It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’reย  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”ย  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.


31 thoughts on “Autolessonography

  1. Kate says:

    Today is the first day Iโ€™ve looked at my blog reader in weeks and look – a post from you. Feeling a little psychic. So now Iโ€™m sitting here a little teary eyed because there is so much wisdom and humor and hurt and bravery in this one list.

    I wish you the happiest of birthdays and a year filled with really good things.
    Kate recently posted…Crazy, Good and TuesdayMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’ve been checking my blog reader almost daily hoping to see a post from you! Hope it’s just that you are busy with really good things. Thank you for the good wishes. It was a really nice day, in part because of comments like yours.

    • Rita says:

      I feel a special kinship with other December babies. I was working with a 6th grade class last week, and it was the birthday of one of the girls. I asked her how she feels about having a December birthday, and she said that it makes December her favorite month. I remember feeling that way when I was a girl, too–like the whole month just had an extra glow to it. Hope your birthday is wonderful.

    • Rita says:

      You, too! Just two more days…I’m really feeling like I need one this year. Give all your people hugs for me when you see them.

  2. Marian says:

    I’m with Kate on this one — so much wisdom and humour and hurt and bravery, leaving me teary-eyed as well.
    All 53 struck something in me and spoke to me on some level, so much so that I’ve had to force myself to edit and to take out the (very) long list of numbers that resonated MOST especially, because I could see I was once again saying TOO MUCH. (If I were to write such a list mine would conclude with my most recent and painfully learned lesson: “Earnestness is a quality which is nearly always best kept hidden.”).

    Happy Birthday, Rita ๐Ÿ™‚ .
    xo Marian
    Marian recently posted…Lessons From My Dutch MotherMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I have to push back (gently) on this! One of the things I love most about you is your earnestness. I mean, I know where that feeling of needing to keep it hidden is coming from, being a rather earnest person myself. It’s a quality that’s not always appreciated, but I think the world really needs earnestness. What is wrong with being deeply, sincerely caring? And I don’t think you say too much, either. I like you just the way you are. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. TD says:

    I love this fun and now adding a new word to my vocabulary! I have a few months to write my autolessonography, yet it will be few line numbers longer. It appears that each line number is the lesson of that year. Not quite sure. Did I get that right?
    Happy birthday love letters to Rita ๐Ÿ“ฌ!

    • Rita says:

      Yes, that’s how I did it. I played a little loose with the timeline because I don’t remember exactly when some things happened, but here’s an easy way to think of it: The lesson # corresponds to how old you were when you were one less than the number. So, lesson #1 is for the first year of life, which is when I was 0 years old. Lesson #2 is for something I learned when I was 1, and so on. So my 53rd lesson came when I was 52. (Just turned 53. Dang, that feels so unreal!) But then I also thought in terms of school grades–what did I learn in first grade? What did I learn when my kids were in first grade? It helped me to remember that it’s more important to capture Truth than the literal truth.

      • TD says:

        Rita, On one of your posts, I remember that you requested something funny to read. This evening I was catching up with my reading on John Dickerson tweets and I found:
        Tweets by Thoughts of Dog @ dogs_feelings

        I think you will laugh with these and the sense of humor so I wanted to pass along. It lighten my thoughts before sleep tonight. ๐Ÿ˜Š Perhaps it may serve as a small birthday present to you!

  4. LEILANI says:

    What a clever idea to celebrate life and its lessons. Happy birthday, dear Rita. Cheers to you! Starting over is never-ending. What a helpful tidbit for a time in life where all my expectations are either being tossed or recalibrated. โ™กโ™กโ™ก

    • Rita says:

      Oh gosh yes. I remember when I was younger and thought I would reach a point when things would finally be settled and all that would be left of life was to live it out. Nope nope nope. Thank goodness. I mean, I could use a little period of calm and ease right now, but one of the best things about life is the way it surprises you. Those are the years in which my best lessons were learned. I hope it is that way for you, too.

  5. t says:

    Happy Birthday, Rita. You are so wise – I read this in awe and wonder. And I do not agree about the wallpaper – go for it and enjoy, life is too short.

  6. Teresa Lightfoot says:

    So many awesome lessons! OMG have you gotten so old but very wise for your years. I sure feel that I have missed much of your life. I love you and hope you had a nice birthday.

    • Rita says:

      I’ve gotten so old?!? Thanks a lot! ๐Ÿ™‚
      I love you, too, and I wish that we had been able to share more of our lives the past 20 years or so. Can we maybe do something about that in the next 20? The older I get, the more I cherish and miss our family. Now that my babies are grown and launched, I can do things I wasn’t able to do before. Any distance from me was always about taking care of them.

  7. Debbie M says:

    I’ll play along! I don’t have one for every year, but I have more than I thought I would! I still have not had to learn many of the things you’ve had to learn (even though I am also “old”).

    1. Things change – now you have to breathe, even though you never had to breathe before. The sooner, the better. No, really!

    3. If you’re not allowed to touch it with one hand, you’re also not allowed to touch it with the other hand. Or with your mouth. Good investigating, though!

    6. You hate wasted time (moved to a school with no workbooks, so we had to write our name, the date, and a title on a piece of paper every time we did something).

    7. No one has to buy your Girl Scout cookies. And you don’t have to spend all your spending money either.

    11. Adverbs! You get them! Also, you don’t need coloring books for a trip to the South Pole–there is plenty of work to fill your time with.

    14. Sometimes you will lose friends even when you don’t move away.

    16. Sometimes the popular people are popular because they are soooo nice!

    17. Saying “yes” instead of “no” when your real answer is “I don’t know” is almost always a good idea.

    18. You have leadership skills (especially when everyone around you is even more ignorant about what needs to be done).

    19. Pretending to enjoy the camp songs that you are sick of, for the sake of new campers who still love them, actually makes them more enjoyable. (So does making up slightly different words that no one will notice you singing, such as, for “Make New Friends,” “Bake new breads. Reheat the old. One is still raw and the other’s cold.”)

    20. Only make threats that you would gleefully carry out–sadly, these work. (Like we don’t have to build a campfire; we can just make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.)

    21. Things can be a lot easier to learn on the second try (Calculus) or not (Camus’ “The Stranger”).

    22. You love hanging around smart people. The smarter, the better–they have so many good ideas!

    23. You prefer an interesting class over an easy class.

    24. Sometimes people are way better at things than you are because they have been practicing longer; you can get better at things, too.

    25. It’s not fair that my friend’s dead (and I’m not); giving me flowers only makes things even more unfair. However, the people giving me flowers are really just trying to show me that they would do something helpful if they could; but there’s just no bringing back the dead.

    25. Dating someone you’re already attracted to is indeed wonderful.

    25. Getting tutored is not actually sort of like cheating; it’s just learning more efficiently. (I had to become a tutor to learn this!)

    26. You’ll never get a teaching job; it’s because you don’t look like a good disciplinarian, you look 12. And you actually aren’t a good disciplinarian.

    27. Just because you’re a slow learner of something (ballroom dance) doesn’t mean you can’t learn it; it just means it takes longer.

    28. People really can mature with age (started liking my 18-year-old sister again).

    ~29. People are glad to have you join them with their plans; it’s not social parasitism, it’s appreciation and fun!

    ~30. You tend to err in the direction of being too macho. So when deciding whether you have recovered enough to do something, and you’re not sure, the answer is probably no.

    33. Maybe you can’t own a house for the price of renting like the ad claimed, but it can be surprisingly close (except for closing costs) if you have a roommate.

    34. You enjoy trying to figure out how to make sure job interviews aren’t a waste of time, regardless of whether you get the job. (It’s fun to teach people a keyboard shortcut that you can see they aren’t currently using or give them other good ideas if you can figure out any they would like.)

    ~35. When on vacation, you tend to err in the direction of being too frugal; so when you can’t decide, go for it. (I sure wished I’d climbed to the top of the Arc d’Triomphe when I saw my friend’s pictures!)

    ~36. You don’t want a teaching job anyway; you’re better one-on-one and don’t have the charisma to be the kind of teacher you’d want to be.

    37. Taking time away from official job duties for professional development is not cheating, even though it feels like it.

    38. Most horrible bureaucratic rules have some kind of story behind them. (You have to bring your name change documentation to change your name at the university because of that time a lady tried to change someone else’s name to hers so it would look like she’d earned a degree.) It’s fun to try to guess what these stories could be.

    39. Even when you can’t help somebody at all (FERPA regulations won’t let you tell them about their child’s college progress), they still feel better if you let them vent and show them some sympathy.

    ~41. You greatly enjoy translating between techies and non-techy people who are stuck using the tech.

    ~47. The reason you’re less fun than real geeks is because you are strongly risk averse–and that’s okay.

    ~48. You strongly oppose revenge (though you support revenge fantasies); revenge never helps. (I did not have to learn this the hard way. Yay, books!)

    49. In stressful times, you sacrifice sanity over physical health. (Seems good to me!)

    51. You don’t mind having to tell people no if the reason isn’t stupid, you can tell them the reason, and you can give them some options.

    52. You take home more money after retirement with the same gross income from part-time work at your long-time employer because you stop contributing to retirement plans, your health insurance gets fully covered, and you don’t owe Social Security taxes.

    53. The local community college has study abroad courses. (Including two in a subject you’re taking, one of which is with your favorite teacher and is in a location on your boyfriend’s bucket list.)

    54. One live-in boyfriend is really all the friends you need, but you still want your other friends and should make the effort to keep in touch.

    • Rita says:

      I’m going to need to investigate your #52. For reals.

      I love that you played along, and I think it’s fascinating how such a list can give such a clear picture of a person. If I were still teaching English, I think I’d definitely have to make an assignment out of this. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Debbie M says:

        Ha! It probably mostly depends on how your health insurance costs change. Also, if you leave a good full-time job for retirement, your gross income will probably plummet. (I had run away from my well-paying full-time job three years earlier and ended up in a lowish-paying 3/4-time job.)

        It was a pretty interesting way to look back. And focusing on the fact that you learned something puts a positive spin on things.

      • TD says:

        I also cannot confirm #52 is accurate in my circumstances or situations. I think each person is deferent depends on the level of income at the job, years of service contributing into the social security system and what age you retire. Also if you contribute to a pension instead of social security than it is completely deferent. Being I a school system, the teachers retirement rules apply which are deferent from SSA or SSD. Firefighters, and agencyโ€™s of the state also are pension not SSA. It al depends. Your HR Benefts person could give you estimates. When I left the university school systems I got lucky at the time they offered a option to transfer out. If I kept the funds in, then it was only a 5% increase. I moved the funds to non-retirement individual money market funds which I earned 17%. It is more risky. 5% was guaranteed, but not much more than in a bank CD. It is all a risk, even the insurance option. We are definitely challenged!

        • TD says:

          Rita, Iโ€™m still working on my autolessonography! I hope to have complete by my #58 February birthday. Getting the point in writing to a one to two line lesson learned is an interesting game to play!

          • Rita says:

            It was that way for me, too. I actually started this one back in October. Worked on it off and on. I think it takes a while.

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