girl & quill

mumblings of a fumbling twenty-sumbling

Category: Uncategorized

pre-k metaphysics

“Teacher?”

A co-teacher and I turned our attentions to Nicholas, an energetic and imaginative three-year-old who often leads his classmates in elaborate games of pretend. The day was blissfully warm and bright.  I had to squint to see his face, aglow with sunlight and unabashed curiosity. He clutched a plastic red batting tee in his hands, often used as a “blaster” among the children. This seemingly innocuous piece of plastic has blasted water, fire, clouds, candy, and tiny elephants that stick to your skin.

“Yes, Nicholas?” we asked, unsure of whom he was addressing. Perhaps it didn’t matter.

“Teacher, what do you imagine to be nothing?”

I cannot recall if silence fell as we processed his words. I cannot recall if I, the co-teacher, or both of us laughed in that way grown-ups laugh when a child asks a question of this nature. By “of this nature” I mean sophisticated, profound, and/or downright metaphysical. As if a small child were incapable of taking the notion of existence into their own fumbling little hands. I find it curious how the common adult response to a child’s sophisticated, profound, and/or downright metaphysical question consists of amusement, a laughter tinged with condescension and discomfiture.

Subsequently, the child is labeled inquisitive or precocious. 

liam

As if the questioner’s young age strips the question of its cogency.

(Not until I started working and playing with young children did I discover that stupid questions do exist. It’s just that they rarely come out of the mouths of babes.)

Poor Nicholas! There he stood, open and trusting, exercising his right to free inquiry, while my colleague and I realized our sore lack of preparation for an impromptu Pre-K Intro to Metaphysics course. In my paralysis, I deigned not to respond and maintained my role as Tickled Grown-Up. The co-teacher soldiered on and attempted to answer with an illustration that involved holding empty air between her two hands.

Nicholas listened, indulging her attempt, but his interest fast faded. He scampered off and resumed his play. I keenly felt that we had somehow failed him.

Teacher, what do you imagine to be nothing?

I honestly don’t know, Nicholas, and I have spent an entire week thinking about your question. What do you imagine to be nothing? For my part, I struggle to imagine Nothing as Any One Thing. I imagine that if nothing else, Nothing is all of what you, Nicholas, and your friends and your blaster that shoots tiny sticky elephants, are not.

Nothing is a life without questions.

so this is san francisco

Florida to Virginia to Washington, D.C. to New York to San Francisco.

Life coaxes me to unexpected places, and down unexpected paths.

Now here I am teaching small children on the other side of the country, in a city of hills and fog and ocean air, stumbling along and playing at being a grown-up.

golden-gate

So this is San Francisco, and there is much for me to love, including:

  • Temperate weather. Being a Florida native, I feel right at home in a city where seasons are but a quaint storybook fiction, though the whole micro-climate and sunny-foggy-sunny-foggy thing adds a kooky element I find both perplexing and appealing. Florida only has hurricanes, and the occasional sinkhole.
  • A house in the clouds. We (partner and I) currently reside in the southernmost part of the city, at the tippy-top of an impossibly steep hill. Due to its geographical positioning, our neighborhood is a fog trap. There’s something ethereal and mildly eerie about waking up to a world covered in mist, or driving down your street — car’s fog lights aglow — half-wondering if you will either reach the bottom or enter a portal to the Fourth Dimension.
  • My morning commute(s). Three days a week, I take a ten-minute stroll to the preschool where I teach; two days a week, I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and park down by the Bay, where the watermelons grow–er, that is, where sea lions bob in the water like adorable buoys, and I blow them a good morning kiss before heading into the children’s museum where I also teach. Blessed.
  • Parks galore. Gimme that green space, mmhmm.
  • Eclectic foods. Bubble tea. Sushirritos. Cronuts. Red wine and Coca-Cola sorbet. If you’re looking for culinary innovation, you’ll find it on every corner.
  • Walking. Besides the preschool, I can walk to the store, to the library, to the cafe, to the auto shop, to the Thai restaurant, et cetera. There is something very gratifying about the ability to go places on one’s own two feet. And yes, I realize I must sound quite provincial, but I did grow up in suburban Florida, after all.
  • Good vibes, man. I see a lot more smiles than frowns on a daily basis. That stuff we East Coasters hear about  West Coasters being “laid-back”? So far, so true. People are, generally, more at ease here — the perfect antidote to my neuroses.

Indeed, there is much to love about San Francisco, but there is also much to bemoan: the influx of “techies,” absurdly high housing costs, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a dwindling artistic community — all of which are interconnected. I cannot afford to stay here forever, nor do I wish to; for the time being, I will enjoy everything this pretty little city has to offer, until the next adventure. And I won’t take it for granted.

spotted in a coffee shop

aqua-haired girl

sprouting

neon wired to apple

bearing

heart-shaped sticker

reading:

shawty got that existential narcissism

back among my people

This summer’s end marked the end of my time at Hollins University.

Third summer’s the charm, and boy, was it a doozy. Happy and eager to be “back among my people,” I went all in. I workshopped and started revisions for my current Work-in-Progress. I began a new project: a chapter book about a girl gone airborne. I co-chaired the annual student-run Francelia Butler Conference. I tutored my peers and helped edit their critical papers. I wined and dined with Jack Zipes. I strolled the Loop with friends, watched fireflies rise from the darkening grass, and admired the silhouettes of deer grazing on the hillside at sunset. Despite the stress, despite piling too much on my platter, despite the tears and doubt and occasional mental paralysis….

….Hollins never failed to work its magic.

I stumbled across Hollins by sheer luck. Torn between pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and becoming a children’s librarian, I discovered the possibility of earning an MFA in Children’s Literature. While other schools offered the same degree, there was just something about Hollins. A mere month out of college, I flew to southern Virginia and began my graduate education without ever having seen or explored the drowsy, enchanted Roanoke campus.

I took a chance. I dove in with both feet.

And it paid off in ways I had never dared to imagine.

I am a part of a nurturing, lasting community of writers. I have friendships that span the country (and a continent or two). I have peers with whom I can exchange unending encouragement, support, and the occasional dose of tough love. I have a mentor and advocate who believes wholeheartedly in me and my work. After twenty-six years, I have finally found them: my people.

No more enchanted summers, alas, but I will always carry the memories and maintain the ties that bind us. Onward to the next chapter in my writing journey. Wherever it takes me, I will never let go of the magic I found at Hollins.

trust thyself

Emerson called to me on a balmy afternoon. We reunited in the shade of a café awning, where I read his essay “Self-Reliance” for the first time since college. And for the first time, I felt less inspired, more affirmed.

Lately I am surrounded by a cacophony of voices. The bolder my decisions, the louder the voices become. Some express love, others enthusiasm, or judgement, or perplexity. They advise and chastise, they caution, they praise. They are voices of family, friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers.

So I listen, as I always have. I know better than to disregard advice—especially from those older and wiser, or those who care for my well-being. Most of my life I tried hard to appease all the voices. I did okay for a while, too; I practiced and excelled at the art of people-pleasing. I wanted to be Good Enough.

Here’s the thing, though: being Good Enough is just not sustainable. In fact, the desire to be Good Enough almost killed me.

See above. In that moment, I was on top of the world. I was studying abroad in Europe, accruing valuable experience, making friends, and writing poetry. I was exploring London and hiking in Scotland and picnicking in Paris and biking through Salzburg. I was accepted into a Creative Writing program at a school back home. I was learning and doing things I had never dreamed possible.

I was also starving, quite literally.

My hunger for validation morphed into a physical, self-imposed hunger. I turned inward. You are inadequate. You are a fraud. This is the only way to be Good Enough, said the loudest voice of all. Soon this is the only way to be became you will never be, and my quest for control spiraled out of control. I had only one goal, so deep-seated I was hardly aware of it: shrink until I disappear.

I retreated to the Arizona desert for eight weeks, where I rose at dawn in a white robe, where wispy girls downed chalk-flavored calorie cocktails and sobbed over scrambled eggs at breakfast, where nurses pinned you with their eyes, where the rhythmic click of a machine pumping cool, concentrated nutrients through my nostrils lulled me to sleep each night. That time was my chrysalis. I sweated and clenched and endured the pain of new growth, until one day—one hour, one minute?—I emerged slick-skinned, wobbly, and new.

Now life is a constant exercise in self-reliance. It began four years ago, when I stepped off a plane on New Year’s Eve, fresh out of the desert. I dove into decisions, instead of dipping my toes. I dared to speak. I dared to consume, to produce, and to take up space. I dared to be. I dared to dare.

Am I wholly changed? Hardly. The work continues. Still, I can live in a city where new acquaintances shake hands and ask, “What do you do?”rather than “How do you do?—and I can keep breathing. I can tune out the discordant voices, and tune up the voices worth heeding. As Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, I find, does not mean selfishness. It means that, above all, I must be good and true to myself if I ever want to be good and true to others. No validation required.

word balms

Apply gently. Best taken with a cup of warm tea.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World by Richard Wilbur

Outside the open window / The morning air is all awash with angels.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314) by Emily Dickinson

I’ve heard it in the chillest land – / And on the strangest sea – 

The Self and the Mulberry by Marvin Bell

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.

Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

The Little Girl by the Fence at School by William Stafford (second one)

A girl said, “Forever?” / And the grass. “Yes. Forever.”

il neige, donc je promène

“It is snowing, therefore I go for a walk.”

A bit counterintuitive, I suppose. Especially for this Florida child. But I did it. I accepted a new friend’s invitation, and together we braved the 7.5-mile trek with a group of strangers. I slipped my way up icy slopes, forded frigid streams, and hiked through snowy woods not far from the urban bustle of Georgetown.

Springtime strolls may have their charm, but winter strolls possess a different kind of magic—a muted, humble kind, and beautiful in its own right.

My favorite sight of the day involved children sledding full-speed down a hill that seemed tailor-made for the purpose, laughter bubbling out of their puffy, cocooned little bodies, while a puppy chased and nipped in their wake.

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True to his namesake, brave Magellan (our hiking group’s unofficial mascot) often led the pack, nose and tail high.  Nothing daunted him.

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Chocolate Cupcake of Doom and Razmanian Devil capped things off.

To do what discomforts you, and to accept the unexpected, can seem as treacherous as scaling an ice-slicked incline. Still, the rewards far outweigh the risks: in this case, new friends and delicious, delicious cupcakes.

(trail photographs courtesy of our most esteemed guide, R. Quigley)

from the white place

Sunday called for a sojourn. I decided to take a break from myself, with myself. (It’s possible.) I hopped the D6 to Dupont, where I spent a good portion of my day honing the under-appreciated skills of meandering, and of being alone.

Whim suggested The Phillips Collection; I acquiesced. While wandering the corridors, lingering at the pieces which gripped me for reasons unknown, I overheard a woman observe how museum-goers often engage in a phenomenon she called the Museum Walk: a slow, silent shuffle, heel-toe, heel-toe. Hesitant. Reverent. Like treading shards of glass, or approaching a wild deer.

I museum-walked my way to a Georgia O’Keeffe painting titled “From the White Place.” This particular piece had held my gaze, and stilled my thoughts, during my last visit to the Collection. Why this piece? Lord knows.

The White Place is real: Plaza Blanca, near O’Keeffe’s former home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I wonder why or how those cliffs compelled her to take up the brush. A Black Place (both place and painting) exists, too. When I hear “Black Place,” I do not think darkness or doom. I imagine the great, gulping infinity of a black hole, galaxies rolling in waves, an endless tide smeared with stars. When I hear “White Place,” I think Nothing. A blank page, a waiting canvas. I remember my favorite chapter in Moby-Dick,  “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and the absolute fear and awe it inspired on first reading. I imagine a wintry wasteland, dormant, with the potential to wake or stay sleeping forever.

Terrifying, yes? And liberating. I found a White Place in the Laib Wax Room, a curious exhibition—a chamber—”lined with fragrant beeswax and illuminated by a single bare light bulb.” Every visit I like to step inside, stand beneath the bulb, and shut my eyes. I inhale the faint, milky-sweet scent of the wax, and I go to the White Place for a while. There I feel embryonic. Erased.

At the crowded museum café, I kicked back with tea and The Graveyard Book, only to be approached by a server who asked if I might share my table with a “very sweet lady.” Of course I obliged. Once the woman joined me, I greeted her and debated introducing myself, but sensed that neither she, nor I, were there for that purpose. So I returned to my book and retreated to the White Place. I faded away. After she departed, the same server approached me and asked if I would share my table with another patron. I obliged again. The server grinned and said, “Will you stay here all day? You make a perfect Table for One.”

To his dismay I could not stay all day. I ventured to a group meet up, where I sat at a Table for Thirty-Plus and played cards. There is a time to be alone, to escape to the White Place and make a Table for One. But there is also a time to raise your eyes and meet the gaze of the person seated across from you, lest you get lost in that wintry wasteland and fade away completely.

and again

(composed December 19th, 2013 — for a friend)

Better to just begin. No apologies, no profundities. Just begin.

Presently I’m curled in my favorite nook at my favorite teahouse, losing myself in the din and a pot of Rooibos Chai. I’m steeped in solitude; I’m re-bleeding into a place of the past, one that burrowed under my skin and stayed. That’s what happens when you let yourself love a place, I suppose. Or a person.

I see ghosts in this teahouse. I see myself and a dear friend sharing tea and poring over pages. We pause for laughter, heady on the spices we sip and the dreams we chant between only ourselves.  We have Things to Say. 

But clouds will gather. Rain falls, and dreams defer. Teahouse afternoons and a long, languid season in the Virginia countryside seem little more than a dimly lit revery, when we perched on porch steps and squinted into the sun with hearts booming, selves brimming with everything that could possibly be.

And again we question the Things we have to say. We lose our voices in the din, a din unlike the teahouse sort; this sort is cold and crowded. It leaves a sharp, tangy taste, like metal, on our tongues. It whispers, Who are you to say anything? Who are you to be heard? All has been said. You are foolish and vain to try it.

Call us foolish and vain. Call us pretentious, idealistic, navel-gazing, young. We speak because we can’t help ourselves, and because, well, perhaps it isn’t about saying a new thing in the right way, but the right thing in a new way. We’ll “stand and strive, until at last, rage draw out of [us] that dream-power which every  night shows [us] is [our] own.” Yes, that’s what we’ll do.

We’ll descend the steps and walk the storm, squinting through sheets of rain, soaked and laughing so loudly our voices carry over the thunder.