This Old Pond

February 27, 2022

Last night I couldn’t sleep; the old pond of my mind kept kicking up detritus and sediment to swirl murkily under the serene surface of lily pads and lotus. I remembered a story a friend told me years ago, when we were in college together in the upper Midwest. He said that when he was a teenager, growing up in the Philippines, he joined a local dojo to learn a martial art – I don’t remember which one. His teacher would sit on him, grinding one elbow into his chest until my friend had a permanent bruise over his breastbone, a tender and painful spot that he learned to reflexively defend. That was precisely the purpose of this injury, this bodily harm – so that the boy would never let anyone get near that spot, would react at lightning speed to knock away approaching blows.

This past week, rough footsteps stomped through the shallows of my mental pond, boys playing, for the most part, in their own ignorance, grappling to understand the world we share and where our perspectives so many times to not match. But their rough and ignorant words upset me.

Later in the week, though, telling my sister all about it, I cried for the first time over the tremendous grief their words gave me, stirring up old hurts. I realised in that moment, not for the first time, how much I intellectualise my sorrows and old wounds, partly trying to understand and partly trying not to feel because feelings are overwhelming. And all day Friday tears kept coming, over inconsequential things. That tender and painful spot over my heart – any small bump, the lightest touch making me flinch.

For example. A friend laughed because her husband wore yellow leather shoes one day – “You canNOT wear those here” in Tirana, where dandies are not welcome, apparently. This made me cry.

Example Two. In a meeting with our director about school policies on internet use. I slammed my laptop shut and shouted that she was constructing a straw man argument to mock my position (which would grant students more autonomy, whereas she was pushing for more control and oversight). It was a clear overreaction; the other person at the meeting, my immediate supervisor, said later, sympathetically, “it’s hard not to react when it’s an issue you really care about.” “Yeah,” I said, “I guess, but do I really care that much about critical thinking? It’s just been an emotional week.”

Here’s the thing. I teach at an evangelical Christian school, where the dominant discourse is that if something is “Christian” it is automatically excellent. I grew up with a form of Christianity that ground a permanent bruise into my heart. My reflective implicit assumption is that if it is Christian (hashtag not all Christians, I really mean evangelical) it will hurt me. I spend a good part of every day deflecting what I perceive to be incoming blows to the chest, even from students – and they are children! – mostly by keeping silent on any number of issues and conversations. It’s been better this year, working under a direct supervisor whom I like and trust. But it still wears me down.

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Scattered

December 7, 2021

I’m feeling quite scattered this morning; thinking about now, and yesterday, and next year, and this week, and Christmas – it’s just too much. I don’t know where to start in on my work today.

Maybe I just need to make a list.

Mine and not mine

March 22, 2021

There are moments when I feel choked by grief; grief that is not mine except in the way that it is everyone’s grief, the grief of our collective humanity. Other people’s losses become mine as well and I wish my boundaries were not so permeable.

I have a yoga practice that is helping me to let it go.

How Far Can My Compassion For My Past Self Go?

February 25, 2021

I’m thinking about my writing projects – more than I’m actually writing – but at least it now feels possible to write, as opposed to the final months of 2020 when it certainly didn’t.

I’m very stuck with my memoir project. The roadblocks and barriers loom large. What I don’t want it to be is much clearer than what I do want it to be.

When I broke up with my very serious (too serious) HS boyfriend, I kept all the letters and mix tapes and T-shirts and jewellery for a few years, until after I graduated from college. Our relationship was long-distance, for years. I was 14 when we started “going together” and 19 when I told him over the phone that I didn’t want to marry him, so we shouldn’t be together anymore. He was about to graduate from college and move to where I was to start a graduate program at my college. I broke up with him when I realized I didn’t want him to come.

But I had all these letters. Notebooks, actually. We were on separate continents, so we wrote our letters into notebooks and mailed them every time one was filled. I wrote about three times as much as he did. I kept them in a box but when I had graduated and was about to move to Bolivia, I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I wrote and asked if he wanted them back, but he never responded. I tried to read them, thinking that I could learn something from revisiting the past. It was too hard. My dad seemed to think I should get rid of these things, just detritus, so I buried the box under an apple tree on my grandfather’s farm where I was living that summer.

I regretted it later, I still regret it. Some years later, when he’d been married to a very nice girl for several years, and I was still single, he wrote me and said he still had all the notebooks that I had sent him and did I want them back? And I kind of did, but also I didn’t. And since I didn’t have his notebooks anymore, I couldn’t offer an exchange.

I know there was art and poetry and recorded music in that box, which has I am sure disintegrated under what is now a corn field. Even though it was no longer valuable to me, and I have no desire to retrieve it, I think it probably had value to him, and compounds the loss of our relationship.

As I began to delve into memory two years ago, began to interview with classmates I hadn’t spoken to in a quarter century, I found so many gaps in my memory. Blank spaces where they recalled significant events – like the time one of my classmates drove his motorcycle to school past an unknown person who had recently died, left by the side of the road, likely by guerrillas – and when I talked with my ex-boyfriend, he remembered me writing to him about this at the time, but hearing the retelling now pinged no memory for me, now, zero, nothing, just a blank where the telling and retelling of it used to occupy some space in my neural network.

What else is missing? What could I have written in those notebooks as a teenager – so earnest, so pious, so full of angst – that I no longer have access to now?

My rationalization before, when I buried his notebooks and refused my own, was that whatever was meaningful and significant in our relationship was already inscribed in me, had already shaped me, and so it was ok to let go of these material artifacts.

When I re-read my college journals, which I have kept, it’s non-stop cringe. I was obsessively focused on another boy, on earning his love, on mastering and disciplining my yearning for him which I failed again and again to understand. I fear that re-reading those high school artifacts would be more of the same. I have great compassion now for that girl that I was, and I understand her better from the vantage point of now. She was a child.

So this is one of my mental blocks. How do I reckon with the loss of my written record of those years? With my destruction of my ex-boyfriend’s gifts? Can I forgive myself for burying that box under the apple tree? Can I forgive myself for breaking his heart? Can I forgive myself for staying in a stupid relationship for that long? How far can my compassion for my past self go?

Unexpected

February 12, 2021

On Wednesday afternoon, the Prime Minister announced via Facebook that all high schools (grades 10-12) would be going online, starting the following day. So, whiplash again.

This has meant an unexpectedly quiet work space, even though our 9th graders are still here, happily bouncing around the warmer side of the building complex (which also has better wifi, bonus!)

This also means that, even though I still have to trudge to and from school every day, I have only a fraction of the study hall, morning check-in, and lunch duties as before and I’m so happy.

This also means that this afternoon I have an unexpected space of 3 hours to do whatever I feel like it.

I’ll be sitting here by the space heater, writing.

Grief

January 31, 2021

This month, two of our friends have died from Covid. Both dads my husband’s age. We live so far away that it hardly seems really, but as we slowly absorb this knowledge the grief slowly rises.

And with it, the fear – the feeling of death encroaching.

A million years ago in another century, another lifetime, a friend and colleague of mine died in a bus accident and I remember her husband saying at the memorial service “cover your loved ones in death,” because that will cause you to live your love for them, daily. To be present to their presence. Listen to their beating hearts and love them.

Self-Assessment

January 14, 2021

I think that overall I’m doing better – I’m more cheerful and less tired – since I have started doing two things: journaling and yoga/meditation before bed, (20-30 minutes, I think) and staying hydrated throughout the day. I’m working on a system to actually track these things but it’s made enough of a difference that my husband has noticed.

My journal entries have a structure now, too: I write down two things that gave me joy that day, one thing I want to leave behind, a blessing for someone who is on my mind, and finally an intention for the next day. I’ve observed more follow-through on specific intentions, like “call the dentist” than general hard-to-measure ones, like “less Twitter.” I know intentions are supposed to be more like “seek contentment” or something but this is what is working for me.

I’ve been mulling over what my theme should be for this year. Several people have mentioned that that works better for them than specific resolutions. I’m leaning towards something like “contemplation” (as I biked to school today, the snow-dusted mountains inspired this feeling).

There are so many things going on right now in the world and in my immediate sphere of influence that could just derail any serenity I have not, but despite everything, I feel more serenity now than I did in the final weeks of 2021.

Resolute

January 5, 2021

“I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.” ~ The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

This past fall, in my English 10 class we read The Old Man And the Sea. It was better than I remembered, having read it some 30 years ago in high school myself. The lesson plans I followed the old man’s quality of endurance and resolution.

My husband read something about resolutions that stick – apparently people are more likely to keep resolutions of two kinds: resolutions to do something you enjoy anyway, and resolutions that reflect personal aspirations – “I want to be the kind of person who [fill in the blank].”

If I think about it that way, I can find a focus for my resolve. I want to write more this year, and I want to be the kind of person who practices yoga every day.

I found a bedtime routine that I like and it’s become something I look forward to.

A Meditative Moment

December 31, 2020

It’s been… quite a year.

My husband thinks I’m experiencing some degree of secondary trauma, which seems plausible to me.

Aside from the pandemic, and the constant low-grade anxiety that produces, in July I accompanied my friend through her family getting violently evicted from their home of 30 years. I have been accompanying a student who is experiencing pretty acute mental health crises on a regular basis, who came out to me as trans this fall, in a school and family context that is pretty hostile to LGBTQ identities. All year long I have been emotionally supporting another friend through a trans-continental move and divorce. And then there’s the shared collective trauma in my passport country due to an autocratic and abusive head of state, the whole election season was incredibly traumatic – and we’re still not out of the woods there yet.

Yeah, it’s a lot to carry.

My one new year’s resolution this year is less Twitter, more meditation. I’m running on empty and staring down the barrel of the second semester, wondering how I’ll survive mentally and emotionally. I mean, I’m functioning, and doing pretty well all things considered, but as soon as school got out for the holidays I pretty much collapsed. This week I started working on stuff for January and after a couple of hours I just have to take a nap. So, energy is kind of bottomed out.

I spend and spend and spend myself, so I have to find more ways and means to recharge.

How are you doing?

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.