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If I ever have child (a boy I hope), I’ll tell him that if I did life again, I might have smelled the inside of my post office box.
I might have turned off the lights in the bathroom before I walked out and watched how the light from under the door could illuminate the whole room if I waited long enough. I might have let the dog lick me on the mouth. Instead of trying to speak, I might have chosen silence with something held heavy between her eyes and mine. I might have hugged my grandmother a second longer so I could remember the smell of her hair. I might have looked hard at my grandfather one more time to make sure I got what he gave my father so I can give it to my son.
I might have walked slow – slow in the tall grass. I might have cried when my first car died, because it was my loss of innocence. I might have not slept in when the growl of dawn came. I might have walked outside to a different place so I would remember it. I might have eaten everything I could eat, so I know. I might have realized that every day as a teacher in the classroom could be a moment that alters a student’s life forever. I might have gone to more sweat ceremonies and I might have meant my prayers more. I might have had more difficult conversations. I might have been more patient – because I’m discovering that patience begets memory.
I might have made it a point to stare at the sky every day and think of a new way to say what it was. I might have lost my worry. I might have lost my fear. I might have done something that was uncomfortable to comfort someone else. I would probably have stopped trying to find answers. I would have been willing to look stupid more often – embrace it actually. I would have failed more. I would have admitted when I was wrong and I would never think I was too right.
I would have tried to live life well, not right.
Well, not right.
I sat on my porch with the light out. A daddy long leg was frozen on the rail – or maybe dead. Lots of people leave the coffee shop across the street and walk down the road from the halo of one street lamp to the next one, searching for their car.
This night, I had a delayed flight and got in after midnight and I decided to stoop for a while. It’s nice to stoop. I’ve thought lots about sitting on the porch and what that does for a community. To the right is a young couple with a baby boy and a dog. One night we had a party and they figured out they could put him to bed and that his baby monitor signal would reach over to our house. So they snuck out and, with an ear to their son’s room, drank our wine and listened to our stories. We promised each other lots of things like neighbors do when they drink together and forget that they already have something to do next week. Or maybe it’s just too hard to make the connection again. To our left is a jazz musician and his girlfriend. She has beautiful red hair and sits on the steps by herself some nights. I used to think she was ignoring me but she always says she’s in her own world.
And from their steps, facing the same way as mine, the apartment across the road has a sliding gate that opens when its tenants get close and click a button. I think there’s a halfway house on the corner – I always see different people coming and going who don’t stay very long. When you walk by, you can see the rooms are sparse – just a bed, a desk and cinderblock walls. Most people read late into the night and sometimes I wish I had a room there so that’s all I’d do as well.
Sometimes people notice me out on the porch and sometimes they keep walking. And maybe they notice me but they pretend they don’t – because I know I feel some ownership over this street and I know they must feel some right to park on it. So we’re cautious in our knowing and unknowing of the other people who pass along down the road.
And I think everyone watches the road, but maybe they want something differently from it. Most folks just need a place to park their car. Others need to get somewhere. We have bikers and joggers and wanderers. A woman went through our recycling on the curb today for our bottles. We’ve started to wave at one another. Some people wave when they drive by, some flick cigarettes, some come up to the porch and say hello. The owner of the coffee shop used to live across the way – he had a beard that looked like a nest. I miss him. We’d shout at one another whenever we got the chance. He told me he moved out somewhere east of town where he could have land with a creek on it.
This one particular night I was finishing some leftover barbecue and an ambulance came up and parked right in front of the house. Its driver got out for a late night cup of coffee, I thought, but he soon came back with a girl on his arm. I sat there in the dark, too far committed to my observance to move and reveal that I was watching them. My only choice was to wait it out. She told him she missed him. He told her not to say that and then she asked what was wrong with missing him. She pushed him up against the ambulance and kissed him hard.
We’ve all got someplace we’re going I suppose and there’s got to be a way to get there. For many of us, it’s the same road and we get down it different ways. All I mean is that it’s not as different as we all might think. We all push ourselves forward with odd weight on two legs to go somewhere and we pass through the places where people have had moments they remember and moments they forget. I guess that makes every place – every road – special and absolutely regular in its own way.
When you think about a place and what’s happened there before you and what’s happened after maybe you think about it differently. Or maybe you just keep on walking, hear a few dogs bark and slide between a couple of parked cars to buy a cup of coffee.
As the mornings start to warm, I think about early summer days a year ago, as witnessed from my porch. We took out a six month lease on an apartment off the highway that was lodged up in the trees and had a beautiful view of the pool. I liked to wake up as the sun came over I-35, sit out there and let the new day redden the backs of my eyelids. Nights, I’d stay up late watching the West Wing with the screen door open and think about being President of the United States and fall asleep on the couch. I’ve always liked falling asleep on the couch because you wake up earlier.
Most mornings, I’d wake because of birdsong or the sun peaking over the trees or the guy with the cats next door was loud. But some days, especially in the height of summer, there would be a splash or a scream that rattled the silence.
That apartment complex housed college students that looked remarkably like grown ups. It’s funny how earlier in life, five or six or ten years made a big difference in how old someone looked – you could tell a third grader from a sophomore in high school. But there comes a day when you walk to the mailbox and pass someone who could either be an account manager at some medical device company or the guy who yells “Rufio!” at 3:00am before jumping into the pool. Or maybe they’re the same person – I don’t know.
I like to wake up early because I think more clearly and get more things done, but it’s unsettling sometimes to think about how the early morning pool-goers are diving deeper into a night as I’m coming out of one. I wonder if I’m missing moments. While they’re floating on their backs balancing cigarettes in their mouths, looking like big maple leaves out there about to burn up, I’m thinking about fulfilling my potential and worrying about my savings account and swearing off the idea that no one would ever know if I took a few pulls of whiskey and made it down the stairs to join them.
I wonder when such an early morning hour became a time to wake up instead of the last moment when things could happen. I wonder why I believe that a good day is measured by things going according to plan and why we’ve started to find comfort in predicting tomorrow and why we applaud ourselves when we choose to not stay up late anymore because that’s an adult thing to do.
Some mornings that summer as I awoke, I swear I could hear myself out there by the pool telling a story about the time my high school friends and I lifted tacos from Taco Bell. I’d look through the blinds as the other me down there balanced himself on the fence by the pool, threw his arms up in a V and howled at the moon, letting the echo ring out for a moment. He’d look up to my balcony at me for a second as I brushed my teeth and leaned against the rail with a thousand things on my mind. And we’d both stand there for a few moments before he dove to chase the moon under the water and I scrambled to check my email.
And maybe we passed each other at the mailboxes later – me and the other me – in transit to whatever night or whatever morning we decided to be a part of.
I think it’s nice when the weather surprises you.
My father is different. He prides himself in predicting the day’s climate; he believes he has some kind of internal barometer – I think most men do. But I’m encouraged when I walk out onto my porch and something feels different, as it did this morning. The breeze is warmer than yesterday and heavy with moisture.
My neighbor smokes a cigarette on his stoop and I’m thankful for the two houses on either side of mine. He’s a jazz musician and we talk about maybe going up for his show in Dallas this weekend. He tells me he can’t sleep because he’s got this song in his head. We stand in silence for a moment and he says he’ll call me tomorrow and turns into his dark house.
I walk across the street to the coffee shop, already in his tomorrow. Read more…
Sunrise through my classroom window in Mission, South Dakota
When I was getting my teacher certification, there was this school director who painted a picture of the lonely mornings of a teacher. He recounted days waking up and walking into an empty building not knowing if the things he planned would work.
“No matter how much planning one does,” he would say, “when you’re dealing with people, things are always uncertain. It’s easy to believe that students wake up and come to class single-mindedly focused on your demise.”
There is no morning so lonely as the morning of a teacher.
After this sunk in, he would then mention each of us by name: “And while Reagan is braving snowy streets in South Dakota, Allie will drive to school in the dark in North Carolina and Tom will be awake before the rest of Boston. Maybe some days the only thing you can cling to is the fact that there are other people trying to be extraordinary teachers across the country. It’s lonely sometimes, but it can be done. It has to be done.”
I’ll never forget that; I would pull that memory to the front of my head when I’d have the kind of lonely mornings he talked about. I’d then remember the teachers in my life that had a lasting influence on me, and how they must have felt the same thing throughout their career. But they woke up early anyway, they overcame the things inside that cried for comfort and they tried something new, readjusted and tried something else.
I’ve always been interested in the difference between regular teachers and extraordinary teachers. Beyond all of the external pressures that teachers face – in addition to a regular life they’re trying to live – they consistently prioritize the things that matter over the things that are measured.
So, it’s a privilege to be co-facilitating a SXSWedu core conversation today with my buddy Hudson Baird of PelotonU about those memorable teachers. In addition to meeting all of the requirements placed upon them by their department, school, district, state – they find a way to create an environment where students feel like they belong to something larger than themselves.
There is something about being under fireworks with someone.
You look up and it’s like the world is being born again; the sky is split into pieces of light and the stars have found themselves out-matched for a moment.
I was once in an airplane on the Fourth of July while fireworks were exploding below – the clouds turned red and purple and green. I felt like the planet was going to fall out from underneath me. For us Americans, fireworks exist to tell the story of death and rebirth – I don’t think we can watch them without this tug inside of us that feels like danger and vulnerability. Like kids giddily waiting to be scared, we toss our necks back and shiver.
When you are under the fireworks and they’re reflected on the lake and you are rocking in the dark water in some boat, you like to have someone’s skin up against you. You can’t help but watch the sky, but there’s also this feeling that you need to have a hold of this girl beside you. However strong she is, you want to gather her up next to you so you can be witness together, as if somehow your peace under a fiery sky depends on its echo inside each other.
Or maybe it’s because you’re lonely and you’re hurt – and in that moment when she’s looking up and sulfur is raining down in flakes, caught in strands of her hair, you believe grabbing her hand will keep her from shooting up there with a smoke trail after her, away from you.
During a fireworks show you get one moment to look into her eyes – right before the finale when the boat is rocking and a few times you’ve leaned more into her and she’s leaned more into you – when a handful of rockets glare down from their zenith, that’s when you look over and catch her like a five year old in awe of the night she’s in. She’ll notice you before she looks down into your eyes and it’s a moment, just a moment, that you really see one another as the lights burn like foxtails on their way down and sizzle on the surface of the water.
Then the blackness before the next burst seems like forever as you’re there together with hot shoulders gazing up and thinking about how easy it is to be alive and how hard it is to feel alive.
You watch the smoke clear after the gunpowder has burned itself out and the flashes against the darkness stay with you the rest of the evening. As the boat idles, you look out at a low hanging orange moon fighting for a sky-space and you gaze out across the water at the houses with the lights still out. The heavy night settles the noise and people sit in silence on their porches and finish their drinks thinking about the world and freedom and all of that.
And you can see the ignited sky still in her eyes. You look at her and she’s got it – that thing that goes up high and away from you and strings off a hundred miles it seems, and then comes back down to settle against the smoky wake of homeward boats.