Stay gold, Ponyboy

You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.

You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.

You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.

What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.

As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.

As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”

As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.

You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.

But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.

Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.

Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.

You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.

Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.

You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.

You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.

You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:

15 thoughts on “Stay gold, Ponyboy

  1. Shannon says:

    Wonderful story, Rita. I think that at the end of reading every one of your posts. I hope you know that even when I don’t have the mental energy to write a comment, I’m always thinking it. 🙂

    This time I laughed out loud – not a haha laugh, but a laugh of recognition at the line “at least you didn’t kill it”. That resonated with me as a version of what I end up thinking about all sorts of things in all sorts of areas of my own life where I’m trying and doing the best I can and reminding myself that is enough. Even when I wish I was doing more or better or different or something is not as grand as I envisioned I wanted to make it…I often come back to consoling myself with words somewhere along the lines of, “hey, at least you didn’t kill it”. And occasionally, if I’m lucky, the quiet back part of my mind reminds the noisy, talkative front of my mind that my “at least I didn’t kill it” is probably actually way better than that, because I have ridiculously high expectations for myself. 😉

    Anyway, love reading your words, Rita. I hope you are doing well!

    • Rita says:

      Hi Shannon! It’s always so nice to hear from you. I appreciate your words; I, too, have a noisy front part of my brain that steals the show most of the time. The girls did talk about a project we did in which they memorized and performed poetry. I’m going to let myself think that maybe some learning from that comes out in their music. 🙂

  2. Kate says:

    As I was reading, I copied “but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it” and then got here and realized it resonated with Shannon too..

    I think it sounds like a small thing – not killing the part that makes art – but I think it’s a very big thing. And a hard one. A former director at an arts program here used to say we are all artists – ask a toddler if they can draw or paint or sing and they always say “YES!!” but then we grown up and stop singing and painting and drawing and writing stories because we’re grownups and only people who have talent should do those things and even if you have talent, the chances of you MAKING it are not good enough so perusing those things is a waste. As if there is shame in having ENOUGH and your art. Or art as hobby.

    But Rita, not only did you not kill it, but years later when you saw that they were performing, you showed up and supported it. And you’re sharing and supporting now.

    And as always, I loved this story. The layers of art, and work, and motherhood, and adulthood…it resonates. Thank you.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Kate. Somehow your words made me tear up. They touched a nerve–for all the kids who internalize those messages (including the one I once was). Sometimes I think our whole adulthoods are just one long program of recovery from our childhoods. Thank you for your words.

  3. Marian says:

    Beautiful, Rita.
    Like both Shannon and Kate, the words “at least you didn’t kill it” strongly resonated with me. At the risk of coming off as self-pitying, I was a child who—time and again—had her dreams/feelings/personhood “killed” by adults, so much so that NOT doing that to my own children was one of the few goals I set for myself when I became a mother. (“Just try not to damage them TOO badly, Marian.”)

    Grace’s words to you, about the ability to both make art and be a mother, also resonate and bring back a conversation I once had with my brother. He and his wife had their first child before my husband and I had ours, and shortly after, I confessed to my brother (in an eerily prescient way) that I was worried that once I had kids my own life would be over. He said he didn’t think that was necessarily the case, but while he and his wife have both managed to keep their “own lives” post-children, this has been a struggle for me. Our circumstances are very different—they remained in our home town and had the support of grandparents, while my husband and I had three major moves and his work often meant I was essentially a single parent with zero outside support, but even though I can logically look at the path that we/I took and *know* that I was doing my best, I still feel, deep down inside, that I have let myself down, that I never did become what I was *supposed* to become (not that I’ve given up completely, but still…).

    Lastly, the older I get (and the further the world slips into the future) the more I see the importance of art, and story, and music, and beauty. It’s naive, I know, but I feel like the recognition of this (by everyone, everywhere) is the only thing that might save us, as a species.
    Marian recently posted…#TenYears of Reusable Produce BagsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Marian. I wish that child you were could have had a different experience. You are such a creative person, in so many ways. I can relate to your experience of mothering without ready supports. We had no family or close friends nearby when my kids were little, and we lived in a fairly remote place. (Well, probably not remote, but not close to where most of the people we knew lived.) I remember seeing people who had a safety net and feeling very envious. There was just never any break. I didn’t feel that my life had ended, though. Almost the opposite. Mothering felt like the thing I was made for. Which is really weird, because I’d never felt very maternal and was rather ambivalent about having kids until it seemed I couldn’t. Isn’t that one of the hardest things about it–you can’t really know how you’ll take to it until the kid is in your arms, and if it wasn’t the best choice, well: It’s a choice that can’t be unmade.

      And if you’re naive about art, then I am, too. I know we need more than just art, but we need art. We really do.

  4. Diana Mitchell says:

    So much of this resonates with me. It’s as if whenever you write, you are speaking a piece of my soul to me. As a teacher and a mother, but right now so much as a mother.
    As my own youngest child is pleading to her father to let her go off to art school across the country, I am championing her in ways I never thought I would. Reading this today I am connecting to my yearning this for her because I did kill it in myself. I want her to move away to an exciting city, follow her passion (and amazing talent) in art–regardless of the risk of failure, regardless of the ‘future potential’ of art as a career, regardless of the return on investment.
    Then the 6th grade teacher part of me is connecting with all the times I put full narratives in the comments section on report cards so that students would connect with my words and not the ‘less than grade’ that didn’t reflect who they truly were.
    Working in special education now–all the more so. I see students whose report card grades come with ‘not working to potential’ ‘not meeting standards’ and I work to write essays on their progress notes and in their IEPs; reflecting on who they are that is talented and amazing: full of potential and talented on different standards.
    We live in a society that makes following ones art and passion difficult; but you, Rita, have found ways to remember and act on the idea that it’s never too late, never too impossible, never not worth it to act. And you share that with everyone your life touches–past students, present school community, your family, friends, and your readers here.
    Balancing my roles as a partner, mother, teacher often leaves me wondering what my role as an individual is. When I am patient, and silent, and centered my creative sparks once again display themselves in flames of poetry and I am content–and I know that art is burning deep within.

    • Rita says:

      This made me teary, Diana. For you and for me and for your daughter. I am so glad she has you championing her. And that those students do, too. For whatever it’s worth, I know it’s all creative work. I know my problem is that I never wanted to do one exclusively, and miss the others. I think I struggle most when it’s out of balance. Mothering and teaching when my kids were young made it impossible to do much else, and that frustration (I think?) masked some of the joy in those for me. Now I have more time for other kinds, and I miss both mothering and teaching. I’m working on being OK with what’s in front of me, knowing that it will change again. And then I’ll probably look back on this time and have a good number of “I wish…” wonderings/wantings. You will have to let me know what happens with art school.

  5. TD says:

    And, “Sometimes I think our whole adulthoods are just one long program of recovery from our childhoods.” … Prehaps I’m in recovery, too.
    Two weeks ago, I learn that my 12 year old dog is not only blind,, but has dementia. We are all learning new ways of doing things.

      • TD says:

        Even my reply looks a bit like dementia! I thought I sent the first reply, but it didn’t seem to go through. Perhaps I didn’t push the post comment button or pushed the X to close too soon. So I sent the second without my thoughts about my old dog issue thinking it truly wasn’t relavent to your post. But surprisingly that is the part that you related with me about! Yes, our old dogs, we just love them!
        Also, I must say that as far as your writing and the stories that you share, I love them all, especially how you write the story.
        This particular post story, I did notice thT you wrote in the “you” instead of the I. It was a very good choice of placement. Not sure if anyone else noticed, but I did (immediately).
        As an person who holds a Bachelor of Fine Art s, who has had showings at the museum of the Chicago Art Institute, a career in textile creative needle arts, and work history as a desktop creative publisher and then a computer graphic artist, I have lots of thoughts…It is just too much to put into a reply. Other than SWEET to have that opportunity to witness a students growth; what more love could humans give to each other on this planet. I appreciate and love reading what is important to you, Rita. You are truly an amazing person!

  6. TD says:

    And “Sometimes I think our whole adulthoods are just one long program of recovery from our childhoods.” Perhaps, I’m in recovery too!!

    • Rita says:

      The short answer is: Because I don’t do what famous writers have to do. I know there’s a longer one, too. Maybe I’ll write about that. 🙂 But thank you, for both compliments.

  7. Ernie says:

    Wow- how awesome it was that you stumbled upon their concert that night. This is very touching. Life and all of its stages can be very interesting and so hard at times because we get stuck in the moment we are in and cannot see that there will be more. I am sure thst your presence there for them and your words reached them and that they will find their way!

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