Friday, March 25, 2016

Walls and Windows

I'm normally an open book. A "wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve" kind of girl. I value authenticity, honesty, self-reflection, and an occasional slap-across-the-face-reality check with those I am close to. Criticism (appropriate and well-timed) does not usually discourage me. To prove all of this, I will tell you that I  have cellulite, an unhealthy addiction to Diet Coke, and I cuss like a sailor when my kids aren't around (and occasionally when they are). I have harbored grudges like nobody's business and can be jealous, petty, cold, and unloving. I don't celebrate these things, nor do I try to hide them; I simply acknowledge that they exist. And while I try to overcome all of this brokenness, it persists. I'm a broken person in a broken world.

In the past few years, perpetuated by a sort of perfect storm of loss and unexpectedly difficult transitions and flat-out unadulterated heartache, I have forgotten, at my core, who I am. Being an adult, I do not throw tantrums; I just shut down completely. And in the past year and a half it's as if an emotional draw bridge has gone up and most people have been left outside the wall, without an explanation.  I have been a cold fortress with high impenetrable walls, but inside, the loneliness is warm and comfortable and easier. It's been a cold, lonely, easy year, without the complications of others.

Through all of this, I've come to understand that sometimes loneliness, self-imposed or otherwise, is necessary.

Walls are designed to give privacy, separation, and a little bit of peace. Sometimes we need those things. We need quiet so that we can hear our own voice apart from the voice of the crowd. We need to listen to that truth so we can follow our own path. I was drowning in noise, in the busy-ness of life, in the voices of others, in a distorted perception of myself, both good and bad, created by those voices. For a season, those walls have shut out the noise. Those walls have allowed me to heal, and to begin to find my way back to the path of love, reciprocity, and joy. I'm back on the path, though wholeness is still a long way off.

At a very low point, when I didn't understand that my walls were instinctual, that they were there for a reason, I asked my husband to help me find a window. I needed to see that there was life outside of the walls; I needed to let the light spill in.

Knowing the depth of where I was and had been, knowing that I couldn't find words for what I was feeling, my sweet husband reminded me of my favorite author, Anne Lamott, who suggests that prayer is often nothing more than saying to God, "help me, help me, help me" and "thank-you, thank-you, thank-you." 

And so in my heart, I pray this a lot. I write it in my journal. I say it aloud. I pray it for my children. And it works. It reminds me that in the midst of our deepest pain, there are limbs of gratitude that hold us up, and work to show us that life has a purpose outside of our sometimes wretched selves. And it reminds me that I don't have to be worthy, or special, or even articulate to ask for help. I just have to acknowledge that I can't do it alone. Because though I have felt safe, and warm, and comfortable within the walls I have built, I know that life isn't meant to be lived in isolation.

So, this prayer- simple, unaffected, and foundational- has become my window.

 And the light it provides is showing me the way out.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Back to School Shopping

Today as I was perusing the aisles of Target, in search of individual portioned breakfast cereal and a new (and heavily discounted) classroom chair for the upcoming school year, I heard my name:

"Mrs. Burgess."

It was an unusually quiet voice from a student who last year was rarely quiet. He would show up, annoyingly, ten minutes before his class began and want to chat (loudly) while I was still needing to teach. He teased me about being old and uncool. He told me about problems with his current foster mother. He shared how his biggest goal is to get back to his biological mom. Then the bell would ring and he would attempt to manipulate himself out of work for the rest of the hour.

So, I asked him about his summer. He shrugged and didn't really answer. And then he said, again, uncharacteristically measured and somber, "You won't be seeing me next year." I asked him why and he pointed down the aisle to a lady standing with a little boy. "My new foster family. I'm going to Webb." We made a little more small talk, I wished him luck, and said goodbye.

Before I made it out of the aisle, I heard my name again.

"Mrs. Burgess. I was telling her that I got to be really good at writing last year, and I wanted you to tell her so that she would believe me."

So I told his new foster mom that he had worked very hard and I was always proud of his work. I told her, truthfully, that he had been more focused first semester, but that I knew what kind of work he was capable of and that I want him to continue to work hard at his new school. Then he told me about how he had just received his driver's license and (because I'm too old and uncool for a fist bump), I gave him a high five. We said good-bye again, I found my individually portioned breakfast cereal, and drove home.

For many reasons, the last school year was painful. And hard. And a little soul-crushing. I let fear envelop and control me. I burned bridges and made mistakes I can't fix. I hurt people and built high, thick walls around myself. I didn't write because for months because I had no words. Just emptiness.

Tonight, I still have walls. Big ones. Things aren't fixed. But I have some words again. The quiet boy on the cereal aisle restored the voice that says you don't have to be perfect or whole or significant to make a difference, even a small difference. You just have to be willing. And you have to show up: to listen, to celebrate a rite of passage, to say to someone I know you can do better and don't give up. This is the core of my role as a teacher, and of what it means to be human. I can do this one thing, warts and all.

For this minute, for this day, for this school year, that's enough. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Snow Days

Today is a beautiful winter day, covered in a kind of redemptive blanket of snow. School has been out for two days and the forecast is calling for yet another round this evening.

I woke up to four year old snuggles and oatmeal for breakfast. The front porch is littered with snowsuits and mittens and hats and scarves and boots from children running to and from their snowy playground. And let's be honest, we all reached our screen quota for the year sometime around mid-afternoon yesterday. It's all a little bit sweet and romantic and what, when I was younger, I somehow imagined my life to be, which is why none of what I am about to share makes any sense at all.

Because in the midst of it all, the hot chocolate and kisses and scattered mittens, I am often terrified. Terrified of the quiet. Terrified of the noise in my head. Terrified of being forced to stop the activity of daily life long enough to acknowledge my emptiness, my flaws, and my genetically predisposed lack of serotonin. Over the past three months, terror has sunk its claws into me and won't let go.

I've had fleeting bouts of this kind of paralyzing fear all of my life. When it descends, it envelopes me entirely, stealing joy and leaving a drowning sense of helplessness in its place. It's a lonely place because no one can reach me there, no matter how much I awkwardly try to reach out and no matter how much others try reaching back.

Even in my lowest moments, it would probably shock most people to know the depths of my internal struggle. Because I fight against it like crazy. And I've learned to become an expert at holding it all together. I work harder. I run faster. I take on more and more. And beat myself up for not doing enough, for not being enough. For my husband, for my kids, for my students, for my friends. I stay busy to crowd out the voice that repeats the mantra You will never be enough.

And then there's a snow day. Or two. Or three. And the world stops and so do I because I have no other choice. In these moments of quiet, terrifying to me as they are, I realize that there is redemption in days like these. I can take a deep breath and allow myself to exhale. To read. To reflect. To be and not do. In my lucid moments, when I allow myself to stop and breath, the fog clears and I see myself and the world as it is, not through the lens of fear. If only for a moment.

Though I know that these times of fear will continue to come and go throughout my life, they don't last forever.  I also know that though while I feel alone and isolated in times like these, I am certainly not. And to those who also walk this path silently and anonymously, whoever you are, wherever you are, I say the snow will melt and the sun will shine, even if some days it feels as if it never will again. It always does.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Everyday Thankful

As a chronic worrier, my cup, through this warped lens of worry, tends many times to appear half empty, even though I know that it's almost always full and spilling over with good things. I'll go out on a limb and assert that in this anxiety-ridden culture in which we live and take our cues, I am far from alone.

It's not something I'm proud of. I push back against my inclinations. 

I have come to see thankfulness in my life as a discipline to be honed, refined, and practiced often. It is foundational and essential. It is sustaining and life-giving.

This year, I have thought a lot about what a blessing is and what it isn't. I've also thought a lot about what blessing has to do with gratitude. Here is my conclusion:

Happiness is not a blessing.

Health is not a blessing.

Circumstance is not a blessing.

Thankfulness for all of it. Regardless of any of it. That's the blessing.

Summer, for me, is a time for me to slow down, reassess priorities, and take a deep breath of thankfulness.

Sustaining, life-giving, intentional thankfulness.

When I am able to do this, my cup spills over.

I am thankful for the gift and responsibility of motherhood,
For little girls who are readers,
For this one, who still wants to share with me
I am thankful for love notes to daddy
For green grass and lazy afternoons in the sprinklers

And for fireflies.

I am thankful for the farm on Bluegrass Road,
For legacy and tradition
 For good-byes,
And new beginnings

I am thankful for giggling girls on porch steps and recycled bikes
I am thankful for the messiness of finger-painting

And for hermit crabs in the bed

I am thankful for little arms around my neck,

For red hair and new freckles

 And for  time alone with my baby boy, who is really not a baby anymore

 (but don't tell him that).

My cup, in the chaos, in the mess, in every moment, overflows. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I Love You More Than Anybody Can

I'll walk in the rain by your side
I'll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand
I'll do anything to help you understand
I'll love you more than anybody can...

One of my favorite childhood hobbies was flipping through my parents' collection of folk records, singing and dancing away the afternoon in our living room on Barkley Avenue. Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, and Creedance Clearwater Revival always topped the playlist, but the album with the most play was, without question, Peter, Paul, and Mary. More specifically, For Bobby, a lullaby written by a mother to her child, was a song whose melody wrapped its comforting arms around me like a thick, warm blanket. It was a song my mother sang to me, in happy and sad times, and one I sing so often to my own children that even my three year old knows all the words by heart.

My very early childhood was a host of hazy, golden, backlit memories in which I knew for certain one very important thing: I was loved. While the circumstances of my childhood changed and my worldview was tarnished by the reality of ruptured families and broken dreams, I never questioned that I was loved and loved deeply by the person who mattered most. For that, I am thankful.

Now as a parent myself, I am all the more grateful for my mother's selfless, unwavering love for me. It's a love that was never stretched too thin as she assumed the role as a single parent to three young children; it's a love that saw me through to the other side of a significant teenage rebellion; it's a love that has imprinted itself on the hearts of her grandchildren, even though she lives on the other side of the country. And in the completeness of my mother's love for me, love becomes a reciprocal force; it is accepted and passed on, while imperfectly, to a new generation. That's a beautiful thing.

 Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Thanks to you, I know all the words by heart. 

and I love you more than anybody can...

Monday, March 17, 2014

Parenting is Like Writing

Parenting is a lot like writing, I think.

First, writing, like parenting, is a laborious process. It can be cathartic and fulfilling and life-giving. This is why people do it and continue doing it, regardless of the angst that seems to be a prerequisite for the job (see Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). But before it can be cathartic and fulfilling and life-giving, it will suck the ever-loving life from the deepest marrow of your soul (see 4am with a toddler who is learning to sleep in his own bed for the first time). The patience and tedium involved in sitting, sometimes for hours, in front of a blank screen, typing, deleting and retyping the same sentence, can cause you to question the sanity of the process (see also time-outs and tantrums and bedtime routines). It can cause you to question your own sanity. Clearly, not all writers make that cut. Not the really good ones, at least. 

And if you want to be good, you have to show up. Not just occasionally. You have to do it everyday, pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, whether it feels good or not. However in writing, as in parenting, sometimes simply showing up does not elicit our best work; sometimes it means stumbling, bleary eyed, down the stairs, switching on a "Sponge Bob Square Pants" marathon, slapping a box of cereal on the table, and falling asleep again on the couch (see Snow Day #11).  To bring the very highest quality that is in you and to do it again and again, everyday, forever, is a discipline. It does not happen overnight, and let's be honest, sometimes it doesn't happen at all. We know realistically, that our very best does not and cannot always materialize (see also today's car ride home from church), but we must continue to try with all that is in us to wake up every morning with our very best as the goal.

Hopefully, in showing up every day, you will have a wealth of material to work with. You will wade through Snow Day #11 and Sunday's car ride home from church, and somewhere in the midst of that you will find a snowy Spring Break afternoon of making doll dresses from the kit our seven year old received for her birthday; you will find heart felt apologies that end always with "I love you," and if you're lucky, you might even find three giggling children doing Velociraptor impressions in the living room with their daddy (see Cretaceous Period). You see, with all of the material that you have from simply showing up, you find words, sentences, maybe even paragraphs that work. The stuff that remains. The stuff that is life-giving. 

Let's also remember, that some people are born to be writers. It doesn't mean that they don't have to work at it, but there might be some kind of instinctual gift for the precise word or a certain appropriately placed modifier. For others, they write because they love it, though maybe they haven't had the best instruction; maybe their subjects and verbs don't always agree or maybe their stories read with redundancy. It's ok. Let them write, free of judgement. Let us be a community of writers who supports those who write, regardless of how or what they write, because of our love for the craft. Because, after all, people become writers in many different ways, and for many different reasons. Their stories do not belong to us, and we often can't begin to understand their subtext. So, let us also be a community of parents who support other parents, regardless of how they parent, because of our love for children. All children.

Most things that are worth anything, like writing, like parenting, require hard, hard work. They require showing up and remaining present, even when we don't have it in us to do so. And they require our sweat, our tears, and various other forms of DNA (see couch we are about to donate to the Salvation Army). At times, dark times, they require our hearts being ripped out and torn to pieces. However, there are few, if any things more worthy of the great investment of writing and the even more noble investment of parenthood.

At the end of it all, there is no guarantee that the final product will be what we had planned, or even what we had hoped, because somewhere along the way, the subject of our greatest labor will undoubtedly take on a life of its own. This can be heartbreaking; it can be exhilarating, or it can be both at once. And regardless of the outcome, we have to have the courage and ultimately, the decency to say, "that's ok, too."  Because it is ok, and only because we have poured ourselves out abundantly, through a process, for a purpose far beyond  ourselves. 

In seeing the process through to completion, we will have discovered the key, not to a life that is perfect, but to a life well lived.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Painting Over Knotty Pine

My husband once said it's a sin to paint over knotty pine.

This was his response when, one Sunday afternoon, brush and bucket in hand, I told him I was going to paint. Every last square inch of our dirty, knotty-pine, 1940's sun porch.

Three and a half years ago when we moved to Joplin, we bought a house. I loved its original hard wood floors, crystal door knobs, and authentic honeycomb tile in the bathroom. But it was a tired, old house. And it was dirty and drafty and in desperate need of a family who would put some life back into its sturdy, yet creaky old bones.

The problem was that when we moved in, I didn't have the heart and we didn't have the money to give it the attention that it deserved. I was 6 months pregnant with our third child. Dave was starting a new, more demanding job. We were yoked with the burden of a house that would not sell in our previous town. And truth be told, I was miserable. I missed the friends and church and house I had left behind. I didn't want to be in Joplin; I wanted to be anywhere but Joplin. And, for a while, even though I knew I shouldn't, I hated the house. I hated the cracks in the plaster and the crooked floor in the hallway and the uninsulated upstairs bedroom that we slept in with a newborn and a space heater through an extraordinarily long Missouri winter.

But then, that long Missouri winter gave way to a violent Missouri spring.

 And a mile wide tornado.

That devoured a third of the town.

And there is a pregnant pause in this story.

Because that day life changed. For me. For lots of people. For everyone in Joplin.

 I could not hate what many no longer had. This creaky, drafty, outdated house had four walls and a roof and a basement that had been our refuge.

This house was a blessing.

One Sunday afternoon, not too long after, I told my husband I was going to paint our knotty pine sun porch. And, sinful or not, that's just what I did. I stayed up all night long. I painted the walls. I painted the ceiling. I painted the window casings and doors. I even painted the old plywood floor. It took four coats. It was an exhausting and cathartic and even a bit of a meditative process for me.

I needed to paint over the knotty pine. Coat after painstaking coat. I needed the restorative process of making something beautiful again.

We continue to embrace this little house. We replaced the roof and finished the basement and added a bathroom and a great, big walk-in closet. It isn't fancy or beautiful or special. But we adore it, probably more than any other we have owned.

It has always had character, but now it has soul, a soul born of deep gratitude and a night painting over knotty pine.