Sunday, February 19, 2017

From My Sidewalk Seat

So already, there are weeks when the terrible and the wonderful butt up against each other with such force that we're left sprawled on the sidewalk, stunned and dazed. At the instant when the momentous terrible disrupts the pattern of our lives, a tectonic plate* that usually moves imperceptibly beneath the surface of our days encounters another with gut-wrenching force. Whether it slides above or below it in that moment of pressurized reckoning, the earth shudders and buckles--and so do our knees.

Knees Seen From the Pavement**
Felled, winded, we sit inert and speechless. Meanwhile, the knees that bustle by us slow not at all, oblivious to a sight their owners might think anomalous were they paying attention: a physically uninjured, well-heeled human being planted squarely on the pavement--and making no effort to stand up and move on. 

If we're determined to fulfill the commitments we made before the wonderful and the terrible collided, we somehow manage to power on--even with the right spirit--despite being psychologically stuck to that sidewalk. While others interpret our energy and focus as our enthusiastic commitment to the enterprise at hand--which they are--we understand them in alternate ways as well. They're our last-ditch effort to hold it together, to keep afloat amidst the warring waves and demands of contradictory emotion. We engage completely for fear that we'll lose it if we don't engage completely.

Last week was one of those weeks. I was in Washington D.C. to be part of the NEA Foundation's Salute to Excellence in Education Gala 2017 at which forty-three teachers, each nominated by his/her home state, were scheduled to be recognized for their outstanding achievements and contributions as teachers. I had agreed to be part of a group of former winners who were teaming up to become a flash chorus who would sing and dance this year's winners into their places of honor. I was excited, prepared, happy to be among new and old friends, honored myself to be chosen to celebrate this new group of honorees.

And then the terrible news came, courtesy of a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School colleague's Facebook page: the nineteen-year-old daughter of a college classmate friend had died as a result of a fire in her off-campus apartment. Moments before heading off to my first rehearsal, I broke the news to another classmate friend and conferred with her about how she might share the news with our other classmate friends who also needed to know it. The news was only terrible: there was no way to soften it, and we knew it would be devastating to all the members of our classmate friend group, regardless of where and when they would read the email my friend would send.

I had first met Mara when she was a Brookline middle school student. She and her mother, Lauren, had come to one of my husband Scott's open studios. I have three very clear memories of Mara*** from that day: the discussion Lauren, she, and I had about some bullying that was happening at her school; the conversation she and Scott had about his paintings, her art, and art more generally; and the way in which she and Lauren more often than not stood with their arms around each other. Later on, when Mara became a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I saw her seldom, but I heard from other teachers that her sensibilities, talents, and interests distinguished her as a serious, special person walking not the easiest of roads, but moving forward in her principled, authentic way.

Our Awards Gala Flash Chorus After the Fact
It will come as no surprise to you that every time there was a break in the Awards Gala rehearsal action, I could think only of Mara and Lauren. But there was a show to put on, and the reality was that in just the same way Mara and Lauren deserved my full emotional attention, so did these teacher award winners for whom the Friday night event would be a well-deserved high point--a defining, affirming, unforgettable memory and commemoration. There was nothing to do but keep standing and dancing on those ever-moving tectonic plates, even if some part of me was still sitting on that sidewalk.

I thought about Charlene Holmes, the CRLS student who'd been killed in a drive-by shooting four days before her brother was scheduled to graduate from high school. Her family decided that her brother would participate in his graduation ceremony, and her parents would attend. The wonderful and the terrible both had to be embraced. 

I flew back to Boston on the Saturday morning after the gala, trudged home from the subway station through the new snow, and tried to settle back into "my real life"--which meant gearing up to sell raffle tickets to members of the audience of the Unicorn Singers' Broadway Revue for the benefit of Horizons for Homeless Children. Still no time just to be and feel; time again to put myself out there and do what I'd promised to do with gusto.

Which was why I was so grateful for the next day's Writer's Almanac poem, "Following the Road" by Larry Smith. Yes, I relate to Smith's feelings of disorientation when his spouse is far away and he must contend with unsettling emotions more independently than he usually would. But even more importantly, Smith's poem captures the unease that had persisted beneath the very functional surface of my last  few days no matter how "on" I'd managed to be:
I have left my wife at the airport,
flying out to help our daughter
whose baby will not eat.
And I am driving on to Kent
to hear some poets read tonight.

I don't know what to do with myself
when she leaves me like this.
An old friend has decided to
end our friendship. Another
is breaking it off with his wife.

I don't know know what to say
to any of this--Life's hard.     
And I say it aloud to myself,
Living is hard, and drive further
into the darkness, my headlights
only going so far.

I sense my own tense breath, this fear

we call stress, making it something else;
hiding from all that is real.

As glide past Twin Lakes,
flat bodies of water under stars,
I hold the wheel gently, slowing my
body to the road, and know again that
this is just living, not a trauma
nor dying, but a lingering pain
reminding us that we are alive.****  
Gradually the old routines are asserting their claim on the order of things. It's Larry Smith's idea of "slowing my/ body to the road" that's helping me to accept anew that it's the nature of life that wonderful and terrible truths do emerge and collide in the same moment. It's also the truth that as startling and saddening as the terrible truths may be, as consuming as they may be in the short-term for those of us who are at all removed from them, they generally don't change the shape of our own lives, even as they radically reshape the lives of those whom they directly affect. For that reason, my friend Lauren stays much on my mind and in my heart. I'll see her next Sunday, and until then, I'll take one day at a time. It's the only way to get up from the sidewalk and to begin to move forward in a real and potentially helpful way. And moving forward--well, "this is just living," something we're required to do.

* "A long (approx. 30 m) planar tectonic joint with an orientation of 325/90" [digital image]. Retrieved from
"Pittsburgh Sandstone Channel and Shales, Vanadium Road, Scott Township, PA." Site: BRDGV 1-2:. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <>.
** Screen shot of a photo made from a freeze-frame of a Shutterstock video: "Sanctuary of Fatima, Portugal, March 07, 2015 . . . ":  
*** Screen shot of photo from the following blog: Barton, Randall S. "Http://" Blog post. Reed Magazine. Reed College, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <>. 
**** Reprinted with permission by The Writer's Almanac on February 12, 2017 from A River Remains. (c) WordTech Editions, 2006.