I always find myself reflecting on the past year in the week following Christmas, and this one was no different. I’ve been keeping a daily gratitude journal for a few years now (one New Year’s resolution I’ve actually managed to keep), and every year, I think of a title that encompasses my hopes for the year to come. My first year was “The Year of Gratitude,” (which proved an accurate descriptor—this practice has made me much more aware of my blessings), and 2014 was titled “The Year of Progress.”
Oh, bittersweet irony. I should not have tempted the fates by calling 2014 “The Year of Progress.”
Last January, I had resolved to make true progress towards reaching my life goals in the coming year: taking major steps towards writing and publishing a book (or two or three books—I was very ambitious when I made these resolutions) and becoming a self-employed author so I could teach part-time on the side. I also had ambitious plans to get my epilepsy under control and better manage my stress and get my act together and finally grow up and be the adult I’ve always dreamed of being.
It didn’t exactly work out that way, though.
Progress? It’s hard to see any as I reflect on this past year. I look at my health and see only regression. I thought that quitting teaching would lighten my burden of stress, which would, in turn, quiet my epilepsy, but that has not happened.
My epilepsy has actually grown worse, despite several attempts at medication. My driver’s license was officially cancelled in September. I am having seizures almost daily. They are milder, but a recent MRI showed scar tissue in my brain from them nonetheless.
Progress is measured by met goals, which imply a measure of control over our circumstances. We work to achieve our goals. We believe that we can strive to better ourselves or change certain things. But no amount of discipline or hard work is going to change the fact that I have epilepsy or that I am facing some terrifying and life-altering treatment options (brain surgery among them).
As my goal this year was to become an author, I spent quite a bit of time writing, but not as much as I would have liked—I participated in NaNoWriMo for the fourth consecutive year (November is NAtional NOvel WRiting MOnth—participants write 50,00 words in 30 days), and this was the first year that I did not meet that goal. I came in at a measly 41,021 words. Every other year that I did this, I was teaching (some years full time, one year even overload) but I was still able to finish easily. This year I had unlimited time at my disposal, but my brain was just too tired to work at that pace—I had several seizures in November, and seizures are exhausting. I do have plans to finish the piece eventually, but I lack the mental stamina I once enjoyed. So I didn’t exactly write the proverbial “great American novel,” much less publish one. Even though I had resolved to make a writing career for myself this year, the only efforts that I dared to make public are these blog entries. I have yet to seek a professional audience or publication for my work.
Last January, I sincerely believed that 2014 was going to be my year. And then, three weeks into that month, I had a seizure while I was driving, which changed the trajectory of my life, completely redefining the meaning of progress for me.
I did everything in my power to make this “The Year of Progress,” but I did not progress at all in the way that I had hoped.
I guess, if nothing else, I did gain a lot of good writing fodder through these frustrations and setbacks and experiences, which may eventually become a means towards the progress I wish to see. (One can only hope.)
I do plan to keep another gratitude journal in the coming year, and I’ve decided to call 2015 “The Year of Patience,” because I feel like that’s what I really should have learned this year.
When I quit my job, I was afraid that a weird disease + no job + no driver’s license + living five miles from civilization would pretty much make me a hermit.
And in some ways, I guess that it has.
I’ve always enjoyed solitude—it’s kind of a necessary part of the writing process, and writing has always been my favorite of hobbies. But I always enjoyed my solitude as a retreat from life, not as my life, and at times this involuntary solitude feels a lot like loneliness.
And that kind of scares me.
For the past two years, I have felt like I’ve been teetering on that sharp edge of loneliness, like my only option forward is via the edge of this cliff. But every time that I think that I’m about to tumble off it, someone reaches out to steady me, to grab my hand, to encourage me to keep going, to give me enough hope to take one more step.
I know it’s a trite metaphor, but our journey really is made only one step at a time, through whatever terrain we’re forced to cross. (Right now, mine just happens to be a cliff that overlooks the Pit of Despair.) It is only through the gentle nudges I’ve gotten from others that I’ve made any forward progress.
And, to my delighted surprise, a lot of these gentle nudges have come to me from former students.
From people who spent many of their formative years believing that I was not actually human, that I was a robot programmed by the government expressly to torture them.
It is beautiful to be thought of and remembered, especially by these kids (er, adults—some of them are in their mid-to-late-twenties now). It was something I’d never expected, and hearing from them makes me feel like I managed to connect with them somehow, through all the noise that is adolescence and hormones and high school drama, and that connection feels like the exact opposite of loneliness.
Sometimes these communications are small and school-related—a question about MLA documentation, or a request to support a fundraiser.
Sometimes they’re personal—a call for book recommendations, sharing a band I just have to hear or a music video I have to see, or just to say hi.
Sometimes it’s a text at two in the morning from a former student who nearly fell asleep driving, and that prompted him to think of me and reach out to ask how I’m doing.
Sometimes it’s a three-hour Facebook chat, including an apology for “being an arse” in high school (his words), praise for my teaching and understanding, and an offer to teach my foster son how to weld. (I took a screen shot of this one and hung it up in my office, and I bawled afterwards—this, from a student I hadn’t seen since 2008, and one I never thought I’d hear from again.)
Sometimes (surprisingly often) it’s a recommendation for marijuana to help control my epilepsy. (Hey—regardless of the message, these four kids still took the time to reach out to me and think of my health.)
And sometimes it’s friendship. Sometimes it’s regular texting about great books and Game of Thrones theories and Mindy Kaling’s comedy and even a FaceTime book club. (Which I love.)
I thought that leaving teaching would sever any chance of seeing a lot of these people again—when kids stopped by to see me before, they always came to my classroom. They visited when they had college breaks—sometimes bringing vases of flowers or boxes of cereal or cards of encouragement or just open arms and a laugh. But the school was close to their homes, and they were often bored and looking for something to do on their breaks, so the visits were nice, but not entirely unexpected. They still had friends or siblings or other teachers to see in the high school, after all.
But now that they can’t visit me at school anymore, I only expect run-ins in public places (malls, basketball games I manage to attend, movie theaters, the like).
Imagine my surprise when they come to my front door.
One girl called me when she was on her way home from college, driving by my exit on the interstate, which made her think of me, and she asked if she could come over for a visit. She stayed for an hour, and I cried when she left, because I just couldn’t believe that she’d thought of me, that she’d taken the time to drive out of her way and stop.
And she’s not the only one, either. Others have come to visit, too, and still more have made plans to see me over their Christmas breaks this year.
I mean, I liked my own high school teachers just fine, and they did their jobs and did them well, but I can’t think of a single one I’d call up and visit now. Or ask for book recommendations. Or FaceTime with. Or text at two in the morning. Or recommend marijuana to. (Not that I’d recommend it at all, mind you, but you get my point…)
It’s nice to be remembered as an actual human being, separately from the institution of the school, especially by kids who often seemed to have little love for me during their time there, and it’s funny how something as small as a text message can yank me from the edge of loneliness and remind me of the connections I have made, and that just because my time as a teacher is done does not mean that those connections have been severed.
It’s beautiful the way that these kids—nay, these adults—have managed to rescue me from my loneliness in these small ways. I never dreamed that a 2 a.m. text message could have such an impact. But it’s more than that—it’s a reminder of the power of connection, and that is enough to save me from shutting myself away, from becoming that hermit I feared I was destined to be.