Sunday, March 29, 2015

Last Visit to the Old School (Or: Anger Is Magic)

Every few weeks or so at the old school, a parent flips out in the office, screaming, cursing, and threatening. The administration calls it “performing,” as in “His mom performed last night so we had to transfer him.” I’ve always empathized with the exploding parents, even when I was one of the things they were screaming and threatening about. Friday afternoon I got to feel a little more of what it’s like, standing at the office counter being boxed in, talked down to, and treated like a threat. Nothing inspires rage like helplessness against a system that thinks you are nothing. I didn’t scream or curse, just seethed and spoke softly, but the anger feels just as wild and hard to wrangle.

After feeling so good for most of the past month or so, I dreaded revisiting the place. Amy and I were scheduled to leave the bookstore at two to run some other errands and then go get the rest of my stuff. (I don’t know why I couldn’t just leave it, or send Amy with a list, but it felt like part of my soul was stuck there in the guise of baskets and cute file boxes, and I could rescue it. I almost crowd-sourced a shaman for the occasion but I figured I could be my own. I was right, go me.) Around noon, the feelings started to come, the freezy crick in my spine, the foggy head, the tightening at the front of my brain. My work tasks, which as you know are beautifully Candy Crush simple, got harder. Whole rows of sale sweatshirts became unfindable. I felt the urge to run and hide.

When we arrived just after dismissal, the first person I talked to was my former grade partner, who was pulling out just as we were walking up. She seemed genuinely happy for me. When I told her I was doing well, she said:

“See, it’s like I’ve always told you. As long as you’re…”

“Taking care of me, I know. I am!” I laughed with joy. She was so taken by my tale of clocking out at five that she might go into retirement early. I like my new identity as someone who inspires others to do less work.

Most of the teachers I ran into were kind and distant. They were on their way to their Friday happy hour, and I admit it hurt a teensy bit to not be invited along—though I would never be able to keep up, ventingwise!

The best part was seeing some of my former students who were there for afterschool programs. As they showered me with hugs, their faces glowed like little angels I don’t have to order around anymore. I loved them so much.

“Why can’t you come back and teach us?” they kept asking.

“Because I’m too sensitive. But thanks for being so cute and smart and good.” They nodded solemnly and I could not have imagined a nicer moment. I kept running into them in stairwells in the course of moving stuff, and every time they said “Come back! You have to teach us!” It wasn’t sad, it was like a game, it felt wonderful to keep telling them I’m too sensitive. It was a joy to finally be with them as myself, even just to say goodbye.

Cleaning the room out was HARD. The longer I was there in the past, the more my brain constricted, so that easy tasks like sorting the scissors kept getting harder. The teacher who took over doesn’t share my organizational skills, so I had to really dig to find what I wanted to take.

But I found the things: I found the book an afterschool student gave me years ago about growing a rainbow garden. I found the watercolor set and paper I’d been daydreaming about. I found Apples to Apples Junior and Mancala. I found an almost-full can of coffee and a pack of fresh scrubby sponges, items I was happy to cross off the grocery list. I got the rainbow shelves my mom gave me for teacher graduation (now cheerfully holding all manner of art supplies) and my blue file boxes with cartoon foxes on them.

The principal came in and was cordial, but weird. She didn’t seem fully aware that I’d resigned, even though I’d emailed her and put the paper through weeks ago. She seemed really out of it, but then, as I learned from Gretchen Rubin, people who don’t sleep are often more impaired than they think they are. “We don’t sleep,” the principal always said proudly in meetings, as I fought back a bratty “Well, I do.”

She was concerned with what I might have taken—a set of workbooks I never got, some missing laptops. The poor tech guy kept coming in to ask where the missing computers might be, until I got exasperated.

After all of the things were loaded into Amy’s car, the principal called me into her office one more time. she said she needed to “hold me accountable” for the missing laptops and she was filing a report with the district.

It was one of those rare and beautiful moments when I got to say exactly what I wanted to. In my best quiet teacher voice, I said “I have never been more livid. I will NOT be held accountable. The part of my life where I take the blame for things that are not my fault is OVER.” Though I’d been gone for six weeks and two other teachers had keys to the computer cabinet, she kept asking, “Well, who SHOULD be held accountable?” which for some reason is the thing that fills me with the most rage to think of.

It’s not really about the computers or that fact that they might somehow prevent me from getting the money from my summer account (what I was thinking of as my work-retail-and-heal money)—I felt the familiar sensation of being trapped by the place, dragged down by it, stupid, worthless, as if the idea that I might ever be free and happy was an illusion. That’s how I used to feel every day, and I must say I do not miss it.

I think that this was really her way of expressing the hurt of the situation—of losing a teacher, of seeing evidence that perhaps there are some holes in her plan, of plain old losing a person she used to like and believe in. She must have worked so hard to protect herself from the emotions ricocheting around her all the time that the only way she could express hurt was by filling out unpleasant forms. At least, that’s the most compassionate way I can come up with to see it.

Although I know that no one can really take this new life away, that’s what it felt like in the moment, like the happy flow I’d imagined myself floating along was a stupid illusion, like the bright and colorful new path I’d devised for myself was gone. I felt like a fraud and a drain on everyone I knew, especially my family and close friends. As I drove away, I put on “Ukelele Anthem” as loud as it goes and sang along, but I couldn’t really feel it. The poison of the place had taken over my system, and it’s taken a LOT of writing, closet-rearranging, and art-scheming to make the toxins start to fade away again. I’m still impaired, but I know what to do and I’m doing it.

This month has been among the happiest of my life. I’ve gotten back in touch with my dream-driven Jungian side and begun to stumble into some gorgeous synchronicity. For the first time in a while, I can see a real future on the horizon, one full of art, friends, writing, and love. If it could also be filled with making a living, that would be helpful, but I’m pretty sure this new happiness, this new self is nothing any principal can take away. There is no form for that. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Though I'd keel over from trying to have even 1% of her extroversion, I've decided that Amanda Palmer is my role model in terms of synchronicity-embracing and general artsy badassery. Hardly an original choice, but a sound one!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hard to Keep Taking it Slow

Things have been going along, but sometimes I still just feel smushed and I worry that I'm not recovering fast enough. I want to have my whole brain back, but some days my whole being can feel flattened by the littlest thing. I want to be strong and independent, but today I'll have to settle for going back to bed and waiting out the sads. At least I have this for company:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Praise of Boring Work (For Now)

My first week out in the world after my mental health month was a pleasant one, but it started out not-okay. Waking up and getting into grey work pants felt like a death march—I couldn’t quite convince myself I wasn’t going to the old job to feel scrutinized and humiliated.

As I took the pleasant drive through affluent suburbs, so much anger and fear streamed out that I had to turn off the radio and just concentrate on breathing. I even thought of taking one of the six remaining Ativan that I’ve been carrying around in my purse like Dumbo feathers. (I tried to blog out some of the anger earlier this week, but it came out as a twelve-car pileup of pathos and I dreamed about bathroom accidents after I wrote it, so I thought it might be better to wait on coherence if I want to continue to have jobs and seem semipleasant.)

When I arrived at the bookstore, the managers (including Amy, my best friend/ex-wife with whom I’ve worked on and off for twelve years) were in a meeting and there was no one to assign me a task, so I hid among the book aisles, straightening and opening books to random pages, including this one:

“To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.” 
Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

(Take that, creepy little voice inside that tells me to stop writing about my white lady issues.)

Even though I knew no one would jeer, yell, or hit me, my body was sproinged with shame and fear. I hoped that no one would notice that I was all scared-bunny-in-traffic about my nine dollar an hour job.

The jitters lasted exactly until I had a list of online orders to fill. As I searched among a selection of near-identical navy blue university clothing, found the right size, and marked the quantity on the list, a feeling of well-being filled my soul and the fear and self-consciousness faded away. It’s the Candy Crush of jobs, satisfying, no-stakes, and somehow perfectly Zen. I’ve worked in boring jobs for more than half of my adult life, and it’s a blessing to return however briefly to my slacker roots. I even work for the gentlest supervisor imaginable—a genial and kind retired postman who is the perfect antidote for the steely, contemptuous principals I’ve been annoying for the past two years.

After scripted lesson plans that had to be timed down to the minute, it’s an exquisite luxury the way time slows down, everything empties out, and we all walk around with pleasantly neutral expressions. No one is needing me to validate their entire fucking existence with my attention. (Do turns of phrase like that mean I’m not meant to work with children at all? I hope not.) No cultural change, big or small, rests on my shoulders and oh my goodness, I clock out and then that’s IT.

(It was hard to convince myself to sit down and post this this afternoon—part of me still thinks I’ll be forced to return to the children-as-data spreadsheets that used to fill my Sundays.)

This brain-vacation can’t last very long, of course—the only reason I can afford to revisit my former slackerdom is that what would have been my summer pay should be arriving from the district before too long—but this job really has me seeing the value of emotionally neutral work for a sensitive little seashell like me. Meaningfulness is gratifying, but it can also be draining and overwhelming. If I fuck up at the bookstore, somebody might get the wrong size shirt. If I fucked up in the classroom, I wasn’t just fucking up the lesson, I was fucking up social justice and race relations, and being the Bad Cop at a time when that is the absolutely worst thing to be.

In the joy of having that off my shoulders, I’m letting myself wonder what emotionally neutral work might be out there for me, what ways there might be to balance meaningfulness with gorgeous, timestretching, mind-wandering boredom. Right now I’m thinking 70% no stakes/ 30% medium stakes might be nice.

It’s such a revelation to begin accepting myself as a sensitive person, acknowledging what my limits really are. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was handed a copy of The Highly Sensitive Person by a kind therapist and my reaction was “Fuck this!” It seemed so limiting to contemplate all of the everyday parts of life that might make me feel overwhelmed, and I’m glad I’ve ignored it for so many years. I wouldn’t take back any of the adventures that I’ve had, but at the same time, I’ve caused a lot of hurt to myself and others by seeking meaning in situations I wasn’t well-equipped to handle.

I’m excited to see what kind of life I can build to not just accommodate but celebrate my sensitivity, to find and enhance its strengths rather than see it as a liability to be overcome. In so many ways over the past few years I’ve tried to murder my delicate side, so nurturing it is a blessing and a relief.

I know my day-job job won’t be enough for long, but for now, I’m basking in it: Time for my newly-freed-from-the-Common-Core mind to wander, hangers waiting lovingly for me to straighten them, and my favorite near-rote human interaction of all time:

“Are you finding everything you need?”

“You mean in the store or in life?”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Happiest Song Lately, Thanks Kieran! :D

A few weeks ago I was still in the midst of anxietytown and winter was kicking my ass and everyone else's. In spite of bad forecasts, I decided not to postpone a visit to my sister's house in the snowiest of snowies, Oswego, NY. The roads and skies were clear until I got just outside of town. When I was literally two minutes from my sister's house, the car decided not to stop at the stoplight and plowed into the car in front of me, causing lots of sad crumples and general dismay. No one was hurt and the other driver was very kind. My mom happened to be in the neighborhood and came to wait for the cops with me. I thought I might be terrible at life, but eventually I made it to my sister's door.

My nephew showing me his favorite video was certainly worth the $1000 deductible, and so much more. So every time I hear this song, I suspect that happiness prevails, even in winter. We spent the weekend in glorious sloth, and I'm very grateful for that stinky rotten snow helping me slow down and enjoy the love, away and at home.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Thanks, Grandmom! And First Thoughts About Leaving the District

The day before yesterday, I got a card from my Grandmom, wishing me better days and enclosing a gift card. (I probably should have saved it for a rainy day, but I already spent some of it on a box of thank you cards and a new purple gratitude journal decorated with the constellations.) When I called to thank and update her, she said this: “I’m so glad to hear that you’re going back to your art.”

I don’t know exactly what it means, going back to my art, other than brainstorming a name for an Etsy store and reading a poem a day from the Learn then Burn poetry-teaching anthologies, but what a ringing endorsement of my entire existence in one short sentence. Throughout the whole breakdown process, my family has been unfailingly supportive, my mom, dad, and Aunt Connie listening to the same (already pretty much decided) decision-making perseverations, my ex-wife watching episodes and bringing pie. Aunt Connie even came to the school to help me pick up the first batch of my stuff a few weeks ago. My family is a work of art in and of itself, making it so much easier to make the self-caring choice.

So yesterday I emailed the principals and the teachers that I like best and today I faxed the form. I just happen to be resigning on the same date on which I left AmeriCorps five years ago—if something’s too sad, it sure can’t survive February, it seems. My closest teacher friend texted right away to send her support, and that’s pretty much all that matters from that building anymore. I’d expected my letter to be a little more flowery-grateful, but I guess I’d written them all the thank you cards I had.

I’m still recovering from the stress and depression, but it’s a good sign that I only took 3 out of the 9 Ativan that the hospital prescribed last month when I went in for chest pains on what would have been my penultimate day in the classroom. I still have freakouts that I’m not good enough, that I’m letting everybody down, that I’m a useless burden on everyone, but those moments pass, and I go back to my notebooks, markers, and Friends episodes until I start to feel like myself again.

In the long run, I’m not sure how the bills will stay paid, but I’m covered for now. While I take a break from teaching, I’m working at a university bookstore, which had been my day-job-job for on and off for about twelve years now. I love the heft of the textbooks, then Zen of the repetitive receiving tasks, the fact that the job asks absolutely nothing of me after I clock out. I get to feel competent for a while, and after two years of rotten struggle (and other things) that will be a relief,

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Remembering And Thanking MJ Harris

Yesterday would have been my friend MJ’s birthday. When he passed away last fall, I didn’t properly grieve. I was using all of my emotional strength to prop myself up for my third graders, but that’s no excuse. I should have honored him, thanked him, properly grieved the way such a dazzling soul deserved. I’m, sorry, MJ, and thank you.

When I first met him, we were working for AmeriCorps, both bringing poetry into schools where people kept telling us “these kids” don’t want to write. We bonded over a shared faith that poetry and art could make the world a better, safer, happier place.

We became closer friends when MJ joined one of my poetry classes at Big Blue Marble. He was open and wholehearted in every writing game, and it was a privilege to stand back and watch his poetry deepen and grow, to watch his already strong voice get stronger and more sure of itself.

What I admire most about my gone-angel-friend is how he put his art first. He had faith in the goodness of his talents and never compromised, didn’t let anything hold him back. He was a true artist and a loving, generous, and deeply kind friend. I don’t tend to believe that my dead loved ones can look out for me, except when I do. His spirit might have been part of what took me through these past few weeks, remembering sitting on the 23 bus talking and believing in poetry, in kids, and most importantly in our real selves.

Thank you, MJ, I will try to honor you by being more like you, by putting friendship, love, and creativity first. I miss you and love you very much, and I hope you knew how much you meant to me, how grateful I am for your enormous heart, your enormous contribution to the lives of children, your friends, and the world.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

February Goals Mostly Done, March Goals Mostly Not Scary

Pretty productive month, for having contained a breakdown! Time to stop trying to make the gym happen, though.
 And for the one in the middle, I need a lot of luck, strength, and love:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Restarting the Serotonin Factory (Teacher, Interrupted)

This is the second time I’ve tried to write a back-to-the-Factory post. The first time I tried, school tumbled out onto the page in a way that was unmanageable and had to be put in the Box of Things to Be Worked Out Later by Unseen Forces.

About a month and a half ago, I had a dream that a conversation with a troubled, anxious student cause me to get out of a car on a deserted highway. I took the nearest exit, which ended in a dirt path and then nothing. That’s where I am, pathless, for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

I don’t know if it would be called a breakdown these days, if we call things breakdowns anymore, but one week I was jollying myself along, working almost every waking hour, breathing on the restroom floor to keep myself from fainting, doing the every two weeks or so sob-at-work thing, whispering a parent out the door who’d come up to threaten someone else’s child, and then I was…done. I couldn’t put my body or my soul through it. I couldn’t make my brain be in the straight jacket of the Standards anymore. I couldn’t make myself give the tiniest shred of a fuck about the PSSAs or rituals and routines, or how to solve the pencil problem. I looked at my students’ latest petty theft and thought “They. Are going. To take. Everything.”

I put myself on extended leave on Feb. 9th and a few weeks later, a nice doctor verified it: “acute stress disorder” and “recurrent major depressive episodes.” There’s an antidepressent prescription waiting for me at the pharmacy, but I’m too scared of the side-effects—what if I’m one of the suicidal thoughts and actions people, or if my brain decides to poison itself with serotonin? That’s just too much irony for me.

After three weeks of rest, it’s time to start thinking about the next phase of my life. I don’t know what it looks like, but do I know that for the past few years I’ve tried to murder my own sensitivity. I want to find ways to honor it instead. The thick skin everyone’s been telling me to grow for as long as I can remember is not coming, and trying to make it happen has only made me more ragged. I care deeply about what everyone thinks, says, and feels, even if it’s wrong, even if they’re eight. I take things personally because we’re all, despite the forces and standardized tests that would like us to believe otherwise, vulnerable, breakable, real people.

From deeply embedded in the School District of Philadelphia, it’s hard to imagine any place in the world where a delicate little seashell like me could find meaning and employment, but I have to imagine that there’s some productive way for me to make myself at home. Brene Brown says he therapist once told her something like, “If you feel like a turtle with no shell in the briar patch, maybe just get out of the briar patch.” In the fog of depression, it all looks like briar patch, but maybe there’s a meadow someplace out there with my name on it.