28 December 2017

How Lyndon B. Johnson Ruined My Childhood.

When I was in elementary school, my absolute least favorite  activities involved the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. It was something President Johnson created in 1966 to ensure that generations of American school children were "physically fit" and dreaded gym class. I mean, seriously, fuck you Lyndon B. Johnson and your push-ups and curl-ups and sit-and-reaches and mile run. Want me to sit with my feet against a weird little wooden box and see how far I can stretch forward over my toes? Fine. Ask me to run a mile? Less cool, but I'll do it at a brisk walk. But demand that I pull myself over a metal bar in a curl up? Not going to happen. Even by the ripe old age of seven I knew upper body strength was never going to be my thing. Somewhere in my sixth grade year the tests were supplanted by the ominous climbing rope. The day that thing unfurled from the ceiling of our gym I lost a little faith in God. I don't remember ever climbing the rope. I don't remember even touching the rope. I'm sure my sadistic sixth grade teacher must've made me do it at some point, but apparently my brain has buried that trauma under the sweet fog of amnesia.

I wasn't strong. And I'm using the past tense pretty loosely there.

Thankfully, it turns out my adult life has had very little to do with climbing ropes or pulling myself up repeatedly over a metal bar. Go figure.

Adult life does, on the other hand, have a great deal to do with strength. It has a lot do with pulling yourself through things, with climbing and endurance. I might not be running around the lake by my high school, dodging goose poop, but I'm going to be honest--the metaphor is a pretty apt one for what it feels like to be a human in 2017, at least from this end.

At long last the year is drawing to a close and I've found myself thinking more and more about what it means to be strong. It's been on my mind mostly, I suppose, because this is a year in which I've felt incredibly weak. Things that normally wouldn't get to me somehow crushed me. Things I never struggled with became insurmountable. Habits I thought I'd kicked long ago resurfaced with startling intensity. And try as I might, I just couldn't get a handle on it all. There were days where I watched my life--and myself--spiral out of control and I was speechless. I watched myself make mistakes I knew would be disastrous. I watched myself do the very things I knew would push a person away, start a fight, or make me anxious. I did them anyway. Comments I normally would've brushed off--you're messy, you're over dramatic, you annoy me--I internalized. I let them break me. Instead of getting mad at other people, I got mad at myself. I apologized endlessly to everyone, often for reasons that were totally unclear in my mind. I was just sorry. All. the. time. For everything.

This year I disappointed people. I annoyed people. I lost the respect of people. And that sucks. But ultimately, what sucks more, is that I disappointed myself. I annoyed myself. I lost a lot of respect for myself.

This year I wasn't the person I wanted to be. I wasn't the person I've been in the past. And--I hope--I wasn't the person I am going to be next year. I've felt tired. Stupid. Weak.

So what I'm trying to tell myself as I stare down the last few days of 2017 is that I'm strong enough to start over and try again. I can't fix all the mistakes I made. I can't un-annoy people. I can't take back the one-too-many-texts, the comment that came out passive aggressive because I was in the middle of an anxiety attack, the long silences I inflicted on people who overwhelmed me. I can't fix those things. But I can stop carrying the guilt and shame of them. I can move forward and accept things happen that we regret but can't change. I can accept that maybe, just maybe, I'm strong enough to carry that burden and keep going anyway.

It's not a magic formula. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and blithely be okay with all the mistakes. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow suddenly feel like a new person. I'm too old to think things work that way anymore. The truth is, I'll wake up tomorrow--and everyday for the foreseeable future--and feel a little heavier than I would like. I'll feel weaker than I would like. I'll carry more guilt than I would like, let my mind obsess more than it should, replay conversations that I could have salvaged but didn't. I'll beat myself up a little bit. But I'll keep going. I'll do better at reminding myself, as I told one of my students last week, that sometimes just surviving is enough. I'll do better at acknowledging the strength it takes to accept mistakes as a part of me without letting them become me. I'll just do better, day by day.

I'll keep doing my best. And sometimes, sadly, my best is pretty disappointing. Sometimes my best is hanging limply from the curl up bar, waiting impatiently for my teacher to recognize a lost cause and let me slink away. I'm strong enough to accept that my best, occasionally, isn't really all that great. And I'm strong enough to say that's okay. It takes a lot of guts to hang there helplessly in front of a crowd, weakness on display. It's not a type of strength that gets measured on the Presidential Test score sheet. It's not the type of strength that's going to win me accolades. Or friends.

Or forgiveness.

But it's strength. I'm embracing it because it's what I've got right now.

I still can't do a curl up. Or a push up. Or run for very long... or at all. And I will never, ever be able to climb that damn rope.

But I'm done calling myself weak.

24 December 2017

Bone Weary

I've been listening to Christmas music for a solid month now, and I've come to one very important realization: there are only actually about six Christmas songs and all of the good ones were written before 1962 (except for "Christmas Eve in Sarajevo," but that's okay because that one just replaced the super rape-y "Baby It's Cold Outside" so it's an even swap). And my all time favorite song is "O Holy Night." To be fair, "O Holy Night" doesn't really hold up the same way "Carol of the Bells" does, but it has one solitary, beautiful line in it that helps it secure the number one spot: "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices/For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

"The weary world rejoices."

Y'all, let me tell you. I am weary this year.

2017 has, without a doubt, not been my year. Rehashing the myriad of ways people and circumstances have clobbered me this year isn't really the point, so let's just suffice it to say that I won't be sorry to see the back of 2017 in a week. I am tired all the way to my bones. Too often this year I was in survival mode--I was in "just get through this day" mode. I survived, but with far less grace and dignity than I would've liked. I suppose we can't have everything.

And also--I don't think it's a coincidence that this douche of a year coincided with Trump's first year in office. That guy ruins everything.

I woke up Christmas Eve after a fitful night sleep, eyes a little red from crying, chest tight, stomach knotted. It wasn't how I would have chosen to start my holiday. But as the year draws to a close, I'm forced to look around, accept that this is where I am, and start focusing on where I want to go. I'm weary and a little broken, but I'm ready to pick up the pieces and move forward. I've been spinning in place for too long. I've put off doing things that are hard, but that I know are right. I tried too hard to mend things that couldn't be mended, to please people who simply can never be pleased, and to live up to expectations that weren't my own. I've tried too hard to be who someone else wanted me to be, as a result, I failed both myself and them. 2017 definitely has brought me to my knees.

And that's what Christmas reminds me of--that's why I celebrate--because sometimes we need a reminder that we can be tired and still find joy. I'm not religious, so the reason for the season around here is family; hope in darkness; rejoicing in weariness. It's a lesson worth learning for me this year. Even in our darkest moments, there is light. There is hope that life can start all over again. That we can be better, stronger, and more resilient. It hasn't been an easy year, but it hasn't won. I'm still here, maybe a little bruised and battered, but whole and looking forward.

So I'm ready for 2018. I'm ready for a year of healing and positivity. I'm ready to find my strength again. I'm ready to laugh again. I'm ready to let go of things--people and feelings--I've held on to for too long. I'm ready to lay down the burdens I've been carrying, feel the weight in my chest finally loosen, and look forward to a new start. I know the world is wonderful. I'm ready to see that wonder once again. And Christmas--with its relentless lights and magic--reminds me that wonder is always around us. Beauty is always lurking. The days are getting longer now, a new start is just around the corner. It might take a few extra swipes of makeup to conceal the puffy eyes, and I might need to do a lot more yoga to lift the weight from my chest today, but I'm done clinging to the past, to things I can't fix anymore, to people that don't want me. I'm ready to let go and start again.

Some day I hope I can look back at 2017 and appreciate some of the good that happened because even in my current mindset, I see so much beauty. I spent a week in Birmingham with one of my all-time favorite students and watched her rise to tenth in the nation. I spent two weeks in Italy with my husband. I reconnected with friends that I'd missed too much. I survived.

I'm still here.

I'm weary, but I'm ready.

26 November 2017

The Stigma of Messiness or Yes I Do Have Anxiety Flashcards

I have never been under any illusions of being a "laid back" kind of gal. I admit that, at the best of times, the term "high strung" can accurately be applied to me. I like things done a certain way, at a certain time. This accounts for my neat-freak habits, my road rage, and my inarticulate rampages in crowds. But these have always been manageable. I get butterflies before my team competes at Sections, I can't sleep the night before we leave for a big vacation, and I recheck my alarm every night at least three to four times (let me tell you, I slept through it once and woke up 32 minutes before I was supposed to be teaching in my first hour an hour away--never again).

But six months or so ago, this transformed into something completely foreign to me: real, honest to goodness anxiety. I don't mean the anxiety you feel before starting a new job, moving, or even the first day of school. I mean the kind where my mind doesn't feel like my own anymore. Where my heart starts pounding, my stomach knots itself, and a weight settles on my chest, making it hard to breathe deeply--all in the middle of a Saturday afternoon for no real reason. Anxiety that made me lose 19 pounds because I couldn't eat over the summer. Anxiety that meant I could only sleep for a maximum of 2-3 hours at a time because my brain just couldn't shut itself off. Anxiety that made me certain--100% certain--that everyone I cared about was sick of me, hated me, and was planning to ghost on me.

That kind of anxiety.

And let me tell you, it's been a treat.

Here's something anxiety taught me--there's a lot of talk in our society about how to deal with mental illness. A lot of people give lip service to the necessity of breaking down barriers and ending the stigma around messiness. I hear it all the time. My experience, however, has been different. I've discovered our society that says we have to "be okay with not being okay" is absolutely, unequivocally not okay with people who are not okay. It's easy to talk about accepting that sometimes we have our messy moments, but it seems some people are less able to deal with someone actually having a moment.

I do not, like most people I know, withdraw or need to be alone when I'm anxious. In fact, weirdly for me, my anxiety tends to push me to the opposite. As someone who likes to read and be alone, I find anxiety particularly upsetting because I can't do those things. My brain starts cycling and I can't read or watch TV--I can't concentrate to follow a story line--and the quiet only allows the anxious thoughts to echo louder. I do better when I can talk to people--not about my anxiety but about anything; distraction helps. Tell me gossip. Talk about what you're reading. Send me a dumb tweet to make me laugh. Usually within a few minutes (seriously... this whole process can take two minutes), the anxiety passes and I'm just fine. But that's the catch. So far, I need someone else.

There are precious few people (Six--there are six. I've counted) I can handle when my anxiety peaks. Let's just say, not all people can handle me. That's why these six are precious. Some people, knowing or sensing I am anxious, retreat, either because they are under the impression I am looking to them to "fix" me or because they simply don't care enough about me--I can't bring myself to ask because the possible answers make me anxious. When my anxiety was at its worst, I was told I was messy and dramatic. I was told I was a burden. Annoying. Clingy. Not worth it.

My anxiety loved this--YES! (says my anthropomorphized anxiety) say all the things we secretly feared! Now, when I want to torment her, I don't have to invent anything! I can use real life words and rattle those around endlessly to remind her that everyone thinks it, even if only a few people had the guts to say it!

I try not to think about.

I think about it.

A lot.

It comes down to two basic issues: when people are struggling, they don't want to deal with someone else's struggles ("I have to take care of myself first"). And if people aren't struggling, they don't want to deal with anything that might drag them down ("I'm in a really good place right now"). But it all boils down to the same thing, doesn't it--no one wants to deal with it. Because messiness is stigmatized. We expect everyone to be okay. And if you aren't okay, for the love of god at least pretend. If you have anxiety, then okay--you can say that. But Jesus, don't let anyone see it. Act like you're fine. Keep it together. Keep it to yourself.

Our society is okay ending the stigma around "messiness" as long as we keep the mess hidden. It's fine if people know it's there, but no one wants to see it. A few weeks ago, my counselor suggested one way of dealing with negative thoughts was to write them all out on cards and then write "challenging" thoughts on the other side. I showed them (via Snap Chat) to a few people. They were shocked at the sheer number of cards I made. At what was on the cards. To see someone's anxiety written out can be a strange experience. And it was odd for me to lay all the thoughts bare for others. I showed them only to select people--a few I know struggle with their own negative thoughts, or who I knew would be supportive--but showing the deepest fears that trundle around my brain on bad days to anyone was terrifying.

But I was sick of hiding. And today, I'm sick of hiding again. Because today was a really bad day. The kind of bad day I haven't had for months. And my go-to people weren't around. It got ugly. I messed up. I alienated someone and potentially ruined a really important friendship. My dog got anxious for me and wouldn't eat. Finally I called my husband and tears, asking him to come home and take me somewhere--anywhere--to get me out of the house and out of my head.

It was ugly. And embarrassing. I'm ashamed. And lonely. And a little scared that I can't fix some of it. I know it'll pass, but right now... it's not great.

Here's what my anxiety looks like. The picture here? Those are my cards. Those are my darkest thoughts, everyone. It's terrifying, but it's also freeing. Because those thoughts have too much power when they're locked in my brain. When I expose them to the air, they seem silly and trivial. Let me tell you, they don't feel that way.

I carry the cards with me in case I have an attack, but I still try to hide the mess. I don't use them if other people are around. Even at home, I flip through them in the basement or an empty bedroom. I've hidden with them in a bathroom. Over Thanksgiving, I got anxious (and stupidly left the cards at home). Let's just say, my dog and I had to spend a lot of time in the guest bedroom Thursday, taking deep breaths and trying to keep mascara (mine mostly) from running too much. But I dread the day the anxiety hits when privacy isn't possible. I don't want to whip out my mess in the middle of an Applebee's.

I'm done pretending I'm always okay. The truth is, I'm okay most days. About once a week, depending on what's happening, I have a really bad day. This week some work stuff means I've had several bad days, which hasn't happened in a long time. Most of the time my bad day isn't noticeable to people. Even  my husband has a hard time telling unless I tell him (or unless it gets bad enough I cry... then the mascara is a dead giveaway). I'm working on it. I'm getting better (most of the time) at handling it. I've found people who I can talk to and who help (shout out to Emmy, Rachel, Timothy, and my big sister). I've found people who don't want to help. But I've decided they can either learn to deal or get out of my life. It's not my responsibility to make other people comfortable. To be clear, I don't expect anyone to "fix" me--I don't even usually want people to talk to me about my anxiety--it's my mess and it isn't fair to expect anyone else to clean it up. But I expect friends to support me, and I feel no need to protect people from the fact that some days are rough. If people find that inconvenient or annoying, well, guess what? Me too, bitch. We can start a club.

I'm done with lip service. Messiness happens. For me, it's general anxiety. For other people, it's depression. Panic attacks. Compulsions, fears, mood swings. Whatever it is, we're all doing our best. We're all quietly muddling through. If we want to end the stigma, we need to be okay not just acknowledging that these things exist. We need to be okay confronting what it looks like in person. We need to love the people who struggle, even when they're at their worst. We need to love ourselves, even at the times when we hate our brains as they spiral out of our control. We need to see that mental illness isn't the whole of a person. But it's also inseparable from who we are. I can't just leave it at home or put it back on the shelf when other people don't want to deal. We need to understand the mess happens, and while it isn't fun for anyone, it's okay. Life happens and we don't always have time to clean. Sometimes our shit is everywhere.

At some point, I'm going to have to take those cards out in the middle of an Applebee's.

And y'all are just going to have to deal with it.

13 November 2017

Fifth Grade Trust Issues

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class everyone adored--let's call her Cassie. In retrospect, I'm not really sure why we coveted her friendship so much; to be completely honest, she was boring. But we all wanted to be her best friend, and it caused enough bitterness in the class that in fifth grade, all the girls were forced to stay inside at recess to "talk it out."  (Side note to all elementary school teachers: this does not work. It was just 35 minutes of brilliant passive aggressive mind-fuckery). But, by some stroke of luck, Cassie was my best friend. For whatever reason, she chose me.

And then one day I found out--Cassie was a bitch.

I was walking into the hall when I heard a bunch of girls in my class whispering outside the door. Apparently Cassie had told them I "made her" be my friend. She didn't actually like me, but I forced her to be friends. It was never clear to me how I was supposed to have done this--I assume through some ten-year-old girl version of Chinese water torture and blackmail--but I was shocked. And hurt. And indignant. I had never forced someone to be my friend. That didn't even sound possible. After that, Cassie and I didn't speak anymore and I was relieved to leave my private elementary school for a public school in seventh grade to get away from all of it. I couldn't fathom that a friend could be so duplicitous.

Cassie wasn't the last person who pretended to be my friend and turned out to be anything but--sophomore year in high school was particularly rage-inducing thanks to a group of girls. But for some reason, Cassie was the worst. I was five when Cassie and I became friends; I trusted her with the blind innocence of a child who is completely confident she is interesting and worthy. We were friends for five years before I found out what she really thought--or at least what she said. It was a betrayal that ten-year-old me had hardly been able imagine until it happened.

She's the reason I have trust issues.

To this day, I am guarded when it comes to people. I operate on the assumption that most people aren't going to be my friends and so I should keep them at a distance. I freely admit I am not an easy person to like--I am reserved but opinionated, quiet at first, but sarcastic and blunt. I cannot let something go--seriously, it's physically impossible--and while I can disappear for long periods of time, when I decide I want attention, I want it immediately. And while these are traits I tried to suppress in high school so people would like me, they're things I've accepted now and embrace. I don't care that I say what I think, or that I force people to deal with issues rather than ignore them. I'm 33--I'm too old to worry about making other people comfortable.

But I also realize that, apparently, the hurts of our childhood often follow us in ways that are unexpected as we get older. Lately, I've recognized my lessons in early friendships taught me to believe that your friends are never really your friends. Your friends can turn on you at any minute. Your friends might just be tolerating you--or pretending to--because they need something, or want something, or are just waiting for something better to come along. I realized that, really, I'm just standing in the hall, waiting to hear what everyone really thinks. There's a voice I whispering in my subconscious: they don't really like you, you know. And while I freely acknowledge this inner voice is an asshole, it's a persistent asshole.

It sounds a whole hell of a lot like Cassie.

I should clarify that I am not, despite what some have said recently, an insecure walking emotional disaster. Once I get to know someone--once we've been friends for a while--this all fades a bit. But there are some people who communicate or relate to people in ways that trigger all the doubts. For the past six or seven months I've been struggling.

While most people have been understanding, I've had people I trust and care about tell me I do, in fact, annoy them. I'm too much, too messy, trying too hard. And instead of being able to isolate those comments to the people who said them, I've applied them to almost everyone in my life. Because honestly, it is an annoying personality trait. Lately I find myself more than ever pulling away from people I care about, certain I'm annoying them. I find myself reaching out, but cursing myself because I'm sure there's no way people want to hear from me.I apologize if I feel like I've talked to someone too much, asked too many questions, talked too long. And I apologize incessantly (which, by the way, I've also been told is annoying). My experiences with a few people have started to define my relationships with almost everyone.

Because sure, they're my friends. But that doesn't mean they really like me, right?

So today I made a resolution to let go of the people who make me question myself. To let go of people who make me feel annoying, or like I'm too much to handle. To let go of anyone who thinks I'ma burden. Because here's the thing--I'm a goddamn treat, if I do say so myself. I find my sarcasm and mockery delightful. I give good advice and I'd do pretty much anything for someone I care about. If the fact I might send a text at an inconvenient time (or... you know... four of them) cancels all that out? Well, it's their loss, not mine. I'm walking away from the people who make me question myself, my friendships, everything I do. This is a hard decision for me, but it was a hard weekend and I woke up today knowing that I just can't do another one. I've made this resolution before and failed to walk away; it turns out I'm spectacularly bad at ghosting on people, no matter how poorly they treat me. But this time I know it has to be real. I've felt myself slipping into old patterns I thought I'd broken. And I just don't have the time for it. So here goes nothing.

Because Cassie wasn't worth it. And neither are they.

06 November 2017

More 90s Anthems, or Staying Power

Anyone who knows me knows I love Nelly's song "Air Force Ones." Once, when drunk, I completed a rhetorical analysis of the structure to prove its brilliance. I maintain that lyrics like, "I get to stomping in my Air Force Ones" and "If the shoe is on the shelf then you got one, man" are pure genius.

This is the hill I'm dying on, y'all.

I recently rediscovered my love of this classic late-90s ballad when I started listening to Nelly Radio on Pandora (okay... I'm so old, yes I still use Pandora). And as lyrical masterminds like Ludacris, Nelly, Chingy, Eminem and Chamillionaire started blaring out of my car stereo at 6am on the way to work, I discovered something disturbing: I know an alarming amount of offensive rap lyrics from the late 90s and early 2000s. I no longer remember most basic math, anything from a single science class I've ever taken, or even my sophomore English teacher's name, but the lyrics to D12's "Purple Pills?" Got 'em.

My memory is a blessing and a curse. I appreciate being able to rock out to "Big Poppa" with my commuting-buddy-slash-best-friend, but there are so many other things I wish I could remember. And most importantly, there are so many other things I wish I could forget. Our memories often seem designed to sabotage us, forgetting the things that could serve us well and holding on to useless--or even pain-inducing--information instead. Chuck Palahniuk wrote, "It is so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness."

Goddamn, Chuck. Right through the heart.

And that's something I'm struggling with lately--remembering pain I'd rather let go. Because lately, up in my brain right next to musical masterpieces like "Ridin' Dirty" and "Lose Yourself" are  crashing, cruel words I can't shake. I've always considered myself a forgiving person--I wrote a blog post about it recently--but now I'm wondering what exactly that forgiveness means. Have you really forgiven someone when you take their words--all the things they said that wounded you--and bind  them inextricably into your relationship? Into yourself? Is it forgiveness if you know there will be no forgetting? And, if so, what do you do with forgiveness when the remembering crowds in and temporarily knocks you off your feet for a bit?

Words have always mattered more to me than anything else. It's easier for me to forgive a cruel act than it is to forgive a cruel word. I think most people would say the opposite. Perhaps that's why I became an English teacher--because I believe, as Margaret Atwood said, that "a word after a word after a word is power." And people's words have always had a unique sort of power for me. This means that a kind word can work wonders. And a cruel one? A cruel one has a staying power that rivals any lyric by Luda.

For the past few months, I've struggled with words I can't shake free from. Apologies have been made. Relationships repaired. I'm happy and at peace. But memories haven't been wiped. And every once in a while, in quiet moments, the words will suddenly whip-crack through my brain and I find myself temporarily devastated. I find myself stunned at the words rattling around my brain. I find myself a little breathless at the weaknesses someone saw in me. At the faults. At the anger and hatred that spurred those observations into words. And I am, for the briefest of moments, shattered all over again.

Part of my problem is I don't believe in the phrase "I didn't mean it." That phrase reeks of insincerity. You may not have meant to say it, but that doesn't mean you didn't believe--even for a moment--the content of the message. After all, the words came from somewhere. Perhaps they came from the darkest, meanest part of your mind, perhaps from thoughts you would not normally give voice to, but they came from you. And you believed them, at least enough to put them out into the world to wreak their havoc. We've all said things we regret. We've all, at some point, gone after someone's weakest point--their most sensitive point. And too often we excuse it with a quick "I didn't mean that." 

But of course we did. Of course. Otherwise we would not have been able to identify the weak points. We wouldn't have known exactly how to break someone. We wouldn't have thought it. And we surely wouldn't have said it.

So then what? What do we do with the words we've been given that we don't want but can't get rid of? How do we move on from pain--from our scars--when the doctors have done all they can? What do we do when we're left with words that have forever changed how we feel about ourselves? Because that's the rub, isn't it? Once a word is unleashed, we've lost it. It no longer belongs to us. We can apologize--we can even mean it with our whole heart--but the words aren't ours anymore. They belong to the people we flung them at; they belong now to someone else's concept of self. And when our words are cruel, we can't deny we've done damage and there's no real repair. And on the receiving end? Well, we take the words and gather them up and hope some day they'll stop whispering to us in our weak moments. So often it works.

So often it does not.

It's hard to explain to someone that you can genuinely be not mad anymore and still be a little broken by something they said. That you can forgive without forgetting. That you can be okay, but still forever changed. Words change the way we see our world and ourselves. It can be devastating when someone's words make our world darker. Especially because, so often, no matter how many good words that come later, the painful ones are somehow always stronger. Louder. More insistent.

Perhaps because, as Palahnuik said, sweetness leaves no scars. But pain?


The best we can hope for, maybe, is that new phrases will eventually crowd out everything else. Perhaps those painful words will continue to rattle around in my brain, but I can hope that, over time, they rattle more quietly. Perhaps they'll be like the lyrics to "Hot in Herre" by Nelly--vaguely familiar, words I knew long ago but which escape me most days. Words that faded when masterpieces like "Air Force Ones" took over. Maybe given enough time, they'll fade. I've forgiven. And now I'd really like to forget.

But "Air Force Ones?" "Purple Pills?" "Ridin' Dirty?"

I've just accepted those masterpieces are for life.

26 October 2017

An Angry Email and the Beauty of Teaching

Six years ago, in the dark depths of December, when everyone—students and teachers alike—was desperately counting down the days until Winter Break, I got an email from one of my freshmen students. The email was sent at 11pm on a Tuesday night. We were in the middle of our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, and the students had been assigned to read the chapters in which our mockingbird, Tom Robinson—a black man wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman—is shot and killed. In desperation, in a wild fit of hopelessness, he tries to flee prison and is killed, shot in the back 17 times. My student, enraged at the unfairness of it all, fired off an email ranting about the book, about injustice, about her absolute disgust at the unfairness of it all. In her 14 year old vernacular, she angrily accused me of lying—I told her that, in general, Mockingbird had a happy ending—and the world of being unfair.

See, when I tell people that I teach high school English, I get one of two responses: “Oh my god, I hated English” or “Oh my god, I hate teenagers.” And the truth is, I don’t really understand either perspective.
There are days--months, even occasionally entire years--where I know I'm less effective than I'd like to be as a teacher. I know I've let students down. I know I have students I never connected with meaningfully. I know I have many students who may have done better if I had been better. But I love my job. And today as I circulated my classroom during my sixth hour AP Lit class, feeling worn down and exhausted (it’s just been that kind of week), I was suddenly reminded forcefully of how very much I love not just my job, but my kids. I was powerfully aware of how lucky I am to do what I do, to have these people in my heart for the short time I get to know them. And it made me think back on the handful of moments that really define my ten years of teaching. There are beautiful moments in everyday, but the moments blend—to be honest, the faces and names start to get muddy. But there are some moments that even distance can’t cloud.
Sitting in semifinals at the National Speech and Debate Tournament, watching my student—watching a piece of my heart—give an impassioned speech with more talent, grace, and humor than she ever thought possible. Sitting in a desk watching a student practice her invisibility speech for AP Lit, listening to her say the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time, honored because she trusted me enough to say them to me. Watching with trepidation as a student opened the email that told him he’d been accepted to his dream college, hugging him, proud but not surprised. Feeling the tears in my eyes when a student, walking off the stage after finding out she had qualified for the MSHSL state tournament, collapsed into me, crying and laughing at the same time. Hiding my surprise when, finally at the end of May, a student who had never voluntarily spoken in class cautiously raised his hand to explain why he thought Piggy's classes were so important in Lord of the Flies. Nodding helplessly as a student, heartbroken, told me his mom wouldn't say she loved him when he told her she was gay. Fighting tears in a quiet moment with a senior after State Finals, celebrating the end of a successful career, saying goodbye to an activity he loved, trying to put every overwhelming emotion we had into a hug in the middle of a crowded hallway.
And of course, an angry email from a beautiful soul who just so badly wanted the world to be fair.
These are moments that are forever in my heart. Many of them--maybe most of them--are moments my students quickly forget.  Their lives march on, carrying them outside of the walls of their old high school. They head out into the world and talk about how awful high school was, how glad they are to be gone, how small minded their hometown is. Meanwhile, I carry them with me in my heart everyday, fundamentally changed for having known them. I'll remember moments with them long after Hamlet or A Tale of Two Cities fade from their memories. They'll haunt my classroom years past the point where their high school English teacher or Speech coach crosses their mind. It's the nature of teaching--a constant push and pull between remembering and forgetting. They'll move on and forget about me and my classroom. New students will take up their places, settling into their old desks with no knowledge of the people who sat there before, claiming their space. Filling my heart.
And the cycle repeats.
I love my job because I love these people--these difficult, loud, moody people who fill my room for seven hours a day. Some days I am overwhelmed by how lucky I am, how profoundly special it is to be a part of these lives, whether for a semester, a year, or a high school career. How honored I am that a few students allow me in enough to send me emails, snaps, tweets, and texts long after they’ve left my room for the last time. Some days—more often than I would like—I’m disappointed in myself, for not doing more or being more for the amazing young people who walk through my doors. Some days I’m disappointed with my students—for not valuing their opportunities, for not wanting to work or grow or be the people I know they can be. But disappointment is a part of caring, so I’ll take it. There is far more pride and that’s what I’ll hold on to.
So some people can’t understand why I teach. They can’t understand why I would love these hormonal, whiny, beautiful people who fill my desks. Usually I just laugh it off. Usually I make some sarcastic comment and move on.
But next time… maybe next time I’ll tell them about this email I got once, about six years ago…

17 October 2017

My Girl Hillary

I love Hillary Clinton. That's not a popular opinion, even among Democrats, but I proudly cop to it. I don't mean I voted for her or that I think she'd be a good president (though both those things are true). I mean I love her. I have a Funko Pop doll of her on my mantle (granted, it's in the basement, but still). I admire her. I think she's strong. I think she's smart. I think she's a bitch, but that's okay because, in the words of Tina Fey (another woman I love), "Bitches get shit done." Y'all, I love her.

Most of all, what I love about my girl, Hillary, is the fact she is unapologetically Hillary. She owns up to her mistakes, but she doesn't apologize for being strong, or opinionated, or doing what she thinks is right, even if it turns out to be wrong later. I truly believe one of the reasons so many people dislike Hillary is this very lack of apology. A lot of the criticism leveled at her is, in reality, dislike of the fact she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize. Because in the US, women apologize. For being loud, for being ambitious, for being assertive, and sometimes, just for taking up space. Study after study has shown that women apologize more than men, and often for relatively silly things. It's a cultural epidemic.

And in the past three months or so, I've been infected.

I admire women like Hillary who are unapologetically themselves, yet I find that lately, I'm apologizing. For everything. It's a relatively new development for me, so I find it profoundly uncomfortable. Suddenly, I'm constantly fighting the urge to apologize for being myself.

I somehow got locked into a cycle where I let other people's opinions and actions make me second guess everything about myself and my relationships. I started feeling guilty for mundane things like asking questions, sending a text, needing a friend... basically for taking up space in people's lives. These were people who claimed to want to be in my life--friends and family--so the sense of shame and insecurity was (and, if I am honest, is) unsettling. I felt ashamed of myself for trying to connect with people, for having emotions other people found inconvenient. I was embarrassed, too often, for being an imperfect person. So I started to apologize. And it's been a hard habit to break.

And let me just say, I used past tense a lot in that last paragraph. And maybe present tense is more accurate. But that's another post.

This weekend, I made a decision: I'm banishing the word "sorry" from my vocabulary. (Spoiler alert: I've already failed a few times.)There are just some things that I won't apologize for anymore. So I made a list (yeah, I'm that kind of person--I'm not sorry):
  1. Contacting or reaching out to people--I am allowed to take up mental and emotional space in someone's life. If someone chooses not to answer or to ignore me--if they refuse to give me that space--then I don't need to be in their life anymore; I need to learn to walk away, not apologize.
  2. Feeling whatever it is I am feeling in a moment, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people.
  3. Expressing what I am feeling, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people (notice a theme?)
  4. Failing to live up to other people's unrealistic expectations of me. Sometimes I am messy, and always I am imperfect. I'm okay with it. If other people aren't, again, I need to walk away.
I've caught myself starting to apologize multiple times. I've started a text to apologize when someone ignored a previous message for hours--but then I had to remind myself--there's nothing wrong with contacting someone. If they don't want to respond to my delightful banter, clearly there's something wrong with them, not me. And in all seriousness, ignoring someone is rude; guilt shouldn't lie with me but the person doing it. I have no reason to apologize. I've felt the urge to apologize when someone tried to police my language. I had an apology all crafted before I managed to stop myself, and remind myself that the person was being manipulative, and I didn't need to apologize for that. Sorry is a word that should be reserved for actual remorse, not as a crutch because other people are rude or seem to feel vaguely inconvenienced by me.

"I am allowed to take up space--whether emotional, mental, or physical" is my new mantra. I think it should be every woman's mantra. It's something we all need to be reminded of. It's so easy to forget.

But there is one person I feel I owe a huge apology to: me

For expecting myself to be all things to all people; for carrying around guilt and blame that weren't mine to shoulder; for caring more what other people thought about me than what I thought about myself. For somehow letting someone else make me feel I didn't deserve validation or acknowledgement.

But no more apologies. People make mistakes--me included--and I'll live with it. I've had to suppress a lot of natural instincts--"sorry it took me so long to get back to you," "sorry to bother you," "sorry to ask, but . . ." These are ingrained in my daily conversations. And they shouldn't be.

It's too early in my new campaign to tell if it's making a difference in my interactions. But I'm going to keep reminding myself Hillary has been blamed for a lot in this country that isn't her fault
--everything from her husband's infidelities to Weinstein's harassment of women--and she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize for what isn't her fault. The truth is, often, I'm not really sorry. I might feel insecure. Uncertain. Even angry. But none of those are reasons to apologize. Far too many times, I'm offering an apology when one is owed to me. And that, frankly, is fucked up.

And by the way: No, I'm not sorry for swearing.

15 October 2017

Cheat Codes and Free Will: What the Sims Taught Me About Life

Perhaps my worst kept secret is that, for years, I unabashedly loved the computer game The Sims. I was never a Sims City fan--that required far too much work and even at a young age I had no illusions that I should be, in anyway, in charge of running... well, anything. But The Sims was different. In the game, you built houses, decorated them, and then created families to move in and live there. The premise is your Sims need to build skills so they can get jobs, make money, and improve their houses. But y'all, Sims are stupid. Left to their own devices, they leave their babies outside in the snow because they wanted to watch TV; they don't go to work because the house is too dirty and it depressed them. And they never study. But there's a little switch in the settings of the game that makes all this a moot point: The free will button. See, you can turn free will off, and then your Sims can't do a damn thing unless you tell them to.

I mean, the ability to be totally in charge of someone's life? Sign me up.

I could play that game for hours. Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Sim--you want to watch TV? Tough. You burned toast last night and set the kitchen on fire; go read a book to improve your cooking skills. Mrs. Sims wants to sleep? Neat, but your baby is crying and the game comes with built in CPS, so suck it up buttercup and go sing some nursery rhymes. Oh, and there are bills to pay but neither of my Sims have jobs? Well, good thing the game also comes with a cheat code to get them unlimited money because I don't have time for work.

I mean.... I might have some control issues.

There is no clearer illustration in my life of my love of control than the way I played The Sims. I've always been particular about the way I want things to be done. I hate uncertainty. I need to have solid footing under me at all times, otherwise I go crazy--seriously, batshit crazy; I can give you names of people who have had to witness this. Uncertainty is, really, at the root of pretty much any fear and anxiety I've ever had. I need to know where I stand. I need to know what's going to happen and how and why. My control means that, in general, my life is organized and run well. But there are some things that elude my control. And those things tend to piss me off.

I've never been terribly adept at handling change and uncertainty, and the past few months have brought plenty of that. It's difficult for me to interact with people who try to control my emotions and interactions. I don't like have "rules" about what I can express or when. It's hard for me deal with situations and relationships when the ground keeps shifting beneath my feet.

Mostly I've just come to the conclusion that those situations and people who leave me feeling powerless are situations and people I have to avoid. I'm learning there's a difference between relinquishing control in a healthy way (#yolo) and someone wresting it from you against your will in an attempt to take advantage of you or manage your reactions (#ass). I've let too many people exert control over my life lately. Some have done it unwittingly--frustrating but forgivable. What's harder to accept is that there are a few who have done it purposefully--who have used my weaknesses against me. I'm working slowly to shut those people out of my life. Or, at the very least, to shut down situations where I find my words, reactions, and feelings being policed by them. I've decided I'm done feeling guilty, embarrassed, or out of control. To quote Maxine Waters, I'm reclaiming my time. Or my control, as the case may be.

Of course, I backslide a lot; for a control freak, I have shockingly little self- control, as anyone who has seen me crack open a bag of Doritos can attest to. But I'm working on it.

So the world isn't my personal game of The Sims, much to my dismay. Most days, I can handle it. I am, after all, slightly more adept at life than any of the Sims I've had to play on the computer. I've never left a baby in the snow, fallen asleep in a plate of burned spaghetti, or electrocuted myself fixing a toaster (seriously, if you don't play this game, you're missing out). So, I suppose I have to navigate this world, constantly bumping into those people whose free will keeps getting in my way. I'll just I have to live with that.

But, just saying, some cheat codes would be nice.

08 October 2017

Crotchety Old Bitch

In August, my husband and I adopted a dog named Ellie; then we immediately turned into insufferable millennials who talk about said dog way too much. It's amazing.

Ellie is a bundle of contradictions: She likes her own space, but she has to be in the same room I am. She's sweet and likes people, but only on her own terms. She's skittish around strangers and loathes kids. She gets cranky if she's not in bed by 8:30, hates to get up in the morning, and is relatively sweet until someone gets in her face, at which time she'll snarl, growl, and--in the case if my in-laws' dog--attack with teeth bared if you don't back up. She's sweet and cranky at the same time; cuddly and stand-offish; loves walks but gets winded after 6 blocks.

Y'all. Ellie is me.

Let's review:  Dislikes strangers, children, and exercise. Always wants to be in bed. Sweet, but will attack you right in the face if you tick her off.


We ended up adopting Ellie because her previous family--who had her for nearly ten years-- surrendered her. They had a toddler and another baby on the way; Ellie's penchant for snarling and snapping at kids when she gets scared meant she couldn't stay with them anymore. She needed a house without children or other pets. They loved her (I'm sure), but it just wasn't the right place for her.

Yet, as much as I love to ramble on about my dog, she's actually not quite the point here (though using her as a metaphor is a fantastic excuse to plaster her face all over this post). See, Ellie is perfect for us, and sometimes I'm sort of dumbfounded anyone could give her up. But she's not for everyone. She's not perfect and her family couldn't handle her issues. She is, in short, a crotchety old bitch.

Do I really need to say it again?

The past couple months haven't been the easiest for me. The past three weeks forced me to spend a lot of time thinking. One day, I hit a point where I was carrying around a lot of blame. I was angry at myself. And then a wonderful, intelligent woman I know (hi Sarah!) sent me a message and reminded me that sometimes we fit in people's lives, and other times we don't. Sometimes people don't appreciate us. Sometimes people find us annoying or messy. Sometimes we do the best we can, and it's still not right.

Sometimes, all of that just still means we're just fine the way we are.

See, Ellie isn't perfect, but she is who she is. All she needed was to find the right place--the right people--for that to be okay. Her previous family loved her, but they weren't that place so they let her go. And when I look at her sprawled out next to me on the couch, I remind myself I have my place too. I have my people. And sometimes I can care about people but still know those people aren't my people. That's not always an easy thing to accept. It's broken my heart in a million different ways, but it doesn't change that essential truth.

There are things about ourselves we will always be working on--I'm trying to be more patient, less judgemental, and more tolerant of middle-aged women (partly because I know I'm teetering awfully close to being one). But there are things about myself I just can't change: I will always be prone to emotional reactions and sentimentality, uncertainty will always make me crazy, and slow drivers in the left lane will always send me into a blind rage. I might not love all these things, but I no longer see them as weaknesses. They just are, just like Ellie--try as she might--just can't handle kids, other dogs, or staying up past 9:00 pm. The best I can ask for is to surround myself with people who can accept the good with the not-so-good, people who don't see those things as flaws but just part of who I am; people who are my people. Because they're out there. They're all around me.

So Ellie found her people. I'm learning to recognize mine. We've bonded over this shared journey, I think. And I think we're both at peace with it.

We'll be the first to admit--we're just a pair of crotchety old bitches.

But see, we're just okay with it now.

27 September 2017

My Confession

Even when I was young, I thought Confession at my Catholic grade school was suspect. I get to be awful, and all I have to do is go in a little box, say I'm sorry, maybe a couple prayers, and everything is forgiven? And even if I do the same awful things again, I just need to repeat the process? That's it. Forgiveness: eternal and unconditional. 

Christ, that's not how any of that works. 

I actually pride myself on being a fairly forgiving person. Actually, really forgiving. To a fault. Sometimes I forgive where others think I shouldn't. And the truth is I'm okay with that. It is a trait that has occasionally frustrated other people in my life, especially when it means I maintain relationships others think I'd be best without. Yet of all the crappy things I've forgiven, I've never regretted giving someone a second--or third, fourth,or even eighteenth--chance. In the end, it's always been the right choice. I'm okay with forgiving.

But lately I've learned there's one person I can't forgive. Ever. 

See the past few weeks have been... rough. I've been told, in fairly brutal terms,  I'm....well...an annoying mess. As someone who has spent her whole life trying to help others, it was gut wrenching to be described as a weight on someone's chest. And at the end of the episode, I was told quite plainly the friendship was done, permanently, and that was that. The whole incident was roundly wrapped up with me being unfriended and blocked on social media. And in a world where people have hundreds and thousands of friends on Facebook, that last one really got the message across. I mean, you gotta be pretty messy when your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds are too much for someone.

Y'all...it's been a week

But here's the thing: I'm not mad at this person. Because everyone has a right to feel what they feel. Everyone has a right to decide who gets to be in their lives. There's nothing wrong with it. So that's actually not who I can't forgive.

It's me. 

My real issue is I can't stop being angry at myself for completely failing to be the person I thought I was, for being weaker and all around worse than I imagined myself to be. I'm mad at myself for seeming messy when I'm usually meticulous. I'm angry I seemed sad when I'm usually sassy and spunky (a word someone else once used that I love).  I'm disappointed I let anxiety get the best of me when usually my humor-as-a-defense-mechanism means I can get through difficult situations and be charming and hilarious in a dark sort of way. And in all seriousness, I'm furious I ever became a burden when I've devoted my life to trying to carry other people's weight with them. I probably could've forgiven the person for what they said--if we were still speaking--but I'll never forgive myself for being someone they would want to say it to.

I know everyone is messy sometimes and that we don't owe apologies for going through hard things. And we don't owe anyone apologies for how we handle those hard things, even if we fail to do it with as much grace and aplomb as we might have liked. But as for how that translates into forgiving myself? Well, I'm still working on that. 

I don't think I'm alone. I think too often we don't extend to ourselves the same kindnesses we extend to others. We expect from ourselves what we'd never expect from others. And when who we think we are doesn't match who others see, that can be devastating.

It's not as if I'm sitting around being sad; I have my friends, my family, my dog, and more than enough 90s rap music to get me through (God bless you, Luda). I'm doing just fine. But in those quiet moments when the rush of the world dies down, a whispering voice sneaks in:"You really messed that up, and there's no fixing it now." It's not what I messed up--though that sucks; it's the fact that I messed up at all. There's no little box I can go to, no absolution someone can give me. I don't know how to atone this time. I consider myself to be good at forgiving people, but suddenly I'm stumped at how to forgive when the people is myself. The right answer probably has to do with accepting our failures and moving on, trying to do better the next time. When someone figures out what the hell that means, be sure to let me know. I have no clue. Because instead of any of that, I'm in a cycle of replaying every criticism I've ever heard throughout my life--I seriously had a stress dream about a nasty incident involving locker sharing in third grade--and then beating myself up for totally failing people--and totally failing myself. I don't know how to forgive myself for being the person I am--a person who is a burden sometimes. Who is messy and broken sometimes. Who makes people so crazy they need to cut them off.

Or block them on Twitter.

Because y'all, I think my online presence is a goddamn riot.

Making peace with who we are--especially when we are at our worst--is the work of a lifetime. And it isn't going to happen in a little box. There will be no old man (my priests were always old men) sitting on the other side of the screen offering penance. There are no quick prayers for absolution because it turns out the person who's doing the forgiving this time is worse at this than she thought.

Maybe I'll forgive her for that someday.

17 September 2017

My 90s Anthem or How Not To Stay

I love Lisa Loeb, completely and unabashedly. Okay, I love the one song from her I know. Her song "Stay" is, without a doubt, the anthem of the 1990s. Recorded for the movie Reality Bites, that song was my jam (yeah... I was 10... what of it?) To this day, the whole world pauses for me when it comes on. I hear the opening chords and I freeze. And then, I sing (loudly and badly).  But there has always been one part that drove me crazy:

"I thought that I was strong
I thought, "hey, I can leave, I can leave"
Oh but now I know that I was wrong
'Cause I
missed you."

See, the implication is that if you miss someone--if it's hard to walk away--then you're weak. You were wrong to leave. You'll never get away.

Lisa. Come on.

Because the truth is, if it's easy to walk away, if it doesn't hurt or make you sad, then it doesn't require any strength. You don't have to be strong to walk away from someone you don't care about, and you don't have to be strong to say goodbye to something you won't miss. But to leave something you know isn't good for you? To leave something that you love and care about and are invested in? That takes strength.

See sometimes I run into people who I just can't handle. I run into people who make me feel uncertain. Insecure. People whose love, for whatever reason, I can't read. They're few and far between, but they're out there. And those people, no matter how much I love them, are crazy-making for me. I've fallen into a pattern in the past two months with one such person. And the level of crazy in my life has sky rocketed.

The person isn't a bad person.... well okay, they're kind of a bad person, but I knew that when I became close to them, so that's on me. But they don't communicate in a way that works for me. They don't relate to people in a way that works for me. They don't work for me. It's no one's fault; it just is. And, as a result, they made me start to doubt everything about who I am. I began to doubt every conversation, joke, or emotion. And it'd be one thing if it was just with this individual, but it bled into every relationship I have. I apologize constantly for things as mundane as sharing a story or asking a question. I second guess situations and conversations. I'm quick to assume people are angry. I beat myself up for every emotion. Of course, this has pushed away other people I care about. It's a cycle that's made doubt everything about myself.

And you know what? I'm 33. I'm just too damn old for that sort of shit.

So I had to walk away. And it hurt. Well, present tense. It hurts. It makes me anxious and sad. I cry when I think about it (when I'm not cycling to blinding rage, of course). And there are times where that pain makes me feel incredibly weak. Times when I break and want to check their social media, even though I know it's a bad idea. I've feel sometimes like I am in shambles, and that's embarrassing. But I've tried to remind myself that it takes a lot of strength to walk away and weather the negative emotions. In some ways it'd be easier to stick around and wait it out, to try to repair the damage. But it wouldn't be the best choice. I was right to walk away. Sometimes you have to close the door, no matter how much you'd rather not. So I closed it.

So, while Lisa begs her man to stay because she misses him, I'm going to keep walking. I'm going to keep missing my friend, but I'm going to keep reminding myself that missing someone is okay. That you can miss someone and still be happier without them. That I won't feel sad forever. That it'll fade.

And that these feelings? They definitely don't make me weak.

10 September 2017

A Little Black Stool

This worn, chipped, dusty stool is probably the single most important thing in my entire classroom. It means more to me--and to many of my students--than any of the hundreds of notes, pictures, or even cards that line my shelves and walls. It's more important to what happens in my room than the laptops, the pens and pencils, or the books. This battered black perch is why I teach.

This stool has been privy to a lot over the past ten years. Every day, students drag this stool to the edge of my desk and settle in. Sometimes they have their laptops open, sometimes a notebook, sometimes just their hearts and stories. But as they sit there, that's where the real joy of my teaching begins. I love the moments in front of my classroom, watching my freshmen read Romeo and Juliet out loud and giggle at Mercutio. I love watching my sophomores fume over Daisy's betrayal of Gatsby or my seniors as they tear up as Hamlet takes his last breaths. These moments with my entire class can sometimes feel like the stuff of movies, and they are magical. But it's the quiet moments, the one-on-one moments that take place on that little black stool, that really remind me why I do this job.

When I read through the cards my seniors left me as they headed out into this world, more than one mentioned pulling that stool up to my desk, and more than one proclaimed the stool to be theirs. This week, my proctor marched into my room and hovered, agitated, over a friend who was sitting there, chatting. When her friend scurried off to class, my proctor grabbed the stool, dragged it next to me, and said defiantly, "Sorry, [name], but this is my spot." I know that for more than one student, their strongest memories of my classroom will have happened sitting there.

During workshop weeks, that stool feels haunted. It sits empty and I swear I feel the ghosts of the hundreds of students who've sat there before crowding in. My room often feels forlorn during that week before school starts, suspended in the sad limbo between what I've lost and what's about to come. The echoes of the voices that filled the previous year still seem to whisper during that week.

And then--then it all begins. One hundred and eighty new students stream into my classroom on a warm Tuesday in September and they drown out the echoes that seemed so loud just a few days before. New students unceremoniously drag the stool to my desk, and suddenly new voices crowd in. I find the spirits that just a few days ago haunted my room fading as new college essays demand attention, as new thesis statements need approval, as new anxieties and hopes and fears and gossip swirl around me. There's only so much noise a room can take.

Thursday, as one of my seniors and I labored over his college essay, laughing and trying to find the right words to impress NYU and UChicago, I glanced at my desk and saw a post it a past student had stuck on my bulletin board. I was jolted into the previous year momentarily, remembering sitting there with him, writing the college essays that spun him away from Elk River nine months later, lead him to the dorm room he was probably sitting in at that very moment. A momentary flash of loss, and then it was gone.

That's the nature of teaching. So many stories fill our lives, but in the end, they're always temporary. I get older, and yet the voices that fill my room are forever suspended in time--perpetually worried about college and careers and the exhausting drama that makes up life from the ages of fourteen to eighteen. There's something so beautiful about that. It makes it easier to let go, in the end, knowing that it'll all be back next year. Knowing the haunted feeling will be crowded out and new students will take up their places in my heart.

Knowing that little black stool will always find its way back to the edge of my desk.

As it all begins again.

04 September 2017

What I'm Left With

Spoiler Alert (that will surprise approximately zero people who know me): I am horrible at letting go of things.

I don't just mean slightly worse than average. I mean awful. Appallingly, shockingly awful.

Ever since I was young, the idea of losing something--losing people--has preoccupied and terrified me. So, when confronting a potential loss, I have the super awesome (ahem... read: annoying and pathetic) tendency to hold on as tightly as possible. I mean, who doesn't love clingy, amirite? But the flip side of this is I've never been a person who lets others in very easily. In high school, my best friend of three years told me one night, "You know, you're really hard to get to know. But once you let someone in, you're for life."

It's 16 years later and she's still my best friend. So, you know. She wasn't wrong.

I don't let people in easily, it's true. I invest a lot of energy in people, but at the same time, there's usually an emotional distance, at least on my end. I love, but I keep a safe cushion that allows me to let go easily when I need to. And, as someone who doesn't like letting go, that's a good thing. My screening process means that rarely does anyone get past my defenses who isn't going to take their position pretty permanently. But every once in a while...
letting go

This year, my screening process went completely haywire. I invested, and then I let down my defenses. And, inevitably, the time came to part ways.

Did I mention that I'm awful at this?

And that, due to my lack of experience, I have very few coping mechanisms for it?

It's been messy.

But this is love letter, not a lament. Make no mistake, I hate losing people and letting go. It is the goddamn worst. And there are many times over this summer I have complained to anyone who will listen, "I wish I didn't care so much!" I've complained about feelings and said repeatedly that I want to go back to not having any. And you know what, that's true.

Loss hurts and letting go sometimes feels impossible (if you're like me). But loss in an inevitable byproduct of loving. And while I could do without loss, I could never do without loving. I hate letting go, but I'm so grateful to have things in my life that are worth holding on to. I'm grateful that people let me in to their lives to love them. I'm grateful for the time I get with those who have to leave in the end. I'm grateful that, no matter how bereft I might feel after all is said and done, I have been loved in return. I am, at the end of it all, grateful.

So I don't really know what to do with myself. I'll be crabby for a few days. Probably cry. Hopefully not to Biggie's "Big Poppa" (see last post), but I can't rule out Ludacris or Eminem bringing me to tears at this point. But I also know that I'll move on. I know that I'm softer than I was before, but that's because I have been loved, and love changes us. Time marches on and gives us no choice but to march with it. The past fades and the loss becomes less sharp, less all-consuming. It never goes away, but the intensity lessens.

And if you're lucky, all you're left with is the love.

19 August 2017

Welcome to the Shitshow

Adults lie all the time. And I'm not talking about the obvious Santa Claus-Easter Bunny-Tooth Fair lies. Those are relatively innocuous. In fact, the worst lie isn't even something adults actually say--it's a lie we tell everyday in just existing. A lie we tell in every move we make as adults. I don't know if adults even know we're lying. But we do it. All. the. time.

So here's the truth, people-who-can't-rent-a-car-yet (that's my adult threshold): Adults are messy. And none of them--not a single solitary one--has their shit together.

I mean, none of them.

Shit is everywhere. Everywhere.

Most young people think that, once they're bonafide adults, they'll have their lives figured out. The chaos and uncertainty will fade and suddenly it'll all make sense. I know I believed this. I believed that when I was a real adult--when that would happen was a little hazy--I would suddenly find myself competent at things like insurance and taxes, home maintenance and gardening, politics and geopolitical positioning. And most importantly, I thought navigating life would get easier. I thought adults just knew... whatever. All of it.

I'm 33. Guess what? I have no fucking clue.

Because part of what I've realized since becoming an adult is that no one ever has it together. Not really, and certainly not all the time. Life is messy and chaotic and everyone is just doing the best they can. Adults screw up all the time. This summer? Oh, I screwed up this summer. And another part of being an adult is realizing that sometimes when you screw up--when you ruin a relationship--the damage isn't fixable. And that thought will make you weepy. And anxious. And really angry. But you're an adult. So you act like everything's fine in public and just weep in your car to Biggy's "Big Poppa" when no one's looking.

Like I said: shit everywhere.

Being an adult has been a process of realizing that everyone lives their life in various states of shambles. There's no age where anyone suddenly gets a handbook that tells you how to react in every situation, how to manage every sort of stress, or prepare for every sort of disaster. Is there a good way to handle a cancer diagnosis? The death of a friend? The sudden implosion of a friendship you valued? It's always going to be messy.

But here's the amazing part: we don't need to have it all together. Some days--weeks, months even-- I've got it together. Other times, I settle for having all my shit in the same room. Some days even that is too much.

The real secret of being an adult is realizing you will never quite be able to believe this is happening to you. You'll never be magically competent. You'll never stop vaguely feeling like a bit of a fraud as you go do this whole adult thing. You'll see other adults and believe they know more than you do--that they're better at this adulting thing. They don't and they're not. But for some reason we're all really invested in believing that isn't true because it's terrifying to think everyone else is just as bemused by this as we are.

So that's the secret. Life is, in actuality, one big shitshow. And sometimes that's awful. Sometimes that means you cry to 90s rap in your car or text your friend to ask if it's really so bad to drink alone with your dog at 3pm (those are true stories--being an adult is weird).

But sometimes, sometimes that shitshow is beautiful. Because there's beauty in resilience and perseverance and starting over. There's beauty in knowing that we all live through our own private wars, and that we all carry our own private battle scars. And oh my there is beauty in knowing that no matter how many times the world ends, the sun will come up and there is a chance to start it over again the next day.

And, until then--until you can see the beauty in it all--you're an adult.

So you know, you can always take up day drinking.

12 August 2017

The Room Where it Happens

When I was sixteen, my friends and I sat down to watch the National Champion in Original Oratory, Jared Weiss, on my friend's VCR in his basement. We watched Weiss's speech. Then we rewound (I'm old, y'all. This was 2000) and watched again. And again. And again.

We talked endlessly about being on that stage--being in that room. And I have never been the same.

This past summer, I once again found myself watching Nationals, but this time I wasn't in front of TV or computer. This time I was sitting in Birmingham, Alabama, surrounded by 3,500 speech people watching it all in person. That's when it hit me. Oratory had just finished and we were waiting for awards. I looked around and suddenly felt my heart stutter. Here I was. Sitting in the room where it happens. At last. And not only was I sitting where it happens, but that year, I had been a part of it all happening. I had a student break to semifinals--she finished the tournament 10th in the nation. I was finally a part of this thing I'd always watched from a distance, but never really thought I could do. In that moment, I teared up and quietly whispered thank you. I don't know if my students heard me. I couldn't find the words to tell them how proud I was of them, how overwhelmed I was to be there--and to be there with them. I don't know that they really understood what it all meant to me. They probably never will.

But four years ago one of those same students, upon qualifying for State as a freshman, hugged me tearfully and said, "I've never been good at anything." Until then.  He went on to win the State Championship as a junior. And as a senior.

And sitting in that room, surrounded by those people, well I wanted to look back at him and repeat the same words.

"I've never really been good at anything."

Until now.

I'm not the best coach. I've often wondered what my students could do if they had someone else working with them--someone with more experience, more theater background, more creativity, more anything. I've had students succeed in speech--national semifinalists, and state finalists, and even a state champion. But so often those are students who are extraordinary already. So often I feel as though I just watch them succeed. So often I am merely a passenger on their journey.

And yet, sitting in that room--I felt a certainty that I am at least heading down the right path. I'm doing something I'm supposed to be doing. Coaching speech brings me more joy than I thought possible. I've met some of the most beautiful people through this activity. I've gotten to watch students find their voices. I've watched them discover parts of themselves they didn't know they had. I've watched them find passion, find confidence, find power and strength in their words. I've watched them move mountains. And I never get tired of watching them.

My students don't get the recognition they deserve. We are four-time Section Champions, have a two-time State Champion, and a National top ten finisher. We got one mention in the newspaper. The girls' basketball team gets at least one per week even now, six months after their season ended. Our school will not support our trips to Nationals. Our Activities Director and Administrator couldn't tell you how many people are on our team or where we compete.

And yet.

And yet there we sat. Me with two of the most inspiring students I've ever had the privilege to work with. There we sat--a girl who tried to quit the team as a sophomore because she didn't think she'd ever be able to memorize a whole speech; a boy who had never believed he could compete and win. A coach who'd watched from afar and been intimidated by the talent and genius I'd seen in others. That day we were different. The girl who almost quit was tenth in the nation. The boy who'd never won was a two-time state champion.

And that coach who'd watched from afar? She was sitting between them, in love with them, with the activity, with being a part of it all.

We were all quietly in love in that moment. One student leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, "Thank you." My other student looked at me--a little teary himself--and mumbled "Love you." And we all just sat there and took it in.

Finally in the room where it happens.