The past three weeks as a collective whole have been a doozy. In life’s classroom, I am currently slogging through an unexpected midterm. At this point in the test, I’m not sweating as profusely as I was when I started, but I’m still very much feeling the butterflies beat around in my stomach as I simultaneously tackle new questions, recover from the previous ones (did I answer them correctly?), and worry about what questions will pop up on the next page. Despite the myriad emotions that have left me reeling as of late, I’m gonna go ahead and award myself a pat on the back right now for making the conscious choice every morning to set my feet on the floor and keep plugging along and chipping away, even just to the next hour.
It is my most recent belief that a positive mindset is our most important asset when unexpected trials pop up and the swirling maelstrom of life’s uncertainty suddenly surrounds us.
We will never be perfectly armed to weather the storms that inevitably show up without warning, but we can still take mindful steps to prepare and do our best to “control the controllables.” At least, that’s what I continue to tell myself upon waking up each day, in hopes that it will help me feel a little more confident to face whatever new challenge decides to greet me. First, a little context…
A little over two weeks ago, my almost eight-year-old daughter got her first taste of activism; I brought her with me to a teacher car rally where we manifested our frustration towards our school board and superintendent in the form of sign-holding and horn-honking. I am not usually one to involve myself in this type of activity, but for several weeks (ok if we’re being honest, since school shut down on March 13th), I and hundreds of other worn-down teachers have been dealing with the heavy reality of being continuously snubbed, dismissed, ignored, and disrespected by the higher-ups. The lack of communication and complete disregard for public input regarding school closures and reopening plans have left many concerned parents and teachers feeling hopeless, and it was high time we made our voices (or car horns) heard. The struggle is REAL, ya’ll. My daughter and I left the rally full of adrenaline and hopeful for change, knowing that media outlets would tell our story the next day.
Not one day later, I was being a dutiful mother, albeit somewhat carelessly as I was in a hurry (aren’t we always, mamas?), and in my frenzied attempts to tidy up the living room before packing my kiddos into the car to attend to some errands, I dropped the leg of a barstool onto my big toe. Ouch. I immediately collapsed onto the floor and howled in pain as my traumatized children scurried here, there and everywhere to try to help their poor mother. It was super sweet as I think back, but in that moment all I could do was rock back and forth while clutching onto my throbbing toe and maybe (definitely) throwing out a few curse words. I’m sorry for that, children. Luckily, my mother showed up within minutes (she was already on her way over so that she could watch my toddler while the bigs and I tackled our missions), and like the nurturing (but also frantic) mama hen that she is in a slight emergency, she nursed me and my big toe to our temporary restoration and ordered me to sit for the rest of the day. No errands for me. She grabbed ice, a band aid, and a stool, and I plopped myself on the couch, propped my foot up onto that stool, and muttered a thousand apologies to her while she mopped up the blood and calmed my concerned babies. At the time, this felt like nothing more than a really sucky situation, the only obvious perk being that I now had an excuse to mindlessly scroll Pinterest for a couple uninterrupted hours without feeling overly guilty.
But looking back on it, I feel like this small calamity was actually a not-so-subtle blessing from the big guy upstairs.
Fast forward a few days. My toe had turned very black and blue but was only slightly sore now, which meant that I could resume my morning walks (aka the saver of my sanity) at a slow pace. For one full day I had parked myself on the couch and completed some very basic teacher trainings that would somehow magically prepare me for the foreign world of distance learning once school started (read: lies). Fortunately, it was a necessary distraction from the incessant throbbing of my toe. In the days that followed, I attempted a little more physical activity, but I took my time with tasks and batted my kids away any time they got remotely close to my precious extremity. I was so focused on preserving my injured toe so as not to cause any further damage, that 90% of the stresses that had been plaguing me in the previous week temporarily fell to the wayside. In hindsight, I can see how my hurt toe was actually a momentary diversion from a mountain of worry that I had created in trying to envision the new normal that awaited me beginning on August 13th, the first official day of distance learning. Through most of the summer I had been experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and worry as I grappled with uncertainty and a complete lack of communication from the leadership in my school district. I had many times over felt powerless and anxious about the upcoming school year. Let me tell you: intense physical pain will completely obliterate any and all mental and emotional stress until said pain subsides, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I needed the mental break. So, thanks God?
As the pain in my toe diminished, my worries began to reappear…but it was like they had taken a mini vacation, so now they were a little more chill. Whew. Any hopes of my district extending our summer to allow teachers a little more time to prepare had vanished by now (as it was and still is crystal clear that the teachers in my district have NO voice), so I pretty quickly adopted a no-nonsense-let’s-get-this-shiz-done mentality. Worry, frustration and disappointment were replaced with action, and I did everything I could in less than a week’s time to get myself and my kids ready for our new normal. This looked like picking up school supplies and chrome books, learning how to host a Zoom class (this is not as easy as it sounds, btw), buying ingredients for and assembling kid lunches to pop in the freezer, familiarizing myself with the various learning management systems that would make distance learning possible, practicing logging into the kids’ chrome books and onto Zoom and numerous other platforms (so. many. damn. passwords), instructing my son’s old and tech-impaired daycare teachers on these new ways so that he could have a place to do kindergarten while I worked from home (and continue paying what I have been looking forward to getting back in my pocket for years now—insert crying emoji here), reconstructing and trimming away my tried-and-true lesson plans to fit a digital format (this is so hard, guys), continuing to fill out surveys and send the higher-ups and my union president emails with hopes to sometime soon effect change (because a girl on a mission doesn’t give up that easy), and overall just trying my absolute best to get my bajillion questions answered by other distraught colleagues through text messaging because any in-person meeting was/is strictly forbidden. Sigh. All of this was either happening while my husband was at work and my three kids had transformed into TV zombies, or during the late hours of the night after they had fallen asleep and I could get my husband to take on some of my insurmountable burdens with me. Misery loves company, after all.
On one of the days where my kids had already turned into TV zombies by 10 am, I called my husband a little troubled over our seven year-old Boxer, Scout. She had been losing weight at a rapid rate over the previous week, and I had been greatly startled on our morning walk when for the first time, I truly grasped the severity of her condition. Although I figured it probably wasn’t too serious, I still felt strongly that I should take her in. But I was also super annoyed that this was happening at a time where I really could not afford to be away from my computer for longer than five minutes. I had already arranged for my mom to take my older two kids while my toddler napped so that I could have a two-hour work window to tackle the items on my to-do list. Ugh. This was NOT fair. A few anxious phone calls later, Scout was in the appointment book for 1 pm. There went my work time, but such is life. Bad news regarding school reopening plans had been trickling in over the course of several days, and just because life at times is shameless in its taunting, more bad news came over text message while I was finally allowing myself a ten minute break to take a shower. It looked like the district had another unpleasant surprise in store for us—ya know, just to shake things up a little and keep us all on our toes—and this bad news was just enough to push me into the throes of a complete and total meltdown. Full on ugly crying ensued for the next half hour, and once again my traumatized kids were seeing me at my worst (but whatever, it’s good for them, right?) I am usually awesome at composing myself, so I knew this wasn’t just some little thing. Hello to what felt like the entire weight of the world crashing down on my shoulders in one mighty instant. A hurt toe suddenly felt like nothing in comparison. A sick dog. So many unanswered questions about my job. An insane amount of work to do to be ready for my Zoom students. The inevitable stresses of having to homeschool my kids while working from home.
It was all so much, and my body was finally responding to the built-up pressure. I realized a good cry might heal me, so I let the tears fall like rain and just let myself feel. it. all.
Later that day, after attending an almost-forgotten pre-construction meeting for our new home (because, why not pile on one more thing, life?!), my husband took the rest of the day off so that he could take Scout in and I could get some work done in peace (bless). His simple act of mercy after I confessed to him that my shower had been every bit of a catharsis (had I even remembered to wash my hair??) was not lost on me, and I’m pretty sure I cried grateful tears when I received his earlier text telling me he would take the Scout burden off of my shoulders.
About halfway through my power-work session, I got the call. The one that would send me into another bout of emotional turmoil, but this time sadness would be at the forefront. Our beloved Scout was dying, and we could either end her suffering now or in a couple months. As I let this news sink in, I found myself wondering how it was possible that all of this could have happened so fast. I was always aware that we would have to say goodbye to her someday, but I never imagined it would be so soon. The onslaught of tears began their second round, and I kept thinking how I better have some ibuprofen in my medicine cabinet or else we would have an entirely new problem on our hands. I think the last time I had cried so much was over a breakup some thirteen years ago.
It was in this moment that I fully understood that I was not in control.
I literally threw my hands up and just allowed myself to weep for the remainder of the day. I stepped away from my computer and into God’s embrace. His love showed up for me in that tough, yet loving conversation with my sister when I first broke the news, the hugs from my mom, the flowers and cards and text messages that poured in throughout the whole next week, and the sweet invitation to hand my burdens over to Him, my creator. I let the warm memories of Scout flood in, and I lay with her on her last night with us, stroking her bony back and whispering my gratitude for how well she always loved my kids. Two days after that phone call from my husband, we said our goodbyes. It was on that day that I also said hello to 60 new students over Zoom. Any ending always brings a new beginning.
And so. A few days passed, and in that window of time I realized that I would be ok. I have accepted that distance learning is going to be tough, no doubt—but I also know that in my choice to surrender to God’s will, I am going to make it through and come out stronger on the other side. At this time I have to come to terms with the fact that many unfair decisions were and are being made on my behalf without my input, but it doesn’t mean I have to give up the fight. I have felt and continue to feel God nudging me towards doing whatever it takes to make myself heard (tactfully of course), and so I press on knowing that no decision is final, having faith that the teachers will win in the end. In the meantime, I am showing up for my students on Zoom with a smile on my face. The hollowness that Scout’s passing left in me has already started to fill, and thankfully at this point in my life I am acutely aware that time is the greatest healer. I will continue to think of her fondly and remain grateful for the seven years that she was a member of our family. Oh, and my toe looks and feels a million times better now.
Tomorrow marks my second full week of teaching through a computer screen, and I can already feel myself starting to relax a little. There are still many unknowns and many, MANY frustrations, but boy a lot can happen over the course of a week, am I right?
WE CAN DO HARD THINGS AND LEARN HARD LESSONS. This is God working on me and through me, reminding me to give it all to Him, to trust in His will and His ways, to show up each day with a positive mindset and an attitude of perseverance and hope. We tackle each day, never knowing what’s going to come at us next, but we CAN have power over the storms of life by choosing faith, humility, joy, hope, trust and love.
A lot is out of our control right now, but what IS in our control is our attitude plus the daily habits we integrate in order to help us survive. Meditation. Walking. Writing. Focusing on the joy. Listing off things we are grateful for. Praying. Or maybe just taking a couple of really deep breaths and eating some chocolate. No matter our unique coping mechanisms, we can CHOOSE to “control the controllables” and surrender to the rest.
Be it an injured toe, the death of a beloved pet, or a complete and total makeover of a school year that looks like nothing more than a hot mess in a hand basket, I am welcoming—and dare I say embracing— the struggles and storms with arms wide open, knowing that endless blessings are awaiting me on the other side of the mountain. These challenges—whether they rain down on us in one colossal hailstorm or are pelted at us on random, singular occasions—are shaping us, helping us flex our muscles of equanimity, and teaching us true resilience.
So let’s keep trudging along, friends. You, me, all of us…we got this.
(Insert flexing muscle emoji here).