What a week it has been! I mean, just wow. I feel like it’s been a month since the last time I posted. It’s only been three weeks since I made the commitment to publish a blog post weekly as a birthday gift to myself, yet it feels much longer than that. I’m sure you can likely relate to this odd feeling about time right now. I have been trying to get my mind to wrap around something other than topics related to COVID-19 that I could write about this week, but it’s simply not happening. The name of this blog is “Where Is My Mind?” and it would be a lie to say my mind is on much else right now.
In a surreal turn of events, Friday in my classroom was spent keeping students meaningfully engaged and happily occupied while fielding several texts from loved ones sharing breaking news of the various school districts in our state announcing closures, something that would have never seemed possible even a week ago. Then came the email notification from my daughter’s district which neighbors mine, soon followed by my son’s high school district (the one into which my k-8 district feeds). It would be hours before my own district announced that we would also be closed beginning Monday, March 16th.
This is an incredibly difficult decision for school districts to make, particularly districts like mine which serve a high percentage of students on free and reduced meal programs. Closure means disrupted lives for our families who already struggle to make ends meet. No one wants this scenario to play out. I looked at my students on Friday knowing that for a few of them, the extended time they will be away from school will mean that any healthy, normal routine to their days comes from being at school. These particular kids don’t even look forward to Fridays or school vacations, and here we were sending them off to at least 5 weeks of uncertainty. A very difficult decision indeed.
But I believe it’s ultimately the right one for what we’re facing.
I headed home Friday and found myself looking at my large to-read pile, marveling at the unanticipated amount of reading time that just presented itself. There is that bright side. Nothing gets me out of my own head quite like reading a book. It is my ultimate luxury made all the better because books are always within my reach and never cost prohibitive. I especially love books set in other countries that help me learn more about other cultures, or biographies that broaden my understanding of the human experience. I’ve heard it said that some books are like filet mignon while others are like Cheetos, or something like that. I seem to love all kinds. Far from a book snob, I enjoy everything from the classics – to informative nonfiction – to great fiction – to the occasional celebrity memoir. Musician bios are particularly fun to devour. Depending on my mood, I love just about any genre. And it looks like for the next five weeks at least, I will have nothing but time with which to enjoy many of them. For some of us, this whole staying home and social distancing experience is going to be much easier than for others. I’m thankful I have a house full of readers and that it’s books we have hoarded rather than toilet paper.
But here I am in the second full day of this collective social distancing effort, and the new books that have interested me most, that I expected to jump at reading given the extra time, remain closed. I’m not in panic mode. I’m sleeping well. I feel rational and level-headed. I’m not out bulk shopping. I note all of these things only because I do experience anxiety, and a time like this could potentially wreak havoc on my mental state. That doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather than opening one of my new books, though, I found myself pulling one off my shelf that I first read over twenty years ago and have been drawn to again and again. It’s the book Loving God With All Your Mind by Elizabeth George. I was gifted this book years ago by a dear friend in a Bible study/ accountability group, and it’s one of a few books I point to as having been truly transformational in my life. George examines six scripture passages that deal with our thinking and how we can worship the Lord with not only our hearts but with our minds. This weekend I’ve been going back to her words about one of my favorite passages of scripture, Philippians 4:8.
Much has been said about the panic and “hysteria” being witnessed in these uncertain early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s interesting to me that many people commenting on the reactions in this way are fellow believers. I see words like “stupid” and “ridiculous” being thrown around on social media by believers and non-believers alike. But it is comments like this coming from my brothers and sisters in Christ which grieve me most. I’m concerned by how many of my friends are claiming that since God is in control and is bigger than any virus, that taking steps like social distancing is all part of the “hysteria” and unnecessary if one puts their trust in God.
I go back to Philippians 4:8 and see the first admonition: “Finally, brethren, whatever is TRUE… think on these things.” I love that God gave us minds to think for ourselves. He didn’t just create us to be mere puppets moving and operating solely through His tugging at strings. He gave us minds to choose to follow Him. He first loved us, but He wants us to be the ones to move toward Him and in Him. He also gave us minds to study, to consider, to empathize, and to discern. I am thankful to serve a Creator who does not want nor expect me to check my brain at the door. We are presented with a global situation in which our choices and actions can and will affect our neighbors. With any degree of studying the global impact of this virus and its documented exponential spread, the truth of its threat is beyond debate at this point. Certainly as believers we place our highest trust in the Lord, but we cannot do this while usurping wise direction intended to help those around us. In Christ we are called to put others before ourselves. This is no time to flaunt one’s trust in the Lord by saying things like, “He is protecting me so I can go out as I please.” Or worse, to insinuate that believers have some kind of protection from this virus that others do not. If we are to think on what is true, I take that to mean putting my trust in God while using the wisdom and discernment He imparts by taking the necessary steps to protect my most vulnerable neighbors. “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” (Romans 13:10)
I suspect that many struggle with the truth of this viral threat because it is scary. It would be nice and easier to minimize the threat, claim the Lord’s protection, and then just go on business as usual. It goes back to all those “what ifs” and unknowns that I wrote about last week. When we are faced with them, especially collectively as we are now, it is just not a very comfortable spot in which to find ourselves. Uncertainty is the worst. We live in a culture where many of us fill our schedules to overflowing, and have every last minute of our days accounted for, not leaving much time for being alone with our thoughts. Whether this is intentional or not, it’s a pretty effective numbing strategy. Sometimes (maybe often?) time to reflect on our thoughts is painful and difficult. Then add a global pandemic to those worries? I suspect there are many people in our country (and across the globe) who have found themselves at a standstill with their schedules suddenly cleared and a whole lot of uncomfortable time on their hands, even if they still need to care for family or report to work for a portion of their days. Some of our most pleasurable diversions are off the table for a time. It’s a tough adjustment for sure.
In her book Elizabeth George reminds me that in Philippians 4:8, Paul calls us to think about what is real. This virus is real. Its rapid spread is happening. Mercifully, it seems to spare much of the population its worst effects and, experts tell us, for many it won’t be much worse than a bad cold or flu. But the reality is that for others it can and will be fatal. Those are realities that must not be downplayed. Therefore, steps to protect our communities must be taken by ALL of us, not only those who stand to face the worst effects. Beyond that, though, what is yet to come remains to be seen. Chapter 2 of George’s book is entitled “Taking Every Thought Captive” (a reference to another favorite verse of mine, 2 Corinthians 10:5). When we begin to speculate or catastrophize beyond what is known and real today and in this moment, that is when we fall into worry and become vulnerable to panic. I think that is our biggest challenge in this time of uncertainty. We need to face what is real and respond responsibly and with compassion for our neighbors, while not forecasting into the future and projecting our worst fears into it. What we fear in the future is not real. I appreciate George’s examination of how she learned to retrain her own thoughts and fought through her own anxiety and depression by learning to differentiate between which thoughts were real and which were untrue but consuming her and sapping her joy.
Thoughts about things that are untrue and unreal will drain our life and our energy. Obeying the command of Philippians 4:8, however, helps keep our bucket full and our energy available to serve God. Thinking on what is true and real frees us to be used by God.
Elizabeth George, Loving God With All Your Mind, p.45
Rereading this book and reflecting on Philippians 4:8 has been grounding for me this weekend. It’s been helping me prioritize my wide open time and consider how I can protect my thought life and not let it veer into unhealthy habits or patterns in this strange period of pressing pause on most normal activities. It’s been helping me frame this whole situation in a way that I believe will help me honor God and love my neighbors through responsible community action that is not driven by panic, hysteria, or an exaggerated sense of doom.
If you are finding yourself feeling extra stress or worry right now. I highly recommend this one.
Wishing us all a week of focusing on what is true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. If you can, stay close to home, help those you can who are near you, and stay healthy! We are all in this together.
As a teaching credential candidate years ago in one of my methods classes, our professor asked us to take the poem, “What If” by Shel Silverstein, and rewrite it with our own worries and fears that lurked in the backs of our minds. As a young woman in my early 20s trying to embark on a career and beginning to find my way in the world, I recall there were plenty of things to list. I’m not sure where my finished assignment ended up. More than likely I still have it in a box somewhere because I am still learning how to purge “important” papers. Incidentally, I’m also still learning how to define “important” when it comes to papers. At any rate, this is Silverstein’s poem which prompted the exercise:
I don’t remember everything I included in my version of the poem, but a couple of my greatest fears at the time remain vivid. I specifically remember writing the line, “What if my parents were to die?” The other one was a nagging worry about my long-term relationship ending. At the time both of those scenarios were unthinkable to me. Just the thought of my life with either of them happening felt world-ending. I’ve posted previously about my struggle with the need to maintain control over circumstances in my life, and these were two conditions that I believed to be entirely necessary for my continued happiness and survival, really.
Life had some big lessons in store for me soon after. Within the space of two years my dad died very suddenly and later, my wedding was called off and that relationship was over.
So… what if???
I was left to figure that part out.
My dad developed intense flu-like symptoms in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving in November of 1995. I was in the midst of my first student teaching assignment living in San Diego, and my parents had recently moved from Colorado back Orange County, California. In the early days of that November, I remember calling to talk with my parents over the phone and when I asked to put my dad on the line, my mom said he didn’t feel well enough to come to the phone and talk with me. This was back when our phones were attached to wall outlets. I was pretty shocked he couldn’t manage to get to the phone to talk to me. A college friend’s dad had passed away unexpectedly in the month prior, and I became anxious and concerned about what could be happening to keep my dad so debilitated that he was unable to even get out of bed to come to the phone.
A couple of weeks later when I arrived at my parents’ house the night before Thanksgiving, ready to head straight out to a performance of The Glory of Christmas at the Crystal Cathedral which we planned to take my boyfriend (future fiance) to for the first time, I was surprised to find that my dad was not home and would not be joining us that evening. My mom had taken him to see his doctor in Pasadena, and the doctor had determined he needed to be seen at the ER where they had admitted him for observation overnight. The three of us went ahead to the performance with plans for my mom and I to drive up to be with my dad first thing in the morning. I was very distracted throughout the entire program wondering what on earth could be going on with my dad. Would he be ok?
Within minutes of us arriving to his hospital room the next day, an undetected blood clot dislodged in my dad’s circulatory system and traveled through his heart, ultimately blocking the arteries in his lungs. We didn’t know what had happened until an autopsy confirmed the cause of death, but we learned that what he experienced was a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism. They are deadly but treatable and can be survived if the clots are detected in time. Mercifully, we were in the room with him: his last words were to tell both my mom and me that he loved us; and then he was gone. Just like that. And here it was, my biggest whatif like one gigantic question mark hovering over me and my mind a total blank as to the answer.
Some answers came quicker than I expected. Will I be able to breathe? Will I be able to even communicate? Surprisingly to me, the answers to both of those were yes. In my case, when my dad died right in front of me minutes after we had been casually chatting together with him in his hospital bed and me eating McDonald’s chicken McNuggets by his side, I learned that my mom and I would immediately be a visited by a kind, young, South African hospital chaplain with a soothing voice and almost ethereal, calming demeanor. I can still hear the gentle cadence of his words spoken with his elegant accent in his palliative tone. It was a gift. He was like an angel that day. And I don’t even think he was the regular chaplain. My recollection is that he was somewhat new to the hospital staff and put on duty to cover the shift for that holiday. It was a divine appointment for us.
We sat in the hospital cafeteria with this chaplain sharing about my dad, trying to process the initial shock, and feeling an unexplainable but very real sense of peace for what could have been hours. I have no sense of how long it may have been that we were sitting there with him. He was exactly the comfort my mom and I needed in those first hours processing our own profound loss before we had to share it with others who would also be personally impacted. I don’t even remember his name now, but he was the first tangible assurance of God’s provision after my dad’s death. I was breathing; I was talking; I was surviving the unthinkable. Even in those first hours, I was being reassured on a deep, unconscious level that life would go on. Not as it had previously, not as I would have hoped it would, but it would go on nonetheless.
The following January when I returned to student teaching and began my second and last required assignment, I was placed in the classroom of a personal friend and mentor. This serendipity helped to answer the question of, “Will I be able to finish my credentialing program and become a teacher as planned, or will the enormous weight of grief derail me?” The gifted and dynamic veteran teacher with whom I was placed had also been my own third grade teacher. It’s not often that practicum assignments work out like this, and my university was gracious enough to accommodate the placement. I survived, and thrived, in that assignment with a master teacher who had known my dad and our special relationship, was there to give me a needed hug on the roughest of mornings, but who also guided me in how to feel those feelings, then be able to compartmentalize in a healthy way in order to get in the zone for teaching the kids who were waiting for me to be mentally present and effective as their teacher. I found that the responsibility of lesson planning, grading, and fulfilling my final teacher credentialing requirements were a welcome distraction and enabled me to return to some sense of normalcy. Or they helped me find my new normal. I was functioning. Some days were very hard, but I was doing it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how helpful being part of a grief recovery group was during that time. My friend who had lost her father the month before I lost mine joined me in attending a weekly support group at a local church with several others working through a program based on Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief and led by a licensed therapist. We were in that group with men and women who had lost spouses, elderly parents for whom they had cared, and I especially remember one deeply grieving couple who had lost their small child. I’m thankful I was encouraged to pursue opportunities to process in that way. Empathizing with others in a community of sharing like that is tremendously healing. It was immensely beneficial and gave me a place to deal with the storm of emotions brewing inside of me while not being devoured by them.
Not all of the answers that came to me were as positive. For example, I learned that a less advantageous coping mechanism I developed came in the form of an unhealthy relationship with McDonald’s chicken McNuggets. Any of you who know about tips for quality writing may have wondered why I would have included the detail about eating McNuggets next to my dad’s hospital bed. It just so happens that day was the first time I had ever eaten a single McNugget. On any and every prior McDonald’s trip in my life I had always ordered hamburger, fries, and coke, never deviating. I have no idea what prompted me to order McNuggets on that particular day other than that it was Thanksgiving, and maybe the fact that my holiday meal that day would be fast food felt so pitiful that I at least had to mix it up a bit. I don’t know. But that seemingly innocuous decision had consequences as I came to associate those greasy, little mystery meat concoctions with my final moments with my beloved dad. They became my go-to comfort food in those busy, final months of my coursework. By May I had packed on an unwelcome 15 pounds that I’d spend the next couple of decades gaining and losing over and over.
Then there’s that second big whatif.
As for the wedding that was called off, I received wise counsel that you never make a big decision in the first year after a major loss. I was also advised that as a new teacher, you should not get married and attempt to take on a new marriage and a new classroom at the same time. Both are very sound pieces of advice. In retrospect, I would tell my younger self that there is nothing magical about a 12 month span of time after which your brain totally clears and you are then free to make all the big decisions. Just no.
Before my dad died, actually in the very days leading up to it, major red flags had gone up in my relationship which signaled its imminent demise. If not for the unforeseen circumstances which immediately followed, I don’t think we would have lasted to the new year much less another two years. I had major concerns, and they were compounded by the serious apprehensions of both my parents, especially my dad whose last letter to me the month before he died was a 4+ page, TYPED, explanation of all the reasons he was worried for me and the direction my relationship was headed. His letter had infuriated me on the surface. On a deeper level it confused me. How could someone who knew me and loved me and wanted only the best for me not see how happy I was? Or was I even really happy? It was frustrating when in the weeks prior to that Thanksgiving, incidences occurred that seemed to confirm the uneasiness my dad had shared. Here I was doing my darnedest at individuating from the enmeshment of my only-child/ parent relationship (or trying to), and circumstances were only serving to prove my dad right rather then me convincing him (and myself) otherwise?
If you’ve had a major loss or an extreme incident or life change suddenly forced upon you, you know how in an instant everything with which you were previously concerned flies out the window. In the months after my dad’s death, my boyfriend was an absolute prince to both me and my mom. He was there for errands or day to day tasks with which we needed help, and we were both greatly appreciative. He was comforting, providing a constant listening ear, and was truly a loving companion who helped me through the most devastating experience of my life thus far. That will always be true, and I will always be grateful.
Months later when some of the fog began to lift, the red flags were readily detected once again. This left me more confused than ever. At that point, I wasn’t wrestling only with the concerns that were weighing heavily upon my mind but with the notion that I couldn’t imagine being married to someone who had not known my dad. We knew our relationship was headed to the altar. Neither of us were interested in casual dating. To proceed would mean that we were headed toward marriage. One part of me felt very comforted to know that my future husband would have known one of the most important people in my life who was no longer here. That was a department in which no other potential partner could compete. And all those worries in my dad’s letter? I was comforted in my mom’s assurances that if my dad could only see how supportive my boyfriend was after his death, my dad’s opinion of him would have been very different.
But was my opinion different? Had it really changed? Or was I back in the frame of mind I had been in days before my dad passed, unable to overlook some serious incompatibility issues. As a Christ-follower, much emphasis had been placed in my growing up years on the importance of being “equally yolked,” or being in relationship with another believer. That box was definitely checked off with my boyfriend, but that fact only added to the confusion. Just because you’re both believers, you’ve been together a long time, and your boyfriend knew your deceased father does not a healthy, lasting relationship make.
I was back to whatif. What if that relationship ended? Moreover, what if I ended it?
Again, I will sing the praises of the benefits of therapy. Within 15 months of my father’s death, I was engaged to be married, and my fiance and I were involved in premarital counseling with a licensed marriage and family therapist. God bless that woman. Thank the Lord for the questions she asked us, the things with which she prompted us to grapple, and perhaps mostly for the words she DIDN’T say. She never said we shouldn’t get married. She never blatantly pointed out all the things that were obvious sticking points that would have resulted in years of distress for us both in a marriage. She asked the right questions and allowed us to come to our own conclusions. Had she been more direct, I think I would have been in a mental place set on proving her wrong, just as I wanted to prove my dad’s letter wrong. Again, what I believe was a divine appointment allowed this wise woman to say and not say exactly what I needed to hear. It didn’t happen quickly, and those sessions weren’t cheap. But that may be the best money I have ever spent.
Three weeks before the wedding was to take place, I called it off. The biggest whatifs that at first paralyzed me (what will people think? where will I live? whose side will our friends take?) all were placed on the back-burner, and I had to move forward in the peace and confidence that I was doing the right thing. Gifts were returned. A mailing was sent out to over 300+ guests using carefully chosen, Emily Post approved language to discreetly notify all our loved ones that the wedding would not take place. And you know what? I survived that, too.
Oh, it was embarrassing for sure. Many of the awkward moments I feared came. Some friendships were lost to me permanently or suffered for a time. But what did I gain? So much more. And within a few years, after a lot more healing and time to figure out who I was and what I needed (at least a bit better), the partner God intended for me became my husband. The life we now have together, the children we have raised, and the journey we remain on as husband and wife is more than I ever hoped for and so completely different than where I had been headed. And he didn’t even know my dad. I found out that it wasn’t a deal breaker after all.
So my biggest whatifs came to pass, and I lived to tell about it. I entered my mid to late twenties feeling prepared to face what was to come next, mostly. Some difficult circumstances I’d never even imagined followed. After that, I was prompted to get more imaginative with my whatifs as adult anxieties increased. Funny thing I’ve found with whatifs, though. In my life, it’s the smaller, less extreme whatifs that can cause me the most day to day anguish. The micro-whatifs, if you will. I was truly shocked by how many whatifs came slamming at me when we had our first child. Even more disconcerting was that so many of them proved to play out in front of me! “What if I can’t breastfeed? Will that make me a bad mom?” Answers: turns out I couldn’t (at least not with my first), and no, that did not make me a bad mom. Actually believing that took a while, however.
Nothing prepared me for the tsunami of whatifs that arrived with my forties. Worries ranging from great to small, and again, the ones seeming the most distressing to me, to others might seem like nothing at all. Those pesky little whatifs of anxiety thrive on ladies entering middle age. Incidentally, this weekend I picked up a recently published book, Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun, that explores some of the common psychological obstacles facing Generation X women like myself. I’m still just getting into it, but I find the examination fascinating because I know I am not alone in my mental gymnastics.
So where am I with my whatifs today? As I write this, it seems there is a cultural whirlwind of whatifs sweeping many people into a stupor. Nothing is worse for someone who is consumed by their own whatifs than watching others around them get caught up in this kind of thinking, too. Especially those who aren’t typically prone to getting on the band wagon. I’ve been going back to a lot of what I learned during (yep, here it is again) therapy during my early-forties mid life breakthrough. One of the most helpful tools I was given was the process of exploring my whatifs to the point of playing out, even sometimes writing out, every possible scenario on which my brain was fixating. What would happen if my child didn’t get into the school out of district that I wanted them to attend? What if a daycare situation we had chosen didn’t end up working out? What if I seriously flubbed an observation in the classroom and ended up with a less than positive write up? What if I was switched to a grade level I didn’t prefer? What if I was to decide I didn’t even want to be in teaching anymore?
It’s that last one that scared me the most. All my life I had only wanted to be a teacher. Education and working with children has been a huge part of my identity. I needed to bring in a paycheck. What on earth could I possibly do to make a living outside of classroom teaching if I decided it was no longer what I should be doing?
Giving myself the freedom to ask those questions and to see where the answers might take me turned into a far more positive exercise than I ever would have expected. I faced the nagging anxieties individually and systematically, taking each one down a path of tracing where it might lead if each worst case scenario played out fully. I found that there were solutions and ways to manage should any eventuality occur. It was shoving the thoughts to the back of my mind that caused me the most distress, as they tend to sit there in the back of my head taunting me and causing me to fear their possible manifestation like the whatifs in Shel Silverstein’s poem. For me, it is helpful to let my mind go there. I need to think about it, not excessively but intentionally. My fears are often far worse than potential realities. When I explored the idea of leaving teaching, I found that I did not want to do that at all. I just needed to know that remaining in my chosen career was indeed still a choice. I could make a different choice if I wanted to do so. Agency is a powerful thing, and we all need to feel like we have it.
I no longer need to practice this exercise with each worry that crosses my mind. In crisis mode, that was necessary for a time. Now I use the process as a tool when something is threatening excessive distress and starting to throw me off course. This tool, along with prayer, has greatly improved my quality of life and ability to cope.
On any given day, we have so many things competing for our attention and concentration. Some of them are delightful: hopes, dreams, ambitions, acts of service, and loved ones with whom to share our whole hearts. Other times, less desirable concerns can consume us and take any time and concentration we have and use them to destructive ends. A friend shared a quote this week online, and it has been on my mind ever since, drawing my heart and mind back into the calm of its truth. I recognized it from C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity.
What a powerful quote! And from such a great book. I need to add that one to my reread list immediately.
As we head into a new week, may your whatifs keep quiet. And if they don’t, may you have the strength and wherewithal to face them and intentionally let them play out in your mind… to go there… if it can help you as it does me. And to find that the worst case scenario isn’t always as awful as you have imagined. May you come out of the wind and the chaos and find a space of quiet and calm.
And before I go, if anyone out there happens to know a very kind South African man who would now be in his 50s-60s who worked as a chaplain at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena in November of 1995, please let me know. I would love to thank him for his kindness, and I will never forget him.
Technically, there have been other dogs. When I was in first grade we had a dog briefly before my family made a major move from Orange County to San Diego County, California in the early 1980s. I have a couple of vivid memories of our dog, Tanner, though I could not tell you his breed for the life of me. He was a big, brown dog. And I recall not having him in our home for very long before our move.
We relocated frequently and my growing up years were too unpredictable and lacking any routine structure to be compatible with having a pet for the long haul. As an only child, my social and adaptable nature was well suited to my two fun-loving, adventurous (and maybe a little crazy?) parents who didn’t seem to prioritize setting down roots in any one particular place. I think I was still in elementary school when I realized that there were two places where I felt most at home. One of those was in the car, riding with my parents on the Interstate 5 freeway in Southern California because I could point to at least 5 exits between the San Diego/Coronado Bay Bridge and the city of Santa Ana off of which we had lived.
I have mostly fond memories of our car rides. We loved to sing together as a family. My parents were both in church choirs for years and for a time sang in a barbershop quartet with another couple from our church. Car time was pleasantly spent harmonizing, chatting, or on longer trips for me, sleeping. (I’m still a big fan of sleeping.) I was always included in my parents’ conversations. They always gave me a sense that my input was valued, and I had the assurance that there was no subject that was off the table to bring up with them. Even better were the times I’d spend in the car with only my mom because then we could listen to the guitar-driven rock and roll music or new wave synth pop we enjoyed that was never tolerated or appreciated by my dad, but I digress.
I didn’t feel the same affinity for the 57 or 10 freeways, though we traversed and exited those to get home for a brief stint. By middle school we’d be back to taking the 10 to a new exit further east, or we would travel by way of I-15 to highways 94 and 111 to reach our homes in the Coachella Valley desert communities. Later, we traveled a lot on the 210 freeway in my high school years when we made the move to the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County. I think you get the idea. My upbringing was a little nuts. By the time I left “home” for college at age 18, my family had made at least 23 moves to different residences. That’s my best count, give or take one or two. In case you’re wondering, the other place I felt most at home was at Camp Maranatha in the charming mountain town of Idyllwild, CA. That would be off of highway 94, but I’ll have to save any more about camp for another time.
This lifestyle would not have been sustainable for my parents if there had been more children, and pets definitely did not fit well into the equation. I do credit my parents for trying, though. Over the course of my early years, in addition to Tanner, I had a cat (Sonshine, the O is not a typo), a bird for a short time (Woodstock), and a fish (Fishiepoo named after the character, Witchiepoo, from Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf, for all you 1970s pop culture lovers). All of our pet experiences were short-lived. My parents tried to give me as normal of a childhood as possible, even though our day to day was not much like that of any of my friends. My dad’s job as a department store executive demanded long working hours, and for at least a couple of years, our almost nightly family meals were taken at a table in the restaurant of the Plaza Bonita May Company. We would have been a horrible family for a pet, to be sure, but I didn’t suffer from parental absence. I remember getting help with my homework and special projects either late at night when Dad got home, or while working at the conference table in his office. And not everyone can say they remember taking a nighttime nap in the furniture department of a major department store when the silent alarm went off at night and Dad had to go check things out at the mall. All three of us went. That was the way we did things, and most of the time I found it to be a pretty exhilarating way to live.
All the moves and excitement of my early years served to give me a tight bond with both of my parents who made up for any lack of stability in our living situation with their constant encouragement, deep and authentic Christian faith, and undeniable love that was never in short supply. We had a unique parent/child dynamic, and that became apparent to me as I observed my friends’ relationships with their folks, especially by the time I entered my teen years.
While I never lacked the comfort of a loving family, nagging insecurities began forming at an early age and mounted as I got older. Not having a pet or much experience as a pet owner has always ranked up there with not having participated in organized team sports in terms of character flaws in my mind. Turns out when you move a lot being involved in team athletics can also be problematic. I had two pretty pitiful seasons of AYSO soccer in two different cities, so props to my parents once again for making the attempt to encourage that. It was not to be. You’re welcome to anyone who may have been a potential teammate back then. I was NOT an asset to an athletic team in any way. Not being a part of pet culture was also something that felt isolating to me well into adulthood, like a popular secret that I was not in on, or some elite yet common club that would not have me.
Worse, not relating to any animal companion felt diminishing to my humanity. Any time spent around pets in friends’ homes only served to confirm that I was not an animal person. Not understanding that animals likely picked up on my own unfamiliarity and discomfort, my interactions with them always felt like they were rejecting me. When my husband and I were dating (long distance between San Diego and Orange Counties off my beloved and familiar Interstate-5 freeway), he had two dogs that he had to leave in the loving care of his roommates when we married and moved into our “no-pets allowed” first apartment together. The fact that he had to give up his dogs to be with me felt like a huge sacrifice, and I hoped that someday we would be dog owners together and I’d be able to gain access and learn from him.
It seemed that day had come after 9 years of marriage when we had purchased and settled into our first home, and our kids were 3 and 6 years old. For a short time we had a beautiful Black Labrador named Molly. Her owner had passed away, and a teaching colleague of mine who was also a lab breeder gave us the opportunity to give Molly a new home. We had absolutely no idea what we had signed on for. I can’t recall the exact length of time she was with us, my husband thinks it was about a year, but it was one of the most stressful periods of my life.
Two adults working full-time with two young children and long hours away from home during the week do not make for ideal dog owners, so that would have been a challenge in and of itself. We did not know we were taking in an alpha female with some serious behavior issues. She was too aggressive in her play with our kids, especially our 3 year old daughter who loved the rough play but ended up being slammed against the walls in our narrow hallways. It was not a good fit. On top of that she barked loudly and frequently, scaring any friends or neighbors who tried to come to our doorstep and resulting in complaints and threatened HOA fines. Behavioral training would have helped, I’m sure, but we were in over our heads. It was all too much for me while learning how to parent my two little ones in addition to teaching full time. Ultimately Molly ended up going to a retired couple with a wide open schedule, plenty of property, and no small children. Her quality of life improved, and for me it was both an enormous relief and an acute failure. It felt like proof that I did not have what it takes to be a pet owner. On a deep unspoken level I internalized this as definitive evidence that I was a flawed person lacking an essential quality one must have to love or be loved by a pet.
The Molly episode and my unhealthy, internalized reaction to it may have been an early indicator of the mid-life saga that was to unfold for me a few years later. Some people might call what I experienced a breakdown, but I prefer Brené Brown’s more gracious and clarifying choice of words: a “breakthrough.” There’s no way to summarize the events well. The best I can do is call it a period of intense pain and struggle that required letting go of expectations and some dreams; taking off masks, and disregarding my intense need to save face. In the end, it required learning how to love and appreciate my life as it is and myself as I am. Clearly this all involved a whole lot more than not having success owning a pet.
Patterns of perfectionism and the drive for accomplishment served me very well in my younger years. Each time we moved, I readily took on the challenge of forming new friendships, keeping myself entertained when other children weren’t around (my love of reading started young), applying myself in school and figuring out how to excel in my studies and adapt to new school and teacher expectations. It became almost like a game for me to see how quickly I could fit in, find my people, and feel like I was at home in each new environment. As a teacher now, when I see student cumulative files — their educational histories — of kids who move as much as I did as a child, and the serious academic and behavior struggles that often result are striking to me. Viewing my own years of K-12 education through the lens of an educator, I find it remarkable that I maintained those high grades, graduated with honors, and came out of it with enduring friendships dotting the map (beginning in California and now branching across the country into our adulthood). I realize I have been very fortunate, and I don’t take that for granted.
But there is a price to be paid for a lack of stability and constant change when you have a psyche like mine. For me the cost has been a pretty intense battle with perfectionism and its ugly step-sisters, anxiety and depression. The earliest signs of that miserable duo were bouts with stomach ulcers and migraine headaches that began in middle school, later followed by other physical symptoms long before I ever acknowledged or identified any emotional struggles per say. The mental and behavioral patterns that had served me well coping with my life as a child and young adult completely undid me after I became a wife and parent and then entered my forties. Like many others in this season of life, I reached a breaking point. Going on four years later, after putting up a very strong fight, seeking much-needed help, and learning to use the right tools to transform deeply ingrained toxic thinking patterns, I wouldn’t trade that excruciating season for anything. It gave me my life back.
And it gave me the opportunity to be ready to be a dog owner, for real this time. Who knew there was so much psychological junk I had to work through first to experience something so inherently basic for others? We all have our own particular challenges. What seems simple for one person can be incredibly difficult for someone else. No one’s personal struggle is any less significant than anyone else’s, and being honest about the things that threaten and scare us most — being vulnerable — has an amazing way opening a flood of empathy and connection. (Again, thank you Brené Brown. If you haven’t read her books yet, I highly recommend each and every one of them.) I look back on myself in my 20s and 30s and chuckle at what I thought I knew and understood and what I accepted as truth about myself and others. Life has a not so gentle way of humbling us all, and whether we view that as a curse or a blessing is largely dependent on our attitude, perspective, and willingness to grow and change.
I learned that with all the disruption I routinely experienced as a child, change was not something I wanted to readily invite into my life once I was out on my own in the world. There’s a reason I have taught at the same school for 22 years and tend to drive the same car for a decade if I am able. I am not at all spontaneous when it comes to big decisions, which is entirely unlike my parents. It became my goal as an adult to build a life with as many constants and as much stability as I could possibly construct. This objective was very clear and actionable for a seasoned perfectionist and control freak such as myself. I had all my ducks in a row. I entered college knowing I wanted to be a teacher (that had pretty much been decided by the time I was in 3rd grade). I completed my education coursework successfully and in a timely manner. I landed a teaching job right after I got my credential. I taught for a couple of years before moving on to a master’s program so I could get that under my belt and obtain a graduate degree prior to getting married and starting a family.
I was able to check off many boxes on my master life plan. If only life would have cooperated! It was manageable to keep this plan moving right along as a single woman. I chose a career that is full of people much like myself, so I was comfortable and in good company. Get in a room filled with elementary school teachers, and you’re sure to spot several highly organized, Type A, take charge personalities in no time. But when the stresses and ever-changing dynamics of teaching, the challenges of marriage, and the learning curve of parenting all combined and escalated as they tend to do — any notion of maintaining a comfortable degree of control over my circumstances flew out the window. Flexibility is a must, and I had become as metaphorically rigid as someone in a full-body cast. I was in panic mode. This girl needed some training in radical acceptance, distress tolerance, and learning to go with the flow in a big way.
It may have taken until I reached age 47, but now I am at long last a person who can fully enjoy and embrace the experience of something as simple as having a dog. And he has entered my world at just the right time. Those who know me personally and see my social media have been inundated with posts about our adorable Cappie (short for Captain, and also fondly referred to as Cap, or El Cap by all of his adoring family members). Everyone in our house is in love with this guy, and flexibility sure comes in handy when settling a new fur baby into your home. The most surprising and wonderful part is how he has taken to me. All my fears about not being able to care for a pet properly, or not being the kind of person who a dog would love, have proven to be unfounded. Those old, ridiculous messages I would play in my head, telling myself lies about my deep character flaws and inadequacy were just that… lies. By resisting unrealistic expectations and learning to allow mistakes and accept what comes, I developed the capacity to enjoy life not just in spite of but with all of its imperfections and uncertainties. I am no longer seeking out some distant, opportune time when everything with which I’m unsatisfied will magically fall into place, and I can finally live my life. I recently read the quote, “You’ve mastered survival mode; now it’s time to live.” I’m learning how to live life fully right now, as is. It feels pretty great. Even when it doesn’t. That’s a profound paradox.
Now I find myself every bit the happily obsessed dog lover, and so many mysteries of pet ownership are becoming clear to me. For example, I now understand how so many people manage to endure pain and unpleasantness in life without paying for expensive therapy. I am fascinated and heartened watching people at the dog park and seeing the delight in their eyes. Pets may very well be the thing that keeps many people from completely losing it in this world of ours. I’m fairly confident that it will be Cap that helps me maintain my sanity during this 2020 election season and the remainder of my children’s teen years. I have also discovered that walking the dog is far superior to walking alone when I am overwhelmed. Being mentally present with Cap and focusing on what he’s looking at and enjoying is a tremendously effective grounding technique and is immediately calming. I could begrudge the fact that I didn’t benefit from this years earlier, but instead I am grateful to be the owner he has and needs now. The feelings seem to be mutual.
Icing on the cake, I am officially part of the once elusive (for me) pet lovers club and someone who gets birthday gifts like this:
Big breakthroughs can sometimes be outwardly evident to all. Working through the pain of adverse experiences can result in transformation that is identifiable by everyone around us, as in the case of dramatic weight loss or surviving addiction. But sometimes it’s the unseen, private metamorphoses that change the fabric of our being. Sometimes it involves something as simple as finally having a dog.
I have found my imperfect bliss living off the Interstate 8 freeway. And I’ve only had to use 3 different exits to get home for the past 20 years. Not bad.
On this anniversary of my birth, I determined I needed to acknowledge the occasion in some personally meaningful way. 47 has loomed heavily in my mind. This is odd because aging has never particularly bothered me, and this isn’t even a milestone birthday anyway. When my thoughts began to crystallize, I realized the fact that I am now just two years away from the age my father was when he passed very suddenly is hitting me. Hard. When my dad was my age, he had just two years left to experience all he would this side of heaven. I can’t fathom that. He didn’t take proper care of himself for far too many years, and it caught up with him. In the weeks before he died from a pulmonary embolism at age 49, photos that were taken capture the image of a man looking more like he was in his sixties or even early seventies. Twenty-two year old me had no idea just how much he did NOT look like what 49 typically looks like. Does it have a look? I don’t know really. I just know that now I’m 47 and inching awfully close.
This year marks a quarter of a century since I last had my dad in my life. Anyone who knows me knows that nothing has impacted my adult life more than the loss of my biggest cheerleader, my best friend, my dad. Some days the loss still feels so fresh, not at all like nearly 25 years have passed. In that time I’ve established a meaningful and rewarding (albeit difficult) teaching career, nurtured an almost 20 year marriage, and built a family and life for which I am unbelievably grateful. It has been a wonderful, painful, and beautiful journey. Basically, I’ve lived a whole lot of life in these years since he’s been gone. I have so many thoughts, reflections, and experiences buzzing through my head that are waiting to be spilled out in some forum. How? Where? I attempted this blogging thing once before only to abandon it quickly. Something draws me back and says, “Give it another go.”
So happy birthday to me, here is my blog! Maybe you will enjoy it, too? Maybe you will find some comfort, something that resonates, or something that makes you laugh. You might be annoyed, irritated, or confused by some things I am thinking about that I express here. I’m cool with that. Welcome to my brain. One blessing of these late forties for me has been the long-awaited peace and freedom from seeking the approval of seemingly anyone and everyone in my sphere. I’m a lot more selective about my people pleasing these days. I have found that performing for an audience of One provides the most calm for my soul. It would be a blessing if what I share here touches someone out there in the interwebs. But first and foremost, I am viewing this as my present to myself. My resolution for 2019 was to begin writing in earnest, and it simply did not happen. Never too late to try again. Perhaps this is a way to start.
On my last day of being 46, my daughter and I went to see a youth production of the musical Tuck Everlasting, based on the book by Natalie Babbitt. Both my kids (ages 16 and 13) are very involved in musical theater, and it has consumed much of our family life for the past 7 years. I am always most drawn to the shows that are adaptions of books I have loved. I had never seen this one before, though, and I haven’t read the book since I was a child. Talk about timing for seeing this particular show! I had no idea the emotional punch this would pack for me. The outstanding performances, music, choreography, and poignant story had me holding back tears (if not outright sobbing) throughout. Good, healing, therapeutic tears. The kind that my husband and kids don’t always understand, but that I must release simply as a requirement of being me. The themes of immortality, loss, and making time (and life!) count were so timely for me. As an elementary school teacher, this is the time of year when the day to day grind can feel most daunting. I am drained by the monotony of it all. The Tuck family’s struggle with their endless days, and Mae Tuck’s reminder that, “Life, even infinite, still must have life in it,” pierced my dull spirit. This whole turning 47 thing reminds me that my days certainly aren’t infinite, even if they can feel endless. I have to be intentional about putting LIFE into them.
So those are my marching orders for today, my birthday, on a Monday of all days (a God-wink reminding me He has a sense of humor). I hope you make your moments count today, too.
“Don’t be afraid of dying — be afraid of not truly being alive.” Tuck Everlasting