Wednesday, January 21, 2015

(not) having it all

DFP sweet spot.JPG
I swear, sometimes the Universe seems to be swinging a large mallet over my head.

As I continue mulling over self-care and self-love this week, this article appeared in the Detroit Free Press today:

Christine Carter has just published a new book called The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work.

Of course I am planning to read the book, but this was absolutely the BEST advice in the article:
"One of Carter's first steps was to borrow an idea from management guru Peter Bregman: Pick your life's top five priorities. Then she pledged to spend 95% of her time on activities that support those priorities and to say 'no"'to virtually everything else. 'Because we can't do everything, we need to make choices,' she says."

This inspired some intense thinking at 4:30 A.M. What are my top five priorities? And (harder for me), how do I say no to virtually everything else? The priorities were easy! I have been working on those all week!
1. Health (the whole package of self-care, not just diet and exercise)
2. Spending time with family (immediate and extended) and friends 
3. Writing (I have three academic articles on deck and a novel that needs to be finished, dammit! I am also delighted to be blogging and writing every day!)
4. Teaching and beyond! How can I best grow in my profession? How can I inspire myself, my students, and the other teachers around me? 
5. THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (engage in activities that feed my soul: traveling, gardening, spending time in nature, creating and enjoying a delicious meal; turning off the soul-sucking garbage that distracts me from LIVING.)

It seems simple enough: these are my priorities, and if there is something in my life that doesn't fit these priorities, I need to jettison it. And yet, like Carter, I am constantly asked to do more, to sit on one more committee, to present one more lecture, to revamp one more class curriculum, to take on one more responsibility at work. Because I work with kids, it is difficult for me to say no. I will have to really think about whether what I am doing is benefiting the kids or the adults before I take on one more thing

Because one more thing just might pull me under.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
     the woods
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

-Uncle Walt, "Song of Myself"

As I continue to think of all the ways I can care for myself, I realized that the trips I am planning - both in the states and abroad - are part of that new mantra I am embracing, the one that has me attempting to enjoy more and stress less.

That seems like an oxymoron in many ways. Preparing for a trip is always a harried business, full of schedules and timetables and delays and new rules from the TSA. And yet, traveling speaks to that perpetual longing I feel to see new or familiar places, to leave home so that when I come back, I can appreciate it with clear eyes.

In just a few short weeks I will be traveling to see dear friends from my undergrad days in college. I have known them for well over twenty years, but as they live on the opposite side of the country, I do not see them often - have not met their children - have never visited their homes. While I will miss my family, I am bursting with excitement over this trip. Visiting these friends is soul-renewing. They knew me when I still planned to be a journalist, when I was struggling to pay for school, when I was managing a Little Caesar's to make ends meet. There's something about these college friendships that hasn't been replicated at any other time in my life. There's no artifice with these friends, only unconditional love and acceptance, and I cannot wait to soak in the sunshine of our long-awaited reunion.

I am grateful, too, for their families. They have extended the kindness of offering me a place to stay in their homes, of allowing me to tag along to yoga class, and of planning literary excursions to satiate the book lover in me.  I look forward to scrumptious dinners, fantastic views, warm weather, and the company of friends all around.

Finally, a chance to unwind.

Monday, January 19, 2015


"Yoga is the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human uplift."
-B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga

During the summer, I go to yoga almost every day. It's how I refill that reservoir that is absolutely drained by the end of the school year. I eat better, I spend time in nature, I read for pleasure, and I exercise - walking, biking, paddle boarding, and, of course, I practice yoga. It is during those sunny summer months that I am able to nail difficult poses (even when I fall, I am smiling!), when my migraines abate, and when I am finally able to breathe again.

Yesterday's post got me thinking that this kind of self-love should not and cannot be reserved for the summer months only. I have to put myself and my needs first ALL YEAR LONG in order to keep that reservoir filled. Otherwise, I become short-tempered, angry, irritated, fat, lazy, anxious, unhappy, and sometimes even depressed. Last year, when my school district shut down for an extra five days following winter break, I even did "snowga" - the world had shut down, and there was nothing I could do about it, so I made the most of my extra time.

Yesterday's epiphany helped to re-order my priorities today. Instead of going to yoga this morning, I chose to go this evening with a dear friend. I went out to OU and paid my tuition and visited my cousin and my best friend who both work on campus. I took my daughter out to lunch and ordered myself a soup and salad. I visited my folks. My finger is so much better, I even took myself for a manicure.

You can hardly see that it's still healing!

I still have homework to do, and I have to pay the bills, but it is astonishing how a small paradigm shift made my day so much better. I am relaxed, happy, and looking forward to yoga tonight. 

I'm back in the classroom tomorrow, so the challenge will be to maintain this kind of self-care in the face of reality. That will be a struggle, but it is one I am convinced I have to face for my own sanity. 

I cannot possibly support anyone else until I find a way to support myself.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where Am I Going, Where Will I Be?

In the winter of my fortieth year, I rang in 2015 by promptly slicing off my fingertip. 
While I wrote about this yesterday, I did not explain that this injury was a result of my resolve this year to eat healthier. I purchased a mandolin slicer and did not even make it through the first sweet potato before I injured myself. This has made my quest for a healthy start to the new year rather problematic in a number of ways. 

First of all, I am now quite leery of knives and sharp blades. I should have already have been leery of knives, as I am rather clumsy and prone to accidents, just as I should be leery of ovens, stovetops, fires, burning oil, and all sorts of other household hazards that have left their mark on my flesh over the years. To get back to my point, it has been extraordinarily difficult to cut and clean vegetables, to cook, and to wash dishes as the fingertip was heavily bandaged against possible infection or, worse, an accidental collision. Just washing my hair the first week required help as every nerve ending was raw and exposed, and bumping that oozing flesh against my skull sent a white hot flash of pain throughout my entire body. I'm not sure what I have been eating these last two weeks, but some of it has been healthy, and some of it has been convenient. Now that the fingertip is in better shape, I will resume my quest to cook at home, eating more vegetables and fruits, even if I have to eat them whole and uncooked to avoid any more accidents.

Secondly, my finger injury kept me sidelined from yoga and the gym for a full week. Upon my return to both, I took it very easy to make sure I did not bang it in any way, and I am also still nursing a popped hamstring from mid-December. As the hamstring injury affects my left leg and the fingertip injury is on my right hand, this made many yoga postures particularly challenging. So much for my other healthy resolution to work out every day! It looks as if my New Year's resolutions need to begin on January 19th instead of January 1st. That is fine with me - I do believe the Universe has been trying to tell me to slow down, and, well, I had no choice but to obey. Interestingly, both injuries have forced me to be much more mindful of my body and the choices I make throughout the day.

This leads me to two questions:
1. Will I continue to slow down, pay attention, and be more mindful now that both injuries are both healing?
2. Did I make the WRONG New Year's resolution? 

I'm rereading that line: Interestingly, both injuries have forced me to be much more mindful of my body and the choices I make throughout the day.

Isn't that precisely what I was trying to do by making healthy food choices and working out? Maybe the reason that I have NOT been successful at these resolutions is because I am always racing through life and prioritizing other people ahead of myself. Maybe I'm never in the moment because my monkey mind is always a million light years ahead of my physical body, and I forget to pay attention to the task at hand. Maybe I am overscheduled and overwrought with the dis-ease of being "busy," and I need to cut back, slow down, and take care of myself in all kinds of ways, not just with food and exercise.

Definitely food for thought.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Assignments

"These are the poets, the philosophers, the scientists, the thinkers whose observations and interpretations of life provide nourishment for the inner spirit of those who can learn to heed them."

It's the end of the semester at the high school where I teach, and Louella B. Cook's article from 1959(!) could not be more apropos as I reflect on the last two assignments I have been feverishly grading for weeks on end.

My sophomore students had two massive assignments this semester that reflect those "two faces of Janus" Cook references in her article. One was a formal literary analysis of one of the works of Edgar Allan Poe - a 4-5 page structured assignment in MLA format, 7th edition, held to the highest of Common Core standards, with absolutely no use of first person permitted. I slaved over the grading of these papers, meticulously circling every error I found, writing extensive comments, even with a nasty fingertip injury.

Yes, I soldiered on like a good English teacher should, grading those papers with such fury that it even became a hot topic on Twitter when our school did not close for a "cold day" last week.
Everyone knew this was an impossibility, especially from someone who was just voted "hardest teacher" for the second year in a row. It was the talk of the school, so much so that when I DID grade an A paper, I posted THAT on Twitter.
The rub of it is, the kids strove to do well on this paper, but I doubt very much that a single one of them enjoyed the process. They had a hard time excising themselves - especially that letter I - out of the writing process. The average grade on these papers was an 84% B - a solid average, yes, but nothing that inspired them or me.

That all changed, as it does every year, when we moved on to Transcendentalism. 

We read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson. We blew bubbles in class to help understand "The Over-Soul" and sang along to U2's "One." (Well, at least one of us did.) We did yoga in class.

I assigned them scrapbooks that they could create with a minimum of requirements, and I tossed MLA format out the window. I took them out on nature walks and told them their entire scrapbook should be in first person, that they should feel free to argue or agree or puzzle over these authors, that they should pick quotes that meant something to them, that they should make this assignment their own.

When they were finally able to write about themselves, when they were able to pick the quotes, carry on arguments with authors, design and decorate to their hearts' content, their grades soared. The average grade for the scrapbooks was a 90% A-. 

Not only did I allow them to write for self-revelation, but they took their inspiration from those poets who provided them with "nourishment for [their] inner spirit."And that made all of the difference.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Aching to write

"Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak."

I have a secret, a tremendous secret. For the last thirty years I have been researching my family history, and I have a book I want to publish. It's not the shadow of a book, or the idea of a book, or the talk of a book - I have a real life honest-to-God book about my great-grandmother that I desperately want to publish. But I know in my heart that it's not finished. And so I keep putting off what I need to do transform this book from the giant binder stuffed in my desk into real book, one with a spine and pagination and amazing cover art that whispers READ ME when people pass it in Barnes and Noble.

I ache to tell her story. I tell it out loud to everyone I meet, but I want so much more. If novels were created via hypnotic word-weaving in thin air, publishers would be fighting over my creation, my book would fly off the shelves, movie producers would be clamoring for the rights to her tale. I'm not lacking research or ideas or a heartbreaking ending. I have a fabulous, wonderful, amazing story of the triumph of the human spirit, and I can't finish it.

The reason? I have to write about myself.

While I have fictionalized my great-grandmother's story, there's definitely something missing - the entire back story of how I got here. The story of my eleven-year-old self watching my Little Grandma's mile-long funeral procession and realizing there were dozens of relatives I had never met. The endless hours spent with my great-aunts, my grandmother, and my cousin Loretta, painstakingly creating genealogy charts for long dead family members. The breakthrough that sent me, a new mom, packing for a trip I couldn't afford to Boston. Flying across the Atlantic for the first time to Italy, to the tiny mountain town where my great-grandmother had grown up, using the language of my hand gestures and a pocket dictionary to speak to the city officials there. A surprise family member that necessitated another trip to Boston. So many documents, pictures, genealogy charts, and letters. Dozens and dozens of letters in their original envelopes, yellowed with age, letters that launched me on this quest in the first place.

But why is this so difficult? I'm blogging, aren't I? Writing about my most cherished secret? Yet it is so hard for me to construct these stories, some of which stretch back decades, to recreate them in my mind and put words to page. I'm also stymied by the living  - those aunts and uncles and cousins that may take umbrage with my memories, or be offended in some way, or who may repudiate my version of events entirely.

There's also the matter of revisiting my former self, warts and all, at particularly emotional or embarrassing parts of my life. I've spent many years trying to free myself from the stranglehold of my past, and yet I cannot do that and simultaneously tell the story of my Little Grandma's past - they are inextricably intertwined.

I must find a way to reconcile this fear, for I find that as 2015 dawns, I am once again aching to write.