new york city kid in arkansas
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A few weeks ago following a game about cooperation, I gave my fourth grade drama students a reflection about what they learned. I got all kinds of good answers to the question ranging from “I am more independent than I thought I was” to “I’m fun (I think).” Then came this unexpected nugget of wisdom:

For this group, drama class starts right at 8:30, immediately following breakfast. Some days these small decisions – the good and the bad – are the most important things we learn. And of course it got me thinking about what I’m learning about myself these strange days.

Thing #1: Always Take a Mask Break. There is nothing that feels better these days than a brief mask break when teaching. In fact, the pleasure of quickly slipping it off under the guise of needing a drink of water or a quick snack is sometimes the highlight of the day. Every now and then I’m aware of the teacher tension and exhaustion throughout my entire achy body, and it makes me want to send flowers, chocolates and coffee to every teacher in America everyday. Or at least say a prayer and send them a funny text now and then.

Thing #2: Always Call Your Parents. As most of you know, my mom has dementia and moved into a memory care unit exactly one month before the pandemic shut everything down, including her facility. My very extroverted dad went from being an overwhelmed caregiver to a lonely singleton. A few weeks ago my mom fell and had to have hip surgery, and now she’s recovering in another facility. This situation can best be summed up by the phrase “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” When it comes to my parents and sisters, I’m always on the verge of both. My mom is quite confused and delusional, thinks she’s in charge of answering the phones and is quite frustrated by her new job. She thinks she hears my dad and us as children playing in the next room. Those of us who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia are encouraged to play the improv game “yes, and …” when talking to them, never denying their reality or arguing. So my phone calls with her the past few weeks have been a mixture of great entertainment and devastating tragedy. She’s Carol Burnett and Anthony Hopkins combined. It’s slapstick comedy and King Lear all at once, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Thing #3:  Always Do Crafts. This Labor Day weekend I promised myself I would not think or worry about school (mine and Huck’s) for the entire three days. If anything troubling entered my mind I would push it out, knowing there’s plenty of time to worry about things later. And since these past few weeks have made me a very distracted, multi-tasking, non-present mother, I also promised myself I’d take a break from that frazzled character. Because Huck is home all day by himself, he’s beginning to remind us of a stay-at-home parent who’s overly eager to see his tired spouse at the end of a long work day. Friday morning he announced his intention to make an amazing fall craft as a family, something that required a glue gun, glitter and Mod Podge. Thus, this weekend will forever be remembered as that time we three made a beautiful pinecone wreath that belongs on Martha Stewart’s front door. And not only pinecones, but also Troy’s home-grown corn and wildflowers. Please, Better Homes and Gardens, contact us for a photo shoot immediately.

So I’ll leave you with the reminder to Always Get Gravy. Whatever that is for you, don’t skimp on it.

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It’s another first day of school for Huck and all the other public school students in Arkansas. His day will be spent the usual way, at his desk in his bedroom with his fairy lights, a candle or two, and a cup of tea at his side.We chose the all-virtual option for his sophomore year, what with the pandemic and outrageous size of Fayetteville High School, and we’re pretty prepared to get the news of state-wide school closures in the near future. Since Huck last attended computer school, he’s driven on the highway, learned calculus on Khan Academy, opened a checking account, got hired to create a slide presentation for University of Arkansas business grad students (ok, ok, this was through our friend Shana, but still!), parallel parked, mastered blueberry pancake making, and painted his bedroom a beautiful shade of blue-grey.

Troy and I went back to teaching on August 13, and as we keep hearing ourselves say, “So far, so good.” The New School has a very strong plan in place with small class sizes, masks galore, physical distancing, a very good air ventilation system, UV lights, incredible cleaning supplies, and excellent leadership these days, and so we feel relatively comfortable. Not that there’s anything comfortable about teaching and singing in a mask. We’ve both had moments of light-headedness in the presence of innocent young children patiently waiting for us to catch our breath and drink our water in an attempt to come back to life. Because we teach in different divisions, we don’t see each other at work anymore to avoid cross contamination, but we did meet out by the dumpsters recently for a quick chat and a selfie (see below). Several of our close co-worker friends quit teaching because of the risk, and that has made the hours a little lonelier. At the end of each day that feels more like three days, Troy immediately washes his daily collection of sweaty masks and bandanas in the sink, often hanging them to dry outside. Because he sings outside in the August heat all day long, his water bottle collection is also vast. By the time I get home our kitchen and back yard look like a strange version of a 1970s family with lots of babies.

I think the following choreography best sums up how it all feels …

Happy 2020-2021 school year to our fellow teachers and parents and students out there. May your floor stay still beneath your feet, and if it doesn’t, may you have some excellent dancing partners.

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This last week of July gave us incredible thunderstorms, a beautiful day trip to Mount Magazine, and three quotes that I think sum everything up nicely.

Quote Number One: While admiring a pair of married goldfinches and several happy butterflies visiting our surprise sunflowers Troy said, “This is not the garden I planned. And I love it.”

Quote Number Two: Our friend Shana, who sometimes sits across the kiddie pool from me sipping Troy’s signature sea breezes, reflected upon the University of Arkansas allowing their faculty to choose remote teaching this year.  She said, “I’m delighted and I’m grateful. And I hate it.”

Quote Number Three: My mom sends me letters weekly (and sometimes daily), and in the latest she described how emotional she felt when her rolltop desk and favorite glider were sent by my dad to her room.  She wrote, “Crying felt good, too. I think to cry or laugh can be related.”

Agreed, agreed and agreed.

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The other day, while being particularly annoying, Huck asked me this question: “Do you remember telling me when I was little that when children are acting annoying it’s because they WANT SOMETHING?” How was I supposed to answer this? He was trapping me in my own parental wisdom. “What do you want?” I asked cautiously. He whisper-shouted: “YOUR ATTENTION!”

It reminded me of something I recently heard, which is that what happened to us all last spring has resulted in children regressing. The speaker was specifically referring to his college students who suddenly had to move back to their childhood homes and learn remotely, but I think it’s true for all of us. Working from home and going to school from home followed by a long summer at home and the potential of more time at home in the fall, winter and spring has this family acting like much, much younger versions of themselves every now and then.

Take, for instance, when I play Stardew Valley with Huck. As the expert in these role playing video games, he’s the parent figure and I, the clueless child. He’s a terrible teacher in this cyber world, impatient with my lack of understanding and farmer-grit. He barks orders and expects me to know things that he never taught. I’m constantly pouting and blaming him for all my mistakes, sometimes on the verge of actual tears. Occasionally he softens and quietly apologizes, but always he’s secretly rolling his eyes. Yesterday he actually said, “If you’re always going to be so immature when we play this game, we’re never going to make any money.” Not too long after that, Huck was absent-mindedly playing with flowers on the counter when Troy grabbed the vase from him and exclaimed, “You’re messing up my sunflowers!” as if he was exactly ten years old. Or maybe 80. I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell with Troy.

In summary, we’re all regressing. Maybe that’s why otherwise common-sense grown-ups are throwing tantrums about having to wear a mask on their face during a global pandemic, the likes of which we’ve never seen. And maybe that’s why I get so mad at these grown-ups and prepare top secret foot-stomping lectures that they will never hear.

In other July news: Huck’s driving on actual streets now, Troy accidentally grew a ten foot sunflower, Sunny turned eight, and I continue to love my kiddie pool. Like every other parent and teacher in America, we are navigating the tricky feelings about returning to school in a few weeks, simultaneously creating lessons that can be taught through masks AND over Zoom. We’re preparing to paint Huck’s room (a project we promised we’d do this summer but kept hoping he’d forget about), possibly get a new roof (like everyone else in our neighborhood), and continuing to binge watch shows like “Broad Church,” “Unforgotten,” “Dark,” and “The Americans.” And most recently, Huck gathered all his French flashcards from last year to build index card cube contraptions, filling our home with lots and lots of paper.

Just like old times.

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Facebook loves to show me how cute Huck was on this day ten years ago, five years ago, one year ago, and never have I been more struck by the phrase “a lot can happen in a year” than now. One year ago today we saw “Hamilton” in Chicago, my mom still lived at home with my dad, Pandemic was the name of a complicated board game I avoided, face masks were something Huck collected with names like “Charcoal” and “Life of the Party,” and the Sahara Desert wasn’t in Arkansas.

Fast forward to today and, well, you know the story.

I don’t feel like I have adequate words to describe anything right now. Like most of you, 2020 is the year of so many pleasures and plans being taken away as we adjust to face masks and staying six feet away from strangers and people we love. Like many of you, the nationwide protests against racial inequality has given us deep sadness mixed with a smidge of hope. And like some of you, we think celebrating Pride is more fun in person.

But it hasn’t been all bad. A couple weeks ago we traded in our trusty old Civic for a newer Camry. After getting his learner’s permit, Huck began driving lessons with Troy in a nearby parking lot while I stay back at home chanting thousands of Hail Marys. Instead of a family vacation to France, my sister Jeni and I each drove solo to Kansas to celebrate our dad’s birthday and visit our mom through her window. More and more people can say Black Lives Matter and mean it. Here at home every morning Troy puts on his farmer costume to build his wooden compost contraption and water his corn, beans and flowers. Huck convinced me to join him in the cyber world of Stardew Valley where our avatars live next door to each other planting and watering our shared crops each day. In real life, we got a new fence, I chopped off my long hair, and we installed a backyard kiddie pool. And by installed I mean we filled it with air, water, floaties and my body. Pride Parades, book clubs, play readings, church and happy hours have officially transitioned to online, and it’s better than nothing.

I wish I could fast forward to the documentary on the year 2020 and find out how it all turns out.

This beautiful mural was painted by local artists here in Fayetteville this month.

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This picture taken at The New School’s first ever high school graduation perfectly captures these last few months. Stuck in our orange car with our grey hairs, laughing pretty hard while waving blue pool noodles around, Huck quietly in the background. I did a Zoom webinar (Zoominar?) yesterday and we participants were asked, “What is the title of this chapter of your story as a school?” The chat box became full of hilarious, universal truths like “Put the Kitty Down” and “Embrace the Suck” and  “The Importance of Muting All.” Mine was “This Too Shall Pass.”

I mean, it will. Right?

At least this school year has passed, and Troy, Huck and I are kicking off Memorial Day weekend where we always are these days … at home. We have smothered our students with love in the form of notes, emails, parades, home visits, videos and songs, begging them to feel good about this weird end-of-year. Right as our France flights, car, hotel and AirBnB reservations became officially canceled, reimbursed, credited or postponed, Huck was notified of ranking among the first in the state and sixth in the US on his National French Exam. I’ve suddenly become a voracious reader who averages a book a week. Our backyard is overflowing with wood chips, hostas, wildflowers and drunk bees. Huck made the Fayetteville High School A Capella Choir for next year, though we can’t imagine a choir singing together anytime soon. We’ve celebrated birthdays, Easter, Mother’s Day and our 28th anniversary. We’ve taken many walks. We’ve watched every show on Netflix, Hulu and Prime. I hardly recognize mouths anymore, only stylish face masks. Huck took his first AP Exam in the comfort of his bedroom followed by filming himself giving CPR to a pillow for PE. I can describe the bookcases of every PBS News Hour reporter’s home. My arms are so tan from sitting in the backyard that they don’t match the rest of my body. I’m in danger of planning next year’s entire curriculum before Memorial Day.

The Delhi writer Arundhati Roy said this on “60 Minutes” last week: “Right now it feels as though we have no present, you know? We have a past. And we have a future. And right now we’re in some sort of transit lounge. And there isn’t any connection between the past and the future.” To me, this is exactly how life feels right now. Like we’re all experiencing a huge layover in an airport of a strange city, unable to really get on with life because we’re waiting for our delayed flight. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to be stuck here forever, but where is that airplane?

Luckily, I like the travelers I’m stuck with most of the time. Happy Summer, everyone!

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Every Christmas morning Santa surprises us with a homemade calendar for the next year, each month filled with beautiful pictures from the current year, carefully matching the seasons and special occasions. We always hang it in the same spot in the kitchen using the same old nail year after year after year. But 2020 isn’t like all the other years, and it didn’t take us long to notice that this calendar, like this year, had a terrible glitch. Every single corner curled inward stubbornly, and nothing we did could fix it. The calendar became unreadable and a source of family tension and regret. “This is the worst calendar Santa ever gave us!” I shouted on particularly difficult days.

And to make matters worse for this useless thing, in mid-March I began crossing things out with a Sharpie. Trip to Texas for spring break, canceled. Arts Month, canceled. Junior High play, canceled. Kansas visit, canceled. Huck’s choir concert, canceled. Huck’s piano competition, canceled. Middle school play, canceled. 50th birthday party, canceled. Pre-K play, canceled. Huck’s spring piano recital, canceled. Trip to Washington, D.C. with the 8th graders, canceled. Graduation ceremony, canceled. France vacation, postponed.

This was the saddest calendar you ever saw.

I finally took it down and carefully tore out each page. Without the entire year burdening each month, the corners began to relax. I put April’s collage of amazing memories on the fridge with a couple magnets. The other day I replaced it with May’s. In its place on the wall we put up a totally blank pig calendar that used to live in my now empty, dark office. The slow passing of days and canceling of plans became less obvious and painful. Family tension faded away. We forgave Santa.

In place of our big bash and France trip, we planted a Japanese maple and celebrated the first ever peony bloom in our ever-growing lovely back yard. Now we have a dry erase calendar that says things like “Driveway Concert” and “Middle School Birthday Parade” and “Zoom Faculty Meeting.” We’ve figured out how to occasionally see friends by Bringing-Our-Own-Everything and sitting far apart from each other. Instead of performing plays, my students are writing them. Instead of going to work, we’re watering flowers. Instead of swimming every morning, Troy’s singing live on Facebook.

Most things got canceled, it’s true. I’m going to go enjoy the things that didn’t.

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My junior high students and I watched the 2010 outdoor London production of “Into the Woods” on Digital Theatre during our first week of “distance learning.” If you’re not familiar with this beautiful piece of theatre, it takes all the best fairy tales and puts the main characters into a story together. Act One is hilarious; Act Two is tragic. (I saw the 0riginal Broadway production as a high school junior and did not understand why everything had to go so wrong. A sign of age, I guess, is accepting the second act.) Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and others are being pursued by a giant and life as they know it has ended. In a particularly devastating moment the Baker hopes for a better future when he sings:

“No more giants
Waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives
With our children and our wives?
‘Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
The reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?”

These same students have been rehearsing a one-act play all semester about modern technology replacing personal interaction. As I sit at my dining room table running lines with them on Google Hangout, an optimistic gesture at best, I’m reminded of one of the better lines in the play:

“Face to face is so yesterday.”

Here’s what’s today: Our guest room has been delightfully transformed into Mr. Troy’s Songtime music studio as he entertains young and old alike with pop-up Facebook concerts during the long days. Huck, our introverted homebody, is keeping himself on a tight schedule of school work and tea-drinking downtime without any plans to ever return to the outside world. Sunny has been displaced from her usual spot (see opening sentence about guest room) but is genuinely relieved to have her pack at home 24/7. And while I miss normal life and feel for everyone who is terribly affected by this giant pandemic, hitting the pause button on regularly scheduled events has been really good for me. Still, I seem to get teary eyed pretty easily lately. We were supposed to be driving to Austin today to join friends from San Francisco, New York City and Texas at Shannon’s house for a few days. We’re meeting on Zoom tonight instead.

Just like everyone else.

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Huck just celebrated his 15th birthday the usual way: with lemon-lemon cake & Aunt Jeni. Her yearly March visits are family highlights, and we are once again left wondering if she will spend March 7th with him for the rest of his life. We had no way of knowing back in, say, 2008, that he would be a high school freshman counting down the days until her visit. (Actually, looking back at pictures maybe we did have a way of knowing.) This time around we got sunburns, ate Indian, settled Catan, killed werewolves, ignored the news, drank tea, got steps and celebrated musical theatre. You know, the usual.

In a terrifying world, it’s pretty great to have an Aunt Jeni.

March 2008

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“And it’s not the thought that she must miss them, but that she’s no longer capable of missing them, that makes me sad. What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”

This quote from Sigrid Nunez’s book THE FRIEND makes me think of my mom, who moved into a memory care facility last week following a very terrible month. My nearly 50 year old body with super-ability to feel stress released my childhood chickenpox virus into the nerves of my arm, shoulder and upper back, adding intense pain and an impressive rash to all the terrible. My sisters and I share a text thread that could probably be made into a movie of the week. There have been many unexpected drives (and even flights for Jeni) to Kansas these last four weeks, and we’re all a little touchy and tired. When we start laughing, it’s terrifying.

Last Thanksgiving my dad secretly handed me a bottle of perfume he’d found in the trash, and I recognized it as a gift I’d given to my mom a few birthdays ago. He then dropped his voice to a whisper, took me into a dark room like we were hiding from the police and told me that one of my Christmas presents was an expensive Starbucks coffee cup he also found in the trash. “She had just bought it for herself. I don’t know why she throws everything away. I thought you’d like it.” When we were all in the hospital together in January and things weren’t looking so good, my mom said to no one in particular, “Janelle never required love and affection.” It’s not true; of course I did. But it was like a drunk person saying something crazy and you know they kind of mean it. Everyone in the room slowly turned their eyes to me as I smiled awkwardly.

Toward the end of her second hospital stay when she was finally stabilized and ready to move on, my sister Lori found her a new home, relieving my dad of being her one and only caregiver. My parents’ sons-in-law did the heavy lifting and moved her bed, night stand and dresser into her new room. Now my parents are 97 miles apart, and I’ve lost the ability to sleep. The three of us made a very quick trip from Arkansas this last weekend to see her, sing to her, give her chocolate, reminisce, laugh, thank her for the many letters she’s written lately, answer her questions and urge her to eat. We met her fellow residents (all of whom make her seem very youthful) and aides, and we may have set off an alarm or two. I predict that by the end of the week she’ll be helping the staff run the place. As Troy (with ukulele in hand), Huck and I began our goodbyes right after lunch on Sunday my mom smiled and said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” causing Troy to give a brief Shakespeare lecture and my arm to ache.

I pretty regularly wear that perfume and drink from that cup.  Sweet sorrow, indeed.