Not exactly a Hallmark holiday movie

In 2006, my daughter wanted a laptop for Christmas. Not a toy laptop, but a REAL one. It was all she talked about. She was 8, and in those pre-chromebook days, a laptop for an 8-year-old was not a reality in our family (of 4 kids) budget. (Honestly, even a chromebook likely wouldn’t have been.)

I spent hours scouring the internet for something that was a close facsimile to her dream, and eventually I found it: a VTech laptop with a keyboard and screen that looked (mostly) like a real computer’s. I ordered it and moved on to the other things on my checklist, which was much deeper than my resources that year.

It wasn’t a good time for us; although I had not yet fully admitted it to myself or anyone else, my marriage was ending. I was losing weight and battling insomnia and treading fear. My twins were doubting Santa, and I worried that this might be the last good childhood Christmas for them. I couldn’t even imagine what the next year’s holiday might be for them, if I couldn’t figure out some way to stay married to their father. I didn’t just want to fulfill their Christmas dreams that year; I needed to.

So when, less than a week out from the big day, on an afternoon when I had a dentist appointment to fill a tooth cracked from my jaw’s merciless grinding, I received an update to my laptop order indicating that it would not be delivered until after Christmas, I lost it.

I lost it in the way I was losing what had been my life: not suddenly, not dramatically, not even that noticeably, but in a slow, crumpling sort of way. I showed up at the dentist’s after a long day at school, feeling shaky and tired and panicked about when and how at that late date I was going to come up with some kind of comparable replacement for the laptop, but getting that filling taken care of was on the long list of things to do, and I had hauled myself there in spite of how I was feeling because I knew that my feelings were a little ridiculous and I didn’t want anyone to know about them. When the dentist asked how I was doing, I said, casually as I could, “fine, just a little stressed because a Christmas present for my daughter isn’t going to arrive on time.” No real biggie. He shrugged as if to say, What can you do, right?

Lying back in the chair, as he moved a needle full of novocaine toward my mouth, I reminded myself to relax my fingers and toes, and to breathe.

After several shots, my mouth was numb, but when he began to drill, I could feel it, deep inside my jaw. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that it was OK, but after a few minutes I raised my hand to let him know that it wasn’t OK.

He stopped and injected more novocaine. It was late in the day, and I could sense his impatience.

He tried drilling again, and still I could feel pain. After a few moments, I raised my hand again. He injected more painkiller into my jaw.

After a few minutes he tried again, and still I could feel pain. I shook my head.

“I can’t give you any more of this,” he said, “and we’re far enough into this procedure that I have to finish it.”

The physical pain was not tortuous; I could take it. My fear and bewilderment, however, felt nearly unbearable. Why was this happening? Would there be a sudden moment of excruciating pain? What was wrong with me, and why couldn’t I get a grip? It made no sense that I was feeling anything; one whole half of my face felt like a rubbery mallet. Was it all in my head? I felt trapped in the chair, with my big, dumb, numb (but not numb-enough) mouth held open by the dentist’s rough hands. I closed my eyes when he began drilling again, and tears rolled from the corners of them and soaked the hair above my ears. I wasn’t crying, not in any way I ever had before or since, but tears were falling. I couldn’t stop them.

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the procedure, and I felt shame in the face of what seemed like his anger. I supposed his afternoon was ruined, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was done. “I had no choice but to finish.” I’m pretty sure I apologized in return. At the least, I know I assured him that it was all right. That’s the kind of thing I would have done back then. I’d have said whatever would most quickly get me out from under the beating fluorescent lights of his clinic and into the opaque darkness on the other side of its windows.

As it turned out, my husband somehow procured the faux-laptop from another source, and my daughter had it to open on Christmas morning. If my life had been a Hallmark movie, I would have realized, when my husband saved my daughter’s Christmas, that I’d been all wrong about so many things, and that horrible afternoon at the dentist’s would have been the low point before my wake-up call. Our moppet would have beamed with joy on Christmas morning and we would have looked at each other with love as she pulled us together for a hug.

Yeah, that’s not how it went.

On Christmas morning she did her best to look happy and express gratitude, but I could tell she was disappointed that it wasn’t a REAL laptop. I don’t remember any loving glances or hugs between her father and I. Things between us were already too raw and too far gone for touch.

Because it was the year of her laptop, Santa brought my daughter a laptop ornament; every time I’ve hung it on our tree since, I’ve remembered that afternoon at the dentist’s office. I continued to see him until I got divorced in 2008; he was our family dentist, and I didn’t feel able to leave his practice until I left so many other things that had made up the mosaic of our family’s life.

I’d like to tell you that the years of Christmases after that one were better or easier. I’d like to tell you that I was wrong about 2006 being some kind of last Christmas and that I continued to create holidays that were as magical for my kids as the ones I created for the first eight years of their lives. Or, I’d like to tell you that I hit some kind of Christmas rock bottom in the dentist’s chair and realized that no present or holiday was worth the stress and pain I felt that day. But they weren’t and I didn’t do either of those things. We struggled and celebrated through Christmases with different kinds of challenges and pleasures, and I know the holiday was never quite as wonderful for my children after that last year before divorce changed the foundation of their lives. In fact, there were years not long after that one when both of my children told me that they hated Christmas, a sentiment I sometimes (silently) shared. While I eventually reached a point where I no longer second-guessed my choices, sometimes I deeply missed the years I stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning finishing my magic-making and was woken only a few hours later by belief-filled feet pounding down the hallway outside our bedroom door. Sometimes I still do.

Last week, my daughter, who is planning a Christmas celebration across a continent and ocean with a young man she loves, asked me about our Christmas day traditions. “I remember the advent calendar and decorating stockings before Christmas, but I can’t remember much about the day itself other than opening presents,” she said.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “I was always so wasted by Christmas day I didn’t do much more than make a breakfast and clean up the wrapping paper and take a nap. And some years we spent the day in the car.”

I told her about staying up long after everyone had gone to bed, wrapping gifts. I told her, laughing at myself, about the year her dad and older sister had built a train table for the Brio set, and I was painting the little town scene on the base of it until after 2:00 AM on Christmas morning. I told her about the year I made her a dress-up trunk. “I had to find a trunk, and the clothes to put in the trunk–which I got from multiple visits to Goodwill–and the flower and letter decals I put on the lid of the trunk.” I told her about how my favorite moment of Christmas was often the one that happened in those middle-of-the-night hours, when everything was finally done and I would sit by myself in front of the lit tree in our dark living room and sip a glass of wine and relish the calm. I even told her the story of the laptop year and the afternoon at the dentist.

“Well, you know why I wanted a laptop,” she said. I told her I didn’t.

“I wanted to be like you,” she said. “Every morning when I got up, you’d be downstairs on your computer.”

“Really?” I said. “I never knew that.” I remembered those years when I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning so I would have time to write, and how that time often ended when she, like me, always an early riser, came down our stairs to find me sitting on the couch, tapping away. I both loved and dreaded the sound of her footsteps.

She paused. “For someone who’s so aware of so many things, how could you have missed that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I suppose it’s because missing things is what we do, especially when we are in the thick of it.

This year, for the first time in so long I can’t tell you how many years it’s been, this season has been a source of almost nothing but joy. I have loved finding gifts for the people I love, and decorating the house, and making plans. For the first time since divorcing, I’ve sent a few cards. I even spent an afternoon making Scandinavian-style paper snowflake flowers to hang in the kitchen windows, a frivolous kind of crafty something I’ve been wanting to do for two years. Aside from Covid-related issues, I haven’t felt stressed or hurried or worried about anything having to do with the holiday. This year, the way we’re observing it is just the right size for the time and money and energy we have to spend on it, and the occasional sneak-attacks of longing for who and what won’t be part of this year’s season feel more like gifts than grief. I’m glad to have had so many of the things I’ve lost.

I’d like to wrap this story up with a well-tied bow, neatly joining the disparate ends of the ribbon connecting my Christmases past to my Christmas present, but (like so much of the holidays, so much of life) I can’t get it to fit into a tidy package. My ordeal in the dentist’s chair isn’t a clean metaphor for my marriage or its end, and I’ve got no big nugget of wisdom to share, no sure and hard-won lesson to impart. There’s no real moral to this story that is full of “both/ands,” rather than of “if/thens” or “either/ors,” or “if only I’d knowns.” Those years of mothering through dysfunction and deterioration were both hard and wonderful. I have always been a person with feelings both ridiculous and sublime. It seems like a bit of a blessing or some kind of elegant design that I couldn’t know then what I know now–about what we all really wanted and needed and how everything would go; such knowledge might have been unbearable before I was strong enough to carry it. Some things we can only pick up slowly, in pieces, over time, maybe especially when it comes to love, which at its core is really all that this story of the laptop and the dentist and the last Christmas is about: true, messy, deep, unruly, irrational, unconditional, infinite love.

Wishing all of you the kind of holiday you need.

Lifetime guarantee

The Christmas aisle at the local hardware store, late on an early-December Friday afternoon, doesn’t seem like a place for existential questions, and yet that is exactly where and when I found myself pondering one this week.

Cane and I had gone to get a Christmas tree stand (though neither of us identifies as Christian and it should more appropriately be called a pagan tree stand) because we’d just bought a tree and needed something to hold it up.

There was an earlier time, one that now feels like what we might call a lifetime or two ago, that we bought a stand together. I remember, then, wavering between a cheap and flimsy one and another that was sturdier and more expensive. “Let’s get the good one,” I’d said. “I hate buying cheap things that don’t last.” I had imagined us using the stand for years of Christmases together in our home.

As it turned out, we didn’t. I still have that stand, but parts of it have broken off, and this is the first Christmas in six years that we’ve lived together in the same home. The stand is usable, sort of, but not easy to use. Earlier this week, I put in it a small tree that I’ve placed on the front deck we had built this summer. The tree is a little tippy, but it works well enough for a small outside tree that no one is likely to brush up against.

Two years ago, I was ready to swear off real trees forever, but there I was in the hardware store needing a new stand because I now have two of them.

Two years ago, I bought a thing I once said I’d never buy: an artificial tree. It was my first Christmas in this house, living alone, and so many things then were about figuring out how to live independently. I had a child coming home for the holidays, and even though he was coming to a place that had never been his home I wanted it to feel like home. That meant I needed a tree. I wanted a tree I could manage by myself, both physically and financially, for not only that year but for years to come. A small, pre-lit plastic tree that I would only have to buy once seemed like the perfect answer.

It was–until it wasn’t.

Last year I kinda hated that tree. I told myself it wasn’t the tree, with its bottle-brush looking foliage, that made me sad every time I looked at it; it was a Covid-bubble Christmas in a pre-vaccine pandemic that was making me sad. But still, it did make me sad, a feeling that only increased when one of the strings of lights stopped working. I put that tree away the day after Christmas and immediately felt lighter and better.

As December approached this year, I felt torn about the tree question. I’ll spare you all the arguments and counter-arguments I wrestled with, and the results of all my Google searches for a better not-real-tree alternative; I’ll just say that after a period of thinking about it, we eventually concluded we’d probably get a real tree again. Thanksgiving weekend we walked two blocks from our house to a small tree lot just to look, and when the scent of cut fir hit me I knew: No more sad, plastic tree for me. Tuesday I packed up the fake one and dropped it off at a thrift store, hoping it might be someone else’s perfect solution now. I was committing to the real deal.

So, there we were at the hardware store late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the long week after Thanksgiving, facing the same question we’d faced all those years ago when we were buying a stand for a tree for a different house and a different kind of holiday than the ones we now have.

Our choices? A cheap plastic stand for $19.99 and the most solid-looking, no-plastic, old-fashioned tree stand I’ve ever seen for $70.00. There were several left of the cheap ones, and only one expensive one. The box for the expensive one had “Lifetime” printed in large red letters on every side of it.

What is a lifetime? I wondered. How can we possibly we know what we’ll need for a lifetime?

I thought about how so many young families now talk about their desire for “a forever home,” a concept I don’t remember from my own early days of homeownership. Although I lived in one house from the ages of 4 to 18, I’ve lived in and owned five different homes in the past 30 years. I’ve been married three times. I really couldn’t tell you how many lifetimes I’ve lived. Even though Cane and I love the house we now live in, we know we could well be somewhere else ten years from now. Our holidays could (likely will) be different again, our health could be different, our financial situation could be different, the world could be different. We might not have the desire or capacity for the kind of tree that needs a heavy-duty stand. We know, in ways we couldn’t have known when we bought our last stand together, that ten years from now one or both of us could again be facing the tree question alone. Ten years, or months, or days from now, everything could be different.

So, what to do? How to spend our money? What future to bet on? I suppose that for many people, perhaps most young people, a tree stand is just a tree stand, and buying one is only another item on a long list of holiday to-dos, but sometimes, late on an early-December Friday afternoon in the aisle of a neighborhood hardware store, for a couple of more old-than-young people who know that loss and change are the warp and weft of every life, a tree stand can also be an embodiment of faith and hope and love.

We bought the good one.

Why I celebrate holidays I no longer believe in

There were the years I couldn’t fully enjoy the holidays because our gatherings were too different from earlier ones I’d loved. And now those lesser holidays are gone, too, our children grown and our dogs buried and our bodies both softer and more brittle than they’ve ever been. What I wouldn’t give to have moments of them back, even to hear my children bickering at the table again.

So I don’t wish any part of this year’s Thanksgiving away, even though the TV is on too loud and is too full of commercials for sweaters and tools and jewelry and perfume and red and green and sleigh bells and news of coming floods. Even though we spend too much time sitting in front of it and even though I miss those who aren’t here.

In the mornings my parents and brother and I watch Perry Mason and Leave It to Beaver and The Rifleman. On Friday my daughter–stuck in immigration limbo in another country–sends me an Instagram post about Thanksgiving and cultural hegemony and how simply rebranding Thanksgiving upholds colonization. (I haven’t seen her in more than a year. I don’t know when I will again, or how each of us will have changed by the time we do, what things about each other we’ll be surprised by because FaceTime will not have revealed them. My missing her is so deep it’s not even an ache. It’s something I don’t have a word for.)

Yes, I think. And.

I want to answer her, but I don’t know how to say how it is for me.

I know what the holiday is and isn’t and I care but I will not give up being with the people I love. Not because I’ve been conditioned or socialized to want it. I want them because they are me, they are mine, and they are still here and I can.

My mother and I spend some of the holiday agonizing over a decision about attending a Christmas party with extended family this year. My mother is now the oldest of us, a development I once understood would come to be, even as it felt impossible, then, that one day all those who came before her would be gone.

I’ve reached a stage where, on a good day, I am more grateful for what remains than mournful for what I’ve lost. (Will that be true when only my generation is left?)

We decide we should not go to the gathering. Risk-reward calculations are so difficult now. Are we saving ourselves for something our choices are taking from us?

My old dog whimpers when we come in the door on Friday after two nights gone. She’s too fragile to travel now, and she stayed home with my son, who spent the holiday with his dad and his siblings who have a different mother. I have to hold her for a good long time before her body stops trembling. I wonder what she felt while I was gone, if she wondered if I’d return. I hope not.

That night we watch Ted Lasso who says, about parents, that he has learned to love them for what they are and forgive them for what they’re not, and I wonder how things might be if more of us could do that about all kinds of things. I wonder if we could, or should. (I wonder if my children will do that for me.)

Maybe that’s an idea that makes it easier for those with relative comfort to remain comfortable.

Maybe not.

I don’t know.

My son sits down on the couch next to me, to check in with his old dog who isn’t leaving my side. I’m so grateful he was able to care for her while I was gone. I’m so grateful he’s here.

I think about the year he was in second grade, when, the week before Thanksgiving, I read him a story about Natives and Pilgrims and the origins of the holiday, and he told me it made him sad, that he didn’t feel good about the holiday. As his nose touches our old girl who now, like a baby, wakes mostly just to eat and poop, I remember all the versions of boy and dog each of them has been, and I want the moment to last forever, even as I know that all I might hope to hold onto is an image of it, and that the wanting has turned the moment to memory before it is even over.

Winter’s coming

Sometimes, these past few months, as I let the world’s news glance off me, I allow myself to sit (only for moments) with a growing truth: That the bedrock upon which I lived for more than 50 years is shifting and breaking, and there is no putting it back (any more than one can put the earth back after a quake), and that this time of relative (surface) calm (in which I can push looming catastrophe into the canyons of my life, out of sight/out of mind) might someday, in retrospect, feel like the last weeks of fall, when the beauty is mostly (but not entirely) gone and you can see the shape of the season to come, and you want only to cling to the vibrant colors as long as you can, the way you imagine the last few leaves would be doing if they could, you know, literally cling, and could know anything about the inevitabilities of temperature, wind, or their fate. We know the spring will come round and everything will bloom again, but not for them.

Not for them.

A few dots

The Bad Guys Are Winning

We’re Not OK

A War on Books?… (via ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom newsletter)

Is Cozy Season a Cry for Help?

Hello darkness my old friend

So much can change in seven days.

One Saturday it’s all sunshine and pumpkins and leaves blazing against blue skies, and the next it’s wet sticks and relentless wind, the willow’s branches swept bare. I scoffed at Cane a week ago when he suggested that it would be our last sunny day until spring, then conceded that, perhaps, it was the last of a certain kind of sunny day. But I didn’t mean it. I thought we’d surely have more.

I was wrong.

The coleus plants that have flourished in our window box since August withered in days, and the pumpkins on our front porch seem suddenly garish. One afternoon I stepped outside to carry our old Daisy down the steps she now too often stumbles upon and was surprised by the cold that bit me right through my sweater. In just a week our corner of the world went from glorious to grubby and grim.

So now we turn inward, toward candlelight, simmering soups, woolly socks, and soft blankets. These are the weeks–this short lull between holidays–for sitting away a whole afternoon in a cafe with an old friend. For playing a game in front of a fire, and clearing a table to hold the pieces of a puzzle. It’s the beginning of wondering where another year has gone and of pondering what we’ll make of the next. Tonight darkness will descend before we’re ready for it, and we’ll feel something inside ourselves hunkering down for the long haul of winter, even though its supposed beginning is still weeks away.

I’m more than a little sorry to let go of what feels like true autumn, those afternoons of kicking crisp leaves with boots that feel new simply because it’s been so long since we’ve worn them. But this late stage is just a different kind of true, one that tests our loves in ways that easy days never do.

(A human can learn a lot from her canines about adaptation and comfort.)

Would love to hear all about how you weather this time of year, and what it’s like in your part of the world.

Take that life and shove it

A friend and I have been talking about the Great Resignation, a phenomenon I consider myself to be part of. I’m still working in education, but I’m officially retired (drawing a pension) and have left the district I’d been with for more than a decade. I left for the reasons we’re presuming a lot of people have left and are leaving (at accelerated rates) their jobs: I was unwilling to return to my pre-pandemic life/job and found a way not to.

Now I work a 1/3 teaching job in a different organization, and I love many things about it. But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Things often feel weirdly off, and I can’t attribute all of them to my 12-year absence from classroom teaching.

A blog post this week from Sarah Kain Gutowski, a poet and college-level teacher, gave words to something I’ve been struggling to describe for weeks now. She is experiencing a large number of students who aren’t meeting usual expectations. Some cannot because of continuing pandemic-related challenges. Others seemingly won’t, or also can’t, or…who knows? They just aren’t doing the kinds of things we’ve always expected students will do. Sarah notes that simply failing large numbers of students isn’t a viable option, and that in the face of this:

There is only so much energy I can spend pushing against something nameless and shapeless but larger and stronger than I am. At some point, I just have to go where it guides me.

And I felt that zing of recognition and ohyes that strikes when someone puts words to exactly what I’ve been living.

I think, perhaps, it is not just adult workers who are resigning from work situations that are not working for them. I think many of us are, even the youngest among us, and we’re doing it in a variety of ways and not just with respect to work. I feel as if I’m in the midst of something nameless (because I don’t think “great resignation” really captures what I’m sensing) and shapeless that is something so far beyond just my little existence. I realized within the first weeks of school that I would have to go where it guides me in my classroom, and now I’m getting curious about how this Thing all around us might guide us in other ways.

For many decades of my life, I viewed quitting as nothing but negative. I remember a conversation with my dad in my early teen years, in which he expressed concern that I never seemed to stick with anything. While I’d had good reasons for quitting Bluebirds, the clarinet, track, and ice skating, I still felt shame about my lack of…something. Some kind of strength or some quality of character that was going to be essential for doing Great Things and living a Good Life.

Not many years after that conversation, my dad’s brother once infuriated me by lecturing a boyfriend on the same topic. “It’s so important not to be a quitter,” he proclaimed to the young man I loved who had recently dropped out of college. Nearly 40 years later, I can still feel my outrage, but I know now that my feelings were as much about my own fear and disappointment about my beau’s choices as they were about my uncle’s rudeness.

I was socialized to put up with things, and to see sticking it out as a virtue, and to never, ever quit something unless I had an alternative something else already in place. I saw myself again in Derek Thompson’s words I linked to in the first sentence of this post:

The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/great-resignation-accelerating/620382/

Oh, man. Do I know clinging to a crappy job (marriage, home, city) out of fear. What I know now is that fear is a terrible reason to stick with anything. Sometimes we have to. Sometimes we have to stick with something until we can find a safe way to escape it. Fear is a necessary emotion that often helps to keep us safe, and I don’t want to discount that or to ignore that, sometimes, quitting is really not an option.

But I am so here for this resignation thing going on, whatever it is. I’m still in process on my journey to a healthier, more manageable life, but I’m definitely getting there, and quitting my old job was a huge, first, and necessary step. I’m grateful, too, for my students’ various ways of quitting the ways in which we’ve always done school. They are pushing me to be a more humane and more effective teacher than I’ve ever been–and it’s leading me to new practices that are better for me, too. Sometimes I can get mired down in sadness and regret over things we have lost and are losing (truly bipartisan legislation, for just one), but this week I am finding value in thinking about things we should quit. I’m glad to be re-thinking the whole notion of quitting, and to rewrite some of the scripts that have shaped me, my life choices, and my feelings about myself for so long.

This weekend I got caught up on reading one of my favorite blogs, and truly enjoyed Bethany Reid’s recent essay about her marriage, written in an A to Z format. I love this format (similar in many ways to collage, a visual form I’ve always loved) and it reminds me of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, one of those books I wish I’d written. And now I’m thinking about writing an A to Z of things I’ve quit, just to see where it might take me…

Would love to know about things you’ve quit or want to quit, too, or your thoughts about the Great Resignation.

True Grit

On Monday, a day off, I felt like garbage. I spent far too much of the day prepping for the week’s lessons, and by early afternoon I had a pain running down the right side of my neck and was cranky as a hangry toddler who’d missed naptime. I figured I’d been sitting incorrectly for too many hours, so I took some ibuprofen, even though I’m not supposed to because of my acid reflux, and then I piddled away what was left of my day, feeling even worse about how I was using my time.

School went all right on Tuesday, but I couldn’t stay awake in the afternoon to grade student work, my neck was worse, and I was still grumpy. I hated how another day felt wasted, but I couldn’t seem to get myself to do anything.

*Cue the migraine*

Thinking that there might be some connection between my neck pain and my ear that had plugged up several weeks earlier, I finally made an appointment to see the doctor on Wednesday to get my ear flushed out. I figured I could talk to her about the neck pain, and if nothing else, at least I’d be better able to hear my students again.

Sure enough, both ears were plugged. And that right one was super-infected, which might have been creating the neck pain.

I was sent home with an antibiotic (thank you, modern medicine) and instructions to rest, and then I did something pre-pandemic Rita never would have done: I called in sick for the next day.

I was pretty sure I could go to school and teach my two classes and go home. I wasn’t contagious, and I could power through on my migraine meds. It’s more work to set things up for a sub than it is to just show up and teach. Also: substitute shortages are a very real thing in Oregon, and I didn’t want to burden my colleagues, who would be asked to cover my classes.

But post-pandemic Rita is working to resist that kind of thinking and action. She finally realized that, hey, all that listless doing nothing wasn’t a sign of some character defect but was one of illness, and she needed to take care of herself. (Too bad she didn’t clue in and take care of her plugged ear sooner.)

So I stayed home, and I didn’t beat myself up for yet another day of doing a whole lot more of nothing much.

Not sure who needs to hear this (besides me, who needs to hear it regularly even though I’ve been through this cycle more times than I can count): When we can’t get ourselves to do things we want or need to do, it means that something is wrong. Not that something is wrong with us, but that something is wrong for us.

We’re not lazy. We might be conflicted, depressed, overwhelmed, anxious, bored, or sick, but we’re not lazy. Or undisciplined or too dreamy or any other kind of too much or not enough. (Lazy is word we often use when we’re too lazy to figure out a more accurate one, imo.)

Better to figure out what the real issue is and deal with it than to suffer through frustrating days wearing a psychological hair shirt. Sometimes real grit is doing a thing that feels soft, especially if you’ve been socialized to think that it’s your job to solve all the problems you see. There’s a line between rolling up your sleeves/pitching in/doing your part and sacrificing yourself in a noble but misguided (because futile) effort to put band-aids on hemorrhaging wounds. Seems a lot of us are looking for it these days. If you’re one of them, hoping my little story might help in your search.

And that’s all I can manage for a post this week. (See above.)

PS: A post by a blogging friend has me wondering if I need to state this clearly, so I will: I always welcome comments and discussion, even if I don’t ask a direct question to solicit them. To me, discussion in the comments is as much a part of blogging as anything I post, even though it can sometimes take me a bit to respond. (See above, again.) Feel free to chime in with your experience, your questions, your pushback on my ideas. I’m here for all of it.

Best laid plans

Oh, I had such plans for Tuesday.

When I began my part-time teaching job, I was determined to work only on the days I teach. This would give me all of every-other-weekday off. I’d teach in the mornings and do all my prep and grading work in the afternoons.

Those off days? Those would be a luxury of time filled with things bolstering enough to get me through the work days: writing, creative projects, cooking, reading, leisurely visits with friends. Maybe even some naps.

It hasn’t gone like that, so much so that Tuesday was the first day this school year that I could actually have an entire weekday free from work.

I was going to run to a local shopping center to pick up some things. I was going to go to the produce stand to buy ingredients for soup and some pumpkins for the front porch, and then to the grocery store to get some other things we were out of. I was going to make soup, and put out the pumpkins, and process a box or two of things in the garage that is still full of stuff from Cane’s house. I was going to spend some time with my son.

I put my back out in the morning, sliding a storage container out from under the bed, but I downed some ibuprofen and was out of the house by 10:30. I had finished the shopping center stops by 11:45, when I took a call from a friend. I sat in my car for over an hour, mostly listening and being witness to a challenging situation she’s dealing with. I thought of my list and let it go for a bit. This is what you wanted more of, I thought to myself. Time to be present for the people in your life. That’s more important than pumpkins or cleaning the garage out. And it was, and I was glad to use some of my day for that. I still had plenty of time left.

After our call ended, I turned my key in the ignition, ready to head to the produce market, and…nothing. The engine didn’t even click. The dashboard lights blinked at me, then went blank, except for one with a lock icon.

I called Cane, who helped me troubleshoot, and we thought the problem might be that the antitheft system had been activated. From our Googling, it seemed that perhaps I needed to let the car sit for a bit, so I decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.

I let a little more of my plan go, but not as easily. It was not the lunch I had wanted, but it was not a bad lunch, either. Still, I had so wanted a day mostly at home, puttering and making comfort food and just being in the place I love. I was now going to have much less of that than I’d hoped for.

I went back to the car and tried the things the internets had suggested I try, and…still nothing. I called the dealership and talked to someone in the repair center, who suggested it might be more likely that I had a dead battery. “Try giving it a jump, and then call us back if that doesn’t work.”

And there went what was left of my day. It was already after 2:00 by then, and it didn’t make sense to call for roadside assistance when Cane would be off work at 3:30. After having a mini-melt down (my back still hurt, and I wasn’t going to have time to make the soup, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if the car didn’t start, and I hate it when I feel at the mercy of things I can’t control), I let the rest of my plans go. I used a bit of my time in the car thinking about plans and how they do and don’t serve us. Then I took a nap.

The car started right away when we gave it a jump. (We still don’t know what caused it to go dead, but it’s been just fine ever since.) Rather than trying to make the soup work or figure out something else to make for dinner, I gave myself permission to go home and sit in a comfortable chair with a heating pad and a book and have my son pick up takeout pizza.

I had a wonderful evening.

Wednesday I had every intention of working all day so that Thursday could be that work-free day I’ve been dreaming of, but Wednesday afternoon I was so exhausted from low-grade headache and back pain and a morning of teaching that I took a nap instead. This, too, is what you said you wanted, I reminded myself. Enough ease in your schedule to give your body more of what it needs. I slept well, and when I woke I made the soup I’d originally planned for Tuesday. I never did do any prep work that afternoon, but it was OK. I adjusted my plans for Thursday.

Thursday afternoon I had a long and unexpected visit with a different friend, and my plans flew out the window again. It was the first time we’d talked since we both returned to in-person teaching, and much of our conversation was about how our lives are both the same as and different from what they were before March 13, 2020, when our world stopped. We did some wondering about our labor and supply chain issues and all the folks who, seemingly, have decided that they are not going to return to life as they knew it before that day when we went home for what we were told would be just a week or two. How do they do it? we wondered. Then,

“I guess I’m one of those people,” I said. “I didn’t go back.”

I can see, too, that my students haven’t really gone back, either. Like me, they are where they were–but important things are not the same, and we’re not the same, either. They are not driven by the same things as those I knew before, and they expect different things from us. “Good morning, Ms. Ramstad,” one began an email to me this week. “I want to let you know that I won’t be in class on Friday because I am taking a mental health day.”

Good for you, I thought, and marveled a bit at how things have changed in the twelve years since I last had my own classroom. On Friday, my students gave presentations about aspects of their lives that have likely contributed to their biases, and they talked freely about all kinds of things that would once have been the stuff of secrets or privacy or shame: religious belief, gender identity, divorce, addiction, discrimination, incarceration, mental health.

As each shared pieces of themselves with the rest of us, part of groundwork we are laying to be able to talk productively about important and controversial topics, I felt myself softening and opening and feeling connection with fellow humans. By the end of my classes, I felt fuller, not depleted. I needed no recovery from the day’s work; instead, the day’s work gave me some recovery from the on-going dire news of the world.

Each day, they teach me more about how to be a teacher for them and how to live in the world that is emerging from and for us. In the presence of these complex, resilient, and open people who sit in front of me every other day, I have seen more and more clearly how arbitrary and unnecessary so many things in schools have been–like rigid plans and inflexible due dates. The last time I was a teacher, I spent so much energy managing due dates and absences and the rules around them. If your absence was excused you got an extension on a due date, and if it wasn’t you didn’t, and if the assignment was late you lost points on it, and if it was on time you didn’t. Tracking all of that was time-consuming and exhausting, and our practices rested an all kinds of assumptions about what students would do and should do.

I didn’t question it much, though; it was just how it was. I never liked it, but I felt I had to go along. It was what everyone did. We assumed that if we didn’t do such things, no one would ever turn anything in on time. It was what students expected, too. If we didn’t take off points for late work, students who turned their work in on time would complain that it wasn’t fair. They’d stayed up all night to get it done and they should be rewarded for that. (And others punished for not doing it.) If we didn’t hold students accountable for meeting deadlines, we said, they’d never learn the importance of doing it.

What a crock! What a waste. What needless labor and pain for all of us that didn’t need to be. We imposed it upon ourselves. We did it because that’s how it had always been done, and because it’s what had been done to us. It felt natural and right (even when it felt wrong), but it was all something we’d manufactured. It didn’t occur to them or us that, perhaps, the true unfairness was in expecting students to sacrifice their health or other important things for a grade.

Now, in the wake of Covid, doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past. We are reminded frequently of all that our students have been through and of what they are still enduring, and many things seem up for reconsideration.

Now, I strive to ground all of my practices in authentic purpose and true care. When I could see that some students were submitting assignments in the middle of the night, I told them that I never want to see that they’ve turned an assignment in after 11:00 pm. I’d rather they sleep and turn it in late. It doesn’t mean I don’t have due dates. I do. Every time, many students meet them, and some don’t. When they don’t, though, our conversations are not about the points they’ll lose. They are instead about what barriers are keeping them from getting their work done and what strategies we might use to remove them. No one seems to care that someone who turned the assignment in late gets the same full credit as someone who turned it in on time. Maybe it’s because we’ve talked about how grades should reflect what we know and can do with regard to our learning standards (rather than our behaviors), or maybe it’s because they like knowing that, should they need it, they will be given some grace when they can’t meet a deadline. (Because things happen to all of us, eventually.)

To be honest, I don’t know why they’re responding differently. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.

It is so freeing to teach this way, to be this way. It feels so much more humane. There are some natural consequences when deadlines are missed (say, when progress report grades are due), but I am driven much less by plans and deadlines that I’ve created and much more by what all of us need. The grace I extend comes back to me; when I explained to my students that some assignments wouldn’t be reflected in the progress report grades because I hadn’t had time to grade them yet, no one grumbled. It’s just how we are now, it seems. We trust that the soup will get made eventually, and some nights we eat take-out pizza because that’s all we can manage if we want to be OK. We’ll all live.

As I rest from this week and begin turning toward the next one, I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to. This week, the more I let go of ideas about some days being for work and others for the things I want to do, the more work became a fulfilling thing I wanted to do, and the more peace I felt about whatever I could and couldn’t accomplish in any given day, either in my school life or my home life.

All of this pondering about plans sent me back to the Burns poem alluded to in the title of this post, and re-reading it I focused on things I never have before, such as its line about Man’s dominion breaking social union. I realized how much our pandemic has been like his farmer’s plow, and how much I’m coming to think, like the farmer, that in spite of the sudden and unwanted destruction we’ve lived through (those of us who are still alive), it might be better to be the mouse than him, who looks back at prospects drear and forward to fears. Even though I know it could be upturned at any moment, I’m much preferring the honest nest I’m building now than the one that gave me false security before.

Once we’d have thought this an ugly pumpkin, but now we admire it. There’s a metaphor there.

Fall Equinox

The week of the equinox I keep taking photos of my cut tomatoes, trying (and failing) to capture what they are before they’re gone. Their catacomb whorls of sweet seed and juice have ruined me for the market’s bland offerings, finally convincing me that tomatoes are, indeed, a fruit. 

In the morning dark of autumn’s first full day, I read Kooser poems* in bed. Under low lamplight I meet his parents and grandparents, and I think:  I know these people. I used to live in their world. I had a great-grandmother who wore boxy black shoes, and a father who smelled of Old Spice. I lived at their slow pace, in a place where a woman might throw rainbows from a basin of used dishwater. 

When I was a girl, I believed that one day I would understand how we all make our place in the world. When I was a young teacher, a young mother, I thought I did. I was wrong (but not entirely).

What should I wish for my children? The more I live, the less I am sure of. 

This week I gave my students an assignment to read the academic standards to which we will all be held accountable. “What is a ‘grade level band of text complexity’?” they asked, their tongues tripping over familiar stones arranged into an unfamiliar pattern. 

I laid the system of my classroom bare and invited them to choose how they will operate within it. “What does it mean to you, to do well in school?” I asked. They live in a viral world of devious licks and Likes, but also one in which a person might grow their own food. 

Later, after the sky lightens, I let the dog into the backyard and pick pears from our tree. Fruit fallen onto the sun-scorched grass is half-eaten, and I wonder what kind of animal we are feeding. When I wash my lunch dishes at the sink, warm water running over my hands, I think of a woman I once worked with who always washed her dishes with cold. “Hot water is too expensive,” she told me. I was in college, and it had never occurred to me that a person could wash with anything other than warm or that heat could cost too much. I remember her as happy, in love with her children.

What does it mean to live well? I type later, sitting in a chair at a table in front of a window, in the middle of a day in which I could choose to do anything, or nothing.  

The closer I get to the end, the more I find answers in memory, in poetry, in tomatoes.

*Delights and Shadows

****

It has been a beautiful week in my part of the world. We are definitely feeling the shorter days, which helps us to savor the evening light. A bit of rain has returned some green to the garden, and we’re happy to leave August’s dull, brittle dust in the rearview of this year.

We’re settling into our school year routines. I’m still finding my way to ones that will work for my new situation. It’s a matter of composing and adjusting my thoughts as much as my actions. I’m living in some space between working and retired (though let me tell you: I am definitely working), which isn’t what I mentally prepared for and is something for which I don’t really have models. So much of what determines our feelings is based on what we expect. Originally I had hoped to contain my work to the days I actually teach, but that’s a goal not yet within reach. I think I can get there. Maybe. I’m trying to let go of the ideas I once had and just experience the things that come at me each day, let myself be open to all the things that each might be.

This week had a bit more ease than the last, despite having our first instances of students being out on quarantine. One of my classes was missing nearly a quarter of its students the last time we met, and it changed the whole dynamic of the room. The week before, one of our partner high schools closed entirely for 10 days because they had four positive cases but were unable to determine close contacts due to a lack of sound protocols. Things are both normal and not-normal simultaneously. I’m working hard not to gaslight my students, to walk a line between acknowledging what we’re dealing with and getting on with the business of learning in spite of what’s changed and changing. (My colleagues and I have adopted “pivot” as our word of the year.) When I shared with some students that the other English teachers and I had made an agreement to strive for no homework, their relief was palpable. I’ve already fallen in love with my students, and I feel fiercely protective of them. I’ve been thinking hard about what is essential and what is not, which came out in the writing above.

I hope the first week of the new season brings good things to you, whatever that means for you. I would love to hear how things are in your part of the world.

On blooming (and not)

On this Labor Day weekend, I feel so full from the past week I don’t even know how to start. It was my first in my new job at a new school, and I have so many thoughts/feelings about:

Work

Burnout

Community

Culture

Teaching

Trauma

Growth

(And that’s just about what’s going on in my personal world. What a dumpster-fire of a week it’s been in the world at large! Haven’t begun to process all of that yet.)

One day this week I was scrolling a social media channel and I saw a photo full of now-former colleagues. They were doing something fun together, and I felt this tight little feeling in my chest. Not because I missed them or wished I’d been included, but because I felt so relieved to be out of the place I’ve been and sad/weird about feeling relieved. They are not terrible people, and it is not a terrible place. But, now that I don’t have to work there any more, I can finally fully admit to myself how much it just wasn’t my place. Their community and its culture isn’t mine.

And that’s OK. It’s good to know.

I have spent the last 12 years trying desperately to fit into a place that simply wasn’t my place, and…oh my god what that did to me. There are people in that place I treasure, and going there was the right move when I made it. It gave me things I needed, and I did some good work there, and I learned so much. I’m deeply grateful for the learning and for the people who kept me afloat, but the lightness I feel now that I am in a place that fits, preparing to do work that fits, in conditions that feel manageable? I don’t have words to convey it.

After one week in my new/old place/community/culture, I feel more belonging than I did in 12 years in the one I just left–which has blown open truths I had never fully admitted to myself. I used to joke/not-joke to new hires in my former district that after ___ years, I still felt like a newbie. What that meant was: This is a tight community, and I still feel like an outsider. While I was known and had those I grew close to, I also always felt a wall with many people. Not a thick one, but an impenetrable one. Most (though not all) of those I grew close to were on my side of it. The wall was a thing we sometimes talked about. No one was ever unkind or disrespectful to me, but I rarely felt the kind of ease that comes with knowing you are fully accepted. That you will be given grace for your foibles and fumbles. That you will be understood. That you can be your full, real self and others will be theirs with you and you’ll still like and respect each other. While I had pockets of people with whom I did feel that kind of ease and knowing, I never had it in a general sense. In many situations, part of me was always on guard. (And, I’m sure, others never felt that kind of acceptance from me.)

It is exhausting to spend so much of your life in a stance of vigilance, especially when you are in denial about why.

I kept thinking the problem–that work took such a toll on me–was in what I was doing. I thought if only I did something different (held different boundaries, communicated in different ways, set different priorities, worked in different buildings, took a different position, etc. ad nauseum), I could make it better. I tried so many different ways to be OK there.

After years of failing to make things better, I began to think that the problem was within me: Maybe I was just too old and tired. Maybe I’d just been doing this work too long. Maybe my time had passed. Maybe I no longer had what it takes to be good at this. I never thought I was the best at what I do, but I always felt competent and that I had valuable contributions to make. I lost that confidence.

Eventually, I also lost interest in things I had once found compelling. I didn’t want to read or learn about new ideas or practices in education. I cared, but only in an abstract sort of way. I more fully understood my child who once said about school: “I want to want to do it, but I don’t.” I stopped keeping up, and then felt like I was falling behind and becoming more irrelevant by the day. It all made me so weary, and all I wanted to do was stay home and nest. I knew that I was suffering from burnout, and I knew systemic issues were at play, but it still felt like the root of the problem was something within me, and that it wouldn’t/couldn’t be better anywhere else–because I’d still be wherever I went.

Then came the pandemic.

While many things about the pandemic shutdown of schools was hard, I also felt a tremendous easing. It was such a relief to spend my days in a place I felt freer. The uncomfortable parts of my job that remained became easier to tolerate. I had fewer migraines and began sleeping better. Even in the midst of trauma (after trauma after trauma), I was healthier and…happier? (Yes, happier. Which brings to mind the time I looked forward to major surgery for the break that staying in the hospital would provide, but I’ll save that story for another time.) I even started to feel a little better about my ability to contribute, and better able to see which failings were mine (I am older and don’t have the physical stamina I once had) and which belonged to a broken system. I could no longer deny how toxic many things about my work situation had become for me, and when we returned to school buildings last spring the idea of returning to my job(s) in the fall became untenable.

Of course, likely the only reason I was able to come out of denial was that I had options; last January I became eligible for full retirement, and I’m no longer supporting my children financially. I’m sure the reason I didn’t allow myself to fully feel and see the truth of the situation earlier was that I needed it to be OK for me to be there. For a variety of reasons, changing districts to do library or instructional coaching work presented different sets of dilemmas that did not feel better than the ones I had. Returning to the demands of full-time English teaching (the only subject I can teach) would have been no more manageable than what I was doing, even in the best-fitting community, because of the unmanageable work load. But leaving the salary and benefits I earned was also not an option; I was supporting children as well as myself. I told myself what I had to in order to be OK-enough to stay.

What I am understanding this week is that there was likely nothing I could have done to make it better. It just wasn’t my right place or right work or right workload.

The most amazing thing to me (in this time full of amazement) is how different I feel to be doing something I’ve done for so long. This back to school season feels nothing like the 31 others I’ve lived. The return to school each year has always been a time marked by dread. While each year (except the last) always contained things I looked forward to and was excited about, there was also always sadness and resignation. It meant returning to imbalance and exhaustion and ethical compromise–all of which stemmed from simply never having enough time to do all that needed doing. Important parts of me that opened during the summer months shut down when I returned to school. This year, in spite of all that is unknown and likely to be challenging, I feel only light, happy, and open. I cannot remember a time in my life that I have felt as down-to-the-bone good as I do right now.

I feel that way because I’m returning to work that is a better fit for me. I feel that way because it is my choice to do this work; I didn’t feel trapped by economic need. I feel that way because I will have a manageable work load that gives me enough time to take care of my personal and family needs, as well as time for things I simply want to do. I feel this way because I get to do work that aligns with my values and that I know I can do well.

Think of what a difference it could make to our children if all their teachers felt light, happy, and open as they return to school! Think of what a difference it could make to our world if everybody felt light, happy, and open about their work, able to do the kind that is a good fit for them, in places where they feel safe and accepted and able to be the best version of themselves. These insights I’m gaining about community, belonging, competence, choice, and meaning will definitely inform my practices with students this year as I facilitate their work of learning, as well as choices I continue to make about where and how to work, live, and be.

This post is already too long for a deep-dive into a critique of work in a world driven by capitalism (that others are doing so much better than I could, anyway), but on this Labor Day weekend, I am full of ideas and wishes and longings for how work could be different for all of us, and what that could mean for our planet and societies. I am so grateful for new colleagues who feel like my people and who have welcomed me into their community. I can’t wait to work beside them and to learn from and with them. I wish they were not going to have to carry the kind of weight that I did for so many years, but I know that most of them will. I’m wishing that all of them and all of you and everyone I know could work in the way I now get to, so that we might all bloom where we’re planted–because blooming isn’t just a matter of your attitude or desire or effort. (Just ask my raspberries.) It’s about having the conditions you need to live, grow, and thrive.

“Bloom Where You’re Planted” by Ian Varley is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0