08 October 2021

Why I Write** - Circa 2013* But then***

***October 2021 Editor's Note: I never published this self-reblog piece like I planned to whenever I revisited it two years ago. I logged into this ancient blog for the first time in - well, literally two years - amidst a (you guessed it!) total fucking mess that I find myself in. And I like what I wrote. Maybe my problem is that I've always liked what I write/I've written, even when it's bad prose. I miss my friends from high school. I miss my friends in general. If you're reading this, and we were friends at some point, know that I miss you. But I also just miss having time to pursue the funky jazz that clouds my mind. I wish to create and be a creator. I have a new blog that I created on a completely different platform but I haven't launched it yet because it's boring and deals with professional things like school libraries and being an English teacher and this blog has, for 13 years now, been so much of my unprofessional (please notice the intentional italics and non-italics on the un- part of that unpro) life. This blog has been a diary and a symposium of my sadness. I miss writing for no audience. At one point on this blog I had 100+ audience members - all of them complete strangers. I know in the age of influencers that 100+ strangers is a literal half-blink but to me this felt important to know that my words of sadness reached the eyeballs of people who weren't my childhood and family friends. 

So if you're reading this, still, somehow, to this day, you've kept up your Blogger subscriptions and you've found me, CassLotus, please let me know you're reading this. Don't be ashamed. I've spent most of my life feeling like I'm barking into a cold, empty darkness and it would be really nice to know there's someone here reading and digesting my words.

This next part, the italics before the post, is something I wrote two years ago - sometime in 2019. 

*Editor's Note: I'm in the thick of one of those weird seasons of life you sometimes hear other people that are luckily not you or your loved ones talk about filled with incredible loss. I don't quite know how to make sense of all this sadness right now. But the old meaning-maker in me (and probably the part of me that is trying to save my own life) longs to make sense of this, and so once more in my life I turn to writing. 

Sometimes my memory is only refreshed if I look back on old journal entries from the past. I took a very long hiatus from writing things down for this very reason, because, well, the things that have been happening in my life over the past 10 months have been pretty shitty and I don't wish to commit them to memory. 

Yet here I am, in a dark chapter of life, hoping to make sense of it. I also just turned 30 (more on this later, I think), and there's something obligatory about searching through who you once were to see if you've arrived anywhere you hoped you'd be. (Spoiler Alert: I haven't arrived. But Second Spoiler: I'm okay with my lack of arrival right now. I'm literally just trying to survive to the end of this teaching school year and allow summer to heal me - I promise more on this healing stuff later.)

I started writing again this weekend to make sense of shit, and for some reason I thought of this beast of a post I compiled a few years ago in another (not-so-dark-but-equally-as-confusing) time in my twenties. There is what feels like an entire lifetime between me and this girl who wrote this post under my name 6 years ago, and yet we (she and I) still want the same things: "to heal myself and help others." (How tragically beautiful is that?) Something is brewing here, y'all. Please stay tuned.

So here we go in what may become a steady stream of self-reblogs from the past or just this one and then some new content. I hope it speaks to you or sparks joy (in a non-judgy Kondo kinda way). (By the way, the boy mentioned in this post is still my boy. Yes, we've taken some weird plot twists and turns but this guy is honestly the only constant positive force in my life. So glad we figured that one out; so glad I have at least one accomplishment to boast of at 30.) 

Originally Published September 8, 2013:

**This title is stolen from the Joan Didion essay, "Why I Write," who, fun fact, stole her title from George Orwell's essay by the same name. This blog post is inspired by the Joan Didion essay, that I just re-discovered in the messy "Re-Read when Bored" bookmark folder on my Chrome browser. I will now stop this complicated and run-on beginning footnote and get on with my own essay.

I wrote my first short story when I was seven; I was bored on a family vacation at my aunt's home in West Virginia. There was a thunder storm, and my aunt had a ton of plain white paper for me to draw on. The story was about a little boy frog and a dad frog. The little boy frog was bored on a vacation, stuck inside because of a thunderstorm (I must have dug deep for that premise, y'all), and did not like any of the suggestions the dad had for his son - board games (aptly spelled "bored" games), running around the living room, playing with one of seven cats (no logic in this story - a frog with a pet cat?), and drawing pictures of dolphins on computer paper. The little frog never found anything to do because I never finished the story - a precursor to how a majority of my short stories would end up later in life. Even though I never finished the story, my mother made about a hundred copies of it and sent it to our relatives (I'm an only child, haven't you heard?). It was unfinished and unrefined crap, but at least my mom liked it.

In high school, I knew I was a genius because I wrote in my diary every three months about "real" things. Freshman year, my grandpa died, and I wrote really crappy poems with cliche'd metaphors and phrases like, "I'd walk the path to heaven to find you." And, like the short story about the frog, my mother thought it was all brilliant, making photocopies of all my crappy poems, giving me the photocopies and keeping the original handwritten ones in her underwear drawer next to the Tic-Tac box of my baby teeth. She made me feel like I had real talent - a mother is one of the most dangerous creatures when it comes to pursuing a creative life. I could literally copy a sentence out of Snooki's book and my mother would think it was beautiful and well-rounded and toss me a photocopy of it on her way to filing it in her underwear drawer.

I know that deep down, I was writing to cope with the sadness and loneliness any grieving teenager would have, but mostly it just made me feel important. I carried around this black and white composition notebook and scribbled little bits and pieces from people's conversations like a detective. I wrote in class and at lunch and made sure everyone could see that I was writing without ever showing them what I was writing. I still have that notebook. It sits in a box with twelve other notebooks filled with scribbles. My favorite line is stolen from a conversation between my mother and her college roommate: "Honey, I'd have a beard if it weren't for my good eye."

I've continued to write in lined notebooks since then, taking a break sophomore year of high school to write in a graph-paper-lined notebook. That notebook was my food journal, or rather, my eating disorder journal. In it, I taped pictures of women's thin arms and abs and those annoying tear-out workout cards from Shape magazine, using it as "inspiration," or, in other words, reasons for me not to eat. When I did eat, I would overeat and throw up in my parents’ shower. I only remember this because it's conveniently logged like a police report in the graph-paper lined notebook.

In the year following the food journal, I got healthy again, at least physically, just in time for my grandmother to become incredibly sick. She was my best friend and the reason I got through many painful nights in high school. It was at 16 that I started to see a bigger picture forming in my mind: she was dying, and I could not save her. So instead, I carried my notebook with me and recorded our conversations and pieces of advice she would offer me. I scribbled things like, "I used to smile all the time," a line that I still have not found the proper home for in a short story. I made lists of all the things we wanted to do the summer before she died. I wrote things we made, scores of card games we played, and grocery lists she wrote for me. That notebook is one of my greatest treasures.

She died when I was 17, but not after a long and painful struggle, and myself sitting there and witnessing all of it. After she died, I didn't know or understand how to deal with the indefinable sadness that was worse than anything I’d ever experienced. I took a creative writing class my senior year of high school. The class was taught by one of the most amazing and inspiring people I've ever met, someone I still keep in touch with. In her class, she had us write in composition notebooks. I was no stranger to the notebook-wielding business - this was my jam. I didn't, however, realize what a profound effect being forced to write everyday would have on me. We did free writes five days a week - basically just five minutes of unadulterated pen-to-paper mental diarrhea. It forced me to push out the sludge in my brain and really connect with the deeper, raw emotions that were tangled inside me and my stupid and adolescent, grieving heart.

The biggest lesson with writing I almost learned too late was that the feelings I had inside - the sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, and fear - they weren't unique in any way. It was how I talked about these feelings that made my story unique, and the learning how has been the greatest challenge of all. No one would give two shits about my short story with a protagonist who was sad because her elderly grandmother died. Why? Because the death of an old woman is not a tragedy, and reading a sappy story where the narrator whines and complains with phrases like, "I was inconsolably sad and stifled the sadness with cigarettes and vodka," does not win a reader over.

Writing has helped me to understand myself in this way. It's not what you write about, it's how you write about it; it's not what you talk about, it's how you talk about it. Writing has allowed me to actually listen to people, not just plan what I'm going to say next.

Unfortunately, I spent a majority of my young adult life feeling like I was a genius because I wrote things down. Sometimes I still feel that way. But now when I write, I write because I'm trying to untangle the messy wires and memories and make them feel less painful. When I write, I get to see my grandma again. I get to eat oatmeal at the kitchen table with her and play cards with her and hold her close to me and protect her from falling over her oxygen cords and into a coma. Or sometimes, I let her fall. I let her fall over and over again, in reverse, in forwards, in slow motion, in fast motion, into a bathtub, into the ocean, into me. Some days, on paper, I meet up with her after being away for months and she asks me where I've been, turning and smiling at me in a sweater with a sailboat on it.

Other times, more often these days, I rework relationships. When I miss him, I write it out on paper. I get to go back to that ranch, back inside that barn. I get to relive the night that we drank two bottles of wine after shoveling horse shit and hay all afternoon, that night when he undressed me for the first time and whispered in my ear. I listen to my memories and sew what those memories tell me into a stronger version of myself (my protagonist).

When I write, I grow a pair of balls and kill the crickets that invaded our kitchen in our apartment instead of waking him up at 2 a.m. to kill them for me. I unravel the anger I still have with myself, the bitterness I have over quitting a relationship and a life together so easily and running back home scared of growing up. I get to cultivate a new me, an understanding Cass that accepts what, at the time, felt like not real love because the stars didn't dance the way I thought they would but my perceptions were really just deformed because I spent too much of my young adult life watching Nancy Meyers films. (And this next time, in my writerly dreams, I don't contribute to his pain; this time, I stay with him in our cute apartment in Northern California instead of fleeing to Los Angeles to find myself.)

Writing lets me relive past lives, it lets me drink up the sadness and anger and bitterness and burp up some sort of beautiful conclusion about myself, my life, my past.

I guess writing does still make me feel important, but it's not that egotistical importance I had when I was fourteen. Instead, it makes me feel like my life itself and everything that has or hasn't happened to me is important. Writing makes me feel alive, it makes me feel okay, and it makes me believe that I can do great things (like heal myself and help others).

May you feel important, in a good way.

29 October 2018

For Pam, For Healing, For You

About a year ago, I lost a dear friend of mine, Pam. I wish I could help you understand what a blessing this woman was in my life, but words are difficult for these things. But, alas, I will try.

The first thing you learned about Pam when you met her was that she was loud. I knew Pam my whole life; she and her husband were my parents’ best-best friends, and they were over at our house pretty much every weekend. I grew up knowing her as the wonderful, loud, sweet, outgoing, life-of-the-party Pam that I’m sure most people knew her as. Her heart was as big as her personality, and she lit up the room when she walked into it. But it wasn’t until I decided to become a teacher that I got to know the full extent of who Pam really was.

I was blessed to have been assigned to Dodson Middle School, Pam’s school she had retired from, for my student teaching in August 2016. Even though Pam retired a few years prior to my assignment, she was still a legend at the school. She loved to sub. She loved any chance she could be back in the classroom. She loved the students - I think it’s because those middle schoolers met her with the same energetic intensity that she had.

I was completely terrified when I learned I was placed at Dodson. Student teaching is the culminating experience of receiving a teaching credential, and although I had two awesome master teachers, I still felt unprepared. Pam, on the other hand, was nothing but exstatic for me. The night before I was supposed to go to school and meet the teachers she said that she had told the teachers all about me and that they were expecting me. This made me even more terrified, because I was scared I could never live up to the things Pam had told everyone about me.

On the second day of student teaching, Pam subbed in the same hallway one of my classes was in. When she stopped by my classroom at lunch, she stood in the doorway beaming at me as I spoke with a student. She was so proud of me, and it made me feel like maybe I actually could survive another day of teaching.

At lunch that day, she took me to the grass by a building I never could have found on my own and introduced me to her teaching friends at Dodson: another English teacher, a couple history teachers, a science and a math teacher - people I never would have met without Pam. From that day on, whenever Pam was on campus subbing (which was often, more on this later), she took me around to various groups of teachers: potlucks in the science lab and salads in the Spanish teacher’s room.

Some days, my favorite days, it was just the two of us sitting in the room she was subbing in. She would listen to my teaching problems and offer advice. I survived my student teaching in large part thanks to Pam’s guidance and moral support. I walked out of Dodson with friends and professional colleagues - people that I never would have grown as close to without her. I don’t think I would have the amazing teaching job I have today had Pam not done what she did for me.

In August 2017, Pam got her diagnosis (and subsequent prognosis): stage 4 liver cancer. She surprised me when she said she wanted to keep subbing as long as she could. My school year was just starting, and I was overwhelmed by planning and ideas and feeling unprepared yet again. I already needed a break, and I couldn't imagine wanting to go back to school by choice. But my first day of school turned out to be SUCH a good day that I couldn’t wait to tell Pam all about it. I went over to her house that evening, and I told her about the joy of that first day of school, how all my anxiety melted away into just pure joy being surrounded by students, new ones and veteran ones. She leaned her shoulder into mine and smiled at me.

“It’s healing, isn’t it?” she asked. Healing? I had never before thought of teaching as a healing experience, but somehow I totally got it in that moment. “That’s why I’m going to keep subbing,” she said. “Being at school heals me.”

I understand the word healing more and more these days, as I face uncertain things in my life outside of the classroom. Being a teacher doesn’t allow much time for you to sit and sulk and have an off switch. The only time I miss my mindless desk job are days where I feel like I’m running on empty (which, lately, has been more often than not). My kids pick up on my off days. It’s a blessing and a curse. It is deeply profound that my moods make enough of a difference for them to know when I’m not me. It sucks, though, because I can’t hide from them. Regardless of what’s happening at home, though, I show up every day and give them what I got. And the time I spend with students - human beings who are going through just as challenging, if not more challenging, things than I am and still showing up every day - is healing. Being at school heals me, too, Pam. I wish I could tell you.

And I carry so much of Pam’s goodness and spunk with me into my own classroom now. I miss being able to call her after school and tell her about something wonderful a student or admin said to me, yet I keep her alive by spreading goodness and spunk to the students and colleagues at my own school now.

Pam was the quintessential teacher, and everyone that knew her was one of her students. She taught me how to love deeply and to be silly and to be unapologetically myself. And I return the favor by teaching those around me to do the same.

Namaste, dear friends.

30 July 2016

Wild Geese / Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-Mary Oliver

Needed to rediscover this masterpiece tonight - I think you did, too.

20 July 2016

Technology, Education, Utilty, and Isaac Asimov

From Zen Pencils: Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot

(Slightly Relevant Preface: I LOVE Zen Pencils. I LOVE ZEN PENCILS. For those unaware, ZP takes inspirational quotes and turns them into inspirational cartoon posters. It's as if ZP cartoonist Gavin Aung Than read my bookmarked tabs on Chrome and my delicately transcribed journal epigraphs and created cartoons featuring literally EVERY favorite quote I have in my arsenal: Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, Terrence McKenna's Nature Loves Courage, Rilke's Live the Questions, Frida Kahlo's Strange Like Me, Max Ehrman's Desiderata, and so, so many more. I could - and probably will - write a post about every single one of the quotes featured on ZP and how that quote has helped me through some dark moment in life.)

A recently featured ZP was Isaac Asimov's A Lifetime of Learning. Asimov is pretty prolific. Aside from the fact that he published over 500 (yes, five hundred) books in his lifetime, in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, he basically predicted what the mother-effing Internet would become. He said, "Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time…"
From Zen Pencils: Asimov basically predicting the what the Internet would become decades prior.
Today, we can learn at our own pace, on our own terms, using the computers in our homes for reference. That sounds an awful lot like YouTube tutorials. That sounds like Lynda.com. That sounds like online college courses. That sounds like Google. The point is, he saw and predicted what he hoped the Internet ("computer outlets in every home") would become for us. More than that, he hoped that the automation of mundane informational tasks would in turn make us more creative, engaged humans. In other words, he hoped that technology would be used to its full capacity.

Today's Zen Pencil was, to be frank, something else I've grappled with for the past five years. I've been ruminating a long while now over how I can help my future students to grasp the wonder and grandeur that is a Smartphone, tablet, and laptop. It's the most powerful tool they will ever own (with the exception of their minds). They have the ability to look up virtually ANYTHING. How deep is the Red Sea? How many satellites currently orbit the earth? How old is Alex Trebec? You don't even have to type the whole question before Google autofills it for you. No one seems to understand the labor that used to go into answering simple questions (let alone complex ones). We have such a gift, and I fear that students don't see it. Hell, I think most adults don't even see it. But, (un)fortunately, I'm a middle school teacher, not a world teacher. (I've made peace with this.) What I seek to do is help my students see their technology as one part entertainment to three parts utility.
From Zen Pencils: Asimov's A Lifetime of Learning
Technology is a utility. The Internet is vast - perhaps infinite. It is at times amazing, other times awful. It is distracting and focusing, catastrophic and helpful. It is literally everything. I go down so many rabbit holes on a daily basis - some useful and educational, some (more than I like to admit) completely useless. I have had to learn how to wire my brain to use my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook as more than just a vessel for distractions. It takes extreme discipline to do this. It takes hard work and dedication. But it also leads to a valuable life, at least by my own self-declared, scientist-artist-hybrid standards.

I'm rambling. Clearly, I haven't thought very clearly about this blog post. I am so passionate, and that passion is overriding my judgement. I will leave you with the quote that stuck with me the most, the quote I hope to drive home to my students. May you also be inspired.

It seems to me that when it's time to die - and that will come to all of us - there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well. That you had learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There's only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try and grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, they can at least do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.
From Zen Pencils: Asimov's Lifetime of Learning
Namaste, students of the Universe

24 April 2016

(Seriously) Easy Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

I've always had a complicated relationship with coffee. I go through bits where my body can handle it and I soak up the caffeine and feel pleasantly a-jitter. Then there's other times where I accidentally consume 3+ cups in one day and if I don't repeat that same amount the following day I get crazy withdrawal headaches and feel miserable. When that happens, I must reset my system, cutting out coffee (not caffeine entirely - I switch to the maté I should have been drinking all along) for at least 2 weeks and feel much better. In March, I cut out coffee completely. I would be lying if I said that my entire life did not vastly improve: I slept better, I thought clearer, and I felt more in control of myself. Unfortunately, right now I'm struggling to get a full night's sleep, running on whatever I can to get me through these final days of school and subbing before summer, and coffee is once again my crutch, my OTP, my savior.

And don't get me wrong - I love coffee. There is something romantic about pouring heavy cream into a hot cup of coffee, sipping it slowly as the sun rises and reading a good book. There is something romantic even about a bad cup of coffee. There is something romantic about catching up with a friend in a coffee shop. (Side note: I recently read and listened to this badass old podcast on NPR featuring Steven Johnson about how coffee houses can be held accountable for major advancements of the past 3 centuries.)

My boyfriend and I discovered the Califia brand cold brew coffee last year. That lead us both down an artisanal, overpriced rabbit hole of cold brew coffees. We've tried them all, even the Stumptown on nitro at Whole Foods. And we loved them all, very deeply. But they are fucking expensive, as I'm sure you all know. Like, Starbucks expensive. And packaged in plastic bottles, which I refuse to purchase.

Our solution: homemade cold brew coffee.

It's almost embarrassing to post this "recipe" on here because it's not really a recipe so much as it's a guideline. And it's so easy you're going to want to slap me silly for even having the audacity to devote a whole post to this. But, as promised, here it is.

Homemade Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

  1. Step One: Get a glass, air-tight container. I was so blessed to find these amazing glass Stagioni milk bottles at the Container Store. They were so cheap - like, $3.99 - and I have definitely got my money's worth.
  2. Step Two: Fill your glass jar about 1/3 full of freshly ground coffee of your choice (today, it was organic hazelnut from Sprouts).
  3. Step Three: Fill the glass jar with cold, filtered water (straight from your Brita) until there is about 2 inches of space left at the top.
  4. Step Four: Shake the heck out of your jar until all the coffee is mixed around with the water.
  5. Step Five: Fill in the remaining two inches of air space with filtered water.
  6. Step Six: Place in refrigerator for at least 12 hours (can leave in the fridge for up to 48 hours).
  7. Step Seven: When you're ready for your first amazing cup of homemade cold brew coffee, strain the coffee grounds (using a French press or strainer - I don't have a French press, and my fine mesh strainer does the job).
  8. Step Eight: Dilute your coffee concentrate (and yes - it will be CONCENTRATED) with hot water (for, um, hot coffee) or cold water with ice (for the cold kind of coffee). Add milk or cream or coconut milk or almond milk or drink that shit black - the world is your cup of cold brew coffee - enjoy it however you please.