One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.
Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.
I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.
So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.
It was Friday, September 29, 1989. I remember the twang of the B-52’s on the radio that morning: “If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says ‘15 miles to the Love Shack.’ Love Shack, yeah, yeah….” Except I wasn’t headed down the Atlanta highway or headed for a love getaway. Nope. Not this day. On this day, I got in my Honda. I was big as a whale. Nine months earlier, I had spent my time at the Love Shack. On this particular day, I headed down Highway 51, having contractions along the way to the hospital in Stillwater.
Twelve hours later…
It was 11:56 PM. The doctor said, “Do you want to have this baby on September 29th or the 30th?” 9/29/89 had a ring to it, so I plucked up strength enough and gave another push.
And with this little baby Andrew Riley, 8 lbs. 8 oz., came a love and joy and pride I never knew.
Looking back over thirty years, I remember so many moments of greatness, and I realize how often you have to keep plucking up strength enough and giving yet another push.
And today Happy 30th Birthday to my love and joy and pride, my courageous and strong son Andrew!
When I stepped into the blue rubber raft from the safety of the river bank, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival.* I said a little prayer with faith and gratitude for peace and hope. Before the bus ride to our launching site, I had skimmed the release of liability and waiver of legal rights and acknowledged that whitewater rafting can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY/DEATH. Then I signed on the line and proceeded to pick up my wetsuit, spray jacket, helmet, and life-preserver.
Colorado’s abundant snowfall last winter through May translates to deeper, faster water and what may have been the best white water rafting season in decades.
Shout out to my brother Scott and his beautiful, adventurous wife Gerri for having a 30th wedding anniversary and a reason to celebrate with friends and family, to Rapid Image Photography for the complimentary photos, and to Zach, Ivan, and Kerrie of Clear Creek Rafting Company for the safety debrief and an adrenaline-fueled float through the Rocky Mountains. No one fell off of the raft. No one died. And the river of life keeps flowing, sometimes with faster, deeper waters and cold splashes in the face, sometimes with the possibility of tipping, relying on your life vest, and swimming to safety.
When I stepped back into my ordinary life from the perfection of vacation, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival. I said a little prayer with faith and gratitude for peace and hope.*
Happy Independence Day to my American friends! And Happy 4th of July wherever you are!
*Inspired by S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, “When I stepped into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
“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 pointing first at myself and then 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 off 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.”
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 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.
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.”
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!!
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.