Tired of Achievement

Close up of tan short-haired dog stretched out on a sandy beach. cloudy blue sky and sea horizon in background.
Photo by Ruel Madelo on Pexels.com
I took my thoughts for a walk. Cold/cool/brisk air on my face feels good/not bad/needed. I walk
while others along the same route jog/cycle/push themselves. Few pant. Everyone in their own way is dressed for the elements. Everyone in their own way seems prepared for cold/cool/brisk air. All of us are out. I walk neither fast nor slow. This is no workout. I am walking to drop off our PCR tests then circling back, strolling through the little Saturday market, then past the side-by-side cemeteries. For a moment I think of ascending the big hill drive that divides them. That would feel like a workout. I easily decide against it. I walk and my head brims with useful and less useful thoughts. It's OK because I'm taking my thoughts for a walk. This is their chance. I don't begrudge my thoughts their moment in the sun.

I walk past the hillside vineyard which is striking in the midst of otherwise residential territory. The vineyard as breathing space, a clearing for the eyes to recalibrate. It is always a welcome break in the visual action. Today there is a small team of eight workers pruning the vines. I wonder which language they speak with each other, how much they get paid, how long it might take them to finish the whole plot. When I return on my way back they are absent, but their van remains. It's lunchtime. I wonder where they take their lunch although it is everything but my business to know.

I'm near the tail end of my loop. I notice the same venturers on bikes, on foot completing their own loop-de-loops. That's where it hits me that I am tired. Tired of achievement. Tired of driving/striving/edging myself and others forward, forward. Tired of achievement to measure my worth. Tired of achievement to identify belonging. Tired of achievement as the price of admission. Tired of achievement as the lens I use to recognize others. Tired of achievement as a false god to whom all sacrifices must be dedicated. Tired of achievement as gospel. Tired of achievement as mandate. Tired of achievement as an institutional safety blanket. Tired of achievement as a broken record. Tired of achievement as the only record.

Isn't it ironic that I have made a career working in schools? In achievement factories. 

But that's the thing. Students insist that there is always more than silly achievement. They show it. They speak and sing it. They write it. They play it. They dramatize it. They outsmart/outrun/outpace it. They skip it. They perform it. They hold it hostage. They hold it back. They hold it over our heads. They override it. They fake it. They make it. They deliver and withdraw it. They illustrate it. They erase it. They toss it. They remix it. They've got it. They are over it. 

They are why I stay in schools. I am studying their achievement of resisting/retiring/releasing achievement. They teach me. They make me less tired.

I make it home, allow my thoughts to run wild on the page. We are all relieved. Peace is a challenge and always only temporary. I can accept that on a walk in the cold/cool/brisk air. 

Two Words: Snow Day

The view today

A snow day is a gift, rare and unexpected. It’s an opportunity to pause, breathe, not go anywhere. I am at ease and grateful.

Lots of things have happened since the last time I wrote. I’ve participated in two large virtual conferences, published a newsletter, helped coordinate the launch of regional accountability and affinity groups, made the first batch of bourbon balls, and finally discovered the secret of speedskating. A good bit of growth for a short stretch of time.

The two big conferences were first the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual, Nov. 18-20 and the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (NAIS PoCC/SDLC), Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2021. As member of a substantial contingent of educator-writers from the #31DaysIBPOC project, I joined a session co-hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker: “We Teach Who We Are: Unpacking Racial Identity and Literacy.” The title rings academic but the experience felt like a reunion, a revival, a rest stop. To be in the same room with so many folks I admire and cherish, both up close and from afar, almost undid me. It was not the words I remember as much as it was the love, the warmth, the care – the reasons I said yes, when the invitation was first issued the year before.

It was Tricia and Kim’s invitation that brought me to #NCTE21. But, as much as I love literacy and how it comes to fruition, I cannot call myself an English teacher as it is suggested here. That said, the conference focus on “equity, justice and antiracist teaching” produced a lineup of speakers and workshops that captured my interest on multiple levels. I felt more at home than I anticipated, more in my element that I imagined possible. As a run-up to PoCC, #NCTE21 felt just right.

At #PoCC I had the honor to offer a pre-recorded workshop with my dear friend, Minjung Pai, “A Love Letter To Women Of Color.” Min and I have only seen each other in person a handful of times and always at PoCC but our sense of sisterhood across continents and time has remained remarkably steady and deep. When we collaborated on the proposal back in the spring, we were envisioning a room full of women of color holding space for each other, celebrating the fullness of our gifts in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Then we prepared to bring that atmosphere to life via zoom and then we learned that our session would need to be pre-recorded. Although disappointed about not being able to deliver our session live, we created a presentation that felt meaningful for the two of us, and agreed we would make the most of the chat box when our session was aired during the conference.

Well, friends, again I learned: You don’t know what you don’t know. Over 160 folks turned up for our session on the platform and the engagement throughout exceeded our wildest dreams. Folks were not just watching a presentation, they were feeling it! And letting us know! It was humbling, astonishing and one of the most incredible online experiences I have ever had and I would not have had that possibility without Min!

The rest of the conference held mighty surprises and highlights. Teacher/librarian and activist, Liz Kleinrock, gave one of the best keynote talks I have ever heard at an education conference. I mean, she took us to church! This tweet from Jonathan Ntheketha captures the mood so well:

Having rewatched Liz’s keynote and the Q&A that followed, there were simply so many moments of connection. I also was deeply pleased with Kalea Selmon as moderator who kept it real and brought her full self to the conversation. The fact that Liz has consistently worked in schools, and continues to deal with all the aspects of navigating an institution at the faculty level gave her message a sense of proximity that I often miss in mainstream keynotes. I felt seen, heard and genuinely understood.

Kalea Selmon was the perfect vis-a-vis for the Q&A session with Liz Kleinrock.

At one point Liz asked: “Thinking about professional development and learning this year, what does that even mean in a pandemic?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

What Liz also did in this talk was differentiate particular pieces for specific audiences: white folks, BIPOC, and school leaders, for instance. That’s not as common an occurrence as one might expect among speakers. She asked school leaders, “How have you redistributed power since spring of 2020?” and suggested that if various members of their school community cannot name what has changed as a result of any anti-bias or inclusion or equity initiative, then they are not being fully honest with themselves or their communities. *mic drop* Meanwhile, BIPOC were encouraged to build in cross-racial solidarity as she offered multiple historical examples. Further, she insisted that white folks get used to holding two truths simultaneously, to let go of the tendency to buy into either/or binaries.

As Jonathan’s tweet makes clear, there were many more gems in the 76 minutes we got to spend with Liz. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, just to be able to hold onto those gems beyond the immediate post-PoCC afterglow.

Which brings me to a final thought about all this professional and personal learning-to-go or on-the-go. On the one hand, there’s something very humanizing and grounding about spending time with folks speaking from their home and office spaces. Picking up on details in the background – bookshelves, pictures, posters, furniture – helps us see each other often as the real and regular folks we are with lives beyond the topic in which we’re engaging at that moment. On the other hand, we’re delving into themes that demand more of us than passive listening. At an identity-focused conference we are asked to show up differently than within the framework of a traditional professional learning event. In nearly every session at PoCC I was encouraged to bring my full self into the space, to take risks, to engage honestly and thoughtfully with fellow participants. And in many cases I did that to the best of my ability.

PoCC has always meant more to me that attending a conference. And particularly in these virtual renditions, I have felt both a need and responsibility to contribute what I could to help the event live up to its vision of being a true oasis for BIPOC at independent schools and in related organizations. As I carve out time to watch or even rewatch sessions that intrigued me following the live event, I am asking myself some key questions:

  • What am I trying to hold onto from this experience?
  • What are my key memories and how do they make me feel?
  • Where and when did I contribute to making the conference meaningful for someone else?
  • What can I let go of without fear or worry?

These allow me to center my experience as a whole person, complete with the full range of emotions that that entails. Clearly, I’m a feeler. I take lots of things to heart. I’m trying to do stuff with what I’ve learned – not necessarily to suddenly toss these ideas into my classroom – but allow them to work their way through my consciousness, to let them bump up against previous instances and find a place to settle for a time. This is what the writing of it is for.

Of course, the snow day I had when I started this post is a few days old. I’m well into the following weekend and still surprisingly deep in my feelings about all the things mentioned. That’s the news, and it’s good.

Writing trouble; Trouble writing

Finding it hard to write. To focus and shake down an idea for the insights it offers.

That’s a very extractive take on a practice that ideally seeks to be generative. Yet, here we are. Here I am.

Photo by Annika Thierfeld on Pexels.com

I don’t write because anyone has asked me to. I write to let go of things, to exhale my concerns or at least breathe through them. I would love to believe that my writing has nothing to do with sales. But social capital is capital; a currency. Writing can be a way to build social capital which leads to other opportunities to expand reach and influence. Appearing publicly means participating in a specific economy of attention, of favor, of visibility. When I write publicly – when I blog, tweet, newsletter – I am negotiating attention, favor and visibility. I am both spending and accruing social capital.

I listen to other writers. I hear their wisdom, envy their capacity to say so many things I wish I could say, too. Colson Whitehead says we should write the things that scare us the most which is hard. But what’s the point of doing it if it’s going to be easy? he adds. I am a scaredy cat writer. It’s not that I’m harboring great secrets that I dare not tell but I know, for now, pretty well, what I’m not gonna do. Remember that social capital? Part of playing the game is limiting the risk of losing that capital. Reducing the risk of falling out of favor. Hedging against the danger of disappearing or being disappeared.

Writing as trouble. Writing to trouble. I do these things but usually so politely. I choose my words carefully, resisting the impulse to offend. “I” and “we” are my preferred pronouns. Call it a humility strategy. Never wanting to get “too big for my britches” I stay contained, restrained, palatable. If I hold stock in anything, my portfolio runs deep in respectability. My good girl legacy remains in tact. Even if social capital is contingent, I suppose I came to this particular marketplace with a certain endowment comprised of an elite educational pedigree and a rich collection of professional connections. I’m a conservative investor. I imagine I’m playing the long game.

And we have to ask for what? What is this capitalist rumination on a practice at once globally irrelevant, yet potentially contextually meaningful? Illusions exist. Which is to say, yes, I have illusions, perhaps like every other person who writes, who creates, who persists in showing up. I have the illusion that some words matter. I have the illusion that my words can matter sometimes to some people. Sometimes I have the illusion that writing matters. I have the illusion that my writing matters.

How do we engage in a capitalist framework based on scarcity, extraction and fear and still expect to create beauty for ourselves and those we love? How do we resist the deadly pull to produce and become content (I hate that word) in an economy that tells us we’re only as valuable as our last big click generator? Even as I quietly and civilly rage against the machine, it’s impossible not to notice how it eats me and feeds me back to myself. It’s an ugly process made to look sleek and appealing. It’s a wildly efficient robbery; always underway where everyone’s a perpetrator and witness at the same time. We stay busy. We stay busied.

Writing trouble, writing trouble; trouble writing, trouble writing. Where is the emphasis? What seems to be the trouble? The trouble is neither paucity nor order of words; trouble defines the context into which the words are released. The trouble is the world we inhabit. The trouble is in the world we’ve created. The trouble is in us. The trouble is us. We are the trouble. The writing speaks of trouble. The writing shows the trouble. Trouble shapes the writing. The writing consumes trouble. Trouble consumes the writing. Writing made of trouble. Writing made for trouble. Writing trouble is not the same as trouble writing. Troubling trouble while writing writing, we create an illusion. Maybe it matters. Trouble writing no longer an illusion but a fact.

Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating. Repetition may not save us. Repetition, though, shows us patterns. Repetition can help us see and then unsee. Help us hear and then unhear. Repetition can take us to clarity. Kicking and screaming, if necessary. Repetition got patience. Repetition can hold the note. Repetition will wait you out. Repetition been down this road before. Repetition ain’t afraid of you. Repetition knows its purpose. Repetition never forgets. Repetition is a song that keeps singing. Repetition is a beat that keeps beating. Repetition is a breath that keeps breathing. Repetition is neither the beginning or the end. Repetition keeps going. Sometimes we need to follow.

Writing here, now, becomes a release valve. A relief release. A loosening of the shoulders, an unclenching of the jaw. I am not free but at ease. It’s a start, a return, a diversion, a turn, an entry, a temporary arrival.

Welcome.

Saying Some Things/Hearing Some Things

Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.

Saying Some Things

I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.

Hearing Some Things

I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.

Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.

Coming Clean

Image by Leohoho from Pixabay (Alt text: abstract photo of orange merging into blue background with raindrops across entire surface)

One of the main reasons I keep a personal blog is that it gives me space to say what I need to say where others can also see it and also keep it moving. There’s a lot of bad news in the world and at the same time I must know that it has rarely been otherwise. Climate collapse feels imminent and will likely spell out our grandchildren’s realities in gruesome syllables. The related crises of existence that arise out of dwindling resources, persistent and exacerbated inequality, capitalist greed and self-sabotaging governments leave their marks on all of us, in varying degrees of severity. So, no, this morning I am not feeling particularly hopeful or optimistic.

I was listening to a podcast featuring the novelist, Katie Kitamura, talking about her recent book, Intimacies. I devoured the novel over the weekend and was eager to hear the voice of someone capable of such penetrating and precise insight. One of the things she mentioned was the desire to explore “how we make do with fragments of information” even as we are awash in torrential loads of stories, newscasts, articles, etc. We hardly realize how it is virtually impossible to learn or know a whole truth about events, about others, even about ourselves. And I’m struck by the notion of “make do” – how we work around the pieces we don’t know, can’t know. All the ways we fill in the blanks to compensate. “Making do” becomes our natural habit; a trick of the trade of general sense-making.

I’ve lately felt a bit of public disorientation, meaning that I wondered if maybe I have said all I can say to any topic of relevance. I don’t really know how to make anything better. I keep writing at topics. Throwing texts onto the screen, into the e-channels of Twitter and seeing where they land. If they land. I hardly have solutions that go beyond asking people, asking us, to get better at examining ourselves. Not in the sense of egotistical navel-gazing, but in a critical fashion where we finally open our eyes to the ways we have impeded fairness; stood in the way of another person’s or our own right to thrive.

And I can’t ask other folks to do what I am not willing to do myself.

My school year is off to a roaring start. Covid protocols in Austria are fairly clear. High levels of vaccination and regular testing of staff and students have allowed us to start at full capacity. Masks are also part of the formula. I have a new team colleague who is energetic and knowledgeable. We’re almost through our first 6-day cycle of classes and routines are becoming familiar to students and teachers. Here’s what I’m noticing: as much as I pride myself on being open and welcoming, I’ve found myself struggling to adapt to new input about “how we do things around here.”

Surprise, no surprise, I’m not the easy-peasy, hyperflexible colleague I frequently envisioned myself to be. When confronted with the prospect of change – or reconsidering taken-for-granted practices – I have, in various iterations, found myself tumbling into a defensive stance. Not feeling attacked, per se, but certainly unsettled and caught in a flurry of sudden self-doubt. That’s my truth. It has never felt good and cognitively, while I know better; emotionally, I have hardly been able to help myself in the moment. As the days have passed and I’ve gotten to know my students and my new colleague, I’ve been able to relax a little. To gradually lay down my institutional and personal armor. My fear of loss, because that’s really what it is/was, has subsided. I’m going to be alright.

I want to unpack those fears though because it might help someone else. I think I was afraid of losing power – of my standing through seniority, of popularity, of my own sense of efficacy. Simply the presence of a new individual with their own history, experiences, expectations and curiosity, was a welcome change but also a destabilizing one. My fear response was about me, not them. My emotions anticipated scarcity, that the addition of new ideas and impulses implied a loss for me and my perceived authority, importance, popularity. This is as real as it gets, friends. To what degree this was visible to others I cannot say. I do know that it cost me some extra mental energy I hadn’t anticipated.

The good news is that I’m over that initial hump of adjustment. The school is incredibly fortunate to have my new colleague. My own process or adaptation is certainly unfinished but my awareness of it allows me to navigate it differently than if I tried to pretend that it was not at play.

And this is where I hope more of us will get better, which means getting braver, about acknowledging where we need to grow. It doesn’t need to be public. Do it in a journal or in conversation with a trusted friend. We need the power of reflection to accompany us throughout our practice. We can never have enough rehearsal for being honest in the ways we show up for and with others.

We would also benefit from recognizing that in most cases – with our students, colleagues, friends and family – we are constantly having to “make do with fragments of information.” Let’s bear that in mind and resist bridging our gaps in understanding with judgment and assumptions. It’s rare that we’ll know the full story of anything. Here’s where we can exercise our capacity for compassion. Also with ourselves. I suppose that’s what I’m wrestling with as I write now – exercising self-compassion. How do I forgive myself for feeling slighted and defensive in the face of new impulses? I’m not good at this part but I’m practicing.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. Maybe this disclosure/insight kind of post can help others get some perspective on a thing they’re working through. Even if I feel neither particularly optimistic or hopeful in this moment, I at least feel the release of having said the thing I hesitated to say and being able to move along. That’s what this space is actually for.

Gathering Life As I Go

My life now is different than it was a year ago. I moved during the pandemic; settled into a new place closer to work and surrounded in three directions by wooded hills. When I agreed to take the apartment I did not know how much I needed to be right where I landed.

I’ve spent most of the summer break here in my new home. Aside from a couple of getaway weeks in July, I’ve hunkered down comfortably in Neuwaldegg (the name of our neighborhood, pronounced NOY-Vahld-egg). To my delight I’ve found a new rhythm of movement that has helped me find a top-to-bottom joy I wasn’t sure was still possible.

Gathering life as I go

I wake up, drink water, put on my running stuff. Think
to myself what the route should be.
Schafberg, Heuberg, Exelberg, Hameau?
In any case, all routes will lead uphill.
Sometimes there's a stretch on the sidewalk before 
I can turn off and reach a trail. 
Other times, it's a walk along the periphery 
of small garden homes, now refashioned into pricey
real estate bordering on the Vienna woods. 
Houses on hillsides, a few with ridiculous views
overlooking the city.
I walk through these spaces on my way to the trails
that criss-cross these hills.
At the start I sought out marked paths,
keeping my eyes peeled for stripes on trees:
white-yellow-white, white-green-white, white-blue-white.
By now I have a handle on which trails lead where.
Each trek takes me a bit farther afield, not just up the hill 
but also down and around
until I circle back another way.
I try out the occasional unmarked trail 
and note how it links up with my familiar route.

I begin with the long walk,
pausing where I please, listening
lending my ear to the birds, bees and 
all the other life gathering itself.
I look up at trees
even though I can barely call them by name
I thank them for their shade,
I salute their resilience and adaptability.
I can hardly imagine how tired they must be 
of humans.
The paths are varied: combinations of rock, mud, roots,
gravel and packed leaves.
Weather adds variety: soggy, slippery 
after last night's rain;
parched and cracked following three days' 
baking in the sun.
I note these details as I go,
measuring changes that sharpen my sense
of scale and belonging.

While I walk, I let my mind wander.
Ideas get tossed up.
some stick 
in my mind;
others follow that dragonfly or catch me up
before I trip. I'm open to what comes
lingers and fades. 
these moments feel expansive
I savor my aloneness, the quiet, a peace.
There are few others out and about
so far, a couple of mountain bikers,
walkers, with dogs and without; runners. 
We greet each other and keep it moving.
I'm glad not to share
I am relieved of any shame
of being too slow
or too fast;
of going too far,
not far enough.
Every day I can make up my own pace;
determine my own course,
change my mind
as often as I like.
I'm giving myself this gift 
and I always make sure to receive it.

At some point it's time to turn around,
to head back to where I came from.
The route may be the same way
or the other half of a loop.
It's usually a descent
so I jog.
And as I jog I complete this puzzle 
of a gazillion micro decisions about where
to place each foot
to leap the puddle, clear the roots,
to dodge the brush, hurdle the log.
On my way down I feed my brain. 
Eyes are on high alert, 
ears attuned for potential scare.
As trails become my friends 
I can anticipate their tricky curves 
and slippery rocks.
I know I can't afford injury
so there's caution and daring accompanying
my every step.
When I work my way back to solid ground,
to forest drive, the sidewalk home
my pace is steady and pushing it
just enough
to know it's working;
I am accumulating a new sense
of self and place. 

I reach the entrance to my building
a sweaty mess and proud.
This is what it means to hit my stride.

Middle Aging

No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.

Aging = facing myself

When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.

Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.

I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.

My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.


My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.

The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?

I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.

When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.

Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.

I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.

I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.

Aging means becoming more of who we are.

Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019

Audio Version can be heard here.

On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.

Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.

Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.

Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

Sitting in quiet

It may not be easy to recognize but sitting in quiet is a kind of dare. It’s personal but deeply connected to our social understandings. When I sit in quiet – maybe stare out the window, or leaf through some printed thing – I am challenging my own impulse to ‘look busy.’ For what?! For whom?! I am at home on vacation with my teen and we are literally chilling out. And it’s not natural. Inside I’m holding onto all these ideas about time, productivity, domestic responsibility, and being an adult. It’s almost as if I’ve told myself that I am not built for rest, recovery and full relaxation.

In my late 30s and early 40s I invested a great deal of time, energy and money in developing my understanding of self and others. I attended a series of courses that usually extended over periods of 4-6 months at a time. Usually it involved 3 day weekend seminars with intensely interactive sessions which for me tended to be highly emotional and revelatory. These courses formed the basis of my later practice as a life coach. Above all, these experiences trained me to ask better questions of myself and others – questions that brought us closer to the core of a topic rather than dancing around the fringes. That training has served me well.

In a short post I wrote yesterday, some unusual questions emerged. Here are two:

Whose budgeted affections will we overextend to then regret our hasty indulgence?

Which personal histories are you writing today?

SOL Tuesday A Gentle Reckoning

When words show up like this I know that they have emerged out of my feelings, not my rational mind. Quiet time invites my feelings to show themselves. What I think of those feelings is rarely as pressing as what it is they are asking me to do: Back up? Slow down? Guess again? Let go? Hold on? Breathe? Quiet time is like visiting hours for all the disparate parts of who I think I am and who I might actually be to show up and mingle. If I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to write down a few things once the party is over.

Teaching Outdoors and Incomplete Pictures

So many leaves! (image via Pixabay.com)

Late October/ early November of a (N. Hemisphere) school year – by this time we know some things: about our students, our schedules. We may have a sense of the way things might go for the year. Or, we know that so much is up in the air it would be absolute folly to try and predict where things may end up. I’m at that stage in the school year where I’m beginning to hit my stride; where my routines with students are familiar; we may even have a rhythm.

Here we are (in Austria, mind you) holding regular school in the middle of a pandemic. As a learning community we’ve been blessed with very few cases, all of which could all be traced to contacts outside school and turned out to be asymptomatic. Every week without a significant change in the building’s population has felt like a victory. We seem to be getting things mostly right.

Among the adaptations my PE colleagues and I have had to make is shifting to majority outdoor teaching. Particularly for me and my team colleague, this has meant truly changing our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ There’s a lot to appreciate with getting kids outside and taking advantage of different parts of the campus. We’ve gotten both creative and clever in developing plans that get us close to what we have planned in the pacing guide. That said, it has also been hard.

Not hard as in gut wrenching or emotionally draining but mistifyingly frustrating. Yes, my colleague and I have been conducting our PE classes – differently, yes, but still. I even did a kind of question mind-map at the beginning of October to try to help me understand.

Questions to help me think through my challenges with teaching outdoors.

It took me literally until this past week to figure out why.

My colleague commented on teaching indoors due to wet weather and how much easier he found it. “We’re by ourselves, there’s nobody else kicking a ball around … there’s not a leaf, or wind…” Oh my gosh! Exactly when he mentioned the leaf, I laughed out loud in recognition. And then it dawned on me: for at least 2 classes I am outside during middle and then high school recess! I’ve been trying to “teach” my classes next to big kids playing soccer on the field, basketball on the redtop, strolling, laughing, chilling. When I march my 1st graders and Pre-K out to the field and back, it’s a given that someone will be collecting something along the way. Of course! They’re children, they’re curious and all kinds of things can be fascinating: bugs and leaves and big siblings; jackets in the wind and water bottles along the fence.

What’s striking for me is that I couldn’t put my finger on what the real differences were until now. Over 9 weeks in. Instead I focused on what I was doing wrong or that the kids were distracted while functionally excluding the impact of the context we’re suddenly trying to operate in. How could I behave as if teaching next to recess should proceed normally? What on earth would lead me to believe that my students would find having PE outdoors instead of indoors an easy transition?

Here’s my theory: As educators we spend years building (or attempting to build) a positive track record. We develop a sense of what works, what we do well, how we maneuver towards success. When the success doesn’t happen when and where we expect, many of us will attribute that to ourselves. We look first to see what we’re doing wrong. Or, we locate the trouble in our students’ behaviors or histories. The point is, on our own, the picture we’re most likely to create will be incomplete. We will focus on what occurs to us with remarkably little awareness of what we may be missing.

Even under these extenuating circumstances many of us are still very wedded to our sense of “normal” in how we operate. Yes, we’ve changed modalities (multiple times even) and adapted to new schedules, dramatically shifted our approaches to any number of routines and habits – and still, when things go south, go off or don’t go at all – how many of us are quick to blame ourselves? To ask what we did wrong? Our self-constructed picture can easily leave out some little (or big) things that may, in fact, be having a sizable impact on our capacity to do even the least of what we intend with our students.

All this to say, it’s not just us. It’s not just the kids. It is literally EVERYTHING. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The more we talk to each other, the greater our chances of expanding our field of vision for what’s going on both in front of us and behind the scenes. And as I learned, this may take a minute. (9 weeks, y’all, just sayin’.)

Let’s be both gentle and generous with ourselves and each other; with our families and students; with colleagues and neighbors. We don’t need to be superheroes especially when it’s already asking a lot to just be.