In the Classroom and the Snowy Wood

The student stands in front of the class panicking. She is a finalist in our school’s Poetry Out Loud competition and Robert Browning’s words seem to be stuck in her mouth.She is unable to move on from certain linesstarting and stoppingand it’s her third attempt to get through the poem. The room feels heavy with the weight of sympathy and discomfort.

I, too, am aching, remembering my many moments of agonizing during speeches. I can distinctly remember that feeling of having no air to breathe, the irrepressible shaking spreading over my body, the sensation of being outside of my own head. I know I’m not the only one feeling her pain and desperately rooting for her to succeed.

Suddenly, the student’s head drops. I‘m worried she might burst into tears and I brace myself, setting down my pen and scoring card. Instead of the sound of crying, though, I hear fingers begin to snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. It fills the room.

In my classroom, I have my students snap for each other after they share a piece of their writing. It’s a joke-y, cheesy thing a nod to Beatniks’ poetry readings in coffeehouses but something I hope will help them to support one another. I hope it’ll make the vulnerable act of sharing their own writing into something heartening or, at the very least, not traumatizing. Over the years, it’s become more than that.Sometimes it’s a way to express the profundity of someone’s insights; other times I catch students using it for each other as they nod in agreement.

But this? This snapping is the choice of one student to lift up another on the brink of personal defeat. It is the choice of the others to join in and raise her out of this moment of humility and despair. This is magic I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s heartwarming, golden, like the moment in a movie when the music starts swelling joyfully.

The snapping spreads through the room.”You can do it!” they call, joining together in their snaps. “You’ve got this!”

I think about this moment from time to time. How can I choose to put my fingers together and snap for someone to pull them out of a dark moment? How can I look around me and choose to reach out instead of turning inwards? It’s a choice I can make nearly every moment of every day. Lift up. Give your snaps.

—–

The inspiration and magic abounds in the day to day, too. I remember my parents telling me teasingly when I was younger that I wouldn’t like snow so much when I had to shovel it and drive it in, but my inner child continues to triumph. Snow is magic.

My favorite snow is the kind that falls in fat flakes and sticks to the branches. The beauty doubles when the snow is everywhere, and quadruples the next morning when the sun comes out and suddenly everything is glittering and golden.

We have a path that leads out of our backyard and into wooded acreage that is not ours and yet, I suppose, not not ours. On those rare mornings where the sun is glimmering through the snow-laden boughs, there is nothing I like more than to walk back into my own personal Narnia. 

The tracks of deer lead the way and it seems like every new view makes me pause in wonder. The evergreens seem more regal in their snowy dress. The gleaming ground shows tiny evidence of all of the abounding life, and the deadened sounds give me the same feeling of being in an ancient, empty church in Italy.

Today I am stopped in my tracks by the sunlight pouring through an oak leaf.

There’s a Native American story that was told to me as a child, the details of which I don’t really remember but think of often. A man was told he would die when the last leaf fell, but that last leaf never fell down, an explanation for why the oak never loses all of its leaves. It’s stuck with me but I don’t know why; maybe because I always choose stories over science.

Today I see that surviving leaf. It is resplendent in its resilience. The sunshine’s glow seems to mark the moment with extra significance and I stand here paying my homage.

I feel buoyed by its presence, by the transformation of something ordinary and plain into something dazzling and significant. This leaf persevered through fierce winds and brittle cold while every leaf around let go. It chose to battle on, even when all was hopeless, even through the hardest nights.

In the stillness of the snowy woods I am brought back to that special moment of snaps filling the classroom. It’s a moment that could be just like any other that has been made extraordinary.  My heart feels full with the sight of this glowing leaf, with the echo of those snapping fingers and cheers of encouragement.  Make the choice: hang on, persevere, lift up.

 

Words by Erin Smith.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

When I was fifteen years old, I attempted to read Of Mice and Men while sitting in the hallway of a hospital, but I was too nervous to absorb the words. My mom was in labor, and my sister and I were waiting to be called into the delivery room. Prior to that day, my only exposure to childbirth was what I had seen on TV or in the movies. Those cinematic depictions always involved a lot of yelling, frenetic energy, and intense pain followed by the arrival of a cleanly washed and freshly swaddled newborn. I thought I knew what I was in for. 

As my mom’s labor progressed, my dad came out to get us and when we entered her hospital room, I was immediately struck by how quiet and peaceful that room felt. My mom wasn’t screaming or writhing around in pain. Instead, she was breathing and getting through the current wave of contractions. As that wave subsided, she turned and smiled at my sister and me. The contractions became more frequent and painful, but my mom continued to remain calm and incredibly focused.  

At one point, I remember feeling scared because she was clearly struggling. Through gritted teeth, she announced that she didn’t think she could do this anymore. I didn’t know what this meant. Would they have to operate? Was there a problem? But before I could ask questions or even reach over to encourage her, she had shifted her position and refocused her gaze into one of determined ferocity, which resulted in the crowning of the baby’s head. And within minutes, I watched in awe as my beautiful baby sister entered the world coated in blood and vernix.  

It opened my eyes to the beauty and strength of childbirth. I have my mother to thank for that. 

*** 

It took us awhile to get pregnant with my son, and when it finally happened I quickly shifted from the agonizing rollercoaster ride of infertility to actively preparing for a natural childbirth experience. I read every childbirth book I could find. My husband and I attended Bradley Method classes, and I diligently practiced breathing and stretching exercises. I ate well. I modified my yoga practice. I did all the “right things.”   

But sudden pre-term labor led to bed rest, and round ligament pain turned out to be a life-threatening blood clot. On a chilly December morning, I woke up to discover that my left leg was purple, cold, and swollen like a misshapen eggplant. I could barely squeeze into a stretchy pair of maternity pants. My sister drove me to the hospital where my husband was a young resident in training. Within a few hours, I was medevacked to a larger hospital where the doctor brusquely declared I was in active labor. “You will be having this baby tonight,” he said, “but we will probably not be able to save both of you. You need to make some decisions.” He then turned and left the room. 

Breathe in, breathe out.  

Despite the glaring fluorescent hospital lights, the beeping machines, and the tiny room crowded with nurses; despite my frightened husband tightly gripping my hand, I was plunged into a dark and lonely place. Wanting this baby. Wanting to live. Wanting to be anywhere but here.  

In between gut-wrenching sobs, I was experiencing contractions. I was shaking and petrified to move for fear of dislodging the clot or making labor progress further towards delivery. I couldn’t trust my body. I had been doing all the right things, and yet this still was happening. And now I was being slammed into the grisly grey wall of mortality. The nurses kept telling me to breathe – Breathe in, breathe out – but I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Everything was moving too quickly. 

As day turned into night, my anxiety sky rocketed. I had a flashback to my junior year of college when I awoke to discover that a girl in my dorm had died unexpectedly in the middle of the night from a blood clot. Could that happen to me? I couldn’t erase the doctor’s words from my head: “You will be having this baby tonight.”  

I was exhausted, and yet I was too scared to sleep. Adrenaline, contractions, desperate prayers, and pleading with my husband to save our baby twisted themselves into a tornado that tore me apart over and over again.  

Breathe in, breathe out. 

When morning came, I was finally able to breathe a bit easier. My labor hadn’t progressed, which was an enormous relief. Someone turned on the TV and I was eventually able to nod off to sleep.  

The next two weeks in the hospital were punctuated by blood draws and injections of blood thinners. My arms, legs, and belly were covered with bruises, but I was slowly able to get up and walk more each day. Throughout all the trauma and stress, our baby continued to grow and move. He was weathering the big and little storms of this pregnancy. Early on, we decided to name him Noah, and now that name seemed to be even more fitting. 

My pregnancy was now officially labeled a high risk. I was allowed to go home, but the remaining months were shaped by daily visits to the local hospital for blood draws and monitoring. In addition to returning to my Bradley Method breathing exercises, I started meeting with a therapist. I was struggling with anxiety and working hard to trust my body and myself again. I wrapped myself up in the cheery yellow robe my sister had sewn for me and watched Christmas movies because they always had happy endings. I spent a lot of time rubbing my belly and talking to Noah, reassuring him and myself that everything would be ok. 

Breathe in, Breathe out.  

A day before my scheduled induction date, I suddenly went into labor. On the drive to the hospital, I was battling my anxiety, imagining all the possible worst-case scenarios: dislodging the clot that was still there, having a complication with the baby, bleeding out because of the high dose of blood thinners still in my body, and needing pain medications but not being able to take them because of my current medications.  

I dreaded the thought of returning to the hospital where I had felt scared and overwhelmed during my previous stay. I tried to combat these thoughts with the visualization exercises I had been practicing with my therapist. I tried to remember the breathing techniques from my Bradley classes. Nothing seemed to work, and the rising panic grew more intense with each contraction. 

Breathe in, Breathe out.  

When we entered our assigned birthing room, I requested that they keep the lights dim and asked them to fill up the large tub with water. The fears were still clinging to me, but my focus shifted to the intense contractions that were starting to make me gasp. I entered the warm water, and transitioned to a deeper place within myself. It was similar to my previous hospital experience, but instead of being dark and scary, this was a space of surprising strength and focused calm.  

There was something powerful about being fully immersed in warm water and darkness. I was finally able to breathe – deep, focused, calming breaths that came from a place I didn’t know I had within me. Anchored to my breath in a way I had never experienced before, my body was doing exactly what it needed to do. My mind was fully engaged on laboring. My worries had no space here. Diving down into the surreal peace like I had I seen my own mother do during her labor, I was able to go deeper with each inhalation.  

Breathe in, breathe out. 

A few hours later, Noah was born healthy and without complications. Our doctor started to sing “Happy Birthday,” and with tears streaming down his face, he handed Noah to me for the first time. Holding his tiny body tight to mine, I was overcome with crazy, heart-piercing joy and love. All the years of wanting a baby of our own, all the months of scary ups and downs, melted into the background and were replaced with pure elation. He was here. He was really here. And I was, too. 

 

Words and image by Lucia Saperstein.

Back and Forth with Joy

“I want you to have some joy,” says the writing on the wall.  

It’s my own writing, someone else’s words — words from a good listener during a hard season ten years ago. She said many words to me, and some of them stuck. I worked memorable sentences into a watercolor painting of a quilt, mostly blues and aquas and ambers, each letter of each word written in stitch-like dotted lines.  

“Hold the hope in front of you.”
“There are corrections to our course.”
“Let go of fear.” 
“I want you to have some joy.”  
“Do not let feelings rule you.” 
“Don’t go where there’s no food.”  
“It’s about surrender.” 
“What action will you take?”  

The picture is at eye level near the door in my bedroom, where I can see it every time I leave the room. I can go weeks without looking at it. One day in December, I glanced, and my eyes fell on that line: “I want you to have some joy.”  

I have more joy than I did when she said that to me. But less than I’d like.  

A friend and I were recently talking about joy, in the context of a decluttering guru’s method for ruthlessly sorting through possessions. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what someone says about the joy of folding socks just right,” I told her. I had recently had to examine and throw away some damaged possessions, which left me weary of the work of maintaining stuff, and of the impulses that led to collecting it over decades. I can’t afford to let “Does it give me joy?” determine whether something is a keeper. I don’t want objects to be my containers for joy.  

In December, joy is an in-your-face word. Joy Joy Joy Joy, said glitter-covered ornaments on a tree in the church lobby. JOY JOY JOY JOY, said the ribbon wrapped throughout a large wreath in the coffee room. Foot-high letters proclaimed it in a most unexpected place: a wooden sign over the door inside the bathroom.  

Joy was the last word the choir sang in our thirty-minute cantata, one long loud chord that made our songbooks vibrate in our hands. “Joy to the World,” the middle school children sang when I walked into the airport.  

It will be January when these words see the light of day. We think of the turn of the year as a time to look forward — ring out the old, ring in the new. Certainly, it has often been that for me. So many new notebooks begun on January 1, with a long list of hopes and intentions for the year.  

But January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. He is depicted as two-faced, one looking forward, one looking back. And those forward-looking pages of resolutions were often based on things left undone in the previous year. So I’d finish my hopeful list, and look back at the previous year’s January 1 entry … and see so many items repeated.  

At some point I stopped making resolutions and started choosing a word for the year, before I knew it was a thing. Sometimes it stayed with me all year; sometimes it was forgotten before summer. Sometimes the events of life made the word an ironic choice, a swimming-upstream choice, like something tucked into a backpack that seems like a treat at the start of a journey and ends up being a resented but necessary weight by the end.  

Thing is, I want to have some joy too. And I can’t look backward and find it (or what passed for it) in the places I used to, like playing music with friends who are now a thousand miles away, or bringing home yet another new book or another shiny object from the secondhand store up the street.  

So what is joy? I have often said fun is overrated and joy is underrated. Yet I don’t fully know what I mean by that, except that fun is momentary, both as flashy and as transitory as fireworks, while joy seems both quieter and more enduring. The dictionary calls joy a feeling of great pleasure and happiness, or a source of such feeling. Way way back, it’s from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Joy to the world, the Lord is come 

Another friend has written to me asking for help. We both like to go to a biennial writing festival, and she has increasing mobility problems. She needs assistance getting around. She’d pay my way, she says. But she doesn’t want to be a burden. Be honest, she tells me.  

Even before I read the part about paying my way, I think about how much fun she is to be with, how much we laugh when we’re together, how lonely I was a few months ago when I went to a beloved conference without a buddy. I think about all the ways she has helped me, given me a place to stay, fed me, found a mechanic when something was wrong with my car, even shown hospitality to my cat.  

It would be my joy to do this for you, I tell her.  

Honestly, I don’t like talking about my “word of the year.” I don’t even call it a word of the year. But I like to have one. This one seems to be choosing me. I open an old notebook and see words from a mentor at a time of transition: “Wait and think that an unfolding joy is your aim in the world.” 

A deadline is looming, another is past, and I should stay here at the table typing. But I need to buy a box of Christmas cards for an elderly relative, and I’d like to do it at the fair-trade shop down the street. A walk in the cold would clear my head.  

As soon as I step onto the sidewalk, something catches my eye. A huge bird is flying up to the steeple on the church next door. Often, sparrows hang out on the cross and metal ring atop the steeple, but at this moment there’s only the huge white-bellied bird. A hawk? In eighteen months, I’ve never seen one there.  

I walk maybe ten paces, a car passes, and then that bird-body freefalls toward the sidewalk. Gasp! Tears, something in the throat tightening, something in the chest opening. It opens its wings catches the air, and glides maybe twenty feet above the ground, along the street, past me. Yep, a red tail. Finally it lifts itself and disappears over a rooftop. All in fifteen seconds or less. I’d have utterly missed it if I hadn’t gone out at that moment, and looked up when movement caught my eye. I’m not certain what joy is, but I know it when I see it.  

 We walk into every year like this, having some idea where we’re going, and no idea what will come along. A year from now, I don’t want to look back in disappointment. I don’t want to still be singing old laments. And I don’t want to be arguing with my oldest friend over folding socks.  

 All right, joy. Have your way with me.  

 

Words by Laura Brown.