Word of the Day

My first thought as I wake up these days is “What’s the word of the day, God?”

It’s been an interesting practice because I often get words I didn’t anticipate but, as the day wears on, turn out to be just right.

Quiet.

Patience.

Presence.

On this gorgeous fall day I woke up in the majestic Yosemite, a trip I take twice a year with a group of women who are my personal and professional mentors. Women who at once make me laugh and cry, who will always tell me the truth, who will always honor my truth, who lift me up to the light with pride in the knowing that they are as a part of me as anyone else I know.

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And, like all other mornings, I woke up this morning with my question, “So, God, what’s the word today?”

Mediate.

I have been working almost two years on meditation. I go in spurts, sometimes every day but often not. Lately, I haven’t meditated at all. It wasn’t a surprise, this word, because I know in my heart it’s what I should be doing. Like writing. Like exercising. Things I know to be at the core of my soul and things I resist with great intensity.

I’ve known for many years about resistance, but I thought it a passive thing that existed in the form of excuses and complaints that masked fears I knew were there but could not quite explain. This weekend, however, I’ve come to a whole new understanding of Resistance.

A couple months back I heard an interview with author Steven Pressfield about his book called The War of Art. I only heard bits and pieces of the whole interview, but what I did hear stirred me deeply. I ordered the book right when I got home.

It sat on my desk ever since.

Then early Thursday morning I started packing for this weekend. I usually bring three or four books with me on this trip; this time, though, I thought I’d only bring one (because that’s all I usually read anyway).

I looked from my book shelf to my desk at this book, sticking out from under a pile of papers yet to be dealt with, papers with lists of ideas and partial outlines and articles—all the writing I want to be doing but am not yet doing. This stack of papers with the book at the bottom sat on my desk under a picture of a woman running, exercise I want to do but am not yet doing, next to a candle I light when I mediate, something I want to do but am doing no longer.

A theme, you say? I agree.

That’s the book I want, I thought. As I pushed the papers aside to grab the book, I knocked over the unlit candle with the rough edge; it caught the picture of the woman running and tore it. I did not see that as a domino until now, three days later, writing this story as I sit in a bed in Yosemite with the window open and the river running by me not twenty yards away.

Why now? I was obedient to the word God gave me: Meditate, the first action word in the weeks of words that have come. Before I got to this bed by the window to write, I spent the afternoon in the warm sun of this most Divine place doing just what I was told to do.

But three days ago standing in front of my desk with the book in my hand I swore at the knocked over candle and the mess of papers and the torn picture. Then I stuffed the book in my bag and put the bag by the door because I was late for work.

When I got to work my friend, also my boss, also a woman on this trip, uncharacteristically approached me in the office about writing. She said she was ready to publish her book and asked me to help her do it. Honored, we chatted briefly and I mentioned, pretty much off-topic and definitely unprompted, that I was waiting to publish the memoir I’ve written because it didn’t yet feel quite right.

“That’s Resistance. You need to read The War of Art.”

Are you kidding me?

So I’m here writing this story, having finished The War of Art an hour ago and having finished meditating down by the river just minutes ago. I’m writing because out of my mediation came one word.

Write.

Interestingly enough, I initially went down to the river not to meditate, but because these women I love are so damned loud this weekend I just couldn’t stand to be in the house one minute longer. We’ve been coming here for sixteen years and never in those sixteen years have I been down by the water. I even had to ask how to get down there.

“Um, the stairs?”

There’s stairs?

The main floor of the house sits up high with an expansive deck that looks over gorgeous rocks and flowing water. I sit out on that deck quite a bit, especially when the weather is as perfectly calm and warm and beautiful as it is today. But because these women I love are so loud this weekend, the deck was not far enough away. And, come to find out, there’s a set of stairs that will take me right down where I want to be.

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Meditate.

It hit me as I got to the bottom of the stairs, the stairs that were always there waiting to bring me down here, stairs that I had never known existed.

Right, today’s word is meditate. So off I went on a walking meditation to contemplate this entity called Resistance. According to Pressfield, I need to call on the angels to help me wage war against this very active source of energy by virtue of hard-ass work. In return for my openness to the words that come not from me but through me, the angels will reward me not only with inspiration, but also with the sustenance that comes to me only through writing. It calms me. It fuels me. It nourishes me.  In order to earn those things I have to be a professional and to be a professional I have to work like a professional.

Interestingly enough, the question of how did not surface. Instead, a knowing came to town. A knowing that these concepts are ones I’ve innately understood from the beginning but instead of acting on them I’ve allowed Resistance to take charge. For the last two years I’ve been an amateur writer. I’ve also been an amateur athlete and an amateur meditator. Three things that I know will turn the volume up on my life, things that will make the birdsong more clear and the sky more blue, I’ve left those things to the whim of Resistance. I’ve grappled and lashed and cried and yelled because I knew what I had to do but for some reason I just couldn’t do it.

Then, in recent weeks, I got quiet. I didn’t meditate or write or exercise, but I did stop fighting. I realized all that lashing was doing nothing but locking me into unhappiness even harder. Like struggling with the finger trap you get out of a child’s vending machine, only when you stop fighting can you truly be free.

In recent weeks I’ve started to say out loud that this is my last year in a traditional classroom. More surprising, I’m saying out loud “I don’t know” when people ask what’s next and I calmly add, “but I know something just right is out there waiting for me.”

What kind of triple-type-A person have I become? I’m a planner and a doer and a go-damn-getter. Recently, though, I haven’t been. I’ve been doing things like asking God what my word is for the day and, instead of panicking about the ridiculous amount of things I have to do in any given day, I just trust there will always be enough time to get them done. I’ve been floating like a leaf in the river, slow and steady, the back of my head cool and light with my ears just below the surface so I can hear the calming water pull me along ever so gently, ever so gently, ever so gently.

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When I stopped walking I found myself on the river’s edge. My eyes adjusted and my gaze landed on a place where the calm, slow water starts to pick up in this spot as it slides still gently but with more speed through the rocks. A blue-gray squirrel with a tail longer and fluffier than any I’ve ever seen bounced from rock to rock across the river and up the bank as I realized that God brought me here to look back and see my path. God brought me here to look forward and see my direction.

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God brought me here.

And here is just right.

The Curve Ball

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 3.48.44 PMI’ve made it clear to the universe and my family and friends that this will be my last year teaching in a traditional classroom in a traditional high school. Something else awaits and, while I know not yet what it is, I know that something exists. Something that does not deplete this introvert’s energy so completely, something that does not weigh on this soft heart so heavily, something that, after 19 years of teaching high school, will offer me a new and exciting professional challenge and will allow me to use my gifts in a way that serves me as much as it serves others. It’s out there and I trust it’s bought a ticket to get to me and it will be here sooner rather than later.

And yet.

I walked to the computer lab from my classroom today, all the way down one hall, through and down the breezeway, and all the way down another hall.  The whole way there I was greeted with smiles and hugs and high-fives and kindness. Doors were held open, papers I dropped were picked up, offers were made to carry my bag. This relentless warmth from students past and present, sent my way for particular reason other than they saw me walking down the hall, filled my chest with breath and made my eyes wet with tears.

I met my third period at the computer lab where the big topic of conversation was the SAT’s most will be taking tomorrow morning. So many worried about such a high-stakes test, more so than the average set of seniors because these kids are almost all first-generation college students who see higher education as the way out of the struggle most of them live as a daily way of life. Their grades are great, their extra-curriculars are strong, their habits—considering they are still teenagers—are mostly solid. The only thing standing in the way between them and their dream school is this one test and they are scared to death.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do in a situation such as this. We set the study of leading economic indicators aside and we had a Life Skill Moment.

“Here’s what I know,” I said. “You are all wonderful, smart, capable young adults who will go on to make this world one I want to grow old in. My SAT scores were low and I didn’t get into the big impressive schools I wanted to get into as a result. You know what? I ended up exactly where I was meant to go. Exactly. I got an outstanding education at a beautiful school, made life-long friends, met the man who became my husband, and have gone on to live the American dream many of you so desperately want.

“Letting one stupid-ass test get between you and that dream is one stupid-ass choice. It’s one test on one day in your whole entire life. If it goes well, great; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Any school that is going to turn you away because of how you scored on one test is no school you want to attend anyway.”

They looked at me, eyes wide.

“Did she just say ‘stupid-ass’?” one student whispered.

“I think she did,” replied another.

Eyes wider. Mouths opened. And then the clapping. And then the cheering. It reverberated down the hall so loudly that another teacher came into see if we were ok.

Yeah, we’re ok, I mouthed and nodded. We’re actually great.

Who leaves this? Who walks away from kids who are so anxious to show you their love and appreciation? What kind of “something” could possibly give me more reward than this thing?

And yet.

Next to parenting, this is the hardest work that exists in the world. To be a teacher, a great teacher, it takes the deepest and most honorable kind of intention and thoughtfulness—on levels both academic and human—not to speak of the hours both at home and at school.

I’ve been doing this work all of my adult life. Teaching is just what I do. It’s as natural and close to my heart as mothering. I don’t know how there can possibly be another job that is better suited to who I am and what I do.

I also don’t know that there is another job that is least suited to who I am and how I do it.

It seems there is no easy answer. It seems that just when I think I have it figured out, God throws me the curve ball called “Are You Sure?”

I am sure.

And yet…

Possibility

18010_10200914911824886_228413022_nCertainty is a part of my DNA, the perfect mix of a childhood nurturing and God-given nature, both relishing the known, the concrete, the for certain. I love it so much that I seek it out whenever possible, always choosing what has specifics I can get my head around, good or bad, versus what is unknown, unpredictable, the uncertain.

Snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, I nestled into certainty as a child and there I’ve stayed. It’s cozy. And there’s very little I value more than cozy.

I happen to have also been called to a profession that, at least in the state of California, comes with a huge amount of certainty. Get through the insanity that is the first few years of teaching with better than average results and you’ve got yourself a job for life. I would have to do something pretty terrible to lose this job. That’s not a dig on teachers or on the unions that protect them, that’s just fact.

Ironically, in the last five years–despite given my intense propensity toward certainty–I’ve become a person who jumps impulsively into projects I do not understand but trust implicitly. Because I am certain of my family and my finances, that security gives me the courage to remain undaunted by enormous feats that call to me. Assess the certainty of the safety net, jump, then get details later.

For example, I was frustrated about how schools weren’t teaching our kids practical research skills, so I wrote a book about it. I couldn’t sell it to a publishing house, so I published it myself. I don’t have an agent and I don’t have a book contract, but I’ve outlined three more books that I’m sure are awesome. I don’t have connections in the movie industry and yet I know there is a fantastic movie in the yet-to-be published memoir I’ve written. I write two newsletters and I have a website along with two Facebook pages. It’s almost like I’m all official or something.

Similarly, I have come to know that, for whatever reason I have yet to understand, I must parlay the last 18 years of working with teenagers into now working with their teachers, so I’ve created workshops to start that process. No paying clients yet, just me, doing an incredible amount of work for no real reason other than I feel I should, all in a time when my state is cash-strapped and school-coffers are like echo chambers. I don’t know, someday some one will be ready to take teacher professional development seriously again and when they’re ready, I’ll be too.

Who does that?

I do. The same person who craves certainty also craves creativity. Desperately. And somehow, again the perfect mix of childhood nurturing and God-given nature, I have the confidence –the audacity—to assume that my gifts are needed in the world and I’ll be damned if I’m going to keep them cooped up in my heart. If the world isn’t ready for me, no matter because I know my time will come and when it does, I’ll be ready.

That’s for certain.

And yet…

When I consider the prospect of walking away from the certainty of my job, I find myself plunged into an almost depressive state of the paralyzing blues, especially unusual considering my propensity toward anxiety. What do these blues mean? Did I really do all of this work preparing myself for what’s next only to say, nope, never mind, too uncertain?

I went to lunch with a friend today and she called the place I am currently residing (that state, the one I call Blue) a “gateway moment.” The choice I make is a gateway toward something new and exciting, only I know that when I walk through it the gate will slam shut on what I’ve known all of my adult life. As it clangs and bounces back and forth until it finally settles, I will have to make another choice: stay on course and move forward, or retreat. Before the clang-clang-clanging stops I can reach back with a hand to catch the gate, just in time to return to certainty.

In years past which path to choose would have never been a question. But something in me has shifted as of late and it has me thinking crazy things. Just yesterday I was guest lecturing in a teacher education class (more work for no known reason) and the conversation landed on how important it was for students to follow the rules. In fact, this new teacher said, there is no greater thing we can teach kids than how to follow directions.

“Wait,” I interrupted impulsively, “We’re all social studies teachers here, right?”

Nods around the room.

“This country was not created by people who follow the rules! We cannot stifle creativity and progress and innovation by teaching kids that, above all else, they must follow directions!”

Another young teacher, a laid-back looking guy in jeans and a t-shirt who sat in the back row when he came in, I’m guessing, to spend more time online than listening to me said, “That’s what I’m saying!” He, however, was the lone maverick. The rest of them, who sat in the front like the school-loving eager students they are, looked shell-shocked. Who was this woman saying kids needed to do more than follow directions?

No one, I’m sure, was more surprised about what I said than me.

I am a consummate rule-follower. I am mortified to disappoint people. Even a hint of disappointment in the eyes of someone I’m speaking to can set me on edge for hours. In my most insecure moments I might even call myself a name associated with someone who would sell herself for the approval of others. I do everything everyone tells me if for no other reason than they told me, and I just publicly questioned a perfectly well-intentioned new teacher about why he was so adamant that kids follow directions?

Something is loose in my skull. The certainty nut, the one that’s held me together all these years, it’s come loose and I’m doing and saying things I wouldn’t have done or said before. In all of this preparation for what’s next I unknowingly bought into something I never thought possible.

Possibility. 

Possibility is what’s possible, not what is. Possibility is what could be, not what will be. From my seat in certainty, snug as a proverbial bug in a rug, I built this train of possibility, piece by little piece, for no other reason than I felt called to do so. Now I’m on that train without even realizing I bought a ticket.

That God, He is a sneaky, sneaky little character.

Genetic Code

I love my dog. I just hate my dog’s barking. He’s a working dog of some kind, likely generations back he was bred to herd things; trouble is, we live in the suburbs and there is nothing of use for him to herd here. Unable to break the genetic bond to his ancestors, however, he instinctually herds things that are of no use. Teenagers on skateboards, children on bikes, our cats or any other animal that happens to be passing by, including the crows who sit in the trees above our backyard an taunt him relentlessly—Mario feels it is his duty, moreover, his moral imperative, to put these creatures back on the correct track. Given he has no words and he walks on four legs, he has one way of fulfilling his obligation: to bark and run circles around the house and yard, alerting anyone and everyone to the danger.

In loud, frantic barking language, it goes something like this, “OH MY GOD! THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE. COME QUICK! COME QUICK! MAYBE YOU DIDN’T HEAR ME? I SAID THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE! NOW! COME HERE! YOU THERE, YOU GO HOME WHERE YOU BELONG! DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID…” And it continues like that until the crow/cat/teenager is out of sight and he can relax, knowing his job is done. Either that or he figures then it’s just in somebody else’s domain and no longer his responsibility.

As if that’s not enough, apparently somewhere along Mario’s familial line a working dog crossed with a hunting dog, because the only thing he does more than try to herd things is chase things. Put a squirrel in this dog’s line of vision (or smell) and you will witness an untold feat of canine gymnastics. He twists and turns and whines and growls and pants and paces. Watch your feet when you finally open a door because his back paws will dig into whatever is near in order to propel him out the door with the force of a cannon.

I’d imagine the inside of his head sounds something like this, “SSQQUUIIIRREELLLLL!!!!!” Based on his behavior, my guess is it repeats much like that over and over, louder and louder, until he finally can chase that sucker with bullet speed. Thankfully, squirrels can climb. If not, there’d be none left in a five mile vicinity of where we live.

No matter what kind of positive or negative reinforcement that Mario is offered, the barking and the chasing continues. The messages to do both course through his veins with such power that human intervention has no ability to override them. It’s as if he’s powered by God to do this work and, by God, he’s going to do it.

The interesting thing is, when I give him an outlet on a regular bases for this energy, he’s far less likely to spend his day as a caged animal waiting for his moment to do what comes naturally. When Mario first came to us I walked him twice a day, sometimes as much as two or three miles at a time. He herded and chased and ran and delighted both himself and all those around him (“His body language just screams ‘happy dog!’” people would say to me). In those days he didn’t pace and bark, lying on the floor in a sad-dog state one moment and turning into crazy-dog-breaking-down-the-screen-door-to-get-out when the whiff of a squirrel came through with the breeze.

Where before we could speak freely, able to say the “SQ” word (squirrel) out loud, without fear he’d jump out of his skin and frantically circle the interior of the house looking for one, we’re now editing ourselves (hence the code language) in futile hope of preventing the inevitable outburst. In those early days Mario was mostly just a quiet, contented dog that only lost his mind in delight when someone new came over to visit. Now, if we so much use the w.a.l.k. word in passing, he loses his mind in hopes of procuring the walk that may never come.

In recent years I just have not made the time to get him out like I used to. Graduate school, kids’ schedules, the demands of work…I’ve allowed all of it to get in between Mario and the daily feeding of his soul. Truth is, in feeding his soul, I fed mine too. I exercised, I spent time outside, I had time to clear my head, be still, and be fully conscious of who I was in those very moments. I’d come home every day and write, and the words would come as easily as if I was powered by God to do that work and, by God, I was going to do it.

Curious.

I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in my children. When they are doing what they were genetically wired to do, they do it with such ease it’s as if resistance did not exist. My older son plays hard outside, exercising, competing, and allowing his body to move in a way that releases any and all pent up intensity. My younger son sings and dances, loud, raucous, and uninhibited, allowing his body to creatively express any and all ideas that delight his mind. In those states, their body language seems to scream “happy children,” both to me and those around them.

The difference between us and Mario is the fact that, because we have language and walk on two legs, human intervention does have the power to override our genetic purpose. It usually starts with something like, “You should…” or, worse, “You shouldn’t…” and because we’re conditioned to do what people tell us to do, we abandon our life’s purpose—the very part of us that is and brings us closest to God—in order to follow another person’s agenda. We don’t bark and break through screen doors, but we usually argue and defy and act out in other ways, all in a pathetic attempt to get someone to give us permission to do what we really want to be doing with our lives.

While I do realize we’re all in this human civilization together and, at least to a certain extent, sometimes we do have to prioritize one thing over another just to get through life. What I’ve noticed, however, is that when we allow ourselves to live in and express our true God-given purpose as often as possible, the hard parts of life don’t seem so hard. The sacrifices don’t seem so painful. The offerings we make for one another are out of good will instead of obligation.

And in those moments, we are just like Mario running down the dirt path chasing not the sanitized “SQ,” but the living, breathing, “SQUIRREL!”

And in those moments, we are truly alive.

It’s Possible

 

At a particularly low point a few years back my husband gave me a book called The Power of the Possible.  I hadn’t said that I wanted it; in fact I hadn’t said I wanted anything. In the knowingness of two people who share a home and a family, however, he knew. He didn’t know what I needed, but he knew I needed something.

“Here,” he said, “I thought you’d like this.”

I looked at him confused. Then irritated. Then grateful. As he took our boys outside to play I sat in my own muck and read this book for about an hour before I found myself wondering, What if, through the lessons of the impossible, I found the possible?

The book was a good read and it gave me some important perspective, but it wasn’t the book, itself, that changed things for me; it was his gesture. It never is the thing that gives us the perspective we need, the permission we crave, the revelation we long for…what gives us those gifts is the feeling we get from experiencing what we really do want: to be seen and understood, valued and taken care of. In short, to be loved.

Even better than the feeling of being loved is the feeling we get from looking into the eyes of another and giving that gift to them. The boomerang effect of giving love and receiving love, giving love and receiving love…Those moments, those intimate moments however brief they may be, change everything.

If that’s the case, I wonder what would happen if we started worrying less about what we don’t have and start giving more of what we do. What if we all did one extra something that served that greater good just one more time every day? What if we smiled at someone passing us on the street, if we picked up the can from the gutter, if we paused at feet of a dog waiting dutifully for its owner for no other reason than to pat his head and say hello? If each of us did one more thing each and every day, what could it do?

It could heal the world.

The laws of nature and humanity are screaming at us to pay attention, only we’re so overwhelmed that instead of facing their lessons with courage, we’re turning away in fear. In no time are people (and the environment) more honest than when they are in desperate pain and right now the glare of truth feels like just too much to face.

However, ask any alcoholic how running away from her pain is working out. Ask any downtrodden spouse in a miserable marriage how avoiding the important conversations is working out. Ask any worker stifled by a job he hates but still living in fear of losing that job how things are working out. When a mirror is put in front of any of those people—indeed when a mirror is put in front of any of us—we can plainly see that escape and avoidance and hiding in fear does nothing but exacerbate that pain that is already haunting us.

So why not throw off deception in favor of truth? Why don’t we face the realities of our individual and collective lives and figure out how to create solutions to what ails us?

Because we’re afraid it’s impossible, that’s why.

Guess what? We’re wrong. Perhaps it’s my trade as a teacher; perhaps it’s my nature as a sensitive and spiritual woman; perhaps it’s just the streak of stubbornness that comes with my culture. Whatever it is, I know the truth. We need to turn to our fears with courage, grace, and integrity, and say two words.

It’s possible.

And from there, all things really are.