neutrality wavers

“See, I’ve been having me a real hard time…”

A couple of days ago, I cried.

The tears weren’t prolific or anything, but as they welled up and overflowed their banks, I couldn’t help but consider them glorious and restorative gifts…only, not in the way you might expect.

If you know me, a tearful moment doesn’t sound like some kind of triumphant occasion since one of my finest skills is feeling all of the feelings, all of the time…to a fault. I am not a daily cry or a cry in front of other people kind of human, but when overwhelmed by any particular emotion, joy…anger… frustration…sadness…love…awe, tears populate my eyes and from there travel as rivulets running. These tearful moments are sort of how I know I’m living in and connecting with the people and the world around me. They are sort of how I know myself.

Well, that used to be true. Until I contracted a relatively mild case of Covid in January 2021 with no prior comorbidities, and the workings of my brain became a bit of a mystery for the long haul.

“I just kept hoping, I just kept hoping/The way would become clear”

My long hauler symptoms have been extensive and, at times, debilitating over the last six months. Irregular heartbeat, intense fatigue, frightening brain fog, weekly and ever intensifying migraines, daily headaches, weird aches and pains, sore throat, hoarseness, tinnitus, dizziness, weakness, chest pain…this list could go on.

Perhaps the most troubling lingering symptom of all evolved as a strange neutrality. Me. The emotional cornucopia… neutral. Let me explain what I mean by “neutrality”…

“So please don’t take my feelings”

I became sort of inert, feeling no strong emotions one way or the other. Like an extinguished candle. And it was so hard to explain this to anyone because I was struggling in so many ways, it was hard to pinpoint this issue. And then, people kept saying they knew how I felt…which was strange because I wasn’t feeling much. In some ways, this neutrality was kind of nice because my lifelong anxiety dwindled significantly. On some level I just couldn’t muster the energy for it. That vacation from being driven by an overthinking  brain and an overzealous set of nerves was actually a delight. Not me at all, but kinda great.

Yet in other ways, this neutral stance was painful. I would be at events that I knew were important to me, that should have felt exciting, exhilarating and joyful and I, well I was just there…present but not…smiling but vacantly…not even sure how much of the moment I would be able to remember without the lingering vibrance of the emotion. I felt so far away from everyone and everything even when they were right next to me. I often found myself surprised by people’s reactions to my words because even my ability to communicate with emotion and sensitivity had been marred. At times, I would become overwhelmed by how badly I had been feeling or by work or just by the world at large and I would want to cry to release some of that tightly wound energy, but I couldn’t do it. That one outlet seemed to have barricaded itself from accessibility. At other times, I would be in conversation speaking about emotional topics, about how strongly I feel on an issue or how passionate I am about education and while my words were all true to who I know myself to be, they felt false in speaking them because inside they seemed hollow, detached. And so that is how I have been walking through the world since Covid, hollow and detached.

“So I just kept going, I just kept going/And hoping I’m growing near”

For a while, I embraced the idea that this was my brain’s way of protecting itself. It was dealing with too much in my extended recovery so maybe adding in emotion would have been debilitating. Actually, I felt it was pretty awesome of my brain to extend that gift. I knew with certainty that when the school year was over and I had the chance to fully rest, all of that neutrality would erode to reveal the emotions it had been shielding me from.

Except, it didn’t. It lingered.

And the longer it did so, the more I realized that this wasn’t just me trying to save myself from overwhelm; this was damage done to my body, to my brain, by Covid. When I considered the work I had to muddle through to relearn how to think through the incredible Covid induced brain fog, I realized that my emotional void very much connected to that situation…maybe even lost in the dense pillows of fog circling and settling…awaiting the sun to clear them away.

“And it feels so nice to know I’m gonna be alright

Please don’t take this feeling

I have found at last”

My brain is different than it was 6 months ago. It is healing–my tears this week are proof of that for sure, but no one can tell me to what point I will heal…because no one really knows. And I just have to try to not let that defeat me. I have to take what my body gives me and know that this recovery road is less than perfect but I am still on it.

So I am just going to say this…take it or leave it…it has become my lived experience and thus, my truth. Even a mild case of Covid can have life altering impacts beyond what anyone can tell you they might be. Be safe. Do what you can to keep yourself and those around you healthy. This is my current plan, because, let me tell you what terrifies me. The possibility of catching Covid again. Terrifies me beyond what I can type on this page. Because I am still sick. Because my brain hasn’t fully healed. Because I am just starting to feel like myself again six months after a mild case and I don’t want to lose that progress or worse. Because my pulse ox still dips into the upper 80’s and I would like for that to repair fully before my system is attacked again. I have had Covid once and I don’t need to re-live that misery (I’m sorta still living it). I’ve done all I can to keep myself and my family well. I should be safe. And yet, in this world, as people continue to tell me that Covid is no big deal, that it is a fiction, that it is nothing to worry about–essentially denying my lived experience, in this world still, I am not safe.

Lived experience can be different from our own and still be accepted as a truth, still carry weight, still be worthy of our attention. Maybe that is an overly empathic stance, but to me, it is the only way we learn to see each other with respect in this world…it is the only way we begin to act for each other  rather than just for ourselves, elevating our own singular story instead of the varied and valuable experiences of those around us. Hibernating in the blankets of that which makes us comfortable only endangers us. And so I tell this story of my experience with Covid. Not for sympathy because while a momentary comfort, sympathy doesn’t fix anything. Nope. I tell this story to add it to the collective tale of this pandemic. Because this outcome isn’t often written about. Because maybe it will help someone realize Covid is not worth the risk. Because maybe I just needed to get it out into the world.

“So, I just kept dreaming, yeah, I just kept dreaming’…Tryna figure out why”

(All lyrics from “This Feeling”, Alabama Shakes)

Seaspray

In this last year and a half of teaching during pandemic, I found myself reflecting heavily–wondering…considering… asking a lot of questions (more so than in a typical year).

Why am I teaching this material in the way that I am? Where is my focus centered–on kids or on material? Is this lesson really necessary in the learning lives of my students? How does this activity (you fill in the best word here–test, project, assignment, etc.) help kids grow as learners and as humans? How does this bring them actively into their learning process? In what ways will this learning open up their curiosity, ideas, perspectives? Is this work meaningful in the lives of the students seated before me?

When I cannot answer those questions in a way that aligns with what I know to be important in establishing a classroom that fosters engagement and is fully centered on the kids in front of me in that moment, then I know a change is necessary. In this year when so much was different and difficult and distracting, this reflection helped me maintain my focus and cull my practice. There was only time for what was truly substantive and significant. There was only time for learning that honored my kiddos, their voice, and their needs not only as students but also as humans living through a worldwide crisis (or, if you will, through worldwide crises).

It was a far from perfect year, but that intensity of inward gaze and outward paying attention to my kids created a critical cascade of change that should not disappear simply because things will one day return to some version of what was once “normal”.

One practice that withstood this crucible of questioning without much adjustment was that of daily poetry work. The work looks something like this…I bring in a poem (either one I have chosen or one a kid has recommended) printed and cut to size-ready to be taped into writers notebooks. We read the poem aloud, twice, then I ask my students (almost always) without agenda, to respond in any way that feels right to them. Maybe, the poem has struck them and they have something to say? Maybe they want to talk about structure or word choice or punctuation or line breaks? Maybe the poem reminded them of something and they want to write or draw about that? Maybe the poem ignited a creative flame and they will write in that direction? Maybe they feel a connection with the poet or they feel seen or they understand someone else’s perspective and they want to write or draw about that? This time can go any which way. It is theirs. I never pick up these notebooks. I never micromanage them. There is expectation and there is trust and in the marriage of the two, we are a community of readers, writers and thinkers.

After a few minutes of time in their notebooks, we talk. These conversations are never predictable or planned, but they are always worthwhile because they uncover learning I could not have foreseen…which is kind of the best.

Now, it would be dishonest to say that it’s easy for me to let their responses lead the way without my voice. Because I love poetry. Because I want them to love it. Because I want them to see all the nuances and depths awaiting them on that page. But it is also because of all of those things (namely that I want them to love poetry) that I stay out of it. If they are going to love it, it can’t feel like “just schoolwork”. They have to feel connected, invested, engaged and like they matter as individuals in the process. Once they fall in love with poetry (and they always do…always) and with some practice, my students come to notice all those intricacies on their own. And in that moment, the poetry and the meaning and the learning lingers and lasts because it is theirs. It belongs to them and not to me.

I spent last week at the beach with my family and friends. A much needed vacation after an incredibly stressful year. As I relaxed watching the waves, engulfed in the peace and serenity of their melodic journey to shore…as I felt the seaspray on my face, the sand beneath my feet, and the sun on my skin, I was reminded of two things (hang in their with me… teaching is always with me as is poetry so the connections are always close):

  1. This line of poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:       “it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
    the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
    you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
    the mist becomes central to your existence.”

    He’s talking about poetry here–poetry is not about the business (in other words, it isn’t crafted so we can underline metaphors and circle alliteration). Rather, it is about allowing the deepest part of yourself to connect with the work…and when that happens, “the mist” or the undefinable bits of meaning that spark only for the individual, well, that mist “becomes central to your existence” That seaspray connected me to that singular moment in my life in a way that I can promise you my 14 year old son, for example, didn’t experience. It is still what lingers with me today and I haven’t been on that beach in days. 

  2. And then also this…My friend Ellin Keene talks a lot in her work about the value of the aesthetic in the classroom. And that is what this poetry practice elevates. It allows kids to stand in the presence of something wondrous and to find connection with it…it creates time for the poetry to steer them toward meaning and creation rather than the teacher telling them how and what to think or to observe. No one had to guide my beach appreciation moment and quite honestly if they had, I might have missed the seaspray…I might have missed the mist (couldn’t resist that)…and the moment would have been more the guide’s and less mine. And I needed that moment just like my kids need the time with poetry (even when they walk in, roll their eyes, and sigh deeply the word “poetry…”).

I’ve considered over time tightening up this work in my classroom. Making it more instructive or practical. But without fail, each and every year, I watch this work shape my students as readers, writers, thinkers, and creators. I watch as it emboldens them to play with words, to shape and share their voice, to venture out onto the shaky branches of analysis and creativity. I watch as they slowly come to own their notebooks, to treasure them. I watch as they bathe in the “alarming waters” and linger in the mist of the beauty of the written craft placed before them and the works they have yet to create. I watch and am filled with awe of their courage and their ability when freed to put it to use as they wish to.

Sometimes, crafting a structure for a moment, the scaffolding, is far better than filling in the details. There is time for more precise and intentional instruction in other ways and in other spaces in my classroom. This time for poetry will remain a gift to my kids. Always.

patience

I don’t remember myself.

I’ve been sick before. Invisibly ill in insidious ways.

Lonely, as those surrounding me tried to understand, but without experience, had no foundation to allow for true belief in the turns my story had taken. Frustrated, as no one seemed able to resolve my ailments or even to incite a brief remission, a bit of respite, a break. Exhausted, afraid, broken-hearted and broken bodied. All of this. I have been all of this before in the midst of illness and yet despite the array of emotion, I’ve always been able to remember myself…for better and for worse.

The constant specter of who I used to be, what I used to be able to do haunted me without reprieve. I longed for the previous ease of propping up a smile…for the freedoms of frivolity without worry for an unforgiving symptom set…for working out without abandon because I was in charge of this body and we would be fit…for being able to honestly answer “I’m well” when asked how I was doing. I knew who I used to be, what I used to have, what I used to be able to do and I was jealous of her. Constantly. Achingly.

It took years to accept the terms of my new circumstances. To accept that the girl I used to be was still part of who I was becoming rather than extinct. That she was fully aware she was participating in a merger wherein her strength and joy and skills and hope were maintained and sharpened in this new fire faced. She populated my everyday though her life looked different. It took years to own and honor that there is no old me and new me, only me in this moment and I am always going to be in some phase of evolving into who it is I am meant to become…to honor that I still have control over the shades and hues I show and shower. But this process always included recognizing and celebrating who I’ve been along the way. And recently, that has become more difficult.

This battle back against what has evolved into Long Covid is different from all the other times I’ve faced health challenges (and there have been many). This fight has dissolved much of what I knew of myself. My brain is so exhausted and so foggy that I find myself behaving, responding, acting in ways that feel unrecognizable, strangely resistant to careful reflection and observation, interrupted moment to moment with absence of memory for what comes next, but it’s all I have the energy to produce. I find missing the small goodness of the beauty on the horizon, because I am tethered instead to what is currently right in front of me. Don’t look up or around or too far forward or back or you will lose what it is you have to do in this singular moment. Blinders are required but the blindness harbors despair for as missed moments pass, they grow heavy. I feel sometimes as though I’ve become a completely new human without the reference of experience and knowledge of who I was, of who I’ve been, there to guide me. All of my energy is focused on surviving days, getting through them, taking care of all those who count on me as best I can, which is great but I know that for now, I am not enough and also a bit of a stranger, even if only to myself. There are small touches in my manner that have evaporated and all of me is too depleted to attempt any sort of rebirth or refurbishment. Simply getting out of bed and forcing myself to get ready for work is enough to warrant a nap, but there is no time. I have to simply keep taking steps even when I have to fabricate the energy to do so.

And so I proceed having left my former self in the shadows with the hope that she will be waiting for me when I am able to pause, to take care of myself, to fight harder for recovery from something that very few fully understand. I hope that she will be there when it is time to measure this process of becoming. I repeat daily that this is just for right now, but right now exists for an undetermined period of time and there are pieces of my personality that I am not willing to sacrifice to Covid. Intrinsic empathy, generous kindness, careful words and reflection. I don’t need to be the same person I was before. That would be a denial of the experience and all it extolled. I lived it and am living it. Denying it later would make it all worthless. But I need to heal enough to deliver those elemental sparks back into being. That is the day I long for.

Until then, I will keep reminding myself to go slow and that today is not tomorrow yet. Change will come.

I can be patient.

open window

As I sit here to write this, I am sick with Covid and on my seventh day in isolation from my family, my students, the produce section at Whole Foods, and the world at large. My individual existence has taken one giant pause as I work to help my body heal and recover–and yet, the rest of the world carries on with a swiftness that renders me unable to compete. My emotions during this time have spanned the spectrum…at times angry (I’ve been so careful, so cautious, but I work inside of a school so exposure is a daily danger)…at times sad (My youngest texts me regularly from two rooms away that he is sad and misses me and I cannot even offer him a hug), at times joyful (as technology creates opportunities for connectivity even in the face of confinement). But, more than any of these, there has been panic…overwhelming fear facilitating full on panic attacks…more in the last seven days than in the last seven years combined. Not knowing what this virus will exact upon my system or the war it might wage on my family is terrifying to me. Will I be okay? Will the people I love be okay? Will I end up in the hospital, perhaps more alone than I am now? Will this linger? Will I survive?

That last question feels a bit dramatic, maybe. Except, it is the truth of the trek my brain has traveled. So, dramatic or not, it has been my reality. Why? Well, my body often exists in opposition to all I’ve done to care for it. It seems to enjoy testing the limits of my endurance, to place on trial my capacity to persevere. If there is a weird ailment, side effect, strange medical possibility…my body will seek it out hungrily…voraciously…fervently. What sounds like hyperbole, trust me, is not entirely such. I am exceedingly kind to my body, feeding it well, keeping it fit, all the things–yet it persists in rebelling. Vertigo. Unrelenting Migraine. Hearing Loss. Shingles Induced Nerve Damage. This list goes on. And so, I’ve come not to trust this body to behave itself, to follow the rules, to exist within the bounds of normalcy. And so, yes, my panic is a result of a lifetime battle with anxiety, but also as a result of not ever really knowing what my body’s next trick will be. And this, as well as concern for compromised members of my family and community, is why I’ve been so careful, so cautious, even when others thought it ridiculous. Yet, here I am anyway.

So, I’ve exerted as much energy fighting the anxiety and the frustration and the loneliness and the anger as I have ridding myself of this virus because those emotions will not be willing guides to wellness. And so I’m consciously making a list of positives (because, annoyingly, for better or for worse, this is what I do…):

  1. I’ve learned how to be dependent on others when needed without feeling guilty and my kids are learning the freedom that is carried by independence as they learn to cook some basics for themselves (their poor father is left to clean up their messes, but baby steps-at least they are cooking!).
  2. I’ve become dedicated to self care (because I can’t really care for anyone else from isolation): I am setting better boundaries instead of always people pleasing; I painted my toenails; I am stretching every morning; I am taking all the vitamins; I am binge watching “The Crown” simply because I enjoy it; I’ve opened and climbed out of my bedroom window daily to enjoy fresh air and a peaceful moment outside; and I am granting myself permission to rest (maybe it’s the truce my body’s been fighting for?)
  3. I’ve been showered in love and support and errand running and food delivery and checking in. Friends and colleagues and family have become beacons of hope and deliverers of joy not just to me but to my whole household. And all the praise to my resilient husband who is brilliantly rising to the challenges of running the show without complaint…and whose ceaseless entertainment of our teenage/pre-teenage boys has helped them to feel less afraid while mom is sick.
  4. I’ve discovered a new reading spot! Extra time alone in my room has equated to turning a chair to face the window to the backyard. Peaceful, lovely, perfect. It has been awaiting discovery and I’ve been too busy to see it.
  5. Stillness.

I opened my writer’s notebook today and the last time I had written, ironically, was in thoughtful response to Medora C. Addison’s poem, “The Days to Come“. Rereading it brought me further encouragement…especially the last stanza:

So shall the days to come be filled with beauty,/Bright with the promise caught from eastern/skies;/So shall I see the stars when night is darkest,/Still hear the thrush’s song when music dies.”

Which also made me think of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” when he writes, “For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.”

Which called to mind Ada Limon’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up” — “Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/ unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.”

Which brought me to David Wagoner’s poem, “Lost,” —“…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

Poetry often restores my perspective and brings balance amid whirls of chaos in a world of concern–sort of in the same way climbing out of my bedroom window and into fresh air has restored my spirit in these days of isolation. Today, poetry offered bread crumbs on the path out of the wilderness of this illness. But there is more wilderness out there for the world is not absolved of pandemic simply because I’ve encountered it.

We are all weary warriors these days. I get it. I do. But this reality continues to find new ways to make its presence felt…deeply. So it is up to us to remember that all the hope offered in these poems is something to cling to as we continue to make sacrifices, small and large, to prevent others from facing the uncertainty and danger of this invisible instigator. We need to make visible our fortitude moving forward; we need to live in love of our neighbor, taking care to take care. It is the only way forward I can find. It is a path that will be briefer with company, for together we will shine a light toward better and healthier days far more brilliantly than apart.

The window is open. I am hopeful.

An explication of a year

Somewhere along the way, poetry transformed from a carefully curated collection of words existing on a flat page into a lens through which I view the world. It is a metamorphosis that is tricky to explain to anyone existing outside of  my brain (which is everyone…so hang in there with me…). It goes beyond the way poetry in its vastness can challenge my perceptions and expose the bubble ensconcing my existence…beyond the exchange poetry makes–a telescope to view the far reaches replacing the finite view through the microscope of our daily lives. I suppose that all good writing offers such an opportunity, but in its compact punch, in its easily consumable size and portraiture, poetry invites us into the confrontation with truth without overwhelm or overstatement…leaving space for us, as readers, to linger beyond the reading…to meet the poem with our story and to wrestle as we begin to redefine understanding.

Yet, even beyond this, I’ve grown to see life itself as a series of stanzas, lines, poems–pieces of a collection, of an anthology, reflective of my own story and the revision of my vision, of the truths I have come to learn. Having long been a big believer in the importance and impact of “story” in our lives (both the stories we tell and perpetuate and those told to us and about us), it is no great leap to now realize that my stories are framed in verse rather than in prose.

As we ready to depart form this year of so much, there is a call to be rid of it, to move on, to not look back. Yet, in looking back, I realize there is so much that we can’t nullify or erase if we are really to move ahead. If I look at this past year through this poetic lens, there are stanzas that speak haltingly to fear that are followed by stanzas sprinkling seeds of hope…stanzas revealing terrible trauma met by those marking the path to healing…stanzas revealing the rediscovery of what is truly valuable after stanzas marking our former fault-full ambition.

There is imagery laden with a militaristic stealth attack waged by viral particles too tiny to hold in human sight. And then there is the resultant imagery looming heavy with the weight of loss (lost time, jobs, loved ones, health…so much lost). But there is also imagery erupting jubilantly with the wealth of humanity unveiled in the face of isolation and difficulty…singing from open windows, birthday parades, mass meal distribution, surging gratitude for those on the front lines, teachers delivering books to kids in need of a read.There were weeks and months that overstayed the welcome of their allotted time, of their line, and replicated their difficulty in the weeks and months to follow in an extraordinarily uncomfortable bit of enjambment.

But I think the punctuated moments offered up to pause and reflect are where I linger the most. The moments within parentheses where we brought joy and newness to our lives interrupted (as if to say, “Take that!”). The ellipses dividing the lines of our days as we pondered, “What next?” all the while realizing the danger of such a wonder. The constant question marks, line after line, stanza after stanza, as we walked through unknown regions with no map to guide us–only shifting sands beneath our feet and the next best step, which was?

But then this–mostly this…

I often tell my students that the em dash is like a poetic breath on the page–a bit of space sacrificed intentionally by the poet so we, the reader, can inhale, consider and exhale before moving on to the rest of the poem. The protests that awakened the world to the truth and still very present ravages of racism–that opened eyes to the systems still in place perpetuating daily the vast detriment that positions of privilege have birthed–began while the world sat in quarantine…hibernating, if you will, within the bounds of one giant em dash. We had the time–to pay attention, to look inward, to be unsettled by our own truths (well, as a white woman, I can only speak for my own truths), and to determine how to move forward. We had the time, without excuse, to witness, to listen, and to learn from this most difficult and complex stanza (one new to so many, but for others a repeated refrain they’ve known for years). We had the time to take the breath offered by the em dash of quarantine and to actively set forth to do more, to make change. That moment, that em dash, was gifted with intent by no Earthly poet because we are after all called to live this life in love. That love is not in name only nor can it thrive if we keep it blindfolded. This call requires each of us to act in love and that includes challenging systems that deny humanity. We needed a pause, a reset, to see this…to feel this…to live into this.

If I’ve learned anything from the stanza of this past year, I’ve learned the value of intentionality…of knowingly creating space to pause, observe, take a breath and move forward. This em dash intentionality is true in all aspects of my life–whether I’m examining if my actions speak loudly enough to my beliefs or whether I’m considering ways to spend more time making time for friends and family without the burden of school clouding my vision and my heart.

As we leave 2020, I am eager for the period that will close the verse, full stop, but I also don’t want to burn to ashes the pages containing the year, leaving them to scatter to the winds. The lines and stanza of 2020, if the struggle is to be worth anything, must color those yet to be written in 2021–so that we can be better, so we can exist in some form of gratitude for the days to come (even the crappy ones), so that we can ensure the year of too much doesn’t win. I won’t carry every line, every image, every mark of punctuation everyday, it would be too heavy. But “the mist” that Juan Felipe Herrera speaks of will linger as a reminder of all I’ve gained even in the leanest and cruelest of days.

(Also this…I love this poem as we enter a new year…“Oceans” by Juan Ramon Jimenez)

wonder

Lately, my migraine life has had a reductive impact on my exercise life…like walking my neighborhood is really all I can do without negative effects. I mean, some days are pretty golden and I can get away with a HIIT workout or some TRX work without too much residual discomfort, but those days are becoming more and more rare. But this new walking habit is not without benefit (beyond the physical well-being bit). There is a freedom offered in these walks–they belong solely to me, a rare moment in time where I act just for myself. I determine my path, my playlist, my distance, my pace. I don’t need to weigh the opinions of others. I don’t need to compromise with anyone else. I don’t need to negotiate with or listen to anyone other than myself. It is a step toward solitude, toward peace, toward wholeness.

And today, it was a step toward reawakening wonder.

We have this glorified drainage ditch running through our neighborhood…my kids call it a “creek” but I feel like that term just transforms their exploration of it on summer days into something a bit more adventurous–I mean, come on, who wants to say, “Hey mom, can we go check out the drainage ditch?” Words do matter and who am I to deny their careful work with connotation?! On recent walks, this “creek” (I’m just going to stick with the positive nomenclature of my kids here), has been pretty dry and even a little musty. Without the nourishment of rain for the past several days and even weeks, the creek was losing its richness and its beauty was waning(yep, the drainage ditch too can be beautiful). The creek bed was still there, patiently awaiting renewal in the natural cycle of things, but the deprivation on the path to getting there was taking its toll.

And then, after withholding its gifts for so many days, the rain paid a long awaited visit.

As I was walking today through that rain, I heard a noise outside my earbuds as I neared the creek. At first, I thought a car was coming up behind me and so I glanced around to be sure. Not a moving vehicle in sight (not many care to be out and about on a rainy Sunday). Then it struck me. What I heard was not a car, rather it was rushing water swiftly running down rocks and filling up the creek–almost as if it could not get there fast enough. They cycle of hardship was ended…patient endurance, rewarded with rebirth.

It was beautiful and weirdly wondrous at the same time.

In a time when so much feels lost…when we feel so without, so lost…to witness renewal in that way, well, it restores a bit of faith that our dried out, musty selves will one day (even if it is later rather than sooner) be met again by that which makes us whole.  Even in dormancy there can still be the expectation of revival and in that time of waiting, there can even be joy. And in the stillness of that hope (okay, stillness while walking a 14 minute mile…), I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Song For Autumn” and how in it she offers fresh perspective on what we think of as the hibernation of nature’s beauty in the fall.

“Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now

how comfortable it will be to touch

the earth instead of the

nothingness of the air and the endless

freshets of wind?…”

Maybe the creek appreciated the rest, the time to itself, the solitude within which to appreciate the pause and the chance to just be? And maybe its reunion with the rain was even sweeter for the time without?

Maybe I am just a swoony hopeful optimist who seeks answers in poetry and nature for that which seems without solution?

But, a spark of joy was ignited inside my heart and in these days, that spark is good enough for me.

lifting the lens

I think sometimes in the midst of the bombardment of disappointments and devastation the world seems to hurl freely these days, it becomes easy to lose sight of just how much authorial control we still have within our lives. It becomes easy to unwittingly sink into helplessness and to relinquish our rights to the details of our story without even an honorarium paid. Lately, the stuff  of  life has become exceedingly good at bullying us into believing that we need a new year or a new phase of life to be able to fully enjoy and live into our existence.

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

And to sit idly, waiting for something to come along and offer immediate healing is a dangerous stance to take. In doing this we become bystanders in our own lives, rather than active participants. It is an admission and acceptance that our joy can only come from someone or someplace else. That we cannot create that for ourselves and must wait for it to be delivered on a schedule that isn’t published or even guaranteed.

In this season of giving thanks, remembering that in every circumstance we have the ability to lift the lens of gratitude rather than the scope of victimization holds the potential to restore our outlook. We have the ability to empower ourselves to seek the goodness in the scant and the beacon in the bleak. In the moments in my life in which I have felt the deepest grief and the least control over my circumstances, gratitude has unfailingly delivered a way forward while restoring my rights to the details of my own story.

There was no other way to walk toward peace after delivering a child into a world he would never know. The Oprah Show was still airing daily in the year that we lost Nathan. And you know, Oprah’s words carried weight, so when she began talking about the importance and life changing qualities of something as simple as gratitude, I paid attention. Okay, I also thought she had lost her mind. I was so deep in grief. I was so angry and for so many reasons. I was so full of shame and regret. And I couldn’t seem to let go of any of it let alone summon the strength to seek gratitude. What could I possibly have to be grateful for?

But Oprah said gratitude changed lives, so I tried it.

It wasn’t easy.

As Joy Harjo writes, “Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.” (link below)

Gratitude is an active stance and as such required total effort on my part. Without constant attention and care, without a mindfulness to lift the lens, gratitude disintegrates before it can invigorate. There is one day that the lens was lifted for me…one day that sort of changed everything. I was leaving the house of a friend who delivered her child a month or two after we lost ours, and I had to pull over because I was weeping so hard it became impossible to drive. I had just stopped in to deliver some treats and to see the sweet babe and somehow hadn’t prepared myself for the onslaught of emotion that would follow. As I sat in my car sobbing beneath the weight and complexity of loss, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was crystal blue–not a cloud to be seen–and it was stunning and somehow full of hope that things would not always be so cloudy and dim. A switch flipped. Through my tears and with a shaky voice, I spoke into gratitude (like literally out loud)–thank you for this amazing sky to remind me that there is still light in the world…there is still hope.

Everyday after that moment, as I walked the often shadowy path toward peace after loss, gratitude was my guide…my signpost. But more importantly, gratitude was my choice. Gratitude (and well, I guess Oprah too) changed my life.

So, even now, in the face of all that 2020 has delivered, in the face of chronic illness and pain, in the face of so much uncertainty and turmoil, I walk the world wielding gratitude because that is something I can control…that is something I don’t need to wait for…that is something that even in the most treacherous moments unfailingly shines a light. It is not a perfect practice and often requires effort I don’t feel like exerting, but it is a worthwhile endeavor every single day of the week.

“For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” by Joy Harjo, referenced earlier, speaks to this effort towards gratitude beautifully. Honestly, it is worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing–this poem is stunning and a gorgeous reminder. But just in case, at least I can leave you with this excerpt…

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.”

(And trust me. This is not an attempt to oversimplify of the vast weight of mental illness. I am not offering gratitude as some kind of simplistic inoculation against the depths of depression or any other depletion of mental health.  Just as a way to see a less than forgiving world)

Debunking the myth of teaching poetry

Story possesses relevance in our lives that might easily go overlooked. But the stories we tell ourselves and others both implicitly and explicitly, the stories others tell us, the stories we allow ourselves to believe and the ones  we  pretend are not true all shape who we have been, who we are in the present moment, and who it is we have the capacity to become. Over time, the idea that “story” possesses this weight has won itself a position as the primary lens through which I teach English–at every level, to every kid who might walk through the door. To work towards creating an environment that allows young people the opportunity to realize that they are the curators of the stories that comprise their identities imbues the teaching of reading and writing with new energy and vitality. Watching kids discover their truth and the truth of the world beyond the stories they’ve been living and beyond what they’ve been told is nothing short of inspiring. 

I like to tell my students the story of my reading journey as evidence that sometimes the stories we assign ourselves are not always reflective of a lifetime of truth. Proof that stories can change. Despite the  joy of walking to the public library in the summer to select books to read and the thrill of being allowed to check out texts from the upper school library before I had reached the required age, I never really loved sitting down to read those books. I certainly never had a passion for reading. I faked my way through nearly every text I was assigned to read for school (which I like to think gives me great instinct to see the same behavior in students). I loved the idea of books, but hated the process of reading. I was slow when others were swift. I craved the joy of finishing the book but didn’t have the stamina to get there. 

Reading made me feel less than smart and so I chose to avoid it.

Then, in junior year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I read The Great Gatsby as part of my English III class. It wasn’t that I saw myself in this text that drew me in. I’m not sure I read a single book in high school that allowed me to feel seen. Still, this book became the spark that ignited my passion for reading. It was Fitzgerald’s lush language, his symbolism, his imagery…it was the writer’s craft…that drew me in more than the story. I felt valued for my insight into the text and I lingered over every word. I thought, in that moment, that maybe I was so slow as a reader all this time because my analytical skills were hyper alert.

And so for a long while, I thought I loved reading because I  loved unravelling its meaning through analysis. Yet, the more I grew as a reader, the more I realized that it wasn’t the work of analysis that allowed me to be affirmed by my reading process. On the contrary, it was being allowed the privilege to witness the genius of what happens to words when a writer so carefully arranges them to create a moment for the reader. It was the joy of recognizing that every writer would shape their words differently…that I could do this too…that I could play with words until I found my own voice…that I could create a moment for a reader too.

I was a slow reader because lingering with beauty should never be rushed.

I was a slow reader because even if the book was assigned for a particular purpose, that personal interaction between me and the aesthetic remained sacred and could not be denied.

Kids are always amazed by this story because surely every English teacher has always loved to read and any story to the contrary seems ludicrous. (side note…they also love it because I talk of the olden days where I had to physically go to a book store to purchase Cliff’s Notes…that cracks them up every time). But what they don’t see coming is how their own mythology as readers and writers will be debunked…and not by me, but rather by themselves and their experience.

Students in my classroom are exposed to an inordinate amount of poetry.

It is sort of my thing.

They come in to my classroom knowing that will be their experience and they prepare themselves to hate it. Their poetic experience has been nothing short of schoolified misery…poetry only for analysis…poetry only for understanding figurative language…poetry only for making class anthologies…poetry only for exposure to the classics (whatever those may be). They have not read poetry for themselves. They have often not been granted the agency to find the poems they love. They have not been given license to linger with the words, to appreciate the aesthetic. They have not been freed to write poetry the way they want, finding their own voice as they explore what is meaningful in their world.They have not had the chance to read poetry for enjoyment without an assignment or larger purpose tacked onto it, and so poetry is always for the classroom. And because so many of us who spend our days in classrooms with kids were taught poetry in a way that prevented all of this from occurring, the cycle often repeats itself.

But what if we rewrote that story?

Juan Felipe Herrera writes this in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:

“a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.”
 
We have been granted the brilliant opportunity to shape the story of poetry in the lives of our kids…to allow their “spirit into the alarming waters” where “the mist becomes central to your existence.” We can let them sit with poems. We can give them the time to enter into the work with no greater purpose than to find themselves and the world. We can allow space to connect not just with what the poet is saying but with how it is being said. And we can do all of this in meaningful ways without requiring the same exact analysis from each and every kid. Is analysis of text important? 100%. This world throws texts at us daily and we need to know what  to do with them…how to make meaning from them instead of waiting for someone else to do that for us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot also give time for the appreciation of the gift of the words on the page. Just because students aren’t picking the poetry apart searching for some  aloof meaning does not mean that they are not learning important lessons about what it means to read and to write. 
 
I’ve yet to teach a kid who hasn’t walked away from our time together with a new story of poetry and what it might mean for them. I’ve yet to teach a kid whose writing didn’t improve as a result of having  spent meaningful time with  poetry. When we present something as possibly bringing joy and connection instead of as a chore because “we have to do this poetry unit,” we open doors to new possibility for our students and for ourselves. 
 
We rewrite the story of poetry as one of sacred space for each and every human who allows their spirit to be pulled in.
 
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that authorship?
 
The first step? Find the poems and poets you love…not the ones that are in the curriculum guide or that you were told to teach or to read…the poems and poets you love. Sit with them. Set your spirit  free to linger in the “mist” and maybe even set your mind free to begin to play with words poetically yourself.
 
The rest, well, the rest will take care of itself.
 
(Much love to Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Georgia Heard, and Micah Bournes who  presented an amazing session at NCTE 2020 last night very much affirming my practice and reminding me of its importance…and also to Ellin Keene for her die hard advocacy for making space for the aesthetic in our classrooms)
 
 

Anticipation

Having dealt with chronic illness for the last 8 or 9 years, one of the messiest mental mud holes I needed to dig myself out from existed in a very simple sentence starter…which existed in variations of itself but always lead to the same deleterious effects. It always went  something like this: “Back when I  could…” or “The old me could have…” or “There was a time in my life when _____ was possible”. The trouble with these statements emanates from their constant glance backwards which blinded me to my current truth. And maybe that was my mind’s ulterior motive. If I was always idolizing and gazing back at the “old me”, then the current version of myself was only a temporary imposter. I didn’t have to accept this new human with her new limitations, in her new situation. She was a lesser version of old me and I didn’t really like her very much. Her life seemed less than the one I had been working so hard for so long to create. I wanted more. I wanted what I felt I deserved.  I looked to every outlet that might offer healing because this would not  (NOT) be what defined my existence for the rest of my life. This was a “right now” scenario and I would fix what people told me could not be fixed. I tried acupuncture,  chiropractors, physical  therapy,  vestibular  rehab, essential oils, neuro-otologists, audiologists, oral  surgeons, dentists (this list  goes on for a while, you get the picture). And while I might find relief, no one held the cure…the magic potion that would restore old me and extinguish new me. I felt I had tried everything to heal myself.

But sometimes…

…we have to look within first.

One day, in a moment of defensiveness, I told a friend,  “I have a neurological and inner ear disorder; I am hearing impaired. So what?!”  And it was one of the most freeing moments of my entire life.

I had said it.

Out loud.

In the world.

For someone else to hear.

I had spoken the truth that I had been working so furiously to deny and to walk away from. In that moment, I began to nurture acceptance rather than denial. In that moment, I began to slowly and steadfastly heal myself rather than futilely and frantically try to eradicate my disorder. The path toward acceptance possesses an inordinate number of thorns and there is no map to navigate it well. It requires resilience and dedication and also, as I came to learn, anticipation of who I was becoming rather than disappointment over who I had lost. I did not need to mourn that girl who could do some stupid number of burpees in two minutes…I did not need to mourn the adventures she would never seek (because let’s face it, “adventure” was never really my thing anyway)…I did not need to mourn any of it because she was still a part of me and together, we were becoming someone stronger, someone more beautiful, someone who despite limitations still had plenty to give to this world.

And so in anticipation of who I was becoming, I fought harder.

As 2020 wears on and I feel like so much in this world is changing and shifting, I once again find myself gazing backward. “Remember when we could…” “Remember when we didn’t have to…” “Remember the days before…” Of course we all remember all these things, they are a part of us and our stories. And for a substantial piece of our lives they dictated our narratives for us. They are not lost forever, though, just in a holding pattern of sorts…wrapped in bright paper waiting for us to unwrap them again when it is safe and maybe with the newfound gratitude we are all bound to feel for what was once just the everyday.

I  find myself making this note in my notebook at school regularly: “Anticipate who you are becoming in all of this”  It is a necessary reminder when the work of reimagining school on a regular basis grows exhausting and frustrating. It is a necessary reminder when I decide how I will  react or respond to those around me at work, at home, in my community. It is a necessary reminder that this is my story and I am not a static character. I am dynamic. I am changing. And I can shape that change and my attitude about it.

Opening my mind and my heart to accepting myself, presented some of the toughest work I’ve faced…and that work doesn’t end, maybe not ever. Some days issue considerable challenges while others tender feelings of accomplishment and joy. Regardless, all the days are situated in anticipation of who I will become on the other side of the struggle and what work I can do in the moment to make that person a better one than she is today.

Neither a neurological disorder nor pandemic can change that…unless I allow for it.

All you need is shade

I’d  like to be  under the  sea

In an octopus’s  garden  in the shade”

(The Beatles)

Imagine…

It is a beautiful but unseasonably warm spring day in a time before music festivals had been extinguished by the blight of pandemic. It is a day full of food and music and joy and laughter…and sweat…so much sweat. As the day draws nearer to its closing, you stand amid what seems an endless sea of humanity in anticipation of the headlining act, and in that moment, you realize that under the oppression of the heat you are faltering.  A  little  shaky, a little sick, and in need of relief, you glance skyward in hopes that even a single cloud might be dancing toward the sun to offer a brief respite. Only, there is not a cloud to be found and a bit of panic starts to settle in because you have convinced yourself that in fact you cannot survive the show without some kind of shade. Suddenly, there are too many people around. Suddenly, you are questioning your decisions–why didn’t you wear a hat…why didn’t you buy an extra bottle of water…why are you even still standing here in this misery when you could be at home, cool and comfortable…why does no one else seem bothered by this?

But then the show begins…the crowd roars as the first few chords resonate…

…and everything shifts.

As though suddenly inoculated with protection against the heat,  you find yourself relinquishing the internal panic in favor of the auditory peace of the moment.  

Washed over, baptized if you will, by the waters of this magical, musical oasis, you are            no longer languishing, but living.

You are no longer ailing, but alive.

The temperature has not changed.

The circumstances are nearly identical to what they were just moments before.

But in the shade of the music, it is all bearable and you can continue in spite of it.

Not only that, but you can find enjoyment in the midst of what was misery.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Early in our days of life at home not so many months ago, I found myself reaching out to known places of comfort. Only, as was also true of the world, what I thought I knew, no longer carried weight. I could not focus long enough to read a page of any of the books in my many stacks of “to be read” without swiftly realizing that in fact I had retained nothing and had to reread the page…again and again, until I finally put the book to the side in frustration. I  blamed the books for a while, assuming that they just didn’t suit me, before realizing that the books were innocent and it was my overwhelm that was to blame. In the face of not being able to escape into fictional worlds, I began countless blogs in an attempt to at least log the truth of my own reality, but I lacked the stamina to see any of them through to completion. And so I turned to exercise, but that too looked different at home–alone, without my friends and the benefit of peer pressure to drive my intensity. This list of “Amy’s Pursuit of Peace” goes on for quite a while and it always seemed hampered by the ever present worry of ensuring my family was at the very least “okay” as well as the constant stress of running and reimagining school from home (and also cooking…endless cooking).

It seemed every place I turned in search of shelter only tossed me deeper into the desert. No effort made seemed enough to construct substantial enough shelter from the ever brewing storms brought on by pandemic life at a time that was also marked by violence in the face of a courageous symphony of voices crying out for overdue racial justice and change…by a country defined by its division…by a litany of natural disasters unfurling their fury as though all the turmoil we felt on the inside suddenly took form in our weather. Smoke clouded vision and smothered breath; flood waters rose leaving trademark ruin in their wake; winds whipped, tearing trees and towns to pieces.

And yet, we had to persist. It was the only way to survive–fight the fatigue and carry on even when you think the next best step is too much. There was little rest, not enough relief, and the idea of a true shelter to shield us from it all became nothing more than a mirage as I stumbled through the heat longing for an oasis.

And then, one day I was walking in my neighborhood (a newfound point of peace in the midst of my surrounding mayhem) and my music was on shuffle because in a world confined to mundanity of home, a little surprise adds color to the day. The Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” came on and I had to smile.

“I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’s garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In his octopus’s garden in the shade

I’d ask my friends to come and see
An octopus’s garden with me
I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’s garden in the shade”

I mean, at first, yes, it was just delightful to imagine this garden with its caretaker who “knows where we’ve been”, and the thought of my friends being able to be there with me when we had spent so much time apart was lovely. But then I realized that in seeking full on shelter, I was actually entering a labyrinth of frustration. I had been asking for too much in desiring something that would repel the truth of the world and keep me safe inside while it happened around me. Impervious protection was not truly the goal. It would have summoned comfort, sure, but it would have also encouraged weakness rather than inspiring strength.

What I really needed instead was a little shade. A brief break to regain my strength. And even if the comfort of shade would not produce itself in obvious ways, I had to seek it out in unexpected places (an octopus’s garden, if you will).

I think we are all pretty uncomfortable right now and for lots of really good reasons, you know? It is just a hard time to be human in this world. There are no immediate cures for the myriad ills we face and in the middle of the desert, with not a cloud in the sky and no true waters of restoration in sight, shade is what we must seek and also create to get us through. My tiny pauses of peace in the shade would not be found in the usual places because the world is not its usual self. I had to initiate invention and be bold in seeking and recognizing the small moments that allowed me to catch my breath so I could be emboldened to face the next moment of struggle. I had to plant my  own trees under which I could sit from time to time to regain myself and my well being…under which I could sit from time to time to remember that even though my circumstances have not changed, there is still joy to be found and love to share.

It takes energy to create shade that will give life. And energy can be hard to muster the longer we endure.  I am trying to remember to name my shade when it is present, to rest beneath it and to recover and in my rekindled strength, to then turn my gaze away from myself and toward extending shade to comfort those around me. Because that is how we will truly survive. Selflessly together. In order to have the determination to reach the true oasis of renewal on the other side of this desert of tumult, we have to be in this with each other, for each other. We won’t all get there at the same time, but if we take comfort in the shade we create and find and share, we will all get there eventually.