Costumes

I don’t understand a key facet of Halloween–costumes.  I understand enough historically to know why they became part of this holiday, along with candy and pranks, but it doesn’t make any personal sense to me.  As a kid of course they made great sense as a portal to candy; but even then I don’t remember having that one perfect costume that I brought from concept to execution.  And now that my adult teeth are fairly sugar sensitive, I’ve tended to ignore Halloween the way I ignore a non-distinct twinge in my leg or a weirdly placed pimple.  Except for this year when I couldn’t ignore it.  I grew ever more aware of my own confusion in the last few weeks as I saw pictures of costumes in progress on Facebook, received invitations to ‘costume mandatory’ Halloween parties, and saw my students confused faces when “my most creative teacher” did not have a costume on Friday.

I have plenty of curiosity and theories on the subject:

  1. Maybe costumes are a way to reconnect with your child side–one of your closest ancestors–or give love to the child that some never got to be.
  2. It would make sense that they are a backdoor into more fantasy and less propriety than our normal lives allow.  And sometimes the boundaries only have to shift for a moment for us to consider shifting them for good.  If this is the case, I wish we wore costumes everyday.
  3. I guess it’s a social bonding ritual? (sense my quizzical face as I write that)
  4. Are people trying to disturb consensual reality for a night in order to feel more present on a day when the veil between worlds is thinned?
  5. If the ancestors are truly visiting us, would we really need to disguise ourselves from them or other faerie folk?

None of these thoughts actually make me want to put a costume on myself, despite the grand creativity of some (I have a friend who was a jellyfish for cripes sake, and the costume was amazing!).  The reason is fairly simple: I wear costumes all day.  There are the positive costumes like supportive teacher and helpful colleague.  These both bring me some measure of satisfaction.  There are the negative costumes like disinterested daughter and derelict granddaughter.  These concurrently serve me and weigh on me in different measures.  There are also smaller costumes like customer who chats with cash register operator and polite pedestrian.  One might rightly ask, “How can those bother you?”  Everybody has to do those.  The answer is that most days they don’t, but then there comes moments when I want to hop the counter and hug the worn out looking cashier or scream ‘get out of my way slow walkers!’ to the people in front of me, and it bothers me a lot.

These are all things I’ve learned, but I hesitate strongly to say that they are what or who I am.

So who are you?  I’ve been working on that in sustained and surprising ways in the last few years, but doubt I will ever have a succinct answer that lays down nicely for words to roll over it.  I just know that if I’ve done the work to strip my costumes with you, and be naked literally or figuratively, why the fuck would I choose to put one on again?  It feels sour, like having to wear clothes straight from the dryer that didn’t dry completely.  Even if I haven’t taken off the outer artifice completely with someone yet, why would I put unnecessary clothes on if I can meet you in a tank top and underpants or shorts and a short sleeve shirt?  I wouldn’t.

I sat at the train station last night after releasing the final casket in the series and then going off to see a movie.  The trees at this particular station are rather fierce and deliciously arrogant.  None of the usual patient weariness of trees situated near transit.  I had forty minutes before the train came to sit and stare, feeling anchored in as close to perfect peace as I ever get.  On first glance it would’ve been easy to think that the orange street lamps near these trees made them look harsh and comical, but the more I gazed the more I disagreed.  The light lifted them from below perception and made them tender.  I came very close to walking across the tracks to bite the bark and see if there was cantaloupe underneath.  At that moment I found myself in familiar territory–all channels open, feeling everything, and I thought, maybe costumes help some people have this.  This blurse (blessing-curse) that I find myself in so often may not be part of all people’s everyday lives.  And on a night like this, if the veils are thinner, we should all do what we can to understand that this space exists.

Perhaps next year that will be my Halloween party.  I will gather all my fellow Aspies, sensitives, witches, and weirdos and we’ll walk around together and stop and gawk as the world winks at us in multiple dimensions.  Maybe we’ll talk, and maybe we won’t, but we’ll wear regular clothes and have really good snacks.  You can come to our party too.  You can even wear a costume if you want to.

Sitting in the middle

Being ‘natural’ was never on my priorities list. The first person I met who truly believes in being himself, my Dad, is practically homeless, alone, and bound by emotional scar tissue so thick that it would take a whole other lifetime to force blood back into it. “Just be yourself,” was understandably suspect for a very long time. But it’s 11:30 pm and I just left the park after placing the second of my caskets, my arms wrapped around the tree I placed it in, crying and whispering thank you into the wet bark. The dimples and bark bits are still pressed into my forehead. The howl of my natural life, hungry to thrive, is all around me these days, and it is good and perplexing and refusing to be ignored anymore.

I think we mistake the idea of living a natural life for a lot of things, or at least I did—a life that is excessive, disregards others, is selfish, irresponsible, unrealistic. It was very easy to do. Fear and famine sent me crawling into the arms of some rigid taskmasters early on. The demands of organized religion broke me apart, commanded compartmentalization, so that even those who sought to love the whole me could only find a handful of pieces. And my awareness of how differently I was wired made me believe that I should be grateful for any bit of excavation here and there. I learned a term recently which is bubbling through my consciousness: lateral racism, or intra-group hatred. The article, written by a Native American elder, quoted a line he had read on the subject. “We could not fight the oppressor, so we fought each other.”  While this post is not about racism, I resonate strongly with this idea.  I couldn’t name the things that locked me up inside, kept me small for so long. I’m still not a hundred percent sure I can name them accurately, so in lieu of fighting nameless shadows, I cast suspicions on anyone whose life was too large, had too much fire.

However, I had believed many of these issues in the neighborhood of religion to be over with, in the past. Not so. I was sitting on the couch with a friend earlier this week, enjoying a glass of wine as we stumbled into a conversation on religion. I paused shocked as I heard myself say, “And the measure of love in the Church is how many things you can force people to do that they don’t want to do.” Give up a “sin”—points for you. Get a non-Christian to give up all their “sins” and cross the line—triple 7’s jackpot o’ points. While the thought itself was not new, the iteration of it was. Years worth of weight from trading love for compliance landed squarely in my chest, and it struck me that I had taken that same attitude into my teaching for many, many years. “If you do what I want, whether it’s because you think it’s best or you’re trying to game the system, I will love you.”

Those of you who know me well will say, ‘that’s not you,’ or, ‘you’ve always been very loving to all of your students.’ There are two rivers in me that run parallel my friends, but it took me a while to realize them and that they do not touch. In one river, I love my students deeply for their humanity, they are the people I always wanted to be; funny, filterless creativity, fiercely kind. In the other river, their lack of obedience chafed me dry, and for many years I found reasons to feel sorry for them for not wanting the right thing. Sadly, that looks like love to fellow grown ups, but it does not feel like love to kids.

Now, I’m not advocating anarchy. I realize that children must be made to eat broccoli even if they don’t want to, and adults must be made to live peacefully in the world with others even if they don’t want to. But at what point are these orders and laws necessary, and at what point do they steal our souls? What is the line between nurturing guidance and egomaniacal kidnapping? And do we as order givers really understand the toll theses things are taking on us? Are teenagers really incapable of judging what is right and healthful for their souls and what externally imposed definitions they should run from? I stood with my seventh period class just last week, facing great resistance to a lesson with little understanding as to why, and I thought, “I am so tired of making people do what they don’t want to do.” Being with students that are seekers is ridiculous fun, the joy of every teachers day, but trying to turn them into seekers seems increasingly to miss the point.

And as adults are we equally incapable of judgment, or are we just blinded to the fact that there are other options? There are squares, but there are also circles, and if we bring the two close enough, and provide the right mood music, maybe they will even make baby ovals. Maybe there is a place where the forced life and the thing that twirls, stomps, and sings from the soul can live together. That’s what I was hoping as I placed casket two in the tree tonight: may there be a way for the natural and the unnatural to merge, find balance, find new life, find peace. I sat in my last meeting of the week on Friday afternoon, unusually drained for such an uneventful week. As I struggled to put together sentences and find any desire or engagement in the conversation, a huge orange butterfly drifted onto a bush outside my window. The other person in the room with me was not impressed, and in fact her face said I might be slightly challenged to break off mid-sentence to notice it, but something in me was laid flat by the juxtaposition between the place I was and the place I wanted to reach.

Why schools?

I didn’t have room for it yesterday, but this morning I woke up sad.  None of the usual Friday feeling, but rather images of panicked students and law enforcement running through my brain.  Even though I’ve long since stopped following the details of these occurrences, the refrain in my head plays all the way to work.  Oregon.  More death.  It’s happened again.

As a teacher, each incidence of school violence is not only national, but personal.  “It could have been me.  It could have been my students.”  After a while, you either accept it as an occupational hazard and push the black blob of fear down, or you don’t/can’t/won’t, and figure out what to do from there.

However, what is not so matter-of-fact for me this morning is a question I’ve been holding for years now.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of exposing my ignorance on politics and other grown-up things.  A question I haven’t asked for fear of smart people contradicting the truth that I know.

The question I have is this: why schools?

Why aren’t the majority of these shootings at malls, movie theaters, churches, parks, or any other spaces with lots of innocent people?  There has to be at least one or two places that are easier to get guns and other homemade weaponry into than schools.  Maybe the familiarity or habit of school makes it the safe and easy choice, especially for those who are mentally unbalanced?  But that doesn’t ring true either.  I have many students who spend almost as much time at Starbucks or the park as they do at school.  Maybe it’s media coverage?  But would a school shooting really get more coverage than any other type of shooting?  I watched horrified as the coverage of the church shooting in Charleston continued to wash through the media in waves.  Maybe I just don’t understand the mind of someone desperate enough to walk into a place, any place, and start shooting.

I’ve been round and round with this question in my mind to no avail, so the lack of public discussion about it still floors me.  I think we’re right as a nation to be talking about gun control and the treatment of mental illness when these thefts of life occur, and I don’t want to downplay those in the slightest.  However, I think we are wrong not to ask about the setting of these grisly stories.  For me, the setting says only one thing: people go to schools to hurt because they are hurt at schools.

Their voices are denied or ignored, by teachers and fellow students, when they do not fit the dominant paradigm.  Narcotics, both legal and illegal, can not heal the experience of being invisible, unheard.  The pressure builds and drastic steps are taken, drastic steps that could have been avoided.  Yes, this hurt may be in them already when they come to school, but when they come to a place that is rumored to hold hope, ideas, and answers, and find only conform, conform, conform, they are let down in a way that burns.

This grieves me more deeply than I can find adequate words for because I have also seen children’s lives saved or discovered at school.  Teachers lay down hundreds of thousands of hours each year in love, sweat, and tears to meet the needs of those given to them.  So how do you even begin to do that math?  One life saved is a total victory.  One life lost is a total defeat.  Where does it leave us?  Well, where we are now I suppose–not talking about it, swimming in stasis, inertia, intention with little integrated action.  Forced as educators to ignore the obvious pain of some in order to keep the ship moving.  Forced as parents to choose public education because anything else is ridiculously out of the price range of most.

I don’t have answers, but I do have the ability to invite students to dissent within the classroom, to laugh at and point out the obvious ironies of the system we are in, to smile into the eyes of each child who walks through the door, and to start our day with, “Okay my beloveds, let’s get to our warm up.”  Until more people will entertain the question of ‘why schools?’, it will have to be enough.  Teachers, parents, students…let’s stop sitting on the question.  ‘Why’ has the power to sprout and take root in unexpected ways.

Death Benefits

I continue to meditate on death these days.  Seems it’s everywhere right now, and so it’s hard not to.  The Fall leaves, the Syrian refugees, the destruction of Harbin, Halloween, Women Who Run with the Wolves, and the release of old ways of being.  Maybe death has always been everywhere, and till now I’ve never allowed myself to focus on it.  But as the meditations deepen, they find unexpectedly powerful outlets.  A few weeks ago, for example, I was invited to a play.  I had no idea what the play was to be about besides a brief blurb online.  It ended up being a tragicomic examination of grief upon losing a loved one.  At the end the playwright and sole performer passed out cardboard coffins, blue pens, and yellow legal pads and invited us to write about something we were releasing through our grief–no joke, the universe is so committed to me getting the picture that I am being followed.  And what exactly is the picture, the message, the shooting star of insight that is being flung for me?  

Death is not that bad, and in fact, has unexpected benefits.

 Now, this is not to belittle or dismiss the vein shredding, tooth cracking pain that it brings.  I too have cried in the bathroom on my knees in the wee hours.  I spent the weekend after breaking up with the love of my life in a darkened apartment, watching the Hallmark Channel, and crying so hard I spilled sweet and sour sauce in my hair.  Years earlier I spent twelve months in San Francisco, the city of my first bit of awakening, hiding in my apartment eating burritos after work and cursing the unnatural cold.

But what if, by virtue of practice, soul, and community, we could embrace endings as a part of life?  Grieve our losses and settle back into softness?  Understand that life has cycles?  What would that type of person be like?  I don’t know yet, but I intend to find out.  Not because I want to be enlightened or give more back to the world (I had half a pizza for dinner tonight and a whole bag of unread student creative writing waiting for me).  I intend to do it because I’m fucking tired of fear, fear of anything, and have been on a relentless campaign of ‘understand and repurpose’ these last few years.

And to date, what I understand is that I am afraid of endings, of death, because it feels like I failed.  I wasn’t watchful enough, giving enough, creative enough, and so the things I loved ended.  And if they end, it only makes sense to me that everything else will follow shortly after in a mea culpa of dominos and I will never be happy again.  Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “We have been taught that death is always followed by more death. It is simply not so, death is always in the process of incubating new life, even when one’s existence has been cut down to the bones.”

Whaaaat?  Death as the harbinger of life?  How can that be? It feels backwards, but many dead things are actually dead before we’re willing to admit it, at least in the beginning of forming this relationship with the Skeleton Woman.  Sweet and sour sauce in the hair guy?  I stayed for two and a half years when I should have stayed for one and a half.  My last school?  I stayed for five years when I should have stayed for three, maybe four.  As I start to develop a relationship with the life/death/life cycle, and ask it over tea what it would like to say about my past, I see very clearly what is already gone. Now I’m preparing to bury carcasses I’ve been propping up for a while (too long).  As I look up from building caskets the contrast between lived life and released death is clear in ways it has never been.  The energy spent in lying, grasping, and pretending that life is the same as stasis, can now be spent on seeing.  And the intrigue of that is mouth watering.  I’m asking questions in a way I have not in years.  I’m dreaming in electricity.  I’m feeling the truth of what hurts now instead of the gangrene of what hurt years ago.

Are you still scared of death? Well yeah..duh.  But it is first date scared and not trip-to-the dentist scared.  I’ve started building a series of caskets, one of which is pictured here. After I’m sure they say all that needs saying, I have a place picked out to leave each.

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Where is my sickness?

Yes, after a full day home sick today, I should be asleep.  But maybe you’ll understand in a minute why I’m up writing instead, clicking away on the teeny phone screen.

I can’t be certain yet til the doctor’s on Monday, but I assume I have a classic case of strep.  Fire breathing, gravel burping throat dragons, and a neck that has swelled all day like an inflatable guest mattress.  And although I am not a regular disciple, I used Pinterest tonight to turn myself into a human science experiment.  My favorite?  4 garlic cloves minced–I put 6 because I have never once in my life thought, “Enough garlic!”–4 tablespoons of honey, and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper.  As disgusting things go, it wasn’t bad.  It may have even been better had my honey not been old and crusty.  I made a ridiculous mess scooping out the needed amount, and then floated the bottle in the tub with me where it politely avoided the narcissus oil I added to drug me to pain free sleep.  I hate when I find old things like that in the cupboard; it reminds me of the lives I wanted to jimmy my way into by owning the merchandise.

Anyways, as I floated there meditating on the honey, I realized that it has been years since a cold has taken up residence in my lungs.  As a child, I had operatic bronchitis, and so for years any time I was sick it went right back there to set up shop-angry, harking, barking, lung meat rattling coughs.  Coughs that laughed in the face of codeine and wouldn’t even return the calls of homeopathics.  When I found out maybe 5 years ago that Chinese medicine believes that grief is stored in the lungs, a great cosmic click went off in my head…but then I pretty much left the idea alone.  5 years later, I have cried more than I have in my whole life, and recently, I am making conscious attempts to welcome death and the wisdom of endings (believe me, not morbid, but you’d have to read Women Who Run With the Wolves to understand why it’s not morbid).  And now, whatever virus some precious middle school bastard has passed to me, is no longer interested in the lungs.

“So where is your sickness now Chelsea?”


The throat.  The last major and minor sicknesses I can remember had a throat component, or were all throat while the rest of me was weirdly fine.   The place my voice comes feels challenged these last few years, conflicted, not free to let things in or out with ease. Thank you for telling me body.  Part of it I understand, and now the part I don’t understand can receive a mixture of a) love and b) we can not stay here, we will not stay here when there is so much more to see, firm attention.  I know it is not a new thought, but it has rumpused my fevery brain tonight.  I know it sounds like a hippy dippy lala thought, but I have learned enough in the last year to know I can’t ignore my body anymore; simply treat it as a meat container to carry my sparkling intellect and childlike heart 🙂  My body is my partner, and it’s trying to tell me something.  It’s heartening really, to think that someone who writes and thinks as much as I do still has voice to find, ALLOW, and develop.

And that’s why I’m still up tonight.  So, dear ones, where is your sickness?  Does it have anything to say?

I know why we stop gazing…

and maybe it’s just common sense, but it really hit home to me in the last few mornings.  Sitting at my bus stop between 6:30 and 7, the clouds and the light have been insane.  It’s been like Kerouac and Michaelangelo had a baby, and they were these skies.  Now, in my grownup brain I know that it’s more due to this beastly hot weather and the fires ravaging the Middletown area.  But Friday morning was like cotton balls spilled out on your bathroom counter–if your bathroom counter was robin’s egg blue, the cotton balls were made of cotton candy, and the whole of it was lit with ten thousand dollar lights.  I spent the first half of the morning so confused that I was inside while that was happening outside.  Why were we willing to miss it?  Was it just me being hyperbolic as usual and hopped up on 5 Hour Energy?

And then this morning, same bus stop, different explosion of loveliness.  It was as if someone had taken a brush to the clouds and swished them around like the rays that usually come from a child’s picture of the sun.  The thing is, there was no sun visible yet, just these clouds gazing at the early emissaries of the light.  It reminded me of being with a lover in a new place, a hotel for vacation maybe.  As they wake up and roll over, sleep crusted, trusting, you notice the light hit them in a way you never do in your bedroom at home where the light has become mundane.  It rolls and it billows and you wonder how you’ve never seen this person before.  As I watched this morning, I had the same gratitude and awe.  I found myself, somewhat sheepishly, saying, “Good morning sister,” to the earth that was waking up right in front of me.  I hoped she wouldn’t mind me peeking in her room.

When I got to work it finally hit me: we stop gazing because when we gaze, when we see beyond the surface, it feels more and more impossible to go into boxes, either literal or metaphorical, and continue to follow expectations.  Illogically, but understandably, we picture a terrifying, downward hippie spiral in which we would never go to work again.  A Tom Robbins’esque world where we would have to “call in well” to work.  I definitely wasn’t ready to go inside the classroom this morning, but this time instead of relenting and souring in my confusion and resentment,  I stalked the reddening sunrise to the parking lot and just stared for a few minutes longer.  I may have freaked out the construction guys, already at work tearing up our parking lot, but I really didn’t care.  I don’t want to relegate my sense of curiosity to socially acceptable things like sex, celebrities, and politics.  As frightening as it can be, and is, I want to gaze until all the boxes melt, even if it means purple green spots in front of my overloaded eyes.  Because I think, once they melt, it won’t be as scary anymore.

I was oddly drawn to a Bible passage as I continued to stand there.  It was one I hadn’t considered in years, and furthermore, had always made me feel slightly bad about myself when a pastor spoke on it.  I’m gonna paraphrase here because I haven’t picked up a Bible in forever: “Consider the lilies of the field.  They neither spin nor toil.  They know they’re going to be taken care of.”  How do they know, I used to think?  Even the flowers are better Christians than me I would ultimately conclude…I need to get to work on being less worried.  But it clicked this morning–if I saw the sun rise and set every day, if I had nothing to do but gaze, I would worry less too.  Fires might burn down my field, greedy fingers might pluck me, but how could the possibilities for recovery and creation not be endless in a world that paints with the sun?

I have a blog now…weird.

Weird why?  Well, despite all you lovely folks out there who claim to like my writing, my own voyeuristic tendencies, and my appreciation for writing that calls to me–I still can’t believe that anyone but me will read this.  I don’t read any blogs (sorry blogger friends, I still love you but my secret is out), and my grasp of technology is tenuous at best (I spent five minutes trying to figure out how to tab this paragraph so it is properly indented, no go).  When I push the publish button, will this go to my Facebook, my fourth grade teacher, the IRS?

Most of all, I can’t guarantee an outcome of this new endeavor, and I do not have a plan.  Now, I know there are no guarantees, and holding too tightly to a plan is a rookie move.  I can’t even guarantee that I have spelled guarantee correctly.  I’m old enough now to know that ‘control’ is an illusion, even though I agree with one of my eighth graders who recently said to me, “It’s like this, we have feelings for each other, so we try and control stuff so the people we love will be okay.”  So, I’m stuck in the middle with me.  I want to protect you: friends, family, strangers, from bad writing which always makes me cranky, but the things I have which are beautiful, are more beautiful to me when shared.

The last five years have been a journey that shows no signs of abating, thankfully.  I’ve gone from San Franciscan with roughly one non-teacher friend and a slightly autistic boyfriend, to a single Mountain Viewian (totally not a word) who dances, performs my poetry, leaves when I need to, and has a plethora of odd and gorgeous people around me.  I’ve gone from leaping over the mess that is transition, to being able to bear it and grow from it with the help of my art, my friends, and the natural world.  If any of this calls to you, come with me.  I’d love to propel your journey like words have propelled me on mine.  Or maybe, as a more modest starting goal, just make you laugh as much as I love to laugh.  You’re right Phoebe, who am I to subtract something that might sing to someone’s soul?

So despite the weirdness, here’s my first blog post.  If my Social Security number is on it or my address somehow, please don’t steal my identity.  I only have 68$ in the bank anyways…68.14$ for those of you like accuracy.  Time to go back to grading papers.

Stay tuned,

Chelsea

(are you supposed to sign your name at the end of a blog post?)