Becoming Jen

IMG_0119In observance of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share this as a tribute for the many mothers out there– those who are biologically mothers and those who lovingly contribute to the lives of young people by mentoring, comforting, teaching, nursing… i.e. mothering. Many thanks to BUST Magazine for publishing the initial version of this story in July of 2016. I have since edited and added to it for my collection, Burning Sage. Also thanks to my girlhood friend, Jen, for allowing me to share this little glimpse into her beautiful family. 


Becoming Jen

In the fall of 1994, I was a new mom, a new wife, and a faithful fanatic of the brand new sitcom, Friends. I looked forward to Thursday night TV all week. I had just turned 21, and after a full day of changing diapers, watching Barney, and reading Shakespeare, I would glue myself to my grandma’s hand-me-down console TV in our first apartment and pretend I was carefree again. I imagined myself, along with my own friends, living it up in Manhattan, drinking from oversized coffee cups, and popping in and out of each other’s apartments. I imagined being thin again, wearing cute clothes, and sitting next to my husband on the couch in Central Perk as we all contributed to the most trivial and inane conversations. I imagined being Rachel.

Rachel Green was incredibly cute and fairly flawed. She almost let societal expectations undermine her self-worth and forge a path which, for her, meant complacency. But she didn’t. She didn’t go through with a loveless marriage, and she decided instead to make it on her own. She cut up Daddy’s credit cards and went from barista to fashion buyer. With her adorable new haircut that took Gen X-ers by storm, Rachel became somewhat of an icon to young women. This isn’t to say she was a perfect role model. Her spoiled upbringing, episodic bouts of whining, and at times, air-headed nature could set anyone on edge. But she was also kind of real—a young woman questioning privilege, battling her own inflated ego, seeking a way to remain true to herself and true to her friends. Watching her was a fun escape and actually made me contemplate the person I did and did not want to be. Learning about Jennifer Aniston over the years, or Jen as I like to call her, was even more interesting. Her attitude toward aging, beauty, charity, heartbreak, and motherhood left me in awe. It became clear that it wasn’t Rachel I admired; it was Jen.

Jennifer Aniston wrote an article for The Huffington Post voicing her frustration over incessant pregnancy rumors. She states, “For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up.” Jen is 47. You would think there would be a point when people stop prodding her, when they start minding their own business. I know too well they won’t. I imagine when Jen is 65 and I am 61, when our eggs have long since dried up, our friends, families, and co-workers (a.k.a. Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning) will ask, “So, when are you having a baby?” Her experience is different than mine, obviously. First of all, she’s a celebrity and is under the microscope every day; additionally, she has never had a baby. On the other hand, I’ve had one child and, on many occasions, have been made to feel like a neglectful parent because of my son’s only-child-existence. What unites us is that we are both apparently unnatural. Both freaks in a world that loves labels, and traditions, and categories.

Once upon a time, there was another Jen. I went to middle school and high school with Jen Wylie—my goofy, lovely choir friend. Jen and I didn’t often socialize outside of school. She did have one crazy party sophomore year that our classmates still talk about to this day. It looked like a scene right out of Sixteen Candles. Beer covered her parents’ floors, tables ended up broken, beds were, good God, besmirched. So when she got pregnant shortly after graduating from high school, we were all quite surprised; it was still assumed she was grounded for the rest of her natural life.

Her baby girl was beautiful—the perfect combination of Jen’s sweet face and the face of her husband, Roman, the older football god we all had a crush on growing up. She seemed happy. It was all working out. And she conveyed this to me with a phone call after hearing that I was pregnant. Baby gurgles in the background, I sat on my kitchen floor, tracing the patterns in the tiles with my fingers, listening to Jen explain everything I was about to encounter and asking me questions I had only recently pondered. Was I taking prenatal vitamins? Did I see the doctor yet? Did I hear the heartbeat? Some questions took me to the world of adulthood that I still couldn’t face. Would I need WIC or medical assistance? Bottle or breastfeed? Natural childbirth or epidural anesthesia? My mind was in a whirl. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I listened to New Kids on the Block with this girl? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I borrowed her lip gloss in choir?

Shortly after I had my baby, Jen had another. And then another. And then seven more. And then two grandbabies before the age of 43. She exudes a magical, maternal force that is, quite honestly, enviable. Her Facebook posts scream of her art—nurturing her gorgeous family. It is her gift.

Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning have stalked Jen’s life too, only with different questions: How do you feed them? Are they all from the same marriage? How much does your husband make? Because, you see, this other Jen is a freak too. Just like me. Just like Jennifer Aniston.

But here is what Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning, with all of their questions and concerns, don’t know: They don’t know our lives. They don’t know which Jen lies awake at night scared about decisions of the past, scared about screwing up the present—scared about regret in the future. They don’t know which Jen prays to one day cradle her first tiny person, or yet another tiny person, of her very own. They don’t know which Jen lives in certainty, confident and proud of her life choices. They don’t know which Jen is infertile, and is in turn, stung by feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness every time there’s a comment. They don’t know which Jen’s ovaries burn every time she holds a baby or if each day crossed off the calendar is another reminder of a window that inches closed, just a little bit more. They don’t know which Jen has suffered painful loss, and therefore, holds a much different appreciation of new life. The “concerned men” don’t know what carrying a baby for nine months does to a person. How a little piece of your heart is taken from you, leaving you a helpless bystander to a part beautiful, part cruel world that you hope will be kind and fair, but you know is certain to incite pain. They don’t know which Jen swallows down the pangs of envy whenever her friends send beautiful holiday cards of fresh, toothless smiles. They don’t know which Jen rejoices each day, or which Jen cries each night. And, most of all, Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning, with all their vague, but let’s face it, snarky and intrusive intentions, obviously don’t know how to shut their mouths.

The funny thing about this life is, it’s supposed to be our own. We’re supposed to be able to decide what’s best for us, pay our bills, and be kind to people without bowing to societal expectations, whether that includes having ten kids or none. When I see Jennifer Aniston in commercials and new movies, exuding confidence with her Aveeno kissed skin, I feel like a proud little sister. I know it sounds ridiculous; she doesn’t even know I exist. But I like to imagine that when she holds the children at St. Jude Hospital, speaks passionately about her work with orphans in Tijuana, and advocates for LGTB youth, her heart matches my own. Maybe she feels the same way I feel when my only child shares good news with me, when I sense that he’s hurting, when my students come to me with problems, and when they return to me well after they graduate. Maybe she feels like my high school friend Jen when her oldest daughter walks in the door holding her grandbaby or when her youngest cuts his first tooth.

See, I know a little secret that Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning fail to recognize: maternal love has nothing to do with what they’ve been told and the expectations of family and friends. It reaches far beyond the baby-bumps, 2.5 kids, and white-picket fences. Their well-meaning questions only serve as a glaring spotlight into their own lives—their own insecurities.

Leaving Home, Finding Purpose


Leaving Home, Finding Purpose

I’ve worked in education for almost 20 years, and while there have been times when I’ve wanted to pull my hair out and scour the want ads, those times are rare. Truth be told, with the exception of bureaucratic meddling, I love it all, and it’s well known. The short version of the story is that I was never supposed to be a teacher. I was supposed to be a writer and a professor, travelling from old decrepit building to old decrepit building discussing poetry, craft, and getting published. But circumstances changed. I had a baby and needed money. I decided to become an English teacher, and the rest, as they say, is history.  That choice brought me to different life—analyzing classical and contemporary writers, begrudgingly preparing students for standardized tests, conferencing over every kind of writing imaginable, and loving the hell out of my kids. And they are my kids. That’s well known too. I guess this is why everyone was shocked that I decided to take a sabbatical, or as it’s called today, a professional compensated leave, at the start of the winter break.

It was a difficult decision. I’m finishing my second Master’s degree—an MFA in Creative Writing. While my first Master’s in Literature wasn’t easy by any means, the process itself was easier. I was young. I could pull an all-nighter writing a 20-page research paper and still get up to teach 125 teenagers, break up fights, and dry the tears of college rejections. But that was years ago, and this older body refuses to let me do that anymore. Plus, creative writing is different. I get in my own way, constantly second-guessing myself—deleting and revising incessantly. It’s a real head trip. With my thesis approaching, a manuscript that will eventually become my first book, I knew something had to give. I had also been awarded a stipend to travel to Sicily for an International Writers’ Retreat. If I tried to do it all, I would either shortchange my kids or shortchange the opportunity I’ve wanted since I was a teenager. Without even knowing my upcoming students, I made my decision.

From the start of the school year, I threw myself into the Class of 2017 and for four months, I made the most of every second with them. I even selfishly rearranged the order of the curriculum to teach them the content I was most passionate about. The semester flew, but in the best of ways. I laughed with them through their Homecoming pep rally skits, guided them through one of our best Challenge Days yet, cheered them on at their games, comforted many hearts after the election, lent an ear when they confided in me about their crushes, and helped them find their voices through writing. I loved those four months. I love those kids. I think about them every blessed day, watching the clock, wondering how they are, wondering if they miss me even half as much as I miss them.

I’m very used to saying goodbye to my seniors. I do it every year, after all, and I’m always a little sentimental. But I wasn’t expecting how it would feel to be the one leaving them. Let’s face it—we’re all replaceable. I knew they would be fine with their new teacher, and I knew my amazing department would look after them. But would I be okay? Would I be able to handle a life without bells to tell me when to eat and when to pee—a life void of my musty, old classroom? It’s a life without my other family. Having moved around all of my life, that building is the only “permanent” home I know. As one of my graduates eloquently pointed out, it’s my constant: the veteran teachers are my parents; the English teachers, my siblings; the other department teachers, my cousins; the students, my kids. We squabble, discipline, guilt, and love each other the best we can. And leaving that, even just for nine months, is unsettling. By the time December 22nd approached, the heart that has been broken so often at graduation, felt a different kind of breaking. I received warm gifts and beautiful notes from my kids with reminders to pursue my dream. That they would be okay. That they were proud of me. How tables turn. They were the ones teaching me.

One of my last goodbyes was Brian, the fifth child of a family I love—a family that has, in many ways, become my own. I’m invited to their holiday dinners, family vacations, and intense games of Skee Ball at Sea Isle arcades. We both looked forward to his senior year for so long, he even moved up to Advanced Placement to have me. “I’m so sorry I’m abandoning you, Brian,” I managed to say underneath the paper snowflakes and twinkle lights of my classroom’s winter wonderland. Our eyes welled. “You’re not,” he whispered. “You have to do this.” And I did. We all knew I did. He gave me a gorgeous watch that his mother and sisters helped him pick out as a Christmas present, a reminder, and as a goodbye. My time teaching that beautiful family was suddenly up. Just like that.

As I stepped out of the taxi in Ortigia in front of the Acropoli Bed and Breakfast, I looked to the stars and breathed in the cold, salt air. I didn’t know what awaited me in the next two weeks. I didn’t know that I would become closer to my friends Maggie and Maria and even find other kindred spirits among the writers there. I didn’t know I would fall in love with the female patron saints who watched over this little village, or that I would spend so much time questioning my own innate skepticism. I had no idea that I would become even closer with the program director I had known for over 12 years or that I would come to envy the faithful that made their way to church to pray each day. I embraced this lovely gift of time and place and all of its intricacies: I battled the water pressure in my cozy room at the inn, battled my heater when it didn’t work, and battled it when it worked too well; I shot down espresso standing at a café counter when I really wanted to curl up in a coffee house chair with a Starbucks’ Venti; I strengthened my thighs, squatting at every disgusting toilet I encountered and quickly realized that I should hoard toilet paper when the opportunity strikes; I learned that the snowstorm we combatted is a 25-year rarity and that a coach bus can descend an icy mountain backwards; I discovered that my broken Spanish is a nice commonality when English doesn’t work, and that the Ortegians love giving free drinks and compliments to blondes; I realized that I have gone my entire life underestimating the magic of the pistachio, and will now forever dream about pistachio pesto sauce over homemade tagliatelle; but most importantly, I learned that we all need to feel small in this world, and that smallness, that vulnerability, teaches us something. We all seek kindness and understanding, we all wish for the sun to break through the coldness of the clouds just a little more often, we all wish for hope in the face of fear, and we all miss the people we love.

I am lucky, incredibly lucky. I’ve been given a great gift—the opportunity to see what my life’s purpose really is in the absence of that very purpose. I know that there are colleagues back at school who roll their eyes and wonder how I could possibly be so sentimental when I get to take a break from the daily grind to travel and write. I was, after all, the one who signed up for this. I pulled the trigger even though I knew how hard it would be to leave my home and how much I would miss my kids. When I ran this idea past my principal, he cocked his eyebrow, as he’s known to do, smiled and said, of course you should do this. But we both know it’s going to be hard on you.

Yes, I’m a writer, a poet, and a dreamer, and this MFA is such a beautiful bonus to the education I’ve been privileged enough to receive. It’s a blessing to end it on the most gorgeous, mystical island in the world. But more importantly, I’m a teacher and a mother, two titles that took a long time for me to embrace. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. I love, I comfort, I hold on, I let go, I laugh a lot, I cry a lot, and I start all over again each year. This experience is a gift, but loving and helping others—that is the blessing of my life. That is purpose. And no amount of traditional education can teach you that.



If only I could nudge you from this sleep.

There’s a heartbreaking, but beautiful poem by Theodore Roethke that’s been circling in my mind for some time now called “Elegy for Jane.” The sentiments of the speaker, a teacher, could very well match my own. Because it’s an elegy and also begins with the subtitle, “My student, thrown from a horse,” the outcome is clear. Once a sweet little “wren” flitting about, bringing joy and laughter into the lives around her, Jane left this world too soon. By the end, the poem shifts attention away from Jane and onto the speaker where he contemplates why he’s standing at her fresh grave—what right does he have to mourn like this when he is neither a spouse nor a parent? He’s just a teacher. And he’s at a loss identifying these feelings.

The speaker may not understand, but I do. When you’re training for this profession, nobody ever tells you how much you’re going to love them. Or that many will suffer unspeakable tragedies. Or that many will die.

I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t. I stood at the casket tonight of a man who died of a heroin overdose, but underneath the mortician’s makeup, I saw a shadow of the boy who barreled into class ready to derail every lesson and tried to charm me into, well, anything but British literature; the kid whose leg shook each football game day because he just couldn’t wait to charge the field; the baseball player who screamed the lyrics of “Buttercup” and rallied the whole team, whether there was a win or a loss. My student. Gone.

Looking around the funeral home, there they were. My kids, only now adults. So many approached, wondering if I remembered them. Of course I do. Some apologized for not keeping in touch. It’s okay. Some apologized for treating me like shit all those years ago. That’s okay too. I wanted their faces to comfort me, but they didn’t. I steadied myself so as to not shake their shoulders and beg them to be safe—beg them not to be the next casket I cry over. Their older, wiser eyes looked like they had seen a lot as well. They were different eyes than the ones I dried at another autumn funeral 15 years ago. Another classmate, another drug overdose. She was 16, and my first student death.

It’s a matter of numbers, really. The more saturated my personal student population, the more likely I am to witness tragedy. But I’m 19 years in, and I’m tired. I’m tired of waking up on weekend mornings to see #RIP all over my social media. I’m tired of my kids getting hit by drunk drivers—suffering life-altering brain injuries and paralysis. I’m tired of motorcycle accidents, suicides, gunshots, and drug overdoses. I’m tired of holding the hands of parents I once laughed with at Back to School Night, relaying my condolences, when I know they will never be happy again.

What was once an unexpected tragedy is now a ritual. I hear the news, I sort through the e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages from my graduates, I call my two best friends, also teachers—also shaken to the core because this is their kid too. We meet in the English office the next morning, walk into my room to stare at the collage of that particular graduating class, and make plans. Jason will drive, Rachel and I will wear the funeral outfits we always wear, we’ll get coffee beforehand. We will immerse ourselves in our current students to ameliorate the sting and try to talk about anything else, all the while preparing ourselves. Another funeral home, another tiny card with a prayer or poem on the back, another casket filled with high school memorabilia. Another goodbye.

As Roethke points out, it’s complicated. Teachers are charged with guiding, instructing, and caring for kids at an intensely vulnerable and formative time in their lives. It’s a huge responsibility and one I’ve never taken lightly. But, at the end of each year, as I let them go, I’m forced to remind myself that they’re not really mine. They have their own moms, just like I have my own son. But that doesn’t make any of this easier. Tonight I said goodbye to one of my 2235. A man who left this world far too soon. A child who wasn’t mine, but also was—at least for one year, 48 minutes each day.

Continuing Education

I have a graduate who infuriates me with his social media activity. A former U.S. Marine, he’s known to post pictures of his favorite gun, his achievements at the shooting range, and memes that taunt his liberal friends. His sense of humor, not always funny. I’ll give him this though—his wit is often satirical in nature, and many, to put it kindly, have a very hard time understanding satire. Having said that, his posts are enough to drive me to drink. He’s one of my graduates, after all—one of my kids. I can remember having sincere conversations with him about standing up for what is right, defending those who are innocent and weak, and loving this country. He has seen a lot—he’s been to places ordinary citizens would never dare venture in their worst nightmares and has encountered situations that would make most of us hide from the world for the rest of our lives. He hasn’t had it easy.

Last night, while multitasking poetry submissions, London excursion research, and DNC highlights, I came across a beautiful Facebook post from Luke. These kinds of sentiments are rare, so when they pop up, I always take a minute to see what he has to say. It was about love, and beauty—holding on and letting go. How there are aspects of life that, try as we might, we just can’t put behind us. The subject of the post was ambiguous. I wasn’t certain if he was talking about a girl, a friend, or even his country, but the intention was clear. We all want kindness, compassion, and love in our lives. It is the human condition that connects us. And I cried.

I am the liberal daughter of Republicans. Feminist? Yes. Bra burner? Don’t put it past me. I do despise them, after all. My parents are moderate and support many of the social issues I also embrace; so while we disagree on many things, I think when it comes down to it, we agree upon a lot as well. Growing up, they taught me to think for myself—to be true to my heart and not let anyone sway my beliefs, including them. I’ve devoted my life to standing up for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the voiceless, and maybe he doesn’t realize it, but my dad is the one who taught me that. He spent his career locking up bad guys—really bad guys. The kind who send bombs, anthrax, and child pornography through the mail—sick bastards who hurt children and prey on the innocent. During the attacks on 9/11, the Postmaster General asked my dad not to retire, as he had planned—to stay on as Chief Postal Inspector of the country and bring enemies to justice. So, he did. As a little girl, I didn’t understand what being a Postal Inspector entailed; I thought he was a mailman who carried a badge. Why would I think differently? My dad never, ever brought his work home with him so family dinner conversations were about school, friends, and activities. As I grew older, I started paying attention from afar. My dad was major. Ultimately, I learned that there are different ways to defend those in need, and sometimes those doing the defending have different beliefs.

I’ve unfriended and blocked a handful of graduates that have disappointed me—the misogynists, xenophobes, racists, sociopaths, anti-Semites, and homophobes. There aren’t many, but they absolutely suck. Shame on them for having the privilege of learning about diversity, understanding, and love from a district that values character education and then spreading hatred in this world. Many are not so fortunate. There are also those I “hide” from my newsfeed, and I have various reasons for using this feature. I tend to filter the Debbie Downers, the constant body-ache-whiners, the Candy Crush inviters, and those who bombard social media with their very own selfie photoshoot sessions. It just gets to be a lot. But I haven’t unfriended or hidden Luke, even though I’ve come close.

People can disagree on personal philosophies, but when you really look into someone’s heart, what do you see? Are we all just on very different trajectories toward the same goal? Isn’t that what centuries of various religious beliefs have taught us? Disregard the haters for a minute, and take a closer look at your friend, family member, or co-worker who holds a very different political stance. You know the one I’m talking about—the one who, behind his back you say things like, “but he’s so normal and caring! How could he possibly be a [insert liberal/conservative/socialist/ Democrat/Republican/Kanye fan]?” Think about that person hard. How does he conduct himself? Does he defend the rights of minorities? Does he help those facing hardships, people with disabilities, or the elderly, homeless, or sick? Is that person willing to actually get off of his ass and get his hands dirty rather than sitting around spouting off his opinions? Ouch. That’s a hard one, folks. Because that’s what caring people who actually want to change the world do. It’s called love of your fellow man.

From seeing his occasional posts, I’ve learned that Luke continues to be well-read; he does his research. He refuses to support either presidential candidate because, to put it mildly, he is dissatisfied with both choices. After my second glass of wine, aka truth serum, I sent a private message to Luke, conveying my thoughts and praising his beautifully written post. He is not one for veiled sentiment or having smoke-blown up his ass, so I think he appreciated my honesty. He simply said this: “I can sit here and disagree with all of my friends on a lot of issues, but at the end of the day, it’s their personality and the caliber of their character that I hold in regard.” Let that be true for all of us. Last night, a young man who left my classroom over a decade ago—a man who defended my right to hop on social media and voice my opinions, a man who is confined to a wheel chair, a man who is incredibly aggravating— made me stay up all night writing, analyzing, and pondering my own flaws and judgements. His views frustrate me as much as I probably frustrate my own parents. And just as they are proud of me, I will always admire those who seek good in the world. Maybe all of our conversations through this very contentious time need to start there rather than end there. One of the basic lessons I try to convey to my students is to listen as much as they speak, or even more than they speak. Let’s do that. Let’s begin with a bigger picture. Let’s begin with equality, human rights, and human decency. Let’s begin by actually doing something besides pontificating. Let’s begin with the caliber of character and work backwards.

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