The leaving manifesto

The realization dawned on me that I needed to leave. It’s not in a “oh my God get me out of here” way or a “I’m running as fast as I can towards something new” way. It’s just a “it’s time” way. It’s not desperate or overly negative or toxic. It just is.

I think it’s been coming to this for awhile, leaving public education. After all, I’ve done it once before. Reasons then were not what they are now. Back then I had an external force acting on my decisions, and somehow that felt really comfortable and I just ran with that for years. To be fair, I’d had an entire childhood where decision making was largely influenced by external forces. That’s what happens when you grow up in poverty and a scarcity mindset. When you have parents who have myopic views on pretty much everything. 

I’ve been dabbling in applying and even interviewing for other jobs over the past several years. No shade, but I completely fell into the job I have now. I didn’t have to work for the contract – I applied on a semi-whim and six months later heard back. In my personal life, my sense of self was a swirling sea of chaos and grief. I let the waves of fate take me out into the big blue ocean, back into an industry I’d low-key sworn I wouldn’t go back to. But I did.

As a child and teenager, school was my happy place. Well, maybe not always happy, but safe. I was good at it. Adults liked me. They praised me, took care of me. Gave me emotional support. The mostly middle-aged women with perms filled in aspects of mothering that I didn’t receive at home. Maybe they knew that, maybe they didn’t. The smell of a school smells like home whether it’s primary or secondary. There’s something about walking down iterations of hallways with lockers and doors.

If teaching were now the way it was back when I started, or even when I was in school myself, I might stick with it until retirement. As it is, I’m planning on retiring early. No matter what, I won’t even reach the requisite 25 years in my state to get full benefits. When I look down the tunnel of work life before retirement, I’m met with a minor sense of dread, and then a wave of indifference and acceptance that that’s what life will be like. I would just power through for 15-ish more years.

The teaching part is what I love. It’s exciting and unpredictable and allows for spontaneity. I love the vibe of a classroom where everyone is heard and seen and accepted. I love watching students learn. But right now, along with some pretty great colleagues, that’s about all I can rely on.

The environment of schools itself is harried and rushed and has the scent of doom all over it. Doom and gloom if you will. I think most of us are pretty exhausted trying to combat that as it is. Add on the bureaucratic bloat of testing, observations, evaluations, micromanaging, hundreds of emails a day, “yes you should” and “no you can’t” and a loss of autonomy. It used to be that I could just close my door and teach, and everything in the four walls was isolated to some extent from the outside. Now it’s not. There’s little time for deep focused work for myself or my students. I’m emotionally exhausted every day from keeping up relationships with literally hundreds of people. I’m mentally exhausted from trying to protect myself from the barrage of distractions when I’m trying to plan the necessary high-quality standards-based lessons that are praised on my evaluations.

My mind started to open up to new possibilities for a few reasons. First, my husband is a shining example of going out there and getting what you want and what you know you deserve. Throughout the process of his being recruited for the well-paid work-from-home role he has now, I was inspired and wondered why I couldn’t also be that ambitious. Another thing is that I feel that I’m hanging out at the ceiling of my job now. I’ve exhausted my creativity, because with the constraints of curriculum and scheduling and all the other things (see what I wrote about bureaucratic bloat above), there’s only so much creativity I can add into my lessons and in my teaching methods. Each observation and evaluation just feels like the same ride on the same roller coaster. Like, we’ve been here before. We know where it leads. I teach, you rate me and give me a silly thing to improve on and we do the cycle over and over again ad nauseum.

In addition, I have no desire and never have to become a school administrator. I like being in the trenches, continually sharpening my skills to deliver content and engage students. I don’t want to move into different subject areas, though I’ve thought about it and researched what it would take. I can’t stand the horribly not rigorous graduate level education courses that just rearrange skills and strategies I’ve learned (and quite honestly are common sense) with a new name. 

Going back to school is not a good option for me – for one thing, the programs I could get reimbursed have to be related to my current job. For another, I can’t decide on what I would want to do. Committing to a new program and career trajectory not related with my current skills is something I don’t want to do at this point.

So as I reflect on my tenure as an instructor in some capacity over the past 15ish years, I’ve realized a few core things about myself as not just a teacher but a professional in general:

  • I am really good at finding a creative solution to a multi-faceted problem. From start to finish, I can take a large and seemingly impossible task and break it down into steps, ask for feedback along the way, and execute an efficient solution. This comes from, for example, having to create at least two schedules per academic year that have nothing but constraints.
  • I have developed my people-ing skills to no end. I can wordsmith an email to communicate my message, I can get my colleagues on board with new ideas, I am really good at interpersonal relationships and then building on those.
  • I can see big tasks or problems from a systems lens. I can see the intricacies of something complex and find a way to make it more simple or tease it apart. This includes juggling multiple tasks with different deadlines and doing it well.
  • I am way more creative than I give myself credit for. This goes beyond coming up with solutions or creating visually appealing presentations. This speaks to the fact that I’ve had my personal blog for over a decade and also have gone out on a limb to try new things like creating a podcast and using technology I’ve used maybe once sometime back in grad school (Audacity). 
  • I am really good at figuring out new technology and how to apply it. Give an example and timeline, I can create something and then figure out how to show someone else pretty quickly.

So for all those personal realizations, I’ve decided to find a new path that’s adjacent to what I’m doing now, maybe even something that addresses the systemic problems from the outside. I thought the cognitive dissonance of public education policy/practice would go away, but it hasn’t. It’s only been magnified since COVID. I was hopeful in the beginning, that people would finally see that there are better ways to do things. Having one day a week of virtual teaching and learning for staff and students was life changing, and helped me stay longer than maybe I would have. Eh, let’s be real, I had no idea what else I was going to do.

And that’s the huge takeaway I have from all of this reflection, is that public education will make you think that that’s all there is. Your skills are defined such that they go into this tiny little box that’s checked off on a Danielson rubric, and that’s it. But there’s a whole world out there.

I think the final realization I had was that if I were going to be asked to host a student teacher, I would have to decline based on my own conscience. There is no way that with the state of public ed the way it is I can conceivably invite, mentor, and encourage a college student to commit to this profession. An unwilling or jaded mentor is no mentor at all, and that’s the last thing I’d want to be. In any profession we have to continue teaching others so that the profession lives on, but I realized that I cannot do that at this point in time.

I always said getting into teaching, that if I ever became that crotchety old miser who hates her life and does nothing but bitch about the bad things and decry the good, it’s time for me to leave. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d rather move on while I’m feeling optimistic and hopeful and before I get desperate.

At the end of this year I will most likely say goodbye to a lot – my students, my colleagues, my classroom. Oh finally my own classroom! I know the school district is doing what it can to retain teachers (at a board meeting earlier this year they voted to give us 5 half days of planning throughout the rest of the year) but I have to say that for me, it’s too little too late. And, in general this is not really as much a “leaving teaching” thing as it is “explore new paths” for me. It’s time and I’m ready.

I’ve worked through my grief – of loved ones, of infertility, of leaving places I’ve lived – and I’m ready to embrace what’s coming next.

At least I read

My life is going through some big changes right now. But at least I’ve been reading. So here’s what’s been on my shelf.

As usual, I’ve been reading a mix of nonfiction, fantasy, and sci-fi. I’ve been mostly into nonfiction recently because it’s been keeping me grounded. What Happened to You? is an amazing book about trauma in the style of a conversation. It presents many of the same ideas as the seminal volume The Body Keeps the Score, but in a less clinical, more digestible way. My therapist recommended it, and I’m so glad she did.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. Isabel Wilkerson’s writing style is engaging and poetic while being informative and audacious. Just wow. I learned so much about the history of slavery in this country that I had never known. I started The Warmth of Other Suns recently and look to learn about the migration of African-Americans to the North.

Assassin’s Apprentice is a book I’ve had on the shelf for a long time and finally picked it up at my husband’s suggestion. He’s told me in the past to read it “when you want to feel sad.” The main character, Fitz, sees and experiences an immense amount of pain and trauma. It’s a perfect hero’s story. There are more books in the series that I haven’t read yet.

Finally, Dark Matter is one I picked up from the library because of the cover. Yep, sometimes I do that. And it was worth it. It was smart, fast, and surprising. I will definitely read more of Blake Crouch’s work.

Controlled chaos, at the very least

I think I’ve figured it out. The reason why I’m in a very frequent state of existential angst. I feel like I’m going up a creek in many areas of my life. I’m looking for solutions, even proposing solutions, but very few seem to be picking up what I’m putting down. It could be me. But I have reasons for why I think it’s not just me.

Recently my sanctuary has been my couch, with cozy lamps and candles and husband and pup. Not to mention a bastion of blankies (pitties love blankies in case you didn’t know). I’ve been watching a lot of TV. Granted, we both were feeling under the weather this week. We had very little motivation for household chores or cooking or really anything.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to not be back to (ever) running a million miles an hour to get everything done…. for what purpose? Just to be busy? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m welcoming the shorter days and longer nights with open arms. I’ve been totally fine with heading upstairs to go to bed just short of 8 o’clock. This acceptances comes from the understanding that 1) I am an animal whose body responds to the amount of daily sunlight there is and 2) I learned some shit from the pandemic.

I can’t say the same for society. I am freaking disappointed about it, too. Everywhere I turn there is mass chaos, and I’m not exaggerating. Just come to the school where I work. Come to my local grocery store. Walk down the sidewalk adjacent to a busy road. Chaos is everywhere. (And excuse me for being a little vague in this post about from where exactly the angst is originating.)

One of the aspects of this particular chaos though is that it can manifest itself as quiet, insidious. It looks different than kids shooting up schools and assholes going 95 on 95 and EF-5 tornadoes in December (although we know that’s happening too…). This chaos looks like people not learning a damn thing from the pandemic. Being all too happy to “get back to normal,” as if their normal were actually good. It wasn’t. (Maybe I shouldn’t judge?) It was comfortable. It was easy. It’s much much more difficult to actually look at your pandemic-and-stress-riddled complexion in a mirror and decide to change your ways. It looks like doom-scrolling as if it’s your part-time job. It looks like bitching and complaining about things you could either change or walk away from. It looks like people still being marginalized and discriminated against.

While I don’t particularly feel a strong vibe of all types of chaos everywhere I go, I feel different aspects of it manifesting at different times in different places. Least of all in my own house. So that’s where I feel safe, that’s why it’s my sanctuary. And try as I might to bring some of this into the world, the world (or at least, my world) is telling me in so many words that they don’t want it. They want things to be “normal,” which in my experience is boring, irrelevant, too expensive, exclusive, pedantic. I don’t want that normal. Normal be damned, I say.

A great thing to come out of this pandemic is a lot of people like myself who are looking for something better. We’re trying to change the things we can, and when we’ve exhausted all resources trying to get people on board, we’re going for change.

Don’t look down

It’s what people say when you’re at an uncomfortable height. It’s advice and admonishment. It’s a warning against the inevitable void that will entice you to fall. It could be a bend from reality, a willful ignorance of what actually exists.

At some point, we have to look down and get real. We have to accept reality and take responsibility for our fear. And then we have to make a plan to face and conquer it.

I think this looks different for everyone, but I can surely tell you what it isn’t, especially as we move into what I call the “post-COVID” era. It’s not: not taking care of your body, not nourishing your mental health, not encouraging and lifting up others, not showing gratitude, not driving dangerously on the morning commute, being a continuous source of negativity.

This global experience is tragic, yes, but as Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, “Life is inherently tragic.” It’s a fact that too many have either not realized or blatantly ignored. What I see is an experience that has the potential to bring us together as humans. With seven billion people on the planet, what experience do we all have that is actually similar? Welcoming new life, grieving death, filling our bellies. That is what we all share, and can also be described as the human condition.

This is a unique time to be alive. But with this unique landscape comes unique responsibility. We have more evidence now than ever of what trauma can do to a person. We have multitudes of resources for mental health. We have the potential to be connected to practically anyone anywhere in the world.

What does “Don’t look down” look like right now? It looks like us harnessed in safely to the side of the mountain, prepared with all our gear. Helmet, rope, someone who can help us in an emergency. It looks like knowing how exactly high up we are and accepting the possibility that we are in a dangerous position. It looks like having enough training to be able to help another climber navigate to safety instead of being the reason they fall.

Let’s get it together, folks.

Breaking my COVID vows

It’s October 2021, and in case you didn’t realize it, 2022 is just around the corner. Almost two years since the world changed. I mean, the world is always changing, but a global pandemic will do a number on “normalcy.” Don’t worry, though, I won’t rush through the last two months of the year. Fall and winter are my jam. Hibernation, introspection… basically an introvert’s dream.

From Reddit

Hey, remember that time that the social landscape actually became the introvert’s dream? Yeah, me too. I am an introvert, and it was my dream to have an external reason to not do anything. By anything, I don’t mean keeping up with friends and family or planning meals or keeping up a house. I mean all the other stuff. Everything on the calendar seemed so superfluous at the time, and yet right now back in “normal” life (insert cat vomit sound effect here), it all seems very necessary. And I hate it.

Not commuting and packing a lunch and picking out an outfit really simplified my life. Those are just things on the surface, but removing that layer enabled me to get away from the low-frequency buzz of the clock, also called anxiety, that permeated every day to some extent. Obviously, the weekend days don’t seem to adhere to the clock as much, but once you get to about 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, you begin to live in the near-future rather than the present. I don’t like that feeling anymore.

It used to be a comfort to me, having one foot in the future and one in the present. Being beholden to the clock, knowing what was going to happen and when. But during the Great Shutdown, I found that days seemed to not just pass me by like a fast-moving train. Each day felt like an adventure. Some days were obviously less adventurous and the dress code was 100% comfort, but an adventure nonetheless. Things like making tea or a delicious meal were the highlights, rather than a fast-paced sprint to Monday morning filled with alarms and… ahem.. pants.

I will be the first to admit that I have already broken my vows to myself that I made during the height of the pandemic. Things like, “I will never allow myself to be that busy again,” or, “I will only commit to one activity on the weekend.”

Now that I’ve been living in “new normal” for a bit, I can see that I have made changes for the good, changes to keep my life more simple. My mindset is what constantly needs the shift. And trying to keep the anxiety and external noise quiet paired with implementing a true “work/life” balance with my demanding teaching job makes for a very hard paddle up a river.

I think I will find a good balance for myself. One that integrates the simplicity of mindset with the necessity of social and intellectual stimulation that we all need because it’s our biological imperative. It’ll just take time, and I probably won’t get there by 2022. Yes, it’s coming.

Are you a poet or a philosopher? | Pentecost Message

Good morning. My name is Elizabeth, and I am happy to bring you the message this morning. When the pastor asked me to speak this morning, I was excited, and maybe a little nervous. As a practicing teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages and amateur linguist, the story of Pentecost has always been one of my favorites.  

In preparation for this message, I found this quote from Thomas Aquinas: “This is what the philosopher and the poet share in common: both are concerned with the marvelous. Amazement is the beginning of philosophy. Wonder is a kind of desire in knowing. It is the cause of delight because it carries with it the hope of discovery.” 

From what the youth read this morning, I’d like to analyze the two viewpoints on what began in that upper room on the day of Pentecost.

Some were amazed, marveled, and possessed wonder. Acts says that they were even perplexed. Maybe they were in doubt, but they still questioned what was happening. They were open to an explanation that was possibly amazing and illogical.

Some were cynical or hardened. They tried to find a reason and came to a quick, seemingly logical explanation: they were drunk. The fact that it was only nine in the morning made it seem even more scandalous, perhaps.

When was the last time you tried to explain something seemingly impossible? Which solutions were you drawn to? The human brain is literally wired to find answers to problems. It’s what keeps us alive, discovering and executing solutions. 

But what if we just observed? Without making judgments? We could leave room for amazement. Sometimes things really are as they appear – in this case, what appeared and was evident were tongues of fire and mutual understanding of one another’s languages. I’d like to go back in time and step into the role of an observer here.

I would like to think there was more understanding occurring there than simply language, words received and expressed. There were most likely nonverbal expressions such as gestures. Imagine some universal gestures that everyone there could potentially understand – uncrossed arms, unlocked knees and stance, open hands, wide eyes, a smile that reaches your eyes. In our language in 2021, we might say there was an excited “vibe” that could just be felt. Have you ever heard someone say that there was “just something in the air?” There is no physical explanation for a feeling like that – it just has to be felt. I imagine there were good and excited vibes enabled by this initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

When I was 19, I traveled outside the United States for the first time. I was soon entering my sophomore year of college, a Spanish major with a desire to go out into the world and share my love of language with teenagers as a high school teacher. I would actually say that Spanish was my first love, beginning around five years old with episodes of Sesame Street and bilingual books my mom would let me buy at the book fair. When I was 10, my grandma fulfilled a promise and took me on my first airplane ride to Arizona to visit family. During the trip, we visited the Grand Canyon, and beyond the unreal sights of one of the wonders of the natural word, I remember hearing other languages in real life for the first time. I was entranced and enthralled by different ways of communicating. I went on to start my formal education of Spanish in high school, and as a senior decided to pursue a Bachelor’s in Spanish. I demonstrated knowledge of the grammar such as the structure of verbs and order of adjectives and nouns in sentences. I could use a map to point out the geography of the Spanish-speaking world. But what I was missing was an experience of immersion that would make all my book-learning come to life.

To say that I was excited about my first international trip to South America was an understatement. I went with a group from my church, wide-eyed and with open hands. The first time I entered a worship service completely in Spanish at a mountainside church in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I was amazed and so excited that I felt the same Holy Spirit in that church that I had felt in my English-speaking church back home. I wanted nothing more than to sing songs I didn’t know all the words to, to experience what books hadn’t taught me. While my life, circumstances, color of my skin, and mother tongue were literally a hemisphere away from my new Spanish-speaking friends and siblings in Christ, we were bound by the same Holy Spirit, the same God, who speaks all languages. Who created all languages. We were bound by the same values without having to sit down and have a conversation about it. We knew that smiles and hugs and shaking hands and uncrossed arms were all signs of love and understanding in Jesus. 

What was the cause of my openness to new languages, cultures, and of course, people? I’m not sure. But I know it can be cultivated.

The retelling of Pentecost given to us in Acts is a message of hope. It shows us two distinct perspectives of the same event. In these times where a slight misunderstanding can lead to rifts in families, churches, and communities, it’s even more important for us to be aware of our nonverbal and verbal communication when we encounter experiences or ways of life unfamiliar to us.

I imagine that those who hypothesized that those in the Upper Room were inebriated at nine in the morning had a cynical laugh together, shrugged, and went about their day. Maybe they went to the market, relayed their experience by saying something like, “Did you hear about those crazy people speaking all those languages? What a cacophony!” and went on their way shaking their heads, missing the wonder and amazement of what just happened, what was only the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work on earth. 

However, those who were “amazed and perplexed” experienced something they would never forget. They would share the details of their experience for years to come, and express how special it was to have the Holy Spirit present and enabling them to mutually understand one another.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be the latter. I’d rather be the poet who observes and takes in rather than the philosopher who analyzes. I never want to lose the amazement and openness to new experiences or even miracles. Our complex and evolved human brains look for logical solutions – and this tendency does bring about many wonderful discoveries in all aspects of our existence. But there are phenomena that are bigger than we are – things we haven’t figured out yet and may never make sense of. And that’s okay.

Acts chapter two goes on to describe Peter’s message to all the people there, citing the prophecies about that day. Some accepted the good news and were baptized, and some did not accept it. Which will we be?

Let’s lead with curiosity. Let’s be willing to be immersed in experiences where we may not always understand. We can trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us through these experiences. Let’s let ourselves be amazed and maybe even perplexed, and we ourselves can become a conduit for bridging cultures and peoples so that we can bring the good news of Jesus to all places, not the least of which, our community right here in Maryland.

I’d like to conclude with a song we sang in that church that has stayed with me since: “Abre mis ojos,” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” I invite you to listen and observe – while you may not understand, can you still feel the same excitement and amazement of the same Holy Spirit? If you are perplexed, can you approach the experience with curiosity and wonder?

Thank you, and praise be to God.

Making peace with Mother’s Day

Earlier this week, my husband made the decision that we were not going to church today. I was totally on board with this, and very happy that I did not have to make the decision and the argument to go along with it. It’s not that we hate church; it’s just that the church in general worships mothers and traditional gender norms. The liturgy in our church has been more inclusive in recent years, but in general it’s just better for our mental health if we opt out.

So we did, and I had a fantastic day. The thing is, though, that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore while I had a chill morning of coffee and reading and thinking about planting flowers, the calm did not necessarily come from staying home from church. It’s all much more complicated than that.

It’s been five years since we decided to live life without pursuing parenthood, and seven years since we actively started trying to have children. Mother’s Day throughout those years has been tough. We are very thankful we have both of our mothers, but I’ve lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother within the past 5 years. That grief plus the very intangible grief of infertility led me down a path of self-discovery that’s been often strewn with falling rocks, boulders, and paradoxically some of the most beautiful views.

I’ve been slowly finding my place in the world as a mid-30’s married woman with no children. You’d think that it’d be pretty easy to fit right in considering half the world’s population is women or people with a uterus, and my station in life really is not as marginalized as many I am acquainted with. However, in our arguably dominant microcosm of America, the pressure is on to be so many things all at the same time. Space is not held for those who want to tread their own path in life – we have to make the space ourselves, and usually that comes at a cost.

The cost for me, well, I’m not too sure what it’s been. Maybe friends. Maybe closeness with some family members. Maybe other opportunities. But now I’m at a point where I tell my story and make my own space. We had a “community circle” type of professional development recently at work where we had to answer the question, “What is a failure that you cherish?” Many people mentioned failures in school, in previous jobs, those sorts of things.

Whether or not people felt comfortable hearing it, I mentioned that infertility was a failure that I cherish for reasons that were shrouded in a fog of grief even a couple years ago. To this day I still can’t quite discern the reaction I felt from my fellow teachers – surprise, apathy, pity – but truly, I don’t care. I stated my peace while sharing just enough. A couple people told me “thank you” for sharing. I can’t say that I could have done it as gracefully a few years back. Maybe even as recently as six months ago. Self awareness and development is hard work, yo.

That’s how I feel every time I meet a new friend or new colleagues after being assigned a new work location. I’m always so glad people are meeting me at this very moment and not a minute sooner. I have more to offer that’s going to benefit other people. I don’t overshare. I really don’t give too many shits about what people think, but not in a self-destructive kind of way.

And that brings us back to Mother’s Day. Mostly today I felt like I was adjacent to the party, willingly hanging out on my own instead of feeling pushed out or shunned. That has a lot more to do with my own attitude and feelings toward this day than it does how people treat me. I think it was luck that intervened when I didn’t hear an ill-placed Mother’s Day wish, not people being mindful of whom they were extending Mother’s Day wishes. It was refreshing to not feel bitter or judge-y or torn-up. It was a feeling of, “I see you guys are having a good time celebrating your ability/choice to have children, but I’m not part of it and it’s okay. In fact, I’ve chosen to not go all in for this party.”

After doing hard work, I can be comfortable on this day. I can go out in public and not be walking on eggshells wondering how someone’s well-intentioned wishes may affect me by throwing off my whole day. If I do feel any ill effects, I lose minutes instead of afternoons or evenings. Most importantly, I’ve now mastered the training needed to hold space for others who feel othered.

The Problem of Saturday

Even before I was old enough to have a job in the traditional sense, working on the weekends, particularly Saturdays, was a concept I knew well. Many a Saturday morning, I woke up at a decent time (not by my own accord), perused the “to-do list” written by my mother, and with my sisters we decided who would do which chore by putting our initials next to said household job. And thus every Saturday, or thereabouts, we would go about the business of keeping house – we learned how to do laundry, clean bathrooms, meal prep, weed flower pots, sweep and scrub the kitchen floor (on our knees, the purported “right” way), clean litter boxes, clean our rooms (gasp!!!!). There’s no doubt that I’m thankful for learning how to complete these very necessary tasks, but it’s partially for this reason that up until recently, I could not relax on a Saturday.

I learned at an early age to tie my self-worth to how productive I was.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

Since childhood, I’ve had my share of jobs that aren’t your typical nine-to-five – working customer service at a grocery store, teaching music lessons, helping manage a private tutoring center, teaching night classes. All those positions demanded either odd hours that usually also occurred on the weekends.

For about a decade, I trained for races. Generally these plans indicated that a weekend morning would be a “long run” day, and with church responsibilities on Sunday, that meant that my long run fell on Saturday mornings. And not only that, but I felt to get the most out of my one day completely off from responsibility, I’d get up really early to take advantage of those morning twilight hours and get my run in. It became a ritual.

Now as a mid-30-something adult, for the first time in my life I have had a job whose responsibilities are contained within the weekdays. Well, at least those are the boundaries I’ve set for myself. Millions of teachers across America work the weekends. I don’t. I can’t if I want to stay in this profession for life. And I do.

And then in addition to having only one job that I worked Monday through Friday, a couple things happened that began to open up my Saturday to really being a day to do whatever, whenever: a running sabbatical and lockdowns due to COVID-19.

The year of 2020, I decided to not run, at least not train for any big races. I say that like it was really my decision, but my body was actually screaming for a break. So I took a break. And then COVID hit, and suddenly we went from being busy with something most weekends, especially on Sundays, to having wide open free time on the weekends. It was (is?) awesome. It was something I did not realize I needed, and it was also something I realize I could have done for myself without the help of a global pandemic.

I would say to no minor degree that I have reclaimed my Saturdays. Without the frenzy of church activities on Sunday plus grocery shopping and meal prep that has to happen, things can be spread out over the entire weekend. I can relish in the early morning hours of Saturday (like I am right now) without feeling guilty about not doing chores, or going for a long run.

Reclaiming a true Sabbath day (which can look different for everyone, and does not have to be a traditional weekend day) was not easy. For a long time I dealt with guilt of not doing the things I’d grown so accustomed to for years. It was like muscle memory was taking over my body, and unless I was getting things done around the house or running, my body just didn’t know what to do.

So I rode out the discomfort and began doing, actually, the things I wanted to do on a Saturday in order to usher in the weekend. This includes, generally, having coffee at home (not running out to get it, although sometimes this happens), taking the quiet morning to finish a book (I finished The Invisible Life of Addie Larue and A Court of Wings and Ruin this way), reading the paper, or now that the weather is getting warmer, sitting outside to watch the sun rise over the Susquehanna River.

These activities are different, and there are a number you could substitute in, but they are all similar in that I am present for them. In the book Laziness Does Not Exist, Dr. Devon Price draws on current research to describe how to “savor,” defined as “the process of deeply and presently enjoying a positive experience.” This is in contrast to “dampening,” which makes an activity seemed rushed or only valued because of what it produces.

…being achievement-obsessed actually makes life less rewarding and enjoyable, because we never get to truly savor or appreciate what we’ve done or where we’ve been.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

I think that’s what had happened to me – I became “achievement-obsessed.” I grew up in a family that had to hustle to put food on the table. My mom went to school full time, my dad worked on cars for extra money – and it wasn’t for fun money, either. It was our ethos, our identity, to be a family who knew how to do lots of things, do them well, and do them efficiently. That is a skill valued in our culture, and it served me for a period of time, but it doesn’t have to extend to all areas and years of my life going forward. Price says that “…weeks, months, or even years can all blend together in a haze of anxiety and obligation” – do I want to spend the next 40+ years of my life in this state? Surely not.

I think (and hope) that a global pandemic has taught us all a few things we can learn from. For me, it was how to rest, relax, and recharge without guilt. Of course, this requires saying no, something I’ve been thinking about and practicing for several years now. I’m happy to say that saying no is almost my default mode.

I, for one, will never go back to filling my calendar to the brim with no room to breathe. Of course, there will be busy times – life and work are not static. But “wow, this week was busy” will not be what I say on my way home from work every Friday. I don’t want to “work for the weekend,” as American as that is. I want to see a new American cultural norm – one where yes, people work hard and efficiently, but also set boundaries that are respected so that they can rest and do the other things they enjoy – spend time with family, cook good food, go boating, go fishing, go shopping, camping, whatever – and do those things without guilt or getting work email notifications in the meantime.

One sign to me that I’ve been successful at reclaiming my Saturdays is that not only do I have time and mental energy to read, but to actually analyze and evaluate what I read. For some books, I pause to take notes. I think about what I read, and change my perspective and add new knowledge that will really stick. When I’m reading fiction or fantasy, I can savor the story and immerse myself with the characters. It’s enjoyable.

The time to reclaim our Saturdays is now, folks. If we don’t choose to do it and find our own ways of working in some relaxation and reprieve, other things will do it for us; namely, sickness, injury, and burnout.

My constant companion(s)

Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.

I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.

I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.

When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.

As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.

I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.

Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.

I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.

And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.

Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.

These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.

I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.

March wrap-up + the need for silence

Here we are in the beginning of April. Sure, spring technically comes in March, but April really shows the sun coming up earlier and going to bed later, like it’s too excited for the day to sleep any longer than necessary. Like it’s coming out of hibernation. I share the sentiment.

In March, we hit milestone: a year since COVID-19 joined our lexicon as an everyday word, since debates and discussions of the CDC and mask-wearing protocols and virtual school inserted themselves as dinner-table talk. Maybe also as breakfast- and lunch-table talk. Coupled with that milestone and the end of winter, my mind has been busy lately. And when my mind is busy, I need more silence.

Sometimes that looks paradoxical – it looks like more TV watching, less thinking. Or more thinking and less ambient noise. Or just working around the house without any music on (super unlike me). A result of needing more headspace has been reading fewer books.

This month I read a mix of a space opera, magical realism/kind-of fantasy, and meditation/poetry. While my attitude towards reading (or the books I read?) was kind of slump-y, I’m happy that I mixed up my genres.

Reading mountains of pages has seemed like a luxury throughout The Time of the Global Pandemic and the winter therein. It was easy to cozy up to books when it was cold outside. When more clothes and blankets and pillows were needed. When hot coffee or tea is protection from After a long day of virtual learning and working from home, it was easy to transition into a different headspace.

However, with the world (or at least Northern Hemisphere) opening up both seasonally and physically, it seems I should be doing something different than hibernating. Let me change that: could, not should. I could be doing something different.

Obviously books have a place. It’s a hobby I have really enjoyed and actually have found quite necessary. But tending the lawn and spring cleaning the house and purging the unnecessary also has a place that sometimes is just as important.

To be honest, I have dreaded this moment I’ve arrived at. The end of quarantine (or relative end… the end of strict quarantine), the end of a forced hibernation and hunkering-down. The beginning of more socialization and activities and meetings and…. well, there it is. The end of un-busy-ness.

The time and space created by a global health crisis is beginning to fly away, and I’m grasping on to it desperately, pleading with the world to not let it go. There is a place for shorter commutes and more time at home. There is a place for less aimless socializing and more intentional relationships. There is a place for less multitasking and more focused, high-quality work ethic.

While I’m navigating this difficult transition, I’ve allowed myself some space. For me, that looks like getting up earlier and going to bed later. That means letting go of control of some household tasks that I’ve held in my heart of pride for too long. That looks like ambivalence for committing to new activities, or restarting old ones. That means drinking in the stories I read, and taking time to curate the words I write. That looks like letting my brain rest, either with more running or sitting on the patio watching the birds or playing Nintendo or simply watching TV, accompanied by no other activities. Productivity is no longer my end goal.

I wasn’t quite sure how I would get here, but as they say, Necessity is the mother of invention, and where does invention start but in our own lives?