Sitting the Darkness with Her


Author’s Note: This has been written as a model essay for my students and the personal narrative essay they will be writing this week.

The Prompt: Describe a time when you have helped someone else or a time when someone else has helped you, how you feel about it, and how that situation has affected/impacted you and your life.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

I never thought the moment would come when I could possibly hold someone’s life in my hands. However, one autumn night in Brown County, Indiana, it did. One hardly thinks that the phone is going to ring in the middle of the night and one of your best friends will be on the other end of the line, her phone in one hand, and purportedly, a razor in the other. It only takes a moment for you to realize just how hard you will fight to help someone stay.

Several years ago, I was down in Brown County attending a Smekens (Reading and Literacy) retreat with two or three other teachers from Yorktown Middle School. The day’s workshops were over, and the 8th grade Social Studies teacher and I were relaxing in our hotel room, winding down and readying ourselves for sleep. It was late, past nine o’clock, when my cell phone rang. Picking it up, I saw my friend *Katherine’s name on the caller ID. I answered immediately, asking her what was up. It was unusual for her to call me on the phone; we usually spoke via Facebook messenger or Skype ever since she had finished college at Ball State University and moved back home to Ohio. I am not a phone-talker, not usually. I tend to prefer either text or face-to-face conversations. My friends know this so when one of them chooses to call me, I have no doubt that it’s likely important. This was.

When Katherine spoke, her voice was shaky, and I could tell she was crying. Through her muddled and muddied words, I was able to figure out that she was sitting alone in her bedroom, contemplating ending her life. Immediately, I jumped to my feet and walked out of my hotel room, searching for somewhere to have this private—and increasingly, critically important–conversation. Finally, I settled on a bench on the porch in front of the hotel complex, as it was deserted this late. Sitting there on that bench in the evening cool, I listened to my friend pour out her aching heart and soul and in return offered her my own, breaking itself at the thought of losing her. She had been through quite a great deal in the past few years. Her childhood had been tumultuous, with lots of ups and downs, biological and foster families involved. After that Katherine had gone through several difficult relationships, a hard breakup before she’d finished college, and then had moved back home to find setting up life as an adult to be far more challenging than she had anticipated. It was all extremely heavy and weighing on her. I had walked alongside her through the college breakup and her fear that, afterward, our circle of friends would discard her because “we had been friends with him first”. That time, too, I had sat outside on the phone with her and reassured her that I understood her fears. I was the “outsider” in the friend circle, too, and I had worried about just the same things if my relationship with my then-boyfriend-now-husband had ever gone sideways. Would I be ostracized? Would I lose the only close friends I had in this part of Indiana? And, unfortunately, she did lose some of those friends, as did we. They chose to “side” with him and, in his mind, if we weren’t with him, we were against him. It was sad and hard, losing friends always is. Now I listened to her pour out a new set of burdens that had been placed on her already loaded-down and bowed back.

I sat there in the deepening darkness of that porch and the darkness that she undoubtedly faced in her bedroom, and I listened and cried. I reassured her that she was indeed loved, that, no, she was not a burden on anyone, and that I would miss her terribly if she left. Never once did I tell her that she was being selfish or cowardly. Those were not words that she needed to hear, nor were they in any way true. No, what my friend needed then was reasons to stay. Reasons to put that razor down, reasons to let her heart keep beating and her lungs keep breathing. She needed reasons to stay alive, so I did my best to give her reason after reason that I could think of. I don’t remember how long we sat there on the phone together or what all I actually said, but, eventually, the tears slowed, the words cleared, and she let out a huge breath. It was the kind of breath you exhale when you’ve just put down something very heavy. She was going to stay. I exhaled, too, and told her how much I loved her again and again. She was going to stay.

Today, I am absolutely elated to report that Katherine is doing well. She sought out and received the help that she needed, she found and built a new, healthy relationship, has found stability, and is now healthy, happy, hearty, and whole. I am unbelievably proud of her and so very happy for the beautiful thing her life has become. Until that night, suicide was just something I had heard of. It was just another statistic, something far removed, second-hand stories that I knew to be true because friends had had friends who had attempted or succeeded. This moment brought it home to me, made it absolutely, extremely, frighteningly real, and I think it changed something in my heart and soul. Ever since then, I have worked very hard to make myself and the spaces I inhabit (my home, my Facebook page, my classroom, etc.) a place where people can feel safe. Safe enough to share their feelings, their joys, and their struggles. I want to be a person and a place where people know they aren’t going to be judged because they are having a difficult time; they aren’t going to be called lazy or cowardly or selfish or weak. I read, donate, and participate in groups and projects such as To Write Love on Her Arms and The World Needs More Love Letters. I want to hold space for others to be able to be themselves, whatever that means for them in that moment, and, with any luck, give them some encouragement, a prayer, a bit of love, and some hope. Hope that they can take the next breath. Hope that they can take the next step. Hope that they can face another day. I want to do my best to be a place where people can come and, hopefully, find that they want to stay.

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The Adjustment Paradox


Author’s Note: It took me a bit to pull my thoughts together on this, and I thank you for your patience, dear ones, and appreciate your continued prayers.

This summer has been all about adjustment. Adjusting plans, procedures, routines, responsibilities, and timing. My motto as a teacher has always been “Adaptation & Improvisation”. But you know what? Adjustment is exhausting, utterly so. Making plans and then have to adapt them or scrap them entirely and start over, that constant re-doing in order to make things turn out the way they should can completely drain you or drive you mad (whichever comes first). At the very least, it’s frustrating “making it all fit”. But how often might all that adjustment be obscuring something important?

I am the queen of making it all fit. I am the one who Tetrises the schedule, the budget, the house, the fridge. I am the one who figures how to make everything balance and work, how to make our world fit together to the best of my ability. But, at times, I catch myself wondering: just how much of that does God have to do for me? Does He end up having to arrange/re-arrange things in my world to help guide me through certain situations or toward a best outcome? While I know that it is perfectly within God’s scope and sphere to do so (and that I am positive He has done so in the past), it is still quite a surreal thought to consider that the Creator of the Universe might tut and sigh when He sees me turning the wrong way down the path of life and then start re-arranging His plans for me, much as I might re-arrange my driving routine to get around construction and to home. And yet, I could probably point out several poignant places in my life where I am fairly certain some adjustments had to be made by God because this stubborn child of His decided to skew off into left field.

How often do I let myself become so riddled with anxiety and stress due to an adjustment that I miss what’s right in front of me? An answer or a pathway so lovingly-provided? Or I get so anxious about an adjustment that I actively shy away from or unwittingly sabotage a chance, change, or opportunity because of the adjustment that would come along with it? I am so thankful that God is not exhausted by adjustments, by adaptations, by me, because let’s be honest: I am exhausted by me most days. I am in a season of adjustment right now but also a season of waiting, which is a very strange place to be as I am having to adapt and adjust life and yet not seeing what I would probably call any kind of change on the horizon. Then again that’s why we call it faith: the hope of things not yet seen.

I have things that God has put on my heart, prayers and hopes that I am not even close to understanding yet, that I am holding loosely in my hands and holding out before Him every day. I do not know what God has planned for me in the days, weeks, and months to come, but I do know that He has not failed me yet. That promise I will not hold loosely; that promise I am going to cling to. How could I do anything less?

Preparing for Perhaps


I don’t really know how to begin here. I want something pithy, such as “When The Start Feels Too Much Like a Start”, but, at the same time, it feels like I would be trivializing what I want to talk about. And I’m too tired for trivial. (Case in Point: I started writing this blog post two weeks ago.)

Today marks fourteen days into the new school year, and I am utterly exhausted. It feels as though there never was a break between May and now. I just blinked, that’s all. The students are just about done honeymooning. I’m pouring out energy on top of energy as I have worked to figure out my daughter’s school arrangements, too. I’m already losing control of the cleanliness of the house (and, as I drafted this two weeks ago, I realized that I had forgotten to leave a note for my husband to turn over the laundry when he got up!). Life is busier than ever.

On the first day of students’ return, as I prayed before slipping out of bed to start the day, I found myself requesting something quite unexpected.

“Lord, if you have something else for me, please start preparing me for it.”

Now I say that this is unexpected, not because I haven’t wanted to do something other than teaching, because I have definitely thought about it, but because I honestly am unsure of just what that “something else” would be. I’ve said this since the beginning: teaching was ever the only plan. There was never a Plan B. So, if God does indeed have something else in mind for me, it begs the question of what exactly it could be.

Here are some truths:

  • I am good at teaching. I am. I am knowledgeable, and I do a good job at passing that knowledge along in an understandable way to my students.
  • I cannot remember a Sunday night when I was excited about going to work the next day and only a handful of days in the past nine years that I ever felt so about coming to school. I don’t necessarily joy in it like some teachers do. It takes a lot.
  • I do enjoy emotional education. Those are the lessons and discussions that I find my heart pouring out in: teaching students to be empathetic, show love, have courage, and be kind.

Part of me aches to do something else, something new, but, at the same time, the idea of such change and upheaval is profoundly frightening and stressful. But I will keep on praying this prayer, and I hope that I am not just being a stubborn Jonah.

 

When you are Forced to Single Step


As I pointed out earlier this year, I am not good at taking “just the next step”. My brain is a mess and machination of often-escalating worries, what-ifs, and contingency plans. Recently, however, I was forced—yes, I do mean forced—to take a single step at a time through what was, for me, quite a crisis. Did I like it? No. Did I enjoy being reminded my dearly-beloved husband that I needed to single-step? Not really. Did I even want to take those single steps? No, not really again. I was hoping against hope that it would just resolve itself but, like a myriad of problems in life, it just doesn’t work that way. Did my brain run away with me with the withertos, whyfores, and what-ifs? Oh, my heavens, YES!

But I had no choice. I could only take the next step in the process in order to be sure of anything at that point. I had to take it step by step. Instead of me running 100 steps ahead, I was forced to only take a single step at a time. And, while nerve-wracking, everything turned out fine. In fact, something extra good that I was hoping to accomplish was able to get started out of the whole affair. In the end, I find myself somewhat thankful for it all.

As the summer begins its exit, stage right, all too quickly and I can see the school year bouncing on the balls of its feet in the wings, I am again facing a situation where I will need—probably with copious reminders—to take just the next step. There are many changes that will come with this school year. I will have my largest 8th grade class yet (between 160 and 170 students, and I teach all of them); we have a new principal of our school; and I am implementing curriculum changes that, while I think they will be good, will take some serious getting used to and will likely be far from perfect for this year. Am I nervous? Yes. Am I scared even? Yes. I am nervous and scared at the beginning of every school year. 100+ new faces, 100+ new names to place with them, curriculum to implement, adjust, and differentiate for varying skill levels.

Yes, I am always nervous before school begins. But I can’t take all the steps at once there either, can I? I am forced to take one step at a time. One day at a time. Now that my curriculum is done and approved and I have finished gathering supplies for my classroom, I can focus on my next steps: class syllabus and About Me presentation for the first day of school. One step at a time.

As you move through today, through this weekend and the coming week, don’t be afraid of just the next step. I know it’s maddening. I know it’s nerve-wracking. But it will be okay, dear one. Even when it feels like it may not, it will be. Just take one step at a time. That’s all you can take. It’s all you can do. But it is everything.

one step at a time

Sneaky Houses


On the way to my girl’s preschool, just across from the golf course, there is a row of houses. These houses are all set back from the road a bit, their driveways curving down into little valleys with the buildings nestled behind and in the deep cool green of ancient trees. My husband calls them “sneaky houses”.

I love sneaky houses. I love how they nestle there behind the treeline, screened, protected, and partially hidden. You can see them but only if you’re looking. If you’re not paying attention, you’d drive right by them. They hide there in plain sight, their beauty just barely peeking out. You have to look for them to find them. I also love that they are like people, particularly the people who have become the dearest and most special to me. Just like those sneaky houses, if we can look past what barriers people have been erected, the protections that have been hewn out, sink into the deepness of them, we may just find them even cozier and more welcoming than we originally thought.

Yes, I really do love sneaky houses.

The Next Right Thing: Soulcare


Today, as I drove my daughter to summer daycare, I was dressed and ready for what has become a routine for me. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday–as best I can–I hit the gym in the early morning. During the week, I do so after I drop my girl off at daycare (I call it summer school with her) and the other days, when my husband is off work, I leave the two of them asleep and slip out before our day together has begun. I did not get the luxury of going to the gym and working out on my own hardly at all during the school year because of scheduling, location, etc. So, this summer, I determined to get that back. To work on regaining my strength and tone and generally doing something just for me. And, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it.

This week has been harder, however. The weekend ushered in a downswing in my emotions that has been hard to kick. Rationally, I acknowledge that the cause could be a combination of several different things that are physically beyond my control, but that doesn’t make it any easier to endure, does it? I have tried to go about my normal routine of working out, running errands, and taking care of some teacherly work (curriculum revisions for the new year), but, as I drove this morning, I found myself making a decision. Or, rather, I found myself asking a question, and this is what it was.

Does my soul need care more than my body does today?

In other words: is going to the gym what I need to do today or is the right thing to do something else?

As you know, my reflection focus for this year has been on doing the next right thing, taking just the next step. So I asked myself what was the next right thing for me today?

The overwhelming reply that filled me within was: “Soul care over body care today.”

That does not mean that I cannot or won’t still take care of my body. For me what that means is today is not a day to traipse myself out to the gym. Today, the next right thing was to come home, to stay in, to closet and care for me and my soul. So I came home, I opened up my laptop, and, in the quiet of my kitchen and solace of my earbuds, I listened to an episode of Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing podcast. Episode 36: “Stay in Today”. Sounds utterly perfect, right?

Oh-ho! But wait! It gets better.

This episode wasn’t anywhere near what I thought it was going to be. It wasn’t about staying in and closeting yourself for self care at all. Instead, what Emily talked about was infinitely more poignant and pointed for me today. She spoke about just this very topic: doing the next right thing. Just the next step, not a hundred more down the figurative road. During this episode, Emily stated something about herself with which I identify 100%:

“No one needs to tell me to make things complicated.”

Making things complicated is easy for me. As she listed off examples of how she manages to complicate things for herself, I might as well have been doing a hallelujah dance on the other end of the internet connection, because everything she does, I do, too. As I stated in my first blog post of this year, I am not good at sticking to limitations. I am not good at just taking one step. If I don’t actually take a few more, just in case, my brain will certainly precede my feet there. I can imagine a whole year down the road and feel guilty about not accomplishing things that I haven’t even attempted yet. I can think myself into tears over an imagined conversation where a pretend person states fictional disappointment in me, my work, my mothering, etc. I am not good at taking just the next step, doing just the next thing.

But today I am going to try, starting with sitting in the quiet and listening to that God-appointed podcast (really, His timing and leading were perfect). Then writing this blog post.

Today, I want to tenderly hold, fill up, and care for my soul as well as my body, because I cannot live without either.

Space to Breathe


Written Sunday, May, 20, 2018

I love Indiana mornings in the late spring and into summer. There’s a stillness to the mornings: the birds singing over their breakfasts, the leaves rustling. No cacophony  of the day yet, just the sounds of the world waking up, beginning. My soul can breathe in these moments, not pant in the rushing or gasp in the lack of space. In these mornings, I can truly “taste and see that the Lord is good”. I can drink in the quiet, breathe, and remember why I love living where I do. There are still so many lovely places left for me to discover, moments of peace I’ve yet to have, of beauty I’ve yet to witness.

Right now, immediately right now, all I want is to go for ad rive to somewhere beautiful in the countryside. It’s all I’m thinking about in this morning, honestly. I just want the sun and the breeze and away from the noise of life. I want rustling leaves, rushing and babbling water, freshness, and clean air. Maybe on Memorial Day or something, I can make this happen somehow, or at least sometime soon.

I have been lacking space to breathe lately, space for my soul to just be and feel. Even when my daughter is abed, I’m still Mommy that waiting just in case she wakes up. I’m still Wife who frets about what housework still needs to be done. I rarely have spaces where I can just be Mel, where my soul can breathe instead of pant or gasp. I want more of them, I need more of them. I want to breathe, both lungs and soul.

So that is my goal for this summer: to breathe.

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