A Limit Exists

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Eight years ago, I closed up my classroom, thinking I would never go back. I was sidelined due to chronic health issues, and I was headed for the couch. For six years — yes, years — I attended to my recovery, slowly crawling my way back, Then, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I found the courage to believe I might still be able to make a difference in the lives of kids, and I started applying to high schools in Detroit.

When I took my current teaching position two years ago, it was an experiment. My husband and I, knowing how ill I had been, decided I should give it a full year to see how my body managed the stress. My heart was very willing to provide excellent instruction to historically underserved students, but we had no idea if my body could handle it.

For the first year, my body did just fine. We taught the entire year over Zoom, so the physical toll on my body was actually quite minimal. I would drive to the school in the morning, zoom with students for a little over an hour, stand and stretch, do another hour, go for a lunch time walk, teach one more class, then drive home. On alternating days, I had time for planning and grading. In the world of teaching, this load was light. Compared to other situations during Covid, where teachers had both live children in the classroom and students zooming in from home — my load was extremely light, and I knew it.

At the end of last school year, my husband and I remarked that my body had handled the transition and the new environment well, but it had not been a true test of whether or not I could handle full time teaching. We wouldn’t know that until I taught in-person classes with real, live students.

That is what I have been doing this year. I have driven to Detroit, met my students at my classroom door, and managed their learning, their emotions, their behaviors, their interruptions, their questions, and their concerns, along with my own inside an environment that is mostly consistent but that frequently has unexpected interruptions — a fight among students, a quick transition to virtual instruction, a building in need of repairs, or an immediate shifting of plans due to staffing issues. Much to my students’ dismay, I have taken only one day off this year because I have been healthy and energized, and my passion for bringing high quality education to my students has not waned.

I have written curriculum, contacted parents, attended meetings, collaborated with colleagues, and attended events. I have been stern, silly, serious, and — on occasion– sarcastic. I have fist-bumped, high-fived, hugged, and danced with my students, and for the most part, my body has come along for the ride.

I have been thrilled, in fact, by my stamina, and I have credited this phenomena to the years I have spent learning to care for my body, to the team that keeps me well, to the yoga I practice every morning and the walks I take with my buddy at lunch time, to my dietary choices, to my writing routine, and mostly to the grace of God. I have been riding the wave all year thinking, “Man, I was really ready! I am doing good in the classroom! I am not finding any limits to my ability to be effective here!”

But, friends, it turns out that, contrary to Cady Heron and the laws of math, the limit does indeed exist.

I mean, I knew it did, that’s why my husband and I don’t make excessive plans on the weekends but instead schedule lots of recovery time — time for rest, writing, reading — so that my body can repair. We don’t make a ton of plans – we don’t have a lot of people over, we go out with others only sparingly, and our idea of entertainment is streaming something from the comfort of our own couch. We do this because one thing we have learned since the beginning of this journey is that my body needs loads of rest.

I got plenty of rest all last year when we were teaching virtually. This year, too, since we moved back and forth between in person and virtual instruction at fairly regular intervals, my load was intermittently lightened. My body continued to be fine.

When we returned to school on May 2, after being at home for over a month and began the home stretch, I was operating under the false assumption that I would be able to manage the end of school and all the activities involved in the life of seniors and their teachers without any consequences. In fact, I was so confident that we also fit in dinners out with friends, a couple trips out of town, and a speaking engagement in addition to my teaching responsibilities which included leading a training session, attending prom, being present for a parent meeting, and helping with graduation.

And, as you might have guessed, I discovered that I do indeed have a limit.

What happens when I’ve crossed that limit? The warnings signs are subtle; I get a little snippy with a student, a coworker, or my spouse. I wake up feeling heat radiating beneath my skin, especially around my joints. A nagging pressure forms behind my left eye. I get a headache.

If I notice these warning signs, take a little Motrin, put my feet up, attend to some self-care rituals, and sleep, I can avoid larger consequences. But when you think you are invincible, you aren’t really looking for warning signs. So, you just keep stepping, kicking the occasional butt, taking the occasional name, and then out of nowhere, you overreact to an inconvenience or a miscommunication.You start to cry in the middle of a song or while listening to a sermon. You sleep 10 hours and wake up feeling nauseous, like you’d better not move or you will surely throw up.

And it all comes back — remember that time when you had to leave your career because you kept stepping instead of heeding the warning signs and taking care of yourself? Remember all those months you sat on a couch watching Law and Order because you did not even have enough gas in the tank to meet a friend for lunch? You wanna go back there?

No. I certainly do not.

I was built to teach, and I love working in the environment I have found myself in. I do not want to go back.

So, what’s the answer?

I have just over one week left before my summer break starts — a summer break where I will rest, garden, travel, see family and friends, and do a little bit of school work before I head back next fall. I’ll have a slightly lighter teaching load next year, but I will have a student teacher, I’m participating in a fellowship, and I will be facilitating reading interventions for a small group of students.

Yes, it does indeed sound like a lot.

Is it over my limit?

I don’t think so — not if I remember that there is indeed a limit. Not if I remember to take care of myself. Not if I remember that this privilege can disappear if I am not diligent about maintaining boundaries, taking rest, and lifting up the things I cannot manage to the One who indeed has no limits.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

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

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

Whatever you do…Re-visit

I wrote this post in my very early blogging days, when I was just starting to recognize others after my long period of mission-only focused soldiering. Now, as I finish just my second full week of staying home, sheltering in place to flatten the coronavirus curve, I’m doing it again — noticing what others are doing. Some of you are wishing you could help, others are drowning in the flood of responsibilities and activity you find yourselves surrounded with, and some of you are just plain lonely. Whether you are a medical professional, a displaced worker, or a parent of young children, whatever you are doing right now has value — so hang in there and reach out for some support. We’re in this together.

Many of the conversations I have had with women lately have been about how we spend our time. It is probably no surprise that most of the women I have time to have lunch with or walk with are not working at the moment either, but let me tell you what some of these women do when they are ‘not working’.

One is homeschooling two children, aged 10 and 11, coordinating and leading worship at her church, and working as administrative support to its two pastors, one of which is her husband.

Another is teaching Pilates, leading Bible study, coordinating a MOPS group, working part-time at her daughter’s new business, maintaining two residences, and supporting her husband who is a physician.

Then there is the gal who is on a board that is trying to open a preschool for hearing impaired children, planning for a state-wide women’s conference, traveling with her husband, and maintaining several other projects.

And another woman who is helping her daughter and son-in-law relocate with their infant child, coordinating a state-wide event, cheering on three other adult children, and partnering with her executive pastor husband as he travels all over the country.

And guys, they all had time for me. 

Each of these women shared a heart to do the work of God and to do it well.

Each of them have set their own needs aside for significant periods of time to care for others: one had a parent with cancer, another had a father-in-law with a degenerative disease who lived in her house for seven years (!), another had a child and husband with cancer — at the same time (!), and another had two children with hearing impairments. Yet none of them complained about the burden that they had carried, but rather, I am not kidding, rejoiced at the blessings that God had provided in their circumstances. They smiled as they shared their stories.

Pretty humbling, right?

Yet, just as humbling is the mother I was to meet with today. She has been raising three daughters for the last umpteen years, just started a part-time job, and is home today with the youngest who is sick.  She is setting aside our time to walk and talk together, so that she can attend to her first calling — loving that little girl.

It’s not glamorous most of the time, is it?  We clean up messes, kiss away hurts, wipe tears and noses. We shop for the exact see-through divided folder that every student has to have. We scurry to soccer practice in the rain and then wash the muddy uniform after.  We hold a ponytail while a little girl throws up in the toilet. We bake a batch of cupcakes at 11 pm then clean up the kitchen afterward.

This is God’s work.

God’s work is also getting up early to go to work before your children are even out of bed. It’s caring for the children of others — in the classroom or the NICU. It’s tending to the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the lonely. It’s punching a clock, mopping a floor, preparing a meal, and balancing a column.

Whatever you have to do right now — stay at home, travel far away, go to school, or look for work — is God’s work. It’s His work in you, through you, and for you.

As we show up and do our best (or even our semi-best), He sees us and He supports us. He offers us His love and patience when ours is all but gone. When we blow it — lose our temper or say the wrong thing — He offers grace. He shows us the power of forgiveness, and we get to see first hand how God changes hearts. Maybe even our own.

Today my day is not likely to be glamorous. It’s another day of making a meal, folding a load, making some calls, and finishing some tasks. It’ll be nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, I’ll be doing God’s work, so I’ll give it my best shot.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for God not for a human master.

Colossians 3:23

A word about paychecks…

This post, written in 2014 and polished up in March 2019 is one of the most frequently viewed of all my blog posts — maybe because so many of us confuse our worth with what we earn. 

I have always loved to work. I love to be doing; we’ve established that. I like the feeling that I am meeting a need. I like the satisfaction of a job well-done. And let’s be honest — getting a paycheck is pretty great.

I’ve been paid to babysit, to drop a fry basket into a vat of boiling oil, to stuff envelopes, to mystery shop, to write devotions, to teach, to proctor tests, and even to walk door-to-door asking ‘how many people live in the house, what is their ethnicity and employment status’. I’ve been paid everything from fifty cents an hour to a respectable salary with benefits for me and my family.

It’s an exchange, isn’t it? The worker does a task; the employer pays a wage. That wage provides the means for the worker to buy food, housing, clothing, and other necessities. It provides a means for the worker to save for the future. It allows the worker to bless others.

But somehow a paycheck has come to mean something more. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, I tie my wages to my worth. If I am earning, then I have value. The more I earn, the more value I have. I am worth something when I am working and making a wage.

Uh-oh. What happens when I resign my position and decide to be still for a period of several months?  If I’m not working, I won’t be getting paid. This could present a little problem in the inner workings of my psyche.

Over the years, my husband and I have been in every state of employment — we have both worked, only he has worked, only I have worked. For a few months, neither of us was employed full-time. We have made very little and we have made substantial salaries. But one thing remains, we have always had just about exactly what we needed at the moment. We have always had appropriate housing, vehicles that work, food for our family, clothing that looks respectable, the ability to give gifts to others, and the means to take modest vacations.

Just before our first daughter was born, I was teaching full-time in a residential facility for emotionally impaired children. My husband was finishing his hours of supervision to get his license in counseling. I was definitely the primary wage-earner, yet we agreed that I would resign my position one week before her due date so that I could be a stay-at-home mom. We made this decision even though he had not yet secured a full-time position and even though we didn’t have much in savings. It was a step of faith. I don’t remember our families saying much about it, but they must have thought we had lost our minds! On the day our daughter was born, my husband came to visit us in the hospital. He had about five dollars in his pocket, not much in the checking account, and no idea how he was going to get groceries before I got home. After he visited,  he stopped by the counseling office where he was doing his supervision, checked his mailbox, and found a check for over $500 in pay that had been delayed due to insurance! In 1992 that was plenty to get groceries, pay some bills, put some money in savings, and buy his new daughter a bow to wear home from the hospital. During the following months before he had a full-time position, we were blessed over and over by the generosity of others and God’s provision that often came just in time.

It grew our faith and reminded us that all things are provided through Him — even a paycheck.

Yes. That money that someone gives me in exchange for a task I complete is not really a measure of my worth; it is God’s way of providing for me. He has given me gifts and skills, he has plugged me into positions, and he has provided for my needs.

He has declared my worth.

Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10: 29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Did you see that? I am of far more value than many sparrows.  I am worth more than my pay check. My value is found in Christ.

Yours, too.

And you can’t measure that with a paycheck.