gillis and her big mouth

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Insert Acronym Here

The meeting was at a very, very low point (one might say it was the nadir  of the meeting where you must Never Admit Definition Ignorance Realistically) with several group members trying, once again, to out-acronym each other. Fingers flew across tablets and laptops. I could almost smell the synapses firing as they worked to prove themselves worthy of their membership in what I had mentally started calling the Educational Jargon League.

Realizing I needed to at least try to keep up, I began to create my own private acronyms, if for no other reason than to stay alert. And if a gun were put to my head, I could even make up an acronym of my own to describe the horror (Honorable Options Rarely Realized Over Rhetoric??) I felt as I slogged through the talk around the table. As they wrangled over definitions of demonstration of knowledge vs. depth of knowledge, my eyes spotted movement outside the conference room window. A quick flash at best, but something was alive out there.

A kid was climbing up a snow drift. I could only see him from the waist up. He wore a red jacket and a pair of black gloves, but no hat, and his cheeks were red. As he made his way to the top of the snow pile, he threw his head back, his hair flew out like a little cape behind him and his wire rimmed glasses glinted in the late afternoon sun. He raised his fisted arms up to the sky, shook his head from side to side, letting his lion’s mane fly, and he jumped.

A minute or two passed and I saw him reappear. He climbed back up into my sight line. The wind was swirling snow around him and he was shouting into it, fists in the air. I watched him do this seven, maybe eight times. Each time he varied the routine only slightly. Was he summiting Everest? Storming a castle? I would never know. But in a room filled with endless and lifeless chatter about policy and procedure, the kid in the parka threw me a lifeline (Lively Initiative For Experiencing Laughter and Innocence in the Normal Everyday). Thanks kid, I needed that.

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Time Travel

I closed the car door on my coat Monday morning. It was warm out so I hadn’t bothered to fasten the coat. I slid into the car seat and tossed my bags on the passenger side. When I closed the door and turned to put the car in reverse, I felt the peculiar tug of cloth which let me know I had trapped the hem in the door.

Instantly I was transported to a Sunday morning in the 1970s. I’m there in the back seat, but not the way back seat, of our big brown station wagon. I’m traveling with two of my sisters and we’re on our way to Sunday mass at St. Agnes Church. Our dad is delivering us to this weekly ritual while mom sleeps off her night shift. The details are fuzzy, but I know it’s a cold day because we have a rare ride to church and I’m wearing my wool coat. It’s the dressy coat with the leather buttons that Joanne and Nancy wore before me. Dad slows the car down in front of the church to let us out. We spill out of the car and walk toward the building as dad starts to drive away.  Nancy has on her plaid, wool coat, the one I covet and cannot wait for her to outgrow. It has both a hood and a belt and she looks beautiful in it, especially when she wears it with her brown boots. I’m walking up ahead, so I never see her go down. And I never hear her scream. But I see the other parishioners react in horror, so I turn around to see Nancy being dragged down the street by the brown bomber. One end of the plaid belt to her coat is dangling from the back door of the car. The other end of the belt is firmly attached to her waist. My father is completely oblivious to this and he continues to drive away from the church while Nancy surfs, face first, along the ground.

She bounces between the road and the sidewalk and this seems to go on for hours as Joanne and I scream and run as fast as our church clothes will allow to try to catch up to the car. We get close enough to bang on the back window, but it is only when an elderly man jumps in front of the car that my father stops, the tires screeching. We free Nancy from the car and help her up. Her hands, knees, and face are covered in horrific bloody patches covering most of her skin. She hasn’t yet begun to cry, but I have. It’s only when she cannot find her glasses that she begins to sob. Joanne opens up the car door to help Nancy to get inside. When I open up the back door and begin to get into the car, dad insists Joanne and I must go into the church for mass. He shouts at us harshly, refuses to let us go home, taking only Nancy with him.

I am stunned there on the sidewalk. People are trying to comfort me, but I am inconsolable. Hysterical. Joanne pulls me into the church, hissing at me to stop it, but I can’t. I cry in heaving gasps off and on during the entire service and cannot erase the image of Nancy being dragged by the car. I wonder if she is at the hospital. If she is dead even. I keep imagining her beautiful face forever disfigured.  I feel responsible for this, as if I had wished it upon her or could have prevented it from happening.

I have no recollection of that church service itself beyond my misery during it. Nor can I recall the walk home. I don’t even remember how long it took for Nancy’s face to heal itself and become beautiful once again. But the sensation of a car door pulling on my coat brings me right back to that day. Every time. Each time it happens, I stop the car and release my coat, in spite of the fact that the coat has harmlessly trapped me on the inside of the car rather than on its outside. Yesterday was no exception, and I found myself smiling a bit as I pulled in the ends of my coat before sitting down into the seat again.

Farewell Admirable Adversary

Spartus and I go way back, back to freshman year of college to be exact. We found each other at the JC Penney on Church Street in Burlington, VT. It was a relationship forged in an ugly, one-sided need and it was clear who had the power from the get-go. Each morning I would wake up and there was Spartus, keeping watch over my every move. Skipped class to sleep in? Spartus saw it happen. Running late for rehearsal? Duly noted. Nothing escaped the fiery gaze of small Spartus. Such a part of my life was Spartus, that I once wrote a poem in his honor. Granted, it was a hideously awful poem that I forced my sixth grade students to listen to as I tried to pawn it off as a “mentor text,” but still, I had given Spartus my undivided attention for a stretch of time long enough to crank out some dedicated text. And now? Seems I’m doing it once again. Oh, Spartus, I wish I knew how to quit you.

The two of us lived together in many places for nearly thirty years. We did time back in my childhood home, then in apartments in Dorchester, Cambridge, Orlando, Florida, Brookline, Brighton, my beloved Somerville, Chicago, and five different places both rented and mortgaged up the eye teeth here in the sticks of Berkshire County before Spartus finally retired in bucolic Stockbridge. Spartus got around.

I was obsessive about Spartus, always trying to gain the upper hand in our relationship, knowing I never would or could. I would try to control things, forcing Spartus to bend to my will repeatedly as he stared blankly into the night without care or concern for my mental well being. I would manipulate his settings and pretend our time together wasn’t slipping away. Spartus would stare blankly through the night in response, such a cold, indifferent companion he could be. During the day I barely noticed his presence and wouldn’t flinch if I knocked him off his perch, but come sundown, I was like a junkie circling around my dealer, begging for just one more fix. It was pathetic, all the groveling and bargaining my mind would create. So many sweaty nights, groggy mornings spent in his wake. And yet. And yet Spartus wasn’t capricious, he was steady. Spartus was reliable. It was I who couldn’t keep up my end of the bargain. I was the one who always wanted more, more than he could ever give. Spartus was limited, yes, but Spartus was there, always there.

We knew how to push each other’s buttons, mine figurative and his literal, but in its own way, the relationship worked. Until that spring morning, without warning, when Spartus sat in silence, forgetting to provide me with the service he had signed on for all those years ago. I’ll never know just why it happened, he looked the same, nothing in his demeanor had changed and I was using all of my fail proof moves on him. He was completely unresponsive. And I was heartbroken. No, it was not a perfect relationship, but I was bereft at the prospect of replacing my stalwart companion after so many years of co-dependency.

I suppose it doesn’t speak well of me that I continue to keep Spartus around in the periphery, in case I can find a way to make things between us work again. It’s probably unhealthy to pine for the past, and I have found another to provide me with the things Spartus no longer can, but still, I long to hear his firm, insistent tone once more, calling me forth to face the new day.

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This House is on Fire

Mondays are notoriously busy in this house, and sometimes it can feel like an ugly way to start the work week. After school staff or committee meetings are followed up by either a sports practice or play rehearsal drop off/pick up, which in turn is followed by a dance class run up to the other side of the county. When all of this is said and done, it’s time to get home and start the feeding and grooming schedule for the evening. Some weeks my husband is home on a Monday and he will make a lovely dinner while all the running around takes place. It’s a wonderful thing to come home to a nice dinner, and this was the case yesterday.

Our son, August, was busy at the kitchen/bathroom table creating vehicles for his Lego creations when Greta and I came home from her dance class. He told us that there would be a big surprise with dinner. He had set our places in the dining room and there was a game, a puzzle of sorts to figure out which seat belonged to each of us. My husband and I made eye contact as he was chopping vegetables and he smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Hey, it kept him out of my hair and he wasn’t, for once, plotting world domination.”

I set my things down, went upstairs to get out of my tights and into my pajamas, and promptly forgot about the dinner game to come. When I came down the stairs, I was directed into the dining room. From the looks of it, the puzzle to solve was invisible. There were placemats with plates, napkins, and silverware set up in pretty normal patterns. Each seat had a glass filled with water at it, although not all of the glasses were the same. Aha! I thought I had cracked the code. We had to find our seat based on the drinking glasses! I went straight for the shorter, wider glass thinking that was me because my son has mentioned my height to weight ratio before in unfavorable terms, and it seemed like a logical symbol. I was quickly steered away from that seat and into one that was the farthest away from the one my son claimed. I hadn’t noticed that there was a large gap between the place I was to sit and all of the other seats. I looked over at my husband who was carrying in a plate full of roasted vegetables and we exchanged glances and smirks.

As we all sat down, August told us to pull off small paper tags he had taped to the sides of the tablecloth, these were our place cards. The front of each place card was colored in black, the reverse side had a picture on it. These were the puzzles. Finally it was starting to make sense. We all turned them over. Greta was the first one to figure hers out.

“Is it a man with a fedora walking with a turtle who also has a fedora on using a cane?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. How specific and interesting I thought.

Next was my husband who correctly guessed that his picture involved a castle and guards wearing hats.

August then showed us his picture of an elaborate pirate scene on a boat.

I was still stumped about my picture back in the nosebleed section of the dining room table. There were no figures on it whatsoever. No people, animals, or discernible structures, just an area of red marker and an area of black marker. I was reminded to guess.

“A Star Wars space ship?”

“No, there’s not even a vehicle on it,” he said, sounding incredulous that I could have made such a colossal mistake.

“A castle.”

“Nope. Guess again.” Now his tone was triumphant.

I looked at it again. Some red marker above some black marker. That was it. Was it a close up of a superhero costume? A ladybug? It felt like a test, everyone else’s made sense. Even I could see the turtle’s hat and cane. This was like a Rorschach test, given by a five year old, and I was failing miserably.

“Doyou give up?” he asked, gleefully.

“Yes,” I said with resignation.

“It’s a house on fire,” he chirped.

At least the food was good.

Six Word Reflection on This Year’s Slice of Life Challenge

Thirty days of hectic word barfs.

49 Left of 49

With 49 days to go until I am no longer 49, I’m feeling reflective. I know I’m no longer middle aged. If my genes bear out I’m about 5/8 aged and if I’m lucky I have 20-25 more years of relative good health and activity. This doesn’t scare me or make me want to create a bucket list. It does make me think about a f*ck it list however. There are some things I’d like to jettison from my life.

I’d like to truly not care about what other people think of me. This doesn’t mean I would not care about other people, just that I would live the idea that what other people think of me is none of my business – allow them to have their thoughts which I don’t get involved in trying to change or influence even if they are about me.

Being less cautious about telling the truth when it is difficult to do so would be a step in the right direction. This is an inconsistent skill set for me. I’ve lost both jobs and friends due to my mouthy truthiness, and I need to ignore that tape in my head at times when speaking the truth, from my perspective, is an important thing to do.

Rather than being anxious about what is to come, I want to spend my time in the present moment feeling whatever feelings I’m going to feel about what is happening now. It’s a little scary how much of my time is spent thinking about something other than what I am actually doing. Except when I’m cleaning the toilets, I can’t make that a Zen moment no matter how hard I try.

If I could stop comparing my life to the lives of others, that might be a healthy thing. I have everything that I need and knowing that I don’t have the luxuries and lifestyles that others have is okay. My lie is rich and beautiful as evidenced by the piles of Star Wars drawings, sports hair ties, and goldfish crumbs lining the bottom of my purse.

Making excuses about why my house is messy, why my work isn’t finished, and why I’m still overweight can all be things I leave in this decade when I move onto the next. The truth is, everyone has their own battle going on, no one cares why I’m a chubby slob, they are concerned that no one sees them as a chubby slob. Maybe they should join me in not caring about what others think of me. We would have some fun club meetings.

Putting the tablet down and making more time for the things that bring me joy, like listening to music, watching dance performances, dancing myself, hiking, spending time at the ocean and in the city, hosting gatherings, thrift shopping, hitting up tag sales, and reading would be a welcome shift.

This is a partial list, not much of a manifesto I suppose, but it’s a start. If I can keep these ideas in the forefront, in a low-key, non-anxiety producing way (I am supposed to be having more fun dammit!! Why am I not having fun????) than I think the new decade will be just fine. And that’s all it needs to be.

Ode to Winter

You are like a party guest who had too much to drink,

Overstayed their welcome,

Made boorish and rude comments to all the other guests,

Broke into the wine cellar and drank all the good stuff then

Trashed the parlor,

Spewed hatred and vitriol,

Staggered around, too wasted to leave

We had to put you up for the night

Then you sprained an ankle, couldn’t move

Laid up day after day

Week after week

You seemed strong enough to move on

We prepared for you to take your leave of us

Then you fell down the stairs

And apparently broke every

Bone in your body 

We redecorated the guest room for you

Bought all of your favorite foods

In the hope that you would recover

Not sue us for negligence

And eventually move on

And still 

Here you are

Don’t you have anywhere else to go?

Living Dangerously

Once again I’m trying to read the signals the universe is sharing with me, but I’m not meeting with success. Today my email feed was full of promotional junk from a security system, an acne fighting line of products, and a drug rehab center. Apparently something I’ve been doing online has triggered a profile for me that resembles a pockmark faced drug dealer in need of a home alarm. Honestly, it has made me a little depressed. My life just isn’t that exciting. The closest thing I have to an addiction is my retail habit, which consists mainly of consignment store purchases and bargain shopping online for things other than guns and drugs, unless you count the ill-advised MCT Oil purchase, which is technically a food supplement. Still, some algorithm out there has pegged me in a different light. I seem risky and dangerous somehow and now I’d like to live up to that a little. Makes me feel like walking, no running, through a mattress store with a pair of scissors so I can cut off all the Do Not Remove tags. 

Pigfeet is Why I Brush

“Why do you brush your teeth after lunch everyday Ms. Gillis?” Kelsey asked.

“Yeah, no offense, but it’s kinda weird to see you in the bathroom doing that,” said Tessa.

“Well, would you want me working with you at your desk with hummus breath? Or onion breath? Probably not. You should be thankful I’m weird enough to brush my teeth after lunch everyday!” I replied.

The truth is, I don’t like bad breath, mine or anyone else’s. I’m often acutely aware that my mouth isn’t all that fresh and I brush my teeth at least five times a day most days. I carry little gel strips that I can place on my tongue to give it a burst of mouthwash freshening without using mouthwash. Oftentimes, I have gum stashed away in a bag or my car console, but I don’t break the gum out at school. I’m aware that I chew it like a cow, that’s part of the joy of gum actually, but I don’t want to break the school rules.  It’s poor form for adults to ask children to adhere to things that they are not willing to abide by themselves.

When I became a teacher I knew I didn’t want to be like the dreaded Miss Montigny, my sixth grade teacher. This woman had stale breath on a good day and rancid breath on too many days. She also had a strange cadence to her speech that caused her to draw vowel sounds out for longer periods than was necessary, giving you a double dose of her breath. Bad breath was only one of her sins. She had a collection of smelly shoes in the teacher’s closet, leading generations of students to call her “Pigfeet.” She wouldn’t allow students to eat in her classroom but she often nibbled on the snacks she kept for herself, doing so in front of the class. She told us it was because she had low blood sugar. When she allowed the few students she didn’t hate the privilege of “cleaning her desk” they would often pilfer a few cookies or crackers from the sacred drawers and pass them around, much the same way prisoners might share confiscated cigarettes. We reveled in any attempt to get back at her for her stingy, mean ways.

I recall one day when she had reneged on a promise to take us out for an extra recess. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and for some reason she said she would take us outside if everyone did their work and it was quiet. We all helped each other accomplish this to the best of our sixth grade abilities, but when the time came to go outside, she said we weren’t going out because we hadn’t been quiet enough. She had never told us we had gotten loud. Either she thought eleven and twelve year olds should be able to remain silent for forty minutes while working on a fill in the blank worksheet, or she was sadistic, or both. When she told us that we hadn’t made the grade, heavy protests erupted. She told us we were too noisy and we hadn’t worked hard enough then she singled out one poor boy in the class who she said hadn’t finished all of his work. At this point I had reached my limit. I jumped up on my desk and called Miss Montigny a liar, only I put another word in front of the word liar to modify it with the utmost outrage that my limited vocabulary could muster. This did the trick. The class was then lined up to go outside, and we walked down the stairs toward the doors. At this point I was separated from the rest of my class of course, and brought down to see the principal, Mrs. Tower. Mrs. Tower tried to reason with me and tell me that she understood my frustration but my anger did not justify my disrespectful behavior. I would not stop arguing for my case and I would not agree to apologize to Miss Montigny because I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. In the end, I chose to stay in for recess for a number of days with Mrs. Tower so that I didn’t have to apologize to or serve detention with Miss Montigny.

Whenever I think about skipping my after lunch tooth brushing, a memory of my sixth grade teacher jolts me. At the very least I always grab a breath strip and let it dissolve on my tongue before class begins.

Bombs Away

Yesterday I was walking with my son who was working very hard at stepping only on the yellow stripes painted on the asphalt to mark the entrance way to the parking lot at the school. As he pulled my arm down and lunged forward with each step he told me, “there are two kinds of bombs you know.”

“Really? What are the two kinds of bombs?” I asked.

“The one with the handle and the one that’s round and has a curly stem at the top. Those are the two kinds of bombs,” he said.

“Where did you learn about these bomb types?” I asked.

“On t.v. I’ve seen them a million times,” he said.

I chuckled, grateful that my kiddo was not getting information about pipe bombs from a kindergarten classmate. I also cringed inwardly realizing that he had more t.v. time than might be healthy -as if any t.v. time is inherently healthy. These days he is enamored of all the good guy vs. bad guy narratives in a variety of forms – print, t.v. and movie. Someday I know video games will be added to the mix. The games he likes to play at recess all center around good vs. evil. He and his friends borrow characters from Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a variety of other beings they have concocted to act out epic scenes of destruction and redemption on the snowbanks and wood chips of the playground. I don’t necessarily fear that watching too much t.v. will thwart his imagination, it certainly didn’t kill mine and I spent a good portion of my waking hours with virtual friends like Josie and the Pussycats, Wonder Woman, and Marcia Brady. I do worry about the shows he is attracted to because they tend to reinforce stereotypes about gender roles and they include more violence than I am comfortable with having him see. I’d like him to be interested in more nuanced stories so I keep introducing books, shows, and movies that are less black and white in their structure. He tolerates them and will grudgingly admit to liking a few of them, but left to his own devices, he will always choose hero vs. villain. Heck, the kid now hums the Imperial March from Star Wars under his breath fifty percent of the time and I half expect to see a sweep of gleaming black cape enter the room behind him.

Having a son later in life after being raised in a family of seven girls put me on a steep learning curve. I work at not imposing my preferences on my son while instilling my values in him as much as possible. Curiosity about the world comes naturally, empathy less so. Some big ideas need to be revisited frequently, mainly the one about competition and cooperation not being mutually exclusive all the time. In the meantime, I play along with many of his narratives. I battle it out with Lego minifigures making sure I play my part, although honestly he makes sure I play my part. I read every Star Wars Clone Wars book he brings home from the library and I race and wrestle with him as much as my body and ego can manage. He’s becoming fast enough and strong enough now that I don’t have to go easy on him, so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep up with the physical stuff.

It’s uncharted territory for me, raising a boy. Sometimes I feel as though a bomb has landed in my yard and I want to disarm it very gently while holding onto its essential parts. Other times I fear it will detonate somewhere down the road when I can’t get to it in time. Most of the time I just hear it softly ticking, wanting to be known for what it is, nothing more, nothing less.