Tag Archives: compassion

I am a (needy, tired, sick) Strong Woman

I have been sick since March. It started with an infection that has lead to three surgeries, with at least one more on the way. I found out I would be needing those surgeries on the same day that I found out we would not be getting the house we’d been under contract on for five months. The house for which we had packed our belongings and listed our home.

It also happened to be the same day that I found out I was being summoned for jury duty.

It’s been that kind of year.

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I didn’t know what it was like to have chronic pain and discomfort until I had chronic pain and discomfort. I’m used to being sick until I’m not, taking time off of work or activities if necessary, stopping for a few days, and then resuming normality.

The problem with chronic pain is that there comes a time after which you have to resume normality without feeling normal.

It’s been that kind of year.

If I don’t think about it, then it’s easy to pretend that everything is alright. But then I catch myself sitting in front of the refrigerator, cutting off slices of cheese to eat, one after the other. Or sitting at my computer, clicking “buy” before the alarm in my head goes off to remind me that I don’t really have the money to spend. Because eating and spending are a really good distraction to feeling.

And the key to pain management is making it possible to stop feeling pain.

Two months ago I got a message in my inbox from a friend, telling me that she was sending me a t-shirt that said, “Strong Woman”. There have been a lot of moments in my life when those words would have resonated deeply within me. Like immediately after running my first ten-miler, or the moment my son’s perfect slippery body was laid on my chest after a day and a half of labor.

But it hasn’t been that kind of year.

Last week, on the same day, three of my friends reached out to me to check to see how I was doing. I didn’t know, until I knew, just how much I would crave this sort of help, while at the same time avoiding it because where do you start? If I think about what I need, it starts pulling the yarn until the whole sweater of need is unraveled, and I’m not prepared for that level of nakedness, and I’m not good at knitting.

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But to avoid becoming a hermit, and to honor two of the friends I truly care about, I went to a going away party last weekend. Many of my dearest friends were there, and I found myself sitting at a table with a fellow mom, one I’m still getting to know, but whose honesty I’ve appreciated. Her daughter is enough older than my son that she has good insights, but not too much older that she can’t remember. We started talking about potty training, and the diapers that leak in the middle of the night all over the bed.

She offered an idea of solving the problem, but I think she could tell right away that I was not in the mood. Maybe she could see the holes forming in my sweater. So she said, “But you’ll know when it’s the right time for you to make a change.”

It was so little, but it was also grace. Permission to not have to solve the problem. Permission to have this be hard. Permission to be needy. Permission to know when to heal.

And a reminder that this is just a moment in time.

What my friend didn’t know when she sent me my Strong Woman t-shirt is that it would arrive two days before my third surgery. I woke up the morning of the surgery and pulled the shirt over my head. It’s the kind of shirt people notice, and several strangers read the words aloud as I walked past them in the hospital. I didn’t know why I wanted to wear the shirt that day, only that it was necessary.

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Two months later, looking back, I think I wore it as a reminder. A reminder that it has been that kind of year. I have been sick, I have been in pain. I feel needy and I feel weak.

But none of those things tells me who I am. Who I am is a strong woman.

A strong woman with a beautiful, messy sweater of need.

A strong woman who, when it is the right time, will heal.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

It Takes A Butthead to Know One

A little over a month ago I was at the point of collapse. I knew I was leaving my job, but I didn’t know what was coming next. I was living in the perpetual sleep deficit fog that has become my life as a mother. I was starting to fantasize about winning a trip to pretty much anywhere in the world for a break from my life.

Enter the advice of a good friend: It’s time to go get a massage.

Massages are religious experiences. In an hour a massage therapist can work out tension and stress that weeks, nay months of yoga classes (which I do not attend, btw) cannot. A salon near my house could squeeze me in for a same-day massage, so I ran out of the school building in time to make my appointment.

In a hurry I parked my car, jogged to the store, slowed down enough to pretend I wasn’t winded from the block-long trek, and walked casually into the salon.

The massage was perfect.

The message I received after the massage was not. When I returned to my car there was a note stuck to the window. In silver sharpie (such a waste for such an amazing product) someone had scrawled:

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(Park it strait Butthead)

Truthfully, I could have parked my car much better. It was at a slant that barely, barely, put the butt of my car into the space next to it. I could have taken the time to back up, pull forward, back up, pull forward (repeat 11 more times) so that I fit into the allotted rectangle evenly. But I didn’t. I was in a hurry.

And, I want to remind you, I was at the point of meltdown.

I sat there stunned. There was the spelling issue, obviously, but I couldn’t believe that someone had been so upset with me that they ripped up an envelope in their car, found a marker, then gotten back out of their car to leave me a note under my wipers. Who has time for that?

When we’re driving together, my husband has to regularly remind me that the other drivers on the road are not driving with the intention of making me angry. For example, to my, “what the &@#% is that person doing” my husband might say, “They’re probably just in a hurry.” To my, “THAT IDIOT JUST CUT ME OFF!” he might say, “I’m sure they’re just as frustrated with traffic as you are.”

Rereading that it sounds a little patronizing, but his tone and intent are anything but patronizing. My husband lives by the phrase, “Everyone is just doing the best that they can.” And he offers me the grace implied by those words.

Sometimes I think about the lessons I want to teach our son. I have lofty goals of writing them down and making a family creed. And I have to say that this note on my car got me thinking about rule number one: Don’t be mean. (Well, technically, don’t be an a**hole, but I should probably introduce the rule as “Don’t Be Mean”, since another rule is “Watch What You Say”.)

In my new job as a coach, the coaching team takes the task of “coach” quite seriously, including coaching one another. One of the areas in which I’ve gotten feedback is that not everything I think needs to be said. For those who are my personal friends, this might make you laugh. I have a way of speaking “no filter” that can get me into trouble.

Put another way, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

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So I kinda of feel for the man who left me that note. I can guess at the anger he felt upon seeing the last available spot in the lot, only to realize he would have to wedge his car back and forth to fit into it. Maybe there was a line of cars behind him, honking to get past. Maybe he was coming from work, or leaving to go to work, and this made him late. Maybe he, like me, has a child, and the way I parked made it impossible for him to squeeze the carseat out of the door, so he had to walk around the car. Or maybe he’s just a meany. Maybe he wrote that note to feel the rush of indignation while sliding it onto my windshield.

I will never know.

Just like that man, I have a tendency to get lost in the moment and cuss at the car in front of me. Or to speak my mind without thinking through the ways it might hurt the people around me. (I can always apologize later.) Or to leave a scathing comment on a blogpost. (I don’t know the person, who cares?)

Thanks to my new job I’ve been practicing the art of holding my tongue. Keeping my job is good motivation. In true elementary school fashion, the walls of the school we meet in has the acronym “THINK” posted throughout the building: THINK before you speak: Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary, Kind? It’s cliche and I rolled my eyes the first forty times I walked past it.

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But like so many of those overused phrases, it’s got a point. Maybe before I pick up the sharpie to write my comment, it is worth taking a pregnant pause to consider that everyone is just trying to do the best they can. Even when driving. (Or parking.)

It’s kind of shocking how much less I’ve been saying lately.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

#YesAllWomen #NotAllMen #HopefulForCulturalChange

she is someone Up early. Made coffee. Opened Laptop. Checked social media (how I track my son who lives 1200 miles away, but who never posts anything, but you never know, so it is important to check anyway).

I am bombarded with the appearance of #YesAllWomen tweets.  Often, I am in awe of the power of Social Media.  This is one of those times.

As I scroll through ten tweets, twenty more are posted.  And it’s 5 a.m.  And these #YesAllWomen tweets are being tweeted by women and men. I am enthralled and captivated. Encouraged and enraged. Dismayed yet hopeful. Definitely hopeful – despite my feelings of  horror as I read countless women’s stories of fear and suffering and pain and death, clicking obsessively between Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.   Why hopeful?  Because finally we (meaning women) are talking about and sharing our stories, #nofilter.

And I believe that every woman has had at least one still lingering encounter with a man or men  that was frightening, humiliating or harmful. But usually, we keep these stories to ourselves.  Why are we generally silent? Why do sexual assaults and rapes go unreported? Home training.  Media messages.  SHAME. So many reasons.

GOOD girls do not place themselves into situations that lead to these horrifying encounters; girls who do probably are”at fault” somehow because they dressed too provocatively, drank too much, were too friendly or flirtatious, or in the “wrong” place.  Sometimes, we experience these encounters with male figures in positions of power: fathers, employers, clergy.   Silence is safety.  So we chalk it up to a “life lesson learned,” rather than reveal how we allowed or, better yet, lured a man to “lose control.”  We quietly bandage our wounds which never quite heal and which make us wary of the world. Almost always, we feel such shame about these experiences, we work hard to forget they ever happened.  But it is impossible to truly forget.  These episodes remain etched in our souls, our psyche, our skin.  #YesAllWomen

I was 19.  I was a passenger on the Illinois Central Railroad in 1978 – I had taken the 9:20 p.m. train out of the Randolph Street station in Chicago and was traveling home (I still lived with my parents) to the far south suburbs. At the time, I was attending night classes at Northwestern University.  I would scurry down Michigan Avenue as class let out at 9 p.m. and I was always relieved to make the train and slide into my seat, always out of breath.  My nightly routine, Monday – Thursday, after commuting to the city on the 7:08 a.m. train to work a full day before I raced to class.  I was a seasoned commuter.  I was savvy and smart.

Except this one night.

For some reason, I grabbed an inside seat.  I was tired and wanted to just lean against the window for the 55-minute ride home.  I started drafting a paper due the following week and got lost in my work.  At some point, a man took the seat next to me and opened his newspaper. I wasn’t paying close attention.  My fault.  At some point I became aware that the man’s hand had drifted onto my leg, and was moving up and down from my knee to mid-thigh.  Startled and unsure, I quickly pushed it away, thinking the man was asleep, as his eyes were closed. Just minutes later, it happened again, and I realized that the man’s other hand was inside his trousers.

I stopped breathing.

I hastily stuffed my papers and books into my backpack and pushed past the man who took the opportunity to grab my ass. I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to die.  But I never made a sound.

I stood in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights in the train vestibule next to the conductor for the rest of the trip home, fearful the man would approach me as I got off the train.  I kept reassuring myself that I was overreacting.  It was no big deal.  I hadn’t been raped – just touched.  It could have been so much worse, right?  My own fault, sitting on the inside seat.  Stupid girl.  You know better.  You are fine.  I leapt off the train when we arrived at the platform, and fled down the stairs two at a time.  I remember the cars on the busy avenue that ran beneath the station, honking as I dashed across the street to the lot where I parked my car.  I still hear the sound of the lock (manual) as I hurriedly slammed the door closed, shaking and sweating and crying and swearing.  When I got home, everyone was already asleep.  I threw away the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed myself clean in the shower, trying not to wake up the rest of the family.  I never told anyone. I remained silent. But for weeks I felt that disgusting touch over and over again.

Commuting was never quite the same after that.  I was distrustful of men who took the train and opened their newspapers, even though #NotAllMen behaved in this manner. In retrospect, minor incident.  Especially when compared to the killings in Santa Barbara this past Saturday and many of the stories I’ve been reading this morning. But for my 19-year old self – it was a big deal.  And I didn’t know how to talk about it. What gets me infuriated now, is that an adult male on a crowded train knew that he had the power to do what he did – that I would give him that power and not call him on it.  What gets me even more infuriated now, is that the man felt he could masturbate and touch a young woman in public – without her consent – with impunity.  And at 19, all I felt was overwhelming shame for putting myself in such a position.

Like most of us, I now have read quite a bit about the young man at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who felt he had the right to seek retribution against all women because he had been sexually rejected or overlooked by women – that the women should be punished.  I watched a portion of a video he posted on YouTube. It was too disturbing to watch through to the end, especially knowing the outcome, even though I have seen and heard a version of these sentiments before. So I read the transcript (click here to read it, if you’ve missed it: gruesome, but informative).   Now, seven people are dead, including this mentally disturbed young man, his roommates, two sorority sisters, and a man at a convenience store.

And I am deeply saddened and terribly uneasy. 

After reading the news accounts of the UCSB tragedy on Sunday, I read an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Disregarding feminism a sad trend for young celebs.”  A few days prior, The New York Times published  “Who is a feminist now?”  Both pieces center on an odd(well for me, anyway) definition of feminism held by many (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind), a “zero sum” game if you will, where the rights of men are somehow diminished if women are granted equal rights.  And apparently, the idea that feminists have “chips on their shoulders,” are “militant” and “don’t like men” still exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   These views are held not only by a number of popular celebrities, but by the current chief exec at Yahoo, all of whom are women.  I wonder if these “non-feminists” realize they have greater access to power and independence because of the “feminist” movement.  Are we teaching the history of the 20th century to our children?

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These “post-modern” views of feminism also make me uneasy.  Because I really want to believe we are farther along in the women’s movement, despite the gender pay gap, despite the increasing and incessant emphasis on the female body, despite the hyper-sexualization of young women, despite the hateful lyrics of some pieces of popular music, and despite the continuing use of the word “bitches.” In my view, feminism means equal rights for women and men: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voice.  It means women who serve in the military don’t subject themselves to sexual harassment or rape – and when they are so violated, they have recourse.  It means respect between men and women.

This morning, I felt great relief at this Twitter explosion, despite the trolls and the #NotAllMen response (#nokidding), for as this tweet aptly states:

And these stories are being told, some in 140 characters on twitter, some on tumblr, some on FaceBook, and some on blogs on #WordPress.  The secrets of women are being disclosed and both men and women are empowered.  Because there is great power in this telling of truths, of revealing the roles of oppressor and oppressed.  Only by acknowledging these roles can we alter them.

I hope and pray that #YesAllWomen is more than a #trend and that it leads us beyond the important conversation and debate to real action and change.  Honestly?  I am used to feeling vulnerable when I am alone – simply because I am a woman. Statistically, the odds are rarely in my favor.  So I plan and live accordingly.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if younger generations of women no longer had that fear? In the meantime, you might want take a look at the Twitter feed.  YESALLWOMEN

 – KarenDSC02405

 

The Many Shades of Appreciation

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s the week when teachers get catered lunch and are brought balloons and homemade cards by their students. The week rife with platitudes like: “I touch the future, I teach.” And, “I teach, what’s your superpower?”

It’s not that I dislike those phrases or want to take away from the hard work we do everyday, but it’s just those phrases don’t really capture the day to day monotony and ordinary-ness that it is to be a teacher. Most days I am much less aware of my permanent impact on the future, and much more aware of how my teacher training did very little in the way of preparing me for how to handle a student who leaves the room Jerry Maguire style, pointing at each of us in the room and calling, “You’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek.”

Or reflecting on how I never really figured out the right response on my first day of teaching to my seventh grade student, who looked me up and down at 2:45pm when school was finally dismissing (after an excruciating six hours)  and said, “Nice ass.”

And I’m not really thinking about my “superpower” when I am screaming at my students because the fifth stupid pencil sharpener has fallen to the floor, scattering dusty lead and wood chip shavings all over the floor, and five boys have rushed the broom in an effort to be helpful and are now arguing over who is the sweeper for the week. The answer is almost always none of them.

What I do as a teacher definitely matters. But I don’t generally get to see the impact of what I do.

However, there’s a very good chance that this will be my last year in the classroom, at least for awhile, and those sorts of monumental changes and decisions leave me reflective, ruminating on what has been and thoughtful about my legacy. These sorts of goodbyes have a way of crystalizing moments as they happen, recognizing that they may be the last of their kind.

Which is how I felt the moment on Wednesday when Lenaeya walked into my room before school and asked if she could tell me something she hadn’t told anyone.

I closed my computer, looked her in the eye, and said, “Of course. What’s going on, Lenaeya?”

“My dad is in jail. He just got sent to jail.” Her eyes were sad, vulnerability evident in her voice.

I asked her what happened, what details she knew. She didn’t know much. Just that her summer plans to stay with her father had been cancelled. After only five minutes of talking she was already late for class. (Schedules do tend to get in the way of the important things in life.) So I asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me so she could talk more and also write her dad a letter.

At lunch I pulled out the notecards I keep handy for emergencies such as this one and took out the special inky pens I keep sacred and hidden and let her write her feelings and thoughts for her dad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my shared lunch with my ten year old friend, fully engaged in her concerns about her father, her classmates, her friendships. I helped her spell the words she didn’t know and we sealed the envelope with the message for her dad.

Two days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his face, wailing at the top of his lungs. We both turned to him as he crossed the room and flung himself into my arms. I asked him what was wrong and he just shook his head. Meanwhile Lanaeya, ever ready in crisis, left to the bathroom to get him some tissue.

While Lanaeya was gone, Alex stood crying. I was finishing some paperwork I needed to get done when he sobbed, “My dad is going back to jail!” The pain in my eyes must have been evident because when I closed my computer (which seems to always be open) and turned to him to say I was sorry, he broke down all over again. While helping him dry his face with the tissues Lanaeya had brought back, I mentioned that he didn’t have to talk to her, but he might want to share what he was going through with Lanaeya because she had been dealing with similar things.

At first he shook his head no, but then stopped and said quietly, “My dad is going to jail.”

Without missing a beat, Lanaeya said, “My dad is in jail, too. Here Alex, do you want to write him a letter? That’s what I do when I’m feeling sad.” Then she took out some extra note cards from our lunch and wrote while he dictated a letter to his father. They talked together about what it felt like to have a father in jail. And I became completely unnecessary, getting out of their way, as a good teacher does.

And that’s the thing about teaching. Most days are just days, like every other. But then the platitude becomes real, the hackneyed phrase shows up in your classroom in the form of a girl extending kindness to a young boy. Every once in awhile a lesson sticks. And if you’re lucky, it’s an important one. And if you’re really lucky, it happens enough to keep you teaching even when the air conditioner is broken in your classroom and the sewage system has backed up, necessitating bag lunches for a week. (Yes, these things have actually happened.)

After Alex finished making his card for his father, I said, “I know this is a really hard time, Alex, but sometimes it helps me to know that even when I’m going through hard times I am not alone.”

“Yeah, like I have my brother and my mom,” Alex agreed.

“And you have Lanaeya and me,” I added.

“Are you my friend, Lanaeya?” Alex asked, turning shyly to her.

“Yes, Alex, I’m your friend,” she said. She grabbed his hand and walked him back to class.

Being witness to these moments doesn’t make me a superhero. But these moments are what I love most about teaching, what I will miss most when I leave.

And maybe sometimes I do have the privilege to touch the future.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Saying Goodbye

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My dog died. One day running in and out of the house, albeit somewhat stiffly with his arthritic legs. The next day our house is empty, his collar still laying on the kitchen table where I left it when we came home from the vet.

It’s been a week and I still listen for the jangle of the collar, I still anticipate his body coming alongside me, I still automatically reach for the gate when I leave for the day. I wait for the call from the vet, telling me that he’s ready to be picked up. I rub memories over the open, raw space in my mind, and it still stings each time.

It is the most basic thing. We are born, we live, and we die. And yet I am still a five-year-old, I’m still asking, “Where did he go?” It still feels unfair.

When grief comes, it is a train, running between my ears. When death comes, there is a free fall, with the anticipated crash, and the slow, slow, slow gluing of pieces, never quite the same, even when made whole.

This is not the first time death has knocked. That does not make it easier.

The day after he died, I went to school. My eyes were stinging: swollen and on fire. But with new sight. They saw the kindred. They saw the other, grieving, calling out to them with a compassion new and alive.

The light entered the wound. Because we all share the wounds. We all hold pain, some with neon signs, most buried deep. But the light hits those wounded places and asks us to be healed. And the healing comes in community.

At lunch I told Grace, “What you’re going through must be so difficult.” And what I meant was, “I share your pain, I allow you to feel it with me. I have pain, too.”

Maybe, when we step back away from the reading, the math, the tests, and the lesson plans, maybe that’s the best we can do.

It’s what my dog did, greeting me each day with the unbridled joy of getting to be together once more. Licking my hand on days that were hard, knowing without words how to be the best friend, how to give the best gifts. It was all he had to give, and it was enough.

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Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart

As teachers, we often seek stories to help us explain or show concepts (i.e. compassion, kindness, patience) that are hard to define without concrete examples.  As readers, we sometimes reach for stories to help us understand or explore our spiritual side.  As mothers, we might search for stories to help us explain to our children what is meant by God’s unconditional love.  Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion is an astounding collection of stories that can accomplish all of these tasks.

Tattoos on the Heart  demonstrates the power and possibilities of boundless compassion and kindness through the sometimes startling and always unique stories of the former gang members (a.k.a. “Homies”) Fr. Boyle  (a.k.a. “G-Dog”) has worked with at Homeboy Industries in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 24 years.

I love the title of this  book.  But after reading it, I was compelled to write on its cover (my husband hates when I do that, but I am saying I was compelled) an additional phrase:  “Kindness is the only strength there is.” Fr. Boyle’s own story illustrates the fundamental kindness that transforms not just those who receive it, but those who give it.

G-Dog knows how to tell a story with grace and humor (I would love to go to a mass where he gives the homily).  His detailed and riveting accounts  are tales of deep suffering, hope, grace and redemption.  So many of the stories show the intense power of unconditional love and acceptance as well as the importance of fighting despair.

Through these stories and Fr. Boyle’s thoughtful reflections, we learn about compassion, mercy, baptism, gladness, kinship and God’s presence in our lives. We discover more about meaningful success: standing in solidarity with those in need and persisting faithfully, despite numerous failures, and not abandoning our post, despite the lack of “evidence-based outcomes” (ring a bell, my teaching colleagues?).

I loved this book.  Many of these stories are now “tattooed” on my heart and remind me, as did so many of my former students,  that every life matters.   Meeting the world with a loving heart will truly determine what we find there ( not my words but Fr. Boyle’s).  G-Dog has a way with words  and an ability to articulate deep truths, such as the concept that true compassion for the poor: “stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

Whole chapters or even just a few of the stories in Tattoos on the Heart could be used in a late middle school (8th grade) or high school classroom as authentic, mentor text for writing narratives.  Or to explore the meaning and power of empathy and compassion (focus of chapter 3 of the book) with visual arts activities (yes, we all have tattoos on the heart and so many students pre-write more effectively if they’ve created  a visual representation first).

(Intended audience:  Ages 14 & up)

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