Middle School

“You should come eat lunch with me and Lorelai sometime.”  It was Lily, one of my Sunday school students.

Huh?  “Like at school?” I was surprised. Lily likes me well enough, and I’ve known her since she was born, but I still never expect any of my kids to pursue time with me outside of class. When I started teaching, my ten-through-twelve-year-olds automatically developed that special tinge of wariness reserved for Grownups.

Lily:  “Yeah. They let people bring food and eat with us.  You just can’t bring pizza or anything in a box.”

Me:  “Uh, ok! Sweet!  Tell me what you guys want and I’ll bring it on Monday.”

Lily: “Wendy’sfourforfour.”

Me:  “With a…”

Lily:  “Chicken sandwich.  Both of us.  Our lunch is at 11:30.”

Monday morning comes and I feel like I’m getting ready for an interview.  Most days I wear shorts and T-shirts splattered with either paint or flour, but if I embarrass my middle schoolers in front of their peers I may never win them back.  I have to be CUTE. I’ve been hauling flour and sugar for the bakery all morning, so I rush home and shower.  Dry my hair. Straighten it.  Put on pants and a real shirt. Sandals that are not hiking sandals.  A cardigan even though it’s 85 degrees outside (can you wear sleeveless tops at Middle School?? Better safe than sorry).

I get through the Wendy’s drive thru more quickly than I expected and pull into the SHMS parking lot at 11:08.  As I park much farther away than necessary, I spot a safety officer’s car next to the school.  I wonder if he wonders what I’m doing.  I wonder if I look suspicious just sitting here in this beat-up red truck with 5-gallon paint buckets and old siding in the back.  I sit tight. Suddenly I am ravenous.  I eat a few fries.  Don’t eat now, then you’ll have no food to fall back on when you run out of things to say.  There are two big to-go bags, though, and a drink carrier.  Ok, maybe you should eat it all now in case you need to use one of your hands.  I compromise and eat all my fries, consolidating the rest of the food into one bag. It’s 11:13 now.  Time to make my move.  I walk toward what looks like the Main main entrance.  There are four sets of doors.  I tuck the bag under my arm like a football and hold the drink carrier with the same hand while I try the right-most set of doors with the other hand.  It won’t budge. I try all of them and finally, of course, it is the left-most set of doors that opens.  It is very, very quiet.  I could have ANYTHING inside this Wendy’s bag and nobody is here to stop me.  Where in the world is the office? I spot the tiny plaque and head in the door.

“Hi!”  I say to the five people who swivel to look at me.  “I’m, uh, here to eat lunch with some students.”  Can I really do this? Do I need my passport? Is it ok to bring more than 2 ounces of liquid in here? 

“Sure, just sign in right here,” says the lady at the front. I heave my Wendy’s paraphernalia up next to the clipboard and write my name and the exact time.  11:17. She hands me a visitor name tag.

Lady:  “What grade are they in? Are they in sixth grade?”

Oh, shoot.  I know their names and their birthdays and their parents’ names.  Their favorite candy.  Who they are crushing on.  What they were thankful for last week.  Also I have great personal and professional references if my character needs vouching for.

Me:  “Um, I’m not sure..”  Time to call security over.  “yeah, maybe.”  Then, triumpantly, “Their lunch is at 11:30!”

Eyebrows go up.

Office Lady:  “Are you sure they are sixth-graders? Sixth grade lunch was at 11:00.”  GOT HER!!

Me:  “Oh, then they’re in seventh grade.  Yep.  Definitely seventh grade. See, I have a range of ages in my class so-”

Office Aide:  “Seventh grade lunch isn’t until eleven thirty-FIVE.”

Me:  Stuff it, you brat.  “Oh, ok.  That’s it, then.  Seventh gra-”

Office Lady:  “You’ll have to wait.  We can’t let you go there right now.”

Me:  “Yeah, no, ok! Perfect.  I would never show up early to seventh grade lunch which is at eleven thirty-FIVE. I’ll just sit over here and try and figure out where on my anatomy this sticker is easily visible but not awkward and I’ll hug my bag of chicken sandwiches and turn off my phone (can I have a phone in here?) and I won’t even think about touching the fire alarm.”

Office Lady probably pursed her lips but I admit I do not have a specific memory of that.

Not much happens as I sit there absorbing the soft office sounds and the smell of Lily and Lorelai’s fries.  A kid comes in and presents a solid case for getting his phone back.  Another kid walks through and almost makes it out before getting called back to pull his pants up.  It’s a surprisingly respectful interaction on both sides.  I think I watch too many movies.  At 11:30 Office Lady glances over and looks surprised that I’m still there where she left me.

“Oh, you can go ahead and go,” she says. “Down the hall and then left all the way to the end.”

Oh, pshh, I wasn’t waiting for you to dismiss me.. or anything.. “Ok, thank you!”

Two security guards are walking toward me in the hall.  I shift my Wendy’s bag down so that my thoughtfully-placed sticker is visible.

Smile! They’re people! I smile.  They smile.

Whew.  So far, so good.

Jody.  You’re not a terrorist. You’re, like, really here to eat lunch with your kids.  Who are you, Mr. Bean in the airport?

The cafeteria is huge and completely empty when I reach it.  I choose an end table and sit down.  A lunch lady spots me and comes over.

“Ma’am, are you you here to eat with your child?

Me:  “Yyyes.”  Sure.

Lunch lady:  “Ok, well, visitors can only be over there on the blue wall.”

Me: “Oh, ok! Sorry! Got it!”

The blue wall is on the far side of the cafeteria with three tables in front of it.  I don’t think these tables get cleaned as often as the others. Kids start coming in.  There are some tiny ones and some huge ones.  I think middle school has the biggest size variance of all.  The runts are still runty and the early bloomers are gettin’ after it. After a while I see Lily come in with a posse.  She sees me and rushes over.  “I went to the office to see if you were in there because I wasn’t sure if you knew where to go!” she gasps.

I feel oddly comforted that this petite, popular seventh grader is looking out for me.  We all sit down at the sequestered crumby tables and I’m glad she’s ok enough with me to have her friends around.

I’m also glad that I saved my bacon McDouble. (I know, I know, it’s a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger. My brother-in-law gets a kick out of ordering things by the wrong name at fast food places. He’ll ask for a Blizzard at McDonald’s, a McFlurry at Sonic.  Just to see what they do.)  I’m pretty decent at talking to human beings of all ages, but this is middle school and sometimes it’s nice to have the excuse of a full mouth.  Lorelai walks in and joins us.  She has never acted so happy to see me in her life.  I must have done okay on the outfit.  Lily introduces their friends, who all have first names that sound like last names.

“..and this is Peyton.  She’s a twin.  I’m close with both of them but I’m closest with her.  Ya know. And Timothy is..”  She twists around to check through the masses of kids.  “He sits on the first row.  I’ll show him to you later.  He’s like so nerdy but he’s so cool.  That tall guy in the red shirt is soooo annoying-”

Peyton:  “Yeah, but he’s pretty funny.”

Lily: “Yeah, he’s pretty funny I guess.  I don’t know. He’s cool but I don’t like him.”

I accidentally make eye contact with a girl across the table just as she’s saying “she’s such a bi-“.  She cuts herself off and looks worried and embarrassed.  Because I’m a grownup.  I look away and let her recover.

We talk about what they usually eat for lunch at school and how it’s almost summer and how volleyball tryouts are going. Lorelai barely touches her fries so I eat them all.  Since I didn’t have any.

“You know, this is my first time ever in a middle school,” I confess to Lily.

“Whoa.”

We go outside.  There are kids standing around in little groups everywhere.  There are a few boys racing each other out on the grass and Lily points Timothy out to me.  I ask her what all the different groups are and she tells me what she knows. I ask her what group she would be in if I weren’t there.  She thinks about it.

“I’m sort of a prep, I guess,” she says.  “But I’m friends with a lot of people.”

I tell her I better go so she can make her rounds.  She hugs me quick and says thanks for coming and means it. I walk back through the cafeteria, sign out in the office, smile at Office Lady, take off the cardigan and hike the five miles to my parking spot.  I can breathe easy again, but my truck still smells like chicken sandwiches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weighty

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Come back,

They want me to come back.

What exactly is the burden in that?

Maybe they are too easy to love,

their little hands over and over in my hair,

their little hands fighting over mine,

their little nails scratching in vain at my freckles,

their little tongues re-forming my Western name

which they have stored already in their big hearts,

ready to sing out in welcome on the day that I come back.

Come back, they want me back,

and the great want in their little eyes weighs me down.

It is the weight of Africa,

so vast,

so easily set aside.

Progress

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It’s New Year’s Day, 2017.  It’s also Sunday, which hasn’t happened in a while. Have we sung the New Year’s hymn yet?  I asked my cousin Gabriel as I sat next to him at church this morning.  I may have missed it because even though the service started a full hour later than usual, I still couldn’t find the time to finish my coffee before the singing started.  No, Gabe told me.  I knew it was coming.  We only sing this song once a year – I think the actual title is “Another Year is Dawning” – so they can hardly keep it out of the program.  And even though we only sing it once a year, it inevitably gets stuck in my head, especially this bit:

Another year of progress, another year of praise

Another year of proving thy presence all the days

The chords swell really beautifully at this point, but the words prick a little and as the first line loops in my head, the words take on a steadily ironic tinge.  Another year of progress, eh?  Which particular brand of progress was it that I made this year?

My last job was where I found my friend Mick.  Every morning I had the relatively simple – ok, just simple – task of creating the day’s build schedule and delivering it to him on the production floor.  One day, I just couldn’t get it right.  I managed to completely mangle the totals on the first couple copies.  When I returned the third time with something workable, Mick looked at me and said very nicely, “Good job!”

I looked at him and said, not very nicely, maybe sort of fiercely, “Mick, NO. Not from you. Anyone else, fine, but you are my friend and you cannot watch me do a pitiful job on something easy and then tell me good job when I finally get to the point I should have started from.” Sheesh, you’d think that he had been the one that butchered the build schedule.  Usually when I make the mistake of using the words “you can” or “you can’t”, Mick kindly reminds me that he’s a big enough boy to decide for himself what he will or won’t do.  But this time he just did one of those long, slow, shell-shocked head shakes that I usually run into when I come at him a million miles an hour.  And then:

“I apologize.”  It was real.  He understood.  “I can see how that’s kind of patronizing. I won’t do that again.”

And then, “What’d you do such a crap job on that schedule for?”

Much better.

I value truth and honesty, I think. I tell myself that. I tell Mick that, and most other people.  But at the end of the year I’m a little afraid of those two things.  What if the truth is that my year was one of no progress, no praise?

One of the high school girls at church brought her new Polaroid instant camera this morning.  Five of us posed nervously for a shot because, duh, you only get one chance and each one costs like a dollar, ya’ll.  Funny how these things come back.  A crowd of fifteen people swarmed to watch the picture materialize on a piece of photo paper the size of a credit card.  The camera had caught a tuft of hair from somebody’s head in the foreground and focused on it instead of on the five of us.  Still a killer shot, we told each other.

Another year of selfies, another year of snaps

Still a killer year, say the nice ones. You did so much.

Who can tell me the truth?  My year was relatively easy.  My life is relatively easy.  From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, say the Bible and Uncle Ben.  How much?

I could list out 2016 and spin it, really, whichever way I want.  I’m good at that.  The people that love me would tell me, and do tell me, that I’ve done valuable things.  They’d believe it, too.  But do they know?  What is a “good job” really worth to me if it’s not true? This year I quit a job, learned to be ok with being the bad guy, learned not to please everybody all the time.  I coached, painted apartments, made money.  Paid rent.  Visited Jackson Hole, drank from a lake, climbed the Great Dunes, spotted bear and moose, hiked a glacier, saw Denali, found my way to Mexico again.  Taught piano, taught Sundayschool, taught soccer.  I became a baker and a housecleaner.  I helped whoever needed helping with a buttload of projects.  I got physically stronger.  I learned some French.  So what? So what? So what? Did it matter?  Now what?

I didn’t run as much as I told myself I would in 2016 and I was generally crabbier than I set out to be.  I thought way more often of myself than others.  There were people I wasn’t there for.  There were connections I didn’t make.  There were times I valued my precious sleep more than literally anything else on earth.  I was ungrateful a lot.  There were words I said and shouldn’t have.  There were words I didn’t say, obvious ones that “should go without saying” but really don’t until you say them.  And this is just the “not terrible” bad stuff, errors common and vague enough to publish without throwing myself under the bus.

Another year of failures, another year of oops

We have this wacky New Year’s tradition at our church that is difficult to explain.  Suffice it to say that we put on a night-long treasure hunt complete with maps, paintball guns, and miles of running through the woods to find a hidden treasure box with hundreds of dollars in change inside.  Keep in mind that we are a small church with zero paid positions.  This is no megachurch endeavor.  This year Pilgrim’s Progress was interwoven with the clues.  Since I’m still only slightly employed and have been erroneously dubbed a “journalism major” (also because I grew up on these treasure hunts and still think they’re the coolest), I was asked to condense THE FREAKING PILGRIM’S PROGRESS into a story that I could read aloud in under thirty [30] minutes.  That’s not an abridgement. That is a hack job.  So sorry, John Bunyan, sir, for slaughtering your baby.

About midway through my hacking I stumbled over the part where Christian faces Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation.  Apollyon, as the Prince of the City of Destruction, tries to coerce Christian back into his service and Christian refuses, saying he likes the King’s wages better.  Then Apollyon lists out all the ways that Christian has failed in his service to the King and tells him that even when he does the right stuff, he does it with the wrong motive.  Christian, instead of arguing, just admits that Apollyon is right.

All this is true, and much more which you have left out; but the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful, and ready to forgive.

So I think it’s not up to me to assign an honest value, a true weight to my year.  I can’t track any kind of progress on a linear scale.  Maybe my year will be one of progress only if it is also a year of praise.  I’m not the one who decides.  It IS up to me to say thank you for it.  All of it.

Cross Country

My elbow ligaments thicken and fuse, aching

as the last of the runners guts past us and dies

on spray-painted grass;

Mercy sits 3.1 miles heavy on my hip.

I turn to leave and she wonders if I remember,

if I remember –

but I am not sufficiently riveted.

Dusted paws clutch my jowls,

a grubby vise-grip smearing my face down

to the listening angle.

She begins again. She needs to know

if I remember that time

that one time

that time when

that time when

if I remember that one time

that time when we ate

when we ate

the chocolate muffins.

A Myth Indeed

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I was about a thousand miles away and asleep when he went.

 

I’d been making my way to a hotel in Pennsylvania since my 5:45 flight from Little Rock that morning and I was tired. There were people to see, but at 10 p.m. the exhaustion hit me like a couple of pillows on either side of the head – heavy ones, like the sham pillows that must not be slept on under any circumstance.  So I left the rowdy late-night cousin crowd in the lobby in favor of a bed and clear eyes in the morning. I’d heard rumors of forested mountain trails close by and figured an early run would be the quickest way to shake the travel funk.

 

The next morning at 5 I shut off my alarm and saw that a text message had miraculously evaded the Bedford County countryside’s lack of signal and appeared on my screen during the night.  It was from my cousin Mark: “I heard grampa just passed.” I sucked my breath in, nodded, got up and tiptoed past sprawled sleeping girls to put on some running clothes and shoes.  I padded through the carpeted halls of the hotel, pushing through doors until I was out. I found what appeared to be a trailhead and ran into the woods, slowing as the incline steepened.  Two deer sprang across the trail ahead of me and I stopped to watch them disappear, a couple lines from Ray Bradbury’s poem Byzantium looping over and over in my head.

 

My grandfather, a myth indeed

Did all of Plato supersede

 

My relationship with my grandfather was not an especially personal one. He had been old ever since I could remember.  He had thirty-six grandchildren. I can’t even remember having a one-on-one conversation with him.  Aside from the dull boom of knowing someone had just passed into eternity, the emotion I felt was on my dad’s behalf. My dad and his siblings, who had known and studied and learned from and forgiven and chuckled at and respected and lifted and fed and wiped my grandfather. A myth indeed.

 

He had passed into legend for us years before his death at ninety-seven years old. We had all heard from our parents how Roy was born in Chicago to Swedish immigrants, how he met Jesus at his Rock Island Armory workbench.  How he and Gracia drove off after their wedding to the hills of Arkansas with faith and no money.  We knew he had welded one half of a Plymouth to the opposite half of a Buick to triumphantly unveil the Pluick, fitted with plank benches to accommodate his eight mortified children. Aunt Ruth told us that one winter he had turned a car hood into a sled to pull the kids to safety when another of his vehicles got stranded on a snowbound highway.  That was the Grampa we never knew.  Our most recent memories were of him seated on a green armchair in his little house, speaking out of a swirl of muddled memories to friends long gone, or singing hymns, or flirting shamelessly with whatever female caretaker or relative was present, asking for food or a job.  He wandered alone in mazes of worry over problems resurrected from decades ago.  He couldn’t hear most of the time but every once in a while he’d pick up on something and deliver an uncannily clever, coherent retort. And he praised the Lord a lot. We grandkids were losing a person, yes, but even more so a generation, an original.  When Grampa died, our parents and aunts and uncles had quietly aged into that top tier, into the oldest lot. Which scares us, or me at least.

 

Grampa left to his descendants the following items: a certificate of honorable discharge from the Coast Guard, an altered birth certificate, two hearing aids, a pair of dentures.  Grandma’s death certificate.  A spoon from the Motherland. Some photo albums. A pair of matching gold (eh, debatable) rings engraved with names we’d never heard before. Postcards from the kids.  The day of the funeral, my aunts organized a tongue-in-cheek inheritance drawing.  We drew numbers, drew up chairs and divvied up the spoils, the cousins hooting at some of the less fortunate picks.  We passed them all around.  We laughed a lot and shook our heads and wondered at the guy who’d lived so long and died without ever owning property.

 

We shook our heads because we know Grampa left us more than his dentures.  It’s a knotty patrimony we share, dispersed with varying ratios into our respective genomes.  Most of us got big chins and some got cankles and a few got both.  He deeded us an uncomfortably competitive spirit, a disdain for conventional solutions, a wariness of authority. One Christmas game of Dictionary featured a knock-down-drag-out over two slightly different definitions of the word eldritch.  It got ugly.  We chafe under the Man’s heavy hand, preferring 5 to 9 over 9 to 5 if it means we work on our own terms.  We delight in rigging things, defaulting to “poor man’s ways” even when we don’t have to – even though it occasionally costs us more in the end. Grampa loved to tinker with (read: destroy) his $2,000 hearing aids and often refused to wear them. I came in one night to find him holding a metal funnel to his ear, its stem ground off.  “Science marches on!” he proclaimed.

 

He bequeathed to us an aptitude for mechanics, an eccentric bent and a disregard for cosmetic beauty.  We buy all of our cars wrecked.  I replaced the damaged front fender of my red Frontier with a black one, driving it proudly that way for months.  When I did paint it a couple weeks ago I was almost apologetic, uneasy about caving to the societal norm of driving a monochromatic vehicle. It was also really easy for me to find my truck in parking lots.  (I shouldn’t have worried. I did the bodywork and painted it myself with an uncle.  Still have no trouble in parking lots.)

 

We give eagerly but often refuse to ask for help.  We have a passion for honesty, so much fearing a diluted truth that we sometimes forget to temper it with compassion.

 

He left us a craving to not just do the thing but to make it an adventure.  Sometimes the spouses wish we would settle for just doing the thing.  The stories, though!

 

But the thing my grandfather cared most about was something he couldn’t will to us at all and he knew it.  Try as he might, he couldn’t germinate the seeds of redemption he scattered – no, dumped – onto the muddy rows of his progeny.  That is for each of us to wrestle through as he did.  Alone.  Sequestered in a vacuum where our grandfather can’t grandfather us in.  So he prayed and told us in no uncertain terms that these things before us are temporary and that there are things we can’t see that are eternal. He showed us that too, as best he could, through a life riddled with hardship and sin and stubbornness and repentance and grace and the obedience that was a response to an undeserved love.  A love that promised to never let him go, and didn’t.  A love that unfathomably kept him here for that final tortured decade maybe just so we, the branches, could see how completely this life-glory fades.  Maybe so that we get a hint about how to spend our years before the days of trouble come, before we ourselves become myths.

 

They were singing when it ended.  He went out on “glory”.

 

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I’m here.

My friend Elisa created this blog for me two years ago. Because if I had my very own blog with my very own name on it, the logical result would be that I’d write. Knowing myself, I titled my page appropriately. This morning I searched for my blog and there it was:

blog

I guess it’s time.

Wait til you’ve got something GOOD, I thought. Wait til you’ve made your life interesting enough to write about, until your raw stories flow into a chronicle that juts out and cuts through the haze of a million trillion other blogs. Wait til you’re funny.

Well, I’m here. Last night I crashed at 9:00 and I was happy about it. Seven hours later I got up and gymed.  I came home to my log cabin in my Little Rock suburb and made an omelet in the dark kitchen until my paren — ROOMMATES, roommates — shuffled out of their room to go for a walk. Back up to my room where I grabbed my paint shirt and paint shorts and paint hat and paint shoes.  I stood and looked at them for a minute. Today I’ll head to the house my brother bought a couple months ago. We’re scrambling to fix it up before he gets married in five weeks. So it works out pretty well that I don’t, uh, actually have a job right now. I quit my office manager job in May to “pursue my dream of not working there” as the Fallon hashtag so eloquently stated.  (My boss’s companywide email said I was leaving to pursue my lifelong dream of writing. I let it slide.) And I’m happy about it.  But yeah, I look down at these beautifully white-speckled soccer shorts that I’ve had since I was fourteen and cringe a little. Because these days I’m doing what I did and living where I was living when I was fourteen. Pre-degree. Pre-adulthood. I paint, I teach music lessons, I hang with my cousins, I church, I play soccer, I hold babies. We’re a family of painters and carpenters and welders.  Paint we will have with us always.  There is a paint drip three blocks long that curves neatly up our driveway. I get a weird look most times I go get a haircut. Yes, I KNOW I have paint in my hair. I was doing some painting on a guy’s house one summer when he walked in and barked out, “Well, whaddaya say, young man?”

I like that we are painters. I like knowing how to fix stuff and resurrect houses.  I have a lot of great paint crew-related memories.  I’m grateful for the paychecks my painting has generated off and on through the years.  But there is a black hole painting syndrome that kicks in sometimes. Your thoughts start circling and won’t stop. All your Spotify songs blend together.  You start to forget that you’ve ever gone anywhere or met anyone or discussed ideas or had fingers that aren’t covered in caulk. You realize that there will always, always be more trim to paint.  Which is a blessing in terms of job security but a bit of a blow to your mental state.

But painting my brother’s house is a completely different animal than painting an unending string of apartments.  And I have lived other places and I have done other things and I will do so again. And I thank God for it all. (Seriously, thank you.)  But I have to write to remind myself, for those blackouts.

So I’m here.