Speaking Truths, Acknowledging Loss

image: S.Spelic

I’ve been feeling a little emotional lately. No specific cause, really. I mean, we’re healthy, school is fully back in session and it looks like we’ll end the year on a positive note. But I keep feeling … a lot. This evening I’m a bit teary; other times I’m just spent or a little extra cranky. My teen navigates all these mood appearances with remarkable equanimity and for that I am extremely grateful.

I’m fine.

This week I read a post by Sara Rezvi for the #31DaysIBPOC series and it made me stop, think and catch my breath. In it, she asks:

“What if we were honest enough to bear witness to our pain?”

from “We shall revel in the abundance of each other”

Lord, what if?

I remember when it dawned on me and my siblings that my mother’s memory was deteriorating. The initial signs were subtle but presented a clear enough pattern. As her dementia progressed she managed to retain so many of her distinctly prosocial qualities. She was kind, gracious, appreciative and curious. Any upset was quickly forgotten. At some point it was no longer possible for her to stay angry. When she passed away, it was the sound of her voice that continued to ring in my ears. That upbeat tone of interest whenever she picked up the receiver. I believe she left this world thinking the best of everyone.

Of course in her dementia, she also knew pain, frustration and sadness. But her reservoir and access were severely curtailed.

Through the course of this pandemic year plus, I have had some ups and downs but my existence was never threatened. My health and that of my loved ones was never significantly impaired. We have come through this world crisis relatively unscathed.

But not untouched.

At the end of her post, Sara encourages us:

So, reader, speak whatever must be said. Speak for what you know is true. Speak when your body tells you something isn’t right. this…isn’t right. Speak even if you are conflicted (maybe especially so). Speak and release this energy that threatens to consume you. Speak because you know that ultimately this action is fundamentally one of armed love.

Speak. And know that you are not alone in the telling.

Precisely here is where I felt fully unmasked and my losses were revealed. I haven’t cried a lot during these pandemic months but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want or need to. I experienced loss and change and painful adjustments. My marriage of 15 years broke up. Not in a knock-down, drag out kind of way but in an entirely practical and unremarkable way. Our common household was dissolved and two separate but satisfying new living arrangements established. There was mainly agreement and cooperation. But it still hurt. It still constitutes a loss.

I’ve muddled through a year of pandemic teaching and my students are alright for the most part. I learned some new skills, discovered some hidden capacities. Progress showed up in predictable and also surprising places. And yet, I wasn’t able to teach my best. The year was rife with improv and scrambling to adjust to shifting conditions. My case was not at all special, I know. At the same time, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed. I missed teaching with the benefits of consistency, routine and a dedicated enclosed space. That was a loss and I feel it in lots of small ways. Taken together, they’re like a slow-healing bruise. Not really painful but tender and sore; sometimes on the surface, other times deeper in the tissue.

Thanks to moving house and making the most of a new set of circumstances, I’ve been confronted with myself in a way that hasn’t happened in quite a while. I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about who I am and who I intend to still become. What do I like? What are my priorities? Who is on my team and what is worth doing together? In principle, I love these kinds of big picture questions. I’m a trained life coach, after all. But the introspection remains challenging. I don’t have more or better responses than anyone else. I get tired. I lose steam, motivation and sometimes heart. Here, too, amid discovery I also found holes.

The older I become, the more similarities I find with my mother as I remember her in her 60s and 70s: I keep mini Snickers on hand in my pantry, I’m more interested in cooking by recipe, I like gin with tonic or ginger beer, I’m concerned with what ails the world, I still celebrate and relish independence. It’s a funny/not funny thing to notice. If I can stay stay so stubbornly optimistic about humanity like my mom, then I’m pretty sure I’ll pull through these and the next challenges and the ones after that just fine.

In the meantime, I hope I have courage enough to speak my losses and hurts. Also that I may bear witness for others with humility, honesty and presence. In speaking my pain, I also tell you: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here and for now, we are alive.

That’s a lot and also a gift.

Culture Shock Shock

Sometimes the universe hands you an insight and you just go, “No, seriously, is that what it is?”

That happened to me today. I attended a presentation by a colleague on adjusting to a new culture. Considering the title: “The Honeymoon is Over – Now What?” and my status as a 25-year veteran of this city I was looking forward to enjoying my role in the room as an observer and supporter.  Then he put up this diagram:

Source: http://www.prepbeijing.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Culture-shock-curve.png

And suddenly all of my sadness, frustration, listlessness and second-guessing of the last couple of weeks came into sharp focus. That dip on the graph, the one labeled “withdrawal”? That was me, or better, that’s where I saw myself so clearly, so evidently: In my one year leave from school, in my new role as an independent leadership coach, on my own, self-employed and really wondering if I am on the right track after all. On this curve I could see myself inhabiting that special valley reserved for explorers, travelers, pioneers, tag-alongs – anyone who must leave one thing, place, situation and adapt to a different one – perhaps in another country but, and, or quite possibly in a new field, a new organization, in a different role, on different terms. This was not necessarily what I came for but the universe seemed to know better why I needed to be in the room seeing what I otherwise could not, would not see on my own.

Coping with a significant drop in social contact has been the toughest part of my current transition.  Leaving behind my people-intensive days in a bustling school community to spend the majority of my time at home alone with far fewer face-to-face contacts presents me with a new type of challenge. While I savor and appreciate the time to myself – the quiet, the freedom and creative license – I have now reached a place where I deeply miss the camaraderie of working in a team and teaching lots and lots of kids.  So when I saw this graph, I could give my situation a name: “culture shock shock.” Since I hadn’t ever remotely considered the possibility of culture shock, my shock was doubled.

I haven’t left the country and at the same time I really have left home. My honeymoon of industrious engagement and wild abandon are past. I’m experiencing a phase of withdrawal; of missing what I knew so well. I have grown weary of having to invent and adapt and adjust to so much that is unfamiliar, different, and strange. Culture shock. Being on my own all day on most days was really cool until it became kinda tough. And lonely. And only marginally rewarding. In this phase of culture shock my energies have become sluggish and my persistence a bit rough around the edges. I bet my grit is enjoying a sunny vacation somewhere.

On the other hand, the curve goes on. “Withdrawal” denotes a phase of the process rather than the full extent. I can believe that recovery is up ahead even if I can’t make out its shape just yet. One advantage to slowing down and even grinding to a halt is that once you open your eyes, there’s quite a bit to see. India Arie sings: “When you’re in that valley you can see both sides more clearly.” And that feels like just the reminder I need right now. There’s “Value in the Valley” according to Iyanla Vazant. So while I may not feel particularly productive or of great use to the world at this moment, if I can just stay in this uncomfortable place for a bit – feel it, live it, allow it – I am confident that whatever comes after will belong to me. “It” will become a part of me, of my learning, of my journey – a piece that, down the road and in hindsight, I wouldn’t trade for the world.

And while I am on the topic, what kept this dip from becoming a deeper, darker tailspin: People, people and people. On a walk I called a friend I haven’t spoken to in weeks. Our chat was like manna from heaven. On e-mail and social media I paid closer attention to how I was responding to friends.  I figured that even short messages to say “Thanks, I got it. Will write more soon.” let folks know that I value and appreciate them. When getting out and about, I am learning how to respond more honestly to the query of how I am by saying, “OK. It’s a little tough now and then, but in general, it’s pretty good.”  Which is a great way to capture these precious weeks and months of free range: tough now and then, but in general, pretty good.