Like Water

There is something about the shock of cold that is powerful as a writer.

I know that’s a funny thing to say, as I live in Hawai‘i, of all places, but any time I get to go somewhere cold (oddly, this time, Houston for NCTE), I’m reminded about what a powerful sensation the cold is.

The cold makes me turn inward. It focuses me. It forces me to eschew the outside world (which, for me, is often distractingly beautiful), and instead turns me back to what’s it inside.

And that’s powerful, because as teachers, we’re so quick to nourish everyone else’s voice. Rarely do we make the time and allow ourselves to grow our own voices. We’re so focused on what everyone else wants or needs, we forget that our students look to us as models, which means modeling the practice of prioritizing time to nourish, to self-care, and to read, write, and grow as people.

So, as I ran down some cold, dark trails one morning in Houston, I thought. I asked myself: What are the stories that are sitting in my heart that I have been too busy to share?


A few weeks ago, I went home, looked at my running shoes, and started to sob.

I don’t know what came over me, but I was just so sad. I was devastated. It felt like I was watching the slow death of a part of myself. The sight of my abandoned running shoes lying against the door frame hit me– in the past, my shoes had symbolized struggle, discipline, pain, joy. They were literally covered in my blood, sweat, and tears. So, to see them laid against the door frame, a reminder of what I wanted but felt was unattainable, was so cheesy, yet such a powerful symbol of the place I was in. I felt a pang of longing and sadness swell inside me that was so big it felt the only way I could get it out was to let it seep out of my eyes and wring it out of my throat.

I flopped onto my couch in a heap and began to cry. My throat grew hoarse as I let my mouth hang open, sadness ringing out of it like the mourning church bells at a funeral. I held myself, quite literally, on my couch, and let myself steep in what I was feeling.

A few minutes later, I was able to catch my breath. I inhaled, and felt the cool stream of air flowing into me slowly bring me back to a calmer place.

And then, 40 minutes later, I went out and ran 6 miles much faster than I had in a while.

Sadness is a funny and powerful emotion, and one that we run away from far too often. We associate sadness with tragedy. We do everything we can to stifle or erase or “get over” it as quickly as we can.

The thing is, sadness actually forces us to take time to check in with ourselves. Like a cold or an ache, it’s way for our bodies to let us know that something is off or in transition, and we need to check into that part of ourselves and try and understand that some part of ourselves is in flux.

I look back on that day and ask myself what I needed to heal, what needed to change. As I remember, I realize how quickly I had let the world around me pull me away from tending and cultivating the world growing in my heart. 

It’s certainly not an unusual phenomena for me, particularly at this time of year. The beginning of the school year always tends to be crazy, and when you combine that with my first year being a full-time cross country assistant coach and the handful of part-time jobs I have, it was so crazy that I barely had time to breathe. I didn’t write– for the first time in nearly a decade, I haven’t written a post about my birthday and what I want this year of my life to be. When we get so pulled away from ourselves that we forget to nourish our internal growth, the lack of light and care makes it a lot harder to feel like we’re on solid, fruitful ground.

It’s hard, though, because in some ways I feel like I’m doing some of my strongest work as a teacher this year. I’ve incorporated student feedback and finally have a manageable plan for reading and writing this year. My kids are having some really meaningful conversations, and I’m feeling like I have a better handle on my work coaching first-year teachers too.

So part of me doesn’t want to step away– my mind keeps telling me I have to work, work, work to keep up this quality of work.

If running has taught me anything, though, it’s that physical and mental recovery is the only way you perform at your best. Physically, recovery days allow our muscles to rebuild– the sinews and fibers in our legs heal and grow stronger after we break them down with a work out. Mentally, taking time to recover and turn inward allows us to actually reflect on what’s happened and learn from it to move forward. Grasping at the the straws of individual moments and seconds-to-breathe is hardly a way to hold on and create meaningful change in our work.

My sadness wasn’t a problem, really, it was the rainstorm reminding me that I needed to return back to myself. It was the beating of the rain reminding me I had to listen to my internal workings before everything crumbled.

I am, now, so grateful for the sadness I was feeling. I am doing my best not to run away from it, and instead listening to it as helps me return to myself. Like water, it flowed through not to destroy, but to purify– and to bring back to light the parts of me that had gone dark.

Thank God for the Stoplight

I’ve never been good at slowing down.

Well, scratch that. As an adult, I’ve never been good at slowing down. Like most people, I was a happier, more carefree, and likely a better human when I was a kid. I would have been content to spend hours sitting, reading books, watching TV and just enjoying the world.

Now, though, like most adults, I live in a world of Google Calendar notifications and Doodle polls to try and find time to do everything from attending meetings and grading to seeing my girlfriends (sometimes needing to plan weeks in advance– we’re busy! And I’m an introvert who needs emotional time to prepare to see people!).

This especially includes fitness. A colleague of mine yesterday spotted me going out on my second run yesterday. No, I’m no superhuman– I just knew that my day was going to be crazy, so instead of being able to do a regular run, I’d need to break it up into two short ones– one at lunch, and one after school but before my meeting.

“I feel like it must be something you schedule,” she said, thinking about how to get into the habit herself.

I thought about it and realized she was right– like anything else, I normally assess my calendar that morning to figure out just how I will be able to manage the many plates of teaching, part-time jobs, writing, trying to see friends and fitness. There are plenty of days where I don’t want to– I’d rather take the hour to veg out in front of my laptop and play on Facebook.

But since my running shoes are there, I compel myself to go out, often as fast as I can. The faster you go, the more miles you can run, I think to myself, using it to push my pace.

Because I feel like I’m always racing the clock and squeezing in miles when I can, I am normally annoyed when I have to stop running. I’ve crafted routes that avoid the particularly slow and long stoplights in my area so I’m not wasting precious minutes of running just, well, standing around “doing nothing.”

Yesterday, though, I went out for my second run and hit nearly every stoplight. I was perturbed at first– how was I going to hit my mileage and make my meeting like this?!

At the third stoplight, though, I noticed the light rain falling over Honolulu. In a place that is typically warm and a little humid, the rain felt wonderful– cool and inviting– it’s understandable why Hawaiian culture views the gentle soothing plop of each drop hitting your skin as a blessing.

By the fifth stoplight, I realized how grateful I was to be forced to stop. I was pretty achey (I haven’t done two-a-days in a bit), and I’m actually recovering from a nasty bout of gastritis from last week. I realized that, at each red light, there was a little bit of grace. I was being given permission to stop, to breathe, to let my body heal and to appreciate the world around me.

So often, we’re trying to fill in every second of our day being as productive as possible– how long can I go as fast as I can so that I achieve as much as I’m capable of? That can be good, but it’s important to seek out and feel grateful for the pauses where the universe forces us to stop, let ourselves recover, and appreciate the moment we are in. As much as we want to hustle, we all deserve a second to breathe too.

So, by the last few stoplights, I made it a point to look around. Towards the end of my run, there’s this beautiful chapel surrounded by a row of trees on the street. Green and luscious, their rich, shiny leaves are each a reminder of how beautiful even small things are.

I waited there, marveling at the trees, appreciating them and the rain and the bright, afternoon light. For the first time in a while, I willed the red light to stay just a moment longer, if only so I could take in the true beauty of this moment and feel grateful for the deep, peaceful pause in my heart.

 

A Shatter, A Death Knell, A Wail, A Rallying Cry

I’ve been writing a lot about mental health recently. At least, it seems that way— for Teaching Tolerance, thinking about it as a runner and educator. I’ve been talking about “fighting monsters” for years now, mining stories of the times I “got off the mat,” or “made the choice to stand up.”

Those stories feel good and victorious, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I’ve written them. Those days do feel good— the days where I am able to look my monsters in the eye, to get up, to not let them control me. Those are stories that feel good to share too— reading how other people cope with mental health has also been an inspiration for me to move forward too.

There are days when the monsters win, though.

These are the days that are hard to write about.

They start slowly. Lots of times, a panic attack will hit me out of the blue– a blind-turning-truck-into-a-deer-in-headlights hit. The tsunami wave you were so sure would never come. I don’t expect, and the ferocity of it flashing through me is enough to knock me on my ass. It hits. I cry. It passes. Panic.

Some days, though, my body has been a battlefield for weeks. I start noticing little things– I’ll stutter when I talk, I’m tired all the time. I start struggling with my spatial awareness and running into desks and doors, bruises blooming on my arms and thighs.

Still, even now, I try and see if I can outrun and out work Panic. Two-a-days and yoga in between. An extra beer at dinner. Nights laying in bed, hand on my heart, repeating, I am fine, I am fine I am fine Iamfineiamfineiamfine, like a talisman to protect me. If I run my tongue enough over the words, maybe I will conjure some sort of magic that will make the statement true.

You can’t ask the external to protect you from what’s already inside you, though.

And so, over the course of the day, a few hours, it comes. I am lightheaded all afternoon, my heart feeling like it will beat out of my chest. I am so hoping it’s just an upset stomach or tired mind. I try to calm myself, taking my own pulse to prove that I am not having a heart attack or dying. I just feel that way. I hang on, for as long as I can, to the rational part of my brain.

I begin to shiver, and my body becomes the Hoover dam holding back the flood, bursting at the seams. I wrap my arms tightly around to try and hold myself in, as if I could keep my rabbit-heart safe in my embrace so it does not beat right out of my body and lose a bad fight bloody on the floor. I breathe. I tell myself, iamfinefiamfineiamfine,

And then, I call my parents. They immediately hear something in my voice. “Can you stay on the phone with me? I think I’m having a panic attack.”

And then, I break.

They stay with me as the first wave passes. They’ve been here before– comforting and cajoling me to breathe, just breathe. As I alternate between hyperventilating and sobbing, they tell me that it’s okay. They gently remind me that I’m okay, they’re okay, everyone is okay. They sit on the phone and tell me that this, too, will pass. That they are there, and that they love me.

And, in many ways, this is more than enough. The first wave passes, I am able to breathe again. They remind me how much they love me, ask me to get some rest and stay safe and, when I am ready, they hang up the phone.

The fight is not over though.

I roll onto my side and begin to heave, my body furled tightly into the fetal postition like a flag rolled up to try and survive the storm. I cannot stop crying. I openly weep, long unfettered wails pulled out of as I mourn the gentle peace my body had built. I try and let loose everything bursting from me, as if I could scrape the bottom of the well of my sadness as a sign that, just maybe, it’s finally gone

I roll onto my hands and knees on the bed, the blanket draped over my back like a fallen warhorse making its last stand that I saw in a book somewhere. “You need to get up now,” I beg myself aloud, sobbing as I press my forehead to the bed in a desperate prayer. “You have to get up.”

I continue to cry, to wail, to try and somehow call my body back out of the hole we are falling into and try and find my way. I slink and slither to the foot of the bed, trying to breath. One foot touches onto the cold linoleum. Then the other. I come to my knees on the floor, pressing my eyes into the mattress as I finally, finally start to calm down.

I don’t know how long it takes, but by the time I am able to stand, it is dark outside.

I get up, slowly find my footing.

I breathe.

And I begin to rebuild.

These are the days I do not often write about. The shatter, the death knell, the wail, the rallying cry trying to bring me back home to my body. They are the not the Cinderella-story where Panic is the thing I find some magical cure to overcome.

Yet, they are just as much a part of my story as any. At the end of the day, I always come home. After it all, this, too, does pass. And today, raw and wounded as I feel, I have put hand to body, and begin to rebuild.