What Emerged

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.

This has been hanging in our kitchen since we bought our home in 2017.
Who knew how just how literally we would take this message?

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?

Moments to cherish.
With my friend at her mom’s Celebration of Life.

On Walden and Wintering

My blog turned one year old this past week. I renewed my minimal subscription fee to keep this site active on faith that I would find inspiration to get some thoughts down again before too long. For me, this new year has been a time of stepping back and observing, listening, reflecting, and reading. I haven’t had words to share, only thoughts to process. I’ve kept away from social media as a way to cut out some of the extra noise and stimuli. Nearly a year of working through a computer has made me weary of screens in my down time. It has been, and continues to be, a worthwhile and healthy break for me.

I remember as an 11th grader in high school, over 30 years ago, being fascinated by Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond. I’m sure the references made in Dead Poet’s Society contributed to that at the time, as so many of my generation were moved by that film. The whole idea of boiling down the essentials and intentionally taking in “all the marrow of life” appealed to me greatly.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

Henry David Thoreau

As we turn the calendar to March tomorrow and mark a full year of living through the pandemic, it occurs to me that we have all been forced into the woods in a sense this past year. Life has certainly been driven into a corner! This time has been frustrating, uncomfortable, uncertain, and for many, utterly devastating. On the other hand, it has also been an opportunity not entirely unlike Thoreau’s to filter the nonessentials and reevaluate the terms of our own lives and how we wish to live them. On my better days, I have tried to embrace the latter and take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded to those of us living through this time in history. “Living is so dear,” I imagine most would agree that 2020-2021 has made us appreciate life and the things we may have taken for granted more than ever.

My highest form of self-care has long been reading. Turns out, when I don’t fritter mindless hours away scrolling Facebook, I can get through a good 1-2 books per week even during the teaching year and not just during my summer and work break binges. Who knew? I’m ending February on my 8th read of 2021, and taking that time for myself each day has greatly enriched this often turbulent new year. I started the year with Wintering by Katherine May. The subtitle drew me to this one: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. It is a deeply engaging account of the author’s leaning in to the more harsh seasons of life and gleaning wisdom from the ways various cultures have “wintered” through the ages. I found it comforting and profound.

“In our winter, a transformation happened. We read and worked and problem-solved and found new solutions. We changed our focus away from pushing through with normal life and towards making a new one. When everything is broken, everything is also up for grabs. That’s the gift of winter: it’s irresistable. Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not. We can come out of it wearing a different coat.”

Katherine May

Like May, I have used this Covid-19 experience during the past couple of months to draw inward with purpose. I’ve asked questions like, How do I want to reshape my life when some sense of normalcy returns? What boundaries do I need to set to honor my core values going forward? Which parts of my life no longer serve me, or others, or my faith well? These important questions are proving to be highly beneficial and clarifying. I am grateful to have the gift of time to process them. I was nowhere near this headspace one year ago in my day to day flurry of activity. This time, though inconvenient and challenging, has afforded me the luxury of living deliberately.

“Traveling a terric distance.” Indeed. And those last two sentences! Who doesn’t love Mary Oliver?

My deepest personal sadness this past year has been for my teenage children. Watching their young worlds be stripped of so much that makes life full and joyful for them during such a formative time is painful. A year for a teenager can feel more like a decade for an adult, at least in my estimation. Ultimately, I trust they will both weather this storm and be better for it. But pandemic parenting is not for the faint of heart. Navigating my own mental health and reactions to the myriad situations totally out of my control feels like a full-time job on its own. Modeling resilience and hope for the two precious humans entrusted to my care on top of that takes a great deal of wisdom and fortitude. Balancing the honesty and vulnerability necessary in order to connect with them, while at the same time maintaining optimism is an often daunting feat. I’ve needed to show myself, them, and everyone around me a whole lot of grace. Again, this is at once worthwhile and difficult.

Highly recommend this one if you tend to be your own harshest critic. It’s nearly impossible to be kind to others if you can’t show kindness to yourself.

Educators like me across the state of California became eligible to receive their Covid-19 vaccines yesterday, and the light at the end of the tunnel feels closer at this point. I still don’t quite see it, but I do feel it. While there is still trepidation, hope is more tangible. I believe in my heart brighter days are ahead though they will almost certainly not play out as I might envision. I heard a quote I really liked the other day, “The only thing you can expect is that things won’t turn out like you expected.” For me this statement is a needed reminder and another comfort. Life in my late-40s feels as if my internal GPS is constantly rerouting. Mercifully, if incrementally, it’s doing so ever more smoothly.

I’ve had a Mary Engelbreit calendar for most every year of the past 3 decades. Please excuse my additions to March 2021, M.E.
Hat tip to another favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Onward!

Creating Change

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and I am definitely not alone in finding myself in a place of reflection and anticipation heading into 2021. I suspect most of us are ready to see this particular year come to an end with the hope of brighter days ahead. My social media feed is currently filled as it is every December with end of year book lists, posts about resolutions being made, and friends sharing about intentions being set. A few weeks ago while scrolling I saw the graphic pictured below with the heading, “First four words you see are your focus for 2021.” I typically roll my eyes at these types of posts since I usually spot words like “money” that sound more like a fortune cookie to me than anything of meaningful substance. But I also can’t resist the pull of these kind of exercises, so I quickly scanned and noted the four words that stuck out to me first. I saw, in this order, gratitude, family, creation, and change.

Gratitude and family immediately resonated because these are the two things that have kept me sane and purposeful over the past nine months during the pandemic. Never before have I been more grateful for, focused on, and in tune with my family. Two-hundred eighty days spent having extended face to face interactions with just the three other people who live in my house has brought a level of connection that we didn’t have as a family a year ago. Without the circumstances of working and schooling from home, we might never have had the opportunity to explore aspects of our family dynamics that we’ve been able to this year. Depending on the month (or even the day), that fact has had both its positive and negative sides. I’m thankful that we’re ending the year on a high note having successfully navigated the more difficult episodes we faced in 2020. We look back over the past twelve months and think, “Whoa, we have been through A LOT!”

In the two or three weeks since spotting those four focus words for 2021, I have found myself thinking a great deal about the latter two words: creation and change. Creation immediately sparked all kinds of thoughts about my resolutions for the past several years. The desire to create through writing has been inside me for a long time. I think it was 2018 when I selected the word “intentional” to be my word for the year, and I determined that it would be the year that I would finally write a book. As with so many resolutions, that didn’t happen. Last year I moved a step closer to manifesting my writing intentions by starting this blog as a birthday gift to myself. I set a plan of writing once a week, and I actually got off to a decent start. I might have continued if not for an ill-timed global pandemic that descended upon us all less than a month after my debut post.

I choose to give myself grace about not keeping my commitment to myself with the weekly blogging effort in a year like 2020. After all, I had to learn how to teach in an entirely new way with the unanticipated dawn of distance learning. The fact that remote teaching has required enormous amounts of resourcefulness, patience, and determination has left me feeling pretty accomplished in the creativity department, regardless of the months where I didn’t once touch my blog. It’s all good. No regrets and no shame here. Yet the urge to create remains strong. Will this new year end up being another one where my goals get pushed aside and are once again deferred?

That brings me to change.

The idea of change conjures so many thoughts and emotions. On one hand, change is something I feel like I have had quite enough of over the course of this year. What didn’t change in 2020? We changed the way we go about doing pretty much everything, whether we have liked it or not. Many of us can’t wait for a return to “normal” and less of this uninvited change that has been so challenging.

One of the great lessons that 2020 has impressed upon me is how precious time is in our lives. Even in a year when activities on the calendar were abruptly cancelled and free time was suddenly ample, filling the time meaningfully has weighed heavily on my mind. How am I using this time I have been given? How is the way I spend my time shaping me? How is the content I am consuming influencing me and my perspectives?

If you saw The Social Dilemma on Netflix these might be questions you have also found yourself asking as they relate to time spent on social media. Shortly after viewing the documentary, I recall looking at my weekly data usage for the first time and being shocked at the amount of time I spent scrolling on social media. This awareness gave me pause. The sheer amount of time expended, not to mention the ramifications of the time spent, has continued to concern me.

So how does this all relate to my word change? Well, I’m not going to call this a resolution exactly, but I am setting out to make some changes heading into this new year. In service of gratitude, family, creation, and change, I want to clear a path for growth and substance in this new year. It became clear to me that social media no longer fits in a picture of meaningfully using the time to which I’ve been entrusted. At least not for now. What kinds of things could I accomplish in the absence of that time suck?

I began to consider all the things I have wanted but “haven’t had the time for.” Things like writing that book (or blog entries), learning Spanish, and writing letters to friends (this is a lifelong pastime that has brought great joy and all but completely stopped with the emergence of Facebook). I miss letter writing! In the past two weeks as I’ve been considering changes I might make, I have received two multiple-page, hand written letters from longtime friends. There is nothing like personal correspondence like that. The internet has nothing on an actual letter. The realization that, for me, social media replaced a treasured method of maintaining relationships has been somewhat sobering. Did I trade deeper personal connection with knowing what my friend in New Hampshire ate for lunch today via the picture they posted? I feel like reliance on Facebook has made me lazy in some of the relationships that have mattered most in my life. I miss more personal forms of communication and the thought that goes into them. Those letters arrived at just the right time to emphasize my desire for these needed adjustments I’d like to explore. No time seems better to begin than at the start of a new year.

So, maybe you will see more of me on the blog in 2021. I’m not sure what all I might be clearing the path for, exactly. Perhaps it will be more time spent here, but I welcome whatever the new year has in store for me in terms of creation and change. I am grateful for the lessons and growth experienced in 2020, even the parts that were difficult. I am heading into the new year with hope that better days lie ahead for us all, and I am purposing to be intentional about how I spend mine.

What will be your focus in 2021?

25 Reminders of You

My dad died twenty-five years ago today.

November 23, 1995, fell on Thanksgiving Day that year, so the anniversary of his death is sometimes a double whammy. Some years I get to experience the calendar memory of his loss on both the date and the day. 2020 is one of those years. I’ve decided that to the extent I can control it, I will allow the emotion of this anniversary to hit me on the 23rd, today, and be over it for the actual Thanksgiving holiday. Holidays in 2020 seem to be loaded enough. I’d prefer to not let the weight of 25 years without my dad hit me on Thanksgiving this year, too. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to manipulate emotions like that? It doesn’t work like that for me. But maybe it won’t “hit me” at all. Maybe that weight will be replaced by a lightness of celebration of his memory instead. Over the past 25 years I’ve experienced both responses, not fully knowing which will strike me any given year.

As I wake this morning, I find my mind flooded with so many thoughts and memories. If I could tell him, I’d let him know how much he is remembered. I’d let him know I haven’t forgotten one little thing. These are the words I’d say to him. I’d say that today I still remember:

  1. Your laughter and how it could fill up any space you occupied.
  2. Your compassion for people, no matter their quirks or eccentricities. This is an odd example, but I think of your secretary who had to take two weeks off work after Elvis died because she was experiencing such grief. I was only four at the time, but that still sticks with me. You gave people the freedom to be themselves around you. That’s a rare and special quality.
  3. How you would always have time to help me with school projects even after late hours at the office. I can still picture us at the table working on my Amelia Earhart book report cover, you affixing tiny rub-on letters spelling out “Electra” on the plane’s wing.
  4. Your distaste for rock music and total lack of appreciation for electric guitar (or guitar in any form, really). This was probably our most pronounced difference. The way you called the music of some of my favorite bands and artists “tragic” still kind of cracks me up. You never lacked for strong opinions. (You passed this trait on to me and definitely onto your grandchildren!)
  5. The sound of you playing #415 in your favorite hymnal, “Victory in Jesus,” on the piano. Oh, how I miss hearing you play.
  6. Your upset the night that President Carter lost to Reagan, and the fact that you valued and admired humble, servant leadership. That shaped me.
  7. The priority you placed on helping me maintain friendships across many moves and many miles as I was growing up. Driving me to see friends or vice versa. That was a gift that continues to bless me as so many who are still dear to me knew you.
  8. Your unwavering belief in my ability to succeed.
  9. Your love of the church in the purest and most beautiful sense.
  10. How you modeled that faith is action, and no task was beneath you.
  11. When you spent a whole weekend sharing ALL of your favorite movie musicals of the 1960s with me after I had my wisdom teeth pulled.
  12. The comfort and complete lack of judgment you displayed when we were in a car accident with me behind the wheel and at fault. And your wisdom for making me drive again right away.
  13. The horrible perm you got in the 80s. Why was that a thing? Just a random thought that makes me chuckle to think about.
  14. Watching SNL with you back in the Dana Carvey/ Dennis Miller/ Mike Meyers days.
  15. Your impeccable eye for decor and how I can only use white Christmas lights because they remind me of you.
  16. The way you created surround sound in our house before it existed by synchronizing all our stereos to be playing the same music in each room. I’d complain that I couldn’t enjoy my own music, but on a level I now understand, I loved it.
  17. Riding bikes around Coronado with you and Mom. It’s still one of my favorite things to do.
  18. The way you unapologetically found the greatest joy in some very simple things, like touring New England with the purpose of seeing every Advent Christian church we could manage to get to in one week (was it even a full week?). We sure saw a lot of them. This also makes me think of Mom’s trip up the Pacific Coast with the intent of riding every roller coaster at every theme park. You both showed me how to follow your heart and fully experience simple pleasures. You two could make anything an adventure, and I was along for the wild ride.
  19. You modeled how to admit when you were wrong and how to apologize. That one is HUGE.
  20. Your dislike of jeans and how I was in third grade before I remember owning a pair. How crazy is that? Who doesn’t like jeans? On some silly, deep level I still feel a little rebellious when I put on a pair (which is A LOT!).
  21. All the Thursday nights in high school that you’d stay up late waiting for me to complete my essay that was due the following day in English class, helping me type it since I’d never been able to take a typing course because of our moves. Every time I still have to look at the keyboard to find a key I think of you, though I have managed to improve in my skills considerably.
  22. How you taught me all the fight songs of the PAC Ten and Big Ten colleges and would quiz me on them. It was the only way I could share in your appreciation of college football. It has been a quarter of a century since you’ve drilled me, and I’m pretty sure I still know them all.
  23. Your brand of leadership. You managed hundreds of people in your years in both retail businesses and non-profit organizations, and in both settings you demonstrated an ability to motivate and bring out the best in those you supervised. They knew you cared. That made all the difference. As a teacher, every training I attend or professional article I read will tell me “it’s all about caring relationships,” but I learned that long ago from you. I feel connected to you when I teach, and I treasure that.
  24. How you were hardest on yourself and never recognized your own value. This one is hard to write. You died at 49, an age I now fully recognize to be very, very young in the scheme of things. My forties have produced so much healing and so much growth, along with peace I couldn’t experience before. I don’t think you ever were able to experience that in your own life. The demons you battled that weighed on you never left your shoulders while you were here with us: perfectionism, feelings of inadequacy, fear of vulnerability that kept you from true connection with many who would have easily loved you faults and all. You were everything to every body, but left little for yourself. I’m grateful my mom and I knew all of you. Because as much as your jolly exterior endeared you to others, we loved the other part of you fully as well. Understanding your pain and the hurt that burdened your heart opened a door for me to face my own.
  25. How you were my biggest cheerleader and made me feel so deeply loved. I pray my own children feel that kind of love and acceptance from me. I strive for that every day.

Remembering you today, Dad. Thanking God for you. Cherishing every single one of those 25 memories and so many more left unwritten. With all my love and gratitude.

My dad in 1968, taken by my mom when they were dating. He was going for the mysterious, alluring look. Ha! I love this one because it’s a face not many knew of him. Not performing for anyone, not needing to entertain, just being himself. This is my favorite picture of him and one of the few I have of him alone.

What comes and what goes

My rude awakening to the fact that life was not going to turn out at all as I had envisioned took place in a small, cold, bare walled conference room inside Huntington Memorial Hospital with particularly uncomfortable chairs. I can’t remember now if my mom and I talked much as we sat in that awkward space wondering what would happen. I only remember certain distinct images and feelings from that day but few words that were actually spoken.

Earlier, I recall being in my dad’s hospital room, sitting waiting for him to come back to the bed when we began to hear him call for us in distress from the private restroom off his room. We could hear what sounded like hypervetilating, and I remember my mom rushing to the hall calling for a nurse. Then there was calm and I think he said something to the effect of, “It’s ok, it’s over. What was that?” Then the distressed breathing started once again. When he could speak again, his last utterances were, “I love you Sara! I love you, Katie!”

Moments after saying those precious words two nurses assisted him back to his bed, but I don’t think I saw his feet actually touch the ground as they “helped” him walk.

He was already gone.

Nurses scrambled in the hallway calling code blue as they ushered my mom and I out of the room. I can still picture one of them stopping a doctor carrying a tray to his office for a working lunch. The nurse grabbed him, and his food tray fell to the floor as it dropped from his hands. I wasn’t completely sure what code blue meant, but it was evident it wasn’t good. And it was clear no one had been expecting this. My dad had just spent the night on a regular floor for observation due to flu-like symptoms and a strangely low body temperature.

I really have no idea how long it was between when the code blue was called and when a small group of nurses and a doctor came into that small conference room to tell us that they had done everything they could, but they had lost him. I knew the situation was serious, but when they said those words to us I was in complete disbelief. “But he’s my best friend!” The words jumped out of my mouth reflexively. It was incomprehensible that I had seen, spoken to, laughed with, and hugged my dad for the very last time.

On that dark Thanksgiving Day in 1995, any notion that I could place a tight, protective grip on those people and things most dear to me and be assured of their constant presence in my life was gone. In retrospect, it’s silly to think I ever held that belief inside me. But some people, some things, in our lives become so precious to us that their loss is devastating to the point that the fabric of our lives is altered.

2020 has been filled with that kind of loss.

I’m writing on a Saturday morning after a painful week filled with shattering testimonies coming forward about sexual abuse in the youth theater company my children have been involved in for the past seven years. While the sexual abuse occurred years before my own children’s involvement, the patterns of denial and absence of any justice for victims has tainted an organization we have trusted and loved. I am crushed by the victims’ stories and so very grieved that their pain (and the criminal behavior that caused it) was brushed aside. This paragraph does not do the situation justice. There appears to be much, much more to this. Emotional abuse, racism, classism, homophobia… story after story of pain. It is all so HEAVY. And now, rightfully, our beloved theater company is closed indefinitely. Forever? Who knows at this point.

It feels like another rug pulled out from under us moment. It feels like a death.

Readers who have followed my blog since February know that my childhood was filled with constant change and uncertainty in terms of frequent moves, ongoing need to establish new friendships, etc. In my efforts to create a more stable and consistent kind of upbringing for my own kids, this sense of family we found in our youth theater world has been a godsend. I know many of the relationships will continue. But change is hard. I am trying to process all of this myself so I can help my kids process it.

And those are all the words I have on that matter right now, but I am left with two thoughts as I work to process and move forward.

1. All of the bad that has been revealed does not negate the positive experiences many of us have had. I think this basic principal can apply to many situations, not just our specific circumstances with our theater company. In reality, we all experience both positive and negative in our various life circumstances. For example, when a couple divorces, just because their marriage has come to an end doesn’t mean they have to discount the good memories they shared. This is an instance of a need for “both/and” rather than “either/or.” I can be angry and sad about abuses within an organization I love, AND be thankful for cherished memories our involvement afforded us. It is not simply one or the other. Our hearts can and do hold both.

Sometimes it feels easier to cope by just allowing ourselves to be filled with one emotion, as in the case of anger. If I allow myself to be filled with rage, it can dull some of the pain. But that is a very dangerous way to go, because I think that is what also allows for abuses to continue when others do just the opposite and deny the anger and only want to focus on the positive emotions. If we don’t want to face the painful and difficult, that is how abuse gets covered up. Cutting ourselves off from a range of emotion, whether we’re denying the painful or the positive, is damaging. I want to do the hard emotional work that allows for the presence of both the feelings of righteous anger and the appreciation for the good that did (and does) exist. To do so, however, requires a willingness to feel all of the emotions. It takes vulnerability. It isn’t easy. To my friends feeling this so deeply right now, my heart is with you.

2. I am finding myself returning to a quote that has meant a lot to me over the years. I first heard it attributed to someone else, but I have learned that it was written first by the 20th century American poet Sara Teasdale. I have come back to these words time and again when I’ve experienced different types of loss, great or small.

I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.

Sara Teasdale

While I want to hold and honor the full range of emotions within a difficult circumstance, I also need a way to move forward without getting stuck in a tsunami of feelings. Further, I hope to be able to model this emotional fortitude and resilience for my kids. 2020 has felt like one blow after another. Schools closed, theater productions cancelled, inability to spend time with friends, summer camps called off… it has been never ending. And it continues with no end in sight at this point. How do we navigate this? For me, this quote is helpful. I must honor my feelings and truly feel them. The notion that it is good to suppress negative feelings is a fallacy. They are going to come out one way or another. We can feel and also practice the mind shift. What has gone is painful, yes. But what positive is coming? What good is there on which I can dwell? What purpose can I find to make my days feel well spent and meaningful even in these strangest of times? These are the questions I am asking myself and prompting my kids to ask. Full disclosure, some days are better than others. I in no way claim to have this mastered. Yet when I frame my thinking in this way, I regain perspective.

I first learned in that cold hospital room at the tender age of twenty-two that life would not turn out as I had envisioned. That lesson has been repeated for me many times since. I have also learned that in many ways life is richer and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. It has also held a whole lot of pain. In this life, we don’t get one or the other.

I’m going to leave you with one more quote from poet Sara Teasdale. As we move forward in wisdom, I pray with hope for what’s to come.

It’s strange how often a heart must be broken before the years can make it wise.

Sara Teasdale
My prayer rock where I often sit in the early mornings and try to make sense of a lot of things… where I often am reminded to let go.

2020 mid-year reflection: pick your metaphor

We’re officially half way through this year like no other. Somewhere around day seventy, I gave up keeping an official count, but I believe today finds us at or around 115 days since life as we knew it abruptly changed. If you’re anything like me, you are still finding yourself experiencing a wide range of emotions on any given day. The degrees to which we’ve returned to any kind of normal activity may be different, and our views on circumstances could also vary somewhat (or maybe even a lot), but I would guess we would agree on the fact that we are feeling OVER IT! On that point, there seems to be consensus.

My plan back in February was to commit to writing and posting weekly. Then when the pandemic hit, I adjusted and aimed for monthly. Now all bets, restrictions, and timelines are off. I’m giving myself permission to post only when I feel like I have something worthwhile to say. Trust me, there are many days when my silence is far more valuable.

I read a brief article this morning that got me thinking about one of the most useful tools that has been helping me cope during this crazy time. (Side note: I just CANNOT with the words uncertain, unprecedented, challenging, etc. I have landed on crazy which is more palatable to me. So I will typically use it any time I need an adjective for 2020 without seeking out a more interesting synonym.) Back to the article, which I will share at the end of my post here so you can read it. The author suggests three questions to ask each day to help reframe your thoughts. It was written back in April (which in 2020 feels like years, not months, ago), but I still think her questions are worthwhile to ask at this stage of the pandemic. I’ll keep you wondering what her questions were or you can scroll to the bottom and read her article first. I’m simply going to focus on the idea of reframing right now. The whole ability to reframe one’s thinking, MY thinking, is an extraordinarily powerful way to navigate difficult situations. I know this, because once upon a time not so long ago I had absolutely no idea how to do this, and now that I do, it has transformed my life. Seriously, no exaggeration here whatsoever.

As I started thinking more about reframing thoughts, I also began thinking about metaphors. Let’s consider a couple right now.

2020 is a dumpster fire!

Will any of us disagree on this one? When I saw this posted and then shared it on social media, there were many laughing reactions. I think I would actually buy this if it was marketed. It’s too true! And I still think memes have been one of the best parts of this whole mess.

In a more pessimistic mind-frame while reading back through my posts from March, April, and May [I skipped June entirely being that for me and many others, it was a month to listen, process, and learn], I found myself dismissively chuckling at naive little me talking about the highlights of quarantine and things I would miss if life resumed as “normal” immediately. It’s been all too easy to bemoan everything that is going wrong. Early on I was feeling especially thankful that my kids are teenagers and were dealing with sheltering in place fairly well. I didn’t have little ones to keep busy indoors, and I had tremendous sympathy for moms and dads of young ones during that time. Four months in, there are days that I would trade endless diaper changes and/or toddler tantrums in a heartbeat. I respect my kids’ privacy and will save my stories for a much later date (and only with their approval), but in a parallel universe I could unleash some doozies right now. We’re about to add wisdom teeth removal into the mix over here, too, so that should be fun. Parenting teens in 2020 under our current circumstances is no joke. Parenting teens without a concurrent global pandemic and ensuing crises is crazy terrain on its own. But now? I mean, just being a human is tough to manage many days. Right?!

It’s pretty remarkable to be living in a time where so much is completely up in the air, for literally all of us. The collective anxiety we’re all feeling is tangible. Being a person of faith, I’ve always read biblical stories of people living in great uncertainty, losing everything, needing to rebuild their lives, etc. I grew up with sentiments like “it’s all in God’s hands,” and “God is in control.” And make no mistake, I very much believe those statements to this day. But speaking as a privileged American, how many times have I really had to face unknowns that are entirely out of my control? Not too many. Those statements, while true according to my belief system, can come off as mere platitudes. Never has there been this magnitude of unknowns that I must face myself along with everyone around me. This is, ugh — I hate to say it, unprecedented.

Never has this felt more true.

One thought I have almost every single day is that I am so grateful that the events of 2020 came after my midlife breakthrough (for any new readers, I prefer Brené Brown’s term for this phenomenon to the more commonly used “breakdown”). Five years ago my tool box with which to navigate high-anxiety times such a these was mostly empty. I credit a very wise, skilled, and caring therapist for helping to equip me; piles upon piles of books by Brown and other researchers that further educated me; and I acknowledge a tremendous amount of ongoing personal work that I have made a priority to help get me to a much better place. But honestly, one of the best tools is really quite simple: reframing my thoughts. Another way to phrase this is choosing one thought over another.

Calling 2020 a dumpster fire is funny and can give me a needed laugh. Allowing myself to ruminate on the mess that is our current reality quickly loses its humor. I need a new metaphor, one that can bring me back to a place of hope and purpose.

May I suggest 2020 is a stationary bicycle?

For Mother’s Day this year we all went in on a new stationary bike for my mother-in-law’s gift. That purchase put the metaphor of a stationary bike in my mind.

Being a teacher, I have never worked harder while literally going nowhere. Ever since March, I feel like I have been peddling away at breakneck speed while sitting in the exact same spot. I feel like it because I have been largely in the exact same spot. My little desk where I used to sit for a couple hours a week at most to pay bills, etc. became my work desk and my virtual classroom space. While remote teaching and trying to get the hang of distance learning was a challenge for all of us in education, I found that the necessity gave me a purpose and a focus for my nervous energy. I was grateful for an avenue in which to channel it. So I signed up for distance learning summer school. I haven’t worked during a summer in twenty-two years, but this seemed like the year to do it, so I pedal away.

The realities of 2020 outside of teaching also seem to fit the stationary bike metaphor. Just to mention one, our nation’s ongoing battle with racial injustice to me feels like we are a society stuck on a stationary bicycle. Shouldn’t we have made more progress by now? Why are we still having to demand accountability and the service of justice for those who murder Black Americans? We are a nation with some pedaling feverishly in this regard. I pray and commit myself to personal action so the stationary bike of racial injustice will be set loose and forward movement will continue and be accelerated.

On a more personal level, I believe we are all pedaling to simply keep our households afloat, whether that be financially, emotionally, or both. We have kids wondering when/if they will return to their schools, and if so what will it be like? We have parents wondering how they will juggle work and uncertainties with school situations. We have entire industries of employees wondering if they will be working from week to week based on state and county health orders. We all continue to pedal.

When I consider the purpose of a stationary bike, though, I go back to the benefits of pedaling on this type of equipment. Why do people use them? They can help boost cardio fitness, aid in weight loss, burn unwanted body fat, provide a low-impact workout, and allow for a safer cycling experience than you’d get on the open road. That whole indoor aspect of it kind of fits with our 2020 existence to an extent as well. The bottom line is, even if the bike is staying in one spot, active peddling is getting you in better shape. Making this a habit will result in increased health and personal growth.

I think the same can be true for our personal growth when we consider the “2020 is a stationary bike” metaphor. For me, diving into summer distance learning has been keeping me motivated and focused. Should I find myself in a position to ever teach remotely again during the regular school year (which is a distinct possibility), I will be more prepared and better able to meet the needs of my students. I’m on the bike, and I’m growing.

I’m looking at my family and friendship relationships through this lens as well. How can I best grow through the interpersonal challenges presented by way too many hours exclusively interacting with only my family? I’ll be honest, this isn’t easy. Quality family time is a treasure to be sure, but somewhere around day seventy the charm wore off for all of us. Current reality requires me to learn and practice a lot more grace. It’s not easy, but I find my relationships enriched by the effort. So here, too, I pedal. And I’m growing.

I think there is power in picking our metaphors. Happiness, joy, basic sanity… these all can be found even in 2020. To do so, monitoring our thinking, taking our thoughts captive, and reframing how we view our current realities has to happen.

Maybe the first half of 2020 has been a dumpster fire in your perspective. Perhaps it’s time to hop on that stationary bike?

Here’s the link for the article that prompted all these thoughts this morning. https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/3-questions-to-ask-yourself-every-morning-when-youre-stuck-in-lockdown.html?cid=sf01002&fbclid=IwAR0EqzN_bKiEuM8qiHojFY3fVjnsBJAkriYufmtIdLu59vW_fzBnBWQOSmM

How about we stop calling this the new normal?

When I last put a blog post out into the world, twenty-two days ago now, I reflected on the aspects of life during shelter in place that I would miss should it end tomorrow. Interestingly enough, I now find myself missing some of those very things I mentioned, even though I still am living under the same stay at home guidelines. Turns out this quarantine didn’t need to end for some of the conditions I was enjoying to once again change. Everything is temporary. As we so often hear these days, situations are fluid. Among other things, the abundant sleep I somehow managed to mercifully enjoy in April is once again pretty elusive, but man, was it nice while it lasted!

For me the month of May has been full of frequent reminders that this most assuredly is not going to all end tomorrow. My gratitude practice of noticing and thinking about what I would miss about today is still helpful, but coping in 2020 requires a pretty extensive tool box. It seems I am always on the lookout for new and improved “hardware” to add to mine as one tool simply won’t do the job. Which brings me to the idea of word choice and some of the phrasing I hear an awful lot of lately. Words have a powerful impact on our thinking. I’ve found myself considering how the mere mention of some words and terms can elicit certain emotions, especially negative ones. One phrase in particular seems to be upsetting people quite a lot these days: new normal. I’ve been thinking about why hearing these two words together at this time is disconcerting for so many, myself included.

“We have to adjust to this new normal.”

“I refuse to call this normal. Nothing about this is normal.”

“Wearing a mask is not normal.”

“Staying home and not interacting socially with friends is not normal.”

“Keeping six feet of distance between people is not normal.”

“Not being able to live our lives like we’re used to is not normal.”

It’s not. None of it is.

When I started reading more and more social media posts with people expressing frustration and even anger with the term new normal, I found similar thoughts nagging me as well. It made me consider the damage that could be affected simply by continuing its use. Could we be discouraging others from taking temporary precautions that could help save lives by unintentionally making people fear these conditions could last forever by something as basic as the words we use? I wonder.

Perhaps some people think that by calling it a new normal it will serve to truly normalize these conditions we need to live under right now? Maybe the thought is that since we must make these changes for the common good, calling it a new normal promotes embracing the shared practices that are needed? Or most likely, not much thought has gone into it at all, and it’s just a convenient term to throw out there given the circumstances with which we’re dealing. I realize not everyone ruminates on these things nearly as much as I do.

Whatever the case, I hereby propose for the sake of our collective sanity (and more personally for my own) that we consider using the phrasing current reality in its place. Let’s try it out, shall we?

“Wearing a mask is our current reality when out in public, but it won’t be forever.”

“Wearing a mask is not comfortable, and there are scientific arguments for and against its effectiveness. But there’s so much we still don’t know about this virus and its transmission, so I will wear one as an act of kindness and care since since this is our current reality. We won’t have to do this forever.”

“Because of our current reality, I can’t attend the concert festival this summer that I had hoped to enjoy. I look forward to when venues open up again!”

“This current reality dashed our hopes of celebrating my child’s graduation. We will figure out a way to celebrate at a later date.”

I could continue, but you get the idea. Feel free to throw in a couple of examples yourself for practice. Using this replacement term is useful for me, perhaps you might find it helpful.

I’m writing these thoughts on day 70 of my family’s retreat into our home. 70 days feels like a long time. Numbers have been an interesting little diversion for me over the course of these weeks. I noted when it was day number 23 as it made me think of Fiona in Shrek the Musical singing while in isolation in her tower guarded by the dragon. When it had been 40 days the biblical references struck me, and I pictured Noah and his family emerging from the ark with all the animals. After binge watching the miniseries Waco on Netflix, I later noticed when we hit day 51 and had been in our house as long as the Branch Davidians were engaged in their standoff with the feds at their Mount Carmel complex. It seemed like they were held up in there forever! And I remember that news cycle in ’93 and how lengthy it seemed before the ultimate tragic ending. We have been sheltering in place longer than that siege. I can’t help but wonder how many more notable numbers are still ahead while I check off these days on the calendar.

Yes, some days the return to normal feels like an interminable wait. But this is not forever. This is our current reality; current meaning for now. I can deal with now. I can focus on this moment and what I need to do to make it tolerable. I can take deep breaths. I can go for a walk outside and get a needed change of scenery. I can practice gratitude and reframe my thoughts when they take a despairing turn. I can take a nap when lack of sleep and too much Zooming has drained me and I just need a short, good cry and some restorative rest. I can text a friend who will write a word of encouragement that will bring a smile to my face once again. There is nothing I can do about a single thing beyond this solitary moment. But in this moment I have choices and actions I can take to make it bearable. Then the moments begin to string together, and I find that the choices become learned habits that serve to sustain me through a difficult time that is longer than I ever would have wanted this to be had I any control over it.

Being a teacher, I can tell you that nothing about my job feels normal right now. And I most definitely will not call the current state of education a new normal. There is so much I miss about face to face, non-electronic interactions with my students and the energy of being in a classroom. If I ever needed confirmation that I love teaching and I want to remain in the profession for the long haul, abruptly being taken out of the classroom in March confirmed it. I will not try to wrap my brain around remote teaching being the new normal. I can much more easily accept that it is our current reality, and one to which I need to and will adapt and remain flexible for the duration, however long that may be. One day at a time is not just a sitcom I loved in the 70s. I have to live in the space of taking one day, one hour, one minute at a time more than ever before. It’s manageable that way.

Remote teaching began in March, but my district’s distance learning plan did not include (or allow) any form of teleconferencing until just this past week. Zoom had only been used for staff meetings, professional development, and collaborative planning up until then. It was amazing to finally experience what everyone else has and to see my students through a screen for the first time this week. While for many kids in other districts the thrill is over and Zoom fatigue is hitting hard, some of my students are logging into the waiting room and sitting there for up to 2 hours in anticipation of our class sessions. Maybe saving it until now wasn’t such a bad thing. They have some renewed energy for the home stretch. This was me before my initial meeting, ready to go with my background that never would turn backwards for my participants to read correctly when I clicked on the mirror image. “Hi kids and families! I haven’t seen you in over two months, and here I am with my backward welcome message to you!” It’s all a learning curve. A sense of humor is a MUST!

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and normally this is the weekend I would be exhaling after finishing state testing, wrapping up Open House, and most of the academic assessments that close out a school year. This is when I would shift into cruise mode and enjoy the rest of the year with my class as we would have days filled with science experiments, enrichment projects, all school Olympics and other end of year activities with lots of joy to close out our time together in the classroom. Instead, three intense and hectic weeks of distance learning are still ahead, and they promise to be nothing like any other end of the year I’ve had in my 24 years of teaching elementary school. For one, our current reality has made the classroom check-out process a whole lot different for public schools with steps that must be taken to sanitize classrooms and prepare for what school in the fall might look like. Again, it’s all still fluid. There is no one certain plan for what school will look like when the 2020-2021 school year begins for my district in August. It will not be a new normal. It will certainly not feel normal. It will be the current reality to which I will need to adapt. One minute at a time. One hour at a time. One day at a time. Those not in education can list the myriad ways their industry or field has been affected by our current reality. One of the only things in life of which we can be certain is that things will change. Always. Pandemic or not.

As I think about cleaning out my classroom and removing everything from its walls, I am reminded of an inspirational poster that has been hanging on one of my cabinets next to the white board that still has the date of Friday, March 13th written on it. The poster says, “I can do hard things.” I can refuse to call something a new normal, yes. I can reframe it as accepting a current reality and take steps to live in uncomfortable moments by using tools and cultivating habits that help me endure. What I cannot do is deny the necessity to live differently during this time. And this is a hard thing.

I cannot allow my own personal discomfort and deep desire for normalcy and the life and activities I love to blind me to the need to do these hard things and make some temporary changes required by our current reality. For me, this isn’t only about complying with directives to wear a mask while shopping or out in public spaces. It isn’t just respecting the personal space of others that now extends a full 6 feet or more, and minding the arrows that now direct me down the grocery aisles. It is about modeling flexibility, kindness, courtesy, and ultimately humanity for my own children and my students to observe. This is not easy, it is genuinely hard work. Circumstances like the ones we now face haven’t been experienced in our world for a century. And they have never been faced in a world with social media and fast access to all kinds of information and disinformation at all times. Maintaining calm, balance, and empathy can become a Herculean task in the face of it all.

Much has been said lately about living in fear. I’m not going to tread much into this discussion because it quickly ventures into some fairly divisive territory. However, I am going to suggest that the most repellent aspect of the phrase new normal is the fear it evokes in my mind when I allow my thoughts to briefly wander into the zone of, “What if we have to live like this forever?” Talk about fear-inducing! There is absolutely no good that comes from speculating and forecasting into the unknown future. There is no reason I should begin trying to integrate the idea of a future filled with masks and social distancing, attempt to accept it as normal from here on out, and dwell on that line of thinking. I am personally not in the camp of being overly suspicious of the experts, so I will leave the projections and speculation to the epidemiologists who know much more about what we can expect for the time being. Instead I will focus on what I can control, my thoughts. For now, these changes to which I willingly adapt are done with compassion in light of our current reality. That is what I know today, now. That is all I need to know. In my choice to embrace these compassionate acts, I feel no fear.

Some final thoughts while engaged in this whole new normal vs. current reality rumination. Frequently when hearing and reading people disparage the current state of affairs and responses to COVID-19, I also hear comments like, “I refuse to live like this. This is not living.” There are many reasons that comments like these trouble me, especially the latter. First I must say I have had these thoughts go through my own head as well, so no judgment intended in any way. We’ve likely all been there. But these kinds of thoughts tend to shake me back into the reality that every single day above ground is a good one, or it can be. My early twenties were marked by huge losses for three consecutive years; the loss of my dad being the third and most personally devastating. That shattering time served to convince me that this life, even when at its most crappy, is indeed a gift. Every day I’m breathing is living. It’s up to me to choose to put life into it, no matter the circumstances in which I find myself; no matter what may have been temporarily (or even permanently, as in the case of my dad) taken away. What I allow into my thoughts plays a big part in helping me shape that quality of life. Furthermore, my children are watching how I respond to life when it is not ideal. My response affects their quality of life. The way I respond will become their model for how to navigate the world when things get very hard. I want them to know and experience that life can be rich even under difficult circumstances that we would never choose. I want to help them learn through this far less than ideal current reality so that they will be ready for the ones they will inevitably face in the future.

I’ll leave you with some words from one of my favorite authors, Kelly Corrigan. Her book, The Middle Place, about her unique and beautiful relationship with her dad resonated with me deeply and makes the short list of my favorite memoirs. A later book, Glitter and Glue, focused on her relationship with her mother and daughters and is another one I highly recommend. In that one she wrote of her diagnosis and battle with stage 3 cancer. I follow her social media, and this week a reader took a picture of a page of the book in which Kelly described her response to the initial diagnosis. The reader then shared her own notes on the page, written this week.

In her post this week, Kelly responded to her reader’s photo saying, “There’s just no getting around it: Whatever it is that may be unfolding, this is it. This is our life, our great adventure, our mystery to be lived.”

Regardless of our current reality, may we live our lives well. This is it. This is living.

For now.

Succ… succulents… get it? I’m corny and I think too much. I can embrace it.

What Would You Miss?

It’s remarkable to me that eight weeks ago I had no idea what Zoom was. Today, each member of my household had at least one teleconferencing meeting for school or work over this now ubiquitous forum. It’s certainly become a lifesaver as all of our connections to the outside world now largely rely on this tool to keep things going during this strange season. It’s a tremendous help. But I look forward to a day when we no longer have to use it as much as we do right now, if at all. The Zoom brain drain and screen fatigue is real.

My daughter’s school has been especially helpful and supportive during the transition to distance learning. Being that I’m a teacher transitioning to remote instruction myself, I haven’t been free to take advantage of some of the supports they are providing to families during school closure. One of those services being Zoom parent chats where school staff can answer parents’ questions and simply provide encouragement as parents manage their children’s learning at home. On a recent parent support session, the school counselor posed the following question to parents: What will you miss when the shelter in place order is lifted and you are no longer at home with your family for an extended period like this?

I wasn’t a part of this session myself, but the school principal shared this question with all families in a subsequent communication. It has stuck with me, and keeping my slightly modified version of the question in mind – “What would I miss about today if the stay at home orders were lifted tomorrow?” – has helped me get through some otherwise monotonous and potentially depressing days.

Like most of us, I’ve been all over the place emotionally during this time of shelter in place. Some days are definitely harder than others. As I near day 50 of having been in my home getting out for only walks and a handful of trips to get groceries, my list of things I will NOT miss once this is over has grown. But my isolation gripes are minor when compared to those people facing extreme hardship during this pandemic. Job loss, economic uncertainty, health challenges (both coronavirus related and otherwise), these are just some of the crises I have been spared thus far. I realize I am very fortunate. Even being able to have the mental space to reflect on positives right now could in itself be considered a privilege. But I think it is key to getting through this time. This question – what would I miss? – has been helping me adjust my focus when needed. So here is my as yet developing list:

1) Consistent/sufficient sleep – The first couple of weeks after schools closed and stay at home orders had gone into effect, my system was totally off. My mind was dizzy not knowing how any type of distance learning would roll out, how I would meet the needs of my students, how hard the pandemic would hit my community, how my own children would adjust to the situation, when or if I could find toilet paper, etc. All of these concerns had me in a state of mental unrest. I was lucky to get 4-5 straight hours of sleep, and for at least a couple of weeks I had great difficulty falling asleep only to find myself wide awake around 3 am and unable to doze off again.

By week three, though, I seemed to have settled into a more tolerable and even comfortable state of uncertainty. I began accepting that no one really knew (or knows) how long this situation might go on, it was (is) out of my control, and I will just do the best I can. With that acceptance came sleep! And it has been exceedingly restorative. For the past 3-4 weeks (with few exceptions) I have been getting a minimum of 8 hours each night, and I feel like a new person. Getting this forced break from having my schedule so loaded that the only way to have family time, get all my work done, have a social life, and carve out some time for myself is to sacrifice sufficient nightly rest has been very healthy for me.

2) A wide open calendar – With two working parents and two active teenagers, it is rare to find even two empty days a month on the calendar where none of us are expected to be anywhere at all. Some months there isn’t a single day to be found. All of of us in my house could probably best be characterized as ambiverts. Not exactly extroverts, and not entirely introverts, we enjoy our time with friends and engaging in the social activities that we prefer, but we can all appreciate a nice “nothing day” when one comes up. That’s our term for a day when nothing is requiring us to leave the house if we don’t choose to do so. Having time to read a great book, enjoy a Netflix binge, journal, complete an organizational project, or to spend time gaming is something my whole family loves. For me, once my attention span returned, being able to go from one great read to another has been a treat that I rarely experience during the school year.

As our kids have gotten older, my husband and I have sometimes struggled with this uncomfortable feeling that our time is not our own. There have been many instances where we have shared with each other that we miss our children being young, back when we determined their levels of involvement in extra-curriculars without much of their input, and they didn’t know any differently. Sometimes you start feeling owned by the relentless schedule and calendar. On the other hand, we want to encourage our kids in their interests and pursuits. We’ve worked to balance their schedules (along with our own) and be intentional about not over-committing and over-extending. It’s an endless juggle to which I’m sure many American families can relate.

We never would have imagined life would come to a screeching halt the way it did in mid-March. Nor would we ever have asked for quite this level of inactivity. On the other hand, all four of us have expressed how rejuvenating it has been to SLOW DOWN. Putting in a full week of work from home, minus a sometimes stressful commute along with evening commitments, and knowing that there is rest to be had on the weekend is a welcome change of pace for a while. It was a bit of a jarring adjustment, and it is sure to get old (in some ways it already has). But this many weeks in, we all still seem to be managing to make the most of our extended “nothing days,” knowing they will not last forever.

3) Long walks through my neighborhood – If you’ve read my blog previously you know that at the end of 2019 my family adopted a dog from the local animal shelter. I now know the timing for that could not have been better. If anything is certain, it’s that 2020 is definitely the year to have a dog. We moved into our home in 2017, and in the two years of living here, I hadn’t spent much time walking through our neighborhood on any leisurely strolls. We don’t live within walking distance of shops or restaurants. Walking or biking would usually happen on nearby recreational paths, at the beach, etc. That changed when we brought home our dog. Daily neighborhood walks became a new habit. My husband covered the morning walks being that his work start time is later (and more flexible) than mine. Our son would get the dog out for a early afternoon walk after getting back from school, and then I got to enjoy the evening walks which until the time change in early March were mostly taken in the dark.

The stay at home order changed that whole system fast. Working from the house, I’m now free to get out for a walk multiple times a day. I quickly discovered endless possibilities for different routes to take around the neighborhood, making each outing a little more exciting for both my curious dog and myself. And spring sprung right before my eyes! It seems with each new day increasingly beautiful flowers begin to bloom, bringing a sense of beauty and hope that immediately lifts my spirits. I enjoy walks alone with the dog, but usually one or two walks a day are with my husband or or one of my kids (or on the very rare occasion, all of us together).

I don’t recall where I first heard someone say that we are created to be human be-ings not human do-ings. Nothing has helped me feel more human than having consistent time outside to breathe deep, clear my head, and just enjoy being in the natural world on my walks. It helps that fewer cars are heading down the streets, and it feels like the Earth itself is taking a big breath with me. The birds are louder than they have ever been before (or am I just now listening? Probably a combination of both). Getting out for a walk first thing in the morning, after a full night of sleep, when I don’t have a packed schedule ahead with places to go or need to be racing to get ready for something is really, really nice. Stopping to look at an interesting variety of plant that I’m unfamiliar with is honestly something I’ve never allowed myself time to do. In fact, I probably would have dismissed something like that as boring or “not my thing.” Slowing the pace has shown me there’s a whole lot that does interest me and does bring me joy when I’m more focused on being rather than doing.

4) Time to connect with my kids – In the weeks before the pandemic, my 16-year-old son had just finished a show run for a musical he was in, all the while still in rehearsals for his next show at his high school that was set to open in Mid-March. I maybe had 5 solid minutes of rushed (and not always pleasant) conversation time with him each day. Our 13-year-old daughter is just as busy with her own theater pursuits, strong academic focus, and lively social life. My family was running in different directions at all times. Then the world suddenly hit pause. I was especially concerned for my daughter, fearing that being cut off from her friends and having the disappointment of many canceled activities would be especially hard on her. To my surprise, both my kids took the initial disappointment in stride and continue to do so. It definitely helps that we have technology that can connect us to friends outside our house, and both my kids take full advantage of that. This is a vastly different experience than I would have had as a 7th grader if the pandemic had hit in 1986, when I was an only child who would have been stuck in my house all day with only a landline and call waiting.

After a couple of weeks of trying to force some family quarantine together time that wasn’t naturally occurring as I would have hoped, we have been able to fall into a more authentic, comfortable rhythm. Most days when the dog is ready for his after dinner walk and my husband is still “at work,” my son often wants to go out for the walk along with me. We went from hardly having a minute to speak, to having quality conversations nearly every day, sometimes for up to an hour on those walks. And it’s something we both look forward to and enjoy.

I’m finding different opportunities to connect with my daughter in ways we weren’t able to when life was so hectic. We had already found ourselves really bonding this year. So often with girls the tween/teen years can be tough. Mercifully, that has not been our experience (at least not yet). This stay at home order has given me precious time that I never would have had otherwise with these two amazing humans that call me mom, and who have grown up faster than I ever thought possible. And the family together time is happening now, too. I’d call this all a gift I never would have expected to come my way as we began 2020.

5) Reliving my honeymoon – Did I lose you with that one? I’m guessing you may wonder what on Earth I could mean by this. No, we weren’t wearing masks and hunting for Clorox wipes as newlyweds. This pandemic just happens to have hit the year we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. In fact, this week marks 20 years since we became engaged. At the time I was living and teaching in San Diego, while my husband still worked and resided in Orange County where I had lived and we met three years before. We essentially spent our entire dating relationship and engagement living 2-3 hours apart depending on traffic. When we finally married in December of 2000, our honeymoon was the first time we were even in the same zip code together for a full week as a couple.

Being that our wedding budget was pretty meager, and our honeymoon budget was nonexistent, we were thrilled that a mutual friend and former coworker offered us her cabin for a full week in the local Southern California mountains of Big Bear. It really was the perfect honeymoon set-up for us. We just wanted time together, unrushed and uninterrupted. After always trying to fit in every important conversation before the continual goodbyes, being together and relaxed with not much to do was a fantastic way to begin our married life together. And we learned quickly that we really enjoyed being homebodies together. Reading, listening to music, working on projects (my husband taught me how to make a stained glass window on our honeymoon) — we found we could easily stay happily entertained in only each other’s company while stuck inside. We also loved (and still love) the beauty of the mountains, and walking/hiking through the area that week was wonderful. We didn’t enjoy any of the extravagant excursions some experience on honeymoons in more exotic destinations, but a week in a mountain cabin was just perfect for us. That time set the tone for how we most enjoy doing life.

This is the stained glass window my husband and I made from start to finish the week of our honeymoon in Big Bear.

And that is not at all how life goes when kids enter the picture. Ha! The words unrushed and uninterrupted are not found in the lexicon of parenting. With our two, our strongest homebody tendencies have rarely been indulged, at least not with us both together at the same time. We wouldn’t trade the experience of being parents for anything; it has been our greatest joy for sure. But I can’t say I haven’t thought back to those times when it was just us and wondered what it will be like when it is just us again. That day is approaching. You hear stories of the empty nest and couples no longer relating to each other, having built their lives completely around their children or careers. I’ve never pictured us being those people, but connection and communication can be difficult when you are living life at what sometimes feels like a breakneck pace.

It occurred to us both the other day that this time feels somewhat like being in that cabin cut off from the rest of the world. Yes, we have two others with us this time. But teenagers do tend to sleep in. I’m finding I love the mornings most, when the dog wakes us early, and we head out for a long morning stroll together before our kids even wake up. We’re getting to do this every single day! And it’s really nice to know that 20 years later, we still have a whole lot of conversation and laughter to fill those long walks. Even more so now. Without having to deal with a morning commute, we’re both starting our work days fresh from time in the outdoors being together. Lest I paint too idyllic a picture here, we have had our disagreements on those walks as well. We happen to be two pretty stubborn and opinionated people, especially with each other, so there’s some of that too. But that’s for another blog post. The important thing, and the thing that I will most assuredly miss when this is all over, is the quality time we are getting to be able to communicate and actually focus on our relationship outside of some all too brief or infrequent date night. It’s been a serendipitous 20 year tune-up. And I must say, it has us both looking forward to retirement together someday, Lord willing.

So it turns out there are some things about this time that I know I really will miss.

Zoom will not be one of them.

Leveraging the adversity

One of my new hobbies is checking out the latest chalk art around my neighborhood on my multiple daily dog walks that are keeping me sane during this strange and monotonous time of quarantine. Some of the artwork gets pretty sophisticated, more and more so as the days stretch on. Then there are the sweet little drawings on the sidewalk in front of a house about a mile away, obviously done by very little ones. I don’t know this family, but I tend to walk this particular route in the 5 o’clock hour when I can usually hear some whines and cries coming from the window as I walk just beside the cars parked on the side of the street, keeping my appropriate physical distance. The sounds bring back that familiar “witching hour” I remember when my own kids were little. When it was time to get dinner prepared after a long day of keeping them entertained, and we were all at about the end of our day’s energy (and patience) reserves. When I walk by this particular house most days, there is always new evidence turning up of the great efforts taken to keep the smallest of this home’s occupants busy and happy all day: small starter scooters strewn about the lawn, a balance beam, painted rocks, adorable homemade Easter decorations, sweet notes of thanks to essential workers hung on the house, and always new additions to the chalk drawings. God bless those parents giving it their all each day. God bless us all doing our best to keep on keeping on in these most unusual and often distressing circumstances.

On another block in front of another stranger’s home, I saw this message late last week:

It first got my attention because when I was still quite a distance down the opposite side of the street, I saw another dog walker, an older gentleman, glance at it and continue on his way. Then he turned back and stopped to read the message again. Curious me needed to cross the street to see what prompted him to look twice. Turns out this one really got me thinking, too. I’ve certainly heard the term before, but it did give me pause to come upon it during an early morning walk, as it clearly had the gentleman who saw it first. I mean, a month ago this wouldn’t have been a very likely message for someone to write with the old sidewalk chalk. Outside of organizational leaders, business minds, or self-help/motivational speakers, your average lay person may not have been thinking much about nor seeking ways to “leverage adversity” a few short weeks ago. We sure weren’t on a broad collective scale at any rate. The way my mind works, I had to go home and look up the phrase and its applications. I quickly came upon an online continuing education course for healthcare professionals, psychologists, educators, social workers, etc. with this term in the course title: “Leveraging Adversity: Turning Setbacks into Springboards.” The course description explained how clinicians could help their clients face various kinds of adversity and provided this working explanation of the term:

“Leveraging adversity, that is, using it to make critical reconsiderations, align values with behavior, and face challenges with a growth mindset…. five core strengths of leveraging adversity are gratitude, openness, personal strength, connection, and belief.” Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

That course explanation got me thinking. The parts about making “critical reconsiderations,” acting on our values, practicing gratitude stood out. All of these things resonated. Then I started wondering about the word leverage all on its own. I don’t often associate that word with positive connotations. I usually associate it with manipulation. When used as a noun, leverage is first defined as “the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.” Clearly, in the case of leveraging adversity, the term would be used as a verb. These definitions came up:

leverage verb

1. use borrowed capital for(an investment), expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.

2. use (something) to maximum advantage.

I became dismayed at the notion of force and the idea of “using” the adverse situations in which we find ourselves for some kind of personal gain or profit. I went from having a positive feeling about this innocuous neighborhood message, to finding myself annoyed and put off by it. “Force” and “use” implied a type of productivity that has been elusive for me and so many others in these days of physical distancing. I write this post on day 23 of being mostly inside, in my home, with these neighborhood walks being my only outlet. Back in the first few days of sheltering in place, memes about Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague, and Isaac Newton inventing calculus among other things, struck me as funny. I’d share them with quips like, “The pressure is on, folks!” One of my most dear and respected friends wrote me privately in response to one of those posts, sharing how stressful those kinds of messages felt right then. How what was meant to be funny just wasn’t. The demand to be productive was just too much. My flimsy attempt at being humorous didn’t strike some as funny at all, right from the start. As the days dragged on, I began to share the sentiment my friend had expressed to me. The notion of “leveraging the adversity” felt like another means of productivity shaming during a time when many (including myself) are finding it very challenging to be productive in many ways. For a couple of days, I avoided that block with the consternating message entirely.

Even this blog became a point of stress. I had embarked upon it pre-pandemic with so many ideas and several posts in progress, ready to throw out some thoughts and stories without being overly concerned about having a filter. I was ready and excited. It felt like a joy to sit down and write, not a chore at all. Then the world changed on all of us, and suddenly I felt the burden of needing to be especially mindful about any words or ideas I’m putting out in the world right now. I also felt any sense of creativity being sucked dry by my new reality of needing to learn how to teach my 4th grade class remotely. That old “learning to fly the plane while in flight” totally applies here. Not much energy left for free flowing thought when my day job has been totally redefined.

Eventually, I passed the message on the sidewalk again.

Each time I read it, I am first thrown by how the cursive looks almost identical to my own when I am being very conscientious with my penmanship. We evidently learned the same D’Nealian writing style way back when. So it almost feels like a message I have written to myself somehow. And it has obviously gotten under my skin.

This morning on my walk, I started thinking about the word leverage in terms of balance. When I read the message this time it conjured the image of being a child on a teeter totter. I recalled how fun that particular piece of playground equipment was when I’d be on it with a friend of similar height and weight, when we could bounce each other into the air with similar force and exertion, neither of us overpowering the other resulting in one of us dangling in the air with the other planted in the sand. The ability to balance is what made it enjoyable.

It struck me that it is the ability to find mental and emotional balance that is making this current time (while not exactly always enjoyable) tolerable for me. And I say ability to find it, because it is not always readily seen.

I relate a lot to this little gray man these days. Finding balance takes effort.

On a purely selfish level, I am so thankful COVID-19 didn’t hit 4 or 5 years ago. If it had, I would be attempting to face these tough circumstances with a mostly empty toolbox. Previous blog posts have touched upon some of the struggles I experienced and how cognitive behavioral therapy (among other things) helped me come through a very dark time. Strategies I learned during that painful period are incredibly helpful right now. For one, I am much more comfortable sitting with discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t eagerly invite it or want it. But I no longer feel afraid of it or become overly concerned that it is going to overwhelm me.

I’m pretty sure I have never witnessed such widespread sadness and discomfort before. Some of the funniest, most upbeat authors/bloggers I enjoy reading are regularly in tears on social media being very honest in their struggles these days. I appreciate their vulnerability. People are hurting for so many different reasons right now: illness, financial loss, physical isolation, lack of connection, loss of social outlets/ entertainment, you name it. It’s all so hard. And don’t get me started on comparative suffering. If you are hurting right now, you are hurting. No one saying “it could be worse” or anything along those lines is the least bit helpful right now. Pain is pain. Discomfort is discomfort. If you are feeling it, you are feeling it. Minimizing someone else’s pain is not the least bit helpful.

What can be beneficial, I think, is having an idea of what to do with difficult feelings when they come.

Probably the single most useful tool I took with me from my experience 4 years ago, was learning how to not over-identify with emotions. Learning how to recognize an uncomfortable feeling when it comes, to name it and acknowledge it and not immediately resist it, was a huge breakthrough. Some of you may also already know the benefits of this practice. If not, I’d love to possibly save you hundreds of dollars in therapy by sharing just this little nugget. Being able to say, “I am feeling really sad right this minute,” and to just sit with it, while affirming that it is a temporary feeling that doesn’t need to live in me permanently, is very freeing. (You can substitute sad with any and all negative emotions you’d rather just avoid or deny.) I had previously been so distressed by feelings of sadness, first resisting, then when that wasn’t successful, I would subconsciously over-attach myself to negative emotions. I would then go on to criticize myself for not being a more positive person in general (which is ironic because I did a pretty good job faking that for a long time, at least to the less discerning eye). It was a vicious cycle from which I couldn’t extract myself. When I stood back and observed the cycle, it was the initial resistance followed by over-attachment to feelings that got me so stuck.

Allowing myself to feel a feeling means taking the time to name the negative emotion passing through me. My therapist had me think of the undesired feeling as something outside of myself just passing by. It’s just a feeling; temporary; nothing more, nothing less. I would practice noticing it, acknowledging it, giving it a moment, then I would allow it to be on its way, not taking it on to become a part of me. This took practice, but in time it became very effective. Finding something satisfying that I could turn my attention to after that initial acknowledgment was a necessary next step. For each of us that thing will be different. For me it can be making my bed or something as simple as that. Everything just feels a little better when my bed is made. Reading has also long been a positive diversion for me. When I discovered early in the quaratine days that reading was proving difficult and my attention would not hold, puzzles did the trick. Other times it could be washing my face, or hugging my dog. Walks and getting outside is always a move that will have me feeling better quickly. Once I engage in the positive activity, I notice my emotions have begun to change as well.

But first acknowledging the undesired feeling is really important. I can’t get past a negative emotion if I am trying to resist it or pretend it’s not there. Those negative feelings have a way of building up and exploding on us if we try to suppress them or ignore them too long. Likewise, it is harmful if we sink too far into the feeling without acknowledging it then letting it move along (or other times more actively pushing it along). If we set up camp with those negative feelings, they can destroy us.

There is a place for positivity, and I do believe that looking for silver linings is part of a meaningful life. Recognizing blessings and practicing gratitude is powerful and life changing. But positivity at all costs, in and of itself, for its own sake, without regard for genuine human emotion and experience is pretty empty. Those who have a capacity for the greatest joy are often those who have been the most well acquainted with grief. There’s a lot to grieve these days. And I don’t think it’s indulgent to do so. I think it’s necessary.

I’ll leave you with some links to articles/posts that have been the most encouraging and validating to me in recent weeks:

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR1LRMh5SlR7c-nUk_4rewIbGWHdf8Xk9QFLGrBoeMcjvs4qUI-dPFpuuiw

https://bookriot.com/2020/04/01/what-to-do-if-you-cant-read-right-now/

One bit of progress, I was able to finish reading not one, but two books in the past four days. My attention seems to be improving. That’s a definite plus!

How about you? How are you leveraging the adversity?

Emotional whiplash and the productive struggle of shelter in place

Well hello again after another week that has felt more like a month. How is everyone? I already have a fairly good sense of the answer to that question. In an effort to bring some levity to the heaviness of the past week, I stole a friend’s idea and posted one of those silly “what is your quaratine name?” posts on Facebook. Friends were supposed to write how they were feeling plus the last food eaten to create their name. It was a fun little peek into our various edible provisions while we’re stuck at home trying to flatten the curve. But it was the wide variety of emotions being felt that struck me on a deeper level. Here’s a look at the 60+ responses I received on that post (some words that were repeated appear larger).

Extra credit to my friend who responded with “gassy” and gave me one of my best laughs of the week.

Talk about emotions being all over the place! As comments popped up on the post, I found myself thinking, “Yep, I’ve had that feeling this week. Uh huh, that one, too.” At times this past week I’ve experienced many of these divergent feelings within the space of a single hour. The phrase emotional whiplash would describe what I’ve been experiencing as I try to process all that has happened over the past two weeks. You, too?

Another thought that has been crossing my mind is, why on earth did it need to be the month before the announcement of a global pandemic that I finally decided to get off my duff and commit to the practice of writing consistently? When I named this blog “Where Is My Mind?” I had so many other directions I expected this would go. I even have several posts started from weeks ago that I expected to develop/revise/publish over time, and I am just not in the head space right now to return to them. Part of me decided that with the crazy turn the world has taken, it would be perfectly acceptable to forego this experiment for now and get back to it another time maybe when the world has returned to normal. After all, the only person to whom I promised I’d do this was myself.

Aaaaaand, that’s why I’m back here writing again for week number five. With everyone emphasizing the importance of self-care during this unprecedented time, keeping this promise to myself seems to be of the highest order. (By the way, unprecedented seems to be my new least favorite word that makes me cringe each time I hear it. I will try to use it sparingly.) Coherent thoughts are not always coming easily, but I’m purposing to look for them and to see what I can glean through all of this. Which brings me to this idea of productive struggle.

Educators (teacher trainers especially) love this term, much to our students’ chagrin. And by “chagrin” I do not in any way mean in the sense of humiliation but rather the natural (and hopefully temporary) distress that struggle inherently brings. As a part of best teaching practices we are coached to allow students time to explore new concepts and ideas; to fail; to make their own meaning without stepping in and “stealing their struggle.” We want to normalize failed attempts so students understand it is all part of the learning process. This isn’t easy for teachers either. Any educator can tell you the questions stirring through our minds as we actively monitor this process in class. How much time is too much time before students get frustrated and quit? Am I wasting instructional minutes letting them flail uselessly? Is this really even productive? Teachers love to talk, so stepping back and allowing the struggle is no easy task.

It seems to me we are collectively finding ourselves in a time of productive struggle. We have a task before us. We don’t know what the solution is exactly. We have some clear directives along with other suggestions of things that should be done to help. And we’re left to explore, fail, try again, do something different, possibly fail yet again, come up with another plan, and so on. Life is our great teacher stepping back and letting us figure it out without intervening. This new reality plays out in so many ways right now: for teachers trying to set up remote learning opportunities; for parents trying to get their kids into some kind of routine while possibly spending their days at home for an undefined amount of time; for employees trying to adjust to working from home; for essential workers still having to report to their places of employment in uncertain times; for those who are now finding themselves without employment and facing a world of financial uncertainty on top of everything else. These are huge factors to try to figure out! But then there are the additional more personal experiences to navigate, like spending long hours in a confined space with a limited number of select people when you’re used to more time spent apart and engaged in other pursuits that are now suddenly unavailable. Even when those people are the ones you love most in the world, it can be a lot. It is a lot!

So this is a very unique time in which we find pretty much every person in our sphere struggling in one way or another, to both small degrees and large. Each and every one of those emotions in that word cloud are totally valid. As a Facebook friend wisely wrote the other day, we need to give ourselves (and each other) grace to feel our feelings and to manage through this time in the ways that are best for ourselves and our families. I entered the month of March feeling tired and ready for spring break (even though it was still 5 weeks to go for my district), so when the schools closed my family immediately went into unstructured break mode. We needed that. The thought of attempting any kind of schedule or remote schooling for my own kids like I saw so many others dive into was completely overwhelming to me. Now as we head into our second week at home, it’s time to introduce some structure and routine into our “shelter in place” days. I have a plan A ready to go tomorrow, and we’ll see how that goes. I expect it will be a lot of trial and error. By next week, I may already be on to plan E. I know there’s definitely a learning curve ahead.

One of the reasons I love teaching is that I love the idea of life-long learning. I am enriched in the company of educators who always remain curious, who continually seek to know more, and who are aware of the fact that the more you know, the more you realize there is so much yet to learn. Those are my kind of people, and there are many who share that mindset who are not themselves educators (so some of you non-teachers are ok, too — and while we’re on the subject, not all teachers share the belief that they have more to learn, I suppose). At any rate, I’m struck by how much there is to learn through this whole experience in which we find ourselves. And to learn there must be struggle. It’s all part of the game.

I’ll leave you with something I learned this past week that got me on this whole productive struggle train of thought in the first place. I was discouraged to find that I couldn’t concentrate much on any of the books in my huge to-read stack. Each time I’d sit down to crack open a book, I became distracted by something, scrolled on my phone following news updates way too much, or simply fell asleep from the exhaustion I was feeling. Three days into this new stay at home experience I did something I haven’t done in as long as I can remember (if ever?). I pulled out a puzzle. Last month for my birthday my mom gave me a puzzle with a charming picture of the inside of a quaint book store. In her retirement years she’s grown fond of puzzles. I loved the image and appreciated her thoughtfulness, and I wondered when (and if) I’d ever get around to actually working on it. This seemed like the perfect time.

It didn’t take long before it dawned on me just how long this puzzle would take to complete being that no one else in my house expressed one bit of interest in working on it along with me. I went through the box of 1,000 pieces, pulling out all the border edges to work on the outside first. It was not particularly fun nor satisfying at all. That first night, it was an exercise in irritation and frustration more than anything else. I was asking myself why this was something anyone found particularly enjoyable, and I debated whether or not to just put the pieces back into the box and shelf it. What was the point if it wasn’t even a fun diversion? I was ready to chalk it up to my seemingly underdeveloped spatial intelligence and decide I just wasn’t a puzzle person after all. Then I thought of my students that I am missing so much. I thought of a couple of students in particular who approach math on a daily basis the way I was approaching this puzzle. I heard my own words that I’ve so often said to them, “Stick with it, you can figure it out!” And I remembered all the times I have told them that math is really fun when you push yourself through the challenge, the productive struggle. I grumbled to myself that I was doing it alone and thought it would just go quicker if someone helped me. How many times have I been the one holding back in those important moments when they’re about to break through on their own? I felt pretty hypocritical in that moment and decided to stick with it.

Four days later I finished that 1,000 piece puzzle and am now officially hooked. I came to love the challenge. As I finished each small section, I couldn’t wait to get to the next. To my amazement, I was spending hours at a time and enjoying the process. I especially love how engrossing this activity can be when you just want to get your mind on something other than say the threat of a global novel virus. I may have just ordered 6 more puzzles on-line today.

This is the kind of place where I’d like to go when the world is back to normal and we can once again shop for more than groceries.

I think that very simple example of my puzzle experience can illustrate in the most basic way how uncomfortable challenges can be faced, and we are most certain to confront more and more challenges in the days ahead as we try to establish some sense of normalcy while in this shared state of limbo. Not knowing how long our lives will be interrupted, and finding the circumstances changing so much even from one day to the next, presents dilemmas from which we won’t have the luxury of stepping away. We will have to struggle through and find what works and what doesn’t work. There will likely be a lot to learn. And we may just find some unexpected blessings along the way.

I was encouraged to see that one of the emotions that came up the most often and appeared largest in the word cloud was hopeful. Here’s to holding onto hope and giving ourselves grace as we face our productive struggles in the days ahead.