Pit Stops

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We were rolling — we were!! — but this week, we got sent to the pits — twice!

It’s hard to believe that it happened so early in the school year — week three!! — but, as I’ve heard my principal say, “It is what it is, and we do what we can.”

It was Tuesday afternoon, and I was in the teacher’s lounge doing some required online training (blood born pathogens, sexual harassment, asthma, concussion, and the like), when my principal asked if she could speak to me. She wanted to let me know that we would not be in the building on Wednesday. The weather forecast was predicting temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, and our building does not have air conditioning. It had been warm on Monday, and with the poor ventilation in our building, our students had struggled to stay on task; one had even had an anxiety attack that had led to a 911 call.

If our first goal this year is to ensure our students that they are safe, we certainly couldn’t bring them into a sweltering building. We couldn’t expect their brains to allow higher cognitive functioning if they were preoccupied with survival.

You might think we would swiftly transition to remote learning for the day, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Our students do have chromebooks, but in week three, we are still working out all the kinks. Some chromebooks are malfunctioning, and there’s a long line for tech support. Some students had a chromebook and lost it, and we don’t have replacements on hand even if they did have the money to pay for them. And, even if every student did have a chromebook, we brought on four new teachers this fall who have not had the training they would need to transition to teaching in a Zoom room, and even if they did, not all of our students have at-home internet.

We want to get this all in place, but it’s week three, and we are still enrolling students, still balancing schedules, and still dealing with the disruptive behaviors that come from transitioning back to school in a culture that is characterized by trauma, poverty, and inequity.

Even though we started the school year with intentional school-wide culture-setting and community-building informed by the brain science around trauma, even though the general temperature of our school is warm and settled, we have still had daily behavioral issues to manage. Behavioral issues are common anywhere two or more adolescents are gathered, of course, but when those adolescents have experienced trauma, when they are living in poverty, when they have been consistently underserved in educational spaces, these behaviors are amplified.

Our administration and our wellness team have been on top of it all. They have intervened in arguments that might have led to violence. They have restored relationships that were on the verge of disrepair. They have picked up signals, anticipated trouble, and taken steps to ensure the safety of our students and our staff. It has been a moment by moment journey over the past few weeks, so pardon them if every student does not currently have the means to swiftly transition to online instruction. Forgive them if a student or two in each class is still doing all of their assignments on their phone.

“It is what it is, and we do what we can.”

So, Wednesday, the black flag was waving, all forward progress was halted, and all of us headed to our pits. Each staff member was given a list of tasks to complete — meet with your instructional coach, complete lesson planning for next week, make contact with families, finish online training — and teachers were happy to have the time to comply. By the end of Wednesday, all systems had been checked, fuel levels had been topped off, and we were anticipating the waving of the green.

It did wave, and we resumed forward progress, but not for long. Thursday afternoon, the administration became aware of a social media threat of violence against our school that was planned for Friday. This team — the same team that has been working non-stop since September 6 to read the temperature of each room in the building, to study the body language of students in the hallway, to stand between two teens who are lunging at one another — this team followed protocol, worked with the police, and determined that we would not have school on Friday. For the second time inside of one week the black flag was waving, and it was only the third week of school.

On Thursday night, when the news came through that we would be closed on Friday, our leadership advised us to ” take care of yourselves tomorrow and over the weekend.” They understand that merely learning of a threat of harm can be traumatic, so they didn’t heap expectations on us; they merely gave us permission to drive into the pit, turn off the engine, close our eyes, and take rest.

For me, rest looks like preparation, so I spent most of Friday checking off items on my to-do list: preparing for Monday’s instruction, recording grades from last week’s assignments, and coaching my student teacher and another new hire on some instructional practices that will make their work a little easier. I took a long walk, folded a little laundry, and plucked some fresh tomatoes from the garden.

For the weekend, I’m doing the things that refuel me: writing this piece, receiving acupuncture care, eating well, worshiping, reading, sleeping.

Monday, God willing, the green flag will wave and we’ll return to the building and get rolling again. I don’t want to anticipate that we will be stopping and starting like this all year, but I have to remain flexible in case we do. I’ve got to roll when we are able to roll, and rest when we are able to rest.

I’ve got big plans for next week — giving my students opportunities to dream about their future: a career, an education, a life that looks different than what they see now. I hope to give them space to research colleges, to begin to learn the language of academia, and finally, to tour Henry Ford College at the end of the week. I’m praying we get to do it all, that we won’t have any more unexpected stops.

But if the black flag waves again, I will obediently head for the pit and await further instructions.

It is what it is, and we do what we can.

…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”

Romans 8:28

Rest and Return

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The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24

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,

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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

Time for Refreshing

Chester and I relishing the end of a restful week.
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A thick blanket of wet snow covers our yard, our driveway, and the playground across the street. It’s almost 7:30 am, but the heavy winter clouds overhead are allowing just a soft gray glow to light the neighborhood. It’s a quiet ending to a quiet week.

In the months leading up to our Thanksgiving break, my husband and I had imagined all kinds of scenarios — flying someplace warm to sit in the sun for a few days, driving across the border to Canada to “flee the country” for the day or even a few hours, dining out, going to a movie, or possibly visiting with family. We scrolled through flight options, investigated Airbnbs, read restaurant menus, and discussed possibilities. We really wanted to get away. I had had a busy fall, but his had been even more taxing. We knew we needed a break and possibly even an escape.

For weeks we ran scenarios and dreamed dreams, but it seems each time we got close to a plan, we ran into a difficulty. Flight costs had skyrocketed, all of our usual caregivers for our aging golden retriever were unavailable, and I had to attend a virtual professional development on Monday and Tuesday, so the escape to a sunnier climate was off the table.

Still, a day trip to Windsor seemed doable, so my husband scouted out some restaurants and began to plan our day, but then we realized we’d need a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to our visit. That wouldn’t be a problem, but then, as we started to investigate a little further, we noticed from the New York Times Covid Map that Michigan was one of the hottest spots in the nation. Would it really be responsible to head across the border, especially since both of us spend our days in a petri dish surrounded by teens and young adults? What might we carry with us?

As we were coming to terms with our reality, my brother reached out. He was hosting Thanksgiving at his house, and he was inviting us to join. My mother and stepfather would be there along with my other brother and his family. That sounded lovely. We were not able to do Thanksgiving or Christmas with family last year. The idea of driving “over the river and through the woods” to enjoy a feast surrounded by loved ones sounded amazing. However, it wasn’t long into our discussion of this possibility when we realized that that, too, would be irresponsible. My mother, although fully vaccinated, has chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and while she is in remission, her health is still quite compromised. We are fully vaccinated, and even boosted, but we still didn’t feel like it would be wise with the current spike in cases to gather and bring any traces of virus we might be carrying into her midst.

So, it was around last weekend when we determined that we should probably just stay home, roast our own turkey, binge on some Netflix and football, and get some rest. It was disappointing at first, but, as you might have guessed, it turns out it was just what we needed.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a couple faculty meetings, and then I was afforded the time I needed to write detailed lesson plans for when I return tomorrow. Often that work is squeezed into my prep period or in the before or after school time, so having hours to imagine how my lesson might play out, to design an instructional activity, and to create a detailed rubric was luxuriant.

Between meetings on Monday, I popped a turkey into the oven, then at the end of the work day I threw together a couple of sides, and we welcomed a couple dear friends who already navigate within our work and social bubbles to share it with us. Then, because I didn’t think to send leftovers home with our guests, we ate turkey for the rest of the week — first in the form of reheated leftovers and then in bowl after bowl of yummy soup.

With days at our disposal, and nowhere to be, we were able to manage a car repair, sewing machine servicing, some quick dashes to pick up birthday and Christmas gifts, and a long walk in a county park nearby. We lost track of time, ate when we got hungry, and napped when we felt tired. Every once in a while, I would default to my schedule-checking mindset, “What nights next week do we have plans? Am I all set for teaching on Monday? What do I need to take with me?” and then I would remember that it wasn’t even the weekend yet. I could keep relaxing.

I crocheted, and I mended. We put up and decorated our little Christmas tree. We zoomed and Facetimed with family, and we did a lot of sitting around. I finished one book and started another, and we completed three jigsaw puzzles!

And still we had more time. Time to do yoga, to write, and time to just rest, sipping tea, and gazing out the window into the snowy day. This is what we needed — not a flight to sunny spot, not a run for the border, just some quiet, uncommitted time. We are thankful to have had it because tomorrow we will suit up, grab our bags, and head back into our work.

We are breathing fresh air, our bodies are restored, and we are ready to greet our students and colleagues.

Buckle up, kids, here I come!

I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.

Jeremiah 31:25

Chester and I — A Return to Best Practices

Chester woke up with tummy trouble. It was not the first time. He’s always been little sensitive. Even from an early age, he was always a little “eating disordered”. Sometimes he would eat his food; sometimes he wouldn’t. Throughout his thirteen years, he has eaten 70-80% of the meals set out for him. It used to worry us, but eight or nine years in, we accepted it.

When he was younger, he was also a puker. Once a month or so, we would find a disgusting pile on the stairway landing or hear him retching and run him to the door. Usually after he’d emptied himself and slept it off, he’d be fine.

Now that he’s geriatric and since we’ve moved into our new place, his tummy trouble has found a new expression — diarrhea. The first time it happened was a few weeks ago. Chester woke me in the middle of the night, demanding to go outside. Once in the yard, he showed me why he had been so insistent. The next few nights, it was like I had a small child again. I let his belly rest a bit, started a bland diet, and called the vet. By the time of our visit, the issue was resolving, but then it came back in full force.

The vet’s hypothesis? “Sometimes when we go through change, this happens.”

Poor Chester had lived his first six years in one home, his next seven years in another, and now, when he’s thirteen, we are changing his environment again. It was a little overwhelming for all of us, and I had to admit, my body was feeling it, too.

Our bodies are so strong. They perform for us physically — packing and moving boxes, walking up and down the aisles of Lowe’s and Target, and meeting with realtors, contractors, and vendors — while at the same time holding all of our emotions — excitement, stress, joy, and anxiety. They are resilient and adaptable, but after several weeks of ongoing demands, our bodies can become overloaded.

Chester’s been a real trooper — learning to walk up and down stairs again, adapting to a new environment, learning the new rules of where he can go and where he cannot go — but I think his tired body was finally ready for some TLC.

My own body was energized through all of the packing and moving, but a couple weeks into the settling — unpacking boxes, welcoming guests, and making major purchases of furniture, hardware, etc. — I started to feel a familiar hum — inflammation, fatigue, the signs of a flare. Thankfully, my body doesn’t cry out in the same way as Chester’s. Instead, I first notice sassy replies sprinkled with sarcasm. Then, I notice a psoriasis outbreak or a headache. I find myself sleeping 10 hours some nights and 2 hours on others.

Just as Chester was suffering, my body was aching, and I knew I had to start paying attention.

This cross-town relocation took some work, and in order to meet the demands of the move, I had put some of my “best practices” on hold. I wasn’t taking the time each morning to write three pages, really read my Bible, or get in my daily walk. I was surely moving a lot, but I wasn’t connecting with the rhythms that have kept me well. It was time to return.

So, in fits and starts, I have been returning, but I have been distracted. Since Covid restrictions have been loosened, we, like countless others around the globe, have also welcomed guests and traveled quite a bit lately. We’ve been to Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts, and several points in Michigan. We’ve seen all of our children, our grandchildren, our parents, and several siblings, nieces, and nephews. All of this time with family has been sheer bliss, and we have loved every minute. However, in order to make it all happen, I have been less than consistent with my routine. I’ve fit in some yoga here and there, and I’ve gone on some walks, but I have learned over the past seven years, that if I want to stay healthy, I need to observe my best practices daily.

I was doing a pretty good job last week. I had about seven days running of eating the right foods, doing yoga, going on walks, and writing, and I was starting to feel pretty good. Chester was doing well, too! He was eating his food every time it was set out, he was going on short walks, and he even had a short meet and greet with a neighbor dog.

We were already seeing the pay off of our routine.

We were feeling great when our son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters pulled into our driveway last Thursday. We hugged, we played, we chased, and we snuggled. Then, we piled in two cars to go meet more family for a fun-filled beach weekend. Chester was safely secured at home under watchful care, so he would certainly be fine if we were gone for thirty-six hours or so.

What could be better for a body than a couple days on a beach, watching children play, drinking in fresh air, and soaking up sunshine? What difference would it make if we ate a few extra chips, sampled a gluten-rich cookie or two, or splurged on some onion rings? We were laughing and smiling and having the time of our lives.

Exhausted, we pulled back into our driveway late on Saturday night to find that Chester, who’d been fine while we were gone, just couldn’t hold it together until we got to his crate. The stench in the house was evidence of what had happened as he awaited our return. So, instead of falling into my bed to recover from the weekend, I found myself on hands and knees cleaning up feces, carrying soiled blankets to the wash, and lighting candles throughout the house.

Later, as I stood in the shower, I felt my clenched jaw, my burning eyes, and my aching joints. I toweled off, pulled on pajamas, and flopped into bed. Almost immediately, Chester sunk onto his bed beside me. We sighed. We were tired. We couldn’t keep up this pace any more.

We needed a return to our best practices.

This morning, he urged me out of bed and stood near me until I found my way to my desk, carrying a bowl of gluten-free oatmeal and a cup of green tea. When I was adequately positioned, he plunked on his rug at my feet, happy to be back in the routine and looking forward to feeling the benefits.

Later this week, I’m going to welcome my sister who is visiting from out of state. We’re going to spend an evening with friends, and I am going to participate in an event for my recently graduated students. It’ll be fine. It’s not too much. I just need to remember to keep returning to these best practices.

 I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

3 John 1:2

I look just fine

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Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk grading some student work. I had untied the blanket scarf that I’d had wrapped around my neck and transitioned it from scarf to blanket so that I could wrap up as I worked. I was tired. And chilly.

Then, when my supervisor entered my office and shared some sadness with my coworker and I, I moved the blanket from my shoulders to up around my head, like a babuska. I huddled inside, rounded my shoulders, and audibly sighed.

Any stamina I had left after two forty-hour weeks was quickly dissipating. I didn’t have the bandwidth to take in sadness. I only had enough left to finish my tasks for the week so that I could stumble home.

Nevertheless, my coworkers and I paused for a minute and were sad together.

When the day was finally ended — most of the t’s crossed and most of the i’s dotted (I couldn’t be bothered to ensure all) — I tied the scarf around my neck, put on my coat, grabbed my backpack, and started the journey home.

I knew, as I walked out of the building, that I would spend most of the weekend in recovery, most of the next three days resting, hydrating, and giving my body time to heal.

I’m not sick. I am not injured. I have an autoimmune disease. And when your spoons are gone, they are gone, baby. After a couple long weeks — even a couple long hours — you can find yourself sitting at your desk wrapped up in a blanket, practically sucking your thumb.

I look just fine. You wouldn’t know that most of the past month I’ve been caring for a persistent case of iritis, which has involved — so far — two trips to the ophthalmologist and a course of steroid drops, OTC ibuprofen, and plenty of rest. You wouldn’t be able to see that for most of the week I’ve been trying to convince myself that I don’t have a urinary tract infection (sorry for the TMI) and that at this very moment, I’m contemplating a trip to the doctor to pee in a cup and find out if it is an infection or just inflammation.

I look just fine. In fact, I want to look just fine. I try very hard to look just fine.

Before I even walk out the door each morning, I do two HOURS of self care so that I can have the stamina to live my life — complete my job requirements, maintain my emotional health, and prevent myself from an autoimmune flare.

The alarm goes off at 5:30. I go to the bathroom and give the doggy the same opportunity. Then, I head to my home office, sit on the futon, read some Scripture, and write my three morning pages. Next I do yoga. (I am currently following a 30-day plan called “Home” by Yoga with Adriene.) By the time I’ve done all this, I am usually rushing to grab the clothes I’ve lain out the night before on my way to the shower. I wash with delicate soap and shampoo that won’t incite psoriasis, and I take time to apply carefully-selected moisturizers and cosmetics that do NOT annoy my skin. I dress in clothing that is comfortable and shoes that won’t irritate my feet. Finally, I make gluten-free oatmeal (yes, that’s a thing) and a cup of green tea, both of which I carry out the door with me so that I can make it to work by 8. I cherish this luxury of time to connect with God, connect with my mind, connect with my body, and prepare myself for the day.

In addition to my daily work, I also have other regular maintenance routines that I follow. I go to regular physical and dental check-ups like anyone else, but I do much more. Weekly, I see at least one member of my team — my chiropractor, my physical therapist, or my functional medicine practitioner. Once a month, I see a therapist, and twice a year I get an injection from a pain management specialist.

I love this routine. And, I have noticed, after having developed it over the past few years, that it makes me feel and look just fine — most of the time.

Even all this preventative practice can’t consistently keep autoimmune flares at bay.

It does a pretty good job, I must say. When I first started struggling with autoimmunity, I felt (and, quite frankly, looked) lousy most days. My eyes hurt, my skin was inflamed, my joints were stiff and sore, and I had zero stamina. I could barely keep my eyes open on my drive home after a typical day. I was convinced I’d landed in a new reality. I would never be able to hold a full-time job again. I would always be in pain. I would always feel (and look) miserable.

That was seven years ago this month.

Fortunately, the past seven years have led me to this place — a place that is full of hope. I have found a different way to have a career — where forty hour weeks are the exception not the rule, where I can occasionally sit at my desk wrapped in a blanket on a Friday afternoon, and where I can spend my weekend recovering instead of worrying about 75 AP essays that need to be scored and returned.

It would probably be a healthier rhythm even without autoimmune disease, but my dream was to teach in a high school or college where current systems don’t typically allow teachers to have a reasonable amount of work. High school and college English teachers work much more than 40 hours a week and have very little, if any, time for self-care or recovery — especially not teachers who have high expectations of themselves and their students and who are soldiering through their own personal crises.

Ironically, I was living my dream of speaking into the writing of people who were finding their way, when I realized I had lost my own way.

Autoimmunity has given me back my life — a better life than I could have imagined, even considering the frequent eye issues and other systemic flares. Because of the routines I have had to employ in order to function, I am much more aware of who I am and what my priorities are.

Because of autoimmunity, I look — and actually am — just fine.

I have spent most of the weekend recovering. I’ve stayed mostly in pajamas, wrapped in an afghan, eating foods that don’t contribute to inflammation, and using all the practices that restore me — Scripture, writing, yoga, crocheting, college basketball, and movies. I’m feeling a bit better. I may head to the doctor yet, but for right now, I’m going to crawl over to the couch, turn on a good flick, and continue to rest.

I’m sure I’ll look just fine in the morning.

My son, pay attention to what I say;

    turn your ear to my words…

 …for they are life to those who find them

    and health to one’s whole body.

Proverbs 4:20 and 22

Break for Silence

A coworker asked me if I had plans for the weekend.

“Well,” I said, “my husband is going out of town, so I’ve made it my goal to not speak to anyone for the entire weekend.”

She laughed and said, “I get it.”

Now, I might’ve been being a little dramatic. After all, I did speak to one of my kids for a few minutes. I did visit with two members of my health team, and, ok, I did talk to my dog, Chester, while I was brushing him out.

Otherwise, silence.

Ok, not exactly. I did listen to some music and my daily Bible reading, and I, of course, watched a few episodes of Queer Eye, but otherwise, I’ve been quiet.

Right now the only sound I can hear is the clicking of the laptop keys and the sound of Chester’s breath going in and out.

I’ve paid the bills, worked on two writing projects, pulled some dead matter out of the almost done garden, and dragged all my clothing and shoes to the living room for a sort and purge while I watched Michigan State football.

Other than the two health appointments and the kick-off time of 4pm, I’ve been pretty oblivious to the clock. I’m so still and chillaxed that I’m sitting here with nothing to write about except how still and chillaxed I am.

We need this, don’t we? We need a morning to wake up, write down three pages of what’s first on our minds, do thirty minutes of restorative yoga, process the latest with our therapist, and allow a trained professional to assess the alignment and strains in our bodies and put them all right again.

We need a slow walk on a cool morning, a cup of hot tea, and a golden retriever lying at our feet while we do the things that have been set aside. We need the windows thrown open, the taste of fresh-picked tomatoes, and a couple low-key projects that can be finished in a an hour or two.

The world’s been yelling at us all week long about what it needs from us, and before we head back to it, we could really use some time to rest, to recover, to remember who we are and what is important to us –how we like to spend our time, what kinds of things make us feel healthy and whole.

You might have a different strategy — you might recover by surrounding yourself with people, by reading a book or taking a nap, by cooking a gourmet meal or going for an extra long run. You might want to watch the game in a sports bar or a crowded stadium or you might prefer hiking a mountain alone. You might want to sleep ’til noon or dance ’til midnight.

Whatever it is that restores you, that fills you up, that heals you — take the time to do it.

Our lives are so busy, and the demands on us are great. We manage so many responsibilities and process so much information. We need to give ourselves time to recover, to be still, to be silent.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject.

I’ve used up my quota of words for the day.

The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.

Mark 6: 30-31

A Return to Best Practices, A Re-visit DRAFT

Early in my journey with chronic illness, I wrote this piece as I was just figuring out all the factors that contribute to my wellness. This past Monday, I posted this piece, a commitment to adjusting some behaviors that had morphed during Covid. What follows is a piece I wrote in August of 2019, further evidence that in order to stay well, I must continue to return to my best practices.

Early in this blog, much of my content was about my ongoing journey through chronic illness — pain, fatigue, and issues with my eyes and skin. I don’t write about it much any more, because most of my symptoms have leveled out; I don’t often have a crisis. Sure, pain is still present every day; yes, my eyes can give me challenges from time to time; and, of course, my skin continues to be my first alert system. However, for the most part, I have found a new rhythm that sustains my health and has even allowed me to work full-time and enjoy life outside of work. (Read my latest health update from March here.)

In fact, I’ve been in this rhythm so long, that I can forget how miserable I was just a few years ago — when I had to limit myself to 1-2 activities a day, when I frequently found myself doubled over in pain or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up, when I had to lie down for a while in the morning and in the afternoon due to extreme fatigue. Yeah, it was really that bad, so now when I work 40 hour weeks for months in a row, occasionally meet friends for dinner after work, or travel two weekends in a row, and suffer no consequences, I can get a little amnesia — the kind of amnesia that leads me to push the limits.

For the past month, I have been pushing the limits. We have had out of town visitors at least four times and have attended two family reunions, one wedding, one dance lesson, and at least two dinner dates with friends. No problem. I was feeling fine. Yes, I had to go to bed early a couple times, but I recovered quickly. I was able to keep writing most mornings, do yoga, go for walks, and still manage my regular household tasks like groceries, laundry, and cooking. I didn’t miss work or cancel any plans.

But this past week, I kicked it up a notch — I threw all caution to the wind.

After church last Sunday, my husband and I shopped for a few hours while we waited for new tires to be installed on our car. Monday, we met after work to grab a quick bite before cheering on our son in a local 5k; we even hung out with him for a while afterward. Tuesday, I attended my end-of-summer staff party complete with Chipotle and trivia. Wednesday, I met an old friend from high school for a quick reunion. Thursday, I ate out, played, and laughed with my son and godson. What a fun week!

And it might have been ok, if I hadn’t missed my last PT appointment or skipped my chiropractor for three weeks running, if I hadn’t been up later than usual every single night, if I hadn’t omitted yoga four days in a row, if I hadn’t had the corn chips with my Chipotle, if I hadn’t had two slices of pizza (all that gluten and dairy) at work on Wednesday, or if I hadn’t said, “sure Ethiopian food will be fine.”

People often ask me, “What do you notice when you avoid gluten and dairy?” or “Does yoga really help you?” or “Really, a chiropractor makes a big difference?” or “That PT sounds weird, are you sure it works?”

I typically say something like, “I’m not sure what does what, but I know that when I do all the things, I feel good enough to live my life. When I don’t do the things, I’m on the couch or in the bed.”

After a month of rich living, I abandoned my good practices for a week, and when I woke up Friday morning, I felt rough — my head hurt, my eyes were begging to be closed, I was nauseous, and I really thought I wouldn’t make it through my work day. I allowed myself an extra 30 minutes in bed, then begged the hot shower for transformation.

I dragged myself to work, mentally marking the four-hour countdown to lunch hour when I would finally see the chiropractor. It was a particularly challenging morning at work — complete with schedule changes, atypical student behavior, and two parent meetings –but I did my best and made it to lunch time.

I willed myself to drive to the chiropractor, rubbing my aching neck and fight back nausea. I was miserable. “Please, Jesus, let this adjustment at least alleviate this headache.” The chiropractor may have said, “wow” a couple of times as he moved up and down my spine putting each piece back in its assigned location, and he may have said, “well, that should make a difference” as we heard the pop of my sacroiliac joint jumping back into place. I can’t remember exactly what happened, because he then applied acupressure to two spots right below my eyes and then two spots on my forehead and the pain of my headache was instantly cut in half. I was astounded and relieved.

I walked to my car promising the doctor (and myself) that I’d return on my regular schedule. I drove back to work, where my office manager met me with a Whole Foods delivery — warm goodness without gluten or dairy or corn. I sat at my laptop with an ice cold Coke and my roasted chicken and vegetables and began to feel well again.

It was a quick turnaround — unlike the systemic flares from just a few years ago that would take 24 to 48 hours, this one lasted only about six hours. Just long enough to scare me straight.

All during those six hours I was picturing the tile of the bathroom floor and imagining myself packed in ice on the couch. I had forgotten those realities, but they showed up to remind me to return to my best practices.

I made a home-cooked meal on Friday night — roasted pork cutlets with rice and sautéed fresh vegetables and then slept for nine hours. I started Saturday with writing, yoga, and oatmeal before heading to a 90-minute structural medicine appointment where the practitioner moved all the muscles and ligaments to support the chiropractor’s work. I spent the afternoon doing food prep — making Kristin-friendly muffins and cutting up veggies and melon– and organizing my office. I finished the evening with three episodes of Queer Eye because it’s wholesome and friendly and hopeful.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning, and I’ve already journaled, done yoga, and am writing now to remember — that the full life that I enjoy is a gift. In a little while, I will head to church where I will give thanks for this gift– this physical restoration that is a mere shadow of the more complete restoration that has been happening inside. I will give thanks for both, and I will continue to return to all of my best practices.

Addendum: It’s now Monday morning. Yesterday on our drive to church, my husband and I started filling our day with visits and errands, and chores. We had quite a list, so we both agreed to “see how it goes.” By the end of church and a congregational meeting, I had decided I needed to see a doctor; I had symptoms that suggested an infection. So, we drove to our practice’s walk-in clinic to have me checked out. No infection, just more evidence of inflammation–I needed more than twenty-four hours to recover, apparently.

So, we scrapped our plans, came home to nutritious leftovers, an hour at the puzzle, a nap, and two episodes of The Great British Baking Show — yes, we’ve pulled out all the stops! In a little while, I will start my week with a trip to the physical therapist for the final “laying on of hands” in this series.

I am so thankful for my current health and this journey I’ve been on — a journey that tangibly shows me the value of self-care, a journey that allows me to do my best and gives me grace to recover when I’ve gone off the rails, a journey that reminds me to return to my best practices.

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

John 1:6

Righting the Course, Re-visit

I wrote this post last year, while my husband and I were on our annual vacation. This year, we were supposed to be on a 30th anniversary celebration trip, but due to Covid-19, we are instead resting at home — not North, not South, not East, not West. Nevertheless, we have had time for rest, for recovery, and for remembering and celebrating the course we’ve been on.

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under reconstruction.

We knew that we were stepping into change — my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms of recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have any answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

Blessing upon blessing

I was standing in a local thrift shop sorting through 50-cent coffee cups. My husband had asked me to grab a half-dozen or so for his office so that college students who come in to grab coffee can take one ‘to-go’. I visit this section often — not only to stock the student life office, but also to replace the many cups that I break or absent-mindedly leave in my path. I was picking out some sturdy looking cups for the students when a beautiful floral pattern caught my eye — it was a little small for my taste, but it was so lovely I decided to put it in the basket with the others and make it my own. Only when I got to the cash register did I realize that it had scripture written on the inside of the rim.

….one blessing after another…

Sometime in the months since I brought it home, I made an un-official decision that this cup will be for special circumstances only. It’s not to be carried out the door in the morning rush, clutched through rush hour traffic, and plunked on my desk at work. No, this cup is for the lingering pondering cuppa. It’s for sipping while sitting and savoring. It’s an object of beauty that I’ll use when I need a little encouragement, a little healing, a little celebration, a little recognition of the grace that has poured out one blessing after another.

I’ve got it in my hand right now.

I’m by myself in my little house by the river for 48 hours of self-imposed solitary confinement. My husband is out of town, so I am seizing the opportunity to be quiet, forget about the clock, take care of a couple tasks, make a few long-overdue phone calls, and spend some time reflecting.

Regular doses of solitude heal and restore me.

So what have I done so far? I’ve practiced yoga, done some writing, read a few chapters in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, slept until I woke up — twice! — and watched six episodes of Queer Eye (a delightful show with a message of healing and hope).

I’ve done some cleaning and organizing, paid some bills, folded some laundry, and worked on a puzzle. I’ve spoken at length to both of my parents and to my parents-in-law. I’ve eaten when I’ve been hungry, lounged on the couch in yoga pants, and sipped several cups of tea.

My dog has been following me from room to room, plunking down wherever I plunk, and occasionally standing in front of me, staring me down, until I remember that it is time to walk around the yard.

It’s on these kinds of days, when the agenda is fluid and my expectations for productivity are low, that tucked away thoughts and feelings jangle loose. I’ve poured a lovely cup of tea to enjoy while I observe them.

I’ve been thinking about the visit I had with my breakfast club girls last week. We got together to celebrate my recent birthday; they showered me with gifts and treated me to dinner. As we chatted and laughed, I was struck by the contrast between this birthday celebration and the one we had last year, when I’d been been buried in grief and had cried as they’d leaned into my pain. This year, I was filled with gratitude for their partnership in my suffering, for their unconditional love, and for willingness to acknowledge and celebrate my blessings.

I’m also looking back at my weekend away with one hundred or so pastors’ wives. I pulled out my notes this morning and remembered our time in Bible study where we sat around tables using pens and colored pencils to draw visual reminders of what we were learning. I heard our voices singing together — both in worship and in fun. I saw friends who I only see at this conference, smiling and saying, “We missed you last year!” I felt the compassion of a soul sister who pulled me aside, probed gently, and let me share just a bit; she bore some pain with me and then shared in my gratitude.

I’m scrolling through thoughts of dinner with my godparents, laughing with friends until my sides hurt, and car rides with new and old friends. I’m relishing in the realization that unlike the last time I gathered with these women, I didn’t need rest breaks, or pain medication — not even when I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

I’m spending this weekend alone so that I can reflect on these blessings. I said no to a few people (probably disappointing at least a couple) and chose solitude. And because I did, I’ve had the time to notice each of these jangly thoughts as they’ve settled down beside me. I’ve had opportunity to look closely at how I’ve been blessed, and I am now restored so that I can step away from my solitude.

It’s a new way — a new rhythm.

Toward the end of the soldiering years, I remember my husband, who was also trying to slow his pace and find a different way, telling me about a rhythm of sabbath. The idea was to pause daily, weekly, and yearly — to intentionally plan for space to pause. I remember thinking, “That’d be nice, dear, but you do see that I’m busy here, don’t you?”

And somehow, after almost five years in this little house by the river, we have joined this rhythm. Each day the two of us wake up in the dark — before we see our people or do our things — we each take a time of reading, writing, reflection, and intentional movement. On Sundays we extend this rhythm by continuing on to worship with our community. Each year, we’ve miraculously been able to get away for a week or two alone to put our phones on silent, to forget about the clock, and to read, write, reflect, and rest.

This is one more realization that just floated down and snuggled in next to me. I never would have believed we could live this way, and here we are.

I’m going to make another cup of tea and savor every last moment of this solitude, this sanctuary, this sabbath. This in itself is one more blessing.

Ten out of ten would recommend.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Mark 6:31