Category Archives: beginnings

Three Words for a New Semester

Believe

I struggled my first semester teaching. Frat boys sat in the back, whispered to each other while I spoke. They didn’t have the decency to hide what they were doing by passing notes or texting. One of these boys would walk into my office with a cell-phone pressed to his ear. His high school English teacher was on the other end of the line, refuting something I’d said in class. I’ve forgotten all the boys’ names but his.

One day a female student approached while I was writing something boring on the board.

“I’ve got my period,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go.”

She backed out the door and disappeared down a hallway. I never saw her again. I thought I’d done something to drive her away. I never suspected the boys in the back, who looked strange when she left –– too giggly. Had they done something while my back was turned?

Back then, I knew so little about teaching. I let her go. I blamed myself. Now I think about her all the time. I think about each student who leaves.

I did the same as a first-generation university student, dropping a class the moment it challenged me. After I graduated, I’d said “no” to a stellar graduate program in creative writing. At 23, I rationalized my choice: I wanted to work in a genre not offered by the program.

I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t say “yes,” starting with the suspicion that I’d never feel entirely at home in the country where I’d lived, and where I’d have to return to complete the degree. I was homesick; I missed my sister. I hadn’t mourned my mother.

These challenges were not untrue. They were also not unworkable.

The larger truth was harder to face: I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. If I could go back to the scared girl I was, I’d say: Believe.

Believe.

Believe the voice that calls you toward your dreams. This voice is inner truth, wisdom, consciousness. It’s your heart speaking. This voice will tell you to do things you think you can’t do. Do them. It’s the only way forward.

Stay

Don’t leave the minute a professor asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Like writing a thesis statement or brainstorming ideas for an assignment. Getting started is the hardest part. It’s the moment when it’s easiest to check Snapchat or text or go to the bathroom just because.

Stay in your chair, in the room, in your mind, in your body.

Whatever your professor has asked you to do is something you can do. It probably won’t take more then ten minutes. If you have a professor like me, she’ll want to help you. She’ll want to see you do what you didn’t think you could do. That’s why she’s here. Raise your hand. Ask for what you need.

Each time you leave a classroom or yourself, you miss an opportunity. You miss the chance to grow.

Stay. Stay even if you’re scared or doubting or consumed by the desire to run.

You belong here. Be present to your longing. Claim an education.

 Wonder 

Do you remember being a kid? Were you the kind of kid who wished on falling stars, believed in magic, your ability to fly? I bet you felt disappointed when you discovered those things weren’t “real.” No matter how loud you clapped during “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell wouldn’t appear in your living room.  Maybe a sense of wonder left you. What was the point of believing in something you couldn’t see?

But what if magic is real in the way all true, unseen things are real? Love. Hope. Power.  What if you believed in your own ability to be transformed? What if you embraced the wonder of being in charge of who you become?

We can’t control everything. Other people will not see us the way we see ourselves. For example, I’ll always have to deal with men who ask, “Where’s the professor?” when they see me standing outside a classroom door.

I’ll wonder “What’s up with that?” each time, and that’s good. That’s a question I want all my students to ask.

What’s up with that?

 Don’t accept prejudice or platitudes or status quo. Suspect everything. Verify facts, evidence. Question your own beliefs. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them? Who would you be if you didn’t cling so hard?

Wonder. Wonder. Wonder.

Be curious and confused. Open to a thousand possibilities you never saw coming.

At the end of the semester you’ll be the same person who started and you’ll be different. Transformed by what you’ve learned and done. Maybe no one but you will see what’s changed. That’s true magic. Beautiful and sparkling as any falling star.

January 2017

My mother got sick in January. A week after New Year’s Eve, she laid down on our living room floor and couldn’t move. She thought she had the flu. In truth, her transplanted kidney was rejecting, seven years after her experimental transplant.

That New Year’s Eve, I’d gone to a club in Baltimore with friends. I wore a silk top and sparkly earrings. When I went downstairs to kiss my mother goodbye, she said, You are so beautiful.

 Since she died, no one has ever said those exact words to me.

Her last January wasn’t cold. My mother bought me a black pea coat at an Annie Sez on Reisterstown Road. I wore it all winter, through April, when she died. I wore it to her funeral, to the pool the first time I left the house after the funeral, to the grief counselor I saw in those early weeks when I thought grief was something I could work through, then overcome with enough effort. Like turning a C- in Algebra into an A. I wanted an A+ in grief management.

I still have the pea coat. I can’t remember the last time I wore it.

______ 

Twelve years after my mother died, I posted her photo on Facebook.

Mom.jpg

It’s a photo that startles some people. We look so much alike.

I wrote, “My beautiful mother died twelve years ago today. She left me her courage, her hope, and her heart.”

A woman I don’t know well wrote that I’d made my mother proud. Then she wrote that I needed to move on.

“There is no moving on,” I wrote back. “There is memory. There is grief. There is love.” But she didn’t respond.

A woman I worked with at the time told me she thought I’d handled the comment well. I agreed.

I didn’t tell her how sad I’d felt when I’d read the woman’s words. How they hit me like icy rain. How I felt like I was getting an F in grief.

______

This week, I was walking the windy alley between my garage and house, and I had this thought: In April, my mother will have been dead 15 years. Then I had this thought: By the time I have a baby, she could be dead for 16 years. Or 17.

I have these thoughts even though I meditate, practice Yoga, have a job I love, a house in a great neighborhood, a husband who is devoted to me. I am not ashamed of these thoughts. My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I think of her each day.

She has never seen my college diploma. She has never met my husband. She has never held her grandchildren or known me as professional woman.

I have held all of her grandchildren within hours of their births.

My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I have not moved on.

______

I had a cold this week. On New Year’s Eve, I crammed onto our couch with Carl, our two rescue dogs, and my mother-in-law. One dog rested on my lap, the other nuzzled my shoulder. My mother-in-law cross-stitched, while Carl and I watched “Bunheads.” I texted with my friend Anne, then went to bed a little after 9 p.m. I am still not feeling well.

Each morning, Carl asks if I’m feeling better. I have felt pressured to feel better, even when I’m feeling pretty awful. So I say, “Yes,” because I don’t like disappointing people. Also, I want to be optimistic.

I say, “Yes” even though I spent all of Thursday in bed and keep waking at 4 a.m. because my throat hurts and I can’t lay still any longer.

Still, I rallied on Friday. I washed my hands for two minutes. Then I made carrot-ginger soup, and latkes from scratch. I made crab cakes for my mother-in-law. We had a beautiful dinner. So far, no one else has gotten sick.

My mother taught me how to get out of bed, no matter what. She taught me how to get dressed, put on makeup, and go out, even if I felt unwell.

She wore mascara each day of her life. Even on her last day. She never left the house without blush or lipstick.

I wore mascara when I made latkes on Friday. No lipstick.

______

I will spend part of January in Arizona. I will visit the Sonoran Desert, one of my favorite places on earth. I will visit my grandmother’s grave. I will wear a red dress I bought in New Orleans and dance at a wedding.

I first visited the Sonoran Desert in 2006. I stayed at a monastery. It was the first time I’d ever seen saguaros, and I photographed them obsessively.

I only stayed a few days. I was not a good monastic. I broke rules. I snuck Carl into my room, then junk food and fashion magazines. I wanted to be outside, in the desert, not silenced by prayer.

In my room, staring out at saguaros, I wrote in a journal I’d given my mother. She’d never written a single word.

I minored in creative writing in college, and used to write short stories. I wrote one short story the year after my mother died, then stopped. I’d begin another short story, but could never finish. It was as if all the words that lived inside of me died with her.

Yet, in the desert, the words came back. And I kept writing after I came home. I filled composition journals, spiral notebooks, and steno pads. I wrote on napkins and index cards. Only this time, I wasn’t writing fiction. I was writing about her and me. I couldn’t stop. Why would I? When I wrote about my mother, I brought her back to life.

My New Year’s resolution in 2016 was to write every day, and I did. I published more essays about my mother, and I started this blog on Mother’s Day.

I plan to keep writing every day in 2017. It’s the only way I can fully honor my mother’s legacy and all she gave me. Thank you for reading.

No Last Goodbye

My mother believed in heaven, not hell. I learned this a few weeks before she died, when I drove her to a dialysis appointment. We knew the end was near, but we both pretended she might live. I felt time closing in on us. There was so much I needed to know. I had no idea where to begin. In the car I blurted out, “Are you afraid to die?”

No. She told me.

As a Jewish woman who came of age in the 1960s, my mother never had a Bat Mitzvah. She could not read Hebrew. She had no clear concept of the afterlife. But she believed hell had been her life on earth. And that is what she said as I drove and cried and watched spring rain drench the windshield of her minivan, a car I’d soon inherit.

She died six weeks after my twenty-first birthday. That morning, my best friend drove me from my D.C. apartment to the house where my mother had lived outside Baltimore. We were both numb with grief, barely able to speak or listen to music. When I saw my mother’s minivan parked outside, I expected to see her appear at the front door, as she did whenever I came home. The door stayed closed, and nausea climbed in my stomach. I could not imagine ever wanting to sleep or eat again. Each step I took felt like a mile.

Truly, I lived on another planet, a world familiar on its surface, but utterly strange at the core. I reread Alice in Wonderland, desperate to find a door leading out of my rabbit hole and back to my mother. I looked for her in other places, too: her red comb that still held strands of her red-brown hair; her pillow that still smelled of her Dove soap; my dreams, where she led me to a house in the middle of a woods, then disappeared.

Jewish custom forbids open caskets, but I sat beside my mother’s coffin the night before her funeral. My grandmother asked that the coffin lid be opened, so that my sister and I could say goodbye to our mother. I kissed her face and forehead,  flinching momentarily at their rock-hard firmness. I wanted her to awaken the way princesses did in fairytales, even though I was far too old to believe in magic. I could not believe she was dead. Gone. Forever.

After the funeral, I followed her coffin to the parking lot, then crawled into the hearse. I could not let her go. My grief was raw and pathological, a torment I would not wish on the worst person I knew. A good friend led me away.

My mother died one month before Mother’s Day, which that year occurred two days after her birthday. I cannot remember how I marked either day, nor do I want to.

There are now 14 years between my mother’s death and me. But I always think of her on Mother’s Day. How can I not? Other than my birthday, Mother’s Day is the holiday that most connects me to her, and reminds me of my life on a faraway planet, of the time when I once had a mother, when I once was someone’s daughter.

I remember setting my alarm and waking up before sunrise to make her breakfasts of scrambled eggs and peanut butter toast. My sister and I gave her cards and handmade friendship bracelets, which she’d tie around her ankles. She’d scrunch her whole face into a smile and exclaim, “I’m the luckiest mother in the whole wide world,” before drawing us to her chest in a tight, all consuming hug, the kind of hug we thought would go on forever. She was the luckiest mother in the world, and we were the luckiest girls.

You would think I’d hate Mother’s Day, but the holiday doesn’t rankle me in the ways one might expect. I don’t wake up wild with grief. I might cry, but that’s because Mother’s Day falls on the most high stress time of my working life. It’s a frenzied end-of-semester day for me, a day of grading and dog-walking and rushing to get lunches packed and dinner on the table. This year, I’m able to squeeze in brunch with my sister, and I’m unfathomably grateful for time with her, given her own demands of a full-time career and full-time mothering.

Like my friends who still have their mothers, I’m irritated by the gender stereotypes Mother’s Day embodies, the pinkwashed sentimentality that implies women are delicate and soft and devoted to caretaking. Mother’s Day denies our complexity and renders women like me invisible, since I have neither a mother nor a child.

And yet, I love Mother’s Day, because I loved my mother.

Her laugh and smile and exuberance come back to me on this day, remind me of how important it used to be that I wake up early and thank her, make her feel appreciated and loved. I still feel her presence when I am kind and appreciative, when I go out of my way to help a person who is struggling, when I sit with a person who is staring down a staggering loss.

I will never get to tell my mother how much she meant to me. She will never get to see her legacy live on in me. She will never know her grandchildren, or see the homes her daughters have made, or the flowers I plant in my garden to remember her.

This is how I survive beyond my mother, and how I choose to celebrate Mother’s Day. Even though she cannot see or hear me, even though she exists now only in my memories and choices, I say, “Thank you,” as if she is sitting right here beside me, waiting to pull me to her chest, and remind me how purely I have been loved.

Thank youThank you.  Thank you.