There’s Power in “Yet”

I’m 43. There, I said it. 43. The funny thing is, I don’t feel 43. I can distinctly remember when my mom turned 40, and my sister Kim and I bought her a coffee mug that read, “Forever 39.” (Incidentally, I’m contemplating opening that store next to Forever 21 and selling Grey Goose, La Mer eye cream, Spanx, and adhesive bras that actually work.) People who know me well know that I’m not one for birthdays. Sure, I love the exploding Facebook notifications as much as anyone—hearing from all of the beautiful souls I’ve encountered in this crazy life. You get to feel like a celebrity for one day. Who wouldn’t love that? But more than anything, I see it as a time of reflection—an opportunity to appreciate living another year on this earth and asking myself the questions, what the hell am I doing and am I being true to myself?

 Brian Loane, one of my brilliant graduates, once wrote about there being magic in the word “yet.” It’s true. “Yet” implies something more—a new step in learning or a tangential path toward another “truth” we’ve never even contemplated. I love it. And today, at 43, I contemplate “yet.”

I have yet to travel on my own. This is very true and probably puts me straight at the top of the “bad feminists list.” I rely on my husband, son, and extended family for a lot. Even as my mother reads this, she’s cringing at the thought of my summer plans. Yes, while I’m studying abroad, I’ll be traveling with a group; however, I get two whole days to do what I want. Two days to pedal my way into the English countryside testing out my lackluster British accent and boring pub patrons with my knowledge of local poetry. Two days to get lost and force friendships while asking for directions. Two whole days to fuck it all up. And I’m excited.

I have a list of ten classics that I have yet to read in their entirety. Some I’ve held off on because the density alone is daunting; others I have tucked away because I’ve been told that I’ll appreciate them more when I’m older. It’s a good list though—one that’s complex and challenging. And I like the idea of having lifelong learning goals, even if it’s just the act of reading.

I’ve not yet had a gray hair. Listen, I’m not trying to brag. I have wrinkles, cellulite, weird brown sun spots, neck lines, cavities, and stretch marks in places I didn’t even realize one could acquire stretch marks. But gray hair? Nope. Why should this go on my “yet” list? Well, while I don’t want one anytime soon, I think it will signify a life well spent.

I have yet to get my work into a major publication. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve received some lovely rejection letters that I’m sure could wallpaper my house. I’ve also received some letters where I felt like someone may as well have knocked on my door, punched me in the face, loosened a couple teeth, spit on me, and walked away. But I’m waiting for the big one. Patiently. It just hasn’t happened yet.

I’m still trying to perfect the art of “farewell” and “goodbye.” One of my amazing 2010 students, Gabby Rolette, wrote about this same issue in her final English essay. There is a time for goodbye, when a relationship has ended or the person just isn’t coming back, for real. And there is a time for farewell. Situations may change, circumstances, but not feelings. This is an obvious hardship for me. I can barely tolerate farewells, so how do I learn to roll with goodbyes? Throwing my hands up and screaming “Jesus, take the wheel” is just not a part of who I am. I’ve learned some hard lessons from this though—ones that I alone have to contend with and have caused great heartache and regret. But I’m growing, understanding, putting it all into perspective. Hopefully I’ll get there one day.

It’s a short list of “yets” that I have so far, and who knows, it might grow. After all, I have yet to throw one hell of a retirement party with the Darnells, yet to have grandbabies, yet to live at the beach, yet to open my own hybrid bookstore/winery. Yets are important; years are important. There are some days at work when it’s just easier not to look in the same Plexiglas mirror that my 24-year-old self peered into all those years ago… days when the bright, collagen faces staring back at me each day seem younger and younger… days when I feel like one of them—ready to scream at the pep rally or dance at the prom. And then there are the rare days where I want to marinate in self-pity, because after all, I’m the only person in the entire universe having to deal with this existential crisis, right?  I’ve learned though, it’s all good. Life is good and people are generally lovely. There’s no need to overthink what is here to enjoy. Especially, not yet.

The Memory Collector

Each year my seniors are tasked with writing an essay called “This I Believe.” It’s a little contest based on the 1950’s radio program of the same name. Likewise, each year I am tasked with completing one of my own. Here is what 2016 has taught me. 

The Memory Collector

My husband tells me I’m a hoarder. While he’s prone to bouts of hyperbole, I suppose there’s some truth to it. You name a sentimental article of my past, and chances are, it’s stored somewhere amongst the clutter of my very small basement. I kept the movie stub from my first “date” with my 8th grade boyfriend—Stand by Me, where he tried to share his Dr. Pepper and ended up spilling it in my lap instead. There’s a mixed tape from senior week that we played the car ride down, the car ride back, and all hours of the night. Even though I have the whole senior week soundtrack collected on a playlist in my iTunes, I can’t seem to part with the cassette tape. I saved the red sequin prom dress that seemed to move on its own as my best friend and date played “Lady in Red” for me. I didn’t want that night to end. I have boxed neatly away my Cabbage Patch doll—an original that my mom stood in line for, with the flu, because it was one of two gifts I asked of Santa—a blond hair, brown eyed doll for me and a red hair, blue eyed doll for my friend in class that had to stand in a special line for school lunch. I kept the tan-pearled earrings Keith Mastronardo gave me on his last day of school in 2006. He said he didn’t know what to get me and added, “well, you wear a lot of tan.” It’s been three years since he died. Of course I have my gorgeous wedding gown, boxed pristinely away, preserving the best decision I ever made in my life. It has waited patiently for a daughter that never arrived.

It should then come as little surprise that I do the same in my classroom—tidbits of memories surrounding me—reminders of everything I love about the job I worked incredibly hard to obtain. Projects, paintings, beautiful essays, cards from parents, and pictures—good lord, pictures everywhere creating the hearth I’m known for, creating a home in my own little corner of the world. It’s a running joke among my colleagues that I am the building historian. I have an impeccable memory and so when my friends are trying to remember a graduate’s name, they show up at my room, sometimes interrupting my class because their faulty memory is beginning to incite sheer panic. “Jen, who was the kid that graduated in 2003 who always wore that hat and fishing vest?” I rattle off a name and they smack their forehead and walk away, not even finding it the least bit entertaining that I remember them all—the funny ones, the quiet ones, even the ones who barely showed up to school.

You see, I have been given a great gift. I am the memory collector. The funny thing is, I don’t need the mementos, the essays, or the videos. I’ve made it my mission to tuck all of you neatly into the folds of my heart and open you from time to time when legislative bureaucracy makes me scour the want ads, when I’m feeling old and disconnected, or even when I’m just having a rough day of attitude problems. I’ve made it my mission to look past the typical mistakes that come with youth and see my kids for who they really are—in some cases, little perfectionists that are much too hard on themselves. In other cases, awkward, hot messes that are even more spectacular than they could ever realize.

My life is a cycle. I know that you will leave, and I will get others. We’ll have our own memories with Beowulf, Grendel, Oedipus, Macbeth not to mention all of the same school activities you’ve experienced. But if I’m being honest, I share the same fear that one of your classmates posed. The space in my heart is not finite, and I don’t want replacements to overshadow my beautiful past. I have yet to find another Chloe Steerman, Matt Rafferty, or John Gonoude. Similarly, how can I find a boy like Vraj who will start a sweet little friendship over a college essay google doc; another Carolyn learning the lesson that we will one day thank those who broke our hearts; another Alex to call me mom and keep me organized; another Dante to make me laugh and cry in the very same moment; another Dan, Ethan, or Andy reminding me every day what I love so much about my own son; another Brandon who has never once worried about a grade—only the value of real learning; another Noelle or Hannah to show me that stigmas exist and maybe I should dust off the Bell Jar from the shelf more often; another Isaiah to save my life and another Josh to simultaneously teach me about life; another Saloni to remind me of all the good I might not see in a very bad day; another Anna who arrives in my classroom at just the right time, every damn time I need a pick-me-up. Another one of you.

The poet Rumi tells us not to grieve. That everything we lose will come around in another form. It’s a lovely thought, and I agree, to an extent. We fill gaps to deal with pain, but there are no replacements in this life. I suspect one day when I’m a very old woman, I will open the book I’ve been chipping away at for the past three years, and I’ll tell about you. You with all your imperfections, you with the lovely awkwardness that encompasses these cinderblock walls, you—forever young in my mind. You are not just a passing face in this broken building, not just a name that showed up on my Sapphire roster. You were here—an addition to my amazing collection.

The Meantime

Maybe this is the trajectory predestined in the stars, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Welcome to HerVerse! I am so grateful for this “mosaic” existence I’ve been living. When I’m not teaching, editing college essays, and chaperoning high school events, I try to capture each fitted, broken, smooth, and jagged piece of life, connecting back to an ancient heart that speaks to friendship, perseverance, humor and love.

I’ve lived an adult life of “the meantime”– waiting for my real life to begin. What I’ve discovered on this journey are surprising moments of beautiful truth disguised as ordinary living. It’s nothing momentous or glamorous, but I am grateful for each minuscule miracle, each kindred spirit that has crossed my path.

To read how this all began, check out my piece “The Meantime” published in Role Reboot, September 2015.

The Meantime