inhale, exhale

Breath.

Invisible (well, for now anyway, it is still September and still, it seems, endlessly summer).

Invisible except in the rise and fall of the chest; except in the fatigued surrender of a sigh.

Invisible (for the healthy and the privileged) because it is easily ignored…a state of being, an elemental piece of existence. Mundane. Prosaic. A promise fulfilled that has become a promise expected and so the gratitude that might create awareness…

Dwindles.                   Subsides.                  Withers.

Invisible until we are gasping or labored or until the air around us runs rancid and it becomes hard to find clean air to fill us up to propel us forward to allow life

to swirl,                      to swell,                    to scintillate.

(metaphorical? yes–and–no)

Invisible until we are breathless and then it is all we see, all we feel–the ache, the burn resounds as our breath seems to have abandoned us and our quality of life (its abundance and intensity and brilliance) seems to have shifted and that shift, even if minuscule, stings.

~~~~~~~~~~

Breathless: I have been feeling breathless. I have unwittingly been attempting to fill my lungs with the air of stress that has become polluted by fumes of negativity and the entirety of my being has suffered as a result. I am exhausted, heavy, impatient. While exhaustion comes with parenting and “principalling” and teaching…heaviness and impatience are not familiar territory…and they frustrate me, creating even thinner air…leaving me jealous for any life, any day, any moment removed from the needs of others and the anxiety of not meeting them as effectively as I would like. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist (I am far too disorganized for that), but I don’t like letting people down either.

Triage: I needed to stop. To step back. To assess. What was missing? Why couldn’t I catch my breath and extract myself from this quicksand of worry? Why couldn’t I take back the narrative of positivity and rewrite the negativity…spin a new story? (I am, after all, the most annoyingly optimistic person I’ve ever known…ask my students, they will tell you) Why couldn’t I see a glimmer in this wilderness that seemed to be closing in around me?

Diagnosis: Writing. I wasn’t writing. (I mean, there was the lack of exercise too, but, you know…) I wasn’t granting myself permission to do one of the few things that make me feel most myself. I was using the time excuse again. But, seriously, chasing time was part of the reason I was so breathless and I wasn’t getting any closer to catching him. The rock was at the bottom of the hill again everyday and my Sisyphean struggle only seemed to intensify. So, I had to make a determination. I needed to challenge myself. I needed to fight my way out and that fight was going to have to include putting words on the page (digital or otherwise).

Prescribed: “the positivity project” (which I am sure is not some new brand of ingenuity–rather a remake) became my road map. Writing on this blog, 30 minutes a day, everyday, for as long as I can make myself, with the purpose of promoting positivity in each entry. It just seems that if I needed to be dug out of negativity, other people might benefit from reading something positive as well.

And maybe this way I will move forward in greater gratitude for the freedom of clean, easy air. A plentitude of it. Instead of searching for breath, I will just

Breathe.

Heavy

We wear our stress until our stress wears us out. The physical toll, unmistakably draining, exacts its punishment mercilessly. Yet we persist in carrying that weight under the misguided impression that we were meant to bear it alone. We shelter others from what we shoulder as though we prove something about our worth in doing so. We exist within community but refuse the benefits of becoming an actual member of that community. We deny support. We deny outreach. And in doing so, we deny our best life. Sleep eludes us; irritability invades. We become merely a shadowing our possibility. We grow weary and feel heavy.

I can discern simply by looking at my high school students where their stress levels are–and a lot of times, I find myself concerned. I do not mean to imply that they should be shielded from discomfort or that they have nothing to learn from it or that sometimes they don’t create it themselves. A healthy amount of intermittent stress and learning to manage it and to cope with it possess the potential to hone life skills in meaningful ways. What worries me is when my kids turn that stress inward and refuse to speak its truth because they think they should simply tough it out. What worries me is when their stress becomes their shame because what they learn in those moments is to feel less than and unworthy…isolated and singular.

So today, I wore the hat of relatively corny principal/English teacher–but I hold no humiliation in actions I think could remotely help even one of my kiddos. As they filed in for assembly today, I asked that each kid grab a rock from a collection that had been scattered on a table. I began by asking how many of them ever felt weighed down or heavy from holding onto their stress. Hands flew up. Then, I explained that sometimes in community, we forget that that we share the space so we can share the burden as well as the bounty. Sometimes we get a little lost and a little blinded to the help that surrounds us. I told them that a visible reminder that they didn’t have to be alone in carrying the heavy seemed like it could be helpful. Then, I asked them to write their stress on their rock and when they felt ready to share the  gravity of that burden, to drop it in a back pack that I would carry around school as that reminder–a reminder that, in fact, people were all around them ready to listen and lighten the load.

There were some very to be expected eye rolls:) But I fully admitted that I didn’t care how silly it seemed, we were doing it because they and their well being are important to me. There was also concern over my carrying a bag with 150 rocks in it, but I told them that I could manage the weight without wavering…not to worry.

At some point today I opened the bag to shift the rocks a bit and saw some of the stressors written on them. The rocks may have been small, the words written flatly across them, but the immensity of what these kids are walking through life with was unmistakable. Part of teaching the whole child, or of seeing the whole human, is owning a willingness to witness the reality of their existence. What may come across as a kid overly concerned about good grades could really be deeper stress that is fed and fostered by something much darker, something much more difficult to manage. And there is no way to know this by simply looking at the surface. We have to be willing to open the door to conversation, to trust. We have to be willing to put on a backpack full of rocks if even for a second it alleviates their weight and allows them to feel seen and loved. We have to be willing to see past our own discomfort to understand that of others.

And not for reward, but simply because this is what we do in community.

We live in relationship with one another.

Hard to be in relationship if we live alone in our own heavy.

IMG_5262.jpeg

(Day 20! That’s a lot of days in a row:) )

imperfection still gets grace

So, I work with teenagers for a living and I feel entirely grateful to have that privilege. I resolutely believe they are absolutely remarkable humans with incredible potential to do amazing things with their energy and their determination and their ability to see possibility even in the darkness. They are imperfect creatures, just like the rest of us and they will falter mightily from time to time because learning demands those kinds of lessons. And I think that the adults of this world cling to only vague memories of what it was like to be that age–a pang of being grounded for talking back…the sting of a derision for making the hard decision to do the right thing…the ripples from careless words when you didn’t realize you were on 3-way calling (I’m a child of the 80’s…what can I say). That kind of nostalgia requires little effort. What we have shielded ourselves from, though, is the daily difficulty of living in a world that only gives you part of the respect you deserve–only sees you as adult when it is convenient for them to place you in that box, while reserving feelings like love, stress, heartbreak for an older population. As though the right to the intensity of those feelings has some sort of legal age requirement and should be diminished as childish before that point. And it is easy to look at adolescents and remark on how they are so different from kids when you were young–because they are different…the world they live in is different, so they have to be too. That does not make them bad or less than. It does, however, make them worthy of an effort to come to greater understanding, and it makes them worthy of our grace.

Here’s how I know that the young adults of this world are deserving of unrelenting grace…

Tonight, I accidentally encountered some photocopies of my creative writing from the 6th grade. My entire memory of writing these pieces is comprised of the joy I felt in the writing process and the fact that I intentionally tried to concern my teachers by killing off my family in every story in the most ridiculous ways (literally, I had them run over by Mardi Gras floats in one story…). I remember feeling exceptionally proud of my work and that my teacher always seemed to enjoy my stories.

In looking back at my writing now–in seeing the actual pieces that I composed–I am mortified at the person I was. There are comments and story elements throughout that reflect the sort of privileged private school existence that I was granted. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for my education and the sacrifices my parents made to make it possible. But I really thought I was a far more enlightened kid than this writing reveals. And while the teacher in me wishes my own teacher had called me out on some of these judgements and careless words, that very same teacher in me is also grateful that she responded to my creativity with positivity and understanding. My stories really are no masterpieces as I remember them to have been, but she overlooked flimsy storylines and outright character flaws (in me and on the page) to offer careful guidance and not to tarnish my joy in writing. She saw that maybe I was more than some of the thoughtless assumptions I included in my text. She saw more to me than my words and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Here is another reason to extend some grace. In a piece titled “What I Adore and Hate About Myself,” I wrote about how I adores how well I roller skated. I spent nearly a page sharing how hard I worked at this “sport” and how proud I was to be able to jump as opposed to hop on my skates (like I said, child of the 80’s). This “adoration” exists nowhere in my memory. I remember loving to roller skate but had no memory of still doing it in the sixth grade. Our memories are not complete–hazy at best despite feeling intense at times. Which means that just because we might look at young adults and discount their experience because of their youth or because we don’t remember being or behaving like them, doesn’t mean we are accurate in our assumptions. Recognizing that while they still have room to grow and mature, their levels of sophistication do not erase the reality of their current situation. Just because I look back and cringe at listing roller skating as what I loved about myself doesn’t make it any less important or meaningful to 12 year old me.

Will our young adults make mistakes? Yes! Do they still deserve respect throughout that learning process and the promise of our understanding? Of course, they are humans in this world. And as humans, they require support as they identify and repair flaws and mistakes. They also merit appreciation for their goodness. Our young adults should not have to earn our grace, it should simply be an effortless gift bestowed–because we would want the same generosity given to us.

(Just for comedy’s sake for those of you who really know me–in that last piece I referenced, the thing I hated about myself consisted of “the faces I make when I get mad at somebody or I am upset.” My reason for wanting to improve? “Because my mom always bugs me about it.”  Nothing about trying not to upset other people or about attempting to show greater respect or about using words instead of faces–none of that rational mature stuff…nope. Just that my mom was always bugging me about it. Hilarity.)

(Day 19–a bit of a rambling rant…but I didn’t feel like writing at all, so I am honestly just happy to have words on the page)

 

say it

I hate confrontation. Like a lot. I would rather suffer within and turn myself inside out than actually speak the uncomfortable truth. In fact, if I am breathing confrontational language in your direction a couple of things must be true…

  1. I love you a lot and trust not only that our relationship can handle the conflict, but also that you will own your part and not turn my feelings around on me.
  2. The situation lingered in a way that absolutely no other choice remained but to speak it.

This avoidance of discord has followed as my shadow for as long as I can remember. It’s as much a part of me as my excessively curly hair…as though this trait were assigned to me at birth. I am a middle child and a peacemaker by nature and the very thought of being a disruption to someone else’s contentedness and ease repels me. I would rather make myself miserable than disturb anyone else, and so I just hold all the frustration in. (Okay, no doubt my students are laughing raucously at this point because I don’t hold frustration in at school and have no problem saying what is concerning me there…work is different…it just is.) Sure, I gripe about the minor scrapes and scars of daily life, but the deeply personal wounds remain buried. Except, despite years of practice with shrouding hurt feelings, they always bubble back to the surface in unexpected ways and places because the fact of the matter is concealment is not erasure. The feelings are still there. I cannot force evaporation and when they linger, they intensify.

It took me years (too many years) to recognize this about myself, to claim my voice as important, and to work on using it in meaningful and constructive ways to resolve conflict rather than martyring myself to it. I want my kids to know better and to understand how this kind of communication works. I spent the last ten minutes before bed tonight explaining to my youngest that saying “I’m fine” when it isn’t true won’t magically transform struggle to peace. I gave him all of my best advice on this full of elaborate examples only to be met with “No, mom, for real, this time I am actually fine.” He and I work on this a lot because he transforms from Bruce Banner into the Hulk with little to no warning. We often don’t see it coming because what he is really mad about is not the thing that flipped the switch.

This is one of those complexities of human nature that never ceases to baffle me. It’s the thing under the thing. If we look at superficial behavior and judge someone, we are not giving them credit for being a three dimensional human facing the intricacies of life in this world. What we witness is not necessarily complete…not absolute truth. Typically, there is more weight to an erratic moment of fury than the moment itself and if we don’t work to find the underlying motivation, we are missing the truth of that person completely. And this includes our kids…who are possibly more misunderstood than most because we too often expect them to have it all together when they are still trying to decipher how to coexist with all the emotions, all the hormones, all the stress. Their lives are just as weighty as those of fully grown adults. Their stress is just as taxing. Their heartache is just as painful. To diminish it only drives them to keep it within when what they really need is to say it, feel heard, be understood. What they really need is for us to provide the space and to foster the trust that it takes to reveal the thing under the thing.  What they really need is for the adults of this world to model this kind of behavior so they see how it works.

I can provide space and foster trust with ease, but as for that last very important challenge of living the example…well…all I can say is I am working on it.

(Day 18! Also, there is a really delicious king cake in my house right now…temptation is high…not giving in!)

hidden truths

The thing no one tells you about being a mom is that on the other side of miraculous astonishment over that highly anticipated little life…on the other side of intensity of love previously unimaginable is this truth: on most days of the week, you will wonder if you are enough. “Am I doing this right?” will reverberate as an anthem on repeat because, a lot of times, it’s just hard to know. What no one tells you is that on any given day there are a lifetime’s worth of minute decisions to make, questions to answer, reactions to constrain, lessons to impart, activities to juggle–and every single one of them shapes the people your kiddos will become. That pressure is palpable even when you feel like you’re blindly just getting by. There is no owner’s manual, and complex issues that require resolution seem to peek around far too many corners. In a world where answers are readily available to nearly every question we might possess, parenting works at a speed that does not always allow time for a Google search.  We know our kids, we know our values, we know who we want to see them become so we make our best guess as to how to steer them through the storm until they can navigate it for themselves.

I will never forget staring at my oldest child the day we brought him home from the hospital and crying. Important to note that I wasn’t crying over the wonder that was this baby in my arms after so many years of waiting. Nope. I was crying because in that moment, he was perfect, and I feared that all I would do was mar that perfection. This realization marked the beginning of the internal whispers that second guessed my maternal abilities.

What I have come to learn in the years since those tears is that on any given day, in any given moment, we are all doing our absolute best as moms and that is enough…even when it feels like it isn’t. Even when every other mom on social media or at school seems to be doing it better, my kids need me and I am enough for them. Am I perfect? Not on any day at any time. Do I mess it up? Frequently. Do I blame myself for things like inciting my kid’s fear of thunderstorms because I hurried him along into the house one rainy afternoon when he was somewhere around 2, explaining that lightning was very dangerous? You bet I do.  Was I doing my best in that moment? You bet I was. Will he survive and even outgrow this fear? Absolutely. It is simply part of his story. We all have stories…and his will be more interesting now (okay…that is what I tell myself…don’t burst that bubble).

What I know for sure is this. My kids know I love them. My kids know my number one goal for them is that they become kind humans who look for the good in others and in themselves. My kids trust that even though I make a lot of what they call “statements” that I am trying to teach them something of their privilege and their responsibility as a result of that. They will roll their eyes when I make these statements but I will persist. My kids feel safe enough to be themselves when they are at home because they know that they are accepted for who they are now and for whomever it is that they will become in the future. My kids know they can screw it up royally and while I may be disappointed and while there will be consequences, none of it alters the depth of my love for them.

So, see moms, we don’t have to be perfect in every single moment. We don’t have to second guess every single solitary action we take as a parent to our kids. We can accept that we are human beings who will make mistakes and carry forward as a mamas because our kids have the love that they need to muddle through our potentially amateur motherly skills. Just as we continue to love them through their mistakes, they will love us through ours. And we don’t have to compare ourselves to each other because in the end, our kids are all different humans who will require different kinds of parenting. That doesn’t make any one of us better than any other. We are all just doing our best on any given day and with that understanding, we should rally to support our fellow moms. Because all of us could use a word of encouragement and a reminder that even though it is hard, we are all in this life together.

(Day 17)

really rough draft

As my poetry students begin diving into the real work of writing their own original poetry, it is time that I venture in the same direction. It is time to move away from simply admiring poetry and from shaping poetic prose, and into actually crafting poems myself. This is not comfortable territory for me, partly because I feel like I know who I am as a writer of prose-my voice is clear to me as I employ it and this grants me confidence. As a poet, I almost feel as though I’ve lost my voice or as though I am in the midst of some identity crisis. I don’t know what kind of poet I want to be or could become. Imposter syndrome possesses undeserved strength and takes over my mind convincing me that I should just not even bother to explore my poetic identity. It drowns out all of the rational writing advice I so freely give to students and persuades me to put the pencil down…even when I know better.

Today, my students read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Stolen Camera” and heard John Mayer’s song “3×5” and considered what it might mean to really see the world and hold those images only in our minds. Then, they went outside to find something in the natural world to truly take in…all the while knowing that they would be writing from this experience. In a quick write session after our time outside, I wrote the following lines after paying specific attention to two trees standing side by side, one dead and leafless and the other fully alive and overwhelmed by green foliage. This is truly a very rough draft, composed in maybe 8 minutes of class time and not edited since…sharing here is my way of reminding myself what this process will feel like for my students. A level of vulnerability is required when drafting writing and turning it in for feedback–in doing this we are essentially saying, “Here, let me pour myself across the page and you can then dissect my truth and tell me where I have been false” This is not easy work. But it is critical work. So, here is that untitled draft…

Barren brown branches stand strong,

though morosely self-aware—

right next door stands

another set of branches,

generously glorified by the green

leaves clinging in pride reveling

in their vitality.

 

Death and life—side by side

coexisting peacefully—

as though friends…

Unaware one should fear the other

Unaware the other is fueled by the one

 

—One eye…then the other

In closing the first, death

dominates the landscape in front of me.

In closing the other, life

blooms brilliantly verdant.

Looking through both eyes reveals

the truth of the world—

 

Not all is death.

Not all is life giving.

Both…together…side by side…

giving weight to the world—

balance to our existence—

an end to the beginning.

 

Shielding one from the other

is neither prevention nor protection.

Only loss.

 

(Day 16! Got home super late from a lovely night out but still managed to get this writing done!)

lyrically redeemed

Thursday holds such promise. It’s the day that unabashedly informs me that weekend is promised soon and by Thursday night, despite Friday’s proximity and eventuality, I feel as though those leisurely days have arrived…I feel as though we’ve made it through yet another week at school successfully…I feel as though I can breathe a little easier and my brain rejoices at the sight of relaxation on the horizon.

Today, however, at least in my world, did not do Thursday justice. Today, for me, became Thursday in name only as it was infiltrated by the stress and worry and anxiety of some other day of the week…you know, like Monday maybe? (though, this accusation feels hypocritical because I have a whole blog about how Mondays don’t deserve that rep…I’m abandoning that momentarily though in light of today’s misery). Today was just not very friendly and it began the moment I woke up.

I could spend my time tonight sorting through the details of what made this day so demanding, but honestly that would be a waste of my time and yours. What deserves far more attention are the redemptive moments in this day. Because, truly, even the toughest days have those moments if only we seek them out–if we open our eyes and our hearts to the promise of positivity. I had to look hard today, but my people came through to drag me out of my funk.

The salvation of this Thursday came in the form of three songs gifted to me by three very different humans under very different circumstances, but when I consider those moments all together, they reflect generosity and goodness and love…they remind me that even on my worst day, that is what surrounds me.

Song #1

“Mrs. Clark, are we having notebook time today…because I have this rap in my head and I have to write it down!”

Okay, so let’s begin here…in the history of notebook time in my classroom at this particular school, those words have never been uttered. Sure, students have come in excited for notebook time (every now and then), but this is not usually the reason presented. Regardless, I had spent the day for the most part mentally and emotionally exhausted and wishing I were at home rather than at school, and then those words were uttered and I couldn’t help but smile–inside and out. In this single moment, she reminded me how grateful I am to work with my students and young adults in general. I’m relatively certain she had no idea the impact she would have on my day. She was just being herself in the middle of her own day and it was entirely what I needed to begin to turn my attitude around. Then she agreed to perform her rap, despite unexpected stage fright, and the room erupted in support and laughter and joy and I was wrapped up in gratitude for the opportunity to spend the last hour of each school day with that particular room of students. Seniors can often take themselves too seriously because they are under a great deal of stress. This moment, though? This moment was pure silly fun…and we all needed it. Maybe me most of all.

Because I will quote the others songs that saved this day, here is a snippet of her rap (which she graciously allowed me to share)–

“ate chocolate all day, following my heart

maybe I should do better things

like make art

I’m sitting in English, breathing in air

to use my notebook time wrong

is something I don’t dare

and maybe me rapping won’t be so rare!”

Song #2

My friend, Morgan, possesses passion for music that surpasses just about anyone else I know. Her song lyric vocabulary and register exceeds my poetic one, and I can always count on her to send me the perfect song in any given moment in my life. Today was no exception.

I had gone to the gym after school because I knew that if I didn’t workout, the joy of that rap would soon be scattered by returning reminders of the stress of the day that will string out into days to come. Exercise is essential in my life in that way. Morgan knew I was there and why and when I was leaving I had a message from her with “When It Don’t Come Easy” by Patty Griffin in it (along with a comical note about why she wouldn’t sing it to me herself:) ). This song was new to me, so I listened to it on the way home from the gym…and cried through every lyric. I know what you are thinking–that doesn’t sound like a song that turned my rotten day around. Except these were tears that came in recognition of the fact that I have this amazing friend in my life who loves me enough to send me just the right song in just the right moment. I have a friend who knows that she cannot fix my life with a song, but who also understands the way words move my heart and she wasn’t afraid to send a song my way…A song with lyrics like this:

“Everywhere the waters getting rough/Your best intentions may not be enough/I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight/But if you break down/I’ll drive out and find you/If you forget my love/I’ll try to remind you/And stay by you when it don’t come easy”

In the midst of the Mondayest Thursday ever, I was wrapped in support, in love, in friendship.

Song #3

My youngest son will one day rival Morgan’s lyrical dexterity. Tonight, after his shower, and entirely unaware that I had “suffered” this difficult day, he brought me his ipad while I was cooking and said, “THIS! We should sing this!” He proceeded to hit play and sing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” from Mary Poppins Returns (in his best Lin-Manuel Miranda British accent…).  His smile and his joy percolated comfort and happiness within my heart and mind reminding me that there are things in this world deeper than a day. But also, beyond that, the lyrics of the song presented me with advice I give to others far more than I adopt for myself…

“When you’re alone in your room/Your choices just embrace the gloom/Or you can trip a little light fantastic with me/For if you hide under the covers/You might never see the day/But if a spark can start the inside your heart/Then you can always find the way…”

It was up to me to turn this day around…to recover my smile…to rekindle my own joy and to resist owning the struggles of others too much as my own. It was up to me to “trip a little light fantastic” and with the gifts of gratitude for students and friends and family, I was able to do just that.

(Day 15! King cake…really delicious king cake…crossed my path today…tempting…but I refrained:) )

courageous community

For the last few days, my AP students have been working their way toward and into a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled, “A Private Experience”. A superficial description of this story might read something like this: two Nigerian women seek shelter together in an abandoned shop during a riot. However, what this story asks students/readers to confront is far more complex than that simplicity. Through her careful storytelling and arrangement of detail, in the nuanced way her characters reveal themselves and their truths, Adichie places readers in the position of having to consider their own assumptions and biases. She coerces us to exchange places with these characters facing an actuality that the comforts of American life (even at its worst) do not reveal. The exchange between these two characters opens eyes to both the assumptions we make about those we only think we know that establish distance between “us and them” as well as misunderstanding and to the compassion one human can share with another that bridges that vastness.

I wasn’t sure how ready my students would be to read this story with honesty and without pushback. These kinds of truths can be super uncomfortable and while I know my kids well enough to realize they can do this kind of work, I wasn’t sure they were in a place to examine it willingly. We waded into this story by considering what the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” truly means in this modern world. Then we read some history of the riots that took place in Nigeria in the earlier parts of this century–so, not so long ago. Then they read the story independently–so it was just them and the words on the page–a conversation between reader and text before we hosted a conversation between reader and other readers in community. They needed to have the space and the quiet to think this one through and to question themselves adequately before really speaking to the story and the power of its influence.

I spent today listening to their thoughts and explanations of how they connected with this story; how it made them confront truths that weren’t so easy; how they appreciated the way Adichie’s style and craft drew them into this honesty without screaming it at them; how they now understood that academic knowledge of a crisis doesn’t supplant the lived experience of those moments. I spent today with reminder after reminder of why our young people don’t receive the credit they deserve. It would have been so easy for them to stop short of meeting the story where it asked them to. It would have been so easy to just see a story about one woman attempting to help another. It would have been so easy to never involve themselves because it was just an assignment for English class. They didn’t do any of these things. Instead, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable and to share the not so pretty realizations they had about the assumptions they make of others…to discuss what they learned of themselves and of others in the reading. Their intelligence and their honesty and their willingness to be uncomfortable and to sit with that discomfort was compelling.

It was also a brilliant reminder of why I teach young people and the hope their ability to step out of their comfort zone and embrace new ideas delivers. I cannot speak for all high school students on all the days of the year, but today, my kids made me proud as they taught me a thing or two about how to confront difficult ideas courageously in community.

(Day 14)

rearrangement

For as long as I can remember, I have had this issue with not knowing how to say no when someone seeks help. Without consideration for my own state of well-being or my own needs, I will often answer “Sure, I can do that” before logic can supersede empathy and a driving desire not to let the people around me down. This is how I ended up “coaching” cheerleading for two years with no cheer experience and also how I ended up making wedding cakes for a while despite having sworn never to embark upon the stress of intruding into the perfection of someone else’s most important day. I’d also like to note the my movement at my current school from part time teacher who only taught two hours a day to high school division head can be marked by a series of moments where I should have said no, but opted to help instead.

However, most recently, I acquiesced to a request from a friend with the best possible outcome–I agreed to help my friend Morgan lead a book study every Wednesday night at her church. Let me start by saying, Morgan was crazy smart because she asked me to join her in this venture while it was still summer. Summer vacation for me always includes a road trip to the vacation home of the school utopia that exists only in my mind. So, this summer while in that space, I agreed to help lead this group because I firmly believed that I would easily create a peaceful and carefree school year and that would allow me time every Wednesday night to attend the class. Let’s just say that perfect world in my mind is a bit of a fairy tale that while offering hope for days to come, actually has little bearing on reality. So, as it turns out, I had to work hard to make the time every Wednesday night. And also, as it turns out, while I thought I was merely assisting my friend by showing up for this class, I was really giving myself a gift that would change my life.

This school year has been trying and taxing and at times tumultuous but one constant throughout all of it has been the goodness that emanates from this group of women and the peaceful centering I experience for being among them. It is a multi-generational group and the wisdom contained in that room is bountiful. More beautiful, however, is their willingness to be vulnerable with one another… a willingness to not know exactly how to put words to the moment but to try anyway because there is something important to say…a willingness to be brave and let others in despite everything that the world tells us about what people with easy access will do once inside. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this group–a group that is so much more than a book study. It is a group learning to find and be love in the world, to wrestle with the difficulty of that calling, to listen even when we disagree so we can understand, to be present when it is so much easier to be distracted. When I am in that space my focus is dedicated and so is my heart–they are the reason I have taken Wednesdays off from writing my blog in this year’s daily challenge. I didn’t want my mind to be stressed in that space over what I would write when I got home after class. This was one time that setting this kind of boundary felt simple. I didn’t want anything to interfere with the part of my week that more than just about any other activity is truly self care.

This past week we returned from the holiday break, prepared to start a new book and to journey into new discussions. While some new faces decorated the room, as people arrived and chairs were filled, I found myself taking a deep breath and feeling like I was at home. I found myself grateful for this circle, for the invitation to be a part of it and for the courage to join in despite really only knowing a couple of people at the outset.

I also find myself keenly aware that it isn’t simply uttering the word “no” that I need to practice. Rather, I truly need to learn to identify life giving opportunities, answer them with a resounding “yes” and rearrange the rest to make space.

(Day 13!)

 

thank you note

Somewhere around seven years ago, in what were still the early days of my school’s existence, a junior came to me and pleaded with me to help her start student council. We had tried student government, but it wasn’t affiliated with any state or regional organizations. This student was looking to do something more…something bigger…something lasting. I hesitated. This felt like a lot of work and at the time, I was still only teaching at the school part time, still in what would be the early stages of the vertigo debacle and my kids were merely 4 and 6. I didn’t feel like I could really add anything else without risking health and home. However, this young woman persevered and given that I had taught her everyday of her high school career, it didn’t take long before my will crumbled. My response to her?

“I will help you get it going, but I will only help for a year. After that, someone else will have to take over.”

I feel like, after typing that statement, I can hear every teacher who might lay eyes upon it roaring in laughter at its ludicrous nature. One year agreements like this never work in school. Everyone is busy; everyone has obligations, and no one wants to take on more. Once you say yes to something, it is yours…eternally. Important to note…the reason I agreed to help wasn’t only because I couldn’t stand to disappoint a student who meant so much to me. The truth is that I took on creating our student council, despite my lack of experience and knowledge, because if she were my kid, I would want a teacher to do the same.

In my time as student council supervisor, my student leaders instituted heaps of traditions; created our first winter formal, prom and homecoming; began an annual celebration of People In Need of Kindness (PINK Week); fostered field day and countless other activities that took a skeleton of a school and imbued it with heart, spirit and personality. I regretfully complained too often about the work being too much, but truly I lived proud of my kids who became and remain the true architects of so much our high school.

When I traded in my student council role for that of principal, a dear friend and colleague took over and her joy, even in the stress, of helping these kids to grow and learn as young leaders makes me proud, makes me thankful. This phenomenal teacher and delegates of her student council are all at state convention right now celebrating several enormous successes for our little school with big dreams and the only way I can think to explain my pride in this moment is that of a grandparent doting on her grandchildren. I know where this council began…with just a few members who went to their first convention having no idea what to expect or how to be in that space. I was there for the growing pains in the days when we were defining who we wanted to be as a council. And to see all they have accomplished now from a different role–as their principal, well, there just aren’t enough words. These kids and their advisor are just spectacularly gifted and joyful humans and the world is a better place for their presence.

And that whole bit about hoping someone would do the same for my kiddo has been fulfilled. My 12 year old is at this same state convention with his junior high advisors who took the leap and brought ten, 12-14 year olds to experience this remarkable event. He is having the time of his life, meeting kids from across the state, and learning what it means to truly be a leader (something he will learn far better at this convention than by watching many leaders in this world today). The gratitude I feel for the teachers who gave up this weekend with their families has consumed my heart.

This is what teachers do, day in and day out. They sacrifice their time and their sleep for the benefit of their students. Whether by braving student council conventions three hours from home or by staying up late to write encouraging comments on papers or by simply being a listening ear, teachers give of themselves without asking for much, if anything, in return. And they do not receive enough praise nor enough sincere thankfulness. But they also do not often ask for it. The breaking apart of the self for the good of the other is just what a teacher’s heart is compelled to do.

However, the gift of my kiddo attending this convention with three enthusiastic, caring teachers has seemingly become all the return on my 20 years of teacherly efforts that I could ever need or ask for. And you can be certain they will know the depths of my gratitude.

(Day 12!)

vibrance wins

“You can’t build a house of leaves/And live like it’s an evergreen/It’s just a season thing/It’s just this thing the seasons do”

John Mayer, “Wheel”

Just a few short months ago, summer evenings spoiled me with beautifully painted skies that awakened a sense of wonder and awe. Splashes of orange and pink and purple decorated the expanse in ways no human hand could as though the descent of the sun into the horizon warranted fanfare, fireworks. Sometimes, though, it was more of a muted affair. Hues of deep blue and smoky grey would stretch in gauzy translucence only allowing a glimpse at the ribbons of color they masked…and only allowing beams of light to escape here and there rather than revealing the complete enchantment of the sunset (as though to say, not tonight, its beauty would be too much to take in, so here is just a taste).

I found myself eagerly anticipating the surprise of the sky each evening and wondering offering might be next. And in all of that time, through all of those evenings spent in reverence, I had not anticipated the grey of winter. I don’t necessarily live in a place that experiences four seasons (and if we have seasons at all, Carnival season is one of them…hence the incarnation of this blog challenge). Winter isn’t really winter here. Snow doesn’t blanket the earth and freezing temperatures are not a regular occurrence. I mean, it is January and the high today was somewhere around 78 degrees. Of course, a cool front is moving through and the high tomorrow is supposed to be 52 degrees–which while Louisianians will don scarves and boots and shiver in sweatshirts and jeans, is still not really winter comparatively.

However, what winter here does bring is grey rainy days and fog…lots of fog. Fog that is disorienting and forgetful; fog that instills a sort of desperation for the sun…for its warmth and its smile across the sky. Fog that hangs heavy in the morning and just when you think it is about to lift, droops heavier once again, blanketing buildings and trees and landscapes nearly completely, muting the beauty of our surroundings and the brilliance of the gifts of this life. In its ability to hide the world from us, the fog also issues forth feelings of isolation. We can lose our connectivity as life beyond the fog is merely a mystery.

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“And if you never stop when you wave goodbye/You just might find if you give it time/You will wave hello again/You just might wave hello again”

John Mayer, “The Wheel”

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Tonight, my kiddo who is experiencing his first state student council convention about three hours away from home sent me a picture of the sky. The cool front I mentioned had already passed through and the sun was breaking through just in time to say goodnight.

60108373783__8D5A22DE-32A3-4603-98BB-B96FF58052C9.jpegWhile this glimpse of the sun is but a brief respite before the fog and rain of January return, it is also a beautiful reminder that even when lost in the fog, the sun will eventually shine again. The color will return and the haze will lift. And when it does, we won’t be the same as we were before the days of the fog, because we are always moving and changing. We are always growing and learning–for better or for worse. But we will still be blessed again by the richness of these vibrant visions that remind us of all we are. Because, truly, if we are given the gift of the sunset, we must be worth so much more than we realize.

(Day eleven:) This sunset pic from my kiddo melted my heart for a lot of reasons but mainly because he had a day filled with tremendous anxiety and stress on this trip. He had just started to find relief–his metaphorical fog had lifted–and the joy in his text when he sent this pic filled my mama’s heart with comfort and joy. Watching this boy learn to live with and navigate his anxiety in similar ways to me at his age can often be painful but I am so proud of him at the same time)