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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Carpe Diem

Dear Mom,

Something really sad happened this week, and I wish you were here to talk about it with me.

Robin Williams died of mental illness. (Thanks to Mary Katherine for sharing this post from the Barefoot Pastor, reminding us that what seems like a minor choice of words can actually be very important.)

You were really open about the fact you suffered from depression, and I'm so proud that one of the things you taught me was that mental illness -- or any sort of illness -- should never be a source of shame. You showed me at an early age that there was nothing wrong with seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist. In fact, I've realized lately that the fact you were so open -- that you shared and bonded and let yourself be so vulnerable -- is one reason why you had so many friends!

And isn't it funny how famous people can sometimes sort of seem like they were our friends? Gosh, what an incredible talent Robin Williams had! I can't count the number of times Leigh Ann and I watched Good Morning Vietnam, back in the late 80s when we had that big ol' illegal satellite dish in the yard out in the country.

I can still recite parts of it, though I haven't seen it in 20 years.

Oooooohhhhh, Viva
Viva Denang
Denang Me!
Denang Me!
Pick up a rope and hang me! 

I'm sure there are "scholars" of his work who could do a much more thorough analysis than I can...but it's interesting to me that the two films for which I will remember him most are that one and Dead Poets Society, as they're both about nonconformity. They're films about the fact that you can reject "the rules" while still living the values.

DPS came out in June of 1989, and I'm pretty sure we went to see it in the theater together when it came out. It might have even been something we "stayed out late" watching. (Kind of like the way you let us stay up late watching Designing Women and Murphy Brown -- which doubtless turned your girls into the kind of ass-kicking, "Screw Barbie, We Girls Really Can Do Anything," successful women we saw on TV!)

The eerily bizarre similarities between the Smith Girls and the Sugarbaker Girls shall be the subject of a future blog post...with color commentary from Gretchen, naturally.

But back to Dead Poets Society. The message of that movie -- the gift of nonconformity, the way literature can light fires and inspire us, and if we listen closely, we can hear our true life calling us to carpe diem -- was in a lot of ways what you tried to teach in your classroom.

Now...I don't think we ever got up on our desks...

But you did teach me and many others that learning is not about studying textbooks. It's about seeing the world as your classroom, that education is a journey, not a destination, and we should never, ever stop learning.

And, obviously, the journeys you started leading to D.C. in the late 80s were a part of that...

Driving your students nuts with your nonstop bus chatter...while also impressing the students and chaperones. "Holy cow! This lady knows this town backwards and forwards!"

"Look up, look down, look all around, y'all!"

For many years, you reinforced the fact that textbooks were only one way to learn by literally not having a textbook for Spanish!
You had your students make posters, write children's books, watch movies, and do all sorts of other "out of the box" activities.

Here's Leigh Ann posing as "Whistler's Mother" during one of your art satire crazes...

And sometimes, I just wanted to crawl under my desk and die. You'd go on and on for hours with the, "YO COMPRENDO. TU COMPRENDES. Do you get it? Let's do that again. [Insert name of cute boy here], why are you not getting this?"

"No boy at this school," I thought, "will EVER ask me for a date. If one more guy asks me if we speak Spanish at home, I will take shelter beneath this desk and never come out!"
But now...gosh...what a unique "window" to have on you, to have such a familiarity with your professional life. Few kids have that sort of full insight about their parents.

I mean...what the hell were you doing here?
"What a hoot!" you loved to say. Well, you, CSS, were quite a hoot! Everybody loved this photo when we posted it on Facebook in December, and somehow it dusted itself off in the news feed again this week.
"Oh, this is CSS perfection!" wrote Mason.

"That's about as CSS as it gets," wrote Ranie.

While it's been a real comfort to have so many friends grieve your loss along with us, I can't help remembering those days in middle school, when it was so tough to have you on campus. Having you teach all those cute boys, watching you fuss at the "cool kids" was sometimes really awful. I would rather have had a hot date to the prom! And Homecoming. And Miss Munroe.

But then again...could I have possibly had more fun with anyone than I had with Blaine? Who else is still best friends with their prom date?!

"The sexual tension in this photo is palpable," wrote Pee Pie in May, when I posted it on Facebook before Blaine came to the Hamptons. Love her! Love him!

Anyhoo, back to the classroom. Arriba!
This sort of CSS-designed curriculum, and the advantages and disadvantages of that could be debated for hours. Because learning -- like all of the best things in life -- is subjective, hard to measure, impossible to quantify. We try to make sense of it by applying a framework -- required courses, degrees, standards -- but we're really just muddling through. And even science or math, which start out as more objective disciplines, eventually become much fuzzier, more theoretical, once you pass the well-charted territory and start sailing out into the world of new discoveries -- where the real magic happens.

Or -- as you would say -- you've gotta know how to conjugate a Spanish verb. It's like a math problem or a formula with all sorts of variations. You can't just memorize your way through it.

And -- it's so funny how your little "tricks of the trade," your quirkly little CSS-isms, keep popping up, as Facebook makes it so easy to share things.

Blaine sent along some art satire recently:

He wrote, "Extra credit?!? Even though the yard tools are just all wrong, I give it a B+."

Isn't that neat?

Or this, from Mandy to you on June 6: Ten years ago today, we were in London in Churchill's war room with many WWII vets who were remembering the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. I'm so grateful that I got to go on that trip, and I'm so grateful to you for making it happen. Miss you, friend!
I spent an hour looking for a photo from that Europe trip, but I had to settle for the one above, which I adore, as you and Patsy and Densyl look like you're just having such a blast.

Just like you were here, having lunch in some European location I can't even name, with Princey and Katie Jo -- and I don't even know those girls, but my heart just melted when I saw Princey and Mr. Patel had signed in at your funeral.
Samuel Iglesias (heck...I don't know that kid either...but now he's my "friend" delightful!)wrote a beautiful tribute when you died. I posted it with the "roundup" I did in February, but I like it so much I think I'll post it again:
So many high school instructors these days teach for standardized tests. You take the class, get your 5, and you move on. You're to dump what you learn instantly to make room for what's next. 

Ms. Cheryl's classes always felt like the opposite. They were starting points; we had been prepared to be inquisitive, if not voracious, connoisseurs of Culture. It comes with growing up in a remote place like Mt. Pleasant Florida—essentially an island—that there's an inherent conflict between the curiosity about what's "out there" and intimidation that what's "out there" is unwelcoming, hostile, indecipherable. It's so clear that Ms. Cheryl's mission was to amplify the curiosity and crush the intimidation. In a charming way, to make us the ultimate outsiders. But never tacky tourists.


Samuel came along long after the first European odyssey you led in 1994, when I'd just graduated from high school, and Leigh Ann had finished her first year at Emory. Here we are with Mr. John in front of Buckingham Palace.
 This one should need no caption...
Although...I don't know, Samuel, I think you might be a bit generous with the "never tacky tourists." Yowza! #blessyourheart

CSS did love those comfy travel jammies! 

"Okay," I can hear you saying, "Get to the point!" 

Well, there are two points I want to make today. The first one is this:

Don't ever let the rules become more important than the values. 
This is something I'm seeing everywhere right now. I see it at church. I saw it at work, and it's part of what led me to realize I needed a break. People can say they value innovation or creativity, but then they fail to create a system in which those traits can thrive. (As a colleague of mine put it, "You can't get Google results without giving Google perks." Or, to put it another way -- during a conversation among my friends when we were in the Hamptons, recently, someone asked, "Do they allow dogs at your office?" That may have to be its own post! Allowing dogs?! At work?! Why, that idea is as wacky as the idea of allowing girls at an all-boys school! Who would propose something so preposterous?!)

I can almost hear Neil's wheels turning when he reads this: "Hmm...if Buddy and Molly could come along, maybe an office job wouldn't be so bad!"

Alas...I digress.

Rules are important; they create a framework, they help keep us "on task and on target," they give us a road map to follow.

But it's the values that really matter. Curiosity. Tolerance. Hard work. Diligence. Endurance. Faith. Persistence. Honor. Valor. Duty. Loyalty. Success.

Rising to a challenge. Not giving up without a fight. Showing a healthy sense of competition. Pushing through when things don't fall into place. Doing the right thing because it's right, not because it's easy. Winning with class and accepting defeat with grace.

That's what Mr. Keating (Robin Williams's character) was trying to instill in his students. He knew the values; he'd lived them himself at that school. He wanted to come back and show the boys what he'd missed -- that there were different ways to achieve the same objective -- that you could indeed march to the beat of your own drummer and still arrive at the same destination in the end.

When we visited colleges (and boy, did we ever visit colleges!), you were always fascinated by places that had a strong honor code. And it's been years since we talked about it, but I know your fascination was because an honor code represents the whole purpose of education.

And you were sooooooo proud when Leigh Ann and I graduated from Duke and Emory...

Because, in a broader sense, something like an honor code doesn't just represent education. It represents the whole purpose of life. Life is about discipline. It's about balance. It's about being set free but not forgetting what you've been trained and taught. It's about seeking new lands, but appreciating the place from which you come. It's about tasting, sampling, trying new things -- and enjoying the comfort of the familiar.

As children, we need our parents to give us rules and structure, but then we grow up and we realize there were reasons for all of those rules: Eating our vegetables keeps our bodies healthy, which makes us feel better. Getting exercise clears our heads and gives us more energy. Watching too much television is undesirable because television is a passive activity. Reading is a worthy pursuit because it's a way of interacting with the fascinating, endless ideas the world offers.

And...I learned something new this week...

Reading...and traveling...are ways of wearing perspectacles! 

I'm not sure if the write of the Momastery blog coined that term or just gets credit for popularizing it; she wrote about it in 2010, with this cool photo:

But she had a really neat post this week about celebrating your home, not criticizing it.

I feel like the message of her post is this: "Stop killing yourself trying to keep up with the Joneses...they're as exhausted as you are...and by the way, no one wants you to come over with a batch of homemade chicken salad if all you're gonna do is bitch about how you were up until 2 a.m. making it. Buy some storebought chicken salad, throw in a few grapes and some almonds, and spend the afternoon reading a book!"

Or...perhaps...sometimes ya just gotta settle for a B answer and be done with it.

Leaving my job this week was a big deal. And, in the end, I actually did leave, as it turned out I wanted a longer leave of absence than it was really feasible for me to take. And it would have freaked you out in some ways, if I'd done it before you got sick, because you always worried about money, until it became tragically obvious that you shouldn't have worried so much. But I know in my heart that you blessed my decision, because it was living the values you taught me.

And -- that's the second big takeaway of this (lengthy) blog post:
You taught us about seeking "an" A answer, not "the" A answer. 

I almost posted that very question on Facebook a few weeks ago; but then I realized this wasn't something I wanted to crowd source. You may have slipped a time or two and said "the A answer." And yes, sometimes there is indeed only one, when it's something simple like conjugating the present tense of hablar. But I know that you knew it was really about "an A answer."

I remember quite vividly doing homework in middle school, being assigned to fill in a blank with "the theme of the story."

And you said, "That's ridiculous. The theme? No good story has just one theme. All good stories have many themes."

Just like your life. It had many chapters. Many themes. When we were writing your obituary, Leigh Ann reminded me this was your favorite school day photo:
Should we use that for your obituary? It was so obvious. But it just seemed...well...kinda like a B answer. Too obvious. I knew you got sick of the fact that people always talked about "the teacher stuff." That was an important part of your life. But not the only one! You were a mother, a wife, you helped to run a small business, you were a traveler and an explorer and a connector. An aunt, a friend, a neighbor, a churchgoer, a colleague, a mentor. And a teacher. But that was just part of it.

So, I chose this one.

You had mixed feelings about that photo. It drove you NUTS that the photographer didn't tell you to fix those pearls! What the hell was he thinking?

And, when Miss Crystle came over to the house, bringing food to feed our family, she said the same thing! She remembered that guy -- David Hernandez, was it? "I cannot believe David Hernandez did not tell your mama to fix those pearls!"

"HA!" I exclaimed. "Yes! You do not know how much Mom would love it that you said that! That picture drove her nuts because of that!"

But really...when it comes right down to's the flaws that make things beautiful, memorable, special. It's the out-of-the-box, throw out the textbook, forget the road map, make some mistakes, find the way, get lost and ask for directions, see what we come up with spirit that makes life worth living.

My very, very favorite Spanish word is aprovechar. It's a word that has no literal translation in English. It's basically a verb form of carpe diem. 

It's been my favorite word for a long time. But now...with you gone so suddenly, so seems even more perfect.

1. to make the most of (tiempo, dinero) to take advantage of (oferta, ocasión) to use, to make use of(conocimientos, experiencia)
  • me gustaría aprovechar esta oportunidad para… I'd like to take this opportunity to…
  • aprovechar que… to make the most of the fact that…
2. to put to good use (lo inservible)
  • no tires los restos de la paella, los aprovecharé para hacer sopa don't throw what's left of the paella away, I'll use it to make a soup
I inherited your Christmas ornaments, and I can't wait to dig out the ol' "WC" this December. ("What does it mean? I don't know! You tell me.") Your wild, wacky, wonderful approach to your Christmas tree -- things you collected here and there. Because, as you told the Tallahassee Democrat in 1996, as a breast cancer survivor, you'd learned long ago to seize the day.
Carpe diem. Seize the day, y'all. 
Or, as they say in that traditional Spanish toast you taught us: 
Salud, peseta, amor, y tiempo de gustarlo. 

Wishing you, and the time to enjoy it. 

Caaaaaaaaarrrrrrpppppeeeeee diiiiiiemmmmm. Seeeeeiiiizeee the day, laddies! Make your lives extraordinary. 
And...just for one final "inside joke"...


Saudade, Mama. 



S. Gretchen Mashburn said...

LOVE this. DPS was one of my favorite movies. And, as you know, your mom was one of my favorite teachers and favorite people as well.

Michelle Mims said...


Anonymous said...

Love it!! Hugs! BJ