I’m a mess this week

November 19, 2020

I have been a mess this week. On Monday, I accidentally deleted an assignment in Google Classroom *while* my students were working on it. On Tuesday, I left my house keys in the outside street-level gate when I got home after dark, after a staff meeting. Luckily our landlord’s son found the keys before some random person was able to take advantage of the opportunity to steal all our bikes, which are parked (but not locked) just inside the gate. Theft is rare in this city, but it has gotten sadly worse as Syrian refugees are being trafficked through Albania and abandoned here by terrible people promising them entrance to the EU (Albania is not an EU country).

But I didn’t realize I’d left the keys there until the next morning, and after a frantic search and then dashing off to school without them, I called the landlady and her son took the phone and told me he had them.

So I got them back, but Gimli was mad at me and so I felt wretched. It’s like another episode in a series of me losing things – remember the raincoat incident? All I could think about all day was what a loser I am.

When I got home yesterday afternoon I did the grocery shopping, washed the fruit, started dinner, then gave in and crashed for a 2-hour nap while Gimli finished cooking. I have been so completely and unutterably tired.

I think I’m more tired than when I was in grad school having babies. I didn’t think that was possible.

I know that fatigue is at the root of all this forgetting and losing things and making mistakes. I’m terrified of what mistake I might make next.

I realized last night that a good percentage of my fatigue could be from the dampening effect that the masks have on being able to get non-verbal student feedback during class. Seeing only their eyes dampens my ability to “read the room” and I don’t think I have been conscious of that. I think my brain is working harder to interpret facial expressions based on eyes only, and I feel a much higher degree of uncertainty about what students may be thinking/feeling when I can’t see the whole face. So I think I’m going to move class outside as often as I can, weather and tech needs permitting – especially the smaller classes where I only have 3 or 5 students. I imagine everyone is experiencing this brain-drain to some degree, I guess I just never thought much before about how much I use that facial-expression feedback during class sessions to calibrate what I’m doing.

I have a lot of students who are on the edge as well. The Covid stress is like an additional layer on top of all the other things they are dealing with – anxiety, panic attacks, perfectionism, recovering from past abuse, coming to terms with sexuality that doesn’t fit the conservative Christian mold of our school – it’s A LOT.  One week I had 3 students in crisis of various kinds. On a typical day, 8-10 students are out for quarantine if they were exposed, or isolation if they actually tested positive. Our high school student body is around 40. So basically 20-25% of the students are missing class or virtual, every day. And I’ve made some big mistakes in the past 2 weeks, misreading a student who was struggling with intense anxiety, seeing them as insolent instead of sending out an SOS.

I guess I need to extend the same grace that I do to them, to myself. It’s ok not to be ok. Look for the helpers. Learn from my mistakes.

Darkest hour and all that

November 5, 2020

It could be that election anxiety + Covid anxiety is going to help me reach my fitness goals. I’ve worked out twice this week already, needing somewhere to put all that jittery energy and calm my body with the flood of endorphins and all that – but didn’t overdo it. Yes I’m still giving in to the occasional stress eating but biking to and from school gives me such a great feeling that I haven’t spiralled down that route too much.

During breaks in the school day I find myself watching the numbers ticking in super slow motion on the electoral map and watching the bar graphs rise on the World meter Covid map for Albania and it’s such a weird mental place to be. Hope and fear and doom and anxiety.

I am thankful that I have a lot of work to do for school, so much grading and planning and the high-energy rush of teaching. I’m thankful for a healthy community at the staff level, it makes it so worth it to be working here. I’m thankful for the persimmons dropping from the tree in the schoolyard, perfect coral-orange globes of sweet fruit nestled in my hand. I’m grateful for these things that fill my days and keep me from the twittering anxiety of the doom scroll.

Peace, love, hope.

Balance

October 8, 2020

I realize that I come here to vent, and this blog becomes a repository of a lot of negativity. That means I feel freer to put aside those difficult and heavy emotions, to walk more lightly through the day, but as a record it tends to slant downward.

Today is a beautiful day. The sun is out and it feels so good on my skin. The mountains are glorious shades of blue and green, sparkling after the heavy rains of the past week.

The bike ride to school was smooth, smooth, smooth.

piled higher and deeper

October 5, 2020

I’m feeling more anxious than usual today, even though yesterday I felt quite mellow and content during our weekly Zoom chat with my in-laws. Over the weekend I processed a lot of thoughts and feelings about a couple of my students who are sending off SOS signals of different kinds, and had come to some new insights about how to help them more effectively and so was moving towards Monday with a sense of having a good plan.

But then this morning I lost my raincoat. Or, better said, last week Wednesday (I think) I lost track of my raincoat. I spent several days thinking I had left it at school but today was the first time I really needed it, and when I got to school this morning, didn’t find it where I thought it was. I have searched all over and it’s nowhere to be found. It was new, too, and a bit expensive, so I’m very unhappy with myself.

It could be at home, although I didn’t find it there either, or someone could have taken it home from school in these past days. But that thought makes me really sad because access to the building is so restricted that it would have had to have been one of the students or staff and either of those options makes me really sad.

Two teachers are out sick today, and four students, as far as I know none of them have Covid, but it means that we are stretched past the breaking point for staffing today. It’s getting so hard to deliver quality education right now and that’s bumming me out as well.

So I’m fretting about my “troubled” students, fixating on the missing raincoat, and scrambling to figure out where I can possibly pitch in to help cover for the absent teachers. The thing is, I can’t. I’m already doing all I can.

Surviving

September 25, 2020

So far, we’re surviving. I don’t know when my generalized anxiety about the world has ever felt so warranted.

One bright light in my life has been my Harry Potter and the Sacred Text virtual “local” group, the European Floo Network, that meets weekly on Zoom to take a deep dive into the HP books and use them to make meaning in our lives. Some members have had to distance themselves from anything JKR related, but most of us have found a way to engage with the texts despite the author. This past month we did a gift exchange, mailing each other packages “Secret Santa” style. I knit a light blue hat with an owl cable-stitch pattern for our moderator who, as organizer for the exchange, opted out of participating. It was very sweet how happy she was to get it, and an almost surreal moment to see this fabric that had emerged from my hands appear on the screen as she put it on.

Overall I’m just very very tired. And it’s only the fourth week of school.

Turtle Mode

September 20, 2020

I slept 10 hours last night and woke up in a fog. There is rain in the forecast for Wednesday. My plan all summer has been to send the kids in a taxi to school on rainy days, because according to my calculations we’ll still recoup the cost of the bikes even if we only use them 60 days this school year.

My husband, it turns out, has other ideas. We coordinate with two other families for getting to school. One family walks, the other bikes. Because of work schedules, Gimli and I have picked up most of the accompaniment duties. I take Oz and go with the bikers, he takes Illyria and goes with the walkers in the a.m. One of the other moms picks up the walkers in the afternoon. They do take a bus part of the way back; it’s not too full mid-afternoon coming into the center of town, so I’ve been ok with it.

Gimli says it’s flaunting our somewhat higher income if we send our kids to school in a taxi when the other families walk and bike even in the rain. So we had a big fight about it this morning and I retired to my bed in tears.

Really, though, for me, it’s about fear. My boy has been biking with me and two other kids, but I don’t want him biking in the rain. I am overwhelmed with terror just to think about it.

On Friday, our schedules are weird and it was awkward to coordinate between bikers and walkers, and so one kid who normally bikes with me ended up coming home with the walkers. I was re-organizing all the schedules in the middle of the school day and it slipped my mind that a) the walkers take the bus part of the way home, and b) the mom of the bikers is adamantly opposed to using the bus due to the risk of Covid. I’m sorry if this is confusing. All these logistics are confusing to me too. Anyway, the mom was livid when she found out her kid had been on the bus.

We worked it out but I still feel wretched. Same kid fell off the bike one day last week and face-planted on the asphalt. No serious injury but it ratcheted up my anxiety and I also felt wretched about that too. The responsibility for other people’s kids is wearing on me a lot.

When I think of my kids taking the taxi, I just feel this sense of relief. It feels like they’re safe there. For that mile and a half to school, for the duration of those 15 minutes in a cushioned seat, peering out like turtles from a shell, they are safe.

I know that’s not entirely true. I know accidents happen and nothing is ever truly safe. But I don’t worry about them, for those 15 minutes. I don’t worry.

What day is it?

September 17, 2020

Oh dear; I wrote on the 11th that “School starts in person tomorrow,” but what I meant was Monday the 14th. Not Saturday the 12th.

On Wednesday (yesterday?) I wrote in an email that “we are in our first week of in-person school,” then I thought no, it must be longer than that. Deleted “first” and wrote in “second.” Then thought again no, yesterday was Tuesday and that was our second day biking. So no, first week. Third day. It felt like a month.

All the news is overwhelming. And it’s here, too, in this tiny little country, which is considered such a backwater by Europe that it’s where Voldemort fled to hide after failing to kill Harry. Two nights ago the smell of wood smoke filled the air, and we went out on our balcony after dark to see the fires burning on the mountains above the city. We came back inside to hear a booming sound, then read in the news the next day that a car bomb had detonated a block from where my son’s best friend lives.

I grew up in a country plagued by car bombs, although that was political; this is mafia business. I want to move to New Zealand.

Til We Have Faces

September 11, 2020

School starts in person tomorrow, face to face, for our school and all Albanian public schools. Some private school have been operating already, and the Ministry of Education has given all of us strict guidelines for distancing, masking, and screening which we have been rehearsing and building into school structures and policies diligently for the past two weeks.

I see the admin at our school, and help them as much as I can; I am glad not to be in that position myself but I know what it feels like. This current situation reminds me acutely of our time in Colombia: the constant daily cycles of risk assessment and mitigation, looking after a diverse and dispersed international team, the constantly changing parameters and contingencies shifting all the time. As an international community, the crises multiply and become layered as we all watch our passport countries from afar and the sense of helplessness increases.

We feel responsible for things that are beyond our control.

Signs, measuring tape, e-mails, touchless thermometers, a proliferation of hand sanitizer. Battling traffic that is already crazy on the way to school. At the end of class yesterday, checking for understanding, but they only had questions:

“Is it true that we aren’t going to be allowed to eat at school?”

“Not indoors. Only outside.”

“What if someone faints from wearing a mask?”

“Then the teacher will administer first aid, and take you to the front porch, which counts as outdoors, to lie down.”

It’s my job now to have the answers to these questions. We just have no way to know what is actually going to happen this year. We never have, we just thought we did.

***

ETA – I thought I was fine, excited and happy even, but now that it’s about to be real I am scared spitless. Irrationally, unmistakably terrified.

School is underway

September 2, 2020

We have begun school online this year, with a plan to switch to face-to-face on September 14 – the same day that Albanian schools will launch. All summer, I watched workmen refreshing the paint on the school building next to our house (a “Nëntvjeçare,” or 9-year school which is the basic guaranteed education level in Albania). It’s an old building, known as “The Red School,” because of the color – not necessarily any Communist affiliation although that would have been a given at the time when the school was built. Anyway, I figured when I saw them sprucing it up that the plan would be to return to school face to face in the fall.

I just deleted a long explanation about ministry of education requirements in Albania because I was even boring myself! The long and short of it is that this is where I am right now – in an empty second-floor classroom, facing an open window and maskless. The day is warm, but not as scorching as it has been this past month. I can see a glimpse of the mountains out the window. The chairs and desks behind me are spaced a careful 1.5 m apart, but there isn’t quite enough space for the teacher to stand at the front a full 2m from the nearest student, so we are going to have to do something about that before the 14th. This morning I taught two 90-minute classes online. A few of my colleagues are in the other part of the building, but most are teaching from home. Still there is coffee in the pot and the requisite temp check and screening every morning when we come in.

So I’m hoping to find the odd hour here or there to work on my passion projects, the memoir (now conceptualized as auto-ethnography) and a fantasy story for young readers.

Meanwhile, we are severely short-handed as an admin staff member had to leave the country for a non-COVID medical emergency and we’re scrambling to redistribute his workload among those of us here. It looks like I’ll be picking up Student Council advising and a few more study halls and lunch duty supervision days… but what the heck. At least today I have time to write.

 

 

Thoughts on a Writing Retreat

August 23, 2020

It was while we were discussing Perenelle Flamel in my virtual local Harry Potter book club that I made the decision: “In August,” I vowed in the chat, “I am going to take a 3-day writing retreat ALONE somewhere in Albania that I’ve always wanted to go.”

And I did it. The act of telling someone I was going to do it was enough to actually nudge me into making it a reality. The stars aligned. I was sitting with my husband after breakfast on day talking about his work when I realized that after Wednesday the following week, he would be off work, and we would not be hosting any playdates at our house. I would be free to go…

It was thrilling, scouting AirBnB options with good writing spaces, scrutinizing the photos of apartment interiors to see which had dining tables near windows and were located on quiet streets.

I decided not to leave the city, because we don’t have a car and I didn’t want to deal with transportation. I booked a place across town with a spacious area for writing. Just two nights – leaving Thursday afternoon, returning Saturday mid-day.

As it happened, I spent most of that time working through an online training on using the Google platform as a learning management system for virtual school (very useful, I recommend it). But the sheer happiness I felt being on my own, alone, responsible only for myself, was thrilling. I knit, I watched a movie (Mr. Jones, which I also recommend), I cooked what I wanted to eat for myself, I worked out in the room. It was fantastic.

I wrote half of a short story – ethnographic fiction, if you will.

I couldn’t wait to do it again.

I also started working with a coach this summer, someone I knew (vaguely) from my childhood in Peru whom I reconnected with while working on this book project. One thing I have figured out in adulthood is that when I need help, I usually have a pretty good sense of whom to go to. Kathi has been a fantastic help. With her support, I figured out that the next step was to do another writing retreat – and to do it in a structured way, with accountability built in. So I signed up for Lisa Munro’s Inspired writing retreat, which happened yesterday.

Here’s a bit of a review, comparing and contrasting the two retreats.

  1. Time. The intensive one-day writing retreat provided a great structure for writing, but the longer one I did on my own felt better to me in terms of pacing. I really valued the down-time alone, and I think if I do this one-day intensive again I will nest it inside a longer solo retreat where I do more thinking and planning beforehand, and also have time afterwards (like I am doing today) for writing all the things I think about after the structured part of the writing is over. Ride the wave a bit, if you will. Because of time zone differences, I had most of the day Saturday to do Saturday stuff at home, and then came here in the afternoon. The workshop ran from 5:00-11:00 p.m. and I was pretty sleepy by the end, so maybe even cutting out early and then picking up again in the morning would work better for me.
  2. Space. I’ve used two different AirBnBs now, and have had good experiences both times. Both have been quiet, clean, and had good writing vibes. The cheaper one was farther away, but bigger. But both have been good.
  3. Supplies. Based on the first experience, I brought a few things I didn’t need to this one, but also neglected to bring one significant essential the second time (coffee). But what I will always pack are:
    1. Mosquito repellent
    2. Eye mask
    3. Workout clothes
    4. Knitting
    5. Earplugs
    6. COFFEE (we drink instant these days)

A further note about the coffee – Albanians drink A LOT of coffee, but it’s an entirely social event. You drink coffee in cafes, usually macchiatos or espresso shots; you spend two hours sipping from one tiny cup sometimes. But people don’t necessarily drink coffee with (or in lieu of) breakfast as many in the US do. Drip coffee is very nearly unheard of; it’s either espresso-based or instant powder. At the school where I teach, there are so many American staff that a drip coffee maker has been installed in the staff room, but it is vile. I drink it anyway.

And finally, I’ve decided (again) to start blogging again. I think I have a bigger sense of purpose now, than just blogging for the sake of blogging. I’ll say more about that later.

Structure and accountability. And coffee.