the ghost of grief past

I am haunted by grief. Like a ghost that fades in and out of the bedroom corner, sometimes it is silent, hovering beneath the floorboards; but sometimes it is devastatingly near, ice freezing through my veins.

Recently…I shiver.

Last year, I watched my cat die a long, slow death. His silky steel grey fur turned bristlecone; his oversized athletic body turned gristly; his ferocious appetite for salmon turned into aching refusal to eat; his impeccable potty and self-grooming habits turned sloppy spills all over the house. The cat who walked around the block with us could no longer hop up on our bed. He wandered the house, unsure of where he was, crying in confusion. Life oozed out of him, leaving a trail of tears.

Six years ago, I watched my Dad die a long, slow death. His consistent commitment to a healthy breakfast of Total cereal faded into choking on undigested food; his appetite for walks in the neighborhood faded to police rides back to a home he could no longer remember; his strong able body faded into a bony skeleton; his obsessive daily grooming with an electric razor faded into a unoccupied man playing with his feces. The man who drove my teenage self all over creation could no longer remember my name. He wandered the house, unsure of where he was, looking and laughing at a stranger’s reflection in the mirror. Life oozed out of him, leaving a trail of fears.

I am haunted by the molasses pace of death, its grief sticky and icky.

This year, I watched my dog disappear in the blink of an eye. Just the weekend before, we were camping and hiking and playing in alpine lakes with his girlfriend. He was strong. Full of life. Then, sickness. Then, death. My house is empty.

Three years ago, I watched my Mom disappear in the blink of an eye. Just the weekend before, we were laughing and buffeting and playing the slots with the family. She was strong. Full of life. Then, sickness. Then, death. My heart is empty.

I am haunted by the wind-sucking swiftness of death, its grief whiplash and heartcrash.

I am haunted.1690184_10152245507652813_202266945_n

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here’s to the dog

Here’s to the dog who transformed from a scared, skinny, reserved mess into a brave, athletic, playful son. When we first met you at the pound, we took you into the yard to see how you’d interact with us. As Dad threw a ball, rather than fetching, you cowered, trying desperately to disappear into yourself.  Our hearts broke at the invisible story that brought you to such a sad place. For years, we didn’t think you had a voice at all. Maybe your box had been removed? Dad would give me such shit for trying to teach you to speak. But you learned, didn’t you. You found your voice and the courage to use it to protect us, to laugh with us, to tell us you were there, to tell us you were hungry. Our hearts applauded your self-discovery. We knew you came into your own when we’d let you loose on at the local park, and you would run like a freak. Unabashed. Insanely. Comically. Gleefully. Our hearts celebrated at the freedom you finally felt in love.

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Here’s to the dog who transformed us into ninjas in the morning. As our bodies eased out of deep slumber, we’d stealthily adjust in the bed so as not to awaken your bladder. Our even worst was when our bladders were awake. We’d lie there in pain, just so we didn’t give you the false impression that our day was, indeed, actually starting. Or sometimes, you went into the ninja business with one of us. So as not to awaken the other parent, one of us would coax you out of the bedroom as sneakingly as possible. But alas, your hummingbird tail always drummed the bed, the walls, the door, our souls: the imperfect perfect alarm clock.

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Here’s to the dog who was my dancing companion. You know as well I do, Momma don’t clean without some good music. And so there I’d be in the living room, blasting Rihanna or Britney Spears or Juanes, and well of course my feet and hips would catch on. And so would yours. You’d look at me from your bed, then your tail would mark time, then you’d raise to your feet and bow your chest to the ground, then you’d come to me, then I’d pat my chest, and what do you know, I’m in my living room dancing with a four-legged companion, upright on your hind quarters, paws on my shoulders, mouth panting in rhythmed ecstasy.

1930457_33430112812_8591_n 1919160_192461262812_7397308_n 38418_439971082812_4160013_n 73041_492507727812_2398029_n 73694_492508172812_1248683_n 261853_10150308992172813_6826574_n 425146_10150641017682813_1306980350_n 1044143_10151737797722813_1331969970_nHere’s to the dog who never met a rock you didn’t conquer. No matter what trail, what state, what adventure, the nearest rock would eventually become your throne as you explored it and scratchily fell off it and climbed atop again and eventually planted your paws like Armstrong on the moon, standing tall and regal, tail in the wind like a flag’s declaration, surveying the conquest.

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Here’s to the dog who was just the goofiest kid who just wanted desperately to be liked by his peers. You hated water until you saw one of the cool kids running around in it. You didn’t understand fetch until you saw another dog doing it, then you tried out for the team but didn’t make the cut. Oh, you’ll eat a treat because that dog ate a treat. You loved to stick your nose in anything, even when you found it being exploded back into your face by a sneeze. You playfully wrestled with the ground. You looked like you were seizing when you tried to roll over on command.

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Here’s to the dog who was loved by all those we loved. You were the calm dog everyone felt comfortable being around. You protected the Doyle girls like they were your own. Your were gentle with my aging parents. You let puppies have their space (we’ll pretend this was your honor, instead of the fact that you were petrified by them). You cradled yourself into our families and into our friendships. You were our son, and everybody knew it. And they loved you.

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Here’s to the dog who loved his brother beautifully. You’d fight, and then you’d paw and makeup. You’d share your toys and your treats and your bed. You kept on eye on him when he walked around the block with us. You were compassionate and kind to him as he aged, and then as he died, and then, you stood steady for us our in grief.

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Here’s to the dog who was your Dad’s favorite. When you’d piss me off, he’d defend you. When I didn’t want to get fur bombed, he’d gather you between his legs and pet you. When I looked and looked and looked, he’d go right for that perfect spot around your ears that made you smile like a druggie. You were his dog, and he was your idol.

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Here’s to the dog who was the soul mate for our lifestyle. When we ran, you ran. When we hiked, you hiked. When we camped, you camped. When we melded into the TV, you slept in your bed. When we took road trips, you curled up in the back seat. When we took naps, you snored. When we lounged outside, you curled up in the grass. When we ate, you waited at our feet. When adventure called, you sat politely while we put on your collar. When home beckoned, you greeted us at the door with that one of a kind hip wiggle of yours.

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Here’s to the dog who made our life complete. Here’s to the dog whom we miss with all of the broken pieces of our heart. May you run, smile, rest, and wag in peace.

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training the monkey… the mind that is

(Author’s note: I really wanted to title this post “Spanking the Monkey,” but I didn’t want some perverts to open this post thinking it was going to be up their alley.)

(Pervert’s note: That’s what she said.)

phonto

Buddha often spoke of the need to train the monkey mind through meditation and mindfulness. His intention was that our life would be less about narration and commentary and more about the presence and experience itself.

To me, the idea of minimizing narration and commentary and analysis and story is quite daunting–and perhaps even backwards. After all, I am an English teacher: I live and love stories. To explore this conundrum (and generally solve all of the universe’s mysteries), I was fortunate enough to garner a fellowship to participate in the Mindfulness in Education Retreat at Vallecitos. (Thank you Hemera!)

While there, meditating for about a quarter of every day (insert shocked emoji face here), I gained a few treasured training tools to get that monkey mind to sit and stay:

  1. It’s a muscle…or a puppy. I like to do things well. I don’t like to struggle. There’s a small chance I might be addicted to perfection and the illusion of what it does for my soul. So naturally upon arrival and discovering we were going to meditate for six. hours. every. day. I just knew I had to nail it. I didn’t. I had unrealistic expectations of instant-6-pack-upon-entering-the-gym-after-keg-magically-disappears, or miracle-puppy-who-falls-out-of-mom-rolling-over-on-command. Cuz that happens. Like anything else, being present in the moment with mental chatter under control takes time. Takes discipline. Takes training. Takes constant attention and reattention and rereattention and rerereattention (or attention to the 3rd?).
  2. Tone matters. But therein lies the rub: it’s not just about the training; it’s about how I train. I naturally fell into this kind of cruel, self-abusive narrative progression when my mind would wander: “Be here now.” “Just get it together.” “Ugh again, come back.” “Why can’t you just be here?!” “Damn it Patrice!” At the height of my frustration, I considered myself a failure who could never get it right… you know, after meditating for oh…3 minutes. Mindfulness is a constant redirecting of attention, but that does not warrant a scream or a flog or a deep sigh of frustration. I found the mantra of “there is room for that, too” to bring me back again and again with kindness and compassion and grace.
  3. Interruptions versus experience. Before this retreat, meditation meant to me all the right conditions. I want people quiet. I deserve to be comfortable. I need to be in the mood. I seek out perfection, both inside and outside of me. Then, once the stars have aligned, I can meditate. What I learned at this retreat is that noise is a part of the meditation, not an interruption. Discomfort a part, not an interruption. Chaos a part, not an interruption. Instead of seeking the perfect external context, I need to be internally present in whatever is occurring–however annoying.
  4. The power of narrative. But what is annoying, exactly? One night while sitting in meditation with my nose running; eyes itching; throat tickling; sneeze building; tissues missing, I thought: “this is miserable.” But I checked myself before I wrecked myself. Is it? What is misery? These are the physical sensations, and they just…are. It is my narrative and commentary that creates the bias of misery. Even deeper, why does it do that? I realized I’m still realizing that mental narrative is the last stronghold of control chimera of control. I think by naming I have power. I think by describing I have hold. But…I don’t.
  5. Escape mechanisms. Which leads me to the biggest aha of this retreat: when I feel like I am failing, I want to escape. This should come as no surprise after my year failing as an instructional coach, but alas…this lesson was only more pronounced when I could not escape “failed” meditation. Instead it went on and on and on. (I mean at home, I’d be blissfully ignorant on Facebook or delightfully numb playing Angry Birds or completely tuned off with the TV on. Oh the wonderfully destructive avoidance technology allots.) But I did learn even in those moments when meditation lingered and I could not physically leave, there are a lot of ways to mentally escape: sleepiness, haziness, mental chatter, restlessness, distraction, planning, discomfort, judging (about me), gossip (about others). Unfortunately, where there is a will, there is a way (to get out). I learned that when I feel like escaping, I need to examine the urge: what I am afraid of? what exactly is failure? what am I avoiding? Sitting with the urges (does anyone else have to go tot the bathroom now?), rather than running from them, is the challenge but also the reward of mindfulness.
  6. Size matters. Before this retreat, I was narrow-minded. Who am I kidding, I still am. But I’ve come to a thought-place that is more spacious, more wide, more welcoming, more soft, more generous…more. There is room for that, too. Mindful meditation can–and should–include the distraction, the clanging pots, the escape tendencies, the judgment, the narrative, the cramp in my foot, the constant need for approval, the desire to be seen, the pervasive sense that I am not good enough, the unanswered questions, the buzzing fly. There is room for that, too.
  7. Pattern trumps pieces. At most retreats, I make sweeping plans to come home and be brand spanking new. But what I carried away this time is that a little each day makes more difference than grand gestures occasionally. And so I am committing to 12 minutes of meditation a day. I can do that. I want to do that. I will do that. And if it doesn’t happen, well, there is room for that, too.

 

on energy: weapons of mass destruction

I recognize that the minute the word energy enters a conversation, visceral reactions will rise: images of granola-eating-gurus, feelings of heebie jeebies, and slippery concepts like “consciousness” and “law of attraction” and “universe.”

I used to be that person.

Maybe I still I am that person.

But…as I find myself changing the way I view myself and the world around me and the God above (?) me, I cannot help but come back to that word: energy.

I have always believed in the power of language, but that confidence is grounded in the inadequacies of language to fully capture that which matters. When I say I love Dave, that word doesn’t capture the beautiful complexity inherent in our 14 years of marriage. When I used the term Daddy, that did not fully capture all my dad was as a man, husband, and father. And this disconnect between term and essence is all over our current headlines: how can tiny little pronouns like he or she really capture all that is in a full person?

And how much more so with God. How can God be bound by gender? How can God be bound by place? How can God be bound by belief? How can God be neatly wrapped up in letters and bow-tied with punctuation?

He can’t. She can’t. It can’t. I Am can’t.

I Am won’t.

And this is why I come back to energy. In science I learn it. In yoga I feel it. I life I live it.

God is the Epicenter and Origin and Destination of Energy.

And this profound thought intensifies with the knowledge that I am created likewise. There is a weight to what energy I put into the world. There is gravity to what energy we put into the world.

Which brings me to Orlando.

Reflected in the mirrored pieces of our shattered humanity, I recognize that Orlando did not occur because of guns or ISIS or insanity.

Rather the energy of hate compounded into senseless tragedy.  At Pulse nightclub, it was catastrophic. 49 lives lost on the bloody altar of hate. Ripples of mourning and loss and sorrow extend infinitely beyond that number.

But the energy of hate that led to that wasn’t singular. The hate between political parties. The hate among forms of Christianity. The hate between genders. The hate among sexual preferences. From gun owners to gun shunners, Southern “bless their hearts” to pulpit declarations of “for the Lord.”

Body-shaming. Mother-shaming. Zoo-shaming. Teacher-shaming. Sex-shaming.

Hate is rampant in our culture. And the worst part of it is that so many of us are self-justified in our hate.

I think about the little seeds of hate in my heart:

  • Lack of grace and patience for people not like me.
  • Bitterness and anger against those that have hurt me this year.
  • The refusal to boldly declare “I forgive you” to Dave’s apologies.
  • My acute anti-Trump, anti-Republican position.
  • My snap judgments of people, criticisms drenched in arrogance.
  • Internal eye-rolling at parents who let their kids out of their sight or annoying tourists on their phones.

Would I ever take a gun into a nightclub and decimate lives worthy of love?

No.

But aren’t my little seeds of hate invisible bullets of energy that slowly corrode peace?

Yes.

When I heard about Orlando, we were enjoying all the sunny delights of Cancun. But even there, I could not stop thinking about the short book of 1 John:

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light…Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer…love is from God…God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen…

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.

Not literally. At least not for everyone. But hate is an energy that threatens life and light and peace and hope and unity.

Hate turns “my brother” into “the other.” And living in a world of “the other” frees up warrant to hurt with weapons of mass destruction: energy. And as with the law of inertia, once energy is moving towards negativity, it will continue to do so.

Right into a nightclub of innocent victims.

And so I come back to this idea of making peace, not just praying for peace. What I do in the privacy of my own heart and home affects not only those nearest to me, but also the world. With what energy am I engaging? How do I close down my own mind’s gun shop, stacked with invisible bullets of hate?

Hate stops with me and my energy adjustments.

Love starts with me and my energy contributions.

Can you imagine a world full of individuals who did not just tweet condolences, but changed mindsets? A world bound by conversation instead of criticism? A world networked by threads of questions rather than accusations? A world rooted in common ground rather than straddling fault lines? A world of “and” instead of “versus”?

Hate stops with you and your energy adjustments.

Love starts with you and your energy contributions.


 

 

 

 

eroding into beauty

With the death of my Mom, my anxiety found new life. Like any parasite from a host, it crept into my veins and fed off my sanity, growing in strength while I grew in weakness.

Memories from this time flash all too slowly, too stubbornly, before my eyes. I remember the endless car ride back to her hospital in Chicago, racing against the clock of her pulse. Trapped in the suffocating space of my own mobile powerlessness, I physically felt death in my own body: heart racing, shortness of breath, uncontrollable fits of weeping, tremors that rocked my very foundation. I remember my terrorized eyes, next to my Mom’s closed eyes, near my sister’s side, looking up at my Mom’s kind doctor, asking for drugs to calm me down; anxiety now made me her only living patient in that room. I remember the feel of the bed that night, of the fuzzy blankets that to this day envelope me in the presence of my Mom, and the numb release those drugs brought me for a few hours of sleep…of denial. I remember months later, talking about these moments of anxiety along with the endless trail of ugly ducklings that ensue, my therapist’s words:

What if you imagined your body, your life, as an object, which like any other object, will inherently decay with time?

His question was designed to assuage the irrational fears that ate away at my sanity: I have cancer. I am riddled with tumors. I’m having a stroke. I have an aneurysm. I am dying.

I thought about the power of erosion as I lingered on the edge of the vast and majestic and overwhelming and wondrous and complex and gorgeous Grand Canyon. Layers of ocher shade into ebonies blur into grays cut against the hazy blue dome above. Horizontal lines on some ridges play tic tac toe with vertical striations on other towers. Ivory artery paths cut across plateaus and dip diagonally down canyon sides. And then the origin of this glory, the Colorado River: a mud-green snake, wide as a football field and a mile beneath, slithered in and out of sight, arching its back in white caps and bending around all red-rock obstacles.

Here is beauty. Here is destruction. There cannot be one without the other.

I cannot see this glory were there not the horror. I cannot be this wonder were there not the eroding.

Millions of years, billions of raindrop-tears rolling down the sides of the River’s face. Tons of rocks, sons and daughters of crumbling grief racing into the Abyss. Echoes of raging winds, let-gos and let-downs dancing into Destruction. Gravity carving without levity, cravings eroding into the Center.

Here is beauty. Here is destruction. There cannot be one without the other.

What if you imagined your body, your life, as an object, which like any other object, will inherently decay with time?

My Mom’s hands were like the Grand Canyon. Speckled russet from the sun. Gorged from the work ethic of West Virginia hills. Gnarled from the pain of so many Midwestern storms. Weathered from the weight of so many unmet norms. Twisted on themselves from the giver’s turning. Rooted in so many defeats and repeats and remembers and benders and whatevers and winners. One gold band, a circled audience, standing witness.

I miss those hands.

What if you imagined your body, your life, as an object, which like any other object, will inherently decay with time?

Here is beauty. Here is destruction. There cannot be one without the other.

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roaring chickens: how I found my voice

One of my Mom’s many stories was about how she kicked the bucket…literally:

I had a job stacking pails coming off a paint line. One of my bosses came in and told me to stack them one way, and so I did. Well, then, my other boss came in and told me to stack them a different way. So I did. Then the first boss came back in and asked: “Why are you stacking ’em this way and not the way I told you to?” Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I kicked those pails all over the place and turned to them and said: “When you two get your shit together, come and get me. I’ll be in the break room.”

This story can be filed under the motto of my Mom’s life of strength and fire:

You picked the wrong damned chicken to mess with!

For most of my life, I’ve been the perfect chicken to mess with. Being the youngest in the family, I fell naturally into the role of making peace. I didn’t want tension or drama at any cost, and so in my naivety, I’d be the go-between, trying to make all parties feel better. In my past jobs, I rarely spoke up, letting people run over me rather than dealing with the ramifications of protest. For my first years as an educator, I struggled in the middle-ground of blatant wrongdoings against our students and staff while wanting to keep my job. I was a woman whose voice burned within me, but sadly, never manifested externally.

During many of my conversations with my Mom, I was haunted by her persistent call to courage:

Mary, you can’t just let people run all over you.

Her deathbed words to me (though not on her deathbed, but on the owl-light-lit porch, in the darkness of night) were:

Mary, be strong.

Her conviction and her challenge have been planted in my deepest parts since she died in September of 2013. Slowly, painfully, the seeds have cracked open under the dirt of my grief, broken through the shattered pieces of my heart, and have reached toward the warm sun of her legacy. There, they bloom, while the birds’ songs harmonize with my own resurrected voice.

In this expansive field of flowers, I see and hear my Mom within me. I have cut toxic people out of my life. I have learned to declare and honor my protective no’s and my worthy yes’s. I say what needs to be said, shooting through the heart of the elephant in the room. I ask hard questions instead of making easy assumptions. I openly admit my faults but do not minimize my strengths. I talk to people instead of about them. I am the microphone for the voiceless. I foster discomfort, assured of the future benefits. I feel good in my skin, knowing I am Created. I have found my voice; I have rightfully claimed my voice.

For much of 2014, Katy Perry’s “Roar” would come on the radio…and it felt like my Mom was singing to me, reminding me of her strength and fire. This was my song, my anthem, of a life spent hiding, then finding my voice; like mother, like daughter; the wrong damn chickens to mess with.


This post was inspired by Synchroblog’s January prompt. Follow these yellow-brick-links to other ponderings!

the soul’s greatest threat: ADD

This little disease epidemic is popping up everywhere. In disgruntled hearts. In ungrateful mouths. In slanderous conversations. In the broken public education system. Beneath the broken hearts of Christians.  On job (dis)satisfaction surveys. At restaurants. In my soul.

ADD: Attentive to Deficit Disorder.

I first learned about ADD–though not known by that name yet, well, because I didn’t invent it yet :)–when getting my Master’s in Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Education. For students in our system who are emerging bilinguals, it is common to focus on what they lack (a foundation in English, parents who speak English, comfort navigating the American schooling principles, background knowledge, etc) rather than what they offer (flexible cognition, tenacity, diversity, varied background knowledge, a 21st century skill, etc). This deficit lens immediately and perpetually harms their potential–both for heart and mind learning in the classroom.

But ADD reaches into the adult hallways as well. Lingering in the air of my school lately is a heavy tension surrounding feedback. Teachers–me included–feel like there shouldn’t always have to be a next step. Can we just celebrate the good that’s going on in our classrooms? Just once? Of course, this stifling air is pouring in from beyond the walls of our building–a critical society of politicians and businessmen who in their ADD see fit to criticize our profession and demean our judgment. (Can I get a next step for them!?)

I saw and felt ADD in my Mom too. No matter what my Dad did, it wasn’t enough for her. No one at work could live up to her standards. We, her kids, strained to breath in the shadow of her martyrdom-to-negativity, encapsulated by her rally cry: “When it rains, it pours.”

Until she got breast cancer. The disease stopped her in her tracks, rewrote her map, and rerouted her direction. Did she become perfect? No, but her rally cry changed to “Well, I can’t complain; I’ve been blessed.” This will forever be one of the traits I admire most in my Mom: what should have proved to her that “when it rains, it pours” became a transition into a heart and life of thanksgiving. Even when she got cancer again, and then again, she declared her life as blessed.

Her prescription for ADD? Gratitude.

And this is without her earmarking The Secret or subscribing to “The Law of Attraction” or reading Ernest Holmes, who writes in This Thing Called You:

The barriers between you and your greater good are not barriers in themselves. They are things of thoughts. It is because of this that all things are possible to faith. Jesus summed up the whole proposition when he said, “It is done unto you as you believe.” In interpreting this saying, however, you must pause after the word as. Think about its meaning and you will discover that he was saying that life not only responds to your belief, it responds after the manner of your believing, as you believe. It is like a mirror reflecting the image of your belief.

As you believe.

Without using such succinct language, I’ve long pondered this with those closest to me. We’ve witnessed people in our lives with ADD: they never see good; they’re always complaining; their smiles are never deep; every good story has a “but” or an “if;” they seek commiseration from those around them; they are martyrs; they complain without changing; their conversations are tainted with passive-aggressiveness; they tear others down so they can feel better about their lives; they always play the victim but then conclude, deep-sighing “but, I’m okay.”

And as they believe, they just can’t catch a break, the sh** just keeps hitting the fan, spinning wildly above their heads on high, splintering the crap into tiny germs of toxic thinking that attracts more toxicity.

As they believe.

As you believe.

As I believe. This could be me. On my worst days, it is me, suffering from and for ADD. But I refuse to stay in this minefield-mindplace.

And just like my Mom learned and lived, I take my ADD medicine: gratitude.

My prescription as of late involves the delicious and divine words of of Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts:

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At the deepest diagnostic level of ADD is the distinction made by Tim O’Brien between the happening-truth and the story-truth. The events in my life are the truth, the happening-truth, the facts. But how I view them, how I count them and name them and interpret them, that’s the story-truth. Regardless of the events, I can tell the story however I want. I have that power, that choice, that authorship. Do I tell my story slanted with sorrow, burdened by ADD’s symptoms? Or do I tell my story, sanctified by sincere gratitude?

My Mom died last year. That is the happening-truth. But how do I tell that story? My Mom died too suddenly and how dare God do that?! or My Mom got what she wished, to end her life with her dignity in tact, dependent on no one, so thank you God! I choose the latter. Thank you. Again and again I choose the latter. Thank you. I refuse to succumb to the powerful hold of ADD.

My story-truths will be of gratitude, of thanksgiving, of blessing, as I believe.

Disclaimer: It would be negligent of me to conclude without a warning about the side-effects of ADD’s treatment plan of thanksgiving: DDD– denial of deficit disorder. There is a subtle but significant difference between positivity and faithfulness, between denial and gratitude. Positivity and denial leave a person consumed with “having to be happy” regardless of the happening-truth. They painfully push on (of course never on the surface, where there is always a smile) without the deep reflection and story-telling necessary to treat ADD. On the other hand, faithful and grateful people understand the severity of their happening-truths, while still instead scripting a story-truth of thanksgiving.

Guest Blog: The Husband’s Gratitude

So Mary asked me to write a guest blog. While I’m still not totally sure what that is, or that I can live up to the standard of a typical “Life in the Dport” post, here goes.

Like many others recently, I’ve been reflecting on gratitude and what it means in my life. While it’s easy to rattle off a top ten list that can look much like I just pulled it from Pinterest,thankful list I wanted to get a little deeper.

  • I’m thankful that I won the lottery. Not Powerball, mind you, (there’s always next year) but the social lottery. I was born a man, into a white middle class American family. Think about that for a minute, really let that sink in. Though I did nothing, I already had more of a chance to succeed in life because of those three things. White. Middle Class. Male. I never had to walk into a job interview and be immediately dismissed because I didn’t “look the part.” I’ve never had to worry about having the neighbors call the cops or being stopped by the police because I was in a new neighborhood or worse yet, committed the cardinal sin of running. I didn’t even earn my citizenship; it was bestowed on me simply…because.
  • I have clean water to drink and it’s only a few steps away. My mother-in-law had to fetch water from the creek, and that was after World War II. I also have incredibly easy access to food. So easy that I consumed more today than some kids may in a week.
  • I have a job. Because I live in a 1st world country, this implies many things. I don’t have to spend all day looking for food for myself and my family. Our society has advanced to a point that we have time for art, sports, hanging out and taking naps. I have disposable income and time to enjoy those things. Thanks to all the folks who sacrificed and fought the system, not only do I have a job, I earn at least a minimum wage and am compensated for all my hours worked.
  • I’m thankful for all of the bad crap that has happened to me. This one is a little hard to swallow. Everything that has happened in my life has shaped me. Everything, not just what I choose to view as the good stuff. In fact, sometimes it’s really only the meaning we assign to something that makes it “good” or “bad.” For several years I was part of a church that had some fairly toxic practices. When I left, I was bitter and had a hard time dealing with it. I felt like it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, a waste of several years of my life. But, I also met an amazing woman and convinced her to marry me. This church also helped shape my worldview and view on spirituality (sometimes you need to see how subtle control and intolerance can be close up to really open your eyes). So was this the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to me? It can’t be both. In reality it’s neither…the situation was the situation. The only meaning it has is what I give it, just like all of the other “bad” crap that has happened. I am thankful I do not have to allow it power over me.
  • I am thankful for the relationships I have had in my life. They have all helped make me who I am: my work ethic, my love of books and music, my tolerance and loyalty. Some of them I have known all my life, some for only one conversation but regardless, all have changed me and I am forever grateful.
  • As my parting gratitude, I’m also thankful for my dog Spooner; if only I could be half the person he believes me to be.

the puzzle of a positive learning environment: 10 pieces (glue included)

The adage goes something like this:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to play with that concept a bit:

Ask me a question once and I don’t have an answer–shame on you. Ask me the same question twice and I still don’t have an answer–shame on me.

Part of our district’s teacher evaluation system is how we build the learning environment for our students. I am grateful that I tend to score effective to distinguished in these categories. Once I was asked the question by my observer: how do you do it? If you’ve followed my blog at all, you know how much I care for my students; they’re like my own kids they are my kids and I strive to make my classroom feel like home. This is the why, but not the how, and honestly the reflection hasn’t gone much deeper than that; after all, teachers in our society–me included–very rarely focus on what we do well. For one, I don’t want to be considered as arrogant, or a braggart. Two, we are bombarded with messages that we are not good enough–both intrinsically and extrinsically. But just recently, another observer asked me the same question: how do you do it? After some digesting of the repeated question, I realized there is power in deconstructing how I do it, in naming the pieces–yes for others, but also for me.

So how do I put together a positive learning environment? Here are my puzzle pieces…

  1. Take your job seriously, but not yourself. The job of a teacher matters. It is a weighty responsibility to empower students with the tools to create a better future for themselves. And every day I approach my work in deference to that gravity. I plan intentionally, attending to the expectations of external standards while attuning to the needs of my students. I grade rigorously, ensuring that my AP classroom in the hood could give any privileged AP class a run for its [abundance of] money. I teach vigorously, always focused on a target with both explicit and implicit learning goals. I treat time like it’s a precious commodity in the classroom–and it is, because for so many of my students who are behind, I’m trying to teach them senior curriculum while simultaneously catching them up. I remain grounded in the present of my students’ abilities, all the while looking ahead and creating conditions that prepare them for college. However…all this does not mean I am a stoic. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I am just as passionate about humor as I am humanities. So I sing, rap, dance, burp, cry, cuss, dance, hug, joke, and laugh the deep belly echoes of bliss with my students. I make fun of myself. I intentionally use comic relief like the Old Bard himself… albeit not with that much finesse. Much of this self-deprecation lies in the art of code-switching-a skill my students also have to master. Sometimes I speak street, sometimes I speak in lyrics, sometimes I speak Spanish, and sometimes I speak academia…but always I speak with purpose.
  2. Expect nothing less than the best from students. For all my eight years in education, I have worked with underprivileged, at-risk youth. But really, I have worked with the underdogs of society. All an underdog needs is someone to believe in him/her–even when that’s missing intrinsically. And I do believe in every single one of my students. I believe in them so much I will not let poverty, emerging bilingual skills, or systematic oppression lower my standards for them. I. will. not. All their lives they have been told that they are behind and can’t do what other students can. I will not send that message. My students will read and write and listen and speak at collegiate levels. They will behave like responsible contributors in a community of learners. They will turn in work that makes their brains hurt. They will risk and fail. And I will stalk them until they try again, so they feel the victory of a hard-fought success. In the words of one of my former students: “Every time I walked into your classroom, I knew I was going to be productive because you wouldn’t let me do otherwise.”
  3. Be humble. I apologize to my students about once a week, at least. Sometimes I bomb a lesson. Sometimes I forget to make copies. Sometimes I mess up a grade. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m low in energy. Sometimes I’m unprepared. Sometimes I make hurtful assumptions. But always, I apologize. I do not project an image of perfection to my students. I reflect on how I’m trying to grow as an educator, the mistakes I make and how I’m trying to fix them, and the challenges I’m fighting. In this, I become a part of our community, instead of the one above it.
  4. Teach people, not stereotypes or statistics. From day one in my classroom, I get to know my students as human beings. I give them a survey about who they are. I ask for their music preferences. I tell them about myself. Then, I follow up with them–how’d the game go? how’s your aunt? are you feeling better? I recognize that my students are a series of stories, and to be written into that story, I need to know the plot and the characters and the setting. Though I expect nothing less than the best from my students, I also need to know what is their worst, and why it is happening. Ultimately this comes down to one key skill: questioning. I do not make assumptions (because when I do, I get in trouble). Instead, I question students about the why so that together we can work through the how.
  5. Teach stories (and skills) that matter to people in way that attracts people. Because I teach people, I teach stories that matter. In The Book Thief, we see that friendship allows us to endure any suffering; in The Bluest Eye, we see that our choices have lasting impact on others; in The Things They Carry, we see that stories are salvation. And that’s just semester one! We spend so much time in collaborative discussion because how people present themselves at interviews matters. We spend so much time revising our writing because the people who can articulate themselves are more likely to get what they want. We spend so much time analyzing, because people who know that all messages ultimately try to manipulate them have power. This does not mean I ignore standardized testing and expectations; it means that as the teacher, it is my job to interpret and convey those in a way that matters to people, and not just to the data gods. Part of that responsibility is the call to make learning fun, innovative, exciting, and interesting. In the words of a one of my former students: “Mrs D’s class wasn’t a class. It was the time of day where my mind was challenged and stretched into new ways of thinking.”
  6. Explain the why. Sometimes it’d be nice, and easier, and less time-intensive to just say “because I told you so.” But I, as a human being and learner, always want to know the why behind what I’m doing in meetings or in PD or in life. And so I approach my students with the same dignity. I work hard to explain our tasks in terms of skills needed for the world. I plan assignments and assessments that never constitute busy work, because my students deserve better. 
  7. Read the field and respond accordingly. Some days, when the majority of my students do not do their homework, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about time organization. Some days, when the mood in my classroom seems off, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about stress management. Some days, when I can’t get my kiddos to shut up and engage with the work, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes at teachable moment about values and responsibility. You see the pattern. I pay attention to my students, I ask them to be meta-cognitive, and then we find solutions. In addition to sending the message that their hearts and souls matter just as much as their brains, I hope these reflective skills transfer to their lives beyond the classroom.
  8. Build in social-emotional learning. I teach the standards because they matter. I teach stories because they matter. I teach meta-cognition because it matters. But I also teach social-emotional skills because they matter..the most. A classroom without a sense of community does not allow for deep and meaningful learning–especially for emerging bilinguals (Google “affective filter”). Social-emotional learning is the solid and hidden foundation upon which classroom management is laid, from which stories and stories of learning rise gloriously into the sky. The first weeks of our class are spent on community building. It is essential that we all know each others’ names, feel safe to take risks, as well as feel responsibility to hold each other accountable. We do circles about issues in their lives. We tell our stories. We do cheesy community builders. We make commitments. In the words of a former student: “Your personality and way of coping with us and our weird generation created such a great environment that I always enjoyed walking into your classroom, mentally prepared to learn.”
  9. Ensure all voices contribute, and all voices matter. It is essential in my class for ALL students to share. And it is essential for all students’ voices to be honored. To create this, I often do not give my own opinions during discussions. I also often do not respond to students’ comments. This creates a place where I am not the center of the conversation, but another voice in it. This also empowers students to find their voice and use their voice–in my classroom, but most importantly in the world. In the words of a former student: “No voice was left unheard and we always had safe environment to be ourselves.”
  10. Synchronicity. The stars have aligned so that I could teach. I feel blessed that God has made me with a unique skill set so that I could be a teacher. I view my job as a ministry of care and empowerment. When I go to work, I feel a divine synchronicity. I know this might not be the case for all teachers…and so I come back to the idea of “loving what you do and doing what you love.” Such an internal motivation for teaching is obvious to students…especially those who have seen teachers come and go. When they  know I want to be there, it’s more likely they’ll want to be there.
by Rabia

by Rabia

The final piece is more than a piece; it is the glue that holds everything together: love. I love my students. I treat them as my own. I speak to them from a place of love; I teach them from a place of love; I laugh with them from a place of love; I listen to them from a place of love; I build our learning environment from a place of love. And when I mess up, which I do, I am grateful that “love covers a multitude of sins.”


 

For all my teacher-blogging friends, I’d love for you to blog about your own puzzle pieces for creating a positive learning environment. Link to mine, and send me your link so I can include yours!

yoga, to me

The following is my first homework assignment for Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). The prompt: What is Yoga and Why I do I practice Yoga?

Yoga is a prayer. It is a moment to pause in humility, honoring the fact that I am created, and that in this creation I can do beautiful poses–or perhaps fall out of beautiful poses. In countless classes, I have carried the weight of those near and dear to my heart, and through yoga, I have sent them my energy. On my mat, I have interceded for them.

Yoga is a collective breath. It is syncopating with the rhythm of the person next to me, as he/she inhales and exhales deeply, a kind reminder to myself to do the same. Often on my mat, I take the biggest breath of the day, but also the quietest breath, a moment of peace.

Yoga is raising a white flag. It is the moving meditation which allows me to distinguish between what I can control, and what is beyond my control. It is the moving meditation which reminds me to let go of the latter, and be present to the first.

Yoga is a baptism into the present moment, the only moment that ever matters. On my mat, I sanctify my body, my mind, and my life. Through reunion with this, with here, with now, I am entering into the very heart of God–the perpetual I AM.

Yoga is stillness, like a delicate butterfly resting on a flower petal. It is the give and take of action and inaction, a moment poised in perfect balance.

Yoga is a minster, ever ready for my approach, ever insightful into my soul. On my mat, I learn how to move in harmony with my body. On my mat, I learn how to move in harmony through life. I am taught who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be. On my mat, I am taught how to approach the changing, the transition.

Yoga is a dance, the opportunity to approach the stage and risk. Sometimes I fall out of a pose, sometimes I cannot even try a pose, sometimes I feel like a ballerina, but always I am on my mat, trying and striving to detoxify, burn, sweat, transition, anchor, suspend, balance.

Yoga is growth, that one moment when I finally got crow, or I finally transitioned into a headstand out of wide-legged forward fold. On my mat, I am better than I once was, and it is marked distinction. On my mat, my heart swells with pride.

Yoga is the embrace of grace. On my mat, I surrender into child’s pose, unable or unwilling to go further. Letting go of ego, I focus only on what my body and heart are whispering to me. I notice… with grace. I release… with grace.

Yoga is a doctor, diagnosing and tending to root causes of my aches and pain. On my mat, I heal. On my mat, I feel whole.

Yoga is a fire, purifying me from the inside out. On my mat, all that serves me is fired like gold. All that does not serve me is burned to ash and left behind as I walk away.

Yoga is a rock, a moment to recognize the earth beneath me, the earth that is always beneath me, faithfully and steadily supporting me, holding me, honoring me. It is the center of the universe, and the center of my soul.

Jean Pierre de Caussade writes:

The divine will is a deep abyss of which the present moment is the entrance. If you plunge into this abyss, you will find it infinitely more vast than your desires.

I practice yoga because it is an entrance into the present moment, in which I can find the Divine–infinitely vaster than myself. march 2014 086

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