Road Trippin’

S asked where I wanted to go on our next date. I told him anywhere. But then I told him I wanted him to take me to Graceland.

This was a test, of course; but he passed. I spent my break driving up to visit friends in Georgia, then up to his place in Alabama, and then we traveled to Memphis.

Graceland

Oh, how I love Elvis. Although he did not quite get my request or why I would not have rather been somewhere tropical on a beach, he humored me anyway. We spent the morning touring Graceland, then headed over to Beale Street for lunch.

BB King

It was actually rainy and cold but not crowded. I enjoyed it. We took our time, and then we went to Sun Studio that afternoon. I love Sun Studio! It is worth the trip in itself, there is such much history in those walls. The tour was fantastic, and it ends with guests getting to walk around and touch some of the actual equipment. Allegedly, this is the actual microphone Elvis would have used during his sessions.

Sun Studios

Million Dollar Quartet

That evening, we headed south across the Mississippi line to Tunica. We stayed at one of the casinos, an absolute first for me. I do not gamble, and am very tight with money, but I played around with his.  Almost immediately, I won $100 on a penny slot machine. I think that is a great omen for our future.

Our luck continued the next day. We drove back east through Tennessee to S’s hunting property. We took the back roads, and I was in heaven. I absolutely love that area of the country. It was unseasonably cold, and I was day dreaming the entire way of seeing snow. When we got to his property, which is breath-taking, I stepped out shivering and said, “I really feel like it’s gonna snow, it’s so cold. I think that would be amazing.” No sooner had he laughed off what I had said than small flurries started falling. I kid you not, I could not have scripted it better! He was just as tickled as I was, and I ran around like the crazy Floridian that I am just laughing and trying to catch the flurries with my tongue.

This is one of my favorite pictures, because we snapped it in that moment. Genuine happiness shows, and it exemplifies exactly what the year of yes journey means to me.

snow 2

 

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My First Favorite Students

It was fitting that, immediately after my last day teaching, I loaded up and headed back to the very place I had started my career in the first place– tiny Montgomery County, Georgia, located just outside of sweet Vidalia.

I do not get to go to what I call my Georgia home much. However, I was invited to a baby shower hosted by my first favorite student, Nikki, for another of my first favorite students, AN, and his wife. AN lives in the home of the lovely Mrs. B, who was the head of the social studies department at the local high school, and who took a chance and hired me, even though I was only 23 and had no experience or degree in education. She literally changed the course of my life.

I helped Nikki with the shower and enjoyed myself immensely, for I have forgotten how beautifully traditional things are there. I sat back and listened as the sweet church ladies gossiped in their slow drawls and admired their impeccable manners and gift wrapping prowess. I miss living there a lot.

azat and nikki

Nikki’s parents were always so kind to me, and they treated me like family. She was 15 and a freshman when I taught her. I was later in her wedding, and I pray for her gorgeous daughters. I spent the night with Nikki and her husband, and her parents joined us for a night on the town at one of my old stomping grounds, The Tree House. We all had a blast, laughing and singing and just cutting up. We also learned a lot about the bite of a water moccasin. It’s a drink and, if you have never had one, I highly recommend it, but in moderation, because it could be “deadly.”  

That night, something incredible happened. Nikki came in and tucked me into bed. When I was a little girl, I craved for my mom to do that; but my mom was not affectionate, so it never happened that way. Before she walked away, Nikki kissed me on my forehead and told me she loved me. She can never understand just how much that show of affection meant to me. I was flooded with emotion, and time stood still, and I will literally remember that simple act as long as I live. A piece of my broken heart was put back together again.

I worry a lot about growing old and the financial sacrifices I have made to be a teacher. However, that day and those people reinforced everything I believe in. Life is about relationships and love and, if I am a pauper one day, be sure that I have lived a very rich existance.

 

A Country Concert

One of my friends had extra tickets to see Luke Bryan in Jacksonville recently and offered them to me. I was hesitant, because that is an extravagance that I do not indulge in often; however, it is the year of yes, so I took her up on the opportunity. My surrogate mom, Charlotte, gladly agreed to go with me, and we made it a night to remember.

Concert

After dinner, we headed to the tailgate party outside of the arena. We had a blast, dancing and people-watching. We even ran into several people that I went to high school with, and it was so great catching up. Charlotte and I made the Jacksonville paper and the local radio station’s website. We felt like stars.

concert 2

My Fellow Georgia Southern Alum

The concert was amazing. I have seen Luke Bryan many times, and he never disappoints. It was fun sitting by my friend and her fella, too.  The four of us had a blast singing and dancing the evening away.

Jayda

Afterwards, we took a huge detour around Jacksonville trying to get back north. Charlotte is worse with directions than I am, and even my car’s navigation had us cutting through the bad sides of town. But we finally made it, and it was wonderful settling in to my bed in the cozy room that Charlotte keeps for me. It’s filled with pictures of me, the kids, and my mom and makes me feel loved.

Before heading home the next day, I met up with a former student of mine who I had not seen since 2002. We have kept in touch via email and phone, and he is now a teacher. He treated me to lunch at The Florida House Inn, one of the oldest hotels in Florida, located on beautiful Amelia Island. We caught up, strolled the historic downtown, and then I stopped at one of my favorite spots on earth– Fantastic Fudge– for my go-to flavor of ice cream, rocky road.

I could not leave without spending time with my Mom at the beach in solitude. I read a book, napped, prayed, and listened to my Mom’s song, “Drink a Beer,” by Luke Bryan, of course.

 

 

Putting Pen to Paper: Why Handwritten Notes Still Matter

 

As I settled in to my new office, I quickly hung diplomas and cherished photos of my family. However, looking around my space, I realized that I have a plethora of handwritten notes displayed as well. These beautiful cards and scribbled messages on scrap paper outnumber my children’s framed faces. There is something comforting in reading the carefully thought out words etched in a friend or colleagues’ unique penmanship. It is grounding, and a tangible reminder of a connection to another person, and, even if professional, reflects what is often missing in the modern digital age—authenticity.

Rapid email correspondence, text messaging, and social media have sped up our personal and professional lives so much in such a brief period, that we are constantly bombarded with information. We are overstimulated and, while our circles are ever broadening, loneliness and social isolation are becoming public health issues. A 2015 article published in the United Kingdom’s The Independent stated, “…our growing reliance on social technology rather than face-to-face interaction is thought to be making us feel more isolated. It means we feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.”[i]

Although not a cure-all, the simple act of writing notes can have an enormous impact on personal and professional relationships. While emails, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, message boards, E-vites, constant “likes,” and texts give us instant and often too constant contact with one another, humanity is filtered through devices. We have resorted to using Emojis to relay emotions, without realizing how simplistic these cartoonish characters are and how completely incapable they are of expressing the complexities and nuances of our feelings. I shamefully became way too excited recently when I realized that I can add color to my Facebook posts… it is time to disconnect.

Meanwhile, the handwritten note, with words carefully chosen to fit within the boundaries of stationary, is neither too romantic nor passé.  To send a note requires time, patience, reflection, a good pen, careful attention to script, an address, and a stamp. It requires a purposeful effort, which then, in turn, relays the message that the recipient matters. Meghan Markle, former author of the popular lifestyle blog The Tig, wrote recently about the “Art of the Handwritten Note.” In the post, she expressed her joy at receiving a personalized letter. “I am a gal who just loves getting mail… I absolutely relish it.  I know my mailman’s name, I race to the door when mail comes (usually just fliers or bills), but I always hold out hope that there will be a letter.  A sweet letter.  And that I will have the tactile experience of un-creasing the paper, reciting the words, and holding someone’s thoughts in my hands.” [ii]

Office mail is no exception and can offer a respite from the hectic professional world. Electronic communication is fast and free; but you get what you pay for. The Harvard Business Review points out that, “Personal messages are often notes of gratitude, civility, and appreciation that reach beyond the conventional thank-you.” They show what author John Coleman describes as “acts of investment” and can leave lasting impressions and memorabilia.[iii]

According to celebrated blogger and etiquette expert Janice Sessums Gibson, “Professional emails and texts are easy to save, but lasting memories are created when you send a handwritten note. The handwritten note lets a friend or colleague know that you appreciate them.”[iv]  Cards are displayed on desks, on boards, and on refrigerators. They are a cherished gift of encouragement.

Further, when asked whether handwritten notes still set job applicants apart in today’s digital age, Ben Milsom, Chief Ticketing Officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stated, “The handwritten note is a differentiator. Today, we live by text and email, so for someone to take the time to purchase nice stationery and sit down and write a letter is something that I value and conveys their personal brand.”

Be mindful, however. Issa Sawabini, Partner at Fuse, warns professionals about reliance on electronic spelling and grammar checks: “In a digital world, sometimes a handwritten note can have a big impact… Make sure you write something meaningful and actually proofread your work. You can’t include a note at the bottom blaming your iPhone for any spelling errors.”[v]

[i] Rebecca Harris, The Loneliness Epidemic: We’re More Connected Than Ever, But Are We Feeling More Alone? Independent (2015), http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-loneliness-epidemic-more-connected-than-ever-but-feeling-more-alone-10143206.html (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[ii] Meghan Markle, The Art of a Handwritten Note The Tig. (2014), http://thetig.com/art-handwritten-note/ (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[iii] John Coleman, Handwritten Notes Are a Rare Commodity. They’re Also More Important Than Ever. Harvard Business Review (2013), https://hbr.org/2013/04/handwritten-notes-are-a-rare-c (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[iv] http://etiquettewithmissjanice.blogspot.com/.

[v] Abraham D. Madkour, In Today’s Digital Age, Do Handwritten Notes Still Set Job Applicants Apart? Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal (2016), http://m.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2016/04/11/Opinion/From-The-Executive-Editor.aspx? (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

Identity Crisis {The Year of Yes}

StudentsWhen I was a little girl, I did not play with baby dolls. I played with a chalk board, and I would force my brothers and the neighborhood kids to be my students. I would give them assignments, grade papers, and line them up and march them around the yard. I tutored the kid across the street, and his dear mom, Peggy, may she rest in peace, joked that the grades I gave Brian were the best he ever received. She would hang them on her refrigerator.

When I describe myself to people, “teacher” is the first word out of my mouth, right after “mom.” It is my natural gift, and education is my passion. Unfortunately, I was always told I could and should do more, whatever that means, so a relationship in my early twenties with a high-powered attorney inspired me to leave my beloved teaching career for law school.

I do not regret my legal education one bit, nor do I regret practicing. My favorite job was working for the law school immediately after graduation, because it combined a little of both worlds. My degree and experience have opened doors for me that I never dreamed possible growing up in a one red light town. However, the classroom is where I am my most comfortable, creative and inspired.

When I had my children, it seemed natural for me to return to teaching. There is no better schedule for a family, and I was able to work at one of the best schools in the state, which allowed my babies to eventually attend the best schools themselves. I was so excited to get back to my calling, and I did it with joy and enthusiasm. However, even with clear objectives, I was given grief by those I loved most. I was told I did not have a “real job” and questioned about how I could turn my back on money and prestige by simply being a teacher. As sad as it is to type these truths, it was even more devastating to live them.

After my divorce, I hung in as long as I could, until I could no longer financially justify my position. I was highly effective, successful and involved. I absolutely considered my students my own and have built life-long friendships that I will forever cherish; but the rumors about teacher pay are real.

More than anything, though, I was emotionally drained. After visiting my closest friends over the holidays, both T and K commented to me that they had finally figured out what was keeping me from completely healing. My storehouse was dry. I was “Mama B” to 200 kids a day, then had to come home to my own, and teaching at the level I was doing it was sucking up all of my extra energy. My brain was fried. Both friends encouraged me to pray about the situation and start looking for jobs.

To say I was terrified was an understatement. I was not sold on the fact that I needed a change. I did not think I could take the leap and give up my time at home with my children. I was not sure I was even marketable. But, then there was this #YearofYes promise I had made myself, and I decided to start applying. It is not an accident that Shonda Rhimes ended her book with one of my favorite quotes:

You must do the things you think you cannot do.  Eleanor Roosevelt

So, there you have it. Within a month of me applying for jobs, I had an offer I could not refuse, and I had to say good-bye to some of the most incredible people I have ever met. My students were so wonderful, and they showered me with gifts and cards of encouragement. It was amazing how much love I felt as I packed up my classroom and prepared to leave a place that was mine and my kids’ home away home for eight years. But it was time for me to graduate, and I think everyone knew it but me.

I was explaining to a colleague this week about my #YearofYes challenge and how powerful the book has been to me. When I told her it had inspired me to change careers, she was shocked, but it is true! As my bestie K said, “You’ve sacrificed enough of yourself. It is time for you to thrive.”

I am still a mom and a teacher, and I absolutely think teaching is the most important profession in our society. However, my focus has changed, and I think the move will make me a better mother in the end, because I will have balance for the first time in a long time.

Letter from Studt

letter from student

My First Praise & Worship Concert {The Year of Yes}

I am a firm believer that God puts people in our lives– for good, bad, a challenge to grow– for purposes which we may not always understand. For the very few that have left bitter tastes in my mouth over which I have to pray, there are oh so many more for whom I am grateful. JZ is one of those!

We have known each other for about a decade but have become spiritually connected as we have gone through divorce and single parenting simultaneously. She is that friend who always seems to miraculously know when I need prayer, uplifting, a word of encouragement, and a batch of her mom’s divine homemade cookies. Without fail, my phone will vibrate with the most beautifully on-point messages of hope and survival from her, and they are always at precisely the right times.

Recently, she and I went to my first praise and worship concert together. We had so much fun seeing Rascal Flatts in the fall, that she invited me to see TobyMac with her. I am a traditionalist and new to the more modern spiritual genre, so I was not familiar with his songs. I do love the #speaklife messages that he circulates on social media, though, and I was thrilled with the experience.

JZ at TobyMac

My favorite performer of the night was Mandisa. When we were both going through the toughest times, JZ would send me songs to listen to during the day. “Overcomer” is our joint mantra.

It was incredible to get to hear this song live and belt it out with my sweet friend. It is funny, I recently looked at pictures of JZ and me taken a few years ago and, although we look the same on the outside, there was something missing before. Now, it is as if we glow. That shimmer is God, y’all, and He is indeed good, all the time! Our friendship is proof of that.

 

 

Southern Gothic

cemetary

Confederate Soldiers at Rest, Montgomery, Alabama

I have always loved cemeteries. Even as a young girl, with a nostalgic historian’s heart, I enjoyed walking through them, admiring the artwork, the names, the family groupings. To me, there is great beauty in them, and old Southern graveyards even enchant with their ancient trees and draping moss, harboring sassy mockingbirds who keep watch over the quiet stone inhabitants in respite from the busy modern world.

Since my Mom died, I have rarely been to a cemetery. I have always been good about visiting my family plots, regularly placing flowers and cleaning up their resting places, an obligation ingrained in me from childhood. Write thank you notes, Becky Jo, and visit your people, that’s what Southern Belles do. But my Mama, against all family tradition, chose to be cremated. Three months before she died, as we were leaving our swimming hole on the St. Marys River, she told me that when she died, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread. I fussed and fumed at her, because she was young and healthy, and I did not want to be talking about death on a hot summer afternoon. She insisted, however, and I was forced very soon to honor her wishes against the protest of many of our kin.

I never understood why she made this choice. I tried to and I even spread her ashes in a poetic manner, playing her favorite Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun” at dawn while doing it. Now, I get it.

Yesterday, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, making my way through the lovely Oakwood Annex Cemetery, and an overwhelming wave of emotion hit me. I realized sort of stupidly for the first time that my Mama wanted to be cremated, because she was single and did not want to be buried alone. I knew it as if she was whispering the message on my heart, and I got teary-eyed, because I, too, now have that fear.

As the day went on, I thought about my  life and my relationships and got very, very morose at the thought of dying and not having a loved one to lay beside. Granted, I have my grandparents and other family members and I have my kids who will hopefully, God willing, be with me when that fateful time comes. But not having a husband, not being a Mrs. whomever, not belonging to another human being when passing, just breaks my heart and makes me cry.

Maybe this is part of some midlife crisis I am having. A quick search actually showed that the fear of dying alone is quite common. I am not scared of dying itself and have no sense of its impending call as I think my Mama must have had. Maybe this new sensitivity is a sign of my longing for deeper companionship. Maybe it means my heart is healing, that I am ready to be fully committed, hell if I know. Whatever it is, the flood of emotions that overcame me as I snapped pictures of magnolia trees and Confederate graves haunted me like a ghostly specter throughout the day, and the fear lingers with me, even now.

I do not want to die alone.

As women glide from their twenties to thirties, Shazzer argues, the balance of power subtly shifts. Even the most outrageous minxes lose their nerve, wrestling with the first twinges of existential angst: fears of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” ~Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary {my favorite book}

The Anxiety of Intimacy

My best friend and I have had many conversations about dating. She has walls up from past hurts, which is completely understandable. She does not want to let her guard down, does not want to be taken advantage of, does not want to seem vulnerable.

She gets frustrated with me, because I am so open to meeting people. I easily connect, enjoy hearing people’s stories, even like the cat and mouse chase. The writer in me enjoys the fodder it gives me for good laughs with my girls.

She worries that I risk getting my heart broken too much, but she is wrong. I never let anyone near my heart. There is so much scar tissue built up that it is going to take a skilled surgeon or hunter gatherer with a sharp knife to get anywhere near the actual organ.

I learned at a very young age that a man does not show up when he says he is going to, that he will pick and choose what is important in your life and you are completely at his whim. I remember sitting for hours staring out of my grandma’s window waiting for him to show up for whatever grand adventure had been promised, only to be disappointed while others made excuses for him. I stared out in crowds at pageants, awards ceremonies, graduation, hoping for some sign of support and approval. But all the crowns and trophies and scholarships and accolades could not make him appear. So I started making excuses for him, and I started blaming myself. I am not enough. I am never enough.

When he did show up, he made me feel like a million dollars, so I would try harder. And, hence, the roller coaster ride of emotions I have been on since I was born. I have got to be better. I have got to work harder. I have got to obtain some level of perfectionism, because maybe then he will say I am enough.

This very basic lesson in my formative years set the pattern for my adult partners, as I strove for fulfillment and acceptance in dysfunctional relationships, slowly chipping away at myself and building scar tissue around my heart until I married. As my dear friend Iris pointed out this week, that decision to marry was the only real mistake I have made as an adult, because it was the one in which I gave up and settled; but it made me a mommy and something about that woke me up to the vitality of life and the need for healthy, intimate relationships.

Only now, I am like a wounded animal. Friendships and casual dating I can do and I can do them well. I can give my all to my children. I can love my students whole-heartedly. Hell, I can love strangers and have a soul full of empathy and compassion.

But a truly intimate relationship with a man? It is completely foreign to me, because as soon as someone tries to pierce my scar tissue, I shrink away in anxious fear. I literally torture myself with the negative messages I learned as a shy five year old suppressing tears of rejection and disappointment. I beg my friends for reassurance, and then I close off and push away.  I try to stay so busy that I forget that I ever needed that affection in the first place. I shuffle quickly like my rescue puppy does when anyone tries to pet him, because he, too, has learned that love hurts.

I wish that I could wrap this post up with a pretty ending, but I cannot. All I can do is admit that I at least recognize my patterns and want to fix them. Iris insists it is as easy as replacing the bad thoughts with positive ones, like breaking my Coca-Cola habit last year. So, I am committed to praying and filling my thoughts with scripture, of acknowledging how much my children and students adore me and why, and counting the blessings that are my friends, every single time my inner dialogue says that I am less than. After all, the whole goal of this “Year of Yes” is a better, more full life, one filled with intimacy and passion and love. Finally, I realize that I am worth the effort of healing. I want more and maybe, just maybe, I have met someone worth the trying.

If you want crappy things to stop happening to you, then stop accepting crap and demand something more. —CRISTINA YANG, GREY’S ANATOMY
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person   

I should say that this post is absolutely meant with no disrespect. I still adore him and crave his attention and approval. But I have learned to set boundaries now, another step in the healing process, and I hope one day to understand the why behind his behavior. If that does not happen, then I will have peace knowing that I at least tried. I have always tried. I just will not make or accept excuses anymore.