“Shining…still!”

 

Where do I begin?

I have always been fascinated by the light.

As a child, I recall watching the glow of Sunday afternoon rays as they filtered through my mother’s bedroom window. I was entranced by the dust motes that seemingly danced in those luminous shafts.

As I grew older, I observed that the characteristics of light varied from season to season, according to the time of day, or in relation to my position. The light near the ocean seemed thicker as if there was just as much salt in the air as in the waters below.The light in winter was so weak and pale compared to the late-summer haze thick with the sound of katydids and heat-bugs.  Morning light is fresh like a cold drink of water but the light of late afternoon is soft like a comforting hug.  It is an attentive mother tucking us in before we bow to slumber and dreamland.

As I started setting up house, I paid strict attention to the need for ambient light and ferociously fought my husband over my desire to have the light over the kitchen sink shining at all times of day and night.  It is impossible for him to understand how it helps define the area and gives depth to items arranged on the counter. Awakened in the middle of the night, it is a beacon of safety and in its comforting glow says, “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

In my classroom, I replaced the sterile utilitarian glare of fluorescent light with lamps strategically placed around the room.  I kept the shades up and let the natural sunlight stream in and chase the darkness from the corners.

Impressionist painters were also captivated by the ineffable qualities of light and attempted to capture its magic in their brushes.  Monet’s canvases literally vibrate with the energy of its power.

So, it should come as no surprise that as president of our teacher’s union during a particularly stressful and dark time, I closed each message to my members to “shine on.” I didn’t want them to close up or shut down in the face of adversity.  To me, “shine on” was an invitation to stay strong in the face of the gathering storm clouds. It is very hard to be frightened when standing in the light of day surrounded by glorious golden beams.

When I retired, my colleagues and friends presented me with a gaily colored banner to hang in my new home.  In beautiful bold letters it shouts, “Shine on!”  I hung it on the gate to my patio garden where I soak it in as I come and go.  It reminds me to bring light to banish the darkness wherever I am and to stay strong in the face of adversity.

Before I moved to New Hope, I put together a playlist of songs that lift me up, that shed a little light in my darkest hours, that make me smile.  I entitled that playlist “Sunshine.”  It seemed fitting enough; one of the things that drew me to the apartment I chose was the light and airy feeling that I had the minute I walked in the door.  The first selection in the queue was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon — one of my favorite artists.

I googled a Unitarian Universalist church in my new neighborhood.  There were two, but I made my choice based only on the photographs of their building with the light pouring in the windows and their stated mission of seeking social justice found on Facebook. I would give it a try and see how it went. Having been “unchurched” for several years now, this was a giant leap for me.  I wondered how this would go and questioned whether I would fit in there…but I went anyway.

As the service began, the gentleman at the lectern welcomed all newcomers to worship, saying, “You have chosen to be here today and our worship would not be the same without you.”

And, if the hairs on my arm weren’t already standing on tip-toe, he then turned the service over to a fellow lay leader who introduced the meditation music, “Let the River Run” sung by Carly Simon. The very same lead song on my “Sunshine” playlist.

What is this phenomenon?

Serendipity.  Some define it as “A happy accident.”  Others, “A blessing.” Webster’s defines it as  “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

It made you wonder: How much of our lives was just luck or good timing, and how much was actually choice? How could it be that tiny serendipitous events could change everything? And if lucky events could change everything, could minor mishaps have the same power?
Aditi Khorana, Mirror in the Sky

A few weeks later, I found myself alone on a train feeling pretty low. Despite all my hard work to find a job in my new community, I have faced only rejection. With nearly 75 resumes out there, I was sure by this time I would have landed a position. I had been close a couple of times, but that was little comfort right now. As I looked out the windows, wondering how I would face my friends if I had to return a failure, I noticed we were traveling through a pretty rough neighborhood.  Many building were in various stages of disintegration and there was graffiti everywhere. Hopelessness hung in the air around me like a shroud.  My heart filled with compassion for the children growing up in the shadow of all this decay. I could feel their despair — because I was aching with disappointment too.  At that moment, I certainly wasn’t standing in the glorious sun. My soul was dark and I was fearful of the future for them…and for me.

Just then, I saw it.  Like a beacon, some seventeen stories high above the sad scene below, someone — some amazing artist — had painted the word “SHINE” all down the side of an apartment building. Its letters radiated in all the colors of the rainbow and I could feel within my core that admonition not to cave to despair, but to remain steadfast in the face of all the disappointment, uncertainty and rejection I was feeling at just that moment.

Serendipity?  A happy accident?  Or a blessing?

Like the song on the radio that was “your song,” or the cardinal in the tree when your loved one passes, these moments of illumination can take us from the depths of sorrow and lift us to the highest heights.  Does it matter what we call it?

Perhaps, we should just graciously accept this precious moment when the universe seems to part the curtain, reaches out to us — and like the comforting glow of the light over the kitchen sink –whispers, “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Shine on.

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An amazing choral arrangement of “Let the River Run.”

 

 

 

 

Revealing the Mystery

“I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.”

                                                                                                                    Harry Houdini

New Hope is like a coy lover; revealing its true self through parted blinds, leafy arbors, crumbling stone walls.  I feel its heartbeat in the pulse of the Delaware. Scraps of conversation escape partly opened windows.  Strains of music mingle momentarily with the steadfast tolling of the bells and the whistle of the steam train.  It is a town of mystery and magic…Knowing it is like trying to catch fireflies with your hands.

The touristy main street struts the stage with its wares — bustling with ladies in broad brimmed hats pointing out this and that and red-faced gentlemen aching to sit beneath a bright umbrella with a strong drink. But the heart of town can only be glimpsed on the sly — in momentary illumination.

Little by little, my new companion teasingly pulls back the covers, as I wander the towpath and side streets.  And, like couples in the first throes of romance, I struggle in vain to memorize its features in the mutable light.  And still, its full countenance remains elusive.20160713_114205435_iOS

A Final Reflection

Wednesday….

My last “regular class” files out the door upon the ringing of the bell.  There are reminders from me to “Study for your final!” and slightly convincing reassurances of “I will…”  in response.  The door closes and the room is quiet.

28 years…

28 years of papers.  28 years of projects.  28 years of plans.  28 years of posters.  28 years of laughter and sorrow;  dreams conjured and dreams dashed.  A long time to collect memories.

And now, it all has to be reckoned with.  My private dumpster parked in the corner calls out to be fed.  And so, the purge begins.

By the end of the day, the walls are stripped of all things “English,” and the dumpster is half-way full.  I have not even begun emptying the filing cabinets. The sorting had left me spent — what to keep, what to discard.  The worth of each item weighed, recollections replayed, voices from the past attended to.  And still the Frost lines echoed in my head, “…and miles to go before I sleep.  And miles to go before I sleep.”

 

Thursday…

Finals begin.  Students wander in and comment on how empty the room feels. They say it doesn’t look like my room.  I couldn’t agree more.  Perhaps, though, it is a good thing.  When done, my room should be a blank canvass for the young woman who will be moving in.  Knowing her, as I do, I know it will not stay blank for long.  She is an intelligent, creative and well-read professional with a tender heart.  She too is from this tiny part of the world and a former student of mine. I cannot think of anyone better to leave this room to.  It will be all hers…and I know it will be more than just a room.  It will be a haven.

Finals handed out…scratching pencils begin.  I watch as they dive in, stopping only now and again to thoughtfully nibble the end of an eraser or stretch.  They are both focused and relaxed — just the right energy for a final exam, if you ask me.

I have asked them to write a “reflective composition” on how they have been the hero of their own life this year…and when they have left themselves down.  We have discussed heroism, differentiating it from celebrity, and tried to define the qualities of character in all the works we have read this year.  I want to know what they have learned from both their failures and successes; I want them to consider how these lessons might impact them going forward.  I want to hear their 8th grade voices one last time before we all go our separate ways.

There are hugs when they hand in their papers and file out the door.  A few linger, attempting to squeeze a few closing words into their composition, when a young man approaches me.  He usually makes me laugh with random comments and off beat observations.  As he hands me his paper, I notice that he wears a markedly different expression, and in a voice that is suddenly sure and somehow older, he begins to reveal the thoughts behind his transformed demeanor.  He has my full attention.

“As I was writing the composition, I found myself reflecting on a lot of things.  I realized that every test we’ve taken this year has been thought-provoking.” All the time he’s speaking, I try to make sense of this speech. Am I really hearing this?  My heart absorbs what my ears can’t quite believe.

This boy who had never seemed completely comfortable with adults at the beginning of the year, is earnestly looking into my eyes with a composure and sense of self I had never guessed existed within him.  ” I started thinking about all the things I have left from the people who are now gone. ” He rattles off a few items from a friend who has moved away, something his mother gave him…finally, he gets to his grandmother’s rosary. His grandmother’s rosary.

“All the things we’ve done this year, this reflecting stuff, has helped me a lot. It’s been good for me.”  He turns away. I give him a quick hug.  He says, “It’s been a good year.” And he is gone.

I look down into the face of a student who is openly crying in the front row.  She is wiping away the tears before they can drop on her paper. Two students from the back of the room come to me and hug me.  We are all standing in this demolished room crying like babies.  Their expressions demonstrate that they know the worth of the gift I have just been so graciously been given.

Eventually, they leave.  I am sniffing my way through tidying the test papers into a pile.  I hate to leave my room with my face all splotchy and my eyes red from crying, but if I don’t go to the bathroom now, I will not have another chance for three hours.  I put my head down and start down the stairs when I make eye contact with a colleague.  She comes to me thinking God knows what — somebody has died or something?  “What’s the matter? ” Her eyes bore into me with concern.

As I struggle to recount the event, she breathes a sigh of relief.  “So, it’s a good cry,” she says. I manage to nod, choking back the flood.

It is a very good cry, indeed.

 

 

What Success Feels Like

He is a little short.  A little round.  A tad immature, socially.

Not athletic…at all.

He will probably never be the captain of any team, the king of homecoming, or the subject of adolescent fantasies shared over bedrolls at a sleepover.

And he is self-aware enough to be okay with that.

Instead of doing his work, he often draws.  His cartoons are impressively detailed, his colors vibrant, his designs full of whimsy and movement.

And, oh boy, can he write.

Often he stops by my desk and tells me about the progress of his book.  He has several in the works, actually.  He  emails me a copy to review.

I open it with all the well-practiced detachment of one who has read many “books” over the years.  This is different.  I gobble up each line.  This kid is passionate about dialogue and his chapters spill over with conversations that advance the plot and build layers of character.

And, now, he is moving to Ohio.

His last day rolls around and I scoot over to the local IGA to grab some Klondike bars for 6th period class.  Minutes before they enter, I set one out on each desk. On his I put two “Krunch” Klondikes to signify his special status.  He has left his lamp, a project from Tech class, on my back table so I place it next to his ice cream.  He has fashioned it to look like a giant dog bone.  There on his desk it could be a trophy.

I grab a copy of The Write Source 2000 and dust it off, a thesaurus with yellowed pages, and an illustrated book I have bought with my Scholastic points this year.  I write a note in each one.

In the thesaurus I write, “Every writer needs a thesaurus.”  In the Write Source 2000 I carefully ink his name, the name of our school district (he has amazing penmanship so I know it will matter) and the date.  Someday he will wonder where this book came from, so I want to help future-him. ”  Ahh, yes.  I remember…” he will say, nodding his head and turning the book thoughtfully over in his grown up hands.

Then, on the inside leaf of the fabulous trade book El Deafo by Cece Bell, I write his name. Underneath I write, “Artist. Author.”  Because he is.

The bell rings and students start filing in.  He is one of the first — awkwardly juggling a pile of books that rightly should be in his locker, his glasses case lurching from side to side.  This is his essence, how I will remember him.

He stops in front of his desk.  “What is all this?”

“It’s for you, ” I say. “Because you’re leaving us.  And I want you to know how much you’ve contributed to our class and how much you will be missed.”  We all help him assemble his belongings and take his seat of honor.

Students press him about his latest writing venture.  “Have you read his book, Ms. Compo-Martin?”  I tell his neighbor I have.  “It’s great, isn’t it?” I agree wholeheartedly.

Students scribble email addresses and phone numbers on ripped pieces of paper and send them across the room.  With their chocolate smeared mouths, his peers excitedly request copies of his books. It is as if they’ve never seen him before.

Maybe they haven’t.

Still a bit bewildered, ice cream in hand, my celebrity looks up at me and asks to no one in particular, “Is this what success feels like?”

His first taste of success is sweeter than the Klondike bar dribbling down his chin. How sad that it should come so late in his middle school career.

But, I am thankful for the opportunity to be the agent of this momentary triumph. He has transcended the vacuum of anonymity and realized the power his creativity can unleash.  He will never forget this moment.

And neither will I.

 

Amazon’s link to El Deafo by Cece Bell

Notes From A Wide-Eyed Optimist

Not a nibble.

I’d lost count of the number of applications I had filled out.  The candidate questionnaires I had completed.  My hopes rose each time I checked my email or reviewed my profile views. My hopes crashed with every in-box stuffed only with Talbot’s sales notifications.

Nada.

Despite all my optimism, all my confidence in my abilities and the value of my experience…nothing.  Well, not exactly nothing.  There were a few, “Thanks, but no thanks…” responses.  At least I did appreciate their speedy dashing of my hopes rather than this lingering death by compulsive checking and re-checking.  (Is there a word for that, I wonder?)

At the same time, my 23 year old daughter is being courted by some serious NYC firms. The child whose nose I wiped for years is now a hot commodity, while I can’t even get a first interview. As genuinely proud and happy as I am for her success, this is awkward…and embarrassing…and defeating… (Need I go on?)

Maybe my plans of relocating to a major metropolitan area was really a “pipe dream.” Perhaps my aspirations needed some radical downsizing. All those little voices of doubt started chiming in, piling on, pushing me down and blocking the sun.

My vision was dimming….literally and figuratively.  Along with my diminishing vision for the future, I had been struggling with a thick cataract on my right eye. My brain had commenced compensating long ago; my world reduced to a murky two-dimensional replica of the real world of sharp angles and vibrant hues.

And this loss had happened so slowly, so steadily, I hadn’t even noticed it slipping away. Not only had I become comfortable with this second-hand existence, but I had forgotten the breathtaking beauty of what was really true.

My surgery was scheduled for this week.  I’ve never been so pumped for having someone take a sharp blade to a body part in my life.  The night before,  I pulled up my email expecting to see what the latest sale at Talbot’s would yield and turn in.

And there it was.

Someone inviting me to an interview.  I literally jumped up out of my chair when I saw it. That’s all I needed.  Shrouded by the deceiving fog of self-doubt, my dreams now burst forth in splendid Technicolor.

Yesterday, my 15 minutes under the knife inevitably led to the unveiling of my eye. I dared not allow myself to anticipate how successful the procedure would be. In the instant that the bandage was removed, my eye was flooded with color and dimension…I was nearly overcome with all the sensory information being piped into my brain.

The disparity between the shadows where I had been existing and the true vibrancy of the world came crashing into my consciousness. How had I tolerated this two-dimensional world for this long? How could I have operated within these limits and constraints?  How had I settled for impaired vision when there was so much more to see?

Today, I am looking forward with both eyes clearly locked on my target.  I have traded in my dusty world of lies and shadows for the vivid reality of truth and glorious light.   I know I have much to offer and my dreams will be as real as I will them to be. No matter how many applications I need to fire off or rejections racked up,  I can’t accept less than that.

Having lost my vision once, I can promise you, I won’t let it happen again.

“…was blind, but now I see.”

John Newton

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Life Gets in the Way

Oh, how I’ve missed you.  You’ve not been far from my thoughts.  But, somehow, life got in the way.

My last post was my first day back at work.  The pink balloons and flowers, the t-shirts, tears and hugs; somehow it singled both an end and a beginning.  I was quite simply blown away with the emotion of that day…and the next day…and the next…

I had so much work to catch up on and after awhile, I just wanted to put it all behind me.  I didn’t want to be hailed as a “cancer survivor” anymore. I didn’t want to discuss procedures and lab results.  I wanted to have mundane conversations about grading papers, doing laundry, and how the kids were doing.

Already, some of the tender souls I had met during my stay at Hope Lodge had lost their battles. Others, like me, wanted no more reminders about their brush with mortality and so communication slowed…and then stopped.  It was time to move on.

So, I immersed myself in “living” and put reflection on the back burner for awhile.   Blogging became one of those things that I would get to “when I had time.”  And time being an elusive stag in the mist, kept flitting and darting farther ahead, leaving me to mindlessly march in my straight line, hoping our paths would intersect again at some point.

Now, here I am. Hoping you’ll take me back.  Fervently praying I have something worthwhile to say.  And that you will still want to listen.

My purpose, at the very beginning of this blogging journey, was to document my transition from small town teacher to big city career aspirant. But, cancer somehow stole the show.

Now, I am literally two months from my retirement date.  My weekends are full of filling out job applications and tweaking my LinkedIn Profile. I’ve got my heart set on a sweet little apartment in the charming town of New Hope, PA and I compulsively check to see whether it’s been snapped up by someone else yet.  So, far, it remains empty — teasing me with its 14 pictures of granite counter tops, patio and deck, wood burning fireplace and glistening pool.

I already see myself standing on the patio in the morning, hands wrapped around a mug of hot coffee, planning my trek into town for groceries.  Visions of family dinners, feasting and laughing  with my son and daughter gathered around our dining room table in the new “desirable open floor plan,” haunt me daily.  Moving south will mean being closer to both my children. I miss them dearly.

Perhaps it is a good thing that “life” absorbed me for awhile and kept me from you. Surely, you would have tired of my daydreams and the inevitable “counting of days” would have worn on your nerves.

So, here I stand. Well, not exactly stand...I’m fidgeting and edgy. More like bouncing on my toes.

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A day spent in New Hope…what a great name for our next home.

I can’t wait to get going on the next leg of this journey.  I’m reaching out to you and wondering…will you join me?

Because I’d sure love your company along the way.

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