turmoil of heart

As a Christian, I am called to love. As a human in a world that bears the burden of far too much hate and discrimination (even thinly veiled or disguised by clever terminology), I feel this call deeply. And in this particular moment I feel like it is important to note that love demands more than tolerance.

Love cannot simply be the absence of bigotry that tolerance implies.

Love must fill that absence with generosity, selflessness, empathy, and affirmation. Love must reach out its hand to those ignored by the rest…even and especially when it is difficult, uncomfortable, frightening. Love must see the worth of the human being instead of the label we so easily assign. Love implies a willingness to reach beyond the simplicity of merely existing ignorantly side by side…a willingness to be in relationship with each other, to have a responsibility to each other. Love requires an open heart that recognizes a world beyond what is comfortable or familiar. Love understands that acquiescence is complicity, so love uses its voice for good…love stands up for and amplifies the voices of those who have been marginalized…and love does this knowing repercussions might be vast but also knowing there is no other way.

Love demands courage.

Love imagines boundless goodness.

Love acts accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be easy. It just has to be done. We just have to try.

things unseen

Invisible. Elusive. Concealed. Disguised. Obscured. Masked. Buried. Veiled. Guarded.

If teaching kids has taught me anything, it is that the behavior we witness in the people who share our space, often reflects a dishonest version of their story. Humans harbor all kinds of achy-ness on the inside that they are too fragile to allow themselves to share. The vulnerability required to reveal the truth frightens away the confidence needed and some behavior, foreign to the heart of the transgressor, acts as a repellent  instead.

It would be easy to judge simply based on actions…a kid sleeping in class, sass given instead of respect, responsibilities falling by the wayside would all seem to be punishable offenses. It would be easy to command…demand better, but what if the kid is simply not capable of more in that moment? What if something is happening in their life (a problem at home, an issue with health, worries over identity) that they don’t know how to deal with and this is their literal best? What if instead of fussing, we peeled away the layers with questions…softened the exterior with concern and a safe place to speak up…remembered that our kids are humans and even though they are young, that doesn’t diminish the weight of their worry. How might that transform their classroom and school experience? How might being truly seen and heard reconstruct what school has always been? How might taking a moment to pause and think more about the kid than our hurt feelings allow for an interaction that might change the trajectory of that kid’s life?

The impact of our words, not solely teachers but all of us, and our decisions and the way we care about those around us bears significance beyond our comprehension. I mean, think about it. Consider a moment when someone stopped to notice the truth of your situation–took the time to see beneath your mask and defenses–and then gave of themselves as they worked to uplift you. Consider a moment when someone saw your worth and told you. Consider how those moments have shaped the course of your existence…and theirs.

This world is hard enough without us judging each other on exteriors and assumptions alone, you know? Let’s wade past the shallows and into the deeper water as we work to heighten our humanity, as we work to build trust that allows for vulnerable moments (honest moments), when we can just be ourselves and live into the truth of our lives without the cover. When we don’t have to fear condemnation for simply being who we are, and as a result we can honor our true selves. When our self worth is upheld because we are seen and not just respected, but loved and treated as such. Wouldn’t that be something?

(just a poetic gift– “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar)

(Day 52!! King cake is getting harder to resist the closer it gets to the end of this journey!!)

perseverance

Over the weekend I sort of accidentally came across the Guy Raz podcast “How I Built This” on NPR. In this particular installment, he was interviewing Bobbi Brown and I found myself captivated. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that makeup is not something I would claim to know a lot about or even to have a keen interest in. I see its purpose, I’m sure it’s great, but I’ve just never taken the time (or spent the money) to really figure it out. Honestly, I think most people assume that I wear no makeup at all (and not in that “Oh wow! Her makeup looks so natural” way). Given this set of circumstances, my fascination with this podcast came as a surprise. At first I listened only because I felt positive that my sister would enjoy it and I wanted to be able to recommend it to her with some credibility…to be able to tell her something about it. I stayed with it, because it was about so much more than makeup.

The substance of the show weighted itself in ingenuity, perseverance, knowledge of self–all of which are critical parts of any successful creative process. Her story begins in childhood enchantment with makeup, travels through finding the right collegiate experience after recognizing that the traditional college program scratched uncomfortably at her being, then treks through her career (both her work as a make up artist and in developing her own brand). At every stage of this story, her humanity was palpable which made her experience relatable. I am never going to build a multi-million dollar make-up brand, but her trajectory offered me some critical reminders about what it means to be creative.

In this society of immediacy that we live in where information is always at our finger tips and measures are always being taken to curtail waiting, we become forgetful of the fact that success isn’t always instantaneous. Generating a clever idea does not promise progress, does not assign accomplishment. We meet with achievement when we possess the dedication it takes to not only see the idea through, but also when we are willing to own when alterations are required and further, when we have the vision to make them effectively. Bobbi Brown’s brand’s initial spark ignited during an almost accidental conversation with a chemist and then through devotion to herself and her product, progressed from a really ingenious idea to a concrete reality. Success. After years of hard work and patience. After years of nurturing a notion.

I’ve also heard writers speak before about how some projects take years to craft, and something inside of me wonders if I possess that kind of patience and dedication required to write anything of true significance. Will I just dawdle my days through a hobby? Or will I finally pay it the attention it deserves to actually attempt to move it forward? Do I really lack the dedication or have I just not conceived the right project yet? I really thought after 51 days of blogging I would know better what it is I want to write, how to direct my attention. I really thought I would at least have figured out what kind of blog this is! But after listening to this podcast and others who have lived through this process, I realize that 51 days might not be enough….it might only be the beginning. Maybe I have more writing to do if I really want to figure that out. And it may not lead to anything at all, but at least I will know that I gave it everything I had…that I didn’t just extinguish the dream before it had a chance to become something more. That I didn’t abandon something I love simply because it might not take me anywhere. Actually, staying true to that part of myself, might be the best possible outcome anyway.

Some poems about dreams felt appropriate…

Harlem” and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

My Little Dreams” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

“(“dive for dreams…”)” by E.E. Cummings

(Day 51!! I ordered my gluten free king cake today and it will be ready to be picked up next Monday–the hardest part will be waiting until I’ve written Tuesday’s blog to eat it!)

creative process

When I was a kid, the Academy Awards were held on a Monday night, and in my house, this was a big deal. I completed my homework as soon as I got home from school in order to avoid missing any part of the broadcast (these were the days before the DVR allowed pausing and rewinding…before YouTube and the internet in general…if I missed it because of spelling homework, I just missed it outright). My mom would cook a special meal and my grandmother would come over (which was really the best part, because her cuttingly honest commentary on fashion and appearance rivaled the pithiest of television hosts). It was an occasion. I never questioned that, really. It was just what we did and I loved it, still do.

Being older now, I’ve spent some time wondering what exactly it is that draws me to not only this awards show, but just about any awards show. As it turns out, my rationale is relatively convoluted (no real surprise here) and I’m not sure it will make sense outside of my brain and on this page, but I’m going to try. Most obviously, I am drawn to story, so programs that honor the artists who bring those stories to life just make sense to me. Less obviously is this (hang in there with me…I will venture away in order to return). A few years ago, I was watching 60 Minutes and a story about Lin Manuel Miranda came on. This story aired as the Hamilton fever was just catching…before it escalated to an epidemic of passion and excitement of sweeping significance. In that episode, Miranda explained the genesis of the musical. He was on vacation, read a book, and was compelled to create. His zeal in speaking about his creation resonated with me and drew me to the musical itself. I had read articles and heard rumblings about the impact it was certain to imprint, but it wasn’t until this moment of witnessing the creator divulging his process that I turned to the musical itself. (as an aside within an aside, that kind of engagement is what I hope for every student who enters my classroom–to be so moved by a text, any text, that they are driven to create)

Based on this, I think it is fair to say that the creative process intrigues me, captivates my attention, draws me in. As a result, programs, like the Academy Awards, that allow further insight into that process, that testify to the brilliance found in collaboration, that honor what can happen when a human being recognizes what they are meant to be doing in this world and then they work hard to develop that and to live into it, delight me. Sure, some proclaim these shows to be pretentious…why would we want to see these rich and beautiful people awarding each other…of all the vain, empty endeavors…except, maybe not…except, maybe that is all perception? And honestly, what is wrong with rewarding each other for what we do well? Maybe that could go a long way, right? Maybe if I thanked the people in my life more regularly for the things they do for me, for jobs well done, for embracing a challenge and seeing it through–maybe if we all did this…made the seemingly unseen-seen…projected the light away from ourselves and onto each other…looked for the good…recognized the joy in being what you were always meant to be, this world that allows us occupancy could become a far better place to inhabit

I’m not sure any of this follows coherently…I am writing and viewing the broadcast simultaneously after all (no time to get my homework done before the show tonight…). But I find myself inspired in new ways, ever mindful of that fact that the creative journey was never supposed to be easy and others’ paths are far trickier than mine. I find myself ready to recognize those around me and to recognize the good within myself. I’m sure this sounds like a ludicrous response to an awards show, but evidently, it is possible.

(Day 50–what?!–that baffles me! King cake is so close!! Ordering it in the morning to be sure to have my favorite gluten free king cake after my last challenge blog on Mardi Gras day!)

becoming

I was speaking with a student the other day about how when we aren’t paying attention, things in our lives (both insignificant and critical) change. Sometimes that change brings positivity and goodness and sometimes that change surreptitiously steals something irreplaceable. We also talked about how it can be hard to look back on that easier time, that time before. Pervasive jealousy can eat away at you in those moments if you aren’t careful. Jealousy for moments when you felt more yourself, more able, less confined, less troubled. I should know. I look back on the pre-inner ear days with great longing. In pictures from before this disorder began, I immediately recognize an ease to my smile that indicates I hadn’t yet suffered the weight of what was to come. I wonder who that girl could have become…what her life might have looked like…what she could have accomplished.

But, I had a student in a bit of a crisis with me, so I couldn’t stop there or even really linger. I had to bring a more important insight to her. And that was simply this: Don’t focus too much on who you feel like you were before this “thing” interrupted your journey, retrain your gaze on who you will become as a result…give that girl some grace and begin to wrap her in love and acceptance.

For my own purposes, it doesn’t matter who that smiling carefree girl in my pictures could have become without the illness; the fact of the matter is that the strength and determination I possess today was instilled because I walked through that fire…because it melted and reshaped me and I am stronger as a result. Is my life what I thought it would be? Nope. But that isn’t a terrible thing. Sure it would be nice to float through a simpler existence on this earth…to move through my days with nothing more than average human dilemmas. That is not the lot I drew and pouting about it only denies the beauty that my life still has to offer.

Of course I can say this because I’m currently on the other side of that fire and it is easier to see the truth because of that. But this student needed to know that she wasn’t alone. That she will reach the other side of her fire as well. She needed to know that it is okay to grow and to change in response to this life and it is also okay to feel frustrated and hurt that this change had to occur…but that giving up is not a worthwhile indulgence. She needed to know that she could still tackle amazing feats. She needed to know she’s not done yet just because it’s hard right now. And she needed to talk and to be heard. So I listened…for a while..before sharing anything with her. Because sometimes you need to empty the tank before you can be filled up again.

(For some reason, as I wrote this, Joy Harjo’s “Once the World was Perfect” came to mind. I think it was the beginning of the poem that resurfaced first–

“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—”)
(And I also thought of this–“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)
(Day 49–7 weeks of daily blogging–and good thing I’m almost done. Parades have begun in full force and king cake is getting harder to resist!)

wisdom of yesterday

So, should you ever decide to venture into the realm of setting goals that can only be achieved through discipline (and I would say that is most goals), I strongly recommend prioritizing them and working toward them one at a time. Okay, so maybe this isn’t true in all cases. Maybe I’m just speaking about the predicament I have created for myself in both dedicating myself to a blog a day and to a healthier lifestyle. Those two objectives really should not complicate each other…except they do. Here’s why: In order to live this healthier lifestyle, exercising on a nearly daily basis is required. My work/family schedule mandates that take place in the darkness of early morning (before I work an often 12 hour school day). Conversely, in order to write daily, I have to wait until the day is essentially done…dinner has been cooked and the kids are in bed. This schedule means that I wake up at 4:30am and don’t get to write until somewhere around 9pm…when I am thoroughly exhausted and ready to just fall asleep on my couch while pretending to watch television!

The only thing making success possible isn’t the king cake prize at the end (shocking, I know). Rather, it is merely the determination to succeed. This is something I couldn’t have mustered even in small form last year at this time. I was so sick and spinning nearly everyday and was too weak to foster any sort of regular discipline. Writing was misery in those days because nothing stood still and because my brain was so focused on seeing straight that words were not so easy to recall and certainly didn’t flow into orderly sentences crafted with style and voice…so instead of persevering, I avoided. It seemed easier that way. To make all of this even worse, I also made a pretty conscious decision that since my body was being so antithetical, I would be disagreeable right back and proceeded to eat anything and everything that I wanted. I ate all the gluten, consumed all the sugar, sipped all the carbonated beverages. Did any of this make me feel better? Probably only in the moment where I fibbed myself into believing that I deserved the deceptively delicious nutritionally void delicacy. Beyond that, sugar and gluten simply are not my friends, but after learning to abide by the discomfort my inner ear brought, this food induced malaise paled.

This indulgence into the world of avoidance and emotional eating not only destroyed my once healthy habits, but also built new terrible ones. Which is partly why this challenge has been so important and partly why I’ve maintained it even when it would be so much more comfortable to quit and to attain a reasonable amount of sleep. Knowledge of what I was incapable of last year at this time…knowledge of how far I still had to go…knowledge that it could all come back in any given moment…brings a gratitude that drives me forward. I maintain my discipline because I can…because it is a gift…because no day should be taken for granted and what I actually deserve is to honor the parts of myself that need exercise–both my brain and my body. It would be selfish to do anything else and foolish to waste what I can do today.

Yesterday brings a clarity worth honoring.

(A poetic gift in honor of hard work… “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy Here she writes these lines and more…

“The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” )

 

(Day 48! Written after family movie night and still relatively coherent…writing everyday has made that possible…the discipline is worth the discomfort)

forgiveness

For all of my optimism and fancy “love your neighbor” speak, I am remarkably good at harboring a good old-fashioned grudge. Ironically, I pride myself on being a skilled practitioner of rationalizing the behaviors of the people in my life, recognizing that there is always more to a person’s words and actions than I am granted witness to. But every now and then, someone does or says some hurtful thing, shows little or no contrition (this is what really gets me), and the barb sticks a little deeper and the sting lingers (for far too long).

And maybe “grudge” is the wrong word? Because I typically extend grace in spite of it all so that I can proceed without the daily reminder of the hurt. I acknowledge that carrying all of that around really only injures me, mars my quality of life. Except, as is often true, this particular process isn’t so neat and tidy. Something within me can’t (won’t) forget that the words were said or the actions taken. There is no resulting legitimate intrusion into my everyday life; in fact, I feel pretty at peace most of the time. But when triggered, the emotion and hurt flood fast, forcing the barb to drive a little deeper…reopening the wound…growing the scar.

I know this is all within my control. That if I took the time and the effort to remove the barb completely at the start and to truly forgive, I would eliminate the possibility of  heartache set on loop. But that’s the hard work of being human, isn’t it? To figure out how to be less human and closer to the divine, because it is absolutely a divine gift to possess the ability to obliterate that kind of damage and to move forward freed from its weight and potential for reincarnation.

Yet, far worse than nurturing wounds inflicted by another is the inability to forgive ourselves (myself in this case). I wield compassion willingly toward others, yet too often withhold it from myself. I recognize that I am human and that humans are imperfect and as such will make mistakes, fall into error…all the things. But that doesn’t alter the standard I have set for myself and the guilt that persists in spite of it all. I would like to say that I am tougher than I am. That when I mess it up, my response is “well, that’s just me and people will just have to be okay with that or that’s their issue.” But I’m never going to be that person. And that’s not to say that I over-worry about what others think of me. Far from it. I simply want people to know the truth of me and when I falter from my center, my core, then I’m more hidden than revealed.

So, this is the work. Learning to forgive myself, working harder to truly forgive others. Freeing myself from the weight that accompanies and amasses with lingering negativity. Releasing myself to enjoy life because mistakes will always be made but I don’t have to focus my attention there alone. There is goodness enough in the world that is far worthier of that kind of dedication. And that is where I will work to turn my gaze.

100 Word Challenge…Part 3

This afternoon my school held a talent show and I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. The talent was without a doubt stunning, as you would expect. Yet, I was in awe of my kids for a different reason. I witnessed young people who were courageous enough to get up in front of the entire student body and share something of themselves…something that holds personal meaning and weight…that maybe they don’t reveal everyday. That show provided a living and breathing reminder that we all have a gift worth sharing…if only we can get out of our own way.

(Day 46–long day apparently equals short blog? But it is honest and marks the one thing that I found most remarkable in my day (thought there is probably more to say about it…I suppose that will have to be enough to count for today’s writing…well, it’ll have to anyway;) )

sermonizing

Every so often on a Monday, I have the opportunity to address my entire high school student body. I take that privilege seriously and use it as an opportunity to find new ways to remind my kids that we are in fact a community rather than some cold institution and as such each member has a responsibility to be a decent and kind human being. Without that standard being upheld, we devolve into just a building with people working side by side rather than together…without that, we lose our heartbeat, and the vibrance of who we have always intended to be as a school withers.

We are a small school, so these moments of sermonizing are rather cozy occasions–no microphone needed, just me talking and interacting with 120 kids seated side by side on the floor in front of me. Part of me recognizes that I have usurped a time typically reserved for announcements simply to yield an extra opportunity to teach now that my new position has reduced my class load. (But I am okay with this) I have taught at this high school since the second year of its existence when it only consisted of two grades, 9th and 10th…when I was the English department…when we were only 20 students big. In those early days, it was evident that there was something special about this school we called home…a school where learning for learning’s sake was embraced before grades and test scores…where the operating principle of “be kind, be kind, be kind” centered us everyday…where we were as much a family as a student and faculty body…where cliques were shunned and acceptance of all, required. Most importantly…acceptance of all. Every single kid, no matter their uniqueness was accepted for exactly who they were in that moment and they were given the grace to change as they grew over time. It wasn’t perfect all the time, but it felt ideal at its core.

As we have grown in size, slowly but steadily, it would be easy to move farther away from that beginning…to rise far enough above the core that we forget it is our foundation.

I can’t let that happen.

I have poured too much into this place and I treasure our first few classes of kids who knew this and embodied this and, truly created this bedrock, to walk away from it or to cheat it in any way. Honestly, the main reason I applied to be Head of the High School (having had zero inclination toward administration before) was to preserve the heartbeat of this school…to make sure a stranger didn’t arrive who might not get it…who might unwittingly stray from our purpose and who we are meant to be.

So, here I am. Stealing time on a Monday to reinforce these values in myriad ways. This week, we spoke about judgement…about how what we see of others is sometimes the eighth layer of the wall they have built in order to protect who they really are from being hurt…about how instead of judging others and walking away, maybe we could ask some questions to grind away the layers…about how we can extend each other some grace because sometimes life is hard and a little compassion goes a long way…about how it is not our job to judge, but that it is our job to love, to accept, to uplift the members of our community.

Did they hear any of this? Hard to say, really. But if even one kid walked away with new understanding and with the ambition to act on it, then I’ve done okay…then, the example will be set and spread…then, the time was well spent…then, our little school will continue to strive toward being the community of learners we were created to be, to become.

And hopefully, the tiny community will begin to influence the community at large. Teenagers are pretty remarkable humans. If anyone can begin to change this world for the better, it is them.

(Day 45–I still cannot believe there have been this many daily blogs in a row…two weeks away from king cake!! I cannot wait!!)

endurance

There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.

“I’m not interested in

who suffered the most.

I’m interested in

people getting over it.”
There is beauty here that is simple, pure and I think often misunderstood. My students sometimes see these opening lines as insensitive…lacking in sympathy, empathy, human kindness. But what is missed in that interpretation is that she doesn’t write that she isn’t concerned for those who have suffered. She is simply less concerned with the misguided competition for who has endured more and is more intensely intrigued by the human process of getting over it–the ability to move on…without harboring hate. Because in the “getting over it” the substance of the human soul and the intensity of perseverance, the will to not just survive but to flourish becomes evident. The getting over it is the example, right? It is the inspiration to the rest of us, the paragon we look to in the midst of our own suffering. Without that inspiration, it’s hard to believe we can surmount the struggle. The “people getting over it” embody the hope that we need to carry on. (and when we persist toward healing, we in turn become that hope for others…a pretty cool cycle, right?)
Later in the poem she writes, “Each carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” Suffering isn’t unique to the individual, rather it is a quality of humanity. We all suffer to varying degrees (we all carry “a tender spot”), it is what we do with that pain that makes the difference. Do we choose to become bitter? To hate? To live in anger and frustration? Or do we choose to forgive? To extend grace? To live in acceptance and hope?
It isn’t always easy to envision a path that leads to the “getting over it”…and sometimes even once we locate that path, it is rather thorny. And sometimes the path requires more energy than we possess in the moment, so we sit down and rest…not wallow, just rest…so that we can unearth the strength, the courage to continue toward overcoming.
The poem ends with the hopeful line: “It’s late but everything comes next.”
In this world that swells with selfish selections…that swirls with negativity and heartache, fear and hatred…this line fills me up. It is late. But nothing is over. There is more to come. We haven’t seen it yet.
Let’s get over the tender spots and marvel at those around us who do the same. Let’s remember that hate doesn’t have to be our answer when wounded. Let’s keep our eyes on what comes next. Let’s live in community, in forgiveness, in a world where getting over it, healing is more interesting than some strange competition over who hurts more. We all hurt. At some point, we will all hurt. Let’s embrace our humanity and rise above that struggle to live our lives with meaning and intent.
Because that is, after all, the blessing of each new day.
(Day 44…loved revisiting this poem)