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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Five Years Before I Said, “I Do.” (We were totally kids and totally friends.)

I’m not exactly sure when Kody realized that I existed.  For me, it’s like I have always known him. In small towns, everybody knows everybody, and we grew up together in the middle of the Oklahoma panhandle where fields of corn and wheat meet the endless blue sky. I remember one summer day in 1984, marking the beginning of our friendship. (Kody remembers an earlier episode during the winter of the same year involving a high school basketball game, my pink snow boots styled like high-top tennis shoes, a detonated firecracker at the game, and our junior high principal Mr. Wolgamott on the scene, but that’s his story to tell). In my memory, I was fourteen, slathering myself with baby oil and sunbathing with friends at the public pool. I remember Kody flipping and diving and splashing onlookers with a cannonball or two from the high board, and me, enjoying the show.  I also remember needing a ride home. Kody drove a 1977 white Chevy Silverado pick-up even though he was barely fifteen. I don’t really remember talking to him that day, but looking back I’m betting my mom would have been available to pick me up, and I’m pretty sure she would have disapproved of a ride from any boy, not to mention one without a license. I most likely asked Kody for a lift for the sheer summer thrill.

I remember nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that ride except for the drop off. Kody pulled into the circle drive at my house and slowed to a stop. I opened the passenger door to let myself out and say, “Thanks for the ride.” But Kody never parked, instead accelerating again, completing the circle while I held on to the open truck door and cracked up. Within seconds and once more outside my front door, he stopped for another mock drop-off, and like a record, we rotated through the drive, the scene repeating, the Silverado pausing, then rolling on, Kody’s laugh infectious. Finally, he let me go. We were kids, being kids, and I found myself giggling about that ride for days.

At the end of the summer, Kody headed to high school, leaving me behind at the junior high. However,  we saw each other at the Victory Center church each week–in Sunday school and again at youth group. Most people probably don’t know that, but I believe God had a plan for us.

Flash forward a couple of years to our first date and three more to our first marriage and twenty-eight more through our journey of ups and downs, human mistakes and equally human reactions, break-ups and make-ups, for better and for worse.

11.25.89

Look at us. On November 25, 1989, at the Victory Center, I was a child-bride, marrying a man-child. Over time and together, we’ve learned a thing or two about imperfection and forgiveness, family and unconditional love. And speaking of love, this photograph–so much to love here: the way Kody looks at me, his little brother Thomas in the background, the fact that Hurricane Harvey tried to take our wedding album, but the photos survive and the fact that twenty-eight years later so do Kody and I.