I just turned the calendar to August and had to pause. Today begins a new month marked by resumed activity the likes of which I haven’t experienced in well over a year. To be honest, I find myself bracing a bit. As unwelcome as the pandemic has been, and as much as I never would have chosen many of the circumstances brought on by this virus that turned the world upside down, I do value the simplicity that has characterized my life during the past seventeen months. I’m holding the duality of being eager to dive back into aspects of life I have missed, while resisting the mindlessness that can accompany flurries of activity. I don’t want to lose the headspace I’ve achieved while the pause button was pushed.
Quite simply, I like the more patient and flexible person I have become and how I have learned to engage with the world during this time.
The pandemic reshaped me as a teacher, mother, and friend. I feel like I am able to show up in all of my relationships with more authenticity and integrity than ever before. This is perhaps most true in my relationship to myself. I wonder if others of you relate to having become easier on yourselves during this time when so many of us have scrambled to figure things out and just survive? The messages of extending grace to others and ourselves and reminders to practice self-care have certainly abounded. If you’re reading this, I hope you took them to heart and didn’t just find them to be cliché and irritating. We were all thrown for a loop! MANY loops, rather. Navigating change is never easy. The entire decade of my forties has been spent unlearning habits and ways of being that no longer served me and those closest to me. I feel like the pandemic swept in and put the necessary finishing touches on the job.
Professionally, I spent my 25th year of elementary school teaching Zooming from my home with my virtual class of 4th graders (and later 5th graders when my class became a combination mid-year). To say my skills were stretched would be an understatement. Learning how to teach in a distance learning model was perhaps the most uniquely frustrating yet motivating experience of my life. It was an exhausting and exhilarating mix of striving to help my students succeed under the most challenging of circumstances. I’ve spent much of this summer processing how the experience changed me as an educator and as a person. I grew to know my students’ families in a way I never had before. Mine was a class of students whose families chose for them to remain in a remote model for the full year, so I had tremendous support in my endeavors to make distance learning work. I was humbled and honored to partner with the families to make the year meaningful and worthwhile for their kids. It gave each teaching day rich meaning and purpose. My job felt rewarding in a way it never had before. Would that all teachers could have had the kind of support and grace extended to them that I had during the 2021-2022 school year! My heart truly hurt when I heard widespread disparagement faced by many educators during this difficult season of education. In my experience, students, families, and teachers were absolute heroes during distance learning. We teamed in unprecedented ways (pardon the overused term, it just fits).
In less than two weeks I will return to a physical classroom and once again share a space with my new students. My heart swells at the thought; it really does. I have missed the energy of a classroom. There is just nothing that compares to it. But I will carry my virtual teaching experience with me and never want to forget the lessons it taught me. Practically speaking, things like Zoom parent conferences will always be an option if I have any say in it. The flexibility it affords parents changed the dynamic entirely. The home-school partnership became stronger than ever. Additionally, I will remember the unique glimpses remote teaching gave me into my students’ worlds, lives, and homes. I have a deeper respect for the challenges families face. I will make fewer assumptions and seek to check ALL of them at the door. We just never know what people are dealing with. I understand more than ever that most everyone is doing the best they can within the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Virtual teaching pushed me to take risks and be less afraid to fumble and learn from mistakes. So much felt new to me and there was a sense of freedom to dive in and figure out what could work. I don’t want to lose that regained sense of adventurousness in my teaching. Experimentation too often lies dormant when perfectionism and fear of failure is allowed to take the helm. That’s certainly been the case with me. This year I’ve chosen to switch grade levels and take on the challenge of learning new curriculum and classroom routines to keep up the momentum I gained. My committment to life-long learning has taken on new meaning. I don’t want to lose that sense when I return to the school campus.
In terms of my family life, months of social distancing and spending long hours within the walls of our home offered unique opportunities to learn how to be a more loving and whole-hearted spouse and parent. I’ll keep this section brief for now as I don’t feel this is entirely my own story to tell. What I will say is that taking an extended social media break and focusing on my face to face relationships, especially with the people in my home, was a worthwhile exercise. Practicing being present and available provided for deeper communication and connection. That is no slight thing when living with teenagers.
Again, navigating uncharted waters in pandemic parenting freed me from the notion that I had to have all the answers. Isn’t that truly one of the biggest barriers to any kind of relationship? When we step in to fix before truly listening? Much in the way I felt free to experiment in my teaching and take cues from the needs of my students, I also took cues from my own children in the ways they needed (and did NOT need) me to show up for them. This has also been helpful in my marriage. It’s quite a dance negotiating space, knowing when to move closer and when to lovingly, gracefully pull apart. We’re all a little smoother with the choreography now. I want to hold on to the chemistry and connection that has been nurtured when our dance floor becomes more crowded as it will.
Some of my greatest lessons of this pandemic era relate to my friendships. When I step back and look at my world right now, it looks quite a bit different than it did seventeen months ago. The people I am in communication with on a regular basis have changed somewhat. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what friendship really is, what it means, and how it can change over time. I’ve always held on dearly to my relationships throughout my life. Having moved so often and being an only child, I went to great lengths to keep in touch with friends when I moved. I never wanted to lose connections that mattered to me. I felt a strong urgency to maintain connections, plan visits, and keep the ties strong. I think those were all wonderful goals for me growing up. I love that I still have connections with people all over the country and memories that I will always treasure. At the same time, I think I have needed to learn how to appreciate relationships that come into my life only for a time. A season of friendship coming to a natural cessation does not mean it was not valuable or that I lose a part of who I am when the relationship is no longer present. I have needed to understand that having a looser grip is not a negative but just a part of the natural progression as time marches on. I have had a lot to unpack on this one. Those last few sentences represent years of processing and growth for me. It kind of all goes back to that idea of releasing control and being willing to accept what comes. The pandemic pause drove this lesson home for me.
The real learning for me has emerged from the question how do I show up in my friendships that are here and now? Much like in my professional and family realms, the answer for me has proven to be rooted in a willingness to live in the questions and be present and accepting of uncertainty. The extent to which I am willing to accept my own flaws and show grace to myself directly correlates to how much I am able to be a supportive and authentic friend.
For the past several months I have been slowly working through the book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life – Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World by Parker J. Palmer. It isn’t a long read, but I have found I best digested its contents in small portions. I was drawn to this book because it centers on living an authentic, individed life. In other words, being the same person on the inside that I project on the outside. He introduces the concept of practicing this type of authenticity through intentional communities that he calls “circles of trust.” It is a powerful framework and the ideas in this volume will stick with me for a long time. I would love to experience a circle of trust as described in this book. I hope that opportunity will one day present itself.
As it happened, I was midway through Palmer’s book when I joined my dearest friend of forty years at her mom’s bedside as she died. This happened just two days after my virtual school year ended. The experience of remote pandemic teaching, followed by the death of my best friend’s mother has taken this whole summer to mentally process. I’ve attempted to write about both on multiple occasions. I still don’t think I am doing either experience justice, but I can’t let this summer end without attempting to express in writing how both transformed and impacted me. I think the main point I wish to express is how my inner journey allowed me to be present at critical moments over the past year. Palmer describes what we learn when sitting with someone as they die, and it directly lines up with what I have gleaned in all aspects of life over the past year and a half:
“First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance of believing that we have the answers to another person’s problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a ‘problem to be solved’ but a mystery to be honored. As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently.”A Hidden Wholeness, Chapter IV – Being Alone Together
The gift of being with my friend as her mom passed is something I find hard to describe in words. I am incredibly grateful for the honor of having been there. I am also thankful to have been in an emotional space that allowed me to be a supportive presence in those moments. It was a profoundly humbling and spiritual experience. In my life I have been privileged to be with two people as they passed from this world to the next: my own father and now my best friend’s mother. They will forever be two of my most cherished memories.
How does this all tie together? What am I trying to say here today? The name of this blog is Where is my mind? and this particular post definitely fits under that heading in the sense that it’s a little all over the place. But there is one unifying thread, I believe. That thread is the significance and richness I have found in being present in the moments in which I find myself and being genuine as I respond to those moments and interact with those who are with me. That’s what I don’t want to lose sight of as activities resume and life becomes hectic once again.
“The last few years have taught me to suspend my desire for a conclusion, to assume that nothing is static and that renegotiation will be perpetual, to hope primarily that little truths will keep emerging in time.”Jia Tolentino Trick Mirror
These are the ‘little truths” that have emerged for me that I want carry into August and the months that lay ahead. What has emerged for you?