Monday, February 17, 2014

'S now...

It's that tricky time of year again, when the shortest month feels infinite. It's been a long winter, starting with the unexpected death of my father before Christmas. The near-daily snow has only added to the monotony. Cabin fever has set in, despite long walks, sledding and skating. During today's walk there was a glimmer of hope, though, when I saw the first robin of the season flitting through the branches of a tree covered in new red buds. The sun is shining, too. These little things, plus following the Olympics, will help get me through to March.

I'm ready for muddy gardens, seeds and sprouts, long runs with my first-born, afternoons on the front porch and chilly baseball baseball practices on the field by the water. I'm craving both routine--which has been broken by snow days--and a departure from it, since it seems the only routine I have is a domestic one. I'm also working hard to accept the (snowy, cold, house-bound) moments as they come and yet always look forward to something new, but not at the expense of experiencing the now.



'Snow. It's now?

Yep, this this my challenge: accepting, maybe even enjoying, winter while it lasts, no matter how long it lasts. For some, this is easy. But for this summer girl, it often feels like a test. I can skate and do yoga through it, my boys can skate and snowboard through it, we can watch hockey through it, but it still feels like a task. While I preach that we shouldn't wish away our lives, I do sometimes wish away a little bit of this season. And by "a little bit", I mean everything that comes between New Year's Day and St. Patrick's Day.

Vices get many people through it. I know plenty of people who stock up on booze and chocolate for winter storms, but those days are long behind me as I so rarely drink anymore and have cut back a ton on sugar. Some people go tanning (blech, but I get the primal need for warmth and light). Others compulsively exercise (or eat). And most of us take to Facebook, another vice, to share it all.

After seven (Right? I've lost count.) snow days inside, I can safely say I am burnt on Facebook. Yes, I like reading pithy status updates, inspirational quotes and silly memes, but I am Just. So. Tired. Of. It. One of the only things left about Facebook that I enjoy, save for being loosely in touch with friends with whom I might otherwise never communicate, is Humans of New York. And one of those Humans recently remarked that all of her friends on Facebook are getting married, buying houses and having kids, and she was trying not to freak out about it.

I hear that. Yet for those of us with the marriages, kids and houses, we take it to the next level: there is a tendency to compare ourselves to the projected perfection of the same in our friends' worlds. If I judged my life against the standards of modern American living on Facebook, I a) don't work out enough; b) do not eat organic enough; c) do not use enough non-toxic products and therefore am poisoning my family; d) do not create enough projects from Pinterest; e) do not go out enough at night, boozing with friends and raging against the dying of the light (aka, middle age); f) am not a red-blooded 'Merican because I've not yet taken my kids to Di$ney World; g) am anti-American because I voted for Obama; and h) have not achieved the American dream because I've not yet sold my house in the city and moved to the suburbs.

Believe me, I don't always compare myself to other people's lives on Facebook (cue the guy from the Dos Equis commercials), but when I do, I usually feel like a miserable failure.

Okay, that's not true. At all. But I do find myself sometimes stupidly comparing my life (but definitely not my politics) to other people's lives, and then I get angry with myself. The fact is that there IS NO COMPARISON. Everyone's lives are different, interesting and beautiful.

I just forget that about my own life sometimes.

Years ago I stopped reading beauty magazines (beauty sections of magazines like Real Simple excepted), because I realized I felt like crap about myself whenever I read them. Those magazines are garbage filled with mostly unimportant information designed to fill space, sell ads and sell magazines. Facebook, while often fun, sometimes makes me feel the same way if I'm not careful about my negative self-talk when I'm on it. But no matter--I'm tired of being on it. I won't disable my account or anything, but I'm definitely bored with it. In the end, it's really just a tool for me. It's a place to keep connected to friends, post lots (and lots and lots and lots and lots) of pictures of my children, provide links to this silly blog, make snarky comments about politics, and share positive affirmations.

I'm not selling my house and moving to the suburbs, but I'm happy for my friends who want to and make it happen for themselves. Disney isn't going anywhere--I'll get there when I can safely spend the money (emphasis on safely), and most Friday nights I'd rather eat take-out and catch on DVR'd episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Downton Abbey. I like my life, a lot. I'd rather spend more time exploring it in this space than waste too much of it scrolling and trolling on social media.

My life is here. And now. Snow and all.

That said, I'm totally posting a link to this blog post today.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Memory's Radio Dial

Another snow day here. The kids went out and played in it early, before the snow began to fall heavily. Now the flakes seem to be howling in every direction, criss-crossing and drifting into high corners around our 20's Cape-style house. Despite how so totally over the snow I am this season, it's still beautiful, peaceful and quiet on our little street.

Well, it's kind of quiet. My house is occasionally rattling with the boys' floor hockey games, wrestling, epic Xbox battles, hula hoop contests, chocolate milk messes and hilarious Facetime chats with friends. Wet boots, snow pants, hats and gloves drape every radiator on the first floor of the house, and the dogs are playing musical chairs as they rearrange sleeping positions on the couch in between chewing bones and tracking in snow. I'm not complaining. I love it. These days are fleeting, and before I know it I will be a 49 year old empty nester lonesome for these moments with my witty, handsome sidekicks.

Still, I have to carve out my own little headspace here somehow on these long, crowded, housebound days. I can--and do--escape to my room or the study/sewing room/guest room/yoga room to do a little yoga, meditate, get crafty, read or just exhale. Sometimes, like today, I write. I am also the queen of the 30+ minute shower. Maybe that's the Pisces in me. But oftentimes all it takes is some music and mundane chores to get me out of my head and into some kind of winter-defying catharsis. Give me a sponge, a counter and some music, and I'm good to go.

But what I choose to listen to these days depends upon not only the mood I'm in--or want to be in--but also what memories I'm feeling brave enough to conjure up. After more than 40 blessed years of this amazing, wacky life, there are very few songs on my personal rotation that aren't tethered to some kind of memory. I guess that's what happens when you're raised by teenage wolves and wean yourself on punk rock.

Some of my earliest memories involve music. Being the daughter of a teenage mom who was the oldest of her siblings, I grew up in a loud, political and well-read Irish-Catholic household that always--always--had some kind of music playing. One of my very first memories is from when I was about three, and my Uncle Danny was about 18. It was 1976. I sat on his tapestry-covered bed and pleaded with him to play Bowie's Diamond Dogs. I would squeal and scream, terrified and thrilled, every time Bowie's howl began. As soon as it ended, I would cry, "Again!" As always, Danny obliged. Upstairs, in the room my mother shared with one of her sisters, I would dance with my mom to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe". My mom would hold me in her arms, smelling of sand, salt and Ban de Soleil suntan lotion, and we would spin around the room singing, laughing, smiling. When I was five, I would hang my head off the bottom of my mother's bed and stare at the ceiling, picking apart all of the instruments on Springteen's "Thunder Road". Next to me, my mom's sister brushed her beautiful long, dark hair, stubbed out a Marlboro into a Wedgewood ashtray and spritzed herself with Chanel No. 5 before running off to bartend at the beach club. Then, alone in the room, I would pick up the needle and set it down again at the beginning of the song, resume my spot on the bed, and listen to piano. Saxophone. Guitar. Bass. Drums. Piano. Piano.

The Rolling Stones and Beatles were obvious staples of my youth, along with CCR, CSNY, Zeppelin, the Who, the Faces and a lot of other "classic" rock. As I aged, my tastes never changed as much as they compounded. I added punk, hardcore, rap and some new wave and pop to my repertoire. From U2 to Minor Threat, Pavement to Fugazi, Liz Phair to Public Enemy, the Clash to Norah Jones, and everything in between, there is a lot of music in the back pocket of my heart. Each of these artists and more represent moments and, more acutely, relationships in my life. No longer 20 with it all ahead of me, I'm now 40 with it all ahead of me and a whole lot behind me. Family discord, divorce, financial struggle, poor choices, loss, unrequited love and heartbreak are all reflected somewhere in a stack of records or in files on my iPod. But that's not all. My children, good friendships, good career moves and integrity in motherhood, work and self are all reflected in there, too. The problem is, some days I can handle songs from my past. I love them. I sing them at the top my lungs. Other days, not so much.

Other days, no lie, I sometimes feel a wave of anxiety course through me when I hear a long-forgotten or avoided song, depending on my association with it. But while a year or two ago I might have immediately skipped the track or turned the dial upon hearing it, in recent months I've given over to letting a dreaded song and any related feelings toward it wash over me. Music and the moments connected to it is part of me, like it or not. To deny it is to deny myself, my full story. That said, some songs truly suck, and I won't listen to them anymore no matter what the association--this goes mainly for some mid-80's pop songs that are as horrendous as my middle school memories linked to them. But there are certain songs that I've buried for years, unable to listen to them because I couldn't accept something about the memory attached to them. Now, for whatever reason, I'm more accepting of the past as just that: over. No more do I hang to hope that some old, broken relationships will bear new fruit. From family to friendships, some losses just have to be cut and dealt with.

What is is about a relationship that we hang on to, anyway? Isn't it about how we felt about ourselves when we were in it? When I was five, my mother's family was large and full of messy, noisy love. I felt good as a little McGuire kid. As years went on and patriarchs and matriarchs passed on, the family became smaller, and full of messy, noisy resentment and even downright cruelty. At times I lamented this shift, and I wondered why it couldn't be like it used to be. But sometime in more recent years I woke up. I realized that the family had always been the same, but that I no longer saw it through the lens of childhood. Yet that didn't mean I couldn't hold on to those feelings of messy, noisy love within myself. I could still feel good as a McGuire, even if the McGuire's aren't much of anything anymore.

The same goes for other relationships. What we miss is not always the person--although sometimes that pain is undeniable. Often what we miss is how good we felt about ourselves while in that relationship. That doesn't have to end when someone leaves, or dies, or when we walk away from something that no longer serves us. It also doesn't mean that a relationships was healthy just because it evoked positive sense of self for us. It can simply mean that, even for a brief moment in time, someone crossed our path--even if only with shadows--to help us see our own light. Memories are just feelings we have about ourselves in moments that are frozen in time.

I didn't particularly like "Thunder Road" for a while. And there are some songs or even entire albums that I don't ever need to hear again, simply because they don't stand the test of time. But there are songs I loved that I have avoided because of the hurt I associated with them. Not anymore. What's done is done. I have given up on the past, and that is one thing I have to give up on if I want to have hope for now and for the future. But the sunshiney, warm, summery love I have for myself in spite of the past lives on, baby. It's all I came with into this world, and it's the only thing I'll be able to take with me. So I might as well sing along to its soundtrack while I'm here.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Faith in Public School

I am not keeping up with this blog half as well as I thought I would. When I became a teacher, an old high school (boy)friend with whom I still keep in touch told me something along the lines of this: "Your entire life is going to change. It's not a bad thing, but it's a big thing. Teaching can be socially isolating. Self-awareness and self-care is important so you don't burn out." He should know. He's been an English teacher and hockey coach at a New England prep school for 15 years. But prep schools... well, they're very different from public schools, aren't they?

Are they?

It depends on the prep school and it depends on the public school. Some public school districts have more money than some privately funded schools, and those districts often excel in academics and athletics. But what makes a school "good"? How do you even qualify "good"? What makes one educational experience so different from another? If you pay for parochial or private education, is it better? If so, why? If  not, why not?

I have a lot of questions. I have a lot of hope and a lot of doubt. Welcome to my head.

My own education was a mash-up of public and parochial misadventures. I was a public school kid until the start of sixth grade, when my mother jettisoned me to the local Catholic middle school where my grandmother was an English teacher. After three socially awkward years there, I was accepted to a small, all-girls Catholic academy in a nearby town--not to be confused with the all-girls Catholic high school in the area. Oh no. The school I went to highly prized its status as an academy--not a high school--something for which I had equal parts pride and disdain.

My parochial education was decent. It could have been better; it could have been a lot worse. I learned a lot in English classes, and I cried a lot through three years of Latin. I made some exceptional lifelong friendships, and I have treasured memories from my time there. Yet the high school I attended was a painfully sheltered environment, and some of us knew it. So me and my closest girlfriend found the antidote in spending a lot of our free time hanging out with our public school friends. With them, we cut our baby teeth in the world while making some big, yet fun mistakes. With them, we learned what it meant to have friends who loved and accepted us for exactly who we were, not what town we came from, how much money we had or what prep school boys we were dating. And we did date prep school boys--my old (boy)friend, mentioned above, was a starting hockey player from Fairfield Prep. He was also a less sheltered New Haven kid with a checked family background, though, and therefore he had more practical sense than some of his prep school peers. This could be why our friendship has endured 24 years. But was my public school friends with whom I was usually most comfortable being myself.


I didn't always fit in with them, either. They all went to school together and understood each other's stories about teachers and classmates forever unknown to me. Many of them were from more affluent backgrounds than any of my private school friends. They were able to wear whatever they wanted to school, while I was stuck in a scratchy wool uniform. Their schools had cool teachers, big art programs, crazy fights. Their schools had kids of different races, while my school had, like, one black kid. Through public school, they had opportunities at Yale and other universities that I could only dream of, as all opportunities for me were self-contained within the "academy"--except for one. Striking out on my own, I sought out and was accepted to the Yale Daily News Summer Journalism Program, a summer writing program that had a huge impact on me and the choices I later made in life. But my school never encouraged my interest in that program. My mother did.

After high school, college was nothing I had hoped it would be. Having grown up in a family of Georgetown, Smith, Fordham and even Yale alums, I was disappointed at my options upon high school graduation. Being a then-only child of average grades and mediocre athleticism in a middle class family, I qualified for very little aid or scholarships. My parents had never saved enough money for me to go to school, as most of it had been spent on parochial school. Despite being accepted to even my "reach" schools, I enrolled at the local state college campus and commuted to school on and off for seven years, before finally earning my BA in English. My public school friends, however, were accepted to--and attended--colleges such as the New School, Emerson, Rutgers and NYU. My more financially secure and more academically supported parochial classmates attended BU, BC, Tulane, Duke and a host of good Catholic colleges. But for me, seven years of Catholic school did not guarantee a brighter future.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to. Maybe it was just a opportunity for me to connect with friends in a Catholic environment, and for that experience I am grateful. (Ironically, many of my fellow alumni are public school teachers.) But faith is a very personal thing, and I don't think it's something you can ensure your child will graduate with just because you paid tuition to a Catholic school. When I made the decision several years ago to pull my kids out of Catholic school after just two years and enroll them in our neighborhood public school, I did so with mixed emotions. Their experience at Catholic school had been good. But it wasn't enough, and I resented paying more than $5k per kid, per year for an experience that fell short of what my children needed. The school simply did not offer the opportunities available to them at public school. And as for faith...well, I never felt I needed to rely on school to teach that. We taught it at home. We reinforced it by going to mass. We did what we could to give the boys a solid foundation. Something for them to maybe someday reject, if that is their choice. But also something for them to return to.

I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all religions, because the world isn't Catholic. I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all races, because their Catholic school was only somewhat integrated. Still, their public school is not nearly as integrated as some of the other schools in the city, due to the fact that it is a neighborhood school and our neighborhood is overwhelmingly white. But it is more racially, religiously, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse than their Catholic school was, and that will reinforce some of Jesus' teachings more than parochial school can--if you want to look at it that way.

We are hardly bible thumpers, but faith is important to us. My boys are altar servers, and a couple of weeks ago they were sitting on the altar while our pastor gave a Catholic Schools Week homily. It had nothing to do with the gospel. It started with a fear-mongering claim that public schools have banned the Pledge of Allegiance (they haven't, and I almost stood up and corrected him), and it centered on drumming up business for our parish's school, on increasing enrollment, on touting a school that is centered on "faith". It seemed he held up Catholic schools as being superior to the alternative (read: public school). As our pastor went on to extol the virtues of our parish's school--and it is true that there are many--I looked around the church; the majority of the families there that day have children in public school. My sons on the altar are public school students. In fact, most of the other dozen or so altar servers in our parish attend public school. Our CCD program is large, and I taught first grade catechism there for three years.

I squirmed in my pew, watching my boys listen to Father's words. I hoped his words didn't make them feel bad, but the reality is that they were probably thinking about baseball and Minecraft. Still, for a moment I felt chastised for not sending my children to Catholic school. My mind raced, recalling recent conversations I'd had with public school parents regarding concerns about sending their children to our city high schools when they are done with our neighborhood school. Some were considering abandoning public school for Catholic high schools. Some might move out of town rather than send their kids to New Haven high schools. Between Father's chastising and the apprehension some parents feel toward our city high schools, I felt defensive and annoyed.

Then Father said something about a faith-centered education, and I smiled.

For Father, a faith-centered school is one centered in the teachings of Jesus. I get that. But faith is also much more in public school. Every kid who walks through the door to my English classroom has faith that he or she will have a better life when they grow up because of the education they are receiving at our school. Every student has faith that they will be supported and cared for by the teachers they encounter every day. Every parent has faith that teachers, like me, will do our jobs as best as we can even though it is "only" public school and they aren't paying customers. Every teacher has faith that maybe, just maybe, we are reaching those hard-to-reach kids. Maybe, just maybe, we are making a difference in the lives of some students. And if we're lucky, maybe they're learning from us, too. Every kid who struggles has faith that he or she will still come out as successful as the honor students. Every parent who stays in our city and opts to send their kids to public high school has faith that they are helping to sustain and improve our community by doing so. Every parent who sends their kids to our school has faith that their child won't get lost in the shuffle--something that can happen at any school in any town. Every teacher who can make one-third or more pay in a different district, but who chooses to stay in the city, has faith that their work is valued by the students and parents of their school. Every student who struggles as an English language learner has faith that they will be able to communicate more effectively in English when they graduate, so that they can have the same opportunities available to them as their American peers. The parents of students who spent years in refugee camps in the middle east or Africa on their way to the U.S. have faith that it was all worth it if it means their children can get a free education here and have a better life after graduation. Every student who has lost a friend or relative to gun violence has faith that they can make their neighborhood a better place if they work hard enough, even if it seems hopeless. Every Muslim kid who leaves class a few times a day to pray and every Christian kid who says that some of his friends "need more Jesus" have faith that their words will be heard by Someone. Every other kid who extends a hug or a high-five to another student in the hallway, regardless of race, creed, or favorite basketball team, has faith that their friends have their back.

My old (boy)friend is leaving his cozy New England prep school after the end of this year to teach at an elite boarding school in Jordan. Jordan. When I mentioned this career move to my husband, he said sarcastically, "Wow, that's really working to make a difference." I wish my friend the best of luck, although I'm sure there isn't much in the way of hockey there.

I don't know if I'm making a difference in my little city school, but I have faith that I am. And that is something money can't buy.