In one of my favorite passages of Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she quotes E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Annie adds, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
We’re all on this journey through life “driving by headlights.” My writing snapshots capture the view along the way and the moments I want to preserve…just the two or three feet ahead of me…illuminated briefly from where I stand.
I was setting up my calendar and to do list for next week and realized that by this time next Saturday, it will be January 21st. I always rejoice as we get close to January 21st each year…it’s actually usually a little private celebration day for me because in my head, I have a different kind of calendar that is tied to the rhythms of light. Here’s how it works for me:
The time between November 21 and January 21 is the darkest two months of the year, and even as we transition into Christmas in November (which I always greet with joy), I hate how the days grow shorter as the year comes to its close. As soon as we pass the winter solstice, though, I remind myself that we are coming out the other end of this little tunnel of darkness. As we pass January 21st every year, I always compare it to its calendar opposite month and start to tell myself, “The light now is like it was in late November…in a month, it will be like late October…and soon we will be like late September…” and so it goes. I count both forwards and backwards at the same time, and coach myself to happily anticipate the returning of the light. Every day is closer to the light I loved last summer and all the summers past. I think because I see things in this weird way, I never feel low as some people do in these dark after-Christmas months of January and February…because to me, they are taking us in the right direction. Each of these cold gray days brings us closer to more light, so I am always glad for them. Similarly, although I love the lengthening of days, I’m not sad on June 21st (the calendar’s other solstice tipping point) because I envision it as the center of six months of wonderful long light (late March to late September) of which so much remains…followed by the postscript of October–which compensates for shortening days with gorgeous fall color. I like to think it is an optimist’s way of viewing earth’s cycles. There is only a little short piece of darkness (with the lights of the holidays in its core) and the rest is all good.
Some years ago, on a visit to New York City, we toured the 9/11 museum. While all of it was deeply moving for those of us who will never forget, one particular artifact stood out to me that day and still does. The last room was just a place to write our thoughts or reflections and post them on the walls. They were covered with messages left by others who had come before us. I stood gazing around, not really able to process them all or put into words everything I had just seen and felt…until one particular message caught my eye. It read simply: “Love harder. Pray for peace.” I will never know who wrote it, and the author will never know her impact on me…but in the midst of memories of a tragedy caused by our human inability to find common ground, a temporary triumph of hate that left families torn apart, hearts broken, so many good people lost–whether dead or ravaged survivors of this hateful act of violence…in the midst of all that, this little message reminded me that we are never powerless, and we are never alone. We can always act, for love is ours to give. We are never abandoned; lifting prayers reminds us of a higher power in the universe than ourselves. We are never finished if can envision something better and yearn for it, lean toward it, hope for it, work for it. Peace is not a vague dream. It is a state that we can all picture. And it begins in simple ways…with reaching across the lines that divide us and finding ways to love those with whom we differ, those whose actions elude our understanding. I love that the writer of this little post-it encompassed both the “hope” of something better and the knowledge that in action, even something simple and small, we make those hopes come to pass. Pray for peace, yes. But in the meantime…while we are praying and waiting for prayers to be answered, we love harder. Just love harder.
And if that feels sappy or weird or vague or political…well, we don’t let it. We don’t give away our power to love people because of those who doubt our sincere intentions. No one gets to say it’s too late to love harder or that we are late to the table with our offering in this world where more love was needed long before we arrived on the scene offering ours now that we know it is critically needed. No. It’s simple. Love harder. Love with your heart, with your time, with your smile, with your intellect, with your money, with your profession, with your arms, with your attitude, with your grace. And pray for peace. Not for the destruction of those with whom we disagree. Not for revenge or vindication. For peace. Only peace.
when love wins
when love wins a primary we might
step awkwardly from polls into paradise,
try a smile tentatively tomorrow at strangers,
ask ourselves hard questions about the true cost of so much
excruciating comfort bound in easy answers
if love takes leads in early exit polls,
latitude and longitude might compress,
binding us nearer to frighteningly familiar others
the night love mounts the stage to raise triumphant fist in victory,
alarming line graphs might aim sharply downward, illuminating
regression analyses of correlations between invective and violence
in all the ways we’ve found to hurt one another,
if love’s approval numbers skyrocket, dark ideas might die instead of…
and all the fearful haters who’ve found God in cozy suburban oblivion,
displaced earners who simmer in slow-burning rural indignation,
angry young men frantically looking for their lost hope hidden
in twisting urban labyrinths crammed with the inconveniently poor,
might end jihad against our ugly human symmetry
for we are mirror images, left mapped to right and right to left
if love pulls off a victory
in the hardened hearts and noisy minds of a soulless electorate…
so obstinately resolved to be impervious to hope
if love wins…what could we become
In the last few weeks, I have enjoyed watching Wimbledon on television. It’s not something I usually do, preferring to follow the matches vicariously through my husband. He played tennis in high school and follows along closely, especially because Wimbledon comes at that point in the summer when the roar of other sports has all but faded away. I have come to associate early July with green grass and bright whites on tv, drinking my weekend coffee to the background sounds of hollow “thwacks” and the gentle murmurs of announcers. They speak slightly louder than the golf whisperers, in mumbly accents of cultured Brits. It’s comforting noise.
Tennis, I realized, this week–in the midst of awful, violent news of people hurting one another around our world–is still a gentleperson’s game. Wimbledon is played on grass–a soft surface that makes even 140-mile-per-hour serves look visible. Players must wear white–the traditional attire of the game. The uniform is, well, uniform. Even the biggest egos are not allowed to strut their individuality all that much. It’s about the game; tradition rules…and older, more civil social conventions still apply here. In fact, they are insisted upon.
I grew up watching tennis in the ’70’s and ’80’s. I remember the stunts of McEnroe–the tantrums, the antics. Remember Ashe and King breaking barriers. Borg dropping to his knees, a beautiful sweat-drenched hero that every girl wanted on a poster in her room. Darling Chrissy Evert in her cute little outfits. (My father always commented on her looks and not her athleticism; arguing with him about it was my first foray into feminism.) For me, the tennis players of my childhood years seemed just like other colorfully interesting athletes–except that they played alone and not on teams.
It was only watching Wimbledon this month, with years of life experience and weary of the news around the globe, that I noticed how glad I was to watch these particular solo athletes take the courts. Watching them compete did not feel like sports-as-usual. Something felt different. Something about the civil, courteous, tradition-bound matches with attending crowds demonstrating restraint and self-control renewed my faith a bit. It sounds ridiculous that anything could take my mind off the killing of our citizens by racists, the hideous violence in Texas, the hate-filled speech of the U.S. campaign trail, the prejudice against “others” that has led to Brexit and Americans trumpeting tales of a mythic wall…but Wimbledon actually did.
For a few hours this week, I watched hard-working athletes compete with every ounce of courage and strength they could muster, and, when they were done fighting, come to the net and embrace or clasp hands, speak kindly and respectfully of one another in victory or defeat, and leave the court together–sometimes even assisting an aching opponent with his heavy bag. I loved these people this week; I loved their sport. I loved that they came together here from all over the world to play their game…hard…to try to defeat one another with everything they had…and when it was done, to talk humbly of hard work and admiration for opponents who gave them a good game.
Wimbledon is one of the only competitions where the champion and the person he or she defeats to get to the winners’ circle stand together to be interviewed by the press. Side by side, they share the spotlight for a bit before the runner-up gracefully exits to leave the champion to his/her due. When do we ever see that in sport? The two opposing quarterbacks of the Super Bowl shake hands like they’re touching something hot and move quickly on to the locker room to mope or the microphone to thank God that everything came together today for their victory. They make their obligatory comments about how the other team is great and played hard, but no one really seems to mean it. Their press agents have trained them to say this, and it rings falsely so often.
My favorite moment of the last week was watching Serena and Angelique Kerber standing together after their match, speaking with such sincerity and kindness about one another. We had just watched them compete fiercely for every point, fighting and grunting, frowning and intensely focused on beating each other. Now, one held the first place trophy; one the second. Both were champions–the trophies gleaming but irrelevant. They expressed their gratitude for the chance to play together, gracious admiration of the other’s game, acknowledgement of the hard work that had landed them both there, love for their families and friends and…surprisingly…for each other. None of the typical sports cliches passed their lips. There was no “we executed well but fell short” or “they were just a better ball team today than we were” or even “we just need to work harder” rhetoric–just a pure expression of the joy of competing, a candid recognition that sport is about the pursuit of excellence win or lose, and a civility toward one another that somehow refilled my reservoir of hope that people on opposite sides might actually learn to treat each other respectfully.
Not perfect, these athletes likely have egos off the court they did not flash during the time I watched. Perhaps if I Googled their private lives, I’d find evidence of moral failures and distasteful conduct. I don’t know. I have no intention of looking…because I truly need to believe in what they showed us this week. Certainly Kemper in her final speech to the crowd and the press acknowledged as she thanked her family, team, and friends that she is “not always the easiest.” Milos Raonic and Andy Murray did not show any genuine liking for one another, and Raonic was candid about his disappointment not to go home with the gold trophy, telling the crowd his goal was to work hard to “get back here because I want more than anything else” to return and win. OK. These are humans. I get it. Not one is wearing a halo, and I’m sure they are glad when they best their opponents and mad if they don’t. But their sport and this tournament in particular were the best example I saw in the media this week of people behaving humanely. Even the crowds follow the rules of civility at these matches–no shrieks or trash talking, just quiet appreciation for good shots on both sides, polite applause and cheers when appropriate, honor for both the victor and the defeated when the end comes.
I took tennis lessons as a kid, going early in the morning before my summer job to a local club where the high school tennis coach gave me discounted time for $5 an hour as a favor to my parents, fellow teachers. Left-handed and awkward, with an old Wilson racquet that needed its strings replaced, I tried my best to master the two-handed backhand and some semblance of a serve. I never got good at it, but I certainly learned enough to appreciate the complexity of moves and the quickness required to play well. In the same way, this week, I took tennis lessons once more. The sport these athletes dedicate their lives to was more than a game this week; it was a reminder that we can stand on opposite sides, each wanting something different, fight hard but within guidelines, and come together at the end with grace and appreciation for the greater picture of which we are only a part. These players showed us that whether they win or lose, the honor of playing at Wimbledon, the chance to strive to be the best at their game in this place steeped in the tradition of their sport…this effort is the glory, and respect for each other is the price of admission to their game. They made me wish that we could all just take a tennis lesson or two.
Shoes have meaning for mothers. Not our own shoes. Our kids’ shoes.
Most mothers can remember the tiny little pair of baby shoes they got right before or after children entered their lives. Maybe they were those pliable little saddle shoe lookalikes or sneakers or miniature Mary Jane patent leather flats with bows. They came in a shower gift with some onesies and too many bibs or three pairs of little pastel socks. We held them up, marveling. “Oh, look how tiny!” We admired them from all angles, tried them on our fingertips, imagined a little foot inside them belonging to a child taking steps for the first time.
Baby shoes magically evoke visions of the future. Those first tiny sneakers come into your possession before your baby can even crawl–about as useful on feet as they would be dangling from the rear view mirror of a car. Still, we put them on those little feet, lace them up and tie bows that will only come undone…all the while envisioning a day when that child will run to us, pedal a bike, race downfield in soccer, cross a graduation stage to applause while we look on proudly, excitedly share that he is engaged, walk down the aisle on her father’s arm, or stand to thank the Nobel committee. Mothers need shoes, especially in those early days, to remind us that the child who keeps us up at night until we are bleary with exhaustion will one day walk on his own. Shoes belong to the future. They keep us going.
My teenagers’ shoes proliferated in ways I could never understand. Piles of them bloomed by the garage door, the stairs, and in the laundry room. No matter how many times I moved them to better locations, they somehow returned to inconvenient places. Casually tossed under the table in the kitchen where someone studied late last night. Left in the car for days after kids in the car pool changed in the back seat en route to a basketball practice or soccer match. Stuck in gym bags marinating in a sea of dirty clothes in the laundry room. Stacked NEXT TO the shoe rack, I built in the garage but never placed ON it for some unfathomable reason. Kids coming to visit invariably and courteously left their own shoes by the front door. A good Saturday night in their high school years meant I’d head upstairs to bed with sounds of laughter floating up from the basement and a nod to the stack of tennis shoes, flip flops, and Sperry topsiders in the hall that were all planning to stay the night. Shoes by the door meant kids in the house.
When Kristin left for college, I was assigned the job of unloading the giant laundry basket full of her shoes into the small square of floor in her dorm room closet–a task designed to keep me too busy to be sad about leave-taking. Girls choose shoes intentionally anticipating occasions. Noticing what she’d brought gave me clues about what she believed college would hold. Cute flip flops and sandals to make friends, gym shoes for workouts, soccer cleats “just in case of intramurals,” the fake Ugg boots she was so proud of owning that were faithful old friends from high school for confidence, a pair of cute trendy rain boots she had splurged on indicating she intended to reinvent her style here, a pair of professional-looking pumps for business school presentations, a sparkly pair of dress shoes for dances. I came home to her bedroom, peeked into the nearly-empty closet and sat on her bed and cried.
Three years later when Joe left for college, I came home to find that in his typical style (he cares deeply about living in the moment and will always choose people over planning), he’d left a couple pairs of his shoes in the house by the door to the garage–exactly where they had lived for most of the summer. He had moved, but the shoes, flash frozen in time, remained in place. I had griped about stepping over those shoes daily for months. I had moved them time and again only to find them back in the same spot the next day, stubbornly resisting relocation. Tripping over them once again as I came in from that college move-in, I cursed their existence and my son’s inability to grasp how to put things away.
And then I left them there for a month.
Every day as I walked past those carelessly arranged shoes right by the door out to the garage, I pretended he was still home, upstairs sleeping late tangled in his sheets, his broad shoulders and hairy legs overfilling the bed we bought for him as a child. I stepped carefully over those shoes on my way into the house from work each evening for all of September and felt like he might come through the door at any moment so I could grumpily ask him if he would PLEASE put them away. And finally…when I had given myself time to accept the fact that our nest was really empty…I put them away myself, realizing a little sadly that they’d now stay put.
My husband, wisely, said nothing.
Mothers need shoes.
This month, I helped Kristin move things to a storage unit from her apartment in D.C. She won’t be able to take the things she’s amassed in a few years of working in the world with her to law school housing. We packed and stored a box full of black and nude business pumps, high heels, dressy sandals, cute flats for walking to and from the train station. She kept out flip flops, sneakers, and comfortable boots to take with her. I eyed them and could see her vision of nights in the library and tramping across the Law Quad to Contracts, Torts, and Crim Pro.
A few weeks later I helped Joe pack his car to move to Chicago to work. As we got ready to say good-bye, he handed me a crumpled looking brown grocery bag with three pairs of old shoes in it. “These need to go to Goodwill, and I forgot to drop them off. Sorry, but would you mind taking them for me?”
Of course I don’t mind taking them. I peered into the bag. The dress shoes we picked out sophomore year for fraternity dances and business school interview days. The expensive topsiders he couldn’t afford that we surprised him with a few Christmases ago after texting a picture to his girlfriend from the store and getting a “YES!” response. His favorite pair of sneakers. All scuffed and well-worn-out from lots of living in them these past few years. These shoes were shared with fraternity brothers in need searching the stew of clothes they all view as community property. They danced on sticky floors to loud music at parties. They got soaked on rainy walks to class or snowy trudges through “Scary Woods” behind Phi Gamma Delta. They’ve been replaced with shoes now more appropriate for the next bend in the road and relegated to the bag in the back of my car. I helped him choose their successors last month as we contemplated the things to come and what he might need to wear. And, despite being many times the size of those tiny sneakers from years ago, the new size 12 wingtips also magically conjure pictures of his future for me.
So…I haven’t taken the bag of shoes to Goodwill. I keep meaning to drop it off, but I just haven’t had time. I’ll get around to it I know. Probably pretty soon. But for now…for just a few more days…Mama needs shoes.
As a teacher, I get the sweet pleasure every year of my working life of “the countdown.” It usually starts in May with some optimistic but exhausted colleague who is a coach or former cheerleader encouragingly posting a sign on his or her door or board that says “27 days left in the school year!” Sometimes it has tear-off pages that count us down to the last day of school. A few enterprising souls subdivide the countdown and announce in email “three more Mondays” or “this is the next to last Friday with students.” And every May, like clockwork, we look at those signs through weary eyes and tell ourselves together “we can make it.” At the point in May when these signs first appear, “we can make it” feels a lot like “we can claw and scrap and drag our way along to the end of this thing…dig deep, people…come on!…how much longer could 20 days really be? Show that backbone!” But that’s ok. We see the sign, and we know the end is in sight.
These countdown signs might seem a little negative to someone who doesn’t do this work. A friend of mine who had been to a school in the month of May once asked me “What’s wrong with you people? Do you hate your days with kids this much that you have to publicly proclaim how eager you are for the approaching finale? It just feels weird.” Clearly, this person not blessed with a professional life like ours just didn’t speak “school.” Hate our work? Far from it. The countdown signs, while certainly announcing to the world that we are approaching exhaustion, are heralds of the celebration to come…of doing work that has a finish line and reaching it together…of knowing that if we can just push a little harder, just a little longer, we will ultimately arrive at that exhilarating ending place. They remind us that soon, very soon, we will look back at how far we’ve come in one short year and feel the sense of joy that comes with knowing we have finished the race…bringing a lot of people we have grown to love a very long way in a short time.
Teaching is an amazing joyful crazy push. A school year kaleidoscopically melds the smell of new school supplies in August into warm September afternoons with bright leaves outside, crisp October mornings on bus duty with stacks of papers on your desk, November gray skies and kids tracing their hands to make turkeys or listing what they are thankful for, December anticipation of holiday breaks and first swirling flakes outside the window that send all the kids into frenzies of joy, January’s dragging feet and lethargy, February snowfalls that allow a day to sleep in which makes you rethink whether you really needed all those days to do this unit you are sick of, March mushy slushy apathy and third quarter grades due, April’s bounce-back into light mornings after spring break and tiny little restart feel, May’s finals, performances, exhibitions and practices for graduation with its commencement-y feelings of endings wrapped in beginnings. That’s our push. Those are our rhythms. A cycle of excitement, settling in, finding our way, hunkering down, dragging along, starting to fly, and finally…on that last beautiful day (even if it’s pouring down rain)…waving good-bye.
The sense of satisfaction in doing work that has a defined beginning and endpoint year after year has always made me love my profession and the colleagues with whom I share the rhythms of the year that only we understand. No other work I know has this sense of finale to it, a chance to step back and take stock of how far we have come together and what it all means.
Countdowns usually end in excitement, in liftoffs, in explosions of force and power. They end in racers leaving the starting line and hurtling toward a finish we can’t see. They create breathless anticipation for that second right after “ONE!” They cause us all to draw closer together, huddled around, intently focused on this “thing about to happen.” They command our attention to something very important.
So yes…I love the countdown signs, the “two more Mondays” reminders of my friends and students, the “FOURTEEN more days, not counting today because we’re already here” admonitions that often start a school meeting like an invocation in these final weeks of May. I love them. They aren’t the evidence of fatigue they seem to be (although there is certainly plenty of that when people are pushing into the stretch of an exhilarating all-out race to a finish line that matters). Instead, they are harbingers of the joy that will come when we arrive there together, waving goodbye to busloads of cheering children or gown-clad graduates. On that day, words will not be necessary because all of us know what the end of the countdown means. We will finally turn to each other in the silent parking lot and smile, return to rooms that hold only echoes, and rejoice deeply in the race well-run.