Vanishing

With all this time at home and so many headlines, I find I’m spending way more time on my phone in the past week than I have in a long time. As a result of scrolling, I saw this video of Kelly Clarkson (have always been a fan) doing an a cappella version of Mariah Carey’s “Vanishing”, or “track 5” as Kelly called it. I felt that in my soul – the eponymous album by the diva hooked me as a little girl and up into my teens I was still purchasing her CDs with my piano teaching money and listening to them on repeat. Of course, the listening came with an attempted vocal accompaniment by yours truly… attempted. By an untrained amateur alto.

After watching Kelly belt it out in her bathroom in a Montana cabin (ugh, that sounds awesome), I played “Track 5” by Mariah while working in the kitchen. That in itself felt strange, to play the song out of context. The album is one to be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the huge 80’s-era headphones of my dad’s, sitting on the living room floor completely oblivious to the world, bass cranked.

I was finishing up picking the meat off of a homecooked “rotisserie” chicken and putting the bones and some veggie scraps back into the Instant Pot to make a broth. My alto voice was (attempting to) sing along to the first verse, chorus, second verse… then I was putting away dishes from the dishwasher to make room for dirty ones.

If I could recapture || All of the memories || And bring them to life Surely I would

Before I knew it, I was in tears. Utterly blindsided. I could not have seen it coming from miles away. It all happened so fast, the train of thought that left the station quickly and then slammed on the brakes. I was swaying a bit (I’m home alone this afternoon so who cares) and in a split second I was reminded of my mom telling me that when I was little, she and I would dance to this in the kitchen. I was four years old when the album was released, in 1990.

Hear the distant laughter || Wasn’t it you and me || Surviving the night || You’re fading out of my sight || Swiftly

And suddenly the four-year-old blonde haired blue eyed girl became the nearly 34-year-old woman holding the four-year-old girl, swaying and dancing with her. Not in the Bacon Street kitchen, but in my kitchen in 2020 during a global pandemic. I, the almost 34-year-old woman was not looking at my mother, but I was mesmerized, gazing at my own daughter, at her messy ponytail swaying and her little legs and bare feet kicking and her mouth open, laughing. And that, with the lyrics and music and felt experience, I was realizing just how real the song felt in my bones and I just started crying.

Oh, I was so enraptured || No sensibility || To open my eyes || I misunderstood || Now you’re fading faster || It’s suddenly hard to see || You’re taking the light || Letting the shadows inside || Swiftly

So, like any sane person does when a song moves them, I played it again, while letting myself not just feel the feelings, but experience the feelings. The loss. The life that could have been. How this quarantine could be so different. How my life certainly must be playing out in a different way in a parallel universe. That’s the way we have to be present and sit with it (or sway to it in your kitchen with a dish towel in hand). It’s really not an option for me anymore to acknowledge the feeling with a nod of my chin and a few teary blinks and move on.

Fuck, it hurts. It’s a physical pain in my heart and chest. It’s intense, and lasts for a little while. But it’s necessary. And a reminder that while in general I am content with my life, and free from worry about bringing children into this crazy-ass world, I am not immune to my own grief and hurt and despair. It comes to the surface every now and then, a reminder that I am human and I am or was a mother (in another life) and that for some reason the souls of my children never made it to this world.

Reaching out into the distance
Searching for spirits of the past
Just a trace of your existence to grasp

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.

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.

Just Say No, AKA the Year 2020

How are your New Year’s goals and resolutions going? Did you make any? I haven’t made them since probably around 2013 when I resolved to make the bed every day. I have to say, it’s stuck and I still make the bed five out of seven days.

Instead of resolutions, I try to stick with a theme that’s a bit more overarching and esoteric. 2019 was the year where I declared to myself to Be Honest. And I was. I was honest about everything from what I ate making my body feel like garbage to the nasty habit of rarely cleaning my bathroom to the negative garbage I continue to spew at the girl in the mirror. I was honest about my feelings about my weight, my house, paint colors on my walls, how I really feel about baby showers (heh), and about the things on my calendar that I actually like doing (I’m at about 70% right now).

It was a year of self-discovery, though I am ashamed that it took me 32, wait no, 33 years to discover the person I’m with all day long. But guys, I did it. And did I die? No. I did not.

Twenty-twenty is the year of Just Say No. I have to say that the DARE program with the cute little bear we got to pass around the class (and Mom made me tumble said bear in the dryer for no fewer than 30 minutes) didn’t do much for me in the way of saying no to drugs (probably because I came off as a goody-two-shoes and was never offered them…). But hell, it would have been nice if someone had told me as a young woman, There are going to be lots of people who will pressure you to do all the things. Just say no to 80% of the things, and focus on the other 20%. Nope, none of that.

I’m on to you, all you people who keep asking the same people over and over and over again to do more things. My type of people are responsible, organized, loyal, dependable, and sadly, but not so sadly for you, yes people. And frankly, I’m sick of it.

I know the door swings both ways. I do not absolve myself of responsibility in saying yes to all the things. And I will not deny that there was a time in my life I really needed to say yes to all the things… during college, for example (as in classes and papers and odd side jobs). During student teaching… working my way through new and different jobs the first ten years of my career as we moved around the country.

Goals are weird, amirite? You make a goal and think you want to reach it until you’re almost there, or actually there, and then it’s like, huh. Wow. Okay. That’s it? (This has been my personal experience for the accomplishment of many goals.) I think that actually, one of my goals all along has been to put myself in such a position that I could say no to things and either 1) not give a shit about what people think of that dreaded two-letter word coming out of my mouth and/or 2) financially and professionally afford to say no.

I’m now a recovering yes person on a multi-step program (don’t ask for specifics, maybe that’ll come later) to becoming a no person. So, let’s focus on the positive… what are the things I’m currently working on saying yes to in 2020?

  • Reading. Lots and lots of it. Mostly in front of my YouTube fireplace. With a dog. And a blankie. Because 10-year-old Elizabeth is resurfacing. My current goal is to read 40 books this year.
  • Spiritual introspection and discipline. Continuing to find new ways of approaching my Christian faith in a way that edifies myself and the Church.
  • Exercise that isn’t running. Gasp. Hold the damn phone. I know. This year I think might be a running sabbatical.
  • Making good food in my beautiful kitchen.
  • Drinking less caffeine. Also on the list of things that don’t make sense.
  • Being honest about who I am and what I want out of life. Approaching my weirdness with a curiosity rather than contempt.
  • Connecting with family and friends.
  • Reflecting and revising my teaching practice.
  • Making the bed every day (???)

[Insert conclusion here]. Aren’t conclusions the worst things to write? All said, I’m on this journey to become a more decent human being. To treat myself and other with respect and dignity. To stamp out evil and poverty of the mind. To expose myself to new experiences and live in the moment. Whew. Let’s do it.

Unconditional ice cream

School is out here in Maryland (finally) and consequently I’ve been able to do errands like grocery shopping and running to the post office during regular business hours. It’s been glorious. And I know when late August rolls around I will whine and complain that now I don’t have time for work because I just have so much other stuff to do.

But at the grocery store, I’ve seen more than one grandma carting around her grandkids, picking out things. Today I was at our local grocery store and noticed that one grandkid was asking for some sort of ice cream treat. “Mom-mom, can we get….?” I don’t remember how the grandma replied because immediately I was thrown into my own repository of memories of these exact trips with my own grandma, Mimi.

The first anniversary of her death is approaching (August 11) and besides being reminded on my own trip sans children to the grocery store about our close relationship, I’m reminded of how she gave ____ to me unconditionally. Fill in the blank with whatever – love, chicken wings, Little Debbie cakes, cups of Sleepytime tea – and it’s still true.

Holy heck, I love her. I miss her. I thought she was one of the richest people in my own little sphere, simply because she just gave and gave. As I got older, I realized that she was not well off (she lived on a fixed income from the State of Illinois and the Social Security Administration) and sometimes she gave more than she had. But you know what? She always, always, gave with joy.

Now lest anyone thinks that I was spoiled only with 12-packs of cream soda and Zebra Cakes (I was), I never ever doubted that she loved me, supported me, and would open the door for me at any hour.

I blame Mimi often for my sweet tooth. We had treats at home, too, but man I loved it when she bought TV dinners and pudding.

I recently had some bloodwork done – I had a high fasting glucose reading awhile back and wanted to follow up on it. Turns out my glucose is fine, and so is my A1C. I thought maybe it’d be high from the sweets I ingest and sometimes binge (Oreos….?).

While I’m thankful for my health and no evidence of Mimi’s generosity as it relates to my A1C, I am equally grateful for the long-term effects of her emotional generosity as well.

I think as time passes and memories resurface, I will discover and realize more things about how she lived her life. Memories will always be alive and have the ability to be examined different ways.

I hope that grandkid sitting in the cart being pushed by his grandma realizes how special those mundane moments are, because someday they will be gone.

I think mini backpacks are cool and I don’t care who knows it.

I’m finally feeling like myself again. It’s taken a shit-ton of work. Physical work. Mental work. Emotional work. Hours of therapy. Hours of running. Of listening and meditating on music that feeds my soul. Of advocating for myself and my physical health.

Recently I’ve been reconnecting with the Elizabeth that’s down deep inside, the girl who’s now grown into a woman and hopefully likes what she’s become. As my grandma, Mimi, used to say, “You have to like what you see in the mirror.” Maybe she meant that you like your physical appearance. But I know that mostly she meant that you have to like the person reflected in that piece of glass.

A previous post I wrote about finding my 8th grade journal has taken me on a trip down memory lane. The commitment to writing on this blog with this name comes from a visit to the young Elizabeth who wrote late at night. Wrote poetry. Wrote songs. Some happy, some sad. The girl who in sixth grade went through a very interesting “Harriet the Spy” phase and sat on a stoop at recess with a composition notebook, writing about what she saw. The Elizabeth who wrote a collection of poetry for a project in advanced English in 8th grade entitled “Declaration of Independence”. (I know that period’s in the ‘wrong’ place, btw.)

My language arts teacher mentioned that my poetry was dark and depressing. Fuck yeah it was. I was encountering mental illness for the first time and trying to wrestle with it. Writing was my outlet. I didn’t feel taken seriously, I guess, and I tamped it down and convinced myself all through high school that I hated English class.

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

All of these 90’s themes coming back have been a catalyst to coming back to young Elizabeth as well. I remember having high-waisted pants. Scrunchies (even ones my mom made to match some dresses/jumpers she made me). Those plastic rings you used to cinch a intentionally too-big t-shirt. Flannel shirts. God, so much flannel. Mini backpacks as a purse.

This one’s pretty cute.

I look at all these kids discovering these things for the first time and it makes me feel old. It also makes me sad that I ever let go of the things I liked. I’m trying to lean in to what I really like, and rediscover it. When you go through shit like infertility and crises of faith, you question your very being, your soul, your core.

So like I was saying in the beginning, I’ve been doing a lot of work to get back to myself. And dammit, I really like mini backpacks. I think they’re adorable. I really like taking running selfies with the self-timer on my camera and I just don’t care who sees me. I like wearing my hair down after a shower without drying and curling it. I generally am not into wearing a lot of makeup – mascara does it just fine for me. I like playing bluegrass really loudly when the windows are open.

Where did I get the idea that what I like to wear or do isn’t good enough? Where did I get the idea that I have to put on makeup and curl my hair in order to look “professional”? I got those ideas from society and culture, and they’ve been internalized. Somehow the cursory comparisons I made with other women got embedded in how I operate, and I’m sick of it.

I just wanna be me. I’m the same but different.

I turned 33 a few weeks ago, and I am so excited about it. 33 going into 34 is going to be such a great year. Maybe I’ll even buy myself a mini backpack.

Passion + espresso

I am terrified I won’t feel passion for any life decision again. I spent 28 years of my life preparing to house and birth a child. I chose my college major and my profession around my desire to be a mother. When dating I looked for someone who would not only be a great life partner, but also a good person to raise little people with. When I lost weight initially it was to be healthy for carrying of said child.

How could all of that come from no passion?

Now I’m left with the, needless to say, solid and good consequences from those life decisions. How could it still be empty and (sometimes feel) meaningless?

When I’d be frustrated at work or fed up with someone outside of my home, it was easy for me to escape that situation mentally. In the same vein, when things were good at work and I was really enjoying whatever task was at hand, I had these little jolts of adrenaline (or some other hormone, so sue me I’m not a doctor) that made my heart skip a beat and make me feel infinite happiness and contentment, even just for a moment.

At that time I knew that whatever situation I was experiencing would not compare to what it’d be like to be at home with my nuclear family, my 2.5 kids exactly all 2 years apart, wiping their hands and mouths at lunchtime while the spring breeze blew through the window. I knew at that moment that I’d look at my babies and think back to when I worked and how I couldn’t wait for this moment right here, and how I was finally here and how all existentially amazing that was and pity my former nonparent self. (Disclaimer: I’m kind of a bitch to myself.)

Now, when I have any situation at work, with a friend, or wherever, that is my moment. That is what is, that’s the present. There’s no future moment that’ll come Back-to-the-Future me, no Delorian that will transport me to mornings of dirty high chair trays and fresh laundry coming out of the dryer. There’s just this moment.

The kicker is that I want that breeze-blowing, laundry-scented moment anyway. All the time. Because someone somewhere told me if I just pray enough or am good enough or worthy enough, God will give me the desires of my heart.

The children of that well-meaning but mistaken person should be given a kitten and a few shots of espresso and let loose in the china shop.

Just don’t take my espresso and give it to that child. I’ll be sipping it at the kitchen table, windows open, letting the breeze cool it before it touches my lips.