Monday, December 27, 2010

Being New: What's in the Balance

When I started my new teaching job this fall, I told myself that it wouldn't be like being a new teacher again. Those six years of experience would provide a kind of lifejacket to keep me safely afloat above the treacherous waters of Being New. As it turns out, Being New is Being New -- experienced or not. Once again, grading and lesson planning are eating up all of my personal time, and my job extends well beyond the 40 hours per week allotted for it. I rarely spend meaningful time with my husband, and I squeeze in a quick visit with my parents once a week if I'm lucky, in spite of the fact that that they live only a few short miles from my new school. I know that next year will be easier, and the year after that will be easier still, but this year is very, very hard.

This year, I am Scrooge, locked away in my office, hard at work while the world is out to rejoice in the splendor of the Christmas season and the three feet of snow that have effectively shut down our normally busy city. So, as it has been for the previous 4+ years, my New Year's resolution is to create more balance in my life, to make more time. But, just when I thought that I might actually be coming close to making strides toward that end in my old life in San Diego, we decided to uproot our lives and start all over again in a new life that feels very far away. In other words, back to the energy-sucking chaos of Square One.

Like most dedicated teachers, I battle feelings of guilt and inadequacy even on my best of days, so on the days (weeks, months, years...) when I feel overwhelmed, those feelings become amplified. On these occasions, I seriously long for a new line of work, one that I can actually master. Sometimes I envy the administrative assistants with the perfectly organized files and the mail carriers with their down-pat systems for distributing their letters and packages. I don't mean to suggest that either of these positions are in any way easier than my own; I'm certain that they come with their own sets of challenges and frustrations, but I envy the way in which they lend themselves to systematizing. I will never have teaching "down cold;" I will never master it or learn it or develop it to the point that it becomes routine, and, thus, I will always be striving. Inherent within striving is a feeling of failure, or, at the very least, a feeling of being incomplete or unfinished. I think, sometimes, that I am just too Type A to be able to live in this kind of work with any degree of comfort.

Of course, I know from experience that my teaching life will get easier as I become more familiar with the curriculum, the standards, the expectations. But, becoming familiar with these things requires patience, and patience is just what I feel short on these days. Starting over is hard, and starting over in every aspect of one's life, as moving necessitates, is draining. The holidays inspire talk of slowing down, appreciating life's small blessings, and I feel like a Scrooge for not being able to put on the brakes and just rest and enjoy, especially since so many of those Scrooge-esque tales are about those silly fools who don't realize that work is less important than family. But what if your work is about caring for and building up children, giving them the best of yourself? How to put it in perspective then?

Balance, I know for sure, is the key. But it's so much easier to tell tales exalting its virtue than it is to create balance in the real world of so many worthy ways to spend one's time. And so I will strive, for yet another year, to locate that place where things are in equilibrium, where life swings pleasantly from side to side, allowing us enough time in each place to find at least a small bit of that ever-elusive thing called fulfillment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beanies and Babies: Re-post from Christmas 2009

Below is a writing assignment I've given my students for the previous two years, and below is the model I shared with my students last year. I invite you to consider your own holiday wish list and its significance...

Task: "Identity is often shaped by the things we long for." -- Bich Minh Nguyen

Choose one item that is on your holiday wish list (or one item that is not on your list) and reflect on what this item's presence on (or absence from) your list reveals about where you are in your life right now.

Questions to consider for inspiration: How does this item's presence/absence reveal...
-- a facet of your personality?
-- an emotional need or desire?
-- a fear or anxiety?

-- a regret?
-- an accomplishment?
-- a change in your ideological outlook?
-- an image that you have of yourself?
-- a trait/talent/goal/idea that you wish to cultivate?
-- a change that you wish to enact in yourself or in your life circumstances?
See example below...

My family doesn’t do a traditional gift exchange for Christmas; as our family has grown, shopping for everyone has become an unmanageable task, but we all like the idea of exchanging gifts for the holiday. So, we’ve opted for a “Secret Santa” gift exchange in which we each create a list of our favorite stores and suggestions for gifts and then choose one person’s list from a hat and purchase only for him/her. For the previous few years, my list has required little revision. I still wear basically the same sizes, and I still want basically the same things: clothes, handmade jewelry, books. However, this year, I had to change the stores that I listed as my favorites, and I was forced to acknowledge, in doing so, that I am at a different point in my life than I was at when I created the first version of this list three years ago.

At 25, when I made my list, my favorite store was listed as “Anthropologie,” and I still say this store when I am asked about my favorite place to shop. I realized, though, in revising my Christmas list last month, that I have not actually purchased an item of clothing from this store in almost four years. At 25, I could pull off funky-hippie-chic, but the closer I get to 30, the more ridiculous I feel in a mohair sweater with mismatched buttons, a ruffled lace peasant skirt, and a beanie. I feel like I used to look like a trendy fashionista, and now I just look like a half-drunk homeless woman in this sort of outfit.

I suppose what makes me most anxious in reviewing my 2009 Christmas list is that it is conspicuously bereft of all that redeems women from the trauma of turning 30, such as d├ęcor for one’s first house or baby paraphernalia for one’s first bundle of joy. (My only home is a too-small rental and my only bundle of joy has fur.) I realize that I am not where I thought I’d be at this age, and I am currently in the process of digesting what this means. It is not that I couldn’t buy a house if I wanted to, albeit in a less desirable neighborhood and without the stainless steel appliances and hardwood floors of my current apartment, but a house of my own nonetheless. It is also not as if I can’t have a baby, at least to the best of my knowledge. Up until now, I just haven’t wanted either of those things enough to make the necessary sacrifices to attain them (loss of sleep, loss of figure, restrictions on time and travel, depletion of savings account, etc.). Does this make me selfish? Stupid? Abnormal? I have always believed that it does not – it makes me self-aware, a person who strikes out on her own, who has A Life.

But now, I am no longer a fashionista – I shop, I admit, at Ann Taylor... and I like it! I wear cardigans in too-bright colors and button-down dress shirts….to bars. I refuse to wear “ultra low rise” jeans because I don’t like my lower back to show. (The other day, I almost purchased a pair of dangly Christmas earrings a la my mom circa1987. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that the earrings were $3.99, but I didn’t have cash and there was a $1.00 fee for credit card purchases under $10. Thank God for holiday price-gouging!)

So, here I am. I am in flux. A childless woman in what are dangerously close to mom-jeans who is, for the very first time, seriously contemplating the prospect of filling out that high rise waist with a baby belly. Does this mean that I must succumb to becoming old and hopelessly uncool? Must I carry a sensible purse and vow only to purchase shoes that are comfortable to walk in? Will I have to adopt the suburban mom bob haircut and start sporting seasonally appropriate holiday sweaters? Perhaps, but, for the first time, I think I’m willing to risk it.

And who knows, maybe I’ll break out that beanie on days when I’m too busy chasing kiddos to do my hair…