Word of the Day

My first thought as I wake up these days is “What’s the word of the day, God?”

It’s been an interesting practice because I often get words I didn’t anticipate but, as the day wears on, turn out to be just right.

Quiet.

Patience.

Presence.

On this gorgeous fall day I woke up in the majestic Yosemite, a trip I take twice a year with a group of women who are my personal and professional mentors. Women who at once make me laugh and cry, who will always tell me the truth, who will always honor my truth, who lift me up to the light with pride in the knowing that they are as a part of me as anyone else I know.

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And, like all other mornings, I woke up this morning with my question, “So, God, what’s the word today?”

Mediate.

I have been working almost two years on meditation. I go in spurts, sometimes every day but often not. Lately, I haven’t meditated at all. It wasn’t a surprise, this word, because I know in my heart it’s what I should be doing. Like writing. Like exercising. Things I know to be at the core of my soul and things I resist with great intensity.

I’ve known for many years about resistance, but I thought it a passive thing that existed in the form of excuses and complaints that masked fears I knew were there but could not quite explain. This weekend, however, I’ve come to a whole new understanding of Resistance.

A couple months back I heard an interview with author Steven Pressfield about his book called The War of Art. I only heard bits and pieces of the whole interview, but what I did hear stirred me deeply. I ordered the book right when I got home.

It sat on my desk ever since.

Then early Thursday morning I started packing for this weekend. I usually bring three or four books with me on this trip; this time, though, I thought I’d only bring one (because that’s all I usually read anyway).

I looked from my book shelf to my desk at this book, sticking out from under a pile of papers yet to be dealt with, papers with lists of ideas and partial outlines and articles—all the writing I want to be doing but am not yet doing. This stack of papers with the book at the bottom sat on my desk under a picture of a woman running, exercise I want to do but am not yet doing, next to a candle I light when I mediate, something I want to do but am doing no longer.

A theme, you say? I agree.

That’s the book I want, I thought. As I pushed the papers aside to grab the book, I knocked over the unlit candle with the rough edge; it caught the picture of the woman running and tore it. I did not see that as a domino until now, three days later, writing this story as I sit in a bed in Yosemite with the window open and the river running by me not twenty yards away.

Why now? I was obedient to the word God gave me: Meditate, the first action word in the weeks of words that have come. Before I got to this bed by the window to write, I spent the afternoon in the warm sun of this most Divine place doing just what I was told to do.

But three days ago standing in front of my desk with the book in my hand I swore at the knocked over candle and the mess of papers and the torn picture. Then I stuffed the book in my bag and put the bag by the door because I was late for work.

When I got to work my friend, also my boss, also a woman on this trip, uncharacteristically approached me in the office about writing. She said she was ready to publish her book and asked me to help her do it. Honored, we chatted briefly and I mentioned, pretty much off-topic and definitely unprompted, that I was waiting to publish the memoir I’ve written because it didn’t yet feel quite right.

“That’s Resistance. You need to read The War of Art.”

Are you kidding me?

So I’m here writing this story, having finished The War of Art an hour ago and having finished meditating down by the river just minutes ago. I’m writing because out of my mediation came one word.

Write.

Interestingly enough, I initially went down to the river not to meditate, but because these women I love are so damned loud this weekend I just couldn’t stand to be in the house one minute longer. We’ve been coming here for sixteen years and never in those sixteen years have I been down by the water. I even had to ask how to get down there.

“Um, the stairs?”

There’s stairs?

The main floor of the house sits up high with an expansive deck that looks over gorgeous rocks and flowing water. I sit out on that deck quite a bit, especially when the weather is as perfectly calm and warm and beautiful as it is today. But because these women I love are so loud this weekend, the deck was not far enough away. And, come to find out, there’s a set of stairs that will take me right down where I want to be.

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Meditate.

It hit me as I got to the bottom of the stairs, the stairs that were always there waiting to bring me down here, stairs that I had never known existed.

Right, today’s word is meditate. So off I went on a walking meditation to contemplate this entity called Resistance. According to Pressfield, I need to call on the angels to help me wage war against this very active source of energy by virtue of hard-ass work. In return for my openness to the words that come not from me but through me, the angels will reward me not only with inspiration, but also with the sustenance that comes to me only through writing. It calms me. It fuels me. It nourishes me.  In order to earn those things I have to be a professional and to be a professional I have to work like a professional.

Interestingly enough, the question of how did not surface. Instead, a knowing came to town. A knowing that these concepts are ones I’ve innately understood from the beginning but instead of acting on them I’ve allowed Resistance to take charge. For the last two years I’ve been an amateur writer. I’ve also been an amateur athlete and an amateur meditator. Three things that I know will turn the volume up on my life, things that will make the birdsong more clear and the sky more blue, I’ve left those things to the whim of Resistance. I’ve grappled and lashed and cried and yelled because I knew what I had to do but for some reason I just couldn’t do it.

Then, in recent weeks, I got quiet. I didn’t meditate or write or exercise, but I did stop fighting. I realized all that lashing was doing nothing but locking me into unhappiness even harder. Like struggling with the finger trap you get out of a child’s vending machine, only when you stop fighting can you truly be free.

In recent weeks I’ve started to say out loud that this is my last year in a traditional classroom. More surprising, I’m saying out loud “I don’t know” when people ask what’s next and I calmly add, “but I know something just right is out there waiting for me.”

What kind of triple-type-A person have I become? I’m a planner and a doer and a go-damn-getter. Recently, though, I haven’t been. I’ve been doing things like asking God what my word is for the day and, instead of panicking about the ridiculous amount of things I have to do in any given day, I just trust there will always be enough time to get them done. I’ve been floating like a leaf in the river, slow and steady, the back of my head cool and light with my ears just below the surface so I can hear the calming water pull me along ever so gently, ever so gently, ever so gently.

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When I stopped walking I found myself on the river’s edge. My eyes adjusted and my gaze landed on a place where the calm, slow water starts to pick up in this spot as it slides still gently but with more speed through the rocks. A blue-gray squirrel with a tail longer and fluffier than any I’ve ever seen bounced from rock to rock across the river and up the bank as I realized that God brought me here to look back and see my path. God brought me here to look forward and see my direction.

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God brought me here.

And here is just right.

The Curve Ball

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 3.48.44 PMI’ve made it clear to the universe and my family and friends that this will be my last year teaching in a traditional classroom in a traditional high school. Something else awaits and, while I know not yet what it is, I know that something exists. Something that does not deplete this introvert’s energy so completely, something that does not weigh on this soft heart so heavily, something that, after 19 years of teaching high school, will offer me a new and exciting professional challenge and will allow me to use my gifts in a way that serves me as much as it serves others. It’s out there and I trust it’s bought a ticket to get to me and it will be here sooner rather than later.

And yet.

I walked to the computer lab from my classroom today, all the way down one hall, through and down the breezeway, and all the way down another hall.  The whole way there I was greeted with smiles and hugs and high-fives and kindness. Doors were held open, papers I dropped were picked up, offers were made to carry my bag. This relentless warmth from students past and present, sent my way for particular reason other than they saw me walking down the hall, filled my chest with breath and made my eyes wet with tears.

I met my third period at the computer lab where the big topic of conversation was the SAT’s most will be taking tomorrow morning. So many worried about such a high-stakes test, more so than the average set of seniors because these kids are almost all first-generation college students who see higher education as the way out of the struggle most of them live as a daily way of life. Their grades are great, their extra-curriculars are strong, their habits—considering they are still teenagers—are mostly solid. The only thing standing in the way between them and their dream school is this one test and they are scared to death.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do in a situation such as this. We set the study of leading economic indicators aside and we had a Life Skill Moment.

“Here’s what I know,” I said. “You are all wonderful, smart, capable young adults who will go on to make this world one I want to grow old in. My SAT scores were low and I didn’t get into the big impressive schools I wanted to get into as a result. You know what? I ended up exactly where I was meant to go. Exactly. I got an outstanding education at a beautiful school, made life-long friends, met the man who became my husband, and have gone on to live the American dream many of you so desperately want.

“Letting one stupid-ass test get between you and that dream is one stupid-ass choice. It’s one test on one day in your whole entire life. If it goes well, great; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Any school that is going to turn you away because of how you scored on one test is no school you want to attend anyway.”

They looked at me, eyes wide.

“Did she just say ‘stupid-ass’?” one student whispered.

“I think she did,” replied another.

Eyes wider. Mouths opened. And then the clapping. And then the cheering. It reverberated down the hall so loudly that another teacher came into see if we were ok.

Yeah, we’re ok, I mouthed and nodded. We’re actually great.

Who leaves this? Who walks away from kids who are so anxious to show you their love and appreciation? What kind of “something” could possibly give me more reward than this thing?

And yet.

Next to parenting, this is the hardest work that exists in the world. To be a teacher, a great teacher, it takes the deepest and most honorable kind of intention and thoughtfulness—on levels both academic and human—not to speak of the hours both at home and at school.

I’ve been doing this work all of my adult life. Teaching is just what I do. It’s as natural and close to my heart as mothering. I don’t know how there can possibly be another job that is better suited to who I am and what I do.

I also don’t know that there is another job that is least suited to who I am and how I do it.

It seems there is no easy answer. It seems that just when I think I have it figured out, God throws me the curve ball called “Are You Sure?”

I am sure.

And yet…

Traveling Tuesdays Part V: Mind the Gap

(Author’s Note: I’ve since rediscovered where I got the idea for “Mind the Gap.” It’s from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, Chapter 5. If you don’t yet have that book, I highly recommend it!)

Paris and Rome are very different places. Both cool in their own way, both fashionable in their own way, both beautiful in their own way, both have kind people who, when they see you in need will come to your aid with their culture’s version of kindness which, while different, is both kind in its own way.

Notice in the repeating phrase “in their own way.” That’s because, while they are similar, they are, in fact, *very* different places.

After ten days in Rome living in the neighborhoods and eating in the restaurants and delighting in the gelaterias of locals, were were feeling pretty Roman. Imagine our surprise when our four American-Roman selves landed in Paris. No coffee on the bus? No old women on the metro? No chain smoking men whistling at me as I go up the stairs? What the hell is going on here?

Another big difference? This city is crazy clean. And by crazy clean I mean, crazy clean. There is no complaint here for gone are the polluted skies and graffiti and trash in the gutters. Everything sparkles like new, even when it’s hundreds of years old. It’s absolutely beautiful. But different.

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The metro system is also so different; in fact it took us several days to figure out how to navigate it. We were told Paris has the best metro system in the world but for those few days it just felt like the most confusing one.

And then one day I started to feel like I was getting a handle on it. We had walked for two hours–two hours–the night before because we couldn’t figure the transportation situation in relation to the construction going on at several train stations where we could have transferred.  As you can imagine, my sons just about lost their minds on that two-hour walk, especially considering it occurred after walking all day in Versailles.

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Here’s one clear similarity: crowded and hot. No difference there. July in Paris is just like July in Rome with regard to those two little gems.

“What the heck, Dad?” is how our two-hour walk began, but I couldn’t let Craig take the fall. There was construction everywhere and our geographical challenge, this time, was a mutually created problem. As we began the trek home that we thought would be only about a half hour–maps in Paris, different–soon enough we separated into our usual walking pattern. Craig and Jackson head down and leading the charge up front while Tommy and I took in the sights and entertained ourselves in the back.

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After about an hour, we started go get punchy.

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“Too legit, too legit to quit! Bau, bau!” I was lead singer. This doesn’t happen very often in my family so I was making the most of it. Soon enough, Tommy cut in on my action.

“Too legit, bau, too legit to quit! Bau, bau, ba, ba, bau!”

“Tommy, I’ve told you three times, that’s not how it goes.”

“Well, maybe that’s how it should go,” he responded. “Let’s call MC Hammer when we get home and suggest it. Hey, wait, did his mom name him ‘MC?'”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think that’s AWESOME! I’m Hammer MC Hammer, go Hammer, MC Hammer! Too legit, bau, too legit to quit! Bau, bau, ba, ba, bau!”

It went on like that another hour. Craig and Jackson tried to be annoyed, but they couldn’t because our way of getting through this torture was far more fun than theirs. About a half hour into our show they laughed but soon after got very quiet. We tried to mind our manners, but we just ended up laughing even louder which irritated them to no end. The did manage to keep their cool, though, and when we finally got back to the apartment they went straight to bed without dinner. MC Tommy and I, exhausted and blistered, went back out to get a burger.

The food. Let’s pause for a second about the food. With the exception of the burgers, the food was not so great. Not terrible, but not great. Not even in its own way.

At any rate, this traumatic/entertaining two-hour walk stiffened my spine and the next morning I set out to make the metro work for us. No more is it going to take down my family. I OWN this metro.

Turns out, attitude is everything. We rode that thing like pros from then forward.

Once the stress loosened it’s grip I noticed something new. Every time we get to a stop on the metro a recorded voice asks me to mind the gap. She’s speaking of the space between where I step off the train and where I step on to the platform. I heard her today and felt strongly that I had heard that phrase before, at least I thought I had. I searched Google when I got back to our apartment because I didn’t want to write something that has already been said.

After 3 pages of searching I came up with nothing familiar so I write with this crystal clear notion that may or may not be original: Mind the Gap.

To me (or maybe to this other person) (or maybe that other person is me and it’s one of many things I intended to write about but promptly forgot) “Mind the Gap” applies to everything in life because it’s about being aware.

Mind the Gap between cultures. Recognize that my version of what’s real is not everyone’s and that, in fact, it’s a construct made up by the people who came before me and then was followed by me as gospel. When in someone else’s home follow their rules; when others are in my home, remember what it feels like to be in theirs and cut them some slack. 90%(ish) of frustration is based in one’s own perception.

Mind that Gap.

Mind the Gap between what it means to be 8 and 11 year old boys and what it means to be their parent. Don’t get so caught up in shoulds. Hold a line but do so in a way that teaches, not preaches. That shares, not controls. Keep clear about how my voice is becoming their inner voice and be even more clear just what exactly I want them to grow up telling themselves. Remember there are many gaps between them and me–in age, in gender, in individual personas-–and that they are to become a grown up version of themselves one day, not a grown up version of me.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between my husband in myself. We are not one fluid being, but the fluidity between two individuals. Remember I have a dam at my disposal that can come up to stop the flow of his frustration before it enters my heart and he can do the same. The gap is a gift in that regard, use it. Just remember to hang on the bridge where the fluidity flows more than the shore where it stops lest I forget that bridge exists.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between discomfort and joy to be sure one does not invade the other too often. Discomfort has it’s place, but it’s not a place that has to be tenated very long because whenever I choose to leave it there is always a gap over which I can walk back into joy. The inbetween is indifference and never a place I’d like to roam. Or fall.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between myself and my extended family and friends. It’s good to be on my side of the gap alone to recharge and refuel, but if the work I am doing has me there all the time, take that as a sign to change the work, not avoid crossing the gap. Family and friends remind me where I come from and who I am; they need to be visited often lest I forget who I am and from where I came.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between work and self. Work is wonderful but without a gap between the work and the heart, even when the work is of the heart, perhaps especially when the work is of the heart, everything else suffers. Remember why I do what I do but don’t let it define me to the point I can do nothing else. Involve myself in work that refuels and recharges, not work that I have to run from to find the refueling and recharging station.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between anxiety and Truth. This is a place where imbalance is healthy and spending more time on one side than the other is the right thing to do. Anxiety has ruled me most of my life and, while it’s protected and served me in many wonderful ways, the time for it is over. Visiting its side is inevitable because it’s part of who I am, but staying there is a choice I will actively choose against. Staying in Truth is where God is and where I want to be.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap means living mindfully, honestly, making active choices and being aware of the consequences. I must be aware of what lies on both sides as well as the space in between. In all things and in all ways.

Mind the Gap.

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Third Thankful Thursday

As of tomorrow, school’s out and summer’s in. For teachers, this is what we call New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow the floors will get swept and the cats will get brushed and the produce will get washed and put away. Next we’ll clean our classrooms and pack up all the work we’ll take home with us to prepare for the classes to come in our New Year.

Today? Today is fun day. I am filled with love as I send my students off into the world and they leave with me small parts of their hearts I’ll treasure long after I forget their names. Sometimes, they also leave sweet gifts on my desk like the one that looks like flowers, but they’re really pens (“…and the red flowers are red pens!”) and the cards that say the kindest things you’d ever want to hear.

Best wishes to you, class of 2013. I’m so very thankful to have been a part of your journey. Thank you for trusting me to guide you a few more steps down your path.

And to us left behind, it’s summertime!

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Possibility

18010_10200914911824886_228413022_nCertainty is a part of my DNA, the perfect mix of a childhood nurturing and God-given nature, both relishing the known, the concrete, the for certain. I love it so much that I seek it out whenever possible, always choosing what has specifics I can get my head around, good or bad, versus what is unknown, unpredictable, the uncertain.

Snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, I nestled into certainty as a child and there I’ve stayed. It’s cozy. And there’s very little I value more than cozy.

I happen to have also been called to a profession that, at least in the state of California, comes with a huge amount of certainty. Get through the insanity that is the first few years of teaching with better than average results and you’ve got yourself a job for life. I would have to do something pretty terrible to lose this job. That’s not a dig on teachers or on the unions that protect them, that’s just fact.

Ironically, in the last five years–despite given my intense propensity toward certainty–I’ve become a person who jumps impulsively into projects I do not understand but trust implicitly. Because I am certain of my family and my finances, that security gives me the courage to remain undaunted by enormous feats that call to me. Assess the certainty of the safety net, jump, then get details later.

For example, I was frustrated about how schools weren’t teaching our kids practical research skills, so I wrote a book about it. I couldn’t sell it to a publishing house, so I published it myself. I don’t have an agent and I don’t have a book contract, but I’ve outlined three more books that I’m sure are awesome. I don’t have connections in the movie industry and yet I know there is a fantastic movie in the yet-to-be published memoir I’ve written. I write two newsletters and I have a website along with two Facebook pages. It’s almost like I’m all official or something.

Similarly, I have come to know that, for whatever reason I have yet to understand, I must parlay the last 18 years of working with teenagers into now working with their teachers, so I’ve created workshops to start that process. No paying clients yet, just me, doing an incredible amount of work for no real reason other than I feel I should, all in a time when my state is cash-strapped and school-coffers are like echo chambers. I don’t know, someday some one will be ready to take teacher professional development seriously again and when they’re ready, I’ll be too.

Who does that?

I do. The same person who craves certainty also craves creativity. Desperately. And somehow, again the perfect mix of childhood nurturing and God-given nature, I have the confidence –the audacity—to assume that my gifts are needed in the world and I’ll be damned if I’m going to keep them cooped up in my heart. If the world isn’t ready for me, no matter because I know my time will come and when it does, I’ll be ready.

That’s for certain.

And yet…

When I consider the prospect of walking away from the certainty of my job, I find myself plunged into an almost depressive state of the paralyzing blues, especially unusual considering my propensity toward anxiety. What do these blues mean? Did I really do all of this work preparing myself for what’s next only to say, nope, never mind, too uncertain?

I went to lunch with a friend today and she called the place I am currently residing (that state, the one I call Blue) a “gateway moment.” The choice I make is a gateway toward something new and exciting, only I know that when I walk through it the gate will slam shut on what I’ve known all of my adult life. As it clangs and bounces back and forth until it finally settles, I will have to make another choice: stay on course and move forward, or retreat. Before the clang-clang-clanging stops I can reach back with a hand to catch the gate, just in time to return to certainty.

In years past which path to choose would have never been a question. But something in me has shifted as of late and it has me thinking crazy things. Just yesterday I was guest lecturing in a teacher education class (more work for no known reason) and the conversation landed on how important it was for students to follow the rules. In fact, this new teacher said, there is no greater thing we can teach kids than how to follow directions.

“Wait,” I interrupted impulsively, “We’re all social studies teachers here, right?”

Nods around the room.

“This country was not created by people who follow the rules! We cannot stifle creativity and progress and innovation by teaching kids that, above all else, they must follow directions!”

Another young teacher, a laid-back looking guy in jeans and a t-shirt who sat in the back row when he came in, I’m guessing, to spend more time online than listening to me said, “That’s what I’m saying!” He, however, was the lone maverick. The rest of them, who sat in the front like the school-loving eager students they are, looked shell-shocked. Who was this woman saying kids needed to do more than follow directions?

No one, I’m sure, was more surprised about what I said than me.

I am a consummate rule-follower. I am mortified to disappoint people. Even a hint of disappointment in the eyes of someone I’m speaking to can set me on edge for hours. In my most insecure moments I might even call myself a name associated with someone who would sell herself for the approval of others. I do everything everyone tells me if for no other reason than they told me, and I just publicly questioned a perfectly well-intentioned new teacher about why he was so adamant that kids follow directions?

Something is loose in my skull. The certainty nut, the one that’s held me together all these years, it’s come loose and I’m doing and saying things I wouldn’t have done or said before. In all of this preparation for what’s next I unknowingly bought into something I never thought possible.

Possibility. 

Possibility is what’s possible, not what is. Possibility is what could be, not what will be. From my seat in certainty, snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, I built this train of possibility, piece by little piece, for no other reason than I felt called to do so. Now I’m on that train without even realizing I bought a ticket.

That God, He is a sneaky, sneaky little character.