Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Body of Work


Academics have this thing about chronicling their lifetime of research into their body of work, that one thing, that one statement, that would be the voice of their years of study. It is something that must be experienced, must be developed, and never happens early in one's career. It is the twilight, the evening setting sun, the summation. There are writers who sometimes fall into this, often posthumously, of that one thing that defines them. Many are the chronicles that when the author is mentioned, there is this knowing, this ah-ha moment as if the mere mention speaks volumes.

I asked my husband what would be his body of work. He looked thoughtfully and said, "I'm not sure yet." His answer was very similar to the answer given by then candidate Obama when inquired to sum up his thoughts at the tender age of 48. To me I think it is not something we fully come into in our 40s. We are just reaching the mountain top, the years of striving where we can look back over the course of our lives thus far and say, yes, I'm here. But to sum up the entire lifetime of thought? Not yet, there is still much more to experience, think, and do.

My mind wandered to this thought of legacy after two recent events. One was attending the "Statesmen of Jazz" concert at Harris-Stowe State University and the other was the "Excellence in Education" awards dinner last week when Roland Martin challenged us about our legacy, our one thing. What is the one thing my daughters will say of me? My sons? My husband? My friends? My family? Should this be something I craft and direct now? Or is it the body of work that is to be studied long after my spirit has danced away from this shell?

I told my husband that in the last year and a half, I have written close to 350 pieces of work. The vast majority has been narrative essays, reflections, book reviews, couple short stories, and several pieces of poetry. He looked impressed as he said, "wow, that's amazing." I smiled and thought to myself, "yes, it is, isn't it?"

If it were up to me to choose, I couldn't choose just one piece of work. I am still developing in this craft, still hearing my voice, still discovering the words.

Yet, I do know that it would be the words that would be my legacy, more than my love of vanilla lattes, my scarf collection, my mug collection, my volumes of books, my scrapbooks, it would be the words that define me, that would leave pieces of me behind for my children and grandchildren to discover.

"Sing a song for me while I am still here to hear it, play a note for me while I am still here to feel it, dance with me while I am still here to sway. Sing a song with me while I am still here to love you back." This is my legacy, the words.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reflecting the Solitude

I cherish the quiet. Require it. Relish it. Covet it at times. Always need it.

The noise level sometimes makes my head feel like it will explode.

At first I thought it was just because I am 45 years old with a newly minted 8 year old daughter and 5 1/2 year old daughter who have a shrieking form of noise that all the tussling of the boys could never compare. Then I thought that perhaps this relishing of the quiet has always been with me since I was a child.

The time when I can first remember anything solid was when I was seven. I remember being sick a lot and in bed a lot. There was always plenty of time for the thoughts in my mind to dance around and form. Words and imagination, ponderings and wonderings, all of this was with me when my lungs struggled to function and airways constricted tightly pushing out air. Once I thought the constant fight for air and breathing sent me into another sphere, a place where time was not time. Either way, it was always me and the quiet and solitude and contentment.

I think I've had it quiet most of my adult life, my husband would not think that since he says I am a talker. Actually, all the meetings I had this week with friends would belie the introvert that rests in my soul, but, yes, the quiet has always been something I need, want, and crave. Maybe it began when tragedy happened.

Many, many, many moons ago I retreated to my aunt's top floor in her spacious and quaint home in Benton Township, Michigan. Her home was a retreat, a respite, a place to heal, quietly. When I sought refuge there, her three daughters, all my seniors, were already out-in-the-world. She only had her husband and grandson. I had the days to myself as they all left in the morning for the various parts of life. Her upstairs was a mini-apart sans kitchen. I could snuggle in the bedroom part, read away the hours in the spacious living room or go in the sitting room and stair out the windows. It was quiet and it was just what my soul needed to repair from my first-born's murder. The vast space of noiselessness allowed my spirit time to prepare another note for the rest of my life's symphony.

College was peaceful in part because I had my own apartment. I could work full-time, attend class full-time, spend time with friends, then chase away the campus chaos in the silence of my little two bedroom apartment. My books, words, and the music of my inner voice were the parts that surrounded my space, and I liked it that way.

Life and marriage, children and friends all brought different instruments to my life. Their presence is part of who I am and what makes me whole, yet there will always be the place within me that puts my hands over my ears, closes my eyes, and turns down the volume. Sometimes for just a moment, just a space to say to everyone, "shhhhhhh, I'm trying to think."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Frumpy Moms Need Not Apply

The school year is fully underway, one month into the year, and every day, something bothers me when I pick up my daughters.

I have been a work-at-home, mom-in-chief, home executive officer, full-time mom for six and a half years now. My son is a sophomore in high school and every day since fifth grade, I've been at home when he gets home. The girls have never know anything differently. The school systems have changed, but one thing seems to be constant...the frumpy moms at the pickup.

Kirkwood seems to be a mecca of at-home, frumpy moms who pick up their kindergarten children in something resembling pajamas, old college t-shirts, a cross between sweats and lounge pants, and an increasingly uglier assortment of crocs. This phenomena is also true for the after school pick up of the older elementary schools. I've wondered, are these moms just too busy to get dressed? Or are they making a statement about how hard they work as moms that they just don't have time to dress up? Or is it a matter of not being able to afford nice clothes? Or is it just culture?

I'm in a moms group, have been for the past five years. We have playgroups and as I've been a member in two different chapters, have yet to see these moms in such frumpy attire as I see in this St. Louis suburb. Well, let me change that, it is usually just my "vanilla moms" who seem to gravitate to these shapeless, sexless, senseless clothes. Again, made me wonder if that is the price of living in suburbia.

One thing I've refused to give up since being at home is my sense of taking care of self. I wake up before everyone else and feel I am worth the half hour it takes for me to shower, get dressed including makeup, groom my dread locs, and still make it downstairs with enough time to enjoy a latte before the girls' noise breaks through the silence. I just don't get it.

We had one of our Mocha Moms in my Johnson County Chapter do a dress for your style event. She chose three models and asked us our style. I'm a comfortable, bohemian, artist-type with a sense of classical flair. She asked us to wear jeans and a black camisole with black shoes. She then proceeded to show us a handful of outfits that fit our style and could become easy pieces of our mom uniform. Her choices were already what I was wearing - stretch jeans, dress up or down khakis, lycra black skirt, camisoles in black, white, and tan, along with a handful of tunics. I could be ready for breakfast with friends, a meeting with the principal, or lunch with my husband while still picking up the kids, grocery shopping, or doing laundry. It just doesn't take much effort.

Something made me think of these women's husbands. I wonder if they make the effort to dress up before they come home. My wondering ceased when I'd see these same moms at everything from evening book fairs, teacher conferences, and scout meetings. I'd even see the husbands at the same events in nice shirts and dress pants with the women looking like they grabbed something from the bottom of the laundry basket. What is the point?

Then it dawned on me, these women were choosing a uniform, making a statement, identifying with each other as at-home moms. Maybe it is the suburban requirement. I'm not sure but for the things I do on a daily basis, frumpy moms need not apply.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Contrasts in Education

Education has become a passion. Perhaps it has always been in my blood, being the daughter and granddaughter of educators. It is the thread of my life quilt. It is this passion that have infused my love for words, love for books, and love for learning.

Learning has allowed me to mentor and tutor in my new community of the last two years. It have become a summer academy principal of sorts, a community educator, a chair of an area education committee, and a consultant bringing workshops into areas public schools.

It is the combination of those things that is on my mind right now.

In the small community that is now my home, education is more than a passion, it is a mission. There are plenty of teachers in the classrooms. The elementary schools have active PTOs, my daughters' school just receiving new playground equipment for the 2009-2010 school year. Even at the high school where my son attends, the PTO and Mother's Club are fueling the fire of education with their dedication to all things Warrior.

A new superintendent was introduced to the community through an official school board reception last night. It was an easy gathering of people coming in and out of the varsity gym lobby. The cookies were gourmet and the conversation was light. The new super and his wife seem to be part of this western suburb and are quickly learning names. All seemed well until I thought about where I spent the morning.

I am an outside consultant with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri. In this role, I bring workshops or topics to children in the St. Louis Public Schools through programming offered by the Girls Scouts. These schools are inner city schools without on site Daisy, Brownie, or Girl Scout troops. There are stark contrasts between the locations.

The elementary school I visited yesterday was in an inner-ring, north suburb, just barely over the line from St. Louis. The children were all African-American except for a smattering of mixed-heritage children. The only white faces were the two white female teachers who were manning a 2nd grade class and a 3rd grade class and a white male manning a 3rd grade class. The command of learning was so diverse just with those three. The male run class was orderly, the children were seated in learning positions, they asked pointed questions and gave great examples. The two white female led classes, both of these women appearing young enough to be my daughters, was more unruly with less learning positioning. They were in lessons but the women seemed to struggle to gain control. I noted the difference in giving choices verses giving commands for respect and obedience. I also noted the black female teacher in the kindergarten class, the black female teacher in the 1st grade class, and the black female teacher in my last 3rd grade class. There was more command of the room and directing of the learning.

I noticed something else as well.

The striking lack of resources.

I talked about the topic of bullying so naturally threw in a few points of being on the playground. It was not until I left at the end of the day that I realized this school lacked greenspace and there was no sparkling new playground equipment from the PTO. Recess was happening for one of the older classes when I left. There was no kickball game, no double dutch, no jump rope, no swinging, no basketball, just kids trying to come up with a game on a playground that resembled a fenced-in parking lot. There was nothing entertaining about it and it made me sad as I walked away.

The drive back out to my little community had lots of thoughts racing through my mind. I thought of the rows of shiny Apple computers that line my daughters' classrooms. The images of the brightly colored and decorated walls with learning cues danced before my mind as I merged into the afternoon traffic. The cubbies with the brightly colored boxes filled with crayons, blocks, and math manipulatives played with my memory. My children are blessed. They are in environments that stimulate them mentally and challenge them developmentally. Their minds are free to soar to the highest heights.

It was from the lofty position of watching girls in their classrooms today that took me back to a recent education committee meeting. There were people, African-American like me, who were arguing for a change to the curriculum in this community. I could understand their passion, having graduated from high school in 1982, black studies wasn't a part of my lexicon back then. Yet, as I was driving home from my consulting gig, I thought of the all black schools in the city that were sharing nubs of chalk and lacking an in- class library. There were no brightly colored bins of learning tools or row of shiny computers. They were using what they had.

Then the challenge of education in this community rested on my mind. If the child can not read, they can not learn about black history or any history. There are children in this privileged community who have small classrooms, lots of tools,and whose parents still choose to not be involved. Is that something that should happen? I argue that they are not in the city schools. All the children here have an opportunity, something starkly lacking in a lot of the city schools. The children here have the light still on in their eager eyes, ready to absorb, even in this predominately white environment. They are blessed here more than they realize.

Perhaps next week at the next meeting I will challenge the voice of protest to spend a day in the all black school and see what changes he would make. I am a strong proponent of parental involvement. Black schools, white schools, all schools need the parents doing their part to use the resources at the table to make learning happen. That was the good thing I did see at the city elementary school. Even without shiny computers and brightly colored walls, the children were challenging their intellect and pulling knowledge from their teachers.

Education is a stepping stool and a divider in this country. I hope to live long enough that the disparities between city and suburb schools, city PTO gifts and suburban PTO gifts are not a strong. An education is a right, like breathing air. And when your child is at the best, it is your job to make them do their best, otherwise, you are spitting in the faces of the ones who wish they could. That is my thought on the contrast in education. There are no excuses anymore.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering and Reflecting on 9-11

I was sitting on my bed, having one of those rare mother-of-newborn moments of actually drying off from a shower. My daughter was born on September 5, 2001. She was in her little bounce chair watching me put my clothes and listening to me banter with her father as the Today Shower with Katie Couric was doing their usual bit.

Then everything changed...in a moment.

There was the Breaking News Alert flashing on the screen and then Katie Couric mentioning that a plane crashed into one of the towers in New York. I sat down and called to my husband who was just stepping out of the shower in our master suite. He was doing his morning routine and listening.

Then, right before my eyes and right as I picked up my daughter, the planes hit the second of the Twin Towers and life changed. "Did you see that!" I yelled at my husband. He quick stepped into the room and stood in utter dismay as we saw this building collapse before our eyes. I held my daughter tighter.

Emotions began to run through us as the news team was scrambling to figure out what happened. My husband and I did the mental count of anyone we knew in New York City. It was a jolt.

I think before we could digest that, the breaking news came on again about the plane going down in Philadelphia. What was happening? I think, I, like other Americans who watched, felt this crippling fear and tightening of the chest. This was not usual for our country.

The days, weeks, and months that followed were a view of our shifting country. Eight years later, I think it was a bad shift.

Ultra patriotism became the norm of the day and if you were not flying the flag, you were not "American enough." I watched as then President Bush insisted that we had to fight these Weapons of Mass Destruction and launched us into an unending "War on Terror." Young men by the droves signed up to defend this country.

I remember returning to work in March 2002 after a six month maternity leave. When I had to go on my first business trip, I was subjected to the searching of my person and my luggage. The country was on heightened alert and everyone was suspect, especially if you looked exotic. I had twists, wonder what would be the case now that I have dread locs?

The biggest thing that shocked me in the still infancy of this war and security clearance was when I flew to Arizona in December 2002 to my niece's graduation. My daughter and I had to go through security and they would not let me hold her close to me while we went through the metal detectors. I had to hold her out, legs dangling, arm length away from me. It was traumatic, and we had to try to put our shoes back on, gather our luggage, and make our flight on time.

Since 911 I have moved to the other side of the state, watched two sons graduate from high school, one enlisted in the Navy and is in Japan. The country is still at war, went from one country to another, the supposed culprit, still unpunished. The rhetoric has been enough to make me sick to my stomach. And then to find out, with the advent of the election of the first black president and unearthed evidence, there were no WMDs and the whole thing was a lie from the previous administration.

My daughter just celebrated her eighth birthday. She is tall, vibrant, loves to read, loves to sing and perform, wants to be a writer and is a big sister of a precocious five-year-old. Their entire lives, we have been at war. The losses have been more than the 3000 precious souls lost on 9-11. I wonder, when will it end.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Missing Angenette Avenue

Today we picked up the keys to the townhouse.

Today I sat outside in the front yard and sighed.

Today means it is real and we are moving.

Today I am sad.

I've never liked some things about this house we have been renting for the last two years. The biggest thing is that it doesn't have a basement and when it rains, it rains inside. There is a hole in the pipes that means everything leaks from the tub to the washing machine to the kitchen sink. I've become familiar with the comings and goings of my neighbors dogs because when I am in the kitchen doing dishes, I am looking up at their yard, this house being partly below ground. The plumber said it is a wonder that water isn't shooting into the kitchen every time it rains. It is this and the basic 1952 construction that has been patchwork repaired that makes me not like 601 Angenette Avenue. Yet, today as I hold the keys to the townhouse in my hands, I find that I will miss the neighborhood.

Is it possible to separate a house from a neighborhood? My daugther's won't be "bus stop girls" anymore with the same kids we have watched play on the triangle for the past two years. The greenspace that is this spacious front, side, and back yard is being reduced to a literal postage stamp front yard and nearby park. The people that I wave at every day or who honk a kind hello in the morning will be replaced by a community of strangers. I'm not sure I can go from a single family dwelling to a multifamily dwelling that is our townhouse complex. Can I make this adjustment?

The kids are excited about the balconies and their new bedrooms. My son loves the new bed we found him. The girls are negotiating how to keep more of their toys in a smaller space. I found some chic black storage boxes for my husband's files. Boxes and boxes of photos are being consolidated into a Creative Memories storage system. Friends have offered their help and are standing at the ready to pack, move, and lend their support.

I'm not sure I want to trade the comfortable familiar with the beautiful unknown. I know how long it takes to get to Kaldi's and I'm a familiar at the recycling center, library, and downtown. Warm walks to First Watch or simply downtown were a nice treat this time last year. The weather has finally become tolerable and I was looking forward to afternoon walks with my daughter since she is just in morning kindergarten. The new place does not offer such scenic walking paths unless I drive out of the Bluffs and to the nearby park. Well, there are trees and ideally one could walk, but it is just a bunch of townhouses to see, not the wonderful architecture that is Kirkwood. I will miss seeing the variety of homes from the sturdy mid-century bricks to the tiny cottages to the towering mansions. I will miss the eclectic nature of this side of town.

Perhaps the thing that I will miss the most is that my children had friends in and around the neighborhood. They could walk to a friend's house and I could look out the window to see them. The girls were regular fixtures on the triangle outside my office window. My son's friend held many game night sleepovers just down the street. It was all known, understood, and unchanging.

Change is unsettling, in whatever form. Moving is a big change. I'm having fun figuring out how to downsize since my husband's career will inevitably hold another move in my near future. I've examined and "Clean Swept" files, photos, and magazines. Everything is getting the roving eye of a critical organizer. And all of it is making me sad.

When I step outside the townhouse once we are settled, I will be facing lots of trees and rows of other townhouses. Many of the homes are quaint with the outdoor bistro setting and flowers, amazing how they made that little patch of grass look like a landscapers masterpiece. Will I find new friends? Will the children? Will my son find someone to hang out with? It is all so new and unsure. Perhaps that is what change entails. Picking up the keys, opening one door, closing another, awaiting the adventure.

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