November 24, 2015

The Great Listen: Thanksgiving 2015
When I was 15, my family took a cruise: it was the first and only time I have been on a ship. In the 1980's, cruise ship entertainment was mainly limited to stage shows and circus-like acts: I don't recall there being non-stop activities for toddlers and teens. Left to ourselves, my brother and I walked around the ship, people-watched, played Uno, sun-bathed, swam, and talked. Then we got sick of each other, and at some point, got bored. On a random walk on deck, I ran into one of the actors in the vaudeville-like show my family had watched the night before. He might have been in his 60s, I guessed: white hair, wrinkled and jowled, and a stoop to his shoulders, he seemed friendly and approachable. I asked him if I could interview him.
I happened to have my journal with me, and--I remember his name, because we talked about its origins--Richard Mulligan--and for some reason, he humored me. We spent an hour talking: rather, I asked him questions, and he gave me sage wisdom.
It was the first time I realized that there was merit in talking to strangers.
Everyone has a story to tell, and I think I've dedicated my life to hearing as many as I can. It's why I love reading, love teaching literature, love working with teenagers, and love people (with a soft spot for the elderly). It's why I wanted to bring the Listen To Your Mother show to Rochester, why I listen to The Moth and StoryCorps podcasts while I'm folding laundry, and why I continue to engage with total strangers in the supermarket.
StoryCorps began in 2003 with a small, sound-proof booth, rigged for recording interviews between anyone who entered it from the busy hubbub of Grand Central Station. Just two years later, the organization launched two mobile interview booths, and now, people everywhere can listen to these short, but profound, exchanges through NPR, the StoryCorps app, or their website itself.
Now, StoryCorps has asked teachers across the United States to have their students participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, students nationwide--include over 70 of my own students--will interview a family member or friend who is over the age of 50. Once published on the StoryCorps site, those interviews will be preserved for posterity in the Library of Congress.
The purpose of The Great Thanksgiving Listen is to capture the wisdom of a generation. Of course, there is great potential beyond simply capturing these voices and stories: our kids will be engaged in truly listening--an anomaly in the age of "blip culture." They will have to look at another person (hopefully, someone who loves them) for more than a few seconds at a time. They will have to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, that they hear/understand/are curious/have more questions. With luck, time will stand still. Words will build bridges.
I will never forget Richard Mulligan, who so generously gave me his time, and indulged a random kid in a meaningful, life-changing conversation. He is most likely no longer alive: but his words and wisdom live on in my teaching practice.
We live in scary times: politics are divisive, terrorism is rampant, and culturally, we are at risk of losing our humanity. Maybe with the stories our kids charm from their conversations, we can all learn a little bit more about what it means to be good, to be a part of a bigger family.
Happy Thanksgiving, all!

September 30, 2015

Finally, I'm Back... For a Good Reason. It's October. Get Screened.

Not that anyone should have to justify an absence in her writing life, but it's been an especially long pause.

Notice the previous posts, and you'll absorb the frenetic energy that was our very first, local Listen To Your Mother production. It was amazing, we're doing it again, and let me be clear: being a mom, a full-time, high school English teacher, and working on this show just about zapped every ounce of waking energy I had. {IT WAS WORTH IT.}

Even when the show ended and we wrapped up the business end of things, there it was, looming like a hot, insane beast that knew how tired I already was:

JUNE. Finals. Exams. Portfolios. Final essays. Final observation meetings. Papers, papers, everywhere, and not a drop nor an ocean of coffee could make it better. And because the end of school was the beginning of asbestos abatement in my classroom, I spent the last two days of school packing up eight closets of books--hundreds of 'em!--and taking down posters and storing all the personality of my classroom into almost forty boxes.

And then: it was summer.

And I slept.

I slept the sleep of royals. And sprayed my kids with the garden hose. And read books. And went to Jazz Fest, and watched one of my closest friends get married. And had summer ales and barbecue. And made two kids' birthday parties, and swam, and watched the entirety of Mad Men on Netflix. And found new, local hiking spots. I rearranged two closets and a pantry, found the bottom of my laundry room, had friends design and create a new garden for us, made friends with an enormous pile of mulch in my driveway, spent time in Vermont with great girlfriends, took the kids to Manhattan and nearly lost one of them, and cooked up CSA vegetables, and got a (responsible) tan, and bought a new pair of sandals, a kind I've wanted for two years.

And then: it was September.
    * * *

On this last day of September, on the eve of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I had my first mammogram.

I'm about to turn 43, and I can't believe it's taken me this long to get examined. But something else happened this summer.

I'd taken my older kids swimming at a local pool. It was Labor Day weekend, and among the adults watching their children in the shallow end was a beautiful woman. She had absolutely no hair.

Look, mommy! My daughter yelped. That lady has no hair!

I sloshed my way over to her, reaching my arms out like oars and spreading the water in front of me to get to her. I wanted to apologize, but she wouldn't let me. Our daughters started playing together, and we women fell into conversation so naturally, I felt like I'd known her for years, though it'd just been a minute or two.

So, I said, when the opportunity arrived, chemo? 

She nodded, smiling. I didn't even know I had a lump. My husband didn't find it either--isn't that amazing? It was just a routine checkup, and that was on a Friday. By Monday, I was in chemo. I still can't believe it. But they caught it early, and I'll be fine. Can you imagine what would have happened if I hadn't gotten my checkup?

I had a million questions. Maybe because it was so easy to talk to her, maybe because I'd seen her once already that morning, at the gym (had she been put in my path twice so that I'd notice?), maybe because I'd just been thinking about how I'd never scheduled that mammogram that my ob/gyn kept asking me to schedule, I felt no reservation, but I was awash in nerves. I asked my questions.

How old are you? (39.) Does it run in your family? (Yes.) How many months have you been in chemo? Do you need a mastectomy? Do you want one? How do you feel every day? How do you talk about it with your kids?

Why haven't you had an exam yet, she asked. What are you waiting for? I didn't think women my age could get it either, and I didn't think women with young children--like us--got breast cancer. You better call today, she said. I'll even come with you, if you want.

And on the way home, I asked myself these questions:

Why have I been so scared to get checked? (Because my father died of cancer, and there is an irrational but very real fear lurking in my chest about cancer screening.)
Why have I waited so long? (Because I've felt "too busy." Too Busy is the song I whistle in lieu of taking care of myself.)

I sat in a parking lot with two hot, sleeping kids in the back seat, and made an appointment for my first screening.

On my way to the Elizabeth Wende Breast Clinic, I switched on our local radio station's daily broadcast called "Connections"; its host, Evan Dawson, announced that today's show was called "Think Before You Pink." Hoping to lose myself in thoughts other than breast cancer, I couldn't get away from it. One contributor to the program today has been a survivor for thirteen years. To hear her speak fortified me, thought I couldn't explain why.

Let me tell you what getting a mammogram is like, lest irrational fear keep you from making your first appointment:

There is a garden outside with wind chimes. There is a greeter when you walk in. She'll smile and confirm your appointment.

Everyone is pleasant. There is a faux, white, christmas tree with pink lights at the reception desk.

There is something distinctly feminine, not clinical, about this office. It is warm. There are earrings for sale and baskets being raffled off.

Massages are available to those who've been escorted to the inner waiting room and given a pink gown to wear. There are lots of pink gowns in that inner waiting room, women of all ages and shapes and sizes and colors, reading and talking and laughing and playing on their phones. There is a maxi pad dispenser in the restroom that isn't antiquated. There is a woman, older than you are, sitting next to you, who notices you're nervous and who tells you that it's okay to relax, it only hurts for a little while when they smush your breasts between two pieces of plastic--you hold your breath until they're done taking the picture, and then you can breathe again. 

And then you get dressed, and walk out to your car. And when you get your results, you can breathe again. And if it's caught early, you're on your way to fighting. And winning.

Make your appointment TODAY. When you see a pink ribbon, it's a reminder. When you hear about the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk on October 18th, remind yourself or your friend that it's time to make your appointment. When you hear an ad for a product that will contribute a portion of its proceeds to fighting breast cancer, or see a shirt screaming "Save the Tatas!" call your sister or your mom or your aunt or your daughter and ask her if she's had her annual exam.

Don't let fear get the best of you.
Click here if you are underinsured or uninsured for annual exams.

I'm so thankful to the stranger I met in the pool. Lovely woman with no hair, lovely, strong woman with the brilliant smile and warrior attitude, thank you, thank you for giving me the swift kick I needed to pick up my phone and get checked.

March 2, 2015

****{It's All Happening}**** Our ticket site is LIVE!

Remember how much you loved to be read to when you were a kid?

I am visualizing our auditorium on May 8th: a rapt audience, our beautiful cast, and their stories, so lovingly and carefully woven to connect one another. Readers who read with purpose, telling their truths, and listeners anticipating every next word, who find themselves saying "me too!"

 I can't wait.

Our LTYM is about to head into auditions (TODAY!) and our ticket site is LIVE, yo! Head on over to read all about it, and to see today's featured story.