January Goals

Ha! It is preposterous: I meant to talk about goals sooner than almost-the-end of the month. But you know, I’m busy and I’m practicing a nonjudgmental stance.  I’m doing the best that I can with the skills that I possess.  These are the intentions I’ve been holding this month:

  1. Use at least one new recipe a week.  So far, so good! I was thinking that I wanted to do more cooking out of my cookbooks, but there have definitely been some pinterest recipes in the mix.  So far we’ve done this spaghetti squash recipe, the two delicious soups I mentioned last time, a “tamale pie” from this cookbook that came out weird but was delicious, and these turkey burgers.  For a potluck, I made this bangin’ flannel hash. My goal was not to photograph my food, so I did not do so, but our meals were awesome.
  2. Only buy groceries once a week as needed for recipes.  This represents a shift in the way I’ve tended to buy groceries, which has been somewhat haphazardly or on-the-spot according to my mood.  I believe that it will save us money in the long-run, but we’ll see how that goes when we add it all up.  In any case, it feels very sane and orderly.
  3. Refrain from eating out.  I’ve got to say, I’ve done pretty well with this. We did get biscuits for breakfast one crazy Saturday morning, but other than that, we’ve eaten at home for the most part.  Next month I might see if I can refrain from buying lattes also. Having delicious leftovers at home has made it a lot easier to stay home and eat.  (Also fun: “leftovers buffet” with a friend.  A thrifty pal was happy to support my desire not to buy dinner at a restaurant meeting we were both attending, so she brought over some of her leftovers and helped us have a leftovers party.  And then we bought beer at that meeting–I felt like that was an okay compromise.)
  4. Walk or bike to campus unless it’s raining.  I have only had two opportunities to do this because classes just started back last week (and I’m only on campus twice a week).  I am one for two on this one and will probably not make it tomorrow either because of my schedule.  However, I think it’s a worthy goal and I will continue to aspire to it.
  5. Articulate my limits–say “no” to some things.  I have done this!  I backed off from a commitment I’d made in December to tutor a new student. I felt able to do that because I knew I wasn’t leaving the kid high and dry because I could recommend another tutor. I would like to get better at saying “no” even in the absence of a rescue plan.  I am genuinely horrible at it could be more effective at practicing self care by limiting my obligations.

I like the idea of having time-limited monthly goals to “try on” and see if I’d like to incorporate for a longer amount of time.  I think that I will definitely keep these and probably add one about my sugar intake for February.  I’ve also been keeping up with my 365 project of mandala-doodling, with an almost-perfect record (not that perfection is the point).  It’s been a good month!  I would like to remember these things when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my last semester of grad school (which, to be fair to myself, is legitimately overwhelming for lots of reasons).

ImageOn the non-grad-school reading list is You Grow Girl by the same fabulous woman (Gayla Trail) who wrote Grow Great Grub, which I talked about last time.  I am really stoked to start my garden.  Last week–four days before we had a wintry mix–it was seventy degrees outside, so I spent some time mulching and generally tidying up my space.  I’ve sent out an email to my fellow community gardeners to see if anyone wants to go in on a seeds order, but I haven’t heard from anyone yet.  It’s not too long before I need to start up some seedlings, so I hope that someone bites soon before I buy way too many seeds just to get a variety.

And today I received Peace is Every Step in the mail, which is honestly not strictly “non-grad-school” reading (since I bought it to share pieces of it with a group I’m running this semester), but I figure a little mindfulness reading, no matter how requisite, is good for the soul.  That is much of what I’m trying to make this blog about, anyway!

I feel good and whole.


What I’ve Been Doing (Right)

Like many people, I struggle with a very critical inner voice, one who never hesitates to point out all of the ways I fail to meet my own goals.  I meant to take some time off of my internship this week in order to relax and give myself a little time to do some pre-job search tasks before jumping back into the fray–but I ended up going each day.  I had my reasons, and I think I made the right decision (and in any case, it was the decision I made), but my inner critic made sure to remind me that I really fall short at work-life balance.

While I appreciate that I have this voice–she is wise in many ways and reminds me of my values–I am also trying to work on cultivating a more moderate, kind, nonjudgmental voice.  That voice will validate some of my impulses–like, it’s okay that I chose to take advantage of learning opportunities that presented  themselves last week. This is the time that I have for that. It is possible to both work hard and take care of myself.  That voice will also point out ways that I actually was successful at self-care as well.

And I did take my time for self care!  Let me tell you about it.

garlandI drew many mandalas (at least once a day!) as a mindfulness practice.  I have some work to do to make this activity more mindful (doing it away from my computer, for example), but I’ve really loved losing myself in the short moments of drawing these little designs.  When I can, I will write a post that walks you through the process that I take, inasmuch as there is a prescribable process.  Since I’ve been able to take the time to make a lot of these, I fashioned them into a garland to send to my sister for her birthday.  She loves mandalas and colors them a lot as part of her own self-care routine, and I have enjoyed thinking about her while doing these.  I’ve learned a lot about gentleness from her.

I saved one of the mandalas to send to a student of mine who I’ve been emailing with recently. She’s a special kid (but not a kid anymore) and I’m glad to be connected to her again. I wrote her a little note and included a star-shaped blossom. Being back in touch with this young person has given me the opportunity to re-articulate to myself some pretty important beliefs.  Chief among them is that we deserve, fundamentally, to be fulfilled, to find joy, to live well.

I’ve also been cooking.  I made this great Thai chicken soup (essentially Tom Kha, but without the lemongrass). I needed to make chicken broth because I finally ran out of the broth I made months ago and froze, so it made sense to make a chicken soup with the meat left over. I was pretty pleased with my version of “Thai seasoning,” which this recipe called for but which I could neither find nor really wanted to purchase.  It included fish sauce, sesame oil, cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, red pepper flakes, and lemon pepper, along with the lime juice.  I think it was a good deal spicier than the recipe called for, which meant that it was exactly how I like it.  And now we have a ton of leftovers between this and the black-eyed peas and collards soup I made for New Year’s Day.

okraAnd I’ve been reading.  I haven’t been reading what I’d planned to read (The Gift of Therapy by Irvin Yalom or Swamplandia by Karen Russell), but I’ve really enjoyed two books on gardening.  The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour has a wealth of information about gardening in general and especially interplanting and succession planting.  Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail is incredibly accessible and inspiring and has a ton of practical advice for people like me who have limited space for food gardening.  I am really excited to start seedlings and watch life happen.  Between dreaming about my garden and cooking more mindfully, I’ve started to think about what it might mean to eat with an abiding respect and promotion for full and exuberant life.

So while I have continued to work hard, I have been taking my time and committing to the slower, deeper life I want to have.  And in all of that was quiet presence with my partner and snuggling with my pets.  Take that, inner critic.

How have you been taking your time lately? What do you do to take care of yourself?

Taking My Time

I have always loved New Year’s.  I remember my father grumbling once about this “pagan, arbitrary celebration” and interjecting my appreciation for celebration of an end of one thing and a beginning of another, for a sense of accomplishment and promise.  Sometimes the accomplishment is just surviving; sometimes the promise is that the next year won’t be quite as miserable.  Be that as it may, I like the ritual.

I am, however, a New Year’s Resolution agnostic. Oh, I’ve made them. I’ve been that person at your gym.  I lasted ’til April or so, then fell off the wagon, then tried again in August.  I love the idea of setting an intention, of making promises to myself–but I am in the skeptical camp on account of my own failure at the gym.  Change–real change–takes a fair amount of studied analysis of what’s working and what’s not working, what motivations are competing, and so forth.  I wish to lose weight, save money, and simplify my schedule; but those goals, thus articulated, are not that useful. I could make them smarter–and I will–but that’s not what I’d like New Year’s to be about.

I was spending time with a cluster of sweet girl friends today, and one of them brought up this other way of thinking about New Year’s resolutions, wherein one considers the whole of her life and chooses a theme word or phrase.  While the social worker in me wants my goals to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound, the poet in me–arguably the dominant voice, let’s be honest–loves the notion of the theme that permeates everything, the guiding metaphor.  So that is what I’m going to do.

When I start thinking about my obstacles to change for losing weight, saving money, or simplifying my schedule, I notice that I breathe a little faster, raise my shoulders to my ears, and feel almost claustrophobic. I immediately start thinking about the next thing on my list, how I don’t have enough time to do everything that I want to do. I eat unmindfully because my head is crammed with deadlines; I spend money for convenience for the same reason. I rarely slow down. That’s why I think this year’s theme will be Taking My Time.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

I like the language of Taking My Time for a few reasons.  It obviously invokes slowing down, which could apply to my propensity to jump to conclusions as much as it does to hurrying from Point A to Point B. It also suggests that my time is mine. I often feel guilty for taking time for myself or saying no to something that will overwhelm my schedule; consequently, I don’t do much of either.  I also like how it is reminiscent of taking it a day at a time and living in the moment.

To that end (and not contradictorily!), I have chosen a very small, very doable 365 project of drawing one mandala each day as a mindfulness practice.  And I have other goals (SMART ones, even!) that I think I’ll take a month at a time.  January’s goals focus on food routines in our home–something I’ll talk about another time.

Happy New Year.


Here was the spring of the crayon box, the home for dreams (with a too-small kitchen and not enough closet space but with a garden where I can practice my hope). We painted the walls in absolutely-not-neutral, totally-joyful hues reminiscent of a kindergarten classroom. We mingled the art. We shuffled the books. We climb into bed with a large cat and a small dog, and the tall man with the long arms takes up the least amount of room somehow.

And here was an autumn of my shadows, a place with flickering light and grotesque scrawlings on water-damaged walls. It was a cold place full of discarded objects that I picked up and scrutinized and carefully tucked into my bag of broken things. Only I could venture into this deep darkness; I called out signals of “Still alive!” when I could and tugged at the thread around my waist with the faith that a bell would ring for someone at the other end.  And I emerged with my collection of disasters and a cultivated gentleness.

Here was a year of deepening and widening, of bearing down and birthing; and here was a year of planting seeds centimeters below the earth and watching victorious tendrils poke through.  What a miracle growth is.

Today I seek wonder and peace.

I thought at one point that I was not addicted to busyness, that it was only that my job forced me to work  hours upon hours outside of my salaried schedule. I thought, that if I could, I would be happy to recline on the sofa and enjoy filling my days with books, cats, and gardens. I thought that I would gladly kiss busy goodbye and embrace quiet stillness.

I certainly do not like the pressure of juggling obligations and deadlines, but if I am being honest with myself, I turn into a basket case as soon as I sit down with a blank agenda. This is how I ended up with a job that filled my one precious empty morning each week last semester and how I very nearly ended up teaching every weekend. My partner is a gentle man who never tries to bend me into someone I am not, but every so often he will remind me of a wish I spoke aloud for simplicity and rest. And then I inevitably (if sheepishly) explain why it is that, despite everyone’s encouragement to grad students in my program to take winter break off, it is essential that I go into field on my free days.

Perhaps I am, like my father once suggested to my undoubtedly balking face, a workaholic. But maybe I’m a workaholic moving out of the contemplation stage and into the preparation stage for change.  It is true that I am anxious without activity, but it is also true that I do deeply desire room in my days for mindfulness, wonder, and reflection. And I can’t obsessively chase every obligation and have the space for these things that I value.

This is where it starts: today, I seek wonder and peace.  This is not a New Year’s Resolution.

Old, hard lessons (and giving up shame)

During the spring semester of my second-to-last year of teaching, I was teaching senior English to a bunch of severely senioritis-afflicted young people.  I fall firmly in the camp that prefers freshmen to seniors, every time.  While my department chair at the time would refer to ninth graders as “not people yet,” I really loved their explorative energy.  Seniors, on the other hand?  I defy you to get a group of high school seniors in the last four months before graduation to muster the slightest sense of adventure in the classroom (and the British literature curriculum really does not help).   But I digress, already.
Daniel*, a charming and intelligent young Black man, was in this senior class.  Of all of the apathy-battling students in that group, Daniel gave the fewest damns.  He attended most days, flirted with the girls in the class, cracked jokes, and completely and utterly avoided doing work—all semester.  He was bright, and I knew it.  He’d wandered into my room a year before when I was tutoring ninth graders, and I was impressed with him as he helped one [particularly cute, in retrospect] young lady with her grammar assignment.
I reminded Daniel on a weekly basis that he needed English to graduate and that he might find it hard to pass without doing any of the assignments.  I pointed out that at eighteen years old, he needed to be responsible for his goals and successes; and I printed lists of missing tasks and pointed out where he could get the information from my website.  When I talked to him about graduating, Daniel told me, all-smooth-like, “Oh, I’m going to graduate.”  No number of progress reports printed out and handed to him seemed to convince him that I needed grades (not amazing grades!  Just grades) if I was going to be able to pass him on to receive a diploma.  I never gave a failing grade lightly—but Daniel ultimately received a failing grade in my class (and another class he needed to graduate).
Before we got to that point, I consulted with other teachers who rolled their eyes, told me that there was no point in calling home because his parents never answered or returned phone calls.  I learned that he’d slid by in all of his English classes, just barely passing at the very end of the course.  I let the guidance counselors know that he was in danger of failing senior English but resolved that it was Daniel’s responsibility to get his work done—and I did not speak to his parents until he finally faced his failing grade on the day of graduation rehearsal.  At the time, it was a point of principle:  he needed to be responsible and understand consequences.  A few years later, with a couple of adolescent mental health classes under my belt, I deeply regret that decision.  I’ll never forget his mother weeping on the phone that day.
 If I could have a do-over on Daniel, I would have tried to understand why he was avoiding his school work, what function the behavior was serving—instead of assuming that he was just a lazy kid.  Despite his legal adulthood, I would have involved his parents in the conversation.  Unfortunately, I operated under some beliefs that with this particular kid—and I probably shouldn’t underestimate the racial stereotypes I may have unconsciously accepted—calling home was futile.  I know now, and I wish I had acknowledged it more then, that contact between parents and teachers is a protective factor for young people—even grown-ass young men like Daniel.
I’ve been bumping up against a lot of teacher guilt this semester because of my course work.  I can list all kinds of justifications for what I understand to be my failure in Daniel’s case, and I even think that those are fair in some ways.  But at the end of the day, I know that I didn’t do everything that I should have for Daniel.  In my practice of quieting self judgment, I will say that we do the best with what we have in a given context.  And I made the decision that I thought was the responsible one.  In retrospect, I disagree with that decision now.
If I had a do-over with Daniel, I still don’t know if he would have passed senior English.  It is true that grades reflect what students do, and at some point, Daniel would have needed to elect to do something.  He made his choices.  I made mine.  I imagine we both have some regret.
This entry was actually prompted by this great TED talk by Brene Brown about shame, which led me to explore some of my own points of shame.  I’ve noticed this one floating up to the surface a lot this semester.  My teacher identity is still a very strong one even outside the classroom, and this episode with Daniel was one that deeply affected my sense of self in that role.  And something that I’ve observed is that I often feel incredibly defensive about the topic of Daniel (which nobody else in my life these days even knows about to bring up—so these are always conversations in my head).  Brene Brown talks about shame (intensely connected to privilege, incidentally) as the thing that damages the belief that change can happen.  Shame-brain tells me that I can’t help young men like Daniel and that I probably ought to leave that to people who haven’t already fucked it all up.
But that’s self-protective, too (though not adaptive).  That is something that I tell myself so that I don’t make myself vulnerable to that failure again.  So it’s clear enough, like we tell our kids in DBT skills class, that the answer here is to approach, not avoid.  I have to remember that I’ve learned new things and grown as a person and as a professional—and I have to remember that despite this failure with Daniel, it was not for lack of care or concern for him in the first place.  These self-reminders help quiet the shaming voice that says that because this happened, I am necessarily a bad teacher, social worker, and person.  And while I don’t have the opportunity to change history with Daniel, I am gifted the chance to do something different with other young men like him.
*name is changed

What I’m Cleaning Out

The house I grew up in made me allergic to piles of paper that accumulate on tables, to dishes that crowd in the sink, to laundry that stacks up outside of the hamper or on the bathroom floor.  Clutter gives me hives.  Outward signs of inward crazy.  As a teenager, I would fly into a cleaning rage.  I mean rage without a trace of hyperbole.  While scrubbing the dysfunction off the walls, I would swear and slam doors.

This is not to say that I do not manage to gather my own piles and stacks now—I do.  When I’m busy, or when I’m depressed (or when I’m too busy to notice that I’m depressed), life has its way of cluttering up surfaces with books, unopened envelopes, dirty towels, shoes, jackets, and half-empty glasses of water.  Sometimes I stop going into rooms because I don’t want to see the mess. When it gets this way, I get itchy and self-judgmental.   I don’t feel the old rage—maybe I’ve grown out of it—but I definitely hear the echo of my own adolescent frustration.  There’s something about an orderly environment that feels like control to me.
Maybe I’m fifteen years late, but I’m starting to understand that girl and her bleach-filled furies (and, while we’re at it, this woman and her itchy self-judgment).  I am earnestly trying to learn to let go of the names I call myself (Control Freak, Tunnel-Visioned Hypocrite, Judgmental Asshole, A Mess, those things) and simply observe myself where I was, or am.  It’s not easy for me; judgment is a place I go quickly, whether it is a verdict on another or—much more likely—myself.  I am resisting the urge to say “and I really dislike that about myself.”  I will try something new, and attempt to not label myself as good or bad, likeable or unlikeable: Sometimes judgment is ineffective and gets in the way of my happiness or self-esteem.  I would like to try something else.
My automatic impulse is to look back at my 15 year-old self with flashing eyes and a bottle of Windex and say, “Dude, talk about outward signs of inward crazy.”  And as I gain more clinical language, the temptation to label that kid (and feel shame around those labels) is great.  So here’s something new:  When a person who has strong emotions grows up in an environment that is unpredictable, she might experience anger and desire control over her environment.  Full stop.  Sit with that.  Be gentle.
And right now, as I notice the disorderly pile of books on my desk, the jacket thrown across the sofa, the few dishes of mine in the sink, I will try something new:  It is understandable that, after a weekend of class and a long day of being present somewhere else, I might have a little housework to catch up on tomorrow.  And that’s doable.
Also doable? Forming new habits:  clearing out judgments, applying compassion, and polishing perspective.
The synchrobloggers are writing about a mess.

The Darkening Season

The light wanes.  It’s difficult to get up on these navy blue mornings; I feel heavy and misplaced.  Better to roll over, burrow under, press my body up against my safe home and not come out til springtime or resurrection day.  It’s a beautiful time, this darkening season, but this year I am struggling to find the sun.

My parents named me Light-bearer and in times like this, I chide myself–for laying down my lantern, for letting the flame flicker to a just-barely-blue lick, for not tending that which is explicitly mine to tend.  Sometimes it is easier to surrender to the swelling night than it is to keep a vigil lamp.  Sometimes it is easier to be in the dark that stretches on to December: quiet, still, and inward-folding.
This autumn is for me to sit inside my shadows.  The light isn’t gone; it just flickers.  I can’t bear it bright and bold all the time.
The synchrobloggers are writing about seasons.

Letter to Sea Star

Little Sea,The summer after my second year of teaching, we took off in the Toyota Previa you bought from that friend of yours—with its 200,000 miles on it to start—and we drove west, leaving the men we’d loved behind and filling those aching holes with sky.
I was always the early riser, outcome-oriented and impatient.  You were the slow mover, the poster child for “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”  Sometimes we crowded one another, made one another crazy with waiting or rushing, but most of the time we just talked out of the well of our history the way sisters do.
We got to the Uintas, where I’d fallen in love three years before, and I teared up because he was moving his furniture out of our apartment that day.  You drove me into the Salt Flats, where we’d never been before—then the Sierra Nevadas, then the San Francisco Bay.  All the while, we spoke our histories and our hopes.

That summer, forward was a thrilling and terrifying mystery for me.  I didn’t know what there could be beyond here.  You were exactly the person I needed then, the one person who could put my future in context.  You invoked our family’s stories and emboldened me to push onward into the mystery.

Your sea

The synchrobloggers are asking (or answering)  the age-old question:  Are we there yet?

The Night We Were Abducted

In bleary half-sleep, I misunderstood the dark figure in the doorway to be my caretaker.  The hall light fell in behind him, and I drew the purple crocheted blanket to my cheek and murmured soft questions.  Where is she?  When will she be back?  Okay. I sank back into dreams like her arms.
I woke the second time to something inhuman.  The dark was a veil that obscured the shape of his mouth but his eyes, dull and sunken, held me down as he whispered nightmares and tightened knots around my tiny wrists and tore at slight hips beneath my nightgown.  I screamed like my voice had claws to tear out his eyes.  I kicked with twig legs.  His fingernail probed sharp inside me.
Savage was the instrument that performed such vulgar vivisections.
The woman at the bottom of the stairs looked every bit like my mother but for those unforgiving gashes and searching eyes.  She grasped my shoulders and mouthed convoluted memories, misplaced faces, fragments of dreams.  She pulled torn clothes across her broken body.
Hardly awake, we followed fluorescent lights down the sterile hallway.  I reached absently for her comforting arm:  she was no longer with me.  The dark figure stood in the doorway.  She’s gone for a walk.  She’ll be back later.  Those dull, sunken eyes followed me as I pushed past him into the darkness.
We woke in the morning locked out of our house.
The synchrobloggers are writing about encounters with aliens.