When February hits.

Today, I said these words to one of my classes:

I cannot care about your education more than you do. Not anymore. I cannot carry your education–all 25 of you in this class–on my back while you bear none of the load. It is exhausting. You have to care just a little bit. You have to start carrying some of the care, too, some of the work. I’m glad I scheduled work for you to do independently because I’m not sure I want to stand up here in front of you anymore today.

Melodramatic, perhaps, but here we are. I said it, quietly and calmly, in my squeaky, nasally, congested teacher voice, emphatic hand gestures and all. And I meant it. I truly am quite tired–tired of feeling and caring and carrying so much. Not that I’m going to stop. But the fatigue is undoubtedly there.

I have all these grand ideas about teaching kids. I have these expansive conceptual plans, these statements of inquiry, these activities and some differentiation and intentional scaffolding. The students will learn how to analyze literature, and they will write with impeccable grammar, and when I teach them, they will be inspired to love learning, and–and yet, on the daily, I am met with the reality of my job. 20-30 students. And their stories. And their struggles. And their sufficiencies and inadequacies, confusion, fatigue. And their fears and doubts and apathy and angst. And I’m just me.

I have all these grand ideas about the kind of wife I want to be. The kind of friend. The kind of daughter. The kind of Jesus-follower. The kind of writer. Reader. Homemaker. Artist. And lately I’ve been feeling the heavy weight of just in, “I’m just me.”

Just me. I am just me. I am not any of the things that I wish I could be–the ever present, ever reliable, social and outgoing, giving and generous friend. The present and giving, supportive and selfless wife. The dedicated lover of art and the written word. The writer of words that expresses herself in meaningful, redemptive ways. The Christ-follower that champions truth and justice and mercy and grace and meets needs.

And don’t even get me started on teaching.

(I’m told we all feel like shitty teachers for the first few years; great. I have a long few years ahead of me, I guess.)

I feel so utterly inadequate to meet their needs in the way I feel called to, in the way I need to. How can I  give them the education they will need when I hardly know how to plan my lessons or curriculum? Do I have the brain power and knowledge it takes to teach them well, the social energy to get to know them, the emotional capacity to love them? When they move on to senior year or junior year, what the hell will they have learned from me? Do I have what it takes to be the teacher I want and need to be?

Yes? I mean, I surely hope so. I care, so maybe that’s enough for year one.

But they get to me from time to time–the students, I mean. I don’t let them see it, but I’ve been hurt by them before. And I get angry with them. Their incessant phone use irks me to no end, and the the way they flippantly ignore their work, the way they interrupt me or ignore me baffles me. Beyond that, I fall short in so many ways, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m failing them; I don’t grade their work expediently because I spend most of my time planning what I’m going to teach them that I don’t have the time I need to grade what they turn in to me. I don’t communicate as clearly as I would like. I’m inconsistent in enforcing classroom norms and policies. I’m not strict enough with behavior, but maybe I grade too hard. I’m too much this, too little that. To be honest, I’m not sure this paragraph will ever end; I think I could write a novel cataloging my type and severity all of the insufficiencies that plague my perfectionist mind.

Eh, it is what it is, and truth be told, I know this disillusionment and depression will pass, but it sucks when it’s here. I’m stuck here for a bit, and I just have to ride the wave. I knew teaching would do this to me; it’s one of the reasons I hesitated entering the profession for as long as I did. Can my mental health handle this? Am I mentally strong enough, despite the anxiety, despite the depression, to push through the inevitable triggering of emotions and still be a good teacher and more importantly, a healthy person? A friend? A present wife? And in the future, a loving and mindful mother?

I caught the respiratory bug that’s going around, so I was out on Monday. It was the head-cold, sure, but it was also the crippling depression and heavy anxiety that left me falling in and out of crying spells–the blinding, meandering kind that never really truly resolve but just sort of… Halt. It was like I was wringing myself out. A long, painful process that was cathartic and clarifying and much needed.

“It’s February,” I’m told. “The students look miserable, but it’s not because of you,” I’m told. “Don’t take it personally.”

Harumph. “Oh, I’ll try not to,” I say, knowing full well how that will probably go. (Cue eye roll here.) Sometimes I think my depression and anxiety make the “not taking things personally” stuff a bit harder for me–not to mention my personality (perfectionist, people-pleaser, peace-keeper, high-achiever, obsessive, sensitive…)

I told Nick once after a particularly depressive and anxious day of teaching, “I feel like this career makes more sense for someone without depression and anxiety. Teaching would be just a bit easier if I wasn’t weighed down by my own mental shit.”

Nick laughed. “Pretty sure everything in your life would be a bit easier for you if you weren’t weighed down by your own mental shit.”

I found it oddly comforting, really. In a way, it was an acknowledgement of the day-in and day-out battles I fight against myself and my own mind–of no true fault of my own. And it was also a challenge for me to accept, like he was saying, “Yeah, but what good are ‘easier’ things? They don’t make you stronger, and you’re gonna be tough as nails after this!”

Tough as nails, maybe, but not indestructible. But truth is, I’m never going to the completely unflappable, impenetratable, indomitable woman that is unaffected or unperturbed by the pressures around her, no matter how much I try to posture as such or how much I want to be. I’m simply not. And part of me is really bugged by that. My job is going to inevitably affect me in big ways.

But maybe there is a strength in being affected and allowing yourself to heal from that affection. And maybe, when February hits, you let it do its worst, but you come back swinging whenever you can.

(But really, though, when is spring break?)

journal entry | sleep.

I haven’t been sleeping.

Oh, this happens from time to time, but my familiarity with it doesn’t make me any less frustrated when it shows up. I’m sure it’s stress, I’m sure it’s anxiety, I’m sure it’s depression, I’m sure it’s the pain in my muscles and joints, I’m sure it doesn’t really matter what it is because I just miss sleeping.

Nevertheless, here is where I am, and here is where I’ll stay until the loop closes itself up and I’m back to the part of the cycle where I sleep a bit better, where I’m in a bit less pain. Or maybe this loop will never close up again. I don’t know. I’m always wondering if this will be the time when the loop never closes back up, the time when it is no longer a cycle of pain and flared unhealth but a consistency of it. I don’t know. I just don’t. There’s so much I don’t know.

And the questions I have don’t have answers. Perhaps I need to get used to it. But: I want so much more than a month or so of feeling good. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. But maybe it is. Maybe I’m presumptuous. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely.

I am. Maybe I should ask what that point is and actually listen for the answer. I ask all these questions about my future, my health, my life, my body, my mind. Me. Me, myself, and I.

Or maybe the point is that there is none. Sometimes things just are or are not, just exist or do not exist, happen or do not happen, heal or do not heal.

It’s logical, but sad and wrong, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well. It’s so easy to close in on yourself, to lock up. To say no to going out, to say no to community and friendship even. It is easy to say no to letting people in, to letting them see you and know you. And it’s hard to stop smiling and laughing and maybe let them see you cry, and it’s exhausting to step outside of yourself, to forget about the pain you feel so intimately and truly and persistently and to wear someone else’s pain.

I’m reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and in it, she says,

“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”

Bad things have happened to people I love. Of course! And I have felt for them. With them, even. I know how hard it is to love someone who is in constant pain. I know how difficult it is to see them walk like there’s broken glass underfoot, like there are brambles woven into their skeleton, like their muscles are made of rusted iron, like their mind is made of different stuff.

I’m also afraid sometimes, late at night when I’m trying to sleep or perhaps early in the morning when I wonder if the day will be better or worse than yesterday, that I know how difficult it is to experience those things firsthand. So I often I wonder if, when I see them if I am seeing my future. I wonder, is this how my loved ones will feel when they see me? I wonder, is this how my feet will move, my mind will churn, my hands will swell, my body will burn? And I wonder, is this how my children will look at me and wonder?

Perhaps the point is, since I know how hard it is to love someone in pain–or rather, or and, how hard it is to see a loved one in pain–

I am afraid to be the one in pain that is hard to love, the one whose pain pains others. I’m afraid to be sick and to be loved in all the ways that might be shown because I know. Because out of all the things I do not know, there is one measly sad truth that I do know: I know what it’s like on both ends, and it is work.

Maybe I’ve swallowed the empathy I feel toward them and made it about me again. Maybe I’m not really wearing their pain to share in their suffering but to process my own personal baggage. Probably the latter. It happens involuntarily. I don’t try to make their suffering about me, I swear. But it’s easier to imagine myself wearing their pain than it is to process what I see when they wear it. Let’s see, does this joint pain justify my sleeplessness? And this depression–does it match my inability to get out of bed in the morning or have consistent, intentional conversation with the people I care about? What of this fatigue? Does it work with the general malaise I already have? How would I wear this out to the store? To church? With my future children?

Me, myself, and I. Is that empathy? Or is it projection? Or even worse, is it a hijacking of their hurt? A filibuster to reframe and revert their experience?

Leslie Jamison also writes,

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”

Maybe trying their pain is not empathy. Maybe wondering about my future with their pain is not empathy; maybe it’s burglary. But this burglary of experience feels sensical to me as I live with earlier versions of it. If I am well on my way to sharing the experiences anyway, why not try them on for size first, see how things feel, acclimate myself to the textures and structures? It’s logical.

Logical–but that doesn’t necessarily mean good or right or kind or loving.

It’s logical, but sad, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well.

I spend much of my time self-preserving. It makes sense that I would preserve emotional stasis.

Logical, but sad, and not always good or right or kind of loving.

Mom tells me that I turn into Spock when my emotions threaten to overtake me. Yes. I do. It’s only logical. It only makes sense to resist that which exhausts or empties us.

But not always good or right or kind or loving. I’m still learning what it looks like to take care of myself and also take care of others. To fill my cup but also let it spill over. To surrender to the intense need to retreat from time to time but eventually remember to put myself back out there. To need a good friend while also being a good friend.

To go to sleep at night but be willing to wake up in the middle of the night, pack my bags, and leave my worst self for my better. And then maybe go back to sleep.

But the problem is, I haven’t been sleeping in the first place.

journal entry | there is no calm before the storm.

Last night, in what must have been a preemptive effort, I made a list, as I often do when I can’t slow my mind down.

“I feel so restless,” I told Nick as I opened up the Notes app on my phone, furiously adding tasks to my to-do list. He didn’t reply; I’m not sure what I expect him to say–but he rubbed my back and kissed my forehead, which is more of a cure than anything else I’ve tried.

What really happens is that, as I make these lists, I tell myself that I will feel better if I can be productive enough. That the more I achieve and accomplish, the more okay I will be.

(Which is a lie, of course. It’s a non sequitur.)

The anxiety is gnawing at my insides today. It’s in that respect that last night’s list was preemptive because I know by now that a night of restlessness is generally followed by a day of pit-in-the-stomach anxiety for me; it was my best effort to make an inevitable morning less damning. It’s like what happens before a hurricane hits–you throw some sandbags on top of one another, you fortify and support this and that, you stock up on food and necessities. But then you must wait and see what kind of storm will hit.

My lists are my sandbags, my boarded up windows, my stockpile of non-perishables. They don’t prevent the storm from hitting–hell, they might not even prevent the wind and water from creeping in–but at least I’m somewhat ready when it does.

I woke up with the familiar feeling of fear and unease that was so faintly foretold, but I did my best to go about my day anyway.

Let the dog out. Shower. Brush my teeth. Drink tea. Turn on music. Try to eat some breakfast. I even crossed off some of the tasks on my to-do list before suddenly collapsing on the couch, heavy and frustrated, eyes blinking back tears. Here it comes.

That’s when all I can do is lean into it and wait for it to pass.

I can feel it all hitting me–the jagged fear, the blinding uncertainty, the queasy churning of my stomach, the intermittency of tears and sadness–and I am overcome with a need to prove myself to myself, to interrupt these feelings of inadequacy and anxiety with evidence that I am measurably capable of accomplishing something. Anything.

It’s all a lie, really. Crossing things off my to-do list feels good, sure. I feel accomplished, productive; the perfectionist in me is quelled for a time. But all I’ve done is bury the fear with some sort of temporary anxiety-analgesic. The storm will still hit; I will still have to feel it.

There are times when I am full of fear and singed with self-doubt, and there is not much method to the madness other than that. So I make methods of my own.

Step 1: I turn up the music a bit louder, and I let the beat of drums or the thump of the bass, the tightness of harmonies and the strumming and plucking of strings recalibrate my insides.

Step 2: I check off some of the tasks on my to-do list, establishing some sort of rhythm and structure of my own for my body and mind to follow.

Step 3: I also stop and sit, searching for any sort of quiet or simplicity to affix myself to, to observe, to appreciate.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 as needed.

It’s not a cure; I’m learning nothing is. But it’s something, and something is better than nothing.

 

a journal entry. | it’s not you.

It’s not you. It’s me.

I want to be consistent. Really.

I want to wake up when my alarm goes off and greet the morning like the abundant blessing it is. Really.

I want to show up to work early. I have plans to do so. Really.

I want to keep the promises I make to you, to myself. I want to be better than I was yesterday, to be reliable, dependable, motivated, responsible, communicative. Really.

I want to create, to write, to read. Really.

I want to be incredibly productive, to go above and beyond, to impress and wow and awe, to show you all I’ve got. Really.

I want to show up at your place when I say I will, to do something about my own loneliness by getting out and talking to people once in a while. Really.

But right now, I’m all sorts of this way and none of that.

I want to tell you that the reason I am inconsistent is because most of my energy is focused on staying afloat, and treading water sometimes means letting the current take control for a time.

I want to tell you that I don’t always see the morning as a blessing because at least when I’m asleep, I don’t feel anxiety gnawing away at my self-confidence or depression eroding my self-worth. I’m tired, and the morning reminds me of that.

I want to tell you that my plans to show up early turn into plans to show up on time turn into plans just to show up because–well, to be honest, I don’t know how it happens.

I want to tell you depression and anxiety are humbling at best, crippling at worst, and disorienting always, and some days being better than yesterday means just being today.

I want to tell you that creating is an emptying of yourself, and some days I am stingy with myself; writing is like ripping off a scab, and some days blood makes me woozy; reading is words and meaning and story, and some days I’ve had a heavy dosing of all three and don’t need any more.

I want to tell you that I can’t even meet my own standards of excellence at this point because lately, just do enough to get by is the most self-motivation I can muster.

I want to tell you that when I bow out, cop out, no-show it’s not you–it’s me and this cloud of murky moods and its inconvenient demands.

I want to tell you that when that depression commercial about the wind-up doll plays, I want to scream because it is so seriously spot-on that it pisses me off on a bad day and makes me cry on a good one.

I want to tell you, “Lately, I’m depressed, which is why I’ve been all sorts of this way and not that, so can I lean on you for a bit?”

But I’m afraid of what you might say.

No. No, that’s not all of it. I’m afraid of what you might think.

No. Still not all of it.

I’m afraid that what you might say might just be pity or concern. I’m afraid that what you might say might be a veneer to cover up what you might think. I’m afraid what you might think is, “Wow, excuses much?” or “Wow, suck it up!” or “Wow, you poor thing.”

I’m terrified of looking weak. I’m terrified of making excuses. I don’t want you to treat me differently. So really, it’s not you. It’s me.

I just want you to know that I am often wrestling with myself, and that’s why I am all sorts of this way and not that.

It’s not you. It’s me.

luminous things: on being a (not-quite-yet) teacher.

I’m sitting in my bedroom, with its soft beiges and greys and blues (colors I picked because I need a quiet haven), soft lamplight to my left and a puppy cuddled up right next to me. “Friends” is on Netflix, so naturally, it’s playing in the background.

And next door, my neighbors–perfectly kind and fun but also perfectly oblivious–are blasting (and I mean BLASTING) Christmas music from God-knows-where. I mean, I can hear “White Christmas” like I am listening to it on the radio in my room.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is the universe is not really helping me de-stress.

Ever since I walked through the door this afternoon at 4:30, I have been trying to get work done. But it’s like my brain is floating. I am exhausted. I am stressed, and I know it. But a lot of good that self-awareness is doing because I can’t seem to do anything about it. I have a headache.

I have given up trying to be productive, and I’m just being. At least for now. I’m meditating on luminous things.

I am student teaching right now. I’m working as an educational assistant, too. In my thoughts at every moment of every day are students. Seventh and eighth grade faces and names, behaviors, theories about how each of them are doing, relived conversations in my head combined with regret about not paying more attention to so-and-so when they asked such-and-such question, frustration about a student’s response when I thought my redirection was spot-on, disappointment in myself for not being perfect, and reevaluation of every waking, working moment of the school day.

“Nick,” I tell my husband, “get used to this.”

This being a spacy look in my eye and an insane amount of love and concern and prayerful consideration for my kids that aren’t my kids, and constant self-criticism, and the incessant asking for feedback about lesson plans and projects and activities, and complaints about the inappropriate things little so-and-so, bless his heart, said to me again today, and the accidental use of “teacher voice” when talking to Nick, and the god-awful annoying fact that I say, Hey, I work with middle school students every day, okay? whenever anyone mentions anything about their job being tough or their day being hard.

(The “I work with middle schoolers, okay?” thing is annoying because I almost always say it like it’s 100% difficult and exhausting and 0% something I absolutely adore and find overwhelmingly rewarding, when it’s much closer to a 50/50 split.)

I opened my photos on my iPhone today and discovered my students took an ungodly amount of selfies on it without me knowing. Should I be angry? Eh, maybe (like, how many times a day have I said, “Y’all have no boundaries!” I’ll tell you: about 37.), but honestly: these kids will hold such a special place in my heart forever, and that’s why their countless selfies make me happy.

We’re doing a poetry unit right now, and it’s my favorite unit of the year. The students are eager and engaged, even though they all say, “Ugh, I hate poetry, it’s the WORST!” They constantly ask us questions. Some of them hover around my desk, looking at my Book of Luminous Things (a poetry anthology) and asking me what I think about their haiku or their sonnets.

They point out Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” in the Realms of Gold anthology and chuckle uncomfortably until I ask them to tell me what it’s about, and they find their voice for a second. I recommend Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” and smile when one student recites it from memory. I gasp and clap when they tell me that “that good night” is a euphemism for death! I gush and rave about Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman to kids who have yet to appreciate that kind of wordly beauty–y’know, just in case some day, five years from now, they remember the crazy hipster student teacher who teared up talking about the powerful play and contributing verses and they are moved to read “Love for This Book” or Leaves of Grass.

Okay, so, some of the poems these kids write are intentionally ridiculous (“No, you can’t use shart in your poem, and if this was just a ploy to get me to say that word, it worked”), but I could listen to them say ridiculous all day as long as they’re working with poetry and words. (Is that the naive words of a newbie? Mm, probably. “No, you can’t use shat either. Why? Because it’s the past tense of shit, and I can’t believe you just said it aloud.”)

These kids challenge me every single day (jesusmaryandjoseph, do they challenge me), and I’ve learned so much from them. What it means to show respect even when you’re angry (because I have to choose to do that so many times a day, I can’t even tell you). To be patient when people are going crazy around you (oh, bless the hearts of those students–you know the ones–that just grin and patiently bear their peers’ descent into insanity on a day before a break). What it feels like to love and care unconditionally (because, jesusmaryandjoseph, they work my last nerve, but they are so right when they say teasingly, “Oh, come on, you know you love us!). How healing it is to laugh even when things are stressful and hard and daunting. What it means to be truly, whole-heartedly proud of someone and the wonderful things they’ve accomplished.

I’ve learned what it’s like to be comfortable in my own skin (because sometimes middle schoolers are are just plain unabashedly goofy and ridiculous, at times immature and inappropriate, and at other times ageless and wise, and I just plain love it).

I’ve learned to be okay with something less than perfection.

I’ve learned that when I have rough days, I can still show up, and I am capable of shining a light on the good things: the true and honorable and just things, the pure and lovely and commendable things, the excellent and praise-worthy things.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Truth be told, my heart is full with those things. Luminous things. And sometimes big, bulky, ugly things like stress and fatigue block the light.

Truth be told, I am stressed beyond belief, and I am terrified, and I am uncertain, and I am weary. But my heart is full of luminous things anyway, so I won’t let the shadowy, bulky things get in the way.

Truth be told, dark things and shadows can’t really squelch light and luminous things, and that is the good news I must choose to remember today and every day.

Sandglass

I am so tired, she says, a cavern
submerged in the watery light of morning.
Incrementally, she raises herself up from
the folded fulcrums of a blue grey blanket,
as tears are falling,
shattering like broken glass.

Methodically–because,
she explains
like an echo,
not to me or to anyone, really,
I’ve done this before,
hurried and hopeful,
but now I know: take it slow
or else you cut yourself

she crouches close to the ground,
sweeping up the shards.

Hope isn’t hurried,
she whispers (a cavern,
empty of some things
but not others),
to me, perhaps, or not to me or anyone in particular,
like an echo,
Breaking is so brisk, but–

She stops (she is tired, recall),
stands up,
and the creaking of her bones
are utterances:
Hope rises like the tide-
softly, simply, but always
it rises;
so, does she.

She moves with
sound strides that are
like the small sea swells of Puget
that wash away dead and dry
cracked shells,
shabby and shirked by the
hermits who’ve since moved on;
with strides like waves
that wipe clean the slate of a grey shore.

Toil is the deeply buried treasure,
but it is also the sand that buries it,
and today I am the tide.

What like a mosaic
her tidal tears make,
the lines on her face like lines in sand,
like sediment and sadness
telling the story of a heart
that will heal from hurts
and has no shame
for living life in the voluptuous bosom
that breathes and ebbs
in brokenness.

upon speaking with gerard manley hopkins.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I feel the fell of dark, not day”

i.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.
But which is being soured? The dull dough? The self?
Today, both; I feel the fell.
Breathe in, exhale.

ii.
The fear cuts through like a gale.
How can I stand resolute? I will lose leaf and limb.
Do leaves and limbs lost leave forever?
But wait! are my limbs and leaves the tree, or am I,
I, resolute with this trunk and these roots, these veins,
pied, stippled, counter, original, spare, and strange
The wind can strip me, but it will not fell me.

iii.
Yet I feel the fell of dark, not day–
yester was day, and I miss it.
I stumble until darkness lifts,
until dark rises instead of falls.
Veiled in these black hours,
I do not see what I would see.
Selfyeast of spirit, wait.
Wait and remember: glory be to God for dappled things
whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
–or why.

iv.
Admonish this panic.
It is neither of me, nor Him.
My selfyeast of sour spirit, this dull dough
will not be so forever

v.
nor will the gale uproot me.
I am the tree–without leaf and limb–
but I am the tree.

vi.
Catch your breath.
Stand up. Adazzle or dim, do not wait; rise.
You are the tree.