We Are All New York

I’m sitting here in an apartment overlooking Midtown and listening to the sounds of New York City. I’m at a white desk, typing on my laptop and I wonder: is this what Carrie Bradshaw felt like? Did she sit, narrate in her head, and write with awe and wonder at the city around her? Or does New York City lose its magic once you’ve lived here?

Does living in a place make you love it less?

I visited New York in 2006 for the first time. Then I came back in 2014, 2016, and now twice in 2018. Of course, this year’s trips were work-related: I’ve gotten the chance to perform in Carnegie Hall twice this year (seriously, I’m freaking out, but I’m trying to channel my inner Carrie Bradshaw and say this all cool and matter-of-fact.)

The first time I came to the city, I didn’t even know what to expect. I got off the plane naive and starry-eyed, filled with wonder and amazement and a little shock. I was not prepared for the amalgamation of cultures that New York City has. Or the many lifestyles. I grew up sheltered in a small town. The most diverse we got was when a family had a blonde kid and a brunette kid.

Walking into New York City the first time was magical. It was like entering a portal into this world where I was free to be the person I had always dreamt of being. I could sing show tunes in the middle of the street and nobody would look at me, unless it was to join in with a chorus. I could stay out after 9 pm and there was stuff to do. Places were still open. In fact, it seemed, a second wave of the world was just beginning to rustle from their slumber and begin their trendily-dressed, power-walking nighttime activities.

I couldn’t imagine a world that had so much to offer after the sun went down. My hometown rolled up the sidewalks at 8:45.

When I left New York at the end of that trip, I felt as though a hole had been ripped in my heart. Seriously. I had true separation anxiety from this amazing place I had quickly grown to love. I mourned its absence in my life. But I knew there would be no way I could return anytime soon. I was about to be a college student and cash was not going to be plentiful for at least four years.

So I waited it out. I waited until the next chance I got to visit.

The chance finally arose eight years later, when my wife and I took a trip with my best friend and her husband. I had some fears that The City was going to somehow be different. I worried that maybe the magic I’d experienced at 18 years old would have disappeared. Or that maybe I’d made more of it than I was. I worried that my imagination had transformed my memories into something unrealistic, filled with childlike wonder and not at all accurate.

But I stepped off that plane with my eyes still filled with stars, and my dreams still full to the brim. I saw the city with older eyes, but it was still magical, still wonderful. It was still the amazing place I’d been longing to return to for eight years.

We went to shows and ate the best food I’ve ever had and stayed out after our bedtimes. We brunched with The Ladies Who Brunch and we drank mimosas and we trekked out the The Village. We did touristy things–went to the Empire State Building and cruised past the Statue of Liberty–but we tried very hard not to behave as tourists. I wanted the true New York experience. I wanted to get a feel for the actual charm of the city, not just Time Square. Not just the tourist attractions. We saw museums and shows and lived our best New York lives.

My next opportunity to visit New York came two years later. My wife and I went to celebrate our anniversary. This time, we felt confident in ourselves to be able to really fit in like New Yorkers. We navigated the subways with very little issue. We went out to The Village and ate good food and browsed The Strand bookstore. We went to the ballet and to see Fun Home. And New York was still just as magical. It was still the world where my dreams of publishing and music converged. It was still a world I pictured myself in. It was still the place I wanted to be.

New York’s Siren call haunted me every day for another two years before I could return to this city I love. Only this time, I returned in an unusual and amazing way. I was returning to live out my lifelong dream of performing in Carnegie Hall. This trip to New York was a very different experience for me than ever before. I was working. I spent every day in rehearsal, several hours a day. My wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and good friend had all come to watch me perform and got to spend their time visiting the city, my city, while I rehearsed and prepared for this momentous occasion in my own life.

What that meant, though, was in the free time I did have, I got to experience New York in a different way. I popped in my headphones and navigated the city without issue. I rode the subway and ate alone and did the New York thing in a different way than I had before. This was the first time I had really felt like a local. I was working. I was here, making music in New York City, living life with those around me. It felt–for a brief moment in time–like I was here and part of the fabric of the city.

It was hard to leave New York that time. I could really see myself living there and thriving. I just thought: I’m an artist and a musician and a writer. I have a masters degree in education. I could survive in New York. I could find work and be close to the things I love the most.

But alas, all good things have to come to an end.

Soon enough, something amazing happened, and I was invited back to Carnegie Hall with the same orchestra I had joined last time. And this time was different; I only had one rehearsal, not four days’ worth. I was going to get to see the city and work like a performer.

And see the city I did. I ate delicious food. I walked everywhere. I dressed like a New Yorker. I stayed in an AirBnB and not a hotel. I tried to entrench myself in New York. I tried to become New York.

I know it’s silly, this love I have of this city that I’ve never lived in, that I’ll probably never live in. But it’s the place I love. I love the noise and bustle and the people. I love the culture and the food and the sights and the smells. I love the scaffolding. I love that New York is always under construction, always changing, always becoming something new.

I jokingly made this metaphor with my best friend on this trip: we are all New York. I went on to say that it all makes sense. We are all always changing, growing becoming different today than we were yesterday. We are always putting up scaffolding and changing ourselves everyday. Much like New York, we are always under construction. We’re always seeking something different.

We really are all New York.

Again, I must say goodbye to this beautiful place that I love so much. But now I leave with the understanding that anytime the Siren’s Call is too much for me to stand, New York will always be there, waiting for me to discover more of its secrets and weave myself into its fabric a little more. Maybe I’ll never live there, but it will always feel like home to me.

I am New York.

We are all New York.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – Of Mice and Men

Did you know that 56% of book challenges take place at public libraries? Libraries which are supposed to represent the communities which they serve. Libraries which are supposed to be places of acceptance and information.

It doesn’t make sense to me that people ask libraries–the public forum for books and information–to ban books. But maybe I’m the backwards one. It’s highly likely. This wouldn’t be the first time.

Here’s the thing. Libraries are magical places. They hold all the books I’ve ever wanted. And if my library doesn’t hold the book I want, there’s a high chance that they have digital access to it. That’s why they’re so amazing. They hold all the stories I could want to read. And they hold information. They hold the secrets to watercolor and acrylic art. To knitting and crocheting. To the lives of great opera composers and presidents and inventors.

To limit libraries’ choice in what books they stock is to take away their power to represent and educate the community they represent.

Of Mice and Men is one of the most-frequently challenged books in history. It has been banned from libraries around the world for various reasons. The most common reasons for Of Mice and Men’s challenges are profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I’ve already said my peace on taking God’s name in vain, but I will address the issue of profanity. In pretty much the same level-headed, calm manner I’ve used all week in my defense of not banning books. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH CURSING IN IT, THEN JUST DON’T READ IT. Okay? Okay.

Good, now that we’ve cleared that up.

I love Steinbeck. He was brilliant. His writing was emotional and heavy and hard. I’ve never met a Steinbeck I didn’t like. I will admit that when I first read The Pearl when I was in high school, I didn’t enjoy it. But once I got a feel from Steinbeck and his writing, I fell in love with it.

Steinbeck has always just spoken to me in ways that few authors have.

Once, a challenge against Steinbeck listed he was “known to have an anti-business attitude” and he was “very questionable as to his patriotism,” which sounds pretty timely to me. Right? Like right now “questionable patriotism” and business practices seem to be big topics in news media today. Maybe Steinbeck was just a forward thinker. (He was.) Maybe he was just planning ahead for the 2010’s (he wasn’t.)

Steinbeck will always hold a special place in my heart. He was the first serious author I read. He was the first serious author I fell in love with. The Pearl was really the first time I’d read a classic author and thought “I could really get into this.”

And then I met Of Mice and Men and I thought “Oh my God (instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain redacted so as not to offend blog banners), this is the most incredible book I’ve ever read.” I read it all in one weekend. And I cried my eyes out. And I got really frustrated. And it was one of the first books I connected with on an emotional level in a long time (that wasn’t Harry Potter.)

Of Mice and Men was the first book that helped me realize my love of historical fiction (even though it was contemporary at the time it was written.) It also was the first book to help me realize how much I love a book that makes me cry. It’s the book that really shaped who I am as a reader, I think. It revealed to me the experience I hoped to share with books. And for that I will always be grateful.

So, Mr. Steinbeck. Curse all you want, take the Lord’s name in vain, be anti-business and have questionable patriotism. I don’t mind. I just want to thank you for the books that changed my life and shaped me as a reader.

You will always have a spot on my shelf, even if everybody in the world bans you.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Living Life with Regret

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I know you are supposed to live life without regrets. I know that we are supposed to treat everyday like it’s our last and make sure the things we do are worthwhile. I know that we are expected to be intentional in the things we do and the things we say so that we never look back on our lives and wish for something different.

But I have a confession.

I have a very large, extremely massive regret. And–shy of getting a lobotomy–there’s nothing I can do to fix it.

I regret that I will never be able to re-read Harry Potter for the first time.

Look, I get it. Harry Potter has been around for 20 years now. I should not now be lamenting over something quite this old, right? Wrong.

So here’s the deal about Harry Potter. When I was eleven years old, I didn’t know what I had in my hand was absolute, pure magic. When I was eleven years old, I didn’t realize that I was standing on the cusp of the biggest literary phenomenon of my entire life.

When I was eleven years old, I read the first three Harry Potter books back-to-back-to-back. Without sleeping. Or eating. Or blinking. And in the most hipster way I can possibly say this, I read them before they were a thing. That’s not to say they were hot-off-the-presses when I discovered them. I didn’t read them until Prisoner of Azkaban had come out,

My school library had hardly finished wrapping the cellophane around them before they were in my hands. My greedy little grubby eyes soaked in those pages like they were my life source. I read them faster than any other books I’d read in my entire life. I was so enraptured by Sorcerer’s Stone, I can remember sitting on the floor of my school library and reading the first five chapters before I could even force myself to stand to go check it out.

I swallowed the first three books whole. I engulfed them and chewed them up, covers and all, and absorbed them into part of me. After I’d read the first three books from the library, I begged my parents to buy them for me so I could read them over and over and over and over. And I did. I read them so many times. So. Many. Times.

And then came the awful, dreaded wait for Goblet of Fire. And I can remember the magic of reading Goblet of Fire. It was the summer after seventh grade and I worked all summer with my mom to be able to buy that book. (In retrospect, what a horrible trade-off. I’m talking I worked 8-hour shifts all summer for one hardback book.)

But that wait was nothing like Order of the Phoenix which came three years later. Three. Long. Years. Three years of me reading and re-reading and reading again the first four books. And then Order of the Phoenix brought with it the magic of a midnight release. I got to be out late. I was with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we’re still old and dear friends and I have the gray hairs to prove it) out WAY past my bedtime. More importantly, we were our WAY past our bedtimes at A BOOKSTORE. I was in a bookstore after hours. Cramped in a line. With a golden ticket in my hand which entitled me to a shiny, beautiful new book.

Order of the Phoenix had my favorite cover. And when the cashier put it in my hand, I felt magic crackle through my palms. My friend dropped me off back at my house and I stayed up all night–again without blinking or eating or doing anything–until I had swallowed every word whole. And I had the migraine as retribution for my choice.

Half-Blood Prince was spent in yet another incredibly long line, my friends around me, chattering excitedly about what they hoped would happen and what they predicted would happen. I was in the same bookstore, the line snaking all the way through the building, surrounded by my people who loved reading and loved Harry Potter. The next day, I went to a horse show where a very unhappy woman proceeded to tell my mother and me how I was going to hell for reading Harry Potter. To which I shrugged, opened the book, and informed her that if Satan was taking me, at least I was going to read a very good book before he did so.

Deathly Hallows brought a very different experience. This time, I was the man behind the register. I helped promote sales for Deathly Hallows and plan the party the store I worked at was throwing. I stepped on a girl’s hand and hit a boy in the face. Purely accidental. Seriously. And I had to make sure everybody else in the entire city got their copies of Deathly Hallows before I did. But I did get to keep the boxes the books were shipped to us in. I moved into two apartments and my first house with my wife in those boxes. Fond memories were attached to those boxes.

I read Deathly Hallows much more slowly than the other books. I knew it was the end. I knew that I would never again experience the world of Harry Potter the way I was right then, reading that last book. I savored it. I salivated over it. I almost lost my job over reading it. (Okay, but in my defense you can’t just STOP reading in the middle of the battle at Hogwarts. That’s sacrilege.)

And at 19 years old, I had to face the realities of a world in which there were no more midnight releases of Harry Potter books. I would never again read a Harry Potter book for the first time.

I squandered away those beautiful, golden years that were filled with new books of the biggest obsession I’ve ever had. I wasted those amazing nights of reading books that would never be new to me again. I lost the opportunity to savor the only first time I’d ever have.

My only regret in this life is that I will never be able to re-read the Harry Potter books for the first time.

Live your life without regrets (and savor every bookish moment you get!)

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

You Are Enough

This year, my principal asked every staff member to pick a word to guide us through our year. There were no guidelines, outside of the reminder that a single word can change a life.

My colleagues all took this and ran. They picked things like adventure and perseverance and courage. They chose words like faith, empower, evolving. Everybody picked a word that truly meant something to them. And it was beautiful to behold. It was amazing to watch everybody get on board. I can’t wait to see how their years are shaped by the words they picked.

My word? Enough.

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Growing up, it always felt like I wasn’t something enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t skinny or strong or fast enough. I wasn’t handsome enough.

I never felt like I had enough. I didn’t have enough money or enough courage or enough confidence. I didn’t have enough time or enough sleep.

I felt like whenever you added all the parts of me together, they didn’t equate to a full human being. I was never enough. And it was something I struggled with into adulthood.

Sometime in my life, that changed. There came a time when I began to realize that the person I am is exactly who I’m supposed to be. That didn’t mean that I was through changing and growing. It just meant that I was done doubting. It meant that I was stronger and ready to face the world and everything it had in store for me, good or bad.

At some point in my life, I also realized that part of that feeling, part of that voice in my head that told me I was never enough, was a real problem known as depression. And for a long time, admitting my depression was hard. Because I was embarrassed. Because people around me had so flippantly made fun of people on antidepressants. Because I lived in a society that didn’t understand mental health issues. I lived in a society that believed depression was an affinity for being sad.

Depression is a liar.

When I finally allowed myself to admit that I was struggling with depression, I learned something very important. That voice in my head that had always told me I wasn’t enough was a liar. Depression is a liar. I wish somebody had told me sooner. I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years of my life doubting myself, believing that voice in my head, and avoiding help for the situation.

I can’t change my past, but maybe I can change somebody else’s future. As I navigate this school year and beyond, I’m going to remind myself and everybody around me that we are all enough. We are the entire person we are meant to be. We are always changing, always growing, always being. And we are enough.

You are enough.

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Don’t let depression lie to you. Don’t let fear become weakness. Don’t let yourself believe you are anything less than worthy and amazing and beautifully, wonderfully made.

Don’t ever let you or anybody else convince you that you are anything other than enough.

Yours,

The Plucky Reader

You Can Always Trust Someone with Blue Hair

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For the past month, I’ve had blue hair. And I’ve loved every minute of it

Growing up, we weren’t allowed to dye our hair. And after I was an adult, I’ve always had a job that didn’t allow me to have crazy-colored hair. Even in the summers, when teachers allegedly have loads of freedom. (I’ll let you know when I have one of those free summers with nothing to do that’s just two months of a paid vacation.)

But this summer, I’ve taken actual time to myself and I let loose. I dyed my hair blue. Okay, that’s the extent of my wildness because I don’t do so well at wild.

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When I first got my hair done, my stylist, Alexis, told me, “everybody’s going to be looking at you now.”

I both believed her and did not believe her. For one, I’m a BIG personality. It’s rare for me not to be the center of attention, because I demand attention. Admittedly, it’s a defense mechanism. If I control everybody’s attention, then I control the way they perceive and think about me. It stops them from being free to form their own opinions. I’m in control of people’s perceptions.

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But I didn’t believe that people would begin to notice me without my permission. I thought I was always in control.

Turns out that’s not the case. Apparently, people do notice you when you walk into a room with blue hair. People notice things like you only wear the color blue (guilty) and that you’re tall (apparently), and they feel obligated to comment on the things they’ve noticed. It’s one thing when it’s a kid. Kids are allowed to acknowledge their observations. But the amount of adults who share their opinions is surprising.

Remarkably, feedback on my blue hair has been really positive. People say it suits me. People say they’re jealous of it. It’s been a great conversation starter. Everybody who has ever dyed their hair has shared with me their experiences. And I love that. I love collecting people’s stories. I love how people feel instantly comfortable with me.

And my blue hair has only increased that. So what is it about blue hair that makes a difference? Maybe it’s because you’re not inconspicuous. It’s hard to hide in a crowd when you’re over 6 foot tall and have blue hair. You’re easily recognizable.

Maybe it’s because it’s a sign of individuality. People see your blue hair and think you are totally confident and secure and confident in yourself. You don’t listen to the crowd. You don’t follow the norms. You’re confident in who you are.

Maybe it’s because I just have a kind smile or something. At this point, I can’t really tell you why people have been more attracted to my blue hair thatI expected. What I can tell you is people have been.

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What I can tell you is recently, my wife and I went to a sunflower festival, where I was able to snap these beautiful photos. While we were there, I was asked to take pictures for people. One family asked if they could borrow the scissors I’d bought, because guests were welcome to harvest sunflowers to take home.

My wife and our friend who came with us overheard a woman say, “you can always trust someone with blue hair.” While I’m not sure of the truth or origin of this adage, it’s made me laugh. Whether it’s my blue hair or my smile or the confidence I’ve developed in myself since I dyed my hair blue, people trust me. And I guess there are far worse things in life than that.

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A Plucky Vacation

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Last week, my wife and I took a much-needed vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas. We stayed at a beautiful cabin on the lake, spent some time in the water, wandered the streets of downtown Hot Springs, and disconnected from technology and the world for a few days.

I cannot tell you how amazing that was. I cannot even begin to describe what it was like to not be concerned with social media, with phone calls, with text messages. I didn’t ignore everybody; I was just choosey about whom I communicated with.

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I sat on the dock of the lake house and read as much as I possibly could (review coming soon for A Place For Us.) I basked in the warmth and the comfort of summer.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m happier in the sunlight. Even when it’s roughly three billion degrees outside, I enjoy the sunlight. I, in fact, really love to smell like sunscreen because it means I’ve been in the sun. (Now if I could just figure out how to enjoy sweating.)

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I encourage you, dear reader, to sit back and unplug sometime. Take a day to turn off your phone and turn your attention to a book or to your partner or to your best friend or to your dog. Take a few hours without the hassle of notifications and popups and emails. There was a time before social media and cell phones and even blogs. There was a time when we weren’t accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Treating myself to that kind of day has only made me crave me. I know it’s not realistic in today’s society of fast-paced immediacy to disconnect for more than a couple of days at a time. But wouldn’t it be nice? Imagine how much more reading you’d get done.

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Take time to explore. Smell the roses. Read the historical plaques. See the world as it is. Today is the only day this world will look as it does. Tomorrow it will be different and we’ll have missed what today held for us.

I’m as guilty as everybody else. But at least for a few glorious days, I saw the water and the wind and the breath of the world as it was meant to be seen. And for those few days of wonder, I will always be grateful.

(Channeling that feeling of wonder now as I deal with a broken air conditioner in Louisiana. Send help. Or ice!)

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Cool June Morning Musings

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It’s a cool and breezy morning as I sit to write this post. The temperature has been in the low- to mid-90’s this week, so sitting outside has not been on the top of my to-do list. But for whatever blessed reason, today it’s in the mid-80’s and breezy And I’ll take that any day.

I’m enjoying the weather and I’ve brought with me my colored pencils (teachers love fun school supplies) and my highlighters to work on the first novel I’m teaching next school year. I’ve brought my Kindle to read some ARCs to review here. I’ve brought my headphones and my smile. It’s the perfect morning.

Now that this school year is over and I’ve had time to reflect and look back at my blog, I see that I am happiest when I am outside in the beautiful weather with a book in my hand. The problem is I’ve been working basically two full-time jobs since 2011. There hasn’t been nearly enough time for my to sit outside in the sunshine and read books.

That’s my goal for next school year. To dial it back. Read more books. Work fewer hours. I’m dropping out of some of the symphonies in which I play. As nice as the money is at Christmastime, I’m turning down some Christmas gigs. It will take some budgetary adjustments, but sometimes caring for your family is about more than just making money.

Money is the thing I struggle with the most. I will always feel I don’t have enough money. I will always fight with the fact that I became a teacher, when there are other jobs that make loads more money. (I wouldn’t happy at a single one of them, but that won’t stop me from being hard on myself about it.)

Realistically, I know I have nothing to worry about.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

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This verse has been quoted to me more often than I’d care to admit. But it’s only through recent prayer, reflection, and study that it’s become a message to me. I’m a slow learner sometimes, especially when it comes to self-reflection. I spend so much of my life concerned with others that I forget that I have to focus on myself from time to time

It feels selfish, doesn’t it? To take a step away from everybody and look at yourself. There’s so much pain in the world. There’s so much need and hurt and ache. And I want to fix it all. Every once in a while, though, I need that not-so-subtle reminder that if I don’t take care of myself a little bit, then I won’t be able to care for anybody else. And showing people love is one of my favorite things.

So I’m shifting my focus. Not entirely to myself, but to rediscovering the things that are most important. Taking time for my family. Taking time for myself. Spending time in The Bible and listening to the songs of nature. Returning to my roots. And focusing on being the best teacher I can possibly be. Not because success in my career is the most important thing, but because I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to teach amazing kids.

Sometimes–okay, almost always–change is good. It just doesn’t always look that way at first. Change is scary. We’re control freaks by nature. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Change means giving up some of that control to unknown factors. Things such as changing jobs give you the opportunity to reflect and react and reshape and rebuild. And today, in this cool breeze, at this shady table–sitting next to the big cardinal who just landed nearby–I’m grateful for change and for the opportunity to grow and recreate myself.

Who knew the first day of June could mean the first day of something new and exciting for me? I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’ve got great books to read, I’m 13 books ahead on my reading challenge for the year, and I’ve got two months of freedom before the next school year. That’s a recipe for opportunity if I’ve ever seen one!

Here’s what I read in May:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mulally Hunt
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Persall
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfried (review here)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a re-read for book club)
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno (review here)

How was your May? Was it as productive? What did you read that you loved? Send me yout book recommendations! I want them all.

Also attached is my June reading playlist. This is what I’m listening to as a I read and blog.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

 

A Letter to My Replacement

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Dear you,

I hope you know how lucky you are to work with these amazing kids everyday. I hope that even when you’re stressed and tired and angry that you will remember these are the best kids you’ll ever meet. Take a step back and remember that when times get tough.

I hope you know that the music room is a safe place, open to all hearts. Students come here to feel safe, regardless of their sexuality, their social status, the amount of money their parents have. Students find a safe haven regardless of their gender, their weight, the color of their skin. This is a hideaway from the world where people are just people; all special and unique and beautiful.

I hope you know that this is a place for second chances. The sins of yesterday are forgiven and grudges are dissolved. Every morning presents a new opportunity for something amazing; each day is full of promise and wonder and magic.

I hope you know that this room has been a world of new beginnings for so many. People have found passions and success and teamwork and friends in ways they never have before, within these four walls. People have found their voice and their drive and their strength in this very room, the room where you are so fortunate to teach.

I hope you know that these students do not love unconditionally, but when you have won their hearts, they love hard and with an unmatched ferocity. When they have become vulnerable enough with you to love you, they will defend you against all odds. They don’t love easy, but they love hard and they love big.

I hope you know that you are teaching more than music. You’re teaching children. You’re teaching them about the world and life and the things that very few other teachers have the privilege of teaching. You get to teach them the things they want to know, and you get to help them become the people they are to become. You get to polish away something rough and reveal the beautiful human being that the world can’t wait to meet.

I hope you know that this isn’t a job; it’s a calling. You’re about to become a teacher, parent, cheerleader, and coach. You’re going to be their support system and their guide. You’re going to teach them so much, and they learn everything. So make sure what you’re learning is worthwhile and special and something only you can offer.

And most importantly, I hope you know you’re about to become a student. These kids have the world to teach you; they’ll teach you more than you’ll ever have to teach them. You’ll learn about relationships and drama and gossip. And you’ll learn about wins and losses, victories, successes, and failures. You’re going to learn how to comfort every person in your room. You’re going to learn who needs you to be stern and who needs you to be soft. You’re going to learn what matters to each person, and you’re going to learn that it’s different. You’re going to learn more than you ever realized there was to learn. You’ll learn who they are, and you’ll learn who you are, and you’ll learn why it’s important to know both.

You have a huge task ahead of you, and I know you’ll be excellent at it. It’s not easy to say goodbye to this world that has been mine. It’s not easy to say goodbye to these students who have been mine for three years. I love them. I love this room, this safe haven that I’ve built. And I hope and pray that it becomes your safe haven, as well.

And to all the students who have touched my life in the seven years that I’ve taught music, I cannot thank you enough. I am who I am because of you. Today, the world lies before us, rife with possibilities and successes, waiting for us to take them for ourselves.

I will love you always.

Big Thoughts in a Small Town

This past weekend, I played a concert in El Dorado, Arkansas. It’s one of my favorite symphonies to perform in. The town is charming, the symphony is talented, and the coffee shop is adorable. There’s even an independent bookstore. Seriously, what more could a guy like me want in life?

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Saturday morning, I woke up early and decided to visit downtown while it was still cool and beautiful.

I had the best time! It was lovely. People were already out walking and jogging and spending time as a family. Birds were chirping. Flowers were standing proudly. It was idyllic. Seriously. The perfect start to the morning.

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It’s freeing to have a Saturday morning to do nothing, don’t you think? It’s rare for me. I tend to schedule my life minute-by-minute, and never leave free time for walking around downtown, eating a pastry from a coffee shop, and stopping to smell the flowers. And the flowers want to be smelled. Look at them! They’re beautiful!

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This dog was so happy to have his picture taken. He posed for the camera and smiled big. He was adorable. He made me miss my puppies and realize that I never take them anywhere. I think they’d like to go visit downtown or to Starbucks to drink a puppicino with me. I think I’ll schedule some time to drive one of my puppies around like the royalty they are.

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Something I love about El Dorado is they way the community appreciates the arts. In the past year, El Dorado has seen the opening of several new musical performance venues and is awaiting the opening of an art gallery.

The Murphy Arts District is gorgeous! There’s an amphitheater (where I played a concert with Smokey Robinson) situated right in the heart of downtown. There’s the Griffin Music Hall for indoor concerts (where I played this amazing Beatles tribute show). They’ve recently remodeled the municipal auditorium into a stunning concert hall where the symphony plays most of its performances.

The historic Rialto theater is also being renovated and will reopen in the future.

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Being in El Dorado reminds me of all the reasons I love a small town. Everybody is friendly. Everybody knows each other. I love that I’m always greeted with smiles when I’m out and about in El Dorado. I love that the people at the coffee shop are always willing to stop and chat. I love that time is kind of frozen in El Dorado; it’s still-fashioned.

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I know it’s a running theme in my life because I overbook myself, but taking the time to wander around El Dorado reminded me to slow down and take time for self-care. Strolling along the streets in the early morning brought me so much joy and peace. Time with myself to just reflect and refresh myself. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

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I passed the most adorable little Farmers’ Market with six stalls. It was crowded. I was impressed at how many people came to this tiny little market. On the lawn beside the farmers’ market was a field where families were playing. Seriously, it was like something out of a TV show. It was like Stars Hollow. I was in love with it all.

After I’d walked around for a while, and worked up a good sweat, I finished the morning with a nice, cold Coke in a glass bottle. There’s nothing like it. It was the perfect morning. It was a nice way to chill out before a long day of rehearsing and performing.

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So, in the end, take time for yourself. Self care is important and necessary. Take the time to stroll around, smell the flowers, drink a Coke, and slow down.

It’s worth it. You’re worth it.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Life Lessons from Ponies

This weekend, I drove to my parents’ house to see my family and to play with my ponies. Let me tell you; there is no stress reliever like playing with a pony. Maybe it’s just the country boy in me, but being out in the sunlight and in the green pastures is so relaxing.

My horse, Daisy.
Daisy is the most beautiful horse in the world. It’s undeniable.

My horse, Daisy, has been my buddy for thirteen years. She is beautiful, and she knows it. She’s a world-champion show horse who has filled my life with more joy than I can even begin to describe. I’ve spoken about Daisy in the past. But she deserves several fangirl posts about how amazing and beautiful she is. And she’d happily accept all praise; she knows exactly how amazing she is. Daisy helps me to remember to be proud of myself and my accomplishments. She knows exactly who she is and she is not afraid to let other horses knows how great she is.

I wish I had an ounce of her confidence. But I try everyday to be as secure in myself–if not as aggressive about it–as my beautiful baby girl.

Daisy grazing
Daisy even grazes like a model

Life is about more than horses. And life is about more than books. But spending time with my horses and spending time with my books reminds me of this. I’m reminded every time I play with my horses just how beautiful and awe-inspiring nature is. I’m reminded that the world exists outside of my bubble of stress and rushing and racing and spinning. I’m reminded that my life doesn’t have to be consumed with woe and worry and hassle and hustle. I’m reminded how important it is to stop and smell the roses and absorb the world around me.

Mini horses grazing
The miniature horses are so cute in their field of flowers

The miniature horses remind me that the world is a big place, and that even my small part is important. My mother’s miniature horses are therapy animals. They spend almost every Friday at nursing homes providing therapy services to the patients there. They are funny and precious and serious about their work. They are curious and sweet and love to snuggle. They’re gifts. They’re full of spirit and energy and have love to share.

When I spend time with the miniatures, I can’t help but laugh. They’re goofy. Their little legs incite laughter. They work so hard to be as big and as impressive as Daisy (who is an unusually large horse). They are impressive in their own way. And they’re perfect.

Corey, the solid-brown paint horse
Corey walking the pasture

Corey reminds me that sometimes things don’t go as planned, and that’s okay. Corey’s parents are both paint horses, which means they have white on their bodies, as well as another color (for reference: Daisy is a paint horse.) Corey was expected to be a paint horse, as well. He has all the genes to be. He had perfect breeding. But, somehow he came out solid brown, save for that small spot on his forehead.

Even though Corey didn’t come out at planned, we still love him. He’s still beautiful. He’s still perfect. He’s sweet. He loves kisses. And has the softest nose of any horse I’ve ever met. When he was a baby, his nose felt like velvet. It was so soft; I had trouble stopping once I’d started petting his nose. Corey’s a lovely reminder that the best things come in unexpected packages.

Lola, the mini horse
Lola spotted me taking pictures of her and began charging me right after this picture

Lola reminds me that we are as big and important as we make ourselves to be. Lola is the smallest horse I have ever seen. She’s hardly two feet tall at the withers. She’s beautiful and she’s ferocious. She has no concept of how tiny she is and she keeps us all entertained with just how bossy she is. She runs the pasture. She is the queen and she knows it.

Yesterday, I laid on the ground to take pictures of her from a good angle, and she charged me. It was important for her that I knew I was in her domain and under her dominion. She doesn’t let anything happen in her pasture without her permission. Because she is as big as she gives herself permission to be.

Mary the donkey stands under a tree
Mary the Donkey enjoys the cool shade

Mary the Donkey reminds me that friends come in the most unlikely people, sometimes. When Mary joined the herd, she was the odd man out. Donkeys behave differently than horses. Donkeys smell differently than horses. Donkeys make different sounds than horses. In every way, she was an outcast from the pack.

But slowly, she and Teddy (who appears later in this post) bonded and are now inseparable. They’re the most unlikely of friends, but somehow have found company in each other. It’s fun to watch them play together.

(It’s even more fun when I hear stories of Mary bellowing beside my parents’ window to wake them up in the morning.)

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The inseparable Mary and Teddy

Even Teddy, who I’m very angry at right now, has taught me much in life. Teddy reminds me that even though I’m grown, I still have much to learn. Teddy is technically an adult, as horses go. But he’s still hard-headed and stubborn. He’s still immature in his decision-making. He’s grown, but he’s got a long way to go. He’s hard-headed and clumsy and a daily reminder that we’re never done growing and improving.

Daisy getting a kiss on the snout

There is something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man
-Winston Churchill

Churchill was onto something when he commented on the power of horses. They’re amazing creatures who have taught me more more about life than any person I’ve ever met. They’re amazing, wonderful creatures. Sometimes I’m convinced that quality time with my horses is the closest I’ll ever get to heaven on earth.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader