Oh, hey! Look what has been hiding under the carpet all these years.
That carpet is every bit as terrible and skanky as it looks. As I have mentioned repeatedly in this blog, our house was in not great condition when we bought it seventeen years ago. But we got a lot of space and a great location for raising our kids within our budget. Some people see problems. We saw character and opportunity. (Real example: a hole in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway where a light fixture used to be. We lived with it for two years before putting in our own light fixture.)
So anyway, this carpet was in my oldest child’s bedroom/soon to be my office. It was old and bad when we moved in. Then a kid who kept many little pets — rats, hedgehogs– grew up in there. I patched and repainted the walls, as well as replacing the curtains after the second time he moved out. Hoping the third launch is the charm, I’m taking over the space to be my office. I couldn’t stand the beyond-salvation carpet. Yet, we don’t have the money at the moment to have a new floor covering installed.
I started peeling it back from one corner of the room, just to see what the floor underneath might look like. Not bad, was the answer. My husband and I decided to go for it and rip out the whole roomful, hoping we didn’t uncover any terrible surprises in the process.
The good news is we found no rotting wood or warped planks. The interesting, character-revealing news is that paint crimes were committed in there at some point during the house’s history. Someone painted without a drop cloth. Maybe multiple someones. So there are splotches of white paint here and there. And there and there. I am honest about my limitations in the current moment, which means I’m not taking on sanding and refinishing. I can live with some character marks and cover up others with clearance sale area rugs.
Then I will have my very own office, with an octagon of tower windows for my desk area. And my writing productivity will soar. Of course it will. Stop laughing. I’m really going to get more writing done and not get distracted by other projects around the place, like putting in more pollinator plants or seeing what the floors are like in other rooms under the carpet, or repainting the living room, or fixing our front porch steps, or…
After nineteen years as a minivan driver, my identity has changed. I am a minivan mom no longer. I had hoped my 2004 Chevy Venture would last a couple more years, but that dream was dashed nine days ago when I was rear-ended pretty hard while attempting to make a left turn into my own driveway.
I live on a two-lane street, so I had stopped briefly to let oncoming traffic clear, then just begun my turn when — WHAM! My vehicle ended up jumping the curb and stopping across the sidewalk, nose-first into the slope of my front yard. I wasn’t injured, I assume because I didn’t realize it was about to happen, so none of my muscles were tensed. But things sure flew around inside the van. Remind me never again to drive with my purse unzipped. Its contents ended up all over the place, including in a pool of water where a gallon jug exploded. It took me two or three minutes to find my cell phone.
The driver who hit me was young, still in high school I think. She was using her mom’s minivan, which in turn was also struck from behind by a third vehicle. It was a bad day in the neighborhood for vans. But I found a silver lining in the behavior of all involved. The first thing everyone asked of each other: Are you okay? Do you need any help?
No injuries to anyone. Phew!
I saw some excellent parenting, too, when her parents appeared on the scene. She took full responsibility, stating that she didn’t notice I was stopped until the last second, and then panicked. When she tried to hit the brakes, she accidentally hit the gas again. Her mom and dad praised her for telling the truth, did not yell, did not appear angry, just concerned for the safety of all.
If you’ve followed my blog since the beginning and have a feeling of deja vu, it’s because this is the third time in eight years my family has lost a vehicle in this manner. We don’t even drive that much! But we seem to be on a four-year cycle of getting our cars hit and totaled. It happened in 2012 with my husband driving and again in 2016 with my younger son at the wheel. Maybe we should all stay off the road in 2024.
The spouse and I got our insurance settlement and did emergency car shopping this past week. I can’t remember the last time I drove carpool. Usually it’s me alone going somewhere. So we downsized and moved to a new phase of life, finding a pretty good deal on a used Honda CR-V EX. It will be my first all wheel drive experience. I hope we get snow this winter!
I haven’t been blogging much, partly because I’m back to work at my physical workplace, and it’s honestly kicking my butt. I wrote a funny post about returning to regular employment, but with current events, it seemed not the appropriate time to post it.
I’ve seen a lot of articles recently about speaking with your kids about race and racism. Good! These, of course, are aimed at parents who are still raising their kids. What I want to add is, don’t stop the conversation with them once they’re grown. You might learn as much as you teach.
I’m in my fifties, and both of my kids are in their twenties now. I come from a large family, where there’s a significant age spread among siblings. I think we all strive to overcome our racism, but I had an advantage over the older ones in feeling more comfortable around people of other races, since I attended pretty well-integrated schools throughout my childhood. It also put it in my face regularly that some kids got harsher punishments than others for the same behaviors, and there was a pattern to it.
I, however, didn’t learn a whole lot of Black history, or much about how systems perpetuate privilege and racism. I didn’t become aware of those things much until I was an adult. I still have more to learn. My kids also attended pretty integrated schools and learned more than I did about cultures and history other than their own. But probably not enough. Well, remove the probably. I talked to them some about race, but probably not enough. Okay, remove the probably, I see in hindsight.
But they’re both educating themselves as adults, too. Much of our conversation these days is about race. And I’ve discovered they have outpaced me in doing research about things like community policing, and good resources, and how to be a better ally. They’re far ahead of where I was at the same age. In my twenties, my goal around race was just not to do or say racist things personally as I went about my life. Very passive. My offspring are much more about being actively anti-racist, and they have helped to bring me along.
With young children, you get difficult questions about why people are doing bad things. With grown kids, we might still discuss things that perplex us, but it’s more of a sharing of ideas and resources, of brainstorming what we can do in our lives.
So, here are some of my intended actions, partly stemming from discussions with my kids. I have found a community bail fund and made a donation. I’m intend to make it a monthly habit. On social media, I will share writings and art by people of color. In my work at a public library, I already have been striving to make sure I present diversity in book displays and blog posts. But sometimes, when I’m in a time crunch, or overwhelmed, I get lazy. And getting lazy when the publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white means the materials I’m promoting are going to skew toward overrepresentation of white voices. I will contact elected officials urging for better laws and policies.
Most of all, I will try to keep listening and learning and doing better. I know my kids will help me out there.
My firstborn has flown again. What was originally planned to be a one-week visit with us turned into a six-week stay, thanks to the timing of the pandemic. But he left Sunday to drive halfway across the country to his new life in the Pacific Northwest, arriving at his destination on Tuesday night. I have so much admiration for his courage in pursuing his dreams. I think he’s in a place where he’ll thrive. At least I hope so.
He was a good son and messaged his mother at every stop to let me know he was still alive. Here’s part of our exchange from Monday. Caveat to readers in states mentioned: he and I both know there are a lot of positive things about those states. This is more about the experience of grueling interstate travel.
Meanwhile, I’m still, until next week, on a very flexible work from home status. Which means I get to go out for a walk every day. Yesterday, with the knowledge I would likely not see my oldest child for several months at least, I suffered a fit of nostalgia and walked around to see every house we lived in with our kids previous to our current residence. We’ve stayed in the same part of town, so my entire journey was accomplished in under an hour.
I didn’t take any photos of the homes because I didn’t want to seem creepy. But it was enough to see them and mull over my memories. First I went past the bitty little rental house where we had our first baby, the house where my self-identity changed forever. It had originally been a garage, later being converted to a home. The 8 x 8 bedroom we’d designated as the nursery was never used as such while we live there, as I discovered we all three got more sleep when the baby was in the room with us. We stayed there for two years, moving on to a different rental house with more space as we discussed expanding the family.
Rental house number two where we had child number two was a small, but not tiny, brick ranch house with an unfortunate tendency for the pipes to freeze in the winter. But it had a yard for outdoor play and was on a quiet, dead-end street with great neighbors, including two different retired couples who loved to fuss over the children the block. We liked living on that street so much that we bought a place only a few doors down a year later, the house I think of as our first true family home. We moved in when our kids were ages three years and three months respectively, and stayed until they were eight and five years old.
It not only had a lovely yard, but the back yard was fenced, something that had never meant much to me before I had children whom I sent out to play. There were two bedrooms downstairs and a big finished attic that we turned into a playroom/office. It was where my husband used duct tape and boxes to construct a playhouse within the playroom — a structure that kept the kids entertained for hours on end. It was where we lived when my oldest started kindergarten. Where we spent many hours drawing on the cement driveway with chalk, blowing bubbles while sitting on the front steps, seeing how high we could stack the spiky balls from the sweetgum tree before they started to tumble. It did my heart good yesterday to see that whoever lives there now is taking care of the place. The roof looks brand new.
And then the walk back to our current home, scene of many birthday parties, gatherings of friends after Halloween trick-or-treating, games of hide and seek, enthusiastic science experiments, homework battles, teenaged drama. There’s a parking area in back where the training wheels first came off my younger son’s bike, and where later, both kids would practice parallel parking between camp chairs with vertical poles attached. This is the house where we had a wheelchair ramp constructed so I could bring my mother to visit, where we’ve chased out bats and raccoons, where we’ve repeatedly fought city hall over proposals to make the street more like a highway, and where we are now problem solving how to set-up dual home offices for my husband and myself.
I’m genuinely afraid my family is going to get used to me cooking dinner. This is temporary, people — a temporary situation!
When I was thinking through the ramifications of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the one thing I didn’t realize at first was how much of my time and energy would be consumed by meal planning. I had become quite laissez faire about meals around here over the last few years, cooking real dinner only two to three times a week. I was working odd hours, and we’re all adults in this house now. I kept the kitchen stocked with stuff that was easy for my husband and son to fix for themselves and figured they were also capable of running to the store if we didn’t have something they wanted. My husband usually picked up lunch out somewhere, a slice of pizza or such like.
Now we have four in the house instead of three, every one of us eating every last meal at home. Meanwhile, casually popping over the grocery store for a forgotten item is no longer a thing. We are plowing through supplies on hand at a pretty good clip. Food acquisition and use are logistical puzzles, taxing the executive function center of my brain. I have switched from in-person grocery shopping to ordering online for pick-up, but the available time slots have to be scheduled several days in advance. By the time I went to pick up my groceries on Wednesday, I had forgotten what I ordered the Friday before. I tried to look at it as a fun surprise. And, oh, hey! I inadvertently ended up with the world’s largest oranges!
One thing that makes me say, “Yay me!” is the fact that on the very early edge of all this mess, I subscribed to a local CSA program, with a box of fresh produce scheduled for our household once every two weeks. Here’s our first delivery:
Each member of the family forages for their own breakfast and lunch. So I’m only preparing one meal a day. That’s not too much, really, even for someone who isn’t overly fond of cooking. Having consumed my share of rice and chicken neck dinners as a kid, I try to remember to be grateful for the ability to buy this food.
Another bright spot is that I never touch the dirty dishes, of which we are producing many stacks. The other three members of the household keep them cycling through the dishwasher and back into the cabinets.
And the other morning, I woke up to discover the cookie fairy had come during the night.
There’s been a plan in place for a long time. But a global pandemic doesn’t care. Nothing has happened how it was supposed to.
My 24-year-old firstborn has been living alone for about a month, since his roommate left to pursue opportunities in California. Meanwhile, my son’s lease on the Iowa apartment (250 miles from us) was coming due at the end of the month, and he has his own dreams waiting for him in Bellingham, Washington — a job transfer and friends who were ready to welcome him. The plan was for me to help him move to our house next week, where he would just sort of bounce, heading out to drive halfway across the country after staying here for a week or two.
He’s moved a few times in a few years, and each time has felt stressful and rushed. This was supposed the move where we would have time to plan and pace ourselves. Maybe even do a few fun things together before he built a life so far away from us.
Instead, my workplace shut down as of last Tuesday and one of his two jobs came to an abrupt early end. As COVID-19 spread and more places shut down, we both worried about potential travel restrictions. Neither of us wanted him to get trapped alone where he was, not even knowing if they’d let him remain in the apartment past his lease end date. This move became the most stressful and urgent of them all, a harried flight from disaster instead of an embarkation on the adventure he had envisioned.
I drove up last Wednesday (in rain all the way, natch) with the goal of getting him out the next day, a countdown timer ticking loudly in my psyche. Once I arrived, I saw we’d need more than a day. He’d already gotten rid of a lot of stuff and packed many boxes, but had thought he’d have more time. My husband had removed the last two rows of seats from our old Chevy Venture, and strapped our large retro car-top carrier on the roof. My son doesn’t own a huge amount of things, but when we were limited to what we could fit in his Toyota Corolla and my van, it meant a fair amount of triage and winnowing, while racing the clock in case travel restrictions went into place. The new departure goal became Friday morning.
It’s a real struggle to execute a move in two days time with limited carrying capacity when no thrift stores are accepting donations and even the city landfills are closed. We did things I’m not proud of, including solving the dilemma of how to wedge a mattress into an apartment complex dumpster. It was a thin, cheap mattress, and our solution to making it fit involved the use of enormous zip ties. I have seldom done anything in my life that felt more sketchy. My son said that if we were in “The Good Place” our scores would definitely go into the negative over it. I told him I felt like we were only a few short steps away from burying a drifter in the desert.
We ended up filling trash bags with items I normally never would send to a landfill, seeing no alternative at the moment. Cheap but usable bowls and plates from Target, gone. A stack of three-ring binders, gone. Bathmat, gone. On and on. To mitigate our guilt a tiny bit, though, we did at least sort out the recycling, and we left the apartment sparkling clean. I scrubbed and vacuumed before we drove away.
The drive home was almost surreal in its normalcy. Due to road closures, I ended up on some rural state highways, which meant going right through the heart of a few towns, where everything seemed to be proceeding as usual. Small town Missouri felt like a whole different universe than the one I’d been living in. Around noon, I stopped for a bathroom break at a convenience store with a restaurant attached to it. I was all business, walking straight in, touching nothing I didn’t have to, doing my business, washing my hands for the amount of time it takes to say the Star Trek opening monologue (silently to myself,) and then straight back out. Meanwhile, the restaurant had tables full of people eating lunch. Other convenience store customers were browsing the aisle for snacks, filling up on fountain drinks. You’d never know there was a pandemic on. It was so very disquietingly normal.
Now the whole family is back in our home again, sitting in limbo. I’m off work until some uncertain future date. My husband, who is essential to keep networks going so that others can work and learn from home, is ensconced at his desk in our living room, doing his work remotely. My younger son recently interviewed for a job that seems unlikely to exist now. My newly returned older son is impatient to get on with his new life, but we have no idea when that will be possible. Like everyone else, we wait to see what tomorrow will bring.
Addendum: As I was writing this post, my city’s mayor announced a shelter in place order beginning tomorrow morning, running through April 24. So now I know one thing. I will not be returning to work until at least April 25.
Last Wednesday was a crappy day on many fronts. Work stress, bills to pay, minor but annoying health issues, feeling overwhelmed about my to-do list growing faster than my ability to do, a deep despair over the dawning realization that I’m probably never going to see a woman president in my lifetime. I was torn between the desire to smash things and the desire to go to bed forever. But dinner needed made.
I stood dithering in my kitchen for a long time, trying to settle on what I could muster the energy to cook. My top go-to comfort food is a grilled cheese sandwich. So I decided to go easy on myself. There are only three of us in the household now, and three grilled cheeses are quickly made with little effort. I would put apple slices and strawberries on the side. Good enough.
Wouldn’t you know, I let myself get distracted when the first sandwich was in the skillet. It burned while I was washing and slicing fruit. When I took it out and saw the charred surface, my automatic first thought was, “I guess that one’s mine.”
It’s been my default setting for years. The other members of the family get the good ones of whatever thing is being distributed. I get the pancake that was put in before the griddle was hot enough and isn’t quite right, the egg with the broken yolk, you get the idea. This isn’t done with resentment, but as a programmed response, like a factory setting for moms and wives. The thing is, nobody in family would ever ask me to do this. It’s all on me, usually done with little thought.
But not this time. I had the thought. I even took one bite of the sandwich. Then I took myself in hand and lectured me, “You deserve a decent sandwich. You were making this as comfort food because you’re sad and angry about misogyny, for pity’s sake! And here you’re willing to cheat yourself because you’ve internalized messages saying you’re always the one who has to sacrifice.”
There have been times in my life when I couldn’t afford to throw out a sandwich, no matter how scorched. But at present, we have achieved a financial level where I can use two extra pieces of bread and a couple more slices of cheese without facing penury and ruin.
It might look like a tiny thing, but fighting my own thoughts about how little I’m allowed to need or want is a big step for me. I threw out the burned sandwich and made a different one for myself, perfectly toasted. It was delicious. And liberating.
No matter that we’ve been married for decades now, my husband and I must still be romantics at heart. For an early Valentine’s Day date, we went out this afternoon and got matching his ‘n hers shingles vaccinations. Hubba hubba!
A few months back, I posted about my quest to find any place that had the vaccine in stock. A shortage at that time meant long waiting lists. It’s a two-shot deal, and I’m happy to report I acquired my first round in late September. As the second one is supposed to be given two to six months later, I decided this week I should get on the stick, so to speak.
Good news! No more waiting lists. I called the pharmacy and they said, come in any time we’re open. I had time today, so I skedaddled on down, to use an old timey expression befitting the experience. And I managed to bring the spousal unit (see — total romantic) along with me for his first dose. Bonded in sickness and in health, but we’ll take health if given the choice.
(Video to back up my claims of having learned some things, including achieving the heights of piano mediocrity, on my own. Also, Happy New Year!)
I’ve been living a secret life for most of a decade. In early November, I completed an eight-year-long personal journey, one I undertook largely on the sly. I felt shy about sharing my goal because I needed all of my energy for the work. I had none left over for explanations, justifications, or talking myself out of believing any potential naysayers. There’s a lot of backstory to this, so here goes.
Immediately after high school, I got two years of college – an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts, 64 credit hours — under my belt, while working part-time jobs. But I was in debt and broke. I mean, I had to choose between tampons and toothpaste level of broke. I had no car, no bicycle, and sometimes no bus fare. I simply couldn’t finance any more higher education at the time. So I stopped temporarily. I went to work at an office job with the idea of returning to school after I’d had the chance to save some money. I held a picture in my mind of myself in cap and gown, walking across a stage to receive my bachelor’s degree. It was always a part of The Plan.
Life kept thwarting my return. But every time I was stymied, I’d summon the image of myself graduating and know I was still working toward it. My mantra became, “This is a setback, not an end.” That went on for decades.
At one time, when I lived in Kansas City and The Plan hadn’t been put off for all that long, I applied to UMKC and was accepted as a transfer student, with a major in anthropology. My dream was happening, or so I thought. I had an enrollment date on my calendar and had met with the financial aid office. But the day before I was set to become official, I encountered an unexpected “road closed” sign on my path. The details of what happened are no longer important, but suffice to say it was a plan-derailing event, something that threw up a spiked wall between me and college enrollment.
I spent a while falling apart, and then regrouped. I went back to the UMKC campus, this time to the employment office, to pick up some job applications and get a list of openings. I would go to work there, was my plan, and get my tuition paid as an employee. Before this could happen, my spouse got a job offer in Columbia, which was a good thing. So we moved.
We got settled here, had a couple of kids, got busy. Every once in a while, I checked on what it would take to enroll at a school in my new hometown, but never could see how it would work at the moment. My new plan was to get my education ball rolling again once the kids were in school all day. I saw some other moms who were pursuing higher education. But I couldn’t help noticing the ones who were most successful at it had lots of help, a robust support system. Grandparents who could babysit frequently. Somewhere to take the kids when they were sick and couldn’t go to daycare. My extended family were all far away. I had wonderful friends, but you can only call on friends so much.
I want to say right here, I absolutely am glad I had both of my children. I can’t imagine the world without them. I would not trade them in on any other dream. I just thought I could have kids and also have my other dream, in some fashion.
When my youngest was in kindergarten, I got a shelving job at the public library. Things were falling into place. This was the first step toward my new career. I would have an advantage when I got to library school, after finishing my four-year degree. (An aside: it is ridiculous that Library and Information Science is not offered as a four-year degree itself. If you disagree, I am happy to fight.)
Each time I received a paycheck, I took a few dollars and put it in an envelope – the seed of my college fund. But more things happened, of course. Cars and appliances broke down. Both of my children ended up with expensive-to-fix dental injuries on the school playground. My younger one had a major health issue that resulted in large medical bills. I was also saving a few dollars from each check toward my children attending college someday. As their bank accounts were sacred in my eyes, it was always my envelope that got emptied. Then I’d start over again.
Every time I considered returning to school, there was some reason why the time was not right. I always needed to wait. I see now I was too easily discouraged, too willing to believe negative voices, whether internal or external. But finally, I looked at the year and at my age, and thought, “Now or never, baby. No matter my level of external support, no matter my own self doubts, I need to do this now.”
It was 2011. At work, I had long since moved from shelving to public services. My kids both were teenagers. They could stay home alone for periods of time, prepare their own food, ride their bicycles to school in good weather. Surely, they could adapt. Due to time and money constraints, I might have to stick to one or two classes at a time, but I was ready to slog.
A little voice of doubt made itself heard in my mind, however. It had been so long, I wasn’t sure I could do college work anymore. What if I tried and failed? It was around this time that several universities began posting class lectures and syllabi online with free access for anyone who wanted to audit. Aha! I could do a trial run to see if I was up to it.
I signed on for a Modern Poetry course through Yale University. They imposed no requirements, but I did. I “showed up” for class three days a week and completed every assignment in the time frame originally set for in-class students. I did every reading, wrote every paper. I looked forward to the homework, enjoying every bit of it. I learned a lot and I did keep up.
I began the application process at the University of Missouri, Columbia, changing my desired major from anthropology to English, hoping to avoid any requirement for fieldwork. To ward off jinxes, I told almost no one.
I’d made it to the step of ordering my old college transcripts when I received a call about my mother. She had fallen, possibly had pneumonia, and was in the hospital. I was a midlife baby, so I never had young parents. My mom had become old and frail. My oldest sister had been providing diligent care in her home, but Mom’s needs were overwhelming. She required skilled nursing care around the clock. The only facility in their area was subpar. I quickly agreed to look for a place for her in Columbia. I didn’t send for my transcripts.
The next four years of my life kept me so busy, I practically met myself coming and going. Crises popped up as fast as I could knock them back. I was hanging by my fingernails, what with the intensity and constant demands of raising teens, one of whom left high school to spend time homeschooling and one of whom had a 504 ADA plan with the school district, requiring constant meetings and monitoring. Along with my parenting duties, I had the demands of being responsible for my mom’s well-being – care plan meetings, visiting three or four times a week, going to all of her medical appointments, making sure she had denture powder and enough socks, doing the paperwork and making the phone calls for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. It was like having a second job.
Let me say about my mother pretty much the same thing I said earlier about my children. I am glad I was able to bring her to live near me for her final few years. It was a treasure to spend the time with her and see her so often. I absolutely would do it again, given the same choices. But it did slam the door on my college aspirations.
I kept telling myself to be happy with everything else I had done and accomplished, to let The Plan go. Yet, I couldn’t. I tried to think of ways to revive it, while speaking of it even less than before. When I did mention the idea, the same people who urged me to wait and put it off because my young children needed me were suddenly all like “What? At your age? It’s way too late.”
At a family gathering, two relatives engaged in a staged conversation in my presence. They didn’t mention me, but only other hypothetical people of about my age who talked about going back to college.* The two of them agreed and reinforced each other’s points about how selfish it would be and how little sense it would make to spend that kind of money on college when you were middle aged already.
Pivotal paragraph alert:
I had changed, though. Instead of shutting me down as it had in the past, that kind of interaction fired me up. I thought a lot about the Modern Poetry class I had taken and realized how many resources had become available that were inexpensive or free. I might not walk across a stage or get a piece of paper at the end of it, but I could still put myself through college. Since I was homeschooling my oldest kid for a couple of years. I could homeschool myself, too.
I researched majors once again, determining what degree requirements were feasible for me to meet, considering my circumstances and available resources. Many schools offered a degree in General Studies and/or Liberal Arts. The requirements appeared nearly identical for the two, and it was continuation of what I’d already done in school. Third time a charm – I designed a course of study that would fulfill the listed requirements for this bachelor’s degree at a few different places. Then I started the long, but happy grind, one class at a time.
It would be a mammoth undertaking, but I was determined not to cut corners or cheat. If I did, I would be cheating only myself. Since I’d already done the Modern Poetry course, I gave myself credit for it on my transcript. Though I didn’t always hold myself to the same time schedule I had in that course, I did hold myself to the same finishing standards. If I took a course, I had to do all of the work and do it as well as I could. No skipping even a single assignment.
I needed some college level math, so one of my early subjects was College Algebra, which I did through ALEKS. It wasn’t completely free, but it was pretty affordable. They require you to show mastery of a lesson before you can go on to the next one. I went back to online Yale and took a Theory of Literature class, again attending every lecture, doing every reading, and writing every paper. Through my public library (also my employer), I had free access to many online continuing education classes. Universal Class was one option for these. I studied a few subjects there – film studies, geography and others. They all required papers and quizzes to get a certificate. I knew they did not go as in-depth or require as much as a full-semester college course, so I personalized, beefing them up with supplement readings and projects of my own. And at the end of each Universal Class course, I would add only a single credit hour to my spreadsheet because I didn’t want to pad. I wanted to do the real work.
Both of my kids unwittingly provided opportunities for me. My younger son had taken piano for several years, but gave it up for other pursuits when he was around 15. I had all of his old lesson books, including one titled “Practical Theory, a Self-Instruction Music Theory Course.” I had always wanted a better understanding of music. I worked my way through his books for a music appreciation elective credit. If any one subject came close to kicking my ass, it was this one. But I taught myself to read music passably and have soared to mediocre heights on the piano.
My oldest started attending community college. As he adjusted to the demands of higher education the first semester, he requested my help with studying and organizing for one class in particular, an American History class. While earning my AA degree, I’d taken world history classes, but no American History. Here were some new credit hours I could accrue. Since I was helping my son keep track of assignments, I knew what they all were. When he wasn’t using his textbook, I read it cover to cover. And wrote all of the papers — mine, not his.
I used whatever slivers of time I could find to focus on my schoolwork. During the early years, I spent a lot of time in a parked van one place or another, waiting to pick up a kid from school or other activity. I took advantage of those moments to study. I also studied on lunch breaks. I took work with me when I visited my mom, who was prone to drifting into naps. I stayed up late at night finishing assignments and got too little sleep, just like a “real” college student. My house became very dusty.
All of that work, effort, striving. Yet I couldn’t share it with much of anyone. We all have blind spots. I’ve had some of my own revealed to me over the years. One of the most common blind spots I notice in others is the tendency to judge people based on the degrees they have or haven’t earned. There’s somehow a common idea that if you didn’t pay someone for your knowledge, then it’s not real. It’s supposed to be a commodity that you bought in a college or university. If you got it any other way, it’s illegitimate, pilfered even. You stole that knowledge. You shouldn’t get any credit for it or be allowed to use it. Or, if it didn’t cost a fortune, it must be a lesser quality of knowledge.
I wanted to be able to talk about my pursuits, to enthuse, to express the joy I felt. To explain the reason I didn’t or couldn’t do something else with my time was because I had to finish writing a paper for a class. I worked with some younger colleagues who were still in school. I’d stand by while they spoke of the demands and the joys and the new knowledge attained in their studies. I wanted that conversation with someone. But I knew if I ever said anything, it’s not the conversation I would get.
A handful of times, the fact that I was taking some class arose organically. But I spoke without getting into the layers of what it meant in my life. After a while, I became cagier about even casual mentions. Because here was a typical interaction.
I was talking to someone who spent a lot of money for her knowledge back in the day. I’ve seen her mentor younger folks and heard her express respect for how many of them managed to juggle school and work. It’s very possible that she herself had more life responsibilities than I realized. But from what I knew of her at the time, it didn’t seem she had many. She had a full-time job and a husband, and that was about it. To me, it was a dream. Imagine all I could accomplish and do in the same situation!
I, on the other hand, was barely sleeping due to everything on my plate. I was in the midst of dealing with extremely difficult teen stuff, including some health issues with both kids, always needing to drive someone somewhere or taking one of them out for practice driving hours, or helping with homework, or mediating disputes. I was working my day job, spending many hours per week on my mom’s needs, groceries, cooking, etc. Yet somehow, I still managed to have a class going at almost all times.
Anyway, the conversation — I casually mentioned an interesting fact I had just learned in an online class. I was enthusiastic about this bit of knowledge and thought we could have a discussion about it. But after I mentioned the course I was taking, here’s the turn things took instead.
In a martyred, wistful tone (possibly exaggerated in my memory), she said, “Maybe someday I’ll have enough free time to do things like that, taking a class just for fun.”
It took me a beat to respond because I had to swallow a “fuck you” instead of letting it out. I’m generally a laugh instead of cry person, so I chuckled at her obvious joke, and told her, “It’s the one thing I do for myself. It’s so important, when almost every second of my life involves taking care of other people, to wedge in one small thing for me. It’s what keeps me from burning out on the thousand other responsibilities I have.” Which was really a long-winded, more socially acceptable form of “fuck you.”
For the record, I’ve forgiven her, even if she never had a clue she needed forgiveness. But lesson learned. If I had been paying someone else in a formal program to give me the information, it would garner admiration. Because I was constructing the road for the educational journey myself, my efforts were seen as the frivolous activities of someone without serious responsibilities who had too much time on her hands. I stayed mum after that…
With one significant exception. I took the risk of sharing my plan with some close mom friends who showed understanding and support. I had believed the only cheerleader I needed was myself, but their words sure bolstered me.
I persevered through my mother’s end of life, my two children reaching legal adulthood, kid number two moving away, followed shortly by kid number one moving away only to return a few weeks later, then kid two returning in a few more weeks. And eventually, my firstborn launching again. Me taking on a second job, a side hustle doing online transcription. Two vehicles getting totaled. Innumerable home repairs. Always, no matter what, I kept my studies near the top of my list of priorities. It was slow going at times, but I plugged away.
These last couple of years, I was down to simply electives. In February 2019, I did the math and realized I needed only three more credit hours. I’d just wrapped up a fiction editing course and was trying to choose my next topic when a copy of The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare dropped into my life for free. By “dropped into my life,” I mean I skimmed it off of the top of a box of books in a recycling bin on the loading dock at work, but whatever. I can interpret the signs how I want.
For my last and final subject, I would design my own course. I gave myself the assignment to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, also watching performances of them when possible, streaming online or on DVD. I would also write a page about each one. For a few, I found Great Courses lectures that were illuminating, as well. About two-thirds of the way through, I wondered why I hadn’t limited it to one category. Why didn’t I stick to only Shakespeare’s comedies or his tragedies? On the other hand, how many people can say they’ve read every last one of his plays? Nose to the grindstone, it took me nine months for this last class.
One day on my lunch break, I sat in the coffee shop of Lucky’s Market and wrote my final paper. I dotted in the last period and looked up, stunned. I had persisted and crossed the finish line. The world around me looked the same, people going about their mundane tasks. But in my spirit, it was all trumpets and confetti.
Some arrive at the destination by paved road. I came through the briars. The snags in my clothes, the scratches on my legs – those are my honors cords. I created my own maps for the journey, gathering knowledge in a basket I wove myself.
I started with one online class in 2011. And on Wednesday, November 6, 2019, at 1:35 in the afternoon, in a grocery store, I graduated from my own private, one-person university.
*It’s possible they really were talking in hypotheticals, but it felt directed toward me at the time, maybe because it jibed with my some of my own worst internal fears and doubts.
When it comes to Christmas songs, my heart beats to the rhythm of The Little Drummer Boy. I turn the volume up when it starts to play. I realize this puts me at odds with many adults who have this title on their list of least-liked holiday classics. My adoration has its roots in one specific Christmas-time memory that involved a few of my favorite things. Well, two. A book and a big brother.
I was six years old, and for Christmas I had received a copy of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book based on the song, with amazing can’t-stop-gazing illustrations. I could read it myself, albeit slowly. But I still preferred being read to, because that way I got attention and a book. With five older siblings, my odds were pretty good of roping someone in. On this particular day, it was the brother who is ten years my senior. So sixteen at the time.
The age difference between us was optimal for the development of hero worship. He was the sibling most often in charge of me, at least in those days, probably because the older kids were already wrapped up in getting their adult lives going. He was a pretty great babysitter — a patient and kind listener, who always made me feel safe. I thought he hung the moon.
He not only read the words in the book, he helped me think about the meanings and themes, asking occasionally if I understood or had any questions. My brother explained the ox and lamb keeping time and other mysteries of the text. But more important, he helped me understand the underlying message, that even a young child (like myself!) has something to offer. No matter if you are small, or poor in money, you can still be of service and use whatever abilities you possess to bring joy to others. Looking back, I see it’s what he was doing for me by offering his time and his understanding to help me enjoy the book and song even more.
I’m now in my fifties and he is in his sixties. We live in different states, but he remains an amazing big brother. I still think he hung the moon.