The turn of this new year has felt a little strange. It came about during an in-between season of my life. Often the Christmas season ushers forth a sense of conclusion or a wrapping up of sorts to the year. Those few days between exchanging gifts and ringing in the sparkly new year typically provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on the adventures afforded and the heartaches borne. Hope usually rises as I begin to envision a new start and wonder and anticipate what lies ahead. But this year was quite different.
The unexpected move-pocalypse of 2015 has yet to be fully unpacked and understood. We are each still wrestling and sorting out how this shift in location will continue to alter the trajectory of our narratives. And the uncertainty of how or when this new place will ever begin to feel like home is evidence of the in-between nature of our current circumstances. In the past, these kinds of narrative gaps, the vowels between the consonants, the spaces between what was and what will be – these have been difficult spaces for me to find rest. I’ve often tried to hurry through them, assuming that plowing through transition as quickly as possible is what is best for all involved so that a new normal can be established. On other occasions involving transition, I’ve simply busied myself or distracted myself, or self-soothed by employing go-to addictions – all likely an unconscious effort (most of the time) to avoid feeling the stripping away effect transition can have upon one’s sense of identity, or belonging, or purpose.
It became clear just before Christmas that none of those avoidance tactics were going to be adequate in this season of transition. There was no running away or side-stepping the ever-present sense that the losses needed to be felt and that the confusion that has ensued in the aftermath is inviting deeper levels of self-exploration. I’ve wandered into a gap between identities. I am once again living outside of the weekly rhythms of our extended families of origin. These tribes we are born into and formed out of carry so much power in the shaping and fostering of our identities (for good and for harm). We are sister or daughter or granddaughter or wise one or funny one or strong one or smart one or wounded one. Whenever we venture outside or beyond or away from our people we have a new opportunity to explore who we are separate from them. I’ve found this space to be especially terrifying. Who am I outside of the communities that have affirmed my existence, communities that have formed my own micro-world? What remains when those micro-worlds are fading into the distance?
A similar stripping away has unfolded professionally as I’ve nearly entirely walked away from my previously thriving private practice only retaining a handful of clients who wanted to continue the work via online/video sessions. When we transition vocationally we have an opportunity to explore who we are simply as human beings when we are not striving so hard to be human doings. I began working at the age of 12 generating my own income by way of babysitting thus beginning a 20+ year career in offering care to others in a whole host of different ways. This is the only substantial break I have ever been afforded aside from when I pursued my graduate degree (which I struggle to call a break given the intensity of the program I undertook while tending to three kids simultaneously). I know that this vocational pause is a luxury in our culture and in our world, but I am beginning to see why that is such a travesty. My body and brain and heart and health have been begging for some rest in the gaps all along.
So I’m not quite at the start of a new journey like I would have typically hoped for at the turn of a new calendar year. Instead, I’m in the gap lands and I’m coming to realize that I may need to be here for a little while. It’s clear that I’ve moved too quickly through this terrain in previous transitions. At times, I am certain, survival must have required only a quick pause in the gaps. But I must confess there were others that I unapologetically pushed through quicker than the speed of light. So there is lots of unfinished business in this place, lots of rest needed, lots of recovery for this compassion-fatigued soul. Ultimately it is where a patient grief must finally be allowed. Here’s to hoping that this intentional posture of sitting and staying in the gap as long as necessary leads to restoration and an increased capacity to listen well to the voice of a more stripped-down version of myself.
Featurette: A guest piece written by one of our readers. A small narrative vignette inviting us all to see the world from behind their eyes and hearts for just a moment. You can submit your short story for consideration here. Today’s guest piece is written by Jenny Hochmiller.
Being an educator takes a certain type of person, and I question if I am that type of person. After 6 years of experience, how is my level of confidence still shaky? Yes, my level of confidence is unrecognizably stronger from my initial days in the classroom, but I feel inept in my ability to make a strong impact. Am I in transition, or not? These conflicting thoughts bring such a strong wave of emotion, as if I’m a part of an abusive relationship – one I want to leave, but have such an unhealthy attachment to.
Going into education seemed like a natural fit. My teachers were some of my strongest mentors, and being a contributing member of a vibrant school community was something I longed for. Of course, a teenager’s perspective of a career versus the actual realities that exist within that career create a strong collide. I had more discourage me from going into the classroom than tell me it was a good idea, and the retention rates spoke for themselves. Yet, I refused to be a statistic.
So I dove right in, right into the Montbello neighborhood. Boy, was I in for a huge wake up call. My first year greeted me with teaching credit recovery classes on computers for every subject under the sun, an Algebra class full of 40 freshmen, three rooms to travel in between, a board vote to phase out our failing school over the next four years, a building void of a principal halfway through the year, and having to re-interview for my position three times within that year. Thank goodness for a strong bond with so many of my students and colleagues – we held each other up during what I regard as such a dark time. Many days I had to remind myself to breathe.
But for some strange reason, I wanted to stay. There was such a stark contrast from the environment I grew up in and the education I received, to the job I stepped into. Yet, I couldn’t imagine myself going anywhere else. The way I saw it, education is what defined my family. Education brought them from blue collar to white collar, no high school degree to ivy league degrees within just one generation. How could this community be denied what is considered the great equalizer of our time? From my perspective that equated to staying, because the more who stayed, potentially the less unstable the school would be. This was considering how teachers who had been there for two years were seen as veterans, and gained unprecedented respect from the students because they showed they cared enough to stay.
Flash forward to six years later, and I attribute so much of who I am to what this community has built within me. Perseverance and resilience, from days this non-crier would come home sobbing from brokenness in every aspect of the word. Drive to be the best educator I can be, despite feeling like the measures to meet this goal were impossible. Having so much of me being intertwined with a people who are now my family. And an endless desire for excellence, even if it feels like such a false hope that’s a dangling carrot in front of me.
The question now is, whether the level of self-sacrifice is too strong to continue. To be excellent requires a great deal of time. Time that bleeds into the evenings and weekends, when I’m supposed be enjoying time with family, friends, or simply indulging into necessary self-care. Time that I so freely gave away through the majority of my 20s. And in my experience with school reform, it has been so heart wrenchingly painful. My greatest mentors that I have stood side-by-side with have either voluntarily left, or been involuntarily removed. I look around, and only two remain from that first year I began, and both question their ability to continue.
Will I stay or go? Am I grieving the end of a huge chapter in my life, paralyzed with fear and standing in the neutral zone refusing to move, or starting a new beginning by entertaining the idea of moving in another direction? Getting a thrill out of the unknown has never been me – I am terrified. Terrified to leave, as well as terrified that I’ll never leave. I have no desire to go in any other direction, as well as no desire to stay. I question if know who I am. But a mantra I repeated to myself over and over on my drive to work last year, in an attempt to begin the process of surrendering control, was that my job does not define who I am, and God will continue to love me despite my successes or failures.
My sister came out for a quick visit a couple of weekends ago. She visited us several times during the three years we lived in the vicinity during my graduate school training previously so we didn’t feel the need to do any of the touristy jaunts in the city. Plus she was here for exactly 48 hours and half of that time revolved around a speaking gig I had while she was out here (the focus of why she was here to begin with). During the remaining half of her time we attempted to give her a crash course in what our life and dreams look like now in this new chapter. It wasn’t enough time for that really, but it was just enough time to re-rip out our hearts when we dropped her off at the airport.
The week that followed was pretty brutal. Faith, our 15 year old, cried herself to sleep nearly every night. Her tears held both loss and resistance as she expressed her desire to “go back home” over and over again.
I’ve released a few similarly expressive tears in the months that have passed since we loaded up that giant yellow truck (read: I’ve cried more tears than I’d like to admit). On the surface, the longing presents as a desire to return to a red house that held our story for four years, our lengthiest stay in any dwelling we’ve had together. The girls miss having their own bedrooms. I miss my kitchen and my bathroom. I miss my floors. I knew every inch of that house, the places where the floorboards came unglued from the steps into the front room, where we had to patch up the holes from Briella’s baby gates, where the wall was dented from a water bottle that miraculously flew down the basement stairs. This house held some sacred stories too. Like when I ran down the stairs to greet Brian and the girls holding a positive pregnancy stick as they walked in from the garage. It held our family as we recovered from a couple of bouts with the flu, a broken arm, 3 concussions, countless sprained ankles and knees and of course my six months of recovery after Briella’s birth. Shortly after moving in, we finally answered the girls’ unrelenting requests for a puppy. Jaxson grew into a dog (for better and for worse) in that very house. There were Christmas mornings, family feasts, birthday gatherings, movie nights and family meltdowns.
As I tear up at the sight of any photos taken in our old house, I understand that it was how we filled the space and how we hoped to fill the space that made it what it was and what we hoped it one day would be. But spaces matter too. So the longing is about the house. But it’s also about more. It’s about how we’re not sure what stories this new chapter will hold. We’re not even sure about what kind of dwelling we’ll land in as we’re renting for this first year as we get familiar with the area. So there is no real place to call our own, no defined space to hold our new stories yet. We are each feeling the lack of a physical and stable container and sustainer of our lives. We’re in flux, in transition. And that’s a really hard place to be, so we struggle with a desire to return home often. That’s part of moving. That’s part of leaving and now seeking for a new space to call home. It’s all part of growing through transition.
For the past five years, I have only been responsible for dropping off the kids and picking them up from school about 10 percent of the time. One of the greatest blessings of our lives is that my husband works from home. So, all the times I was attending classes, or sleeping in from staying up doing homework until 2:00 AM because of said classes, Karl was available to get the kids ready for school and drop them off.
Now, he is the master of their morning routines. He knows exactly how they like their breakfast (Lucy likes the crust cut off her ultra-grain toast and Peter doesn’t like any liquid in his oats), what gets packed in their lunch and more importantly how it all fits in those tiny lunch bags, what time the school bell rings and what time to leave the house in order to make it there beforehand. I can humbly acknowledge this truth today because Karl is out of town and those AM duties have fallen to me. When I have to ask my 8 and 10 year old how to fit all those tupperwares in those tiny bags, I feel a certain amount of shame for being a mother who doesn’t know these things, but in the same breath I feel immense gratitude for a husband who has this corner of our world under control ninety percent of the time.
Somewhere during the ten percent of times I was in charge of the drop off, I discovered that what was important for Lucy early on was a means of transition from home to school.
Leaving the warmth and comfort and security of home when you are five years old is scary! A little one doesn’t know if they can trust that their needs will be met with kindness and consistency; if their teacher will be available to support and encourage them on any given day. So, in order to bridge the divide of preoccupation and fear, we needed to establish a leaving ritual.
From all the baby books I had read before even having children, I gleaned that routines and rituals are important for a child’s sense of safety. Doing the same thing over and over again gives children the sense that they can control their world by predicting it. While I took that advice too literally and didn’t allow enough depth and breath to our daily routines of naps and bedtimes, and wouldn’t recommend similar rigidity, I would, however resoundingly endorse the importance of rituals.
Fortunately, Lucy’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. Montes, must have also read the same parenting books as me because on the first day of class she provided us with the inspiration for a leaving ritual that has continued up until this very day. Lucy came home from school with her first K5 art and craft – a tracing of her hand cut out of construction paper with a kiss placed in its palm. I later learned that this was done after reading “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn.
The story, in brief, is that little Chester Raccoon doesn’t want to go to school. He wants to stay at home with his mom and play with his own friends, his own toys, and read his own books. Mrs. Raccoon explains to Chester that sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do that are strange and scary. But she goes on to tell him that she knows a very old secret that will make his time at school as warm and cozy as home. It’s called, “The Kissing Hand.” Mrs. Raccoon leaves a kiss on Chester’s palm and he closes his hand around it tight. And whenever he misses his mom or thinks of home, he opens his hand, places it on his cheek and magically feels her comfort and warmth.
After I saw Lucy’s craft, and read the story for myself, I committed to intentionally making this our leaving ritual. So, every day before Lucy lined up to go into class, I would put a kiss in her palm, she would make a fist and hold onto it really tightly. And since she is a very literal girl, she thought she might have to hold her hand around it that tightly all day long or it would blow away, so, she quickly learned to put it in her pocket in order to set her hands free for more arts and crafts. And in the event that she didn’t have pockets, she learned to trust that by pretending to put it in a pocket, she could pretend to take it out later in the day and put it to her cheek to feel as warm and cozy, as safe and secure as she does at home.
This morning, because we were running behind since I neither knew how to fit all those tupperwares into their tiny lunch bags, nor knew what time the school bell actually rang, I shuffled them off to line up for class a few minutes late and was preoccupied with getting them where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. But even in the midst of harried rushing, Lucy wouldn’t leave without me placing a kiss in her hand.
She reminded me those rituals that we established over 5 years ago are meaningful. Those little repeated actions remind us of something…sometimes we either forget or don’t have time to acknowledge the verbal something (“Mommy loves you and is thinking of you and wants you to feel warm and comforted”), and just need the shorthand, the ritual, to give us the feeling of the thing we can’t quite remember but know we need it when we get it.