phenomenal

 

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
(excerpted from “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou)

In early December, I received this gorgeous thank you note from a student of mine. The thought behind this handwritten note alone would have been enough to remind me that the weight of my job delves deeper than the daily decision making that occupies so much of my time as principal/teacher. Our young people, my students, lead busy lives that create a constant hum of events, studying, clubs, family life, work and  more. College pressure and the pressures of figuring out who it is they wish to be in this world rests upon their shoulder’s as Atlas’ burden sat upon his. Amid all of this, she escaped her own needs and responsibilities and found the time to write a thank you note.

I also would have been moved by her simply mentioning of how grateful she is for the introduction she received to poetry in my class last year…for the opportunity to explore her new found passion fully in her writing (instead of forcing her to maintain the plan I had set out for the class). Students often come to my classroom with only negative feelings toward poetry. Once they are immersed in it, once they have the freedom to find their own meaning, once they venture into writing their own stories poetically, doors open, confidence blooms, they become writers.

But, what struck me most was the line that is underlined: “Thank you for being a strong female leader I can look up too [sic]” Well, it would be easy to forget this responsibility in the busy days of the school week. One could quickly become numb to the rest, to the fact that the kids are always watching. One could lose sight of the example we set just by being ourselves. Across this nation there are heaps off female high school principals–I am the product of an extremely impressive one, after all. But at my small school, the only leadership that has ever presided over the high school has been male. I know that I felt a small victory in breaking that barrier and assuming this position but I don’t think I realized until I read this note the impact that my students (especially my girls) felt by witnessing that changeover and the days that followed.

It has become increasingly important to me to uphold that responsibility, that honor with the dignity it deserves. I don’t necessarily do my job any differently or better than I would have before; I do, however, act with intentionality and a mindfulness of what my words and actions create. I feel an extraordinary  duty to exemplify that a leader can have an empathic heart and also enforce rules and enact change. I am more keenly aware that it is ever-important for me to display that a good leader has vision for the future and creates plans to achieve that vision but without sacrificing the heart of the institution. Honestly, every leader should be conscious of these qualities. But, I am also cognizant of the need to demonstrate that a woman is equal to that task. It is imperative that I use my voice wisely and not be afraid to assert it just because I fear being seen as noisy or abrasive. When I speak for the good of my students and the good of the school, I am working toward bettering learning opportunities and I should not cower from that because of possible perception. Because when it comes down to it, the reverse, the depiction of female leadership as always needing to be told what to do, of always waiting and never acting, of being quieted rather than elevated, is a far more dangerous example to set.

I am blessed to work in an institution that values my voice and my brain and so the confidence I am fighting is more from what the world around me has said for my lifetime rather than what is actually being enacted around me. Breaking that common societal narrative for the girls in my school has become paramount. My hope is that they will seek leadership roles in their lives, as many already have, and that they will assume those positions with grace and confidence because they are more than equal to the task and no one has ever made them think or feel otherwise.

So, these days, I am willing to walk the line a bit more. I am working to own the confidence it takes to do that. I keep this note with me all of the time as a reminder of purpose when the job feels too much…like another path would be easier. Ease isn’t always better; simplicity can also bring emptiness. The task is hard, the job demanding (seemingly impossible at times), but I am up for it…

“’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

 

(Day 58–tomorrow is king cake day!!! I would expect a super early post because I am anticipating king cake for breakfast and maybe again on the parade route!)

perseverance

Over the weekend I sort of accidentally came across the Guy Raz podcast “How I Built This” on NPR. In this particular installment, he was interviewing Bobbi Brown and I found myself captivated. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that makeup is not something I would claim to know a lot about or even to have a keen interest in. I see its purpose, I’m sure it’s great, but I’ve just never taken the time (or spent the money) to really figure it out. Honestly, I think most people assume that I wear no makeup at all (and not in that “Oh wow! Her makeup looks so natural” way). Given this set of circumstances, my fascination with this podcast came as a surprise. At first I listened only because I felt positive that my sister would enjoy it and I wanted to be able to recommend it to her with some credibility…to be able to tell her something about it. I stayed with it, because it was about so much more than makeup.

The substance of the show weighted itself in ingenuity, perseverance, knowledge of self–all of which are critical parts of any successful creative process. Her story begins in childhood enchantment with makeup, travels through finding the right collegiate experience after recognizing that the traditional college program scratched uncomfortably at her being, then treks through her career (both her work as a make up artist and in developing her own brand). At every stage of this story, her humanity was palpable which made her experience relatable. I am never going to build a multi-million dollar make-up brand, but her trajectory offered me some critical reminders about what it means to be creative.

In this society of immediacy that we live in where information is always at our finger tips and measures are always being taken to curtail waiting, we become forgetful of the fact that success isn’t always instantaneous. Generating a clever idea does not promise progress, does not assign accomplishment. We meet with achievement when we possess the dedication it takes to not only see the idea through, but also when we are willing to own when alterations are required and further, when we have the vision to make them effectively. Bobbi Brown’s brand’s initial spark ignited during an almost accidental conversation with a chemist and then through devotion to herself and her product, progressed from a really ingenious idea to a concrete reality. Success. After years of hard work and patience. After years of nurturing a notion.

I’ve also heard writers speak before about how some projects take years to craft, and something inside of me wonders if I possess that kind of patience and dedication required to write anything of true significance. Will I just dawdle my days through a hobby? Or will I finally pay it the attention it deserves to actually attempt to move it forward? Do I really lack the dedication or have I just not conceived the right project yet? I really thought after 51 days of blogging I would know better what it is I want to write, how to direct my attention. I really thought I would at least have figured out what kind of blog this is! But after listening to this podcast and others who have lived through this process, I realize that 51 days might not be enough….it might only be the beginning. Maybe I have more writing to do if I really want to figure that out. And it may not lead to anything at all, but at least I will know that I gave it everything I had…that I didn’t just extinguish the dream before it had a chance to become something more. That I didn’t abandon something I love simply because it might not take me anywhere. Actually, staying true to that part of myself, might be the best possible outcome anyway.

Some poems about dreams felt appropriate…

Harlem” and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

My Little Dreams” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

“(“dive for dreams…”)” by E.E. Cummings

(Day 51!! I ordered my gluten free king cake today and it will be ready to be picked up next Monday–the hardest part will be waiting until I’ve written Tuesday’s blog to eat it!)

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!)

endurance

There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.

“I’m not interested in

who suffered the most.

I’m interested in

people getting over it.”
There is beauty here that is simple, pure and I think often misunderstood. My students sometimes see these opening lines as insensitive…lacking in sympathy, empathy, human kindness. But what is missed in that interpretation is that she doesn’t write that she isn’t concerned for those who have suffered. She is simply less concerned with the misguided competition for who has endured more and is more intensely intrigued by the human process of getting over it–the ability to move on…without harboring hate. Because in the “getting over it” the substance of the human soul and the intensity of perseverance, the will to not just survive but to flourish becomes evident. The getting over it is the example, right? It is the inspiration to the rest of us, the paragon we look to in the midst of our own suffering. Without that inspiration, it’s hard to believe we can surmount the struggle. The “people getting over it” embody the hope that we need to carry on. (and when we persist toward healing, we in turn become that hope for others…a pretty cool cycle, right?)
Later in the poem she writes, “Each carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” Suffering isn’t unique to the individual, rather it is a quality of humanity. We all suffer to varying degrees (we all carry “a tender spot”), it is what we do with that pain that makes the difference. Do we choose to become bitter? To hate? To live in anger and frustration? Or do we choose to forgive? To extend grace? To live in acceptance and hope?
It isn’t always easy to envision a path that leads to the “getting over it”…and sometimes even once we locate that path, it is rather thorny. And sometimes the path requires more energy than we possess in the moment, so we sit down and rest…not wallow, just rest…so that we can unearth the strength, the courage to continue toward overcoming.
The poem ends with the hopeful line: “It’s late but everything comes next.”
In this world that swells with selfish selections…that swirls with negativity and heartache, fear and hatred…this line fills me up. It is late. But nothing is over. There is more to come. We haven’t seen it yet.
Let’s get over the tender spots and marvel at those around us who do the same. Let’s remember that hate doesn’t have to be our answer when wounded. Let’s keep our eyes on what comes next. Let’s live in community, in forgiveness, in a world where getting over it, healing is more interesting than some strange competition over who hurts more. We all hurt. At some point, we will all hurt. Let’s embrace our humanity and rise above that struggle to live our lives with meaning and intent.
Because that is, after all, the blessing of each new day.
(Day 44…loved revisiting this poem)

an exercise in brevity

We woke up to a bit of a thunderstorm this morning and immediately I remembered Jean Toomer’s “Storm Ending”. The thunder wasn’t so voluminous as to warrant lines like “Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,/Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,/Rumbling in the wind,” yet these words fluttered through my mind nonetheless, bringing calm and a slight smile.

It takes a deft hand and careful imagery to allow for beauty in the clatter that has frightened me since childhood, yet here, he has written thunder so perfectly that I’ve reconsidered its possibilities. Brushstrokes of poetry can retrain our vision, reset our judgement, reveal the truth beyond the scope of our sight…reminding us that while our perception of the world becomes our reality, it isn’t necessarily everyone’s reality. Reminding us that seeing beyond our ego, beyond our singular experience is the only way to truly absorb the vivacity of the world we live in. Reminding us that in any given situation, there are possibilities beyond what our perspective allows us to realize. Reminding us that with a small shift in understanding, things can look completely different. Reminding us that in this life, beauty can be found in the noisy, in the frightening, in the unexpected.

(Day 38…is this cheating? perhaps…but also, I had this moment, and this is all I really had to say about it…I say it counts!)