story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

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.

half-way

Today, I was mentioning to my students that I was at the half-way mark of my blog-a-day writing journey.

Their response?

“Oh my gosh!! You are only half-way?! It seems like you have been doing this forever!”

(there was also this… “How have you not eaten any king cake yet?!?!” Which, honestly, I have no idea how I have not given in!)

I’m not going to lie, I feel like I have been blogging everyday forever at this point as well. The difference between my students and I here exists in the fact that some of them sort of grimaced at the thought of having so many more blogs to go, while I relish it. What was once a duty brought on by the creation of this challenge to myself, has become habit…has become the discipline that I was hoping for. I’m not really writing for king cake anymore (though don’t get me wrong, I will be indulging on Mardi Gras day), I am writing for myself and because the more I write, the more I understand who it is I am as a writer. It’s not always easy, I do not always want to sit down to write, and sometimes, once I do, I sort of hate what I have written. Some nights I argue with myself for a good fifteen minutes before finally succumbing to the will to write instead of falling prey to the desire to sleep. Some nights, I have no idea how I will find the time. Work and family garner my attention and dedication first and some nights that means I don’t have time to write until later than I care to be awake. But somehow (and with the encouragement of my husband), a moment opens up, invites me in, and the writing finds its way onto the page. The creative act is all at once intimidating and exhilarating and I enjoy facing that challenge every evening, if for no other reason than out of curiosity for what will come of it.

And I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer and writing in general through these 32 days:

  1.  I don’t have to like what I write; I just have to write.
  2. Despite being an avid and proud morning person, I can in fact write at night, while tired, and with a headache.
  3. The more I write, the faster I write. My process has always been methodical, slow, intentional. I have always sort of loved that. And it works–when there is time. But my process should not create an impediment to a regular writing habit. Sure with more care and more time, each of these blogs would have been improved…but with more time, most of them would never have seen completion or publication (and I require that accountability).
  4. This project is a far better use of my time in the evenings than staring at my phone!
  5. I am better spoken than perhaps I was before…or at least it feels that way. Because I have dedicated time with just me and my words everyday and because my composition skills feel sharper and swifter, my conversational skills feel the same (which is saying a great deal– since the inner ear malfunction, my brain hasn’t always been friendly to my ability to converse with ease).
  6. Writing teachers need to be writing. ( I’ve always known this, but I understand it far more deeply now than before this project began)
  7. Writing teachers need to be sharing their writing journey with their students (because honestly, that has been one of the best parts of this whole affair. And I don’t mean just the stiff, teacherly “Let me share my process with you.” That is helpful and important of course, but there is more to it than that, right? It is important to share the moments that aren’t so carefully crafted to be teachable–the human moments that are more instructive than we give them credit for. My students and I have this whole writing thing in common now and if nothing else, they know that I am with them…that I get it…that I am doing the work too…and that sometimes it is difficult for me just as it is for them…and that we can all persevere through that. And also, they have come to realize that writing is not just about assignments in school, it is a way of life.)
  8. 32 days is not enough time to persuade my dog that this project, which has placed a computer in the lap she prefers to sit in, is a good idea.
  9. King cake is a good motivator, but clicking publish is a better one.
  10. The support of my family–the knowledge that they recognize how important this is to me–heightens my desire to persevere, to continue writing.

(32 days!! My sister told me I should post a pic of myself longingly looking at king cake today. I totally failed there…but it’ll happen eventually.)

And also, because this poem makes me think about the creative act of putting words to the blank page…“The Storm” by Mary Oliver

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)

100 word challenge

My AP students are studying photo essays and the idea of bias has become a focus. Discussions shepherded them toward realizations that we cannot simply observe what is included in the photographs–we must also pause to consider what is excluded. They have come to recognize that in every story (including our history), the story teller shapes the telling–selecting or rejecting the details that reflect their experience, their understanding. The story teller owns the power. Since story is inextricably tied to human experience, investigating who we grant that power becomes a critical step in how we see the world and ourselves.

(Day 25–today I needed a challenge within the challenge. Since I like to use all the words and overword everything, getting this thought across only using 100 words forced me to weight each word chosen…which was a nice departure from the same format day after day. I feel as though some things were left unsaid and that the point could be punchier, but this was a fun exercise nonetheless.)