Sunday, April 15, 2018

When Things Fall Apart to Fall Together (My Path to Teaching)

Phrases like "everything happens for a reason" and "only in God's time" are ones that have taunted me over the years. While some might find them comforting in the middle of strife or conflict, I just found them frustrating. And it isn't that I didn't believe either of those statements to be true, but for me it was similar to someone saying "Don't worry. Everything will be fine," while we stand watching my home burn to the ground. Which thankfully is not an actual scenario I've found myself in, but you get the gist. I'm not great at seeing beyond my current problem. And that's a terrible quality to have, one that I'm working on changing.

So when I was recently let go from my job of four years, it basically felt like the world was ending. Which is dramatic, for many reasons, not the least of which being that I hadn't planned on being at that job for more than 3 more months. Still. I've never been good with change, especially sudden and abrupt change. Let me give you some back story that may not seem relevant, but I promise, it will be, so hang in there.

As a young child I was obsessed with playing pretend (because you know smart phones and tablets and social media weren't a thing), and one of my favorite games was playing school. And my favorite character to play was the teacher. My friends and I always fought about who got to be the teacher. I think they fought because they wanted to boss me around, but I fought because teachers were just the coolest. Okay and also because I wanted to boss my friends around.

Fast forward through the years and whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said teacher. I didn't even have to think about it. It was just my go-to answer. I loved my teachers and I loved grading papers for my teachers, report cards (nerd alert), and I was just good at school! It was familiar and comfortable (this is going to come back and bite me in the you know what). I thought of course I'll be a teacher. Why not?

Well sometime during late high school I found a love for photography and I'd always loved reading and writing. So I went into college as an English major and a photography minor. But as I was told over and over again, the only thing I would be able to do with an English degree was teach high school English and there was absolutely no way I was going to teach a bunch of teenagers. Not my thing (even though yes, I was in fact still a teenager myself at the time). So I decided to switch to elementary education. Because if I was going to have to teach, I at least wanted it to be a grade level I was comfortable with. There it is again, comfort.

Well funny thing about teaching, it's nothing like being a student. Or at least back then I didn't think it was. I liked my teaching classes. I liked going to a nearby elementary school to tutor a child, I even liked learning about the teaching philosophers that seemed to be the bane of my classmates' existences. What I didn't like, was the interview process to get into the teaching program (which I went through and passed btw). And every professor that told me I would hate having to deal with parents, and every current elementary teacher I talked to at the time who told me not to do it, because "teaching isn't what it used to be." I allowed myself to be scared away by even the thought of discomfort. Dealing with parents? NO THANK YOU. I don't even like giving speeches in speech class, how am I supposed to handle a parent who confronts me about something they're unhappy with? I'd just die (again... dramatic, I know).

So when the opportunity presented itself to switch from my elementary education major to a fine arts major, I took it. I switched over to Communication Design and I loved it! It was hard work. I had to put in 10 times the amount of effort and work time into my Com Des projects as I ever did my teaching assignments, but it was worth it. And I graduated cum laude and nailed my Exit Review. And after graduation I moved home and the reality of having gone thousands and thousands of dollars into debt for an art degree that I was having trouble finding work in really sunk in. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret it. And I would NEVER advise anyone who wants an art degree to not follow their dreams. I will however advise them to be more realistic and to work harder while they're still in school to network and find jobs while they're still in college. But that's a whole other story.

I couldn't find a communication design job when I got home and I was too proud to look for something that was outside of my field. I eventually got a graphic design internship position at my church and I loved it. I learned a lot quickly, I felt like I was making a difference, and I loved the people I got to work with every day. I was always part-time and I even got a second part-time job at a doctor's office to make ends meet, so that I could continue working at the church. At several different points, for various reasons, I would begin the arduous task of looking for a design job in the professional market. I applied to companies in Texas, California, even Indiana. And I would get one interview, sometimes two. And then never get the job. So I just kept hanging on to my church job, even though at a certain point, it stopped being what I wanted, or even what was good for me. But it was comfortable. I had friends there and though frustrating at times, I knew I was directly having a hand in God's plan and the church's mission. I loved that. I still do. Unfortunately, as most adults know, comfort doesn't necessarily lead to fulfillment. And I've felt very unfulfilled for quite a while.

So here's where things start getting interesting. Through working at my church, I got involved with the women's Bible study and met many, many teachers who have become my good friends. It was my women's group of friends who eventually talked me into volunteering with elementary aged kids at church when I was unsure I wanted to make that leap. It was also them who, after I observed how much they loved their jobs teaching, planted that little seed in my brain that said maybe I should be teaching after all. Thanks to their excitement and assurance that I would make an amazing teacher (which is still yet to be seen), and through my mom's insistence that teaching is what I was meant to do, I tested and then entered into the ACT Houston alternative certification program.

Please, please note how absolutely far out of my comfort zone this was. I mean like to the moon, far out. But I wasn't happy and suddenly I realized that yes, teaching was still an option for me. Nothing else was working out. I wasn't happy at my job and despite numerous attempts, I couldn't find a job in my field, so I went for it. And I loved the class. And I made friends. And I was doing really well and all the while I still had the comfort blanket that was my job at the church. Everything was looking up.

And then I was let go from my job. Months before I had ever planned to leave, assuming I ever even got a teaching job, and suddenly I was thrown into the deep end of a pool full of all of my worst insecurities. Not the least of which was having to immediately begin looking for a new job in the midst of what was already an entirely new season of life for me.

I had also wanted to take a semester to student teach, instead of jumping right in to my own classroom, but the timing would have been all wrong. If I were to student teach next fall, then it probably would have been another year before I could get an actual teaching job and start my career in this new field.

So after being let go, suddenly my only feasible option was to immediately begin looking for full-time teaching positions for the fall. I began praying HARD. And somewhere in each prayer I requested to God that if this ("this" being a job fair, an application, or an interview) was the right thing for me, that He "make my path straight." I asked that if it was meant to be, that He make it known. And I would take that path, no matter how scary it felt to me. And it went as follows.

- I lost my job on a Monday.
- The next Wednesday I applied for several Waco ISD jobs.
- That Saturday I went to the Waco ISD job fair.
- The following Tuesday, one of the schools I met at the job fair called me and requested an interview.
- The next Monday I drove back to Waco and interviewed.
- That Saturday the principal who interviewed me called requesting another reference.
- The next Tuesday HR called to ask for my Statement of Eligibility to teach.
- That Thursday morning HR called again and offered me the art teaching position for the 2018-2019 school year.

And just like that, my entire life changed. Not that I could see that while I was in the midst of it all. I didn't know that the first teaching job I ever applied to and interviewed for would be the one that I got. I was still applying and interviewing at other schools, ones closer to home, and going to other job fairs all while those things were happening. And each time I took another step, I prayed, "Make my path straight, Lord."

In the span of 5 weeks I lost my safe job, finished my teaching certification class, passed my pedagogy test, received my statement of eligibility to teach, and landed what I think will be my dream job, in my dream city. And none of it was comfortable. I fought and cried and worried every single step of the way. But I also prayed. And here I am.

As I said before, "everything happens for a reason" and "only in God's time" are frustrating phrases to me. Until I stepped back and saw the evidence and the value of those words.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. Part of me thinks it's because I thought that would be the comfortable way to go. I have sense found out that it isn't comfortable at all. And may not ever be. But I'm no less excited about it.

I am currently taking a long, and what feels like twisted road to where I'm supposed to be. But to God, it's a clear, straight path. And I'm finally learning to trust His timing, instead of my own. I am still possibly the most uncomfortable I have ever been, with so much of my future unknown, but I am also the most excited I have ever been. And that's a pretty great place to be in.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Muse and Her Eyes

I stand in the cold, quiet museum staring at the portrait of a woman who's supposed to be me. Long auburn hair floats delicately around her face. A face that was so obviously softened and rounded out to reflect other women of the time. That's what every portrait ever painted of me is—just a reflection of something or someone else. Other women. A political or social agenda. An art movement. The artist's own ego or hope. Every one of them says a lot. But few say anything about me.

They never get the eyes quite right either. I don't know why. I can't tell you what's wrong with them, but they're just never mine.

One might say it's a blessing, to be able to see yourself through the eyes of so many artists, through different mediums, in different decades. To inspire so many famous artists through so many different eras. To never age. But with every portrait ever painted of me, my vision of myself becomes that much foggier. Am I anything but a less polished version of some flaky paint or charcoal? Like the woman staring back at me from the gilded frame, is there anything behind her hollow brown eyes? All I see while staring at her are two vacant orbs of empty space where one's thoughts should be hiding.

But if she has thoughts, they're few and far between. And hidden too well even for herself to find.

"She's beautiful, isn't she?" I turn to see a stranger staring at the same portrait that I've been contemplating for nearly a half hour now.

"I guess," is the only response I can manage. "I've seen better."

"Paintings? Or women?" he asks, teasing.


I hear him exhale a short breath, something between a laugh and a cough.

I used to worry that people would recognize me. That someone would walk up to me one day and look at the painting, and then at me, and then back at the painting, and somehow make the connection that even I fail to make most days. But at some point in the last few decades I realized that would never be a problem. Not only did I barely resemble the innocent muse that I was so often portrayed to be, but now thanks to hair dye and make-up, I actually do look different. Plus anyone in a museum is either too focused on the art or too busy on their cell phones to spend any amount of time paying attention to a stranger.

Why spend so much time staring at replicas of yourself in museums and art galleries? Well when you've been alive as long as I have, sometimes you need reminders of the things you've lived through, of the memories you have that sometimes feel too far out of reach to remember on your own. Sometimes you need a visual history, especially for the years before camera phones and selfies were an option. The only thing scarier than remembering the past is forgetting it.

"I've seen you here before," tall, dark, and nosey says from beside me.

I smile a little, and nod, preparing to back away when he says something I'm not sure I hear correctly.

"Your eyes are too sad."

"Excuse me?"

"Her eyes," he gestures with a strongly corded arm toward the painting.

"Right," I say, shaken and suddenly unsure.

He moves closer to the painting, as close as he can get without stepping on the white line that is the difference between just being stared at by the aggressive security guard and being reprimanded by her.

"Why do you say that?" I can't help but ask. When was the last time I'd had a conversation with a stranger, let alone a conversation with a stranger about one of my portraits? My momentary companion appears to be transfixed. His dark, thick hair is pulled up into a fashionable bun by a strip of leather that vaguely reminds me of something I would have seen many, many years ago. His jaw clenches and unclenches and his brow furrows as he tries to solve the mystery of the woman he doesn't know is standing right next to him.

"Well look at her body language." He turns toward me and for the first time realizes I'm studying him instead of the painting. Did I just blush? That certainly hasn't happened in recent history.

I turn back to the painting, trying to see what he sees but only seeing me and the studious face of the academy painter who I watched intently as he created it. It's all so average. Both his skill and my image. White linen dress. Brown eyes, always the brown eyes. Soft hair. Round cheeks. I look average.

I turn back to my blue-eyed, black haired companion, noting the considerable differences between our features. "I give up," I say in defeat. "What do you see that I don't?"

"Look at her long neck. Or her proud shoulders. The full pout of her lips, with just a hint of a smile. Or even the angle of her chin. She isn't sad. She's strong. And defiant. And everything that her eyes aren't. They don't match."

For a second I don't know what to say. Even if someone were holding a gun to my head I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to utter a word. So we stand there in silence long enough for me to gather my thoughts.

"How can you see any of that when you can't see it in her eyes? Eyes are the window into the soul." I wasn't asking a question. I knew that to be true. I could guess a great many things from the bright, lively eyes of the man standing next to me.

"Sure they are," he says locking his eyes with mine. Having his undivided attention feels like a gift that I didn't know I wanted. "But body language says a lot. And so does my gut," he says with a wink, light-heartedly, as though to lighten the suddenly heavy mood.

"So your gut says that, despite her boring appearance and unhappy eyes, she was actually none of those things?" I giggle.

Why did I just giggle? How old am I?

"Yes." He replies confidently as though he knows something I don't. Which in this situation should be impossible and yet even I find myself believing him.

"Can't she be strong and defiant and also a little bit sad?" I try to pretend it's something in the air causing my eyes to water, but I know that's not true. Just like it isn't causing the lump at the base of my throat or the tiny flutter in my stomach.

"I guess she could be," he says slowly, but doesn't look convinced. "But either way, those just can't be her eyes. Her eyes should be a bit wider, less boring brown and more caramel colored. Bright eyes. Eyes like..." his hypnotic voice drifts off and I look back at him. He moved closer, when did he move closer? "Like yours. She should have your eyes."

I nearly lose my breath at his words and if skipping heartbeats were actually a thing, I think in that moment, mine would have.

"I'm just saying," his voice softens as though he remembers he's in a museum, talking to a stranger. "The artist got it wrong."

I turn back to the portrait and for the first time in more years than I can count, someone recognizes the same thing in me that I once thought to be true. I am strong. I am not the silly painting of a mad man or the charcoal sketch of a genius inventor. I am something beyond that. Someone with brighter eyes and a spirit that can't be contained within paper or canvas. And no matter that my considerably long life has been spent acting as a muse for other's, I am more than that. I'm real.

I turn to ask my strangely perceptive companion his name, but he's gone. Just like that. As though he were never there. I swivel a couple times, almost making myself dizzy in an attempt to catch even just a glimpse of his back as he walks away, but there is no one.

It's close to closing at the museum and I'm one of the few patrons still wandering around, but of the others left none are the mysterious stranger I wished I were still talking to.

I spend the next fifteen minutes moving aimlessly, or at least I tell myself it's aimless, through rooms and rooms of other paintings and sculptures and somehow can no longer find interest in any of them, least of all ones of myself. And as I round the last corner of the last room on my way out of the building, a painting catches my eye. An oil painting that I've probably seen hundreds of times through the years. An old, larger than life, historical painting of a man on a horse, presumably riding into battle.

He sits upon the powerful creature as though he were born for war. Arm resting on the hilt of his sword, face looking out past the viewer as though he were about to face the devil himself. His dark hair is in a severe ponytail at the nape of his neck, and his strong jaw is a harsh line across the canvas demonstrating his determination, strength, and assurance in the correctness of his cause. It's then that my eyes travel up further to meet a set of eyes that are somehow more familiar than the last time I viewed this particular painting.

I can't help but smile. It's magnificent. Unlike mine, the subject is in no way boring or sad or insecure. And in this portrait the artist did in fact get the eyes right. Absolutely and unequivocally.

And as I laugh to myself, all at once elated and confused, I spot a jagged patch of white in the bottom right corner of the painting. A patch that looks very much out of place against the dark, rich colors of the rest of the peace, but perhaps wouldn't be noticeable to anyone who hadn't seen the painting on more than one occasion.

After checking my proximity to any security guard who would sooner body slam me to the ground than allow me within a foot of the painting, I slowly reach my hand out and slip my nail beneath the white patch. Just as I thought—it isn't part of the painting at all, but rather a torn scrap of paper resting between the canvas and the sturdy frame. The small card, though barely the size of my palm and light in weight, somehow held a heaviness and a significance that I didn't yet understand. And with a heart that was beating fast enough to fly right out of my chest, I flipped the card over and began to read.

"To the woman in the painting, whose eyes are anything but sad..."

(photograph by McCoyPaul

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Anxiety Is To Me.

Having anxiety is like walking around with a huge plastic bag surrounding you that’s connected to your thoughts and feelings. It’s clear and spacious enough that sometimes you forget about it. Not because it goes away, but because you get used to dealing with it. You can still see through it so sometimes you can trick yourself into believing it isn’t really there. Until you have that first negative thought of the day. And then that bag begins to wrinkle and deflate a little bit at one end. And that thought leads to another one and another side of the bag crinkles and pulls in a little closer toward you. And then after that thought leads to another one and another one, suddenly you realize the bag isn’t spacious at all. In fact it’s becoming tighter and tighter around you and more and more wrinkled and the realization that the negative thoughts have caused the bag to collapse in on you causes more negative thoughts and then without warning you’re being suffocated not just by the negative thoughts but also by thinking about the negative thoughts and the repercussions of having them. And before you know it, you’re suffocating. You can’t see past the wrinkled bag that’s become a second skin and you know it’s your own fault because if you would have just stopped thinking the thoughts that caused the bag to deflate and warp in the first place, you wouldn’t even be in this mess. And even though you know that’s  how it should work, because that’s probably how it works for other people, you know that for you it’s different. You’re different. You don’t get to choose the thoughts and you don’t get to choose your minds reaction to them. All you can do is deal with the aftermath of a skin tight bag around your body and hope that once you finally fall asleep, after tossing and turning and thinking thoughts you don’t want to be thinking for hours, it’ll loosen up enough that tomorrow when a negative thought hits and it begins to tighten up again, that there’s enough space in the bag that you’ll still be able to breathe.

(photo credit: TiaDanko)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Texas Strong

I can honestly say that I have never in my life been as scared as I was three nights ago when I found out that our neighborhood had a voluntary evacuation notice because the Brazos River was most likely going to flood our neighborhood.

I've tried to write this post three or four times now and somehow I just can't find the right words. How do you describe the feeling of helplessness and fear in your gut when you realize that every possession you've ever owned may be swept away from you in the next 28 hours? And more than that, that your life and the life of those you love are suddenly in jeopardy. How do you describe the gut wrenching nausea that hits you when you realize you may have to choose between saving yourself and saving your helpless, beloved pets?

The only thing that has overpowered the intense feelings of confusion and helplessness in the last few days have been a sense of awe, pride, and hope in people. Though I don't like to admit it I'm a bit of a pessimist. I try to see the good in people but it's not something I do naturally, I have to actively think about it. But in the last few days it has been incredibly easy to see the good. I've seen so many acts of kindness that it brings tears to my eyes. The selflessness with which people are coming together right now is something I never even imaged could exist in my community. From complete strangers rescuing each other in flood waters, to people in other states caravanning in to lead rescue teams in their personal boats, to neighbors offering up the second stories of their homes, to my family and I being taken in by family friends a town over.

The amount of good coming out of this situation is so much more powerful than the bad. However, I am under no delusions that it's easier for me to say that right now because I was able to evacuate and so far, though projected otherwise, our street has not flooded. So I might be able to go home in a few days once the water begins receding and go back to a relatively normal routine. Some people have not been nearly as fortunate.

What a lot of people, mostly those who have never been in a situation like this, don't understand, is that this doesn't just end when it stops raining. The Brazos River overflow doesn't just dry up over night so that everything can go back to normal. The sun might be back out this afternoon, but the water remains and will remain for days in some places. Possibly weeks. Those watching news stories from states away, from the comfort of their clean, dry homes will almost surely forget this even happened as soon as the social media and news reports decide Hurricane Harvey is old news. But the people who lost their homes in the last week don't get to just stop dealing with it because it's "over". For them it won't be over for a long time, or possibly ever. The devastation that an event like this causes is unimaginable to most.

I am California born and have never identified as a Texan, never wanted to. But after what I've seen in the last few days, I tell you what, I'm proud to be a Texan. I am proud to be associated with this state and it's many, many selfless people. My social media feeds are full of people asking for help right now and even more people offering it. It's incredible.

With so much devastation I'm not sure yet where we go from here. This is far from over. The sun may be out today, but the water is still there and the Brazos is still rising. What I do know is that we will all continue to come together as friends, neighbors, and yes, Texans to help each other through this. And without a doubt, we will rise stronger than ever.

Below are some ways you can donate to the flood victims. Please consider donating or even volunteering in some way. I promise you won't regret it and you'll make a HUGE difference in the lives of people who really need love right now.

Donate to River Pointe Church HERE!

Purchase the Texas charm from James Avery HERE!

Purchase the Texas Forever shirt from Magnolia HERE!

Donate to the Red Cross HERE!

Purchase a Pimpin Joy t shirt from The Shop Forward HERE!
Currently all proceeds go to flood victims in Texas.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Show Your Age

I was watching YouTube the other day and a commercial (that didn't give me the "skip" option) came on for a skin care product in which Gwen Stefani was the spokesperson. She claimed that this product would make you look "years younger." First of all, Gwen, you haven't aged since like 1995 and I'm pretty sure it wasn't because you used L'Oreal moisturizer. And second of all... why is this a thing? What is this obsession we have with youth? What did youth ever do for us anyway? Give us pimples? Make us feel awkward because we didn't know how to talk to the opposite sex? Give us anxiety over needing a job to get experience but not having enough experience to get a job?! All of my worst moments took place when I was younger than I am now (because that's how time works). When I was less experienced. When I had less confidence and less knowledge. I wouldn't want to go back to my mental state as a fresh faced 18 year old (or even 21 year old if we're being honest), so why should I be expected to still look like those ages? Why can't our outsides match our insides? I'm in a different stage of life now than I was then and you can see it in my face and my body. And that's okay. That's how life works.

I understand that we all want to look younger because that is what is valued in our culture. But what I don't understand is WHY. Intellectually, for the most part, we all want to be mature. We want to be established in our careers and valued in our relationships and stable enough to at least act like the adults we know that we are, even if sometimes we feel like imposters (or is that just me?). So why can't the maturity that we work so hard to gain on the inside be reflected on our bodies on the outside? Why can't we value laugh lines and stretchmarks and scars as proof of a life well lived? Of things we survived. Of lessons we learned.

I'll be the first to admit that getting old terrifies me. But would it still be so scary if the world around us didn't tell us it's so bad? The actual physical process of aging is often not fun, anyway. No one wants hangovers that last days instead of hours, and heartburn after eating things you didn't even have to think twice about consuming as a kid. And the older we get the more our bodies break down. And it sucks. But it's life. As a 20 something I'm still young and therefore don't have the experience that people twice and three times my age have. But I can only imagine how much harder the process of aging is, not just physically, but mentally when everything around you is telling you that you're less valuable, less beautiful, just less in general, simply because you've lived to see your current age.

I truly value the wisdom and beauty (both inside and out) of the older people, specifically women, in my life and it hurts me to think any one of them believes they hold less value in our society because their age is reflected in their outward appearance. It's absolutely preposterous. Something has got to change. And it has to start within each of us. Recognize your value. Look for beauty in the physical and spiritual parts of yourself that you once hated or were told are things to be hidden, not appreciated. Because until we stop buying into the bullshit and allowing it to change our opinions of ourselves we will all continue to perpetuate the lies.

Love your age, love your self.