Heavy Lifting

The weight of this world is crushing. It seems to bear down on all of the pressure points at the same time, never allowing for a reprieve or a chance to adjust or shift. Just a stubbornly persistent piling-on and piling-up of everything. I feel this. My partner feels this. My colleagues feel this. And, of course, our students feel this.

I am struck by the constant background noise about what will come next….what life will be like after. Nowhere is the noise louder than amongst educators. As we slog slowly toward the halfway point for this school year, there appears to be a renewed sense of urgency and, at times, panic. How are we preparing our students? What has become of the rigor we are used to demanding of our students? Where are the (often unreasonably) high expectations we have for ourselves?

How will they measure up when they enter in the fall?

But there is also the recognition that we can’t give them any more than we are already giving them. Rigor has shrunk next to the perilous state of our collective mental and physical health. Tests are secondary to students’ wellbeing. Our expectations are that they simply show up; do their best. Often, we congratulate one another because we simply show up; do our best. We can’t demand any more from them and there isn’t much left of ourselves to give.

How will we measure up when they enter in the fall?

I am concerned that our energy is misdirected. We have so little control right now, but perhaps we need to look forward. What would this look like if we began to have a conversation about how to bring them in next year instead of how we send them out this year? We know what a student should look like when they enter in a normal year…..how are we going to greet them when they show up after a global pandemic? Instead of trying to stop the current bleed, maybe we need to consider how to nourish the broken body?

In focusing on the repair and the regrowth, we may find the hope that has been elusive for so long.

Late Day Thoughts

It is late. I am still in my classroom, trying to put all the puzzle pieces together to create the picture that I don’t fully see in my mind just yet. I think I know the edges, but the image is still wrapped up in the pieces scattered all about me. And, for the record, I hate puzzles.

I am, still, my own jumbled mix of diametrically opposed thoughts and ideals. There does not seem to be a middle ground; there is no balance. I seesaw between knowing–not just believing, but knowing–that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel, and wondering if I will ultimately put down my resistance and accept my fate like the wife in The Road. Exuberant promise of renewed life or dismal, grey slogging to more of the same. I’m telling you: I have lost all ability to see the proverbial glass as either half full or half empty….it is either overflowing or bone dry.

Maybe this is leftover from the winter break, which was full of emotional contrasts: the juxtaposition of cheery, holiday warmth against the backdrop of masked loved ones sitting more than an arms length away; the freedom from daily attempts at teaching alongside the constraints that come from living in pandemic isolation; the need to rest and indulge in comfort foods holding hands with the promise of resolutions and new beginnings. Every moment seemed to offer me a choice and that was exhausting during a time that typically is full of restoration.

When I settled down to think about my One Little Word, I gravitated to the word Joy. I need joy. I seek joy. I crave joy. I was going to immerse myself in joy and find it in all the smallest moments. I was determined to make this my sole focus. My determination, while not what anyone could consider joyful, was laser focused. I need joy.

But then I came across another word: unfurl. I fell instantly in love. I breathed an audible sigh. I pictured myself…unfurling. Stretching out all of my parts and showing what is inside. Rising up to my fullest height and owning the space all around me. Unfurling 50 years of growth, 50 years of good and bad and everything in between. Embracing the child, the awkward teen, the years spent wandering and the years when roots finally began to emerge; the years of rebellion and the years subsumed by others. I am all of the contradictions and contrasts and opposing forces wrapped up in this body that has carried me this far. I think I may just be beginning to understand what Mr. Whitman was trying to say….I am large. I do contain multitudes. And yes, I do contradict myself.

A Thank You Note (of sorts)

There are days when the world is too big

too complicated

too much

When I long for a pause button

for time to be stopped…

completely…

but not forever…

There are days, months, years (and even decades, now)

that are full to the brim, spilling over, flowing one to the next and beyond

     eradicating time and the passing of time 

     moving beyond the speed of light

     sweeping me up into this tornado of life 

     swirling together all the contradictions that create the beautiful tensions of my life

And just when I begin to fully accept that the definition of a well-lived life lies somewhere within the intricacies of the infinite moving parts and that my purpose is to find the balance to keep it all synchronized in the unknown choreography of this dance…

You pull up your chair

You listen

You create

You grow

and then you move out into your own world, your own dance

And I am grateful for the time we shared

Waiting…

I love teaching. I mean, I really love it. It is a deep part of who I am, even when I don’t recognize it. And I have always been a teacher, even when I was a director, a waitress, a lifeguard and a stockbroker. Even when I was tutoring and practicing yoga and finding my way through decades of important relationships, I was a teacher. When I was floundering around in my twenties, ostensibly with no direction, I think I still knew I would be a teacher. It’s just one of those things in my bones.

But I am not good at this. I am not capable of performing in the daily theater required to capture even a moment of their attention. I am not good at giving assignments just to “hold them accountable” or assessments to prove that they are doing what I am telling them to do. I am not good at this.

I am not good at details until I know the big picture and I can’t seem to figure out the big picture until I know the details. I usually know what I want it (whatever the “it” may be) to look like in the end. How it should feel when I read their words. How a young writer’s face looks when he has gotten the words just right. What writers writing sounds like. What readers reading sounds like (because the silence is never silent). I know in my heart & soul when it is working. I know when, just for a moment, everything seems to have found its equilibrium. It is all in balance, for the briefest of moments, and I know that I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing.

But now that is gone. All of it. My box of tricks is empty. My pictures are fuzzy and out of focus. My passion for poetry does not filter through the blue mask and the moments of beautiful clarity are nowhere to be seen. I don’t recognize my classroom. It feels impossible to make them believe that their words matter, truly matter, because they have been silenced for so long. I am as anonymous to them as they are to me, just eyes questioning and waiting for connection.

I still love teaching, but I am not a teacher anymore.

Marking Time

My fingers know the key strokes, but are unsure of the words to write. I know how to move through the spaces that I inhabit, but I am no longer certain that this is where I belong. When I speak, I am slightly surprised that my voice makes sounds and I am astounded when the words find their destination. Yet, despite this, no one seems to notice. I have learned how to play this part well, my part of this long running show. It is easier to recite my lines and hit my mark than it is to immerse myself in the role.

I am of that age, I think, when the road behind is, hopefully, equal in distance to the road ahead. But what it will all look like as I continue along? I don’t have profound insights about this spot that I am standing on. I have gotten quite good at dissecting the past but I do not have the promised wisdom to approach the future. I am watching my world move around me, but I am not quite a part of it. This disconnect is amplified by the muffled voices of the people around me and the six feet that fills our spaces. I am not sure that this was caused by the pandemic, but the pandemic has made it unavoidable.

I have always insisted that my students know the purpose of their writing before they begin to formally draft. Long ago, I stole Nancie Atwell’s phrase, “So What” and made it the foundation of my classroom workshop, demanding that students not only dig at their own “so what” but also the “so what” in every text that they encounter. Those two words are on my classroom walls, embedded in almost every mini-lesson, and create the initial conference over any new piece of writing. Once, I even had a student write a poem entitled “So What” that beautifully captured my incessant questioning.

I used to believe that not knowing the “so what” was unacceptable, leading to an unexamined life, of sorts. But now that I am wondering about my own purpose, my “so what” in this perpetual production, maybe Socrates was wrong. Perhaps the unexamined life is comfortable and safe, requiring less energy and minimizing disruption? Maybe it’s okay to float along for a bit, waiting for the house lights to come on and see if anyone really is at home.

No Words

A house of mourning breathes. There are moments when the air stops moving and the inhale-exhale of conversations catch and the stillness wraps around everything. Spoons stop stirring lukewarm coffee, plates find perfect balance on knees and even the untouched knickknacks telling decades of family stories that sit on shelves, table-tops and mantles, freeze in the moment. And then, just as suddenly, eyes fill and throats tighten and a hand finds an arm or a shoulder and the breathing resumes.

In the early morning, I drive away from such a home, knowing I will return over the next few days, bringing food (always food) and hoping at least some of my love will find its way into their darkness. This was not going to be a celebration of a long life lived fully…this was going to be a minefield of pain and sorrow. Stories will be told, but questions will linger on the periphery and sentences will, undoubtedly, trail off without completion…

Root Down to Rise Up

In yoga, there is a phrase: Root down to rise up. Find your foundation. Find your center. Find your connection to the earth before you can begin to stretch for the sky. Otherwise, you will lose your balance; you will lose your connection to your center. You have to go inward before you can go out.

The world around me flexes and constricts in ways I never could have imagined, and it takes so little effort to drift along a path of hopelessness. The signs are everywhere; you don’t have to work hard to see the chaos and uncertainty that permeates the atmosphere. A quick glimpse of the headlines or a scroll through any media feed and I am easily down a rabbit hole that seems to only lead to more isolation and loneliness.

I am reading a quick-read YA novel (not a dense, change my life and must get into the hands of my students book, but a good one nonetheless) and I stop and think about how this book could find its way into my class. Once I stop reading to think, I begin to see the bigger picture come into focus: book clubs and craft discussions and mini-lessons on author’s voice. This inevitably leads me to picturing my classroom and I am stopped cold. My classroom may not go beyond my laptop for the foreseeable future. My classroom may not exist.

Somewhere between giving in to the worst and envisioning the best is me. I don’t know if I’m standing in a void that doesn’t really exist or if I am, simply, sharing the space that we all inhabit right now.

I am a teacher and teachers plan. We plan lessons, units, semesters and entire years. We plan for generic, nameless students and we plan for individuals. We look back and see what has worked; we read and talk and search out what works for others; we brainstorm and make lists, dog-ear pages & bookmark sites. We anticipate the future based on what we know about the past.

We root down into what we know in order to rise up and meet the challenges of what is coming. That is what the last eighteen Augusts have looked like for me….eighteen end-of-summer-beginning-of-falls that are failing me right now. I am trying to find my center, my foundation, my connection. I am rooting down into everything I know, grounding into my mere fifty years of existence, reaching for this future.

Another thing no one tells you…

First, there is the waiting...  
then comes the mourning.

Dawn creeping up over the horizon 
(which I would see if I had the view I once had instead of where I sit now, 
with too close city homes obscuring the world's awakening):

Waiting & watching the night sky overrun by the pinkpurpleredorange sun storm….
followed by the inevitable busy-ness of an overflowing life.

Once the wait is over, the mourning for what is lost settles

Waiting for adulthood and independence…
but chasing wisps of half formed reconstructions from my questionable memory 

Waiting for health to return to my son…
but always hearing the rapid breathing of a small, struggling body

Waiting for breath to flow freely…
but fearing the accidental feel of a stranger’s warmth or the gentle touch in a crowded room 

Waiting for satisfaction and contentment…
but accepting the reality of concessions

Sober recognition of what is -- juxtaposed with what once was.  
You would think that would give rise to embracing each moment, the epiphany of survivors.  
But no.  

It brings the permanence of mourning:

parents die
children are vulnerable
viruses speak an unknown language 
and questioning past choices creates dangerous contemplation.

A View From Inside

I have spent the past 5 days in a hospital room with my child, receiving constant reports of all the things that he does not have. Covid? Negative. (Repeat covid? Still negative.) Covid anti-body? Negative. Lyme? Negative. Mono? Parvo? Negative. Negative. Viruses and bacterias and diseases that seem to have more consonants than vowels? All negative. As the lab results trickle in, the doctors seem perplexed by the symptoms that keep him here. He is covered in a rash that comes and goes with no predictability and a fever that persists. His little eyes are beginning to show tell-tale signs of Kawasaki Syndrome, even though he doesn’t have all the markers to even be diagnosed confidently with Incomplete Kawasaki Syndrome. He has received not one but two infusions of immunoglobulins to help his body fight whatever infection or virus is battling inside of him. And still he lies here with the return of a rash and heat emanating from his skin. The doctors, of which there are many, have a plan. Their plan is about time windows and fever thresholds and includes a Team: general pediatricians, infectious disease doctors, rheumatologists, cardiologists…the list is long. It is, I presume, a thoughtful plan, based on their collective knowledge and experience. So I wait.

Here is what I know about being in the hospital with a child with an unclear diagnosis in the middle of a pandemic:

  1. No one knows enough about this. There is new information every day. Every hour. In fact, my son may be a part of a small cluster (he is the 5th child in this hospital) with similar symptoms that match nothing except each other. Could be coincidence….could be something else altogether. I have to stay away from all media and news reports.
  2. Despite being in a state-of-the-art children’s hospital with an amazing reputation for taking care of the whole child, I have been in this one room the entire time. I am not allowed to visit the fancy cafe. I cannot go to the solarium for a brief respite. My son cannot go to the playroom or the performance center or even to the aquarium. We were brought to this room in a silent parade of sick children from the emergency room, led by masked nurses. Once here, I was told that I could not leave for any reason. I had to remain inside and, please, when someone enters, wear a mask.
  3. The incredible nurses and medical technicians now have an expanded job description. If I need a cup of coffee? Call a nurse. My son’s water needs to be refilled? Call a nurse. My husband has brought a change of clothes and left a bag at security? Call a nurse. Dinner forgot to bring a fork for my salad? Call a nurse. They are now waiters and waitresses, messengers and couriers, in addition to medical professionals.
  4. Our child, who needs both of his parents, can only have one of us. For the entire time. Aaron and I had conversation before we were directed to the ER and we decided that I would come and he would stay home with our other kids. So I am here and he is there. Here, I have no space to break down and cry from exhaustion and fear. I have no privacy for conversations that spin down the rabbit hole of uncertainty. I am responsible for taking in all of the information and relaying it accurately. There, daily life continues with two kids who need all that he has to give and a dog that doesn’t seem to stop barking. He is answering questions and soothing fears and providing constant updates. We are connected only through the phone. He must trust that I am getting it right. I must trust that I am getting it right. He has to relinquish control and I have to stay in control. There is no opportunity for us to switch. We can’t balance each other.

While the din of cartoons competes with the constant beeps from the monitor (which I still haven’t completely figured out), I write, waiting for my coffee and scrutinizing our son for any changes or signs that this will be ending. My phone recharges, drained from an overnight of texts and reassurances. I need a shower. I need answers. Having a child in the hospital is a brand of hell that I didn’t know existed. Having a child in the hospital during a pandemic is beyond comprehension.

Covid Knocks…

Yesterday, I took our 9 year old son to the doctor.  He had a fever and a rash that had persisted for three days and when my husband and I called Monday morning, there was no hesitation from the voice on the other end.

“Can you make a 9:30 appointment?”

No questions about symptoms or our home treatments.  No questions about temperatures or exposures or analgesics.  An instant appointment.  When was the last time that happened?  Less than an hour to get food (and coffee) into our systems, dress for the outside world and make our way to the office.  Not nearly enough time for me to wrap my head around what was really happening.  Not even a moment for Aaron and I to silently communicate the thousands of parental fears that immediately came to our respective minds.

“Yes, we’ll be there.  Thank you.”

Arriving at the office, I adjust my mask, and then my son’s. I take a deep breath through the thin fabric and immediately feel claustrophobic.  This is only my second time out since the Mandatory Mask Directive and I panic.  My ancient 8th grade science knowledge pops, uninvited, into my head, and I remember random facts about carbon dioxide and oxygen and what I am exhaling and inhaling.  I look at a tree and wonder if I am going to pass out.  Desperately, I pull the mask down, taking a few deep breaths, relishing the unobstructed air.  And then I see my son’s eyes take in the change.  This is one of those parenting moments…he is watching and my fears were going to have to crawl back to the shadows for the time being.

Getting inside is the first of many apocalypse moments.  Sign says to call when we arrive.  Are we wearing masks? Yes.  Door mysteriously unlocks.  Nurse in full gear aims thermometer at our heads and then silently escorts us inside.  Another nurse, also masked and gowned and entirely unidentifiable, comes in and takes information.  Our beloved pediatrician arrives, protected with mask, gown, plastic shield…we know her eyes and her Mickey Mouse stethoscope.  No jokes, no laughs.  Just the exam.  In the end?  Referral to state hospital for covid test.

We leave, removing our masks as we make our way quietly to the car.  He is quiet, focused only on the green apple lollipop.  I am quiet, focused only on the papers in my hand.  In the car, I sit, momentarily sifting through all of the information in my head.  I plug the address into Google Maps and start driving.

The hospital center is scary to me; I can’t imagine what it looks like to my son.  Everyone is masked.  Hospital staff are masked and gowned with gloves and shields.  An ambulance leaves and another arrives.  We aren’t allowed to touch anything.  Temperatures are taken at several checkpoints and there are no other patients on the pediatric floor.  It is eerily silent and incredibly strained.  Again, we are transferred from one person to another with few words.  The doctor arrives, kind eyes, but a perfect stranger.  No Mickey Mouse stethoscope.  Exam.  Painful test for me to watch and my son to take.  No way to prepare and it is over before the discomfort registers, leaving my son reacting as we are being shuffled out, more papers in hand.

Outside, he crumples a bit, asking when it will stop hurting.  I don’t have a good answer.  Driving home, I wonder about the future. Once again, we just have to wait.

 

_____________________________________

In a world of uncertainty, I feel like it is critical to add this footnote: 24 hours later we received the call from our county health department…test negative.