Spirituality

I’d be lying if I said spirituality is easy for me, but I’d also be lying if I said it didn’t matter or was difficult. My spirituality is by far the most important and integral part of my life, but it’s also one of the most complicated facets.

On my way back to coffee shop I visited yesterday, on my way back to actually complete my lesson plans for next week, I went past Taylor University, a small very conservative Christian college in Upland, Indiana. I am not a fan of their theology or their ridiculous set of strict rules, but I do feel like many of my favorite people in this world have gone there and gotten out relatively unscathed. Some of them seem to have even learned a thing or along the way. Taylor is also a somewhat rivalry of my theological alma mater, Anderson University, an equally conservative and rule-ridiculous college about 45 minutes away.

Anyway, I bring up Taylor University because my spirituality these days is heavily influenced by Jesus and Buddha, but not by any official church or religion. I pray, I meditate, I try to be kind and compassionate. Some days are more successful than others, but I haven’t been to an actual church service, except for watching my grandchildren be baptized, for about two years, I’d say. This is not because I don’t find it valuable—the Episcopal Church has my organized religion heart—but I just find that I can practice my spiritual pretty much anywhere. If I am not careful, I am moved to spiritual tears by pretty much anything.

Back to this morning—all these asides make my head spin, but that’s just how my brain works—when I drove past Taylor Lake on my way to some of the most beautiful scenery in East Central Indiana, a road that, when I was in high school, people called Devil’s Backbone, ironic because of TU being right there, I had a feeling in my gut that was so familiar.

If you know my story, you know I was baptized at a very young age, maybe 6, after accepting Jesus into my heart in an old, brown recliner chair where I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer with my mom one night before bed time. If you know my story even better, you know that I by no means believe that is how a conversion experience works, or that we maybe don’t even need conversion, because we are all good and pure and beautiful on the inside anyway, but that is how it happened for me at 4, 5, or 6.

As I drove past TU this morning with a beautiful pink sunrise and the fall leaves reflecting on the smooth water of the lake, I was transported back to 40 years ago when I wore a little white sundress and waded into a cold, slightly mucky, and very weedy, Taylor Lake to make a public profession of the faith that was shaping me. I waded in to the water, said I confessed my sins, promised to live a good life, and then I was under the water, looking up through a blur into the sunlight above the water.

As I drove past that lake this morning, my heart moved, my spirit stirred, I began to cry, and I wondered when everything in this world got so unbeautiful and so difficult and so mean. I wished I could go back and see the world through the water into the sun, weeds wrapped around my little ankles, safe in a feeling that everything would be alright.

Situational Paralysis: Make a Good Plan

While I am visiting my parents this weekend, I came here to Gas City to a Starbucks, where I worked during graduate school which seems like ages ago now, to work on lesson plans for school next week. The school corporation where I work uses a system called PAR to evaluate all new teachers and also struggling teachers who have been teaching for a while.

I value this system, because every teacher should have other teachers observe them, and every teacher has room to grow and learn, which is facilitated well by conversations with a good, mentor teacher (I am lucky, mine is fabulous). Conversely I dislike this system, because it requires me to write formal lesson plans every weekend for every period for every class, and sometimes I just want my students to work on a project for a few days, but I don’t know how, in a formal lesson plan, to adequately express where I will be and what I will be doing for those days.

And sometimes, let’s be real, formal lesson plans seem like one more thing when you have a general trajectory for your students’ lessons, like they are taking time away from making the lesson happen, doing a bit of extra preparation for your students, grading their work and making meaningful comments, and all those things that really make a difference.

But, in American culture, what are we without a plan? We start planning our kids’ lives from before the time they are even conceived. We tracks students by their achievements from the time they are in preschool. We guide students forward on their trajectories all through elementary, leaving brown, black, female, financially poor, and queer kids at the margins (if you don’t believe me, a simple google search will prove my point; there are countless scholarly articles that speak to these issues as well). These groups spend far more time out of class, in the principal’s office, in the nurses office, and out of school for behavior or absences, and frequently they are left behind.

We start seriously asking students what are their plans for their futures in seventh grade (I’m 44 and I still don’t have a solid plan), but those same groups of kids (the marginalized) are largely at a loss for guidance as papers (lessons and punishments) are pushed their direction, sometimes in languages they and their parents cannot speak or read, sometimes for opportunities they and their parents do not understand, and sometimes with the lens of a cultural structure into which they do not fit. Twenty-first Century Scholars in Indiana, for example, must be applied for by the end of 8th grade, so students and their parents have to choose to go to college by the young age of 12-14. If they miss the 8th-grade deadline, there is no second chance.

So, yes, plans matter in the USA. And your plan had better be a good one, the right one. As a teacher, my plan had better be a good one, the right one. No pressure.

 

 

Force-Feeding “Literacy”

A young African American male sits directly across a typical American middle school classroom from me, sighing heavily every time the computer puts a new question on the screen. He’s asked me several times how many questions there are, and all I can tell him is somewhere between 30 and 50, because this test is a test that gives a different amount of questions to each student dependent upon their success or failure on the proceeding question. Another young African American male keeps falling asleep so frequently I ask him to stand up to take the test, so he’ll not be tempted to put his head down. He is only on question 14, and I am sure this moment in time is only further cementing his hatred of reading. A young white female, who has obviously done this before, flew through the test, just fast enough for the “disengaged student” filter not to catch her apathy. A young white male clicked through too fast yesterday, and had to take it again today.

I am not okay with my students being this frustrated and disengaged with the written word.

I’m sitting in this classroom, giving my student the NWEA assessment, which isn’t a bad assessment in and of itself, but it’s one of three assessments I will give to my students within the first three weeks of class, and I will give another one the week after next. We use Achieve 3000, IXL, NWEA, and SRI to assess our students’ reading levels. We are expected to share this data with the students, have them track their own progress, and have them reach for grade level by the end of the school year.

I am not okay with giving more assessment than are absolutely necessary to gauge my students’ abilities.

Having students be responsible for their own data is like multi-billion dollar corporations asking me to ring out my own groceries, so they can cut the jobs of my fellow workers. I work with students who do not need one more thing to make them feel bad about themselves, students who are on average a couple of years below grade level, and it is my job, as the one with the college degree and license in education, to make sure they improve, to make sure they learn, and to make sure they grow.

Most importantly, my job is to help students love language and literature. If they don’t love it, they won’t engage in it, and they won’t change the world for the better, because they won’t know how to read. But I cannot do this by using a canned program that exists solely to make money for its purveyors, no matter how well intentioned it began.

I am not okay with Capitalism in the classroom.

Language and literature appeal to me precisely because they are wild and unruly and unpredictable. These facets of culture move with us; they are alive and changing and growing. They aren’t subjects that are fixed in time or place, and they should bring us joy, sorrow, information, relationships, anger, love, and all those human emotions. We shouldn’t expect students to read something, answer a couple of program-based low-level comprehension questions, and be done with it. We shouldn’t put a dead and static text in front of a teenager and ask them to fall in love with words.

I am not okay with teaching students to hate reading by participating in what passes for English Language Arts in American schools.

Those of you who love to read: when was the last time you read something you were forced to read, other than for work? When was the last time you sent your friends a list of basic comprehension question when you had a book recommendation for them? Do you keep reading a book or a text you hate because you have to? Is there someone in your life who forces you to read things that have no meaning to you or for you?

Personally, I like to pick my own texts, talk about them with my friends, and write about them in my own ways. I like the freedom to stop reading something that doesn’t interest me. And, you know what? I end up reading all types of texts, having all kinds of amazing conversations with people I’d normally never discuss those subjects with, and I write all types of writing in response.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could afford our students the same pleasures we have with language and literature, instead of jamming them inside tiny boxes of canned programming and contrived literary situations?

Peace and Cats

There is perhaps nothing more peaceful than sitting in a quiet house after a long, rather unfulfilling day at work and being surrounded by cats. Sleeping cats.

Just to my right is Pudge, our big, grey tabby cat, whose breath could knock out a rhinocerous, but he’s snuggled right up against my right thigh and purring softly as he sleeps. When he’s awake, his purr is the most amazing thing you’ve probably ever heard. You can actually feel it from quite a ways away, like the new $8,000,000 speaker we have at work that thumps and vibrates on the display table.

A bit further down the couch is Frodo, our “little” orange, toothless cat. He had to have all of his teeth pulled at once, so he just has two sticking up from the bottom or down from the top—he never lets me get close enough to see what’s up with the remaining ones—and he eats big chunks of dry food like it’s going out of style. He snores, but very quietly.

Three cushions down sits Kermit, Elizabeth’s Cuban boyfriend, and an all-black menace. When he was younger, we jokingly said his Mafia nickname was Pubes, because he has white chest, underarm, and pubic hair. He snores loudly and likes to stick his very white butthole in my face whenever he can. When E lived with us, she would also say he looked Cuban, like he needed one of those straw hats and a cigar. He does. She was right.

Across the room, on the floor, in her special spot, is Spaz, and it’s a mighty miracle that she’s not here in my lap, prohibiting my typing. She smells bad, her hair is constantly and magnificently matted, her teeth fall out occasionally, and her claws are very pointy in all the worst ways—I have numerous pairs of pants that have been ruined by her affections. She is my love, my harbinger of peace and wellness. We hold paws whenever possible, a habit that began when I was tired of being skewered, but that continues because having her paw in my hand heals me. Every time.

I look around and there are four animals within eye sight that don’t care if their electronic devices aren’t working; they don’t care if their email syncs or if they don’t know what their home button is. And I think we, as humans, have it all wrong. Life is about naps, food, and love. Life is about resting, snuggling, and love. Did I mention, life is about love?

I am so lucky to have a beautiful old dog and five odd cat children who love me unconditionally and who show me every day what life is really about.

Beauty and peace and love are where we find them. For real. And usually we find them right below our noses wherever we last look.

Mental Health

For the first time in my life, I called in to work and said I was having a bad mental health day. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more honest about my mental health, so I was honest. I didn’t say I had fallen down the back steps, I didn’t say I pulled a muscle in my back while shoveling, I didn’t say I had a migraine, and I didn’t say I had food poisoning from the Chinese buffet I didn’t stop at on the way home. See, there’s one thing I will lie about, just one, and that is what is hypothetically wrong with me so I can take a mental health day. Well, no more. I struggle, sometimes, and there is no need to hide it.

I am in the bell jar today. I called in sick today, because I was certainly not going to be my best self for my customers today. As much as some of them get on my last nerve, they deserve the best me I have to give them.

Today wasn’t that day.

Some days I don’t have a best me to give.

Today was that day.

I got to spend way too little time with my friends and family in Indiana, and then I spent 13 hours in the car on my way home watching countless cars slide off the road, sit in the ditches, and be pulled out of the ditches. I contemplated the government shut down and what that means for whom. I listened to podcast after podcast. I took some pictures. I stopped for some food and beer. I listened to more podcasts. I contemplated more politics. I got angry. Then I got sad. Then I got inside my own head. And couldn’t get out. I was stuck in a metaphorical snowbank in a metaphorical ditch inside my own head.

Usually Bec can drag me back out of there—she hitches up her tow chain and gives a few good pulls (did I take that metaphor too far?)—but I only saw her for about an hour before we fell asleep last night.

Before I left for Indiana, I put Facebook back on my phone, so I could communicate through messenger with people whose phone numbers I didn’t have, and now I’ve taken it off again, because I was checking it compulsively, just to see. And, sadly, I broke my own half-hour-limit resolution, and I spent way too much time on Facebook over the weekend, reading the nonsense that others were posting and arguing about. I know my self worth doesn’t rest in social media, but you know sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking I’m not good enough, smart enough, fast enough, beautiful enough, articulate enough, or popular enough. I quit my PhD, I quit my Ironman pursuit, I quit my ordination, I quit my diets way too fast. For being someone who was raised never to quit anything, I’ve quit a lot of shit since adulthood hit. I even quit my own half-hour Facebook limit! I wrestle with that. I wonder constantly where I’d be if… If I had finished my Phd, if I had kept pursuing ordination, if I had just sucked it up and done what it took to get my teaching license when we moved here, if, if, if…

So, I’m sitting here after shoveling paths like my own personal labyrinth around my yard, drinking a delicious small batch roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that my brother gave to me, snuggling with my cats, and trying to get right again.

I am posting this to say: I had a beautiful weekend with everyone in Indiana, I had a beautiful run on Saturday night, my drive was good except for the last 3-ish hours, and I’m snuggling cats, but I have this gnawing feeling that what I do and who I am isn’t good enough. I keep hearing these voices say to me, but you could have been so much more if you had just applied yourself, like an appliqué, to your studies, to your art, to your church, to your athleticism, to your…

I call bull shit.

What I do and who I am are good (enough).

Now just to convince my brain of that. Maybe a run will help; shoveling certainly did.