A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

Coronavirus Diary #30: Emerging

It’s starting to happen. We’re opening our doors, stepping outside, and actually talking to people — sans mask.

At first it felt a little weird.

We were in the backyard of our new nest (still trying to settle on a name: the garden ranch? the house by the highway?) working in the dirt, plunking seeds in the ground, when first one neighbor then another walked toward the fence, introduced themselves, and stood to talk for a bit.

We were outside of course, where no masks have been required for quite a while, but we weren’t keeping six feet distance. We moved in close — close enough to see eye color. It felt good, but then my husband did something audacious: he breached the fence line, extending his hand to Bob, our backyard neighbor, and Bob, equally audacious, grabbed his hand and shook.

Emboldened by such recklessness, our son, too, walked forth and shook the hand of a man who we had never met. We didn’t know if he was vaccinated, Republican, Democrat, a masker, an anti-masker, or what! Yet, they each grabbed his hand, swapping epitheliels and such. I felt a rush of anxiety, and then I internally shrugged.

The mask mandate had been lifted, after all, for those who had been vaccinated, whether outdoor or indoor, and we had been vaccinated, so I guess hand shaking was the next step.

A few days later, we were walking into Lowe’s when we saw a sign that said, “masks are now optional for guests and employees of Lowe’s,” so we unstrapped our faces, walked in and began to hunt down the items on our list. Several minutes into our quest, my observant husband said, “Hey, I’m noticing that most everyone still has a mask on. Maybe we should, too.” So, with a sense of courtesy and care for others, we strapped them back on.

It’s no big deal, after all. We’ve been wearing masks for over a year. We have dozens in our home, in our car, and at work. It seems almost second nature now to cover our droplet-spewing exhales for the sake of others, but we’re seeing more spaces where we feel free not to.

Weddings, for example. Last weekend, we went to two weddings in one day. At the first, we sat in our car, watching others walk into the church without masks, so we decided to do the same tucking a mask for each of us in a pocket just in case. At the door to the church we saw a sign similar to the one at Lowe’s announcing that masks were not required for the vaccinated, so we dared to walk into the sanctuary naked-faced.

Inside, about 30% of the the guests wore masks. The ceremony commenced with the whole wedding party processing barefaced. Yes, the priest donned a mask before serving communion, but many remained unmasked for the service, even while singing. And the singing! After over a year of virtual church, the rich voices in the extravagant sanctuary felt celestial — a foretaste of things to come.

After the ceremony, as the guests rose to exit, most conservatively covered their faces, and we did, too. We’d tasted the freedom, but we hadn’t lost our minds. That would happen at the next wedding.

We’d received an email the night before that fully-vaccinated folk would not be required to mask at the second wedding. Still, we kept a mask in our pockets as we walked into the large, airy sanctuary. We found our seats and scanned the room. This was the wedding of someone we’ve known for decades, and several of the guests were dear to us. Not one mask was visible to me.

We slid over to let a couple join us. My husband shook a hand and gave a hug. I simply smiled and gushed, “It’s so good to see you!” I looked around and spotted a long-time friend I hadn’t seen in the last few years, then a couple who we love dearly. I wanted to cross the room to greet them, but I committed to the more socially-appropriate action of staying put for the duration of the ceremony.

The wedding was joyous — the joining of two fractured families who had found healing and hope in each other was filled with smiles, tears, and much rejoicing. The people gathered were reminded that God makes all things new — that He takes our brokenness aside and makes it beautiful.

Buoyed by restored hope, the wedding guests excitedly exited the sanctuary, nary a mask in the crowd, and continued to greet one another and comment on the just-witnessed miracle. Among them, my husband and I were chatting with another couple when I spotted, once again, that dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. My feet propelled me to her, and before I knew it, without first asking for permission, I wrapped her in a hug. I was suddenly emotional. Other than my husband, our son who lives locally, and my mother, I had hugged very few people in the last year. Very few indeed. And this friend, who I’ve known for over thirty years of highs and lows and another friend who I would track down moments later and enthusiastically embrace — again without thinking to pause for permission — were dear, dear friends who I might have at one time taken for granted, might have given a quick hug at a wedding reception and then moved on to the drinks, the food, and the dancing. but not now.

I’ve been changed — at least temporarily. As we emerge from almost fifteen months of separation from one another, isolation in our homes, and the alienation of wearing a mask — all for the sake of protecting one another out of love — I have a new perspective.

At times during the pandemic I have felt anxious, not wanting to be around people, feeling wary of moving through crowds, and venturing out only out of necessity to get groceries, see the doctor, or go to work. Even several weeks ago, when we went to church on Easter, after the worship services were over, after most of the people had cleared, I still felt uneasy walking up to the building to receive communion because a dozen or more people were standing outside the building without their masks.

It’s been strange, hasn’t it? To be afraid of getting close, of sharing air? Haven’t we been suspicious of those who came too near, who didn’t mask up, who didn’t seem to take the virus seriously? Or maybe you felt differently. Maybe you thought we’d all gone overboard what with the masks, and the quarantines, and the sanitizer, and such. Maybe you’ve not been isolating and distancing as much as we have. Maybe you don’t feel, like I do, that you are emerging from a bunker where you’ve been hunkered down, missing your people for over a year, but that’s how I feel.

Is the sun shining brighter? Have my friend Pat’s eyes always been that attentive and loving? Has Chris DuPont’s voice always sounded so angelic in a spacious cathedral? Have the hugs of friends like Heidi always been so life-giving and heart-swelling?

I don’t remember, but suddenly I am overwhelmed with emotion just just to see you — all of you.

I know the virus is still here and that it’s going to be here for a while, but right now, in the light of the sun, on these beautiful spring days, I feel free as I emerge from a long, long, hibernation that lasted much, much longer than a winter.

I missed you, my friends. I pray I get to see your face and hug you soon.

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

Psalm 31:24

This just might work.

Click above to listen, or read on.

Last week I reminisced about our life in our little house by the river. Today, I share some of the journey to our next nest.

Even before we moved in, we knew we wouldn’t live in the little house by the river forever. It’s university property, after all, and one does not retire in university property.

Not that we are retiring. We’re not even close.

I’m just one year into my journey at Detroit Leadership Academy and have accepted the role of Master Teacher for next year. I will stay in the classroom, teaching English Language Arts to our seniors, working with my colleagues to close the educational equity gap and prepare our students for success in college, trade school, or the work world. This past year has more than affirmed my passion for teaching in Detroit, and I hope for many years of teaching ahead in this next chapter.

Similarly, John is as invested as ever in the students at Concordia. When he moved here eight years ago, he had a sense of what this position held, what his role and responsibilities would be, but now he fully understands how his gifts as an educator, a counselor, and a pastor work together to support college students as they develop into adulthood. He’s part of a strong team of leaders here who are committed to walking with students through both joys and challenges, and he’s excited about continuing in that role.

So why the change? Don’t we love living on campus? We sure do! I’ve written about how much we love it over the years. Even during the pandemic, when the campus was almost vacant, we enjoyed its beauty — the green of summer against the brick structures, the fall leaves beside the peaceful Huron River, the pure white expanses of snow in the open spaces, and always the lilacs, the tulips, and the peonies in the spring. We have loved living and literally walking beside students, faculty, and staff these past years — watching ultimate frisbee from our patio, hearing laughter outside our door, and chatting with members of this community as we move throughout our weeks. We have experienced many unique relationships as a result of living in the little house by the river, and we are sad to be leaving.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we knew we would one day move out. We weren’t sure when or to where, but from the beginning, we’ve kind of had our eye on Ypsilanti. We love Ann Arbor — its parks, its restaurants, its cool campus scene — but when in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt a bit like a tourist. I love to explore how beautiful, how smart, how impressive Ann Arbor is — I don’t get tired of it. However, when I visit Ypsilanti, I feel more at home — its edges aren’t polished; it’s not trying to impress anyone. Ypsilanti looks like it’s been through some stuff and lived to tell — and I resonate with that.

So last winter, when we were on month one million of Covid isolation and my husband’s plantar fasciitis got in the way of our long quarantine walks, we started taking drives around Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and their surrounding areas. We talked about what we liked and didn’t like. We discussed our future. We clarified our goals. Then one day, we called our friend who is a realtor and formalized our search.

Over the next few months, we looked at many, many houses. Our realtor’s patience with us allowed us to imagine what we were looking for — what kind of space would suit us in this stage of life and carry us forward into the next. The little house by the river definitely informed that vision. We have been very content in this simple home, and we could picture ourselves in something similar — three bedrooms, perhaps a second bathroom, a garage, and definitely space for a garden. We wanted to be in a community where we could mix with people whose journeys may have been different from ours, where we could build relationships that would challenge and enrich us. Our goal was to stick to a conservative budget so that we could easily pay our mortgage and continue to live our simple life and contribute to causes that matter to us.

This was a tall order in the current real estate market. Interest rates are at an all-time low, and we were not the only ones looking for a house during the pandemic. In fact, the first house we bid on had several other offers, and so did the second house. Buyers right now are offering well over asking price and some are paying fully in cash. In fact, the third house we made an offer on had twenty-six (26!) other offers. The winner paid in cash. We were starting to get discouraged and even said, “It’s fine. Let’s take a break; we don’t need to buy a house right now.”

Then, on a Friday, when I clicked through the latest listings in an email sent by our realtor, I noticed a little three bedroom with a garage in Ypsilanti Township. I pulled it up on Google Maps and thought, “We aren’t going to like it. It’s too close to the highway.” I wasn’t even going to go look, but as I left work that day, I thought, “I’m in the car anyway, and it’s kind of on the way.” I took the exit and drove the path that we had driven to so many others in the area, and then I found myself on a quiet street that was indeed extremely close to the highway, but for some reason didn’t feel like it was. I pulled up in front of a small blue ranch, put the car in park, lowered the windows, and listened.

It was so quiet. Across the street was a playground and what was once an elementary school but is now an alternative education center. The house seemed in good shape, and so did the garage. I drove up and down the street, looking at the other houses on the block.

“Huh,” I thought, “this just might work.”

I texted my husband and our realtor, “I know we just said we were going to take a little break, but I’m sitting in front of this house, and I think it might be worth a look inside.”

Two days later we were standing in the driveway, then we were walking around to the back where we saw the garden — an enormous garden, right at the back of the yard, adjacent to three other yards that also had their gardens right next to the fence. I could immediately see myself leaning on that fence, talking to the neighbors, sharing gardening tips, and passing produce. I saw mature well-cared-for rose bushes and a patio next to the house, where I imagined our Adirondack chairs might fit quite nicely. We walked inside and found a lovely well-lit living room, a small eat-in kitchen, and three small bedrooms on the main floor. Everything had been recently painted, and the flooring had all been replaced. It felt fresh and ready to be lived in. We made our way downstairs to the finished basement where we found a fourth bedroom, a family room, the laundry, and all the makings of a bathroom — toilet, shower, sink — minus the finishing touches of walls and a vanity.

I heard my husband saying, “This might just work”

We guarded our feelings and put in an offer — the fourth offer we had made in a little over a month — and then we waited.

We didn’t have to wait long. By Monday the sellers had accepted our offer, and less than a month later, we have closed on our next nest. We haven’t yet begun to move in, but we’ve already put seeds and seedlings in the garden, and I’ve already leaned on the fence and talked with the neighbors. They like to chat and linger, just like I was hoping they would.

As I’m packing boxes in the little house by the river, I continue to reminisce, but my gaze is starting to move forward. I’m imagining our things living inside their new spaces. I’m picturing us sitting in our living room watching children playing in the park. I’m looking forward to walks in our next neighborhood.

I think this just might work.

You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Coronavirus Diary #29: Flip the Funk

I haven’t written a new blog post in over a month now. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Each morning, I scrawl three pages in a spiral notebook before I do anything else. I dump the raw ramblings of my mind uncensored on the page in an attempt to clear my mind, see what I’m thinking about, and discover any insights.

Many blog posts have grown out of my morning pages. My chaotic run-on sentences give birth to ideas that I carry to my laptop, explore freely, then rearrange, revise, edit, and publish. I love the process, and I’ve learned so much about myself through writing this way over the last several years. As I’ve written through my health challenges, my grief, my healing, and my celebrations, I have learned to articulate what matters, what hurts, what I love, and what I’d love to change. For almost seven years, I’ve found something to say almost every week. In the beginning, I found something to say almost every single day.

But lately I haven’t had anything I’ve wanted to commit to a public page — nothing I’ve wanted to share, even though I’ve had plenty of thoughts about the pandemic, the almost daily tragic gun violence, the Derek Chauvin trial, education, standardized testing, the beauty of spring, and the joy of Easter. I’ve had plenty of thoughts, but I haven’t been able or willing to pull them into any cohesive package. I haven’t been able to find a theme among the fragments, and I’ve been struggling a little to hold on to hope.

It’s still in my grasp — hope, that is — but I’m having to put a lot of energy into swatting away distractive thoughts while still keeping my fingers wrapped around it.

I started my therapy session last week saying, “I’m struggling, and I don’t exactly know why. I’ve got an undercurrent of negativity — a mixture of worry, regret, and old business– I know it’s there, trying to harass me, but I haven’t wanted to give it my attention. I’m so tired of processing all the time.”

I really want to be happy and hopeful, I explained, and I have every reason to be. Winter has flown away, making way for warmer weather and the breaking forth of new life. Despite Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions, I have made it three quarters of the way through my first school year back “in” the classroom after several years away. I have a loving marriage in which both of us continue to heal, grow, and remain committed to each other. We’ve come back from so much hurt and devastation, and we find ourselves enjoying time together, even as we start the second year of Covid restrictions.

I know all of this, and I am thankful, but the harassing thoughts persist — throwing up past failures, parading worries, and waving banners of self-doubt. They’ve quieted a bit in the last few days since I called them out in therapy; they’ve gone back to their corners to sulk, making space for me to see the green buds emerging on the trees in the yard, last year’s lettuce sprouting from the soil, and the rhubarb doubling in size inside of a week.

My therapist asked, “Can you think of what has triggered these thoughts?” and I started by listing the obvious — months and months in front of a computer screen — an introvert surprisingly starving for meaningful physical human contact, the current surge of Covid cases in Michigan specifically focused in the regions where I live and work, and continuing social distance and mask wearing for who knows how long.

I mean, we’ve made progress. Along with 20% of the general population of the United States, I’m fully vaccinated. My husband will be, too, probably by the time you read this. Our parents are all vaccinated and so are several of our kids. I recently returned from a couple of days with my mother after a long time away, and we have plans to see our granddaughters and their parents in just a couple of weeks. Our (vaccinated) son joins us for dinner every few weeks in our home, and we are hopeful to visit our daughters this summer. These things give me hope — and I hold them in my hand, caressing them, willing them to grow into reality.

But last Sunday, we spent our second Easter on our couches, watching the livestream of our church’s worship service. We put on new T-shirts to mark the occasion. After the service was over, we chatted with another couple in a Zoom room then climbed into the car to go to church for in-person communion. When we arrived, several people were standing outside the building, dressed in their Easter finest, having attended the service in-person. Since they were outside, many of them were not wearing masks, and perhaps feeling the joy of doing something resembling ‘normal’, they weren’t keeping six feet of distance from each other either. They were smiling and laughing, chatting like it was just another Sunday. We walked up in our new T-shirts and masks, and as everyone greeted us, I felt myself retreat into my interior, step to the perimeter of the cluster of bodies, and quickly make my way past them. It was overwhelming to be so close to so many bodies, even though we were outside, even though I had on a mask, even though these are people who I know and love.

Will we ever feel normal again?

My therapist assures me I’m not the only one feeling this way. She says that everyone she sees has been struggling a bit more since the one year mark — one year since we had the first case in the US, one year since we started social distancing, one year since we marked our first 10,000 fatalities, one year since we last saw someone we loved.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m joining in the communal grieving, and that grieving has caused remnants of my own grieving to bubble up, and since I have not wanted to give it my attention, I have just been feeling the funk, like I was when I wrote Coronavirus Diary #3 near the beginning of the pandemic when I already felt like we’d been “sheltering at home for a million days”. Who could’ve imagined that we’d still be living restricted lives one year later.

I’m over it. You’re probably over it, too. And, if you’ve read this far, you may be hoping that I’ve got some profound thing to say that will flip your funk. Maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you what I did to make it all better.

Near the end of my session, my therapist said, as I was dabbing at my eyes, “We’ve got to turn this around.” I looked at her face on my laptop screen, doubting her ability to magically wave a wand and make me feel better. And what she said surprised me. She didn’t suggest I take a deep dive to examine all the feelings that were bubbling up. She didn’t tell me to dump out my backpack and examine my hurts and losses one by one. Instead, she said, “I’m not one whose ever going to suggest we deny our feelings, but sometimes we need to give ourselves a break from them. Sometimes we need to give ourselves something positive to think about. Get outside, go for a walk, do something you enjoy.”

Seriously? That’s how I was going to shake this funk? Go for a walk? Shoot, I’ve been going for a walk every day of this pandemic — rain, shine, or even snow. That’s all I needed to do, was to not wallow, not succumb to the negativity that my harassing thoughts were throwing at me, but get outside, dig in the dirt, go for a walk, read a book?

I can do that.

Turns out that my therapist’s ability to offer me grace — a break, some space, an out — was just what I needed to flip out of the funk and into a more functional state. I don’t need to force myself to look at the stuff that I’ve looked at, examined, and analyzed ad nauseam — not all the time and not right now. Instead, I can offer myself some grace, to step outside, examine my rhubarb, search for the peonies that are poking their fingers through the soil and getting ready to burst forth with bouquets of hope.

And hope does not put us to shame.”

Romans 5:5

Spiraling and Strolling: Moving through Grief

Click the arrow for audio version.

Sometimes thoughts of the past can leave me sleepless. All of life has not been picture perfect, and images of brokenness can lead to pain that prevents sleep. For this reason, I often try to avoid lingering on the past, but the other night I intentionally strolled down Memory Lane for a little while. I looked at some old photos and replayed some old film. This is a new strategy for me.

For the past several years, moments of memory have come in unexpected flashes. I can be watching a television sitcom, for example, and see a mother and daughter share a glance or break into laughter. It seems like a benign — even fun — exchange, but it sparks a memory, and I am transported back 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years to a scene where, in a moment of frustration, I snapped at one of my children when I could’ve smiled or even laughed. Later, after the television has been turned off and the lights are out, instead of sleeping, I flail amid images of that moment and others like it swirling on a screen in my mind. Rather than a stroll down Memory Lane, it feels like a free fall between black walls covered in video screens replaying moments of regret, disappointment, and failure.

Once I am in this free fall, I can go for hours. I might see myself driving a carload of kids, for example — my shoulders tensed, trying to get them where they need to go, mentally working out return trips, meals, clothing, and bills. I can feel the stress of responsibility, of course, but mostly I feel sadness and regret — realizing now how brief the moments with our children were and wanting to get some of those moments back for a re-do.

Maybe this sounds familiar. Perhaps all of us mentally cycle through memories, wishing we could go back and redo some of the moments that fill us with regret.

In families like ours that have been impacted by trauma, this experience may be even more intense. Flashes of memory may feel like mini-traumas. In my case, the flashes from the past I see often induce not only regret but also shame for my role in what did and didn’t happen.

Since I’ve made a commitment to only tell my own story, I will stay cloudy on the details, but I have shared before in this blog that our family has been touched by crime, violence, and a season of extreme overwork wherein the stress level in our household could become volatile. While I take responsibility, rightfully, for some of that stress, my brain sometimes gets confused and tries to convince me that I am responsible for all of the trauma, too. It tries to show me moments just before and just after traumatic events and to accuse me of what I could’ve done to make things different. It shows me how I might’ve prevented pain or how I should have been more active in comforting, and it continually points an accusing finger at me, showing me piece after piece of evidence where I failed as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I am transported, for example, to a moment on our front porch where I asked a question but didn’t notice a detail, where I heard a response that I shouldn’t have believed. I tell myself I should have looked more closely, should’ve questioned more. I should’ve seen; I should’ve heard.

Then, I see another image, a midnight drive through the neighborhood to calm a crying teen; I see myself feeling tired, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. I tell myself I should’ve listened more carefully, should’ve driven further, should’ve called off work the next day.

And from there, I fall to the next image…

When I am free falling through that accusatory slide show, I call it spiraling. I spin through images of moments when I wish I would’ve known more, acted differently, or seen the situation for what it really was. If only I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, so I continue to spiral from one failed moment to the next.

Recently, as I felt I was nearing the end of a several day stretch of night-time spiraling, having had little sleep, and wanting the cycle to end, my husband, in casual conversation, brought up a topic that I thought might set me back into free fall. I said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that. I’ve already been spiraling for several days, and I’m really ready to stop.” He was quiet for moment, and then he said, “I think it’s all part of the grieving process.”

I was silent.

It’s part of the grieving process? Going back through all these images and feeling all this regret, this ache, this shame? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to avoid spiraling, if possible, and to endure it when necessary, but if it’s part of the grieving process, I wondered, do I need to lean in and sit with it? Isn’t that what you do with grief? Sit with it?

When something dies — a loved one, a pet, a dream, a hope — it hurts, and the hurt does not go quickly away. No, it takes all kinds of mental and physical work for our minds and bodies to accept loss. We try to deny that it really happened, and we get angry that it did. We yell until we can yell no more, then eventually we cry and sob and groan as we acknowledge the loss to be real.

And, you know, we’ve got to give ourselves space for this. Loss is real — it happens — devastating, bone-crushing loss comes into our lives and we sometimes can’t bear to look at the reality of it all — but when we are ready, we must. We must look at devastation with our eyes wide open. We must see the totality of the pain and allow ourselves and all those impacted the space to grieve — to really, fully grieve.

I’ve been avoiding that full-on look; it’s been too painful to take it all in at once. However, my brain won’t let me rest until I lean in and take a closer look.

The other night, I was lying awake casually spiraling — I was too tired to be frantic, so I wearily submitted to the images that were swirling on the screen of my mind. I lay there and took it in — the accusation, the shame, the regret, and then I finally gave in to sleep.

The next morning, after my alarm jolted me awake, I wondered if it was time to shift to a different way of looking. Was it possible to instead of merely seeing the failures and sinking into shame that I might view the images through eyes of compassion — not only for the members of my family but also for myself?

When I find myself on the front porch, for example, can I acknowledge that I was home, that I was watching, that I was aware, even if I didn’t see the full picture? Can I give myself the grace to say that I was present? Can I acknowledge that to the teen, my questions were terrifying and lies were the only safe response?

When I find myself driving through the neighborhood at midnight, can I thank myself for getting out of bed, for loading a teen in a car, and for driving back and forth to allow the time for tears, even if I didn’t know what they were for? Can I have compassion on the young one who was feeling so much wrenching pain and applaud the strength it took to finally allow me to see the depth of it, even if sharing the cause of such deep hurt was still impossible?

Am I ready to make the shift from spiraling to strolling? Am I willing to slow down and look, really look, at the images? to see not just what’s in the foreground, but to see the background, the edges, and what was happening just outside the frame?

Am I ready to accept grief’s invitation to stroll down Memory Lane, to look at both the wreckage and the beauty, to see the moments of love and tenderness that sit right beside the devastation. Am I willing to see not only my failures but also the moments where I may have done the only right thing I knew to do at the time? Am I willing to believe that two competing realities can exist at the same time?

I think I’m ready to try; I think it’s the next step through this grief.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

Coronavirus Diary 18: Returning (Again) to Best Practices

Remember way back in March when we all moved our offices home and agreed that we wouldn’t see each other for a while? Could we have imagined that seven months later we’d still be social distancing — avoiding physical contact with each other, cancelling special events, and considering how to do holidays virtually this year?

I couldn’t have. Sure, I moved my work home, started making cloth masks like my life depended on it, and transitioned to a new way of life that included (still includes) a detailed strategy for de-germing all purchases, standing awkwardly six feet away from friends and family, and spending way too much time in Zoom rooms.

You would think that because I stare at a screen almost all day from Monday through Friday, that I would eschew my phone — it’s just another screen — but I have not. In fact, my phone use is up — drastically.

Before Covid, I had been making an effort to reduce my screen time — plugging my phone in at my bedside after dinner, refusing to check email, texts, or social media in the evening. I’d deleted game apps like Words With Friends and 2048 (don’t judge me) because if they are on my phone, I will play them. I knew that the amount of time I spent on my phone was counterproductive and likely anxiety-producing and sleep-reducing. I had discussed my cell-phone use with at least two health-care providers who both agreed that it would be best if I reduced my screen time for my physical and emotional health.

And I was working on it — not really succeeding — but working on it.

Then came Covid-19, and I found myself frantically texting family and friends, checking the Johns Hopkins website almost on the hour (not kidding), and scrolling through Twitter (which heightened my emotions) followed by Instagram (which did the same only in a more esthetically pleasing way).

When I realized that both of my daughters were playing Words With Friends with my mom sometime last spring, I downloaded the app (again) and started a few games myself. And then my screen time spiraled out of control.

I am embarrassed to tell you that even though I’m down 5% from last week, my current daily screen time average is 4 hours and 16 minutes. Gulp.

I was journaling yesterday morning when I realized — in script on the page — that one of my most beloved habits, this journaling, has taken a back seat to my morning scrolling, Words With Friends playing, and email checking. Just last summer, I was still filling three pages each morning, writing down random thoughts and deeper musings, but lately, I barely fill half a page before I realize I am out of time and I need to get ready for work.

I get up two hours before I have to walk out the door, but I find myself with not enough time to read my daily devotion, complete 20 minutes of yoga, and write three pages before hopping through the shower and heading out the door. Why? Because I’ve spent that time taking all my turns at Words With Friends, scrolling through Instagram, checking emails, and wasting my time.

I met with my therapist on Wednesday. We hadn’t talked in a few weeks, so she asked me how my transition to my new job is going, and I told her that I’d noticed that I am sometimes getting cranky by the end of the day, that I am no longer bouncing around with the excitement of the newness. I told her that I am just observing the change and wondering what I can do about it.

And after I said it, I started realizing what has changed in the past eight weeks — more sitting, more technology use, less writing, less yoga, less walking. Practices that are detrimental to my health and well-being (being sedentary and constant tech-clicking) have been increasing while those that have significantly improved my health (writing and movement) have been decreasing. It’s no wonder that my hips and low back are aching and that I’m feeling a little grumbly. I’ve continued with my regular physical therapy, chiropractic care, and massages right on schedule, but I have been sloppy with my daily moment-by-moment choices. And it’s starting to show.

So, yesterday morning I deleted my Words With Friends app. (Sorry to those I left hanging in the middle of a game.) I’ve gotta break the cycle. I’ve got to get a couple of those hours back — not to accomplish more, not to do more grading or planning, not to clean the house more or cook more — I need that time to create space for myself. I need to fill three pages with messy script each morning. I need time to leisurely read my Bible passages for the day. I need time for a full 20 minutes (or 30!) of yoga before I sit at my desk joining students and colleagues in Zoom rooms all day. Instead of spending my 30-minute lunch break playing WWF and scrolling through social media, I need to spend that time strolling the halls of the school, waving to the other teachers who I barely see each day. Maybe they’ll come out of their rooms and join me. Maybe we’ll share some words — a conversation, a joke, a story about the class we just taught, or a problem we’re working through. Maybe I’ll make a friend.

I’ll miss getting annihilated by my high school buddies — man, they are smart! — and interacting with dear friends I can’t see face to face right now, but I lack the self-control to check in once a day for 20 minutes and play all my turns. That game beckons me from morning to night — even when I have the notifications turned off. It’s as though it wields an invisible force that draws my mind, my eyes, my hands to the phone, and before I know it, I’ve spent four hours of my day looking at a 2 x 5 inch screen.

Sigh.

This pandemic has staying power, doesn’t it? It’s taken 225,000 American lives, it’s disrupted our work, our schooling, our social lives, our worship, our celebrations, and our travel. Word on the street is that Covid-19 is just about to kick into high gear for another round of carnage.

I’m not going to panic. I’m going to put the phone down when I can, choose movement over stagnation, and engage with people face to face (in the flesh or on the screen) whenever possible.

It’s not personal — if I’m gonna make it through this year with my health intact, I’ve gotta return to my best practices.

[Friends,] I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.

3 John 1:2

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9