Lessons from an Alabama Rain

Langston Hughes Rain
From “April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes

As a soft April rain kisses Houston, I recollect another cloudburst or two, one in particular. An Alabama Rain, singing me a lullaby, eleven years ago.

*****

I stepped off the plane in Mobile with my friend Martha. As we descended the escalator to claim our luggage, our friend Mona waited, waving from where she stood next to the carousel. Through the airport windows, dark clouds covered the Alabama sky, and raindrops fell. With bags in hand, we dashed from the airport to the car, the rain drenching us all, our spirits remaining high and dry. However, the rain was relentless throughout our five-day stay.  The three of us, Martha, Mona, and I, went out to eat in the rain, we shopped in the rain, and just hoping the sun might show its shining face, we drove by the beach in the rain.

One day after shopping in picturesque downtown Fairhope, we hopped back into the car and Mona said, “I wanna take ya’ll to this new little country store between here and home.  The two girls who opened it are too cute, and so is their store.”

At the store, a two-story, clap-board house with wrap-around porch, nestled amid enormous Live Oaks and backing to Mobile Bay, we met the owners and browsed. With a note of Southern charm, one of the ladies said, “We were thinkin’ about havin’ a wine-tastin’.  Would ya’ll like a glass of wine?”  I couldn’t refuse hospitality like that, and neither could my friends. With beverages in hand, we moved outside to the covered front porch to sit a spell and watch the gentle rain.

About that time, a precious, tiny black puppy, pranced up on petite ballerina feet, flipped-up tail wagging, collar connected to a leash held by her foster dad. We admired the cuteness, and the man struck up a conversation. “This little girl was found walking in the rain,” he said, “so we named her Rain. I’ve kept her for the past week, and she’s a good girl, but I have three dogs. These ladies here at the store are going to take her picture and put her up on their bulletin board to help me find her a home.”

Meanwhile, I picked up the eight-pound, eight-month-old Chihuahua/terrier mix, and she licked my face. Martha laughed, “Crystal, I think you need that dog.” She continued, “I think you need to fly her back to Dallas….I’ll dog-sit whenever you need me…”

I grew up with a dog, but my kids had missed out on that experience. Drew would be starting his senior year, Lauren would be a sophomore, and she had been angling for a Yorkie. A dog consideration rested on the table, and this one did need a home. No doubt, she was adorable.  So I took the man’s phone number, thinking, If I wake up tomorrow, thinking about that dog, I’m going to take her home.

Well, not only did I wake up the next morning thinking about the dog, I couldn’t sleep at all that night, the puppy on my mind had wiggled its way into my heart.  Martha was right. I needed that dog.

Like Martha said, I brought the puppy home to Texas from Alabama. Evoking my inner Paris Hilton, I carried Rain in my newly-purchased dog purse right onto the plane and stowed her below the seat in front of me. She was that tiny and that perfect.

Rain 2007
My Rain loves the sunny spots, 2007. Look at that face.

The breeze has blown Rain and me from state to state, city to city. Still an excellent traveler, always up for the next adventure, always ready to “go.” Eleven years later, she has survived the rising waters of a hurricane and homelessness more than once. Rain loves hotels, awaits me with her waggity tail each day, and continues to teach me a lesson or two about being happy anywhere, as long as I have my people.

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We Are III Keys

Beyond our day jobs, Kody and I moonlight as managing partners and co-owners of Three Keys Properties, where we invest in and re-design residential fixer uppers, improving neighborhoods one house at a time. We’re not quite Chip and Jo. Less charming. No shiplap experimentation. No aspirations for our own show. However, Kody finds the deals, I have an eye for aesthetics, and together we grow in our experience.

Why Three Keys? One might ask. Bear with me.

Once upon a time, after nineteen years of marriage, I called movers, packed my bags, and left Kody behind. The details no longer matter. Neither one of us could afford to stay in our home without the other, so sadly we lost our most-favorite house…a spacious kitchen, ample storage, oversized master, en suite garden tub, best shower so far, his and her walk-in closets, a sparkling pool, a relaxing spa…so many things to love including my good friend, neighbor, and walking buddy Martha. 

Within a year of the divorce, I missed “the family,” Kody hung in there as my “friend,” and together we vacationed as “friends” with our kids in the Big Apple. I ❤️ NY, and I returned to my rented Plano townhome realizing that I ❤️ Kody, too. Sometimes time and space and amazing food and art museums and Broadway and romantic cities reveal the importance of people and things once taken for granted. Somewhere in that timeframe, Kody purchased a house in foreclosure, a dilapidated structure with beautiful bones and a sordid history. There may or may not have been a prostitution ring living and working in that house, abundantly wired, for surveillance purposes I presume. I swear. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Somehow we both related to taking on a neighborhood‘s dirty secret, giving it new life and a renewed sense of hope.

I remember sitting on the back patio of my townhome on a clear fall day, the sun shining, and Kody asking for my advice on his new renovation. I flipped through the Sherwin Williams paint color fan deck, searching for the perfect exterior trim color, matching the chip to the metal trim of MY patio furniture—Enduring Bronze. Eventually I assisted in decisions on flooring, granite, and interior paint as well. Somewhere along the way, Kody’s house felt like MY house, so I called movers, packed my bags once more, and moved back in with Kody. Together we lived in sin. (I joke—I’m  pretty sure that God approved of my decision to live with my former husband of nineteen years).

During our live-in-lover stage-of-life, my parents looked forward to their 50th wedding anniversary, and my dad planned a family celebration on a Mediterranean cruise for my mother. The family included my sister and brother, their spouses, and me and my boyfriend Kody. I cannot condense this story with justice, but all of my blabbity-blah leads up to the formation of Three Keys Properties. If an extended, kind-of-cute love story interests you, click the link of The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Anyway, while on that cruise, outside of Kuşadası, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, Kody and I drank from three sacred water fountains, which, according to our tour guide, symbolized health, wealth, and love. (As an English teacher, I loves me some good symbolism). After quenching my thirst that day, I kissed Kody before writing a little prayer of gratitude to God for my family’s health, wealth, and love. I stuck the little piece of paper into a prayer wall with a million other prayers. And before the end of the day, June 23, 2011, Kody asked me to re-marry him on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean, ring and all. Ironic, right? I say, “Name it and  claim it.” 

11.11

Side story: Kody had this thing (and still does) about spotting 11:11, mostly on digital clocks, but anywhere really…addresses…telephone numbers…consecutive 11s continued appearing. “It’s 11:11,” he would say, and with or without him, I began noticing the number coincidence, too. Apparently, many people see it, and theories abound on the 11:11 meaning. Google it. Angels are communicating…make a wish…oneness. Once engaged, we chose November 11, 2011, which seemed the obvious date for wedding #2.

11.11.11
11.11.11

A few years after incorporating as one in holy matrimony, we decided to incorporate for residential redevelopment purposes in an official limited liability company. While brainstorming business names, Kody came across the symbolic meaning of three keys. When worn together, they unlock the doors of health, wealth, and love, which we continue to name and claim, not only for us, but for anyone we work with along the way.

Hackamore The foreclosed home we purchased, remodeled head-to-toe, and sold when we relocated to Houston. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/3600-Hackamore-Ct-Plano-TX-75023/26602059_zpid/

Searcy The 1940’s bungalow we purchased when the previous owner called our number off of our We Buy Houses sign. We added 1000 square feet, with a living room, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a new laundry room. The new owners were thrilled to have a move-in ready home. For a tour, click https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2527-Searcy-Dr-Dallas-TX-75211/26735308_zpid/

Upon arriving in Houston, we moved into another fixer upper, a mid-century modern home, built in 1960. We consulted with interior designer Jessica Brown, who drew a new blueprint, and then started from scratch to build a network of home specialists–contractors and painters, flooring and brick and foundation guys, window installers and plumbers–in a new city. We stumbled through finding the right contractor to accomplish the goal, tearing down walls and redesigning an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining space while expanding the existing laundry room. After months of construction, two contractors, and phase one completion, we planned to update the bathrooms and create a new outdoor living space when Hurricane Harvey poured trillions of gallons of rain upon the city of Houston, flooding our investment and, just like the board game Trouble, sending us back to start. Slowly but surely, Three Keys Properties makes a comeback. 6″ x 36″ wood look porcelain tile installation close-to complete, an expanded master bath soon-to-be a reality. Photos and home again…in the not-so-distant future.

Advice from 2017 Crystal: A Top Ten List (With a Bonus)

Returning to school this past week after a rejuvenating holiday, I had an action plan to keep my mind right with a simple formula of God and gratitude. Monday started strong, but by Friday, my positivity was shot to Hell. Ironically, I missed my devotional that day, and I may or may not have been nursing a hangover. I haven’t mastered the art of not allowing people and circumstances to suck the good mojo right out of me.

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The devotional that would have saved my week.  His name will redirect my thoughts.

Thankfully I had pre-packed my bags and loaded my Mazda for an overnight stay in Dallas with a couple of my forever friends, if you call 38-43 years forever, before driving on to Oklahoma to visit family. With ample time to think while disentangling myself from Houston traffic, I reflected on my own best advice for those times when life fails to go my way:

  1. Talk to God and trust him (That Time When I Met Harvey).
  2. Ask for help when necessary and accept it when people offer (The Most Humbling Part of Harvey).
  3. Wait and hope (Wait and Hope and Other Mantras).
  4. At times you must dismantle to rebuild (And Rebuilding Takes Time).
  5. Seek inspiration (Eyes Open and Seeking).
  6. Surround yourself with positive energy (Flawed but Still Trying and The Power of Positivity).
  7. When God speaks, listen (A Divine Intervention).
  8. Practice gratitude (The Deep Sapphire Blue of the Mediterranean Sea).
  9. Love Liberates (Five Years before I Said, “I Do.” Also, Love Liberates).
  10. True friends nurture the soul (A Life You Want and Eyes Open and Seeking).
  11. Forgiveness and kindness reverse worst case scenarios (How to Deal with a Purse Snatcher).
  12. Through challenges we learn and grow in strength and wisdom (Goodbye, Beef Pot Pie).

Pre-divorce, I needed a psychologist. Mine came highly recommended by two different teacher friends after having a meltdown or two at school. I’m flashing back about fourteen years, which seems a lifetime ago. Through counseling, I became more self-aware and discovered my role in my own life. Each session, Dr. Stevenson probed, I verbally processed, and my eyes malfunctioned with a non-stop leak. Through her questions and my answers, I became conscious of my guarded nature, my inability to speak of heavy things, and my inclination to stuff my feelings. The doctor listened more than she spoke, but I’ll never forget her saying, “Crystal, don’t you have any friends?”

And me sobbing, “No!”

And her saying, “You’ve got to open up to people.”

In the first fourteen years of my marriage, we had lived in three states and moved five times. I had attended one junior college, two universities, and worked at eight different jobs. My friendships and relationships in general were surface level, in part due to continual change. Dr. Stevenson’s advice was pivotal. Slowly and over time, I made meaningful bonds by sharing my truth.  

Denise and I met at age five when I crashed her birthday party. K-12, we shared many teachers, birthday parties, and childhood memories. After high school, our lives diverged, but at our twenty-year high school reunion, we discovered we lived within twenty minutes of each other in the Dallas area. One dinner at a time, one text message at a time, over months and months, then years and years, Denise learned all my deep-dark secrets, and I learned hers. Neither one of us judged. I was her vault, and she was mine.

Pamela entered the montage of my life in the fifth grade. From humble beginnings, she put herself through school at Notre Dame, sending me ND baby booties for Drew and letters from India when she studied abroad. Somehow before cell phones, we always maintained our connection even as her life led her from one adventure to the next. We reconnected on Facebook when she lived in NYC, and she flew from her home in Miami to mine in Dallas when I remarried Kody. Now living in the wild west near Waco, Pamela, Denise, and I have formed a trio of Mutual Admiration.

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11/11/11 wedding celebration with my forever friends.

After my extra-long drive from Houston to Dallas, I beat myself up in front of my friends through the rehashing of my day, and by the end of the night, I felt renewed strength. On Saturday morning, before I departed for OKC, I asked Denise and Pamela, “So what are your take-aways from our time together?”

Pamela responded, “Flowers don’t blossom every day. They have their season. I learned that from Glennon Doyle Melton. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ll be right back.” She returned with gifts, wrapped in gold tissue paper, for both Denise and me.

img_6329
A book from Pamela. Have I mentioned being a Brene Brown fan?

I look back on this weekend and laugh out loud. Pamela observes with a keen eye and knows me well.  Apparently, our journeys are similar, and by ‘our’ I mean, all of us. I don’t know about you, but I seem to need some reminders, so I pass them along, just in case.

Pamela continued, “I’m also reminded of something that Tony Robbins said…” Whatever Tony Robbins said was good, something about being self-consumed, but I didn’t write it down, so I quickly forgot. The three of us said our goodbyes with hugs and vows to see each other again soon.

I trekked on to Oklahoma City to visit my precious mother in memory care, my super hero dad, who makes the ten-hour round trip each weekend, my sort-of cool brother Scott and his awesome wife Gerri, who have quite possibly worn their very own ruts on the road between Stillwater and OKC, and my closest cousin Angie, who would have a guest room, a bottle of wine, and a hot tub waiting for me at the end of the day. Of course, I kid about my bro. From my standpoint, he plays the role of son, husband, father, and brother like a pro. And Angie and I, well, we solved all the world’s problems in our swimsuits in her backyard, oblivious to the 29  ̊of a January night. < span style=”color: #000000; font-family: Calibri”>On Sunday morning, I joined my parents for church, at my mom’s assisted living community. We sang “God Will Take Care of You” and listened to a sermon about three Jewish men: Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego from the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had the men bound and thrown into his furnace for refusing to worship an oversized gold statue. The three men told the king that God would deliver them. Sure enough, the king looked into the furnace and saw four men, not three, and then commanded Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego to come out of the furnace. The men were no longer bound, and they were untouched by fire. In the end, King Nebuchadnezzar does a 180  ̊turn around and praises the God of the Jews for sending an angel to rescue the men. God took care of Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego, just as I know he will take care of me.

God's card
My dad handed me God’s card when I arrived on Saturday.

My visits with Mom are always too short and too sweet. Especially as her memories fade, I cherish those moments until our time ends abruptly, and I find myself once more behind the wheel. Time and time again, I feel most bolstered by my family and friends only to set myself up for a fall, right back into my pity party. Wah! From the road, I shot Pam and Denise a text: “Remind me what Tony Robbins said, Pamela. Something about thinking about yourself.” She responded, “The fastest way to misery is making everything about you.” The End

How to Deal with a Purse Snatcher

I’m not saying this would work every time, and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have dealt with a mall parking lot robbery in this way, but apparently my daughter Lauren has a gift for dealing with purse snatchers.

On December 24th, Kody, Drew, and I packed our bags, loaded my Mazda, and dashed up I-45 from Houston to Dallas. We swung by Lauren’s house to pick her up, looking all adorable in a little black dress with wedged ankle boots to match, and we were almost on time for the 3:30 Christmas Eve candlelight service at my home church, Chase Oaks. Merry Christmas to me! One of our traditions, our family together for carols and a Word in the presence of God. (The sixteen-minute sermon is linked, just click on Chase Oaks).

Afterwards, Kody and I would run to the grocery store, so we dropped Lauren at her home and car so that she could make one more run to the mall. Little did she know that she would need her tennis shoes. Lauren found what she needed as the mall closed, and back at her car, a girl approached her and asked, “Do you have a dollar?”

Lauren said, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any money, just my debit card.” And with that the girl snatched my daughter’s purse, her Louis Vuitton with her new iPhone inside, and ran. I suppose Lauren looked like an easy target in her cute dress and heels, but a competitive soccer player in her day, her instinct kicked in and said, “Oh, no, you didn’t.” Lauren chased the thief through the parking lot in front of oncoming traffic, and talk about a foot race—in her wedges—she ran as fast as she could. The other girl was bigger, and Lauren knew she would outlast and catch her in a matter of time. Lauren also knew she couldn’t fight her.

When the crook could run no more, Lauren said, “What is wrong? Why are you doing this?”

The other girl said, “I’m just going through a really hard time.”

Lauren said, “We all go through hard times, and I’m crazy, too, but I would never snatch anyone’s purse. How can I help you? Do you need a ride? Do you need a hug?”

forgiveness

And that’s how Lauren retrieved her purse from a thief. On Christmas Eve, Lauren showed this girl forgiveness and kindness, and she got her purse back.

And yes, Lauren did hug the girl and give her a ride, which wouldn’t have been my instinct, but maybe I will rethink future interactions gone wrong. This purse snatching worked out, and I couldn’t be any prouder of my little girl or any more thankful for the angels watching over her.   

LB (2)

 

A Life You Want

This Christmas morning, I have Pamela on my mind. It’s her birthday.

Travel back with me to the year 1980, a beautiful creature and soon-to-be forever friend graced the entrance of Mr. Hale’s fifth-grade, home-room class. I’m sure there are more photos somewhere.

1985. Pamela stuck with me at our 9th grade graduation celebration and during really bad hair days.

1998. Even though our lives led us thousands of miles away from each other, BC (Beautiful Creature) stuck with me and always found a way to visit.

2017. Pamela in Houston post-Harvey. Distance-wise, we’re now closer and friendship-wise, too. I suppose that’s what happens over the course of 37 years.

She’s a sage and a wisdom seeker, and I often find myself writing down what she says and quoting her, even if she is quoting someone else.

A few years ago Pamela attended an Oprah-sponsored Life You Want Weekend in Miami. She texted me a selfie, and I texted her back, “Awesome! Take notes and forward!”  I mean, seriously, who doesn’t want to live the life they want? 

She texted me back, “There were so many takeaways but what rings in my ears right now is something Rob Bell said, ‘The life you want starts with being grateful for the life you have.’” 

Happy Birthday, Beautiful Creature #1! You have taught me much, but the lesson on gratitude continues to serve me, and I am so thankful to have you in my life!

Wishing you ALL blessings of joy, peace, health and love today and in the new year!

Love Liberates

As the first semester at my new school winds to a close, the students have had some extra down/review time leading into exams. “I’m taking song requests,” I said to my class while sitting in front of my computer at my desk, double checking potential failures in a final attempt to give kids opportunities to pass.

“Rihanna. Love on the Brain,” Rebecca responded.

Ironically, I’ve had love on the brain for a while now although my thoughts on the matter don’t quite align with Rihanna’s lyrics. Love keeps knocking at my door, showing up in phone calls, texts, mail, books I’m reading, on television and social media, almost everywhere, persistently, as if to say, “Let me in. Don’t let me go. Oh, but share me because I will multiply. Pass me on.”

Flashback with me a couple of months or so, one month after evacuating from my Harvey-flooded house, I left Houston on a weekend getaway through Dallas and into Oklahoma, a break filled with family and friends and Love. It was a wonderful escape to places I-call-home during a time when I didn’t have one.  

Family Oct. 2017
Family Walk for Alzheimer’s in OKC
Misti, Zeme, Erin, Meghan
School Family of Fourteen Years in Dallas

On the return trip, I began mental preparation for my work week, telling myself that everything was going to be okay. But, thoughts of nurturing kids and making up two weeks of lost curriculum time amid so much personal loss overwhelmed me, and thoughts of doing that without my former co-worker friends seemed impossible. Anxiety attacked a place in my chest that felt like my heart, and bitterness crept into my head about living at a La Quinta in Houston.

When I arrived back at the hotel that Sunday, Kody wasn’t there. I texted him after waiting awhile to announce my return, “Will you bring food when you come back?”

I never heard from him.

I said never, but I’ll rephrase. I didn’t hear anything from him until his key scratched at the door, and he stumbled through, wasted, and promptly passed out on the bed. I saw red. Anger coursed through my veins, pounding at my temples. Anger towards my husband for handling his stress like an alcoholic, anger towards Oxy for transferring us from Dallas to Houston away from a home and friends and a job I loved, anger towards Harvey for destroying my house and taking most of my furniture, anger with myself for taking a job without knowing exactly what I would be teaching. And all of that anger turned my heart black, into a thumping conglomeration of hate. At that moment in time, I HATED my life. 

The next day I endured school and texted Denise afterwards. In the back and forth, three things resounded:

text

Not the “come live with me part,” which I totally considered, but the “Hang on? Love others….” followed by, “Are you going to run away?”

Forty-seven-year-olds don’t run away. At least, I don’t, or I don’t think I do. Her question helped me realize I had to let it go—I had to let it ALL go—the anger, the moving back to Dallas fantasy. I needed to breathe, put one foot in front of the other, and choose Love and grace. If you’ve read any posts since October 2nd, hopefully you’ve noticed I’ve been practicing. Recovery is a process.

I’m fascinated by how YouTube reads minds. Maya Angelou popped up the other day.

I’ve seen this video before, but not in a couple of years. Now, I can’t stop hearing her words: “I am grateful to have been loved, to be loved now, and to be able to love because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold. That’s ego. Love liberates.” Hey Rihanna, I recommend listening to Maya Angelou. 

From Maya Angelou, my thoughts shift to Jesus. After all, he is the reason for the season, and reminders of Him abound this time of year. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). As an English teacher, I notice he said, “must.” Love is imperative. 

Recently I started a book called The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times. I know the author and psychologist Dr. Susan Mecca through a friend, and I’ve been to Susan’s house for dinner. Her book had been on my To-Read list, and post-hurricane, Susan offered a free download of her book on LinkedIn. She knows crisis. Her son Nick and her husband Vito simultaneously had cancer after Vito had recovered from the paralysis of Guillain-Barre. Nick is now healthy and cancer free. Vito lost his battle. I feel guilty claiming a crisis in comparison. Susan says, “In the years our family fought for the survival of our men, Nick and Vito taught me love always brings transformation to our lives. That love is endless and can never be taken away from us, even when we can no longer see its source.”

In chapter one, Susan suggests some strategies and exercises for a crisis:

  • Imagine it is six months after your crisis has passed. Your best friend is talking to you about what s/he admired most about you during the crisis. What do you hope s/he will tell you?

Strength, grace, and love popped into my head.

  • Reflect on someone (real or fictional) who has gone through severely challenging times in his or her life. What are the qualities or traits that person demonstrated through his or her personal crisis?

Sydney Carton, Maya Angelou, Jesus, and Susan Mecca come to mind.

If you don’t know Sydney Carton, let me introduce you. In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney was a miserable alcoholic before meeting Lucie Manette, but his character shows how love liberates. His love for Lucie frees him to be a better person and my favorite literary hero. Sydney tells Lucie, “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you…think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you.” Sydney Carton’s sacrifice at the end demonstrates a Christ-like strength, grace, and love.

Dr. Maya Angelou survived rape at age seven and coped by not talking for the next six years. She grew up in the segregated U.S. and became the first African-American trolley conductor at age fifteen, a civil rights activist, a poet, a journalist and author, an actor, director, producer, and professor to name a few. The epitome of strength and grace, Dr. Maya Angelou says, “Love liberates.” And I have witnessed that truth in my life time and time again.

I’m sure most of you have heard of Jesus. So many celebrate His upcoming December 25th birthday, but the night before he carried his own cross to his own crucifixion, he commanded his disciples to “Love one another.” As a believer and Christ-follower, I want to live my life like that—with His strength and His grace and His love, and when I speak of His grace, I mean His kindness and His forgiveness.   

And as for Dr. Susan Mecca. Well, I look forward to finishing her book. She has made me realize my crisis is over. All of my people are alive. After losing her husband to cancer, Susan shows strength and grace through her message, “Love always brings transformation to our lives.” 

And I say, “I am practicing. And you know what? I feel both liberated and transformed.”

(And the messages keep showing up…)

note
This one showed up in the mail along with a gift from someone who would’ve had to ask someone else for my address. Hopes for love, grace, and wine! What more could I want?
Brene Brown
This one showed up on Instagram. As of a few days ago, 13,772 others LOVED this post, too.
classroom
This one showed up above my desk in the classroom. Sometimes spelling doesn’t matter.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a new year filled with STRENGTH, GRACE, and LOVE!

The Power of Positivity

This past week was hard, you guys, and the week before both bitter and sweet, and the week before heinous. Kody and I both had an entire week off for Thanksgiving. We left the La Quinta and Houston in our rearview mirror, tripped up to Dallas, and resided for a few days at a Residence Inn. Our family of four spent the holiday cooking and eating at Lauren’s house with Kody’s parents and Auntie in Plano, and I made a quick day trip to see my family in Oklahoma with my sidekick Denise. That’s the sweet part. But Thanksgiving morning, I heard my own audible gasp when Facebook alerted me of the death of one of the neighborhood kids from my childhood. Cancer. Aggressive. Sudden. Shocking. One of the neighborhood kids doesn’t do Shelli justice. That little spitfire could light up the room with her radiant joy and contagious energy. She lived around the corner, and her cousin Jill lived right next door to me. Shelli’s big brother Joel was my classmate K-12 and my first kiss at age five. As kids we shared many a swim meet, dance recital, pool party, and Fourth of July. Shelli was a few years younger than I, too young to die. My heart broke, and my tears fell like raindrops for her family, my friends.

I find it increasingly difficult to return to the La Quinta after quality time with my friends and family. Before the break, I had my yearly, combination sore throat/headache, and it was all I could do to make it through each school day. That Friday before my week off, I totally broke down in my sixth period class of twenty-two boys and four girls. In part because I was sick, in part because they wouldn’t shut the fuck up, and in part because I didn’t have the energy to deal with them. Please excuse my language, but I left for my holiday with fantasies of quitting.

When Monday after Thanksgiving rolled back around, I mustered my strength to return to school and face sixth period. And here is the thing: first, second, and third period are lovely, good as gold. The students walk in and know the routine. They sit down without being told, and they work with little direction or redirection. Fourth period has more spirit but also my student Chandrell who greets me daily with an enthusiastic, “Hello, Mrs. Byers!” combined with jazz hands followed with the best hug. I LOVE her, and I think she just might be an angel sent by God to make sure I show up each day. Then comes lunch merged with my fifth period conference, and I brace myself for my infamous sixth period. Think attention deficit disorder on steroids, throw in some autism, some students with emotional disturbance, some learning disabilities, a former gang member, lots of testosterone (did I say twenty-two boys?), and a deaf and blind girl who endures the chaos without complaint and out tries all of them. I can do anything for fifty minutes, I tell myself. At the end of the day I don’t have the energy to call parents. I focus on the moment and survival. Last week, miraculously, I checked off five more days at school, followed by five more nights at the La Quinta. The Ws assist: wine and whiskey. You guys, please pray for me. I’m not a quitter, but I battle some post traumatic hurricane stress and the option of walking away from this job.

This past Saturday, my internal alarm woke me before six AM. I had volunteered my time to tutor students who will be re-taking the STAAR test (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). In Texas, public school students must pass state-mandated tests for English I, English II, Algebra I, biology, and US history in order to graduate from high school. At my new school, passing rates are respectable for the algebra, biology, and history tests; however, during the spring of 2017, 61% of English I and 65% for English II testers passed. Less than half of my sixth period passed. These statistics differ greatly from my previous school district (with more like a 90% passing rate), so I face the biggest challenge of my eighteen plus year career as an English teacher. As much as I HATE to teach toward a test, unfortunately I do what I must do to help kids graduate from high school.  Approximately 1/3 of my students will be retesting next week, and we have practiced in class for two weeks. (Um, possibly there lies the problem. I’m working on a plan for more fun, less torture next week).

Back to yesterday’s tutorial, I know the English II state standards forward and backward and a thing or two about testing strategy, and I feel obliged to help any student who would choose to spend five hours at school on a Saturday.

Backward-Forward

Before rolling out of bed, I scrolled Facebook and read an interesting article about the effect of walking barefoot on earth.

Study after study confirms that the act of walking barefoot on the earth causes stress hormones to normalize, controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, relieves pain, improves sleep, and enhances well-being. I thought to myself, I must try this immediately. Then I rolled out of bed, made way to the shower, stepped in with my bare feet, and visualized the grass between my toes. As the water rinsed away my negative energy for the sixth time that week, I rehearsed my spiel on the power of positive thinking, noting the irony, and considered taking my tutees outside, having them take their shoes off and go for a walk.

After my shower, Kody’s alarm went off. “Why did you set your alarm?” I asked.

“I just wanted to make sure you were up,” he said with a little smile.

I proceeded to tell him about the article I read and my plan for preaching positivity as a testing strategy.

“That sounds good. I have this theory,” he said. “You know, New Orleans won the Super Bowl after Hurricane Katrina, and the Astros won the World Series after Hurricane Harvey. I think there was just a lot of positive energy in both cities after the hurricanes. People helping people. Less hate. Politics are so divisive, but people here let that go. Don’t get me wrong, New Orleans was good, and the Astros were great, but the energy of the cities carried those teams.”

I agreed. I felt those vibes, and I wanted to bottle them for keeps. “Hey, will you play some music?”

“Sure,” he said, pulling up his YouTube account on the iPad and playing Nothing But Thieves and King Krule. 

I don’t know how many people dance at seven AM, but I practiced my moves in front of the mirror as I drank my almond milk and finished my morning routine. Then I kissed Kody full on the mouth and said, “Goodbye, Daddy. Goodbye, Rainy” with a pat to her sweet head and a rub on her tiny belly.

At school, I taught three, ninety-minute sessions focused on revising and editing and the power of positive thinking to small groups of ten or less. “I can only imagine it must be frustrating to be here on a Saturday, but thank you for being here. I’m going to try to make this not terrible. Some of you are so close to passing. If you learn just a few things today that can help you answer a few more questions right, then it’s totally worth being here, right?”

Heads nodded up and down, belonging mostly to students I didn’t know. They showed up as a last-ditch effort, and I poured on the psychology before mixing in the grammar.

“First, I want you to believe that you can pass, and I mean, say it to yourself, repeat it, and believe it. ‘I can pass this test. I can pass this test. I can pass this test. I can narrow down my answer choices and choose the right answer. I can narrow down my answer choices and choose the right answer.’ And when you get tired, ‘I do care about this test. I do care about this test.’ I know that might sound a little crazy, but my house flooded, and I’ve lived in a hotel for the past three months. I have to talk myself into having a positive attitude pretty often, and it works, but you have to believe, and you can’t stop believing.” Experience spoke through me and to me. I can’t stop believing either, I reminded myself.

One girl said, “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” I said. “It’s okay.” We proceeded to discuss punctuation rules, reciprocal pronouns, the subjunctive mood, and commonly confused words. I showed the students how to locate that information in the dictionary, which they can use while testing.

“No one has ever told me this,” one boy said. “My sophomore English teacher quit halfway through the year.” I think he was a senior. I have heard that my classroom is cursed and that a few past teachers in L-114 have quit mid-year. I silently wonder if their houses also flooded and if they lived in a hotel.

“That’s why I volunteered for this session. So I could tell you,” I responded. The day proceeded like that, with kids who wanted to learn something and me believing I could help and make a difference.

Feeling fulfilled, I left the school around 2:30. December 2nd in Houston was perfect, 75 and sunny.  I drove back to the La Quinta, where I walked the thirty-two stairs to my third-floor room and picked up my husband, my dog, a bottle of wine, and a load of laundry. “This is a hot date,” I said to Kody as we continued to our still gutted home, where our washer and drier still work. I threw in the clothes and started the washing machine as Kody poured the cabernet into red Solo cups and resumed his DJ duties at our patio table on the deck. By this time the sun had dropped but still peeked over our backyard fence. I sipped my wine, removed my shoes, and danced with my shadow in the grass. I think I’ll try that more often. I felt my well-being enhanced. Maybe I’ll take all of my classes outside this week for a barefoot walk in the grass.

Today, Dear Reader, I send you good vibrations, leave you with a few song selections from Kody’s playlist (click on the song title for a trip to YouTube), and gift you some dancing tips. Of course, it’s more fun when you own your style. As my daughter Lauren would say, “To thine own self be true,” or maybe that was Shakespeare. Thanks for stopping by and bearing my rant. I feel better now. Bring it, Monday.

Pro Tip: Think “interpretive” and “dramatic.”

Pro Tip: Think “aerobics” and “pogo stick.”

For this one, I put my shoes back on and stomped it out on the deck. Think “Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick.” Once a dancer, always a dancer, I still count in eights.

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