54 Thoughts

  1. If you don’t dust, it will be waiting for you later.
  2. You’re not listening if you’re mentally disagreeing while the other person talks.
  3. Sitting under a tree looking at a body of water is better for your soul than a sermon.
  4. Washing dark clothes with whites does not cause the apocalypse.
  5. As the members of each generation die, the next generation comes closer to the finish line. And so on.
  6. The slam of a wooden screen door as you run into the back yard on a summer morning doesn’t sound the same after you grow up.
  7. Don’t tell me about your god; tell me how you treated your family and friends last week.
  8. Throwing snow on an overheated car radiator is not as good an idea as it sounds like it would be.
  9. I’ve reached the point where I look at pictures from my teens and wish I had realized how attractive I would have been if I’d believed in myself.
  10. People who insist rap isn’t music annoy me even though I don’t like rap.
  11. I believe in elves, fairies, and Bigfoot.
  12. The tarot card I am the most wary of is “Justice;”  I want Mercy, not justice–but that’s not a tarot card.
  13. Naming your strengths and talents isn’t bragging.
  14. I may be too late in learning that the mental, the intellectual and the physical parts of a person are intimately intertwined.
  15. Very few chores are more important than spending time with family or friends.
  16. Occam’s Razor. Use it frequently.
  17. I spent years practicing to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch, next to Ed. Now I want to know if I could make Colbert truly laugh.
  18. Many women spend years balancing between being Scarlett and Melanie. The women to avoid are the ones who tip the scales in either direction.
  19. Don’t believe someone who says they like every kind of music or every type of books or movies; either their experience or taste is so limited that they don’t see the world outside of it.
  20. Gas pumps should not play music, regardless whether I like the tune.
  21. The advice from the movie Risky Business is wisdom worthy of Yoda, Buddha, and Jesus.
  22. Personality traits are not gender-specific. The terminology we use to describe those traits, however, often differs by gender.
  23. The Beatles were wrong. You need more than love.
  24. When it’s 3 am, the clock is ticking and you can’t sleep, the mythologies you believe are more important than the truths you know.
  25. The cat is both alive and dead. Accept it.
  26. Self-esteem that is based on overcoming failure is far better than the tissue paper self-esteem fostered by happy face stickers and inflated grades.
  27. We need people who are passionate about one or two things, no matter how arcane or off the beaten path the topic may be.
  28. I require a trickster god.
  29. Roseanne didn’t jump the shark; it was post-modernist in a medium that abhors experimentation.
  30. Our society needs rituals to officially recognize change-of-life transitions such as moving out from your parents’ house, getting divorced, kids leaving–or returning–home.
  31. More cowbell is always needed!
  32. The Bible should contain writing by C.S.Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, Henry Rollins, Bruce Springsteen, and Thoreau.
  33. Don’t trust anyone who claims to not have secrets; they lie.
  34. Everyone should look in the Mirror of Erised once.
  35. Telling someone “go to hell” is sometimes appropriate.
  36. When this year’s students graduate, everyone who had Drew Chiles as a teacher will be gone from my school. Within that fact is a poem about how fleeting a teacher’s tenure is.
  37. We need more dancing and less talking.
  38. Christmas trees should have both twinkling and non-twinkling multi-color lights. And lots of them.
  39. One of my first memories is JFK’s death; then MLK’s and Bobby’s, Vietnam protests, Kent State, and Watergate. I started with the loss of innocence; my cynicism is inevitable.
  40. Everyone has a true age, the point where they are most themselves. That’s the age of their soul.
  41. If I had three wishes, one would possibly involve a Yellow Submarine.
  42. Children shouldn’t be discouraged from using the word “no.” It’s a word many adults do not use often enough.
  43. Most people’s dreams are wishes, not action plans.
  44. Parents and children would both be better off if parents understood that their goal is to be on the sidelines watching their kids walk the path, not using a machete to clear the way.
  45. If you don’t know whether you’re Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, or the Scarecrow, there’s a good chance you’re the Wicked Witch.
  46. Doing yoga in the grass, under the trees on a warm summer day is better communion than grape juice and bread.
  47. Not emoting all over the place is not the same as not having deep feelings.
  48. People reveal more than they realize in simple conversations. Saying “I think I am a good student” is different than “I feel I am a good student,” for example.
  49. Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, and Michael Moore–this is the list of people I would like to work for.
  50. Yes, I’m bothered that I didn’t list any women. If Ellen Goodman or Molly Ivins were still writing, they would be on the list.
  51. Molly Weasley’s battle with Bellatrix was the best moment in the last Harry Potter movie.
  52. The rubric I use as I unconsciously assess men may include columns marked Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Capt. Kirk, The Doctor, Hawkeye Pierce, Jax Teller, and Phil Donahue. Anyone who doesn’t fit somewhere on there probably isn’t someone I can have an interesting conversation with.
  53. Elderly people who live active, independent lives seem to have had a long-term commitment to physical fitness. That observation should lead to action.
  54. Ultimately, Love wins.

Note: I wrote this on my May 7, 2013, my birthday. Fifty-four sounds so young now…and I stand by almost all of these thoughts as valid and true.

The Church of Jodi Picoult

The longest hours of my life were the couple times I went to prayer meeting with Grandma. I was young, not more than eight or nine, and I have gauzy memories of sitting quietly in a small-town living room littered with lace doilies, surrounded by serious women wearing hats, dresses and semi-sensible shoes.

Not their fancy Sunday hats, of course–this was an every day sort of dress up occasion. God frowned if women were too dressy during the week–and if women weren’t dressy enough on Sunday. I learned that in junior high when I suggested God wouldn’t mind if I wore dress pants to church. (Apparently, God tolerated dress pants better if the person in question was on the Honor Roll at school.That’s part of the “Mysterious Ways” He works, I guess.)

They sat in the overstuffed living room, holding their Bibles and small notebooks with their prayer list. The kitchen was where I wanted to be, near the table brimming with pies and fruit punch, chicken salad sandwiches and potato salad, but no. That was for after prayer meeting.  For the first hour, sitting piously in the livingroom was required, even by slightly squirmy children. If I’d been allowed to bring a book, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and I could have weathered the hour quite well, but somehow, leafing through the King James version of anything didn’t catch my imagination quite the same way. All these ladies did was talk, then cluck and awwwww in sympathy, then talk some more. Every so often, there would be some silence followed by a jarring “Amen,” then back to talking.

There might be a tale of someone who had something very something exciting happening, a promotion or new baby. Or they might tell about somebody’s child who was struggling in school, or someone who was facing temptation–but it wasn’t gossip, of course. They had to discuss it to find out who needs prayer. Names and situations flew, intermixed with exhorting God to do something about so-and-so’s liver condition or their neighbor’s crabgrass–literal or metaphorical.

Do women’s prayer groups exist anymore? My observation suggests not, especially as the community social/spiritual outlet that Grandma’s meeting was. In fact, the women’s-only groups of the churches I know suffer from a distinct lack of participation.  Life has changed, and we all have other obligations. Plus, prayer meeting… It sounds a little bit, well…old-fashioned. Heaven forbid that we be old-fashioned!

I don’t think the “prayer meeting” experience has declined, though–just the opposite, in fact. As I go through my list of female friends, almost every one of them is in a book club. Some of them, more than one book club. I’m not in a book club, and I had an odd conversation with someone recently who speculated that I didn’t really like to read that much because I’m not gathering with other women for a group discussion of a selected title.

That conversation amused me. I’m an English teacher. Reading isn’t just my hobby, it’s my profession–and possibly my religion. Yet in this day and age, the fact that I’m not on speed dial looking for a book club to join apparently leads makes it reasonable to question whether I am much of a reader at all.

Of course I’m a reader. At any given moment, I have Shakespeare, the complete works of Emerson, most of Thoreau’s writings, and the complete poems of Longfellow with me. I have Stephen King, Harry Dresden and Alastair Crowley,  the Bible and Richard Foster’s works, too, toted around on my Kindle, available every time I have a moment. I do read, voraciously, spanning classics to best-sellers, fiction, poetry and drama to non-fiction and serious academic research papers; I just don’t belong to a book club.

Women in my generation and younger have opted for the book club paradigm instead of the prayer meeting. We are socializing in a structured manner, giving us an excuse to get out of the house all under the guise of  “doing something important.”  Book clubs are still the same source of gossip that prayer meetings were. They’re the same source of social interaction and peer group bonding. In fact, I know of book clubs that throw social events and sponsored educational events, huge affairs with major authors attending. It’s the prayer meeting/women’s circle vibe all over again, just light on the Jesus–except some church-based books clubs, probably.

Is this a bad thing? No. It’s just the thing. Neither good nor bad, but the way society is now. One notable difference: prayer meetings tended to be organized by churches, there was a sense of commitment to an organization bigger than the prayer meeting. Book clubs are generated on an individual basis often by friends, neighborhoods, or even online–there’s often no overseeing organizations such as church. No answering to a minister, priest, or principal. It’s a grassroots organization.

As I think about this, I remember how my sister would get the best gossip from my Grandma by earnestly asking, “Grandma, who do I need to be praying for in the family?” She found out things none of us knew because Grandma was so touched by her interest in praying for the family. Of course, I’m not suggesting her need for updated prayer was less than sincere–that would be heresy. Or at least a venial sin…if we were Catholic. However, it was always interesting to hear what she found out. I suspect that now, the day after book club meetings, the families of the book clubber are regaled with as many tidbits of gossip and information as my sister got by pumping—no, asking–Grandma for her prayer concerns.

(***and why is this titled “The Church of Jodi Picoult?” She’s an author who is a staple of many book clubs. Evidence that I don’t belong in book clubs is my fatwa against her since she wrote the cheesy, lazy ending in My Sister’s Keeper.)

“Live Long & Prosper” and Other Platitudes

The final grades are in, and the lockers cleaned out. For our seniors, “school’s out, for summer…school’s out, forever,” to quote the great sage of education, Alice Cooper. All that remains are the goodbyes.

For most people, that’s easy: a few tears, a long hug, reassuring that they’ll remain close…on Facebook…forever. Then, with a brave smile and a wave–“good luck,” and walking away.

For me, though, saying “au revoir” to my seniors isn’t that simple. Philosophically, I can’t endorse saying “Good luck” as a platitude. I could wrap my logic in jargon and causal links, but the core of the reason is this simple: an overwhelming percent of my students believe that random chance, or at best, semi-random chance influenced by the most loosely defined causes, is the determining factor in their progress and success. After 26 years of discussions, essays, and status messages, I’m persistently struck by the variety of ways they credit luck, or some equivalent force, to things like passing the state graduation tests, completing school work on time, and even whether they make it to school before the tardy bell. Deep down, the belief that they are subject to the whims of forces outside of their control pervades my students’ lives.

Of course the roll of the dice impacts us all in multiple ways. As the popular bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.” I’m sure that every holy book has some variation of that belief, wrapped in the guise of their deity’s  capricious “Carrot & Stick Guide to Garnering the Gods’ Favor.”

But modern civilization–and modern education–are built on the diamond-hard assertion that peoples’ actions and choices directly impact their lives. My students say all the right things about making good choices and controlling their destiny…but when I listen closer, they usually do not take neither the blame nor the praise  for their accomplishments; ultimately, the factors impacting their lives are categorized as “Shit Happens.”

So “good luck” doesn’t slide easily off my tongue as I say good bye. I’ve opted for “May the Force be With You,” in some cases, and “Live Long and Prosper” in others, but generally, an awkward, “Stay in touch. You know how to find me,” may sound diffident and glib, but for me, that’s more sincere than a chorus of “Good Lucks” streaming on banners attached to pegasuses as they fly over a rainbow. I do like staying in touch. I do like knowing “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say.

And as I watch the rest of the story unfold, I notice one thing: whether the student rolls all sevens in life, or is kicked in the teeth, luck only bares a portion of the credit.



When people write about Davy Jones’ death, “Daydream Believer” will probably be the song mentioned most. That’s a favorite song of mine, of course, but the one that impacted me most was  Shades of Grey. When this song came out, I was in elementary school–maybe junior high. I appreciate the irony of this being my favorite Monkees song; it begins “When the world and I were young, just yesterday–” I was young, and really, so were Davy and Co as they sang it. But something in the ambiguity of the lyrics and the starkness of the music called to me. A couple years later, when I learned a few guitar chords that I insisted on playing for everyone, “Shades of Grey” was one of the songs I figured out the chords to and played endlessly.

In one of those odd synchronicities that Jung says are crucial signs of God, or Allah, or Yogi Bear or something, I thought of this song for the first time in ages last Sunday. In my Sunday school class, I made some comment–I don’t remember what, now–and my teacher looked at me and said, “You see shades of grey everywhere, don’t you?” I nodded and admitted that there are very few black and white issues in my life. I hummed this song the rest of the day. Odd, huh?

“It was easy then to tell right from wrong,

it was easy then to tell weak from strong…

It was easy then to tell truth from lies

Selling out from compromise…”

Right now especially, heading into the festivities of next week, those lines really call to me. I’m old enough now that I can remember “when the world and I were young,” and mourn the passing not just of Davy, but of the innocence, hope and belief that seemed to surround me years back.

So I could tell about baking cookies for Davy when he appeared in Toledo, or playing pool with him and him kissing me–all important events–or even that I’m possibly the pop culture hound that I am because of devouring 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat to learn all about Davy, then later Bobby and David Cassidy and Donny….but tonight, I’m drinking a bottle of wine and listening to this song, remembering when the world and I were young, and Davy’s death was decades away.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

Musically, this song is the most complex thus far (on the playlist I gave my Lit for Musicians class), although it begins deceptively simply. After the introduction of the main melody, one voice splits off into the counterpoint, a simple song that makes a political point about the human side of war. Juxtaposing this against the folk melody is lyrically jarring, but also ironic in the context of the lush tight harmonies and nearly archaic harpsichord and guitar background.

This also was the first time I was aware of overdubbing. Paul Simon is singing both counterpoint and melody, which confused me when I first heard it, then lead to a lot of experimenting with my guitar and a tape recorder with me singing harmony with myself. It was fascinating and challenging.

I’m intensely political. There’s a decent chance that this song is part of the reason. As an pre-teen, hearing them personalize war, with the obvious implications about the Vietnam war, also lead me to questioning and thinking. Even now, about 4 decades later, I find myself thinking about the imagery and ideas.

I’ve seen Simon and Garfunkel in person, and I was disappointed that although they sang “Scarborough Fair,” they didn’t do the “Canticle.” I haven’t heard them sing that for years, and I suspect that the reason is that the time has passed for those gentle images and sounds to resonant with audiences; the politcal rhetoric now is loud and confrontational, not thought-provokingly metaphoric.

Like The Beatles, Simon and Gar are musicians who could show up in my playlist multiple times. They are fundamental, foundational parts of the soundtrack running in my brain. And like The Beatles, their sound morphs and changes, so this song is only representative of one phase of their careers, both as a duo and solo.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

This could also be titled, “My Life as a Fangirl, Chapter One.” I was just about in kindergarten when the Beatles came to America, and I remember being allowed to stay up and watch them on The Ed Sullivan Show–that’s the only time I remember being allowed to stay up for anything television related, by the way. Epic moment.

The Beatles were sooooo cute, and the music sooooo fun. That’s what I knew as a little kid, to the best of my remembrance. My parents did not especially like the music, but they tolerated my bopping around the house singing it, and in fact took me to the drive-in to see Hard Day’s Night the summer before kindergarten. I didn’t understand much of the movie, but I loved it. And yes, I own it now.

Most of the pop music I’d been exposed to before this was smooth, polished, restrained–Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Pat Boone; my mom didn’t listen to much pop music, but what I did hear was of that variety. The beginning of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”–the jarring electric chord, followed by raw near-shouting was a clarion call to kids. It said “We’re going to have fun now!” The beat was stronger and more driving than anything I heard on the radio before (note: I had heard orchestral music and opera that emotional and percussive, but not pop music). The vocal style was eons away from Pat Boone. The Beatles nearly shouted, were sometimes just slightly out of tune, slightly discordant. This song and “She Loves You” were the first music I remember hearing that made me want to get up and dance around, shouting and singing. It was an emotional and energetic. (As a caveat, I think my dad liked Elvis, but mom didn’t I don’t think we had a record player, so all I heard was on the radio and mom apparently chose the channels, meaning don’t think I was exposed to Elvis till a bit after the Beatles. I love Elvis, too.)

I still listen to the Beatles. They did something interesting, something that many musical groups don’t do: they evolved and grew, and took their audience with them. When I was considering which Beatles to include on my playlist, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not in the first five Beatles’ songs I considered. Some of their later work is lyrically and musically more interesting–but this and “She Loves You” are the first Beatles’ tunes I heard, so this seems more appropriate on the soundtrack.

Related to the issue of their growing and evolving is a point I’m not as comfortable thinking about: Paul is old. The visual I get when I hear the name “The Beatles” is of all four of them in the mid-60s. They were all in their 20s. Two of them have died, two are alive. Ringo has always been somewhat quirky looking, and he’s almost less odd as an old man, but Paul was my first fangirl crush. Seeing Paul now reminds me not only of his mortality, but of my own. I’m not the young, fun little girl that danced and shouted to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and he’s not the young, virile man with a long future ahead of him that I first idolized. He’s done great work since then, as did the others post-Beatles, but there’s a part of my mind that wants Paul to be 25, waiting for me to be 25, and we’ll live in England and visit the Queen on holidays…see the logic there?

The Beatles were great, and are great, but they’re only representative of one piece of my musical soundtrack. They helped form my tastes, but–like them–I grew and evolved, too.

Poem, Poem, Who’s Got the Poem?

I started this month with the best of intentions: everyday, write a poem and post it on facebook. A worthy goal, and the type of challenge I normally relish.

Crash and burn this time. Publicly. This is my response to the questions about where the “Roses are red, violets are blue” has disappeared to.

The last year–fourteen months, if I’m really willing to dig into Dr. Freud-land–has been tough. I’ve made decisions that hurt people I cared about; I’ve been in situations that have shaken my image of who and what I am. I’ve experienced loss of several varieties, and I have found that my normally teflon-pysche is scratched and dull, and that when the 3 am voices come taunting, I’m as vulnerable as a 12 year old. I’ve let people down, and I’ve caused people to worry, not just about situations, but about me.

I am not as good at glib and glitter as I used to be.  My shadows–Sardonic and Clever–are hiding. I don’t know if they’ll ever return, but I’ll admit I miss them. I guess I thought that I could summon them to write poetry, stroking them till words purred out of my pencil…no. The words that came have been honest, and searching, and raw.

I hate being exposed. My idea of an insult is to call someone a “Care Bear,” and airing the patchwork threads of my soul in the tepid breezes of facebook–I can’t do that.

So here’s my new challenge: I’m going to write, whatever words I can wrench from my pencil. Any that are worthy, I’ll share. Maybe.


“My most significant relationship is with my phone.” Yes,that sentence did slide out of my mouth Thursday, hours before I learned Steve Jobs died. And since my twitter feed exploded with tweets about his death, instead of analyzing how pathetic my relationship with my phone is, I’m considering my relationship with technology in general.

The first personal computer I used was an early Mac. As a grad student, I was the editor of a journal called “Perspectives,” which featured reviews of new children’s and YA books with whole-language approaches for teachers. I got the gig because of my writing and literature skills, but the first time I used the Mac, I figured out how to copy and paste–a skill that the professor who sponsored the journal had been unable to master in the three weeks he had owned the computer. That was my first hint that I “get” technology.

So even though I own almost no Apple products, Jobs was important in my daily life. MacWrite–the early word processor on the Mac I used–changed my writing process entirely; the “prewriting/drafting/editing” paradigm that I had to teach my students was obsolete by the time I started teaching…at least for people who had the ability to use a word processor. Writing was, and is, a more fluid, organic process, and the “steps” make no sense when you’re doing them all simultaneously.

As I remember it, when Windows was finally invented, I was thrilled because it meant my school could afford “fake Mac” type computers (since Macs were well beyond our means). Jobs’ and Apple’s invention of the iPod spurred a whole industry to catch up by creating mp3 players, then the iPhone again pushed innovators to try to re-imagine what phones could do. And the iPad, as ridiculed as it was when it was announced–well, the whole tablet industry uses the iPad as the product to beat.

Jobs was not essentially a technician. Many people invent or design amazing things…that no one uses. Before the iPod, few people were wandering around thinking that what they really needed was a way to stuff their entire CD collection in their pocket. Before the iPhone, no one was sad that they didn’t have a phone that could surf the net or answer email from. My students don’t understand that; they’ve had access since they were born. The world they know is radically different than the world that their 30 year old teachers came into, and a whole sci-fi novel away from what I was born into. Steve Jobs’ vision–and marketing team–were a major part of our society’s transformation.

I own a Windows-based PC, and my Android phone is rarely more than an arm’s reach away. For reading ebooks, I have a Kindle, not an iPad, and my personal mp3 player is from Creative Labs, not Apple. But my tech usage is a key part of my identity, so I wonder who the next Steve Jobs will be–because there will be another innovator. Everything that can be invented hasn’t been, yet. Somewhere, in a garage right now, there is a kid tinkering with code, surrounded by soldering tools and random technological parts, thinking, “ok, this time it has to work.”

And that’s how Steve Jobs will live on.


Pass It On

I’m great at words, letting them roll out of my mouth in Mississppi-sized river of noise. But when deep emotion is involved, I go mute, opting for the cheap laugh if I have to say something. Often, though, the words do come, and I attempt to atone for my silence with a flurry of blogs, emails, and text messages.

This is one of those times. Today I went to the reunion of my high school church youth group. I’d known it was coming up, but didn’t decide to go until late last night when I made a run to the grocery for hamburger to make sloppy joes–yes, I know that’s only one step above taking potato chips. I considered taking chips, so I feel like a culinary wizard.

Why was I so reticent? I’m not sure. When I was in junior high and high school, this group of friends and my involvement in the church youth group was incredibly important to me. I tend to be very tribal–I have a few very close friends at any given time, but the tribe I’m in gives me a spiritual, intellectual and emotional home. For years, the youth group was my tribe. Other than my theatre/drama friends from high school and college,  I have never come close to replicating the sense of “tribe” I had there, and I know that I have tried, both consciously and unconsciously.

As a teacher, I can easily say that my greatest influences were my youth group leaders, Dick and Donna Snider. They taught me more through their patient, loving treatment of my friends and I than any college class or mentor I ever had. Their willingness to open their home and their hearts, non-stop and without qualification, to whoever wandered in, set a standard that I try to match everyday in my classroom.

So again, why was I so reticent about going? It’s odd to hear my friends–people who are 16 and 17 and 18 in my mind’s eye–talking about their grandchildren or what they’re doing since they’ve retired, but they are amazing people who are doing awesome things. Once I got there, I was eager to catch up with everyone.

But…it’s been a long, long time since I was the girl they remember. I’ve made a lot of choices that would confuse or disappoint my friends, and done things that I never imagined I’d do. Faith has always been complicated for me; I ask too many questions, follow too many bunny trails in my search for “truth.” While there are definitely points my conservative Evangelical friends and I would agree on, the places our faith journeys have diverged would trouble them. Even knowing that, I am comfortable being who and what I am. I just wasn’t sure I fit there anymore.

During the “sharing” time, when we were supposed to give an update about what we were doing and what our ministry is now, I avoided all that. I opted for the cheap laugh, in fact, when I got an opening (Sorry, Sharon–I really wasn’t going to give your husband my number….). Part of the reason that I was vague was simple: I don’t feel comfortable describing my career as a teacher as “my ministry.” I learn and gain as much from the kids and my coworkers as I give–and more honestly, I’m in a slump and know that at this point, I’m avoiding the deep connections and caring that “ministry” requires. I’ve been burnt and exhausted and known too many secrets, too many troubles. I’m stepping back, holding back–I’m letting someone else do the heavy lifting for a bit. I’ve carried enough burdens. That’s true in my professional life, at least.

That’s what I didn’t say today. The emotional tenor of the reunion struck me deeply, but I can’t openly sniffle and tear up like so many of them. I deflect, I joke, I nod sympathetically.

I sat there today, hearing all the stories about children’s accomplishments and meaningful lives, but I know that when I talked one-on-one with people, I heard other parts of their lives: health issues, professional disappointments, personal set-backs. Those felt more real to me than the litany of good, and those are the conversations I needed to have to know that I am still part of the tribe.



Remembrance of Things Past

And much more am I sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enough, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.
Thomas Malory, Le Morte de Arthur

A new school year started this week. It’s the first week in years–11? 12?–that Drew Chiles didn’t amble into my room and give me hell about whether I was going to teach the kids anything worthwhile this year. Or something similar. As much as his sudden death shocked our school last spring, I didn’t have an insight or memories or comforting words to spread as a balm over the people looking for answers.

I still don’t. What I do know is that this week, I’ve missed my friend more deeply than I expected. I don’t feel sorry for him–he’s past all that. I won’t post messages on facebook for him or write him notes; the man I knew would raise one eyebrow, stare, and comment on how droll superstition is when supposedly intelligent people act on it.

I also won’t engage in hyperbole about him. He was human–and flawed. The last couple months of his life, he and I had some intense disagreements, and we had some very hard conversations. That’s history–and I can honestly say that he and I don’t have unfinished business; before he died, we’d come to terms with what needed to be dealt with. At least as much as we could at the time. People have loved to corner me for sympathetic “talk” about whether Drew and I were “ok.” Guess what: I have no qualms about avoiding and shading the truth to most of the “concerned” people–if it was their business, they knew all the details they needed.

But this week, loss is hitting me hard in several ways, and the lesson I’ve taken from Drew’s sudden death is this: the wheel keeps on turning. There’s a new teacher in his room, a young, energetic man who is even teaching ONU classes for credit, so our kids still have that option. The Senior English/senior social studies combined class is still going on, with the new teacher and I inventing the curriculum to fit us as we are now. Our school may miss Drew the friend–but Drew the teacher has been replaced.

I miss Drew’s scoffing, devil’s advocate arguments with me, I miss sparring intellectually with him–and sometimes, I even miss his mind-games and power plays. But the wheel turns. The person I feel sorry for isn’t him–it’s me.

As a eulogy goes, it’s not much. He’d be the first to tell me I’ve engaged in needless emotional rhetoric without making a salient point. And he’d be right….but the wheel is turning again, and he’s getting further away. Next week, or next month, I’ll walk in his room without thinking of him. Soon, I’ll remember to quit calling his room “Chiles room,” and the kids will know it as Mr. Vermillion’s room. And the ghost fades further away, and the wheel turns another notch.