onbruisedknees

"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Category: creating

Caramel Apples and Depression

Like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my stiletto, a string of failures follow me. Any hotshot in a fancy dress looks ridiculous when she leaves a trail of Charmin.

Ridiculous and human and taken down a few notches.

I still haven’t landed any northern teaching jobs. Failure.

The state of Illinois requires me to take a math test filled with algebra and geometry before I can teach Shakespeare and grammar (although I’ve already taught for four wonderful years in Indiana).  I can’t pass it because I spent high school math classes daydreaming and writing poetry. Failure after Failure.

I thought graduate school classes–filled with writing and literature and all topics I’m used to succeeding in—would be easy. It’s not easy. Writing means criticism. It means struggling to type a single word for fear it’s not graduate quality. Writing means going to battle with the blank page. Sometimes it means losing that battle. It means many, many Failures.

These failures, along with the fact that God’s will is still not synonymous with going home to the south, sunk me. What was the point of getting out of bed? I used to be a perky morning person. I was the teacher who was so peppy at 8 in the morning that my students thought I was on crack.  But now, I panicked at the thought of a new day. What would I do with myself? How would I fill up so much empty time?

For weeks, I needed to get groceries…but the thought of shopping overwhelmed me to the point of tears. I just wanted to sleep and avoid life. I was paralyzed under those covers. Wounded. I was failing at everything that used to make me confident. And I was taking life too seriously.

While I was inside (my house and my worries and my own head), I almost didn’t notice that outside was autumn-crisp and bursting with pure beauty. Golden hours. Big-sky blue. Crismson-orange-yellow leaves. I had quit my joy dare and filled up my prayers with little complaints. I had bones to pick with God. But it’s gratitude that can make a grown girl fall to her knees. And its gratitude—this is key—that can lift her face back up again.

This weekend, I bought a caramel apple. I ate it with such gusto that caramel smeared all over my cheeks and somehow got up my nostrils. And I laughed at the sight of myself. Joy. Messy joy. Like a child. I was wondering where my joy went.

Feeling better starts with laughter. It starts with forcing yourself to do things that feel stupid. It starts with buying a pumpkin for my porch and making a wreath and buying an apple-pumpkin scented candle. I have to create my own cozy. Even if I don’t love where I’m at. I can save up all my decorating ideas and wait until the day when I have the house in southern Illinois with the big front porch or I can put a big fat pumpkin on my little stoop. I can tie a burlap bow around a mason jar full of sunflowers and bittersweet. I can adorn my table with festive five dollar place-mats. I can stop coveting what others have and start working with what I’ve got. And I can stop listening to depression’s lies, the ones that tell me “What for? Why try? What’s the point?”

The point is that even though it’s cliché, there is joy in the little things.

I can’t bank all of my happiness on going home. If I do, I’ll miss out on all of the little northern good things. If I wait for perfect timing, I’ll miss out on the life that’s happening. So I’m savoring the season– with caramel dripping down my chin.

I’m taking chances. I’m meeting people. I’m connecting.

I walked into a new church by myself and didn’t feel scared or lonely. I just felt God again. God’s presence dripping with grace. I was wondering where He went. (Although I know He never really left).

I spent time with a friend who also lives the police wife life. And she understood everything. She invites me over when she knows it’s not a good night for me to be alone. She crushed depression’s other lies: “No one understands. You’re all alone.”

I think I’m going to take that trail of toilet paper from my shoe and TP my yard with it in the spirit of the season. With gusto. I’m going to try to celebrate all of life’s seasons, knowing that God works all things together for good and knowing I must try my best to make the most of it all in the meantime.  Happy Fall, Y’all. Have a caramel apple. ❤

Boxed Contentment

My husband asked me a loaded question. He asked me when I will be content. And happy.  I told him I was quite content in my job before I had to leave it. At my best. Kicking butt. But I wasn’t wholly content with life. And everyone knew it. The students. The teachers. My husband was away. I didn’t have him to come home to at the end of the day. Now, I’m content in my marriage. Hold it sacred. But I am not wholly content in life. And everyone knows it.

He always wants to know if teaching makes me so happy then why am I never happy to put the newest teaching resume and application in the mail? I told him I just put in the mail an awesome letter of interest and the most beautiful recommendation letter from my former colleague and one of my dearest friends. I told him I also sent along a copy of the stunning valedictorian speech that one of my favorite students will give this weekend (and will make you rise to your feet in ovation) because it was the best thing that could ever explain the special place I come from and what I’m all about and what that place is all about than anything else could.

Through the eyes of a student. I refuse to play politics. I refuse to play them in Edwards County and I refuse to play them up north. Why? Because what we do should be all for the students. And I want special. I do. I want a special place again.

At my church back home, a lady in Bible study never specifically mentioned her prayer request. She simply asked for the desire of her heart.

The desire of my heart? To speak to people. Full rooms. Auditoriums.  Classrooms. Singe souls. Face-to-face holding a coffee mug gulping cup after cup of grace and love. Or speaking to people through a book. My truth. In writing. Helping them find their own truths. THE truth. Dreams do not simply dissipate. If I feel I was created to do something big and I cannot let it go, please do not put me in a room and leave me to peel away at yellow wallpaper. Because if you’ve read that short story, then you know how it ends. For most people, “the little things” are what breed contentment. But I’m not most people.

“God is contentment. Learn to be content in all circumstances.” Well that’s just the easy answer, people. And the hard one.  And the real one. I know. I KNOW.

She had a baby.  In “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  And in the Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan was a silly little fool who had a silly little fool of a daughter too. And sadly, they weren’t content. But I’m no fool. I know babies fill a certain void of contentment nothing else can. My sixth sense Holy Spirit twitch tells me the women I love who most want to be mothers will be mothers. And my best friend since birth? She’ll birth another miracle this winter.

I see it more for them than I do for me. Always. A few Sundays ago I held my niece through church and I adored. Adored. She smiled. Touched my face. Danced to the worship songs. Fell asleep as I kissed-kissed the top of her head.  And my preteen nephews? Hugs. When they are eighteen and twenty, I will still get those same hugs. Because I’m Aunt Melissa. Because they were already mine at baby and two. Because there are no other two boys I could possibly love more.

I looked up our baby name—the name we agreed on years and years ago. I very well could have still been in high school. I love the meaning of names. I gasped when I read the name’s meaning: “bright and shining light.” I don’t have my shining light yet. Because we are not home. Because I am not healthy. Because I dropped fourteen lbs. and don’t know why. Because my meds are switched constantly. Because my body is screwed up. Because I can’t seem to handle anything. Because I have a Master’s degree to start and finish. Because I have higher-paying jobs to land. Because. Because I’ll screw it all up. Yet somehow, if God gives her to us? She’ll be true to her name. Light. What I’ve quested all along.

And maybe my contentment. Or my green light at the end of the dock. But I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on the girl. Her life is not merely for my contentment. It’s for hers. Are you listening, parents? I lived it. I saw that kind of hurt in the eyes of my students.

Once, I made my Themes class give speeches about their most important message. What did they most want the world to know? I think I assigned these speeches right after we read Fahrenheit 451, a book with an obvious message. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for your message. It’s a message that got stuck in our minds and never left. Why did I assign these speeches? Honestly, I was stalling. I hadn’t finished reading 1984 and didn’t know how to introduce another novel with such huge themes. Prophetic themes. Themes of life. The name of the class.

Some of the speeches were dull. Eating right. Exercise. Being a good person. Blah. Snore. Some students rambled so much that I couldn’t even pinpoint the message. And that’s ok. Because I don’t remember if I gave them much direction and probably didn’t give them a rubric. So I’m sure I gave everyone a good grade.  But some of these students? Their props were meaningful. They spoke eloquently. They interacted with their peers. Made me gawk and gape and wonder what kind of presence was I in? These kids were geniuses.

And one speech I remembered in the middle of the night, four freaking years later because its truth literally woke me and ironically reminded me of how everything I want right now was everything he warned against.

After he spoke, I was so inspired (and he reminded me too much of the unconventional, caged-in high school-me) that I made the students (those who wanted to) run or gallop or skip back and forth down the basement hallway, loudly proclaiming the specific ways they wanted to express themselves and get out of their comfort zones. I’m also pretty sure I got in major trouble for that one. Ah, well. You remember it though, don’t you? Stepping out of your boxes.

This student is in some city right now. He’s a talented playwright, a director, an actor. He impressed me from the moment I met him, and he will be famous. Brilliant.

He began his speech with an analogy and drew a street map of Lincoln Avenue on my whiteboard. Basically, he told us what drove him bonkers, and he said it with a lot of passion:

“You can be born at St. Mary’s. You can go to elementary school at St. Ben’s. On the very same street, you can attend high school at Memorial. You can go to church on this street. You can hop a block over and get your college degree from the University of Evansville on the same street.  You can have a nice Catholic wedding ceremony on this street. You can rent or buy a house on this street. You can do something during the in-between, and then you can go retire at the little nunnery place down on the very same street. And then you can die. And have your funeral. A nice Catholic wake.  On the same street.”

And that is exactly what some people do. And other than becoming a nun because I am not Catholic, I would be perfectly content returning to Lincoln Avenue. I’d happily return to teach at Memorial and then become a professor at UE (some professors in my subject matter departments are getting up there in age, God bless them). I could have my coffee every day at Coffee Cottage. And Barnes and Noble is right at the end of that long street! I could do book signings. I could browse the titles until I went blind and my fingers bled. Bliss, I tell you. Bliss. And my biggest dream ever since Ms. Felling took our class to see Twelfth Night at the May Studio Theater. Magic. I felt magic. I felt home.

I was told that if I can’t talk about a place without crying, then I have issues. I’m constantly told that Memorial is not the pinnacle of success. I’m reminded of law suits that should have been filed and of everything that was unfair and how it sucked everything I had in me right out of me and the retirement is pitiful. I’m reminded UE parking sucks, that we’re still paying on the ungodly tuition, that it is not Ivy League.

The street? It smells like sewer and it floods.

Shit. I just put myself in a box. I would live in a box. I would live in a box on Lincoln Avenue. And I would maybe or maybe not be content.

English: A square open cardboard box. Based on...

Kicking at the Sides of Life

Special intentions—such a sweet Catholic Memorial High School phrase that I gladly sprinkled into my vocabulary.

Today all of my special intentions are saved for Boston. Peace. Peace be with you.

Since we moved north, Josh’s dinner prayers have been filled with special intentions for our loved ones back home. Because we painfully miss them. Adore them. Ask for their protection.

And he prays special intentions for me. Sitting right there beside him. Because he sees this assortment of pain, too, in me.

“Please help Melissa find something fulfilling to do up here—a chance to live her calling”

And my private prayers went something like, “Ok God, let’s You and me do something big and special and important. I know I’m meant for it. So let’s go. Get movin’ Time’s a wastin’.”

In fact even before we moved, we believed God would bless me for choosing to follow my husband and for leaving all the rest behind. For what we thought must be a special, purposeful, bigger and better and new Plan. I look back now at how foolish the expected blessings sounded. The blessing was in the following. The together.

We spent some time together with dear home-friends recently. They brought The South to me. They brought me homemade chicken and noodles (to warm my bones, E said, because she knows I’m always cold) and homemade cinnamon rolls and four wildly precious children who chased puppies and colored pictures and wrestled and snuggled and lifted hands up to be held. Jesus, someday give me a little one whose arms reach up to be held.

E and her family marched joy into my house. Anointed it with hugs and laughter and washed it pure with good tears. As I held tightly to my coffee mug, she told me to hold tightly to Christ and loosely to everything else in the world. I love how she naturally convicts me to check priorities.

“How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who reflected your own light to you?”

The priorities that really matter? Loving. Agape loving. Carpe Kairos-ing. Blessing. Inspiring. Truth-telling. Mask-unveiling. Helping others feel secure in who they are. Those goals hit the deepest part of me.

I feel change coming. And I’m seriously thinking about alerting my doctors at the behavioral health clinic today that I have a sixth sense. Or maybe just that I can feel change in the wind and in my heart and in my bones.

My person, my K, the teacher who taught across the hall from me, assigned her students creative essays about what animal or season or element they were. Not which one of those things they liked the best, but instead which one they actually embodied, encompassed. I freaking love out-of-the-box assignments that push students to think in different ways, so obviously K was meant to be one of my very best friends. We always argued, though, about my element. I always insisted I was fire. Now, ironically, I have fire-scars to prove the burning.

It was a pleasure to burn.” To feel warm and tingling and in control and to concentrate the chaos. It’s like that old saying about how pinching your arm will make you forget about the pain in your leg. And a great reminder. Of punishment. For being me.

K is stubborn, though. She knew her element was water and she persisted long ago that my element was not fire but wind. I think she said I was a refreshing wind in a desert. The wind that makes you alive again. And changed. And stirred up in your soul and in your ideas and words and emotions.

I experienced such sweet-breezes these past four days.  We do need people. We do belong to each other. North. South. East. West.

When I felt as a friend and a tutor and a woman that I am not doing enough or helping enough or seeing expected results or being enough, I needed my northern mother-spiritual- mentor-truth-teller-guide to tell me with so much firmness and authority that I am not allowed to entertain that thought. Those thoughts are lies.

I don’t think I’ve ever been told such remarkable words. Or ever really heard them. Or believed them.

 I needed her to tell me she prayed me here. That kingdom purposes and plans look different from world successes and look different from what I thought purposes and plans and bigger and better would look like. And I realized I’m a little bit blind.

And now, wind shakes the branches and clouds darken and I wonder about rain splashes and flashes of electric light. Part of me wants to hide. Part of me wants to run outside. Naked and warrior-like with arms outstretched and looking at the exquisite sky.

I’m still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it.”

I live in this peculiar dichotomy between passionately wanting to feel and not feel.

And maybe this is manic-me. The one who wants to run outside with hair blowing in her face to feel the change and the refresh and the alive and the renew. And scream, “I’m still here with my bruised knees kicking at the sides of life!”

Or maybe I’m just the romantic proposed to during a thunderstorm. Or a little too much like Clarisse from Fahrenheit 451.

And in the rain and darkness, I thought about how favorite college friends are having babies and buying houses. I’m so happy for them. So waiting for something important to happen to me.

I heard the voice that said I’m dumb and not worthy and instead of making people feel inspired and secure in who they are, I make prom corsages and casket sprays and make sure a flower is the exact-whatever shade some city bride demands.

Then E’s voice came back to me and said, “Oh honey, that’s just your day job. Don’t let yourself be defined.” And my northern mother-spiritual-mentor-truth-teller-guide echoed, “You are enough. I prayed you here. You are not allowed to entertain those other thoughts. Those thoughts are lies.”

Josh and I went on a date to expand the good weekend, the good vibes. He tries to get me out of the house but not push me too hard so that it actually seems like my idea when I poke my head out of my scared little hermit-hole. We sat in the movie theater and the preview for the new Gatsby flickered on that larger-than-life screen. I whispered in his ear, “I taught the hell out of that book, husband. I’d never read it and didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I still taught the hell out of it. And Fahrenheit. And most of the others.” And he said, “I know, baby. I know you did. Even that Shakespeare crap.”

And when he was embarrassed that I did a happy dance upon finding Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton in a bookstore, he also smiled and told me one day that would be me on a book tour. And I replied that on that book tour, I want to help take the hell out of peoples’ life. And replace it with water and wind and good light. And tie the book up in a rope and lower it down all the hermit-holes. And put it in the classrooms. And the behavioral health clinics.

My sixth sense Holy Spirit twitch tells me change is coming, but I don’t know what the change is. Maybe returning home? I don’t know for sure, but I know there will always be a fish-hook in my heart for home. As soon as I’m comfortable in a place, as soon as something has healed in me and been surrendered, life shakes up again. It’s what I’ve always known. It’s how I’ve always grown.

“But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again.”  

A Room of My Own Update

When we moved, I threw all of my classroom stuff upstairs. Literally…threw. The attic was a haunted Memorial High School graveyard of buried homeroom photos and senior pictures and lesson plans and binders labeled with each novel—a shrine to the people I love, the literature I adore, and the teacher I once was.   
I had to clean it. I had to dig up emotions I wanted to keep six feet under. I had to sort and separate and place in boxes and put in storage. And mourn. Shouldn’t I be done mourning by now? What comes after the mourning? The morning. The new.   
I’m determined to finally make the attic into a room of my own–what I promised it would be from the moment I saw its sloped wooden walls and window nooks and abundance of character.  
Right now, the room holds ideas. Odds and ins. Paintbrushes in coffee tins and mason jars. Black canvases. Old journals. New notebooks. Cutouts from black and white magazines. Pieces of cork waiting to become inspirations boards. Stamps and scissors, scraps of paper and glue. A desk. A table. A colorful quilt. A candle. I wish I had a bean bag or giant hammock, but the hand-me-down recliner we always dump our clean laundry on will do.
 I still need bistro lights, plants, chalkboards and whiteboards, my sister’s paintings, an easel, plastic to cover part of the floor, and a radio. I want maps of the world. I want to grow an indoor tree. I want to go back to Dean and Mary’s house and stumble upon more frames and doors and windowpanes and shutters. I need colors and pretty patterns and words.
As much as I doubted myself, I know I was a good teacher—one of the passionate ones in the classroom for the right reason.  I know the profession is fulfilling. I remember the education professors saying they wish they could bottle up my enthusiasm and energy, creativity and love. But that pretty little bottle slipped off the sink and shattered on the floor. And an overpowering sweetness lingers.
 So I have to hold my breath when I enter the attic. I’m scared. I’m scared every time I walk up the stairs with another armload or basket of supplies. Because I know we will leave this home, too. Because whatever world and sanctuary I create won’t last. Because life changes. Because my identity’s shaken. I work in spurts and go back downstairs often when looking at the pictures and artwork and cards and gifts from my kids becomes too much. As I hang up new pictures, I remember how crippling it feels to take them down, to pack up again.
Still, I hammer more nails in the walls. I rearrange. Because it is what it is. I will make my special space, the room of my own. If I stop creating environment and atmosphere, I’ll get stuck and won’t see possibilities anymore. I won’t hope. I don’t want to be stuck this winter. I want to take my coffee up to my studio, take in the inspiring change of scenery, and see the environment as an opportunity to work and motivate myself and write and play. To be passionate in other ways. I want to break the rules up there. So I’ll begin where I am and dream where I am. And on some small scale….go ahead and do what I’ll eventually do….where I am. So I claim the attic. I claim a room of my own. And I’m allowed to transform the space as life transforms me. Allowed to change. Allowed to keep moving. Allowed to grow, to rearrange.

Flowers and Students

Flowers and students.

 The comparison has been mulling in my mind since I started working at the flower shop. The first contrast I noticed: Flowers don’t talk back. Flowers smell nicer than high school boys who have English class right after P.E. Flowers don’t produce heaps of papers to grade. Flowers don’t trigger panic attacks—well, not usually. But the similarities between flowers and students go much deeper than their differences.  

In a few days, I’ll have the privilege of catching up with a friend who is a young, first-year, full-time high school English teacher. She also has a long commute. She’s also a newlywed. And I would not trade spots with her. The term “zombie” comes to mind when I describe myself in those days. And currently, I feel pretty peaceful in this season and supremely lucky to work for and with the people I’ve met.

 I feel lucky to still create atmosphere and to create an experience (which was always one of my favorite parts of teaching).

I feel lucky to still put good ideas to use.

To still learn.  

 To come home and still have energy. (This concept is a new one).

 To enjoy my husband. (The best perk of it all).

 Lucky to have freedom and flexibility.

 To enjoy my “me” time. It feels like a selfish season, almost. But I will embrace it. I will store it up. I will remember it fondly when kids are screaming and I don’t have enough time to even take a peaceful shower. I will remember. As I walk around the shop and shower the plants that don’t talk back.  

I talk back to God’s plan, His seasons. What a trap. September and we’re so ready for autumn (my favorite, I admit) that we’ve dismissed the blessings of summer. So ready for autumn and so afraid of winter. And already dreaming of spring. Stop. Sip. Drink it in. Every season has its beauty.   

 But I’ll also tell my friend that what she’s doing—teaching– is the most fulfilling reward in the world. And that fulfillment still carries me. And when I visit my Memorial, too, while I am home—I will cry. I will cry the whole time. At the first regal sight of the building. At the sight of their faces. At the last hug goodbye. At God’s plan that I don’t understand.

Then I will return to creating. God creates beautiful flowers; God creates beautiful kids. Teachers and florists simply attempt to arrange, tweak, and enhance what is already there and already beautiful. Former students and current kids I tutor, you had it in you all along, loves. You just needed the confidence to become you. Teachers and florists pour faith into their “arrangements.” We pour love. Time. Creativity. Hope. We hope our arrangements are used for good purposes. Exciting ones. We pray they don’t wilt. We also know how much they bless others. They just have to get out of the display case and out of that big cooler in the back. We have to let them go. Go. To the hospital rooms of the sick. To the weddings. To the anniversary events. To the restaurant where the boy’s crush works. To the families of the grieving. To the business of the one who feared she was forgotten on her birthday. To your table. To splash a dark time with color. To say you’re sorry. And Thank you. and Just Because and You are Loved.

Purposes. They aren’t always used for the big things. But every purpose? Every season? Important. Perfect. Meaningful. Beautiful. Just as it should be.