At the entrance to an abandoned row house on a narrow cobblestone street in Bruges, Belgium there is a sign that reads “Enter at your own risk.” Living within two miles of thousands of houses left like this one, I had actually never been inside before, not even had I felt enticed to do so. This house had no windows or roof and it was clear that several years had passed since someone lived there. So, I went in–at my own risk.
Above the house’s warning is a name: Pottenmakersstraatgarden. Residents of Pottenmakersstraat reacted to a dilapidated house on their block by turning that house into a garden. The remnants of a door marked “18” are propped open by potted plants. Windowpanes have been replaced with hanging plants. The absence of a roof offers the best source of direct sunlight. Vines crawl where frames likely once hung. In a spot that may have housed a stove, a sign reads something similar to the following, and it took me 23 minutes to translate this much from Flemish so it’s the best I can do.
“Later a garden, which leaves, very slow often fall, their last landing earth knows, where write their fall, let my garden sun, where the world…, per hectare and between summer and autumn, by trial and error.”
And rather than the smells of a home-cooked meal are the scents of mint, citronella, and the leaves of tomato plants. I got an idea. More on that later.
Aside from the fact that I have lived in the same city my entire life with little interruption, I revel in reinventing myself and helping others do the same. When I have decided to run a race, or start a new habit or pattern, I get high on that feeling of joining that effort, that world. I remember in 2010 when I decided to run a marathon, I did my first training run that May for the October race. Though I’d been running for years, I fall in and out of shape. I huffed through two miles and needed to walk up the hills. On that first run, I bumped into a former student who seemed generally concerned about my condition. “You okay, Ms. Doran?” I remember her asking as she leaned her head toward me. Appearing crazy or confused is reinvention STEP ONE.
If appearing insane to others is the first step to reinvention, then STEP TWO is thinking that about yourself. When I decided to move away from teaching, I was pretty scared. For 8 years, I have worn the title of “teacher” quite proudly. When I packed up 8 years of boxes into a closet at my school where I will still work, but in a different role, I wondered if I was/am being crazy. The teacher cloak has been so comforting. When I hung up that cloak about three weeks ago, I couldn’t help but question: who am I? But as they say, today is the first day of the rest of your life. And I do believe that reinvention is a good thing. STEP THREE is steadfast, stubborn, and hardheaded determination.
You know those type of people who say things like “I’m the type of person who…” or “I always…” or “I never…” or “You know me…”? I’m not down with that. What I am cool with “I always…brush my teeth.” Or “I’m the type of person…who recycles.” What I can’t get behind is “I’m the type of person who can’t ride the bus; doesn’t like to read books; can’t be bothered to exercise; doesn’t try new foods; can’t go into the city; won’t attempt yoga; isn’t interested in volunteering.” And so on. That stuck-in-the-mud-ness does not gel with reinvention. Reinvention can make us all better people. And as a teacher, maybe not in profession but in my heart, I love giving advice to other people. I will admit I do this far too often. But I think I am good at it. I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong. Right, Dad? Teachers are skilled at seeing the macro and micro of an issue simultaneously and god knows we can problem-solve. So I’m the type of person who likes to reinvent.
When I think about reinvention, I do not mean changing who I am or who someone else is. I believe who we are comprises our values, our beliefs, our independent thoughts, the people and places we love, and our senses of humor. To me, those are the essence of a human. When I see a kid I’ve taught for months finally buy into the power of actually learning, there’s no greater glee. But she’s not changing who she is. She’s becoming a learner—a better version of herself, she’s been reinvented. That day is the first day of the rest of her life.
So, I am trying my hand at this, putting my (lack of) money where my mouth is. I am currently reinventing myself into a Director of Scholar Development, a tutor, and a yoga teacher. I’m in STEP 3 and I am now at peace with starting over, and in several ways.
When I think about some of the asylum-seekers I’ve met over the past few months, I realize just how pithy my reinventions are. So what I’ve started using essential oils? Or I became a blogger? Or I learned how to make cauliflower mashed potatoes? I’ve met women who flew across oceans with nothing but a little bit of hope. Some reinvention takes immense courage. When these women are willing open up to my friends and me about their stories I am firmly in awe of their steadfast, stubborn, and hardheaded determination. As they work through the unbelievable process of being reinvented as Americans, as they attend English classes, navigate Baltimore’s bus system, as they miss their families and scrounge for basic needs, I hope they can someday feel that same peace and take that inhale-exhale sigh that says: I made it. I’m new.
If you tell me you have always wanted to learn Spanish or run a race or travel abroad, I will warn you: I will not let it go. (Okay, Hamster?) And I might throw in my own ideas as well. Sorry not sorry.
There’s a very timid man who lives in my neighborhood. He walks his little white dog, seemingly several times per day. He wears black knit gloves year-round. When I first started seeing him, I’d throw out an unrequited hi. After a few months, he started making eye contact and smiling then after a few more months, he started saying hi. Now each time he says, “How are you?” I could cry. Reinvention.
I don’t want to put down or belittle people who are stuck in their ways. I’m sure many people are completely content that way and they’ll live in that space and they will be just fine. But, can’t we do better than fine?
There are plenty of ways that I am stuck but one of my wishes for the world is that everyone knows that she/he has the power to change themselves and/or something outside of themselves. “It is what it is,” is a total cop out.
If “It is what it is” were totally true, why have teachers or cops or grassroots organizers? Why bother why trash collection or recycling or special education? No need for education or exercise or travel or animal rescue. It is what it’s not…yet.
Chas and I were able to visit the Anne Frank House yesterday. It’s an extremely moving place, as you’d guess or maybe already know first-hand. At the end there’s a video featuring various famous and not-famous people speaking on the museum and on Anne’s story. One speaker is the actress Emma Thompson, from the great film Love Actually. In the full speech she talks about what Anne would have done had she lived. Thompson says she would have written books, spoken up for the marginalized, and pushed unquestioned barriers. She says that Anne Frank’s “would-haves are our opportunities.” So recklessly being mushy and motivational-speechy, what are your opportunities? How can you reinvent?
I have one idea–not totally original. I want to find a row house in Baltimore to turn into a garden. I want to find one with some semblance of a floor I won’t fall through. One with some neighbors who want more for their block. I promise to be careful. Who wants to help? Let STEP ONE commence…