Presence

I’m currently seated alone on a bench in the middle of the Central Garden at the Getty Center–a bit of calm in the midst of the whirlwind that is chaperoning a class trip to Los Angeles. It’s a pretty slow afternoon here so rather than being surrounded by troops of school children and scads of tourists, I’m instead engulfed by tender tweeting of the birds, water dancing lightly over boulders and idle chatter of intermittent museum guests walking the path beside me. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky accompanied by a light breeze tempering the heat…a perfect afternoon.

And for the first time in months, I am truly still…momentarily at peace…existing simply in awestruck wonder of the beauty that surrounds me. Beauty, when we stop to examine it and appreciate it, had this effect…drawing us in, holding us nearer to its perfection and then sending us away again changes. Here, in this moment, I am not needed or in need. There is nothing else I should be doing or would rather be doing. The magic of this garden and its serenity has dissolved the rest of the happenings of this day and I exist solely in this place, in this moment. My heart rate has slowed and my eyes feel opened to a world beyond the immediate moment.

The immediate moment, replete with daily stressors of work and home and kids and bills and health and airplanes I’m not so excited about boarding in the current situation, began to dissolve the moment I sat down and inhaled for the exhalation that followed let it all go—blown towards the mountains in the distance already encased in fog (seems like they could handle a little more).

This larger moment contains being amid the gift of creation that surrounds us and truly seeing it, hearing it, and then pausing to really be here and not everywhere else.

Presence. How often are we this present in our lives? How often do we dismiss preoccupation to live into the moments we are blessed with? I know my struggles with this reflect a life that is too busy, a mind too cluttered. But I also can’t always see my way through the fog of it all of the time. And let’s face it, I’m not in the Central Garden of the Getty everyday…

And so, presence becomes a Lenten promise of sorts. A renewed dedication to being present for my kids, for my husband, for myself, for my life. There is no expedient means of repair for the till modern life has taken on my ability to live free from the weight of the rest. Restoration will require mindfulness and effort–as all important endeavors do–but the quality of life that will resound as a result…transformative.

“I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth never felt more appropriate:)

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)

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.

100 word challenge part two

Meet Gingersnap. Nine pounds of Terrier mischief & charm housing nothing but disdain for this blog challenge. Where she once spent her evenings lulled to sleep by scratches behind her ears, a computer has taken up residence. The hands that once offered her comfort, now frenetically strike keys instead. You would think that after 40 days, she would’ve given up…that she wouldn’t still be battering my arms, begging insistently for a redirection of my attention. You would think. Except, I think she is only more fervent now than she was in the beginning. A perfect example of a hope that perseveres.

(Day 40!! If only this were Lent, my challenge would be over!! Still many more blogs to write…hoping next week brings me more time and focus. This week has been tough!)

deciding

Every February, when red and pink hearts begin to decorate shelves, aisles, window displays, I find myself reminded of Rita Dove’s poem “Heart to Heart”. Dove makes it her business in this collection of mostly 3 or 4 word lines to deny the cliched fanciful imagery of love and hearts that we perpetuate. Instead, she refers to the heart in this way:

“just a thick clutch

of muscle,

lopsided,

mute…”
I’ve always felt like her purpose is to show that the reality of love stretches far deeper than metaphors about a shape, a symbol that doesn’t actually exist inside of us. I’ve always felt (especially at the end when she writes, “Here,/it’s all yours, now—/but you’ll have/to take me,/too.”), her purpose is to show that while we can express our emotions in fluffy language, the truth contains the complexity of human beings…the complexity of human emotion…the complexity of love not in a vacuum but rather of love in a complicated world.
As an engaged couple, my husband and I were asked to attend a weekend retreat as part of our preparation to be married in the church. I’m sure a good many important things happened that weekend, but there is really only one thing that I remember. One of the couples leading the retreat spoke to our group the first night we were there and shared this bit of wisdom: Marriage is hard. Love is hard. Sometimes you will have to decide to love each other.
Now, this quote has become a long standing joke in my nearly 20 year marriage. Whenever either of us is even mildly annoyed with the other, “I’m really deciding to love you right now” is uttered and suddenly the tension breaks a bit. But, honestly, those words represent some of the best advice anyone has ever given to me. They granted permission for things to be less than perfect, which makes it easier when things get downright hard. Because, in this life things are going to get hard…people are going to get sick…loss will be suffered…finances will fluctuate…jobs will change…but in knowing that no one’s love is red and pink hearts all of the time makes those moments feel more like challenges and less like failures…makes those moments feel like just that, momentary, rather than a conclusion.
I think that Rita Dove knew this.
I know that I am far from perfect and that I come with a whole lot of “stuff,” and I also know that the last couple of years when I was sick and miserable, I was really hard. But I also know that my husband has decided “to take me,/too”…that he had decided to love me even when he had to make that decision multiple times a day because, well, I couldn’t hear very well or see straight for a long time.
In a world of social media that allows us to craft and reveal only the moments that portray perfection, this poem offers an invaluable illustration of what we are really asking for when we seek the love of another. To be truly seen, to be fully accepted, to be deeply rather than superficially loved.
I got pretty lucky. Marriage is imperfect, but somehow I found someone who got that and is happy to spend all these flawed years with me…someone who keeps deciding to love me.
(day 28…so this was going to be a 100 word challenge because I really love this poem and didn’t want to kill it with too many of my own words…then as I wrote, it sort of became an early Valentine’s Day gift…sorry not sorry for the sap.)

 

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)

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!)