Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Las Vegas and the Fall of Rome

Last night I went to bed thinking a lot of things, especially about the massacre in Las Vegas that happened Sunday night.  Yet again, another mass shooting in the good ol' gun-loving US and yet again, the subsequent flurry of online "thoughts and prayers" for the victims.  Very shortly afterwards, almost immediately actually, the propaganda both for and against gun control legislation began.  I am well aware of the arguments, well aware of which side I am on and I am also very cognizant of how exhausted I am from having this same fight every few months.

I am definitely an advocate for responsible gun legislation.  I don't want to take away anyone's Second Amendment right to bear arms, but I want controls in place that regulate gun ownership.  The requirements for owning and operating a car, obtaining an abortion, or even applying for federal aid for college take more time, effort and regulation than gun ownership in the US.  We are, as a nation, currently armed, dangerous, and definitely on edge.  It's not a good combination for anyone living here.

Just in the last nine months alone, more than 11,500 Americans died due to guns.  That's more than 1000 a month dead because of lax gun regulation and the glorification of gun ownership in the US.  Some were accidents, some self-inflicted, some as the result of crime, and about 300 were due to mass shootings.  More than 2500 teenagers/young adults were killed by guns.  That figure is appalling. Why, as a people, are we okay with this level of loss of life?

I sincerely thought that after the 26 children and adults were killed at Newtown, Connecticut almost five years ago that Congress would begin the hard work of crafting sensible, meaningful public policy on gun ownership.  How could they not?  Babies were brutally gunned down in a safe space, kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.  We as a compassionate, sentient nation of people wouldn't stand for something like this to happen again.  But we did.  And we continued to stand for more mass shootings, more horrific deaths of innocent people in public places.  No where is safe anymore--not movie theaters, nightclubs, baseball games or concerts.  Every time this happens, people mourn and commiserate, send thoughts and prayers, argue for and against their side, and ultimately do nothing at all.  They purposely forget and willingly buy the bullshit propaganda of the NRA and the right who proclaim gun control legislation equates to gun confiscation.

The entire mess makes me angry and so very sad.  I am frustrated that we are like Nero and fiddling while Rome burns. Until people are willing to allow for compromise, until people are willing to listen to reason and see the bigger picture, nothing will continue to happen except more mass murder, more unnecessary, violent deaths of the innocent.

As I fell asleep, I was struck by an odd thought.  I wondered if, somewhere in the late 5th century, Romans realized that their civilization was rapidly coming to an end.  And, if so, were there people trying to halt the ending or were they self-medicated, blinded if you will, by propaganda of the times?  I also thought of how their incidents of violence, the disintegration of the ideals of a republic must have occurred more frequently.  A societal variation of compressed morbidity that occurs as people age. Illness after illness come closer and closer until a person dies.  I wondered if civilizations were like that as well.  Violent episode after episode occurring more frequently and with greater impact until a society expires.

America is in peril led by an incompetent narcissist who sees nothing and understands nothing unless it directly relates to himself.  We are experiencing greater division as a people, the like not seen since the Civil War.  We are weak and unwilling to change, hiding from the hard work that needs to be done to continue striving for the goals laid out in our preamble to the Constitution....establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare.  From where I sit, we are in that period of compressed morbidity as a nation, and if we don't do something to stop its progression, the civilization that we know now won't be the same in the future.  As a matter of fact, it may not be here at all.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Potential and Nothing Random


You are a bell before it's been rung-
the note of a song before it's been sung,
the tick of a clock before it times true;
You are potential, opportunity new.

You are a thought, not yet spoken-
a heartfelt promise still unbroken,
the rays of the sun peeping awake;
You are potential which no one can fake.

You are the eyes that open at dawn-
holding the moment before it is gone,
the sole drop of rain before the downpour;
You are potential and so much more.

Nothing Random

There is a lifetime in minutes
that we parse from our days
to share with each other

With carefully crafted words
 there is nothing random 
in the way we speak, the things we say

It is a calculated distance,
this place we painstakingly leave
between us

We hide from complication,
refuse to be vulnerable and
control what we can

But then....

Pushed on a tide of patience
that pools then ripples, 
and breaks in wave upon wave

There is no space unfilled, 
no deliberate disconnect
Just energy and eyes 

An acknowledgment of kisses,
a recognition of the other and the us
that exists solely in stolen moments

Saturday, September 23, 2017

I Have My Phone, Therefore I Am

Cell phones and creativity don't always mix.
This past week, we held a poetry and music festival at the alternative high school where I work.  Students created poems throughout the week, practiced songs they wanted to perform, and created accompanying art work for their words. Some of them were able to create poems of depth and meaning fairly easily, while others couldn't maintain the concentration necessary to write anything. I empathized with both types of writers. I used to write a lot of poetry throughout my late twenties and early thirties, but it dwindled down to almost nothing while I was in the thick of raising my kids and struggling to meet all my obligations as a wife and mother of young children. I couldn't find the time to reach that state of openness and quiet is that is necessary to take words and piece them together into something beautiful. For some reason, these students of mine cannot find that space either. 

My lack of quiet space came from obligations to work and family--a fairly typical occurrence for someone my age and my place in life.  My students' lack of space, however, can be attributed to the nature of today's technology-centered world.  As teenagers, time should be one of their greatest assets, with enough of it to actually have blocks of it filled with nothing to do.  Nevertheless, this is not the case. Every minute for them is filled, not only with typical adolescent thoughts, daydreams, and doubts, but with media, Youtube, music, and video games.  Their lives are ones of non-stop sensory input which leaves very little room for creative output. A person doesn't need to exercise her imagination if someone else does it for her at the push of a button or the stroke of a keyboard.  There is no room anymore for boredom and that develops into a distinct lack of ability to deal with the feelings that boredom manifests.  I think there is a correlation between this and the high levels of anxiety I see in my students.  They get used to constant entertainment, their entire lives having been an exercise in "bread and circuses" and don't know what to do with themselves when the immediate mental gratification stops.

Sometimes I think that technology and this culture of instant gratification is not only changing how we do things, but it's changing brain development as well.  Who we are now as a people will definitely not match who we become in the future. Technology has not only become a daily tool for humanity, but an extension of oneself.  For young people it's almost as if Decartes' definition of self has become "I have my phone, therefore I am."  It worries me in regard to purely human-inspired artistic creativity.  What's going to happen with traditional artistic endeavors? Are young people not going to be confident enough in their skills to make things without the help or inspiration of technology because they've never had to rely on just their own thoughts and ideas?  It worries me because technology is so pervasive that it's not only changing young people, but everyone else as well.

I see changes in the way I think and the way in which I do things, and I attribute that to the constant presence of technology in my life as well.  I have a shorter attention span and an increased need for consistent mental stimulation of some kind.  And if technology has affected me this way, someone who has already been set and programmed a long time ago, what is it doing to young people who still have malleable minds? All people, including me, need to make time for more unplugged downtime. We need time to be bored. We need to sit with that boredom long enough to want to create something or do something productive that alleviates it.  Having nothing to do or to think about has a way of opening one's mind to deeper thoughts, concentration, and creation of wonderful things.

I am definitely going to work on giving myself more opportunities for having time to do nothing.  I need it to get back to more of who I used to be.  And, if I am lucky, maybe in that nothing I will create something and it will be beautiful. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art of Being Supportive

Being a supportive friend isn't as easy as it seems.  There is an art to it. 

I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to know that death is a real possibility due to illness.  I think for most people who are in reasonable health, it's a concept we toy with occasionally, but quickly push to the back of our consciousness.  It's a fear that most people don't examine in depth because it seems so very remote and so scary to contemplate that one day we will just be gone with no genuine idea of our destination from that point. I cannot imagine what it might feel like to have to face that reality.

I have a dear friend with a life-threatening illness.  He's pretty young and has already had a close brush with death.  He has children and family that care for him very much and who, I am sure, depend on him to be there.  He has an abundance of friends who all seem to thoroughly enjoy his sense of humor, sarcasm and wit.  He has a definite presence in this world.  And the idea that he might die really scares me because a world without him will be a little less bright and a lot less interesting. I can only imagine (and not very well at that) how he must feel.  In addition to that particular stress, the illness has caused him to be unable to work and do many things he previously enjoyed.  The pressure he is under is intense.

That amount of stress and pressure can be isolating, especially if that person is someone who handles most of life's issues with introspection and self-reliance.  No one in that person's immediate circle would really understand what kind of fear, doubt, uncertainty and anger that the ill friend would experience.  Self-reliant people don't want sympathy and unless someone has been in those circumstances, empathy wouldn't apply. A lot of friends would want to be 100 percent positive and cheerful, but that too could be isolating and irritating for some people because it seems disingenuous. In situations like this, distance is created because no one is really sure how to act. The people who support a sick friend have to figure out how to do it right so that it will be meaningful, impactful, and appreciated.  It's a really hard thing to determine which line to walk or which emotions and behaviors to balance.  There is an art to being a supportive friend.  One I have yet to fully master.

I will freely admit I am not very good at it.  I want to be supportive.  I want to be helpful. I want to be positive and stoic and fearless for him. What I really want is to fix the problem and make him healthy.  In my efforts to be a good friend, I forgot that receiving support and help can be a hard thing to navigate as well and can cause undue stress on the person for whom it's intended.  I think my attentions, which were well-intentioned, created a sense of expectation for thank yous or appreciation which in turn sapped energy from my friend who needs every ounce he has for healing.

Life is a learning process.  I've never really loved someone who had a long-term illness, so figuring out how to be a good friend in this situation is new to me.  I think, after a lot of reflection, I realize that I need to pay closer attention to the details, to listen to my intuition and his words, to not overstep my bounds, and to be very clear that the sole expectation I have is to help without any strings attached. A good friend is there when needed and wanted--no more, no less.

I am pretty confident that things are going to work out well.  I am a firm believer in positive thinking and happy endings.  I am also well aware of how strong, stubborn, and determined my friend is.  The disease should be intimidated by him, not the other way around.  As long as he wants me in his life and as much as I possibly can, I will be good friend and keep learning how to be a better one.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to be a Champion Even When You Lose

A healthy dose of competition goes a long way.  I think for many people, it works as a motivator to do one's best at whatever endeavor they engage in.  In addition, it adds an element of thrill or excitement to see who will come out on top.  It lets people dance with the fear of losing or coming in second place to push them to become more emotionally invested in what they are trying to achieve.  At it's most basic incarnation, it provides tangible proof that out of a field of rivals, one person is the best. Besides those things, winning feels good.  It's nice to be able to say, I gave it my all and I prevailed.

Unfortunately, it also has a down side.  For some people, winning can become everything.  It morphs into the sole validation for one's worth and value.   When this happens, people can become ruthless, calculating, and obnoxious.  Unless a person has a healthy relationship with and an attitude towards competition, being competitive can cause more heartbreak than satisfaction. It is essential to have the right perspective about winning, losing, and trying one's best.

It's funny how life cycles through themes, but this week's theme seems to be about competition. Through conversations with my children and friends, the topic keeps popping up in one form or another. It's made me think more about it lately than I have in a long while. Somewhere along the line, the need to win fell way back on my list of priorities. I used to be incredibly competitive about most things.  I wanted to be at the top of whatever I did. I won a lot of the time due to hard work and effort, but I lost frequently too.  I used to get so upset when I lost--tears, doubt, anger--the whole nine yards. Thankfully, as I've aged, life became much more about the journey than the destination for me and constant competitiveness fell by the wayside.

My daughter who is fifteen and has a similar competitive streak as I did at that age recently auditioned for section leader for the band.  She practiced not only her music on a daily basis, but spent hours writing and reviewing her interview questions.  She has innate talent, but more importantly, she has a solid work ethic, especially when it comes to achieving goals for herself.  Even with all her preparation and her confidence that she was going to perform at her greatest ability, she was prepared to lose gracefully.  And that makes me very proud of her.

Some people might question why I would be proud of her to be prepared to lose. There is a school of thought that believes if a person makes room for the idea of losing, they have already lost.  They believe that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. I thoroughly disagree.  I think evaluating what it might be like to win and to lose before it ever happens let's a person focus more on the experience than the objective and to frame how they will react to both outcomes.  It makes you a winner at life, not just that particular test of skill.

Since they were very young, all of  my children know that sometimes you just don't win, no matter how hard you try.  No matter how talented a person is, someone out there could be better.  The only thing to do is to give 100 percent of what they can do and wait for the results.  Win or lose, if they did their best they could be proud. I wanted them to know early on that it is the effort that matters most, not the achievement.  I want them to be champions at life, not just soccer, or band, or school work. Learning to be resilient in the face of defeat, gracious in both winning and losing, and confident in their attempts means more to me than any trophy, position, or grade.  Winning is nice, but it isn't everything.  Learning from your mistakes, acknowledging and appreciating skill or talent beyond your own, motivating yourself to work harder and smarter for the next test of skill, and being completely present in the moment no  matter how painful it might be are all much more important than winning.

As section leader next school year, I know my daughter will continue to strive for excellence because it is something she wants to do for herself and for her band family, not solely for external validation. She will still be competitive, but mostly with herself, I am sure.  Just like her Momma, she wants to be a little bit better tomorrow than she was today, and frankly that's the most productive and fruitful kind of competition of all.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Making Room

I've been thinking a lot lately about the people who populate one's life.  Some arrive on purpose and others just pop up seemingly out of nowhere.  How a person comes to you is pretty easily answered-either you made the effort to place them there or they randomly fell in through circumstance. The real question I think most people have, however, is who stays and who goes and why that is.  I like to think that we have some modicum of control over who sticks around, and oftentimes we do, but my experience seems to validate the idea that fate really plays a major role in this arena.  

A person can behave in such a way to either keep or chase off people.  He or she can be abrupt or warm, insulting or complimentary, thoroughly disengaged or actively participating in a relationship. How we behave and what we say and do has an impact on who remains and who leaves.  But then, every now and again, people disappear for no reason at all or someone who was gone returns.  It seems as if the Universe has an agenda or timeline and just does what it sees fit to do in regard to who shares your life. 

Sometimes I feel as if I can actually sense the Universe pulling people out of my life.  The past twelve months seemed like a year of goodbyes.  The harder I tried to hold onto things and people who were important to me, the more I could feel the bonds.stretch and tear.  It was an uncomfortable feeling.  Painful, even.  It left me doubting myself, wondering what was so wrong with me that people didn't want me in their lives.  And then, somewhere during those months of feeling abandoned and bereft, I realized that I didn't have to think of this cycle in my life negatively.  I likened the process to spring cleaning-getting rid of the old, worn out aspects of my life and making room for the new.  Holding onto anything or anyone that doesn't readily want to stay or that serves no meaningful purpose only makes it more difficult to jump forward into something better, healthier, and happier.

It's inexplicable, but when I transitioned to actively thinking of the goodbyes as necessary and well-intentioned, I not only felt more free and at peace, but some people came back.  People whom I thought were gone forever returned to me. When I let go and truly meant it, wishing them well, they appeared again.  Others stayed gone, and in retrospect, I see how good that was for me.  Some people are only meant to be there for a short time until the lesson is learned.  Some stay forever.  And some thought to be lost and never to return show up again as if it were meant to be. The relationships and friendships may not be the same incarnations as before, but often they are better for having had the distance and separation.  Like an artist or an author who returns to a piece after leaving it alone, you see it with new eyes and a sense of depth that did not exist before.  There can be new levels of appreciation and understanding which makes for more enriching experiences.

I've seen this phenomena in not only my life, but in others as well.  I have one friend in particular who is where I was last year, holding on and stuck in a cycle of hellos and goodbyes.  It's taking its toll and all I want to do is have her let go, to be unafraid, and to see what the Universe has in store. Like most things, it is easier said than done.  Nevertheless, I still hold hope in my heart that she reaches the spring cleaning stage in her life.  When she does, I think she will learn to not have too many expectations for who stays and who goes.  It took me awhile, but I now know that the only thing I can really do is be me and listen to my intuition. I need let go when everything is telling me that is what must happen and to be unafraid to embrace the room made for the new.  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens and how that increased room will be filled.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

You Can't Suck Forever: Getting Back Into the Writing Game

It's been more than two years since I wrote anything for this blog.  I have thought about it several times, but I each time I did, I felt as if I had nothing to contribute, nothing to say that had interest or value.  More so than anything, I think  my creative energies focused on fitting back into the working world by returning to teaching after an extended break, and figuring out how to balance home and job in the best way possible.  

I also had to find out who I was again, in the context of myself.  I had been solely Momma for six years and I needed to rediscover exactly who Melanie was.  I'm still working on it, and still surprising myself on occasion when I find a new facet of who I am.  The itch to write, however, has been resurfacing lately and getting harder and harder to ignore.  I feel rusty at it, but like I tell my students and my own children, the best solution for almost any problem is action.  You'll never know if you don't try.  So please forgive this attempt if it falls short, but getting back into the regular writing game is going to take some practice. It's kind of scary because I am used to being good at putting words together, to conveying a message.  I hate not being good at something I care about.  Nevertheless, I need to just suck it up and jump back into writing, even if  takes several attempts to get back to being coherent and well-written. As a friend of mine told me once when I was lamenting about using technology in the class room and my fear of screwing up, "You just need to go ahead and do it.  You can't suck at it forever."

I just finished my third year as a social studies teacher for a small alternative high school, and for the most part, I have enjoyed every minute of it.  In addition to teaching several different courses and sponsoring clubs and classes, I jumped into becoming a member of the teacher's union. With both endeavors, I discovered that as I have aged my voice has become clearer and stronger.  Initially I worried that my break from teaching had caused me to lose my ability to teach well, to lose my sharpness and skill. However, I was very pleasantly surprised that my confidence regarding my skills and contributions became more solidified.  I actually think I am a better teacher now than I was when I worked for 11 years straight.  Taking that time to be a stay-at-home mother, facing financial difficulties, living through some very challenging personal issues, and having time to reflect and explore what's important in this life  gave me a better perspective on all different kinds of people, especially young people.  I think I am better able to empathize with students and the issues they bring with them to school because I have faced some of those issues first-hand.  Taking that time helped to clarify a lot of my ideas about what is important in teaching, and even though I had to play a lot of catch up with pedagogy and the best practices, I am a better teacher than I was before.  I am better a person than I was before, and I am fortunate that I can bring my improved self to the class room and share it with students.

I am at a point where I feel pretty balanced and centered in my life.  I think that's why I want to write again.  I don't know if I have anything of merit to say, but that's not really the point anyway.  It's a creative outlet and I have both the desire and the room for it again.  That makes me happy.  So, I am going to pursue it.  I am going to enjoy it, work at it, and get better at it.  It feels good to be back.