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.

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.)

 

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!)

A ticket for my destination

“I was in crazy motion

till you calmed me down…”

(“Something So Right”, Paul Simon)

To the observant eye, Jazz Fest 2006 was a composition of strange juxtapositions. The pain of loss was fresh—surreal but powerful, pervasive. But, the city, nurtured and healed by its heart and enduring community, was reaching for recovery. Jazz Fest activities offered reprieve and felt almost normal, as though for a moment you might forget. But even amid that semblance of normalcy there was a constant haunting reminder that outside the gates of the Fair Grounds lie the lingering stench of floodwaters that sat for too long, houses (lives) left in shambles (unrecognizable), an emptiness left by those displaced or worse. There weren’t bookmarkers to measure this loss.

Inside the gates, however, was something else entirely–a vivid display of all that we are and have been; a brilliant indication that we would in fact be okay, we would rise again. The food, the music and the community of people joyously gathered together in spite of it all worked to heal something inside of me that day. Something I wasn’t so sure could be healed.

I went to that particular day of Jazz Fest as a bit of an unwilling participant. In addition to the devastation the storm brought to my family, in the months leading up to the storm, my husband and I had lost our son midway through the pregnancy and another baby to miscarriage. My body, my spirit was battered and seemed to understand a depth of loss that my empathic nature could never have predicted. It seemed permanent damage. And maybe on some level it has been.

Except not entirely.

I went to Jazz Fest that day for one reason only: Paul Simon. I was in a funk. I was sad…for myself, for my city, for my parents…and I just wanted some do-overs.  Paul Simon’s music does something to me that I don’t have proper words to explain. His lyrics are poetry in a way that not all lyrics can hope to become. His awareness of words, his attention to how they work together, to how the sounds of the letters and their repetition create a rhythm just as the music does, how his words create a moment for the listener–first inviting you in, then residing in your heart, in your mind. That is what poetry does…that is what Paul Simon’s work has done for me…storied my life, guided me through.

As I stood in that field, Paul Simon, playing songs we had all heard before, somehow uplifted the city of New Orleans, and I was delivered to a sort of rebirth…a baptism if you will, but not by water (there had been enough of that). It was music that brought healing and comfort that day and carried me from the funk to the other side…to a place where I could see the possibility of goodness again. I stood in that field not knowing if I would ever have children, but knowing that my spirit was healing and that no matter what, I would be okay.

“My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.”

(“Patterns”, Paul Simon)

Thirteen years later, I find myself in the midst of a new sort of recovery, facing the hope of yet another rebirth.

I spent so many months of the last year disabled by hearing loss and vertigo…and after becoming resigned to the fact that my hearing could be permanently damaged but I might still potentially hear the movement of my eyes forever (I promise, the novelty of this idea is deceiving)…after spending months trying to memorize the sound of my children’s laughter rather than be annoyed by the noise of it and carefully studying voices of loved ones before I no longer heard them as I should…after learning not to trust my body or my balance and after fearing loss of so much, I have come to find my body healed (at least for now) by a surgery that seemed unfathomable for so long.

Yet, while my inner ear is currently in a more cooperative mood, my mind and spirit are still trying to catch up. On any given day, at any given moment, I find myself suddenly stricken with absolute panic over the possibility of symptoms returning despite the fact that, everyday, my life is a little closer to normal. Or, I find myself unexpectedly emotional at the weirdest times when gratitude for health and healing overwhelms me. I’ve learned what it means to be a fighter over time, and while I am weary of having to continually prove my brawn, I furiously battle on through the weight of this anxiety and these grateful tears.

In the midst of all of the unknowns of this illness though, tickets went on sale for Paul Simon’s New Orleans show of his farewell tour.  We bought floor tickets without thinking too much about it. I had no idea if I would be able to stand in a crowd or stand at all…I had no idea if I would be able to hear well enough to enjoy the show…I had no idea if I would be too sick to attend. All I knew was that if Paul Simon was coming to New Orleans, I had to be there.

Buying those tickets was a leap of faith.

Recovery has not been an easy road, but my beacon all the way through was knowing that in just a few short weeks, I would be in the New Orleans Arena vertigo free, with my hearing restored and once again having my soul replenished by the beauty and richness of Paul Simon’s lyrics and music.

As I sit here tonight typing these words (the night before the concert), a tropical storm looms in the Gulf (I promise, this English teacher has assigned more meaning there than should be).  A bit of a reminder for me that storms will come–they might flood, they might destroy, they might bring uncertainty and fear and it might be hard to see in the midst of them or to know when it will subside, but there is another side.

There is always another side.

Tomorrow night, when I walk into that arena, I will be stepping not just into a shelter from the storm, not just into a brief respite, but I will be stepping toward the consolation that will be my reward.

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])