I wish I could say otherwise, but this marathon stretches past the normal twenty-six miles into nine new-normal years on a treadmill to nowhere fast. I understand why people quit, and I understand why people can’t pick up the pace. Marathons require stamina and an unswerving belief in the ability to finish, and so I cling to my belief in God and his timing, medical advancements and the promise of stem cells, sun-filled days and peaceful nights.
When I compare each year to the previous one, I measure our progress and remind myself, “The road to recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.” For more of the marathon, click here.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a mama’s girl. I dropped out of pre-school, and my mother was my safety net. She chose her battles and her strategies, and in the end I finished out the year. I remember her tucking me in each night with a “Good night, Sugarplum” or a “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” I remember her chauffeuring me back and forth to school each day and the aroma of banana bread awaiting in our kitchen. I remember changing clothes for dance lessons or gymnastics and jumping back in the car with mom. I remember when those lessons moved south by two hours to Amarillo during 5th and 6th grade and forty minutes northeast to Liberal during the 9th. How many hours did we spend together just the two of us? She was in my every audience at every recital, every swim meet, every school activity. And after my freshman year at OU when I found myself pregnant, she helped me move from my dorm into my first apartment and accompanied me to childbirth classes. Even though I lived five hours from home, she drove ten hours round trip each week and held my nineteen-year-old hand as I became a mom.
My mother taught me unconditional love, stood by me during the best and worst of times, and prayed with me and for me non-stop. Somehow my best doesn’t seem to compare.
Once upon a time, I was a soccer mom, Lauren was highly competitive, and we criss-crossed the U. S. for the love of the game. One spring evening about thirteen years ago, I remember sitting on the sidelines watching practice with Jane, another mom, who confided, “Natasha told me that Lauren pierced her belly button.”
“Oh, really?” I said.
Lauren was a freshman in high school at the time, too young to be showing anyone belly buttons or belly rings. Even though I may or may not have revealed more than my belly button at her age, I sat through soccer practice devising my mom-plan. The next day the girls would be boarding a plane for a tournament, location now forgettable. Practice gear needed laundering, and I would wait until we returned home to “discover” the piercing for myself.
I remember smiling at Lauren after practice and saying, “Nice workout!” I remember the ride home as if everything was completely normal. I remember walking into Lauren’s room once home, pointing at her Texans practice t-shirt, and saying, “Take that off. I need to start a load of laundry.”
On cue, Lauren flipped up her shirt, and I gasped with added Mama drama, “What have you done?”
“I pierced my belly button,” she may or may not have said, the memory a teenager now.
I pointed at her navel and said, “Take that out—It’s going to get infected.” Ripped out on the pitch would have been the scarier possibility, but I hadn’t thought through my words or possibilities or consequences, only my detection tactic in keeping the confidence of both Jane and Natasha.
And on cue, Lauren pulled out the piercing and handed it over. At the time, in my mind, removal of the belly ring was punishment enough.
Flash forward a year, same teenager, now a tenth grader.
Lauren’s friend Savannah vacationed in Amsterdam the summer before sophomore year, and Savannah returned with a wonderful souvenir for Lauren—a sterling silver pair of marijuana leaf earrings. I have to give Lauren some credit for showing me the earrings, but I warned her, “You cannot—ever—wear them to school.” Lauren attended school where I taught, and no way ever could she be seen—ever—with cannabis leaves in her ears.
I remember riding shotgun to school one day, Lauren driving with her learner’s permit, a typical morning and a smooth ride considering the fifteen-year-old behind the wheel. At the end of the same day on the way home, Lauren drove once more. This time, I remember the glint of sterling catching my eye from Lauren’s ears. I remember sitting at a red light and commanding once more, “Take those out.” I extended my right hand, palm up. “Give them to me.”
Lauren unscrewed the backs, dislodged the earrings, and placed them in my upturned palm. I can still picture the open field on the passenger side of the street. I remember rolling down my window with her jewelry in hand. In slow motion, I still see myself tossing the silver weed as far as possible into the weeds. I’m pretty sure she hated my guts for that.
Momming ain’t easy, even though my mother made the job seem effortless, but she’s a saint. Sometimes emotions stand in the way. As far as I know, there’s no parenting manual on actions to take when your teen-aged daughter pierces her belly button or sneaks around with marijuana leaves in her ears or hates your guts. I think we all do the best we can, and after that, I’ve found prayer my best hope.
And you know what? Here she is now, age 27, my adulting daughter, BBA in Finance, earning a salary, supporting herself, buying her first car without help, and smiling from ear-to-ear.
And anytime I ask my self, What would my mother do? I know, and I pray.
In recent years I’ve claimed to be a mental health advocate…except that I’ve skirted the details of my story, which is like a raw wound, easily agitated and painful. May is Mental Health Month, AKA Mental Health Awareness Month, and so I remember another May day, now nine years ago, and the beginning of our journey towards help, hope, and understanding.
My cell phone vibrated, and I glanced down. The text message popping up from my son Drew said, “There’s something wrong with my brain.”
I wrote his words on the white board stuck to my classroom door. I typed them into my power point agenda right above today’s plan—Timed Write (2 x Minor) and projected it on to my screen. From there I said, “Did you guys know that after today I will only see all of you together three more times before your AP Literature test? That’s including today. And that’s why I want you to remember what Jay Z said, ‘The genius thing we did was, we didn’t give up.’” I pointed to the quote on the screen. “Some of you guys might know that I’ve been boxing and kickboxing since January.” I noted a couple of raised eyebrows. “When I started, I committed to going three times a week for three months, and I did it until about Spring Break, and then I went out of town, and after that I had some company, but I’m still there twice a week at least. And you know what? I can punch a lot harder than I could in January. And what difference does that make? Well, none, except that I’m sticking with it and hopefully I can defend myself if I ever need to. But my point is—if you spend two to three hours a week practicing anything, you’ll see results, and that’s what we’re still doing today. We’re practicing, and we’re improving, and we’re not giving up.” I forged on. Certain times of the year call for psychology. “I know that the last thing you want to do is write back-to-back essays.”
I know this because yesterday juniors all took the SAT, a four-and-a-half hour timed test, and I proctored. At the end of the exam, I said, “You guys are welcome to move around and talk to each other until they release us.” As if I had spoken Greek, blank stares and a few blinks met my gaze. On top of yesterday, today and tomorrow my AP Lit juniors are all taking their U. S. History final exam.
Also, I know that after today we only have two more days, and so I passed out a packet of three essays prompts—a poetry analysis, a prose analysis, and a theme prompt based on a major literary work from this year—as I continued my pep talk. “And I only share my boxing because first of all, do I look like a boxer?”
I actually heard a “yes” or two, which is hilarious.
“Most days I don’t want to go, and often I think to myself, ‘I want to quit.’ You know how you hear your own voice in your head?”
I saw nods and their eyes. They were with me.
“Well, you can’t believe everything you think. And sometimes, you have to get back into your head and tell yourself the opposite. ‘I can do this…I can do anything for an hour…’ Guys, boxing is hard and kickboxing—” I just stood there shaking my head back and forth. “But I can do anything for an hour, and I’m getting better.”
Next class period students will self-score using rubrics and sample essays and spend time comparing these essays to past teacher-scored essays in their writing portfolios. After that, all that’s left is extra psychology, some last-minute tips, a healthy dose of prayer, and maybe some Shane Koyczan.
“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.
In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.
The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:
Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.
That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…
(You understand where this is going.)
As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.
I wish I could remember the specifics of all the books that follow. The details now blur in my mind, lucky for you. This could have been an extra long post. In short, I LOVED them all. In my perfect hypothetical library, these books would stand proud in my bookcases waiting for someone like you to flip their pages and escape to another time and place.
Top Favorite Books of My Life on Earth by Crystal Byers
The Help by Kathryn Stockett*
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini*
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry*
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant*
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden*
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls*
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt*
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou*
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Book of Bright Ideas by Sandra King
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain*
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton*
Me Before You (#1) by Jojo Moyes
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
I gravitate toward historical fiction and female perspective and memoir and young adult fiction. Anyway, I typed the list in random order, so #1 means nothing other than the beginning of my list. I can’t answer the “What’s your favorite book” question. I can only give you my top 24 and let you know I have trouble cutting my list short. On a second look, I asterisked the ones that truly star in my top ten or twelve, so if you’re looking for a MUST-READ, start there and Google to help you find your next favorite book. Oh, and I left off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series, which I LOVE, as well as some classics because I’m nerdy, but I have to shout out my all-time favorite character Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. You see, my list could’ve gone on and on, so I just stopped at #24.
Your turn. Summer approaches, and I'm a teacher. What's my next MUST READ?
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
—Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of Gatsby and master of human insight wrapped in poetry. His novel begins here, his narrator Nick Carraway, grappling with his father’s caution of criticism—
“All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In short, people judge, and Nick tries to refrain because his father said so. I think about Nick’s words and my life. I remember how often my mother would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” Then Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.”
I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How beautiful! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
F is also for Florida, where on the beach, I soak up the sun, snap a few photos, tap a few phrases into my phone, and attempt to be Fitzgerald:
It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a sparkle of sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically onto the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
49 is for my 49th year of life and my 49th blog post. Somehow I saw neither coming, but there is a peaceful simple luxury here, with words of reflection, promising more of the same.