Not Quite Ready

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I walked into my school this past week. I had some supplies to drop off, and I was in the area, so I popped in.

The place was almost empty, but our custodial crew was there, greeting me with smiles and hugs, the work they’d done all summer evident all around us. The floors gleamed; the walls were freshly painted; and every desk was neatly in place.

As I rolled a supply-laden cart into my classroom, I remained somewhat detached. Although this is where I’ll spend over 40 hours a week starting just a couple weeks from now, the reality of the work — the students and their futures — is still just a little out of view. My heart is not quite ready for the responsibility. It’s not quite ready to hold kids accountable, to inspire, to motivate, to redirect, to teach.

Not yet.

I mean, I’ve written my syllabus. My big-picture plans for the first few weeks are charted out. I have slide decks. I’ve purchased motivators, and I’ve loaded up my Google calendar with deadlines and commitments. I like to be organized well ahead of time, but I’m just not quite ready to stand and deliver content, motherly advice, snacks, admonitions, answers to distracting questions, and continuous positive narration to inspire appropriate student behavior.

I’m just not ready.

Fact is, this big-talking, butt-kicking, name-taking master teacher has just a little more than a teensy bit of anxiety. It’s not suffocating, but it’s humming a little chorus in my mind, especially in the quiet of the night, what if, how about, can you really, have you considered, and the like. I swat it away. I read a book about organized crime in Harlem in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I play a little Words with Friends, and I try to pretend that I don’t hear. But the chorus is catchy, and I find myself humming along mindlessly throughout the day.

I am not special. I think most teachers have a little anxiety before going back to school. I’m usually able to mask it with bravado — it’s a long-honed skill. Some of us also manage it through busy-ness, like organizing a classroom or preparing detailed plans, but probably, the best thing to do is to name it, as I did — again — yesterday with my therapist. Saying it out loud normalizes it, I guess. My therapist says, “You’re in a very demanding giving profession, and in the past, the demands have caused damage. It makes sense that you would be anxious.”

Oh. Yeah. That’s true, isn’t it? I have incurred some personal damages from this profession, haven’t it? Bravado and busy-ness were band-aids for my anxiety, not balms. They concealed it; they didn’t heal it.

What has been my balm? Quiet, rest, writing, and talking through my emotions. So, I return. I lean in. I announce that I am not quite ready.

I need a few more days of mindlessly weeding a garden while listening to a podcast. I need a few more mornings lazily journaling while sitting in the sun. I need a few more uninterrupted strong cups of tea, maybe one more jigsaw puzzle, a trip or two to see my mom, and just one more mani/pedi without looking at my watch.

And then, maybe then, I’ll be ready for the 5 am alarm, the 30 minute drive in rush hour traffic, the mass of students moving down the hallway, and the continuous grumble of adolescent complaint. I’ll be ready to stand over-enthusiastically (but genuinely) at my doorway, greeting my new seniors (and a few unsuspecting freshmen — God love them.)

They (and I ) have no idea what this school year holds — whether we’ll be able to be in person the whole year, whether Covid or a building issue will send us home, whether we’ll like each other, whether we’ll learn anything at all. And they (like me) might be experiencing a little anxiety. They might not have the 56 years of experience that I have that have taught me how to name it, how to care for myself, and how to create space, so they may need some extra compassion, understanding, and patience from me if they act out, check out, or lash out.

And I’ll have it. I almost always do, now that I have learned to have compassion, understanding, and patience for myself. I will be able to assure them that they belong, that they are safe, that they are loved, and that we have much that we can learn together.

Because here’s the thing — I have yet to meet a group of students I didn’t eventually fall in love with. I have yet to see a school year (and I think this might be the 23rd? — correction 20th in the classroom) where I didn’t learn right along with my students — about the curriculum, sure, but also about myself, about education, about the human experience.

And, part of what I’ve learned about the human experience is that I am not alone — none of us are! While I have been less than ready to look toward the school year, several of you have reached out in the last few weeks with offers of school supplies, snacks, prizes, and cash to support my classroom. I can’t tell you what an encouragement it has been to have you answering before I’ve even gotten around to asking. It has reminded me and my anxiety that we’ll be ok. When I am finally ready to head back to my classroom this year, I will carry your encouragement with me.

It won’t be long.

In just a few days, my adrenaline will kick in — I’ll be zooming around my classroom, arranging desks, making signs, double-checking supplies, and detailing lessons — but not yet. Right now I’m going to lean into another cup of tea, pop one more bowl of popcorn, and binge one more show on Netflix. The school year will be here soon enough.

…in quietness and trust is your strength…”

Isaiah 30:15

If you are able, reach out to a teacher (or school administrator) you know and ask how you can be an encouragement. You’ll be amazed at the impact such an offer might have.

A Little Help?

As you may have read, I moved my teaching life back into the classroom last week, hoping that my students — the seniors who have been moved back and forth from remote to in-person instruction over and over since March 2020 — would join me there. I planned my classes, rearranged desks that had been moved during the roof repair, opened up windows to let in fresh air (and to lower the boiler-heated room’s temperature to a setting somewhere close to “less-than-suffocating”), and positioned myself at my threshold, mustering all the “we’re back” enthusiasm I could find.

And they came.

Well, some came.

Our students trickled in on Monday, looking around skeptically as though asking, “are we really back? Are we actually going to stay this time?”

I started class by assuring them that yes, we should be back for good this time and by re-setting expectations — again.

“Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to be up. Learning requires engagement — a choosing to attend, to try, to open the mind.”

But for some, it seemed too much.

Take Darren*. Darren has been with me all year. He has not just one class with me, but two. He is in ELA IV, the required class for all seniors, and he is also in 12 Writing, an elective for a handful of seniors who are most likely to move on to a 4-year college.

All year he has struggled — mostly to stay engaged and stay awake. Once he gets started, he is typically able to complete any assignment I give him, but it’s the starting that’s the thing. After all, if he doesn’t start, he can’t finish.

I don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on at Darren’s home, even though I’ve met his mom a couple of times.

I know he loves basketball, even though he’s not on the team.

I know he wants to be an athletic trainer, even though he’s not currently connected to any sports.

I know he’s been accepted to college, even though there’s a seemingly impossible-to-fix issue with his FAFSA, and even though when he walked in last Monday, he was failing ALL — yes, ALL — of his classes.

Why? Because the whole time we were working from home, he didn’t have a charger for his laptop or the $35 to replace it. He couldn’t fix this problem, he had missed four weeks worth of assignments, and he didn’t see a way to climb out of this hole and make it to graduation.

So he walked in to class with his ear buds in, turned up his music, put his head down, and went to sleep.

I tried to wake him — once, twice, three times — but he wasn’t staying up.

Rather than just let him check out, I called our behavior interventionist, who took him for a walk. I’d hoped he’d wake Darren up and bring him back — but I’d lost him for that day.

It was that very day that I had posted my most recent blog, “Under These Circumstances.” While Darren was out walking to wake up, I received a message from a dear friend I’ve known for more than 40 years who said he’d read my blog. He said, “I just sent you [a gift] in memory of my dear friend and high school instructor who passed away on April 3. In his will he asked that his estate be used for progressive social change in America….if that doesn’t describe you and what you do, nothing does.”

My jaw dropped — the amount he’d sent would allow me to incentivize my students for the remainder of this year and into next fall and give me the freedom to help when situations arise, and in my context, they do always seem to arise. I was buoyed by the encouragement and by God’s way of providing for my students, which He has done consistently from the moment I took this position.

On my way home that day, I used these newly gifted resources to stop and restock on snacks, prizes, and a few essentials. As I was paying, I requested a little cash back, just in case.

The next day, Tuesday, Darren came back to my class, and his routine from Monday began to repeat. The headphones went in, his head went down, and he began to fall asleep. We were in the middle of the research paper that would be the major grade for the semester. If he opted out, he would certainly remove all possibility of passing, and I was not about to have it.

“You are not quitting,” I said with my jaw set, “you are too close.”

“It’s no use,” he replied. “There’s no way I can make up all that I missed. I don’t have a charger. There’s no sense in trying.”

“That’s not true. You just have to get started. It’s one step at a time. Just start with what we are doing today. Have you asked about getting a charger?”

“It’s $35. I don’t have that. It’s no sense in getting started. I can’t get caught up.”

That was it for me. I walked to my wallet, got $35 of the cash that had been provided the day before, and said, “Darren, come with me.”

I asked the teacher across the hall to keep an eye on my class, the rest of whom were working on their research, minus the one who had already been sent out because he was throwing up [it’s all part of a day in the life of a teacher, friends].

Darren reluctantly dragged behind my Momma-Ratch-on-a-mission pace as we trekked to the office where we could get a charger. At the door to the office was our vice principal, a great champion of our students. I told him what was going on, enlisted him in my conversation with Darren, and made it clear to him and to Darren that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student who was this close to graduation, who had been accepted to a four-year university, who had a dream to be an athletic trainer, to sleep out the last four weeks of the semester.

That ain’t how Mrs. Rathje works. Not today. Not any day.

The vice principal encouraged Darren, told him we were on his team, and let him know that we would support him every step of the way to graduation. His tone was encouraging and not quite as in-your-face as mine was that morning, Darren seemed to hear us, even if he wasn’t sure he believed us.

The Vice Principal said, “You can still do this; you’ve got to believe me.”

Darren said, “It’s too late; It’s not possible.”

I said, “It is possible. We’ve been down this road many times. We wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. We’ll believe it for you until you believe it for yourself.”

I glanced at my watch. We’d been in the hallway about five minutes; I knew I had to get back to the others.

“Come on, you’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.”

Darren shuffled back into the classroom behind me.

Over the next few days, with plenty of prodding and encouragement, he got to work. By the end of the week, Darren was passing ALL –yes ALL — of his classes.

He’d needed us to insist. He’d needed some resources. He’d needed an intervention. He’d needed a village.

Countless Darrens are trying to sleep in classrooms across the country, and they need us. They need us to believe with and for them that it’s not too late. We need to show them with our time, with our money, and with our whole bodies.

Why? Because they’ve seen all kinds of evidence that it’s not going to work out. That there is, in fact, no use.

If I’ve learned anything in my years of teaching, in my years of living, in my years of falling flat on my face, it’s that no one is beyond the point of no return. Restoration is always a possibility, but when we find ourselves deep in a pit, we often need some assistance before we can take the first few steps.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

    when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

With thanks to all who have prayed for, encouraged, supported, and helped me take my first few steps.

*As always, I have changed the name of this particular student.

The Comfort of Connection

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I think we can all agree that 2020 was a rough year what with the pandemic, quarantine, isolation, cancelled plans, loss of loved ones, and all. To be honest, 2021 was not a huge improvement. Sure, we got our vaccines and many of us went back to the office and started socializing again, but really, it was an extension of 2020, with more mask wearing, continued social distancing, the Delta variant, etc. So, when 2022 started with Omicron and further shut downs, many of us shrugged and said, “yeah, it is what is, I guess this is life now.” We’ve grown accustomed to one disappointment, one cancellation, one blow after another.

So, we took it in stride when our 13 year old golden retriever started sharply declining in January and continued on that trend through the end of February when we tearfully said goodbye. It was one more loss, one more sadness, in a season of continuous disappointment.

We grieved as though we’d been training for it. We sat in our tears for an entire weekend — luxuriating in loss.

The grieving was healing, I must say, weird as that sounds. Our collective tears were an acknowledgement of the heartache of losing a well-loved pet, but they were perhaps also a deep exhale after holding so much accumulated loss.

And that wasn’t the end of it. We had a couple days to catch our breath, and then, our stove, too, up and died. It had served its owners well for almost 30 years, and it was done. So, we went from grief to responsibility — the hunt for a new appliance that would be economical and reliable. We did our due diligence in the midst of a supply chain backup never mind that we were still slogging through grief and transition 

[Aren’t we all right now slogging through grief and transition?]

So, stove shopping we were doing when a family member reached out asking for the kind of support that requires a quickly purchased flight, an acquisition of pets, and a cross-country drive in a snowstorm. Being so asked, when once we might not have been asked, we did what love empowers us to do: the one became two — one showing up in the flesh, the other managing logistics at home and completing the stove purchase solo.

It’s rich, this life. When you show up, you share tears. You see, you hold, you carry, and something changes.

And so began March, another season of adapting, adjusting, and accommodating cats in a house that had grown familiar with one very special dog.

They were growing on us — the cats — when another family member called needing the kind of support that facilitates a cross-country move with a quick landing at the nest to manage some old business and catch a breath.

And, again, as we made space, there was more seeing, more holding, more carrying, more changing..

All this, of course, in the first three months of 2022 after the “unprecedented” experience of 2020 and 2021. And we find ourselves both filled and depleted. We are buoyed, and we are sunk low.

So, I wasn’t planning on going to the retreat that I have enjoyed most every year since I returned to Michigan — a gathering of more than 100 wives of pastors who have become sisters and friends. I didn’t have the gas in the tank to register, to pack, to coordinate, to plan. But, two days before it was scheduled to begin, I saw something on social media, and I realized what I would be missing if I did not go.

I made a few calls, clicked a few buttons, rearranged some details, packed, and drove North. I wasn’t in the door one minute when two friends called out, “we saved you a seat!” From one to the next I received hugs of welcome, of love, of acceptance, of belonging. I settled in as the singing began and then realized what the topic for the conference was — Very Ordinary Grace — Life in Relationship. For the next few hours, I sat in a room full of women, sharing our experiences of ordinary life. We shed tears of heartache. We confessed our mistakes. We celebrated God’s grace that continuously finds us in our mess and offers forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

I reconnected with friends who I hadn’t seen in months or years, and we offered one another our hugs, our attention, and our care. After two years of isolation, social distancing, and cancelled plans, we were leaning in, embracing, listening, connecting.

Isn’t that what we have been longing for — connection? Aren’t our relationships the richest parts of our lives? Standing with my husband and two daughters around our beloved dog as he goes to his last sleep, weeping tears of love, gratitude, and loss? Answering a FaceTime call from a tearful, fearful family member and assuring them that we will indeed meet their need. Sitting across a table from a loved one, acknowledging their deep hurt, challenging an old pattern, and watching, miraculously as something shifts.

On the heels of two years of isolation and disappointment, three months of losing and gaining [new hope in relationships, two cats, and the stove that was installed just last week], I gathered with a group of women to pause and acknowledge the miraculous God who has sustained us through the unprecedented, empowered us to do the ordinary, and miraculously blessed us in our relationships.

On Sunday morning, I sat in my hotel bed with Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart and opened to where I had left off –chapter 9, “Places We Go When We Search for Connection.” I had just spent the previous day in the book of Ephesians, examining the messy ways that we connect with those around us and the grace of God to show up in the midst of that mess. I could barely take in Brene’s words because I was stunned by the realization of how God had once again divinely stepped into the circumstances of my life — my messy, messy life — and had provided the grace for us to show up for others when we ourselves were depleted, how He had worked miraculous healing in the midst of our brokenness, and how He had then provided a place among women I trust so that I could pause and realize that He has surrounded me with love, acceptance, and grace. He has shown me once again that I belong.

And it was just the balm I needed, just the peek of sunlight that was able to brighten up a gloomy April weekend after two difficult years. Maybe it’s what we all need in the wake of this long hard season– some connection, some acceptance, some belonging, some grace.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another.”

Ephesians 4:32

Goodbye to a good, good boy

He began as a promise.

When we left Michigan in 2004 to move to St. Louis so that my husband could begin his seminary studies, we left our golden retriever Mikey with my brother. She couldn’t live in the on-campus housing we were moving to; she couldn’t come with, so we said goodbye.

We comforted our sobbing children with a promise, “We’ll still get to see her.”

However, not long into our time in St. Louis, Mikey was hit by a car, and we lost her.

So, another promise: “When we finish seminary, we will adopt another golden.”

My husband finished seminary in 2008. We bought a house and moved in, traveled to Michigan for his ordination, took a family vacation, then returned to Missouri, and started looking for a dog. We contacted a golden retriever rescue in the greater St. Louis area and said we were looking for a puppy, preferably a female. They had a female, one of a litter of three, did we want to see them all?

Ok, sure.

When we arrived at the house where the puppies were being fostered, we found wall to wall goldens — in my memory there were about nine! The little blond girl we had come to see was rather rambunctious. She ran around the yard and bossed her brothers, one of whom was blond, the other red. We weren’t sure we were looking for her kind of energy. Instead, we were drawn to two others — an older golden named Bruno who plunked all 80+ pounds of himself on our son’s lap, licked his face and made him laugh and the little red brother who sat at our feet, looking up as though to say, “do you see what I’m dealing with here?’ We visited with the pack of goldens for about half an hour, and when we left, though we hated saying goodbye to Bruno, we knew the red boy would be ours.

A few days later, we picked up our little guy, who was just 4 months old at the time. They had been calling him Irish because he’d been born in March and had a red coat. He was crate trained and house trained, yet he allowed us to cradle him like a baby. We adored him from day one — he was instantly part of the family. It took us a few days, some poster board, and a ranked-choice voting system to settle on the same Chester Murphy.

Ches has been with us ever since. For close to 14 years, he cuddled with us on the couch, barked at the neighbors, ran with us, bore witness to our reality, and embodied unconditional love.

He saw our love for one another and for him, but he also witnessed a struggling family that not too many saw — one that had a lot to learn. In his early years, when he saw miscommunications, hurtful comments, silence, isolation, anger, yelling, sadness, tears, he stood right in the middle of it — watching, unafraid, moving in close.

He seemed to know who needed the most attention at any given moment. When one was assaulted and couldn’t tell the others, he climbed in her bed each night and kept her safe. When another got sick, he moved to her bed and kept watch. When one felt unlovable, he pressed his body in close. When one needed companionship, he willingly joined as they walked or ran for miles and miles. If one had been gone for a season, he met them upon return, tail wagging, ready to run and play. He was consistently loyal, loving, and accepting.

For almost 14 long years.

If you have followed this blog, you know that Chester has been a star from the start, mainly because, I have continued learning from him. When, we packed up and left St. Louis, Chester was teaching me how to feel about it. Since we’ve been back here in Michigan, he’s been by my side, showing me how to rest, reminding me of the importance of routine, and just recently, showing me his resilience when he was injured in a fall.

These last several weeks, he’s been showing us how to care for him. We’ve had to slow down, cancel some plans, adjust our routines, and even rearrange our space so that we could provide what he’s needed in his final days. And when it became obvious that these were indeed the most final of the final days, we gathered his people and watched as he showed us how to say goodbye, lying among us, letting us hold him, encouraging us to cry together, to sit together, to acknowledge, even out loud, all that he’s been through with us.

And now, the house is empty, although I swear, I just heard his toenails clicking on the hardwood floor. I keep looking for him, thinking it’s time to go outside, time to get a treat, time to cuddle up. When I realize, again, that he’s gone, my eyes fill, my throat aches, and I reach for the tissues.

I’m going to be sad for a while — really, really sad. We’ve lost a member of the family who loved us all so well, and we’ll never be the same. He taught us a lot, up to the very end.

Chester, you were a good, good boy.

God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:25

Pieces of Quiet

The house is quiet, I’ve brewed some tea, and I am alone with nothing on the schedule.

Why do I never get tired of days like this?

I’ve had so many!

I had a five-day weekend for Thanksgiving followed by two weeks off at Christmas. Then, shortly after returning from that break, we had three snow days in a row! I leaned into the space, read a book, watched movies, and slept long sleeps. We weren’t even back in the classroom for two weeks when this week’s weather brought us home from school for two days of remote learning followed by a four-day weekend.

We’d had plans — again — to get away, to go north, but Chester, our golden retriever who will turn 14 next month, needs an increasing amount of care and attention, and our old ways of having someone come stay for the weekend, don’t quite seem doable.

Having canceled our plans, my husband went to visit his parents, and I volunteered to stay at home with Chester.

Here I am luxuriating in the quiet expanse of time. I didn’t have to pack a bag or traverse the miles, I merely needed to close my laptop and move to rest. I’ve been reading, washing our bedding, baking some gluten-free bread, making soup, and bingeing season two of Love is Blind (I care not, in this blissful state, iffest thou judgest me.)

Last night I had popcorn for dinner then hoisted Chester onto the bed beside me. We slept spine to spine through the long, cold night. Outside the wind whipped the snow, building drifts across the driveway that our neighbor had not so long before blown clean. Nevertheless, we slept snugly and soundly, tucked safely together.

Chester rousted me early for the necessary, and then we returned to our nest to drift back to sleep. We woke later, took another trip outside, and then sat with the first cup of tea, reading in the sun-filled living room,

Image credit

After some yoga, I managed a shower and then layered on leggings and sweaters, bundling myself up. I’m sans makeup, of course, because the only beings who will see me today are Chester and a few neighbors who are growing accustomed to my pajama-clad dog walks. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am leaning in to rest.

How many times I have written about rest in this space? I’ve shared stories of being on the couch, in the bed, and the general stillness I try to practice now. I’ve told the tales of my soldiering years — the nonstop pace of going and doing and my attempts at being everything for everyone only to find that if I wasn’t taking care of myself, no one would really get me anyway.

I’ve recited the story of how all that motion came to an abrupt stop against my will, and how that ending was the beginning of a deep and thorough healing that is still in the works.

For a long time, I was in intensive care — unemployed and tending only to my healing. Then I was moved to a general ward — where I managed part-time work in addition to a full schedule of doctors, meds, and learning a new intentionality, a way of working rest into my rhythms. For a few years now, I’ve been ambulatory. I am free to move about — even teach in a classroom full time! — as long as I continue to return to my care. And, boy, have I learned to love to return to my care.

Probably the most important piece of my wellness, the piece that is hard for others to fully understand, is a regular insistent return to quiet and rest.

Each day, I start with a now automatic routine of writing, reading, and yoga. This daily beginning with stillness is a reminder that I must oxygenate myself first. I am best for my students, my colleagues, my friends, and my family when I have first checked in with myself and attended to my own emotions, my own body, my own spirit.

Midway through each day, I step away from work, thanks to my reliable work buddy who daily walks about a mile with me. We may talk nonstop or not at all as we join each other in breaking from our work to once again check in with ourselves and to rest from being in charge, on task, and fully engaged.

At the end of the day, I pack up my bags, load them in my vehicle, and drive home. There, I transition to home life by taking a walk or quietly preparing a meal. Again, I find the quiet, the slowing, to be a healing balm.

In the evenings, I join my husband, who is also in need of rest. We share a meal, catch up on the day, watch a show or two, put a few pieces in a puzzle, then move to our bed early, where we again find the quiet, reading before we drift off to sleep.

On weekends we set the expectations bar low. After a week of work interacting with others, we know that our capacity is spent, so we prioritize down time, knowing our bodies, our minds, our spirits need time to heal, to recover, to restore.

It may seem like a lot — all this resting and quiet and down time — but for some reason, I always crave more. Perhaps I’m still recovering from the soldiering years, perhaps I still need the time and space to grieve all that I missed when I was moving so quickly, perhaps this is just a better rhythm of life.

I’m certainly reaping the benefits. After several years of life-limiting pain, fatigue, and bouts of autoimmune flare, I am stable. People who work with me now would hardly suspect that I spent a few years limping around, lying in bed, and lacking the energy to do what now seems routine.

And the benefits aren’t just physical — I have a broader emotional capacity, too. I have the capacity to see my students’ behaviors as messages to me rather than assaults on me. I can find the space to feel regret and sorrow and even pride and joy.

I have the space to consider how others are feeling rather than using all my energy to keep my own feelings in check.

I have the room to apologize, to imagine, to restore, and to dream.

I hardly thought this was possible when I was walking away from my career, when I couldn’t get off the couch, when we were suffering through a devastating family trauma, when we first started praying for healing.

But if I am nothing else, I am a walking testimony to the power God to transform a life, to bring beauty from ashes, to bind up a broken heart.

So, when He says that we can find our rest in Him, I believe Him like I’ve never believed before. When He says I can cease striving, I stop what I am doing and say, “You’re right. My soldiering ways were not meant to sustain me; they were meant to bring me straight to You.”

I celebrate these days — these pieces of quiet. I lean in, gratefully, and find rest for my soul.

Return to your rest, my soul,

    for the Lord has been good to you.”

Psalm 116:7

Coronavirus Diary 34: Teacher [extra] Tired

Last Monday, we re-entered the building after three weeks of virtual instruction. Everyone was glad to be back; smiles and greetings filled the hallways. Students were wearing new outfits, finally able to show off the gifts they’d received for Christmas.

I started each class with a reset of expectations — phones down, masks on, track the teacher — and a preview of the syllabus for the semester. My students were mostly compliant, ready to do the work I had assigned, but they were struggling — to stay off their phones, to stay engaged, to stay awake, to stay quiet.

Me? I was struggling, too — struggling to hold them accountable, struggling to be creative with my calls to engagement, struggling to not get frustrated with a roomful of teenagers who were being so…..so….. teenager-y.

I made it through three one-hundred minute blocks and a lunch break that included getting one-mile’s worth of steps in the hallway with my walking buddy. I had more to do to prepare for the next day’s lessons, but I had no more gas in the tank. I left work promising myself that I would arrive early the next morning to flesh out my plans for the day. I had the big picture, I told myself, surely I could pull the details together before my 10am class. I’d done it many times before.

But when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I was distracted. Our daughter had just announced her engagement on social media, and all her friends and family were liking and commenting. I couldn’t look away. Not only that, weather forecasters were predicting 1-2 FEET of snow over the next 48 hours, and all the building was abuzz with the question that has excited teachers and students for decades — Will we have a snow day tomorrow?

All morning, teachers and students ran scenarios. Certainly we were equipped to go virtual during a snowstorm. Every teacher in the connected world has learned to “switch to remote learning” in a heartbeat. Probably our administrators would want us to do that, I reasoned, in light of all the instructional time we have “missed” over the last two years. That logic didn’t keep wishfulness at bay — the childlike desire for a snow day was strong. Teachers popped their heads in my doorway conspiratorially whispering “heard anything?” Others sent texts, “what do you think we are going to do?”

I couldn’t find my focus, but I haphazardly pulled together my teaching strategy for the class I would meet that day. I was kicking off Black History Month in my writing class by talking about Langston Hughes and the impact he had through his writing. I was trying to show my students the power of writing to make social change. We were going to look at some of Hughes’ poetry and a brief history of his life with the help of a John Green video and then share ways we have seen writing as a tool for social change. It was a good concept, but my haphazard planning made the lesson mediocre. The students, who were still struggling on day two to stay awake, engaged, and off their phones, were quasi-engaged. Somehow we muddled through, but the day will not go down in the books as one of Mrs. Rathje’s most impactful.

At the bell, my students left the room, tossing “do you think we’ll be here tomorrow” over their shoulders. I shrugged, then continued my distracted attempts at getting something — anything — done.

I was trying to settle on which was most important — planning for the next day, long-range planning for the next week, or grading assignments from the day before — when my principal called and asked me to come to her office. She wanted to introduce me to a new staff member. She praised me as being the master teacher who had experience. I would be a good resource, she said. I nodded and smiled, knowing how unproductive and lackluster my day had been so far. I told the new teacher that of course she could come observe me at any time and hit me with whatever questions she had.

I was wishing her well when my principal said, “Rathje, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to have snow days tomorrow, Thursday, and possibly Friday. Don’t tell the kids yet, but take all your stuff home with you in case we decide to go virtual on Friday.”

“Ok!”

Suddenly, I lit up. I was focused. I quick stepped back to my room, prioritized grading for the remainder of the day, and basked in the relief of knowing I would get a couple of days off.

A colleague texted, “Did you hear?”

I replied, “I was just going to text you. I am so glad we are getting a couple days off. I don’t think I realized how tired I am. Are you tired?”

“Oh my gosh!” came the answer, from a teacher over twenty years younger than me. “So tired! I’ve been struggling all day to get something — anything — done.”

“You have?” I said, “me, too! Maybe we’ve underestimated how much this year has taken out of us — the continual switching from in-person to virtual to in-person.”

“Exactly! I am exhausted. I am looking forward to doing nothing.”

And that, I determined, is what I would do for at least part of those two, possibly three, snow days.

I drove home, took the dog out, started dinner, then, coming to terms with what 1-2 FEET of snow might look like, I decided I’d better make a couple preemptive supply runs — the grocery story and the library. If I was going to have the luxury of two or three days at home, I was going to need food and books!

Just as I was pulling back into our driveway, rain started to fall. It rained all night and then the rain turned to snow. The snow continued for two straight days.

I spent those days as a hermit. Clad in sweats, a ponytail, and glasses, I stayed in bed finishing a book, then leisurely moved into yoga. I worked on lesson plans slowly and deliberately to avoid a replay of last week’s less than impressive performance then watched a silly miniseries on Netflix. I tidied the house, did some tax prep that had been taunting me, and sat for hours reading and crocheting. I got caught up — on housework, on school work, on rest.

I hardly spoke a word to anyone. That’s one of the ways I find rest. Our golden retriever, Chester, was never far from my side, and he, too, was content to rest, to stay quiet, to do nothing.

Then, on Thursday night, he needed to head outside. The snow had subsided a bit. One neighbor was out scraping the ice off a vehicle. His dog was wandering from house to house. The Yorkie and Chester chatted, remarking on the depth of the snow while I checked in on another neighbor who lives next door. I smiled at this little neighborhood gathering, acknowledging that perhaps I was finally ready to interact with other humans.

I had to acknowledge the depth of fatigue I had been dragging around with me. Are you feeling it, too? This pandemic has gone on much longer than any of us anticipated, and we are depleted, aren’t we? It took me a hard stop to realize it.

You might not have had the luxury that I have just had — five days to stay at home, to find space to think, to read a whole book, to lose track of time. If you are able to afford such a luxury, I highly recommend it. However, I would venture that most of you need to keep slogging away day after day after day, regardless of how weary you are.

If that’s you, let me just say, be kind to yourself. If your performance has moments of mediocre, if you lack motivation, if you find yourself clicking the ‘like’ button while you are on the clock, cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been through a lot. Many of us are running on fumes. It would be strange if we were all still at peak performance at the end of two years of this madness.

While you are at it, have some grace for those around you, too — for the people who are running behind on deadlines, who never seem to respond to texts, who haven’t reached out to check in for months. They are wiped out, too. Chances are they are doing the best that they can, or they too tired to even do that any more.

The latest numbers give me hope (again) that we are moving into a different reality, but until then, I pray you find some rest, some space, and some peace..

Be kind to one another [and yourself], tenderhearted, forgiving one another [and yourself].”

Ephesians 4:32

Challenging Routines

Click the arrow to listen.

It’s a quiet, cold Sunday morning, and I’m sitting here in our office that is filled with natural light. I’ve brewed a strong cup of tea, and I’m ready to write.

I have had the rhythm for several months now of coming to my blog on Saturday or Sunday morning with an idea — some notes from my morning pages or an idea that’s been floating around in my mind all week long, but today I have nothing.

To be honest, I’m kind of in a covid-fatigue slump.

One day runs into another.

I spend up to 5 hours a day in a zoom room.

To fight utter lethargy, I force myself to go out for a midday walk, no matter how cold it is — and it has been cold. You should see me, I layer pants over leggings, long sleeves over short sleeves, pop a stocking cap on my head, and top it all with a robin’s egg blue parka and some winter walking boots. I put my earbuds in and listen to a podcast while I walk the 1.25 miles down the walking path to the corner and back.

Other highlights of my day include a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, a load or two of laundry some time during the day, some ongoing games of Words With Friends, and some kind of television in the evening.

I check the mail once or twice, and usually what I find is some promotional mail from a casino addressed to the former owner of the house, the weekly grocery fliers, and some kind of bill or statement.

I do yoga and write every morning and listen to my daily Bible reading on the YouVersion app followed by The New York Times The Daily Podcast almost without fail.

Day after day after day looks pretty much the same, and I must not be alone in this because last Sunday our pastor, Gabe Kasper, started a sermon series, Rule of Life , which is an examination of the current rhythms we live in and a challenge to interrogate the impact of those rhythms and perhaps switch them up a little.

Pastor Gabe cited Justin Whitmel Earley, the author of The Common Rule, who said, “We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to a hidden rule of life: The American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.”

Well, if that didn’t just stop me in my tracks. What habits have we all formed? What do we do in a typical day? What consumes our time? And how is that activity, that behavior, that habit, that rhythm shaping us?

Now I love a daily rhythm. When our children were little, I actually had a daily schedule. We had a wake up time (you will not get out of your bed before this alarm goes off at 6am), a ‘school’ time (where this teacher/mom provided intentional lessons on letters, numbers, colors, etc.), a play time (“No guys, we can’t play in the back yard at 6am. We will go out at 9), and a break time (everyone to your own spaces — we all need some time alone). Of course once they were in school, that schedule pretty much dictated our days, as work does for me now, but even when I don’t have to be anywhere, it is a rare day that I don’t have some kind of time map laid out and a list of things I want to accomplish, including the morning rhythm that gets me started every day.

But Pastor Gabe wasn’t asking me to examine my to-do list or my wellness routine, he was asking me to consider the ways I fill my time in the spaces around that schedule. How much time do I spend on my phone — yes, I do know that number because the phone tells me every week. How much time do I spend mindlessly watching Netflix or Peacock or AppleTV every night? He was also asking me to check my intentionality. How much time do I spend reaching out to friends and family members? How much time to I spend talking with my husband? How much time do I spend in prayer?

These are good questions — especially two years into Covid when most of us have binged every show on TV, we’ve become overly attached to social media, and — let’s be honest — we’re eating our meals on the couch wearing yoga pants, sweats, or pajamas. We’ve lost whole days, weeks, and months.

Time has become a very ambiguous concept — When did that happen? I don’t know, some time during Covid.

So, this sermon series is tapping me on the shoulder, saying, Hey, I know it’s been a rough go, but I think you’ve got the capacity to switch a couple things up, and you know, I think I’m ready.

Last week’s encouragement was relatively easy. Pastor Gabe asked us to consider adding a few pieces to our routines:

The first piece is daily prayer. This might seem like a no-brainer, but a habit of prayer has been a little squishy for me. I do pray. I find that my morning writing is often a prayer, or it makes its way to prayer. I also am starting to build a habit of praying when I first start to wake in the morning and before I fall asleep at night, but for all the order and structure in my life, prayer is one place that has remained more ad libbed. I’m considering that rule of my life right now as part of this congregational journey.

The second piece is weekly worship. My husband and I already have this as a rule because we love worship. It is a time of peace and healing for us — a time of community and belonging. Since the beginning of Covid, we have at times chosen to worship virtually, and we are thankful to have that option.

The third piece is monthly fasting. Now, since the idea of fasting may produce some anxiety, let me say as a former anorexic, that fasting does not need to be from food. It can be, but since this re-set for me is more about how I spend my time, I am considering a couple options — 24 hours without technology or maybe just social media or possibly 24 hours without my phone. It’ll be a challenge, so I haven’t put anything on the calendar yet, but I am thinking about it. (And now I’ve put it in print, so the likelihood that it will happen just went up a notch.)

Considering change, especially to rhythms that have sustained (or at least distracted) us during a time of crisis, is not easy. It takes intentionality. It takes a desire and a commitment to take a new way even when muscle memory wants to take the familiar route. But what might be the benefits? What might be the pay off? What might we notice if we change a few steps in our daily routine?

This morning, in the second sermon in the series, Pastor Marcus Lane said that following the Rule of Life is not a prerequisite to get to God but an opportunity to be transformed by His grace.

That’s what me might gain, friends, a greater experience of the grace of God and His transformational power.

What might be changed? What might we experience? How powerful is the grace of God?

In my experience it can turn mourning to joy, pain to healing, and despair to hope. It really can.

I might be willing to make a few changes for that. How about you?

discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

I Timothy 4:7-8

Coronavirus Diary #32: We’re Still Here

When I wrote that first Coronavirus Diary in March of 2020, I could’ve never imagined that almost two years later I’d be on the thirty-second installment, yet here we are.

We are tired of it. We are discouraged. We are ready for this mess to be over, but we clearly have a ways to go.

My last coronavirus diary was in September when we were headed back to school, mask-clad yet hopeful that we were returning to some semblance of ‘normal’. My students filed in, grumbling but happy to be together. We re-learned classroom rules — expectations for coexisting in the same space such as arriving on time, sitting in assigned seats, putting our phones away, wearing a mask. When the inevitable happened and someone caught COVID, we followed the CDC’s guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining. Students took turns isolating at home where they could access assignments through Google classroom, if they were so inclined, and then returning to the classroom after two weeks’ time. At the end of October, a high number of staff cases sent us home for two weeks. We returned in mid November, regrouped, and carried on until early December when, once again, we headed home due to a staffing shortage.

Being in the building is better of course. I have had more students in attendance, more students completing assignments, more students dropping in for snacks, more students walking by for a fist bump first thing in the morning.

The school year was beginning to feel a little like ‘normal’. In fact, even with the interruptions for virtual instruction, I got so much into the groove that I began to believe we were truly on our way out of the pandemic — that I had no more coronavirus diaries to write, nothing more to say on the topic. Yet, here we are two years after the first cases were reported, seeing the daily case numbers surge and watching the death count ticker slowly tick-ticking away. Last Friday, we moved back to remote instruction, hunkering down once again in our homes, where we will stay until the end of January.

Over 835,000 Americans have died because of Covid, and this current Omicron surge has us averaging over 600,000 new cases a day. And while word on the street is that Omicron is less severe than previous strains of the virus, it is wildly more contagious — whole school districts are remote, hospitals are at capacity, and the interruption to daily life cannot be ignored.

Guidance on how to behave during this latest wave is confusing, to say the least, but the essentials remain the same:

Source: click here

Some of us read those guidelines and readily do our part; others, for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to get vaccinated, have resisted wearing masks, and have for all intents and purposes returned to life as we once knew it, in those pre-pandemic days.

Is it time for that? Right now? When we are in the middle of a surge of cases?

Don’t our actions, whichever ones we choose, have an impact on not only ourselves, but also on others in our community?

Haven’t we seen the impact of this pandemic and our divided response?

Not only has the virus lingered, but we have, it seems, hunkered down in camps, continuing to point fingers at one another, calling one another names, and blaming one another for the situation that we find ourselves in.

Has that approach been helping? It doesn’t seem to be, neither does pointing blame at governmental leaders, previous or present, who can’t seem to get on the same page either.

We find ourself fussing and fuming at each other, sinking further and further into anger, depression, and hopelessness.

But friends, we are not a people without hope. We have merely momentarily put our hope in the wrong things.

Our hope is not in our personal rights, our own self-righteousness, our rule-following, or our resistance to rules. Our hope is not in the CDC, and it’s not in the Republican or Democratic party. It’s not in Biden or Trump. It’s not in a face mask or a vaccine or a booster.

No, our hope is in God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Could He not, in the blink of an eye, eradicate Covid from the face of the earth?

He could.

Could He not do this without a vaccine or masks or social distancing?

He could.

Could He also use a pandemic to bring us back to Him?

He could.

Will we let Him?

What would that look like?

Would a return to God look like name-calling, blaming, and judging?

I’m guessing not.

I’ve been struggling with this. In fact, this very blog started out as a rant against those who would not be vaccinated, those who would not wear a mask, those who, in my opinion, seem to be carelessly walking around spreading the virus. I feel angry sometimes because I am trying to do what is right for the sake of my family, my community, and our country, and I feel that not everyone else is doing the same. I blame them. I call them names. I judge them.

“Can’t you see,” I yell, “we are in the middle of a pandemic! And you are only making it worse!”

And what impact does all my yelling, blaming, and judging have? I end up angrier, more discouraged, and feeling like there is no hope.

But, friends, we are not a people without hope.

We are not.

So, I am going to try, really I am, to turn my gaze away from those I’d like to blame and move it toward the One who is able to make all things new.

I am going to stop pointing fingers, calling names, and shouting accusations, and I am going to instead lift my hands to the One who can put an end to the pandemic, can put an end to the divisions, can soften our hearts, and can restore our hope.

He’s managed plagues and famines and wars and all manner of evil that people have inflicted on one another. This pandemic is not too much for Him.

It’s only taken me two years [and 32 coronavirus diaries] to come to this realization; I’m sorry to those of you who got there before me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d still like ya’all to get vaccinated, wear a mask, and stay away from crowds at least until this latest surge is over, but if you don’t, I’m going to try not to make any assumptions about you. I am going to do my best to love you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

The Wonder of Why

Each November my husband and I create a Google doc — a list of all the gifts we’d like to purchase in December. We’ve found this necessary because we have seven (yes, 7!) December birthdays in our immediate family. And all the birthday celebrating we do in December culminates, as you may know, in Christmas! For years we have spent Thanksgiving to New Year’s in a whirlwind of activity — purchasing, preparing, sending, and celebrating.

We can get so busy, so caught up in the details of all the festivities, that we can forget the why — the reason we celebrate.

We don’t often lose sight of why we celebrate the birthdays of our loved ones because they are (even if virtually) physically present in our lives, and even in the most difficult of years, we are thankful for that.

However, even with all the garland and bows and carols and gifts, or perhaps because of them, we can lose the wonder of why we are celebrating Christmas.

Why is it that most of the country — much of the world — stops what they are doing every year for at least a full day if not a full week or more? Why is it that retailers organize months’ worth of marketing, staging, and purchasing toward December? Why is it assumed that we will gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, and transform our homes for a month out of every year?

What could it be that aligns us all in a common activity, a common momentum, a common — dare I say — purpose?

It couldn’t be — could it? — the ages old myth-like tale of a woman, some angels, a donkey, a stable, and an infant? Is that story, which has been told and retold in various forms for generations, the why that propels us all toward a seemingly united series of activities — where we dress in red, light our trees, purchase stamps by the roll, bake dozens of sweets, and wrap our carefully chosen gifts in the wee hours of the night?

Is it possible that a centuries old story, one that some of us believe and some of us don’t, has the power to draw our eyes, dictate our spending, and determine our social calendars for weeks at a time. Does that seem odd, especially right now when we have trouble agreeing on most everything? We can’t get on the same page about climate change, gun violence, or even a global pandemic, but we all seem to be willing to purchase an ugly sweater and wear it on a prescribed day.

We give lavishly during this season — to our friends, our coworkers, our families, and even those we do not know. We are generous, we spread good cheer, we even dare to hold on to hope. All of us!

Why?

Is it because a baby was born over two centuries ago?

How could one baby born in a manger change anything?

It makes no sense at all.

Omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God distills Himself into infant form, becomes human, and lives among us? How can one life — one perfect sinless life — atone for all the harm we have inflicted on one another?

It’s simple: He’s the answer to our why.

He’s the only One.

He’s the only One who can heal the sick with His touch, calm the sea with His breath, and save us all with His life.

He’s the only One who is with us in the busyness, in the shopping, in the decorating, in the frantic checking off of tasks. He’s with us — God with us — even when we have lost our recognition of the why.

He, my friends, the baby, Jesus, is the why.

The whole earth rejoices — stars appear, angels sing, kings trek across the land — at His birth. And we long, we groan, we wait for His return.

Because until His return, we will lose sight of the why again and again — we will turn to ourselves and strive to create a perfect Christmas, a perfect experience for our families, a perfect celebration of love.

We will get a glimpse, because He — Jesus — is God with us, but we will not yet fully see the joy, the unity, the peace that He will bring.

Yet, even now, from His fullness — the beautiful fullness embodied in that infant — we have all received grace upon grace. Grace for when we overlook him, for when we get caught up in task completion, for when we have forgotten, or for when we have refused to believe that He is indeed God with us — Emmanuel.

How do we adequately pause — rush to the manger, bow down, and acknowledge the one who makes all things new? We start now, in this moment, putting down our list, lifting our eyes, and adoring the infant born in a manger long ago.

We, like the shepherds, bend our knees. We, like the angels, declare His glory. We, like the kings, bring Him our finest gifts. We, like Mary, ponder this miracle in our hearts.

The God of the universe put on flesh — in the form of an infant — to be with us.

That is our why — that is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

O Come Let Us Adore Him.

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