Small Village, Big Writing

 

As a single parent, much of my life revolves around Big Foot. Add the fact that I am a teacher, and much of my life ends up being about other people. However, I have finally learned that I cannot be good for anyone if I do not practice self-care, and therefore I am being intentional about nurturing myself as a person.

Writing is one of my most consistent passions, but it often takes a backseat to the responsibilities that come with the different hats I wear. I steal moments late after Big Foot goes to sleep, or early before he wakes up if I am not too exhausted, because I feel guilty spending time on myself while he is awake. On more days than I care to admit, I am so emotionally and intellectually drained from teaching that I can’t find the energy to pick up a pencil or open my laptop.

This year, however, I found the perfect compromise: The Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop for Teachers. To make things better, the workshop was held in Ohio (where I’d never been), which meant a week away to focus on my writing in a new setting. So I silenced my self-critic, and went.

The security check at MCO was only mildly unpleasant: big crowd herded along by obviously disgruntled TSA employees, which is better than my usual experience there. There are no direct flights from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Columbus Airport, so I had to stop in Philadelphia. My flight from Orlando was on time, and surprisingly reached its destination about 10 minutes early… which would have been great if my flight hadn’t been about 45 minutes late. Thank goodness I really like PHL.

The workshop itself was amazing. First, the (really) small village of Kenyon, Ohio is just the right setting for writing. The buildings are quaint, and the campus is seamlessly blended with the village. Additionally, T-Mobile does not seem to operate there, so I had no cell signal whatsoever. This had two advantages: One, my usual phone-based distractions were completely absent. Two, I was able to experience the kindness of my classmates, as people whom I had not known until our arrival on campus were quick to offer up use of their own phones so I could call my son and wish him good night each evening.

 

 

In addition to the inspiring architecture, there is an abundance of trees and grassy areas as well as many spots inviting people to stop, reflect, and (in my case) write. From benches under trees to large branches in a tree, the campus was like a playground for artists.

Beyond the setting, the classes themselves were amazing. The teachers were obviously experts, both in writing and in teaching. The other participants in the group also challenged and inspired me in ways that are not accessible to me in my everyday life. I was exposed to writers I had not yet read and was able to have literary conversations with people who actually enjoy such things. Then, after I had been filled with artistic impetus, I had something that I am always missing: time to write, free of guilt. The meals shared with other writers (from my program and the other concurrent sessions) and the nightly readings by instructors and participants rounded up the experience perfectly. When time came for us to depart, I wished I could have just a few more days.

The flight back was pretty awful. It was about 20 minutes late, which was not that bad, particularly since I was able to wait with one of the friends I met at the workshop. However, we then spent about an hour on the tarmac, meaning that my perfect hour-long layover turned into having to be rescheduled on a later flight.

Still, overall the trip was well worth it. I had time to myself and time to work on my writing in a setting that allowed me to be interact with other adult who share my passion for writing, generate more new material than I have in a long time, receive professional feedback, and discover writing strengths I didn’t know I possessed. I came home physically, artistically, and mentally refreshed, which allows me to be a happier (hence better) mom.

Keep wandering,

       ~  Joëlle

 

Airport Review: PHL

In my pre-Big Foot days, I didn’t care much about airports. As long as I could find my gate on time and find a corner to sit, I was fine. Now, however, I have to take a preschooler’s patience threshold, bladder capacity, and short legs to take into account, so I find myself paying much closer attention.

On our recent adventure to Sesame Place, we flew from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). Today I’ll review PHL since it had a few touches I definitely appreciated.

First, I should mention that I managed to lose my driver’s license at Sesame Place that morning, which I didn’t notice until I was already at the airport. I was very glad that I had arrived at the airport a little over two hours before out flight time, and I braced myself for what I expected would be a difficult passage through the security checkpoint.

Boy was I wrong! No eye-rolling, huffing or puffing. The TSA officer asked me if I had at least two items with my name on it. Thankfully, I had my insurance card and a bank card that has my picture on it (although I was in my 20s when it was taken). The officer checked them, then told me I would have to wait for a female officer to come conduct an additional security check. During the five minutes it took for her to arrive, the original officer apologized several times for the wait.

I was then made to remove my shoes and go through the full body scanner before undergoing a pat down and having additional officers go through my bags. During the whole procedure, all officers involved were very polite and considerate; one of them even held my son’s hand and chatted with him, and once I was cleared and ready to move on, they even gave him a “junior security officer” sticker.

PHL Jr Officer Badge

Junior Officer Badge

Altogether, I spent about 20 minutes in the security area. Which is about how long it takes to get though regular security procedures at MCO with proper ID on any given day—if you’re lucky.

We arrived at the appropriate terminal with plenty of time to spare, and there we found another lovely surprise: an absolutely adorable airport-themed play area. Big Foot had a blast pretending to pilot a plane, man the control tower, and drive the luggage vehicle, and sliding down the wing of the plane. I had a great time sitting down and relaxing on the bench while I watched him play.

Right across from the play area was a cute little reading area with a book exchange box, some recycled planters with some greenery, two wooden rocking chairs, and a bench.

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Reading Area at PHL

Once Big Foot was done playing, we shared some pizza from one of the several restaurant choices, then headed to the gate with a few minutes before the start of boarding. The attendants at the gate were very friendly, taking time to compliment Big Foot on his rolling carry-on.

I really enjoyed this airport as everything seemed well-organized, the staff was friendly, and they had some family-friendly touches as well.

Keep wandering,

~ Joëlle

P.S: I contacted the Lost & Found at Sesame Place, and thankfully my license had been turned in. They mailed it to me at no charge.

Why I Wander

We tend to assume we’re the norm, and that our life experiences are commonplace. I know this, yet like most people I often find myself shocked upon discovering some mundane detail about someone I know. Once such detail that still catches me off-guard is when in discussion, it becomes apparent that the other person has never traveled outside of the country. My shock will grow even bigger still when they add they have never left the state, nor even felt the desire to do so.

I take wanderlust for granted because I am a wanderer at heart. However, since so many are content with remaining in familiar surroundings, I sometimes ask myself how I came to be a wanderer.

Some of it came naturally. As a child, I was very curious and liked to understand how people worked. I was also intellectually restless and easily bored. There was always knowledge to be sought and adventures to be imagined and experienced. I also had a certain facility with language that led me to seek opportunities to learn and study them.

On the other hand, my environment had much to do with my acquisition of the wandering bug. My parents exemplified qualities that made travel more than just what other people do. For example, in the 1970s, when many of their countrymen were opting for immigrating to Canada and the U.S (both already home to a sizable Haitian population and a short flight away), my parents chose Switzerland instead. Work and educational opportunities presented themselves, and my parents took the leap. At that time, they were certainly forgoing the familiar. For perspective, consider this: in 1980, I was the first Black baby to be born at the rural hospital where my mom gave birth. Before the move, the only place my parents had seen snow was on TV. With that outlook, it isn’t surprising that they took me on my first international flight by the time I was 7 months old. The fact that I almost died while abroad only makes for a more interesting travel tale in my opinion.

Aside from the leap of faith they took, my parents also lived in a way that encouraged interest in other cultures. Our living room always seemed filled with friends from all over the world, and my father made it a point to ask all those friends to teach him basic greetings in their native languages. Additionally, although we limited our travels to the places where our extended family lived, my mother always talked about her desire to see the world.

Growing up, I was lucky to experience regular trips to see family in Haiti, the U.S, and Canada, and the proximity allowed for quick trips to France as well as a week-long school field trip to Hungary. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I had seen and experienced enough different environments to crave more adventure; I asked my parents to let me move to America for (what I thought would be) a couple years. Somehow, my strict Haitian parents said yes, and I found myself living in Upstate New York. College took me to New Jersey, and eventually my parents, my brother and I ended up in Florida.

Now that I have been in one place for over a decade, the wanderlust is back. I am ever so grateful for the worldly opportunities my parents gave me, and aside from my own selfish need to wander, I can’t help but feel like my son too should have a playing ground bigger than our backyard.

Big Foot Bubbles

Big Foot in his current stomping grounds.

Wandering Before It’s Too Late

My son, Big Foot, just turned 4, and I realize just how true to life Sesame Place’s slogan—Go Before They Grow—really is. My baby seems to have suddenly disappeared, and in his place, there is a straight backed, strong-willed kid. He starts VPK in the fall, and I can tell how close he is to losing the sense of magic and wonder that comes with early childhood innocence. He loves Grover, Elmo, and Big Bird, so I knew it was now or never. Additionally, the trip was a 2-in-1 gift: a first plane trip for my big boy who loves vehicles, and a magical chance to meet imaginary friends for my little boy who still thinks they might be real.

I budgeted $1000, which is a splurge for me. However, it was a great incentive to save, and I would rather spend it on creating special memories than on buying more “stuff” I don’t necessarily need.

I was lucky enough to score tickets from MCO to PHL for a total of $311, which also earned me some points on my union’s saving website. I booked my vacation package directly through Sesame Place via their website. It included 3 nights at a hotel, Fun Card admission tickets (unlimited admission until 12/31), one Dine with Me! lunch for two, a discount card for the shops, and one-time ride again privilege and advance show seating.

There was a bit of a mishap with the package reservation, however. The Sesame Place website listed the hotel as having a free airport shuttle. This was a deciding factor for me as I avoid driving on the highway and am reticent to drive in very unfamiliar places, since it seems to trigger varying degrees of anxiety for me. Well, when I contacted the hotel to schedule, they had no idea what I was talking about, and the airport shuttle service they recommended was no longer taking reservations. Upon contacting Sesame Place, they did provide me with some freebies and an apology, but not transportation. I received many suggestions, including some ride offers (which I missed due to a dead phone) from an amazing traveling group I belong to, and I eventually ended up finding a shared van which, although it took forever to pick me up, only cost me $40.

 

Elmo Hands

Cute touches right from the start

Now about the park; it was just perfect for Big Foot and his current personality and development stage. Our first full day was a Thursday, and it was blissfully uncrowded, which means there was very little waiting throughout the day. Being used to SeaWorld and having recently visited Disney, this was a welcome surprise.

Speaking of surprises, my usually skittish child had a great time getting on the many rides that are sized just right for the preschool set, even on a couple that I thought might be too much for him, like Elmo’s Cloud Chaser. As a note, if you are overweight, this particular ride will not be a comfortable one; it was an unwelcome reminder that my butt is on the wider side. The Peek-A-Bug ride is cute and very tame. Big foot loved the slide in Elmo’s World and the Flyin’ Fish Ride. A big plus with this rife is the ability to control how high you want to go.

The park is of very manageable size, but a stroller ($16 online/$18 in park) makes getting around much easier. We could probably have done the whole park in a day if we rushed, but I am glad we had the time for a slower pace.

Our first stop was Elmo the Musical. The show was very cute, and reinforced shape recognition and counting concepts. Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Velvet star in this imagination mystery. My son was captivated and loved the audience participation prompts.

Elmo Musical Sign

Next, it was time for our Dine with Me! lunch reservation. When we arrived, a tote bag of goodies from customer service was waiting at our table. It included a souvenir plate, a souvenir cup, a beach towel, a small Elmo plush, a cookie monster frame, and a Cookie Monster bowl along with a handwritten note of apology. There was a lot of smiling, dancing, decent food, happy party atmosphere and a keepsake cup for Big Foot.  We did get some tears because Abby didn’t stop by our table, but thankfully she was at 1-2-3 Smile with Me. We did breakfast at Dine with Me! as well the next morning before the park opened as part of our apology package. My son’s verdict on the character dining experience? “It’s the best party I’ve ever been!”

I purchased Photo Key for Thursday. It does cost $60 (if purchased online; $70 at the park), but as a single parent, I never get to be in the pictures when we go on adventures, so I decided to splurge a little. It was nice to have, but I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t as many opportunities as I was expecting for using it. For example, even though the map shows the area by Elmo’s Cloud chaser as a picture spot, I did not see any photographers there even once during our trip. I am still glad that I have some high-quality pictures of myself with Big Foot and various characters, and that it comes with a full photo release.

The parade was wonderful! Definitely stake a spot a little early right across from Snuffy’s Eats. That’s pretty much where the characters will stop and dance, and if you are lucky, they just might invite you to join them as they did Big Foot. There is dancing, letters, counting, and pretty much all of the monsters you can handle.

 

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On Friday, we were there bright and early for breakfast at Dine with Me! The spread was nice: French toast, bagels, prepackaged muffins, tater tots (a guilty pleasure I haven’t indulged in several years), fresh waffles (super tasty with hot apple slices), fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage links. The entertainment was like that of the lunch, and breakfast does not include the souvenir cup. The characters did seem to have more time in the morning to take pictures in the performance area rather than just when they came to the tables.

After breakfast, we hit up some of Big Foot’s favorite rides from the previous day before seeing the Magic of Art show. This is at one of the outdoor theaters, so the choices are tough: sit up front and cook, but get high fives and up-close interaction with the characters, or sit up in the shade but be further from the show. The story was very cute and emphasized the importance of creativity and perseverance. Abby, Elmo, Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster and Mr. McNutty are in this show.

SP The Magic of Art

Next, it was back to Elmo’s World for a few more runs down the big slide followed by a lunch of pretzels, yogurt, juice, and tomatoes as I did not have the patience to brave the lunch rush lines.

We saw the Let’s Play Together performance which was also in an outdoor theater, but this one was covered, which means it wasn’t too hot. Like all the shows at Sesame Place, the stage is simple, and the theater isn’t too big so it’s easy to get a good view of the characters. The music was lively and fun, and the whole show underscores cooperation and friendship. Burt, Ernie, Abby, Rosita, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo are all in this show.

Finally, we were off to the water area. There’s a nice “sand” playground and an actual sandpit here. I did not plan on going in the water myself, so Big Foot had to stick to the splash pad and wading pool in the Twiddle area. The Count’s Castle looked fun, but Big Foot was not quite big enough to go there on his own. Still, he had so much fun in the Tiny Tiny Tidal Wave that we missed Grover’s All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner, so we had pizza and French fries for dinner.

Tiny Tidal Wave

Our flight was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, so we took the shuttle to the park at opening time so Big Foot could get one last go at the rides. The lines were still short, so we made it on Oscar’s Rotten Rusty Rockets, Elmo’s Cloud Chasers, and Cookie Monster’s High C. He also wanted to try out the Cookie Jars and Blast Off, which he liked so much that we used our Ride Again Privilege from the hotel benefits. I do wish I had realized they had special events on Saturdays, as I would have scheduled a later flight so Big Foot could take a picture with Curious George who was visiting 1-2-3 Smile with Me.

Overall Verdict: A –

Pros:

  • Many opportunities for character interactions
  • Perfectly sized for the preschool set
  • Developmentally appropriate shows with positive messages
  • Character dining is affordable
  • Lots of adorable spots for pictures
  • Lots of great places for photo ops, including the Sesame Street Neighborhood
  • Really fun parade

Cons:

  • Can only bring one small snack per person
  • Mostly marked up junk food choices; hardly anything healthy
  • On some days, there aren’t quite enough Photo Key opportunities available
SP Big Foot Wave

Bye Sesame Place!

Finding Passion

I once had a short lived blog. It was about living with passion and revolved around a list of 40 goals I wanted to accomplish before I turned 40. A handful or the goals were crossed off, and I thought I would easily take care of the rest over the remaining years.

However, despite careful planning, I found myself the single parent of a newborn when my husband left a few days before my due date. Suddenly, I went from trying to live life with passion to trying to make it through each day with at least some of my sanity and money left.

I must pause and say that I do enjoy several privileges as far as parenting solo goes. First, I have a full time job with benefits. Additionally, my parents live a mere five minutes away and are retired.

Nonetheless, the first year, keeping any remnant of my sanity was challenging. My mother stayed at my house for the first two weeks, so I could at least get a few hours of sleep each day and feel less nervous about caring for my newborn. She then returned home so that I could begin developing a routine of my own. Sleep-deprivation, spotty eating, and the seemingly constant crying (both my child’s and mine) created a dark background for my bitterness to fester. At times, it even verged on paranoia: perhaps my in-laws had convinced my husband to more cross country to stay with his father so that he would not develop a bond with our child. Maybe he had never planned to stick around in the first place. Perhaps I would fall into so deep a sleep that I would not heat my son cry at night, and he would become emotionally detached from me. Or maybe I would return to work and realize I had completely forgotten how to teach.

Then there were the rational things that were chipping away at my sanity. The postpartum hormonal roller coaster, the physical and logistical demands of breastfeeding while working full-time, the reality of financially providing for my son completely on my own—more factors that left me in survival mode.

However, things have finally settled, and I am again able to look at the possibility of really living with passion. In the end, most of the items on my 40 by 40 list had to do with wandering in one way or another, whether from my comfort zone or from my physical location. So here I am now, still doing what is natural to me: still wandering.