these days.

These days, there are swag days, days when I could not care any less about the shenanigans students pull. Days when their eye rolls, sass, and whining, their muttered comments, and their eagle-eye ability to notice all my mistakes don’t mean a damned thing, days when their attempts to ruffle my feathers merely make me chuckle. Days of swag when I’m able to trust that what I do in the classroom is important and effective, that what I do makes a difference, that what they think of or say about my teaching means little to me as long as they’re learning. Days when I march through my door with a stack of goals and notes and lessons and activities and a go-get-’em, yes-we-can swagger, and I don’t listen to the wailing and the whining. Days when I am not thrown off by apathy or anger or angst. Days when I don’t for one second take it personally when they roll their eyes as if I can’t see them. Days when I laugh when they say, “This is so boring!” and simply retort, “Sucks, bruh!”

And these days, there are other days (read: today). Sheepish days. Uncertain days. Murky and muddled days. Walking-through-mud days. Falling-on-my-face days. Anxious, timid, tumultuous, affected days where it takes every ounce of my mental energy to dispel the fears that I am not enough. That they roll their eyes because they don’t trust my expertise. That they scoff and whine because they don’t respect me. That they misbehave because they hate me. That they think I’m a joke, that my class is a joke, that I make no sense, that they don’t get who I am or what I’m about. That they see right through me and somehow have decided I nor my class are not worth their time or effort. Days when their jokes about my “boring class” cut me to the quick, and it takes all that’s left within me to dam up the emotional waters. I’m trying, I want to say. I’m doing my damndest to teach you, to help you, to engage and enthrall and educate you. Please just meet me half way. But I can’t beg. I won’t.

I am a perfectionist. I am sensitive. I am intuitive. Standing in front of a room of 30 kids can feel like drowning in swirling sea full of creatures and shadows that careen to and fro, demanding I take notice of them, appreciate them, see them, acknowledge them, understand them. I can’t help but try to process and make sense of them–the emotions, the attitudes, the affects, the scoffs, the eye rolls, the placid and tired expressions. Where are these kids? How are they? Am I doing something to make this worse for them? What can I do to make it better? Where am I in all of this?

You can safely guess that I have more other days than swag days. I have more days consumed with being “the best teacher they’ve ever had” than I care to admit (because it makes me seem selfish, self-centered, and proud). And today I am painfully aware of all the things I’m not doing as well as I would like to be, all the things that have fallen off the wagon along the way–the students that I am not reaching, the students that are not understanding, the accommodations I’m not implementing, the emails I’m not sending, the grading I’m not doing… the list goes on. I am painfully aware of the handful of kids in 8th period who don’t listen to a word I say. I am trying not to be hurt by the mutters of, “This is bullshit,” when I hand out information about their final. I am trying not to take it personally when a student rolls in late for the tenth time in a row and just scoffs when I ask him to sit down without disrupting the other students. I am trying not to interpret every little thing I see and hear as a sign that I’m doing something wrong to allow these things to happen.

Sometimes kids are just kids. Sometimes kids being kids is not my fault.

So I gently whisper to myself between sips of red wine and nibbles of dark chocolate (what am I, a perfume commercial?): It’s year one. The first year I’ve had a classroom full of 25-30 different minds and backgrounds and emotions and fears and joys and scholastic experiences.

The first year I’ve been responsible for their learning, their reading, their writing, their growth.

The first year that I–and I alone–have had to worry about the kid who was sick all last week getting caught up while also teaching the kids who have been here so they’re not bored while also handing back work while also getting ready for the fire drill while also redirecting 5 students’ behaviors while also answering a question while also trying to stay on topic while also trying to be personable and calm and composed and poised and funny and accessible and dependable and clear and accurate and eloquent while also trying to remember what my lesson entails while also trying to not be affected by the emotions and the tensions and the stresses and the expressions in the room that might very well have nothing to do with me or might have everything to do with me while also pushing aside my own thoughts and emotions while also paying attention to what I’m saying and doing.

The first year that all their successes and all their failures might be thrown right back in my face–for better or for worse.

The first year that every work day is personal as much as it is professional.

But. It’s also the first year that is hard in the only way that year one of teaching can be hard, and exciting in the only way year one can be exciting. It’s the first year that I get up every morning and follow the breadcrumbs of my calling and purpose to Room 215. The first year that I’ve felt my depression and anxiety as I always do but haven’t been crushed by it. The first year I’ve not had to call in sick because of depression or a panic attack. The first year I’ve received a paycheck that left me with enough extra to put some into savings.

The first year someone’s left a note on my desk that says, “Mrs. F. is my favorite teacher.”

The first year I’ve decorated my own classroom for the holidays.

The first year I’ve been able to say, “I’m a high school English teacher.”

And while I am not the best teacher they’ve ever had, nor am I as good as I want to be, nor am I the best I can be (yet), I must look back and realize that this time last year, this was just a pipe dream. This was a distant finish line at the end of a very long race.

And here I am now. Sitting at my desk in my own classroom surrounded by Christmas lights and a white board with a daily agenda and a stack of grading in front of me and a student who apparently snuck out of his 5th period class to “go to the restroom” but actually just wanted to come say hi to me. (Don’t worry–I very promptly sent him back to class.)

Here I am, (somewhat) in charge of my own classroom, and the place hasn’t burned down yet.

Progress is progress, right? If ever so (seemingly) slow.

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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.

 

journal entry | Today’s meaning is–

“We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead.”
Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

Life is game of meaning-making.

It’s a game in which the rules change, day to day, moment to moment.

Some days, like today, I win by immersing myself in work that is immediate and purposeful, in thoughts that are healthy. I go grocery shopping; the meaning there is easy to make: we need food. I update my resume; the meaning there is: I need a job in the fall.

Some days are game-changers, and I lose on those days.

The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom speaks to the game-changing moments: “How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?”

Translation: how can I find motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning when there is no external motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning, and how can I self-create motivation (meaning) when I am uncertain that I have the raw materials to do so? When I am almost certain that the world is made up of matter that does not matter, how can I assert that I am any different?

Some days, we are empty. Depression is a slow leak, a hissingly sinister removal of energy and joy and contentment, confidence, serenity, and self. The laws of physics, of science, of the empirical world tell us the truth: our finite humanity cannot make something out of nothing. The laws of faith, of theology, of God, and Creation, Jesus, and the gospel tell us the truth, too: the infinite divinity of the One, Alpha & Omega did, in fact, make something out of nothing–a rather grand something out of an original and desolate nothing–and His fingerprints linger.

So. Do we surrender to the void that depression offers, the nothing it has made out of our something? Or do we choose to believe the universe is churning and burning with meaningfulness? Do we resolve to notice the fingerprints of God, these speckled, freckled, pied points of meaning?

We do our feeble best to choose the latter. We do our feeble best.

Monday, March 7th, 6:53 am: Today’s meaning is being coaxed from hiding with the promise of a warm cup of coffee that I will sip slowly, siphoning for meaning in every atom of taste because I simply cannot be late to work again. Today’s meaning is: good employees show up to work on time, and I am a good employee, so I must show up to work on time. Today’s meaning is the transitive property and a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 8th, 4:45 pm: Today’s meaning is a paradox. I am at once thankful and burdened by the work day.

Thankful, because for 8 to 9 hours, meaning envelops me; I need not exhaust myself trying to make it. Each hour, 23 or 24 or 25 bundles of energetic, humanoid little fingerprints of Divine Meaning surround me; they say my name, and I answer, and there is cosmic–and all other kinds of–balance. What do you need? is my voice’s answer, but my soul whispers, Thank you for meaning; thank you for making meaning. I teach them. Subject, verb, object–semantically, grammatically complete. Today’s meaning is semantic, grammatical. 

Burdened, because I feel lost and numb at home. I know that as soon as sleep comes, restlessness will follow, and then the morning, and then work, and then again, the fatigue and numbness that feels much like a void. Climbing the same mountain day after day feels less like a worthy feat and more like the curse of Cartaphilus.

Wednesday, March 9th, 7:13: Today’s meaning is loneliness. Today’s meaning is by my self. Today’s meaning is, then, self-care. Today’s meaning is acknowledging the darkness of it all so I have no excuse but to turn on the light.

Today’s meaning is a warm bath, a decent work-out, and the intentional choice to feel.

Thursday, March 10th, 6:05 pm: Today, meaning peered down at me, two inquisitive eyes of the bird in my backyard that was strikingly blue, a sapphire atop a grey sky, deadened brown grass, leafless trees–a colorless afternoon. I gasped. It flew away. I cried.

Today’s meaning trumpeted in a phone call from my mother and father. It announced itself in my own thought: How did she know to call? It came oozing out of the words my mom said when I picked up: You’ve been on my mind. What is going on? It seeped out of me like a feverish sweat as I told them, Hope seems foolish, and so do the words, “It will get better.”

Today’s meaning was nourished by angry tears, invigorated by a splash of cold water, and framed by the reminder, I am lonely, but I am not alone.

Friday, March 11th, 1:02 pm: Today’s meaning is to prove to myself that I can do it–it being the next minute, then the next, and the next, and the next. Today’s meaning is mind-trick over matter, a placebo of meaning to tide me over until some true, cataclysmic, prescribed meaning comes. The pharmacy is fresh out.

Saturday, March 12th, 9:34 pm: Today’s meaning is presence and pressing on, the pressing of formless thoughts to the synapses to the fingers to the keys to the formed words. It is presence and engagement in the consciousness of the human mind, the will to create and make. It is the opting for life in all its simplicity and mediocrity and ho-humness, in the aisles of grocery shelves, the satisfaction of a car wash, the eating of a meal, and the utter miracle of the inheritance of our aliveness being the burden and beauty of our consciousness.

It is life and being alive.

“. . . presence is a dance, not a meditation; an engagement, not an emptying. Being present . . . is being intentionally present for the sake of reasons you deem meaningful.”
-Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

 

If I’ve Taught

Teaching middle school students is exhausting in every imaginable and inconceivable, unpredictable way. Rewarding, never boring. But exhausting. You use every trick in the book on Monday, and your classroom is mischief-managed as a Mary Poppins Sunday School, and on Tuesday, you use all the same tricks, and Minion One squirts Minion Two in with a water bottle, spilling water all over the floor while you’re teaching them about theme, tone, and mood, and then he’s the one to throw a terrible-two-year-old style hissy fit when you and your mentor teacher say they can’t keep the bottles at their desks anymore.

“This is so stupid!” Well, we’re in agreement there, dear.

And you’ll try to remember Love and Logic and all that “pre-frontal cortex isn’t developed yet” crap, but you still catch yourself (too late) saying harshly and rather loudly, “It is not my problem that you yahoos can’t handle the basic privilege of a stinking water bottle, so don’t put this on me! It’s your issue, not mine!”

Some time later you remember to unclench your teeth.

They didn’t do so hot on their last grammar test. Maybe it’s them; maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s lack of learning, lack of teaching–or it’s apathy.

“I can teach you how to diagram a sentence, but what good does it do if you don’t care about your own learning?” I say.

Maybe at the end of the day, I can’t make a buncha hormonal and disoriented seventh and eighth grade kids care about nominative pronoun case or whether the -ing word is a gerund or a adjectival participle. I try my darnedest anyway.

They need to learn. I tell them that. I need to teach. I tell them that. But what do I hope they learn? And what do I hope I teach, between the laundry list of state standards here and demands of showing growth and data there? Past perfect progressive tense? Sure. How to articulate theme by hashtagging the literary work first and then turning it into a sentence? You bet.

But. There’s always a but. (Side note, don’t say stuff like that to middle schoolers or they’ll never come back. Also, avoid the number 69, the phrase, “Just do it,” and NEVER mention the whip, the nae-nae, or the quan. Netflix and chill is off-limits as well.)

If I’ve taught students anything these past 5 weeks of student teaching, I hope it’s that (1) they damned sure better have high expectations and standards for themselves and others and (2) they damned sure better extend both grace and consequences to themselves and others when the standards aren’t met. All is striving; all is grace. Life is striving; life is grace.

It’s a delicate balance, but a worthy one. And when you’re a hot mess and can’t quite put yourself together, you get up and do what you gotta do anyway, and you choose hope and honesty and humility even if despair and deceit and pride are the easier pills to swallow. And you say sorry when it’s needed, pick your battles carefully, and you treat people with respect even if they drive you bonkers, and don’t you ever call someone stupid, but if you slip up and say damn it, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.

One student thanked me for never assuming the worst in her and her classmates. I said thank you to her for doing the same for me. I think all they want is to be heard, to be respected, and to have great things expected of them. They rise to that occasion more often than not. Other times, you want to smoosh their adorable, enigmatic faces, and I’m not gonna lie, I’m smugly satisfied when I hear, “Guys, angry Mrs. F. is so scary.” I’m stuck somewhere between being the kind of teacher that lets students breathe and be while they learn while also being the teacher that demands respect. I honestly am not sure how to be both. I’m not even sure I know how to be just one or the other.

So I ask, “How come you zip your lips for her, but when I ask you for the zillionth time to shush, you keep on yammering on and on?”

Usually, they say something like, “Well, so-and-so scares me!”

Hrmph. I want to be scary. But I also don’t want to be scary.

This teaching thing is tough and existential and weird.

For all the times I’ve told them, “I am weary of your continuous choice to behave this way,” and, “In what realm is this behavior acceptable?” and, “None of us can be at our best when we are working against one another like this,” and, “I am struggling; is this hard for anyone else?” and “I want you to know I go home every day wondering how I can be better for you tomorrow,” I hope what they hear is, “I am for you, not against you,” and, “You are capable of more,” and “Whatever I expect of you, I expect tenfold of myself, and when we both fail one another, we both come right back the next day and try it again, and that’s what really counts,” and, “We’re only human, but we should try to be more anyway.”

Teaching is such a beautiful, chaotic kaleidoscope of a calling, and there are snares, bindings, and traps that catch us and trip us, making us forget why we chose this path. I have wondered if I have made a terrible mistake. I have called my mom, crying, “There is no way in hell that I am cut out for this because I am too weak, sick, scared, incapable, uncertain, depressed, anxious, fatigued–” you name it. I have been slapped in the face with the reminder as to why I dropped the education program in my undergrad: my body was exhausted and sick.

Truth be told, I have both inadvertently and intentionally (at times) let students see me as I fall, which means, too, that they watched me get back up and nurse my wounds and keep on marching. Because the spirit is stronger than the body when you’re on the path He has paved (or rather, left unpaved) for you.

(Is this why Robert Frost is in our poetry curriculum? Am I to learn alongside my students that the road less traveled makes all the difference in the economy of the soul?)

As one student said, “You can’t truly know good without evil. You can’t know what light is like without knowing what dark is like first.” Yes, honey! I am so glad you have that wisdom at such a young age–and I hope your knowledge of the light is more extensive than that of the dark.

I hope they know they are capable of both the terrible and terrific, that their propensity for the widest range of emotions and thoughts and fears is a beautiful and powerful thing, that they are worthwhile, obnoxious as hell, and they’ve exhausted and emptied me in all the best and worst ways because their souls and lives are imbibed with so much purpose, and I bear the burden and privilege that I am allowed to intersect with their journey along the way with great severity, consideration, and joy.

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.

journal entry | lest i forget.

Let’s face it: I know quite a bit about depression and chronic pain. I have lived it, and I have researched it until the wee hours of the morning. I’ve read books and blogs, articles and essays; I’ve written them, too. I’ve got the book smarts and the street smarts.

So I know that my spirit is often struck with a dizzying spell of depression around the same time my body is struck with a spell of pain and fatigue (a frequent visitor whom I call “flare-up”).

I have been trying to pinpoint just what I’ve done wrong to have brought me here, to this feeling of back-and-forth numb and sad, numb and angry, numb and anxious, numb and achy. Did I take my medication on time? And my supplements? When have I been going to bed? And how’s my stress level? Am I exercising enough? Am I eating well?

I look up symptoms of depression because I’m pretty sure I’m there again, where the air is thicker, and the vision is murky, and time either passes too slowly or too quickly–I’ve too much time to feel this way but not enough time to pull myself out of bed and get things done–there, in one of those dark, zany places where I forget important things like food and water or bills, or worse, I can’t recall what I enjoy, and I somehow forget the importance of waking up in the morning on time.

It’s not like I don’t know this place–I know it well. But I read about it again, just to make certain what I’m feeling is not just me, that I’m not the only one, that enough people have felt this way before that it shows up on a Google search.

I look up chronic pain, too, so I can read what it’s like, to make certain it is real, too, and that those doctors are wrong when they tell me it’s not. I read that other people know what it’s like, and these feelings of anger and frustration are normal–so normal that Google can tell me all about how normal it is.

Normal. As in, I might not be crazy unless these thousands of other people are also crazy in the exact same way.

It’s always the same: a deep breath in, an exhale out: some small part of me is always oddly calmed. I’m allowed to feel like this. I remember that it’s okay to be not okay, that things get better, and this is just temporary. Depression is real, but I don’t have to live right here, right now forever, and I can cope and deal. That God is in it and through it and amidst it.

I am frustrated that I have to be telling myself these things in the first place, let alone, to have to go through this so frequently. I’m angry that it is often easier to pretend I’m “just a-okay” than it is to explain how I feel to people who want to understand but can’t. Each social interaction is a choice between authenticity or ease. But I can’t blame them. I can’t understand my own pain sometimes, and I’m living it.

What’s most frustrating is the lack of control I seem to have over my own body. “Eat lots of fruits and veggies!” they say. “Pilates and yoga!” “Water! Lots of water!” “Vitamin D and fish oil!” Yes. Yes, I do all of those things, but it doesn’t magically heal you. Chronic pain is chronic pain. Depression is depression. I probably am in less pain than I would be otherwise, but that doesn’t mean the pain won’t ever show up again. (Did I mention “chronic?”)

I do all of the right things most of the time, and I have been doing them lately, but my world still began to turn grey, and here I am, in this place where it is  hard to get up in the mornings, where I’ve been almost late to work every single day since school started back up again. Here, in the place where I fight back tears throughout the day, and if I’m lucky, grow numb by the time I get home, so I can work on schoolwork or clean or cook without wasting time crying about nothing in particular. I often sit on the couch for an hour (or two) telling myself that I need to get up and do something that makes me happy, trying to wrestle for control of my mind and spirits, repeating the mantra I can do this, that it will be good for me to push through and press on, but then I stay seated because I am just so tired.

This is the place where my bones and muscles ache, and I wake me up at night on the hour or two hour mark; my brain is foggy, dazed; I feel incredibly alone, even though I’m not; where I am not the person I should or could be because I have this nasty nebulous thing puppeteering my energies and endeavors. This is the place where I feel I spend each day wandering and floating–how the hell am I this tired when I can’t even remember what I spent the day doing?! Don’t even ask about how I feel when I see people with far more on their plate–mothers of small children or people working more than one job–and I wonder how I will ever be able to successfully maneuver my adult life with children of my own when I am in survival mode as things are.

I was having a rough day a couple weeks ago, still on the outskirts of This Place I Am Now, and one of my friends asked me how I was. I was honest with her. And her response back to me was, “What can we do about it?”

She wanted to help. She meant no harm, but I still had to fight back tears and silence the voice that told me, See? No one gets it. It’s always about you not doing enough. But how could she have known that my whole life is built around maintaining as much health as possible? How could she have known those things just weren’t working like they were supposed to be? She doesn’t know that every decision I make is weighed against the potential pain or fatigue it may cause me.

The answer to her question, then, is that there is nothing more I can do about it sometimes because I am doing all the right things-eating well, limiting sugar, taking supplements, taking meds, journaling, counting your blessings, positive framing exercises, physical exercise, doing what you love–and I can know all the right things–that this isn’t my fault and life will go on, and eventually I will be okay, and this is normal, and it’s okay to be not okay.

And I can still feel this way–crippled, ill-equipped, and defective, numb and uninterested, sad and angry, down and out, tired, depressed and confused, lost and more than a little lonely. And it’s not my fault.

There are moments when happiness is a choice, when you have control over the way you see and hear and feel things. And there are also moments when choosing happiness doesn’t do diddly-squat because you keep choosing it over and over again, and the machine is just not taking your coins.

So, what can we do about it?

All there is to say is what I always say when there is nothing else to say: This too shall pass, and Even so, it is well, and Even so, He is still good.

Lest I forget.