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I never ate in a cafeteria until college. Malls and hospitals might have been the closest I ever came to seeing what most children saw in school everyday growing up.

I was homeschooled. My experience, or lack of experience, with cafeterias is just one example of the many things that make me just a little bit different from the traditional school population. I found that most of these things are like cafeterias, most people would say that I didn’t miss much.

I didn’t see friends in class everyday. But if I finished my school work as efficiently as possible and I could spend most of the day playing with friends.

I never did a group project. But I learned to do everything on my own.

I never had specialized teachers with knowledge about specific topics. But I learned how to find a book on anything I wanted to know about.

I never had competition with other students. But I learned to challenge myself and compete with my own abilities to get better.

I couldn’t be in an honors program, no matter how well I did. But I learned to excel for its own sake without the need for recognition.

I never had any sort of dress code. But I learned that you probably won’t get anything done while you are still wearing pajamas.

I never got to stay home sick. But I learned to get work done even if I did it in bed.

I could never leave school. But I learned that even when you can physically leave school at the end of the day, you never stop learning.

I never had a list of extra-curricular activities offered to me. But I learned how to find any activity I wanted and get involved.

I never rode a school bus. But I never had to wait outside for the bus or missed it.

I didn’t have a class of people who became my automatic friends. But I learned I could make friends anywhere.

I never had a class of people exclusively my age. But I learned to be friends with people of any age.

I never fought with kids at school. But I learned that I had to resolve every fight with my three siblings because we couldn’t escape each other.

I never had a schedule made for me. But I learned to make my own schedule and get things done.

I never got sent to the principals office or a detention. But if I did anything wrong, my parents knew exactly what it was.

I never had a summer reading list. But I always made my own list that was impossibly long.\

I never had people tell me what was cool. But I got to decide for myself.

I never had a crush on a cute boy in my class. But I was never rejected or hurt.

I was never one of the popular kids. But I never learned to care about popularity or what other people thought of me.

I never had P.E. But I learned to like exercising.

I never got bullied. But I knew what it was like to be alone.

I never felt peer pressured. But I felt enough pressure from my parents and myself to make up for that.

I never ate with friends in the lunch room. But I never felt segregation, stereotyped, or excluded.

I never ate cafeteria food. But I learned how to make good choices about the food I ate.

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There is so much noise in the city. Everywhere you go, all the time. The city never rests. It never sleeps.

There are always people. You can see them or hear them wherever you are. I can keep myself in a closed room or try to go far away. This fails miserably when I can still hear them in the next room, in the hallway, or sense their presence

I find myself drawn to the lakefront in Chicago.  The lake is a great source of comfort to me, whether I find myself in a pleasant or unpleasant state of mind. Facing the great expanse of Lake Michigan feels like for that moment my mind is clear. The simple line of the horizon that stretches out before me seems like an untouched and too often ignored beauty. Enormous and constant, I feel like I am getting a vaguely blurry glimpse of God.

When I lived in New England, it was so much easier to find a place where I truly felt away from people. I could walk into the woods and be in a secluded, tranquil place. Out of sight from people, my mind could rest. Now I have to try even harder to find the places I can escape to.

It is like a family member or a good friend. You love them, but sometimes you can’t stand them and just need to get away. Then one day, you find yourself away from them and you miss them. You remember all the things you love about them.

The lakefront is where I go when I need to remember why I live my life. When I need to remember all the things that are worth loving.

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1. At least the computer works.Pencil

2. You should find time for the things you love.

3. You can always reset your password.

4. If you wait around to be motivated then you never will be. You motivate yourself. Motivation does not usually magically descend upon you.

5. You can write about anything. What you are thinking, something that happened, something you know, or even something you don’t know. There is always something to write about.

6. Writing is one of the best outlets for questions. If it sounds a little incoherent, just call it art and pretend everyone else is too shallow to understand it.

7. Sit down, stop finding distractions, and quick making excuses.

8. Writing can be like a vacation.

9. You should write tomorrow. And today. Because you can only write while in the present, so do it now.

10. If you are writing for other people you will rarely be satisfied with the actually writing. Write for yourself and write often, eventually you will write something you are satisfied with. And then you will write even more.

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It’s not unusual for fathers or mothers to have dreams for their children. The father may want his son to be an NFL football player, or his daughter to be a star student and valedictorian. Sometimes the mother wants her son to be a magnificent ballroom dancer or her daughter to be the most beautiful beauty queen. Some parents just want their kids to finish high school. My mother was the mother who wanted her daughter to be some sort of great pianist.  And that required my participation.

PianoUnfortunately, at the age of eight I did not share this dream at all. I would have much preferred to be outside up to my ankles in mud making my favorite “mud shoes.” Despite my resistance, each Tuesday, my mother dropped my older sister and I off at Mrs. Hill’s house for lessons.

Mrs. Hill lived in a large house at the top of a hill, a fact I secretly always found amusing. That hill made her driveway the sort that we wouldn’t even bother trying to drive up in the winter, no matter how much it was plowed New England’s snow and ice kept us at the bottom, forcing us to trudge miserably in our snow boots up to the shelter at the top.

When we actually got inside the house we had to battle her dogs, as they eagerly greeted us with rapidly wagging tails. I generally liked dogs, and she had two, a dachshund and a greyhound.  The ludicrous relative size between the two made them a comical pair. I liked her dachshund. Running in circles with excitement, his wagging tail would vibrate his entire rear end. But her greyhound scared me. Accustomed to being the smallest in every class I had ever been in, this gigantic dog was twice my size. When he greeted us, his wagging tail would move like an enormous whip, large enough to knock me to the ground.

After making it up the hill and past the dogs, I still had to live through the lesson itself. My sister would sit on the big, dark-green imitation leather couch in the formal living room doing homework. She would work until it was her turn to be taught. While she sat comfortably, I sat on the hard bench at the enormous grand piano ready to be tortured by my captor, Mrs. Hill.

Mrs. Hill reminded me a lot of my mother. She was probably a pleasant lady, but she easily became a villainous opponent in my mind. I didn’t think that she was a pleasant lady at all when she was trying to make me learn something. I never minded plunking out songs at the piano, but I did mind when someone watched over my shoulder telling me that I was doing it wrong. However, Mrs. Hill didn’t realize that I rarely knew what was right. I could barely read the music; I didn’t understand how the notes on the page somehow matched the keys on the piano. I could color in the lines, but I could not play by the sheet music.

Being a resourceful child, I found a loop hole.  I would play each song however it sounded right to me: by ear and using the numbers above the notes that corresponded to my fingers.  My system worked better than struggling to actually read the music; unfortunately for me it was not foolproof.  When there were no numbers, I had to guess.  Additionally, my scheme incorporated my own timing and rhythm, which rarely coincided with what Mrs. Hill wanted.

Poor Mrs. Hill was stuck trying to force me to play by her methods. Her favorite device of torment was a small, hand-held metronome that resembled a remote control. It was not like the pleasant ticking that you would hope, but an obnoxious beeping that felt like musical Chinese water torture. Rather than helping me keep the rhythm, it shattered all my concentration. Simply the sight of the dreaded device was enough to make me cringe with nervous expectation. Insisting that I would learn with practice, Mrs. Hill was sure that I would get used to it.

She might have been right, if I had practiced at all.  My mom would try just about every day to park me on the bench in front of the piano, and she would succeed for maybe five minutes, until I found a way to distract her and steal away.  Routine agony and torture kept us occupied for two years of lessons with Mrs. Hill.

It only got worse.  While I didn’t like the lessons to begin with, it was a little better because my sister and I were in it together.  It had always been the two of us. She was with me for every lesson. Obviously we didn’t play the same songs and were at completely different levels, she was much better than I. So much better that she eventually needed a different teacher. Recommended to a teacher in another town, she began to take lessons with her own teacher, while I continued to take lessons in the house on the hill -alone.

After enduring a what seemed a grueling lifetime of suffering, although realistically about two months, I was transferred to the other teacher when my mom decided that it would be easier to manage piano lessons if we both had the same teacher. I no longer had to face Mrs. Hill each Tuesday! Although I was relieved, the feeling was fleeting when I realized that I still had to play piano, and the torture would be continued by an unknown executor.

When the first day of the new lessons arrived, my mom drove us up to the front steps. There was no hill with a driveway like Mt. Everest; there was only a horse-shoe shaped driveway, to make turning around easier. There were no dogs to fend off; there were only chirping birds at the hospitable feeder outside, overflowing with seeds, tempting the squirrels and chipmunks as well. There was no grand piano taunting me as I desperately tried to find a note that sounded right; there was only an old, loved upright, like I had at home. There was no Mrs. Hill, waiting for me with her beeping metronome; there was only Mrs. Been, eager to meet her new student.

When we entered, my sister sat down, not on a dark couch with imitation leather in a living room, but in a wooden chair at a homey table that was covered in a sky-blue tablecloth with pretty fake flowers in a basket in the center of the table. As my sister settled down with her homework, I settled down on the piano bench, curious to see how my new teacher would try to make me learn.

An older woman with short curly white hair, Mrs. Been was quick; she had been teaching kids for longer than I had been alive.  She taught music lessons for students at the local school, as well as privately.  The private lessons she gave in a small, sun-porch type of room, devoted to teaching piano.  There was just enough space for a few bookshelves near the piano and her desk, where she kept her students’ records. During the lesson, Mrs. Been sat near the piano bench in a swivel office chair, ready for action.

This chair was very attractive to me; I was very fond of spinning chairs.  When Mrs. Been had me move from the bench so she could demonstrate a song, which had little resemblance to the original when I had attempted to play it, I naturally sat in the twirling chair.  As I took a seat in her chair she chuckled, telling me that I was the only student to sit in her chair, the others would stand respectfully as she played.  While she played, I twisted gently back and forth, enjoying the sound of the song and the motion of the chair.

MusicNot surprisingly, it didn’t take Mrs. Been long to see that I knew almost nothing.  Whipping out her set of musical flash cards, she proved that I could hardly read a note. By the end of the lesson I had been sent back to the previous difficulty level of piano books. I had to get a set of new books that she said she liked better than the ones I had been trying to play. She also gave me a planner where she wrote down my assignments for the week. Under the assignments there was a row of boxes, one for each day of the week. This is where I was supposed to record the amount of time that I had practiced each day.

When we went back the next week, the first thing Mrs. Been did was examine my planner.  She looked at my practice time pleased and surprised, and after writing “195” in large triumphant print, she had me pick out a sticker to put next to it.  I didn’t understand at first why she was so delighted.  Suddenly, it occurred to me: that number was the total time I’d practiced that week.  I had practiced for a total of three hours and fifteen minutes that week.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I had been practicing very much, although I had noticed a feeling of satisfaction each time I had written down how long I’d spent in front of our piano.  Mrs. Been was thrilled, and wrote my name and the number again on a long list, with stars and stickers, that was posted on the wall.  My name was at the top of the list, because I had practiced the most out of all of her students that week.

Strong enforcement from my mom continued to be necessary for a while, but that day became marked in my mind as the day I realized that I could play piano for myself. After that I began to practice more and more; it became a competition to keep my name reigning at the top of the chart. I still couldn’t play very well, but now I had a been given a goal to achieve. I became very fond of Mrs. Been, anticipating my lessons with her each week and becoming more inspired to play. She began encouraging me to play songs I knew and loved, even taking field trips to the piano store where I could pick out any music I wanted. I began to play for hours, loving feel of the keys flowing under my fingers, each note vibrating deep from the heart of the piano.

I can’t say that I became my mother’s inspiring pianist, and patient Mrs. Been had to exert constant perseverance to help me develop my fingering and timing. While my mother’s dream may never be fully realized, I found that I had taken her dream for me to play the piano like a concert pianist, and made it into my own dream – to simply play piano.

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Black holes in time

BlackHoleToo often we think about what we did yesterday and we just can’t remember. Or last week. Or last month. Or last year.

I might remember I was at work yesterday, but whatever I did there is largely lost into the depths of completed and finished projects.

I love finding some item  or note from long ago that brings back a thought that would have been lost to me otherwise. I love going through old pictures or the trunk of useless objects and certificate I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve kept small toys, poems and stories I wrote, drawings, awards, and so many miscellaneous items that I am always discovering something forgotten.

Recently, I came across a journal that I kept for a writing class when I was about ten. I think that class may have inspired me more than perhaps any other writing class that I’ve taken. And that inspiration has stuck and grown over time. Reading through it made me think of so many different things: the ways I’ve changed and matured in a decade, the similarities… the arrogance of youth.

You think you know everything when you are ten.

I remember loving the teacher, Mrs. Curtis. She was patient and gave us broad categories, and knew how to give us a task but leave room for plenty of creativity. We were supposed to write about what we did each day, describing actual events and things we observed. My observations were full of childishly sincere thoughts. My journal is covered in her notes, encouraging me and chiding me for not doing something right.

More than once I wrote a poem instead of an entry. She would call me a little poet and scold me for not writing an actual journal entry. She taught me to read and write poems, and I loved finding words that rhymed and forming phrases. I loved using the words to make amusing and nonsensical verses and limerick.

That love of words has matured too, and translated into a love of pleasing prose more than those little rhyming ditties.

No more than some paper in a folder, that journal is a record of so many lost thoughts. When you think about there are only some events that we remember, with those filed away until something recalls them to mind, like a key that unlocks a cabinet. Like my little journal. That note, picture, smell, or place can bring back memories that have been long lost in time.

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harborI haven’t spoken a word all day.

Some people are physically mute. Some people take a voluntary vow of silence. For me, it’s a necessity. If I continue speaking, I may not be able to speak at all later.

A few times every year, I have to go on vocal rest. I retreat into myself, and don’t speak for hours or a day at a time.

Whenever this happens, it makes me think even more. It makes me wonder. It makes me write.

I’ve been like this since I was thirteen. I used to panic, my worst fear being that one day I would wake up and never be able to speak again.

Essentially, I have “delicate” vocal chords. What might make most people hoarse for a day, will make me hoarse for a month or longer. Talking, singing, medications, illness, asthma, acid reflux, environmental influences, and other things strain my voice to the point that it becomes difficult or painful to speak.

You might know a similar feeling if you’ve ever had laryngitis.

I can’t change it, and it will never really go away. I’ve accepted it, and learned that it is a burden I can manage. It takes a great deal of discipline, control, and caution to prevent strain or heal my vocal chords. When I’m not extremely careful, it gets worse.

I’m not speaking today because my voice became hoarse after I sang in a choir a month ago, and has been slowly getting worse again.

I’m at my family’s house now. It’s much easier, because my quirky family is accustomed to the peculiar situation and supportive. My parents put up with it, and my two brothers laugh at my expressions and silent jokes. My sister and most of my good friends have learned how to interpret and understand my gestures, and make the best of an interesting situation.

It is not always fun. You feel alone. Unable communicate with everyone as normal, it can quickly make you feel isolated and desperate. But it will make you stronger in the end.

You’d be amazed at the things you learn by keeping your mouth shut. You should try it. You become a better observer, listener, and non-verbal communicator. It can bring a sense of inner peace, allowing you to hear your own inner voice and even God better. It teaches you what needs to be said, what doesn’t, and how to pick your battles. It makes you value every word from your mouth, and from others. You learn to appreciate sound, and enjoy the silence.

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Last weekend, I found one of my friends looking distraught and tear-tainted. After asking if she was ok, she explained that she might be pregnant.

Yeah. Having a kid before you are out of college is, well, not exactly in the blueprint for success.

She couldn’t even take a pregnancy test because it was late afternoon on a Saturday and the pharmacy on our block was closed. Peace of mind was not exactly possible at the moment. pregnant

Ever the problem solver, I looked up the nearest 24 hour pharmacy and dragged her to it. Letting her sit around thinking of the possibilities and problems was not going to help. Begin the adventure.

Once we were walking towards our destination, the humor of the situation began to surface. We cracked some jokes, and almost started to enjoy the total awkwardness of the situation. There was still hope that it would turn out to be nothing.

Among other things, our shopping list included:

Pregnancy test

Chocolate

Juno (the movie)

It reminded me of something you would see on the grocery lists blog. Really, what better to watch while taking a pregnancy test than Juno? All we needed to add was some Sunny D.

Two closed pharmacies away, we eventually found the 24 hour one. And then we located the tests, locked in a clear plastic case, presumably so embarrassed customers can’t steal them. We glanced around, unsure of whom to ask for assistance. There was a big button next to the case with instructions to push the button for assistance. But my friend wanted to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves.

So I flagged a guy who worked there and asked him if he could unlock the case. He replied that he didn’t have the key, but someone with a key would come –when you push the button. And then he pushed it.

Following a loud beeping noise and a few announcements to the entire store that “customer assistance is needed in the personal care aisle,” a girl with a key arrived. She opened the case, and my friend hastily grabbed a test.

A short while later, after dipping two sticks in a cup of pee, watching Juno, and eating some chocolate, we finally concluded she was not pregnant.

The next day was Mother’s Day.

So my not-pregnant friend, if you are reading this, I love you –and I’m so glad you’re not a mother yet.

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