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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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.

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What If I Have Stepped Wrongly?


Author’s Note: I started writing this back in late February/early March and it was really quite heavy then.

The question is always there in the back of my brain, pricking at my mind and my heart. What if I step wrongly? What if I put my foot in the wrong spot, step into a hole, and break my figurative ankle? What if I step before I’m supposed to, or I hesitate and miss my chance? Then what?

The past few months, I have been weary-worn. That’s exactly how I feel: constantly weary  and worn thin. As Bilbo would put it, “‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 42)” I’ve been sick; I’ve been busy with work; exhausted when I get home; and what is usually meant to help restore and recover my spoon seems to use up my dwindling store even more. This is unusual: the constant weariness, this overhanging gloom. And I can’t help but wonder.

Did I take a wrong turn or a wrong step somewhere? Did I leap before I looked, decide before I discerned? Did I step wrongly? Now, I do not believe in a “that’s what you get” God. I do not believe that, if I did step wrongly, he’s sitting on by with hands folded and a harrumph of “Serves you right for not listening”. I do believe that God allows us to make mistakes and our own decisions, even if they turn out to be the wrong ones for us. I also believe that he is waiting to help us find our way again, even if it needs must be by roundabout.

But is that what I’m dealing with here? Or is it something else? Have I misplaced my priorities and therefore my energy? Have I stepped wrongly? I have to admit that, sometimes, I feel like Job, leaving aside the obvious differences in our difficulties.

“Is not all human life a struggle? Our lives are like that of a hired hand, like a worker who longs for the shade, like a servant waiting to be paid. I, too, have been assigned months of futility, long and weary nights of misery. Lying in bed, I think, ‘When will it be morning?’ But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn. (Job 7:1-4, NLT)

I’ve only ever been in therapy during one season of my life and even then it wasn’t very long. So a question I am daring to ask myself and pray about is if perhaps I am suffering from more than just exhaustion, and, frankly, it’s a scary thought for me. Having been raised in the Caribbean, it’s very true that Indiana winters can be hard on me–the long dark, the gloom, and the cold. This winter it has been especially hard to shake, hard to find my way back to me. Now, as spring begins to come into itself fully, I feel a little lightening of my spirit. Is that what it was? Or was there, is there more to it? The truth is that I don’t know. But I will keep praying, keep examining, keep trying to pay attention. I only hope that, if I feel that nudge in my heart and gut, I will have to courage to actually pick up the phone, sit in the chair, and ask and answer the hard questions. I don’t know if I am brave enough for that yet so I would appreciate good thoughts, hopes, and prayers as I process through this and keep an examining eye on myself and my heart. Thank you.

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Works Cited: Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Lord of the Rings, Part 1.

Stepping into the New Year


Today was our teacher work day ahead of the start of the spring semester. Honestly, last night, day one hadn’t even begun yet and I was already ready to quit. Just thinking about it made me tired, exhausted. So, today, I gave myself some very pointed instructions: take care of what absolutely must be done for Monday and Tuesday to flow as smoothly as you can manage. The rest can wait until later in the week. And I stuck to those self-imposed limitations for the most part. I stuck to it rather well, actually.

I’m not good that: sticking to limitations. I end up having arguments with myself that go rather like this.

Only go this far.

But—there’s so much to be done! Just a little more.

No, you’re going to get overwhelmed and freak out.

I’ll be…

You’re freaking out, aren’t you?

Yeah.

I am not good at sticking to limitations. I am not good at just taking one step. I feel the need to take several more, just to make sure. Just to make absolutely sure that everything that needs to be done is done, every possible preparation is made, every security I can manage put into place to assure that things go as closely to how they need to go (read: how I want them to go) as possible.

This year, the odds are good that there may come quite a few situations that I will feel overwhelmed by and thus be tempted to take extra steps to try control said situations. My challenge and journey this year will be in taking just the next step. Not running ahead, not taking a few extra steps “just in case”, but in taking just the next step that I feel God has led me to take. And then wait.

When I was a child, I attended a private church-school and, every morning, we said the pledge to the Bible. I pledge allegiance to the Bible: God’s Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

“A lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” If you know anything about lamps, then you know that their circle of light doesn’t go very far. It will light your feet for the next step but only the next step. One step at a time.

This year, I want to lean into taking just that next step. Just the next step that I feel led to take. Faith, patience, courage, trust…all of these things lead into this action. I want to be better at it, at them. That is my goal for this year, that is my lesson, my learning: to take just the next step. The very next step. That’s all.

 

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Growing into My Bigness


I have written before about being small, about feeling like I need or am expected to hide myself, make myself less, be less. However, I was hit with something several weeks ago as I again sat thinking about it. Being small is not as sudden a thing for me as I thought it was. As I sit and think and reflect, I can actually see the different lessons and admonitions towards being small that I have been given all throughout my life, not just in the past decade. It’s not as recent a thing as I thought it was. I’m looking back over my life and finding points along the way where I was taught to be small, to take the blame for others’ dislike. I learned that I needed to be small, that if I were too big, too bright, too…whatever, it was my fault if people got upset or didn’t like me. It’s kind of jarring to realize that it’s not as recent an emotional/behavioral habit as I thought it was.

I was taught to be small as a child. On school awards nights, I was taught by my peers to feel embarrassed by rather than proud of my achievements. My classmates would turn to me as I returned to my seat and tell me, “You should just stay up there [on the platform]. You’re gonna get everything anyway.” I felt the snide remarks all the way down to my bones, whether to be snide intended or not.

In middle school, I was taught to be small by the cute boy who pretended to like me and be my boyfriend for an entire week. Then, mercifully(?), a “friend” outed the joke. And it really was a joke because, seriously, who could ever like a nerd like me?

As a teenager, I was taught to be small because my fashion style was dressier than other girls in my social sphere and it might make them look bad. I was taught to be small when classmates rolled their eyes and made fun of the books I read, that I took solace in, and when they grumbled because I could play my part in concert band, even though their inability was a result of their lack of practice and nothing on my part.

In my twenties, late bloomer that I am, I was taught to be small when I perceived that I could not shine or revel in my own beauty because it would make others feel less happy about themselves, even though I had absolutely no control over that. If I could just step back upstage a little, not be quite so much in the light, that’s it…right there on the edge, that’s good. I can see it in photos now, recognize it for exactly what it is, and it hurts.

There are people in my life who have taught me to be small with the same breath that they used to admonish me for not “seeing how beautiful I am”. I’m sure they never realized or considered that that was what they were doing but it was. It’s sometimes hard, very hard, to hear “you’re beautiful” at the same time as being told that you make others jealous or unhappy. Suddenly, “beautiful” becomes not quite such a good thing; “beautiful” becomes something that brings pain to others, to ones you care about, so, obviously, “beautiful” is something that I should try to be less of. Me is something that I should try to be less of.

Though I have made progress (and I do mean quite a bit of it), I still battle the perception that I need to be small, less, duller. I question, I temper, I demure, I stick myself in a corner and keep quiet. Being small became a habit, born out of a desire to never hurt anyone, to be the cause of hurt, or a bone of contention. And so, sometimes, I still fall into its trap. If you have been taught to be small, believe me: you’re not alone. But you know what? We can “grow into our bigness”, as a dear friend once put it. I am growing into my bigness, into my role in my own life. I can stand. I can shine. I can strut. I can star. It is okay to be big in our own lives. It’s okay to be comfortable in our skin and unapologetic for it, to be unapologetic for our selves in our unique beauty and us-ness. Sure, we have our cracks, our flaws, our problems. But those do not negate us or our humanity or our worth. They do not make us monsters or beings who can be nothing but less-than. All that makes us is human. Humans, men, women, who do not have to be small. We are who we are, made as we were, and we do have something worth being, worth giving. Bigness doesn’t happen all at once; it’s a growing, like when we were children. It’s a process. But we can get there, you and I. God made us for big things; things that only we can do or be or create or give.

Even though you and I might have been taught to be small, we don’t have to stay there. We don’t have to believe that we have to be small or less. We can grow into ourselves,  rise up into our bigness, and we need not fear it.

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Hold But Gently


A year ago, I posted an article about seeing others and being seen by others and just what such a venture takes on either/both sides of the mirror. As I thought about that in the context of gentleness, I realized just how much that it [gentleness] is also a requirement of seeing and being seen.

In order to see others in their all, in their good and their bad, in their not enough and too much, we need to be willing to hold them gently, hold them loosely. We need to allow them to tremble and shudder but remain near. We need to not hold them too tightly but still stay close in their hard. Not to squeeze too firmly but to let them step back and breathe when they need to do so. To see someone, we must hold them gently and let them know that they are safe, un-judged, and free to be themselves, whatever that may mean.

Gentleness also goes hand-in-hand with being seen. In order to be seen, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to believe that, yes, someone does in fact want to be a friend to our flawed self. Yes, someone does in fact care, and, no, we are not being a burden on their lives. They care about and love us and we can at least show ourselves enough gentleness to let them.

Being seen is frightening and dangerous. Let’s hold ourselves gently in our fear, reminding ourselves that rejection, though it will hurt if it happens, it will not be the end of us. We may be busted but we won’t be broken beyond repair. We may be hurt but not beyond healing. On the other side, we may find ourselves met with arms wide open and our heart cradled gently in loving hands. It is always the chance we take and the hope we harbor: being seen and accepted.

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