Hymn’s come home

If I were to choose a playlist of songs to make up the soundtrack to my biography, at the very top of the list tied for first place there would be classic rock and Methodist hymns. The top artists would be Heart and Charles Wesley. The former as a nod to the music I was raised and the latter as a testament to the music that played over and over in my head after church on Sundays. Both formed my spirituality.

I owe so much of my literacy development and my mad sight reading skills to having to read out of a hymnal in church. From the tender age of five I was singing along to hymns in church accompanied usually by the organ. We sat in the third row towards the center, so I generally wasn’t within the proper angle to see the organist plugging away at her work, but I was mesmerized nonetheless. If I remember correctly, I sat between my grandma and my mom. Or sometimes between my grandma and my sisters. If I remember correctly. But for sure I knew that my grandma was on my left, at the ready with Mentos or Winterfresh gum.

We would mark the hymns ahead of time with little ribbons by looking through the bulletin. I remember the anticipation of singing a hymn I loved. I adore hymns for so many reasons, only one of which is how beautifully the chords move through their progressions and carry a swelling and then fading melody. Then of course how many verses rhyme. I especially love the way that it’s easy to harmonize – the only question for me is which note I start on. To find this I hum along while the introduction is played and that usually sets me straight. I love to be a sole chorus of altos in a sea of sopranos and tenors and basses. I love hymns so much that I may have swiped a hymnal from the church I grew up in, and still have it on my shelf to this day. Truthfully, I probably borrowed it to practice songs on the piano and then forgot to give it back.

Hymns were my prayers, and some 30 years after beginning my formal journey in organized religion, I realize that. In the fine print below each hymn, you can see from where and when the words and music originated. My favorites are the ones where the words come from a translation of Latin from the 9th century (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) or when a hymn was written during a pivotal moment in history like the Civil War. But it doesn’t have to say “written during the Civil War”; I know that the years of 1861 through 1865 bear significance. It meant a lot to me that I was also singing the same choruses as my spiritual predecessors from ages ago.

I often committed words and music of hymns to memory. This will happen after you sing something so many times. Not only does repetition play a huge part, but so does the context in which you sing the hymn. We know from modern brain science that the body remembers first – whether an event was traumatic or not. It makes pathways from sights and smells, warmth and cold. This is how I made memories with hymns. I know that “For the Beauty of the Earth” is usually sung in the spring, with spring banners and colors adorning the church, trying to decide if I would wear a raincoat to cross the alley to church or just run for it. Memories of Christmas Eve hymns like “Silent Night” are laced with the scent of tiny candles blown out, and during the late service my belly would be full from a dinner with family.

Just like Scripture I’ve memorized (which by the way, isn’t much: I kind of suck at memorizing just words out of context), hymns will come back to the forefront of my mind at different times. During this time of Advent, the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” plays in my head over and over. I find myself searching for the newest renditions by artists like Piano Guys and Gungor. I listen, and satisfy that craving for a comfort that’s enveloped in a minor key, Thys and Thous, and a predictable rhythm. I also find nuances I’d never noticed before and appreciate the song through fresh ears.

Many years after my first foray into church, I decided to begin attending a new church of a very different denomination than the one I grew up in. This church did not sing many hymns during their worship services, and if they did it was accompanied by drums and lights and not a lot of harmonies. To my knowledge, the only organ was a small one that hid in the corner of the platform, collecting dust.

In that tradition I learned many different types of music and worship that were much more “extroverted,” or so it seemed. Hands raised, voices crying out, sometimes even with non-English and non-other-known-language utterances. Lots of repetition of the same phrase became a very emotional thing, and as a teenager who had always been moved by music (apparently I was rocking to the beat by 8 months old) I took it all in.

However, it was odd to me at first. I never felt so much emotional while singing in church before, not unless it was at a funeral. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t emotional about God, however, or didn’t care as much or wasn’t as “saved” as my new fellow congregants. I know that now.

I slowly picked up on the culture of the new church – one of valuing extroversion, that revered people’s willingness to pray out loud in front of people. We held hands, and I learned to pray out loud very long prayers. With lots of Lords and Gods and Jesuses. I think I prayed like that because to some extent I was being authentic and I wasn’t afraid to do it, especially if I felt comfortable with the group. It was my way of being like the leader I’d been in my Sunday School classes, being the teacher’s pet.

But I also think I prayed like that because it’s what was valued and seen as “real” prayer. For some reason I began to think that all the praying I’d done before wasn’t good enough, or sincere enough. And God surely would answer prayers were I was bold enough to speak out loud to a group. Apparently praying in my head just wasn’t enough anymore, and that was the beginning of my turning away from what I grew up with into a new denomination that would dominate my ways of thinking and being and interacting for about a decade.

What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?

in Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have since returned to the tradition I grew up in. When we moved cross-country and returned to civilian life, I needed something different. I have a lot, lot more to say about my experiences in right-wing evangelical church. It turns out many people do But in unpacking the hurt and shame and uncertainty and division of my spirit and my body, I have found that the prayer I have felt comfortable doing is the right prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer prayed out loud with my church family is the right prayer. The Apostle’s Creed recited aloud is the right prayer. The brief silent prayer after communion is the right prayer. The “graces” we pray before meals in my house are the right prayers. The prayers I follow along with during a virtual service while also cross-stitching or crocheting are the right prayers.

I have also realized that the hymns I sang and memorized were prayers. I was actually praying so much when I was singing. And if part of meditation is sitting on a line or song or idea for awhile, then I was meditating too.

I’m sad that for many years I taught myself to reject the faith and mode of worship I developed as a child into adolescence, that I inherited from both sides of my family, that I celebrated in basements of country churches. I learned to look down my nose at my supposedly unenlightened friends and family who just didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit… yet. I told myself I was better than they were because I prayed out loud and sang loud songs with drums and electric guitars and listened to sermons that were 45 minutes, not 15. And I had extreme guilt if I couldn’t “convert” my friends and family, who had a faith and belief of their own, to my new way of thinking. However, as Rachel Held Evans writes in Faith Unraveled, “We are saved by a restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”

I’m also kind of angry at the leaders and people in those churches (yes, I attended more than one) for encouraging the elitism, whether they knew it or not. They preached that Jesus is the only Way, and also that the way we worship Him is the only Way. If you disagree with the sermon or theology presented, or think about Jesus in multiple historical contexts and perspectives, there’s probably something you need to be sorry for during that really emotional song that’s played after communion.

When I rejected my original mode of faith I also had to grieve it in context. I missed old creaky pews and hazy sunlight streaming through stained glass. I missed old hymnals and pipe organs. I definitely missed short sermons and the simplicity of a hymn, which if you study them, you will find that so many are much more theologically sound and linguistically complex than they are given credit for.

What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet.

in Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

I don’t think everyone gets the chance in their lives to “come home” to the faith they had as a child. I think many people didn’t have a faith home to begin with, which is fine, or their home was unstable and emotionally manipulative or even abusive. But I had a really great home of faith and religion in my formative years. I had many healthy experiences that taught me about the Bible but also about being in community with others. In the process, I gained a large understanding of literacy and musicality. I was taught so much by loving and reliable Sunday School teachers.

Fortunately I was able to come “home,” and it was the right choice for many reasons. I wasn’t sure what I would find among creaky pews and old-church-building smell and the organ and hymns and robes and seasons like Lent and Advent, but I knew it was a good place to start.



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.

Boundaries

I don’t normally write for this blog on my work laptop and I usually have my Sunday post done by now, but my personal laptop seems to be dead. At least for now. Quite a bummer, too, because I was working on a very cozy vibe for a mid-autumn Sunday morning – complete quiet, a drowsy and cloudy sunrise, French press coffee. A few years ago something like my laptop completely kicking the bucket would have really thrown me off, but here I am writing about it.

I think we can all agree that in this time of the pandemic, having boundaries is good and helpful. Obviously we have the concrete example of a face mask, a literal boundary that we wear every day. We have “social distancing” as another concrete physical boundary. I hope that people also are beginning to understand the importance of work/life boundaries.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to this practice of creating and enforcing boundaries. Long before infertility, long before moving to the East Coast, tunneling through time to when Aaron and I were first married, I had to set a boundary with work and life. He had been laid off and was in the process of joining the military, active duty. I was in my first year of teaching – which many teachers say that no matter what, is like this year for everyone.

In February of that year, Aaron took his last paycheck at the job that laid him off, and he was set to leave for basic training in April. Only two months away. I knew that it would be at least ten weeks from the time he left for Missouri to the time I’d see him again, and who knows after that. So I created a boundary with work, that I would get what I needed to get done at work, and come home at a decent hour so we could take advantage of the time we had together.

My memories of my first year of teaching are becoming fuzzier as I make room for more memories of teaching high school, but I do remember that not everything got done every day. My to-do list was long and never-ending, but I had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Done. I’m done for the day.” Because spending time with my new husband was more important. Because enjoying time we had together before an enormous change in our life was important. I was fortunate to have to learn about boundaries so young.

As the years went on throughout our experience as a military family, many boundaries were created, especially with time. When he would come home for a visit, such as Christmas break during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or on leave from his tour in Korea, I would drop everything so we could 100% focus on being together – just the two of us and also with family. Yes, work was important, but our time and health of our marriage was more so.

As it turns out, this practice with concrete situations has really served me well throughout our time of attempting to add to our family, failing in the “natural” way, making decisions about which treatments to pursue if any, and then finally deciding to live without children.

It has not been easy, and for most of it I’ve been afraid of pissing other people off or at the very least, making them uncomfortable. However, at some point when you are so desperate for some peace and quiet in your mind, you stop caring about what people think and you just do what you need to do to feel safe.

I had not really considered that avenue before, as growing up I was taught to just deal with the feelings, push through, get over it… whatever phrases there were circulating from parents to children born in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, I heard it. I was taught to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I think that’s a good thing to teach your children, but it crosses a line when that becomes a detriment to the emotional safety of the individual.

Over the last six and a half years, since we officially started “trying” (those of you in the “actively trying” camp, please revise the list of jargon…), I and my husband both have had to lay down some boundaries.

Consequently, they have come in quite handy over the past few weeks. I’ve written a lot about church and the pressure on anyone who is not married with children to become married with children, be it single people, young married people thinking about becoming parents, or older people who have been widowed (minus the children part). I have a lot to say about the culture of the church, but I will leave that there for now.

There are many activities at church that just aren’t comfortable or welcoming for us. They weren’t even as young married people who weren’t ready for children yet. Trunk or Treats… small groups that are demographically alike… certain children’s ministries… They are all difficult, we have had to put our foot down about it. Sometimes we give a reason, sometimes we don’t. Mostly whether we give a reason or not depends on the apparent willingness to empathize of the intended party.

It had been awhile since I waved my infertility flag at church, probably since a Mother’s Day where I wrote in to the person who works on the service order and request that a single carnation be placed on the altar in honor of all mothers who could not become mothers for whatever reason. But I was asked to help out with a virtual “children’s/family ministry moment” and I had to decline, and in addition I have many feelings about the use of the word “family” in church vernacular.

Immediately when in my head I decided “Nope, can’t do it” all the justifications were running through my mind… Things like: ,Don’t get me wrong, I like kids but… or I just don’t have time right now…

But I didn’t use those to justify saying no. Instead, after reviewing the situation and the person asking, I decided to be honest and speak my peace. Having not done that in awhile, I was nervous… and this was over email! So I told the person something to the effect of, “Thank you for inviting me, but after our struggle with infertility, some things involving children are difficult and I cannot participate.” And guess what, my faith in humanity rose even the slightest bit with receiving a very empathetic and caring response.

So that happened shortly before Halloween.

Then Halloween arrived, and we were ready with costumes we bought from Walmart and full size candy bars. Yes, friends, we want to be those neighbors. Just like the folks who lived on Washington Street in our hometown gave out full size candy bars.

I really anticipated that I would be okay. The first few Halloweens of our infertility journey found me grocery shopping – all the kids would be out and about, so it was pretty peaceful to run my errands. For the past couple years, I sat on the fence, one foot in the tradition and one foot out – I would sit on my porch with candy, but have a drink in my hand. Alcohol does wonders for numbing feelings, let me tell you.

This year, I haven’t been drinking, so I’ve been having to deal with my feelings as they come up. It sucks when the feelings are in the “bad” category. And on Halloween, instead of participating like a “normal” human being (I’ve been lied to and tricked into thinking that alllllll Americans participate… and they don’t), I sat in my house, front porch light off, not dressed in my Halloween best, because at the last minute I had to draw a boundary. I didn’t anticipate it, but I whipped out that skill like a pumpkin pie out of the oven on Thanksgiving. (You can see where my mind is…)

So not only have I been running interference on boundaries, but my husband has as well on our behalf. It was pretty clear to him that I was struggling with some things and so when a situation arose with a family member, he shut it down. He didn’t even consult me first, and that felt really nice. Like he had my back. And that comes from me continuing to communicate about the boundaries I need and how I use them, and from his confidence in shutting down certain situations. We’re still a team, children or not, and that is worth its weight in….. candy bars? No, gold. It’s worth its weight in gold.

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.

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.

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 ax 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 a 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.

On the edge of thirty-five

There’s been a lot that’s come up in recent months that I haven’t expected to address right now. And lots that I have expected. On the surface, I will be reaching “advanced maternal age” when I turn 35 in April 2021, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t have children over whom to be maternal. They say 35 is just an age… but for a woman, that doesn’t seem to be true. In addition to changes wrought by nature, it brings some existential questions to mind.

My sisters have always told me I’ve been perpetually 35 my whole life. I think they mean that I’ve always been this responsible, mature, get-shit-done sort of person. Now that I’m getting to actually be 35, will I still be “35” in their eyes even after I surpass that age? I think when you hit certain milestone ages, you think about what your predecessors were doing when they were your age. First of all, my mom had a 13-year-old (me) when she was 35. It’s a sober reminder that I’m literally old enough to be the mother of some of my high school students.

Thirty-five is the roundabout age when women begin perimenopause. I read about this recently in the book In the Flo and was floored. It’s one reason I decided to cut out alcohol and make sure I’m keeping my hormones happy and healthy. According to research, what happens in perimenopause determines how awful or how not awful menopause can be. (I’m still reading up on all of this, but from what I can gather so far from hearing family members’ experiences, menopause is either awful or not awful. Change my mind.)

There’s some major cognitive dissonance to address, thinking about my reproductive life in the last third of its reign (though I’m not necessarily complaining…) and also the many years I could potentially live post-menopause. If I become as old as my Nana was when she passed away in August, I could live several decades past menopause (she was 104).

The last thing I want to mention about “35” is that I had a certain vision of future Elizabeth and who she was as a person when I was a wee lass. Thirty-five year old Elizabeth would live a life that encompassed being a mother and a wife. But I think even more than that, past Elizabeth would want to see future-soon-to-be-present Elizabeth have characteristics like integrity, perseverance, healthy mental faculties, emotional strength. Know a lot about a lot of things. Have many interests. Be interested in people. Know how to comfort someone when they’re grieving or sad or upset. Know how to set boundaries and live within them.

Maybe beyond the age of 30 people see the next milestone as 40. But I think there’s something about 35. And I don’t think I’m the only one… John Mellencamp mentioned “17 has turned 35” in one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums, “Cherry Bomb”. (He’s from Indiana, so a fellow Midwesterner. He speaks to my heart.)

“Seventeen has turned thirty-five,
I’m surprised that we’re still livin'”

And when I think of “17” being sung in a song, what else can I think about, who else can I think about besides Stevie Nicks with “Edge of Seventeen”?

“And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again”

I think both of those ages are precursors to the next phase of one’s life; 17, to young adulthood, and 35 to…. adulthood? (Surely not middle age? But I guess if the median life expectancy in the US is 78, 35 is pretty much middle age…)

What’s classic about the Stevie Nicks song, and why it came to mind even though I was thinking about 35, is that many of the existential angst one has at 17 can still be a thing at 35, at least for me. The questions I wrestle with may be different, but there is wrestling all the same. I know the moves, I can anticipate the hits a bit more. But there are still questions that knock me off my feet and steal my breath.

With Mellencamp, his lyrics show that 18 years, the time between 17 and 35, can just be gone in the blink of an eye. Essentially, that’s a lifetime. My adulthood has almost reached the age of an adult… let me think about that one for a minute.

All in all, it totally makes sense that I’m having these feelings about turning 35. To clarify, I don’t feel “bad” or “good” about turning 35. Generally, I’ve been very grateful for reaching and living through my thirties. Because of the self-awareness and the space I’ve given myself, I feel that I have learned and grown more in the past almost-five years than I have for a decade or more. Of course, I did grow so much over my twenties, but now I’m aware and woke enough to see it.

Inevitably, thinking about 35 and the music that plays and has played a huge role in my formation makes me think about where I came from, the land I was brought up on, the land that my forefathers and foremothers turned 35 on. These thoughts and ponderings slowly turn the wheel of grief as well, thinking about those who have passed on. I ponder, I meditate, I try to commune, I remember, I cry, I grieve, I comfort myself, I sleep, I rise again to another day, and on and on.

Routines are hidden self-care

I have always thrived on routines. Though I held them with disdain as a child I know that children thrive on routines. It feels safe and comfortable to know what’s coming next in the day. The feeling of safety allows you to be more present in the current moment.

That said, shifting to a work-from-home play-at-home do-everything-at-home routine six months ago was not easy. It was touch-and-go for several weeks while we figured out what teaching might look like from home. I finally set up a proper office this summer, knowing that we were at least starting online. If anything, I imagine snow days will be a thing of the past – they could turn into online learning days. (Not sure how I feel about that quite yet…)

But now this week my routine changes again. I am willing myself to welcome my routine of driving to and from work. I am willing myself to welcome the routine of packing a lunch and leaving at a prescribed time. I am willing myself to think twice the night before and get everything as ready to go as possible for the morning, which are earlier for me than they ever have been.

When certain routines become more rigid, everything has to shift. Shower time shifts; bed time shifts. Wake-up time shifts. (I went without setting an alarm from March through August.) Planning meals and grocery shopping have to shift. Doing little chores as “brain breaks” throughout the day will have to shift.

But in the end, all these routines are good. They bring a sense of peace and normalcy in a very trying time. While I have been through many things in my life that have upended my routines, I welcome Routines in the Time of COVID.

On one hand, it feels selfish to engage in some of these routines, as they naturally diminish time I have to catch up with family or friends or volunteer for all the things. On the other hand, keeping certain routines sacred is necessary for my mental health. I know this time won’t last forever. At some point, fluidity will make its way back into my daily life.

As we enter into fall and winter with shorter days and cooler temperatures, into flu season and into more uncertainty about what regular life looks like, there are some routines I’m not going to budge on.

Coffee and reading before work. If this means I need to wake up two hours before I hit the road, so be it. I started this routine when I made a promise to myself to read more and have found it indispensable. (Check out my Goodreads shelf to the left.)

Physical fitness every day. Some days this looks like leisurely dog walks. Others it looks like yoga on the patio. Still other days will find me going for a run.

Cooking real food at home 95% of the time. So far, we’ve still been only ordering out once per week, usually pizza on Friday nights. I can’t not cook for an army of people, so there are always leftovers to heat up. Plus I gotta keep up my sourdough game… it was a little deflated this week if you know what I mean. Oh, I’m sorry, is my millenial showing?

Tea and reading before bed. I’ve been partial to Tulsi Turmeric Ginger with honey. So calming, earthy, and delicious.

These routines have proved to be a God-send as well as sustainable for the time going forward.