That Time When I Fell on My Face

Fridays at school usually go something like this.

“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.

A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s Fun Fact Friday!”

Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”

Last Friday’s Fun Fact:  

“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun assemblies back in middle school?”

A sea of heads bobbed up and down.

“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.

“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”

Their faces conveyed expectation.

“I landed on my face.”

“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.

“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head up and down to verify the truth. “But do you know what I did?”

“You quit your job?” One boy jested.

“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said with my index finger pointed upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”

Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.

“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little of guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”

And the next time. You will land that shit.

Monday Motivation

Let’s face it. Motivation doesn’t come naturally for most of us. I reached this conclusion while lounging in my bed this past, overcast, 40 ̊ Saturday morning. With the weekend luxury of sleeping later than usual, I awoke to the pale gray light of day, thanked God for my cozy room, and reached for my phone on the nightstand while maintaining my horizontal position. Scrolling and reading, I stumbled onto an Instagram post from @SilverDisobedience aka @DianGriesel, an ageless supermodel and behavior journalist. Look her up, (or click the link above), and be inspired. Anyway, she wrote about focusing on the positives—in people, including ourselves, and our situations. She said, “If you’re not the ruler of your thoughts, who is?”

As a collector of deep thoughts, I tapped Dian’s words into a note on my phone, and then I tapped in my own: “If you’re not behind your own actions, who is?”

I considered my own thoughts and promises to myself and actions taken in 2019. Four weeks ago, I joined a boxing gym, which is completely ironic since I had quietly turned my back on all-things-cardio for almost a year and a half. Anyway, I promised myself a workout there three times a week for three months, and Saturday morning would make my third time for the week. I wasn’t exactly trying to backout on myself, but I can’t say I bounced out of bed with glee. I dressed with a little reluctance for the 11 AM kickboxing class. But—I did it. I went to a class for the 12th time in four weeks.

The Saturday morning instructor Salatu is a beast. I mean, if I had a six pack of anything other than beer in the fridge, I would show it off, too. During February, he is challenging us to do 500 crunches every day, and his classes meet the intensity of that challenge with lots of spinning jumps and jumping kicks and jumping squats, with approximately thirteen minutes of reverse crunches to finish us off. Salatu sets the bar high, and on cue when I want to quit, he yells, “Bring the energy. Bring the Chi. Bring the energy. Bring the Chi.” And so I do my best. The best I can do is show up and try and head to the water fountain when I’m feeling asthmatic. And you know what? Each time, I’m a little stronger than before. And I have to admit, I feel quite amazing.  

I Commit.

January 1, 2019. I made a commitment.

No more.

I even had a head start. Starting December 27th, no more.

And so far, so good.

Even now I hate to admit my habit, but here goes.

Goodbye, cigarettes. You comforted me for a time. Thank you for showing me that it’s time for me to work on me.  

I remember listening to one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobooks about ten years ago. He practiced saying goodbye and thanking whatever is bothering him. His daughter had some bumps, I don’t remember the details, but the bumps were a problem, a problem that went away when she spoke to them with kindness and a farewell. Together they wrote a children’s book about it. Recently, Marie Kondo reminded me of the technique in her tv show on tidying up, thanking the items you use and love as you put them away, keeping only the things that spark joy, thanking items for the joy they brought you at one time before bidding them adieu. I try to use these lessons in my life. It’s a work in progress. I believe 2019 will be a year of personal growth.

A second commitment evolved throughout the month. I like to start school each new year on a positive note. A new year. A fresh start. I know for a fact that some kids don’t get much positivity at home, and we can all use an extra dose of positive. Anyway, on January 4th, I read a blog post titled “You need to believe it’s possible.” Click the link to read. Embedded in that post was a sixteen-minute video titled “The Power of Belief.

I decided to show the video to my students on their first day back, January 7th, and have them journal about what they believe. I watched the video seven times total, once to preview and again with each class. After the third viewing, I noticed an ad at the end for Evan Carmichael’s book Your One Word with a #believe at the bottom of the front cover. I tweaked the writing assignment for my classes to reflect on their one word for 2018 and their one word for 2019 in addition to what they believe.

I didn’t journal at the time, but I thought about my two words and what I believe.

Word of 2018. Hope. When I began this self-imposed writing gig while living in a La Quinta and rebuilding our house that had been flooded by Harvey, I named my blog Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope. My dad gave me a silver bracelet engraved with HOPE for my birthday last year, and I wear it almost every day as a reminder that Hope, with a capital H, is a choice. I can choose my attitude, another gift of a lesson from dear old Dad. I’m fairly certain Dad is also a Wayne Dyer fan. Amid crisis, I have a choice. Hope or Despair? I choose hope along with the opportunity to grow.

Word of 2019. Believe. I realize Hope and Believe are practically synonyms. In my mind Belief removes all doubt and fuels the Hope. Belief reminds me to trust God in the process. I’m in a different place now. Literally. Back home and on a new couch. So what do I believe? I believe in a better, healthier future for everyone in my family. I believe in the progress of medicine and stem cells and cures for diseases like paranoid schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and addiction. I believe that together we are stronger, and our relationships are important. I believe my writing is evolving and helping others evolve. I believe one day I will publish a book. All through the grace of God. Some of these beliefs I shared with my students, and after one class a student came up to me and said, “Mrs. Byers, my grandfather has Parkinson’s, and my mom is like you. She researched and found a place right here in Bellaire that does stem cell treatments and took him.”

“So your grandfather is better now?” I asked.

She nodded, holding our eye contact with a serioussincerity, “I will find out where and let you know.”

And like that, I had a new avenue to explore. I believe it’s only a matter of time. I believe all of it with faith in God, gratitude in advance, and peace in my heart.

January 11th was our daughter Lauren’s 27th birthday, and Kody and I gave her a three-month membership to a local boxing gym, which included a three-month membership for me. We would go together. Now mind you, I had not worked out in any way for approximately a year and a half, but I believe in a healthier future. Right? So on January 13th, Lauren and I found our workout clothes, drove to the gym with over fifty suspended heavy bags, wrapped our wrists and knuckles, and started our first class—kickboxing. The fifteen minute warm-up included jumping jacks and pushups, lunges and squats. My calves started screaming after about one minute. Somehow I pushed forward. Then we pulled on our gloves and punched and kicked our way through eight, three-minute rounds with the bag before the abdominal-focused cool-down using weighted medicine balls. If that sounds hard, it is. On January 14th Kody joined us, this time for boxing, and he signed on the line for the membership. By January 15th, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but two weeks and five classes later, I’m feeling pretty fantastic, and Lauren has made it to at least three classes without me. And the bonus…this gym is motivational, the instructors are motivational, I am motivated, and it’s quality family time.

On the wall at the gym.

Last weekend I traveled the three-hour road to Austin to hang out with my like-minded childhood besties overnight. I am so very thankful for Denise and Pamela and our forty-ish year friendships, speaking of sparking joy. For the trip I downloaded Rachel Hollis’s audio of Girl Wash Your Face. I like this girl Rachel, and I can’t stop thinking of something she said, and I want you to read it:

“A few months ago after I was out to dinner with my closest girlfriend which was an impromptu happy hour that turned into an impromptu dinner and ended up going later than any of us anticipated, I went downstairs to the basement where our old treadmill is hidden and ran a few miles. I put the evidence of that workout on Snapchat, and later my girlfriend saw it and sent me a text. “You worked out after dinner? What in the world?”

I wrote back, “Yes, because I planned on doing it and didn’t want to cancel.”

“Couldn’t you just postpone until tomorrow?” She was genuinely perplexed.  

“No, because I made a promise to myself and I don’t break those, not ever.”

“Ugh,” she typed back. “I’m the FIRST person I break a promise to.”

She’s not the only one. I used to do that all the time until I realized how hard I was fighting to keep my word to other people while quickly canceling on myself. I’ll work out tomorrow became I’m not working out anytime soon—because honestly, if you really cared about that commitment, you’d do it when you said you would. What if you had a friend who constantly flaked on you? What if every other time you made plans she decided not to show up? Or what if a friend from work was constantly starting something new? Every three Mondays she announced a new diet or goal and then two weeks later it just ended? Y’all, would you respect her? This woman who starts and stops over and over again? Would you count on the friend who keeps blowing you off for stupid reasons? Would you trust them when they committed to something?

No. No way. And that level of distrust and apprehension applies to you too. Your subconscious knows that you, yourself, cannot be trusted after breaking so many plans and giving up on so many goals.

When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse. I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”

Rachel Hollis

Wow, Rachel, why haven’t I realized this before? You, my young friend, are right. Okay girl, three times per week, at least. That’s my boxing commitment for the next three months.

Thursday I came home to a package in the mail—inside, a silver bangle bracelet with BELIEVE in capital letters and a note from my Denise–Believe is a powerful thing!!


What do you believe? What is your word for 2018? 2019?


Cheaters

Photo by Bryan Schneider on Pexels.com

The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.

Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.  

After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.  

So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.

So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.

Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your BestNo Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”

“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.

“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.

Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.

Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.

Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester.  The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.

In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.

I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”

I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.

I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”

I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”

(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).

There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”

There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.

There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?

When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on Pexels.com

**************

*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.


Then Fall, Mrs. Byers!

It was a day like any other day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.

“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said as I as I handed students their work.

Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Their faces reveal disappointment, so I try to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific. I want you to listen carefully. We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said? I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again. We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing with some drama and a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”  

A sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement as I continued passing out papers.

“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best. That’s why we are revising. To revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’ Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time. I want you to work on showing me versus telling me. Some of you could cut quite a bit and then explode the details of one moment.”

Speaking of a single moment, my left foot stepped on to a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. All of my weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I remember my unsuccessful attempt at catching myself and the soft thud of my right knee making contact with the hard tile. I remember sitting on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I remember feeling thankful for wearing pants that day and wondering how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.

My class very politely stifled their laughter, as I gathered my composure and rose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.

I remember another student making eye contact and saying, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”

Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.

A day or two passed before I finally told Kody, and as suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.

Okay, I admit it. 

vince lombardi

Here’s one more for a Monday morning…

 

The Things We Carry

My eyes are bleary, and my head is spinning. The feels of a teacher heading back to school—a new school with two new, advanced preps and new technology—a teacher hired late and cramming the summer reading, cramming the planning, doing the best she can without a user ID and password, hoping to give all of her students a fighting chance of passing advanced placement exams in the spring and earning college credit, hoping to have access to her grade book by day two.

I’m exhausted, I still have so much to learn, and students start today.Teacher PhotoMy future students were assigned Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read over the summer. I hadn’t read this novel before, and honestly I hadn’t read anything about Vietnam or any other war, but now I categorize this book as a must-read. In 1968 O’Brien was drafted into the Army’s 46th Infantry and sent to Vietnam, and his seemingly autobiographical work of fiction sheds light on the war from a soldier’s perspective. O’Brien’s narration begins literally with the items that each soldier carried, introducing each character and setting up subsequent chapters, which read like short stories, all connected through mutual experience.

On day one after introductions and expectations, my new 11th graders will write about something they carry, an actual object or otherwise, now or in their past. I’ve reflected upon how I would respond if I were the student. While reading, I began to understand that Tim O’Brien has written over and over about Vietnam, book after book, because of the emotional baggage he carries. Each of his characters experiences compelling and transformative trauma, and theirs triggered mine.

It was a year ago today, August 27, 2017. I’ll never forget sloshing through the rising waters inside my house, opening my front door to a wave of more, wading through the flood over my knees to the evacuation truck, and trudging from the drop-off location another mile or so to a hotel where we would live for the next ten months. I would like to say that Hurricane Harvey is now behind me, I would like to say my ordeal in no way compares to those of a Vietnam veteran or any veteran’s trauma, but in the weeks preceding the one-year anniversary of Harvey, the memories continued to flood my thoughts—in the middle of my professional development sessions, in my car while driving around Houston, in the grocery store while sorting through the tomatoes. You would think my brain would be otherwise occupied, but no. The hurricane still spins with everything else I’m learning and thinking and adding to my To-Do list.

As I read through a veteran’s lens, I saw in those soldiers my friends, my classmates K-12 and co-workers and husbands and kids of friends and cousins of mine and my uncle, all who have served. I couldn’t stop thinking of so many good people I know, veterans, and their untold stories. I especially couldn’t stop thinking of Kenny Perrin, my classmate who always appeared to my left in our yearbooks, our names listed alphabetically—Kenny Perrin, Crystal Petty. He lost his life, just this summer, to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the things he carried. Rest in peace, Kenny. I will never forget you as a friend, and I will never forget the sacrifices you made in the name of duty.

Brain Scans
Who are we to judge illness and injury and the things people carry? Images of a healthy brain vs. classic post-traumatic stress disorder vs. classic traumatic brain injury vs. both.         Source: PLOS One at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129659

As I carry my own past and the intimidation of an unknown future, I remember a beautiful, smart, athletic former student named Peyton. She messaged me via Twitter this summer in appreciation of giving her “extra confidence” in her writing abilities and coming to work with a “great attitude” and so many kind, kind words. And she remembered “like it was yesterday” walking into class in a cute outfit and me saying, “Peyton, I love your style.” I want to say that she wore white that day, maybe a jean jacket, maybe a blazer, looking super sophisticated as a sophomore. And in her message to me she said, “It’s the little things that give a girl confidence when she needs it most.” And that. That is what I choose to carry with me into this new year at a new school with new preps and new kids. Peyton, whether she knew it or not, gave me a little confidence when I needed it the most and reminded me to keep doing what I do. She reminded me that everything will be okay, and today I pay it forward to you and to my new students and right back to Peyton if she is reading up in NYC between her classes at Columbia. Everything will be okay.

We all carry things—literally, emotionally—some we wouldn’t choose and some we can’t necessarily drop, but we can choose some good to carry along. You know, to balance it all out.

I Feel the Urge to Purge

For two months shy of a year, I called a hotel home. The experience forced me to evaluate my space, examine my priorities, and submit to a crash course in minimalism. And now—upon reuniting with my reconstructed home and bringing my remaining belongings out of storage, I’m remembering our downsize two years ago when we moved from Dallas to Houston. I’m remembering how we sold our former home before we bought our new home. I’m remembering how movers packed our last house and stored our things while we lived in a furnished apartment courtesy of Kody’s company for a few months. I’m now remembering how we were at the beginning of about seven months of renovation phase one when the movers arrived for the unload…how so many things did not have a place inside the house during the remodel as walls were coming down and new floors were being laid…how the garage had stored unopened boxes from floor to ceiling, wall to wall at the time of the flood that washed away much.

And now—I’m opening boxes of surviving personal possessions, some of which I haven’t seen for TWO YEARS—things I have not missed. And now—I recall an article I once read on the topic of decluttering and purging. At the time, three fool-proof rules seemed simple enough to remember forever.

  1. Do you love it?
  2. Do you use it?
  3. I can’t remember, but I found a replacement via Google. Would you buy it again today?

Now the problem with the third rule lies in the so-many-things that I didn’t buy—gifts and memorabilia collected over the course of a middle-aged lifetime. What’s a person to do with boxes and boxes of stuff? Do I keep things because of the contentment…the joy…the nostalgia they bring, or do these things represent obligation…guilt? What about giving these things a new life in a new home? What can be recycled…what is trash? As I survey the big picture, I find myself thinking, If I were gone, who would deal with all of my shit? As I open each cardboard box and each plastic storage bin, I look at each item and ask myself, Do I love it? Do I use it?

Packed away somewhere, I have copies of handwritten memoirs from my grandmother, my dad, and my mom. Upon reflection, these are important…beyond price…they embody the family who has shaped me…they lessen the pain of loss. Am I a little sad about the loss of my grandmother’s flooded Van Gogh print—A Vase of Roses?  (A rhetorical question). On the back, the $2.00 John A. Brown price tag still stuck. In the days after the hurricane, I had tried to save the sopping piece of art, as if I were saving my grandmother. The masterpiece dried out on the driveway in the Houston sunshine and outlasted round one of the post-flood purge. Ten months later when pulled from the POD, I found the frame a survivor, the print severely warped and water-stained. The time had come to let go of Van Gogh, and there was freedom in the act of tossing A Vase of Roses high into the air, watching it spin over the 8’ walls of the rented dumpster in the driveway, hearing the gentle whoosh of the cradled landing amid tree clippings and cardboard boxes. I will remember the image always, and no longer having this relic doesn’t lessen my memories or my love for my sweet grandmother.

Van Gogh Roses
Van Gogh’s A Vase of Roses. I saw the original in NYC at the Met, an experience I’ll never forget.

As far as other things go, I have too many that don’t adhere to rules #1 and 2, and because someone else might love them or use them more than I, I find myself frequenting the Salvation Army donation center, where I’ve made a friend named Ontario. We are on a first name basis. Each time I drop off a donation, he smiles a big smile and says with a booming voice something along the lines of, “Well, if it isn’t the lovely Crystal. How are you today?”

“I’m great,” I say, “three more bags in the car. How are you?”

“Oh, you know, always finding a little razzle dazzle in my day.”

I smile in response, exhaling a three-syllable chuckle, and why wouldn’t I keep taking donations to the Salvation Army?

“Do you need a receipt?” he says.

“No, I’ll just add these things to the last one. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”

As I leave, his farewell is always similar, “Oh, and FYI…” He always pauses with a little drama, waiting for eye contact, and when our eyes lock, he continues, “Have an OUTSTANDING day!”

“I will, Ontario. YOU, too!” And I can’t help the smile that creeps across my face, the one I notice in the presence of people who feel like sunshine. If I can only keep up the pace of my purge, I just might soon and for the first time ever have a clutter-free home.

people who feel like sunshine
“Oh, and FYI…Have an OUTSTANDING day!”