This week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen since late May. After filling her in on things that have happened since then, she leaned back and said, “And what are you doing to take care of yourself?”
I smiled and shrugged a little.
“Because I just want you to know: That’s a lot. All I’ve had to do is listen, and I feel exhausted.”
This month I began substitute teaching. I do this work only at the school where I last taught; it is a place I know and am known, a small school with a healthy culture and community. On Tuesday, as I attempted to support a student in finding another student to partner with for an interview activity, they stood up and walked out of the room. They came back a bit later, and they began crying when I approached and asked if they were OK. We moved to the hallway, where, in tears, they apologized for leaving the way they had and explained that they have anxiety and panic attacks, and that in the classroom they’d had their third one of the day. I’d like to tell you that this kind of incident is rare, but it’s not. (A lot of the kids are not all right.)
This week, I began reading KC Davis’s How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing. I am reading it because I want to learn how to better support someone I love. I appreciate this writer’s reminder of the importance of framing: “Care tasks are morally neutral.” It is our culture that assigns worth to how well we perform them–and shame when we fall short of cultural ideals. Davis tells us that “mess has no inherent meaning.” We assign plenty of meaning to it, though: That because of mess in our surroundings, we are a mess (or incompetent or disgusting or lazy). Davis encourages us to choose for ourselves what meaning it has for us, and to choose gently.
In my lunch with my friend, a retired teacher, we talked about how different today’s kids are from the kids we taught at the beginning of our careers, and how different they seem from the kids we remember ourselves being. We are elder Gen-Xers who came of age in a time with much less existential threat and far better economic prospects and supports, but we were given much less emotional support and time from our parents than today’s youth. “They seem to have so much less resilience,” she said.
“We didn’t get as much care as they do, and we turned out all right,” she added.
“Did we?” I asked. “I mean, I’m on my third marriage.”
“And maybe that’s because you turned out great!” she argued. “Maybe that means you had relationships that gave you something you needed for a time, and then you were strong enough to leave them when they no longer did.”
Last weekend I attended a funeral for a family member. “Have you been doing any writing?” my cousin’s husband asked me. He was a musician when I first knew him; after his son was born he gave up playing professionally and took a full-time day job with good pay and benefits. For years he has asked me this almost every time I see him, and my answer is always the same: “Not really.”
I shrug and smile. The real answer feels like too much to say in a big group of people standing around a small kitchen. I don’t actually know what the real answer is, but I know that much about it.
There is nothing like an unexpected funeral for someone younger than your parents to make you contemplate what it is you are doing with your life, and how it might be even shorter than you have, in recent years, come to realize it is.
“Are you just feeling like you don’t have anything to say?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. That is a truth: I don’t have anything I feel compelled to say. But I was also thinking: Or maybe too much. And: There’s not enough time. And: There are so many voices in the world already, so much that I feel like I’m drowning in the cacophony.
It’s a lot of things.
In one version of my substitute teaching story, I made a kid cry and leave the room. In another, I was an adult that a student felt safe enough with to talk honestly about their mental health struggles.
Something happened this week that made me lose it. Truly, out-of-control lose it. The kind of losing it where you slam doors and throw objects. Where you stand alone in a room and scream from a place deep within your body. Where rage demands physical expression. This has happened to me only a few times in my life, but they’ve all been within the past ten years. What did it mean? At first, I thought it was part of a story about powerlessness and betrayal. With more time and information, I could reframe it as one about suffering collateral damage from someone else’s childhood trauma.
With even more time and information, with my friend mirroring my stories back to me–It’s a lot, I am exhausted–I could understand my outburst as a response to not just one precipitating event, but to layers of events that have fused like a block of sedimentary rock in the bottom of a lake. I thought of Virginia Woolf wading into a river with her pockets full of stones, and I understood that all of it–my silence, my rage, my weariness–has been a response to an accumulation of small weights.
So, despite exhaustion, this week I began doing what I know will work to empty my pockets: resting, eating well, redrawing boundaries, taking care of what is mine to care for, moving my body, connecting with my people, disconnecting from noise, getting the words out. Framing the things that come at me through the lens of the serenity prayer.
The heavy, layered block is still there, under the waves. It will always be there. When I look down I can see it. But I am here, above it, treading water, still kicking.
And that is a lot.
Some things that were a lot this week:
A lot of veggies. I’ve been working on feeding our bodies well and eating less meat. This recipe is a keeper.
A lot of mushrooms. Spent time on Friday getting our outside world ready for winter and discovered this bed of mushrooms growing near our shed. It felt good to put the outdoor furniture away and clean out the tomato plants and disconnect the hoses. And to discover something that felt a little bit wondrous.
A lot of bark chips. We got a chip drop so we can expand our backyard planting area and kill more of the lawn there. Moving all of this from the front to the back is a lot of work. Felt good to use our bodies this way, though.