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.

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.

Change as ethos

The desert feels close today. The gray sky makes me think of cozy but infrequent days when the clouds shrouded the Franklin Mountains like a light jacket, unsure about the change in season but ready for spring. The experience of driving in El Paso feels near, of enjoying that first new place. I grew immensely as a person there – I believe it was the basis of my whole adulthood, perhaps forever steeped in strange newness, acquiring the scent of the surrounding air, learning the language of my heart – a language I may not have been born with but one I’ve had space for.

And my time in El Paso makes me think of change. To the naked and unexperienced eye, the desert looks two-dimensional and constant. But at a closer glance, it is always changing. When I lived there, I learned the language of change, of responding to the knock of an opening door with curiosity and bright eyes shining with wonder.

The world is resistant to change, or rather, the humans have shackled the earth with an axis that no longer turns of its own accord. But change is the ethos of the planet; without it we would cease to exist. All the earth can be our home if we would just embrace it and stop seeing it through ravenous eyes, only wanting what it can give us rather than letting it show us how we are wrong.

And wrong we are about so many tings. We think we can know the mind of God. How arrogant. He still speaks to us and guides us, but I don’t believe we could ever fully predict what is in store for us any more than we can predict the sun will rise sometime in the immediate future.

I’m cut out for this

I realize that I don’t write much about my “other” life: the hours of my life I spend as a public school teacher. I do my best to have healthy boundaries between work and play, and in the past year this need has become more pronounced. I use my commute and other teachers who are also family members or close friends to process quotidian joys and frustrations before walking in the door and stripping off the school ID and title of “Ms. W.”

This year is the year I’ve been teaching for twenty years, thirteen as a certified teacher. Did I think I’d still be here all this time later? I’m not sure. I have known that since I was young, I had the “thing” that you need to be a teacher. Maybe an attitude, maybe the “teacher look,” maybe a natural talent, maybe a bit of arrogance – and just maybe a mix of all of the above. Teaching is a career of compassion and understanding, but also it necessitates an attitude of confidence and competence, which for me can sometimes border on self-importance.

The pandemic has challenged me in ways I never anticipated. Throughout this season, though (and it is a season: nothing can last forever, not even a pandemic), I have been grateful that I have years of my career behind me; there are so many reasons to be grateful for those times spent overextended, upset, stressed, and inexperienced. I have a lot of tools in my arsenal these days, and memories of “normal school” have pulled me through. I feel for new teachers who have experienced the glut of frustrations, both technological and relational, that have plagued our profession throughout a global health crisis.

Over the past academic year, I’ve found a new stride after years of working different jobs in different fields and with different ages of students. You could say I’ve rediscovered my happy place: high school. I’m sure there are many personal reasons from my past that have impacted my decision to work here, walking the halls among angsty and hormonal teenagers. Junior high, or middle school as most places now call it, was a tough time for me. But in high school, I found my place… mostly. I found my “people,” and I used academic achievement as an escape. I confided in and trusted my teachers and counselors.

The tasks I’ve had on my plate for the past several months have sat well with me: conversing with students, making small talk with new-to-me students, planning lessons for classes, interfacing with staff from teachers to administrators to counselors, advocating for students’ specific linguistic needs and ensuring their education is equitable. Of course, I can’t always check these to-do’s off my list every day, and they’re not always done to perfection. I’m sure as well that I’ve committed my own fair share of social faux pas as I’ve met no fewer than 100 new staff this year.

But all it takes is one really good day and weeks sprinkled with dozens of positive student-to-teacher interactions to remind me that I’m in this for the long haul. And to be honest, I didn’t expect the pandemic to reveal this truth to me: I’m cut out for this.

Helping our inner child find the way

When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.

Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.

We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.

I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”

By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coehlo

I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.

I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.

Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.

Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”

Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.

This is how you do a staycation

This past weekend we experienced something new – a staycation. After nearly 18 years together (!!!!!), it’s always surprising to find something new to explore together. But thanks to COVID, winter weather, and frugality, we suited up a three-day weekend with PTO, video games, coffee, delivery pizza, and so many couch cuddles with the dog.

The whole work-from-home but also live-at-home paradox was a struggle for me at first. I’ve always physically separated my work life from my home life, though mental separation is at best an amateur effort on my end. I had no idea at the beginning of this (you know what I mean) how I was going to get the rest I needed from work when my work location was the same as my mailing address.

Relaxation is the precursor of being aware and present.

paraphrased from a yoga practice with Esther Ekhart, Ekhart Yoga

However, after a couple weeks, I found ways to separate the two. The first thing was to set up a space just for work, as many have done. Some weeks I worked downstairs at the dining room table. Other days I would work at my tiny desk in a makeshift office upstairs. As it became clear that a new school year would not see me driving off into the sunrise every morning, I took a few more steps to make my “office” my office.

Largely I found that the key factor with successfully working and playing and living at home was my mindset. Imagine, the thing I’d been working on for several years through the avenues of therapy and yoga. Making physical space in my calendar is important, but mental space is importanter. Just kidding; mental space is the top priority.

I took my newfound ability to compartmentalize and applied it to our staycation. Our tag line for the weekend was “no adulting”. This meant no discussion of house projects, no talk about work, no seeking out chores that need to get done (except for dishes because, well, we cooked a lot). It involved limited time on phones, lots of time cuddling and watching movies, and time just chatting as we drove down the highway to check out another location in our new-ish state of residence.

We gave ourselves space and room to breathe. We loosened the belt of capitalism and stressful jobs and expectations of adulthood, only for a few days. But I slept so much better (8.5 hours of actual good sleep versus 7 hours of so-so). I ate really delicious food. We had novel conversations and confided in each other. It was what we needed.

I think building up time spent in this mode of vacation is necessary. I needed to try it out, flex my mental muscles to see if a staycation was a good fit. Turns out it was. I can’t wait for the next one.

Wintering is almost over

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is wrapping up, coming to a close. While it is mid-February and we still see frozen precipitation of every kind (and least of all snow, sadly), there are signs that longer and warmer days are coming.

We have been walking the dog in the dark for what seems like months now, both morning and night. However, in the mornings we can sometimes see the inky twilight to the east and slowly spreading north and south. The river changes colors with the budding twilight. On weekends, we might even walk the dog in the daylight since we get up later. But not much later – we’re getting older and messed up sleep schedules aren’t good for anyone.

Nightly we comment, “Look how much light is left in the sky, and it’s [insert time here].” Every year, the earth completes its revolution around the sun. Every year as spring approaches, the Northern Hemisphere bows with a curtsy towards the sun, allowing our daily bath in sunlight to be a little warmer each day.

Next year at this time I don’t want to be blindsided by what seems like a yearly audit, or check in.

in my journal, January 28, 2021

Despite the excitement of a new season on the way, I will miss winter. And this year more than ever. The pandemic has brought my go-go-go to a halt in the best way. I’m learning how to regulate my erratic nervous system. I’ve been listening to my body and finally it doesn’t need to scream at me for me to meet its needs. Weekends have become a weekly staycation of sorts, where my to-do list involves a book, a fuzzy blanket, dog cuddles, and a couple good hearty meals that take longer than 15 minutes to cook. I view naps as a restorative exercise instead of a waste of time that showcases my laziness.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.

Katherine May in Wintering

I think if the weather allowed, I would want to winter forever. At least that’s what I feel right now. Endless rounds of coffee and reading, or coffee and writing, watching the snow (or ice) fall, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets. At some point, we have to emerge from hibernation. Our skin and souls needs the sunlight, especially those final rays later and later in the evening. Our retinas need more input than gray, gray, gray.

I would say that winter will always be there for us, as a meteorological season. But will it? Climate change poses a real threat to this yearly probability. We will have to take the practices that allow us to conserve energy and appreciate nature into the future.

If anything, we can still find a place to winter deep in our souls. The cold and snow and lack of light, and not to mention the pandemic, are external drivers to help us find that place: nature demonstrates its practice to us. It’s a place we must return to if we are to grow and change as human beings. Recently I wrote in my journal, “I want my default setting to be positive and optimistic, to be able to be content but also curious.” Winter is a time of curiosity, of delving deep and doing some seeking. I equate the positivity and optimism with spring – the trees and flowers and grasses share that with me. That is when we do the finding – just as the leaves on the trees find their shape and reach east towards the sunlight.

You are not your calendar

It’s okay to step away from something, even if you’ve been doing it for years. Especially if you’ve been doing it for years. It’s something I’ve been trying to tell myself. Unfortunately, some of my time that I’ve rediscovered as I’ve stepped away from commitments is steeped in guilt, kind of like the half-drunk mug of tea I left sitting on the end table last night.

I look at it, realize that it’s very uncharacteristic of me to just leave things like that around the house, undone, but then it only takes a minute to clean it up and get on with my day.

There’s always a new day, and a fresh pot of coffee.

That’s what it feels like to strip away the patina of the calendar – like that first sip of coffee. Though I’ve been looking at clocks and calendars my whole life, it feels new to look at a clock and not be rushing to the next commitment. To take that first sip of the morning and not be immediately pouring it into a travel mug.

Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.

Akwaeke Emezi in The Death of Vivek Oji

Don’t be deceived that this is easy. Lots of people go around telling people that all you have to do it say, “No.” Emphatically. Like you really mean it. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have scores and scores of people in this country tired, beat down, exhausted, and fatigued from every day life.

I get that we’re in a pandemic right now, almost a year on, however this state of affairs only serves as a magnifying glass for this huge dare-I-say ridiculous and out-of-hand societal problem of “yes.”

I sit here, sipping my coffee, and this is the morning when my work-from-home dream ends. Never again in my career will I experience schools shutting down for a global health crisis (at least I don’t anticipate another pandemic…. but we’ll see what the Universe has in store). Never again as a public school teacher will I commute from my kitchen to my office, never having started the car or stopped for gas or even put on makeup like I used to.

The pandemic has helped me say no when I felt like I couldn’t. When I really, really, wanted to, but felt like guilt was holding me down. I was forced to just… stop. And breathe.

As my sister and I reminisced in a conversation recently (podcast episode to be posted this week), 2020 was a year. But it was also a good year. Which feels weird to admit. BUt one of self-reflection and growth and learning to say “no” and damn the consequences.

My whole life my identity has been wrapped around my activities and accomplishments. While it may look great on paper, my propensity for filling up my calendar is actually an attempt to fill a large gaping hole that is hungry for Guilt. And Self-Sacrifice. The only way for me to feed Guilt is to sacrifice my own self-worth and sanity. And I did it, for years.

And did you see the verb tense I just used? “And I did it.” Past tense. Not present perfect, not past progressive. But past. Because I’m done feeding that monster. I’m beginning to fill up that hole with reading and walking and pondering and conversations and relationships. Soon there won’t be any room at all for Guilt and its companions.

I am a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up my calendar and saying yes to all the things. You are a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up your calendar and saying yes to all the things. Let’s make our default “no” and carefully and cheerfully say “yes” to a few things that we can do well, and with that we will snuff out Guilt.