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.

How the prosperity gospel ruined my peace, and other stories | [Unpublished post from 2015].

I’m sharing this private unpublished post in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week. To all the people who are sick of society’s and the collective church’s bullshit about conceiving a child and what constitutes a family.

When I’m in crisis, I write. A lot. As a colleague says when there’s nothing else to say: words, words, feelings, words. I wonder what other writers write out of crisis or desperation. Most likely I’m not alone.

We’ve been trying to conceive a child for over a year, 16 months to be exact. In the time we’ve been trying, I have seen dozens of babies come into the lives of my friends and family. I’ve seen a friend get engaged, married, pregnant, and give birth in that amount of time. Time is relative, and while 16 months would be a very young age for a child, 16 months of hopefulness followed by disappointment followed by despair times 16 can make one age more than 16 months.

In this time, I’ve confided in several people. My mom, my sisters (one who is a mother and one who’s childfree, so I have my bases covered), and a handful of close friends who are all actually mothers. Maybe that was my first mistake, confiding in mothers. But I guess I was hoping for some encouragement that yes, this will happen. Some of my mother-friends conceived very quickly, and others took longer. I’ve learned more than I need to know about the female reproductive system and all the crazy things that can happen. I know way more than any sane person should know about childbirth, all kinds of childbirth. Quick, long, scary, natural, c-section.

Up until recently, all this information brought up in conversation felt normal to me. Childrearing is something that affects nearly all women, right? I was brought up to believe that one day I’d have children, and even through my 20’s (I’m on the cusp of 30) while we were still preventing, I always had this future family in my mind’s eye, albeit still far away.

I never thought we’d have a problem conceiving. We’re healthy, we stay fit by working out and running, we eat relatively healthy. It was a given in my mind that we’d have children biologically our own. To be honest, I never considered another possibility. That is, until a year had passed with not so much as a faint line on a pregnancy test and I realized just how long this journey could be.

First there’s bloodwork and an ultrasound, and after that there’s fertility meds that make you ovulate better or “stronger” or whateverthefuck my doctor called it. They made me crazy. So I stopped after one month. Through all my “research” (I use that term lightly because I actually am a scholar-teacher-researcher so I know not to play around with that term that so many others use blithely, ugh) I determined that I’d ask my doctor for a hysterosalpingography, basically a test where they shoot radioactive dye through my tubes to see if they’re blocked. Because if they’re blocked, no egg can get through no matter how “strong” the ovulation is. Thus, no baby can be formed.

My doctor was hesitant to approve this test because there were no other signs that this might be the problem. That’s the kicker though with blocked tubes – there are generally no symptoms. But, I got the test approved and to satiate my own logical and perhaps morbid curiosity, I’ll schedule this test soon.

And now I actually can schedule this test because I just started spotting this morning. This means that MY PERIOD IS COMING (Game of Thrones style). The test is also know to sometimes “clean things out” which can apparently result in increased fertility. The ironic part is that my husband will be gone for work during my fertile time this month, so joke’s on us.

The very unfortunate thing is that past this test, things get very invasive and very expensive, fast. At the beginning of this, we drew our line in the sand that no, we would not be doing IUI (intrauterine insemination) or IVF (in vitro fertilization). We might do the fertility meds. Which I did do, but the side effects made it clear I’d not be doing it again.

So. We’re almost at the end of what we’re willing to try, and with continued failed cycles with like I said, not so much as a faint eensy teensy line, we’re at the end of what we’re willing to try emotionally. I am for sure. My poor husband watches me every month get so disappointed to the point of ugly cry. Every. Month. Times sixteen.

We’ve been discussing this idea of living our lives without children of our own. Now, read that sentence again. It seems more than logical, right? This is not our second cycle and we’re throwing in the towel. This is over a year of heartache with no return on our emotional investment. Now, you tell that sentence to someone and most people lose their minds. Avail yourselves of the following list of things people have said when I mention this possibility:

  1. “Don’t give up yet!”
  2. “What else have you tried?”
  3. “My sister/mom/friend/cousin-twice-removed tried for over a year and then when they stopped trying, they got pregnant!”
  4. “You guys are too amazing of a couple for God not to bless you with children!”
  5. “I just know that God will provide a family for you, whether it’s your kids or adopted kids.”
  6. “Do you think taking the pill for so long is affecting your fertility now?”

Please see below for reactions and honest-to-goodness truth.

Giving up is not necessarily a bad thing. Insanity (or stupidity, or both) is doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. Uhhhh. That sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing.

Well, we haven’t tried having sex. Maybe we should do that? /s In all seriousness, people want to help us “fix” our “problem”. That’s a nice intention, but if you’re not my doctor, please don’t go there. Believe me, we’ve tried pretty much anything you can think of. I’ve peed on ovulation sticks, charted my cycles (most people would consider this trying) and I’ve also just been a regular woman who’s sexually attracted to my husband and had sex whenever I’ve felt like it. We’ve gone on vacation, spent money on fancy dinners and wine… anything to relax or “not try”. And to boot, “not trying” is not as simple as you think. When for the past year you’ve had sex to make a baby (and for other reasons….) you can’t not try when you’re not using protection. The other thing about this comment is that no one talks about their aunt/sister/friend who doesn’t get pregnant after “not trying”. So stop. STAHP.

I’ve really wanted to believe those words said in love. But you know what? Moses was pretty damn amazing and he never got to see the Promised Land. Read the Bible… there are stories upon stories of disappointment. Some of them found peace. I actually have been on my journey of finding peace, praying for peace about this. My prayer is not, “God, give me children or I’ll die!”; it’s “God, whatever the outcome, give me peace and direction.”

Please don’t claim to know what God wants for our family (read: two people constitute a family). Don’t attempt to project on to me the result of what you refuse to see: this isn’t workingMy junk is not working. This is not a faith issue; this is most likely a biological issue. I don’t need to petition God for children if that is actually not in His plan. When talking to the friend who said this, she literally could not understand the possibility that maybe we would live without children. Granted, I’d said  something about maybe adopting one day. But that was after I qualified that by saying, “If [having biological children] is not what the plan is, I can live with that. I just need to move on and heal and be whole before I’d consider adoption. I don’t want to do it out of desperation.”

I know people with their comments are trying to be helpful. I totally appreciate that. And yes, I’m coming from a place of sensitivity about this topic, especially when the majority of these comments are from women who were able to relatively easily become mothers.

But please don’t use pseudo-theology to quell my fears or try to make me rethink things. I’m emotional, yes, but I’m also as rational, logical, and analytical a human being as there ever was, and I know my body and limitations best. I know that continuing on this path would most likely render me sunken into a corner of my couch, depressed and hating my body and life. I can’t do that, not again. If this is what it will be, that I can accept that. My husband and I can accept that and live a fulfilled, happy life where we actually do contribute to the next generation by our relationships with biological and honorary nieces and nephews, with my international students, etc.

Having biological children is a de-facto imperative of the Church, and it needs to stop. Not everyone is meant to have their own, and just because they can’t have their own doesn’t mean they need to run off to China or Korea or Ethiopia and adopt kids.  If you’re called to do that, great. But please don’t use your prosperity gospel to ruin my peace, especially when I’ve almost found it.

The journey to delighting in boredom

By training in…boredom, we train in accepting things as they are. This helps us wean ourselves from the habit of closing down into our soothing world of familiar, imputed meanings.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

I used to be terrified of being bored. As a teenager in high school who lived life at 90 miles an hour, I anticipated but dreaded times like spring break or winter break. In my mind’s eye, I could see myself totally enjoying time off – waking up late, lazing around, maybe reading or writing or watching TV – but when that time actually came, I was a ball of anxiety.

This continued well into my 20’s, and even into my early 30’s (almost in my mid 30’s!). At some point, though, I was able to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of being bored. I started small. Instead of browsing through some app mindlessly on my phone while waiting in line at the post office, I’d just stand there and let my mind wander. Maybe smile at the person in front of me. Maybe strike up a conversation if it felt right. Instead of picking up my phone immediately when my lunch date got up to use the restroom, I’d sit, take a sip of my drink, and just contemplate whatever came to mind.I’m not going to lie – that was hard at first. And if I had to think back to when I began doing this, it was probably when I began practicing yoga.

The town I live in now has a very cute riverside yoga studio connected to a marina (with real sailboats!) just a couple blocks from my house. About a minute walk as the crow (or osprey, or heron..) flies. After having some back issues and paying good money at the chiropractor’s office to get some relief, I decided to treat myself to a monthly membership at this yoga studio. I was apprehensive, as much as I wanted to “get into yoga” and cultivate a regular practice… and get rid of my horrible posture… and be able to do a real pushup.

But the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes of class were near tortuous for me during that first month or so. I hated sitting cross-legged “in a comfortable seat
… it wasn’t comfortable. I did not like focusing on the sounds outside, which included other people breathing, cars passing by, the occasional siren sounded for the volunteer fire department. I couldn’t understand the point of focusing on those sounds. And focusing on my breathing? I was here to get a workout, dammit. I breath in, I breath out. Simple enough. Let’s move on.

Savasana, or corpse pose, was equally horrible when I first began. I couldn’t fathom laying still on my back (total side/belly sleeper here) for any amount of time, let alone trying to focus on a guided meditation about letting basically all my muscles slacken (even my face! what!). My favorite part of savasana at the beginning was when we were told to “carefully roll over to one side and press yourself up to a comfortable seat.”

But the thing about savasana is that it’s sometimes hailed as the most important pose in a yoga practice, when all the good stuff from your yoga practice settles into the body and mind. It’s when the body rests after working to keep you upright and moving for about an hour. It’s boredom but it’s everything good that boredom could be.

As we individuals grow in our resilience–as we become better at staying conscious and not losing heart–we will be able to remain strong in challenging conditions for the long haul. This is within the capacity of all of us.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

So now that I’ve contemplated the genesis of my being able to sit still for any amount of time, I’ve been growing in my practice of boredom. This can look so many different ways. Right now, boredom for me looks like having no music or TV on as I write this, just an awareness of the other sounds around me: the comforting syncopated sound of the dryer tumbling the bedding, the dog breathing as she sleeps, the clack-clack-clack of typing on the keyboard, the occasional creaking of the stairs as my husband comes down from his office for a snack or something to drink.

While sometimes I choose to be bored, mostly I’m forced into it, and that is where the anxiety has come from – having expectations of going to the store and getting out quickly but actually having to stand in line for a long time. Getting stuck in traffic and getting home late when I’d already mentally planned out my obligation-less evening. Boredom happens in the moment, and that’s the key I think. When I’m okay with being bored, with my mind being temporarily unoccupied, I can be in the moment. Instead of driving at 75 mph in heavy traffic down Interstate 95, my mind is on a drive out into the country, perhaps stopped at a park for a few minutes before we continue on.

I think I wrote about silence before here… about going to my grandparents’ and wondering why in the world they didn’t have music or TV on and it was just… quiet. But now I get it. The more in tune with myself I am, the less I want mindless influence from outside. More often than not, I welcome the quiet. It doesn’t make me nervous or anxious like it used to. I’ve learned to sit with it, embrace it, and ask it questions.

And almost 100% of the time, it answers. I come to interesting revelations that I share, or keep to myself. I’m able to sit and spend an entire day reading.. something I’ve always wanted to be “able” to do. I can breathe in the moment and find gratitude for the simple things – the amazing invention of the dryer, the furry, warm companionship of a dog, the fact that my husband is here in “quarantine” with me while years ago he was 7,000 miles away.

Learning to embrace boredom has helped me do some settling. I feel more settled in my own intentions and motivations, in what I like and don’t like to do, watch, see.. in what I want in friendships and relationships.. in the fact that what I do is not who I am. (Whewweee.. I could write a LOT about that last one…). And in the settling, I find flight and change and invention and creativity.

However, learning to embrace boredom that’s forced upon us (kind of like we might experience now in self-isolation) helps prepare us for more dire situations where we must focus on something without warning – where we have to be aware of our surroundings and make decisions on the fly. And, we might have to direct our attention to said situation for a long period of time without a break. This is a skill that at some point is common to all humanity, and we must know how to face such a challenge.

What can boredom teach you? And will you open yourself up to learn from it?

Lullabies and aromatherapy

The whir of the sewing machine has been a lullaby and the steam from the hot iron has been aromatherapy. For the last few days of this self-quarantine I’ve been holed up in my sewing room. It’s a room I’ve recently adorned with new paint (a beautiful airy light blue.. think of a salty breeze) but haven’t spent much time in. It’s not because I don’t have enough projects, that’s for sure. It’s just been a matter of time.

Yesterday I was attempting to follow a design for a Christmas star on Pinterest by using a number of extra scraps of Christmas-y fabric indiscriminately cut into squares. I failed miserably. The “pattern” was coming out all wonky, my needle kept getting stuck in the corner of the fabric as I’d try to pass it through for stitching. I was frustrated.

So then I swallowed my pride by deciding to watch even more YouTube videos and teach myself some quilting basics. Quilting is a skill I actually have never developed as an ad-hoc makeshift seamstress. My great-grandmother made a number of gorgeous quilts, all hand-sewn (to my knowledge) but she was never young enough and I was never old enough at the same time for me to learn from her. It’s been a sub-culture of the sewing and craft world that I’ve wanted access to for a long time.

For hours, literally hours, yesterday I sewed and crafted and then finally ended up with some very cute, if not a little wonky, quilt squares. By no means is this pattern done – I purposefully decided where to stop, because if I don’t stop, I will sew all night without eating or drinking anything. And I wanted to leave myself something for today to look forward to.

I wish I had more pictures of all the sewing projects I worked on as a child – dresses, jumpers, pajamas – but instead all my memories are in my head and rush out with the hum and occasional jolt of the machine. It brings my physical body back to a time of safety and innocence, of listening and learning from women. While we have our oral family stories that are passed down, our story is better stated with thread, fabric scraps, yarn, and embroidery thread.

It’s no wonder that I’ve found solace and busyness in my sewing room this week. It’s yet another skill, along with cooking, that I express to my mom as “Thanks for teaching me how to ____!” It’s a connection I cherish right now when in-person connections are not allowed or not possible due to distance.

I could feel this coming.

As far as I know, the world is spinning at the same rate as it was only a week ago. A month ago. A year ago. But now, as of 5:42 AM on March 17, 2020, we’re living in a much different world. And it’s weird to think I could feel it coming.

For several months now there’s been an disquiet in my soul about how fast life is moving. About how much for granted we all take that fact that we’re alive and breathing in this world. It’s bubbled up here and there, encouraged me to write or think or have important conversations with people. It’s sometimes been flashing this word in my mind: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve been decluttering rooms in my house but also my calendar. I’ve been saying no to things. I’ve been triaging my tasks at work to focus on the one most important task – educating and advocating for English learners and their families.

Now, being a teacher whose state of residence has shut down schools for at least two weeks, I have nothing but time to ponder these things. And in such times as these, I think it’s very important to chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is not going away.

I will admit, upon hearing schools were closing I was a little excited. Finally, finally, we were all going to get the break we needed. The need was palpable every day at work, no matter the school. Teachers are tired. Students are tired. We’re all a little tired of each other, I think. What tasks could I accomplish during this time at home? Painting, rearranging, rehoming decluttered items, finishing a book series. Feeling a sense of karma coming back to me because after the grief of not having children, I have a quiet house for the foreseeable future.

Overall I’ve had a strange sense of calm. I’ve checked in with or family members have checked in on me as far away as Washington State, the American epicenter of this whole thing, and as close as North Carolina. I’ve been checking in on my students and making sure they know where they can get lunches this week and next. I’ve also been worrying about them – their home lives during this time. The lack of direct instruction, especially for the ones who are still in the beginning stages of learning English. I’m wondering what this will mean when we finally do come back to school, and how this will impact their lives going forward.

But yes, an overall sense of calm and okayness. I’m okay. Aaron’s okay. We’re both on the same side of the planet, in the same zip code, in the same house. We have jobs that will not lay us off. Bills are paid. I know what’s important right now and I can focus on that. I’m grateful for the time to slow down and take stock of life. It’s okay to be okay.

At some point Emily and I will start a podcast (maybe this is a great time for it?) but one of the things we were talking about a few days ago was that we feel so much more in tune with the earth and the divine and the ‘collective consciousness’ (or whatever other name there is for this) than we did years ago. I feel aware of the earth groaning and creaking and sometimes even screaming out. I feel aware and even sensitive to the vibes that people throw off when they’re tired, exhausted, running ragged, just need a break. I feel aware of my own heart expanding to take in not the feelings but the people, and especially children, who need this awareness.

As I lament to my therapist, “Being woke sucks sometimes” because you see how not woke the rest of the world can be. There’s so much more to life but busyness and the illusion of busyness. Of the self-inflicted pat on the back for a job well done. There’s more to life than getting the newest car or cutest shoes or having take-out every day for lunch.

There’s delicious homemade food, made with time that you carved out intentionally from a crazy schedule. There’s special phone conversations with loved ones that you can have because you’re not scheduled with activities from 6AM to 9PM seven days a week. There’s daily walks around the neighborhood, nodding to passersby and chatting with a neighbor. There’s early morning times of devotions or reading a much-loved book because you got a good night of sleep and could wake up early.

At times I feel my journey to a simpler and richer life echoes many people (mostly women) who have now written books about it.. and not just about simplicity in the concrete things, but some about their journey to a faith that makes sense to them. Books like Present Over Perfect, Out of Sorts, Faith Unraveled, Eat Pray Love, Wild, Searching for Sunday, The Year of No Nonsense, The Untethered Soul, The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen, Slow Church, Leaving Church, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Some would say these books are a dime a dozen now, but I think it speaks to a societal shift that could be happening… where we again value presence with nature and people and not dependence on things or titles.

Writers and artists have often been the prophetic ones, sometimes the canaries in the coal mine. They have not only admonished us but given us a way out and action steps to take, and this momentous and pivotal time is no exception. I will leave you with this song.

Equal and opposite reaction

Physics was not my best class. Here I was, senior year of high school, vying for the “Seven-Semester High Honors” title I would share with many of my classmates. Our grades weren’t weighted, but I’d be damned if I got either that honor or valedictorian (something I shared with 20 of my classmates) without going toe-to-toe with them in classes like physics and calculus.

While physics didn’t even make the list of favorite classes, at least I remember one of Newton’s Laws of Motion – For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It also helped that I have a science teacher for a mom.

All those days sitting in school (ahem, I’m still sitting in school, voluntarily) and I wondered if I’d ever use those laws. Well, here I am, 15 years plus out of primary and secondary education, and I will say that yes, I am using what I learned, but in an unlikely way to a 17-year-old – an existential way.

I was pondering this whole people-pleasing thing I’ve been doing for basically my whole life, and how it really hit a peak shortly after we moved to Maryland. I was talking with Emily, my younger sister, about our very different but at the same time similar experiences of moving across the country (I went east, she went west.. I hate counting the miles). She said that when she moved to the PNDubs, she didn’t commit to anything other than work for a long time. She went sightseeing and exploring and took in everything western Washington has to offer.

I, on the other hand, was moving to Maryland whilst needing an “attitude adjustment,” as my dad calls it, and I avoided much exploring or discovering or spontaneity at first, at least not beyond the whole, “Wow, I’m living equidistant from Philly and DC. Let’s go.” Feeling like I should go. Not necessarily because I wanted to all the time.

I threw myself into everything – work, church, friends, volunteering for a nonprofit. I didn’t know my place yet in society, being childless not by choice and fresh outta infertility camp. Instead of doing the inward-looking word of reflection and introspection, I externalized all my hurt and anguish and feeling of not belonging. It felt like an equal and opposite reaction to basically having my life turned upside down within months – cross-country move, Grammie’s death, and really deciding to not pursue parenthood. It’s a perfect storm, really, and in my case, a Nor’easter.

Now, over four years later, I’m trying to back out of that equal and opposite reaction, because now it’s beginning to backfire. I’m experiencing burnout from all this externalizing that’s led to “yes” to all the things. When life seemed to implode, I reacted and clung to my highest-seated coping mechanism – being the “yes” girl.

Because that would make me wanted. Because that would make me needed. Because people would like me if I participated in their projects and presentations and ministries. Because I could quiet the monkey mind pretty easily if I were busy all the time.

After years of work, some on my own, some with a therapist, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I matter. I can prioritize myself and my own health and the world will not come to an end. I am worth a healthy mind and body. I can say “no” to so many things that don’t point me toward my goals or comprehensive health.

I’m not exactly sure what all my goals are. But slowly and surely I’m learning what I’m not willing to say “yes” to anymore. It’s not an option to not learn this skill, this very important two-letter word. But I do know one of my goals is to see how a different, more positive and life-giving equal and opposite reaction plays out.

When ‘no’ means ‘yes’

Busyness is a form of people pleasing, and people pleasing is a coping strategy. If I can’t feel good about myself from the inside, then I make sure to get as much external validation as possible. The more I say yes, the harder I work, the more validation I receive which, because of how I grew up and interacted with the world as a child/teenager, makes me feel good.

But at the end of the day, crawling into bed, it just makes me tired.

Not only does being busy for me mean the relentless act of people pleasing, but it also means I get to escape from my reality. I don’t know much about the history of why humans are the way we are, but I get the idea that humans have needed some form of escapism as a means of survival.

Sometimes escapism is just me daydreaming about the clock saying it’s time to go home, and at other times, I’m so not at home in my own skin that I absolutely need a promise of something otherworldly to allow me to relax, even for a second.

Our forms of escapism are wide and varied. Mostly, I think about vacation and not having my cell phone (like, forever banishing it to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay), and walking the gangway onto a cruise ship bound for warmer waters. I think about early retirement or tending a large garden outside our homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (we do not in fact own a homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains). I think about camping among the huge evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, of the breeze on my face as I ride the ferry out to the San Juan Islands. I think about the freedom of a day with no worries, cares, checking the bank account, making grocery lists, doing laundry.

My preferred form of escapism is busyness. Always floating and moving from commitment to commitment, filling up my calendar to the brim and always being on the move. If I’m always moving, I never have to actually sit and be faced with the fact that I’m not in fact on vacation right now or sailing away from Baltimore or taking a hike up to a waterfall. I can just move from event to event, place to place, and maybe stop for a second to fill up the gas tank but just keep ignoring the fact that the car needs maintenance, that it’ll be just fine for a few more miles.

But at some point, the car will break down. I will have to take an entire Saturday to either sit at the repair shop waiting for it, or work out a way to get a ride to and from and anticipate that fated call that tells me I’m going to take a chunk of savings to fix the damn car (and a part of that savings was probably for real vacation). And the Saturday I was planning on using to relax and do some “self-care” will be shot.

For some reason, cultivating a life that’s a mix of work + play, consistently, seems not only outlandish but also irresponsible. To open my calendar during a regular workweek and not see anything scheduled outside of my working hours just seems unnatural.

It seems unnatural because it is. But my body and soul and spirit are reeling, they’re telling me,

Elizabeth. It’s been 30 years of this busyness & people-pleasing bullshit. We can’t take it anymore. Please stop.

I think the things I daydream about while entrenched in my reality are clues to things I could actually do now to live the life that makes sense to me. I could go for a hike after work, or on a Saturday morning. I could load up the kayak on a Friday afternoon. I could sit on my porch with coffee and a book in the morning before work. I could spend a weekend in the woods.

But if I say yes to all those things, then I’m saying no to other things, and *gasp* ‘no’ to people. The horror. It’s a skill I have not yet mastered, but I’m working on it. Practice with me. (Disclaimer: this might feel a little bit like a grammatical exercise. Bear with the linguist/teacher here.)

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do].

Great job. You said your peace (piece? I think it can be both…). Now, let’s practice by adding ___ + so that ____.

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job so that I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry so that I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day so that I can have time for exercise.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause so that I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid so that I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period so that I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee so that I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day so that I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night so that I get enough sleep.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner so that I can take care of my body.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss so that I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking so that I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do] so that [insert positive alternative here].

Can you see that the statement that comes after so that is actually a value statement about your own life?

  • I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • I can have time for exercise.
  • I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • I can get enough sleep.
  • I can take care of my body.
  • I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

Last step, my friends. Let’s add yes to those statements. And now you have guiding affirmations.

  • Yes, I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • Yes, I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • Yes, I can have time for exercise.
  • Yes, I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • Yes, I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • Yes, I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • Yes, I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • Yes, I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • Yes, I can get enough sleep.
  • Yes, I can take care of my body.
  • Yes, I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • Yes, I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

FYI I did not copy-pasta ‘yes’; I typed every single one. It felt good.

I hope you can see that this form of self-care actually extends beyond self and into the world. If you believe that we are all in this together, we sentient, feeling, emoting human beings, then you probably agree that if we take care of ourselves, put on our own oxygen masks first, then we’re taking care of all of us. We provide a much-needed yet humble model for forging a new path in our burdened, overworked, stressed society. And we make it better.