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464 Days: What I experienced in secondary education during the pandemic closure

July 26, 2021

March-June 2020:

Chaos. No one knows what they’re doing.

September 2020:

Chaos. No one knows what they’re doing.

A week before school started, we still had no idea what our daily or weekly schedule would be like. How much would I have to condense my curriculum? How would we help struggling students? 

A week before school started, I asked my mom’s side of the family during their weekly Zoom session to be my pretend students. My cousin, a high school p.e. teacher, gave me tips from what she had learned from her district’s professional development. My aunt let me know when they couldn’t see my screen or hear the audio. 

A week before school started, I borrowed a small folding table from our friend Cleo and a small end table from our neighbor Kathy, set them up in an L between my dresser and Alan’s, and printed out my rosters for attendance. I set up a folding screen behind me so my students wouldn’t see the bathroom door behind me (I eventually learned about virtual backgrounds, and then–excitement!–virtual filters that made me a cat).

First day of school, Sept. 2020

The night before school started, I physically shook from panic and dread. WTF was I doing? WTF did any of us teachers know? WTF would our students expect?

Some good stuff:  

My students were incredibly patient, flexible, kind, and funny. Although I had no idea what some of them looked or sounded like until graduation day, I still had a sense of knowing them through their written assignments, through their Zoom chat messages and emails. I have loved my students every year, and I was grateful that this year was no exception to that.

My students got to know my children and my cat. When they turned on their cameras, I got to see their pets, their babysitting charges and siblings, their room decorations. We connected in a different way than we normally do, and that part was wonderful.

Our school did “Senior Shout-outs” every day of second semester: teachers wrote what we appreciated about each senior, and every day during Advisory, 6 seniors got to hear those comments. I wrote so many appreciations and loved hearing what my colleagues said about our students.

The hard stuff:

There is no other way to say this: teaching via Zoom was soul-sucking. As much as I loved interacting with those students who had cameras on or spoke or typed Chat messages, it was still very difficult to know what they understood, what questions they had, or how engaged they were. Some days I would be begging them to respond: “Do you have questions, or do you understand, or are you bored and checked out, or did you leave to walk your dog?” Teaching for me involves the gift and reception of energy; this year on Zoom, I expended a lot of energy on planning and instructing, and the energy I received from my students was nowhere near the level I was used to. 

We shifted from Semester 1 to Semester 2 in the middle of the first week of February. Depleted, burned out, dreading opening each day’s Zoom sessions, I spent the month having migraine after migraine, and when my friend asked me kindly what I wanted, what came out of my mouth was unexpected, subliminal:  “I want to quit my job.”

I had not wanted to quit my job since my first year of teaching, when I wondered if I had chosen the wrong profession and how I would ever be competent, much less effective. This year felt much the same.

I had my next moment of sheer panic in mid-April, when we were about to return in-person…sort of. So many cohorts and procedures and I know how to teach students in front of me, and I have kind of figured out how to teach students online, but how do I do both at the same time? 

On the table outside my classroom, alongside the bleach wipes and hand sanitizer

Seeing students in my classroom–even those periods when it was just two of them–was so refreshing. I had looked forward to seeing my colleagues again too, but our lunch schedules were all out of alignment, so I rarely saw other adults. One day I walked into our shared office, normally empty with all of us scattered to our respective classrooms, and told my colleague, “I feel like the crappiest teacher ever right now.”

“Same,” he said, and just that affirmation that we were not alone in our sense of inadequacy made me feel better. 

The mental health stuff:

In staff meetings held over Zoom, where I could have my camera off and listen while getting my kids breakfast, our district pushed us to prioritize social-emotional learning (SEL). It was obvious to me why:  my students were falling apart. Heck, I was falling apart.

We needed to not give our students the Push through, Stay positive toxic positivity. They needed to hear, “It’s understandable that you feel unmotivated” instead of my piling on more AP assignments. They needed to be asked, “Are you overwhelmed or burned out or both?” <–the most responses I got during a single Zoom session was to this question. And the answer for most students was BOTH. They were grieving their senior year. They were forced to adjust to online courses, a very different learning structure and process than in-person, and do so mostly alone. They were experiencing internal as well as the external chaos that was the pandemic. Several students said, “I never thought I’d say this out loud, but I miss school.” 

On top of the pandemic-closure-induced stress, many students experienced more stressors: family deaths, family members incarcerated, jobs lost, parents contracting COVID, caring for younger siblings or cousins, and mental health crises specific and heartbreaking.

In the past few years, I have taught mindfulness using the Mindful Schools curriculum. Students tell me every year how much they love it, and the most negative student feedback I have ever received from anonymous surveys is “I don’t really use mindfulness.” This year I was only able to teach it during Advisory, an extra 15 minutes after 1st period, but those students seemed to crave practicing strategies, discussing their emotional experiences, and sharing their coping mechanisms.

I also started each class period with a community-building question: from “What are your go-to snacks?” to “What do you need to forgive yourself for?” Students said that time in our class was their favorite because it gave them a chance to connect with each other beyond curriculum.

Even with all that, at the end of third quarter, 25% of my students were failing. For most of them, it was not just my class, one that they needed to pass in order to graduate; it was three or four of their classes. For most of them, this was the first semester they had ever failed any class at all.

June 2021

All but three did make it to graduation, but not without significant stress and loss of sleep–for them, for their counselors, for their teachers and family members. Graduation this year was a different sort of milestone. Not only had they successfully jumped through all the hoops of the high school experience, but they also survived the last year and a quarter.

On graduation day, I cheered through my mask, delighted at seeing my colleagues in person, clapped my hands sore at all 370 names, and waved at students who were visual strangers but embedded in my heart.

This year was bizarre and frustrating and isolating. And we had made it through, together.

Congrats, Class of 2021!

Next post:  What I learned from it and will take into future years. Because I am not quitting. Neither are our students.

464 Days: What I learned about elementary education from the pandemic closure

July 3, 2021

I have the honor of working with the student speakers for graduation at my school each year. This year, one of the 9 speakers (credit to Sierra!) centered her speech around the fact that there were 464 days between the last day of school before the extended closure and graduation day.

Four hundred sixty-four days previously, no one knew how long we would all be apart. No one could have foreseen how much would be unavailable to those then-juniors, now graduates. No one could have told us teachers that our jobs would radically change three times: to running an online course, to teaching remotely, to teaching a hybrid/concurrent model. No one could have told us parents how insanely difficult it would be to help our children do school remotely.

Now, 464+ days later, I have the opportunity to look back on this year and a quarter. Here are my observations about the elementary school set:

My kids’ teachers (all of them, from general education 4th grade teachers to special ed, p.e., art) were amazing: patient, kind, enthusiastic, and supportive. They modeled vulnerability and resilience as they tried different technologies. They presented their honest, homebound selves, including pets, family members, and house spaces-turned-offices. They were super responsive to our parental questions and feedback and endlessly creative as to how to best support our kids and all their other students. For example, one of their teachers started marking assignments as “Must Do” or “May Do,” and I told the other teacher about it, and then she created a daily checklist of “Must Do” and “May Do” items, and it helped so much. We appreciate all of them immensely.

At the beginning of the year, I even got to know many of 4th graders through the community-building that teachers did. By the end of the year, some kids didn’t come to class anymore. Some p.e. classes had only 2-3 students, including mine, following the teacher’s instructions.

One of my kids desperately missed their friends and the classroom setting that makes school, school. That kid thrives on interpersonal dynamics and the energy of others the same age. When school resumed in-person (elementary going half-day, either morning or afternoon, four days a week), that kid was overjoyed.

Two of my kids wanted to stay home. Those kids struggle with in-person learning: the overstimulation, the challenges of doing what everyone else is doing, the energy it takes to regulate their emotions. For one with ASD, time at home meant more flexibility, more self-direction, more comfort resources to help calm and ground, and more individualized assistance (adult-to-kid ratio was 1:3 instead of 1:25 in a normal classroom).

For one with ADHD, more individualized assistance was also huge: we could help break assignments, even small ones, down into more manageable time chunks and scribe when the bridge from ideas to writing them down was too long. The environment was calmer, no peer attention to worry about. More stress-reduction strategies were available (for example, snuggling a parent or cat). We got to practice the emotional regulation and persistence strategies that their therapists want them to work on in a safe and familiar and relatively quiet (except when there’s shouting about how “I can’t do it!” or “This is stupid!“) environment.

For all of my kids, the lure of YouTube overtook them partway through the year; we would discover that they had been watching Wild Kratts or Star Trek fan analysis instead of doing their assignments. They were going down Google Image rabbitholes of toy or character pictures. Since they required the internet to participate in school, we couldn’t just turn off the wifi and we couldn’t block all the websites. We lost a lot of “instructional time” to these distractions.

However, the amount of instructional time required for their actual assignments varied widely. One kid sometimes had to finish school day assignments after school on Thursday or Friday because they had taken so long to get through other things during the week. One kid, if motivated, could grind out most of the day’s assignments in an hour and a half. The teachers realized some kids were doing this and started posting each assignment at a specific time during the day so kids couldn’t work ahead. I understand why, and I also question why: Why can’t kids work at their own pace? Why do they have to continue to practice skills they have long-ago mastered? For kids who have slower processing speed, why can’t they complete one or two of a type of assessment over the course of a week instead of one per day?

I knew this before, but this year brought it into sharp focus: the education system as it exists allows some kids to thrive and others to wither, to feel shame and inadequacy, to hate school. It makes me squirm to hear so many adults lament “learning loss” and feel this urgency to push even more next year so that kids can “catch up.” Catch up to where? To the levels and standards that adults somewhat arbitrarily placed on students according to age, regardless of context. Children even in the same class in the same school had very different experiences last year, and we must meet them next year where they are, not rush to get them to where they “should” be.

I also squirm when I hear adults wish for school to “go back to normal.” Normal wasn’t fantastic for all kids. If we are truly committed to No Child being Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds or whatever acronym we’re using now, we need to radically revamp the way school is done in order to serve kids where they are and allow them to bloom more authentically.

Finally, one major gift from this year of remote learning:

At the beginning of the year, Alan and I split the week roughly in half:  on the days when I was actively teaching, he was tech support, nutrition services, counselor, nurse, instructional aide, and principal. On the days I was not in class, he got as much uninterrupted work time as possible, and I took over being the school staff of one.  On Wednesdays, we took turns:  “I have a meeting at 2.” “I have a meeting at 2:30; can you cover independent time if yours gets out early?” “Yes, and I’ll take the kid’s therapy appointment at 4 also.”  It was exhausting and crazy-making and unsustainable.

Many families had to find ways to sustain the unsustainable. They had pods, or left elementary school kids with older siblings or cousins, or found other ways to do their jobs and have their kids do school remotely. We recognize our privilege in finding the following way of making things work:

In December 2020, we hired Rachel through Care.com, who had experience working with children and adults with special needs. She worked for us through the end of the school year, doing everything from helping each kid get through their checklist each day to making kid lunches to ferrying kids to and from school for two different sessions once they returned half-time in person.

Her presence meant that Alan and I could work without guilt that the other parent was taking time away from their own job to monitor school. She knows our kids so well that she collaborated with us to create systems and strategies to help each kid with their individual academic and mental health struggles. She is thoughtful and patient and committed to growth, her own as well as the kids’. She worked on a fabulous Doug the Zebra imitation, stayed kind and gentle even when a kid was not, and shared her love of cats, travel, hiking, affirmations, and Strange Planet comics.

And even though we will not get to see her every week anymore, now she is part of our family.

Celebrating the end of this year with ice cream, of course.

Thoughts on secondary ed: coming in a later post. =)

Butterflies and Jugglers

April 4, 2021

So. It’s been a minute.

Looking back at this blog, there have been so many responses to so many tragedies. There have been more tragedies these past months. And this year, there will be more and more. It doesn’t seem to add to the conversation for me to write that these systems are broken, that people are dying because of deeply ingrained prejudices, or that we can do better as a culture.

Instead of a prayer of lament and fury–which has been added to and revised in my head and heart–I want to offer two images that have appeared for me in these past few months. They have emerged from all the turning inward I’ve been doing. Thinking about how this pandemic has changed, is changing, me.

  1. Butterflies

One way I have coped with the smallness of my world is through acquisition of pretty things. I have never been a Material Girl and rarely go shopping, particularly for myself, though I really like finding gifts for people. In this pandemic, when so much is so dire and we are so limited in our choices, I gave myself permission to buy items that bring me joy.

A fox mug to be my tea repository for morning Zoom classes.

A sparrow pot containing a succulent.

These butterfly earrings.

I was on etsy looking for specific earrings for my niece’s birthday, and these appeared on a page. They instantly called to me. I got one pair for myself, plus one pair each for two of my oldest friends.

Because during this pandemic, the three of us have been stuck inside the cocoons of our respective homes. Metaphorically curled in the fetal (pupae?) position, surviving day to day or moment to moment.

And in that position, we are also becoming. We are growing, morphing, shedding what no longer serves us and learning new ways of being.

I am learning (very, very slowly) how to find ease among so many uncertainties. I am trying to meditate a few days a week, learning to sit with discomfort both physical (my left leg falls asleep in about 11 minutes every single time) and emotional (How will my own kids do in hybrid school, especially socially and emotionally? Will they be okay? How will I stay connected with my remote students? Will they be okay?).

I am trying to feel, not numb, each stage of this metamorphosis. Even the crampy part. Even the my-head-is-going-to-explode part. I am trying to breathe through the process instead of waiting for the arrival.

2. Juggling

A few years ago, my AP Literature students had to write part of their AP exam on this poem: “The Juggler” by Richard Wilbur. “It was so weird,” they told me later. “I didn’t know what to write about.”

Juggling is the image that comes to me when I feel overwhelmed. I don’t just have a bunch of red rubber balls in the air. They’re more like flaming swords. Here are some:

  • All the strategies we use to help our kiddo calm down when they’re triggered, so I can explain them to teachers and other helping adults.
  • The running to-do list for the household.
  • What I’m teaching next class.
  • All the Zoom meetings: mine, my kids’, my family’s…
  • Making sure to connect with friends far away.
  • Attempting to maintain a routine of physical movement. (That one often gets dropped.)

Last week I was deep in overwhelm. My chest was heavy and squeezed. My brain was trying to process All the Things while problem-solving and assessing potential disasters simultaneously.

I went for a walk.

While walking and looking at the sky, blood finally flowing through my muddled brain, the image came to mind again of the juggling objects.

What if I set them down?

I can realistically do one thing at a time. What if I set down all of the Things, and trusted that they would be taken care of, instead of frantically keeping them all in the air?

*****

Theresa wanted her panda to be in the picture instead of her, so here we are.

Tonight we are on the cusp of yet another transition: from fully remote learning for all my kids and me to hybrid learning (half time in person school and half time remote). As we navigate this next part of the pandemic, I try to hold in mind what the butterfly and the juggler are teaching me, which is a huge thread of this whole blog:

Slow down. Be present. Notice.

Peace to you, friends.

On Delight

August 8, 2020

I have been reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights these past few weeks, after reading his book of poetry, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.  His beautiful insights into the nature of delight, of what Brené Brown would call “wholehearted living” and what Thich Nhat Hanh would call “paying attention,” inspire me to notice what delights are all around me.

Here’s my list from today.

  • How happy my friend is to have her house painted for the first time in many years of home ownership.
  • Yard decorations.  From glass spheres and spirals to rainbow pinwheels.  Even gnomes.  Especially brightly colored planters.  This family has tiny plastic dinosaurs and other animals in scenes on the wall by their sidewalk.

  • Kids’ art in the windows.  Other signs displayed to make someone’s day:

  • A large uneven crack in the sidewalk that someone painted bright blue so others won’t trip on it.
  • Wood carvings.  Near our house there is an 8-foot-tall bear holding a salmon.
  • A woman walking her 8-week-old puppy asked if I wanted to pet him when I cooed over his adorableness, which of course I did (who would not want to pet a wriggling furry ball of love?).  His name is Boris.  He is all black with a white chest and white around his eyes.
  • Public art:

  • Little Free Libraries, which have been saving our reading life during the public library closure.
  • Good smells coming from others’ cooking.
  • Contemplating the subtle distinctions between delight, joy, and gratitude.  Ross Gay makes excellent observations on this in his essay, “Joy is such a human madness,” which you can read here and listen to him talk to Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being.
  • How my walk this morning (from which these delights spring) reminded me of being a kid and “walking the hills” after dinner with my dad and sometimes my brother, up and around the house we grew up in.
  • Kitty toe beans:

  • The Babysitters Club is now a live-action show on Netflix, and I have ugly-cried at several episodes, which are sweet and simple but not simplistic, modernized and true to the characters.  It’s nostalgia and current and exactly what I need right now.
  • Also what I didn’t know I needed:  Tiffany Jenkins and her YouTube channel Juggling the Jenkins.  Her series on “If My Brain Held a Morning Meeting” is so funny because for me, it’s true.  (And why I need meditation and mantras and medication to manage all that.)
  • The voices we use for Jamie’s bears.

Food is a constant delight.

And so, dear friends, I would love to know what delights you.

 

The Whole Truth: Me and my parenting fail

July 27, 2020

“Go ahead and hit me,” said my kid.

This kid had just shouted (for the whole beach park to hear) to their siblings a “warning”:  that there was a dog in the water.  A dog on a leash with its owner, obeying all the rules of the park and not interfering in any way with the kids swimming there.

I had rushed over to my neurodiverse kid, hyper-aware of that kid’s aversion to dogs.  We had been through years of their announcing at top volume “I hate [insert offending being]” whenever they even saw a dog or a baby,  due to some prior negative experiences.  Kiddo’s therapist had even told us a few weeks ago that people on the autism spectrum not only feel emotions more intensely than neurotypical people, but also that those memories elicit the same intensity of emotion as the original experience.  But the dominant narrative for me at this moment was how the other people at the beach were perceiving my kid, and by extension, me.

“That lady and her dog have a right to be here just like you,” I had said.

And then: “You’re being embarrassing.”

Jeez.  I had let my very old internal narrative bleed into my interaction with my kid: the internal narrative of not offending, of being considerate above all else, of not causing a scene.

My kid stormed away toward their siblings, yelling at me not to talk to them like that (which, obviously, I should not). I turned back toward our spot and when I turned around again, the kid was standing in front of the dog, who had gotten out of the water with its owner, shaking off excess water.  The kid growl-hissed at the dog.  Thank goodness, the dog was older and super calm and didn’t do anything: bark, lunge, twitch an ear, not a thing.  The owner said sternly to my kid, “That is not nice.”

My internal narrative kicked in again:  All these people staring at us.  We’re that family.  Who can’t control their kid. My kid had just done something both potentially dangerous (what if the dog wasn’t so even-tempered?) and super rude.

I pulled my kid toward our spot, speaking angrily and hoping the surrounding people could hear me reprimanding the kid for their irresponsible and inappropriate behavior.  I don’t even remember what I said before my kid spat back at me:

“Go ahead and hit me.”

“What?!”

They repeated it.  More narrative:  Now everyone here thinks I hit my kid when they act out.  Even though I know that all three of my kids, two especially, have to talk to their therapists every week about their habit of hitting themselves on the forehead when they think they deserve punishment:  when they’ve made a mistake, or been called out on a task undone, or forgotten something.  No one else at the park knows that.  My adrenaline level continued its rocket trajectory.

“I’m not going to hit you, good grief.  You can’t growl at dogs like that.”  I don’t remember what I yelled at the kid next, but it was loud and angry and profoundly not helpful.

Fed-up, flustered, agitated, humiliated.  I turned this whole exchange into being about me:  my shame, my embarrassment, my unskillful parenting, my need for approval.

The kid wouldn’t talk to me when we got home–they finally had snack and some restful activity after swimming and being out in the sun. I tried to talk to the kids about it at dinner but was upstaged by a ladybug on someone’s chair and the kids flocked to it, ignoring my attempt at vulnerability.  I finally was able to have a quiet moment to apologize at bedtime, and the kid forgave me.

Prior to that incident, we had been at the park for two hours, in and out of the water, laughing and splashing and jumping and floating.  It was the stuff of Insta posts and Facebook stories, the curated and prettified partial truths of our existence.  Until it wasn’t.

That internal narrative about what will others think of me? and I need to be in control here came in so fast and so clear that it drowned out my intentions around parenting, especially parenting an atypical child: to lead with empathy, to focus on what’s best for the child and ignore others’ opinions, to act from love rather than fear.

These default beliefs and priorities about “who we are in relation to others” transcend one scene at a beach park.  It is so clear to me why I keep interrogating my automatic and instinctual responses toward my children, my students, my family and friends, and strangers.  I’m reading Me and White Supremacy right now–slowly, because it’s heavy and a lot and there is fear around what I might unearth about myself–and I can see even in the first 6 days of journal prompts how deeply ingrained these internal narratives are.

We all have our areas of possibility: where courage is needed for us to grow and do better.  One of mine for sure is around staying true to myself and my values and protecting my kids instead of acting like I assume others think I should act.

Listen. Learn. Love.

May 30, 2020

This blog is a way for me to process Big Things in my life, from parenting Differently Wired kids to the joys of teaching to family events big and small.  But this post has been started many times:  the Raging version, the Grief-Stricken version, the Pleading version, the Professiorial and Pedantic version.  None of them were right.

Instead, my very small readership, I want you to read mostly other people’s words on this post.  Words of Black activists and thinkers, words from people who carry generations of suffering in their bodies and souls.

My purpose is not:  to engage in debates about riots or law enforcement tactics or “bad apples” or the existence of racism.  It’s not about how woke I am and how much moral high ground I hold.

My purpose is:  to develop my own awareness of how I participate in individual and systemic racism, to question my assumptions and habitual thought patterns, and to contribute financially and energetically to anti-racism work.  One of the ways I contribute is sharing what I’ve learned, especially from those who speak from lived experience.

Here they are, in their own words.  This is their suffering.  We have the opportunity to help, and it starts with listening.

Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race and keynote speaker at my school’s Equity Summit in 2018, tweeted on May 28:

We are not “overreacting”. We are not “playing victim”. We are being terrorized.

The constant, growing, unbearable trauma of being Black in a white supremacist country lies in the fact that you cannot heal from things that keep happening.

I am so hurt and so tired.

My friend Tianna posted this on Facebook and gave me permission to quote it here:

I’ve tried to take some time to gather my thoughts after a few days of heightened racist acts in the news. I thought I would have words at some point, something to say to further the conversations that should be happening, that need to happen. It turns out, I am nearly out of words. I appreciate the words of others, decent humans from all walks of life posting articles and information to help create more human decency. The trouble is the outrage is as real in this moment as it has been in so many moments in the past, but still no change. Why so many Amy Coopers? Why so many Derek Chauvins? When will black bodies stop offending the delicate sensibilities of so many? When will the system that allows this to continue change? As a black person in America, there is no breathing easy. In fact, it is getting harder to breathe at all.

Ally Henny, of The Armchair Commentary blog, posted on Facebook:

Honestly y’all, I don’t want your apologies and white tears over George Floyd. I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. Weep with those who are weeping and all of that. I appreciate the desire for lament. But a lot of us are past the stage or lament.
My question for people of whiteness is this: When are you going to see the white folks you know’s knee on George Floyd’s neck? When are you going to see your uncle’s knee? Your cousin’s knee? Your pastor’s knee? Your spouse’s knee? Your kid’s knee? YOUR OWN knee? Because I can guarantee that black people are seeing our loved ones in George.
When will you see your own complicity? When will you break the code of white solidarity? Are you willing to lose friends? Not communicate with family? Get kicked out of your church? Lose your job? When are you going to see that you have skin in the game?
Your knee is on my neck and I can’t breathe.
What are you going to do? Will you deflect and say that you’re not “one of those kinds of people,” when you are a single incident from being exactly one of those people. Will you ignore people like me? Will you weaponize your black and brown loved ones against people like me? Will you get defensive?
Or will you listen to the truth?

Alicia Garza, founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, posted on Twitter on May 27:

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what we can do right now. Some food for thought.
First, Black people are exhausted. I’m exhausted. Angry. Devastated. Scared.
There is not *one* easy thing you can do right now to make you or anyone else feel better about the fact that this country allows black people to be hunted and killed like animals. There is not *one* easy thing you or anyone else can do to make this go away.
I try really hard not to be enraged at these kind of inquiries. Protest for too many is a performance for someone else’s benefit — rest assured people are not facing tear gas to perform for you. They are sick and tired of being stripped of humanity and no one doing anything.
Ending police violence is a long game. It takes organizing. Protest to up the ante. Public and private pressure. Electoral organizing strategies. Telling new stories about us and what we are fighting for.
Imagine holding all that and watching as time and time again a black life is extinguished before our eyes, and the laws protect the killers.
So when I say change the laws and change the people who make them, I’m serious about this. Police should be held accountable for crimes they commit. So should this country.
I don’t have easy answers for you. And honestly I want us to stop looking for them and start supporting the organizing work people are doing and have been doing.
Follow@Blklivesmatter for updates and to get involved. Get involved with@ColorOfChange to hold prosecutors and police accountable. Support the hundreds of organizations that work to fight this every day.@ActionSTL. @byp100. @Mvmnt4BlkLives. There’s a lot of them.
We gotta stop looking for easy answers and instead join the hard work. Please and thank you. Be good to yourselves. This is a marathon that no one wants to run. #BlackLivesMatter#GeorgeFloyd

Meditations: For Mary

May 27, 2020

I have never known my family without the Marys.

Three aunts, one by blood and two by marriage, each named Mary Elizabeth (and the response to “how Irish-Catholic is your family?”).

One Aunt Mary (auntie by marriage to my uncle and godfather) died a week ago.

She was sweetness and generosity. Great with kids, free with hugs and laughter. She had two sons and so many nephews that I could count on her to give birthday and Christmas presents of Barbies and dresses and any girly-girl stuff she delighted in shopping for.

She called my grandparents, her in-laws, “Ma” and “Da.” She helped take care of them and her own parents as they aged and died.

She had cancer for eight years. It took her weight, her ability to eat, her energy, but it did not take her sweetness and love.  My cousins and I (pictured below) sent her a care package when she was sick a year ago, and she wrote us individual thank you notes.

She was a core part of my childhood.  I grew up surrounded by aunts and uncles and grandparents who, just as much as my own parents, made sure I knew I was loved unconditionally.  This family was the foundation for my identity, the roots of my own parenting, the secure place I could always come back to.

I have experienced grief before. Grief is an absence with density. It has mass and shape. This grief perches at the top of my ribcage. Grief takes the world you are sure of and punches a hole in it. It tilts the floor you stand on. It takes time to rearrange your worldview to accommodate this shift.  When each of my grandparents died, it was fitting:  they were elderly and sick and their deaths were expected.  For Mary, she is gone way too soon.  My family is not whole without her.

Auntie Mary, you’re with the angels now.  May they welcome you with arms as open as yours always were.

Two of the Marys with my kiddos in 2016.

What’s going on, Day 64

May 14, 2020

Comic from Sunday, May 10 (Mother’s Day)

I have thought about what to write since my last post, and have heard the same old voices:  “Your story doesn’t matter.  You have too much privilege.  No one wants to hear you whine.”  I’ve had to use Jedi mind tricks like these to tell those voices where to go.

And what would I say?  What kind of cohesive narrative could I make around this strange experience?  That we have some good days and some not-so-good days?  I kept asking myself, Why does this feel so hard when I have great kids and a steady income and a supportive partner who also has a steady income?  When I’m watching our neighbors complete backyard projects and my colleagues tell us that people have gone through hard times throughout history and why do I feel like I’m the only one struggling here?

The answers crystallized in conversations or emails with some of my dear friends. Katie told me in a text today, when I asked her how she was doing:  “Honestly, I feel like I am hanging on by a thread, but good things are happening every single day, so I am trying to focus on that.”  <–EXACTLY.

I finally drew the wild vacillations between “fine” and “impossible” that I seem to experience.

It’s hard because, as Jen said, “it’s relentless.”  Andrea said, “I have what feels like NO time when I’m not ‘on’ or crowded by people and it is really Really REALLY hard. I hate that the most. It’s immediately accompanied by guilt and shame about all the comfort and security we have and all the more I could be doing.”

There are no breaks.  No moments where grandparents or neighbors (or grandparent-neighbors…hi Kathy!) can swoop in and say, “Let me take the kids for a bit so you can have some time to yourself, or so you and your partner can have some time together.”  I am so grateful that Alan prioritizes my exercise as much as his own–he asks me what my exercise plan is every. single. morning.  My half-hour walks after dinner are the only time I have to process, to gain perspective, to have quiet in my mind.  For those of us who are, by nature, introspective and quasi-introverted, being around our families all the time is exhausting.  Even when we love them and have otherwise good relationships.

Someone posted these in our neighborhood. ❤

It’s hard because, as Kristin said, “all of our armor is off.”

Our supports and coping strategies are mostly unavailable for an uncertain period of time:  hanging out with friends, coffee shops, parks, libraries, church.

Many of my old unhelpful habits of mind have come back during this time.  Anxiety and uncertainty welcome the “not enough” and “should” and “failure” voices.  Because I’m staying off of Facebook (for good reason: my habit of negatively comparing myself to pretty much everyone has less ammunition without Facebook), I also feel more isolated and, like blogger Janelle Hanchett wrote about her own experience, “a particular pandemic loser.”  I end up looking at life through the “what’s lacking” lens instead of the “what is” lens:  how my yard could look nicer, how my kids could be participating in their class Zoom calls, how other families seem to be getting their kids to do actual teacher-led assignments on time.  I’m learning how to trust our judgment on how our kids learn (which their absolutely wonderful teachers have given us permission to do), because kids with IEPs and 504s and anxiety, who are grieving the loss of friends and familiar structure of their own school day, need a lot of individual help to learn.  A lot. 

Credit: @_happyasamother, Instagram

It’s hard because it is psychologically and emotionally depleting.

While I am using every strategy I know to maintain my own emotional and mental health, I also have three kiddos who need a substantial amount of coaching and support through their own emotional and mental health.  The meltdowns.  The self-injurious behaviors.  Fears morphing into compulsions.  Each of my kids has some mental patterns or wiring that is very much like mine.  It is a strange blessing, to handle my own anxiety, fear, and negative self-narrative while they watch.

I found a Circle of Control from a therapist online and made my own. Audrey made one too.

Obviously these do not happen 24/7 and occasionally I have, like today, 40 blissful minutes to listen to Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and fold laundry while kids played happily outside.  Occasionally, I even have, like today, one child who asks, “How can I help?” and chops veggies for dinner, sets the table when it’s their sibling’s turn, and wonders when they can start cooking dinner for me (and yes, I was grateful, and I also wondered who this child was and what alien ship they arrived on).  There are gifts of this strange time.  That’s for another post.

This post is an explanation of why I feel so bone-tired by the end of the day, even on generally good days like today.  I’m not depressed, as some people worried about after an earlier post.  It’s just that everything I struggle with seems condensed, intensified, magnified during this time.

Maybe that is the lesson I’m supposed to learn, the Work I have in front of me.  I realized as I wrote down instructions for my kids, who were struggling with Hard Things during homeschool, that I could probably follow them too:

As Mo Perry writes on Medium, I want to “emerge from this different from how I entered it — more able to be present in my life, better able to relax into groundlessness.”

Whatever your Work is, may you find strength, courage, and compassion to face it.

Going better

April 5, 2020

Since last weekend, I have returned to my “one day at a time” and “accept uncertainty” mode of being.  Gratitude and grace are the words of my week:  gratitude for the small moments of light; grace to myself and to others as we navigate this previously uncharted space.

Mostly, here are some photo updates of our week, plus some non-photo-opportunity moments of light.

On Friday night I had a Virtual Happy Hour with some of my teacher friends: strong, funny, resilient, empathetic women whose presence I am so grateful for.  We sat in our respective living spaces, in our sweatshirts and fuzzy blankets, showing off our various cats and dogs, sharing the hard things and the good things and the batshit crazy things about this quarantine.  One woman’s daughter, now in her first year of college, knows many of us, and her mom showed our Brady-Bunch-esque grid of waving photos to her.  The daughter burst into tears, so happy was she to see all of us who know and love her.

I bought these affirmation rainbow cards, Positive Programming Cards, having seen them at my yoga studio and really appreciating their thoughts.  Plus, who doesn’t need more rainbows?

I’ve been collecting some rocks to paint, having borrowed shellac from Abbie and acrylic paints from Lisa.  This was my first one, written in Sharpie.  I thought it looked nice.  Then I shellacked it again before the Sharpie had dried and it looked like bad mascara run:  all the letters smudged into a drippy mess.  A lesson I shared with my own kiddos:  I worked hard on this.  It came out well.  Then I ruined it.  So? Now I repaint it and start over.  (My children, all three of them, may have some teeny issues around perfectionism and not tolerating mistakes.  No idea where that came from.)

My girls have been using their outside time for bubble blowing.  Like rainbows, who doesn’t need more bubbles?

Jamie’s teacher responded to his letter and told him that she has been playing a lot of cribbage at her house.  Alan taught Jamie how to play, and he was immediately enchanted. The following morning, he played a “championship” of cribbage with Aux Bear.  “What happens if you don’t win?” I asked my intensely competitive son. (Again, no idea where he got that from.)  “I’ll probably win,” he told me. “Bear sometimes makes mistakes and then he doesn’t get as many points.”

Our dear friend Cleo dropped off some puzzles, some fabric for a craft project idea I have (which may or may not turn out…see kindness rocks above), and a book she thought the kids would like.  We spent a delightful several hours on Friday putting together the puzzle.  I noticed that even though quality time with my kids is one of my most favorite things, I started mentally calculating how to implement the rest of my Plan for that day, including when to get outside.  I scrapped the plan (though we eventually did get outside, just not on my original timeline).  I was present with my kids.  It was a much better choice.

I have been trying to walk in the neighborhood two or three times a week by myself.  The other day, I walked by our regular bus stop and saw the snails that Theresa and I always check for when we are getting to the bus in the morning.  These snails made me think of two things:

  1. That I love how Theresa notices the smallest things outside.
  2. That it will be very strange to go back to regular life:  hustling for the morning bus, making lunches for school, commuting, scrambling to get everything done in the time available.

And that made me think about how we might change:  how can we take some of these surprising gifts from this time and shift our world so that it can contain and embrace these gifts?  Of slowing down, of noticing, of being okay with uncertainty, of sacrificing things that we like so others may have their health.

One of my very favorite bloggers, Beth Woolsey, mused about these possibilities in a blog post about the delight of actually getting to sleep until one’s body is rested and wakes up of its own accord for days on end:

So much so that I’ve started to wonder how I’ll ever manage to go back to the Way Things Were.

So much so that I’ve wondered not just Which Things This Crisis Is Highlighting in Our Broken Society That Simply Cannot Continue (*ahem* I’m looking at you, healthcare-for-profit *ahem*) but also Which Things This Crisis Is Highlighting in ME That Simply Cannot Continue.

I have no answers yet, Diary. I suspect it will take a Very Long Time before any of us really understand the ramifications of what’s happening currently.

But I do know I’m in a better mental space for allowing myself to rest.

Finally.

 

On we go

March 27, 2020

I’ve been like this kitty this week.  Paws over eyes.  Hunkered down, napping until this is all over.

Anxiety and migraines (working together, because they’re that good a team) hit me this week.  Every day.  I would take medication, have some up time, and then…the next day it was back to lying on the couch, or in bed, hands over my eyes.

Nobody need anything from me. Nobody require me to do anything. Not my kids’ teachers. Not my district. Not even my students.

Today I took a shower.  First one since Tuesday. (Sorry for the TMI.)

And it reminded me of those days after I had my babies, when everything was falling apart in my head and I thought I should shower but never seemed to make the time and ended up in my bathrobe or the same pajama pants and ratty t-shirt at 4 pm, having not brushed my teeth either, thinking, “Well, it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and nothing matters, so eff it.”

Over the course of the week I slowly crawled my way out of strange labyrinth of thoughts.  They sounded something like this:  I should clean my whole house!  I’m letting down my students.  How am I going to teach full time and online while parenting and homeschooling?  Don’t people quit their jobs in order to homeschool?  Speaking of homeschool, why is writing so hard for my kids–why do they resist it so much?  Why can’t my creative ideas help them?  Do they have too much screen time? I feel like it’s too much screen time.  Why are there so many dirty dishes?  Good Lord, is there More Laundry to do?  I just did a load, or four.  The fish bowl needs cleaning.  What if we run out of food?  There weren’t any paper products left at Safeway when I went to get our prescriptions; what if someone in the family gets the sniffles and we run out of Kleenex and then we have to use toilet paper and that’s on backorder for who knows how many months…?

My rational brain, in there somewhere, managed to find supportive things to say to other moms.  Things like “Because the reality is that we’re not going to fit it all in. We just can’t. Not with working and parenting and keeping a household running and ourselves moderately sane. Our kids will just lose out on some academic education, and their education instead will be experiential.  And that is okay.”

There have been bright spots, moments of goodness so immense I almost wept, if I could have felt more than the two-ton weight on my temple squashing any other physical sensation.  While I lay on the couch, Audrey covered me with a blanket, then Jamie covered me with a giant stuffed zebra named Doug, then Theresa gave me a stuffed cat and rubbed my back while singing “You Are My Sunshine.”  I mean.  How lucky am I that I got these kiddos?

Audrey and Theresa are willing hiking buddies. We stay away from anyone else on the trail.

Despite the writing challenge, they have been so good.  Playing well together.  Having fewer than normal fights.  Riding bikes around the neighborhood and to the empty church parking lot.  On Tuesday when my migraine medication gave me a burst of energy, I taught them how to clean a toilet and bathroom sink, and Jamie even volunteered to vacuum (and then declared himself Chief Vacuumer of the house).

Really, all the stress and anxiety that fuels those headaches comes from in me.  Comes from the nagging knowledge that I am not doing enough, am not being enough, am not fighting hard enough for those who are being harmed by the business closures and loss of services.  Which is why I wanted the whole world to just go away and leave me alone.

So today I showered.  And realized that showering, or walking, or commuting (who does that anymore?) are spaces of time and place where I can ruminate, process, think things through.  They are not luxuries to get to once everything else has been done, as I once thought when my babies were new.  This introvert needs alone time that is not Trying to Sleep Off Migraine time, or Work on the Computer Time, but mental and emotional breathing space.

When I checked in with my students to see how they were doing, some of them are fine, but many (of those who responded, which is not even half) are struggling to deal with how upside-down their lives are right now.  They are isolated, some in troubled family dynamics, anxious, unmotivated, and sad about their second semester of senior year going down the tubes.  In short, they are grieving.

Maybe we all are.  Maybe we’re all grieving the present and pre-grieving the future:  those who will die from this disease, and those whose lives will not be the same in ways we can’t fathom.

I read a brief article from some teacher newsletter about the importance of teachers connecting with their students right now.  That kids need to see us reacting well and not freaking out so that they don’t freak out.

But what if we tell them that it’s okay to feel what you feel, and these feelings are real? (Shout out to one of the best lines from Frozen 2)  What if we show them that sometimes we get sucked into grief that looks a lot like lying down and staring at the ceiling, knowing that we always complain there’s not enough time but once we have all this time to be productive, our ability to channel our energy into productivity goes way down.

Yesterday I did yoga from a video that my studio made.  Theresa did a few poses with me, but mostly she helped Kermit and Robin do some yoga.

Last week when I went to Trader Joe’s, I saw a car in the parking garage with this message on the back:

On we go, figuring all this out, lowering our expectations, soothing our unmotivated and grieving souls, adapting and evolving and working through the feelings we feel.

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