Sunday, August 30, 2009

Toilets, Tires, and Earlobes: why our lives are hopelessly full of holes

About a year ago I noticed that a little lump, the size of a pea, had suddenly appeared on the right side of my back.  Barely noticeable to the human eye, it blended in with my pale white skin, merely a shadow, perhaps, if someone made a concerted effort to spot it.
A while back, I showed it to my doctor during a routine check-up, and he assured me that it was nothing more than a lipoma, a benign cyst that was nothing that I should be worried about.  He told me that unless it started to grow in size or alter its appearance in any way, there was absolutely no need for concern.  

When it started growing in diameter, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should be concerned.”  To make matters worse it also began to discolor, at which point I had become officially worried.
By the time I had mustered the courage to show it to my boyfriend, it had grown to the size of a mini muffin top, and the color was, well, I’ll leave it to the imagination.  
My boyfriend agreed that it would have to be looked at. “You’re going to have to have it looked at,” he said, to which I replied, reminding him as if he wasn’t already keenly aware, “But I don’t have insurance.”  
Ah, there’s the rub.  Since I was laid off from my teaching position in June, I haven’t had any type of medical coverage.  I was supposed to be able to continue the coverage I’d had through the school district but due to miscommunications and mailings that never arrived (as though my apartment exists in some celestial vortex), I lost that opportunity, leaving me uninsured and vulnerable to astronomical medical costs. 
Upon showing the lump to my mother, as well as my sisters, they convinced me that despite my insurance situation I would have to get it looked at.  “You’ve GOT to get that thing LOOKED at!” they insisted.  So finally I did.  I decided to go to a local clinic I’d been to on previous occasions when my primary physician was unavailable on short notice.  I walked in, waited to be called, and then came the part I’d been dreading.
“So, Miss Smith, what will be your form of payment?”  the receptionist/nurse asked politely.
“I’ll be paying with my debit card,” I said casually, my eyes looking everywhere but at her.
“Have you been here before?”
“Is your insurance the same, then?” she inquired.
“Um, actually...” I mumbled. “Actually, I don’t have insurance right now because, well, see I was laid off...”
“I see,” she said without looking at me.  “So you’re self pay.”
“I guess so,” I said.  “Self pay.”
Self pay was a phrase I’d never heard before because I’ve never been without insurance, so as I spoke the words back to the lady behind the desk, the meaning started to reverberate.  At first it sounded sort of empowering, as in, “I, mySELF, will PAY!”  or “I can take care of mySELF by PAYing for this!”  Yeah!  Take that!
But the delusions of grandeur quickly disappeared the moment the nurse called the doctor over after he’d examined me.  During his examination, he told me that the infection was pretty serious and that he would have to “get in there” to clean it out.  When he told the nurse about the procedure he’d be performing, she stopped and looked befuddled, as though he’d instructed her to lube me up for a lobotomy.
“Um, Doctor,” she said, frantically.  “Did you know she’s SELF pay.”
“Oh, “ the nice doctor said. “Well, then we won’t charge you full price for the procedure.  But we can discuss that in my office.”
It seems to me that nurse/receptionist could have taken a cue from the nice doctor about something called CONFIDENTIALITY!  But I digress.  After the procedure was over, I was left with a delightfully excruciating pain surrounding the newly excavated archeological site that was my former mini muffin. When I got home, I could not bring myself to actually remove the bandage and look at it, but in my imagination that hole in my back was a real force to reckon with.  Eventually, my fear morphed into obsession, to the point that I would contort my body to see in the mirror if the hole was still oozing anything gross.  
When the day came that the hole in my back had stopped oozing whatever it was that had to be oozed, I composed a song with an accompanying happy dance to the tune of “There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza.”  My version went like this:  “The hole in my back’s not oozing, not oozing, not oozing!  The hole in my back’s not oozing, not oozing, no more, hey!”  The “hey” was accentuated by a sideways kick rivaled only by a backwoods Rockette stage show.  “Finally!” I thought to myself.  “The hole in my back’s not oozing!”  
And thus began the series of events that would begin to resemble one another in their level of inconvenience, their “you’ve got to be kidding factor,” and the common theme that ran through all of them:  holes.  
Allow me to elaborate.  The other morning my significant other drove his car (our only car, currently) to work.  He came home with news that one of the tires had gone flat, i.e. there was a hole in it.  
Two nights ago, we were watching a South Park re-run in the living room when suddenly part of our ceiling fell through.  Apparently, there was a toilet leak in the unit above us.  Once again, a gaping hole had been carved from my life, leaving what looked like the slobbery maw of some mythical  creature.  
I wish I could say that after my ceiling collapsed I composed a silly tune so I’d be more inclined to laugh about it.  But I didn’t.  Every time I look up at the hole that hangs over my dining room table (since moved, of course), I ponder the ubiquitous presence of holes.
The biggest of these right now is the hole in my head.  After a couple of weeks of coping with the fact that I haven’t found a teaching job, I still feel lost and very much afraid of what I’m going to do with myself.  Add to that the issues of family relationships, and there’s a great big hole in my heart, to boot.  
We spend our lives poking holes in our bodies for various reasons, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not:  Ear piercings, belly piercings, shots, major surgeries, minor procedures.  Maybe the little voids we strive to fill are part of a cosmic plan to re-order the universe.  Or perhaps you find this theory full of....holes?
In sports, the hole takes on a whole new meaning.  In golf, the ultimate shot is a hole in one.  In basketball, the ball is thrown into a bottomless basket or hole. Pool is a game that is played on a table dotted with  dark, mysterious, velvet covered apertures called “pockets”  which are really just holes into which balls are poked by a stick.  
All this poking, piercing, and puncturing results in a variety of scenarios, everything from winning the game to staving off infection or being able to adorn our ears with diamond-studded dangles.  We keep trying to fill them or plug them up to make something whole again.  Whatever the result, the holes seem to remain, whether in our pool tables, our theories, or our hearts.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Growing Toward the Light: life lessons from a tea rose

For my thirty-seventh birthday, my whole family got together at my parents’ house to celebrate the occasion with pound cake, mom’s famous coffee, and a few tasty cocktails (not necessarily in that order!).  It was April 24th, thirty seven years to the day that I had graced the earth with my presence...truly something to celebrate in the context of the turmoil I’d experienced, lo those many years.  I can’t explain the phenomenon of birthday ecstasy, but every year, as mature and independent a woman as I am, I still get giddy when people wish me happy birthday.  Perhaps it’s not such a mystery, though, that feeling that wells up inside us when people sing (or half shout) “Happy Birthday” in twelve different keys while we gaze at a flaming sphere of frosting, flour and egg.  After all, aren’t birthday parties some of the fondest memories of our childhood?  Isn’t that when we learned to wish upon a burning candle and then actually believed that our wish would come true?  And even if it wasn’t our own birthday party but that of a brother or sister or best friend, we still gathered around that flaming sphere of butter cream deliciousness and dreamt of our own upcoming birthday that was only 78 and 1/2 days away, secretly making our own wish in the flickering darkness.

A family gathering may not be every person’s ideal way to spend a birthday, for there will always be sibling rivalries over who has the hottest husband, the biggest and most stylishly decorated home, and the smartest most well-adjusted kids. Believe me: more often than not, issues similar to those contribute to the Smith family dynamic, but none of them surfaced that night. At all. It was simply a delightful gathering of people who loved me in spite of my many faults. And that felt good. It felt good that people showed up even if they really didn’t feel like it. As my four sisters and one brother (another brother was unable to attend) gathered around the table with my mom and dad by my side, I felt loved. Corny? Probably. But it’s true. Things got even better when my sister Susie said, “Okay, it’s time for presents!” Presents! Who doesn’t love to get presents? While I do enjoy giving, once again there’s something about a beautifully wrapped package that taps into our childhood happy place and melts that serious adult façade we’re forced to wear when we face the outside world.
One of the gifts I received that night was a tea rose plant from my sister Becky. I remember how she described it as I peeled off the neatly wrapped pink and white tissue paper: “I know that regular roses are beautiful," she said. "But there’s a sweetness about a tea rose plant that’s equally beautiful.” I couldn’t agree more, which is why, when the plant started drying up after a couple of weeks I became very upset. I kept thinking, “Why do all of my plants go through this when I bring them home to this apartment? Is the air too dry? Is there too much sun? Maybe not enough? Am I not giving them enough attention? Do I exude anti-plant love?”

Lo and behold, that little tea rose plant surprised me by finally seeing the light, literally, just as my born again geranium had. Out of the blue one day, I noticed a tiny bud protruding from a rogue stem that had gradually diverged from its neighbors. Little by little the fragile wisp of a stem had begun reaching toward the source of light that fed it, craning its neck like a baby bird poking through its shell. Some might say that this kind of thing happens all the time, right? Plants are just plants. But to me, as I embark on this journey of joblessness, self-evaluation, and fear of what the future might hold, nature’s resilience continues to inspire me. After all, plants are like people: they grow toward the light.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

“The Road Not Taken” Part II: the myth of the elusive master’s degree

“The only real education comes from what goes counter to you.”
André Gide (1869-1951) 

From the time we were old enough to be dragged out of bed on a bright September morning and nudged out the door on the first day of school, we were told repeatedly that education is the key to our success.  Whether we heard it from our mother while she insisted we finish our homework before going out to play, or from our teachers who encouraged us after we failed that lousy math test, or from clueless politicians on the campaign trail, who preached the need to educate every child so that none would be left behind, the message is the same:  If we study, work hard, and go to school, we will find success.  

As a child who was practically born with a book in her mouth, I hardly needed the nudge toward academics that some children do.  I loved my teachers, and I wanted them to love me back.  I was the student who raced home in feverish delight when I earned an A+ on a spelling test.  I was the student who, when assigned a short story to write, drafted three versions and revised until I deemed it fit for sharing.  Yes, I was often the teacher’s pet, but not because I sought special privileges.  Rather, I really loved to learn, and I yearned to be in the presence of others like me.  

Considering this early interest in academia, it seemed a natural progression for me to go to college to study literature and to become, big surprise, a teacher.  I think I always knew that I planned on teaching high school, but only because my real love--writing--was just a pipe dream, something the F. Scott Fitzgeralds, J.D. Salingers, and T.S. Eliots of the world could do.  First of all, my first name did not consist of initials; secondly, I could never write like they did.  Real writers know from a very early age that they were put on this earth to write.  Real writers don’t have to go to college to learn how to write; real writers learn through the practice of revision and by sharing their latest works with their fellow expatriates while drinking wine in a smokey Parisian café.  Real writers were touched by the grace of God; I, on the other hand, was not. 

That was the illusion I was under as I enrolled in an undergraduate program at a small catholic college in a swanky Chicago suburb. When I was asked by my counselor what course of study I’d like to follow, I immediately said, “Education.”  I never expected to suffer a nervous breakdown of sorts during that first semester of college, but I did.   All of a sudden I felt like I didn’t belong there, so I stopped attending classes, failed to withdraw by the official deadline, and then simply failed.  

Eventually I found my way back to that same school, dragging my tail between my legs, begging to be re-admitted.  I was, and I graduated in the spring of 1996 with a B.A. in English Education.  After that came eleven years of teaching high school, middle school, and junior high in various places around the city and suburbs.  The time I spent at one particular school, which I will call Fallbrook, lies at the crux of that second questionable decision I alluded to previously.  It was at this school that I worked with a student teacher whom I will call Jane.  Jane quickly became a good friend because she was very supportive and actually wound up teaching me as much as I taught her.  She was older than I was, but looked very young, a fact apparently not lost on our principal who the following year was seen on video tape engaging in sexual acts with Jane and other staff members on top of the desk in his office.

As absurd and disgusting as the whole thing was, I now question my ultimate decision to resign my position at Fallbrook to enroll in a full-time graduate school program.  The program I selected would require me to quit my job because the courses I would be taking were offered at all hours of the day, so there would be no way for me to juggle both school and work.  

I wrestled with the decision to leave a life of stability.  I had been at that school for two years, and if I had remained there--if I had chosen a more “traditional” graduate school program like most teachers did--I would now be a tenured teacher at Fallbrook Elementary and I wouldn’t be sitting here at this laptop right now; rather, I’d be expounding on the virtues of good sentence structure while taking intermittent gulps from my bright red travel mug before a sea of sleepy, half-awake  faces.

So did I do the right thing?  I was accepted to an excellent school that was located in a beautiful neighborhood along Lake Michigan.  My boyfriend and I took long walks around campus, watching the leaves on the plentiful trees change color, taking in the beauty of the campus architecture.  I felt alive, engaged, and eventually, exhausted.  But I was convinced at the time that my life would never be the same once that precious piece of paper was placed in my hot little hands; once I received that diploma, life would be sweet. 

In the spring of 2008, I finally got my wish, earning my M.A. in the Humanities from The University of Chicago.  I found another teaching gig at a school that was not exactly my dream job, but the salary was good, more than I’d ever made before.  Consequently, I learned to live with the loud hallways, constantly cursing children, and mildly inadequate administrators.  I learned to live with all of it because I was suddenly able to afford the things I’d always wanted to buy and do.  Sounds totally shallow, doesn’t it?  But all of the monetary bonuses aside, I also felt like I’d reached some of those kids, and that really was more important than the money.

Like all good things, that job came to an end when I was informed that “due to budgetary constraints” I would not be re-hired for the upcoming school year.  I cried, I raged, and then I cried some more.  I couldn't understand how I could find myself unemployed, uninsured, and completely uncertain of my future  after I'd followed the rules and continued my education as our parents, teachers, and politicians  told us to.   My teacher friends assured me that once I had that expensive piece of paper in my hands, my résumé would be at the top of every school district’s list and that I would have no problem finding a teaching job.  Last summer I was able to find one; this summer, there’s none to be found.

So again I ask, was my foray into graduate school a wise decision in light of all that’s happened since?  Am I really a master of humanity as it states boldly on the diploma that hangs over my desk?  Am I really a master of anything?  

I’m reminded of a quote from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley:  

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Perhaps I am a master of at least one thing. 

Monday, August 24, 2009

"The Road Not Taken": decisions, decisions

I’ve done all sorts of crazy things in my life, but at the time they made perfect sense, probably because I was enthralled by the prospect of doing something “different” from everybody else. In hindsight, I question the practicality of two decisions in particular because in the end they turned out to be life altering. Today I'll explore the first of those decisions.

In the spring of 2003, I was teaching English and French at an all-boys catholic high school on Chicago’s north side. I’d been there for three years and prior to that had taught summer school there for seven years. Overall I’d been happy, mostly with the amazing students I was fortunate enough to teach, and it was where I met a teacher who, to this day, is one of my very best friends. 

When it came time to sign my contract for the following school year, I had a meeting with my principal (a genuine prince of a leader--the best I’ve ever had) during which he informed me that the board had decided to shrink the World Language program due to lower student enrollment, which meant that I would no longer be teaching my two French I classes. Instead, I would be a full-time English teacher once again.

I couldn’t blame my principal, whom I will call Joe, for taking away the two brightest parts of my day; budgets are budgets, and I was fairly certain that his decision had nothing to do with my performance. But still I had the nagging feeling that something would be missing from my life if I would not be able to speak French for those two forty-three minute blocks every day. 

It didn’t take me long to confront Joe about my reservations. In fact I think I went to him the very next day and simply said, “Joe, I really think I want to continue teaching French, so if I can’t do that here, I’ll probably go elsewhere.”

And so it began. The first of two ill-fated decisions that were made more than impetuously. Within a day or so there developed in my head the crazy idea not to merely teach French but to move to France for a year or so, with the intention of working as an au pair while perhaps also studying there. Yes, it was a pretty stupid idea for a thirty year-old single woman to uproot her fairly stable life in exchange for an au pair’s position that paid close to nothing in a foreign country thousands of miles away. 

My family immediately had mixed reactions: I heard everything from, “Wow! You go, girl!” to “Where will you store all of your furniture?” and “How will you pay all your bills?”

Some very good questions, all of them, but I ignored each and every one. I was in the throes of a startling epiphany--a voice of sorts in my head--that could not be quieted. I was moving to France for ten months. Period. I would be living with a family, taking care of their beautiful children, taking long, leisurely strolls down the Champs-Elysées, casually chatting in French with the new fascinating friends I was bound to meet. 

This is the romantic fantasy I'd conjured in my head as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy I was determined to see through. Sadly, my jaunt in France left a little something to be desired.

To be fair, my time in France did include a little bit of that fantasy. After all, I was able to study there and take a stunning road trip to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches. Other than that, the fantasy fell pretty flat because in planning this escapade I did not factor in the possibility that I might be completely and utterly miserable. I did not consider the possibility that the famille d’accueil might be more dysfunctional than my own; I didn’t consider the possibility that the children might take to making bowel movements at the dinner table while rocking themselves back and forth in their chairs like an overloaded washing machine. I failed to consider the possibility that the family would impose upon me a teenager’s curfew of 9:00 PM on weekends; worst of all, I never thought the parents would request that I speak only English to their children, thereby negating the whole purpose of my mission: to be able to speak more French!

There’s much more to this story that I’ll share at another time. The upshot, though, is simply that I embarked on such a serious pursuit absurdly naive to its consequences. Do I regret having done it? Absolutely not. But I do wish I had done it differently so that I might have been able to pay my bills while I was there, communicate more effectively with the famille d’accueil so that I didn’t grow sick at the sight of them, and continue the insurance coverage I’d had with my former employer. If I’d acted like a grown up, I could have lived like one while I was abroad. Instead, I acted like a broad who needed to grow up.

When I returned from France in the winter of 2003, six months earlier than I’d planned, I was in a state of ecstasy, not over the glorious time I’d had while I was away, but because I was surrounded by my family again. The ecstasy soon faded and I sank into a deep depression over what I would do next in my life. Because I’d returned over Christmas, I wasn’t able to secure a full-time teaching position like I could have if I’d come back in the summer as originally planned. So I did the next best thing: I subbed and worked part time at a learning center. 

I was living with my parents, and that did not go well. I felt like a loser and technically I was when you consider what I gave up to take that stupid trip. I gave up a rewarding career (which is what it was for me at the time, I guess), I gave up solid benefits, my apartment, my family, my boyfriend (who waited for me, thank God!), and I gave up my dignity. A lot has happened since then, some good, some tragic, but once again I find myself searching for something to do with my life.

Who knows? Maybe this is it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to Inspire?: that is the question

I’ve spent a large portion of my life trying to impress other people, only to find out that people haven’t been all that impressed. I think that’s because the people who surrounded me in my formative years had very different ideas about what it meant to be successful. I grew up watching my sisters buy nice cars, take trips with their girlfriends, get married, buy houses and decorate them in a way that made them into homes. Basically, I watched them build solid, socially acceptable lives for themselves. I, on the other hand, followed a slightly different path, as I did none of those things. Instead, I went to college to become a teacher in Catholic high schools for the first seven years of my professional life and consequently never had any money to buy a nice car, take a trip or save for a wedding, God forbid!

I do not mean to imply that I chose the teaching profession as a springboard to fame and fortune--how utterly naive that pursuit would have been! Truthfully, though, anyone who knows me would attest to my genuine love of and passion for what I do because teaching--what I do--has become the defining element of my identity. The problem is that I no longer “do” anything since I was laid off, so how do I come to terms with that void in my identity? I mean, how do I answer the inevitable question from the strangers I will inevitably meet at barbecues, in the park, or at the grocery store: “So what do you do?” I’m almost embarrassed to share with friends(who, by the way, are all teachers) the news that I’ve taken to blogging my days away, spilling my soul into cyberspace where my thoughts will likely remain suspended, floating, unread. I’m embarrassed because it probably seems to them to be a sad little pursuit for someone who just last year was sitting pretty so to speak, earning a very decent salary that allowed me to travel, buy furniture, and build a savings. How could that girl be the same one who sits at this laptop today, forced to take stock of her life in a seemingly futile effort to stay sane?

It’s quite obvious that part of this journey is going to involve a paring down of my needs. That means no more Coach purses, Burberry sunglasses, or trips to St. Thomas (oh, those bougainvillea!) over spring break. But really, what does all that stuff amount to anyway? Isn’t it really just stuff? I think I need to work from the inside out instead of the reverse as that is the only way I will ever be able to understand what I was meant to do during my short time on this planet.

All that stuff I worked so hard to accumulate in order to attract people to my life had the opposite effect, I think. All that stuff is the brick in the fortress I've built around myself in order to keep true friends at bay. Why? I don't know. But in order to rebuild those friendships, the fortress will have to be dismantled, one outrageously priced purse at a time. For so long I’ve tried to inspire envy in my sisters, colleagues, and friends by being the overachiever who seems to have it all together. Now, I ask myself, “Do I want to inspire envy? Or do I just want to inspire?”

That is the question.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Geraniums: a symbol of starting over

Right now I’m sitting on my deck, looking at the Sears Tower in the distance (yes, I still call it by its original name!), simply enjoying the city view. I’m also contemplating my potted geranium, which, until a couple of weeks ago, I’d totally written off as a potentially flowering plant and become resigned to the fact that it would probably be nothing more than a green head of lettuce.

When I first bought it, the pot was a mixture of red geraniums and a sort of wildflower-looking creature called calibrachoa. Within a week, the overhanging calibrachoa had literally died on the vine for reasons I really don’t understand, and the geraniums soon followed suit. Now, if one were to judge my green thumbing abilities by the house plants that pepper my apartment, one would, I believe, think I had something of a knack. But this particular outdoor plant had become my nemesis, a relentless force of nature determined to defeat me.

Finally, I reached the point where I would grow depressed at the very sight of the wilted thing, so I set about grabbing the clippers and yanking out the withered calibrachoa. After about a week had passed, I stepped outside onto the deck to water my little lettuce head, and much to my surprise I was greeted by the tiniest of geranium buds--pregnant with a blossom just waiting to burst! I know it sounds corny, but what a beautiful and resilient thing is nature! That little pot of geraniums has become a symbol of my own renewal, for if nature is able to regroup and return stronger and more beautiful the second time around, so can I.

All this talk of geraniums reminds me of one of my favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the character Mayella Ewell--who was raised in a sea of poverty and filth--is said to have beautiful geraniums growing amidst the junk of her family’s backyard. I’ll end with this final image: "...against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson. People said they were Mayella Ewell's" (176-7).