so, let us sleep outside tonight

You know, it would really cramp my style if my kids hated porta-potties.  Or bugs.  Or dirty feet.

Close to six years ago, now, we bought a pop-up camper. And even though we don’t use it as often as we’d like (because there are things like soccer games every Saturday morning in both the fall and spring), it’s still my favorite vacation. (Well, it’s probably the only one.  But wasn’t that the point?)

It hasn’t always been easy (okay, it’s never really easy, but now,  at least during set-up and take-down, we move like a well-oiled machine). On our very first attempt at pop-up camping, tropical storm-force winds ripped off the awning.

Then there was the time we grossly underestimated how cold fifty degrees could be, and how hard it is to keep a baby warm, even when you sleep with her against your body.  So we bought a space heater at a nearby Walmart, and the thickest sleeping bag they sold.

One year, the Jeep’s engine decided to destroy itself, so we lacked a tow vehicle for Wanee.  And though I wouldn’t recommend it, we stuffed the Matrix with ourselves and our gear and survived a three-day music festival in a tent with two small children.  And no real running water (though we walked them, naked, in the dark, to one of the bathouses, only to find out the water was too cold). We had nothing to hush the sound of crying, like the hum of the pop-up’s air conditioning (yes, the pop-up has a/c; I never claimed to be “roughing it,” and have you been to Florida in the summer?), and nothing to muffle us from the music the night the Allman Brothers decided to turn it up.  Way up.

Or the first year we went to Wanee and it rained so hard and for so long that even our bones felt soggy.

And aside from any major catastrophes, performing the regular, everday routine can sometimes pose a challenge.  Like waiting for a bottle to heat up on a gas stove at 3am while an infant screams into the silence of the campground.  Or backing into the campsite only to realize the water and electricity hookup is on the other side of the site next to you and no one told you about the necessary extension cord. So there’s work involved — a lot of work.  But the kids get dirty and tired and have the time of their lives.  And so do we.

They play outside from too early in the morning until it’s dark enough to start a fire.  The middle one doesn’t have to wear shoes all day if she doesn’t want to (and, usually, she doesn’t).  They breathe. There’s no television and they don’t even notice. They go to bed without complaint inside those little sleeping bags.  And even if we’ve managed a shower, they still smell of sunblock and bugspray and their own sweet sweat.  And when they drift off to sleep, that sleep is sound.  Perhaps it is the soundest sleep.

They’ve rocked out to bands like Widespread Panic and Robert Randolph and The Family Band and the North Mississippi Allstars in wide-open fields and others have stopped to watch (and often, join in) because it’s a happiness you can’t ignore. It’s a kind of happiness that makes you feel like maybe, you should dance, too. 

And once in a while, if you’re lucky, when you think it’s too hot and

buggy and the air is thick with humidity that even an afternoon  thunderstorm won’t break, you stop into the Myakka Outpost to find they have craft beers on tap.

Sometimes I worry that my kids will someday notice that we can’t give them things like Disney World, even though we live only a half-hour away.  We’ve been to Downtown Disney before and we’ve seen those little girls coming from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, and I know that my six-year-old has noticed them and their pretty dresses and their sparkly hair.  But every day on the way home from school this week, they’ve talked about their upcoming camping trip.  They’ve talked about their sleeping bags.  They’ve talked about marshmallows.  And fishing.  And the bugs and seashells they’ll collect.

So maybe we’ve got a few more years of sleeping outside.  Or maybe more than a few.


eulogy for adam

*The following eulogy is for Adam Tilrow Morrison, who passed away on Thursday, August 16th, 2012, at the age of 22.  It was read at a service celebrating his life on Tuesday, August 21st, and was posted here at the request of friends and family so that it could be easily accessed and shared.  

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Erin.  For the first year of my relationship with Adam, I was his AP English teacher at Santa Fe. For all of the years since then, he was my friend.  And for that, I am incredibly blessed.  Being asked to speak in his honor is both wonderful and terrifying.

Disclaimer:  A little more than a week ago, I had my last conversation with Adam, and part of our discussion included the movie, Bridesmaids.  For those of you unfamiliar with the film, there’s a scene in which one bridesmaid tells another how ugly she is when she cries.  I’m pretty sure that, for the past few days, Adam has been itching to tease me about how ugly I am when I cry.  So I’m going to try to spare you.  That being said, I can’t promise anything.

Dear Adam,

When I finally told little Georgia that you were gone, the tears (hers and mine) came fast and hard.  A little while later, she came running, suddenly, out of her room, and she said, “I could make an Adam out of paper, and keep him beside my bed.”  Problem solved!  She even planned on coloring you a different shirt for each day of the week. (Clearly, monotony is not a concern when it comes to pants.)

I didn’t have the heart to tell her, You can’t just make an Adam.

Although I didn’t know you as a child, I can’t imagine you were much different from the mostly grown-up version of yourself.  Maybe a little shorter.  Your Dad tells me that one year, for his birthday, you gave him a handmade card with a dollar bill inside, the only one you had.  And, not surprisingly, in kindergarten, when you prayed with him at night, you wanted God to look out for everyone in the world.  (Well, except for the strangers and bad guys.)

You were always looking out for everyone else.  You’d give away your last piece of candy if someone asked you for it.  You’d stand up for the kid who needed it most.  You’d take me out for lunch and insist on buying because, as you said, I just couldn’t afford it on my teacher’s salary.

And in January of 2007, when that drunk driver collided with you, someone was looking out for us.  Someone wanted us to have you for just a little bit longer.  And so these last five and a half years haven’t been the cancer years; they’ve been the bonus years.

And in those years, you were outrageous and entirely too funny, and I can vouch for this.  I remember getting negative marks on one of my teacher evaluations because you chose to read “double, double, toil and trouble,” aloud in your very own Shakespearean witch voice.  But how could I get angry when I was too busy laughing?  And even when I did get frustrated, you’d sit up straight in your desk so that everyone could see you, and use your index fingers to make those “Angry Lavelle Eyebrows” on your forehead, and I’d lose it all over again.  Apparently, this kind of thing worked with your mother, too. (And, trust me, my friends, if you know Mrs. Morrison, you know she doesn’t mess around.  I’m pretty sure she’s the reason Adam only missed two days of school after his first surgery. So, getting her to laugh when she’s angry is a feat that only Adam could pull off).

That same year, we all watched in the SFC auditorium as you walked around on stage with a pillow tucked in your shirt for your role as the Mayor of River City in The Music Man.  And you rubbed that big old tummy when you yelled, “Where’s the band?!”

And then you were off to college, and from what I’ve gathered, you were everyone’s first friend.

In December of 2008, you were finishing up your first successful semester in the honors program at Florida State and I was standing in Santa Fe’s media center, when I got a text from you:  “MRI not good.”  And I thought you were kidding, because it was you.  But you weren’t.

Within the next month or so, you were off to Boston for another surgery.  And I remember we Skyped the night before.  Jane was a brand-new baby then, and you made me hold her up for you and your parents to see.  You put some effect on the screen that made it look like you were covered in bubbles, and Georgia started referring to you as “Adam with the bubbles on his head.”  After your surgery, when we Skyped again (I’m pretty sure you don’t remember that one), you became “Adam with the boo boo on his head.”

And, as usual for you, within days, you were a man on the town in Boston with Richard, wearing matching lobster hats on your heads.

The following summer was that of the Chanson (a wonderful merging of the Chan-Pong and Morrison surnames) Beach vacation, which included not only the Chan-Pongs and the Morrisons, but the Garzarellis, Molly Grosser, Katie Welch, and Kyle Peeples.  And on one fateful night, between the hours of 12 and 4am, while all of these little darlings slept in one hotel room, the band we know as Epic Fail was born. (Okay, even though it was epic, it was formed rather quietly, with the boys scheming inside the closet so as not to disturb a sleeping Colleen.)

When you went to Japan that summer, your sisters say you were “bald as a cueball,” but those Japanese ladies still loved you.  It’s not hard to believe, though, considering you were always really really ridiculously goodlooking.

And then you went back to school, and the best part is, nothing really happened that year.  You got to be a normal college kid.

The next year brought more cancer, another surgery and too much chemo. And yet you never left school.  You studied things like organic chemistry — I remember this, specifically, because we had a discussion concerning whether it should be called “orgo” or “orga,” and you said “orgo” was more “aesthetically pleasing” — But how did you do it? You didn’t just keep going, you kept living.

You had cancer before I met you, but it was never who you were.  It was just one of your characteristics.  Like being really tall.  Or having brown eyes.  One of the things I appreciated the most about you and your cancer was your openness, your willingness to talk about it, to assume that I was smart enough to understand all of the scientific and medical language that came with developments and treatments (and to answer my questions when I wasn’t). Nothing was ever awkward or uncomfortable, including the time you first passed gas in the hospital after your colon surgery and we all cheered.  Or those funny noises that came from your colostomy bag while we watched Jeopardy and you acted like you knew all of the answers, but it turned out you had already watched that episode.  (I only caught on in Final Jeopardy when you said, “I bet this guy is going to wager $7,000.”)

There was always some hope there, you know?  Even when it felt like there shouldn’t be.  Just a couple of weeks ago, when your mom took me outside and said (not in these words) that things were beginning to be hopeless, I came home and wrote this about the hope that I felt when I was with you: Hope is reserved for those with soft hearts; it patches the holes and stitches the tears. It’s the gift we receive for surviving the heartache.  For letting ourselves be vulnerable enough to love.  To believe.  Hope gives us strength without hardening our hearts.

I guess, maybe, that’s why I thought you’d never die.  Hope made me believe.  And I’m kind of okay with that.  Because I liked believing.

You never made cancer your excuse.  Okay, well maybe a few times.  Like when you wanted to dance with Ms. Schauer at prom or hug Mrs. Skalski at graduation.  Or when you dropped out of cotillion.  Or the time you had to explain why you got second instead of first at the county tennis tournament three weeks after your first brain surgery. Or even the other day, when Claire and I teased you for your attempt at one-handed-string-cheese-eating, and you said, “Hey, I have brain swelling, okay?”

Maybe you were just too darn good for this world.  I remember last October when we texted back and forth all day one Saturday about a girl you liked.  You’re going to hate me for telling this one.  You had taken her out on a date to a bar the night before.  She drank too much and went home with someone else.  In the morning, she called and asked you to come pick her up at that guy’s place and take her home.  And you did.  Isn’t that crazy?  You did!  You said, “But she’s really pretty.”  I said, “But she’s really mean.”  You said, “I have cancer!  I don’t have time for this!”  I said, “Please don’t ever talk to her again.  Ever.”  You said, “I can’t do that.  I’m too nice.”  And you were.  (All those girls you kissed on New Year’s Eve a few months later make up for this, I think.)

You did it, you know?  You stared cancer right in the face, unafraid.  And you didn’t let it kill your spirit.  You didn’t complain.  You didn’t feel sorry for yourself.  You laughed a lot.  You ate breakfast at Denny’s and biscuits at Red Lobster and watched 21 Jumpstreet (even though your mother didn’t appreciate all of that foul language) just a week ago.  You kept on fighting the good fight. And I don’t think we can say that you lost.  Because of your attitude, because of your approach, I don’t think we can say you were defeated.

Thank you, Adam, for being who you were.  For showing us what the world could be like.  For giving us hope.  Robert Kennedy once said: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I see things as they never were and say, ‘Why not?'”  Who knew you had so much in common with a democrat?

Hey, before you take off, there are a couple of things I think you should know.  The first is that, no matter how impressive this stunt is, I still will not be voting for Mitt Romney this year. And I promise to make Teddy wear the plastic clip-on earrings the next time we play Pretty Pretty Princess.  (Oh, and I hope you liked your eugoogly.)

Claire would like you to know that this whole thing is doo doo, baby.

Colleen would like you to know that she recently had to concede that the Noles’ casket was, in fact, far more attractive than that of the Gators.

Your mother would like you to know that even though it was a struggle for you to get the words out, she heard you say, “I love you, Mom.”

Your father would like you to know that his father used to be his hero.  Now his hero is his son.

We lost you. Yes.  And we could look at it that way.  Or we could view ourselves as the undeserving recipients of the greatest gift in the first place.

yeah, we tease him a lot, ’cause we’ve got him on the spot (welcome back)

Good God, Ms. Lavelle. Please do NOT become a high school teacher.  Please. He was from the South, and so his “God” had two syllables. (When he taught me to read poetry aloud in college, he did so with an Alabama accent. I still sound like a Southerner each time I read Those Winter Sundays to my students.)  He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as he pleaded with me.  Trust me, he said.

There were plenty of reasons for him to say it, reasons that I could not possibly understand until I became a teacher.  Low pay, of course.  Long hours that often include nights and weekends.  Abusive parents.  Abusive students.  Inadvertent and even involuntary increased bladder control.

So I put it out of my mind.  I mean, I was going to be a college professor, anyway.  Write a best-seller (of literary merit, of course).  And I’d have cabin (a converted schoolhouse, actually) in rural New Hampshire or Vermont (even better) where I’d spend my summers, alone.  Writing.  And walking a dog. A very big dog.

Teaching high school was never part of the plan.  And that’s what I tell my seniors (who think they’ve got it all figured out, as I did at seventeen) on the second day of school.  I read a letter that I’ve written to them about how all kinds of things in my life have not gone according to plan. (I edited it last night because, of course, there have been plenty of events over the past year that, apparently, didn’t receive the “plan” memo).

But this August, I’m entering my eleventh year as a high school teacher.  And for the first time ever, I think I’m embracing (stomaching?) the reality that I am, in fact, a teacher.  And that maybe, it makes me even a little bit lucky (gasp!).

I read an article recently that made a good argument for teaching high school with a degree that was once reserved for college teachers (and by “reserved,” I mean that those of us who went on to get an MFA in Creative Writing had no real intention of teaching high school).  The article did a fine job of convincing me that I was not “wasting” my degree, and even made me a little relieved that I’m not teaching college (so, thank you, Mr. Nick Ripatrazone). But, I have to say (and perhaps it’s because I’m a bit soft), there are so many other (and different) reasons why I teach those darling adolescents.

Here are this week’s reasons (and by that I mean they have all happened in the past week):

  • One of the greatest kids on the planet referred to me as his “favorite person.”  No, not his favorite teacher.  His favorite person.
  • In our new “teachers’ lounge,” I opened the refrigerator to find a plastic container with my name on it.  A handwritten note said, “Here’s to the start of another wonderful year!”  Inside was a pile of chocolatey buttery goodness, from the same mom who often provides me with salty dill pretzels.
  • In class today (the very first day), one girl said, “Well that’s because you’re a good teacher,” and she didn’t intend for it to be a compliment, just a statement.  (Trust me, if you knew her, you would know she’s not the kind to give compliments — which just makes it an even better compliment.)
  • A former student sent me a text message that was a direct quote from my blog.
  • I’ve been at the same school long enough to meet the third (and fourth) sibling in one family.
  • I left work with a free pizza, and then my next-door-teacher friend (I’m in 24, she’s in 25) sent me a text message to find out about my afternoon trip to the mechanic.  Then I sent her a message to tell her that avocadoes were on sale for $.59.
  • A recent graduate let me know that he ended a tweet with #holdencaulfield.  (I mean, that’s enough right there.)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure there will be still plenty of times, especially in social situations, when I say, I teach high school, and almost forget to leave out the “just” in between “I” and “teach.” Or I’ll want to punctuate the sentence with:  Really, I’m a writer!  I promise!  Read my blog!

But I’m a teacher. Truly. It’s what (who?) I am.