The leaving manifesto

The realization dawned on me that I needed to leave. It’s not in a “oh my God get me out of here” way or a “I’m running as fast as I can towards something new” way. It’s just a “it’s time” way. It’s not desperate or overly negative or toxic. It just is.

I think it’s been coming to this for awhile, leaving public education. After all, I’ve done it once before. Reasons then were not what they are now. Back then I had an external force acting on my decisions, and somehow that felt really comfortable and I just ran with that for years. To be fair, I’d had an entire childhood where decision making was largely influenced by external forces. That’s what happens when you grow up in poverty and a scarcity mindset. When you have parents who have myopic views on pretty much everything. 

I’ve been dabbling in applying and even interviewing for other jobs over the past several years. No shade, but I completely fell into the job I have now. I didn’t have to work for the contract – I applied on a semi-whim and six months later heard back. In my personal life, my sense of self was a swirling sea of chaos and grief. I let the waves of fate take me out into the big blue ocean, back into an industry I’d low-key sworn I wouldn’t go back to. But I did.

As a child and teenager, school was my happy place. Well, maybe not always happy, but safe. I was good at it. Adults liked me. They praised me, took care of me. Gave me emotional support. The mostly middle-aged women with perms filled in aspects of mothering that I didn’t receive at home. Maybe they knew that, maybe they didn’t. The smell of a school smells like home whether it’s primary or secondary. There’s something about walking down iterations of hallways with lockers and doors.

If teaching were now the way it was back when I started, or even when I was in school myself, I might stick with it until retirement. As it is, I’m planning on retiring early. No matter what, I won’t even reach the requisite 25 years in my state to get full benefits. When I look down the tunnel of work life before retirement, I’m met with a minor sense of dread, and then a wave of indifference and acceptance that that’s what life will be like. I would just power through for 15-ish more years.

The teaching part is what I love. It’s exciting and unpredictable and allows for spontaneity. I love the vibe of a classroom where everyone is heard and seen and accepted. I love watching students learn. But right now, along with some pretty great colleagues, that’s about all I can rely on.

The environment of schools itself is harried and rushed and has the scent of doom all over it. Doom and gloom if you will. I think most of us are pretty exhausted trying to combat that as it is. Add on the bureaucratic bloat of testing, observations, evaluations, micromanaging, hundreds of emails a day, “yes you should” and “no you can’t” and a loss of autonomy. It used to be that I could just close my door and teach, and everything in the four walls was isolated to some extent from the outside. Now it’s not. There’s little time for deep focused work for myself or my students. I’m emotionally exhausted every day from keeping up relationships with literally hundreds of people. I’m mentally exhausted from trying to protect myself from the barrage of distractions when I’m trying to plan the necessary high-quality standards-based lessons that are praised on my evaluations.

My mind started to open up to new possibilities for a few reasons. First, my husband is a shining example of going out there and getting what you want and what you know you deserve. Throughout the process of his being recruited for the well-paid work-from-home role he has now, I was inspired and wondered why I couldn’t also be that ambitious. Another thing is that I feel that I’m hanging out at the ceiling of my job now. I’ve exhausted my creativity, because with the constraints of curriculum and scheduling and all the other things (see what I wrote about bureaucratic bloat above), there’s only so much creativity I can add into my lessons and in my teaching methods. Each observation and evaluation just feels like the same ride on the same roller coaster. Like, we’ve been here before. We know where it leads. I teach, you rate me and give me a silly thing to improve on and we do the cycle over and over again ad nauseum.

In addition, I have no desire and never have to become a school administrator. I like being in the trenches, continually sharpening my skills to deliver content and engage students. I don’t want to move into different subject areas, though I’ve thought about it and researched what it would take. I can’t stand the horribly not rigorous graduate level education courses that just rearrange skills and strategies I’ve learned (and quite honestly are common sense) with a new name. 

Going back to school is not a good option for me – for one thing, the programs I could get reimbursed have to be related to my current job. For another, I can’t decide on what I would want to do. Committing to a new program and career trajectory not related with my current skills is something I don’t want to do at this point.

So as I reflect on my tenure as an instructor in some capacity over the past 15ish years, I’ve realized a few core things about myself as not just a teacher but a professional in general:

  • I am really good at finding a creative solution to a multi-faceted problem. From start to finish, I can take a large and seemingly impossible task and break it down into steps, ask for feedback along the way, and execute an efficient solution. This comes from, for example, having to create at least two schedules per academic year that have nothing but constraints.
  • I have developed my people-ing skills to no end. I can wordsmith an email to communicate my message, I can get my colleagues on board with new ideas, I am really good at interpersonal relationships and then building on those.
  • I can see big tasks or problems from a systems lens. I can see the intricacies of something complex and find a way to make it more simple or tease it apart. This includes juggling multiple tasks with different deadlines and doing it well.
  • I am way more creative than I give myself credit for. This goes beyond coming up with solutions or creating visually appealing presentations. This speaks to the fact that I’ve had my personal blog for over a decade and also have gone out on a limb to try new things like creating a podcast and using technology I’ve used maybe once sometime back in grad school (Audacity). 
  • I am really good at figuring out new technology and how to apply it. Give an example and timeline, I can create something and then figure out how to show someone else pretty quickly.

So for all those personal realizations, I’ve decided to find a new path that’s adjacent to what I’m doing now, maybe even something that addresses the systemic problems from the outside. I thought the cognitive dissonance of public education policy/practice would go away, but it hasn’t. It’s only been magnified since COVID. I was hopeful in the beginning, that people would finally see that there are better ways to do things. Having one day a week of virtual teaching and learning for staff and students was life changing, and helped me stay longer than maybe I would have. Eh, let’s be real, I had no idea what else I was going to do.

And that’s the huge takeaway I have from all of this reflection, is that public education will make you think that that’s all there is. Your skills are defined such that they go into this tiny little box that’s checked off on a Danielson rubric, and that’s it. But there’s a whole world out there.

I think the final realization I had was that if I were going to be asked to host a student teacher, I would have to decline based on my own conscience. There is no way that with the state of public ed the way it is I can conceivably invite, mentor, and encourage a college student to commit to this profession. An unwilling or jaded mentor is no mentor at all, and that’s the last thing I’d want to be. In any profession we have to continue teaching others so that the profession lives on, but I realized that I cannot do that at this point in time.

I always said getting into teaching, that if I ever became that crotchety old miser who hates her life and does nothing but bitch about the bad things and decry the good, it’s time for me to leave. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d rather move on while I’m feeling optimistic and hopeful and before I get desperate.

At the end of this year I will most likely say goodbye to a lot – my students, my colleagues, my classroom. Oh finally my own classroom! I know the school district is doing what it can to retain teachers (at a board meeting earlier this year they voted to give us 5 half days of planning throughout the rest of the year) but I have to say that for me, it’s too little too late. And, in general this is not really as much a “leaving teaching” thing as it is “explore new paths” for me. It’s time and I’m ready.

I’ve worked through my grief – of loved ones, of infertility, of leaving places I’ve lived – and I’m ready to embrace what’s coming next.

Don’t look down

It’s what people say when you’re at an uncomfortable height. It’s advice and admonishment. It’s a warning against the inevitable void that will entice you to fall. It could be a bend from reality, a willful ignorance of what actually exists.

At some point, we have to look down and get real. We have to accept reality and take responsibility for our fear. And then we have to make a plan to face and conquer it.

I think this looks different for everyone, but I can surely tell you what it isn’t, especially as we move into what I call the “post-COVID” era. It’s not: not taking care of your body, not nourishing your mental health, not encouraging and lifting up others, not showing gratitude, not driving dangerously on the morning commute, being a continuous source of negativity.

This global experience is tragic, yes, but as Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, “Life is inherently tragic.” It’s a fact that too many have either not realized or blatantly ignored. What I see is an experience that has the potential to bring us together as humans. With seven billion people on the planet, what experience do we all have that is actually similar? Welcoming new life, grieving death, filling our bellies. That is what we all share, and can also be described as the human condition.

This is a unique time to be alive. But with this unique landscape comes unique responsibility. We have more evidence now than ever of what trauma can do to a person. We have multitudes of resources for mental health. We have the potential to be connected to practically anyone anywhere in the world.

What does “Don’t look down” look like right now? It looks like us harnessed in safely to the side of the mountain, prepared with all our gear. Helmet, rope, someone who can help us in an emergency. It looks like knowing how exactly high up we are and accepting the possibility that we are in a dangerous position. It looks like having enough training to be able to help another climber navigate to safety instead of being the reason they fall.

Let’s get it together, folks.

The Problem of Saturday

Even before I was old enough to have a job in the traditional sense, working on the weekends, particularly Saturdays, was a concept I knew well. Many a Saturday morning, I woke up at a decent time (not by my own accord), perused the “to-do list” written by my mother, and with my sisters we decided who would do which chore by putting our initials next to said household job. And thus every Saturday, or thereabouts, we would go about the business of keeping house – we learned how to do laundry, clean bathrooms, meal prep, weed flower pots, sweep and scrub the kitchen floor (on our knees, the purported “right” way), clean litter boxes, clean our rooms (gasp!!!!). There’s no doubt that I’m thankful for learning how to complete these very necessary tasks, but it’s partially for this reason that up until recently, I could not relax on a Saturday.

I learned at an early age to tie my self-worth to how productive I was.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

Since childhood, I’ve had my share of jobs that aren’t your typical nine-to-five – working customer service at a grocery store, teaching music lessons, helping manage a private tutoring center, teaching night classes. All those positions demanded either odd hours that usually also occurred on the weekends.

For about a decade, I trained for races. Generally these plans indicated that a weekend morning would be a “long run” day, and with church responsibilities on Sunday, that meant that my long run fell on Saturday mornings. And not only that, but I felt to get the most out of my one day completely off from responsibility, I’d get up really early to take advantage of those morning twilight hours and get my run in. It became a ritual.

Now as a mid-30-something adult, for the first time in my life I have had a job whose responsibilities are contained within the weekdays. Well, at least those are the boundaries I’ve set for myself. Millions of teachers across America work the weekends. I don’t. I can’t if I want to stay in this profession for life. And I do.

And then in addition to having only one job that I worked Monday through Friday, a couple things happened that began to open up my Saturday to really being a day to do whatever, whenever: a running sabbatical and lockdowns due to COVID-19.

The year of 2020, I decided to not run, at least not train for any big races. I say that like it was really my decision, but my body was actually screaming for a break. So I took a break. And then COVID hit, and suddenly we went from being busy with something most weekends, especially on Sundays, to having wide open free time on the weekends. It was (is?) awesome. It was something I did not realize I needed, and it was also something I realize I could have done for myself without the help of a global pandemic.

I would say to no minor degree that I have reclaimed my Saturdays. Without the frenzy of church activities on Sunday plus grocery shopping and meal prep that has to happen, things can be spread out over the entire weekend. I can relish in the early morning hours of Saturday (like I am right now) without feeling guilty about not doing chores, or going for a long run.

Reclaiming a true Sabbath day (which can look different for everyone, and does not have to be a traditional weekend day) was not easy. For a long time I dealt with guilt of not doing the things I’d grown so accustomed to for years. It was like muscle memory was taking over my body, and unless I was getting things done around the house or running, my body just didn’t know what to do.

So I rode out the discomfort and began doing, actually, the things I wanted to do on a Saturday in order to usher in the weekend. This includes, generally, having coffee at home (not running out to get it, although sometimes this happens), taking the quiet morning to finish a book (I finished The Invisible Life of Addie Larue and A Court of Wings and Ruin this way), reading the paper, or now that the weather is getting warmer, sitting outside to watch the sun rise over the Susquehanna River.

These activities are different, and there are a number you could substitute in, but they are all similar in that I am present for them. In the book Laziness Does Not Exist, Dr. Devon Price draws on current research to describe how to “savor,” defined as “the process of deeply and presently enjoying a positive experience.” This is in contrast to “dampening,” which makes an activity seemed rushed or only valued because of what it produces.

…being achievement-obsessed actually makes life less rewarding and enjoyable, because we never get to truly savor or appreciate what we’ve done or where we’ve been.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

I think that’s what had happened to me – I became “achievement-obsessed.” I grew up in a family that had to hustle to put food on the table. My mom went to school full time, my dad worked on cars for extra money – and it wasn’t for fun money, either. It was our ethos, our identity, to be a family who knew how to do lots of things, do them well, and do them efficiently. That is a skill valued in our culture, and it served me for a period of time, but it doesn’t have to extend to all areas and years of my life going forward. Price says that “…weeks, months, or even years can all blend together in a haze of anxiety and obligation” – do I want to spend the next 40+ years of my life in this state? Surely not.

I think (and hope) that a global pandemic has taught us all a few things we can learn from. For me, it was how to rest, relax, and recharge without guilt. Of course, this requires saying no, something I’ve been thinking about and practicing for several years now. I’m happy to say that saying no is almost my default mode.

I, for one, will never go back to filling my calendar to the brim with no room to breathe. Of course, there will be busy times – life and work are not static. But “wow, this week was busy” will not be what I say on my way home from work every Friday. I don’t want to “work for the weekend,” as American as that is. I want to see a new American cultural norm – one where yes, people work hard and efficiently, but also set boundaries that are respected so that they can rest and do the other things they enjoy – spend time with family, cook good food, go boating, go fishing, go shopping, camping, whatever – and do those things without guilt or getting work email notifications in the meantime.

One sign to me that I’ve been successful at reclaiming my Saturdays is that not only do I have time and mental energy to read, but to actually analyze and evaluate what I read. For some books, I pause to take notes. I think about what I read, and change my perspective and add new knowledge that will really stick. When I’m reading fiction or fantasy, I can savor the story and immerse myself with the characters. It’s enjoyable.

The time to reclaim our Saturdays is now, folks. If we don’t choose to do it and find our own ways of working in some relaxation and reprieve, other things will do it for us; namely, sickness, injury, and burnout.

My constant companion(s)

Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.

I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.

I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.

When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.

As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.

I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.

Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.

I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.

And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.

Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.

These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.

I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.

Feeling at home during COVID

I’ll be honest: I’ve always scoffed at people who walk to get exercise. 1) Being honest is all I’ve got, and 2) I was a pretentious asshole. I mean, I’ve run marathons. What benefit could there be to walking over running?

I remember being a teenager and going for walks occasionally through my neighborhood. I’d lived there my whole life essentially, so there was nothing new to see. I hadn’t yet become aware of what “being present” felt like, so it really was just boring.

In college my friend and I would get together in the late evening and walk at the park. The city I grew up in has a beautiful park with a man-made lagoon. The sidewalk around it measures about half a mile, and we would usually do 4 or 5 laps. And she walked fast! Then, I walked because it was a good way to get exercise and socialize. Same when my husband and I were dating – there were very few places we could hang out and be alone in peace, so we went for walks in parks.

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I started going for walks. It even felt different coming out of my mouth at the end of a work day, words winding their way up the stairs while I put my headphones in, “Babe, I’m going for a walk.”

Last year, I took a running sabbatical (mostly). This means I didn’t train for any big races or have any sort of plan for my running. I ran when I felt like it. Like so much in my life, I got burnt out and figured since the earth was groaning and yearning for a change, so was I. So in the beginning of COVID-induced quarantine, being outside was one of the safest activities there was. I put on my running shoes and went out the door.

Before I knew it, I was walking for about an hour. That’s how long it takes to walk down to the water and back, even at a good clip. And because nearly all the streets in my town are north-south, east-west, there are endless routes to take to the Bay.

The weather improved as spring gave way to summer, and my body craved the calm but industrious energy that walking brings. Running doesn’t do the same thing – your heart and lungs and legs are working too hard. When I run, my thoughts really don’t have the space to wander – they’re usually too focused on pace and cadence and not tripping over perfectly flat concrete (yep, I’ve done it).

But with walking, the world moves by a little slower. I had the time to really look at the neighborhoods I was walking through, at the houses new and old, but mostly old. Some run-down, most with an addition or two. Some with balconies and crazy colors that could probably be seen from kayakers on the river. Some with garden decorations or old paint-chippy fences. All molded by character and curiosity.

A most valuable experience was walking the same neighborhoods as seasons changed. I wore the same shoes, but first donned a hoodie for fall and finally a coat for winter. I found that I could “run errands” during a walk, too. I could pick up or drop off a book from the library. I could stop at the post office to get stamps or mail a package. I could patronize my local coffee shop…. (yes, that counts as an errand – gotta keep local businesses afloat!). Some afternoons in the winter as we approached the solstice, the angle of the sun indicated it was almost time for twilight to meld into darkness fit for a cozy sleep.

Before COVID, I hadn’t really settled in our town, despite buying our own old-but-updated house. But walking allowed me to breathe the same air, wave to and chat with neighbors, and really feel like I am a part of this city. And for such a crazy year and having moved around as an adult, feeling at home is what I really needed.

Coming back into my body

Over the past seven years or so, I have been made acutely aware of my body. At first she seemed like a stranger to me, someone you pass in the night but can’t quite see past the darkness and shadows.

It’s quite ironic that I was so separated from my body because I am tall. I take up a lot of space, all 5’10” of me. I have big feet (size 10-10.5), relatively broad shoulders, a large bosom (though pretty proportional to the rest of me), and in general I have always been aware of the space I take up, but not necessarily been in sync and felt unity with my own body.

On being tall & taking up space

In conversations that date back to my years going through puberty, my aunt and I explored some of these feelings I had about my body. I felt I was too tall; she said I was beautiful. I thought my feet were too big; she said that if I didn’t have big enough feet, I would fall flat on my face. I guess this is probably true. But her messages about my body seemed to contradict the jokes I heard from other family members; namely, the ones about my shoes being pontoons and the cups of my bra drying above washer being soup bowls. Those comments were made in jest, for sure, and not meant to harm at all. But seeing as I am the only person in my immediate family who seems to carry the Scandinavian genes more than the others, it really made me super aware of the space I took up. And you can understand why during those years, I began to dissociate my self from my own body.

Recently I attended two consultations with plastic surgeons. I was interested in getting a breast reduction. I spent hours pouring over before and after pictures (I have never seen more boobs in my life….), comparing my breasts to headless women who kind of looked like me. I imagined the types of clothes I’d be able to wear, including cute lacey bras that resembled small ice cream cups rather than soup bowls. I imagined getting the surgery during a long break from work and healing up before a beach vacation, ready to take the ocean with my new & improved perky boobs.

Throughout this process of consultations, I had conversations with my insurance company about the surgery. I got a letter of medical necessity from the chiropractor. Even when the procedure may not have been covered by insurance, the money really wasn’t an issue either way. We could have saved and made it work, if I had really wanted it.

A switch flipped in me about such a radical surgery. On the surface, it seems relatively harmless and it seems people get plastic surgery all the time. However, in the few months I spent obsessed with this idea, I began to get attached to my boobs (emotionally…). I saw them in a different light. I began to mourn their loss and eventually decided against a breast reduction.

On being infertile

Nearly seven years ago now, we began trying to conceive. As we know from other posts on this blog, it didn’t work. And in that process, the dissociation I felt with my body that began in adolescence only grew more pronounced. I began to resent and even despise my body. It’s a very uncomfortable state to be in because you can’t really get away. Thankfully I didn’t choose to engage in self-destructive behaviors, though I can imagine for some people that that would seem like a way out from those feelings.

It took a lot of therapy and research, even surgery (to diagnose and remove endometriosis) to help me heal. It took a rewiring of my brain when my period would start, that instead of absolutely hating my bum uterus* and emotional pain it caused me for so long, month after month, I just accepted that this is my body right now. I’m still in the reproductive, “child-bearing” phase of my life, and it is possible that very soon I will enter what is known as perimenopause. I decided that I can’t just hate on myself for the next 10-15-20 years until my body stops bleeding every month. I have to accept myself, come back into myself, and act like I love myself.

*I was misdiagnosed – I do not have a septate uterus. It turns out that I had benign uterine polyps and stage 2 endometriosis, mostly occurring in the deep cul-de-sac. I had a D&C to remove the polyps and excision for the endo. 2.5 years on, I feel pretty good, though I suspect the polyps might be coming back.

On being a sexual being

They say that women lose some of their inhibition around sex in their 30’s. I’ve not read up on the reasons why, but from personal experience, I could say that the previous two experiences of being tall and being infertile have had something to do with it. Once you peel back the layers of why your body & soul are disconnected, it’s really hard to not keep going, keep discovering, staying curious about yourself.

My journey with my one and only body has also been spiritual, which necessitates an analysis of my previous spiritual experiences and an examination of the things I was taught about my body. If being tall, having big boobs, and being infertile made me feel shame and embarrassment about my body, then learning that my body, literally the existence of it, could be tempting for boys and men or inherently sinful certainly did nothing for my self-esteem.

What has done something, in fact a lot for my self-esteem is engaging in exercise, especially long-distance running and yoga. Concerning running, there’s nothing quite like completing a marathon and realizing that your own body took you that far. It’s impossible to not feel proud of yourself, to shed the self-consciousness about what you might look like running 20 miles on country roads during training.

Yoga has by far been the most transformative experience, and the most daring I must say. In some Christian circles I have been a part of, yoga has been looked down on and considered “giving the devil a foothold.” I will be honest, though: the conservative Christian rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies, pregnancy, and infertility did very little for me as far as healing was concerned. (I have written a lot about that here, here, and here.) So I decided to explore elsewhere.

Forgive my facetiousness, but as it turns out, I have not turned into a witch or a Satan worshipper. I have, however, developed a broader sense of spirituality that I needed at the time which also includes my sexuality.

In Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the need for a new approach to sexuality as Christians. She makes a clear distinction between purity and holiness (hey-o those are some buzzwords!) that helps validate my journey to uniting my own body and spirit:

Purity most often leads to pride or despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with and purity is about separation from.

page 26

This brings me to the last practice or habit I’ve explored to help me come back into my body: reading. It’s been a way for me to round out my experiences of intense emotions, to inform my journey going forward. I have found that the topics of books I have read that have helped me realize a deeper connection to my own humanity include sex within the Christian world (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation), sexual health (Come as You Are), endometriosis (The Doctor Will See You Now), Jesus as a husband (The Book of Longings, post here), women’s health (In the Flo, Womancode), spiritual memoirs written by women (The Very Worst Missionary, Out of Sorts, Inspired, and Christian mysticism (The Universal Christ). While these topics might only seem marginally connected, the reflect the interconnectedness — union — of who we are as humans – complicated and complex in our sexuality and spirituality, in our body and our soul.

Choosing to not drink is easy; sobriety is hard

I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.

That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.

So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.

Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.

Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.

I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.

The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.

So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?

The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?

I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was thinking about why I might be like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recap of “2020 – The Year of Saying No”

In January, I wrote this post about saying no, my theme for this year. It came off the coattails of the Year of Being Honest. I haven’t picked a personal theme for 2021 yet, but thought I would recap and expound on the list of things I wanted to do for 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.

I have read 65 books as of December 25, 2020. Most were fiction, fantasy to be exact. 29 out of the 65 were nonfiction, a bit surprising as I counted them up. I read a couple of series and trilogies that blew me away and kept me coming back for more. Currently, I’m starting a re-read on A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas since 1) my sister gifted me the hardcovers of this series and 2) the new book comes out in February.

  • Spiritual introspection and discipline. Continuing to find new ways of approaching my Christian faith in a way that edifies myself and the Church.

This one I didn’t dive too deep into, honestly. Church has been weird this year with the pandemic, and I found myself more often than not not tuning into the virtual services and instead enjoying my Sunday morning like the rest of the world. Does that sound bad? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve needed a break because I’ve been doing the Sunday-morning-Church-thing for 30 years of my life. As far as exploring my own spirituality and having discipline, I would say regular therapy sessions and the books I read (yes, the fiction too!) have helped me immensely in that area.

I’ve also been focusing this year on uniting my body and my spirit/mind this year. After years of infertility and in general kind of hating my body at different times for different reasons, it was high time to relearn how I can love myself instead of look in the mirror with disdain. Which brings me to…

  • Exercise that isn’t running. Gasp. Hold the damn phone. I know. This year I think might be a running sabbatical.

Most of 2020 was a running sabbatical I had a few races lined up, and completed two. In December I attempted a 5K a day but for about a week and a half I’ve been nursing runner’s knee in my right knee. I hope to get back out there in the beginning of 2021. After a break from regular training, I realize how integral running has been in my life, and how there is a magic that happens. I run, I feel better. It’s amazing.

  • Making good food in my beautiful kitchen.

This was an easy one to hit with the pandemic. I would call my cooking style “Bougie Midwestern comfort food”… all the things I loved growing up like shepherd’s pie, roast, corn chowder, pizza.. but with higher quality ingredients and more that’s homemade. We also began buying veggies from a local CSA and in 2021 we will be subscribers to the CSA on a weekly basis. I think we’ve eaten at a restaurant a handful of times in the past 9 months, and gotten delivery on average once every 10 days or so. I tried my hand at sourdough, which was kind of a failure, but I found a new recipe for a starter so I will try that and see how it goes. I’ve gotten really good at using up leftovers and veggies about to go bad. In this area, 2020 has been a HUGE success.

  • Drinking less caffeine. Also on the list of things that don’t make sense.

Hmm. Well. This did not happen. Ha! However, since the end of May, the number of alcoholic drinks I’ve had I can count on one hand. THAT is a huge feat for me, and I really don’t see alcohol playing a role, if at all, in my 2021 plans. It’s all a part of saying no to the things that don’t serve me anymore.

  • Being honest about who I am and what I want out of life. Approaching my weirdness with a curiosity rather than contempt.

This has not been easy, and I’m still not there yet. With some work changes, I have pinned down some criteria for how I want to continue in my job. Teaching is not easy right now, and with big changes on the horizon with a new Secretary of Ed, budget cuts, and virtual learning, it’s good to have some boundaries and expectations for my own career. I’ve thought a lot about switching careers or finding a new teaching job, but I haven’t made any hard decisions about it. I’m content where I am.

  • Connecting with family and friends.

This has been a constant in my life, mostly because we live far away from all family and most friends. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram anymore, so that can make it difficult though not impossible to keep in touch. The video chatting app Marco Polo has been the real MVP here – especially with keeping in touch through time zones.

  • Reflecting and revising my teaching practice.

This has happened naturally with the changes brought about by the pandemic. I have always been computer and tech savvy, and I brought that into my work more this year. I’ve finally cracked the code (for me) on how to make lesson planning easier to do. I’ve become a Google Slides hero. And overall, I would say with the changes this year (new school, new grade level) things are going well. It feels good to have tenure and several years in K-12 ESOL behind me. That’s definitely a first for me in my career. AND I love being back in high school.

  • Making the bed every day (???)

We do this. We make the bed every work day. And it’s a habit I won’t ever stop because it starts the day off right.

Fear and guilt and why I read

As we near the end of 2020, this is the time I can look back and catalog in my mind my experience with reading this year. Without a doubt, a pandemic will naturally give some more time to read, and that’s what happened to me. We are not super extroverted social people in the first place, and generally do spend a lot of time at home, but a pandemic helped us solidify that more as we opted to stay inside. In addition, for the majority of the past 9.5 months, I have not had a commute, which saves not only the 50 minutes driving to and from work, but the time I spend packing a lunch, getting my bags (yes, multiple) together, et cetera.

I really went balls-to-the-wall with Sarah J. Maas’s books.

I could have chosen to do many other things with my extra time. I could have done more yoga, gone to the gym (when it was open), I could have made lavish breakfasts, learned new makeup application techniques, spent more time in my craft room. But instead, I decided to read.

When I was younger and looked at the way other members of my family devoured books, I remember thinking about how they would just spend so much time with… themselves. In a world that may or may not really exist with a story that is not true. In my mind, that was a waste of time. Why would you keep your nose in a book so often when you could do other things?

Yep, more Sarah J. Maas, and a super cozy fantasy read: Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Also see: This is the part where The Pandemic and Quarantine Began.

I think some of my motivation to not read was from guilt and fear. I felt guilty, sitting on my butt reading for hours on end. Surely there were chores to do! Things to cook! And then when I became old enough for a job, there were hours I could work. So work I did, and for probably at least 8 years of my formative years, I did not spend them reading in my spare time.

I also felt fear. The good ole FOMO existed before social media, and already I had some tenuous relationships with friends. If I didn’t pounce on an invitation to hang out, would I have said friends for long? (My tenuous relationships mainly resulted from my own actions… I was part drama queen, part Stage 5 clinger).

I could go on about how these two states of being – fear and guilt – have dominated my life since I can remember.

Blindness was a mindfuck in the best way.

So here we are. It’s the end of 2020 and I’m almost 35. I’ve read or DNF’d 62 books. My goal was 40. What happened, besides having more time?

I challenged myself with a few books from our retiring pastor’s library – Black Theology of Liberation was eye-opening.

I became motivated to read more because of a few things:

1. Numbers. I like crunching data and seeing progress. Goodreads provides a perfect place to track my reading and even get more recommendations. I forget things easily (maybe adult ADD? Who knows…) so Goodreads helps me remember a good book I saw or heard about.

2. Booktube. Yes, this year I finally bought a one-way ticket for a ride down the worm hole to Booktube. Some of my favorites are Peruse Project, Jen Campbell, Reading With Moe, and Elliot Brooks. One of the motivations for any activity that we humans have is community – not feeling left out. I love watching these women talk about the books they love, don’t love, and even about books they’ve written.

3. Conversations I have can have with others. I mentioned in an earlier post about how when you read, you have so much to talk about with other people! Even if you’re just talking about a genre that the other person doesn’t like, there’s bound to be something to connect about. Aaron and I have even opened up new conversations between us because now that I read fantasy, I know more of his “language” when it comes to books. Book clubs are fun, too!

4. Personal insight. Usually in every therapy session, my therapist asks what I’ve been reading. We talk about it, she gives me recommendations, and I’m left to think about a particular book’s influence on my life. Sometimes I surprise myself with the things that annoy me in a character, but then realize that those are also the same traits I dislike about myself. Or, I see a type of character in a new light, like a villain who had some sort of trauma that made them the way they are, and it sparks compassion. When we practice compassion or understanding with fictional characters, we can then transfer those attributes to real people in the real world.

5. Exposure to new ideas. A world where there is a magic system based on metals? (Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn) A world where the guy who is hired to kill monsters is actually the most well-adjusted character? (The Witcher) A space suit made by and for humans? (Jack Glass) A memoir that discussed the possibilities of cultivating an urban garden? (Farm City) An epic love story where a woman travels through strange stones? (Outlander) These are all new ideas that are worth pondering and exploring more, at least for me. My world is expanded, even from sitting on my couch under x blankets, wishing for a pandemic to end.

Magic Lessons.. one of the best books of 2020. I also loved Jack Glass.

I have no idea what 2021 will look like as far as reading is concerned. As demonstrated in my November reading posts, I am awful at planning what I will read besides the book club I’m in. I don’t want to the emotions of fear or guilt to spur me to read any book. I will be bringing in the new year with our local library’s winter reading challenge, which this year is accompanied by my other favorite activity – running. What’s better than that? Reading and then a run to either listen to a book or think about what I read? You decide.

Really delved into fantasy here.