On Friends and Ferns

A sense of place and personal history defines us more than I realize sometimes.

Those silly “On This Day” Facebook pop-ups remind me of some of my greatest joys and sorrows, or at least the ones I posted on social media. I end up spending too much time reminiscing, I think, in life. But it touches on a significant point: part of realizing where we are in life comes from remembering, reconciling and celebrating where we come from. Our past.

In a few days I’ll embark on my first-ever week-long fall break. Charles and I are going to the beach with his family, and I’m looking forward to a week of relaxation, pretty sunsets and vitamin sea. I like Florida and all of its quirkiness, and not just because of my adventures in Miami and beyond. Hopefully we’ll be able to hike for a day in the swamps and forests around Apalachicola. Those areas seem so unique to Florida and are so unlike what I know in deciduous, hilly Appalachia.

In past posts I mentioned adopting some cacti and plants this year. One fern that my mom helped bring back to life this summer seems to bring back a lot of memories, cherished and special and tear-jerkers.

My thriving fern and baby spider plant.

For almost a month I’ve been working at CGLA, an all-girls charter school where Charles teaches, in various capacities. Today I’m teaching my second creative writing club. It is all at once wonderful, horrifying and overwhelming. I admit I have very limited teaching experience, and I’m finding the girls seem way more interested in sci-fi and fiction than journalism and the style of non-fiction writing that I seem pulled toward. Just being around (much) younger people is a change for me; most of my work life exists in marketing and such, putting me in an agency setting, or even more isolating, in the confines of my house, left to communicate with the outside world through email, phone calls and very rare face-to-face meetings.

So again, overwhelming is an understatement; but I’ve found joy and reassurance being among the students. They’re hilarious and ridiculous and kind, full of energy and louder than I expected. (Though really…I have long prefered quiet dark spaces where I can work alone for long stretches of time. It will take some adjusting.) In the few weeks I’ve been there I’ve been reminded of my own time in high school—working among fellow Notre Dame HS alum and former teachers has helped! Those were scary years when I felt out of control and so sensitive to what was going on in my life. I wanted people to like me. I wanted boys to like me, I think. I wanted to do things that went against what my parents, teachers, church and role models encouraged me to do.

In preparing for my creative writing club, I can’t stop asking, What the hell did I write about in high school? Most of my personal journals are painful to read. I was hurting from my family’s division and I suppose coping the only way I knew how.

But this morning, I watered that special fern that is now thriving, since I’ve learned how much water and light it needs. Not too much, not too little; just right. The Mama Bear of my house plants. New curly, fringed leaves recently budded for the first time since I’ve had it. A marked season of growth for both me and the plant—a childhood friend sent me the fern, and some others that didn’t survive the winter, when I was in the hospital a year ago. (A memory that brings up more tears and emotions than I know how to deal with, categorize or process this morning.)

My hospital adventure last year

That fern reminded me of the days that friend, Sarah, and I spent running around in the woods. She lived one neighborhood over from me. We would make the trek to meet halfway and play in streams and creeks along the way. We usually ended up at her house, I think, and if I recall her mom always had great snacks, her backyard a trampoline, and her room a fish tank. Sarah and I were inseparable for a number of years. Her Dad, our hilarious soccer coach, brought me to my first R-rated movie—Event Horizon, which I think would still horrify me to this day. I remember talking about when we would get our periods and what it would feel like, and sharing those girlhood secrets about crushes we had and such.

What stands out to me now, and what I still have buried away at my dad’s house, were the journals we wrote to each other over multiple summers. We would write a notebook to one another, talking about our day, our parents, our lives, and whatever else was going on at the time. I don’t think there was anything special about what we wrote, but just the fact that we did—that we maintained these spiral-bound notebooks for each other—reminds me how close of friends we were, and how important that relationship was to me.

Now I can see that it wasn’t just the relationship, but the influence and encouragement to express myself, reinforced by all forms of education along the way. While I remain somewhat overwhelmed by how to introduce the concept of CREATIVE WRITING to my small troupe of budding writers, who I’ll see this afternoon, I’m reassured that if I can impart at least one thing to them… it is to write a lot. To write often. To write to your loved ones. And that if writing is your thing, and you like it, don’t stop. You never know where it will lead you, or what it will remind you of, or what you’ll realize through writing.

I realized that my influences throughout childhood, into high school, were awesome. They didn’t feel like awesome years at the time, jam-packed with awkwardness, parent-defying moves and trying to figure out life lessons, some of which I still grapple with today, but now I see that they were exactly as they needed to be. Filled with friends, running around in the woods, exploring new things, sharing secrets in notebooks, and solidifying a lifelong habit of writing.

Thank you, Sarah, for being my childhood friend and correspondent, for your continued love and gifts, and especially for the thoughtful gift of ferns last year. I may have killed most of them, but the one that’s hanging on is beautiful. It reminds me daily of where I’ve come from, and that with the right attention, the new opportunities and blessings will continue to grow for me.

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“Are You Fucking Kidding Me?” A Place is What You Make It

A place is what you make it. And, I think, people can be who you make them.

I’ve been in Miami for just over two and a half weeks now. While my lessons in places, spaces and people have certainly been learned over time, there is nothing as jarring and potent to mix up your ideas of the world as moving. Moving, marriage, changing jobs and one more that I can never remember are among the most stressful life events, and I seem to have covered two in about a month and a half. Needless to say, I’ve had my highs and lows.

So much of my day is filled with dialogue. That hasn’t changed too much since the move, of course, as so much of my job experience and days were filled with dialogue. Now, though, instead of talking with colleagues or crafting specific messages, my dialogue is with Jeff, with my family at the Ceramic League and with friends, far and near.

I still craft specific messages, but now with a slightly different motivating factor. Creative expression and an outlet fuel my writing. I’ve realized writing and body movement, now through yoga, are my lifeforce, what keeps me alive and ticking. In two and a half weeks I’ve filled likely 20 unsaved, unpublished drafts and smattering of words, savoring the passion and fury to write that took me over, waiting to unfurl a poignant post on my little blog.

One of my recent lows came on Tuesday. Through whatever sequence of mental and emotional hurdles my monkey mind had inflicted on my spirit, I found myself absolutely needing to get on my bike, get away from the warehouse and be alone. I ate dinner at the local Whole Foods, where sadly you are barred from consuming beer or wine on the premises, and pedaled home in the dark, my flashing light dimly illuminating the busway bike path, the constant breeze hitting my face. As I turned onto our now-quiet street, I looked up at the sky that held a few stars and a dozen flashing airplanes. I rolled to the warehouse, opened the garage door and sat in one of the little chairs and cried. The feeling of lonliness even when surrounded by people is not strange to me. I cried and felt like a stranger, in a strange place, surrounded by strange new people.

After his class, Jeff came over and found me sitting quietly. We talked late into the night and drank a Peroni. He has a way of listening to my woes with empathy and compassion, even when my complaints and tears flow like a tap at a keg party. I woke up the next day feeling refreshed and excited: I had a yoga connection coming up and a sunny weekend ahead, among other things. The sorrows of the previous night felt light years away, my self-confidence renewed.

One characteristic I mentioned to Jeff that I thought I noticed about Miamians was a more blunt, Northeastern-style unfriendliness that I sense in a super densely populated urban setting. I say sense when I should really say “project.” Jeff and I joked about it all week… as time after time after time, I met the nicest individuals who showed such warmth and kindness to me. The woman at the Post Office who let us use a pen, and let us peek at her cards, which she was mailing to the Netherlands; the owner at the Luna Star, who personally greeted me; the man at the beach who exclaimed how nice Haulover is; the friendly cashier, the helpful server, the energetic duo studio/gym owners who want to help me build my teaching career. All this on top of a second family, a group of people at the League who make an effort nearly every day to help me feel welcome, at home, comfortable and loved.

Sure, there’s the lady in her Benz who cursed at me when I backed out of a parking space at the most designer-filled mall I’d ever been to, or the guy who roared at us out of his window, Jeff and I slowly rumbling to a halt in the diesel. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he yelled as he looked at us and our bald white heads and whipped his sports car around the corner. But those occurrences seem to be a drop in the pan compared with the overwhelming openness and acceptance I feel here.

I think you can find that anywhere, though, whether in up-and-coming Southern towns tucked in the foothills of Appalachia, big Northeastern cities, rural communities, hipster capitals, bustling city centers in Argentina or here in sprawling, sunny Miami. A place is what you make it, what you project, and people are what you make them. People and places and spaces are merely a reflection of what shines from your own heart and spirit.

Barely a day goes by when Jeff and I don’t look at each other, eyes and bodies smiling at the richness we’ve found in each other, in this space, in this community and in each minute, and mock the angry driver. “Are you fucking kidding me?” we laugh, with child-like wonder at the question. Another day, another laugh, another reflection.