Griefburst

“It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe

Life is beautiful and life is painful.

Anger is a foreign feeling to me; I am uncomfortable with it, and it makes me feel fear. The fear stems, I think, from the concern that my anger may become uncontrollable, like my dad’s was.

Lately, I have been feeling a lot of anger. I now understand why people smash up their apartments when they get upset, yell, scream, and cry. I understand the 5 year olds in my care who tear up their classrooms. I am frustrated.

For years, for ages, for my whole life almost, I blamed my dad for everything wrong that happened. When he was dying, my brother and I thought my mom would get better somehow, after he died. But she didn’t. And I didn’t (this is most important). I realized that the problems came from both of them, not from just one.

Last night I realized that one of the reasons I am so angry with my mom is that she didn’t take care of herself, didn’t protect herself, let alone her kids. I had a grief attack Monday that started innocuously enough; I thought that Cody wasn’t listening to me and I became steadily afraid of him taking advantage of me financially (this happened in my first marriage), and devolved into me not really knowing what I was saying but refusing to end an argument that wasn’t based on anything real. At 11:30, I became scared and sad. I went into the front yard and cried. The dog looked at me with a worried expression. I came inside and cried some more.

The next morning, I realized that I had been acting like my Dad; after all, we are very similar. I lost control over my emotions, and what I was saying, and let it all come out in a way that made no sense. The next afternoon, I apologized to Cody and asked him to help me stay grounded.

My grief is stemming from the loss of my father, realizations about my mother, my relationships with both my parents, the recent loss of my friend Mary Ann, and my experiences at my job. I have never hated a job before, and, in reality, I quit this job that day when the 5-year-old brought a gun to school. That was the third week of school. We are almost at Week 16. In other words, I am overloaded and I exploded. I asked Cody to help me stay grounded, stay focused, to re-align myself by asking me to come back to conversations later, and to refocus by taking time to make something. I am finding that only when I am making things do I feel almost ok.

My grief is overwhelming. Little Patience is sad and tired. Little Patience feels that my parents tried their best, but they did a lousy job. Adult Patience hates the job I worked really hard to get, not knowing what the job really was in the present state of education in Texas. Present Patience, strong though I am, is incredibly sad that I was the person who brought Mary Ann to the doctor the day she was told she was dying, the person who arrived first the morning she died and watched waves of people awkwardly enter and leave that space and witnessed my friend Von be so sad and there was nothing I could do for her. I was also the person who packed up the apartment with and for her sister Pearl when all the other friends couldn’t see past themselves enough to help. I say that I am incredibly sad because I am, not that I regret being there in any of those moments; those moments just were and are incredibly, soul-shakingly sad.

Tonight I looked up the world’s strongest animal; it is the dung beetle, the scarab. When I was weeping with the grief counselor a few days ago, she said she felt my strength in all my stories. I am trying to get there; trying to cross that bridge from sorrow to accepting that God only gives us what we can handle. I have learned that when things are really hard, that is very difficult to remember.

A Letter Written the Day After Your Funeral

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine –

Witch-Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay

You once told me, when I described the trouble I was having staying asleep, that I should get up in the wee hours and write my memoirs. After all, that was what Patti Smith had done! I listened.

Yesterday we held the art show for you: the one you talked about every day until the day you left us. The art show had your shadowboxes and your bones and dead things, your bed, your cushions, some clothes, and most of the jewelry. None of your paintings made the cut; I am looking at one right now. I love the Fossil Hunters. I was interviewed by the videographer whilst wearing no lipstick, my Patagucci jacket, and frazzled hair. He said what I said was “great”.

Later in the day, I had had too much wine and was admiring Gary and Mary’s advanced 14-month-old baby ruling the roost like she was at least two, and we talked about past relationships and past lives and that time he saved all of us when we moved you out of the big house on the hill. Last week I learned about how the people you lived with really didn’t want you to move out; both parties the same, but different. Two locations, a similar feel. I will write my treatise on devil’s bargains later. Today is just a letter to you.

All day I thought I would come around a corner and see you laughing. It was unbelievably cold yesterday; fog descended upon the city and everything was cast in white-grey. The light was lovely. Vivian and I dressed the mannequin in a wonderful yellow-and-orange outfit; two kimonos and a yellow shirt dress and a necklace made of hundreds of charms. Behind the mannequin, in the window, hung jewels and pearls and chains, as well as the chandeliers. We made the room look like you had just left it after getting ready to go to a party.

I knew you, we knew each other, through so many different lives. Vivian knew you through more; she and I bonded during Covid over our shared moment in life. We bonded again during your death as we aimed to protect you ever still from people who sought to own parts of you, thinking your things would help fill the void. You, wiser than they, knew better.

I got to know your sister and her children over the last few weeks. She and I cried together and I became buddies with Aabah especially, laughed with Saabira, and stared into Faatina’s eyes, tearing up when I realized she will never know you because she is too little. Yesterday, I carried Aabah into the dressing room and said, “do you see Beth’s clothes?”. She nodded and said, “sometimes Mama gets very sad when she thinks about Beth”. I said, “we all do because we can’t talk to her anymore. But one day, you will wear this jewelry and that is how we will remember her”. She nodded.

Downstairs, just before we sang “So Long, Marianne”, Noah and I met and talked and he shared with me that he thought, he suspected, that you never wanted people to see the art while you were alive. We remarked on how mysterious you were in moments, how contrary. He said that he thought if you had had the show while you were still alive, you wouldn’t have come. I suspect he knows a thing or two (please see me winking to you here).

Yesterday I woke up and could barely get out of bed. It felt like the morning, at 4am on November 10th of last year, when I was woken by my mother to go to the hospital. I sat on the couch in the living room that morning and said to myself, “ok. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said to myself, “you can do this”. I said to myself yesterday, “you can do this”. I drank coffee and red wine and forgot to eat, but I did it. I went to sleep at 830 and woke up twelve hours later.

I said that yesterday it felt like I would walk around a corner and see you. Today it felt like I didn’t believe you are gone. I don’t believe it. You will come back, won’t you? I can talk to you again, can’t I? I know the true answers. I must remember you in my heart and mind.

Remembering you telling me you were having a heart attack (it was steroids) and speeding through tiny coastal towns until we reached a hospital, running inside, and announcing, “someone has to help me, my friend has cancer!”. The doctor was a jerk and we stole all sorts of things from the ER room, remember? Or when we walked through London trying to find strange buildings, and ate ramen and saw the city at night, and had cappuccinos under the Albert Memorial, and saw the jewelry at the V&A. Or when we went to Mexico and took mushrooms at Mimi’s mom’s ranch, drank too much cheap wine in Amanda’s trailer in Port O’Connor, cooked spaghetti and told our life stories in the dark, got stuck in sand bars, found skulls and skeletons, shopped at thrift shops, drank frozen rose on the one day you were angry at having cancer. So many more memories; the day we learned that you would die from your doctor, except we didn’t know you would die less than 4 weeks later.

I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. We had so much more to do. I will take you with me, see and feel you everywhere. The other day the sunset blew up the sky in orange and blue and I said, “Hi Beth”. I wonder if you are sitting on the couch behind me whilst I type, just out of reach; as I turn to check, will you slip away?

THE TIME you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

To An Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman

All of Us

There was the one with the haunted heart, the one who feigned understanding; there was the one who had no time, and there was the one who worried. There was the one who sang to her in the depths, and the one who stood on the sidelines, watching. There was the one who kept the house and pushed all the feelings away. There was the one who said, “wow” in love and wonder. There was the one who breathed Italy and made pasta and asked nothing of anyone, only gave true love and feeling. There was the doctor a la distance, who made everyone well.

And then there was her.

She stood, sat, and laid, in the middle, fading away. Over the years it had begun to wear on her; you could see it in pictures, even if you couldn’t see it in real life.

The whole cast of characters stepped in to help that last month; in 12-hour shifts they monitored and assisted and wondered. The one who worried worried so much that it stole her away from her family, temporarily. She was the one who was there in the end, when it became so quiet.

She left us early in the morning one week ago; stealing off in the silence and the dark, saying her goodbye quietly, in the twilight sleep when everyone thought she would be there tomorrow.

They all wonder where she is today as they gaze upon her beauties, her treasure chest, her hoarde of collectibles that together make a life. What to do with such beauty? Hold fast, hold together: the one with the haunted heart seeks to haunt others, but the others resist and remember the love at the center of it all.

Where do they go?

Circle of Life Week

I really wish I had some chocolate but will have to settle for a glass of red wine, a cat, and a small dog.

What is it about tragedy that really brings out the sweet tooth?

Beth left us yesterday, after a thirteen or fourteen-year battle with cancer. When I introduced Cody to her, seven years ago, he said, “THAT’s Beth?”. It was hard to believe that she had cancer. She never looked like she was sick, never, until the last ten months. There was a dwindling to be sure, but the spark was still there. She was cracking jokes with me on Saturday, and talking about visiting Italy; she was still inspired and impassioned by special cheese and offered one coffee. Even as she passed in and out of consciousness as I worked my massage-energy-love-magic, she was vitally there. She was talking til the very, very end.

I just spoke with one of our oldest, mutual friends: Meg of the terrible Russian accent and electric tooth-brush (if you know, you know). We talked about old, dark apartments and beach trips and first marriages and mysteries and how maybe there were only a few people who knew the whole story of Beth, and maybe we were lucky to be in the 4 or 5 who did. The allure, the glamour, of Beth was to have her close, in a small space, and in that space, she would reveal everything. As time progressed, despite the circle becoming larger, the reveal became less and less. Perhaps that was part of the lesson; to observe, to participate, to laugh, to travel, rather than to be truly known.

I don’t know.

Yesterday morning, just after finding out about her leaving our frame of reality, I took Oscar (the dog) out to walk the land, as is our daily, early-morning custom. I now go to work extraordinarily early (damn you, elementary school!), and we walk each morning, in the dark. It was foggy, dark, and cool. The air seemed to drip; it hung in milky shrouds. The fog clouds felt held in the air like curtains on so many windows. I said, “well, hello Beth. So you are the fog now?”.

I have written many times about my friend Meredith who died ten years ago and who I still talk to, and who still laughs at me. Beth didn’t laugh at me, but smiled, in that Beth way. I said, “well, we never made it to Maine, so I will just take you there with me and show you all the most beautiful places.”

To lose people is so difficult, for me. No more talking. No more sharing. No more confirmation in the mutually shared delusion which is our friendships with one another.

I already miss her. It has been 1.5 days. She died November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos/ All Saints Day. My dad died November 10th. My cousin’s dad died November 6th. Cody’s birthday is November 6th. The veils are thin between life and death at this time of the year.

I heretofore name this period: the Circle of Life Week. Death, birth, life, and all the parts in the middle.

I still wish I had chocolate. Good night.

Dark Apartments, Stingrays & Terrible Shoes

There were noises the other night: creaks and movements in the dark. These were noises that I hadn’t heard for three years since I had last taken care of a loved one in the night. They were the sounds of someone moving around who recently had a normal bed that makes no creaks and the strange plastic sounds of an airbed with a human being moving upon it.

I met her in a dark apartment in Dallas, a hundred years and 7 lifetimes ago. By that I mean 21 years, when we were 21 and 22 years old. She made plastic jewelry in her oven in her own dark apartment, but it was in the dark apartment of our friend Ashley that we met. Ashley knew about makeup and exfoliation and hung giant pieces of fabric from her ceiling. Her boyfriend who would become her first husband barely spoke to me and never spoke to Beth. She talked about the smell of the plastic jewelry as it baked in the oven and how it was probably toxic. Toxic, but geometric; it was clear in spots and opaque in others. Squares danced upon rectangles intermingled with other shapes, too.

Later, it was raining in July at the Tarpon Motel in Port O’Connor, Texas. I was in this crazy moment of rejecting a corporate career; upon reflection, I just realized that was the last time I hated my job. But I digress. It was raining. Raining, raining. Beth sat on the second queen bed in the room. She was wearing a very fashionable hat and was very quiet. She was very quiet a lot then. We went, during a break in the rain, to drink cheap beer on the dock of the marina next door with Billy’s mom, Lynn. Lynn was great; she was a strong woman and was so loving to her kids. She was great until she wasn’t; like all of us.

During that trip, we were assured that Ashley’s brother knew how to navigate the shallow waters of the gulf and could take us to Matagorda Island to a friend’s cabin. Adam ran aground within minutes and we were stuck trying to get an outboard out of the mud, all the while conscious of possible stingrays beneath our feet. When we made it to the island, it was unbelievably hot and the cabin just had screens over the windows. The screens had holes in them, or the door did, or something, because the heat and the mosquitoes were unbearable and we abandoned ship quite soon to shimmy back in the water and the mud to the mainland.

Then there was the time we went searching for a building like the Pompidou Centre in London. I was wearing terrible shoes; a trait that Beth constantly chides me for. Terrible shoes! They were beautiful vintage men’s loafers that were the complete opposite of what one should wear while walking through London. We had lunch at the Barbican and found the building, and my damn feet hurt, and we ate vegan ice cream in a strange downtown coffee shop in the finance district and took the Tube during rush hour. She was sick, even then, and even during those days was having reactions to chemo that made her unable to do much because she was so itchy and having a hard time sleeping. We did, however, walk around London at night and eat ramen in Mayfair and Indian food near Buckingham Palace and have cappuccinos (I think) at the Albert Memorial after seeing a show at the Serpentine with Alberto and Reuben.

I just spent the evening in my workshop, applying gold leaf to a lantern I have been working on for a friend for years. We played on the wood it is made out of when it was a tree. For years, we have played on this tree. I took Matthew’s graduation photos on it. About ten years ago, it finally died after one last winter storm. I culled its bark and have hauled it around with me since. I sat tonight, applying gold leaf and thinking about how much life changes, and how losing people is so difficult. Losing people is hard for me because I can’t talk with them anymore, I can’t hear their voices anymore, and I worry about losing my memories of them. I think: do I want to be in a world without them? The answer is of course, yes, but it is a sharper world; the visions are more dear, colorful, passionate, and valuable. The big things are bigger and the little things fade into complete unimportance.

So it goes.

I will miss you.

On a Late Evening

Last night I was up at 2am dreading the reality of the drudgery of the every day.

Lately, I am up almost every night around 2-3am, running scenarios around in circles in my mind; scenarios that I think I handle well enough, but nevertheless fill me with worry, dread, concern, and questions.

I read a poem yesterday all about being awake at 3am, knowing one’s family is asleep and at peace, and sitting in a quiet house, writing. So here I am.

My friend Beth is slipping away; she is leaving us. Since she and I went to the doctor about three weeks ago, she has begun to change, alter, shift, move, and become something else. Sometimes she is totally normal, sometimes she makes little sense, sometimes she is up, and sometimes she is away. Such is this mystery we call death. Her liver is failing due to years of chemotherapy; cancer will not kill her, cancer medicine will.

A year ago, I was up in Maine, wandering the streets of Bar Harbor in tears, trying to figure out how to feel about losing a father who was both a giant thorn in my side and a guiding light in my perception of reality. Turns out, he was both at the same time, always. A year ago, I caught myself in the sunlight of autumn in Maine, in an alley, with ice cream. I was stuck, you see, in the light and in the shadow.

On the night that he died, I looked at all the photos of him and I from when I was a baby until recent days. That night I felt like I had fallen over a cliff’s edge and was falling into a space with no bottom. He died at about 4am, alone, as made sense for him. We had been with him for the preceding 9 days when he fought leaving this mortal coil tooth and nail and lived for those 9 days with no water or food.

Beth is different. Her passing is more peaceful, and more supported by friends and caretakers. Each day she slips away from us more and more; her body failing, her spirit partially here, partially somewhere. She ebbs and flows like the river, like the tide. Today we talked and she told me that my massages make her feel better, she asked me if I would leave Cody for a wealthier husband (I think this was a joke), and she asked me if I was going to a pottery festival. She told me that my bracelet, currently in an art show, is better than she had thought it would be. She told me that her family is here to see her, and that they are crying a lot, but that we all have to process in different ways.

I am fascinated by the process of death, and I am convinced it is not the end of our existence; it is only a change of form, like how soil is formed by hundreds of faded leaves, or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly through the mystery of the structure of the chrysalis.

I am fascinated also by our choices, and how they bring us to these points in our lives that are pivotal. I wrote earlier about a 5-year-old child bringing a loaded gun to my school; I recently learned that there are DNA and fingerprint kits being sent to districts across the state to help parents identify their children in the event of them being killed at school. The death cult becomes a blood cult. All the while, in the background, children are learning to read and be happy with each other and eat snacks and go to recess. My vision of my dad changes in my mind. Beth dies. I wrestle with the fact that although this job is not right for me, I do not regret it because I have learned so much. I will continue to learn every day.

Tomorrow is October 23rd. How many more days do any of us have? When will I lose my friend? Will the date be significant or will it simply be a marker for my memory? Are those two things different?

In the meantime, Cody worries about his son, his job, the house, the future, about his all-encompassing desire to be *away*. I do not wish to be away now, but I do wish for a change, a move from this place of strange obsession with guns.

Our friend Ben took a series of photos of Beth in a blue silk dress with pointed sleeves in her bed; she wanted them taken before she gets a hospital bed. She is, forever, an aesthete, a Dadaist, an artist, and a beloved person. There is one photo of her drinking her dandelion tea (good for the liver), and her cheekbones match the sharp corners of her dress’ shoulders. The maker’s mark of the teacup is sharp like her figure; tiny in a big bed, in a big room, surrounded by light, plants, and chandeliers.

She is hosting an art show November 19, a la Frida Kahlo; she will be in her bed, in a house that is pending renovation and so is a perfect setting for a dying person’s one-and-only art show. We will say goodbye in our best clothes, naturally. So many goodbyes in this life; it is hard to hold on to the present. We say goodbye to concepts, assumptions, definitions, parents, and friends. May we allow ourselves and everyone else to change.

It is midnight. Time to try to sleep; but if it doesn’t come, I will be back here in the peaceful moments: 3am tranquility.

I Hope It’s Not Just Me

I just looked out the window and it is dark.

9:00 p.m. and pitch black!

On my morning walks, I have been noticing a change to the light, but tonight I first noticed a change to the dark. The autumn is coming. I started walking every morning in March of 2020, and now I see the sunrise every day. I used to be a sunset person, but now I am a sunrise and a sunset person. Both occurrences so important, so uniquely beautiful; one of my takeaways from the times of the pandemic is that each day is so, so precious.

I lost my Dad starting now, last year. Starting now, his health switched and he began to sound different. Starting now, he left. Starting now, this year, I see the light shifting and slanting; more golden, it delivers a punch each day. It is as if it is saying: pay attention! See me! And I do.

Aging is beautiful except for two things: your body hurts and people you love begin to die. Aging teaches you so much if you are willing to see it, just like the light, and the dark.

Tonight we had chicken and potatoes and salad. Tonight we watched a documentary about psilocybin. The dog desperately wanted chicken and potatoes and salad, or so he thought.

Tomorrow it will get dark even earlier. I am loving this strange August that is cooler and rainier than June and July. Climate change is this great, scary mystery. We never know what this season will bring, or how the weather will be affected.

With a smile I watch the change. Last year, at this time, I had no idea what changes were about to occur. A year later, now, I understand just a little bit more.

Time Traveling

It all started with Mr. Yousef on Thursday.

Or perhaps, it had been percolating for a few weeks, and Mr. Yousef crystallized it in my Principal’s office, on that Thursday.

I sat at the conference table with him, talking about attendance and truancy and COVID, and I realized how many years I have been serving students in schools like my current one. I thought, in an instant, about how confusing and terrifying being new can be: you have no idea what the schools really do, or what they are like, or how the beauty at the core of them, the children, MUST be our core commitment, despite all the pitfalls and policy changes.

The thoughts led me back to Gus Garcia Middle School, in the fall of 2007: 15 years ago.

Gus Garcia has been popping up lately as it has come to my attention that a large number of those of us who taught there and who opened that school are now administrators in Austin ISD and Elgin ISD. It is definitely true that the difficult experiences at Garcia led us to leadership.

Let’s do a roll call….Dr. Melvin Bedford, once AP, is now Principal at Austin High School. Chara Harris, once a math teacher, is now Principal of Murchison Middle School. Brandy Gratten, once an English teacher, is the Principal of Martin Middle School. Ben McCormack, once an English teacher, is the Principal of St Elmo Elementary. De’Sean Roby, once Instructional Coach, is Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Tasha Bedford, once an English teacher, is Assistant Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Kalandra Williams, once a math teacher, is Assistant Principal of Neidig Elementary School. And me, Patience Blythe, once a science teacher, is Assistant Principal of Booker T Washington Elementary School.

As I sat in that room with Mr. Yousef, talking about attendance policy and telling him that I am known for being very, very, very aware of student attendance, I thought about those years, and why so many of us became administrators.

For many years, I have shied away from writing about the experiences I had at Gus Garcia. My issues with understanding life-work balance while working there were definitely contributing factors to my divorce in 2009. although I do believe that our marriage wouldn’t have worked no matter where either of us was working. I have shied away from it because the experiences were so intense, and so of their moment. We went through the financial crisis at that school and the election of Barack Obama; these events fundamentally changed public schools. They perhaps felt too close for real examination; I also didn’t want to upset anyone in the retelling.

But here we are, 15 years later, and schools have changed so much. In many ways they are better, and yet, the results for poor children remain the same. I wonder why that is. I have some ideas, which I will share here as the year progresses. This is my first year as an Assistant Principal, and my mentor has asked me to remember to write about it. I will.

But to go back to that meeting on Thursday afternoon with Mr. Yousef; it was one of those meetings that sends you back in time, and through time, and provides you a deep reflection on the present: that everything you have done has brought you to that exact moment in time. At that moment, we talked about truancy and withdrawing students, and I sat in that beautiful office, in that school building, and again realized that I am so lucky to have so many years of experience with which to refer.

On the day before, I was in a training for SAMA, which for those of you who are not in schools or institutional settings, is a practice of de-escalating crises that works very well. I mentioned to Wednesday’s instructor that, at Garcia, all of the teachers were trained in SAMA due to the level of need at that campus.

In other words, all roads in my mind are leading to Garcia at this moment.

It is time.

When I returned to Austin ISD in 2015 after a four-year absence, the gentleman looking at my paperwork said, “Oh. You were at Garcia. There were a lot of problems there.” I said, “Yes, there were. Whose fault do you think that was?”

Let’s dive in.

Garcia Middle School was built up on a hill, in East Austin, on the east side of 183 off Loyola Lane. It is a beautiful building that looks like a community college. The first time I went into the building, it was just a shell, and we wandered through it being told where this would be, and that. We had planning meetings in the construction trailer out front. Most of the staff had come over from Porter Middle School, which had recently been closed in South Austin.

When the school opened, it was beautiful. Huge windows let the light shine in on the east and west side. Each grade level section was painted a different color: orange, blue, and yellow. Each classroom had a plasma screen television (these were the days before Promethean boards). Each area had its own workroom with its own copier and its own computer lab (these were also the days before Chromebooks). There was a patio off the cafeteria that was planted with native plants. I was the most experienced science teacher with one year of teaching experience.

When I think about Garcia, I don’t want to enumerate its flaws and faults or describe all the things that went wrong there. To me, there is little point in dwelling on those things, and I don’t want people to feel I am pointing fingers or blaming anyone for what happened. I find it comforting and inspiring that so many of us who were young teachers there are now administrators at high-needs campuses in this area; this shows that we all learned a lot in those years, and decided to take a path that would make sure the things that happened at Garcia would never happen again under our watch.

But despite the desire to not talk about the problems, the formative aspects of my three years at Garcia keep popping up. Why is that? Is it because my time at Garcia was my first experience of true leadership? Conversely, my first experience at understanding what lack of leadership can do? Perhaps.

At Garcia, we went through three principals in one year. The first one left us in December. Before she left, she held an assembly in the gym and yelled at everyone in a voice I will never forget: it was a voice of desperation, sadness, defeat, and acknowledgment that what she had done had not worked. She was replaced by an amazing changemaker who came into that school with his giant gold rings, announcements on the PA, reward systems for students and teachers, and songs in the cafeteria. He changed everything in mere weeks. The third was a principal that no one liked; she divided the cliques and friend groups. She was challenging. She broke the staff apart to rebuild it. She was the only person in my three years there who could get the students to listen to her and only her simply by asking. She could talk to them. When I decided to leave, she asked me, “So….how is Bedichek Middle School?”. I told her that I had to learn how to teach; that all I knew was how to control classes but I needed to learn the other aspects of teaching. She and other administrators there told me that there are kids who need help everywhere. They were, of course, right.

One of my takeaways from being in Title 1 public schools for so long is that people with years of experience have opinions and observations that are priceless; they are diamonds. You may not agree with everything, but there is a truth that resonates and is useful to apply to your own situation. Ultimately, experience gives us perspective so that when big changes occur, like what is happening now, we remember and know that we will make it through this, too. Younger teachers don’t know this. I didn’t know this back in 2007 at Garcia Middle School.

I had two rooms at Garcia: first one without a window, and later, one with two gorgeous windows on the second floor that I often opened each morning because the fog would roll into the classroom and I loved it. It was a very foggy place; a hilltop that was covered in cloud in the early mornings and backed up to a greenbelt that was never named as such due to where it was in the city. In the back of the room, I had a coffee maker that some other teachers used. When I wasn’t at school, which was rare, students would open the windows and throw textbooks onto the roof of the first floor.

During transitions, why do we drift backward into memory? Does it ground us somehow? Remind us that if we survived then, we will survive now? Do the memories help us interpret the realities of this moment? It is hard to say.

I don’t know what stories from Garcia will pop up here. Will it be the time we made cricket houses in the science elective and I didn’t realize that crickets eat cardboard and all the crickets escaped to be found by the custodians? Will it be how the 8th graders self-segregated in class every time you turned your back on them? Will it be the city gang truce meeting in the library? Will it be the time that student brought a giant knife in a Jordans box to kill me? Will it be the time the two boys got in a fight and one shot the other one in the face (both survived)? Will it be how the kids stashed drugs in the upstairs 7th-grade boys’ bathroom ceiling tiles and sold them at lunch? Will it be the time I was observed by the district and a boy was walking across the tops of lab tables while another was hiding in a cabinet, and others were making and sending darts into the ceiling tiles and yet, I still received a positive evaluation? Will it be the time that I wrote a blog post about advisory that somehow was picked up by a national publication and ended up on the front page of the Austin American Statesman? Or will it be completely different memories? We shall see.

If I could share one truth about serving students in Title 1 schools with anyone who would listen at this exact moment in time, it would be this; if you are not in the schools, you have no idea what happens within them, and you do not understand their importance. The importance of the schools is critical; it is key to the future of the country as a whole. The more they get broken down, under-funded, criticized, or have unfunded mandates applied to them (I am looking at you, HB 4545), the impacts on the children and adults in the schools are massive.

I remember when President Obama was elected, when Dr. Helen Johnson became principal, when TEA came in to audit our campus, and we began to talk about this new test called STAAR. It all happened there, at that campus. So many things happened there, and I can remember so many of them vividly; they were that intense and meaningful.

At that school, I wore striped knee socks every day; I had probably 10 or so pairs. The students asked me why I wore them every day, and I told them it was because I had prison tattoos on my legs and I couldn’t show them. Would I say this today? Definitely not. But the kids loved it and thought it was hilarious. They called me “Colorful” there, not Ms. Blythe, and never once questioned how someone who had been in prison could be their teacher, let alone this tall, weird, white lady. In fact, those students *insisted* that I was not white. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant.

What is happening in the schools this year is heartbreaking: how can there be so many openings? One of the biggest things I learned at Garcia is how I cannot solve the world’s problems; I can only hope to influence a small group of people in front of me. I learned about the importance of the students in my care, and the teachers that I could help. As our year begins, my current campus has the lowest turnover rate in our district and only has one open position. That tells me a lot about our school. That tells me we can grow; we have a whole crew of caring people who chose to stay after the hardest year I have ever experienced as a public school educator.

I wish I could take you all, the general public, the Texas state legislature, the US Congress and Senate, and bring you into the schools. You would see the needs; you would meet the students and you would see how much they need access to a high-quality education delivered by caring adults. School is another form of nutrition; anyone who tells you it isn’t critical to every child has some hidden agenda that I am not interested in understanding. I wish I could bring you into these classrooms; like the time at Garcia, when I had the most bonkers class I had ever had up to that point. The students never stopped talking: I didn’t know how to help them calm down then, and I randomly, in desperation, put on a video of Charlie Chaplin. Almost instantly, they asked, “why is no one talking?” They then completely calmed down, and from then on, Charlie Chaplin videos were rewards in that class. To that end, one day I told the students that I had lost my voice and could not speak, and they had to find ways to help me communicate. All of a sudden, everyone could raise their hands before speaking.

Schools are magical and majestic. But mostly, they are critically important to the lives of children. Throughout the pandemic, the lives of children have been an afterthought. They have not been our priority. Government leaders seemed to think they would just bounce back and be fine after all of the time away from school. Those of us in the schools understand that this concept is a false assumption; the time away was damaging to so many of them, in many ways that we, as adults, will probably never truly understand.

I thank you for joining me here and reading my ramblings about grief, life, schools, and our country. I do love it so. I love its children most of all. I hope you do, too, even if you don’t have any of your own. And I do hope you think about how important school was for you, and act in kind.

Hot Days in My Mind’s Eye

It all makes sense, in a strange sort of way. The nebulous feeling; cloudlike and hanging about in the air.

Is it the pandemic? Is it the fear of constant shortage; today it is baby food, but what about tomorrow?

Is it that all the children have stayed inside for two years and now don’t know how to go outside, how to play, how to think for themselves or learn? Is it the overdependence on testing over knowledge?

Is it the fast pace of it all; Googling answers takes no time. There iss no thrill of the chase of discovery anymore. There iss too much available at the push of a button, and all the while it grows hotter and hotter outside.

I look out my window at my front garden and my front porch. Both are beautifully dotted with plants; some are in pots. My front garden is full of roses and irises and a few trees; some loofahs grow on the fence.

Yesterday it was 90 degrees in Maine; almost as warm there as here. I don’t think that has ever happened: 90 degrees in May.

I remember the winter, when I was young and more recently, and watching Frenchman’s Bay in Maine freeze over with a skin of ice; I loved watching the short and stubby icebergs form on the beach over the course of each winter; they are blue against the black-grey of the beaches. I wonder if by the time I am 60 they will be smaller, or maybe they won’t exist at all.

I remember learning about hot and cold molecules in elementary school; cold molecules are slow while hot ones move around quickly and bounce against each other like a pinball game. Is that what is happening now? The heat is rising, both physically and socio-politically, so we are bouncing against each other, rapid-fire, without any understanding of why?

An 18-year old shot and killed ten people today, in upstate New York, because he was afraid that black people will replace white people In America as its dominant culture. He is 18; his life hasn’t even started yet and it is already over, alongside the people who he murdered. He must have learned this on the internet. How is it that the internet impacts young people so differently than we who grew up without it?

The air is still today; there is no wind.

In a couple of weeks, we go to England to sprinkle my dad’s ashes in the River Dart under the Saxon Bridge and toast his spirit as it truly becomes part of the Earth that birthed him all those years ago, in 1939.

I said to my students on Friday: Lord help the teachers of the future. I am every day battling the internet for their attention. I am battling videos, texts, and Snaps; I cannot compete with the sheer size of the moving energy of the internet and its entertainment.

Will we get rid of jobs and money like in Star Trek? Perhaps, but not for a long, long time. War continues to rage in Ukraine and so many people here in the United States can’t go to the doctor, can’t read at an 8th-grade level, and can’t afford to buy a car. The United States is confusing and terrifying; why is there a baby formula shortage and why can’t people, in this situation, make their own babies’ food?

We are losing our ability to solve our own problems. Meanwhile, the temperature outside grows hotter, a problem that we feel that we cannot solve. Entertainment grabs us and holds us for mere moments that stretch to hours, days, and years. Distraction is everywhere.

Why can we not mourn quietly? Why can we not process into spaces of acceptance so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and understand the wisdom to know the difference?

I missed my Dad the other day; I was sitting at ACC graduation and his face appeared in my mind’s eye; he was old like he looked just before he died. That was it: just his face. I smiled.

This is how it is, how it will be, always, forever, for as long as it is to be.

Meditations on Friendship

I have had a friend for almost twenty years who I met in the jewelry studio in Mexico, in San Miguel, in 2004, when I was a jewelry student and she was on break from art school in Philadelphia. She is from San Miguel and was visiting her mom and her friend, Billy, the teacher of the school. We met and went out to a mezcal bar and talked about talismans and teachers. We hung out for a few days and then she went back to Philly. A year or so later, I happened to be in Philly for a boyfriend’s brother’s wedding, and we saw each other again, cementing our friendship. About two years after that, I moved to Philly, seeking a geographical solution to divorce. We ended up living together in a crooked house in Point Breeze, owned by a crooked landlord in a neighborhood in the transition of gentrification that we now know became common in all big American cities.

We had our ups and downs. I am not the perfect roommate, and neither was she, but there were signs of something bigger, even then. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears, rages, and benders became not common, but predictable; if something hard happened, one of those would, too. Threats were common (“if you do this again, then I will move out”), but so were treats of dinners out or massages at the spa where she worked. There was a lot of back-and-forth, up-and-down. Then came Halloween of that year. We went to an amazing party in downtown Philly hosted by the eccentric owner of an eccentric jewelry store, and there were costumes and drag queens and performances and swingers and so much booze it could make your head spin. We went with two other friends and were having a great time until I couldn’t find my friend, and then did find her, smooching a fireman in a thong. There were men all around her, and I realized how drunk she was. My other friend who had come with us said to me, “we need to get her out of there”, and he went to go convince her to stumble off with us, and we went home. She spent the next day in her room and the adjacent bathroom, sicker with drink than anyone I had ever seen or heard before. Shortly thereafter, she got fired from the spa for hostile behavior toward a coworker and abruptly left Philly for points South.

We remained friends for a time until I made the stupid mistake of dating her brother (a dumb move never to be repeated). After that inevitably fell apart due to me not being ready for an actual relationship and him not being ready for an actual relationship as well, she was, understandably, very mad at me. A few years later, I heard from her, asking if we could be friends again. I had just moved back to Austin, where her cousin lives, and she was thinking of moving there, too. I was excited to hear from her and I still felt bad for dating her brother. She moved to Austin in the fall of the same year I did, and we began hanging out all the time again. It took a while for the same strange behaviors to begin again: the comments, the asides, the tone.

She and I and another friend went to Mexico for a week in the spring of 2018 and stayed at her mom’s gorgeous ranch outside San Miguel. During the trip, we made a lot of delicious food and drank a lot of tequila (Bloody Marias, mostly), and took walks. It was during this trip that I saw the same behaviors that she did to me aimed at her mother; I was confused as I thought she just treated me that way. At that time, I didn’t know that it happened to a lot of people. One night I was talking with her mom in the kitchen, and she came in to say that she hated the cabinets in one of the houses on the property and her mom said something flippant like, “well I had them made because I needed them, so……” and my friend responded, “well when you die, I will rip them off the wall!” and stormed out. I apologized for my friend to her own mother, blaming all the tequila.

After a couple of years, I became engaged to my husband, and my friend took me wedding dress shopping. We found the perfect non-wedding wedding dress in a small boutique in Austin. She did the flowers for the wedding and made a beautiful curtain of flowers with lights that hung behind us as we performed the ceremony. That was 2019, and life changed so rapidly after that as we moved Cody’s grandma in with us, she died the next fall, and then of course COVID started early in 2020. We saw each other fairly frequently during the early COVID times, always outside as she was very COVID-averse. I began to feel something was off then. The friend group was changing and the people around were seemingly much more affluent than what I was used to; I felt I didn’t belong. I noticed, every time I hung out with my friend and her boyfriend, that she was treating him the same way as me and her mother; she was abusive and embarrassing much of the time.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I talked to other friends about it and they told me just to not worry, but to find new friends because friendship isn’t supposed to feel so odd. I felt every time that I was around her, that I was going to do something to upset her and then would have to deal with her wrath in some way. Last summer I went out for dinner with her and another friend and she said that she wished all of her friends weren’t 40 with kids and that she just needed to meet new friends. At a party last summer, she alienated another friend after the friend responded negatively to having her daughters jumped on by the dog. The clock was ticking.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on, except our “friendship”, if that is what it was at that time, felt terrible all the time. Every conversation was strained and I didn’t know how to make it better. She went to Mexico at the end of the summer and texted me tons of photos of her trip, telling me how much I needed to get back to Mexico (I agree, btw). I asked her to let me know when she got back, but she didn’t. I called her and texted with no response. I left her a message asking if she was ok, telling her I was a little worried and didn’t understand.

A week or two later I received a response that she needed space from our relationship. I was blindsided and also shocked because the language she used this time was almost exactly the same as the last time we had split, all those years before, after I dated her brother. I felt very sad and did not understand what had happened. I wrote her a text saying that this was a pattern in our relationship that I didn’t like and that I hoped she can find peace in her life. I received no response. I sent her a book and an email. No response.

The reason why I am adding this chapter to my Odes to Grief is that this friend is the person in the closest proximity to my friend who has cancer. This friend provides the sick friend with food almost every day, and the sick friend even lives at this friend’s cousin’s house, in the garage apartment. It is all very connected; this issue was one I was worried about when the friend cut me off without explanation. I wrote her an email saying that our social lives are so interconnected and with taking care of our sick friend, could we be cordial and see each other and would it be ok? She responded that I should never contact her again.

Like I said above, for a long time, I thought that this friend only treated me like this; I thought I had done something wrong and somehow deserved the treatment. It has taken me a long time to realize that true friendships have a core value of mutually assumed forgiveness (because we are all human). Because of how I grew up, I oftentimes assume that I have done something wrong. This is something I am working on. Over the years, I began to see that my friend treats a lot of people this way; she is an equal opportunity offender in terms of abusing people who love her. I do not know if she knows how to love others. She knows how to buy presents, host parties, and take trips, but she doesn’t know how to talk about feelings and fears or own up to her part of disagreements. She becomes hostile and full of rage or she just leaves.

The connection to the Odes of Grief is complicated, because, like I said above, this friend (I suppose, ex-friend) is the closest to my friend with cancer. She is the gatekeeper in some ways, or at least, wishes to be. She has actively excluded me and one other friend and is in the process of doing the same to a third. When our sick friend was hospitalized in the early part of this year, my ex-friend made no effort to communicate with those of us who she had decided to “write off” (a term used the other day by yet another friend trying to understand how she could help). It is fine for people to “write people off” if that is what they need to do, but when you all are part of a web of support for a friend who is dying, this is where the issues arise. One person can’t get the power to decide who knows what is going on, and who doesn’t.

The other issue in this scenario is that the sick friend (probably) has no idea that this is all happening around her and behind the scenes. But as the process of “writing people off” becomes more expansive, most likely because the stress of the situation is increasing, it is inevitable that the sick friend will begin to notice or know something. One of my concerns and guiding ideas in this process of taking care of my sick friend is that I don’t add stress to her life. I don’t want to do anything that makes her worry; the idea that she would worry that a lot of her friends are fighting feels juvenile and unnecessary.

When people die, things get weird. I already know this. I have already written about this here. I think the challenge of being around people who are dying is that, until you have done it, you don’t know how you will react. Add to that that each relationship with a dying person is unique and then you may know a little bit about how you deal with the death of loved ones, but again, until it happens, you don’t know the specific manifestation of the death of that one person. Hopefully, people have done their own work enough to know themselves; I know also that this is a false assumption.

My friend who has “written me off” (if you can’t tell, I really hate that expression. I feel like I am a line item on a ledger somewhere or something) has not done a lot of her own work. She has a hard time talking about emotions or things that are frightening. She has a hard time taking responsibility for her behaviors of hostility, rage, and manipulation. The last time we talked, she was blaming it on her childhood, which I think was a step forward. I hope there have been some other steps since. I think one of the reasons she is cutting people off is because she is having a hard time facing the situation and facing the people within the situation and she has to at least interact with the life of our dying friend so cutting people off is easier. That is my assumption, and could be totally wrong. Since she won’t speak to me, I cannot know.

The other night, I had a good chat with another friend, our Switzerland-like friend who lives out of state. Switzerland she is because of her out-of-stateness, her personality, and then as a major bonus, she is a doctor who did her residency with geriatric patients. In this mix, there are three of us who have taken care of dying people: this friend, myself, and my friend Kris, our sick friend’s oldest friend and the one who first took care of her when she was first exhibiting symptoms of cancer fourteen years ago. I am not using names here because I find that people don’t like to have my analyses of them outed on the internet, so please excuse any confusion. Let’s call the Switzerland friend Suzy. Suzy and I spoke at length about the importance of prioritizing our sick friend’s care, and smoothing over any factions or ill will that may exist in the group. This is my core belief as well. The issue between me and my ex friend is not relevant to us being able to be a caring support team for our sick friend. Maybe we will heal our relationship and maybe not; that doesn’t actually matter in this context. Suzy is a new friend of my ex friend and perhaps their relationship is different than other relationships I have witnessed with this ex friend; after all, they met at different times of each other’s lives, in different places. I have hope.

The end to this long piece of writing is to close with hope. I believe that we all, and I mean we as the collective human “we”, can set aside our egos when we need to take care of people in need. I see it all the time, I have years of evidence to support my claim of this ability of our species. I believe one of the root causes of my divorce from my friend came from the fact that she has no responsibilities, no career or job, no one that depends on her or that she helps. She is blessed with wealth and so does not have the worries of most people. She has no children, so does not have that anchor. She does not need to work, so she doesn’t. She has nothing holding her in her own life, so it is natural to drift and find purchase on certain things. She has found purchase with our sick friend; it is clear to all of us that she is holding on to our friend desperately and doing everything that she can to help. Unfortunately, she is anxious and afraid and is striking out at other people who just want to do the same thing in collaboration with her.

My hope is that we can abandon ego, all ye who enter here. We are heading into a tunnel. It is up to us how we reappear on the other side.