting rid of them. I think we could count that progress.

To get here, though, meant recognizing and admitting I had a shopping problem--that I was using getting stuff to cover up unhappiness. It took several months to admit that and over a year living with depression to get there, and finally to getting help consolidating our debt and cutting up our credit cards so I would be forced to choose more adaptive ways of dealing with stress.

It's been two months without the cards. Can you imagine that? That's huge. As huge as taking the stupid heads down. 

Now if I can resolve my ambivalence on the heads and let them go entirely. What would that feel like, to give myself permission to let go of the things I'm not attached to and even dislike, the things that lost their value long ago? 

Those are good questions to ponder.


Because Art Sometimes Hurts As It Should

We've been working our way through Studio Ghibli's films, with Totoro being one of our absolute favorites. None of the films have failed to delight and impress, though. One, Grave of the Fireflies, we knew we would have to watch without Rosie, so last night we did, since she was at a sleepover.

I held a sobbing Lily on my lap (no easy feat since she's an inch shorter than me) for almost all of the movie and then cuddled with her in bed afterwards, dissecting the film and the short story it was based on, examining with her why watching it (and reading it) was an important thing for us to do.

To be fair, we gave her repeated opportunities to stop the movie, but having started it, she wanted to finish it. We've been spending a lot of time talking about literature and art and what separates it from much of the popcorn fluff our culture spends its time with.

What is literature/art and why is it important? Why do we push ourselves to watch things that break our hearts, make us feel devastated for the very real people that these sorts of harrowing life events happen to? Why does it matter? When is it okay to step back from the stuff that hurts?

An extended question is why do I focus in my composition courses on fiction and nonfiction texts that do hurt? Why did I make my 1301 class sit through Geraldo Rivera's expose on Willowbrook State School and then on the followup documentary (30 minutes of its hour and fifty minutes)? Why do they write essays on disability and what society's responsibility is towards the disabled, how ageism, ableism, and privilege impact people? And why are we now working through euthanasia of the disabled? It's no easy slog--not for the students and not for me.

It hurts. But it's the kind of hurt that humbles. It's the kind of hurt that makes one want to be a soft place for others, to do no harm, to actively seek to stop harm from being done.

Lily watched a hard, hard movie last night and had her first experience with the incredibly inhumanity we can and do perpetrate on each other and her heart hurt and she felt what both the author and filmmaker wanted: that this cannot and should not happen again. That children should be protected and loved. That death and destruction are wrong. Killing people is wrong. Destroying cities and those who dwell there is wrong.

I was only a little younger when I was first really exposed through film and novels to war and what it does to people. And a little older when I first saw Gallipoli. The films and novels that showed me a side of humanity I wasn't aware of still haunt me and figure in my courses: Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Heroes. Gallipoli. MASH. 

I'm just as obsessed, just as mystified as I was when I was ten and began the journey into literature and art that seared the soul. I'll be adding Grave of the Fireflies to what I show my students because it's just that important. Just as searing.