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. Wilcoxon, 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.

Saying 'no' means saying more

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. Usually you’re told this if you’re not sure if you should or can do something and the person you’re talking to wants to encourage you to put your foot down and say ‘no’.

I don’t think our society is there yet, to hear only the word ‘no’. People want explanations, reasons, negotiations. And in some aspects it makes sense: we’re kind of built on those things. Early in the formation of this country, we did say no, to the King of England, to the Church, to the two that were inextricably tied together. But I think we’ve lost something along the way.

In the year of 2020 so far, I have made it a resolution to say ‘no’ to things, events, attitudes, situations, that do not advance my growth as a person. This may sound individualistic, but I really believe it’s in our best interest as members of society to model what we want to see in the world.

I want to see people who are content (not necessarily always happy), satisfied (with what they have); rested, not ragged.

I want to see my fellow teachers in the profession for years to come instead of dropping out of the ranks due to burnout, overworking, endless fruitless and sometimes abusive interactions with parents, lack of administrative support, and guilt tied to taking a day off for physical or mental health. Statistics have shown for years that the attrition rate of teachers is close to 50% – think about it. Half of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Is that what we want for our children? Teenagers?

I want to see my fellow congregants at church happy to be involved in their chosen ministries, satisfied in their own spiritual lives that they can contribute to others without becoming weary. I want to see Christ followers who have the time to delve into the word, into prayer, into meditation or contemplation. I want to see people who truly bring Christ into and outside of the church building, serving and loving everyone.

But it is obvious, especially with recent events, that society is not there yet. Will it take a global pandemic to get us there? Maybe. Honestly, I’m hoping. I hope after this, and even throughout, people will begin to say ‘no’.

This takes a fortitude and a level of critical thinking that doesn’t occur when you say ‘yes’. Most of the time, people say ‘yes’ to all sorts of things without first discovering the terms and conditions – how long is the commitment, how toxic might the relationship become, what are all the subordinate tasks of what I’m agreeing to do. We say ‘yes’ to please people (see my post on that here) and because our own self-confidence isn’t built up yet.

And then we falter. We run ourselves ragged and can’t sleep and have high levels of anxiety and become more susceptible to illness. All because we did not take the time, or were never taught, how to critically evaluate a situation and our place and role in it.

Therefore, saying ‘no’ means saying more. At least to ourselves. It means more direct communication. So, fellow American, stop with the “I don’t like confrontation” attitude. Saying ‘no’ does not mean that you are being ‘mean’ or ‘confronting’ someone. If someone is bold enough to ask you to join them in whatever task, adventure, or attitude, then it’s well within your right to ‘confront’ them by saying ‘no’. And you don’t need to explain yourself further.

However, to that last point, you do need to do some work on the inside to get you there. So don’t answer right away. Sleep on it. Think it through. Talk it out with someone. Pray about it. And after that’s done, still all you need to say is that one word.

Since our society is in the very beginning stages of hearing the word ‘no’, there will be opposition. You will probably be going up a creek, with or without a paddle. People might give you a sideways glance, or if they’re so bold and confrontational, send you packing for a guilt trip.

That’s okay – just leave the packing to them and the ticket on the table.

Self-actualization

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself in the past few months. Summer was a lovely time of watching sunrises, reading books (check out my Goodreads on the side bar), namely, getting back into fiction and even fantasy. I’ve been really connecting with who I am at my core. And also getting shit done. (That last one is vague but still hopefully conveys a strong message.)

Running has taken a back seat, though my most recent ink pays homage to my hobby-turned-natural-antidepressant. In fact, I’ve been pursuing this hobby, and PRs, for ten years now.

Ten years of running, of training, of actually only a couple of injuries. This past year held some roadblocks, like the month I had to wear a walking boot for plantar fasciitis, or the time I fell on concrete going downhill and gave myself a painful elbow sprain.

After the bout with PF, I achieve a couple PRs this year: the 10K and the half marathon. And I worked my ass off for those PRs.

Throughout this decade, running has been an outlet for all the self-guessing and -doubting from not being able to conceive. It was damn near necessary for my mental health while my husband was across the big blue ocean in the Army. It has helped me process a lot of life’s quandaries.

Now I’m no longer surviving, folks. Life is now not a struggle. That sounds quite melodramatic, right? But when you’re kind of wired to be a person who looks at the glass half empty (and at the same time don’t like what’s already in your glass), this is kind of huge.

Most people just go from day to day protecting themselves and making sure nothing goes too wrong…they see life as a threat. A good day means you made it through without getting hurt.

The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life. I moved in and out of this way of thinking, but now I’ve crossed “survive!” off my list.

When you’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to know where to go next. So I’ve been letting my heart lead me instead of my brain.

I’m reading, sitting in silence, going for a kayak, doing some yoga, exploring my faith and spirituality in a much deeper way, opening myself up to new relationships and opportunities.

And guess what? I’m thriving, yo.

Anyone who’s studied education or any related field knows about good ole Maslow. I’ve moved past the bottom two rungs and now I’m thriving in relationships. I’m doing a pretty good job in esteem, and mostly concerned about how I esteem myself. And I’ve been doing a lot of work in self-actualization.

I’ve been focusing a lot of energy here, and also in being mindful and aware. I’ve needed to slow down and take everything in. Instead of getting my views from the road, I’ve been getting them from the porch or the water.

And now that I’ve moved up to the upper echelons of this pyramid, my question is, how can I help others do the same? I have some ideas….

Scaredy cat

I am a scaredy cat. I may not look like it on the outside, but my mantra basically my whole life has been, “Fake it until you make it.” Through school. Through college. Through job after job. I reach higher ground and I’m still telling myself to fake it until I make it.

Except I have made it, in a lot of ways. I am it. I’m doing it, being it. And slowly as I get older I’m finally owning all the its.

I am a leader. I do have expertise. I get things done. I do hard things. And it’s been too long that I’ve been thinking I’ve been faking it to get here.

That’s what my doubt wants to tell me, that I don’t deserve to be this far or have accolades for doing hard things. Doubt wants to make me think that I’ve gotten here purely on luck, because the right door opened at the right time. That’s true, but only some of the time. In reality if you look back at the security cameras, this girl was the one actually opening the doors and not faking a damn thing.