By Laura Moore
For the first few weeks of every school year, I take attendance on paper. Jotting notes in the margins, I write the phonetic spelling of each student's name, and I record the details they share so I can begin to understand who they are. When I mispronounce names, I scold myself, making extra notes on my printouts, promising to practice so it won't happen again.
I take this process seriously, because I believe the effort to hear, internalize and speak someone's name is the first sign of respect we show to another human being. When we mumble over difficult letter combinations, or generate American-sounding nicknames to avoid speaking ethnic ones, we make a decision to render a portion of another person's identity as insignificant. Now this, of course, doesn't count if the person tells us to call them something different, but in my opinion, when we decide to make that change on our own without being told to do so, we are stealing something that doesn't belong to us.
Because I believe this, I was deeply saddened last night at the funeral home, when I heard stories about my grandmother's maiden name. According to my second cousin once removed, shortly after immigrating to America, my great uncle Tony went off to school. When the teacher made her way around the room to complete the roster, she stopped at his desk and asked him to spell his last name. Unable to speak much English, he stumbled over the spelling, and part way through, the student beside him finished his sentence, adding "M-A-N," to the "K-O-Z" my great uncle had already offered. Instead of working with Uncle Tony to figure out his real name, the teacher wrote down the letters, and moved to the next student. The name she got was good enough, and since my great grandparents didn't speak English, no one in their family knew to how to correct it. Consequently, from then on out, Kozman--not Kozul--became their surname.
As I listened to my cousin speak, I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss. While I recall history lessons about people changing their last names to sound less ethnic, I didn't realize that sometimes names were changed for you. And even more, I didn't realize my family name--a name that I have grown up believing was part of me--wasn't actually real at all.
While names are just words, and our identities are much more complex than the two dimensional letters that combine to form those words, we fill the spaces between the letters--our letters--with so much weight. We fill them with tradition, personality traits, physical traits, talents, interests, achievements, and dreams. Our names symbolize our connection to the past, and as we live out our present, our names will belong to the future.
Unfortunately, a century ago, when my great-grandparents came to this country, someone decided that getting their name right wasn't important. People just needed to call them something, and so they did--without checking the accuracy, honoring the legitimacy or respecting the history. In a single classroom interaction, my family's name changed, and by changing it, the only lasting link they had to the old county was snapped. And this snap was so clean, so abrupt, that it wasn't until the very last sibling in the first generation of Americans died, that members of the second and third generation learned who they really were.
Today, as I stared at my Great Uncle Mike's headstone, baring the Americanized version of his name, I felt sad that he, his parents and eleven of his siblings had been cheated for all of those years, cheated out of the correct combination of letters, the same letters his grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts shared. And as I held my six-month old son and imagined the life ahead of him, I vowed to better understand the past I know far too little about, an endeavor that will begin with a name that is much bigger than the letters on that gravestone and the syllables escaping the priest's lips.
By Laura Moore
At first, we couldn't figure out what he was doing.
Each time we'd put him down, he'd flip onto his stomach regardless of how difficult it was to turn, which toys were in the way, or how impractical such an act might be in those precious seconds between diapers. And steadying himself on the outer-most part of his belly, he'd quickly locate his center of balance, lift his legs, and spread his arms.
"Are you swimming?" I would ask in ernest, trying my best to hop inside his six-month old brain and view the world through his eyes. Being the chatter he is, of course, he'd answer with a series of haas, ahhhs and baahs and a few high pitched yells for good measure.
"Ohhh, you're going to love swim lessons," I'd say to him in a friendly, high pitched voice. He'd smile his trademark smile in response--the one that turns my heart to melted butter--and then he'd return to his task: wobbling around like a top, his feet either clipping the foam arms of the Safari Gym, or catching the edge of my knee, or spinning around enough to cause him to collide face first into the broadside of our dog.
This continued for a few days, but as I watched him closer, I began to doubt my initial read. His actions didn't really look like swimming anymore; they looked more like floating or scooting. Maybe this is just an early effort to learn how to crawl, I thought to myself. And I let it go.
But later that evening, when my husband came home from work, I watched him pick up our baby boy and send him sailing through the kitchen. Up and down, weaving around in patterns, the little guy canvased the air with his arms outstretched, his legs arched, his mouth agape and his eyes peeled wide. And seeing him like that--seeing him actively engaged in flight--I realized exactly what he was trying to do all of those minutes on the ground: he was trying to fly.
Day in and day out, he keeps trying: working up a sweat, ignoring his other toys, holding up his body like Superman. And despite any obstacle in his way, the entire time he endeavors to lift his body, he maintains unflappable focus: pinching his lips, slanting his eyes, bracing himself for the moment when the earth will inevitably fall beneath him, and he will rise up and sail through the air like a seagull skimming the ridge of the sky. He wills his flight with everything he has in the deepest boughs of his imagination, and I have grown drunk drinking in every possible moment of his beautifully pure determination to make the impossible happen.
He falls asleep with his wings outstretched, he sends them outward the moment he wakes up, and I have no doubt he uses them throughout the entirety of his dreams. Every night when his father comes home and lifts him up, he emanates a sort of joy I have never before seen in anyone: squeals fill the room, drool pools on the floor and his eyeballs push through the slits in his face.
"One, two," my husband begins, and our little guy spreads his arms. His entire body rises with a nearly transcendental jolt of anticipation, and his unwavering faith is virtually palpable, a faith that trusts the number three will send him up high, where the air breaks across his face, and tickles his tummy, as he climbs and falls, and climbs and falls through every corridor of our house.
As soon as he comes back down to the floor, he wobbles on his belly again: holding his arms parallel to the ground, lifting his chest with every ounce energy bustling in his body. When that doesn't work, he tries to stretch his neck upward, straightening his arms and turning his eyes to the ceiling. Still grounded, he falls downward again, arching his back, lifting his legs, sending his arms out, this time, at right angles. And when that, too, fails to lift him from the floor, he begins moving his wings up and down just enough to spin into a spiraling whirl. This goes on and on until one of us picks him up and rockets him through the air.
It never gets old, and he never stops believing.
Each time I watch him, I yearn to capture his joy. I wish I could tap into his vivid imagination. I wish I could siphon out just a small bit of his innocence and pour it into jars, so that when he gets older, and the practical word edges it out of him, we will still have some saved up in the cupboard, we will still be able to make him squeal with delight, to push out the rest of the world so he can revel in the sheer ecstasy of small pleasures.
I wish I had those jars, so even when he realizes he can't lift himself off of the ground--even when he knows it is impossible for his arms to send him flying around the world--he might still have enough innocence to believe in magic, enough innocence to keep trying regardless of how high the sky might seem, enough innocence to know, deep within him, that he does possess the strength to rise.
By Laura Moore
Girls, admit it:
When you were fourteen years old, you flipped to the quiz section of YM or Seventeen or Cosmopolitan. Gazing over your left shoulder, and then your right, you made sure no one breathed within range of the tiny font before you, and then you proceeded to scrutinize every question the editors thought to ask.
Once you had your list of A, B, C, C, D, B, B, A, A, C, you flipped the page upside down, or you turned to the back and decoded the point system attributed to each of the responses. Then you added up your score, found the category that suited your number and read the ever-personal, deeply insightful analysis of your love life, your friendships, your potential to find happiness ever again. If you didn't like what it said, you went back to the questions you were unsure about, and you answered them differently. Then you re-added your points, and proceeded to move yourself from the less-than-ideal category and into the more desirable highly ideal category.
Once you got your categorical analysis, you beamed with the promise of life working out in some fantastic way at an undefined point in your future. You dismissed your mini dramas and fostered super secret crushes, and justified that because you found your way to the highly ideal category, at some point everything would work out.
I don't know if guys had the equivalent set of quizzes in their magazines, but I know these quizzes certainly played an entertaining role in the life of the teenage girls I knew. It didn't matter if the questions were irrelevant, or if none of the answers captured your feelings on any given issue; all that mattered was the fact that in return for choosing a response, you would get readily available advice, advice you couldn't possibly ask of another living soul.
Now, as a thirty-something, we get a new form of quizzes, upcycled like barn wood and brass chandeliers. Instead of walking off with trendy new floors or flashy new lights, by clicking on a link we are transported to mini quizzes where we can learn anything we could possibly want to know about our connection to T.V characters, the rainbow and various regions of the world.
Yesterday, after filling out a quiz asking "How Midwestern Are You?" and reading droves of commentary lagging from last weeks' quiz "How Bitchy Are You?" I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the ritual, of me spending sixty seconds answering questions in an effort to read an analysis that was bound to be complete and utter bull schnikey.
As a general rule, every quiz seems to possess strange questions and even stranger responses, but despite recognizing this--and even stating it in the comment section when we post our results--we still love to read how our answers reveal convincing insights about how New York we are, which type of house we should live in, which city we should move to, which career we should have, which poet we would be like if we ever became a famous poet, which color matches our personality or which one represents our aura.
Given all of that, one would assume a reasonably intelligent person would elect to forgo the quiz links and focus, instead, on the news stories taking up a similar amount of screen space, but despite recognizing the flawed nature of the entire activity, engaging it just feels too darn satisfying. No matter how silly the questions are, it is fun to answer them, and then to have someone--or something--spew nice psychobabble about you just as soon as you finish the activity. Who doesn't want to hear a positive spin on our traits, or get answers that seem to confirm what we already believe to be true? Who doesn't want feedback (as long as it's positive) about our behaviors? And who doesn't want to feel validated and understood, even if it all comes at the hand of a generic algorithm?
As human beings, we are ego centric, but we are also communal. We want to know where the boundaries of normalcy and individuality digress and cross and bend and unfold. We want to know where we fit, who we are and who else is in our corner. We want to know that everything will be okay. These quizzes attempt to delve into all of that, and even if we know they're imperfect, we still accept them, we still take them, we still post them, we still comment on them and we still find amusement in them. While we are too grown up for YM, Seventeen and Cosmo, we're not too old for the droves of viral quizzes speeding down the online highway. We're not too old to post our results, and connect with other unrealized artists possessing orange personalities, and the destiny of owning a farmhouse in Paris.
By Laura Moore
When my son's first Fourth of July came to a close, I couldn't help but reflect on my very favorite holiday. Watching him in any one of the five outfits he had baring red, white and blue, I often smiled, nostalgic about my childhood, excited for his.
My husband humored me as I filled July 3rd and July 4th with a steady stack of commitments, and he very kindly chose not to mock my bizarre giddiness (even though I probably deserved it). Instead, we spent the days together as a family, interacting with other families, relishing in the old-fashioned, idealistic outpouring of community that makes me love this holiday so very much.
I'm not sure when my love affair with the Fourth of July started, but I do know I first realized it was perhaps a little weird in 1996, during my freshman year in college.
"After you give your name and where you're from, tell us your favorite holiday," our group leader said, introducing the icebreaker activity we would begin with before moving to other tougher challenges.
"Hanukkah," or "Halloween," or "Thanksgiving," a few people chimed, but most people said "Christmas," and their responses seemed to bespeak a certain superiority, a superiority that to be perfectly honest, shocked the heck out of me as it garnered steam around the circle.
But it's cold during Christmas, I thought, and that single, solitary fact seemed like sufficient justification for why we should debunk it from its place atop the Ivory Tower of holiday celebrations.
No one else seemed to be on the same page.
Stunned, I sat and listened to each reply, and when the girl beside me added her tick mark to the ever-growing list of Christmas lovers, I swallowed, half wondering if people forgot about the Fourth of July, or if they really felt that an icy, cold holiday in the middle of December was truly better.
When the turn to speak landed on my lap, I gave my name and my hometown location; then I decided to be bold. "Fourth of July," I said with a confidence that apparently should have wavered given the facial reaction of those huddled around me.
Lips blossomed into a shocked half-smile.
A brief silence enveloped me and made me wonder whether or not I heard the instructions correctly, whether or not I had misinterpreted the entire activity.
"That's interesting," the group leader said, insufficiently muffling a burgeoning bout of laughter. "Why is the Fourth of July your favorite holiday?"
Through a series of rambling fragmented thoughts, I attempted to produce a vivid picture of why the Fourth of July was so undeniably fantastic.
"Well, first you have the fireworks," I began, but I neglected to adequately articulate why Columbus' Red, White and Boom was impressive or fun or a decisive piece of evidence in my growing case for holiday superiority. I failed to mention the laser lights, or the shapes they choreographed to the music, or the bands or the river-side picnicking or the partying that invariably followed. Instead, flustered, without any sort of transitional warning, I began to tout my hometown parade.
"And we have this parade at 9am on the 4th--its' actually the longest non-commercial parade in the country," I started, but I could tell the idea of waking up at 9 am for a parade that featured the OSU Alumni Band, fighter jets and floats containing droves of your friends did not seem at all appealing, so I jumped to the city-wide explosion of cookouts, the pool parties, the yard games, the mingling with strangers, the baseball diamond cluttered with old friends, the bands, the dancing, the local fireworks display that was arguably better than the city one, the post parties....
But none of it seemed to sway anyone away from the month of December, from the snow and the ice, from the presents beneath the tree.
So I stopped.
"Well, I guess you just have to be there," I said, finally, trying to reestablish a little credibility. "You know, I think Christmas is pretty cool too."
By Laura Moore
Today, I joined the "Teachers Write" online community. Throughout the summer, authors Kate Messner, Jen Vincent and Gae Polisner facilitate a writing workshop for teachers and librarians to grow as thinkers, engagers and writers. Today's post asked us to sit somewhere, observe and capture the moment. Then we had to go back and add sensory details to enliven our original piece. For a link to the full text of the assignment, click here.
If you follow the link, you can also sign up to participate if you're interested.
I added my response to the others posted beneath the assignment, but I also decided to add it to my blog. I'm glad I took the Teachers Write challenge, because instead of pouting about the rain, I got the chance to enjoy the show:
A breeze whistles through the porch corridor, and my legs crash against it as they set an old wooden rocking chair into rhythm. Deep rolls of thunder gurgle in the distance, while leaves stretch themselves in the breeze: flapping feverishly when the air moves, barely bouncing in the lull between gusts. A fire hydrant, four houses, a dozen trees, and two rows of cracked sidewalks hover in the backdrop, all still but for a swaying flag and a speeding car, slicing the scenery like cupped hands breaking water.
The air feels heavy and wet on my tongue, but before I can take note of the taste, soft, white slivers crease the sky, falling like iridescent streamers before morphing into to a million javelins, ramming against the leaves, the branches, the bushes, and the ground with such fury they shudder in the wake of each collision. As the greenery bends and arches--first slowly and then explosively--each piece looks like a ballet dancer performing on the stage of my street. The action rises vigorously, approaching a climax that falls only when the sun presses against the gray blanket above, burning up the water as it tumbles to its denouement and the music finally stops.
The pounding taps slow to a rustling shiver. The leaves hang--exhausted--drops of sweat lingering on their tips. I sigh in the aftermath, and relish the breeze as it sails once more through the corridor. Mosquitoes appear as the curtain falls, and feeling left out, they demand attention by gnawing on my vulnerable ankles, still busy moving in rhythm: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
By Laura Moore
After what seemed like ten straight days of rain, I finally decided to venture outside with the sole purpose of assessing the weed situation. Shovel in hand, yard waste bag at foot, I stood at the base of our walkway and immediately began laughing: clovers strategically assumed residence in nearly every vacant patch of unoccupied dirt.
The idea of removal seemed unappealing at first, but once I kneeled down and began to dig, I found the process strangely enjoyable. I looked forward to each new cluster of clover: the dainty ones, the hefty ones and everything in-between. Unable to suppress my childish urge to pause before I yanked, with each new patch, I allowed my eyes the guilty pleasure of scanning for a prized anomaly: the four leaf clover.
I continued plucking for an hour and a half, clearing the dirt of undesirable impostors, and as the crisp flowerbeds reemerged, I found myself thinking about weeds. Stuck on the moving boundaries of my definition, I decided to pause my effort, pull out my phone, and look up the word: "a herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation...an unprofitable, troublesome or noxious growth."
In other words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a weed is a worthless, ugly, toxic, wild and/or rank entity that gets in the way of things that are far more valuable.
After I swindled a few moments pondering the idea of vegetative hierarchy, I returned back to the clovers, back to the life form that had aggressively overtaken my hostas. The weed definition certainly seemed to fit the description of most clovers, but I couldn't help but wonder why it didn't fit the four leaf clover, a plant that is admired, used for good fortune, and profitable when pressed and sold. I couldn't help but wonder why a society who despises a particular plant would enshrine a deviant variety of that same life form. If we are truly committed to the elimination of anything that might crowd our illustrious landscaping, why would we worship a mutation that takes up more space?
This seems particularly odd given the fact that mainstream society tends to gravitate toward what's expected. We love our norms. We are comforted by our norms. We spend our lives learning how to navigate our norms, how to declutter our lives in pursuit of them. When something doesn't follow a consistent, predictable pattern, we are often stymied. When someone or something looks different or acts differently, we grow uneasy, and in extreme situations, because the anomaly feels threatening, we are often compelled to reject it, remove it, weed it from our lives.
For some reason, this is not true when it comes to four leaf clovers. When we see a four leaf clover, we cast aside our concern for prized landscaping. We abandon our mission to protect superior plant borders. We drop our adherence to norms and treasure the symmetrical imperfection pinched between our fingers. We raise it on a pedestal and revere it. Unlike its clover peers, we gaze at it, cherish it and even preserve it. Crowds gather to admire the vegetative spectacle, and good luck is bestowed upon any individual fortunate enough to sift through a patch of homogeny and find the oddball.
This thought delighted me as I foraged through the clovers in my yard. If we can cast aside our concerns about infringing weeds, we can certainly do it with people. If we can find the time to comb a yard in search of something that occurs 1/10,000 times, then maybe we can find the time to look closer, gaze wider and learn more about the people around us. If we can drop our guard and reexamine our perspective on vegetative intruders, maybe we can do the same with our neighbors. Maybe we, as a mainstream society, can carve out time each day to appreciate the four leaf clovers in our lives: the beautiful, useful and uniquely crafted people who just might enhance, rather than hinder, our growth.