For the past few months, I’ve been motoring through — plan, teach, grade then drive home, cook, laundry, sleep– on repeat day after day after day. I’ve been managing to fit in a few pages of scrawl every morning followed by a little bit of yoga and a walk (or two) with my work buddy each day. I’ve cleared the garden to get ready for spring planting, and I’m bracing myself for the onslaught of Spring events that have already positioned themselves on the calendar — senior this and faculty that.
It’s a regular type of busy but I find myself wiped out and a little bit irritable — especially with my students.
I prepare what I think is a home run lesson and my seniors wander into my room, as seniors often do — late, loud, and with little interest in the activity that I have planned. And, rather than doing what excellent teachers do to engage them — demonstrating the relevance of the work or connecting with something they are interested in — I get annoyed that they are being who they are — teenagers on the verge of graduation. And, I show them who I am — a teacher who is tired of the routine and just as ready as they are to be finished.
In the moment, I expect them to bend to my will — I fuss, I stomp, I sling demands, I utter my frustration. And, not shockingly, I am ineffective. Which just makes me more annoyed.
And because I’m motoring along, I don’t take the time to pause, to step away, to reflect. Instead, my frustration bubbles into tantrum, and I walk out of a classroom full of seniors, taking a lap of the building to calm myself down. Other staff step into my abandoned room and berate my students for doing whatever it was that set off “the most experienced teacher in the building”. My stunned students sit silently. I walk back in and do my best to salvage anything that is left of the hour.
It happens to the best of us. We lose our shit because we haven’t acknowledged the warning flags. We haven’t taken a step away. That is why we have to anticipate our need to step away — to schedule it in before our shit has been lost.
Every year for the past eight or nine years, I have met at a hotel with a hundred or so other women (pastors’ wives all) who carve out a few days from their also busy routines to step away, laugh, sing, and pray. Every year in January, when the registration materials come, I question why it’s so important for me to get away with this group of women that I see just once a year. Why do I want to spend the time and money to hole up in a hotel room, to sit at a table, to participate in corny mixer games, to disrupt my routine? I drag my feet, but typically sometime in late February, I remind myself (or one of my friends gives a nudge) that I always come away feeling refreshed, fed, and typically somehow shifted.
Last Friday, the day after I abandoned my classroom, I packed up my things at the end of the day and headed north. After two hours of driving, I dropped my things in my room, put a comb through my hair, and meandered down to our meeting room.
A cannabis dealer was set up outside our space (the display made complete by an 18 inch stuffed phallus). All of us — women aged early 20s to mid 80s — had to traverse the wares to find one another, and perhaps because of that, we met with laughter, disarmed, ready to embrace and lean into relaxation.
Almost immediately during the ice breaker game “two truths and a lie” I found myself blurting out a true confession to a table full of women (some of whom I barely know) that I had recently told a roomful of seniors that they were behaving like assholes. And not one of the pastors’ wives gasped in horror. Instead they laughed. Someone said, “well, they probably were behaving like assholes”. They normalized my frustration. They accepted me.
Throughout the weekend, I found friend after friend — some I have known for decades, others I’d met just once or twice before. In clusters of two or three or ten, we shared our lives with one another — affirming, listening, empathizing, smiling, laughing. We drank coffee and tea as we leaned into scripture. We sipped wine and noshed on cheese and crackers as we laughed late into the night.
I was so relaxed. I wasn’t really anticipating a major shift to happen during this weekend. I was mostly glad that I had the time to connect with friends instead of managing my regular responsibilities. I got myself busy on a project one of the women had brought to share — crocheting plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats to be given to people who are experiencing housing insecurity — and figured I would coast through the Bible study in typical fashion.
Why I thought that, I have no idea, because almost without fail the Bible study portion of this event, which is all of Saturday morning, a little of Saturday afternoon, with a finish on Sunday morning, is where much of what I have been experiencing in my personal life gets clarified.
Our leader, a veteran pastors’ wife, accomplished scholar, and down-to-earth friend, led us into a journey with Peter, disciple of Jesus, who though faithful and passionate, sometimes ignored the warning signs and occasionally lost his shit. We saw him walk on water, then sink. We saw him speaking with Jesus, and then, when the stakes were so high, denying him.
After we had journeyed with Peter, Jesus, and the Disciples all morning, and I had made substantial ground on my crocheting project, our leader asked us to turn to Psalm 51. She led us through lectio divina, a scripture reading practice wherein you read the passage, circle what stands out to you, reflect as you read it again, respond by writing freely about the words you had circled, and then rest in silence for several minutes. I set my crocheting aside and leaned in. I was stunned by what I found. As I moved through the process, and wrote out my thoughts, I remembered the story of my last several years — how God had restored me, upheld me, renewed me, and sustained me. I acknowledged that in spite of that story, I regularly try to return (especially with my students) to my soldiering ways. I try to plan perfection, to demand compliance, and to ensure my own success.
I sat in silence.
Next, our leader taught us a strategy called a “breath prayer”. She urged us to use some of the words from our earlier writing to craft a prayer that we could say in one breath when we are overwhelmed, or stressed, or perhaps, I thought, in moments when I am about to tell a classroom full of students that they are acting like assholes. The words fell immediately on the page: Father, you have restored me and upheld me, and I will praise you.
It seems we were soon packing our things, hugging goodbye, and climbing back in our cars.
And it wasn’t long before I found myself in front of the very group of students who I had grown frustrated with the week before. They weren’t miraculously changed. They were still seniors on the brink of graduation — falling asleep, scrolling on their phones, talking to one another, asking to use the bathroom while I was in the middle of presenting a perfectly prepared lesson.
But I had shifted — not perfectly, not permanently — but I was somehow standing differently in the front of my classroom. I breathed my prayer several times that first day: Father, you have restored me and upheld me, and I will praise you. I stood a little lighter. I spoke a little gentler. And perhaps, just perhaps, a few more students engaged in learning than had done so the week before.
However, later in the week, I was again feeling fatigued and frustrated. I started to hear myself say sarcastically, “You go ahead, stay on your phone while I’m presenting the lesson, just don’t come ask me for support when you’re doing your work.” Yeah, it was another warning flag. Time to get some rest over the weekend. Time to practice my breath prayer. Time to step away.
I think this is why I am insufferably obsessed with restoration — because I keep seeing it over and over again in my life. I lose my shit, God drowns me in his grace, and I am given an opportunity to shift — to find a different way.
And often, the opportunity to shift presents itself when I find the time to step away — to slow down, to gather with people who love me, to reflect on what has been happening, and to realize what really is true.
I did that again today — with the small group my husband and I meet with weekly. We shared the struggles and joys of our week, we acknowledged with amazement all that we have seen each other through, and we reminded one another of the relentless grace and mercy of God.
It’s the refreshing breath I needed so that I could head into this week with the prayer on my lips: I have been restored and upheld, and for that, I will praise Him.