I was designed to stare out of windows. In third grade, while my by-the-book teacher droned through another lesson, my eyes wandered to the window near my desk. Our trailer backed up to a steep hill where Georgia pines stretched up to a sky that could turn a shade of blue no painting could match. I used to look up at those trees and feel myself stretching, too, up out of that stuffy trailer with its stilted rules and into that endless blue sky—before the teacher jerked me back to her lesson plan with a pointed question about what she’d just said.
I started trying to create space so I could breathe a little, stare out of more windows. I opted out of the gifted program in sixth grade when it became clear that computer graphing would be our major project for the year, an announcement our teacher made with great joy. My heart shriveled and I went home that day determined to convince my parents that I needed to be un-gifted. Against all of my past experience, they agreed.
But somewhere on the same genetic code that shifted my eyes toward windows bubbled a compulsion for jumping through hoops. The homework assignment, the study guide, the paper due date all kept me moving past windows and buckling down. I could reduce some of the hoops, but eliminating them altogether was impossible.
So when I missed the cut off on the test that would bump me up to Algebra I in eighth grade, I felt both shame and relief: shame because my math classmates almost all made it in and I had no idea where I’d screwed up on the test . . . and relief because it was one less hoop to demand my attention. I could take higher-level classes in English and history, my natural loves, and maybe look out a few more windows in regular eighth grade math.
Then in ninth grade, after I had already accepted my place behind the leaders of the pack, my report card revealed that I was ranked higher than I had known in my class of five hundred plus. I must have obnoxiously mentioned this at lunch because someone reminded me that I was in the regular math, and thus science, class. The rank didn’t reflect those less demanding courses. That person was right.
But my hoop-jumping DNA marker had lit up like New York City at that dot-matrix printed ranking number on my report card. I didn’t want to lose ground. So buckled down and jumped high and aimed for the hoops in our no-minority, upper middle class “high school of excellence.”
Then right before my senior year, I found my eyes drifting toward the windows again as I plowed through the long summer reading list. I read a few pages; I stared out the window. Self-chastisement followed, but within a few pages, I’d again find myself staring out the window. Suddenly, the window-staring part of my DNA could no longer be squelched. And that was just the beginning.
All through college, my window-staring mind demanded at least some time alongside my hoop-jumping mind. As I got to pick more of my classes, I even discovered a sweet spot where the window staring and the hoops worked together: Victorian poetry, the short story, the 20th century novel.
In graduate school, I had to jump farther and faster to keep the competitive scholarship that allowed me to go to the school. But the higher I jumped, the more desperate the window–gazing needs grew. I caught every virus that even thought about visiting our campus. I tripped on the stairs I was running up one day and bruised my knee so badly that tears came to my eyes. I needed a nap everyday or my energy sagged so low I couldn’t keep up. And that wasn’t an option.
Yet, along the way, the window-gazing penchant drew to itself like-minded writings and people and practices. I read about contemplative prayer and women’s ways of learning for class and heard my own longings on the page. I went on a retreat and discovered that I craved the sound of quiet. I met the calmest, most grounded woman I could imagine and she befriended me.
I began taking baby steps toward honoring my call to gaze out the window. I took long walks. I prayed. I wrote. I gazed out the window. It was the only antidote I found to the hoop jumping. I felt healthier. Sometimes.
I began to accept in tiny, miniscule bites that I would never be enough or do enough. I am enough. We are enough, loved now, no hoops needed. When I gaze out the window, that’s what I hear. That’s what I always heard, all along.
Hoop-makers don’t want us to listen to that. Hoops don’t want us to think for ourselves or wonder or question or write poetry or sip tea in silence. And they certainly don’t want us to pray (unless it’s by rote) or combine window-gazing with praying. That’s dangerous stuff.
Thanks be to God for that little bright marker on my DNA that would not be silenced or shamed or worked away. Thank God for that window in my third grade room . . . and for my adolescent bedroom window . . . and all the windows that have offered new life through the years. I would never have survived without them.
Alicia Davis Porterfield writes for the sheer pleasure of words on a page in a household full of testosterone. One half of a clergy couple and mom to three boys, she finds herself fascinated by the world around her, including the birds in her own backyard and the love that bind us all together. A native of Atlanta, GA, Alicia lives in Wilmington, NC where history lingers on the corners downtown and the Atlantic bumps up against North America.