IMAG0793Progress. It’s a human need, according to more than a few gurus’ lists. We have a need to feel that we are making progress our lives.

It’s probably why I bristle whenever a former student asks me if I am “still” teaching. I feel a stab of shame. Shame, even though my primary identity – in my own eyes – is not as a high school teacher. If there are days when I feel that I’m running with my forehead against a wall, it is generally not because of my day job.

I love my job. The doing of it. I am lucky enough to experience “flow” in the classroom.¬†¬†Often.

But I’m near to burning out now. It’s not the students, but the well-intended pressure from the administration (although, lately, in a rather Orwellian turn, we’re asked¬†to call them “leaders”, not “administrators”). While I admit that I’m not a great teacher: there have been students who graduated convinced I’m a terrible person for one reason or another. But I do learn from my mistakes. I am a good teacher, and I know there is “always room for improvement”.

Some days I wonder though, if I worked at a fish factory, would I have to spend part of my work day analysing my performance,¬†making a prognosis for my potential, developing and implementing a¬†system for improvement? A new one every few months? A new area for critique, while I’m still sorting through the jargon applied to the last one, figuring out what it means in terms of¬†real being-in-the-world behaviours on my part.

Is this a privilege of having a job with a greater amount of self-determination? This continual task of finding room for improvement?

To be honest: I find myself in that room all the time. I stumble into it every day. I beat myself up for it¬†– before I have to take it to the workplace confessional. Generally, I’m dealing with my secret shortcomings in one area, while someone is asking me to identify and address my shortcomings in another. I carry a lot of shame back and forth from the classroom to the meeting room.

In regard to my job, I’m not having to aim on my own ¬†– the wall is hitting me.

There are other areas of focus in my life¬†in which¬†I aim for progress, too: Parenting. Fitness. Mental health. Writing. Publishing. Friendship. Partnership. I’m still doing all of those things, too. Still making prognoses in terms of my potential. Aiming. Striving. Sometimes running with my forehead against the wall.

Would it be okay if I just took a couple days to stand still and breathe? Is it possible to find¬†a room that doesn’t have a nagging space for¬†¬†improvement, and to be there, for just a moment or two?

*

One of the funniest people I know, who also happens to be a former student, suggested that the next time someone asks me if I’m still teaching, I should tell them, “Yes. But I’m wearing new shoes.”

I haven’t mentioned that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to my fashion sense, as well.

I was over forty when my grandmother said, “You didn’t have an easy childhood.”

20150620_154629It was the first time she’d admitted it. She was edging around the perimeter of what was unspoken between us for nearly twenty years. Her daughter. My mother.

It could be that, at her age, she was facing her  the guilt of her own complicity. It could be that, at my age, she figured I would have experienced enough complexity in life, and could understand that love almost always entails a choice between two kinds of pain.

Maybe she said it because it was finally safe to do so; finally safe to believe I wouldn’t use her compassion to prop up my self-esteem, label myself a victim, and cultivate my own warm, little martyrdom.

Maybe her coldness, and her trivialising all those years were based on a kind of hard wisdom. A shove towards something better. I can’t know.

It still makes me happy that she said that. She acknowledged what we had in common, a childhood that “wasn’t easy”, and a necessary strength.

“You sound like you’re just next door. I wish you where here,” she’d say often, and then she’d always follow up with, “No. I don’t really. You’re better off where you are.”

A few years later, she no longer recognised my voice on the phone. I lost her before the rest of her family lost her. I learned of her death via Facebook.

I didn’t go to her funeral. She wouldn’t have liked that: “You’re better off where you are.” Pain is unavoidable, but there is no reason to court it. My grandmother was a practical woman.

“Honey, you know I love you, but, most of the time, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

We had little, and everything, in common.

I miss her. Though I will never be certain of how well I knew her. There were stories in those later years: told in fragments, like a surreal soap opera, an episode a week, two hours each Sunday. She told me about her husbands, about being a single mother of four in the 40s, about her complex relationship with her sister, and how she never forgave her mother.

She had stories about my mother and my father. About what came before what was never spoken, the big, black swath in my life that matched the big, black swath in hers. She never picked at wounds, but seemed to have found a way to walk away from them. Something I’m not always willing to do, to leave parts of myself behind like that. Lies of omission.

There were barriers. I don’t recall her ever hugging me when I was in pain. Our most intimate moments were over the phone once I was an adult and living overseas. Once I was a mother, myself. But what made it through the barriers was real. That’s what matters: taking what you get, and being grateful.

I have yet to write her eulogy. My story is too entwined with hers still: reflections through generations, like repeating images in facing mirrors. But now there’s empty space. It’s a good thing. A painfully good thing, like love always is.

Last night I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s Ted talk¬†about forging identity. Which is about taking hold of the narrative and creating a point of view. And this morning, on the train, I read an article in Aeon by a professor who disputes the idea that he is a story.

Strawson writes: “Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Life never¬†does that. We do. If you have ever held¬†a grudge (an awfully universal human thing to do, I would think), you are clinging to a story, not a sequence of events.

Events happen. [His]Stories are remembered and often told.

Dr. Strawson is a philosophy professor. I’m not. But when he writes:

I don’t think an ‚Äėautobiographical narrative‚Äô plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I‚Äôve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I‚Äôm on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.

I can’t help but wonder if he leaves the possibility open that the knowledge he has of his own personal history, that his history perhaps* being rather unexceptional/not in conflict with, while embedded within, the larger cultural history, means that he is unaware of how significant his “autobiographical narrative” is or might¬†be under other circumstances,¬†circumstances under which the disparity between¬†the autobiographical narrative and the culture’s larger narrative bring the former into view.

I’m not sure why he put the term “autobiographical narrative” in quotes, but I do because I think it is just jargon for our sense of identity. Which can be nothing but a history. A story.

Stories are not necessarily Scribe’s well-made plays. In fact, the best ones never are.

Nor are we likely to engage or encompass ourselves in a single story. I am one story with my children. One with my students. One with my lover. I can selectively block details of my personality when responding to situations that are embedded within larger stories. Sometimes my stories change.

Sometimes they involve me changing dramatically: a¬†turning point. I choose to acknowledge and aspect of myself in the story and attempt to change it–I don’t¬†attempt to alter the facts. I find a balm for guilt in the new story of redemption, or growth. And life goes on.

It doesn’t make me insane. It doesn’t even disturb my sense of identity. The very fractured nature of my daily existence is part of my personal narrative. I’m comfortable with that. Strawson repeats¬†Henry James’ description of life as a “great shambles”. That is a story. And at junctures, my story.

Strawson’s article describes in praxis his own story by describing what it is not.

If you were to wake tomorrow in a hospital bed and no one claimed you. You would have to begin to forge an identity. To get to know yourself. And, as much as we want to live in the present, we only know how we fit into the larger story when looking at the past. Even if the past is nothing but a single day, or a matter of a split second¬†and a recollection:¬†“I don’t like peas.”

I am sure if someone disputes Strawson’s standing as a philosophy professor he has a history to bring out as an “official record”. Those are the facts. His narrative, my narrative, each of his students’ narratives–that of his mother–will¬†differ just slightly.

And sometimes slightly is just enough to cause trouble.

Strawson writes: “Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‚ÄėThere is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.‚Äô ”

This, too, is a story.

Not mine.


*I say perhaps because I do not presume to know anything at all about Dr. Strawson’s life, nor do I intend to imply anything. But since he wrote his critique based on personal experience and literary quotes, so will¬†I now: I¬†have found¬†that when stories are told – when people talk about how their experience on a bus journey was affected by a talk they were having, it usually, if significant, reaches back to other talks, connects to¬†other experiences that shaped that person’s personal history. It gave it a significant meaning. Or, “narrative”. This is in no way an attack on his perspective. Just the questions that came to my mind based on general experience, not specific philosophical study.¬†

(Again,¬†check out Solomon’s Ted talk! That’s my literary quote.)

DSC_0550E.’s grandmother is in the hospice. The head of her bed faces a small wardrobe with family photos taped to the pressed wood, and a large window that gives her a view of the tops of a few birch trees, and an expanse of sky.

We arrive just after the nurses’ aids have delivered her evening meal: a smoothie, a cream soup of some sort, and one piece of bread cut into 4 small squares, each with a dollop of a different kind of jam. But she says she has no appetite.

Remembering now, I almost write, “she sighed”. But that would be¬†wrong. She was having trouble breathing. Speaking a single sentence was as exhausting as it would be for me to run up a steep hill as fast as possible. Or more so. Her chest rises and falls,¬†with difficulty. And¬†more rapidly than one would expect. Like a small bird–yes, the clich√©.

She recovers slowly. Then asks about the weather. A single, careful sentence that costs her.

E. tells her that his mother had remarked earlier that afternoon that the day reminded her of apple-picking. His grandmother smiles and nods. She stares at the blue sky through the window. “An autumn day,” she says.

She has pain in her legs. In her stomach. She has trouble straightening her head on the pillow and needs to ask E. to help. To touch her on each side of her thin face and gently move it, just enough, to release a neck muscle that was gripping out of habit.

I stare at the mystery soup in the Styrofoam cup. I try to smell it, inconspicuously. But the other scents in the room are overwhelming: the mushroom smell of cleaning cloths, and spongy smell of green soap.

E. settles her head on the pillow. She closes her eyes. A few moments later she asks again, “So, it’s nice outside?”

Again, at a cost.

E. says yes.

I become aware of my feet in my too-tight dress-shoes; my hand in E.’s hand;¬†I think about how I had commented earlier on our run, about the “bite” in the air. It had been a mindless complaint between strides.

I see now, through the window in her room, the jewel-blue sky and the cotton-ball¬†clouds. It’s beautiful. And I want to be out there again, out in the biting wind¬†that carries J√¶ren’s round/sharp smell of livestock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, over a long lunch, a friend was telling me about his morning – about driving to work. He was stuck in traffic, and felt himself getting angrier and angrier. Twisting himself in knots, and becoming increasingly upset about how his day was off to a lousy start.

IMG_20150623_081436Then the ambulance passed by.

His story still helps me put my own frustrations in perspective. I keep his story in my head like a post-it note on the door to¬†the room where¬†petty annoyances go to fester. It works for me surprisingly often. ¬†I’ve been able to ¬†turn daily¬†inconveniences¬†into a practice of gratitude: a reminder of what goes right, what works out in time, and what is ultimately important.

One of the great things about getting older is that lessons actually begin to take hold. This summer I was standing in line at a grocery store and watching the woman in front of me lash out at the cashier. Then at her elderly companion. But I was having a good day, so I could take a step back and I realised¬†that it must hurt to be her. I’m sure I’ve¬†been her. And just few years ago I would have made a snarky remark – if not to her – then to the cashier to let him know I was “on his side” of the conflict. I would have helped define the drama.¬†Made a scene. Created a real-world narrative that would have involved¬†two sides. ¬†His and hers. But this was on her. I let it be with her.

I smiled at the woman as she left, smiled at the cashier, and told him it was a pretty day outside. I said I hoped his day improved, and that he would be able get out to enjoy the sunshine.

I have no idea what this woman’s story really was. But I chose to assume that she was under stress. Maybe she’d just come from the doctor with very bad news. Maybe the elderly companion was her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who had just beaten her mother, who was now¬†in the hospital.

(I have always had an active imagination, and can quickly tweeze out an intricate drama.)

I seriously doubt that these are the kind of compassionate thoughts that Buddhists want us to have when we are focusing on loving kindness for all people. I mean, I see that it is almost fantasising as a form of revenge. Not even “almost”. It is.

I haven’t been able to let go of this woman. Not like I should. But at least I haven’t held on to the anger.

This is where I am right now in my spiritual development. Working from the outside, in.

Trying to put good into the real world. And keeping the rest of it to myself, as fiction.