Saturday, September 16, 2017

On starting anew

Yesterday 7:30 a.m. I sat on the #4 on my way to the Bronx to teach an early class. I looked up from a handful of student papers and noticed an array of college ads. Filled with promise and purpose, they touted: Your future awaits. Discover your potential. I felt seduced.

The thrill and joy of beginning came to me in a wave of nostalgia. I remembered being thirty years old, returning to college and believing the world awaited. I was ten years later than my peers, in a hurry to catch up. I didn't milk all I could have out of my courses. It went so slow, until poof--it was over. I had my degree. One thing checked on my list of to-dos. There were so many -- start a career I loved and live a great life were at the very top. Honorable endeavors, difficult to pull off for the complicated and serious young woman I was.

Now. Many years later, I don't have lists. There's only what I need to do (keep teaching) and what I want (great life, still, but not so plotted.) I'm in my tenth year of teaching some form of Freshman English. In starting this semester at a new college, surprises make my work life come alive. For starters, there's the beauty. On this sprawling Bronx campus I'm greeted with acres of greenery and hills, open sky and old stone buildings. Each Friday when I walk through the gates, I breathe deep and gear up for the trek across campus.

I walk past Theater and Music, then the gymnasium, then This Hall and That Hall, the football stadium, and finally I arrive. I linger at the door to my classroom, take in the streaks of sunlight as they filter through the shades, spill onto the old-style wooden desks. I'm so happy here, I feel silly. My students are  nursing majors. We read essays and articles that I've never before taught, never before read. I stay one reading ahead of them.

Starting new is a gratifying way to bring an uneventful summer to a close. In July, without a summer class, I signed on with an agency to do background work in movies. The agency's calls were spotty and always on days when I was at my part-time gig. So much for the essay I would write about my days in film. And then two weeks ago -- if fall semester hadn't started up, I would have been a guest at a Bat-Mitzvah in Orange is the New Black. 

From what I hear, being an extra is grueling. Twelve-hour days. Six a.m. clock in. Not much pay. But, still. I want to explore, go to hair and make-up, begin another new thing. Especially when I'd never in my life, written this on a to-do list.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

On everything

To add to the "big break" post below, the student writer did indeed sign a contract. May the publisher-bidding wars begin! This girl is on her way to a very new life--or at least through a very exciting door.

I'm inspired and a teensy bit envious. I'm in search of my own new door, one that sparkles in the way the start of my fervently wanted careers once did. I don't yet know what my new door will look like, how hard or easy it will be to turn the knob. Maybe I can polish up the careers I already have. Get my own students book deals or jobs or simply help open doors they hadn't considered--maybe (hopefully) I already have. 

Present time concern: I woke up this morning thinking about pocketbooks. Not dreaming of them, but rather seriously considering if I had one to match the outfit I would wear on Thursday (see photo below) This is a strange concern for me, because when in doubt, I grab the backpack and that's that. But it's also not unusual that at this particular time I'm thinking of outfits and matching this and that's, because I'm traveling to a time when these things super-obsessed me.

On Thursday eve, I'm attending a high school reunion. I'm not the reunion type, simply because I always fear I don't have much to show for myself (my self esteem plummets to those hazy not-so lazy days) and I'm not the rah rah rah type--but, then, that's not exactly true. Once upon a time I was. And when people look beyond my librarian glasses and love for hard-cover dictionaries, after they say "you were a cheerleader?!" they see my go-team smile which hasn't washed off in, well, 40+ years. And it will be right at home at this very specific get-together, a cheerleader reunion.

When I first saw the invitation, I was overcome with dread (high school self-esteem). I "rented" a grandchild (friend Debby's adorable little one), pulled myself together (along with the cute outfit that has no matching pocketbook), and got into it. I created a late sixties playlist--Dionne Warwick, the Beatles, the Supremes, Fifth Dimension, Herman's Hermits, the Temps, and the list of all my favorites goes on.

What felt two months ago like an event I couldn't possibly attend has taken on the warmth of nostalgia and reminiscence. Who will I see? I imagine, once insecure girls, too, who've grown into themselves. Who will I be? Proud of who I've become (leaning in that direction) or aware of my flaws? (Uh uh.) 

High school is the door I'll stand before this week. I'll turn the knob and step inside. I'll likely wear the yellow skirt and top that has no matching pocketbook. And no one will care.
(I'm second from the top right, the one with the fold through her face.)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On someone else's big break

I have the chills. I'm not sick, just super-excited for a CUNY student whose life is about to change in ways she can't imagine. And I'm remembering too when the possibility of fame came knocking at my door, via the exact same vehicle.

My friend and colleague taught a children's lit class at Bronx Community College this summer. Her students, many of whom are immigrants, wrote books informed by their childhoods in their home countries. Katherine kept telling me about one book about a parrot who flies to New York from the Dominican Republic, seeking America's fortunes. As the book moves along, one thing leads to another, and mangoes enter the scene. When I closed my eyes, colors popped behind my lids--orange, red, blue--I began to dream about going to DR, the heck with the U.S. (for more than mangoes, but that's another story).  

Well, Katherine must have seen brightness, too. She contacted a writer at The New York Times and told him about her class, the stories, especially the one about parrots and mangoes. He saw color, too, I'm certain. Because an article about the young woman was in yesterday's "Side Street" column.

"She's going to get a book deal," I said with confidence. And today--one day later--Katherine called me. "You're a genius!" she said. "A top NYC agent wants to represent her!" Not a genius, just been there, and I know the power of the Times. But still, I get a wonderful onset of the chills. Lovely little pin pricks tickling my arms, my scalp. How great for the student. And, too, for community college students, so many of whom don't see glitter ahead.

Deep sigh. Pen to page. Fingers to keyboard. Show up. Every day or as often as possible. Not just at the writing but for myself. Whatever the creative impulse. Many years ago, when my call came, I wasn't ready for the agents. It wasn't because I hadn't shown up for the writing--I had--two three times a day, and when I was on fire and had the time, all day. But my inner work--the fixative that writing served me--hadn't yet solidified. 

Agents. Book deals. They're not part of my dreams anymore. Writing time has been replaced by the gym, the precious 40 minutes on the elliptical when I put on the headphones, tune out and sweat. For the past month I've noticed that I get that runner's high, or at least, am emotional and physical putty all day. Why stir my well with words, when they always find their way to something inside, not-yet-fixed?

An RSVP to a family wedding sits on a shelf near my door. I haven't seen these cousins in years; they likely think I won't go. I'm in conflict. It's the first time since the election I would be at political odds with a sea of people. It's a traditional ultra-orthodox affair--something to experience, engage in, respect. I want to rise above that which blocks me. Or at least, put it aside. It's the "right" thing to do. But I'm not quite sure.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On practice

I learn a lot about practice through my painting classes--most importantly, without practice, there is no good art--in fact no bad art, for me. And "bad art" is ultra necessary in order to get to the good, to align with my process. There are students in my beginners class that are impressive in their advancement. They're slow, methodical. My painting is brisk, rushing to get the picture down, the exact opposite of how I watercolor.  My teacher, always with the right words at the ready, says, quick is good. You're going to go over this when it dries, define, shade; you had to do this to get to that.

I haven't been practicing at home this summer, save once. All I have to show is the canvas to the right. I attempted to copy in acrylics, a picture of a floral arrangement done in watercolors (Deb Watson painter). I look at my reproduction and say, not too bad. Now comes the real work. Define the flowers, go over the first layer to shade and create dimension. Mimic my teacher, who with a flick of his wrist, a petal appears, a real flower is born! I memorize how he holds the brush, whisks it over the bubble of a flower(?) I've done. I try, but amnesia sets in within seconds How does he do that? Question to self: can I bring a similar attitude of acceptance and grace to my students when classes start? Demo demo demo--and lots of practice.

My teacher is always in beginner's mind. I carry my beginner's mind to yoga practice. In fact, yoga is all about practice for me, but it wasn't always so. My first two years in yoga class I watched my neighboring yogis, became frustrated when I couldn't align my posture, balance, twist my arms and legs as they did. It wasn't until I read Donna Farhi's Bringing Yoga to Everyday Life that I learned, the poses were only 5% of the point. Perfect was only perfect when I could do the pose without pain. Perfect was perfect when I practiced against a wall or with props, or sat it out. The perfect practice--using my inner wisdom about what's right for me, taking that mindset off the mat and into the painting studio and the rest of life. And practicing that every day.

This nonteaching summer has led me to spend many afternoons at my new favorite city hangout--Bryant Park. Specifically the backgammon tables. One of the teachers spent some time explaining  strategy to me and philosophizing about life. On one particular day, my dice were loving me--doubles, almost every throw--lucky, I said, modestly shrugging. The teacher said something like, there is no such thing as luck, unless you show up to receive it. I'm not kidding. My world is filled with Buddhas. They keep me practicing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

On becoming a good teacher

In my last post I wrote about having had a good spring semester. What contributed to that was having had a course theme that I felt passionate about--activism and societal change. That passion energized and inspired me. I discovered the other day in my painting class, another route to being a better teacher--become a student. It doesn't matter what subject and whether the teacher is great or awful.

When I studied memoir writing in grad school--I learned what kind of teacher not to be--my first writing teacher talked about her life stories--the basis of her numerous memoirs--at least 50% of the time. I didn't have the guts to talk to the program director. Instead I looked across the table at my one friend, we rolled our eyes, and swallowed our disappointment. But I learned a lot-- good and even great writers aren't by default good or great teachers. And, too, I made a mental note to never do that to my own students. It's their class. Their money. Their time.

A few years ago I began studying watercolor painting. I learned from my teacher that patience and practice were the road to talent. She said it over and over (in not those exact words.) I have little patience, no room in my apartment to Practice...or this is the lie I tell myself. And I firmly believe there is no painting talent in me waiting to emerge.  But I brought that philosophy into my English classroom, and I became (at least that day) a better teacher. At least one who understands when a subject doesn't come naturally.

Now, I'm taking an acrylic painting class. My teacher is--I apologize in advance for the word I'm about to use--Awesome! Yes, he is from the school of lemons to lemonade, a thick mess of green on green paint strokes into shadows and light. For two hours a week, I'm immersed in a world where mistakes and messes and screw-ups don't exist. That eye-sore of paint? Necessary in order to layer and develop.

I wanted to take a pad and write all the mantras down. I want to bring them to class in September and tell students-who-fear-English class (which is 90%), "I know and feel your pain." Instead I will bring them a montage of photos--the one I took at 79th and Amsterdam, the painting in process (above right) and still in process (below left). 


Monday, May 29, 2017

On knowledge

I woke up this morning thinking about Martin Luther King's 1961 speech, "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience." Lofty a.m. thoughts are in complete contrast to my usual egocentric waking self, especially on non-work days.

But this morning I was languishing in end of semester freedom--grades posted, no emails from students complaining about grades, the whole thing--over and done. And with that, I thought of all I'd learned this semester, and here's where MLK comes in. His speech was required freshman reading. As we unpacked the dense 8-page excerpt (single spaced!), we talked about protests and sit-ins and what it means to civilly disobey the status quo.

The reading was a perfect entree into discussing the political situation that is upon us. I pounded away at current and past actions people have taken when they had no rights or their rights were threatened--the Women's March, Black Lives Matter, rallies for immigrants and on and on. But when I asked students to contribute to the list, so few had ideas.  Have you signed any petitions on social media? I asked. Yes, a few nodded. Been to any rallies? One or two. Are you happy with the status quo? No no no no no. There was one outspoken activist -- an environmentalist, animal rights worker, one socially aware and vocal student. You're in college, I said to the rest. This is your world. And that's when I remembered myself as a college student, a very long distance from activism and protest. I wasn't happy with the status quo because my generation wasn't, not because of my own convictions, the few I had.       

When someone I've just met asks what I do, I say I teach. Lately I add, I don't know if anyone learns anything. I had a passionate teaching semester. I was riled up about world injustices, big and small.  We talked about Schindler, Malala Yousafazi--courageous people who challenged laws. We read about a river in New Zealand that a tribe fought to preserve--and they won. The river was given legal person status. (True!) I retained all of this, think about it, am energized. Did my students learn anything though? How do I know? Maybe knowledge will crop up here and there when they least expect it--as it often does for me.

As much as being a student (in school, in life) is an opportunity to learn, teaching is a hundred times more so. My brain pops with the histories we uncovered; I'm dizzy with the thrill of waking up from a deep sleep and thinking of Martin Luther King. Maybe that's the real payoff, the real reason I do this. Although semesters don't always end like this one, on an up note.

Summer is almost here. When my friend K. leaves for Budapest on Monday, I will not be on the plane. Eastern Europe, or any part of Europe, isn't happening for me, at least as far as I know today. Another friend left for Prague yesterday. I said, send my love to the Charles Bridge. This summer, I'll go with the tide or the flow or whatever it is that pulls me in the right direction.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On setting in

This morning I awoke with the answer to something I'd been questioning, right there--clear, written across my brain. The past few months, my life has meandered My work life has been a juggling act. Personal life, too much to chance. A 25-year relationship recently threw itself in the air and hasn't yet landed. I hold my breath a lot.

The answer that presented itself this a.m. was to accept solid options. Those weren't the exact words, but that was the gist. And whenever an answer is the first to greet me when I awake, I trust it. This morning that meant, sending off an email about a work decision. Sometimes the letting go-ness of email is a blessing. There's no addressing an envelope. No walk to the mailbox. No fingers lingering at the swinging drop panel. No space for the demon of overthinking. There's just send. Done.

I have two days before returning from Spring Break. There's prep work to do. Upon return, students will be prepped for the departmental final. That means two dense essays to work through: one by Martin Luther King on civil disobedience, the other by Sarah Pike on environmental activism. The first is clear--I don't worry about students making sense of it. The second feels far away from their own experience. They're city kids concerned with day-to-day practicality. That's not to say they don't care about animal rights and trees, but sometimes those are luxury ideals.

For a few weeks I had a photo of myself posted on the right. And with that, I was unable to write. My anonymity (false--I know) was stripped away. I couldn't write while I was there, looking at myself, looking at you. Writing doesn't come easy to me--as it hasn't for the past few years. And so photo gone. Easy fix.

A lot to reckon with last week. Jewish holidays always throw me off balance. Passover has so many deep and beautiful memories attached. I couldn't shake them while having a simple Seder with friends. There was the Seder before me; the one in my mind. Like the two essays my students and I must make sense of. One so tangible (my memory Seder) One, unfamiliar and distant.

I'll end with this. I found my painting niche. I opened an "Etsy" store and am delighting in the colors and the sheer happiness of finding my niche. Because this post feels so somber, I'm including a colorful photo and a preview of what's on sale.