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.
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.
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.
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.
I am a scaredy cat. I may not look like it on the outside, but my mantra basically my whole life has been, “Fake it until you make it.” Through school. Through college. Through job after job. I reach higher ground and I’m still telling myself to fake it until I make it.
Except I have made it, in a lot of ways. I am it. I’m doing it, being it. And slowly as I get older I’m finally owning all the its.
I am a leader. I do have expertise. I get things done. I do hard things. And it’s been too long that I’ve been thinking I’ve been faking it to get here.
That’s what my doubt wants to tell me, that I don’t deserve to be this far or have accolades for doing hard things. Doubt wants to make me think that I’ve gotten here purely on luck, because the right door opened at the right time. That’s true, but only some of the time. In reality if you look back at the security cameras, this girl was the one actually opening the doors and not faking a damn thing.
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.
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.
The “Write” button at the top right freaks me out every time. I don’t know how it’s different than picking up a pen and writing on paper. But let’s be honest: that freaks me out too.
For years and years before the advent of blogging (people know that this word originally came from web + log, right?) I used a pen, any color, though it drove me crazy to not have the same color, and a notebook to write my thoughts before bed. I had the same routine. I spent a lot of time writing. Now, since typing on a laptop is so much faster, I have eschewed analog writing.
I think for years I’ve actually been fighting the urge to write every night, or most nights. Things were simpler and less complicated when it was just me, Elizabeth, in my room with my music and my lamp and my stuffed animals. I didn’t answer to anyone (in those moments anyway). I wrote whatever I felt like writing, and often with damn good vocabulary.
Now as a thirty-something contributor to society I tamp down the urge to pour out my thoughts and feelings for eight hours a day. Then, when I come home from this thing that takes up eight hours of my day, I still have other adult-ish things to do and I further tamp down my thoughts. Then I spend time on this stupid thing called the Internet and I can just feel my subconscious screaming to be let up from the silence.
So then, my friends, after working out and making dinner and cleaning up and walking the dog my mind finally takes a huge breath and starts talking.
And here I am, on my bed (husband is downstairs, “Just 10 more minutes on ______”), window open, fan on, warm nonalcoholic drink on my bedside bookshelf, typing away while my brain works out the kinks not just from today but my whole damn life it seems.
A couple weeks ago I found my journal from literally 20 years ago. Ok, found isn’t true. That’s a lie. I knew where it was. I keep all my journals close. So I knew where it was, and I finally thought I’d had enough therapy to delve into my old journals to see what 13-year-old Elizabeth was up to.
Holy mother of everything, my friends, huge newsflash here: Elizabeth is still Elizabeth, and she always has been Elizabeth. She still is a hopeless romantic disguising herself as an apathetic wannabe emo. She still uses words like superfluous and reiterate in normal conversations. She still judges people for not using fancy words like the above in normal conversations. She still loves God and wants the approval of her friends and her mother. Elizabeth is still Elizabeth. Elizabeth is still me.
Upon encountering this 20-year-old discovery, I felt… comfort. I felt like myself. I felt like all the shit I’ve been through in the past few years might have done me in in some ways, but I’m still me. The skeleton and muscles are still intact. I am still myself after all these years.
I think we’re all under the illusion of two things: either that we can’t change at all, or that we could never go back to being the person we once were. I think both are true all the time.
As I embark on the next 20 years, I hearken back to these words, from myself, nearly 20 years ago:
Sunday, December 12, 1999
Okay. Brand-new journal. Crisp, fresh, “acid-free” paper. Bold black pen. This is how it starts. Excitement and anticipation build. Then long forgotten periods of neglect. But not this time…
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.
I had convinced myself that I really loved reading. That I was a voracious bookworm, just itching at every chance to read whatever book had a sad-looking folded up bookmark in the pages. I convinced myself that dog-earing a page in a book was a travesty, and that turning the page not from the bottom corner was senseless mutilation.
I realized only a few years ago that I’d convinced myself of lots of lies about books. I was in love with the idea of reading, curling up on the couch with a blanket and beverage, and just getting lost in the pages. I saw myself in a sunlit room encapsulated by smartly stocked bookshelves with books just waiting to jump off the shelves and land in my lap.
How deceived I was.
The problem was that I lacked an internal motivation to read. Sure, it looked great when I logged “Read” on my Goodreads (one of the best apps in my opinion, btw). Wow, I started a book that was at least 300 pages on December 20 and finished it on December 22? Go me. You love to read.
It wasn’t until I was reading some wisdom from writer Rosie Leizrowice that I realized what my internal motivation could be. Forgive me because even after perusing some of her essays I cannot find the exact quote, but she wrote something about how we take a piece of each book we read with us. Books form us, they color the world we see. And I say, the reason we’re drawn to books is because the story has us as the star.
Once I realized that and started to believe it, I really got down with some books on my couch. Over my winter break I read no fewer than 4 books. Four books in 12 days for me is no small feat. That means, folks, that I actually had to be focused on something for a lot period of time. Something that I had to make come alive in my head, put a voice to.
Once I realized that my squirrelly mind could be occupied by a book long after I finished it, I began (again) to like to read. Now that I understand that my life can be informed and transformed by what I read, it’s interesting to me (again). And dare I, the nonfiction lover of all time, say that I even see a purpose in reading fiction.
To be truthful, I did have a bit of external motivation for my little tryst over winter break. I wanted a damn coffee mug from the library for completing the winter challenge. Committing to the challenge hearkened back to summers spent riding my bike to and from the library to check out books, most of which I actually wanted nothing to do with, and fill up lines on a piece of paper for a small prize.
Still in the dead of winter, I sit on my couch with my blanket and (new!) mug, actually reading because I want to. Imagine.
I always wondered why when I went to my grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ houses, it was quiet. It was quiet except for the hourly tone of the clock. It was quiet except for the shuffle of a newspaper or drip-drip-drip of the coffee pot. It was unnerving, really, and kind of annoying.
Now, knowing that I will never sit in their company like that, at their houses, in silence except for our conversation, again, I grieve the silence.
I find that now I do it myself. I get caught up in some mundane task at home like cutting vegetables or writing on this blog (less mundane than cutting vegetables) or folding laundry, and before I know it, it’s been hours since music or TV has permeated the air with sound waves.
It’s funny how all of a sudden you can look around and realize that you’re an adult. Maybe that’s why the silence of my forefathers’ (and mothers’) houses bothered me… because they were at a point in their lives I could not imagine. It felt so far away.
Now after years of input – welcome and not – it’s nice to just sit in silence. It helps me process life and all that comes with it. To think of new ideas. To recall memories. To grieve. I wonder what they thought about in their silence.