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On this blog, you get a little bit of everything. Some reminiscing and retelling of memories. Some analysis of grief. Some water cooler chat – shooting the shit about teaching. Some talk of books, a little of which is actually coherent.

Despite my best efforts to be “on” 95% of the time, it’s just not humanly possible. I’ve had this ridiculous standard for myself for a very long time. Adhering to this standard has made me successful, and I think it’s also been my downfall.

Tonight I feel pressure to write, so that I can stay consistent with my Wednesday/Sunday schedule. It’s okay, though, pressure is actually what propels and motivates me (most of the time). For other things outside of writing, like running, it’s just not very effective anymore. I think I killed that motor, honestly.

After a week of the national election, news about spiking COVID cases, and participating in the collective… grief? sadness? anxiety? of our society, I am just straight up worn out. I think last week I was headed upstairs to bed by 7:45 or 8:00. Granted, I do have to get up early for work, but that’s just ridiculously early.

I’ve been trying to find a term for the fatigue that I’m feeling, and I came across “COVID-19 Caution Fatigue” (see full description here). I think the biggest cause is a long drawn-out fight against an enemy that is intangible but deadly, invisible but definitely real. And the fight is endless.

One thing that’s helped me cope is taking it day by day. As trite as that sounds, that’s my coping mechanism for different periods of grief in my life – loved ones passing, infertility, deployment (not so much grief as stress, but I think it could be included somehow). All of those instances are events without timetables (even deployment was iffy..).

All of those events make us draw on inner strength, if we have it. If we’ve been exercising the muscle. And how would you know to exercise that muscle unless you’ve been through something like that? Those events also make us reach out to others. A global pandemic is arguably the most difficult – we by definition cannot “reach out”. Thank God for technology, right?

I’m still not drinking, by the way, and it’s quite a miracle. I spent so much time thinking about it that I would have probably spent less time actually doing it. And just yesterday I had a huge revelation about drinking… and food. And my relationship to them. But that’s for another entry in the annals of 2020.

So for the foreseeable future, my strategies are:

Caffeine. 95% in the form of coffee or espresso, most of the time by 9 am, most often through a beautiful vessel called a French press.

Reading. Is stress reading a thing? I’m now on to the next Witcher book and highly enjoying it. I can’t wait to finish rewatching Season 1 on Netflix

Sleeping. Yes, I think I need more sleep. Or at least more downtime that might turn into more sleep. What time is it? 6:51 pm? Shoot, too early for bed…

(And yes, I’m fully aware that my caffeine consumption could be harming my sleeping efforts. It is what it is, and that’s also why I’m cutting out any extra cups at work.)

Intermittent fasting. It’s all the rage right now. Honestly, the science behind it doesn’t really motivate me. It’s the fact that I don’t have to obsessively count calories (that is, the only way I do it) and I can still eat the things I want within reason. I don’t have to spend time in the morning prepping breakfast, and I can begin snacking in the late morning. When I stick to it, it works for me.

Cooking. This goes right along with the above topic. I love cooking. Spending a couple hours making a delicious meal after work is one of my favorite things to do. Enjoying the fruits of my labor for a few days afterwards in the form of leftovers is my second favorite thing to do. It’s also great for current times. I try to keep my pantry well-stocked so that I have everything to make comfort food like dairy-free tuna noodle casserole with my homemade cream of ___. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.) Cooking also gives me something to look forward to every day and keeps me in the moment

…and I don’t think my husband minds, either.

What happens when you read fiction or fantasy

Like I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I haven’t always been a big reader. I’ve always aspired to be a big reader, maybe even faking it once or twice, but never like my sister. Or my mom. Or even some of the kids in my family.

Truth be told, up until a couple years ago, I never really saw the benefits of reading fiction, and definitely not fantasy. I think my exact words to my therapist were, “It’s a waste of time to read stories that aren’t real.” Well, friends, I stand corrected. And sometimes I have to teach fiction so it’s helpful to everybody for me to read all the time…. right?

One. You learn about places you’ve either been to… or places you want to go. I’m not sure who would read Outlander and then decide they don’t want to go to Scotland. That is, unless you really hate cool rainy weather, endless precipitous sea cliffs, and amazing history. Last month I read Magic Lessons, and I think I fell in love a little more with the Northeast/East Coast region where we live now. We’ve been here about five years, and when we first arrived I wasn’t thrilled, but it is home and there’s so much to love about it. While reading the book, I kept having flashbacks to my short stay in Providence, Rhode Island last year in October. Even though the story was about witches (or because it was about witches?), it gave me a warm cozy feeling. But, Elizabeth, what about places like the Shire? Or Hogwarts? Well, those places can exist in our minds and through our imagination we can have experiences there.

Two. You see real people as complex as the characters you read about. There’s a story arc, character development. Sometimes it takes characters years to develop into their final form, and even then, even after the last page of a series, there’s still a question in your mind of, What if? I think this point is super important because in our world right now, it is so easy and even encouraged to demonize others. When a member of my family was getting out of a bad situation, I kept reminding myself that no person is either 100% good or 100% bad, even the perpetrator. Call it human nature, call it whatever you want, but we are all complex and subject to the human condition, even the murderer Jack Glass. People you may meet now may seem to be two-dimensional or in a plateau of their own personal development, but you have no idea the extent of the life they lived before your life lines intersected. And even our beloved characters in books – there is obviously a story before and after the tiny part of their lives that we see as readers. We meet Harry Potter when he’s 11 and follow his story until he’s 18, but when about when he turns 21? Or 25? Or, gasp, 30? There are innumerable events and chance meetings in his life that can change him still.

Three. Your vocabulary deepens. Research shows that it takes many encounters of a word before it makes it into our vocabulary, maybe even 15-20. Despite the research surrounding literacy and language acquisition, I believe there’s a kind of alchemy that happens in our brain when we read, and eventually those words will make it into our writing, speaking, and even into our imaginations or dreams. Of course, there is vocabulary acquisition that happens during phases of listening, like with podcasts. But I think reading is starkly different from listening to a podcast in that you are the one who adds inflection, who pauses when necessary to mull over something, and you make your own context by the sections you reread.

Four. You have something interesting to talk about… all the time. Even if all you’re reading is historical romantic fantasy, there’s still lots to discuss – characters, settings, and relationships among the characters, even reading habits. If you can get past the conversation where people low-key shame you for having enough time to read a whole book and talk about how horrible they are for not reading, it can be super enlightening to have these conversations. And another perk is that often they have absolutely nothing to do with current events or politics – for once can we talk about things that are not on Facebook??

Perhaps these amorphous conversations evolve into an organized book club. Without a doubt, telling other people about what you read strengthens your own comprehension skills because you’re retelling a story you read with your audience and purpose in mind – maybe it’s being simplified for a child, or someone who’s not as into fantasy as you are. Maybe you cannot stop talking about a book you read (as I am with Court of Thorns and Roses or The Bear and the Nightingale) and you’re trying to persuade someone to read it. That right there is considering your audience and purpose.

Five. You relax your brain and your body. For me, reading can be meditative. Right now, I read when I wake up (after taking the dog and during consumption of a French press). And I let reading put me to sleep. Maybe it’s that I didn’t have bedtimes stories read to me past the age of about 5, but I love being all cozy in bed with a book. The house is quiet, the dog is snoring. It’s like Christmas Eve every night. For just a little while, I can escape.

Five. You introduce yourself to new or possibly contrary ideas from what you know, or what you subconsciously believe. This has probably been the most instrumental thing that’s happened to me as I’ve really become a reader. You’re introduced to relationships you don’t know much about (such as in LGBTQ-affirming books like I’ll Give You the Sun) and decisions made that you don’t agree with, like in Tidelands, but you also can’t fully comprehend. This point of course applies to nonfiction, and this was a big reason I read nonfiction for so long. I wanted to know more, more, more information about a topic. The difference is that I would get stuck on one idea, like when I went through my Mt. Everest phase, and then I would be reluctant to read about new ideas.

I want to conclude with a quote from On Tyranny, a cute little but powerful book I picked up from our library sale…

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

-Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

November TBR

Guys, at the time I’m writing this post, I just finished my 56th book of 2020. I cannot believe it, honestly. I started reading again as a habit back in 2017, and solidified my habit through my local library’s Winter Reading challenge (5 books from December to March). I started my rekindled relationship with reading with mostly nonfiction, beginning with Endurance by Scott Kelly. Spring and summer 2019 saw me reading the Winternight Trilogy – amazing!! And from there, my love for fantasy and some scifi was born. And as an almost 35-year-old woman, I have no qualms admitting my love for young adult/new adult fantasy like Throne of Glass or A Court of Thorns and Roses… all the thanks to Sherry of Young House Love Has a Podcast for the introduction to the SJM universe(s?).

Now, it’s November 2020 and I’ve been an active member of a book club that reads award-winning fantasy and scifi. So for sure that book has to be on my monthly TBR. I also recently subscribed to Book of the Month Club, but decided to skip this month because nothing really caught my eye.

1. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. Guys, I’m balls deep in the Outlander universe. I’m caught up with season 3 so please, don’t tell me anything! I’m not sure I will finish this one in November, as I keep my Outlander books waiting in the wings and want them to last as long as possible.

2. The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford. Historical fantasy set in medieval Europe. Sounds perfect for fall.

3. Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski (translated from Polish). One of my husband’s and my goals for 2020 was to read The Witcher books together. We found a recommended order, so we’re trying to be sure to read the short stories and anthologies before diving into the novels. I’ve never played the video games (not really a gamer) but the TV show on Netflix is so. good.

4. Destierros by Gabriela Riveros (in Spanish)

Earlier this year I worked my way through about half of The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. It moved very slow, was very descriptive, and lost my attention. It just wasn’t the right book at the right time for me. Next time I pick it up, I will read the rest in Spanish. Now that I’m back teaching high school again, I’ve been having a lot of memories of my first job teaching Spanish right out of college, where I completed a degree that should have been called “Hispanic Literature” because that’s basically what all my classes were.

Now that I’m reading again and with much more self-awareness, I thought I’d pick up some books en espaƱol. I am also on a mission to improve my Spanish proficiency, which hovers around intermediate-advanced to advanced. Anyway, Destierros was recommended by the Goodreads algorithm, so I’ll check it out.

I am teetering on the fence with how much to “study” the books I read. Obviously for the Spanish one (#4) I want to be aware of vocabulary and linguistic devices used so I can further my knowledge. For the book club book (#2), I need to remember things so I can discuss them coherently. I have a feeling the Witcher book (#3) and the next installment of Outlander (#1) will be mostly to go on an adventure.

154 days

I spared a moment of generosity this week and placed my leftover candy in the main office at work. I’d been stealing “fun size” candy for days now, weeks. I had originally bought it for a meeting I had this month, thinking, “Yeah, Elizabeth, you can control yourself with candy in the room. Just three pieces a day. That’s it.”

I was wrong, and I knew I was setting myself up for failure, if eating more than three pieces of candy was considered failure.

The truth is, my body doesn’t tolerate dairy products well, but it’s mostly when they’re raw. When milk is really overprocessed into milk chocolate candy, I can handle it in small(ish) doses. So that’s why I gave myself the green light to essentially binge candy every day.

Now, do I have an unhealthy relationship with food, that is, bingeing? Maybe that’s for my therapist to say. But I know that sometimes I do, especially when it comes to sugar or junk food.

As a rule, we generally don’t keep it in the house. If we do bring junk food into the house, we know that it’s for a special treat and we don’t expect it to survive more than a couple days. This includes Oreos, pints of ice cream, a cake or pie I bake, et cetera.

But I don’t forbid myself to eat sweets. I think that could backfire pretty badly. I also am not prediabetic (according to recent-ish bloodwork). I’m at a healthy weight, I have good blood pressure (albeit kind of low) and I, in general, am a healthy person.

I know that sugar can mess with a host of body processes, including menstrual cycles and metabolism. However, right now it’s been kind of an outlet. An indulgence.

I think at this point in 2020 (almost to the end but who knows what 2021 will bring…) we’ve all found our vices. Maybe we’ve rediscovered them. Maybe we hate them; maybe we embrace them. Maybe like mine, sugar, I say hi, how are you, and move on, neither fixating nor ignoring.

However, one thing I have forbid is drinking alcohol. It’s been about five months since I’ve had an alcoholic drink. I know I’ve passed the 150 day mark.

Before May 2020, I had another dry spell around 2012-2013, when as part of youth leadership at a church we were encouraged not to drink, even in the privacy at our own home. (I have a lot of feels about that that I’m sure I’ll write about… at some point.)

I am genetically predisposed to an addiction to alcohol. I’ve known this for a very long time, but continued to play with fire. It’s very difficult for me to moderate. First, I have one glass of wine. Then, I start to feel a little uninhibitied and want to get to a good buzzed state, so I have another. Cue more intoxicated decision-making and I could polish off a bottle by myself over the course of a weekend afternoon and evening.

Same goes for holidays, though I completely viewed them as a free pass to day drink. Add on trips to wineries, one of my favorite pastimes. There’s something so cozy and “adult” about sitting on a stone patio overlooking rolling hills with a glass of wine in hand on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Late in May, after a particularly active evening of drinking whatever was available, I puked. Thankfully, not in someone’s house or someone’s car (both have happened, unfortunately), but it was enough to jar my brain into rethinking my relationship with alcohol.

I felt like absolute warmed-up death the next day. Missy, our dog, must have known how guilty and physically awful I felt, because she cuddled on the couch with me all day. I don’t have “normal” hangovers, I guess – my stomach feels bad and I have no appetite, not even for that sugary or fried junk food I mentioned earlier.

It was then I decided to see how long I could go without drinking. A long COVID summer lay ahead. First I got through Memorial Day. And then vacation, my first vacation in years that I had been 100% sober. And then a camping trip. Finally, I had made it through a sober summer and stared down the barrel of the beginning of everyone’s favorite shitshow of a school year. Well, now, that wasn’t too bad, was it? Now we’re on the verge of the holidays, and this will be my first holiday season in probably my entire life (since I was a teenasger) where I’ve been completely sober.

The first couple weeks, I felt like I was on Cloud Nine. I felt like all my ducks were in a row, as it were, and that I was in control. Slowly, the elated feeling faded away into monotony. Every day felt the same. Friday? Ok, great. Maybe we’ll order pizza. (No wine.) Saturday afternoon grilling on the patio? Nice, grab a sparkling water. (No tequila mixed drink.) Sunday afternoon, how about the winery? Oh, nevermind, I’m going to do ____ instead.

Throughout this experiment with sobriety, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For one, I knew I had a poor relationship to alcohol. I’ve used it as a balm for pretty much everything – happiness, grief, weddings, funerals, regular ole days, Superbowl. No longer can I ignore my feelings, though. Friday nights can be particularly difficult as I anticipate the weekend ahead while considering the week behind me. Having a few glasses of wine or cocktails on a Friday night delineated my teacher-ness and my Elizabeth-ness. And now I don’t have that.

I have learned to work through my feelings day by day, which frankly, really sucks. It really sucks to have an intense moment of grief and no way to assuage it besides the meditative coping mechanisms in my mind. There’s no crutch anymore; just me.

I was very worried about appearing socially sans alcohol. I really thought it made me funnier, more charming, more witty. Turns out, I’m alright without it. Now, we also have COVID to thank for not having to navigate the social world in all its glory right now. That I am very thankful for.

I have to find other ways of sorting through feelings and having special moments. My “thing” right now is coffee + reading in the mornings before work. I’ve been making myself a French press every morning that I enjoy with whatever dairy-free creamer of my choice. On weekdays, I don’t have much time, maybe 20 minutes, to sit and read and contemplate the day. But on the weekends, I find I get out of bed with even more gusto than on a regular morning. I have found that I love enjoying my coffee with a book or some writing before the dog and husband are awake for the day. In the summers, I can sit in my chair in the living room and watch the sun rise in the east.

Waking up not hungover is probably the best feeling there is. No regret, no wondering if I say or did anything stupid. No guilt about Aaron having to take care of my drunk ass. And no waking up in the middle of the night, heart racing, sweating, worrying. That’s it, just worrying.

So you see, the sugar consumption is not the biggest deal in the world. Maybe I’m replacing my habit, but there are many reasons why not drinking is the right choice for me right now. And it has nothing to do with an external religious force that makes me feel guilty for imbibing. It has everything to do with my relationship to myself.

This week I felt a really intense craving for a glass of wine, the bottle of Chianti I have in the other room. I could see myself picking out my glass, opening the bottle to let it breathe, take a sip and savor it in my mouth. And then the daydream faded like it was a balloon being popped, and my rose colored glasses were simply just glasses again.

All I can say is that I’ve picked a hell of a year to stop drinking, and it’s not over yet.

Stories abound

From even before we are born, we are told stories. Maybe they’re bedtime stories. Maybe they’re daytime stories. Maybe they’re stories told to us before a nap. But they’re there.

It’s long been debunked that we humans are born as a “clean slate,” without context, completely free to be molded by our environment.

To say that humans are born as a clean slate is to discount our stories.

Which ones have you been told?

And which ones do you believe?

Which ones have holes, incongruencies?

Which ones make you feel warm and fuzzy inside?

In which stories were you told lies, maybe to pacify your curiosity?

In which stories were you presented the truth? (Probably not many, considering every human is a subjective, biased source. Maybe I’m just pessimistic.)

It’s no wonder that at some point every person goes on a self-centered mission to find out who they are. I don’t say self-centered with a negative connotation, either. Because it’s okay to center on yourself in order to fully actualize in the world.

The world now abounds with stories, and it’s gone beyond small concentric and geographic circles. The stories we’re not only told but participants in intersect at many locations, some unintended. Some stories are deafening in their details, trippy in their timelines. Some stories today really convince me that there is, in fact, a monster hiding under my bed.

My whole life I’ve been pretty bad at reading comprehension. Probably a “C” student, if you had to put a letter grade on it. I have a vivid memory in fifth grade when in order to answer a short answer comprehension question fully, I wrote in really big letters thinking I could trick my teacher into believing my answer was sufficient. It turns out it wasn’t.

I think once I was given the whole picture, I was pretty decent at parsing out the details, and I was (am) very good at making philosophical connections and inferences. I was also really good at math, and maybe that’s a reason I was invited to the gifted program.

I was a member of “Avid Readers,” one of the gifted/talented pull-out English Language Arts groups I could choose from. I wanted so badly to be like my friend Kara, who could read very fast and retain information. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t quite grasp the stories I was reading.

For a long long time after that, I didn’t have much curiosity about the stories I was reading. Romeo & Juliet, Great Expectations, Julius Caesar, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle. They all passed me by. I knew what iambic pentameter and who Charles Dickens were, but summarizing or retelling the story were near impossible without help from my bff, Cliff Notes. It’s a shame, because from what I’ve heard, those are all beautiful stories.

My 11th grade English and etymology teacher, affectionately referred to as Momma Knight, spoke all the time about the human condition. Of course, to a 16-year-old woman-child it sounded very ethereal and esoteric, maybe something I’d understand someday.

Now as an almost 35-year-old woman, I wish I could go back to those classes and read those stories anew. While the context I was born with didn’t lend itself to understanding the plight of those characters, I have context now, and perhaps sometime in the past 20 years walked in the shoes of some of those seminal characters.

I’m critical now, of the stories I read. And more so of the stories I hear. And the most evaluative of the stories that flood my memories. I look at them from all angles, examining the setting, plot, characters, and conflicts. I provide evidence based on my own experience. And in time I will draw my own conclusions.

Fooling myself

For a good chunk of my life I had no idea how to relax. I would be so excited for what seemed like endless amounts of time on the weekends or school breaks, and then it would feel like I squandered it by doing… I don’t even know what, exactly.

By the time I reached high school, I simultaneously was excited for and dreaded breaks or time off. Through high school and college, I suffered from depression during those times, especially summers. The lack of routine and set schedule really got me down.

Since then, there’s been a push and pull of priorities, some due to the privileges I enjoy now and some due to many years of creating healthy boundaries and “work-life balance.”

In talking with my therapist the other day, I discovered that in the times I felt depressed on winter [or insert whatever holiday] break, I didn’t trust myself. During the week or times of routine, I relied heavily on my schedule to determine the appropriate times for all my activities. I hadn’t quite learned self-regulation of my own schedule.

For instance, I have a history of starting a project and either getting so carried away with that I can’t stop until it’s finished, or I leave it to collect dust for a number of months until I remember my fondness for it and dig it out of the pile of Misfit Projects. I think many times I would abandon a project because I would get too much into my own head about “wasting” time on something that I actually did enjoy instead of engaging in something more “productive.”

This practice of never penciling in unscheduled activities came to a fever pitch when Aaron was out and about (either in the field or deployed) with the military. Whether it was for two weeks, a month, or our longest separation of 10 months, I found myself jumping at every last opportunity to be busy or spend time away from the house. It was just too hard to be there alone.

There’s a long path of steps up to my current level of self-actualization that could not have occurred without those trying times and bouts of depression, however. I needed to go through the tough things to appreciate the good ones. To appreciate myself for who I am – independent, worthy of relaxation.

These days I still have a list of projects, some that are completed with a feverish pace, and others that sit for months until I pick them up again. I always am caught in a flurry of hobbies and love immersing myself in creative things when I’m not working. But no longer do I feel guilty or weird if I spend, for example, two hours on a Sunday afternoon napping, or watching football, or cooking food for the week.

I think the key is that I can’t have so many boundaries for myself during my time off. I need to allow myself a large swath of time to ponder, explore, and create. It keeps me mentally healthy. I inwardly rejoice even upon waking up early on a weekend morning, or especially upon waking up early on a weekend morning. I see nothing but potential for the day, be it through a cup (or entire French press) of coffee, reading, cross-stitching, napping, cooking, whatever. The joy in the day is not derived by the activity necessarily, but in the agency involved in choosing the activity. And having no regrets for how I spent my time.

Life right now is not at all what we planned it would look like. Humans are kind of programmed to predict events, so this pandemic really threw a wrench into everything. Nonetheless, it gives us a perfect opportunity to see our habits and actions for what they really bring to our lives – either how they serve us or how they manipulate or cause destruction.

In the view of the finite breaths we all have left, it’s imperative that we take the time to reflect on how we spend our time and if it’s all “worth it.” We can take everything out of our pockets, lay it out on the table, and really examine every piece in an objective light.

For me, hemming and hawing about the way I spend an hour or two, or even an entire day, doesn’t serve me well. If I complete an activity and then spend time regretting it, that is a waste to me, my friends.

In fact, I guess you could say I’d be fooling myself….

Coping through COVID

Every day seems like a new opportunity to observe, rework, and rewire the workings of my mind. When there is so much changing and the change doesn’t seem to quit, it can feel like a daily attack to my human brain that likes to predict everything.

“Taking things day by day” hits a little too close to home right now. But that’s really what I need to do. At the same time, I have to look ahead because lessons and meals won’t plan themselves. I find that there’s some solace in routines.

I have changed both schools and grade levels this year. My work demands and schedule seem to change constantly. My great-grandmother passed away in August. Holiday plans have changed. Our church has been through some intense changes in the past several months – going virtual, receiving a new pastor after ours retired.

For one thing, I have to believe that there is good coming from all these changes. I find I’m more satisfied at work now that I’m back in secondary and am not assigned to multiple schools all over the county. I’m happy that my great-grandmother is no longer sad from having outlived so many loved ones. I’m okay with being in my own house for holidays this year. I am thankful for our church family and being able to worship together this past Sunday, the first time since March.

For another thing, I have to let go of yesterday, last week, last month. Someone pissed me off today at work? That’s fine, but I have to let it go before tomorrow morning. I had an intense conversation with a family member? Okay, but I gotta let it go and not dwell on it. Students weren’t attending class or participating in the lesson I spent 45 minutes creating? Oh well – there will be another lesson. Make modifications, introduce a new strategy, et cetera.

I keep coming back to the Four Agreements:

Be impeccable with your word.

Always do your best.

Don’t make assumptions.

Don’t take anything personally.

I read the book awhile back at the recommendation of my therapist, and she definitely didn’t steer me wrong. I think I could spend my whole life trying to master these four agreements. Some days are definitely better than others. I started trying to apply these way before COVID, but now they need to be even more in focus. Guess I’d better put my glasses on.

Making amends

For a long time I was at odds with my own past. My own experiences. It’s a weird place be to because there’s animosity and sadness and regret, but the only person it’s directed to is the person in the mirror. Or out into the void. It’s very confusing.

I went to a small private university only 15 minutes away from where I grew up. It was the only college I applied to, and with my grades, GPA, and “well-rounded” experiences, I knew I would get in, and I did. I was majored in Spanish and secondary education, and I remember with my mom meeting the head of the foreign language department in his dingy office that smelled like old books and cigarette smoke. I was a little unsure of my decision, but my conscience reminded me that this was the only school I applied to, the only one I believed and told I could go to, so I just went with it.

Westlake Hall, Bradley University | where I learned how to be a teacher

And I went with it for four years, four really difficult years. I worked a couple jobs outside of my 15 to 16 hour semesters and carefully plotted my classes so that I could graduate in four years. I even took a literature and an earth science class at the community college and a Spanish grammar class at another university close by so I could transfer the credits.

I lived in my room at my parents’ house, but also out of my car and in the university library. I found solace in coffee and green tea in travel cups and those ridiculously expensive smoothies they served at the student center. I racked up a credit card with purchases of bottled Starbucks frappuccinos.

And then I graduated with about $50,000 in student debt, a mixture of different kinds of loans all with low interest rates (thank goodness). I couldn’t study abroad due to jobs and bills, so I took some loan money and flew to Spain to visit a friend. I went on a missions trip to Bolivia. I tried to have as many immersion experiences in the Latin world so I would be ready to teach Spanish.

For a long time, the student debt hung over me, hung over us. We got married right when I graduated, so then all my private school debt became our private school debt, and I felt horrible about it. Every day. It was a dark cloud hanging over our new life together.

Eventually we paid all of it off (February 2017, nine years after my graduation). That helped me feel better about what I thought was a ridiculously expensive degree and a mediocre experience. Representatives from the university calling me on a Sunday evening asking me for more money couldn’t get off the phone without hearing an earful about how I worked two jobs and now was a teacher who could not afford to give even more money to the institution.

“Mrs. Mercies Per Mile, we’d like to hear about your experience at Bradley. What were some of your favorite extra curricular experiences as a student?” the bright-eyed work-study student would ask.

“My extra curricular experiences involved working two jobs and visiting my long-distance boyfriend. I had no time for anything else, not even friends, because I wanted to escape that expensive place as fast as possible, ” is what I wanted to say. Eventually I stopped answering the calls.

Recently, indirectly, I’ve come to terms with the difficult experience of undergrad. I realize how fortunate I was to even go to college, to have at least one parent who was college educated, and other family members who were, too. To have a working vehicle, and to be employed. To study something that actually has never failed me as far as acquiring skilled work. To study something that gave me a springboard for graduate studies and a slight shift in my career. To have a really solid liberal arts education that got me thinking outside my own world, that actually did a great job of teaching me how to be a teacher (besides the one measly foreign language methods class).

I’ve been back to visit the university only a couple of times in the past 12 years. Once to try to change my name on my diploma (didn’t realize that I couldn’t, and now I don’t want to) and once with my sister just to walk around. I guess you could say I’m not your typical alumnus, going to homecoming, sporting all the gear, reminiscing on the parties and social gatherings (I never did go to a college party…).

This transition in my feelings towards that era of my life is actually a transition in my feelings towards the person I was during that time. I was the extremely busy and overworked person I harp about now. I was nervous and anxious when it came to just about everything. I was very intimidated to speak Spanish or act like I knew anything about the culture. I was unsure of myself in so many ways, and I think I was actually embarrassed of the person I was.

pensive, unsure, full of doubt but trying to make it look like I have it all together
ca. 2006

But it’s okay. I’ve grown a lot in the past 15+ years. I’ve had some incredible experiences in life, in further education, in other cultures that have given me something new to latch onto.

First, I heard that high school was the best time of my life, and then when I got to college I heard that no, that was the best time of my life. Both were not the best time of my life, and it’s very depressing to think that for some people, they peak in high school or college. What about the (hopefully) 60+ years beyond that?

I think making such a black-and-white declaration of what is supposed to be the best time of someone’s life is myopic at best and damning at worst. We don’t know what everyone goes through in those stages. Some people, like me, have hope that other parts of their life will be the best.

For example, the life I’m living now is pretty damn amazing. I have an education, a long-term partner, a beautiful and safe home, a career that’s been built up over many years and experiences. But more than that, I’ve made a series of good decisions (and been a recipient of some blessings and luck) to get me here. Somehow I was able to see beyond the debt and the hardship and the infertility and even the Illinois River Valley to something new, perhaps wild and untamed, but always worth it.

I want to always pine for the life I’m living right now, not get snagged on the hard things in the past, or the attitudes I had, or the person I was. It’s all important and worthy of mention and meditation. All experiences in life converge into one tiny pin prick in the expanse of time – this moment right now.

Plan A is Plan A

In a one-on-one session with a student today, these literal words came out of my mouth: “Bear with me with biology; it’s been 20 years since I’ve had this class.” (For the record, I teach ESOL but a student came to me for language help with her bio class.)

I became a teacher long before now. Professionally, I’ve been at it for about 15 years. But before that I taught piano lessons at my local music shop. Before that, I was giving my sisters lessons using a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind the Laz-E-Boy in the living room.

I thought teaching was a great aspiration, but for me it was always a placeholder until I could do the thing I really wanted to do: take care of my own children.

When I learned that having my own children probably wasn’t in the cards for me (for many reasons.. check out those posts here, here, and here), I had a major identity crisis. Yes, I was a teacher still, but in my heart of hearts I was also a mother. I was a wife and a mother before anything else. Besides “teacher,” it was probably the first identity that emerged when I was a little girl. I’ve always been very maternal, be it with dolls, stuffed animals, my sisters, the younger siblings of my friends. I always knew I would be very suited for a long-term relationship as someone’s wife. And even then, becoming a wife was an avenue for becoming a mother. (Yes, I’m very traditional about some things. But only for myself. You do you.)

It’s taken now many years and dozens of therapy sessions, plus a whole lot of mental bandwidth, to disengage from my identity as a mother. During that identity crisis, I was still serving as a teacher but refused to accept that it was now (or still?) my life’s work. Another one for the record: I do believe in callings, in God’s will. As such, teaching has always been my life’s work.

It hasn’t been until this school year that I’ve finally felt liberated from my dormant and unfulfilled “mother” identity. It could be that I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Or that I’m back teaching in a high school as I spent four years in elementary, which has a role of its own in my healing from the hurt of infertility. I spent a lot of time and energy exploring other potential life paths in the past few years.

I started my professional career in high school, first in student teaching at a school in a very small town in the middle of cornfields, and then in my very own (windowless) classroom of wide-eyed Spanish students in another school surrounded by cornfields. I even started my (amateur) teaching career while I was a high school student. So many positive formative experiences happened to me while I was that age.

There’s a type of magic for me of being in a high school building. There’s not only nostalgia, but a feeling of “home,” and if you lead me to the band room, that feeling is only amplified.

School in post-COVID-closure 2020 may look very strange to my 14-year-old self who once sat in freshman biology class thinking about what 34-year-old Elizabeth would be like, or do with her life. But there’s something about imparting knowledge on others, about creating a classroom community, about leaning into the hard days and frustrations that makes me feel like I belong.

I don’t communicate these words lightly. In the five weeks since school has been back in session I have considered quitting my job at least five times. I could write many many posts about the difficulties of teaching these days, and a treatise on the inequities and bureaucratic bloat of the American public education system.

But late last week I had a realization. Me di cuenta… I realized that now is a good time to lean in. To embrace my chosen profession. To receive my new students, whom I have known for all of a month. To welcome new families, immigrants or not. To keep creating lessons that are fun to teach and hopefully to learn. To call on my creative brain to step up. To take advantage of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge I’ve amassed in the 13 years since I was a teacher candidate.

In our society that says that having a plan will make you successful, “they” are awfully silent about the plans that emerge from the shadows, or a child’s dreams that want to be Plan A when they grow up. I have come full circle, where my Plan A is still my Plan A.

Snap out of it

The world is at a fever pitch right now. Everything is heightened, stressed, tenuous, uncertain. Almost anything could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. Everyday I resist the urge to actively look for said straw. It’s tempting to fall into a feeling of hopelessness and live just for today.

I’ve had thoughts of “I can’t believe this is the world I’m living in” or “I don’t want to live in this particular world anymore.” Let me be clear: this is a thought of escapism that all humans are prone to, not one of suicidal ideation.

This thought usually comes to me at the strangest times while participating in the most mundane tasks: driving home from an uneventful grocery store trip. Sitting outside on the patio. During seriously normal things that I would be doing in any world at any time.

There are days that feel totally normal; at my school we’ve been back in the building for a week now. A week ago I was pretty nervous and unsure about it, and really having a moment saying goodbye to my home office and my furry work assistant (for now). As a person who is very easily distracted and needs a good solid block of quiet time to get good deep work done (Have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport?), I’ve curated a really cozy, quiet space at home.

It’s quite a change from when I began working from home in mid-March. I hated mixing work and home life. As soon as I walked in the door, the teacher persona came off and the regular Elizabeth returned, along with comfy clothes. But then I was Teacher and Regular Human Being in the same space. But as the time went on, it got easier and as it turns out, for me it was all a state of mind.

Being back in the building was actually nice. I was able to be in my classroom, making it quiet and cozy just like my office at home. I was able to interact with my students virtually and even get some really good deep work done.

Stepping out of my classroom after a long but good week of work, I looked at the blue sky and changing trees and realized that we have a little less than three full months left in 2020. There is a presidential election looming. Who knows what else could happen.

However, there was a salient moment when it all came together for me, and I return to this moment in my memory often. Usually I’m jolted awake by my alarm, but there was a day (probably a weekend morning) where I slowly woke up, first my mind woke up, then my eyes opened, and I found myself on one side of a very cozy Missy sandwich. She and Aaron were still fast asleep, and I just lay there, letting myself wake up, and realizing that this is what it’s all about – we’re healthy, safe, have curated a pretty nice life, actually, and we’re grateful for it.