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.

pointless

Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I developed a pretty intense phobia. This fear defied conventionality (or at least it felt that way). It was no fear of heights or dogs that others could relate to (though, let’s be real here, I was afraid of those things too). No, this was something that no one else seemed to get–including myself. My fear rooted itself in an aversion to any kind of stomach illness. Sure, lots of people (almost proudly) proclaim “germophobia” but this was more specific and for some reason that baffled others. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the fear that was the issue as much as the way it revealed itself (in panic attacks at absurd moments, in selectively eating only food that felt safe, in doing any number of evidently ridiculous things that felt entirely necessary).

The great humor of my life…and I do believe God sees the irony in this situation as much as I do…is that I spent decades (literal decades) actively working to never feel nauseous…actively worried on the daily that I might be sick or that I might have been exposed to illness…actively avoiding events, people, places where sickness might be present (and I don’t just mean the obvious places…my fear of flying had less to do with the act of flying in a plane and everything to do with the possibility of people getting airsick…) only to find myself at age 36 coping with an invisible illness that brought with it episodic bouts with severe vertigo and regular imbalance and with that came nausea beyond my control (important to note here that even on the days when I wasn’t struggling with violent spinning, I sort of always felt like I was rocking on a boat…sort of like those movies with a shaky camera that make you feel a little seasick by the end…that sensation represented a good day for far too many years). There is no medicine, by the way, that will make vertigo stop…only medicine to abate the side effects of it (and then, only if you are lucky). You are at the complete mercy of your body. You just have to wait it out.

Situations like this provide clarity if nothing else, really. What I came to realize through this joke my body has played on me was that all those days and weeks and months and years of worrying, all that wasted effort, in the end, turned out to be really quite pointless. It didn’t matter how much I worried or how much care I took to avoid, this was always going to happen…and germs really have nothing to do with it (in all seriousness, you have to know, the comedy of this hasn’t escaped me).

This is sort of how life is though, right? People told me for years that I was squandering perfectly healthy moments with worry, but I couldn’t feel the truth of that in any real way until my life handed me a series of whirling moments that brought with them new understanding…like the scales falling away from my eyes. We are experiential beings and sometimes we have to live through the difficult moments to learn the lessons we would have been better off learning far sooner. But the important part is that we are ready to accept the understanding and move forward from there. I suppose that is growing up? And I suppose that process of forming and re-forming the people we have the potential to become is a life long one. And I kind of love that gift…of lessons learned no matter our age…because no matter how unpleasant the wrapping may seem, what is inside delivers insight that makes each day a better one than the one before.

(Day 43…this one feels maybe a little too revelatory…but here it is…is it king cake time yet??)

empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

mindset

My 11 year old has had some rough mornings this week. He is stressed and tired and a bit under the weather…and, you know, as human beings tend to do, is taking it out on the rest of us. Yesterday, he texted me at work that he had been having a difficult time.

(I have to interrupt here to note that I am optimistic to a faulty degree. I can see a silver lining in just about any moment of difficulty and if you come to me hoping that I will get angry about something with you, chances are I will end up pointing out how we can make it better instead. People don’t always love this about me. I get it.)

So, when he texted, I immediately replied that his day would get better. Being the anxiety ridden realist that he is, he texted back “How do you know it will get better? It doesn’t feel like it will.” Ouch. It is hard enough making this transition to being at work and not at home in the mornings with my boys most days of the week. But on a day like this, when he really just needs a hug from his mom, and I’m not there to give him one, it is even tougher. All I could do was text back “I don’t know but I am hopeful that it will. You can make it better—just decide.”

His thoughts on that advice? “That doesn’t help.”

Double ouch.

Except not so much because I am a deep believer in that advice. I honestly trust that no matter how bad the day is, how we react to it is always within our control. Sure, some days are harder than others, but you know what makes that worse? Sinking in to the difficulty and suffering, languishing beneath the weight of it. I just can’t do that. It feels like a waste–of time, energy, life. Does that mean that all my days are glorious meadows of joy? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It simply means that my mindset gazes above the negativity with a hopeful heart rather than one resigned to mere misery. This focus is a conscious effort and I often have to remind myself to see beyond the moment, but doing so allows me to more fully participate in the world around me, in my own life.

So, much to his dismay, I will continue to preach this message to him–that he can make it better if he just decides to–because I think it applies in this situation and in so many others. When we feel out of control in situations like this, we become victims of our own selves and our own mentality and anxiety. We become helpless. That is the last thing I want for him or for anyone, really. I want him to know that he has the power to improve his own frame of mind–his own heart, the power to improve the world around him. He needs to know that he can make a difference, but if he can’t make a difference in his own day, how will he ever be able to come to the aid of others?  He needs to own the power of a positive mindset, and he needs to fight for it.

Because all that negativity will only doom him to frustration and stagnation, and that is no way to truly live this life he has been given.

(Day 26!)

 

reminder

Since the surgery that mostly resolved my inner ear struggles, I have worked diligently to move beyond the trauma of the seven months of nearly constant hearing and balance issues. Trauma is a heavy word, one that implies lingering physical and mental damage. Anyone who has never spun with vertigo might think my use of “trauma” here is hyperbolic. Anyone, though, who has suffered even momentary vertigo can relate to the terror it invokes. It is hard to explain the confusion of not knowing up from down, the disorientation of constant movement despite sitting still, a statue frozen in time, the fear of not knowing…how long will this last? am I falling? how sick will I be? is this the rest of my life? It is hard to explain the heart racing, sweating, shivering, stomach twisting fury that a vertigo spell induces. No medicine can calm the spinning; it can only quell the nausea…and even that salve isn’t guaranteed. No medicine could promise me that I wouldn’t suddenly become dizzy in the middle of a day, in the middle of the grocery store, in the middle of playing with my kids.

That not knowing stalked me endlessly; I became guarded and began to withdraw. By May of last year, 6 months into this journey, I was nearly incapacitated and could no longer envision the possibility of a “normal” life. I questioned my every move, my every decision. I lost hope of ever being well. Honestly, before this moment, I don’t think I could have even written this much about how frightening the episodes during those months were (and there were more than I can count) in this kind of detail without inducing panic.

I have spent much of the seven months since the surgery unlearning all of that fear. I have spent much of that time working past episodes of absolute panic set off by a too vivid memory or by a simple trip to a movie theater. I have spent much of that time trying not to be in a constant state of waiting for my good health to disintegrate…for the surgery to fail…for the moment when once again I am fighting, clawing, scratching to maintain some sort of quality of life….for the smiles to once again be false and the moments to become hazy and vague.

I have done a great deal of really hard work moving on and I finally felt entirely successful there. So, why? Why when a colleague looks at me and says, “What are you going to do when your health fails again” am I suddenly thrown back into the shuddery shaky shroud of worry and concern. I am no closer to being unwell again just because she asked a question of me, yet my brain and my body now stand on guard…proving there is more work to be done than I realized.  Maybe I had only put a patch, a band aid on a wound that required more time, more cleaning, more attention and maybe some stitches? Maybe I let myself get comfortable and neglected completing the process of healing? Maybe I just wanted to be well so badly that I chose to ignore the depth of the concern in order to focus on life instead (though, is that really so bad?) Maybe this process will be a lot longer than I wanted it to be…maybe it’s forever?

But also, maybe it is a reminder of what it truly takes to be resilient. Maybe it is proof that even in the fear and concern, I still survive, thrive, live. Maybe revisiting my concern will simply grant me a gratitude I didn’t feel as deeply yesterday.  Maybe I am stronger than I realized and accepting that as my truth, even when I am tired of having to be so strong, defines and develops the steps I take into my future.

It’s all about the lens we choose to view the world through, I guess. And, truly, we are the ones who choose that lens. The work of that choice isn’t easy, but its significance hasn’t been lost on me today.

(Day 24…almost skipped today. A timely and unexpected power outage was going to be a great excuse to not write and to go to bed early. So glad the power came back in time for me to get this out. It was needed tonight!)

need

I’ve written a good bit this week about where I turn for healing and rest: gratitude, exercise, poetry. My heart is heavy today though, in spite of all of this. Life is tumultuous, you know, and right now the upheaval is pervasive, weakening my spirit, dulling my optimism. I tend to describe this feeling as “heart-achey”…which really just signifies a moment or several where my metaphorical heart (the one that holds the weight of this empathic life), feels as though the stitching is coming loose and that it is about to empty itself. I’m not a meltdown kind of girl. I endure in the face of gale force tempestuous winds. But today, my guard is down and I need a powerful healer.

Today I need music.

~~~“I Am In Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop~~~

In this poem, Bishop writes, “Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,/ Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,/A song to fall like water on my head,/And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!” This is what I need today. The overwhelming harmonious rush of sound washing over me, renewing me in the baptism of its waters and bringing me new life. I need the escape offered in each measure, the fulfillment of the attention my senses have been longing for as they are too frequently muted in the mundane actions of day to day life–dulled by my distraction.

Tonight, I will sit in a church full of people, and musicians will work their alchemy and transform the ache in my heart into the beat of perseverance and the light of hope–their craft, a sustaining force. Tonight, I will allow myself to be engulfed in the beauty of the work of these artists; I will allow myself to escape the world outside that sanctuary (what a perfect word) to be transported elsewhere. I will share this experience with pews full of strangers and friends and we will become a community in that communion…we will become one.

Tonight, I will be intentional. I will close my eyes and feel myself breathe in the joy carried in the air–a gift of the music in the room. And as I exhale, I will release the exhaustion and frustration. And if only for a few minutes, I will be healed.

The respite is going to be spectacular.

(Day 21–three whole weeks!!! This one is short but I like it anyway:) And also, it has been  busy day–just glad I had the time for this!)

answer

Stress has stolen my sleep, or at least its quality, in recent days. I am incessantly exhausted, running solely on a combination of adrenaline and sugar, as my sleep has been interrupted, disturbed, upset. Stress is a clever thief, often lurking quietly in the shadows until just the moment when I attempt to rest, until just the moment when I am seeking the solace of slumber, the peace and healing offered in sleep. Those are the moments when my stress furtively tiptoes into the forefront of my mind and my brain begins to work harder, ideas and worries and concerns flood in, my heart rate picks up and my eyes open…staring at the ceiling. I don’t want to give in and get up; however, the longer I lay there, the more the stress intensifies. Until I suddenly realize that since I’ve been up worried for so long, I’ll never get enough sleep and then my stress is compounded.

Despite the seeming routine of these events, I never see it coming. Instead, it is just all of a sudden present, and once that occurs, reason and relaxation are out of mind and the swiftness of their eventuality is called into question.

Regular exercise was my greatest outlet for relieving this kind of stress and for deepening my sleep. But since last November when my inner ear decided to throw its own kind of wild party, regular exercise has become more of an intermittent affair. I am just not feeling well enough regularly enough to make a habit of it–to be able to maintain the discipline. That is a true frustration point because I honestly enjoy working out–I honestly enjoy pushing myself and my body to the outer limits of my fitness ability and my body has essentially told me, “Um, no thank you. That time is done.” I am trying to convince myself that walking is a viable fitness plan until more healing has taken place and I am ready to do more. But this all or nothing mentality that I am apt to adopt sees that remedy as circumspect. I don’t  want to just have to walk–I want to be able to do push ups and box jumps and to lift weights. I don’t want to be restricted anymore. I want to be well. I want to be and feel like myself…my best self.

And in that frustration, guilt is born. I know I should just be grateful for being mostly well and not be greedy about what workout I am relegated to. Honestly, I should be grateful for a great many things.

And that has become my newest remedy for stress–I turn in toward my gratitude. When I focus on what I am thankful for, I make a conscious turn away from stress. As I focus on the positivity specific to my life with intentionality, my brain slows down and my heart rate calms. My breathing is more methodical and my gratitude list suddenly becomes a prayer of sorts lulling me into a calm and escorting me toward peaceful sleep.

It doesn’t work every time, this gratitude journey of mine. Sometimes, I just have to work through the stress without avoidance. Sometimes, I have to face it. But sometimes, most often, I can extend myself the grace of recentering my thinking.  And when I am able to do so, I am a better human…and not just because of better sleep, but also because learning to see the world through the lens of a grateful heart is a mind shift that heals and offers hope. And hope, when we work to find it, not only changes our hearts for the better, but also our actions. Where there is hope and gratitude, stress cannot reside.

(Day 19 of this king cake season writing challenge…I for real almost quit tonight after starting three different blogs and getting nowhere with them. Nothing to show for them other than some unfinished saved ramblings. And I was so exhausted and had so many other things to do…but I just felt compelled to prove this one to myself…that I wouldn’t give into the temptation of quitting…that I would honor myself and remain dedicated)

Hope

Someone asked me just before the New Year announced its arrival with colorful displays and cacophonous litanies, what word I would choose as sort of a mantra for the year. I had to pause (it felt like a rather weighty decision after all, I should be thoughtful).

I considered the previous year, 2018. This was a year that tested me in ways I’ve never been tested. My health decided to forsake me and as desperately as I tried to swim up through the mayhem of new and damaging symptoms, I only seemed to sink deeper. I was committed to not giving up my life and livelihood even though its quality had been diminished. I fought fiercely to put on a smile and to tell people not to worry because I was fine when that was the farthest thing from the truth. I made jokes. I taught my students. I cooked meals. I attended soccer games and plays where my own kids were competing and performing.

Well, a shadow of me did anyway.

I realized this Christmas that other than remembering how distinctly terrible I felt and the anxiety that swallowed me up as a result, last Christmas was a vast black hole. Because you see, while every picture reveals a woman smiling and being active and grateful for her life and those in it, every picture also hid what was happening on the inside.

On any typical day, I am without fail annoyingly optimistic. I own this trait–and while it can be less than realistic at times, it is also the only way I care to look at this world and my place in it. But in the days between November 2017 and June 2018, not only did my optimism fade, but so did my hope that I would ever be well or whole again…that I would ever hear normally, that I would ever have a non-dizzy day. And as my hope withered slowly, so did my spirit. And as my spirit dwindled I no longer recognized the person I had become and quite honestly, this terrified me.

And then, as though a gift from above, I was offered and received the surgery that fixed most of the physical issues with my inner ear. It was overwhelmingly successful–I couldn’t have ever imagined I would feel this good again and while incredibly grateful, at some point I realized that even though my body was seemingly “cured” (even if only temporarily), I wasn’t healed. There was damage that no surgery could repair. The rebuilding of my trust and my hope and my optimism was going to take time–it was going to take effort…so. much. effort.

I began to think of Emily Dickinson and how she described hope–

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers-

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all -”

So I knew hope had to be there…maybe I hadn’t listened carefully enough in the furious “Gale” of those sick days to hear it singing (or maybe I was simply too tired to make the effort to try). But that’s the thing about hope–I don’t doubt that it was always waiting for me to seize it up enthusiastically and allow it to carry me forward. I don’t doubt the power of its force and I don’t doubt that it is there for every single human in this world who seeks it out despite hardship–hope is certainly not biased in who gets to partake. I also don’t doubt that hope, as powerful as it is, lacks the ability to swoop up an unwilling passenger–hope is not for the bystanders, it is an active state of being.

I lost hope because I grew too weary to fight harder to seek and to maintain and to nurture and to treasure it. I lost hope because I thought hope had forsaken me–I removed myself from the equation and I was too blind to even realize my role in this. And once I felt betrayed, once I felt abandoned by hope, all I could feel was sorry for myself. And this was new territory. It took me realizing that I needed to seek hope out for it to sing loudly enough for me to hear.

So, in my pausing to consider what word should define my new year, it was hope that reverberated in my mind and in my heart. This is a world that commands hope for survival. Even when you are not sick, sometimes the world seems to be. It can feel easier to give in to the pessimism, to the rancor, to the weight than to fight to see the goodness humanity still possesses and creates. But it is our job to see that light in others and in the world, to amplify the good, to sing the song of hope so loudly that everyone else cannot help but listen to its melody (and hopefully hum along). And for this year, and beyond, Hope (seeking it, singing it, living into it) is my word, my guide, my path back to myself and who I truly wish to be.

(This podcast is a really great listen for everyone but especially if you are suffering without cure in sight but might benefit from understanding the difference between being “fixed” and being “healed”. It has been an integral part of my understanding on this journey.)

Day 2 of Carnival Season writing challenge complete!

 

Poetry is a human thing

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written. There’s no real explaining it other than to say that this poem reveals a bit of where my frame of mind and heart have been…“mydreams, my works, must wait till after hell” (Gwendolyn Brooks)

I’ve been sick. Not in any terribly dire way—just in a terribly disruptive way. My inner ear has been unusually and relentlessly unfriendly for the last few months bringing about frequent periods of hearing loss, imbalance, and vertigo. These symptoms have haunted my days and stalked my spirit, even when not present, for the last five years. They weaponize themselves further with feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, and most recently, because of their refusal to retreat, hopelessness. It was difficult to see the rather hopeless path I was walking as my mind was foggy and focused on simply making it through each day. It wasn’t until I was granted a few days of feeling well recently that I looked around to realize I had arrived some place unfamiliar to my bright, optimistic, unconquerable spirit. I couldn’t see my way out and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to try.

But I knew what was missing—I wasn’t reading poetry…I wasn’t writing…I wasn’t myself. And that had to change. The trouble was that without realizing it, as Brooks writes, I had stored “…my honey and…my bread/In little jars and cabinets of my will.” And apparently, I had placed them on the top shelf, out of reach. They were too important, too critical, too central to my being and I refused to tarnish them with the ashes from which I hadn’t found the strength to take flight.

I would wait.

And then I realized the veracity of Brooks’ 5th line. Two short sentences, one line of poetry; a line divided into simplicity, while burdened by the weight of truth—my truth. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete.”

Poetry and writing are part of my being. Without them, I’m hardly whole and without them I find it hard to breathe and impossible to move. Sure, I was still physically getting through my days and I was smiling through as many of them as possible, but my spirit—the intangibility that ignites the fire within my heart, eyes, thoughts—was starving, weak and waning.

Returning wasn’t easy—I had to make myself do it (and as you can see by this not so uplifting piece, I had to work through some stuff as I did). But, the more I read, the more I write, the more alive I begin to feel and suddenly health and hope seem possible again. I’d be lying if I said I felt fully invigorated because I read some poems and sat down to write, but I’m on my way—I’m on a better path and my jars of bread and honey are getting easier to reach and open.

I shared Brooks’ poem with students last week as we were opening a study on the impact of justice (or the lack thereof) in our world and on the individual. It’s always tricky sharing poems I’m so personally attached to with kids. Inevitably, those are the poems that evoke initial student responses of “this is ridiculous” or “this is why I don’t like poetry” or my personal favorite, “the poet is wrong” (though this does bring up conversations of empathy and questions of when do we have the right to deny the feelings of others—and it also brings up the opportunity to discover what can happen when a poem is read multiple times so that its words are no longer being decoded and its ideas and truth become present and palpable). But this piece felt important to our work because it reveals that justice isn’t something that exists solely in the courthouse and with lawmakers. So, I brought it to my kids. I wanted them to connect with the poem, to dig in and understand it, to feel its worth and weight. In order for that to occur, they had to be free to respond honestly, in their own way, and in a safe space, one that was theirs and theirs alone—their writer’s notebooks.

After I read it aloud and they reread, reflected, and wrote (or drew), we talked—well, they talked and I listened. They got it. They knew this moment of storing honey and bread. They had been or are currently incomplete and hungry. My kids, while they seem to have plenty, know significant loss; they know depression and anxiety; they know isolation. They felt as one with the poet—a solidarity of sorts. Many were amazed to know they weren’t the only ones who had felt this way and not only that but that a famous poet had felt it deeply enough to write it down.

They recognized that injustice doesn’t have to be as far sweeping and giant as racial inequity or police brutality or child poverty. They recognized that sometimes even their lives could feel unjust. They recognized that they weren’t alone—that this was a human thing. But mostly, they connected to what personal injustice had felt like and in doing so, doors were opened to be able to begin a discussion of systemic injustice with fewer barriers—because we are all human and injustice is a weight, a burden—one that maybe cannot be overcome alone. In connecting to an issue before putting up the barriers of having to be right, it is often more possible to understand it more fully. We were ready to begin.

This is why poetry is essential. It reminds us ever so gently that we are all humans—no matter what, we are all humans—and with that comes a common bond and a responsibility to sometimes reach the jars and loosen the tops and stand side by side until the “devil days of…hurt” are no more.

(just as an aside—we also read and discussed this poem as we moved through these early parts of our study on justice– “Kindness” [Naomi Shihab Nye])

Revelation

I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid who or what I really am. Trying not to see, feel, or be the turmoil inside of myself. I’ve spent my whole life covering for the anxiety simmering and seething within. Trying to keep it contained, to maintain “normalcy”, to be like everyone else–to smile. I’ve spent my whole life with people who think it is as simple as “there’s no reason to be nervous” or “that is so irrational, you’re too smart for that” or “just have some fun.” Wondering if anyone really understands what it is like to live one life, confined by the walls of anxiety, knowing that a better alternative is out there, just unavailable to me. I’ve spent my whole life keenly aware of the toll my selfish anxious world takes on my friends and family. Wondering why they continue to tolerate my nonsense. I’ve spent my whole life in an effort not to be my own worst enemy. Striving to become louder than the anxiety enriched voice of doubt within.

Lonely and isolating, anxiety stalked my brain at all hours, preying on my weakness and jealously seeking my companionship. It sabotaged my thought process with constant reminders of what I absolutely could not do and all of the germy places and things I should avoid. It made ridiculous rituals and paths seem intelligent and even clever…after all, I didn’t want to get sick.

When it sensed my strength rising and my thoughts clearing, anxiety charged panic with the takedown. Panic was a tougher opponent—subtle at first, as it crept surreptitiously from some dark corner of my mind. Unnoticed. I had no way of protecting myself, of establishing a means of defense. The struggle to survive panic’s attack felt intense and like a losing battle. Shaking from head to toe, sick and breathless, I would try to fight back, to overcome the internal siege with reason and rational thought, but panic was louder than I could hope to be and for a while I just had to wait it out—retreating to some internal nook or cranny until it was safe to exit.

My parents called me “the clam” because, well, I just didn’t really talk about how I was feeling most of the time. They and others, my husband included, have tried to understand and have tried to help. They’ve listened to what I was willing to share when I was willing to share it, but I withheld so much. I’m 41 years old and I still don’t really talk about it with any specificity. This piece of writing is the most I have said about this part of my life and the details of it still remain carefully veiled. I’ve spent the past 32 years working this out—fighting back with skills and strategies that even now sometimes feel vague and unequipped to handle the weight of the work, but I put them to use anyway. Panic doesn’t visit as frequently as he used to—my understanding of his elusive and insidious ways have stripped some of his power and brought me into greater control. But it is hard work. Everyday. Hard work.

And then there are the moments when I look into the eyes of my own child or into the eyes of a student and witness a mirror image of my own struggle—and my heart sinks to my toes. I cannot make it better for them. I cannot remove their burden. Only they can do the work. But, I can let them know they are not alone. That in some way I understand. Community, in the midst of the isolation and doubt, can be a sort of salvation. I can offer that.

John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down offered me that community, imbuing me with the confidence to write this today. In his character Aza, I saw myself. My struggles never truly paralleled the magnitude of Aza’s. I was lucky in that way, I suppose. But the emotion tied to her anxious, compulsive moments, the honesty and truth of her character, the way her fight within herself impacted her family and friends—all of it—overwhelmed me as a reader. I had never seen this side of myself, my high school self especially, so clearly expressed on the page. I found myself having to put the book to the side from time to time because, well, I had to take a break…from myself. It was as though someone had extracted the deepest secrets I owned and shared them with the world. I have spent so much time in the last few decades denying myself, that to see a portrait so clearly painted terrified me. And at the same time made me realize, once again, that community can be salvation—and that words can offer a way out.

My interaction with Turtles All the Way Down proved to me again, in the most personal way, why we offer our students diverse books and choice when it comes to their reading. They need these moments. They need to see themselves on the page and to know that whoever they are, whatever they are going through the world of print doesn’t deny their existence…that the world doesn’t deny their worth. Jane Eyre was a great book and I loved every second of reading it, but access to a character dealing with anxiety the way Green portrays Aza would’ve helped my sophomore self far more.  I might have understood myself and what was happening on the inside a bit better and I might not have been so afraid of it all, knowing that I was not alone.

But our kids also need to see the lives, joys and struggles of those people whose worlds and experiences do not reflect their own. Growing to understand and care for a character can lead our students, and all readers, to a retraction of judgment and to an extension of empathy. It can take time, practice, nudging and conscientious reflection for our students to acknowledge their own bias and to build these bridges. However, in a world so darkened by judgment and the need to be right, in a world so taken with the simplicity of the single story, it would seem offering the chance for kids to find themselves in a book as well as empathy for others is the least we can do.

This week, I’ve opted to share Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” (you’ll have to scroll through the article to find the poem-but it is worth it). I realize, of course that neither of these poems are about anxiety directly, yet somehow the imagery takes me there as well as to the places intended by the poet. And on top of that, they are both simply beautiful pieces of poetry and emotion on the page.