And who does not know these touching old gentelmen?

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I’d gotten a PhD in English. I catch myself daydreaming about scholarly alcoves and steaming cups of tea and a life of the mind.

But then, I remember that I’m not really suited for academia, beyond a fondness for sweaters and caffeine.

I’m laughing alone in the kitchen while Thea naps. The translation of Jung I’m reading for an essay in the works is [unintentionally, I think?] hilarious: “All comparisons are lame, but this simile is at least not lamer than others…” and “who does not know these touching old gentlemen who must always warm up the flame of life only by reminiscences of their heroic youth….”

And then, Thea’s awake and the time I was going to spend trying to understand the collective unconscious has instead been spent marking up the book with “haha!”

I Used to be a High School English Teacher

Last week I got a letter from HR asking me to let them know ASAP what my post-maternity-leave plans were. I’d taken unpaid leave for the rest of the school year (after my paid leave ran out), but planned to return to coaching for the spring track season. In my heart, I’d already decided what I wanted to do, and I thought the spring track season would be a good test run. I’d coach, write as much as possible during Thea’s naps, and take an extended time away from teaching.

I’m working on a longer essay about what (many) factors have changed how I feel about teaching. The most (er–only) positive factor is Thea. I’m trying to work through the ways in which issues specific to my district (a wealthy suburban district where there’s a lot of stress on the kids and a lot of parental involvement that often crosses the line into threatening), and which issues are really problems with the nature of teaching nationwide. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the archetype of the savior-teacher on the one hand and the bitter, burned-out, union-supported lazy teacher on the other hand.

This teacher-as-selfless-martyr narrative is everywhere–Dead Poets’ SocietyDangerous MindsFreedom Writers… all movies that made me cry and also kind of made me feel sick at the same time. When I was a brand new teacher, unsure of how exactly to make a rubric, how to explain what was wrong with a thesis statement on Of Mice and Men that read “Lennie likes to touch soft things, but that’s not his fault. He just wants to relax,” how to control unruly fifteen-year-old boys, the one thing I did feel confident I could do was passionately care about my students. I remember seeing some meme on Facebook that a teacher is a mom, a therapist, a coach, a friend… and thinking yeah! That’s right! 

But, it really shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society since you were a kid you might not remember that Mr. Keating (the Robin Williams character) is living in his high school dorm’s faculty apartment, gazing longingly at a photograph of the love of his life who got away. He explains that he loves her (after telling the boys they must seize the day) but couldn’t leave Dalton. My first few years of teaching, I doubtlessly did rely on personal relationships with students, on my demonstrable investment in their education and emotional well-being, to make up for what I lacked in efficiency and experience. In some ways, those were the best years of teaching. I cried in the first PPT I attended, and, unaware, that the teacher is typically supposed to speak minimally (for fear of lawsuits) rattled on about the potential I saw in the student. I formed the strongest and most lasting relationships with my students. I’m still in touch with a lot of those kids. The other day I found a tee-shirt the first AP class I ever taught made to wear to the exam. It’s full of jokes about Lord Byron and characters from The Grapes of Wrath. We kept a class blog that I monitored diligently at night. Kids told me their parents told them they were blogging too much. Returning to their laptops too often to defend an argument about Roger Chillingworth’s evil nature or Gertrude Stein’s poetry.

It’s had to articulate what about this was bad. And not all of it was. But, like Mr. Keating, I was alone and far too invested in the world of my school. I had trouble sleeping when I worried about a student going through a difficult time. I was often at school until seven, even eight o’clock counseling a handful of kids. I started to remind myself of Jean Brodie in the worst way. With a little “set” of students who felt like my team much more than my colleagues or administrators did. I was lonely, afraid I’d never meet anyone. Grateful to love my job. I was also mitigating that loneliness and fear with misplaced feelings of duty. I am not trained to be a psychologist. I am not a mother, nor should I behave as a friend to my students.

I’ve thought often of that Facebook meme over the years and tried to figure out what it is about it that bothers me so much. It’s not that I don’t see how a teacher could see himself that way. And it’s not that I don’t think it could ever be helpful to intervene in an unconventional, non-academic way. But to frame the respect teachers deserve in terms of the sacrifices they make in their personal lives rather than in the expertise they have in their subjects and in education is problematic. It also sets up a system where the kind of people who are prone to obsessing over what others think of them and a desire to please work tirelessly to be everything to their schools, making up for what teachers don’t earn in salary and in respect from the community with self-important notions of martyrdom.

In the years since that first AP class, my life has changed and my teaching style has changed. I’d like to believe that I’m capable of enough honest reflection to say truly that I remained caring and compassionate. But. I met my husband. I started to make friends in the area. I spent more time with my family. I got married. I grew frustrated with semi-annual blowouts with parents over three-hundredths of a percentage point. I sat through insulting professional development session after insulting professional development session. I tried to make the best of new initiatives. And then these initiatives were abandoned for other initiatives. Which were abandoned for other initiatives. And with them, hours of work.

When I first started teaching, I’d go to school even when I was really sick because I had this sort of self-absorbed notion that no sub could do my class justice. I had each period packed as full as possible of close reading and writing conferences and to miss even one day seemed more work than it was worth. Everything–every lesson, every chapter of every book I assigned–mattered so much to me. The stakes felt so high.

I had forgotten I felt that way until I had Thea. And then, once again the stakes feel so high. She’s sitting here next to me in her swing listening to some classical music, yawning, babbling, fighting a nap, occasionally smiling or furrowing her brow. After every few sentences I look over hoping to see she’s fallen asleep (she’s not much of a napper, but she’s been awake for more than three hours at this point), and have a rapid-fire internal debate about if letting her swing herself to sleep is the right thing.

Although my husband and I had already discussed and decided what I’d do before I received the letter from HR, my response to the letter surprised me. I nearly ripped it out of his hands. I fired off my resignation with the same enthusiasm I had once signed my first teaching contract. It’s both sad and a little jarring to see something that once so defined me become something I’m so eager to leave behind. Although there were some ways in which my changing attitude about teaching was obvious to me–measurable changes like the number of hours I spent at school made that clear–Thea’s birth painted my fierce devotion to her in sharp contrast to the way I’d come to feel about work.

For the next while, I’m going to continue coaching–something I actually missed enough on maternity leave that I returned to it before I’d committed to. And writing. I have a lot of projects underway but far from finished and I want to give them a chance to go somewhere.

My New Best Friend, Anne Lamott

One night last week, I said something about how I’d been having trouble getting into a new book, and Nick agreed, saying he’d just been reading The New Yorker. Well, I’d just been reading babycenter.com. I kept thinking “I’m tired. School just started. We’re having a baby soon and I don’t know anything about having a baby.” But, I don’t really want to be the woman who reads anonymous internet message boards about how to spell Kaleigh while her husband reads The New Yorker

So, I decided to start Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, which I bought right after I found out I was pregnant, when I’d just finished reading (and loving) Bird by Bird. I feel like I have a long-lost, equally-insane but much more eloquent friend. I started wondering why there isn’t more written about parenting, or even pregnancy, that’s actually thoughtful, or at least something other than the moronic condescension of What to Expect When You’re Expecting (from this week’s update: “Has your innie been outed? Is it poking straight through your clothes these days, like a timer on a well-cooked turkey? Don’t worry: There’s nothing novel about navels that pop during pregnancy”) or the “Hot Topics in December 2014 Birth Club” (including, but not limited to “what difference between leaking fluid and peeing on yourself???!” “SAHM help” and “Let’s see your bumps!!!”). 

And, it turns out, that wonderful something is my new best friend, Ann Lamott. 

“Sam sleeps for four hours at a stretch now, which is one of the reasons I’ve decided to keep him. Also, he lies by himself on the bed staring and kicking and cooing for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. I had these fears late at night when I was pregnant that I wouldn’t be able to really love him, that there’s something missing in me, that half the time I’d feel about him like he was a Pet Rock and half the time I’d be wishing I never had him. So there must have been some kind of a miracle. I never wish I hadn’t had him.” 

“…one of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.”

“I nursed him for a long time tonight. He’s so beautiful it can make me teary. I told him I was sorry for thinking such sexist stuff about his people. He listened quietly and nursed and stared up into my face. I wanted to justify it, tell him about all the brilliant but truly crummy men out there, and let’s not even get started on the government, but then I began humming some songs for him until he fell asleep. Then it was perfectly quiet.” 

“People have been inviting me and Sam to their parties lately, for God knows what reason. Everyone knows I don’t do parties or dinners…. I would honestly rather spend an hour getting my teeth cleaned than an hour mingling. I am absolutely serious about this. I get so nervous that I actually skulk, and then I get into this weird shuffling-lurk mode. It’s very unattractive. I look like a horse who can count, pawing the ground with one hoof… But in the old days I used to get sucked in and say yes to everybody and be there for them, showing up at their parties, helping them move, or staying on the phone with them too long. Now I do the counting-horse shuffle and shake my head and say I Just can’t do it, can’t come to the party, can’t do the favor, can’t stay on the phone. I want Sam to understand when he grows up that “No” is a complete sentence.”

I’m hoping if I keep reading something decent, funny, smart, self-depricating, honest, I might have better luck writing. Speaking strictly in terms of quantity, it does seem to be working so far. 

 

 

Year 32

Friday was my 32nd birthday, and in the weeks leading up to it, I had been thinking a lot about everything that happened since my last birthday.

 

We got engaged.

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I ran the Twin Cities Marathon.

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I coached our girls cross country team to the highest state finish in more than 20 years.

We got married.

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We went to Hawaii

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We bought & started building a house

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I got pregnant.

Hannah won nationals and broke the national sophomore record.

We took our wandering road trip.

I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on since 2011. 

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I know it is unrealistic to think life will slow down, and I don’t want it to, but I would also feel okay about having fewer major life changes between now and turning 33. Yesterday was a quiet birthday. Nick and I went for a run at the beach before work, and out to a delicious dinner after work. Kids come back to school on Monday, cross country season starts, and by early December, we’ll no longer be a family of two. 

This weekend was such a perfect way to end the summer that even though I’m excited about some new things I want to try in my classroom and the cross country season, it feels a little like I’m being ripped out of the house this morning. 

 

The Psychotic Scone: Hating Phoniness Since 1997

About six years ago, some friends and I went on a trip to the Outer Banks. One of our wild spring break activities was playing Loaded Questions (the board game), and one of these loaded questions was: “if you were in (? on?) the WWE, what would your fighting name be?” Because I love scones, and because everyone at this beach vacation knew I can get a little… tightly wound… I called myself The Psychotic Scone, and it stuck. “To scone” has become a transitive verb, meaning some combination of to skulk around being an introvert, to get worked up and obsessive about something a little odd. Nick and I are both big scones, and so we’ve been calling the baby “little scone.”

Anyway, now that we’ve told more people about the pregnancy, I am having a much easier time letting myself be excited instead of constantly worrying that someone is going to figure it out (why this was so stressful for me, I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with my first true love being Holden Caulfield). I told the girls on the team. Their questions ranged from amazingly informed (“I’m going to buy you the cutest maternity outfits, because most of what’s out there is horrible,”) to hilariously teenaged (“who is going to run with me?” “will you name the baby after me?”) to shockingly oblivious (“is it already in there?” “how are you going to know when it’s getting born?”) to identical to my own reactions (“I googled ‘can pregnant women run’ just to be sure” and “you’ll have so many amazing babysitters!”). Word spread pretty quickly around school and when one of Nick and my mutual students interrupted my class to shout “congratulations!” through the door, I decided to just announce it to my class.

I also decided to tell my writing group. The group is all women (coincidentally) and I’ve been meeting with them every other Monday for three years. Many of them have met for years longer. I’m the youngest by about 20 years, but it’s one of the communities in my life that I value most. Often I leave class so wired that even after the hour drive home, I have trouble sleeping. This Monday was our last meeting of the spring (we break for summer), and at the end of the evening, once the writing had been critiqued, I decided to share my news. Even he women who are usually more reserved responded with such warmth and happiness. I felt free for the first time to honestly throw around some of the ideas I’ve been having about balancing my career and motherhood, and to voice some of the anxieties I have about what role writing will play going forward. I had been thinking that I might not chose to join the group for the fall session: the long drive, the windy backroads, being head coach in cross country along with being 7-9 months pregnant during the session just seemed a bit much. After Monday, though, I decided that I will sign up. If I miss some (or many) sessions, that’s okay. If I don’t do much revising, or if I need to leave early some nights, that’s okay. I want to be sure that I’m part of this community for a long time.

Maybe part of what has been hard about not telling anyone was that a lot of the community associated with being a mom is accessible only when you are one. Yesterday I got a message from the wife of a colleague inviting me to her prenatal yoga class, explaining that this is how she met many of her mom friends in the area. Not many of my close friends have children yet, and many of them don’t plan to at all. Because of this, there’s not a lot of talking about motherhood, even from the friends who do already have children. Just being open about the fact that I’m pregnant seems to have revealed both a support system of people I already know and access to support and a community of women in general.

Halves of the Heart

The more people it’s become either important emotionally or professionally necessary to tell about the pregnancy, the better I feel. Being secretive (rather than just being private, if that distinction makes sense) has always been something that makes me feel awful. Nervous, cranky, not myself.

Next week, the department will get our schedules for next year, and my boss warned me that people are going to either figure out or ask why I only have one prep (this year I have four). I’m also a little bit (or a lot) vain, and I don’t want people to think the reason I’m not teaching an AP class is because I’m being demoted. So, I’m going to be honest about next year and open up to both my colleagues and my students. Nick reminded me that I don’t owe my students any sort of explanation, and suggested that I might be imagining that they even care what I’m teaching next year (for the most part, I think he’s right, but I also hate the idea of anyone thinking I’m not doing a good enough job to handle the challenge of four preps, including my students. I don’t want them to avoid challenges and be lazy, so I don’t want them to think I am, either). This means I’ll also tell the girls on the team. Right now, my plan is to tell the boys’ team coaches (who don’t know yet), and explain that I am still going to be the head coach in cross country, and then tell the girls at the team meeting after our race on Tuesday. It’s a little earlier than the typical beginning of second trimester time, but I’ll be nearly 10 weeks by then, and I think that opening up about why I haven’t been running intervals with the varsity girls will also make me feel better. Most days I feel good on runs, and have been keeping up with the varsity squad on easy runs and the next group on interval days, but I also know that there may soon be a day where I don’t feel up to running at all, let alone with the faster girls, and it will be easier for me to respond appropriately if I know that everything is already out in the open.

Yesterday I felt pretty queasy all day, and instead of going out to dinner as we’d planned, Nick and I spent the evening at home. I started and finished a collection of personal essays by my college creative writing professor. I took at least three writing workshops with Megan Stielstra when I was at the University of Chicago, and in the ten (!) years since graduation, I’ve read everything of hers I could. Recently, her essay “Channel B” was published in the Best American Essays anthology.

I first read Channel B years ago–when I thought I might like to have a baby someday, and when I had friends who had babies, but before I was anywhere in a how-will-motherhood-change-my-life state of mind. Last night, as I was blowing through Once I Was Cool, I was particularly drawn to two essays about writing and motherhood. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I love in my life. I love teaching. I love coaching. I love writing. I love training. I love Nick. I love my parents. I love my friends. I am excited to love being a mother. How can I have room for all these things I love so completely? I already often feel that I can’t do everything I love to my standards.

When I was in 10th grade, I had a journal where I would write down my goals. Here is one list from the May I was 15:

  • Break 12 in the 2 mile
  • Kiss Mark Johnson
  • Get a 5 on the AP US History Exam
  • Get into the University of Chicago
  • Get a PhD from Stanford or Berkeley

Although I never did kiss Mark Johnson or apply to PhD programs, I am still a person who loves to make lists, to cross things off those lists, and to add new, loftier plans. It is hard to accept that the list (which is now, thankfully for me and those who share a life with me, mostly mental) is shifting, not only in its focus, but in its nature. I don’t know what exactly will be hard about being a mom. I don’t know what will feel impossible, and unlike knowing how to make flashcards, take practice tests, proofread my essay 803 times, or run 400s with short rest, I don’t know what steps I’ll need to take to be a patient, strong, loving, supportive, mom. Some people who are well-meaning, but obviously more sane than I, have suggested that my priorities will change once I have children. They’ll say this as though this is supposed to be reassuing: what consumes you now won’t consume you in six months.

WHAT?! I’m a loyal girl. I’ve been loyal to running, to my love of literature, to my dreams of writing, for more than half my life. Consistently consumed by the same passions for longer than I’ve known how to drive. There has not been a season since 1996 when I was not trying to PR in some distance. There has not been a day since I read Harriet The Spy in 1989 when I was not writing down the strange things around me and spinning them into stories.

In Megan’s interview with The Rumpus, “Where I Write,” she talks about the two halves of her heart:

I am writing from an artist residency, all expenses paid, far away from the city in a beautiful old house. I have my own room. My own desk. Zero responsibilities save for writing and reading. It’s so still. The sun is shining through my window. I can hear crickets. I can hear my own thoughts; my own heartbeat. I’ve accomplished more in two weeks than I have in six months, and the sheer force of my gratitude could power a small city.

 But.

 I keep glancing up, expecting to see my kid drawing pictures at my feet. A hundred different times, I’ve been sure I heard him laughing in the next room. Last night, I counted mileage: If I leave now, I could be in Chicago by bedtime. I could read him a story, wait til he falls asleep, and be back at the residency by midnight.

Once again, the two halves of my heart.

I am excited and awed and humbled, of course, but also sometimes terrified about the two, or five, halves of my heart.

Coming Home

Last night, Nick went with me to hear Elizabeth Strout read. We went to dinner at the Italian place my family used to get takeout from when I was a kid, and without realizing it, I ordered the pasta dish I always used to eat. In that same chocolate pregnancy book I keep writing about, one of the most fascinating parts was the connection between hormone changes in pregnancy and emotional desires. I’m especially intrigued by the connection between hormones and nostalgia/homing/wanting to connect with one’s family.  I’m already a fairly nostalgic and place-focued (obsessed) person, but I do feel those feelings intensifying. Especially when I took my first bite of rigatoni with peas and sausage and thought of all those summer nights when I sat on the Portofino patio with my mom, or when my dad came home from the train with a bag of takeout in tow.

The reading itself was funny. The woman doing the interviewing was bossy and insistent, and while Strout kept (kindly, I thought) quieting this woman’s instincts to tell us all what the book Strout had written really meant, I spent most of the interview thinking about the groups of women around me. Nick and I were some of the youngest people in attendance. Most of the women had let their hair grey (yes!), and most were in pairs or groups. Friends, book clubs, women who’d known each other for a long time. Many, presumably, through children and pregnancies and broken marriages, and hopeful joy. The woman one row in front of me was talking about the tasting she and her husband were going to for their daughter’s wedding. I thought of my mom and the fun we had wedding planning (and for a moment even felt bad that our engagement was so short and the fun wasn’t drawn out any longer), and most of all longed for a group of women in my life.

Now that Nick and I are buying a house, I’m starting to feel more settled (despite having lived 15 of my 31 years of life in Fairfield County). Like, this place might really become home. We could go to readings and be regulars at a restaurant and have a group of friends and a doctor we’ve known for years and a favorite ice cream place and start to feel like “wow, what a small world!” when we run into our friend’s boss’s sister’s wife.

Right now, my freshmen are learning about the hero’s cycle. They’re talking about the journey inward, reading memoirs, watching Joseph Campbell interviews, and getting ready to learn bout mythology and read The Odyssey. The group that’s reading This Boy’s Life talked yesterday about how Wolff changing his name from Toby to Jack back to Toby is a going and a returning. I guess I’m tempted to do the same. Think of pregnancy as a return, the beginning of a new cycle, and so it makes sense that I’d be overcome with such a desire to connect to my beginning. I mean this only in the “journey inward” sense, not the “I’m heroic because I got pregnant and am now I’m hoping to do everything within my power to have a healthy child.” And, of course, there’s that abyss in the hero’s journey, which I can’t help think could be something like labor.

At the end of this post, alarm clock ringing in the background, the clothes I meant to wear to work today still in the washer, I’m struck by one final thing: I picked the name of my blog partly because the word “run” is in the line from the Mary Oliver poem (“Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long, Black Branches,”) but also because the poem, about daring to risk exposing yourself to the complexity of beauty in this world is also about coming home to the life you were meant to live.

Introduction: why the blog, and why not publish any of this yet

In the months before I got my positive pregnancy test, I spent a lot of time scouring the internet for information about how those first few days might feel. I knew that few (and in fact, I found none) women would write about those first few days publicly. We’ve had our two-line stick for three days and have only told our parents, and we don’t plan to do so anytime soon. I’ve never been pregnant before, so I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like.

Is this nausea or cramping? Should I feel sicker? Less sick? Am I eating too much? Is it just me or do I already feel fatter? Is it okay to keep running? It has to be. I have to. I miss wine. I read coffee is okay. But what if it isn’t?

My thought was that if I chronicled the way I’m feeling–as a runner, but also as a writer, a teacher, a human–that there might be a time when I felt comfortable sharing these early thoughts and that these might be helpful to another runner, writer, teacher, human woman out there.