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.

u-turn

A temperamental sense of balance and an overly sensitive inner ear don’t make the best flight companions. Fortunately, the only moments of the journey that we tend to be at odds occur during takeoff as the plane climbs in altitude. My brain and my ear cannot seem to resolve their past communication issues and as such, are a bit  fluttery when presented with a challenge beyond navigating the balance challenges of a typical day. Each flight and airport present a unique set of circumstances, but discomfort of some kind reveals itself regardless of place or direction. Last night’s flight home brought forth one of the most courageous conversations my brain and my ear have had to flesh out in a long time.

At first, I was relieved. We seemed to be climbing in altitude slowly which always eases tension by allowing my head to adjust to the pressure changes gradually rather than all at once. And then we made a sort of u-turn. Planes turn all the time. No big deal. I sit just in front of the wing and by a window so my eyes can use the visual to explain the discomfort my head feels.

Last night felt different.

The turn was steeper and tighter and incredibly disorienting. There wasn’t a window that I could look through that could grant a stable visual. There seemed to be no steady point on which to focus, to center myself. Gorgeous pink clouds reflecting the beauty of the setting sun should have been distraction enough, but I simply couldn’t get my bearings and it equated to a terrifying minute or so during which the panic of the vertigo days flooded my system. My mind reeled toward flashes of the worst moments from that time swifter than I could stop it. Before I realized what was happening, my hands were shaking and my breath became shallow. Treacherous, sneaky fast, pervasive. Panic acts without notice and I wasn’t prepared to prevent it from persisting. My guard was down.

Eventually, after the plane leveled out, the pressure in my head did as well. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and reminded myself that, despite the painful memories this u-turn invoked, the discomfort was limited, temporary. Despite that feeling of helplessness in mid air, I was okay–safe, balanced, headed home.  Another inhale, a breath of gratitude. The exhale, a prayer of peace.

I have these u-turn moments from time to time-I feel like in some strange way, in our own ways, we all do. A moment when something triggers my vertigo panic button or rips the stitches that contain my grief and suddenly I am swallowed up. Whether fleeting or lingering, the emotion is disorienting and even when I am surrounded by goodness and love, it can be hard to see it clearly enough…even when I know the feeling will be temporary and I am in charge of its dismantling, it can be hard to find my balance long enough to wait it out.

Yet, inevitably, the moment always levels out, the pressure of the panic subsides, I realize that I am held in love unconditionally-that I am safe, and I breathe. Will the vertigo come back some day? Almost definitely. Will that be awful? Um, probably… I can live with that aspect of my life, I have to. I don’t have to like it and from time to time, I’ll be caught in a bit of a u-turn moment, but this is my lot and with it, I can still do so much.

Inhale, gratitude…exhale, peace.

(Entry 29 in the king cake writing challenge!)

microcosm

The human collective encased within the parameters of the airport possesses all manner of oddities. While this mass of people exists in this singular place for merely a fleeting moment of time, the focus is not on community but more on the individual habits and procedures that will get us where we need to be, when we need to be there, with as little interaction as possible. Skillfully averted eyes and the incarnation of air pods have heightened the already palpable vibe of “don’t talk to me.” We place bags on the seats next to us in the terminal in an attempt to avoid having to sit too closely to a stranger…or maybe just to enjoy some personal space before boarding the plane. Magazines, that so many only ever purchase in the airport, as well as screens of varying shapes and sizes act as blinders, making us appear engrossed in something important that absolutely should not be disturbed. We all meander and move with purpose and intention and with no apparent need for those around us.

Which actually makes reasonable sense in the airport, but I wonder how often we walk through our larger communities in this way–turned completely inward, avoiding conversation and community, focused only on the needs and goals of the self. It feels easier to move through life solo–or at least with a very small tribe. The fewer people who rely on you, who need things, who look to you, who could possibly hurt and be hurt by you, the easier it is to make decisions because the impact feels compact. Yet, no matter how isolated we imagine ourselves to be, or how singular each action feels, no matter how secluded we expect we have made ourselves, ripples go out into the world…for better or for worse.

The thing is this–we were made to be with each other. We were made to associate rather than detach. Sure, life masquerades as simpler when we shield ourselves within a fortress of busy-ness and singularity, but we miss so much in avoiding the intricacies and attachments and beauty of those around us. People are not always easy. Relationships are often uncomfortable. But living in community with those around us constructs scaffolding that holds us accountable while also holding us in tenderness.

The thing is also this–just because we attempt to avoid interaction or just because we deny our place in any given society doesn’t erase our presence. So, consider instead, the power of your smile or a simple thank you or any other basic kindness that possesses the potential to elevate the quality of someone else’s day. Consider instead, that when we look up from our screens and books and busy-ness, there are people, both known and unknown, waiting to be noticed, deserving of recognition. Consider instead the vibrance and richness that could decorate not only our own lives but the world at large if we just took a moment to step out of ourselves and into relationship.

(not sure the day count holds anymore since I’m not writing in consecutive days…but I believe this would be Day 28)

(and also because I seem to have strayed from sharing poetry here…it’s one I’ve shared before but it is perfect for this particular blog…“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye)

 

concession

Well, in order to preserve my sanity and that of my family, I’m changing the rules of this blog challenge–but by all means, there will still be king cake at the end. Despite recognizing days ago that this would have to happen, I hesitated to rearrange the challenge at all. In my weird brain, I had convinced myself that I would be letting people down (you know, like the 6 people who read this blog with any regularity–I was worried about them…). And even though I wasn’t really enjoying the writing after 12-14 hour days at school (difficult days at school) and even though I knew I needed to take care of myself first, I couldn’t bring myself to jeopardize the streak.

And then a good friend asked me who made the rules in the first place.

Yep, I made those rules so I could change those rules and it would be just fine. I could give myself a couple of more days off in the week without lessening the value of the work (actually, the work will probably get better). I could, quite simply take care of myself without having to answer to anybody else in doing so. And, if I am being honest, I do not give myself permission to do that often enough. The very same good friend also asked me to list the things that I do just for myself. I could not produce a rich and diverse list in return. Sure I could think of things like working out and writing and my Wednesday night class. But the working out has to happen at 5am at a sacrifice to sleep. And the writing, while most nights I love it, has also been crafted at a sacrifice to my family and to just giving my brain a break. In that moment, I realized a couple of things: First, I need to seek more ways to do things just for myself and (this is critical) not feel guilty for that. Second, I will be a better human for having done so.

So, the Carnival season blog a day challenge rules are changing. Instead of one day off per week, I’m taking three. And if I am traveling for work, I won’t force the issue. If a blog happens, great and if not, also okay. No king cake will be consumed between now and Mardi Gras Day. As long as I continue to maintain a regular writing habit between now and Mardi Gras Day, the king cake will be mine then and not before.

Excited to write with less pressure for a daily requirement. Excited to enjoy the process a bit more. Excited to take care of myself.

(Day 27)

propulsion

Footsteps–

Metered, methodical

propelled by necessity rather

than spring or even verve.

 

Purposeful–

Not a shuffle or saunter

but serious, maybe

tinged with resignation.

 

Carrying–

Weight beyond

her body as the sieve

of her mind, too fine, clings.

 

Progress?

Maybe…or maybe

that’s her chosen belief because

if she admitted she were only

treading water, if she realized the depth

of the ocean below…then

drowning becomes reality, and

progress a myth.

 

(Day 26…I am nearly positive I am changing the rules on this blog challenge, adding another day or two off, but tonight there was this poem. Again, honoring my commitment to share the requirement that my poetry students share their poetry no matter how uncomfortable. Still a work in progress. Sharing anyway.)

selfish?

I lost control of the remote and all television viewing when I married my husband twenty years ago. The birth of my kiddos only compounded this situation. In order for me to possess the power to decide what I will watch, I pretty much either have to be at home by myself or the last one awake (which is why I’m only on Season 3 of Downton Abbey with so many other seasons of so many other shows in an ever growing queue of  “to be viewed”). And I’m not going to lie, what the people in this household decide to watch remains questionable at best. To justify that statement, I should mention that currently these boys (lead by my husband) are flipping between some station with a guy selling vintage coins and a reality television show depicting people who go around the country in an effort to haggle and then buy other people’s junk. If somehow something else were to be added to the mix, I can almost positively promise it will be the Golf channel.

Riveting, right?

I wish I could say this lineup was an anomaly, except this happens just about every single Monday night with the remaining nights of the week reflecting equally debatable viewing options. Some days my lack of voice in these matters bothers me and pushes me ever closer to ensuring some kind of “she-shed” becomes a reality. However, at this point in my life, I often find myself grateful not to have to make another decision in the day. Honestly, with the way my days have been going, I would be happy not to turn the television on at all. I would be happy to enjoy the quiet, to find some stillness, to enjoy the peace of solitude. A few months ago, while out of town at a conference, I settled into a quiet hotel room where no one needed anything from me and where I fully intended to wield the remote without contest. Except, I didn’t. I didn’t watch a single show. I wrote and read and rested and my sense of well-being was restored.

My days are typically punctuated with noise, chatter, questions, complaints, jokes, laughter, and more. I’m not griping about that because I am grateful for my job, my students, my colleagues and my family. I am only noting that quiet moments in this span of my life are few and far between. I am constantly in a state of problem solving, constantly in response mode, constantly in motion. Spending the last couple of hours before falling asleep for the night in a state of calm, quiet relaxation seems to be a bit of a luxury or even a guilty pleasure. As a mom, those quiet hours do not exist when I am at home, and I struggle to find a means to give them to myself despite knowing that I am a better human when I have had this time to decompress. Life as we live it moves too fast for this kind of pause, yet I live in recognition of the necessity of it.

And so I guess my realization in this is that I need to spend less time frustrated over terrible television, feeling ignored or secondary, and more time placing my own self first and seeking even just a few moments of solitude. Even if that solitude has the ambient noise of someone proclaiming the value of mint condition coins…

(Day 25…I’m tired…I literally typed up my resignation from this challenge…and then erased it and wrote this instead…why don’t I do this blog challenge in the summer for goodness’ sake?!)

cloudless

Today was cloudlessly perfect, crystal blue skies seemed to stretch endlessly. And this day lulled me with its pristine beauty.

If only for a few minutes, I escaped my standard Sunday stress and simply enjoyed the sneak peek of spring. It was in those relaxing moments, I remembered that “winter” (well, “sort of winter”–we don’t really have “real winter” here) would soon be tempered by the mild breeze of spring which would eventually settle into the sweltering days of summer. I remembered that no matter how long these cold, damp months linger, eventually it will be festival season in Southeast Louisiana which will be followed by the sno-balls and freedoms of summer.

This pause from my norm offered the clarity that the roadblocks and worry of today are as temporary as the seasons. But also fleeting are all of the good things of my life and my life itself. And in this brief flicker of time, I choose where and how I spend my focus. I choose whether I will waste it on negativity, stress and drama or if, instead, I will turn my gaze upon goodness, uplift and making a difference. I choose whether I will seek the best in the humans of this world or whether I will close myself off from understanding that different doesn’t mean wrong. I can choose to instead know that different grants an opportunity to grow in understanding, to learn, to engage. I choose whether I will become an extension of kindness and love or if I will become voice of anger and anguish. I choose whether I will recognize my smallness in a world with problems bigger than mine or if I will give into the selfish desire to always center myself.

I choose.

That is an empowering sentence…a charge and responsibility that I don’t take lightly.

When I was sick, I couldn’t just choose to be well, but I could choose how I was going to live each day. I wasn’t always successful. Some days I was so afraid that even holding conversation felt impossible. Some days I couldn’t see straight and felt at the bottom of the ocean yet still sinking. The hardest times dim the light that shines on just how many choices we have. But I always knew it was in my power to dig deep and flip the script.

Now that the days of spinning and fluctuating hearing are mostly behind me, I don’t have such a powerful force to fight against…just myself. Being mindful that the choice of how I take on each day is critical in maintaining perspective, balance and joy. Grateful for a moment be drawn into this realization on this gorgeous day.

(Day 24–note to self: in next year’s King Cake writing challenge–taking off Wednesdays and one day of the weekend is advisable!!)

Motivation in around 300 words

At first, I thought it was the king cake that kept me motivated. Then, posting each blog on social seemed to hold me further accountable. What could be a more powerful incentive than the forces of friends/family and food?

My students.

Some of my students started reading my blog. And it is just the best validation for why I believe English teachers need to be writing for themselves…and in some way, large or small, sharing that writing. My kids are saying things like “I can totally tell when you are excited to be writing and when you are just doing it because you promised you would. It makes me feel like a teacher-like when you can tell we haven’t done our best too.”

It’s the reciprocity that matters, I think.

They see me working hard and being vulnerable by posting work publicly even when it isn’t my best. And I know better what it feels like to go home exhausted with loads of responsibilities and still have to find a way to sound coherent on the page.

Even better than that, they know me as a writer which is only fair given that I know that side of them so well.

I also feel in a very real way that they will know if I miss a night. I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I would be letting them down. And that is the accountability that keeps me going. My students traveling this journey with me is far better than any slice of king cake at the end. What we have gained along the way far exceeds that delight!

(Day 23–short entry because, well, I got to chaperone Winter Formal tonight)

acceptance

For what seems like my entire adult life, careless eaters and their subsequent audible mouth noises have rendered me wretched. Crunching, smacking, squishing, gulping…all of it… every muscle within me would tense, while on the outside, I would futilely attempt to withhold visible reaction (though once my shiver pronounces it’s presence, it is hard to mask my irritation). I have no way of explaining the swift development of this distress in any given moment, other than to say it is intrinsic, instinctive. No frustrated thought process exacerbates my reaction and tolerance entirely eludes the grasp of my capabilities.

Despite this aversion in my adult years, I also possess vivid recollection of my mom having to correct me, repeatedly, for smacking when I was a kid. Looking back, I cannot fathom why it took me so long to learn that lesson. Obviously, my manners required refinement, but somehow the sound of my own chewing didn’t seem to deter me. I am not sure when the changeover occurred. I just know that in the same way that I suffer a full body reaction to cilantro when it evades my careful eye and ambushes my taste buds, mouth noises incur complete revulsion.

Despite years of living into this disgust to the point of it worsening, my life turned in a bit of a punishing direction. In the midst of the fury of my inner ear disorder, when it had reached the point of disability, I consented to a surgery that offered no guarantees but did generate hope for restoration. I knew going in that the surgery, whether successful or not, would result in muffled hearing in my left ear as it healed and as the packing inserted during surgery dissolved. I knew a tube would be inserted as well that would also complicate my hearing for a while, but given that my hearing was already complicated, this seemed like a small sacrifice.

A few months after surgery, the surgeon removed the tube and for about three days, my hearing returned to the quality it kept before I was sick…not just pre-surgery but pre-illness. Everything about my life seemed to hold greater clarity in those days-I heard my kids clearly without having to see their mouths moving to decipher their words, my thoughts were uninterrupted by tinnitus, and directionality of sound was restored. The smile on my face in those few days reflected the lightness and joy of my being.

And then the hole the tube tore closed up.

While my hearing remained improved, I quickly discovered that I was also hearing internal noises at a volume not conducive to calm and clarity of thought. Every beat of my heart sent a roar instead of a pulse. Every breath I took, a hurricane in my ear. Every turn of my head, yawn, and stretch accompanied by cracking and squishing–noises we aren’t intended to hear and remains sane. Every word I spoke echoed within.

And also…

Every bite of food I chewed, every sip I took played at full volume and there was no escape, no retreat. All of a sudden, the thing that drove me mad in others became a state of being and no amount of shivering in disgust would resolve the issue. If I wanted to eat and drink (you know, survive), I had to also find a way to manage my disdain for these internal noises. It was hard to explain this situation to others without being greeted with the attempted empathy of “oh yeah, I know what that’s like! Happened to me when I had a cold last year” Not the same. I’ve had colds before that elevated the volume of internal noise. I’ll say it again–not the same…at all.

I wish I could say this surgical consequence brought me new perspective on the patience I should show others before reacting, but it didn’t really. However, it did grant me a realization. Was this situation uncomfortable? Yep. Did it make eating disorienting and difficult? Definitely. But, here’s the thing, I wasn’t dizzy anymore. The tinnitus was gone. I finally functioned in the world, for the most part, like other healthy people (with a few restrictions). I was present with my family and friends. I had been given so much only to be annoyed by these noises that over time, I could learn to live with if I only tried to focus on the positive rather than on the grotesque.

100% effective? Let’s just say, I require reminders:) Just tonight, while attempting to enjoy a piece of pizza, I nearly quit the meal 4 times (literally)  because I just couldn’t take the eating noises anymore. Then I remembered there was a time that just chewing pizza held the potential to incite vertigo. I let my frustration go and I enjoyed the treat.

And I think that is the point. There are so many moments in this life to enjoy when we just step back, let go of the frustration, harness our gratitude and dive into the delight.

(Day 22:) Also, Orange team don’t be mad about the pizza! I promise I ran 4 miles today too!)

flicker

“For some things/ there are no wrong seasons./ Which is what I dream of for me.”

–from “Hurricane” by Mary Oliver

Hope flickers in the darkness.

Yet,somehow, when we need it most, we see everything but that light. We sink into seeing only the misery that surrounds us instead of squinting to see the light of hope in the distance. The choice remains within us to live into hope…to anticipate miracles that may arise in any single moment…to believe that there is more to come because right now is only temporary and each day brings a new promise.

In the toughest times, it is hard to take ownership of that choice.

In the midst of the most difficult days of my inner ear illness, when I thought I would have to quit my job and give up driving…when I thought my hearing would be lost forever and my kids would never remember who I “used to be”…it was in those terrifying days that for the first time in my life, I lost hope. I felt like a burden to all around me and I saw no chance of healing. For the first time in my life, I sank into the darkness and elected to remain there. Anything else felt too difficult, felt impossible. I could see no way out, could find no silver lining, could not understand anything beyond my own suffering.

And all I can say looking back on that is this: in denying myself access to hope, I denied myself healing of mind and spirit. In succumbing to the quicksand of my despair, I cheated myself out of moments, days and weeks of my life. I was waiting for someone else to throw me a life preserver or to reach out a hand and make it easier all the while missing the point that I had the power to save myself. I could not heal my illness, but I could in fact heal my heart.

Rediscovering that flickering light was no easy path to walk. Learning to trust it again took even longer. Walking forward in that light brings rest to my most difficult days now and also brings gratitude for the journey to its reclamation.

(Day 21–I’m exhausted…this is short and not what I had wanted it to become…I suspect a revision of this will turn into a future blogpost)

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:) )