We are all carrying a heavy burden right now.
We have engaged in this distance learning experiment with a begrudging willingness because we love our children, because we care about their education and want them to succeed. We do this because we understand the necessity of social distancing and want to do our part.
But sometimes, it’s a real bitch.
Right now, I am watching my child smash her fists into her computer keyboard while she screams at the screen that the computer is wrong, that she did type the correct answer to that math problem. Her breathing is fast. Her cheeks are red. She’s near tears.
Governor Walz just announced that Minnesota schools will be closed for the rest of the year.
So I will have to go through this with her every single weekday until June.
I’m near tears myself.
I know my child doesn’t behave this way at school, even when she’s frustrated with the work. She has always struggled with math--she receives reduced assignments and extra help from a para, but in spite of this, I have always heard reports of her “cheerful” disposition.
It’s hard to imagine that when she is punching her tiny fist into the “frickin’ stupid” textbook.
(Mine, too, if I’m completely honest.)
Even though I was quite good at math in school, even though I am explaining this as clearly as I know how, even though I am a teacher by trade, I have no idea how to help her learn this stuff.
My explanations and efforts are not enough to make her understand.
I have a teaching degree and over a decade of experience. I have cried after a day of teaching exactly one time--my first (and last) day as a kindergarten substitute on the east side of Des Moines. That venture included no class roster, no seating chart, no lesson plans, no paras, no help of any kind, just me and 30+ screaming, combative five-year-olds who knew entirely too much about domestic violence, reproductive organs, and curse words and not nearly enough about sitting down and shutting up.
It was like trying to herd cats that were both tweaking on meth and lit on fire.
When I signed out for the day, I was in tears. I told the secretary to never call me again, and she glibly responded, “Yeah, we hear that all the time. No one ever comes back to sub here.”
I am no stranger to difficult teaching scenarios. I am battle proven. I have earned my stripes.
But this--working one-on-one with my own child--somehow feels more overwhelming than anything I’ve dealt with before.
I have cried more times over teaching in the past month than in the past decade. There are days when I would prefer herding those flaming meth-cats to helping my own child solve an algebraic equation. I feel a lot of guilt about this, and the only reason I can come up with for why this seems to be true is this:
It is very, very hard to be Mom and Teacher at the same time.
It also seems to be very, very hard to be both Daughter and Student at the same.
In a simpler time, we played these roles separately. When we were together, I was merely Mom and she was merely Daughter. If I helped her with school work, it was as Mom: my role was only to ensure that she completed it, not to step her through the entirety of the lesson. I did not have to be Teacher, and she did not have to be Student. She was just Daughter.
Student and Daughter are two conflicting identities. Daughter whines and throws her books across the room. Daughter rips up papers and screams at Mom. But Student, I am told, is "pleasant." Student is “a ray of sunshine” who is "cooperative" and "well-behaved."
I guess I wouldn't know.
Daughter pushes Mom’s buttons. Daughter tests Mom's boundaries. Daughter has always taken out the school day’s frustrations on Mom.
Daughter uses Mom as an emotional punching bag.
Teacher has thick skin. Teacher knows not to take harsh words from kids personally. Teacher is professional and strong. Teacher maintains an emotional distance.
But Mom cannot seem to do any of these things.
Mom’s skin is onion-paper thin because Mom is completely in love with Daughter. Mom takes every harsh word she utters like a dagger to the heart.
Mom is vulnerable.
Mom is emotional.
To be honest, Mom is kind of a mess.
When Mom wants to quit, Teacher wants to keep going. When Teacher says, “It’s time for school,” Mom wants to give up, to throw that “frickin’ stupid” math book across the room and light it on fire.
It is a strange tug of war within me. Sometimes Teacher wins. Sometimes Mom.
Teacher is oil and Mom is water.
They can be poured into the same vessel and shaken, but they will never fully combine.
Many days, I am overwhelmed by this strange solution that I carry within me: the oil of Teacher and the water of Mom. That oil sits on top in fat, round globs, covering the water in a slick layer, but the water of Mom always is beneath it, bearing the burden of its weight.
They are meant to be separate things, Mom and Teacher.
But for now, they must coexist.
I have found that one of the most dangerous and unproductive sentences in the English language is this: It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
We all have an idea of how life is “supposed to be."
There’s an order to things, a societal flow, a rhythm of expectations: school, college, marriage, career, kids, grandkids, etc.
You know, the way things are “supposed to be.”
With this rhythm in mind, I made plans for my life, and I was certain that things would unfold just as I had imagined they would. And for a while, they did. My own “supposed to be” started to swerve a bit at college, but it jumped the tracks at career, slammed into the ditch at infertility, and burst into flames at epilepsy.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
And now, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis: COVID-19. Social distancing. Distance learning. Face masks. Plans postponed indefinitely. Society itself is on hold.
All of our best-laid plans gone awry.
When this crisis hit, I was directing a high school production of Peter Pan. We’d been practicing five days a week since January. Though the set is finished and the costumes are ready, the auditorium sits empty. We were supposed to perform it next weekend. The kids won’t get to show anyone what they’ve done.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
It’s an alluring thought, really: It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It gives us permission to not only grieve the dream, but to also hold onto the perfection that never came to be, to allow it to live, at the very least, in the space of our own imagination.
But this is where the danger lies.
This is a a temptation I succumb to often, the longest-running show in my imagination: The Way Things Were Supposed to Be, starring Kirstyn Wegner, playing nightly to sold-out audiences and rave reviews.
I am guilty of preferring this imagined version of events over the reality of what is. I have invested more fully in the “supposed to be” scenarios than I have in what is. I still harbor an insanely irrational hope that I’ll wake up and things will be different, that the order of the universe will have realigned in my favor somehow and things will finally be the way they are “supposed to be”: Peter Pan will go on as scheduled. Regular school is in session, and society is bustling. COVID is gone. Friends are closer than a screen or phone call away. I don’t have epilepsy, I still have my teaching job, and I have my own biological children.
I know that none of this is true, mind you. “Supposed to be” was never real in the first place. It's a hard truth to swallow. I never really had any of these things. But that does not make them any less heavy to bear.
What is can be a disappointment. In fact, it almost always is, because it’s never what we expect.
But “supposed to be” is just a collection of trophies I’ve never won, and that is a heavy cross to bear.
This is the weight of “supposed to be.”
Each “supposed to be” carries the expectations that created it, and those expectations are burdensome and hard to part with, even as we watch our “supposed to be's” pass into ether. I did not want to put those trophies down. Instead, I held onto them with tight fists. Letting go of them felt like a betrayal, like I was abandoning my dreams.
There is an exchange that needs to happen at this point: “Supposed to be” has to die. We have to set those heavy trophies on fire. Only then can we exchange those ashes for the strange beauty of what is, which is nearly always wrapped in disappointment. It is only after we can shed that husk and accept what’s actually inside that we can begin to learn to enjoy it.
What is is all around you, just waiting for you to embrace it, to explore it, to experience it. If you are present and brave enough to make this divine exchange, you will see how much it can teach you.
Light those “supposed to be’s” on fire.
Do not be afraid to let them burn.
Hands down, my least favorite feeling is uncertainty.
It is awful: having the rug of normalcy yanked out from beneath your feet, feeling like you are no longer in control of your own life, wondering how you’ll ever be able to do...well, anything. Ever again.
Especially when there’s no end in sight.
Right now, we’ve all been thrust into a period of uncertainty, and it's scary.
Uncertainty has the power to hijack your brain and launch your thoughts into a zillion imaginary tragedies that play out in a constant loop in your mind. Often the things you imagine are irrational and worse than what the actual future holds, but uncertainty is a convincing playwright and the mind is a stage primed for action.
I know this all too well.
Epilepsy is a disorder of constant uncertainties, and it set off a montage of catastrophes inside my own head: What if I have another seizure? Another concussion? What if I never get my driver’s license back? What if I end up brain damaged? What if these seizures never stop? These things could kill me. I might die. I.might.die. I. MIGHT. DIE. I.MIGHT.DIE.I.MIGHT.DIE.I.MIGHT.DIE.
On and on and on these thoughts ran, ad nauseam. It took me years to quiet them, but they still have moments of power over me.
However, upon observation, I see now that the most dangerous scenario that turned the hamster wheel of my mind was not the idea that I could die. No, the most dangerous thing I could imagine was this: What if there isn’t enough?
I had a medical cancelation on my driver’s license for four years (2012-2016), and scarcity was my constant companion during that time. My circumstances had changed, but my needs had not. We live five miles from the nearest store, so a car is necessary to run even the simplest of errands. I was stuck at home. I couldn’t go anywhere. I experienced scarcity in tangible ways: there was a very real possibility that I would run out of something I needed before I was able to get a ride to a store to buy more (e.g., toilet paper).
I responded in the only way that made sense at the time: I bought as much toilet paper as I could shove into the bathroom closet at one time, and that little stockpile of white rolls gave me a sense of security, and for a moment, I could breathe again. I felt like I had enough.
This security, however, was short-lived. As soon as a single roll of toilet paper was removed from the cellophane, the rest of the package no longer felt like enough. I started to worry: There isn’t enough anymore. When will I be able to buy more?
This same scenario played out for dozens of items (laundry detergent, noodles, tuna, shampoo, tea), and I was always afraid that there would not be enough of something. I fought tirelessly to outwit the demon of scarcity through overpreparation, by compulsively making schedules, writing lists, arranging rides, ordering in bulk online. But I was still plagued by another lack, one that I couldn’t buy in bulk at Sam’s Club or order online and have shipped to my door.
Loneliness, I learned, is a far more poisonous form of scarcity than a toilet paper shortage.
During my therapy appointment last week (which, thanks to COVID-19, was done via webcam), my therapist asked me how I’m handling this period of “social distancing.” It is a kind thing to wonder in this uncertain time, and I appreciate his concern, but I could only give a wry chuckle when he asked.
Social distancing is not new to me.
Since my epilepsy diagnosis, I have spent a lot of time by myself. I didn’t have a driver’s license for four years (2012 - 2016), and that period was the scariest, darkest time of my life. We had not yet adopted our daughter, and my husband is a farmer who's often gone 12-16 hours a day, so I was entirely alone in our country house. During those long, quiet hours, I found some solace in books, but that’s not the same as human interaction. For most of those four years, nurturing true friendships was hard. I felt so other, so far away, so separate.
Loneliness slipped its own subversive slides into the catastrophe montage that already occupied my headspace. While I fought against physical scarcity in my external world, this invasion happened quietly, slide by irrational slide, and I was flayed daily by a whiplash of my own insecurity: Has everyone forgotten me? Why doesn’t anyone come to visit me? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not worth their time/effort/money/energy? Why didn’t they respond to my text message? My email? My phone call? Why am I so alone? Why am I so alone? Why.am.I.so.alone? WHY. AM. I. SO. ALONE? WHY.AM.I.SO.ALONE?WHY.AM.I.SO.ALONE?WHY.AM.I.SO.ALONE?
The scarcity of loneliness feels a lot like suffocation, like not enough air, and even the smallest kindness can feel as refreshing as breath. Sometimes the only thing that snatched me from the brink of despair was a quick phone call from my mom during her drive home from work. Emoji-only text messages from friends were enough to bring me to tears.
Even though they couldn’t always physically be with me, it was so, so good to be remembered. Those who remembered me, who brought me back into the fold of togetherness, literally made it possible for me to survive, and I still count them among my truest friends. These ten-second tokens of compassion felt like enough.
I know what it means to have a health crisis force you to reevaluate every aspect of your life--your needs, your routines, your schedules, your shopping lists--and sort through them to decide what’s crucial and what isn’t, what must stay and what has to go.
Here’s what I learned: toilet paper is important, yes. But it is not as important as waiting for the “all clear” to rebuild your normal. I had to wait for a three-month seizure-free period before I could drive again. It took me four years. It was excruciating, yes. But I see now that it was necessary, because driving before that point could have literally killed someone. (My point: stay home, people!)
Toilet paper is important, yes. So is laundry detergent. And shampoo and noodles and tuna and tea.
But none of that stuff is as important as other people.
Now is a time of being together, but separate.
That is what did me the most good when I was so isolated: I was separate due to my circumstances, but when people reached out to include me from afar, I felt together. Reaching out can stave off loneliness, for giver and recipient alike. (I am still rendered giddy by the sight of a Hallmark card in my mailbox.) And thanks to the miracle of technology, it’s easier than ever to be emotionally close without being physically near.
This too shall pass.
We will all survive this season of uncertainty, together, but separate.