One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.
All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.
I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.
I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.
This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.
When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“
and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.
The other day as we wended our way down the hill towards our house, wrapping up a walk that, for some reason, had caused Katy-the-Wonder-Dog many fearful pauses, the afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and we had something more than a walk.
I wanted to step up the pace for the last quarter mile and burn some calories. Katy decided sunny dirt was more worth sniffing than cloudy dirt. We trotted and paused a few times and then as the sun sank closer to the mountain across the way from us, she stopped and sniffed the air.
“Katy, ” I coaxed. She ignored me, closing her eyes and turning her face to the sun and the mountain. I noted the line of light highlighting her and sank down to take a picture, but before I could tap the shutter button, I felt the sun on my face and closed my eyes for a moment too.
The walk had been cross training. It had been a bathroom break. It had been huffing and puffing. Now, in the slightly warmer sunny air, it was something better. I opened my eyes to see Katy still meditating (if dogs meditate) on the sun and the sounds of the dozens of seasonal streams that were flowing down the mountains.
It was as if someone had gently said, “Stop.” Stop, for just a moment, worrying about being able to run 3 miles or pay bills tonight or find time for everything on your list and get centered.
A dog down the hill barked, and Katy’s head turned in that direction. I started the trot toward home and to-do’s again utterly unperturbed by the length of my list and committed to finding time to get centered more often.
New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken, so the only ones I make tend to be diet related (something I excel at breaking). The end of 2018, however, marks what we hope is a new beginning for Thing1 as he charts his course for recovery, and I’m trying to use the lessons of the last year to make it a new beginning for me as well.
Yesterday marked a blissfully boring beginning of the year for me as well. It was my day off. My one obligation was to get to the grocery store and then do some illustrating.
We got a halfway decent snowfall yesterday. It warmed up in the afternoon, causing most of the trees to lose that confectionery look, but it was still a lovely day for errands. The clouds were churning, and as I passed the church yard in Shaftsbury, Vermont, they raced far enough east to let a little sun shine through over the Green Mountains and the valley.
I’m always mindful of the weather and the living landscape. It inspires me and informs my art, but yesterday, before inspiration took over, I felt something else. I felt grateful, not just to live where we do, but for that one moment of sun on snow. As I got to the supermarket parking lot in Bennington, I realized a good practice for the new year might be to start living every day looking for those moments of gratitude.
Last week my parents visited so we could celebrate a late Christmas. We took a day to visit the Clark institute in Williamstown, Mass which is featuring an exhibit of works by William Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. I’m a huge fan of both painters, even though the two rivals produced very different interpretations of the landscape at the same time in history. Turner is passion, informed by travel and poverty, shaped at least a little by mental illness. Constable is observation and studied precision.
I once felt that Constable’s precision reflected an intellectual detachment from the landscape, that his work lacked passion. Seeing his paintings up close again and reading more about his life and work, however, I realized that what I was seeing was a love for the landscapes that had given him joy. I realized I was seeing the work of someone who was grateful for every part of his life.
It can be hard to be grateful when all hell is breaking loose around you. But when you think your child might die, when you see someone you love in pain, when work is stressful, or when you’re doing something as ordinary as getting a car unstuck from a snow bank, focusing on the things you appreciate in your life can also be therapeutic. I know I am more determined to see those things during the crises.
But, one of the lessons of 2018 that I’m trying to take into the new year is to not save gratitude for the hard moments. As I was sitting in the car, thinking about the burst of sun that had washed over a landscape that I have learned to love, I wondered if choosing to live gratefully every single day, even if it just means recognizing the smallest of moments once a day, might yield more lessons in 2019.
Newsfeeds filled with atrocities committed by Americans against Americans as well as with the specter of Nazi banners and slogans taking center stage at the home of one of America’s top universities this weekend made it easy for anger and worry to reach their saturation points.
Anger is counterproductive. I believe it is important to bear witness, but I also believe anger and worry are toxic. They change no minds. They don’t get to the root of the hate.
For me, the only thing that deflates the anxiety is paint on a blank where I can meditate on the things that do drive out hate — education, kindness,hope and the faith that we can and will be better.
Saturday and Sunday as I painted a familiar field in Arlington, I ruminated on the things that have made Vermont — and, by extension, this country — great for me. Generosity, seeing neighbors helping neighbors and finding joy in their successes have been the hallmarks of our life here. The memory of collective kindness doesn’t just soothe the soul, it inspires it to pay the civility and love forward.
These ruminations always bring me back to the words of Martin Luther King:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Ironically, in the week of a weekend filled with hate and murder, it seems more vital than ever to remember those words and think about how best to realise them.
My sons are the center of my life. They are the center of my husband’s life.
Today, Congress began changing the future drastically for my eldest son by endangering his ability to obtain insurance when he is an adult.
Today Congress rolled back Obamacare, and with it, protection for millions of people with pre-existing conditions (replaced with high risk pools). My son is one of those people. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder (a lifetime diagnosis) that requires medications that would be unattainable for us without insurance.
He’ll be a man soon, and, again – through no fault of his own – he may find it more difficult to get coverage or possibly even job, since he will have to evaluate the laws in each state and not every employer will want to cover hires in his situation. It will Even so, he’s lucky compared to the millions of Americans who will lose insurance outright. He’s still on our insurance plan, and we’ll keep him there as long as the law allows.
Jimmy Kimmel hinted at some of this the other night in his emotional monologue. He briefly touched on the fact that, prior to the ACA, a child like his would have reached his lifetime insurance cap before he left the NICU. If that child had appendicitis, or a broken bone, or cancer, that cap would have left many parents bankrupt at best or burying their child at worst — even if they had insurance.
I have thought a lot about those other parents in the months since our son was diagnosed. When we get our meds, I silently thank our company for making it possible and then shake my head that anyone in a country as rich as ours might have to watch their child suffer or even die. I shake it when I wonder how many people die prematurely because they don’t have access to the same healthcare we do, and I wonder how we benefit as a society from treating children and poor people like disposable objects.
I call my representatives. I donate. And I shake my head. But today I’m done shaking my head. I’ve thought about moving our family back to a country with stronger healthcare, but I’d still be shaking my head at the drugstore, wondering how people back home were managing without access.
So now I’m still calling my representatives and donating, but I’m also looking for new ways to show solidarity with my son and with all the other people who are being pushed out in the cold. Because, as Jimmy Kimmel so beautifully stated, “We need to take care of each other.”