redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

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.

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!)

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)

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)