Commencement

Dear Reader,

I am a teacher, and for me and teachers everywhere, this time of year is a time of many emotions.  I am always excited that the semester is ending and that the glorious expanse of summer is just ahead.  At the same time, it is always just a little bittersweet because, since I think of my life in academic terms, it marks the passing of another year.

Commencement is the term we use for graduation ceremonies.  It’s funny because the denotation of the word is “the beginning or start” of something, but we assign the term to the pomp and circumstance that concludes an educational experience.  But I like that the word is forward-looking: it implies that we are ready to begin the next new, exciting chapters of our lives.

I have commenced 4 times in my life: in 1991 from high school, in 1999 from Howard Community College, in 2001 from the University of Baltimore, and in 2003 from the University of Maryland.  I have one more commencement in my future. God willing, that will be 2016 from Morgan State University with my doctorate, and then I will be able to retire from being a student.

My road to and through college was not a straight one.  I went to a private, religious high school that graduated boys who were encouraged to be preachers and girls who were encouraged to be housewives and Sunday school teachers.  My high school coaxed students to consider colleges that prepared young people to be in church-oriented professions: places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College.  If you can believe it, Dear Reader, Liberty University was considered too liberal – we were not supposed to consider that as an option.  So of course, that is where we all wanted to go!  Show us that forbidden fruit!

I have wonderful memories of high school.  I don’t want to brag or anything, but I will: I won an award for “Christian Character,” I lettered in 3 sports (volleyball, basketball, and softball), was a team captain in 3 sports, was a league all-star and MVP in 3 sports, was named a US Army Scholar Athlete my senior year, worked on the yearbook, was the president of my senior class, and earned the title of valedictorian.  I gave a speech at my graduation.  I was also voted homecoming queen.  (Those of you who know me well will appreciate how little I cared about that last thing, but it happened.)  High school was a blur of fun things, and even though I was considering college, as a first-generation college student, it was not my main focus or goal but an option.  I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I felt no pressure to go off to college.

When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to attend Liberty University (of course I applied there!).  I was also considering the “family business”: I grew up in a Navy family and was weighing whether to join the Army or the Navy.  I also knew my step-father was about to be reassigned from Andrews Air Force Base to a new duty station and was considering just moving out and starting my own life, putting down roots here in Maryland – as a Navy brat who had moved all over the place her whole life, this was pretty appealing.  Ultimately, I decided to move out on my own and take a few classes at community college.  Then, as Frost said, way led on to way, and after a few semesters I ended up putting off college while I worked in the “real world.”

I loved being on my own, but not long after I moved out into my own apartment, I got married, and after that as a partner in a marriage determined to pull her own weight, I worked as a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king. Well, almost: I worked at Carvel making ice cream cakes, at a pharmacy as a technician, as a softball and basketball coach, as a bartender, as a vice principal at a private school, and as a Special Police Officer for the Federal Protective Service.  It is in this job that life took a dramatic turn.

Many of you will recall the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that occurred in April 1995.  American “Patriot” Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of this federal office building that he then detonated, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others.  I mention this event because at the time, I was working for the FPS in Crystal City, Virginia.  My duty station was a federal building.  My beat took me between the Crystal City complex, the Navy Annex, and the Pentagon. I was on that same beat two years later: April 19, 1997.  We were all on high alert that day because it was the anniversary of the bombing, and that is when people get a little squirrelly.  We got a call that a “suspicious object” was left unattended in the stairwell at one of the Crystal City buildings.  This was not a drill.

There are a lot of things about that day that I don’t remember, but a few things will never fade.  The first thing I remembered was my training: we had to evacuate the building to make sure all of the workers were safe, but then it was my job to run into the building.  It was my job to run back into the building.  I was the valedictorian of my class, and my job was to run into the building to look for the potential bomb.  I also remembered a conversation I had with my mom just a few days before that.  She told me that she was going to start taking college classes.  Because my mom chose to have a family at a young age, she had to earn her GED and now, years later, she was going to start pursuing her college education.  It struck me that I had no excuse.  I had been given every advantage my parents could give me, and I never cashed those things in.  I needed to have a path or plan for the future that led me out of the fire, not into it.  (I should say now that I have tremendous respect for first responders – that job is not for punks – that is hard, dangerous, and honorable work.  I am not worthy.)

Gatsby
The Great Gatsby: the book that unlocked my curiosity

The “suspicious object” was found by someone else and was not a threat, but a prank.  But it was a metaphorical bomb to me because it blew UP my life.  I had to admit that this was not how I imagined things for myself.  The next day as I was coming home from work, I took a detour.  In a trance, I drove to the bookstore where I wandered into the section called “Classics.”  At my conservative high school, we weren’t given the opportunity to read a lot of literature.  We read some Romantic poets (Wordsworth), Animal Farm (to remind us how great America is), and Romeo and Juliet (as a cautionary tale: don’t think you can defy your parents).  I was starved for literature.  I wanted to see the world through new eyes.  I stood in front of that shelf of mysterious books, and my eyes fell on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had heard of that book, so I bought it and read it.  I didn’t get it.  But I knew that there was something there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the “green light” and other things in the book.  It made me curious to read more.  I bought another book after that: To Kill a Mockingbird.  And then I read Catcher in the Rye.  And then, before I knew it, it was August, and I was enrolling in classes at Howard Community College.

The two years I spent at Howard Community College changed my life definitively.  I came there lost and not knowing quite what I sought.  I picked a major (Psychology) out of thin air and, because of an amazing teacher, found my true calling.  I ended up in her Introduction to Literature class by divine accident (I thought I needed a requirement that I did not need), but that literature class made me want to take another literature class.  And another….  After I wrote a paper for one of those classes, the teacher, who was the same amazing teacher from my other classes, wrote a question on my essay: “Why aren’t you an English major?????”  I could not answer that.  This teacher got me to consider the thing that no one else had: what is it that I love?  I switched my major. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and earn my master’s degree in English Literature.  I said yes to some unbelievably lucky opportunities that allowed me to start teaching, and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way to make what I love what I do for a living. In Taoist philosophy, it is believed that the “way” becomes clear for an individual when the individual surrenders to what is. The way is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.  The way is commencement.  It is not lost on me that I am able to pay that forward.  A teacher changed my life by helping me give in to what I loved.  Maybe I will inspire some student somewhere to change hers.  And so on, and so on…  I try to ask my students every semester: What is it that you love? What is it that you want?  I ask them to understand that life is long and that work is part of our identity: it should be more than just earning a salary.  Maybe, for some student, that will inspire them to consider their passion and not just a paycheck.

At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life
At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life

Commencement: the day in 1999 when I graduated from HCC.  I felt a renewed idea of my purpose for my life.  I felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was going to be able to shape my destiny instead of just stumble onto it.  Commencement: I am drawn, every summer, back to The Great Gatsby.  I have read that book at the beginning of every summer since 1997.  I understand why Gatsby wanted to reinvent himself.  I understand his desire to be the author of his own story.  I didn’t understand it when I first read it, but it profoundly speaks to me now, and now each time I read it, it resonates more and more. Gatsby helped me get started on a new path, and now, it is the way I commence, in gratitude, welcoming each new year.

Do you have a book that saved your life?

Coming next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe 

© 2015 Ryna May

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Monuments

“Sonnet 98” – William Shakespeare

From you have I been absent in the spring,

When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,

That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odour and in hue,

Could make me any summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight

Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.

Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,

As with your shadow I with these did play.

Dear Reader,

Poetry or Baseball: an impossible choice to make for this April post. So I decided not to choose. In honor of National Poetry Month, baseball season, and the fact that I am an avid baseball fan, this post is dedicated to things I love in equal measure: baseball and poetry. I have missed baseball. Even though I play with its shadows all year ‘round (the Hot Stove season, filled with trade rumors and free agent watching, has plenty of intrigue to keep me going), there is nothing quite like watching actual games. Bring on the peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and beer! My soul is trapped in winter without my Bronx Bombers. (Yes, if somehow you missed it, I am a Yankees fan.  You are allowed to despise me now.)

The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in the history of sports.  Even if you hate them (which many of you do), you have to grudgingly admit that the Yankees have set the standard for excellence in team sports.  Here is a bit of trivia: did you know that Yankee Stadium was the first baseball venue in the United States to be called a stadium? Not a park or a yard or a field.  A stadium. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, closed in 2008, re-opened in 2009, and the name has never been changed. It has never been sold to be PNC or M&T Stadium. The word stadium means the same in Greek and Roman languages – it is a unit of measurement. It was also used to describe a tiered structure with seats for spectators surrounding an ancient Greek running track. And perhaps, more interestingly, the word means a stage in a life history.

The Yankees have won 27 world championships. No other franchise in any other sport comes close to that. The Yankees also boast so many great players – players who haunt the history of the game like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, Jackson, Rivera, and yes, even Derek Jeter.  Someone recently wrote about all of the numbers that have been retired by the Yankees.  Pretty soon, they could run out of eligible jersey numbers, as Jeter’s number 2 will surely never be worn by anyone in pinstripes ever again.  In fact, no one will ever wear the numbers 1-10 again for the Yankees. That is unprecedented, but not unreasonable given the players we’re talking about here. The true greats are honored with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of mini-hall of fame for Yankees legends. The plaques reside now in a special hall enclosed in the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The purpose of a monument is that it stands to commemorate historical significance or importance: in this case, the greatest players of the greatest team. I visited Monument Park the first time I visited the old stadium in 2006.

monument park
Monument Park next to the plaque of my favorite player growing up: Don Mattingly (“Donnie Baseball”)

In old Yankee Stadium, Monument Park used to be in the middle of left field. Before the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s, the monuments were even in play – quite a hazard for the left-fielders to navigate. The monuments were approximately 460 feet from home plate, so it wasn’t everyday that a ball would get lost out there, but it did happen. Eventually, Monument Park was moved beyond the left-field fence, and for any true baseball fan, a visit to Monument Park is a pilgrimage worth making. My first visit to Monument Park got me thinking about my brother – we were both big fans of baseball. Someone recently asked me about my brother because I referred to him as I was telling a story about our youth. The friend I was speaking to didn’t know I had a brother because I seldom do refer to him.  That is not because I don’t love him or think of him, but because he died 22 years ago.

I have told this story before. I first brought this story to Journal Club in 2001.  But now that I am blogging, I will tell it again because I want the record to show this story. It is kind of an origin story for me.  It is also a tribute to my brother, Bryan.  In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” He was talking about how his sonnet was a monument to the person he loved. Just like the Yankees have Monument Park to commemorate their great players, in the stadium of my mind, this story about Bryan stands to honor him. You know how in the movie Field of Dreams, they say: “If you build it, he will come?”  Yes, I thought: “If I write this, he will be remembered.”  Though I have worked on this story for many years trying, without success, to perfect it, the title has never changed.  I thought I’d share the very first version of it I ever wrote because somehow it seems the purest.

“Seasons of Perfection”

I have grown to love baseball because every boy always told me that I couldn’t play it.  There’s a secret here that boys don’t want girls to know: they can play it, and they can be a lot better than the boys are.  My brother Bryan and I played baseball together in little league.  He didn’t want me to play because I was a year younger than he was, and way better, and oh yeah, I’m a girl.  So my mom thought it would be a good idea if we played on different teams – he for the McMinn County Reds and me for the McMinn County Astros.  In high school Bryan worked hard at it, and soon baseball was my brother’s best sport – it was the only sport that he was better at than me, and just barely.  In his senior year of high school, he got on base every single time that he came to the plate – not all hits, but still: a perfect season.  I really admired that, but I never told him.  It’s against the code of sibling rivalry to congratulate one another for anything at all – a stupid code I now think.  It’s not the only thing I never praised him for.  There is a litany of silences that I regret now in the way that you can only regret things you will never get to do.   After my brother died in 1993, my mother asked me if there were any of his things that I wanted.  Of all his things, the only thing I really wanted to take was his baseball jersey.  The way that I remember him now in this jersey, in his life, is spotless.  It’s a trick of the memory to clothe people in their best possible robes after they are gone, like a jersey worn in a season of perfection.

bryan's jersey
Bryan’s jersey from his senior season

When I was seven, our father took us to a minor league baseball game to see the Chattanooga Lookouts play.  They are named the “Lookouts” because there is a great mountain near Chattanooga called Lookout Mountain.  It’s the only really prominent thing in Chattanooga other than the famous choo-choo train, and no team of men wants to be called the “Choo-Choos” I guess.  We sat very close on the third base side of Lookout Stadium.  My dad told me to bring my glove in case there was a foul ball hit our way.  I was seven, but he was certain that I could catch the ball if it came near me.  He taught me to play ball before he taught my brother.  Bryan wasn’t very coordinated when he was a kid.  Dad thought that I was a prodigy.  Anyway, this was the first and last game my dad ever took us to, and it seemed like it was going to be perfect.  A few innings into the game I got the chance that I had been hoping for: a foul ball was hit my way, but it was coming too fast and I was not ready for it.  I was lost in the pink and blue fury of my cotton candy, and even though I did have my glove on, it was whizzing past my right ear and smacking the seat behind me before I could even move the mitt.  In a perfect world, I would have gotten that foul ball, but that is not how life goes.

Astros
With the McMinn County Astros – 1982

When I was nine and ten and eleven, I spent summers with my grandparents.  I remember the summer evenings that stretched out lazily into warm, dark Tennessee nights and the apparition of curtains that advanced and retreated eerily in the soft night breeze, carrying the sweet smell of crab apples and wet grass and wood and coal from the shed on the hill.  My Papa Odum, a Yankees fan, was a baseball nut.  He watched games all day, every day, whenever they were on, and when he went to bed at night, he listened to the games on the radio.  It is this ritual of listening that I remember most clearly, the way the game sounded on the old clock radio.  It’s the kind of clock radio with the flip numbers, the kind that growled instead of shrieking, the kind that clicked methodically.  The sound on the radio was never good; neither was the reception.  But Papa Odum always seemed to be able to find “the ballgame” no matter what.  The games were quiet and far away.  The announcers droned on over the restless buzzing of the fans: “Two outs now, and Mattingly to the plate with nobody on…he digs in and takes a called strike… 0 and 1 the count now on Mattingly in the top of the fourth….the Yankees trailing 3 to 1…”   The windows were always open at night, allowing for the most glorious concert of sounds – the baseball game, but not only that; the baseball game and my grandfather’s heavy sleep-breathing; the baseball game, and sleepy breathing, and creaking of the house, and the mad crickets and the whispering rain…

With its tragic ease, baseball is both dull and wonderful in its perfection; but it’s the imperfections that provide the real opportunities for humor and grace.  There is a poetic rhythm to baseball that no other sport can imitate, and this is precisely because baseball is about the so many things in-between, the so many lost moments.  Like the way that the crowd lulls in lethargy between pitches, between batters, between innings; like our mistakes of silence – things we don’t say, things we’ll never be able to say.

I love baseball because it reminds me to revere moments of imperfect life and preserve them in perfect memory.  For me, baseball is a day at the park with a favorite friend, sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog, Cal Ripken breaking the streak, cotton candy stuck to the pocket of my mitt, Mike Schmidt hitting his 500th home run, the foul ball that sails just past my head, Harry Carey calling the game for the Cubs, the organ music – out of tune, Sid Bream, with his leg brace on, sliding home to beat the tag and win the ALCS, the seventh inning stretch, the ground ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s legs, and Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbling into the batter’s box and hitting the ball clear out of the park in October of 1988 in the World Series.  Baseball is the great poem of my life, and baseball is still, for me, about remembered seasons of perfection; they are the stuff that dreams are made on, and so much more: the way that we remember the suddenly ubiquitous smell of grass, the first warm, long evenings, disappointment, childhood, fathers, brothers, and histories.

 © 2015 Ryna May

One Last Walk

Dear Reader,

I know it isn’t the First Friday yet.  I am violating the protocol of my blog so that I can honor my best friend, Oberon.  For over 14 years, my beloved border collie has been at my side every day.  He has struggled in the past few months – his mind was as sharp as ever, but his body betrayed him.  Today, we let him go on to The Rainbow Bridge.  I am unaccountably sad to lose him.  I take comfort in the only thing possible: the knowledge that I gave him a great life.  He gave me a great life as well.

Oberon is named for a character in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The character is the King of the Fairy World.  The play has long been one of my favorites, so it was a natural, unique choice.  When Oberon came into my life, I didn’t want a dog – too much responsibility, I said.  I was in my final semester of my senior year of college at the University of Baltimore, I was applying to graduate school, and I was in a rocky relationship with the person who is now my ex-husband.

Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun
Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun

Why in the world would I want a dog?  I gave in – but only if I could choose his name. In every way, he has lived up to his namesake: he has been a magical presence.

To steal a phrase from Tim O’Brien, this dog has been the hero of my life.  I could not have known what a blessing Oberon would be.  For those of you who own dogs, you know. They are so much better than people in every single category.  They never hold grudges.  They always think the best of you.  They are always genuinely happy to see you when you get home – and they don’t get mad when you are running late.  Oberon has seen me through writing my master’s thesis, through my divorce, through a major life change when I finally opened up to the love of my life, through a new marriage, through bad, annoying days at work, through my doctoral program and all the tears and stress of comprehensive exams and the dissertation process, through everything.  He has been my constant, my touchstone, the buddy who reminds me that everything looks and feels better after a walk in the fresh air.

Oberon and Yorick
Oberon and Yorick

He has been a source of continual comfort. Just interacting with him always lifted my spirits no matter what happened during the day.  I’ll never know exactly what he thought about me, but I like to think he also saw me as a friend – though Billy Collins has some pretty interesting thoughts about this. (It makes me happy to think of the dogs writing poetry somewhere, out there. Oberon will write Shakespearean sonnets, I just know it.)

In my Philosophy class this semester, we have talked a lot about what happens to our souls when we die.  That discussion feels more real to me today.  Some believe, like Aristotle, that matter and form exist together, so when our bodies cease, everything ceases: our soul cannot exist apart from the body; but some believe we go on in some form – whether that is to heaven or to Plato’s world of forms or The Rainbow Bridge or just as energy that needs to find another way of expression.  When it comes to Oberon (and all dogs for that matter), I guess I prefer to think of his soul as the Eastern Philosophers do: as energy that has always been here and will always be here.  His energy is not here anymore inhabiting his body, but now it has been returned to the world.  It looks for a new way to interact, but it does not die, does not diminish.  That would be an unbearable loss.  To know that Oberon’s kind, gentle spirit will reincarnate into another form is the only thing that lets me let him go.

This week we have enjoyed the warmer weather, turned our faces toward the sun every chance we had. We’ve been noticing so much more together: how much greener the grass suddenly seems, the way the air smells different after spring rain, the red buds pixelating all of the trees, and the first smiling daffodils. All this will go on now, without Oberon this time. Today before the vet came to help him transition out of this life, my wife Stephanie and I took one last walk with Oberon.  It was something we were both looking forward to and dreading all week long, ever since we made the decision to let him go.

Last Walk
I wish we could keep walking forever

We walked slowly and comfortably in the direction he wanted.  He got to say goodbye to his best friend, Colby, a Golden Retriever who lives a few doors down.  He sniffed everything, breathing in the world and enjoying every bit of it. I could not help but think that I almost missed all of this – that I didn’t want him.  That seems incredible to me now.  I would have missed out on so much love and friendship.  I am grateful for every day of these last 14 years – I only wish we could have had a few more.  I hope it was peaceful, his final act. It was peaceful and heartbreaking for me in equal measure.  I just wanted to keep going, keep walking with him forever.

Tomorrow, I do have a post prepared for the First Friday.  I hope you’ll come back for that.

© 2015 Ryna May

What’s in a Domain?

Dear Reader,

Today is the first day of this blog.  I avoided writing a blog for a long time because, to me, blogging is the ultimate form of navel-gazing, and somehow it seems like an embarrassing exercise.  “Look at me!  I have things to say!” But then I realized a few things.  One: There are too many blogs to read already, so not too many people will read this, right?  I mean, I hope some people will read it, but if not, that’s okay.  How embarrassing can it be?  Two: I realized that my wife was right: I should write things down more so I don’t lose them (she has been trying to persuade me to write a blog for years).  I admit that I occasionally have interesting thoughts.  Three: Over the past five years as I have been pursuing my doctoral degree, I have not written much that I would call “fun” – at least not really fun. I would like writing to feel fun again.

The last thing I realized – and this is the point of this post – is that it is kind of hard to set up a blog. Choosing a name is really difficult.  All good domain names have been claimed, even if no one is using them. My first choice was “First Fridays” – the last time I was in a real writing group, we met every first Friday night of the month.  We called it “Journal Club,” and it was my favorite day of each month.  But that name was taken.  As a sports fan, I also thought “Friday Night Writes” was kind of a clever play on the football jargon – that was also taken.  Luckily, I was able to claim “Friday Nite Writes” as an alternative.  It’s an homage to what I hope this blog will be: something that I write once a month and post on the first Friday night – just like Journal Club when writing was fun.

I like to think I’m kind of a Renaissance Girl – I have a lot of interests from politics to literature to sports to philosophy to popular culture.  So I will write about whatever.  And you will read it.  Or you won’t.  No big deal.  I’ll “see” you on the first Friday of April.