Spending time with Past, Present, and Future (no, this isn’t my version of A Christmas Carol)

I look at houses online, a lot. Maybe too much. Sometimes I look at houses in my neighborhood, sometimes in my hometown. Sometimes I look at houses in places I’ve lived before. I pore over lot size and price per square foot and judge the lighting or staging I see. But mostly I imagine what my life would be like in another place.

If I were to sketch a pie chart that shows the time I spend living in the past, present, and future, it might look like this:

Past and Future live in my head rent-free, and they never leave. Just like I have been for the past almost-year, they are hunkered down, their butts have made inroads on the couch cushions, and they’ve been raiding the pantry. To be fair, I live there with them. I even made them food and bring it to them while they remain couch potatoes. I bring them a blanket when they’re cold, and water when they’re thirsty. But if I’m being honest with you, Past and Future need to be evicted.

It is difficult for me to settle down and live in the present, and the time I spend looking at houses online is a symptom of that. If I have a goal in my head that I want to read on the couch with a cup of tea in the evening, it will take me at least a couple hours to get there. And even when I physically get there, it takes me more time to quiet my mind. (I know you’re going to suggest meditation…. line up behind my therapist for that one…)

Once I’m in the present, I enjoy it. But there is a constant buzzing in my head, maybe anxiety, maybe not. It’s like I’m afraid of getting caught in the Matrix again and losing my awareness. I’m hyperaware.

I was thinking about why I might be like that.

Growing up, I was always thinking about the future. It was an imperative put on me by my parents. We talked about it a lot – how to be successful in school, how important college was, how education was the way to have financial success (we did not have a lot of money for a long time). I think that mindset paired with an active imagination served with a healthy dose of anxiety spurred my mind into overdrive, and thus creating thought patterns that stuck with me for 30+ years.

I think it’s time for new thought patterns. Ones that allow me to fully enjoy the present without worrying about tomorrow. A caveat is that yes, it is important to think about the future at times – that’s how I keep things like my car maintained. I can’t just not get an oil change; I have to plan it. Or keeping food in the house so I can cook good meals. Or adding money to my investment accounts so we’re not broke in retirement.

But truth be told, those action items do not take much time. The energy I spend taking care of those and similar things can be compressed into minutes, honestly. Maybe a couple of hours. But not during the day when I’m trying to focus on work, or at night keeping my awake during a holiday break.

I see the habits and ways I’m spending my time right now as how I will spend them, forever and ever amen (a-woman? JUST KIDDING). For example, if I really dive into reading more books for 2021, in my mind I think, I cannot “let myself go” because I will become addicted to reading and then I won’t want to hang out with people so then I’ll lose friends and then I’ll be really upset and lonely.

Um, what? All of that doesn’t even make sense. It’s irrational at its core. Each part of our life is a separate phase – a season – a gift. I am in a new season right now where we are in a, say it with me, glo-bal pan-dem-ic. There is a lot happening that is not “the norm.” And it won’t last forever.

I read a lot of memoirs and biographies. Currently I’m a bit obsessed with the quest for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic in the mid-1800’s and all the fun and folly that come along with it. There are sailors who devoted upwards of 40 years to their sailing careers. Some of them were lucky enough to live into their 70’s and 80’s. While they spent 40 years doing one profession, per simple arithmetic, they didn’t spend their whole lives doing the exact same thing at the exact same pace in the exact same way.

I think having that realization can help me get over this hump of spending so much time with Past and Future. If I stop my irrational spiraling way of thinking in its tracks, I can probably spend a lot more time with Present. Let’s try it. And maybe my pie chart will end up looking more like this:

Simple life in 2021

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that we humans make life so much more complicated and difficult than it needs to be. Is there anything more basic to life than waking up with the sun, eating, and observing life around us?

As I write this, I’m taking advantage of (probably) seasonal spring-ish weather in the Mid-Atlantic – 50* on a random day between Christmas and New Year’s. Just a week ago we were anticipating a torrential rainstorm followed by a hefty shift in the temperature. The result of this warmer weather is that I’m on my porch with a hot cup of coffee, noticing that the sun’s angle is behind me (I’m facing east) and maybe just a little bit higher than it was only a week ago on the Solstice. I can see the Susquehanna River, its waters a little lower than a few days ago. No speed boats, no tug boats – just a wide swath of blue.

Peaceful. Just sitting and observing is peaceful. And simple. But necessary. Do we really need to sit with a screen in front of us upwards of 8, or maybe 12, hours a day? I know the science is out there – that can’t be good for our brains. It certainly isn’t for me.

To take a wider view, my week-to-week activities BC (before corona) were busy. So busy. So many activities, driving here and there, so many long-term commitments that I didn’t sleep on before agreeing to. Sure, my mind says, Oh, that will only take an hour each week… without adding up the time driving to and from, prepping for said activity, and alllll the mental space that said activity would take up.

I’ve realized a lot about myself this year, and one huge realization is that I really can’t focus on so many things at once. When I’m involved in so many “people-y” activities, I not only spend time doing all the things I mentioned previously, but then add on replaying many interpersonal interactions in my head later… while brushing my teeth, while getting ready for bed, while laying awake in the middle of the night.

At the core of its economy, being so busy and so committed is inefficient. I don’t get the return on investment most of the time. I end up being tired, worn out, and on the brink of throwing in the towel. That’s not good for getting returns on other things that really matter: the work I do every day for a living, close relationships with family and friends, things that keep my life moving forward like cooking and cleaning and maintaining our house.

I want a simpler life in 2021. This does include keeping so much off of my calendar… and actually, it would be nice to not be involved in so many things that I actually don’t need to reference my calendar that often. I have to make transition time in my day – time to grocery shop, time to eat, time to cook, time to clean up, time to relax and unwind…. really relax and unwind, preferably without a screen.

This means that I might fully give myself over to books. My mind, a fragrant offering, if you will. Reading is something I love to do, and more than that, I love the conversations and new ideas that transpire as a result. I love transporting myself to new worlds and new lands, meet characters I never knew existed. And understand myself and my fellow humans more than I did than when I initially opened the cover.

Twilight as liminal space

We are approaching the longest night and shortest day of the year. I always focus on the night part.

https://www.goodfon.com/wallpaper/laplandiya-finlyandiya-zima-sneg-5978.html

Winter twilight produces some of the weirdest light. Night comes on fast, especially if it’s a day like today where skies have been gray and heavy with frozen precipitation. At one point, there is still some light, and it gradually wanes until it’s completely dark. So dark, so quickly, that it doesn’t even let you remember when exactly became dark. But at the same time you know the exact moment.

Twilight, and more specifically winter twilight, is a liminal space. It’s a no-man’s-land, and in-between, maybe even an upside-down. There have been many times in my life that I would characterize as liminal spaces, where the edges and boundaries are blurred and it’s just me trying to find my way.

It makes sense that one would feel uncomfortable in such a space. Some would call it a time when you’re on the edge of a new beginning, but not quite there. Some religions might call it purgatory.

For the majority of my life, I’ve seen these spaces as purgatory, or even at times a special place in hell. Times where I was completely unsure of myself, questioning all of my life decisions and circumstances that have brought me to this singular point.

As humans, we wait very poorly. We are magnificently impatient. We want to hear the chord at the end of the song that resolves the melody. We think that somehow that will bring us peace.

But the growth happens in the liminal space. I think it’s probably near impossible as a well-adjusted human to become completely comfortable in the liminal space… though some can be very efficient and even enjoy long-term experiences in the liminal space.

Is it possible to see the liminal space extend before you and not be afraid of it? To not be rushing for the door on the other side of the room? To actually look at the things in the Room of Liminal Space and appreciate them? I think it is, but you have to get past the itching and biting of the discomfort.

I think after awhile in that Room, the fog lifts and the eyes adjust to a different kind of light. There still exists an awareness of an escape, the door that will release us across the threshold into the destination we have craved for so long.

That is to say, I think these times of uncertainty and perhaps purgatory may not be as bad as we think they will be. Take winter, for instance. In just a few days, the Northern Hemisphere will experience the shortest amount of daylight for the entire year. Where I am that amounts to 9 hours and 22 minutes of daylight. That is actually much more than other locations which may experience next to no daylight. If we look at this phenomenon through an asset-based lens, we see that there are then 15-some-odd hours of darkness.

Can we embrace the darkness? The lack of light that encourages us to hibernate and see inside ourselves? Twilight offers a road back into the cave of our inner selves. Of books and ideas and time without screens and technological distractions. Of cups of coffee over heart-to-hearts and journal entries and just thinking while falling asleep. Of prayer and contemplation and meditation. I think after this year, we could all use some of that no matter our place on the spectrum of intro/extroversion.

November 12, 2019 @ 9:13 pm

We are at a collective breaking point. There is virtually no one I talk to who isn’t busy or overwhelmed or burnt out. Most people give lip service about committing to anything, except they’ve overcommitted to everything, seemingly. It’s strange.

I think we’re headed towards a precipice. All of society is running and careening out of control at full speed. We all know we shouldn’t be doing it. Yet we are anyway. We think our running is only affecting ourselves, that others should just decide to go the other way. Then they do and we run them over and blame someone else for it.

Our actions are ripples that undulate throughout the cosmos. We are all in this together. Individualism is great until it’s not.

There is a different sort of Great Depression coming – a depression of common decency and interprsonal relationship and mutual affection and caring for one another.

I’m just trying to get ahead of it before the stampede reaches me.

Meta post

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.

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.

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.

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.