Icarus, I’m With You

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maybe the jumpers have the right of it
in their own misguided way.
we must sometimes fall so that we can soar
with wings born of necessity.

they warn us of the plunge –
of the cold fall from grace,
and urge us not to leap.
when we rise they sing to us of Icarus,
who dared where he ought have not
and paid the final price.

but Icarus saw for a moment
the gleaming naked sun,
and perhaps he thought it worth the loss
to come so close to touching God.

I’d rather take the plunge
than stand safe in a prison cell.

 

– Jess

Hey There, Orion

IMG_20150414_181309575When I was a kid, my dad had this pipe that he only ever smoked when we went stargazing. So, some nights when it was especially clear out, he’d reach for that pipe and I’d scramble. We’d stretch out in this rickety old lawn chair, and he would tell me stories about comets and moons and brown dwarves and quasars, and he would puff away on that beautiful old pipe until I fell asleep looking for shooting stars. For my birthday one year, he got me this lovely little red telescope, and I would stay out for hours every night, trying to memorize the specks of light he pointed out.

 

I love stars.

 

I love the potential they embody. Have you ever heard of anything so crazy as stars? They’re these massive collection of gases that have combined in just the right way to make an incredible reaction. Self-contained fire burning and spinning in vast empty space, trailing massive chunks of rock in their wake. Stars are crazy!

Sometime after the telescope, life got crazy. When we couldn’t take it, my brothers and I would climb out on the garage roof and watch the stars, and we’d talk about what Orion and Andromeda and the Dippers were up to. We had this whole invented story about how the constellations were secretly galactic guardians, and special children sometimes got to go with them on secret-galaxy-saving missions. We were, of course, qualified candidates, and accompanied them on every quest.

Now that I’m older and trying to figure out how to manage a life that turned out so differently than I would have predicted, I keep thinking about stargazing. And I think I’ve figured out why I love the skies so very much. You see, stars aren’t visible in the daylight. When the sun is shining and my spirits are high, I don’t even think about how badly I miss the stars. It’s when the nights are dark and murky and obscured by clouds that I strain for a glimpse of Orion. And I think stars are a little bit like hope. You don’t hope in the sunshine. You just relish it and dance and roll in the grass a little, and let your inner child loose. But stars are brightest when the nights are darkest, with no other lights in sight. And when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re lost as all get-out, you can always count on those stars to get you home.

 

-Jess

Invisible Man, Glass House

houseOnce there was a beautiful glass house, and when the sun shone down, it filled the house with light and warmth and laughter. But in one corner there was a tiny dark thing, and as the years went on, the dark thing grew until the glass house held no more light and the air was cold and stale. His tendrils crept into the walls and his claws sank into the people of the glass house until the dark was all they could see.

You were born in that somber, fragile house, and you were full of life despite all the odds. With bright eyes, grabby-grubby fingers, and wide toothed smile, your eager energy was unquenchable. But the people in the house were cocooned deep in the poisonous grasp of the dark, and so you grew up unseen. And I don’t remember when it happened, but somehow the dark got you, too. Those eyes dimmed, that mouth turned down, and you slipped into the silent void with the rest of us. Invisible and unseeing.

I left the glass house and took the web along with me, and I never looked back at you and your lonely cocoon. I wrapped the dark claws tighter around my shoulders and prided myself on my ability to slip through life unseen. But the dark thing, he doesn’t want us just blind; he wants us blind and miserable and dead. I don’t know what kind of lies he told you in your cocoon, but he told me ones that made me scream until I thought I would suffocate. And I wanted to, because the dark wasn’t the friend I’d thought. But I was invisible, and I was blind, and the dark thing is nothing if not possessive.

But somebody saw me. Or rather, several somebodies. I still don’t know how, or why, but they came along and befriended me, and some of them carried the dark along too – but they also brought the sunshine. And desperately scrabbling in those faint, glimmery patches, I had a revelation. I don’t know about you, but in that fragile house, I believed that we couldn’t see color like everyone else because the dark was all there was. The dark thing, he’s tricky. He knows that Seeing is his demise, and so he shrouds us in despair and darkness. I started looking for the things he didn’t want me to see, and counting them, and writing down all the little secrets in the patches of sunshine.

 

Grass green and fluffy thick

Light in water droplets shining

Coffee smell, strong and happy

 

And you know what? The pen, it really is mightier than the sword. Or the razor blade. Or all the other biting temptations that the dark thing offers you in his mockery of independence. For me, the pen was Sting to Shelob’s filthy web, hacking my way to freedom string by sticky, stubborn string.

Teal train car, rattling down the track

Sunset like fire against spidery trees

Hands smeared with conte red

And then I came home, and I saw you for the first time. And I remember now all the color I never registered the first time in our glistening glass house. The way the food warms up our table and our hearts. Our collection of insistently meowing fuzzballs and their unconditional love. Cold walks to school in the early morning, moon so bright against the trees and snow glistening like sugar thrown wild on the ground. I remember all the times you begged me to wake up and just See you…I know that it’s not the same, but I’m seeing you now in retrospect. Your brilliant scheming mind, finding loopholes and creative solutions to every problem. The bright mischief that still lurks behind your eyes when no one is looking. You’re a wicked shot with a rubber band. Blue looks good on you; it makes your eyes light up from yards away.

It’s so many years too late. But I see you. You’re not invisible to me.

I know the dark thing still has you tight and blind. He still sits on my shoulder most days, and I know how it feels. Don’t give up. Look where he wants you never to see. Find the color in the black and the shadow. Count the cracks in his crumbling grip with me. You and I, we’ll be the team we were always supposed to be. Invisible people, we can see each other through this. It’s hard to fight the dark alone. But Frodo had his Sam, and I’ll lend you my sun-glimmers and you’ll lend me yours, and we’ll claw through the webs in the glass house together ’til the sun shines through again.

 

-Jess

I’m not a real woman

I anger at casual campaigns for “real women.”

Real women have curves

Real women eat

Real women don’t need a thigh gap

While I understand the sentiment behind the creation of these yawps into the Broadband void, I find them to be severely unfounded. Mostly due to the fact that they’re tailored to speak to only a certain kind of women.

The kind of woman I’ve never been.

I’m twenty-one years old and 6-foot-even. I’ve never weighed more than 120lbs, and I’ve never been on or had any kind of diet. I participate in no regular exercise. I’ve had a thigh gap since before it became something for which we judge a woman, and I don’t have “curves.” I have a small stomach, so my meals are often short and sweet. This causes people to gawk and make rude comments like “That’s it? You barely ate anything!” and “Am I going to have to force feed you?” This being said: I have never had an eating disorder. Somehow that’s less believable to people than the idea that I could just be content with my body.

So depending on which side of society we look at, I’m either not a real woman, or I’m a supermodel. And I’ve gotten the supermodel thing a lot. Complete strangers stop me in stores and on the street to tell me I should be on the runway. I appreciate the compliments, I really do, but what concerns me each time is that they say it as if I owe it to myself. As if I doubted myself. One woman last week (although I know she meant well), told me not to “give up on my dream.”

I’m sorry, but that’s not my dream. I have no desire to contribute to the poor self-image virus that destroys so many young minds every single day. If I’m going to have anything to do with impressing upon young minds, it’s going to be through my current dream. My dream at the moment is to make blue collar wages with a white collar education in a room filled with young adults, and I will love every minute of it. And yeah, I hope that part of my teaching will include creating healthy self image for the young women and men who sit in my classroom each day. Society needs to wake up, and I think that starts with one “little birdie” being extra loud.

Newsflash to society: I have no desire to be a supermodel OR a real woman.

I’m my own woman. My mother raised me with an appreciation for vegetables with my meals, but also a love for chocolate cake in the morning for breakfast. I hate running, but I do love the joy and myriad of benefits that it brings to many of my friends. I’ve never been truly discontent with my body image (aside from the few times that are bound to happen…although they’re quickly disregarded and replaced with a pep talk like this one).

I wish more people could find contentment for themselves. However, this “revenge” on society by saying that “men go for curves and dogs go for bones” is wrong and hurtful. It sacrifices one acceptance of body type to elevate another–which is exactly what we’re trying to stop! We’re fortunate to have so many outlets in which to build each other up, to encourage each other. Yet we are wasting it on the petty satisfaction found in tearing others down.

That being said, I honestly do believe that a healthy woman is a beautiful one. And a smile that reflects the joy and acceptance found inside will turn more heads than a thigh gap and a size 2 dress.

I took a bit of time to Google all of those “real women” quotes and see what else came up, and I found one that said, “Girls compete with each other. Real women empower one another.”

And if that’s something real women can be about, I’m ready to call myself such.

Please approve of me. It’s important.

checkmarkI often find it interesting how much we internalize even the smallest of comments. One off-hand observation or claim, and suddenly it begins a whole butterfly effect on our identity.

I also realize that I need to stop using the “we” and “our” pronouns. It’s my way of coping with personal problems by generalizing. Enough of that. Here’s the personal connection.

“You’re reading that? I couldn’t get through that book.”

“You’re too tall.”

“I think it’s so interesting that you don’t match your jewelry.”

“You were homeschooled? I could never do that.”

“Why don’t you play sports?”

I’ve heard all of these things at least once. A few of them I can’t seem to stop hearing. All of them are mostly harmless comments that probably weren’t thought through any longer than they took to say. And yet….I can’t get them out of my head.

I’m not asking for sympathy. Please don’t write me saying, “You’re beautiful! You’re not too tall! Others are just jealous!” I dearly appreciate the encouragement, but that isn’t my point.

I don’t consider myself someone easily influenced by other people. I am an independent woman who questions her motives for everything–almost to a fault. I don’t go with the flow. Sometimes, I specifically go against it just to prove to myself the ideal that I will always make my own decisions. I never identified with a specific clique in school (for the years I wasn’t homeschooled), and I don’t believe I have a defined style or “type.” I just do what I want.

But that’s the distant, generalized pressure of adolescence and budding adulthood (and actual adulthood, so I’m told). Somehow those direct comments, however unpressurized they feel, are the ones I struggle with most. You have no idea how many times I have wished I were shorter. Even just 2-4 inches. When people ask me if I play basketball or volleyball so I can “put that height to good use,” I suddenly begin to feel like I’ve ignored a huge part of my life and “ohmygosh, what I am I doing if it’s not sports?? Reading doesn’t even begin to compare to the fulfilling identity I would find in sports! Why would I be a bookworm when I could be a jock star? Crap, I’ve just wasted 21 years of my life on books.”

…And then I remember that I’ve tried almost every decent sport ever to no avail. But how do I validate myself to these people who think I need to be a first-string basketballer?

That’s what it boils down to: I need to be validated. And it’s not enough to be validated in just what I’m good at. Apparently, I have this insatiable need to have approval even in the areas that I wouldn’t care about unless someone brings them up.

Someone says, :You couldn’t get through that book?” And suddenly I’m all, “Well, I mean, I sort of like it, but I definitely think that [writing angle, element, thing] could have been better, so I know what you mean.”

Psych. I actually love this book, but I still need to feel like I’m right and on your side.

And don’t even get me started on how much I’ve tried to play off the homeschooler vibe by exclusively telling stories that stem from my two years of public high school. Unless, of course, the homeschooler thing is to my advantage–then forget public school! It was sooooo overrated anyway. Like, did I even learn anything new? Psh.

I’ll stop ranting while my examples still hold some kind of relevancy because I highly doubt I’m the only person who struggles with this. We all need to feel like we’re right, but are we truly willing to go to such great lengths to get it? I’m not saying I’ve sacrificed my true self because I once mocked homeschooling just to feel “cool,” but I do believe there were opportunities for better choices that I overlooked for the convenience of a quick fix. So at what point does it stop? Am I going to insist that my necklace always match my earrings and my bracelets? Highly unlikely. But will I maybe try to join my brother and sister for an afternoon of casual (read: poorly played) tennis? Not a bad idea.

I think the main thing to remember is that those off-hand comments don’t carry a whole lot of weight, yet we create this burden for ourselves from them. Let’s not do that. Sure, we can walk away with a small idea for improvement or way to challenge ourselves, but let’s not surrender ourselves for the sake of a fleeting, insubstantial observation. No matter how validating it might feel. We must find our own fulfillment and continue to stand by the choices we make. I leave you with the wise and witty words of Oscar Wilde:

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Success or Contentment

My students and I have spent the last few weeks playing this game at the beginning of each class. I stole the idea from one of my own professors. I told them one day to write 2-3 questions for me (things they’d like to know about me), and we spend a few minutes each morning answering them. Some kids were generic. What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?

Others were more original. Where in time would you go if you had a time machine? Did you vote for Obama? What’s something that has been a difficult choice in your life? What’s your most embarrassing moment?

And then I had one kid who wrote this question down. I never would have expected it, but it’s something that has had me pondering for a very long time.

Would you rather have success or contentment?

This seems like a trick question at first. Only the selfish people would pick success, right? Everyone else should just want to be content with where they are. But for me, as a teacher, I’ve found that if I ever got stuck in just being content with where I and my students are in our education, I’d be failing at my job. Which is why I choose success over contentment.

Even beyond teaching, I consider myself a driven person. Whether it’s big things like challenging myself with a new hobby (I want to try out knife throwing this summer), or simple, stupid things like leveling up on Lord of the Rings Online, I’m never really okay with stagnancy. And stagnancy, complacency, and contentment are all next-door neighbors if you ask me.

And if we go back to teaching, you might remember the saying, “the only bad teacher is the one who teaches the same every time.” Which means constantly striving for the better and innovative is what being a great teacher is all about.

You’ll also notice, however, that being successful to me isn’t defined the same way as it is by some CEOs or other “successful” people. Success isn’t a paycheck. If it were, I wouldn’t have chosen teaching as a career, believe you me. Success is something so much deeper than a string of numbers. Success is when my students make a project connected to 1984 that combines their personal strengths and passions to their English class, then having them present and suddenly watching this excitement come out of them because for maybe the first time, they see the relevancy of literature in their lives. Success is when I look over their in-class essays weeks after we’ve covered the concept of irony, and seeing that they understand and have retained the idea. They’re even able to point out strong examples found in the informational text they just wrote about. Success is when one student walks in and says, “Miss DeVries, I just love English!” and goes on to tell me that she’s considering being an English teacher. Success is even when the too-cool-for-school kids start calling me “Miss DeVreezy” because, hey, they know I can be cool about something like that. And maybe that’s my chance to make a connection.

If I can count these moment as successes, I think I’m on the right track. And if I get to spend the next 40 or so years of my life chasing after this kind of success, I guess I would be pretty content with that.

For the uncreative moments

Earlier, Jess posted about her own passion and the poem that she wrote about it. During the time that she was challenged to write about her love for art and creating, she asked me to write my own poem about why I love writing. Although she finished hers long before I even started mine, we eventually had these two lovely poems that carefully, precisely summed up our drive and enthusiasm for creating. We’ve referred back to these poems before; we’ve read them to ourselves when we’re in need of reminding. Thus, I bring you my half of the project.

Why do I write?
Well, because it’s a way of letting it out
And letting go.
Because the feelings get bottled up,
Pent up.
I get caught up
In trying to sort them out
And make sense of the world.

I have this unexplained desire
To know and understand the world.
But my brain is just too small
To keep every story and emotion
I’ve collected.
So I pull them out and keep them in pieces
That I can revisit and experience again.

Writing it out lets me see my brain
And my heart
Side by side
In a way that makes sense;
That isn’t so confused.
Suddenly, I’m not the one dealing with heartache,
Anger,
Frustration,
And loneliness.
I’m putting that on someone else:
My characters.
Because I can see their ending.
Even if I can’t see my own.
And then, I can put away their story
And walk away.
I don’t have to carry their burdens anymore.

But with other feelings,
Like love, happiness, caring, and honor,
I get to share those,
With my paper people.
We walk hand in hand, and
I lead them to their inky Promised Land.
And at the end, I can put away their story,
And take a piece with me,
And show the rest of the world the beauty they have shown me.

I write to be understood.
Not by my readers,
But by my characters.
Because each of them holds a small part of me,
That I can’t see until I give it to them.

One For The Teachers

teacherTeaching is hard. It’s a backbreaking, soul-grinding, sweat and tears and elbow grease kind of labor. It’s a terrifying job. There you are, the one pillar in this tumultuous classroom of surging hormones and hurting souls and scarred wrists and hearts. There you are, trying to give hope and encouragement, and trying to break through just one hardened shell to the soft potential within – to offer the tools to build the forever joy of learning how to think…and your hands are bound. You’re tied to the mast of Standards, and the pretentious Well Intentioned Legislator peers over your shoulder and kicks you when you fall down, and on days when that seething mass of hormones blurs, faceless, you wonder if it’s even worth it.

My roommate is student teaching this semester, and it’s simultaneously precious and painful to watch her. She charged in with bright eyes and high hopes, and I hope that I can just will her enough strength to keep that passion alight. Some days she comes home bubbling with joy – Socratic discussion went well, and the kids were good, and she had a brilliant idea for a classroom theme. Other days she slips in the door and crumples on the couch, folding in on herself like an old pillowcase, all threadbare and worn. Eyes dull, shoulders bent, because for the life of her, she can’t keep going. And days like that, I just want to shout, “You can do it! You are so, so important. There is no job that is as precious as yours!”

Because it’s true. You teachers, you’re so undervalued. So this one’s for you. For those of you who stick it out and keep trying, day after day after month after year, and for those of you who are burned out and gone. You matter. You’ve always mattered, and you always will. You are some of the most influential people anyone will ever encounter. You save lives and open eyes, and you are ushering in the future.

To my Adv English Lit teacher: You were the one who taught me that Shakespeare should be experienced with passion, nerf sword in hand, not read in silence. You let me cavort around the classroom, you introduced me to my love of Greco-Roman literature, and you inspired me to step out of the comfort of my own culture and think outside the usual societal ruts.

To my Creative Writing teacher: You taught me that art and literature are inextricably wed, and propelled me to connect my passions. You fed my voracious literary appetite, and your authentic interest in me as a person during a rough spell probably saved my life.

To my High School Art teacher: You taught me that confidence is key. That it’s okay to pursue counter-cultural ideas and to try for big things. You were the first to make me believe I could really, truly be an artist.

To my Linguistics Prof: You invested in me above and beyond what your job required of you, and you take the time to chat in Walmart parking lots, when I’m sure you’re busy and tired and would rather be home. You made me defend my ideas and turned all my preconceptions round on their head, and wouldn’t let me be complacent in my approach to life and literature. I love to pick your brain.

 To my Drawing Prof: You are insanely hard to please, and your art is incredible. To have earned your favor as I’m heading out the door is the highest benchmark I could have ever achieved. You pushed me until I wanted to break and forced me to flourish instead, and you encouraged me to follow my dreams, even though they’re crazy and impractical.

Finally, to my mother: You homeschooled four rowdy, precocious, creative, stubborn, inquisitive children for 8 years, and you’re still mostly sane. You pushed us to inquire, and you let us learn what we wanted to learn – even during that phase where spiders and stars were my only loves. You taught me that passion drives life, and you instilled in me my love for learning.

Thank you, all you precious people, you world-weary warriors. You’ve saved at least one life for all your trouble, and I can’t shout your praises enough.

– Jess

Don’t Delete Your Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones

The school year is nearing its close, and my roommates and I find ourselves in dizzy anticipation of graduation. Job applications pile up on desktops, commencement meetings fill our calendars, and we worry ceaselessly that maybe we’re not really ready. Will anyone hire us? Will we run the eternal loop of internships that seems to have become the norm, or will we find jobs in our fields that pay at least most of our bills? We can’t do everything this application requires – will they still hire us? Other people our age seem so much better prepared! We’re so inexperienced…

As we wrestle with the panicked emotions and general chaos that impending graduation brings, we’ve started to look back at where we started. Kathleen has been re-reading poetry from her high school classes, and I’ve been sorting through smudged pencil drawings of masked girls with flowing hair, winged superheroes, and some decidedly nineties-inspired fashion designs.

I often catch myself mourning that I haven’t improved all that much in the years I’ve attended school – while simultaneously holding staunchly to the belief that my early artwork is horrifically worse than anything I’m producing now. But as I dig through musty shoeboxes and buried computer files, I’m finding that my early artwork was better than I thought, and that I’ve made some very significant strides in my skill level. So while I struggle with the temptation to delete some of the poorer pieces in my archives, I stop myself every time.

We’re wanderers in the perpetual wilderness of life, Theseus in the labyrinth, intrepid explorers crossing the sea on foot, stepping-stone by stepping-stone. It’s so easy to look ahead and all around and be disheartened by the vast distance we have yet to go, confused by all the twists and turns our path could take. But when the blue horizon seems to stretch forever in all directions, and we don’t know where to go, it helps to turn around and look at where we’ve already been. We can see that trail of footsteps, the faint glow of our golden threads, the tiny stepping-stones that dot the sea behind us. We can remember that there are horizons we’ve already crossed and paths we’ve already braved, and we can find courage to take the next step.

So don’t delete your stepping-stones, however small they may be. You may find that they become pillars of support as you brave the vast, exciting unknown.

– Jess

The grown-up lie

images

I don’t know why most of my childhood was spent wondering about what I would be when I grew up or dreaming about being 18 or 21. I’m finding out that I’ve made it, but it’s not the kind of excitement I thought it would be.

I’ve been hit straight-up, full force with a demanding level of maturity this semester as I begin student teaching. I wake up insanely early (and I thought 8AM classes were bad), go to bed way too early for a twenty-one year old, and I’ve started doing things like scheduling grocery trips or laundry days, and I even spent last Saturday morning cleaning my apartment.

“I don’t wanna be an adult! I need an adultier adult!” has become something of a catchphrase I say to my roommates as my way of complaining about my uneventful lifestyle.

 

The worst part about it isn’t that I think acting grown-up is dull or wrong. In fact, I get a lot of satisfaction from checking things off my to-do list, having a clean living space, and cooking in my kitchen. No, the part I don’t like is that I don’t feel qualified enough to be acting this mature. I’m not grown up enough to be a grown-up!

 

I keep thinking that someday I’ll have my act together. That someday I’ll know what I’m doing, and then I’ll be an adult. Then I will feel okay with making grocery lists and going to work and spending my evenings grading essays. I have this huge feeling of inadequacy that tells me I’m just faking at being grown up. What I’m really doing is playing an elaborate version of “house”–the same as I used to do when I was five-years-old. And I keep thinking if I just wait it out or keep playing house long enough, that one day it will become an actuality.

 

But I don’t think that day is going to come. Sometimes I look at my older friends or even my parents, and I see that they still don’t have it all figured out. Maybe they have a better grasp on life than I do, but they don’t have any exclusive “Guide to Adulthood” manual getting them through it.

So if you’re like me, if you’re struggling with the in-between stage of childhood and adulthood (though it feels like this stage lasts longer than I thought it would), know that the rest of us don’t know what we’re doing either. We’re all just hanging in there together. Maybe Peter Pan had the right idea, but maybe there’s also a part of grown-up life that we can look forward to.

-Kathleen