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.

Forgiveness, part one

I am a chronic apologizer.

My apologetic refrain, a lifelong expression of my need to never inconvenience and to always keep the peace.

I try so hard to teach young women to never apologize for their existence or their strength or their voice and yet I cannot seem to break my own apologetic cycle. So much so that apology seems to be a state of being rather than a momentary but necessary sincerity. And it is disappointing that my urge to please all the people pushes me to say “I’m sorry” when what I should be saying is “This truth is difficult and less than easy, but here it is anyway. Let’s work through it together.” That truth I find myself explaining away contritely could be some element of the chronic illness that is beyond my control but with which I deal daily or it could be some issue that felt necessary to speak up about. And I’d like to be able to say that much of the onus for my need to express apology falls on others for perpetuating an expectation that I should feel sorry. But the responsibility remains with me. It is up to me to own my power. It is up to me not to waver in the face of derision because of it. And I’d also like to be able to say that the writing that follows will be my version of a pithy list of all the things I will no longer apologize for and why.

But it won’t be.

Because here’s the thing…I know that list. I teach that list. I remind others to abide by that list. But my own complicated truth is that I struggle to uphold it in the moments when it matters. This impulse to apologize is composed of threads so intricately woven into the fabric of my being, that to unravel them takes more than a confident written assertion.

And so I will begin in a different place. One that makes sense after a difficult, well, exhausting, day of apologizing needlessly, making myself smaller, and then quieting the things I know to have been important.

That place is forgiveness.

Because, while I cannot undo this habit immediately, I can give myself some grace in the process of trying to. I can forgive myself for faltering.

Today, I forgive myself for questioning myself when I should have questioned others.

I forgive myself for forgetting the value of my work and my voice in that work and for allowing the noise of others to intrude into what I know to be my worth and my truth.

I forgive myself for saying I am sorry when it didn’t need to be spoken. For giving others the easy way out by sacrificing myself so they could have it.

I forgive myself for walking away instead of sticking it out…for lowering my voice instead of furthering it. For turning inward to hide instead of seeking new ways forward.

I forgive myself for adding conditionals into my language that dilute my purpose in order to placate others who shouldn’t really require anesthetizing wording.

I forgive my body for its complications and for the pain, fatigue and challenges it elicits. I forgive myself for not taking the time I need to be well in order to be more for others. I forgive others for not being able to see past the carefully crafted performance of my smile to understand that I am unwell and just scraping by.

I forgive myself for being a flawed human, and at the same time I love myself for being an empathic one.

I celebrate myself for allowing empathy to enter and steer my relationships and how I reach out to and speak up for others.

I celebrate my heart for recognizing hurt in the humans around me and for wanting to be a salve in the healing.

I celebrate who I was yesterday, who I am today, and who I will become tomorrow because as I continue to revise what I have been  and who I want to be, I am grateful for the whole of it.

And this is how forgiveness works. Releasing the burden of hurt (whether it exists within or without) somehow (and rather unexpectedly) removes the scales from our eyes allowing us to see the good which, today, dug me out of a pretty deep hole. Love begins with forgiving the self because if we cannot forgive ourselves, how on earth will we be able to extend love and forgiveness to those around us. Writing this was a great reminder of that truth (especially since I had no idea where it was going when I began…I just needed to write). “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed is a great reminder as well…a beautiful one…and I unapologetically offer it to you to read.

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)

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.

the clam

“And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer
Let it be

For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer
Let it be”

( “Let It Be”, John Lennon and Paul McCartney) 

My dog, Gingersnap, got out the other day. In the moment of her (apparently much sought after) liberation, she sprinted with the speed of exhilaration, evading capture for far too long and creating quite a caper. As I witnessed her escape and before the fear of potentially losing my sweet (albeit noisy) companion set in, I realized that her fleeing the confines of this house was quite the metaphor for how I believe many of us will feel when finally able to live fully in community again.

Except, I would honestly stay shuttered in this house for another year if somehow it would exonerate my kids and allow them the opportunity to play with their friends again.

I suppose this sounds like the voice of privilege. My kids are healthy. They are cared for and housed and clothed and fed and nurtured every single day. They have a backyard to play in and a safe neighborhood through which they run freely. Believe me, there is not a single moment on any given day where I lose sight of our privilege, especially at this moment in time. But that abundance does not release them from the grip of the emotional impact of this pandemic.

Funny story, when all of this was just a whisper and not yet a vivid reality, it was my hyper-anxious germaphobic child that I was worried about. I just knew this invisible predator of sorts would overwhelm his sensibility and we would be back to sleepless nights wrought with panic attacks. However, while his anxiety has seen an uptick, he knows how to verbalize his concerns and how to ask for help…and he knows how to channel his anxious energy into crafty projects (literally, in the first week and a half of this debacle, he feverishly constructed a cotton candy machine out of materials he could find around the house…don’t ask…it was a long ten days).

Yet, as the days have worn on, it is my younger son, the one who is my heart walking around outside of my body, who seems to be struggling the most. He puts on a good face most days…does his distance learning work, plays soccer in the yard, relishes the opportunity to drink a hot chocolate every morning. But there are other times where he is obviously angry for what seems to be no good reason…where he is constantly complaining of being tired…where he just seems sad. He doesn’t always want to talk about it. He worries about making other people feel badly. I know this because I do the same thing. My family called me the clam growing up because I just held everything in and I see him repeating my history. It is not a good way to go through life.

“I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out”

(“Wrote My Way Out” Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Aloe Blacc)

Thank goodness for his social studies teacher. She has asked him to write a “coronavirus journal” each week as a way to document this moment in history and that has been my only way into understanding where his brain is in all of this. He seems to recognize that it is the only comfortable way for him to get the discomfort and the heartache out into the world…he seems to wield the power of his words effortlessly…and in their wake, he is free for a few days–relieved of their weight.  If I didn’t already fully understand the power of writing, his work in this journal certainly would have taught it to me. Some weeks he has let his comedic personality flow through, but lately, his entries have just been sad.

This was his entry on Friday (he is eleven years old…):

“So, I don’t really know what to talk about today. Today hasn’t been that interesting. All of quarantine has been really boring. I really miss my friends. It’s like I’m living in a hole that I can’t climb out of. It’s like a hole has been dug in me and there are wasps flying around in me all day. People are always saying ‘We will get through this together.’  It sounds good the first few times, but by the millionth time it’s like there is no spirit left in the words. They are supposed to be convincing us, but now it sounds like they are trying to convince themselves.”

If we think our kids are impervious to the trauma of this pandemic, we are blinding ourselves to the complete truth. It is arrogance to imply that because they are kids they have nothing to worry about, no real stress, no troubles. Their whole lives have come to a screeching halt. The adults of this world are struggling to muster the emotional competence to negotiate this crisis, why on earth would children be able to navigate these waters any easier? Their stress is real…their confusion, profound. The impact is vast and beyond what we are able to currently know and that scares the hell out of me–both for my own kids and for the ones that I teach. Yes, kids are resilient humans who tend to be wiser than the adults around them. But we need to pay attention…we need to give credit to the weight of their feelings…we need to honor their experience for being just as difficult as our own…we need to treat them as humans in need…we need to stop and see their truth.

This same sensitive kiddo is preparing to play his guitar and sing in a virtual talent show for school. He decided people needed hope so he is singing “Let It Be.” I mean, he also worships the ground Sir Paul McCartney walks upon, but he knows this song can help people feel better and he wanted to try to make a difference.

Injecting hope into the world despite the “wasps” stinging him on the inside. Maybe he is going to be okay after all?

 

u-turn

A temperamental sense of balance and an overly sensitive inner ear don’t make the best flight companions. Fortunately, the only moments of the journey that we tend to be at odds occur during takeoff as the plane climbs in altitude. My brain and my ear cannot seem to resolve their past communication issues and as such, are a bit  fluttery when presented with a challenge beyond navigating the balance challenges of a typical day. Each flight and airport present a unique set of circumstances, but discomfort of some kind reveals itself regardless of place or direction. Last night’s flight home brought forth one of the most courageous conversations my brain and my ear have had to flesh out in a long time.

At first, I was relieved. We seemed to be climbing in altitude slowly which always eases tension by allowing my head to adjust to the pressure changes gradually rather than all at once. And then we made a sort of u-turn. Planes turn all the time. No big deal. I sit just in front of the wing and by a window so my eyes can use the visual to explain the discomfort my head feels.

Last night felt different.

The turn was steeper and tighter and incredibly disorienting. There wasn’t a window that I could look through that could grant a stable visual. There seemed to be no steady point on which to focus, to center myself. Gorgeous pink clouds reflecting the beauty of the setting sun should have been distraction enough, but I simply couldn’t get my bearings and it equated to a terrifying minute or so during which the panic of the vertigo days flooded my system. My mind reeled toward flashes of the worst moments from that time swifter than I could stop it. Before I realized what was happening, my hands were shaking and my breath became shallow. Treacherous, sneaky fast, pervasive. Panic acts without notice and I wasn’t prepared to prevent it from persisting. My guard was down.

Eventually, after the plane leveled out, the pressure in my head did as well. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and reminded myself that, despite the painful memories this u-turn invoked, the discomfort was limited, temporary. Despite that feeling of helplessness in mid air, I was okay–safe, balanced, headed home.  Another inhale, a breath of gratitude. The exhale, a prayer of peace.

I have these u-turn moments from time to time-I feel like in some strange way, in our own ways, we all do. A moment when something triggers my vertigo panic button or rips the stitches that contain my grief and suddenly I am swallowed up. Whether fleeting or lingering, the emotion is disorienting and even when I am surrounded by goodness and love, it can be hard to see it clearly enough…even when I know the feeling will be temporary and I am in charge of its dismantling, it can be hard to find my balance long enough to wait it out.

Yet, inevitably, the moment always levels out, the pressure of the panic subsides, I realize that I am held in love unconditionally-that I am safe, and I breathe. Will the vertigo come back some day? Almost definitely. Will that be awful? Um, probably… I can live with that aspect of my life, I have to. I don’t have to like it and from time to time, I’ll be caught in a bit of a u-turn moment, but this is my lot and with it, I can still do so much.

Inhale, gratitude…exhale, peace.

(Entry 29 in the king cake writing challenge!)

microcosm

The human collective encased within the parameters of the airport possesses all manner of oddities. While this mass of people exists in this singular place for merely a fleeting moment of time, the focus is not on community but more on the individual habits and procedures that will get us where we need to be, when we need to be there, with as little interaction as possible. Skillfully averted eyes and the incarnation of air pods have heightened the already palpable vibe of “don’t talk to me.” We place bags on the seats next to us in the terminal in an attempt to avoid having to sit too closely to a stranger…or maybe just to enjoy some personal space before boarding the plane. Magazines, that so many only ever purchase in the airport, as well as screens of varying shapes and sizes act as blinders, making us appear engrossed in something important that absolutely should not be disturbed. We all meander and move with purpose and intention and with no apparent need for those around us.

Which actually makes reasonable sense in the airport, but I wonder how often we walk through our larger communities in this way–turned completely inward, avoiding conversation and community, focused only on the needs and goals of the self. It feels easier to move through life solo–or at least with a very small tribe. The fewer people who rely on you, who need things, who look to you, who could possibly hurt and be hurt by you, the easier it is to make decisions because the impact feels compact. Yet, no matter how isolated we imagine ourselves to be, or how singular each action feels, no matter how secluded we expect we have made ourselves, ripples go out into the world…for better or for worse.

The thing is this–we were made to be with each other. We were made to associate rather than detach. Sure, life masquerades as simpler when we shield ourselves within a fortress of busy-ness and singularity, but we miss so much in avoiding the intricacies and attachments and beauty of those around us. People are not always easy. Relationships are often uncomfortable. But living in community with those around us constructs scaffolding that holds us accountable while also holding us in tenderness.

The thing is also this–just because we attempt to avoid interaction or just because we deny our place in any given society doesn’t erase our presence. So, consider instead, the power of your smile or a simple thank you or any other basic kindness that possesses the potential to elevate the quality of someone else’s day. Consider instead, that when we look up from our screens and books and busy-ness, there are people, both known and unknown, waiting to be noticed, deserving of recognition. Consider instead the vibrance and richness that could decorate not only our own lives but the world at large if we just took a moment to step out of ourselves and into relationship.

(not sure the day count holds anymore since I’m not writing in consecutive days…but I believe this would be Day 28)

(and also because I seem to have strayed from sharing poetry here…it’s one I’ve shared before but it is perfect for this particular blog…“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye)