Sunday, January 31, 2016

Russian class and lost cats

I took Russian in high school from an army intelligence officer who may or may not have been on the verge of losing his marbles at the time he was teaching me. He taught us out of the standard Russian textbook available at the time, Russian for Everybody.

We did 15 chapters that year and he told us that it would count for a semester of college Russian if we decided to continue.

During that year, I was a witness to a gang initiation and that Russian teacher encouraged me to testify and then me in my dorky Catholic high school uniform and bad Texas hair was in the newspaper. Oh and then there was the time he got mad at me and threw a chalk eraser at me. But he also gave me his captains bars when I graduated. It was a love hate thing. He was crazy.

So I got to college and didn't take Russian that first semester, needing to get some other pre-requisites down. I went to visit the head of the Russian department before I signed up for spring classes, bringing my Russian textbook.

"That's the one we use," he held up his teacher's edition. "What chapter are you on?"

"We finished chapter 15," I told him.

"Then you need to start in Russian IV," he decided. I took a test and he confirmed it. I did well, although he used to point out my accent problems to the class on occasion--never as something to humiliate me, but to show how the influence of a teacher's accent can change a student's. My shcha was never exactly right, and I did my unaccented /o/ differently--not wrong, just regionally affected.

I made it through Russian VI, which was simply sitting in the professor's office translating passages in an independent study. I wish I had focused more, but college is wasted on the young.

Time went by, and I became a teacher myself. I started teaching at my parish school and there was a young girl in my 7th grade math class. I knew her last name. I saw her father's name on her transcript. It was my Russian professor. This was confirmed at the first parent-teacher conference. It was good to see him. I fell in love with that student and her friends, telling Bixby that I hoped that if and when we had daughters, they would be like her and her geeky fun friendly friends.

Bixby's brothers, twins, went to the same university we did, and they became casual friends with that girl from my math class. We continued to go to church at our parish, where my Russian professor was a longtime member, an elder, perhaps, you could call him. I became friends with my math student's older sister, through knitting, and then through facebook. The math student friended me at some point and I've watched her grow up, get married, have a baby.

And then another one of her sisters lost her cat. I saw the posters on the phone poles first, fluffy orange cat missing. Then I saw the notifications on facebook--the sisters posting them, and then other people I know near our park.

Time went on and the posters faded. Then they were replaced, and the sister, Maire, started up a twitter account for her missing cat, "Matt the Cat". I drove through the neighborhood, eyes open for cats every time. Nothing. I was impressed with the hopefulness, but I didn't think it was going to work out for Maire and Matt the Cat.

The past few weeks, Maire posted as Matt the Cat, with great humor, keeping him on the minds of those living in the neighborhood. And then of course, amazingly, he was found one cold night in the next neighborhood over. I sat with the computer that evening with many other people in Tower Grove, waiting to see if his microchip scan was positive. It was, and he was celebrated all over the place.

The bar Bixby goes to on alternating Wednesdays named a drink for him. Matt the Cat got a day at a cat spa (?) and a photo shoot. The alderman passed a proclamation celebrating how this one lost cat brought together a neighborhood.

And then yesterday, Maire threw a party for Matt the Cat. But not just for the cat--for us, for the people around Tower Grove, for what neighbors are all about. I was reminded of the parable of the lost coin. She lost something that isn't that precious to anyone else--and when she found it, she invited all her neighbors in to celebrate it. It's actually all over the New Testament. Something is lost, and then it is found.

What does this have to do with a Russian class in high school and a Leningrad accent? Maybe just that life's path is never straight. When that army captain came to me and said, "I heard you wanted to learn Russian. If you can get 5 other students, I can justify it to the principal", I had no idea that saying, "I'm up for that" would mean I was going to wind up celebrating the return of a lost orange tabby 24 years later with my kids--who are turning out just like those 7th grade girls I so hoped they would.

I'm game for that.

I'm not too hard persuaded.

I'll say yes.

Who knows where that might lead?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Being Seen

This evening. Facebook did that thing it does sometimes, show me a photograph from 3 years ago or some such. Today's flashback was a photo of my grandfather's headstone at Jefferson Barracks cemetery. Last flight west.

I remembered going out to the cemetery three years ago and seeing the headstone with the pennies on top, left by a cousin, I found out later (also on facebook). And how I cried like I didn't think I would. And how I've cried every time I've gone back.

And I had to brush tears away, sitting in the bleachers of the pool at the junior college where Brooklyn was in a swim meet.

I look like him. Every time I catch my profile. There he is.

I didn't know him, though, not at all. I remember being surprised that one night at my uncle Glennon's wedding, the uncle who looks just like my son, when he pointed across the room at me, turning to a friend and saying, "That's my oldest granddaughter," with real pride in his voice. And I was too awkward in my own skin to have a conversation. But I think he saw me.

This afternoon. An 8th grade boy came into my room and said, "Are you doing ok? You look like you're not having a good day." I almost fell to the floor in surprise. We talked a minute. It was perfect.

I don't expect it from my young ones, my 6th graders who are still getting to know me. My 7th graders are completely self-absorbed. Last year's 8th grade had a couple of boys who could read me like a book. It was actually kind of unnerving. But this year's 8th grade is harder. I see them, but they don't have a lot of capacity to see me. And that's ok--the way I teach (the way I live) requires that I have my hands open to them, all the time, but that doesn't mean they grasp hold. Sometimes learning math and going to the next classroom is enough. It's not possible to do more for some of them. Most of them.

This specific boy, though, is the one I've been rooting for since he was in my homeroom two years ago. All the metaphors: I have his back. I have gone to bat for him. He is my dog in the fight. Not just figuratively.

And he felt my mood before I did today. I had a migraine by 4 o'clock. It was starting to wash over me at 2:30 when he stood in my doorway and had this moment with me.

I think he saw me.

Two years ago today. A nun I respect very much, so very much, had this interaction with me:

I asked her if anyone she helps ever succeeds. And she told me yes. Some never do, and she doesn't know what happens to them after they exhaust their resources with her and others like her. But many people just need help to get where they're going. "And he's so blessed to have you in his life. Thank you for doing this." I told her I should be thanking her, and did thank her, and she told me that if every foster care kid, every child of refugees, every child who grows up in poverty or neglect of abuse just had someone like me to walk with them into adulthood, she wouldn't have as much to do. It was kinda what I needed to hear. She saw me.

Because of who I am, one of those things I strive for, something that is kind of my superpower, is seeing other people. Getting them. Making them the most important person in the room, whether they are an 8th grade boy everyone else has given up on or a 26 year old boy that nobody wanted in the first place or the friend across the table over coffee or the school mom who is so worried about her daughter's grades.

And it costs me nothing (nichevo) to do it--it is who I am--but it strikes a special harmonic chord in my soul when I recognize it happening to me. When she sings in my key. When he reads me back to me. When someone tells me my whole life leaning against the well in Samaria. When a 14 year old reaches out of himself and sees me.

It pierces my fucking heart.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

All I can learn

Brooklyn used to be an Irish dancer. She actually still remembers quite a bit--body memory takes a long time to fade away, as I realized today in the pool swimming laps with her. Oh yeah, I remember how this works, even before I consciously remembered how my feet were supposed to go for the breast stroke. We raced; she beat me each time, as it should be. But I'm going to study up.

Anyway, Brooklyn used to be an Irish dancer. She was middle of the road. She was the ensemble version of Irish dancer. But her ceili (kaylee) team was going to go to Oireachtas (Uhracktus) and things were starting to ramp up. We were reaching the "buy the shiny solo dress and spend every holiday weekend traveling to competitions" stage, just the edge of it, and I was wondering how it happened. How did I get caught up in this? I just wanted her to do something that would be more awesome than the standard little girl tap and ballet class--AND IT WAS--but here I was with Brooklyn on the edge of something a little bigger than we'd planned.

Brooklyn said to me at that point, in her infinite wisdom, "Mom, I think Irish dance has taught me everything I can learn from it."

So we quit. Not in a mean-spirited way or anything like that. We just walked away. It was over. We both had learned everything it could teach us.

Admitting that you're done is sometimes easy, I suppose, like Irish dance was at that moment, but usually it's harder for me than that. That time it was a relief, a happy relief and memories and medals Brooklyn could hang on a hook in her room. Usually, endings are filled with anxiety and strife and wonder if maybe we could have done it a different way if only.

More than that, getting up the courage to say it? To someone it will potentially hurt or disappoint?

That level of bravery takes quite a bit of risk-taking.

It was a girl scout camping trip. We were staying at a lodge called Petite Chalet. We had a large group of two troops with lots of moms. After divvying up the flat, terrible, plastic-coated mattresses, with most adults getting two, we were down to just one left. Raquel, one of the moms in my troop, and I were the two adults left with only one mattress apiece--the extra mattress leaning against a wall.

"Rock paper scissors for it?" I challenged Raquel.

"Ooh, a risk taker, I like it," she replied.

I won the mattress.

Risk taker. Huh.

In the end, Brooklyn went on to do other things and never expressed any misgivings or doubt about her choice. Seriously--she never once said that she wished she'd kept going with Irish dance. Again, that isn't her mother's influence or genetics. I will constantly wonder what could have happened. If only I'd tried something else. Tried harder. Been more humble. Been more skilled. Been more...something else. Someone else.

Many long years ago, the pastor of my church moved on to other things. And I wrote this:

I will miss him, I suppose, but I realize that I have probably done all the growing and changing I can do with him as pastor. It will stretch my brain and heart to eat at Fr. Miguel’s table for a while. You know, when it says in the bible that “Mary held these things in her heart,” it doesn’t say she cherished them because they were happy memories. She cherished them because they were important. Not everything—not even the majority—of my interactions with him has been hearts and flowers. But that’s not all there is to a full life. 

God, how right that turned out to be. I was standing in an unhappy place and I made a decision to try something new and it could not have been more right. More perfectly right for my faith life and religious identity and happiness. 

It could be that I'm braver than I think I am. It could be that I am ready, that I have eaten long enough at this table. At several of these tables.

Perhaps it's time to try some new things.

Time to know when I'm full and it's time to go.

 Time to take risks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ten on Tuesday: 10 things I do that wouldn't make sense 20 years ago

Bixby and I will have been married for 20 years this summer. I think back to 1996 and how life was so long ago. So very long ago.

1. Even though I am not a photographer for Bon Appetit or Southern Living, I take pictures of food. Like, dinner last night kind of food, not a gingerbread house or something like that. Everyday normal deer and rice.

2. I take these photos with my phone.

3. I can view them immediately without using a darkroom.

4. I publicly post said pictures on websites for other users to enjoy and comment on.

5. On such public websites, I am friends with people from around the country and world--this isn't so odd, since I had rudimentary connections to people online back in 1996, but get this: I'm friends with dead people. Two of them.

Moving away from technology and into my real life:

6. I wash boots before I go into a cave.

7. A group of farmers tells me what to eat each week.

8. I drink milk out of glass bottles, like it's 1950.

9. I buy my bras in England.

10. I teach middle school math.

^That. That one. That one doesn't make any sense. Everything else, I think my 1996 self could extrapolate or at least accept. But that. That one was a choice, deliberately made. Huh?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Algebra, Revelation, January, and Birds

Open up the heavens/we want to see you
Open up the floodgates/a mighty river
Flowing from your heart
Filling every part of our praise

It's January, post-Christmas, routine, a long stretch of routine, actually, in front of me. Decisions to be made. Grits to be cooked. House to be cleaned.

This morning at church, Rose sang those lyrics and I started thinking. It's a beautiful song. We do music right at our parish. I thought about it. We want to see you. I want to see God. It gets so dull, this quotidian life, and I get lost in the details.

But the details are where it's at. Right?

I believe there is a piece of the divine in every human person. Sometimes this is hard to see, and trust me on that, I'm a schoolteacher who sees slivers of adults often in their worst moments. But if I'm going to believe in a loving God, this is the next therefore statement I make. And because of this, I believe that everyone carries a piece of Truth with them. Sometimes Truth gets said to me in surprising ways. The past few weeks? The truth that keeps hitting me in overwhelming waves? Hey there Sally, you're not as incompetent/weak/dysfunctional/clueless as you keep thinking.

Like truly.

Like shut up thinking about it, girl.

Stability is harder now than ever before. Those of you who know me well know that I moved every 2 years on average growing up and it took me awhile to let that habit fall away and dig in deep in relationships and place. Stability has great rewards and interesting challenges and making a holy decision to stay put is often cozy and satisfying. It is also boring. Do I need a new vocation or just a vacation?

Or maybe just a tattoo.

"Mom you have to come look at the birds," Niles said, jumping up and down at the front door. Goldfinches and purple finches and white-throated Oh Sweet Canada sparrows, cardinals and dumb old mourning doves, all keeping warm at my feeder.

I went out with a friend on Friday night. We talked for 5 hours over too many Manhattans. I didn't hardly know her when I walked in the door and that is my favorite. I ENFJ'd all over her. Every "yeah me too" that ran through my brain reminded me that we never, or at least I never, grow out of that need to connect and hear myself reflected back to me.

Brooklyn, after mass, walked up to me--she sings in the choir--and asked me, "What's wrong, why are you sad?" Sometimes she reads my emotions; sometimes she guesses based on my resting bitch face. I shook my head. "Not sad. Just having a hard time with algebra."

Nobody asked me what that meant. Probably thought, well, there's mom, crazy math teacher again. Al-jabr is Arabic. It means the reunion of broken parts. The reunion of broken parts.

My parish has a feeling of moving from joy to duty. The changes are visual first and ritualistic second. And it's kind of breaking my heart.

And no amount of math is going to fix that.

But I'm going to keep trying.

A school mom said to me this week that I was her son's favorite teacher. And I thought about that, about my previous math teachers and how none of them were my favorite anything. I was glad to hear it, of course, because her son is one of my favorite students as well, but I was also sorry to hear it.

"Nobody's favorite teacher should be their math teacher," I explained with a laugh. "Literature, social studies, art. Not math."

Reunion of broken parts.

The cat watches the birds eating at my feeder. Then he bores of it and comes over to where I'm sitting. Curls up on my arm and licks my finger, just once.

We want to see you

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016: Auld Lang Syne

Here I am at the start of a new year. I'm a teacher, though, and my year starts in August and ends in May and there's this pause for 2 and a half months of in between time. Resolutions are not usually what I do. My school year theme is "fishing." Cast my nets into deep water. The pope has called for a jubilee year of mercy, and the church year begins in Advent. I've already started on that year: I've decided to be merciful to myself and through that, to others. And in the process, boldly cast nets and see what happens.

Cast my nets into deep water...a friend was talking to me about boundaries, which I know I'm dicey on (ENFJ). She said what I needed was a net. A net, like fishermen, she said, in the water. Keeps the connection flowing but not all the crap.


Deep water. The Mississippi has crested in St. Louis. The Meramec was higher than it's ever been. Many people are flooded out, or trapped on an island of high ground. My inlaws wait for the crest where they live. Bixby and Brooklyn sandbagged at the River Des Peres. The river of the fathers. I obsessively check water levels and view photos sent in to newspaper or TV stations and posted online. River levels are important to me. I went to lunch yesterday with my mother and sisters and Colleen said, "I knew you would know the details. I don't have to look anything up."


London asked me: What if it flooded enough that we had to leave?


Do not be afraid.  I'm not as afraid of leaving now. In any sort of way. Sometimes leaving is the mercy. And sometimes walking back in the front door is the mercy.


Auld Lang Syne is sung on New Year's Eve. It is also played when the British flag is lowered for the last time when a colony gains independence. Goodbye.

They have a ceremony for that.


I'm making a list of all the entities that I declared "Dead to Me" over the past 20 years. Thinking about which ones I will let go. Not everything has to be let go at once. It's too hard to try it that way. I'm also making a list of all the things I've put off. And the course of a lifetime runs over and over again. I've put a lot of things on the back burner. My brain is ready to whittle that list down. To get things done.


I have some figuring out of where I'm headed next and what my plans are and what will come to fruition. I need to really look and really see. I saw the movie "Spotlight" this afternoon and at the moment when the characters decide it's time to publish the story, there's a blame game there in that editor's office. And he sums it up: "sometimes you're stumbling around in the dark until someone turns on the light." I thought about my classroom. I thought about putting pieces together. I thought about my life, about connections and looking and seeing and knowing.


So here's to 2016. Once upon a time, auld lang syne, a blog reader told me not to be so very hard on myself. Be soft. It has taken me 8 years to try to listen. But I'm resolving to try.