What I Learned in 2015

1. My one word this year was Create, and I learned over and over again that creating takes courage. My taglines for create were to create space, to create community, to create art, and to create life.

a. Creating space meant I had to say no to a lot of things that seemed great so that I could say yes to down time, to rest, and to playing with my dog.

b. Creating community meant I had to do things that would nurture friendships–go to Monday night Bible study (one of the best decisions yet), ask a friend out for coffee, say yes to meeting up with a friend instead of 6 hours of Netflix, etc.

c. Creating art meant I actually had to write. I used most of my summer mornings to write works for grad school applications, and it took discipline and a lot of courage and self-pep-talk. This was awesome and fulfilling and also really scary–I applied to grad school, a long-time dream, and I might not get in. But I’ve already told myself that even I don’t get in, I applied. I did that. That was brave.

d. Creating life meant trying for a baby. And we got pregnant! Which was happy and beautiful, and then I had a miscarriage, which was traumatic and sad and a lot of other feelings I’m still sorting through. But we created life, however brief it was. And while my miscarriage was the lowest point of my year, finding out I was pregnant was the highest point, regardless of the outcome. It was only for 7 weeks, but it was still beautiful.

2. It’s not stupid to believe in yourself. I think sometimes we think that it’s arrogant to think we can actually do something or we can actually try something new. We can get discouraged by less than enthusiastic words from friends or family about our dreams. But just because someone we respect doesn’t understand our dream doesn’t mean it’s the wrong dream or it’s not good enough or it’s impossible. It may just mean that they don’t understand. And that’s okay.

3. Having a dog changes your life, so make investments accordingly. Lucy has forced us to change our routines in the afternoon, making us slow down and put down our phones and pick up a frisbee. She requires exercise and cuddles, so it pushes us to take that walk we’ve been talking about and spend some time on the floor giggling at her clowning. We put her in a rigorous training program (Sit Means Sit) this past summer that was especially for impulsive, distracted dogs (it’s like they knew Lucy was coming), and it was one of the best investments we made this year. We’re halfway through our year of group training, and she is already way more obedient and attentive than when she first came home after training. When we paused at the cost of training, JD and I both quickly came to the rationale that we were investing in the next 10 years of our life–in our public outings, in our interactions with children, in our hospitality, everything. Training Lucy has greatly improved our quality of life, and it’s made our time together more enjoyable for all three of us.

4. Limiting my yes means limiting my crazy. This year I decided to say yes to very few things (see 1a) in order to give my attention fully to what I felt was important. I also decided to do this in my classroom. I am convinced that high school English teachers have one of the toughest jobs in schools because we have to do 390438249 things in our 50 minutes/a day, and I was tired of trying to juggle so much. So at the beginning of August, I decided to only have 4 things that I would focus on during the year: writing improvement, literature connections, vocabulary building, and rest. If activities, reading assignments, or homework didn’t serve one or more of those purposes, we didn’t do them this semester. And my life has been less hectic, as I’m sure my students’ lives have been as well. My student aides made Apples to Apples cards with my vocabulary words on them for my kids to play when we have an off-day, which accomplishes two of my four goals. So limit your yes. Serenity now.

5. Lean into each other when you want to lean away. JD and I had a tough spring–it was busy for many reasons, but we felt like we were barely treading water (I actually felt like I was drowning near the end of April). Because we barely saw each other or made time to talk about things besides Lucy’s bowel movements (like I said, having a dog changes you) or our calendar, going into summer was disorienting. Then a few months later, we sat in our living room after a day at the ER hearing heartbreaking news and stumbled through that for awhile. This year, we have been tempted to hole up inside ourselves and turn away from the other one, and it would have been easier in some ways to do so. But we are each other’s lives. Our marriage is so much more important than our careers, our success, our sleep (though rested arguments are definitely preferable to bleary-eyed ones), everything. Even though doing the work of turning toward one another and leaning into each other is tough and frustrating sometimes, we’re in this together. Ultimately, the work is worth it. In the words of Sara Groves in one of my favorite songs about marriage, “Life with you is half as hard and twice as good.”

6. Metaphors help us understand why our lives don’t fit into boxes. My Monday night Bible study recently read Pray All Ways by Edward Hays, and one of things Hays argues is that we are like spiders. Through suffering and setbacks, our webs get holes and detach and fall apart. But like the spider, we must go back and respin the web. We must seek to patch the holes and reattach and put together what was destroyed. It may seem like a completely new web after the repairs, but it will be stronger, and it will be the fruit of our effort to start anew. This metaphor was so meaningful to me after a year of hustle for the first half, the hard work of reconnecting in the second half, miscarriage, and letting go. My web looks a lot different than this time last year, and I’m mostly glad for it.

7. Miscarriages are common, tragic, and traumatic. I still cry about losing our first baby. On our 7 hour plane ride to London recently, I listened to a song on repeat about 30 times about dancing on the lawn when the grass is greener after a winter of tears. I desperately want that to be true for us. Hitting repeat was my prayer. I think this grief will last for awhile, and I’ll probably still cry when I get pregnant again.  To risk putting your love and hope in something so fragile as a baby is a kind of insanity. I’ve tried to avoid obsessively seeking for a reason or lesson from the miscarriage–I don’t think that’s healthy because it attempts to compartmentalize and categorize pain, and really, healing comes from reckoning with the uncertainty and senselessness. Question marks and ellipses are the punctuation of healing. However, as I’ve sat and cried at my desk at school or stared into a pot of soup for an hour, I have experienced some of these question marks becoming parentheses–caveats, exceptions, secrets, asides, so here is a little bit of what I’ve learned throughout the past few months:

8. Be fully present in joy and pain. St. Ireneaus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” and that means jumping up and down squealing when you find out you’re pregnant and sobbing on the couch until your eyes can’t open anymore when you find out you’re not pregnant anymore. I can’t have the first reaction without risking the second reaction, and though the second reaction is painful and terrible, it is worth the risk. And even though I’m not pregnant, it’s still worth it. The day before my miscarriage, I was writing a friend about the pregnancy, telling her I wanted to tell people early because I was happy, and I didn’t want to be scared or superstitious about telling others, and alongside words of caution, she posed an important question: “Who by worrying can add one day to her baby’s life?” So though I cried a lot, being happy and telling my friends about my pregnancy was the right thing to do for me, even if I had to tearfully tell them when it ended.  Which brings me to my next point.

9. There is nothing like the comfort that community brings in the midst of pain. I’ve struggled to find words to describe this, so I’m just going to tell you what happened. I was at school, in pain, the day I had my miscarriage. When I saw blood, I went to the school nurse, whose office is in the elementary building, and told her what was happening. As I lay down in the back room, repeatedly calling JD (he can’t always get to his phone at work), one of my good friends hugged me while I sobbed in fear.

Because I couldn’t get a hold of JD, I called our preacher’s wife, unsure what else to do with my own mom 3 hours away. When she called back, JD was already on his way, but she and the preacher met us at the hospital and sat with us. They cried with us, prayed with us, and were there each time I came back from tests. The wife texted and called me for the next few days, just to see how I was doing.

I emailed my Monday night girls to tell them what was happenings, and I got emails and texts immediately from nearly all of them with words of comfort and camaraderie.

My friends at school took care of my substitute work and texted me every few hours to check on me.

My mom left work as soon as I said, “Can you come now?” and drove down to stay with me.

When I finally posted it on Facebook, I was flooded with support and love and “Me, too”.

The girls from the senior class at school found out what happened and they surprised me a week later by coming in a herd to my classroom with a huge care package full of poetry, coffee, tea, a fuzzy blanket and socks, and other fun items. They filled an envelope with letters about how they love me and how I’ve changed their lives. Then they prayed over me. I’ve cried a lot about this particular act.

Friends sent comforting messages to both me and JD and held us when they saw us.

Throughout all of this, I was surrounded by mamas who had miscarried, and I realized how common it was, how terribly common it was. Each “Me, too” hug has been women taking turns applying pressure on a bleeding vein. They know the wound well.

10. Give myself permission to grieve however I need to. I decided early on that if I needed to cry, I would cry, no matter where I was or what I was doing. If I needed to be alone and listen to my sad song on repeat, I would do that. If I needed to hide in the bathroom during Thanksgiving because I was suddenly overcome with grief, I would do that. Sadness takes on many shapes, and it reappears in times I’m not expecting, still. I expected to cry the first week. I was not anticipating crying a month and half later in Hungary at the trigger of melancholy skies and loud techno music, but I’ve tried to let the tears flow when they come. If you need permission to grieve, here it is. It doesn’t matter if what happened occurred 10 days ago, a month ago, 5 years ago. Grief doesn’t care about time or etiquette.

On a lighter note…

11. I was wrong to doubt Taylor Swift. For years, I shrugged my shoulders at her music, not wanting to join in the hype, not believing she was more than every other country/pop crossover singing about breakups. Even after using her music in my classroom, I still didn’t give her the credit she deserves. Sure, I can use different covers of “We Are Never Getting Back Together” to talk about writing voice, and instruct my seniors in writing quatrains by using a mash-up of her lyrics, but she was still just like every other singer. But then 1989 came out. I felt myself giving in to the jamming when the songs came on the radio. I started clicking on every cover (see this one and this one and this one) that appeared on my Facebook feed because her lyrics translated so well from the big pop stage to an acoustic barn. Then one day I woke up and I was a fan. And if I needed any kind of solidification in my fandom, she stood up to Apple music in defense of the little guys. She’s got class and great songwriting skills. I freely admit it now.

12. My students teach me so much. I discover this every year. They challenge my generalizations, offer innocent yet bold opinions, sit in wonder as they begin to think critically about their lives, and give lessons in how to be gracious every day. One of my students, K, gave a message at Senior Sunrise on the first day of school this year, and she challenged her classmates to ask some questions throughout the year: What can we do to challenge each other? What can we do to encourage each other? What can we do to inspire each other? I posted her questions in my classroom because I knew that morning that my students were going to challenge, encourage, and inspire me, and they have.

What did you learn in 2015?